Monday, August 08, 2005

Accidents Will Happen

When I was in Raymond Avenue Elementary School, we had a physical fitness test. Maybe it was a result of President Kennedy’s emphasis on physical fitness. I had such a lack of upper body strength that I wasn’t able to make it across the monkey bars. Failing monkey bars in Kindergarten sort of marked me emotionally – I believed I didn’t have any talent for sports from then on until college, when I discovered I had a natural backhand in tennis and that I actually enjoyed playing baseball! I loved to hear the crack of a bat connecting with a ball, when a pitcher who believed I could hit the ball was pitching. But more about that later.

I was so shocked the first time I got the breath knocked out of me, when I hit the ground flat footed, sliding down a pole on the playground at school. I didn’t know that kind of thing could happen, I’d never heard of “getting the breath knocked out of you” and I thought I was dying. I had already broken my collarbone and leg in Lubbock, broken an arm and bit my tongue nearly half in two in Searcy, but now I started having accidents in earnest. There was the gravel in my knees when I skidded on them in a parking lot, and the pain of having it picked out by the nurse in the student infirmary at Pepperdine. I still have some blue spots in my knees, reminders of my accident-prone youth. I sprained an ankle chasing Weldon Blackwell down the hall of the Administration Building one Sunday afternoon after church, and had to wear a cast. I must have fallen on my knees again in another accident, because the bandages around both my knees fell down and embarrassed me as I walked over to the Chapel for Mrs. Mac’s funeral in seventh grade.

There was a man who worked at Pepperdine named Pete Weldon. He was my mental picture of the phrase, “Hail fellow, well met.” He loved everybody. My dad had met the Weldons when he went to Omaha, Nebraska to do some work on his Master’s degree, and recruited them to come and work at Pepperdine. Pete worked in many capacities over the years, all the way to the Malibu campus, and even past my mom’s long tenure. His wife Dell was my mom’s secretary in the library until her retirement. Well, Pete was everyone’s friend. He had a tandem bike, and one day as I was riding down the Promenade behind him, his saying hello to someone made us miss the turn onto New Hampshire, and we skidded on the ground on our side quite a ways.

When he brought me up to our front door bleeding, Mom said, “Oh no, not again!” Although he apologized profusely and took full responsibility for the accident, I still felt she was unmercifully put out with me. Just irritation, no comfort. Off we went across the campus to the doctor to get me fixed up…again. Going to the Student Health Center was always unpleasant because I didn’t trust Dr. William Allen. I would tell him my wrist was sprained and he would grab it and twist and say, “Does this hurt?” I decided later he must have had a streak of sadism.

Dr. Allen’s office had a “Diet Kit” attached to the wall as a decoration and/or joke, with a half knife, a fork with no prongs, and a spoon with a hole in the middle. I was not amused. I can still see in my mind’s eye the blue mimeographed sheet he gave my mother when she put me on my first diet in fourth grade. The diet plan listed things I could and could not eat. I still hate Brazil nuts to this day, since that was the “approved” nut on the list. My cold hamburger with no bread that Mom packed for my lunch was so embarrassing – I was supposed to hold it in the foil and pretend it was a sandwich, while all the kids around me were eating the standard peanut butter and jelly or baloney on white bread, and then buying candy and ice cream at the concession stand for dessert.

It was hard on Momma, with her basic belief that illness was something to be ignored in hopes that it would go away, to have a child who was so often sick or getting injured. She was very nurturing in mainly two ways: cooking and housekeeping. And sadly, those two gifts of hers had a negative side for me. Her cooking had a bait and switch element to it, since I was becoming overweight, and her housekeeping made me feel that things were more important, had more value, than me.

According to the red travel journal I kept when I was ten, Travels Abroad, I had German measles when I was three, regular measles when I was four, and mumps when I was eight. Unfortunately for Momma and for me, I had mumps on one side only, so awhile later I had mumps on the other side. The wisdom on the street says that once you’ve had mumps you’re supposed to become immune, but no, I had mumps again a third time.

Daddy was more nurturing than Momma. I think he learned it from his mother, who once told me that she cooked four different breakfasts to suit her husband and three boys. I think it happened more than once, but once when I was sick in bed in the blue bedroom of the Pink House (which means Chip had moved to the front bedroom and I had my long-begged-for white canopy bed with eyelet canopy) Daddy went a got a hot washcloth and laid it over my face. He called it “having a facial”. It felt so good. To this day, a steaming hot washrag is the most comforting feeling I can think of. I thought it was amazing when I discovered that the Japanese have that tradition too.

