writing

Falling

I never broke a bone until I turned 42. As a runner back then, I’d frequently suffer stress fractures in my feet. Each fracture would start at the base of my big toe and then take a sharp left or right in an “L” shape break   across the top of my foot. My right foot suffered twice from such a fracture, and as if saying “Your turn,” it happened in my left.

I began running when my diabetes levels began to rise. I’d been taking Step Aerobics classes, loving every minute, but my doc, whom I’ll call James to protect the innocent, said I had to sweat like a pig for my blood sugars to go down. So, I picked running, a sport for which you only needed a good pair of running shoes, and out the door you could go. I also had an 11 year old at home, and didn’t want to leave him for too long, so I had to be quick. Originally, I could run 3 miles in 30 minutes. I was hooked. I became an adrenalin seeker, searching for that utopia of “being in the zone.” And, yes, my blood sugars went down.

I’d been running 7 years when I took a really bad fall on a large hill near my home. This hill took 20 minutes to climb, but 10 minutes to soar down. There was a thunderstorm coming, and a few flashes of lightning, all behind me, but nonetheless I didn’t want to get caught in a lightning strike. Traffic was heavy all around, and I knew of a shortcut I could take through a few backyards to get home in ten minutes, if need be.

Have you ever noticed that after a paving job, cement trucks purge one final gust of rock and stone alongside gutters? I never did until that day. Almost at the end of that hill, I tripped over a permanent puddle of leftover cement, and skated downhill on my knees. The actual fall onto asphalt was extremely hard, jarring me enough that my jaw became dislocated, and then relocated on its own. The cement puddle was about four feet long, and at the end, somehow, I was able to rise to my feet and see the damage.

I suffered 3rd degree burns on both knees, and should have been hospitalized in a burn unit, on morphine, I was later told by Ben, a new internist, whose name has been changed to protect the innocent. Both my hands were cut too. I gushed blood. But…This “but” is what a lot of runners keep in reserve while running marathons. But, still on an adrenalin high, I took off for home as thunder grew close.  Yes, I used the shortcut, and dripped blood all the way into the den, where my son and Hubs’ eyes grew round when I said, “I had a little accident.” The skies lit up as I glanced out the window, my own fireworks display for surviving a long run, and a bad accident.

Exactly 7 years later, I had another fall while out running. I wasn’t alone that time, thank goodness, because, although I didn’t land on leftover cement, I did fall on asphalt.

A work friend of mine and I liked to run during our lunch hour, and that’s what we were doing when, in front of the tony Petit Louis Bistro at noon thirty, I didn’t notice that we’d stepped into a slight dip where concrete gave way to asphalt. I tripped into that dip, and out again, landing on an outstretched hand, and both knees. Since there was almost no skin on my knees from the fall 7 years before, I bled profusely. But I couldn’t jump up this time had my life depended on it. I tried, but couldn’t make sense of the pain that radiated up to my thighs and into my left hand. I had gone into shock. My friend tried to help me by taking hold of an elbow, but I nearly passed out. Leaning over me, urging to me get out of the way of cars pulling in to Petit Louis, I didn’t understand why no one stopped to help. I knew there was a fire station around the corner, and urged my friend Joyce, whose name will be changed to protect the innocent, to run and get a band aid, but in the end, I limped into the Roland Park Bakery under my own power. And bled all during lunch.

There was a summer camp in session at the school where I worked, and I figured, there’d be a nurse present to bandage my knees. They were on fire, just like 7 years before, only worse because I’d scratched bone too. And my wrist was surely sprained because I could not use it at all. But there was no nurse, and no bandages. I kept applying wet paper towels to my knees, but my blood wouldn’t clot. One hour before the end of that work day, a teacher walked into the office and asked why I was sitting funny. Peggy O, whose name has been changed to protect the innocent, took one look and ordered me to go to Patient First. (My boss wasn’t working that day.) This time, I actually did. I put my life into the hands of doctors and nurses, and hoped for the best.

They used saline solution to clean my wounds and x-rayed my wrist, handing me a splint for “your sprained wrist.” I was also given a tetanus shot, and Rx for antibiotics. The next day, while I could hardly walk, my wrist could not even stand the weight of the splint. I went to work. And the next day, when I was unable to use that hand to wash my hair, I went to work and called Mark, explained the situation, and then reached out to a hand, arm, and shoulder specialist. On the third day following the fall, I saw a very charismatic specialist who bet me lunch that I’d fractured my elbow. He was right, but too busy to stop for lunch.

