Parallels

By Mona Jean Harley

It was 1972 in April, on a Sunday afternoon.  I was 7 years old.  My parents had taken a typical Sunday afternoon nap, and Mom had taken the phone off the hook so a call would not awaken her.  Occasionally the phone stayed off the hook long past the nap, until someone went to use the phone and realized there was no dial tone. Today was one of those days.

Unbeknownst to our family, my grandma from Florida (my dad’s mom) had been trying to call for several hours.  Not able to get through, she finally called my mom’s parents, my grandparents who lived two miles away.  Soon my local grandparents stopped over at our house, as they frequently did.

My younger sister and I were having fun playing house in the cardboard pop-up playhouse in the corner of the family room, with the painted brick and window boxes bursting with cheery flowers, and my older brother was perhaps reading the Sunday comics.  My grandparents were usually all smiles and talkative, but not today.  My grandma went to find my parents.  My boisterous grandpa quietly sat on a kitchen stool.  I remember something felt odd, different, that I didn’t quite understand, but at that age I didn’t think to question the mood, so my sister and I kept playing.

Grandpa, Dad and a brother about 1969

My usual happy grandma returned from talking with my parents and solemnly sat beside my grandpa.  She didn’t want to play with us either.  Hmmm. A little while later my dad came out and called us the kids  into the living room.

The living room?  We never used the living room.  It was only when Mom and Dad were having private conversations, maybe about Christmas gifts, or if company who we didn’t know very well came over.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

Dad choked out the words, “Grandpa Harley died,” with tears running down his cheek. His dad, my beloved grandpa. This is why my other grandparents were so somber.  Did I realize that then at age 7, or was it only in reflecting on this poignant time that I understood the tenor of that afternoon?

In a flash Grandpa was gone, having a heart attack while driving the car, minutes after kissing my grandma goodbye.  “That is how I want to remember him,” I heard Grandma say, reflecting on the goodbye kiss, as my parents, brother and I were leaving her house in Florida a few days later, to drive by the spot in the road where Grandpa had died, and then to stop at the funeral home to see his body.  My dad wanted to see both.

I witnessed my dad learning of his dad’s sudden death, complicated by a phone off the hook.  Eighteen years later I learned of my own dad’s sudden death from a heart attack, over the phone, from an unknown nurse at a hospital a few states away.  Several days later, I too, wanted to see the exact spot on the road where my dad had died in the car, railroad tracks that my sister was crossing as she drove my dad to the hospital.

The number of my memories I have surrounding my grandpa seems to far outweigh the total of all my other memories of my first seven years of life.  The event also has more parallels than I had even realized, with my own dad’s death, which perhaps has been the most significant branching point in my life.  My reflection on these events and the astounding parallels that had been hidden from my view, have connected me even further, years after their deaths, to two very significant and beloved people in my life.

© 2019 Mona Jean Harley

Mona Jean Harley was delighted to stumble across the “First Monday First Person” writing group in Madison Wisconsin in the fall of 2018, which has been a perfect space to become more fully inspired in writing and in paying attention to life.

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Camping with Alice

During the writing retreat I led at Windhorse Farm in Nova Scotia last May, I guided participants to write a memoir essay, adding and shaping each day as we discussed aspects of good writing. This is Violet’s.

 

By Violet Moran

“You’re going camping with me this weekend,” asserted my good friend Alice, surprising me because neither of us were campers. Discussion revealed that Alice had planned to go camping with Bob, her husband who three years ago had packed up his belongings while she was at a conference and surprised her with his announcement that he wanted a divorce.  I knew that Alice would take him back if there ever was a chance.  Now she thought there was a chance

She had paid for a campsite on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan for them to spend a weekend together.   And Bob at the last minute canceled out.  It was a strange plan to get him back since neither of them had ever been campers.  I couldn’t picture them having a romantic weekend camping considering their age, excess weight and poor health.  But that had been Alice’s plan and she was darned if she was going to have paid for a campsite and not make use of it.  I suppose this same frugality prevented her from reserving a room at a romantic hotel with a better chance of getting Bob back.

Alice was a bit of a character who could make unexpected statements, such as telling people the reason she asked to transfer back onto the road surveying health care institutions was because it was too difficult to have an affair with the Culligan Man if she had to stay at home in Madison.  Alice came up with quirky ideas such as asking friends to help with the wedding dinner she had already promised an impoverished woman in her church.   Or preparing a party for the private owners of herin-lawsCemetery Association.   When we arrived to help we might find that Alice had not shopped or prepped in advance.  I know if I did the  same thing my friends would be angry; but when it involved Alice such things just became humorous stories that only made Alice more endearing.

