Everyone Should Have a Tall Uncle

Everyone Should Have a Tall Uncle.

It’s true.

Of course there are the obvious reasons. In case you need to reach something on a high shelf, or perhaps their shoulders provide a perfectly unobstructed view in a large crowd.

But there are less obvious reasons too.

It makes a kid feel important when a tall uncle, complete with a resonant baritone and cowboy boots, acknowledges them. And not only acknowledges them, but acts surprisingly okay about being paired with them, despite a substantial and almost comical height difference, in a fiercely competitive three-legged race. Declaring with certainty that they had victory in the bag. (And they did.)

It makes a teenager bordering on the edge of adulthood feel relieved when her tall uncle and his wife travel long distance on short notice for her father’s funeral. This kid/adult notices how her distraught mother, now a widow, is innately soothed by her tall brother’s presence as she prepares to put her husband to eternal rest. “I think I should sit between you and my brother,” her mother tearfully announces. The 19-year-old nods in agreement. She’s trying to be helpful, but she’s kind of a confused mess herself, so she is especially thankful for the tall uncle’s commanding presence as well. Somehow, just him being there makes everyone feel like we will get through this mournful event.

It makes a young wife feel amusement observing her husband’s reaction to her tall uncle’s interactions. The young woman’s father departed this life so many years ago her husband never had a chance to meet him. She has no older brothers. She feels a reaffirmation of love and a rush of satisfaction observing her husband in “stand down” mode, out of patriarchal respect to his superior. Her tall uncle never breaks character as he instructs her husband to grab a beer, and together they quietly stand and watch old videotaped footage of her tall uncle’s beloved Winnebago burning. One of the saddest days of her tall uncle’s life. Her husband responds with just the right amount of interest and sympathy to be considered masculine and win the tall uncle’s approval. Her husband watches this video with rapt attention in it’s monotonous entirety until the bitter end. Her husband wouldn’t do this for just anybody. But he does for the tall uncle.

It makes a woman bordering on middle age, now a mother herself, feel like she can finally see a glimmer of healing after her mother, the tall uncle’s sister, has suddenly died. The entire family has gathered for a memorial service, and it is finally giving the woman some much-needed closure. Later, the tall uncle requests a small fireside gathering of family, where no one really speaks of the enormous loss we are grappling with. We are mainly all taking comfort in being together in a warm room on a cold evening. Eventually the time draws near for the group to disband, and as the woman prepares to leave, the tall uncle breaks down in tears. The woman is initially surprised. Her tall uncle once laughed quite hard at one of her silly jokes, and to this day she never knew if he found it truly funny, or was just being nice, or maybe had too much to drink. Regardless, his laughter infected the entire table and she felt like a rock star. But she never imagined she and the tall uncle would ever be weeping about anything together. She couldn’t even imagine this tower of strength weeping about anything at all. “I guess this is what it really means to grieve,” she thought to herself, as the tall uncle and his niece shed tears together for exactly the same reason.

Now the tall uncle is gone. And just for the record, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a tall uncle replacement when you are 54 years of age. Well, I suppose one can find almost anything online, but that’s not the type of relationship I’m looking for! I will have to content myself with the memories, as we all must. As anybody who has lost someone meaningful must.

We don’t get over it, we somehow get on with it. Live in the moment. Savor all the details. Smile at the little things. And the tall things too.

Picnic race.jpeg

Remember the Alamo?

Prompted by finding an old photo of my children in front of the Alamo, I recently recaptured the details of that “Shit-Show in San Antonio” in a funny Facebook post, to honor my dear friend Robin on her birthday.

That’s right. I didn’t send her a gift, so my literary stroll down Memory Lane was the cheapskate’s way out, although I’m betting she still liked it more than a new pair of socks. Okay, more than a new pair of socks, but less than a gift card to Lululemon.

To get the words flowing on the blank screen, I first needed to pinpoint what year this madcap road trip took place. Nothing was written on the back of the photo. Thankfully the familiar outline of the Alamo itself was in the background, so I could at least be certain of where we were.

My mother tried to be organized about writing dates and names on the back of photographs. Only when a photograph seemed significant was this rule ignored. Indeed, you can be sure that if there was a snapshot of my dad on the riding lawnmower, the back of the photo would read “Dad on the riding lawnmower.” But if you had no idea who the person was in an old photograph, or where it was taken, or what special event the photo was intended to capture, you’d probably be SOL.

Thankfully, my memory is still intact enough to recognize most of the subjects and circumstances in photos taken during my lifetime. Which is good, because I rarely write any helpful information on the back, being equal parts eager to believe my memory will stay sharp as a tack forever, and lazy. Seriously though, three kids combined with the advent of digital cameras and iPhones lead to way too many photos to thoroughly document.

My first daughter’s scrapbook contains more details than anyone really wants to know, and then all documentation abruptly drops off, almost to the day my second daughter arrived a mere 19 months later. We’ve been wingin it ever since.

Back to the Alamo photo. I tried eyeball-estimating sizes and ages to discern when this trip occurred. But the moment I asked myself this question, the rest of the details fell into place like a toddler’s jigsaw puzzle:  was this before or after Mom’s death? Mom’s passing was a giant dividing line if you broke my life down into segments. Just like BC and AD, I guess you could say my life was MA or MD, Mother Alive or Mother Deceased.

I quickly answered my own question:   This trip took place before Mom’s death. Believe me, I wasn’t taking my kids on any glorious road trips to the San Antonio Riverwalk with hilarious gal pals and their kids for a long, swampy stretch after losing my Mom. Life was more like day after day of Operation:  Keep Your Head Above Water.

Once everything had been put into context,  I was able to clearly recall that this road trip had taken place in March of 2003, during Marin’s Spring Break week from Kindergarten. I instantly remembered that a few days after we returned, my Mom arrived for a visit at our home in Austin.

I inherited my fondness for road trips from both of my parents. Even at 81 years of age, Mom loved to take her old Cadillac out on the open road and drive it, over 250 miles from her home in Shreveport, to visit us. This would be her final visit to our home in Austin, although we had no idea of that at the time.

Fifteen years later, it intrigues me me to note how her death still affects me in so many random ways. For example, the Alamo photo…how non-related calendar events are suddenly redefined, all according to the way a disastrous event unfolded later in that same year. I had to pause and reflect on her last visit to Austin after finding that Alamo photo and realizing it’s significance. How I wished I could have known it was her last visit ever. Of course we’re not supposed to know these things. I’m sure, had I known, it would have driven her crazy. I probably wouldn’t have let her out of my sight long enough to even take a shower.

It’s like the theme of this blog:  With motherloss, you never get over it, but you somehow get on with it. Somehow, I was able to sit at my computer and type prolifically, despite the weighty reminder of how that San Antonio girls’ trip essentially marked the beginning of a long list of “Lasts.” I have no choice but to get on with it. Out of the ashes rose a pretty cool phoenix.

So, without further ado,

 

The Shit-Show in San Antonio

Back in 2003, Robin and I came up with the great idea of taking our combined pack of young, energetic children on an overnight trip to San Antonio. This was back in the day when any sort of adventure was exciting to them, never balking at visiting a destination that was beach-less or not in Europe, or, God forbid, deemed “educational.” John and Guy were both out of town, so we decided, even though our girls were all under six years of age, that we could tackle this unassisted. If memory serves, Theresa Young was supposed to join us, driving up from Corpus Christi with her son. Halfway into her road trip, Theresa telephoned us, reporting that she needed to turn her car around and head back home, as her son had just projectile vomited all over the back seat.

This set the tone for the trip.

After checking into our hotel on the San Antonio Riverwalk, it took our girls approximately ten minutes of feverishly jumping on the beds and playing hide and seek to ransack the hotel room. Time to round up these boisterous puppies and take them out for a walk.

That’s all good in theory, until we get out onto the Riverwalk itself. If you’ve never been, you should definitely go. Without young children. The San Antonio Riverwalk is absolutely charming, one of my most favorite places in Texas to visit. But with five curious youngsters running amok, it was losing it’s charm by the second. Make that four youngsters…hellbent toddler Kyra was belted into her stroller with no hope of extricating herself. Captive but as curious as the mobile children, she howled and squirmed in frustration since she couldn’t roam with the pack. Nearby couples, sharing romantic interludes, glanced at us and re-evaluated their futures. We just knew. We could sense it.

