The Writing Life

The Way Things Work- Thanks, Dad

Maddie was looking pretty uncomfortable one morning at our Zoom meeting. Turns out she was suffering from a boil on her sit-me-down. She was hurting, upset, and knew she had to go to the doctor and deal with this. 

The way she was sitting was exactly how I saw my Dad sitting one morning decades ago when I wandered into the kitchen ready for my Rice Krispies cereal breakfast. My Dad died in 1998 but Maddie’s circumstance brought that memory back so clearly. Not just him sitting but also his arms resting, kind of holding him up, on the arms of the dining room chair, by the bay window, morning light coming in-not bright but not cloudy either.

“Snap, crackle, pop, Pop.” 

Dad shifted and smiled a little, but had no corny reply. 

“Why are you sitting like that?” 

“I had a growth removed from my sit-me-down and it still hurts.” He paused. Then he smiled. “But it’s all behind me now. “

Of course being ten, I thought this was hilarious. 

Appealing to the kid in Maddie who I know is in residence in her soul, I told her my Dad story. “Yep, it’ll all be behind you.” 

She laughed and perked up. “I’m going to the doctor.” 

What made the eternal connection was what she texted me later. “Isn’t it fascinating that something your father said to you probably sixty years ago still rings true today? I’m using your Dad’s line. ‘It’s all behind me now.’ I would think he would be smiling down on us.”

What a heavenly thought. Thanks, Dad.

 

 

 

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic. 

 

What a Year! Aka Things are Opening Up

“Things are Opening Up”

With the relaxing and reduction of pandemic restrictions, a repeated phrase seems to be “things are opening up.” Some examples in my part of the desert (Tucson AZ): Restaurants-now more than patio or take-out dining. Gyms-longer hours, fewer rules about reservations, but still the multiple reminders to sanitize, clean equipment, have a mask just in case. Stores-distancing circles on the floor are still there-mostly adhered to. Organizations having hybrid meetings-Zoom for those geographically long distance (thank you to my weekly meditation group Zooming from Florida, daily meditation with CSLT, and our HOA for community news updates) and in-person for vaxed folks. Houses are opening to visitors, parties are open to larger groups. Arms are open. Many minds are opening to different ways of talking, acting, being. 

I’m a hugger. Pandemic sheltering at home was a huge dose of social deprivation. Fortunately I live with my sweetheart and we were together 24/7 for 13 months. It afforded us time to talk more with each other, read together, and have some great book discussions. It meant there was no touch deprivation for either of us. But I did miss hugs from friends. The first time after I was fully vaxed my friend and I hugged sans masks, we reacted with a jump back to that six feet apart, a distance which will be forever emblazoned in the minds of millions.

Gradual Social Re-entry for Me

Just as it was so different to build pandemic safety habits, it’s just as different to alter some of them. I’m easing back into an expanded lifestyle.

Like the desert flowers that unfold gradually. For me, social re-entry is easier if gradual. I’m fortunate to be retired so going out is a choice. Not quite ready to go to a really crowded restaurant — for one thing-it seems really noisy now. Not quite ready to get on a plane. That’s just me. My friend flies from FL to NJ, my sister from AZ to NY, other friends have booked the autumn cruise. I do want to go dancing but … Crowded jostling on dance floors seems sort of strange right now. Will we ever blow out candles on a birthday cake again? I’m exaggerating, I know, but it did cross my mind. People will adapt to what is comfortable and safe for them.

I accept the mask culture. How can I assume what the wearing or not wearing of a mask means? Not vaccinated, allergies, to protect the wearer, to protect others, lack of lipstick? Who knows? It may not be the reason I assume.

Bighorn Fire

By June 2020 I was getting the routine of sheltering at home, having signs in my front window greeting my neighbors, and learning to  be as objective as possible to new “abundance of caution” guidelines. I then became one of 982,000 Tucson metro area residents who watched for two months as flames from the Bighorn Fire traveled east to west across 119,987 acres of the Catalina Mts, the result of a lightning strike at Bighorn Mt. Another phenomenon I knew nothing about. Wildfire, controlled burn, smoke, roll-outs, Ready Set Go, evacuations. Anxiety. But I learned with daily updates online and on Facebook from the Coronado National Forest, National Wildfire Coordination Groups, US Forest Service, Section Chiefs and Incident Commanders and more. Those Facebook “town meetings” also connected residents. We got to know who would be on the chat each night for the update, what the hotshot crew’s plans for the nighttime and next day were. For me it eased that sense of isolation and lessened my fears.

