Saturday, May 8, 2010


In the summer of 1972, Christy and Ivy and I discovered.  They were two sisters in a family of seven children, ages 15 and 17; I was 16 that year.  We discovered independence in the form of a one-room guest cottage fifty yards from Christy and Ivy's parents' house.  It was dusty with cobwebs and the windows were broken, there was no electricity or running water, and dead moths and junebugs had taken up residence along the windowsills.  But to three teenagers tired of always having to turn down the stereo and hang up the phone, it was wonderful.

The three of us were through, for a time, with gym and biology and pep rallies.  The summer stretched out ahead of us like a hot, winding road, with guardrails in all the right places to keep us from going over the side.  We had tolerant fathers who went to work each day to keep us in food, embroidered jeans and movie tickets; we had flustered mothers who gave us rides into town and didn't complain too much when we failed to wash the dishes.  And now we had a place to lay our sleeping bags out on the floor.

I found an old rug rolled up in a corner of my parents' basement.  We strung two extra-long extension cords across the garden, one end through the main house's kitchen window and the other through a hole in the cottage wall, to give us light and music.  We brought down jugs of water, loaves of bread, and peanut butter and jelly in a cooler.  Later we added hand-lettered posters, original paintings and a metal wastebasket to use as a toilet, above which we hung a sign proclaiming "The Can."  We piled up Simon and Garfunkel albums, "Seventeen" magazines and a few comic books for cultural release.

The world around us paid us no attention that summer.  We protested against the war in Viet Nam by sewing peace signs to the backs of our denim jackets.  We protested against prejudice with our poster of a black hand clasping a white one beneath the word "Brotherhood."  We protested against the older generation by being young.

We discovered high-heeled sandals that summer, and tight T-shirts with slogans, and fake fingernails, eyelash curlers and lip gloss.  Christy and I had long straight hair and Ivy's was frizzy, so we two would braid our hair all over when it was wet to get it to look like Ivy's when it dried.  We wore little barrettes shaped like hearts and stars, and silver rings on every finger.  The creases in our jeans smelled like wood smoke and cool earth.  We were, we thought, smart and beautiful and carefree.  Too old for summer camp and too young for broken hearts; this must be what our mothers meant by "the best years of your lives."

Christy and Ivy and I were heady with our sudden, long-awaited freedom.  We hardly needed anything artificial, but we wanted to get drunk and find out what it was like.  So we stole cans of beer out of our parents' refigerators, hid them in our shoulder bags, walked the quarter-mile up the road to the lake and drank them in the changing booths.  Christy and Ivy's mother made dandelion wine, too.  We'd wait until she was outside hanging clothes on the line and then sneak down to the damp, dimly lit cellar where rows of cement shelves held jar after jar of the cloudy gold liquid.  We took them across the narrow foot bridge behind the house and drank them in the woods amid wildflowers and mosquitoes, and got giddy and silly.  At first the wine tasted worse than cough syrup, but after awhile it warmed instead of burned.

After everyone in the house had gone to bed, the three of us would make for the beach and join the other, older townies who parked, played their radios and drank, until eleven o'clock curfew when the constables would drive up and tell us to move along.  Christy and Ivy and I knew the city people who owned cottages on the hill, so we'd disperse to their beach, which was private and open all night.  There we'd sit on the sand with Steve from the Bronx and Timmy from West Hartford, sometimes until four in the morning, with the sun coming up through the fog and the moon still reflecting silver on the water.  It was motionless and quiet; only the sound of branches crackling in a dying bonfire, somebody's dog splashing illegally in the lake and a transistor radio telling us softly "I understand you been runnin' from the man that goes by the name of the sandman."  We were all tired but too young to admit it.

Christy and Ivy would have dinner with their family every Sunday.  It was noisy and confusing; they were down-home, godfearing and loving.  Older married brothers and sisters would bring their families: five-year-olds bouncing a ball in the kitchen, dripping melted popsicle on the floor.  The house was fragrant with corned beef and cabbage, furniture wax and laundry soap.  More often than not there was homemade ice cream which we'd take turns cranking out, and watermelon, which we'd eat on the front porch swing, spitting seeds at passing cars and waving our upraised arms back and forth to dry the perspiration beneath them.  I think my mother, father and brother forgot what I looked like that summer; I think Christy and Ivy's family just assumed another offspring.  I was content.

