A Place in the World

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

If my beautiful mother and fabulous Aunt Rennie had been born into someone else’s family, things would have been far different. I might have been happier. I would, first off, have been someone else’s daughter. And niece. Maybe I would have ended up on a ranch in Wyoming, tending cattle and riding to the mountains for a two week camp-out. Or bobbing about in a rickety houseboat that was made its way down the Yangtze River. My favorite option, though, is growing up in a split log cabin that my amazing, self-sustaining parents made with their own hands in the Alaskan wilderness. I’d go canoeing every day in a handmade canoe, slink out onto the lake without a sound. I’d recognize the wildlife at first sight and welcome new challenges that required me to use my considerable courage and strength.

I was born to be a heroine in some big adventure story, I like to think.

I wouldn’t have a shaggy, irritating brother or a cousin who thinks she knows everything just because she has more money than I do.

Cousin Misty: “Money buys brains, too, at least an education that doesn’t suck.”

Cue her stuck out tongue, red from eating strawberry licorice.

Me: “How do you know this primo bit of info, Misty?”

Misty:”Because I go to Garrison Day School.”

Me, smirking: “And that’s what they teach you, that you have brains? You really need to find a better school.”

Misty flounces off to the living room where she fawns all over my mom, who has pledged to half-raise her (as her godmother).

“Aunt Caroline, Kelly is not even worthy of my attention! What are you and mom up to?”

I can hear them chattering–my mom, Aunt Rennie, Misty–as they head out to the back yard with icy lemonades in their pink manicured paws. I imagine them as pigs’ feet, and curly tails stick out from their shorts, and I feel better. Not nicer, no, but better. When those three get together it is as if I am dust they shake off. I float away. Well, they’re right. I have no interest in eye shadow, shoe shopping, gossiping about movie mags.

Mother worries. I’m now thirteen and nothing has changed other than the obvious. I look like a girl-on-the-verge, no stopping that. But I am not their kind of girl. What kind of girl am I? Well, you’ll notice I gave a few examples above. If I had had another set of parents, there might have been more hope.

Maybe it started when I was seven, no, eight years old. I had a contest in mind. Hal is three years older, so of course he makes up the rules but that time he felt generous and let me do it. There were two maple trees standing side by side. We sometmes hung a hammock between them, they were so close. I told him I could beat him to the top of the tree. If I won, he owed me an ice cream cone every day for the next week. If he won, I had to buy him a donut every day for a week. He agreed, thinking I was a fool, just a little kid with blonde pigtails who interrupted his life too much.

He had his tree and I had mine. It had always been that way. They were about the same height and grew remarkably alike but they each had their quirks. I’d started climbing it when I was six by putting the kitchen stepstool up so it could reach the lowest branch. Then I threw and tied a rope on the lowest branch so I could swing up, loop my leg around and then pull myself up to sitting position by grasping another branch. Then I headed to the peak, as I thought of it. Simple, and the most fun I could find many days. I was a tree climbing nut.

I knew just where the narrowest or deepest crooks were on mine, where even the sturdiest branches weakened, how the trunk bent a little to one side here and another side there. The branches were knotty and spectacular. Climbing was a pleasure, all the way to the top from which I could see half the neighborhood. I spent more time in that tree than almost anywhere else except in winter. Even then I visited, just so it remembered I was around. So that tree and I were bonded.

I could get up and into the branches in under fifteen seconds. It was an easy ascent. I never wore shoes unless it was really chilly so that helped and I wore loose clothing. Hal was a good twenty pounds heavier than I was, always wore tennis shoes that looked enormous and he was clumsier, I thought. He had too much hair, all those curls that could get caught. He was stronger in some ways but he wasn’t as nimble.

It seemed like a no-brainer to me that I’d win the contest. He thought otherwise.

“Watch out, you little cricket! Hey, that’s lookin’ a little shaky! Don’t get scared now!”

I scampered up the limbs while he plotted his way, planted one foot then the other, and ran his mouth. Halfway up my t-shirt snagged on a rough spot. I pulled hard to dislodge it; the fabric ripped but a broken twig still held fast. I stole a glance at Hal; he was gaining. I tried to pull free but had to hold on with one hand at least. It occurred to me then that I could take the t-shirt off. I did so with some difficulty, then doubled my efforts, my feet and toes reaching and grasping each new spot, hands grabbing as fast as I could go.

I heard a dull thump behind me accompanpanied by a muffled screech but kept going. I was going to win if it killed me. When I reached top branches they poked through the big blueness above, as always, and I parted the leaves to better see a few wispy clouds drift by. I looked over at Hal’s tree. He had failed to beat me, just as I hoped. I felt wild and strong and proud of myself.

“Yes!” I hollered.

“Kelly! Hal fell!”

I tried to see far below but the summer branches were thick with hearty leaf growth. I wondered if Hal just had slipped his way down and was now milking every scrape. Or had he lost his grip and fallen to his near-death? It wasn’t something I had thought about happening before. I always felt secure. But a sudden fear undermined me, made me wobbly a second. I didn’t want to let go, to leave that treetop at all. This was my spot, my home away from all that down there. I didn’t need to leave. Let the grown ups deal with things below.

“Kelly, come down now!”

I started back. In a few feet I could see Hal splayed on the bright carpet of grass, his leg in a funny position. He was whimering and his face was yellow-white. It didn’t look good.

