Night Long Ago Aches to Become a Painting

This part of this post is a reprise from 2015. It describes an unforgettable night, a compelling image that still holds my mind.

It’s a summer night in 1957 and I lie on the back seat of the 55 Ford with my three year old brother. My grandfather has died and my dad flew up that morning to be with his mother. On the very same plane, my Uncle Hank arrived from Billings. He’s going to drive us to Billings to be with our dad. My mom doesn’t know how to drive.

Together my little brother and I about fill the back seat with our sleeping bodies. The car stops. I wake up. “Where are we, mom?”

“Wheatland, honey.”

My Uncle Hank says, “I’ll go see if he’ll open up and sell me gas. The store lights are on. He can’t have been closed long.” The green neon Sinclair dinosaur in the window lights the parking stalls in front of the station. Pink and white neon lines the roof-line.

Once the car has stopped I sit up to look out the window at the Wyoming night. Beyond the gas station, the city park, soft, summer darkness, out across the plains forever.

Suddenly there is a burst of girls in long frothy dresses, running and laughing. They run past us, their dresses lit momentarily by the neon of the gas station lights.

“Rainbow girls,” says my mom, thoughtfully. “The Lodge must be nearby.”

“What are rainbow girls?” I ask.

“It’s a club for teenage girls, honey. Your Aunt Dickie was a member.”

“They’re wearing long dresses!” I am five and in love with long dresses.

“Those are formals. They wear formals at their meetings.” My Aunt Dickie — the youngest of the 7 sisters among whom my mom was third to last — reached high school when my Aunt Florence, Uncle David and Uncle Sherman were were working and sending money home, helping out enough that Aunt Dickie could do things none of her older sisters could.

Uncle Hank comes back with the service station owner who has turned on the lights over the pumps. He looks sleepy, but understanding as unlocks the pumps and fills the tank. I’m sure my uncle explained everything to the man. “Thank you kindly,” says my uncle, “Sorry for waking you.”

“You take care, sir,” says the man. “Safe travels.” We’ll make it to Billings.

I have been thinking of this night for the past few weeks as a subject for a painting. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it’s swirling around in my mind, trying to form itself. I’m a little stumped on point of view, how to put that little wonder-struck girl into the painting. Right now I’m leaning toward the girls being somewhere in the distance, just close enough to the gas station for their long dresses to catch the light.

Former Edward Hopperish Featured image ❤

Catching Air

The days reached across spring into the hot long interludes of summer, burning sidewalks and sweat down the back. The little girls, their skate keys on shoestrings tied around their necks, cruised down the street imagining the future of Olympics and Ice Capades. The boys buzzed by on banana-seated sting-rays until someone’s parent yelled down the street, “Supper!” Then the day came when someone took their sister’s skate apart and nailed the wheels to a 2 x 4 and what seemed like destructive mischief was but a bigger thrill, staying up on that wobbly 2 x 4 while riding down the steepest hill they could find.

“Those goddamned things are dangerous. You aren’t riding that. OK we’ll buy one that’s safer, but it belongs to your mom. If she says you can borrow hers, you can. Otherwise? Ride your bikes.”

Then sometime in August the thrill was gone and school couldn’t start soon enough. All this is true — except the banana seat-sting ray. “That’s no goddamned bike. That’s a toy. You’re getting a 3 speed.” My dad had his non-negotiable beliefs, just like everyone else.

The other evening, with the kids and their parents and a friend of theirs, some of these images wafted through my mind. As kids, my brother and I were absolutely free. These kids aren’t. Around the table, there was much staring at phones (not me, of course, obviously because…) The kids were just the same as my brother and me. Virtually interchangeable beings with the little beings I was and with whom I grew up.

I don’t know how things are supposed to be any more. The trap of nostalgia tells all us old people, “Those were the good old days. Kids today….yada yada yada” but I don’t know. I don’t know what world they will grow up to.

One of the Boys on Bikes is sharing his love of BMX with his son and daughter. They’ve joined a very organized BMX club with uniforms and a schedule of races. I think that is awesomely cool. He rides for the team, too. A former pro-trick rider, he’s now racing. The photos of him, the kids, their uniforms and gigantic trophies are wonderful. I’m proud of him and grateful to have had a role in his life during a pivotal few years. I’m glad I had a truck and was willing and able to take him and his pals to the BMX jumps that, sometime in the 70s, kids dug into the hills of same wilderness park where I hiked. I look back on our years of weekends as some of the best times in my life. But the Boys on Bikes didn’t have helmets or uniforms or adult supervision or anything to protect their little bodies from injury. If there was any organization, it came from them and the occasional times when I was there and they asked me. Their sport was dangerous, but so were their lives.

Do I think his kids should be riding helmet-less and hell-bent like he was? No…but. Should kids run wild and free on the summer streets? I guess that depends a little where those streets are.

