Archives for September 2013

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Does “half-brother” Mean Less of a Brother?

Ron 2

Lighting another cigarette after handing the first lit one to me, Grandma continued, “But as much as he loved her, her poor grammar got on his nerves real bad. He knowed that he could never bring her home to meet his prim and proper  mother, a stiff-skirt schoolteacher type, don’t you know. Roland himself understood the desperate family situation your mother growed up in, causing the end of her education at grade eight—although, that was five grades more than I ever done. Even so, he was accepting of your mother the way she was.”

When I needed a break from Grandma’s storytelling, I concentrated on blowing the perfect smoke ring, but they never looked  as good as Grandma’s, nor could I suck the smoke up through my nostrils like she could. Even so, the smoke ring ritual gave me a way to manage all of the mixed up feelings swirling around in my tummy.

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Blowing Smoke Rings Before Jesus, Mary & Joseph

  grandma & dawn 8

WHILE SITTING ON our twin beds, sharing a cigarette beneath Grandma’s beloved statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Grandma and I practiced blowing smoke rings. We had gotten so good at this game that sometimes we could blow them right through each other’s ring. We giggled like schoolgirls when that happened.

I would ask her, for the hundredth time, to tell me about my real father. What else better to do when your grandma is in a best-friend kind of mood than ask her to let you in on another girl-to-girl secret?

In the past, she had always shied away from  the  subject of my father’s identity as if she feared my mother would walk in and somehow smell her disloyalty. But this day, with a sigh that seemed to reach all the way to her toes, Grandma stared off into space while slowly blowing the most perfect smoke ring ever, without even noticing she had done it. Looking up toward the ceiling with a faraway expression on her face, Grandma told me the story that I so longed for.

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Chickens to Mice (The Faces We Live)

 THE WHOLE FAMILY seemed excited to sell the house that had become the chicken refuge. Mother and Don were opening a new dry-cleaning store in Ramona, California. Their spirits were high; they looked forward to a new adventure. I was grateful to escape the noisy, smelly, poop-ridden chickens and the neighbors’ disgust.

Our family of six and our lovely collie, Zany, moved into a small, two-bedroom house in Ramona. We all seemed to adjust fairly well until Don met Richard at a local bar while Don was “just having a few beers,” one of his newly discovered favorite pastimes.

Our lives would be changed forever by Richard, a charming but devious man who completely took over our lives.

Richard had four children under the age of ten and a very sick wife. They were without money or a place to live, and we took them in. Being a grown up thirteen-year-old, I stayed home from school for six weeks to take care of the four children while Richard’s wife, Maria, was hospitalized.

The little house was so crowded that my brother, now seventeen, and I were relegated to sleeping on cots in the half-finished garage. What I most remember about that period, however, was the sound of the mice running around. Petrified, every night I asked my brother if the mice could climb up in our cots. He always replied, “No way, Honey, now you just go to sleep.”

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But for the Chickens (The Faces We Live)

Brownie me5aLGrOOnh7lYG_89dErAQSo now, with all of my ten-year-old imagination and savvy, I pondered ways to remake myself. One day I watched with envy as a group of Blue Birds and Girl Scouts loaded onto a bus for a field trip. I felt that familiar pain way deep inside that seemed to say, “Only clean girls can wear uniforms.” But seeing those girls also gave me a great idea. I recalled that Girl Scouts of America had a motto about doing good deeds and that Blue Birds touted something about “being a helper  at home, school, and neighborhood.”

“That’s it, that’s it!” I exclaimed to myself. I would become a good, kind, and helpful girl to my neighbors.  The street name of our new home was Silvery Lane.  All of the homes on our long, curved street nestled up to the hill behind us, had lawns and flowers, and truly seemed silvery in reflected sunlight. I thought that the houses themselves stood proud and showed no signs of obvious neglect or shame.

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A New Me but for the Chickens

ugly chickenON JULY 4, 1955, the New York Yankees lost to the Boston Red Sox seven to four. Marilyn Monroe graced the front page of Tempo magazine, which could be purchased for fifteen cents. Marilyn’s bathing suit was labeled with the words, “Beware of Danger.”

It would be seven years before I would have any reason to pay attention to any of these happenings. The day of spectacular fireworks and bodacious flag flying was also my tenth birthday, and we were moving to a new house in a brand new neighborhood, not one of those converted barracks.

I was enlivened with the prospect of a new start, a new life away from the house without grass and the accusing eyes of the neighbors who knew of the shame within the house with no paint. I can recall with great accuracy the desire to recreate myself, to make a new me to match the new neighborhood. I thought and thought about who I could become and how to go about creating an acceptable me. I wanted people to smile when they saw me instead of withering their faces up like a prune.

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A Sin To Be Left-handed

Fire in a fieldAnd then there was school. The weight of dread stooped my shoulders as I approached the steps of my Catholic classroom. Sister Rose Ileana was almost as terrifying as my dad. She carried a large yard-stick, sometimes whacking children without provocation.  At that time, it was a sin to be left-handed. A sin worthy of daily ruler whacks that turned my left hand red and sore and flooded my body with shame. I knew that something at the very core of me was evil. I deserved to be hit. They said so. They hit. I accepted.