Marcy Bachmann

 The following are three sample non-consecutive chapters from One Life, Six Men 

 

“How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?”   Bob Dylan

 

 IN THE BEGINNING

 

     Mother always wanted me to write a book about her.  Her request made perfect sense since I earned my living as a writer and she was a star.  That is, she and her twin sister were stars in the 1920’s when Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies were the rage.  They worked with Fannie Brice and W. C. Fields.  They played two of the three little girls from school in “The Mikado” and appeared on Broadway in “Good Morning, Dearie” and in “Peter Pan” as members of the band of lost boys.  While their time on the stage had long since passed, mother continued to long for the limelight her entire life.

     One day several years after mother passed away, I sat down to begin that book because I believe good writers write about the things they know best.  That’s when I came to grips with the fact that I really didn’t know my mother at all and just as unfortunately, I’m quite certain she never knew me.

     Our last moments together were unsettling.  She died just after midnight in the unpleasantly plain room of a nursing home to which she had been moved just hours before.  Six weeks in the hospital for treatment of a cancer that had overwhelmed her frail 87 year-old body led to a sudden heart attack and she was gone.

     My father phoned in the middle of the night and awakened us with the news.  My partner Bill and I tossed on our clothes and raced to be with dad.   A musty smell that even bleach couldn’t erase permeated the room where mother laid, hands folded peacefully across her chest.  I felt nothing.  No tears, no sorrow, no surprise, nothing.  For a moment I stood silently at the foot of her bed then quietly turned to leave.  “You can’t hurt me anymore,” I whispered.  With one final look, I turned and walked away.     

     In that moment I realized my unexpected utterance was inevitable.  Mother had hurt me again and again leaving emotional wounds that had followed me into adulthood.  The story I needed to explore was not mother’s, it was my own. 

     I have lived seven decades, successfully raised a son, experienced an exciting career as a journalist, have written several books, traveled extensively and married and divorced four times. Yet as I matured it became increasingly clear that most of what I had assumed to be true about life was not.  I don’t mean the ABC’s and multiplication tables or how to conjugate the first person plural in French, but rather the larger issues: my place in society, where I belonged and with whom, what I should expect of others and perhaps more importantly what they would expect of me and then too, what love was all about.   Often wrong, wrong, so very wrong! 

     From childhood on I had experienced life as the proverbial boat without a rudder, ship without a sail, bouncing from one bruising relationship to another, all the while singlehandedly bringing up my only child, creating a professional path for myself and dealing with a chronic debilitating disease and a second disease that threatened to be deadly -- the consummate survivor. 

     My story best starts with my grandparents, those on my father’s side.  Grandma was a dear lady who spent her days tidying up a small apartment in a tall forbidding brick building in Brooklyn, New York.  Each morning my grandfather boarded the subway heading to Manhattan where he owned and operated a tailor shop making custom suits and coats for wealthy men, some of whom traveled from as far away as Canada.

     Julius and Tessie Block had met decades earlier when they were barely out of their teens.  Both had left the old country, which at the time was Russia, to seek a better life around the turn of the century.  Each had left their family behind, made the perilous journey across the Atlantic and arrived separately in New York City.  Grandpa, the second youngest of five brothers, followed the tradition of working to bring the youngest brother to this country until all were here and the family was reunited.  Tessie came from a wealthy family that sought to separate her from a boyfriend of whom they did not approve.  She was well educated, had a degree in fashion design and spoke five languages when she arrived in New York.  When Julius and Tessie found each other they fell in love, married and raised three children in that cramped sixth floor apartment.  Although she had never heard of Women’s Lib, Grandma made a good living designing children’s clothing, stitching delicate dresses for little girls until the time came to leave her job and raise a family.                 

     When I visited I remember seeing grandma gather her silky blond hair into a bun and securing it with a tortoise shell comb.  She laced up her black leather shoes with the thick, sensible heels, buttoned her plain tweed coat and headed down the dank hallway to the elevator.  Once on the street she cheerfully nodded to neighbors huddled on worn wooden benches trying to catch a sliver of sun as she made her way down Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway. 

     Grandma would walk several blocks to the market where she haggled with the butcher for maybe a chicken and a few eggs. Then she gathered fresh vegetables for soup and a package of chocolate cupcakes with a squiggle of vanilla cream in the middle for the grandchildren.  Removing a few carefully folded bills from her purse, she counted out the coins and added them to pay the grocer.  Her transaction complete, she would grasp the paper grocery bag by its handles and carry its contents home.

     Grandma unloaded the groceries in her small kitchen and placed the cupcakes in the unlit oven as a surprise for the grandchildren (who always knew where to look).  Later in the afternoon quiet she would pull a soft leather hassock cracked from years of use close to the old radio in the living room.  She leaned forward and listened intently so as not to miss a single word of the latest tribulation befalling Stella Dallas.  I once watched a sympathetic tear slide softly down grandma’s cheek as Stella weathered her latest fictionalized storm.  Then grandma would delicately tuck her lace handkerchief into her cleavage, wipe her hands on the cotton apron tied around her waist and turn to the task of making dinner in her small kitchen with its little window overlooking an iron fire escape and an alley below. 

     That was grandma’s life and she seemed content with it.  And that was where my father grew up with his two sisters and a large green parrot named “Dickie” who lived in a cage in the hall next to the kitchen door.

     My mother’s childhood was much, much different.

     My maternal grandfather, Charles, died of tuberculosis long before I was born.  My maternal grandmother, Anna, was called “Grandma M” after the initial of the last name of the last of her three husbands all of whom she outlived.   She was a small, wiry woman with deep-set hawkish eyes.  The few times our travels brought us to her home in Los Angeles she would remove a dollar bill from her pocket and hold it out me.  “Come give grandma a hug” she beckoned.  But instead of doing as she asked, I would pull back reminded of the witch enticing Hansel and Gretel to enter her deceptively candy-coated house. 

