Saturday, November 27, 2010

Charlie Goes to the Vet

In Albuquerque, as soon as I got up every morning, I went to the kitchen and let Charlie out the back door. He jumped up on the block wall that surrounded the backyard and wandered all over the neighborhood. When we moved to Texas, I was afraid if I let him out of the house he would try to go back to New Mexico. Charlie became a house cat.

Soon after we moved into the house, I took him to the cat hospital. The vet gave Charlie shots. He also insisted on lots of expensive tests. After the tests came back, the vet said, “There is nothing wrong with Charlie. He’s a very healthy cat.”

I paid the bill, but thought, “Why does he need to go to the vet if he’s so healthy?”

Charlie did not see a vet for six years.

Then he started pooping on the carpet. Not all the time, but a couple of times a week I would come home from dialysis and be greeted by Charlie at the door and that noxious odor coming from the room I use as an office. I’d find a little moist heap on the carpet in front of the litter box. I thought, “Does he do that to punish me for leaving him alone so much?”

But if he wasn’t mad at me – he always came running as soon as he heard my key in the lock and begged me to sit down so he could climb on my lap – I jumped to the conclusion that he might have colon cancer. I called my brother Don and asked, “Do they give a colonoscopy to a cat?”

Don said, “I’ll come take Charlie to our vet. Go close the bedroom door.”

Mary comes to clip Charlie’s nails. As soon as Charlie sees Don and Mary walking in the door, Charlie runs and hides under the bed. It takes the two of them to coax and drag him out.

Sure enough, I opened the front door and Charlie saw Don, he retreated under the coffee table. Then he made a run for the bedroom. Finding the door closed, he ran into the office. Seeing it was hopeless to stay under the computer desk, he dashed back to the front of the apartment and hid on a chair under the dining table As Don knelt on the floor and reached under the table, the cat moved over onto the next chair. But I was there, waiting on the other side of the table.

Charlie gave up and moved back to Don’s chair. He liked the way Don held him and stroked his ears. He balked a little when Don pushed him toward the carrier. Then Don gave him a pat on the rear, and he went right in.

At the veterinary clinic, the doctor ran practiced hands all over the cat’s anatomy. She said, “How high is the door to his litter box?” Charlie is a big cat. He has a big, deep litter box. He has to climb up about eight inches to get inside.

“He has painful arthritis in his hips,” the vet said. “It hurts for him to get in there. Try getting a lower litter box.”

How often this happens. I look at a situation and think, “This must be the solution.” And if that doesn’t work, then I know the problem can be solved in the only other way I can think of. Then it turns out that I misinterpreted the problem in the first place. And the answer lies in something I never imagined!

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Thanksgiving Day. I hope this is a happy time for you.

Robert, our handyman, took me to dialysis yesterday. As we drove along Northwest Highway he told me he was debating whether to have dinner at his mother’s house here in Garland or to go with his wife to her mother’s in Arlington. He tries to watch his weight and does not want to overeat. I told him, “Go to both places and eat dinner in each of them.”

Sometimes family harmony is more important than any diet.

I’ve forgotten more Thanksgivings than I can remember. Some happy, some not so happy. None of them have been exactly like a Norman Rockwell painting.

Once, alone in Albuquerque, I took a Banquet frozen meal out of the refrigerator and heated it in the microwave. The sliced turkey was as thin as the paper in my copier. And nothing on television but football games. I thought about the big turkeys I baked for Thanksgiving when my children were little. Those were good times.

The next year I came to Texas for Thanksgiving with my brother Don and his wife Mary. I’ll be going to their house again today for a feast. Mary’s sister and nieces will bring cornbread dressing and green bean casserole. She said I didn’t need to bring a thing, just come and eat.

My son David says all he remembers from his first trip to Texas as a child, to visit my parents, was, “The biggest table I ever saw in my life.”

When I was a child, my family always went to my grandmother’s for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The oak dining table seated twelve, but my brothers and I always ended up eating in the kitchen. I was in college when my parents bought the house from my cousins. I knew I was grown up when I sat next to my father at the big table.

