Thursday, September 29, 2011

Singing in the Laundry

In the convent, everyone had at least one obedience. Both postulants and novices had the obedience of working in the laundry on Monday and Tuesday each week.
            The college adjacent to the convent was for young women. Each week they put in the laundry their towels, washcloths, sheets, and pillowcases—all initialed. The nuns did this also. In addition they laundered some articles of their own clothing—also initialed.
            My initials, printed on ribbon tags, were DR3. Mom ordered these before I entered and then sewed them on my clothing. I didn’t help for two reasons. First, I simply couldn’t sew—either as a girl scout or later as a convent scholastic. And second, Mom wanted to do this for me. She was, I think torn by my entering. On one hand she thought I was entering to escape my father’s drinking, and on the other, she felt proud to be a Catholic mother with a nun for a daughter.
            Postulants came to the convent with their clothes tagged. But six months later, when they received the habit, they had to sew these tags on their new clothes: forehead bands, coifs, habits, scapulars, veils, undergarments, and hose. The forehead band was a double-thick triangle of white materials with strings attached to the sides for tying the band around one's head. 
             In the laundry, some of us pressed and folded sheets, some ironed habits, some folded towels, and some ironed these forehead bands. In a basement room in the convent, some nuns worked the coif machines that made the creases in the wimples. 

Picture of me as a scholastic wearing a forehead band and a wimple, or coif.

            I’d graduated from the adjacent college a month before entering, so I knew all the students, except the incoming freshmen. Thus, I became a “sorter.” That is, I sorted the college laundry into boxes labeled with dorm names. Except for the winter months, another postulant and myself sorted into large boxes set on benches outside the laundry beneath the shade of an ancient oak tree.
            As I sorted, I sang old Cole Porter songs, Disney ditties, Broadway tunes. This was, I tell you, a No-No. We were to do this laundry obedience without talking, much less singing. In fact, during most of each day, we practiced silence except when a superior gave us “salutation." That would come at lunchtime in the main dining room.
            Why did I sing? Was I just being contrary? Disobedient? Independent? Uncooperative?
            I was infatuated with the novice who ironed the forehead bands by the open window behind my sorting boxes. I thought that a postulant who sang would enchant her. I’d never thought that anything else within me would attract someone and so I was grasping at straws. Singing was, in my mind, a likely straw.
            I’d known this novice in college. She’d graduated the year before I did. I’d always both idolized and idealized her. I felt no sexual attraction, but I was drawn like a moth to her charisma. I wanted others to know that she thought I was special. If she did, then surely—surely—they would too.
            And so I sorted and sang. I'd look up often to see if she was noticing me. Watching me. Sometimes she'd smile and I'd beam back. In those moments, I found life totally satisfying.
            I was so immature and so needy.                       
            Six months after I entered, she made first vows and left the novitiate. She was now a scholastic. The next day, the Mother Superior sent her out on mission to teach. Loneliness settled over me and I grieved. It was then that I began to realize what being a nun might mean—growing up.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rambling in the Cemetery

During the next two or three weeks, I hope to post stories about my life in the convent. If you are new to this blog and find this topic interesting, you may want to go to the archives and read one or more of the following postings:

The Postulancy—background on the first six months of convent life:

Amusing Convent Stories:

Entering and Leaving the Convent:

Nearly forty-five years ago—in 1966—I left the convent. I have many good memories of my eight-and-a-half years there. I also have not-so-good memories. Thus it is with all of life. For today—let’s seek out the humor of my life as a postulant.
            As I remember, our families could visit us only once during the summer. They came to the main convent building and someone fetched us from the novitiate. We then spent two or three hours visiting while sitting on benches amidst the pine trees.

Dad, Mom, and myself, as a postulant, in a summer visit of 1958.

