I found the letter as I was cleaning out my desk upstairs – the one where unfinished business had collected over several previous employments.
Some years back, shortly after the dot-com bust, I was working for a small non- profit organization loosely affiliated with the Department of Commerce. We were struggling to increase international business in Silicon Valley. It was then that I met Corinne Gilb.
Corinne was a tall, stately lady, with a crown of smooth brown hair shading into steel-gray, level gray eyes, and a smoothly modulated voice brimming with confidence. She and I connected because I was studying Mandarin Chinese, and she had been a delegate to several conferences in mainland China related to the automotive business. I was fascinated because she had actually been to places I had only dreamed of going, and had acquired expertise in areas which I had always thought closed to women. Corinne seemed to me to be the first real grown-up I had encountered.
Corinne invited me to come to her house for tea. Hers was an elegant house sheltered within the twisted cul-de-sacs of Atherton, shielded from any vagrant noise by tall walls and taller trees. The large rooms were lined with bookshelves that stretched floor to ceiling, crammed with books related to Corinne’s many areas of interest. I saw copies of some of the same Chinese texts I had been studying, next to bound journals in Chinese. “Yes,” Corinne said, “I taught myself to read Mandarin so I could keep up with what was happening in China. “ I was in awe.
A tea service had been set up noiselessly in the front room by an invisible servant. We drank tea from dainty porcelain cups. She talked about what she had learned as a delegate to the Chinese conferences, at a technical level I only half understood. She listened patiently to my half-formed ideas; she may have been flattered by my evident admiration.
After we finished tea, she showed me to the door. She said “I enjoyed this meeting. Maybe you and I and our husbands could meet for lunch sometime. I would like to meet your husband…”
I was abashed. My husband did not begrudge the time I spent exploring Chinese culture and international business, but he did not share these interests. I could only imagine Corinne’s husband – what would the four of us find to talk about?
“Give me a call when you have a good time,” said Corinne. I gave her my thanks and left. I did not mention her invitation to my husband, nor did I call Corinne. She sent a note, and then a Christmas card. She had been in ill health, but still wanted to have lunch. My not having called became an obstacle to my calling – the budding friendship withered because I was afraid to expose how little I really knew – as if Corinne had not already guessed that. Then I got a notice that her husband had died. I was young, I didn’t know very many people who had died. I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing.
Some months later, I got another letter from Corinne. It was a typed letter, a form letter. It said goodbye. She had been diagnosed much too late with metastasized breast cancer. In the letter she wrote of being near death, but still participating in conferences, overseeing the publication of books, writing reviews, and presiding over her family. Scrawled in a shaky hand at the bottom of the letter was a note: “So sorry we never had that lunch.”
So am I, Corinne.
“Child-proof” – Ha! (LATC October)
It happened just like they warn in the Emergency Care manuals
We had been having houseguests with small children all summer. We had childproofed the main rooms with all the breakable gewgaws put away. We had taken the cleaning supplies out of the children’s bathroom. We had the toys in an easily accessible closet and we locked the door to the attic.
But we had not hosted a two-year-old in years.
It started just like they warned it would. “Where’s Joshua?” “I thought he was with you!”
Then the search began. Not in the kitchen. Not upstairs. Not next door at Grandma’s. Not visible walking up or down the street. Finally his dad found him –in the master bathroom. It had never occurred to me to make this part of the house off limits, because no other visiting child had ever ventured into this part of the house without escort.
There were about a dozen bright red ibuprofen pills scattered, some smushed, on the floor.
Never underestimate the tenacity of a 2-year-old.
It had been a new box of ibuprojen, flaps still glued. It was shut away in a drawer.
Joshua had opened the drawer and found the box.
Joshua had ripped the box open.
Inside was a “child-proof” bottle, the kind where you have to press on the sides at the same time as you turn the lid. No problem for Joshua: he bit down on the lid with his gleaming white baby teeth and turned. No more lid.
The contents were kept fresh by a vacuum -glued foil-lined seal. Many is the time I have sworn at these seals as I tried to pry them off with fingernails, toenail clippers, or scissors. Again, no problem for Joshua. Joshua gnawed through the seal like a roof rat gnawing through an orange.
Then, fortunately, he spilled half of the pills on the floor. His dad found him as he was trying to replace them in the bottle.
He told us he had not eaten any of the pills.
