Saturday, May 30, 2009

My Crazy Brother

I always called him “my crazy brother,” half in annoyance, half in affection. He was exasperating, yet he could be charming and funny and loving. His name was George Preston Pattie. The family called him “Preston”; friends and wives called him “George.”

He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1944. Daddy was 46, old enough to be his grandfather. Mother was 36, and I was 15. I loved being Big Sister to that little red-headed boy, but when he was eight, I married and moved to Chicago. In the next 55 years we saw each other infrequently.

But I heard about him. I heard about the accident that caused Daddy to throw up when he saw where Preston hit a bridge and the car tumbled down into the creek. Preston totaled several cars and walked away with bruises in crashes where anyone else would have been killed.

In the Air Force he made two tours in Vietnam, keeping F-15's flying. Later he told me he was asleep in his bunk when the Viet Cong attacked Da Nang. He jumped out of bed to go to the shelter. Just as he reached the barracks door, a shell cut a scratch across his chest. If he had been one second quicker, he would have been killed. Preston did not even get a Purple Heart.

I always said, “If Preston was not crazy before he went to Vietnam, he was when he came home.” I drove into my parents’ driveway with my three-year-old son David beside me. Preston bounded out of the house waving a gun at us. “What are you doing with that gun, Preston?” “I didn’t know who was coming into the yard,” he said innocently, as if everyone should be greeted with a deadly weapon.

He married Robin when she was 15 years old. They were married for seven years and were divorced shortly after the birth of their son, Terrence. Robin said, “I’ll always love George, but I can’t live with him.” I understood.

Preston went to work for Bell Helicopter in Iran when the Shah was all-powerful. He came home for our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and did not go back. He said, “There is going to be trouble over there.” The next year was the Iranian Revolution.

Preston went to California to work for McDonald-Douglas. He married his second wife, Donna. McDonald-Douglas sent him to Spain for two years. Then he was sent to Austria. As he drove through the Alps, he rounded a curve and hit another car head-on. Both cars were traveling over 100 mph. He said, “Never try to stop a Mercedes with a Ford.”

Many bones were broken, and he lay in a coma for six weeks. After months of therapy, he went back to work in California. It did not last. He was given retirement on the basis of disability. His legs never fully recovered, his eyesight was damaged, and he had a brain injury which compounded his craziness.

Preston and Donna were divorced, and he came home to Texas. He became obese. At topless bars he fantasized that 18-year-old girls were madly in love with that fat, old man. He bought cars for them, but cleverly made them sign loan agreements. When they defaulted on payments, he repossessed the cars and sold them to other young things. He carried thousands of dollars in cash on gambling jaunts to Las Vegas and Louisiana, where he was given free meals and rooms, and where he insisted he always came home with more money than when he left.

Robin needed money, so he bought her house. She moved out, and he moved in. He put three locks on the front door and took off the door knob. For five years he never cleaned house. His hot water heater broke, and he would not let a plumber come in to fix it. He adopted a cat and let it pee on the carpet. He slept with a loaded gun beside his bed.

Then he got sick. Leukemia. He spent months in Harris Hospital, the same hospital where he was born. He developed an abscess on his brain. He looked bad, thin and bald, not making sense when he talked. Our family doubted he would ever leave the hospital. But he did.

With his leukemia in remission, he resumed his crazy lifestyle. After I moved to Garland, he spent weekends with me, driving 80 mph. on Dallas’s crowded expressways, carrying a pistol in the pocket of his car, and threatening, “If any other driver gives me trouble, I’ll shoot him.” I worried about his driving while nearly blind. He had minimal sight in one eye, and told me at times he could not tell if the car in front of him was in his lane or the one next to it.

Somehow he avoided accidents. But, after a year, the leukemia returned. He needed a bone marrow transplant but was too weak to survive one. Again, we thought he would die, but after several more months in the hospital, he was well enough to come to Dallas to see the transplant specialist. I went with them when Don took Preston to get the results of the bone marrow tests. The doctor said, “The chemo your doctor gave you in Fort Worth has worked a miracle. You do not need a transplant. Your tests were clear of cancer cells.” Don and Preston both thought the doctor said, “You are cured.” When I disagreed, Don said, “I was there, and I heard him.”

We agreed that Preston had nine lives.

After surviving leukemia twice, he seemed “his old self,” telling jokes and full of confidence. For the first time in years he started going to church regularly. Then the leukemia returned. This time the doctor said more chemo treatments would be fatal. There was nothing more he could do. Preston went home, depressed, but still hoping for another miracle. It was not to be.

Don, Mary, and I went to see him Tuesday evening. Terrence met us at the door. Robin was at the side of the hospital bed where Preston lay gaunt and gray, eyes closed, his mouth open above a thick, gray beard. When he opened his eyes I said, “Preston, you look like Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments.” There was no response.

On Wednesday I was hooked up to the machine which cleans my blood when Don came to the dialysis center. Don sat beside my chair and said, “Preston died an hour ago.”

Preston was my brother. He was reckless. He was frustrating. He always did what he wanted to do without regard to anyone’s feelings or opinions. He was crazy; so am I. When we talked on the telephone, he ended by saying, “Luv you.” I said, “I love you, too.”

