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A Pair About Shoes by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Shoes

/ Stories

Well, since this is a prompt about shoes, I figured that a pair of stories would be fitting. The first one is an excerpt from my book.

The Red Shoes

They were fire-engine red. Cherries in the snow red, million-dollar red; movie star pouty lips, just like on Mad Men red—an I-mean-business red. They had a high heel with narrow patent and suede strips arched diagonally across the toe. Sexy and fun to wear: my kind of shoe. I had two red dresses and a red straw hat. Red from head to toe.

I loved those shoes. Eventually, because of a few scuffs they acquired at parties and weddings, the shoes needed polishing. I like to polish shoes and probably don’t do it often enough. I learned from my dad but may not have been paying really close attention. I bought some red shoe polish, and after scanning the directions on the little jar, I applied the polish and let it dry.

Big mistake.

Nasty-looking streaks of dark red defaced my once glorious shoes.  They looked horrible. I was determined to save them. I had to take action.

My next step was to take my streaky, smeared, no longer fabulous-looking shoes to a repair shop, with the hope that a professional shoe person could restore them to their former flashy glory. “Sure,” the guy said. “I can re-dye them and they will look like new. No problem.” I left my shoes and awaited their rebirth the following week.

I returned to the repair shop, fished out my ticket, and reclaimed my shoes. What I saw made my jaw drop. The dull, tomato soup-colored shoes he handed me were listless and pathetic, the life and sparkle painted right out of them. My once ruby slippers belonged back in Kansas. I took them home, like sick kittens huddled in a box.

Now, I am not one of those women who hide price tags and pretend that new clothes are old to fool their husbands. I had spent a fair amount of money on the red shoes, a fact I am sure I mentioned to my husband, but maybe not. What I did next was underhanded, sneaky and motivated by pure vanity: I took money from our savings account, drove to Nordstrom and bought the shoes again. I quietly disposed of the dreadful dyed pair, and never mentioned the switch. Why would I? My shoes and I were back in the swing at parties and dinners and weddings. In between events, they had a place of honor in my closet. Just seeing them every day gave me a lift.

I hadn’t counted on losing them again.

***

On October 20, 1991, our house burned to the ground. Nothing survived the firestorm.

The way I remember it, my husband and I were driving through Oakland on the way back to his parents’ house when I told him about the shoes. This was a couple of days after we knew the house was gone. While we like to tell stories now about our first reactions, the ones that sound light-hearted and optimistic (“We finally got rid of the junipers out front,” or “We’ll rebuild and get bigger closets”), and it’s true, we said those things to each other—it’s also true we said other things you don’t say often enough when life is going along just fine: You know how much I love you, I know I can always depend on you, you’re being so strong for all of us, we’ll make it through this, we hold each other up– we always have.

And as we drove past the blackened hills of what used to be our neighborhood, I confessed through gulping sobs that I had bought a second pair of red shoes with money I had spirited out of our savings account. It hardly mattered at that point, but I told him anyway. I was sorry for my carelessness, sorry for the deception, sorry for such vanity, sorry for all of it.

One of my friends, knowing the extent of our loss from the fire, expressed her sympathy and then cried out, “Your shoes!” I know, I know. I had lots of great shoes. All gone.  I tried to keep things in perspective: we survived, we could start over, it could have been so much worse. Who thinks to grab red shoes when she’s running from a firestorm? It didn’t even enter my mind.

Those red shoes belong to another lifetime. Even if I could still find them, would I buy them again?  I will admit to being superstitious: what if the third time was not the charm? Would I spend the rest of my life sniffing the air for smoke?

 

And now, the mate:

Shoes Dyed to Match

When I was growing up, it was the mark of a special outfit if you got shoes dyed to match. You’d go to Leed’s, the inexpensive shoe store at the mall, with a swatch of your dress, or the dress itself, and let the man behind the counter find the right color to dye your white satin flats, or—when you got older—your peau de soie heels.

You would come back the following week to pick them up, and there would be your transformed white shoes—reborn in just the right color.

Several years ago, when my younger son got married, I chose a mother-of-the groom dress in an impossible to match shade of green. After striking out trying to find just the right pair in several shoe departments, I went online and ordered a pair of heels in an ivory satin, perfect for a dye job. I called around to shoe repair shops and finally found a place across the Bay in San Francisco that might be able to dye them. I gambled on the outcome and won: the shoes were beautifully dyed a lighter shade of the color of my dress, which was good enough for me.

 

My first pair of dyed to match shoes were satin flats the same color of the satin trim on the lace dress I wore to my older sister’s bat mitzvah. My dress was sky blue with short sleeves and a full skirt; narrow satin bands at the waist were a darker hue, that of my favorite crayon color: cornflower. On this special occasion, I got to wear real stockings—not ankle socks like a little kid. I also wore this outfit on my last day of sixth grade, when my mother let me borrow (without permission) my sister’s coveted pair of pantyhose.

The second pair of shoes I got dyed were a bright yellow, to go with another dress—white lace, with a canary yellow lining that showed through. It was a sleeveless A-line that looked like two pieces—skirt and sleeveless top—but was really only one. The good part about this dress was that the top hung away from me a little bit, hiding the fact that I did not (and never would) have a tiny waist. The shoes had what is called a “kitten heel”: a short stiletto heel, back in vogue today. (Back then, they were like training wheels for girls deemed by their parents to be too young to wear high heels.)

One advantage of getting shoes you can dye is that you can dye them more than once. The canary yellow kitten heels later matched my favorite summertime treat: the bright orange of a Creamsicle. I had made an orange wool A-line dress that cried out for matching shoes, so I took the yellow ones back to Leed’s for a do-over.

During my junior year of high school, I wore my orange dress and shoes to a dance with a friend named Bill. Even though I had an older boyfriend who lived far away, when Bill called to invite me he sounded so desperate that I said yes. What he invited me to was The Snowball Dance, a winter semi-formal put on by the local chapter of DeMolay, which is the youth group for young men connected with the Masons— an organization Bill hated. But his parents insisted he attend—with a date. He counted on me to be a good sport, I guess.

When Bill showed up at my door in a suit and tie, I panicked. Was this a formal and he had neglected to tell me? Just like a guy, I thought. I was not particularly dressed up, even though my shoes did match my dress. And I had accessorized with my boyfriend’s gaudy black and gold high school ring, just to make sure Bill understood the situation. I clearly understood my role in this scenario: the girl is supposed to make the boy feel okay about himself even though she feels like the victim of a bait and switch and was probably his third choice for a date anyway. I mean, I had a boyfriend so this was a favor I could easily do for a friend in need; noblesse oblige, after all. Although, in retrospect, this boyfriend was not so great (he was a frequently morose fellow who lived six hours away), he had somehow managed to sweep me off my feet the previous summer and I was being true.  So following a brief awkward introduction to my parents, Bill and I drove off in his mom’s station wagon, both of us gamely determined to make the best of it.

When we arrived at the dance, which was held in a large hall in downtown Oakland, the evening was already in full swing. The room had been decorated with glittering symbols of winter, none of which actually feature in Oakland’s mild Decembers: snowflakes, Christmas trees, and snowmen sparkled under twinkling lights. Some girls wore long dresses and had their hair in updos, and some were less dressed up, but all were clearly there to see and be seen. It was unlike any high school dance I had ever been to: fancy, formal, excessively festive. No one else wore orange. Because who wears orange to a Snowball Dance?

We did not stay long. I think we may have danced one dance together just so he could say we did if his parents asked. When the dance was over, he looked at me, I looked back at him…we rolled our eyes and made a beeline for the exit.

After we left, Bill drove us up to the top of the Berkeley hills, where you can see the bridges and the city lights of San Francisco: a classic make-out spot. We ended up in a big parking lot overlooking the city of Berkeley. He turned off the ignition and seemed to collect his thoughts. I wondered if he was planning to make some kind of move. I didn’t think he was going to pounce, but I had been fooled before by nice guys who took the first opportunity to lunge and put their hands or tongues where they were not welcome. I twisted the heavy ring on my finger and held my breath. He turned to look at me, and finally asked, “Would you like to drive?”

Relieved that I was not going to have to put up a fight or remind Bill that I was spoken for, I said yes, sure, I would like to. He knew I didn’t have my license or even my permit yet, but so what?  We switched places and I took the wheel. He clutched the passenger side door handle as I careened around on the asphalt. I did a few donuts in the parking lot, excited to feel safe, free, and level orange dangerous.

This date turned out to be more fun than I had imagined: a mismatched pair of misfit kids, going in circles and laughing our heads off.

A bonus: if you haven’t heard “High Heel Blues,” put your feet up and listen!

Here’s to Life by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Final Farewell

/ Stories

” I want  lots of roses,” my sister said.

This was the first time she directly spoke about the inevitability of her death, acknowledging that some kind of farewell or celebration would be held for her. And she had a few ideas.

I grabbed a note pad and we started planning what would become a heartfelt, memorable, and musical celebration of her life. She was all about list-making, so I made a list of who she wanted to speak, which musicians she wanted to play, possible locations for the event, and a play list of tunes. We planned as much as we could together, but then she ran out of energy and the focus shifted to making sure she was comfortable. I think she felt assured that I could carry out her plans.

 

The night before my sister died, I had a conversation with a friend who was the Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. My sister had volunteered in the garden there for many years. I told my friend that we had begun planning a celebration of life, and my sister wondered if we could hold it in Fairyland’s amphitheater. Without a moment’s hesitation, my friend said of course we could. We didn’t know how timely this conversation would be.

My sister died in May, but events like the one she wanted take time to plan. And a delay gave me and my family time to process the tremendous loss. There were so many details to attend to first. Keeping busy and checking things off a list couldn’t offset the grief, but I found it made me feel better as I carried out my sister’s wishes.

I wanted to make sure my daughter, her favorite (and only) niece, could fly out from New York to be part of the celebration. We settled on a date in August, with enough time to find musicians, book a caterer, and create a program to reflect the life she’d lived.

I started thinking about how to make this event something people would be able to participate in, along with granting my sister’s wish for “lots of roses.” Because Fairyland is closed in the evenings, we had to have someone posted at the front entrance to make sure the people coming in were there for the service. So I asked everyone to bring a rose to make it clear they were invited guests. I purchased some large green vases (plastic because glass isn’t allowed in the park), and was lucky enough to have two friends volunteer to carefully place each rose in a vase as people filed into the amphitheater. By the time everyone was seated, all the vases at the edge of the stage were full of bright, beautiful flowers. She would’ve loved it.

My husband had the task of lining up the musicians, several of whom were friends. The drummer is a guy we went to high school with and has had a long professional career, but also knew my sister. In addition, we had a vocalist, a keyboard player, a saxophone player, and a bassist. Among the tunes my sister requested were: “People,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,”  “Here’s to Life”  and “Fly Me to the Moon.” I added “It’s Easy to Remember and So Hard to Forget,” which had been one of our dad’s favorites, and one of mine too because it reminds me of him.

My older son took on the duty of emcee, since he’s very much at home performing in front of crowds. Our speakers included my cousin, my husband, a high school friend, a long-time friend and former housemate, my three children, another long-time friend who stood in for the rabbi to read something in Hebrew, and me. It was a long lineup for people who were seated on concrete steps, but no one really complained (at least, not to me!).

I had hired a friend of my son’s to be stage manager and she was essential in making sure all the details were taken care of: coordinating with the tech people, the caterers, the musicians, the videographer–and keeping me from fretting about everything. I couldn’t have pulled it off without her!

My artistic daughter-in-law produced a lovely program that featured some photos, the cast of characters, a blessing I  found somewhere, and the lyrics of “Here’s to Life.” There were roses on the program too.

 

 

At the beginning of the service, my son asked everyone to turn to the person sitting next to them and ask how they knew my sister. It was her legacy, she said, to have connected so many people–and it’s true: she had a knack for getting people together and having them become not just her friends, but friends with each other.I wish I could’ve heard what they were saying as even more connections were made.

As the end of the celebration grew near, the stage manager gave a sign to my son; she could sense that the seats were getting a little hard for our guests. As soon as I finished my remarks, he thanked everyone for coming and invited them to continue telling stories and sharing memories with each other at the reception. The caterer (also a friend of my sister’s) and I planned the menu to include some of her favorite dishes from catering gigs she’d helped with over the years.

The musicians played “Fly Me to the Moon,” as people filed out toward the reception area. My son held out his hand, and led me into a dance. I danced with both of my boys, as I had at their weddings–a joyful way to wrap up a celebration of my sister’s life. She would have loved all of it.

So here’s to a life well lived:

Susie Elkind

April 9,1949-May 22, 2015

Boustrophedonic Musings by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Brain Games

/ Stories

What does plowing a field have to do with knitting, one may ask. The answer: As knitters know, when knitting an intarsia pattern one reads the pattern from right to left, and in the following row from left to right. This type of writing/notation is known as boustrophedon.

The word originates from the Greek: as the ox plows, down one row in a field and up the next. If you have ever mowed a lawn, unless you went freestyle, you would follow a boustrophedonic method of getting it done. I have both mowed lawns and knitted pictures or patterns in this way. Although we normally read from left to right, knitters don’t think twice about “reading” a pattern the other way as well.

Some of the earliest knitted patterned objects date back to ancient Egypt. Not incidentally, hieroglyphs can be read in both directions. This is an example of a Coptic sock. It’s amazing what people can create with a pair of sticks and some cotton  yarn.

So, is knitting a brain puzzle? I say it is. A puzzle, a math problem, and a test of your patience. It has the effect of engaging both brain and hands and in the end someone gets a pair of socks or a sweater or a nice scarf. With a piece of graph paper and some creative thought, you can make up a pattern to knit, as I did here.

Not to brag, but I did create the universe for this ungrateful child who only wore the sweater once because he thought it was “itchy.” I am happy to report that one of my grandsons is delighted to be wearing it now. Since you start knitting from the bottom and work your way up, I began Earth at Tiera del Fuego and went north from there. This pattern is not to scale. Obviously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If I’m not knitting, I like to do word puzzles. My daily pandemic SIP routine now includes the daily Jumble and a crossword puzzle (the easy kind). I’m also currently playing online Letterpress with my son. It’s a make-words-from-letters game, more cutthroat than Scrabble. I taught my kids how to play Scrabble and Boggle, but now I’m too much of a pushover for them to play with me. Plus, they have young kids and no time for board games at a distance. My older son is a puzzle fanatic and turned me on to a BBC Two quiz show called “Only Connect.” It will blow your mind.

But back to knitting. For me, it’s a craft and a challenge: I look at it both ways.

One more example:

This was a difficult pattern to keep track of. Thank goodness it was only a small baby blanket. It reminded me of seashells and waves and once I got the hang of the complicated pattern, I loved the way it turned out. But paying attention to the stitch count was essential with this one.

One for the little granddaughter because I loved the hearts and flowers. They don’t always come out perfect, but I have learned that I’m only a perfectionist up to a point.

 

 

When the sheltering in place began, I started a blanket for myself–just a small blanket to throw over my legs as I sat on the couch binge-watching whatever. I figured that the blanket, knitted in a circle with a squared-off border, was a big enough project to last me through what I thought would be a rather short period of being confined to the house. I greatly underestimated how long SIP would last. I could’ve made a much bigger blanket had I known I’d still be hanging around here for six months and counting. (Another neat trick of knitting: by dividing the stitches between three or four needles, forming a square or a triangle, one can actually knit a circle, which is how I made my blanket.)

Confusing? Maybe just a little.

So for me, knitting is a puzzle, a math problem, a challenge, and the occasional geometric anomaly. Which is what makes it a good brain exercise.

 

 

My Pink Dress by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Lost and Found

/ Stories

The Pink Dress

None of this was supposed to happen: not finding the dress, not losing the dress, and certainly not finding it again. But that’s what did happen.

 

In the days before you could make online reservations, my husband used the services of a trusted travel agent for his business trips and some personal ones. We never expected this typically reliable agent to somehow forget to confirm a hotel reservation for us on a trip to New York. When we tried to check in, we were told that there was no room at the inn. At least, not for us. After a couple of phone calls back and forth to the agent in San Francisco, we piled our suitcases in a taxi and checked into a different hotel. As a gracious mea culpa, the agent promised us a weekend getaway at a Southern California beach resort. We took him up on this generous offer, and that is how I came to find the pink dress.

One afternoon, we tore ourselves away from sand and sea to wander through the nearby town. I’d spotted a consignment shop on our way to the hotel and thought I might be able to find something to wear to the formal wedding we’d been invited to that winter. “What I’m looking for,” I explained to my husband, “is something somebody wore to the Oscars once.” And once I got inside the shop, I found exactly what I was looking for: a glittery rack crammed with drop-dead beautiful dresses that had definitely been down a red carpet. I didn’t care if these dresses had been worn more than once. I had found the mother lode of cast-off couture.

I tried on a mermaid dress with a tail, a red sequined number, a champagne satin pleated and draped disaster… and then I saw the pink dress. Ballerina pink chiffon, just a whisper of color, slightly gathered skirt with a handkerchief hem, dropped waist circled in pink satin, the sheer sleeves with the same pink satin at the cuffs. A light sprinkling of rhinestones on the bodice added a touch of bling. I fell in love with the dress while it was still on the hanger. Twirling in front of the dressing room mirror, I knew I’d found the right one. Just one problem: it was two sizes too big. But the price was right, so I bought the dress anyway. I figured I could get it altered in plenty of time for the wedding.

Once we got home, I took the dress to a nearby bridal shop. I was sure someone there could take the dress in and shorten the sleeves for me. I tried it on in front of a seamstress who wore her glasses on a chain and had a pincushion on her wrist. She marked the dress, pulled it in and pinned it, and showed me what she would do to make the dress fit just right.

A week later, I went back to the shop and tried on my pink dress again. Perfect: sleeves the correct length, the bodice gently hugging my body, the skirt full and swirly.

I found some pewter heels—not too flashy—just barely silver, the color of the rhinestones when they reflected light, to wear with the dress.

Oh, that lovely pink dress. I wore it twice: once to the wedding in December 1990, and once to a New Year’s Eve party that ushered in 1991. We asked my sister to take our picture before we left her in charge of the kids for the evening so we could attend the wedding. We handed her our old-school, pre-cell phone film camera and she snapped a quick photo. Eventually, the roll of undeveloped film got tossed in a desk drawer and forgotten.

On a lazy Sunday morning in October of 1991, we discovered that our neighborhood was positioned directly in the path of a raging firestorm sweeping down the hills. As we watched, the fire jumped the freeway just miles from our house. When the wind picked up and smoke and ash filled the air, we decided to evacuate and take what we could grab in just a few minutes.  I opened my desk drawer—I really don’t know why— and retrieved a couple of rolls of undeveloped film and stuck them in a pocket before we fled the house ahead of the fire.

Our house, along with 3000 others, burned to the ground that day. Everything we left behind turned to ash.

Months later, after we settled in a temporary home, I took the film in to be developed. There were pictures from our summer vacation, the three kids on the first day of school, a few random family shots.  And one picture of the pink dress. In all the confusion and chaos following the fire, I’d just begun to remember all that was lost. When I saw that picture, I gasped. More precious than I could have imagined:

We are in prom configuration: my husband has his right arm around me; his left hand and my right are joined in front of us. He looks sharp in his tuxedo, bow tie and crisp white shirt.  My hair is in a curly updo, my silvery earrings sparkle, and the light catches in the soft folds of pink satin. My pink dress: diaphanous, ethereal, light as a pair of fairy wings.

 

Second Hand Rose by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Yard Sales

/ Stories

“What in the world will we do with all this stuff?”

Soon after our mother passed away, my sister and I were faced with the daunting task that so many of our generation are dealing with these days: sorting through a lifetime’s accumulation of clothes, jewelry, tchotchkes, and mementos. Drawer after drawer revealed scarves, purses, music boxes, aprons, gloves, shawls, and costume jewelry dating back to the ’50s and even earlier. We found shoeboxes in Mom’s closet that contained the high heels that we wobbled around in when we were little girls– unworn for over forty years. We found the purses dyed or purchased to match the size 5 ½ shoes, all still stacked in their original boxes. Some of the ceramic earrings we remembered from the year we lived in New York; our mother bought them from a street vendor in Greenwich Village in 1958. The orange ones went with the orange wool dress and matching heels.

We had to do something with all of this bounty. Some of the things we kept for ourselves, but we started to think about which of our friends might like this or that necklace or handbag. We doled items out one at a time, but then we came up with the perfect idea: we would put on a “bring your own bag” trunk show, and let our friends choose from the dizzying array of accessories and “what-nots” that filled our mother’s house. Once we decided to put on a give-away party, it helped us categorize the items: keep, give-away or toss. We decided to give our mother’s treasured things a second life, with new owners.

The day before the event, we set everything out on my extended dining room table. But that wasn’t really big enough, so we used chairs and other horizontal surfaces until we found a place for everything. It was an impressive array of stuff. We also set out for display many of the hats that our mother made during her millinery phase throughout the 60’s and 70’s. The hats had all been boxed up in a large closet; her creations of feathers, fur, flowers and straw had not seen the light of day for decades. The hats ranged from “Wow!” to “what was she thinking?” but all together it was quite a body of work.

Mom, wearing one of her flowery hats. We all wore hats to this wedding

The turquoise hat Mom is wearing and my sister’s little pillbox can be seen in the featured photo, on the left. My mom saved everything.

When the big day arrived, our friends walked around the table slowly, taking in each category: the jewelry, the shawls and kimonos, the scarves, hats and knick-knacks. At first, they treated the display as if it were under glass at a museum. But then, someone tried on a necklace or held up a scarf… and the fun began. We were delighted as each of our friends found something special to take, and we encouraged everyone to “try that on!”

Some of our friends brought their daughters, lured by the promise that many of the items were truly vintage. No one went home empty-handed, and more than one person filled a couple of bags.

We tried to tell a story about each piece, so that its new owner could start out knowing some part of its history: Mom bought that in Greece, or Italy, or London; it was a birthday gift or a present she bought for herself, she wore this to the symphony or the theatre.

Many of the women who came to our event have since told us tales about their new/old finery.

A charm bracelet, a beaded evening bag, a pair of earrings, a floaty chiffon wrap–they are enjoying these things as our mother must have.

The handmade wool scarf that was my most recent Hanukkah gift to my mother kept my friend Chris  warm in winter. The antique lace-trimmed velveteen pincushion now resides in England with my friend Debbie– a funny reminder of our shared agony in junior high sewing class. New memories are in the making.

The second lives turned out to be good ones for these treasures. We gave them a great send-off for the next part of their journey.

 

And a sad postscript: After my sister passed away in 2015, I did this again with some of her treasured things. Many of the same friends came to my house to take home a memento. The stories poured out: I gave her this for her  birthday; we shopped for this together in Italy; I was with her when she  bought those earrings…. The mood was very different, though. People were reluctant to take things that had been hers, but they soon got into the spirit of it, knowing that she would’ve wanted them to celebrate the memories and the good times they shared with her. The occasion provided us with an opportunity to share a moment, some laughs, and a few tears. Her memory lives on in each piece of jewelry, every framed photograph, and all the rest.

Letters to my Mother by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Forgiveness

/ Stories

 I wrote a series of letters to my mother around Mother’s Day, ten years after her death: my attempt to get to a place of forgiveness.

 Dear Mom,

I guess we were a mismatch from the beginning. You wanted a boy; you got me: a scabby-kneed tree-climber, a girl who played with mud and tar and snails and ran into the street, who liked make-believe and cartwheels, a messy and free-spirited mischief-maker who tried to make you laugh. You wanted to dress me in hats and gloves, patent leather shoes and dresses, but I was happiest in a tree with a book and a sandwich, or out in the street playing with the boys.

Our troubles began early on, once I showed that I had a mind of my own. And the closer I got to becoming a woman, the more threatened you seemed to be. Even little things— like shaving my legs or shaping my eyebrows or the length of my skirts — turned into a battle of wills. I was the first to get my ears pierced, to smoke dope, to test your limits.

During those years, as I look back on them, it seems clear that you were unstable in a lot of ways. If I hadn’t been so self-absorbed and caught up in the drama of my own teenage life, I might have wondered about your scary mood swings, the way you acted out—even in public—and the ever-growing collection of pill bottles on the kitchen counter. I never thought about how you managed to keep getting prescriptions for pain pills even when there was not a legitimate reason for you to be taking them. As I got older, after years of hearing about your surgeries and maladies, I admit I tuned out most of your “organ recitals.” I didn’t want to get sucked into conversations about your latest constellation of aches and pains. I know you thought it was important for me to appreciate your situation, but I wanted to stay as far away as I possibly could. Illness equaled weakness to me. I wanted to be strong, to leave weakness behind, to block it out. I did not want to see your scars. I had run out of sympathy.

We should have done an intervention; I know that now. Your medical issues and the vast number of painkillers you took were the elephants in the room. If we asked about the way you popped pills, you claimed you only took them when you needed them, but you needed them all the time.

I assume it was sleeping pills you overdosed on, just weeks before my wedding. You insisted you had not intentionally overdosed, but you did. Dad told us you left a note for him.

We had a conversation a few months before you died about the overdose, during a knock-down, drag-out argument about your desire to leave all of your property to my sister. I am sure you remember. You once again denied that you had overdosed. Then I said, “I know you left a note.” I was bluffing, sort of—I had never seen the note, but the look on your face told me I was right. And when I sorted through Dad’s office several months later, I found it: a hand-written note, dated one month before my wedding. It was a big “fuck you” to the three of us, especially to Dad.

I wonder why Dad saved that note. I wonder if he even remembered where he’d left it— in a drawer under a pile of photographs that never made it into an album.  Did he want it to be found after he was gone? Maybe I should have destroyed the note right away, but I didn’t.

Shortly after you recovered from the overdose, you were hospitalized on suicide watch because Dad had to go out of town. I came to see you in the hospital, and you talked me into getting you released against medical advice. I was twenty-one, about to get married, and you pulled me into a confusing and emotionally overwhelming situation. I regret that decision to this day. If I had resisted your tearful pleas to get you out of there, maybe you would have received some counseling to help you face your demons. And maybe Dad should have stayed home.

I am the only person in the family to have been in therapy. I tried to get you to go several times. You claimed you didn’t need it, but you thought everyone else did. I went most recently when our relationship had become toxic, at least to me. I had nowhere else to turn for perspective. So, I betrayed you. I shared your secrets. I talked about the elephants.

I will never forget what the therapist told me: “It sounds like you were an unmothered child.”

After two generations, it stops here.

Maybe you couldn’t help repeating the patterns you were raised with, but I was not like you — I was a different sort of daughter who became a different sort of mother with no desire to carry on the tradition. Still, I’m working all the time to keep on my own path. I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes, but the ones I made were mine.  And I never lied to my kids.

We were a mismatch from the start. Not your fault, not mine. Just the way it was.

*                                  *                                  *

Dear Mom,

Do I miss you? What I miss is the idea of having a mother. It’s not the same thing. Sometimes I miss what I never had, which is different also.

I miss the unconditional love, the attagirls, the don’t you look great and I’m so proud of you and look what you’ve accomplished and never mind those rejections, keep going; and what’s next and isn’t that exciting and I don’t know how you do it and I love your hair that way and you’ve raised terrific children and your husband clearly loves you  after all these years and isn’t it a marvel to have grandchildren, the way they give you hugs sweeter than anything and how wonderful to see your daughter turn into such a good mother and your sons into good fathers, and I’m happy for you, have I told you?

I am saying these things on your behalf because I think you just could not say them. I think and hope and want to believe that you would have said them if you could have. I think you wanted to. As frustrated as I was, and against all odds, I never stopped trying to please you.

It’s almost Mother’s Day and I’m trying to find that forgiving heart.

I want these words to float away until I cannot see them anymore, like a giant balloon. I want them to soar, to fly far away, to fall gently to earth and then disappear.

 

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, Yet Again by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Protests

/ Stories

This piece originally appeared in 2018 for the Student Activism prompt. Now in 2020, once again young activists are taking a leading role in the Black Lives Matter movement, taking it to the streets and the seats of government as a beleaguered nation is forced to face its history of systemic racism while a devastating virus threatens us all. Numbers of the infected and the dead are rising, statues are falling, and my generation has decisions to make about whether and how much we place ourselves on the front lines. Although this piece was inspired by the tragedy of school shootings, kids today are marching in protest about other deaths: we have seen with our own eyes over and over again how young Black men and women have needlessly and tragically lost their lives, and we hear their chants of “I can’t breathe” echoing across the country every day. It may be The Big Fool, or the self-created current swamp some of our feckless leaders are mired in…but pushing on as we are encouraged to do by those who try to gloss over or minimize what’s happening  all over the country will soon reveal the futility of this behavior. We all have skin in this game, no matter what color it is.

 

So here’s the piece from what seems like forever ago:

I’ve been following the young activists today who are taking a leadership role in a fight my generation seemed to have given up on, bringing me back to another time when young people felt both helpless and passionate about a cause. In our day, it was the anti-war movement. What is tragically similar to what those brave, outspoken kids from Parkland and elsewhere are doing, and what kids my age did in 1968 and beyond, is that they also have real skin in the game, which is a tremendous motivating factor. The boys I knew during the Vietnam era had the draft looming over them. They knew they could be drafted and sent to fight an enemy far away in a country we didn’t know much about. Students of draft age took to the streets in protest, feeling helpless no more.

The kids today have always known about school shooters and young men (always young men) with guns coming to do them harm. Their skin in the game today is literal. There is no enemy far away in a country they don’t know much about. The enemy is in your English class, or maybe at the lab table next to you or across from your PE locker. It’s real. And for years, we, the adults, for the most part have felt helpless to make any changes to the law as it pertains to gun ownership. For the most part, we have felt helpless, though our hearts break over the senseless deaths of children in a place that should be a safe haven.

I applaud the actions of the teenagers across this country. I’ll stand in solidarity with them as they take the lead.

We’ve been waist deep in the big muddy for far too long.

 

 

It’s up to all of us to make sure we don’t let the Big Fool lead us further into the big muddy. Enough.

 

 

Performed by Tom Morello and Taj Mahal

The Mowing of Summer Lawns by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By My Hometown

/ Stories

Imagine a summer day on Humphrey Avenue in Richmond, California—a wide street in a quiet neighborhood, a place where kids can stay out and play until their parents call them in for dinner.  If I listen, I can still hear the sounds.

At dinner time, dads cup their hands around their mouths and call their kids home.

If you were awake early enough, you could hear the milkman’s truck pull up in front of your house. You would hear the clanking of metal meeting glass as he took away the empties and left milk, butter, buttermilk, or cream for the week.

Early birds: nothing fancy or exotic, just regular robins and wrens chirping from the tops of the two walnut trees in our backyard: two short notes, then a long one. The trees’ branches whoosh and sway in the wind, making a rushing sound, a long shhhhhhhh.

My father hung a hammock between those trees, one of my favorite places to hide with a book. The ropes chafe against the solid trunks as I rock. We have a wooden bench swing in our backyard too. Its metal chains groan as kids pile on and shriek when we get it moving.

Backyard batting practice near the hammock. Not with a bat, exactly.

Summer days mean the ice cream truck coming slowly down the street, blaring a tune over and over as it snakes its way through the neighborhood.  The truck’s clarion calliope call draws all the kids to the curb, whether our moms will let us buy anything or not. Does it play “Turkey in the Straw” or something else? “Pop Goes the Weasel”? We can hear the notes from blocks away—plenty of time to run into the house and beg for change.  Jump ropes thwack the sidewalks as the girls on the block gather around to chant singsong lyrics—Ice Cream Soda Delawarey Punch, or Not Last Night but the Night Before— until someone misses and the singing stops and the next girl jumps in. The sounds get louder and faster when someone does “hots.” Or the ropes slap down in double time if you have good enough jumpers and turners to do double dutch.  “A my name is Alice and I come from Alabama. My husband’s name is Al and we sell anchors…” “Charlie Chaplin went to France to teach the girls the hootchie cootchie dance…” “Fudge, fudge, call the judge, mama’s got a brand-new baby.” The songs never change; the elders teach the young ’uns and so it goes as we all grow up. One potato, two potato to see who goes first at jacks or hopscotch.

Kids scoot down the street on red-trimmed Flexie Racers, or pull younger siblings around in a red wagon; playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes flap as boys speed by in the street, and some kid yelling “ollie ollie oxen free” signals the end of  hide and seek. You cry, “I got it” or “Mine!” when a fly ball is your catch, playing baseball in the street at dusk. Crickets on a calm night.

At dinner time, dads cup their hands around their mouths and call their kids home.

 

Richmond was a factory town during WWII—the Kaiser shipyards, Rosie the Riveter, victory ships—and there are still factories like Standard Oil and others sending plumes of white steam into the sky.

Real Rosies at the Richmond shipyards

A whistle sounds at noon, but only on certain days: a siren that that starts out low and reaches a crescendo and I can never tell where it comes from.

Airplanes frequently zoom overhead, bound for the San Francisco airport or points east. The sound of an airplane during a rainstorm always comforts me. I think, if the plane is up and stays up, even in a storm, everything must be alright.

I love to hear trains going by in the quiet part of the night. My house isn’t near the tracks, but the sound carries so well you can hear the wheels clicking on the tracks and the plaintive blast of the whistle.

Then there is the hissing of summer lawns, or rather, the mowing of summer lawns. The rows of metal blades on the cylinder, rotating faster, make a particular sound—not metallic, sort of a whirring noise, with shorter intervals when the person pushing it gets to the edge and does shorter strokes—like the soft, snoring sounds of a restless sleeper.

We hang our laundry on a clothesline, wheeling out the wet clothes in a muslin hamper that has a pocket for wooden clothespins. We clip the pins onto the line, attaching each damp article firmly to its neighbor. On a windy day, the sheets snap and flap, straining against the wooden pins. And when the clothes are dry, we take the pins off, dropping them back into the pocket where they softly clatter against the rest.

Baseball on the radio: Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons, calling the Giants games with long lingering pauses between cracks of the bat and the noise of the crowd. Hour after hour on KSFO, all summer and into fall, these two voices, making jokes I don’t understand, deep plummy voices rising with excitement during a close play or a “bye, bye baby” home run.

And the most memorable sound from those days: my father playing the piano, his fingers sliding easily over the keys for hours, like Tatum, like Shearing, like himself. Gershwin, Carmichael, Arlen, Porter, and of course, Rogers and Hart: It’s all “It’s Easy to Remember, and So Hard to Forget.”

The sounds of summer days, a long time ago, in my hometown.

Martha My Dear by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Chance Encounters

/ Stories

As they say in the movies, we met cute. My husband and I were flying home from a trip to San Diego, sitting across the aisle from each other the way we do. We had flown down south to take his Aunt Bette to lunch to celebrate her 80th birthday.  It’s the only way I can pinpoint when I met Martha—November of 2003.

"It was bashert," she used to say, using the Yiddish word for destiny

The plane was crowded, and the middle seat to my right was taken up by a small, pleasant, gray-haired lady. During the flight I took out several pages of a manuscript I had promised to look at for a friend. The work was dreadful, and I am sure I groaned and sighed as I slashed away at it with a pen.

The lady next to me leaned over and asked, “Is that a manuscript?”

I looked up and answered, “Yes. And it’s terrible.”

She said, “Is it yours?”

I laughed and said no,

“But are you a writer?” she asked.

 

Well, I fancied myself to be a writer, since at that time I’d had a few things published in the San Francisco Chronicle and other places. “I’m a writer too,” she said. At the time, she was well into her 80s. As we talked, she told me she had grown up in Berkeley, graduated from Berkeley High, and then from Cal around the same time as my father-in-law, in 1941. She had written a couple of books and had a regular column in the Modesto Bee called “Our Turn.”

          One of Martha’s books

We compared notes on our publications, exchanged emails and business cards and agreed to stay in touch.

And we did. We had a lively correspondence via email over the years. I wrote to her in 2007 about my daughter’s first pregnancy. “You’re much too young to be a grandmother!” she wrote. We shared many joys –both personal and professional–and shared family photos as well. She sent me links to things she thought I would be interested in and I did the same for her.

I also wrote to her about the deaths of my father-in-law and my mother within a few months of each other. I told her about weddings, graduations, births, and other life events that you share with your friends. She wrote back congratulations, condolences, mazel tovs and encouragements, and filled me in on her many travels and visits with family. She did not sit still much, except to write. And she wrote a lot. She began teaching a class to “seniors” on memoir writing, and we exchanged ideas for her students to try. I sent her something I had written, based on a poem, and she immediately borrowed the idea for her class.

She expressed her delight when I returned to grad school for my MFA. She wanted to hear all about it. Along the way, I asked her to contribute to the empty nesters anthology I was working on and she sent in a lovely piece about what it was like when her twin boys went off to college. And I realized when she sent in her bio for the book that she had started her “second career” as a writer in 1985, when she was 65 years old!  She was also delighted when I gave her a copy of the book and showed her what I had written in the acknowledgments:

“My deepest thanks to Martha Loeffler, a wonderful role model–both as a writer and as a human being. I’m so glad we met over a manuscript on a crowded plane.”

We re-told that story many times. Martha even wrote about it in a piece on the unusual ways she had met three special friends. I was one of the three. She ends with, “So here’s a rare salute to crowded airplanes: Thanks for letting me meet Risa!”

In her second collection of essays from the Bee, she included some advice for a new mom I had asked her to contribute as part of a little book I put together for my daughter’s baby shower. Here’s a picture of me holding my newborn granddaughter accompanying the piece in Martha’s book.

Even though I am the same age as her two sons, Martha and I were more like girlfriends who share a love of family, a good story, and writing. Reading over our old emails, I can feel the love and support she never failed to include. “We write about the same things!” she told me once, when I sent her a piece about my dad. I felt the same way about her writing.

I drove to Modesto to see her number of times. She showed me her home office and took me to lunch. She insisted on driving and paying, every time. Would not hear of my picking up the tab or chauffeuring her around.

Over time, I noticed that our email correspondence had lapsed. I sent her a couple of short “how are you?” notes and did not hear back.  I called her house and got a strange voicemail message.

I tracked down one of her sons and spoke with him. He asked me a few questions (we had never met, and I wasn’t sure he’d recognize my name as a friend of his mom’s) and then he told me that she had begun showing signs of dementia. I mentioned my latest emails, and he told me, sadly, that she was not on her computer anymore. I asked if it was OK to call. He said he thought if I identified myself a few times, she would possibly remember me.

So I did call. It took a while, but after repeating the airplane story, I could hear the old excitement in her voice. “How’s the family?” she asked. And asked again moments later. It was a short conversation, but I wanted to believe we had connected in some way. She sounded like her cheerful self on the phone, if a bit confused.

Martha and I both have November birthdays, one week apart. I always thought of her and what she meant to me at that time of year. One morning around our birthdays in 2013, I started to write again to her son. I was aghast to see that it had been almost a year since we had spoken, since I’d talked to Martha. But before I hit “send” with my gentle inquiry about his mother, I typed her name into a new search box. Martha’s father had lived past 100, after all. Still…

 

And that is how I learned she had died the year before, in December of 2012.

I called my husband at work in tears. I could barely get out the words to tell him Martha died and I hadn’t known. I felt waves of grief as I remembered that fateful day we met on the plane. It was bashert, she used to say, using the Yiddish word for destiny, that she and I would meet and become friends thanks to a terrible manuscript.

I consider myself lucky to have had dear Martha in my life for as long as I did. I treasure the memory of the years our lives were intertwined through our shared love of family and of writing.

 

That’s Life by
50
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Magazines

/ Stories

As a kid, I was always eager to leaf through an issue of LIFE. At a doctor’s office or a friend’s house or even off the rack in a store, I loved looking at the covers, the photographs inside and the stories of, well, life in the wider world. My family didn’t subscribe, so I had to hunt down issues to look at. Before LIFE, it was comic books, so my tastes expanded past Archie and Katie Keene at some point.

The photographs in LIFE captured powerful moments, whether the subjects were soldiers, politicians, athletes, poets and writers, Hollywood stars, or everyday people.

When I was in elementary school, I had the same teacher for three years in a combined class of 4th, 5th and 6th graders. It was an experiment at my school and a huge challenge for the teacher, although Mrs. Brown never let us see her sweat. One of her assignments (and one I always looked forward to) was to have us line up and flip through a stack of pictures she’d cut out of a magazine (LIFE, probably), choose one picture, and then go back to our seats to write a story using the picture as a prompt. We were given the chance to read them out loud in front of everyone. At least one kid in her class entertained thoughts of becoming a writer as a result of this opportunity. It was my favorite assignment of all time.

What did I love most about this magazine? The photographs that captured powerful moments, whether the subjects were soldiers, politicians, athletes, poets and writers, Hollywood stars, or everyday people. I must’ve been attracted to the way a picture can take you in, while giving you a chance to absorb the tiny details or the expressions on the faces. The pictures of animals could be powerful too, or funny if caught at the right moment. And that’s another thing: the humor in a goofy image, whether a person appeared to have two heads or no head or something. Babies in pots! I kept reading as I got older

The pictures in the magazine also showed what scenes of war and disaster looked like, through up close and graphic images. Unlike the brief nightly glimpses of what was happening in Vietnam, the photographs in LIFE told a larger truth.

Then there was the series by Lennart Nilsson, with images of the human embryo. If you saw those pictures, you probably still remember what they look like, floating against a black, starry background. In the 60th anniversary issue of the magazine, one of his pictures is included, with this quotation: “Maybe it starts with a kiss” (Lennart Nilsson, answering the question “When does life begin?”).

Another wonderful picture, called The Walk to Paradise Garden, was taken by W. Eugene Smith. This image was published in LIFE in 1953, then appeared in The Family of Man exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955. There is joy, mystery and sweetness to this picture; the back story is one of triumph and confidence restored. Not knowing any of this, however, doesn’t take anything away from the magical quality of this picture. (I also have a copy of The Family of Man, replacing the well-thumbed copy I’d had before the fire.) I just love everything about this one.

Looking through old issues of the magazine–which belonged to my in-laws, who saved a pile of them– brought back some favorite memories and some of the more poignant events of my lifetime. (My husband wanted to save this box full of copies and I’m not sorry, even though they are pretty musty.)

LIFE magazine published its last issue on December 29, 1972. After that, there were several The Year in Pictures and other special commemorative issues. I just might be convinced to keep the ones we have, now that I have experienced the joy of looking through them again.

 

Today we are bombarded from all sides with images. It’s hard to absorb them all. And maybe the truth gets lost in the way we can filter, crop and Photoshop what we see. In many ways, LIFE was simpler. Sure, it reflected a perspective, but it allowed any reader to look at the events happening in the world and either linger or turn the page. I learned so much from those pages about current events, history, and the lives of the rich and famous. As a dreamy, wannabe writer, LIFE’s pages allowed me to travel and dream and make up my own stories.

 

In case you couldn’t tell, the photo montage on the cover of the 60th Anniversary issue is the face of the one and only Marilyn, who graced the cover of LIFE six times during her lifetime.

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