The Small Thing That Mattered Big

By Marlene Samuels

“She wants a photo of the two of you together.” Richard, our adoption counselor tells us. Concern is spreading across his already serious-looking face. “It’s the one thing of true importance still missing from your file.” My husband Larry and I are sitting in Richard’s office at Family Resource Center reviewing our application folder.

“Gee, I’m not even sure we have such a thing. I’m always the one taking the photos so we’re never in them together that is, unless I manage to rope someone else into snapping one of us.” I explain. “Anyhow, why is this so important?”

“Birth-mom wants proof that you’re an established couple and feels that a photo of the two of you together will put her at ease.”

“You know what, now that I’m thinking about it, I do have one. There is a problem, though. It’s kind of small and at least seven years old but if you think that’ll work, I’ll try to find it as soon as I get home.”

“Of course it’ll work. In fact, it’s perfect. Besides, I’ll bet anything that you haven’t changed a bit and look exactly the way you did then!” Richard says, winking.

Throughout our adoption process, my husband and I are concerned about our anonymity but we’re more concerned that without that photo, birth-mom will reject us. After the baby is born, birth-mom Vicki asks Richard to arrange a conference-call among the four of us. It’s an unanticipated hurdle that increases my anxiety.

Richard tries to comfort me. “Don’t worry about it, it’s pretty standard. Besides, I’ll be monitoring the call.”

“If I do place my baby for adoption,” she says, “You’re my first choice to become his parents. I know you’ll raise him up right and he’ll even be getting a brother!”  Later that night, Richard calls to tell us that she’s decided on us to be Michael’s adoptive parents. Our ecstasy is short-lived because two minutes after we all hang up, Richard calls right back.

“She wants all of us to meet tomorrow, early in the evening.” He announces. “How about I arrange something, say six p.m.? We’ll go to her favorite Mexican restaurant. Call you back in a few to work out the details, okay?”

“Well, it’s not exactly what we expected.” I say, trying not to sound uncooperative.  Another unanticipated hurdle, and one that’s increasing my anxiety way more than did the idea of a conference call with birth-mom. Worries about meeting her overwhelm me; what if we seem ancient to her? Could our ages cause her to change her mind? What if our four-year old son blurts out personal information to her, like our address or phone number which we’ve drilled into him from the moment he could speak?

The phone rings and I’m startled out of my worry. I grab for it. The moment I  say hello, I hear a very excited Vicki. “Richard just told me the good news that you’ve agreed to meet. It’s so excellent!” She says. “I’m super excited and you’ll be sure to bring David, okay? Of course I want to meet my baby’s new parents but I definitely want to meet the new big brother!”

The following night, the six of us gather around a table at Vicki’s favorite spot.  Amidst tears, hugs and kisses, she signs legal documents. “We’re so lucky we found each other! I’m so happy my baby will grow up having you for his parents and in the kind of family I can’t give him now, maybe never!” She says, tears fill her eyes. “There’s no way I’m ever going to have a harder decision to make in my whole life! I know I’ll think about him forever.”

Dinner is over and we head toward the door. All of us but David are shedding tears. She gives each of us a big hug then bends down to kiss David on each of his cheeks. “You’re going to be a wonderful big brother, I just know it!” And then she turns to Larry and me, “By the way, your home — it’s so, so beautiful, really amazing! It looks big enough so that the baby can even get his own room, too” 

Larry, David, and I walk back to our car. I glance at Larry and notice a look of deep worry on his face. His eyebrows are scrunched together, his lips have become a tight slit below his nose, and his shoulders droop forward. We’re in the quiet of our car and David is in back buckled into his booster-seat. I turn to my husband. “Wanna tell me what’s going on with you?” I ask, trying to control my irritation. “You’re acting weirder than weird!”

He mumbles, making me feel more irritated. “Nothing really except that I’ve been thinking about Birth-mom’s last remarks.”

“Okay, what about them? She had many in case you don’t remember.” I snap.

“Yes she did and I have to tell you there was one in particular that’s really bothering me.” I say nothing and wait for him to elaborate. “Didn’t we agreed that we’d maintain total anonymity? I mean, like no information about where we live, our last names, or anything else that might make it possible for her to find us while Michael’s still a baby, right?”

“Of course we did and I did maintain total anonymity. You don’t know what you’re talking about!” I’m feeling intense agitation with my husband. “So just what’s the problem?” I ask in a voice testier than I’d intended.

“Alright, then if we agreed on anonymity, may I ask why in the world you would have given her a photo of our house? Are you nuts? And in case you forgot, our address is right there in the leaded glass window above the front door?” He’s ready for an argument but so am I.

 “Duh, it’s not our house, Genius!” I say, now resisting the urge to really say something I’m sure to regret. He looks at me quizzically, awaiting my explanation. I provide it.

“You goof! It’s the picture of us from seven years ago. It’s from the time we stayed at the Greenway Manor in the British Cotswolds. Don’t you remember that? Jack McKinney, the owner, insisted on taking a photo of us on the manor’s front patio?”

