Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Child Living with Asthma

(Edited repost from June 2011)
I was born with asthma. During the first five years of my life, Mom and Dad rushed me to Emergency six times. I almost died four of those times—or so mom told me.
            She kept me alive. She put her finger down my throat when it clogged. Thumped my back. Rocked me. Gave me mantras to recite in the midst of an attack.
            “Distract yourself,” she told me. “If you think about breathing you won’t be able to. Just think about something else. Ice cream cones. Raggedy Ann. Look at picture books.”

            Distracting myself helped. In fact, those library books helped me learn to read when I was four. Ever after, The Little Engine That Could, Ferdinand, and The Story about Ping have been dear to me. One may explain why I push myself to accomplish things. The other two, why I so love animals.

            Another thing Mom told me was to “tough it out.” The fact is that I did this so well for so long that ultimately, as an adult, I had trouble acknowledging pain or extricating myself from difficult situations. I kept toughing it out. Maintaining a stiff upper lip. Much of my adult life has been given over to enduring and so I've caused myself unnecessary pain and stress.
            But back then, when I was a child, Mom’s advice kept me alive. As a child of three, I knew that I had to will myself to live.
            As I grew older, the asthma didn’t lessen in intensity. In kindergarten and first, second, and third grades, I missed three out of nine months of school. I’d miss a day or two or even a whole week at a time.
            Every time I returned to school, I was behind. The other kids had moved on from where I’d been. They knew more spelling and arithmetic. They reeled off answers to the Baltimore Catechism questions.
            Teachers would call on me, with or without raised hand. I had no ready answers. So the kids thought I was dumb. On the playground they shouted, “Dummy. Dummy. Pain in tummy.” I hid behind the trashcans. 
            I was always trying to catch up and always exhausted from trying to breathe. So exhausted that I couldn’t think of answers.
            Mom wanted to change all that for me. So the summer before the fourth grade, she and Sister Corita who’d taught me in the third grade—and would have me for the fourth—encouraged me to try for perfect attendance that year. Each of us committed to doing something.
            Sister Corita would watch me carefully in class. If I looked overly tired, she’d send me to the cloakroom to nap.
            Mom would watch me carefully at home. She’d send me to bed immediately if I came home from school drooping. She’d make sure I got lots of extra sleep on the weekends.
            I’d rest whenever it was suggested to me. I’d try to breathe slowly when an attack started and not panic. I’d “go the extra mile,” as Mom said.
            She promised that if I pulled this off, I’d get a charm bracelet like the one the scout leader had. Incentive enough for going that extra mile. In June of 1946, at the completion of fourth grade, I actually got two rewards: a certificate for perfect attendance and a bracelet, which jangled seven small, silver objects whenever I moved. Wow! 
            The frosting on the cake came in fifth grade. The class voted on who were the five smartest students. Out of twenty-eight, I was number five.
            I beamed all the way home. I wasn’t a dummy. I was number five. Five! Imagine.

Photographs from Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A New Definition of Woman

(Edited repost from June 2011 . . . )
I didn’t take the circuitous routes Dad suggested to my first post-convent job. So men did approach me. They didn’t “hit on” me. They asked for money. I always gave them whatever change or dollar bills I had.

            I’d been taught that we could come upon Jesus unawares and not recognize him. In my mind, these men were Jesus. I couldn’t say no.
            One day the vice-president of the publishing firm where I worked saw me handing money to a man sitting on the sidewalk, his back against a wall. “Thank you, Ma’am,” the drifter said and smiled. A serene smile over the gaps of missing teeth. Surely Jesus.       

            I crossed the street to where my employer waited on the corner. “Dee, don’t give these guys money,” he said. “I know how much you make.”
            “They might be Jesus.”
            I explained. He shook his head. “If you have to give them something, tell them you’ll buy breakfast. They'll never take you up on that. They’re looking for booze money.”
             As we passed the café I could see Jesus and myself eating together there. And as time passed, I did have breakfast with several of the men who inhabited the sidewalks, their heads drooping between tented knees. As we ate, they shared their life stories with me. They were down on their luck.