Exactly 7 years later, I had another disastrous fall. Not while running roads, but while running during a tennis match. I reached down to catch a low ball, put an arm out to break my fall, broke the wrist, fell backwards on my bum, back, and head, then bounced forward on to my wrist. I shattered it, suffered two compound fractures of the ulna and radius, and dislocated my entire arm, for good measure. I also went in to shock. I could hear people asking me if I was all right but the pain was all consuming. My knees were uninjured, but it never occurred to me to worry about them. Off I went in an ambulance.  I was certain I would die, I could barely stand the pain. Once at the hospital, an ER nurse assessed my situation, and by phone, the ortho on call read my xray and ordered morphine to be given when the ER nurse relocated my entire arm. It was then that I called Hubs to come get me, at SJUMMC, because the doctors were finished with me. (That was the Morphine talking.) Instead, I spent 3 days in the hospital while plats and rods were inserted into my left arm. Therapy for 3 herniated disks began in January and ended in June.

Seven years from now, I’ll be 72. Will I be playing tennis when I fall, or God forbid, will I fall downstairs onto the tiles below, lying there while my dogs kiss me to death? Never say never, because I swear to God, it’ll always come true. But, I have said, bad things for each bone in my body only happen once, given the laws of nature. Unless Mother Nature herself gets in the way and rocks the boat.

 

Memoir

Faux Pas

Today Hubs and I went to a memorial of a good friend of ours, Xxxx xxxx, at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. There were almost no places to park, which I thought nothing of, as my friend had worked for many years in development at an exclusive private school. I’d stopped at home to change from dog sitting clothing to a nice blue and white outfit in a large size. skirt and brand new navy blue shirt from ATL, plus navy and white flats. I also wore my summer hat, a straw number with an attached navy blue ribbon. I’ve taken to wearing this hat a lot lately, as it can hide a number of bad hair days, or give me the appearance of being organised, which I often am not. Hubs has lost about 30 pounds of my gained weight, and looked even more slender in his sharp black suit.

At the church, there sat a super long limo, and a hearse, of course. So we walked in and both of us got programs. We sat close to the front, and after seeing no one I knew, I decided to read the program. On the cover, in large print, was “Virginia Xxxx”. Didn’t make sense. I wiggled the program at Hubs, and after putting on his reading glasses, he whispered, “maybe she went by another name?” Another name? What, did he think she worked in espionage? Try this, instead. Not wrong name, but WRONG FUNERAL As we departed, the mortician said, “Happens all the time. You’d be surprised.”

Out in the parking lot, Hubs pulled up the obituary on his phone, and it stated, merely “please join us for a celebration of her life at 11 a.m. Wednesday. ” Well, the obituary was in the paper last Wednesday, and who in the world would be able to attend a funeral without prior planning? So Hubs and I took that to mean the celebration of her life would be the following Wednesday, July 12.

Anyway, we went to Cross Keys for lunch in their nice new deli, and then Hubs wanted me to visit Talbot’s. I didn’t really want to because of my weight gain. I haven’t yet been able to keep said weight off (no resolve), despite trying the Keto diet twice. You see, it’s my birthday on the 15th, and Hubs once again, had not gotten around to buying me a gift. Even though back in May, I’d asked for 2 polo style shirts from LL Bean. Perfect proof that he doesn’t listen when I talk. So after trying on a size 12 in a sheath dress and not being able to hide my belly, he bought me a necklace. Isn’t that pitiful? I’m too fat for clothing, but a necklace fits?!!

Oh my God! When had I let myself “go?” That is a direct quote from my mother in law, now deceased, who regarded my ever changing figure with disdain. She, of course, was a size 2, sometimes a 3, and never really dieted once in her life. Nor, other than walking across the street to the Gulf of Mexico from her Floridian house, did she ever exercise, while I play tennis 3-4 days a week, and walk dogs for a living!