My Thanksgiving will be complete later today when I’ll drive to DFW Airport to meet David, now 45 years old, married, living in California, and father of two young children. The joy of having him here makes me realize what it meant to my parents when I brought my children from Chicago or Detroit, or wherever we were living, to be with them for even a little while.

I hope you feast with family today, and, if not, I hope you can be thankful for happy memories.

Monday, November 22, 2010

November 22

Today is the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It is also my son Karl’s birthday.

We were living in Birmingham, Michigan. I was down in the basement hanging balloons. Nine little boys were coming after school for a Cub Scout meeting and birthday party. I heard the doorbell and ran upstairs. My neighbor was standing on the doorstep.

“The President has been shot in Dallas.”

I went across the living room to the maple cabinet containing a combination record player and radio. I turned on the radio and Dottie stood beside me as a male voice told us that the President was dead.

The little boys arrived, all in their gold-trimmed blue uniforms with matching beanies on their heads. I never saw a more disturbed group of children. They twisted and chattered. We always began the den meeting with the Pledge of Alliance. None of them could stand still but shifted nervously from one foot to the other.

One cherub looked up at me and asked solemnly, “Mrs. Gaarsoe, did the Communists kill the President?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Dallas people are very conservative. There are lots of people there who hate Mr. Kennedy.”

I was dumbfounded the next day when I learned the shooter was a young man who called himself a Communist and had lived in Russia.

It has been a long time. I divorced Wallace Gaarsoe and later married John Durkalski. John died in 1992, Wally in '97. After his father died, Karl came to live with me in Albuquerque for several years. Today he is 56 years old and lives in Arkansas.

My brother Preston believed Oswald had an accomplice. He did not believe Osward was good enough marksman to have fired those three hots. Once when John and I were visiting in Texas, we came to Dallas and rode the elevator up to the Sixth Floor Museum in the School Book Depository. John looked out the window at the clear view of the street below and said, “I could have shot him myself from here.” John was a man who in World War II landed on Omaha Beach and followed the troops into Germany without ever firing his rifle.

I have read all the articles I could find about the assassination. I read the biography of Lee Harvey Oswald written by his brother, and I own a copy of “JFK: Breaking the News” by Hugh Aynesworth, a newspaper reporter who was in Dealy Plaza when the shots were fired and in Oak Cliff when Oswald was captured.

Lee Oswald was a nut. He acted alone, hoping to become famous like John Wilkes Booth. Plain and simple. There was no conspiracy. Anyone who believes there was a conspiracy is a fool.

Hatred does terrible things to people. Hateful people inflame unstable men like Oswald to commit terrible acts. On the internet I read horrible attacks on Obama. I hear friends praise Russ Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. My friends are gentle people who would not harm anyone. But it gives me nightmares thinking that somewhere out there is another Oswald.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dancing Lady

I loved to dance, but during the 27 years I was married to Wally, we never danced. After we were divorced, I never went out on a date with another man. Until I went to Albuquerque. .

When Wally told me he was going to remarry, I offered to go far away and not interfere with his life if he would give me enough money to live a decent life. He agreed. I climbed into my BMW and headed Southwest.

I cried as a drove alone. All the way across Missouri wet Kleenex piled up on the passenger seat. I could not sleep and cried all night in the motel in Amarillo. The next day, as I crossed into New Mexico, a rainbow arched across the highway in front of me. It was an omen of happier days to come.

In Albuquerque I read in the newspaper that a senior center had a dance every Wednesday night. At the first dance I went to I met Manny. He was short, only an inch taller than my 5'1". His favorite dance tune was “Kansas City”. He lived all his life in New Mexico. He was a Pueblo Indian.

At Palo Duro Senior Center I met Jim, an Italian-American from New York, and the best partner I ever had – on the dance floor. At the singles group at the Unitarian Church I met Aaron, a retired architect from Toledo. Tall and gangly, he was difficult to follow, but he was an interesting guy and fun to talk to.

Here I was: a fat, ugly lady in my mid-50's, and I was having a ball!

Wally refused to sign the agreement to provide money for me to pay the rent. For three years I commuted between New Mexico and Illinois, suing Wally for support. I hated it each time I had to leave Albuquerque and go back to Chicago.

