I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Into the fire

Well, it's Sunday again, a week since the last post. I realize that all of this introspection brings up thoughts I haven't had, feelings I've suppressed, for decades. Examining my life like this is very cathartic, but sometimes catharsis brings up difficult emotions I've stuffed down inside. Charmine asked in a comment why now?

Indeed, why now? Because I had better do it soon, before all the brain cells stop working like they should. It's scary how often I cannot bring up a name, a word, or how quickly my mind loses its train of thought. And then, in the middle of the night, the past comes screaming up at me, things I had forgotten I even knew.

That reminds me of a puzzle I couldn't remember: how did I get divorced from Don? I know I had never traveled back to Michigan to do it. Finally I remembered that I spent a season, maybe the summer, maybe a six-month stint, with David in Ann Arbor before we went to California. During that time I remember traveling back to Flint where I saw Don for the last time, at the divorce proceedings. He was dressed in a jacket I had given him and he had never worn before, with a tie that I had given him on some past Christmas. I noticed these things, and it made me sad. The divorce went through as expected. The most important thing I remember is being given back my maiden name. Although I would not use it for a while (pretending to be married to David), it was a milestone that meant a lot. Finding out who I was apart from men was still ahead of me, but that little sprout of independence was an important beginning.

Back to being in Sacramento. David went back to his job as vice principal in a middle school, and he would not allow me to work. I spent my days being a housewife to him, Chris, and sometimes his two children when they came to visit us. I had long ago stopped drinking every day and felt it was my mission to take care of David when he went on one of his binges.

David was definitely a binge drinker. He would go for days or even weeks without touching a drink, and then would have just one. For a day or two, or even three, one or two drinks would suffice. But then he would start drinking and it would go on for days. I have memories of him lying in the middle of the living room surrounded by mostly empty bottles of Canadian Club, delirious and in and out of consciousness. Occasionally he would look up at me with hate in his eyes, and then he would start to hit me and call me names.

Chris and I became accomplices in an elaborate scheme to avoid David when he was like that. We both recognized the symptoms when they started, and we figured out ways to survive. He never touched Chris, only me. I left him numerous times and joined Al-Anon where I made some critical contacts. They helped me so very much, and one woman told me that if I was ever in need to call her and she would help me.

I always went back to David. When he was recovering from one of those binges, he was always so incredibly apologetic and vulnerable that I could not help but love him and want to help him recover. This of course is the old alcoholic line: all I need is the love of a good woman and I'll never need to drink again. How could I have been so stupid?

One time I left him and moved back to live with my parents. Chris and I showed up on their doorstep and they took us in. I got a job and Chris went to school, and for three or four months we were happy, it looked like our lives were looking up. But David came to get me, sweet and sober and I agreed to meet him in Las Vegas and get married to him. Chris and I drove in my new used car to Las Vegas, and I entered into my third marriage. I was not quite thirty years old. I don't know the date, but I know it was not a happy time. Chris and I knew better, but I had little to no volition of my own.

We moved into a beautiful ranch house and tried to make a life together. Chris went to yet another school, and I learned to make all the things David liked, and he went on Antabuse, a drug that makes you sick when you drink. He insisted that I take it too, which I did, so I could know what it felt like.

And then he went off to a conference for three days and I could not monitor whether or not he took his Antabuse. When he came back, he proceeded to start drinking (which is what I feared more than anything). The old David was back. I told Chris to open the latch on his window and gave him the keys to the car and told him that if I said some phrase (I don't remember what ruse I used) to climb out the window, get in the car, lock all the doors except that driver's side and put the keys in the ignition.

Then something set David off, and he started to beat me. He hit me and hit me, and I lost consciousness. When I woke up, he was sitting drunkenly next to me and I called out the phrase to Chris. Then carefully as if I might wake a sleeping dragon, I made my way out the front door. Chris was in the car. As I got in, I saw David coming out the front door like a mad bull. Quickly I locked the door and started the car. He tried to smash out the passenger window, but I drove away, with his hand on the car door trying to get in. He fell in the driveway, but all I could think of was to get away. We did. We got away.

