Tag Archives: Memoir

August 5 – Turning Pointe

by Sara Etgen-Baker

“Point your feet! Rotate! Don’t stick your butts out! Stay out of your heels.” I looked up from where I was sitting.  There was no music; only the thump-thud sound of the dancers en pointe and the ballet master shouting. “Dance to the tips of your fingers and toes! Plié! Spot!”

Ann obeyed, sweat running down her face. “Tours chaînés déboulés,” the master barked. She struggled, her sleek muscles quivering with exhaustion. I’d never seen my aunt rehearsing. So, the contrast between seeing her stage performance where she glided effortlessly on the tips of her pointe shoes and seeing her studio rehearsal baffled me.

“Rond de Jambe en l’air and Frappé.” The master paused; the dancers gathered at the barre. “Fifth position, preparation sur le cou de pied. Single frappe en croix each position getting two counts.”  He strolled around the dance studio.

“Close Fifth position front.” Ann panted for breath. “Single rond de jambe en l’air en dehors twice at 45°.” Her corded tendons stood out like insulated cable. …“Now close to sous-sus front.

But when the curtain rose later that winter evening, there stood my aunt; her feathery light body rose en pointe.

Ann lifted her arms, breathed in the music sending it through her torso, arms, and legs. She surrendered to the music and spun like the wind across Swan Lake; her tutu fluttering like the wings of a bird at dawn. Dancing became her body’s song, and Ann sang it beautifully, her body telling the story of Odette, the Swan Queen, and her love for Prince Siegfried.

Backstage afterward, I cringed when Ann removed her pointe shoes revealing calluses, misshapen toes, black nails, and reddish-purple flesh. The contrast between her beautiful pointe shoes and her battered, ugly feet startled me.

“I didn’t know how ballet dancing was so painful!” I searched her eyes. “How can you endure so much pain?”

Ann silently walked over to her dressing table, wrapped her pointe shoes in soft tissue paper, and placed them in a pink satin drawstring bag. She scribbled a note, tucking it inside the bag. “I’m not quite sure how to explain it to you, but take these. I want you to have them. One day, you’ll understand.”

I left the performance hall and opened the drawstring bag, running my fingers over the pointe shoes’ pink satiny smooth surface and read her note.  “Each time you see these, remember life, like dance, is a beautiful art form. It’s hard work. It’s painful. It’s ugly. You sweat. You fail. You succeed. You try again. You push. You fight. But always remain graceful.”

At the time I didn’t understand the wisdom in my aunt’s message. Now, though, I recognize my aunt’s gift was not her pointe shoes; rather it was her enduring words that served as a turning point in my young life when I learned that life, like ballet, is a battle between beauty and pain.

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.

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July 15 – Collecting and Connecting

by Kalí Rourke
I recently mentioned to my husband that in light of our multiple downsizings, we were fortunate that neither of us is a collector.

My husband smiled and said, “I think you do have a collection. You have collected the people and ancestry in your family!”

“And yours,” I responded with a grin.

People ask, “How did you get into genealogy? Did your family talk about its history?”

“Not really.” My maternal grandmother (Nana) claimed that we were descendants of Myles Standish of the Mayflower through her father William Herbert Standish. He died young in a carriage accident and was the great love of her three-times married mother, Nellie Holley Standish Kidder Smalley. When Nellie died, her wish was to be buried with William.

Actually, we all just smiled and humored her when Nana claimed the Standish connection. No one took it seriously.

December of 2006 I was goofing around on the Internet. I stumbled on Ancestry.com and it gave access to the Name Bulletin Boards. This is a hit and miss way to research because the conversations are in threads and can meander, but I was fascinated! I tried my maternal grandfather’s name, Baskett. I plowed through with an investigator’s zeal and finally, there it was.

Dorene Standish from Oregon had posted that she was looking for the family of Lorena May Standish Baskett. I shrieked with glee! That was us! I commented that I was a granddaughter of Lorena through her daughter Marie and I would love to correspond. Dorene was incredibly generous with her knowledge and time and she encouraged me to dig into my family tree. She had accomplished the heavy lifting, getting her husband George (Nana’s nephew!) approved for General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD) membership. All I had to do was document the generations between Nellie Holley/William Herbert Standish through me. I could do that!

