Creating Galatea

Pygmalion Creates Galatea
Pygmalion Myth

In a much-loved Greek myth, the sculptor Pygmalion, unattracted to the frivolous women of his city, creates a statue that represents his ideal of the perfect woman. He endows her with exquisite features and a graceful figure, but more than that he projects onto the sculpture every possible virtue. As he works, he falls so completely in love with his creation, who he names Galatea, that he can love no living woman. This ancient tale ends happily. Pygmalion appeals to Aphrodite the goddess of love who uses her power to bring the statue to life. Galatea and Pygmalion marry and raise a son who founds the city of Cyprus.

changing dreams
Line drawing -hanging from a heart
Photo by Nick Fewings

On the day, shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday, when my obstetrician informed me that it would be very difficult for me to conceive a child, I transformed into a Pygmalion figure. For over ten years, I had cherished the dream that once I finished school, I would become a journalist. That hope had informed a multitude of choices I made, including courses I took, part-time jobs I accepted and extracurricular activities to which I devoted my time. When I married, I fully intended to continue in that life protectory. Financial necessity forced me to accept other work when my search for a spot in journalism ran dry.  As soon as my husband finished law school and started working full time, I promised myself I would again seek a career in journalism and not give up this time.

a new avocation
Pregnant woman
Photo by Jan Canty

My doctor’s diagnosis, however, tilted my psyche off its axis. After that my choices altered. My ambitions wavered. Motherhood, which had once seemed inevitable, now became elusive, and therefore, the preferred goal. The determination to become pregnant drove away all other aspirations. Could the stress of my work helping abandoned, abused and neglected children adjust to life in foster care be contributing to my infertility? It was a possibility the doctor admitted. Ironically, when I quit my job, I took a job with a magazine publisher – but as a secretary, a mundane position with very little pressure.

My real work, my true avocation at that time, consisted of following the advice of infertility specialists.  I was both Pygmalion and Galatea, sculptor and creation. I molded myself into a woman dedicated to becoming a mother.  Through that endeavor, I transformed myself into a person who desired children more than any other treasure life could offer. Other parts of me fell, chipped away, to the studio floor.

escape the long wait
Road in Door County
Photo by Alisa Anton

In October, 1968, the brilliant fall colors enticed Jay and I to take our Fiat for a spin up to Door County, Wisconsin. We sped north out of the city through the vast farm fields of northern Illinois. Just over the border in Milwaukee we stopped at a favorite restaurant we had discovered on one of trips to visit my family in St. Paul. The Brat House served several tasty versions of that traditional German sausage.  Stepping into the wood-paneled space, we spotted an empty booth and slid in.

“Lucky we got here early or there’d be a long line at the counter,” Jay noted.

Beer taps
Photo by Gonzalo Remy

“I feel like I haven’t eaten in days.  I think I’ll have two brats,” I told him.

He smirked. “Keep that up and you won’t keep your girlish figure you know. Didn’t you have three donuts for breakfast.”

“So, I did,” I admitted. “But I’m famished and we have five more hours before we get to the motel tonight.”

“Can’t have you starving to death before midnight.  What kind do you want?”

anxiety – an unwelcome passenger
Milwaukee, WI skyline
Photo by Tom Barrett

After lunch, we decided to chance driving straight through Milwaukee.  The traffic might be heavy, but it cut several miles off the route. Negotiating the city freeway system took all of Jay’s concentration. I watched the grimy, old city neighborhood whiz by, allowing myself to think about how unusually hungry I’d been lately. It had actually been going on for about a month, but I hadn’t gained any weight. Even more worrisome, my menstrual period had been very light last month. Could the tumors have returned? I wouldn’t bring it up now.  This was going to be a great weekend.

“Hey, Yulsey, wake up. We’re there.”

I’d slept all the way to Elks Bay in Door County. “Geez, I’m sorry. I should have been keeping you company.”

“Nah, you really zonked. It’s funny you being so tired.  You’re always asleep when I get home if I have to stay late at the office.”

“It’s a good thing we took this break then.” I touched his arm.  “You must be the exhausted one now.  “Let’s get our stuff into our room.  We have some serious antiquing to do tomorrow.”

a brief respite
Fire in fireplace
Photo by Clay Banks

The knotty-pine paneled motel room had a wood-burning fireplace with a very big, deep leather chair and ottoman pulled up to it. Heavy wool blankets and flannel sheets covered the double bed. Yes, we needed this. But as I curled up in Jay’s arms, listening to his soft snore that night, anxiety about my hunger and fatigue nagged me. First thing Monday, I had to call the doctor.

It took three weeks before I could get in to see Dr. Grimes.  My concerns mounted. A small voice of hope suggested that maybe I could be pregnant. Perhaps that explained my symptoms, but they didn’t match anything my sister-in-law or my friends had told me about early pregnancy. I felt no nausea, none of the infamous morning sickness. I realized I didn’t know much about what it felt like to be pregnant. Although determined to have a baby, I avoided being with friends who were mothers. Being in their company sharpened my sense of incompleteness.

the verdict
Doctor with stethescope
Photo by Online Marketing

In the doctor’s office, I lay on my back, sheet draped over my spread legs and tried taking deep breaths. Would I ever get used to this ignominious position? I doubted it. “You can sit up now,” he said.

I pushed up with my elbows and clamped my knees tightly together. He was smiling. Smiling! “I’m okay?” my voice quivered. I’d come in scared, prepared to hear I needed another surgery, but he was grinning.

“You’re more than okay, Mrs. Ward,” he beamed. “You are expecting a baby.”

“I’m pregnant?” All the air in my lungs rushed out those words. The room spun.

Dr. Grimes reached a steadying hand to my shoulder, “Most definitely.”

“But, but I haven’t been sick or anything.”

“That’s not exactly the case, is it?  Didn’t you say you’d been very tired and that your appetite had increased?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“Those symptoms can signal pregnancy as often as nausea. About a third of pregnant women never suffer. Check with your mom. I get you find she didn’t have it. It seems to run in families.”

But his voice had faded away. Talk about symptoms and genetics were just a bunch of fluff. The real substance of our exchange, “You’re expecting a baby,” became a star glimmering so brightly that all other words faded into obscurity. Five years of anticipation and hope, despair and doubt had ended.

answered prayers
Pygmalion, Venus and Statue
Painting by Raoux

Pygmalion so fell in love with his own creation, he begged Venus, the goddess of love, to make her real. His prayers were answered. My prayers were also answered.

Even though I know that most, if not all, parents think their babies are the most beautiful ever born, when I look at photographs of the tiny Kristin Margaret, her astonishing beauty still haunts me. Kristin and I settled into a dream-like daily rhythm completely ruled by her needs. To be the best possible mother became my single most important ambition.Kristy at 6 months

In that dream state, a young woman’s sense of a separate self faded away. For fifteen years, being a mother encompassed me in a bubble. How I would wonder did I let myself get so lost? Could I have possibly juggled a career in journalism with motherhood? I have no way of knowing. It’s time to let go of the question.

