Dear Mr Eagle: Me, too

In my newly renewed effort to make something more of my writing than an occasional blog post, I have begun a course on Memoir and the Personal Essay on Coursera. In order to garner wider, more diverse feedback, I will be posting my assignments here.  Please, if you are so inclined and have a moment, leave a comment with your reaction to it.  My future published self appreciates it!

This week’s assignment was to write a letter to a “straw man,” someone who is not a friend or family member, but who was a significant figure in your life as a child or young person. This should be someone associated with a specific period in your life, a period long enough ago that you would not have a clear sense of events occurring beyond your neighborhood or region. Addressing your writing to an adult who would have had the social consciousness then that you have now will help you to maintain a mature perspective as you explore the memory.

In the letter, recount a specific personal event that had a notable impact on your life alone, and which occurred while you were, say, that teacher’s student. Incorporate references to what we’ll call a “global” event that made headlines in the newspapers at the time. In essence, your letter is an attempt to connect your childhood experience to a larger social and historical consciousness you may not have had as a child.


Dear Mr. Eagle,

It’s been some 45 years since I last saw you; truthfully, I hadn’t thought of you once before all the media coverage of the #MeToo movement brought your hawk-nosed, white-maned visage rocketing back to me as the purveyor of one of the more shame-filled episodes in my life.

As my eighth-grade journalism teacher, you must’ve been aware of the burgeoning Women’s Movement and the work of journalist Gloria Steinem, who had co-founded MS Magazine just three years earlier.  It’s funny that you never mentioned her or the significance of her accomplishments in class, but perhaps that oversight should be blamed on the fetishistic hold my breasts seemingly had on your attention at the time. But maybe you did?  The fact is, I don’t remember anything at all about the content of your instruction or assignments because of horrid emotional residue of that day, very early on in the year, when you chose to pull me out of class to discuss my boobs.  Well – not to discuss, per se.  Rather, you delivered a monologue to me, whilst staring at them, regarding their shape, size, and prominent visibility on my chest and the debilitating consequences those qualities held for the hapless men and boys forced to endure their proximity, whilst I stood, arms crossed furiously over them, red-faced and mortified.  We were standing in the middle of the breezeway just outside the restrooms; I remember having the insane thought you were going to ask me to go into the restroom to remove my offending body parts and bring them out to you.  I felt like a shoplifter caught in the act and confronted by the chief of security; how could I have imagined that I was entitled to the disposition of my own body parts?

Granted, I was rather scantily dressed that day in a crop top that was nothing more than a bra capped with sleeves which boldly exposed the tanned, golden-haired acreage of my stomach (I’d spent a great deal of time at the beach the preceding summer.)  In my defense, though, it was my 31-year-old mother’s top.  Surely it would’ve been her place – or at least some other kindred female’s – to instruct me on the inherent risks of a naive and ingenuous teen provoking titillation when she is wholly unaware of possible outcomes.  Perhaps you felt it was your paternalistic duty, as a member of the provoked gender, to draw a lascivious portrait of those outcomes for me while we stood in that breezeway, causing a few of my hallpass-bearing peers to have to circle round us to enter and exit the restrooms

In 1974, I was thirteen and awash in the nebulous, naughty awareness that my sexuality could be displayed, that its inherent purpose was for display. This was the era of both Cosmopolitan magazine and the Pill; women now, finally, could have their cake and eat it, too.  I had lifted Alix Kate Shulman’s sexually explicit Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen out of the family bookshelf, for heaven’s sake, shoving in between my waterbed mattress and frame to sate my budding masturbatory cravings. My whole family watched The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour religiously, my mom and I breathlessly awaiting the calvacade of skin-baring costumes that Cher would bring to our living room once a week.  Goldie Hawn, who had a regular role on Laugh In, seemed the perfect representation of blond bombshell femininity; she was kooky, bubbly, and guileless without the overt sexuality of a Barbarella (Jane Fonda) or Loana (Raquel Welch), which I vaguely recognized to be a bit mature for my own aspirations.

My mother herself had recently transformed, from a Girl-Scout den mother who cooked all our meals, sewed us matching outfits, and arranged elaborate birthday parties for each of her five children, into a giddy, mini-skirted psychology student attending the local university who left the Catholic Church in a stream of fire works (pulling all of us out of parochial school, which is how I ended up in your public junior high school class) after having a spectacular disagreement with the head priest regarding the philosophy of Tielhard de Chardin.

Within the deep pool of my innocence, I was a strong swimmer.  I felt both empowered and incredibly buoyed to be young and somewhat pretty.  For me, “borrowing” my mom’s crop top was thoughtless, an extension of the zeitgeist, akin to borrowing her Coty face make-up, pancake mascara, chandelier earrings or Janis Joplin cassette tapes. I’d sneak these things after she’d depart for class, speculating that she might raise some personal objections regarding my treatment of her stuff, but never apprehending any disparity between what was suitable for her consumption versus mine. Until my little tete-a-tete with you, of course.