Greenway Manor

Postscript:  

Was it the English manor house that helped close the deal with Birth-mom Vicki? Was it the fact that the baby she birthed — who became our son Michael, would gain an older brother? We never can know but, in the big scheme of life, all that really matters is that we definitely were privileged to have become his parents.  

© 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)

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment

The Blue Bicycle: Travels with an Adopted Air Force Girl (Part 3 of 3)

By Mary Ellen Gambutti

Click here to read the first two posts in this three-part story.

I rode my bike around the roots and boulders of the wooded terrain behind our quarters at Washington Heights, adjacent to the stone wall of Meiji Park and Shrine. We moved to Johnson Air Force Base before our military dependent “suburbia” was razed for the 1964 Summer Olympics. Years later, the grounds would be transformed to Yoyogi Park, this tree could have been there when I was.

Tokyo, June 1961-1964

Mom, Dad, two-year-old Julie, and I have flown to Japan in a Pan American jet to begin the three-year tour in an American military housing complex called Washington Heights, in downtown Tokyo. Grassy courts are surrounded by beige, ordinary-looking double, and single-story houses. Mom and Dad make our two-story quarters comfortable with a few pieces of familiar furniture, and some from “supply” left by departing American families.

As service people, all we need is here: offices, schools, a movie theatre, a non-denominational chapel, a Base Exchange, clubs, swimming pools, wide streets, and sidewalks lined with flowering cherry trees, and park-like grounds that stretch along a wide slope below our court. I’m free to roam on foot or ride my bicycle. The stone wall that runs along the back of the forest-like grounds where we play separates Washington Heights from many acres of evergreens of the Meiji Shrine gardens. I ride my bike up and down the deep forested gully, around the roots, and over the lawns, finding every path.

Our front porch at Washington Heights with our bikes. My little sister was adopted in Louisiana


We have to move to Johnson Air Force Base because Washington Heights will be torn down for the 1964 Summer Olympics. It’s a big shock to me because my Tokyo International school has become an important part of my life. Still, this is how it is in a military family. But as an adoptee, it feels like a bigger loss, it’s just that I don’t yet comprehend what that loss is.

One spring Saturday, at the end of our three years, Dad says, “I’m going to paint your bike to get rid of these scratches. I’ll clean it up before it goes on the boat.”

He lifts it from the side of the house where I lean it and puts the kick-stand down on the grass. He uses masking tape to cover the seat with newspaper. I sit on the top step of our front stoop, a safe distance from the coming spray. He shakes the aerosol can and aims a fan of blue at my six-year-old bike. He shakes again, the beads clacking in the can, and sprays an even coat over my bike’s body. One stab, a brief pang of regret, and I’m resigned to the new light blue finish; and my bike’s original white markings deleted along with the scratches and scrapes. He stands back, pleased. “What do you think?” he asks. “Nice. Thank you, Dad.” But it will never be the same.

He takes off the protective newspaper and walks my bike to the street. I feel sure he’s never ridden my bicycle, but he takes it for a spin in the sun to dry it, making a few tight turns. I grin back at his grin, and at his plaid shorts, calf-length white socks, and his old black oxfords. Did he have a bike growing up in New York City? He hasn’t told me, and I don’t ask.

New Jersey, again

My girlfriends and I walk a few miles back and forth to shop for records at Two-Guys, or we take the bus to E.J. Korvettes and the Bergen Mall. At thirteen and fourteen, we prefer to hoof it, exercising new freedom, alert for boys. Little kids, like my sister, Julie, ride little bikes with banana seats. Some older kids have three-speeds or ten-speeds. I’d rather avoid the teasing I’m sure I’ll get for riding a cruiser with manual brakes.

One summer day in 1966, I check on it–consider riding it–but it’s not on its kick-stand at the back of the garage. My heart sinks, and I call out, “Mom! Where’s my bike? My bike’s gone!” She says, “Your father brought it over to Cousin Johnny’s for his kids.”

“Why? Why didn’t he tell me?” I’m pleading. “You weren’t using it anymore,” she replies without apology.

He gave my bicycle to my mom’s cousins without talking to me about it. Behind my back! Dad had given our trusty 1953 Buick Special to them, too, without warning me. The car Mom and Dad drove us north and south, shipped it to Japan, and drove on the narrow streets of Tokyo. Now it was theirs, and they replaced it with an ugly Buick Wildcat. I was angry, and a bit surprised at my jealousy and resentment. Like dolls I’d nurtured and toys and books that were part of my childhood, they now belonged to this large family. Taken from my room without warning me. It occurs to me that nothing is really mine. Neither the car, nor the bike, nor any of my possessions. As we move, my parents shed things. All of it is theirs to do with as they please. All I have–all I am–is because of them. They chose to keep me. I hide my adolescent tears in the garage.

© 2022 Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine.

Posted in Guest writer | 2 Comments

The Blue Bicycle: Travels with an Adopted Air Force Girl (Part 2 of 3)

By Mary Ellen Gambutti

Click here to read the first post in this three-part story.