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chicken Little

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” the people were so poor that at the wedding the bride’s parents gave the young couple a feather bed, two pillows, and a pair of candlesticks. Then the butcher stepped forward and impressed the wedding guests with a gift of five chickens: “One for every Sabbath dinner for the first five weeks of their married life together.”

This reminded me of going with my grandmother to visit her sister in Rockwall. Today the trip from Fort Worth to Rockwall takes an hour by expressway without a single stop light. We sped along that route following the hearse going to bury my grandmother beside her husband, who died 60 years before. In the same plot are the graves of my grandmother’s and grandfather’s parents and several of my grandmother’s siblings. One little boy’s marker is a small column with a curious peaked globe on top. Among the many graves my daughter looked for that strange little monument to locate our ancestors when she went to the cemetery on a visit to Texas from Chicago.

In the 1930's the trip from Fort Worth to Rockwall in my grandmother’s Ford took all day. We drove through little towns of Handley (now part of Fort Worth), Arlington, and Grand Prairie, with open fields in between. At Dallas we passed under the triple underpass and then all the stop lights of downtown and the streets of Lakeview, where we stopped at the bakery to buy a loaf of special bread for Aunt Lou.

As my grandmother’s car headed northeast out of Dallas, I looked out the windows at cotton fields on both sides of the two-lane highway. At Garland we passed a filling station and a hamburger stand but nothing more, not even a stop light. My grandmother would point out, a quarter-mile off the highway, a couple of buildings which she called, “Rowlett.” Today the entire area is built up, all one giant Metroplex with millions of people. Garland alone has 270,000 people. When I follow the route of the old highway from Garland to Rockwall, I drive on a six-lane highway with commercial buildings along most of 16 miles. I see McDonald’s and Wendy’s, Wal-Mart and Home Depot, but no remains of the one-room schoolhouse, “Happy Home School,” where a dirt road turned off to “the farm,” inherited by my mother and her brother, on which a share-cropper raised cotton. Today that farm lies beneath Lake Ray Hubbard.

We did not stop at the farm when I went to Rockwall with my grandmother. Finally, after an all-day trip, we crossed the river and went up the hill to the domed court house on the square. We were in Rockwall, and Aunt Lou’s house was only three blocks away. After such a journey, we always stayed for several days.

Aunt Lou’s husband was a doctor, the only doctor in Rockwall County. Once while we were there, he was called out in the country to deliver a baby. When he came home, Aunt Lou asked, “Did you get paid?”

“Yes,” the doctor said. “Two Chickens”

We had fried chicken for dinner.

No one wants to go back to the days when a doctor was paid two chickens for delivering a baby. Even today, when we are facing the worst economic times since the Great Depression, no one talks about doctors reducing their fees. Yet doctors in the U.S. make far more money than in any other nation in the World!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


My birth certificate says “Margaret Ilene Pattie.” My mother had two best friends. Ilene Timmerman was one. The other was Margaret Huff, who lived next door in a big white Victorian house with gingerbread trimming on the veranda. The two were bridesmaids when my mother and father were married in the living room of my grandmother’s house. Although Baptists do not have godparents, Margaret and Ilene both kept in touch and helped me throughout my life.

My father had a cousin named “Margaret Pattie.” She was also my mother’s friend and lived nearby. The family decided – well, it was probably my grandmother, who determined everything – that the neighborhood did not need two Margaret Patties. So I was always called “Ilene”.

This caused confusion through the years. My teachers called me “Ilene”, but I registered in school as “Margaret Ilene.” This was the name on the marriage license and on bank accounts and deeds when I married and added another name. As I came out of the anesthesia after my first child was born, I heard the nurse saying, “Wake up, Margaret.” She patted me on the cheek and repeated, “Wake up, Margaret.” I wondered, “Where is this Margaret she’s talking to?”

By 1987 both Margaret Huff and Ilene Timmerman were dead and I was embroiled in a lawsuit with that man I was married to for 27 years. In court at the final settlement, I asked the judge to change my name legally to “Ilene Pattie”. He granted my request, and six weeks later I married John and changed my name again!

“Margaret” now meant a dear friend. Although we seldom saw each other in the 50 plus years after we graduated from college, a group of friends always maintained contact. Margaret was one of the best. She and her husband repeatedly welcomed me into their home. One time I descended on them in London and stayed for two weeks. They entertained me royally – such as taking me to an elegant lunch at the Tate and to the theater at Convent Garden (where Eliza Doolittle sold violets) – and asked me to come back!

Sadly, Margaret died suddenly a week before she was to come to my 80th birthday party. We were friends for more than 60 years. I am one among many who miss her.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Perfect Friendship

I have lots of friends. When John and I traveled, he joked, “Ilene has a friend in every city.”

Some friends are like sunshine patriots: Shoulder to shoulder when times are good but disappear when clouds of trouble come into my life. I have friends I enjoy “hanging out” with – we laugh and talk and go to art exhibits and movies and plays. It is fun to be with them. Some of them I’ve known for sixty years, and I still enjoy seeing them. But I don’t turn to them when I am in pain.