The June edition of Tucson Lifestyle features a full article on the anniversary of the Bighorn Fire. The fire scars are evident in the blackened stretches of mountain trails, the trees felled by fire and back burns. It was a frantic rollercoaster last year and gradually, with both pandemic and fire abatement, it’s a gentler ride now. Yet I know it will never be the same.

Most mountain trails are open and I look lovingly at survivor cactus and ferns pushing up nestled next to scarred and blackened trees. Nature is often relentless but also resilient. So are people. I bless first responders and volunteers who protected our homes, neighbors and mountains through the pandemic and the fire.

We’re Creating the New Normal

Humans are social beings; look at ways we have found to stay connected. All over the world and with improved technology, people sang and danced, prayed, wrote, did yoga, told stories, laughed (thank you Unscrewed Theater  for all those ZOOM laughs) wrote books, read books, bought and sold just about anything, had debates, opened Courageous Conversations, celebrated birthdays, anniversary, marriages. The pandemic has rendered some families so broken they will never be the same, and we found ways of saying our good-byes. We’re here, creating the “new normal,” adapting ways that worked during the pandemic to reconnect now and in the future. It can be better than ever before.

How are “things opening up” by you?

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic. 

 

More Car Talk-Lily

“Things are Opening Up”

Now that “things are opening up,” I’m behind the wheel of my car every day. I asked my sweetheart, “How many miles do you think we drove the car during the pandemic?” We live outside the city limits of Tucson and most of our local needs are met within the 30-mile loop of Safeway Grocery, Sprouts and Whole Foods, Ace Hardware, and the side-by-side, in what belies that they are competing for the same markets, CVS and Walgreens. 

Pandemic Car Mileage

From March 2020 to March 2021 I had hardly driven at all out of my own abundance of caution. A past history of Epstein Barr, hepatitis, and shingles (twice) brought about the strong medical advice to stay at home. My reaction to sequester at home was actually an opportunity. I’d been paying lip service for months to the idea of “scaling back” on activities and spending more time exploring new things and being with Hank. Well, the scale back was on. I was one of the lucky ones. It was a bizarre luxury. I did not have to go to work and I had no other person that absolutely needed my care. Other than the quirky pockets of past illnesses, I am mobile, strong, healthy and don’t have a small pile of Rx’s to be downed each day. 

Of course I was very anxious about COVID as news spread across Asia, Europe, and trickled, then flooded North and South America. I cried with my colleagues who were bone weary, overworked, understaffed, and dealing with kids at home who needed help they could not give. I feared for my friends who worked in ERs, and drove or took buses to work, college kids who were studying in their dorm or at home- my great-niece in her final year at William and Mary and my friend’s grandson beginning his college career during an historic pandemic, and New York City friends who struggled to survive and invented ways to stay safe.  

I didn’t see red clouds of killer disease swirling like locusts across the sky and under doorsills like in science fiction movies. But the unfolding of the pandemic did have earmarks of a science fiction movie. And then there was the image of droplets of coughs and sneezes spreading and cascading down on counters and clothing like in the ads for tissues and the futile protection of sneezing into your crooked arm. 

So home I sat and in the garage sat my car. My neighborhood is in the desert so we can walk to take groceries to a neighbor’s doorstep, and hike and bike safely all year round. But no driving to restaurants, friends’ homes, no road trips to national parks, museums, and events downtown. 

“OK, about how many miles?” I repeated. Hank thought. Hank has countless files of number facts in his head and sprinkles them in our daily conversations as liberally as he does salt on just about everything at meals. Since we were home together for thirteen months, these verbal droppings increased my opinion that he knew all number calculations. 

He did not fail me. “Well, we usually drive only about 12,000 miles in a year, so I’d say this year was 4000.” A pretty dinky number. This led to sharing about cars we had owned, how long we had them and the mileage. My mileage longevity was with a 1970 Plymouth I drove back and forth from the upper westside of New York City to West Caldwell, New Jersey when was a teacher. 60 miles round trip.180 days a year. 5 years= @ 51K miles just for work. My sister literally drove her old Volvo into the ground. It had a long baton-length floor stick shift not to mention some aged ventilation holes around it where you could see the road through the floor.

Car Talk and Lily

When I mentioned this mileage thing at a Zoom meeting, it was a call for reminiscing. K. and G. have a 27-year-old Buick Regal with 89K miles. D. had a Toyota Camry that was the family car, hardy enough to pass through the driving hands and habits of various family members. Other friends regaled me with their car’s history along with an array of names. Peanut. Blue. Toy. Spider.  

