She Did Good

There is much to be said about my mother that is negative.

There is much to be said about my mother that is negative. My brothers and I have talked about a lot of it. And a lot of it has been left unsaid. I, at least, keep my secrets, stories too horrible to share around a reunion picnic table when the nieces and nephews and grandkids are bringing snakes over for approval and babies are crying and being passed from one adult to another like sacks of sugar.

But what I wanted to say was that, despite all of the negatives, there was good in that woman. She had a rich and productive professional life, in her later years, and held a very fine reputation among her coworkers. She was a school counselor, and—apparently—a very good one. She helped many junior high school children who were troubled in various ways. At her funeral, a lot of people came to my brothers and me and told us what a fine person she was. We had difficulty accepting that view of her, knowing her as we had. But, since then, I have thought about her, and about many things she did and things I know about her, and I have come to understand much.

For Easter, when I was almost two years old, I received a stuffed dog. I named him Mac, after the dog next door. I still have Mac. He was my guardian, my confidant, my protector, my soul mate all the way through college. Actually, the Mac I have now is not the original Mac. I threw up on the first one, and my mother was unable to wash out the smell. The second one fell victim to Brother Jim’s reaction to typhoid inoculation: we were supposed to lie still in the lawn chairs, but he took Mac across the yard to the bird bath and rolled him in the slimy green water, then took him to the sandbox and rolled him in the sand. Our mother’s response to my screaming was not fast enough to prevent irreparable damage. The third Mac was the last Mac to be found in the metropolitan Detroit area. Stern injunctions were imparted to Jim and me to never let anything bad happen to him.

Jim had Bear, who was to him as Mac was to me. Mac and Bear, about every three years, would lose all their fur, or what passed for fur, and become pretty threadbare. Our mother never once suggested that we give them up, or put them away. With absolute sympathy, she simply said, “Mac needs a new coat! I will make him a slipcover. You sit here and watch.” And so we did. 

The first time she cut Mac’s skin open with scissors I was almost sick. I thought I would throw up. But she was very considerate. She cut on the seams, and she took off only one piece at a time, explaining to me that she would do that so he wouldn’t come apart. She put the piece down on paper, and drew a pattern, which—as she explained—she would always have for the future. Then she put that piece back on Mac, and cut loose the next piece, and made the pattern for it, and so on until she had pattern pieces for the whole Mac, even his ears and tail. 

While my mother made a slipcover for Mac, she told stories about her own childhood and growing up. We lived in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, but she had grown up in Washington, DC. She had lived in apartment houses, and—from the stories she told—that always sounded exciting and glamorous to me. One of the apartment houses was razed, because the U.S. Supreme Courthouse was built on that site. She talked about going to the Montessori school where her mother, my grandmother, taught, and having learned so much there that, when she started regular school when she was five, they had to put her in second grade.  ….  She almost failed the intelligence test, however, because—among other things—when she was asked what she would do if she found she was late on her way to school, she answered that she would turn around and go home. The “correct” answer was “Run!” But she knew that, if you were late, you had to have a note from your mother!

She talked about roller skating on the steps and in the halls of the Capital Building, and riding the Senate subway. She talked about summer camp, and the rest of the summer at a beach house on the Chesapeake Bay. She told many stories about her life after she and my grandmother moved to Detroit when she was fifteen. She especially liked to talk about her volunteer work in a community center working with a group of junior high age girls putting on plays. And she told the story of going to the summer camp for disadvantaged boys, where she was to be the store-keeper, and how – upon climbing out of the car and seeing an athletic young man, a counselor, across the way – she said, “I wouldn’t marry that man if he were the last man on earth!” Two      years later, that young man became my father.

