This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on November 28, 1999.
The flowery birthday card for the 83-year-old contained greetings from my fellow staff members. I read the card and remembered, with great fondness, the first time I met her. What a grand old lady, I thought to myself.
The card was being circulated to the staff and then would be mailed in time for her birthday. For a brief moment, I thought of delivering the card in person, but quickly reconsidered; I was simply too busy.
The old lady had been involved in Girl Scouts, an 86-year-old organization, for 70 years. Girl Scouts was her life. She never married or had children. People without charity, or wisdom, would call her an old maid.
I knew better. After meeting her, it was clear that she had been born at a time when women were destined to become wives, and quickly thereafter, mothers. She chose different path.
As I recalled our first meeting, I reconsidered and decided to make the time to visit her on her birthday. When I called to ask if I could come over, she had to pencil me in, late in the day. It dawned on me that she found room in her schedule to spend time with me.
As I entered her tiny apartment I felt a sense of ease. It was a cozy place, immaculate and filled with mementos of a life well lived. On her coffee table were at least two dozen birthday cards, fanned out like a poker hand. I added my little card and a shiny “70-year” Girl Scout membership pin.
She sat on the couch and gave me her undivided attention. Her small television was not on and no radio was in sight. While we talked, the phone rang twice. She answered, immediately said she had company, and promptly hung up. I recalled how often the telephone had pre-empted me - with friends, business associates and store clerks, who seemed to forget that I was there.
She described her relief at being in a retirement community, expressing gratitude for her comfortable apartment, her new friends and the care she would receive, should she need it. She never uttered a negative word, a pathetic gesture or a needy sigh.
After a cursory description of her new digs, she wanted to know about me. She asked how things were going at work. She inquired about my family. This was the second time we had met and I felt I could talk with her about my concerns for my kids, my need for a vacation, my dedication to the cause we shared.
I had prepared an excuse to leave after thirty minutes, yet I soon lost track of time. I felt the tender arms of warm conversation envelope me as we chatted. How rare it is to truly feel someone is listening. He concern was not driven by loneliness or self-indulgence, but a true interest in me.
As we talked, I began to realize how rushed we all are. Our electronically enhanced “communication” really isn’t. How far we have roamed from face-to-face conversation, especially when it is simply for its own sake.
Front porches and backyard fences are long gone. The electronics that replace them are not the same. Who can recall the last time they passed the time of day, talking with a friend or neighbor?
When I finally left, she walked me to her gate. I felt grateful for the previous hour and hoped we would meet again. I silently thanked this wise woman for her time and interest, and vowed to become as graceful and charming as she, when, and if, I am lucky enough to reach 83 years of age.
This piece was published in the San Francisco Examiner on March 17, 2000.
Holidays are important to small children. They provide elementary school teachers an opportunity to teach “art” by having their small charges pick the correct color crayon for each holiday.
Children used to make paper chains of read and green in anticipation of Christmas, even if they came from Jewish, Muslin or non-observant families.
Now we are multicultural. Everyone is included. We still take a week or two off at Christmas but we call it the “winter break” or “winter solstice.” It doesn’t really matter, the entire country takes December 25 off work – believers or not, religious or not, observant or not.
What are we to make of St. Patrick’s Day? No one gets a day off work, but elementary school children use green crayons to color four-leaf clovers and cartoon versions of St. Patrick. Adults drink green beer and New York has a big parade.
My Irish-German mother loves St. Patrick’s Day. When I was a kid she made “blarney stones” out of white squares of cake covered in green frosting, rolled in crushed peanuts. My brothers and sister and I devoured them. They were a family tradition.
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest in the late 1950’s, safe in the knowledge that everyone in the world was white, Christian and just like me. Some may call my upbringing homogeneous. I call it deprived. I didn’t eat a taco until I was 24, the same year I attended my first symphony concert.
I moved to California in 1982. There were a lot Spanish-speaking adults and children and I picked up a few words. I got a taste of real Mexican food, a la California, and loved every bite. I was introduced to Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cuban food. I drew the line at sushi.
Being German, Irish and French (my Dad’s side), in other words, “white,” I have often felt left out in this multicultural world. As a child I ate Wonder Bread, Spam, Tater Tots and fish sticks. There was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my lunch box every day at school, along with three pennies so I could buy a carton of white milk.
Although I didn’t think much about it as a child, I didn’t have an ethnic identity of my own.
After moving to California I felt deprived and left out. I was just plain white. My anancestors had come from Europe more than a few generations ago; I was simply a WASP, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I had no food, (other than my mother’s Blarney Stones) language or dress to claim. Or so I thought.
I was so busy being envious of my co-workers, neighbors and friends who took pride in their ethnic heritage, I didn’t look hard enough at my own. I owe my compulsive need for neatness to my German side, my love of laughter and writing to the Irish side and my occasional snootiness, and love of Chardonnay, to the French side.
One bright St. Patrick’s Day morning a few years ago I went to work sporting a huge, plastic fluorescent green bow tie. It was like a party hat and the tiny elastic band held the clown-size bow tie securely to my neck. I was a big hit. I claimed my heritage. I belonged!
Some of my co-workers wanted a green bow tie too.
“Oh, no,” I exclaimed, “You’re not Irish.” They felt left out. Oh, my.
I no longer wear a green bow tie to work on St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps someday I will sport a small button that says, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” Probably not.
I know who I am, where I belong and how I got here. I arrived like almost all of us did, with hope, optimism and a deep sense of who I am: an American.
This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on January 7, 2007.
by Kathleen Vallee Stein
In high school, I was such a complete and utter nobody that I didn’t even belong to a
clique. I wasn’t in the band, I couldn’t draw, girls didn’t have sports teams in my little
town in Ohio in 1966, so I wasn’t a jock. I abhorred the idea arguing with people, so the
debate team was out. I didn’t work on the yearbook or school newspaper. I wasn’t brave
enough to be a “hood,” which at that time were students who smoked and wore leather
and used lots of hair grease.
Every morning I stood alone, in the shadow of my locker door, trying to be invisible. I
had a couple of girl friends but they were as nondescript as I was. During my junior year
we three didn’t have the same lunch period, so I ate my peanut butter sandwich in a
stall in the girls’ locker room and then stood around in the student store till the bell rang.
I was slightly interested in English class and had a teacher who I believe could have
had a profound effect on me, had she chosen to do so. Her name was Mrs. Smith and
she lived in my neighborhood. I played with her son, Sam, during the summers when we
were in elementary school. Once we got to high school, we never spoke. He ran with the “smart” kids.
Late one summer afternoon, just before Sam and I were to start 6th grade, we were in his house during the dinner hour. I was headed for home, because my sister was screaming from our backyard that dinner was ready. Sam told me he was having cereal for dinner because his mom went to college at night. I was incredulous. In 1961, in Ohio, all decent moms were in the kitchen pulling tater tots out of the oven during the dinner hour. I sadly concluded that Sam didn’t have a good mom.
Flash forward six years, and Mrs. Smith and I were in a new paradigm – student and teacher. She had graduated from college and stood before me, a newly minted Englishteacher. I wondered if her son told her how judgmental I was about her dinnerprovisions. I wondered if she knew for sure it was me who soaped her windows during Halloween. Her reputation around the school was that she was a hard teacher.
My seventh period class had the captain of the football team and his girlfriend, the head cheerleader, without a brain in her head, but with a body that distracted all the bored male adolescents in the room. She sat in the middle seat of the middle row and smiled for the entire hour. With that dynamic in the room, I was more invisible than ever.
Mrs. Smith gave us a writing assignment: describe someone we knew. The next day, as we turned in our papers, she told us she would read some of them and we should guess
who wrote it. An exercise like that struck terror in me but silently I hoped she would read
Mrs. Smith read several pieces and everyone guessed right away who wrote it. The people with an identity in high school were pretty predictable, and their writing gave them away almost immediately.
Then it happened. Mrs. Smith read my description of my sister. I had written about her smile that was like a lipstick – it appeared and disappeared quickly. Her laugh, I wrote, gurgled like the water running down the bathtub drain. The whole class laughed at what I wrote. I hunkered down in my chair, pulled my lips over my buck teeth, and waited to be discovered.
No one guessed. It became a mystery and Mrs. Smith let the speculation grow. Everyone looked around the room, and I did too, as if wondering who wrote such great stuff. No one guessed. Mrs. Smith looked at me. I froze. She smiled. I stayed frozen. wanted her to tell them it was me. I wanted to have that identity – writer.
Mercifully, Mrs. Smith moved on to the next piece. My identity was never revealed and
my classmates soon lost interest. I wallowed in obscurity for the rest of high school and
finally, and gratefully, graduated in June of 1968. The memory of Mrs. Smith’s and my
moment has remained in focus and I will always wonder what effect some recognition,
some special identity, would have done for my miniscule self esteem.
Mrs. Smith could have asked me to stay after class and told me that I had potential.
What little positive effect it might have had would certainly have been washed out by my lack of identity, and the disinterest of my parents, but she could have tried.
I ran into Sam several years later and he told me his mother had passed away from cancer. I doubt I would have worked up the courage to ask her about that moment in English class, but now it was certain that I never would.
When I think about taking a chance, and I don't know if I should, I try anyway. Sometimes
the consequences are good and sometimes not, but at least I know. The memory of Mrs. Smith, preserving my anonymity, and smiling at me, while my classmates looked around and never saw me, will always be a mystery. I’ll always wonder what was in her mind as she watched the scrawny, catatonically shy girl sit in silence and let her chance go by.
We both let our chance go by.
Kathleen Vallee Stein