I also special friends, several, who helped me through bad times, friends who stuck to me like peanut butter and jelly. Yesterday I wrote about some of my Jewish friends. I forgot to tell you about Gertrude. How could I forget Gertrude? She is one of the best. She laughs with me when life is good, and boosts me up when my life is difficult.

Yesterday I wrote about Etta. Gertrude and Etta were Jews; both wonderful people. I met Etta on an Elderhostel; I also met Gertrude on an Elderhostel. Etta was my roommate in China; Gertrude was my roommate in Sicily. Both were loyal and generous friends. But two totally different personalities.

Etta was like a mother to me, and our friendship resembled a mother-daughter relationship. We enjoyed doing things together, such as seeing the Monet exhibit at Chicago’s Art Institute. But she always seemed old and fragile, although spunky and determined to be independent. I worried about her standing on a Chicago street corner waiting for a bus, a tiny old lady, a perfect target for a mugger. She finally agreed to move into an “assisted living” facility. When I called her to let her know I was moving to Texas; she could not understand who I was. “Who’s that?” she kept repeating. Was it because she was deaf? Or was she sinking into dementia? I wrote to give her my new address. I received no reply. I mourn as for my own mother.

Gertrude is a contemporary. Our backgrounds are different. I grew up in a Southern Baptist family in Fort Worth, Texas, steeped in the traditions of the Old South, with a grandmother who traced her lineage back to 17th Century Virginia. Gertrude’s grandparents were Jews who came to America from Russia around 1900. She is a New Yorker, born in New York City, never lived anywhere else.

Yet we are alike in all our interests: politics, art, theater. Most important, we are compatible in our views of life and people. “Soul Sisters”

Gertrude’s Manhattan apartment is tiny, without a true bedroom. I am one of the few people she invites to stay with her. She likes her privacy, but she has a limited income and knows I do, too. When I went to New York, she insisted on treating me to lunch and theater tickets. When she came to New Mexico, she brought me gifts and took me to lunch in my town, too.

Gertrude is concerned about my kidneys. Of all my friends, she is the one, the only one, who called regularly as I progressed from failing kidneys to surgery to infection to dialysis. I hope I have convinced her that I am adjusting to life on dialysis.

When she telephones, Gertrude asks about Charlie. She likes cats. She had a cat with diabetes. Although it strained her budget, she took him to the vet regularly and gave him shots every day. When her cat died, I sent her a sympathy card. Now she has a new cat, which hides under the couch and won’t let her touch him. She feeds him anyway. That’s Gertrude, taking care of a poor, dumb animal, which refuses to return the affection she gives him. She understands he can’t tell her why he is terrified of humans.

When another dear friend, who cares and wants the best for me, asks, “Why are you no longer a Christian? Can’t you return to the faith of your fathers?”

I give a flippant answer. I say, “I would rather be in Hell with Gertrude. The conversation would be better than spending all my days in Heaven singing Protestant hymns.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fiddler on the Roof

(NOTICE: Look for new blogs daily May 24 to 31. My 21-year-old grandson, Doug Schumann, will be visiting June 1 to 7, and I will not be posting during his visit.)

Here's the next story:

Texans jumped up out of their seats and clapped their hands in deafening applause, giving Topol a standing ovation at the end of “Fiddler on the Roof.” To them the musical about of a poor Jewish family in 19th Century Russia was great entertainment. I wondered if any in that audience had grandparents who came to America after a pogrom, as Tevye’s family does at the end of show we saw on stage in Dallas.

“Wasn’t that great! Wasn’t that great!” our leader kept repeating as he herded my friend and me, along with other members of the group from Garland’s First Baptist Church, onto the bus. This was the same minister who, in introducing our bus driver, stumbled over the man’s Polish name, then, as he called the role to check that all us old people were on board, joked about us having “American names,” like Clark, Hays, and Williams. Sounds like a law firm, but those typical Texas names were all on the bus.

As a writer, I use my maiden name. But in my “social” life, my name is Polish. My husband’s father was born in Poland when it was part of Russia. He came to America before World War I to escape being conscripted into the czar’s army. His four sons all proudly served the U.S. in World War II. John was with the U.S. Army when it met the Russians at the Elbe. He hated the Russians.

In New York years ago, in a corridor outside the General Assembly of the United Nations, a friend presented me to a Polish diplomat. At that time Poland was under the domination of the Soviet Union, so I was surprised when this Communist “comrade,” kissed my hand. I introduced him to my teenage son and daughter, saying, “These children were born in one of the largest Polish cities in the World.”

“Chicago or Milwaukee?” said the diplomat.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, Chicago burgeoned with immigrants from many countries. The biggest group came from Poland, all searching for The American Dream. Michael Durkalski’s grandsons are millionaires. They live in the suburbs. The majority of the people in Chicago today are blacks, immigrants from the South, like Michelle Obama’s family.