With your eyes gluttonously glued to my (barely) discernible nipples, you pointedly and efficiently branded my naivete otherwise.  I was a hussy, you informed me, or at least I appeared to be, given my sartorial choices.  Men would never recognize my intellect, you warned, when compelled to muster all their virtue to resist my brazen display of breast meat.  You served me my introduction to the gelatinous trail of the slimy male gaze, with its protective coating of blameless virtue.  I had forced you into this embarrassing position and should therefore submit graciously and humbly to your well-intentioned verbal thrusts.

Actually, I have no idea what your real intentions might have been; I was too blood-soaked in humiliation and embarrassment to register any hint of actual kindness or concern.  I had spent the previous seven years within the sheltered confines of a Catholic school, where the primary authoritarian figures were habit-clad nuns whose disciplinary guidance involved rulers to the palm and rote sentence-writing. You may have been reacting yourself to the slights and push-backs of a newly liberated Mrs. Eagle.  Perhaps you had a daughter at home who had emerged from the Summer of Love clad in hip-huggers and body paint.  Sudden permissions were being granted to a traditionally cloistered  body: the female of the species was in full parade   And, even though I had only a dim appreciation of the larger context giving rise to my own sexual awareness, you did have a certain prescience regarding my future entanglements with the male gaze: I would endure my first abortion not even a year later. (So much for the Pill.)

Dear Mr. Eagle, I’ve become increasingly cognizant these past couple years of how deeply and profoundly your little five-minute lecture altered my perception of myself.  Too early, I was handed the reins of my preternaturally voluptuous body and told I was in control.  When you are informed, at the tender age of thirteen, that – just by virtue of your anatomy – you exert a terrifying power over half of the human race, you might not yet have the rational capacity to maturely exert it.  What you engendered in me, instead, was an unquenchable hunger for dominance and revenge.  If I, indeed, had such a magical, irresistible tool at my disposal, why not employ it to my own advantage? Thus, a decade of promiscuity and liberation commenced that echoed some of the fault lines being drawn on the wider cultural stage. Nothing has been the same since.

What’s in Your Garage?

“Anybody know what this is?”

I hold up a cardboard box, hermetically sealed with silver duct tape. My parents look up from their own tasks, shake their heads simultaneously. It’s Wednesday morning and we are thirty minutes into our now-weekly ritual of cleaning out the garage.

I use box cutters to slice through several rounds of the sticky tape. It’s bundled as tightly as if it contained gold bullion or some prized food stuff vulnerable to bugs. Inside, I find wadded newspaper, stuffed in between more newspaper, wrapped round oddly-shaped, bulky objects. I tear off this newspaper carefully, noting the date on the upper right corner of each page: October 17, 1995. My father is hovering over my shoulder as the crumpled print pages reveal tributes to bygone high school and junior college athletic feats. “My trophies!” he cries. Immediately, I recognize the battle line being drawn.

I am the choreographer of this effort to clear out 40+ years of accumulated memorabilia, garden gadgets, record albums, baby books, pool toys, painting paraphernalia, abandoned construction projects, cleaning products, and auto maintenance gear. My mom enlisted my backing after she reached a stalemate years ago with my dad in her effort to cut a clear line through the detritus. The items each deem essential for preservation are widely divergent; my mom favors holiday decorations she’s displayed since my childhood and craft projects she never got around to starting while my dad clings to dusty golf clubs, bowling balls, and mementos from his years as a police officer. The overall tension in the garage had ratcheted up significantly just a few minutes previously, when my mom tried to convince my dad to dispose of the gun belt he was issued as a recruit in 1966.

“Someone might want it,” my dad insists. The only person I can identify as having some (very remote) use for it is my nephew who is a member of a police tactical command force over 400 miles away. Remembering Facebook postings of him astride a tank wearing military-style camouflage and holding an automatic weapon raise doubts about his receptiveness, however.

“I watch reality cop shows all the time, Bob, and they don’t use equipment like this anymore. They all wear vests that hold their gear.”

“That’s not true, Sherry. Some cops still wear belts.”

“Well then, let’s donate it to a police station so someone can get some use from it.”

“No, I want to keep it.”

“I thought you just said that someone might want it.”

“I’m keeping it, Sherry.”

And that’s the end of that. This preface does not bode well for the disposition of trophies.


This is exactly why we’re taking this project a shelf at a time; none of our nerves can withstand more than a couple hours of the skirmishes involved in sifting through the accumulated strata of two people’s lives. I don’t find it coincidental that so many books on decluttering, tidying up, and organizing your shit have become bestsellers in the past decade. Baby boomers are aging, and their kids are having to contend with the amassed material collections of parental hopes, dreams, aspirations, hobbies, professional, domestic and recreational endeavors as they downsize and die.

