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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WHEN I WAS DONE I'D FILLED OVER 600 PAGES. (19)


Heaven on Earth

The stars at night,
Are big and bright,
Deep in the heart of Texas.
- from “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” written in 1941 by June Hershey and Don Swander


     The plane landed in Austin on January 9th, a date forever etched in my mind.  On that day in 1947, my sister Karyl gave birth to her first baby, my precious nephew, Stephen.  Thirty-three years later, on her oldest son’s birthday, she was taken from me forever when she lost her battle with cancer.  Now, in 1993, fresh memories were created as I embarked on a journey with the Ivesters to make a new life for ourselves deep in the heart of Texas.
     Before driving to our temporary quarters at the northern end of the city, we went to Westlake Hills where our house was under construction.  Jon had visited it many times during his frequent trips from California to Texas, but the rest of us were seeing it for the first time. Ours would be the first home to be occupied in the development.  As a result, with the exception of a house being built next door, we were surrounded by woods and meadows.  As we pulled up, the first thing I noticed were the magnificent oak trees framing the house and the herd of deer grazing in the yard, fleeing gracefully at the sound of our engine.
    Jon was eager to show me my part of the house.  As I had requested, they’d added a one-bedroom apartment so I could retain my privacy and independence when I so desired and join the rest of the family when I sought companionship or was needed to help with the children.  It was everything I’d hoped it would be.
     When we were finished examining the construction site, we drove 18 miles north to the Chardonnay Apartments in Wells Branch, where we would live until our home was ready for occupancy.  If we’d known before moving that it would take longer than four months, we might have tried harder to find something nearby.  Jon had taken the easy route of letting the Applied Materials staff place us where they housed all their new transplants.  It was convenient for access to the factory but a long commute to the children’s schools.
     The complex didn’t have any three-bedroom apartments where we could all be together, so the Ivesters took a two-bedroom unit while I was around the corner in a one-bedroom unit.  It had every modern convenience I could ever need.  I learned to use a microwave, and the television in the living room was larger than any I’d had before.  To make it even more luxurious, I had daily maid service.  
     The five Ivesters were squashed into a place not much bigger than mine, with the children sharing one small bedroom.  Elizabeth was the only one who minded.  She was already unhappy about our move to Texas and was frustrated by the lack of a quiet space where she could do her homework.  That problem was solved when I suggested she come to my apartment each afternoon after school and work at my dining table.  I loved to see her sitting there, and  it made me feel useful.
     Jo and I took turns making the long, pleasant drive to the children’s schools each morning and afternoon.  Accustomed to the crowded conditions in California, I was struck by the spaciousness of central Texas in the early nineties.  As I passed through rolling hills dotted with trees, I saw few homes and little traffic.
     Jon and Jo had decided before we moved that she would wait to find a job until after we were in Westlake, knowing she’d be busy overseeing the construction and helping the children settle into their new routines.  Elizabeth and Ben soon made friends at their schools, but three-year-old Emily was bored at home with Jo and me all day.  We found a delightful nursery school close to our apartments where we enrolled her three mornings a week.
     Whenever Emily was in daycare, Jo and I ran errands. My favorite was grocery shopping, a responsibility I'd disliked in the past.  When I was a child, my mother insisted on going to separate stores for fruit and vegetables, kosher meat, fresh fish, bakery items, and canned goods.  Having established her habits prior to the arrival of supermarkets, she was unwilling to change and I was miserable following her around.  Later, with a family of my own to feed, I walked through the aisles with three small children in tow, often struggling to handle two carts at once.  After my divorce, shopping for one was a reminder that I was alone.
     Once we moved to Texas, going to the supermarket became a treat.  Accustomed to the small, urban stores of Los Angeles and San Francisco, I was amazed by the huge displays of every sort of food I could possibly desire.  Perhaps it’s true that everything is bigger in Texas.  Jo and I shopped together.  She drove, loaded the groceries into the car, and then carried them into my apartment.  While we were shopping, we'd discuss our plans for the week.  I looked forward to those trips to the grocery store as I would to an exotic adventure.
     One morning we set out on the somewhat convoluted process of getting our cars registered.  Our first stop was to buy insurance, where I was impressed by how friendly the agent was.  Everywhere we went, salespeople were pleasant, taking the time to welcome us to Texas and going out of their way to make us feel at home.  Each time it happened, I thought to myself, “I can get used to this.”
     Even the mundane task of getting our cars inspected turned into a special event.  Jo found a nearby station in the yellow pages and we drove there on Route I-35.  I looked with trepidation at the dirty facility, thinking, “How can I possibly trust my car to such a dump?”  I grew even more concerned at the sight of two grimy mechanics so filthy-looking that I suspected it had been weeks since they’d washed.  Despite my misgivings, I followed Jo to the tiny waiting room where I sat trying not to touch anything, lest I soil my hands or clothes.
     Soon the two men returned and said grandly, as if they were dressed in tuxedos, “Ladies, your vehicle is ready.”  They then escorted us to our car and held open the doors as if welcoming us to a limousine.  On the dashboard, two long-stemmed white roses awaited us.  The men closed the doors behind us, drawling “Now y’all come back.” I no longer saw them as a pair of grubby mechanics, but as two gentlemen epitomizing the phrase “southern hospitality.”
