Magical Valentine Across Time

I spent six of my formative years — probably the six most formative years — in a small town in Nebraska. I loved it there. It was a Norman Rockwell world with ice cream socials held after Little League games at one church or another, a world where kids were free to go everywhere by bike, where the public swimming pool was surrounded by woods, and winter ice-skating was on a pond in the middle of a forest.

It really was like that. This isn’t just nostalgia. I was a happy kid.

Besides the town and the life it provided my brother and me as kids, I liked all the opportunities my mom and dad put in front of me. Life was great. I didn’t know then that the preparation for life I got was, a lot of it, going to fall by the way in the social tumult of the sixties and seventies, family tragedies, marriage, divorce, grad school, all of it.


Most of my education was in public school. Then, because my parents hoped that the rigor of a private school would help my incorrigible little brother who refused to learn anything in public school, I went to Brownell/Talbot, an Episcopalian school in Omaha, for sixth and seventh grade. It was a combination of girls’ finishing school and college prep school. My brother was “uninvited” after the first year, but I flourished and found my first ever real friend. It was two very happy school years for me.

I was also a Rainbow Girl. Rainbow is, “A Masonic fraternal order for girls of teen age.” We wore formals to our meetings. We had “dinners” for our parents and for visiting Rainbow Girl Lodges and visiting officers — local, state and national. They were always beautiful events with centerpieces, table favors and name cards, all handmade by us girls. We were taught that this kind of extra-effort showed others that they mattered to us.

The girl I was from 12 to 14 imagined that all these thoughtful, petty things would be part of my adult life mixed in with world travel, art, adventure and athletics. I guess I imagined 45 hour days and did not fully understand the freedom of childhood. 🙂

By the time I was fifteen, that world had vanished not only from my actual existence (we moved away from the little Nebraska town to the vastly more sophisticated Colorado Springs), but almost from my memory. By then, fate was taking my family to some dark places.


My friend Elizabeth invited me to join her and her husband for a Valentine dinner at the local Methodist church this past Saturday. I was nervous because it would mean meeting new people, but I trust my friend and she said it would be fun. When I asked if I could wear jeans, Elizabeth said, “It is kind of fancy.”

I wore my “best” clothes which are velvety, brown cords, a black cashmere sweater and a gold necklace. I haven’t had REAL fancy clothes in a looonnnnggg time. Besides, I couldn’t imagine the dinner being very fancy. This is Colorado, after all…

Monte Vista United Methodist Church
Erected in 1922 in the Prairie architectural style it features fifty-four original geometric stained glass windows and a fifty-seven pipe Estey organ.

The Methodist church is a splendid arts and crafts building. I’ve wanted to see it for a while. Luckily, we arrived when there was still enough day to light the amazing stained glass windows.

Half of this massive cube of a building — built of glazed bricks — is the sanctuary. The other half is a meeting hall where the dinner was held.

Candles and fairy lights, a dozen beautifully set tables, red tablecloths with white lace over them. Centerpieces, handmade table favors; our red, cloth napkins, rolled to look like roses, sat in our coffee cups. Silver. The hosts — people from the Methodist church — wore tuxes and formals as they served us dinner.

We found seats at a table with the minister of the Disciples of Christ church and his wife. The minister stood by his seat until we three ladies were seated. I have not seen that kind of chivalric behavior since I was a girl, but I saw it many times that night.

Dinner was lasagna, salad, and cherry cheese cake. We were served red or white sparkling grape juice (these are Methodists, after all) by the minister of the church who wore a tuxedo and a red bowtie. From time to time, an elegantly dressed Methodist would come and check that everything was fine at our table.

That dinner was a REAL Valentine. Not only was I with some of my favorite people here in Colorado, but I was in a beautiful place surrounded by living relics of a lovely, gentle life I thought had vanished. The sweetness of it sank deeply into my heart, and I thought, “It’s been here all along.”

Handmade Valentine Quilted Wall Hanging (Photo by Elizabeth Shank)

Mom’s Illogical Demands

“We spent all that money on raincoats for you two! You didn’t even take them to school!”

“We didn’t know it was going to rain.” Wasn’t that HER job, to say, “Take your rain coats it looks like rain”?

