Reckless youth

How I got here..

Letters from Yesterday

Posted by on Jun 7, 2010 in Reckless youth | 0 comments

The black bag my sister hands me is embossed with an “e”, our mutual first initial. Inside are newspapers, clippings, and letters I wrote; mingled stories of death and of a life that happened to a person I once was long ago. The letters come from a time in my existence when I believed I could just turn my face away, and walk in the direction I was pointed without consequences.  I page through them, one-sided conversations from the past, a time capsule of people and things forgotten. I am soon overwhelmed, so I push them aside and pick up the plastic bag that is stuffed with newspaper.

Some of the obituaries are cut out neatly along the columns, but others are entire pages where I struggle to find the one she intended me to read. None of the names seem familiar and yet they have a commonality, like characters in a book by a favorite author. They are solid mid-western names mostly Scottish, Irish, English, and German, the sons and daughters of pioneers. Interspersed between the deaths are bits of life, fifty-year wedding anniversaries, new marriages, and a few babies. Confusingly the babies are grandchildren or great grandchildren of the people I once knew, the marriages between strangers whose parents I only vaguely remember. The funerals have all taken place months or years ago, leaving me weighted down with an emotion of untimely remorse, like the white rabbit, running and checking his pocket watch.

I pick up the other envelope again, the one that my mother used to store my letters and mementoes. It is from the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington. It once contained my application for VISTA, a program similar to the Peace Corp but intended to alleviate domestic poverty. Everything from that letter is gone except for a note asking me to explain why I was treated for mental illness. I don’t know if I wrote them back or not. I am still not sure how I could have told them that my parents had insisted on me seeing a psychiatrist when I introduced them to my fiancée. That was only after they found out that you couldn’t actually have a child over 18 committed to a mental institution for wanting to marry someone you don’t like. I wonder if parental insanity could have been used to exclude me from the program?

I open a letter from my erstwhile alma mater and find a picture of myself that I never expected to see again. It is from my tumultuous sophomore year, one punctuated by threats and paranoia, set against a world stage of fear and conspiracy theory. My face is a mask of unruffled serenity, a believable lie. The poor quality photo is from the proof sheet of the school annual. I could not afford to buy my pictures that year. I was cut off from my parent’s financial support due to my stubborn attachment to the boy my father called “the asshole”. The tiny blurred image is made worse by the glue they used to affix it to the letter. The letter was ironically sent to my parents asking them for money.  Even many years later when I was divorced, my parents refused to contribute a penny to the school. They blamed Georgetown for allowing the asshole to graduate with honors plus giving him a scholarship to UVA for graduate school.

I open another envelope and discover a terse note from said fiancée.  I have taken some liberties with the names.

Dear Mrs. Future MIL from Hell,

Enclosed is $33.00 in payment for the sport coat Elaine bought me. I deducted $3.00 in payment for a collect phone call made by Elaine.

Sincerely,

“The asshole”

I remember the sport coat very well but knew nothing of the repayment. I bought it for him because he had nothing presentable to wear when we went out for dinner. I mentioned it casually to my Mom and she hit the roof. I must have said something to him about her reaction, and that no doubt engendered the letter. Let’s just say they didn’t have a warm friendly relationship and leave it at that.

I finally finish sorting the letters chronologically in an effort to gain control over the mass of emotions I feel. I read only bits of them, but moving on through time I find my entire courtship, marriage, and subsequent divorce detailed in monologue. Any response to my spin on events during that time is lost because, unlike my sentimental sister, I saved very little. Now I am faced with this embarrassing pile of words, most of which are almost too painful to read. It overwhelms me how much effort I put into trying to gain approval rather than validating myself.

I can bear no more and yet I cannot throw the letters away now like I could have long ago. I tell myself that my mother saved them for a reason, although I know she saved everything from notes to the housekeeper to dead flower arrangements. She had everything neatly organized and placed carefully in labeled boxes, tucked away in the gazillion tons of cubic space she built so she could save it all. My sister has become keeper of the flame of insanity that runs in out family and although I know she is trying to pass this particular torch over to me I have no inclination toward succumbing to the obsession.