As if the day had not gotten off to a stellar start, it ended with a visit to my primary doctor. I shall call him Mark, so as to protect the innocent. He is a low key internist who’s afraid of germs, but can expertly diagnose you while standing in the doorway of the examining room. The reason I was seeing him was because 3 Wednesdays ago, I’d fallen on my head while playing tennis. I might note here that almost all of my injuries have stemmed from exercising, whether merely running, or as of late, playing tennis. Falling on your head my friends asked, visualizing that, wondering did I jump in the air for a ball and land directly on my head? Exactly how did it happen? I’m sure they wondered. Well, okay, I hit my butt on my way to the floor, but it was my head that hurt. I think I blanked out between the act of falling and hitting ground, and then pain was what I remembered best. Like someone took a 2X4 to the back of my head.

I know I should have gone to a Minute Clinic that day, but once I’d applied ice to my head, I felt better. I wasn’t nauseated, bleeding, feeling dizzy, or drowsy. So I skipped a look-see with Mark for 3 weeks. But what I did experience two days after the fall was definitely signs of a concussion. Drowsiness while driving to the beach, and inability to retain my balance while in the Bay. Mark sent me for a CAT scan, but not before asking him if my arms looked swollen. Answer? “No, they are just fat.” Great. I need to embrace my total full figure.

So much for this faux pas. Not that I haven’t endured others. Like the time when I was in the Junior League, and a group of us had to be at a meeting at a certain person’s house on Roland Avenue by 6:30 p.m. We knew her house but not her address. This neighbourhood, Roland Park, is one where no two houses look alike. Some houses have porches where families gather all night long, and others are surrounded by brick walls knighted by matching finials. And, this group of us knew for sure that this house had a circular room which bowed out on the right side. Bath. The circular room was a bathroom with a ceramic floor and beautiful stained windows.

We knocked on the door, holding our potluck snacks in both hot and cold dishes. Well, actually, we knocked on the door frame, because the inner door was open. And, after about 15 minutes, in we went, calling our hosts’ name out loud. No reply. Some one, being officious, began to tidy up the coffee table which held a filled ashtray, and unfolded newspapers. Some one else got out a Hoover and vacuumed the rug. While I used the circular bathroom, for a much-needed potty break. And, as I sat on the toilet, my eyes dropped down to a pink trashcan. In it was discarded mail addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Peter Xxxxx.”

I flushed the toilet but ran away from the circular bathroom with lovely stained windows. Yelling, “Y’all! Listen up! We’re in the wrong house! We need to be gone yesterday!” As good Junior Leaguers, we left no mess behind, minus one Pyrex oval dish filled with Spinach balls. To this day I can’t help but wonder if the incorrect Leaguer ever noticed how clean was her living room, and had a poltergeist moved in, doing good instead of bad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memoir

Phobia

I spent the last 2 nights and 3 days with a pit bull, an adorable and loving pit bull rescue. Who knows what situation she was born in to, but now she is living in a loving environment, where her sometimes aggressive behaviour is duly noted by an animal behaviourist. No beatings, starving, or tortures are a part of her daily routine. In addition to caring for this pit bull, I sat for a rat. Rat, as furry four footed rodent. A noun. Calling someone a Rat, is a very old word that is similar to the F word, what I use as a last resort, when extremely flummoxed or angry. The F word, in my opinion is a poor excuse for good English. Not to be mistaken for a creep, someone I know who I can’t stand. Not an adjective, as in Lee is a stinking rat. Not another noun as in “As soon as I get these rats off my back…”

The rat was an unwitting member of my dog sitting gig. It didn’t really need to be cared for, as it came from the wild, having been born under a bridge, and needed a return to any bridge. Thank goodness it didn’t need feeding, which the pit bull did, three times a day. And, thank God, the rat did not require petting, as that would have been unnecessary as, 1) it, being a wild animal, it had never once been petted, and, 2) I would have died on the spot had said rat come begging for a pet.

There are zillions of phobias most likely unknown to man. In fact, I myself am a phobic, many times over. If you want to know which type of phobic you are, go ahead and Google phobias. There are phobias that I’ve never even heard about! Fear of meat, fear of breathing bad air, fear of men, fear of the Northern Lights.