Back at our meeting, M. chuckled and said, “Let me tell you about Lily.” Lily. Such a romantic, almost dreamy name for a car. I was intrigued.

“It was the longest relationship of my life,” said M. “Forty years with a 1980 Toyota Corolla. She had 300,000 miles. I had her fixed, repaired, repainted, rebuilt. Her full name was Lily Rose Parker.” M. looked off as if Lily was actually parked outside her window. “I sold her to one of the members of the church where I belong so I got to see her every Sunday in the parking lot… I know I gave her to a good home.” 


Lily-  
2018 one or two years after her paint job

What car holds the most miles and memories for you? 

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic. 

Car Talk

Pegasus

In the last year of my mother’s life, our hospice angels recommended bringing in photo albums to assist my mother in her “life review.” Some pictures brought a smile, some a short sniff of dismissal. Some elicited a story. 

The black-and-white photo was faded—five young women grouped around an old 1934 Ford. Yet the sight of that photo brought a light into my mother’s eyes that I hadn’t seen in months. 

My Story of Mom’s Story

In 1939 the five young women in the photo taught at Drew Seminary in Carmel, New York, where the Readers Digest Corporate offices are today. Some of the teachers are more formally listed in the 1939–40 Drew Seminary faculty and staff program as:

Carmel Benson—Math and Chemistry

Gladys Berberich—Latin

Martha Crowley—English 

Norma Harvester—History 

Agnes Hyatt—Piano Harmony and Organ

The five in the photo were part of a close group of girlfriends calling themselves “The Jolly Five.” The camaraderie of the group was deepened by affectionate nicknames—“Aggie,” “Harvey,” “Moo,” “Itchie,” and “Benny.” It was unusual for a young woman to have a college education in those days, and to be teaching. It was probably unusual for five women to undertake the investment they did in those days too.

Over the years, my mother, Gladys (Itchie), and Carmel (Benny) stayed in touch. The two friends wrote of their careers, children, then retirement, grandchildren, deaths of spouses, and births of great-grandchildren. Gradually their letters included memories and photos of their time together at Drew. 

My part in the story

In 2001 I was invited into this intimate correspondence when I began to act as secretary for my eighty-four-year-old mother after she suffered the debilitating stroke that robbed her of writing and some speech abilities. I had heard of Benny over the years as a teacher friend at Drew Seminary where my mother had taught Latin. So I knew part of our correspondence would be to Benny in Massachusetts. 

Birthday, Halloween, and Christmas cards came and went for several years. Then one day “Pegasus” arrived. My tiny aging mother reached out a thin and shaky hand to hold the faded photograph. She placed it down on the table where we were sitting. Then she smoothed her worn hand over the photo, back and forth, as if to absorb the memory into her skin.

Back in 1939, Benny had an invitation to teach math and science at Drew Seminary. In September she joined the faculty and soon was part of a happy crew of teachers and students. The little “gang” included five single female teachers.

Benny’s Uncle Ed lived in Brewster, New York, the town next to Carmel, New York. Uncle Ed knew of a good second-hand car available for fifty dollars. So the friends gathered funds and bought it—probably in 1940. They named the car “Pegasus.” Like the Pegasus of Greek mythology, this Pegasus had wings to take the young teachers on weekend adventures.

Benny wrote, “Uncle Ed worked out the paperwork (insurance, etc.) and we had fun driving about shopping in nearby Danbury, Connecticut. A few times some of us drove to my hometown, Dover Plains, just thirty miles away. We parked it on campus in a place that wouldn’t be in the way at Drew. We loved our Pegasus.”

More unusual for me than my mother having a career was the realization that she had had her driver’s license, as did Benny and Moo. They were independent beyond my imaginings about my now shy and mostly quiet mother. 

These women continued to be ahead of their time, even financially. They eventually sold Pegasus for seventy-five dollars—making a financial profit to split amongst them.

What car was your Pegasus?

Coming Soon: More Car Talk-Lily

This post is an excerpt from my book Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. if this appeals, the book has more relationship stories. On Amazon or contact Ethel

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic. 

Butterfly Girl

A Hidden Gem

On the East side of Tucson is a hidden gem of a park called Agua Caliente. It’s got a great history of families who lived there, changes they made, both brilliant and not so brilliant, and peaceful home to birds, critters, and water inhabitants.