Alice and I were both nurses who had previously worked together and remained close friends.  She became a state surveyor of hospitals and nursing homes while I started my own consulting business.  I had recently left my husband so I was happy to sometimes join her at a nice B&B where she was staying while investigating health-care complaints. Time spent with Alice was always an enjoyable change of pace.  I could do my work at the B&B while she was   surveying a facility or investigating a physician.

Alice’s appearance differed from the way I thought a high-level state surveyor ought to look.   She dressed to be comfortable — in loose-fitting, well-worn slacks and top, along with heavy woolen socks showing through her Birkenstocks.  Alice was overweight with a kindly round face framed by short, wavy grey hair.  She was quick to smile and laugh. She dressed for personal comfort, and also because she wouldn’t spend the money necessary to buy professional attire.    She consciously made use of her persona.  She told me, “When I go in to do a survey, everyone looks at me as the dumpy, not-too-smart, good old Grandma who lives next door.”  As expected, staff were not frightened of her and would approach her to reveal secrets of the facility.  She delighted in the fact that administrators were usually astonished to hear at the exit report all the problems that she had uncovered.  I enjoyed hearing her stories.

Violet Moran in Cuba, June, 2019

In preparation for our camping trip, Alice, consistently frugal, borrowed a tent from a co-worker who said she had it for many years but had never taken it out of the box.  The tent was an old design that required you to insert aluminum rods, some straight and some hinged.  There were no instructions anywhere and we had a horrible time setting it up.  We were also in a hurry because we had stopped to visit a friend on the way and it now was starting to grow dark.  After many insertions and re-insertions of aluminum rods, we started being irritable with each other.  When we finally finished setting up the tent, we discovered a rain cover in the box.  I’d had it with that cheap tent and I angrily said that I wasn’t spending any more time on that damn tent, I didn’t know what an f__ing  rain cover would do, and it didn’t feel like it was going to rain anyway. This was before we had smart phones with a weather app giving hourly weather reports.

We moved on to making a fire, having a little wine and unpacking the extravagant food we had planned for dinner and breakfast. We had made out the gourmet menu a few days ago identifying which of us was responsible to bring each item.  We quickly discovered that we both brought items from the same list and were missing some important foods such as steaks, eggs and bacon. There was disbelief and some blaming over which of us had made the wrong list.   But we then proceeded to make-do with what we had — eating a lot of potatoes, and finishing off another bottle of wine.

By the time we finished eating it was dark and late enough to go to bed.  We unrolled our sleeping bags on the thin floor of the tent because, of course, Alice thought renting cots would have been an unnecessary expense.

As you have probably expected by now, it rained heavily during the night.  I became aware that there was a slight slope of the ground under our tent and I was on the downward side.  Water was coming in and soaking my sleeping bag.  Since there wasn’t a rain cover over the tent, water also started dripping down through the ceiling.  For some reason, maybe Karma, the dripping occurred only on my side of the tent. Alice was using a CPAP machine with 2 or 3 long electric extension cords.   We had some scares from the lightning and rain while disconnecting the equipment and putting it into the car where it would be dry.  I was wet and cold and angry, as well as sleepless.

The rain stopped as the sun began to rise and the air was nice and warm.  It was going to be a beautiful day.  We cooked a make-shift breakfast with our odd leftovers and laid our sleeping bags in the sun to dry while we went for a long walk along Lake Michigan.  Walking on the sand dunes made me feel calm and happy that I was there.  By the time we returned, our sleeping bags were slightly less wet and we decided to take a nap before driving back to Madison.

You get only one guess of what happened next. Yes, it suddenly started raining heavily again.  We had to take down the tent and pack everything into the car while the rain poured down.

We drove home in silence, neither of us wanting to end our friendship by discussing this traumatic weekend. Neither of us ever went camping again. And Bob did not re-unite with Alice. Although I would have been so happy if he had been subjected to the same discomfort I endured on this camping trip with Alice since it was all hisfault in the first place.

© 2019 Violet Suta Moran

Violet grew up on a farm in Montana just 8 miles from the Canadian border and about 70 miles east of Glacier Park.  After getting a degree in nursing at Montana State University in Bozeman, she literally picked Madison, Wisconsin off the map as the first place she was going “on my trip around the world.”  Delayed by marriage, 3 children and administrative positions in facilities including University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, trips to many different countries came later.  For the last 20 years before retiring, Violet ran her own nurse consulting business. In retirement she enjoys travel, dance, and jazz, often in combination.

 

 

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The Changing Seasons

An excerpt from a reminiscence first published on Mixed Metaphors, Oh My!

By Linda Lenzke

One can already see the sun’s position in the sky changing and its effect on daylight. Soon too, the leaves will change from their verdant hues to vibrant shades of carmine, crimson, burnt orange, golden yellows and finally tawny browns before they fall to the ground. Like most mothers, I’m sure Mother Nature doesn’t have a favorite season, yet I do, and it’s fall.

Living in Wisconsin, our lives ebb and flow with the changing seasons, sometimes winter is unrelenting and it’s a struggle just to get out the door for our day-to-day lives. We are restored in the spring when the changing weather brings us hope and quells the itchiness of spring fever. Summer is our reward, a time for leisure and vacations. In the autumn we reap the harvest of the land and prepare for the long, cold nights again, the cycles of change repeated.

In the Midwest, we reap the harvest and bounty of the season, apples and cider, pumpkins and peppers, all the canned preserves and pickled relishes of our Northern European heritage, farm-raised meats, both fresh and smoked, cheeses and baked goods and in Madison, available each week at our Farmers Market on the Capitol Square.

Dane County Farmers Market

Since the weather changed here overnight from highs in the 80s earlier in the week to yesterday’s high of sixty and the evening temps dipped from the sixties to the forties, I decided to make my first batch of chili for the season, for me the first sign of fall. It was a beautiful day to visit the market. Dane County has one of the largest and most renowned Farmer’s Market in the nation. Award-winning, locavore chefs pull their red wagons and fill them with the ingredients for the menu they design based on what the market offers and their culinary ingenuity designs.

Farmer’s Market bounty

 

The first chili of the season

There are mundane rituals too that happen this time of year, swapping out summer bedding for winter’s down comforters, and rediscovering that favorite jacket, sweater or sweatshirt to bundle up in after work or on the weekend — simple, comforting, seasonal rituals. Nesting urges grow, as we prepare to spend more time indoors, yet road trips to orchards and pumpkin patches and Sunday drives to see the changing trees are on the rise.

With the changing season, the cycle of holidays begins, leading to winter. I wrote this poem inspired by a journal entry: 

The Solace of Ritual

“There is comfort in repetition and wonder in change.” Journal entry, 9/23/12

 

September’s sun filters through blue translucence

day and night becoming equal.

Temperatures rise and fall like tides;

ebb and flow between dawn and twilight,

gears of my Circadian clock adjusting.

 

Nesting urges permeate my behavior.

I swap out summer for winter bedding,

prepare for long nights and cold days.

Cupboards are filled as I squirrel away provisions.

I can smell leaves and home fires burning.

 

The changing season, trees ablaze,

transformation before dormancy, so begins

the hibernation of winter.

Golden, auburn, crimson, tawny shades of brown

fade to a grayscale palette.

 

I can hear the crisp sounds of leaves

dancing on sidewalks, and the wind begin to whistle.

Soon the swan song of September surrenders

to a calendar of holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving,

Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day and the New Year.

 

Memories recycle of seasons past

of people absent and places far away.

I soothe myself with the solace of ritual.

There is comfort in repetition

and wonder in change.


To read other reminiscences from Linda Lenzke, visit Mixed Metaphors, Oh My!

Another musing on the changing of the seasons, Seasons/Change

A poetry chapbook by Linda Lenzke of the same name, Seasons/Change

© 2019 Linda Lenzke

Linda is a Madison-area writer, poet and playwright who blogs at Mixed Metaphors Oh My! She is a founding member of LGBTQ Narratives Activist-Writers, writer and producer of Conceal & Carry: Queers Exposed, a  monologue play, and also the author of  Jenifer Street, a short play in three scenes. Linda is the creator and co-producer of a web series in production, Hotel Bar. Earlier in her writing career, she wrote and performed stand-up comedy and was a member of improvisational performance collectives.


Thank you, everyone who responded to my recent “Story Harvest” call for submissions! – Sarah

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Carnival and a Wedding in Madrid

By Suzy Beal

This is the 14th episode of a travel memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.

 

Carnival, just prior to Lent, was an exciting time for us.  We spent weeks making costumes and planning our activities.  The local bars had an open house all evening.  We had parties at the club, El Circulo, before heading out to the bars to dance.  I made Scottish costumes for Conrad and Frank andour maid’s little daughter, Catita.  They each had a Scottish kilt, hat, belt and chest banner. Frank won a prize, but Conrad wantedto be a pirate and felt silly in a skirt.

Catita, Frank and Conrad

The Gang

I chose to go as an American Indian and spent days working on my costume, Hank picked a pirate costume, the one Conrad wanted to be, and Tom and Juanita chose Romeo and Juliet.

