Old enough to remember…

I wrote to the author of this hidden little piece, below, in today’s New York Times: “Thank you for sharing this – I think back to all the Sunday rides we took as a family – it was my mother who was the adventurer – spontaneously calling out – turn here! – to my dad, who just did whatever she told him to. And I giggled at the adventure – for no more cost than an ice cream if we found a place, or some french fries, maybe. Sometimes, summer tomatoes from a fruit and vegetable stand. No worries about the price of gas.

I was much too structured with my children – wish I had transferred the carefree spontaneity of my mom (but I suppose there’s still time)…

My treat on my birthday – which today is – is to spend most of the day with my all-too-grownup girls – I hope for giggles and memories – less worry and fret – less planning and structure – as our world’s concerns have descend upon them like a heavy cloak.  I can no longer protect – distract – cocoon them – with arts and crafts, or food, or entertainment. I suppose there were worldly concerns in my childhood, back on those dusty Sunday road trips – but I don’t remember what they were.

This world’s dark and ominous cloud needs aggressive bands of sunlight – people who can drag us out with inconsequential moments of wonder.

Maybe that’s my role now.  I’ve done far too much planning and prodding and pulling them along. So I’ll go back to the moments … some of which have already been forgotten.  “Do you remember that? When we went to Maine, just the three of us? When we went to the beach in our clothes because we didn’t bring suits?”  – “No, not really…” Sigh…

Maybe they are not “old enough” yet – to remember. Anyone near my age will know what I mean…

I encourage them to write, to journal, to blog, to keep boxes of memories…because one day something will come back to them…and they’ll giggle and pause – and maybe, when it is their time they will take their little ones spontaneously to Maine – or to the Cape – without a reservation, with no bags packed.  Or, they could go on a Sunday drive – and shout out, “turn here”!

Thanks to author Christina Baker Kline…

“At the steering wheel my father consults his large paper map, turning it this way and that, squinting at the small blue lines that squiggle through tiny Maine coastal towns. He’s heard that the author E.B. White’s house is somewhere around here, and he’s determined to find it.

My mother, next to him in the passenger seat of our rusty gold station wagon with my baby sister on her lap, raises her eyebrows at my other two sisters and me, free-ranging in the second row. It’s the early 70s, and seatbelts haven’t caught on yet. We gaze back at her, knowing that once Dad gets an idea into his head, it’s almost impossible to stop him. We range in age from 1 to 10 (I’m the oldest), and all of us are literally and figuratively along for the ride. Besides, we’re excited at the prospect of meeting this author we already feel we know. We’ve been lulled to sleep every night by the soft cadence of my dad’s Southern accent as he reads us stories about a wise spider and a hapless pig, a resourceful mouse and a mute swan.

Dad pulls off the road into the dusty parking lot of a country store with a lone gas pump, and gets out of the car. We hear him chatting with the attendant through the open window. “Sure is nice around here.”

The guy shrugs.

My sisters and I glance at each other. Rural Mainers tend to be stranger-wary and small-talk averse. But as usual, Dad doesn’t seem to notice. “You lived here long?”

“Ayuh.” Amazingly, before long, and with only a little coaxing, the attendant is telling Dad about his grandkids and his lobster boat and pointing off into the distance, giving him the intel he’s come for. “Mr. White lives right over that hill there. Privet hedge in front. Can’t miss it.”

Back on the road, my sister Cynthia ventures, “Isn’t it rude to show up on someone’s doorstep without asking?”

Dad grins and winks at us in the rear view mirror. “He’ll be flattered.”

We pull up to the farmhouse to find a courtly white-haired man trimming the hedge with a set of clippers. “It’s him!” Dad whispers. He rolls down his window and leans out. “Hello, good sir!” The man seems a little nonplussed. “I have a car full of young readers here who’d give anything to meet their favorite author. A word from you, and they’ll remember this moment for the rest of their lives.” What choice does the poor man have? Within a few minutes, the famously reclusive E.B. White is demonstrating to a cluster of little girls in bathing suits that when you crush pine needles between your fingers and hold it to your nose, the smell is as strong as patchouli. And Dad is right — we never will forget it.