It’s green, and lush with a spring-fed and city water reinforced pond providing a healthy habitat for turtles and little fishies. A favorite walking and picnic spot for couples, families, school groups, and solitary walkers. When we go for a lunch time picnic and walk there’s usually a large group under one of the huge trees with coolers of food, little kids running around and reaching for snacks, tablecloths on the picnic tables and balloons tied to branches proclaiming “This is a superb party spot.” 

Walking back through what I call the cloisters arch of mesquite trees the park changes abruptly. It opens up to two sandy ponds-still popular with turtles whose heads pop up like small dark corks as they navigate over to the water’s edge where we sit on a bench.

The Surprise

Out of the corner of my eye I see a blur of colors moving steadily around the pond. It’s a little hilly so the swirl rises up and down. When I turn to focus I see a young, very slender girl, probably about eleven, at that awkward growing stage, but moving with a certain grace. Attached to her long skinny arms are gossamer butterfly wings, really big and a rainbow of colors outlined on the edges in black. Her arms go up and down as she takes long strides enhanced by glittery silver sneakers. Right now they’re on feet too big for her body, but I know she’ll emerge a beauty. Long straight brown hair almost to her waist lifts and swings at the ends as she moves. Bless you, mother or father who let that hair grow and grow and didn’t give her the short haircut that’s “easier to care for.” My eyes, head, and body turn and track Butterfly as she flies all along one side of the pond before she slows and then stops, the hair, arms, and wings gradually obeying the law of gravity. Then she walks on and out of sight. She was a gangly girl with a hint of grace. 

Later she walks back past us sans wings.  “Hey, what happened to your wings?” I call.  

“Took ’em off,” she replies, kinda sassily, as she turns and looks right at me – gray eyes straight at me. But when she turns away, her hair swings gracefully just a bit down her back before it settles up against her girly blue t-shirt again. The butterfly will emerge at just the right time.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic. 

 

Eastside Writing Room- June 2021

We’re going hybrid! Zoom and In-Person. 

EVERY TUESDAY

We’re still meeting virtually every Tuesday at 11:30 to check in on ZOOM with writing intentions. Updates welcome via email  in the afternoon. Members and interested writers will get the Zoom invite.

TUESDAY JUNE 15 11:15 AM  

We’re adding one hybrid meeting again this month. The energy at our in-person meeting in May was like a fresh breeze around my dining room table. In-person at Ethel’s house scheduled for our fully-vaccinated members on TUESDAY JUNE 15 11:30 AM-1:30 PM

HOW IT WORKS

Two hours of quiet writing time. Wireless networking available. Hostess provides beverages. Feel free to bring a snack.  Here’s the hybrid part: We’ll begin around the table and with a Zoom room open at 11:30 AM-12:00 noon. Ten minutes of writing talk, stating intentions for the two-hour writing session, and then writing on your own project—longhand, computer etc. This group is not for instruction, sharing, or critiquing. It’s solely for writing.

In-person. Remember how good this feels? Commit and claim your two hours just for you and your writing.
Set your writing intention in a quiet, serene atmosphere. No interruptions. No cell phones. No fee. Our table will be ready or you can work in the living room, or on the patio.

Interested? Contact Ethel

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. She writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure joy of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a mic. Now that she is FV (fully vaccinated) she is looking forward to expanding her world.

Vaccines and Bayonets -Published!

A Timely Publication

As  our current world opens up after 14 months of pandemic living with the COVID virus, members and special guests of the Eastside Writing Room gathered to celebrate Bee Bloeser’s just-published memoir depicting her time in Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea, Africa in the 1970’s with her husband Dr. Carl Bloeser, battling the smallpox virus.

Eastside writers and guests- Paula Brown, Paul Hawkins, Sally Lanyon, Rhema Sayers, Bee Bloeser, Penelope Starr, Sam Henrie, Sam Henrie, Ethel Lee-Miller and photographer Hank Miller

If you have not yet purchased a copy of Vaccines and Bayonets, please get one. This is a gripping story- bravely and beautifully told and… are there no coincidences?… published as the world battles our COVID pandemic virus.

Excerpt

This short excerpt from the first chapter is uncannily relevant. In Bee’s words:

“I knew about viruses. I knew that when a virus finishes using one cell, one person, one host,  leaving it damaged or dead, it has to find a new one so it can continue making copies of itself. And then find another. And another. It’s what a virus has to do. And I knew a lot about smallpox, caused by the variola virus. I knew that more than a few times through the ages, the microscopic organism had changed the course of history itself.…” Vaccines and Bayonets, “Ranka Didi,”  Wheatmark Publishing. 2021

Proud author Bee Bloeser and Sam Henrie, President of Wheatmark

 

 

Sound familiar? Vaccines worked. Smallpox was eradicated. 