     With insurance in hand and a new inspection sticker on our windshields, we were ready to get our Texas plates and licenses.  Once again, I enjoyed the slower pace of life and the warmth and friendliness of the inhabitants.  In all our driving around, I never heard a horn toot, a civilized behavior compared to the bustle of California, where honking began the instant a traffic light turned green.
AURA SPENT TIME WITH HER NEEDLEWORK
WHILE WAITING FOR NEW HOME IN 1993
     March and April came and went and still our home in Westlake Hills wasn’t ready.  I spent my time reading, writing letters, and doing needlework, just as I had done during World War II when I followed Leon around the country while he pursued his pilot training.  I took long walks, sometimes by myself and sometimes accompanied by Jo or one of the children.
     Everywhere I looked, I noticed the plants and animals, so different from my native New England and my adopted California.  I loved driving the children to or from school, intrigued by the occasional armadillo and enchanted by the wildflowers along the highway.  The bluebonnets in particular were spectacular.  When Lyndon Johnson was president, Lady Bird encouraged him to pass a highway beautification bill, for which I was grateful.  I had seen the fall foliage in New England, the orange Poinciana trees in Miami, the lavender Jacaranda trees in Los Angeles, and now appreciated the wildflowers of Texas
     While I was content with life in our temporary housing, the Ivesters were eager to move.  Not only were they crowded in their apartment, they also wanted to get  settled before the end of the school year, so the children could make friends.  Finally, on May 22nd, the last Saturday before school was over, it happened.
     From the beginning, my life on Sprague Lane was perfect.  In my wildest dreams, I had never expected to return to the luxurious life of my childhood.  A twist of fate shook me up with a divorce in my early fifties, forcing me to rely on myself. I was now rewarded with my own piece of heaven on earth.  This was better than Newton, better than Ocean Beach, better than Cape Cod.  For the first time since I’d stopped believing in God many years ago, I longed to find my religion again so I’d have someone to thank for my good fortune.
JO AND JON IVESTER WITH AURA IN TEXAS
     Each morning, I’d waken to the sound of birds chirping outside my window.  Before dressing for the day, I’d sit on my porch where I could watch them flitting about in the early morning light.  I was surrounded by my loving grandchildren, taking care of them and, in turn, being cared for by the whole Ivester family.  Not only was I happy in this new life, I was also awestruck by the beauty of our surroundings, the sound of the waterfall Jo and Jon had built in our backyard, the sweet scent of nearby shrubs and flowers, and the kiss of a  breeze on my face.  
     Granted, the 100-degree heat was oppressive, but after four years of living in Miami earlier in my life, I found it bearable.  Besides, we had our backyard pool.  I remember as a child in Newton on our walks to the library, we would pass a house with a pool – an unusual amenity in New England.  Ever since then, I’d dreamed of what having a pool would be like and pictured Hollywood stars lounging around in bathing suits.  It was as wonderful as I’d imagined.  Jo and I spent many happy hours swimming and playing with the children in the pool, or I’d sit on my screened-in porch and watch them frolic.  Sometimes, Jo and I would have lunch on my porch and gaze contentedly at the pool embellished by lush foliage and a waterfall cascading beyond it.
     Jo and Jon had promised the children we would get a puppy, so as soon as the school year ended, Jo began watching the classifieds.  Within days, she found an ad for fox terrier puppies.  She and I took the children to check them out and within minutes, Foxy Lady became part of our family, happily snuggled in the children’s laps for the trip home.
     Since Jon was away on a business trip at the time, Jo told him the news over the phone.   “Now there are two foxy ladies waiting in bed for you,” she said playfully.  
     “That’s good," said Jon, "but one of them has to sleep in the laundry room.  You decide which.”
      One day when we were taking Foxy to the vet for her shots, we discovered that an alley cat had  delivered kittens behind the office and they needed a home.  We took two of them and then our family was complete.  Well – not quite.  In early September, Jo and Jon shared their news--she was pregnant once again.  Having three grandchildren in my daily life was great, but four would be even better.  I could already feel that little baby in my arms.
      Despite her pregnancy, Jo threw herself into volunteer activities.  The children loved sports and joined teams for soccer, baseball, and basketball.  Jo and Jon were deeply involved, serving as team managers, coaches, and league board members.  When a new Cub Scout pack formed at the local elementary school, Jo became a den mother, providing Ben with a ready-made group of friends.  Not long afterwards, Elizabeth joined the Girl Scouts and Jo took on the role of troop leader.  At school, she worked in and beyond the classroom, frequently spending an entire day with the students.  All the energy she had previously devoted to her job now went into volunteering.
     As a result, Jo and Jon were rapidly drawn into the community.  They said their roots ran deeper after a few months in Austin than they did after 13 years in San Francisco.  Their good fortune became my good fortune and the parents of their friends became my friends.  One day, a woman came to pick up her son who’d been playing at our house.  When Jo introduced us, Jenny Lou told me her mother lived nearby and she knew the two of us would like each other.  An hour later, my phone rang and a Southern voice said, “I’m Jenny Lou’s mother, Virginia, and I want you to join me tomorrow for lunch at the Belgian Restaurant.  I can’t wait to meet you.”
     When I arrived at the restaurant, a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman was standing in the doorway.  She introduced herself and showed me to our table.  As we looked over our menus, she recommended the quiche and we both ordered the one stuffed with salmon.  A few minutes later, the waitress returned to tell us there was only one left.  Before I could suggest that we select another type and share them, Virginia drawled, “That one will be for my guest,” and ordered something different.  I knew then that I’d better not offer to pay for half the meal, as was my habit ever since my friends in the National Organization for Women had taught me to do so.  Instead, I would accept graciously her hospitality.
