Marvellaland

Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the category “Memoir”

Sixty (and Two) – A Father’s Day Tribute

Daddy in Uniform croppedWhen my father was sixty, I was two. I never really thought about what that meant until I turned sixty a few months ago. Thanks to a private adoption two years earlier, my father entered his sixth decade with an active toddler in his house. As a single woman who never had any desire to nurture, I can only cringe when I think of what my father must have gone through.

My adopted mother was a warm, loving, smother mother, never missing an opportunity to tell me that she loved me and give me a hug. But Daddy, not so much. He was a tough, Kentucky-bred coal miner who never learned to read or write. When he was in his fifties, a few years away from retirement, I’m sure that he had been making plans on how to spend his leisure years. Those plans didn’t include me. But when the opportunity came to give my mother the child that she had dreamed about, he acquiesced and accepted the change to his lifestyle. Was he mad? If I had been in his position, I would have been pretty pissed. Maybe he tried to talk her out of it. Maybe he reminded her that by the time this baby was a teenager, both of them would be over seventy. Maybe she threatened to leave him if she couldn’t adopt this baby. Or maybe he remembered his own extra-marital peccadilloes and kept his mouth shut. Unfortunately, everyone that was present when the decision was made is gone now, so I will never know the true story.

But the truth is that when my father was sixty, I was two. I don’t remember being two. My earliest memory is of the time that my father had to take me to the bathroom because my mother was busy. I might have been at the ripe old age of three then. As he pulled down my red corduroy pants, he tore the contrasting plaid pocket on the front. I remember screaming when I saw the damage to my favorite pants, unaware that this would become a lifelong trait. I still hate any damage to my clothes and accessories. My mother came running into the bathroom, expecting the worse, like I had hit my head or peed on the bathroom floor. My father couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. I think he left the room in frustration as soon as my mother showed up. Now at sixty, I can see the incident from his point of view. He got me to the bathroom before I ruined my clothes. So what if he tore a pocket? What did a three-year-old put in a pocket anyway? It’s not like I had keys or money. I have never changed a diaper or taken a toddler to the bathroom, so I commend my father for his paternal assistance in spite of my wardrobe malfunction.

In 1962, when I was five, my father retired from the mine. I was in first grade, so he was able to enjoy his day until at least 3 PM. After that, the quiet, restful retirement that he anticipated was shattered. He was subjected to a chatty brat who had to share everything that she had learned at school that day. Why did she spread her dolls and stuffed animals all over the living room floor while he was watching his Westerns when she had a separate play area in the next room? Why did she think that she could teach him to read? Poor Daddy. He had to live in a world of paper dolls, assorted pets, and way too many books.

I knew that my father had something called Black Lung. I knew that he coughed and wheezed a lot. But that didn’t stop him from teaching me how to ride a bike. Or pushing me on my swing set. Or fixing broken toys. Or picking me up from grade school in his Cadillac.

One day, when I was seventeen and he was seventy-four, he said in anger, “We should have left you in North Carolina.” By then, Momma had been dead for four years and I had become a challenging teenager. I was shocked, and I cried as if he had torn my heart like a pocket on a pair of corduroy pants. But today at sixty, if I had to live with a smart mouth, smart-ass teenage girl, I would be ready to send her back where she came from too. Maybe he thought about all of the sacrifices that he had made for an ungrateful kid who talked back all of the time. Maybe he thought about what life would have been like without the encumbrance of an adopted child.

If anyone ever tried to bring a two-year-old into my home, I would run all the way to Antarctica, even though I hate snow and penguins that don’t play hockey. Daddy could have moved out and left Momma alone with a child that he probably didn’t want. Or he could have drank his troubles away and created a home full of violence and fear. He could have squandered his money and never paid the bills. But he didn’t do any of those things. He wasn’t affectionate, or quick to praise, but he was trustworthy. He was protective. He never deserted his family nor shirked his responsibilities. He didn’t take the title of Father lightly, even if he might have originally taken it with trepidation.

When Daddy was sixty, I was two. As I move through the ages that we shared, I realize the sacrifices that he made as an older father. I am humbled and grateful that he changed his plans sixty years ago to include me and to become my Daddy.

Advertisements

Aging 101

 

Ben and Art

I have about ten months before I enter my sexagenarian decade, but I’m already apprehensive. My fifties haven’t exactly been a walk in the park, so I cautiously wonder what my sixties will be like. Most of us get the Cliff Notes version of aging. Hair turns gray, periods stop, and you turn into a kindly grandmotherly figure or a mean old crone – that’s all they tell us when we are young ladies full of life, hope and hormones. But I need to reveal what I have discovered so far.

  1. Gravity is not your friend, but moisturizer is.

I find myself wondering – what would my boobs look like in space? As you get older, a weightless environment sounds like a good idea. Everything heads South, from eyelids to toenails, and you don’t even get a Mint Julep. Why does the bra that keeps my boobs in the general area where they belong cost as much as a train ticket to Los Angeles? When I was going to the five-and-dime with my mother to get my first training bra, no one warned me that someday my bras would cost $60. Why does it cost so much to restore elasticity to my skin? I use moisturizer religiously – one for my face, one for my body, and three different ones for my hands. Who wants wrinkly old lady hands? Sometimes they look like an aerial map of the Sahara and other times they look white and ashy like Mount St. Helens on a bad day. I will not leave home without hand cream – under any circumstances.