“My trophies!” His plaintive cry echoes in my heart and resonates with the desperation it embodies. I ended up living here with them as a result of my dad’s near-fatal bout of viral meningitis back in 2016-17. During his illness, he lost the ability to walk without assistance or articulate his needs. He hallucinated, ate his meals with his hands, and failed to recognize family member and friends he’d known for years. When he regained the ability to perambulate, my mother and I took turns sleeping on the upstairs landing, afraid he would stumble down the stairs in a fog in the middle of the night. His recovery took more than a year and left him with nerve damage in his legs and hips, resulting in a pronounced limp and inability to walk more than 50 feet or so without resting. His days of running, intercepting, hurling, pummeling glory are long over the horizon.

Back in 2011 when Mike and I sold our condo, we were forced into the same situation. Though we didn’t have a garage and our domestic space amounted to less than a third of what my parent’s have, fifteen years in the same location had lead to a similar accumulation of stuff one doesn’t know what to do with besides stick it in a drawer, closet, or under the bed until the perfect solution miraculously appears. Which it never does. (Which is why people should be forced to move every decade just to have to confront those decisions. Just saying.)

The tasks of divesting ourselves of the past were significantly greased by our giddy anticipation of the immediate future: we were headed out on a months-long, nation-spanning camping expedition that would culminate in my departure for Peace Corps service. Neither one of us held fond memories of the preceding decade. We had both been working at stultifying jobs for too many years and suffered the career-path disillusionment and general sense of ennui that typifies the average mid-life crisis. Shedding the material evidence of our unremarkable, cookie-cutter existence secured our belief that things would be different, better for us in the coming years. We were still in our forties; there were unbounded years ahead to turn things around, reinvent ourselves, create new routines, begin anew. The horizon shimmered with realizable potential.

This is not the case for my parents, who are both closer to eighty than seventy. Realistically, they have ten, maybe fifteen years left. (My maternal grandmother, 98 and going like the Energizer bunny, is definitely an outlier; only one of my three other grandparents lived to their mid-80’s.) Given the limitations of their various health issues and physical ailments, the coming decade is most likely the last chapter in their lives. Throughout a lifetime love affair with literary biographies, I’ve discovered few folks reinvent themselves in the final pages. It takes too much effort to embark on life-altering courses of action. By the time one reaches their age, the tendency is towards reflecting, crafting and other light hobbies, enjoying family gatherings, maybe some occasional traveling. They are who they are; they may deepen, but not transform, much less recapture the physicality and dynamism of youth. In other words, those trophies are the reliquary of the talented athlete my dad once was.

The act of discarding stuff is, in part, no longer believing in its magical assurances. By holding onto to journals and diaries, we believe the life lessons therein contained are captured and incorporated, need never be repeated. Moldy scrapbooks attest to our ability to romance, conquer, pinnacle, succeed, and serve as prequels to further achievements. Trophies give concrete testimony to our talents, inherent aspects of our character that will continue to generate recognition in the years to come. Golf clubs bespeak future afternoons strolling the greens, holes in one still left to hit. Now, my mother is struggling to acknowledge that, more likely than not, she will never regain the strength and stamina to employ the textured paint materials she purchased for $90 back in the ’90’s (“That was like several hundred dollars now,” she laments.) My father is loath to admit that swinging a golf club generates too much pain to be enjoyable. But for as long as these items have a home in the garage, they are an unspoken promise that better times hover ahead, dark clouds backlit by fierce sunlight.

Amid these Wednesdays fraught with existential crisis, I have begun to trace parallels in my own life, despite being twenty years younger. Specifically, with my dream of being “a writer.” Because that’s what I’ve told myself and others, for years and years and years: someday, given enough time and space, I will become a published writer. I don’t actually contemplate the specific work it takes to accomplish such – like sitting down at the keyboard for hours at a time, day after day, month after month, for years at a time; the classes, retreats, and writing groups; the false starts, painful critiques, and rejection slips. I just always believed that someday, magically, without forethought or discipline or effort, my outpouring of nouns and verbs and adjectives would find their way into print. Somewhere, beyond the horizon, lay my career as a writer. It is just now, as I watch my parents fight the realization that all the various intentions they’ve stored for someday, sometime, somewhere, somehow, have expired, that I begin to entertain the notion that might be my destiny, too. Unless I begin now to alter the course of its trajectory, my dream is destined for the garage.


I realize a different approach is needed: this is not a battleground, but a funeral, a grieving space. Those trophies were wrapped so carefully and thoroughly because they were the only remaining tokens of the strong, agile, and fleet young man that my dad used to be. Still is, within his own mind, even though the evidence has been stored away for a quarter century. I once read that all the cells within our bodies are replaced every seven years. So, nothing at all remains, physically, of that graceful, award-winning football player my dad can still recall inhabiting, being. I place the box down at his feet and wrap my arms round my dad.