I started gathering hard copy documentation. Birth, marriage, death certificates, divorces, multiple states, and it occurred to me that I was seeing many headstones online but I didn’t see any for my family.

Dorene solved the mystery for me. Our family had not been wealthy and nice markers were not possible. Concrete with basic information on it was what we found.

She checked the local monument makers and we decided to share costs while she and George would coordinate the replacements. We decided on granite with more engraved detail and soon, it was done.

In 2013 my husband and I traveled to Washington and drove to the Woodlawn Cemetery where so many of my family rest. As we searched through the headstones of all sizes, and some markers so old they had sunken under the soil, I felt blessed that we had been able to help make this lasting improvement. Future genealogists will have an easier time tracing the trail and I was able to say goodbye one more time to Nana (Who was right all along!).

I love owning this particular “collection.”

Kalí Rourke is a wife, mother, writer, singer, and active volunteer. She is a Seedling Mentor and serves as a Mentor for the Young Women’s Alliance. Kalí is a philanthropist with Impact Austin and the Austin Community Foundation Women’s Fund. She blogs at Kalí’s Musings and at A Burning Journey – One Woman’s Experience with Burning Mouth Syndrome. A longer version of this post appears on Kalí’s Musings.

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July 2 – One Woman Remembering Another

by Debra Dolan

I am writing this on Canada Day delighted in knowing that my darling Michael’s mother’s remarkable life is honoured in our national newspaper.  There is a wonderful regular feature titled “Lives Lived” which “celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed”.  Margaret was a proud American-Canadian who was many things to many people.  I submitted an essay for consideration; therefore, my day, today is finding joy in remembering her loving presence in my life during the past 17 years.  

Margaret Leonebel (Chiefy) Jackson Frizell

Margaret spent her youth in the lush interior mountains of China, where her father worked. The Second World War forced her American family to return to Santa Barbara, Calif. It was here that she graduated from Mills College. Later she studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and travelled through Europe. While working as a French teacher at a children’s camp on Vancouver Island, she met Charles George (Chip) Frizell, the lodge’s dishwasher. Chip was a young, war-shattered man from the United Kingdom who had fought in the Battle of Britain and recited poetry from memory. They were a remarkable pair of beguiling individuals.

For more than 65 years they were a formidable team, building homes on Mayne Island, B.C., and in Point Roberts, Wash. They raised three sons, Michael, Paul, and Mark. Margaret was an untraditional homemaker, wife, and mother. She wore pants, smoked cigars, ignored housework and shared coffee with the mailman in broad daylight. And she created a home full of love and acceptance, providing a place for neighbourhood children to play and enjoy fresh baking. Later, it was bacon and eggs in the middle of the night for young men returning from parties drunk or stoned.

As her nickname suggests, Chiefy was indeed the boss. She never sweated the small stuff and picked her battles in a household of boys and men carefully; however, once she made a decision about what was important, she was a force to be reckoned with. Chiefy was a fierce defender of her sons, who she loved with every fibre of her being.

Chiefy had a wild and fascinating mind. She had an iron will and was connected to the strong values of her Catholic faith. In her presence, you felt special: She would tilt that head covered in cotton-candy-textured white hair and listen respectfully and intently. In the 1960s she wrote radio plays for the CBC and was a talented iconographer.

Margaret had a great fondness for cookbooks, which she read with the tenacity of novels, and amassed a large collection. Chiefy could be whimsical and silly; joyful and optimistic. She also demonstrated a tremendous fondness for martinis, butter, Hawaii and all things Parisian.

Her end was sudden. After a full day, attending mass, lunch with Michael and enjoying a drive along the beach, Chiefy suffered a stroke and died a few days later. She is buried next to Chip, who died in 2014, in the Gardens of Gethsemane.

“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and these details are worthy to be recorded.” – Natalie Goldberg

Debra Dolan lives on the west coast of Canada, is a long time (45+ years) private journal writer, and an avid reader of women’s memoir. She has been a member of Story Circle Network since 2009.

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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.

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.