“Get in here. You’re drenched. Get in the tub.”

“Me first,” says your brother, knowing there are cartoons.

OK now that made sense. Come home from school with your little brother, you’re both soaked from the rain storm and she tells you to get in the bathtub.

“Why?” you ask.

“You’ll catch your death. NOW!!!!”

You both run to your rooms. You wonder what you’re supposed to do while your brother is in the tub avoiding death.

“Get out of your wet clothes!!” yells your mom. “Throw them down the basement stairs!”

You take off your school clothes and run through the house in your underwear, open the basement door and throw your dress, slip, and socks down the basement stairs. Now you’re more or less naked in wet panties. This is madness.

“Billy! Get out of the tub, dry off good! It’s your sister’s turn!”

You hear the water begin its journey down down the drain.

“Dry off good! Maureen, get in there.”

Dry off and then get wet. You’re cold now, but you were fine before. Shivering, you go into the bathroom, turn on the water and get into the tub. “Can I have bubblebath?” you yell.

“I don’t care!” she yells back. “Just get into that tub.”

Your brother passes by the bathroom door in his pajamas. His red-blond hair spikey from being dried with the towel. He makes a face at you as he goes by.

“Stop looking at me!” you yell.

After a while your mother yells again, “Get out of there and get dried off. I need you to set the table.”

Life is an unsupportable burden. First you’re in trouble for getting wet in the rain you couldn’t predict or prevent. Then you’re yelled at for not getting into the bathtub already peopled by your brother. Then you’re yelled at for being IN the bathtub. You heave a sigh reflecting deep world-weariness as you let the water out of the tub. You drag your legs over the side, take your leaden towel from the rack and endure the effort of drying off your skin.

“I’m coming,” you yell back.

The Cast


“What happened?”

My little brother held his arm as if it were a bone china tureen filled with hot soup, not that he’d know or care at all about what bone china is.

“I fell out of a tree up at the mission.” The Columban fathers had a mission a block from our house. It was acres and acres of deciduous forest. It was our playground, our happy place.

“I’ll call your father.”

She didn’t drive.

I don’t know what happened next. I don’t know where I went — probably to a neighbor’s  or maybe (I think) my grandma was visiting — or where the bone was set, but my brother came home with a cast on his forearm.

“Simple break,” said my dad. “No reason for hysterics, Helen.”

“I broke my arm,” she stuck out her left arm so we could see the crooked bit. “It never healed right.”

“Helen,” sighed my dad, “there were no hospitals.”

“She sent David for Dr. Festy.” David being her older brother.

“Had to set it with boards in the kitchen, right? They did the best they could.”

“My poor boy. Mother gave me castor oil.”

“For a broken arm?”

“I wouldn’t stop crying.”

My dad shook his head and laughed. That was my grandma. What do you do on a dirt farm with ten kids, no car, no phone, two Percherons, a 7-year-old with a broken arm? From where I sit now, castor oil doesn’t seem that crazy.

“Well, it ruins our vacation,” said my mom.

“Why?” asked my dad.

“Kirk won’t be able to do anything. He has to be in a cast for three months!”

That did not turn out to be the case. Kirk did everything a two-armed kid would do except play Little League which he hated, anyway.

At the end of the summer, we went to Montana on the train as usual. The days were long, hot, sweet and filled with family. There were sunset games of Red Rover and lots of running in the tall grass of the pasture between grandma’s house and Aunt Jo’s. There were backyard picnics with fried chicken, red Jell-o mixed with fruit cocktail, potato salad and pie. The grownups sat in lawn chairs smoking in the darkness while we played monsters with flashlights.

One afternoon our cousins came over to stay with grandma and play with us. My brother  was playing in the ditch (not supposed to because of the cast) with the two youngest cousins, girls, while I tried watercolor painting with out a brush — I was trying to use the bristly ends of some wild grass. It didn’t work. Kirk and my cousins came screeching in through the backdoor. Kirk had caught a sucker with his bare hands. This was a marvel, a feat previously only accomplished by my mom.

“Mom! Look what I caught!” He held the fish carefully in both hands.

“Where’s your cast?” asked my mom, turning pale.