“I know this is hard,” I say, my face muffled in his chest. He is still inches taller than me, and its always been a profound comfort to lay my head against his beating heart. Suddenly, I feel the heavy iron of tears weighing down my eyelids. “It’s not just throwing away stuff. It’s throwing away pieces of yourself, your life.” We stand silently and he squeezes me forcefully, for just a moment. I surreptitiously wipe my eyes on his tee shirt and go off to wrestle with another box, leaving the trophies at his feet. Minutes later, from the corner of my eye, I see him unwrap each one, turn it over in his hands, then drop it into the waste bin’s maw.

Twister vs. Temblor

A couple of days into my latest trip to Ohio, I am awakened at 11:30-ish pm by what sounds like an air raid siren. “It’s a tornado warning,” Mike says. I lay there instantly wide awake and discomfited, adrenaline coursing. “What’s that mean – a warning? Are we supposed to do something?” I was already picking up my phone to Google when I noted the large red banner message filling my screen:

Tornado Warning: Take Action! A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. There is imminent danger to life and property. Move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows.

And so on. After marveling at the tracking technology that located me within the relatively small affected area to communicate a dire message, I scramble to find my shoes. Then grab iPad and wallet. Mike lives on the 3rd floor of an apartment building with no basement. Although he seems open to waiting it out in proximity to the two large windows leading out to the rain-blurred deck, I am having none of it. I am a huge fan of apocalyptic thunderstorms, but once the wind starts twisting in on itself like a disturbed cat and batting cars and building into its maw, I quickly lose enthusiasm. We beat a retreat down the stairwell and enter the ground floor hallway, where various persons, singly or in pairs, huddled outside their respective doorways. We appeared to be the only non-ground floor residents who made the trip.

“I’m from California,” I announce. “Not quite sure what we’re supposed to do…” A couple pairs of eyes flicker over to us but quickly return to their phone screens. No one says anything. Mike and I take a seat on a ledge abutting the entryway. I immediately place calls to my parents and our daughter in California to inform them of our potential appointment with catastrophe. I do this mostly to sequester the film playing in my head, splicing together all the YouTube clips and dramatic movie scenes (The Wizard of Oz, Twister, Into the Storm) that are filled, invariably, with people being snatched up into the sky, pinwheeling head over heels with nothing to cling to. You can’t even hear their screams.

Ohioan folks are more taciturn than I had expected. They strike me as more like how New Englanders are usually portrayed, stiff upper lip and stoic brow, and all that. The supermarket checkers are not near as chatty as the ones in my local store. They seem to talk to each other just fine, but not really notice me. Or maybe they do, and they can tell I can’t fit myself in to the local narrative arc. I am not of this land, these swards of unending, undifferentiated green; black, looping telephone wires tangled against mountain-less skies; miles of haphazard strip malls and chili franchises – lord, Ohioans love their Skyline Chili. None of the boulevards run straight here, always curving and doubling back around intervening industrial parks and silos, then running at a diagonal until you’ve completely lost track of direction. Many roads are little more than country lanes, winding through neighborhoods backed by more green thickets and dense trees. Ponds dot the landscape. But the element that never fails to astonish me is the empty land – acres and acres of fallow fields, emerald green grassland, and snarled bushes interspersed between compact rows of Victorian houses, more industrial parks, apartment complexes with open patios strewn with BBQs and bicycles, and lone convenience stores crowning the hills. In Southern California, land has not been empty for decades; when some structure is torn down another, grander building immediately replaces it.

Mike and sit for 10-15 minutes in the hallway, pecking at our phones. We hear someone down the hall state, “It’s over,” just as we receive notification that the tornado has passed. Quickly, front doors open and close, the hallway empties, and Mike and I climb the stairs back to his apartment. I lay awake for a while, staring out the window at the rain, displaced, restless. My body is geared up for survival and resists the comfort of bed, turning and twisting this way and that to find a path back into sleep.


On July 4th, I am sitting on the curb along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, watching the parade when I feel the ground beneath me buckle and roll. Like the rhythmic waves breaking onshore behind me, the asphalt has become an undulating ribbon of rock and roll, a subtle shifting of the topography that my eyes can’t quite focus but my inner ear definitely feels. “Hey, are we having an earthquake?” I ask quietly, to no one in particular, not wanting to call attention to what could be The Big One. We are literally a hundred yards from the ocean and any potential tsunami will have its way with the thousands of us gathered for one of the biggest Independence Day celebrations in Southern California. Although the streets run in straight lines east/west, north/south, most of them are closed to traffic within a mile radius for this parade. Thousands of cars are parked along residential streets with no easy outlet. The landscape is flat and unwavering, studded with spindly palm trees that don’t strike me as sturdy anchors. There are two buildings over two stories in the vicinity, the respective wings of the Marriot resort made almost entirely of glass. The Boy Scout troupe wrestling a large flag into compliance continues marching along, though, folks cheering and waving from the sidelines. No one else seems to notice, so I stand and look behind me and note the waves still rolling in, regular and soothing, and I decide it’s not The Big One. The shaking continues for at least a minute, but so many people are jumping up and down, waving arms and bouncing their heads vigorously in time to the music that I decide they could just as well be its source. It’s only an hour later, as we make our way home past open bars with televisions blaring that we learn of the 6.4 earthquake that hit Ridgecrest, some 125 miles away.

