My Many Mentors

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Great Uncle Henry taught me to pluck Thanksgiving turkeys, and cousin Carol taught me to pluck my eyebrows. When my bowling instructor told me to quit thinking so much and “just let ‘er rip,” my average rose from forty to fifty; and my brother Bob showed me how to increase the pain of those I beat when playing rock, paper and scissors by licking my fingers before viciously slapping their wrists.

Having learned such important life skills from the best, when I began writing, I realized I should try practicing the techniques I’d learned from specialists around the world. Most people call them authors. I call them mentors.

A.A. Milne’s “Winnie The Pooh” fascinated me as a child, and the words of Luis Alberto Urrea in “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” enthralled me last week. In between, a legion of authors enchanted me.

The authors of all those books became part of me, gave me a sense for paragraphs that pulse with rhythm, descriptions that usher readers into a scene and metaphors that surprise with their aptness. As I zipped through books in pursuit of compelling plots, I also developed an appreciation for dialogue that sounds real and for carefully edited works that give readers a sense of security. I was reading for pleasure, and, without realizing it, I was also learning from experts.

When I retired and began writing, my reading became more intent. Recently, though the plot of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” captured me, I read Urrea’s words slowly, savoring his mastery over them as much as I enjoyed his rich story. I recorded delicious bits of his writing, studied them and thought how I could do something similar within my voice and topics.

Urrea, like all my must-read authors, treats words like crown jewels, selecting each with care. In “A Hummingbird’s Daughter,” he wrote, “Tomas rode his wicked black stallion through the frosting of starlight that turned his ranch blue and pale gray as if powdered sugar had blown off the sky and sifted over the mangos and mesquites;” and I felt I rode with him. I would probably have written, “Tomas rode his black horse across his ranch through starlight as white as frosting,” and few would have hopped on for the ride. But because I studied the rhythms and word choices of his sentence, I might write a stronger description the next time I write.

As another of my mentors,  Mark Twain, said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I want to hurl lightening bolts like Twain and Urrea, but too often I propel tiddlywinks. For example, I know I overuse the tired twins, enjoy and like, but their alternatives rarely work. Value and appreciate are too refined, and the phrase, take pleasure in, seems a bit uppity. Casual use diminishes the compelling emotion of love. Treasure strikes me as over the top, and relish makes me think of hotdogs.

So yesterday, when I started “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” by the western writer Ivan Dog, I decided to watch for his use, or not, of like and enjoy. Does he sprinkle them liberally in his prose? Or does he have other techniques for describing or distinguishing the emotions they represent?

I’d like to discover his approach to my dilemma. In fact, I’d enjoy it.

Catalog Clothing

The summer before my fifth-grade year, wanting a sophisticated look my home-sewn wardrobe failed to deliver, I spent my cherry-picking money on store-bought, back-to-school clothes. In rural Utah in the 1950’s, store-bought meant catalog-ordered; so the Montgomery Wards catalog became my fashion consultant as I earmarked pages, pondered options and wallowed in excited indecision.

Eventually, I chose a set of seven panties — each embroidered with a day of the week so I would know when to wear them — a sack of red, white, and blue anklets because I liked their patriotic flair and a red dress with white polka dots on the skirt and a droopy white bow at the collar.

When I totaled the cost of my selections and double-checked my math, the order came to $15.34 including sales tax and postage, which left thirty-seven cents for Snickers bars and giant jawbreakers.

I next went to work on the order form, happily recording item numbers and descriptions until I encountered the problem of sizing. I assumed the clothing would come in 5th-grade-girl sizes. It didn’t. Stymied, I thought of asking my siblings for help, but they would criticize my choices and say my brain was smaller than my nose. Mom knew my size because the clothes she sewed for me fit, but she wasn’t home. Besides, the last time I asked which anklets she thought I should order, she looked wild-eyed and dodged into the bathroom.

When I decided to search the catalog for help, I discovered size charts on page 215. Studying the chart for young misses, I learned my size depended on my chest, hip and waist measurements. Good grief.

I secreted myself in the bathroom with Dad’s tape measure. I knew my chest measurement, being in the habit of checking, and I quickly measured my waist. But hips stumped me. The instructions said to measure nine inches from my waist and around the fullest part. Of what? Each leg? After a few contortions, I came up with a number. Alrighty. Then, going back to the charts, I realized my measurements didn’t fit one size. Different parts of me matched different sizes.

I was a freak.

Frustrated, I marked my selections with what seemed to be the size in the middle of the list, thinking things would average out.

During the following weeks, the mailman and I became best buddies as we waited for the package that would give me the air of a catalog model when I went back to school. The day he handed the bulky parcel to me, my new friend seemed as happy and relieved as I was. Beaming, I ran home to try on my new clothes — try being the right word.

My beautiful dress the color of strawberries wouldn’t go over my shoulders though I wriggled and strained until stitches popped. The socks didn’t stretch over my foot no matter how much I hopped and yanked; and the panties, rebelling mid-hip, labeled my thigh as Monday.

Overcome by my first case of catalog despair, I collapsed on the floor in sobs with my beautiful back-to-school clothes stuck on odd parts of my body. And stayed there, snuffling and snorting, until Mom rescued me.

To this day, I open packages of clothing I’ve ordered with trepidation; and I often use the return envelope — though I no longer collapse and cry.

Public Restrooms, The Downside of Travel

As I hurried along the line looking for an empty stall, a young girl wailed, “No, Mommy, no! I don’t want to go in. It’s yucky!” I glanced into the stall in question and wailed with her. The only thing worse than using public restrooms is their absence when needed. So I use them, but they test my mettle.

I can’t be sure a stall is empty without bending my six-foot frame to look for feet. I used to nudge a closed door to test for occupancy; but too often the occupant hadn’t engaged the lock, and the door swung open to the dismay of both parties. So I bend double and peer.

When I find a vacancy, I often find a missing purse hook and a broken lock as well, which strains my limited flexibility. And when did flushing turn into an IQ test? Too often, I find myself in a game of “Where’s Waldo” as I search for the hiding place of the little black button.

Washing my hands in public restrooms can also be traumatic. When everything I need for the task is supplied and functioning, I’m so surprised I sometimes forget where I am and —as taught in first grade — belt out two renditions of “Happy Birthday” while I lather. People look at me. Once a lady at the next basin sang along like it was a party.

In general, I find airport restrooms clean, well supplied and efficient, though Chicago’s O’Hare has toilets with automated seat liners resembling plastic wrap that trouble me. You press a button and watch the old wrap roll away and new wrap roll in — just for you. Somehow it seems vaguely unsanitary. How do I know the wrap is new and not recycled?

Restrooms encountered when traveling by car sometimes give me nightmarish flashbacks — except in Missouri where I look forward to a particular rest area on the interstate. Open, curving halls without doors lead to a clean, well-maintained facility. But the best part is washing my hands.

I insert my hands into a semi-circular opening in the wall. Then comfortably warm water sprinkles them generously, followed by drops of sweet-smelling soap. After an interval just right for singing “Happy Birthday” twice, more rain-like water descends. Finally, a gentle stream of warm air wafts over my hands until they’re dry.

I’ve touched nothing.

I’d like to end with this miracle in Missouri, but I must air a final complaint: why don’t the architects of public buildings build more capacity into women’s restrooms?

In 1st grade, fun-loving Ronny Huff pulled me into the boys’ bathroom. Before I broke his grip and fled, I caught a glimpse of my male classmates gathered about a urinal, which intrigued me more than anything had all day. At the time, I didn’t realize urinals give men an advantage when restrooms are crowded.

A friend and I bought season tickets for the Reno Opera. While I don’t remember much about the operas, I remember men sauntering into their restroom without waiting in line. I also remember elegantly gowned, carefully coiffed women standing in line in the main hallway of the Opera House, on display to the crowd, as the lights blinked to end intermission.

This experience didn’t ruin opera for me; my preference for Simon and Garfunkle did. But it made me realize women’s restrooms should be designed by women rather than by men who are used to communal toileting.

Those Who Live in Glass Houses

 

I indulged in gluttony in front of my loved ones at a funeral lunch and I was ashamed. But not sorry.

When I entered the hall and scanned the tables heaped with an abundance of appealing homemade food, my youngest grandchildren had already grabbed a soft drink, piled chips on top of their fried chicken and headed toward the dessert table.

I smiled at their self-indulgent choices and complimented myself on my healthy selections. Then I neared the salad section and saw several shimmering, sugary Jell-O salads: red, green, and orange Jell-O; Jell-O containing bananas, grapes, raspberries, and pineapple; Jell-O with nuts, cream cheese and whipped cream blended in or spread on top; mouth-watering salads with nary a vegetable lurking in their soft, creamy depths.

I picked up an extra plate.

Despite my funereal fall from grace, I eat healthy foods most of the time. But I remember fondly the foods I yearned for as a child in the fifties, foods much like those my young loved ones crave today.

I used to spend the pennies, nickels and dimes I earned doing extra chores for my mother on anything sugared and frozen on a stick, especially blueberry popsicles that dyed my mouth an alarming fluorescent blue. I also liked orange and white dreamsicles and chocolate-covered milk nickels. But I never bought fudgsicles..

I quit eating the chocolate treats when Dad bought one for everybody in the car. Those of us in the backseat whooped with appreciation, but Mom took one bite, said it tasted like brown chalk and tossed the remains out the window. Dad yelped, “Hide ‘em, kids, or she’ll get yours too,” but I sided with Mom and threw mine away. Carolyn called me a copycat; Bob said I was too stupid to be in third grade.

Like today’s teenagers, I craved soft drinks of any sort, spending far too much of my babysitting and fruit-picking money at the Arctic Circle trying to decide between lemon lime and orange. I routinely convinced my younger sister Barbara to trade tastes. I would take a generous swallow of hers then say she couldn’t taste mine because I didn’t want her cooties. I also accepted dates with young men I didn’t care for because I hoped the A&W would be on the itinerary.

Raised in a home where caffeine in any form was frowned upon, I didn’t discover cola drinks until later in life. But I‘ll never forget the illicit thrill that ran through me when I was ten and told Mrs. Tucker how much I liked the birthday cake she’d made for her daughter’s party. Mrs. Tucker thanked me and said that cherry cola cake was her family’s favorite. I ate two pieces and walked home convinced I was drunk.

So today, when I notice young people inhaling chips, soft drink, candy and ice cream, I keep quiet about their poor choices and my longing for Jell-O salad with bananas and whipped cream.

A Memory For Fathers’ Day

I remember how my dad took his children to Schroeder’s, despite a lack of ready cash. Screen door slamming; tall, work-slim body striding across the yard, he yelled to any of us within hearing, “If you want to go, climb aboard. I’m on my way.”

Word spread, “He might be going to Schroeder’s.” Deserting chores, we scrambled into our dilapidated jeep, jockeying for position. Dad gunned the engine, shot away and, singing that he’d take Kathleen home again, paid no mind to his passengers caught in mid-scramble.

A fast five miles of irrigated farmland flashed by, dotted by an occasional house hunched beneath massive outbuildings. The finger-smeared windows through which we peered softened the countryside and gentled farmyard clutter. Dad, more interested in his vibrato than our battles, bounced the jeep along rough roads in tempo to his tune, until, gravel flying, he executed his usual abrupt stop. “Whoa there, old boy, whoa there,” he shouted to our great amusement as he flamboyantly pulled back on the wheel and stomped on the brakes at Schroeder’s Auto Repair.

The single, rusted-out gas pump reflecting long departed prices isn’t tempt us; nor did the garage’s shadowed interior with its thick air smelling of rubber and oil. We didn’t stop to examine Schroeder’s grease-begrimed tools or the fly spotted glass case holding PayDay bars, Juicy Fruit gum, and hide-a–key containers. Instead, clutching unfamiliar dimes Dad distributed from a near-empty wallet — an act our money-worried mother wouldn’t approve — we ran to the rectangular soda machine sitting like a dusty treasure chest in a far corner, burbling moistly to itself.

While Dad discussed man things — lay-offs, unemployment checks, failed crops — with big-voiced, thoroughly dirty Schroeder, we circled the red machine and argued best flavors: orange and strawberry being top contenders. Then, decisions made, we clinked our dimes into the coin slot. The machine’s scratched red lid sighed reluctantly as we lifted it, exhaling cold air that washed over our peering faces.

Inside the rectangular chest, icy water bathed cold bottles that we slowly worked along notched metal rows until we could each lift our choice clear, remove its crimped cap with the built-in opener, and take the first sweetly stinging swallow.

Carolyn, a teenager, assumed a pose of nonchalance and sophistication, drinking as though it was almost more than she could manage. Bob threw his head back and drank like the rowdy boy he was, pausing only to burp. I sipped, savoring and saving. Barbara, who had yet to grasp the science of swallowing, let orange liquid flow down her throat in an uninterrupted stream, plugging it with her tongue when she needed to breathe.

As we drank and laughed, Dad looked over at us and grinned.

If the total of a man is made of small acts, our dad was a giant.

This post was adapted from my book, A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns

Comic Relief

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My great-aunt Beulah and I were searching for ripe tomatoes in her garden when she said, “It’s a good funeral when you laugh as much as you cry.” She then spotted a tomato slug and squished it beneath her galoshes while I pondered her perplexing observation.

Seven years later in high school during a discussion of Romeo and Juliet, my English teacher said Shakespeare used puns, witty dialogue and funny characters to weave scenes of comic relief into his tragedies to give his audiences a break from feuds, betrayals, suicides and murders most foul. Mr. Sabatini then paused so we could reflect on his brilliance and ran his chalk-coated fingers through his abundant black hair, a habit we noticed.

“Wow, I thought, “William Shakespeare and Skunk Sabatini are no smarter than Aunt Beulah.”

Research has since confirmed the social blessings of laughter: when something tickles us and we tee-hee together, tensions lessen. Whether disagreeing with a loved one, entering a roomful of strangers or enduring a blind date; we feel more connected to those who share our laughter.

To get a teaching credential in Nevada, I had to be tested for TB at a public health office, which was not a happy place. Some folks were there at the behest of others; a few had worrisome symptoms; some needed a shot or two or three; and others nervously awaited test results. I sat in crowded waiting room filled with anxiety, impatience and sodden tissues.

Suddenly the door flew open and a disheveled young man, who looked a bit berserk, strode to the front desk. “Hey, I need to see a sex doctor,” he announced in his outdoor voice.

“We don’t have a doctor today. Just nurses.”

“Well, I gotta see a doc. Tiny bastards are crawling around like crazy. Down there. I think they’re probably crabs from this girl I met.”

“You can’t see a doctor until Monday. If you’d like to see a nurse today, take a seat and do this paperwork — well, actually, it might be better if you stand.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Monday? It’s the weekend. The little suckers will ruin my social life. I’m going to the emergency room.”

The door slammed behind him, and spontaneous laughter exploded around the room. Even the receptionist lost her professional composure and succumbed to the merriment. “Did you hear that? Can you believe it?” we gasped.

In those shared moments of hilarity, we became friends. We continued to chat easily and shared a last chuckle when someone left: “Goodbye, have a good weekend, enjoy your social life,” we said to folks we’d studiously ignored earlier.

As Bram Stoker wrote in Dracula, “It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles. And yet when King Laugh come, he make them all dance to the tune he play. Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burn as they fall, all dance together to the laughter that he make…”

We can laugh as well as we ever did, laugh fully and joyously until the day we die; and when we do, tears will be balanced by laughter at our funerals.

Thoughts on Sunday 

I awoke late at night to a crescendo of crickets and a surge of fever. Mussed bedding trapped my limbs. Pain entangled my dreams. I heard a whimper and wondered who was crying. A shadowed presence appeared at my bedside, palmed hair from my forehead, freed my legs from sodden sheets, soothed until I slept.

My mother’s touch that fevered night formed my earliest memory. Later, when I was thirteen, Mom shaped the direction of my life.

We were the featured speakers during a Dear to My Heart night for mothers and daughters of our church. I don’t remember what I said in my tribute to Mom, but I do remember fussing endlessly with my bangs, gluing them in place with Brylcreem and hair spray, more concerned with my appearance than my words.

But I have a hand-written copy of Mom’s speech. She began with startling news: “Janet, from the moment I first held your warm, perfect body in my arms and gloated over your dark, curly ducktails — I actually had a baby with hair! — you’ve been a source of joy and delight to the entire family.”

The entire family? Even Bob?? Did they vote?

Later, another surprise: “I enjoy leaving your younger sister and brothers in your care. Even if the dishes are sketchily done and the furniture pushed awry, I know the little ones will be well cared for and also have fun with the games and stories you create for them. You’d be a good teacher, Janet.”

With those words, she directed me toward my future.

Mom made my heart soar that night; then, driving home, she returned me to reality. “Janet, we have to do something about those shaggy bangs stuck to your nose. When we get home, I’m cutting them. You look like a greasy Shetland pony.” Amused at the accuracy of her description, she giggled, and, despite myself, I chuckled with her.

When Mom was seventy-seven, I spent a week with her in Wyoming. Most of the time we talked. But other times I sat with a book in my lap and watched her sleep in a recliner; her hands unusually idle in the middle of the day. Soft window light bathed her lined face, and her breath seemed slow and faint.

Not wanting to bother her children, she admitted to heart problems, but told us her medicine and pacemaker helped. As I sat near her, watching her drift in and out of sleep, I refused to recognize the truth.

She died seven months later. With time, I recovered from the emotional turmoil of her death, funeral and burial — a poignant week I walked through with my father and siblings, united by our grief and love.

Then began the long-term ache of her absence.

Over a year later, in Carson City, Nevada, I absentmindedly drove a street of golden leaves let fall by tired trees. My neck tight with stress, I worried personal choices, professional puzzles, a life littered with busyness. Then I saw a woman who reminded me of myself: face beginning to age, flowing skirt and heels working-woman high. Her head inclined, she walked slowly toward a nursing home, tenderly holding the frail arm of a stooped, white-haired woman. Their smiles were identical.

As I watched, they paused and commented above a bed of purple asters. Without warning, my heart collapsed like a butterfly caught in a net, and I mourned: I never walked my mother through her decline; I lived far away, thought I’d have time; others were there. And she died so quickly.

I grieved that I hadn’t taken the time for more memory-making moments with her.

Sunday, I experienced the same regret.