Spring Clearing

spring snowIt was as if that last patch of snow knew it was the last day of winter. Actually it’s stretching to call it a patch. It was more like the remnants of a discarded snow cone. It was gone by the end of the day.

I have never lived through “snow” before. Over the past 6 years in the Pacific Northwest I experienced snow’s occasional visit. It would last a day or two. I would watch sadly as the snow disappeared.

This year, I learned about the persistence of snow—how it can take root and linger, blanketing the landscape with its whiteness, burdening tree branches with its weight, covering what lay beneath.

I had wanted this, hoping the transformation of the landscape would transform my inner landscape. But as it lingered, I found myself almost anxious about what would be revealed when it finally relented.

The snow arrived in February as I was wrestling with grief and depression—an ordeal that began in October, midway through autumn. Winter seemed like it would be just an extension of autumn, as if it would drift placidly into spring, with no transforming landscape.

Then that last month of winter happened.

I have never experienced such a clear demarcation of the end of one season and the arrival of the next. Normally I know it’s spring when there is that one crisp, clear cold day — spring cold. Not a winter cold. Not an autumn cold. Spring cold.

This year it went from winter cold, to spring warm. Almost overnight. The landscape has turned to green with flowers starting to bloom. I don’t know if the tulips will have survived. Scattered around are the occasional branches taken down by the weight of snow.

I think I remember this landscape. But it was covered so thoroughly in white, it all seems a bit new to me.

I seem to have worked my way through grief and depression. I spent a good portion of fall and winter doing the shoulda’, coulda’ woulda’ dance. Walking barefoot over the red-hot coals of disappointment and failure, strangely hoping that would somehow change the outcome that led to my grief and depression.

It did not. I read in an Anne Lamott book that forgiveness is giving up all hope that the past could have been any different. So I forgave myself and accepted that the past was what it was.

There are no do-overs in life. Only well let’s-try-this-then. I discovered there were fewer this-thens this time around. That’s actually a function of wisdom gained from experience. And it’s a good thing because as I wander into my 8th decade (as in turning 70), I get that as the road ahead gets shorter, having fewer options is actually better. The illusions distract.

Teach us to number our days that we might apply our hearts unto wisdom. That’s from Psalm 90. I don’t quote scripture out of purity, but rather for its poetry.

I have arrived at my present. There are no bells and whistles or the desire to charge forth into the future. It’s simply one season following another. There’s work to be done. Not so much a spring cleaning, as a spring clearing.

And an understanding that when winter arrives, light returns.

Snow Relents

52696020_10157364199903949_8765742206314086400_nMy dad dreamed of giving us a white Christmas, though his love of exploration meant that we lived in Saudi Arabia. I’m pretty sure it has not snowed in Saudi Arabia in this archeological era.

Then we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where we would get excited to see a dusting of snow on the hills surrounding Livermore. It did snow once when I lived in San Francisco—February of 1976. At some point after I returned to Livermore in 2001, the downtown merchants’ association trucked in snow shortly before Christmas and dumped it on Lizzie’s Fountain. Livermore kids went berserk making snow angels, forming snowballs, and generally playing whatever kids play in snow. It usually lasted no more than a day—at the most two.

Last year, here in Sequim where I now live, it actually snowed on Christmas. It was my wish for a Bobbsey Twins’ Christmas. It stayed around for two, maybe three days. It never impinged on our ability to get in and out of the driveway or walk to the garbage cans, nor did it cause pipes to freeze.

It looked like we were going to get through this winter without a snow event. There were occasional snow showers, but never enough to stick around. It made me sad. I wanted snow that stuck around—that changed the landscape as I was fond of saying. “It’s magical the way snow changes the landscape,” I  claimed with great authority.

And then the snow came.

In February. January is supposed to be the coldest month.

51818499_10157341370533949_8502569876253048832_nIt didn’t just snow, it snowed for two days straight. A relentless, robust infusion that transformed the landscape. It stuck to the ground, piling deeper and deeper, covering our driveway, our car, the roof—the branches of trees bending to the ground with the weight of the accumulation of snow. I sent a picture to high school friends and asked, “Is this what Kilmer meant when he said trees bend their leafy arms to pray?”

