Category Archives: Memories

Publication of my flash memoir,”My Oldest Brother”

The Provo Canyon Review wrote me the other day and said:

Hi Len,

We are delighted to say we would love to take your latest submission, if it is still available for publication.  Please also furnish the bio and photo you’d like to accompany your piece.
Congratulations again for a job well done.
Chris and Erin
Here is the link:
provo
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From Rural Texas to Beverly Hills: A Few Observations

I have lived in Beverly Hill (or BH to the locals) for 21 years. I came to LA with my family when my brother Jim was sick and needed support during the last year and a half of his life, and we moved to Beverly Hills because we needed a good school district for our kids. Who knew what unlikely lessons I would learn from living here?

1) Everyone in Beverly Hills hesitates when people outside BH ask them where they live. Most – including my family and me – hem and haw and say, “LA.” Only when people press with, “Where in LA?” do most of us answer. Why you ask? Aren’t you proud of where you live? The answer is prejudice. Most people have a stereotypic view of Beverly Hills residents, mainly that everybody is rich and snotty. People get a look in their eye when you say, “I live in Beverly Hills,” and it’s not a particularly friendly look.

2) Not everybody in BH is rich. Many are well off, of course, and some are rich – usually the “above Sunset Boulevard” set, but there are also a fair number of average citizens in Beverly Hills. The people who do “well enough.” There are even some people who have several generations of family living together in one apartment, primarily so their kids can attend the school district.

3) One of my biggest misconceptions when moving here was that people were so rich that they didn’t have “real” problems. Imagine my embarrassment when a BH housewife and mother of one of my daughter’s friends sat in my living room and told me about her child with severe birth trauma and her father, who lived far away and was dying. I felt so ashamed that I had pre-judged her as someone who couldn’t possibly understand how “the rest of us” feel.

4) Beverly Hills 90210 is not an accurate reflection of Beverly Hills and especially BHUSD. When we first moved here, I expected to see the non-actor equivalents of the 90210 show on the schoolyard in Beverly Hills. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that BHUSD has a very large contingent of Persians Jews and that in the elementary school my kids attended, 26 nations were represented. My children were in the distinct minority as Christians and I would soon need to educate myself on Jewish traditions.

5) Iranians here call themselves Persians and have a poignant history. Don’t mind me, but before moving to BH, I hadn’t spent a lot of time on Iranian history. I have had the occasion now to know many Persian Jewish families. Many of my students are Persians. I have heard poignant stories from many of their parents’ and grandparents’ escape for Iran when the Shah was overthrown, and their arrival in the United States with traumatic memories and sadness over leaving their beloved homeland. I have had the opportunity to learn much about this lovely and lively culture.

6) Jews come in as many varieties as Christians. Probably most people already know this, but coming from a little Texas town where there was only one Jew, and he was only half and a practicing Unitarian, well…to say I was underexposed is an understatement. Most of the Jews I know are Reform, but not all. It’s been educational to learn about this rich religious tradition and to get to know people who range from being Jew “ish” to Orthodox.

7) You really can see celebrities at restaurants and in the grocery stores here. Not always, but often enough. I have seen over the years a whole range of well-known people: Arnold driving down our street in his Hummer, Ben Stiller jogging down our street, Katie Holmes (a while back) walking in West Hollywood, Rod Stewart at Coffee Bean, Keanu Reeves waiting outside a movie theater, Jane Fonda in the elevator in the parking garage of that same theater (ArcLight Hollywood), David Arquette in an auto accident near our house, Lindsey Lohan emerging from the high-rise across the street from our house, Dave Navarro at a local bakery, Christina Ricci sitting at the next table at a restaurant, Jeff Goldblum grabbing take-out from a restaurant where we were having breakfast, K.D. Lang at Whole Foods. More, I’m sure, but those are the ones that quickly come to mind. That’s always a little fun. The whole “celebrity sighting” thing. Half the fun of living in LA.

8) People in Beverly Hills are just like people everywhere else. I have spent a lot of time in Beverly Hills working as a volunteer with PTA. I coordinated the parenting workshops for the BHUSD for over ten years – that was my gift to the district for educating my children so well – which meant one workshop in each of the five schools every year. I have met with the core people in each of these schools many times and I’ve come to realize that the same type of people in every town and city across the U.S. (and the world) join together to help children. They are down-to-earth, generous with their time, and civic-minded. Never mind if they arrive in a ten-year-old Toyota or a brand new Bentley, they are cut from the same cloth.

9) Beverly Hills has no discount stores. Damn. I have to drive 45 minutes to get to the nearest Costco. And don’t think I don’t see half of Beverly Hills there. They are there.