Louisiana, summer, 1958, continued

Mom tells me Dad’s work is hard when I ask her about the migraines that have become frequent. He shows me his white pills, “Cafergot.” He goes to bed early with a washcloth on his forehead, or he keeps their door closed and rests in bed on Saturday. It troubles me that he’s sick and in pain. I’m fearful and worried that I’ll get sick.

I sometimes tremble at night and make myself sick, but Mom doesn’t know how to console me when I can’t calm down. She just lets it pass, without a hug. She never hugs me like her mother, my Nana, does in our New Jersey home–our permanent home.

Dad is impatient with me and is angry more often. When I back-talk Mom or let the screen door slam, he yells, or threatens, “Don’t make me take my belt off!” But it’s too late, and it flies; buckle and strap. At recess, I show the raised welts on my left arm and shoulder to a few curious classmates.

“See what my dad did?” They ask why a girl who looks well-cared-for is treated mean. “What did you do?”

“They’re not my real parents, you know. I’m adopted.”

They might ask, “What’s that?” I explain to the third graders what Dad told me at six: “I had nobody. They picked me out in an orphanage in South Carolina.”

My wound opens with each re-telling. I want their pity. I want to tell them about my difference, my frailty. And I want to get back at my dad for hurting me.

Still, I have the freedom to ride away on my blue bicycle. I wear my yellow leather boots and a cowgirl hat. I wear my leather holster and two six-guns and carry a good supply of caps to boost my power.

New Jersey, 1960-’61

I didn’t understand we’d be living in New Jersey again. More likely, I thought it was only another visit to Nana and Granddaddy’s house as we drove north again for the last time with my baby sister, who was adopted the previous year in Louisiana. I later learned that Dad was transferred to the New York City Federal offices to prepare for three years in Tokyo and that he was an intelligence officer.

I’m in the second half of fourth grade in January at the church school of the Ascension. I wear a blue serge jumper dress, beanie with gold AS letters, a white short-sleeved shirt, and a blue clamp on bow-tie. I recognize kids from my kindergarten days. The van brings furniture, boxes, and on the driveway “My bike is here!” For the first time in New Jersey, I’m ready to ride on our familiar neighborhood streets and sidewalks. When the ice melts, I can ride it a mile to school from Asbury Street, up the little hill, and a right turn at the corner onto Hoffman Avenue, then a left onto Berkeley Street, down to Faller Circle, and around to Ridge Avenue, then right onto the short block of Carnation Drive to my school. I’m proud to stand my handsome blue bike with the other kids’ bikes on the rack.

I had a sense of agency and control, free of anxiety when I rode my bike. 

I have no bicycle basket, so I clutch the grown-up-looking cordovan leather briefcase Dad gave me for Christmas in my left hand, and it swings forward and back as I steer with my right hand. The crossing guard at Hoffman and Berkeley, whose name I never learn–but I know he’s a retired policeman says, “I’m worried about you only using one hand to steer. You might lose your balance holding your bag that way. I’d like to make a hanger to hold it against the handlebars. I have something I can use in my garage.” He lives down the block on Hoffman. “Okay, yes, thanks. That will be good.” I say to my new friend, and we walk together across Berkeley with my bike.

The next morning, he holds it up to me. “Let’s see how it works.” He explains how he bent and shaped the thick, pliant metal into a double hook, and attaches it between the handlebars in the same place Dad hung the safety lamp and buzzer in Louisiana. My friend the crossing guard hangs my book bag from the hook by its handles and stands back, smiling. “That looks good!” he says, and I smile, too, and thank him.

I put my bike away in the garage after school, as usual. I think it’s just as well that no one at home notices my new bike fixture. I think it’s a secret, and don’t want to make my dad angry at me and the crossing guard. Braids bounce against the back of my shoulders and the spring breeze streams me back and forth to school. When school closes for summer, I never see the hook again, exploring our town with new bike-riding girlfriends. At the end of six months in our warm New Jersey home, it’s time for another change.

Click here to read the final part of Mary Ellen’s story.

© 2022 Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine.

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment

The Blue Bicycle: Travels with an Adopted Air Force Girl (Part 1 of 3)

By Mary Ellen Gambutti

My bicycle in a Sears ad

Texas, September 1957

In the bicycle department at Sears Roebuck in Victoria, Dad points out a blue 26-inch J.C. Higgins cruiser he’d seen in the catalog. “Here’s the one we’ll get. What do you think?” Wouldn’t any six-year-old be impressed with such a beautiful bicycle? The purple, steel-framed tricycle I’d pedaled up and down the sidewalk at our New Jersey family home couldn’t compare to this grown-up’s bike, and anyway, the trike had been passed on to cousins. I nod and clap with glee. “Yes! I like it! I can ride it!”

My thirty-six-year-old adoptive dad, a U.S. Air Force Captain stationed at Foster Air Force Base, hoists my new bike into the ample trunk of our green Buick Special with a set of training wheels. My mother had said, “I stay away from bicycles ever since I fell off when a dog chased me on the dirt road when I was your age,” and she was true to her word. Mom would have nothing to do with my bicycle.

