Monday, May 15, 2017

Let no good deed go deflated

For about two years I’ve been driving around with a movie ticket stub on my car console. It was the stub for a movie that I had to see at the time, but now I can’t even remember the title. It was about the Beach Boys. The acting was good, but I can’t remember the name of the actor who played the lead and I can’t remember which Beach Boy he was playing. That’s all I can recall. It was a good idea at the time.

In order to see this film that I can’t recall, I had to go to a small independent theater out of my usual travel-safe zone. I rather like this theater because it’s not part of one of those big chains and it shows films that aren’t showing in the big-box theaters. I was feeling slightly feisty just to be going there alone, in rush-hour traffic no less. Feisty until I got to the ticket window and found that I had left my wallet at home. I dumped the contents of my over-size purse on the dirty floor, thinking somehow my wallet had become lodged behind a crumpled Kleenex. There was no one else in line, so my crazy old lady-ness wasn’t an issue. No wallet. I looked at the ticket clerk in dismay, said “I’ve driven here on the beltway from McLean. I can’t go back and get my wallet in time. How can I be such a fool?”
The clerk took pity on me, said, “It’s okay, ma’am. Here’s a ticket. Just come back and pay for it when you get a chance.”
“I will! I promise I will come back and pay you. Thank you so much for your kindness.” I didn’t have the nerve to ask him if I could have popcorn too.
The promise to come back and pay for the ticket burned my conscience every time I saw the stub on the dashboard. It burned for months, into years. The ticket stub just sat in my car turning yellow from time and sun exposure.
Recently, I veered off my beaten path to drive to the theater to purge the guilt of not repaying the theater. I walked up to the ticket window where a bored teenage girl sat, staring vacantly. With the jauntiness of someone feeling slightly smug about her good deed, I handed the clerk the ticket stub, told her a brief version of my story, and gave her a ten-dollar bill.
She looked at the stub and said, “The stub says six dollars.”
My Polly Sunshine self said, “Oh, it’s okay. Just keep the ten dollars. Consider it interest paid on my debt.”
She took the ten and continued to stare vacantly.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


The past few weeks have been one of those barren times when I can’t seem to connect with the Lord. I light my little candle, sit in my usual spot for prayer, then sputter and squirm. Usually I’ll say, “Lord, help me find you. I know you’re right where you’ve always been and I’m the one creating the distance. Lord, please help me. I need you.”

I wait to hear something from Him because I have no prayer to offer Him that He hasn’t heard a thousand times. Then I rearrange my legs, look out the window, try to ignore the dryer buzzer, and soon give up. I blow out the candle, saying, “Lord, please show up today. I feel useless, like a huge failure.” That’s it and that has pretty much been the routine in the past few weeks.
It has been a trying time. I worked on making arrangements for my mother to move into assisted living—an assessment of her condition, meetings with medical people and social workers, financial affairs, and a tour of the facility. In the end, mama said she wouldn’t/couldn’t go, that she didn’t want to leave her home. It costs an additional $14,000 a month to hire round-the-clock aides to care for her. My mother is not a wealthy woman; we can’t afford this arrangement for long.
And in the past couple of months—since she broke her femur, had surgery, and spent weeks in rehab—her general condition has declined. She is 91 years old, on oxygen 100% of the time, her heart is weak, and she can’t walk without help. She says she doesn’t want to live like this. I have discussed hospice care with her, she thinks it sounds right, and now I’m working on choosing a hospice service and getting it into place.
This focus on—literally—life and death and feeling responsible for the decisions about her care are heavy. I’m nearly 70 and I fear what will unfold for me as I age. Feeling isolated, depressed, with heavy responsibility and little support is taking a toll on me. I don’t eat right, I drink too much, I don’t exercise, and I don’t have the energy to change anything. I can’t see anything in my future that is going to make it different.
And even my attempts to pray seem hopeless. “Lord, show me a way. Please!”
On this beautiful spring day, the day before Easter, I was driving home from Trader Joe’s. The radio wasn’t on and I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular other than what would be the least congested route home. And out the blue I heard, “I came so that you may have life and have it abundantly.”
Of course, I cried. It was exactly what I needed to hear from Him. Tomorrow is the most holy day in Christianity—the day that celebrates Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. He came to earth, taught us how to live, died hanging on a cross, then rose. And yes, the words that I heard today were a paraphrase of what He said while He was on earth. He came for me, not that I should live on the edge, not really living, not mired in sorrow, not abusing or wasting the life He gave me. He came so I could live abundantly.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Over yonder

Eleanor was a mere wisp of a woman, tiny in height, like a little bird. Like a little brown sparrow with a soft southern accent. Her hair, a yellowy shade of white, was cut in a short bob with uneven bangs. Every day she wore a flowery gathered skirt, a white blouse, and a cardigan sweater. She looked like an aged street urchin who belonged on the streets of Paris, not in a dingy dementia unit in Maryland.