The next night I am in front of my computer, watching an episode of Stranger Things, when the earth sways into motion, gradually building its sashay until the leaves on my mother’s potted palms are rustling in rhythm and the windows rattle in their frames. “Do you feel it?” my dad calls from downstairs and my mom and 9-year-old niece and I compare notes: they sense a slight movement, feel unsteady on their feet, I can count a mounting beat as the shaking persists for over a minute. I call my daughter in Huntington Beach (tsunami!) but the circuits are tied up. Five minutes of repeatedly checking Google for an update, we learn this one to be a 7.1, again, centered outside Ridgecrest. The media warns that these major quakes signal an end to a 20-year draught of temblor activity in Southern California; The Big One is overdue. Consider this a warning.


On the phone from Ohio, Mike asks, “Quick! Which do you prefer: tornado or earthquake?” My inner geography immediately responds “Earthquake!” It’s what I know, what I’ve lived with for most of my 57 years. Even Moldova, where I did a three year stint in the Peace Corps, was prone to earthquakes, not tornadoes. But there’s something reassuring about that red banner appearing on my phone, giving me a chance to seek shelter, call loved ones, hold my husband’s hand as we trudge up and down the stairs. With an earthquake, one gets very little, if any, warning. Boom hold on – only nothing is stable and the very ground can liquefy beneath you. I suppose we’ll hear each other’s screams during the worst of it. Unless, of course, tsunami…

April 27, 1985-2019

Today my 36-year-old nephew marries his longtime girlfriend at his family’s ranch in Merced, California, turning a date which for 34 years has been saturated in sadness and loss into one of celebration and welcome. Quite unknowingly, he and his fiancé selected the anniversary of his paternal aunt’s – his father and my sister’s – untimely death for their nuptials. My family couldn’t be more grateful and glad. Finally, a happy ending to a dreadful commemoration.

In the last decade, I admit that the date often comes and goes without me paying heed to its significance. How long can one actively grieve, after all? I was 24-, my sister Lorraine 20-years old, when she died. Given our age difference and the fact that I left home at 17 and was largely out of contact with her until I moved back home at 22, my conscious experience of her as an individual is constrained to perhaps 15 or 16 years of episodic memories. And that becomes an increasingly smaller ratio of my life as each year passes. One of the tragedies inherent in dying young is that one’s persona is forever frozen, never accruing the experiential strata that deepen and flavor a personality and connect us to other people. So, Lorraine fades as time accrues, as she is unable to maintain meaningful bridges into the lives of those of us who remain.   No one can ever dissect, commiserate or appreciate her college years, her serious romantic relationships, her career successes and failures, her children’s unique characters and miens, her pursued interests, abandoned dreams, lost causes, or significant personal triumphs. They were all killed in that head-on collision on a dark canyon road in 1985. (I used to picture her suddenly liberated soul floating about the location, untethered, for months after the accident. Did she know that she was dead? Is there a legitimate case to be made for “knowing” you are dead? I don’t wonder about that anymore. It’s been way too long for her still to be lost, if she ever was indeed.)

My grandmother, Lorraine’s namesake, will turn 98 in less than a month. For the past couple years, because she is open regarding her readiness to die, I do not think of her eventual passing as “tragic” or heartbreaking. My memories of her are rich and robust: I distinctly remember many of her milestone birthdays – 50, 65 (she retired), 75, 90. I don’t think it improbable that she will see 100. Yet, she, too, is fading as time inexorably flows. Her ability to span the divide between herself and her family (all her friends have died) is almost completely constrained. Leaving the house solely for medical appointments, she spends all day in her pajamas and bathrobe, reading in her favorite chair. She will not attend her great-grandson’s wedding and feels no guilt nor regret for not doing more. At this point in her life, experience is passively attenuated, never actively curated. And because of this she is becoming increasingly immobile, frozen in time. The less present she is for each progressing moment, the less we will feel her absence when it becomes irrevocable.

In the end, what do we have of anyone in our lives but our memories of them? Each passing minute, most of them not continuously spent in their presence, describes a growing gulf between us and them. For some, that gulf is only days, perhaps months, wide and is easily surmounted the next time we see them. For others, the gap can lengthen into lives diverged, an unspecified point passed which, unknowingly, marked the limit of our mutual ability to recognize and commune with each other. There are people whose presence I believed essential to my daily existence once upon a time (my ex-husband springs to mind or my very best friend from high school) who could be dead now and it would not affect me in the slightest.

I often ponder how I will be a name that might surface (or not) at Thanksgiving dinner in the year 2095, an atavistic tale told by my now two-year-old grandsons to their probably bored great-grand kids under unimaginable (for me) circumstances. We are all destined to fade away and in the grand scheme of things a life of 20 or 98 years is of equal, unimportant length to those who hold no memories of us. Meanwhile, I am glad to welcome another iteration of family to the layers that lie beneath.