The other evening, after the cookout, I had to beg permission from the kids’ mom to let them ride their bikes all the way down the alley to my house and back. She was worried someone would pull out of their alley driveway and hit the kids. Since almost no one lives here any more, the chances are slim. Then, I thought, “I think the kids can learn to watch for cars.” So their mom stood by their house and watched as they rode home with me.

I’m not criticizing the mom or anyone else. And I didn’t have kids of my own and the kids in whose lives I was involved are today’s parents. I can’t possibly know what it was like raising kids in the 80s and 90s — or now. All I did with kids was be the nice person down the street they could talk to and a decent stepmom. Is the world dangerous? Yes, but judging from the news one of the most dangerous places for kids is school.

I offered to take the kids for bike rides at the high school. The mom said. “No. The park.” What’s the difference? The high school is a huge parking lot where kids will ride all over the place in every direction. There’s a track kids can ride around and race. There are sidewalks and small hills and lips from which to catch a tiny bit of air. The park is a 3/4 mile track where old people walk off their heart attacks. Lots of kids ride at the high school. I’ve seen them have wonderful times. Little kids with their parents. Older kids without. Oh well. Not my kids. Not my rules. Will I take them? Probably not.

It led me to think about memories of childhood and the sweetness of those recollections of first freedom. ❤

“Stay in the yard!!!!”

My brother wanted to be a pitcher which meant I, glasses and all, had to be the catcher. I had baseball dreams, too, but they were different from his. I wanted to make friends in my new town where, for the first time, the inner Marthlete could confidently emerge. I had a — have a heart murmur — and in high Colorado I wasn’t (as a kid) allowed to run. But in sea-level Bellevue, Nebraska, I was free. I’d learned that the neighbor kids played softball (in our yards) and I wanted them to like me. Naturally. No one wants to be last pick. I realized the best way to make friends was to hit home runs. Striking out had the opposite effect.

I spent a summer hitting balls out of the yard. I threw them up in the air and hit them, hour after hour. When my dad got home from work, he threw balls for me to catch. We decided I would play center field. Center field in my yard was the very edge. Many of the yards weren’t fenced, so it was just one long string of open lawns with invisible boundaries that we DID NOT CROSS WITHOUT PERMISSION. It was a military town and, therefore, a military neighborhood, so many neighbors were just referred to by rank. To the south lived “the Captain.” To the east, “the Sergeant.” It was a good system because that’s how they wanted kids to refer to them. No “Mr. Bond” or “Mrs. Pumphrey.”

My dreams of growing up to be Willie Mays were thwarted by reality. How often does that happen? First, Willie Mays was Willie Mays, so the position was permanently filled. Second, I am female. Even when our dreams don’t come true — or can’t — we still get something, and my moment came. It was this. (From a post I wrote some time back, “…a Good Memory from Childhood“)

“My dad was ill with MS and not getting better. I knew he would not get better. I went to the VA hospital with him one afternoon and I know he got bad news from what he told me. When I got home, I had to get ready for my softball game. I lived for baseball, but this was the best we had because we were girls. I played center field. Most of the other girls couldn’t play very well so no one ever hit the ball out where I was. I stood in the sunlight sucking on my glove. Then I saw my mom and dad had come to the game. They were setting up a chair under a tree for my dad. My team was up. I hit one home run after another — six in all — just in that one inning because my dad was there and he was watching the game. The pitcher started rolling the ball over the plate, trying to walk me, the only way they’d ever get up to bat again. When we were finally out and I went back out to field nothing, my mom and dad left.”

To a kid a yard is a world. To a gardener, too, I think, and to my dogs, and to many of us over the past year our yards have taken on a different significance. As always, mine is pretty ugly, but my “team” isn’t much for helping me maintain it. It’s getting to be time to organize grow pots and such like. I always do this FAR too early considering that plants cannot go outside into the yard until June 1. I was wondering last night about this year’s Scarlet Emperor Beans and who they will be this year. I don’t know. Many of the emperors of song and story were pretty awful people, so I imagine they will, again, be poets. But from where?

Heard this in the car on the way to the store yesterday (and sang along). ❤ I still love baseball. One of the great things about living in San Diego was going to Padres Games in their stadium downtown.

Examples of the Gross Food My Mom Cooked

OK, I know a lot of people like these dishes and I’m not dissing you. But I hate them.

“What’s for dinner?” I might ask home from school.

If one of these was the answer I knew I was in for a salt-laden hell.

“Tuna casserole.” My mom never used noodles. She used potato chips.

“Creamed chipped beef on toast.” It didn’t just taste like someone had stirred pieces from the bottom of the Great Salt Lake in a pan with flour and milk, it looked horrible.

“I just can’t make you happy,” she said when I groaned or (oh my god!) didn’t eat (much) of the portion on my plate.