I went to the house of my friend, and she gave us a place to stay while I got my life together. Since I was pretty badly hurt, I went to see a doctor at my friend's insistence. The doctor asked if I had been in a car wreck. When I told him what had happened, he took me by my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes and said, "If you go back, you will die. Please listen to me. I've seen this before." I owe that doctor my life.

I cried and cried, but I never went back. David sent me my things, and they were damaged beyond recognition. His anger and hate for me fueled his drinking. I don't know how he managed to keep his job, but he did.

Eventually I found a job with the Department of Education, an apartment for Chris and me, and I began another new life. I divorced David, a marriage that had lasted only a few months. And this time, I used my own name, which I have never changed again, although I am now happily married to a wonderful man. I spent twenty years finding myself and was fifty before I married again. Anyone who has been married and divorced three times by the age of thirty needs to have a little break, don't you think?

The next period of my life was filled with discovery and adventure. I'll talk about the steps I took to find myself, and why Chris eventually went back to live with his father full time. The decade of the 1970s was just beginning, and I had a good job, started taking evening classes at a local community college, and life was about to change drastically. For the better.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Life with Don

This picture of the two of us was taken by Don sometime in the mid- to late 1960s. I'm not sure when exactly, but it was during that time that I was being taken care of by someone other than me, who told me what to do with every minute of every day. I was happy, I'm sure of it. But the truth is, I remember very little from that time, except for having difficulty being around small children. Averting my eyes and doing everything I could think of to avoid remembering my previous life. And Stephen.

Don had been living in the house on Covert Road for many decades and had raised his five children there. Divorced for many years, I now became the Mrs. in every way. Even though I had a full-time job, as did Don, I did all the cleaning, made every meal from scratch (there were few, if any, fast food places at that time). Don bought me a car; I remember it was metallic pink. Just remembering how different things were then: no seat belts, no safety devices of any kind except for the brakes. It was automatic, so I just slid in and when Chris was with me, he slid into the front seat next to me.

My job was quite interesting. I was the secretary for the Mott Inter-University Clinical Preparation Program, teaching educators from around the country how to set up community schools. This is now an integral part of many communities, but back then it was a novel concept. Although the job doesn't resemble the work I did in my later years, it was very well defined. I knew shorthand and used it, going into my supervisor's office with notebook in hand, then sitting at a typewriter and translating those squiggles into words. I also answered the phone and basically set up appointments and kept track of the community interns. They would come for half a year to Flint and then would return to their home school district or university to carry on the message.

Don also owned a beautiful and remote cabin on Lake Superior. Materials had been brought in during the winter when the lake was frozen and then the cabin was built in the summer. He bought it from the builder, and we had many wonderful excursions up there: Don, Chris, me, and sometimes his teenage children from his previous marriage. I remember that when the sun would go down, the mice would begin to come out, hundreds of them, and fall against the window trying to get it. Of course some did, and Don set traps for them, which would snap all night long. They frightened me, the sheer numbers of them. But the walks along the rocky beach day after day was very soothing to me.

Sometimes Chris would spend holidays or even a summer with his dad, who had remarried and had two small boys. When Chris was gone, at first I would miss him terribly, but after a short while it seemed normal for him to be gone, and then a re-entry period would be needed when he came home. Chris was a quiet but very normal boy growing up in these years. When he was grown sometimes we would talk about that time, and he remembered Don as being strict but not mean to him.

Little by little, I began to heal from the trauma of losing Stephen. Don and I began to argue, not often, but he wasn't pleased by my beginning to question his authority. I remember one year when he decided I should make all the Christmas gifts for everyone, including his children, so I would come home from work and sit at the sewing machine for hours, making dresses, shirts, jumpers. There is a little resentment that rises up from that time. Don paid attention to what I wore to work, and if my skirt was short enough to show my knees, he demanded that it be lengthened.

After about four years, I began to develop interests that were separate from Don. Then there was a really attractive intern from Sacramento, California, who was very attentive to me. David would sometimes come to my desk for no reason except to tell me how pretty I looked that day, and we would occasionally go to lunch together, which was the only time I could get away from Don's scrutiny. David always seemed vulnerable to me, sweet in a slightly needy way.

