Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas Letters

I am busy addressing Christmas cards.  I put a wreath on my door and hung garlands of holly under my front windows, trying to get in a holiday mood, but it sure is tough when you are old.   Like everyone my age, I am always going to doctors, who invariably tell me, “You are amazing for a woman who is 84 years old with bad kidneys.” 

I carry on.  I’m stuck in dialysis every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  But I am getting a lot of reading done during the three and a half hours while my blood circulates through the machine. 

This year I re-wrote the story of the trip I made to Europe with David, when he was 13 years old.  My grandson, Doug Schumann, is helping me with the technical problems of getting it ready for publication.  We hope to get it out in the spring.

I can’t travel.  But I had some fabulous trips in the past.  For years I tried to be away at Christmas, although I seem to have brought record-breaking cold wherever I went.  It snowed in New Orleans!  Frost killed the orange trees in the garden of the monastery where I stayed for Christmas in Rome.  I even needed my heavy coat on the Costa Del Sol. 

Now it is a big deal when a grandson comes and drives me to Fort Worth to see the latest exhibit at the Kimball Museum.  My family comes to see me.  My daughter Martha, who lives in the Chicago area, had one week off between changing jobs and spent five days with me.  She now does corporate taxes for an  accounting firm in Chicago’s Loop and has a private office with a window!  She and David have big jobs and have a hard time getting away to come see me.  David brought his 14-year-old son Adam from California for Thanksgiving. 

Martha’s son Richard brings his cello to play for me when he comes for Christmas.  He’ll be here to take me to the airport to meet Karl, who is also coming for Christmas.  Karl lives in Arkansas.  This will be the first time I have seen him in ten years.

I see pictures of Paris and London on television and wish I could see the green hills of England and the churches of Venice again.  It depresses me even more to realize I will never again see New Mexico and Illinois – and especially my dear friends who live there.  Sally, my friend for 70 years (since high school) died July 4.  Emma, my college roommate, moved to Austin (but Martha promises to take me to see her in April).
I treasure all my friends.  That’s why it is important for me to hear from them during this holiday season.  I will write a few letters each day, hoping to get all the cards in the mail before Richard arrives on the 19th.   And hope the postman will bring me good news from each of them.

I hope you are well and healthy and finding joy in all the little things of daily life – and keeping warm through cold, bleak January.  Spring will come!

Monday, August 26, 2013

My days in Dialysis

You would think an old woman living in a retirement home, where she did not have to cook, do dishes, or clean house, would have all the time in the World.  Not so.  I am as stressed for time as my children with their high-powered jobs. 

Three days a week have disappeared.  On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I go to dialysis.  I get up in the morning, go down to breakfast, wave my arms around in exercise class, and return to the apartment at 9:00 a.m., when I make my bed, water flowers on the patio, and straighten up the apartment, hoping to get the chores done by 10:45, when I go downstairs to eat lunch before leaving for dialysis at 1l:30. 

I must eat before going to dialysis, as the process takes protein out of my blood along with the poisons.  To restore protein, I eat again as soon as I get home at 4:00 p.m.   Then I collapse.  Dialysis leaves me exhausted.  I sit in the recliner and feel sorry for myself until time for bed. 

In an article in The New Yorker I found a doctor’s description of the dialysis process.  Elif Batuman describes patients “reclining on white chaises, as blood was pumped into and out of their bodies through tubes.  The place where the two catheters punctured the forearm was marked on each patient by an irregular, discolored potato-sized fistula, surgically created by connecting a vein and an artery.  The fistula made me think for the first time about how much blood has to leave the body during dialysis: not a liter or two but all of it, several times over, to the extent that blood vessels have to be hot-wired in order to get it in and out.  Each patient’s blood passed through a long plastic tube and around a slowly turning wheel, which pumped the blood through the machine.” :

Doris’s son was on dialysis for ten years.  He stopped treatments and died four days later.  Eloise’s daughter also stopped taking dialysis.  She lasted for a week.   Both were young, in their 30's..

I am 84 years old.   I have had an unusual and interesting life.  I am going to die within the next few years, one way or another.  Okay.  Until then, I will continue dialysis.   I enjoy life four days a week. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Elk Grove and Iceland

For an old lady living in a retirement home who does not get out much, I thought I was keeping up to date with the World.  I watch the news on television.  During long dialysis sessions, I read TIME, The New Worker, and The Week – all weekly magazines that report on everything. 

But sometimes I get tired.  At home I sit in my recliner and watch old movies.  But there is no DVD or Roku at the dialysis center.  I watch dumb things like Family Feud.  And I can’t stand any more unmarried mothers finding fathers for their kids with help from Maury Povich.

Lately I’ve looked for diversion on HGTV.  This week I received a double shock.  Shocked once by a young couple looking for a home in the Chicago suburbs.  Shocked a second time by another young couple moving to Iceland.  I had personal associations with both places.  How times have changed!

I was surprised when the narrator in the Illinois episode said the young people’s preferred location was the “up-scale neighborhood” of Elk Grove Village   In 1960 our friends, Don and Darlene, bought a house in Elk Grove Village.  It was a brand new community with the cheapest houses available at that time, all little frame bungalows.  No basements   One-car garages.  It was definitely NOT  “up-scale” at that time. 

On television I saw streets were now lined with tall trees, giving the town a genteel look.  The little frame houses were still little frame houses.  It was a shock when the young couple paid $200,000 for a house which had sold in 1960 for $15,000.

It was in Grove Junior High in Elk Grove Village that I taught seventh grade for two years.  It was a brand new school.  The first day there were no sidewalks; to enter the building we walked on temporary wooden platforms.  My classroom had no blackboards.  I took a world map from home to teach geography to a class of wild 13-year-olds, no two of whom had ever been in class together before.  It was bedlam. 

We lived a few minutes and a few miles north in Arlington Heights, where Wally built our house, all brick with a custom kitchen.  He did the masonry and carpentry and contracted plumbing, electrical, concrete work for the basement, and the roof.  He let me help lay the vinyl flooring in the kitchen.  I wonder what that little house would sell for today.  .       

The thing about Elk Grove Village was that the houses were basically the same as in 1960.  Only the inflated price was different.   In Rejavik, the capital of Iceland, the whole landscape had changed.

Wally and I went to Iceland in 1975 with a group of stamp collectors.  (That’s another story!)  At that time Rejavik looked like a little town in West Texas.  I don’t remember a single two-story building.  Even the nation’s capitol had only one story.  Without a dome it looked more like an elementary school than a county courthouse, much less like a place where parliament met. 

The people lived in little concrete bungalows with metal roofs (no trees in Iceland).  What I remember best were crisp white curtains in all the windows. 

On television today I saw a completely different city.  The voice on the tube mentioned “prosperous days in the ‘80's.”   The main shopping street, where I walked for miles looking for Wally in little shops, is now a big city thoroughfare with tall buildings on each side. 

Looking for a home, the young couple were taken to several neighborhoods, all having row after row of multi-story apartment buildings, all built of gleaming white concrete.  I felt as if the country town I remembered had become New York.

The young couple were delighted to find an apartment within walking distance of the center of the city.   They paid $200,000 for five small rooms. 

All this made me wonder about changes in other places I visited in my travels.  How about China?  Beijing was primitive when I was there in 1993.   From now on all I know I have to learn from reading and television.  That is never the same as seeing a place in person.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I Love Movies

I love movies.  Not shoot-‘em-ups with cars crashing and exploding buildings.  I like sweet, romantic comedies. 

As a little girl, our family went to see the “picture show” at the Tivoli on Magnolia Avenue or the Parkway on 8th Avenue.  We went whatever was on the screen just to cool off.  In Fort Worth in the 1930's, movie theaters were the only places, besides downtown department stores, that were air-conditioned.

My earliest memories are seeing Jeanette McDonald singing “I’ll be calling you-oo-oo-oo to Nelson Eddy in “Rose Marie.”  As I remember, my brother Lyle, a misbehaving a three-year-old, made so much noise we had to leave before the end of the movie. 

On another night I understood that Ramona and the young man were in love without having the faintest idea what the rest of the movie was about.  I was a bit older when I fell in love with Errol Flynn flashing his sword in “Robin Hood.”   Maybe you saw that recently on TCM.   

All this was before I grew up with “Gone With the Wind.” 

Last night on TCM I watched “The Human Comedy”, a movie made in the middle of World War II about the effect of the war on a small California town.  I was a teenager in Fort Worth at that time.  The movie ended at 11 p.m., ‘way past my usual bedtime, with Mickey Rooney’s brother being killed.  I remember the Lowery boy being killed; his sister Ruby was my Sunday School teacher.  I sat in my recliner with tears streaming down my face.  As I blew my nose, I reminded myself, “It is only a movie.”  Van Johnson, the actor, was never in the Army and lived another 50 years.

Two years ago son David gave me a Roku to use watching Netflex programs on my big television.  At the time I told him, “I don’t need that.  I have TCM.”   But television has such poor stuff these days that I find myself watching movies using the Roku several times a week.  

I switched from television to Roku to watch a French movie, “The Well-Digger’s Daughter.”  Set in a village in Provence at the beginning of World War I, it tells the story of a pretty peasant girl who falls in love with a rich, store-keeper’s son.  Afterwards I realized it was a fairy tale, Cinderella in the 20th Century.  A sweet story to make me forget all the dreadful things I see on CNN.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Private Matters

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the government invading our privacy.  Who is really concerned about that? 