They got the joke. Ed Brush’s (our high school English teacher) graphic of the tree Kilmer describes was etched in our minds some 50 years later.

I had no idea that snow was so tenacious. And I think I was a bit surprised to learn that snow didn’t exist simply for my enthrallment. I still marveled at its pristine beauty, but also felt an underlying threat. The pipe in the pumphouse froze. Fortunately we caught it early. Would it freeze again? Would our roof hold? Would we lose power? How could we get out of the driveway and to the store before the next onslaught of snow?

It’s not so much I took it personally as I began to see that snow has its right to be what it is, Bobbsey Twin fantasy be damned.

The snow is relenting. A few warmer temperatures, some rain, some sunny days and the snow is not so ubiquitous.  Instead of a pristine white landscape, patches of brown create a contrasting landscape.

But still, the snow persists. In fact, it has started snowing again as I write this post—those big fat clumps of descending snowflakes.

I wanted it to snow, to watch the landscape transform, to help me work my way through a depression I could not shake. I discovered, or rather I am discovering, that transformation isn’t as simple or predictable as I was thinking. There are times I feel sad that the snow will relent, will give way to a landscape that has no snow. I even have some anxiety about what lies beneath the snow. It’s the lot of the poet, the writer to ponder all of the above.

Snow on the roof is also a metaphor for evidence of aging. My depression descended on me after some profound losses and with them, deep disappointment that many things (more than I wished) simply did not turn out the way I had hoped. I spent several nights anguishing, sleeping fitfully and in spurts—mulling over the life I have lived to discern what had I done wrong, searching for ways to do things different as my seventh decade starts to recede in the rear view mirror and my eighth decade is the road ahead.

I will turn 70 in October. I need to write that out loud so I can let it sink in. Seventy they say is the new 50, but it certainly isn’t the new 20. My father died at 77, my mother at 83, my grandmother at 99, and her father at 106. I really have no idea how far the road ahead stretches, but it doesn’t start from 20. It starts with 70, and that has an impact on my choices.

Yesterday, I relented. I got it that the past is what it was and my present is what it is. I actually don’t regret much about the choices I made with my past, despite the disappointment and loss. Mostly I made choices based on my integrity—I loved the way I think it is important to love.

I still don’t know what lies beneath the transforming landscape. I’m not sure what choices lie ahead for me, or how to navigate the economic and physical vulnerability that comes with snow on the roof.

Maybe, just maybe, this relentless infusion of snow is helping me put the past to rest. The silence of the falling snow mesmerizes.

Heart of a Whale, Ambition of a Hummingbird

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Heart of a blue whale that had washed ashore.

Birds own my backyard. I have the deed to the property, but birds own it.

I don’t know enough about birds to name all who live there, but I can identify mourning doves, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and red-breasted robins. At least I think they are red-breasted robins; they are birds with red breasts.

They come for the grapes, to bathe in the fountain, to nest in the trees and grape vines that cover the pergola, and, I would like to think, to sing. I know that the songs are territorial songs. But who’s to say that our songs aren’t a way to claim our territory.

Did I mention there were hummingbirds in my yard?

In “Joyas Volardores,” Brian Doyle writes that hummingbirds have more heart attacks and aneurysms than any other living creatures. “The price of their ambition,” he writes, “is a life closer to death.”

He also writes that the biggest heart is inside the body of a blue whale. As big as a room. Big enough for a small child to stand in, ducking only to pass through one of its four valves into another chamber.

Little is known of blue whales once they reach puberty, Doyle says. Humans aren’t privy to their domestic habits. I suspect they know how to ride out typhoons.

I spent seventy-five days crossing the Pacific on a Dutch Freighter when I was a kid. Once we left the Phillipines for Long Beach, California, our final destination, we didn’t see any land for two weeks. We sailed through the tail end of typhoons, waves crashing over the bridge, which in calm seas rose three stories over the ocean’s surface.

We were not in our element. That’s how I feel when I fly in a plane. Probably OK, but not in my element.

