Saturday, December 15, 2012


I was driving around Federal Way the other day when my daughter Robin called me.  “What Christmas traditions should I be sharing with my children?” she asked.
What do you mean?” I asked distracted by my driving.
“I mean, should I take them to church even though I don’t believe in it?  How will they know how to behave in church if I don’t teach them?”
“I don’t think you should take them to church if it isn’t something you believe in.  That is kind of hypocritical don’t you think?”
“Well yes, but I can’t answer their questions about Christmas.”
I sighed.  “Look I can’t drive and have this conversation.  I will think about it and call you later, okay?”
On the drive home I started thinking about Christmas, its traditions and what I really believe in.  I was brought up in a noisy, Italian Catholic family.  My mother shopped for Christmas all year long and started decorating and writing up her Christmas cards right after Thanksgiving.  Along with the tree decorated with a mish-mosh of homemade decorations and old store bought balls, the garishly painted Nativity scene she and I had made when I was about nine was always on display on the buffet.
Together we baked cookies and Mom always had plenty of her special pickles stored away. The week before Christmas my mother cooked to feed our huge extended family.  On Christmas Eve there was feasting, drinking, loud talk and laughter, and after dinner was the sharing of gifts which I never enjoyed because the gifts were always a disappointment to me.  My mother bought what she wanted regardless of my desires, but I did love opening my stocking for the small treasures it contained.  After the whole Christmas Eve extravaganza, we donned our new, scratchy Christmas finery and headed off to Midnight Mass.  And while I found the whole day to be quite overwhelming, and spent most of the time hiding behind the tree, these are my childhood memories of Christmas.
After I got married and my father passed away, the traditions changed.  My mother often came to spend Christmas with us, arriving just after Thanksgiving and staying on through the first of the year.  We continued to put up the tree and send out the early Christmas cards.  We celebrated Christmas Eve but the gatherings were smaller and much more sedate, even after the girls were born.  Midnight Mass was replaced by Christmas Eve service with my Presbyterian husband.  I enjoyed the music and the pageantry, but my faith in organized religion had faltered.
In the year 2000 my mother died.  Sarah was 18 and off to college.  Robin was in the midst of a gargantuan teenage rebellion.  They couldn’t be in the same room for more than fifteen minutes without swearwords and objects flying.  Tom and I decorated the house alone and I slogged through the preparations.  Every item I held reminded me of my mother, especially the nativity scene which was now mine to display on the buffet.  We decided to change things up and celebrate Christmas morning.  I broke down sobbing over pickles as I prepared our Christmas lunch.  When we sat down as a family, the food was hastily eaten.  The gifts were quickly unwrapped and then the girls ran out the door to spend the rest of the day with their friends.  Tom and I cleaned up the dishes and tissue paper and sat staring at the TV the rest of the day.
We carried along with this new tradition as our family grew again.  Robin got married and our grandson Caleb was born.  We returned to the Christmas Eve dinner and gifts.  Sarah and Robin continued to rub and chaff against one another.  As soon as the food was consumed and the gift wrap disposed of, they would run off to their separate lives.  Tom and I would go to the Christmas Eve service and then we started going to the movies on Christmas Day.
Tom and I divorced four years ago and when Christmas came along, I asked myself the very questions Robin had posed to me on the phone that day.  What did I believe?  What were the most important traditions I wanted to share with my grandchildren?  I was brought up Catholic and converted to Presbyterianism, so I speak Christian.  My mother’s garish nativity scene and the Christmas story are a strong part of my tradition but I choose to find God in the power of the ocean, the cool green of the forests, and in the ever surprising variety of nature.  So my pagan tree with its mish-mosh of old ornaments, birds and lights appeal to me.  I take my grandchildren to the Nutcracker every year where they enjoy the music and dance and the Mouse King cookies at intermission.  I get my music and pageantry from attending the Messiah.
The sharing of food and the opening of gifts Christmas Eve remains the biggest part of our family tradition, and while the girls still do not get along that well, they want to be here with me.  I enjoy watching my grandchildren’s faces as they open their well-chosen gifts and their stockings for the treasures they contain.  Afterwards my girls head back to their lives and I sit in the dark with a drink watching my favorite black and white version of A Christmas Carol.
With all this in mind, I called Robin back.  “What memories do you have of Christmas?” I asked.
She started to cry as she recalled Christmases with my mother.  She remembered her grandmother’s cooking, especially the pickles.  She fondly remembered my mother’s crazy Christmas tree with all of its tatty homemade ornaments which the girls were allowed to take down and admire.  She recalled all the family Christmas Eve dinners, reading the family Christmas books and watching The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
“Then those are the traditions you should share with your children,” I said.  “Part of the joy of the Christmas holidays is nostalgia for the memories of the past.  Hold on to them, and then make your own new traditions based on them.  But remember traditions not set in stone.  They will change as your family grows and changes, but if you build a firm foundation then your children will also have a life time of Christmas memories to share.  And one day, that horrible Nativity scene will all be yours.”
She groaned and together we started to laugh.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