The professed nuns also had visitors each Sunday. None of us—postulants, novices, scholastics, or professed—ate with our families, but I found sustenance in the conversation about life at home and what was happening in the world beyond the convent. 
            Often the nuns would meander to the cemetery with their visitors to view the large sculpture there and to pass beneath the arching branches of the deciduous trees lining the driveway. As they walked, these visitors casually smoked.
            After supper each Sunday, four of us from the novitiate would surreptitiously amble down that driveway. Our mission? Salvaging the butts.
            Three of us—two novices and one postulant—had smoked before entering. They sorely missed their “ciggies.” So every Sunday at dusk, we’d retrace the steps of those cemetery visitors, plucking from the driveway every smoke-worthy butt we could find. Afterward, we’d huddle behind the trees. The three of them would pull their veils around their faces. They’d turn their backs on the convent. Light up. Inhale. And whisper, “Ah!”
            I—the nonsmoking asthmatic—stood alert. The lookout.
            You’re wondering where we got the matches for lighting up? From the convent kitchen. All of us had the occasional obedience of working in the kitchen and serving meals to the nuns, which meant getting bowls of food from—you named it—the kitchen! Pilfering matches became an art form.
            Each summer Sunday we rescued thirty or so butts. Afterward, I’d dole them out equally to my three friends. The following Sunday, we’d fill our pockets again. And so the summer passed. The three of them hoarded what they could of their bounty for the lean months that followed.           
            The Benedictine convent I entered celebrated it’s centennial in 1963. I have no idea if, during those one-hundred years, other nuns reclaimed cigarette butts and smoked them. But for me, one of my favorite memories is seeing those three fellow novitiate sojourners blow smoke rings.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Ménière’s Part 7: My Life Given Back

This week I’ve posted two stories about living with Ménière’s Disease. Thank you for reading them and also for reading any of the other four Ménière’s postings from this past July. In your comments many of you said you’d never heard of Ménière’s and that you couldn’t quite conceive of how I could live with it. 
            Today I’d like to assure you that all is well. The acute rotational vertigo episodes were almost a daily part of 2006 and early 2007. After that, they happened only sporadically. I experienced the last episode in August 2009.
            What or who brought about this change? A Minneapolis surgeon.
            After the episode of May 2006, I saw three Twin Cities specialists who knew of no way to truly stop the episodes.
            Then in late December of that year I took a chance and drove two miles to the grocery store. Curves was just around the corner. On a serendipitous whim—or perhaps the grace-filled promptings of the Holy Oneness of All Creation—I decided to go in and just see if I knew anyone there.

Hannah (the 1997 Geo Prism) and I by the two-story house 
in which I lived in 2006.

            I entered the spacious room in which a number of women were exercising on the circle of machines. One, who was clearly finished with her workout and ready to leave, approached as if she knew me. I had no idea who she was because my mind had lost considerable memory in the preceding months.
            This stranger told me she’d missed me at Curves and asked if all was well.
            I barely spoke the word Ménière’s when she reached out, touched my man, and confided, “The man who mows our lawn has Ménière’s and he had those horrible episodes.”
            “Yes. They’re over with now. He had a marvelous operation.”
            Hope oozed over me like honey.
            This woman, whom I later discovered I’d known for ten years, put me in touch with the young lawnmower. He’d had to give up driving trucks because of the acute episodes and the headaches. And yet now he could get upon a lawnmower and not fall off. He had headaches only when the barometer dropped precipitously. He had a life again.
            The rest is history. I immediately made an appointment with the surgeon who’d helped him so greatly. A friend drove me to the Minneapolis office and accompanied me into the exam room. This fourth specialist asked a multitude of questions and told me I’d been a candidate for his operation for many months.
            He operated on Thursday, February 15, 2007. In a future posting I’ll share the story of this operation, which was so successful, but basically he drained away extra fluid from the sac behind the left mastoid.
            The surgeon—who gave me back my life—told me recuperation would take at least eighteen months. I needed to recover both from the surgery and from the stress of ten months of acute rotational vertigo episodes.
            He was correct in his prognosis.
            During the recovery, I continued to experience daily headaches. The acute episodes occurred occasionally. Because of them, I couldn’t drive for the next six months.
            Let’s flash forward to today—September 24, 2011. I have no acute episodes. The doctor has found a prescription for the headaches. When I take a pill at the first niggle of one, it goes away within forty-five minutes.
             I have days of wooziness and no driving whenever the barometer shifts sharply. But those days aren’t frequent. And I’m only woozy or slurry or imbalanced. That’s easy for me to live with. The acute episodes put everything into perspective.
            So I drive. I visit. I read. I garden. I watch television. I sleep. I sit here at the computer. I type. I scroll. I live without fear or pain. I have experienced the dawn after the dark night.
            Two mantras got me through those years. I said one many times during 2006. It is a quote from Julian of Norwich—an English mystic of the Middle Ages: “And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”
            The other mantra is one from a favorite poet of mine—Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She ends her poem “Bare Tree” with the following lines:

                        “Blow through me, Life, pared down at last to bone,
                        So fragile and so fearless have I grown!”           