I vaguely remember discussions with a family member, or perhaps two of her family members, that resulted in her being moved from independent living into the locked unit, the dreaded 6th floor where no one wanted to go. Once there, no one moved back. The unspoken reality was that it was a death sentence with no deadlines. Everyone knew that.

I was a graduate intern and it was my job to monitor Eleanor during the transition. Not long after her move, I went to the 6th floor and found Eleanor at the end of the hall, looking out the window.

“Good morning, Eleanor, it’s good to see you,” I tried to turn on my calm but cheery voice.

She didn't look at me, but continued to look out the window and said, “This is not my home.”

“Eleanor, you’re in the same building. You just moved to another floor,” I said.

“No, I live over yonder,” she said, pointing to the office building down the block.

I knew it was useless to try and I couldn’t lie to her.

“No, this is not my home. I live over yonder.” Again she pointed down the street and turned to me with desperation in her eyes. How could I have been part of the plot to move her from her home?

And now, years later, my own mother is ailing and we know she can no longer live independently. I’ve tried to break the news to her with as much compassion as I can. I’ve seen that look before.

“Mom,” I said, “we’re probably going to have to look into assisted living for you. And soon.”

“No,” she said, “I can’t leave here. It’s my home.”

Sometimes I wish I lived “over yonder” and I didn’t have to deal with these sad realities of life. This isn’t my home either.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Everyday Chocolate Cake

Okay, I'll share the recipe, just because you asked and because good things should be shared.

Everyday Chocolate Cake

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen at who got it from Magnolia Bakery At Home.

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup cocoa powder (I used Scharffen-Berger)
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
Confectioner’s sugar

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter and lightly flour a 9×5x3-inch loaf pan, or spray it with a butter-flour spray. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and beat well, then the buttermilk and vanilla. Don’t worry if the batter looks a little uneven. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt together right into your wet ingredients. Stir together with a spoon until well-blended but do not overmix. Scrape down the batter in the bowl, making sure the ingredients are well blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack for about 10 to 15 minutes, at which point you can cool it the rest of the way out of the pan. When cool, dust with confectioner’s sugar.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Silent prayer

This is such a useful way to think about prayer in the times I can't seem to connect with God, can't feel His presence. I love what Richard Rohr wrote in a recent meditation under the subtitle Practice: Faith as Unknowing

"In silent prayer, let go of the need to use words to approach God. Let go of all ideas about God, self, and reality. Even if you don’t sense God’s presence, trust that you are fully seen and known by the One who is merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving, and steadfast in love."
-- Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, January 28, 2017

Friday, January 27, 2017

The man I loved

For over twenty years, on many nights, I have struggled with this man. He regularly intrudes my dreams, leaving me shaken or tearful. But after all this time, all these many nights, I have come to a peaceful solution.

My marriage to John ended 20 years ago, when he had yet another affair and left me, just after our 30th wedding anniversary. After our marriage ended he died of brain cancer, so he is not only out of our marriage, but really gone. In the early years, he was frequently in my dreams, mocking me, pushing me away, or threatening me. Often I awoke crying, my heart pounding. In one particular dream that I remember vividly, I was naked, wet, and cold, hiding in a bathtub, while he was in another part of the house with the other woman. He found me in the bathtub, tenderly wrapped me in a blanket and helped me get away. That was almost harder to handle than when he was being mean.

In more recent years he was in the background in my nighttime ramblings. No matter what I was doing, it was implied that he was there, his presence always felt. That awareness, that he was so firmly entrenched in my subconscious often made me sad or angry. I cried that I simply couldn’t get him out of my brain, or got angry, pleading for him just to go away. John, always John—so much a part of me.

Yes, I have had a huge struggle finding forgiveness. I have prayed and prayed, read every book I could find on the topic. Still, he was there, always there.