Phobias are learned, as well as taught. Not taught in school, but rather by a family member, or friend who cannot leave her house without unlocking locks 10-15 times. This act, being excessive behaviour, can be learned by a young child as the only way to leave a house. A woman who cannot stop smoking is not coined as being phobic, rather as being an addict to the calm feeling smoking brings. For those who are germphobic, their behaviour is totally outside the realm of normal. Often in germphobic cases, a person will take a 3 hour shower after seeing a “germ” fall in her lap, or never using public toilets.

In my childhood, many phobias were taught to me. I didn’t create them on my own, as everything in my childhood pre-empted a clean slate. My mother was fanatically afraid of driving over bridges. Yes, she liked to travel, and sometimes it was a demand of her job..Did you know that at the Chesapeake Bridge, toll takers were once on hand to drive people over bridges? Fortunately, being phobic of bridge driving was not passed down to me.

But, fear of flying, called Aviophobia, was. My mother was avidly afraid of flying. I remember times when she drank herself into happy oblivion in order to get on board, and other times, sitting stiffly in her seat, she’d be pumping hard at imaginary brakes. This strikes me now as silly, since you could broaden your horizons if you simply boarded a plane. But, in my late teens and early 20s, I too became afraid to fly. I did, and still do, dislike takeoffs, for speed on the runway seemed to determine how high a plane could get quickly. On the flip side, I’m not afraid of landings. I wait to hear the sharp bump of landing gear connecting with terra firma, and know I’m safe.

Nowadays, I still get a flurry of butterflies in my stomach as the plane powers up for takeoff, but I no longer grab stranger’s hands, or whimper. Instead, I put fingers in my ears so I don’t feel bumps in the air as the plane escalates,and close my eyes, a comfortable ruse to use when one doesn’t like what’s happening. And while I don’t exactly like takeoff, I have found a way to keep myself calm. I merely close my eyes, and ears, until the “Fasten your seatbelt” sign goes off. Being airborne, I know there is no escape from ISIS, thunderstorms, or the bogeyman, and that is satisfying enough.

Another way I use to conquer my fear of flying, was to take flying lessons. A neighbor of my parents had license to fly a 2-seater Cessna. My first lesson involved safety rules. But during my second lesson, I was allowed to take the controls from the pilot, and flew solo (while he sat next to me). This exercise helped a lot.

The various techniques my mother and I used while flying, do not however, work with rat sitting. I saw it run past me and make a beeline for under the coffee table. I banged my feet against the top shelf and waited for the rat to emerge in fear. It did not emerge at all. In fact, I think it ran undetected from the coffee table to under the sofa. But what if it had run upstairs to the bed where I would sleep? Upon entering that room,i shouted “GO AWAY RAT!”

To get my overnight case out of the house without possibility of taking said rat home, I literally dumped the case upside down, and then repacked. But I also stored it in my car trunk for two nights. I know of a guy who said he had a rat in his truck that he couldn’t get rid of. That image pretty much stuck in my mind for days. I just couldn’t go there!

My fear of rodents, called Musophobia, began about 15 years ago, while working at a prestigious private school for girls. The rodent invasion started in the summer. That was my busiest time of year, involving 5 large trash cans of paper, mounds of new directories, and office supplies times 10 for every contingency. Mice like paper to build nests in. And, their love of nuts and chocolate is a detail never to be forgotten.

Well, one golden Monday in August, I’d just returned from a two-week vacation, and was powering up my desktop computer, when a mouse ran across my hand. Not the keyboard, but my hand! At first, I thought it would be one incident, but then when multiple mice ran across the floor, and up onto my desk, totally at ease, I realised it was endemic!

Not only was my office infested, but so was the entire school! There was no safety anywhere, anymore. Both I and the secretary 3 flights down, spent at least once a day for weeks, running screaming from our offices! Another morning I arrived at my usual workday time, and was chit chatting with a teacher, when she said, “Em, did you know you have a mouse riding down an electrical wire from the ceiling over your head?”

I have never moved so fast in my life! Students were arriving by then, and I had to tone down my screams, but not without calling Maintenance first, from my personal cell phone, to come help.

