Gatekeeping (Or How I Spent My Christmas Vacation)

English: Closeup picture of a miniature Christ...

January 4, 2013

Two days after Christmas,
The glow draining from the season,
The caroling voices fall silent.
The tree lights blink mutely at me.


Entering the daily days again is hard.
My husband’s shrill alarm at dawn
He groans his way to the garage
To the refuge of his car before he confronts his day.
And I am again alone
To bear, Atlas-like, the weight of home.


 Downstairs in the afternoon
My daughter, budding in her 16-year-old sexuality,
Sits too close to her new, first boyfriend.
Their intimacy tugs at something in me.
I am unsettled.

At night, my son sneaks from bed
To steal more minutes of video games
Online, with a partner in Finland
Where the day blazes while we (should) sleep.
This is not the first time he’s been seduced into darkness
By the technological siren.

Even the dog, in his wonder of fur
Slinks from the kitchen
Where we’ve given him respite from the rain.
He breaches the firm, invisible line at the kitchen door
Wanting to be with us near the couch.


Here I am
A latter-day Holden Caulfield,
Dismantled tinsel in hand.
I push them back,
Stand firm.
Holding closed that door to freedom for a few years more
Pushing (back) against the boundaries of my heart.


An Aseptic Septic Story

On a cloudy day in November of 2010, I was out walking in the yard. Despite the clouds, it was a dry day here in the Pacific Northwest, something unusual for November. I was just checking on plants, amusing the dog, and breathing the clear air before starting dinner. Walking along the path to the shed, along the retaining wall that runs across our yard, I heard the sound of water running.

Well, not running, exactly. Gushing.

Where there had been no sound of water ever before.

And you know, that’s never a good thing.

I quickly traced the sound to a cascade of water coming over the top of the retaining wall, onto the path just ahead of me. It lasted about a minute, then stopped.

Along with that gush of water came the sort of smell you know means trouble. Slightly sweet, very earthy.


Like most homeowners, I know just enough about the systems attached to our house to be dangerous. When we moved out here several years ago, it was the first time we’d ever owned a property with a septic system. I’d heard about these systems in the Midwest town I grew up in, but they were only for the farms that surrounded the town, for the “country people” as we thought of them. I had no idea then what a septic system was or what it did. Those of us who lived in town just flushed away that stuff in the toilet with no concern for what where it went. And the garbage disposal? Well that was a downright miracle for clearing your kitchen sink, something I came to appreciate later during the years we lived in Japan, where the garbage disposal did not exist.

I recall once trying to describe to my students in Japan what a garbage disposal was and how it worked.

“Where does all that stuff go?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I replied.

But now, we’d bought a house with a septic system and a well, which is quite common in this part of the country. And as good homeowners, we asked neighbors and friends about the system to figure out what we needed to know. How do they work?  How do you know if something goes wrong? And, most importantly, WHAT do you do if something goes wrong?

This far into my life, you’d think I’d have figured out not to ask such questions. It only encourages the horror stories. Tales of murky things seeping from the ground, odors wafting to the sky, and thousands of dollars spent. Tales enough to make your lips curl in fear and disgust. The worst was from a friend who noticed nasty things seeping up in her yard one day.  Forty thousand dollars later, she had herself a brand spanking new septic system, tank and all.

Being the proactive sort, I decided to stave off the possibility that we too might one day have our own septic stories (yes, I recognize the irony here), and so I took up the county on its invitation for new septic owners to take an introductory class about the care and keeping of our systems.  I went – not eagerly (for who is eager to contemplate their own waste processing?) – but resolutely, determined to understand and master our system.

Truth be told, I came home befuddled.  All the jargon – what could it really mean? Sand filters, mounds, baffles, and alarms. The drainfield. Operational certificates. Gravity systems and aerobic treatment. The only thing I was sure of was that our entire property is essentially a sewage system, what with the tank down below on one side of the house, the pumps and pipes to the filter up on the other side, and another pump and pipes pushing the effluent still higher up to the drainfield. No longer could we be oblivious to what we put down the sink.

The other piece of information I managed to glean from the class was that the most fragile systems are the ones with a sand filter.

So what system did I discover we had?

One with a sand filter, of course.

And what could disturb a system with a sand filter?

The answer to that question depends upon whom you ask. And ask I did. As I said, I like to be proactive. Besides bleach, I was told that everything from synthetic cleaning products to plain old white rice could cause problems, and the output of a garbage disposal was definitely forbidden. (Never mind that we do indeed have a disposal; I have become intimate with those drain traps in the shower and kitchen sink.) Essentially, a sand filter fails when the bacteria in the filter, the ones that break down the waste, quit working, leaving the sludge to build up and clog the layers of gravel and sand that filter the water before it’s pumped to the drainfield.

But several years passed and we had no trouble with our system. The only time the alarm went off was during a heavy downpour when the earth couldn’t keep up with the sky and the sensors detected too much water in the area. When the time came for us to renew our operational certificate (by then I’d learned what that was), I called a septic service and watched intently while the inspector removed the lids to the tank, measured the slop inside, cleaned the filters, pumped the sh–, uh, sludge into his truck, and wrote up his report for the county. I even monitored his work on the neighbors’ system when they couldn’t be home for the appointment. (That’s when I learned that, unlike us, our neighbors do not live on a sewage-processing plant. The sludge from their system gets pumped about a quarter mile away to a mound in a pretty little wooded area at the corner of our street and the main road.)

But that November day, when the water cascaded over the wall, I quickly learned how little I’d learned.

I called two different septic service companies to come see what the trouble was, and the diagnosis was what we feared.  A failed sand filter.