Most of Chicago’s “Pollocks” are Roman Catholics, like the Durkalskis, but as a young bride I knew Laura, and 45 years later met Ralph. Both were Chicago Jews whose grandparents came from Russia, like Tevye’s family, to escape persecution. In Albuquerque a good friend was Abe, a former New Yorker, who gave me a Christmas present with a card to “Darling Ilene.” His mother came from Poland, his father from Russia. All he knew about his ancestors was that they were Jews and they were poor.

The dearest of my Jewish friends was Etta, also from Chicago. She was born in Russia, at Odessa on the Black Sea. We met as roommates at an Elderhostel in China. I was in my mid-60's. Etta was much older – she did not tell me her exact age – and when I was ill, with diarrhea and coughing as if my lungs were coming out my throat (all but two of our group became ill in China), Etta fussed over me like the stereotype of a Jewish mother tending a sick child.

Each time I visited my daughter in Naperville, I went into Chicago to see Etta, once at the Art Institute. She always insisted on paying for my lunch and invited me to come stay with her at her beautiful apartment with a view of Lake Michigan. A kind, generous friend.

On the wall in Etta’s bedroom she showed me a large framed photograph, made in Russia at the celebration of her grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary. Her grandmother, prim in high-button shoes and ankle-length black dress, and her grandfather, with long, gray beard and yamaka on his head, surrounded by their large extended family. Sitting on the floor in front was Etta with other small children. Etta pointed out her cousins, herself, aunts and uncles with their spouses (Etta named them all), and on the back row, her parents.

“See that little girl holding a doll,” she said. “That’s my cousin. She was fussing, so they gave her my doll to hold. But that’s MY doll.”

Then she added, “I’m the only one left.”

Soon after the photo was made, her mother died, and her father brought Etta and her brother to America. Now her father and brother also are dead. Etta has children and grandchildren. As for the others in the old photo and their descendants, “All were lost during World War II,” Etta said. “We don’t know whether it was Germans or Russians, but all are gone.”

A few years ago, on a cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, the ship stopped at Odessa. Etta went ashore and found the apartment house where the family lived when she was a child. No one there knew anything about anyone in her family; no one remembered their name.

Is that the subject for a musical comedy?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Big Little Tale

At the Dallas Museum of Art, King Tut’s treasures are packed up to go to San Francisco. At Southern Methodist University, all the Etruscan antiquities are on their way back to Italy. In the Dallas Morning News, the headline on Jacqueline Floyd’s column said, “I’ll forever treasure my day with stuff of Tut.”

In my mind, memories of both exhibits are already beginning to fade. However, one item in Ms. Floyd’s description of her visit to the museum brought back vividly a encounter in Paris.

As Ms. Floyd reported, “. . . ancient funerary rites called for removal of and separate packaging for the liver, the heart and each lung. . . ‘That is so GROSS,’ a spellbound little boy next to me breathed ecstatically.”

“GROSS!” this little Texan said. And I remembered Paris.

My first trip to that romantic city was not the way I had envisioned it. I went with my 13-year-old son, David. We spent one whole day at L’Invalides, going through all three floors of two buildings of France’s military museum. Entering a vast hall we were transported back to the Middle Ages by a magnificent collection of knightly armor. Across a wide lawn in the other building, one floor was devoted to Napoleon. We saw all the paraphernalia the emperor carried with him as he led his armies across Europe: his tent, the fitted trunk containing his toiletry articles (silver basin, razors, combs, crystal bottles, etc.), his uniforms, and his saddle on his stuffed horse. My 13-year-old son was impressed.

After gawking at all that, David and I went into the round chapel where Napoleon is buried. In the rotunda we looked over the marble baluster into the crypt where Napoleon’s body is concealed in an ugly red stone sarcophagus. Then I turned. In four directions around the rotunda – how else can I describe the four corners of a circle? – were side chapels containing marble caskets of other dignitaries.

I took out my green Michelin guide to identify the persons buried there. A woman approached and asked me – in French – who was entombed in the chapel we faced. I stumbled to say, “Le frere de Napoleon.” Then I realized her accent was no better than mine. The accent sounded German.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.
“A little,” she said.
“The brother of Napoleon,” I said, and then added, “Are you German?”
“Yes,” she said. “Are you English?”
“No. American.”
“American? From what city?”
“Ah! My daughter lived in Chicago.”
“Where are you from?”
“My son and I were in Bamberg last week. A very interesting city.”
“You take a trip around Europa?” She made a circular gesture with her hands.
“Yes. I have another son, stationed in the Army in Frankfurt. We visited him. Now David and I are seeing more of Europe.”
“When I visit my daughter in Chicago, we make a trip around the U.S. We go to New Orleans.”
“A fascinating place!”
“We go to Padre Island.”
“Padre Island? That’s in Texas.”
The German woman’s eyes grew wide as she exclaimed, “Texas is GROSS!”

I wanted to laugh but tried to keep a straight face. When I tell this story, most Texans don’t get the joke. The woman meant no insult. In German, “gross” means “big.”

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Separate Lives

Mary Beth (not her real name) and I grew up together. Our mothers were childhood friends. Mary Beth’s mother died when she was an infant; she and her older sister lived with their grandparents in a big, two-story frame house a few blocks from my grandmother’s home.

Our families were staunch members of College Avenue Baptist (a real church) in Fort Worth, Texas. The exterior of the church, with tall Corinthian columns, looked like a Roman temple. Inside it was a plain, square box with ugly stained glass windows, oblong panels in garish orange and acid green. Many years later I visited a village in Turkey and realized that, in avoiding anything that might resemble a Catholic Church, these Texas Baptist built something which resembled a mosque.

Mary Beth and I were in the same Sunday School class as far back as I can remember. After Sunday School came the long church “service,” where I saw the back of Mary Beth’s head as she sat with her grandparents and sister a few rows ahead of the pew where I sat with my grandmother, my parents, and my little brothers. Facing us across the front of the auditorium, where traditional Christian churches have an altar, we saw three rows of fellow Baptists sitting in the choir. I’ll always remember one choir member, sitting in the center of the front row, Mrs. Henderson, with her purple hair. Above and behind the choir was the baptismal with its painting of a stream which seemed to flow into the tank. I thought it represented the River Jordan.

Like every child, I believed what my parents told me, just as I believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Every Sunday the preacher told me I must “believe and be baptized” in order to be “saved.” As a nine-year-old I remember sobbing on Mary Beth’s shoulder that I could not feel Jesus “in my heart” but was afraid I would go to Hell if I was not baptized,. I made my “confession of faith” and was dunked in the tank behind the choir. As I came out up out of the water, the lights went out. Was God showing disapproval of me by plunging the whole church into darkness? No. The lights were always shut off at baptisms to prevent men and boys from the lascivious sight of young female bodies, wet in clinging baptismal robes as they emerged from being blessed “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

As a teenager I began to doubt that mortal sins, according to the Baptist lexicon, were dancing, drinking alcohol, playing cards, and going to movies on Sunday. Where was loving your neighbor as yourself? An unrepentant sinner, I danced, even with Methodists and Presbyterians. A Christmas our family always drank eggnog in little glass cups in which my grandmother poured a generous shot of bourbon. One Sunday, when a movie I especially wanted to see was playing, as I surreptitiously approached the neighborhood theater, I caught our church’s choir director buying a ticket. As for card playing, the same preacher, who stood up in the pulpit on Sunday proclaiming, “A deck of cards is the Devil’s prayer book,” came to our house on Tuesday night and played dominoes with the deacons.

Mary Beth and I attended the same schools, but she was always a year ahead of me. After high school, she went to Texas State College for Women in Denton. When summer came, she walked over to our house, bringing her college annual to show me the advantages of attending the all-girls school. She urged me to go to TSCW, too. And I did. The first Sunday after I enrolled, Mary Beth came to my freshman dormitory and took me with her to the First Baptist Church in Denton.

She let me go to church with her a couple of times. Then one day she came to my dorm and told me gently that I should “find my own friends.” She was not going to let me hang onto her like a puppy dog on a leash. I realized later – much later – that she had a Baptist boy friend who attended North Texas, the coed college on the other side of town.

Forcing me to find my own way was the best thing she could have done for me. One day, as I walked to church alone, I passed a Presbyterian Church. The service was just beginning. Impulsively I went in and sat on a back pew. I enjoyed the service. The following summer I went to Texas Tech in Lubbock and attended a nearby Methodist Church all summer. Thus began an interest in other forms of worship and other religions which continues. Last year friends took me to the magnificent Hindu Temple in the Houston area.

At college I took courses in history, economics, and government, where I learned to read and think analytically and critically. I also took courses in the Bible. As a child, “Bible study” meant reading a few verses from the King James translation and talking about them. God said to Moses, “Take a chisel and carve out the words I’m going to dictate to you.” In English, of course. Now I learned about scholarly studies of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament and how both books were assembled from various sources at various times.

I also took a course in comparative religions. I found out that Christians do not have a monopoly on virtue. All religions have a version of the Golden Rule. There is much to be learned from studying Buddhism. The teachings of Mohammed, too.

After I graduated – the year after Mary Beth – I worked for a few years at the Fort Worth Press, before marrying a kid from Chicago, an 22-year-old airman stationed at Carswell Air Force Base. That started the journey which led to Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Albuquerque, and travels around the World. Every where I learned something I did not know from even from my extensive reading. Finally, three years ago, I came back to Texas and this house in Garland.

After college Mary Beth married the sweetheart she met at Denton’s First Baptist Church. They became Baptist missionaries in Spain. They spent the rest of their adult lives trying to show Spanish Catholics the error of their ways. In three trips abroad, I spent weeks traveling in Spain but never even looked for their Baptist church. Through the years I heard about their missionary efforts from my mother, who remained a devout Baptist her entire life. Until recently the last I heard Mary Beth and her husband retired and were living in Virginia.

Last month I went to a luncheon with other 80-year-old women who graduated from what is now Texas Woman’s University in 1950. The ladies across the table started talking about the boys they remembered who attended the coed college across town, now North Texas University.

“I remember Bill Thompson (not his real name),” one said.
“He died,” another said.
“What was his wife’s name?”
“Mary,” another prompted.
“Mary Beth!” I said. “I grew up with her.”
“Did you know she is living in Fort Worth now?”