10) People in Beverly Hills (and LA) dress down, not up. People are more dressed up in North Dallas then on Rodeo Drive, for the most part. “California casual” means you can walk into Gucci in your shorts and flip-flops, and salespeople never know if you’re rich or not. That is a gift for someone who is not driven by fashion. Not to say fashion is not here. It is everywhere. That same woman sitting in her sweats at the restaurant for breakfast, might be wearing Prada tonight. The difference is she will be dressed up to go somewhere, not just heading down to the local bakery for a croissant.

11) People are pretty here. It’s true. Go to the local mall or out to Runyon Canyon for a hike and be astounded by the number of beautiful people. It is not surprising since many “beauties” move here in hopes of a television or movie career and stay long after that dream fades. Still, it makes people-watching extra pleasant.

12) It doesn’t really matter where you live. I love LA and I love California, but I’m a Texas girl through and through. I bring those hometown values with me here and I take my city experiences back to Texas, where I love to spend lots of time. You take you with you wherever you are so places are not nearly as important as one might think.

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Repost: Childhood Play as a Clue to Ideal Career

You know how sometimes you read that if you go back to what you loved doing when you were a little kid – 4, 5, or 6 – then that will tell you what your ideal occupation should be? Well, in my case, this is exactly true since when I was a little girl, my favorite thing in the world was to teach my imaginary students all about reading and writing.

When I was a little girl, I had my own schoolroom (the south porch) where I “taught” my students. I went to Woolworth’s Five and Dime and bought not only writing and phonics workbooks, but also grade books in which I kept meticulous records of my students’ attendance and grades. I made up names for all of my students and each had marks for participation, as well as homework and test grades. I stood up at the front of my imaginary class and used my little chalkboard to go over grammar concepts. I called on students, reprimanded them for talking, and praised them for trying their best. Clearly, I was a child with an active imagination and a deep love of teaching.

Fast forward a few years, and there I was getting my Master’s degree in Counseling and starting off in the field of Mental Health. Lord knows, I really wanted to teach, but counseling was a close second and paid a bit more. Then my husband came along and lured me into the world of antiques and off I went on the adventure of learning about art, antiques, history, buying and selling, and small business ownership. That was an education in itself, but I must say as much as I enjoyed all of that, I still longed to teach. I wanted my students and my classroom back in my life. I couldn’t shake the allure of chalk dust on my fingertips.

Then, I came to LA and after my brother died and we were trying to figure out a way to survive here, I answered five blind ads for teaching jobs in the LA Times, got five interviews and five job offers. I must admit that it was mid-summer and these schools were desperate for teachers, but somehow I landed a job at one of the top private elementary schools in LA, the movie industry school. I saw Jack Nicholson bringing his children to school and Jamie Lee Curtis walking through the halls. I was hired to teach 4th grade Language Arts and, of course, I was in heaven. No longer imaginary students, but real ones and they were smart and excited and loved to write.

The problem came in the form of money – or lack of it – since even though that school charged a hefty tuition, I was down at the bottom of the totem pole and my salary was hardly enough to help support our family in rural Texas, much less Los Angeles. So, after one year and a long talk with my husband, I decided to go look for a job out in the “real world,” hopefully with a higher salary attached. In the meantime, I had a few deep-pocketed parents who approached me to work with their kids during the summer while I looked for a job. Was I willing to teach writing to their kids privately? They would be happy to pay me well if I would.

That was 16 years ago. Those students turned into more students and here I am sitting in my living room where I sometimes actually pull out a chalkboard and go over grammar. I don’t have to have a grade book, but I have lots of workbooks and I get a stream of students coming in for small group lessons and one-on-one. They range from 4th grade all the way to adults. I praise them when they do well, shush them when they’re too talkative, and generally recreate my 5-year-old classroom almost every day. And I couldn’t be happier.

There clearly is wisdom in looking at what you loved when you were a kid to help you gain clarity about your career. It certainly has worked for me. I could never shake that love I felt for teaching when I was five. I hope I’ll get to continue until I’m seventy-five.

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A Letter to a Long-Dead Friend

I was thinking about your death the other day. About how you had been reluctant to let me know you had lung cancer, and then pretended you were getting better just before you died. I was disappointed that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth, or was it that you just couldn’t tell yourself the truth? I guess I’ll never know. It seemed more than coincidental that you died on the day that your propane tank ran out. But then again, you always were a practical sort.

