November 22, 1963

Football season was done. I think it might have been the first Friday without a football game. But it was Friday, so we had to do something. We planned on going to the Vine to see West Side Story. Back then, it took a few years for “big” movies to get to Livermore.

The bell hadn’t rung yet to mark the start of fourth period. Kids were still straggling in to Mr. Fraser’s fourth period Freshman English class. I had just taken my seat when Mr. Snodgrass and Mr. Weiss rushed in, pulled a radio from the closet in the back of the room, then just as quickly left the room. I remember thinking it seemed strange. They looked so grim.

By the time the bell rang, we knew. We heard. President Kennedy had been shot. Mr. Fraser led us in a discussion. We talked about politics, who was Democrat and who was Republican. He managed our bewilderment, kept it light, told us he was a Republican, then said we should use the remaining time to read our assigned book—Great Expectations.

Pete Prassinos, he of the beautiful deep dark brown eyes framed with long dark eyelashes, asked if he could go to his locker to get his book. Across the hall, Mr. Satterthwaite had the radio on, the scratchy sounds of the newsfeed barely audible. Pete returned with his book.

“He was shot in the head,” he said pointing to his temple.

Moments later, we heard the news bulletin clearly. The president was dead.

“Well, that’s it,” Mr. Fraser said and turned away from us.

“President Kennedy has been killed,” the voice over the public address system announced. “School is dismissed.”

The boys in the back row jumped up and cheered. Not because Kennedy was dead, but because school was dismissed. They were teenage boys who didn’t know how else to react.

“Hey!” Mr. Fraser boomed. He was barely five foot two, but his glorious voice drove the hulking members of the football team in the back row into their seats. “A man is dead! The president is dead. We need to respect that.”

And with that, he dismissed our class.

There were other things that remain vivid in my mind from that weekend:

My mother cleaning house wearing the skirt and blouse and heels she had been wearing when she was at the store and heard the news. My mother hated housecleaning and never—never—before or after that Friday wore heals and a dress to clean the house.

My father, the next day, threatening to break the Vaughn Meader record that lightly satirized Kennedy. My dad was an Irish Catholic. That was a big thing to him: an Irish Catholic as president.

Seeing Oswald shot on Sunday morning.

Going to see West Side Story on Sunday afternoon with Mary Ann Kriletich, Kathy Smith, and Kathy Keene. Weeping as we walked home, comparing Jackie to Maria, remembering that Jackie had lost a child just months before.

On Monday, the riderless horse, boots placed backwards into the stirrups, preceding the coffin as it made its way to Arlington. I had seen the same image in the previous week’s Life magazine, an illustration that accompanied an article about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand—perhaps because Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, had influenced Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We returned to school on Tuesday. It was a two-day week. Thanksgiving was on Thursday.

The Beatle’s arrival in February of 1964 took the focus off of Kennedy’s death. Or at least, that’s my memory. The trauma of the assassination of a president receded, seemed a mistake, something that still couldn’t happen here.

Over next five years, civil rights workers were murdered, fire hoses and dogs let loose on peaceful marchers, cities rioted. The war in Vietnam escalated, driving a wedge between generations—those who fought the “Good War” and those who questioned why we were at war.

By the time Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed five years later, we came to believe that assassinations were part of the American landscape.

I had Mr. Fraser again in my senior year for English Honors. That was his last year teaching high school. He had been accepted into the Master’s program at San Francisco State College (later University); I was heading there, too. I saw him once in the Humanities Literature and Language building, drinking from the water fountain.

I later learned that he did not make it through even the first semester. Academia, he quickly learned was not the place for him. He left for New York where for years he made a living doing voiceovers and acting bit parts in soap operas.

In 1996, on a trip to New York, Tom and I reconnected with Mr. Fraser. He had been Tom’s teacher as well. By that time we called him Bert. I thanked him for how he took care of us, my fourth period English class, the day Kennedy was killed. “You gave us a safety net in a very confusing moment,” I said. “And you showed us how important and sad that moment was.”

We agreed to keep in touch. We invited him to our wedding that September, but he was unable to attend. Sometime soon after that, a heart attack took him.

Mr. Fraser introduced me to William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech in English Honors. I had to write a paper showing how the convict in “The Old Man” exemplified the sentiments of his speech. I don’t remember my paper. It’s been too long since I read the short story to be able to tell you how it exemplified his sentiment.

But Faulkner’s speech has stayed with me over the years. I go back and read it from time to time. With each reading, it resonates more deeply with me.

Innocence and experience. Experience does not necessarily lead to cynicism. It can, if we are willing to go deep enough, lead us to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, how to wend our way through sad times. I was fortunate, that on that awful day, November 22, 1963, I had Mr. Fraser as my guide.

From Faulkner’s speech:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

When Life Gives You Lemons

Be grateful. Be very grateful.

lemon tree 1The first night we moved to our home in Livermore, I asked Tom if he would mind getting me a lemon. He looked perplexed. Did I really want him to go to the store to get just one lemon? And then it dawned on him what I meant—would he please pick one from the tree in our front yard.

I remember seeing an old movie, it might have been a silent one, where a hand reached out of a window to pick an orange hanging from the tree right next to the house. California. A paradise where oranges were in such abundance, you didn’t have to wait until Christmas to receive one in your stocking. All you had to do was reach out your window and one would jump into your hand.

That’s what that moment, the first night in Livermore, felt like to me.

It has been quite a journey, my return to Livermore. For Tom as well, I think. A paradise and a hell. The best and worst things in my life happened to me here—when I was a child, and then again when I returned.

I’ve asked myself, why? Why were there such extreme experiences and why did I return here?

On the surface it was family matters that drew us back. Tom’s dad and my mother were nearing the end of their lives. We came to care for them and ended up bearing witness to the waning of their lives.

There were many other losses we experienced while living here. Our cat Rug, Dominic’s wife. Doug’s wife. George. Marge. Ed.

There were triumphs. Tom’s commissions to write orchestral pieces. Fourth Street Studio and the Saturday Salons. Publishing five anthologies of the writing from people who came to the Salons. Productions of spoken words. Tom and I returned to acting. I directed my first two plays.

And then there were the painful obstacles. An arts community that was driven by the fear that there was not enough to go around—not enough talent, not enough acclaim, not enough enough. It created a competitive environment that was not based on striving for excellence, but rather battling over who would be in control, who would be the anointer.

I was always on the other side of this competition. Or rather, I was outside of it, never giving it credence, plugging along doing my work, producing events, publishing anthologies without waiting to be anointed.

I was surprised at the viciousness of the response to my successes. It became enervating, being the outsider. I sought community. It tweaked all my childish, festering wounds—all based on the question, why aren’t I acceptable? What’s wrong with me?

The big lesson for me in all of this was that being acceptable was not my story. My story is about being authentic. A writer’s voice, after all, must be authentic if she is to rise to Faulkner’s challenge issued in his Nobel prize speech: create from the materials of the human spirit, that which did not exist before.

We were told in our Hospice volunteer training that our job was to bear witness. We weren’t there to help, heal, cure, cheer up, or fix. We were there to bear witness to a life.

I like that: bearing witness.

I think that might be why I was called to return to a place that holds such extreme experiences for me. It was the opportunity to bear witness to my own life. To see the story I thought I was supposed to be living, and find the one that was mine. To begin to live that story.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade the adage goes. But there is so much more you can do with lemons. Lemon meringue pie. Lemon sorbet. Lemon curd, Lemon juice in your salad dressing. Lemon juice squeezed over your fish, pork roast, roasted chicken. Lemon and honey and fresh ginger in hot water to soothe a sore throat. Lemon peel twisted, the oil from its rind circling the rim of the martini glass. Lemon zest added to—well to just about anything.

Life gives you the lemons. You get to decide what to do with them.

The trunk of Gene’s lemon tree is gnarly, the gnarl that comes with age. Lumps and bumps formed to heal wounds. A rod inserted to hold split halves together. Lemons dangling like ornaments from its branches and hidden like Easter eggs amidst the foliage on the ground.

Gene’s final words, spoken in the middle of the night, were to his hospital roommate. Words that seemed to come from an incoherent state but were in fact articulate. Words from a man who endured terrible disappointments, but whose heart never gave out.

“I’ve had a good life,” he said. “But I’m ready to leave. I think I’ll get in my car and get out of here.”

Of course it was he who planted that lemon tree. It’s his legacy. A gift that bears fruit year after year and reminds us that we can make of the fruit what we want.

That’s what I learned when I returned to my Livermore. Life gives us lemons. An abundance of them. And that’s a good thing.

An abundance of friends came to our farewell party, staying for our final howellelujha chorus, our howls reminding us that we are a pack of the heart. Tom and I felt well-loved. Felt we had made a difference—and I think that’s what we want in life—to feel like we make a difference.

Gene’s lemon tree stays behind. Bearing fruit. Bearing witness. Gene’s legacy. His gift to our world.

If life gives you lemons, be grateful. Be very grateful.lemons sun

Note: Our house has sold. This is the last post that I will write in my Writing Shed, the place that inspired the name for my blog. I will take this next week off. Next time I blog it will be from my new home, my next writing shed in the great Northwest.