Doyle says that blue whales travel in pairs and that their songs can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

It seems to me that uncertainty is the pervading force in our culture right now. Crumbling towers and tumbling markets have pitched us out of our element and we are at sea, riding through the tail end of typhoons, but uncertain where we are headed.

Perhaps this is an opportunity.

Maybe if we have the heart of a blue whale and are willing to notice that we always live life close to death, we will know why the nectar is worth the risk to the hummingbird, and we’ll create songs that will be heard beyond miles even we can imagine.


NOTE: I first posted this in June, 2009. We lived in Livermore back then.

The Transforming Landscape

transforming landscapeAbout a month ago, I said to a friend that I was waiting for the landscape to transform. I wanted it to snow. I also knew it was a metaphor for my inner landscape.

The end of the year turned very dark for me. I rode a roller coaster of black depression with occasional moments of gray. The precipitating event that sent me on the ride happened the day after my birthday in mid-October. It involves a profound loss, but not because someone died. I would have to reveal others’ stories to include the details, so they will not be a part of this post. I did not lose Tom, nor is he responsible for the loss (just to reassure those of you who know the two of us).

What is important is that it coincided with the waning of my seventh decade. I will turn 70 in October.

As I worked through the loss I alternated between feelings—sometimes the landscape was the waste land, other times a blank page. I kept asking myself, why am I here, where is here, and what is “here”?

I turned to story, as I often do, to navigate the course—and accidentally landed on “13 Reasons Why.” I had avoided it, thinking it was something it was not. I think it is a pretty accurate depiction of adolescence. I’m sad to see that it is still a breeding ground for the Brett Kavanaughs of the world—a place where young women get ground down and good young men struggle to find their way as well.

I recognized myself in Hannah, the young female protagonist. Seeing her struggle with trying to fit in, I saw clearly that I had made the choice to not quite make a choice about being myself back then. When I was in my 30s, I met women in their 60s and 70s through the Gray Panthers who had navigated a different path. They had defied what was acceptable at a time when being “acceptable” was enforced with an even more heavy hand. They had written their own stories. They showed me an alternative.

Yet, even with their model, the heavy burden of wanting to be nice, likeable, and placating—to make people comfortable, to fit in—weighed me down. I didn’t necessarily behave in the nice, likeable, or placating way, but I felt guilty about it when I did.

As I made my way through the “13 Reasons Why“ story of Hannah, Clay, and the other characters, my family’s dynamic started coming back to me. It was the matriarchy as much, if not more, than the patriarchy who enforced the narrow path of choices for me. My mother was the younger of the two daughters. My grandmother and aunt (my mother’s older sister) dominated. They were not alpha females—they just inflicted their dominance, which was fueled by their disappointments and bitterness at what they perceived as their lack of choices in creating their stories.

My mother submitted to their dominance, muffled her own light, and so could not shine a light on a path for me to write my own story. Whether it was her intent, or my interpretation of how she felt, I made the choice to protect my mother from the truth that we are the authors of our lives. I wrote my story, but in secret. Or, as I have described it before, I became a wolf in sheep’s clothing—I donned the clothing not to fool the sheep so I could make a meal of them, but so they would find me acceptable.

But, there’s no fooling sheep. They know a wolf when they smell one.

In the waning days of my seventh decade, I can see the ways I have tried to fly under the radar and the consequences of it. Thus I have been confronted with that empty page in my story as I complete my seventh decade.

I woke one morning two weeks ago in acute anxiety, with no reference to why. I don’t even know how I changed my perception of anxiety from fear of danger to fear of the unknown. But I did. I understood that I had the option to leave behind that which wasn’t me: walking those high school halls being nice, placating, and likeable.

I gave up on waiting for the snow to change the landscape and realized that I had to just walk those high school halls (they still exist everywhere) without reference to the nice-likeable-placating expectation.

And then it snowed. This hasn’t been the usual snow we have here on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s been one that brings with it the challenges associated with prolonged snow, cold, and ice.

The snow-transforming landscape still enchants me, but it also brings with it a lot of unknowns.

