Last Woman Standing

“That,” Sally said, pointing to Mr. Fixit, the repair shop where old-fashioned upright vacuum cleaners stood at attention on Miller Avenue for over thirty ears, “is where I took my vibrator when I lived here.”

Sally had serious ovarios.

It was early November 1988. Sally was in the driver’s seat, driving Jeanette and Kathleen to dinner at my house. I had decided to have an early Thanksgiving dinner since it seemed inevitable that George H. W. Bush would become our next president. Clearly, we would not have much to be thankful for.

I met and became friends with Sally, Jeanette, and Kathleen when I joined the San Francisco Gray Panthers in 1979. I was 30, Kathleen 32, Sally 55, and Jeanette 62.

In 1979, The San Francisco chapter of the Gray Panthers was deep in a fight to preserve single room occupancy (SRO) rooms in the residential hotels in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Owners of the buildings were attempting to convert them into tourist hotels; if memory serves, rents went from $125.00 a month to $50.00 a night. The residents of the hotels were people who generally had no family connections: retired merchant seamen, widows who lived entirely on their husband’s social security ($200.00 a month), disabled people who relied on disability for income. Their only alternative for affordable housing was in towns 50 or 60 miles away, where they would lose the community they had built around the place they had come to call home.

The City had imposed a moratorium on the conversions because the loss of affordable housing was creating such a hardship on the residents, most of whom had been a part of San Francisco for most, if not all, their lives. To get around the moratorium, the owners (mostly foreign investors) would hire thugs to harass the residents into moving.

They sprayed disinfectant in the hallways, sending those with pulmonary problems to the hospital.

They set elevators to every third floor, forcing those with mobility problems to crawl up the stairs.

They locked out home health care providers and social workers, making it impossible for frail, ill people to get their medication and services.

A ninety-year old woman was served a three-day eviction notice.

Within a 30-day period, four residents of one of the hotels died.

This was not, shall we say, American exceptionalism.

The Gray Panthers, along with other community groups, successfully organized the residents of one hotel. The last time I went to a play at the Exit Theater, located in the heart of the Tenderloin, I walked by that hotel. It still exists as a residential hotel, though I don’t know much about what it is like.

I was part of other organizing events over my years with the Gray Panthers. Jeanette and I bonded over health care issues. When I called her to come to my home for a meeting I told her it was over dinner – potluck.

“Pot luck tends to be a bit potty,” she said. “Can you assign me something to bring?”

And thus began an extraordinary friendship with three women that was celebrated over dinners. Revolution was not going to interfere with the grace and intimacy of good food, good wine, and good conversation.

These were always very intimate evenings. Our discussions were not so much about politics as about what kind of a society we wanted to be a part of. “What a society,” Jeanette would conclude when we got particularly depressed about injustices and policies that threw the most vulnerable to the curb.

Then we would go to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store on the corner of Columbus and Union for a cappuccino and a pastry made by the owner’s wife.

Sally and Jeanette were my mother’s age, but took quite a different path from hers. Though my mother had her own quirkiness, she pretty much followed the path that was expected of women following World War II. She married, had three children, went to work when her youngest was in elementary school.

Sally married, had a child, got divorced, got a PhD and got a job at UCLA as a professor of anthropology where, in 1967, tired of rushing downstairs to the women’s room between her classes, strode into the faculty bathroom, shouting a hearty hello to the back of dean of the department as she passed him at the urinal on her way to a stall.

She explored bisexuality, living with women as well as men. “The hard part is intimacy,” she said.  “It isn’t that men are assholes – it’s that intimacy is tough. The only difference between living with a man and living with a woman is that you go through more toilet paper when you live with a woman.”

Like I said, Sally had serious ovarios.

So did Jeanette. She never married, didn’t have the patience to teach a man of her generation about equality in a relationship, but took on the occasional lover. She had an illegal abortion when she became pregnant, a harrowing experience. She went to a liberal southern university, and when she worked in management during a strike, donated half her salary to the striking workers since she couldn’t join the picket line.

Kathleen and I were of the same generation. We shared the experience of growing up in families that venerated males, taught daughters their role was to support men. We struggled with how we could find love along with a role in the world. She was raised Catholic, and the Catholic never really left her. The pity was that the Church would not allow her to be a priest. As executive director of the Gray Panthers, she worked it as if she were a Parish priest (a good one – not one of the paternalistic ones), creating an atmosphere where all felt a sense of belonging while working for a common good. Most of the Gray Panthers were old thirties atheist radicals. She gave no sermons, just support and leadership where it was necessary.