I am ready to toss the lot into the recycle bin when one catches my eye.  It is not from me but from my former MIL.  It was written to my mother trying to plead the suit of her only son. I had just visited them so she tells my mother that I am a nice girl and a good cook. She says that until her boy met me he had never “gone steady” with a girl. Then there is this sentence guaranteed to put any parent’s fears to rest. “He bowled and swam with several boys friends and was unconcerned about girls.” I am shaking with laughter as I think of my parent’s probable reaction to this testimony. My MIL goes on to provide references in the form of a Baptist minister, once in DC and now living in Kentucky. My mother has written his address and phone number in her hand on the bottom of the letter. Later in the stack is a letter from the pastor to my mother attesting to the fact that John is a “good boy”.

I encase the letter with rubber bands and start to put them back in the black bag.

I take one final look at the newspaper clippings before tossing them. “One of only two crocheted Christmas Trees In the World” reads the teaser, and this one about Valentine’s Day at the local nursing home, and another that is simply a picture of a cubby nerd with the title “Fantasy Sports Guru”. I gather the papers and deposit them in the recycle bin, grimacing with the thought that some of those people are my relations.  Like usual I am spinning my wheels, two steps forward, one step back, but I have come far enough to know that I no longer have the temperament to live in that narrow world.

If I could write a letter in warning to that girl from long ago it would make no difference, because she wouldn’t listen. She is insecure and afraid of losing control, although few people ever guess. She longs to be told she is beautiful, but she does not trust or believe the men who find the nerve to tell her so. The rest think she already knows, but when she looks in the mirror she only sees her flaws. Such is her self-doubt that she ignores men who treat her well and marries the asshole, thinking he is what she deserves. Looking back I have to admit I don’t miss her much, just envy her youth and resilience, and wish she had been more like me. I said a word about this to a friend, as we both looked at the picture of my younger self.  Says I, “I had no idea I was beautiful.” Says my dear friend,

“You still are and you still don’t.” I do not blush and stammer. I accept the kindness and feel beautiful for the rest of the day.  I repeat the compliment to my husband and he smiles and says,

“He is a wise man.”

The young girl sits and stares at the mirror, her face a mask, her eyes unseeing.

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The Joys of a Misspent Youth

Posted by on Dec 8, 2009 in Reckless youth | 0 comments

My symbol of my youth was my brown suede jacket. I wore it until the lining was tattered to shreds and it had a lot of bare places on the suede, plus some water spots I couldn’t remove. I bought it when I was in college in Georgetown using the checkbook my Mother gave me. I don’t actually remember when I got rid of it. I guess it was a casual thoughtless farewell, just like I gave a lot of other things I wish I had now. I associate the jacket with places I went and things I did, like sitting on the grass at in San Francisco watching the fireworks explode over the Golden Gate Bridge. I wore it during my first pregnancy until the cold wind of New York became too bitter, and my belly a bit too round. The picture up there is me wearing the jacket and holding my first born on my hip. I remember dropping the jacket on the floor in a pile, right inside the door of a tiny apartment carved from an enormous house on Monument Avenue in Richmond. The room had had pre civil war windows that reached floor to ceiling with curved glass that had been pressed into that shape before my grandfather was born. The kiss I gave the man who brought me there that night wasn’t as historic the house, but it was a milestone in my newly single life.

I still had the jacket when I met my current husband, although it was a bit the worse for wear. Without my mother’s magic checkbook I had been unable to replace it over the years. I didn’t wear it the night we met because even though it was February, the weather was unseasonably warm. I was quite comfortable in my black sweater and those famous purple pants. We went for a ride in a car he hoped would impress me, a less than pristine 68 Mustang convertible, the symbol of his youth. He took me to an artesian well that was set in the center of the city, in the midst of a park. I remember walking along the wall that was three feet above the level of the spring and him stepping down, and then lifting me after him with his hands circling my waist. I skittishly backed away when my feet touched the ground and missed the kiss I’m sure he intended to give me. The car would have impressed me more if the seats hadn’t had an inch layer of dog hair on them, but he only found that out many months later. He sold the car before our first child was born with great wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was something he felt he had to do in order to grow up and accept the responsibility of fatherhood. I never really understood how much the car meant to him or I would have insisted he keep it.

I decided to go shopping for a new suede jacket, but as I walked down the aisles where every type and variety hung in abundance, I didn’t buy one. I admit I was looking for my jacket, the one I tossed so casually aside, and something else that was not hanging in the store, my freewheeling youth. Over the years I have heard my husband lament the loss of the car. I asked him one day not long ago if he would consider buying another one. He got a far away look in eye and turned unusually serious for a while. I knew if he didn’t have that mustache I would have seen the corners of his mouth turned down. “No”, he said sounding sad, “I couldn’t replace it.” I knew what he meant, and I knew why I didn’t find the jacket I wanted too.
I made my nephew a stuffed rabbit when he was a baby. I used scraps I had from a yellow crepe dress, and odds and ends of orange wool and some brown velvet to dress it in a waistcoat. He had long floppy ears, a rakish look about the eyes, and sat alert and smiling on his haunches with a soft and friendly appearance. Who knows what attracted my sister’s child to that particular animal with all the other toys he had in abundance? I’d like to think he recognized the love and time I put into the crafting of the bunny, but we know children have no such concepts. In fact, I made my niece, my brother’s child, a beautiful little rag doll with several changes of clothing, requiring hours of time I did not have. She told me later that she hated the doll. Children are honest that way, so I wasn’t offended. I was delighted that my nephew fell in love with “Rabbity” and would not sleep without it snuggled next to him. One day my sister called me in a panic. “Rabbity” had been lost and was there any way I could make another so her child could get a good night’s sleep? At that point in time the scraps that I had made him with were long gone, and while I did try with other material, the new bunny was immediately rejected. Some things once gone are irreplaceable, like my suede jacket, my husband’s blue convertible, my nephew’s rabbit, and the days when we were young and sometimes careless, spending life as if we were millionaires, never even asking for the change.

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Overlooking all but the Obvious

Posted by on Oct 7, 2008 in Mother in Laws, Reckless youth | 0 comments

At eighteen, alone and armed only with the innocence and audacity of youth, I took the train from Louisville Kentucky to a place through the looking glass, Washington DC. My mother had driven me from Beaver Dam to Louisville with dire warnings and instructions that I completely ignored. In my pocket book I had the hundred dollars she had given me, along with an envelope that had a boy’s address and an invitation from his mother to visit. Since I had met him in September we had bandied about terms like forever and love and marriage like we knew what they meant. Now this cold January day I looked out the train window into the back yards and industrial wasteland of America, believing only a tiny portion of the things I told myself and my family about him. The steel rail rocked me finally to a fitful sleep as it carried me safely to my doom.

I was wide awake long before the conductor announce Union Station around 10 the next morning. I pulled my round blue American Tourister suitcase down from the overhead rack and clutched it firmly by the loop handle and stepped off the train into the cold bright January day. I walked briskly along with the stream of people who obviously knew where they were going and pretended I did too. I was giddy with excitement because I knew that the boy who wanted to marry me would be eagerly awaiting as soon as I went through the iron gate into the station.

I did not see him immediately, so I slowed down and scanned my surroundings with an anticipatory smile frozen on my face. Seconds turn into minutes as I milled about the station staring at the rushing press of strangers, hands wrapped tightly about my oh so chic hatbox suitcase, my navy blue suit now rumpled, my new leather pumps feeling a bit tight . Nothing in my previous life had prepared me for being stranded alone in a large city. I grew up in a town of 2000 people all of whom would have taken me in if I had knocked on their door and told them my plight. I had been in a Baptist college for one semester in a town of 7000. The only two people I knew that lived in DC were my boyfriend John and the president , and I didn’t know how to get in touch with either of them. The prototype edition of a cellular phone was still 15 years in the future, so I looked about for a phone booth. I was stunned when I saw there were five phone books, each of them the size of the giant bible my mother kept on the coffee table in our formal living room. I picked one at random and turned to the F’s. My heart sank where a cursory scan revealed there were more than a dozen pages of John Freeman listings.