We arrived two days later in the dead of winter in north eastern Missouri and met your sons at your home. They had missed your death by a few hours because they had gotten stoned on the way to the Houston airport and missed their flight. Your daughter-in-law who stayed at home swore she saw you walking in her back yard at the exact time that you passed away. I wondered about that since you had made it clear to me that she wasn’t high on your list of favorite people, and as a new ghost couldn’t you have chosen instead that old Chevy van your boys were driving ever so slowly? They would have been happy to see you.

I think you would have been pleased with the turnout of the Amish who came to pay their respects. They clearly appreciated the time you had spent driving them to and fro to town or to weddings or funerals in your van. They came that cold night in dark blues and blacks, the women in their bonnets and shawls, the men in their waist coats and dress pants, the children little miniatures of their parents. They stood in a circle round your dining room table where you lay in state in one of their homemade pine coffins. They remained there in silence for several minutes before the women turned and started serving the pies and cakes they had brought and filling big mugs with steaming coffee that we had brewed up for the occasion. The Amish were in no hurry to leave. They stood in small groups and chatted among themselves, leaving us “English” to do the same. After an hour or so, they headed out into the cold to their horses and buggies and quietly climbed inside. The sky was cold and clear with no city lights obscuring the view of the Milky Way or Orion. The air was clean as it had followed the same path you had when you’d tried to outrun your past, first in Canada and then in the US.

Back inside, I sat with your family and friends around the kitchen table and we told stories of you and your exploits. How you’d pulled drowned rats out of the cistern of that very house when you’d moved in and only boiled the water for a day or two before deciding that was good enough. How your dog had kept you warm when you’d fallen two nights prior, before a friend had discovered you prone on your kitchen floor, in the coma from which you would not emerge. How when my husband and your younger son were moving your body from the undertaker’s van into the house, your son broke down in tears and left my husband holding all 5’ 8” and 150 pounds of you in his arms, dead-weight. “She had the last laugh, for sure,” he said, knowing too well what a love/hate relationship you two had had.

I couldn’t believe you were dead so soon, only 64, when you had survived so much: World War II in Germany, the dual suicides of your parents when the Russians invaded, the “scales falling from your eyes” when the camps were liberated and a Jewish woman knocked on your door to ask if you had a comb, the years post-War as a German woman in England with a sadistic new husband who hated your German sons. How could something as small as the endless cigarettes you smoked finally succeed in bringing you down?

You knew I was angry that you had harshly disciplined my oldest daughter when she had “misbehaved.” You narrowed your eyes when I said, “If you ever touch her or any of my children again in anger, I will throw you out of my house without a word.” Perhaps that’s why you didn’t want to tell me about your illness. Maybe you thought my reaction was overly dramatic. After all, your second husband had thrust your oldest son in a water barrel and held him there by his heels. You said you picked up a brick to hit him, but he brought the child up out of the water just in time. Perhaps you thought that spanking with a board or a light slap to the face were nothing in comparison. You surely could tell that I didn’t give a good god damn what you thought when it came to the welfare of my children.

The day of your funeral was cold and gray and filled with the sound of horses and buggies as the Amish formed a procession to their cemetery. They had already dug your grave in that cold ground before we came and then used ropes to lower your casket into the earth while we watched. Each person walked by and tossed a handful of dirt on top of your casket and then all the men grabbed shovels and quickly filled in the hole. I knew you’d be pleased that you were on top of a hill looking out on pasture land; that the Amish made an exception and allowed you, an English driver, to be buried among them; that your closest family and friends were there to see you properly planted.

I do miss you. I miss your passion and vigor; your gypsy nature and sense of adventure. Your big laugh, gold-sprinkled front tooth, your deep-blue eyes.
You were the first woman I’d ever met who lived life like a man, never limiting your vision or considering a task too big. I loved that you travelled cross-country without a thought; kept a German shepherd as a guard dog so you could walk at night whenever and wherever you pleased. I admired how free you were of all the fears that women share. Of strangers, dark alleys, and breakdowns on a lonely road.

Not you.

Too bad your temper got the best of you when it came to my kids. That breach was not an easy one to mend no matter how deep our affection. After all, it required looking a situation straight in the face and naming what was going on.

Trusting in the truth.

I hope you wander across that pasture land and enjoy the open country and the bright shimmering stars. You deserve some freedom and peace after that life of yours. You deserve some peace indeed.

amish

Flash Memoir: The Train

A train is a means of conveyance that moves on a track from one place to another. Passengers wait on a platform before departing for their destinations. I remember sitting with my mother in her hospital room as she was dying. This was December, 1999. I sat in the darkened room while she slept. I didn’t want to leave her. I didn’t want her to leave me. I had come to Texas from California for our last Christmas together and here we were in this quiet impersonal hospital room, her rhythmic breathing the only sound. Her condition was worsening after she’d elected to stop all chemotherapy for the oat cell carcinoma that was spreading in her lungs. I didn’t blame her for that decision; quality of life seemed a reasonable wish. I was due to return to California after the holidays with my three children and husband. It would be another month before I could come back. I doubted she had another month in her, at least in this life.