  1. “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” is no joke.

Once you realize that everything hurts and probably will hurt for the rest of your life, the better you will feel. My new boyfriends are Ben Gay and Arthur Ritis – which decreases my allure to 99% of the male population of this planet. (And I would advise staying away from the remaining 1%.) You will learn that keeping your balance is actually something that is not guaranteed to happen at all times. I’m now compiling a list of my most memorable falls. So far, number one is a ramp at Union Station in Los Angeles when I fell running for a Metrolink train to Anaheim. I have been able to quickly bounce back and pick myself up, but the day is coming when I will need one of those emergency devices around my neck as a permanent accessory. I just hope that I don’t fall in a tub, as wet and naked has never been one of my best looks.

  1. Your hair will never again be your crowning glory.

What hair? My hair started falling out three years ago and has never returned, no matter how many creams, shampoos and conditioners I put on it. Maybe all of those years of relaxing, dyeing, and picking have caught up with me. I have thought about wigs and weaves, but thinning, weak hair doesn’t give you much to attach them to without worrying that they will end up on the ground at an inopportune time. I’m thinking of just shaving my head and accepting the inevitable, letting my skull shine free and unencumbered. Which brings me to the next point.

  1. Jimmy Page can date a 26-year-old, but you cannot.

As a bald, old lady with a lack of balance and a lot of gravity and gravitas – the chance of getting a date will diminish from slim to non-existent. As society has it, men get distinguished and women just get old. Rock stars like Jimmy Page can still pick up 26-year-old girls when they are 71, but what 71-year-old woman in her right mind would want a 26-year-old boyfriend? Really, I think that Jimmy should follow my own dating rule – never date anyone who was born after John Bonham’s death. If they can’t remember when Led Zeppelin was an intact band, they are too young. And where do fifty-ish women go to find a date? I love music, but going to concerts does not attract any suitors. The ones that are alone or with male friends are usually drunk before the band hits the stage. So it’s either “girls night out,” (if you have friends) or “cat video marathon” (I have no friends).

  1. Dressing your age sucks.

I’m not going to mention any brands, but “age appropriate” clothes look like crap. I’m not wearing a turtleneck no matter how bad my neck looks. If I spend $60 on a bra, you can be sure that I’m going to show some cleavage. I will NOT wear any pastels or pants with elastic waistbands. I will wear motorcycle jackets and Doc Martens with funky hats. I will slip into my skinny jeans as long as I am not wearing adult diapers. If I reach diaperdom, I will wear long colorful shirts and sweaters over my not-so-skinny jeans. If people don’t like my ial choices, who cares? Wear whatever makes you feel good. If Susan Sarandon can show her bra at 69, so can you.

  1. It is very expensive to get older, so plan ahead.

This is important. Get all of the insurance that you can as soon as you can. Get all of the health tests that you need, and some that you don’t need, if you still have employer-paid health care. If you want to live in a fancy senior complex that will take care of you when you don’t remember that you are you, save up every penny that you can and invest wisely. Unless you start out with that silver spoon, you need to assume that you will have less money when you retire and that everything you will need to live will cost twice as much. Don’t buy anything that you can’t pay off in five years. If you don’t have any money, marrying a rich man is out of the question. (See item 4.)

  1. Laugh at yourself before others do so they will just assume that you are crazy. Live as long as you can just to piss off the insurance agencies, screw up demographics, and recoup all of the years that you paid for medical benefits that you didn’t use.

Remember that laughter is the best medicine. I hope to be here a long time looking at my bald, off-balanced, dateless, inappropriately dressed visage and laughing my sagging ass off. I’m still here, and that’s the important thing. When we were younger, the one piece of advice that older people tried to give us was to find joy in each day – advice that we ignored until the day we realized that there were more years gone than there were remaining. Once you reach the age when three-fourth of the deaths you hear about are people younger than you, you have to applaud opening your eyes each morning. This is what I have learned so far. Sure, getting old sucks, but it’s an adventure too – like an amusement park fun house. You never know what’s waiting for you at the next turn or what it’s going to look like. But as long as you are still turning, you ain’t done yet. Life is like a rotisserie chicken.

A Day in the Life – December 31

Diaries It amazes me that I have kept a diary for 45 years. I’ve never had a romantic relationship that lasted longer than five years or a job that lasted longer than seven years, but somehow I have been disciplined enough to chronicle my life for over four decades. Most of the diaries are the little rectangular books with tiny locks, but for the last five years, I used a letter-sized journal. Next year, I will return to a smaller format, with a 6 ½ by 3 ½ bound book that cost $25. I also hope to be able to splurge on a fireproof box to store them in, as by now, they are the only connections I have to my former self.