Rodents, mice, rats, moles, voles, and squirrels terrify me. If I see a squirrel in the road, I will aim for it. They are really rats with long tails, anyway. I hope that all the lowlife rapists, murderkillers, and child predators are reincarnated as rodents, but I can’t believe it myself. What I can be sure of is that the rodent infestation was dealt with by fall, and not because the school’s employees had a voice in the matter. No. It’s because the cleaning crew could not make any progress in cleaning because the mice would tear up paper (trash) to use as nests, leave droppings everywhere, and were fearless of people. I didn’t quit because I loved the students I grew to know individually, the faculty which 98 per cent of the time were fantastic, and of course, I needed a full-time job with benefits. I also loved Graduation when, as the “Go” girl, I would send them towards the graduation stage with a smile or whisper of how lovely they looked.

My husbands’ phobia is snakes. Some people are terrified of spiders. And, last, but not least, a small fraction of our civilised world are phobic about just living.

 

 

 

 

writing

An Architect of Sorts (Published, Jan ’17)

   An Architect of Sorts

 

2014-10-13-10-48-50

 

I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s houses. Ever since I was 4 I remember knocking on people’s doors claiming I needed to tinkle, my ruse to get inside their houses. I wasn’t a thief or gypsy, acting innocent, while silently begging. This was a time when people didn’t lock their doors or cover them with triple dead bolts. This was the 50’s and children were truly innocent, not yet jaded by their parent’s misfortune. It was 1956 and I was sweet, plump, and told fantastic stories, most of them figments of my imagination. I was on the cusp of learning between right and wrong, truth and lies, but because stories were so detailed, no one bothered to ask if they were indeed made up tales.

Born in Connecticut, I was merely six months old when we moved a state away to Binghamton, in New York, an ideal town for kids to grow up in. A river ran through the center of town. The bridges that helped cars move over the river were made of steel and car tires squealed so loud you had to cover your ears. There was a working carousel on every other street corner, all of them free to ride. I loved carousels, and my mother could place me on a horse and talk with her friends for hours, and still, I’d want more time on the endless circle to nowhere. Winter ran from October through May, with snow drifts piled way over my head. Sidewalks were bordered by walls of shoveled snow, and endless snowmen crowded each front lawn. Santa came to our house even though we didn’t have a chimney. There were no snow days from school in Binghamton. People would put chains on tires and just keep moving.

Every morning I’d rise with my father, and he’d tuck me into a chair in front of the TV with a blanket, bowl of shredded wheat covered with mounds of sugar, and a teeming glass of chocolate milk. I’d watch “Captain Kangaroo” and Mr. Green Jeans while my father dressed for work.

He and I were partners in crime. We loved sweets, especially chocolate. Cakes, brownies, ice cream, and candy. Every Saturday morning we’d walk to town to his favorite bakery and buy donuts.  Who’s to know our love for sweets would give us both adult onset diabetes? My father and I also loved dogs. We had a series of Shelties, each one named Jamie, which my father would spend countless hours training to heel, walk on command, and sit. He showed a succession of Jamie’s in competitions but each Jamie was never top dog. Shelties have minds of their own, but once you learn to tolerate the incessant barking, they are quite obedient and smart.

My curiosity about houses woke up with me one morning and has never gone away. Each entrance to a house offers a life different from mine. It was like opening a new book with many pages yet to read. The idea about needing to tinkle to allow me into other people’s house was quite creative; my mother told me years later, when, at age 14, I was horrified by what I’d done. I’d start at the top of Davis Street, and slowly make my way down one side and up the other. It was a long exercise that I never tired of.

The first house I entered was one made of stucco. The sides of it looked like shredded wheat covered in mounds of white sugar. Inside, lived an elderly woman who kept a collection of glass birds. She was considered rich because in a town of frame bungalows, hers was not a bungalow, nor was it frame. What looked like fancy green grass climbed up the outside and two large evergreens shaded the front walk. Sun, reflecting from her bay window, would wink at me as I made my way to her front door. In her dining room, she kept a collection of glass birds that I was just itching to hold. Blue ones, clear ones, yellow for finches, and pale pinks. I don’t remember much about her bathroom, which she insisted was a powder room, or her, except to one so young such as me, she seemed ancient with white hair and a whispery voice, but I loved those glass birds. She taught me how to cup each one in my hand and to “watch out, they’re fragile.” Today, I have glass birds, wooden birds that sing, and plastic birds that move their necks, but nothing as special as her collection.

