Tag Archives: Memoir

May 20 – A GIRL, A BICYCLE, A LIBRARIAN, AND A MAGICAL SPELL

by Sara Etgen-Baker

I often mounted my bicycle and sped down the street, my hair whipping back as I let my feet off the pedals and flew down the hill at a speed rivaling a cheetah. When I reached the point where the street curved, I slammed on the brakes hoping the unevenly worn brake pads would bring me to a stop just as I neared the library’s front entrance.

I dismounted and pushed open the library’s heavy door, walked across the tiled chessboard floor, and tossed a penny in the fountain before climbing the stairs to the main hall where I encountered Miss Talbot, the head librarian.

Miss Talbot was a decipherer of secret codes, master of index cards, maven of the Dewey Decimal System, and sorceress all wrapped into one tiny human being. I truly believed she was a mind reader or, at the very least, part magician the way she could find whatever I was looking for; many times before I asked.

“You’re allowed to check out ten books at a time,” she always said rather matter-of-factly.

“I’ll take ten books home with me,” I replied in an elated voice, signing the borrower’s card inside each one.

“Return these by the due date.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said reassuringly.

I can still feel their weight in my arms as I lugged them downstairs and heaved them into my bike’s saddlebags. The books I checked out allowed me to magically travel through time and contact the dead; Anne Frank, Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, and so many more.

On chilly winter nights, I accompanied Nancy Drew as she gathered clues and unraveled mysteries. On soft, promising green spring days Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost taught me about the worthy art of poetry, giving me a sense of what is beautiful about the world. I also cherished those warm, lazy summer afternoons spent in the library escaping August’s sultry heat and breathing in the stale, sun-warmed dust of a thousand stories. The library was the perfect place to go whenever I felt unhappy, bewildered, or undecided. Inside books, I found encouragement, comfort, answers, and guidance.

A great deal of who I became is based upon my visits to the quiet, unassuming library; lit up during winter darkness and open in the slashing rain allowing a girl like me to experience actual magic. Each time I ventured inside and opened the cover of a book I wondered what I might find inside. Where would I go? Whom would I meet?

The stories I read were powerful, for they either sent me back in time or forward into the future and frequently transported me to other lands where I met ogres and talking rabbits. Some of my best friends I found between the covers of the books I checked out at the library using my simple library card. Even now when I enter a library and open a book, I fall under an enchanting spell, and I never want the spell to be broken.

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she rediscovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

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April 8 – The Old Growth Forest

by Sara Etgen-BakerI often sat next to Father on an old tree stump surrounded by ancient trees listening to him tell fairy tales about trees; tales of trees with human faces, tales of trees that talked, and tales of trees that sometimes walked. The old growth forest surrounded us, alive with hidden secrets. The trees rose upward forever, and the canopy above us was distant, like clouds of green. With my arms outstretched, I knew I’d never be able to reach even a fraction of the way around the trees’ gnarly bark trunks.

I often return to the old growth forest; it is the place where I go for rest and for serenity that flows like cool river waters. The path snakes around the ancient trees; and I step carefully over the roots that knot the pathway, watching the freshly fallen rain seep into the soil, struck by a wish to melt in with it; not to die but to live forever amongst these ancient beings who cast the shadow in which I stand.

The old growth forest doesn’t care for seconds or minutes, even hours are inconsequential. The smallest measure of time here is the cycle of daylight and darkness. The forest is more in tune with the seasons; rebirth brought by the warmth of spring; darkened foliage from summer’s warm kiss; tumbling leaves foretelling fall’s arrival, and then the keen bite of winter.

Here in the old growth forest so little can happen in the time it took me to change from a child into a woman. Perhaps that’s why I love being here. It stabilizes the rapidity of my thoughts and grounds me in a place where the ticking of clocks is disregarded. There is a sacredness here that transcends my everyday concerns, casting them into the timelessness of the forest. Under these boughs, I feel the breath of the Universe and hear the beauty of Its creations.

I’ve trodden along these forest paths so often that my soles are worn thin. But I don’t tire of this old growth forest, for I’m always at home here.

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

March 18 – Little Joys

by Suzanne Adam

The words spoke to me. While scanning my email Inbox, the title of Maria Popova’s latest “Brainpickings” post caught my eye: “Hermann Hesse on Little Joys, Breaking the Trance of Busyness, and the Most Important Habit for Living with Presence.” I opened the post.

