Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

My youth plays out in monochromatic Super 8, all shadows and light, soundless but for the clacking whir of the projector, each jumpy image spattered by specks of dust that flash past, gone before they even register in the mind.

Around me, I see the shining, sun-bleached hills behind our houses, wild land laced by the trails I hike in adventures that are my haven, my freedom, my escape. I see the black-and-white blurs of schoolmates as they race their Flexi-Flyers headlong down the sloping streets. I see my family—mother, father, sister—wave and laugh, speaking silent words to whomever runs the camera, as they go about their daily lives.

All is shades of grey, wan and distant.

In my home, though, moving past the dark stain of lawn, the walls of pale grey stucco, and the brightly trimmed opening of the doorway, beyond the shadowed living room where children dare not tread, through the kitchen with its charcoal-colored wood, and into the chiaroscuro of the family room, there is a red chair.

It is red. So red.

It stands in the ashen jumble of the room like an open wound, colored the red of blood, bright and arterial, shiny as a skinned knee. Upholstered leather is nailed to its frame by rows of brass tacks that glint in the streaming sunlight, their rounded heads faceted by the hammer blows that set them.

It is an old chair—I do not know a time when it was not there—a holdout from days before my birth. Wing-backed, claw-footed, it is large, its arms stained by the grip of a thousand hands. Here and there the leather is a bit dry and has cracked, revealing tufts of excelsior and batting. It creaks when I climb up, as if complaining, as if I am an unwelcome intruder, and perhaps I am, for it is my father’s chair, and his alone. I curl up in its empty embrace, breathing in its captured aromas of Old Spice and Bond Street.

And on this day, this one day, it is the chair in which my father sits and, for the last time in our lives, gathers me up in his arms, in his warmth, in his scent. It is the chair in which he tells me of my mother’s death. 

After that day, I do not know what happened to that chair. I still see the wall of books, the ancient davenport, the old B&W television on its tubular stand, the corduroy love seat, the sliding-glass door that opens out on the too-bright patio, all these I see in the flickering cinema of remembered youth, but there is a dark spot, a lacuna, a patch of emotional blight where the chair once stood. After that day, I do not remember it being there. I do not remember my father ever sitting in it again. I have excised it from my past, wished it out of existence. 

In my experience, time does not heal, but it does teach. Sometimes it teaches us to understand and adapt, while at other times it teaches us how to cope and survive. The disappearance of that red chair is just such a lesson, learned during the sixty years that separate me from that day. That chair, the cauldron of my earliest grief, has bled out, its color used up, the power of its memory spent.

And I can live with that.



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For six decades, my feet have touched the earth. This did not seem a consequential thing before, but I have learned otherwise.

I grew up on the shores of San Pablo Bay. While, behind me, the dark oases of live oaks studded the rolling golden hills, I walked unshod down the shingled shore, the smooth curves of wave-worn pebbles pressing upward into the flesh of my bare feet. I would gather kelp vines to use as bullwhips, challenge fiddler crabs to duels, and with a poked finger annoy the anemones until they spat. My bare toes gripped the ragged rim of a tidepool’s edge, and my arches provided stability as I balanced on weather-beaten logs. To my bare feet, the cool water and the hot stones were as natural as the salt air and the scent of baking seaweed were to my lungs.

Then, with shoelaces tied together and draped over my neck, I kept my shoes dry as I crossed the tidal marsh that lay between shore and home,. Navigating past clumps of reeds, gently pushing aside the serrated blades of pampas grass, I let my feet breach the brackish water, sink into the yellow mud, continue down through muck the color of rust, until they hit the underlayment of fetid black peat, the foul and oily rot squishing upward between my toes. Here, shoes were worthless, destined (if used) to be left behind in a muddy grave or, worse, to survive for a few brief and redolent hours on the front stoop before my mother gave up and threw their ruined stink into the trash.

When school let out for summer, my friends and I tossed our tattered Keds aside and headed up into the sun-bleached hills behind our homes. We followed creekbeds and ridgelines, slid on the fragrant mat beneath the eucalyptus trees, and winced as spiny oak leaves pierced our callused feet. Come late August, with back-to-school sales shouting from every newspaper and TV ad, I’d be given new shoes, along with my mother’s admonition to take care of them this time because she wouldn’t be buying me any replacements.

To be safe, I rarely wore them outside of school.