One good thing came out of that terrible time. I met John. The first time he spoke to me was when he asked me to dance. We kept dancing for the next five years. After we married we danced at Los Volcanes Senior Center in Albuquerque. John was not a good dancer, but he had good rhythm, and he enjoyed it so much! His favorite was George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas.”

One New Year’s Eve we danced, sliding across the floor as our cruise ship met rough seas in the Caribbean. A poignant memory is another New Year’s Eve and John saying, “Honey, I’m so tired, but I’ll dance this one with you.” We danced to “You Belong to My Heart, Now and Forever.” Three weeks later he was dead.

Manny called. “Sorry to hear about John. Would you like to go to the dance?” I said, “Not now, Manny.”

Soon Manny and I were dancing again. We would go out, and I would talk about John.

After several years Manny and I broke up. Then there was Louis Rice, half-Anglo, half-Mexican, who loved to dance.

Lou’s stomach pains turned into inoperable colon cancer. One afternoon when I arrived at the hospital, the nurse said, “He tried to get out of bed. He said, ‘I have to get dressed. Ilene and I are going to the dance at the senior center at 5 o’clock.”

When I moved to Texas, I resigned myself to never dancing again. The men at the Garland Senior Center were uninteresting and uninterested.

I am 81 years old and for the past year I’ve lived in a retirement home. Friendly people, even some interesting men – but no boy friend. My body is horrible. I’ve lost both breasts, and my freak colon has expanded until I look eight months pregnant.

Then we had the Military Ball. Men danced with me. This old woman suddenly felt like she was 18 years old again.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Mail Preference Service
c/o Direct Marketing Association
P.O. Box 643
Carmel, NY 10512

To whom it may concern:

Please ask every distributor of catalogs to TAKE ME OFF THEIR MAILING LISTS.

I am 81 years old and live in a small apartment. I am getting rid of things. I don’t need to buy any thing.

When I get an unwanted catalog, without looking at it I throw it in the garbage.

What a waste of postage, printing, and paper.

Yours very truly,

Ilene Durkalski

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I Could Have Danced All Night

We had a ball! At the “independent living” residence where I live, we got dressed up (I wore a new black silk blouse with my pearl necklace and earrings), and we had a Military Ball.

The Air Force sent a squad in crisp blue uniforms to present the colors. The party began with all standing up (except the ones in wheel chairs) for the presentation of the flag. We put hands over our hearts and sang, softly in old squeaky voices, as the band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Our activity director announced that the military group would stay for dancing. The only problem was that the color guard was colored, and half of the “airmen” were women. The black sergeants seemed reluctant to ask old white women to dance. A lingering racism? They went from table to table, sat down, and talked with us congenially.

The Frisco Jazz Band was a full orchestra – must have had 15 musicians playing saxophones, trumpets, trombones, drums. Best of all, the band played music from the 40's and 50's, when us oldsters, now in our 70's and 80's, were in our twenties. Some of the old folks were content to just sit and recapture the mood of their youth. Leo and Lola, who go everywhere together, did not leave their chairs.

But some of us got up and danced! Bob, who had a stroke which left him with a paralyzed right arm, jitterbugged with Alma to Glen Miller’s “String of Pearls”, twirling her around with his left hand. I found partners for some of the slower pieces. Bill Pitts, a big man who also had a stroke and moves cautiously, was reluctant, but after seeing other oldsters lumbering around, led me to the little dance floor, and proved to be the best partner I had all evening.

Oh! What wonderful memories were evoked by dancing. As a teenager, when Bob came home from college, we went dancing every week. At Christmas, Joe Lillard brought his record player, and. we rolled up the rug and danced on the hardwood floor in my parents’ living room. In the heat of summer we went out on the front porch and danced on concrete. For dances with a big band at the Casino beside Lake Worth, I dressed up in a long, formal evening gown.

