bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Harvest Moon

by Lisa Conquet

It was our seventh anniversary, but being first time parents made our marriage seem new again. Still, I struggled to focus on this exciting beginning while I was dealing with another life coming to an end. It was past evening visiting hours when my mother sent me home. Staying as late as possible had become our daily ritual. On this night, the doctor and nurses were impressed with her turn-around. Her fever was down, her stats were normal, and they told me she was out of the woods. Both the doctors and my mother insisted I go home and get some rest.

I held her hand and looked right in her eyes, “Are you sure you want me to go?” She smiled at me, “I feel better. Go home and at least have a late dinner with your husband. Besides, it’s cold in here and you should be wearing a sweater.” She winked while squeezing my hand and I was relieved to feel some strength … and warmth. I lingered a bit longer, hoping my idle chatter could fill the void of my conspicuously absent siblings. Two extra visitors’ chairs had sat empty for weeks, since the first day they promised to come, then used traffic and distance as an excuse to opt out.

I slowly walked to the door, then stopped and suggested I call the house so she could say goodnight to my daughter. She and her granddaughter spoke briefly, then she said something that caused a noticeable shift in my level of confidence, “Grandma will always love you, goodbye my precious.” She never said “goodbye”. It was so strange to hear, and it stayed in my ears like the phantom shadow that remains after staring at a naked light bulb.

My mother was in a hospital forty minutes from my siblings, but just down the road from the sweet dollhouse where my baby girl would soon be fast asleep in her crib. I got home quickly, with enough time for my husband and I to piece together a dinner, but I could not feel celebratory.

Too worried to sleep and too exhausted to stay awake, I lay in bed in that odd mental space that allows you to remember dreams and merge them with the days’ thoughts. I dreamed a future with my mother living in the new house we were planning to build. I dreamed her watching my daughter playing with the siblings she did not yet have. I dreamed a house filled with love and laughter. I dreamed until I drifted off.

The phone pierced the peaceful silence of that autumn night. I knew what I would hear as I fumbled for the receiver. Today, I can’t be sure if the voice was male or female, I just know it said, “Come back, she won’t make it through the night.”

I do remember grabbing that sweater, cozy and wool, an optimistic gift from her that never fit my wardrobe but became my security that fall. Like a blanket, it gave comfort and a warm embrace during those lonely nights when the cold chill of knowledge lingered in quiet hospital corners and the wind wrestled the remaining stubborn leaves to the ground.

As I pulled that sweater over the t-shirt I had been sleeping in, I frantically dialed my brother. I begged him, “Come now.”  I knew there would be no visiting hours for her tomorrow. My siblings would have no more opportunity for an excuse not to show up … again. I called my sister who protested—it was late, her car wasn’t working, it was a long drive—she always had excuses. I told her to ride with our brother, or hitchhike, but get here.

I drove blindly, blinking back tears, my throat filled with a scream that had no sound. I wiped my eyes as I turned onto the empty highway and found myself staring in disbelief at the oversized, red-orange moon hanging before me. My heavy heart tried to soar but any hope was tied to the weight of reality.

When I arrived there was chaos, a patient was coding, nurses raced a crash cart down the hall. I held my breath. I crossed my arms. I tried to find warmth in the sweater. I knew. I walked slowly in the wake of the scrambling nurses and doctors. I heard them yelling, “Come on, your daughter is on her way,” and their collective sigh when the heartbeat returned.

I hesitated. She had a DNR order. They all knew that. Yet they did every thing they could to bring her back. I backed down the hall a bit and watched them hurriedly clean out the room. I slowly walked up to the nurse’s station to ask how my mother was doing. She looked up and stared for a second. I pretended. She played along. “She’s not doing very well. Really, you need to say your goodbyes.”

I called my brother again. They hadn’t left Queens. My sister was stalling. My brother was angry. I knew they would not make it, still I insisted they come. I really wanted them to show up for her, just once. I caught my breath and went into her room. Her skin was no longer pale, but ashen, the sad remains of what once offered so much warmth and light.

I kissed her forehead, and was startled by how cold it felt. I grabbed her icy hand and told her I would not leave her alone. I felt as if she sighed, but really it was just the machine breathing for her. I told her they would be here soon. I so rarely lied to my mother. I told her the baby was sleeping and dinner was good, though I couldn’t tell you what I ate.

I talked until the priest arrived to give her the last rights. We prayed. I checked the clock. I knew she was waiting for them. She always waited for them. They were always late, if they showed at all. The machine faltered, or she did. The nurse flew in to check. My mom had been here for a while, and I could see in the nurse’s eyes my mother had found a way into her heart. She looked at me solemnly and took a deep breath. As she exhaled, the machines began screaming and the code was announced again. I was hurried out the door. The doctor came to me, “Your mother has a DNR …”

I looked into his eyes and they softened. I thought for a moment about the magnitude of the decision I was about to make. One never thinks they’d be so casually dressed for something as important as deciding if your mother should live, even if it’s only for a few more minutes.

I held his eyes as I spoke. “I know, but let’s see if we can keep her here until they come to say goodbye.” So they ran in and I watched the flurry of activity. A well orchestrated dance of madness. Purposefully attempting the impossible … again. To what end?

They did all they could. I know. I watched. They … we … ignored the inevitable until it became too obvious. Finally, the doctor looked up at the clock and I knew. Instinctively, I checked my watch as well. Yet, just like when someone asks you the time seconds after you’ve looked at your watch, I had no clue what time it was. At that moment the past and future collided, leaving a present filled with pain.

Moments later I heard a mournful howl in the hall. I knew it was my sister. My siblings had finally arrived. As usual, they were late. This time, she would not forgive them. This time, they would not forgive themselves.

That fall I let go of my mother … and my family. My siblings blamed me for their missed opportunity to say goodbye and stopped speaking to me.

I donated that sweater in the spring.

Lisa Conquet grew up in NYC where she thrived on the energy and the mix of cultures that reflected her own blended heritage. The city fed her soul and her love of words. As a copywriter for a Madison Avenue ad agency, she utilized her psychology degree to entice consumers, then went back to school and turned the tables. Now she is a psychotherapist who uses poetry to help her clients. Lisa has had many work related health and wellness pieces published without a byline. She has also been published in Babble and her poetry was recently published in The Ekphrastic Review. She is working on a poetry collection about motherhood and loss as well as a guided journal to be used in conjunction with therapy.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Appalachian Eulogy

by Robert Dugan

          I grunted while wrestling the heavy, dusty box wedged in crawl space of my apartment. I had outgrown the cramped place, and my teacher’s salary allowed me to purchase my first home. In preparation for the move, I divided my possessions neatly into two piles. One held the things I would take with me; the other I would donate to a local thrift store. The destiny of the current box was unknown as I dragged it from its lightless resting place. I pulled the box into the open air through a flurry of coughs and sneezes.

I opened the box, and a face stared up from a pile of crinkled photographs. The face was that of a young man who sat in a small plastic kiddie pool wearing torn Levi’s, an oversized belt buckle, and a camouflage ball cap. There was a scuffed, golden fishing hook bent around the bill. A cigarette dangled from his lip, and he held a beer in his hand. There was a pile of cash on the coffee table in front of him. He couldn’t have been older than eighteen or nineteen. I studied him for a moment, ashamed that it took me so long to remember a good friend.
A redneck from Roanoke, Chris drove a red Camaro with peeling and pock-marked clear coat. His southern drawl deepened toward incomprehensibility the more he drank; I loved the musicality in his speech and the way he spoke in southern aphorisms. We were part of an inseparable group of friends joined by our shared fondness for engines and alcohol.
          The night I took this picture eleven of us were jammed into Jake’s trailer back in the woods. Jake and I had been childhood friends. His father died of alcoholism and left him a house, fifty thousand dollars, and a social security check. He’d pissed it all away by the time he was seventeen.
It was a Friday, pay day. Jake added his wages from his job sweeping factory floors to the pile of cash on the table. I hunkered in the threadbare chair and listened to their planning. I’d begun to tire of their constant pill chasing.
“How much we got all together?” Jake asked.
“About eighteen hundred,” Chris replied.
“Make sure and save forty for pizza,” I added.
“Call Doddy and get him over here to make a sale,” Chris said.
“Already done. He said he’d be here in thirty.” Jake shuffled the cash together and removed two twenty-dollar bills. Varsity Blues played from a VCR connected to the flat screen. I took a sip of my whiskey and crushed my cigarette in the ashtray before lighting another. I’d never seen so much cash up close.
It would buy a lot of pills and many hours of oblivion.
We’d graduated from drinking and smoking in our parents’ basements. We used to raid their liquor cabinets and replace what we’d taken with water. We prayed they wouldn’t notice a missing pack from a carton of Camel Lights. Things were a lot different now.
I could hear someone crushing the last of the old pills on the kitchen counter behind me.
“When you gonna get in on this?” Jake asked.
He’d been pressuring me to join everyone else snorting pills.
“Leave him alone,” Chris said. “If he don’t want to, he don’t have to. He’s got good grades. Let him drink his Jack and smoke if that’s all he wants to do.” Chris was a couple years older than us and had more perspective. He worked for a mom and pop tiling outfit. He was skilled enough to work, but not certified, so he struggled to make a living wage. He hadn’t advanced since high school, unable to afford an education. I watched him work and spend, resigned to a wretched circular existence. He knew how life would change after high school. He knew enough to realize that whatever grand ambitions we held would devolve into Appalachian hopelessness. I appreciated that he took it on himself to defend my restraint to the others and wanted to believe that he admired my discipline, my ability to say “no,” that he respected my good grades and envied my stable home life.
Doddy’s headlights shone through the front window glass and obscured my view of the TV. He stumbled in through the front door, eyes glassy. “Hydros are eight, so are percs. Oxy is twelve a pill. How do you want it mixed?”
“Just give us a little of everything.” Jake handed over the money.
Doddy counted out the pills, and just like that, a week’s wages for a group of young men walked out the door.
Chris cut up the first pill from the newly acquired baggy on a ceramic tile that sat on the coffee table.
The pills, the pizza, and what was left of the money were gone by Sunday morning.
Pills were more expensive than heroin, but the guys rationalized their purchase through denial. Pills had none of the social stigma of heroin, which seemed the stereotypical drug for the hardcore addict. Heroin use represented an indictment, the acknowledgement that they had moved from occasional drug use to dependence. For a time, they paid more to be able to say that they did not do heroin. But eventually the price of denial became too high, heroin, too cheap. When they finally gave in, they snorted it for a time. Shooting it seemed a step too far.

