This piece was published in the San Gabriel Tribune on May 4, 2003.
My 16-year-old daughter sat crumpled on the floor and my heart broke. She had applied to two summer art programs and just received a letter informing her that she was not accepted to the one she thought she would be accepted into.
The statewide program accepted one thousand applicants. The other one (all expenses paid) private program accepted fifty. As she read the “reject” letter, in her adolescent imagination, all hope was lost.
Parents begin to help children learn about disappointment when their offspring take their first wobbly steps into the world.
A great training ground is the checkout line at the grocery store. As harried parents load milk and bread on the conveyer belt, their children beg for bags of chips and candy bars that are conveniently placed at kids’ eye level.
When I see a mom say “no” in a tone that does not welcome debate, I see a parent who is teaching her children that they can’t always get what they want. I also see parents toss a bag of chips in the cart just to get their howling toddler to shut up. Both parent and child will pay a high price for that moment of peace in the future.
When children are small, it is the parent who pretty much controls their disappointment. If parents take care to ensure that their children will accept (without a temper tantrum) that they won’t get a computer app, or won’t be able to stay up to see a television show, they will be able to help them when bigger challenges arise.
By the time my daughter sustained the blow of the rejection letter, she had put back many bags of chips and tearfully returned countless candy bars to the display case. On that sad day, I pulled my daughter up from the floor and took her to her favorite restaurant for dinner.
As I watched her eat, I remembered a moment when she was three-years-old and returned home from pre-school in a huff. “Mommy, why didn’t you tell me it was going to rain?” she demanded. At that young age she believed I was omnipotent and controlled the world. I gently explained that, although I did my best to look out for her, I didn’t control the weather.
During dinner, her father and I talked about the disappointments we suffered. I told her my sister didn’t ask me to be her bridesmaid (even though I had asked her to be mine). I was asked by my roommates in the dorm at college to move out so they could have the girl they wanted, who was from their hometown, move in.
Her father felt bad that he was never accepted to a sports team. The girl he was going to ask to the prom went with his best friend instead.
“I was disappointed when I was born and found out you were my sister,” said my son. “That goes double for me,” my daughter shot back. Her attack on the brotherly dig seemed to cheer her up.
A couple of weeks later, another letter arrived. “I’m in!” my daughter screamed. “I’m going to Colorado!” I hollered with my own delight, grateful that the admissions committee recognized my daughter’s potential.
Many parents and their children anxiously await admission letters. Parents stand by and hope their children will achieve their dreams. Happy celebrations and hearty congratulations are desired, of course, but disappointment must be carefully navigated – with parents at the helm. Stay close and share you wisdom and your pain, and assurance that victory (just not this time) is at hand.
This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on July 6, 2003.
We watched ducks fly over the lake at sunset while we savored a gourmet meal. Seated in an elegant restaurant with a marvelous view, we were presented with great food and wine, accompanied by excellent service and a rustic, but elegant, ambience. Who could ask for more? We couldn’t wait to get back to the tent.
My husband and I have endured endless teasing for our unusual camping style. Those who taunt and tease us do not appreciate how hard it was for us to find common ground – in a campsite, in a tent, in our search for nature’s way. Early in our marriage, we bonded our two views of the natural world, but not before one of us lost a $50 bet.
My husband and I met and fell in love in the Rocky Mountains. Beneath the stars we inhaled cool mountain air while our romance warmed. We married at Denver’s City Hall and departed for California to begin our life together, with my two young children, and great optimism.
Shortly after we were married, my new husband planned a camping trip – a family bonding experience. It sounded like a good idea at the time. In the middle of July we found ourselves on the floor of Yosemite Valley – in a tent, with only one of us ready to rough it. The rest of us were cold, hungry and ready to go home.
My daughter cried her eyes out when she lost the stuffed animal that she had cuddled from birth. The next day a mama deer’s hoof hit my son center in his chest, propelling him several feet in the air, as he approached her fawn. This camping trip was a disaster.