The next door I knocked on belonged to a man who lived alone. His voice sounded like Jamie’s when he barked in defiance to heeling. Mr. Henry was his name. I’m not sure if that was his first or last name. I didn’t really have to use his bathroom, but instead I’d merely stop to chat while he was mowing his lawn.  He had a push mower that he used every day.  We had a push mower too, but once a week was how often my daddy used his.  My father made fun of him. He’d look at the very short grass on his lawn and say, “What would possess a man to mow his lawn every day? He must be lonely or bored.”  I’d often ask Mr. Henry to take me to the carousel.  His answer was always the same, “A little later in the day, Merry, okay?” Later in the day we were both on to something else.

Next to his house lived the Dells. They were Catholic.  By the time I was in my teens, I knew that being Catholic in the 50s was like being black any decade. Blacks by far were at the end of a totem pole of prejudice, but Catholics crowded lower rungs too. Irish Catholics, that is. Nowadays I know that once Protestants didn’t like Irish Catholics because they didn’t use birth control, but in 9th grade History, I’d learned the Irish were prejudiced against since immigrating to America in the 1850s. More Irish meant fewer jobs for their brethren already trying to accept their place in the world. In Ireland in the mid-1900s, they fought each other in a religious civil war, Protestants against Catholics. Kids as young as five threw rocks at kids as young as three. The British Army move in to try and make peace, but instead Irish blood ran putrid in the streets from the oppression of British presence in their country.  Italian Catholics owned the bakery my father and I frequented, and were respected more than Irish Catholics.  Non Catholic Whites of course, topped the totem pole and never faced prejudice anywhere.  Not that at age four I knew what prejudice was, or that people worldwide suffered from poverty.  All I knew is that I lived in a land of white people – at the park, the bakery, my sister’s school, and up and down our street.

There were two Catholic families on Davis Street. The Dells and the Cains. The Dells’ father went to work five days a week carrying a briefcase, but Mr. Cain went to work only sometimes. The Dells had four children, while the Cains fit seven into their tiny bungalow. Everyone shared a bedroom. Mr. Dell didn’t have a drinking problem like Mr. Cain, who sometimes on Friday nights would come home in the dark singing so loud he made dogs bark, and then he and Mrs. Cain would fight, and he’d push her into the bushes. But the Dells kissed in their front door when Mr. Dell arrived home from work. My parents kissed behind closed doors, without hugs and they didn’t laugh about it like the Dells. We were Protestants, after all.

Mary Magdalene Cain was my age, and already she was in charge of Charlie, the two year old, who’d flee the house every morning stark naked, no matter the weather. Mary’s job was to catch and dress him.  Sometimes it took all day, if I helped. I was fascinated by his little penis that bounced between his chubby legs. In my family, my sister and I lacked penises. Maybe being Catholic gave you more body parts than being Episcopal. Both the Dells and Mrs. Cain and her children went to church with handkerchiefs on their heads but my family hardly ever went to church, and even then, I got stuck in Sunday school.  The only good thing about that were graham crackers we earned as snacks.

When I turned 5, there were less days spent on carousels, and more days spent with the neighborhood hooligans. Being 5 meant I could hang out with 6 year olds after they got out of school. They did daring things, like climb trees, riding two wheeled bikes, and ringing people’s doorbells, then running away. Peer pressure taught me to graduate from a tricycle to a two wheeler. Another game we played at night was called Boo. I always had more boy friends then girls. Boys who got to stay up later than the little kids, would crouch under bedroom windows and shout a series of “Boo”, scaring the little ones half to death. There was a lot of daring going on. “Dare you to run across the street without looking!” Jimmy Cain would chant. It was silly, because no one ever came down the street except the mailman. But if you didn’t complete a dare from time to time, you were considered chicken. Chicken was the worst. I became an expert tree climber, sometimes daring myself if no one else did. But I never squeezed a kitten through a mail slot, or ate those strange looking plump flowers on the ground. “Mushrooms won’t kill you. It’s only toadstools that are dangerous” Timmy Cain goaded. Tommy or Mickey, or maybe it was Johnny who finally stepped forward and gulped the toadstool down in one fearless bite.  When he didn’t turn purple or barf on his shoes, we all scattered home for dinner. Not long after, though, Johnny began moaning in pain, and his mother, frustrated at what she thought was hijinks, found out through me that he’d eaten a toadstool. She didn’t know whether to believe me or not, given my sense of story-telling. But, when he got worse, she rushed him to the hospital, and had his stomach pumped just in time. Neighbors never doubted me again.