I always joke that the diaries will be enjoyable fiction if I develop dementia or Alzheimer’s someday. But even now, they are a fascinating narrative of who I used to be, the people I used to know, and my changing priorities and interests. They can be fun reading or they can make me cry. Sometimes I have both reactions, when I read about good times and realize that all of the people who shared those times are gone or out of my life. But as long as I am lucid, I will continue to record the day’s events in five lines.

Sometimes, I like to pick out a date and review what happened on that date. I will check out today, New Year’s Eve. I dig into the back of the closet for the metal box that contains my stories. I’ll select five entries, one for each decade.

December 31, 1975 – Cousin Mag, Cousin Rose, Cousin Joe, Bobby, Dickie, and Carolyn came for the funeral and left. It rained practically all day.

My father’s funeral was on this date. A few hours after the funeral, everyone left. My cousins from Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland and Harrisburg wanted to get back to their homes before the New Year. As I sat alone waiting for 1976 to begin, I remembered the year before, when my father said that I might be at a party this year. But instead, Daddy was gone and I was an orphan. I wondered if the loneliness that I felt would ever dissipate.

December 31, 1987 – I got two Christmas cards from Linda. I called Mary and she is going to see Whitesnake and Great White on February 3. I got another tape player. Get it straight in ’88!

I spent New Years Eve in a flatlet in the Victoria section of London. At midnight, someone on the other side of Eccleston Square serenaded the New Year with a saxophone solo. I had no home, just a return ticket to Pittsburgh and a round trip ticket to San Francisco, where I would start a new life on February 2. The New Year held unlimited promises.

December 31, 1999 – I watched the Year 2000 celebrations from around the world. Lorraine called. Mary called also. I got a birthday card from Brenda. Be a hero in ’00!

Of course, everyone over the age of around seventeen probably remembers the changing of the millennium, even though technically it didn’t start until a year later. But like everyone, I wondered if my computer would continue to work or if some global catastrophe would happen. I had a good life. I had a job that I enjoyed, where I got the week between Christmas and New Year’s off with pay, a two-bedroom condo, a funky 1988 Toyota MR2, and two loving cats that hid when I threw confetti later that night.

December 31, 2007 – I went to Loehmann’s and got a leopard knit jacket for $15. I got a pizza. Mary Lou sent me a birthday card and $30. Cindy called and we talked about an hour. Get a date in 2008!

Little did I suspect that this NYE would be my last one as a full-time employee. Changes would be occurring soon, but getting a date was not one of them. In four days, I would be flying to Las Vegas to meet a friend and celebrate my birthday. There was a big storm that day, the first of many upheavals to come.

December 31, 2010 – It cost $30 to get a taxi to the hotel. The show was good. Don looked good with long hair. I tried to get some pictures of him for Mary. Sean sat in with Y and T. Chuck Billy sang “Ace of Spades.” A member of the Y and T Forum died at the hotel of a heart attack after the show. Turn in up to 2011!

For the first time in my life, I went out for NYE, attending a benefit concert by Y and T for this bassist Phil Kennemore. A week later, he would lose his battle with cancer. But it was a wonderful night, in spite of the death after the show. A year later, I would be homeless, but on this night, I was surrounded by friends and enjoying the music that I loved.

I often wonder how I should dispose of my diaries. Would any of my friends want them? Is there some national archive of the lives of boring, regular people that would want to preserve them for future generations? I’m sure that who ever finds them after my demise will just throw them in the trash and it will be like I was never even here. But regardless, I’ll continue to write…tomorrow is a New Year, a new book, and the start of new adventures.

Happy New Year! Thank you for visiting Marvellaland!

Belonging

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Many times over the past five decades, I have asked myself, “Where do I belong?” I know that is isn’t in the crowded spare bedroom in a friend’s house that I have called my dwelling, but not my home, for the past two years. But it is somewhere out there, a place that I have to find, or that I will search for forever.

A sense of belonging is an elusive thing. Is it a physical place or a mental one? Even though we can’t belong to a certain person or persons, we can belong with them. Maybe we belong in a certain situation, one that inspires and nourishes us. There are few places and times that I have felt like I belonged, but I remember them all.

Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina

I love the mountains. Not the grandiose peaks and pillars of the West, but the rolling hills of the southeast, especially the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a child, I remember riding through the mountains with my parents on the way to my mother’s North Carolina birthplace. The blue fog rolling over the morning mountains like a magical brew always felt like home. As I pressed my nose to my back seat window, I felt like I belonged to this world – this world where my ancestors toiled and died. Daddy would never stop for sightseeing, but one day, I will return to those mountains and discover their secrets.

My Back Yard, Lawrence (Hills Station) Pennsylvania

My hometown was on the top of a hill. I remember lazy, sunny afternoons lying in my yard, looking up at the cloudless sky. It was the place I had called home for all but the first three weeks of my life. Most of my memories and milestones happened right here. After my parents died, it was all mine – my private oasis. I knew every inch of this place – the garage still filled with my father’s tools, the bedrooms where I played, studied and dreamed, the yard where my mother used to grow beautiful roses. As I felt the sun warm my face, I thought about how lucky I was to have a place where I belonged.