Recently I really accepted the reality that this forgiveness was beyond me, not something I could do on my own. Sitting on the sofa in my living room, I prayed and asked Jesus to sit beside me. Jesus, who forgave those who murdered him, even when he was dying on the cross. He knows about forgiveness. With Jesus beside me, I asked to be able to address John directly. With my eyes closed and Jesus beside me, I could see John as a young man, sitting across from me. He said not a word. I remembered everything about the 21-year-old man I married—his hair, his hands, the way he made me laugh, how protective he was of me. Most of all, I remembered what it felt like to love him so deeply. I saw that young man and thought about the things that happened to him in the years after he was 21. I acknowledged the betrayal and the harsh treatment. But I still loved the young man I married, and that was the person I forgave. I forgave him, the love of my life, not the harsh, troubled man he became.

Last week I dreamed about him again. All I can recall is a glimpse of the dream. John and I were together, talking about one thing or another, and I felt a deep love for him. No angst, no anger, no bitterness, just love.

God's mercy at work. Thank you, Lord! Thank you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Madman at the helm

The Mango Man has been president for less than one full week. (I mean no disrespect—lie— calling him “Mango Man” but I’m not in a mood to type his given name.) I still feel nauseous and cannot accept that he is the leader of the free world. Lord, have mercy on us all.

His supporters calling us non-supporters “sore losers” is juvenile. I am beyond being a sore loser and have moved into the territory of being terrified for the future of our country. His supporters voted for him because they thought he was different, that he would bring change to government. They liked him because he is brash and outspoken, that he says things they think but are afraid to say. Political correctness is not in his repertoire.

Once he was elected, people said, “Be fair. Give him a chance. He’ll rise to the office and will act presidential. Don’t be so harsh on him.” I tried. I waited for about 24 hours, hoping they were right. I would have been pleased to swallow my pride when I saw what a good job he was doing for the country. I was hoping to be surprised. Not. Gonna. Happen.

He has surrounded himself with minions who do his bidding. He continually lies and they cover his lies, call them “alternative facts.” You’re playing word games, folks. “Alternative facts” are lies.

He is building a wall to keep out those Mexicans and other immigrants he calls criminals. He is putting into place a ban on accepting refugees from any Muslim country. That’s xenophobia, another form of hate.

All week I’ve been shaking my head, saying, “Oh, no. How could it be worse than I imagined?” He wants to appoint the equivalent of an environmental nightmare to head the EPA. The woman he has proposed to head the Department of Education has been a big donor to Republican campaigns and is strongly opposed by educators. He has reversed President Obama’s action to stop the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the Dakotas. Just the beginning. One week is enough.

And today—as if I needed any more evidence—he has truly proven himself to be mentally unstable. Now he is calling for voter fraud investigation into the election HE WON. His thin-skinned, overblown ego is bruised because he didn't win the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. It's more than a waste of time and money. It's the action of a madman. And this madman is one rant away from pushing the red nuclear button.

I'm not being glib or overly dramatic. This is serious and extremely dangerous. Our Republican elected representatives must have the courage to take action. (I wanted to say they need to grow a set of balls, but that would be crude and, besides, some of them are women.) There is much too much at stake to hide behind political partisanship. Our elected representatives took an oath to protect and defend this country and they need to step up and do the right thing.

The image of Captain Ahab in Melville’s classic Moby Dick keeps floating through my mind. Our president is like the madman captain of the Pequod who, unless he is stopped, will take down himself and this country with his madness.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Thomas Merton again--Grateful

He reads my mind, always seems to know what I need to hear.

“To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us—and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every. . . moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”

Thomas Merton from Thoughts in Solitude

Monday, January 2, 2017


My daughter-in-law and my dear friend Claire are both Enneagram enthusiasts. I was skeptical, thought it too new agey, perhaps a little woo-woo. Then, at Claire's suggestion, I took an online test to determine my personality type and bought a book about Enneagrams. ("The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types" by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson.) Actually, I have read only part of the book, especially the part that pertains to my type. If you understand Enneagrams, you'll say, "Of course, she did. I could have predicted that." No longer am I scoffing about the classification. It totally nailed me--I'm a type 4 with a 5 wing. (So is Thomas Merton, so I'm in good company.) It was so humbling to read my flaws laid out so clearly. Ouch!

And to add fuel to the fire, I took a Myers Briggs test and it says I am an INFP. I don't really understand that either, but apparently it is in agreement with the Enneagram test. I'm doomed. (You knew I would say that.)