Maybe he was a little scared because he had spilled and smashed some, and made a mess. Maybe he knew he was in trouble, and told us he had not eaten any so that the trouble would be less.
We all watched him like a hawk for signs of drowsiness, stomach pain, nausea…. nothing. Two-year-olds are tough.
There had been other close calls for toddlers in my experience. Once my little brother fell out of the car as it was going around a corner – he just opened the door and “Poof!” he was gone. (This was before the days of child safety seats.) Once my grandson slipped out of his flotation jacket in the swimming pool and was two feet down before I grabbed him. But these were accident of poor design, not carelessness or lack of oversight. This time I felt responsible – I should have been more vigilant.
For the rest of the visit, “Where’s Joshua?” became my mantra. Even with my elevated level of surveillance, it was amazing how quickly the two-year-old could be gone. Once he got as far as the end of the street, down by the un-fenced creek. “Where were you going?” “I was just walking.”
Happily, Joshua survived the visit. His curiosity is no longer my immediate problem. But his visit left me with a lot less complacency about the safety of my home and the adequacy of my imagination in recognizing hazards. The next time I have miniature guests, I’ll invest in padlocks.
If the guest is Joshua, he will probably find the bolt cutters in the garage.
Traveling with a woman friend, she will offer the window seat.
She will refuse the airline snack, but offer to give you hers.
If you do not eat your airline snack after all, she will take it in case of future need.
She will offer to watch your carry-on bags while you go to the rest room.
She will offer to refill your water bottle if she is going to refill hers.
If she is driving, and she takes a wrong turn out of the airport, she will blame herself.
If she is the shotgun rider, she will apologize for not paying attention to the signs.
If her memory of the route disagrees with the GPS, she will go along with the GPS – up to a point.
If she is one of three passengers in the back seat, she will offer to sit in the middle.
Though she has never met you before, she may tell you all about the latest activities, vagaries, and eccentricities of her father, her late husband, her late husband’s first wife, her second husband’s ex-wife, her son, his wife, her son’s wife’s first husband, and her stepson’s mother-in-law.
She will show you pictures of her grandchildren.
She will solicit reading suggestions for her book group.
If you are going for a walk she will remind you to put on sunscreen.
She will offer to loan you sunscreen.
If she is a houseguest, she will offer to help peel vegetables, set the table, or entertain any small children underfoot.
If she is the hostess and there are small children underfoot, she will be the one to eat at the children’s table in the kitchen.
* * *
I had written the above about halfway through a week at a women’s camp in the Rockies, mostly with women of about my own age. The women in the group were largely teachers or former teachers. They were mostly white. They had gone to Girl Scout camps. They knew all the camp songs.
Then I had an opportunity to spend some time with a couple of women a generation younger. I realized that the above list of “typical women’s behaviors” is perhaps not typical at all, except when applied to women of a certain age and up-bringing.
The youngest woman in the group had no first or second husband, no children or grandchildren, no smartphone filled with pictures to show, had never been to camp. She didn’t belong to a book group. She didn’t know the words to “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” or “Kumbaya”. She was at the camp with her mother. In two months she planned to begin a tour of duty with the Air Force. She will probably go to Afghanistan.
I’ll bet she won’t volunteer for the middle of the back seat in the jet.
…Everyone’s entitled to be wild/ be a child/be a goof/ raise the roof/Once a year – lyric from The Pajama Game
On the last Sunday in June, it seemed as though everyone had taken this old Broadway patter song to heart. It was Gay Pride Day in San Francisco, and 1.5 million people were celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision earlier the same week invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. Eighty unisex couples had married on the previous day at San Francisco City Hall; the party on Sunday was, in the words of a Mercury-News reporter “like the biggest, happiest wedding reception you could imagine.”
My husband and I had ridden BART up to the City to attend a San Francisco Symphony program, and were swept up in the festivities as we made our way from the Civic Center BART station to Davies Hall. All around us were men and women wearing rainbow colored tutus, fanny wraps, neon lace stockings, and costumes creatively cut out to show off tattoos in peculiar places. We saw a man on stilts clad head to toe in purple feathers, another person of indeterminate sex clad from top-knot to platform shoes in silver glitter, and T-shirts emblazoned with rainbows and mottos ranging (among the printable) from “Some Chicks Marry Chicks – Get Over It” to “Christ is Coming – Look Busy.”
As we threaded our way through the crowd, a conservatively dressed middle-aged fellow with a well-trimmed beard spoke me. “Are you two a couple?” he asked, gazing from me to my husband, both in our Sunday Symphony best.