And there was the milk. When I was fifteen, my mother became pregnant with her fifth, and last, child. Concurrently, I was in my last growth spurt—my long bones were stretching almost visibly, and they hurt. At night, the pain was virtually unbearable; I was near tears, and could not sleep. The doctor prescribed a quart of whole milk for my mother, for the baby’s development; it was mandatory, he said. The rest of us drank the God Awful reconstituted powdered skim milk that we had been drinking for the past three or four years. It was my job to mix the daily gallon of the stuff, and I had to hold my head away to do it, because the smell of it made me gag. I couldn’t drink it. The residual twelve cents from my lunch money each week did not go for candy, as did that of my brothers. It went straight back to the cafeteria for extra milk—and it still was not enough. I craved more.

My mother, with misgivings, started giving me a glass of her whole milk every night. We didn’t talk about it; I just drank it, pretty fast, immensely grateful for both the nutrition and the nurturing gesture. One night, my father saw her give me the glass of milk. He became enraged, and—while putting on his pajamas—shouted that the milk was for the baby, he could not afford milk for me, there was to be no milk for me!

I stood, glass in hand, stunned and hurt. My mother stood stock still, then raised her glass of milk over her head and hurled it the length of the room. The glass bounced off the keyboard of the piano and fell to the floor. For just a moment, a curtain of milk hung suspended in midair, arced at the top, single beads in strings at the curved bottom, above and between my father and my mother and me. It was uncommonly beautiful! Then it collapsed and fell, a gift no more. 

For a few more weeks, I continued to get a glass of whole milk every night. My fourth brother was born, quite healthy. He is now sixty-six years old and shows no signs of early malnutrition. 

Neither my parents nor I ever spoke a word about the curtain of milk. 

I finally understand that my mother, who did so many things that were hurtful, also was able to feel compassion and to respond to real needs. I believe she did the best that she could do, given the life she had. Most of all, I feel sorry—for her—that she did not have a better life.


In 1979, we lived in Yorba Linda, CA, and wanted to move to Laguna Beach, a dream shared by many. We’d become such frequent lookie-loos in Laguna that our real estate agent, Annette, knew someday a sale would happen. She and I were friends by then.  “Whenever you’re in town,” she said, “give me a call and we’ll find a few houses to look at.” 

For two weeks that summer, we house-sat for some friends who lived in Laguna Beach. During our house-sitting stint, Richard was sent on a quick business trip to England. While Richard toiled away in England, I called Annette and set up an afternoon of house searching. We met at 1:30 and drove through several neighborhoods, viewing seven or eight houses, not one of which inspired me. Finally, at about 4:00, Annette pulled up in front of what looked like a dark gray concrete block water tank. She turned off the engine and put her hand on my arm. 

She looked at me seriously and said, “Before we go in, I feel I have to warn you about this house. It’s called Infinity.”

 I was curious. House? This is a house? Looks like a water tank to me. 

Annette continued, “Many people do not like this house. A few people do. However they feel about it, they feel strongly. I’ll be interested in your reaction.” 

“Okay,” I assured her. “I’ll let you know.”

We entered the house through a plain wooden door that was slightly to the left of the center of the rounded face of the structure. The door had a round window in it, a bit too high for my short stature. Inside, we walked through a curved entry to get to the hall. The kitchen was to the right and a guest bath to the left.

The kitchen was round, with a high service bar that opened out into the end of the large room to the right. Through the opening appeared a view down the canyon all the way to Main Beach and the ocean beyond. In the kitchen, all of the appliances were brushed stainless steel, which had not become popular as it is today. The surface of the countertops was dark Corian, also not yet commonly seen. The cabinetry was light-colored wood, ash or maple, and when I tested several of them, the drawers opened and closed silently and smoothly, as though they floated on air. The only color in the room was the royal blue of the ceramic tiles on the wall behind the countertops. Because the house was vacant, all surfaces were bare and starkly beautiful. 

From the kitchen we moved along the round wall to the large living room. Its back wall comprised the inside of the concrete blocks that formed the outer wall of the building. This wall curved to form an arc that came to a point where it was joined by the inner wall of the room. The inner wall, too, was an arc, made up of a series of large French doors that fronted on the canyon and presented the full view that I’d first glimpsed through the pass-through in the kitchen. The view also included the houses on the other side of the canyon, probably a half-mile distant. 

The wood frames of the glass French doors were painted white and from the far end of the room I saw that the inner arc continued all the way around to the other end of the house, where it again met the other end of the concrete block outer arc. Thus, the whole structure formed a section like a quarter moon. Except in the kitchen and bathrooms, all the floors in the house were covered with a deep-pile white carpet.

The living room, almost completely unfurnished, had three levels that stepped down from the same level as the kitchen to the lowest level that led out through the French doors onto a deck. On that lowest level, a white painted free-standing wood-burning stove was the only object in the room. The middle level was, to my eye, meant to hold huge pillows and afghans, and lounging conversations, while a grand piano surely should occupy the topmost level. Also, in front of the kitchen, outside the pass-through, there stood several tall stools for people who chose either to watch the cook or to eat what had been cooked. 

When I walked along the inner arc of French doors past the stools and the kitchen area, I came to the other large room on the lowest level. This room, intended to be either an office or a guest bedroom, also looked through its French doors across the deck to the houses on the opposite side of the canyon. The bathroom adjacent to this room had the same excellent cabinetry and counter surfaces as the kitchen. It also had a spiral shower. To get into where the water rained down, one walked through a spiral entry, so no shower curtain was necessary. 

On the second floor, the central circle directly above the kitchen was a studio or office space. When I saw it, it contained an architect’s drawing desk that displayed plans for the house. 

Most of the area over the living room was open to the roof, but—along the inner arc where the French doors were downstairs and similarly framed windows faced the arc upstairs—a walkway with a handrail extended across from the opening to the studio to the point where the two arcs met. This space immensely appealed to the child in me.

On the other side of the central circle, the master bedroom was a vast open space. The master bath contained a huge Jacuzzi tub and a separate, glass-walled shower. The cabinetry, of course, did not disappoint.

I felt I had come home at last, that Infinity was designed and built with me in mind. I felt more than that. I felt I was in a church. There was a unity in that house. It made me complete and, somehow, I completed it. It was not just a building, it was not just a home, it was a spiritual experience. Being in that space was a spiritual completion by, for, and of me. I had to live in that house.

Annette was patient. She left me alone and let me take my time. I went back and forth between the rooms. I tried all the drawers and doors. I checked the view from each room more than once. 

Finally I said, “We can go now.”

In the car on the way back to Annette’s office, I let her run through the list of the other houses we’d seen that afternoon. I made comments about each one and its good and bad points in the way we had of talking about houses, both of us knowing that I was not serious about any of them.

We went into her office and sat down. She fussed with some memos about calls that had come in. Then she said, “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“Well, I can’t tell.” Annette, a supremely confident person, looked puzzled, uncertain. “Usually, you babble on and on and I can’t get a word in edgewise. You’ve hardly said a word for an hour. What is it? Didn’t you like it?”

“I must have it.” My voice was strong, but it trembled slightly, too.

“Oh! I see.”

“There’s a problem,” I stated flatly.

“Yes,” Annette agreed.

“Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” I quoted the listed price of Infinity in an emotion-free monotone, as though it didn’t matter.

“Well, that’s only the asking price,” Annette reminded me. “They usually come down some. I’d guess three hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, for real.”

“I’m willing to commit any crime. Possibly even murder. But I can’t get caught. There’d be no point.” I paused for a moment. “I’m going to have to think about this. How long do you think I have before there’s a serious buyer?”

“Well, I think (Annette named another agent) has someone ready to make an offer this week.”

“Oh. That’s a big problem. I don’t think I can move that fast.” I wanted to be realistic.

Annette looked at me inquisitively. She was beginning to understand how serious I was. “What are you going to tell Richard?”