It’s intriguing, however, how many times it gets asked?

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/12/motherhood-television-news-difficult/576913/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/anushayhossain/2016/07/20/day-in-the-life-being-a-journalist-and-mother-from-home/?sh=6a26a86b39d1

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/insider/working-parent-mom-journalist-juggle.html

Mom and baby at computer
Photo by Standsome worklifestyles

‘I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.’ – Gloria Steinem, feminist and writer

 

 

 

Louisiana’s Very Own Peter Pan

Peter Pan
An Interview with Timothy Miller
Timothy Miller and his book, The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle
Timothy Miller

Tim Miller, author of The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle, writes so he doesn’t have to grow up.  I am convinced that one of the reasons that James Barry’s Peter Pan is an enduring hero is that no one really wants to grow up. We all have our little ways of hanging on to the delicious state of being children. For instance, I have a favorite pillow with which I’ve traveled the world.  I can’t sleep without it.  If I (horror of horrors) forget it, I pay good money to get it back from wherever it wandered off to.

a fantastical superpower
Guy pretending to be superhero
Photo by Craig Whitehead

Timothy, however, goes way beyond a favorite pillow. As a child, he found the world a wondrous place.  He gazed at all the marvelous things that big people did with their time and pondered what he might do when he grew up. He could be an actor, an artist, or a director of films. But what he really hoped to be was a superhero.  That dream came true when he discovered that his mutant super power — he could lie really well!

The bigger the lie he told, the more easily someone else believed it. It was just an easy slippery slope from telling lies to making up stories. Telling these “stories” was great fun, but when at six years old he learned to print, he began to move the tales out of his head and onto paper. Thus, as he began elementary school, he began his career as a writer.

writer, actor, and director
Stuffed Pandas in a Mexican Restaurant
Photo by Zach Rowlandson

 

 

 

He found it was a way to hold onto a favorite childhood pastime – playing with his stuffed animals. This menagerie had been the actors in the plays Tim wrote. He wrote the scripts, often only in his head as elaborate daydreams, assigned characters to each toy animal, and then directed them in their roles. With them as companions, Timothy entered a world every bit as fantastic as Never-never  Land itself. But the teasing of five older siblings pressured him into giving up the “baby” toys.  It could not, however, end the daydreams. His imagination continued to work on overdrive as he captured more and more narratives on paper.

i will never grow up
Little boy reflection in mirror
Photo by Johnny Cohen

 

 

 

 

 

To all outward appearances, Timothy grew up.  He finished school, took on various jobs, and lived an independent life.  His real world, however, opened when he returned home to his typewriter or later his computer.  Sitting there, he became the child Timothy again, making up stories. He became one of the Lost Boys.

While Timothy’s lively imagination is his greatest gift, it also can place obstacles in his path as a published writer.

walking a tight rope

Tim’s brain races. Images fly through his head. He has to remember to slow down as he writes because his reader doesn’t yet know what he knows.  He has to fill in the spaces – just enough, maybe just a hint. He doesn’t want to give away too much. Writing, he finds, is a balancing act.

It is also a struggle against boredom. Sometimes a story will bog down. Timothy finds he’d like to veer off.  At that point, he figures the reader must be bored as well. For both their sakes, he throws in a Molotov cocktail, knocking things off balance again.

 

Taking a new approach with each writing project, Timothy believes, keeps his writing lively. He doesn’t want to stay dependent on what he learned from the last thing he wrote as he begins a new piece. Good writing remains continually original, a childlike imagination knows no bounds.

imagination takes no vacation

Despite keeping the freshness of a child’s perspective, Timothy has a very adult work ethic. Right now, he has his first book newly published, his second book with his editor, and under contract, he’s working on a third book. He’s experiencing for the first time what it’s like to be involved in all aspects of publishing.

He finds it just a bit daunting but certainly never boring. He’s learning to step nimbly because the publishing business is changing so rapidly that no one really knows where it’s headed. He thinks we might see either a consolidation in one or two giant corporations or an evolution into the complete anarchy of self-publishing. “A writer,” Timothy warns, “has to be  ready to jump.”

Masked mystic
Photo by H. Rustall

So where is this boy ready to jump? Tim hopes to have the freedom to switch between genres and mix genres while still retaining his readership. He wants to avoid falling into what he call the Blue Dog trap—where you happen upon a money-making idea and then you’re shackled to that idea the rest of your life. “Why,” he asks, “did you become an artist if not to recreate yourself every time you turn around?” But he recognizes audiences are very resistant to change. That reality is like a reoccurring dream. It’s a problem that has to be worked on.

a thousand possibilities
Popcorn machine against muraled wall
Photo by Mark Wieder

When it comes to writing, however, he likens his mind to a popcorn machine. “I can take a scenario and play a thousand different variations on that. It’s hell for solving real-life problems, but it works pretty well for fiction.”

Follow Tim on his website: https://www.thestrangecasesofsherlock.com/

If you’re not running out to buy Timothy’s book already, this short intro should do the trick:

London is in flux. The clop of the hansom cab has given way to the madness of the motorcar. And Sherlock Holmes, safe in the bee-loud glades of the Sussex downs, is lured back to London when a problem is posed to him by Dr. Watson and Watson’s friend, Col. Higgins. Is the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from girl of the streets to duchess more than it seems?

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54303610-the-strange-case-of-eliza-doolittle

River Thames
Photo by David Monaghan

The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle is available from Seventh Street Books at https://www.seventhstreetbooks.com/

 

 

Too Old to Sing Rock ‘n Roll?

Woman hiking in wilderness
“Old age is not for wimps”

Man on exercise bikeThe woman in the photo was slender with clearly defined muscles rippling along her arms, torso and legs. Her eyes squinted fiercely, staring directly at the camera, in a face lined with wrinkles. Long grey hair pulled haphazardly into a bun at the nape of her wiry neck escaped in strands caught in the sweat pouring off her furrowed brow. Scrawled across the bottom of the poster, bold letters read, “Old Age Is Not for Wimps.”

Every time I exited my gym locker room, dragging my thirty-something self toward the weight machines, I paused mesmerized by that woman.  I was determined to be her, to be fit and ready for anything in my elder years.

“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” 
― 
Jean-Paul Sartre

Then and Now

I’m so glad she’s not here to judge me now. I bear no resemblance to my ideal. There have been times over the last thirty years when I approached my goal. There was that year I went to the gym three times a week.  And a different year when I woke in the dark to run three miles every weekday morning.  For almost five years I met a friend at 6 a.m. to walk two miles almost every morning. When my younger daughter was getting married, I hired a personal trainer and joined Weight Watchers for eight months.  I love those mother-of-the bride pictures!

More recently, I spent a spring and summer, working out three days a week, and building up my walking until I could walk 20 miles in a day. By October, I trekked 30 miles in one day as a participant in CureSearch’s Ultimate Hike program, a cause that has raised over 5 million dollars in the battle against childhood cancer.