“Yes, we are.”
He broke into a huge smile. “It’s so great to have people like you here in support! This is such a great day! I never thought I would see this day!” I didn’t tell him we were there for the symphony, but agreed with him and wished him a wonderful afternoon. “It will be!” he replied, as the crowd separated us.
The symphony performance was terrific – a first-time performance of a concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, led with gusto by Bernstein’s friend and protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas. The lead singer, a minor TV star named Cheyenne Jackson, has an amazing vocal range and great ability to sell a song. He was also listed in the Pride Guide as one of the Celebrity Grand Marshalls of the Gay Pride Parade.
At the intermission we wandered out to the balcony from which we could see a corner of the celebration still going on at UN Plaza. Traffic was at a standstill on Van Ness Avenue, and people in costumes, carrying balloons, flourishing signs, and holding hands were crossing below, waving up at the balcony-viewers. We waved back.
After the concert we made our way through the packed throng to the BART station. We passed a group of people dancing and shouting along with a rap group on one of the side stages. We passed another side stage where a cheerleading squad was performing acrobatic flips and pyramids. We saw black guys in blonde wigs and high heels. We saw white guys with buzz cuts and bright new Intel@Pride T-shirts.
The BART station was solid people, a big friendly mob – no pushing, no elbows, just laughter at our common sardine-hood. We inched our way to the turnstiles where a guard was assisting people with Clipper cards – we made it through. I have never seen BART so crowded, but a young couple in cut-away jeans and pink tank tops jumped up and offered us their seats.
It was a party. It was raucous and joyful and raunchy and sweet. There are different opinions about the Supreme Court decision and about what marriage means, but it is hard to resist something that made1.5 million people so plainly, euphorically, unreservedly happy.
As I was doing my summer closet cleaning, a box fell off the topshelf and spilled its contents on the floor of the closet. I thought “Aha! Something I haven’t opened for at least a year – probably should be thrown out right away!” I stooped to pick up the spill. It was my collection of greeting cards received over… how many years?
The first I picked up was a handmade card with a picture of a girl drawn by a very young person. Inside was a greeting from the family which had just purchased the house across the street from us, introducing themselves and their three daughters and saying that they were “looking forward to being our neighbors for many years.” They were wonderful neighbors for almost five years; they moved last week.
The second was a birthday card featuring a couple of martini glasses with sparkly olives on the cover. It was from my cousin and her husband. They did meet in a bar, but he helped her to beat her alcoholism after they married, and she has been sober for decades. Odd to see her name on a liquor-flavored card!
The third I picked up was a form card from a group with which I had participated in a long-term health study after my bout with cancer. It included a recipe for a healthy protein-rich, minimal sugar birthday cake which I had always meant to try.
The fourth was a snarky birthday card from my brother and his wife. Judging from the price of the card listed on the back, this was sent very early in their marriage. Before their marriage, he usually forgot my birthday entirely. Under his wife’s influence, the cards have become less snarky over the years.
The fifth was a custom card generated on a computer. It was from my mother, who had been the first in our family to become computer literate, and for years had created all her birthday cards and Christmas cards on her beloved Mac.
The sixth was simply a piece of blue paper folded over. On it is written in an unfamiliar hand “Happy Birthday Mom” and the names of my two sons. There is a splatter of what looks like pine sap on the upper corner. I remember how my kids conspired to surprise me with flowers on my birthday that year. My husband and I had gone camping in the remote Anderson Valley. The kids managed to find a part-time florist in Booneville who made a bouquet of garden flowers with an impromptu card and delivered them to our tent site in her pickup truck.
I guess I won’t be able to throw this box out right away after all.
That evening I asked how her day was going. She moaned. “I’ve been trying to make that appointment with the DMV, and it won’t let me do it. It says I have to call an 800 number, and I tried it, but I was on hold for over 15 minutes and gave up.”
“Poor Mom,” I thought condescendingly. “Just can’t cope anymore with computers.” So I went over to set things straight.
I filled out the online form: First Name, Last Name, Address, Drivers License #, etc. Submitted. Red print fills the screen. “Your license number and name do not match our records. Please check spelling and number and try again. If you need assistance, please dial 1-800-etc.”
I checked. First Name on Mom’s driver’s license lists both her first and maiden names. OK, so I type both names in at the First Name prompt, checked spelling carefully, checked that I had zero’s instead of O’s where needed, submitted. Red print fills the screen.