Is it someone who calls his accountant for advice on how to defraud the government on his income tax?  Or a cheating husband who calls his paramour to arrange a meeting and does not want his wife to know?  Or someone who calls a drug dealer to set a time and place to purchase cocaine? Or is it people who post outrageous things about themselves on Facebook? 

Those who talk the loudest about wanting to protect their privacy are people who have something they want to hide.

When most of us lived in small towns, it was difficult to keep secrets.  Neighbors kept watch on everything that was going on.  Where everyone knew everyone else, everyone knew everyone else’s business.   

Today most of us live in cities.  You do not know what is going on in the next block.  But with modern electronics someone knows all about you.  Your credit card company knows everything you purchased and how much debt you owe  Your grocery store knows whether you buy steak or hamburger and how many rolls of toilet paper you bought last year and what brand. 

If you watch “48 hours” you saw criminals captured through tracking telephone calls.  Alibis vanish when police prove a man was not where he said he was.  Would you prevent the local police from using this valuable “invasion of privacy”?

With all this in mind, what do you care if the government listens to your telephone calls?  Who cares about your harmless chatter?  What criminal activity are you trying to hide?

If I ruled the World, everything would be a matter of public record.  Everyone would know what everyone else’s income was and how much tax each paid.   According to  circumstances a person would be proud or ashamed.  Wouldn’t you like to know exactly how much money your Congressman reported and where it came from?  

For several years I have been urging President Obama and Nancy Pelosi to draw up a simplified tax code.  I suggested, among other things, that everyone should be required to file a return, even if they owed no taxes.  But that would be the subject for another blog.

Monday, July 29, 2013

How I Pay for Drugs

Caiscais (pronounced “cosh-cosh”) is a charming town facing the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Portugal.  The day we arrived, other old ladies in our tour group ran down to the local pharmacy and refilled all their prescriptions for a fraction of the cost of the same drugs in the States.  I did not go with them.  Thanks to John Durkalski, I have excellent health insurance through Navistar’s Retiree Health Plan, which pays for medical, dental, eye glasses – and sends me drugs at a huge discount. 

This week in my mail box I found my “Prescription Drug Summary.”    My “year-to-date” amount for “total drug costs” came to $7,783.27.  Medicare and my insurance – well, John’s insurance – paid for most of this.  I only paid $78.85.  

Lucky me! 

But what about other people?  In the U.S. medical bills are so enormous that many people can not pay for even minimum health care.  Old people must choose between pills and food.  The average wage-earner, no matter how hard he/she works or how many hours, can not make enough money to pay for insurance and/or medical bills.  

If I did not have insurance, I could not afford my medical bills.  The 20% not covered by Medicare would exceed my Social Security benefits.  I could not pay for Sensiphar, the drug that controls my parathyroid hormone and prevents having to cut my throat again.

Many people are under the delusion that we have the “best medical system in the World.”  Actually, when it comes to health care – based on length of life, survival rates for cancer, infant mortality, and other factors – the U.S. ranks below every country in Western Europe.  The place where health care is equal to that of the U.S. is Bangladesh! 

Republicans are trying to destroy Obamacare.   The problem is not that the government is taking over health care, it is that Obamacare does not go far enough.  Congress collects millions from insurance companies, the A.M.A. (the doctors’ union), and pharmaceutical companies.  That group pays for elections, so Congressmen ignore people who merely have one man-one vote.
Every other industrial nation has a national health plan that is better than ours, that insures all its citizens and provides better care at lower cost.  That is the truth.

Have you heard?  “This is Socialism.”  And that is not a bad thing.  Today people, who have just as much “freedom” as we have, live in Socialist-Democracies in places like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. And don’t forget Finland, which has the best schools in the World..  Too bad they are all have long, cold winters.  Otherwise, when countries are rated on many factors, including education, health care, and, best of all, “quality of life” the Scandinavian countries, with their Socialist governments, all rank far higher than the good old U.S.A.

Friday, July 26, 2013

John and Bill

John Quinlan is one of my favorite people among the residents at the retirement home where I live.  He has a wry sense of humor.  Every Wednesday he does a program on “current events” which consists in talking about amusing and ridiculous things he read about on the internet. 

John was drafted during the Korean War.  His type of personality did not adapt well to the discipline of military life.  Private Quinlan was assigned to serve officers in the mess hall.  He hates all officers. 

Yet every morning he has, sitting beside him at breakfast, Bill Pyle, who was a career Air Force officer with the rank of major. 

Bill is also an amusing fellow, full of enthusiasm for life.  That’s an important in a place like this, where many of the people are coping with various illnesses and whose main objective seems to be to die and go to Heaven.  Some of them are rather dismal companions.   It is a joy to have among us someone who is cheerful and enthusiastic.  

Bill is self-confident.  Again, an admirable characteristic.  He enjoys classical music.  One evening he gave me a lift to a concert by the Garland Symphony.  Afterwards he headed east when he should have driven south.  He explained he avoided driving on busy streets.  After goine east for almost a mile, he then he circled due west.

He drove west to Galloway Avenue.  What he did not seem to realize was that Galloway is not a north-south street.  It runs from northwest to southeast.  He headed west when his destination was southeast.  In the Air Force his job was in procurement; he was never a pilot 

I asked, “Do you have a map?”

“Yes,” he said, “right there in the pocket next to me.” 

He must never have looked at it.  To get home we drove in a circle over half of Dallas County, taking 45 minutes, while a direct route would have taken about 20. 

Bill was an officer.  A civilian like me can not tell him anything.  For once I sat quietly and said nothing.  I was grateful that, because of Bill, I was able to hear beautiful music that evening. 

The world is made up of many varieties of people.  It frustrates me that so many people are ignorant – good people who do not know that they are ignorant.  I struggle to accept people the way they are.  I can not change them.  I know that.   But sometimes I feel like Bryan, hanging on the cross and singing, “Look on the Bright Side.” 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

My Depression

Depression is a strange phenomenon.  I know the signs.  Years ago I was in a deep, suicidal depression.  I also did crazy, wild things – like driving 70 miles an hour in a 30-mile zone and going off to Europe with only $300 and a thirteen-year-old kid.  I was diagnosed as manic-depressive, now called simply bipolar.  It was a relief to realize that my mental state was involuntary, due to a chemical imbalance in my brain.  I went on medication, and I have not had a Depression since.  Until Thursday. 

I remembered those days, before I was on medication, when I struggled to get dressed before my children came home from school.  On Thursday instead of showering and getting dressed in my usual slacks and shirt, I pulled on a mumu and collapsed in my recliner.  All day I lay there.  I simply could not get up to do the dishes or make my bed.  I had taken my pills, as always, but I could not cope with the situation.

I had received two blows which sent me into a spiral of grief.

Charlie my cat was not there to comfort me.  Always as soon as I put my key in the lock, he came to the door to greet me.  When I sat in the recliner, he lay on my lap; we watched television together.  I put my hand out and stroked his soft, soft fur.  I was alarmed on the day I felt bones beneath that fluff.  He was losing weight; his kidneys were failing.  Last week, instead of coming to be with me, he hid in the closet, looking miserable as he curled up among my shoes.  His vet said it was better to end his suffering.  She gave him a shot.  I held him in my arms as he put his head on my shoulder and went to sleep.

Now he is gone and there is no one to comfort me.

I’ve known for months that my friend Sally had terminal cancer.  Still, it was a shock when her daughter called and said, “Mama died between three and four this morning.”  Sally and I were friends since high school, for 70 years.  We did not live in the same towns.  We each had other friends.  But ours was a special relationship, as if we were sisters. 

Others have lost dear pets.  They grieve, and then they get another cat or dog.  I can not replace Charlie. 

Other people have lost loved ones.  Vista lost a husband after 72 years, Eileen after 67.  Mariam, 92, grieves for her sister, who was 97.  They are coping and greet every day cheerfully.  I have other friends, dear friends, who comfort me.  But 70 years?  It is as if my whole life has been ripped out.

Every day I see Vista and Eileen and Mariam and know I will soon be “up and at ‘em” again.  Unlike my bipolar episodes, I have a “situational depression.”  It may take a while, but this time the Depression will go away. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mama Pattie and Daddy Joe

I am probably the only person alive today who remembers my father’s parents.  I called them “Mama Pattie” and “Daddy Joe.”

Daddy Joe was born in 1861; he said, “That’s the year the war begun.”   Mama Pattie was three years older.  They met in the Kentucky community where his family lived when she came there to teach school.  His younger siblings, Hugh and Mary, were among her pupils.  The whole family, including Daddy Joe’s parents, came to Texas around 1900.  Most of the men worked for the railroad, but Daddy Joe moved to Comanche County, Texas, where he became a rural mail carrier.  He started delivering mail in a buggy.  I’ve seen pictures of his mules.  What I remember his little model “T” Ford.

My earliest memories are going with my father to visit them, traveling on the wretched two-lane highways of Texas in the 1930's.  The rough pavement always punctured a tire, and Daddy got out of the Hudson, took off his suit coat, and rolled up his shirt sleeves to jack the car, take off the flat tire, and put on the spare.  It had an rubber inner tube, which had to be filled with air, Daddy’s arms struggling with heaving a bicycle pump.