Texas with Mom and our Buick Special. I sport my Texas pixie; my long ringlets left behind in NJ

On the driveway of our brick duplex rental, I stand astride my birthday present, while Dad adjusts the seat, handlebars, pedals, and training wheels. “OK, go ahead–start pedaling—go slow.” I feel strong. My legs push down—right, then left. My slender fingers are wrapped around the white handlebar grips. My arms are flexed to steer forward on the sidewalk. The tall pecan tree on the next lawn looks far away. Beyond the neighbor’s driveway lies unfamiliar terrain.

“Stop here.” He helps me off and reverses my bicycle to point toward our house. Back on board, the training wheels frustrate me. “I don’t want them on. I can’t turn, I can only go straight!” They wobble and restrict my movement. Dad concedes it’s safe to take them off after two more passes to and from the Pecan tree. “Ok, push off! Pedal!” With his hand flat on the rear rack, I start out slowly, then pick up speed and confidence. He guides me into momentum, advancing me through my first imbalance.

He’s slow-trotting beside me. I laugh in the breeze, fearless. I trust he won’t let me go until the right time. I hear him coaching through my cycling stream. “Hold the grips tight, keep the handlebars straight! Turn a little to the left–to the right! Steer! Keep pedaling!” I have it. I’m ready to fly. The moment he lets go is imprinted on me.

With my bike and my friend

Louisiana, summer, 1958

I’m heartbroken when we have to move from our second rented brick duplex on Dennis Street when I’m seven and have to say goodbye to Saint Frances Cabrini’s second-grade schoolmates and my Brownie troop. I’d been free to ride my bike for a year with wildling neighbor boys and girls. Wearing cowboy clothes, and carrying metal cap-shooters, we explored and breached the chain-link backyard boundary.

I am learning I must adapt or be lost, so through my tears, I see adventure on Schilling Drive in the officer’s housing complex of England Air Force Base, in Alexandria. I step into the expanse of tall, cool grass behind our tan duplex, 4009A, with the fragrant clover, and pink poppy mallows. I soon join the neighborhood boys and girls. Across the backfield is a swale and drainage ditch where tadpoles appear after rain, and where I tromp in rubber boots. I venture across this verge into a wide-open, scrubby field, once part of the cattle ranch that became the airbase and is now a jet flight path. I startle when, out of nowhere, sonic booms envelop me.

Now eight, I’m a cowgirl with a bike for a horse, riding the range of the wide asphalt roads like a ruffian. I crash when I cut a curve too quickly or hit a curb. But the smart and sting of screaming scrapes can’t keep me from my beloved blue bike. Hands, knees, and elbows take the brunt. The ouches of abrasions bring my mom’s iridescent Mercurochrome in her innocent-looking brown bottle; gauze and adhesive tape when the Band-Aids don’t hold. Scabs last weeks, since I torture and pick around the raw, raised edges. But I’m back aboard in the breeze that dries my tears.

No hands!

Dad fastens a bulky lamp with a battery pack and a rude-sounding buzzer to my bike’s handlebars to keep me safe in the evening. The loose wires distress me, and I quickly lose my balance. I howl, more from frustration and fury than from pain, and fiercely kick the wobbly lamp as it lies loosely against the sidewalk. Dad comes out the kitchen door through the carport when he hears my wail. He chides me and releases the clumsy apparatus. I never see it again.

Click here to read the next part of Mary Ellen’s three-part story.

© 2022 Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine.

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment

Big news regarding “First ___day, First Person”, my salon for memoir writers

You may wonder where the stories you read on “True Stories, Well Told,” come from. The answer is–many of them, I hear read by fellow reminiscence writers, at the monthly salon I offer. “First Monday, First Person” has been an institution since 2013, convening at the Goodman South Madison Library Branch on the first Monday of every month.

This event means a lot to me! It is my sanctuary, my happy place, where like-minded folks meet in story-space to honor each other’s life paths and lessons learned. I think Jill Ker Conway said it best, in her book When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography:

“We experience life from a single point of view. We want to know how the world looks from inside another person’s experience. When that craving is met by a convincing narrative, we find it deeply satisfying…. We like to try on new identities because our own crave the confirmation of like experience, or the enlargement or transformation which can come from viewing a similar experience from a different perspective. When we read about totally disparate experience (as in the life of a Catholic priest) it is as though the set designer and the lighting specialist had provided us with a totally different scene and pattern of light and shadows to illuminate the stage on which we live our lives.” Amen!

When the panDAMNic (as our friend Sariah calls it) hit in Spring 2022, we pivoted to using Zoom for our story shares. I loved that the Zoom option makes it possible for faraway friends to be part of our community. And yet, I craved the communion of our in-person meetings.

Lately I have been trying out hybrid options, but the experience suffered both in the room and on the Zoom. At our host library’s request, I’m pivoting again. We will now offer two options–one in person, one online.

Here are the details:

First Monday, First Person, IN PERSON
When: First Monday of every month, except holidays, 6-7:45 pm
Where: Goodman South Madison Library Branch, 2222 South Park Street, Madison.
COVID note: attendees in person must be fully vaccinated.

First Tuesday, First (Zoom) Person
When: First Tuesday of every month, 3-4:45 pm
Where: Online via Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83146852755
If Zoom asks to download an app, allow it.
You can also join by phone: dial  312-626-6799.