The metaphor continues.


nancy and AOCNOTE: Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maxine Waters, Radhida Tlalib, Maria Cantwell, Ilhan Ohmar, Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren, Mazie Hirono, Kamala Harris, and so many more who are currently serving in Congress walk fearlessly through those high school halls as strong, kind, badasses—they are the alpha she-wolves who will transform our national landscape. I walk with them.

Mercy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACertain words just speak to me. Something about its sound. It makes me pause. And even though I think I know the word’s meaning, I pull out my “Webster’s Universal College Dictionary” and look it up.

Inexorable is one of those words. It’s the second meaning that spoke to me: “not to be persuaded, moved, or affected by prayers or entreaties; merciless.”

As I prepare myself today to again stand vigil for the children abducted from their parents at the border, it’s the word mercy that comes to me. I pause, pull out the dictionary, and look it up: “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or forbearing.”

I know what my sign will say today: Make America Merciful Again.

MAMA. Mama. The children’s anguished cry.

Last Sunday, I lost it when a woman challenged from her car, “How about reuniting the soldiers with their children?”

“Yes,” I said, “bring them home.”

But she yelled back and so did I and it upset some of those standing next to me and I felt bad and guilty and also just kind of felt fuckitall.

Civility has died. It just has. We are on an inexorable march to gleeful cruelty (thank you Jon Stewart for creating that definition). And it’s hard to know just what to do.

Later I wondered about the woman’s story. Maybe she had lost a son or grandson in Afghanistan or Iraq. Maybe she was still grieving for what was taken from her. Were there time enough, and if I hadn’t been so angry over the previous week’s malfeasance by the man who holds the office of president of the United States, maybe I could have had a conversation with her. Shown her some mercy.

But it was hot, I was angry, and feeling hopeless. So, I forgive myself for what I have started calling my unique form of Tourette Syndrome.

When gleeful cruelty is the norm, how do we make our way back to mercy?

I have been depressed this past week. Depression is my least favorite place to be. It’s sometimes called anger turned inward, but I think for me, it’s a friend’s description that nails it: absence of imagination.

I haven’t been able to imagine any future other than one that is being sold by a very sick man. I won’t say his name, but he is the president and he has possession of powers that destroy life. And the thing that could rein him in, the congress and judicial branch, seem enthralled by his power.  Instead of reining him in, they are hitching their wagons to his.

The president enjoys making people suffer. It makes him feel powerful.

I’m afraid because I am aware of the inevitable vulnerability my aging bestows on me. Those in power seem blind to vulnerability, or more likely, that they can make themselves invulnerable by denying vulnerability as a fact of life. Life is neither merciful nor cruel. It is simply ruthless. We are all vulnerable to its vagaries.

So I think along the road to mercy we also need to embrace a kind of ruthless commitment to restoring the proper order. I had a new appreciation for ruthless after reading an interview with a Vietnam vet who said he learned more about love and pain from the war than he might have had he not had the experience. Then he returned to the land of the “big PX” where men who hadn’t had that experience were climbing over each other, exhibiting what he called false masculinity, showing neither genuine compassion nor genuine ruthlessness.

We need to make America merciful again.

I’m not going to worry about being civil. I think that ship has sailed. It doesn’t mean not having compassion for those who are so damaged that they are beyond showing mercy. But it does mean calling what they are doing what it is:

Gleeful cruelty.

I don’t know how to do this. I have both my inner show-no-mercy Celtic warrior (they dangled the heads of their dead enemies from their horses as they rode into battle), and the goddess of mercy. I think I need to call on both of them.

I don’t plan on, nor am I endorsing, beheading anyone. But I do think that fierceness of intent is called for when confronting this army of damaged people on their inexorable march into the darkest places in the human heart.

Compassion comprises two Latin words: to bear and suffering. It means to bear suffering. To be willing to see it, feel the pain of the other, and let it into our hearts so it can transform us, connect us to the other.

We need to hear the anguished cries of the children: “Mama!”

I don’t yet know how, but I do know we have to make America merciful again.

Grace

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May grace shine its light on us.

I started Writing Shed nearly 10 years ago. I was on a quest to change my story, to live the story that beats with the rhythm of my heart, listens to the sound of blood coursing through my veins, feel the expansion of inspiration and contraction of expiration as I breathe in then let it go.