We went through a series of little towns: Burleson, Cisco, Stephenville.   At Comanche we turned off onto an even smaller road, unpaved and dusty.  When the road wound between two little hills called “Round Mountain” and “Long Mountain” we were coming close to Sydney, the place where my father grew up.  The “town” consisted of four houses, two stores, a tiny post office (no bigger than my bathroom), a school, and three churches – Baptist, “Campellite”, and Methodist.  

Sometimes we arrived after dark, and I was carried in to be put to bed in a cold, dark room.  Daddy went across the hall to the where my grandparents waited, a room with a fireplace, and I was left alone, under a down comforter but still cold and miserable in the dark. 

My grandparents’ home was a typical small frame Texas farm house: a front porch, a center hall with one big room on each side, and behind the left hand room, a kitchen.  Three rooms, that was all.  There was no plumbing, no water faucets, no electric light.  At nightfall my grandmother lit the kerosene lamp.  Only one room had heat: from a fireplace faced with rough stone.  One Christmas Santa Claus came down that chimney and brought me a delicate blue china tea set.  My daughter still has the teapot and three cups and saucers at her home in Naperville, Illinois.  

When I was three years old my grandparents moved to Brownwood into a four-room house with a bathtub and a toilet.  It also had electricity for lights and to run a fan to stir the air on hot summer days.  But no fireplace.

Daddy Joe always grabbed me and kissed me.  I did not like that.  His bushy white mustache scratched my lips.  He stood straight as a soldier on parade.  My mother told me he had attended Kentucky Military School as a young man.  To me he seemed very tall.  Actually, he was probably no more than 5 foot 6 or 7 inches, but he was a head taller than my grandmother.

My Mother told me that my grandparents were always arguing with each other.  They disputed everything, but mostly they argued about religion.  They quoted various Bible passages, never agreeing on the interpretation of any passage of scripture.   My brother Don and I do the same thing.  It must be a family characteristic.  I do not remember the arguments.  All I remember is the love between these two old people.  

Mama Pattie and Daddy Joe were married for more than 50 years.  She died in January 1937, after a failed operation for kidney stones.  I was not yet eight years old.  Daddy Joe could not live without her.  He threw off the covers on freezing winter nights and managed to catch pneumonia.  Two months later he, too, was dead.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

My Other Grandmother

“Nonna”, my mother’s mother, was a constant presence in my life until I married.  Nonna was only 43 when I was born.  Mother spent every day with her mother. Nonna was still a vigorous 66 when I married and moved to Illinois.  My children knew their great-grandmother as well as they knew my mother.

As a small child, I had another grandmother.  My father’s mother, whom I called “Mama Pattie”, was 71 years old when I was born. 

I remember “Mama Pattie” as a little woman with gray hair pulled back in a tight little bun at the nape of her neck.  She always wore long, black dresses, an archetype of an old Victorian lady.  Her shoes were black patent leather with a single strap across the instep, just like the “Mary Janes” my daughter Martha wore when she ten years old.  When Mama Pattie and my grandfather listened to the radio, she sat in her rocking chair and patted those “Mary Janes” in time to the music.   

My father went to see his parents one weekend every month, a perilous drive on wretched roads from Fort Worth to their home in Comanche County.  I often went with him.

Only once I remember Daddy’s parents coming to Fort Worth.  A mouse was caught in a trap by his tail.  My little grandmother picked up the trap, and I followed as she carried it, mouse wiggling as he dangled, out into the backyard.  As a five-year-old, I watched fascinated, as Mama Pattie placed the mouse on a log, picked up a brick, and smashed down on the poor little creature.  My little old lady grandmother was a formidable woman, not to be trifled with.   

Recently I cleaned out the closet in my second bedroom.  I found a box I had not opened since I moved to Texas in 2006.  Most of it was junk, which I threw away.  One thing I kept was an old letter, the fragile paper faded to brown, the ink barely legible.  When my son David saw it, he said, “What beautiful handwriting.”  This is what the letter said:

                “Thursday – 14 – 1935
        Dear Little Granddaughter,
            Enclosed find $1 for
        your birthday.  Decided Mother
        would be more able to get what
        you need or what pleases you
        better than I would or could.
                Yours for a Happy
                Birthday - Mama Pattie”

Less than two years later, Mama Pattie died.  I was seven.  I am probably the only person alive today who still remembers her.  

As I held her letter, I marveled that I held something written by the hand of this grandmother born in 1859.  I took it to the safety deposit box.  Will my grandchildren treasure it the way I do?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


At the retirement home where I live, some people see their grandchildren every week.  David’s granddaughter comes every Sunday and takes him to church.  I envied Nell, whose delightful small granddaughter and grandson came bounding into the dining room and ran to give her hugs and kisses. 

My daughter Martha lives in the Chicago area.  She and her husband, Don, have three sons.  The boys barely know me.  I have always lived 1,000 miles away.  I have not visited them since I went on dialysis four years ago.

I still think of them as little boys.  As children I took each of them on Elderhostels where I spent a week with one of the boys.  Doug went with me to the Art Institute of Chicago and to Washington, DC.  Richard and I spent our weeks in New Mexico, first time with the Navajo Indians, the second in Roswell, where he built a rocket.  Joe stayed in Illinois; we studied Abraham Lincoln and went to the new museum in Springfield. 

Going away with one boy without his parents or siblings was a great way to get to know a child, but it does not compare with seeing grandchildren every week.   

Now the boys are men, all over 6 feet tall.  Doug has come to see me several times.  He is a charming, outgoing kid.  The first time he came, we had a luau beside the swimming pool.  Doug put on a grass skirt and got up and danced the hula, winning the hearts of all the old women at this retirement home.

Doug and Richard both came to see me this year.  Richard has a different personality.  He is very shy, but he cooperated with everything Grandma suggested.  He let me take him to see “Gone With the Wind” which he had never seen before.  He made no comments afterwards.  At home in Illinois he plays the cello in several orchestras. 

Doug drove me to Fort Worth to see the exhibits at the Kimball and Carter art museums.  I was delighted to see he continued the same enthusiasm for art that he did when he was 12 years old.)   Richard’s choice was also a drive to Fort Worth, but instead of going to the city’s famous museums, Richard wanted to hear a concert of classical music.  Their visits were brief, but at least I know a little about these two, very different grandsons – and as adults they got to know me. 

I have not seen Joe since he was twelve years old. 


Sunday, May 26, 2013

My Constant Companion

On my 70th birthday my son took me to the animal shelter in Albuquerque to adopt a cat.  I thought I should settle down and stop traveling.  I wanted a warm little individual to keep me company. 

David warned me not to get a kitten.  “They are too frisky for an old woman like you.”  This big white cat stood up in his cage with his paws clinging to the bars.  His face said, “Please, please take me.”  Charlie adopted me. 

I can only guess what happened to him before he was picked up by Animal Control.  He was a beautiful cat, pure white with an abundance of long hair.  He had been someone’s pet.  He had been neutered. 

He also had been a stray in the desert of Albuquerque’s West Mesa until he was in bad shape, dehydrated, half-starved, his hair all matted and clumped.  At my house he refused to eat canned cat food; he only ate dry cat food.  He only drank water from a running faucet.  I was amazed at how he jumped from the bathroom floor up onto the counter beside the sink, like me trying to jump from the flower bed onto the porch roof. 

The shelter gave him to me for $5.  I took him to the vet.  It cost $100 to get him examined and cleaned up.
He wore a tag which said he was six years old.  The vet said, “If he is six years old, he certainly has taken good care of his teeth.  I think he is one or two years old.”

I called my white cat Charlie after my friend Charles White.  He proved to be the perfect companion, although I was alarmed at how active he was, like a teenager, jumping up on the 5-foot block wall around the backyard, chasing other cats as if he did not know he was no longer a tomcat.  Independent, like me.  He would not take orders, but in many ways he showed his affection.

As I rested in my recliner, Charlie climbed on top of me.  First he stood on my chest and looked in my face as if asking, “How are you feeling today?”  Then he would settle down on my lap, legs hanging off on both sides.  Sometimes we watched tv together, but if he was bored with the program, he would put his head down and stare at my chair as if lost in thought.   

Charlie was terrified of men.  My next door neighbor in Albuquerque was LeRoy Martinez, a big, burly man who was like a son to me.  He came every week to carry out my garbage.  As soon as Charlie saw him at the door, the cat ran and hid under the bed.  It took ten years before Charlie trusted the big man and let LeRoy pet him. 

My grandchildren came to visit.  The whole time they were here, Charlie lay on the floor near them and watched them play.  Any time my housekeeper brought her children, Charlie went right to them.

The doctor said my kidneys were failing.  Having no family in New Mexico, I moved to Texas to be near my brother.   

I now live in a retirement home.  In the early morning, while I am getting dressed, Charlie goes out on the walkway to check on the weather.  Then he stands at the door looking up at the door knob until James McMullen comes by and lets him in.  This week we all laughed when Charlie did not wait but went down to the door of James and Marilyn’s apartment and meowed until they opened the door.  Then the cat ran back to our apartment and insisted it was time for James to open our door for him.

