Sunday, October 5, 2008

Queen of May

My first three years of school, I went to St. Patrick's School in Charleston, S.C. We rode a bus every day from the Air Force Base to downtown Charleston. It was across the street from the Cathedral, which inside had an elaborate white altar that must have been three stories high. One time I went to a High Mass, sung in Latin (this was before the Mass was changed to the vernacular). It was beautiful. I can still hear the chants, and see the priests in their beautiful robes holding up gold chalices and bronze censers with aromatic smoke coming through the openings.

I loved the rituals of the Church although I had little time for the dogma. Even in first grade, I remember thinking to myself as the nuns told us about the Immaculate Conception or Purgatory, "I just have to spout this back to them and when I grow up I can believe what I want." When I was in second grade, during Lent, I went every day across the street to Mass. One time I missed some kind of special event where everyone got to get a present out of a grab bag, and they let me get something later because I'd been faithful about going to Mass.

But not too long after that, my faith was shattered and although I stayed with the Catholic church for a while, it was never the same.

Every year there was a Mass on the first of May, in celebration of the Virgin Mary. One girl got to carry a basket of flowers down the aisle and lay them at the feet of her statue. And they chose me to be the Queen of May. I was ecstatic - I would get to wear a beautiful dress and carry beautiful flowers and be part of a beautiful service.

And then just a few days later they told me. I couldn't be the Queen of May because I was one of the "military kids" and they wanted one of the "town kids" to be the Queen of May. I was just a seven-year-old girl, what did I know about townies and military brats? But somehow some snob wanted one of "their" kids to be the Queen and I got kicked out.

I was devastated. I still even now get tears in my eyes and a sinking feeling in my stomach thinking about it. How could adults who were supposedly people of God treat a little child like that? How could they so uncaringly inflict that kind of pain? How could they be so cruel?

My tears and my pain faded, but I believe in that moment I became the person I am now, who cannot abide cruelty and unkindness. It is also the moment that I knew that faith and Church are two different things. While today I am still a person of faith, I am not a person of Church.

I do, however, still love flowers and I still love the month of May.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Visible Scars: Right tricep

There's a three-inch long straight scar on the back of my (now annoyingly flabby) right arm. I got it when I was 12 or 13. I was walking up a hill carrying my baby sister Carla on my hip, when her diaper pin came undone and made a long scratch on the bottom of my arm. It didn't hurt much and didn't bleed much, but because it was ragged it made a scar that has lasted all these years.

This was when we lived in Panama. I remember my mother sitting at the kitchen table and telling me that she was going to have a baby. It would be her sixth, and last child. If I have done my math correctly (and I could be off) she was 34 when Carla was born. Sometimes when I'm feeling psychologically adventurous I think about how old all my siblings were when my mother was the age I am now, and also how I viewed her at that age. I have to be in an adventurous mood because usually I start feeling really old.

When Carla was a baby, she slept in a crib in my parents' room. My dad put black plastic over all the windows to keep out the tropical sunlight so she could sleep. There was a playpen in the living room where she could watch what everyone was doing but stay out of trouble.

This house was the last one in Panama. It was on Howard Air Force Base, which was across the canal from Panama City on the Pacific side. If you looked just right, you could see the canal from our front porch. The house was set on concrete pillars with open space underneath - tropical style that kept the house somewhat cool. There was a small maid's quarters with a bedroom and small bathroom on the bottom level and the rest was open. I remember one time we sat out on the cool concrete and ate some C-rations that Dad brought home from a survival exercise. We thought it was the ultimate cool to tear open a foil packet and eat a dense, barely chocolate brownie. I'm not sure Dad thought it was so fabulous when he was out in the jungle.

Our house was almost at the top of a hill, and on Saturdays we would walk up the sidewalk to the top, through a back yard and then down a long trail which led to the movie theater. Saturday morning movies were a real treat, and they were NOT first runs, believe me. I always loved this one called "Follow Me Boys" with Fred McMurray, some heartwarming story that involved Boy Scouts and a happy ending. It had a catchy theme song, and we would climb back up the hill singing it, swinging our arms with the tempo.

There were mango trees, avocado trees and coconuts. We tried to crack coconuts but always just ended up pounding a screwdriver into one of the eyes, drinking the milk, then smashing it with a hammer to get to the meat. My sisters liked to eat green mangoes, which are very tart to start with, adding vinegar to them for even more tang. Makes my mouth pucker up just thinking about it.

We lived in a lot of different houses before we got permanent quarters. Some of them we house-sat (someone who was going stateside for a couple of months would open their house for an incoming family). This is what I remember:
a house in Balboa which was half of a duplex, there was a piano and a songbook and I taught myself how to pick out the tune of "Camptown Races"

an apartment in Panama City with an elevator that went up to the rooftop and a dining room where I learned the Spanish alphabet

a blue house, small but with two stories, and a bonfire at Halloween

A grand old hotel where we had two rooms, it was in the Canal Zone but across the street from the city. I think it was called the Tivoli and I don't know why we lived there but we did for a short while. I remember seeing the buses we called "chivas" and there was a church nearby with a huge gold altar.

A house I think in Cocoli which was up on pillars, but it was wood not concrete, and I think it was a duplex. We had Easter there; I remember blowing the egg out of eggshells to decorate. There was an overgrown area next to it with sawgrass and I got to use a machete to cut it. I saw an iguana and big leaf-cutter ants marching with fin-shaped leaf pieces on their backs.

There will be many more stories of Panama on this blog, because those three years are about the most favorite of my childhood.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Visible Scars: Upper Left Arm

Smallpox vaccination, when I was six or seven, so 45 years ago. It was not a shot; the doctor scraped a half-inch circle of skin on my upper arm, then they put a little plastic bubble over it. In the next couple of weeks, it scabbed over (they told us that was what real smallpox looked like).Eventually when it healed, the plastic came off and over the years the scar changed from a puckered circle to a faint white splotch.

This was when we were living on Charleston Air Force Base, and I also remember the polio vaccination. A van came around in the neighborhood and we went in and got a sugar cube with some brown liquid on it, and that was the vaccination. It seems like maybe we had to take several doses over time, because I recall waiting for the truck to come back.

I never really thought about what polio was or why it was bad, but I did about smallpox. That people's whole bodies would be covered with sores like the one under that plastic bubble. Over the years I followed the news about scientists who were eradicating smallpox around the world, one village and one person at a time and I was thrilled when they succeeded.

There were few vaccines at the time, so I suffered through the mumps (which I got when we were visiting Grandma and Grandpa Harris in Indianapolis), the measles and the chicken pox.

By the time we moved to Panama, apparently a lot of inoculations had been developed because we got all kinds of shots - tetanus, typhoid, typhus and probably some more. My arms ached for what seemed like weeks.

I wish they'd put all medicine on sugar cubes.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Seen through a glass darkly

I distinctly remember that Woodstock ended on my 16th birthday, except, as it happens, it didn't. And the turning point year of 1968, which I thought I recalled so clearly, I was in Panama, only 12 years old, and almost certainly blissfully unaware.

So I wrote down a calendar and I'm putting it here to help me remember, or at least distinguish between memories and wishes.

August 17, 1956, my birth
1957 1 year old
1958 2
1959 3
1960 4
1961 5
1962 6 start 1st grade
1963 7 2nd grade
1964 8 3rd
1965 9 4th
1966 10 5th
1967 11 6th
1968 12 7th
1969 13 8th
1970 14 9th
1971 15 10th
1972 16 11th
1973 17 12th
1974 18 started college

School years:

1st 62-63
2nd 63-64
3rd 64-65
4th 65-66
5th 66-67
6th 67-68
7th 68-69
8th 69-70
9th 70-71
10th 71-72
11th 72-73
12th 73-74

So now some of my autobiographical ramblings will fit into the timeline of this particular blink of an eye.

Friday, July 25, 2008


I am accustomed to existential crises. They come on me semi-annually, at the solstices for some reason. Maybe the symmetry of day and night unbalance me. I start to think of the vastness of space and the infinity of time and how I'm just here for such a miniscule part of that. For a couple of weeks I'll have moments when my gut tightens and I contemplate life and meaning, then I shake it off and move on.

This latest one has stayed, however. I'll be working or washing dishes or watching birds and I get this glimpse of the abyss, the realization that on the time scale of the universe, in the blink of an eye I will be, at best, a faint memory or a name on the back of a photograph.

The internet is no less finite than my life, but it should live on for a while. Rather than write in notebooks which may or may not be read (either for lack of interest or indecipherable handwriting) I can do a blog. I suppose it is a bit egotistical to put your life story on the web - but don't we all want to think that who and what we are will live on for a little while?