How strange. We grew up together. Attended the same schools from kindergarten through college. Then our lives took such divergent courses. Yet here we are, 80-year-old widows, and back where we started.

Yul Brenner, as the ruler of Siam in The King and I, said, “It’s a puzzlement.”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hello, Columbus

Columbus, New Mexico, is back in the news again. Columbus is a dusty little town of 2,000 people on the border with Mexico. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, it is now a haven for drug smugglers. Why? No river to cross here – Columbus, New Mexico, USA, faces Palomas, Mexico, with only a fence between. The Mexican authorities cracked down on drug traffickers on their side of the border, so the criminals moved over to the U.S. side, where their only opposition is Columbus’s four-man police force.

Previously, Columbus had a brief moment of fame. We all know how the U.S. invaded Mexico in 1848. Did you remember that Mexico invaded the U.S. in 1914? Pancho Villa, as “President” of Mexico, led his troops, or what he considered troops, across the border in a raid on Columbus, New Mexico. In retaliation, General George Pershing and the U.S. Army marched into Mexico in a kind of rehearsal for Pershing’s command of U.S. forces in World War I.

I moved to New Mexico in 1984. In Albuquerque I joined the senior center, where I met people, formed friendships, and had a wonderful time. One day at lunch I sat opposite an old lady who told me she grew up in Columbus, New Mexico.

“That’s where Pancho Villa made his famous raid,” said I.
“You know about that?” said she.
“Were you there?” asked I.
“Yes,” said she.
“What do you remember?” said I.
“Nothing,” said she. “I was a baby.”

So much for eye-witness testimony.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Deadlier Time

“Echoes of a deadlier time”

That headline in the Dallas Morning News was followed by a subhead: “Swine flu fears are fading, but specter of 1918 epidemic still haunts health officials.”

My grandfather, Lyle Worstell McDonald, died in the 1918 flu epidemic. One death among millions. All I know about Lyle McDonald was that he had red hair and played the trombone in the Rockwall band, and my mother adored him.

We can speculate about what might have happened if Lyle McDonald had survived. That would be pointless. What happened, happened. All we can do is see what came afterwords.

At age 10 my mother lost her father, and my grandmother lost her husband. The death of the young man – he was barely 30 – was an event over which no one had any control, and it shaped the rest of their lives.

The young widow, with only a sewing machine and few skills, became dependent on relatives for the rest of her life. My grandmother had “her girls”, nieces she cared for. She felt rewarded when the three became happy, successful women, and each achieved long, happy marriages. As for herself, she lived to be 89. She never remarried.

My mother grew up totally lacking in self-confidence, believing she was ugly and unattractive and doing good deeds as if that was the only way she could prove her worth to others. Would she have been different if she had a father to encourage her, to recognize her beauty and charm? She had two devoted husbands, my father for 55 years, and Tom, whom she married at age 85! She had a sweetness which charmed everyone, even as an old woman.

We mourn lives cut short: My grandfather dead of the flu. He never saw his daughter marry that good man, my father. He never saw his son become a successful engineer. He never knew his grandchildren or great-grandchildren. But the women survived.

We mourn young men killed in wars we never should have fought in Vietnam and Iraq. Fathers who will never know their children. Boys so young they never had the opportunity to become fathers. But the women survive. They always do.

What makes a successful life, anyway? I know what it is NOT. It is not making a lot of money or having a prestigious career. Everyone needs a decent income to provide a home and food and clothes. It is nice to have a washing machine, air-conditioning, and a dishwasher. Other than that? A family? Maybe not. We need other people to love and be loved. Those people are not necessarily our biological parents or our spouses or our children

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mother's Day

Mother is Mother. Right? The “idea” of Mother develops from the experience each of us has with our individual mothers. Around Mother’s Day we are bombarded with sentimental tributes, as if all mothers were perfect. Well. . . Some are perfect, almost. Some are much less than perfect. Some are just plain bad. Mine fit into her own category.

My mother was the sweetest woman in the World. Ask anyone who knew her. She was generous to strangers. During the Great Depression, when our family was as poor as anyone, she never turned a tramp away from our door without giving him a sandwich. She told Bible Stories to four-year-olds in Sunday School for fifty years. She never raised her voice or screamed at her children. She never said an unkind word about anyone. A saint.

I did not begin to understand my Mother until I was 70 years old. Unlike me, Mother never questioned her beliefs or tried to analyze her feelings. All she knew was that, in order to be liked, she had to please people, and the one she wanted approval of most was her mother. Especially, she wanted to please her mother.

My grandmother, “Nonna”, also wanted to be a saint. My grandfather, a partner in a drugstore in Sherman, Texas, died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Left a widow with two small children and no income, my grandmother moved to Fort Worth to be near her sister Lena, who had tuberculosis, and Aunt Lena’s husband, George Wharton, a well-to-do lawyer. Uncle George died. A year later, Aunt Lena also died, leaving three little girls. Their guardians let my grandmother, who was already living in the house, remain to care for the children. My brother Don did not know that my grandmother did not own the house until I explained it to him in 2003.