“I don’t know,” said my brother, suddenly realizing how seriously he’d messed up. It turned out he’d been slipping that thing off for weeks when he didn’t want to wear it.

I still have an image in my mind of that tow-headed kid in the Hawaiian shirt my mom had made him during the months she and my dad were living in Honolulu and we were living with Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank in Montana. We’re in a doctor’s waiting room. The chairs are Chartreuse, the tile floor black and white. Kirk and my mom are called into the examining room. They get up and Kirk leaves the cast on the chair.

Time Passages

“OK, let’s synchronize our watches.”

We look down at our left wrists and, with our right hands, make small movements, adjusting our imaginary watches.

“O400, we attack.” We tip-toe to the bushes — mostly honeysuckle — and look through the branches across the next yard at the enemy. They are also synchronizing THEIR watches. We get down on the ground, crawl on all fours to the fort that is the newly installed central air-conditioner.

“Debbie! Junior! Come in here now! I told you to wash the dishes before you went out to play and those dishes are still on the table!”

We stand up. Debbie and Junior call out from their yard, “We’ll be right back!” My brother and I sit down on the central air-conditioner unit to wait.

Dad yells from the house, “How many times do I have to tell you not to sit on that goddamned thing!” We jump off.

In this the twilight moment between summer and fall, the sun seems to hurry toward the end of the day. Just a month ago we’d have had HOURS left to play, but now our dad’s shrill whistle summons us inside before Debbie and Junior have finished the dishes.

TNT Boxes

When I was a kid, we had lots of TNT boxes lying around. Empty ones, but still they had “TNT — Highly Explosive” lettered all six sides. They were wooden boxes and really handy for making shelves, footstools and playhouses for one’s little girl. My dad did this for me when I was two. He took a bunch of TNT boxes and painted them green (the family favorite color and left over from painting the living room) and set them up in the back yard. I don’t have a strong memory of the playhouse, but I have a picture.


My cousin Linda and I thought that was pretty uptown. You can only see a couple of the TNT boxes in the photo. The TNT boxes form the foundation for the end of the “table” where my cousin is sitting. (Some youngster will find this photo and post it on Pinterest as “Mid-century Modern Childrens’ Playhouse.” Just wait)

He used the TNT to launch rockets carrying radios and weather balloons. And, of course, in the early 1950s there was still a lot of Army surplus stuff left over from the war. They were kind of like this, but with the tops off and no locks and different words.


Thanks Pinterest! for this photo of a “vintage” dynamite box.


Later we lived two miles from the nation’s largest gathering of B52 bombers, and, as it was the height (interesting use of the word ‘height’) of the Cold War, the possibility of detonation was real. I knew at a young age what a megaton was and how powerful our nukular arsenal was. My dad explained it to me through the familiar unit of 50 pound TNT boxes. I think he drew a picture.

That was when my dad told me about Alfred Nobel and how his invention had changed the world of warcraft (see what I did there?). TNT made him rich, but it also left him with feelings of great remorse that led to the Nobel Peace Prize.

“For some reason, peace is harder for people than war, MAK.” I understood that fine. I lived in a family where tempers flared, not in a family in which people got angry and sang Mr. Rogers’ song about what you do when you’re mad.

Some people’s dads flew bombers during the war; some liberated Rome; some were there supplying the fighters on Guadalcanal, like my Uncle Hank. Some stood in the Marine color guard in Nanjing when the Japanese surrendered, like my Uncle Stocky. Many died what we call a “hero’s death.” Not my dad. 🙂

The featured photo is of my dad sitting in front of La Jolla Cove. It wasn’t until I saw a photo of myself leaning against that railing in the exact same place that I understood where he’d been during the war, or the geography behind, “You’d better pray you never have to clean a latrine with a toothbrush, MAK.” This was his fate after, “…getting drunk in Tijuana, busted down to buck private and thrown in the brig.” By the end of the war, this had happened to him twice. When he was mustered out, he was a Tech Sergeant.