The writer E.B. White passed along an appreciation for the scent of crushed pine needles to the author and her sisters when they arrived at his house unannounced in August 1973. Credit Courtesy of the Baker family.

My childhood was rife with moments like this. Dad was always going out on a limb, befriending people who didn’t necessarily seem to want new friends, trespassing on private property, pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in quest of adventure. His philosophy was that you don’t need money or plans, only a willingness to be present in the moment and to go where inspiration takes you. If you don’t, you’ll miss the entire point of being alive.

Raised dirt poor in rural Georgia by a mill worker mother and a father who often went to the bar rather than home after work, Dad learned early on that his quickest route up the social ladder was through charm and smarts. He got himself to college — the first in his family — on a football scholarship, then used seminary to springboard to a doctorate in a foreign land.

As a young academic in the ‘60s, he grew to reject traditional values and had scant respect for the social codes of privilege. At parties, he could often be found talking to the bartender or a 95-year-old Irish grandmother in the kitchen rather than the hosts. A Southerner through and through, even after moving to Maine, he was constitutionally incapable of walking down a street in New York without stopping to chat with doormen, bodega owners and homeless people. He never met a taxi driver whose story he didn’t want to know. Dad’s unorthodox and sometimes embarrassing friendliness got him, and us, into trouble now and then. Some people didn’t take kindly to probing questions. Others found his puppy-dog openness suspect or unsophisticated. But his innate, bottomless curiosity about the world also taught his four daughters to be open to new experiences and comfortable with improvisation. Even now, in his late 70s, he lives each day with a kind of purposeful recklessness, asking provocative questions and seeking new experiences in the belief that he can break through to something better, more meaningful, more satisfying.

Though my parents had little money, they took us on adventures all over the world. Driving through Scotland in a rainstorm, we pulled over to the side of the road and rode the wild ponies grazing by the fence. We coaxed a stray lamb over to our rented R.V. to feed it. One year my father switched houses, cars, teaching jobs, committees and pets with a professor in Melbourne, Australia, sight unseen. Another year our family of six flew to Crete without a plan; at the airport Dad bought a map and started asking random strangers, with the help of a woefully inadequate Greek phrase book: “What should we do?” “Where should we stay?”

This spontaneity meant that we missed flights, lost luggage, drove on perilous roads late at night, stayed in some cold-water hovels, and sometimes went hungry. But it also yielded beautiful surprises: an undiscovered beach, a fisherman’s hut with a breathtaking view, a hillside breakfast of goats’ milk yogurt and fresh honey that I still remember 35 years later. It led to his daughters’ sense of the world not as a huge frightening place but as a wonderland ripe for discovery.

The Maine farmhouse in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting “Christina’s World” was not yet a museum or even open to the public when my father got it into his head — soon after our ambush of E.B. White — to take a family field trip there. Following his usual routine, he pulled into the small village of Cushing and asked a local how to find the Olson house. When we arrived (no doubt trespassing), we picnicked in the field where the woman in the pink dress in the painting had lain. Looking up at that weathered gray house on the hill, and hearing the story of the woman with my name who spent her lifetime there, I was entranced. Years later, I drew on that experience to tell my own story of the painting in my new book.

There’s no doubt that my dad’s endless curiosity has shaped who I am. I often find myself — to my own kids’ embarrassment — chatting with strangers in lines, accepting spontaneous invitations, and seeking out-of-the-way adventures.

I think the most important thing I learned from my dad is that when you go out on a limb there’s a risk it will break, but you’ll get a whole new perspective on the world. And if you’re really lucky, it can feel like flying. ‘

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Terror at Christmas

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Christmas past…

Every Christmas I waited for one gift.  It would usually come a few days before Christmas, and it was never wrapped.  But I knew it was coming, when I heard my uncle bound up the stairs, rather than plod one step at a time. “Is she here?” he’d bellow.  I was always there. Where else would I have been?