I am now 84 years old.  Charlie has been my companion for 14 years.  We are both old.  He drinks water out of a bowl, although insisting I fill it with fresh water each time he asks for a drink.  He gets shots for arthritis in his hips.  I go to dialysis three times a week. .

Last week Charlie was lying in the sun on the walkway when James walked by with his great-grandson.  Charlie did not get up to say “Hello” to the child.  We knew that the cat was sick. 
My brother Don came, and we took Charlie to the vet.

Charlie has kidney failure.  When I told the techs at dialysis, they laughed.  “Maybe he caught it from you.”   We can’t give Charlie dialysis. 

There is no cure for kidney disease.  I creep around like an old woman; Charlie creeps around like an old man.  We both keep moving, if ever so slowly.  That’s all we can do – and laugh about the old woman and her cat, both with failing kidneys.  Life is ridiculous.   It is good to find something to laugh about.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Shopping Trip

The weather has been – uh – dramatic.  Tornadoes swept across Texas last night, wiping out the little town of Granbury.  This afternoon the sky over Dallas was gray but not threatening.  I went shopping. 

First stop was the post office.  My friends include old people who do not use computers.  I still write letters.  At the sub-station where in the past I’ve stood in line for half an hour, this time in mid-afternoon a single Hispanic man stood behind the counter, no other customers in sight.  The congenial clerk helped me with “forever” stamps.  I chose the set showing Washington monuments framed with cherry blossoms.  With additional stamps for overseas mail, I spent $29.40. 

From the post office I drove onto the freeway – my heart in my throat as I merged between two enormous trucks – and climbed on the high bridge over the interchange between I-30 and 635 to exit at the Town East shopping center.  My goal: the SAS shoe store. 

I always wear SAS loafers.  They are comfortable; I wear them all day and my feet don’t hurt. At the back of my closet I have a shelf with a dozen shoe boxes.  Inside are all types of shoes:  sandals, my old hiking boots, and some low-heeled pumps, both black and navy blue.   I have not taken them out of the boxes since I moved to Montclair four years ago. 

On the floor at the other end of the closet are the three pairs of shoes I wear every day: black loafers, tan loafers, and an ancient pair of black ones that I use as house slippers.  SAS shoes never wear out.  Today I wore the tan pair that I’ve had for about ten years.

With summer coming I decided to buy white shoes to go with my new pastel blue, mint green, and mauve tee shirts and pants.  I do not follow fashions, but I try to look presentable so my grandchildren will not be ashamed to be seen with me.

At the shop, a gray-haired saleslady bustled around and brought out “pearl bone” loafers, exactly as I ordered, in size 5 ½ extra wide.  The price was $110.   I am a child of the Depression.  I am reluctant to spend money.   SAS shoes are handcrafted in real leather.  I took out my credit card.

As the saleswoman put my new shoes in the box, she said, “We had a handbag which will go perfectly with these.  May I show it to you?”

She went to a nearby shelf and handed me a bulky purse which exactly matched the pearl color of the shoes.  She stroked the leather and said, “Feel how soft this is.”

My children always tell me I am rich.  They urge me to buy whatever I want.  I took the purse and looked at the $150 price tag.  I have money in the bank to pay for it – and the shoes – and the stamps – when the credit card bill comes due.  I guess I am rich. 

The saleswoman was not finished.  As she rang up the sale, she said, “All our bags are named for wives of presidents.  Your bag is the Barbara.”
She went back to the shelf of handbags.  “This is the Lady Bird.”  She brought me a bulky black bag with a wide side strap fastened with a shiny brass buckle.  Then she showed me a little side zipper, which she opened and slipped her entire hand inside the purse.  “This is where you can carry your handgun.”

I laughed out loud.  How typically Texan!  SAS stands for San Antonio Shoes, and they are made in San Antonio, Texas.  I should not be surprised that  SAS provides a handbag where Texas women can conceal their guns.  I did not buy the Lady Bird, but . . .

Look at me, a confirmed Democrat!  All summer I will carry a handbag named for Barbara Bush.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My Grandmother

We called her “Nonna.”  She was my mother’s mother, and she dominated our lives. 

She was only 42 when I was born, a  little, black-haired woman, round as a barrel, who brusheled about that big, brick house, telling everyone what to do. 

I knew why I called her “Nonna” instead of “Grandma.”  I was a baby, just beginning to talk.  One day I stood up in my crib and began to cry.  When my mother came to pick me up, I pushed her away, saying, “I don’t want Mamie.  I want my Nonna.” 

My grandmother told that story many, many times.

My grandfather died in the 1918 flu epidemic.  My grandmother was left a young, penniless widow with two young children: my mother, 12, and her brother, 10.   Her sister, Lena, was married to a prosperous Fort Worth lawyer.  Aunt Lena had tuberculosis.  Uncle George asked my grandmother to move in with them and help care for their three little girls.  Uncle George and Aunt Lena both died, and my grandmother, although not the legal guardian, stayed on as housekeeper and caregiver of the three little orphans. 

To justify her position my grandmother made herself indispensable.  My mother was relegated to fifth place in her affections, after the three girls and her son.  Of course, I did not understand the family dynamics when I was young.  As a child I accepted all the family relationships as normal and natural. 

I was an adult before I realized why the baby called her grandmother “Nonna.”  My parents lived with my grandmother.  The baby heard the names they called each other.  I could not speak clearly.  I said, “Mamie” instead of “Mary”; that was what everyone called my young mother.  I said “Nonna”, trying to say “Mama”, because that was what Mary called her mother.   I never heard the words “Grandma” or “Granny.”    

Now I see how cruel it was.  My grandmother puffed up her own ego by repeatedly telling how the baby preferred her to its own mother.  I heard it time after time.  No one ever mentioned how hurt my young mother must have been by this rejection by her baby. 

How did my mother react to this situation?  She spent her life trying to please her mother.  When I was born, my parents continued to live with Nonna because my mother was considered “too delicate” to care for a baby. My brother Lyle was born a year later, and suddenly Mother was able to care for two babies. We moved into our own home, half a mile away. 

My mother continued to spend every day at Nonna’s house.  When Lyle and I started to school, Mother transferred us from our neighborhood school to one near my grandmother so that we could go directly Nonna’s house every day after school. 

“The girls” grew up, married, and moved away.  They sold Nonna’s house to my parents.  My grandmother stayed with the house.  She continued to live with my parents, dominating the household, until she died at age 89. 

I was in Chicago when the call came that my grandmother had died.  I flew to Texas to be with Mother.  She and I were in the kitchen washing the cups and saucers used by people who came to the house after the funeral.  Her hands deep in soapy water, this 70-year-old woman turned to me and said, “I wish Mama loved me as much as she did the girls, but she never did.”

Sunday, May 5, 2013

My Accomplishments

I spent yesterday working on the book about the trip I made to Europe with David when he was 13.  I hope it will be funny/serious and readable.  There is still a lot of work to be done before it will be ready for publication.  Will I get the job done?  If published, will anyone want to read it? .

Maybe it is all a lot of wasted effort.

So what have I accomplished in my life? 

Maybe it is time to reevaluate what I am doing.  I decided to clear off my desk and take care of correspondence and other business that I neglected while in Lala Land re-imaging that trip to Germany.  I found the stack of birthday cards I received in March and re-read all of them. 

When other people have birthdays, I go into the stash I keep in a drawer in my bedroom and try to find one that is appropriate.  I feel both ashamed and thrilled when I receive cards that are very personal.  Lois, Barbara, Martha, and Marjorie, knowing I like cats, all sent me cards with pictures of kitties.  Jean Johnson, who lives here at Montclair, gave me one that said “Happy Shamrock Day.” 

A special card, which said, “Warm with love. . .  on your St. Patrick’s Day birthday,” came from John’s sisters in Pittsburgh.  John and I were only married for four years.  He has been gone for 21 years, yet they still remember my birthday.  What wonderful, caring people!

But the card that touched me the most came from my friend Emma.  We were roommates in college more than 60 years ago.  We have never lived in the same town since, yet we kept in touch, treasuring each time we were able to get together.  It was a sad day last year when we said goodbye at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth.  She moved to Austin to be near her son Lee.  Emma is deaf.  We can not talk on the telephone.  For the rest of our lives we will “talk” through e.mail.  

Emma sent me a birthday card which said, “There are some special people who make a difference in the lives of others, make the best of whatever life hands them, and make everyone else smile in the process.  I feel so blessed to have you in my life.  You have an openness that invites others in and a warmth that makes them comfortable.” 

Wow!  Is that me?

I hope so.  I try.  Every morning I go into the dining room and say “hello” to each of the old people sitting over their oatmeal and coffee.  Some of them have forced themselves to come down to breakfast after bad nights struggling with pain.  If I can lift their spirits a little bit, then I feel better, too.  I do not care if my books are never published.  If I can bring a little joy into the lives of a few other people, then I have done all I want to accomplish in life.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Grieving for Al

As you know, I am “technologically challenged.”  When I need help with anything connected with the computer I call my son David.  This weekend he helped me look up the history of my blogs.  I have not posted many lately.  I am busy.  Dialysis wears me down.  Also, with very little spare time, I am making slow progress editing the book about David’s trip. 

Anyway, David and I looked to see how many people were reading the blogs.  David pointed out that my readers seem to be only people who know me personally.  I have not been able to find a wider audience.  David said that was too bad.  He is a loyal son.