My dad called creamed chipped beef “army food” but he liked it. My brother liked it. My mom liked it, but I hated it. “You’re just fussy,” my mom.

There were other gross looking dishes that weren’t quite as terrible to eat. Creamed hard boiled eggs on toast.

Hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes.

Then there was boiled beef and potatoes which stank up the house. Even after all day in the pot, the beef might still be chewy. It might also fall apart. No way to know. When I was very small and didn’t understand three dimensions, I tried to hide it by sticking it under my plate where, at least, I couldn’t see it.

“Take that good meat out from under your plate, put it on your plate and eat it.” Followed by, “You’re going to sit there until you finish your supper.” It was a test of wills at that point.

I think my mom was a good cook, but the foods she enjoyed were just different from those I enjoyed. In order to make this blog post a little bit more interesting and less about my own personal experience, I did a little research into why taste preferences vary between people. I didn’t get any surprising information. Some of it is based on the associations we have with a particular food.

My mom grew up on a farm during the Depression, and I think creamed chipped beef on toast might have been both a treat and a kind of comfort food for her. In my mom’s world, as she was growing up, there were no refrigerators. Dried, salted meat was safe meat. I took a survey years ago. Not a Facebook quiz, but a legit quiz to determine what people believed was the greatest invention of the 20th century. Among the choices was refrigeration.

The boiled beef and potatoes? Home food for my mom. She lived in a world replete with vegetables but where meat could be scarce, and definitely not the fancy cuts.

I can’t speak to the tuna casserole except maybe she didn’t have taste receptors as sensitive to salt as I do. I guess that could be a product of our individual DNA, or her chain smoking.

My mom liked to cook and over time she tried out a lot of new recipes and made many delicious meals, but the memory of these old standbys from my school years could never be erased by prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. The was the ever present possibility of their return. I started cooking at age 7. My mom knew a good thing when it happened to her. She took advantage of what seemed to be my aptitude for the culinary arts and started teaching me. I was able to make stuff I liked like tacos and spaghetti (not together).

Deferred Gratification

They each had a dime and a bicycle. They were six years old.

“Can I go with Susan to ride bikes?”

“Where are you going?”

Maggie held out her dime. Susan held out her dime.

“You be home in 30 minutes.” Mom knew perfectly well neither kid could tell time. She just felt a little better putting a time limit on it than saying, simply, openly, “Yes.” She smiled to hide a kernel of fear, but she had to let her little girl go. She knew it, but… “Don’t spend it all in one place,” she added, laughing,

Mom made no sense.

Susan’s bike was small, blue and shiny new. Maggie’s bike was big, red and a little rattlely and she had to ride it standing up, but so what?

The little girls raced the whole two blocks OUT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD into the NEXT NEIGHBORHOOD with its taller trees, older houses and tidy Methodist church with its steeple. O Brave New World! Maggie and Susan’s neighborhood wasn’t even finished when they moved in.

They leaned their bikes against the wall beside the door and went inside where it was dark and cool. Susan went right to the wire baskets of penny candy.

“I like these and these and these,” she said pointing. “We can have ten.”

Maggie had never seen anything like this. Her knowledge of candy was limited to the Russell Stover boxes that occasionally and mysteriously appeared in their house. “You can have one. And just pick. Don’t stick your finger into it to see what it is.” It was a crapshoot. Maybe she’d pick a gross maple one. She would rather not have any than have that. Ewwww.

And Hallowe’en? She and her little brother got to eat two pieces from their bag and the rest went into a tin her mom kept on the top shelf over the sink. Once in a GREAT while, they got a piece of that. Add to that, she’d never had a dime before. This one was from the tooth fairy. Soon she learned she couldn’t hold ten pieces of candy in her hands.

The store owner came over to them and asked, “Can I help you ladies?” Maggie looked up and handed him her candy. He could hold it easily in his big hand. “How about you miss, are you doing all-right?” Susan nodded and gave him her candy. They followed him to the counter and handed over their precious (real silver) dimes. He put each girl’s candy in its own little paper bag. “Thank you, ladies. Come back soon!”

“Has it been 30 minutes?” asked Maggie.

“I don’t know,” said Susan, shrugging. They got back on their bikes and rode back to their neighborhood.

“Let’s see what you got for all that money,” said mom. Maggie opened the bag and poured her treasure onto the white metal kitchen table. “You can have one, honey. The rest is going with the Hallowe’en candy, OK?”

Maggie nodded. She looked at the pile of candy and tried to choose. Finally she chose something called “Necco,” a cylinder of incredibly dry and tasteless sugar smashed into disks. She spit it out.

“Can I try another one?” she asked Mom who shook her head.

“There’s a good reason that stuff only costs a penny, honey. Next time, save your dimes until you can get something you really want.”

“I’m going to have more dimes?”