God did something really important for me when we moved to the Pink House. He gave me next door neighbors that tangibly, tenderly loved me. On a visit in 1992, I was able to go back and visit them, and I found out then that they had loved other Pepperdine children (especially the four Banowsky boys) and rescued them from their parents’ career focus and benign neglect. But when I was little, I only knew that they were my special friends, and a safe haven from loneliness and from spending hours alone when school was over and nobody was home. On that 1992 visit, they told me that when my parents would come home from work, my dad would holler across the fence, “Is Gwen over there?” Jean would holler back that I was, and ask if he wanted me to come home. “No,” Daddy would yell back, “we just wanted to make sure where she was.”

The Rossamando Sisters

Their gate was made of pink, wide wooden vertical boards with rounded tops, and I could not see over it. It was locked with a latch on the inside, so I couldn’t let myself in. The first thing that happened when I would knock was that Pierre would start his wild barking. He was a French poodle, the kind of dog our family would never have tolerated. He was nervous, excited, jumpy and frivolous, a dog that we would nowadays call “high maintenance”. But the sisters loved him, so I accepted him on their recommendation.

Usually it was Jean who would come to the gate and let me in. Olga was the shyer of the two sisters, had less to say and was less warm and welcoming, but I still felt she didn’t mind me being there. Along the left side of their house, where the gate opened, was a patio. It was paved with flagstones, or maybe it was concrete. I thought it was really weird that their back yard had no grass. They didn’t want to have to mow, so they had it covered with concrete and paving stones years before. There was a table and chairs under their grapefruit tree, and one bright sunny day we sat there with another guest and ate grapefruit from the tree, sprinkled with sugar. We didn’t put sugar on grapefruit at my house. It seemed like cheating to me to sweeten the bitterness.

When I entered the front door I entered an exotic world. Everything about their house was different from mine. It was always dark in there. There were heavy, dark velvet curtains on the windows, and it felt cool, as if the walls were very thick and didn’t let in the outside world.

The living room was like a parlor. We never sat there but once, when I visited with my mom. That time, I remember a crèche in the fireplace, a big one with lots of pieces. I had never seen a crèche before. It may have been there for Christmas, or it may have been there year round. On that visit, Jean brought both of us some anisette in little glasses. I never liked licorice, black or red, and this tasted like it. I was too honest that day, and I think I hurt Jean’s feelings by saying I didn’t enjoy the anisette. I wished that I had kept that particular opinion to myself.

In both the sisters’ bedrooms there were statues. I think in my own mind I called them “idols”, but I wouldn’t have hurt Jean and Olga’s feelings by saying that to them. The one I remember best was of the Virgin Mary standing, holding in her arms the Baby Jesus, with a ball in his hand that had a cross on top. They told me the ball was called an “orb”. I knew it was not okay with my family to have these things around. They seemed dangerous and powerful to me, but beautiful, and kind of peaceful, too.

To the left of the living room was the dining room where we sat at a huge dark wooden table to play Parcheesi. We liked to play it often. I think it was the only game we played. Even the name Parcheesi and the rules of the game felt mysterious and exotic to me. It didn’t seem like logic or skill had anything to do with it. I guess it was the chance, the roll of the dice, that gave me the sense of difference. We never played dice games or “face card” games in our extended family gatherings when we were in Nashville. I don’t remember my family playing any games at all.

The next room back was the breakfast room. It was cramped and cozy. Pierre slept in a basket with a pillow in it. The basket made a dome over his pillow bed. It was under the back window. I felt like he was pampered and “spoiled”. They spent money on him. Our dogs slept in a box in the laundry room by the back door. Pierre was a central and cherished member of this family.

In the breakfast room, sitting at the table (it seemed like it was always a gray or a rainy day when we sat there), I saw Boy’s Town and The Bells of St. Mary’s and Song of Bernadette. These movies connected Jean and Olga to my concept of “Catholic”. The movies helped me comprehend that the sisters were part of a much larger thing. The feeling I had about Jean and Olga’s religious life opened me up to an emotional, sensory experience my church did not offer.

When my parents took me to see “The Last Supper” reproduction at Forest Lawn, I was in tune with the religious awe of my surroundings, and I believed my parents and the other grown-ups could not feel it. I felt special and alone in my awareness, like God noticed me and that He appreciated me appreciating the atmosphere there. I walked carefully and moved slowly and quietly, with a sense of wonder and respect. Later on I learned that was called “reverence”. The feeling stayed with me when I visited cathedrals all over Europe when I was ten years old and again later in college.

One of the biggest differences between Jean and Olga’s house and mine was the smells. There was a lingering scent of incense and candles always in the house. But even more unusual was the garlic. I don’t think my mother ever cooked with garlic. Anything so strong and insistent and obnoxious would have been offensive. At our house we tried to cover up smells, so as not to draw attention or criticism. I think the strongest scent our kitchen ever produced was cooking cabbage. And I think that my mother apologized for that odor.

Since that time I have felt that sense of shame (and been criticized and complained about by roommates) when I cook with strong smells, and especially in teenage years when my body odors would offend. It was a feeling like, “Who do you think you are that you can impose yourself on me, invade my space with that smell?” And I have felt proud of people who are daring enough to boldly smell like garlic or sweat or whatever natural odor without apologizing for it.

Jean and Olga Rossamando never married and were probably in their fifties when I knew them. They worked at a factory somewhere and took the bus to get to work. I would worry about them when it rained, but that wasn’t often. (It almost never rained in California when I was young.) Their work was glamorous and frivolous to me: they did bead work. They attached sequins to costumes for the movies. Sometimes they did their work at home.

My parents both worked full-time away from home. They believed that the work you chose should be of service to others. I respected that, to the point that I was shocked at a Christian who was wealthy. It felt like the sisters just played. They had some of the stuff they worked with at home, and would occasionally give me a string of sequins to take home with me. I was amazed at how the string of sequins all nestled in each other looked so dull from the side, but could be so sparkly when attached to fabric one at a time.

Once I visited them on a sunny Sunday afternoon when they had a guest. I think he was a relative of theirs. He was a virile, loud, big man. He was the first man that ever impressed me as “masculine”. He was different from all the pale, safe men in my world. Probably he was Italian. He was an artist, and he drew swans for me with a pencil on a big tablet. It made me feel special that he did something for me, and even at that age, special that he felt I would appreciate his “art”.

At Christmas time Jean and Olga and I had a tradition of walking together at night around the block to see the lights and decorations on the neighborhood houses. We probably walked only a block or two, around and back, but it seemed like a big adventure to me. Since the little houses on those few blocks were jammed up next to each other, and many of the neighbors decorated for Christmas, it was like fairyland at night.

In the way they lived and the way they treated me, Jean and Olga taught me many things that stood in sharp contrast to the messages I got at home.

• Children are a pleasure and a delight.

• Life is full of moments to be celebrated.

• Sensual experiences (sight, smell, texture, taste) are not to be feared or controlled but to be enjoyed.

• God (“religious feelings” was how I experienced it at the time) could have an honored, central place in the home and be a part of daily life. He was not only for the church building and public worship services.

• You can have a life that is not inspected and judged by a whole community, but that is private and small and may never make a public impact. It’s okay just to live.

• There is enough time to lavish love on children and on animals, to play, to visit, to welcome. We are not too tired or too busy for you.

• I can feel loved and accepted without being touched.

I don’t remember either woman ever hugging or touching me, yet I felt their hearts embracing me. I craved touch at my home because I could not feel my parents’ hearts reaching out to me. I never got enough touch.

Jean and Olga never talked about God, but I felt that He was everywhere in their home. Our family talked about religion a lot, but always in terms of “The Church”, never about God or Jesus. We attended every church meeting, Sunday School and Sunday morning worship services, Sunday night services and Wednesday night “prayer meetings”. (It was still called a prayer meeting because that was traditional, but the practice of sustained prayer had been mostly lost by then.) I don’t even know if the Rossamando sisters went to Mass. But I felt there was a terrible lie going on in our home.

We (my Daddy and I, anyway) were always stretching toward and yearning for and pretending we had the kind of life we sang about in the hymns at church. But we didn’t have it. It was hell at home and we were always hoping someday for heaven. But there was something of heaven at Jean and Olga’s house. It wouldn’t be that big of a transition when they died and entered into more of what they had experienced here on earth. There was peace at their house. There was strife and bitterness and constriction and pain at my house.

I said my Daddy and I longed for the Lord because I don’t recall my mother or my brother (while he lived at home) ever speaking about Him or expressing in action any personal interest in Him. We were always at church, and at the annual larger meetings at the college, because we were supposed to be there. It was out of duty, fear of others’ opinions and possibly fear of eternal damnation, though thankfully that threat was never spoken at home.

But my Daddy let his heart show when he sang. The only spoken prayers he ever prayed in the family were at meal times. But he would sit by my bed when I was little and pat my back (“Pat me to sleep,” we called it, except I don’t think I ever went to sleep while he was there with me) and sing hymns. “O To Be Like Thee”, “The Great Physician” and “I Come to the Garden Alone” were his three favorites.

Once he hummed one of those hymns as we rode in a car full of tension from a fight that had just happened. At the time I resented his humming because it felt like he couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with the problem, and was escaping into fantasy. Years later I came to realize it was the best form of spiritual warfare he had. He was reaching out to the Lord and trying to change the atmosphere among us in the only way he knew.

I thank God for providing Jean and Olga Rossamando in the early years of my life, ages seven through twelve. They gave me a taste of a different kind of life, a different view of life, than the one I had in my home. Sometimes there is still a bit of a battle going on inside of me between my parents views of life and other, more relaxed and trusting views. I have bounced back and forth between fighting their way with all my might, rejecting their narrow, oppressive, dutiful views and positions, embracing many elements of the “other way”, and then feeling terrible guilt for being rebellious. The fight is not over yet, but our side is definitely winning.

Second Grade Was Hard
Second grade was my year to join the Raymond Avenue Brownie troupe. Maybe the opportunity was intended to socialize me, but it backfired. There was an hour or so between the end of school and the beginning of the Brownie meeting that I had to fill. It didn’t make sense to go home and come right back, and I didn’t have any friends in my class that I wanted to invite myself home with. So I felt sort of lost, and embarrassed at having to come up with something to occupy myself. Our meeting was held in a little building that stood on the playground, and it was empty until the girls gathered at meeting time. To pass the empty waiting time, I went to the corner store across the street from the school, and spent whatever money I could find on candy. Then I went back to that little building, and crouched down in the corner so no one could see me through the windows, and ate my candy.

My memories of our Brownie meetings are odd. I recall us spending a lot of time sitting silently. I know we learned to sing the Brownie song, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.” Our troupe leader (the mother of one of the girls) was an alcoholic and would come to the meetings drunk. We never seemed to do any activities. The one exception was the annual May Pole Festival in the spring. It was an area-wide get together of Brownie troupes and we were supposed to take part in the winding of the May Pole. (I was familiar with this tradition from Harding College, where they actually crowned a May Queen in addition to winding pretty ribbons around a pole.) The event was held in a big, hilly park, and there was some excitement about arriving there on time, finding our place, and not messing up as we circled the May Pole in a kind of choreography with our ribbons.
Field Trips
I can’t say which years we took all the field trips throughout grammar school, but I know they made a big sensory impression on me because I can still see and hear and smell the wonders they introduced. We actually went down to San Pedro, to the harbor, and saw the giant cargo ships that brought products from around the world to the west coast, with their enormous smoke stacks. I can still hear them blowing those huge billowing whistles. Someone had the incredibly wonderful insight to take us to a bakery, and we walked through what seemed like an acre of machinery. At the end of the bakery tour, each of us kids were given a tiny personal loaf of bread, and I loved that. The smell of bread baking was something I had never experienced before, and it was awesome to learn what a long process it was. I think it was the same teacher who took us to a carrot factory, and at the end of that tour we each received a little plastic bag of carrots.

Another field trip was to Griffith Observatory. Griffith Park was a green, wooded mountain you could wander around on, which we later did as fledgling hippies on a Saturday adventure. Up on top was the observatory, an elegant, round white building with huge patios surrounding it. Inside, there was a rotunda with a brass pendulum that moved from side to side across a kind of circular pit. I would lean over a short wall above the pit and watch the pendulum swing in its heavy, elegant movement. We saw a show in the darkness of the planetarium that depicted the movement of stars in the night sky. This was before the days of lasers, so it wasn’t a very exciting show, but I was awestruck to realize that God had created all that wonder.

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