As the only boy in his family, growing up with two sisters, one my mother, and a father who was more into gardening and puttering, than hunting or big physical exercise, I imagine he was thrilled when my mother was having a baby.  I imagine he was a little disappointed when it was a girl.

But quickly he figured that it made no difference at all.  And he would simply treat me like a boy.  So, gifts of clothing, of which there were very few, were often blue sweaters or orange and black gloves and brown boots bought in the boy’s department. As I said, he didn’t buy clothing very often.  What he did buy, though, was pretty spectacular.  Especially for an “only child” being raised like a princess (as a recall). Barbies!  Carriages!  Baby dolls!  All were plentiful. But they never came from my uncle.

No, when my uncle would come bounding up those stairs, I would just wait for it!  What magical toy would it be?  Lincoln Logs.  Those little plastic Indians and Soldiers in their war stances.  We’d play and make forts and have some big battles! Sets of tinker toys. And we’d build giant spaceship type structures. One time there were racing cars, complete with a curving roller coaster track.  There was the police car, all black and white and heavy, that you could rev up by running it back and forth and then letting it go and the red light would shine and the siren would shriek.  There was the police gear. And a badge I could wear. And we would play and run around the house. Never for very long, though. We’d start to play and then he’d run off to do some adult thing that he needed to do.

My mother would say “Sonny!” (what we always called my uncle) “Sonny! She’s a girrrllll!” But, I loved it all.  The gun shot caps.  Then he bought me real caps – the kind you stepped on and it sounded like pistol shots.  There was a science kit or two, and then, one day, there was a “pearl” handled silver gun.  It was big and heavy.  You could cock it back and it would snap out a loud POP.  I can still remember how it felt in my hand and how there were ridges on the inside of the hammer.  Better, yet, this gun went into a holster – a black holster that went around my waist.  Eventually I got a cowboy hat to go with it. And bullets on a cross strip.  And boots.  I was banned by my mother from playing outside dressed up like that because the neighbors might see.  So I played inside.  Lost in a world of Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Even Andy Griffith carried a gun!  And, for that matter, Ellie Mae Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies prided herself on her shooting prowess.

As growing up will do to you, it changed things.  And the Christmas came when the boy-toy didn’t get such a gleeful response from me; and it stayed unopened.  “Hey, you didn’t open it… yet” he said, a few days in a row. Eventually the boy-toys stopped coming.  Eventually we didn’t play together anymore.

These memories are vivid this year; the same year my uncle passed away at 92.  I remember it because of how things have changed. And also for how they have not changed very much at all.

Christmas present…

Today, gun toys for young children are not cool.  But yet, they are on our shelves…waiting to be bought for little boys and little girls this Christmas.  The violent video games target the slightly older children, whose unformed minds bounce between fantasy and reality. This December begins with terror. Terror from San Bernardino – but living inside all of us today. When we’re shopping at a crowded mall.  Eating in a restaurant. Attending a concert.  Now, when we’re at work at a holiday party?

Gun control.  It seems an impossibility.  The little tweaks are purposeful, but in fact, all the guns we will ever need are already out there.  Guns are forever, but ammo degrades. It has a shelf life.  Ammunition is gun food. If we can starve the guns a bit, or change the way ammunition sales are regulated and controlled, perhaps we can change the way guns are used. As Marc Ambinder wrote in The Week in 2012, “Guns need food. Starve them”.  We can be distracted by all the focus on gun control – let us ask ourselves, what else can we do?

Here’s another thing we can do – we can ask to have these toys removed from our shelves. We can stop buying them. These are some of the gun type toys available for purchase on this one day in December in Rhode Island. They are at Benny’s, K-Mart, Toys ‘R Us, and Walmart stores.