The beauty of a sand filter is that it lies below ground and you never know it’s there – until it fails.  That’s when you discover just how impressive the filter can be. In our case, it’s 9 by 42.  Feet. Half our front yard. A space large enough to park our cars, nose to tail, that is if you wanted to park them many feet below ground. The water had been pouring over the retaining wall whenever the pump in the septic tank tried to send fluid into the clogged filter, thus the sporadic nature of our “waterfall.” Several times a day, at precise intervals that matched the timer on the pump, the waterfall would appear.

Once the magnitude of the problem set in, we resigned ourselves to a large sum to be paid out for repair, but not one as large as the county tried to extract from us. In the process of approving the new design and issuing the repair permit, the county officials tried to tell us that, not only did we have to rebuild the sand filter, we had to replace the septic tank as well because it was not “up to code” (a phrase that is really code for “We’re going to suck your wallet dry.”)

I still don’t know much about septic systems, but I know when officials become a bit too officious.  There was nothing at all wrong with the tank, and so I investigated the regulations and talked to another septic designer, who was actually willing to look at the county’s records, unlike the designer we had, who was a little too quick to arrive at our door in his shiny sports car, wearing his well-creased pants, his hand extended for payment.

Finally, the county issued a permit for the rebuild, but it was many months before work began. (You’ll be relieved to know that the septic specialist we hired created a temporary fix to stop that cascade over the wall.)  So, in August of last year, the same month that saw the death of the grand fir tree a few feet up from the sand filter, the work began.  What follows is a pictorial record of that work. Click on the photos, if you like, to see the detail. I promise they’re odor-free.

The work begins. One man. One shovel. One tidy pile of dirt.

The top of the filter is knee deep.

Digging deeper…

And deeper still. The white pipe carries effluent from the tank to the filter.

Three men and a hose. These guys oversee the pumping of sludge to the truck.

Here you can see the layers in the filter: sand and gravel below the pipe, rocks, dirt and the roll of sod.

Sludge is also pumped from the sand filter.

Now comes the big equipment: A large metal dropbox for the excavated guts of the sand filter, and a cute orange digger. The workers laid steel plates across the yard to minimize damage and level the surface for the equipment.

Dig in!


The digger marks out the area. The corners are dug out by hand.


As the wet gravel is pulled up out of the pit, the workers spread “pixie dust” (a concoction of lime) on the pile to help dry the rocks and contain the odor.

Pixie Dust

A couple of the many loads of gravel and sand that were hauled away.

The view through the front door

Digging and dumping.

Once this was a lovely lawn…

But you gotta love guys who are willing to get knee-deep in your muck.


More digging and dumping.

The nearby trees loved getting their roots in the muck.

The empty trench

The ARC infiltrator panels go in. These panels are now installed in filters to increase the drainage area.  The old filter didn’t have them.


Layer by layer, the new sand, gravel, rocks and topsoil go back into place.

The finishing touches.

From the first spadeful of dirt to the last rake-over, the job took about 5 days (and $13, 000 dollars).  Next time we see a waterfall in the yard, it will be one we put there intentionally.

Golden Chains

The small box arrived in the mail on a Tuesday. In it was the gift my mother had sent for my daughter.  It wasn’t her birthday.  There was no special occasion, at least we didn’t think there was.

Mom had called a week earlier to ask if she could send my daughter this gift.  Now in her elder years, she is methodically going through the house sorting through her belongings, deciding what to do with the items accumulated over 80-some years of living.  In the course of cleaning out her jewelry collection, she came across a golden whistle on a long golden chain.  This is the gift she wanted to send to my 12-year-old daughter.

I remember that whistle well.  Once upon a time, Mom had given me an identical one strung on a black silk cord.  She had originally bought four of these whistles, one for herself, one for each of her three daughters.  Always concerned with appearances and good taste, she chose the whistles because they looked like jewelry. If you didn’t look closely, you’d miss the slot on the surface where the air could pass through with its shrill song.  You might think it was just a slender gold pendant worn to complement an outfit.

When the box arrived and my daughter opened it, I recalled my phone conversation with Mom. She had said, “It’s for when she goes somewhere.  You know.”

She gave no further details.  The implication was clear. What’s left unspoken is often more powerful than what is said. The unknown people you meet in unfamiliar places.

That whistle would have been useful for my mother on a day she went shopping in the early 1950s. While shuffling through blouses on a rack in a clothing store, she felt something tug at the back of her skirt.  She turned around to see a man running away.  Perhaps he was only after her purse.

My whistle would have been useful one October evening in 1989, but I didn’t have it yet. I had gone out for a walk at dusk to work off some steam from an argument. It was fall in the South, but the air was still heavy with humidity and the leaves had not yet begun to turn.

As I walked the broad main street, the sky slowly darkening, I sensed a presence trailing me across the boulevard. I glanced back to see a thin, ragged man keeping pace across the street and a few yards back — dark, dirty shirt, a fraying pair of shorts, muddy worn shoes, and a baseball cap on his head.

I continued walking at the same pace, thinking he would turn down a side street, or perhaps outstrip me in his own need to get somewhere. But he kept the same pace for several blocks, the same distance behind me, across the street.

To test his intentions, I picked up my pace slightly, hoping it was simply a coincidence that the man was walking in the same direction at the same clip.

He crossed to my side of the street and continued trailing me at the same pace.

I quickened my step again.

Now half a block directly behind me, he sped up too.

With growing panic, I turned a corner to a side street, mentally working out the blocks back to my apartment building, hoping to lose him in the neighborhood. I knew where I was. I hoped he didn’t. It was growing darker and my heart had begun to flutter, my breath coming shallower.

He turned the corner too.

Clear now that he meant harm, I sped up again, hoping to make it to the back entrance of the building before he caught up to me. I turned the next corner and tried to keep to the shadows of the old trees lining the street.  Ahead I could see my apartment building, the fluorescent security light bright above the back door.  Running now, I cut through the gravel parking lot, heading for that light.

I almost made it.

In the empty parking lot, just a few yards from the back door of the building, the man sprinted to catch up and grabbed my arms from behind, pinching them tightly together.  I twisted and struggled against his grip. When I started to scream, he pulled a dirty rag from his pocket and shoved it in my mouth.  Then he ripped the gold watch from my wrist, the watch I’d been given only a few weeks before.  My screams had brought other residents from their apartments into the back doorway, and the man ran off into the blackness with my watch.  I staggered into the building, and the landlord called the police, but we all knew the futility of a search for the thief.


In the box my mother sent, there wasn’t just a whistle.  Along with the real chain, there was an invisible link from mother to daughter to granddaughter.  The whistle and chain were golden, but the legacy is not. A clothing store in 1952. On a sidewalk in 1989. Even now, my elderly mother knows she needs to watch out for her granddaughter.  Fathers and grandfathers also pass on objects for their sons’ protection, but they are likely weapons, not whistles.

When my daughter opened the box, she held up the chain and said with amazement, “Oh, a whistle!”  I gazed at the innocent expression on her face, her hazel eyes not yet clouded by the pain of experience. I decided not to darken her delight with the shadow of the reason for the gift.

My mother sent my daughter a golden whistle.  My spouse and I signed her up for tae kwondo.

She’s Still There

I originally wrote this in January 2008. Now, on this holiday, I post it here in thanksgiving.

To mom — I’m glad you’re still here.


 “Nothin’ wrong with me!” she said, sitting in a chair in the living room four days after Christmas. Five days after she had fallen, when she had been trying simply to climb the two steps up from the living room to the hallway in the house she’d lived in for 46 years.

“Nothin’ wrong with me!” she repeated, chuckling, after each test the physical therapist tried on her.

“Show me how strong you are,” the therapist said, kneeling before her on the Oriental carpet, the rich red of the fibers setting off the gray of his pants and hair. He was easily twice as tall as she was. Kneeling before her seated figure, his head was still six inches above hers.

She hadn’t always been so small. But she was certainly never tall, her five feet three inches increased by high heels of great variety over the 85 years of her life. So many varieties that, as her five children grew up and left home, she overtook their closets to store her shoes, even installing a floor-to-ceiling rack on the inside of one of the closet doors. Any number of black high heels to be worn with her collection of cocktail dresses. Some of the shoes had beads, others ruffles. One pair of clear plastic pumps, a modern incarnation of Cinderella’s glass slipper. Gold, silver, patent leather, straps, slingbacks, pointed toes. Three pairs of pink satin shoes, one with pretty little bows on the heel strap. These she gave to one of her granddaughters the day before the physical therapist came.

She’d come home from the hospital that morning, three days after she fell, insisting that she be released because she had company coming. It was the day of the Christmas gathering.  All the children, their spouses, and the grandchildren would be there, 24 people in all, counting great-grandchildren. Santa was to make a guest appearance, bringing his bag of gifts.  She couldn’t miss the party.

There was nothing they could do for her in the hospital anyway. Monitor her vitals, administer the pain meds. The X-ray had shown multiple fractures of her spine, but none of them were new, and it wasn’t as though the doctors could do anything about them. What can you give to an elderly woman with advanced osteoporosis except drugs to keep her comfortable?

She hadn’t wanted to go to the hospital. She hadn’t bothered to go the first time, when she fell and broke her pelvis several years before. She’d been trying to reach a top cabinet shelf in the kitchen and had pulled over one of the kitchen chairs, the ones with wheels, to stand on. The chair rolled out from under her and she was stunned to find herself lying on her back on the linoleum. She hadn’t gone the second time, after she slipped while walking around the pool in the backyard. That time, she didn’t even tell my father what had happened. He had a tendency to fuss in a stern tone when he was anxious and she didn’t want to hear that.

But this time my sister tricked her into going. It was Christmas night, the night after she fell, when it became clear that the pain of the fall would not let up.  After dinner, no longer able to tolerate her moaning from pain, my sister convinced my father to call an ambulance. Dad had written off the idea of taking her to the hospital the night she fell.  He and my sister had been able to stem the bleeding from the gash on her elbow, and neither Mom nor Dad had thought it necessary to go. The most the doctors did for the previous falls was to give her painkillers while they waited for her body to heal. You didn’t need to go to the hospital for that.

This time, though, as Mom was sitting on the edge of her bed after dinner Christmas night, they called the ambulance. Then my sister went upstairs to put Mom’s shoes on her.

“We’re going for a ride,” my sister told her.

“Oh?  Where?” Mom asked in puzzlement.

“To the hospital.”

Mom didn’t argue.


The initial X-ray showed several fractures. The CT scan enumerated them: Old compression fractures of T6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12, and possibly L3. Volume loss of 10% to 30% in several disks. Osteophytes at L1 and L2. Something called Schmorli’s node at the endplate of L5. Protruding discs in the lumbar spine, with a vacuum phenomenon of L5-S1, all indicating degenerative disc disease. In short, her spine was slowly disintegrating.

No surprise, really.

In her 85 years, she’d had 8 pregnancies, raised 5 children. Shopped, cooked, cleaned the house, hosted parties, waited long nights while my father worked, living in the three-story house they’d bought when I was 2.  They continued to live in the small town my father grew up in, the town her family had moved to during the Depression when she was 13. He had his accounting business, served for awhile in city government, and helped with his own family’s beer distributorship. She’d worked as a bookkeeper for a dress shop before they married and always had an interest in fashion. She had accepted the customs of women in our Midwestern town after World War II: try to marry well, follow the Catholic church in raising however many children you ended up having, meet your responsibilities, bear your pain in silence. She never said she was bored or unhappy. At their 60th wedding anniversary party, she stated simply, “It could have been worse.”

