Among Legends: Mom

Blessed Redeemer, Precious Redeemer, Seems now I see Him on Calvary’s tree; Wounded and bleeding, for sinners pleading– Blind and unheeding– dying for me.

-Blessed Redeemer, Avis B. Christiansen

My mother’s earliest memory played out in a living room under a pointy slate roof in the northern Adirondacks toward the end of the Great Depression. She looked up from her bassinet. A man and a woman, eyes and smiles wide, looked down. They were there, that small, forming mind somehow understood, to take her away forever.

I was maybe seven when I first heard this story. In liquor boxes collected in the school bus parked at the back boundary of our property, I had seen recolored black and white photos of her on her first birthday. Her chestnut snail shell curls framed her big green eyes and elbows, cheeks and knees were all dimpled. She was as precious as the toy Kewpie doll in a nearby box. I could imagine that sweet baby months earlier, supine in her bassinet, body awash with fear, the hollow panic of not being wanted.

My heart ached for her. When she told me this story, I wanted to scour away all evidence of pain from that memory, to fill that empty place with the knowledge that she was loved and wanted now by me.

In the end, the kind couple that came for her didn’t bring her home. They wanted her very much, but my great grandmother had convinced Nana that though she was divorced, already raising my two aunts on a nurse’s salary, she should keep her youngest daughter. And so, Mom would grow up under that pointy slate roof, listening to her grandmother earnestly crooning Blessed Redeemer while Apple Brown Betty bubbled in the oven.

Mom wasn’t much older when a second painful event etched itself onto her brain. It began with an unexpected rap of knuckles on the front door. She was upstairs with my aunts, just three or four years old.

Downstairs, the door swung on it’s hinges.

“I want to meet my daughter.” The voice, foreign to Mom’s ear, was demanding.

“Leave,” Nana said.

Aunt Marion, the oldest, grabbed Mom’s arms and guided her roughly to the closet. Aunt Marilyn held the door open and Marion shoved her in.

It was dark. She tried the doorknob, but it was held fast on the other side by older, stronger hands than hers. “Let me out!” She pounded. “I want to meet my father.”

Her keen ears heard through the closet door and one floor down the man at the door plead, “please, I just want to meet her.”

“Leave,” Nana repeated. “Don’t ever come back.”

He didn’t.

As a young girl, Mom slingshot rocks onto Pop Henicki’s tin roof with her friend Freddie Todd. Her mouth was washed out with soap for saying god damn it to her sister. In school, teachers taped her mouth shut and rapped her knuckles for talking in class. Some kids could avoid such a fate, but Mom was strong willed.

By high school, boys were crazy for her big green eyes, tiny waist and generous bust. She was head of her class, head cheerleader, too, and spent as many winter days as she could swooshing down the little ski hill in the back of her town. For adventure and the chance to hear live Jazz, she stowed away in a freight car to New York City. Mom owned every square inch of her world that she could. Then finally, she beheld the one thing she had wanted but couldn’t have; her father. He was in a coffin, dead from an automobile accident. Life without him had made her who she was, but she was still pissed at Nana and my aunts, with no interest in forgiving them.

In her first semester at state teacher’s college, Mom dropped out, not from lack of ability, but from feeling out classed by a roommate who never wore the same underpants twice when Mom couldn’t even afford a letter sweater. Mom moved home for a short time, then had a go at business school in Albany and hated it too. She didn’t want to sit in an office all day. She wanted to travel. With that goal in mind, she enrolled in stewardess school. A Life Magazine article on the glamorous girls of flying featured my mother, a poster child for the industry. And while she was a stewardess, she met a professional football player who, once they married, began medical school. It was a fairy tale marriage that had her in doubt as she walked down the aisle. Was this what she wanted?

To be sure, Mom and this man loved one another. At first they were best friends. But some things are not meant to be. Three times their babies tried to form in her, and three times they didn’t survive. Women clamored for the big, strong former pro baller doctor with the impish grin. Doing laundry, Mom found lipstick on his collar. She answered phone calls and the caller wouldn’t speak, but Mom could hear her breathe. Mom, for her part, had grown out her pageboy in favor of long center-parted hair, wore short corduroy skirts, bright print tops, and had discovered health food.

Hoping that the change would save their marriage, when he was drafted into the Vietnam War, they moved to Tokyo together where he served in a military hospital. There, Mom was charmed by the temples and shrines of Hokkaido, the traditional house in which they lived, Koto music, tea ceremonies. His life revolved around the hospital and officers’ club.

In 1967, after returning from Japan, Mom showed up near Dr. Benjamin Spock, the author of Baby and Child Care, at a photo taken of a war protest on Century Plaza in Los Angeles. Several months later, on their way home, marriage in irreparable ruins, she and her husband picked up a man thumbing a ride from his broken down automobile. He convinced them to bring him home to use their phone to call for a ride. There, they discovered him thumbing through their files, most likely, they believed, seeking evidence of Mom’s greater role in the antiwar movement.

Marriage and faith in mainstream society dissolved, Mom moved nine hours north to run a tiny bookstore in the mecca of tune in, turn on, drop out: Mendocino.

The Water Slide

My third grade daughter’s embodied writing. : )

Art by my daughter

I shiver as I wait for the lifeguard to say go.

He says, “Go!”

So I look into the slide at the rushing water.

The water is fast like a happy dolphin.

I step in.


I gag as I race to the bottom. I wish I had not gone.

When I finish, I am relieved.

I will not go again. I felt like a monkey getting strangled.

I will conquer you.

2019 Writing Plan

The 12-hour Write-a-thon: Saturday, January 5, 2019

I did it! I wrote for 12 hours (with a break for lunch). Happily, thanks to Lighthouse Writers Workshop, my writing year began this Saturday with a 12-hour Write-a-Thon at Lighthouse’s historic headquarters building on Race and Colfax in Denver. (Of note, the working title for my book is Adrift and the resource keeping me on course is Lighthouse.) This Write-a-Thon, five days into the new year, gave me 12 blissful hours to integrate what I learned in 2018, to sink back into my work in progress, and to plot a writing course forward in 2019.

 My 2018 Writing Year in Review

The first half of my writing year in 2018 was occupied by a full manuscript critique class. Each month, a different person submitted their full manuscript. The rest of our small group read that person’s work, then we gathered to critiqued face to face. Each manuscript brought interesting insights and I learned to critique better from the people around me. Writing communities are critical to our writing.

I submitted in May, but I had only produced half a manuscript plus outline of the second half. In the end, it seemed that my format helped my cause because my readers could see both my writing (the skin) and the structure and intent (the bone). In the five years leading to that submission, I have attended numerous writing workshops and participated in several critique groups that met regularly. I have learned to write complex characters, maintain tension and land the reader in the character’s experience (all through much effort and soul searching). Cherry picking events from lifetimes is one of the big challenges of creative nonfiction and memoir, so we had an interesting conversation about the overall structure. (There are many routes to presenting this story.) The biggest critique, though, was the desire to hear the wise, adult voice of the author.

I wasn’t necessary surprised with this advice – I had written with a focus on scene work with the intent to “add the glue” later. But the more I sat with this advice, the more I saw its relevance to and potential impact on my overall story.

The second half of 2018 was fuller than usual of work, visitors, vacation, and family obligations. None of these are inherently bad things, they were reality. My heavy workload and family obligations meant a drastic reduction in hours spent writing on the bus rides to and from work and very little weekend writing.

With that said, the most important ways I advanced my writing after May were:

  • Tuning into Author’s voice: To best engage with the idea of author’s voice, I sought out women I consider to be masters of truth seeking and emotional resonance. In 2018, I read and listened to Brené Brown, Pema Chödrön, Anne LaMott, and Cheryl Strayed. (Jeannette Walls and Mary Carr belong on this list, too, along with local author Tracy Ross; however, I had read them in previous years.)
  • House Swap: In 2017, a classmate from my early elementary years contacted me via Facebook messenger to let me know she had purchased the house Dad built when our first house burned to the ground. (Sometimes I question the role of Facebook in my life, but this is one of the best reasons to stay engaged.) In a series of excited messages back and forth, we planned a house swap. In August, I wrote for large blocks of time as we drove cross-country. My week in that magical house that was so devastating to leave as a little girl was nothing short of cathartic and solidified my memories. (Expect an upcoming blog post with pictures.)
  • One-Day Writing Conference: In October, I managed to attend a writing conference at Lighthouse North (Louisville, CO location). Preparing a 10-page submission for the chance to speak with an agent, forced me to hone a piece for submission. Though I have won this contest in the past, I didn’t win this year. The woman who won the slot for memoir has a distinct, funny, smart writing voice and deserved to win. (Hmm, there’s that author voice again.) A day of workshops and classes landed me back in my writing when so much else was demanding my time.

The last, most important thing I really needed to tackle to set myself up to have any time to write in 2019, was address my professional workload. In 2018, I was doing far more work than the managers in my Department realized. I won’t go into details on how I am doing this, but I am actively working with them to solve for my volume, so I have a reasonable workload moving forward.

2019: A Year of Deep Writing

2019 is the year of the Pig according to the Chinese zodiac. The pig represents happiness and prosperity. (Book deal? : )) As a Rabbit in the year of the Pig, I am told by one website, an excellent year awaits me.

So, in this excellent year sure to be excellent for writing as much as anything, here’s my writing plan:

  1. Large weekly blocks for going deep: Arriving at emotional truths requires time, particularly for me because I am wading in deeper than I have before. I can’t go deep with my typical stolen hour before the rest of the house wakes up, half-hour on the bus going to and from work or distracted hour while my daughter is in her aerial dance class. Those have their place, but don’t generate depth. Each week that I’m not doing personal (see #2) and monthly (see #3) retreats, (or on vacation or hosting visitors), I will calendar three-hour blocks for working on my writing.  
  2. Personal writing retreats: This year, I will take a day off from work for a personal writing retreat each quarter. I have the vacation time to make it happen.
  3. Mini group retreats: For the past several years, I have attended one or two writing retreats annually with the same four to six women. This spring, we are planning to mini retreat once a month. We will meet at different locations (each other’s home, coffee shops, libraries) for five-hour blocks or writing with some read aloud and feedback at the end.
  4. Group weekend retreats: This year, I hope to have two weekend-long writing retreats with that group of women.
  5. Content: This blog will be my space for working out new angles and new writing territory.

All of these retreats are going on my calendar as soon as I post this.

Here’s to abundant writing from a place of authenticity in 2019!

Rabbie and the Drowned Lands

Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.  – Henry David Thoreau

Around my twenty-first birthday, when the wooded hillsides were littered with bloodroot, I drove from my college in Vermont to my parents’ home in New York on the southern end of Lake Champlain. On the dirt road leading to their house, I spotted three bright-eyed kits tumbling out of a hole under the roots of a tree.

Six months later and thirty yards further, I spotted something white on the dirt road. I slowed to a stop and got out. It was a white rabbit lying on its side, fur mussed and yellowed on her hip. She cocked her head, looking at me.

Closer, I saw that her left back leg jagged out at an odd angle. I leaned down, palms pressed against my knees. She was alert, but not panicked.

Her condition, I surmised, had developed over time. Once domestic, she had either escaped or had been set free to survive in the wild. A car, perhaps a steel trap, had broken her leg and the bone hadn’t set right. Hobbled, she was starving.

If I left her there, she would probably die in days. There was resignation in her eyes. Maybe the vixen that lived under that nearby tree would find her. That would be merciful. But in her eyes, too, I saw that she didn’t want to die. Now, more than ever, I understood this.  

She was practically weightless. Opening the passenger-side door, I cradled her in one arm. I set her on the floormat.

Against the electric blue autumnal Adirondack sky, leaves blazed tangerine, pomegranate and lemon. As we crested the hillside, Rabbie lifted her head. Her eyes searched around her.

“Your okay, “I said. I meant she was safe – no rabbit stew. I knew not to promise that she would ultimately be okay. I was learning that that didn’t always happen.

At the terminus of the dirt road I pulled through the archway Dad had crafted of skinny cedars cut on their forty acres, bark still on. It was tall enough to accommodate his tallest sailboat. I parked next to their white-trimmed, green farmhouse wedged between a forested hillside and Lake Champlain.

Mom stepped out of the kitchen door. “Oh Crystal…” Her voice was full of emotion. She held her arms up and out as she approached.

What did she see? Did she notice the hard angles of my shoulders and hips under clothing that hung loose on me? The dullness in my eyes? That I had no smile?

She hadn’t seen me since May when Abe had dropped to the lawn and banged his arms on the ground. “I love your daughter,” he had yelled. “And I’m going to marry her and take care of her. I’m going to protect her.” He told her, too, that she was manipulative and – his favorite word – insecure.

Mom told Abe she was shocked. She had been nothing but nice to him, treated him like family, welcomed him into her house, then this. In that act, he had violated the unspoken rule to let what lay between me and my mother be ours and ours alone. Mom told me she wanted nothing to do with me if I was with him. After that, we spoke once over the phone. She had never seen Dad cry like he had cried, she told me.

Eventually, I left Abe, but not for them. I had left for me.

My chest tightened, and I couldn’t meet her gaze. “I found someone,” I said instead. I opened the passenger door.

The hug never happened. Instead I showed her Rabbie, explained where I found her.

“This is you,” she said. “Rabbie is your animal totem.”

My muscles stiffened.

What I missed then and realize now is that I am a rabbit, at least on the Chinese zodiac.

I carried Rabbie in, then returned to the car for the backpack that contained the only clothes I had lived with for months. In the house, I found Mom in her Boston rocker, Rabbie wrapped in a towel in her arms. She rocked vigorously, tenderly. Her black reading half glasses with their chain sat on the end of her nose. She cooed to Rabbie like she would a baby, sang old fashioned nursery songs to her.

My chest was leaden. I needed space and fresh air. I stepped onto the front porch. The air was cool, yet the sun was lightly warm on my skin. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere left to go.

That night, when Dad, home from his job at the paper mill, was puttering in the front yard, I searched him out and told him that Mom was driving me crazy pretending that rabbit was me, that its fate and mine were tied.

“She lost you for a while”, Dad looked at me.

Hearing these words from him, I realized I was not the first person she had lost.

More lightly, he said, “She missed you and she’s worried for you.”

The next day, I brought Rabbie to a vet who had agreed to look at her at no cost because of the nature of how we found her. She had likely been hit by a car, might have internal injuries, might not make it. I shared this news with Mom later.

“If we can heal Rabbie, we can heal you,” Mom told me.

I said nothing.

Two days later we awoke to find that Rabbie had died in the night.

Mom cried.

I didn’t. Any space I could have had for grief was consumed by Mom’s grief and her concern for what the death of that rabbit meant for me.

Dad buried Rabbie in the front yard where the thick, green lawn crested in a small hill. Standing there, you could look across the railroad tracks through the trees, now shedding their leaves, to the expanse of Lake Champlain once referred to by the Mohawk as the Drowned Lands.   

The Meaning of Christmas?

This Christmas story has been begging to get onto the page, but I’ve only just now had the time to get it down.


Are there certain things in your life – situations – that leave your breath shallow? Stop your prana flowing? Tighten your gut?

“[insert state here] Native” bumper stickers and anti-newcomer attitudes have this effect on me. (As I write this post, by number of years I am a quarter each Californian, Vermonter, New Yorker and Coloradan.) I am native to nowhere.

For a colleague at work, Christmas has this same effect. She grew up in a Jewish household, observing the world going crazy for this holiday year after year – parties, green, white and red everything, singing, Christmas trees, endless carols, ads – left out.

Then there are the people whose health is failing, who have experienced so much trauma, so much loss, are lonely, whose parents couldn’t afford to give them gifts, or who believe their lives aren’t nearly as perfect as the rest of their Facebook friends’ appear to be. Holidays – specifically Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s and Father’s Day – are loaded days.

When I was little, Christmas was all about family. It was about sitting on one of Dad’s knees, while my brother occupied the other. Mom stood at the stove stirring a bubbling pot of spaghetti sauce, sipping a Scotch and soda now and again, half listening, interjecting comments. Dad, Miller Lite on his breath, told the Rated G version of his survival on the ocean. He was cold and alone in the life raft, hands tucked in his armpits for warmth. Waves swamped the raft, he bailed. All he could think of was us. For much of the second day, he sang Silent Night.

For this part of the story, Dad sang/bellowed – strong, deep, off key.

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright.

Round yon vir—r-gin mother and child…

Here, Dad paused. “Mom was the mother, you,” he tilted his head toward my brother, “the child.”

My brother’s eyes glowed.

Holy infant so tender and mild.

“You were the infant, tender and mild,” he told me.

Our family has never been Christian by any stretch. Growing up, when Dad asserted that he was Christian because he followed the Golden Rule, Mom laughed. “You are no Christian.” It wasn’t until we were on vacation – Mom, my brother and me (Dad was working) – in Downeast Maine, that I first darkened the door of a church. We didn’t love Silent Night because we were Christian, we loved it because it was the story that had kept hope in Dad’s heart and ultimately kept our family together. It was a song about us.

Over the years, Christmas came to mean different things to me. In third grade, Christmas was about being in a new environment, New York, 3,000 miles from the only place I had known, Dad still in California in the days leading up to the holiday. In fourth and fifth grade, the Bologna and Hamburger Helper Years, when Mom and Dad frequently needed money from one grandmother or the other to pay the utility bill, Christmas was about Dad working double and triple overtime to give us Christmases to make most of my classmates jealous, then on Christmas Day, passing out exhausted in his recliner, not awake to see us open our presents. (It was the Gift of the Magi – he didn’t realize that him watching us open the presents, us being together as a family, was more important than the presents themselves.

Over the years, Christmas was also about making sugar cookies with Gramma, turkey dinners, Gramma’s bizarre-tasting eggnog, her glittery gold bell that played Christmas music when I pulled the string on the pine cone clapper and making gifts for my family. Christmas was holiday traditionals sung in the school choir.

In my early twenties, one Christmas was about spending the day in the residential behavioral treatment house where I worked, standing in for parents of those children, watching them open their stockings and gifts, making cookies with them, watching movies and sledding.

Today, Christmas is about my children’s excitement as we speed through the darkest days of the year toward vacation,days spent in pajamas, baking, not leaving the house except to walk our dog.

In 1977, to a congregation in San Francisco, Christmas was a sermon about faith, my mother’s faith, that my dad was alive and he would return to us, about her, against all odds, never doubting.

In the lead up to this past Christmas, Christmas 2018, I learned of the meaning of my family’s ordeal to a man I have never, to my knowledge, met. On December 9th, I accepted a Facebook friend request from a man I didn’t know. I had done the usual check to determine if this man was in fact a weird fake account. He wasn’t. Minutes later, I received a message.

I’m an old friend of your dad. I helped him during the search for him in the seventies. Please let me know what happened to him. [His first mate] was also a friend.  

Dad’s first mate, EL, we’ll call him, was Dad’s friend. EL didn’t survive beyond the first day. In the middle of this story, I must interrupt and note that for EL’s family, Christmas probably holds a different meaning. I don’t know for sure. Out of shame, survivor’s guilt or who-knows-what impulse, Dad never to this day connected with EL’s family. From Dad’s telling, Thanksgiving of 1977, just a month earlier, EL hugged his son and daughter when they passed, kissed the tops of their heads, he kept his arm wrapped around his girlfriend’s waist as he cooked. Does his family still honor him at Christmas? Is Christmas a time of loss and sorrow? Is he just a dim memory? I don’t know.

Other messages followed. That this man had met my Dad in prayer out on the ocean. And this:

Can you please tell him I decided we could do a movie on the experience?

 Over the years growing up, I overhead Dad on the phone giving a polite, but firm no thank you to an author who wanted to tell his story. Without permission (not that it is needed), a chapter in one of the Chicken Soup books is about Dad’s story. Another collection of sea tales from the Northern California coast barely disguises our story. Soon after Dad’s rescue, the life raft manufacturer asked him if he would make a commercial. Dad tole me he “nearly clocked” the company’s representative who spoke to him.

I shrank inward. Why did I accept this friend request? What have I gotten myself into?

Then these words from this man:

                I am now in very poor health, but I will give the okay for my part.

Was he delusional? What movie? I let what to do toss around in my mind – unfriend him and forget about it or talk to Dad. There was no harm, I decided, in me talking to Dad, and my heart had softened some reading he was in poor health. This had to be of importance to him to reach out after all these years. I called Dad.

From there, in conversations with Dad and messages from this man, I learned his life was a mess on December 20, 1977. He was a Vietnam vet, a drunk, on welfare, unable to earn a living.  When he learned of Dad’s boat sinking, he made a promise to God to stop drinking if Dad was found. This man spent the last of his money calling the Coast Guard, begging them not to give up on the search. He put out a jar in a local restaurant, raising money he later brought to us.

The first thing your dad did outside of reconnecting with family was to come to my trailer with a poinsettia. I cried. God helped me to stop drinking. My life turned around. I learned computing and went into business. The whole event – Christmas, Blessed Redeemer, my miracle, your Dad’s miracle – we all changed in a big way.

In the year or two after the boat sank and the house burned, Dad built a pontoon boat for making movies and commercials. The movie company was talking to my dad about making a movie about his experience. Dad told them they should include this man’s story, too. Dad had approached him, asked if he would share his story. At the time, the man said no. His experience with God was personal.

                I was just answering a 40-year-old question in a different way.

As for my Jewish friend so alienated by the annual onslaught of Christmas nonsense, this year we served together on a four-woman party planning committee for our work group’s End of Year Celebration. Because she influenced the party planning, because our committee discussed our radically different orientation’s to the holidays – family, Yule, meh, Jewish – I saw something in her soften. She could set the terms of that holiday party, so at risk of being influenced by its near neighbor Christmas. She suggested the White Elephant gift exchange and the Ugly holiday apparel contest. (She showed up in an “ugly” lighted Hogwarts sweater.) Day of the party, whenever I saw her, she was smiling.