     At the time Grandma M was hospitalized for the final time mother was living in Japan with my father, a career army officer.  Mother’s identical twin sister, my Aunt Harriet, and I both telephoned mother suggesting she return to the United States to see her own mother for the last time.  Mother refused.  She didn’t like to fly alone she protested.  The trip was too long and far too tiring and there was nothing she could do in any case.  She would stay where she was. Grandma M died at the age of 90 informing the family that she was simply too tired to go on.

     As a young woman Grandma M had yearned for the spotlight and was obsessed with performing on the stage.  Since that was absolutely out of the question for a proper young lady of grandmother’s generation, she thrust her pent up ambitions on her perfectly matched set of little girls, Sylvia Rose and Harriet Miriam.  The twins were barely able to walk before they were enrolled in dance classes, given singing lessons and introduced to the rigors of auditions.

     The Darling Twins, so called because everyone thought they were “just darling,” proved to be remarkably talented.  Soon they were appearing in Vaudeville, touring Europe and at the age of ten, singing and dancing on Broadway in the internationally acclaimed Ziegfeld Follies. 

     Life was a whirlwind dashing between fancy costumes, fast young men and cold nights collapsed on wooden train station benches waiting for the next ride to the next town to do the next show.  Sylvia and Harriet Darling were stars!

     By the time my mother Sylvia met my father she was in her late twenties and was emotionally and physically spent.  Always the weaker of the twins, she had suffered a shattering nervous breakdown and was reduced to making a meager living as a cashier in a movie house in Brooklyn.  That is where she met my father who happened to be that theater’s manager.  He fell hopelessly in love with the fragile young woman in the glass cashier’s cage.

     Faded photographs show Martin Block was a tall and impressively handsome man in his Reserve Army Officer’s uniform.  What was a girl whose life had so recently come crashing down to do?  On July 2, 1939, she married him.  Barely more than a year later she gave birth to their only child, a girl.  I never heard mother speak fondly of my arrival.  Rather, she would relate that the month was July, the day was hideously hot and the hospital had no air conditioning.  That I was born on the cusp of what was prematurely billed as the “War to End All Wars” made the timing of my arrival even more unfortunate.

     Every so often dad would recall his youthful dream of buying his own movie theater and eventually buying one more, and then another and another.  He would own a string of movie theaters and his fortune would be made.  Hitler had other ideas.  Reserve Lt. Martin Block was sent to war.  I was not yet three years old when my father left to fight in Europe for reasons I was far too young to comprehend.  To her great dismay mother was left behind with me.  I always felt that mother didn’t even want to be a mother.  I have no recollection of her ever bending to acknowledge any child or include them in her conversation.  I think she found children needlessly noisy and annoying.  Most of all she seemed to resent how they attracted attention that she felt rightfully belonged to her.

     After spending my toddler years living on or near a series of army posts, mother and I were left on our own in 1943 when dad’s infantry unit was shipped to Europe.  We took up residence in a one bedroom apartment in the quiet, respectable Mohawk Hotel in Brooklyn.  The hotel on Washington Avenue was only a few miles from dad’s family, all of whom mother insisted were far less cultured than she.  It seemed to me that mother looked down particularly on women who knew their way around a kitchen and managed to keep up their homes without the aid of hired help. 

     It’s amazing how clear my memories are of the Mohawk.  I can recall its austere dining room overshadowed by a huge oil painting of Gen. Douglas McArthur staring down disapprovingly as I picked out the peas mother tried to hide in my mashed potatoes.  I remember the black wrought-iron fence leading to the Mohawk’s front steps, so icy in New York’s bitterly cold winters.  Mother tugged on the frayed cord attached to my wooden sled as she pulled me along on our way to the drug store or the neighborhood market.  I can still hear her high-heeled boots with the fur around her ankles crunching through the snow.

     I can even recall my kindly pediatrician Dr. Lamb who made a house call to our hotel apartment when I suffered a raging fever and a bad case of the measles.  I was promised a paper sack of sugary rock candy if I would just stop crying long enough for mother to remove my sleeveless cotton undershirt so the doctor could inspect the itchy red blotches dotting my small body.  The heavy wooden pocket door creaked as it closed behind Dr. Lamb and I heard him whispering advice to mother in the other room.

     Although she seemed uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the task of raising me, I believe mother did try her best.  When I had a cough she rubbed Vicks salve on my chest and massaged my legs to ease the throbbing aches that she referred to as “growing pains.”  I even remember her painstaking attempts to teach me to spell my first name “Ellen” by showing me a magazine advertisement for a bowl of pudding and explaining that “Ellen” was spelled with two “L’s” just like in “vanilla” pudding.  To this day I cannot repeat the name Ellen without conjuring up a picture of that bland bowl of pudding.

     The nights must have seemed long and the days lonely for a young woman left on her own with a small child.  There was no end in sight for relatives of men at war in those days, no six months deployment and no “I’ll be back by Christmas.”   Soldiers fought until the job was done, until they were wounded and could fight no more or until they died.  The uncertainty for those left at home was surely agonizing.

     Like thousands of other young men, my father too was gravely wounded in the conflict.  The end of fighting came for him in what was once a peaceful pasture in Belgium.  So fierce was the explosion from a nearby weapon that the resulting concussion left dad permanently deaf in his right ear.  After months of recuperation in a British hospital, he spent the remainder of the war assigned to the quartermaster corps shipping war brides to America from South Hampton, England.  The concussion had not damaged his sense of humor as the sign over his office door noted, “Brides, Brats and Baggage by Block.”

     When hostilities finally ceased dad was promoted to captain and with so much time already invested in the service he chose to make the Army his career.  Mother bundled me onto the Henry Gibbons, a small converted troop ship, and we slept in hammocks in the hold sailing the choppy Atlantic and landing on a cold, damp day in England.  Then it was on to make a home in Bremerhaven, Germany my father’s first post-war assignment.

     World War II changed countless lives in a multitude of ways, but mother held grievances all her own.  Decades later it often seemed that she still had not forgiven my father for that terrible conflict.  It had meant leaving her alone for several years entirely responsible for a growing child.  Prior to my birth there had never been a small child in her life, no siblings besides her twin sister to play with, the twins had worked since they were toddlers and had not enjoyed a childhood or young friends of their own. Their associates had always been adults. They did have an older brother, but the man who I would come to know as my Uncle Marv was a virtual stranger raised by relatives, never traveling with his sisters and rarely taking part in their lives.