     During the meal, Virginia asked if I played bridge, and when I said I did, she told me that all her friends played and invited me to join them.  I hesitated, worried that it had been so long since I’d played that I’d need lessons, but she assured me nobody would mind if I was a bit rusty.  From then on, every Thursday afternoon, I’d go to the Senior Center for bridge.  There were enough players to form about 20 games and with participants moving from table to table, I eventually met everybody. 
     Virginia and I went together each week, taking turns doing the driving.  We were joined in our carpool by another long-time Texan, 90-year-old Beryl Hatley, a woman whose companionship I very much enjoyed.  After bridge, several of us would go out for dinner.  In addition to the weekly bridge parties, several players got together for games in each other’s homes and at a local church.  Once in awhile we met simply for dinner and conversation.
     One of my first experiences with famed southern hospitality occurred when my car broke down as I was driving on Bee Caves Road to pick Emily up from nursery school.  I pulled over to the side of the road and before I could get out, another driver had stopped to offer help.  An officer arrived and drove me to the nearest garage.  In California, the only time someone would ride in a police car was if an arrest had been made; here, the police car was my taxicab.
     When I got to the gas station, the mechanics told me not to worry; they’d take care of everything.  One of them left in a tow truck to retrieve my car while the others stood by as I tried to call Jo to tell her I’d be unable to get Emily.  When the phone rang and rang with no response, I grew frantic.  One of the mechanics, seeing how upset I was, offered to take me in his truck to the nursery school.  Not only did he stay while I collected Emily, he also drove us home afterwards, chatting sweetly with my little granddaughter when he saw she was afraid of his big truck.
     Soon after that, Emily said she’d prefer to stay home with Jo and me after all, and the three of us spent many happy hours together.  Jo decided to remain a stay-at-home mom, and for the first time since she left for college twenty years earlier, she was free to focus exclusively on her family and community, and to enjoy pregnancy without the added problems of a high-stress career.
     During that time, Jon began to coach Ben’s soccer team, a sport with which he was unfamiliar.  Another dad, Bill Glick, helped out and between the two of them, they gave the seven-year-old boys a good time, taught them a few soccer skills, and provide a setting for friendships to develop.  The two coaches became friends, as did their wives.  When the spring holidays approached and most of the families began to talk of Easter, Jo and Jon learned that Bill Glick and Rhoda were making plans for Passover.  Happy to have found another Jewish family, the couples decided to share their Seder.
     Since Jo was eight months pregnant by this time, the Glicks hosted the celebration and invited me to join them.  Over dinner, I mentioned that I missed having Jewish friends in my age group.  Although I’d never been especially religious, I saw myself as Jewish and missed the camaraderie of friends who shared that culture.  Rhoda said she knew an older Jewish woman in her exercise class and arranged for us to get in touch.  In the same way that the grandmother of one of Ben’s friends launched me into a bridge community, the exercise partner of one of Ben’s mother’s friends introduced me to a group of Jewish women who often  met for lunch.  I now had so many friends that I could stay busy every day of the week.
      Despite this, I kept my eyes open for new opportunities.  I was 72 years old, but not ready to restrict my life to lunches and bridge.  Before long, something fell in my lap in the form of a pamphlet from the University of Texas, describing its Informal Classes.  I perused the catalog, looking for courses to keep my mind active.  I remembered fondly the current events and music appreciation classes I’d taken in California and looked for something similar.
     My eyes were drawn to the question, “Can you teach any of these?”  UT was seeking teachers for a few of classes, one of which was “Reduce Your Foreign Accent.”  For 20 years, I had used the International Phonetic Alphabet to help my students reduce their black dialect.  In northern California, I’d used the same curriculum with foreign adult students who were having difficulty being understood due to their strong accents.  UT wanted to offer the same class, but needed a teacher.  Talk about serendipity!
     I updated my resume, pulled out my old lesson plans, and scheduled an interview at the university.  The Informal Classes coordinator hired me on the spot, saying they’d been looking for years for someone to teach that class.  As we shook hands, I was told the pay would be $12 dollars an hour.
     Driving home, I had second thoughts.  The pay was much less than I’d earned as a teacher in California and I felt that the school was taking advantage of me.  I talked it over with Jo and Jon, and asked what I should do.
     Jon gave me a wise answer: “You’ll be working four hours a week.  Even if you made twenty dollars an hour, it wouldn’t amount to a lot of money.  Teach the class if that’s what you want to do, and don’t worry about the pay.”
     There was no question in my mind; I wanted to teach the class. I’d always enjoyed being on a college campus.  I recalled Grandma Lena’s obsession with education and  felt the same passion.  I loved everything about the collegiate environment, and I very much wanted to be a part of it once again.  I was eager for the summer to arrive so I could begin.
EMILY TOOK ONE LOOK AND SAID, "WHERE'S THE REST OF HIM?"
     Then something even better happened.  On May 4, 1994, the fourth little Ivester was born.  In the weeks just before Sammy’s birth, eight-year-old Ben had said to me, “Grandma, I’ll love the new baby, whatever it is.  But is it wrong of me to hope for a little brother?”  I assured him that it was perfectly okay for him to want a boy, and he was overjoyed when that’s what he got.  Four-year-old Emily didn’t care about the new baby’s gender.  She just wanted to snuggle him and stare into his great big eyes.  The first time she held him in her lap at the hospital, he was swaddled in baby blankets, so all we could see was his little face.  Emily took one look at him and said, “Where’s the rest of him?”  