I read that in his 1905 essay “On Little Joys”, Hesse reflects on the busyness, the hurry-hurry and the aggressive haste of modern life. Terms coined over a century ago. I’ve learned the wisdom and truth contained in his words. Perhaps I developed this philosophy for living due to life’s circumstances and to the person I am.

Hesse advised everyday contact with nature. I grew up immersed in the natural world of a small northern California town. Trees occupied the views from every window in my childhood home. Camping vacations amidst redwoods started me on the path to becoming a tree hugger.

There were other signs. Searching for my first apartment, I’d check for the view from the windows. My chosen Berkeley apartment had a distant view of San Francisco Bay. In the slim space between my building and my neighbors’ grew a leafy redwood tree and a small garden tended by a few of the residents. I was forced to move out when the owner decided to demolish our three-story building in order to build a bigger, seven-story construction. Last time I went by, the redwood tree was gone.

When I moved to Chile to marry my boyfriend, we settled in the capital, Santiago, now a city of six million inhabitants. I learned to develop personal strategies for noticing little joys in this urban setting.

It is just a matter of noticing.

SAAndesAs a teacher in a school situated in the foothills of the Andes, in free moments, I’d gaze out the window at the glorious sight and feel nourished and replenished. During my lunch hour, I’d walk a few laps around the hillside track and maybe spot a kestrel perched on a post or hear the twitter of quail.

These city streets offer dozens of small joys: flowering Jacaranda and ceibo trees, a well-tended garden, a friendly dog, the chatter of playing children.

Now, although retired, I don’t get out of the city as often as I’d like. I miss the freshness of forests and the tang of sea breezes. To counteract this deficiency, each morning I step out into my backyard to inhale the exquisite fresh air still untouched by the scents of human activity. The dew releases a potpourri of fragrances from my redwood tree and the flowering buddleia. Nights I make another mini visit to my backyard to breathe in the nighttime air and gaze at the few stars visible in our city sky. Sky. Sometimes I realize that I haven’t looked at the sky all day.

Hesse advises us to cherish the little joys, inconspicuous and scattered liberally over our daily lives. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!

Lessons for living.

Suzanne grew up northern California. After graduating from UC Berkeley, she served in the Peace Corps in Colombia before moving to Santiago, Chile in 1972 to marry her boyfriend, Santiago. She explores this experience in her 2015 memoir Marrying Santiago. Her latest book, “Notes from the Bottom of the World: A Life in Chile” was published by She Writes Press.

Suzanne blogs at Tarweed Spirit.

March 4 – How to Stay Married for Thirty-Four Years

by Cheryl Suchors
Actions that may have been unrelated at the time paved the way for my ongoing commitment. Here they are, in case you care to try some and avoid the others.

1.      Get a pet. Nearing thirty and single, I got a cat. I named the cat Escuela because I figured that kitty would school me in commitment.
2.      Beware big risk. I met a guy and moved to Washington, DC to be with him. We bought a house. He changed the kitty litter. After three weeks in our new home, he moved out. Enter one of the worst periods of my life.
3.      Find a good therapist. Have I mentioned therapy? I recommend it.
4.      Give up on passive men, no matter how enticing. After the above debacle, a man sat next to me on a train. We didn’t stop talking until the ride ended hours later. But in the cab line, he still hadn’t asked for my number. I decided if he didn’t pursue the surprising opportunity of “us,” he was too passive. I waited. He asked.
5.      Have a full life before marriage. I was thirty-two when I met the guy on the train. Thirty-four when we married. I had a career, travel adventures, a condo, pet companions, and good friends. I’d had a number of heartbreaks and each one taught me a lesson I tried not to repeat. (See 2, 3, 4 above.)
6.      Allow for ambivalence. We dated for a year before I moved to Boston for a job. He’d follow in a year. Meantime, we discussed the M-word. I was utterly ready. Until he proposed, and I panicked. I told him I needed some time. Apparently, I’d squelched my ambivalence. So I took the time to be terrified, to sit with my fear.
7.      Find a partner as smart as you. Maybe smarter. His mind entertains and engages me still. This is important because bodies, well, they age.
8.      Listen when you know he’s right even if you don’t like what he says. When we brought our infant daughter home, he offered to give her a bath. She looked so tiny in his hands. I hovered, making suggestions, worried he’d break her. He told me either I could act like I always knew better and be solely responsible for our child or I could let him do his best, learning as he went. I went off to bite my knuckles in another room. He’s been a really good father.
9.      Tell him what you’re afraid to bring up. Like that time I found myself way too attracted to a co-worker. My husband and I discussed it pretty thoroughly. That put a boundary around the co-worker, one I couldn’t cross.
10.     Re-up. Each anniversary, we pull out the wedding ceremony we wrote. We laugh at our naiveté. But the vows never fail to move us. We sign up, not for forever because that freaks me out, but for fifty years. My brain can encompass fifty years.