     Once we reached our new home in Germany there was no need for mother to continue to be responsible for me.  As soon as the opportunity presented itself I was handed over to housekeepers that military personnel, particularly officers, were generously granted.

     Mother, who had been trained for little else than to be a star, the center of everyone’s attention, behaved as if a burden had been lifted, a burden made heavier because as I heard her tell others, I was a particularly difficult child.  For proof she pointed out that each time she reached to place her arms around me I would artfully squirm away.  So she assured anyone who cared to listen that in spite of her best efforts, I was simply a child who did not seek nor require maternal affection.  Her stinging assessment of my lack of need for her affection was not entirely true.  I was already learning to leave a place I instinctively felt I was not welcome.

     Mother’s lack of maternal skills could have presented a problem were not for our maids Emmy, a robust, apple cheeked young woman barely out of her teens and Betty, the older and more settled of the two.  They seemed pleased to accept responsibility for feeding and dressing me, bandaging my scraped knees and generally looking after my well being.  With my father, who was thrilled to be back with his little girl, I received plenty of attention.

     The year was 1946 and we were assigned a large older home that must have belonged to a wealthy family before the war.  The home’s front room was blessed with tall windows framed outside by wonderful planter boxes brimming with colorful, newly planted flowers.  The big backyard included a babbling creek and a rim of rose bushes that had mercifully survived the war. 

     Since I was only a child it didn’t occur to me that life in postwar Germany was vastly different from life for children anywhere else.  True, the streets were lined with grotesque piles of rubble and rusted metal and when the winter snow fell it was simply scooped into filthy mounds beside the trash.  Breathless “army brats” as we were affectionately known playfully scampered up the icy piles and balanced victoriously on the top.

     Shabbily dressed men, women and children often rang our doorbell offering to sell their most precious possessions in exchange for money to buy food for their families and cigarettes for themselves.  Mother gathered quite a collection of antique dishes and delicate dolls with real hair and hand painted porcelain faces.  At the age of six I saw the pitiful bartering between victims and victors as quite normal.  It was all that I knew.

      Each day I attended an English-speaking school set up for children of military personnel.  I was tucked into bed at the same time every night.  I still played with games and coloring books and refused to eat my vegetables.  The big change was that my father now came home every night.  We were as much a family as I had always imagined we could be.  Other children with whom I played and shared classes were also reunited with their fathers following long separations.

     Although luxuries and sometimes even necessities were scarce for military families, dad made the best of things for my sake.  When the Post Exchange failed to supply packets of Easter egg coloring kits, he spent hours in the kitchen boiling eggplant, rhubarb and blueberries with which to color hard boiled eggs.  In the evenings I would climb onto his large comfortable lap and he read stories to me from the Bible.  My daddy was finally home and all was well.

     One snowy evening he arrived home from work with a beautiful long-haired dachshund puppy peeking from the deep pocket of his uniform coat.  Rocky was my very first dog.  Unfortunately, before he was even six months old he contracted distemper and died.  To this day I have a small scar across the bridge of my nose that I have never really minded because it was left by a scratch from one of Rocky’s playful paws.

     Meanwhile mother found herself with a great deal of free time.  While dad spoke often of wanting another child whose early years he would be around to enjoy, mother made it equally clear that she was not interested in acquiring additional responsibilities of motherhood.  Occasionally at night I would hear them arguing the subject through thin bedroom walls. 

     As she didn’t want to have more children and was not trained as a teacher, nurse, secretary or one of the few jobs common for women at the time, mother turned her attention to climbing the social ladder.  It was in fact an important task for officers’ wives.  The obvious place to start was the Officers’ Wives’ Club.  Like it or not, she was one of them and she was determined to make the most of it.

     The Wives’ Club became the source of all of my parents’ social activities and to mother’s delight she quickly became its resident celebrity.  She was impeccably dressed and perfectly made up, every hair in place at all times.  She insisted on attending every function, each luncheon and all the tedious teas and she instructed dad to escort her to the dances at the Officer’s Club where she took great pride in demonstrating her professionalism on the dance floor.  

     As long as we were stationed in Europe, mother made certain that she and my father traveled extensively whenever he was granted leave.  Their frequent trips to England, France and Austria were relatively easy to arrange since Betty was always available to remain at home to take care of me.

     I never fully understood why I wasn’t invited to go on vacation with my parents.  “Why can’t I go with you this time?” I would implore while watching them fold their clothes into suitcases and prepare for yet another trip.  Their simple explanation -- “Little girls have to stay home.”

 

 

 SAN FRANCISCO HERE WE COME

 

     For whatever reason, and I admit I don’t remember why, we hit San Francisco and kept heading north across the Golden Gate Bridge landing in the impossibly lovely little town of Sausalito.

     Sausalito was a slice of heaven.  It had character, a salt water smell in the air and a gorgeous view of San Francisco across the Bay.  We emptied our pockets and came up with enough change to rent a two bedroom apartment on Pine Street only a few blocks from the water.   Dan simply strolled across the street and utilizing his well-developed silver tongue somehow talked the publisher of the weekly Marin Guide, the town’s only newspaper, into hiring him.  No question, Dan had a way with words.  He had no journalistic training, his only experience with a newspaper being occasionally reading one.  Nevertheless he had determined that the newspaper business was for him.  He gets credit here for chutzpah!

     The next few months were relatively quiet.  I worked on fixing up the apartment and thanks to Dan’s small but steady salary we were eating regularly.  His new job provided easy access to a number of the town’s more colorful characters such as actor Sterling Hayden and San Francisco’s ultra famous ex-madam Sally Stanford.  The madam in Sally’s case referred to a high class escort/call girl business she once operated for an A-line list of clients.  By the time we met Sally her purple past was behind her and she owned the plush Valhalla restaurant on Sausalito’s waterfront.  She soon became one of Dan’s closest friends.