The romantic, nature-loving couple tumbled head on into reality. One morning we stood by a babbling mountain stream, arguing, yelling, and disturbing the pastoral scene. I wanted to shower, I wanted to eat a real meal. He was tired of my demands and wondered where his nature girl went. Where, indeed?
My new husband’s campsite cuisine was wanting. His carefully planned meals often burned and took hours to clean up. The children and I stood by the camp stove, waiting for nourishment, watching it go up in smoke.
I hated the group showers with mounds of wet tissues and globs of hair gel clinging to the cement floor beneath me. My husband understood my need for cleanliness but bristled as I insisted on waiting in interminable lines every morning to shower. By the time we took two hours to prepare breakfast, and two hours to shower, it was time for lunch.
On that fateful morning I looked at the icy water swirl around the rocks in the stream and squinted as the water reflected the summer sun. I wanted to go to the showers, he wanted to see El Capitan. Impulsively, I told him I would jump into the stream to get clean and forgo the hot but crowded shower.
“I dare you,” he said. “Fifty bucks if I do?” I challenged.
He knew his whining camping companion would never jump into the cold water. Our eyes locked. I plunged into the icy mountain stream. He howled with laughter as I pulled myself from the water, dripping wet and laughing too.
It was time to compromise. He agreed to eat at restaurants for the rest of the trip. The Creampuff Brigade agreed to forgo the showers and to wash our faces and hands at the campsite. Our compromise, forged by that babbling brook 20 years ago, holds today.
Our children are grown and gone, so it is just the two of us who pitch our tent at the campground. We depart to the nearest restaurant for a wonderful meal. Just before sundown, we return to the campsite and enjoy a lovely campfire.
When we tell people of our unique camping style the response is always the same: “That’s not real camping!” “What is real camping?” I reply.
We spend more time communing with nature than those folks who spend all day cooking and cleaning up. We don’t camp to be self-sufficient, we camp the easy way to free ourselves for the true purpose of being in the out-of-doors – to see God through nature, to seek peace through quiet ways, and to spend cherished time together.
The compromise we struck all those years ago has enabled us to enjoy nature and each other and that is as “real” as camping gets.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Times on November 27, 2004.
My mother and I arrived at the outpatient surgery center promptly at 8:00 a.m. She
took me to the doctor when I needed to go, now it was my turn. They called her name
and she walked into the surgery suite while I wished her well and promised to guard her
A woman who looked to be my age was also waiting and we began to talk. She was with her mother-in-law, who was having a cataract removed. The similarity of our situations bonded us, as women often do. We are caregivers for our aging parents, members of a rapidly growing sorority.
Her mother-in-law had moved in four months ago. It seemed like a lifetime. Mama had
little short term memory, broke most of the heirloom china, lit the oven to heat food she
was supposed to warm up in the much safer microwave. She worried about Mama all
She no longer chatted with girlfriends at lunchtime but ran home to take care of Mama. She was getting nervous tics and fighting with her husband. Mama came to them because her daughter, the only other sibling, was worn out and went on anti-depressants.
I told her about my mother’s retirement community. My mom had an apartment on the third floor. Pull cords were placed in the bedroom and bathroom; one yank would bring help right away. She usually fixed her own breakfast and lunch but ate dinner in the
dining room with the other residents. The van went to the grocery and drug store
Her apartment was rented month-to-month. Although the fee seemed high at first,
it covered everything: utilities, cable, security, transportation, weekly cleaning, meals in the dining room, activities and, best of all, peace of mind for both of us.
When Grandma goes to live with family she is most likely in her 80’s or 90’s. In her
60’s and 70’s, she was probably traveling, still working or doing volunteer work. She
may have replacement hips or knees and survived cancer or a heart attack. It’s highly
likely she has a short term memory loss that makes her a danger to herself and others.
Modern medicine has yielded many blessings and living longer is a big one. That
longer life comes with a passel of medical bills, Medicare paperwork and prescriptions
that must be re-filled, not forgotten.
Most elderly people have several physicians, including, but not limited to: neurologists,
cardiologists, oncologists, internists and ophthalmologists. All those doctors order diagnostic procedures and lab tests that require appointments.If physical or occupational therapy is prescribed, yet more appointments must be made - and kept. Transportation has to be provided.
The image of grandma at home with the family, baking bread and knitting, is as mythical
and beautiful as a Norman Rockwell painting. Grandma requires a lot of medical care
and as much monitoring as a curious toddler. Life is frustrating and sad; end- of-life
issues must be faced.
Put her in the middle of a boisterous family, add a few teenagers, with both mom and
dad working full time, and you have a recipe for failure. Place her in a well run
retirement community and you afford her the opportunity to remain independent - and
out of her daughter‘s kitchen.
Placed in the hands of caring professionals - cooks, servers, housekeepers, security
personnel, activity directors and van drivers, Grandma can relax and concentrate on
needlework, visiting with new friends, or even writing a memoir.
My companion asked for the number of the retirement community. I wished her well as
she left with her mother-in-law. I hope the family will look hard at the reality they are
living and pray they will have the courage to consider a retirement community, for
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on July 5, 2009.
As part of continuing education for my job, I took a forty-hour class at the Rio Hondo
Police Academy. The other forty-seven students and I were from a variety of
professions: code enforcement, animal control, fire fighters, park rangers. On the first
day, I had a flashback to my civics class in junior high school, more years ago than I
want published in a newspaper. Corny as it sounds, history came alive.
The instructors were retired law enforcement officers and they all reflected on their
twenty-five to thirty years as a peace officer. I had to get used to “peace officer” instead
of “police officer.” Our teachers started their careers in the 1970’s, just after the
turbulent 60’s, and were front-and-center for the implosion of drugs and gangs. One
reminisced that he started out writing his reports on a piece of paper with a #2 pencil.
Technology has made the peace officer’s job much easier.
I got my flashback on the very first day when the instructor started with the U.S.
Constitution, which was ratified by all thirteen states in May of 1790. The instructor
stated that the U.S. Constitution is the longest lasting written constitution in the world.
He described the three branches: judicial, executive and legislative, and how they were
designed to restrain one another. Here I was, almost 230 years later, reminding myself
of how our country was founded and feeling pride that it has stood the test of time.
The very first session of the U.S. Congress proposed ten amendments to the
Constitution to further clarify the rights of individuals, commonly referred to as the Bill of
Rights. We’ve all heard about the various amendments, including the First Amendment
that gives citizens the right to free speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press
on TV shows like Law and Order.
Going over it from a peace officer’s perspective gave it a new slant. This was
especially true of the Fourth Amendment – freedom from unreasonable search and
seizure. The instructors went into a lot of detail about traffic stops and under what
circumstances an automobile can be searched, a concept the framers could not have
conceived of back in the summer of 1776.
I looked around the room as we considered the founders of this country: all white,
male landowners. The authors of the U.S. Constitution established this document “in
order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility,
provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings
of liberty.” At the time it applied to them, and not to women, African American slaves or
My classmates included African Americans, Hispanics and Asians. About half of us
were female. Of the five instructors, two were African American, one was Hispanic and
the other two were white. Our union, adhering to the principles drawn up by those well-
intentioned, flawed men, hasbecome more perfect. Their collective wisdom and
foresight produced a Constitution that gave people who had little or no freedom a way to
peaceably fight for it.
We spotted the current class of the Rio Hondo Police Academy as we went to and
from our classroom. I noticed that they ran or marched everywhere, in unison, the
leader shouting out commands. They pretty much reflected the diversity of my class and
looked to be in their early twenties. The trainees were in tip-top shape with a look of
earnestness in their faces that could not be missed.