Drinking by the fireplace
Photo by Sergio Solo

And it’s ageism, far more than the passage of time, that makes growing older harder for all of us.” 
― 
Ashton Applewhite, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

But after the hike, just as before, I slipped into my old couch potato ways.

There Comes a Time

Now, I’m beginning to pay the price. I don’t stroll as quickly as I once did. I’m out of breath if I climb more than one flight of stairs. I fall more easily. And all this scares me.  Am I becoming an elder wimp?

The time when my motivation for losing weight and getting in shape was mostly to appear more attractive has come and gone. It’s become more a matter of life and death.  Not death in the absolute sense, but the death of the freedom to be myself, to be a person who choses what she can and cannot participate in.

I’m not alone in recognizing the now or never of this proposition. The authors of “Aging with Freedom,” a fantastic website that explores multiple aspects of transitioning into the “golden years,” studied the supposed connection between early retirement and early death.  The literature clearly indicated that it’s what you do in retirement, not when you retire that makes the difference.

If you use early-retirement to exercise more and replace or improve work with other social connections and purpose, early-retirement is good for you. It can dramatically improve both longevity and quality-of-life. https://agingwithfreedom.com/2018/03/27/early-retirement-health-odds-good-or-bad/

Women doing yogaThere go my hopes that exercise doesn’t matter anymore!

I’m looking for motivators and “tricks” and best practices to pull myself away from this computer and out onto the sidewalk or into the gym.  If you know of any, please take a minute to share them in the contact box.

I promise to let you know if I try your ideas and how they work out.

Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life. Billy Graham

 

 

A Special Place in My Heart

Young couple kissing
first love

Do you remember the first person you fell in love with? I bet you do.  And maybe, like me, the place in your heart that person occupied has remained theirs for years after. It will most likely never be given to anyone even though you will have greater loves, more endearing loves, maybe even permanent loves.

Even to this day, I can never scramble eggs without feeling my first love, hovering behind me. It was he who taught me how to make them “just right.” The sight of the yellow whirls in the frying pan evokes his presence like incense burning in a lamp.

high school sweethearts
Vintage classroom scene
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton

Mike and I were sweethearts in high school. We never actually met one another. Rather we slowly came into one another’s radar. I cannot pinpoint the moment when we realized that we were “together.”

I felt like I knew Mike long before I actually came face to face with him. By the time I was in junior high, I had determined that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew. When a ninth-grade English teacher required our class to interview an adult working in our hoped-for future career, I called Dorothea Bump, who wrote a weekly column for our local newspaper. Ms. Bump and I had a delightful conversation. She didn’t pull any punches about how challenging it was for a woman to succeed in the world of journalism, but she encouraged me to pursue my dream.  While we talked, I learned that she had a son my age.

different spheres
Basketball game
Photo by Klara Kulikova

My curiosity piqued, when I started high school the next year, I paid attention in classes and at school events to see if his name showed up.  And it did. Although it was a huge school and we didn’t have many classes in common, he was on the football team.  At a high school in central Indiana, this was not the big deal it is in many other places in the United States.  At our school, basketball was king.  Football games were not well attended.  In fact, girls, who wished to be cheerleaders for the basketball games, tried out at the football games.

More notably, Mike was very involved in student government and in speech and debate clubs. That meant he appeared on stage at student assemblies. A charming and persuasive speaker, he was a popular choice for campaign manager for kids who ran for office. At that time, however, I had an enormous crush on a guy from my junior high and Mike didn’t cause my heart to turn over.

enter drama
Actors on Stage
Photo by Kyle Head

Junior year brought us into the same circle. My best friend, Nancy, dreamed of a career in theater. She was involved at some level in every production our school put on.  Usually, she played a lead role as she was (and is to this day) a fine actor.  I had no theater ambitions, but I liked being where Nancy was. So, I signed on to build sets, procure props, and help actors learn their lines.

Mike’s closest friend Kelley was another young actor.  Kelley’s involvement with the school theater drew Mike in.  Mike had no desire to act, but he had a fine voice and got “volunteered” for the chorus for musicals – not just to sing, but to lend his strong back to scene construction.

backstage romance
Backstage of a theater
Photo by Jonny Rothwell

This convergence of interests put Mike and me backstage on the sidelines with the rest of the support crew for long periods of time. Most of us tried to get some homework done as we curled in whatever comfortable corner we could find, but with all the comings and goings of the rehearsals, concentration was pretty hard.  We couldn’t distract the actors, so we would converse in notes. Finally, Mike got frustrated enough by this abbreviated way of communicating that he asked me to go for a coke one evening.

meant to be

The rapport that began backstage blossomed at the diner. I don’t remember that Mike actually asked me for a date after that. We simply started being together.  Anything he was involved in, I engaged in as well. He did the same for me.  We attended all the school dances as a couple for the next two years.

New York City neon
Photo by Florian Wehde

In senior year, he, for some reason, decided not to take the class trip to Washington D.C and New York City. But as soon as our bus pulled out of the station, he realized he had to share it with me.  He hitchhiked to New York. Washington had been fascinating, but lonely. What a wonderful surprise to find Mike sitting in my hotel lobby when my classmates and I arrived in New York.  I fell in love with New York with Mike.  It’s still my favorite American city.

Our romance unraveled when we graduated high school and attended different colleges. It wasn’t easy. We both ended up with broken hearts. Few people marry their high school sweethearts.  Those who do often don’t stay married to them.  It’s way too early for most young people to make a life-long decision. That doesn’t make the end of the relationship any less harsh or the memories any less poignant.

The love lesson of our romance, however, never faded.  Mike taught me that I could be loved wholeheartedly for exactly who I was.  Because he believed that, I could believe it.  The knowledge that I am worthy of unconditional love was his gift to me long after our young romance slipped away.

Room for One More

Father walking in sunset with kids
life keeps changing

In my blog post on the last Monday in January, I recounted how turning the year I turned thirteen my life turned, if not full circle, then at least by 180 degrees. My vision of what my future could hold had expanded at the very time my family had left behind Detroit, Michigan, the city of my birth, to move to a much smaller city in central Indiana.

1050s car in front of frame home
Photo from Boston Public Library

One unexpected change, however, may have happened whether we had moved or not. In the summer of 1956 when we piled our station wagon with items too precious to entrust to the movers, we then squeezed in a family of six. Dad drove and Mom navigated. Between on a booster sat my four-year old brother Terrence. My brother John, twenty months my junior, and I commanded the window seats in the back. Despite her loud laments, we crowded the eight-year-old “princess.” Nanette, into the middle. Two girls. Two boys. A dad and a mom. A nice round number – a family of six.

an anniversary surprise

Baby drinking from a bottle
Photo by Kelly Sikkema

By the time the kids entered school in September, however, the numbers were not quite so even. When we had sat down for a celebratory dinner for my parents’ fifteenth wedding anniversary, Dad had announced with tears in his eyes that by spring a new sister or brother would be joining us. A new baby for the new abode. Everyone of us cheered.  At least, I think Nanette did.  I don’t remember checking.