It turned out to be broken. And I got the blame, more or less. If only I hadn’t challenged him, if only I hadn’t had to make a stupid bet, if only I’d stopped to think of what the consequences might be–a dual race up maple trees, for crying out loud! But even worse…

“Kelly, take this sweater and cover up. You look like a ragamuffin– and there’s a bloody gash on your shoulder! I swear, you don’t have to compete with your brother! Just be a regular girl! For once!”

I didn’t get my ice cream, of course. Not ever. I didn’t bring it up and neither did Hal. In fact, he didn’t talk to me for a week. I had to steal cinnamon rolls three times from the kitchen for his midnight snack before he would even acknowledge my presence.

It was a turning point for me, the moment I understood who I was. And it brought me sadness. My mother wasn’t pleased. Everything I loved seemed to be the wrong thing: getting dirty, competing, seeking a little danger, being physically challenged. Being outdoors and doing everything possible out there rather than inside four walls which could suffocate me in an hour flat.

I can’t say my father was hard on me. He wasn’t. He took me along with Hal on many camping trips. He taught me how to fish and make a campfire without matches. We learned about tracking and bird songs and bugs. He understood, or so I thought, for many years. And then I started to grow up and he suggested I follow my mother’s counsel, whom he adored.

“She knows things I don’t, Kels, things that will help you in life, too. We can still go camping but you might want to, you know, hang out with the other gals more, your cousin and aunt, too.”

And he gave me a funny little smile that melted my heart but also broke it some. He patted my back lightly and went back to his work in the garage. I felt dismissed for the first time ever. Things changed right then in more ways than I thought possible.

It would have been easier if mom and Aunt Rennie were ordinary women. If everywhere we went they didn’t get second glances, whistles and comments that alternately irritated and pleased them. It was embarrassing to me. Misty thought it was fun and practiced a silly flirtatiousness, as if our mothers had to do any of that. I thought she was about the stupidest cousin I could ever have had. But she made up one third of their trio. I was the odd one out, even though my mom gestured at me to hurry up, come along. I felt more like a wayward puppy she had to keep track of than her daughter.

But all was not lost. Meanwhile, I had been practicing my tennis and winning some and playing softball and scoring. Competing on the girls’ middle school swim team, aka the Sharkettes. This was thanks to my dad’s visionary support of his daughter, but soon mom came around, too. I had some talents, afterall, just not the ones she had hoped to pass to me, an early inheritance. I was glad Hal was playing basketball again, doing much better, and I cheered him on when I could.

One afternoon near the end of seventh grade while I was waiting for the city bus after school I saw Misty walking down the block. She had her book bag hugged close to her chest and her head hung low. Since she was alone I went over to her.

Her face was all red and streaked with dirt. Her uniform was messed up, too.

“Misty, what’s up?”

She raised her swollen eyes and at the sight of me started to bawl hard. I couldn’t make out her words at first but then I heard something about “they hate me, they got me!”

I stopped her with hands on her upper arms. “Wait, someone beat you up after school?”

She nodded and leaned into me, shaking with fear and anger. I held onto her, pulled her against my own pounding heart. I didn’t know what to do, but my first impulse was to go hunt down the kids who had been mean to her and give them something to remember. I had a few good and brave friends, and we’d find out who the kids were and take care of things. Those thoughts gradually faded as we walked, though, and Misty stopped crying.

“I’m sorry they did that, it’s rotten. I can’t imagine who could be so mean. What will you do? What started it?”

“I don’t know! Some say I think I’m so smart and some say I’m too pretty but some think I’m ugly. I honestly can’t tell you, Kels, what I am. Except miserable. I hate that school! I despise being almost fourteen!”

We walked to the coffee shop and went to the restroom. I helped her wash dirt off her face and arms, clean fiery welts and scrapes. I thought how we were only a few months apart, and how different we were. She was some exotic being, with eyes that tilted up at the ends just like her mom, with long, dark, wavy hair. But there were some things about us that were similar, too: straight noses, the strong shape of our faces and naturally arched eyebrows. Our chins jutting out when we were fed up.

For the first time I thought we were like irregularly linked opposites, matching creations from two sides of a rough mold.

Misty kept asking me to not tell her mother or mine but I wasn’t sure that could be avoided. I was pretty sure all hell would break loose and matters would be taken in hand.

We each got an iced drink and a scone, my treat. We nibbled and sipped and then sat quiet awhile.

“I miss you,” she said suddenly. “Really, Kels.”

My head jerked up. We hadn’t ever been very close in the first place.

“I remember watching you run wild and my mom wanting me to stay put. I wanted to join you so much. You had such freedom–or just took it! Our mothers always said you were the tomboy and I was the princess–remember?–but I wanted to be more like you.”

“That’s just weird, Misty. You never acted that interested. You had to get and wear a crown when I wanted to play pirate girls.”

She shrugged. “Well, that doesn’t mean I didn’t admire you.” She swished her melting ice around in the glass. “I might have avoided being in trouble today if I was more like you…”

I laughed. “Oh, listen, I’m not some tough girl. I just like sports and nature, good stuff like that. I don’t want people to label me, either!”

“I know. But you’re…just… well, you’re better than me. Better at being who you want, for sure.”

I smacked her hand softly. “Stop. You’re you, I’m me. Neither of us is all that. Well, maybe we are and don’t know it yet. I mean, I feel pretty good some days, not so good other days. But we’ll both figure it out eventually. See, I just want to keep doing what matters to me and nothing is going to stop me. And no one should get in your way, either, Misty.”

