Memory: One of My Childhood Refuges

When I was a little girl, I’d sit in the living room of our house on East 9th Street and listen to records on our stereo with its pull-out recorder player.  I think the records, such as “Get A Job” by The Silhouettes, “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford and “Oh, Donna” by Ritchie Valens, must have been bought by my older siblings because they were just there and I’d play them and listen all by myself in that big room.  The living room was the entire width of our two-story Dutch Colonel and had windows on the north and the south as well as French doors on either side of the fireplace that led out to the “east” screened-in porch.  A grand piano and bench sat right in front of the three southern windows and was where I practiced piano for my weekly lessons with Miss Virginia Baird.  My brother John would sometimes come into the living room to play when he was home from college.  He was nine years older than I was and was an accomplished pianist.  I loved sitting there when he played.  I knew already that I would never reach his level of expertise.  I just didn’t have the temperament to enjoy practicing the way he did.

The living room was off the beaten path from the rest of the house.  It was separated from the main living area by the front foyer and was not a room for hanging out with friends. There was real fabric on the couch and chairs (unlike the beige Naugahyde my mother had all the family room furniture upholstered in) and a light-colored rug on the floor.  This was the room for grown-up visits away from all the children or for special celebrations, such as when we opened gifts on Christmas morning.  This was not the room where my brothers and their friends were allowed to throw their legs over the chair arms and slosh their drinks on the coffee table.  No.  That was only for the family room, not here.  This room was like sacred space, reserved for quiet conversation or reading or, in my case, sitting on the floor in front of the stereo cabinet and quietly listening to music.  The good news for me was that it was a bit of a hiding place since when the French doors were closed there was not much chance my pesky brothers would find me. I loved that room.

When I was a teenager, I had several parties that happened there.  One was a beatnik party and all my friends came dressed up in their rendition of a cool “cat.”  I remember girls wearing tights and long tee-shirts and the boys sporting painted-on black sideburns and pointed beards.  Of course, there were a plethora of berets, worn at a jaunty tilt to indicate extreme coolness.  My only memories of that party come from a series of pictures taken at that time, which was probably around 1967. Several of the girls were sitting on the laps of their boyfriends on our lovely upholstered couch while those who had come solo were sitting cross-legged on the soft carpet or standing near the black marble fireplace. Maybe it was winter because there might have been a fire in the fireplace and sneaking out into the frigid darkness of the east porch didn’t seem to hold much allure. The reason for that may have been more that we were just a little too young and innocent for any real romance.  That would come in another year or so.

That living room was a refuge for me as well as a place where I first appreciated lovely decor.  My mother had spent time and money to make that room beautiful and I understood on some deep level the value of creating a lovely living space.  I could recreate that room today with very little effort. I know exactly where every piece of furniture was placed and which art pieces were on the mantle.  I even know which paintings were on the walls. I didn’t know I was memorizing all those details when I was that little girl curled on the floor listening to music.  I just knew I was happy.

Knowing now that I have spent much of my life in the world of art and antiques, I can look back on that little girl in that lovely room and see the first glimmerings of who I would become.  Who knew that room would be such an influence?  Maybe deep down, somehow, I knew.

From left to right: Brothers John, George, and Jim with Daddy in our living room

Thanksgiving, 1971

Little Brother Sam and I Dancing in that beloved room


Unexpected Kindness

Today I had to go to AAA (mini DMV) to transfer a title from Texas to California for the Airstream.  (Yes, it has taken me a while, but I did get there, didn’t I?).  The young man who helped me asked me if I had always gone by the name of Len for Helen.  “Yes,” I said.  “My mother was Helen and they decided when I was born to call me Len.”  I actually don’t know when or how that came about.  I suspect Mama and Daddy started out calling me Helen or Little Helen and then they realized that was going to be a confusing (and possibly big name) for a little baby. Somehow they settled on Len and I have been Len Leatherwood every since.

Of course, the change in my name may have had something to do with the fact that I have a first cousin named Lee Leatherwood and he is six days older than me.  Maybe while my Aunt Luverne and my mother were pregnant, they had a moment when they looked at each other and said, “Wouldn’t it be grand if our babies had names that were one letter off from each other?”  Whatever the case, Lee and I do have names that are very close to one another and for that reason and a multitude of others, we have been very close all of these 64 years of our lives.

The young man at AAA (DMV division) said, “You expect Len to be a male and a female to be Lynn or Lynne.  I think it’s cool that you use the male spelling.”