The first store I visited was Toys R Us and while there were a few gun-like, nerf-type toys available, I didn’t see the more realistic looking, AK-47 types.  When asked, the department manager told me, “I haven’t seen them here in this store in about 10 years.  We stopped carrying them after Columbine.”

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Christmas Future…

What will be our Christmas future? What terror will hold us close?  How will we harden and adapt?  Is this our new normal?  I think about my children.  My grandchildren yet to be. I hope they can find the answers.  And we – the elders now – must stay engaged.  Let us bring our memories of our own childhood and see what we can do to our tenuous hold on happiness and peace in our loved ones’ future.  As Scrooge said at the final ghost appearance, “the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will!”  Let us pray there is truth in this tale.

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“I am fearless now….”

th-2There are different kinds of memories. Events and happenings. Climactic moments. Hallmark days, such as a wedding, a funeral, a graduation. There are other memories that run deeper.  Memories of…scents…sounds…sight. Memories of emotion and feeling are perhaps the strongest.  The overwhelming moment when something happened inside of you; it changed the way you thought or felt about something. Like you could almost feel your brain morphing. The light bulb went on. The “aha” moment. The door shutting – for good this time – on a path of the past, a path that had been worn down and was going nowhere, and you struggled to get out of its rut, and now you can. These moments are, as they say, more ’emblazoned in our memories’ – because they go to our core – our heart and soul – they become more memorable because we were changed in that moment, that moment that we’ll always remember. We are different going forth.

This week the President gave an interview on radio which was somewhat controversial – but he stood rock solid, with a smile to his critics.  Something had changed in him.  A light bulb moment. An “aha” moment. A door shutting, or perhaps opening.  He put it simply when he said it: “I’m fearless now.” With that familiar jaunty full-faced smile we see more of these days.

This week I listened to a speech made by our new “fearless” President, this new Barack Obama.  And as he was expected to do, but no one could have truly anticipated, he gave a rousing one. But he went beyond rousing. He made a substantive one. He used high emotion, tragedy and deliverance to talk about issues that our country has yet to solve – poverty, poor educational systems, unfair housing, gun control, mass incarceration, jobs, racism, subtle prejudice – and he couched it all in the word “grace”.  Not “hope”, but “grace”.

And as natural as the gently waving program books in that church of 5,400 people – and in our homes and offices as we listened – our President began to sing. Low and deep he began. With the words, “Amazing grace. How sweet the sound…”.

Amazing-GraceI closed my eyes. I wanted to remember this day. Friday, June 26, 2015.  I wanted to emblazon its memory into my mind. I wanted it to change me. I wanted to call my children to gather and listen, but I was frozen watching this all transpire.  And as I thought of my children, grown and working now, I remembered Tuesday, January 20th, 2009.  My daughters were 20 and 22. Just coming of age in this adult world. We sat in the living room with snacks. Dip and chips, Guacamole, Nachos, and fruit. We wore our baseball caps of red, white and blue – one for each of us – with the word “HOPE” stitched right on them. And we watched our President take the oath of office. He delivered another speech that day – and it was a rousing great one, too.

getPartI remember thinking back to another day – September 11th, 2001.  The day when hope died. When ‘future’ seemed grim and hard to imagine. My daughters were 12 and 14. I knew on that day as I watched them come home from school, that their lives had changed. Forever. 2001 began a time of war and fear in our country – faded only somewhat into the hope and change promised to us in 2009.  Things seemed so bright. There was hope again.

Six years we have walked this path with the first black president in our country’s history.  We have seen polarization and stagnation – and yes, we have seen change, and progress. Healthcare. Immigration. Employment. Yesterday we watched as same-sex marriage become the law of the land – and in a moment of glory and grace it became – just – “Marriage”.

We have watched our President age and turn grey. The memory of that promised hope has tinged grey, too.  But he has moved beyond hope. As legacy looms in his mind and for history, he has moved the conversation along and called upon ‘grace’.  He says he’s fearless now. He carries this new state of being with him, as he carries forth with a song from deep inside. He’s making new memories. With new words. Grace. Fearless. Legacy. He says he would have been a better president – today – than he was. Self-awareness is not lacking here.