I mean, you would think this precarious situation would have occurred to us. A meandering, paved waterway with no protective barriers, combined with five foolhardy children interrupting our futile attempts at adult conversation. Really? It photographs perfectly for travel blogs, but it is the exact opposite of practical. Miraculously, Robin and I have never tumbled into this river after overindulging, so I guess we figured our kids wouldn’t either. At any rate, the walk lasted four minutes, but at least no one fell in.

We knew we were running out of options. We  decided it was time to join the ranks of the elderly and eat an early dinner. We were determined to find a restaurant that would at least serve us margaritas. Preferably in a goblet the size of a small goldfish bowl. We had earned the right.

We soon found a delicious TexMex establishment that was brave enough to seat all seven of us, but dinner turned out to be another failed attempt at a leisurely endeavor. Our kids had more refried beans smeared in their hair and on their clothing than in their stomachs. The tortilla chip basket looked as if it had recently contained an explosive. A foraging dog could have made a meal of the shredded cheese and ground beef deposited on the floor beneath our table. Robin and I had barely been able to finish our second margarita. (Hey, we weren’t driving, okay? Probably that was why we chose this damn destination in the first place!)

After inhaling our meal and slurping our Liquid Patience as quickly as we could, it was time for the “Jewel Heist” segment of restaurant dining with young children: taking care of the check. Not to imply one walks the check, but rather the process must be done as quickly and efficiently as possible before all Hell breaks even more loose-er.

Robin is put in charge of handling the check, we will divvy it up later. Like a seasoned insurance adjuster, Robin needs time to survey the damage and determine the amount of  restitution. Time to award our server at least a 40% gratuity, which, if you saw the state of our table, could technically be considered stiffing her. My role is to border collie the five children away to the restroom so Robin can concentrate. This side trip to the Ladies Room presents itself as yet another Disneyland of entertainment to our exuberant children, what with the plethora of bathroom stalls with swinging doors, the toilet seats and floors that mothers get all agitated about, frantically warning not to touch, and of course all the loud fans with which to blowdry one’s freshly-washed hands.

Speaking of, I think the girls had pressed the “On” buttons on all of the air dryers and were giggling hysterically at how the cavernous bathroom sounded like the inside of a jet engine, when a lovely, older Hispanic woman approached me and cautiously asked, “Are these all yours?”

And, interestingly, Robin and I figured later, we can see why she might have thought that. All five had brown, straight hair, like mine, and from their orderly descending heights, it could have appeared that, had I been impressively fertile, unfamiliar with birth control, and able to faithfully restrict my alcohol consumption for over half a decade, Marin could have been my oldest, Zoe and Camille could have been my twins, followed immediately by Catherine, then Kyra.

“Oh God, no,” I emphatically replied, laughing, but with a slight twitch. “I’m traveling with my friend, and she’s at the table paying the bill. A couple of these are hers!”

“Ahhh,” the women replied, winking conspiratorially. “That’s good. I was about to go light a candle for you.”

Mopeds, Mormons and Instant Karma

Young readers may not realize—wait. Who am I kidding? No young people are reading this. LOL

Readers of any age, but most likely my older friends who are trying hard to cheerlead my struggling writing career, (thank you, sincerely) may need a quick refresher course on The Moped. A common sight today, mopeds were a damn big deal in 1978. Hardly anybody had one.

And back then, way back in the “olden days” of my teenagerhood, they were still a work in progress. A few of us might even remember that moped prototypes of the later 1970’s began with actual, physical bicycle pedaling to coax the engine into gear.  I can’t speak for Europe, where mopeds and Vespas might have been a common thing in Italy since… forever. But seeing as how I never crossed the Atlantic until I was 30 and the Internet wouldn’t be around for 20 more years, I was pretty blown away the first time I ever saw one.

Think of it like seeing an iPhone for the first time. A marvel. A creation to be instantly coveted. Just as an emotionally balanced human cannot simultaneously skip and frown, this same human could not also ride a moped and frown. It was zippy, motorized happiness on two wheels, requiring no driver’s license and no exertion.

The first time I laid eyes on a moped was in the front display window of my Uncle Bob Perry’s hardware store in downtown Fremont, Nebraska. It was August of 1978, and my family had driven for two solid days, from my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, crossing three states:  Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, with virtually no onboard entertainment of any sort, mind you, with the exception of reading (made me nauseous) or looking out the window— to visit my Nebraska relatives for summer vacation. I was just about to start the ninth grade in September, and was at that tender, “difficult” age when it was really hard to be around me for more than seven minutes. I may or may not have complained the entire trip.

The only thing that soothed my excruciating separation from my friends back in Shreveport and all the fun they were no doubt having without me, was getting to spend time with my cousin Brian, a well-intentioned but mischievous reincarnation of Peter Pan if there ever was one. Brian could, and still can, soften even the most miserable person on earth with his contagious laugh.

I have never met anyone else like my cousin. Brian has always seen the world through a different, highly distorted lens. The closest celebrity comparison I could draw would be to say he is part Randy Rainbow, part PeeWee Herman, part Yahoo Serious and part Bart Simpson. Most functioning adults typically want to strangle him after about an hour together. But in a loving way, if that makes any sense at all. He exasperates people with his pranks. He would give you the shirt off his back. And then he would probably tell a nearby police officer you had just stolen it.  He has no “off” switch.

Fortunately or unfortunately, (I think I might be the only one here to select “fortunately”)  I was drawn to his quirkiness from my first memories of family gatherings. I live for the moments when I am allowed to play his sidekick. Almost anything I ever uttered as a kid that garnered a laugh was pilfered, with almost sacred admiration, from his endless impromptu comedic schtick. Even my children will tell you about the time he kept dropping small cookies into the velour hoodie our elderly auntie was wearing at the time.

Brian was kid #9 in a family of ten children, so it seems very natural to me that he would need to carve out his own little niche, create a way to differentiate himself. And differentiate he did. The Perry’s were a resilient family. There was much laughter, and they did love one another fiercely. Yet there was definitely a “sink or swim” aspect to these cousins. They were all swimmers, some stronger than others. Brian just needed to invent his own stroke to stay afloat.

Brian’s biological mother, my aunt, Cathy Kollmeyer Perry, passed away quite suddenly in 1964, leaving my Uncle Bob in charge of raising their seven children, the youngest being only two years of age. Brian was the second youngest, aged three.  Tragic in any day and age, but especially challenging in an era where fathers weren’t schooled or accomplished in even the slightest way to the endless and menial tasks of childrearing. The universe dumped Uncle Bob smack in the middle of a shit storm of climate change magnitude, but that in itself is an entirely different chapter of family lore.

After a few years of single parenting, Uncle Bob met and married my sweet Aunt Faith, who had three young children of her own. I was very proud of the fact that my cousins were a bona fide “Brady Bunch” blended family. This Brady Bunching created four boys of almost all the same ages, and it was virtually impossible for me to tell one from the other, even though two out of those four boys (Aunt Faith’s) had red hair. You would think that would’ve helped me a little, but I was just as bad with names then as I am now. As an only child and the youngest of all the cousins, I was always timid and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of boisterous older children at our family reunions. Much like today, I could never keep anyone’s names straight. Especially in Brian’s family where the names of the original seven kids all began with the letter B.

At the first memory of my cousin Brian I was only about five or six years old and he must have been about eight or nine.  He sensed right away I didn’t have a clue what his, or any of my cousins names were. Brian pulled me aside and looked me square in the eyes. “Okay, listen now,” he said. “I am Brian. You got that?”

“Yes,” I replied dutifully. He never bothered to make sure I knew anyone else’s name. Just his.

“What’s my name?” he responded.

“Brian,” I replied.

“Good,” he said. “What’s my name?”

“Brian!” I repeated, starting to giggle.

“Good! What’s my name?”  and this went on for at least ten minutes, and for the remainder of the day I was periodically pop quizzed. The end result being that at the conclusion of that family reunion, I remembered no other cousin’s name except Brian’s. So, as you can imagine, a childhood bond of that type grew stronger at every gathering.

So back to the moped story of 1978:  My Mom, Dad and I are standing on the sidewalk in downtown Fremont, in front of Kollmeyer’s Hardware store, the family business, with Uncle Bob and what’s-my-name Brian. We are gazing in awe and admiration at a sporty, yellow, pristine moped, soaking up the limelight in Kollmeyer’s front display window, probably the same way the French stared at a live giraffe for the first time in the 1800’s.