I had a flash-forward as I watched them run by. Thirty years from now, in 2039,
those who choose to become instructors will stand in front of a class and describe their
career trajectory through times that we cannot imagine today. Much older and well
seasoned in law enforcement, they will still begin their class with the U.S. Constitution
and the rights and freedoms that it protects. The only thing we can be sure of is that #2
pencils will not be involved.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on August 10, 2008.
I told the clerk at the sporting goods store how much I loved my old tent while I stole
glances at the sleek little floor model sitting on the showroom floor. The skinny poles
were bright and shiny, unlike my tent poles that come in sections held together with
elastic cords. Mine are the kind of poles that can slice your fingertip off if you aren’t
My family has had the same tent for 20 years. We got it when the kids were young and
we camped every summer at Dogwood campground in the San Bernardino Mountains.
When we bought the tent in 1987 it was promoted as easy to assemble, and it is, with
two people working together as a team. Tents these days can be removed from their
bag, tossed into the air and land fully assembled and ready for sleeping bags.
What fun is that?
Now that the kids are grown, my husband and I camp only a few times a year and can’t
justify purchasing a new tent, so we just keep patching the old one. We’ve had several
of the zippers replaced and I carefully patch the tiny holes before they get to be big rips.
We had the elastic cords that hold the poles together replaced when their stretch gave
out. There isn’t much more we can repair on our faithful old tent. It’s kind of like driving
an old car. Our tent may look a little dated, but, hey, so are we.
The real value of our tent is sentimental. That old nylon enclosure has been home for us
at the campground and holds many happy memories along with the smoky scent of the
campfire. I remember our little mutt coming out of the tent early one morning the year
we took her camping. She curled up in a corner of the tent at night after an evening
curled up in front of the campfire. We lost her to cancer the following winter but her
doggy spirit remains in our tent.
Our kids have many happy memories of camping and came to love the out-of-doors, far
from TV, telephones and various electronic gadgets. Spending an evening with no
electricity can be very instructive to a kid who has grown up close to appliances.
We are a car-camping family and always stay in a campground with bathrooms adjacent
and a fire ring and picnic table nearby. We camp in relative luxury, but we gaze at the
stars at night, listen to the wind sifting through the pine trees and get scared as we
imagine wild animals lurking outside our tent in the middle of the night, as if we
are deep in the wilderness. Nonetheless, our children resonate with nature and it fills
their spirit as only the beauty of the natural world can.
Our last camping trip this year will be in August. As we pull into the campground,
we’ll see young families setting up tents that have several rooms, tents with front
porches and awnings, and dome tents that look a little like flying saucers. Today’s
almost indestructible miracle fabrics will enable those tents to last 20 years, as ours has.
One of these days we’ll get new-tent fever, but until then we will proudly pitch our
old tent and sit by the campfire till we get our fill of toasted marshmallows and kinks in
our necks from looking at the stars. Until then, our old tent will do just fine.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Time's L. A. Affairs on June 16, 2018.
When I looked up and saw a handsome man in a tuxedo, holding a violin, my fate was sealed. I was an usher at Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver and Paul was Principal Second Violin.
After the concert was over I was stationed at the edge of the stage until the patrons left the hall. He told me later he had watched me showing patrons to their seats for several weeks and waited for an opportunity to start a conversation.
Shortly after we started dating, Paul auditioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and I pretended to be happy when he got in but I was devastated. He would be moving to Los Angeles to start the summer season at the Hollywood Bowl. We had six months before he left. We both knew a long distance romance would eventually fizzle so we made the most of the time we had.
On the night he left, in the middle of the most intense embrace I have ever experienced, Paul said, “I have to see you again.”
I felt relieved that it wasn’t over but unsure of how we could move forward. He was Jewish and I wasn’t. After graduating from Yale music school (and playing in the Santa Fe Opera during the summers), Paul had dated many women who were as equally accomplished as he was. I married my childhood sweetheart, dropped out of college and started a family and then got divorced after nine years of marriage. We were an unlikely couple. Still, we had a deep bond that we didn’t want to break.
I went to visit him in Los Angeles after he got settled in an apartment in Brentwood. I grew up in the Midwest and had never seen the ocean so we went to the beach and watched the eternal waves slapping at the shore, seeming to mock our tenuousness.
We had breakfast Café Casino and sat on the patio with a view of the Pacific. The talk began to include discussions of marriage.
The freeways were intimidating and I got a crash course in Thomas Brother’s maps.
I had to get used to actually seeing the air as well as breathing it, a mix of fuel and salt air that stung my nostrils. I loved the palm trees and exotic plants that were mixed with ancient oak trees. We took the obligatory drive through Beverly Hills and walked along Rodeo Drive.
Could I live here? Coming from Denver, I was a Rocky Mountain snob and could see what Angelinos called “mountains” when the smog lifted.
Then I looked into Paul’s eyes and knew that my future was there. More marriage talk ensued. His parents said they would disown him if he married out of the Jewish faith. I had to consider introducing my children to a stepfather. When we were dating in Denver and I wasn’t sure of our future, I didn’t have the children, Benjamin, 5 and Autumn, 8, spend much time with him.
My first time at the Hollywood Bowl was magical. It cannot be fully experienced until you actually sit in the audience and feel its immense scale. As the sun sets, a cool breeze comes up. I loved watching him playing with the other musicians, making great music.
One night, towards the end of my visit I found my seat at the Bowl and gazed down at the stage as the orchestra tuned up. I had a bottle of wine, drank too much of it, and contemplated the obstacles that seemed insurmountable. Then I walked down the steep walkway to the backstage area to see him at intermission. I watched Paul's face light up when he saw me in the crowd. I knew then that I loved him and wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.
I went back to Denver and we experienced a rocky period that included a broken engagement, reconciliation, and another engagement that ended with him breaking it off for good. We were both miserable. A few months later he reached out after I sent him a kiss-off letter and we were married at Denver City Hall eleven days later. That was 36 years ago.
When my children and I moved to Los Angeles in June of 1982, Paul and I took them to Disneyland right away. My new husband jumped into parenting. He subscribed to Parents magazine, bought a grill and a family-sized tent. His orchestra schedule left him free in the afternoons when the children got out of school.
He sat in kid-sized chairs at parent/teacher conferences, took the children to orthodontist appointments, and was a stead presence during the tumultuous teen years. He parented them with an open heart and loved them as his own. I have a great husband, my children have a loving father and now we have three beautiful grandchildren.
Paul recently retired from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On his last night at the Hollywood Bowl I sat in the audience, as I had so many years ago, and was abundantly grateful that I took a chance on love.
This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on May 23, 2004.
I greeted the bank teller and handed her a couple of checks to cash. As she processed
them she glanced at my Cal State Los Angeles tee shirt and asked me if I had been a
student there. I told her I graduated from Cal State Northridge, it is my son who attends
Cal State Los Angeles.
She looked to be in her early twenties and told me she had a year to go and was finding
it difficult to finish college. I felt compelled to share my story, briefly, in the time it took to
process the checks. I told her it took me twenty years to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in
Psychology; a process that is supposed to take four years.
An adjacent teller overheard the conversation and looked at us. We all smiled. Twenty
years? Both the 20-something tellers realized that it took the length of their lifetime for
me to earn a four-year degree. No wonder we all smiled.
I told her I never regretted my twenty-year struggle to earn a college degree. I tried to
think of ways I could encourage her to continue her education so I quickly listed the
advantages: I earn more money now, I can answer “degree required” ads in the
and – most importantly - now that I have it, it’s mine forever.
She seemed interested in my story and told me she had gotten as far as her senior
year. She was taking some time off and was finding if difficult to go back, to which
I replied, “go back.” Every time I quit, and there were many, it was much more difficult to
start again. By the time I finally earned my degree, I was older than many of my
I got the feeling the young teller enjoyed her job and liked getting paid for her efforts. It
gets very tiresome to sit in a drowsy classroom hour after hour, taking notes and
regurgitating facts back on a Scan-tron form. At the end of a semester of hard work
there is a grade on a piece of paper - it can’t be cashed at the bank.