I am proud of his war achievements somehow. They included taming a coyote dog and making him a pet. I think my dad might not have been quite like the other kids…

Postscript: I just found his wallet with his discharge papers. He was: Radar Repairman; Gun Laying Equipment Expert; Expert Rifleman (no wonder: he hunted with his dad all his life). He had a Good Conduct  Medal and a Victory Medal and was stationed in the American Theater. He went to school in Davis, NC for radio and radar repair.

The Great Divide

When I was a little kid growing up in a Denver suburb, and once in a while going to the mountains (but not often; the folks weren’t outdoorsy types, even though they liked it OK), my dad would always talk about this wondrous mysterious thing called “The Great Divide.” This is the backbone of the continent, no small thing. “We’re going to cross the Great Divide!” he’d say and if there was a chance, we’d stop on the great divide and look at it.

If you’re standing on the top of a mountain — Loveland Pass — it’s going to be awesome, anyway, but if it’s ALSO the Great Divide! WOW. And then mom would say, “Water that falls here,” and she gestured with her right hand (because we’re oriented north out here) “flows to the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. And on this side,” she gestured grandly with her left hand, “The water will flow to the Pacific Ocean.”

“Think of that kids,” said dad who, it seems to me, was never short on wonder.

Later in school I got in an argument with my teacher over the nomenclature of this wonder. “Continental Divide? I think not. It is much MORE than that. It is the GREAT Divide!” At home my dad set me straight, and I learned a lesson that’s always been useful. There are often several correct names for things. Don’t argue names.

That goes for God, by the way.

Thar Be Monsters…

Daily Prompt Revisionist History Go back in time to an event you think could have played out differently for you. Let alternate history have its moment: tell us what could, would or should have happened?

C’mon. The only stories anyone would revise are the sad ones.

Thirty odd (they’ve all been rather odd) years ago a friend said, “You’ve had a harrowing life.” I never liked her as much after that. No one wants their friends to pass judgements on their lives. Who can fairly do that, anyway? One man’s meat and all that, right? I resented the comment because it was — and had been — my life and I was not “harrowed” by it.

Still and all, there is one thing I would change. I wish I would have woken up earlier. You see, I went through much of my life blind, with my eyes closed and while I know that’s why my life didn’t “harrow” me, it would have been nice to see things as they were much sooner.

I think.

For years and years there was a little voice inside that telling me to see. I wrote a lot of journal entries and seeing was a theme in everything I wrote. During my animal totem years (late 80s/early 90s) I perceived my animal guide as the red tail hawk, and his great attribute is vision. I watched them all the time when I was hiking and took it as a good sign if I arrived at the beginning of a hike and a hawk was there. That was most of the time, by the way.

All I knew of this animal totem business I learned from Hyemeyohsts Storm’s book The Seven Arrows. Since I spent so much of my time in a wilderness park that had been a sacred spot for the Kumeyyaay Indians, I felt that their lives filled the hills and valleys. The animals who lived there were part of my world. There are much worse teachers than nature, anyway. 😉 Now I think that when we need to learn something, we’ll find a teacher. I needed to open my eyes and I was fumbling about for someone to help me.

When my mom ended up in the hospital, deranged and ill, I finally learned the truth.  A brain scan showed the scar tissues and lesions that come from a life time of alcohol abuse. My mom had been a secret alcoholic for much of my life. I didn’t know this until I was 44, and she was a few weeks from death.

She wasn’t a friendly drunk who got maudlin or goofy. She was a mean drunk who got abusive and cruel, and I was the usual target of her cruelty. Why? Because I was also the person she relied on to manage her life, the person who (unwittingly) picked up the slack for her. Her feelings of guilt must have been heavy and one stragedy she had for bearing them was to turn me into an unworthy daughter who deserved punishment and contempt.

I wish I’d seen this sooner. I wish I’d known the truth when I was younger, and I wish I’d had help contending with it. When it was over, and I visited my aunts for Christmas, my Aunt Jo sat me down and talked to me straight and direct about my mom and our relationship. It was shocking in a way. I had always “felt” the truth of things, but because the truth was contradicted by my mom’s words, I had grown up and lived in a kind of twilight where she was concerned. Part of me KNEW she was mean; the other part of me said she wasn’t. I constantly worked to maintain the presence of the peaceful, kind “good” mom while knowing that, at any minute, with no warning, and probably because of something I did, the malicious, caustic and sometimes physically abusive “mean” mom would appear.