She gave me a long intense look, a nice one not a bad one. “Come on, Kels, let’s catch the bus home.”

We caught the bus and then she stayed over awhile, hanging out in my room. We both worried about the parents. Later, they were aghast to see her like that and called Aunt Rennie and my uncle. We had a big family meeting; the grown ups plotted their actions. Hal played big man and told our cousin she could call on him any time, then left.

Misty finally stopped the talk with a few surprising words: “I want to go to Kels’ school. Can I do that? I don’t need such an expensive education with those kids! I want to be with my cousin. And find new friends.”

I can’t tell you that we became the best of all best friends but we made our way through the next couple of years with a little more security. It was great walking down the hall and seeing her laughing, nice to catch her eye and exchange a wave when we were rushing to an assembly. She rooted for me at swim meets many times; she introduced me to some of her boyfriend’s sports fan friends. I taught her how to hit a tennis ball until she could actually play a game. We had a few family secrets.

We had an unspoken pact to be there for each other. As needed. We knew what mattered, in the end. Family. Caring about each other. Finding out who we were. Not giving up.

But the truth is, we’ll never be close in the way a couple of my girlfriends and I are. We aren’t enough alike. Now sixteen, Misty is just as fussy about her looks and ways, a real fancy girl. I’m still easy going and a sports nut at heart. And that’s how it will always be. We’re good just the way we are. So, mom and Aunt Rennie, thanks for having us both. I guess I landed where I was meant to be. At least, for now.

 

 

Train to Happiness

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

Les had been rounded up by his mother the night before and made to pack a big suitcase plus his backpack. His back pack was a no brainer, the only place he stashed basics and important things. But the suitcase was filled with clothes he didn’t care about and an extra pair of shoes that made his feet hurt. There were two books to add, for English and math. He had homework to do. Les already decided he’d deal with it on the train ride back.

It was spring break. He’d travel eight hours, thirty-two minutes to reach his destination, if all went well. This was because his father, Dean, lived in Idaho but his mom and he lived in Wyoming. Dean actually lived with Les’ grandmother for the time being. That was because he was broke again and trying to get on his feet. The fact that Dean hadn’t really talked to his own mom for three years made it interesting, his mom said, but things were better now. They’d had a falling out, Les knew that. It had happened one Christmas Eve when he was nine and as a result he hadn’t gotten his new bike. Money always seemed to be the problem.

Dean was a good guy and an okay dad, if a little unreliable. He was a construction worker, and when he lived in Ohio (like they did until he was seven) he hadn’t made enough money. Out west the weather and times were better with more houses and businesses being built. Les could see that even in his town things had changed since there was a new canning plant. Workers had just started tearing up ground across the street for six new houses. They’d probably be so tightly packed you could see what cereal the next door neighbor was eating. It had been a big empty space as long as Les had lived there.

The trip had been a last-minute plan. Dean–Les called him that since he left his mom when Les was only three–had a gap between jobs.

“Come on over,” Dean said with enthusiasm. “I got a new blue truck –well, it’s used, but still looks new. Grandma is always wanting you to visit, as you know. We can hang out, see things.”

“Yeah, sounds good if mom agrees.”

“Of course–we already talked. Lara, I mean your mom, says she has to work extra hospital shifts this month so it works out. You’ll be fine by yourself on the train, right? I thought you’d like that and there was a deal. There’ll be adults to help out.”

“Sure!” The thought of riding alone gave him a charge. “Hey, should I bring my ball and bat? It’s my favorite thing, you know. We could play in the back or even the field.”

“Naw, got those waiting for you.”

Les figured Dean would run out and buy them after they hung up. The fact that he wanted to play ball with him was awesome.

Grandma Cora had always called Les once a month and sent him cards with frilly flowers and bright birds on them that said “Wishing you sunshine!” and “Missing you across the miles!” He hid them in his desk drawer so his friends wouldn’t harass him but he missed her, too, even though they only saw each other a couple times a year. She laughed a lot, had crazy stories and liked to buy him cheap but good gifts. And made really good red velvet cupcakes, among other things. Since Dean had moved in with her maybe he’d see them both more. He and his dad could go camping or riding bikes. Grandma’s house was just outside a small city but her big back yard opened onto pasture where somebody’s horses liked to graze. The Sawtooth Mountains looked like giants, sleepy and muscular against the sky.

Les leaned back, swayed a bit. Vibrations from the clackety clack and rush of wheels on steel rumbled through him. He watched the world go by and daydreamed. He did have company across from him, an older couple, close to Grandma Cora’s age. The man had caught Les’ eye and nodded. His arms were both tightly around his wife. She slept against him. He looked out the window most of the time, his face so still Les couldn’t imagine what he was thinking.

Les had been up since six and his stomach growled. There was a ham sandwich and a peanut butter peanut butter one in his backpack. He looked them over. On the ham sandwich was a sticky note in his mom’s neat, slanted printing: “#1 so it won’t spoil!” as if he didn’t know better. She had also sneaked in an envelope which he opened. Some cash, good, and a longer note. The scednt of ham and cheddar sandwich made his mouth water. He took a huge bite as he read.