When I was little, I didn’t understand that my parents couldn’t have children of their own.  I grew up surrounded by busy adults who had no time for a little girl and her play and I was lonely.  So every night when I went to bed I would pray for God to send me a baby brother or sister.
Then one day God sent Donny.  The story my mother told was that she had received a call from Judge Zoe Ann Warberg in the middle of the night.  The judge told her that six children had been abandoned by their mother in nearby Burley, Idaho.  The judge wondered if my mother and father would be willing to take one of them in.  My mother agreed and Donny came into our lives.
Donny was five when he came to live with us; a year older than me.  He was a dark haired boy with freckles.  I remember him wearing jeans with suspenders and a plaid shirt.  I was thrilled with my new big brother.
My parents set about making him fit into our family.  They cut his hair and bought him clothes and shoes.  They turned the old glassed in porch into a bedroom just for him. He was included in everything.  There is a professional photo of us together when I turned five.
In another photo, we are having a tea party in the living room, and another shows Donny and I wearing the matching cowboy and cowgirl costumes we received for Christmas.  Donny’s was black with chaps and mine was red with a short skirt.
I was happy to have a brother but on some level I was jealous of Donny.  He got to play with trucks and guns and Lincoln Logs.  Donny was allowed to go out on the tractors with the men and to help feed the cattle.  He was not marked by the shame of being a girl.  Sometimes my dad would let Donny sit with him in the evenings.  He helped Donny with his homework.  I thought my dad liked him better than me.
My mom’s seemed intent on wiping away everything which made him different from us.  I remember they took him to see Dr. Luke and he had an operation.  Every night for a while, Mom would make him lie on the kitchen counter while she tended to him.  When I asked her what she was doing she said, “We had to have him circumcised.  What kind of nasty people don’t have their sons properly taken care of?
Over the next year, the temporary placement turned into a pre-adoption.  I am sure there were a lot of legal hassles.  The children’s mother had run off with a milkman and the father’s whereabouts were unknown.  The state would have had to sever parental rights to free up the children to be adopted.
One day Donny and I were playing in our favorite hideout behind the sofa.  A friend was having coffee with my mother and I heard my mother say, “I don’t like them to play together out of sight.  I am afraid of what he might do to her.  You don’t know the things that went on in that family.”
Then one bright summer morning I awoke to a scene.  It was unusual because in my family we didn’t have scenes.  My mother was crying in the kitchen.  Her white hairbrush with the black bristles lay on the linoleum kitchen floor. My usually silent and calm father had beaten Donny with it.  “Pack his suitcase and take him back,” my father yelled.  “I will not be spoken to like that in my own house.”
“But he is just a little boy,” my mother pleaded.
“He told me he didn’t want to live here anymore because our house is full of bugs,” my father said.  “I work hard to put a good roof over his head, and if he doesn’t want to be here then he can leave.”
I remember my mother crying in the car all the way to Twin Falls.  I remember the dark wood paneling of Judge Warberg’s courtroom and how our footsteps echoed in the empty space.  I remember Donny’s room being empty when we got home.
Our family never spoke of Donny again.  It was like he never existed, but things were never quite the same.  Every day for a year I got off the school bus to find my mother in bed with a sick headache.  I stopped believing in bedtime prayers, and I accepted my lonely isolation.
Something else changed in me as well.  My mother claimed she told me I was adopted when I was four.  It must have been about the time Donny came to live with us, but I don’t remember her telling me. I might have blocked it out, because I must have understood what it meant for me.  After Donny left, I worked very hard at being good.  I didn’t talk back.  I didn’t break things or make scenes.  I did everything my parents asked of me without question.
I wanted to be very, very good, because I had learned an important lesson from Donny.  If you are adopted and you are bad, they can send you back.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Silent Bob