The inevitable happened. I grew more and more interested in finding ways to meet David, and we would sometimes kiss behind closed doors. I became smitten and we talked about running away together. Don and I had more frequent arguments and I moved in with a friend for a short while, but I came back to Don because I felt so guilty about Chris being pulled away from his stable life.

After a very tumultuous period in my life, I began to spend more time with David and less with Don, and although I don't remember exactly how I separated from him, David and I would see each other and drink the night away. I began to drink during my life with David, who drank Canadian Club on the rocks every night, and I began to drink wine every night. The days and nights began to pass in a blur, and while little stands out for me during those times, I missed the clues: David was an alcoholic.

This period for me is just a blur because of the drinking, and because it was actually pretty painful to remember. Don did some terrible things, but so did I.  I don't even remember who I lived with after I moved out from Don's house. I think it was Don's son and daughter in law, but I really could not say for sure.

Chris had the stability, still, of his father's home, and I remember he stayed there for longer periods as I began to figure out a way to go back to California with David. Since he was a vice principal at a school in Sacramento, we pretended to be married so that he wouldn't be confronted with what in those days was really unacceptable behavior. I was still married to Don, or I suppose I would have married David right then.

Eventually David, Chris and I took a road trip to Sacramento, and I established a life there with David. He had also been married before and had a boy and a girl from a previous marriage who visited him every summer and occasional holidays. Now the three of us moved into a beautiful house in Sacramento, and I began my life with David.

My guilt over what I had done to Chris' life has never died away. He was only 10 years old and I had already pulled him all the way across the country, out of his father's life, out of the frying pan and into the fire. One conversation we had about all this stands out in my mind: I asked Chris how he felt about all this and he said something that still stings: "Mom, you've had so many husbands, it doesn't matter what you do any more."

The next post I'll talk about my life with David, and how totally appropriate the analogy of "out of the frying pan and into the fire" really was.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


If I thought the last post was hard to write, I guess I just needed to get warmed up for this one. I tossed and turned again last night, but I seem compelled to write these. The reason to write is morphing into something else, and I've only started. Now I realize that in telling my story, I am figuring out how I got here, to this place, to become this person I am today. Like peeling an onion in reverse, starting with the tender inside and making my way to the hardy survivor on the outside.

Derald was discharged from the service and we moved into a nice apartment. He got a job as an insurance salesman. I was living there in that house when President Kennedy was shot. I remember that I was bleaching my hair platinum blonde when I saw the news. Chris was two. Derald and I had begun to attend the Unitarian Church, I had a circle of friends, and I got pregnant again. I was still indifferent to Derald but I knew when I was fertile and I actually seduced him. By this time he was no longer being faithful to me, but this just meant he left me alone more often.

On August 15, 1964, our son Stephen Norman was born. I still remember the moment he entered the world, I felt his presence as a blessing. If I thought I was in love before, now Stephen and I were even more so. Chris was not a naturally cuddly child; he would often push me away so he could play and didn't especially enjoy being read to, which I loved. Stephen, though, was my precious cuddly child, very healthy, beautiful, and growing like a weed. I spent days just playing peekaboo with him. We bought a house in Flint and my joy was complete.

I have a memory of walking down the street pulling a little red wagon behind me, with Chris and Stephen in it. Little Stephen was waving and smiling to passersby with his cute fat dimpled hand. If my life were to be one of popping babies out every now and then and raising them, I would be complete. Motherhood was exquisite.

One day in September, Stephen woke from his nap with a high fever. I was so worried that I took him to the local emergency room. Although I waited there for hours as he slipped into a coma, not opening his eyes, not drinking anything, just moaning every once in a while, the doctor, when he saw him, decided to admit him for having a fever of unknown origin. I stayed with him until I had to leave, but he never moved much and never looked at me again. He was in a ward with several other children.