3:00am with Wolf & River


My twin grandsons are two weeks old today. Right now, mommy and daddy have taken them out for a walk so I have a brief respite to record some thoughts.

I know that when I announced my daughter’s pregnancy I fielded many heartfelt congratulations and expressed excitement from friends who already had grandchildren, telling me what a completely different experience it would be from having my own child. “You get to spoil them!” “You can hand them back when they’re cranky.” “You will realize a different sort of love – one not based on responsibility for raising them but on the pure joy of experiencing them.” Yeah – not so much yet. I’ve been living with my daughter full-time as she and her partner make the transition into parenthood with preemie newborns and have been, in effect, functioning as a third parent, complete with bottle-feedings, burpings, changing diapers, cleaning bottles, endless laundry, bath time, and tandem comforting ( mom and babies.) The fact that they are premature puts an added burden of anxiety on top of everything: about once a day one of them gags and chokes after feeding, entailing the need to turn him head down over one’s arm and firmly pat his back. So one must be watching them like a hawk one hour out of every three to ensure that someone is there to intervene when this happens. This does not promote any significant amount of time for relaxation and regrouping.

I’ve had one kid – and I did it alone, without benefit of a husband or partner. I lived with my parents at the time but they were both working full-time and not available to help at 3:00am as I trod the bedroom floor trying to comfort a shrieking infant. But my daughter was full-term, 8lbs, 2oz. She had a fully-formed digestive system and a hearty trachea. And there was just one of her. Once I had her fed and changed and burped and swaddled, I could look forward most nights to a quiet stretch when I could sleep myself. This is not true with preemie twins. The entire cycle of feeding, changing, burping, comforting, and swaddling often takes up to 2-3 hours for one. And by the time he’s quiet, the other one is ready to go again. Most times they are overlapping. I have no idea how a single person could manage. (In fact, the doula who has been helping us says that she no longer accepts twins in her practice; it’s just too hard, she says.)

What has been SO gratifying about this experience is witnessing my daughter transform from a young woman who was accustomed to indulging herself and her whims (yes, a millennial!)  into an absorbed mother who has lost all concern for herself and her own needs in giving 24/7 attention to her newborns. It has been both achingly stressful and immensely rewarding for me to witness her complete metamorphosis: it is so hard to watch her dragging herself from bedroom to kitchen to rewash another receptacle for her breast milk (she pumps in order to provide bottles for daddy and me to do feedings) or change another shitty diaper with bleary eyes in the half-light of dawn, but so heart-warming to hear her murmuring a lullaby or see her kiss the top of a shrieking head. Since her partner is working full-time, it is most often her and I together through the wee hours of night, trying to juggle the bottle warming and burping and diaper changing and gag monitoring; it has brought us into a closeness I’ve not experienced with her prior to now. I am sure at some point I will enjoy all the benefits of being a grandmother, but right now I am reveling once more in the experience of being a mother and watching my child master, with grace and tenacity and boundless love, one of the biggest challenges of her life so far.


I’ve been absent from this space for awhile, mostly because I’m acclimating to a new routine and living situation. Sitting high on a hill, overlooking the never-ending stream of automobiles sluicing down the 5 freeway, California sun lighting up floor-to-ceiling windows is a different experience than being nestled down in a tree-arbored apartment in southwest Ohio. The dominant color there is green; here I am steeped in golden brown and dusty blue.


My daughter Rhiannon is coming up on 35 weeks of pregnancy with twin boys and I have been summoned in support, the first time in more than a decade that I can recall her making an unequivocal request for my help. Obviously, I am awash in emotion. This is one of those life passages so fraught with implication and meaning that one is placed in an altered state merely by their occurrence. Watching my only child soften into the contours of fecundity, I hover in suspended awareness. Time is passing; my role in my own life no longer assumes center stage. This is the future coalescing and supplanting, as it always has and will forever do.


Los Angeles is providing a fertile stage for this awareness; though I have lived in its proximity most of my life, I have not spent a great deal of time within its neighborhoods. My maternal grandmother lived just outside of Glendale for decades and I would spend one week a year throughout my youth with her, usually in the spring. As my daughter grew, I would drive up once a month or so from Orange County and Grandma and I would take her to Griffith Park or Descanso Gardens or the Galleria, the same places she used to take me. That was, in essence, what LA represented for me: discrete destinations, curated experiences, little containers of childhood. Now – and especially in contrast to the semi-rural context of Ohio and Moldova – LA has deepened into a complex tapestry, richly colorful, fantastically disordered, and pulsating with life. I finally begin to understand and appreciate the siren call of LA. Energy never dissipates here. There is no quiet. At 3am, the number of cars rushing through those asphalt arteries down below far exceeds those I would pass at 8am on the 275 into Cincinnati. They hypnotize me and calm me, each one a story, an intention, a full and varied life that shoots by at 75 miles per hour, anonymous and discrete,simultaneously acting out my inherent restlessness and holding it at bay.