No advance registration is required for either event.

No matter which you attend, we’ll share and critique writing in the first person with like-minded people. If you have a piece you’d like to read, just let me know in the check-in round. Listeners welcome as well as readers, as always. Free, as always.

Join us in the first week of every month–in person or by Zoom.

If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact me! sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com or 608-347-7329.

Posted in Call for action, writing workshop | Leave a comment

Passport #6: Edrisi 2006

By Marg Sumner

Edrisi and I had a relationship that was going nowhere, except into the Sahara Desert, which is not too far from nowhere. I didn’t care for him from the get-go, and he was indifferent to me. He was homely; he was bored; he was tolerant in the way that one waits in the grocery line while the buyer ahead of you digs through her purse for exact change. In other words, he rolled his eyes when he saw me; I gave him the stink eye.

Edrisi was a camel. I don’t like camels; I never have. I associate their sour odor with my father’s feet and his camel-skin slippers. His feet smelled from the jungle rot he acquired during World War II, riding camels while fighting Romel’s army in the North African desert. My camel dislike was compounded when a camel spit at me on a children’s camel ride at the Vilas Zoo. There was an uncomfortable, but tolerable ride into the desert in Morocco in 1997. The next year a camel in Egypt carrying a friend and me to the pyramids at Giza tried to dislodge us, and then three camel guides cornered my friend with their camels and shook him down for money.

Now here I was in Timbuktu, Mali, headed into the Sahara on Edrisi’s back for a long ride in, inevitably followed by a long ride out.

Camels are big. Seated (and I use that word loosely), you’re about 7 or 8 feet off the ground. Their feet are about the size of dinner plates and are a serious threat, given that a camel can weigh more than a half-ton. One is perched precariously on a wooden saddle about 4 inches wide, with an equally narrow “backrest” that ends at the approximate location of one’s bra and an ever-growing bruise. The “frontrest” is for gripping with all your might. Your legs are outstretched and crossed at the ankle where they meet the camel’s neck. Once you’re seated, you’re stuck, even though the skin between your legs is pinched and being rubbed raw. By the way, you climb on the camel when he’s seated, legs folded beneath his bulk. He stands by straightening his back legs first, throwing you violently forward with only your crossed ankles for stability. The ride goes downhill from there.

A tourist’s camel ride is nothing like you see in the movies. When the camel’s right foot plants itself in the sand, you lurch forward. When he plants the left foot, you lurch back, stopped from tumbling backward by the so-called backrest. In between lurches, you attempt to resettle yourself on the saddle by wiggling yourself into a more comfortable — I take that back — a less uncomfortable position. 

I survived the day’s ride into the Sahara only because my mind was laser-focused on remaining atop this plodding behemoth.

That night — in what could have been a romantic shelter open to the air and stars — I slept fitfully, dreaming of camels, sand, burnt goat (our dinner that night) and earwigs. We were warned about the earwigs, but were assured they’d crawl out of our ears before daylight.

Morning came; the earwigs departed. I’d early on earned extra attention from our Malian tour guide. Not only did we share a love of West African literature, but I’d proven to him that I needed careful monitoring. A few days earlier, I tripped on a nearly flat surface and almost launched myself over a cliff. I was assigned a long-suffering minder whose job it was to encourage, push, prod and hoist me onto Edrisi and reverse the process that night. With the new day, the poor bugger had to do it all over again. Harder to say who was more pissy, me, the minder or Edrisi.

Marg learns a few travel tips from Edrisi the camel in Mali.
A climb while caravanning in Mali

I brought up the rear of the caravan with my minder. Our guide was in front with more lively company. When he dropped back to check on our progress, against the advice of both guide and minder, I called a halt and declared I’d rather walk back than ride another step on that rotting-foot-smelling creature. Edrisi threw himself to the ground (a little too cheerfully, if you ask me), front first, nearly launching me into the sand. I was damn grateful to be in control of my trek, but not for long.

Travel lesson #209: The only thing worse than riding a camel in the desert is walking in the desert. It’s okay if you have giant paddles for feet, but a size 8 hiking book isn’t remotely up to the task. Not even close. Desert sand has less in common with coarse beach sand and more in common with talcum powder. With every stride forward, your heel slips back a half-stride. It was soon obvious, even to me, that this was not a sustainable mode of self-transport.

I was rapidly approaching the point at which I was willing to admit defeat and beg my way back onto Edrisi’s back when my lifeboat came roaring into view. Four guys in a Range Rover, doing wheelies and tight turns in the desert, stopped by to see the Saharan version of an American dude astride her first horse on a dude ranch. If I was putting myself in harm’s way getting into a car with four strange men, I didn’t give a rat’s ass. Fortunately, my guide gave an ok. I pushed myself into the back seat of that Rover and half-ordered, half-pleaded with them to take me back to Timbuktu.

The next day was Thanksgiving. Even though the temperature was close to 115 degrees and I had raw skin and a large bruise, I was never more thankful.