I was surprised to see that the blog which attracted the most readers was the one titled “I Don’t Like Al.”   Evidently the piece was read by a lot of people who live here in Montclair and who know both me and Al.  No one posted a comment on line, so I do not know what others thought of it. 

The next morning I went down to breakfast, and as I passed her table, Jean reached up and took my arm.  She said, “Have you heard the news?”  I learned that at the very minutes while David and I were talking about him, Al died.

How do I feel about this?  How do I feel when anyone dies? 

I grieve for those I loved.  I still miss Inez, my friend in Albuquerque, a good companion who saw me through difficult times.  I also miss Mary, my fiend in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, whose enthusiasm for life under difficult circumstances was an inspiration.  Both these ladies – and they were “ladies” in the best sense of the word – lived long, mostly happy lives.  Inez died on her 90th birthday; Mary just before she would have been 100.  I could not wish for either of them to live longer, except that I miss their company.

I especially grieve for John, my husband for only four years before he died at not-quite-74.  He has been gone for 21 years, and I still miss him.  He left me assets so that I am able to live in comfort in this retirement home.  He also left me insurance, which pays for my enormous medical bills.  Without him, I could not pay for dialysis, and I would be dead.  Most of all, he was a good man who gave me memories of many happy times.  He showed me how to laugh at the ridiculousness of life. He loved me, and I wish I could see him again to tell him how much I loved him, too.  

I envy those who are confident of Heaven and can say, “He is in a better place.”  I lack that “blessed assurance”, and that makes me sad.

Some deaths are tragic, and that makes me angry.  Like everyone in the nation, I grieve for the three people killed in Boston, the little boy, the young woman, the Chinese student.  Such a senseless act! 

Also, the brave volunteers who went to fight the fire in West.  What caused that explosion?  Who do we blame?  The men who owned the fertilizer factory did not intend to kill anyone.  The fireman are still dead.   May their families find comfort – somehow.

But what about Al?

Here at Montclair we have a Sunday evening church service in the living room.  A group of residents gather to sing hymns, say prayers for anyone who is ill, and listen to a short sermon by a fundamentalist minister. 

I do not agree with the fundamentalists.  They are narrow minded and often wrong.  The World was not created in seven days in 6,000 B.C.  But I go to the church services and keep quiet.  These are kind-hearted people who pray for all who are ill or need help of any kind.   They pray for me, and I am grateful. 

Last week, in his last act of rage, Al came charging into the service in his electric wheel chair, shouting obscenities, and telling the minister to stop preaching.  Jerry had to escort Al out and take him back to his room.

From hints he gave, Al had a terrible childhood.  It warped his thinking.  Did no one show him kindness to make him consider changing his mind?   His friend Mary Lou came every day and took care of him.  She was a white, Anglo-Saxon.  So she was okay.  He still hated blacks, Asians, and “intellectuals” like me.  He told me the fact that I went to college was proof that I “didn’t know anything.”

Perhaps I am lacking in Christian charity, but I am not sorry that Al died.  I will not grieve for him.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Memory Lane

Since returning to Texas in 2006, I have lived in the Dallas suburb of Garland, an hour away from Fort Worth, the place where I was born and grew up.  Yet I seldom have an opportunity to go back to the city which haunts my memories.

Last week my grandson Richard spent his spring break from the University of Illinois at Chicago coming to visit Grandma in Texas, just as his brother Doug did last year.  I still can’t get used to my little grandchildren becoming big, tall men.  Richard is particularly imposing, over 6 foot 2 with a black beard.  His long legs barely fit under the dash board of my Hyundai. 

Richard plays the cello in the university orchestra.  He wanted to hear a chamber music concert at the Modern Museum in Fort Worth.  So off we went.

With my grandson driving, we went out the front gate and turned left at the signal light on the corner.  Three minutes later, as Richard speeded down the ramp onto the expressway, I said, “Just follow the signs for I-30 West until you see the exit for University Drive in Fort Worth.”

Richard is shy.  He did not make any comments on the wild Texas drivers who kept cutting lanes in front of us. He kept his eyes on the road as we threaded our way through the mixmaster south of the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas.   As we passed Arlington, where roller coasters of Six Flags Over Texas loom right beside the highway, I thought, “Most kids might prefer going to the amusement park rather than to a concert with an old lady.”  But not Richard. 

It took just a little over an hour from the time we left my apartment in Garland until Richard pulled into a parking space in front of the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth. 

I started my “career”, such as it was, as a reporter at the Fort Worth Press.  I knew lots of people in the city.  Then I met Wallace Gaarsoe, a corporal stationed at Carswell Air Force Base.  We married, and I moved with him to Chicago.  That was more than 60 years ago. 

As Richard and I entered the auditorium at the museum, I looked down on a sea of gray heads and said, “I wonder if any of these old people remember me.” 

The program was delightful: Beethoven’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano in D major, Prokofiev’s Sonata for Violin in F minor, and Brahms’ Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano in A minor.  Richard said he liked the Prokofiev; I much preferred the Brahms.  To each his own.

At intermission I introduced Richard to the lady sitting next to me as “my grandson from Chicago.”

The lady said, “My daughter lives in Chicago.  She and her family live in Arlington Heights.”

I said, “Richard’s grandfather and I built our first home in Arlington Heights on a little street, only one block long, called South Dryden Place.”

“I know that street,” said the lady sitting next to me, “My grandchildren went to Dryden School.” 

“That’s where my oldest son started to kindergarten,” I said.

Small world!  I went to Fort Worth hoping to encounter someone who knew me there when I was young.  Instead, I met a woman with whom I shared memories of a small elementary school in a distant suburb of Chicago.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Am I a Drug Addict?

Raphael, is a tall, slender man with light brown skin.  He came to the U.S. from a small African country whose name I cannot spell.  It is on the Red Sea wedged between Ethiopia and Sudan.  He now works as chief technician at the dialysis center where I go three times a week, a job which enabled him to pay for his four children to obtain degrees from U.S. universities.     

On Friday he came to my chair and injected something into the tube of clean blood coming out of the machine and into my vein. 

“What are you giving me today?” I asked.

“EPO,” he said.

“That’s what Lance Armstrong took,” I said, “and they called him a drug addict.”

Raphael and I laughed.

I have been getting EPO shots, or the equivalent, for years.  My poorly functioning kidneys leave poisons in my blood, which must be cleaned by dialysis.  The kidneys also fail to convert proteins into hemoglobin, resulting in my becoming anemic.  EPO shots, which a nurse described
to me as “artificial blood”, build up the hemoglobin. 

Without EPO my energy level drops to zero, and I mope about the house like a zombie.  A few days after I have a shot, I feel great and zoom about town in my Hyundai like a 25-year-old kid.  When I went for my annual checkup, my primary doctor said that for an 83-year-old woman, I was “amazing.” 

I never thought of myself as a drug addict.  But I am totally dependent on those shots. My doctors agree that I will need EPO for the rest of my life.

During his treatment for cancer, Lance Armstrong received massive doses of chemotherapy, which messes up the blood the same way my bad kidneys do.  Armstrong’s cancer is in remission.  Do his doctors feel he still needs EPO?  If his doctors say that he needs EPO, then Lance Armstrong was right to say he never took illegal drugs.  But without doctors’ orders, then it was a “performance enhancing drug.”

Most people now condemn Lance Armstrong as a liar and a cheat.  As a person who is dependent on EPO, I see another way of looking at his situation. Armstrong is arrogant and a bully.  There is nothing illegal about that. 

Politicians make impassioned statements about lots of things – taxes, gun control, abortion – which deserve a closer examination.  Just remember: There are no simple solutions to complicated problems. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me

Everyone celebrates my birthday.  I was born on St. Patrick’s Day.   We had a party here at the retirement home where I live, with a bagpiper decked out in kilts and the whole regalia, blowing the pipes so loud even the dear, deaf old men could hear.  After blasting away at “Danny Boy” and a couple of other typical Irish tunes, the piper committed heresy and played “Scotland the Brave.”  Well, it is one of the best musical numbers for the bagpipes. 

Our new management did not know it was my birthday, so I did not receive any recognition at that party.  Neither my son David nor my daughter Martha could come this year, so I gave myself a party.  I put invitations on 13 doors of other residents.  Twelve came; I found chairs for all of them, filling the living room of my little apartment.  

My brother Don and his wife Mary helped serve cake and lemonade.  The chocolate cake with pale green frosting was delicious, although I ordered it from Tom Thumb through a young woman who did not speak English, and the shamrock decorations looked most peculiar. 

To complete my day, Martha and David both called to wish their old Mom, “Happy Birthday.”  David also sent a box of chocolates.  I don’t want any more “stuff.”  As the New Yorker cartoon said, “I have enough crap to last me the rest of my life.”

All in all, not a big celebration, as we had for my 80th, but a happy day.

I treasure birthday cards.  Besides the ones from Montclair friends, other cards came in the mail.  All lifted my spirits. 

Cards picturing cats (in honor of Charlie) came Barbara and Marjorie, friends since college more than 60 years ago, and from Lois, my Garland friend who found time to bring me a card, although she was moving that day.  Martha sent a picture of a big, white cat, very like Charlie.