And then all of a sudden my idyllic childhood changed.  We moved! This time, through the mountains with falling rock signs and Jamie puking in my father’s suit pockets, to a large metropolitan city called Baltimore in a place called Maryland. There was no snow in May and sometimes no snow all year! To me, moving to Baltimore, Maryland was like moving to another country. I’d been to Canada where my father was born, but that was merely an 8 hour trip from Binghamton. It took us two whole days to follow the moving van to Maryland. It was May when we left, and June when we arrived in steaming hot weather.

We stopped just over the border of Pennsylvania to have lunch at Howard Johnson. To my delight, they had chocolate ice cream sundaes on the dessert menu! But instead, I had a hard lesson to swallow about Segregation. My father had already been living in Maryland for a year when our entire family made the move, so he was immune to it, but my mother was horrified.  A journalist, Mom had heard of segregation, but had not yet confronted it first-hand. And, my father, through all his reports about how friendly people were in Baltimore, and how lovely our house was, never once mentioned the travesty.  So when my mom emerged from our car and saw brown people lined up at the carryout entrance while only white people were seated inside, she nearly created a riot. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she yanked my sisters and me from our table and headed outside. At the same time, our Sheltie greeted us at the entrance, wagging his tail, as if he too found segregation deplorable in 1957. My mother swore she would not set foot in Maryland if “things” were like this happened everywhere.  I remember my father’s exasperation about Jamie getting loose, but I was still trying to figure out what had gone wrong in Howard Johnson’s. Trying to make peace, my father settled Jamie in his lap, and we drove further down the road to a Gino’s, where everything was carry out. My questions about why some people were brown went unanswered as my parents quibbled in the front seat.

Once ensconced in Baltimore, I never checked out a bathroom again. There was much exploring to be done. I learned to roller skate in little circles called Garths, and make friends in alleys behind our house, there were fish in two large lakes at the bottom of our street. I made a lot of friends that summer that I’d see in school in my class in September.

School. I didn’t like it, even though I’d never been to kindergarten. We were always being told to keep quiet, or read aloud about Sally and Billy, each one of us in first grade taking turns. First grade was confusing. There was a lot of standing in lines, facing forward, hands to yourself. And very scary Air Raid drills, where we ducked under our desks and put our hands behind our necks. No one ever explained what Air Raid drills meant, except David, who’d say, “It’s the Commies. They’re going to make us fry!”  His heads were airplanes and Pshaw was the sound a bomb would make.

School lasted from 9 in the morning to 11:30, when first graders like me, were sent home for lunch and a nap, and returned to our sunny classroom by 1 for reading, writing and arithmetic. By spring, I’d learned how to ride public busses, and trolleys, accompanied by brown people who kept their eyes downcast, while other brown women wore gray uniforms and white aprons. Both my parents went to work. while my sister and dogs and I were cared for by a colored maid.

So much had changed in such a short while. I turned six during that summer, but despite my old age, was unsure how to act with this dark skinned woman in our house. I was warned that I would obey Sara just like I obeyed my parents, or else. I wondered if she didn’t take baths that made her skin look dirty, but I was too scared to ask. I mean, she saw me in my underwear, and gave me baths, and had two gold teeth. She was nice, and my father paid her transportation every day in cash.  She lived way far away in Baltimore City with her daughter and three children.  Her daughter was 20, and the children were ages 4, 3 and 2.

The first time I got Tonsillitis in our new town, Sara sat by my bed feeding me Jello and Ginger Ale. She’d give me sponge baths, which is when you stay in bed and get rubbed with a wet sponge. She said it would bring down the fever. It was then that I realized I loved her. The sponge bath did indeed bring down my fever. And when school ended, she’d sometimes bring over Peaches, her oldest grandchild. Peaches had 5 braids on her head, and they all stood up straight on her scalp. She would always say to me, “Yes, mam,” which I didn’t like, but otherwise we got along fine, sharing Good Humor ice cream together.  My sister and I had been cared for her for a year when Sara had a stroke on a trolley, and died instantly. A stroke is a very bad headache that made you die. I was so sad I hadn’t said goodbye, so my father took me to her funeral service. Sara’s relatives and friends stopped talking when my father and I arrived, him in a suit, and me in a plaid dress ironed by Sara. I placed a singled long stemmed red rose on her casket and then asked the man who patted me on the head if he scrubbed really hard, maybe he could be white too.