SAMMY AND JO CAME HOME FROM THE HOSPITAL.
     A few days after Sammy and Jo came home from the hospital, Jon placed a cradle in my living room so Sammy could nap there when the rest of the household was too noisy, or when Jon and Jo needed me to keep an eye on our new little baby. If it wasn’t too hot, I’d put Sammy in his carriage, take Emily by the hand and the three of us would go for a walk.  There still were only a few houses in our neighborhood and it felt as if we were out in the woods.  I’d pause with Emily to watch a family of rabbits scamper across our path.  My favorite time for walking was the early evening, when Elizabeth and Ben could join us as well.  As I pushed Sammy in his carriage and listened to the three older children tell me all about their day, I remembered how Grandma Lena took my four children for late afternoon walks at Cape Cod many years earlier.
     Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my grandmother.  When I was a child, it was Grandpa Philip who spent hours with me, molding my ideas.  Once I became a mother, however, it was Grandma Lena who offered her wisdom.  All through my years as a mother and teacher, I’d modeled my behavior on the character of Jo in Little Women, but when I reached my sixties, it was Grandma Lena whom I most wanted to emulate.
     I loved being with the Ivesters, but I still wanted to see my other children and grandchildren, so I made   pilgrimages to New England each summer to visit Connie and her daughter, Sarah, and Philip and Nancy with their daughter, Amelia.  Every time, it felt as if I were returning home.  It had been many years since I’d lived in my native New England, but there’s something about it that still resonates deep in my soul.  I may be a Texan, but I’ll never stop being a New Englander. 
      One summer, soon after Sammy was born, I went to stay with Connie, who had recently moved to a townhouse nestled in the woods.  She introduced me to her new partner, Susan Tracy, a history professor at Hampshire College.  I liked Susan immediately.  She and I not only shared a love of learning and literature, but also a love of my darling daughter.  Susan smiled when she spoke to Connie and her eyes lit up when she described their experiences.  I could tell from the first moment that there was a special bond between them. 
      Another highlight of my Amherst visit was going with Connie to attend a town planning meeting where, as the town’s senior housing planner, she was responsible for presenting information and recommendations to the planning council.  It was my first opportunity to observe her in a professional capacity.  She was clear and succinct in her comments, and respectful of everyone involved.
     When we went for a bite to eat a while later, one of the town bigwigs came by our table to introduce himself.  He said, “You must be Connie’s mother.  I want you to know how highly we think of her.  I don’t always agree with her, but she’s an asset to our town and we’re fortunate to have her.”
     After a delightful few days in Amherst, Connie and I drove to Dover, New Hampshire to visit Sarah at college.  Then it was time to say goodbye to Connie and head south for New Hartford, Connecticut, to see Philip, Nancy, and Amelia.  Everywhere I went, my children and grandchildren made me feel wanted and loved.
     Eventually, I planned a vacation to visit Charles in Los Angeles.  He came to Texas each year for Christmas, so I saw him more regularly than Philip or Connie, but I still wanted to see him in his home environment, for only then could I get a feel for his everyday existence.  Ever since my oldest child first went off to college, it’s been important for me to picture my children’s lives.  Somehow, that brings them closer to me.
     I had avoided returning to southern California initially, feeling overwhelmed by the belief that I couldn’t do so without making time to visit my old friends from my years teaching there.  It’s not that I didn’t want to see them; I did.  But there were so many of them that I didn’t see how I could fit them all in, and I didn’t want to hurt feelings by leaving any of them out.
     When I confided my concerns to Charles, he said, “Mom, don’t worry about that.  I’ll arrange a dinner party so you can see everybody at once.  You’ll have a great time and no one will object to seeing you with the others.  They’ll all understand.”  I sometimes forgot that Charles had grown beyond the immature young man who often needed me to rescue him.
     As wonderful as that dinner party was, however, Charles planned something even more special.  He arranged for Connie’s birth mother, Phyllis, and her husband to join us for lunch.  She and I had been corresponding for a couple of years by this time.  Connie had made a trip to southern California when she first found Phyllis, and had met not only her birth mother and grandmother, but also her half-brothers and Phyllis’s husband, all of whom lived in Ventura, not far from Los Angeles.  I treasured the photos Connie had sent me following that reunion.
     Knowing what those pictures meant to me, I responded promptly when Phyllis asked me in one of her letters to send some pictures of Connie growing up.  Never before had I removed a photo from my albums,  but for Phyllis, I pulled pictures of Connie from different years of her life and sent them, as requested. It was the least I could do for the woman who had generously given me her baby so many years earlier.
    When the knock came at the door, Charles was standing nearby.  He gestured for me to open it, but I asked him to do it, wanting a moment to collect myself.  I already knew I would love Phyllis but didn’t know how she would feel about me.  Before I could drive myself crazy, Charles broke into my thoughts and said, “Mom, this is your moment.  You should be the first to see Phyllis.” He then stepped aside.
     When I opened the door, there stood Phyllis just inches away.  We threw our arms around each other and didn’t move for many long minutes. Tears welled up in my eyes and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction.  In the same way that we were physically close, I felt as if two halves of Connie’s history had come together, making a new whole.  I only wished that my parents had lived long enough to witness this joyful occasion. When Phyllis and I were finally able to let go, introductions were made and we talked for hours.  I returned to Texas completely fulfilled.
