Monday, April 16, 2012


In the abstract, the “ah ha” moments in one’s life arrive with dramatic fanfare, lights flashing and Beethoven’s Fifth playing in the background. Yet, if my own experience is in any way typical, nothing could be further from the truth. Unannounced, they slip stealthily into the room through a door inadvertently left ajar.

The first of these realizations that I recall with any clarity occurred when I was twenty-two; legally an adult, just not a practicing one. I have always been a decisive person and at that time in my life, if ever I decided to do something, “wild horses,” could not avert me from the course. Some might have considered me stubborn, but I prefer to think of myself as determined. In any case, once uttered, my decisions were edicts, etched in stone. And, since I rarely had a thought that I didn’t express, the stonecutters were kept preternaturally busy.

It was the summer before I got married and instead of my usual job as a camp counselor, I was engaged in Summer Theatre at the University of Idaho. This weekend, I had come home to confer with my mother on various matters wedding related and to pick up the invitations. At some point during the course of the weekend, I had announced my intention to return on Sunday night. We had finished eating and my parents were settling in for the evening.

“Are you sure you have to go back tonight? Why not get up early and drive back in the morning, after you’re rested?” Dad stood in the kitchen doorway on his way to bed. He would be out of the house early the next day, in order to ensure that all the cattle, sheep, and swine that had come into the stockyards over the weekend were in the proper holding pens in preparation for the weekly auction.

“I’ll wake you up when I leave in the morning and you can be to Moscow by 8:00.” It was a reasonable suggestion and he waited for my response with his head cocked to one side, a gesture I knew well.

“No dad. I gotta go back - now.” I answered without making eye contact. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. I didn’t have a rehearsal until 3:00 the next afternoon, but I was antsy and just needed to move. “I’ll call when I get there if you want. Don’t worry.” This last I tossed off as I zipped out the door, clutching my purse and a bag of clean laundry, careful not to let the screen door slam behind me.

“Don’t drive too fast.” Mom called after me from the living room where she sat in her chair reading.

It was still light when I drove out our long drive way, apple trees bearing fruit lining one side and roses and peonies with spent blossoms on the other. The distance ahead of me was about ninety miles, a drive that in summer is neither difficult nor dangerous. The route was a familiar one, as most of my mother’s extended family, both living and dead, could be found either farming or buried somewhere in the Palouse.

At the first intersection, I turned left onto Sullivan, drove past my old high school, and soon the primarily residential areas were replaced by fenced fields, some of them full of corn and cantaloupe others with alfalfa. There was one large dairy farm along the route, flanked by pastures with a few head of cattle and horses still grazing lazily. In a few years, this pastoral landscape would be converted to housing developments, some of them designed by guys I had gone to high school with. But in the summer of 1965, it looked much the way it always had when my brother and I rode our horses out to Saltine Flats or drove my Uncle Alfred’s green Chevrolet out to cut down a Christmas tree and collect pine boughs to make swag for the front door.

At 32nd I turned west and drove another couple of miles until the road intersected with Highway 27, which I would stay on until I got to Rockford, where I would cross into Idaho and eventually turn south on to highway 95 following it all the way to Moscow. On this occasion, I didn’t get that far; I didn’t even get to Rockford, for by the time I reached Mica, about five miles south on highway 27, I turned around and started back. In the twenty minutes I’d spent behind the wheel, I had calmed down enough to realize that I really was tired and the drive ahead of me, which would be sunny and pleasant in the morning promised to be dark and lonely tonight. And so I turned around and drove back home.

“I’m back.” I called as I walked through the kitchen and into the living room.

Mom looked up from her book and held her glass out to me. “Top this up and fix yourself one and come sit with me.”

I took the glass from her hand, and then stopped by their bedroom door on my way to the kitchen, listening to see if my dad was asleep.

“Hi Honey.” He said clearing his throat.

“Sorry if I woke you up.”

“I saw the car lights as you drove in. I wasn’t asleep yet anyway.” He paused. “I’ll wake you in the morning.”

“Thanks dad. Good night. See you then.”

I went into the kitchen and poured a little Johnny Walker into a tumbler then added ice, water and more Scotch into mother’s glass then returned to the living room. I handed mom her drink, then sat down across from her in dad’s chair.

“Thanks.” She smiled and looked at me for a moment. “I’m glad you came back.” Then returned to her book.

“Me too.” I pushed back in the chair so the foot rest came up and closed my eyes.

I wish I could report that I never again felt compelled to blindly follow some rule or convention, mine or someone else’s. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. Nonetheless, it has been instructive, and occasionally it saves me from barreling down a path I have set out to take for no other reason than the preconception that it is what has to be done.

For instance, several years later the memory surfaced when my daughter and I were in a department store. I don’t recall the mission we were on, though it is safe to assume that it was something specific as I rarely undertake shopping unless I have to. Having paid for my purchases, I turned to see Katie, who was three at the time, holding a baby doll. I watched her for a moment, as she cradled the doll in her arms. She must have sensed me looking at her for she looked up, smiling sweetly.