Congratulations, Bee!!!!  So proud to have been witness to your work in chronicling this history-making time and your years in Africa.

Bee’s book is on Amazon or contact the author, Bee Bloeser.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic. 

 

Dancing with My Mother

Sharing one of my favorite stories about my mother. She passed away in 2006 and yet I feel close and closer to her than when she was physically with us. This is an excerpt from Seedlings: Stories of Relationships.

I offer it as a memory, a possibility that relationships can and do change and deepen.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY

The Garden: A fully grown story that I cherish more each year. My time with my mother in the last five years of her life was the jewel in the crown of our relationship. Mom had the same birthday conversation with each of her daughters, not remembering her age, and being equally delighted each time she heard us tell her. Who says repetition is boring?

So what will it be today? This was the question I asked myself as I strode down the hallway of the Regent Nursing Residence to visit my eighty-eight-year-old mother. My mother was declining, both physically and emotionally. A hemorrhagic stroke three years earlier had robbed her of any thought of independent living. Her retirement home with its well-tended gardens, indoor plants, and tiny art studio adjacent to the washer and dryer on the lower level had been sold. 

The stroke robbed her of right-sided movement, coordination to hold a paintbrush, and concentration for staying focused. Her activities were limited to wheelchair movement within the boundaries of the nursing home. Her patience and tolerance, never her strong points, were greatly reduced.

She was a true regent mother, garnering a private room with her own needlepoint armchair, drop-leaf table, and oil paintings from her dabbling in landscape and still life art. Most of the other residents shared both a room and institutional furniture. Mother thought the private room was only her due. 

Although she spoke slower than before the stroke, she still remained strongly opinionated and curious. So each day’s visit was a toss of the coin as to which Mom persona would be sitting in the wheelchair of Room 104. If the blinds were open and her favorite big band CD was playing, I’d visit with the childlike Excited Mom who was a delightful and sometimes outrageous companion. “I have a great idea for Halloween. Next week. Bring my old bathing suit from the 1930s. The one I used to wear to costume parties. Liven things up around here.” 

Or my mother’s body could be inhabited by what I called the Dark Force. Then the blinds would be closed, no light, no music. “Get me out of here,” she’d rasp. “They’re trying to kill me with boredom. Who wants to watch those ninnies on the soaps? They can never figure out the men are incorrigible rakes.”

Today the door was partly open. I arranged my smile and walked in. Blinds were open. Good sign. But no music. Not a good sign. Mom looked up from the picture album on her lap. She beckoned me with one curled finger, a terrific scowl on her face and brown eyes widened. “Come here,” she whispered. It was a Dark Force day.

“Hi, Mom.” I bent to give her a kiss. Her hand stopped me less than five inches from her face.

“This place is filled with old people.” 

“Yes?”

“This is a mistake. I don’t belong here. They’re all old and crotchety.” 

I know it’s hard to believe, but I was relieved to hear this. My sisters and I weren’t sure if my mother was aware of her surroundings in the nursing home. She went to Bingo and played Trivial Pursuit in the activity room with other residents. But she had never asked about where she was. 

Prior to the stroke, she had had almost weekly rants about the senior drivers in her town. “They drive like snails. Not the young ones. The ones with white hair. Those old people shouldn’t be on the road.” It was then an inner struggle to refrain from pointing out that she herself had more than a nodding acquaintance with the local traffic cop. Remember her warning tickets for speeding? The six of them lined up along the mirror frame in her dining room had been like old dance programs she had kept as a teenager. To hear her pick up a familiar thread of complaining was oddly comforting. 

“Yes, Mom, most people are here because they got hurt or got too old and could not take care of themselves in their houses anymore. You had your stroke and now you have someone feed you and bathe you here because you could not do that at home. You have the doctor and nurses right here to give you your pills and check your heart.” 

“Yes, yes, they’re okay. But the ones in the big room. Ethel, they’re all old ladies.” She curled herself even smaller in her chair and dropped her head in an exaggerated geriatric droop. 

“Well, even though they are so old, isn’t there anyone here that you really like?”

My mom was no fool. She had some choices here. She could be really contentious and say she hated everyone or she could pick the most unlikely candidate just to play devil’s advocate. She knew how to keep things lively.

“I like Helen.” Helen was the ninety-four-year-old female terror of Regent House. Where my sisters and I had nicknamed the female residents The Regents, Helen could easily qualify as the Wicked Queen. Her daily conversation was more than sprinkled with swear words. I think my mother was secretly envious of Helen’s freedom of speech. Helen had claimed a private table by the main column in the dining room, while other residents sat four to a table. No one objected to this because no one wanted to sit with her anyway. For some reason Helen had taken a liking to my mother and requested that Mom sit at her table. She would exhort my mother, who could only swallow pureed foods, to eat up. 

“Gladys, you eat like a bird. What’s this crap they’re feeding you anyway?” She had to be stopped from putting biscuits and chicken wings on my mother’s plate. She snuck contraband chocolate chip cookies into the bag on my mother’s wheelchair, which my mother took back to her room and dipped in water until they were soggy enough to swallow. Socially, it was a good match. Helen talked up a storm and my mother’s speech was slow and hesitant. Mom seemed quite comfortable with the eating and entertainment arrangement with Helen in charge.

Thinking of something to report about her day that also contained some shock value gave my mom a conversation opener. “Helen said a naughty word this morning at breakfast. The aide wanted her to apologize for saying it in front of me, but I told her it didn’t bother me at all.” 

I didn’t bite at the bait to get into a game of Guess the Swear Word whereby I would have to recite all the four-letter words I could think of thereby titillating my mother’s sense of racy living along with giving her the opportunity to play chastising mother at my speech. I saw a way to make my point about the median population at her residence. “Well, you know, Helen is in her nineties, Mom. Wouldn’t you say that’s old? She fits into the old lady category and you like her.”

“That’s Helen.” Mom dismissed my argument with a wave of her unimpaired hand. “She’s different. But the rest of them. Old nincompoops.”

I tried again. This was a possible segue into the conversation I wanted to have with Mom. Not a perfect segue, but you have to take the opportunity when it comes.

“Mom, your birthday is next week. Your other darling daughters will be here. I can bring a big cake for the residents.” 

“Those biddies? Bah!” 

“How about candy for the staff? We’ll have a celebration. Sing some songs. Talk about some of the exciting things you’ve done in your life.” I tapped the photo album from her trip with my father to Paris in the 1970s.

“What do you mean celebrate? Can’t move anymore. Can’t paint. Can’t write.”

I persisted in laying the groundwork for the birthday celebration. “I’ll bring balloons. You’ll get to wear the birthday tiara.” This was a silvery crown polished up for each birthday girl in our family. “We’ll play ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and you can tell us about you and Dad dancing.” My mother and father had been reigning dance champions in our family. They danced at home in the kitchen. Or Dad would lead Mom in a smooth fox trot on the porch on summer nights. Even into their late seventies, they went square dancing once a week. Their biggest claim to fame, albeit in a dance group, was dancing at the 1965 World’s Fair in New York. 

“Can’t dance.” She attempted a celebration block.

“You and I will dance,” I countered.

Mom hit the arm of the wheelchair with her left hand. “In this?”

“Yes.” I was not my mother’s daughter for nothing. I took a risk. I reached over and clicked on the CD player. Sounds of Glenn Miller began to fill the room. I reached down and released the brake on the wheelchair. My mother’s gaze followed my hand. The next few minutes were carried out in slow motion. 

I lifted the photo album and put it on the bed. I stood up, reached out on either side of the wheelchair, and turned it to face me. Standing in front of my mother, I waited while she raised her eyes to look at my face. I raised my right hand, palm open, an invitation to the dance.

“Remember, Mom?” 

My mother looked at my hand, slowly lifted her trembling left hand, and placed it in mine. I started to sway side to side. She mimicked my movements, rocking left and right. 

“Here we go, Mom.” I began to circle around the chair, gently holding my mother’s hand in mine. Up over her head and around. When I had gone full circle, I let go of her hand, took hold of the wheelchair armrests, and began turning the chair. 

“It’s a waltz, Mom. One, two, three. One, two, three.” I moved the chair in time to the music. “Forward two, three; back two, three. Forward two, three; back two, three.” A slow turn again in front of her. Letting go of her hand, I bowed.

“Thank you for the dance, madam.”

As I straightened up from my bow I saw my mother had dipped her head down, eyes closed in acknowledgment. 

Mom rested her chin in her hand and looked off to the side. “I suppose we could dance for my birthday.” She peeked at me without turning her head, like she was at the crossroads of a decision. Excited Mom was coming back.

“Yes, we will. We’ll dance for everyone.”

  Mom contemplated this with a thoughtful look down. A slow nod. “You pick the music.”

I was doing the fist pump internally. Yeeee-sss. “Of course, madam. It will be my pleasure.” 

“And bring the biggest chocolate chip cookies you can find for the biddies.” She had her pride.

“Yes, and a cake for you.” 

She shrugged, but smiled as she glanced away.

Now I was curious. “Do you remember how old you will be?”

Mom looked intrigued at this question. “How old?”

“Well, how old do you think?”

“Seventy?”

“Mom, you will be eighty-nine years old next Thursday.”

My mother’s face was a mosaic of emotions. She went from looking completely surprised, to wondering, and then absolutely delighted. Her dark brown eyes actually sparkled like I hadn’t seen in weeks. She sat up straighter as a smile captured her face. “Really! I look pretty damn good.”

“That you do, Mom. That you do.”

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. (books available on Amazon or contact me. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic. 

My Friend Bee

My friend Bee Bloeser has written a memoir, and revised it (several times), and published it. If you’ve published a book, you know the joys, torments, doubts, and exhilaration that travel along with you on the journey from dream to book.

Witnessing my friend Bee during her journey with this book has been awe-inspiring, to say the least. Looking at her journey through the lens of a writer, and focusing it with the colorful lens of our friendship, I knew when this book was published, I had to write about it and my friend Bee.

Meeting a New Friend is No Accident

I met Bee seven years ago in 2014 after a panel discussion on memoir that I had been a part of.

“I want to write a book about my husband’s work in eradicating smallpox in Africa,” she told me. Her husband Carl dreamed of writing his story but died while it was still folders stuffed with reports, letters, and memories.

It’s not unusual for writers and would-be writers to think out loud, dream, and fantasize about writing that book. I believe everyone’s got a story to write or tell. Indeed, at each meeting of the very first writing group I joined we repeated that belief. “You are a writer if you say you are- even if only one person hears your story.” Even if only one person benefits from hearing or reading it; it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Not everyone writes that story. Or some writers write their book out of frustration, or to correct an error in history, or to revise their “personal history.” Or as Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

So here was a woman who had a story she wanted and, by the determination in her voice as she spoke, needed to share. I knew that feeling quite well.

My writing group here in Tucson met on Tuesdays. We talk briefly about our writing intention for the day and spend the next two hours writing. The energy around the writing table was palpable. By a quirk of “coincidence” Bee lived not more than a 15-minute drive from my house. (We’ve continued meeting, and through COVID, on ZOOM)

I thrust a business card in her hand. “Here’s my info. Come to our group next Tuesday.” And she did. Tuesday after Tuesday after Tuesday.

I learned about Carl and Bee in bits and pieces as she shared some of her Tuesday writings. Her doctor husband Carl and she, and their young family spent most of the years of the 1970’s with the West Africa Smallpox Eradication/Measles Control Program. This petite, cheerful woman was dedicated. She was committed to her writing. She was tenacious.

She arrived with laptop in hand, then laptop with extra tote bag of documents, notes, letters. Then emails texts, not on Tuesdays. “Have you read this book on smallpox? I think I can use parts of this in my book.” Or “This book addresses what Carl and I went through. But I have documents that show a different perspective. Read this.”

Stories are important as they fill a container for our longings, anxieties, hopes and dreams.  ~ Terry Hershey, Sacred Necessities

Then came the period of time when we all realized this book about Carl’s work was destined to be an historical memoir. Bee’s musings uncovered discovery of her own courage and strength along with her husband’s in dealing with the differences in a culture on the other side of the world. Armed with medical training, and love and idealism, they dealt with the growing awareness of threats that came not just from the disease of smallpox but the diseases of ignorance, and greed, and political power run amok. All this went into the book.

You write your first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head. – James Ellison, Finding Forrester

As members of the Eastside Writing Room, we witnessed Bee writing, revising, discovering new documents, making timelines and speaking at Tucson organizations about her work. We watched as a post-it timeline grew along the wall of her apartment hallway- dates for chapters added, chapters revised, first draft completion. We watched the layers of writing and revisions begin to reflect information from phone calls, interviews, newly discovered files. Not being a digital native, Bee learned the ins and outs of fonts, margins, styles, saving, sharing, and how-to’s of social media, using her well-honed skill of asking for help and always appreciating efforts to help her on the journey to complete this book for Carl.

The timeline on the wall shifted to final drafts, researching publishing options, queries, suggestions that came along with rejections, more queries. The publishing decisions. Cover design. The emails to us in the group. ”Which cover idea?” “Think this color works with the title?” We were as thrilled as she when Sasha Polakow-Suransky showed a genuine interest in her work. She persevered for seven years to bring her story of her life and her husband’s commitment to eradicate smallpox to the literary world.