My husband John Durkalski died 21 years ago, yet I still receive a birthday card every year from his sisters in Pittsburgh.  I also received cards and messages from Sally, my best friend since high school, who lives on a farm near Decatur, and from Emmy, my dear, dear friend from college, who recently moved to Round Rock, and from Joanie Woodruff, my writer friend, from Mountainair, New Mexico.  Gertrude called from New York and Doris from Albuquerque.  How many old ladies can claim five “best” friends like these?

It was a special thrill to receive a card and note from my 94-year-old cousin, Pat Lyle, who lives in a retirement home in Rapid City, South Dakota.  When I was a child, my grandmother was guardian of Pat and her sisters, Viv and Gee (Georgie Sue). My mother took me and my brother to their house  every day.  I knew Pat from my earliest memories  until she went away to college at Texas Tech.  Through the years we almost lost touch, but now we are the only ones left from those daily gatherings around the kitchen table on Lipscomb Street in Fort Worth.   Even the house is gone, a parking lot for the Association for the Deaf. 

I am 84 years old.  I have to go to dialysis three days a week.   But I am alive and thrilled to be remembered by all these good friends.  Life is wonderful.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Kilgore, Texas

My first job after I graduated from college was as “society editor” of the Kilgore News-Herald. 
Kilgore, an hour and a half east of Dallas, called itself “the city of skyscrapers” because of the many oil derricks in the center of the little town. 

In the 1930's Kilgore was the center of the East Texas oil boom.  There were no restrictions on how close wells could be to each other.  In Kilgore derricks were set up next to each other, like rows of small Eiffel towers, right against the foundations of buildings.  A couple of blocks from the newspaper office where I worked was the abandoned little brick building which had been First Presbyterian Church.  Oil derricks completely surrounded the structure.  The Presbyterians now worshiped in a handsome large new church surrounded by grassy lawns a half-mile outside the “oil dome” in the center of town. 

During the Great Depression, when throughout the rest of the U.S. people were starving, some families in Kilgore became fabulously rich.  

When I arrived in 1949, the boom days were over.  Many of the town’s residents were poor and lived in little frame houses hastily built during the boom.  As I walked home from work, I passed a row of “shot-gun” houses – a single-room wide, three or four rooms deep – in one of which lived Marie, the young woman who read proof for the paper.  A few blocks further I walked by the large, two-story brick mansion owned by one of the town’s “oil” families. 

As “society editor” I reported on women’s activities.  Every day I had to fill a full page in the paper with accounts of club meetings and other chit-chat.  Big news was a wedding at First Baptist Church with a reception at the home of the bride’s parents, where the refreshments were cake and non-alcoholic punch.  If a child had a birthday, I would print the names of every little child who attended the party.

Then there was the music teacher.  A big, matronly woman, in her cotton dresses printed with pastel flowers, she looked like a typical small town housewife, very different from the sophisticated “oil” wives who drove to Dallas to buy clothes at Nieman-Marcus.  She bustled in every month with a “report” of a little club she had for her piano pupils.  I duly took her list of the names of each attendee.  . 

One day, as she handed me the usual monthly report, she said, “You know Kilgore is the most musical town in East Texas.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You won’t believe the musical authority who told me so.”

“Who was that?”

“I really shouldn’t tell you.  He assured me that there was no other town in East Texas with as much music as Kilgore.”

I imagined the “musical authority” must be the music critic for the Dallas Morning News.

Then she told me.  Her “musical authority” was the organist at Kilgore’s First Presbyterian Church.  As she explained, “You know he lives in Longview.”   That was the next town, 15 miles northeast. 

One day I stopped by her house, twice the size of a “shot-gun” house but still a small frame house.  A baby-grand piano almost filled the living room.  Her son was practicing when I came in.  A lanky, baby-faced kid with wild blonde hair, at 14 he was already over 6-feet tall with hands and feet twice the size of mine.  He turned on the piano bench and sat quietly facing me while his mother told me about the latest activities of her little club.  She told me proudly that her boy was going to become a famous concert pianist.

Remembering her “musical authority”, I doubted this.  I thought I was being ironic when I said, “Yes, Mrs. Cliburn, I am sure you are right.”

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Independence Day

Today is Texas Independence Day.  Not important to anyone besides Texans.

Most of the residents at the retirement home where I live are folks who grew up in Texas and have never lived or been any place else.  We remember Texas history, which is taught in our schools as on a par with U.S. History.  As for European history, what happened over there that can compare with the Alamo?

On March 2, 1836, a small group of settlers, mostly farmers and ranchers, gathered in a little white frame church in Washington-on-the-Brazos, and declared Texas independent from Mexico.  The audacity of those men, most of them recent immigrants from the U.S.!  No true Texan questions that these newly hatched Texans were justified in taking control of lands that Spain claimed for 300 years.  After all, Mexico had gained its only a few years before and had been totally inept in governing the fast remote land.     

Mexico’s president, General Santa Anna, proved equally bad in trying to recapture the country.  In April, Sam Houston and a handful of men whipped the Mexican army, captured the general, and shipped him off – literally in a ship – to Washington as a present to Andrew Jackson. 

So Texas became an independent nation for the next ten years.  That’s why in front of every big building in Texas you will see two flag poles, one flying the U.S. flag and the other the lone star flag of Texas.  

Some Texans think the U.S. should still treat the state like an independent country, to be negotiated with and deferred to like France and Britain.  In November we elected a new senator, a Tea Party man named Tom Cruz. Within a month after taking his seat in the U.S. Senate, Cruz made a fool of himself, posturing and voting “No” on everything, even an act to protect women from abuse.  Even his fellow Republicans were embarrassed.

Last year at Montclair we had a big party to celebrate Texas Independence Day.  The dining hall was hung with lone star flags, and bouquets of artificial bluebonnets decorated every table.  A few months ago our new activities director cleaned out the store room and threw out all the flags and decorations.  She was from New Orleans and did not know any better.  While eating hamburgers at lunch today just a few of us old Texans reminded each other that March 2 is a special day. 

Maybe that is just as well.  We also have residents who moved here from other states.   They all acknowledge that Texas is – well, different – but are right to insist that this state is no more special than Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, Georgia, Mississippi, or Pennsylvania.

In my own lifetime I have seen Texas change from a mostly rural land dominated by rich white men to primarily urban (three of the ten largest cities in the U.S. are in Texas), where minorities are growing in number.  Huge numbers of blacks and Hispanics, with a surprising influx of Asians.  Not to mention young professionals from “up North.”   Most of the transplanted elders at Montclair moved here to be near their children. 

Politics is still dominated by old, rich white men.  We are stuck with Senator Cruz for the next six years.  But times they are changing.  Are you listening Congressman Hensarling?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My Friend Bill

Bill Pyle is a kind and pleasant man.  He and his wife, Pacheca, moved into a first-floor apartment in our retirement community.  The first day he came into the dining room and went from table to table, introducing himself to everyone.  Within two days he knew every resident, not just names but where they came from, what kind of work they had done, and how many children and grandchildren they had. 

After living here for over a year, he still comes into the dining room every day with a smile on his face.  He consoles those who are feeling the aches of aging and cheers up all of us, even those whose children have forgotten them.  Bill is one who makes this place of retirement a substitute family with a happy home. 

Bill served 20 years in the U.S. armed services.  He traveled all over the world purchasing equipment for the Air Force.  He held the rank of major.  Despite his genial nature, Bill is very firm in his beliefs.  As a good soldier, he never questions orders.  Nothing wishy-washy about our Bill.

At lunch Bill and I talked about the deficit. 

He said, “It is due to Obama’s rash spending.”

I said, “No, it is due to enormous cost of Bush’s wars and the lack of revenue to pay for them.  The fault is with the Republicans and the Bush tax cuts.”

Bill said, “That is your opinion.”

“No!” I said, “That is fact.”

Bill insisted that we had differing opinions as to what the facts are.  He gets his “facts” from Fox News and the Internet.  I am a trained journalist, read publications like TIME and the New Yorker, and know how to listen to “talking heads” and distinguish factual reports from propaganda. 

I can not change Bill.  As a retired Air Force Officer, his mind is locked tight, and he will not surrender the key to anyone.  He and I agreed that in spite of our differing points of view we would remain friends and not fight about it. 

Not fight, but he knows I will keep on talking.  As I said, in spite of being a Republican, Bill Pyle is a kind man.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Smoking Addicts

Why do people do things that they know are harmful?  Cigarettes kill.  Yet smokers will do anything rather than give up cigarettes. 

My first husband, Wallace Gaarsoe, was addicted.  Our children put up little “No Smoking” signs in the living room and kitchen.  Wally took them down and lit another cigarette.  Our three children grew up.  None of them smoke.  Wally died at age 66 of lung cancer.

My oldest brother, Lyle, started smoking as a teenager.  He quit after developing emphysema.  He lived to be 80, after many years when each breath was agony.
I live in a community where the average age is 80.  We have several residents who are over 90. To reach this age, most of us took care of our health.  Some, like me, never smoked cigarettes.  Others, like Sue, kicked the habit years ago.  We do not smoke.

Then there is Barbara.  The only place she did not smoke was in the dining room, where smoking is not permitted.  She had to come there to eat.  Otherwise, she sat in her room, puffing away.  The air in her apartment was as full of smoke as Beijing.  It filtered through the air ducts into the apartment next door and aggravated Doris’s asthma.  Doris moved.    