            One had a different definition of woman from what I’d learned in the Scholasticate. On the spring day we met, I wore a new dress. Short-sleeved. Bright yellow splotched with white daisies. A narrow belt.
             I was standing across from the office, waiting for the light to change. A man in soiled clothes shuffled toward me. His face sported whiskers and dirt. His straggly hair hung against his hunched shoulders. This is Jesus I thought.
            I started to dig for coins.
            “Ma’am, you’re one mighty fine woman,” he mumbled.
            The coins tumbled to the sidewalk. Flustered, I leaned over to pick them up. My thoughts tumbled with them: He’s talking about my figure. This dress is too clingy. My body’s not hidden in black serge. He can see the outline of my bosom. I covered it with my purse.
            “Did ya hear what I told ya? One damn fine woman,” he slurred.
            “Thank you.”
            “Real perky.”
            “Thank you.”
            The light changed. I started across. He followed.
            “One damn fine figure of a woman.”
            “Thank you.” I walked faster.
            “I’m tellin’ ya the truth, Ma’am. One mighty fine figure.”
            “Thank you.”
            I wanted to run, but this was Jesus. He might smell like whiskey, but who says Jesus has to be a teetotaler? He was the most famous brewer of all time. Witness Cana. Who says he has to wear newly laundered clothes? This was Jesus.
            “How’d you like some breakfast?” I asked.
            I treated him to a meal. Hank was a fine man.
            And I?
            I wasn’t a scout or a seamstress. But I was one fine figure of a woman.
            Damn fine.

Art and photographs from Wikipedia

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Circuitous Routes

(Edited repost from June 2011)
In mid-January 1967—a month after leaving the convent—I  began to work for a Catholic publishing house in Dayton, Ohio. Its office occupied a brick building in a rundown section of town. Lots of bars, vacate buildings, men down on their luck.   

            I lived a few blocks away in a home for working women. Each of us had a narrow room with a twin bed, a dresser with three drawers, a straight-backed chair, a nightstand with a lamp, a sink, and a miniscule closet. We used communal showers and toilets and had both cafeteria and curfew. I felt right at home there—the convent with amenities.
            I took off my habit for the last time on the morning of December 24, 1966. Because the convent had no stash of ordinary clothing, my mom brought me an outfit she’d borrowed from my sister-in-law. Putting on those cotton panties, silky slip, pleated skirt, and patterned blouse felt strange. Alien.
            Mom included lipstick, rouge, and powder. I hadn’t worn makeup in almost nine years. My hand trembled as I picked up the lipstick. I meandered over my lips. Powdered. Over-rouged. Looked in the mirror and saw a clown. I teared up. What was I leaving? What was I going to?
            A few days later, I flew to Ohio for a job interview at a publishing house. Later, a senior editor gave me a tour of the city. He pointed out the Dominican-run, brick, four-story building where I could stay should the firm offer me a job.
             If hired, I’d exit the brick building, turn left, walk to the corner, turn right, cross the street, walk down five blocks, wait for the light, cross the street, turn left, pass the café, and open the door to the publishing house. An easy daily route.
            Three weeks later, I learned the job was mine. Before I departed for Ohio, Dad gave me some considered advice. “Dolores,” he said, “tell me approximately where the place you live will be in relation to where you’ll work.”
            My dad respected blueprints and maps, so I drew him one with both the living quarters and the workplace clearly labeled.
            “How are you getting to work?”           
            “I’ll walk.”
            “Tell me your route.”
            I walked it off on the map.
            “That’s not good,” he insisted. “I want you to go a different way each day.”
            “What do you mean, Dad?”
             “One day, turn right instead of left. It’ll be longer but safer,” Dad said, using his index finger to show me the proposed route on the map. “The next day, turn right but walk beyond the corner, up a block or two. Then turn right and walk to the office. You'll be coming from a different direction.” His finger followed that route. “Some days I want you to walk down six or seven blocks and then come back up to the office. Change your route each day.”
            “Why would I do that?”
            “Honey, all sorts of men lurk out there. They’ll know your route if you take the same one each day."
            “Yes . . .?”
            “They prey on women,” he said.
            “Dad, who’d want to prey on me?”
            “Dolores, they don’t care what you look like. You’re a woman.”
            Thanks, Dad.
            I didn’t take his advice. No circuitous routes.
            He was right though. I did meet men. But no one “hit on” me. That’s the phrase I learned from a woman with whom I worked. Men “hit on” her.
            The truth is I’m not sure I’d recognize a “hit” if it happened. Some things just don’t occur to me. It’s often only later—hours, days, weeks, years—that the match sparks and I say, “Oh, that’s what that was all about.”  So if someone “hit” on me those long ago years, the hit never landed.