I am unable to declare what was more impressive— the fact that such a cute little motorized bicycle existed, or the fact that someone in my thrifty, no-nonsense, far-cry-from-early-adopter family actually owned one. Uncle Bob, my mother’s younger brother, is explaining to us how, in an effort to boost sluggish summer sales, he created his own version of Kollmeyer’s Monopoly (and no, I’d wager my firstborn on my certainty he did not spend money consulting any attorneys on the legality of using Parker Bros. trademarked board game for his promotion.) The brand-new yellow moped was the GRAND PRIZE. And the good people of Fremont were opening their wallets and responding with an enthusiasm that made his cash registers sing. The Monopoly contest was due to arrive at an exciting conclusion in just a few short weeks, and some lucky winner would ride away on a brand new moped.

Eventually, Mom, Dad and Uncle Bob head back inside the store. Brian and I remain on the sidewalk. The lure of the shiny new moped is simply too much for us.

“You ever get to ride it?” I ask.

“I sure did!” he replied. “It was so much fun.”

“Lucky!” I gushed, admiringly.

“You wanna take it for a ride?” Brian asks.

“What?” I gasp. “Can we really?”

“I think so,” Brian said, eyeing the display.

“Your dad said you could ride it?” I asked incredulously.

“Well, he didn’t say I couldn’t ride it,” he offered.

That was affirmation enough for me. It was Brian’s home turf and he was in charge, so I stood excitedly by as Brian entered the store and carefully removed the moped from the  display in the front window. The last thing I was going to do was try and talk him out of probably the most exciting thing to happen to me all summer.

He gently wheeled the motorized bike out of the store. We walked it around the corner to the back alley. We might have had to find some gasoline for it, but this I can’t quite recall clearly. But finally, after much anticipation, we are ready to roll.

“So you sit here,” he instructed, “and I’ll sit here,” he said, situating himself on the same tiny seat behind me. We were both pretty skinny,  so we barely fit. “So first you start pedaling, like this” he said, as he pedaled it like a regular bike, and then I guess he turned a gear or something, and the little motor revved to life.

And off we went, Brian laughing his contagious laugh and me grinning from ear to ear, on a madcap, Mr. Toad-like journey through downtown Fremont. No helmets, wind in our hair, warm sun on our shoulders, relishing every ounce of pleasure gleaned from being risk-takers— bold, adventurous teenagers on a carefree summer afternoon. This was The Life. No sweating from strenuous energy exertion pedaling like a dog. As the moped’s motor hummed, we felt as if we were zipping and flying over the streets of town.

Fremont, Nebraska is not a big town at all, so it took us only a few minutes and an ounce of gasoline to clear the downtown city blocks. Soon we were on the edge of town, in a more residential area. We were on such a high from the freedom of flying over city streets, that it soon became apparent to everyone BUT the two of us, that we would have to find something to sustain our elevated adrenaline levels. “Time to prudently turn around and return home,” said no one on a Joy Ride, ever.

That was the cue for the two Mormons to enter. Two teenage young men with neatly combed, short haircuts are walking door-to-door in the August sun, spreading the Good Word, dressed in black slacks, pressed, white short-sleeved shirts and neckties as if they had just stepped off the Broadway stage of Book of Mormon.

“Oh look,” Brian said, “Mormons.”

“What are Mormons?” I replied. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had heard of Mormons before, because my Auntie Theo’s house, where we always stayed when we visited Nebraska, was very near a structure called Mormon Bridge, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Back in Shreveport, we had never had any Mormons come ringing our doorbell, to politely inquire as to our Eternal Salvation.

“Those are Mormons,” Brian said, attempting to point them out, but his hands were busy gripping the handlebars. “Over there.”

“Where??” I asked. The wind was whipping my long brown hair to hell and gone, so I still didn’t see the young men in the black slacks and white shirts.

“We’ll go around the block again and I’ll show you,” Brian said, hanging a right turn. “By the way, my eyes are closed!”

I couldn’t turn around to verify this, due to my hair in my face and the cramped accommodations. “They are not!” I shouted gleefully. “Shut up! They are not!” I shriek-laughed, as Brian swerved from side to side, pretending he was driving blindly.

We circled the block, returning to the point where he last spotted the Mormons on foot.  At this point, it should be noted that the streets of this particular neighborhood were old and made of brick, and, obviously, very bumpy.

“There they are!” Brian announced, rounding the corner. In a sudden burst of idiocy, we decided to show off exactly how “cool” we thought we were, zooming by on a moped whilst the unlucky Mormons were slow of foot, unable to catch up with us as we were about to, so we thought, ride off brazenly into the horizon.

Brian let out a series of high-pitched beeps with the little moped horn as we zoomed past the young men, who observed us benignly.

“HI MORMONS!” Brian yelled to them.

Caught up in the moment, I chimed in, “Hi-ya Mormons!” Both of us in a loud, obnoxious, turd-ish, Ha-Ha-I’m-riding-a-moped-and-you’re-not kind of way; not a cheerful, friendly, greeting kind of way, I must confess.  I guess we suspected we could get away with it. We were about to make a swift, vanishing exit.

But at that very moment of escape, such the thing of which John Lennon sang, occurred. Yep. Instant Karma. Distracted by the Mormon taunting, Brian neglected to notice an enormous, gaping pothole in the bricked pavement. He inadvertently drove straight into it, causing a huge impact with the front tire. I can recall the handlebars shaking violently as we spastically wobbled out of control, for real this time. The front tire lurched suddenly sideways as we were thrown from the moped and on to the rugged pavement beneath us.

I never lost consciousness, but we had both taken quite a fall.  1978 was also the summer before I got my contact lenses. My vision was so nearsighted that I was considered legally blind, and my tortoiseshell glasses, which I would describe as “Coke-bottle bottomed” because the corrective lenses felt as thick and heavy as the bottom of a glass Coca-Cola bottle or a mayonnaise jar, had been knocked off my face. Blind as a mole, I was crawling around on my hands and bloodied knees, frantically patting the pavement for my spectacles so I could get my bearings. Brian was equally disoriented. We must have made quite a sight.

Suddenly, the two Mormon boys appeared in my blurry, unassisted vision. One went immediately to Brian and the other to me. “Are you okay?” they asked each of us, teeming with concern. One Mormon found my glasses a few yards away and began to clean them with his shirt tail as he gently handed them back to me.

“Here you go,” he offered kindly.

Brian and I were steeping in shame and humiliation. I was simultaneously grateful and mortified.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” they asked again, genuinely concerned, as we tried to stand up and dust ourselves off, assessing the situation. “What can we do to help you? Do you need a bandage?” they asked about my bleeding knee. Still not sure what was hurting worse, my body or my conscience, I declined their offers of help.

“No, no we are fine, just fine” we replied, even though we weren’t really sure if we were fine. Our scrapes and injuries hurt like hell, but we were both so ashamed and embarrassed, we were willing ourselves to be in perfect shape.

“Sorry about that,” we mumbled apologetically to the Mormons. They reacted with great kindness and maturity, as if they hadn’t heard any of the childish name calling. I mean, it all makes perfect sense. They didn’t have to gloat—they had clearly “won” this battle. I’m sure their faith was imminently strengthened that day—think about it— the way they were able to glimpse the swift and mighty hand of Divine Retribution, the immediate justice of their Almighty, literally flicking us right off of our sin wagon like you would a mosquito on your forearm. They probably felt like they had witnessed a miracle, now that I think about it.

So I wish I could say, at this point, that the shame and embarrassment was the worst of our problems.

However.

While one of the Mormon boys was helping me adjust my glasses, the other one had gone to try and pick up the mangled moped.

“You need some help getting this back home?” he offered.

Brian and I stared mutely at the battered little motorbike, which moments before had been a pristine and generous giver of Joy Rides. Post pothole, when one held the handlebars in the normal, forward-facing position, the front wheel was bent at a complete 90 degree angle. In other words, handlebars facing north, wheel facing west. Dents and scratches were everywhere, and because of the distorted front wheel, we couldn’t even test the motor to see if it would start back up.

After finally assuring the Mormons that we were in fine shape to proceed, Brian and I endured a lengthy and silent trudge back to Uncle Bob’s hardware store. Together we held the moped upright and walked it back to the store, keeping the handle bars turned at a severe right angle so that the tire would face forward so we could push it.

I will never forget Brian and I wheeling that mangled moped back into the store. We attempted to use the back entrance, to call the least amount of attention to ourselves. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. All sound and activity in the store ceased the moment we entered. The only sound I can remember was the damaged tire making a rhythmic, pathetic squeak as it cycled limply over the linoleum floor, heralding the death knell of the once coveted Grand Prize. All eyes were upon us, awash with a mix of both pity and smirk. Employees and customers, in stunned silence, some quietly giddy over the opportunity to be eyewitnesses to fresh, small-town gossip, recorded our every step as we solemnly escorted the moped’s corpse through the store like pallbearers.