But despite all of our adventuring, for the most part nights were quiet and uneventful.  The three of us would lie on the floor, falling asleep in sweaty closeness to crickets chirping, the  drone of traffic and the green whirlpools of the waterfall out behind the cottage.  We each had our hopes and dreams and expectations for the future, but if we could have frozen time then and there, I think we would have.  It was a hard goodbye we said to that summer.

Christy got married right after graduation to a man several years her senior, who glued himself to television with a six-pack, wouldn't let her work, couldn't wait to start a family and forbade her any fraternizing with her old "pot-smoking, party-going" friends.  Ivy dropped out in eleventh grade, had a baby, married a man (not the father) and then left him in Colorado.  She's back living in the cottage now; I went to see her just a few weeks ago.  The walls were freshly painted, the windows fixed and the whole place formally wired for electricity.  There was even wall-to-wall carpeting, a TV set and a Mr. Coffee.   It was clean and cozy, probably worth a few hundred dollars a month in rent.  Ivy was depressed, though.  She was worried and resentful; her eyes showed her pain.  But after awhile her voice turned to running water, and I could see another room, one with candlelight flickering on ragged dish-towel curtains, and faded jeans that smelled of woodsmoke hanging on the door.  We didn't know then, and I'm glad nobody told us: it would be the last time a summer would ever be so full of power and passion and energy and pride; of colors and sounds and mudpuddle mornings and hot nights, thick with stars, burning and ready to fall.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Mission

It was October 1997 and my friend Kurt and I were in Oceanside, CA to visit the old mission San Luis Rey. The temperature outside was a dry, sunny 100◦ or so, but inside the ancient building it was cool and dark. There were few people around. Ghostly Gregorian chants echoed throughout the halls from a PA system somewhere. Artifacts on display wove the story of Spain and Mexico’s long chain of coastal monasteries, many now gone from earthquakes or neglect.

Walking through, we were solemn and fascinated. We opened a door and found ourselves in the courtyard, amidst stone benches and beautifully flowered trees. Here, we were entirely enclosed but there were doorways to other buildings connected to the main structure. We poked around, imagining ourselves back in the 1700s when the mission was active with friars, servants and soldiers. The sun was almost hot enough to melt our shadows. Turning to go back through the door we had come out of, we found that it was closed – and locked. Taken aback, we scouted for another exit. Even in the connected buildings there seemed to be no other doors that led out. No one else was anywhere around.

I tried the first door again – this time I knocked, then pounded on it. No response. I shouted – “Hey, let us in!” Silence. We looked down an outside corridor with brick walkway and arched overhang – the cloisters. We should go down this way, I said – there must be another exit somewhere. We walked for awhile, but saw no doors. Back to the courtyard; an hour, at least, had gone by. It seemed silly, but we were getting anxious. (This was slightly before cell phones!) Suddenly we caught sight of a man hurrying up the passageway toward us – he seemed to appear out of nowhere. “We’ll ask this guy,” I said. As he got closer, we saw that the man wore a monk’s outfit from another century – brown robes of a rough homespun cloth.

“Hello! Excuse us,” we said, “But we can’t seem to find our way out of here, can you help?” The man, who was short and dark haired, looked up at us with what appeared to be impatience mixed with amusement. “I told you before,” he said, “But you weren’t listening.” Hmm? He pointed – “Go through the Madonna Chapel, there’s an exit to the outside.” We turned to look in the direction he had pointed; we had already been in that building, but had not gone past an altar ledged with lighted votives, so many that the smoke had made us cough. “Oh – we were in there,” we said, “But I guess we didn’t go far enough.” And then we turned back to thank the man. He was gone.

He had disappeared. There, right before our eyes, he had vanished – and there was nowhere for him to walk off to so quickly without us seeing him go! Speechless, we looked at each other. “Where’d he go?” we asked incredulously. Kurt grabbed my hand. “Come on,” he said, shaking his head, “Let’s get out of here while we can, before you get me into anything else.” We ducked into the Chapel and found that beyond the altar with its ledge of candles was another door. We opened it hastily and found ourselves in the parking lot.

We found our car – one of only a few cars left there – and turned to look back at the mission. It seemed to be deserted. “Let’s get out before anything else weird happens,” Kurt told me, and I started the ignition. Driving back to Escondido, we were by turns speechless and astonished. “Did that really happen?” Kurt said. “Where did that guy go?” “Where did he come from?” I wondered. “And why did he say that he had already told us but we weren’t listening?”