In the middle of the night, Derald and I woke to the ringing of the telephone. It was the hospital, and they told us simply to come. Now. I don't remember what we did with Chris, but I remember the ride in the dark, the words of fear that we exchanged. When we arrived at the hospital, Stephen was in isolation and in an oxygen tent. I was not allowed to touch him. The doctor said they had taken a spinal tap, but they suspected spinal meningitis before the tests even came back.

You know how you have memories that are burned into your retina? They never go away. I saw Derald coming down the hospital hallway, and he was holding the wall to keep from falling. I knew. I ran down the hall before he even told me, and I saw my beloved child one more time: dead. Mouth open. Not breathing.

What happened next I don't remember. But when we walked back into our home, the first thing I saw was the high chair, with a graham cracker on it, with a bite taken out of it by my now dead son. I saw his little shoes with the socks in them, soiled by his playing. I saw diapers still needing to be rinsed. These pictures are burned into my brain and will stay with me until I die.

Stephen was 13 months old. He died on September 17, 1965. My life became a haze of pain and suffering. My surviving son lost not only his brother, but also his mother. I could no longer function on any level. My mother came to be with me. She told me years later that she tried to get my father to come, but he would not, could not face my grief. I have no memory of anything that came next except a flashing yellow light that went round and round on the vehicle we followed as we made our way to the cemetery to bury my little baby.

At the Unitarian Church, many people who attended the previous Sunday were warned to see their doctor and take sulfa drugs if they had had any contact with the sick baby. I remember one man I had met in some church meetings who took me for a walk and comforted me. His name was Don. He told me he would help me, take care of me.

I had no will to live. I lost so much weight I remember how my clothes hung on me, but I didn't care. Before I knew it, Don had arranged for me to divorce Derald and marry him. Don was 21 years older than me, had a long-time position at General Motors, and was a very controlling person. This made no difference to me. If I had been able to join a convent and have every move dictated to me, I would have done it. This was the next best thing. I had never even kissed Don or had any kind of physical relationship with him. That was not what this was about.

Since Chris was my child, he came along with me, although now that I look back I know he would have been much better off if Derald had taken him, but they didn't do such things in those days. The mother always got custody, no matter how unfit she might be. Somehow I managed to rally enough to move into an apartment somewhere, although I don't remember much about that time. I looked for work and found a job with the Mott Program, an educational program that trained interns from around the country.

On June 25, 1966, at the age of 23, I began my life as Don's wife. This picture is of Chris on that day. I worked full time, I cooked, I cleaned, I did everything that wives were supposed to do. Chris began kindergarten. I still have the picture of Chris waiting for the bus on the first day of school. He was stoic, but I was crying as I took the picture. Chris continued to see his father on the weekends and we shared school vacations, but I have very little memory of those days.

In the next chapter I'll describe more of my life with Don, my job, and how I began to heal.

Friday, December 11, 2009


The year was 1961. I had graduated from high school the previous summer, and this year I lost my virginity, got married, and became a mother. I was eighteen.

I have to tell you, the last few days I have been thinking about this next post. I've started and stopped several times, because going back into the past and thinking about this stuff brings up old demons that I am happy to exorcise -- but they tend to stick barbs of regret and shame into me. Last night I tossed and turned until I woke up Smart Guy, and we talked in the middle of the night. I told him I was going to call this one "Indifference" and write about my first marriage and how badly I treated him. After telling the story, he pointed out that I was anything but indifferent, but trapped into a path, a life, that gave me no options.

My son was conceived on February 1, 1961, under a full moon at a gravel pit, where we were parked in my parents' Austin Healy Sprite, a tiny little car, in Albany, Georgia. I know when it happened, because it was the only time it happened. Derald was a medic stationed at the nearby air base, and I thought he looked so handsome in his white uniform. I met him only days before; I don't know why I allowed him to "go all the way." I went home and took a bath in the middle of the night. I knew I was pregnant within a week. I know it sounds crazy but my breasts swelled and I just knew. While talking to him on the phone in another week, my mother overheard the conversation, about having to get married if I didn't come around next month.