I get an emailed Enneagram thought for the day. This is what is says today and I'm feeling a bit less doomed:

Type Four EnneaThought for January 2nd
Today accept your invitation to abundance: to let go of the past and be renewed by your experiences. It is your True Nature to be forgiving and to use everything in your life for your growth and renewal. (The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 48)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Hate, the bodyguard for grief

Found this intriguing observation in Richard Rohr's meditation for December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents:

Sarah Fields says that “Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath.”*

Until we love and until we suffer, we all try to figure out life and death with our minds. Love, I believe, is the only way to initially and safely open the door of awareness and aliveness, and then suffering for that love keeps the door open and available for ever greater growth. We dare not refuse love or suffering or we close the door to life itself. By honoring God’s image in our own deep capacity to love, and then extending it to both the innocent and the non-innocent, we achieve the triumph of love—for we also are wounded.

*Sarah Fields, as quoted by Charles Eisenstein, “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story,” November 10, 2016,

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ramblings from the couch

There I sat on the living room sofa, staring into space. I looked at the Christmas greenery on the mantle. It was slightly asymmetrical—why hadn’t I noticed that before?—but I didn’t get up to fix it. I was glued to the sofa for an hour, or 45 minutes, whichever came first. I had set the kitchen timer just to make sure I didn’t underestimate my time spent sitting. Waiting.

You see, my doctor had prescribed for me a very low dose of some kind of prescription medication for my slightly underactive thyroid. The instructions from the pharmacy said to wait one hour after taking the medication before eating. The instructions enclosed with the medication said to wait 45 minutes. These things are important. Why can’t they agree on what could be a matter of life or death?

I dutifully took the medication and sat on the couch. The instructions did not say to take the medication and unload the dishwasher or do a load of laundry or check my email. They simply said WAIT. I used to work for a foundation associated with the pharmaceutical industry, and specifically worked on a project involving medication noncompliance in the elderly population. I knew the dangers of noncompliance. I took the medication, sat on the couch, and waited while I thought about what I was going to eat when my sentence was complete.

The phone rang. Luckily, I had it on the coffee table in front of me so I didn’t have to get up off the sofa. Caller ID read SACRAMENTO, CA. I know no one in Sacramento so I didn’t answer. And I wasn’t sure if taking a call would make me noncompliant. Rarely do I get a call from someone I know—usually it says UNAVAILABLE or OXACHACHACHOBEE, FL. I realized that I could find things to be grateful for while sitting on the sofa, my stomach screaming for food. I’m grateful, incredibly grateful, for Caller ID. Whoever invented it should be given a Nobel Peace Prize. (I just hope it wasn’t Verizon. Verizon has been a thorn in my side for lo these many years.) In the winter I’m grateful for central heat and in the summer I regularly thank the Lord for Mr. Carrier, the inventor of central air conditioning.
Phone communication in general is a miracle. When I grew up (you know I walked to school in the snow with no shoes) we had a party line in our house. We shared the line with all our neighbors. You could pick up the phone and hear Mrs. Fowler complaining to Mrs. Wiggins about how Mr. Fowler came home smelling of liquor again. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Now Russian cyber-spies are doing that for us. And soon people will have communication devices permanently implanted in their ears and they won’t ever have to actually dial a phone. Thought waves will connect one person’s ear device with another person’s ear device.

Soon enough the kitchen buzzer sounded and I got up off the sofa. I forgot what I was going to do so I went back and sat on the sofa a little longer.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The beetle

This bizarre image keeps coming back to me. I see a large beetle attached to my left leg. It’s a lobster-like creature, fiercely biting and holding on to me. I am unable to escape its grip. Its body is shiny black and it has iridescent red eyes, its gaze emptiness. It’s the beetle seen under a microscope, with pincers and a powerful jaw, hairy barbed protuberances all over its body. Except it’s not microscopic—it’s over three feet long. Sometimes it’s just attached to my leg but at times it creeps up the left side of my chest, grabs my heart, and wraps its claws around my neck.

know it is unforgiveness.
I pray to the Lord to remove it from me because I am powerless, unable to do it on my own. Surely God, who can raise people from the dead, can remove a beetle from my leg, can remove the bitterness from my heart. Jesus pulls it off gently, stops it when it tries to regain its grasp, and puts it into the sea. He continues to walk beside me, on my left side, to protect me.