“Les, you know you can call me day or night. Or Aunt Roberta. I hope this trip turns out to be what you hope. I think it’s great Cora will be there, too. If your dad gets too busy or ornery or you get bored just call any time. Call when you arrive. I LOVE YOU! Mom.”

Les got the ornery part. Dean could get impatient sometimes; he wasn’t used to having kids around. But he didn’t have a bad temper too often. When he did, Les went to his room or outdoors. That worried him a little but Grandma was there. He finished the sandwich and got his water bottle. He was ready for a walk around.

The sleeping woman stirred, her elbow jerking, her ankles uncrossing as if she was going to sit up. But instead, she mumbled something and the man smoothed her hair, patted her shoulder. Les tried not to stare.

“On your own?” the man asked. His voice was very deep but quiet. His wife didn’t move anymore, just sighed.

“Yeah.”

“I guess you’re big enough. About thirteen?”

Les shook his head; he knew he was tall, a little chubby. “Just twelve.” He took a sip of water. “Going to see my grandma and dad for a week or so.”

“That right? Good thing to do.” He looked back out the window.

“You travelling a long time, sir?”

The man nodded but kept watching thickly forested scenery whipping by, lines and squiggles of greenish brown. Les waited a minute–he didn’t want to be rude–before getting his backpack and standing up. Then the man glanced at Les, his eyes so pale they almost blended into the grey shadows. The man’s face was colorless, too. It scared Les, he didn’t know why.

“Second day on the train now. Hard on Fran here. Whole trip was hard, to tell the truth. How about you?”

Les sat down. “I’m great. Left early and will be at my grandma’s and dad’s for dinner.” He wondered if that was the wrong thing to say to someone who was having a hard trip. “Haven’t seen Dean–I mean, dad–since last July.”

“Looking forward to it?”

“Yes sir.” He wanted to leave awhile, check out the other people, get something sweet in the dining car. But he heard his mother saying, Good manners, now; treat people well. “My dad builds houses. My grandma plays organ at church. She has an old house with a huge yard, horses beyond it.”

His face flushed. Why was he telling this stranger stupid personal stuff? Encouraging the man more? But he felt he should.

The woman whimpered and her husband pulled her closer. “That’s good, son. You enjoy every single minute with them.”

He turned his face to the window again. Les could see the lined skin around his eyes squeeze a little, then his eyes go watery. He felt panic for a second. What were they doing on the train, anyway? He felt his legs about to push him off the seat. He wanted to think about baseball season, wonder over what his grandma was making for dinner. If Dean was going to pick him up for a hug like he still did last summer. Les sincerely hoped not.

The man rubbed his face with his right hand and looked back at Les. “We just buried my son. Had the cancer but his suffering is done.”

Les held his backpack close to his chest, heart beating a little too fast.

“Just so you know why my wife is so unsettled. Both of us. I’m sorry. You should have friendly people on your trip.” He sounded so tired.

“It’s okay. I mean, I’m sorry about your son… ”

“Thank you…we just need rest. Won’t bother you anymore.”

Les scooched forward on the worn leather seat. “I’m Les Winter.”

He halfway held out his hand. Wasn’t that the right thing to do? What should he say now? Why did he have to say so much, period? Big mouth, that’s what he was, his friends even said he talked too much. He should just play with his phone and shut up.

The man took his hand off his wife, extended a long thin arm and his palm was so empty Les had to fill it with his own slightly damp hand. The man’s was dry, chilled, firm and he gave the tiniest squeeze for a second, then let go. He tried on a half-hearted smile that faded.

“Ken Haverson. Going home to California. Yes, thank you Lord, back home again.”

Les felt the sadness creep from Ken to him but waited as the man grew sleepy. But then Ken spoke again.

“You’ve been nice, Les. I hope you always aim for happiness, then you’ll get and give lots of it.”

Les watched the two of them sleeping awhile. They looked so calm and natural, as if they’d been side by side their whole lives. Then he got up and roamed a bit. He saw the landscape turn from forest to valley to mountains, shapes and colors flashing by like a beautiful story. But right then Les couldn’t wait to get off, not becasceu of Ken and Fran and their son. He just wanted to see Dean–his dad!–and grandma in the flesh by the train tracks, waiting there with arms open just for him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Destiny

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Slim thought she frankly wasn’t fit for an ordinary world. Not that she put it that way, exactly; that would have been her mother’s paraphrase. She tended to like things most kids didn’t. At eight years old, for example, Slim wanted to be an illustrator of books for children or an elocutionist “because I love that word, it sounds like electrocute but peaceful and pretty”. It was one of her mother’s words; she spoke in public often. Slim kept a notebook about differences in people, observing their manners (she had been instructed to do this), the sorts of things they talked about and those wordy pauses between thoughts (“uh” or “um” meant there was no more coming, whereas “you know” or “you see” meant there was lots more), or, sometimes, their choice in clothing. Especially odd prints and bright colors. Slim liked to draw, and preferred exotic or messy over commonplace. More fun to sketch.

The house was set above the beach. It was large, she supposed, although it was so full of visitors beginning spring that it felt as though it shrank. There were rooms left over so why not fill them, her mother said, and her father raised his eyebrows as though he disapproved but he didn’t, much. He liked five course dinners and fishing on his boat and casting about for the right book of poems to share with them by the fireplace or on the veranda swing, glass of whiskey in hand. Slim liked the smart, heavy glass but found the smell revolting. She always exited after one poem, to the beach or the third floor which was essentially one long playroom for kids and adults alike. It made for a great sleepover room, but that only happened once or twice a year. Mother felt it excessive for Slim to be that involved with the town girls. Going to the school was well and good now but that would change.