I know people who had two functioning parents who believed in their children and supported them. I don’t feel envy, but I do feel a sense of wonderment. Like a lot of children from families with absent parents, to some extent I raised myself. This has made me independent and self-reliant (on the one hand) but it also made me view others with a kind of trepidation. Sure, things are OK now, but sooner or later something’s going to happen to turn all the good things upside-down. My independence and self-reliance comes not from a solid sense of self, but from a lingering mistrust of others — and of myself.

Still and all there’s no point in looking back unless it leads a person to greater self-awareness and peace and, possibly, makes it possible for a person to direct their life in a better way. Though in my youth I thought it was silly, I now know that “happily ever after” is something to shoot for.

Interviewing a Little Girl about School


My First Halfway Decent Depiction of a Horse 🙂

Yesterday I got to hang out with a little girl and talk to her. I was at the Art Co-op Store where I have a few paintings hanging. I was working with the little girl’s grandmother, and I was painting a small watercolor of a horse. The little girl came in, and I gave her something to paint on and with and she sat down with me and we had a good time.

She’s going into third grade. I said, “I remember liking third grade. I had fun then.” In fact, it was hard, because I was a new kid in a new school, but, you know, otherwise, it was very good. I learned a lot about drawing — my teacher’s husband had been stationed in Japan and she brought Japanese paintings for me to copy (it kept me quiet, too…)

This little girl said, “I don’t think I’m going to have any fun. We don’t have any fun at my school.”

“Why not?”

“We just take tests.”

“I remember getting to read some good books.”

“I won’t. I’m still in the last level in reading so I get to read second grade books until I pass the exam. In reading I’m still in level X-2 and I need to be in level X-3 if I am going to read new books.”

Imagine that. Knowing when you start a WHOLE new school year you’re going to read the SAME thing you did the year before even though you’re in a new grade.

“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “If I ruled the world you could at least read a new book.”

“Yeah, that would be nice, but I can’t read a new book until I pass the test.”

“Well, like I said, if it were up to me.”

“I’d like school if it was like this.”


“Yeah. I’d like that.”

“You don’t get to paint in school?”

“No. We just take tests on iPads. I hate that..”

Her painting of a volcano was pretty good and showed a decent understanding of geology. It had fiery red lava, a black sky and a dark mountain. She wanted to put smoke in her picture, but since she’d painted the sky black, she couldn’t see how. “Take a paper towel,” I said, “wet it and soak up some of that black sky. You’ll have nice smoke!” She did. She followed instructions, saw how it worked and got some very good smoke effects for her efforts. I was tickled. She was a teachable little girl, truly interested and ready to learn.

After she finished her volcano she did two more paintings on blue post-its, both of them were of the beach. I said, “Are you going to put in sea gulls and an umbrella?” She did and then she told me the story of all the people at the beach.

When she finished drawing, she went outside and jumped rope.

This is a very cool little girl. She’s smart and she’s talented and imaginative. In no way is she a behavior problem or learning challenged. She’s just a normal, bright kid. She’s 8 years old. She likes to learn and she hates school.

I could cry.

First Party, Permanent Damage

Daily Prompt It’s My Party You’re throwing a party — for you! Tell us all about the food, drink, events, and party favours you’ll have for your event of a lifetime. Use any theme you like — it’s *your* party!

Parents like to buy books to help their children develop motor skills and learn the customs of their world. One of these books in my childhood was My Birthday Party. I can even remember the illustrations in this book and their colors. A popular color combination back in the 50s was red/pink/black/gray with maybe some green accents. This book was like that.

It had a story in the front. A little girl made invitations and sent them to all her friends. They all came to the party and had a wonderful time. There was a pink cake with red roses and green squiggles and they played games after they had cake. Yeah. Typical kid’s party.

At the end of the story there were heavy paper models that a kid could pop out of the book and assemble into a birthday cake to “play birthday party.” I did this. I made the 8 little pink wedges, that looked just like the cake in the story, and put them together into a circle. It also had invitations that a kid could “write” on. I was already writing, but not reading yet, so only my dad could tell that I’d written my friends’ names on those invitations because he was the only person who could read my writing. He said he’d mail them on his way to work. There were also table decorations to assemble, and I put them together, too.