At this point it might have occurred to any sensible girl to use her return ticket immediately, but I was a month and a week past 17, not an age especially given to sensibility. I stepped through the tall outside doors into the frigid air with a ghost of hope that he was waiting in his father’s car. Instead I found rows of yellow cabs lined up at the curb. I had never ridden in one before in my life, but it looked like I was going to have to chance it. I told the driver the address from the envelope without giving him the quadrant, and fought back tears as he became impatient with me for not knowing. He softened a bit when I told him my problem in an accent that made my lack of local connections obvious. By the time he got me safely to what was then the Italian middle class neighborhood of Anacostia, he told me he was going to wait until I was sure I wanted to stay before he left.

We pulled up in front of the row house around noon and while I puzzled over the tip and the fee for my rescuer the front door opened and the face of my consort appeared in the glass screen door. His neck was wrapped in a plaid muffler and he had an ernest and contrite expression, but he did not open the door until I walked up the steps. Greeting me with a quick kiss on the cheek he apologized for not meeting me. I was waiting for an explanation of the catastrophe that must have occurred to keep this boy from me, the one who told me I was more important to him than oxygen. That’s when I met Josie, his mother.

“Well see,” she said, “She made it here safe and sound. Glad to meet you. John wanted to come get you but I couldn’t let him come out in the cold when he had a sore throat.” She launched into a long and detailed medical history of her only child which should have sent me screaming back to the taxi, but at this point I was so relieved to be safe I just smiled, waved the driver on, and embraced my future mother in law.

By the end of the day I was in deep cultural shock. My mother’s home was immaculate and orderly but this house was so clean it set my teeth on edge. The living room sofa had custom made clear plastic slip covers. I could see my reflection in the kitchen floor. Nothing, even a visit from the first girl their son ever brought home, disrupted the family schedule. Saturday morning they cleaned an already spotless house. Saturday afternoon they shopped for the exact same groceries they purchased the week before so they can make the exact same meals they ate the week before, and pay the cook the exact same compliments. The cook is Josie’s mother who came to live with them right after John was born. She does not go anywhere with them except church, not even the grocery, and she retires to her room each evening after she does the dishes. Even on this brief visit I realize that life in the Freeman household is scripted. My mission, if I choose to accept it, is to bring chaos into their otherwise orderly existence. I start my job on the very first night by asking why John has a plate of lettuce when the rest of us are eating a tossed salad.

Josie laughs along with John’s grandmother and they explain that little John, just turned 21, is a bit of a picky eater. I wisely kept my theories on picky eaters to myself, but made a mental note that this is one thing I will have to fix after we’re married. The gods must still be laughing about that ambition because when we split up 7 years later he still picked through canned Campbell’s soup discarding the vegetables he refused to eat. By that time I had also found out that his eating habits were the least of my problems.

The rest of the story is so deeply personal I am loath to share it. Let me just say we were predictably bad for each other and for most everyone around us. It took us so much longer than our family and friends to realize it was over. The day I finally had to go I turned one last time to hold him, something we had not done for months. Even then I was still foolish enough to believe he would be less selfish in divorce than he had been in marriage, just because he told me so. Turning from him, I left my childhood behind in that embrace and walked out the door with my son.

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Living in the lap of luxury

Posted by on Oct 20, 2006 in Reckless youth | 0 comments

I remember the day I realized that material objects would never become important enough to me that I could not do without them. I was living in New York in a one bedroom flat with my first husband. He had a propensity for haunting the Grenwich Village streets and making friends with the many odd characters who hung out there. On this particular night the little wife (me) was sitting home, barefoot and pregnant, when he burst in the door with a card carrying communist. You have it right folks; the red scourge had walked right into my little domestic corner of the world. Everything we owned in the world was in those two rooms and had been transported from Virginia in a Ford Econoline Van. We had a bed, a dresser, two bookcases built by me, a goodwill trunk, refinished by me, a rug, a sofa, a rocking chair given to me by my Mom, a table made of a door and screw on legs, and four directors chairs. On the trunk sat a really crappy stereo and a picture my brother had framed hung over the top. The communist, who had soft brown eyes, a wild Bolshevik style beard, and a bit of an unwashed look and smell, gazed an accusatory eye around our modest flat.

“You sure have a nice place here,” he said in a neutral tone. My husband immediately began to apologize for our shameless accumulation of consumer goods and blamed me for the problem. The soft brown eyes contained a question mark as they focused kindly on my own.

“Well”, I said. “I enjoy the few things we do have and don’t think I should have to apologize for them. I will say if they were all taken away tomorrow, I would be none the poorer, because I know what is truly valuable.” He turns to John with a jabbing finger pointed toward his heart.

“She’s a hell of a lot more honest than you are. You’re full of shit.”

John sputtered for a time trying to justify his position and attempted to hop on board the same take it or leave it train with me. It was way too late and he went down in flames in front of his new buddy. I listened to them rant for a bit, then got up and made a sandwich for the thin disheveled Marxist. He accepted it gratefully.

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Rear View Mirror

Posted by on Oct 3, 2006 in Angst, anger, anarchy, Dad, Mother, Reckless youth | 0 comments

I wish everyone could have a childhood like I imagined mine to have been. I find with time I have blurred the sharp angles of real memories with a heavy snowfall of fantasy gathered from books, movies and television. In short, I have Disneyized my own biography until everyone comes out looking like characters from a 50’s sitcom. I have to admit that I am a second generation enabler, although I’m becoming less so as each day progresses. Sometimes I wonder if anyone actually ever had a truly happy childhood. I read lots of stories to that effect, but then, I also write stories like that too. I am not denying there were joyful moments, laughter, true affection, and shared adversity that made us all strong, but a lot of the time we were no better than any other addicts, desperate, lying awake, wishing for it all to end, and terrified that wishing might make it come true.

I have become bogged down of late with writing true, and then finding I do not have the nerve to put those words out for everyone to read. The Disney version is so much more palatable, which is why I cover so many early memories with a warm blanket of nostalgia. I suppose my childhood was average overall, producing neither an ax murderer nor a saint, but like the majority of people, I grew up in a dysfunctional family. If you could squint your eyes just a bit though, the out of focus picture looked almost perfect, like the undertow in the ocean, invisible but deadly. When it was time for me to create my own family, I was determined not to use the pattern already cut for me. While feeling smug that I was wise enough to learn from their mistakes, I was at first oblivious to the fact that what I created was merely dysfunctional in different ways. It takes a lot of energy to keep up a fantasy family, making sure that everyone looks good all time to everyone outside. My mother processed that energy in abundance, and I seem to have inherited her skills, strength of will, and propensity to delude myself.

When she made her final escape to a place where there is no need for delusion, I began to see more clearly. I have a stack of poems written in that era that attest to my loss, but also to my release. After a time though, I stopped hearing a lot of the voices she had set inside my head. By the time my father left to join her, I knew the voices I could still hear were being propped up by my own inner struggle alone, and I was finally able to stop their destructive power. No one gets a clean slate to write on however. I bear the scars of every word spoken, every blow landed. I wish it were myself alone standing bowed, but defiant, from life’s repeated jabs, but to my great dismay, it is too late to erase the pain that I have passed on to my progeny. Life repeats, laughing at our slow wittedness, and I come at last to the punch line to discover I have heard the joke before, and should have known.

So what to do with this too late revelation? For my own part I will embrace the reality, but try to refrain from the telling of needless hurtful truths. The kindness of loving lies is a difficult tightrope, but one that must still be walked at times. The one person I will never knowingly lie to again is myself. I have found the price for those comfortable and easy falsehoods too high to pay.

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We drove off to look for America

Posted by on Jul 4, 2006 in Reckless youth | 0 comments

My two younger children embarked last week on a trip across the US to visit their older sibling and his wife in Seattle, which got me thinking of an epic journey of my youth. That’s me in the picture, along with my ex and the Buick, in my parent’s driveway as the story begins…

We got to San Francisco in June of 1968, but due to poor timing, I nearly missed the summer of love. It had been an amazing and difficult first year as a college teacher for John, who was my husband at the time. Camelot had died in 63, but Kennedy’s words still echoed in our ears, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Collective social consciousness among the 20 somethings had been stirred to a frenzied level. My husband had accepted a position for the 1967-68 school year at Virginia Union, a majority black university. He was one of 4 young white men, recently out of graduate school, and looking to make a difference in a world where discrimination was blatant and hostile. I still remember calling him on the phone the day that Martin Luther King Jr. followed JFK into martyrdom. He was in the chapel of VU, and the sound of the anguished cries of the young black students in the background will echo in my heart forever. We had made promises that year, standing in protests and marches, shoulder to shoulder with all the young idealists, that a new world order was just around the corner. Like King, we assured them it didn’t have to be like it was in Watts in 65, but it would occur naturally, peacefully, as the old men died and took their bigotry to the grave. The awful irony of the moment was not lost on us.

It was only after we started on our journey to the west coast that we found out that Robert Kennedy, our last champion, had fallen like the others. All hope fled from Pandora’s box that year, and those left behind clung to each other for what little consolation they could find. Everything seemed transitory, doomed, and we wanted to see the USA before it was lost forever. We headed out in a 1964 Buick the size of a small motor home, loaded up with camping supplies, around a thousand dollars, and the arrogance and idealism of youth. My Dad changed the windshield wipers when we got to Kentucky, but we never saw rain that summer from the time we crossed the Mississippi in June till we came back over it in August.

We followed the southern route, much of it on old highway 66, down through Missouri and Oklahoma, across the Texas panhandle and on to New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. The camping supplies were for when our money ran out, but we found so many cheap hotels we rarely used them. In Tucomcari New Mexico we stayed in a tiny clean room that cost four dollars a night. I saw my first scorpion, thankfully outside in the parking lot, but I checked my shoes before I put them on that morning, just like all the smart cowboys. It’s good that we found such cheap rooms, because as we came down the long slope leading into Flagstaff Arizona, the car made an awful gasp and died. The gas station we pulled into was able to locate and install a water pump while we spent the day in a nearby bookstore, my husband John’s instinctive point of refuge in times of stress. We were on the road again before the day was out, our cash reserves slightly depleted.

We found a spot to camp in the Grand Canyon, but slept in the car instead of outside on the ground. John insisted on leaving the Canyon after a cursory glance, because the drunks who were throwing beer cans over the edge ruined the whole experience for him, or so he said. I begged to stay, because even with the attempts humans had made to degrade it, the majesty of the landscape was undiminished. I was overruled, and we drove in silence along the hot dusty road leading to the Hoover Dam. We didn’t stop there either, since it had become apparent that the city boy I married had tired of rural scenery and was eager to get somewhere civilized. I did not protest, because after the canyon, the dam seemed like a child’s toy. Miles of desert later we arrived in the glitzy false façade of Los Vegas, feeling grimy and soaked with sweat. Construction dust on the road had been so thick we had to turn on the headlights and roll up the windows of our non air-conditioned car. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the big casinos practically gave away rooms and food, thinking they would encourage tourists to spend money on the gambling. We left no skin on fortune’s wheel, but shook the dust off our sandals the very next morning and headed for the city of angels. I was actually five dollars richer because I cashed in the free chip that came with the price of our blissfully air conditioned room.

Outbound, the city ended as abruptly as it began, and we sped along a highway that was covered with drifts of sand and blowing tumbleweeds, over dry mountains and dryer plains. Just when it seemed it would go on forever, I was abruptly hit with a gush of moist air and looked up to see a green that had been missing for days. Stretched below in the valley, at the beginning and the end of desolation, was tinsel town, as far as the eye could see. We had no clue as to which way to go, but we soon learned we needed to get there fast, to keep from being run down by the locals. We found a motel room in a slightly seedy part of town, and spend a couple of days looking for the center of the city. We went to Hollywood and Vine, drove by studios and star’s homes, walked up and down the “strip”, and drank our first fruit smoothie at a shiny old fashion diner, but we never found the heart of things. I had no desire to linger in LA and have never returned to give it a second chance.