Devonshire, England

A year after I sold my house, I went to England with my best friend. I loved London, where everything old was new to me. I explored the historic streets and buildings, finding a surprise in every corner. Walking along the Thames was a treat that never ceased to enthrall me. We spent a cold, rainy day in Cornwall before heading back to London on the train. A few minutes after passing the city of Plymouth, I looked out the window at a town with houses built on its rolling hills. I was overcome with a feeling of peace and calm. I’m going to live there one day. I didn’t know where the thought came from, or what the name of the town was, but it felt like home. A tiny town in Devon was speaking to me though the glass, as the train rolled back to London. I kept staring out of the window until the town faded from view and then I started to cry. I belonged there – but I didn’t know why.

Living Colour Concert, San Jose, Calfornia

A few years later, I was living in San Mateo, California. One evening, I drove my car down to San Jose State to see Living Colour and King’s X in concert. By then, I had been to dozens of rock shows, and I didn’t expect this one to be any different. But when I walked into the hall, I was engulfed by the positive energy. For once, it wasn’t a scene filled with white boy testosterone and attitude. There was color all around me – men and women of all shades, excited that for once, here was a show for all of us. From the soulful drawl of Dug Pinnick of King’s X to the searing guitar riffs of Vernon Reid of Living Colour, the bands and the audience were connected. This was what rock and roll was all about – a place of aural rapture. I was happy – crazily, deliriously, happy – surrounded by my people. I belonged in this place, in the groove that Pinnick calls, “The Church of Rock and Roll.” It may not have been the best concert that I have ever seen, but it was the one that claimed a place in my heart.

Santa Monica, California

Being homeless on the streets of Santa Monica doesn’t sound like a great place to me. But walking along the beach as the first rays of sun light up the sky never failed to buoy my spirits. I would spend hours sitting on a bench, looking out at the waves. I felt like I could do anything, be anything, in this dream-like setting. Even if I could never afford to live there, to have a condo where I could be greeted by this sight every morning, I belonged there. No matter how dire circumstances seemed to be – looking at the waves of the Pacific always calmed me down and gave me strength to face the day’s adventures. 

On Stage, Sacramento, CA

Who knew that it would take fifty-seven years for me to discover that I like talking about myself on a stage in front of strangers? When I recently read an essay about my mother at the Guild Theater in Sacramento, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t nervous. I was the girl who Daddy called “too backward.” I was the student who stood in front of the room in Spanish class and forgot every word she had ever known in any language. But as I walked to the podium and the spotlight hit my face, I was empowered. I felt like Wonder Woman. I belonged on that stage, telling my stories, bringing to life Momma and the house on Hills Station, and sharing them with the world. When my five minutes were up, I didn’t want to leave.

 

So where do I belong, after all of these years? So many locations, situations, and people have captured a piece of, and a place in, my heart over the years. I never knew I would find home in so many places. I look forward to the next connection.  

 

It’s All Temporary

            Just last Friday, as I was walking to work, I thought about how lucky I was to have a job. Here it was, Friday the 13th and a full moon, but I had a job and today was payday. I had a full time temp job that was supposed to last for six months. I had been working for six weeks and was feeling pretty good. Soon, it would be summer and for the first time in years, I could actually participate in the summer concert scene. By October, I could save up and get a car, so I could start applying for case manager jobs – all of which required ownership of a personal vehicle. Or maybe I could get my old County job back. Finally, after eviction, homelessness, loss of most of my personal possessions, relying on the kindness of friends and relatives to survive, going on job interviews throughout the state, and making do, it looked like my life was finally turning around. I wasn’t crazy about this temp job with Sacramento County, but the delight of receiving a paycheck every week made everything look better. Things were picking up – I could see a future in my future.

But eight hours later, it was over. At 4:15 PM, my supervisor called me into the conference room. When I entered, the personnel supervisor who hired me was sitting at the table. Two weeks earlier, I had been transferred to a less busy office, as the supervisor thought I wasn’t picking up the job duties fast enough, even though I had no prior experience in the field or with the codes and procedures that I needed to remember. The pace was slower in my new office, but I was told that work would be picking up shortly, as they would be providing a new service. Since I didn’t pick up things fast enough at the old location, it was automatically assumed that I wouldn’t be able to pick things up quickly at the new location either. I was told that I wasn’t doing all that I should be doing, even though the person that was supposed to train me seemed reluctant to train me on what he did all day. Even though they were sure that I was smart, I was just not working out. It seemed like I was fired not because of my current actions, but because of what I might not do in the future.

I was flabbergasted. I had been given no indication that my supervisor was unhappy with my performance. As a former Mensa member, I was insulted by their patronizing attitudes and their “assumption” that I was smart. I was told that I would be paid for the forty-five minutes left in the workday, but I could leave now. In spite of my anger, I started to cry. When I went to my workstation to collect my backpack, my co-worker did not seem surprised that I was leaving, making me wonder about his collusion in my dismissal.