The gap between the new baby and me would be almost fifteen years. Mom’s pregnancy helped to make me a celebrity at school.  Few of my freshman year high school classmates were expecting a baby into their family. For many of us, our other siblings had been born before we knew “where babies came from.” So, it was exciting to skirt around the issue that someone’s parents had actually “done it at their age.” Although my mom and dad were only in their forties, many of us knew grandparents who were not much older than that.

an anxious father

Man staring off into woods
Photo by Madalyn Cox

The closer the time came for the birth of the new baby, the more anxious and nervous my father became.  He found it hard to go off to work in the morning. He lost his temper quite easily with us for the slightest infraction and spent lots of time in his woodworking shop producing nothing.  Excitement and happiness about the new baby so filled my heart that I couldn’t figure out what was causing him so much grief. Mom was healthy. She was just pregnant. Had I not been so absorbed in fitting in to my new school environment to which I’d basically taken like a duck to water, I might have been able to discern why Dad was so tense all the time.

home birth emergency

His trauma had its root cause in my sister Nanette’s birth. Because my mother’s labor with her had proceeded so quickly, there was no opportunity to head for the hospital. John and I, only three and five at the time, had not been told we’d be having a new sibling. Rather, that Sunday morning in February, 1948, we had been awakened by our mother’s screams and had run to her room.  Dad turned us away, ordering us to go downstairs and keep still.  We sat clinging to one another in the big gold chair by the victrola, still in our pajamas when our grandmother rushed into the front door in her housecoat shortly and ran upstairs without looking our way.

Doctor with his bag -vintage photo
Photo from Shutterstock

Then we heard only muffled sounds for what seemed forever until our dad’s footsteps pounded down the steps and to the door. The doctor, black bag in hand hurried across the room.  Just as he passed us, a baby cried out. (For a very long time I was totally convinced that new babies were delivered by doctors in their black bags.) Then we heard sirens as an ambulance pulled up out front. Our grandmother came downstairs and hustled us into the kitchen. We heard a lot of commotion on the other side of the door and then the sirens again. Still, no one told us anything except when I asked to see my mom, grandma said she was sick and had gone to the hospital.

five people in the family

Tiny baby girl
Photo by Jenean Newcomb

Our father didn’t come home that night, but he was in the dining room the next morning and his smile lit up the space. “You have a new little sister,” he told us. Now we’ve lived on a block in the city where new babies showed up at friends houses all the time.  The big mystery, of course, was where did they come from.  But come they did.  So, John and I were not all that surprised. He asked when would Mom be home and I asked what the baby’s name was. “Mary Antoinette,” Dad said.

“I’ll never be able to spell that,” I told him.

Mom, despite her unexpected home birth was fine and so was the new little one.  They came home the next day. I started calling the baby “Nanette” almost immediately – but never when my mom could hear me.

another birth trauma

Delivery room birth
Photo by Amit Gaur

Life returned to a normal rhythm until four years later when my brother Terrence’s birth shook the family to its core.  In mid-twentieth century America only hospital deliveries were considered safe.  The fact that my sister had been born at home without any problem and that both mother and child had been healthy carried no weight.  When Mom became pregnant for the fourth time, the doctor was determined that the child would be delivered at the hospital.  He decided, therefore, to induce the birth around the time of the baby’s due date.

Because I was only ten at the time, I never knew exactly what went wrong just that it did go bizarrely off track.  For one thing, the doctor misjudged the due date. When my brother was born, it became clear that he was premature. He needed neo-natal intensive care immediately and couldn’t leave the hospital for a month.  For some reason, delivery did not go well for mother either. She also was hospitalized following the birth becoming ill enough that my dad feared for her life. My grandmother led the three children at home in daily rosaries praying for our new baby brother and our Mom.

Baby in isolette incubator
Photo by Sharon Mc Cutcheon

What I recall most about that time was a sense of dread.  Although no adult had ever shared with me the dangers of childbirth, I had experienced death intimately twice that year.  My best friend, Patti, had died four days after being diagnosed with polio.  And my grandfather had died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  I did my best to be a “little mother” to my brother and sister, but I knew how inadequate I was.  I cried myself to sleep while keeping a brave face for my dad during the day. What a relief when Dad announced that Mom and Terrence were coming home.

at home at last

Children on step
Photo by Mallory Di Maio

It was a lovely May day and we waited on the front steps as Dad helped Mom, holding the blanket-clad baby out of the car. John held the front door.  I ran ahead to stand by the h bassinet so I could have a first peek at the baby. But when Mom laid him down, horror gripped me. He was red and wrinkled like a prune.  His little arms and legs were stick-like not the chubby baby limbs I expected. Was he really okay to come home?  Mom saw my look. “He’s fine.  We just have to fattened him up a bit.”

just as it should be

Now with the unexpected home birth and the disastrous induced birth ever in his radar, my dad couldn’t help but be a nervous wreck the closer the fifth baby’s due date got. But when it came, it went just the way it was supposed to go.  Mom awoke with mild contractions. There was plenty of time for Dad to take her to the hospital.  I was old enough to care for home and hearth while he

Blonde newborn
Photo by Yves Scheuber

went.  A robust, healthy baby girl came into the world without any complications. Three days later, we welcomed home a chubby, big-eyed cherub with a wisp of blonde curls – a true Gerber baby.  My happiness at welcoming this new family member knew no bounds.  I called everyone I knew to say that “Mary Elizabeth” had joined the family and they should come and see the most beautiful baby in the world.

What, even in all my happiness at the time, I couldn’t know was this precious child would continue to be a blessing to me throughout my life. I’ll have to tell you about that in another blog post.

Siblings: children of the same parents, each of whom is perfectly normal until they get together.
Sam Levenson

I would love to hear any stories you have about welcoming new brothers or sisters into the family.

 

Sisters – A Bond Like No Other

Sisters on a couch
weird sisters

In the delightful novel, The Weird Sisters, three women in their early thirties land back at their parents’ home for a summer. The twists of fate converge to bring them together when each is facing a life-changing crisis. The author Eleanor Brown transforms these ordinary moments of everyday life into a narrative so engrossing that it’s almost impossible to put down. She does this in no small measure through her vivid portrayal of each sister and of their complex relationship.

3 sisters circa 1890
Photo from Boston Public Library

A dear friend recommended I read the book because I also am one of three sisters. She thought I might find similarity between my family and the one in the book.  On the surface, the family of this novel and my own family of origin have little in common. The heroines of the book grow up in a small mid-western town where life centers around a prestigious liberal arts college. Their father is a literature professor. My sisters and I grew up in large urban centers where manufacturing was the lifeblood of the community. Our father, as intelligent as he was, had no college degree. Popular mechanics were his passion.

first, middle, last – it makes a difference

Three Nepalese sisters
Photo by Terry Boynton

Despite these differences, from the first page the story resonated with me at a deep level. What struck me right away was the influence of birth order not just on the sisters’ place within the family, but also on the choices they had made as they left the family. I could see a parallel structure in my own family.