My grandmother focused all her attention to caring for these rich little orphans. She let everyone know that she devoted her life to the care and love for “the girls.” Many years later, after I was a mother and, among everything else, was a leader of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, my grandmother said, “I wish I could have had time for Girl Scouts, but I had to take care of three little girls.”

I did not point out that I also had three children, one of them a baby still in diapers, plus a very demanding husband. In addition, I did my own housework and gardening, while, when “the girls” were small, my grandmother had the help of a cook, a gardener and handyman, and my mother, who, as a teenager, was an unpaid servant.

My mother spent her entire life trying to please a mother who was indifferent to her. As children, my brother and I transferred to a school close to my grandmother’s house, so we could walk to Nonna’s every afternoon. Mother was always there, waiting to tell us, “Go outside and play.” Today people would be scandalized by the little girl spending hours with a little neighbor boy inside a little hut build out of logs from the woodpile. We held each other tightly as we huddled together trying to escape biting January winds. Mother was so concerned with pleasing her mother that she neglected her children.

After “the girls” became adults, married, and scattered to other parts of Texas, they sold the house to my parents. My grandmother stayed and lived with my parents until she died, aged 89. At 70, for the first time in her life, my mother was in charge of the kitchen.

After Nonna died, one day my mother and I were in her kitchen doing dishes. She washed and I dried. Mother was quiet for a while, letting her thoughts drift. I was remembering how my grandmother always washed the dishes while Mother dried them. Nonna was always in a hurry to get the job done. Once, when I was lingering over a cup of tea after supper, she grabbed the saucer from in front of me, leaving me with no place to set the cup down. In her haste Nonna often left bits of mashed potato on the plates and grease on the frying pan. While I smiled at these memories, Mother turned and, handing me a dripping plate, said sorrowfully, “I wished Mother loved me as much as she did the girls, but she never did.”

My life took a different course from my mother’s. At age 23 I married and went to live with my new husband in Chicago. For most of my adult life I lived hundreds, even thousands, of miles away from my mother. I had three children. Was I a good mother? I don’t know. I did the best I knew how to be. That’s all any one can do. That is what my mother did. God bless her.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

All About Charlie

I’ve been involved with males ever since I was 14 months old, when my brother Lyle entered my life, starting a fierce sibling rivalry which lasted until we both left home. Most of my relationships – including those with my other two brothers – have been amiable. I enjoy conversations about even such “forbidden” subjects as religion and politics, and I had men friends, not all husbands or lovers, until I moved to Texas three years ago.

Now the only male in my life is Charlie, with whom the conversations are one way. I talk. He does not listen, even when I say, “I know you can’t help throwing up hair balls, but I wish you would throw up on the kitchen tile instead of the carpet.” He looks innocent, turns his head, and, while I’m down on the floor cleaning up the mess, he pads away on soft, furry legs.

Charlie came into my life ten years ago. As my 70th birthday approached, I told my son David that I thought I ought to settle down and stop traveling. I needed a cat to keep me company on lonely evenings. On my birthday David took me to the animal shelter in Albuquerque. David told me, “Don’t get a kitten, Mom. You are too old to deal with a frisky kitten.”

We entered a room filled with cages two-tiers high. Many cats lay napping at the back of their cages. I looked for a little black female. This big white cat stood up, clinging with his paws on the door of his cage, as if to say, “Please take me!” He wore a pink collar (which meant he should have been a female), and a tag which said “6 years old.”

I sat down on a little stool. An attendant opened the cage and put the big cat on my lap. He hung off on both ends, hind legs dropping down beside my left leg, forepaws on the right. I thought surely he would try to gain purchase and jump off. Instead, he lay there and purred.

That’s how Charlie adopted me.

One of my Albuquerque friends was Charles White, so my white cat became Charlie. My friend called him, “my godson.” I only paid $5 for him at the shelter, but when I took him to the vet, it cost over $100. He had already been neutered, but he needed shots. Also, his fur was dirty and matted; he needed an expensive bath and beauty treatment.

When the veterinarian examined Charlie, he looked in his mouth and said, “If this cat is six years old, he certainly has taken good care of his teeth. I think he is one or two years old.”

He was frisky. He had perfect "house manners"; he never clawed furniture or carpet, but, like a child, he also wanted to go outside and play. In Albuquerque as soon as I got up in the morning, I let him out the back door. He ran across the patio. If he could not find anything interesting among the rose bushes, he hopped up on five-foot high concrete block wall and explored the perimeter. Once he chased a roadrunner along the wall and across into the neighbor’s, where the bird got bored and flew up to the roof of the house. Several times he got into fights with cats that invaded his territory. Once he suffered a head wound which required another trip to the vet. Another time I heard the noise of cats snarling and ran out. I tripped over a sprinkler head and landed on my face on the concrete sidewalk. That’s how I got this chip in my front tooth. All Charlie’s fault.