The song, “People Get Ready, Cause the Train is Comin’,” started playing in a loop in my brain, and I understood in that moment that it didn’t matter if I stood on the train tracks with my arms stretched wide, that train was going to move right through me and keep on going. This train wasn’t for me, but for her and it wasn’t stopping for anybody, including a grieving daughter who didn’t know how she’d make it without her mama. Still, that image and that song brought me peace. This was bigger than I was, bigger than my grief. That train had departed from the station long before I was born and had a destination and timetable independent of my existence. I felt my shoulders relax as I sat there, knowing that my role was a minor one at this point. My mother knew how much I loved her; she also knew that I would be okay without her.

The next time I saw Mom was three weeks later, as she lay in a coma. I stood at her bedside along with others who loved her, each of us midwives to the next world. We all laid our hands upon her and muttered whatever words came to mind. After a short while, I leaned close and whispered in her ear, “Go to Jesus, Mama. He’s waiting.” She turned, took her last breath, and stared straight into my eyes. I could almost hear a distant whistle and the clickety-clack of that train as it headed on down the track.

 

“Old Ladyhood”

I have officially entered “Old Ladyhood.”

A few days back when I pulled into a 76 gas station with a Del Taco inside, I said to Ray, “You start pumping the gas and then go inside to order. I’ll finish up right after I wrap up this text I’m writing.”

Ray nodded, and headed over to start the gas.

I worked on my text and finally finished and sent it.

Then – this is where the Old Lady part comes in – I noted through the open window that the gas pump didn’t sound as if it was still running. With this bit of information, I concluded Ray had finished up the job while I was texting. “I better move out of the pump area,” I muttered to myself as I put the car in gear and headed over to a nearby parking space.

That’s when I heard the noise. A metallic scraping sound and then a bump. “Hmmm,” I said to Cordelia and Frankie who were lying on the back seat, “did I just run over something?” I jumped out to see.

I noted all the people at the other pumps were staring at me.

I looked around and then saw it: the gas nozzle still in my gas tank and the hose completely detached from the pump and lying about ten feet away.

A man scooped up the hose and put it over near the pump.

A woman in a red tee-shirt with 76 emblazoned on the front, rushed out the door of the station and headed in my direction.

My first words, “I can’t believe I just did that.”

Her response, “You’d be surprised at how often it happens.”

I had to go find Ray inside and admit I’d driven away with the gas nozzle still attached. I also had to tell him I now owed the 76 station $250.

He was remarkably calm. “I guess you better pay that,” was all he said as he picked up his order of two chicken soft tacos and a bean burrito.

“I guess so,” I said.

He did give me a lecture once we were heading on to LA about multi-tasking. “If you hadn’t been texting while waiting for the gas to fill up, you wouldn’t have forgotten what was going on.”

I admit that I didn’t note how long he stood by the pump before going into Del Taco. That’s where the distraction came in.

I felt dumb. What an old lady thing to do.

A man inside came up and tried to make me feel better. “I’ve almost done that at least a dozen times.”

Yes, well, I didn’t almost do it….

I promised Ray to hold off from answering texts immediately when I receive them.

“People can wait,” he said.

I can see how that might be true.

Besides, reducing my distractions might also save me from doing some real damage to my pocketbook, $250 dollars at a time.

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Pasadena Tonight with Our Family and Uncle Sam

Tonight our family gathered in Pasadena at the Levitt Pavilion to hear the Chambers Brothers and to have a visit with my brother Sam, who is visiting from Tennessee. This was a picnic in the park and Rachael and Ariel, Liz, Sarah, Gregorio, Luna and Nico joined Ray, Sam and me. (Ron had a prior commitment.)

Needless to say, I am happy to have my brother in town. It is quite a treat. Tomorrow, his girlfriend, Jaime, is coming so we’re planning a family dinner minus Sarah’s family. She has to begin two weeks of nights at the hospital beginning tomorrow nights.

Here are some photos of our evening:

Grandma and Nico

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Rachael, Ariel, Sam, Sarah and Nico

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Liz, Luna, Ray, Cordie, Frankie and Gregorio

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Sarah, Nico and Rachael in the background

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