It was a while before I caught on about segregation. My school was all white, and so was my neighborhood. Everyone had maids, but not everyone treated them nicely. The Irish Catholics who lived next door would sic their Dobermans on maids when they left at night. They’d laugh really loud when the maids screamed.  The term maid comes from England, having to do with maids in waiting, young girls who waited on the Queen, serving her tea and helping her undress at night, but they were never colored. About a month after Sara died, Marie showed up and cared for my sister and I until we were in high school. Years later, Marie even attended my wedding.

My father treated Marie as well as he’d treated Sara. He opened a social security account for her and gave her a raise before she’d even started working. He bought her three uniforms too. Summertime, he’d allow her to occasionally bring her great granddaughter with her, and it turned out to be Peaches, again. I didn’t understand how Sara could have Peaches as a granddaughter, and Marie have Peaches as a great granddaughter when Marie was only 40.

School in second grade was even harder than first. In second grade, once I learned how to use a ruler, I began designing houses during Art. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t another Frank Lloyd Wright in the making. All I wanted was to grow up and have babies.  But I created elaborate mansions, pink bungalows, and high rise apartment buildings. Over a span of 10 years, I got better and better at it. I switched to colored pencils, and then ink pens.  I numbered and named each design, and filled binder after binder.  I had 100s of McCall paper dolls that I’d dress up and act out entire family scenarios, using the houses as their background design. I’d even ask family members what was their dream house and draw it to specification. A lot of my creations were imitations of our house in Maryland – complete with step down living rooms, French doors, a backyard Koi pond with a waterfall, wall to wall built in bookcases with a fireplace in the center, a whole other room under a staircase, too big for a closet and too small for a bedroom, a basement with slaves’ quarters where my sister and I roller-skated on rainy days. A front porch made of slate and a back terrace with steps leading into a massive garden. Windows made of wrought iron that opened out instead of up and down. A kitchen with not only stainless steel appliances, but also stainless steel countertops. A pantry my mother used as an office. There were built in corner cabinets in the dining room and ceiling molding in every room.

Everyone thought I was merely designing houses, but in reality, I was creating whole families to live in these mansions. There was the hotsy-totsy lady who religiously wore pink with her white fur neck scarf. She was Elizabeth Monroe. There were the Cains who came alive in my portfolio, fully dressed, standing as a family of 9 at the altar of a Catholic church. There was Johnny, who hired a maid to taste every dish before he dug in, just in case it was poisoned.

In Baltimore, I sometimes ached for the glass birds I’d once held in my tiny hands, or Mr. Henry, who push mowed his lawn every day, and of course, carousel rides. Some things you remember as easily as the freckle on your hand, and others you search the entire house for. I returned to Binghamton with my son in tow many years later, and drove up and down Davis Street where I’d once lived. Pointing left, pointing right, I could still recite the name of every person who lived in what house and exactly how their bathroom looked in 1956.

Why did I take up such a peculiar habit and not become an architect? My only answer is that there are many types of architects: industrial, commercial, residential, garden, and garage. I’m an architect of sorts but I don’t actually build buildings. To be more specific, I’m a story architect, superior mother to the characters in my tales. In my first two published novels, the families lived in townhouses. I once called them stitched together houses as if the families were sewn inside, nice and tight. In fact, my first home as an adult was a row house with a bay window and bright yellow kitchen.

I’ve been crafting a novel for five years. This fictional family of 8 has recently moved from their birth home to a smaller house in another city, three under one roof, 4 under another. In real life, people want to know your beginning more than they care about your end. Your beginning has a lot to do with how you turn out as a human being.  As the health of this fictional family improves, one by one, the curtains once tightly shut will begin to open, as the father, once a soldier and now a citizen, begins to shed one persona for another.  I, like an architect, created these characters, Ali, Bean, Matt and Merry for a certain specification, starting all the way back to when I was 4 years old and critiquing neighborhood bathrooms.