“Thanks,” I said. “All my parents’ doing, but I think it’s cool too.”

It’s funny that I never asked my parents about how my name came to be.  I wish I had.  I’m glad they gave me a strong name that I love.

Of course, I often get mail addressed to Mr. Len Leatherwood and sometimes doctors are surprised when I walk in for an appointment instead of my male counterpart.  But that’s no big deal.

I tried going by Helen when I was in graduate school.  Well, I just didn’t bother to tell my professors that I went by Len instead of Helen and several just naturally started calling me by my “real” name.  Any of my close graduate school friends called me Len, of course.  The problem when someone calls me Helen is that it feels like they are actually addressing my mother.  She is the Helen Leatherwood in the family, not me.

I was surprised (and pleased) that the young man at AAA would take the time to note my name and actually chat about it.  Unlike Texas, where people seem to have time to talk at length about such things while conducting business, here in CA, this happens almost never.  Here it is get in, get out.  The difference might have been that I was at the Ventura office not the one in LA.  The smaller town might have made a difference.

Then my new friend asked me why I had bought the Airstream in 2015 and was only now registering it in CA.  Luckily, I had an answer.  “Well, we have a home still in Texas and it was there a long time before we brought it here.”  (Which is, of course, true.  I just didn’t mention it had been in the orange grove for a bit before my travels down to him.)

“Aw,” he said. “That’s fine.  Just sign your name right here and you’re done.”

I never expected a pleasant trip to get the trailer registered.

What a lovely young man.

CA plate

Thoughts on Memorial Day

I was thinking about Memorial Day today, particularly after listening to a snippet of Tom Brokaw’s special “The Greatest Generation” on the radio. One man Brokaw interviewed was a World War II veteran who said that he told God that if He helped him get through the fighting then when he returned home, he would be a better man. He did return, and that veteran has volunteered for years at his church and at other charities as a way to thank God.  

Another man was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner from the Korean War who was hit in the head by a bullet during a battle but still went on to charge the enemy and kill as many as he could. He said, “When you are faced with life or death, your survival instinct kicks in and you know it is kill or be killed. My only goal was to take out as many of the enemy before they took me out.”  Luckily, he did not die, but did lose his eye. His son said that he was twelve before he even noticed his dad had a glass eye. That may be more about the fact that his dad almost never talked about the war then anything else. This is a problem for most soldiers since they carry all those memories within themselves without having people around them who can really understand. 

Another WW II veteran said that he would start to cry at parties and often people thought he had drunk too much. He said that wasn’t the case. He just didn’t know how to process his feelings and had no one with whom to share. He described a medical officer whose bravery he had witnessed – the man got shot in the leg and just kept on helping other wounded soldiers as if he had never been shot. The WWII vet became emotional telling that story fifty plus years later because as he said, “I was just so touched by his bravery and selflessness.”  

When I think of our men and women in uniform, those words, bravery and selflessness, come to mind. 

May light perpetual shine upon all those brave and selfless souls who have given their lives in defense of our country. God bless you, one and all, and God bless your families as well. 

My Sister: A Wave of Memory

Today,  I worked for several hours listing items for eBay.  One was a stone statue of a family carved by an Inuit artist.  As I photographed this piece, moving it several times to get different angles, a vivid memory washed over me.  I was fifteen again, visiting the Royal Gorge with my sister Leslie, her husband Ray and their two children.  We were walking toward the Gorge when Leslie saw two nuns in habits walking back towards us.  “Hello, Sisters,” she said.  They seemed pleased that someone had spoken to them.  “Hello!” they said and passed on by.

I remember thinking at the time that Leslie, eleven years my senior, knew how to navigate out in the world.  She wasn’t shy or intimidated. I felt proud of her for that. I lived in a little Texas town of 7000 people at that time.  I may not have ever seen nuns in person before then. If I had, I certainly wouldn’t have felt comfortable enough to speak to them.  Leslie was already married, had two kids and was moving from Salt Lake City to Chicago.  She was miles ahead of me in terms of experience.  She was one of my keystone people, one of my guides out in the world.

That memory brought on a wave of grief.  I so miss my big sister.  She died several years back and because of scarring on her brain from a bike accident twenty years prior, she slowly began to lose her memory about ten years before she died.  It started with not being able to keep up with her paperwork as a psychologist and ended up with symptoms of full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.  In other words, I lost my sister long before she died.  She had moments of clarity, but they became less and less.  The person who had changed my diapers, carried me on her hip, taught me about menstruation and then explained the details of sex, that person who had shepherded me through adolescence and young adulthood slowly faded away before my eyes. I grieved, but it was over a course of years, not at the time of her actual death.  By that point, I felt relief that she had been liberated from a mind and body that were no longer functioning.