On Monday nights, when a group of us go out to supper, Barbara walked out of her apartment with a cigarette in her mouth, stamping it out just before she stepped on the bus.  At the restaurant she went to sit alone in the smoking section, rather than join the rest of us at our companionable table. 

This week, as we came home after our weekly outing, Barbara asked our driver to stop at the strip mall across the street from our complex.  She needed cigarettes.  Jackie refused.  As she turned the bus between stone gates into the mid-block entry to our complex,  Jackie warned Barbara, “Now don’t you go walking across the street in the dark.  It is too dangerous.  I’ll get you cigarettes tomorrow.” 

LaPrada Drive is a four-lane boulevard.  Cars speed past our gates day and night.

Barbara couldn’t wait.  At lunch today an old lady told me, “Barbara is in the hospital.  She was hit by a car.”   According to “my informant” the driver stopped.  He said he saw Barbara and she looked directly at it before stepping right in front of his car.  She was badly injured. 

We’ve heard that smoking is an addiction, causing a chemical imbalance in the brain.  I also suspect that it is a personality type – someone who insists, “I will do it my way, regardless of the consequences.”  The kind of person, desperate for a cigarette, who steps in front of a car and dares the driver to miss her. 

Smokers are gambler who believe they will win every time.  When will smokers learn that they lose?  One way or another, they always lose.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Women in Combat

This morning I sat down for a few minutes and watched celebrities on the View dither about the Army’s decision to let women become “combat” soldiers.  After listening for a couple of minutes to Elizabeth’s chatter, praising women who will “fight bravely on the front lines,” I turned off the television.

All the furore is just too silly.  When and where are these “front lines” expected to be?  What will be the battle formations of the future?

During World War II, we fought the Germans in traditional battles.  I knew a man who was wounded on the front line in the Battle of the Bulge.  That war ended in 1945.  Armies do not fight that kind of battles any more.  The Germans are now our friends.  They sell us their cars, Mercedes and BMW’s.

The time has passed for two armies to line up against each other and slug it out. We should have learned in Vietnam.  We didn’t.  We sent our Army to fight in Iraq, but there were no battles.  Our enemies planted roadside bombs and blew up our boys, one Humvee at a time.

We still have to deal with terrorists.  Even as women join men on the “front line,” the biggest Army in the World was helpless against eleven fanatical Arabs who highjacked planes and killed more Americans in one day than were killed in ten years of “fighting” in Afghanistan.

In the New Yorker, James Surowiecki describes the “sunk-cost effect.”  As he explains, “This means that we often end up sticking with something when we’d be better off cutting our losses – sitting through a bad movie, say, just because we’ve paid for the ticket.”

We wasted trillions on “defense,.” starting with the Cold War.  We were taught to be afraid of the Russians, while the Russians lived in terror that we would attack them.  Our government lied about the “missile gap.”   As an article in The Atlantic points out, “Nikita Khrushchev was acutely aware of America’s huge advantage not just in the number of weapons but in their quality and deployment as well.”      

We aimed missiles as Moscow from England and put more along the Russian border in Turkey.  That’s when Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba.   Kennedy let people think it was his show of strength which caused the Russians to withdraw.  Actually, he made a secret deal to pull our missiles out of Turkey, which was what Khrushchev wanted in the first place. 

The U.S. spends as much on “defense” as the rest of the World combined.  Why?  China does not want to go to war with us.  Lose their best customer?  No way!

Faced with threats from the U.S., Russia bankrupted its economy.  That, not our huge stockpile of weapons, is what ended the Cold War.  I fear we are following the same path as the Soviets.  . We face an economic crisis, and the war hawks say, “Don’t cut the defense budget!”  No, they would cut Social Security and Medicare instead.  That’s our esteemed Congress.  That’s criminal. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Paper Chase

I flew to Europe many times, earning ”bonus” mileage.  I used mileage for tickets to bring Martha’s sons, Ric and Joe, from Chicago to Texas during spring break.  I do not know if the boys enjoyed spending a week with the old lady, but Martha was grateful that she did not have to worry about what the teenagers were doing while school was out and she was working.  

Another time I got tickets for Martha and me to fly to an Elderhostel in Pennsylvania.  We saw magnificent gardens at Longview and Winterthur, then – quite a contrast – visited an Amish farm.  When I arrived at the Philadelphia airport for my return flight, the airline offered me a $300 voucher to wait for a later flight.  Best deal I ever made.  I got to fly back to Dallas first class and used the $300 for a trip to Chicago.  A free trip on top of a free trip!  

Now that I am on dialysis every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I can not go anywhere.  It is a big event when someone – David, Martha, or Doug – drives me to Fort Worth or Decatur for a day out.     

Last year I received a notice from American Airlines that I had 10,000 “miles” that would expire on March 31.  Not enough to get a free airline ticket. I used the “mileage” for magazine subscriptions.  I already subscribed to TIME and the New Yorker, which come every week, and the monthly Smithsonian.  Now my mailbox is stuffed with a bunch of publications which I don’t have time to read. 

Next to the dining table is a stack of Harper’s which I have not opened.  The weekly copies of Baron’s go into the box of papers to be recycled.  Ditto Bloomberg Markets.

I transferred the Wall Street Journal subscription to my son Karl.  He has no money – he lives on S.S.I. and food stamps – but he considers himself an expert on everything.  I hope he enjoys reading the Journal and writing letters of complaint to the editor.  It is a family habit.

Then there is The Atlantic. 

I picked up the January-February issue, planning to skim through the pages.  Then I read a fascinating article, “What’s Inside America’s Banks?” – How Wall Street could blow up the economy again.  Then there was “Awake Under the Knife” focusing on anesthesia and the mystery of consciousness.  Finally, the one that haunts me, “The Real Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Do I really want to let my subscription to the Atlantic expire in March?  I have not decided.  Newsweek stopped its print edition; I used to read that during dialysis on Fridays.  The Atlantic comes only eight or ten times a year. . . . But sometimes I feel I am drowning in paper.

I should have time to read.  I will not be taking any trips.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Flu Season

Even if you get your news from Fox TV, you know about the flu epidemic.  Children have died.  That’s tragic.  No one I know has succumbed.  Not as far as I know.

Around here old people have been sick.  Herb, whose apartment is next door on the left, coughed for a week.  So did Everett, my neighbor on the right.  Mariam, my fiend and bridge partner, was sick and did not leave her apartment for two weeks.  But we are not sure if it is the flu or just a bad cold.  We call it “the crud.” 

I got sick, too.  A week ago I spent Friday night coughing, feeling miserable, gagging and throwing up.  I took that in stride, as I sometimes feel that way after dialysis.  But when I felt queasy all day on Saturday, I realized I caught the crud.

Sunday I moped all day.  I had to go down to the second floor and wash clothes.  I had no clean underwear or washcloths.  Monday morning I called the dialysis center and said, “I’m sick.”  The nurse said, “Come in.  We’ll put a mask on you.”

On Tuesday I gave up.  I did not wash my face.  I did not make my bed.  I filled Charlie’s food bowl but did not scoop out his litter box.  I sat in my recliner all day.  I even called downstairs and had David, our efficient and ubiquitous waiter, bring my lunch on a tray.  Charlie sat on my lap for hours, keeping me company while the television droned nonsense and I dozed. 

By afternoon, while watching Dr. Phil advise a dysfunctional family, I felt pretty good.  Doing nothing all day brought recovery.  I loved sitting there doing nothing.  As it turned out, it was as pleasant a day as I experienced for – weeks?  months?  Now I know the meaning of “relaxation.”  
Wednesday was dialysis; Thursday was catchup day.  I sorted mail which piled up since Friday, threw out catalogs and appeals from charities I never will give to.  I checked my VISA bill and agreed I owed all that money, opened my bank statement and – wonder of wonders –
my checkbook balanced.  Even after paying that VISA bill, I have money in the bank  Why do I need to worry?

Now it is another Saturday.  The bed is made, dishes done.  Charlie, taken care of, sleeps on the bed behind me.  I spent the day reading magazines that staked up when I was too tired to read.  Found a clutch of interesting articles  I’ll share with Everett and John Q.  (There is also a John T., who is a nice little man who gives no indication of being a reader.) .

I can not change the World, but I can vent my opinions.  Some of the things I read about, I’ll share with you in future blogs.  If I can find time to post them.  After I take time for relaxation.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

We Were Seven

My grandson Doug is one of the few recent college graduates who has a job.  He graduated in June with a degree in engineering.  He is working for a utility company in Decatur, Illinois.  He has his own apartment and is having a great time on weekends going “swing dancing” in nearby Champaign-Urbana. 

His mother – my daughter Martha – frets about his future.  She urges him to set up a 401K to start saving for retirement! 

That is a good idea. 

But I warn Doug: Life is full of surprises.  Among the many old people I know, no one says their life turned out exactly as they expected when they were young.

Take the “girls” I met at Texas State College for Women.  Bill Hill called it the “Old Maid Factory.”  We were seven young women, all but one preparing for careers, as we feared no one would ever want to marry any of us dowdy young scholars. 

The exception was Norma, a pretty girl with long brown hair and a sweet smile.  She had a sweetheart in the Navy who wrote to her every week.  She came into the room after supper, her face glowing, saying, “I have a letter from John.”  While the rest of us played bridge, Norma sat in the corner reading and reading her love letters. 