When I started my first semester of college, little by little I parted ways with my friends. Once I was exposed to more people and greater ideas, I chose Saturday night study groups over weekend parties at the trailer. In time, I replaced my old drinking buddies with English professors and education majors.
I had been walking to my car after a class when an unfamiliar number rang my phone. It was Jake. All he said was, “Chris is dead. Overdose. Viewing is Friday. I hate to be so short man, but I got a lot of people to call.” Jake hung up without waiting for me to ask questions. I was shocked, and sorrow hit me hard.
They’d found Chris dead with a needle in the back of his arm among a pile of dirty laundry. Chris didn’t look real lying in the casket with his ball cap on. The fishing hook crimped around the bill reflected the glow of the overhead lights. I wondered if the morticians polished it when they did his makeup and stitched his lips closed.
“Chris loved cars and fishing.” The minister stated flatly as he looked down at his notecards. I resented the old man for giving the eulogy. The speech meant to immortalize him in our memories should’ve been given by the friends he had left behind. His grandmother had taken quick control of the funeral arrangements. She cut many of Chris’s friends out of ceremony in an effort to minimize attention to the way he died. The ceremony would be tightly controlled, the minister the only speaker. “It’s a difficult thing when the Lord takes such a young life. Chris was in the fullness of his vigor, but like all life, he was suffering. He’s gone home to be with Jesus now, to be clothed in the splendor of his glory, to walk without pain or torment for all eternity.” The irony of the minister’s words gave my grief a jagged edge. Chris was an atheist; of that I was certain. The minister’s words were for Chris’s grandparents, not for us.
When the preaching concluded, we stood and filed past the casket. After I said my goodbyes, I turned to leave, facing the family. I struggled to avoid eye contact with everyone gathered to mourn his passing as I made my way down the aisle. I was ashamed. I knew I played no part in his overdose, but I felt complicit in it.
I hadn’t seen the bulk of my old friends in years. I’d stopped coming around once I started college, once heroin entered the picture. At the time of Chris’s funeral, I was in the midst of student teaching and wrestled with a schedule that left little time for socializing or drunkenness, and I was worried that, despite my successful resistance thus far, I would find myself addicted to something far worse than Marlboros.     
We left the funeral hall and headed to the FoodLion parking lot to sit on tailgates and bench seats, a familiar and comforting ritual. I was the last to arrive, and I noticed that Chris’s usual spot was empty. I imagined the faded red Camaro sitting on the cracked asphalt between the barely perceptible white lines. I made a lap around the parking lot just like I used to and drove up to a warm greeting. I parked, got out, and lit a cigarette. One by one, I met the eyes of those around me, lingering on each person for just a moment.
We caught up and took stock of everything that had changed between us and within us. Our tight-knit group had splintered into several smaller ones, divided along the lines of what was considered acceptable substance abuse. But for that brief time, all of those divisions melted away. Tragedy brought us a fleeting togetherness we thought we’d lost. We picked up where we’d left off. We talked about the days before life became so complicated, before we’d experienced loss, and for those few precious hours we were together, unencumbered and honoring memories of Chris.
As we were starting our goodbyes, Jake grabbed a can of white spray paint from a truck bed tool box and sprayed Chris’s name in big, sloppy letters in his empty parking space. We all contemplated the awkwardly-drawn letters, and then one after the other we left the scene, the roar of muscle cars and lifted trucks underscoring our vandalism.  
Now, years later, I barely recognize that young man in those photos, with his smirk, the cigarette dangling from his lip. I struggle to recall the names of all of those young men I once held so dear, and I wonder if any of the others have died. I have grown so far away from them, and from that place we made for ourselves. I’ve traveled the country and expanded my worldview. I have my own family. I earned a Master’s degree in education. I run my own classroom and am regarded as an expert in my field. I now have kids of my own, one natural, but hundreds more who I work hard to guide as a teacher.
I still make my old lap around the Food Lion parking lot, though only after buying groceries. On Friday nights, teenagers still gather under the florescent lights. They sit in the same spot that we did a decade ago, smoking cigarettes and talking. The spray-painted memorial has been covered by fresh asphalt. As I pass them and they wave, excited to see their teacher outside of school, I survey the faces, and in some of them I see someone from my past, someone nearly forgotten.

Robert Dugan lives in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia with his wife and daughter. “Appalachian Eulogy” is his first publication. He teaches creative writing and secondary English. He hopes to teach his students to find strength in writing about their life experiences. He wants to thank Anne Larson for encouraging him to seek publication and his wife for her unwavering support.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Becoming a Real Girl

by Pam Munter

I was never much good at becoming a girl and I loathed every bit of the relentless indoctrination.
Early family photos either show me looking uncomfortable in frilly girl’s clothing or smiling broadly while wearing my preferred dirty jeans and tee shirt. My mother offered to teach me to cook, but I had no interest. Sewing was completely a non-starter. I wanted to be outside, hitting a tennis ball against the wall or riding my bike around the neighborhood. When my mother decided I had earned too many Girl Scout merit badges, she refused to sew anymore on the sash “because it might hurt the other girls’ feelings.” When I was in the first grade, I wanted to be called Phil. An outlier at an early age.
All this is coming up now because I’ve been having phone conversations with my junior high school Homemaking teacher. We first met over sixty years ago, a time when becoming a paragon of the socially acceptable female was a more urgent matter than it is today.
In the 1950s, girls were expected to learn the gender-based domestic arts to train for their foreordained positions of wife and mother. The only women I knew with a real job were my teachers and all of them were married. I felt as if I were living in a parallel universe. I didn’t want to sit around and gossip over coffee every morning, make fun of men’s foibles, or mold a rug rat into some better version of myself. So I went my own way, not an easy road in that unforgiving sex-role stereotyped era.
Contrary to conventional expectation, however, junior high provided a sense of freedom and worth, an oasis of achievement and recognition. I thrived in band and drama, excelled in English and social studies, and looked forward to PE every single day. Eighth grade would have been just about perfect if it hadn’t been for that dumb requirement all girls had to take Homemaking.
I walked into the Homemaking class that first day to a noisy room of eighth grade girls, spotless kitchen appliances adorning every wall, and a youthful-looking teacher smiling at us in optimistic expectation.
“Welcome to Homemaking class, girls. I’m Mrs. Potts.”
I laughed derisively.
“Is she kidding?” I asked my best friend Jacquie Weiss sitting next to me. Jacquie never took her eyes off the teacher. I could see she was transfixed.
“She’s so pretty,” Jacquie cooed. I hadn’t noticed, but I saw how perky and animated she seemed, her long dark brown ponytail bobbing around with every movement. She didn’t look that much older than we were.
Jacquie and I had been friends since the fourth grade when we met as we walked to school. We were an odd pair from the start. Jacquie was gawky with frizzy hair and a big nose. I was chunky, already a victim of persistent acne and my blonde hair always seem to go in its own malevolent direction. Mrs. Potts was perpetually pulled together, dauntingly so. I was not happy to be in there at all and, as the days wore on, I began to look at her as a daily reminder of the woman I could never be. I was both repulsed by the assigned meaningless tasks and yet fascinated by the teacher expecting me to do them. My way of dealing was passive-aggressive resistance. When we had projects like baking cookies, I leaned on my baking partner to make the decisions. I became the flamboyant official taster. As the students were entering the room each day, I wrote a mordant aphorism on the board or some sarcastic comment I had cadged from a joke book. I quoted H. L. Mencken: “A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.” Or, “If you can smile when everything is going wrong, you’ve found someone else to blame.” A thirteen-year-old wisecracking iconoclast is hard to stop.
Jacquie’s approach was more direct. She hung around after class as long as possible, asking her questions.
“I saw an E in your signature. What does that stand for?” This was a cheeky question in this era, a time when there was a strict wall between student and teacher. Knowing a teacher’s first name was pure gold even if moot, as we never would and never could use it.
“My first name is Elizabeth but my friends call me Liddy.”
This was a major coup for Jacquie. We had always been competitive, at least I was. But this was a contest I didn’t think I wanted to win. I let Jacquie do the reconnaissance and continued to hide behind sarcasm and trenchancy, my go-to demeanor in adolescence. And yet I wondered who this alien being might be. Liddy Potts? Really?
To her credit, Mrs. Potts never stopped my blackboard protests. I knew I was pushing the limits of convention but she treated me as she did all the other girls, with warmth and friendliness. It was confusing.
I had already found two strong female role models among my teachers who were much more to my liking: my drama teacher, who good-naturedly challenged me at every turn, and my band teacher, whose warmth was exceeded only by her wry sense of humor. Mrs. Potts was running a distant third. I decided to cede her to Jacquie. While I made it eminently clear who I did not want to be, Jacquie had long ago decided her fondest dream was to be a wife and mother, a sort of Mrs. Potts without the professional career.
I had thought of Mrs. Potts from time to time—on my wedding day; when lecturing on the role of sex-role stereotypes while teaching a class on the Psychology of Women; and, oddly enough, as I walked to the podium to deliver my keynote address before 2000 people at an International Women’s Day conference in the 1970s. I didn’t understand the reasons for these flashbacks but they were surely there.
The years and decades passed. Jacquie and I reconnected on Facebook. She had, indeed, become a housewife and mother, living in a small town in Northwest Washington. I became a collector of college degrees on my way toward becoming a clinical psychologist and a writer, among other things. I did marry and have a son. A year after the divorce, I met a woman with whom I shared my life for three decades.
With the passage of time and a senescent sense of responsibility, I decided to contact those few teachers who had impacted me so I could thank them. The older I grew, the more aware I had become of their overarching influence. My band teacher had tragically died of diseases related to alcoholism and Alzheimer’s; my drama teacher and I exchanged a few emails, had dinner once, but she died soon afterwards. I Googled Mrs. Potts and found she was teaching ballet in Oregon. I emailed her and she answered almost immediately, asking me to call her.
Unexpectedly, I felt the flush of that familiar adolescent anxiety. Call my Homemaking teacher on the phone? The formality of the past clung like cobwebs inside my head. But I did make the call, and she sounded happy to hear from me.
“Mrs. Potts? Um. Liddie? It’s hard for me to call you that.”
She laughed. “It’s OK. Call me what you wish.”
“I am surprised you remembered me. It has been, what, well over five or six decades, right?”
“That long? Of course, I remembered you. Really, you’re the one I do remember from all my years of teaching.”
I paused to take that in and inhaled deeper than necessary. I was afraid to ask, but I did.
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know. There was something about you. I could tell you needed something from me, but I didn’t know what it was.”
Of course, she was right. I needed her acceptance, her reassurance that I was OK as I was, that it was perfectly fine if I didn’t fit the feminine stereotype. It was more important coming from her because, as a teacher of the “feminine arts,” she was the avatar of the cliché I was expected to approximate.
We chatted for a few more minutes, then she told me she was coming to stay with her cousin just a few miles from where I lived in Palm Desert, California. Would I be up for a visit?
“Absolutely,” I quickly responded. Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted that to happen. Did I want to be reminded of my obstreperous past? A time that was painful, poignant and uncertain? And yet, maybe I could learn more about myself and answer a few leftover questions I had about her.
Twenty years earlier, I had written an autobiography and more recently, recorded a CD at Capitol Records. I sent both of them to her with trepidation. She was not mentioned in the book in favor of the other two role models and I hoped her feelings wouldn’t be hurt. It turned out she didn’t read much of it. I wondered why.
I had quickly decided not to serve lunch because the mere thought of preparing something to eat for my former Homemaking teacher was too fraught with anxiety. It was bad enough that she would inspect my interior decorating. I could still remember the lecture about how to file one’s nails (in only one direction) but I knew I had missed other more relevant Homemaking tips. I had a fear of being graded again.
A few weeks later, the doorbell rang. I opened it and saw an older Mrs. Potts, but the same bubbly elfin woman I had observed so long ago—and still wearing the ponytail, now completely gray. We hugged and she sat down on the couch. I brought her up to date, briefly outlining the past fifty years or so, and she did the same. Her husband had died many years earlier, leaving her with three children. They had lived in a remodeled schoolhouse, where she was now teaching classes in bodywork and providing an occasional B&B retreat for groups wanting a bucolic place to meet. At a pause in the conversation, she looked down at her lap.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course.”
Her big brown eyes met mine like a laser. “Why were you so angry back then?”
          It was the ghost of Jacob Marley coming back to haunt me for my misdeeds. But, needless to say, she had nailed it. I thought I was being funny and clever and hadn’t experienced it as anger.
I gave her a perfunctory, abbreviated answer but knew I’d have to think more about this. Whatever I told her was enough, apparently. We moved on to more casual conversation and she left, promising to write.
Over the next ten years or so she sent me her Xeroxed Christmas letter, adding a few personal sentences. I wrote back, telling her what I was doing. Then last December in her annual note, she said she wanted to call me and asked for my phone number.
Two months passed and I wondered if she had become ill or even had died. By now she would be eighty-seven or so, living alone in that big schoolhouse. Then the night of the Oscars, I was preparing for bed about ten o’clock when the phone rang. The caller ID told me it was E. Potts. Liddie.
“I’m so glad to hear from you. How are you?”
She told me she had been ill for more than a year, lacking energy and losing lots of weight. It didn’t sound good.
“I read your book finally and listened to the CD, trying to hear what you were trying to do with each song.”
This was a different Liddie than the one I had entertained in my living room years before. When she referred to my book, she didn’t seem to realize it had been over thirty years since it was published. She was confused. Her thoughts wandered.
“I was such a young teacher then. We aren’t so far apart in age, you know.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll be seventy-four next month.”
“That’s young!” we both laughed and then she added. “You’re the only student I’ve ever talked with outside of class. I have thought about you through the years.”
I was stunned. “Oh, yeah? Why is that?” I kept my tone of voice casual but steeled myself, afraid to hear what she might say.
Her voice grew louder. “You made it clear: ‘I don’t want to be here.’”
That made me laugh again. I guess an adolescent is no expert in subtlety. She continued, “I didn’t know what to do with you. I had taken classes in education and psychology, but I wasn’t prepared for that. Or for you.”
“Looking back on it now, I was intimidated, I think. You were pretty, effervescent, accomplished in the areas in which I had no interest or aptitude, and feminine—everything I wasn’t.”
She seemed surprised at this characterization. While I had sensed her openness to conversations like this, she didn’t seem a habitually reflective person. Then I realized she was seeking information about who she was then, just as I had been.
“You know, I told you I’m finishing up a degree in creative writing. In fact, I just had an essay published about that time in my life. I don’t mention you by name but it mentions what went on for me then. I’d be happy to send it to you, if you’d like.”
“Yeah, I would. I remember you saying when we met that you felt unattractive and fat back then but the photos in your book show you looking thin.”
“Well,” I chuckled, “Do you think I’d show the reader a photo that wasn’t flattering? But my body did change a lot, up and down. My weight was part of the power struggle between my parents. You’ll read about it when I send the essay. Maybe it’ll help answer the question you asked back then about my anger.”
Another pause, this one a little longer.
“I admire the fact you’ve found meaning in these years. I wish I could.” She went on to tell me that she never read a newspaper or watched TV and didn’t keep up with what was happening in the world because it was too distressing. I could hear the sadness in her voice.
Now we were entering the well-trod territory I had once occupied in my role as a clinical psychologist. The next comment I would make could launch me into a different type of relationship with her—helping to guide the last part of my junior high school Homemaking teacher’s life. Almost sixty years ago, she wanted so much to teach me how to be a real girl. Now, in one of life’s many ironies, I was capable of helping her learn the essential skills she would need in her final years. As I carefully chose my words, I thought of it as paying it backwards.

Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986). She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer, and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary, Scarlet Leaf, Down in the Dirt and others. Her play “Life Without” was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.