Sometimes I can look in the mirror and see my sister in my reflection.  It is not always. I don’t know if it’s the way the light hits my face or if I happen to be looking at myself with a certain expression. Whatever the case, I am always happy when I see Leslie in my own face.  I feel comforted and not so far from her.

Maybe the Inuit carving of the family intuitively reconnected me to one of the key figures in my own family.  Or maybe for some reason, today was the day that I needed to think about just how much I loved (and continue to love) my big sister.  Whatever the case, I’m glad to have had such a deep connection to another human being from such an early age.  I feel grateful for that gift.

Here is the photo of the carving and also one of my sister, Leslie.


Leslie's Picture




Kids and Grandkids Visit

Ray and I didn’t have our usual overnight visit with our grandkids this week because of scheduling conflicts.  However, we had both begun to miss our little buddies so we agreed this morning that I would text Sarah and suggest a visit late this afternoon. Sarah’s response: “Nico is burning up with fever.” That information nixed our plan.  When the kids are sick, they are better by Day Two.  When we get that same ailment, we are down for the count for several days.  Gregorio, Luna and Nico have been sick for the past several days, but only Nico still had a fever.

We had made peace with that decision until we received an emoticon from Luna of a broken heart because we were not coming over to see her.  She had the last vestiges of this bug the family had and was feeling better.  Of course, that was all it took.  We decided to bite the bullet and go visit.  We can’t have our little granddaughter feeling disappointed.

Liz and Ron came too.  Rachael and Ariel were painting their apartment so they couldn’t make it.

Nico was alternately fussy and playful. Luna and Gregorio were definitely on the mend.  Sarah looked tired from this current “hell” rotation she is on that is 6 days a week, fourteen hours a day.  She is two weeks into a 6-week rotation.  Liz and Ron were looking a bit tired from jet lag related to their trip to Denmark but otherwise were fine.

We had a lot of fun getting up to date on life events, plus laughing over silly jokes.  I was thrilled to see everybody, but most especially those two little critters.

Hopefully, we will ward off those babies germs.  Whatever the case, the visit was worth it.  Especially seeing that big grin on Luna’s face when we arrived.

Life is good.

At Our House Last Week


Welcome Home, Liz and Ron

We have just returned from picking daughter Liz and her boyfriend, Ron, up from LAX after their return from Iceland and Denmark.  They arrived tired, but happy after 10 days away.  They have chronicled their trip quite nicely with photos on Facebook, which has been great.  On the drive back from the airport, Ray and I enjoyed hearing details of many of the museums, restaurants, and areas they visited in Copenhagen and also during their layover in Iceland.

They flew WOW Airlines, which is barebones and offers fairly inexpensive trips from the US to Europe.  (They may fly other places as well, I just don’t know.)  Liz and Ron’s trip overall was just around $500 each round trip, which is ridiculously cheap for an international fare. They said they would definitely fly WOW again, but the key is to know exactly what the strict luggage requirements are for carry-ons and also to be prepared to either bring food and drinks on the flight with you or else be ready to buy them during the flight.  For the budget-minded, this sounds like a great airline.

I am delighted they had a great trip and am equally delighted that they are now back home, safe and sound.  I appreciate Liz and Ron’s spirit of adventure.  I love traveling myself. Who knows?  Wow Airlines might very well be in our future as well.  Liz said she thought the modern art museum in Copenhagen might be a place we’d really enjoy.  I secretly nurse the desire to visit all the major modern art museums around the globe. What could be more fun than that?

Welcome home, Liz and Ron.  Glad to see your sweet faces!


Soothing the Soul with Music

I need a break from all the bad news in the world so I have spent some time this evening listening to music on YouTube.  Here is Rodney Crowell, who we saw at The Troubadour last month. He sang this song then and I can relate to the lyrics and Crowell’s state of mind. I think of this as songwriting at its best.  Pure, simple, true and heartfelt.  What is better than that?  Be sure and listen to the whole song.  Some of the best lyrics come in the middle of the song.  “I’ve been lied on, spied on…”


And a song he wrote for Guy Clark in that last year of his life

And from NPR Music:

This music will perk you up even if your heart is dragging a bit.

Thank goodness for talented singer-songwriters. We need them.