She was livid. She grilled me about the phone call, about the circumstances of my possible pregnancy, and on March 1, 1961, exactly ONE MONTH after conception, I stood at the altar of my church with Derald, becoming his wife. It was a hurried affair and I remember very little about it. I wore a light blue silk suit; he wore his dress uniform. I don't remember saying "I do" but I do remember the sense of despair, because by this time I knew that I didn't even like my husband very much.

Within a few months, maybe even at the time we were married, he received orders to go to Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico, where my father had been stationed twice before. Derald went on ahead to find us a place to live, while I stayed with my parents. I was hoping he wouldn't find a place soon so I could stay in Georgia. But I was constrained by the pregnancy, knowing that I would need to travel there before the eighth month, which is when I flew there. Stepping off the plane and seeing Derald's face, I knew how trapped I really was. I felt no love for him, although I knew he loved me. (He was a good man; I know that now.)

On November 10, 1961, our son Christopher Eric was born. I was instantly and completely in love. This little being became the focus of my existence, along with mountains of diapers (there was no such thing as disposables) and we managed to pass a year in relative calm. Derald was so proud of his family, his beautiful wife and healthy strapping son. We lived off base about a quarter mile from the ocean, and I would take Chris there, along with a hamper of baby stuff, and we would spend the day there. It was idyllic in many ways.

On December 1, 1961, I had my nineteenth birthday. Still a teenager, but now a wife and mother. That is the story of how I began married life. There is so much more to tell, but this is part of the reason I feel so much regret. We were only married for five years, but before he died of sudden cardiac death in the late 1980s, we became reconciled. Derald was only 51 when he died. Chris would die of the same thing many years later at the age of 40. They are gone but I am still here, trying to make sense of my life.

In late 1962, I left Puerto Rico to go to Flint, Michigan, where Derald lived before his military career, to meet his parents and live with them until he was discharged. I stayed with them, giving his mother Glen a stipend that Derald sent me each month. I think I was there in that house with them for close to a year. I had never seen such a level of poverty: even though they had a regular tract house, inside there was no furniture, no refrigerator, no stove, no hot water. Derald's father was a very strange man who gave his wife Glen two dollars a day to feed the family and never provided anything more than the house. Glen had two boys, Derald's younger brothers, so there we were: six people in that house in the dead of winter.

Glen watched Chris while I looked for work. I remember walking from place to place in a cheap coat and high heels, crying, with the tears freezing on my cheeks. I found a job at a place that gave out loans to people at high interest rates. But I had some tiny little escape from the sadness that was my life at the time, with the bright spot of my beautiful son.

Derald and I eventually had another son, but that is a story for another time. I am dragging out these old memories for two reasons: one, to get rid of them, and two, to understand who that young mother really was, and forgive her.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


My husband took this picture at my request. I wanted to show off the hat I had knit, my first knitting project in twenty years or so. I used to knit a lot. I airbrushed out most of the wrinkles. Not all of them, but enough to make me feel better about myself. You might think it's a funny expression, but I think it says a lot about who I am to myself.

I am naturally extroverted, I have been all my life. But I also am very unsure of myself, of who I am, of who I want to be. This may seem odd to hear from someone who is much closer to 70 than 60. I think of myself as a work in progress, but maybe everybody does.

When I retired from my job last year, I was sick of it: sick of giving everything, all my energy, to somebody else's vision. It's not that I didn't believe in it; I did and still do. But it was not my boogie. Since retirement meant that we (my husband and I) would no longer be covered under my medical insurance, I waited to retire until I turned 65 and could be covered, at least mostly, by Medicare. And I knew my boss well enough to know that I had to leave the region in order to become unavailable. After thirty years of working together, we had become a unit, and I knew Mickey would not find a replacement for what I provided him. I was right. The woman who was hired to take my place lasted less than six months.

When you leave your employment behind, your daily routine, it can be scary. Very scary. My husband, heretofore known as Smart Guy (he really is), researched places along the coast where we might retire. In the summer of 2006, we took a month to travel by car around the area we had found to be most likely. The non-negotiable criteria were: on the west coast, if possible; not a huge city but near enough for a day's travel; moderate climate; and with nearby mountains.