“I don’t know,” I said a bit sharply. “That I have to have that house. He will say it’s impossible. And he will think that’s the end of it and he’ll forget about it and go on as if nothing had been said. But I won’t forget about it. I have to have that house.” I went on, “Can you help me figure out all the stuff about selling the house in Yorba Linda and all the available funds we have and all that crap, so I’ll know what the gap is I’m working to fill?”

Annette smiled. That was something she could do something about. “Sure.”

She and I met again in two days, and went through that exercise. The gap was pretty big. It was daunting. Terrifying. I had no idea where to turn, how to go about coming up with such a huge sum of money at all, let alone within a week.

*  *  *  *  *

The next day, Richard returned from England, exhausted from his travels. I barely greeted him. I let him get some sleep.

At breakfast the next morning, I said, “Richard, I have found the perfect house for us here in Laguna Beach. You have to see it right away. There’s a potential buyer.”

“Can’t it wait until the weekend?” he nearly whined.

“No,” I said. “That’s too late. We have to go this evening as soon as you get back from work.”

Richard saw Infinity. I saw that he thought it was interesting, but that was all. 

He spoke practically. “Our furniture will not all fit in that house. We’d have to give up some of it.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “The house is worth it.”

“How much is that house, anyway?” he asked.

I told him, “Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars is the asking price. But you know they’ll come down. Everybody does.”

“Not enough for us to come near affording it.” He was almost triumphant.

I felt deep disappointment that Richard did not experience Infinity in the same way I did. “Richard, I have to live in that house. It belongs to me. I belong to it. I belong in it. This is not a choice. The only dilemma is how to make it happen. Not whether to make it happen. Do you hear that?”

“I hear you say those words.” His voice revealed more than a little irritation. “But you are wrong. We cannot make it happen. Do you hear that?”

“Then I will have to make it happen by myself. Stand back.”

*   *   *   *   *

Annette showed me a way to get into the house without a key. For nearly a month I made two or three trips a week to visit Infinity. I went at different times of day, during the week and on weekends. Richard never went back. He had made his pronouncement and he, indeed, never gave it another thought. 

I spent every waking minute thinking about Infinity. I knew nothing about creative financing. I didn’t know anyone who did. I never did an illegal thing in my efforts to find the necessary money. Perhaps I should have, but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t know what to do, short of finding someone rich (I did not know anyone rich enough) and murdering them after I made sure they had a cool one-third of a million dollars on their person.

Then, early one afternoon when I arrived prepared to again break and enter, a car with a realtor’s tag on it was parked in the driveway. I crept around to the back and—idiot that I was—slipped through one of the French doors. A stereo on the middle level of the living room tiers played Smetana’s “The Moldau,” and when I sneaked up to the master bathroom I found the Jacuzzi bathtub full of hot water and bubbles. I knew I’d been overpowered. I beat a hasty retreat downtown to Annette’s office.

“Yes. I was going to call you later,” she said. “This morning, the agent closed the deal I told you about. They paid $328,000. You could never have come close. I’m so sorry. Oh Carolyn, I am so very sorry.”

“Well, I can’t really say it’s alright, because it isn’t. This is a unique experience. I’ve never been obsessed by anything, a person or an object, in my life before. But I have, now. It will take me a while to recover from this.”

 “Yes, you will recover. And we’ll keep on looking at houses. No other house will ever in your life be as wonderful to you as Infinity. But we will find one that you can live in, and live with. I promise.” Annette handed me a tissue to blot away the tears that had started rolling down my cheeks.

*   *   *   *   *

That was then and now is now. I know many things now that I did not know then. Had I known some of them then, I might have pulled it off. But thinking and saying that is merely second guessing. Many other paths have taken me in myriad unexpected directions since then. I cannot begin to wonder at how my life would be different now had I somehow manifested my passion. I know only that it was, indeed, a magnificent obsession while it lasted.

My Earliest Memory

It is very dark. I am lying on my back in my crib. I have said all the words I know but one. I cannot remember one word. I say them all again, but the same word still will not come to me. I try again. Mommy, who always tells me the word I cannot remember, is in the next room. I know that, because it is dark and she is always there when it is dark. But she is not telling me the word.

I say all the words again, still missing the one.

Mommy speaks. “Hush!” she says. “Be quiet. Go back to sleep!”

She does not tell me the missing word.

I am upset and frustrated.

Why doesn’t she tell me the word like she always does? What is wrong? How will I know what it is? Is it lost forever? What if I lose more words before she tells me?

I cannot go back to sleep. I think, “If I were big, I would help, even in the dark.”

I was ten months old. My mother recorded the event in my Baby Book, which I still have.

Dickie Conducts Himself Well

The PTA meeting ended and assorted parents and teachers returned from the Home Economics building to the Chapel in the High School; they towed the little children behind them. The elementary and high school kids were already there; we’d been treated to a movie. All of us waited to hear a concert.

That year, the Methodist Church of the North sent to Pittman Center a bonus teacher, a second music teacher. Poor Miss Wakeman must have felt sad indeed to think the Elders had to send another music teacher, because for years she had been the only one needed. But there we were, graced with Ms. Yokum. Miss Wakeman continued to teach the high school chorus. She gave me piano lessons as well, but I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what she did with the rest of her time.

Ms. Yokum directed the marching band (another quite wonderful story, indeed). She taught some music over in the elementary school as well, especially a rhythm band. And that is where we came in, that night.  For our concert. The rhythm band soon would play.

The parents, little tykes in hand and still talking to each other, came into the Chapel and found seats in a clutch. The elementary students ran down to the front rows. They flapped the seats up and down, moved from one to another, not sure of the greater importance: to be able to see better, or to be next to the most popular person. Seventh and eighth graders inched in almost sideways. They had no difficulty with that question—obviously, proximity to the popular person held priority, but who was it, that minute? The young adults of high school age either sauntered in alone, as they looked for prey, or oozed through the door molded together, already hunted down and lost—they thought—forever. Finally, the faculty closed ranks and shut the doors to signal silence.

All eyes front. Silence ruled beyond the dark, dusty curtain. I’d been there in that beyond; I knew the floorboards creaked, the dust rose up and filled your nostrils, the curtain actually stunk. But when it opened…. When it opened….  It didn’t matter….  You were….  On stage!

Creak. Groan. The curtain slowly rose. Two rows of chairs stretched primly across the stage, eight chairs in each row. A music stand stood before the rows. It seemed so short, that music stand. Not on a long stem, like the one at the festival in Knoxville….  Shhh…. Rustling off to our left. Here they came!  The Rhythm Band.

Sixteen elementary school students. Tambourines, tom toms, sticks, rattles—all those little things I do not know what they are called. I had never been in a rhythm band. Each kid stood before a chair, silent. When they were all in place, somber, the final kid walked in. Eight-year old Dickie. In The Blue Suit, with the white shirt I’d ironed that afternoon and the red bow tie, and not a golden blond hair out of place. He looked so somber, so dignified, so smooth, you would think he wore a tuxedo. He strode up to the music stand, dipped his head, lifted his hands, held them up, and then lowered them until his band all were seated.

I had goose-bumps on my arms so big my sleeves trembled.

It was one of the few times that Chapel knew absolute silence. When he felt sure, Dickie raised his arms again. The members of the band stood and lifted up their instruments. At exactly the right moment, Dickie made that little flick of his wrist, and the music began.

Music it was! I sit here now, fifty-seven years later, to tell you I have been in great concert halls. I have heard famous people play famous music. I have seen famous conductors. I have even sung under the direction of one of them and been good friends with another. But I have never seen nor heard a more professionally conducted performance in my life.

Dickie, that Golden Boy brother of mine, had music in his soul. It had to pour through his veins and filter through his bones as it did through those of our father and it does through mine. I do not know about my other brothers. They do not speak of this, and none of them have acted on it. I know only what I saw that night. Dickie had found his element. Not only did he stand and wave his baton, he called in individual instruments and players. He leaned into the task; he begged them for more. He held out his hand to a section, to ask them to show restraint, and his restraint evinced perfection. When the time came to go a little bit faster, he enthused (he would!), and they all were happy together.