We teamed up with two New York boys who were staying in the same hotel and offered them a ride to San Francisco, where John had an apartment rented for the month. One of them offered to share the driving chore, and it seemed like a good idea before we found out that the boy had learned his driving skills from his uncle, a taxi driver in New York City. We felt like we had whiplash from his gas-brake, gas-brake style within an hour after we started up the scenic coast highway, but no matter how many times we offered politely to take over, he insisted he was fine driving. Still, the views were the most incredible I have ever seen, dots of sea lions far below on rocky beaches, quaint little towns with organic food stores, and beautiful green hills rising impressively to our right. When we finally got to San Francisco a stop in a local garage confirmed that our brake shoes, that were put on only a few months earlier, were worn down to steel. Replacing the shoes and turning the drums took another bite out of our small reserve of cash.

We didn’t expect much in the way of elegance for the price we were paying for the two-room apartment on Sutter Street, but we were only two blocks from the main drag of Market Street where we could catch the cable car for a nickel. Chinatown was in walking distance, and we ate there a few times, indulging in the best Chinese food I have ever had before or since. I often took the cable car down to the harbor and Ghirardelli’s square, where, if I my pockets hadn’t been empty, I could have shopped and eaten very well. Judging by the number of people begging for spare change on the street, I wasn’t the only one strapped for cash. I had too much pride to fall that low, so I mostly strolled around in my homemade clothes, blending in with the other longhaired girls in mini skirts and jeans. One treat I remember was a free concert at Marina Green on the fourth of July, where I huddled under newspapers to stay warm, watching the fireworks explode over the Bay Bridge. We also did a bit of exploring in the car, with John driving and me doing the navigation. On one of our first days there I found a great shortcut on the map, but the street was marked in an odd way I had never seen before. We only discovered after we stared down with our tank like car that we were on the Byzantine curves of Lombard, the crookedest street in America. I did much better getting us to Haight- Ashbury, Berkley and Stanford.

John wore his hair fairly short at that time, and dressed in button down shirts, narrow pegged jeans and trousers, and polished leather shoes. We were both excited to visit Haight-Ashbury, the center of the counterculture movement, but John couldn’t blend in with the unwashed shaggy freaks in bell-bottoms and tie dyed shirts. He decided the North Beach strip clubs were more to his liking, and he and the New York boys spent a lot of time there. The boys got their own place after camping out on our floor for a few days, and lacking other friends in the area, John decided to hang out with them and be a bachelor again. During the daytime we visited the aquarium, the zoo, the ghost fleet of the Pacific, and strolled over college campuses, but many days and all nights I was left in my little two-room apartment watching Star Trek reruns on the black and white TV. It was the beginning of the end of our marriage. The middle of the end was four months later in New York, when I found out I was pregnant, but I get ahead of my story.

When our month was up, we packed and left in the early afternoon so we could drive across Nevada at night, avoiding the awful heat and dust of our earlier journey. John, like Ronald Regan, who was governor of California at the time, had no interest in the Redwood Forest, or any other strictly scenic areas, so we sailed through Northern California after dark. I had especially wanted to see Donner Pass, but all was blackness when we drove though the mountain gap where trapped pioneers ate the dead frozen members of their party in their desperation to survive the winter of 1846-47. The blazing summer sun baked Salt Lake City while we stood across from the Mormon temple and talked to clean-cut revolutionaries who were nervously passing out free underground newspapers. They seemed as out of place as the elaborate cathedral, in the arrow straight streets full of drab modern buildings. They advised us not to stay the night, and paranoia prevailed as we scooted on down the road toward the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Park.

For some reason I clearly remember the color of the sky in Wyoming the morning we drove through the mountains. The rare dawn light had a yellow cast that blanketed all the surrounding hills, and a lake we could see far below. Could this same light have colored the imaginations of those men who named the Yellowstone River? The park ranger never said, but he talked a lot about local hazards and being cautious when camping. John listened with growing alarm at the tales of bears roaming about, eating tourists. Other tourists were not phased by his speech, but stopped their cars and sent small children out to get their pictures taken with moose, elk, buffalo, and grizzly bears they spotted along the road. Because of them progress was very slow and darkness caught up to us before we found our designated campground. Although the ranger had specifically told us not to, we were finally exhausted and pulled over to the side of the road to sleep in the car. John woke me around 3 in the morning telling me there were bears outside in the woods. I told him that’s where bears live, but the car was an impenetrable tank, sure to keep them at bay, and tried to go back to sleep.

“No, no,” he said, shaking me awake, “they’re right outside, look!” I stared out into the inky blackness and saw nothing at all. I started the engine and turned on the lights. Plumes of steam were rising across the field, this being a geologically active area, but where I saw smoke, John saw bears. He had been staring out the window all night, unable to sleep, and was now desperate and exhausted.

“You have to drive.” He said, “I’m too tired.” I thought of teasing him out of it, but finally realized he was genuinely petrified with fear, and nothing would do but for me to drive us out of the park. I hadn’t gotten more than a few miles along the road till I heard a siren and saw red lights in my rear view mirror. I pulled the car over and rolled down the window when the park ranger approached. Seeing a young lady driving, he shined a bright light into the back seat, where John sat, wide-eyed, wrapped in blankets. The obvious questioning ensued, but I quickly explained to the man that I was saving my husband from bears. He really tried not to laugh, but he couldn’t help himself.

“So”, he says to John, who was cowering in the back seat, “the little lady is rescuing you?” John, too frightened and sleepy to be embarrassed, agreed that pretty much summed it up. “Just be sure you keep it under the speed limit,” he said to me. ”I’ll let the other rangers know you’re on your way out so you don’t get stopped again. There aren’t too many people on the road up here this time of the morning, you know.” I could hear his suppressed giggling as he walked back to his car. John never did see the humor in that story, and I don’t imagine he ever will.

I woke him up for breakfast somewhere before we got to the Bighorn Mountains and slept while he drove on to South Dakota. Having missed a lot of Yellowstone, I didn’t want to go through the Black Hills without stopping at Mt Rushmore, so we headed up the winding road that led to that famous spot. I’m really glad I did, because when my family and I stopped there in 1999, the pristine vista had gone Hollywood. All the trees had been cut from the formerly unspoiled area where I had looked at the president’s giant faces, while a chipmunk sat on my foot and begged for food. A massive stone and concrete stairway had been built and lined with hundreds of flags waving to the tune of canned patriotic music. An immense multi story parking deck had replaced the simple gravel lot we used, and the entrance fee had gone from nothing to $8.00. I wish you could have all seen it before it was “improved”.

We slept in a motel that night, one of the many clustered around Rapid City, and rested up for our long drive across the Badlands. I was delighted with the views, imagining the early desperadoes and Native Americans who used this forlorn and beautiful area as a hideout. John relaxed visibly when we finally hit Chicago, for just as I understood the message of the trees and streams, he was at his clearest amid the traffic and hurry of the city. We toured a few more universities and bookstores, then drove on across the flat, but green plains of Indiana. Our summer vacation ended when we arrived back in DC, loaded up our meager belongings, and headed off for John’s new job in New York. He had resigned from VU and had accepted a job as an entry-level bureaucrat in the New York City government, or as he described it, “working for Mayor Lindsay”, who was the liberal, progressive mayor of the world’s largest city. The dream of a Manhattan brownstone was compromised as soon as we saw the real estate section. We settled for a fifth floor one bedroom in a Queens high rise, and John quickly found himself to be an extremely small cog in a giant government machine.

It has taken me many years to understand what a significant journey I had taken. I looked at the good and the bad that America had to offer and had been profoundly affected by its splendor and squalor, its diversity and disparity, its optimism and fears. I believed in my heart that I had seen the last of a generation where materialism, greed, and bigotry would be the driving force for our country. I had talked to such a wide cross section of people and I truly thought as my generation matured and moved into positions of power, we would create a utopia. I could not see then how profound the changes would be over the next few years in America, or in my own life, but I felt something big was happening.

A few weeks after we arrived in NYC, I listened to a girl playing guitar in Washington Square. She sat on the curb in her tattered jeans and bare feet singing, “Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.” I wish I could say that I had a revelation, and saw my generation clear at that moment. That I realized you can’t change human nature. That I knew the drugs and the war would muddle and confuse us all, and we would never keep the promises we had made. But, like millions before and after me, I had only a moment of uncertainty as I glanced at her grimy backpack and tangled hair. I still had faith that she would find her way, that we all would. I’m still hoping.

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