     Soon after that, Leon’s sister Helen passed away at the age of eighty-two.  Her husband, Henry, sent a letter to the extended family in which he included everybody’s names and addresses, in case anyone wanted to revive old connections.  Perhaps now that he was alone, he was more aware of how valuable those relationships were and wanted to help others pursue them as well.  I viewed the list as a gift and wrote to a few of the old-timers, but didn’t get any replies.
     I did, however, hear from someone to whom I hadn’t written, Leon’s brother, Everett, who had remained incommunicado ever since Leon and I were divorced.  At the time, I’d been hurt by Everett’s apparent lack of concern for me.  I’d seen him through a number of marital crises, providing him with a home for weeks at a time when he was no longer welcome in his own, and I had thought he would be there for me.
     I learned in his letter that Everett’s avoidance wasn't due to a lack of caring. He'd thought I would resent Leon so much that I wouldn’t want any contact with the rest of the family.  When it became clear from Henry’s letter that I’d remained close to several of the Krugers, he asked that we reunite.  We did.  In our seventies, we rekindled our friendship and remained close until his death.  He visited often and doted on my four Ivester grandchildren as he had done with my children so many years earlier.  Our renewed relationship made us feel young again as we reminisced about our early adulthood.
      Soon after Everett’s first visit in the summer of 1996, it was time to prepare for the start of the new school year.  The three older children met their teachers and stuffed school supplies into their backpacks.  When my own children were little, Leon and I had established a ritual in which the four of them would stand on the front porch while we took pictures.  Now, Jo and Jon adopted the tradition.
       After the last picture was taken, Elizabeth, Ben, and Emily walked toward the school bus.  Two-year-old Sammy waved goodbye to them and then began scurrying around in circles in the front hall, asking, “Where’s my backpack?  Where’s my school?  What bus do I ride?”  He’d been content to see the others leave, believing that as soon as they were gone, it would be his turn.  Jo and I had been looking forward to another year at home with him, but Sammy had other ideas.
         Without missing a beat, Jo said, "You'll be going to school later today."
         She called the nursery school Emily had attended and asked if they had room for another Ivester.  They did.  A few hours later, we dropped Sammy off and returned home where we were greeted by our dog and two cats and felt tremendously free with all four children gone.  For several weeks, Jo enjoyed taking long walks, swimming in our backyard pool, and lunching with me on my screened in porch.  Gradually, she allowed her volunteer work to consume more of her time, pleased that she was making a substantial contribution to our community.
        Then, one day Jon asked her to go back to work.  She hadn’t planned on doing this until Sammy started kindergarten, but now that he was in daycare, there was no reason to delay.  Jo was willing to accommodate to the request, knowing Jon’s reason for making it:  he wanted to pursue a job with a start-up company.  He’d had this in mind ever since graduating from business school a decade earlier but didn't want to leave the security of Applied Materials unless Jo was earning a steady income.
      After considering several options, Jo decided to try something new and sought work as a financial adviser.  My life changed once again as I took over caring for the children in the late afternoons and attending school functions during the day.  I would cancel bridge or lunch plans if one of the children got sick.    
        My friends often wondered if I felt put upon by my new responsibilities, but I didn’t.  When I retired from teaching and became a full-time grandmother, I viewed it as a new career and the most important part of my life.  
        With all this responsibility, it became more critical for me to take care of myself and stay in shape.  Jo and Jon clearly were thinking of this when they selected my 75th birthday gift – a treadmill.  I thought back to my 55th birthday when I looked in the mirror and decided that middle-age was no longer pending, it was here.  Had I arrived at old age now?  No.  It was still approaching but hadn't caught up with me.
       The following fall, I decided the time had come to retire from teaching at UT.  I had to face reality.  While I loved the time in class with my adult students, I had begun to dread the trips to and from the campus.  Delays due to construction on many downtown streets had almost doubled the time for my commute, and the parking lot near my classroom had been made way for a new building.  The combination was more than I could handle.
        Although I had to give up teaching, my life was still full.  I belonged to three different book clubs and played bridge regularly.  At least once a month, I’d accompany my friends to the ballet or opera or go with the Ivesters to a musical.  Over a year went by, during which my time was consumed with bridge games and cultural activities.  What I valued most, however, was watching my grandchildren grow.  Then I got a call from Connie with news that my oldest grandchild had not only become an adult, but was ready for a family of her own.  Sarah and her fiancé, Bill Ashburn, were to be married on May 22, 1999.
        I was eager to go to the wedding knowing I would see all my children and grandchildren, my sister’s children, my former brother-in-law, Everett, Connie’s birth mother Phyllis, and Connie’s father, Leon.  Leon!  How was I going to react?  Would his second wife and children from that marriage be with him?  Would I become upset?  At 76, I was happy with my life and decided I would be fine.  I couldn’t say I was exactly looking forward to seeing Leon again but knew I would be okay when I did.
        The wedding was beautiful, as all weddings are, but somewhat unusual in the number and variety of mothers and grandmothers present.  Connie’s birth mother was there, illustrating the extent to which she had become an important part of Connie’s life.  Connie’s former husband, Greg, walked Sarah down the aisle, but it was Connie’s partner, Susan, who sat by her side and held her hand during the ceremony.  Also in attendance were Connie’s former partners, each of whom had played a role in raising Sarah over the years.  All the women were friends, sharing both in the festivities and in their support of my granddaughter.