Bob and I broke up. He went to work for United Fruit in Central America. I married Wally and moved to Chicago. I didn’t dance again for 30 years. I was passionately in love with Wally, but many times during those years when I found my foot tapping to certain music, I couldn’t help remembering the joy I felt while dancing. A joy that came back to me at age 81 on a rigged-up dance floor in the dining room of an old folks home.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Remembering Margaret

Every Sunday I look at the calendar on my desk where I note things I have to do that week. Then I look ahead to upcoming events. We’ll be going to the Frontiers of Flight Museum on the 17th, and Lois will come for dinner and to go the matinee of “Man of La Mancha” on the 21st.

This month marks several birthdays. I got out the box of birthday cards and addressed three, one to my son Karl, who will be 56 on November 22. I’ve only had one telephone call from Karl since he moved to Arkansas five years ago. But I keep hoping. His brother David is coming from California for Thanksgiving. That will be the high light of the month.

Their father’s birthday was November 11; that’s one I want to forget.

Two of the cards are to friends I’ve known since we were in college more than 60 years ago. Marjorie Lewis and Norma Miller both live in Fort Worth. I have not seen them since the party on my 80th birthday last year. Another college friend was Margaret Cinque, whose birthday was the 7th. She and her husband, Jack, planned a special trip from Houston to come to my party when she died suddenly the week before.

I written blogs about the great hosts the Cinques were when I descended on them in London in 1980. You’d think they would have had enough of me after those two weeks! But they treated me as if I was doing them an honor by welcoming me into their home and letting them take me to fine restaurants, to the theater, and to day trips in the English countryside.

Margaret was a true friend from the time we were classmates at Texas Woman’s College. On my first paid vacation I went to Houston and stayed with Margaret at the YWCA. Neither of us had any money. I was an underpaid reporter at the Fort Worth Press, and she worked for pittance at Foley’s Department Store. We had such a good time.

Margaret was a little woman who kept her light-colored hair in a bouffant long after it went out of fashion. Margaret was not one to worry about style. She went all over the World carrying an enormous purse shaped like a big green fish. It held a lot of stuff, and she thought it was fun.

Margaret liked to do things – eat delicious meals, go to concerts and theater, and especially art museums. (She’d been an art major in college.) Jack also enjoyed these enthusiasms, but if he was busy, she would share them with someone else.

After London the Cinques lived in New York and California before moving back to Texas. They invited me to visit them each time there was a special exhibit at the Houston Art Museum. I flew to Houston and enjoyed their hospitality every time.

When my nephew Rusty was to be married in Houston, I flew in from Albuquerque. Jack met me at the airport. They took me out to dinner and, once again, treated me like I was a visiting duchess. There was no way I could repay them for their generosity. They seemed to enjoy giving me pleasure.

Always cheerful, Margaret looked kindly on everyone. She supported her kind thoughts with actions. I always felt good when I was with her. How could I not love someone who treated me as if it was a joy to know me? She was a dear person, a true friend.

I’m getting old. Getting old? I AM old. My brain is stuffed with memories. I try to forget the bad times and remember my blessings. I had many good times, thanks to my friend Margaret.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Down the Tube

In London I saw many wonderful things – Westminster Abby, St. Paul’s Cathedral, paintings in the National Gallery and the Tate, sculptures from the Parthenon at the British Museum, and so on. But one of the most memorable places was underground: The London subway system is amazing.

Londoners call it “the tube.” The center of the city is surrounded by a tangle of subway lines, marked in various colors on the map. I used it frequently to save steps, as trains came often and made frequent stops.

At that time people described things as “Way Out”, as they would later say, “Cool”, or even later, “Bad” or “Hot”. Seeing a good movie was “Way Out.” The landing on the Moon was “Way Out.” The London tube was definitely “Way Out.” I stepped off a train and a sign saying “Way Out” showed me to the exit.

I had ridden subways in New York (many times), in Chicago (daily, when I worked in Chicago’s loop), in Montreal (wonderfully quiet on rubber wheels), in Moscow (statues and murals at each underground station), and the Paris metro (the best system in the World). .

At first the London tube did not seem much different than Chicago or New York. The dimly-lit cars were filled with men in shabby work clothes, young people in jeans and tee-shirts. The trains screamed and screeched through black tunnels.