When my daughter first moved here five years ago I bought her a book, Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles, that I thought might provide a different perspective on the city where no one, purportedly, walks. Little did I imagine at the time that it would become a trusty companion to my morning perambulations through the many hillside neighborhoods of eastern Los Angeles. Coming from the land of suburban housing tracts, planned communities, and gridded streets, I am delighted by the clapboard bungalows, Craftsman cottages, Neutra- and Wright-designed villas, bougainvillea-draped manors, and wooded cabins that hang off the slopes of precarious canyons fed by one-lane, buckled cement roadways that twist around and back on themselves in whimsical loops.

Climbing two or sometimes three (if I’m feeling really ambitious) staircases every morning is giving me a much more arduous but enjoyable workout than the elliptical machine at the Ohio gym. During a typical walk, I might pass by the house where Amy Semple lived, Anais Nin died, Thelma Todd was murdered, or Faulkner wrote his screenplays; circumnavigate an emptied drinking-water reservoir being reconstructed into a wetland habitat; conquer the staircases that defeated Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box or the Three Stooges in An Ache in Every Stake; or stroll through the wooded canyon where once the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley line ran. The staircases themselves are vestigial monuments to long-dead contractors – C.W. Shafer or M.W. McCombs – and city inspectors – W.E. Moyle or Rumble – who stamped their names into concrete almost a century ago. They are historical reminders of a time when LA was not a city of cars and freeways, but was, instead, well-served by trolleys, buses, streetcars and light-rail systems. As Secret Stairs tells it:

The staircases were clustered around steep hillside communities near these transit lines…[and were] so much a part of the landscape that developers in some areas built houses that had no other access to the outside world. These “walk-streets”… were set on hillsides without streets or garages. Everything going in or out had to employ the public staircase running, usually, across the front of the house.

Think of that! Houses without vehicle entry a scant handful of miles from downtown LA! And, by virtue of the strenuous effort needed to access them, I imagine, many of them appear not to have been altered or remodeled since they were built in the 20’s and 30’s – a unique and refreshing phenomenon in a city that reinvents itself almost every decade. There is one particular walk-street staircase of 182 steps in Rhiannon’s neighborhood affording the intrepid climber stunning vistas of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the Silver Lake reservoir that I cannot imagine hauling a refrigerator up. The houses along this pedestrian alley are tiny, brightly painted, and overgrown with banana, palm, avocado, cedar, and ancient oak trees. I imagine their contents to be relatively spare and carefully curated, or else collected over decades and never changed. One would need to work hard to accumulate stuff in one of these homes: how bad do you really want that king-sized headboard, mahogany wardrobe, or JennAir range? Enough to haul it up 182 narrow, eroding concrete steps (or pay a ton of money to have someone else do it?)

The density and diversity of these neighborhoods enchants me, welcoming places where economic class and attendant privilege are not so cleanly demarcated. Perhaps one of these reasons why Angelenos remain so overwhelmingly liberal in their politics and lifestyles is that they are not able to isolate themselves in a gated bubble. So much of this city is irretrievably integrated, vagabonds setting up tarp tents in the gulches outside the Whole Foods Market, Guatemalan septuagenarians residing in crumbling adobes next to teenaged celebrities inhabiting world-renowned architectural wonders, bilingual preschools sporting late model Land Rovers parked next to rattletrap Datsuns (remember those) in their dirt lots. Los Angeles is a simmering stew of ethnic and cultural variety that fills me with appreciation, having been steeped in communities both foreign (Eastern Europe) and domestic (Orange County) that offered a limited range of predominantly pale hues. I see what the west coast – and LA, in particular – holds for people who have for years dreamed of a broader, more inclusive landscape. This place sprawls with its seemingly limitless ability to contain it all: every dream, aspiration, inspiration and realization, each nuanced individual goal and massive global concept. Energy never dissipates here. It expands, amplifies, and peoples itself.


When Rhiannon was around seven years old, Mike and I moved from Huntington Beach to Irvine, intent on escaping downtown sidewalks (at that time) littered with used condoms and hypodermics, where adolescent skateboarders would sooner roll over your toes than cede an inch of their trajectory and the summer tourists made guest parking a pipe dream. We retreated to the safety, cleanliness, and order of a first-class school system, landscaped medians, acres of parking lots and no less than five Targets within driving distance. We lost much in the process. I am glad to know that Rhiannon and her partner are concerned less with cocooning their two sons in cotton and convenience and more with exposing them to the wild and eclectic elements that germinate in the City of Angels. I’ve discovered that my daily changes in elevation offer me a visible contrast of perspectives, how one thing can shift and alter according to where one is standing, the landscape itself embodying the interplay and intersection of life at all levels. And all these stairs are making me strong again, increasing my endurance for the long haul, something I’m going to need as the next generation takes the stage.