But she always loved to go to the big city to shop, especially at Christmastime when the lights twinkled brighter. In the nightstand by her bed, I once found a small black binder, its cover flaking from age. In the binder were her handwritten notes from a class in fashion modeling she’d taken before she married. She and a friend from the dress shop would take the bus to the city, more than an hour away in those days, to attend the class. I remember her telling us three daughters the proper way to place our feet when we were having our pictures taken.

Most of the time we were growing up, she was obsessed with house and yard work. I recall the sharp stink of the ammonia we’d use to wash the crystals from the chandelier in the front hallway, and the way the silver polish would make my fingers wrinkle.  I remember the pattern I developed with the mop on the kitchen floor, wetting one square of tile at a time, all the way down the stairs to the basement. I can still see Mom from my bedroom window on the third floor, as she’d carry the bedsheets from the basement, where the washing machine was, to the clothesline stretching along the driveway to dry the sheets in the sun. Or the cold January air. She still puts those stiff cotton sheets on all the beds, though she doesn’t dry them on the line anymore. Too many stairs from the third floor to the basement and back up. I remember hanging out those sheets myself, clamping each flapping end to the line with a wooden pin.

I have told my own children how we’d rake copious piles of leaves each fall, after which we’d toast hot dogs and marshmallows over the flames as the leaves burned in the stone fireplace in the backyard. I can still recall her mowing the 2-acre lawn with the push mower all summer long. I wrote a freshman English paper once in which I described her typical attire for mowing. Barefoot, she’d wrap herself in a beach towel emblazoned with the label of a Budweiser beer bottle, which we’d gotten from Dad’s family’s business. Mom was still shoveling snow just a few weeks before her latest fall.


It’s New Year’s Eve as I write this, and I slouch in my desk chair wondering what the New Year might bring for her, for me. At this time next year, will I be unpacking from another holiday visit? Will she preside over the family party as she always has, dressed in the latest find from her favorite discount store? Even though she had just come home from the hospital, she didn’t wear just any old robe to this party.  She put on her double-breasted blue velvet one.

Will she recognize my face when I turn to talk with her on the couch? My father thinks her macular degeneration is what caused her to miss that step when she fell. Last year at Christmas, she cried as she told me how she’d curtailed her driving because she couldn’t distinguish the red and green on the traffic lights.  She often can’t make out the faces of people who approach to speak to her at church or in the grocery store.  But she knows her children, their faces and their voices. To comfort myself now, to distract myself from the fear of losing her, I conjure up the image of her as the physical therapist talked.


When she’d come home from the hospital, my sister and I helped her walk into the house. We weren’t a physically close family growing up – never ones to link arms or give hugs — so it felt awkward to touch her. I was afraid we’d hurt her, tear her fragile skin or bruise her once-full arms or hands, the joints no longer able to straighten after years of kitchen work. Though she was present and alert during the party, she seemed diminished in her chair, able only to watch and listen, rather than serve and joke as she had always done before.

When we were children, she had orchestrated the holiday activities, from playing Christmas records – Andy Williams singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – while we decorated the tree, to urging those of us who could sing to gather around the piano at the family party, where my sister or I played “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O, Tannenbaum.”  Those who couldn’t sing were given other tasks. To her own mother, my grandmother, she gave the job of playing the triangle. This time, as I looked at my mother sitting in that same chair my grandmother had sat in, the wing chair next to the piano, I remembered the Christmas before my grandmother died.  Grandma had grown so feeble that she had to be carried into the house by my uncle.


Now, on the day I conjure up in my mind, the first time the doorbell rang, it was the home health nurse. The next time it was the physical therapist. Dad and I spent the afternoon standing sentry during the nurse’s exam and the therapist’s assessment. We watched intently, answering questions and fetching supplies.

In the living room, the nurse began her session , and while she spoke, my father, who had been trying to put a good face on his anxiety for days, shifted into the role he knew best – providing the facts and discussing the business details. My mother sat in her chair, body sagging, her face drawn, trying to mask the fear that had taken up residence in her green eyes. With each health problem she or my father had encountered in the past few years, that fear flared fresh in her eyes.

The nurse took Mom’s blood pressure, her pulse, and listened for breath sounds. She examined Mom’s hands and feet, noting their temperature and circulation but never commenting on the toes, many of which were splayed from having been crammed into pointed shoes. She showed us the report of the CT scan and talked about the side effects of the painkiller.  She scheduled in-home aides so Mom could bathe and have her sheets changed.

As the nurse changed the bandage on Mom’s elbow, she asked if we had some antibiotic cream to apply to the cut, which was still draining.  Neither Dad nor I could find any in the house, but Mom suggested that we locate her jar of “Grandma’s salve,” her homemade concoction of olive oil, beeswax and rosin that she swore was the cure for any skin problem. She had even applied it once to the cancerous lesion on her foot. The nurse was kind and complied and Dad went off to find the jar. I marveled at the nurse’s sensitivity and the way she worded questions to allow my mother to maintain her dignity. With each reassuring response from the nurse, my mother’s face began to relax.

“Nothing wrong with me!” she said.

After more than an hour, the doorbell rang the second time, and I ushered in the physical therapist, a tall, lean man who drove up in his pick-up truck. He and the nurse exchanged information and, while the nurse finished her tasks, I escorted the therapist around the house so he could identify dangers that could impede Mom’s mobility or cause another fall. I purposely mentioned that she’d been shoveling snow recently, knowing that he would tell her to stop. I knew she wouldn’t hear that message from me.

The physical therapist was casual in his approach to Mom. There was none of the stuffiness or condescension that professionals sometimes retreat to with their clients. He told her directly that she was in serious trouble and that she had strained her back extensively and had to protect it. And then he began his exam.

“Show me how strong you are,” he told her, grasping her hands. One after another, he took each of her hands, her feet, her toes, her arms and her legs and asked her to push or pull against his hold.  Each time he appeared pleased and said “Good, good!” He helped her stand and watched her walk using the walker we had borrowed from a neighbor. He took her to the kitchen, positioned her against the counter and worked her through a series of exercises that would strengthen her back and “booty,” as he called her bottom. She was so small against him, her head not even reaching his shoulder, but she became determined to do what he asked, seeming to sense the power and freedom in it. She pushed against his grasp, lifted her arms, squeezed his arm hard. He called her a “tough old bird.” By this time, her mood had lightened considerably and she became the good patient, trying hard to show him what she could do, what she, yes, still could do. When he asked her what her goal was for physical therapy, she said she wanted to be active again, even doing things like raking leaves.

I know her time is coming. She knows it too. But as she spoke these words to him, sitting again in the chair by the piano, I saw it once more – the face of my mother. Not the old woman who had overtaken her. My mother.

She’s still there.

In Search of Meaning on Veterans Day

Veterans Day

Image via Wikipedia

Veterans Day. It’s one of “those” holidays. Those random days scattered throughout the year that seem nothing but good excuses for stores to offer sales. Mattresses at Memorial Day. Lunchboxes at Labor Day. The only reason I remember Columbus Day is that it’s the only weekday in October that I don’t get any mail. Hallmark hasn’t yet figured out how to capitalize on these holidays. You can’t really wish anyone a “happy” Labor Day. So each November, I glance through the list of office closures in the local paper and think, “Ah. Another day the kids have off school.”

It’s not that I don’t think the day is important or that I don’t want to honor soldiers. It’s that the day seems to have little bearing on my life.

But this year, my daughter asked me if I would come to hear the Veterans Day concert at her school. Her elementary school had Veterans Day ceremonies in previous years, but it was this, her first year in middle school, that the ceremony took on direct importance for her. She’s in the choir now, and the choir was one of the groups performing for the ceremony.

When she first mentioned it, I tucked the idea of attending in the back of my brain. Most days, I’m lucky to be able to lay a plan in the morning that actually plays out by evening. I routinely adjust my plan as the day progresses. As the principal manager of our household, I never know when the furnace might go out, a child might get sick, or the neighbor might pick another fight with our dog. Tucked away in my brain, the thought of the event got crowded out by many other things, not the least of which is my need to hunt down an hour of solitude whenever I can.

But on Monday night, my daughter mentioned the event again, and so I went through the pretense of writing it on my calendar for Tuesday morning, only to find that she had already written it there. It seemed to mean a lot to her.

So off I went next morning after dropping my son at his bus stop. I hadn’t had time to shower and hoped I could sneak in, be seen by the daughter, and sneak out again to run the morning’s errands and make it home for a shower before lunch and laundry.

Hurrying into the school, I glanced around the parking lot and recognized a friend coming along the sidewalk. She was wearing a dark suit, hat, and heels, which I slowly realized was her military uniform. She’s a nurse in the naval reserves and was coming to the school, where her son is also in 6th grade, to be honored during the ceremony.

We entered the school, chatting about the gathering. She told me that her son was embarrassed that she was coming in her dress blues, but she told him that, if she were going to come, it would be in uniform. After her appearance at the middle school, she was heading to the elementary school, where her second son was also attending a Veterans Day ceremony.

“Man,” I thought.  “Veterans sure are in demand today!”

I walked with my friend into the gym. She went to find a spot near her son’s class and I took a seat next to another mom I knew. The choir was warming up, the student orchestra and band were arrayed in their chairs, but there were few other adults present, and I wondered why this ceremony was so special that my daughter wanted me there.

Then the rest of the students bustled in, filling the bleachers with their noise and commotion. The racket died down when the principal stood to begin the program. He announced the purpose of the gathering and introduced the band director, who organizes the ceremony each year. While these two men spoke to the audience, I glanced around the gym, noticing a few other adults in military uniform. The one closest to me was a woman in fatigues and combat boots.

The program began with six students reading poems. All girls. Each one read unintelligible phrases about love, an end to war, and other clichés. Oh, God, I thought.  Please let this program be short.

Then the band director announced the Marine Corps color guard from the large Army base nearby. I perked up as five soldiers in service dress marched into the gym from the hallway. The room was silent save for the clicking of their polished patent leather shoes on the gym floor, and the gentle jingle of the medals on the director’s jacket. I studied their stiff frames and impassive faces under low-set white hats, looking for any expression that would clue me in to what they were thinking. There were none.

The first soldier carried a wooden rifle, the second, a long pole from which fluttered colorful ribbons embossed with the names of dozens of units. Next came the soldier carrying the American flag, and another shouldering another rifle. The director marched quietly alongside, reciting the orders in a low voice. Lockstep, they reached the center of the group, where they turned toward the audience and stood at attention. Then the band director told us all to rise, and we sang the national anthem as the band and orchestra played. After the singing, the soldiers placed the banners and flag in their stand and marched to the side of the gym, where they stood at ease through the rest of the program.

Battle Hymn of the Republic

Image via Wikipedia

The band director then presented the orchestra’s tune, and introduced the servicemen and women in the audience, having each of them stand for applause. He showed a video about the history of Veterans Day – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — and directed the band in a medley of military service songs, one for each branch of the service. Anchors Aweigh, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and so on, even including the song for the Coast Guard on his own battered but clear trumpet. The choir ended the program with another patriotic song, and the color guard returned to retrieve the flag, marching as before, clicking shoes, jingling medals, in front of a silent audience. Before they removed the flag, the band director pulled out his bugle. He explained what the instrument was and its importance in military routines. Then he played Taps, and the soldiers removed the flag and carried it out of the gym, ending the ceremony.

OK, half an hour, I realized. Not bad. A better ceremony than I was expecting, seeing as how patriotism often turns into maudlin sentimentality. I learned a thing or two about music, history, and the reason for the day. But as I left the gym that morning, I got to thinking. What did any of this have to do with me?


During these days of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we constantly hear the drumbeat, and it says these brave men and women put their lives at risk to protect your freedom. Your freedom.  And I began to ponder whether that was really true. Have the many soldiers in our many wars really been protecting MY freedom? How can that be?

I barely even know anyone who’s a soldier. The closest I come is my nurse friend in the naval reserves and a student in one of my classes who’s in the ROTC.

For that matter, I don’t even know many veterans. One grandfather served in World War I, but he died when I was young and I barely remember him. My dad enlisted in the Navy in 1942, when he was only 17. He told me that he enlisted so he could control what happened to him. If he’d waited to be drafted, he’d have had no control over his destiny. He spent most of the war years in officer training, and by the time he was commissioned on a vessel to the South Pacific, the war came to an end. Although he was never in battle, he claims his place in Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.”

My two brothers were of the age to serve in Vietnam, but had draft numbers so high they never got called up. We never talked about that war in my small Midwestern town, though it was on the news and in the headlines constantly when I was in high school. In my protected environment, the most I knew of Vietnam was the POW bracelet that my best friend wore as a fashion statement.

So how could it be that more than 6,000 American soldiers have been killed in our current wars, but I don’t know anyone serving? How is it that politicians and the military can say they’re protecting my freedom? Isn’t that the reason we’re given for any fighting? Protecting our freedom. Making the world “safe for democracy.”

I suppose that, had Hitler triumphed in World War II, our democracy might indeed have been threatened. Maybe that’s part of the reason that war is referred to as The Good War.  Despite our best efforts, though, Korea was divided and South Vietnam fell, but neither of those outcomes seems to have hurt our democracy, or my freedom. If you confuse democracy with capitalism, you could say that the Iraq War might have been necessary, but I can’t quite justify that interpretation. Some wars really do seem futile.

And yet, war is continuous. Counting insurgencies and civil wars, there are currently 30 to 40 wars raging around the world. Year after year, decade after century, they go on. In some cases, like World War II, the cause seems clear and the bad guys are obvious. In many others, the point of war seems simply to be the fighting. Over territory. Over power. Over the right to dominate.

In his book The Wonder of Boys, Michael Gurian, a researcher of the development of girls and boys, says that, historically, “war and soldiering was a very dramatic way to hook adventure up with mission – individual effort with collective good. It was the way to say to a boy, ‘Your life gains ultimate meaning by its sacrifice’” (Gurian, page 32). War does seem primarily to be a “guy thing,” but not exclusively. Catherine the Great took on the Ottoman Empire, and women are routinely conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force. Of the American soldiers killed in Iraq, more than 100 are female and two of the people honored at the Veterans Day ceremony were women.

So, then, what am I — someone as close to war as is the Earth to the sun — to make of Veterans Day?  In my head, I understand the desire and need to honor our soldiers and the work they do. Some of it is truly noble. This day, though, was baffling, and it was in trying to find the meaning behind it that I recalled another baffling day a decade ago.


 In the summer of 1998, I flew with my husband, a native of Japan, from our home in Minnesota to Honolulu so he could attend a professional meeting. We took with us our daughter, who was then only 18 months old. It was our first visit to Hawaii, and we wanted to see some of the most famous sights – Waikiki, Diamond Head, and of course, Pearl Harbor. Our daughter had been born on Dec. 7 — Pearl Harbor Day — which is also my father’s birthday.

Shortly after we got to the Harbor, my husband felt ill and went to lie down in the first aid station. So I took my daughter in her stroller to the Arizona memorial, and then we wound our way through the cramped, shadowy spaces inside the naval museum, looking at the many cases displaying missiles, bombs, and other weaponry. Historic, yes, but not very interesting for a small child.

Hawaii is a favorite vacation spot for Japanese tourists, who come to America because the goods are cheap, and the museum was crowded that day with dozens of Japanese, moving and chattering in groups, pointing and snapping photos. My daughter and I seemed to be the only Westerners there.

Isoroku Yamamoto

Image via Wikipedia

As I rounded a corner along one of the dim passageways, I noticed a photo high up on the wall, a framed black-and-white portrait of a Japanese military officer in full uniform. I peered up at the sign posted below the photo, which identified the man as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. I’d heard the name many times. This, of course, was the architect of the famous attack.

Yamamoto is an extremely common name in Japan. When Americans would ask my husband if he were related to the Admiral, he would tease them and say, “Yeah, he’s my uncle!” But I’d never seen the man’s face before. So I stood awhile looking up at the photo, pondering how this man and I could end up having the same surname. With my light hair and blue eyes, no one would ever mistake me for a Japanese, that’s for sure. I wondered if the Admiral would be as amused as I was.

Suddenly, I became aware of a high-pitched woman’s voice shouting near me and looked down to see a middle-aged Japanese woman bending over my daughter in her stroller, smiling at her and shouting “kawaii! kawaii!” (“cute! cute!”). Then she looked up at me, saying something I couldn’t understand, smiling and nodding. My Japanese was lousy then (still is), but I knew the word “kawaii” and understood her to be admiring my beautiful and, from her viewpoint, very American daughter.

At that moment, I was struck dumb, and not just for the lack of a common language. There I stood in a landmark in my own country, yet in a room over-run with the descendants of the very people whose actions had made this place so necessary. There I stood, beneath the photo of the Admiral, bearing the same name as the man whose actions gave birth to this place on a day my daughter would later claim as her own birthday. I had no words to tell the woman the significance of our brief moment together. I had no way to tell her that I, too, was a Yamamoto, and that my daughter also had the blood of Japan in her veins.

The woman chattered loudly at me for a few more minutes, gesturing toward my daughter and smiling. I nodded and smiled. It was all I could do.

The meaning of that moment is – still – more powerful than I can fathom, even a dozen years later. It is because of that particular war, and the veterans who fought it, that I was able to stand there that day with my daughter, trying to understand the heart of the Japanese woman in the museum. Perhaps this is the moment I should thank the veterans for.

October Morning

For Paul —

Fuji apples

Image via Wikipedia

Saturday morning in mid October, and a lull in the Pacific Northwest rain. Fall has come, and the ubiquitous green of the landscape now has tinges of yellow.

Still air.

Still horses, at the barn where I’ve brought my daughter for her lesson.  I sit in the car, planning for my classes, while she saddles up Shadow to ride.

The sky is overcast. Small patches of blue peek through. The white disk of sun through the clouds resembles the full moon.

My daughter’s instructor wears a black jacket over her work shirt now, black gloves on her hands – warmth to ward off the chill that no longer teases but has settled in the air.

The change in season has stilled us all, and we go about our tasks not speaking much. The horses do not stamp or pace in their stalls. They contemplate my presence quietly, coming over to be stroked when I stand in the doorway of their stalls.

Fire, the black standard-bred, nibbles my shirt sleeve as I pat his nose.  Star, with her smaller triangular head – one blue eye, one brown – protests as I pass her to see another horse.  She neighs loudly at me and stamps, and I change course.  She is the matron of the group.  If I am to be welcome in the barn, I must pay my respects to her.

The instructor drops a harness over the head of Rave, a big black Arabian, and leads him out of his stall into the fenced paddock just outside the barn door. He limps slightly, favoring the foot that had the abscess weeks ago. Like a few others, he wears a blanket buckled across his chest and under his round belly. Snoopy, the mischievous one who once flooded the barn by mouthing open a faucet, stands dully in his paddock, watching.  His black and white coat has a mottling of dust.

Like us humans, the horses are hunkering down for the upcoming winter.  They stand in their pens slowly chewing, tongues protruding occasionally, looking sleepy and flicking their tails against the few remaining flies.

A blue pick-up truck rolls slowly down the road hauling behind it a silver cattle trailer.  A loud, low mmmmoooooo-oooo emanates from the trailer as it passes by the barn.  The horses and I look up.  The truck is headed down to the complex of white buildings that house the country meat market.  My son and I visited that market a few weeks back when we were exploring the area.  He liked the clean floors and stainless steel display cases where the white packages of meat were stacked neatly for view.  Sausage patties and links, various steaks and roasts.  Three kinds of bacon and even some tongue.  He liked the sample of teriyaki jerky the clerk gave him.  But he did not like the view she gave us into the freezer room behind the counter, where the stripped carcasses of cows, deer and even a bear, hung from the ceiling.

When the truck comes back up the road a little while later, the horses and I again look up.  There is no sound from the trailer now.

My cell phone rings, and I see it’s my mother calling.  In my hometown back in the Midwest, the family is planning the funeral for my uncle, who died two days ago.  Pneumonia took him before the cancer could. Mom tells me my uncle has written his own obituary.  Perhaps he was more reconciled to his death than we are.

When my daughter’s lesson ends, she untacks Shadow and puts him in his stall.  We go down the slope across the driveway to pick apples – some red, some green – from the overgrown trees in the small orchard.  I collect a few to take to the horses — a sweet crunch proffered to a velvet muzzle by a human hand.  Fire bites his apple in two and drops the second half back into my palm.  A handful of horse saliva.  My daughter laughs at the look of dismay on my face.

Now the sun has slipped through the clouds, warming us all. I wash my slippery hand in the cold spray of water from the hose, wiping it on my jeans to dry. We climb into the car and drive back out onto the road, turning toward home.

Jumping the Waves

Sunset at Kapalua Bay, Maui, Hawaiian Islands

Image by Mastery of Maps via Flickr


February 2011

I am sitting outside our room on Maui, on vacation in the blue and bright beauty of the Hawaiian Islands.  Yellow, pink and red hibiscus surround me and the birds sing from the palms nearby.  The white noise of the ocean echoes in the distance. The fountain in the koi pond splashes.

An idyllic setting, perhaps, but don’t be fooled by the scenery.  This story is about travel to unfamiliar places, but it is no travelogue.

Two days ago, we left behind a cool blue sky at home to fly west, cramped in one of the winged cattle cars that now pass for an airplane.  Today, we walked the sunny beach, going north in the morning and south after lunch, all the while dodging or being drenched by waves.  Our two children spent an hour this morning just jumping those waves.  They figured out the art of it, how far out to go, or not go, so as not to be bowled over, to stay where the drenching was fun, with just a hint of the danger in the incoming swells.  Farther out, humpback whales jumped, their spumes shooting upward at intervals, giving away their direction during this migration season.

As each wave rolled in, my son stayed higher up the beach than his sister, his narrow frame —  barely 60 pounds — not yet as strong as her solid body, further in the ocean. They both had learned to widen their stance against the water’s force, to jump just after the wave breaks, into the foam, not the swell – he, chattering and exclaiming, a verbal instant replay of his every reaction to every wave, she grinning gleefully, laughing heartily after the especially big jumps. In their bright bathing suits, they crouched and shouted to each other, calling out preparations for the next swell.

Further up the beach, I was far enough not to have to brace against the waves, but still low enough to get the occasional splash in the face.  I stood sentry over them, watching my son’s slender shoulders over his scrawny body. His shape reflects mine, while his sister inherited her father’s broad shoulders.  A teen now, she weighs more than either of her parents. (We’re small, slight people, but only in physical dimension, not spirit.)

While I supervised them, fully in parent mode, the dormant youth in me wanted to be out from shore, among the surfers riding the swells, awaiting their chance to break from the pack and challenge the curling waves. I worried my son would go out too far and be dragged under, or that some young man strolling the beach would notice my daughter’s swim shirt riding up too high with the pull of the water.  The children were, of course, oblivious to my wary eye.

As I watched my children jump the waves, I remembered doing the same with my father and sister in Mexico some 25 years ago.  The beach there on the eastern Yucatan peninsula curved along the surfline, one end sheltered by high rocks.  The sparkling Caribbean sent high foaming waves up the sand. The three of us waded out knee-deep and, like my children today, steadied our stances to meet the incoming rush of water, grinning and laughing as it soaked us.  It wasn’t often that my serious Midwestern father followed a whim like this.  I was a young woman at the time, Dad just past 60.


As I write this story, my father is in a hospital back in icy, frigid Cleveland, going through physical and occupational therapy a week after having emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma – -bleeding on the surface of the brain.  The neurosurgeons call this a minor surgery. But my father, mother and siblings consider it a terrifying experience, the very thing we’ve all been dreading with my parents’ advancing age. My mother’s vision, hearing, and cognition have been declining and Dad had finally retired from his business, at age 86, to look after her and manage the house they’ve lived in for nearly 50 years.  As Mom has grown more fragile, his greatest fear has been that something would happen to him and he wouldn’t be able to take care of her.

Last week, when mom called from the emergency room in my hometown, 2000 miles from where I now live, both she and Dad were agitated and frightened.  Dad had not been feeling well for a couple of days and had become confused that morning. When the CT scans showed bleeding on the brain, Mom called me in hopes that my husband, a physician, could tell them what was happening.  Luckily, he was home and, within minutes, was exchanging jargon with the emergency room doctor who had reviewed the scans.  They laid the plan to fly Dad to Cleveland, 60 miles away, where the surgeons opened Dad’s skull and removed the blood that was compressing his brain on the left side.  My four siblings have gathered to support him and look after my mother, while I watch my children jump waves on the west coast of Maui.


At this point, perhaps you’re thinking I should feel guilty. Here I am, sitting on a tropical beach while the rest of the family fights the demons of fear and worry back east.

In my own defense, let me fully admit that those demons haunt you no matter how great the distance between you and trouble. Palm trees and waves distract for a short while, but they do not obliterate the fear.  After all, I am writing this even while surrounded by hibiscus. The modern, but decidedly unnatural wonders of technology let me stay in contact so I can take part in the discussions with doctors, social workers, and family, even from this distance. But the primary reason I don’t feel guilt (yet another demon) is because of the waves. We had planned this vacation months ago, when my husband was between jobs.  The literal waves we jumped on the beach this morning reflect the figurative waves my own little family has jumped in the past 2 years.


When we face the water to jump a wave, the first thing we have to admit is that the vast ocean has greater size, power and mystery than we can ever comprehend, and by contrast, our own lives are small. The ocean spans great lengths of time, distance and energy. Our own life, well, not so much.  Even with our wonders of technology, we will never conquer a natural force like this ocean, with its deceptively calm, blue expanse.  The surfers know this. They know that the best they can do is try to master a single wave, and maybe another, and perhaps one more, by gauging the curve and speed of each swell, paddling furiously to match the precise moment to the water’s force, when they rise and, for a few brief moments, stand balanced on the board, the only thing that separates them from the tumultuous force and maybe even their own destruction.

When you jump a wave on the beach, like the surfers, you have to monitor and scrutinize the swells, adjusting your distance up or down the sand, changing your stance to meet, maybe even challenge, the force of the water without its destroying you. Therein lies both the risk and the thrill.  Go in too far and you’re thrown under and dragged into the coral.  Too far up the beach, and all you get are wet toes – not at all satisfying if what you really want is to feel  engaged, alive.  But even when you think you’ve got it right – not too close, not too far – a swell looms and drags you into the surf.

And so it’s been for my family these past 2 years, since the last time we were on this island. A few months after our last visit, I was diagnosed with cancer and underwent the terrifying triple-play of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.  Just when the undertow of that wave seemed to be receding, my husband was forced out of his job by corporate bullies.

And now comes the third wave of my father’s illness.


Walking the beach again this afternoon, I watched how my son had, in the span of one day, learned to jump the waves, to keep the thrill but avoid the danger.  He figured out which waves to ignore and which ones to engage.  When a large swell caught him off guard, because of the slant of the beach or some rocks hidden in the surf, he turned his body sideways, widened his stance, and twisted his feet into the sand, hunkering down against the spray of ocean, waiting out the undertow that threatened to pull him down.

And so we do as adults with the waves that roll into our lives. Some of us, hankering for the thrill, go too far out and are drowned.  Others fear the risk and never go near the water at all. But eventually, the waves come and catch us. So we learn how to meet them. We delight in those we can jump, steady ourselves and hunker down for those we cannot, until the last wave comes.