After a long day of sightseeing, I went underground to return to Margaret and Jack’s. At the Highgate station the “Way Out” sign led to what looked like the longest, steepest escalator in the World. With feet aching after walking all day, I stepped on the escalator and rode upwards counting the posters across from me on the wall behind the “down” escalator. I estimated the ride was the equivalent of climbing a five-story building.

I walked onto a tile-floored platform, which proved to be only a rest stop before another long escalator. It was another five-story ride until I finally reached the surface. Not as deep as the Chilean miners, but quite a ride! “Highgate” was aptly named. From places in the suburb you could look down on skyscrapers in the city, many miles away.

During World War II, as the Germans bombed London into rubble, people took shelter in the subways. For months families slept every night on station platforms. “The tube” saved thousands of lives.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Who Was Karl Marx?

Last week I asked several people what they knew about Karl Marx. Curtis said, “I only keep up with the Cowboys. I don’t know the names of players on the other teams.”

He’s a typical Texan.

You know I am not typical. I’ve read and studied about a lot of things. (My brother said, “Don’t ever play Trivial Pursuit with her!) In a post-graduate course at TCU, I studied economic systems, including Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism. I actually read Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.” A big, thick book with lots of statistics about British laborers in the 1800's.

Asked what she knew about Marx, Jean said, “All I know is that he was an evil man.” Then she added, “Wasn’t he Russian?”

Marx was German. Forced to leave Germany after the failed revolution of 1848, a time when Germans came to the Hill Country in Texas, Marx and his family went to England. He did all his research on which he based his theory of Communism in the reading room of the British Museum and Library.

When I went to London the first time, I spent a day in the Museum, where I got to see the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Chinese porcelains, ancient illuminated manuscripts, and a special exhibit on Karl Marx, with pictures of his family and his library card.

In “Das Kapital” Marx describes horrible working conditions: five year old children digging in narrow tunnels in coal mines, factory workers maimed and discarded with no benefits, farm workers barely living on starvation wages. He thought surely the workers would revolt.

He could not foresee what would happen in Russia, where Communism collapsed and there is now chaos. Or China, which is still nominally Communist but which is now becoming our rival as the fastest growing Capitalist economy in the World. .

Marx certainly did not foresee what would happen in England. No violent revolution. Today middle class English people have more comfortable lives than we have in the U.S. (It’s true. I’ve traveled all over England, staying in British homes; also, John and I spent a summer living in Ipswich, England, with middle class neighbors.)

In any case, Marx is dead. He’s buried in Highgate Cemetery. In London I stayed with Margaret and Jack in a handsome house in Highgate. I said, “Let’s go see Karl Marx.” We drove over to the cemetery, but the gates were locked. R.I.P., Karl. He is one whose influence lived after him, but not in the way he expected.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Let's Forget

My brain is stuffed with names and facts of history. I went to England to find places I read about, hoping to make history come alive.

Since I was a teenager, I loved English novels – Jane Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, but my intense interest in English history developed in 1954, after our son Karl was born and his father enrolled in Northwestern University as a graduate student. One of the first courses Wally took was 18th Century English History.

I was trapped with a tiny baby (not much of an intellectual companion) in a tiny efficiency apartment in Chicago, a thousand miles away from family and friends. What did I do? I went to the library and checked out all the books I could find from 18th Century England. In the end I learned more than Wally about England in the time of the American Revolution.

I read about Sir Robert Walpole, Lord North, Charles James Fox, and others, famous in their day, whom most Americans never heard of. Sir Robert was England’s first Prime Minister, who upon Queen Ann’s death, negotiated to bring George I from Germany and established the constitutional monarchy that is England’s form of government today. Quite an accomplishment! Did you read about him in your history books?

The only place where that history came alive for me was when we went to Blenheim. I walked through that vast palace and imagined John and Sarah Churchill, Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, receiving guests under the enormous painting of the Duke leading his troops to victory at the Battle of Blenheim.

As I wandered around London later that week, I couldn’t conjure ghosts of any of the other 18th Century “great men.”