I’ve always been an imaginative person, more, I’m sure, than my mom understood, especially then when I was four or five and we were getting to know each other. They had no idea what was going on inside my head, none. If they had…

The day for the party came, the one I’d written on the invitations. I set up the folding table in my room, laid out all the paper cake plates from the book and set a “cake” wedge on each one. I asked for candles, but mom said no (there was a hole in the top of each wedge for a candle). I set the decorations on the middle of the table. Then I got dressed up and went to the living room. I sat in the green chair by the front door and waited for my friends to come. It was a rainy, rainy day with a dark sky. No one came. My little heart was broken. My parents were stunned. They had assumed I knew it was “pretend.”

Now, when I hold a party, I always imagine that no one shows up. In fact, the thought of holding a party is a major stressor for me. Those first experiences leave deep tracks in the sand of our souls.


Patching Things Up and Holding Them Together

Daily Prompt I Have Confidence in Me Are you good at what you do? What would you like to be better at?

“Wow. How does anyone know that?”

“What, Lamont?”

“If they’re good at something?”

“They succeed or someone tells them, ‘Good job’. I guess that’s how.”

“The question then is ‘So what?'”

“Isn’t it positive to aspire and achieve?”

“I don’t know about ‘positive’. It’s what humans do. It’s part of our DNA, I think, but people aspire to all kinds of things and achievement is relative.”

“You said something is RELATIVE? YOU???? Lamont, are you OK?”

“Ha ha, Dude. Last night my friend’s son, who’s developmentally disabled (allegedly — I happen to think he’s profoundly wise in ways most people aren’t) hit a baseball. He’s not a kid; he’s 30, but it was the first time his bat connected with a ball and he hit the ball such that if it had been in a field, it would have been a home run. THAT’S an achievement. I had tears in my eyes when I heard of it. I know how hitting home runs made me feel when I was a kid, and I was SO happy he got to have that feeling.”

“You loved playing baseball, didn’t you, Lamont.”

“Yeah. I wanted to play pro-ball.”

“No way. That wasn’t going to happen.”

“I figured that out, Dude, thanks. But I practiced hard and constantly for many years. I really wanted to be better at it and I got better at it. I was better than any kid in my age group in the town of Bellevue, Nebraska at that point in time, including boys. I ran faster, hit and threw farther, and caught anything that came my way in center field — or anywhere out there if no one else was running for the ball.

“Where did that get you?”

“I learned that it’s not about being good at something. You can be the fastest runner but you might not win. There are other factors; I’ve learned through the course of my life that there are always other factors.”

“OK, so let’s get back to the prompt, shall we?”

“You patronizing imaginary entity you…”

“Yeah, right, so what are you good at?”

“I’m good at holding things together and patching them up and I’m proud of it.”


“Years and years ago — somewhere between baseball and now — I was feeling really crappy about my life. I was supposed to have been great. I was smart and talented and attractive. I should have taken the world by storm, but I didn’t. I couldn’t even get a full time job. My marriage was lack-luster, to say the least. I lived in a tract house in a bad neighborhood and my life was going no where. All I did was patch things up and hold them together. Money went from one end of the month to the other, that was it. My mom was a POA and I couldn’t fix our relationship. The big excitement for the week was mowing the lawn, but the lawnmower didn’t always work. I was talking to my brother on the phone — now he was a guy with a very fucked up life (his own “fault” but still). He said, ‘You sound down.’ I said, ‘I am. My life isn’t going anywhere. All I do is patch things up and hold them together.’ He said, ‘You can do that? That’s amazing. I can’t do that’. I realized then that patching things up and holding them together is no small feat.”

“So because your drunken brother said that’s an achievement you feel like you’re all that?”

“No, Dude. I’m trying to explain that I’m good at persevering, at hope, at not giving up. My baseball career turned out to be a good lesson, a good metaphor, for what my life has required. I played center-field with a first baseman’s mit. I was a girl who wanted to go pro and I practiced toward that end. That is what I’m good at. I patch things up and hold them together so that I have the chance to pursue impossible dreams.”