© 2022 Marg Sumner

Marg Sumner is retired from 40+ years of copyediting and proofreading other people’s words. The tables have turned, and she now writes and suffers the slings and arrows of copyeditors. This is her second piece in what she hopes will be a series of travel vignettes organized by passport. Timbuktu was top of her bucket list and so deeply touched her soul that it satisfied her longing to travel for several years.

Posted in Guest writer | 1 Comment

A Week at Camp Torture

By Sarah White

This post was written in response to the prompt, “A time you stepped outside your value system or witnessed someone being treated differently,” from the Guided Autobiography theme “Navigating Differences.”

image from https://waycrossccc.org/about

Waycross Camp is an Episcopal summer camp. After several summers going to Girl Scout camp, the year I turned 14, 1970, I chose instead to go to Waycross.

The cute boys in the Jesus Movement had caught my eye, and even the appeal of the horse stables at the Girl Scout camp couldn’t lure me away from Waycross this year, which doesn’t offer horses but is co-ed. Whatever my budding reasons for interest in the Episcopal faith, I was looking forward to a week doing what we did at our church’s youth meetings—talk about “the big stuff,” like whether it’s ever okay to fib, what happens after you die, and how to handle changing bodies and urges. We would be sleeping in cabins while, as the brochure says, “experiencing adventure and exploring the wonders of God’s creation.”

That’s what I was expecting when I arrived. What I got was far more perplexing.

Each cabin slept eight campers. In the cabin I was assigned to, one of the girls was Black. This was the first time I had been in the same room with a Black girl, or with any Black person other than our housekeeper who came once a week.

Children learn a lot by observation. My mother was teaching us something when she tensed protectively anytime a Black stranger was nearby, but these lessons were slow to accumulate because, other than the housekeeper, we hardly ever saw a Black person. My father countered my mother’s unspoken lessons by making up stories about a young boy and his Black friend. Every time the Black character came up in these stories, my father would say his name, followed by, “black on the outside, pink on the inside, and when he smiled, he smiled all over.” My brothers and I knew our cue to sing-song the phrase along with him.* And thus, one summer day in 1970, I came to Waycross with no idea about actual Black people other than that they were pink on the inside and possibly dangerous.

The Black girl assigned to the cabin I shared wasn’t just a Black girl—she was a Bad girl. She stole from us. She hid things she didn’t want to steal. She threw things just to make a mess. This got worse with each passing day. She picked fights, and when she fought, she fought dirty. She bit. She pulled hair. She left scratches and bruises on our pink flesh.

No camp counselor spoke to her about her behavior. No chaplain held a fireside chat about tolerance or good behavior or respect. We white girls in the cabin kept on learning by observation. We learned to do what white people have always done—pretend everything is fine. No camper said a word about the Bad Black girl. I don’t suppose anyone said a word to her, either.

After a week, camp was over. My mother came to pick me up in the station wagon. On the drive home, I told her about my cabin-mates and the Bad Black girl. When I had babbled myself out, about the stealing and the scratching and the pouring out of shampoo on our beds and the hiding of our underwear under the cabin, my mother said only this.

“It must have been very difficult for her.”

Let’s try to imagine the conversation in the Bad Black Girl’s car as her mother drove her home. I can’t even begin to hear those voices. What I do hear, are some Episcopal do-gooders deciding that Camp Waycross needed to integrate. I can picture a deacon suggesting a scholarship for a Black youth. I can hear the voices as they convince the Black Girl’s parents to send their daughter to their camp. No one tried to imagine the humiliation she would feel, a pawn in their game. Now I try to imagine the micro-aggressions that accumulated for her day after day, soon not so “micro” as she melted down in the do-gooders’ pressure cooker.

I never liked Girl Scout Camp because the complexities of adolescent girls’ friendships were too much for me. I had no idea there could be something so much worse.

© 2022 Sarah White

To download the complete set of “Navigating Differences” prompts, click here. I would be happy to consider for publication on this blog any essay you write based on this topic. See Guest Writers: Submission Guidelines here.

*When I shared this essay with Black friends, I was advised that this image is more evocative of minstrelsy and blackface than racial equality. I’m confident my father was doing the best he knew how, and I’m confident it fell short.

p.s. It finally comes to me, rereading and recalling this, that the poor girl was trying her level best to get sent home. What torture, indeed.

Posted in Sarah's memoir, Writing prompt | Leave a comment

What We Can Learn About Customer Service from Hospice

The garden outside Neil’s mother’s room at the Agrace Inpatient Hospice in Madison, Wisconsin

By Neil Fauerbach

The Hospice movement in this country has provided a wonderful environment for families facing end of life issues with their loved ones.  Considered the model for quality compassionate care for people facing a life-limiting illness, Hospice provides expert medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support tailored to the patient’s needs and wishes.  Support is also provided to the patient’s family. It is important to know that Hospice focuses on caring, not curing.

My family recently had our second Hospice experience when my 89 year old mother passed away peacefully, with the family holding her hands.  Dad passed there in 2007.  I have referred to the Hospice experience as “remarkable” and have had to explain myself to the uninitiated.