Our first pick was Bellingham, Washington, and that is where we are today. It's a good place. Our partnership leaves plenty of room for us to find our own path, and I knew without a doubt that the first thing I needed was to find a way to get exercise every day. My choice was to join the YMCA, which is a short bus ride into downtown Bellingham. A class every weekday morning at 9:00 am has become the center of each day. I have a reason to rise out of bed at my normal waking hour of 5:30 am. As a morning person married to a night person, we find ways to be ourselves and still have time together. This time can even take place early or late; although in close proximity to one another, we are often doing our own thing.

This rather rambling introduction is an attempt to find out who I really am. If I remove all the things that push and pull me in different directions, what is left over? If I look at life as a journey and I have almost arrived at my destination, is there something that didn't get expressed? My heart swells when I just ask the question. That's what I want to find out here, with these words.

There has been quite a bit of loss in my life: my two sons died before me; my parents are both gone and they died in their sixties; I have lost friends to illness and suicide and accidents. But even though many people in my situation would have gone under from these losses, that didn't happen to me. Sometimes I think it's because of an ability I have to turn away from loss and only let it in a little at a time. When your heart is broken, how do you patch it up? Some people grieve excessively; others turn to escapist activities. I think I just don't let it completely in, just enough to feel the crack but not enough to really believe it.

When I was 11 or 12, my dog Lassie, a beautiful collie, had to be given away, since we were moving to a new part of the country and my parents told me Lassie had to find a new home. We advertised and I remember her being taken to a nearby farm to live. I remember being in the car when we took her there, and she ran happily in the field and seemed happy enough. I don't remember being terribly upset. But my mother was. She could not understand why I wasn't grieving like she was. She cried and I didn't. She looked at me as if I were an alien from another planet. And then she said, "you are a monster, that's what you are!" A rift formed between us at that moment. I didn't know what she meant, but I believed it to be true. If I were supposed to grieve and didn't, couldn't, did that make me a monster?

Since that time, part of me has always believed that I am cruel and inhuman. I also didn't grieve for my old friends when I moved to a different town. My sister Norma Jean did, but I looked forward to a new start rather than backward. I was always happy to start fresh, to have another chance to be somebody else. To leave behind mistakes I'd made and people I'd hurt. Maybe this time, I'll be somebody better, more caring, more giving. More like other people who are not monsters. Maybe this time, nobody will find out about that ugly part of me.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why another blog?

I've been enjoying writing my other blog for almost a year now, over at DJan-ity. But I've also felt a little constraint over there to keep my posts short and sweet, as well as relevant to my followers. I want to try a little memoir-type essay over at this spot, so I'm not going to limit myself in any way. I might write here a lot, a little, long or short, with pictures if I feel like it, or not.

A friend of mine, actually more like a sister, Maria Krenz, has just published her own memoir about her early life in Hungary (Made in Hungary: A Life Forged by History). You can order it from Amazon if you're interested, and of course I'll write a post about it, maybe here, or maybe on the other blog. Who knows? I'm allowing myself to open up in a way that I haven't felt since... well, ever.

My life has been filled with edges. I debated about the title of this blog for awhile, but I truly feel myself on the edge, often. Not only when I'm getting ready to exit an airplane (I've got a few jumps), or when I'm about to try something new, like this, but when life deals me with a real whammy. (I've had a few of those, too.) I want to write without boundaries about the edges in my life.

I hope you will join me here, but I will not allow myself to court followers. I did that on my other blog, because I wanted accolades, lots of people to love me, tell me how great I am. Before long I began comparing the number of my followers to others. (My blog is better than this; why does she have more followers?) Competition gets me every time. I am letting go of that need here, and I might only invite those who I think might be interested. But who knows? Once I get something on here I want to share with others because I'm really satisfied with it, I'll shout it from the rooftops. I know myself. (sheesh)

Already I feel the excitement of creation. I'm going to allow it to unfold and see where I go with it. I'm unsure of the reason I want to write these stories, but I do know I want them to have some things in common: to be real, true, and (hopefully) good.