     I liked her.  She was gravely-voiced, brash and could be abrupt, but in spite of numerous marriages and a questionable career Sally had a heart of gold.   She took pride in riding around in her chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, stopping to pick up stray dogs and taking them home.  She bathed them, tied colorful ribbons around their necks and found homes for the newly spiffed up pups. Who could argue with that?

     For herself, Sally kept a feisty green parrot named Loretta in a large cage across from the Valhalla’s bar.  Sally amused patrons by taking Loretta out of the cage and placing her on the bar.  Mindful of her former employment, Sally would whisper to Loretta, “Show us how a girl gets a mink coat?”  Instantly the bird would lie down and flip over, tummy side up waving its claws at the ceiling.

     Sometime later when Sally ran for the Sausalito city council, one of the more staid councilmen questioned her eligibility by suggesting she had a business in Sausalito, but lived in a mansion in San Francisco.  An angry Sally rose from her seat in the hall and in her unmistakable throaty voice inquired of the councilman, “Do you sleep with me?”

     “N-n-no,” he stammered.  “Well then,” Sally replied with satisfaction, “you don’t know where I sleep, do you?”

     Life was becoming blessedly routine when I discovered I was pregnant.  For most couples the anticipated birth of a baby is a blessed event.  Dan certainly seemed excited about the prospect of impending fatherhood.  However, the idea of motherhood was totally foreign to me.  I had no younger sisters or brothers.  I was sure my own mother took little pleasure in having a child.  Most often I felt as if I was an intrusion on the self indulgent life to which she believed she was entitled.  And while my father appeared to adore me, in truth he had been away on military assignment almost as much as he had been at home.  I was 23 years old and, in spite of the relative normalcy my life was beginning to enjoy, I was aware that having a baby could result in  my being even closer tied to a marriage I viewed as a terrible mistake.

     Of more immediate concern, we were about to become parents and our need for extra income was urgent.  Dan’s salary was barely enough to sustain two people much less a third.  Since I had no expectations of ever having a career, I found a job selling cosmetics behind a first floor counter at Macy’s across the Bay in San Francisco.  It wasn’t so bad really.  I liked the women with whom I worked and once a month Revlon sent each of their salesgirls a package of the company’s latest products to wear and demonstrate to customers -- new lipsticks, new mascaras and new moisturizers.  Without a doubt, that was the best part of the job! 

     However, the most memorable thing about working at Macy’s in 1963 had nothing to do with the cosmetics I was selling or the department store in which I was selling them.  It was what happened in Dallas, Texas one quiet November afternoon.  A customer made her way to the counter with tears cascading down her cheeks.  “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry for you,” she sobbed in an unmistakable Australian accent.  “I’m just so very sorry.”

     “Why?  What’s happened?”  I leaned across the counter to offer comfort and a box of Kleenex.

     “Don’t you know?  Haven’t you heard?” she shuddered and whispered, “He’s been shot.  Your president has been shot.  I believe he’s been killed.”

     President John F. Kennedy died in Dallas that day and the world would never be quite the same.

     In the few years Dan and I had been together I had never met, spoken to or corresponded with his family.  As far as I knew he had not been in touch with them either.  Dan mentioned having a father who lived in a small town in upper state New York.  He said that his father had remarried after something had happened to his biological mother.  Illness?  Death?  Divorce?  I had no idea.

     As I look back on that time my lack of curiosity was hardly commendable, but as long as I had known Dan he had spun so many tall tales that I wasn’t sure what to accept as the truth.  If his family didn’t care about me, I made up my mind not to care if I knew about them.

     While Dan appeared to some to be a devoted husband he was in fact a schemer, often tossing caution to the wind, pursuing what he surmised was a bigger and better deal and he was unreliable.  While his fortune and fame were always a mere roll of the dice away, we often had to scramble to pay the rent.   

     Other than depressing misgivings about my marriage, my pregnancy was uneventful.  The time passed without incident but the stress of the years spent in Hollywood with little money and even less to spend on groceries had ravaged my already small frame.  Although we were eating regularly now, I had a lot of ground to make up.  I was barely more than five feet tall and weighed a skeletal 84 pounds when I discovered I was expecting.

     During the next nine months my appetite kept pace with my expanding belly.  I went everywhere carrying a paper bag full of fruit and crackers, never wanting to be too far from nourishment.   I gobbled peaches, pears and plums, apples, oranges and bananas as if they were about to be banned from the market.  Still, in nine months of pregnancy I gained only 30 pounds.

     Sally followed my pregnancy with great interest.  She had two grown adopted children of her own, but had never herself given birth.  She was certain the child would be a boy and spoke often of hoping to be named his godmother.  A woman whose success was based on so unorthodox a career might have seemed an unusual choice to be chosen as our child’s godmother, but you had to have known the size of Sally’s heart.

     Besides riding around rescuing homeless dogs, she often searched the news for troubled persons she could help anonymously.  Touched by a terminally ill teenager who could not afford to have her portrait painted to leave for her mother, Sally arranged to have it done.  She read about a cowboy who rode his horse several thousand miles to fulfill the cowboy’s dream of their crossing the Golden Gate Bridge together.  Once in San Francisco the man found he did not have the funds to ship his horse back home.  Without fanfare or the recipient’s knowledge, Sally picked up the tab.

     It was during this time that she turned to Dan to complete her autobiography Lady of the House.  The book had been started by another author, but Sally was not content with its contents.  Dan and I were invited to her ranch in Sonoma, about 90 miles north of Sausalito, where he and Sally spent hours at her kitchen table while she poured out her colorful life story.

     Sometimes in the evening we would all go grocery shopping in nearby Santa Rosa.  It was the highlight of Sally’s day.  In her rolled up jeans, worn tennis shoes and plaid cotton shirt pinned with her ever present large diamond brooch (a gift from husband number four, Robert Gump of Gump’s department stores) she reveled in trips to the supermarket.  She would load up not one, but at least two and sometimes three shopping carts, pushing one and pulling one or two more, filling them with everything she could grab from the shelves.  It was not unusual for her bill to be hundreds of dollars.

     Back at the ranch she would unload bags of frozen food, meat and produce by the bushel and pack the groceries into several large freezers that she kept on the property.  Sally didn’t need the huge stockpile of supplies.  That was not the point.  Until the first of her numerous marriages at the age of 16, she had been raised on a desperately poor Oregon potato farm as Mabel Janice Busby.  Now as “Sally Stanford,” she was a wealthy woman and would take no chance of ever feeling the hollow pain of hunger again.

     Meanwhile, our child was due to be born on July 8, 1964.  We waited and then we waited some more, almost two weeks in fact.  At 10:10 on Sunday evening July 19th, Dan and I were sitting in bed in the apartment on Pine Street watching “Candid Camera” when it became clear that the baby’s time to be born had arrived.  The pains were pretty intense.  There was little time to waste.  Deep into that crisp, clear San Francisco summer night we raced across the Golden Gate Bridge and arrived at French Hospital on Geary Boulevard in the city shortly before 11 p.m.

     Almost exactly 12 hours later and with surprisingly little anesthetic help, the baby was born.  Seven pounds, seven ounces, 20 inches in length, Sally was right.  It was a boy!

     An elated Dan made the requisite telephone calls to friends and relatives notifying them of little Michael Martin’s birth.  The Martin part was after my father who had never had the son he had hoped to have.  Later that afternoon my parents drove into the city from their central valley home in Stockton to see their newly minted grandson.  First they stopped downtown to buy what mother considered an appropriate baby gift, a camel hair coat with matching hat sized for a three-year old.  “It was so adorable,” she explained, “I just couldn’t resist.  He’ll grow into it.”

     Throughout my pregnancy mother had made it abundantly clear that she was hoping I would produce a girl.  She suggested we name the child Susan or maybe Julia after my father’s father Julius.  The fact that I had obstinately given birth to a boy was just another indication of my determination to please my father and not her.

     Dad rushed down the hospital hallway to view the baby through the nursery window returning to my room to proudly proclaim, “Did you see the shoulders on that boy?”

     Three days later I was back home gingerly balancing on a small inflated inner tube.  Michael must have realized he was late because in his rush to finally be born he had cracked my tailbone.  Funny, I had complained to the doctor that labor felt as if my back was broken.  A small piece of it was, but it healed in just a few weeks.

     On July 25th, five days after Michael’s birth and one day before my own 24th birthday, Jewish tradition dictated a Bris Milah be performed.  A delighted Sally arrived with a gift box containing three infant outfits adorned with a duck, steam engines and sailboats.  Gently reaching for her new godchild, she cheerfully posed for pictures cradling the infant against her generous chest.

     While friends and family ate from a small buffet, drank wine and celebrated his birth, the male baby was circumcised on the dining room table, a simple garage sale find that I had painted glossy black.  I remained on the couch perched uncomfortably on the plastic inner tube still protecting my fractured tailbone.

     The fall months fled quickly.  I was busy caring for the baby, a task totally foreign to me.  Michael’s pediatrician must have been driven to distraction by my urgent telephone calls.  Phoning mother for advice on how to care for an infant never occurred to me.  Fortunately Michael was a good baby adapting quickly to sleeping long hours and spending his waking ones consumed with adding to his increasing girth. 

     Michael was (allowing for a bit of maternal prejudice) a handsome little boy, with round pink cheeks and large bright brown eyes.  He even had hair enough to sweep across his forehead and brush into a “do” of sorts.  He was a happy baby, always smiling and with a laugh that was a soft gurgle ending in what could have been easily mistaken for a hiccup.

     When I took him out in his stroller on the streets of Sausalito, people invariably stopped to comment on how adorable he was.  And when Dan taught Michael to wolf whistle at the age of only 10 months, attracting females considerably older, I entertained notions of raising a prodigy.

     The holidays came and went, but with the dawn of the new year Dan once again cooked up a better deal.  He had connected with several wealthy investors interested in starting a weekly newspaper in Fairfield, a small town about an hour’s drive north of the Bay Area.  Dan convinced the investors that he was the ideal man to launch the endeavor.   We found and rented a little house, packed up and moved lock, stock and infant to Fairfield.

     It took only a few months for Dan to discover that Fairfield was not yet large enough to support a second newspaper competing with the small one it already had.  The investors’ money ran dry and once again we gathered our belongings and returned to Sausalito, this time renting a large apartment in the Portofino-Riviera on the water’s edge right next door to Sally’s upscale restaurant “Valhalla.” 

     I swear I don’t know how we afforded the expensive first floor apartment with two sizeable bedrooms and a big deck extending out over the water.  As usual we had little money.  I once stood in the grocery store deliberating the wisdom of buying a third carrot.  But somehow the rent was always paid.  I suspect that Sally had something to do with that because Dan was still traveling up to Sonoma to put the finishing touches on her book.

     It was about this time that my father’s widowed mother passed away.  In her will she left $1,500 to each of her four grandchildren.  My Aunt Ada who had served as caretaker for her mother sent my portion of the small inheritance to my father, not to me.  He held on tightly to the check, refusing to release it to me.  Dad believed Dan, for whom he had never cared, would squander the money.  Dad was probably right.

     Motherhood was becoming blessedly routine leaving me a bit of free time.  I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to take a life-altering leap.  I wrote a poem, a humorous ode only five lines long:

     Men are the builders of mountains, the creators of horses of Troy,

     But what man has the muscles, the spirit, the strength

     the vigor, the brawn,

     I could go on at length,

     to successfully dress one small boy?

 

     I mailed it to McCall’s, a magazine that printed brief funny poems in the back of each monthly issue.  They bought mine for $35.  I was a published writer.  I was ecstatic!

     Michael’s first birthday was celebrated in our large living room that had a glorious view of the Bay.  Water splashed playfully against the rocks beneath our deck as grandma, grandpa and my aunt Harriet from Los Angeles came to help the birthday boy reach across his high chair and smear gooey frosting all over his face.  Many pictures were taken including one of me proudly holding a framed copy of the page in McCall’s where my poem appeared.

     Encouraged by my small literary success, the fact that I had gotten A’s in English composition and Michael’s now longer naps in the afternoon, I placed a typewriter on the dining room table and began to write about something I knew best, baseball.  The years that dad had shared his love of sports with me were about to pay off.

     I tapped away for several weeks, compiling what would become a small paperback book with the unwieldy title A Woman’s Extremely Basic Guide to Baseball.  Dan pronounced it “pretty good” and arranged for a local illustrator named George Gooding to create a number of appealing cartoon drawings to accompany the text.  Another of Dan’s well-to-do acquaintances showed the short manuscript to someone he knew at Miller-Freeman, a San Francisco publishing house.

     My bright pink paperback booklet on baseball was published in 1965.  Alvin Guthertz, a San Francisco public relations man, was hired to splash the booklet and its author all over the Bay Area and he did a masterful job.  Michael, my little “Rookie of the year 1985” to whom the booklet was dedicated and I had our pictures in several newspapers and I was interviewed by a local television news affiliate.  Now I was having a really good time! 

     A good time did not extend to my domestic situation.  Although Dan was not much of a provider the marital problems were not entirely his fault.  I did not love him.  I never had.  The strain of living with him and keeping up the pretense of being a contented couple had grown unbearable.  I desperately wanted out of the marriage.

     One day I located a cheap unfurnished apartment behind a shopping center in Mill Valley about five miles north of Sausalito, tucked Michael under my arm and made my move.

 

 

PRIORITIES CHANGE

 

     For a time being a wild child suited my sensibilities.  My marriages to Dan and Ed, as well as my experience with the reckless game played by Rick reminded me of a difficult lesson I should have learned as a child.  I should have known not to trust anyone else with my feelings.  I vowed that I would not make that mistake again.  I made up my mind to surround my emotions with a sturdy protective wall.  Finally in a financial position to take care of both my son and myself, I could pay the rent, the grocery bill, the Boy Scout dues and cover the cost of Michael’s braces too.  Any man coming into our lives now would be treated as an afterthought, approached strictly as a business deal.  Such was the thinking that led directly to Harry.

     Being among the Tribune’s most visible columnists meant I received many invitations to restaurant and gallery openings, fundraisers, sporting events and social gatherings.  Harry, a member of the paper’s management team, showed up at some of those events as well.  It was at a restaurant opening that I attended alone one evening where he first asked me to dance.

     “Feelings” played softly by a small group of musicians moved us slowly around the floor.  I noticed that Harry held me comfortably close.  He was eight years older than I, not a large man but a meticulously conservative dresser whose pale gray suit perfectly matched his premature graying hair.  His smile was tentative but his grip on my hand and waist was firm.

     “Feelings, nothing more than feelings,” he whispered along with the music as we danced.

     For the most part I experienced dating Harry as placid and non-threatening, exactly what I was looking for.  No highs, no lows, no excitement.  We went out to dinner occasionally.  Most often it was an affair to which either one or both of us had been invited.  Harry preferred a modest dinner prepared at my home or one shared with friends in theirs.

     For Harry a romantic weekend was time spent at his rustic cabin in Felton, a small town in the woods north of Santa Cruz.  The one-bedroom cabin had been built by his father decades before.  On the bathroom door was tacked a sign reading “Felton John.”  Behind the main bungalow was an even smaller one room cabin housing two beds for the kids.  Michael loved camping out there and was often joined by Harry’s youngest son who was the same age.  Jerry was one of Harry’s four children, a pair from each of his two previous marriages.

     It wasn’t as if I hadn’t encountered the children of men with whom I’d kept company before, but I had never mastered the art of dealing with a difficult child and what made it worse, Harry’s two youngest offspring definitely didn’t like me.  His only daughter was a pale, sulky teenager whose deceptively fragile appearance belied her fiercely passive-aggressive nature.   

     Shortly after Harry and I began seeing each other he invited me to dinner at his home.  As I approached the door, through the front window I could see his daughter sitting on the living room couch.  I rang the doorbell and watched her head turn toward the sound.  She did not move.  I rang several more times until Harry finally answered the door.  A red flag?  At the time it didn’t seem important that she hadn’t answered the door so I simply closed my eyes to her stubborn display of ambivalence.   It turned out that her behavior was an indication of the indifference toward me that she displayed as long as her father and I were together.

     While Harry’s two older boys, by then young men products of his first marriage, were gentlemanly, the youngest boy, a result of his second marriage, was trouble.  Jerry lived with his mother, who following her divorce from Harry had moved to a rural home 70 or so miles to the north.  The boy had already gotten into numerous scrapes with authorities, had been suspended from school and was enrolled in alternative classes.  It seemed to me that he was in desperate need of attention and discipline, neither of which he was getting from his parents.

     As my relationship with Harry grew more serious I perhaps mistakenly felt that the less interaction I had with his younger children, the better.  They had a mother, and while I definitely took issue with her parenting skills, I wasn’t about to interfere.  At that point, it wasn’t my business anyway.  Within months “that point” had changed and Harry and I were engaged.

     At the age of 37, this would be my third marriage.  I was aware that I was not madly in love with Harry.  In fact, I was barely in love with him at all.  But I did like him a lot.  He was intelligent and successful and since I had never witnessed unconditional love between adults and had no understanding of what it was to really love someone, “like him a lot” seemed a good enough alternative.  It fact, at the time it seemed a very comfortable place to be.  In the past I had flown blind where love and marriage were concerned, an odd disability for someone writing a syndicated column on relationships.  This time I felt confident that I would not/could not be hurt.

     Harry was calm and composed.  He owned a home which would be the first place I had ever lived where a landlord didn’t collect the rent.  I could put down roots.  Life with Harry would be tranquil, safe and secure.  He had his career.  I had mine.  No bells, no whistles, but a quiet sense of ease.  My engagement ring, chosen during our lunch hour from a selection at a downtown department store, had a small diamond set in the middle of a four-leaf clover, maybe a sign of good luck.  I would do my best to make this marriage work.

     Before dawn on a cold morning in November I woke to find I could hardly move my left hand and arm.  They were more than just asleep, they were paralyzed.  As I lie in bed an uncomfortable tingling sensation crept up the left side of my ribcage crawling like an insidious insect toward my shoulder.  I must still be half asleep I told myself.  When I’m fully awake this odd sensation will disappear.  It was at least half an hour before I was sufficiently frightened to wake up Harry who insisted that we toss on our coats and head immediately to a nearby hospital’s emergency room.

     Following what seemed an interminable wait I was ushered into an examining room and the neurologist on call introduced himself.  I took a seat and he poked, prodded and reviewed a laundry list of questions and answers I had filled out pertaining to my medical history before he zeroed in on the bouts of the mystery virus I had suffered several years before.  Glancing up from his clipboard he concluded, “Well, you know what you have.” 

     “No, actually I don’t,” I replied stroking my stiffened arm.

     “You have Multiple Sclerosis, multiple meaning ‘many times’ and sclerosis meaning ‘scarring.’ “

     Multiple Sclerosis?  Tears welled in my eyes, slid silently down my cheeks and clung precariously to my chin.  The doctor offered a small box of Kleenex.

     Of course I had heard of the disease and was familiar with charity collection cans placed on store countertops accompanied by photos of MS victims in wheelchairs.  Occasionally I dropped loose change in one of the cans.  But that morning my teary response had little to do with those faraway patients or my own long term prognosis.  Rather, I was overcome with relief.

     My symptoms had been real all along.  The difficulty swallowing and speaking coherently and the temporary loss of sight in my eye weren’t just to be dismissed by taking the contents of a bottle of pills.   I wasn’t a hypochondriac or the victim of the ridiculous “female induced hysteria.”  Doubts and uncertainty were instantly swept away.  My mystery virus had a name and its name was Multiple Sclerosis.  Now I could learn about the disease and take steps to manage it so it would be more difficult for MS to sucker punch me again.  I felt a surge of control and considering my past, I craved that control.

     Harry and I stopped at the hospital pharmacy to pick up a prescription for more Cortisone (still the drug of choice) and returned to the car to discuss the doctor’s findings.

     This was definitely an unexpected bump in the road.  Although at that point I didn’t know much about MS, I imagined the disease could severely alter my future.  I had no choice but to deal with the diagnosis as best as I could but Harry did have a choice.  I slipped my engagement ring off and pressed it into the palm of his hand.  I wasn’t being heroic or even particularly brave, simply accepting that I would be facing the disease alone as I had so many other trials in my life.  I believed that I had dealt with worse.  I would not hold Harry to a promise made under far different circumstances. 

     As the two of us huddled in the car that chilly morning with the sun rising just outside the window, to his credit Harry’s only comment was, “Do you think this makes any difference?”  I slipped the ring back on.

     For me the diagnosis was just another mountain to climb.  Whatever the future held I could, I would handle it.  Perhaps it was just denial.  I had become very good at that.

     I shared the diagnosis with almost no one.  Harry knew and I told my parents.  Dad’s reaction was subdued, certain his daughter was strong enough to deal with the disease whatever it brought.  He offered help if I ever found a need to ask for it.  Mother on the other hand decided to consult her own physician, a man I had met socially only once or twice, about the potential severity of the disease.  She confidently reported being assured, “It’s nothing to worry about.  It’s not that serious.”  There was no need for concern, she said.  Mother, who did not like dealing with difficult issues, simply dismissed the diagnosis and rarely ever mentioned it again.

     In the meantime I was sent directly to bed with instructions to rest for a few days until the Cortisone had a chance to take hold and the numbness and paralysis had begun to subside.  That weekend dad drove in from Stockton with several large bags of groceries, enough to fill my cupboards and refrigerator.  Mother did not accompany him, I assumed because he delivered the groceries before noon and she would not have been up and dressed at that time.

     It was perhaps a year or two later that mother conceded she was thinking of volunteering for “a worthy cause.”  I suggested she consider donating time to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society but mother, who delighted in seeing her name on the society pages of the local newspaper, chose to plan fund raising parties for Stockton’s Opera Guild instead.

     What I soon learned about MS is that those diagnosed with the disease live their lives on the edge of a ledge never knowing what to expect or when to expect it.  An auto immune disease, it has many faces and can take numerous forms.  Some afflicted become rapidly debilitated winding up in wheelchairs in short order.  Some experience a slow degeneration over a period of decades and learn to compensate as afflictions arise.  Others, luckily the majority, cope with unsettling exacerbations popping up only every now and then.  A lucky few have one or two flare ups and then never have to deal with the insidious disease again.

     At times a few of my fingers or toes feel numb or one of my legs tingles as it sometimes does at the movies if I sit in the same position for too long.  Hot bath water occasionally feels icy cold as the damaged myelin sheath surrounding nerves no longer provides protection and incorrect signals are received by my brain.  Placing my chin on my chest sometimes causes what feels like sparks skittering down my spine.  As the years have passed I have grown uncertain of my balance, my handwriting is a little less legible and I have been told that one of my vocal chords is at least partially paralyzed (the great loss being that I can no longer carry a tune) but for the most part I remain ambulatory. You would never know by looking at me that anything is wrong. What is most aggravating is the infuriating unpredictability of the disease.                                         

     My MS diagnosis notwithstanding Harry and I chose July 1, 1978, as our wedding date.  I don’t remember why except that it somehow fit into his busy schedule.  We weren’t renting a place of worship in which to recite our vows nor a hall in which to hold a reception.  Since it was to be my third marriage and Harry’s as well, we asked a superior court judge whom we both knew and admired if he would officiate in his chambers.  Being the good man that he was, he agreed.

     Several days before the wedding Harry took me out to breakfast and mused that perhaps marriage wasn’t such a good idea after all.  His first two marriages hadn’t worked out he reminded me.  If our relationship wasn’t broken why fix it?  Since I had already given notice on my condominium, why didn’t Michael and I just move in with him?  We could live together without the legalities.  That would work for him.  It would not, however, work for me.

     I was irritated by his sudden indecision and feeling a little unsettled.  I had a child about to enter junior high school and was not prepared to move my son, our couch and our clothes in with a man to whom I was not legally bound.  If marriage was not what Harry wanted, he had placed me in a very difficult position.  He fell silent for a few awkward moments, stared into his lap and pondered his next move before emerging from thought to announce that maybe we should get married after all.  We called the waitress over and ordered our eggs over easy, English muffins on the side.

     I should have known better.  If Harry was having second thoughts, I should have had thirds.  I should have appealed to my landlord to take Michael and me back.  I should have cancelled the movers.  I should have returned the ring to Harry and we should have paid homage to our guts, a part of human anatomy that is rarely wrong.  But his desire to avoid confrontation and my hunger for safety and stability led neither of us to do those things. 

     I chose a simple red, white and blue printed cotton dress that I thought appropriate as we were to be married during the Independence Day week.  My parents attended the ceremony as well as Harry’s four children and my one.  Harry’s parents were both deceased.  His daughter displayed her continuing displeasure with her father’s choice of a third wife by arriving late, hair and clothing in disarray and accompanied by a toddler in tow that she claimed to be babysitting that afternoon.

     Since my parents, who hardly knew Harry and were not entirely thrilled with my choice of a third husband, had already made reservations to take everyone to dinner, the toddler came too.  This wedding, as had been my others, was followed by no honeymoon.

     We set up housekeeping in Harry’s sprawling ranch-style home in Walnut Creek, another small East Bay community, where he had lived with his second wife.  Although he had purchased her share of the house several years before, sufficient traces of his ex remained.  Her taste in décor could not have been more dissimilar from my own.  Her fondness for owls was reflected from wallpaper to wooden wall decorations.  The pièce de résistance was a bulbous lamp in the living room topped by a lampshade covered entirely in fluffy white faux fur.  While Harry’s former wife had apparently chosen to leave the signature pieces of her presence behind, he in turn had not bothered to remove them.

     If this was to be our home my work was cut out for me.  I started out enthusiastically enough but as I had never owned a home and was quickly overwhelmed by the process of decorating one.  I had the walls in Michael’s bedroom painted blue but while the paint chip promised a clear, subdued blue the walls turned out to be a garish shade of turquoise and looked absolutely terrible.  I ordered plush dark brown carpeting for the living room, another huge mistake.  Every bit of lint screamed for attention like the headlights of a limousine leaping from a darkened alley. 

     I chose a straw basket weave patterned wallpaper for the master bathroom.   Not too bad, but I was fast growing weary and hadn’t even scheduled a garage sale for the cartons of useless items discarded from the kitchen drawers.  With apologies to Winston Churchill, I gave up.

     Meanwhile back at the Tribune, a family-owned newspaper since its inception a century before, suffered a horrendous family squabble resulting in its being sold to the highest bidder.  As often happens when newspapers are placed on the market, the bottom line becomes the most important factor and editorial integrity takes a hit.  The old publisher, one of the original heirs to the newspaper, was unceremoniously dumped by the new owners who ushered in their own man.  His desire for additional profits led him to take an ax to the newspaper’s staff.  He did not like what he saw and, in spite of being home to a strong newspaper guild, Tribune heads rolled right and left, including more than a few on the editorial staff.  I almost lost mine.

     My liberal column highlighting the highs and lows of personal relationships sent shivers down the new publisher’s ultra conservative spine.  He was appalled, struck dumb that any journalist, much less the wife of one of the newspaper’s executives was allowed to write such unseemly material.  Thanks to that same guild I did not lose my paycheck or my salary.  Instead the column as well as the syndicate distributing it were promptly scuttled and I was re-assigned to the night copy desk writing captions for the auto section and an occasional feature story.  I found the new arrangement an unhappy situation at best.

     Stinging from what I felt was a gross professional injustice, I was determined not to give up so easily.  If the Tribune’s new ownership refused to publish my column, I would take it and its considerable following somewhere else.

     I phoned for an appointment with the publisher of the Contra Costa Times, a fast-growing suburban daily newspaper barely two miles from my new home.  The Times’ publisher Dean Lesher ushered me into his enormous second floor office, replete with roughrider Remington statues lining the bookcases.  Lesher was a portly man with a well earned tyrannical reputation.  He had parlayed his law degree into multimillions by recognizing the potential for growth in the sprawling suburbs 30 miles southeast of San Francisco.  I was warned that he was a hard taskmaster, diabolically clever and not to be trusted, but I saw no future on the night copy desk.  Other than writing the front page story the day that Elvis Presley died and a few assorted features, I had little opportunity to do any real writing since the new owners had taken over several months before.  I missed that and my instincts told me to take a chance.

     Lesher couldn’t have been more cordial.  The Tribune was in chaos and he knew it.  Now here sat one of its (former) lead columnists seeking a job.  The column had a considerable following and he knew that too.  He was a man watching three jackpot bars line up on his slot machine as he grinned across his wide desk.  After delivering the standard “of course, we can’t pay you what you are used to making” speech he assured me that he was certain we could work something out.  Leaning back in his cushy leather chair and pressing his fingertips together he inquired, “What would it take to make you happy?”

     For a moment I pictured the scene in “My Fair Lady” when Eliza Doolittle, glitteringly attired for her first fancy dress ball, finds herself being wooed by an overstuffed count.  “Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor.”

     I was ready.  Stifling a desire to blurt, “a job where I can write,” I calmly responded that I preferred to write five columns a week, not just the three that I had written for the Tribune, that I wanted the freedom to write opinion and commentary about current news stories, not just explore relationships and that I wished to have my salary increase with the expanded circulation I was certain I would provide to the Times.   It was a well-rehearsed, presumptuous response to be sure, but its very impudence must have appealed to Dean Lesher.  I was hired and to my delight he added, “You have a job here for as long as you like.”

     I was assigned a desk, a chair and a typewriter in a room adjacent to the newsroom that was occupied by several of the paper’s feature reporters.  The routine was by now familiar.  A staff photographer took a sheet of head shots from which one was selected to top the column which would run five days a week, Tuesday through Friday and on Sunday.  A representative of the promotions department gathered sufficient information to be dispensed as needed.  The column was to be headed by my photo and byline alone, no title save one addressing that day’s offering.  Another new beginning.

     And so began a productive relationship, profitable for both the Times and for me.

  

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