It has been there so long I wonder what I’ll do without it. Who will I be? How will I act when I can walk freely? There’s this unsettling sense that I will miss it, miss the pain, the excuse for not living in freedom.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Boycott AARP

Hell, no, I won’t go.
 AARP has been harassing me. I once had a membership in the organization, thought it rather amusing when I was a mere 50 years old. But a number of years ago, I got fed up with them. (“Them” being those organizational wonks at AARP. Is it possible that the staff at AARP consists of a bunch of 20- year-old aggressive recent college graduates? You know the type—they live in group apartments on Capitol Hill and create instant crowds at all the trendy local restaurants. They are one paycheck away from moving back in with their parents.)
I quit AARP and never regretted the decision. I don’t want an AARP card that I can flash for a 10 percent discount at the Motel 6 in Coral Springs, Florida. I don’t want a free ice cream sundae on my birthday or a whopping 15 percent discount at Denny’s. Imagine how reasonable it would be if I moved into a Motel 6 in Coral Springs and ate all my meals at Denny’s! Let me calculate that—10 percent + 15 percent = I save 25 percent on meals and lodgings every day. (Yes, my math concepts are a bit unusual.) I really don’t like Florida and I can’t recall ever eating at Denny’s but it sounds like one of the rings of hell.
But AARP doesn’t take no for an answer from me. They keep writing, sending birthday cards and little reminders of what I’m missing. I don’t miss the stupid magazine with a picture of Harrison Ford on the cover and large-print Sudoku puzzles. They aren’t luring me to rejoin with offers of tote bags or an inflatable travel pillow embellished with a bright red AARP logo. I’ve noticed that the cost of membership renewal keeps going down. Next time I fully expect them to send me a check for more than the price of renewal, if I’ll only come back.
In the early days, I was in the amusement phase—when I thought it was rather fun to be a member of an organization for seniors. That was when I would flash the card for 10 percent off the rental car and the smiling clerk would say, “Aw heck, ma'am, you’re kidding me. You can’t be old enough for AARP. My grandma belongs to AARP.” They don’t say that anymore. They automatically give me a senior discount without my asking. Damn. I hate that.
Now I’m in the rebellious phase—I don’t want to be pigeonholed into a category. I’m a child of the 60s. I might have a Che Guevera poster somewhere. I still flash peace signs at people and might participate in a sit-in somewhere. Sometime. If it’s not too hot or too cold and it’s in a nice location. I don’t want to demand a discount just because I’m old(ish).
Global warming is melting the polar ice. I once imagined that when I got old enough and unproductive, I would be put on an iceberg and would float away into non-existence. I’d better hurry before there are no icebergs.
And I do not, under any circumstance, want an AARP card. Leave me alone.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Chesapeake Oyster Stuffing

Oyster stuffing

Direct from the source . . . I've made oyster stuffing, haven't tried this recipe yet, but I will. It's supposed to be the best and you can show your gratitude by making a contribution to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Chesapeake Oyster Stuffing

CBF's Director of Fisheries Bill Goldsborough swears by this tried-and-true oyster stuffing recipe inspired by Gourmet magazine. Enjoy! 
  • 2 loaves Italian or French bread (1 lb total), cut into 3/4-inch cubes (12 cups)
  • 1/2 lb sliced bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil (if needed)
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped (2 cups)
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped celery
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dried thyme, crumbled
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage or 2 teaspoons dried sage, crumbled
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2/3 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted
  • 24 oysters, shucked, drained, and chopped (3/4 cup)
  • 2 cups turkey giblet stock or low-sodium chicken broth
Preheat oven to 325°F. Spread bread cubes in two shallow baking pans and bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of pans halfway through baking, until golden, 25 to 30 minutes total. Cool bread in pans on racks, then transfer to a large bowl.
Meanwhile, cook bacon in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain, reserving fat in skillet.
If bacon renders less than 1/4 cup fat, add enough oil to skillet to total 1/4 cup fat. Cook onions, celery, thyme, sage, garlic, salt, and pepper in fat in skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to bowl with bread cubes, then stir in bacon, parsley, butter, and oysters. Drizzle with stock, then season with salt and pepper and toss well.
Transfer stuffing to a buttered 3- to 3 1/2-quart shallow baking dish. Bake, covered, in middle of oven 30 minutes, then uncover and bake until browned, about 30 minutes more. Allow two hours all together to prepare and cook.

Please Support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Chapter 1

I don't know what I was waiting for. Perhaps I believed a huge flood of inspiration, a fully formed, perfectly grammatical book was going to spring out of my computer. I waited. I waited some more. I've had some cryptic notes, some unconnected snippets (100 pages of it!) that have been languishing in MS Word for a long time. So a couple of weeks ago, I decided to start chipping away. I'm still not sure how the organization is going to work out or, truthfully, or where it's going in general. Just some flimsy ideas, 100 pages of gunk, and a first chapter. It's fiction in the voice of my alter ego. Here's the first chapter:


by Donna Xander

Chapter 1: The Girl and her mama

            “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

That was the voice of my mother. It was in the spring, 1959, I was 12 years old, and I had just been hit by a bread truck. I was innocently riding my bike home from my hula lesson, singing “I’m a little brown girl in a little grass skirt in a little grass hut,” when a Strosneider’s bread truck came barreling around the corner, hit my bike, and sent me flying about 10 feet through the air, clear over the prickle bush hedge, and onto the lawn. The guy driving the bread truck didn’t even stop. My bike was a mangled pretzel by the side of the road. Stunned, scraped, and bruised, I managed to get up, counted my body parts, and checked for missing teeth. Mama just stood there by the front door, holding two bags of groceries from the A&P, shaking her head, saying, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

            I suppose that little story could give you the wrong impression about a couple of things. First of all, my mama was never a mean person—she just believed in self-reliance. I never would have expected her to drop those groceries and come running to see if the bread truck had killed me. She had faith in my powers of resilience; she just knew that I’d bounce back, that I was stronger than any bread truck.

            The second wrong impression you might get from the story of my collision with the bread truck is that my name is Ralph. Not so. My name is Marie Antoinette Zimmerman, but my mama rarely called me by my given name. I often wondered whether it was a bad omen to have been named after a woman who was beheaded. Perhaps, because when my mama called me Marie Antoinette I knew it meant trouble. Actually she never called me by any girl’s name and she rarely called me the same name twice. But somehow I always knew she was talking to me when she called me Wilbur, or Thurgood, or Gus, or any of the thousands of boy names she used. There was just something in the tone of her voice that I knew she meant me. Everyone in Breezy knew she meant me too, though usually when she referred to me outside of our little family, she just called me “the girl.”

            Breezy is the town where I grew up. Actually, you won’t find it on any map listed as Breezy. Its official name is Breezy Point. It’s in Calvert County, Maryland, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The houses in Breezy don’t have much in common except they are all rather squished into the town, some on the shore, others high up on the hill, or back in the pine trees. Most of them were built by the people who live in them. And some of the builders were more skilled than others. Every house had some version of a screened porch as a defense against flocks of mosquitos in summer. Every house had a propane tank or two. The pretty houses were freshly painted and had hydrangea bushes in the yard and black-eyed Susans—the official Maryland flower. The not-so-pretty houses had rusty, inoperable cars, trucks, lawn mowers, and swing sets in the yards and their paint was peeling.

My mother was named Mary Magdalena Zimmerman, but everyone called her Maggie. She was more than a little eccentric—in some ways like a rabid butterfly, flitting around, changing to suit her whims, but in other ways she was as immutable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

One of her most obvious whims was her hair obsession. On alternate weeks, she changed her hair color. It could be magenta, burnt umber, platinum, or a combination or any of the above. These were never hair colors never seen in nature. She had an entire collection of falls and wiglets and little chignons that she attached to her hair with no regard for trying to match the color of the fake hair to her hair color du jour. Once she cut tresses out of one of her hairpieces and glued them to her scalp with industrial strength glue. She thought it looked great for the first day and she believed she was on to something, that she had discovered a great new beauty tip and she began brewing a plan to market her discovery. Then the glued-in pieces started falling out along with large chunks of her natural hair. She didn’t miss a beat though and she didn’t fret about the big bald spots on her skull. It gave her an opportunity to get some new hair pieces until her hair grew back. And it gave her a chance to be philosophical, to impart a little of her wisdom to me, saying, “What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, Grover. What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”

Mama liked to quote Scripture. She always repeated it for emphasis.

Glamour was Mama’s passion and she figured out how to support us by making glamour her business. She sold Avon for 35 years and eventually worked her way up to regional manager. People in Breezy used to say, “Ding dong” almost any time they saw her. She loved Avon and her customers loved her.

Then there was Mama’s redecorating obsession, limited only to the living room. The dining room never changed; it was wallpapered with lords and ladies dancing the minuet and cluttered with stacks of boxes of Avon products, a gallery of paint-by-number oil paintings, portraits of saints, and Mama’s extensive collection of Queen Elizabeth coronation china. Other than the coming and going of Avon products, nothing in the dining room ever got moved.

We ate our meals on TV trays in Mama’s bedroom, sitting on the pink chenille bedspread while watching whatever grainy show was on the television, one show nearly indistinguishable from the next. In the corner of her bedroom was a statue that Aunt Eloise had shipped from Mexico. I think it was supposed to be the Blessed Mother but the Blessed Mother was dressed in a tacky satin wedding dress and bridal veil and she was wearing a wild black wig. The weirdest thing about the Blessed Mother Bride was her size—she was not the standard-size statue that could be put on a mantle or dresser. She wasn’t life-size either. She was the size of a young child, dressed in a satin wedding dress. Why couldn’t we have had a nice smiling blue-eyed blonde Blessed Mother statue like Mary Margaret McCarthy had? No, we had to have the pygmy bride of Frankenstein version of the BVM. She creeped me out. Whenever I was sick, burning with fever, Mama would say, “Come and sleep in my bed, Richard, so I can keep an eye on you.” No way! I’d always lie and tell her I was fine, but to tell the truth, I feared having delirious nightmares featuring the fiend in the corner more than I feared any illness.

While the décor in most of the house never changed, the living room got painted once a month, whether it needed it or not. Mama bought the paint at yard sales, liberated it from the neighbors’ trash, or borrowed it from her sister Eloise. I don’t know how she intended to return the borrowed paint once it had been applied to the walls. She often mixed paint to create her own “special blend” of colors. On more than one occasion she mixed in hair color in an attempt to make the living room match her. Mercifully, these colors could not be replicated. Mama’s plan was to make the living room her little oasis of elegance. Accessories included cherub lamps and American eagles and ashtrays with swan wings. There were framed photographs in the living room but she bought the picture frames with photos already in them, never photos of anyone we knew. Mama called me Marie Antoinette once when she overheard me telling Barbie Grant that the handsome young man in one of the framed photos was my cousin Pierre from France and that he was going to send me a French poodle and a box of chocolate-covered cherries for my birthday. Although Mama’s own interpretation of truth could be a little wobbly at times, she held me to a higher standard.

Although the dining room furniture was threadbare and held together with duct tape and twine, Mama regularly redid the living room furniture in an endless variety of themes. We went through several versions of Polynesia, although she once corrected me to clarify that it was Bora Bora and not Polynesia. We had 1880s New Orleans for a while. One summer she did a “North to Alaska” theme because she thought it would be cooling in the absence of air conditioning. But she reliably returned to some version of Gay Paree. She sewed window swags and pillows and reupholstered chairs with fabric she got dirt-cheap from her best friend Darla who was the manager of Jo-Ann’s Fabrics. (Darla also was into competitive ballroom dancing so she always wore high heels because she said she had to keep her feet in training. Darla was married to Vince, a telephone repairman. Vince was a competitive body builder, he shaved his chest, and used Mantan because he wanted to look like a bronze god. Once Vince was doing some telephone repair work in a house when no one was home. Seems it was a hot day and Vince decided to take a shower. Imagine the surprise when the lady of the house came home and found the telephone man in her shower. Vince got fired and began selling World Book encyclopedias. He couldn’t read that well himself but the ladies liked him.) But I digress.

And there was like a revolving door of pets coming into and out of our house. Mama’s friend Blanche was the pusher, keeping Mama supplied like some sort of dope fiend who was a sucker for a furry or feathered face. Blanche worked at the county animal shelter and Mama was always willing to take in another cat, dog, bird, or a pet in the “other” category. But the animals usually didn’t stay for more than a week or two. When the new pet seemed to be AWOL and I asked her where it was she always said, “Guess it must have run away. You know that God created all the wild animals according to their kinds, Louie, and He saw that it was good. Yes, He saw that it was good.”

Seems most of them ran away because they objected to being house-broken. One time Blanche sent from the shelter a lovely yellow and green parakeet. I named it Chiffon, but pronounced it “Chee-fawhn” with a heavy French accent that seemed appropriate for our décor. I didn’t know any French but I thought it might be the French translation of the word chiffon. I might be right—I never looked it up. The bird stayed for about a month but it got mites and gave them to me. Soon after the mites appeared, Chiffon just up and disappeared too. When I asked Mama where the bird was, she said, “Guess it must have run away.”

“If it left, it probably flew away,” I muttered. “And when it flew away it took its cage with it.” The sarcasm was lost on her.