Furious would be an understatement for my Uncle Bob’s reaction. So furious, in fact, that he had to put his anger on hold. Which must have been excruciating for Brian, who knew the hammer was going to come down, hard, at a later date. All eyes were on Uncle Bob, who was smart enough not lose his wig in front of an audience…his employees, his customers, his sister and her family. If there was going to be a beating, he didn’t want any witnesses. I am joking here but if I were Uncle Bob, capital punishment would have definitely crossed my mind.

Brian hated to see us leave that day, for so many obvious reasons. We kind of wished our injuries had been a little bit worse, so as to diminish the severity of the punishment that was sure to follow. We might have tried to smear a little more coagulating blood around near the injury sights, for maximum effect. And of course Uncle Bob was not informed of the Mormon taunting, and how the Instant Karma factored into the whole accident. Brian and I considered that an unnecessary detail. We blamed the entire debacle on the deplorable state of Fremont’s roads. Until we couldn’t resist telling the full story at the next family reunion, and the next, and the next. Luckily for Brian, by then all his father’s anger had evaporated.

While I received no punishment and our family conveniently headed back to Louisiana shortly afterward, Brian had to work at the hardware store the remainder of the summer to repay his Dad for the full cost of the moped. If my cousin resented me for any of that, he never let on.

Along with my mother and father, Uncle Bob resides in the Great Beyond now too. Hopefully he has earned some sort of “Preferred Seating” or at least an extra special chair, for all he had to endure raising Brian. I picture him sipping a Scotch, puffing on his cigars, relaxing in the shade of his beloved Winnebago that was destroyed by an engine fire, shaking his head and laughing with us as we rehash our old stories. We like to think that way though, don’t we.

 

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OrindaSpeak

The Bommarito Family moved to California in 2007.

The Bommaritos were from Texas.

California took some getting used to.

The following is an imaginary conversation of Norcal cultural intrigue between Mimi and Guy, who, at one point had hoped to turn this script into a funny video. But our daughters begged us not to, convincingly pleading their overwhelming desire to simply live as a “normal”  family. So here is the written, possibly less embarrassing, version.

Tuesday morning.

Guy:   That’s the good thing about having a small house, you know, not having to spend money on a maid.

 

Mimi: (rolls eyes) Let’s not even go there. (Pause) But that reminds me: you really need to work on updating your vocabulary.

 

Guy: (looks at camera) And she wonders why I don’t talk at parties. (sarcastically) So, what’s wrong with my vocabulary?

 

Mimi: Exactly my point. If you talked more at parties, which, by the way, are referred to around here as “having a few friends over,” you would notice your language could use a little spiffing up.

 

Guy: Give me an example.

 

Mimi: Just last weekend you asked Rob Becker who was his ‘yard man.’

 

Guy: So?

 

Mimi: And he looked at you all funny. And then he finally realized what you were asking and said, “My ‘gardener’ is a guy named Phillip.”

 

Guy stares blankly.

 

Mimi: People don’t call them “yard men!

 

Guy: (Baffled) Oh. In Texas we did.

 

Mimi: And we’re not in Texas. We’re in Orinda. And times are changing. In addition to gender stereotyping, “yard man” just sounds so— I dunno, like ‘Oh, you’re not a person, you just work in my yard.’ Gardener sounds more sophisticated and respectful, like an artistic professional, lovingly tending to the Garden of Eden you call home.

Guy: Even if he’s just walking around with a leaf blower?

 

Mimi: And like just now, you don’t say “maid.” That’s borderline insulting. People say “housekeeper.”

 

Guy: But “housekeeper” is like Alice on the Brady Bunch. A live-in. We’d only have someone who cleaned every couple of weeks.

 

Mimi: Precisely, but the world doesn’t need to know that.

 

Guy: So, what do I call you…a maternal life coach?”

 

Mimi: That is ridiculous. I’m just a mom. And I say it like that too, three little words, “just a mom.” Humbly and slightly-self deprecating. Maybe even with the tiniest of shrugs. It says to my neighbors, “I went to college and worked for many years, but gave it all up temporarily for the success of my children.” It also implies I couldn’t earn enough here to make childcare financially worthwhile, but that all depends on who I’m talking to.

 

Guy: (sarcastically) Any other egregious offenses I should be aware of?

 

Mimi: I’ll quiz you. Garbage Man, right or wrong?

 

Guy: Based on the Yard Man Theory, I’ll say wrong.

 

Mimi: Correct, they are Sanitation Workers. Handy man, right or wrong?

 

Guy: Hmmmm. Handy isn’t an insult, so I’ll say right?

 

Mimi: Wrong. Not only does it sound like you’re about to be groped, but the correct term in Orinda is “personal household contractor.Out of work or layed off?

 

Guy: (confidently) Out of work!

 

Mimi: Trick question. Both wrong! The correct term is “between jobs.” Doctor.

 

Guy: What could possibly be wrong with doctor?

 

Mimi: Nothing if you say “Boy, do I feel awful! I need to go to the doctor.” But you wouldn’t say “Zoe wants to be a doctor.”

 

Guy: You wouldn’t?

 

Mimi: Never, because that sounds greedy and self-serving. In that case you would tell people, “Zoe is considering a career in health care.” But only if we think she can actually get into medical school.

 

Guy: What if Zoe has no idea what she wants to do after Miramonte?

 

Mimi: Well for God’s sake you don’t say that around here. You’d say “Zoe’s taking a gap year.”

 

Guy: I think I’ve learned enough for one day. I’m going to lead my personal canine companion on a recommended cardiovascular fitness routine.

 

Mimi: The leash is in the garage.

 

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Steady As She Goes

Just like in the photo, we sit, each and every one of us, comfortably cross-legged in the Captain’s Chair, on the bridge of the Starship U.S.S. Whomever You Are, commanding our lives. I clearly ignored the Red Alert that signaled my impending Bad Hair Day, but nonetheless, I belong here.

This whole concept of how I’m Captain Kirking my life never even occurred to me until recently. Physically, my body begins to betray me as it ages. But mentally, time and again, I find I like myself and understand myself with astounding clarity. I am actually growing very okay with how weird I am.

Although it was nothing more than a cheaply constructed TV set, consider how that bridge, the command center of our bodily vessel—right down to the mid-century sound effects—so closely resembles the innards of our very brains, with the cast of characters closely resembling the various innate aspects of our personalities and intuition. This universal similarity is one of the many reasons why, IMHO, an obscure, cancelled-after-three-seasons 1960’s television show defied all odds and became so insanely popular that even non-science-y people like me still wax lovingly about it, like a legendary long-deceased relative, in 2018.

With age comes wisdom and I suppose, as a child of the 1970’s, my own brand of wisdom is rooted in television re-runs and Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. Last year, while visiting Seattle, my family and I decided to spend a rainy afternoon exploring the Museum of Pop Culture, and I was delighted to learn, quite by accident, that such a museum exists. It feels like I ought to care more about art and history, because that all sounds very museum-y and sophisticated, but I really comprehend only six inches of topsoil. But Pop Culture, now there is an arena where I can own the mud pit and wrestle.

I was thrilled to see one of the current exhibits at the Museum of Pop Culture focused on the original television series Star Trek. I was very much a “closet Trekkie” in middle school. By day, I was entirely too preoccupied with futile tasks like trying to convince my mother to spend $35 on a pair of Calvin Klein jeans and devising other superfluous ways a bespectacled, flat-chested and socially awkward only-child could fit in with the cool crowd. After a grueling day at school spent in desperate attempts to keep my precious rung on the social ladder anywhere above rock bottom (I would still be happy today to receive a 9th place ribbon for anything) I retreated to the quiet comforts of home, where I would grab a sugary, highly-processed snack that usually involved ten minutes of warming in a toaster oven and snap on the television, without the inconvenience of having to argue with any sibling over what we would watch. While licking the jelly doughnut off my fingers, I anxiously awaited my blessed escape in those soothing, magical words:  “Space. The Final Frontier.” 

Watching Star Trek, I was transported (pun intended) out of 7th grade, out of Shreveport, Louisiana, out of only-child land, where I was too timid to develop a fashion sense or a music library or to earn too good of grades—I thought ditzy girls were more popular; little did I know, middle school is all about the boobs—and into a world of space exploration and adventure. I watched the episodes so many times I practically knew each and every one of them by heart. I felt unable to “Boldly go where no man has gone before” in my own life, but I could easily allow myself to become swept up in the sci-fi fantasy. I envisioned myself as a standout member of the crew, perhaps First Officer, but never saw myself as the captain.