Photo from Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

To Be or Not to Be—A Woman

(Edited repost from June 2011 . . . )
My last post ended with me being kicked out of scouts. I was told I’d never be one. Today’s is about being a real woman.
            This happened in my first year of the Scholasticate. Those three years were meant to give me a chance to see if I really wanted to be a nun. They also gave the professed nuns a chance to see if they really wanted me among them. In other words, was the life for me and was I for the life.
            In the ceremony that began the Scholasticate, I’d taken five vows: poverty, chastity, obedience, conversion of morals, and stability. I meant those first vows. In three years, I hoped to take final ones.
            I’d spent the past school year in a terrifying classroom of fifty-five seventh-graders. One student had thrown a knife at me when I had my back turned and was writing on the chalkboard. The blade barely missed my hand.
            The students themselves weren’t any safer. When the girls passed out class work, the boys jabbed their behinds with compasses. The girls yipped and yelped as they reeled down each aisle, trying to avoid the compass points.
            In early June, I’d come home to the convent, exhausted. I panicked when the Scholastic Mistress told my convent class of eighteen that we had to “turn” our habits that summer. I could face knives, but not thread and needle.
            At recreation, I asked two friends if they’d turn my habit while I did their obediences. One tablewaited in the summer refectory; the other worked in the scullery. They also polished the halls of the four-story building. All that sounded like a walk in the park to me next to the ordeal of turning a habit.
            To turn a habit was to make the back become the front by changing the sleeve openings, the yoke, and the hem. The back of our daily habit had become shiny and threadbare in spots from our having sat on it for two years. The long, narrow scapular of black serge we wore over the habit—back and front—would cover the shine. Turning would keep the habit whole, not holey. Turning was beyond my capabilities.

            My two friends thought they got the best of the deal. They actually liked to sew. Both of them had probably been great girl scouts. When the Scholastic Mistress heard my plan, she nixed it. I’d turn my own habit.
            “I don’t like sewing,” I explained.
            “It’s your habit, Sister Innocence. It’s your duty to take care of it.”
            “I’m not good at sewing.”           
            “You’ll get good.”
            “Believe me, I can’t sew no matter how much I try.”
            “If you don’t learn how to sew, you’ll never be a real woman,” she said.
            “I don’t want to be a real woman if that means sewing,” I countered.
            She held up her right hand for silence. This brought me up close and personal to her veins, wrinkles, and liver spots for I was actually kneeling as we talked. That was our body’s attitude when we asked a permission of the Novice Mistress, Scholastic Mistress, or Mother Superior. Also when we made culpa for faults—like not lifting our habit when we climbed the steps. That dragged the hem on the stair edge and frayed it—a fault against the vow of poverty.
            I closed my mouth. I’d taken the vow of obedience. I’d lived it out on mission at a school where the kids toilet-papered the clothesline when I was doing the laundry and threatened to rape me if I didn’t let up on them in class. Surely turning a habit couldn’t be worse than that.
            Let me be the first to tell you. It was. That summer I had to do it all by hand because the personality of a sewing machine continued to evade me. I had so many needle pricks in my fingers and left so many drops of blood on that black serge that my friends felt sorry for me and surreptitiously helped whenever the Scholastic Mistress wasn’t looking. We were downright sneaky.

            Years have passed and I’m fairly certain that letting others define us is hazardous for our emotional growth and contentment. The Scholastic Mistress defined a woman as a female who could sew. Upon leaving the convent, I discovered that many people—both women and men—defined a woman as “married.” Or, even better, “married with children.” I didn’t then, I don’t now, fit those definitions.
            The truth is I’m not particularly concerned about “being a woman.” Being either male or female is of little interest to me. What is important is becoming an authentic human being. I’m gently greeting—day by day—the Oneness that lies deep down in the center of myself. I choose to let this Oneness define me.
            What I know for certain is that I never become a scout . . . or a seamstress.
            Surely Dante considered sewing one of hell’s worse torments.