I knelt down to eye level. “That’s a nice little baby, isn’t it?”

“Can we buy it?” I shook my head.

“No honey, we can’t. Now put it back.”

“But why?” She asked as she gently returned it to its display stroller.

Oh honey!, I thought to myself, if only you knew! Because, of course I knew - knew if you ever gave in, even once, when a child asked for something, it would never end. That a ‘given into child’ would morph into a manipulative, spoiled teenager, destined to go straight into juvenile detention. Worse, all of the havoc wrecked along the way would be traced back to the mother who took the line of least resistance and caved to the demands of the child. I was already skating on thin ice as an older mother of an only child. This was one of the principles of parenting that was most certainly engraved in my library of stone tablets.

All this I said to myself as we bustled out of the store into the parking lot. Once at the car, Katie waited by the backseat door while I put the packages into the trunk of my red Dasher. Maybe I would get the doll for her for Christmas or her next birthday. I reasoned. After all, it was exactly the kind of doll that I wanted her to have. A baby doll, without a lot of bells and whistles. The eyes opened and shut but other than that, it was just a sweet little doll, perfect for a three year old. Still – I knew the rules. Everyone did.

When I opened the car door to help her into her car seat, I could see she was crying; silently, holding her body still, and biting her lip while tears welled up in her eyes. I stood there looking at her for a moment. “Let’s go.” I said and she started to climb into the car. I took her hand and pulled her out.

“No. This way.”

“Where are we going?” She asked looking up at me.

“Don’t you think we had better go back and get that baby before someone else takes her home?”

Her eyes widened with surprise and cautious delight.

Together we sprinted though the rain and back into the store. She named the doll Elizabeth after the baby sister of her friend Megan. Katie took good care of all of her dolls, but Elizabeth always received a measure of special attention. She slept in the little blue cradle that grandpa had made and was routinely tucked in with a poem or a song. And Katie turned out fine as well. Didn’t throw tantrums. Didn’t end up in “juvie” and I don’t recall that she ever again asked for anything.

I confess that I still find rules and routine attractive, but I realize they don’t have to be sacred. They often simplify things, “Monday – wash day, Tuesday - Ironing,” helps establish a welcomed rhythm to my life. And there are simply some things that might never get done if they weren’t obsessively observed. Running comes to mind. Inspired one New Year’s Eve by a friend, who told me she had run a five mile race at that day, I got up the next morning, determined to be a runner myself. Once I made the decision, I never again asked myself if it was something I wanted to do; if it was too cold, or too dark, or too rainy. I just got up every morning, laced up my shoes and ran out the door.

Still, that evening in July of 1965, when I managed to throw that stone tablet out the window and turn around, marked a turning point. I realized I could change my mind and my world would not collapse. I marvel at my parents’ wisdom and forbearance – they didn’t know I would pull U-turn and come home on that particular night, but they were willing to let me discover when I was ready to bend my own rules. I will never stop being a decisive and determined person, but as the years go by, I’ve come to value flexibility right alongside structure. Defining oneself and then acting accordingly is a fallacy; it is through our experiences and actions that we truly come to know ourselves.


Jo and I paid for our beers and crossed to the empty table we had spotted when we came into the bar. Soon we were joined by Benjamin and Fred, two 3rd year law students I knew only by reputation. Jo and Benjamin were soon engrossed in a conversation about her former boyfriend and Fred and I were left to get acquainted. He asked about my spring vacation and I regaled him with a martyred account of preparing Easter dinner for the family when mother took to her bed. We must have talked about something else, but I don’t recall what it might have been. It was peanut night at Mort’s, so any conversational lulls could easily have been filled with cracking and chomping. What riveted my attention were the laugh lines on either side of his eyes. I counted them more than once. Ten in all, with deep grooves in the center fading to light #4 pencil lines at the edges. A few weeks later when I told my friends we were getting married, they gaped. “How do you know he is Mr. Right?” Nearly fifty years later, the question has been altered but the answer is the same. “Laugh lines!” I tell them with a smile.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Aunt Mary Knows Best!

Clayann Lankford and Colin Peeples are getting married next week in San Francisco. It is a small family affair which will take place at the courthouse. In August, they are planning to have a party in our yard. In the meantime, Colin’s Aunt Bonnie hosted a bridal shower this week. I have known Colin since he was a baby and I only wish I had known Clayann that long as well. I love them both dearly, which I am sure you will agree justifies the following unsolicited advice I gave them to accompany a gift they didn’t ask for!

Dear Clayann & Colin: When I checked out your wish list I discovered that towels were on the list. White towels to be precise. I am giving you towels but not white towels – indeed these towels, coffee bean brown and sea foam blue, are at the other end of the color spectrum. Well, there is a reason and a story behind it of course.