My condescension has evaporated. Mom is not the issue.
So I dial the 1-800 number and choose the “Make an Appointment” option from the recorded menu. A voice-recognition recording requests Name, Address, Phone number, address, etc. After providing data scrupulously for five minutes, I am told by the recorded voice, “Our service is not available at this time. Please try again later. “ Click.
I redial and choose a different option from the recorded menu, “Talk to a technician.” I am told via recording that the wait time will be between “1…hour and …1… hour and… 17… minutes.” I choose the option to have a call back rather than sitting on hold. I “will not lose my place in the queue.”
Mom and I sit around chatting and taking care of some paper work. Each time the phone rings we pounce on it – it is a friend calling about bridge. It is my brother calling to check in. Finally about an hour and 5 minutes from start we get a call. It is a recorded message. “This is the DMV callback system. If you are … [my mother’s name] please press 1. If you need time to get [my mother’s name] to the phone, please press 2.” I press 1.
The recording responds “The response you have given is not valid. If you are [my mother’s name] please press 1. If you need time to get [my mother’s name] to the phone, please press 2.” I press 1 again, firmly. No good. What is with my Mom’s phone? After the fourth round the recording says “You have exceeded the maximum amount of time allowed to respond. Good-bye.” Click.
The next day Mom gets on the phone again, hangs on hold for awhile, and gets to a real person, who sets her up with a preliminary appointment the next day for a provisional license and a later driving test. Our appointment at the DMV involves minimal waiting and friendly, efficient clerks. Let’s hear it for people!
In mid-January on my street corner a carpet of green shoots transforms each year into hundreds of waving narcissus blooms – the maximum bloom cresting during the coldest days of winter.
Someone at least 30 years ago planted some narcissus bulbs in the orchard which formerly marked the end of the street. It may have been the original owner of the orchard. It may have been the first owner of the house built in the housing development which replaced the orchard, or the second green-thumbed owner who planted over a dozen different varieties of fruit trees in the place of the original apricots. It may even have been my father, who was a city kid who did his best to become a green-thumb gardener for over forty years after buying the house and land in the late 50’s.
Somehow the bulbs survived my father’s regular roto-tilling of the orchard, the bull-dozing of the fruit trees when our house was built next to my parents’ in the 80’s, the re-landscaping, covering with new soil, and planting of a rose garden after the new house was built.
One summer day as I was picking roses, I saw a bulb lying on the ground. Wondering where it had come from, I picked it up. Underneath it was another bulb. I picked that one up too. The hollow where it had been was lined with more bulbs. It was like the classic Dr. Seuss book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins; each bulb I picked from the hollow revealed more bulbs beneath and around the first one. I had discovered a bulb mine!
Apparently the bulbs had been dividing and multiplying under the topsoil until they had run out of soil; then the bottom layers began pushing the others upward until the top-most one was simply lying on the surface. I fetched an old pair of panty hose and began loading bulbs into it. When I had taken all the bulbs that seemed loose in the bulb mine, I threw a couple of shovels-full of dirt into the hollow to encourage the bulbs that were left, and hung the bulb-filled stockings on a nail in the garage.
When the rains came to soften the dirt, I planted the bulbs in the bare space around the oak tree on the corner. I didn’t know I was supposed to imitate nature and scatter them randomly, so I set them out in orderly rows, counting as I planted. By the time the stockings were emptied, I had planted 250 bulbs.
The next year I spotted a bulb lying on the ground in a different place. The new bulb mine yielded about 150 bulbs, some of which I shared with my sister in Davis and my co-workers in San Jose or planted in pots as Christmas gifts. The leftovers went to another bare space beyond the oak tree, and along the parking space in front of the rose garden.
Over the next years as the bulb mines appeared and disappeared, I began offering bags of bulbs to my neighbors up and down the street. My Adopt-A-Bulb campaign has become almost an August tradition.
Last year I only harvested about 50 bulbs from the newest satellite mine, and I and my neighbors are running out of bare spaces in our gardens. But in January, when the narcissus are all blooming together, I think about the long-ago gardener who planted the first bulbs, hoping to make the world a little bit more lovely. Though it only lasts two weeks, it is a wonderful heritage.