Pay attention to your breathing that ubiquitous, anonymous “they” say to calm down, establish yourself in the present, be here and now. Be alive. Or maybe, be with life.

I have two friends that died by suicide, Sheila and Sally. They were both determined to die by suicide. They made the decision to not be with life.

Sheila was 36.  She was disappointed that life had not lived up to her expectations, but I don’t know that any of us knew what she expected other than that she couldn’t control its outcome. She wanted to disengage from her husband (who was also my friend), but insisted he remain married to her. She insisted that her friends support her in her view of life, considered it disloyal if they disagreed with her.

I met her and her husband Alan in 1975 in San Francisco when Sheila and I worked at Langley Porter, the psychiatric center of the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. I was a secretary basically. Sheila was a postdoc fellow, studying positive and negative ions. I think the negative ions made things positive. I don’t remember for sure.

Eleven years later, Sheila descended into despair. She moved back to Philadelphia where she and Alan grew up, met, and married. She had worn the long white billowing dress to please her parents, moccasins to please herself.

She blamed California for her despair, claiming that people were shallow and disloyal. But, for whatever reason, she did not find the anchor she had hoped to find in Philadelphia. She found a friend’s gun, but for reasons that aren’t clear, maybe it jammed, she failed to end her life with a gun.

So she got on a red eye to return to San Francisco, spent the flight writing long letters to her estranged husband and a friend, landed, took a cab to deliver the letters, leaving them at their front doors, then had the cab driver deliver her to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The friends called me. For several hours we called and combed the City looking for her. Though she had not said the Bridge was her destination, we called the Bridge to alert them that she might show up.

But, by that time, she had already flown off the Bridge. They let her husband know that someone had seen a woman jump, and that her body had been recovered. I was part of the group that went to the coroner to identify her.

I remember the small article in the paper that said a woman with long dark hair and wearing a brown jacket and jeans had died after jumping off the bridge. How many times I had read such an article. The anonymous nature of a newspaper article about another suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the impromptu memorial held at my house, my friends despaired over her suicide, wrung their souls wondering what they could have done, the dark cloud of guilt encompassing them.

I comforted them. Then when they left and I was alone, the weight of it all fell on me. I had no guilt to salve my pain. It was clear to me she had made her choice and done it in such a way that no one could stop her. The pain for me was different. She had not found a shadow of or hope for love for herself to make life bearable.  I understood why for her, in that moment, escape from life was her only way out of the pain.

It devastated me, her pain.

Sally’s story was different. She was just a few days shy of 70 when she died by suicide. She had planned it for at least 2 or 3 years. She had told me of her plans over dinner one night, very matter of fact about it. The women in her family declined after 70, she didn’t want to go that way.

She was 68 when she told me that. I decided not to try and talk her out of it, but let her know that if she decided to change her mind, give it more time, that would also be fine with me.

Because I didn’t try and change her mind, just went with it, I had a rich two years of friendship with her. She was an iconoclast. She took her vibrator to Mr. Fixit in Mill Valley. Bi-sexual, she told me that intimacy is what relationships are about and it’s as complicated with a woman as it is with a man. The only difference between living with a man and a woman, she said, was that when you live with a woman you go through more toilet paper.

I drank in my friendship with her. She taught me the courage of iconoclasm. She was the mentor who taught me that it’s not so much that nice girls finish last, as that nice girls don’t even get into the game of life. Nice. Schmice. Be real. Be outraged because there’s a lot to be outraged about. Be outrageous in standing up for your outrage.

My last dinner with her was in late January, 1994. I knew her birthday was coming up the next week. “Is this goodbye?” I asked as we parted ways outside the restaurant.

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” she said and smiled. And yes, there was a twinkle in her eyes.

A day or two later, it might have even on her birthday, I received the letter. She had sent it to selected friends. She wasn’t in despair she assured us. She had enjoyed her life, but as good gambler knows, there’s a time to fold them.

She wanted us to enjoy her eptitaph: Toujour soixante-neuf.