Cheryl Suchors is the author of 48 PEAKS: Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains, an inspiring memoir of adventure, endurance, and heartache published in September 2018 by She Writes Press. Suchors lives in Massachusetts with her husband and a plethora of plants. Their grown daughter, to come full-circle, lives in Washington, DC. Cheryl blogs at http://cherylsuchors.com.

February 7 – It Was a Beautiful Sight

by Susan W. Leicher

For a long time, when things were going really badly with my oldest daughter–when her mental illness threatened to rip our whole family apart; my chief therapy was going to the YMCA. Sometimes I swam and sometimes I did yoga. When I swam, I swam competitively and aggressively; my bullet-like passage through the water helping to drain away the sorrow and fury. When I did yoga, I chose the toughest class and the most demanding teacher; drawing strength from the act of pushing myself to my limit within exorbitantly difficult poses.

After some time, my daughter began improving and I stopped craving the cleansing power of physical challenge. The yoga teacher left for a different venue and I ratcheted down my practice. And when I swam, I spent a lot of time just floating around in the water.

And then one day as I entered the gentle yoga class, I saw that my former teacher had returned as a “sub.” I almost walked out, but figured: “Oh well, maybe I can still manage this.”

I couldn’t. The very sound of her voice hurled me backward into a visceral memory of that terrible time. After a few minutes, I actually began to shake. I felt helpless, enraged, lost. I rushed out of the class and headed to the locker room to change for the pool, thinking to lose myself in the peace of a few calming laps.

When I arrived, there were only a few people in the water: some older women and one older man “Fred” who flirted shamelessly with me whenever we found ourselves swimming at the same time. I unwrapped myself from my towel, went to hang it up and was heading toward the pool edge when the lifeguard stopped me: “Lady, what on earth are you doing?”

I looked down. In the throes of my remembered grief and fear, I’d managed to put on my goggles and cap but forgotten to put on my bathing suit!

Help! What to do? I could go straight home and never show my face (or anything else) at the pool again or I could go back upstairs, don my suit and swim out to my friends.

I chose the latter course.

“Good heavens, Susan,” said one of the ladies as I reached her side. “I thought you were one of those scandalous French girls!”

“My dear,” said Fred. “I don’t know what to say. Except that it was a beautiful sight.”

I burst out laughing, did my laps, and moved on. We heal.

Susan W. Leicher grew up in the Bronx in a bi-cultural (Latina and Jewish) home. She moved to Manhattan after finishing graduate school with a Masters’ degree in Public Policy and raised her family on the Upper West Side, where she still lives with her husband and two black cats. For the past forty years, she has devoted herself to conducting research and producing policy reports and marketing materials for non-profits, federations, government agencies, and foundations. She has just published her first novel, Acts of Assumption. Susan blogs at https://swleicher.com.

January 14 – Gertie the Goose

by Marilea Rabasa

My partner, Gene, and I are great lovers of nature and we enjoy walking on our beach, rain or shine, on Puget Sound. Sunrise is often magnificent, heralding in the day with a spotlight on the Olympic Range across Saratoga Passage from us. Those snow-covered mountains look like scoops of ice cream the way I like it: with chocolate sauce drizzling down the sides. The sunsets are spectacular as well, the reds and purples muting into softer tones and then the dusk-gray sky quickly turning dark.

Last week we saw a white speck at the end of our beach as we were heading home in the approaching darkness and realized it was an injured snow goose, hopping on one leg onto the safety of the rocks as the tide was coming in. Our hearts went out to this suffering animal, unable to swim or fly, and we feared it would die soon. Predators were in the woods, but mostly coyotes would come down to the beach and find an easy victim.

Every morning for a week we brought food down to it and then decided to try to rescue it. The nearby wildlife center wouldn’t come and get it, but they would accept it if we got it to them. We had to wait for the tide to be low enough for there to be some beach to walk on between the water and the logjam from recent storms. But a day came with favorable conditions, and we found our opportunity.

Gene and our neighbor, Archibald, went down to the beach, threw a blanket over it and carried it squawking up to the car where I was the getaway driver. We placed it in a carton and once it realized it was a prisoner, it stopped struggling. Gene and Archibald regaled each other with similar stories, and I howled at their jokes. The ride wasn’t as stressful as I’d anticipated and we arrived at the wildlife center, safe and nearly sound. The handlers accepted her, will fix her leg, and send her back into the world, hopefully, to make more geese.

The three of us drove back to the island and felt good starting out the new year in this way. “Let it begin with me” is an oft-quoted saying in our recovery program, and when I do initiate acts of kindness like that, I feel empowered, no longer shackled by people and events that I have no control over. That’s what Gene and I do sometimes: we try to make the world a better place, along with many other people on our endangered planet. We pick up trash when we see it. And we care about saving our dwindling wildlife, one goose at a time.

Marilea Rabasa is a retired teacher and the award-winning author of her first memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Her recovery blog is www.recoveryofthespirit.com.  She and her partner have an orchard in New Mexico. Summers are for grandchildren and salt air at their home on an island in Puget Sound.

November 26 – Even When You Call Me Mother

by Dede MontgomeryWoman at the Lake

It was the moment she called me “mother.” I was upset and blurted out, “Mom, I’m your daughter.”

She hesitated, and then answered slowly. “Oh, yes.”

Too quickly I butted in. “Mom, you know I’m your daughter.”

I commanded, rather than asked, selfishly realizing, at 56, I still needed a mother.

“Yes, of course,” she answered. “But a daughter shouldn’t have to take care of her mother,” she added, carefully.

Mom hasn’t addressed me this way again. And yet, the exchange generated new fears for my brain to tease through. I thought I had reached all the milestones associated with my parents aging. But now, it is different.

I share time with Mom. She sometimes asks me about my day, but less often offers advice. I rarely tell her my problems. I read my blogs to her, and sometimes she helps me choose the right word. We sit together by our special rivers and at our favorite parks. I play music for her on my iPhone. We don’t talk politics much. I am thankful for what we have.

I used to think I was like my mother. Then, later, I realized how much I was like my dad. Now, I see bits of myself from each of them and wonder who I may be like as I age? Will I die quickly like Dad; with my mind clear, but my heart exhausted? Or will I outlive my cognition? And what might that bring to my daughters? But really, what does it matter today?

The sun is shining. I have a new book to write. We have problems in our world that we need to solve. I will get old someday, or not. I may die like my dad or like my mom or not like either of them. What I do know, is, for today, I will be there for Mom. And for this moment, none of the rest of it matters.

What gifts do we share, late in life? The gift to sit, in silence to the chirp of birds or whistling of the wind. The gift of story, those that happened, new ones that might have been. I sit with Mom, who taught me how to be strong and independent. Surreptitiously, I pick a sprig of lavender one day. She laughs when I hand it to her, as I learn I don’t have to always follow all the rules. I’m learning from her the time to leave behind regrets and accept what you bring to this world is sooner rather than later. To know that change is constant, and not all of it comfortable or happy. To look to a parent as a teacher, still, even if they call you Mom.

And what I will say when she asks again, is, “No, Mom. I’m your daughter and helper. You are my teacher no matter what we pass through together. And you will always be my mother.”

Dede Montgomery is a sixth-generation Oregonian who writes about past and present Oregon in her blog, Musings on Life in Oregon, and her 2017 memoir, My Music Man. Dede’s first novel, Beyond the Ripples, will be released by her publisher, Bedazzled Ink, in 2019. Dede also works in research outreach and education at OHSU.

A longer version of this post appears on Dede’s blog and you can read it HERE.

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