Six years ago when Kate and Micaiah got married they put towels on their wish list. Just like you, they thought white towels would be nice. As a consequence they received a set of very nice white towels, which are still in good shape – no fraying at the hem or worn spots in the center; however, within six months, they took on a gray patina and six years later, even when they came fresh out of the washer or off the line, they were revolting. Stained and dirty looking, even though they were clean. Not at all the sort of towel you wanted to dry your bum with let alone bury your face in!

So, last Christmas I replaced those towels with colored towels like the ones that I am now giving you and after they raved about them, I got some for us and another set for them. Yesterday, I got this set for you.

Here is the deal on white towels my dears. They are just great in fancy hotels, where despite the rather self-serving notices strategically placed in the bathroom, that the company is “greener than grass” and a "great friend to the environment," in truth those towels are regularly washed in hot water and routinely soaked in bleach, which ultimately breaks them down and wears them out at which time they pitch them. In the meantime, their fluffy feel and pristine appearance fools you into thinking they would look nice on your towel rack.

In the event that you still want white towels I am including the sales slip so that you can take these back and exchange them as white is an option with this particular model.

In the alternative, maybe one of your other friends will accede to your wishes and give you the white towels that you asked for and then you can trade these in on one of the gardening items on your wish list. Just don’t dry your hands on the white towels after you come in from turning your compost pile!

So there you have it – the latest installment in the ongoing saga of why Aunt Mary (and all your other aunts for crying out loud) knows best!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Primal Fear

There I was, perched at a perilous height, with the deafening roar of a tractor coming straight at me, and the barn collapsing before my eyes. It was so loud, I couldn’t even hear myself screaming. The sheer terror of the moment is the only thing I remember with certainty. The rest of the story has been fleshed out with time and retelling. My family insists that I am wrong, that I misunderstood, that it couldn’t have happened this way. “Don’t you see?” they would say. “The barn is still standing.” That may be. Still, however factually implausible my narrative is, it is emotionally true and counts as my first recorded memory. I might have been three, still small enough that when I walked with a grownup and held their hand, my arm was up in the air. My parents, my older brother and I were spending a few days with my Aunt Josephine and her husband Clyde on their ranch in Cottonwood, Idaho. The term “ranch” is used advisedly, for their spread was little more than a few hard scrabble acres of arable land devoted to alfalfa, in an arid mountainous region dominated by Cottonwood and White Pine. Still Clyde, lanky and slightly bow-legged, was a cowboy and not a farmer, so it follows that his place was a ranch and not a farm. Adults may not realize that an unintended consequence of children “being seen and not heard” is that children do a lot of listening, accompanied by their own unfettered and unfiltered interpretation. This practice was, in truth, the source of my undoing. Among the many snippets of conversation overheard during the few days of our visit, which surely included such benign topics as remaking a winter coat or the recipe for tomato soup cake, was the mention of pushing over the barn. It is at this juncture that my family takes issue with my memory. They claim there never was any such discussion. Be that as it may. By anyone’s standard, barns are large structures, and barns remembered from childhood are immense. Uncle Clyde’s barn was two stories high, grayed with exposure, with a door on the second story into the hay loft and a ground level sliding door, wide enough to accommodate a truck or tractor. A circular corral made of peeled poles was attached to the barn, which was entered through a wide gate. That day I had accompanied the men out to the corral, very possibly without an invitation. I don’t know what project they had in mind that morning, but it is safe to assume it was unsuitable for a three year old. As a consequence, someone set me up on the fence, to keep me out of harm’s way. The picture I call to mind is taken from a long way off, peering across the corral. I am perched high up in the air, on the gate post. No doubt, the height of my perch is greatly exaggerated, but relative to my own height, it is stratospheric! I imagine that I liked it at first - heights have never been a problem for me. Soon, however, I realize that I am alone. The men along with my brother had all wandered off. Somewhere out of sight I hear the explosive sound of a tractor starting. The noise increases as the machine rounds the corner of the barn, heading in my direction. In that moment, the raucous presence of the tractor coalesces with my belief that the barn is about to be pushed over. There I am, unable to get down or be heard over the noise of the tractor. Panic ensues. But that is where it ends. The barn didn’t collapse. Someone rescued me from the post. For most of my life I assumed that the source of my terror was the imminent collapse of the barn accompanied by the deafening noise of the tractor. Upon reflection, I suspect that there may have been a more primal fear at work – the fear of being forgotten. I had been placed on the fence post for my protection, but had subsequently been forgotten, like a ring placed on a window sill over the sink for safe keeping and never returned for. Surely this is a universal fear? Years later when I was late to pick up my own daughter, I explained that I got involved in a project and forgot all about her. “You forgot me?” Her lip quivering, her eyes wide in disbelief. “But, how could you?” How indeed.