In less than ten minutes, I was out on the street. Once again, my dream was over. I had to consider that “too slow” was the new way of saying “too old.” My first full time job in five years was now a memory. Instead of working six months, I had barely managed six weeks. It was a bright, sunny afternoon, but all I could see were the clouds in my now-uncertain future. After thirty years of responsible hard work, I was useless, not even good enough for a temporary receptionist position. I felt like just giving up. Who was going to hire an over-fifty African American woman with a MFA in creative writing and a BA in social work with no car who lived in a room in the house of some benevolent white people, with nothing to call her own but some clothes, books, and CDs? This is why people commit suicide, I thought, why people take potshots at commuters from overhead bridges.

It was a different work world these days. Forget about someone telling you how to improve on the job. Forget about taking the time to learn your job. You are expendable, just one of many job seekers out there. Next! No wonder I can’t get a job with any county in California. Temp jobs are the wave of the future. Counties don’t have to pay any expenses like benefits or provide any employee perks – they just call up a temp agency for a warm, and preferably young, body. I feel like my life is over – no chance of getting a job I love helping people, rising up the ranks to oversee and pass on my knowledge to others, and then retiring at a ripe old age, feeling that I had done my part to help others realize their dreams. Will I end up on the streets again? Will I develop some debilitating disease after a lifetime of perfect health and become a burden on strangers because I have no family?

These days, it seems that everything is temporary – except for the chance that I will become self-sufficient again. That appears to be gone forever.

Beatrice Means Making Happy

Momma and Me ColorMy mother died on July 19, 1970. A longer version of this letter was published in Celebrations: Notes to My Mother in 2003.

Dear Momma,

We only had thirteen years together, but those precious years made me the woman that I am today. Your kindness, your humor, your pride, and your love are your lasting legacy. Thanks to you, I can declare to the world that I was “raised right.”

You adopted me when I was a baby, bringing me from North Carolina to your home in Pennsylvania. After years of being president of the Hallie Q. Brown Club and the Worthy Matron of the Eastern Stars, you were ready to be a mother. You brought me home on the train, a tiny five-pound baby who was “no bigger than a bread box,” as you liked to say. You brought me home to Lawrence, a small town where Daddy worked in the Montour 4 coal mine.

I always loved to hear your voice. Your studied, clipped speech was sometimes punctuated with a glimpse of that western North Carolina drawl that you tried to hide. You were very concerned with speech, always correcting Daddy and me when we said “ain’t” or mumbled. Proper English was very important to you.

And you loved to talk. You were always telling me stories about your life as a little girl in Lenoir. I wish that I could remember more of your stories, those tales that you told me each night at bedtime. Your grandparents, the Rev, Isaac Harper and his wife Amanda, raised you. Isaac had been a preacher during slavery and preached under a barrel to muffle the sound so that the masters never heard.

I learned that your mother, Rose, died during your birth. You never really knew your father, a Catholic mulatto, but you admired his Catholic faith. You grew up with your big sister Joyce and your beloved brother Frank and your youthful aunts and uncles But you were always the different one, the lighter one, the one who took Rose away from the family. Your stories of how you survived inspired me when I faced my own childhood ridicule.

I was laughed at for being funny looking, for being adopted, for being the only black Catholic in town. Other black kids said that I was trying to be white when I got good grades. White kids couldn’t understand why I didn’t do well in sports like the other black kids. There was nowhere that I could fit in. But once I was home, everything was fine. I knew that you would praise my grades, give me a big hug and kiss, and tell me that I was just fine the way that I was. You told me that I was special, that you knew when you adopted me as a baby that I would be special. Then you would tickle me until I couldn’t help but smile again.

Even though you only had a fourth grade education, you encouraged me to read and learn about the world. You convinced Daddy to let me subscribe to Highlights, My Weekly Reader, and the Happy Hollister Book Club. I collected books on geography, science and history, and I shared each page with you. You and Daddy attended every open house and school event, and sometimes you were the only black parents in attendance. Your smiling faces showed the world that you loved me.

You had a magic way with plants and flowers, and neighbors marveled at your talent for bringing them back to life. A walk through the woods or a visit to a friend’s house always ended with a new seedling or plant. Our house was filled with growing things, plants that flourished with your love and care. I knew that I was just like those plants, lucky to be nourished by your love and affection.

After your beloved brother died in 1968, you were never the same. A small stroke and dementia took away most of your memories, and sometimes you couldn’t even remember me. In 1969, you and Daddy celebrated fifty years of life together and we made our last family trip to North Carolina. Somewhere between Greensboro and Lenoir, I got my first period. Thankfully, you were lucid and we were able to share this final rite of passage together.

In July 1970, you went to the hospital and lapsed into a coma. On the morning of July 19, at the start of a bright, sunny summer day, Daddy and I came to the hospital to say goodbye. That morning was the first and last time that I ever saw Daddy cry. His body shook with great, heaving sobs that frightened me. I realized how much he had loved you.

You used to say, “When I die, I want to be covered in flowers.” Your coffin was covered in blossoms and your friends and family crowded the funeral home. No one had a bad word to say about Miss Bea.

I know that you are still with me, Momma. I have made many mistakes in my life, but I know that in spite of everything, I have your love in my heart. I know that you are watching over me, giving me the strength to go on.