Sheila’s and Sally’s stories came back to me when I heard the news about Anthony Bourdain. I’m embarrassed to say that I had only thought of him as one of those celebrity chefs until I heard the depth of grief from his colleagues and reaction of my friends who had been smarter than I had been.

I found eight seasons of his shows on Netflix and began my binge watch. I was fortunate. They had been scheduled to be taken down on June 16th, but fans deluged Netflix with pleas to continue it.

I had no idea who he was. I had no idea that he was such a gifted storyteller, and that he looked for and told stories as he searched for and expanded his own life story. His stories were rich in the quest to discover what it means to be human, and how meals connect us as a human community.

Even given my experience with Sally and Sheila, it is unfathomable to me why Anthony Bourdain ended his life. It’s not so much he had so much to live for, as that there was so much more to taste, so many more people and cultures to explore, so many more stories to discover and tell. He held babies in shows with the comfort of a man who loved new lives. He had a daughter who he clearly saw as a future. And he had recently fallen in love.

One of the most moving moments was when he had dinner in Hanoi with Obama. Is it going to be okay, he asked him, knowing they both had daughters they cherished and who had changed their lives. Obama assured him that though it might be rocky, eventually it would be okay.

I am the age now that Sally was when she informed me of her exit plan. It is not a plan that resonates with me. But I am aware that there is less time before me than behind me, and physically the trajectory is towards decline, rather than upward. It is unpredictable and something to reckon with.

What I had not planned on reckoning with was the dark cloud of living death that has descended over us — Donald Trump. He has the destructive jealousy of Iago, but without the passion. He is a man sick with jealousy of anyone who has an experience of life and love. So sick that he is willing to destroy life, and has the tools at hand to do it.

It feels like the country is heading towards death by suicide.

And yet, there are so many meals to enjoy, food to explore, stories to discover and tell.

It occurred to me yesterday that in deciding to change my story, I have actually found it.

My story is that I tell stories. That I have the courage, when necessary, to look into the darkness, see what’s there, write what I see and experience, and have the patience to see it through to the light. To feel love and write the truth that to love is to be alive, even though we have no control over love’s outcome. To live without love is a living death.

I’m not sure how to get through this next chapter in the story of my country. It looks pretty dark. I wonder if that’s why Anthony Bourdain asked Obama if it would be okay.

But, my story is that I tell stories. And there are so many meals to enjoy, cultures to explore, love to feel and stories to tell.

That’s my way through it. Stories.

Perhaps, Anthony Bourdain’s legacy is he graced us with stories that showed us we were connected by a passion for embracing the grace of everyday living.

May grace shine its light on us to show us the path out of the one this jealousy-fueled, passionless Iago is putting us on.

NOTE: I in no way want this post to romanticize suicide. Death by suicide leaves a hole in the hearts of those left behind. You cannot undo it.

If any who reads this feel that despair, I encourage them to reach out: 1-800-273-8255. 

My Mother’s Charm Bracelet

Boarding train

My mother just before boarding the train in Oklahoma City (July, 1955) that took her to New York City where she would start her journey to Saudi Arabia.

I revisited my mother’s charm bracelet recently. I don’t wear gold, so I’ve rarely worn it. It also has an emotional weight to it. It carries with it my mother’s conflict about herself as a woman and how that played itself out in her relationship with me, her only daughter. I have an older and younger brother. She came from a generation where the daughter’s needs get sacrificed to keep the peace in the family.

 

She gave me the bracelet some years before she died. I saw the silent, seething rage rise in my older brother when he asked her for it a few years later and she told him she had given it to me. He had expected he would get it to give to his wife. That led later that afternoon to his punching me. That was twenty years ago.

My mother died twelve years ago. She left all the rest of her jewelry to me. As my younger brother, his wife, and my niece (my older brother’s only daughter) sat around my dining table a day or two after her memorial, I sorted through the jewelry and shared pieces of it with them, saving a valuable ring I would send to my older brother’s wife. My niece let me know in no uncertain terms that she expected me to share the jewelry, that it would not have been fair for me to keep it all. My mother had once sacrificed me to her.

My mother and I were close, as long as my brothers were not close by. That’s when she would get conflicted, worry that our being close somehow took away from them. Or, that’s why I think she worried.

She was not conflicted, however, about leaving me her jewelry. I was her daughter. That’s why she left it to me.

Over the years since her death, I have had to distance myself from my brothers and their families. They have a particular view of who I am, one that fits within the daughters-sacrifice-themselves-for-the-family paradigm. To them, I became a monster when I stepped outside that paradigm. It was painful coming to that decision. It was far more painful to continue a relationship with people I love, but who consider me a monster for wanting to be a fully invested member of the family.

Families are complicated. And so, the bracelet had enormous weight to it.

It lives in a jewelry box in the top drawer of my dresser. I took it out recently as I considered selling it.

There is a charm on her bracelet for every country we visited as we traveled by ship and plane around the world. There are several that represent our time in Saudi Arabia, including one that she had made specially—a solid gold miniature still. It represented the still my father ran to make “hooch” while we lived there. Alcohol was officially forbidden, but during the Fifties, the King turned a blind eye to it so long as we kept it in the American compound—an island surrounded by a sea of Arab culture, its boundaries defined by a chain link fence.

As I held the bracelet, I recognized charms from countries we had visited as a family, others from her travels with my father after they retired, and then the ones she had accumulated when she traveled after my father’s death.

I remembered the day, about a year before she died from end-stage COPD, when she sat at my dining table, drinking the cappuccino I had made her (she loved my cappuccinos), a dark cloud coming over her as she said, “I won’t be able to travel anymore.”

I don’t remember what led her to say that. It wasn’t clear to me that it was true. But it was certainly what she felt. I think it was the first time I ever saw her depressed. “Don’t borrow trouble,” she had said more than once. Depression was not in her emotional tool kit. Yet there it was, though she did not dwell on it for long.

Memories get buried. That moment when she thought she could not travel anymore, and its impact on her, was such a memory. The bracelet unearthed it. As I held it, I understood  that my mother’s charm bracelet is her story.

She was born and raised in Oklahoma City, moved to California sometime during the War, and met my father shortly after it ended. They owned a restaurant called Hoagie’s for a while. But an employee offered to close it one night, took all the money, and left the food out to spoil. It bankrupted them. My father had a hard time finding work (he was an electrician), taking a job picking tomatoes once. He got an aching back, fifty cents, and a box of tomatoes he had helped himself to. “I’m never picking tomatoes again,” he told my mother.

Then he came home one day and said, “What would you think of moving to Saudi Arabia?” Why not, she responded, thus changing her story to the story that was truly hers.

To this day, I wonder how is it that in the Fifties, a woman who had been raised within the confines of Oklahoma, would so quickly and eagerly say, yes—let’s move to Saudi Arabia.

She flourished as an expat, took in the cultures of the countries we visited as we sailed for 75 days on a Dutch freighter, stopping at ports in the Far East as we made our way from Dammam, Saudi Arabia to Long Beach, California.

The “N” word was natural to her as she grew up. But, she told me her views changed when she learned, by living in Saudi Arabia, what it was to be a minority. She never used the word again. And, she embraced a world that was based on diversity, rather than certainty. In fact, she lusted after a world of diversity rather than of certainty.

That’s my mother’s story. Or, to be more accurate, that is Betty Jean Cole Hogan’s story—the story that has nothing to do with her as a mother. She gets to have that story.

She left it to me. Her daughter. The storyteller.

I am not going to sell the bracelet.

 

leaving home

My Aunt Mayme, grandmother, and mother as they left the house to take us to the train station.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amsterdam

We flew from New York to Amsterdam, then to Rome, and finally to Saudi Arabia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

friends

My mother (right) and her  friend Evelyn Ruberto outside our first house in Saudi Arabia.

 

 

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aboard ship

Aboard the Wonosobo, the freighter that tooks us from Saudi Arabia to California.

 

 

after trip

My mother in our second house. They bought rattan furniture while we were in the Philipines, our last stop before we sailed through typhoons to get to Long Beach, California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

dancing

My parents hosted a hobo party. That’s her dancing with, I think, Jack Cavel.