520976963_295x166But what can we learn? Have we learned that “hope and change” is not a plan? Do we need to conjure up some grace to lead ourselves along? And, if we can conjure up being fearless…think what we might do? Legacy looms closer at my age. The older-agers that 20 year olds grow weary of having around, are so important to moving hope and change along. The young-invincibles with a lifetime ahead of them, with things we need in this country – spark, energy, new ideas, and yes, hope.  But fear stalks the young. It limits them. It holds them back. Fear of speaking out. Of repercussions. Of loss of friends, colleagues, or opportunities. Of career short-circuiting. Of brass-ring missing.

But with the legacy years comes a sense of fearlessness. And that is power. Yes, it’s time to perfect the chocolate chip cookies – to be remembered forever for.  And to try for that hole in one.  But let’s not drift away too far. Together, wrapped in hope, wrapped by grace, together, think what memories we could make. Think what legacies there could be, not just for us as people, but for these United States.

5 o’clock in the Rainbow Room

It could be a sound, a scent, a photo.  Music.  Memories flood.  At unexpected times.

As an occasional professional fundraiser, I get acceptance into a world that I don’t live in, and I don’t come from. Yes, there are beautiful homes, and cars. Shoes to glance at.  Amazing jewelry – new or heirloom – I wonder. It is a world I have great respect for. I see the dedication of time – the sacrifice it takes – to maintain that.  I hear their thoughts about ‘legacy’.  It usually comes when children are grown, educated, getting married. Before they become grandparents. It’s a time when ‘how will we be remembered’ is all important. A time when their contribution to a cause will be life changing for people they will almost never meet.

They depend on someone like me to make the right partnerships for their interests. Do they want a naming opportunity, where their family name will be emblazoned on a building or a brick in a wall?  Sometimes they want anonymity completely. My work, moreso years ago than today, took me to meetings in beautiful lunch clubs (used to be men’s clubs), and the occasional trip for a particularly important planned giving opportunity.

Today I do little of that. But the other day, as I sat in my home office, working in slippers with my cat by my side, I saw the first flakes of snow falling.  And a story about the concert series at The Rainbow Room.  So attuned to sensory cues, it only took that visual, a snippet of music, and the memories flooded.

 

A cold winter’s night. In New York City. Early dinner. Top of the world at Rockefeller Center. The Rainbow Room. Round parquet dance floor with small dinner tables surrounding it. Floor to ceiling windows. A grand piano.  We’ve stepped into a movie.

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So quiet so early. I wonder if they are really open. It’s only 5 o’clock. We’re seated to one side. The candle is lit in this always dim-to-dark room. Our napkins are gingerly laid in our laps. It’s business, but we’ve let ourselves have time for enjoying a little bit of the town, as I obliged the request. “Surely we can have dinner in a nice place; and maybe Radio City?”  “Thank you, whatever you like. Yes, we should have some time off.”

He selects the wine. We wait for it to be served. I feel some motion in the room and I look out the window where skyscraper tops meet my eye. I see that it’s snowing. But it wasn’t snowing on the ride over. It was cold. But not cold enough for snow. When our waiter comes back with the wine he comments on our conversation. “Yes, it’s snow.  But it’s only snowing up here – on the 65th floor.  If you took the elevator down right now it would not be snowing at all at ground level. The snow evaporates on its way down to the street.”  Even more special, we have a private snowstorm, and I wonder if it was ordered for the occasion.

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There is another couple in the distance, across the dance floor. They lean in to each other across the small cocktail table. She’s wearing winter white. He’s almost imperceptible in the dark, except for the sparkle from his cuff link, when it catches the light reflecting off the crystal chandelier.

It’s the 90s. I work too hard. Travel too infrequently. Relax in elegant settings so rarely.