Norma majored in home economics.  She made her silk wedding dress, and in jewelry class, she fashioned wedding rings for herself and John.  Two weeks after graduation they were married.  I was a bridesmaid in the ceremony in the Methodist Church in her hometown, Weatherford, Texas.

That marriage lasted two years. 

I was the next to marry.  I moved to Chicago, where my first child, Karl, was born.  When the baby was five months old, I took him to Texas to visit my family.  Norma came to see me.  In my parents’ living room, I sat in an arm chair with the baby on my lap, and Norma sat on the couch next to her fiancĂ©, Byron.   

In the following years the rest of us married, and six of us became mothers.  All Norma ever wanted to be was a wife and mother.  She had two children, David and Ellen.  Her daughter married and, to her delight, Norma became a grandmother of an adored little girl.  Tragically, Norma and Byron’s son David is schizophrenic.  Now in his 40's, he has a job, but he lives with his parents and will never be able to function independently. 

Like other parents with a mentally ill child, Norma became obsessed with searching for a cause. She went back to TSCW (now Texas Woman’s University) and studied the effect of environment on health.  This woman, the least scholarly of our seven, earned a Ph.D. and became a consultant on avoiding environmental hazards in schools. 

Norma experimented with herbal medicine and took heaps of vitamin pills and nutritional supplements.  She and I went together to a college reunion.  She refused to ride in my Oldsmobile because the upholstery had a “noxious” new car smell.  She gulped down a handful of pills, saying, “I take care of my health.”

Norma died this week.  Her husband, Byron Miller, was with her to the end.  The funeral is today at the Methodist Church where they were married in a quiet ceremony in the pastor’s study more than 50 years ago.  She and Byron lived in Fort Worth, my hometown, which I left 60 years ago.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bridge Games

At 6 p.m. tonight I will go downstairs to play bridge with three other old ladies, or maybe with two old ladies and a younger man.  Life is full of changes, and the story of my bridge playing is an example.

I had not played bridge for more than a quarter century when I moved into this retirement home. Many of the people who live here grew up in fundamentalist Christian homes (as I did) and were told that card playing was a sin, along with dancing. drinking “strong spirits”, and going to movies on Sunday.  They do not play bridge.

I learned to play bridge in a little club I belonged to in high school.  In college we played a few hands every night, laying the cards out on a bed in the dorm after supper. For years after that wherever I lived, I played regularly.  Just like an alcoholic or compulsive gambler.

Wally liked to play bridge.  When we lived in Michigan, he played with men on the train while commuting to downtown Detroit.  After we returned to Chicago, we played as partners in couples’ clubs.  I also met twice a month with seven other women for lunch and bridge.  That was in the 1970's.  At Christmas I heard from two of those friends.  

I married John, and my bridge playing ceased for many years.  He did not play any card games except Black Jack.  We went to Las Vegas.  John went down to the tables early every morning while I was still sleeping.  When he came back to wake me up, he always claimed to have won enough to buy me breakfast.

Years later I moved into this retirement home.  I lived here for two years without even thinking about playing bridge.  Then Doris moved into an apartment downstairs.  She was an avid bridge player, spending hours every day playing bridge on the computer.  She recruited me, Sue, and Mariam.  Sue, originally from Mississippi, is still dark-haired at 82.  Mariam, who grew up on an Illinois farm, plays a mean game at age 91.  We played on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m.  Old ladies go to bed early.
Stacy wanted to play, too, so we added a second game on Thursdays.  At 6 feet, 8 inches, this former basketball player is young enough to be our son.  Now confined by Parkinson’s, Stacy comes barreling in his electric wheelchair.  When he puts his size 14 shoes under the table, three pairs of ladies’s feet are pushed back under our chairs.  

We ladies are all conservative in our bidding.  None of us gets upset if the cards do not play out the way we want them to.  Stacy still has not learned that even if he has seven cards in one suit, he can not win if none of them are face cards.  It makes for some interesting hands.

As suddenly as she moved in, Doris moved out.  After she left, Pat came to live here, and the Tuesday and Thursday games continue.

Doris was a like a whirlwind, which blows in, stirs things up, and vanishes, leaving behind a calm.  I doubt if we would be playing bridge if Doris had not brought us together.  I am grateful to her.  Bridge games brought us together, and we who remain have become good friends.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Down Memory Lane

I wanted to copy a New Yorker cartoon.  I carried the magazine into my second bedroom-office and opened the printer.  Oops!   Lying on the glass of the printer in a neat little row were my Texas driver’s license and my Medicare and insurance cards. 

How did that happen? I made copies of the documents for my new primary care doctor and forgot to take them out of the printer.  That was three weeks ago.  For three weeks I drove around Dallas and Garland blissfully unaware that I did not have my driver’s license in my purse. 

For years my friend Marjorie has asked, “Are you still driving?”

I always was a better driver than Marjorie.  She gave up driving after she ran a stop sign and crashed into the side of another car.  I am still driving on that raceway, Dallas’s 635 Expressway.  

I used to be an excellent driver.  Twenty years ago I drove on the autobahn as confidently as a German, evaded crazy Italians in Italy, and avoided clashing with the French in horrendous Paris traffic.  Even more challenging were the batty Britains.  In 1996 I drove Marjorie all over England and Scotland on the wrong side of the road.  At the end of the trip, Marjorie said, “Ilene, you are an excellent driver.  The proof of it is that we are both still alive.”

But driving without a license?  How did I know no one would smash into me? 

My Hyundai has been badly damaged twice.  Both times the car was standing still.  The first time was in a parking lot at Kroger’s when a little old man in a big pickup truck tried to make a U-turn into the space next to my car.  He smashed up the rear door and fender on the driver’s side.  His insurance paid $1,000 to have a body shop make the repairs.   

The second time was last February.  I was stopped behind a small black car in the left lane on Shiloh Road, waiting for the traffic light to turn green.  The light changed and the black car moved out.  I started to drive forward, but with little more than a car length between us, the cab of an enormous truck turned in front of me from the right-hand lane.  I hit the brakes and sat still, watching in horror as the extra-long trailer came closer and closer until with a loud screech it scraped off the passenger side of my car. 

The truck’s driver was a 69-year-old trainee, trying to make a wide right turn.  He did not see me and failed to yield the right-of-way. The damage was so severe that the trucking company’s insurance company totaled my car.  It took two months to convince them to pay me enough to have the car repaired.  

Who could predict something like this would not happen again?  If it does, I will need to pull my license out of my purse to prove I can drive legally, even if I am so old I should consider giving it up.  Texas – and the World – is full of crazy, careless, and incompetent people.  Maybe I am one of them. 

Neither my driving nor my memory is as good as it used to be.  My problem is not knowing I forgot.  Until something turns up to remind me, like a driver’s license lying on the printer, I will never know.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Twelth Night

    January 6 is the official – well, traditional – end of the holidays.  The last of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The day the three wise men finally made it to Bethlehem with their gifts to the Christ Child.  The night St. Nicholas filled Dutch children’s wooden shoes with goodies.  The date the Christmas Elf brought toys to children in Norway.  The last delivery of pipers, milkmaids, swans, leaping lords, and the Partridge in a Pear Tree.

    And what am I doing on this January 6? 

    Trying to find the energy to resume all the activities I put on hold while making pointless visits to doctors in the last few months.  Routine visits to dentist and eye doctor: no cavities and no need for new glasses.  Pain in my arm sent me from vascular surgeon (no problem with blood flow) to neurologist (nerves okay) to hospital for Doplar (neck artery open).  Perhaps I have carpel tunnel (due to all the typing I do).  Or maybe I am just old.

    My daughter Martha came to see me for a few days after Christmas.  She and her brother David are in similar situations, Martha in Illinois, David in California.  Both have important, successful careers.  They make lots of money.  What mother wouldn’t be proud? 

    I worry about my son and daughter.  Both work 60 hours a week and are stressed out, trying to find time for their families and with no time just to sit back and chill out. 

    I remember the frantic years when I was a working mother.  I also remember years when I was not working, when my children were little.  I was NOT a stay-at-home Mom.  Wherever we lived, the children and I went places and had fun. We went to state fairs in Michigan and Texas, to museums in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago.  We produced puppet shows and plays in the basement, clothes-line art shows in the backyard.  Rainy days we played monopoly or worked jigsaw puzzles.  We went tent camping, just the kids and me.

    And I still had time to read novels – and write a few – be a Girl Scout leader, Cub Scout den mother, take an active part in the League of Women Voters, and play bridge with AAUW friends, plus church work. 

    It is sad that today’s millions of working mothers have no time to play with their children.  For most, the income is necessary.  But is it really? 

    As for me, I now have no responsibility for anyone else.  How I spend my time is up to me.  So far my new January 2013 calendar is blank.  I refuse to accept any doctor appointments until February.  And I’ll post blogs only after I’ve caught up on other activities.

    Today I sat in my recliner with Charlie in my lap and read the Dec. 24 & 31 New Yorker.  Among the cartoons I found one that will be my motto for 2013.  A New Year’s Eve party, with balloons and champagne.  A man in a funny hat lifts his glass and says, “Here’s to even lower expectations in the New Year.”  

    To Hell with all the things we “should” do.  Let’s have fun.