Slim didn’t ever want to leave Brimley Cove, at least not on good days. The bad days could go on and on during winter and then she told her mother to take her away, off to the boarding school back east but she could say that because it wasn’t to happen for at least three years. The other times she felt sea salt and horsetail waves and sunsets that spread like a ribbon of colors along the rim of the world were signs of something more. Slim felt everything held signs and she tried to read them in the tides, the foamy lather left behind, upturned seashells, jellyfish innards, snakey plants. The seagulls cleaned up much of what she wanted to see. She wondered what she missed, what sign would point her in what direction.

“You’re possibly meant to be a fisherwoman,” her father said as they strolled down the beach one day. “Or a diviner of some sort.”

“What’s a diviner?”

“Someone who can read the future in ordinary things. Tea leaves are traditional but I don’t put any stock in that business. But romantic enough.”

“Tea leaves! Irish Breakfast and Oolong have something to say? I’ll have a look next time.”

He laughed and patted her shoulder.

“If you don’t believe it why say that to me?”

“Because you’re a dreamer, a flibberdigibbit, and an angel all thrown together. I think it’s your departed Gran’s blood. You will either soar to great heights or fall terribly hard, my dear Slim.”

She took off galloping. “I was born to fly!” She jumped about until her legs got all wet in the waves she saw too late, then walked into the water, clothes streaming wet.

“Keep your face to the sea and your eyes open!” Her father called out the reminder. “You are not yet a mermaid but a mortal!”

“But look what I just found!” She held up a sand dollar, no chips or cracks.

He gave her a thumbs up.

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So, there were advantages to being in that place with those parents. She was happy often, but she knew that in school others thought her odd. They hated reading, doing math, making projects. She liked all that but especially art class (only weekly) and gym (twice a week), particularly when they climbed ropes or ran races. She was good enough in gym, to everyone’s surprise, and also art and they told her so sometimes. They ate lunch with her but said only the basic nice things, she noticed. And some rude things. She suspected it was because her family was from the city, had some money and had lived here only three years.

The twins, Herbie and his sister, Shelly, were her two good friends. They lived three houses down. Their parents were good friends of Slim’s. She thought Herbie and Shelly were interesting–they liked to make up plays with her–but bratty. She often had to stay as far away as possible from Shelly’s long, pink-glossed fingernails. Shelly had little fits, her mother said with a head shake and smile, trying to coax Slim’s sympathy. But Slim had left in a dead run more times than she had told her parents. She had to keep peace with the twins or she would be hopelessly alone, especially in summers.

Then one week before Slim’s ninth birthday, her parents threw a party. She thought it was for their anniversary which was also coming up.

“Not really. It’s more like a social, a good old fashioned social, but one that is also a welcome wagon of good will for our new neighbors.”

“Welcome wagon?”

Her mother laughed and she lifted her lipstick away from her mouth so as not to spoil the curve of coral. She was getting ready at her dressing table and Slim was sitting on her bed, fingering the pretty spring dress that lay beside her. She had already dressed in cropped turqouise pants and a white blouse. She had added a string of multicolored sea glass beads that she had made.

“And old term, dear, when people brought a basket of useful items to new arrivals in a community.”

“Oh, like housewarming gifts?”

Her mother finished application of the lipstick and then ran a brush through her long golden waves and smiled at Slim in the mirror.

“Yes, like that, Felicity Thompson-Harrier.” Her eyes caught Slim’s in the reflection. “When are you going to put some weight on? You’re eating lunch at school, right?”

Slim screwed up her face and slipped off the bed. “Yes, but I like when you make my lunches. I would rather eat rabbitty lettuce and radishes than those greasy hamburgers like Herbie, who eats mine, too.”

She sidled up to her mother and the mirror and posed this way and that, seeing what everyone else saw. She was long on bony limbs and shallow of chest and even her face was narrow. It meant she could run faster, hide places others could not, make herself scarce. But her hair, like her mother’s, fell over her shoulders in luxurious folds when she brushed it well at night. It was worth a few good ounces.

“You look fine, Slim. My little elf. My girl.” She hugged her close. “Now, off. I have things to do and people to meet soon.”

Her mother’s touch radiated through her blouse, warming her skin. How she wished her mother was home more but she was famous now, a motivational speaker and author. Only her father was around, but just after long hours in his home office where he was not to be disturbed. He wrote about scientific things, but was trying his hand at a novel, he sheepishly admitted. Her mother had said two writers were more than one family deserved, then kissed the top of his balding head. Slim thought that over but she also felt proud.

It was at top of the stairway where she liked to wait as people brought laughter and the swish and shine of colorful clothes. In a few minutes she would help place trays of tiny sandwiches on the table and make sure there was fresh ice in the punch, not because she had to but because there was little else to do but listen and watch. She leaned her chin on the railing.

The door swung open and two people entered who appeared to be giants, with two tallish children in tow. Slim had never seen them before. Maybe these were the welcome wagon people. There was a boy much older, perhaps fourteen, who was on his phone the minute after he shook hands with her parents. The girl, though…more her age. Slim came down a few steps.

“Slim!” her mother called. “Come meet Desiree!”