I was trying to explain this complicated backstory to my 15-year-old daughter as we meandered through the exhibit. She pretended to listen politely, a little bit, but we soon reached Parental Sharing Overload and she began to busy herself with her phone. She’s so different than I was at 15. Maybe I, too, would have had her confidence and determination if I had been the youngest of three sisters. I’m convinced she would have envisioned herself as the captain the moment she developed the capability for cognitive thought.

I think some of my obsessive fascination with Star Trek also presented as new information to my husband. Reverting to middle school insecurities, I most likely didn’t toss back a few margaritas and reveal all of this to him when we were dating. He is twelve years my senior, and as a result we each grew up with totally different after-school television programming. I was just lucky the weather was bad outside, they were pretty much hostage to all of my ramblings that afternoon.

Eventually, they reached capacity and both began shepherding me toward the exit. As I reluctantly left the exhibit, I noticed a staging area set up for photos. Naturally, my daughter refused to pose with me, yet I remained undaunted, eagerly thrusting my phone into my husband’s hands and clamoring up into Kirk’s swivel chair throne. Behind me was a black and white, life-sized panel photograph of the television cast, in uniform, surrounding me like a bad-assed posse of devoted, protective angels. What started as an innocuous, touristy piece of memorabilia has actually served as a profound Spirit Guide of sorts. If anyone wants to build a shrine to me after my death (please know I’m winking here) they should include this photo. A gift from an exasperated universe, guardian angel or deceased parent from the Great Beyond that sighs loudly and says “Okay, dammit, I’m not sure you’ve heard a word I’ve said all these years so I am finally going to HAND YOU A PICTURE.” An unmistakable depiction of me, finally, after 50 years, “in command” of my own life.

I visualize myself in Kirk’s chair when I need to make decisions, move forward or simply find a way to have peace. Sometimes these issues are specific and external (Should I take this job? Should we move to Canada? Should we get another cat? Is a certain problem solvable and if so, how would I do it?) and sometimes they are internal (drink less wine and more water, see both sides to every story, write more, give your children space, get over the dismay about your chin waddle) and sometimes—mainly when I’m on a run, as that’s usually when I’m in somewhat of an altered state—I give orders to my own body. (Search and destroy cancer and disease-causing cells, produce the right amount—heck, more than enough of the right amount—of happiness hormones, and, like kindness, “sprinkle that shit everywhere!” slow down the cell mutations that cause wrinkles, grey hair, brittle bones and angry old woman syndrome…just command them to be dormant!)

Who the heck knows if any of this is working or not, but it makes me feel in control. Perhaps slightly crazy, but in control. And just for the record, after losing both of my parents rather unexpectedly, I know better than anyone that you are never 100% “in control.” The universe can yank that cosmic rug out from under your feet faster than a photon torpedo from an Invisible Klingon Warship. But I figure if I can will myself and prepare myself to be mentally and physically healthy, I’ll be strong enough to withstand the torpedos, the Wrath of Kahn, or the latest developments on the evening news.

There are days when you’re engaged in epic battles, there are days when the future is not only uncertain but downright frightening and possibly dangerous, there are days when the enemy lurks within the confines of your own vessel. We must sit confidently in our Captain’s Chair, listen to the advice of our seasoned crew—aspects of our own personality and intuition—and make firm and clear decisions, both for our own selves and for those who need us to decide for them. Sometimes that decision is to tell our Inner Scotty, the first to push the panic button, to shut the hell up and reach for the Chardonnay. It’s not always the wisest or most mature decision, but I’ve still got to own that bitch.

If you can actualize this idea of command for yourself, you will find yourself less swept up in someone else’s shit storm and living your life in a way that feels much more comfortable and satisfying to you. The command is yours for the taking. It is indeed empowering but note I never said it is easy. Life is still life.

By reaching adulthood you have earned your command, but you do not need to shoulder this weight alone. Kirk had his crew. You have your crew. You have your own Inner Spock, loyal to you as the day is long, strong as an ox, full of ancient wisdom and intelligence, who will calmly remind you that you should always consider the logical and scientific approach, combined with what your heart and emotions tell you.

You have your own “Bones” McCoy, quick to raise an eyebrow in cynical suspicion and to call bullshit on timesuckers that ain’t ever gonna fly and you know it. Bones is there to make us feel okay if we don’t immediately embrace every new device or invention, that the “old ways” have merit, too. The good doctor is also ever-present to remind you to check in with yourself about your health, don’t push yourself so hard, rest often and take good care of yourself.

And let us not forget about our inner sex kitten, Uhura. Men, you have her too. Our Inner Uhura reminds us to let the engines roar, but also purr. She’s so balanced, she can be alluring AND she is so damn good at her job. She doesn’t have to think about exuding voluptuousness, it’s just who she is, so she can stay focused on kicking ass professionally as well. We all know she should be the captain, but she’s not angry that she’s not the captain…yet. Right now she’s just a victim of a 1960’s TV script, just as life is full of obstacles, but she’s not angry and making everyone’s life miserable because of it. She’s waiting in the wings, learning as much as she can and gaining knowledge and momentum by the minute. She’s so proficient and proactive at her job that she is 100% indispensable, as we all should strive to be. She’s our reminder to be awesome and the rest will take care of itself.  Be confident and comfortable with who you are, as that in itself is the definition of a sexual magnet, at any age.

And for some reason Scotty didn’t make it into this photo, but I don’t want to overlook him because he is a critical component. Scotty keeps the engines running. He knows his engines and his ship like the back of his hand. We should be equally as in tune with our own minds and bodies. I cannot count the number of times, in exasperation or even just bad traffic, I have wailed the equivalent of Scotty’s famous “She can’t TAKE it anymore, Captain!”

And then there’s Nurse Chapel, beautiful and hopelessly in love with Spock. She may not have Uhura’s hotline to the libido, but she represents innocent love. She is our Inner Dreamer, the part of us that hopes and longs for things that seem impossible: world peace, truth, justice, a healthy planet or sometimes simply for the family to all join hands and kumbaya for a moment or two. She’s a vital part of our internal crew, otherwise, on the minor acts of kindness and charity, we wouldn’t even try.

Sulu and Chekov represent possibly the most critical element of all:  that moment when the rubber hits the road. It’s one thing to act all bad-assed and issue orders, it’s another matter entirely to follow through. As captain I can state, with authority, “I’m going to drink less wine, get more sleep, read the New York Times, curse less and eat more greens.” My inner Sulu and Chekov make certain that my own orders are actually obeyed. And theirs may be the hardest job of all, especially when Moms’ Night Out, chocolate chip cookies and Bay Area traffic are involved.

My favorite parts of the show were often the endings. The battle won, the crisis resolved, the order restored, it signaled the time for the Starship to plunge forward into the deep mystery of space, to meet whatever challenge awaited, much like we do each time we open our eyes to a new morning’s light. Kirk would calmly issue the command “Steady as she goes.”

Steady As She Goes.

Really, what more could we ask of ourselves on this mission we call life?

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Wind Up in the White House Without First Being Elected

* Before you dig in, I have a shameful confession for a writer to make:  My father ghost-wrote the essay, featured below, for me in 1982, during my senior year in high school.
Was this the norm? No.
So you might wonder, why didn’t I just complete my assignment?
Valid question. However, on this particular night, juuuuust as I was opening my books to start studying for a big exam, my chair suddenly turned into quicksand. I had completely forgotten about a huge personal interview assignment for English, also due the next day.
I can’t say I was distracted or exhausted by the college application process, as back in the day we only applied to one or two schools. I have purposely forgotten the very lame reasons that necessitated me skulking in and announcing to my 72-year-old, TV-snoozewatching father, “Uh, Dad, I’m in sort of a bind. Dad, are you awake? Good. Okay, as I was saying, I was in a bind BUT I have a great solution.”
Silence.
“See, I was supposed to interview someone,” I continued, “and of course it was GOING to be you, because you know how you’ve led such an interesting life, and then type a…ahem..uh… minimum three-page essay. But— I sort of forgot about it. And, uh, it’s due tomorrow.”
Additional silence.
“Here’s my big idea though,” I had absolutely nothing to lose, so I carried on.  “You’re a great writer. You could just write an essay on yourself, and just— pretend you are both you AND me, answering a bunch of questions I would have asked you…” (had I even known what to ask you, had I not been so busy, and so forth and so on, insert  lots of teenagerial bullshit that it’s no wonder I abolished it from my memory banks.)
“It’s like I am actually doing the assignment, except that we’re skipping the part where we talk and then I write it down. You know?”
On this occasion I was a lucky girl to have a father that was old enough to be my grandfather. Because of the softness of heart that accompanies advancing age, he miraculously, albeit reluctantly, agreed to my desperate, conspiratorial plan. 
“You will? And you’ll do it— tonight??”
Frank Terry sat down at his little green Olivetti typewriter and saved my butt. And ironically, what my dear old dad cranked out post haste has proven to be such wise and practical advice that I saved the essay. Over the years I have read it so many times that I’ve nearly memorized it, and consider it one of my greatest treasures.
Fate was in a really good mood that night, shifting those events in my favor, not just so I would have a good grade in English, rather that I might have loving advice from my father, in written form, to guide me through the fatherless years that followed his passing two years later. These words have been my way of keeping him close in spirit, as my memories of him grow a bit fuzzier around the edges. A way for my daughters to know a little bit about the impressive adventures of their Grampa Frank, whom they never met. So now, without further ramblings, I will now share 

How to Wind Up in the White House Without First Being Elected

Ghost written for Mimi Terry

by Frank J. Terry, Ret. Lt. Cmdr. USN

When I was a little girl, living first in Fort Worth and then in Dallas, it became known to me, in a number of ways, that my father had spent a long time in the Navy before he married my mother. In fact, he had retired as an officer in 1956, after having served for 30 years following his first enlistment in 1926 at the age of 17.

As time moved along and I grew older, it was plain to see from the hundreds of pictures that had been accumulated, and which were often displayed and talked about when visitors came to see us (many of whom had also served in the armed forces) that my father’s experiences in the Navy had been unusual, to say the least.

From time to time I could not help but overhear many of the conversations that were taking place at our house, and also when we visited relatives on both sides of the family. This prompted me to ask questions on a number of occasions, in order to learn a little more of the details.

While he had not been on active duty for a number of years, my Dad always liked talking about his life in the Navy, although during these latter years he was the manager of a firm in Fort Worth which organized and directed financial campaigns for schools, colleges, hospitals and churches of numerous denominations.

Many of the interesting pictures and other material that he had collected over the years were acquired as a result of years of Naval duty performed while stationed at the White House in Washington, D.C., as an assistant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Naval Aide. I was quite interested in his collection of photographs of the activities of people who were making what I now recognize as history before and during World War II.  All this caused me to ask my Dad how he, as a Navy man, managed to find himself on duty in the White House and therefore in frequent contact with the man who was then our President, FDR. His answer went something like this:

My Dad was born in 1909, and ever since he was a small boy, my father had a constant and burning desire to be a sailor on board a ship at sea. In those days, long before TV was invented, he said there were weekly newsreels shown in the theaters, and that regularly these newsreels would show a big ship being launched or one plunging through heavy seas during a storm. Every time this would happen, Dad made a vow to himself:  that one day he would be part of the crew of a ship like those shown on film. As soon as he was barely old enough to enlist, he talked my grandparents into letting him join the Navy.

While he was in high school, my father took a commercial course and learned, among other things, shorthand and typing. He told me that during his early years in the Navy, he further studied and concentrated on these two skills, to the point where he became very proficient, resulting in his being transferred from service on a battleship to duty with the Naval Aide to the President in the White House.

It was the established practice of Franklin D. Roosevelt to take vacations, combined with inspection trips, on board a Navy ship. The President loved the sea very much, and when he was a much younger man, he had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy. On his trips to sea, FDR took only a few members of his personal staff, in order that he might relax from the pressures of the day-to-day crowded schedules at the White House. The photos I looked at occasionally were taken during cruises where my father was in attendance, mostly in the Atlantic, to places such as Newfoundland, the islands in the West Indies, Panama, South America and so forth. While the President was out of the country on these trips at sea, important mail, including legislation passed by Congress, would be sent by airplane to wherever the President’s ship might be at the time, so that the President could take any action that might be required.

One of Dad’s trips that was mentioned more frequently than others was FDR’s meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on board British and American warships anchored off Newfoundland. This meeting later became known as the Atlantic Charter Conference.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, there was an important conference at Casablanca, and it was my father’s privilege to be a member of the party that accompanied the President. Dad never seemed to tire in relating the features of that trip:  It was a secret one. Their party left Washington by train, and in the middle of the next night, they transferred in Florida to those very first flying boats, the Pan American Clippers. Then they flew at what, today, would be a very slow speed, down to Brazil. From there it was an overnight flight across the South Atlantic to the western coast of Africa, then by land plane up to Casablanca.

I am finally getting to the main point of my story:  How does one get exceptional duty, such as I have been talking about? My father constantly stresses the fact that there is a key to success if one is seeking unusual, and often pleasant and profitable, experiences in any of the military forces or in the hundreds of organizations and occupations making up the business and industrial worlds. That key is this:

You will find yourself at or near the top, working with those who are really responsible for our progress and survival as a great nation, if you will devote extra time and energy to becoming definitely superior to the “average” in the field of endeavor that you have chosen for your life’s work.

In Dad’s case, he asserts that it was his above average ability to write shorthand rapidly and understandably, and then to transcribe the information swiftly and accurately, that resulted in the job coming to him, rather than his looking for the job.

In short, whatever you do, do it extra well, and you may expect to be richly rewarded.

Below is a photograph of my father taking notes on the conversation between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in 1943.
For years I thought, by having my father write this beautiful and engaging essay for me instead of writing it myself, I had pulled off the perfect “scam.”  
Thirty-five years later it occurs to me, “What more could I have learned about this fascinating man, who had a front row seat to crucial moments in world history,  had I simply taken the time to sit down, actually study his many photographs with him, and ask him questions? 
This short essay is but the tippiest tip of the iceberg when it came to all he saw, heard and experienced. His anecdotes and his keen observations passed away with him. Friends and family always said, “C’mon, Frank, you should write a book!” And he would brush them off with his reply, “I’m not part of the ‘kiss and tell’ generation of today.”
In the end, I turned in an assignment, but ultimately it was my loss that I never interviewed him.
Benefit from my mistakes: Set up an interview. Ask your parents about everything you ever wondered about them, and write down the answers so you won’t forget. Because often, as was my own situation, you can’t go back and fill in the blanks later.

Dad at Casablanca Conf

How a Janitor Broke My Heart

Watching my three daughters morph from “The Tiny’s” into dynamic young women, I am convinced that infants emerge from the womb with certain passions, traits and mindsets firmly implanted in their DNA. One doesn’t necessarily recognize these traits right away, but later, after a decade or so of alligator-wrestling them, a tired mother soon realizes her child has actually been this unique persona since the cord was clipped. No amount of BabyWise-ing, Ferberizing, bedsharing, breastfeeding, playdate organizing, flashcarding or Montessori Method-ing would have altered anything.

Other mindsets and passions might take longer to reveal themselves, remaining dormant in early childhood, only to be “activated” at a later date.

Before we jump into this, I’d like readers to promise they will not judge my parents. Frank and Midge Terry are both deceased, and thus cannot defend themselves. I’m tossing two good parents into some rough waters here, but only to set the stage for delicate decisions made in my head alone.

This story details a defining moment in my young life. A moment I never realized was defining until this very day. “With age comes wisdom,” so I guess this newfound clarity officially means I’m growing old, because I clearly see how so many wonky puzzle pieces of my life all fit together now.

So, let’s step into the Time Machine.

Here I am. An only child, ten years old, 1975. Not that long after the Civil Rights movement in America, but, had you asked me then what the Civil Rights movement was, I wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea. I was more into Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pop Tarts, Monopoly and Gilligan’s Island. I’m in the fifth grade at St. Mark’s Day School, an upper-crust, Episcopal elementary school in Shreveport, Louisiana. It’s important to note, though, that my family was not wealthy.

My parents were older than average. My Dad would have been around 65 and my Mom around 52 at the time this story takes place. Older parents are all the rage now, but it was definitely not a “thing” back when I was growing up. Frank Terry, often mistaken for my grandfather, was a super smart man. But his impulsiveness, combined with a divisive relationship with his own father, led him to drop out of high school to join the Navy at age 17. The story of his 30-year Naval career could grow wings right now and carry this post off in a completely different direction, so I will try to stay on topic. The takeaway you need for now is that hard work and commitment put my Dad in frequent personal contact with one of the most revered Democratic presidents our country has ever known, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

My father was a gifted shorthand secretary and stenographer, and FDR specifically requested my father be on duty, to take copious notes, at major historical events such as the Atlantic Charter and Casablanca Conferences. One cannot be immersed in such greatness of thought and leadership and not absorb some by osmosis. So I absolutely cannot call my father a racist, but unfortunately I can’t classify exactly what he was. Dad died when I was 19, and I regret I never made an effort to explore his opinions on racial divide.

In the Navy my Dad completed his high school equivalency. However, after retiring from service after 30 years, he immediately joined the workforce as a professional fundraiser rather than pursuing a college degree, perhaps his biggest regret. As a result, it was imperative that I, his daughter, unexpectedly conceived and born to him at age 55, be given a quality education with obvious opportunity and encouragement to attend college. It’s a familiar parental refrain:  “I want you to have all the things I didn’t.”

Plus, he was a devout Episcopalian.

I assume that’s why I ended up in the white bread basket at St. Mark’s.  I hope. I hope. I hope. Because it kills me to think my parents didn’t want me attending public school in Shreveport because it meant having African American classmates.

My Mom hailed from a close-knit but financially strapped, Depression-era family in Stuart, Nebraska. College was never an option for her or any of her four siblings. Each Perry child left Stuart to seek employment in Omaha as soon as they completed high school. My Mom had a very impressive career building the backbone of the personnel department at Mutual of Omaha, and later moved on to being an office supervisor for various fundraising campaigns, where she ended up meeting my dad. She was Hollywood beautiful, yet worked and remained unmarried until her 40’s, very much a Mary Tyler Moore type.

I cringe to suspect her of racism. I mean, it’s not like either of them supported the KKK or used racial slurs or vented at the television news during controversial stories. Whatever they felt was very, very subtle. So subtle that I struggle to define it today.

There’s the good version. And the darker version. I can feel the pull toward the light. But the shade is real also.

I feel compelled to share how my mother was regularly involved with charity work. She and my Grandmother Perry once spent weeks making dozens of the absolute cutest hand puppets you ever laid eyes on to donate to Children’s Hospital. I would like to write that I was a good sport about donating them; but instead, sick kids be damned, I recall being heartbroken we couldn’t keep those puppets, going so far as to hide a few of them under my mattress. Mom continually instilled in me the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone to help others in need. But she had trouble stepping out of that comfort zone in matters of race.

Mom fully supported my father’s desire to financially over reach and send me to private school. I suspect my mother’s racial discomfort stemmed more from a place of fear of the unknown. I imagine one had to look far and wide to find an African American in the tiny rural town of Stuart. I’m not saying this makes it okay, I’m only attempting to pinpoint where she fit on the spectrum. I’m certain she, like my father, would never have approved of abuse, violence or withholding the right to vote—big things like that, but there was a pervasive distrust of dark skin that could not be denied.

So back to 1975. At the time, attending St. Mark’s Day School was, to me, just what any kid did. We wrote reports. Did our homework, lots of homework. Planned sleepovers. Enjoyed television. My class was comprised entirely of Caucasian children and I honestly never thought twice about the lack of any diversity. I was an oblivious mini-citizen of a segregationist’s utopia. There were no financial scholarships offered to minority students to provide some rainbow in the student population back in 1975. Parochial school was proudly billed as a “religious education,” but really more of a convenient social mechanism to avoid mixing up the races.

The only time in a school day we caught a glimpse of black skin was if we happened to spot one of the janitors. There was Luther, an efficient, older gentleman who had worked at St. Mark’s Church and Day School literally forever, and there was David, a younger fellow who was probably in his early 20’s.

How do I clearly recall these janitors names after all these years, you might wonder?

I shrink from the very distinct memories of their humiliating uniforms. Not that uniforms themselves are degrading, but I shudder at the recollection of how their first names only were embroidered on a patch sewn to their right breast pocket. Luther. David. White society’s way of subtly saying, “Yes, we know these Negroes and they work here.” And most likely, “If they disrespect you, you can report them by name.”

Nobody else— teachers, secretaries, headmaster—were required to wear a name patch anywhere on their person, let alone a uniform.

David had an unassuming, gentle soul. And, this didn’t resonate at the time, but as I dust off my memory of him today, I realize he was also quite handsome. His demeanor was the polar opposite of “The Smash” on Friday Night Lights. Soft-spoken, tall and lanky, David had a warm smile, a cool afro and a protective older brother sort of attitude.

My classmates and I became aware of David when he was assigned to monitor a large plastic trashcan outside of the lunchroom.

The school required that all students eat the hot lunch prepared on site. I would not classify my childhood self as a “picky eater,” but I do recall those lunches being disgusting, with the one exception of instant whipped potato-like food which we all found delicious, and somehow managed to nutritionally sustain us during a long afternoon of arithmetic. The memory of the rubbery cold ham slices with the pervasive veins of white fat that ran like a roadmap through the slab of gristly meat could have easily turned me into a vegetarian, if that had been a “thing.” To be clear, it most assuredly wasn’t a “thing,” and neither was gluten-free or respect for any sort of food allergy. My tyrannical third grade teacher would have quickly labeled any type of dietary preference “Mickey Mouse,” which I now realize was her old-school-educator way of saying “bullshit.”

The lack of appealing, child-friendly food was basically the reason David was assigned to monitor the trashcan, and assist the students with scraping our generally untouched plates as we exited the lunch room. Since so much uneaten food remained on the plates, when the students attempted to stack their dishes themselves at the end of every meal, slimy remains were ending up on the slick linoleum floors.

An “unfortunate incident” occurred one day when a particularly large glob of some hazardous food item on the floor threatened our safety.  A class of first graders, led by a petite but authoritative elderly teacher, marched solemnly, chain-gang style, from the cafeteria to the lunch room, plates piled high with hot food soon to be creatively swirled around and crafted to look as if nibbled.  From my fifth grade table, I had a bird’s eye view as the mishap unfolded.

Mrs. Faye, leading her charge, had turned her head to glance behind her, to bark severe orders to her students to “Pay attention now and listen to me for once and just you watch out for this mess smack dab in front of you on the floor and don’t tramp through it like a bunch of lollygagg—” when suddenly— WHOOSH! — WHAM!

Her black, classic orthopedic, mass-produced old-lady shoe, identical to my grandmother’s, hit that greasy smear of unclassifiable muck and she instantly face planted. Robert Bacon, John Hoffman (RIP) and I, all pie-eyed witnesses, crammed rolls in our mouths and nearly suffocated trying to stifle our giggles. Yes, it sounds perverted how we would find an aging teacher’s most humiliating moment wildly hilarious, but if you knew Robert Bacon and John Hoffman, you would understand. I could barely make eye contact with either of these two deliciously mischievious boys without erupting in clandestine laughter at any time in a given day.

Academically demanding, and with far too heavy a concentration of sheltered, coddled Caucasians, the environment at St. Mark’s existed on a high level of tension.  Our Greek Orthodox fifth grade teacher was beautiful, hip and fashionable. She and I bonded over our mutual adoration of the actor Michael Landon. Like most youthful teachers of the day, she disavowed the old school methods of corporal punishment; but, supported the general lunchroom mandate applicable to the entire school:  monkey business was not to be tolerated. We were allowed to converse quietly with one another while eating, but silliness, goofing off and anything that resembled childish glee was frowned upon and immediately squashed. We were given the choice to either abide by these rules, or we would not be allowed to talk at all. In a pathetic attempt to justify why we shook with laughter at the sight of a boxy little elder taking a hard spill, I can say only that a tense environment causes anxiety, and pent up anxiety can cause anyone to make some bad decisions. Laughter is just the body’s way of coping.

Luther’s reaction was much more compassionate. He was there in an instant, helping the teacher up, likely trying not to actually touch her in case this offended her, likely praying that he would not be blamed for the accident, offering her a clean dish towel to wipe the food from her clothes, unclear from his facial expressions if he felt the crabby little white Napoleon maybe got what she deserved. I feel certain that in order to have not only survived, but thrived in his role as a popular, beloved African American maintenance man at St. Mark’s for as long as he had, his composure and acting skills were very likely Oscar-worthy.

At any rate, from that day on the formerly snappish Mrs. Faye seemed almost humbled, and Luther’s lieutenant, David, was stationed at the trashcan, dutifully scraping the contents of our plates.

I wasn’t the first to strike up a conversation with David. This honor goes to one of my bolder classmates, and, sadly, the details are fuzzy as to which friend actually started it. If I had to guess, I would probably choose Susan Hardtner. She lived in a sprawling Southern mansion that made Tara look shabby. We all followed her lead like a bunch of lemmings. I wasn’t the Alpha Dog, so as soon as it became cool to “Say Hi to David” every day when we dumped our plate, I was on board.

Soon, my group of girlfriends was going out of our way to say “Hi David” every time we saw him around school. One afternoon after school, we found David working in a classroom emptying the wastebaskets. A bunch of us entered the room in preparation for a Girl Scout meeting, and, since after-school time allowed more freedom, we eagerly bombarded him with numerous questions.  We asked David his last name, we learned it was Hayes, and found out he had a baby boy. He was through and through a nice guy. He wasn’t the least bit inappropriate. No one got any weird  Michael Jackson-y Jesus Juice vibes.

Except my mother.

I can’t remember how she even came to know about David. It’s funny how so many details of this story are crystal clear— I mean, I can still hear the thud of Mrs. Faye’s locomotive-like upper body hitting the linoleum and feel the pressure of my eardrums practically bursting as I suppressed my laughter, but I cannot remember how my mother learned about our David Hayes Fan Club. But she did not approve of it one bit. I was ordered not to talk to David anymore.

“Why? That’s so dumb,” I likely responded. I might have been an only child, but since I was old enough to remember, I had given my poor aging parents three kids worth of pushback. But this is one of the times I truly felt it was justified.

“Because. You just never know.” That was the best she could produce. “What business does a janitor have talking to a bunch of little girls?” Mom added.

She didn’t get it. It was the other way around. We talked to him. David didn’t initiate anything. The tag line “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” hadn’t been created yet, but I’m pretty sure I adopted a similar attitude, “What happens at school, stays at school.” I learned to be more secretive. And I had no tattletale siblings to rat me out. The thought of my mother making a big deal out of this mortified me, but I wasn’t going to stop talking to David. No way.

I will say though, in defense of Mama Bears everywhere, she did not have the arsenal of literature and advice available to her then, as we do today, to talk to me productively about this. Nor could she send any WTF e-mails to her other fifth-grade mom-friends and garner opinions or any strength in numbers. In her isolated mind it could have been David or it could have been a man “In a VAN down by the RIVER” (RIP Chris Farley). Mom had a bad case of Stranger Danger Phobia. But, sadly, it did not help the situation that David was black.

So the weeks go by, my Mother occasionally makes failed attempts to play Sherlock Holmes and I am deliberately elusive to avoid any type of scene. My father is more or less removed from the battle, as dads in general were not as involved in day-to-day issues like they are today, at least in my family of origin.

One Saturday, just as I was beginning to think this whole drama was beginning to die down, I’m eating breakfast at the kitchen table. My mother approaches and plops a quartered section of the newspaper down in front of me. She wears her bathrobe and an odd look on her face. I sense that this isn’t going to be good.

“I want you to read this,” she says flatly, and walks away.

I glance down at the headline. It’s not a large, front page screamer. It’s a teeny tiny two-paragraph article buried at the bottom of the page in a random, obscure section of The Shreveport Times.

Man Arrested for Burglary
David Hayes, 23, of Shreveport… 

Disbelief quickly turned to anger.

Oh, and was I furious. Furious at her for finding this, buried in the newspaper, in a section that nobody bothers to read. Furious at her attempts to bolster her side of the debate, that David was a bad man. Furious that I was not winning this battle.

First of all, I rationalized, this probably wasn’t even HIM. And secondly…secondly…well, there was no secondly. I was convinced she had the wrong person. But she seemed almost smug about her discovery, and that made my head want to explode with pre-adolescent rage.

St. Mark’s was my school and also our church. The next morning, Sunday, I was dropped off at church an hour early, as was our usual routine, for choir practice. The halls were unusually quiet that morning. The vesting rooms for the youth choir were located in the basement, and as I approached, I could hear the low conversational tones of two male voices.

The office of the head custodian, who was white, and I don’t recall his name because I don’t think he was required to wear a name patch, was nearby the vesting rooms. The door was closed, but because the top half was opaque glass, I could hear two distinct voices. My heart began to pound. I knew who was behind that door.

Alone and unobserved, I crept up to the custodian’s closed door and eavesdropped. David was being interrogated. I could hear the voice of the head custodian, inquiring about David’s recent arrest. Then I could hear David, attempting to explain, his quiet voice respectfully pleading with his supervisor to let him keep his job. That the burglary was a stupid mistake, his friends had put him up to it, he had learned his lesson, he would do anything to keep his job. His mother was so disappointed. He was sorry. He was sorry. He was pleading. He was sorry.

You apologize. You grovel. I expected that he should be forgiven and maybe handed a trivial punishment. In a little white girl’s world, this is what I knew to be true.

“Look, David, I don’t want to do this,” the head custodian said. “I know you’re a good man. But we can’t have anyone on staff with an arrest record.”

“Please, please, don’t fire me, sir,” David begged.

This back and forth continued for a few more agonizing minutes. I finally heard a chair scrape the floor as his boss pushed back to end the interaction. A Hollywood ending would have had me barging into the custodian’s office and, with a child’s ingenuous passion that encapsulates what’s still good in the world, successfully defending David. Instead, I scurried away like a cockroach, tears streaming down my cheeks.

I wanted to hug David. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was that he lost his job. And how it wasn’t fair that they wouldn’t give him a second chance. I wished he hadn’t committed a crime, but I remained staunchly convinced he wasn’t a criminal, he wasn’t a bad person, he had merely made a foolish, youthful mistake. We had all made mistakes. But, as a black man, this mistake would have swift and severe consequences.

I bolted to the restroom in the back of the vesting room and had a private, snot-globbed ugly cry, choking on sobs of rage and injustice.

The American poet Mary Oliver best described the transformation of ten-year-old me that day, in one of her most beloved quotes from New and Selected Poems, Volume 2

“I tell you this
to break your heart
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.”

My classmates and I all agreed David had gotten a raw deal. We mourned his loss in the lunch room and around school. Were we just naive little white kids, or did our generation see the world through a different, less fearful lens than our parents?

I remained twelve more years in Shreveport, where racial divides continued to exist long after they should. It is a personal regret that I did not make many African American friends. If I had a do-over, that is something I would have changed.

In many ways I strive to emulate my mother, but not in her innate fear of minorities.

For all the distortion of reality that attending an elite, exclusively white private school provided, I think it’s rather amusing and fortuitous that it unintentionally awakened in me, and some of my former classmates, the seeds of passionate liberalism. As part of the curriculum, we attended daily chapel. And despite the Episcopal liturgy’s gender bias— always calling God a King and a Lord and a He and a Him — and all the obfuscating language — all the Thee’s and Thou’s and Dosts and adding eth to the end of all the verbs —I somehow managed to absorb that the meatiest and most important idea we can cram in our lifeskills takeout container is simply this: God wants us to love each other, and treat each other with respect and kindness.

That quality education my parents insisted I receive taught me some key American history:  African slaves were grossly mistreated. Abraham Lincoln was a hero and fought hard to make the principle “All men are created equal” the bedrock of our liberties. I constantly goofed off, and in the classroom, my mind wandered all over the place like a housefly. I ended up leaving St. Mark’s school after that fifth grade year, because academically it was kicking my butt. But I did manage to leave that place with valuable planks in my liberal foundation. I’ll never be sure if that’s what my parents were paying tuition for or not— I’m assuming not— but that’s what they got.

Whatever mindsets and tendencies I was born with, nestled deep and comfortably sleeping in my DNA, were activated that year, several key neurons made a howdy-do that had not been bridged before. I realized how our humanity transcends all barriers. However, only the 52-year-old me can finally put into words what the 10-year-old me discovered.

I learned all of this from observing the heartbreaking plight of my favorite janitor. And a more recent observation:  I may have strong opinions, but do I really DO anything to improve our racial divides? I do not. But my memory of David Hayes will inspire me to do a better job.

David Hayes, where ever you are today,  I hope, like a Phoenix, you rose from the ashes of your mistake and went on to have a satisfying, purposeful, rewarding life. I regret that you lost your job at St. Mark’s so long ago, but I console myself now by imagining perhaps that was exactly what needed to happen for you to become the greater person you were intended to be. Thank you for teaching me, without even trying to teach me, that interracial friendships are like any other friendships, with nothing to fear and nothing to guard against.

Thank you, David Hayes, for helping me to define who I was meant to be. You opened up the eyes, and cracked open the heart of a sheltered white kid. I barely knew you. But through you, I am beginning to figure out so very much.

And Mom and Dad, why is it that excavating our differences makes me miss you even more?

 

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