When it was time to go to Hospice, the ambulance crew showed up to transport Mom to Agrace Hospice near her condo in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.  I was pleased that it was Ryan Brothers Ambulance Service, a former Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Award winner.  They were obviously part of the chain of care that Hospice provides.  They were kind, respectful, humorous (which Mom encouraged), and attentive.

Upon arriving at the center she was wheeled directly to her room and helped into bed.  No stops for registration, verification of date of birth, or signing insurance forms.  From her door to being comfortable in bed took eight minutes.  It was obvious that planning and communication had facilitated this swift intake, but it was invisible to us.

Every doctor, nurse, nursing assistant, and maintenance worker called her by her first name.  They always asked permission before entering the room, checking vitals, or administering pain medications.  They always asked if there was anything at all they could do for the family.  They were always around, but never underfoot. Respect plays a large role in their values.

Their goal is comfort.  They make certain the patient’s and the family’s wishes are respected and their needs met.  For us, that included finding a corkscrew and clean glasses.  Mom wasn’t going to drink wine from a Styrofoam cup! 

The conversations with the doctors and nurses were open and honest.  Decisions about care and treatment were informed by the passionate insights of those caregivers.  But the decisions were ours.  The dying process was explained by a social worker.  We knew what to expect.  We were prepared.  Grief counseling was readily available.  Being ready was up to us individually.

When Mom died (on our dad’s birthday), we were there, holding her hands, her favorite opera playing in the background. After she passed, we were given as much time with her as we needed.  When we were ready, we participated in a respectful procession down the halls of Agrace, Mom covered in a beautiful quilt, her doctors and nurses trailing behind us, and all staff standing along the way as if in an honor guard.  They thanked us for the honor of helping her through to the end.

“An arrangement of photos of Mom and Dad, and Mom as a young ballerina. In front are glasses filled with whisky we used to toast Mom after she passed.”

What lesson can we learn from the Hospice philosophy?  What can we do to make what we do more meaningful, useful, and graceful?  Does everyone on your team know what your clients need, want or feel?  How much better would you be at your work if you were able to help your clients reach their goals with passion and grace?

Here are some of my takeaways:

  • Treat clients with respect.
  • Understand their goals, fears and wishes.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  No surprises.
  • Even though you know the details of your business, the client may not.  Tell them what to expect.
  • Celebrate.  Always have a corkscrew and glasses at the ready.

© 2022 Neil Fauerbach

Neil is a retired marketing professional having worked for over forty years for several professional service firms. In his free time he creates videos, photographs nature, chairs committees in non-profits, and is learning to play the banjo.  

Posted in Commentary, Guest writer | Leave a comment

God the…Mother?

By Kurt Baumann

There is a proverb that says: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Would you believe that in the Bible there are verses that refer to God as a female?

The congregation in the Lutheran church I grew up in would have been surprised to hear it, so much so that they would’ve shunned it—even if the proof was right in front of them. My religious upbringing consisted of Baptism at birth, mainstream Sunday School stories repeated every year, with Instructions in lessons preparing for the rite of passage of adulthood, Confirmation, in a ceremony preceded by a congregational Examination by the minister.

Unfortunately, this course of study was limited. There were things that it didn’t answer such as the Nephilim of Genesis 6:1-4, and where Christ went for three days before his resurrection. The people of that church wouldn’t have troubled themselves with such questions and been satisfied with what they knew and limited that question to only one day out of the week.

Over the past few years, I’ve gained interest in the subject of the Nephilim, hybrid giants fathered by fallen angels, briefly mentioned in Genesis 6th. Apparently, they, as well as Humankind’s wickedness, were the reason that God sent the Flood and spared Noah’s family. This reason combined with the birth-line of Jesus made me read the Bible in a different way.

Theologian Michael Heiser, who authored several books about various religious subjects cited an adage, when researching the Bible, I’ve come to agree with:

“If it’s weird, it’s important”

I think that anything weird, in the Bible, is interesting.

Here is something else that you might find hard to believe: Would you believe a Sherlock Holmes-inspired novel inspired me to research and write an article about God? Since the beginning, God has been depicted as a Man, traditionally, similar to Moses, with a beard and messianic robes. The Apostle’s Creed refers to God as a Father. In the Sherlock Holmes/ Mary Russsell series, written by Laurie R. King, the novel “A Monstrous Regiment of Women,” Bible verses are cited, in both the Old and New Testament, that refer to God as a female—and mother.

To get a better idea of God as a parent, it is important to get a Biblical definition of a father and of a mother. During Biblical times, the father was the head of the household, the authoritarian patriarch who was the creator and the lawgiver of the family, beloved of the mother, and taught the sons right and wrong. The mother was the one who gave birth to, nurtured, guided, and protected the children while keeping the home, and deferred to the father, being worthy of the respect of the community. 