(published in Los Altos Town Crier Aug 10, 2012)
I have traditionally hosted my grand daughter for a week during the summer. At thirteen she has grown into quite the young lady. I tried to do some make-believe like we use to do with the stuffed animals in her room and she reproved me with “I’m not a little girl anymore, Grandma!” I knew this was true when I went up to check on her comfort and saw she was no longer sleeping with her Panda Bear, but instead with her Samsung Galaxy S3. So 21st century!
Still, when I suggested a sewing project she was all enthusiasm. I had a few dress patterns left over from my crafty days, and she picked a nice simple wrap-sundress (Jiffy! One piece! Lots of straight seams! ) We had a good time at Joann’s Fabric and Crafts picking out the fabric – she finally settled on a red gingham check with a contrasting red polka-dot calico. The gingham check turned out to be very helpful as it provided lots of straight lines to sew along.
We pinned carefully and she was in charge of the cutting, making sure that all the “Cut on line of fabric” lined up perfectly with the gingham check. She had a little difficulty at first with the sewing machine. (“It won’t go! And then it goes too fast! It’s too loud! I can’t do it!”) There was a minor meltdown on the couch.
That night an invitation arrived – instead of staying with us through Saturday morning, she could go up on Friday to visit her uncle and aunt in San Francisco for an overnight. Cool! But we would have that much less time to finish the dress. She looked at me, squared her jaw, and said “So, no more freaking out?”
The next day she screwed up her courage, sat down at the machine, and just did it. From then on, anything I showed her (fastening an end seam with a back stitch, ironing the ties, turning a corner, doing a hem, hand-sewing a facing) she observed, absorbed, and did.
Maybe it was lucky that I was the one to make the stupid mistakes (cutting along a fold that wasn’t supposed to be two pieces, sewing a pocket one check higher than its mate) and she was the one to correct them. Certainly it was wonderful that when she wore the dress for the first time to the camp she was attending during her stay, her new friend at camp said “That’s a really cute dress!” and she was able to say “Thank you. I made it myself – with a little help from my Grandma.” So 19thcentury!
It was a great week for both of us. My granddaughter cleaned up my smart phone and showed me some new tricks I could do with it. She got us to Skype. We ate her favorite food, took her to see Brave on the big screen, enjoyed the things she did in camp, and watched our favorite old movies on the small screen. (So 20th century!)
But the best was The Dress. 19th century met 21st century, and everybody won.
On Tax Day this year I found myself flying into Dulles International Airport. There was some turbulence, but our landing under the direction of the FAA-trained traffic controller was silken smooth.
The next day we spent several hours in the museum, guided by a volunteer docent brimming with anecdotes and information about the jet planes, rockets, satellites, and space exploration – so many achievements that were only made possible by a wartime or Cold War-time national commitment.
That afternoon we proceeded through the springtime electric green east coast countryside on US routes 15 and 30 to Gettysburg and its marvelously evocative National Battlefield. The landscape is meticulously preserved as it appeared in Matthew Brady’s historic photographs taken only a few days after the battle almost 150 years ago. Again, park rangers were available at major points to tell an audience of school children, Boy and Girl Scouts, parents, and other tourists about what happened here that formed our national consciousness.
We had previously visited the Park Department’s Visitor’s Center which offers both panoramic and microscopic information about the politics, military strategy, soldier life and every other aspect of the battle that one could imagine. The famous Cyclorama 360 degree painting is there along with a short film about slavery that will bring a tear to the most jaded eye.
The next day we took my centenarian mother-in-law, who raised her family in Gettysburg, to visit her favorite spots on the battlefield. Thanks to the improvements mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, we were able to wheel her to almost all the most nostalgic spots both on the battle field and on the campus of Gettysburg College where she had worked for many years.
My mother-in-law never held any job title higher than Executive Secretary to the college president, but her contributions through her working career have provided her with competent and caring medical coverage in the thirty-five years (so far) since her retirement.
We stopped off at the post office to mail some Gettysburg history and other used books that we had picked up; since we were in no hurry to get these the cost was just under $8.00 to ship the 12”x12”x12” box across the country.
Throughout our trip we stayed in close touch with my mother and two children via Internet email (formerly known as ARPANET, developed and still maintained by the US Defense department).
Safe air travel, flight technology, space exploration, highways, postal service, national heritage parks, handicapped access, secure old age, Internet communication….
Folks who complain about your taxes – What part of this heritage, these services would you not want to support? I’m happy to pay my fair share for all these things and many more that I could never accomplish on my own.