In the past, some psychologists like Alfred Adler, a 19th- and early 20th-century Austrian psychotherapist and founder of individual psychology, suspect that birth order leads to differences in siblings. Broader twenty-first century studies have questioned this theory,   Other studies based on Myers/Briggs theory have confirmed it.

excellent writer’s tool

Psychology aside, however, this theory works well for writers as they develop their characters. As we read, we believe. When an author weaves a fine tale in which a character’s birth order influences importance aspects of the self, readers not only accept the reality on the page, they begin to look for similarities in their own life.

Like the oldest sister in The Weird Sisters, I always had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to the family. I didn’t always like that role, but I knew my parents expected me to help my mother with household tasks, caring for my younger siblings, and running errand when needed.

caught in the middle

3 Sisters from Logan, Utah
Photo by Adam Winger

In the book, Bianca, the middle sister shrugs off the responsibilities of home and narrowness of small-town life.  She is the beauty of the family and she uses that beauty as a commodity. My middle sister was also the beauty of our family – a beauty with a prickly rose bush grown around her, keeping her separate from the rest of us – somehow living in another plain.

Her given name was Mary Antoinette. My mother never called her anything else. We siblings had trouble spilling that out all at once. At first, we called her “Marnette.” Later that phased in “Nanette,” the name we still use.  She herself insisted on being called “Mary.”  This was problematic because our youngest sister, the baby of the family, was Mary Elizabeth. Mom shorted that to Mary Beth, but then us older kids shortened it to simply “Beth,” which might have worked except that when she went to high school, she told all her new friends to simply call her “Mary.”

Consequently, if someone phoned our home and asked for “Mary,” we always had to ask, “Which one?” A little flustered, the caller would say “Mary De Jager,” to which we again answered “Which one?” My brothers and I were loud in our protests over the confusion that the two “Mary’s” were causing, but neither sister would give way.  Each hold her claim to “her” name.

the favored child

3 Sisters in Carterville IL
Photo by Blake Cheek

In The Weird Sisters, each of the young women is certain that she is actually her father’s favorite.  No such mistaken notion occurred in my household. Nanette was far and away the “favored child.” Her delicate features, huge blue eyes, and very curly flaxen hair mesmerized adults. More than that, she very early learned to be what she herself termed “a lady.”  And I talking about when she was just a kindergartener. For one thing, she would only wear dresses or skirts never jeans or shorts. My mother complied and dressed her like a favorite doll. Mom also spent a great deal of time fashioning Nanette’s curls into perfect spirals with some of them piled charmingly on top of her head.

My maternal grandmother doted on this beautiful granddaughter.  Our family, as a rule, never ate in restaurants unless we were traveling, but my grandmother and “Grandpa Ed,” her second husband loved eating out. They often took Nanette with them because they enjoyed the admiration and attention that other diners showered on her and because my sister had learned at a very young age that “children should be seen and not heard.”

As we grew Nanette became ever more attractive. When we got to our teens, she spent most of the day at the neighbor pool. She was the only one in the family who could tan. Her skin turned the color of honey in the summer and her hair bleached to an even lighter shade of blonde.

unanticipated metamorphosis

3 sisters in a rural area
Photo by Fabio Centeno

When she turned seventeen, a metamorphosis took us all by surprise. The Barbie Doll caterpillar spun a cocoon and disappeared, becoming uncommunicative and unsocial.  Nanette went to school, watched the television news, and read for hours. When the butterfly emerged, she was a socially conscious advocate, determined to make a difference in a world she deemed was falling apart. After high school graduation, she joined a group of lay missionaries. Their work took them to schools in Appalachia. She returned at the end of the summer and enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study social work.

briefly royal

She had, however, one more turn as the family beauty.  During Nanette’s sophomore year, our mother became very ill. She expressed to her middle child that she had been harboring high hopes for years that Nanette might someday be Miss America. When Nanette tried to laugh it off, Mom begged her to consider trying.  Seeing Mom’s desperation, my sister applied for the Miss St. Paul pageant – and won. My mother was in seventh heaven.  The next step, getting ready for the Miss Minnesota pageant meant taking time off from studies, but Nanette didn’t know how to refuse. In that contest, she became one of ten finalists.

Goth sisterss
Photo by Angello Pro

Then in an interview with the judges, each young woman was asked what she wanted to do with her life. Nanette laid out for them her plan to get a Master’s in Social Work and to then go to areas of the country that were under served to help those struggling with poverty and lack of supportive services.  One of the judges nodded. Then he said, “You have the talent to win this contest, but most of the girls either have no concrete plan for their life or want to go into show business.  Being Miss Minnesota would take a year out of your life.  You have a great vision. We don’t think you should waste a year of your life being a beauty queen. Go follow your dream.”

the rainbow ends here

Nanette not only understood she was relived.  She had done her best. It wasn’t meant to be.  Our mom still had her photos to display with Nanette wearing the Miss St. Paul crown.  Her daughter had done her duty as the “favored child.”

Mary Antoinette followed her own yellow brick road and became a high school counselor, devoted to helping young teens find a way to transform their most authentic dreams into reality.

“And I felt closer to you. Because you knew me so much better than I’d realized – and still loved me.”
Rosamund lupton, Sister

Three Sisters Peaks Oregon

Erin Donley: Hidden Force

book, glasses, computer

With this first post of March, 2021, I add a new feature to my website. From today forward, each month, I’ll be offering a story about a contemporary authors — how they came to this avocation and what it means to them. We begin with Erin Donley of Portland, Oregon.

brand new graduate

Radio station
Photo by Fringer Cat

Erin Donley (contact Erin at erin@erindonley.com), the force behind fourteen non-fiction books, did not set out to be a writer. Following college graduation, Erin felt unsure what field to pursue. Then, out of the blue, she landed a position at an advertising agency, which created radio commercials. Her job – sell the commercials to local businesses. Almost from the first day she began, Erin noticed an interesting discrepancy. She had much better success selling through email than in person. She went over her presentations, looking for an answer. Two facts jumped out. One, as a young, blonde, woman, she didn’t have the same credibility as her peers. And, two, on the more positive side, she excelled at written communication. This new understanding of her own potential planted a tiny seed, the one that would later lead her to seek a career as a writer.

self discovery

Girl at bookstore
Photo by John Michael Thomson

Unfortunately, it felt to her like her job demanded that she pretend to be someone not quite her true self. As much as she enjoyed business and sales, her most abiding interests were personal and professional development.  To pursue these interests, she left marketing and began working for a bookstore, where the titles focused on personal growth and self-help.

Soon after she began her new position, Erin approached the owners. “I believe,” she told them, “that I can make a positive impact on your sales and your reputation through writing a column in your newsletter.” She laid out for them her writing credentials and proposed a weekly feature, which reviewed books and interviewed authors.

a project takes off

Girl with lots of books
Photo by Annie Spratt

They accepted her proposal.  Erin let her own personality shine through in those weekly columns. She reviewed books on controversial topics.  She drew authors out about the most fascinating aspects of their lives and careers. Every week, her column had a high open rate, the response to the reviews and the interviews were numerous, and the books she featured flew off the shelves.

The writer’s seed sprouted and pushed out of the depth of Erin’s soul and discovered the sun of a satisfied audience. Erin came to know that audience intimately and to recognize that no occupation gave her as much personal satisfaction as writing.

Questions about how she could possible support herself as a writer cropped up even as she continued to enjoy her work at the bookstore. She could, she knew, write her own book, but the topics about which she was passionate were, she suspected, too controversial to attract the corporate sponsorship she might need to be successful.  In the field of personal growth literature, an author’s true income comes from teaching courses in their topic and speaking engagements before large audiences.

to be or not to be . . . a personality

Grafitti about Social media
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina

Erin also had to face that publishers in the 21th century are seldom willing to take a chance on any author who does not already have a huge social media following.  They prefer writers who are “personalities.”  “Being a personality” was at odds with her true goal.  She didn’t want to be “on stage.” Earning a living and contributing to society and culture through writing were her dreams. Having a readership for Erin was quite different than having a “following.”

a happy medium

The more she pondered her quandary, the clearer it became that the best way for her to do work that satisfied her and make a living doing it was to become a ghostwriter in the field she knew best, personal-growth books. She already knew the readers, what they were seeking, what they wanted more of, what topics were getting tired, what would hit home again. The authors were close to her heart. She had seen the heartbreak and disappointment of too many when their books would be published, but wouldn’t sell. Erin knew with certainty that she could help such authors write better books.

Collaborators
Photo by Kraken Images

Fortunately, she had built up a plethora of contacts, colleagues in other bookstores and people in the book selling industry, and marketing and design experts. Also, in the seventeen years since college graduation, Erin had met industry experts and leaders in many different fields of business. Within an amazing short time, she landed a first contract. (Erin cannot reveal the names of books she ghost-writes; nondisclosure agreements are built into all her contracts.)

Her first author/client, a wealthy, impulsive individual, actually bailed while they were writing the final chapter of the book! But the process convinced her that she could keep find-tuning not only her writing, but her interaction with aspiring authors, that she was, indeed, on the road to earning a living as a writer.

where was erin?

Erin with her book
Finally she had to write her own book.

After a while, however, she sensed a “problem” in her work with her clients. She found herself saying things like, “What about this idea? Or “How about including…?” Erin realized she had to write her own book and get her passions, beliefs, and ideas into the world and out of her system. In January, 2019, she published, Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down: Face Your Power and Find Your Peace.

Being an author, she found was a much more arduous journey than being a ghost writer. It was emotionally, intellectually, and financially taxing. She felt humbled by all the help she needed to bring the book to completion. It’s not a process she wants to repeat, but in the end, it was exciting to hold in her hand the book that was truly hers, that took her own ideas out into the world. She does not, however, feel any need to “scream from the rooftops” about it.  The ideas and causes she advocates are valuable and she will continue working for them.  In the meantime, she’s more than happy to return to the anonymity of ghost writing, where she can be the hidden force behind her client’s message.

a voyage of discovery

She loves her work. Through her writing she gets to dig deep into many different subjects, becoming a mini-expert at those topics, but she’s not hemmed in by any one field. Every new book is an adventure into an exciting new area of discovery.

Although she’s completed fourteen books, Erin still feels every completed manuscript is like a small miracle. She loves the way the whole publishing team works together to bring a new work into the world. She compares it to having a child. “The moment when you first hold the book in your hands is like the moment when they first place your baby in your arms.”  All the hard work and long weeks of waiting has produced this thing of beauty!

Girl reading in sunset
Photo by Max

Knowing that the book changes the author’s life and the lives of its readers feels “absolutely wonderful.”  She knows with conviction that she is on the right path for her.  Presently, along with working on her ghost-writing projects, Erin edits work for other writers and coaches aspiring authors.  She is, however, building toward a time when instead of ghostwriting two to three books per year, she can be hired for one single, lucrative project per year. That’s her dream, and I’m convinced she’ll make it come true.

In the meantime, if you are reading this and you’ve been dreaming for a long time of writing your own non-fiction book, but just don’t know where to start, reach out to Erin.  She has co-authored memoirs, personal growth books, how-to books in fields of business, activism and other fields.  And she would love to hear from you at erin@erindonley.com.Erin with her book

 

 

 

Like a Rainbow

Rainbow over Waverly

Over the last several post, I’ve been sharing memories with my readers.  Some have been stories from my childhood. Others are tales shared with me about my parents’ or my grandparents’ lives.

Today, I return to my earliest post. This one was published over two years ago. It asks readers to join me, to share their stories and to share photographs that illustrate those stories.  It’s a BIG ASK. But, boldly, I do it again.

somewhere over the rainbow

Yellow brickroad to OzLike a rainbow, families begin and end in misty places we never actually see.  Some of its colors we perceive quite clearly. Others are not so easily defined. But together all these hues represent who we are and what we can be.

Every known human society has had distinctive ways of constructing family relationships.  All have recognized this web of intimate inter-connection as essential to human survival.

Our own contemporary Western culture is no different.  The turmoil of immigration and mobility has severed our links to our ancestors. Feeling uprooted, yearning for connection, we turn to genealogists to find out who our great-grandparents were and where they came from.

That only gets us names and dates.  It doesn’t connect people to one another.  Even if I unearth some photos to go with the names,  I mostly find myself staring at …..strangers.

Back to the Future

Old photosI cannot undo the past. But there’s another impossibility I may be able to pull off. I can travel “Back to the Future.”  Before you start calling in the guys with the straight jackets, let me assure you that I am not planning on building a Time Machine.

Rather through memory and imagination, I will visit the past as I knew it and bring back stories of those times and those people, preserving them for today’s children and also for the children at the other end of the rainbow.

I invite you to companion me on my quest.  Share your stories of our families’ past adventures and everyday events. Send me photos that illustrate those tales. Don’t limit yourself to the past. Today will soon be yesterday. So let’s hear what’s happening in the family right now, especially the funny stories that will tickle the ribs of future grandchildren and great-nieces and nephews as well.

sundays at nana’s house

Jay having dinner with Terrence's familyMany of us remember a time when almost every Sunday, the extended family gathered at a grandmother’s or great-aunt’s home for Sunday dinner.  It takes events of great joy or deep sadness to bring us all together today.  This blog will be a virtual “Dinner at Nana’s House,” a place and time to celebrate that in some way everyone here is family.

I am reaching out to everyone I have been fortunate enough to call “family.” Here we’ll ask real questions, not fill in some fantasy quiz. We ask because we truly want to know the answers.

Asking is not probing.  There will still be secrets.  Every family has them. But we will so much more about each other than we do now. Day by day we’ll be more and more connected. Knowing will enable caring. Caring will engender a tradition of support. This will be our legacy.

abundance of connection

At my father's Wisconsin cabin
John DeJager’s Lake Cabin

My life’s journey began in the midst of abundant family. On the day I was born my four grandparents lived nearby, my two uncles were fighting in World War II, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. As the first child of two oldest children, I did not, as yet, have any aunts, siblings, or cousins.  Those would come later. I was, however, blessed with an abundance of great-aunts and  great-uncles, a slew of second and third cousins, and best of all, two lovely great-grandmothers.  It is my great hope that all these wonderful folks will star somewhere in the dramas to appear on these pages.

No more photos without names. No more names without faces. Future children of the clans will inherit the rich narrative of their origins.  knowing where they come from will give them true direction as to where they can go.

“Families are like branches on a tree, we grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one.” https://www.treasurequotes.com/quotes/families-are-like-branches-on-a-tree-we-grow

Might Southern Oak
Photo by Andrew Shelley

Let the Clan Gathering Begin.

 

The Sky Is The Limit!

Irises

Over the last two blog posts, I’ve shared two events in my own “coming-of-age” experiences when my world suddenly became much wider.

This week a guest blogger, Nancy Louise, weaves a tale similar and yet very different than those stories of a time in her childhood when the door to a possible new life opened up for her.

Hitting Rock Bottom

Huge family of young childrenRight before my ninth birthday my Daddy was killed in a car accident in Shreveport, Louisiana, one of the many towns I’d lived in over the course of my short life. His death left my Mama with six young’uns, under the age of ten to raise on her own. I was the second oldest. Unable to consider employment and with no means of support, Mama moved us into ‘The Projects,” free housing for indigent families. We froze in the winter and sweltered in the summer, but we stayed together with a roof over our head.

Housing project
Photo by Joel Muriz

The Federal Housing Projects of the 1950’s was very basic. Everything was concrete and hard metal. And HOT! Hard Edged. Teaming with kids. And noisy. Always very, very noisy. I loved to escape—if only for a little while, if only in my imagination.

a trick of the imagination

Girl in African dress
Photo by Magdalena Manchee

Of course, we had no car. We lugged our groceries home on foot. As the oldest girl —that task frequently fell to me. From our apartment house, in one direction on Southern Avenue stood the A&P, the source of most of our groceries. But in my fantasy world, I trekked not to a supermarket, but to deepest Africa. On my way home, I strode down Southern Avenue precariously balancing dry goods, such as a 25-pound sack of flour on my head. As I bounced along, I swayed my hips and sang nonsense words what I told myself was “jungle language.” I was no longer a Southern school girl; I had morphed into a bearer on Safari! The blessing of a great imagination lit up my dull, everyday life!

In the other direction on Southern was “The Cotton Boll”—an early convenience store with higher prices and, therefore, only used for “emergencies” —like when we ran out the baby’s milk a.k.a. a can of Pet.

secret garden

Deserted lot by railroad tracks
Photo by Wil Steward

One fine spring day Mama sent me up to the Cotton Boll to fetch something-or-other—she probably hoped quickly! On the four-block walk, I passed by a huge empty lot that backed up to a ridge with the railroad tracks on top. The lot looked nasty, filled with high weeds, scrubby bushes, rusted out car parts and trash.

Girl picking blackberriesAlways a curious child, I forgot my mother’s urgency, and I decided to “explore” the lot, just as any self-respecting adventurer would do.  Also, I was in search of blackberry bushes, which I knew grew plentifully along the top of that ridge on the rail road tracks. Blackberries were the only fresh fruit we could afford growing up because they were free for the picking. But I didn’t find any blackberries.

Instead, there in the back corner of the lot I found something I never expected to see. An enormous patch of purple irises in full bloom! I have no idea how they got there. Perhaps in the far distant past there had been a house on the lot and had irises graced the back yard. Or perhaps one bulb floated in on a strong wind one day, took root and multiplied as irises are wont to do.

a place for dreaming

Irises under blue sky
Photo by Roberta Guillen

But for whatever reason…there they were. Totally unknown to the world. . .except me! I got down on all fours, crawled past the brambles and weeds into the patch, I carefully turned over on my back in such a way that all I could see was a wide, open sky framed by the purple blooms. As I lay in total quiet of my hidden garden, my heart swelled and out of nowhere, as though spoken by the wind, words swept into my head, “THE SKY’S THE LIMIT”.

I never shared the secret of the irises with anyone. But each spring for years after, I would make a pilgrimage to “my garden,” lie in the blooms, and dream – very big dreams of a life that would take me far beyond “the projects.”

the journey begins

Painting of nuns singing
@Eurpeana

As a first step toward the dream, at sixteen I entered the convent. While I prepared for a life of dedicated sisterhood, “progress” came to my old neighborhood. Southern Avenue was ripped up.  The A&P and the Cotton Boll were torn down to make room for the Interstate. My irises disappeared forever.

After four years, I left the convent, a good, but heartbreaking decision. The move thrust me unawares into the American 60s.  New things were “Blowing’ in the Wind”. I couldn’t go back home. My dreams still tugged at me. I went into training to become an airline stewardess. (Never a “flight attendant” mind you. But that’s another story!) My “stew” job launched me into a career in travel.

Airplane wing w sunset
Photo by Nick Pryde

Just as I dreamed in my garden, I left the projects far behind. I spent my life leading tour groups to every corners of the world. With each and every trip, I grew more and more aware of that God always walked with me, showing me those Limitless Skies.

In the Driver’s Seat

Young girl adjusts car mirror

On the February day I turned fifteen years and six months, “Let’s get Jule driving,” became a rallying cry of my family.

a family project

Cowboy boots
Photo by Jon Siler

My mother and all my siblings had a stake in the endeavor. Mom wanted to delegate some of the responsibility for errand running. She also planned that I would help to ferry the other kids to and from their many activities. My brother John, just twenty months my junior, knew if I had a little more freedom to come and go from our far-flung ex-urban ranch house than he could hitch a ride on those forays.

My grade-school age brother and sister plotted visits to our small- town cinema for the Saturday cowboy matinees. They went so far as to hope to swing through the drive-in for a milkshake after the movie. If Mom didn’t have to drive us herself, she might be less reluctant to watch our allowance go for such frivolities. My toddler sister caught the enthusiasm from the rest of us.  She knew from experience that Mom expected me to take her with me wherever I went.

a nervous dad

Little girl crosses river on a log
Photo by Morgan de Lossy

The only one not wholeheartedly cheering on the project was my dad.  And with good reason. Between the fifteen and a half-year old who didn’t know the first thing about piloting an automobile and a sixteen year old, who could pass her driver’s test, was a gigantic void. It would be his job to fill that void, if not with expertise, then with enough skills that I could get around without killing myself or anyone else. He didn’t relish the opportunity.

Dad himself was a self-taught driver. Neither his parents nor my mother’s drove. Dad had lived on a farm as a teen during the Great Depression.  He learned to drive, starting with farm vehicles before moving on to cars. At first, he had mostly driven around the farm or just as far as a neighbor’s place. By the time his family moved to Detroit, he had several years of driving under his belt and didn’t find the city quite as daunting as it might have been.  That is, until he had to teach his new wife to drive.  Memories of those harrowing weeks haunted him as he contemplated teaching his eldest daughter the rudiments of the road.

here we go

Vintage Station Wagon
Photo by Tyler Nix

On the plus side, he had moved his family to a small Indiana city two years before. I would not have to learn to drive in Detroit.  He had also built a home for us at the far edges of that city, Muncie. So, there were relatively quiet roads for me to practice driving.

That didn’t make it a piece of cake.  For one thing, my mom refused to let him to use the family station wagon as my learning vehicle. A beautiful scarlet model with wooden paneling and tons of chrome, it was only slightly less fragile than a china tea set. Jeopardizing its sleek looks by letting a young teen get behind the wheel wasn’t happening on her watch.

built to take it

1940s car
Photo by Brett Jordan

Instead, I learned to drive behind the gigantic wheel of a 1948 Chevrolet four-door sedan. The color of an Army tank, it highly resembled a military vehicle with its blunt lines and no-nonsense massive proportions. I felt like a midget as I crawled behind the wheel for the first time as my dad slid into the passenger seat.

A serious problem presented immediately. I couldn’t see over the wheel. There was no way to adjust the height of the seat. So, Dad got an old guilder cushion from the garage and propped it under me.  Okay, now I could see out the windshield, but I could barely reach the accelerator.  Another cushion wedged behind me somewhat corrected that difficulty.  And we were off to the races.

hours spent going nowhere

Vintage dashboard
Photo by Eric Marty

Not literally, of course, because that first afternoon we never left the driveway. For hours, I simply practiced turning on the lights and windshield wipers, learning the correct signals for a right turn or a left turn, and learning to read the many gauges on the dashboard. The whole time my siblings formed a semi-circle around the hood of the car as though I was a circus act. After a long two hours, I thankfully ended the show, ran into our house, and flung myself across my bed in tears. I felt certain I’d never learn to drive such a complicated machine.

Bit by bit, however, I mastered the basics of driving although the other lessons weren’t burnt into my memory like that one. I do remember the struggle with shifting gears. Because he was a pretty smart guy, my dad had backed into the driveway so I could drive out. After all, backing out before I knew how to go forward would have been a formula for disaster.  At first, I couldn’t even get out of the driveway because coordinating the shifting of the gears with alternating my feet between pedals felt like juggling on a unicycle – impossible for someone with so little synergy. When I did make it out of the driveway, it took several days’ practice before I could drive around our sparsely- populated block without stalling.

uphill and down

Curvy country roads
Photo by Apollo Photography

The elation I felt when I finally achieved it was short lived.  Now, pointed out, I needed to learn how to change gears going up and down hills.  Is there anything scarier than feeling the car you are driving start to roll inexorably backwards because you can’t get it into gear?  At almost sixteen, I didn’t think so.  Fortunately, my father knew a lot of the less-trafficked hills in the area.

After the longest six months of my life came my sixteenth birthday.  I had already completely memorized the state driving manual.  Dad felt he’d taught me all he could. It was time for the test.  Despite a wildly beating heart and sweating hands, I passed! When we returned home and I held up my license for all to behold, my brother John gave a wild cheer and the little kids clapped. My dad collapsed into an easy chair and Mom brought him a ginger ale.

maiden voyage

Statue of Education
Photo by Adam Bouse

The next morning, Mom suggested I drive John to church with me because she wanted to go to a later Mass.  I almost didn’t understand her, but my brother did.  He grabbed the keys off the mantle where my Dad had flung them the night before, “Let’s go before she changes her mind,” he called. We were late for service because I couldn’t quite get myself to go over thirty miles an hour even on the rural roads, but we got there in one piece. Thus, when we headed home, I was feeling pretty confident that I’d turned a new corner in my life. We rode past Ball State College on our way to home.  My eyes were on the road straight ahead as I maneuvered between the cars parked at the curb and the oncoming traffic.

I felt and heard the sickening crunch at the same time. I had sideswiped a parked car. My brother let out a string of words I didn’t realize that a fourteen year old knew. We both jumped, leaving our doors wide open. Horns started to blare. John slammed his door.  I jumped back in and tried to pull forward. More loud crunching of steel on steel. I stopped. Leaving the keys in the ignition, I turned off the engine and slid out once more, closing the door behind me as I sidled along the driver’s side of the Chevy.

beginner’s misfortune

Pink vintage car tail fins
Photo by Sergei Wing

John stood gaping at a long-slung, gleaming white and pink auto with huge tail fins. The lines of burnished chrome that minutes before had detailed its classy styling, were now scrunched, torn and tattered in front of my car’s front wheel bumper.

My head whirled, my mind blanked, for a moment the world was silent. Then suddenly a string of profanity erupted behind me. The college student, into whose car I had plowed, had been dragged from his bed by friends to come survey the wreckage.

unforeseen rescue

I shrank back against the protection of our Chevy and started sobbing. A police siren cut through the shouts of the college student and his friends as a cruiser pulled alongside us. An older uniformed officer jumped out. When he saw the big guy towering over me and shaking his fist, the policeman strode over grabbed the college guy by his shoulder and pulled him away from me. He patted my shoulder, “It’s okay. Calm down. We’ll figure this out.”

“So, what happened?” He addressed the crowd at large.

My brother, never at a loss for words, piped right up and gave his version. “My sister was driving very slowly and carefully, but this is a pretty narrow street and there was a lot of traffic coming at her and just a little bit of room between them and the parked cars. I guess she misjudged it a little bit. It’s her first time driving by herself.”

The officer surveyed the scene and scowled. Then he took out his ticket book Policeman writing ticketsand scribbled furiously, tore off the ticket and shoved it at the irate college student.

“What the…!” the kid yelled.

town over gown

“You students have been told time again to park in the school parking lots. This street is a no parking after 6 p.m. Looks like you got what was coming to you for flaunting the law.” He turned to me. “I’ll get in and maneuver your car so we can get it unhooked and you can be on your way.

Once he’d freed the Chevy, we could see it had a couple of scratches, nothing more. The Impala was a disaster. “I’m going to drive you and your brother home,” he told me. “My partner will pick me up after I get things straight with your folks. These college frat boys come to town with money and fancy cars and think they own the place.  Maybe this will make them think twice.”

University in a medieval city
Photo by Sidharth Bhatia

I had just been introduced to the town-and-gown rivalry that goes back to the middle ages. Town and gown rivalries have existed ever since formal institutions of higher education were formed, and they continue to be a very serious issue in some communities.

My first encounter with the phenomenon left me somewhat bewildered, but mostly relieved. It didn’t hurt at all to have an officer of the law assuring my parents that the accident was totally the fault of “those irresponsible frat boys.”

“Academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion. Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.”
Werner Herzog

I would love to hear about your first forays into driving.