When I think of my father I see a cowboy hat.  He had a really nice Stetson one he wore for special occasions but mostly he wore a battered straw one for working out in the fields.  It was sweat stain through the crown and misshapen.  When he took it off, his bald head was white compared to his sun tanned face.  He never went anywhere without a cowboy hat and a pair of cowboy boots.
I didn’t know my dad well.  He was a man of few words.  His childhood was marred by poverty and his parents’ mental illnesses.  There is a single picture of him from elementary school.  He was rail thin with a stock of black hair which fell over his forehead.  All the other kids in the picture were holding the gifts they received for Christmas.  Whenever Dad would look at that photo, he would point to himself and say, “See.  All I got for Christmas that year was a handful of marbles.”  It was the most he would ever say about the past.
My dad worked hard to make sure we never went without.  In the summer he worked from dawn until dusk on our family farm.  There were always crops to sow and harvest, alfalfa to cut and bail, and animals to be tended to.  He was a frugal and thoughtful farm manager.  He planted and worked the cattle by the almanac and listened to the farm report on the radio every morning.  I never knew where money came from but we always seemed to have what we needed.
Dad didn’t think too highly of women and farm work.  Mom and I were rarely called upon to help out in the fields.  One summer, however, we were short-handed and Dad needed someone to help with the haying.  He let me get behind of the wheel of his huge old rusted John Deere tractor.  I had to use both feet to put on the brakes.  I did pretty well for a while but at the end of one field I turned too sharply and got the trailer bed stuck on one of the back wheels.  The hay teetered ominously behind me and I couldn’t go forward and I certainly dare not go back.  Dad ran up beside me and put the tractor in neutral.  “Get off and go to the house,” he said.  He never asked me to help with anything ever again.
On our farm we raised Black Angus cattle and in the spring the new calves were delightful as they scampered and cavorted around the fields, but I wasn’t allowed to work with them either.  Dad said they could smell I was female and my presence would stampede them.  That confused me because I found the cattle to be calm and patient in my presence.  When his back was turned I would sneak down to the corrals and sit in the manger while they ate.  I loved to scratch the bull’s curly head; his slick black nose nearly resting in my lap.
When I was a freshman in high school I joined the local 4-H group.  I wanted to work with the animals and I wanted to be a part of something.  I told Dad I needed a calf to raise for the fair.  He picked out a steer calf for me and put it in a separate paddock from the rest.  Every weekend I asked him to help me get a halter on the calf so I could start working with it for fitting and showing, and every weekend he said he was too busy.
Soon spring was coming and the calf was getting larger.  I went to the monthly meeting of the 4-H group and they announced they would be coming to everyone’s homes to see how well we were getting along with our calves.  I hadn’t even had a halter on mine.  I told Dad the following night at dinner that I really had to work with my calf.
He looked at me over his mashed potatoes. “That calf is too big for you to tame now,” he said and went back to eating.
I was dumbstruck.  I was angry.  I had asked for his help and he never had time for me.  I swallowed back my feelings and after dinner I called the 4-H leader.  I gave him no explanation when I told him I was quitting.
When it comes right down to it, my dad never was much of a teacher.  He did however teach me was that guns were dangerous.  One day he took me out to teach me to fire a shotgun.  He put my heels against a bale of straw and when I fired the gun the kick knocked me backwards over the bale and I landed on my butt.  I don’t think his intention was to scare me but even now I can’t stand the sight of a gun.
One winter night, I woke up with the feeling something was wrong in our house.  I found my mother at the back door in her nighty.  A cold wind whipped through the open door. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing, the dog went out and won’t come in.  Go back to bed,” she said, but there was something wrong in the way she said it.  Then I saw the flash of the butcher knife she held in her hand.  I inched my way back to the living room.  She and I stayed like that for an eternity until car lights flashed in the driveway and my dad came through the door.  He had been out in the snow, barefoot and bare-chested, carrying his shotgun.  “He got away,” was all he said.  He picked up the phone.
He told the sheriff my mother had seen a man looking through the bedroom windows.  She had reached back and shook my father awake, telling him, “Bob, there is a man out there.”  My dad jumped out of bed, grabbed his jeans and the shotgun from the closet and took off into the night after the Peeping Tom.  He had followed the man’s tail lights and tracks in the snow until they came to the main road where he lost him.
When Dad hung up the phone, he asked Mom what she was doing with the knife she still had in her hand.  “I was worried he would loop around and come back.  If any part of him came back through that door, I was going to cut it off,” she said giggling nervously.  She handed the knife to my Dad.  “What did the sheriff say?”
“He will be out in the morning to look around,” Dad said.  “Let’s all go to back to bed.”  I lay awake all night thinking about guns and evil doers in the darkness.
Years past and I went away to college.  I graduated, got married and then month after my dad walked me down the aisle he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  He had several surgeries the last of which was to remove a tumor from his spine.  He became paralyzed and spent the last few months of his life in a bed at the VA hospital.  His last day was spent in agonizing pain.  When he begged to go home, I did what my mother could not.  I gave him permission to do so.  He passed away that night.  He was 54 years old.
I will never know his motivations for the things he did.  He could be stern, and there were times I thought he should have whipped me raw, like the time I drove the car into the root cellar, but he didn’t.  Sometimes he did things I thought were cruel, like drowning a litter of sick kittens, but he was tendered hearted, too.  He cried when our Australian shepherd was hit by a car.  He cried the day his mother died.
Silent Bob was a good man.  He worked hard so I could have more than he did.  He protected my mom and me from that stranger in the night.  He loved the land, and his cowboy hat and boots were his connection with that Western heritage.  He had a soft side which he protected with a wall of silence.  His reserve left an emptiness deep inside me which echoes with the pain of a million unanswered questions.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Lions in the Desert

Dr. Eleanor Shields was a piece of work.  She had become a vascular surgeon in the days when medical schools only admitted a couple of women a year.  After med school she had served in the military and then settled in Las Vegas after her retirement.  She enjoyed telling us about the Las Vegas celebrities she had become chummy with, but why she was on the teaching faculty was beyond my comprehension.  In six weeks I had never learned a thing from her.
Dr. Shields was a short, grey haired opinionated woman, with the abrasive personality of a drill sergeant.  She threw me out of an operation one day because I couldn’t name all the branches of the carotid artery; not that I wasn’t relieved to have been dismissed. Another day at the VA she told me to write up a history and physical, but to use another student’s notes because the other student’s were better than mine.  I felt like a pound of chopped liver, cut and wrapped.
One day after vascular clinic, I was surprised when Dr. Shields called us all together.  “I want to take you all on a field trip tomorrow night, if you are free.  Meet me at the Las Vegas Zoo at six.”  She winked at us, “I know someone and we are getting in for free.”
The following evening, I drove my little Suzuki Swift along US 95 headed northwest out of the city.  I hadn’t ever ventured into North Las Vegas, so I was feeling nervous about getting lost.  The road was lined with cheap hotels and deserted looking auto body places.  Dead looking Joshua trees and creosote bushes made up the rest of the landscape.  Finally I spotted the sign and pulled off into the open space which served as a parking lot.
The zoo was surrounded by a rusty red brick fence which someone had designed in a mission style.  The walls were the exact same color as the hard pack grainy soil they sat upon.  Dr. Shields was already there with several of my classmates.
When we entered the gate, the first thing which struck me was the smell.  The aroma of animal waste in the 115 degree heat was overpowering.  I was disgusted.  This place was little more than a roadside animal attraction.
The paths we walked on were the same hard packed red earth of the parking lot.  Hot, bored animals lay about in traditional barred cages.  Even the ring-tailed lemurs were still in the late afternoon heat.  Chickens and peafowl scratched in the dirt and the ever present whine of cicadas filled the air.
As we walked, Dr. Shields prattled on leading us to the far left corner of the enclosure.  I couldn’t see why she was leading us to this smelly dusty edge of the zoo until I saw him move.  With fur which blended into the tawny dust of his enclosure was a lion.  He was old.  I could tell because he acted as washed out as the color of his mane.  He lifted his head and yawned displaying broken yellowed fangs.  His pink tongue popped out and he licked the end of his dry, cracked nose.  Then his head sank back to his crossed paws.
Dr. Shields sat down on the bench next to the enclosure.  “His name Charlie and he is my patient,” she said.  “I was at a party at Wayne Newton’s one night and someone told me Charlie was sick.  No one seemed to know what was wrong with him.  So I came out and watched him for a while.  We got some blood tests and I figured out he had Cushing’s disease.  We got him on medications and now, he is so much better,” she said proudly.
I stared at the ancient lion wondering how she could think he was better.  He hadn’t moved a muscle.  His fur was dry and dusty.  I wondered how much longer he had to live.  And even more I wondered why his owners didn’t  get a proper veterinarian for him.
I turned to try to remove myself from the stench and the heat.  The sun was beginning to set behind the Spring Mountains.  The sky was taking on the purple, orange and mahogany bands of evening in Las Vegas.  The hills were bare of vegetation so I could see their sharp edges backlit with the golden setting sun.  And then I heard it.
Somewhere in the distance, I heard the roar of a lion.  Behind me I heard Charlie start to huff.  I heard the far away lion again and then with a deafening roar, Charlie answered.  I turned and he was standing up, facing the setting sun, intent and listening.  His yellow eyes reflected the sun’s dying rays. Then he opened his mouth and roared again.
I heard Dr. Shield’s say, “Those are Siegfried and Roy’s lions.  These guys do this every night.”
Far away the rich, performing lions answered.  I was suddenly in the middle of the Serengeti.  The temperature dropped a few degrees as the violet hills merged with the plum-colored twilight.  The buzz of the cicadas ceased and nothing was left but the roaring across the valley.
They were still at it as we started to leave.  I stood by my car mesmerized.  I listened and watched the gloaming until it was nearly dark and the roaring had ceased.
On the drive back to my apartment, I thought about Dr. Shields.  Perhaps she had a grain of humanity in her.  Maybe she was a healer trying to help in the only way her life toughened exterior would allow.  Perhaps she too had stood listening to the call of lions in the desert and been moved by their calls in the twilight.  But I knew better than to ask her.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


I have a difficulties managing my time.  I have so many things, human and not, pulling at me.  I feel sometimes like that rag on the rope in the middle of a game of tug of war.  I am pulled left, then right.  I hover for a bit as each team struggles for traction and then the jostling begins again.

I had such great plans four years ago when I wrote my novel.  I was going to find an agent who loved it and it would become an instant bestseller.  I would be able to walk into my local Boarders and see my name on the shelf besides Jodi Picoult and JK Rowling. However, getting a book published it not all that easy, and after a lot of time, stamps, manila envelopes and rejection letters, I put my novel in a drawer (with a back up in my safety deposit box) and succumed to the pull of the other parts of my life.

In the meantime I started working on a memior.  I was a 36 year old medical student with a husband, two children, a dog and a mortgage.  I thought my struggles balancing my academic experiences with being a wife and mother made for an interesting story.  And it is.  However, again life interviened and I lost momentum.  The memior is about 3/4 finished.  The rest should be easy and, if I could get it published, there could be a sequel of my days in residency. 

I really don't know what is keeping me from my writing.  I mean afterall, I only have a full time medical practice, three grandchildren who I adore, and a desire to travel before I get too old and decrepit to go.  There is also the rejection which is a difficult thing for me to handle.  I think part of the reason I stopped writing was the cool reception my novel and my memior received at the last writer's conference. 

But this is a new year and a new world.  I am going to look into the various options for epublishing my novel.  My Borders store is gone with a lot of other brick-and-mortar stores.  I believe that epublishing is the way of the future.  I love my Kindle.  I am also going to explore self-publishing because I still dream of seeing my name on the cover of a book. 

I am going to finish my memior.  This is going to take some sacrifice.  I am going to have to give up the hours I am wasting on Facebook.  I am going to have to use my free time more thoughtfully and not give into the push and pull of life.  So the new year starts here.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Winter of our Discontent

Discontent is a Pacific Northwest winter—grey and chill. The sun barely rises over the horizon. On dark and gloomy days, it seems to never appear at all. Those days are without hope of light and warmth. I have often felt my life would lie in that dank fog forever, moss covered and mildew ravaged.

If you Google the word discontent there is a picture of me. My mother said I could always find the fly in the ointment. Therapists have said I have low grade depression. I think of myself as the human equivalent of AA Milne’s Eeyore. I can always see the bad in any situation.

I have found happiness to be a fleeting thing. There is a chemical rush, a steady flow of serotonin and norepinephrin coursing through the brain making everything vividly colored and dazzling. A new love, a new possession, a trip to a new place, or a career change can do it, but when the rush is over there is nothing left in its place but discontent.

It is not like I enjoy my negativity. All my life I have been looking for something positive and uplifting. The problem is that I haven’t been able to pinpoint what that something is, so the search has been frustrating, leading to many deadends and disappointments. I have sought faith, only to become disenchanted with religion. I have sought my passion for medicine only to be stymied in my ability to provide it by bureaucracy. I have tried on relationships, only to find imperfections in the people I love.

Not that I have had many relationships. Men are visual creatures and I was not born possessed of beauty. I was teased and bullied over my lack of looks and my mother, the one person who should have thought me beautiful, found fault with me at every turn. Because I believed I was unattractive and unlovable, I made poor decisions. Instead of valuing my assets, I ignored them. I became a quiet, grey mouse relegated to lurking in corners and grabbing at whatever tidbits would fall within my reach. I was not content with the scraps, but I didn’t think myself worthy of better.

When I left for college I thought I would meet men who would value my brains since I was not disposed of beauty. By my senior year I was fast becoming an old maid. I hadn’t dated in four years of college. And then Tom came along.

My mother didn’t like him. One night she asked why I was wasting my time with him. I answered her honestly; there was no one else to waste time with. So in the end I married him. I was unhappy for over 30 years. The relationship was unrewarding. He took credit for everything I did, including going to medical school. I was supposed to make him look good, while in the privacy of our home he treated me as dispassionately as he did the furniture. I told myself to be content with the neglect of my husband because he was incapable of giving more. I subjected myself to a life of grey, dull discontent. For years I made excuses for him, while quietly hating him. Then one day I had enough. I could no longer be content with his coldness. I moved out.

I have a new home, which I chose, surrounded by my books and music. I have given up chasing after happiness. I no long desire its ups and downs. Today I am only seeking contentment. I want to be comfortable within my own skin.

I am still working on finding the positives in life rather than being overcome by the negatives. I may still be that quiet grey mouse but that is an asset rather than a liability. I do not have to settle for tidbits. I know I am capable of getting what I want. Someday I hope to be able to look in the mirror and see my true self. I my only desire is to move away from the cold, bleak winter of discontent. I want to see the beautiful reds and golds of the autumn of my life and enjoy their beauty in peace.