In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 32:18, Moses, while chastising the Israelites for forgetting God, compares God to a mother who has given birth:

Of the Rock that begot thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God formed thee.” Deuteronomy 32:18]                                                                        

In Isaiah 49:15 and 66:13, God is also compared to a mother while taking care of a child while Psalm 131:2, from a child’s point of view refers to God as a mother:

Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will not forget thee.”  [Isaiah 49:15]

 “As one whom his mother comforteth, so I will comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in.”[Isaiah 66:13]

Surely, I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.” [Psalm 131:2]

Deuteronomy 32:11-12 and the first part of Hosea 13:8 compare God to animal mothers:

As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, taketh them, beareth them on her wings So the Lord alone did lead him and there was no strange god with him.                       

I will meet them as a bear bereaved of her whelps…” [Hosea 13:8]

In the New Testament, Jesus shows his maternal side while mourning the oncoming destruction of Jerusalem which is quoted in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem , which killest the prophets, and stonest thee that are sent to thee;how often would I have gathered they children together as a hen doth gathered her [chicks]. under her wings and though would not. [Matthew 23:37  and Luke 13:34]

Knowing this the Apostles Creed could be reworded as follows: “I believe in God the Mother Protector, Birther of Heaven and Earth.“ Tradition will probably never see this change, but at least we can say that God is the ultimate Parent—both Mother and Father.

© 2022 Kurt Baumann

Since 1983, Kurt Baumann has lived in Beaver Dam involved in his community theater, church, and contributor to his local newspaper. After working a variety of jobs for most of his life, he has retired to do some writing. He has written one book: The Written Works of Kurt Baumann.

Posted in Guest writer | 1 Comment

Boarding the Plane

By Violet Moran

My sons and their wives swear they will never board a plane with me.  I don’t understand because, really, all I had said to the Security Guard was, “It’s just my vibrator” when he pulled me over to inspect my suitcase.  This was several years before 9/11 when we didn’t think about things you shouldn’t pack in your carry-on suitcase.

My oldest son and wife, Morgan and Garmit, who lived in Chicago, had invited me to join them on an inexpensive flight to see Jeff and Susan’s new house and new baby in Lawrence, Kansas.  I met them in Chicago and we were in the Southwest Airlines boarding area when the incident occurred.

Having spent time recently with Jeff and Susan to help with Jeff’s health issues, the new baby and now the move, I knew that both of them had chronic backaches.  Those stressors plus that of working as a lawyer and a professor in new positions had them both in need of relaxation.

I thought that I had discovered just the thing for them.  I had bought this piece of electric equipment through my Chiropractor.  It’s called a “Thumper” and is a hand-held electric massager about 2 feet long.  I packed it very carefully in my carry-on suitcase.  My worries about it being damaged on the trip were overshadowed by my desire to share this wonderful invention with Jeff and Susan.  I’d found muscular relief from using Thumper and I wanted them to have the same experience.  I was certain that they would love it and then buy one for themselves.

So here we are in the Security Inspection line for boarding Southwest Airlines in Chicago, me in one line and Morgan and Garmit in another line just next to me.  When the Security Guard looking at the X-ray of my suitcase got a puzzled frown on his face and said to me, “I’m going to have to open your suitcase, Ma’am,” is when I told him, “Oh, that’s just my vibrator in there.”

I heard Morgan shout at me in a stern voice,  “Don’t say that, Ma,” but in my rushed naïve moment I didn’t know what he was talking about.  Morgan didn’t know I had packed Thumper and I thought he just didn’t want me saying something incorrect.

Not realizing what was wrong, I thought I had to explain this new device to the Guard.  As he was taking me to the 2nd security level I told him, “It’s a different kind of vibrator, it does more than vibrate.  It has these two round balls that move around and it thumps up and down quickly which is why it’s called Thumper.”  I added the fact that “It has a long enough handle that you can do it yourself,” and, I commented,  “It’s really a great vibrator and very relaxing.”

By then I noticed that the Guard was giving me an odd look that I didn’t understand.  And out of the corner of my eye, I could see a blur of Moran and Garmit literally running down the hall with their suitcases and turning a corner out of my sight.

I thought it unusual behavior that they didn’t wait for me while the guard was checking my suitcase.  But Southwest is a first-come-first-served, no-reserved-seats kind of airline so I figured they wanted to hurry in order to get seats in the same row for all of us.  Because of my delay at Security Check-in, I was one of the last to board the plane.  I wasn’t concerned because I was sure Morgan and Garmit would have saved a seat for me.  But I didn’t see them waving at me.  I squinted and looked carefully but couldn’t see them anywhere so I sat by myself.

I learned later that they were actually ducking down behind the seats because they didn’t want anybody to know they had anything to do with me.  They definitely didn’t want me sitting in the same row next to them. 

They also didn’t wait for me when exiting the plane after we landed.

It wasn’t until this event was being related to Jeff and Susan by Morgan and Garmit that I realized the implication of the word “vibrator.”

Violet Moran and “Thumper”

To this day none of them will stand next to me when boarding a plane even if I tell them that I don’t have a vibrator with me.  When planning a trip to Montana last summer, years after this incident had happened, Morgan asked me what seat I had reserved and instead of him reserving seats near me as I expected, I found they were seated at a distance. 

I don’t think I can expect that they will take me on interesting trips when I’m older and have physical impairments.  They’ll never trust my mind and mouth.

© 2022 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 blues, often in combination.

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment