Records of Recordings

My dad liked making recordings and he liked new technology. Back in the late 40s, before tape recorders, he bought a machine that made records and took it to my grandparent’s house on what was then the outskirts of Billings, MT. They had a few acres, a couple of cattle, chickens, geese, that kind of thing. My grandfather was born in 1870, so by the 40s he was already an old man. My dad thought his father-in-law was a riot and made several recordings of him.

Among the things my grandfather made fun of were Baptist and/or Methodist preachers. I understand that, from his point of view, they didn’t say anything, but the way they used their voice made what they said sound important. To illustrate this, he declaimed the alphabet.

Now the only existing record of that record and the declamation is in my memory, but it was first a record and then my brother recorded it onto a cassette.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been purging such “records” — not the intangible kind, but the tangible kind. In a month or so I’m getting my garage repaired and there’s stuff in my garage. A lot of it is family stuff that I didn’t know I had until I moved from California to Colorado. It came to me from my mom’s crawl space when she died in 1996. I didn’t look at it then; I just stored it away.

I went through it before my move to Colorado three years ago, but not with the brave and radical fervor I should have felt. If I hadn’t brought it, I could have brought stuff that meant more to me like my drawing table and bicycle. There were boxes that held my dad’s writing and the records of his life’s accomplishments, his uniform from WW II, a box of family photos, those things that — I think — everyone has. When my trash can is full, I stop for the week. I’ve also hauled maybe a dozen bags of useful stuff to the thrift store. In going through it, my standard is, “Will I ever use this? Will this have any meaning or use to the person who goes through my things when I’m dead?”

And, since I don’t HAVE to do this, I can keep what I want. One thing I found was a speech my dad gave at a university in Missouri on the topic of using computers in colleges and universities. It’s a record of how he saw the future of computers in education and, in itself, it is a record of what computers could do when I was 8 years old. I believe (based on things I saw later, the work of a professor of mine who compiled a concordance to Chaucer’s work using a computer) and knowing my dad and how he would have wanted to do this, that this is a print out, but I do not know for sure. The paper makes me suspicious that it is not. Back then, data was entered using punch cards and his text — a computer printout — means someone had to type all that onto punch cards.


No “GUI,” just the giant Burroughs and UNIVAC mainframe in the WW II building on the periphery of the University of Denver campus that housed Denver Research Institute.


I knew that monster well; I’d gone on a lot of errands with my dad to by tubes to replace some that had burned out and spent some Saturdays with him when he was working.

For me, this was a wonderful discovery. Much of my career involved teaching people — colleagues and students — to use computers in college and university computer writing labs. I wanted so much to say, “Hey dad, look at this!” and show him my MacBook, iPhone and iPad — all proof of what he said:

Computer 1

The Wind Beneath My Wings

Today is my Aunt Martha’s 98th birthday. I actually celebrated a couple of days ago when I accidentally ended up on the “luv” station on my car radio and this was playing:


The last Christmas my Aunt was reasonably independent and in her mind, she bought Christmas presents, went shopping first with my Aunt Jo and then with me. It was a lot of fun. My present was a music box (my aunt had collected them for years) that played this song.

I have no idea if the song meant anything to her. I never liked it. But now it is my Aunt Martha’s song. In my mind it is my mom helping her big sister in school — my aunt couldn’t see well until she got glasses. It’s my Aunt Martha being on my side all through my life. I don’t know what, where or who I would be right now if it had not been for her steadfast faith in me, her encouragement, her sometimes very wise and timely advice, her perception, and the life she lived herself which was courageous and beautiful.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Martha. I wish you were here and we were making you a cake with a ridiculous number of candles so that all the wax melted all over the top as we did when you turned 50. I wish we were trying to put pennies under your plate, the family custom when you were a kid that we kept up every year for you. You are almost worth a dollar now. I love you and I miss you.

P.S. Aunt Martha is the woman in the light suit; I’m between her and my mom. It’s Easter, 1967. Her name was Martha Liberty because she was born on George Washington’s birthday. The family name was Beall — pronounced “Bell.” Her middle name was source of greater or lesser embarrassment to her all her life. 🙂

Post-It Notes


“Aunt Jo? It’s Martha Ann.”

“Well Martha Ann. How the heck are you? Uncle Hank and I were just talking about you.”

“Did you reach any conclusions?”

“Not yet. So what’s new?”

“I’m coming up for Christmas.”

“Halleluja! Your Aunt Martha will be so happy!”

“Me too. I’ll mail you the flight info.”

“We’ll be there to get you.”

And there they were. My beautiful uncle — the first crush of my life — my sweet Aunt Jo and my precious Aunt Martha, then in the early-middle stages of dementia, in her green coat, waiting. It was Christmas, 2001. That year pretty much everyone in Billings had a paper flag (cut from the Billings Gazette) taped in their front window.

After I got my bags, we took Aunt Martha back to her apartment. I went in with her, and found about a hundred yellow post-it notes stuck all over her living room on which she had written “Martha Ann arrives today.”  That pretty much made my whole life.


August, a Week before School Starts

“There’s nothing to do. I’m bored.”

“Find something to do.”

“But what?”

“Figure it out yourself.”

Damn, the woman was actually giving me answers, but I was too young to get it. In fact, I didn’t get it until just this minute.

“C’mon, Mom. I wanna’ DO something?”

“Then DO something, honey. I’m not standing in your way. Your room is full of books and toys, things I never had growing up.”

What she HAD instead were sisters and animals and chores. Even now I can see the advantages to that. I didn’t want to hear the litany of pain that was my mother’s childhood in the Great Depression, though LATER when I could do the MATH I realized she was 10 or 12 when the Great Depression hit the plains of Montana. They were just plain out, simply put, too-many-kids poor. Their depression was real but it wasn’t “Great.” The only ones who actually grew up in the Great Depression were the youngest two who, in all reports, “Had things we never had because Sister (the oldest) was working and sent money home.”

Mopage. Every kid does it. Every kid has reasons. I just needed school to start.

“I don’t like this, mom.”

“What do you want?”

“A red one!”

“You look so pretty in blue. Why don’t we look for a nice blue dress?”

To me, blue was a non-color. I didn’t have blue eyes like my mom had. There was no reason for blue, not at all.

“You take everything for granted,” she sighed. “We didn’t have clothes like you have. Our mom made our dresses from flour sacks. We were happy to get them.”

All the flour I’d ever had contact with by then was in paper bags, so for a while I imagined them freezing in paper dresses. I felt very sorry for them. Later, I saw flour at the store in big, cloth bags and after that, they were all walking to school wearing cotton dresses with “Gold Medal Flour” proflour-11-350x182.jpgudly proclaimed by their little chests. I have since learned that in the 30s, flour companies sacked flour in gingham and calico because they knew ALL farm moms did this and it helped sell their flour. Maybe a lot of times the patterns were red or pink or yellow and the little girl who was my mom just wanted blue.

And she moped.

I suspect on the quilt under which I sleep there are squares made of flour sacks. My grandma made me the quilt. It’s “cherry basket” pattern, but you can see how my grandmother carefully filled each basket with flowers.


The featured photo is my Aunt Mary Ruth and my Aunt Madylene (better known as Jo and Dick) in front of their house in Hardin, Montana during the depression. Jo is nearly 4 and Dickie is 2.

Joy vs. Success

Yesterday I got an email from the woman who edited Savior and Martin of Gfenn. She’s a lovely person, and I like her very much. I even hope we meet someday. Her email suggested a small press I should contact, one that has published the work of another of my editor’s clients.

I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. OK, I know I’ve just barely gotten over the flu and I’m not yet 100%, even though I did take Dusty and Bear out to the fields yesterday, but it was still a strange reaction. I immediately went to their website and assessed it. By now I have an experienced — if somewhat jaundiced — eye. They have published a few novels. They are an offshoot of a literary journal. Their website is amateurish. There is nothing there to tell wouldbe writers how to submit work. None of these are red flags, necessarily, but it reminded me of the now bygone Bygone Era Books, RIP.

Rather than the feeling of hope I would have felt a year ago discovering a new possibility, I felt mildly nauseated by the thought of starting all that up again.

My editor asked if I were working on anything now and I am and am not. One project is busy work, in a way, though it might become something. The other is tabled until I have some idea who the protagonist is and why the story needs to be written at all. The thought of publishing has, meanwhile, pretty much stolen the joy from the whole thing and, as I learned from a tea bag a couple of days ago, “Joy is success.”

Cryptic little tea bag. It could mean that success brings joy; it could mean (as I read it) joy itself is success. Writing was never meant — for me — to be an obligation and what I’ve learned in the past year has taught me that fame might be a subjective term.

I’m famous now in a way I never imagined. I got a Christmas card and note from one of the two remaining aunts in my family — there were 7 girls, one of them was my mom. They were all very bright, beautiful and complex women, significantly different from each other — not too surprising as one was born around the turn of the century and the last was born in the mid 1920s. The note came from the youngest, Aunt Dickie. I’ve sent her my novels and she has loved them. In the note she told me that she and a group of “girls,” her reading group, are going to read The Brothers Path this winter and discuss it and she told me she is proud of me. “It’ll be a little money for you, anyway. Love you, Aunt Dickie.”

No publisher in the world can give me that.

I think the next thing I will write, and what I will do with it, remain to be discovered. Meanwhile, this morning the freezing fog (which I love) is tangled in the tops of the trees, encasing each tiny twig in white, and the tree tops disappear mysteriously into the clouds.

Blue Eyes

?It’s December 1971. I’m 19. I’m in my dorm room at the woman’s college, listening to the radio. Carly Simon. I’m sitting on my bed, line by line decoding The Odyssey. I believed that all educated people could read Greek, so there I was, working on my education. It didn’t occur to me as I translated five lines a day that I wasn’t really learning Greek. I didn’t know much about language learning at that point in my life. I didn’t know how important that would be to my livelihood forever.

There were many things on the horizon that December that I could not have known precisely, though I knew they were off in the not-to-far distance. Anticipation.

I was anticipating Christmas break. Thanksgiving had been the usual. Aunt Martha came by the dorm in her Oldsmobile, picked me up, and we drove to Colorado Springs. Mom had me set the table with the china and crystal. At 3 pm, as usual for Thanksgiving, the four of us — mom, my brother, my aunt and I — ate our dutiful capon. Mom didn’t like turkey. When it was over, we sat around and then my mom said, “Fix a plate and take it to your dad.”

Dad was in a nursing home. I did this. I hung out with my dad for a while, fed him Thanksgiving dinner while my mom and aunt cleaned up the kitchen — usually my job, but this was a special day. A little later they arrived and I went home.

I had a date, after all, and a boyfriend. A guy I would actually marry 7 months later.

So there I was, decoding Homer as the snow fell outside my window, cracked open a little so a pigeon I’d befriended could perch there for warmth.

Final exams for fall semester. Filling blue books and typing essays. Erasable typing paper didn’t help a lot, but some. Sometime in my own teaching career, grading papers that had been sloppily proofread, I pitied my professors. Final editorial pieces for the semester, Merry Christmas, end of semester, summing up of the year. Packing. Closing the window completely, somewhat ruefully but sure the pigeon would work something out. Packed. Aunt Martha, “Are you ready, Martha Ann?”

“I’m ready. Let’s go.” Put the suitcase in the trunk of the Oldsmobile and off we go, catching the I-25 somewhere, probably an entry ramp that doesn’t exist any more crossing a city that doesn’t exist any more.

“I’m going to go see dad,” I say, soon after I arrived.

“OK, honey.”

Dad had been in a coma since a couple of days after Thanksgiving. I knew — we all knew — that something was going to happen; we anticipated the worst, we debated about what the “worst” actually was.

I got into the Ford Galaxie 500XL, turned the key, backed out of the garage. The winter light at that altitude is white and oblique, the sun so far south, beautiful. I knew so much less about it at that point in my life than I do now that part of me feels impatience with that girl. “Look around,” I want to say.

“I’m trying,” she’d say, and there’s no way to dispute that. It’s true. She was trying.

I had brought homework to do while my dad was just lying there in a coma. I settled into my usual chair, opened whatever book I’d be starting the semester with come January. I took my dad’s hand in mine and read.

After about an hour I felt him squeeze my hand. Thinking it was a reflex, a dream, I looked up. His eyes were open. He was looking at me, full on, as I had never been looked at before or since. For a long time we just looked at each other, unrelenting eye contact, “words” crossing the air between our minds, every needful thing “spoken” in that silent space.

“Do you want me to read to you, Dad?” I picked up Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and turned it to “Jabberwocky” which he loved.

When I finished, and could see he’d enjoyed it, I knew I had to call my mom. I had to call the nurse. There was a short litany of “have to’s” in that moment and I accomplished them. Soon there was a bustle in that quiet room; the busyness of life. My mom appeared in her long winter coat and lipstick to see her husband. The nurse replaced the IV needle that had come out. I retreated to the corner of the room knowing that a moment in my life had just ended, but beautifully.

My dad was conscious through Christmas. We opened presents together at the nursing home on Christmas Eve. My dad gave me a pen and pencil set. He’d scrawled on the gift tag, “Keep writing, MAK.” A week after I returned to school, he was again in a coma. A month later he was dead.

I don’t anticipate any more. A lifetime of discipline has brought me to the point where I know that the future is its own business. This moment, eternally-loving, blue eyes.


Lemon Tree

When I was a girl, my dad had lots of advice for me, maybe more, even than the average dad because when I was 2, my dad was given a death sentence. He was diagnosed with MS in 1953. The doctors gave him 10 to 12 years; he got 18.

I don’t know the circumstances, but I know that back then, there was not as much knowledge about auto-immune diseases. I’m not sure the term even existed. They knew how MS worked, but not why. There were theories, but no answers, and the only certain diagnosis came in an autopsy. Many other conditions present symptoms similar to MS.

My dad and I were close. We really just simply (beyond loving each other like dad and daughter) we LIKED each other. He encouraged every little interest I had; he encouraged my independent spirit.

Among the advice he gave me was advice about luv. “Make no entangling alliances, MAK. Follow the Monroe Doctrine.” I was seven. What did I know about the Monroe Doctrine?  He told me.

Based on his advice, and songs he liked and recommended to me, I suspect my dad was disappointed in love. He’d married my mom and that was enough to disappoint anyone. She remains to me a mysterious creature who seems to have had a bitter love/hate relationship with pretty much everything, especially with those who loved her most.

Two of the songs are “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” by Gale Garnett and “Lemon Tree” by Peter Paul and Mary. I don’t know how many dads tell their daughters to follow the messages contained in these songs.

I’ve been cleaning out the garage believing that I would end up having to have the thing pulled down and rebuilt. I’m happy that is not the case. In the cleaning, I’ve found some surprising things. Yesterday, in a little old leather notebook my dad gave me in which to keep my poems, I found tucked and hidden away, two poems of his. I believe he wrote them to me. Both of them are advice for me, how to live my life when he is no longer with me.

The Bludgeon of Talent?

A quiet morning here in paradise and I have little fear of my head intersecting a bludgeon later on, but you never know. When vectors start flying the outcome is always a little unpredictable, regardless of the equation. Some bludgeons are emotional, existential, internal.

Today is my brother’s birthday, and as he is no longer around to help celebrate, I thought I’d write about talent. A couple of days ago I was helping my neighbor with her computer and she said some interesting things. She said that I get up in the morning and think, “I’m going to paint that” or  “I’m going to write that story.” I agreed. That’s pretty much what I do. She then said she wished she had talent. I told her that there’s not much to talent. The big thing is to keep at something until you’re good at it and take pleasure in it.

My brother was extraordinarily talented. His artistic abilities as a storyteller through comics emerged when he was just a little guy of three. For most of his young life he could happily sit in the corner of our basement drawing cartoons. He did it hours on end. Anyone can draw cartoons if they get a book that shows them how, but not everyone has the mind to put the comic characters together with stories. He had a phenomenal and unique sense of humor.

Combined with this — and this is what artists are “notorious” for — he had a very large dark side. I don’t know when he started drinking. In my perpetually naive state, I thought it was when he was 18 or so, but that’s probably wrong. At a very early age my brother began looking for something he could imbibe that would intoxicate him.

A friend of mine seven years ago — also a brilliant guy who’d fought alcoholism and, for the moment, had won — said that for some people talent is a curse and a burden. I thought maybe that accurately described my brother. Anyone with an alcoholic, drug addict or suicide in their family wonders, “Why?” Maybe that was it. Or maybe it was our family, but I don’t think so. I think it was inside my brother, a mysterious dark force that I will never (god willing) understand.

So here I am. My brother would have been 63 today. When I think of him I don’t think of the sorrowful denouement of his life story. I think of the kid I played with. I think of sledding in the woods near our house in Nebraska. I think of going out trick-or-treating (and pulling tricks on people). I think of walking to school and seeing the snow coming toward us as stars pelting the window of our spaceship. I think of the young father who yelled at the nurse because she would not let me hold his new baby, “Immediate family only,” said the nurse.

“But she’s my sister!” yelled my brother as the nurse walked away, the baby in her arms.


The photo is my brother in 1975, aged 22, at Pine Creek Gallery and Restaurant in Colorado Springs, at a painting show with some of his work and the work of his friends, Daryl Anderson, Rick Berry, Artie Romero and probably others whose names I don’t know. 🙂


Friends came to spend the weekend and we went to the wool festival in Taos. This meant driving through breathtaking landscapes to one of the most interesting towns I know. Every year the “wool people” (don’t know what else to call them) gather in Taos to sell their raw materials and their products. And there are some VERY raw materials in the shape of alpacas, sheep and goats.

In my daily life, I try not to be an asshole and I try not to hurt people, but we’re all human beings. I’ve learned over the years that we’re all two year olds if we’re not rested and we’re not fed and we’re pushed too far from normal by circumstances. It happened to me after the glorious day, and now I’m dealing with the fallout. I said hurtful things I didn’t mean to a precious friend out of frustration, exhaustion and anxiety about our dogs who’d been left in the house all day. I was immediately sorry and said so, but some people are more able than others to turn around and say, “I know. We’re both tired and I was pressuring you. Let’s forget it ever happened.”

My mom always said, when I fought with a friend or with my brother, “Mend the fence before bedtime.” I agree 100% with that. Otherwise the sad situation just gets sadder, the rift widens and reconciliation becomes more difficult… So now I’m hoping for a breakthrough in this sad impasse.


She was elegant. Her walk was elegant. Her dresses — frothy, chiffony, with full tule petticoats — were elegant. She wore high heels to wash the kitchen floor — and to do every other thing in life. Her gestures were elegant — fluid and gentle. Her pace through life — which was not a rose garden — was elegant. Her resilience and persistent joy were the absolute height of human elegance. Shortly before she died at age 92 she taught me to tango.