Lindbergh quotation from The Unicorn and Other Poems: 1935-1955.
(Pantheon Books edition, 1993)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ménière’s Part 6: Daily Life

I kept prepared for acute rotational vertigo episodes. When I went upstairs, I feared getting stranded, so I carried with me a large bowl for vomit and a pee pot—a gallon ice-cream plastic bucket—because the only toilet was on the first floor.
            I never knew the nanosecond when an episode would throw me to the floor, so I slept mostly on the living room couch for those sixteen months. I brought the five kitty litters up from the basement and put them on the back porch. Steps could be the death of me. Literally.
            During that time, I never knew when or if I would be standing upright or pitching forward to the floor. I often crawled from room to room for much of the day, pulling myself upright to crawl into bed or to stand at the kitchen counter—holding tightly to the edge.
            Because of the uncertainly, I mostly stayed in the house. But sometimes friends would take me out for a restaurant meal or for a visit at one of their homes.

A meal in my home before Ménière’s took over.

            That was always tricky because I might pitch forward at any time. My head would splatter the soup or mash the entrée. However, that happened only once. The friend with whom I was having supper got me out of the restaurant, into the car, and home to my couch. She hesitated to leave me alone, but I assured her there was nothing she could do for me. No one could stop the episodes. No one could make the swirling world in which I lived go away.
            That was one of the difficulties of the disease. When friends saw me living through an episode, they felt helpless. I didn’t want that to happen so for those sixteen months I saw few people. I became, for all intents and purposes, a recluse.
            I did talk on the phone, but often the episodes affected my speech so badly that I alarmed callers. Each day a friend and I made contact. She could immediately tell when I was having trouble because my voice was so hesitant. The brain fog, which I mentioned on Tuesday, obscured my thoughts. Because of that, I couldn’t track ideas or sentences. I’d stutter. Stammer. Stumble for words.
            Sometimes I felt the need to sit at the computer and research. I always regretted my decision, however, because always I’d suddenly pitch forward. Only a total act of will permitted me to jerk myself to the left, so as not to shatter the monitor. I’d continue downward, often grazing the corner of the desk. I’d thud to the floor. There I’d vomit and keen until the episode subsided.
            Of course, if the episode lasted several hours, I’d ultimately crawl from the office to the living-room couch. Lying down and fixing my gaze on the top right-hand corner of the ceiling always helped.
            Some people, I later learned, call acute rotational vertigo episodes attacks. That is understandable. I remember feeling as if an evil spirit had shoved me out of bed during that nighttime episode in May 2006. Suddenly I saw clearly why our ancestors thought demons possessed those who suffered seizures.
            Episode or demonic attack, the result is the same: panic.

Postscript: In your comments on Tuesday's posting, many of you have expressed concern about my life today. Did all this get better? If not, how do I handle it? Saturday’s posting will reassure you that all is well. Future postings in the next few months will detail the operation that gave my life back to me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ménière’s Part 5: Living with Terror

Way back in July, I posted four stories about Ménière’s Disease. I’ve lived with this disease for several years now and it can be terrifying if someone has the progressive, intractable kind as I do.
            This week I hope to post three more stories. However, I’m not at all sure you’ve be able to understand these three new postings without the background from the first four. Here are the links for them. The top link is the first of four:

For you to read these will take some time and so you may choose not to do so. I do hope that you will read the three postings this week so as to gain an understanding of the side-effects of this disease. You might already know someone who has Ménière’s, or you  might meet someone in the future who lives with it. If so, these postings will help you understand the parameters of Ménière’s.

Today's New Posting:
In four earlier posts, I described the acute rotational vertigo episode I experienced on May 11, 2006.  Afterward, these episodes occurred daily or every two or three days. Sometimes I had two or three a day. Always I had what I came to call brain fog. I couldn’t process my thoughts, remember words or conversations, problem solve, or make a list in my mind.
            My brain wasn’t functioning as it always had. I worried that I might have the beginnings of dementia or Alzheimer’s. I’d always valued my ability to think. Now thinking clearly or sequentially was difficult for me.
            The acute episodes controlled my life. No driving. No walking outside without someone’s arm to lean on. No working in my rock gardens for fear of falling and hitting my head. No taking a shower or a bath for fear of having an episode and either simply banging my head against the tub or drowning.
            No reading of books, cereal boxes, mail, newspapers, cooking directions because parallel lines brought on acute episodes. No watching television because movement on the screen brought on rotating. No working at the computer for more than five minutes at a time because scrolling brought on an episode.            
            So what did I do? 
            A friend at the library brought me books on tape and CDs. I listened to those several times a week, meditated a lot, and felt the world rotate around me often. Because of this, I spent most of my time lying on the couch, trying to live within the present moment. With great frequency severe headaches kept me lying flat on that couch. In intensity these were like migraines, but without the accompanying sensitivity to light.
I later discovered that a precipitously falling or rising barometer brought on these headaches. The longest one lasted twenty-six hours. The longest acute rotational vertigo episode lasted twenty-three hours. Having the room rotate around me for that long brought on nausea and the fear that the episode would never end.

                             A picture of myself twenty years ago in an arboretum.

            An optimist, a never-say-die person, one who likes a challenge, one who forges ahead and doesn’t always look at the signs, I made so many mistakes. Almost daily I would feel that all was well. Surely today, I’d think, I can work in the garden or walk across to the garage or go up the steps to the second floor. Wanting some control in my life, I’d do these things almost daring the Universe to stop me. And I’d discover, often tragically, that Ménière’s was ever present.
            I’d bang my head against a large stone in the rock garden; I’d crawl back across the side yard to the back door. Stranded upstairs, I’d lie on the bed for hours because I couldn’t bring myself to go down the steps with the world whirling around and within me.
            During all this time, I dreaded going to sleep, fearful that I’d wake again in the midst of an acute episode and that this time the rotating wouldn’t stop. And so I began to suffer all the effects of sleep-deprivation. Truly, Ménière’s hijacked my life.           

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Much Abides

 (Conclusion of Thursday’s posting . . . )
My grandmother held Mom in disdain because her daughter-in-law spoke up to her. Disagreed with her. Had a mind of her own.
            I’m not certain, but I think that sometime in 1941, my mother convinced my dad to leave Kansas City and find work elsewhere. After thirteen years of marriage, she wanted to extricate him from his possessive mother. He probably got the job at the munitions factory in Parsons before she realized that only a refurbished chicken coop was available as a home for our family. She knew I couldn’t live in that because of asthma. So she had to make the hard decision to leave me behind.

Mom and I feeding the calves on her mother’s farm.

            And I do believe that decision was an horrendous one for her. Sometimes, as I weave my unfinished novels, I model a strong woman character on my mother. I see her looking—for all the months she’s away from me—for apartments for rent in Parsons. Behind her toddles my little brother who is two. Then three.
            She’s trying to find someplace where I can live with them. She’s trying to bring me home to them.
            But that’s my musing. That’s my way of believing my mother would never truly do anything to harm me. She did the best she could at the time. In those years people didn’t have television psychologists telling them the effects of leaving a child of five. Radio shows didn’t do that. Magazines seldom explored those issues. What did Mom have to go on?
            Her own mother had nearly suffered a nervous breakdown because of the stress of her husband’s drinking and the travails of bearing and rearing children. In 1922, she took the five youngest—all under eleven—and moved to a farm in southwestern Missouri. She left behind her five oldest. At twelve, my mother was the youngest of that group.  It was not a question of Grandma not loving her children. No. It was a question of holding onto her sanity for the sake of her “younguns.”  

Grandma on her farm.

            Grandma dearly loved Mom but abandoned her to the care of her father, an Irishman who embraced the poignancy of life. When the misfortunes of others got to be too much for him, he failed to show up for work as a railroad conductor, abandoned his older children, vanished from home, and disappeared into weeklong binges.
            When Mom met Dad he didn’t drink. He was handsome. Enthralling. Romantic.

Dad in his waders on a fishing trip.

            I say the following with great love and respect for my father: he was a weak man. His mother had raised him that way. My mother was torn—to help him cut the apron strings or to leave me behind. She knew me well. She’d seen the strength I’d displayed in dealing with asthma from the time I was born. I was a survivor. I fought to live. I believe she trusted that my strength would get me through a year without my parents.
            So for a time, she chose a risky plan. To spend one year helping her husband by getting him away from his mom. To set the stage for a marriage that could flourish beyond the dictates of his mother.
            Ultimately the stratagem failed: Mom and Dad and my three-year-old brother returned to Kansas City. My dad remained torn: he both feared and idolized his mother. Somewhat like what the Death Eaters felt for Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.
            My own mother held our family together as Dad continued drinking and began to squander all his bright promise.
            These three adults were enmeshed in their own pasts. Their own dreams. Their own needs. I no longer ponder why they didn’t love me. I’ve lived long enough to know that love was never the question. I was dear to them. But they blundered badly and I was left bruised for much of my life. I have let go of exploring their whys and wherefores. It is feelings that have haunted me and shadowed my life.
            Would they have acted as they did had they known the consequences? I choose not to think so. Choosing otherwise makes no sense to me. On my journey to wholeness, I have let go of regrets and sorrow. I have wandered long through the forest of my life. Now the road beyond beckons. As the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem “Ulysses,”
                           Though much is taken, much abides. . . .
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are
                        . . . strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reflections on My Mom and Dad

(Continued from Tuesdays . . .)
Mom and Dad met when she was eighteen and he twenty-three. Both were working full-time and had been since they were fourteen. Mom graduated from primary school after seven grades and went to work at a department store. Dad graduated from eighth grade and began to work at Milgrim’s, a local grocery store.

Dad on left in front of Milgrim’s.

            Many of you have probably seen that “early-twentieth-century-test” e-mail that’s gone around the Ethernet several times. It shows just how comprehensive a “grade school” education used to be. Mom saved some of her textbooks, and when I was a senior I realized that in grade school she’d learned all I’d learned in high school. Plus more. Both of them were bright and well read. They devoured the morning and evening newspapers. They argued spiritedly about ideas. They laughed often.
            They met in 1928 when Mom walked into the grocery store where Dad worked. Many years later he told me she “wowed” him when she entered the dim interior of that store. “She brought the summer sun with her,” he said.    

Mom at eighteen.

            Mom told me she thought Dad looked like “The Lone Eagle”—Charles Lindbergh—who’d crossed the Atlantic the year before. He knew how to listen to a young Irish woman who could tell stories that made him weep.
             Dad was tall and lean with an arresting face. Mom was shorter with wavy hair and a smile to write home about. Within weeks they’d married. In the next eight years, they went to many doctors in the attempt to have their first child. Finally, Mom had some sort of operation and was able to conceive. I was born in 1936.

Mom, Dad, and me at two.

            During those eight years they waited for me, they lived through the Depression. Times were hard; money short. Dad moved from working at Milgrim’s to the State Highway Department. While working on a tunnel, he was caught in a dynamite blast and blinded in his left eye. For years afterward, small pieces of stone edged upward to the surface of his face and Mom used tweezers to pluck them out for him.
            I don’t know how much he received in a settlement from the state. I do know that what he didn’t give away to friends he gambled away. Mom told me after I left the convent that she’d threatened to leave him if he continued to gamble. Never again did he play any cards but Pinochle or throw any dice except for the game of Monopoly.
            By the time I was born, Dad worked for the Kansas City Water Department at their yard on 40th Street. We weren’t poor by the standards of the day. We had food and clothing and Mom took me to the movies. As I’ve said in an earlier posting—my childhood was idyllic.
            All that changed when they left for Parsons, Kansas, in August 1941. Things changed again when Dad tried to join the Seabees so as to do his part in World War II. When that U.S. Construction Battalion turned him down because of his blind eye, he turned to drink.
            His mother was torn between being glad her son wasn’t in the war and being chagrined that others didn’t recognize his worth. She wanted a son to brag about. She got my dad. A failure in her eyes.
            His biggest failure? Marrying my mother. If it weren’t for that shanty Irish slattern of a wife, my grandma thought, Dad wouldn’t have been in that mining accident. He wouldn’t be blind. He wouldn’t be turned down by the Seabees. He’d be worth something. My mother was the cause of Grandma Ready’s woes. Or so she thought. And deep down, I think my dad accepted some of these thoughts. Life was easier for him that way.
                                                                         ( . . . concluded on Saturday)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Linchpin

From the comments on my postings of the last three weeks, I know that most of you want to “pinch” my grandmother, if not outright assail her. You’d also like to give my mom and dad a good talking to. I deeply appreciate your chagrin and indignation on my behalf. But I want you to know that I’m at peace with what happened. 
            It’s true that loving parents don’t desert their children—even for a year. Concerned grandmothers don’t act the way Grandma Ready did.
            I do not seek to excuse them for their seemingly thoughtless, inappropriate actions. Still, I would like to explain what I have come to believe might be the reasons for these actions. Of course, this is speculation on my part based on my own experience of becoming more fully human. My understanding of my own life prompts my three musings this week.
            Let’s begin with my father’s mother.   
            Grandma Ready tied her four children to her apron strings. All of them stayed close throughout their lives. They never left the Kansas City metropolitan area. She was, in many ways, an autocrat. She sat on her Queen Anne chair as if she, too, were a queen and it her throne. From that throne she daily handed down her edicts. She was a bully.
       She reigned supreme. I can remember her once telling me that neighbors came to see her; she didn’t go visit them. And yet, I also remember her taking me one day down the street to visit her oldest friend. She was, as are we all, a compendium of contradictions. Like Walt Whitman her inner voice asked, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
            And I believe she did. But everyone in her family was so afraid of her censure and judgment that no one ever explored the multitudes within her. And so she lived and died a discontented woman. A conundrum. Self-absorbed to the end.
            But why was she so bitter? What emotional baggage did she carry that made her disgruntled with all those who populated her life? Why did she live in such disharmony?
            Those eternal “whys,” “whats,” and “wherefores” beset us here, and there is no clear answer except perhaps that every generation leaves its mark on the next. And perhaps we have no clear answer to the "why" of a person because each of us, not just my grandmother, is an enigma. We are, I believe, as mysterious to ourselves as we are to others.            
            From the way she treated my Great Aunt Pearl, I think Grandma was jealous of the attention her father gave to her stepsister, his first-born.  Aunt Pearl offered kindness to everyone. Her gentle smile assured acceptance of each person she met. This must have threatened Grandma who was so absorbed in herself that she couldn’t look beyond her needs to see the needs of others. But the question is: Why was she so needy within herself?
            She didn’t ask for love from her family members. She asked for the willingness to let her make decisions and direct their lives. Only someone truly insecure could demand such fidelity from others. She wanted always to be the center of everyone else’s existence.
            Because of my own insecurity, which I described in my most recent posting—I, too, wanted to be the center of everyone’s attention and concern. My own life and my own struggle to become fully human help me understand my grandmother. Not only understand her, but also empathize with her.
            Who in the generation before her failed to give her the love she needed to feel secure? I don’t know. But in the past year I’ve explored all my memories of her and I find myself thinking that, like myself, she, too, felt abandoned as a child. And I wish—I so wish—that before she died, she and I could have shared our inner lives and come to an appreciation of one another.

Grandma in her early seventies.

            She died in 1962 when I was in the convent and couldn’t come home for her funeral. She had become the linchpin in her children’s life. They were bereft without her. Especially my father. It is their relationship, I think, that led to my parents going to Parsons in August 1941.
            On Thursday, I’ll begin to explain my understanding on my parents’ actions during this time. They, too, are a compendium of conflicting needs.   
                                                                             (. . . continued on Thursday)                                                                                      

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Freeing Question

(Conclusion . . . )
The time of abandonment came and went. It lasted only a year, but affected the rest of my life. Until recently, I’ve feared that I’d unwittingly do or say something that would cause friends to cast me aside.
            My parents returned from Parsons, Kansas, a month before I began first grade. We then moved to the Missouri farm where I grew up. Right after I turned seven everything changed again. Something horrific happened in April 1943 that wiped away all memory of abandonment. One fear supplanted another.
            From that time to February 1976—a period of almost thirty-three years—I had no memories of my early life. I did not plan to abandon it. But a new fear filled my life. The old fear went underground. Forgotten. Unseen but insidious.
            For those many years, I thought I was simply a jealous being who wanted to be the center of everyone else’s existence. A demanding being who panicked whenever friends weren’t what I considered attentive enough. I feared being discarded but had no understanding of the why or wherefore of that fear.
            The cats with whom I lived consoled me. Their unconditional love comforted even as fear nagged.

Noah, Eliza, Laz, and I

            Then in February 1976, when I was thirty-nine, a Minnesota psychiatrist adroitly asked a question that unlocked my early childhood.
            By that time I’d entered and left the convent, worked in three different states, gone to graduate school, and seen three psychiatrists: two in Ohio; one in New Hampshire.
            The Minnesota psychiatrist was the fourth with whom I sought to discover the patterns of my life and the experiences that created them. The first three helped me, but something always eluded us. That something was abandonment at age five.
            You wonder, “What did that fourth one ask that freed the past?” I can’t remember. I know only that sudden memory flooded back. I sobbed until I had to take deep breaths. Sobbed so forlornly that she rose to enfold me. She called that kindergarten year the “seminal experience of my life.”
            Hearing that did not banish my fear overnight. What did happen is that I began consciously to explore that kindergarten experience and its implications. I began to see how it had tainted much of my life. Nevertheless, I’d forget what I knew and fear would inundate me again when I became overly stressed.           
            With this knowledge I began also to see why again and again throughout my life I abandoned friends. Work. Place. I ended my art lessons in high school. I walked away from the convent. I left New Hampshire. I decided to quit a freelance job because of minor criticism. I ended a relationship with two friends. I moved from Minnesota to Missouri. All done on the spur of the moment and done without explanation to those left behind.
            It is not the leaving I regret. It is that I left behind hurt feelings and misunderstanding. I’d never learned how to leave without hurting others. I was never able to explain my actions. My childhood had provided me with only one way to handle an untenable situation—to turn my back on it and walk away.
            I needed redemption from the past. And yet it rode me unmercifully for most of the rest of my life. Only recently have I known the peace of loving myself graciously.
            My coming to that peace is the story of my coming home to myself. It is the warp and weft of all my future postings.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Last Straw

(Continued from Tuesday . . .)
On Tuesday, I shared with you the brownstone memory. That evening at dusk, Mom and Dad decided drove us to Baltimore Avenue and parked on its unlighted street that paralleled the busily traveled Main Street.