All this came to mind this week after that disastrous election. Like most people, I am disgusted with Republicans, Democrats, and those nuts in the Tea Party. But: Two hundred years from now Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush will just be names on a list school children will memorize. Nancy Pelosi, Rand Paul, and Sarah Palin will be as forgotten as Walpole, North, and Fox. I won’t be alive then, but somehow I find that thought strangely comforting.

Monday, November 1, 2010

London Churches Big and Little

St. Paul’s Cathedral is Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. It is huge. It is impressive. Standing on the marble floor and looking up at that great dome is like standing in the rotunda of the U.S. capitol. Light pouring in on all that white marble, I could see why Diana chose to be married to Prince Charles in St. Paul’s, rather than in dark and frankly gloomy Westminster Abby.

Watching on television as Diana walked down the aisle trailing fifteen feet of white satin, I thought the whole production was overdone. In St. Paul’s on a quiet day with few other tourists around, I still felt overwhelmed. I preferred the 50 other churches Wren designed in the center of London.

I had a booklet titled “Churches of London” with a map and descriptions of each. Somehow, in my moves from Illinois to New Mexico to Texas, I misplaced the booklet. Maybe I gave it away. Or it may be in one of those boxes, still unpacked, on the shelf in my closet. I’m too tired to look for it now. Just as I am too lazy to look up the exact date of the Great Fire of London.

During the Middle Ages, when London grew to be one of the largest cities in Europe, people lived in wooden houses, packed close together and as crowded and unsanitary as New York tenements in the early 1900's. The city was divided into many small parishes, each with its church.

Then came the Great Fire of London. In 1666? Around that time. The city burned down, except for a small area near the Tower of London. It was rebuilt with rows of brick buildings replacing the wooden ones in the same narrow little streets. Christopher Wren was the century’s leading architect. St. Paul’s neo-classic church with its great dome replaced an ancient Gothic cathedral. And then he designed 50 other churches, no two alike, to surround St. Paul’s like chicks around an old hen.

By the 18th Century London was spreading out. St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, which had been in open countryside, now faces Trafalgar Square, considered the center of the city. As people moved to the suburbs, the Wren churches lost parishioners. I visited one church, kept open as a museum, which in 1800 had over 1,000 members. Fifty years later only 20 remained, and the church was closed.

Benjamin Franklin spent ten years in London before the American Revolution, trying to negotiate ways to keep the colonies from revolting. Since the Continental Congress was not generous in supporting him, he worked for a while in a church which had been converted into a print shop.

During World War II, German bombs destroyed all of the Wren churches except St. Paul’s. The cathedral was saved by plucky civilian volunteers who scrambled across the tiles to put out fires from bombs which landed on the roof. I heard one man say that after the war he stood on the steps of St. Paul’s and all around, as far as he could see, not a building stood over two feet high.

The English refused to lose their heritage. One or two churches were left in ruins as reminders of the war. The rest were restored to all the beauty of their 17th Century architectural glory. All are open to the public and are used for special events and concerts. Remember the church service at St. Clement’s at the end of the movie, “Chariots of Fire”?

I attended several concerts, including one where a young Japanese woman attacked the piano furiously. More in keeping with the retrained interiors was the classical music of Mozart and Bach, which I listened to while sitting in the elegant surroundings of Wren churches. I recalled those happy memories as I was getting dressed one morning this week in my apartment in Garland, Texas, making up my bed as the Dallas radio station WRR played a recording by the Academy of St. Martin’s-in-the-Field’s.

With my booklet as a guide, I spent days in London going from church to church, seldom seeing other tourists and sitting quietly and alone in each of them. My favorite was St. Bride’s. Just as few blocks from St. Paul’s, from the steps of the cathedral its pure white spire can be seen pointing to Heaven.

When German bombs pulverized St. Bride’s during World War II, the gaping hole uncovered Roman ruins below the church. After sitting for a while in the restored church, I went down into the crypt and walked on a Roman street with shops on either side. It was an odd feeling, standing on those old stones and realizing how this place had been built and re-built through the centuries, a church on top of houses, changing the foundations and, recently, changing the way the “restored” building is used.

Someone said to me last week, “The only thing that remains the same is that things are always changing.”