As if being a woman wasn’t enough to put her at odds with the Catholic Church, she was also a lesbian, taking small steps into a relationship that eventually crushed her heart.

Sally died in 1994, shortly before her seventieth birthday – that’s a story for another time. Kathleen in 1995, shortly after her 47th birthday. Breast cancer took her. Jeanette died in 1998. She had asked me to have durable power of attorney for her health care decisions. When I asked her what she wanted, she said, “Pull the plug.” I did – again, that is a story for another time.

I am the last woman standing of this “four for dinner” group.

I can hear the conversations we might be having now. The armor they would be donning to take part in the fight once again for women’s rights, providing safety nets for the most vulnerable, working to get us out of Afghanistan.

Imagine how terrifying it would be to male legislators, so threatened by women’s sexuality that they want to limit access to birth control and choice, to come face to face with a woman who takes her vibrator to Mr. Fixit.

It is definitely time to woman up. To show some serious ovarios. I can feel the spirits of Jeanette, Sally, and Kathleen organizing over a dinner of good food, good wine, and good company.

A revolution filled with grace and joy.

How Can Such a Pretty Wife Make Such Bad Coffee?

I thought we were done with all of this.

I thought we were done with the Folgers’ commercials where a smiling young wife, dressed in a shirtwaist, hair and makeup done to perfection, with a smile and a cheerful, “Your coffee sir,” hands a cup to her husband as he stands before the mirror, face still half covered with shaving cream. “Thanks, Beautiful,” he says, takes a sip and then says loud enough for her to hear him, “How can such a pretty wife make such bad coffee.”

The horror! A wife who can’t make coffee that pleases her husband.

If only she had bought the right coffee – Folgers. Perhaps then she could be pretty and competent.

There is an assault on women in the public discourse.

I get it that Bishops and the Pope believe that God is telling them that women are incubators or incubators in waiting. I get it that they are so afraid of their own sexuality, they must control a woman’s. I get it that women are circumcised in cultures that practice it so they won’t be tempted to seek fulfillment of their sexual desires, and thus disrupt the order of the society.

I get it. You have the right to believe it – but you don’t have the right to foist your fear-based dogma onto the body and souls of others.

My mother’s generation believed they had no choice – wife and mother was the only option. My generation of women believed we had to make a choice – career or family. The generation that followed me believed they were supposed to do it all – career and family – effortlessly, the way men did it.

Of course, men didn’t do it effortlessly in the time period I’m referring to. They had wives who provided the effort part.

I think these were surface options that led us to believe we had to make a choice that we didn’t have to make.

I think women need to feel beautiful. We need to have our beauty seen, experienced, and appreciated. We need to feel safe being beautiful.

I don’t mean beautiful in the way media portrays it – the photo-shopped, botoxed, surgically cosmeticized ideal.

I mean beautiful in how we walk in balance in our daily lives – balancing the soul and care of our selves with our desire to connect with and care for those we love.

The beauty of our aging bodies and faces. The beauty of our hearts and minds.

I think many of us thought we had to choose between being smart and being beautiful. If we were smart, we could not be sexually desirable, which meant we had no sexuality at all.

And so, you have someone like Rush Limbaugh becoming rich by labeling us as feminazis and NAGs (National Association of Gals – his name for the National Organization of Women). Implicit in his message is why would any man want to have sex with a nag or feminazi? Or a woman who does like sex is a slut.

The real question is, why would any of us want to have his naked body, oozing with toxic hatred for women, within one hundred miles of us, our daughters, our nieces, our granddaughters, our young friends?

I’m kind of surprised by the depth of anger – actually of outrage – that I’ve been experiencing as I hear women’s rights to their bodies and their lives under assault. Surprised because I thought I had exorcised it over the years. Surprised that my outrage is a sign that I have finally detoxified myself of the belief system that shames women for being sexual beings with minds and hearts.

I am very lucky. Tom has told me repeatedly that I am beautiful. He wondered, he said, if I truly believed that I was beautiful. He repeated it enough that I finally believe it, feel it. He helped me tame the demons who whispered in my soul’s ear that I was ugly and monstrous because my very being could stir fear and discomfort in the status quo, or those who cling to it.

I learned over the years that for me, good coffee depends on the coffee grounds you start with. I like the richness of an Italian roast. We have a cappuccino maker because that’s how we like our coffee, Tom and I. We usually make our own, but sometimes we make a cup for the other.

My beauty does not depend on a cup of coffee or making life seem effortless to family. Let’s not return to a time where good money could go into making commercials to shame women into keeping their minds, souls, and hearts small.

About the time that Mr. Coffee machines came out (in the early Seventies) there was this joke:

“Have you heard about the Ms. Coffee machine? You turn it on and it says, ‘Make your own damn coffee.’”

Links to truly sad Sixties commercials.

Old Dog Syndrome

Our dog Tessa is fifteen and a half. That is something like eighty-five in human years. I come from a family that tends to live a long time – like up to a century or more – so eighty-five is relative to me in terms of being old. And Tessa has had enough attitude that when I say she is fifteen, people think I mean fifteen months.

I woke in the middle of the night on Valentines Day with a sore throat. It actually hurt me enough that it woke me up. As I headed to the kitchen for a drink of water, I saw Tessa huddling under the dining room table, unable to move her back legs, her eyes wide with terror, her front legs spread apart to hold her up.

I feared the worst. I thought she was having a stroke. I carried her to her bed and lay down beside her trying to comfort her. Tom woke up to see what the commotion was about, and together we stayed by her side, debating whether to take her to the emergency vet or to wait until morning where she could go see the vet with whom she is familiar. We decided on the latter.

I could not stop the tears. Were we at the point, I wondered, where it was time to let her go?

I dropped her off at the vet in the morning, and spent the day crying, waiting to hear what the vet would report.

I adore this vet. She incorporates holistic as well as allopathic medicine – she uses acupuncture as well as antibiotics, and has a chiropractor who specializes in animals (particularly horses) who visits once a month. I wish I could find a physician for myself like her.

Finally, late in the day the vet called me with good news. Tessa in all likelihood had something called Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome. In humans it’s something like Meniere’s disease or vertigo. Basically, gravity ceases to exist. The world loses its stability so there is no context for determining which end is up – or sideways for that matter.

The vet reassured me that it was a syndrome from which she would likely recover completely with some tender loving nursing on my part, and acupuncture and antibiotics on her part.

Through her recovery, Tessa relied on us in a way that she has never had to before. We had to hand feed her and give her water. We carried her to the yard so she could urinate and defecate. She would wait until we were by her side before she attempted to walk, would look back at us if we fell too far behind, letting us know that our presence helped her find her grounding.

One of the most endearing traits of dogs is their loyalty. In a way, the tables were turned as we nursed her back to health. She had to rely on our loyalty to her – our  willingness to stay by her side as she regained her equilibrium.

Tessa has nearly recovered. Her head still tilts slightly, though that might eventually change.

I was with my parents and my in-laws as their aging bodies declined. The platitude is that when that happens, the child becomes the parent and the parent becomes the child. But that is not what happens. It’s a much more delicate balancing act than that. They definitely became dependent on me in a way that I had been on them when I was a child. But that did not turn them into children, or me the parent. It just created a different dynamic – one in which they had to relinquish power and control and I had to exercise it without diminishing their dignity or taking it away from them.

The dance was not always graceful. And there were many times I just wanted it to be over – and then having to face that the only way it could be over would be with their death. Guilt didn’t sweep over me so much as an ironic understanding of just how twisted life can be.

The dance is easier, but no less painful, with animals we have come to love when they age and decline. The relationship is less complicated: they don’t abandon us, disappoint us, or fail to live up to our expectations. It’s pretty straightforward.

I have always believed that the biggest agreement we need to make and keep with our pets is the willingness to let them go when they are ready to die, and then to be with them if we can.

It’s clear to me that Tessa is not ready to leave this world. But, I can see that the episode has taken a toll on her. Or maybe it has just changed her slightly. She still has attitude, but she sticks a little closer to us. In a weird way, there is less distance between us as sentient beings.

Spring has come to one of the trees outside my writing shed since Tessa lost her equilibrium. A finch hops between its branches, sometimes disappearing into the white delicacy of its blossoms.

Life continues with a little bit of old dog syndrome sprinkled in.

An I-Like-the-Fish,-It’s-The-Tartar-Sauce-I-Don’t-Like Epiphany

“I finally figured it out,” my mother said when she was eighty, three years before she died. “I like fish. It’s the tartar sauce I don’t like.”

She had been living in a senior apartment center for a couple of years by then, and I assume that she discovered the tartar-sauce-not-the-fish thing by some fluke when eating in the dining room with fellow residents.

We ate very little fish when I was growing up. Canned tuna and fish sticks were pretty much the catch of the day in our house. Shrimp was what you ate when you went to a restaurant – shrimp cocktail or Shrimp Scatter.

I never liked fish sticks. My brothers slathered them in ketchup, but I have never been much of a ketchup aficionado.

Tuna, combined with Miracle Whip, usually appeared between slices of white bread. Tuna I liked, though I did not discover it came any way but canned until well into my twenties.

I ordered Shrimp Scatter whenever we went to Spenger’s Fish Grotto in Berkeley. Deep fried, served with tartar sauce, and plenty of french fries on the side. Shrimp cocktail was okay, too, the taste of the shrimp disguised, this time by the thick sweet cocktail sauce.

I discovered Fish and Chips when I went to college; felt very sophisticated that instead of dipping the fish in tartar sauce, I sprinkled vinegar over the pieces of deep fried fish and chips. Ate it just the way the British ate it.

Today, I can say that pretty much across the board, I like fish. That is, I like the way fish tastes when it has been prepared so that the natural, good flavor of the fish is respected – when it is not disguised.

I wrote in my journal today about the past, trying to make sense of what to do with it – trying to separate the wheat from the chaff so I can bring it into my life without swirling in the riptide that keeps me revisiting the part that makes me feel small and, well, bad.

As I wrote, I remembered my mother and her it’s-the-tartar-sauce-not-the-fish epiphany.

That is so my mother: her sense of humor, her willingness to change a long-held belief.

Except for those long-held beliefs that had woven themselves into her life tapestry with invisible threads – threads that had been passed down from her mother to me. Who knows for how many generations.

I’ve been discovering the invisible threads in my own tapestry. They made their way into the weaving in the words that would come at me when my mother was scared.

“Ha, ha! There won’t be anything left for you,” she said to me on the way back from the attorney who was working on the papers to help her sell her house to my brother. She had made a bad deal, but couldn’t bring herself to change it, though she was scared she might not have enough money for herself. She took her fear out on me because – I was the daughter.

“I can’t forgive my brother, but I can forgive my father because my mother stopped having sex with him,” she said to me when at forty I shared with her that both her father and her brother had molested me when I was eleven.

I wonder if my mother heard herself say those words. I don’t think she did. I think those invisible threads tied her to a narrative that would come out when she was scared, or, in the case of her father and brother, in a situation too horrific for her to face straight on. And she put the ear muffs on so she could say them.

I think those threads may have their origins in the times women were burned at the stake for being witches.

At some point, as my fountain pen made its way across the pages of my journal this morning, I had my own epiphany:

Being my mother did not relieve her of her contradictions, disappointments, regrets, fears, and dashed dreams. My being her daughter didn’t exacerbate them. But it didn’t relieve her of them either. She didn’t become the woman I needed her to be just because she gave birth to me.

It wasn’t that I forgave her so much as I realized I had nothing to forgive her for. I do not need her permission to unravel the invisible threads – to break from the tradition that got passed down through generations of women. Breaking with that tradition does not mean I didn’t or shouldn’t love her. It just means she didn’t have to be the woman I wanted her to be in order for me to be the woman I am.

A friend of mine is returning to law after a ten-year break from it. She never thought she would go back to it. She’s fifteen years younger than I. While I came from the generation of women who thought we had to choose between career (really, being a person) and being a mother, she came of age when women thought we were supposed to do it all: career, family, fulfillment. Career, particularly in professions such as the law, required that the woman succeed like a man would in it. You wore suits with blouses tied in a bow – as if that somehow merged male and female into your persona.

“Do I need to worry about my spiky hair cut?” she wondered. “Would it make clients take me less seriously? Will I look professional enough?”

Pshaw I thought. And said something like that to her.

I’m more articulate now. Be your hair is what I say. Be the woman that you are and bring that to the profession. That’s what we need to be doing as women now; trusting and valuing our experience living life as a woman and bringing that wisdom to the marketplace.

We need to discover our taste and how we taste and not cover it up with tartar sauce or cocktail sauce because that’s how the recipe was given to us.

I’m glad my mother discovered it was the tartar sauce she didn’t like, not the fish. I think it opened up a whole new area of pleasure for her.