Dad and Mom in the early 1930s on vacation.

            When they alighted from the car, Mom said, “Dodo, watch your brother. We’ll be back in a little while.” Then she added, “And don’t get out of the car. Stay there ‘til we get back.” They locked the doors, walked to the corner, turned right, and were quickly out of sight.
            My brother asked me to tell him a story, and I recited from memory some of the books Mom had read me when I was little. He knew the stories, too, and would chime in on important sentences. We spoke of Ping and Ferdinand and Babar. He told me he really wanted a dog. I asked him to describe the dog he wanted and he did so with all the enthusiasm of a three-year-old.
            An interminable time passed. Dusk melded into twilight. Twilight faded into the dark of night. My brother fell asleep against my shoulder and I concluded that Mom and Dad had changed their minds. They weren’t going to stuff us in gunnysacks and throw us in the river. Instead, they were going to desert us in this car and go back to Grandma’s another way.
            Clearly. Obviously. They did not want either of us.
            I didn’t cry. Instead, I began to plan. I would take my brother’s hand and lead him down to the corner of Main and 39th Street, which I knew was always busy with people. I’d have him sit on the sidewalk by the drug store. I’d go up to passersby and ask if they’d take two little children home.
            I planned exactly what I’d say: “I can dry dishes and sweep and sing my little brother to sleep at night. Please take us home. I’ll work for you. Please.”
            Then I planned a little more. I’d point to my brother and say, “See how darling he is with his curly yellow hair? He’s lots of fun. You’ll like him, and I’ll work for you.”   
            With my plan in place, I unlocked the door, opened it, and reached for my brother’s hand. Just then Mom and Dad arrived back at the car. “Dodo!” Mom screeched in an angry voice. “What are you doing getting out of the car? I told you to stay inside and watch your little brother.”
            Sure now that they’d find a place to live and leave me behind again, I burst into tears. Mom held me against her belly. “What is it? What’s wrong?” she asked.
            What’s wrong? What’s wrong? I thought. And I began to hit her with my fists. All the anger and hurt and pain and frustration of the past year bubbled up and into my fists. I hit her until she grabbed my hands and held them still.
            “Stop that. Stop that right now,” she ordered.
            But then she became once again the Mother I’d known for the first five years.
            “It’s okay. Whatever is wrong is okay,” she said and she kissed my forehead and let me sit in the front seat between her and Dad on our way back to Grandma’s. She held my little brother on her lap, and on the way she and Dad sang “White Cliffs of Dover” and “Back in the Saddle Again.” I knew that Gene and Champion, Dusty and Arthur were singing along from the back seat.
            During that kindergarten year, I’d so missed the singing of my parents.
                                                      (. . . to be concluded on Saturday)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Brownstone

(Continued from last Saturday . . .)
Kindergarten ended in May 1942. In late July, Mom and Dad and my little brother returned to Kansas City. Within a few weeks, we had moved to a farm. Mom was raising chickens, we were eating their eggs, and I was attending a hillside country school overlooking the Missouri River.
            Between our July reunion—I have no memory of this—and my starting first grade, two things happened that filled me with renewed fear. The first I’ll share today; the other on Thursday.
            In early August, Mom, Dad, my little brother, and I began looking for a place to live. After a long day of no luck—the war had brought many people to the city and available apartments were few—Dad parked the car in front of a gloomy brownstone.
            Mom went inside. Within a short time, she closed the front door behind her, descended the steep front steps, strode toward the car, leaned in the open passenger window, and said, “Well, another one that won’t let us have kids. Let’s put our two in gunnysacks and throw them in the river. That’s the only way we’ll get an apartment.”
            Of course she was kidding. But I didn’t know that. I’d just spent a year not understanding why they’d left me behind when they went to Parsons. In my mind, throwing me in the river was just another way of getting rid of me.
            I did wonder what my little brother had done that would make them want to throw him away. I can remember so vividly sitting in the back seat of the car and wondering that.