With a name like that Slim expected the girl to be wearing a long sweeping skirt and a jeweled barette in her fussy hair but instead she wore grey leggings and a loose violet and white t-shirt with shiny rivets on the shoulders. Hair was chin-length, straight, brown.

She held out her hand as taught. “Slim.”

Desiree gave a crooked smiled, showing big teeth that gleamed in the peachy light of setting sun. “Des. Can we get out of here or do we have to make small talk around the hors d’oeuvres as usual?”

“Follow me.”

Slim and Des took off for the beach at a good pace, Des moving faster due to those long legs. They scavenged the litter a high tide had left and talked about living in a beach town, Slim giving her tips, Des adamant it was only for week-ends if her mother could help it but her dad was sold on a “simpler, slower lifestyle.”

“Adults get weird ideas, you know? They say something like it’s a fact. Like how much I am going to love it here blah blah.”

Slim walked over to an unbroken, perfectly round, white sand dollar. It shone a little in the amber of dusk. She picked it up and felt how it filled her hand, light with a little grit, then took Des’ hand and put it in her palm.

“That’s so beautiful,” Des said tracing the delicate flowery design, then searched Slim’s face. “Can I keep it?”

“Second one this week. It’s yours, a welcome gift. It’s destiny, I think. It waited for you. You will love it here–we’ll see to that.”

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Reading What’s Good for Me

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I don’t always read what’s hyped as invigorating for an older woman with reasonable intelligence. At least, what well-read persons may deem excellent. In fact, I read things that are edging toward lowbrow or holding steady in medium-brow. I can’t tell you much about definitive literary standards, as my bookshelves are not bulging with books that have primarily garnered prizes or gotten five star reviews. I read everything from travel memoir and collected essays to literary novels and short stories. Then there are mysteries and thrillers, broadly defined spiritual books as well as Christian writings. Fantasy, less so; sci fi, even less (so far). Biography, psychology, nature and architecture interest me. I’m always on the prowl for something good, like all readers. I even snag oddities from “Free Books” mailboxes in my neighborhood, like a trade paperback I would otherwise pass by. I’ll try a few pages of most genres.

So, I’m not exactly indiscriminate, but not so picky my choices are few. My passion for reading impacts me daily. I keep planning on doing something about it because how many years will it take to read so many things? Unless you’re like my brother, who reads a book a day, I will simply run out of time.

But the issue that hovers in my mind lately is my magazines. I admit it’s an emotional challenge for me to let go of them, too, even when they’ve been read and re-thumbed and take too much space on coffee and end tables. But don’t rip them, and don’t put mugs on them as though they are coasters. I like them close to pristine for as long as possible.

Do I collect special editions or certain decades because of possible value? No. But I do look them over after I read them to cut or tear out pictures for future reference. This means: to put into folders for the time I will have little to do and want to make a scrapbook or montage. Good articles that educate or illuminate also find a place in a folder. But so does a page of classic and contemporary perfumes glowing within chic bottles; another of a garden surrounding a fountain cascading by a cedar bench; and one of Joni Mitchell in her fifties, a lily in her hand, hair still golden. On my laundry room wall there is one magazine picture of a field stone country house with two chickens pecking at the ground, trees tall and warmed by sun. And another of a good looking man sporting a fedora, suspenders over a chambray shirt and supporting, on a gloved hand, a great horned owl. They make me pause and smile.

I never know when something will strike me as informative, lovely or quirky enough to savor. Give me respite while I sip a cup of tea. Move me to hang onto, even after pages curl a bit.

I recently had to change our mailing address from a mailbox back to the residential address. As I was changing the personal info for each magazine the number of magazines were tallied. Twelve. Without listing every one, the variety includes Smithsonian, Architectural Digest, Entertainment Weekly, The Writer, Bookmarks, Simple Living, American Craft, Town and Country. In addition, I often purchase magazines such as National Geographic (subscribed for years and miss it), Scientific American, HGTV, The New Yorker, and Vogue. Did I forget local literary journals? A few of those. (Not included are my spouse’s magazines as I’m writing about my tastes. His piles are his concern!)

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I read for reasons others do. To educate myself about places, events and people I may never get to know in the flesh. For entertainment other than radio, computer or television. I also read for peace, a safe place in times where so much of what we are bombarded with and alerted to involves suffering, danger, the urgent need for solutions to mammoth problems. I need more contemplative ideas, moments of wonder. Beauty discerned inside and out.

I needed all this from a young age. My youth was a puzzle of deep loss and anger, faith in God and passionate dreams. I teetered between them, and wondered when it would get easier.

As an adolescent I tried hard to balance after effects of earlier trauma on the emotional tightrope of just being a teen. I felt responsible in large part for my own recovery. I needed to redetermine my destiny. There were already resources and skills I could use. For one thing, I grew up in a creative family. We were encouraged to be inquisitive, trained to be disciplined in choices and actions. There were solutions to problems and answers to questions; all I had to do was seek and find. If music–the centerpiece of my life–enthralled me, it also was a competitive endeavor in a family of talented musicians. If sports were a release of stress and a natural high, they, too, were competitive and at times depleting. Nature always allowed my soul a place to move beyond my self, to rest, and prayer on a wooded path did much to release stored pain. But I needed something more.

Books were already companions. But books on school reading lists and in the family living room were classics, were old, important, apparently critical in molding minds. I took refuge in our excellent city library and found my world enlarged. A few authors helped save my life. And I wrote daily in a journal–and also poetry, plays and short stories.

Still, I was lacking something.

It came to me when browsing through a few other choices at a dingy Rexall drugstore: there were materials right at my fingertips that didn’t necessarily meet the acceptable standards of my rather conservative, educated, achievement-driven family. Reading experiences that were not so serious, so well-intentioned. I got tried of competing and trying to be happy. These were simple fun. I bought my first Harper’s Bazaar, and a travel magazine (wherein I happily discovered one could send away for free brochures about the Caribbean or California). I was thrilled.

I found pictures that reconfigured forms and colors, that revealed exotic locales and smart ads. They showcased unique people who took risks with appearance and lifestyle. People whose stories provoked. I salvaged parts, then bought poster board and pasted them on. I soon took more pages, some from my parent’s (LifeNational Geographic). I scoured them for interesting words or phrases to snip, then arranged them strategically within the graphics. Added paint or marker. A little glitter or a feather, a piece of fabric or a found object. A woman added to a stretch of sky so she appeared to be flying, a colored pencil turning an ocean from pale blue to rich vermilion. Poems made their way there. I found curious ways to speak to things that mattered most.

It wasn’t that this was a new trend in the nineteen sixties, but it felt like I had personally discovered the joy of making collages. One quarter of a bedroom wall was dedicated to my humble art. I changed it often. For when I was working with scissors, paste, bits and pieces and pictures and words, I was freer, emptied of strife. My training whispered that I might be wasting time but my heart knew otherwise. I was relaxing into an exploration of life. Remaking my world. Creating for myself, no one else. Telling myself new stories. Addressing sorrow and fear. Finding or designing women who were braver and stronger. I was re-imagining my own life. I was, in fact, healing. I kept cutting out images to construct a new vision of who I could become.

My magazines sometimes take over where books leave off. But I like when people visit and pick up one they’ve never seen, or they ask if I still have a favorite of theirs. In the reading spots in my home, they can rest as they flip pages. Eventually, of course, it is time to recycle. I choose what to keep. I give them away if I can, take some to medical offices where magazines expired long ago. My old work place regularly received mine but I’m not sure anyone knew it. When I walked through the waiting room and saw people absorbed in an article or studying a photo, it felt good. I knew it gave them a time out. Maybe even  inspiration to make their lives into something different. Like I did, so that it’s been rewarding and full of gratitude. Yes, buoyed by laughter, spontaneous fun. Far, far better than at somber fifteen.

So, magazines remain on my reading lists and in my stacks, likely to gather and topple as just one more is added. For edification and pleasure. My own good. And I have some ideas for those saved pictures. It’s just a matter of time, scissors and paste.

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Our Continental Summers

Italy- no photographer

We were intending on staying for at least three weeks in the village outside Rome. My father had a work assignment in the city but always liked to situate us in out-of-the-way places when we traveled in Europe. He was a photographer, someone you might have heard of but only if you worked in scientific or industrial circles. He took pictures of things like cutting edge machinery or classified experiments or industrial construction that was controversial. Gerard and I thought he was a spy. Father found it amusing, said he was a boring documentarian.

We followed him all summer, and often for a month in winter when Chicago got too desperately cold for mother. He didn’t do glamorous work but he was expert at what he did and we got to be “semi-nomadic”, mother said with her airy laugh. He would be gone a couple of weeks to a couple of months, and we’d stay behind in a pensione or dusty hotel. He thought it better for the family than leaving us alone in a foreign metropolis. My mother shrugged; she was used to going anywhere on a moment’s notice and anywhere was better than nowhere. She was interested in meeting new people. If we got lucky, they might know someone who had a villa, and then my brother, Gerard, and I would be in heaven, scampering down the maze-like corridors, getting lost in the rooms that opened onto a large garden, splashing about in a spring-fed pool.

But this time, it was a small pensione that stood crumbling on a corner of the village. There was a swift, snaky river nearby. Gerard liked to explore things there and waited for some village boy to say hello. If that didn’t happen, he pestered me. I’m the elder by five years. I had no choice but to watch over him when mother was occupied, which was often. It wasn’t so hard.

Gerard was the sort of boy who, by age ten, had memorized several lengthy passages from books: Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Bradbury. He said it was partly in case we couldn’t find libraries or book stores with English books–he could always entertain us with his oratory, a recitation of a sonnet or climactic scene. He also wrote poems occasionally. He was certain he would be a writer or actor. Mother found it so charming she would insist Gerard perform from time to time, which father found embarrassing for us all. Gerard didn’t mind much; it was a talent and he knew it. But the point is, he was a boy who found ways to entertain himself and when he didn’t, he found whatever you were doing entertaining, as well. I guess we had that in common.

But if Gerard loved living in his active mind, I loved paying attention to the world. I simply observed and sometimes took notes or pictures. It excited me. Father suggested I was like him but I wasn’t convinced. I can’t tell you why I had no real hobbies. I suppose it was because there was plenty happening wherever we were as well as within our family. I wasn’t distracted by boredom. I think Gerard saw much, but he was circumspect about his ideas and feelings, even then. Maybe he just wanted to keep them close. He would never point out weaknesses or mistakes of others without serious thought, and then felt the need to apologize in the telling. I watched, gathered data, and when I remarked on something it was given its due, at least to the extent of my understanding. I had a surfeit of opinions, mother said more than once, frowning.

“Nina? Hello? Where did you get that?”

I was on the dirty little terrace, sunbathing on a white towel. I had bought a new two piece suit, bright blue, modest enough and begging to be tried out. I wished we were near a pool or sea and wondered how clean the river was.

I lifted my sunglasses. “Gerard?”

“I found a puppy down by the creek and he just begs to hang out with me. I can’t get him to leave me alone.”

Gerard doesn’t like dogs. He likes undomesticated animals. We once had a Persian cat he half-admired but she made my father sneeze. Though he was gone a lot, off the kitty went, to my mother’s anger. There were long white cat hairs everywhere for weeks.

I sat up. “What’s he look like?”

“Maybe the kind that corrals sheep? I don’t care. But it’s black and white. It nips at my ankles which is annoying. It’s downstairs, I’m sure, waiting to pounce. Maybe we ought to find out whose it is?” He looked down into the piazza. “Mother looked busy.”

I, on the other hand, had been wanting a dog. Not that I could likely smuggle one across the continent but I could least make friends with a stray for a week or two. I put on my cover up and sandals, crossed the breezy rooms and followed him down the narrow stairwell.

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It ran right up to us. A border collie it was, splattered with black and white and very fuzzy. It had a collar but no helpful identification tags; many dogs in the village ran free. I knelt in the grass and it licked my face and yelped. I picked it up.

“Nina, don’t get cozy. Let’s find out whose it is. What else do you have to do but sunbathe? I avoid too much sun.” He pointed to baseball cap and sunscreen on his nose.

“That’s the point of summer! Lying in the sun and doing nothing. I like to glow; it takes sun. Not everyone feels compelled to be productive. Not even you, I noticed.”

“I was thinking all morning. About world building in sci fi novels.”

“Yes, well, thoughts are like air molecules to you. You might die if your mind went blank.” I put the puppy down and the three of us started off.

It was that time of summer where everything vibrated green. The trees were conversing with each other and the river was keeping company with children and old people. Two crude toy boats turned and bounced in the current. I spoke to shopkeepers to see if they had lost the puppy or if they knew anyone who had. My Italian was halting and basic; they often didn’t understand me until I pointed to the dog and mimed my question. A woman with huge dimples and crooked teeth who ran a small dress shop pointed us toward a cafe, whether to get a hand out for the puppy or to further inquire I wasn’t sure. The little dog greeted everyone, dashed off only to return to my heels. Looked up at me with happy eyes.

When we turned the corner and headed down the next alleyway I saw them at the end. I wasn’t surprised. Mother had been spending her mornings and some evenings with a small group of people, two from England, one from the village and another from France. I didn’t see the English couple, only the two men.

“I wonder what mother would say if I asked her if we could keep him awhile.” I scooped up the puppy and it laid his head on my shoulder. “This puppy is perfect.”

“Never. Father will be back in three weeks. Then we’re off to …?”

“Berlin, then the Netherlands, then Scotland for awhile. I think father will have more time to be with us then.”

“At least we can understand Scottish.”

“Don’t count on it, it will be taxing for us there, too,” I said, then slowed my pace, as did Gerard. I put my arm around his shoulders. When he saw mother he didn’t pull away.

She was drinking espresso with Jean-Charles and Roberto. They’d had dinner with us once. Mother had talked them into giving us a countryside tour the third day we were there. She was good at that. Jean-Charles was a businessman on holiday. Roberto had a villa three miles out; we had passed it on our tour.

If you had known mother you would have had to say she was beautiful. “Exquisite” is how our father put it when he saw her after being gone. She usually dressed up for him. Young for age thirty-eight, she laughed and talked to others easily, pulled people to her as though she was a radiant passion-flower in a field of clover. You couldn’t help but look at her, listen to her soft voice, her smart words. She knew all this but acted nonchalant. Maybe that was one reason people who stepped into her presence stayed there too long. Especially men.

It was part of my job to watch over her, too, for father. For the family. It was so easy for her to be taken away by the attention, to find hands on her hands a comfort, the gazes a delight, others’ conversation filling like a fine meal. I knew that. I missed our father, too, and wished we had him more. But I also knew she was foolish at times. Careless.

So when we saw Roberto lean forward and kiss her cheek, then lingering at her ear I walked right up to him.

“Anyone’s missing puppy sitting at this table?”

Roberto blinked and smiled at the puppy, then reached out and rubbed his ears. Mother looked away from me, past Jean-Charles who just have a little wave. Her face was pink from sun or being seen.

“I know I’m missing my mother so how about a swap? One great, available dog for our mother.”

“Nina,” mother said, her lips taut.

I dumped the puppy in Roberto’s lap and the Border collie immediately jumped up and licked the man’s face. I winced. Mother’s hand went to her throat and she started to say more, then got up. She thanked them for the espresso and left. We walked to the river. She talked to Gerard, asked him what he wanted for dinner, if there had been a poem written. I knew she felt sorry. But I kept hoping the puppy would find his way back to me. He did not.

Sometimes I knew I was good this, averting small disasters. Gerard agreed, sadly. I called my father. I whined about the boring village and why couldn’t we come to the city so we could visit museums and learn the history of Rome? He knew. He came. And that is why we left after only five days and got to see Rome. We had our father with us in every country that summer. But I still think of the puppy I lost.

St. Peters Basilica, Rome, Italy