Just before Easter one year, Mama came home from the feed store with a baby duck. I named it Elmer. Elmer had the run of the house, waddling free, quacking and pooping. Apparently it’s difficult to house train a duck. I tried but I could find little guidance on duck training, even at the country library. I tried to shampoo him too, but he would have none of it. As if the duck poop wasn’t enough of an issue, Elmer developed a serious limp. Mama decided that the limp was a sign that the duck was terminally ill and the humane thing to do would be to put him out of his misery. So she turned the gas on in the oven without lighting it and put Elmer in the oven. As we were getting asphyxiated on the gas fumes, Mama kept checking the oven, expecting to see the poor little duckling’s limp body. Every time she opened the oven door, he just quacked and looked at her. Fearing we all would die in a house-leveling explosion, she finally turned off the gas and took him out of the oven. Elmer was fine. Actually, he was cured—he stopped limping and eventually he went to live with the other ducks in the pond at Gate of Heaven cemetery. For all I know, he’s still there, quacking and pooping.

So there were the things in our household that were always changing, like Mama’s hair, and our home décor, and passing parade of animal shelter refugees. Then there were the things about Mama that were immutable.

For example, she had these little food obsessions. Every day, without variation she ate exactly the same thing for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was two of the big shredded wheat biscuits, warm milk, one teaspoon of sugar with a cup of black Sanka. Lunch was a sliced hard-boiled egg with mustard on Wonder Bread. There were slight variations for dinner because I made dinner—pancakes on Sunday, spaghetti on Monday, tuna noodle casserole on Tuesday, hamburger surprise on Wednesday, scrambled eggs on Thursday, and fish sticks on Friday. On Saturday we went out to Lula’s for hamburgers. On the first Sunday of every month we had cream chipped beef on toast and peas—it was our way to celebrate.

Mama was obsessed with bugs, especially flying bugs. She was convinced that mosquitoes were responsible for all manner of illness including chicken pox, tuberculosis, polio, leprosy, acne, and diarrhea. She sprayed me with insect repellant every time I left the house. She’d check the outside thermometer—if the temperature was above 20 degrees F, I’d get sprayed. To this day, the smell of insect repellant and wet paint reminds me of home. I wonder how many of my brain cells were destroyed by the insect repellant.

Mama never wavered from Catholicism either. She had memorized both the Baltimore Catechism #1 and the Baltimore Catechism #2 and could point out the fine points of all the differences between the two. She did novenas and First Fridays and knew the patron saints of everything, even obscure things—like St. Lucy the patron saint of electrical contractors. (She said special prayers to St. Lucy every time Bert Wojcik came to fix the fuse box—she didn’t quite trust Bert on his own merits.) And she went to confession every Saturday afternoon at Immaculate Conception Church, whether she needed it or not. She didn’t have many sinful habits. She didn’t exceed the speed limit, or curse, or drink alcohol. (Once Doc Betz, the druggist, told her to try a little glass of wine to help her sleep. So she poured herself a shot glass of wine, climbed into bed, drank the wine, and immediately lay down.) I think she went to confession in lieu of going to therapy. Father Mahoney could have set his watch every Saturday when Maggie Zimmerman appeared on the other side of the confessional screen. The only thing she probably had to confess was that she lied so frequently about the disappearance of the pets.

But here’s the ultimate proof that Mama’s tenacity never stopped at the border. When I was 12, Mama had been married to Daddy for 20 years. But it had been 10 years since Daddy walked out of the house to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned. No word from him, no explanation, simply gone. Mama still considered herself married. Occasionally I’d get up the nerve to ask her about him. She’d say something like, “Well, I’m not sure where he is, but I do believe he’ll be home by Thanksgiving. He just loves a good turkey.”

She baked him a birthday cake every year on his birthday. (On one of Daddy’s no-show birthdays we had a new dog. It was a big, black dog who drooled and smelled bad. The dog ate most of Daddy’s birthday cake. The following day the dog “ran away.” Mama said the dog favored Daddy and just wanted to be with him.) And every year she bought my missing father an anniversary card, signed it “with all my love, Maggie” and put it on the living room mantle. The cards were always those really mushy cards with poems about how their love had grown over the years.

And my father the disciplinarian, though absent in fact, was ever-present in her mind. When I misbehaved, she would say, “When your father gets home, you’ll have your day of reckoning, Homer, you’ll have your day of reckoning.” Wherever he was, perhaps he was more powerful in his absence than if he had been there.