The mystery at the mission…we talk about it still, and it has bound us together, in a way. All of the experience, the sights, sounds, and smells, have stayed with us through the years as few experiences might. Was he real? Or was he surreal? Did he materialize from another time to help a couple of deserted visitors get back home again? Either way, it was marvelous – to share it, to see it -- in the truest sense of the word.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Mystery of the Long Lost Book

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, without video games, computers or even cable TV, my brother and I were both avid readers. We particularly liked the fictional “Hardy Boys” series: mysteries featuring brothers Frank and Joe Hardy and their friends, all “typical, healthy American lads of high school age,” written by “Franklin W. Dixon,” and set in the imaginary town of “Bayport.” (I read Nancy Drew mysteries too, but I thought the Hardy Boys had a more interesting time of it, with often scary but always happily-ever-after adventures.) This series originally dates back to the 1930s, with newer editions tweaked every so often to update the language, appearance and settings. It didn’t matter to us, though, when the book was printed – beat-up brown, dog eared and dated, or shiny blue with full-color illustration on the cover -- we enjoyed them all.
When my brother’s first son (and fourth Robert in a direct lineage) was born in 1983, the whole family was delighted beyond measure, none more so than our dad, who quickly came to be called “Papa.” As Robert grew, Papa and he became inseparable. They baked my father’s famous peanut butter cookies together, rode bikes in the state forest (chock full of old Native American legends), tinkered with various tools and projects in the woodshed, and took rides around town in dad’s pickup truck where Papa, born and raised just a couple of houses from where he eventually ended up, would tell stories about the very early days when the town was made up of dairy farms and factories that ran on water mill power. When Robert came to stay overnight at his grandparents’, Papa, as avid a reader as we were, would read him books after supper (as would Gramma, of course, just as she had read to me). Curious George was an early favorite, as well as Thomas the Tank, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, and of course Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” Books were a mighty force in this household; young Robert listened and learned.
One day I found myself walking past the local Congregational Church during one of their annual rummage sales. Unable to resist, I went inside to poke around. You never know what treasures are hiding in someone else’s castaways. Naturally, I found myself heading for the table of second-hand books. Buried underneath everything, as though it had been picked up and tossed back several times, I spied a familiar looking title: “The Hardy Boys: The House on The Cliff.” This was not one of the bright blue newer issue volumes, but rather one of the older brownish-beige volumes with just the title and a silhouette of two boys imprinted on the cover. Here was a treat – a great way to start Robert off when he was old enough for “chapter books.” The name written on the flyleaf was that of a local boy around my brother’s age. That made sense – his parents were probably cleaning things out of their house. I bought the book and slipped it into the bookshelves at my parents’ house, and then I forgot about it.
A few years went by when one day I was visiting and idly looking through those bookshelves. The rummage sale find caught my eye again. I picked it out and casually began to leaf through it. Though the copyright page had been torn out, I could see it was probably one of the original editions, plenty dog eared and doodled in, but not in bad shape. Then I stopped short. Was there something about these doodles that looked familiar? My dad had sold real estate while we were growing up, as well as held political office. Lots of telephone time was involved with these professions, and lots of doodling. Dad’s favorite thing to draw was a hatchet-faced man smoking a pipe. There was that profile – I’d know it anywhere – obviously inked with a fountain pen. I checked more carefully. Another boy’s name had been scribbled onto the front cover of the book. Though worn with time and handling, it was still very clear: it was my father’s name.
Somehow, a book that my father had as a child growing up in our town had been given or lent to a friend or classmate, lost track of, and then gone from there to a box at a rummage sale, where by coincidence I had spotted it and picked it up and brought it unknowingly back to its original owner – more than fifty years later!
Maybe it isn’t a priceless heirloom or a first edition that would fetch big bucks at a used book store. I think it would still appeal to the Hardy Boys’ sense of mystery. And we are comforted to know that in this big world, there is still a sense of fate and continuity. Papa is a robust 87 now and as remarkably active and well-read as any “semi-retired” (!) proper country gentleman. Robert, who is a wonderful young man of 26, will remember time spent with Papa, in the kitchen, in the woods, in the shed, around the town. Because of Robert, I bought a book. And along with those peanut butter cookies, tales of Indian legends and rainy days tinkering in the wood shed, now there is something else that Robert and his Papa share – something small that has come home again, something to stay forever.

Friday, November 20, 2009

20 Random Things About Me, If You Care Or Are Bored...

1) Sorry to start with the negative: I hate winter. I don’t just dislike it, I DETEST it. I’m going off to the desert when I (ha ha) retire. The low desert, where there’s no chance of snow.

2) I am a germaphobe. I wash my hands about 10 times a day. I have been known to spray the bottom of my purse with Lysol. (Think of the places you set your purse down, for Pete's sake.) I have been known to flush out my eyes with warm water if I have mistakenly rubbed my eyes before I’ve had a chance to wash my hands.

3) I cry more at weddings than at funerals.

4) I used to be afraid of dogs until I met my friend’s German shorthaired pointer named Remy. Remy was a wonderful dog. Now, I dog sit for a friend who has three pit bulls and they sleep with me. One snores.

5) I had an idyllic, fairy-tale childhood. My brother will tell you the same thing. We lived in a house with a big yard full of flowers on a street where there were lots of kids, and our aunt and uncle lived with us and shared in raising us. Kind of like a combination of Leave It To Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show.

I will say I had a lot of ear infections and consequently a lot of antibiotics that stained the enamel of my teeth (they were doing ear tubes for fighter pilots but not for kids yet). Also, a childhood like that leads you to believe your adult life will also be idyllic, which of course is not true. Other than that I have no complaints. I think I had the best childhood of anyone I have ever known (so far at least).

6) I still want a pony though.

7) Believe it or not my favorite color is pink.

8) I am by no means a world traveler, but I have taken off from and/or landed at more than 30 airports. So far.

9) I was arrested for speeding more than once.

10) The biggest regret in my life is that I didn’t have a baby. Sadly, I never found the right guy to have kids with. Certainly not for lack of trying, but you should have seen some of the winners I went with. (Are you listening, career gals? Let’s get going! Do it alone if you have to! Don’t end up like me!)

11) Sometimes I go down cellar for no particular reason and I just sit on an old chair and look around. I look at the oil tank, the work shelves, the deep sink. Maybe it's something to do with being under the earth? I find it calming.

12) Easter is my favorite holiday. Spring!!! But I really have a good time on Halloween too.

13) I despise rhubarb, asparagus and beets. Unfortunately, I do love lasagna, ice cream, pancakes, and…well…okay, Pop Tarts.

14) I have been to the very top of the World Trade Center. And taken photos from it.

15) I do not care for wine.

16) I find the study of the old religions - Native American, Celtic and Norse mythology, pagan celebratory events, Mexico's Day of the Dead - so fascinating I could read about them seven days a week.

17) I have been up in a helicopter - thankfully not Lifestar. (Awesome.)

18) I am one-half Scottish, 1/4 Norwegian and 1/4 Italian.

19) I have my nose pierced, and I plan on getting a tattoo of a thistle when I can decide where I want it.

20) I LOVE to vacuum!

Friday, November 13, 2009

What My Cousin Richard Stevenson Taught Me To Do

My cousin Richard Stevenson looks like a nice, well-mannered normal young boy in pictures (see the kid at far right in this photo). Do not let that fool you. Richard had a trick he played when we were kids. He either thought it up himself or one of our uncles showed it to him, and it was brilliant. I used it myself to great advantage, don’t think I didn’t.
In order to understand this trick, you have to know what Mercurachrome was. Mercurachrome was a liquid antiseptic that our mothers applied to our cuts, scrapes and splinters. I don’t know what was in it – mercury I would certainly imagine – but the thing about Mercurachrome was that it was BRIGHT red. BRIGHT red. If you saw a kid with bright red dabs you knew they’d somehow been injured. I think we wore it as a badge of honor. (At least I did.)
Now, you know those small white cardboard boxes that jewelry comes in? Pins and earrings and rings and things? With a square of cotton inside? Well, here’s what Richard would do. Richard would cut a hole in the bottom of the box, splash Mercurachrome all over the cotton and push his thumb up through. Then he would run around yelling “I cut my thumb off! I cut my thumb off!” Indeed it looked for all the world as though he’d cut off his thumb and was carrying the bloody thing around in a box.
We loved this trick. There was no end to the amount of times we sprang it on some unsuspecting friend, and watched their eyes grow round with horror, then curiosity, then (I suspected in some of the more, well, warped, but look, who am I to say?) actual envy. It was an especially effective spectacle if, say, we were at somebody’s parents’ backyard barbeque or some kid’s birthday party.
I don’t think you could lay your hands on a bottle of Mercurachrome now for love nor money. That’s probably for the best. Not just because of this trick, but for the environment as a whole.  Richard, have you told your kids and grandkids what a jokester you were?  Because I'm pretty sure they've never heard of Mercurachrome.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gotta Start Somewhere

Everybody seems to have a blog. I was feeling deprived. After all, I am a writer (just not an author). I've always kept a journal...until a few years ago, anyway, when my life got kind of prosaic and I managed to bore even myself. I was Leader of the Uninspired. Letters to the Editor became challenging, for heaven's sake. Not to mention the fact that THERE IS NEVER ANY TIME. It may be, however, blogging to the rescue. We shall see...I'm not sure where this is going. I'm not sure where it will take me. Or for that matter where to start. I think I will start, however. I wrote this e-mail to a friend of mine yesterday. She'd just been in a scary fender-bender, and I told her something that happened to me. This is not written particularly skillfully and the style is not terribly reminiscent of my usual blood, sweat and tears, but more on the lines of an 8th-grade essay on "What I Did On My Summer Vacation." However, as I said, you gotta start somewhere. The subject is car accidents; the title should be "Why I Ended Up Buying A 4,000 Pound 4-wheel Drive SUV."

I hit a tree in the snow. It was winter of course, and I had come down with a bad chest cold. After a couple of days I knew I'd better see a doctor, so I thought I would go to the Shoreline Clinic. I was staying at home with my parents at the time. It was snowing again that day and I knew I'd better go before the snow got too bad.

My car was a little Toyota Tercel, what has been called "an appliance on wheels." When I went out to start it that day, it would not start. Wouldn't even turn over. Click, click, nothing. A few years prior to this my uncle, who had by then passed away, had given my parents his big Oldsmobile Cutlass when he got too sick to drive any more. I told my mom I couldn't start my car and so I needed to borrow the Olds. Got the keys, got in and got going.

Heading from Deep River towards Centerbrook I had just passed that market on the right owned by the Vietnamese people. There was a big truck in front of me that was going to turn left on Rattling Valley Road. To this day I don't know if they stopped too short or if I was just so sick I didn't notice their signal in time, but anyway I went to brake, skidded sideways and BOOM, smashed into a good sized tree head-on. The car bounced off the tree, turned around to face the road and stopped. The force of it had knocked my glasses off so I couldn't see anything. I luckily had my seatbelt on but my neck took a hell of a jerk. By now the snow was really falling hard and even though I was just off the road a little ways I couldn't even be seen by drivers passing by. After I realized I wasn't dead I just laid on the horn.

A girl from a nearby house, bless her, heard me and came running. The first thing I asked her to do was find my glasses, which she did. Everything had flown around everywhere in the car. Then she told me she had called 911 and the ambulance and police were on their way. The police got there first, and when I got out of my car my legs went completely out from under me. The police sat me in their car to take a report. Then they called a wrecker. I ended up refusing the ambulance, which was not smart. I called my father to pick me up and take me to the Clinic and he got mad and said I should have known better than to drive in this weather and he couldn't leave work, and for me to wait at the garage until somebody could come and get me. (Bear in mind now, we were both grown-ups, but your parents are your parents, for Pete's sake!)

I rode in the wrecker to the garage but didn't think the garage wanted me around so I went across the street to my dentist's office to use their phone to see if somebody else could come get me. One of the girls who works there said she would take me to the Clinic. So when I walked into the Clinic and they asked me what I was there for, I said a chest cold, but I'd also just been in a car accident! Then while I was still sitting there giving my info the door opens and in walks my father. His face was deathly white and his eyes looked like they'd seen a ghost.

To make a long story short, my father thought I had been in a fender bender but when he stopped at the garage to look for me, he saw the car and realized it had been completely totalled. The reason he was so pale and aghast was because he was so shocked, and because he also realized that if I had been driving my little Toyota that day instead of this big clunky Oldsmobile, I would probably have been killed. He said that when he saw the car he felt like all the blood drained out of his body.

After all was said and done and I was home, we went to start my car again, and there was not a thing wrong with it; it started right up. To this day, we don't know why it didn't start that morning. But again, we did know that had I been driving it, I would have been killed or much more seriously hurt.

But I was always my aunt and uncle's girl (this is the uncle who lived where I live now). And some things are more than coincidence. We like to think that he was looking out for me that day and made SURE I couldn't take the Toyota. He wanted me driving his old car, which was probably double the weight and much safer. It's the only answer that accounts for this! Who knows the mysterious ways of men and angels??