       I enjoyed every minute of it, including my interaction with Leon.  The day we arrived, I was walking down the hall at the hotel, looking for Connie and Susan when I looked up and saw three men coming toward me – Leon, Everett, and Charles.  The three looked so much alike, I laughed at the resemblance.  Leon and Everett had grown more similar as they aged and Charles looked like a younger version of his father and uncle.  One by one, the three Kruger men hugged me and I hugged them back.
        Chatting comfortably with my former husband, I was finally able to make peace with myself and close that chapter of my life, 25 years after it began.  I no longer trembled at the thought of having to relate to him and could remember fondly the good times we’d had and wish him well in the life he’d built for himself since we’d been apart.  Leon and I were both happier than we would have been had we remained married and this realization gave me a new sense of freedom.  In the months that followed, the serenity that flowed from this self-discovery became obvious to those around me.  My children could sense a difference, and one of my book club friends remarked, “You have an old soul.”
       Perhaps as a result of this inner peace, I found myself spending more time listening to the concerns of my friends and family, serving as a sounding board when others were working through difficult issues.  One such discussion led to a new experience for me, one I’ve come to value immensely.  The husband of my dear friend, Joyce Wallace, was growing weaker by the day and could no longer join her in running errands and socializing.  In her efforts to care for him, she was becoming something of a shut-in herself, hesitant to leave him home alone lest he need her assistance.  As she spoke of the lonely hours she spent cooped up in her home, her eyes filled with tears and she found it hard to speak.
       When she recovered her voice, she told me that for years she and Kenneth had been meeting with a group of friends for breakfast and coffee every morning in the dining area of one of our local grocery stores.  Their conversations covered a wide range of topics, from world events and literature to sports and religion.  Joyce enjoyed these stimulating discussions and was disappointed when her husband asked her to stop going.  Apparently, he was somewhat old fashioned and believed it inappropriate for her to attend a primarily male gathering without him.
       She said, “I miss my friends, but I don’t want to go against Kenneth’s wishes.”
       Sympathetic to her plight, I offered to accompany her, hoping her husband would find this acceptable.  He did, and that was the beginning of my weekly excursions to the “Bums’ Table.”
       From the first day with my new friends, it was clear why Joyce had so looked forward to her time with them.  A breath of fresh air entered my life.  The man who had started the group years earlier took pleasure in challenging me with riddles and math problems.  The older group members, those of us in our 70s and 80s, reminisced about times gone by, fondly reliving the Big Band era and examining how societal mores had changed since then.  We discussed our philosophies of life and what was important to us.  The discussions got heated when we turned to politics, for the group was mixed, with both Democrats and Republicans.  The latter far outnumbered us, but they were willing to listen when I elucidated my rationale for my liberal viewpoint.
       Some of my favorite moments occurred when we talked about books, ranging from the classics to the current bestsellers.  Whenever we did this, everyone wanted to know how I was progressing on my memoir.  For years, whenever I’d relate a family story, people would tell me I should write a book.  The first to make the suggestion was my niece Toby, Helen and Henry’s oldest.  My sister Karyl’s children encouraged me as well, asking me to record the family tree, pointing out that if I didn’t do it, the information would be lost.
       Once I had drawn up the tree, my nieces and nephews said, “Where are the stories to go along with it?  We want those too.”
       I knew I should write not only about my extended family history, but also about my days as an Army Air Corps wife and a civil rights worker, but it was easy to keep putting it off.  Then my daughter Connie made a request that helped me focus.  She planned to write a book about her adoption and envisioned a multi-generational effort, with participants writing from their personal perspectives.  She had asked her birth mother to write a chapter and wanted one from me as well.
       That I could do.  Having a specific purpose in mind made the words flow easily.  I’d write each day until I was tired.  Then at night, lying in bed, more thoughts and feelings would come pouring in, and I’d wake up, ready to write again.  Within a matter of weeks, I finished drafting the chapter and sent it off to Connie, satisfied with my efforts and eager to see what her reaction would be.
       In the meantime, Connie grew so busy with other activities that she was unable to find time for the book about her adoption.  As a result, my manuscript remained buried in her desk drawer.  She was moving on with her life, but writing about my past had been such a fulfilling experience, I began flirting with the idea of working on a comprehensive memoir.  Yet every time I thought about it, the task seemed insurmountable.  Months passed with no further attempts on my part.
       Then, my son Charles gave me a book for Christmas, titled The Artist’s Way, written in 1992 by Julia Cameron.  He advised me to read it, saying I might find in its pages the inspiration I needed.  He was right.  In the first chapter, Ms. Cameron introduced the concept of "morning pages."  She said to buy a spiral notebook and some number 2 pencils.  Then each morning, sit down and write three pages about anything.
       I followed the recommendations and the results were miraculous.  I’m an inveterate letter writer and have always enjoyed writing in long hand.  The sight of freshly sharpened pencils and crisp paper calls to me the way candy calls to a child with a sweet tooth.  Every morning for over a year I wrote my three pages, not worrying about whether it was interesting to anyone but me.  Sometimes, if I couldn’t think of anything else to write about, I’d write about writing.  By the time I was done, I’d filled over 600 pages that Jo offered to type so I could distribute them to the family.
       Satisfied that I had recorded my history and anecdotes for posterity, I was ready to retire from the writing game.  I’d enjoyed the effort and learned something about myself.  My children and nieces and nephews read the results and expressed their appreciation.  That might have been the end of the story if Jo hadn't kept telling me I wasn’t finished.  While she agreed that it was nice to have something for the family, she was convinced my story was an important and worthy of publication.
       She wasn’t the only one.  Jo’s friend Karen Hughes, whose son Robert was my grandson Ben’s closest playmate, had assisted presidential candidate George W. Bush with his autobiography and was thus an experienced writer.  She hadn’t read my morning pages, but had often heard my anecdotes and urged me to record my stories.  Given her staunch support for the Republican Party, I found it endearing that she would do this, despite my allegiance to the Democrats.
       Even with Karen and Jo’s encouragement, however, I couldn’t proceed.  My earlier efforts had left me exhausted and I couldn’t bear the thought of rewriting my morning pages for the general public.  Instead, my  thoughts turned to my upcoming 80th birthday, for which my daughters and daughter-in-law were planning a grand celebration, with folks flying in from around the country for the festivities.
       As my birthday approached, I told everyone that the only gift I wanted was a memory book with letters from family and friends.  Granddaughter Amelia rose to the occasion and prepared a scrapbook that was a work of art.  When she presented it to me at my birthday dinner, she spoke about what it meant to her to have me for her grandmother.  I was moved not only by her words, but also by the ease with which she addressed the group.  
       My other grown grandchild, Sarah, was there as well, along with her husband and their two children, and she stood up to speak about how important I’d been to her, how much she’d learned from me.  Then my four children did the same.  What better gift could there be?.
AURA AS A TODDLER
       When Connie mailed out formal invitations to the birthday dinner, she had included a snapshot of me as a toddler.  In the weeks that followed the event, I frequently looked at the picture and realized that my attitude toward the little girl I used to be had changed over the years.  For the longest time, I hadn’t particularly liked that little girl.  I could hear my father pointing out my flaws and my mother saying it was a good thing I was intelligent, because I wasn’t particularly attractive.  I know my parents loved me and never meant to undermine my self-esteem, but that’s what they did.  I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but somewhere around my 80th birthday, my attitude changed.  Now I can look at that picture on my refrigerator door and think to myself, “I love that little girl, and I’m satisfied with the woman she’s become.”
       Perhaps it was this sense of well being that gave me a new willingness to pursue writing again.  Or maybe it was Jo’s continued insistence that my morning pages be turned into a publishable memoir.  To get me started, she sorted through my work and put it in chronological order, a task I would have found impossible but which Jo said was relatively straightforward using her computer.  Many people have tried to convince me I should learn to use a word processing program, saying I would find it a vital asset when I was writing, but I’ve continued to prefer my sharpened pencils and notebook paper.  Nevertheless, I’m grateful for my daughter’s expertise, for without it, I might never have been persuaded to return to my earlier efforts.
       But return I did.  I first broached the subject with my friend, Brooke Daniel.  She ran one of the book clubs to which I belonged and was a published author.  I respected her opinion and looked forward to our occasional breakfast dates at La Madeleine, a small French restaurant five minutes from my home.  We discussed a variety of subjects, including our writing, and she’d been encouraging me the entire time I’d been creating my morning pages. Like Jo, she wanted me to polish them for submission to a publisher.
      Just before one of those breakfast meetings, I decided to bring Brooke the manuscript that was now in chronological order, hoping that, after seeing the work that had already been done, she’d tell me it was ready to submit.
       When I started with, “I have a question for you,” she interrupted, saying, “The answer is yes.”
       Puzzled, I said, “I haven’t asked it yet.”
       Brooke laughed.  “The answer is still yes.  If you want to publish, you have to rewrite the whole book.”  I went home in a daze.  The thought of starting all over was so daunting that I was willing to settle for simply having the extended family read my unedited morning pages.  Jo, however, wouldn’t accept this.  She continued to tell me I had something important to say and urged me to reconsider.
       Finally, after several weeks of debating with myself, I met with Brooke once again and asked for her help.  She recommended that I identify the various themes in my work and create folders for each and then cut and paste my pages to fill each folder.  Then I’d have in one place everything I’d written about school, or teaching, or whatever else I chose.  When I got home, I sat down at the table with my pile of papers and drew another blank.  The task seemed insurmountable.
       Once again, Jo found a way to get me going.  She suggested I pick a single anecdote and focus on rewriting just that, and not worry about the rest of the book for the moment.  She mentioned the time I’d marched with my high school students in Mississippi, following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, and said she regarded it as one of my most moving descriptions.  Not only that, it was also relatively concise, with a clear beginning, middle and end.  She said I should write everything I could think of regarding that one incident, to let the words flow without judgment, saying we could worry later about getting the chronology right and figuring out if anything should be cut.
       I decided to give it a try.  I bought a new spiral notebook and sharpened my pencils.  I opened the binder with the printout of my original work in chronological order and reread what I’d written.  Then I began to write once again.
       When I finished, Jo typed up my work and handed it back to me with a list of questions that took up almost as many pages as those I’d written.  She asked me to elaborate on what I’d seen and heard.  She reminded me of words and phrases she’d heard me use when telling the story orally and suggested I try to incorporate them.  Mostly, she wanted to know what I was feeling as events unfolded.  It took me longer to respond to Jo’s questions than it had taken me to write about the march in the first place.  By the time I was finished, I’d added several more pages, and the result was beginning to look like a real manuscript, rather than unedited morning pages.
       I was eager to meet with Brooke and share with her what I’d accomplished.  Using terminology from Anne Lamotte’s 1994 book Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which Brooke had previously introduced to our book club, I told her I’d selected a “nugget” with which to begin my efforts.