My meal is selected for me. I think nothing of it. I am doing nothing; responsible for nothing. I make no decisions, or recommendations.  I absorb. My shoulders come down and I settle in.  I could be in Paris, or Istanbul, or Shanghai, I think.  But I’m only in New York. On the 65th floor. In the snow.

While we wait, a dark man enters towards the piano. He is wearing tuxedo and tails with a white crisp shirt. His hair is as black as the black of his suit. He skillfully moves the piano bench without making a sound. He slips in front of it and does that little flourish to kick out the tails, and sits down. He has no sheet music. He simply sits. Still.

I feel a little dizzy by it all. And then I realize that the floor is rotating – the very slowest rotating floor I’ve ever seen.  One that the waiter can comfortably walk across to serve the food. And I wonder if he ever loses a table.  But then he just has to count “four tables to the left of the piano” and it would be right where he left it.

The piano man’s fingers are placed on the keyboard and he flutters out some pleasant notes, and then begins to play – quietly, ever so subtly. He closes his eyes. I find I’m soon closing mine, too.

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I sigh, and catch myself, wondering if that was loud enough to hear. My dinner partner and I exchange looks and words as our minds compete to find the memory box first. What is the tune being played for us? Pretty soon, one of us comes up with it – it is the theme from Prince of Tides. From the movie by that name whose closing scene was filmed right where we are. I know so many versions of that music.  But the piano makes me think of Lori Line. And it is so beautiful. There comes a moment when ‘something’ is called for – applause? a smile? a laugh? a tear? – we look at each other again. And he asks. Would you like to dance? I wonder if the man with the cuff link across the room can see the spark(le) from this man’s eye. Yes, yes, that would be what one should do, I think – and say.

He formally takes my hands, in proper position, and we dance.  I breathe in the cologne, close to me now, the scent I’ve smelled so many times across a board room, driving to a meeting, passing me by. We dance slowly, in proper cadence and position. Until the moment when he pulls me closer and wraps his arms around me, like a woman my age might dance with a man my age. It is all right I tell myself. It is, just about, perfect, I say over and over in my mind.

The piano player plays the long form, and it goes on and on. I wonder if he’s doing that just for us.  Yet, as it comes to a close, we both know that it was much too short.  Much too brief. Much too quickly did the door open and close.

Our dinner is waiting for us and we notice that the waiter has quietly placed covers on our food and refilled our wine.  As we walk to the table he comes by to uncover what we are here for – to eat. A quick glance up at me, a not-quite smile. He does not look at the gentleman at all. My napkin is placed once again in my lap. And I pick up my fork.

We eat quietly, as if something very special has happened here on this night of work, with a little time off for pleasure. I drink more wine and notice the couple across the floor has left. And it’s not snowing anymore. I can’t see the spires on the tops of the buildings. It’s all misty and foggy now.

The pianist has finished playing something else that was lovely, I’m sure. And taken his break. The floor no longer turns. It is only 7 o’clock.

The gentleman pays the bill though I don’t see a bill presented or payment made. We walk across the dance(d) floor. My coat is placed on my shoulders as we walk to our waiting elevator for two. My ears pop as we go slowly from 65 to ground. We say nothing. He looks down. I pull on my leather gloves. He does the same. I see the sparkle of his cufflink, and notice the lines on his face. Suddenly he looks very tired. His cologne surrounds me. I breathe it in very deeply.  In a moment the doors open to a blast of cold winter air.

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The Prince of Tides was released on Christmas Day in 1991

It starred Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte

The movie was based on a novel by Pat Conroy published in 1986

Life on the edge of nothing…

She is 86 years old.  My aunt.  My mother’s sister.  Not many people know about her because I don’t talk about her.  Call it tradition, but in our family, someone with mental illness was ‘invisible’ – we don’t “talk about such things” – they were sent away – out of sight and out of mind.  Portuguese families who came to this country and became citizens were always afraid of something that would ‘get them into trouble’ – fear of being sent back?  Not sure.

When I entering college I decided to major in psychology.  Maybe more to understand my family’s odd behavior than to understand my aunt.  I grew up in an extended family – all on my mother’s side – along with my silent German-English father.

My aunt and I got along quite well.  We do to this day.  She has never held a real job – some “piecework” in a jewelry factory on a “foot press” for a few weeks or more at a time.  A long time ago. She made some beautiful, highly detailed crafts, wrapped them in Saran Wrap, and sold them at small boutique shops, too.  And she washed and ironed shirts for her brother, my uncle, who owned a restaurant/bar and he paid her 25 cents each to do them.  25 cents.  Looking back, that was cruel.  Almost a sick joke.  She got out the stain of grenadine meticulously – scrubbing them on an antique wash board – in steaming hot water until her hands would bleed.  She ironed every crease, and starched them perfectly.  They were set up on a small rack in a corner of the kitchen – those shocking white shirts – those perfect shirts – those 25 cent shirts.

When I was in my teens they took her away one day.  She tried to melt red candle wax in a porcelain pan on the stove, and pour the wax into molds – always the creative one.  Nearly burned the house down and freaked her right out.  Her father, my grandfather, went after her.  It was a nasty scene.  And just like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they came.  The small white van – the men in white.  Really!  They wore white pants like ice cream cone servers. The pants were whiter than the straight jacket they put around her as they took her 5 foot slender shrieking body out the door sideways, held like a rolled up carpet.  Or the stogey my grandfather held between his fingers as he watched her go. One more time.  Then he played cards.  His Solitaire game.

She came back in a week.  I remember she smelled so different.  And she walked like my Walking Debby doll.  She stared at her feet and moved them one at a time.  She’d look up and smile.  They called it The Haldol Walk, the look, the s-l-o-w  m-o-t-i-o-n of it all. That scene would be repeated numerous times, each time I would be a little older, a little more removed.  Waiting for my own foot out the door.  Can I go yet? Please?

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In the quiet times of her mental illness, she was my best friend.  Children, especially only children, gravitate to single aunts with time on their hands, as did I.  We made pictures.  She laughed at how talented she was and how I had none of it, whatsoever.  She marveled at how the talent had not made it down the genetic chain.  (But would the mental illness?)  She taught me to crochet. With size 0 metal crochet hooks.  And we made pies together.  Peach pies.  Pies you made from scratch, dough and all.  We made lots of them, using tin pie plates and wooden rolling pins. We used my grandfather’s fishing sinkers as pie weights.  Sometimes we made apple pies.  I remember slicing slivers of butter to put on top before we closed them up for baking. And cutting little patterns in the dough with a fork.

We liked to catch kittens, she and I.  There were always strays.  We would hide them in the greenhouse at the back of the yard.  Sometimes we would feed them for weeks and weeks, and play with them until they grew and started to walk around the yard, and over to the house and, well, then they would just disappear somehow.  My aunt and I never knew where they went.  That was sad.  We waited for new kittens – they always came.

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She even drove a car.  A 1954 Rambler with a push button gear box on the left of the dashboard.  She wore high heels – stilettos – my favorite pair were made all of wood with beachy symbols on them and straw.  I wonder if they were like those that Annette Funicello wore in Beach Blanket Bingo – my aunt loved Annette.

The years passed.  I went to college.  I grew all the way up.  I got married and had my own children.  She was lost for many years, my aunt, not sure how she managed.  She didn’t live at her home anymore – but she was never homeless.  One day I was called from a hospital and when I went to see her it was a bad scene.  She was in restraints.  Wild, really.  Didn’t know what my name was, though she did recognize me.  She spent some time in a mental hospital, and then seemed to be really fine.  But she hated her meds.  She couldn’t draw.  She couldn’t read.  Her mouth was dry and pasty.  And she fell asleep a lot.

Years would go by.  Another call.  Local police.  She was throwing her clothes out her window and could I come.  Another hospital.  Four point restraints.  Looking a little bit like the Exorcist child now.  Age had done that.  24 hours, and meds returned her to sanity.  And then to the mental hospital.  Another 10 day hold.

Did fine.  Returned back to her apartment, but they were treating her badly there.  So I helped her apply for SSDI – the first “handout” she had ever had.  She still never had health insurance, or food stamps, or subsidized housing – or a family to help – just me – now ashamed at how little I had been there. We went to the psychiatrist and certification came pretty easy.  We managed SSDI with the help of a pro bono attorney who knew that I would be the one to pay for his services, so he said, ‘never mind’.  Today she lives in subsidized housing and she still drives.  She has food stamps, though rarely uses them.  She is quite healthy.  Vision failing a bit.  86 now.

My whole life I have tried to keep her out of ‘the system’ – the places that would send men in ice cream pants to wrap her up like a rug and take her out the door sideways.  And what unspeakable things happened to her before she would return, flat, dissolved, absent? Those men and women in pale uniforms who would tie her up in brown leather four point restraints covered with white wash cloths to guard her thin wrists and ankles. The ‘new’ psychiatric hospital that tried talk therapy, and group therapy, and she would just smirk and smile and tell them ‘you’re crazy, you know…I’m not crazy…what are you talking about…ehhh, you’re kidding me. Nooo.’  She would smile.  I would, too.  Hoping the laugh coming over me would stop.

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She has humor and gentleness.  Except for the time she locked me in her apartment when she was in her 50s and told me that she could kill me and I could disappear and no one would ever know what happened to me.  Hmm.  I stayed away for a long time when that happened – me, trying to talk my way out the door – she, standing in front of it – grinning.  I was a mother now – no time to go getting cut up in little pieces and taken out with the trash.

Today we shop together; I take her to the doctor’s; I take her to social security when our new system begins to question her and I talk nicely to the 20 something year old clerk who says to me, ‘she never did pay into the system, did she?’ and I just smile.  She holds her own, my aunt.  If I try to help her with all the papers she has stuffed in her purse, she swats at me – with her strong, frail hand.

She does well away from the systems, the mental health professionals who had no idea then or now about what was wrong and how to fix it.  She has eked out a life for herself.  She has done it alone, and in silence.  The silence of mental illness.  The dark rooms behind wooden doors, behind metal doors. The programs that do not work.  The system that only sought to wrap her up and throw her away.  The meds that eased her angst, but flattened her personality.

Today we house 30 people a night, I’ve read, in the emergency department of RI Hospital – because there are no beds.  A teenager who wants to kill himself resides, as an unregistered patient, at another RI hospital because there are no beds – and nurses take turns buying him McDonalds’ food because he can’t get a hospital tray – remember, he’s not admitted nor discharged.  He is not even there.

And millions were spent on a big new building at the other psychiatric hospital for – how many? – 24 beds.  24.  And they were almost at once – full.  No room left there.  We closed the IMH (Institute of Mental Health) years ago, and our mentally ill are on the streets, or maybe the lucky ones are in day programs and group homes, or living somehow marginally.  Where are the violent ones?  Where are those who at one point or another think about the unspeakable – or do it?  We read about the few.

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I have spent my career, for the most part, in the nonprofit world – always on the periphery of mental ‘health’, physical ‘health’.  But now I am raising my voice to tell a story – of one person, one red haired, slight, 100 pound lady who walks on her toes, who listens in the dark to her radio – who warms up food in hot water because the microwave (my gift) is a mystery.  She whispers on the phone in the closet – when we speak – because “they” are listening.  And she has one small lamp on, too, so “they” can’t see her.  She’s convinced the security cameras can see around corners and into her room.  She talks to me about current events, about how it has been 50 years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Imagine that?  50 years.

Each December and each April my daughters receive a birthday card with $2 or $3 or $5, cash in it.  At Christmas and Easter there are cards, too – along with this wish for them – written in flamboyant and beautiful cursive writing – “I hope you are well.  Remember, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.  Love,”