“Do you have any loose teeth?”

Maggie trailed her tongue around the rim of her teeth, checking. “No.”

“Give it time.”

Mom really made NO sense.

É Quanta Nostalgia…

I love Denver. I was born in Denver. I lived there until I was 8 and returned to Denver at least twice a year to visit my Aunt Martha when I was a kid. When we moved back to Colorado, I took every opportunity I could to stay with my Aunt Martha in her apartment in Capitol Hill in Denver. I moved to Denver for college, left for three years to study in Boulder and returned to Denver. Denver was my home and also the world from which I fledged.

I also hated Denver. It was small. The world I wanted was so much larger and I wanted it so badly that I had to get out of there. I left for good in 1984 and didn’t return often. But it was always Denver whether I wanted to go there or not, and as long as my Aunt Martha lived there, I had a reason to return.

I haven’t really been back since I returned to Colorado five years ago. I have had a couple of peripheral jaunts to the general area, but not to see the personal sites that are engraved on my heart, places where I lived, where my family lived, streets that were my home streets. For some reason Denver felt like an alien place and I didn’t feel welcome there. I don’t know why. It had changed? Of course it changed, and somehow it felt like a betrayal (as if I had not changed? Ha ha)

So, having arranged to have lunch with a very old friend and his awesome wife, having found a spot on Colfax (America’s Main Street) that looked like a good spot, and The Who having cancelled and the whole trip suddenly becoming much simpler, my friend Lois and I went up there today.

We didn’t take the freeway (which Coloradans call “the Interstate”) we took the old back roads and our drive was peaceful and beautiful. We arrived at the suburban periphery and I began to recognize landscapes, though now covered with houses. Lois was subjected to a lot of that, “This used to be” and “We used to go” and all that stuff we humans do in the throes of nostalgia, and she was patient.

I still know Denver. It’s still Denver. I drove to my places as if I had never stopped driving to them, routes as familiar to me as the palm of my hand.

I have a lot to process and cannot write well about it yet, but we went past many of my old apartment buildings and my Aunt’s townhome and saw Mt. Evans and had lunch on a street that really defies description, still. I’ll probably write a post sometime about Sundays on Colfax, but not now.

Some of you might know Denver as a city where Kerouac hung out with Neal Cassady and on the building where we had lunch was a mural of Jack and Neal. It reminded me of a mural that used to be on one of the outside walls of City Lights Bookstore in North Beach in San Francisco. So… Colfax is mentioned in On the Road.

“I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was ‘Wow!”

― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I used to walk to work every day (because, you know, air pollution and global warming and stuff) and every day I passed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. But back then I didn’t enter Catholic Churches.

It happened that today the church was right across the street from our restaurant and after eating, we all went into the cathedral which was an oasis of cleanliness, peace, light and gentle baroque music on that strange dingy street that is Colfax on Capitol Hill. I thought to myself how much life has passed since the days I walked home past this church without ever entering and how now, among other experiences including writing about Catholicism in a very friendly way, I have heard mass in Latin at the Basilica San Ambrogio in Milan.

It turns out that the first Monsignor of the church was originally from Milan and educated in Switzerland. My friend’s wife brought this to my attention and I felt a chill, as if a circle had closed and I could not have entered that building before that moment.

And then I thought of how we begin — how I began — and decided a life spent overturning biases and ignorance is a pretty good life. And it’s a pretty good life that allows you to return with your sister/friend down country roads to visit your deepest personal roots on a sunny Sunday. To have lunch with a man you’ve known for 52 years and his soul mate, all wrapped up in the city of your heart.


Can’t write much about this topic of marbles. You see, I’ve lost mine. 🙂

My mom had a huge collection of marbles, I mean real, legit marbles, that she’d confiscated from her students during her years as a teacher. The best one was a shooter, an actual real and truly “Aggie” — made from an agate. There were all kinds and they were really beautiful — except the “steelies” which were, uh, steel, and broke other kid’s marbles. “We didn’t allow those on our playground,” she said which accounted for a comparatively large number of them in the bag. I still have the deerskin marble bag, but she never let us play with those marbles. She gave me the bag for my jacks and put the marbles in a jar on a high shelf. Strange to me thinking of it now, but I think they were her souvenir of a time in her life and maybe each little marble represented a kid in one of her classes, to her. I don’t know. I don’t know if kids even play marbles any more — they weren’t very popular when I was a little kid.

There was a gender break — girls played Jacks; boys played marbles. Why? What was that about? All of life’s mysteries and some of them are deeply trivial.

I have ONE marble — an orange cat’s eye I found in my garden when I turned over the dirt when I moved in.

In other political news (what?) and lost marbles, anyone else interested in setting up a completely new but secret government and slowly siphoning power away from DC and turning THAT into a reality show without any of them knowing? Message me if you are.