      To understand what Lamotte meant by a nugget, we must turn to one of her anecdotes in which her 10-year-old brother had to prepare a report about birds.  He’d procrastinated for three months without opening a book or writing a word and the assignment was due the following morning.  Tearfully, he asked his father how he could possibly finish on time, to which his father said, “Just take it bird by bird.”
     Lamotte went on to say that when writing bird by bird, one discovers an occasional nugget, a moment of pure gold.  I thought when I’d written about the march in Mississippi that I’d found just such a moment, but  when I shared it with Brooke, she laughed and said, “You’re not writing a nugget, you’re writing a bird.”  And so I was.
       Karen Hughes reappeared on the scene with further inspiration.  Since the time when she’d first encouraged me to write, she’d moved to Washington to serve as one of the president’s closest advisers, but she periodically returned to Austin to see her old friends.  On this particular visit, she’d agreed to give a speech at a breakfast event sponsored by her church and invited Jo, Jon and me to join her.  While we were chatting over our meal prior to her talk, I told her I’d finally followed her suggestion and started working on my book in earnest.  She was delighted and said she’d be happy to assist by putting me in contact with her editor.  I was touched by this generous offer.
       During the question and answer session following Karen's speech she was asked if she regarded Christianity as the only true religion.  She responded, “I have a dear friend.  She is a much older woman.  She’s very short; I’m very tall.  She is a Democrat; I am a Republican.  I am Christian; she is Jewish.  Her name is Aura Kruger and she’s sitting right here.”  I was surprised and honored by her recognition, and went home determined to tackle my book with new vigor.
       Before selecting the next bird on which to focus, however, I decided to polish the one on the march in Mississippi, in order to prepare it for submission to an editor.  I wasn’t sure how to begin this next step of the process, so Jo asked if I’d mind if she gave it a try.  I was hesitant, concerned that if she did that, the book would no longer be mine, and I’d lose control.  She persuaded me to let her proceed, assuring me it would be fine with her if I looked at the result and decided it wasn't working.
       I had mixed feelings a few days later when she returned to me with her revisions.  There were whole paragraphs that didn’t sound like me, and I had difficulty telling Jo I didn’t like it.  As easy as I found it to give my students feedback, I choked on the words when it came to communicating with my daughter.  She picked up on my mood and said, “Mom, what’s wrong?  Let’s talk.”
      This was the beginning of a satisfying collaboration.  From that day on, we worked hand in hand.  Sometimes Jo would ask me questions to which I had a ready response that she would then incorporate into the text.  At other times, we had lengthy conversations, sometimes resulting in my tears as we dug into the feelings behind what I’d written.  It got to the point where neither of us could tell who had written what.  Still a little concerned, however, I returned to Brooke once again and showed her the latest draft, asking her to determine whether she heard more than one voice.  She didn’t.  With that, our partnership took off and Jo became my co-author.
       We’d started with an easy chapter in the middle of the book.  This worked so well that we continued in that vein, leaving until last the more difficult sections.  The weeks turned into months and the months into years as our pages accumulated.  The only time we ever disagreed was when I thought something was a nugget, and she thought it was a “little darling.”  
      A "little darling" is another of Anne Lamotte’s terms from Bird by Bird, and refers to an anecdote that is near and dear to an author, but doesn’t belong in a published memoir.  Jo would say, “I know you love this story, but it’s too similar to something else we’ve written.”  Or she’d just say flat out that it wasn’t interesting.  She learned not to pull punches and I learned not to be defensive.
       As we worked, I enjoyed discussing our progress with my friends.  Everyone at the Bum’s Table was intrigued.  Shortly after we finished the chapter about Dr. King’s assassination, Myrtle Melli, one of the longstanding attendees, told me she was a member of a women’s book club, the oldest one in Austin. In addition to its regular meetings, the ladies held an annual luncheon to which they’d invite some well-known author or politician.  As I listened, I was hoping Myrtle as going to invite me to attend.  I was flabbergasted when she instead asked me to be their speaker.  I was neither a well-known author nor a politician.  I did love telling stories, however, so I accepted, my mind already spinning about what I would say.
       My years of teaching had prepared me for this, and I knew I would enjoy the challenge.  As I drove home later that morning, I couldn’t help but be proud of my willingness to try something new.  Here I was in my 80s, still expanding my horizons.  Grandma Lena would have patted me on the back, too.
       I remember as my grandmother grew older, she used to say it was the lucky individual who had a reason to get up in the morning.  She had no patience for friends who complained about chores or helping out with grandchildren.  At the time, I didn't quite understood what she’d meant, for I was often exhausted with raising four children and working two jobs.  The thought of being retired and having nothing at all to do was very appealing.
       Now that I’m almost eighty-three and have been retired for over fifteen years, I see the wisdom of Grandma Lena’s philosophy.  Every morning I wake up looking forward to the day.  I may be reading a Shakespearean play out loud with my grandchildren and their friends, teaching them as I taught my high school students so many years ago.  I may be giving a speech to a group of teachers, encouraging them to reach out to their young charges and thanking them for their efforts.  Even the more routine task of driving my grandchildren about brings me joy, for then they share with me their hopes and dreams for the future, and I feel blessed knowing they want me to be a part of that future.

2 comments:

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  2. Again, I am mystified by the assertion that I deleted a comment. This is simply not true.

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