If you throw in a car, an apartment and the high cost of tuition, spending time and
money on college just doesn’t seem important. College is the ultimate in deferred
gratification and the benefits sit on the far edge of a youthful horizon.
Going to college enriched my life. I learned to think, to reason and to argue a point.
Along with learning how to use my brain, I learned to wait patiently in long lines and
to satisfy petty bureaucratic requirements. In exchange, I lived in the world of ideas and
thought, literature and theories. Overcoming my strong inclination to balk at the
bureaucracy for the sake of learning taught me to take the bad with the good and
prepared me for the real world.
As I left the bank I wondered if I said too much or sounded too preachy to the young
woman with one-more-year-to-go. I hope it won’t stretch to twenty. I’d like to think that
my words of encouragement will help her re-enroll and stick it out. I hope she will
run the last mile, collect her diploma and take great pride in her accomplishment.
Every year when graduation season approaches I thrill once again to the stirring strains
of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. No other music evokes the vision of caps and
gowns, proud parents and eager young graduates, sweating under the hot sun or in a
crowded gymnasium. Pride in accomplishment fills the air along with the music, and
graduates of all ages bask in their gratification, no matter how long deferred.
Graduation day is more hard won for some people than others. But every graduate
deserves that quick moment when her name is announced, several dignitaries shake
her hand and she walks off the stage with a college degree that will be hers forever.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on May 20, 2018.
The Boy Scouts have rolled out their new organization called Scouts BSA. Shout the good news – girls can hang out with boys! As a professional Girl Scout for ten years in the San Gabriel Valley, I predict this poaching of girls will not succeed. In all the years I worked for Girl Scouts, there was a mutual respect between the two organizations. Indeed, it was Robert Baden-Powell who inspired Juliette Gordon Low to start Girl Scouts so the young women could participate in the same activities as the boys, but separately.
Over the years, Boy Scouts didn’t permit atheist boys to join. Girl Scouts didn’t do that. Instead they told atheist girls that when they recited the Girl Scout Promise, they didn’t have to say “God.” Otherwise they were free to join. Then Boy Scouts kicked out gay Scout leaders. They felt strongly enough to take it to the Supreme Court, who ruled in their favor, thus upholding their bigotry.Girl Scouts took a “don’t ask - don’t tell,” approach. If a leader did a good job with her troop, Girl Scouts did not exclude her due to her sexual preference.
I watched hundreds of girlslearn and growin the all-girl environment provided by Girl Scouting. Their character was just as developed as boys, but also included an emphasis on inclusiveness, self-reliance, and team-work. Many girls went through the entire program together, from Daisy (ages 5-6) through Senior (ages 15-18), and remained life-long friends.
Juliette Gordon Low founded Girl Scouts in 1912. Before women could even vote, Low taught girls to strive to do more than society allowed at the time. Low had many more obstacles than Baden-Powell did in getting her organization going due to the inferior status of women early in the twentieth century.
I am a feminist, and deeply believe in equality for men and women. But I also believe in Girl Scouting, where girls and women work together in an all-female environment. This is especially true for tween girls – ages 13-15 –who have been known to act silly around boys so they can avoid threatening them with their intelligence and drive. In their Girl Scout meetings, young women can hone their leadership skills with each other, minus any drama, and then broaden out to the larger community.
The Boy Scouts proudly claim the Eagle Award as Boy Scout’s highest achievement. Most people are unaware that there is an equivalent award for Girl Scouts called the Gold Award. Girls earn the same type of badges that the boys do to earn the Gold Award. You can call it the Eagle, or you can call it the Gold – it’s an equal achievement, period.
I don’t think Scouts BSA are aware of the fierce devotion of Girl Scout volunteers. My job at Girl Scouts was to train the leaders. Young moms came to the training sessions, exhausted after a full day at work, but determined to become a Girl Scout leader. I am certain that a well-trained Girl Scout Leader will not step aside and let a man lead her troop. Why should she? There is nothing to be gained by putting a thriving Girl Scout troop in with a bunch of boys.
My young granddaughter came to visit last summer from Brooklyn. I sent her to Girl Scout camp in Altadena for four weeks. Each week had a theme. The first theme was: “Who is in Charge? Girls!” She loved her PA (Program Assistant) who was a few years older than her and was a volunteer at the camp. Having older girls work with younger girls to provide a positive role model has been very effective in Girl Scouting.
In a troop with boys and girls together, the special bond between girls and women will be lost. Young girls need strong female role models. If all they see are male leaders, feminism will suffer a setback. Women have come too far to give up their power and autonomy.
When my granddaughter sat on the “singing steps” every afternoon as she waited for me to pick her up, the PA’s taught the campers Girl Scout songs. They sang Girl Scout songs. Get it, Boy Scouts. They sang Girl Scout songs.
Girl and Boy Scouting have taught both sexes many values, instilled discipline and created life-long friendships. They have done this successfully for 107 years, with mutual respect for one another. Now the Boy Scouts seem to think they can offer their brand of scouting to everyone. They can’t. Girl Scouts has an equally valuable organization in every way, and they always have.
Boy Scouts, keep your mitts off our girls.
This piece was published in the Padadena Star News on September 24, 2000.
The first time I tried, I failed. I wanted to make fried chicken and it ended up looking like chicken dumplings. Gommy had always prepared everything perfectly in the pressure cooker. I failed miserably. I wanted to give up.
Gommy was my adopted grandmother. She was my husband’s grandmother so I did not have the privilege of knowing her from the moment I was born. My biological grandmothers were notable by their absence; one by an early death and one by indifference.
Once Gommy came into my life, she became my grandma and I loved her dearly. After the chicken fiasco, I decided not to give up. I remembered a hot summer night when I stood on Gommy’s screened-in porch and watched her try to light cherries jubilee as assorted relatives looked on.
I was a young mother with the greatest admiration for her fabulous desserts. She had a culinary reputation to uphold. A legend in her own time, she stood, with her white hair silhouetted in the soft summer light, as she tried, again and again, to ignite the booze that was supposed to lightly char the cherries.
Despite her efforts, the alcohol did not ignite and the grand finale was not to be. She got mad, really mad, and uttered a stunning curse that no one expected from an 80-something great-grandmother of four. We caught our breath before we let out a sign and then a laugh.
I knew then why I loved this grand old lady and wanted to follow in her footsteps. As grandchildren do, I idolized Gommy. Even though I was an adult, I sat at her knee and soaked up her crusty charm. I relaxed in her leather easy chair by dim lamplight and listened to her tall tales as her beloved Gompy sat by her side. I had a second chance at having a grandma and I wanted to make the most of it.
When Gommy and I met, we hit if off. As a child who grew up with an extended family divided by geography and dissension, I craved a wise elder who could guide me in the ways of cooking, homemaking and gardening. I loved Gommy’s garden, her well-scrubbed kitchen and her screened-in porch with lush potted plants. In my neophyte stage, I saw the fully formed butterfly and I flew toward the light.
She prepared all her vegetables in the pressure cooker. An organic gardener myself, I gravitated to the idea of cooking vegetables in less water, retaining more nutritional value. The day she gifted me a pressure cooker of my own remains among my favorite moments.
My precious pressure cooker is among my most prized possessions. It is my heirloom. Other people may point with pride to a quilt, antique dresser, crystal or china. Those fine and fragile pieces represent a time gone by, tradition followed carefully with reverence and devotion. I, too, treat my battered old pressure cooker with care, reverence and respect.
As I put a batch of asparagus in the 25-year-old pot and attach the top, I remember Gommy. As I listen to the hiss and watch the back-and-forth motion of the top piece, I see Gommy. I see her, in all her glory, making fancy desserts, taking car of her grandchildren, watching over Gompy, tending to her home.
I hold that image close and try to capture if for myself. I didn’t live in the same house for 50 years as she did. I didn’t attain the perfection she achieved in her garden. I never even tried to light cherries on fire. In my quite moments of remembrance, it doesn’t matter.
I hope, in the deepest part of my heart, to be a grandma to a tiny child one day who will see my best. He or she will not see my faults, dashed dreams or failures. Perhaps the biggest disappointment that child will see is a failed desert.
When frustrated, I may utter a grandmotherly curse. The crusty part of me will give her strength, the generous part will teach him to give. I hope the fun of being with me will be remembered with love.
I hope that small soul will recognize and emulate the best part of me. I don’t know what name I shall receive from the early vocabulary of my first grandchild. I don’t think it will be “Gommy.” If not in fact, it will be in spirit and I hope I will live up to the name.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on May 8, 2010.
Every mom, whether she is good, bad or indifferent, leaves two permanent reminders of herself to her children. First, the navel. We all bear the little scar that looks like the tied end of a balloon, smack dab in the middle of our tummy, always reminding us that we emerged from our mother’s womb, at the end of nine long months of gestation.
The second reminder is our mother’s maiden name. We use it to identify ourselves when conducting important matters, usually related to money. I wonder who decided to select everyone’s mother’s maiden name to be a unique identifier. It must have been back when we called unmarried women “maidens.”
I was helping my daughter buy her first stock on an Internet site for first- time investors. She had a small amount of money to invest, but it was a start. She wanted to buy two shares of Starbuck's stock.
I scrolled down and read the fine print to make sure she wasn’t getting scammed. The site seemed legit so I began to enter the pertinent information. Then came the security question: mother’s maiden name. When I started to type in my mother’s maiden name, my daughter stopped me.
“Mom,” she said with a funny look on her face, “my mother’s maiden name is Vallee.”
“But I’m still using that name,” I told her, somewhat defensively. My own mother’s maiden name was rather exotic to me – a name I never spoke, or thought about, except when I called the bank for a credit card balance or when I made out my will. Mom stopped using her maiden name when she married, as did most women of her generation.
Like many women, I didn’t think of my name as one that I used as a maiden and then abandoned when I took my husband’s name. I took my name along with me into my marriage. It didn’t seem exotic or even secret because I was using it every day.
I never knew my grandmother because she died at age thirty-six, when my mother was just seven-years-old. My mother’s maiden name was attached to a ghost, long dead and living only in my mother’s memory. I never attached it to a living human being, a loving grandmother that linked me to the generation before.
In spite of my own personal reasons for reacting to the mother’s-maiden-name request, its use as a unique identifier seems quaint these days. Use of the word “maiden,” recalls the days when women surrendered a large part of their identity when they married. These days, women marry later in life, and many are well beyond maidenhood when they tie the knot.
I never realized how important it was to me that my mother’s surname served an important purpose, even after she married my dad and became Mrs. Vallee. She pretty much gave up all her previous identity to become a wife and mother, for better or worse.
My generation has struggled with that dilemma. We originated “Ms.” and went through a to-hyphen-or-not-to-hyphen phase, yet we all consider our mother’s name, whether she quit using it or not, to be a special link to our maternal side of the family.
We are never asked for our father’s “young knave” name because he never surrendered it. Had I been a father helping his son buy stock on the Internet, the request for “mother’s maiden name” would not have given either of us pause. I certainly paused to consider my reaction, as I deleted my mother’s maiden name and replaced it with “Vallee.”
Deep in the affairs of life, at times when we reveal a secret code word to access our bank account or open a safety deposit box, our moms are there – giving their girlhood name to indicate our lineage, ever reminding us that she existed long before we did. She had a girlhood and a life all her own, her maidenhood. Then we came along, and she gave us life, our bellybutton and her maiden name.
Kathleen Vallee Stein