When We Dance Alone

I am summoned to the front of the pocket-sized room by a woman I take to be the funeral director’s wife. She calls up Lisa, too, who introduced herself previously as the legally appointed guardian of the deceased, a man I’ve never met who now lies dead in a resplendent, satin-lined casket to our left. The hospice chaplain, the funeral director, and two unidentified attendants comprise our audience. The woman arranges herself, Lisa, and me in a tight, uncomfortable circle; I am facing a large monitor mounted above the casket upon which disparate scenes of animals, sunsets, water features and wildflowers appear then fade away. The woman reaches for the first of three battery powered candles arranged on an elevated table behind us; I recognize them as the same set I recently purchased for ten bucks from a national chain store. She flips the switch to set the wick aglow and then pulls our three hands together clumsily to cradle the candle from below. As ancient speakers only partially concealed by dusty drapes in the corners emit the first notes of This Little Light of Mine, we lift the candle above our heads, hold it aloft for three beats, then lower it between us; she then returns it to its place on the small table. We repeat this awkward ritual with the two remaining candles, singing stiffly along with the cheery verses, before retaking our seats.

I did not know the deceased, whom I’ll call JG, a 64 year-old, neatly coiffed black man with a pencil-thin mustache who received hospice services from the agency where I volunteer. As a recent transplant to Cincinnati who has attended only a handful of mostly memorial services, I have no idea what may be appropriate attire so I fall back on black. Lisa, unaccountably clad in what look to be hiking pants, Birkenstock sandals, and a light green, short-sleeve rayon blouse, has spent the previous ten minutes paging through a sparse album containing faded photos from the 1970s of a young man and woman who look to be in their twenties with a small girl who might be seven or eight, presumably JG and his family. All that is known is that once he had a wife and daughter, both of whom have been dead a long time, Lisa explains. “JG was hard to understand,” she tells me. “He had that loose tongue thing, you know, where he rolled all his vowels.” I don’t have any idea of what she means, but apparently this is why she never learned anything about JG during the time she served as his legal guardian. She visited him only a couple of times, she admits. “I have 57 clients. It’s hard to keep track of the details.”

As the chorus disappears under a blanket of staticky electronic feedback, the chaplain commences his eulogy. Oddly, it is replete with anecdotes about his own wife and daughter while containing nothing substantial about JG. He recounts a remark JG’s roommate at the nursing home made about his snoring; he speculates about a female friend who made a flirtatious reference to his broad shoulders. Claiming to have known JG for eight years, the chaplain cannot provide any concrete details regarding JG’s biography before the nursing home other than his profession as a house painter. The sadness that first cornered me upon finding no family or friends in attendance now gains a sharper edge: here lies a man who danced for sixty-four years upon the skin of this earth, skipping to moments of laughter, bending under burdens of grief, holding fast to friends, celebrating momentous events – a man who was once a babe in his mother’s arms, who attended school and went to work and watched TV and drove a car and married a woman and had a child – yet left barely a trace of evidence of those moments or things or people who impacted him or whom felt the effect of him in his wake. How can that be? How can one live that long, have the perspicacity to purchase an expensive casket and the services of a funeral home in advance, afford a nursing home, keep a photo album and proudly display a Beatles poster on the wall of his room to commemorate attendance at a long-ago concert and yet not maintain sufficient human connections to garner even a small gathering at his own funeral? What happened to you JG?

After the chaplain winds up his sermonizing with a vehement attestation that the world was created in just seven days, yessirreee, our little group files outside to stand beside the hearse. As the O’Jays serenade us with Stairway to Heaven from its speakers, the funeral director releases three blue balloons into the sky. My environmentally-aware self shudders inwardly: I wait for the balloons to catch on one of the entangled threads of telephone lines looped across the horizon but they manage to sail above and quickly disappear, blue against blue an unfortunate choice of color scheme. Stairway to Heaven fades abruptly, mid-chorus and suddenly the funeral director is gathering me into a hearty embrace. (Wait – I don’t know you!) The rest of the group shakes hands effusively, apparently either feeling saintly that we gave good effort to this thankless duty or relieved that the dismal ceremony has finally ended and we can resume our daily grind.

As the rest of the group troops back into the funeral home, I make my way across the crumbling driveway to my car. Pulling out, I note a gangly man folded like a pretzel on his front stoop, nursing a tall boy. A healthy growth of weeds fans the curbside all the way down the block. As I navigate the backstreets of downtown Cincy, I drift into a worn groove of speculation about death: how some get to know ahead of time and for some it’s a surprise; that dying in one’s sleep can be a blessing or a curse; when particulars of geography and health and work and cost preclude the attendance of people who care; why the dispensation of corpses is more important to some folks than others; how notions of reincarnation or salvation or a reintegration with an amorphous, energetic life force or a complete erasure into a featureless void will inform the process of the inevitable. What I don’t know, can only surmise, is what JG thought about death, his own death, and the circumstances that resulted in a pitiful clutch of strangers bidding him a rote and generic adieu.


I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing, I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

– “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne