Branching Points – A Fork in the Road

By Barbara McCarthy

Barb McCarthy

There have been many forks in the road in my life – college, marriage, divorce, buying a house and condo, retiring, national events, etc. But taking Guided Autobiography in the spring of 2022 is the most significant. Guided Autobiography changed the underlying factors that were present during all the other forks. Thus, it’s most important to write about today.

To explain, my marriage and subsequent divorce were turning points. I married a man I didn’t want to marry. A few weeks before our wedding I told my mother I did not want to marry Rich. She said it was just pre-wedding jitters. I was 25 at the time and did not have the confidence to trust my own instincts. I needed confirmation from someone that it was okay to call it off. Three years into the marriage, I said I wanted to move out but he started to cry, therapy was tried and after another three years, I was single.

So, divorce was a turning point in my life but I hadn’t really changed. I corrected a bad decision but it took me six years. However, there have been times in my life when I knew for certain that my decision was the right one. I knew I was going to buy my 1989 red Honda Prelude the minute I saw it. I knew I would rent an apartment at Lincoln School when I walked in. I knew I would buy my house as I stood on the sidewalk gazing at the front door. And I told a realtor, “I’ll take it” within five minutes of being in my condo. All were beneficial, long-lasting decisions.

That’s the feeling I now have much of the time after participating in the Guided Autobiography class. Writing about myself and reading what I wrote to strangers changed me. Or, did it reveal me? Did it give me permission to trust my instincts?

Feedback from classmates was insightful and helpful. I revealed failures yet felt accepted and supported. The writing and the class gave me validation I didn’t know I needed. I was surprised at how open and honest my classmates were with their life experiences. Maybe that was part of it too: realizing that everyone has struggles in life.

It is unknown where this fork will take me. I only know it will be an intentional journey based on what fits with my plans for a fulfilling and purposeful life.

©2022 Barbara McCarthy

Barb is a lifelong Madisonian who retired right before the pandemic took hold of the world. Along with practicing more yoga, she believed writing about her past was necessary for a happy, productive and fulfilling retirement. A Guided Autobiography class launched her personal writing efforts along with taking History classes as a Senior Guest Auditor at UW-Madison. She lives in the heart of Madison and enjoys all that the isthmus offers.

P.S. from Sarah

My next Guided Autobiography workshop is about to start in Madison: this is an in-person workshop.

  • When: This 10-week workshop meets Thursday mornings, 9:30-11:30 a.m. Central, from 10/6 to 12/15.
  • Where: Truax campus, Protective Services Building, Room 225
  • Fee: $205
  • To register: Click here and follow the link to register for Class #33569, or call 608.258.2301, Option 2

I believe deeply in the Guided Autobiography method developed by Dr. James Birren. When I teach this workshop, I find that students do more than start writing down their memories—they gain insights about their lives that help them find new meaning, satisfaction, and comfort in life. As fellow GAB instructor Jerry Waxler says, “it helps to free one’s self from the tyranny of unresolved memories.” Is that something you’d like for yourself or someone you know? 

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Fandom

By Nancy Levinson

“Some years back psychologists, observing the intense emotional attachment that fans develop toward actors and other celebrities, named the phenomena “parasocial relationships, with fans investing time, energy and emotion in stars who are unaware of their existence . . . fans even will feel as if they own the celebrity or as if they are a personal partner.” — New York Times, July 31, 2022

I was a fan once. In my earliest movie-going years I was much taken with bigger-than-life actresses, Natalie Wood and Margaret O’Brien. One day Natalie actually appeared live in a department store downtown, publicizing a line of little plaid dresses with starched white Peter Pan collars. If you bought a dress, she would sign her name with a ballpoint pen on the collar. My mother made the purchase as my heart leapt, and my idol penned her autograph. At home, I would not allow this treasure to be washed.

During my early adolescence, new stars twinkled in my eye. Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Powell were tops, and I idolized Esther Williams. On a big screen and in a deep-water pool she dipped and flipped, each swim scene climaxing with rising music while amidst a fountain she emerged gloriously in a turquoise or raspberry swimsuit and matching flowered headdress upon perfectly coiffed hair.

Then there were the men. Heart throbs. Montgomery Clift, Audie Murphy, and yes, Rock Hudson. Magazines called Motion Picture, Photoplay, and Silver Screen, priced a dime each at the drugstore, contained full-page pictures of these dreamy faces up close. I carefully cut them out and pinned them on my bedroom walls. One could also write requests directly to studios in Hollywood, California and receive glossy 8×10 photos. Free!

Soon I became a Doo Wop music devotee, mooning over The Four Lads, The Four Freshman, the Platters. . . with friends I listened to records in listening booths in a department store (the same store where Natalie Wood signed my dress) and occasionally paid ninety-nine cents to buy one. Johnny Ray was all the rage, too. Yes, I was fan of the singer and his outrageously dramatic performances. “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud that Cried.” Oh, how I cried! And Screamed! That came to be known as hysteria. Later I would understand the emotional and hormonal needs of early-teen girl mobs squealing at Beatles concerts.

One hot summer evening I was in my room upstairs, singing loudly along with Johnny Ray on my victrola when the doorbell rang. On the front step stood the boy next door with two friends, arms outstretched while they burst into song, wildly imitating me and my idol. Then they busted into uncontrollable laughter.

Well, the time was right for me to move on anyway. I was just learning to play tennis and following the greats of the day, especially Maureen Connolly. Once I got a ticket to an indoor arena match between Jack Kramer and Pancho Segura. The following week I bought a white shirt and shorts like those pros sported and wore them all summer on my neighborhood park court. (washed) I wasn’t fawning. That, of course, was the proper court wear. As I watched those athletes on screens, small and large, I learned strokes, swings, rules, good manners, and proper behavior in competition. Looking back, I might say that I’d become a student!

How innocent I was as a young fan! And what a different time before Celebrity Culture invaded with yet more movies, TV, live heavy metal and rock concerts, Sunset Boulevard- style billboards, and ever-present social media. And don’t the big-name stars revel in limelight attention, money, power, and privileges! A two-way road.

Wikipedia includes a large entry discussing “celebrity worship syndrome,” some crazed enough to involve stalking and attacking performers on stage. Security guards are employed full-time. Psychologists and journalists offer a range of explanations for current fandom, often reaching a place of obsession. Fascinated, many feel attached to the wealth, fame, and glowing glamour. Others may be somewhat small-minded or feel empty or powerless, and a relationship they conjure becomes one of love, sometimes, sadly, even believing it to be requited.

For myself, in passing time I began taking to heart all manner of personalities, dead and alive. . . artists, writers, journalists, symphonic and operatic performers. . . Occasionally, I have written letters to novelists and editorial columnists praising their work. I join standing ovations in theaters and concert halls, but I am not a fan, as such.

I am a devoted admirer.

© 2022 Nancy Levinson

Nancy is the author of MOMENTS OF DAWN:  A Poetic Memoir of Love & Family, Affliction & Affirmation, as well as a chapbook, The Diagnosis Changes Everything. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetica, Sledgehammer, Hamilton Stone Review, Panoply, Constellations, and Fleas on the Dog. In past chapters of her life, she published thirty books for young readers. Her youthful years were spent in Minneapolis.  It happens that she now lives in Los Angeles, only minutes from Hollywood.

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LifeMapping—Because Everything Happened Somewhere

By Sarah White

Dean Olsen, 2022

An email recently popped into my in-box that reminded me of one of the oddest—and most entertaining—freelance writing assignments I’ve ever taken on. That email was about a reminiscence tool that you might consider for yourself or a loved one. I had doubts back then but today, I’m a fan.

The email began:

“A few years ago, you were one of the very first users of LifeMapping, an interactive mapping application that lets you literally map the story of your life, story by story, event by event. Thank you for your early support…”

It was sent by Dean Olsen, founder of a tech start-up that has built an app that creates an online autobiography for an individual. It went on to say, “I’m delighted to announce that, after much work, we are launching LifeMapping to the paying public.”

My assignment back in 2017 had been to craft one thousand prompting questions for the app.

I’m generally skeptical of apps for reminiscing; IMHO it is an activity best pursued by two live people interacting in real time, or a writer engaged in thoughtful reflection at a keyboard or page. But the money was good and Dean’s enthusiasm was (and still is) infectious. I wrote about 850 questions before my well ran dry. Working with Dean and his team back then was a pleasure. I lost touch with Dean and LifeMapping for a while. Then, his email arrived.

“Rediscover the events and experiences that made you who you are”

Dean’s flash of insight that led to the app is simple: “Everything happens somewhere, so why don’t we use time and space to organize our stories?”  The LifeMapping app combines prompting questions, a simple user interface, and a digital map layer to create private online maps. Users create a LifeMap that holds stories, photos, and/or sound files, each tied to a date on a timeline and specific map coordinates. The app is designed so that each individual’s LifeMap can be shared with family and friends.

My Life Map, a work in progress

The truth of Dean’s insight became clear to me during the last months of my mother’s life. It was the first summer of COVID, and we were constrained to meeting outside her assisted living facility. With nothing to do, I tried to interest her in reminiscing. But she didn’t respond well to my random questions; at 97, they didn’t get her memories flowing. Then I discovered that she responded excitedly to Google Maps. I started using her iPad to take her to the address of her childhood home in Huntington, Indiana. Then we would “walk away” from her front door in different directions. Her memories spilled out about people, places, events… soon I was switching on my iPhone’s Voice Messages app to capture her recollections. If I’d thought of using LifeMapping then, I would have done so. Using a map as a prompt made all the difference.

For now: best used on a laptop; in the future, a convenient mobile app

From that first flash of insight, Dean has pursued his app development with a relentless energy that led to significant startup funding (which is how I got paid to draft those prompting questions). Since then, perseverance has been the name of Dean’s long game. He works a “day job”; he invests what he can in development; he reaches milestones like the one that triggered his recent email. It continued, “Over the past few years, we’ve been doing steady work on LifeMapping. Come visit us at lifemapping.co to see what we’ve done.”

When I reached out to Dean after receiving the email, he told me, “I’m hearing nice stuff. Folks are saying ‘this is just the tool I was hoping for. It is easy for me to use, it’s easy for my father, and he’s really enjoying it.’”

This brings to light why a reminiscence app can be as good as two live people interacting in real time. Dean told me, “So far, it’s been pretty successful at promoting interactions. Someone said to me last week that her grandmother had started a LifeMap. As the family was driving up to visit her, the parents told the children, ‘I want you to pull up Grandma’s map and think about a few of the stories you would like to hear more about.’ And the person told me, it actually worked!”

“Most of the development work has been making sure that the time and effort people put into using the app is honored; that their memories are preserved and safe,” Dean told me. He is adamant about the absolute privacy of users’ content in the app; therefore he’s chosen not to accept money from investors or advertisers who might logically expect to harvest user data. The site does not accept advertising or links to outside sites.

Dean acknowledges that the app interface in its current iteration is still clunky on mobile devices. “Please let folks know we are in continuous improvement. It’s just that, in order for us to remain ad-free, we need to finance our work by subscription fees.”

Dean would be delighted to see you register for an account and give LifeMapping a try. A free 14-day trial starts when you sign up; a subscription costs $7.95/month if you choose to continue after the trial period. Gifting a subscription to an older family member is a popular option. Consider giving it a shot, and sending Dean an email to let him know about your experience!

© 2022 Sarah White

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Peace

By Barbara Vander Werff

Sandy

When my BFF, Sandy, was in hospice, she had a sense of peace. Her disease was devastating and a shock to everyone. After her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, she died four weeks later. For those of us she left behind, our profound loss of a friend, mother, grandmother, and wife would be felt far beyond the memorial service.

I looked around my house at all the things she had given me over the years. She knew me. They fit into my life, into my environment, to help define who I was. Other things were bought when we were together, while shopping or on adventures. Sometimes picked out by her, sometimes me, with a nod from her in approval. Sometimes she would look to see if another was available for us to share in a treasure found. Now, they were memories. It made me anxious to think, what now? Who would I explore with, talk with, call when I could not find my way? She was never coming back.

But then I thought about her sense of peace. She knew what was important, she lived a good life, she had been a good person. She had given her all to her family, friends, work, passions, those things she believed in, and most of all, to herself. She was ready to find her peace in death because she had found it in life. The initial diagnosis was heartbreaking, but she accepted it and moved forward. Toward death?

Besides memories of my friend, scattered throughout my house are my collections. As I look deeper, my life unfolds and I wonder if I feel at peace. I have pictures of family, collections of cameras, Boston Terrier figurines, and books. It is my journey of many years to find peace.

Because, what my friend has shown me, is this: if we do not achieve peace in life, how will we ever achieve peace in death?

© 2022 Barb Vander Werff

Barbara Vander Werff grew up in Randolph, Wisconsin, before moving to Madison to go to college and work in health care at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. She did some technical writing for clinical textbooks in diagnostics, ultrasonography, and radiology management. Now retired, she is enjoying writing about life. Where have we ended up, and why?

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Ethan Goes to College

By Faith Ellestad

Image from https://housing.umn.edu/residents/moving-breaks/movein/bring, may be subject to copyright

I had been crying for weeks. How could this have happened? Our beautiful, earnest, sweet natured little boy, our youngest child, was leaving home. He had reluctantly agreed to live at home his first year of college, but he was a sophomore now, more than ready to stretch his wings and move to the dorm.

Truth be told, that year at home had not been particularly smooth.  Ethan hadn’t wanted to go to UW, he wanted to go to Stevens Point where most of his friends had gone.  He was not impressed by our arguments that that living at home would save a lot of money, (something he had not done), and if you graduated from a renowned university, it would pay off in the future. The future seemed a long way away to Ethan, so whenever he was home, he pretty much sat around staring at us resentfully from the depths of the big blue club chair, and we began to question the wisdom of our decision as we stared stonily back from the couch across the room.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t deal with the idea of him moving away, and tears welled up every time I thought about it. His dad was more sanguine.” He’ll only be 3 miles away” he would reassure me, but there was an undertone of exasperation that was not entirely disguised. “Yeah, Mom, he hates when you do that,” his brother had commented, unhelpfully, on more than one occasion, indicating my ever-present damp tissue.  He had been sharing space with his brother, and was probably eager to have the upstairs all to himself.

None of this had any comforting effect on me as Dorm Move-In Day arrived.  Ethan, a gifted procrastinator, had deferred preparations and was just starting to sort through his possessions. 

“Do you have any sheets?” I asked? “No”.  “Blankets? Towels?”  “Uh, No”.

“Are your clothes packed?”  “Oh, yeah, I guess I better do some laundry”.  That meant another couple of hours I wouldn’t have to say goodbye.  I offered to run a load through and my offer was accepted, although if there was gratitude in his answer, I missed it.  Even so, in the privacy of the laundry room, I started to cry again.

Upstairs, a few books had made it into a box along with a vast collection of CDs. “Dad, can you help me carry my TV down?” The TV was gently placed in the back seat of our car. His brother carried down the DVD player, and I brought down a speaker.  And another speaker.  Laundry, most of it clean, was tossed into a basket and taken to the car.  He was almost ready to go.  He bent down to say goodbye to our old dog, which was so sweet, I choked up again.  He waved goodbye to his brother and turned to me.

“Mom,” he said sternly, “if you don’t stop crying, you can’t come!”

That dried up the tears instantly.  I wasn’t going to miss the move-in experience. I squeezed into the back seat, in a tiny sliver of space not taken up by Ethan’s many earthly goods, most of them electronic.

Arriving at Witte Hall, we found a drop-off space, snared a large wheeled bin and joined the parade of students and parents trying to maneuver the wheelbarrow –like conveyances into the elevators.  Once in the dorm room, we met Ethan’s roommate, located his side of the room and began to unload. We were directed to put the TV, VCR, disc player and speakers on the desk, CDs in the bookcase above, and everything else on the floor of the tiny closet.  Our work there was done.  One last look around and it struck me.  The desk was completely covered with entertainment supplies. I saw that his dad had noticed this as well. Not wanting to appear judgmental, I tried to stop the question burning my lips, but couldn’t.  “Ethan,” I asked, gesturing toward the desk, “where are you going to study?”  It was clear he had not given this part of dorm life even a passing thought. He pondered for a moment and then said, quite pleased with himself, “Well, there IS a lounge”.  OK. Allrighty then.  Time to go. 

I struggled hard and managed to give him a dry-eyed hug, then twirled around and fled to the hall while his dad said goodbye. We walked briskly to the elevators and I noticed I was not the only mother in a state of red-nosed, streaming-eyed distress.   Most of the dads just looked solemn.  A few were even smiling.

I dreaded going home to the reality of a house devoid of his presence. I didn’t know how I would react.  We stepped inside, the dog thumped her elderly tail in greeting, there were dishes in the sink, and a coke can on the coffee table.  Ethan had gone to the dorm, but his essence lingered here at home. 

© 2022 Faith Ellestad

Faith has been writing to amuse her family since she was old enough to print letters to her grandparents. Now retired, she has the opportunity (and with Covid restrictions, the time) to share some personal stories, and in the process, discover more about herself. Faith and her husband live with an elderly cat in Madison, Wisconsin. They are the parents of two great sons and a loving daughter-in-law.

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Jane Kinney, Campfire Queen

By Sarah White

This essay was written in response to a Guided Autobiography prompt, “What are you prepared to give up for a friend?”

Camping with my friend Jane at Wildcat Mountain, circa Spring 2000, with my dog Fred

Given the number of times I headed out camping with Jane into a forecast of rain, the immediate answer to “What are you prepared to give up for a friend?” would obviously be “comfort.” You could add “safety” to that, given the frightening windstorms we endured on more than one occasion.

Who leaves home to spend an hour or two getting drenched while holding the poles and tethers of the dining fly in place, then sleep in a tent with a river running through it? Me, that’s who.

Because Jane could make camping in the rain fun.

It was the fire she built in a sudden downpour that proved it. Fairly early in our camping career, we pulled into Wildcat Mountain State Park on a Friday evening and got our campsite set up, a ritual we both enjoyed mightily. This was before the rain fly, so our camp consisted of a bedroom wing featuring two dome tents, a “kitchen” at one end of the picnic table, and a “living room” of pop-up chairs around a fire ring. This particular campsite featured a mature maple tree, spreading its shade across us.  It was located at the high end of the campsite loop. (Looking at the map, I’d say it’s Campsite #1.)

We often brought ready-made food for Friday night’s meal; save the more complicated cooking for the leisurely Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure what we ate that evening at Wildcat Mountain. What I remember is that as we finished, we heard the sizzle of rain just starting to patter down on the maple’s leaves.

Jane got busy. She strategically grabbed and sorted specific pieces from our firewood stacked nearby while I spread tarps over the picnic table and woodpile. I wasn’t watching just what she did; I was busy making sure the tents and car were secured against the coming wet.

The sky darkened quickly, too early for a summer sunset. Heavy weather was coming. Just as the sky burst open, Jane got the first licks of a fire rising from her little pile of kindling. That’s when I noticed the miracle she had created.

She had found among the wood bundles purchased from the camp store some broad but thin planks about the size you would grill a salmon on. (These were probably included for splitting into kindling.) These she held aside while she placed some twists of newspaper, surrounded by twigs and sticks. It resembled an untidy little bird’s nest. Then she placed the thin wood slabs around the nest in an A-frame configuration. It only took one kitchen match to get the nest to light.

Now water bucketed from the sky like we were a dumpster fire and God was a fireman. Jane and I ran for our rain ponchos and umbrellas. Then we settled into our folding chairs around a very happy little blaze, content under its wooden roof. At times it grew big enough to catch a plank of the A-frame alight—then Jane would use a poker-stick to nudge it down into the flames and replace it with another sheltering plank.

We poured tumbler after tumbler of red wine, retold each other the stories of other camp-outs and other storms, laughing incredulously from time to time.

“We are hearty buggers!” Jane yelled to the sky.

“Hearty buggers!” I yelled too.

We slept well that night, to the accompaniment of the pitter-patter of rain dripping off the maple. A sky full of stars peeked out just beyond its branches. The storm had passed, and we had enjoyed it all.

What would I give up for my friend Jane? A lot, because what she enjoyed, I enjoyed too. Even if we had to be hearty buggers to find it.

Jane Kinney, Trempealeau State Park, early 2000s

© 2022 Sarah White

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Upcoming workshops in Fall 2022

When we share our stories in a small, trusted, group — magic happens.

I believe in the power of story—to entertain, to teach, to heal. That’s why I publish this blog–and why I teach writing workshops.

In my workshops, I take my writers through a curriculum of discussions about the craft of writing, and I assign suggested topics to write on. But the part of the workshop people really come for is the story-sharing. We take turns reading our stories, and receiving the feedback and suggestions of our fellow writers. Over the course of several weeks, we get to know each other, trust each other. The stories become more intimate and honest.

I witness again the power of writing in small groups. I see my participants gaining satisfying skill at a craft, discovering joy and perspective as they explore the meaning of their life experiences. I observe friendships forming, often at a stage in life when we lose more friends than we make.


Make this the Fall you fall into writing your life story. Or get playful with some creative writing, exploring forms like flash fiction, essays, and more. It’s all welcome in the workshops I’m teaching through Madison College. Because I’m taking some personal time in September, both workshops start in the first week of October.

Creative Writing – online

Beginning or advanced writers explore the possibilities of writing for fun and publication by practicing specific writing skills that enhance descriptive language usage, story telling, and exposition, including styles, grammar usage, and imagery.

When: This 8-week workshop meets Tuesday mornings, 9:30-11:30 a.m. Central, from 10/4 through 11/22.
Where: Online
Fee: $165
To register: Click here and follow the link to register for Class #33541, or call 608.258.2301, Option 2.

Guided Autobiography I – in person, in Madison

You have a wealth of memories and stories. It’s time to capture them in writing.

By using the Guided Autobiography method developed by Dr. James Birren, you will do more than start writing down your memories—you will gain insights into how the events of your life have contributed to the person you are today—and may become tomorrow. Themes include branching points, family history, the role of money, history of one’s life work, health and body, development of sexual identity, ideas about death, spiritual life and values, and changing goals and aspirations. The objective of this course is to produce about 9 thematic autobiographical essays. The emphasis is on self-discovery rather than writing craft. Expressive writing of this nature has been shown to decrease anxiety and isolation and increase self-esteem, energy, and social connection.

When: This 10-week workshop meets Thursday mornings, 9:30-11:30 a.m. Central, from 10/6 to 12/15.
Where: Truax-Foundation Centre
Fee: $205
To register: Click here and follow the link to register for Class #33569, or call 608.258.2301, Option 2.


Don’t want to wait until October?

Join my monthly online memoir writers’ salon, First Tuesday, First (Zoom) Person. We meet on the Tuesday of every month, via Zoom. FREE.

Share and critique writing in the first person with like-minded people. Let us know if you have something to read during the check-in round. Read and receive group feedback. Listeners are welcome as well as readers.

When: First Tuesday of every month, ~ new time! ~ 6:00-7:45 pm

Where: Online via Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83146852755

Next meeting: September 6th

Thanks for reading this far, and I hope to see you online or in person.

And if workshops aren’t for you? I offer individualized memoir coaching. I’ll help you write and share your life stories, coaching you as you write a compelling story from your memories. Throughout, I’m at your side to help you get started and stay motivated. Print-on-demand makes it possible to share your story with just a small circle or offer it to the world. Intrigued? Got questions? I have answers! Let’s talk. sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com

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The Mile Corner

By Barbara Vander Werff

Not the exact car, but a good reminder of what everybody drove when this story took place…

In Randolph, Wisconsin, it was a rite of passage. You turn 16 and get your Driver’s License. Then you drive through town, make a right-hand turn at the stop sign, and when you hit the edge of the village limits, you step on it and head on out to the “mile corner.”

Any kid in Randolph knew about the ritual and when you were 16, it became part of your driving routine. The difference for me was that it changed my life.

It started with driving your parent’s car and on a weekend, you could see Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Fords, and Chevies making the trip to the Mile Corner and back. They were shiny from a wash on Saturday night and a gas tank filled with 25-cents-a-gallon gas at the full-service Phillips 66 gas station and a bottle of Coke.

This Sunday would be different. On my trip through town, after “Young People’s” at church, I noticed a motorcycle behind me at the stop sign. A flip of my hair, a move I learned from Margaret, who had a locker next to mine in High School and was much more experienced than I, and I made my right-hand turn. With one eye on the rear-view mirror, I saw the motorcycle and mysterious helmet was still behind me. The Mile Corner would be the true test. Surely, Dad’s Olds would leave a motorcycle in its dust.

When I stepped down on the gas and looked into the rear-view – all I saw was helmet! A U-turn at the four-way stop and I headed for home, only to be followed by the motorcycle, right into my driveway. After he removed his helmet, he looked familiar, although he didn’t go to my school. His grandfather had worked with my mom and used to entertain me by wiggling his ears.

And so it began. We dated through my senior year. He turned into my first love.

Now, graduating from high school, I had a decision to make. I had applied to several colleges both in-state and out-of-state, and been accepted to all of them. He had just finished technical school and had been offered a good job in town.

Barb’s High School Graduation portrait

At Graduation, he gave me a present in a very small box. This decision would change my life, my dreams, my path. This decision could fill my life with regret!

….to be continued…

©  2022 Barbara Vander Werff

Barbara Vander Werff grew up in Randolph, Wisconsin, before moving to Madison to go to college and work in health care at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. She did some technical writing for clinical textbooks in diagnostics, ultrasonography, and radiology management. Now retired, she is enjoying writing about life. Where have we ended up, and why?

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The Ruthie Method

By Marlene Samuels

Ruthie Whitefish and I were best friends from the time we walked and talked. As “besties” we naturally mimicked one another, dressed alike, wore our hair alike, even mirrored each other’s behavior. Unlike me, Ruthie was an Olympic-caliber temper-tantrumer. Remembering her tantrums reminds me of my terrifying, exciting adventure: being lost in a jam-packed department store during the Christmas season.

What did Ruthie’s tantrums have to do with my adventure? Simple: tantrums were the brilliant technique she employed with impressive effectiveness to control her mother. Mrs. Whitefish, a meek woman, confused good parenting with ensuring her children liked her. She realized that the most effective approach to stopping her daughter’s performances was to comply with Ruthie’s demands of the moment.

The Ruthie Method was straightforward. Whenever Ruthie failed to have her way, she’d launch a full-blown temper-tantrum, preferably in public spaces. These guaranteed Mrs. Whitefish’s instant compliance. Often, in multiple public venues, I’d witnessed Ruthie’s magical powers. So impressive and effective were they, I couldn’t wait to test them out. My opportunity arrived — Christmas season of my third grade.

Christmas shopping was in full bloom. Montreal, where we lived, was aglow with lights and decorations and I was mesmerized. Stores on St. Catherine’s Square and along downtown’s boulevards were dressed with massive wreaths and candy canes. For me, decorations also signaled Hanukkah. Saturday before Christmas, Mom and I boarded the streetcar downtown for a day of shopping. We’d buy gifts for teachers, presents for relatives in the USA plus “surprises” for my father, brother and me.

Downtown was teaming with women like my mother, with kids in tow, men agonizing about gifts for their wives and children, and roaming packs of teenagers. After lunch, we entered Eaton’s Department Store. Mom grasped my hand firmly and we snaked through mazes of congested aisles toward the toy department. As we passed under the glistening candy-cane arch, my senses were assaulted by wonders I had no clue existed. I was overwhelmed by dolls, incredible games, colorful books, and stuffed animals of an unimaginable variety.

Mom busied herself consulting her gift list and became distracted searching for her pen. I saw my opportunity and bolted toward a wall overflowing with stuffed bears. It was love at first sight! I knew precisely what I wanted but also believed my life might end without it. I yanked a fuzzy brown creature from his display pedestal then, clutching him to my chest, raced toward my mother, rehearsing my plea as I ran.

“Mom, look! Can we get him, please? He’s so soft and cute and I don’t have anything like him!”

“Put it back. And no, you don’t need it. Need isn’t want.” My mother explained, her voice firm. “You’re a big girl. This is for babies.”

“But Mommy, please? I need it. Ruthie’s mommy got her one so why can’t I get one, too?”

“You’re not because I said you’re not. It’s expensive, you don’t need it, I’m not buying it, so put it back.” Her voice sounded scary.

“I won’t!” I argued. “I want it!” Stomping my feet for emphasis. “Why can’t I have it? You’re so mean!” That was the moment for which I’d waited — the place and time for implementing The Ruthie Method. Her method always succeeded with her mother, I reasoned, not realizing that my mother and Ruthie’s occupied polar ends of the “mom-spectrum.”

  “I want it!” I shrieked, bouncing up and down as I’d seen Ruthie do. “I want it, I want it!” I screamed at peak volume. My mother instantly turned her back and walked away. Emotion overwhelmed me. I hurled myself onto the slush-streaked floor crying and screaming as a crowd of mothers encircled me, tsk-tsking disapprovingly. Their children stared in horror.

I lost all sense of time writhing on the floor. A firm hand on my arm interrupted my performance and I was face-to-face with Eaton’s store manager. He crouched down armed with tissues and a rainbow lollipop.

“Now, now, what’s the problem?” His voice was soothing. He was no stranger to crying children, especially during holidays. “Are you hurt?” He asked, full of concern. I shook my head, no. “Are you lost?” I shook my head “yes.” Embarrassment and guilt over my performance washed over me. He blotted my tears then presented the lollipop.

“Here, this should help you feel better, then we’ll look for Mommy together.” He lifted me from the floor brushing slush from the back of my coat. We wove through mazes of displays, aisles upon endless aisles.

“What color is Mommy’s coat?” He asked. I went blank. Now all woman looked identical to me. We’d just completed our third go-around of Eaton’s first floor when movement made me glance toward a staircase between two escalators. There, against the handrail, stood my mother, gaze riveted upon us. Her crimson coat was unbuttoned, her hat perfectly positioned, a matching handbag draped over her arm. But her intense blue-eyed glare contradicted the nonchalant posture.

“There’s Mommy!” I pointed, relieved. I hadn’t a clue how long she’d been watching me yet took her time claiming me.

“Goodness, there you are!” She exclaimed mocking surprise. The relieved manager smiled warmly.

“You know Christmas is our busiest time of the year so you can imagine how many crying children and frantic mother’s I deal with. Your daughter was incredibly upset becoming separated from you but was remarkably brave.”

“I’m sure she was and thank you for finding me so quickly. I was terribly worried!” She proclaimed, poker-faced.

We finished shopping, slowed by her vice-like grip on my wrist. It was 4:30 p.m. when we headed toward the streetcar. Unexpectedly, she reversed her route leading me into Eaton’s Cafe where we shared chocolate cake plus hot chocolate for me, coffee for her. She never uttered a word about my performance. I never again implemented The Ruthie Method.

©  2022 Marlene Samuels

Marlene holds a Ph.D., from University of Chicago. A research sociologist by training, she writes creative non-fiction by preference. Currently, she is completing her book entitled, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story.  She is coauthor of The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, and author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact-Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers. Her essays and stories have been published widely in anthologies, journals, and online.  (www.marlenesamuels.com)

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In Light of the Repeal of Roe v. Wade…

No doubt many of us are seething, reeling, boiling mad, frightened. Our amygdalae are in full fight-or-flight mode from the recent threat to women’s freedom to control our own bodily choices.

For that reason, I call you to read this essay I wrote in 2008, and posted to this blog in 2012. It might just unseal your lips, too.

If you would like to hear women’s abortion experiences, the New York Times has published an audio collection. Listening would be not unlike what happened in my classroom that day.

Bottom line: Get active. This website for abortion rights activists will help you choose where and how to put your energy. https://www.mobilize.us/

  • Sarah White
Posted in Call for action, Sarah's memoir | Leave a comment