My little brother in the stroller, a cousin, and me when I had just turned four.  

            For the next three years, until my little brother was six and began sleeping on our farmhouse couch, I tried to protect him both day and night. Our shared double bed was in a corner, shoved up against two walls. I lay on the outside; he, on the inside.
            He fell asleep quickly. For as long as I could keep myself awake, I lay worrying that our parents would throw us in the river that night. But I had a plan to foil theirs. I lay with my left ankle over his right one. If my parents stole into the room and tried to pick him up before me, I’d wake when they lifted him and scream bloody murder.
            Who did I think would hear me? We lived out in the country for heavens sakes. Who would hear?
            No one. But I figured my screams would scare my parents. They’d drop us on the floor. We’d leap up, race down the rutted driveway and onto the highway, flag down a car, and get away. I’d find us a family to live with. After all I was six. Then seven. Then eight. Then nine. I could work. I’d earn our keep.
            For three years, I slept like that each night, sure my parents planned to dispose of us. When they didn’t, I decided that for some reason unknown to me they'd put aside their plans. By the time I'd reached that respite, I was hiding knives, hatchets, and hammers under the mattress at night. I’ll share the reason for that new fear in a future posting.
            A counselor has told me that for most of my seventy-five years, I've lived with post-traumatic stress syndrome. I thought that was nonsense. But as I recount these memories I begin to see what she meant.
                                                                        (. . . to be continued on Thursday)

Saturday, September 3, 2011


(Continued from Thursday . . .)
As the days have passed in this recounting of my kindergarten year and my seeming abandonment by my parents, I’ve shared many memories with you. Today I offer you two more. For me, they remain as vivid and pristine as when they happened.
            Both centered me in the present and in Presence. Both comforted me as the weeks and months passed. Both are with me today: talismans in my life when stress sometimes overwhelms me.
            In kindergarten the teacher provided the clay, paint, brushes, soil, and cacti we needed for an art project. Each of us fashioned a pot for our mothers for Mother’s Day. I painted mine a lovely blue and brushed white Vs on it.
            We put our pots to dry on a table beneath a window in the storage closet. One day I sidled into that closet, closed the door behind me, and picked up my blue pot with its birds in flight. It seemed beautiful to me as I held it up to the window imagining Mommy’s delight when I gave it to her. I didn’t know when that would happen, but I meant to keep it safe for her.
            Between one breath and another, radiant light illuminated every pore of my body. I became prism. Peace inundated me. Joy embraced me. Shepherded me. Homed me.
            How long did I stand there with the painted pot in my hand? I don’t know. I know only that this transcendent experience comforted me. Then and now.
            The picture I have of that kindergarten class shows the eighteen of us sitting in front of a tepee. Each of us wears a headband. The name “Bright Eyes” is printed on mine. This in itself shows that I had not lost my essential self that year. I must have laughed and played and enjoyed kindergarten. Why else would the teacher have given me that name?

            The other comforting memory from that year is meeting Arthur in the vast vacant lot separating the neighbors’ house from Our Lady of Good Counsel Grade School. Brambles and weeds, some towering over my head, grew in that lot, which a cater-cornered path transversed. Children ran down it, crossed at the corner, and raced into the school playground. I among them.
            One day when I walked alone with no one in sight ahead or behind, a lion emerged from the plumed grass. “Hello, Dodo,” he said. “Shall we walk together?”
            I lay my hand on the velvety softness of his muzzle and stroked his ears and looked into his limpid brown eyes. He told me then that his name was Arthur and that he and I could walk to and from school together. He’d wait for me each morning and afternoon. He wouldn’t go away if I were late. He wouldn’t desert me.
            “And will you play with me after school?” I asked.
            “I will.”
            “And will you lie on the end of my bed each night?”
            “I will. I’ll warm your feet.”
            In the days ahead I rode on his back. Brushed his ruff. Chased his expressive tail as we played. We became fast friends. 
             I say this with great humility and awe and gratitude—Arthur saved me.
            So much love within him.
            Now, all these years later, I think that my noble and steadfast lion came from the deepest part of myself. The part where I am most me. Where I have the courage and resilience and fortitude to survive loss.
            The me who is at One with the Universe.
            The me who deep down knew—somehow—that the love her parents had lavished on her for five years could not just disappear.
            What-ever they were doing. Why-ever they were doing it. Where-ever they where, they must still love her.
            Somehow, that little girl held on.
            Perhaps that’s all any of us can do in the reversals of life.
            Hold on.
                                                                        (to be continued next Tuesday . . .)