A young man named Juan Aguilar began to show up on my radar. He attended school in Palma, so he wasn’t around all the time like the other kids.  He came home on weekends or for holidays.  At El Circulo in the evenings, we talked and sometimes walked together, always with other kids in the group. We danced together several times during Carnival.

That spring, friends of Mom and Dad’s from Newport contacted him about a wedding in Madrid.  Their daughter, Jimmy K., was marrying a Spaniard she’d met at college in Oregon, and they wanted us to attend.  The bride’s father unable to attend asked Dad if he would give her away, and they asked me to be her bridesmaid.    There was much discussion about who else would go.  Mom and Dad decided Carl and Jan would go with us.  I was excited about being a bridesmaid or, in this case, the Maid of Honor, since there weren’t any other girls attending.  I had never attended a wedding before.   I’d just turned sixteen and the aura of romance of a wedding held me in its clutches.  We flew to Madrid from Palma and Dad got us rooms in the same hotel as Jimmy K. and her mom.

Carl, Jan, and Suzy – Madrid 1962

 

Upon our arrival in Madrid, Mom and Dad, the bride, and her Mom, Jane, made the plans for the wedding and the banquet.  Left to our own devices, Carl, Jan, and I explored Madrid. We spent many hours wandering around the city on our own.  We never got lost because, by then, we understood how to use maps. During one of our outings, we spotted a pet store.  In the window we saw the sweetest Irish setter pup.  We knew we needed to have her and take her back to Puerto for Conrad.

Jane purchased a new dress for me with matching shoes.  I’d never seen pastel green shoes before!  We met the groom the night before the wedding, when Dad took all of us out to dinner.  Miguel didn’t speak much English and his family spoke none.  He wanted his wedding to take place in Madrid so his mom could attend.  It was a tough night for everyone.  I spoke some Spanish, so I ended up doing a lot of translating.   Unhappy about the impending nuptials, Miguel’s Mom never smiled, but not until the day of the wedding did I realized why.

Since Jimmy K. wasn’t Catholic, their marriage couldn’t take place at the church altar.  They held the ceremony at the end of the aisle while the church was being decorated for a different wedding, a Catholic one.  It was a sad scene.  The only people in attendance were the bride’s mom, my family, and six members of the groom’s family.  After the wedding, Miguel, Jimmy K., and I got into a taxi to go to a photographer’s studio to have pictures taken.  Once at the studio, the photographer and Miguel got into an argument about the cost of the pictures.  I tried to translate for Jimmy K., but they were talking too fast.  Miguel insisted that we leave the studio.  He ran off to get us a taxi.  A bride in her wedding dress and a maid of honor standing on the street corner attracted lots of attention.  Soon, Miguel returned with a taxi and we rode it back to our hotel where the banquet waited for us.  We didn’t know Dad had planned to have a photographer do the pictures at the reception, so they got their photos in the end.

We arrived in Madrid during the Semana Santa (Holy Week),just before Easter.  I didn’t understand the importance of Holy Week for the Catholic people in Spain.  After all the wedding festivities, we went out that night to watch the Procession ofSemana Santa.  It was a somber, scary, and dark affair, with strange music. Everyone in the parade walked with bare feet, hoods like the KKK over their heads.  Some had chains on their feet and moaned as they walked past. There were gold statues carried by people dressed in black.  As they passed us, everyone around us made the sign of the cross.  Towards the end of the parade, someone dressed as Jesus came by with a crown of thorns on his head and blood running down his face.  Shocked and uncomfortable, Mom suggested we go back to the hotel, which we did.

The next day, Carl, Jan, and I began to press our parents about taking a puppy back for Conrad.  They agreed to go to the pet shop.  That evening we flew back to Palma with a puppy.  We also had the mother of the bride, Jane, with us.   She stayed with us for a while on Mallorca.  Friends for many years, Mom enjoyed having someone with whom to share this new life.

Just before she headed home a month later, Jane bought a Siamese cat for Jan.  Jan named her Anitra from the Peer Gynt’s Suite “Anitra’s Dance” because she flew around the house dancing up a storm.  Mom called the puppy “Rusty” because of her color.  Anitra and Rusty became best friends, and we often caught them asleep together by the fire.

Rusty and Anitra

Note, no photo of the wedding party accompanies this story because Suzy has no way of contacting the people for their permission.

© 2019 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.

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Story Harvest time–submit your true stories, well told!

October 7 will bring the sixth anniversary of First Monday, First Person, my monthly local salon for people who write in the first person. Growing up in the midwest, I’m steeped in the traditions of fall harvests, from the local festivals to the seasonal foods on the table. (Bring on the pumpkin pie!)

This blog serves as a virtual salon for memoir writers. Now is the season of story harvest–send me your true stories, well told!

Here are the guidelines. Send your stories to sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com.

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Shaving My Legs

By Sarah White

The following is a Flash memoir I wrote guided by the prompt, “What is your earliest memory of your longest love partner? ” I intended to create an example of object writing.

 

Jimmy thumbed loose the little knurled knob at the end of the handle, then fitted a fresh double-sided blade into the business end of his father’s razor. Through my hot tears I watched this action, so domestic but so unfamiliar. I had only ever shaved my legs with plastic disposable razors, and for years, not even that. But his hands were so practiced as he prepared the razor, then swirled his badger-tail brush around the cake of soft soap in his little wooden dish, that I began to believe I would survive.

I don’t quite remember what behooved me to choose to remove my luxuriant curly golden leg hair—probably something to do with dressing for a job. I changed jobs frequently in the early 1980s, when I was in my mid 20s (when this story takes place).

Jimmy and Sarah on a bike ride with our Brearly House roommates circa 1981

I lived with seven roommates and their various lovers in a three-story housing co-op on Brearly Street. One of the lovers was Dorcas, a charismatic Southern woman who expressed her sense of style with vintage dresses and hand-sewn “glad rags.” When I announced one evening that I planned to shave my legs, she leaped in like the fashion-savvy gal pal she was. “Oh honey, don’t do that! It comes back as stubble so fast. You should wax your legs!” I’d never heard of leg waxing, but she described it as a method that would give me silky-smooth legs that rarely required intervention.

I went to the drug store, bought the waxing kit, and read the directions. That evening I boiled a pan of water, melted the wax squares in it, and carried my pan of soft wax to the bathroom on the second floor, the one with the bathtub so long we always bathed in pairs. There I spread the warm goo on my skin with an over-sized popsicle stick. So far, so good. Then came the next step—press a fabric strip into the warm wax, and with a motion like removing a Band-Aid, separate a swath of hair from the leg.

Oh my lord! Searing pain! “Dorcas!” I cried out. “This isn’t working!” But Dorcas wasn’t around. But Jimmy was, my roommate who I was casually sleeping with while sorting out whether he’d be a better boyfriend than Ken.

Jimmy came to see what I was screaming about, took in the mess adhered to my legs and the tears falling from my clenched face, and called Dorcas. She explained that she’d never tried waxing legs that were “au naturél”—she only used it to maintain a surface already nearly hairless.

I was out of my mind with terror at the realization that I now had wax embedded in my leg fur from thigh to ankle. The only way out was through, but I didn’t have the fortitude to take another stab at brutally ripping the hair from my leg. I was literally an animal caught by the leg in a trap.

And then Jimmy brought out his razor and shaving soap, and set about rescuing me. Inch by inch, sitting together in that seven-foot bathtub, he gently shaved first one of my legs, then the other. His hands were warm and gentle. His manner was just as soft. Like a veterinarian quieting a frightened animal, he brought me to stillness, then pleasure even, as he soaped and softened and stroked and scraped the mess from my skin. I felt completely safe in his care.

He didn’t know it that evening and neither did I, but that was the moment Jimmy pulled ahead of Ken in the race for my affection. Decades later, when I look at my grouch on the couch and wonder at his unwillingness to suffer fools, I think back to that moment when he rescued me from my foolishness.

– Sarah White

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Check out Brevity (the magazine and blog) for Flash Nonfiction

For several years now, I’ve been intrigued with Flash Nonfiction, specifically the subgenre of Flash Memoir. What’s that? By my definition, tightly-focused, scene-based, observant, true stories from life. That’s mostly what I publish here on True Stories Well Told, just because of the short form required of a blog. And it’s what I like to write, for a break from 100,000-world long-form creative nonfiction.

Speaking of which, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks deeply immersed in completing my book project started on the Big MFA Adventure, and–IT’S DONE! First draft, needing many more passes through the sander, but it’s done. What a great feeling to write a final sentence, type a period, push back from the keyboard. I stumbled blinking into the light of a Labor Day afternoon, my labor done.

I want to relax, yet keep writing. I’m in the mood to do some Flash Nonfiction. Want to join me?

If you feel like writing for publication, try the Brevity magazine or blog. Guidelines here.

Want some insight into what they’re looking for? Read this essay by Brevity Editor and celebrated Creative Nonfiction guru Dinty Moore: Focusing on Flash Nonfiction: An Interview with Dinty Moore – River Teeth Journal

And if you’d like a quick course in Flash Memoir right here, right now, check out this four-part post series right here on True Stories Well Told.

  • Sarah White
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