The name “Beatrice” means “making happy.” You have made me happy all of my life. I’m glad that you picked me to be your daughter.

Your daughter,

Little Bee

Remembering Columbia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFebruary 1, 2013, is the tenth anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. I’ll never forget that Saturday. Around 6 AM Pacific Time, I was watching NASA TV, waiting for the reentry to be broadcast. After a few minutes, I realized that something was wrong. It was announced that contact had been lost with the shuttle. And then, instead of the sound of Mission Control voices announcing the trajectory and data as Columbia returned home, there was silence. I remember holding my breath and praying that maybe there was just a glitch in the system. I kept waiting to hear the voice of Commander Rick Husband, announcing that all was well with STS-107. As the silence continued, I thought about the two anniversaries that had occurred within the week – January 27 was the anniversary of the Apollo I fire and January 28 marked the day that Challenger exploded in 1986. Was February 1 destined to become another grim marker in human space exploration? As I watched the faces of the silent engineers, I knew the answer.

When I switched to a news channel, my fears were confirmed. Video showed the shuttle breaking into pieces. Tears streamed down my face like the stream of debris that had fallen from the sky. I called my friend Lorraine. When she answered the phone, I was almost hysterical.

“It’s gone,” I cried. “Columbia. It’s gone. Oh my God, I can’t believe it. They’re dead, all seven of them. It blew up. It’s gone.”

I had followed Columbia since its initial launch on April 12, 1981. When I wrote a romance novel about two multicultural astronauts, I ended the story on Columbia, with my main character looking out the window. During the mission, East Indian astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla had talked about what it was like to look out of the windows of the shuttle. “In the retina of my eye, the whole Earth and the sky could be seen reflected. I called all of the crew members one by one, and they saw it, and everybody said, ‘Oh, wow!’” Hearing her words repeated by a broadcaster the morning of the tragedy sent a chill through me. All my life, I had wanted to be an astronaut or somehow connected to the manned space program. Decades of following the triumphs and defeats of space flight and years of working on my novel had personalized space travel for me. The loss of Columbia and its crew felt like the loss of a family member, a family member that you had encouraged, admired and loved for many years.

At the time, I was involved in a long distance masters program. During a group discussion that day, I mentioned my distress over Columbia. After the discussion, my professor shared the story of her father, a test pilot who had died on a flight when she was a child in New Mexico. Her story touched me, and made the loss of the orbiter even more real to me.

A few years later, I ordered a poster from the National Air and Space Museum. It was a poster of Columbia from the vantage point of a shuttle commander. My friend Lorraine gave me a commemorative tee shirt dedicated to the memory of Columbia and its crew. Every year, on February 1, I don the shirt and think about the seven astronauts, Rick Husband, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla and William McCool, and their ultimate sacrifice for the advancement of knowledge and discovery. Even though the Space Shuttle Program is no more and the remaining shuttles have been installed in museums around the country, I will never forget. As President George W. Bush said in his eulogy, “To leave behind Earth and air and gravity is an ancient dream of humanity. For these seven, it was a dream fulfilled.”

May that dream live forever.

(Quotes from The Space Shuttle: A Photographic History by Philip S. Harrington, published by BrownTrout Publishers, Inc. in 2003. Thanks Lorraine!

Also check out my essay on Columbia in Yahoo News http://news.yahoo.com/columbia-dove-still-soars-imagination-190100802.html)

The Color Wheel

You can order this card from Zazzle.com

You can order this card from Zazzle.com

This is an excerpt from “Merry Christmas, Baby,” a 4,500-word essay about Christmas in Hills Station. This is one of my favorite sections of the essay. Merry Christmas to Marvellaland followers and to everyone else who enjoys this essay! (Sorry it is so long!)

 

In the sixties, when I was growing up in Hills Station, Pennsylvania, I loved Christmas. Until I was five, we had a live Christmas tree. But after Daddy retired from Montour 4 mine, it was difficult for him to carry a real tree, as black lung disease made it hard for him to breathe. He went to Pete’s Dairy Bar, the local store that everyone called “Angeline’s,” and bought an artificial tree. Angeline, the owner of the store, could get anything and everything that her customers needed. If she didn’t have an item in stock, she was glad to make a special order, for a special price, of course. This included Christmas trees.

One December afternoon, Daddy came home with a large white box. On the front of the box was a picture of a Christmas tree.

“What’s in the box, Daddy?”

He smiled, showing the gold cap on one of his front teeth. “It’s our new Christmas tree. Now every year, we’ll just take this one out of the box and put it up, instead of going out lookin’ for a tree.”

I frowned, because that didn’t sound like a good idea to me. I liked live trees, with their pine scent filling the house. I kept staring at the box. It wasn’t a very big box. How could it hold a Christmas tree?

“Let’s set it up.” He headed toward my playroom, the room where we always placed the tree. “You carry the other box,” he added over his shoulder.

There was little white box on the floor. It read, “Amazing Color Wheel.” What was a color wheel? The picture on the box showed was a round wheel next to a tree. The box was lightweight and the contents rattled. Was it broke?

I picked up the box and gingerly carried it into the playroom. Daddy had already opened the tree box. It was filled with red paper tubes, which looked like giant versions of the tubes that Daddy rolled up change in. A piece of something silver stuck out from each tube. Daddy was twisting together two long wooden sticks that were painted silver. Each stick had lots of little holes in it. I didn’t see anything that looked like a tree. I put the box down and sat on the floor to watch Daddy. Momma stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

I picked up one of the tubes. It was even lighter than the color wheel box. “What are they?”

“Those are the branches of the Christmas tree. This is the trunk and those three metal things will be the base. Once I finish putting the base together, we’ll put on the branches.”

“But they’re silver. Christmas trees are supposed to be green.” I was worried that Angeline had taken advantage of my father and sold him a defective tree, just because she knew that he couldn’t read.

He looked up and nodded toward the little box. “That’s what the color wheel is for.”

“Huh?”

Three lines formed on his forehead when he looked over at me. “The color wheel will turn the tree different colors. Just wait and see, you’ll like it.”

I looked up at Momma.

“Your Daddy knows what he is doing.” She turned toward the kitchen. “Let me know when it is all set up.”

I wanted to leave too, but I knew that Daddy expected me to help with this tree. We used to put lights and popcorn balls and even apples on the heavy branches of the big green trees that we used to get. What could we put on this flimsy thing?

Once Daddy had the trunk set up, he picked up one of the tubes and pulled off the wrapper. The branch in his hand looked liked cut-up pieces of aluminum foil attached to a metal stick. He stuck the branch in the hole at the top of the trunk. He stood back to look at it. “The branches go into those little holes.”

I assumed that was my cue to help. I picked up a tube and pulled. The branch was even thinner than aluminum foil. Would we be able to even put ornaments on this tree? I found a hole and inserted the metal stick at an angle.

I added the bottom branches while Daddy took care of the top ones. I could see my reflection multiplied in the tiny strips. It didn’t take long to fill the tiny holes with shiny bristles.

Daddy and I looked at the tree. “Don’t it look nice?”

I didn’t like it. It didn’t look like a real Christmas tree. It looked like something that I would have made in art class with pipe cleaners. But I nodded anyway. “Uh-huh.”

While Daddy went upstairs to get the ornaments, I sat on the floor looking at this contraption that would be my holiday tree from now on. I missed the smell of pine. This aluminum tree had no scent. It was cold, shiny, and foreign.

When Daddy returned, we started taking the ornaments out of the box and tying them onto the branches with string. The branches reflected the colors of the bulbs―gold, green, and red―turning them into rainbows.

Momma came back into the room to check on the progress. “It looks nice.”

Soon all of the branches were filled with ornaments. The tree looked pretty, but I still wasn’t convinced.

Daddy opened the color wheel box. Inside were four colored pieces of plastic that looked like sections of a pie with a bite taken out of the small end. Besides the plastic pieces, there was a round black lamp with a circle attached to its big round face. Daddy attached the pieces to the circle with metal clips, turning the pieces into a even larger circle. As he plugged in the lamp and switched it on, the circle started to rotate.

The room changed colors as each plastic piece passed in front of the light. Cool blue room. Now warm yellow room. Soothing green room. Hot red room. Entranced, I watched the tree as it changed colors too.

Daddy smiled. “See, I told you that it would be nice.”

I sat in a chair across from the tree so I could watch the display. I had to grudgingly admit that the color wheel was nice and the tree was okay.

Putting up the aluminum artificial tree became one of our Christmas rituals. After a few years, I could hardly remember ever having a real green tree. And I grew to love the color wheel.

Happy Christmas from the Covent Garden General Stores

Covent Garden Bag

On this day in 1987, I started on a grand adventure. I left Pennsylvania to spend six weeks in London. Upon my return, I relocated to California, where I have lived since 1988.

           Growing up in a small coal-mining town, tradition was very important, especially at Christmas. I miss those traditions that I took for granted all those years ago. I can’t even count on being able to maintain the silly little traditions that I used to keep when I had my apartment.

But this isn’t the first Christmas that I spent without a permanent residence. In 1987, I decided to leave Pennsylvania and move to sunny California, after a six-week detour to London. I loved spending the holidays alone in cold, gloomy London, where it started to get dark every day around 3 PM. It was almost like a Dickens story come to life. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I walked through the city, exploring different areas and watching people prepare for the holidays. I kept returning to Oxford Street, festooned with rows of colorful holiday decorations that spanned the street. Just looking up at the festive lights made me happy. Also, the main branch of the Topshop was on Oxford Street. I bought a floor length fake fur leopard coat there that looked like a big bathrobe when I got it back to America. I hung out in Harrods a lot, after I found out I could walk to Knightsbridge from my “flatlet” near Victoria Station. I bought my Christmas dinner there – a small baked chicken, a plum pudding and some forgotten casserole. At the Covent Garden General Store, a shop filled with useless trinkets and Christmas decorations, I bought little gifts to take back to friends. I didn’t buy anything for myself there, except a big red plastic shopping bag emblazoned with a photo of Santa and the words “Happy Christmas.”

On Christmas Day, I watched the Queen’s holiday greeting on the tiny television in my flat. I made calls to friends back home, listened to Christmas music, hung up my red Christmas bag, and strutted around the room in my leopard coat/bathrobe. It was a cold dreary day, but I had lots of tea to keep me warm. I watched holiday pantomimes on television, read the Christmas cards that friends sent from Pennsylvania, and celebrated my good fortune of being able to spend Christmas in another country.

I still have that red bag with rosy-cheeked Father Christmas. I recently bought a leopard jacket at Thrift Town for four dollars, a new phone with unlimited minutes, and I still have last year’s holiday purchase of two CDs of heavy metal Christmas songs. I’ve got tea and a Harrods cup. Maybe I’ll be able to get a new television so I can watch the “Yule Log” on Christmas morning and play my DVD of Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge. And I can celebrate my good fortune of still being alive twenty-five years later. Time to continue the traditions.

Eccleston Square

Book Review: Dance of the Electric Hummingbird by Patricia Walker

LinkedIn can be a wonderful thing. It hasn’t brought me the job of my dreams, as my career coaches implied, but it did bring a beautiful spirit into my life. I joined a group of memoir writers on LinkedIn and read the descriptions of the books that the participants were working on. Most of them were similar; stories about abuse, loss, and horrible events that had happened in their lives. I was quickly disillusioned with the group. My life stories weren’t anything like what these authors were writing about. Everyone has negative things happen in their lives, but I didn’t want to dwell on them.

But one author stood out from the group of doom and gloom chroniclers. Patricia Walker had written a book about a transformation that happened in her life, a transformation that involved rock musician Sammy Hagar. Transformation? Rock and roll? I was intrigued. I sent a message to Patricia, letting her know that I was glad to meet another rocker chick in the group. She referred me to her website, where I read some of her concert reviews and other postings. I felt a connection to this writer in Colorado, and looked forward to hearing more about her journey – both literary and personal.

Dance of the Electric Hummingbird is subtitled, “An ordinary woman’s accidental journey to enlightenment, the supernatural, and rock star Sammy Hagar.” It sounded like a lot to cover in 329 pages, but once I opened the book, I was immersed in Patricia’s story. On October 11, 2003, Patricia is in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico with her second husband Dee to attend a series of shows at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina. Little did she know that after that night, her life would never be the same again. A hot, sweaty rock bar seems an unlikely venue for a transformative experience, but that is what happened. As Hagar started to sing “Dreams,” the words bring up memories from her past. She thinks about her life. But what is happening is more than a flashback. “The sensation of being an audience member falls away in slow motion, as my body suddenly becomes paralyzed, lighter than air, and I feel myself lift right out of it.” Her out of body experience fills her with positive sensations and brings joy into her soul. In a few minutes, it is over. At first, she wonders if she had drunk too much tequila, but she isn’t drunk – she is aware.

The feelings don’t fade, but become stronger. Pat reviews her life, including her abusive first marriage, which had caused her to question the beliefs of her Catholic faith. She becomes more in tune with her sexuality and more open in her musical tastes. But unexplained things keep happening to her. She starts writing them down in a journal. And where does Sammy Hagar fit into all of this? She writes a poem about her experience and sends it to Sammy. He writes to her and encourages her quest. She discovers that Sammy has also had supernatural experiences. Could they be related? He sends her a list of books to read and she discovers other authors and guides on her own.

Dee and Pat keep returning to Sammy Hagar shows – his birthday week shows in Cabo San Lucas and his Cinco de Mayo shows at his club in South Lake Tahoe. No longer “just a housewife,” she is drawn to the power and sensuality of rock and roll. The more she learns about energy changes and mystical transformations, the more she realizes that she and Sammy Hagar have a connection that may be part of another dimension. Her newfound transformation isn’t enough to stop personal losses in her life, but music once again saves her soul. “I’d been so wrapped up in grief and anger, and judging God and even myself, perhaps I was blocking anything positive from coming to me. I forgot about my passion and my connection to the Divine Spirit. I forgot all about my mystical journey. And because of that, I forgot how to live.”

At one of his shows, Sammy tells his audience about Pat and her poems. When she calls in on a radio show, Sammy says that she will write a book. He seems to have more faith in her than she has in herself. But she keeps writing and starts to get her poems published. She continues to correspond with Sammy. Birds appear as Spirit Guides whenever she starts to doubt her mission.

Pat doesn’t have all of the answers. But her book fills me with hope. A transformative experience is possible for all of us, even without a rock and roll soundtrack. Pat’s quest for the answers in and purpose of her life made me think about the events in my own life. I underlined one passage in the book, “…doing what we love most is an avenue available to all of us, and that’s what our lives are all about. Maybe when things don’t happen the way we think they should or as fast as we want them to, we give up and that’s the one reason nothing changes.” I recommend her book to anyone with an open mind, a questing soul, and a belief in a Higher Power.

(Pat’s book can be found on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, among other places. To receive an autographed copy, go to Pat’s website, http://www.bajarockpat.net. And the book is on sale in the gift shop at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.)

Post Navigation