At the end of the third piece, he bowed to the band and seated them, then turned to us, his audience. He bowed with such courtliness we found it impossible to believe him anything but a prince. He turned and, with a small smile, walked proudly off stage. The applause of the audience of fewer than fifty deafened even the youngest among us.

After an hour, my sleeves relaxed and my cheeks were dry. I sat tall and proud of that Golden Boy. Richard!

The Best Fried Chicken

During WW II, before I grew old enough to go to school, we lived in a suburb of Detroit, MI. For summer vacations, we vacationed in Gatlinburg, TN. Gatlinburg then remained a tiny village. You could stand at one end of town, look up the street toward the center of town, and not see a building or person.

It took two days to drive just over 600 miles one way. Both ways, we spent the night at the Colonial Motor Court in Corbin, Kentucky. We ate dinner and breakfast at the Colonial Kitchen.

We always ate fried chicken and biscuits for dinner. My brother Jimmy and I didn’t know there was anything else on the menu. For breakfast, Jimmy and I always ate pancakes. The grownups ate eggs, bacon, and biscuits.

On the wall, at nearly head-height for a grownup, small shelves like sconces held Depression Glass bowls full of honey, honeycomb, and a few deceased flies. Waitresses used glass ladles to dip honey into smaller Depression Glass bowls they placed on tables. I always watched with mixed emotions. I wanted them to get a goodly-sized chunk of comb, but I wanted them to miss all the flies. 

Often, we were among the last customers there. The chef usually came out from the kitchen, pulled out the end chair at our table, sat backwards, and talked with my parents. He took the baby’s bottle back into the kitchen and returned with it warmed to just the right temperature. Once, he took Jimmy and me in the back to see a real restaurant kitchen, even the waffle machine!

While he talked with our parents, he bounced the baby on his knee or held Jimmy or me on his lap. He made sure he talked with us, too, so we didn’t feel left out or completely bored.

For me, the stop in Corbin was the high point of a long, tedious trip, filled with squabbles, boredom, at least one flat tire, several detours, and other uncertainties we children did not understand.

Just as WW II ended, my grandmother bought a cabin, outside Gatlinburg. In 1950, we moved to Tennessee. We didn’t have vacations, and we didn’t stop in Corbin.

Years passed. I joined the ranks of snobs who believe fast food is in the category of evils made up of bad health, bad ecology, bad economy, and bad sense. One day, I made a particularly rude comment about Colonel Saunders. My father whipped around and glared at me. 

“You mind your manners, young lady! You used to sit on that man’s knees and love it!”

I stopped dead in my tracks. 

I blush to say I’d never made the connection. It never occurred to me the wonderful man who wore a chef’s hat—who sat in the turned-around chair, laughed with my parents, bounced me on his knee and kissed the top of my head, showed me the wonderful kitchen full of what I would come to covet as cooking tools and toys—that wonderful man was one and the same as the Colonel Saunders whose image I saw nearly every day as I drove around on my errands.

I felt dumbfounded, more than embarrassed, and dreadfully ashamed.

I’m also so grateful I cannot tell you. I can admit I crave Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’d not been able to explain it, but the smell always stirred a vague memory I hadn’t been able to put my finger on. It had stared at me all that time. The memory is real. The craving for something I’ve always loved is real. I can go home again! 

The commercials are right. Kentucky Fried Chicken really is the way Colonel Saunders made it. I remember eating that fried chicken. It tastes and smells today the way I remember it.

Recently, I learned my kidney function is poor. I’ve changed my diet. I rarely eat animal protein. But I learned a long time ago moderation is a good thing. There’s not a single absolute in my life, except I do not have any absolutes. 

I confess. I don’t inhale, but I am again a KFC user!