I try to guess at what happened to Charlie before he came into my life. He is a beautiful, long-haired cat, who looks as if destined to spend a life of cat-luxury sitting on a silk sofa. He likes to be close to me, sitting on my lap and following me around the house. He purrs when I pet him. But he was terrified of men. When my neighbor LeRoy came to the door, as soon as Charlie saw him, he ran and hid under my bed. Maybe he was some other old lady’s pet, until some man abused him and threw him out. He had been a stray long enough to need that beauty treatment. Also, he is perfectly content with dry food. After ten years he still won’t eat canned cat food or drink from his water bowl. He always jumps up on the bathroom counter and waits for me to turn on the tap so that he can drink running water. Makes me wonder what trauma he suffered.

After Charlie came into my life,I forgot to be lonely. I also forgot my resolve not to travel. For the next ten years I made at least one “big” trip a year, usually to Europe. A neighbor, a little Hispanic old man, filled Charlie’s bowls and cleaned his litter box while I was gone. Each day he found the food bowl empty, but he never saw the cat. After being away for three weeks or more, I’d find Charlie hiding under my bed. I coaxed him out, and he looked at me so pitifully, as if to say, “How could you abandon me like this?”

These days my “trips” are to the dialysis center, grocery store, and library. When I turn into the driveway, Charlie is waiting in the front window. He jumps down, and as I hit the button to close the garage door, I hear his “meow” on the other side of the kitchen door.

Since we moved to Texas (Charlie cried all the way to Amarillo), he has become a house cat. At first I was afraid that, if I let him go outside, he would run away and try to go back to New Mexico. (I wanted to do that, too.) Now he seems happy to stay inside this comfortable, air-conditioned house in Texas. He sleeps most of the day, waking up in time to follow me into the kitchen as I put my “TV dinner” in the microwave. While I eat, he crunches on his little nuggets in the corner next to my dining table. After supper he climbs onto my lap or sits next to me. I watch television. Sometimes Charlie seems to watch, too. Other times he just stares at the box of Kleenex on the end table. Who knows what he is thinking?

As we grow older, Charlie and I are both slowing down. At least I don’t sleep all day.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

My Dumb Cat

As I wrote two blogs about outhouses, my thoughts, as usual, began to string out like a train of freight cars – or like the childhood game of “gossip,” which always ended up far different from the way it started. I thought about the toilet habits of cats and dogs. Or, more specifically, I thought about my cat, Charlie, and his litter box.

People are either “cat people” or “dog people.” I belong to the tribe of cat people. This week I found evidence that a neighbor’s dog visited my front lawn. Not a welcome gift. Dogs must to be trained. Dog people put papers on the floor until their puppies learn to be taken outside for a "walk." Then the beasts shit any place. In New York’s Central Park I saw people walking their dogs with leash in one hand, plastic bag and “pooper scooper” in the other. Every New Yorker seems to have a dog, and every dog must be walked every day. But don’t mess up the parks! Rain or shine, snow or hail, a dog must be taken for a “walk” to do his business.

Cats are instinctively clean. Have you seen a kitten "washing" his face with a tiny paw? Even little kittens use the litter box and bury the “deposits.” I’ve only had one “incident” with my cat, and that was not his fault but mine.

When we lived in New Mexico, Charlie's litter box was in the garage. My friend Sam, a former carpenter, installed a cat door on the big door between the garage and the dining area. The opening had a piece of plastic over the opening. Charlie had no trouble pushing through with his head against the plastic, going out and in several times a day. Before I left in the car, I slid a piece of fiberboard over the opening, to prevent Charlie from jumping out, possibly getting under the car or running outside. He always waited inside the house, maybe not patiently, until I came home and removed the obstruction. He never had an accident.

We moved to Texas, where I put the littler box in the utility room next to the washer and drier. The door to the den had no cat door. I kept the door ajar for almost three years before I hired a man to come and install a cat door. Charlie refused to use it. He looked at the plastic swinging door as if it was a bear trap. When I caught him in the utility room, I shut the door. He climbed up on the washer and howled.

“Now, Charlie,” I said. “You used a door like this all the time in Albuquerque. Don’t you remember?”

He did not remember. He also does not understand English. Sometimes I think he must be a Lithuanian or Hungarian cat. I’ve tried to explain lots of things to him, like “I’m only going to be gone a few hours.” He does not understand. When I return, he looks at me pitifully, as if to say, “How could you abandon me like this?”

From the den I picked him up and bodily pushed him headfirst through the plastic into the utility room. Like a bouncing ball, he jumped right out again. You would think he would learn, after I pushed him through, that the swinging piece of clear plastic was not an obstacle. No. He would not use it.

I left him sleeping in my favorite chair in the den and went to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up to the sound of Charlie calling me from the living room. I put on the light and trailed down the hall to find Charlie standing beside a pile of excrement on the carpet. Honestly, that cat looked embarrassed.

After that I left the utility room door ajar for several weeks until my brother Don came over and took out the plastic swinging door, leaving a neatly framed hole in my utility room door. Without the plastic, Charlie went in and out as his needs required. Problem solved. I learned cats, like some people, never learn. To deal with problems, find another way, even if it leaves a hole somewhere.

One day I was doing laundry and left the utility room door open. Charlie came in and used the litter box. Finished with his business, he came out. Instead of going directly into the den through the open door, he turned and jumped through the hole.

Aesop says: New habits are as hard to break as old.