Photo of needle from Wikipedia


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Failing the Girl Scouts

(Edited repost from June 2011 . . . )

I got kicked out of Scouts. The leader didn’t like my attitude. I didn’t particularly care for hers.
            No. That’s not the whole truth. As a ten-year-old, I worshipped her. Dreamed of being as stylish and poised as she was. Wanted her beauty and glamour to rub off on me. She wore a charm bracelet of multitudinous silver trinkets given her by former boyfriends. She herself was a charm.           
            I, on the other hand, had two left feet and a habit of opening my mouth and sticking both in at the same time.
            She kicked me out after two sewing projects—an apron and a handkerchief.
            My Mom and I purchased bright red material and green thread for the apron. My favorite colors. Mom showed me how to use her treadle sewing machine. But remember those left feet? I peddled backward so the green-stitched hem ambled hither and yon.
            I thought it pretty nifty when I brandished it for the scout mistress. She curled her lip, cautiously picked it up between her thumb and index finger, and scrutinized it contemptuously. I felt for that apron. After that, I wore it every time Mom let me help cook. Which wasn’t often because I’d once set fire to the kitchen. Accidently of course.
            The second project involved crocheting around a white handkerchief. I assiduously worked for a week. It felt like drudgery. When our troop met again, all the other scouts had already crocheted around all four sides. I’d managed only one. They went on to new projects—and merit badges.

            “I like having just one side crocheted. It looks different,” I said when the scout mistress examined my work.
            “It looks unfinished,” she said dryly. “Keep crocheting.”
            I did. For one week. Two. Then a third. A whole month passed with me pulling out the thread and starting over again. The handkerchief got downright grimy. Years later, when I read A Tale of Two Cities, I knew I could have been one of those women knitting by the guillotine. Only I’d be crocheting the history of hanky torture.

            At the next meeting, I said I didn’t want to work on it any more.
            “You’ll work until it’s finished,” she ordered.
            “I can’t.”
            “You will,” she reiterated, baring her teeth.
            I saw myself trying to blow my nose on that crocheted hem.  It’d scratch.
            “I’m finished,” I announced. “I want to do something else.”
            “There’s nothing else for you until you finish this mangy handkerchief.”
            Of course part of the problem was that I wanted her to like me and I didn’t feel she did. I wasn’t pretty enough or witty enough or interesting enough for her. And I could feel my dream of being just like her collapsing.           
            “No,” I said, swallowing hard.
            “That’s it. I’ve had enough. You’re no longer in this scout troop.”
            The words stunned me.
            “But . . . ,”
            “But nothing. Go home, you’ll never be a scout.”
            That marked the end of my scouting career. When the other girls went to troop meetings after school, I caught the early bus home, vowing that one day I'd conquer crocheting. But at the time all I knew was that I was barely ten and a failure.

Photos from Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nickels and Cones

(Edited repost from May 2011 . . . )
Until I was three, Mom, Dad, and I lived in a duplex overlooking Allen Grade School, which stood below street level. A blacktopped playground surrounded it. On three sides, a sloping, grassy embankment separated this playground from the bordering streets.
            The duplex in which we lived faced the back of the brick school building. My dad’s parents lived two blocks north of it. Often, Mom and I visited Grandma while Grandpa was away being a fireman.
            Mom and I would race down the slope shouting, “Here we come! Ready or not!” She’d take my hand and we’d skip across the playground, hike up the alley with its overhanging oak trees, cross at the corner, and climb the steps to Grandma’s.
            At the end of our visit, Grandma would hand me a nickel. Mom and I would amble to the corner drugstore and spend my nickel on an ice-cream cone. Then we’d mosey on home, me licking, Mom whistling.

            On the day of this story, which took place right before my third birthday, Mom was ironing.
            “Mommy, could we visit Grandma today?” I asked.
            “Not today, Dodo. I’m too busy.”
            I kept asking. She kept ironing. Ultimately she simply set the iron aside and gave me my marching orders: “I want you to go outside, Anna Dolores,” she said—she always got formal when frayed. “Go outside and play house with Jimmy.”
            Once in the yard, I told my four-year-old playmate about the ice-cream cone.
            “You’d get a nickel too, Jimmy. Want to go?”
            “How’d we get there?”
            “Walk.” Jimmy seemed hesitant, but my bravado won him over.
            We silently left the yard—I’d figured out how to open the gate latch. We crossed the street and plunked ourselves down on the embankment. Giggling, we rolled down its grassy slope. At the bottom, I took off running. Jimmy lagged behind.
            “Come on,” I shouted, trying to galvanize him.
            Jimmy shouted back, “I’m an old slowpoke!” We grinned delightedly at one another and waved our arms like dive-bombers.
            The alley at the tail end of the playground stood in deep shade. Ominous. Half way up, Jimmy started to cry.
            “Don’t cry, Jimmy,” I said. “It’s okay. We’re almost there.”
            He just kept sobbing. Wailing. “Mommy says I’m a crybaby!”
            “You’re not, Jimmy,” I assured him. “Come on. Remember what I said. Grandma’s got nickels.”

            I continued marching up the steep alley, singing—shrilly—“Whistle While You Work.” I’d learned this song when Mom and I went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. We sang it as I used my little red-handled broom to sweep corners in our apartment.
            I could hear Jimmy sniveling. Wiping his nose on his sleeve, he sniffled a couple of times then shouted, “I’m going to get chocolate!”            
            “Me too,” I shouted back. We scampered the rest of the way up the alley in our Buster Browns. Mounting Grandma’s porch steps, we banged the door. “We’re here!” we bellowed.
            Grandma shooed us into the kitchen, fixed lemonade and peanut butter sandwiches, and told us to settle our bottoms on the kitchen chairs and stay put. Then she left.
            A few minutes later, I heard the screen door slam and Mom say, "Where are they?" I didn't hear Grandma's reply, but the two of them didn't come into the kitchen right away. 
            When they did, Mom wasn’t smiling or whistling. She had the serious look she wore when I’d been naughty. She took my hand and Jimmy's too and marched us back to the duplex. The only thing she said was "Never do that again, Dolores. Never. Promise me." I promised but kept my fingers crossed behind my back. You just never knew when you might need a nickel.

            What was said between the two of them? Mom never said, but more than once in the years that followed, Grandma told me, “Your mother’s shanty Irish. We can’t expect much of her.” She thought her son could have done better than this “no-account Catholic hussy.”
            Grandma tried hard to get me to agree, but I didn’t even know what “shanty Irish” meant—much less “hussy.” I only knew that Mom made me laugh when we danced together. She let me dry the dishes. She stood on her head against the wall—to get the blood rushing to her brain she said. I idolized her.                       
            Oh sure, I got a swat on the seat of my panties when she took Jimmy and me back to the duplex. But in the days that followed, I bet she told the story to anyone who’d listen. This Irish lassie wasn’t going to let my dad’s mom make a wimp of me.
            Mom anchored me. This was the woman who told me at every turning point of my life, “Dolores, you can do anything you set your mind to.”
           The next day, Mom walked Jimmy and me to the corner drugstore and bought us both ice-cream cones.  "You don't run away, Dolores," she said. "You ask for what you need."
          During the years since, I've often forgotten that. Such forgetting always leads to heartache.

Photos from Wikipedia

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Posting the Pieces

(Edited repost from May 2011 . . . )
These memoir memories resemble jigsaw pieces. In the past three years, I’ve emptied the puzzle of my life on a figurative card table. Now you’ve gathered with me around that table. We pick up a piece, examine it, and place it somewhere in the landscape of my life. Lower left corner. Upper right. A border piece. Smack dab in the middle.

            Together, we view that picture as it emerges.
            The individual pieces may seem haphazard. How do convent, Meniere’s, work, growing-up, and cat stories relate? I wonder.
            One thing I’ve often wondered about is rather I would have stayed in the convent if cats had lived there with us. Picture a long-haired calico cat like Maggie with whom I now live. Watch her weave her way down the choir-chapel aisle as we chant Compline. The nuns gathered there try to suppress their laughter. It erupts into loud guffaws and we mangle the Latin. Maggie ignores us. She's ambling now for her fleece pillow in the sanctuary. Now that's contentment.
            I want to alert you that the color of these memoir memories will sometimes be dark; other times, light. I hope many stories will tickle your funny bone. For myself, some are poignant; others just strange. If you stick with me in this venture, you’ll get to read the whole shebang.           
            I hope you’ll gather often with me at this card table. I hope also that you’ll jog my memory by adding comments and asking questions about something I’ve mentioned that bemuses or intrigues you.

            It’s apparent to me that my life choices frequently seem mistaken. But one wonder of growing older is being able to look back on a longer life. We get a chance to discover that what may once have felt like a bad choice turned out to be good. It’s all in definition and meaning.
            Living in this new locale and facing almost three years of illness have forced me—willy-nilly—to explore the arc of my life. Here’s the pot of gold: I’ve come home to myself. That is to say, I’ve embraced my whole life. I am who I am. Take it or leave it. I’ve taken it with a lightness of heart that surprises even me.
            Walt Whitman wrote, “The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything.” That Whitman knew metaphor.

Photos from Wikipedia