In the time between those days and now, I maintained my contact with the earth, barefooting my way through the years. Working in my gardens, shaded by their canopy of spruce and fir and maple, I felt with each step the sun-warmed grass, the cushioned mat of russet needles, the crunch of pinecones, the coolth of upturned soil, and always I reveled in the chthonic energy that flowed upward from earth to sole to crown. My feet are still callused, though now mostly from walking on pavement than traipsing across youthful hills, but lately, age has begun to make its effects known.

An injured ligament across the left arch and instep has required support beyond what my bare feet can provide, for which I resorted to an ankle brace and bindings. The foot has improved, albeit with glacial speed, to the point where the tight grip of the bindings is not always required, but sadly, the foot is not yet able to go it alone, and so a shoe (with arch support) is needed.

The practice of walking shod was melted out of my DNA by the sun of many summers and so, even though it lessens the pain, wearing shoes around the house feels alien and unnatural. I feel as if I’m just passing through my own home, on my way to somewhere else, some place where bare feet are a faux pas.

My heart holds tight the hope that this is a temporary condition and not the first step down some inexorable decline, and that by the solstice I will once again be able to feel the ground beneath my feet, but there is no guarantee. Meanwhile, I will practice patience; but do not be surprised if, now and again, I leave my shoes on the bottom step and walk out to spend a few minutes standing barefoot beneath the garden’s green-leafed roof.


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My first first date was a disaster.

I was a sophomore in high school and wasn’t old enough to drive, so Mark and Julie (my upperclassmen friends) agreed to a double-date. It was going to be great. Mark had an ancient, rusty, squeak-shocked Austin-Healey sedan. He and Julie would get me and then Lori (my date), and drive the four of us to Sausalito for dinner at the Alta Mira. From there, we’d go into the City where we had tickets to see an off-Broadway production of a play. We’d be home late, but not too late.

I was terribly nervous. I should note at the outset that Lori and I were barely friends. Beyond saying “hey” in the halls, pretty much the first conversation we’d had was my stuttering invitation, asking her out. The fact that she had agreed was, in itself, a victory (in my book, anyway), so my nervousness had a large helping of anticipation added to the basic impression of doom. But I wanted it to be a special night, so Mark and Julie and I planned the itinerary well in advance. What could go wrong?

Not being able to find Lori’s house was the first thing to go wrong. She lived on a narrow hillside side street, and the house was set back from the road, up a juniper-covered slope, accessible only by a twisting, shadowed stairway lit by a dim lamp up at the house. We must have driven past it five times before we noticed it.

Despite being late for our reservation, dinner wasn’t bad. The Alta Mira was a legend where I grew up. A grand old hotel tucked up in the fog-blanketed hills above Sausalito, it had a fancy restaurant and it was famously difficult to find (locals had had T-shirts printed up that said “No, I can’t tell you how to get to the Alta Mira.”). Driving up to this fancy-schmancy place in Mark’s rust-bucket drew sniggers from the valets, but we shrugged it off. We were having dinner at the Alta Mira!

We then drove across the Golden Gate and into the City, down to a tiny theater situated in an ill-lit corner of the Mission District. I wasn’t much of a theater-buff, so I knew nothing about the play we were going to see: Norman . . . Is That You? It was a relatively new play—this was 1973 and it had only premiered in ’70 (to middling reviews)—so I was going in blind. The play, we quickly learned, dealt with a young man coming out to his parents. As I said, this was ’73, so the general attitude toward LGBTQ+ folks was decidedly unfriendly, and it was definitely not a given that everyone was comfortable with the topic of homosexuality. Suffice it to say that my date did not seem comfortable with the topic.

Leaving the theater, our conversation was three-sided, with Lori maintaining a sentinel-like silence as we walked back to the car.

Which wasn’t where we had parked it.

Stolen? Couldn’t be. Who would steal a rust-laced, barely-functional junker like that? Then we saw the sign: No Parking 11PM–5AM, All Vehicles Will Be Towed.

It was 11:10 PM.

At the bottom of the sign, a phone number for the impound lot was printed, so the next task was walking to find a phone booth (remember, kids, mobile phones weren’t even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye at this point). We found one a few blocks away, via which we learned that the impound lot was a fair distance, too far to walk, especially in the heels Lori had chosen. Mark and Julie and I pooled our cash; we probably had enough to get the car out of impound, but we weren’t sure, so paying for a cab was out of the question; even the streetcar was an iffy proposition. We decided our best way to get at all close to the lot was to do a hop-on/hop-off run on cable car. In the late hours, they weren’t so strict about payment if you were just on for a few blocks.

Eventually, we made it to the lot, had enough for the fine, and sprung Mark’s car from the hoosegow. By this time, Lori’s silence had become so intense that it had a gravitational field. When we finally rattled our way up her street and Mark stopped in front of the long, dark stairway, Lori was out of the car before I could round the vehicle to open her door. She was halfway up the flight by the time I reached the foot of the stairs. She never looked back.

Frankly, I do not blame her one tiny little bit.

We never went out again. We never actually spoke again. It was a long time before my next first date.

My last first date, on the other hand, was better. I’d learned a lot in the intervening years. Still, though, I did manage to break the First Rule of First Dates as, over our lunch of enchiladas and tamales, I told her we were going to get married and have a great time growing old together. (I’d known her all of two weeks, and to be honest, it had taken a lot of discipline not to tell her that when we first met.)

Despite this obvious faux pas, on Monday (Valentine’s Day 2022) we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of that last first date, and had our forty-first Valentine’s Day meal of Mexican food to commemorate it.

So, yeah, the last one went a bit better.


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I was three years old—it seems a world away, now—sitting in the front room, looking out the big window.

Our house on Oak Drive was a two-story affair on the uphill side of the street, and from my vantage I could look down on the massive junipers that bordered our small yard. When I played beneath them, they would tower over me, reach for me with scented claws, and dust me with clouds of pollen so that, when Mother called, I would come inside covered in red weals, begrimed with a patina of yellow, and redolent of resin. (more…)

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Ever see something and it reminds you of something, which reminds you of something else, which . . .

. . . And you look up and realize that thirty minutes have ticked by while you’ve been wandering the warrens of memory?

Yeah. That. I had one of those yesterday. But unlike most of these aimless treks through lost pathways, on this one I was able to retrace my steps and remember how I’d gotten from Point A to Point Z. (more…)

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I grew up in a black-and-white world. Not exactly like the way Calvin’s dad explained it, but pretty much.

When I was very young, television broadcast in black-and-white, and my life was filled with television. Soon, even though technology advanced and broadcasts switched to color, in our house we still only had a black-and-white television.

In fact, we didn’t have a color television until I was a teenager, when my grandfather passed away and we inherited his old massive oak-wood RCA Color TV console, with the remote control that sighed like a sulking teenager when you pressed down one of its three buttons. Thus, all my childhood TV viewing was black-and-white, never in color.

So how, then did I know that Captain Kirk’s tunic was tan, Spock’s blue, and Scotty’s red? Sure, I suppose my viewing might have been “enhanced” by color pictures in TV Guide, but if that’s so, then why do I also remember To Kill A Mockingbird in color?

When I watch the film, naturally I see it in black-and-white, but when I remember scenes, especially scenes from the book that didn’t make it into the movie, I remember them in color. I remember Scout’s red flannel shirt, her dark indigo overalls. Tom’s overalls were faded, as was the blue of his work shirt. Atticus wore suits of pale linen, grey pinstripe, and solid slate grey. Mayella had pink flowers on her dress, while the ones on Calpurnia’s chintz were blue.

Perhaps it is because so many things in that story were objects familiar to my youth. The bark of trees we climbed, the denim of our jeans, the thin cotton of our shirts, it was all as it was in the book. Or perhaps it’s because Harper Lee’s words were so simple and direct, so mesmerizing, that I couldn’t help but see the world she created in its entirety, vibrant with color.

To Kill a Mockingbird–in both book and film–was important to me when I was young, and it remains so today. Through its story, I discovered fiction that told of kids who were real, not the fantastical wunderkinder that I found in all the other books I was given. It was an adult story told simply, clearly, and with ultimate honesty. Within its pages, I learned that the world is not black and white, right and wrong, but filled with immeasurable greys  in which justice can be evil, and wrong-doing can be justice. I learned of the fallibility of mankind, and of the failures in our shared society when we forget that we are not alone in this world.

I remember Harper Lee’s classic in color, because it taught me about black and white, because it taught me about grey.


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Writing with Pen and Paper

Letters are nice things to get in the mail.

I’m not talking about bills or street-spam from your local dentist. I mean letters. Honest to God Letters, written by a person, meant for you and you alone.

Well, mostly…

There’s one kind of letter that I hate to get:

The Revision Letter.


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