 The quest for a story is the quest for life. ~Jill Johnston

No detail has been overlooked in this quest for the book to be THE BOOK. Bee’s heart and personal history have been expertly crafted in her historical memoir, Vaccines and Bayonets: Fighting Smallpox in Africa Amid Tribalism, Terror and the Cold War. And this story has life.

The inspirational and timely result arrived in my mailbox this past weekend. Don’t just go by my words about this. Of course I’m biased. I’ve been a witness to this success for the seven years of writing. But there’s a heck of a lot of truth in what I say. Find out for yourself.

Vaccines and Bayonets: Fighting Smallpox in Africa Amid Tribalism, Terror and the Cold War by Bee Bloeser https://beebloeser.com

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. She writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure joy of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a mic. Now that she is FV (fully vaccinated) she is looking forward to expanding her world in person.

 

 

Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to biological mothers, chosen mothers, adopted mothers, and all the wonderful people who have mothered others- for a moment of caring, for a short time,  for years, for a lifetime, whether in person or at a distance.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!

A memory from 10 years ago that still makes me smile:

I recently started walking at the mall with a friend. We share the time it takes to do several loops. The faster we walk, the more we talk, mostly about relationships, particularly mother-daughter.

We both had our share of conflict with our mothers. I had been a rebellious teenager in the 1960s; breaking rules seemed the only way I could ‘separate’ from my parents. Fulfilling her mother’s high expectations had made childhood difficult for Candy too.

Our relationships had mellowed as our mothers got older and we gained insight into the perspective of our 1950s moms; perfect children equaled perfect mothers and imperfect children…. Well, you can see how it went.

Candy and I found the mother conflicts were replaced by our growing maturity and the common experience of caring for our aging mothers. We witnessed these independent and often difficult women move into various stages of illness and vulnerability that come with aging, sometimes with cranky or bitter resistance, sometimes with a sense of grace that was astounding and inspiring.

As Candy and I aged, there was also the realization: we were so much like our mothers. Now both our mothers had died; mine two years ago on Christmas Eve; hers this past winter. We are motherless daughters.

“I have my mother’s hands,” Candy said, spreading her fingers in front of her as we walked. “Arthritis,” as she touched the bumps near her joints.

“Me too,” as I located the age spots that speckled the backs of my hands.  “And all those years I vowed I’d never be like my mom.”

“Funny.”

One morning, post walk, Candy beckoned me to her car. “I want to show you something.”

Out of the trunk of her car she produced a needlepoint pillow, a kaleidoscope of colors sliding across in a vibrant collage.

“Wow,” I breathed. I knew Candy did needlepoint, but I’d only seen delicate patterns on pristine white backgrounds.

“Yeah, different for me,” she chuckled. “I got the colors from my mother.”

“Your mother?” I asked. Wait, this was embarrassing. I was pretty sure her mom had died. I had sent a card, a book.

“Oh yes, she died six months ago,” Candy said. “I miss her so much.”

Candy looked off with a smile as if she saw her mom in the distance, maybe walking toward us.

“When Mom died, my sister and I went to clean out her house. My sister found this box of needlepoint with Mom’s unfinished work and said there was more of a chance that I would make use of it than anyone else in the family.” Candy looked at me and chuckled. “After years of resisting my mother extolling the benefits of needlepoint work to calm nervous thoughts and hands, I had reluctantly tried it. It worked.”

She glanced down at the reminder of her mother. “My mother did needlepoint for years,” she said as her middle-aged hands smoothed across the pillow. “She had to stop when her arthritis became so painful. Maybe she thought she would start again, that’s why she saved all this.”

Candy’s eyes met mine. The same thought occurred to us. Maybe something made her save it for someone else?

Candy continued, “When I went through the mix of threads and pillow forms, I found this one. It struck me because it was so colorful and had already been started. That’s why I say my mom gave me the colors. I just continued the pattern, but…” she said with a final pat, “we did it together.”

“You know what I mean?” Candy asked aloud. Behind her words I sensed ‘Do you understand how I feel?’ I did. What a lovely gift from your mother, I thought.

The usually bubbly features of my friend’s face softened as she bent over to pull out a second unfinished memory. I could see in her face the girl, young woman, and now middle-aged woman who loved her mother as deeply as I had grown to love mine.

“Look at this. Green and red, almost finished. I like to imagine she was doing this one for me. I’ll do this one next—just in time for Christmas.”

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic.