The Grand Canyon Responds

I spent last week in Sedona, Arizona, with my cousins who invited me to join them at their timeshare there. Situated in the beautiful red rock country of Arizona, Sedona delights all of the senses. The weather was sunny and cool, allowing us to take advantage of  the area’s alluring charm and beauty. Not to sell short Sedona’s appeal, a highlight of the week was riding the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams to the Grand Canyon.

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Standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, mesmerized by its vastness beneath a brilliant blue sky, I thought of my friend, Mark, who visited there in the fall of 1992 after the death from AIDS of his partner, Philip. I was new to the travel business and Mark was one of my first clients. After Philip’s death, Mark told me he wanted a get away by himself to spend some time adjusting to his loss. When he said he wanted to do a cruise, I suggested that a cruise would probably not provide the experience he was seeking. Mark asked me to make a recommendation.

I suggested a train trip to the Grand Canyon, a place I thought would offer Mark the change he sought as well as the privacy I felt he needed to process his loss. He could take the train from Pasadena and spend several nights at El Tovar on the rim of the canyon. Mark thought the plan sounded good and asked me to make reservations for him.

On the night Mark left Pasadena, several of his friends and I met him at the station, where we gave him our good wishes and a basket full of things we thought he needed for entertainment on the overnight train trip.

Two days later, Mark phoned. “I just wanted to tell you,” he said, “that I awoke this morning and looked out of the window of my room to an exquisite view of the Grand Canyon. Dennis, it’s like the earth is responding to the enormity of my grief.”

I didn’t stay long in the travel business, but the memory of Mark’s trip to the Grand Canyon will stay with me forever.

Family History Research

Alex Haley’s groundbreaking historical novel, Roots, first published in 1976, became an instant worldwide phenomenon. An important book and television series, Roots, galvanized the nation and created an extraordinary political, racial, social, and cultural dialogue. In addition, Roots launched a tidal wave of interest in family history research. Overnight, public, genealogical and historical society libraries, city, county and state offices of vital records, and the U.S. National Archives and Records Service were besieged with requests for copies of records and rolls of census microfilm.

Before the Information Age transformed our lives, family history research (genealogy) was a painstaking and time consuming pursuit. While the personal computer and the Internet have revolutionized the speed and ease with which family history information is accessed, gathered, organized, and stored, family history research remains a painstaking and time consuming pursuit. It requires the intervention of the researcher to evaluate information contained in a variety of records and to link that information to people and to events to establish facts that prove the relationship of people to one another and to property.

My family history research began with Gilbert Harry Doane’s Searching for Your Ancestors. Doane’s book gave basic suggestions about gathering information needed to construct a family tree, or pedigree. I made a list of the facts I had: the names of my parents and grandparents as far back as I could remember or knew. Next, I wrote letters to relatives who I thought might have any of the information I sought.

Some family members are reticent to talk about the family’s history and, in some cases, to talk at all about particular family members. I recall asking an elderly aunt about my grandfather, who died before I was born. “Oh, that sonofabitch,” she snarled, “Why do you want to know about him?” “Because the knowledge is relevant to who I am,” I thought. How can I know who I am unless I know where and from whom I come.

In 1977, I moved to Taft, California to a job as library director at Taft College. To my surprise, the college offered a course in genealogy through its community services division. I soon learned that the course would have a major impact on the college library. Course participants descended on the library in search of answers to their family history research questions. Knowing little or nothing about family history research, I was at a loss to meet their needs.

My family history research education began in earnest. A few more family history “how to” books were available by then, and I learned that the library was eligible to order census microfilm from the National Archives and Records Service.

I learned about the census, what information each census contained, and what census records were available. While several hundred reels of census microfilm flowed through the library over a period of five or six years, census resources are but one piece of the family history puzzle.

In the course of reading about family history research, I came across the suggestion that, as a nation of immigrants, locating an immigrant ancestor was a suitable goal for most Americans. Identifying the immigrant ancestor became my mantra for each family history researcher with whom I worked.

As the demand for family history resources increased, I studied harder and became more knowledgeable. Eventually, the instructor who taught the college’s genealogy course suggested that I teach the genealogy course. “You know more about the process of family history research than I do,” he said. “I’m sure you can do a much better job of meeting the needs of students and family history researchers than I can do.”

About the same time, a group of genealogy students and local family history researchers formed a genealogy club.

Those were exciting times. I began organizing field trips to area genealogy libraries. I spoke at meetings of the Kern County Genealogy Society on a variety of record types and was interviewed on a local radio talk program.

Two summers, I organized week-long field trips to Salt Lake City to use the LDS (Mormon) Church Genealogical Society’s library, each time escorting 15-20 avid family history researchers.

I taught week-end workshops for Bakersfield College’s Community Services program. The workshops included a field trip to the genealogy library of the Santa Monica Temple LDS Church or to the Genealogy Room of the Los Angeles Public library.

I looked at hundreds of rolls of census microfilm, searching for my ancestors as well as the ancestors of other family history researchers. It was fun and exciting work, particularly when anyone found an ancestor for whom they were searching.

I traced my paternal and maternal family history several generations. Early in my research, I found a genealogy of the Hine family–the family name of my paternal grandmother–that begins with the first person of the Hine surname in New Milford, Connecticut in 1640. To date, I am unsuccessful in locating the ancestor who links me to the Hine genealogy. Missing one or two generations that make the connection, I am thwarted by the mysterious disappearance of my third great grandfather. He died before 1850 and was, therefore, not captured by that U.S. Census. Born before 1790, he is not listed in the pre-1850 censuses as only heads of households were listed by name in the censuses of 1790 through 1840.

In 1976, did not exist. Today, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it is possible, with the click of a mouse, to find everything needed. I am amazed at how fast, easy, and inexpensive it is. The research practically conducts itself.

Family history research is interesting, rewarding, and enjoyable. As a librarian, I am naturally curious, enjoying the challenge of finding information to answer research questions. The greatest reward, though, is the satisfaction of being the member of my family who knows the family’s history and who loves sharing that history with other family members.

When the cosmic tumblers click into place

When my brother, Mike, told me he had prostate cancer, I knew he would beat it because of the confidence he expressed, especially after he described in detail how that would be done. After consulting with his doctor and specialists, he talked with his good friend, Ken, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer several years earlier. Ken underwent brachytherapy, a treatment protocol in which radioactive seeds are implanted into the prostate. Mike and his wife, Joan, did their research and, together, decided brachytherapy would work well in his case. It did.

As I watched Mike deal with his disease, I concluded—because I am five years older than he—I was fortunate to have dodged the prostate cancer bullet. Five years later, however, it was a different story. My annual checkup in August 2010 revealed an elevated Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) number and discovery of a 1mm node on my prostate. Further tests confirmed the elevated PSA. A biopsy was scheduled for October 2010. In discussions with the urologist prior to the biopsy, I told him about Mike’s prostate cancer. He was reasonably certain a biopsy would find cancer as, in his words, “the disease is hereditary.” The biopsy revealed early stage cancer. I hadn’t dodged the prostate cancer bullet after all.

The journey from discovery to cure was a bumpy ride.

To begin, I have antibiotic allergies and was unable to take two of the four antibiotics prescribed for the biopsy procedure. Two days after the biopsy, I was in the hospital with septicemia. It was during my hospital stay that the urologist told me the pathology report confirmed cancer.

On receiving the urologist’s news, I called Mike. He’s solid and dependable. A shelter from the stormy blasts of life, Mike is always there for me. He told me to get a copy of Patrick Walsh’s book, Guide to Surviving Prostate Cancer. Having brought my iPad with me to the hospital, I was able to download Walsh’s book which I began reading immediately.

My first idea was to undergo a radical prostatectomy, the surest way to be certain the cancer is contained. Troubled by the possibility of incontinence as a result of the surgery, I had second thoughts. Talking with Mike and Ken, I decided brachytherapy would work as well for me as it had for them.

In December 2010, I met with an oncologist at the cancer center and felt “okay” with his description of the  procedure and the prospects for a cure. Another PSA test was ordered.

I met again with the urologist in January 2011 to discuss various options for treatment. I expressed my need to be certain about the nature of the disease and the potential for a positive outcome. He reassured me that I was right to explore all options; and, he supported my request for a second opinion of the pathology report. Reviewing the PSA test results with him, I discovered the results of the test ordered by the oncologist were missing. The urologist ordered the missing results, telling me we would talk again once he had all of the test results. I arriving at home twenty minutes later to find a voice mail message from the urologist’s office.

“The doctor would like you to have a bone scan,” the message said. “Please call our office to arrange for the scan.”

I called the urologist’s office at once and told the receptionist that the doctor needed to call me with an explanation.

“The test indicates your PSA is 10.7,” the urologist said when he returned my call later that evening. “Standard procedure among U.S. urologists is to order a bone scan any time the PSA is over 10 to rule out the possibility of metastasis.”

“And what is the prognosis if the scan reveals metastasis,” I asked.

“Well,” he said, clearing his throat, “It’s not as good.”

Frantic,  I called Mike.

“Look,” Mike said, “you’re okay now, right?”

“Well, yes, I guess so,” I said.

“Get the scan done and then let’s deal with the next step when we have more information.” Dependable, solid, and calm, Mike talked me in off of the ledge. He’s good at that.

Next, I called Randy, a friend from my Navy days. We met in 1965 at a technical school in San Diego where we were sent from our respective ships. In the course of the three months we were there, we became good friends. At the end of our technical school training, we returned to our ships, deployed to Southeast Asia, and lost touch. In February 2010, I reconnected with Randy on FaceBook. We exchanged emails, phone calls, and met in San Francisco in February 2011 where we picked up at the point we left off forty-five years earlier, almost mid-sentence.

Randy has extra-capsular prostate cancer. His wife, Mary Ellen (ME), is a medical physicist who works with CyberKnife, the latest “cutting-edge” technology used in the treatment of prostate and other forms of cancer. When I told Randy about my diagnosis, he suggested I talk with ME who confirmed what I had read about prostate cancer.

“I’ve worked with a radiation oncologist in San Diego,” she said when I called her the next morning. “He’s a leader in treating prostate cancer using the CK technology and has written several of the national standards for treatment. I’d be happy to shoot him an email and ask him to talk with you.”

Two days later, I received a phone call from “Dr. D’s” office asking if I could email copies of my medical records. I scanned the pathology report and all of the test results and emailed them as requested.

A day later, Dr. D phoned. He reviewed my medical records with me, explained the procedure, and told me I was an ideal candidate for treatment as well as for the national study he’s conducting. He asked me to participate in the study and I accepted. Dr. D advised a bone scan was unnecessary. Since I had the scan scheduled, I went ahead with it and heaved a sigh of relief on reading the radiologist’s report stating “No bone scan evidence of osseous metastatic disease.”

Besides the initial consultation and two appointments for preliminary procedures, the actual treatment consists of four visits to the CyberKnife Center on four consecutive days for an hour and a half to two hours each day. The consultation and preliminary procedures were scheduled for March and early April and the treatments for the last week of April.

With everything in place, I called Allan to describe the treatment plan. Our friendship spans more than fifty years. I can tell him everything. He loves me despite my blemishes. Allan is probably the closest I will ever come to having a soul mate. If it’s 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Allan and I are on the phone, our conversations many times last an hour or longer.

A few days later, Allan phoned me.

“I decided,” he said. “to drive to Bakersfield to take you to San Diego for your treatments.  I don’t want you to go through all of that by yourself.”

I was speechless and more than grateful. We spent nearly a week together with plenty of time to talk and to enjoy each others company.

On October 21, 2011, I met with Dr. D. “This is very good news,” he said, showing me initial and follow up images on his computer screen. “There is no evidence of residual or recurrent prostate cancer.”

In the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), tracks down the reclusive and irascible 1960s writer, Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones). When asked by Mann the reason for Kinsella’s pursuit of him, Kinsella recalls the impact of the writer’s words on him at a young and impressionable age:

“There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens itself up a few seconds to show you what’s possible.”

I am grateful for what it is possible to accomplish through the use of technology: CAT Scan and high resolution/high contrast MRI images superimposed to render virtually 3D representations of tumors; microscopically precise delivery of high dose radiation that is non-invasive and, in my case, without side effects.

I am grateful for what is possible through the love and support of true friends.

Bridge, Aging, and Brain Power

Brain Power: At the Bridge Table, Clues to a Lucid Old Age,” Benedict Carey reports on a decades-long study of health and mental acuity in the elderly that focuses on the activities of residents of Laguna Woods Village, a sprawling retirement community of 20,000 in Orange County, California. Laguna Woods Village offers a list of of over 400 residents’ clubs. A popular activity is Bridge.

Bridge requires a good if not a strong memory. The game involves four players in two pairs. Each player must read his or her partner’s strategy by closely following the cards played. Good players count and remember every card played and its significance for their partnership. Lose count and lose the contract.

I became interested in bridge while in high school. I purchased a copy of Charles Goren’s Bridge Complete in an effort to teach myself to play. At age sixteen, I was motivated to learn the game not because I was concerned about maintaining mental acuity in old age, but because I thought sophisticated and really smart people played bridge.

I didn’t actually sit at a bridge table until I was in college. I “played” party bridge with a few friends and their parents in what amounted to showing my hand to one of the veteran players and asking, “How would you bid this?” Terry’s dad always kept score on a regulation party bridge score pad in a case with a flip top cover that he would open and snap closed with a smart blow intended to remind his partner that they had a “leg on” and needed to bid only high enough to win one more hand to win the rubber.

I was married to someone who was not a card player and not the least interested in bridge. The demands of graduate school, pursuit of a career, and raising a family soon overtook time for or interest in bridge.

When I retired last year, I decided I wanted again to pursue my interest in bridge and was delighted to learn that the over 55 community to which I had moved had a bridge club. Because I felt I needed to start from scratch, I hesitated to join the group and turned down several invitations.

Coming across the course schedule for the CSU Bakersfield Extended University, I discovered a bridge course listed. I signed up. There were five members in the class: one woman had played bridge for years but wanted to refresh her skills. Two women were learning from the beginning. Another woman and I had roughly the same experience, that is, lack of experience.

Our teacher, an excellent bridge player and gifted teacher, started us with the very basics: a deck of cards, four suits, thirteen cards in each suit, leading to, taking, and registering tricks, trump versus notrump, etc.

That was January 2011. Through the winter, the group that met in that class formed its own bridge club. We met several times a week outside of class to practice using the programmed hands in the Audrey Grant book we used in the class. I thought I would never learn. By the middle of June, our teacher thought we had progressed enough to begin playing duplicate bridge at the local bridge club, a unit of ACBL, that had organized a sanctioned game for novice players.

One of my classmates and I were the only two from the class available to play in the first game, an experience I will never forget. My partner opened the bidding with one spade. My right hand opponent passed. My mind went blank. It was as if I had forgotten everything I learned or knew about bridge. At the end of the match, we were in last place. I was disappointed because I hadn’t earned any master points which I thought one earned simply by playing in a match.

In September, I earned my first fraction of a master point. Now, I play weekly, sometimes two or three times a week. I continue to take lessons, to read and to study. I joined an online bridge club called the Beginner Intermediate Lounge (BIL), found a bridge mentor who I’ve been working with since the first of August, and participate in some of the many practice sessions and free lessons given by bridge experts that are available through the BIL’s link on Bridge Base Online.

Carey’s article validates my own experience with bridge. Learning to play bridge requires me to study harder than I think I ever studied as an undergraduate and graduate student! Bridge offers excellent opportunities for social interaction. I’ve met wonderful people and made some lovely friends. And, whether or not bridge has done or will do anything to sharpen my mental acuity, I find I am content to agree with W. Somerset Maugham who, in his introduction to Goren’s Standard Book of Bidding (1944), wrote, “bridge is the most entertaining and intelligent card game the wit of man has so far devised.”

A Piece of Peace

Peace. As in shalom?

Or, piece, as in a part of? I wish you piece, a piece of the pie.

Peace. The holidays: Christian Jewish, Moslem. Everyone seeks peace at those times of the year, but it is like a period of time that is clearly demarcated and on either end of the demarcation no one thinks about peace. Like the old cliche, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it,” many people talk about peace, but few do anything about it.

Is it possible ever to achieve a goal like world peace?

People seem more focused on a piece of something: a piece of the pie; my piece of the pie. Some people believe they are constitutionally entitled to a larger piece of the pie than anyone else.

The fact is, there can never be peace—social justice—until everyone has a piece of the pie.

Heart, Health, and the Universe

Sunday, October 3, 2005

I awoke about 4:00 a.m. I was sweating. My heart was racing. I fell back to sleep. I awoke again about 6:00 a.m. I was damp with sweat, but my heart was no longer racing. I swung my feet over the side of the bed and sat up.

First decision of the day: Take Robbie out for his morning walk.

I stood. I was dizzy, my chest tight. The cold symptoms I noticed on Friday are becoming bronchitis. Just what I need on a Sunday morning.

Second decision of the day: Urgent care is closed. I’ll have to go to the hospital ER.

I dressed and headed out with Robbie. Half a block from the house, I was too dizzy to continue and turned back. With Robbie taken care of, I sat on the stairs in the entry hall.

Third decision of the day: Do I just take it easy today and wait until Monday morning to go to the urgent care or do I go over to the hospital ER now?

The ER was not busy and I was taken in right away. Blood was drawn, a chest xray taken, and I was left alone. An ER physician came in, asked a few questions, then left. Expecting someone to return shortly with a prescription for the antibiotics I thought I would need for the bronchitis I was sure I had, I was surprised when a nurse arrived and asked if I had been told that they were keeping me until after 1:00 p.m. because they needed to draw blood for another panel. “No,” I said. “No one has told me anything. Why is another blood panel needed?” I asked.

“It takes that long for the enzymes to show up,” he said.

“What enzymes?” I asked.

“The enzymes that indicate a heart attack.”

“A heart attack!” I said. “You think I’ve had a heart attack?”

“That’s what we need to find out,” he said.

The 1:00 p.m. lipid panel indicated a heart attack. The ER physician told me he consulted the on call cardiologist who recommended an angiogram. The hospital in Ridgecrest, where I was living at the time, does not have a “cath” lab. I needed to be transported by ambulance to a hospital in Bakersfield, two hours away.

It was after 3:00 p.m. when the ambulance got underway. When we arrived at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital, I was wheeled into the ER. More blood was drawn. About 45 minutes later, a physician introduced himself to me as the cardiologist who would be caring for me.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

“I was told I had a heart attack and that I need to have an angiogram,” I said.

“Angiogram is an invasive procedure,” he said. “The blood panel we just ran does not give evidence of a heart attack. We’ll need to do further testing to determine if an angiogram is needed.”

I was admitted to the hospital. The next morning, the testing began. Later in the the day, the cardiologist came into my room to tell me that the tests confirmed the need for an angiogram and that the procedure was scheduled for the following morning.

The angiogram revealed three areas of concern:

  • 10-20% blockage in the mid segment of the lateral anterior descending artery
  • 80-85% blockage in the third diagonal branch
  • 75% blockage just before the terminal branch of the distal left anterior descending artery

The recommendation was for “aggressive medical treatment and risk modification” as none of the blockages were suitable for surgical intervention. My cardiologist prescribed 80 mg. of Zocor (Simvastatin) and 81 mg. of aspirin daily.

Risk modification means diet and exercise. My diet was low in fat and, for all intents and purposes, I considered myself  a “could be” vegetarian, eating chicken, fish, and eggs only occasionally. As for exercise, Robbie and I walked 3-5 miles every day.

The statin lowered my cholesterol to 150. I knew I could afford to lose twenty pounds or so, but quarterly check ups with my cardiologist confirmed the status quo, allowing me to continue happily on my way. Until…

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I ran into Todd at the District Office. I’ve known Todd for several years. He’s a big guy: tall and overweight. I hadn’t seen him in several months and was unprepared for the tall, skinny guy who stood, beaming, before me. “Todd,” I said, “you look fantastic! What are you doing?” The answer to the question was my introduction to Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D., author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, and T. Collin Campbell, Ph.D., author of The China Study, pioneers in the effects of a plant-based, oil-free diet on heart disease and cancer. Todd is nothing if not passionate about plant-based nutrition.

The two-hour drive home after my talk with Todd gave me ample time to think about the diet. I was pretty much a vegetarian, anyway. I thought, “Why not give the diet a shot?” At home, I went straight to my computer and ordered both Esselstyn’s and Campbell’s books from after which I googled Dr. Esselstyn and watched his video presentation on the diet and its results. I started the diet that evening. Two days later the books arrived. I began reading Esselstyn and committed to the diet. In September, four months later, my weight was down to 155 pounds, a loss of 25 pounds. I had a lipid panel and met with my cardiologist:

  • Cholesterol 108, down from 137
  • LDL 50, down from 74;
  • HDL 38, down from 50 (It’s now back up to 42 and we’re working on getting it higher.)

Excited as I was about the change in the numbers, we agreed to wait another three months before considering any changes in the dosage.

In December 2010, my cholesterol, LDL, and HDL numbers were 120, 57, and 42, respectively. My physician and I agreed to reduce the statin dosage to 40 mg. per day. Three months later, in March 2011, the numbers 105, 50, and 38. We agreed to a further reduction, 20 mg. per day. In June, the numbers were again good: 130, 58, and 47. We reduced the statin dosage to 10 mg. per day.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On September 30, I had blood drawn for a lipid panel and on October 6, I met with my physician to go over the results. The numbers were 134, 68, and 44. The good news: I am off of the statin! We’ll check again in three months, but in the meantime, I have even greater motivation to stick to my diet.

I believe that the Universe puts people and events on our path when we need them or when we are ready hear or to experience them. I am convinced that running into Todd on May 12, 2010 was an instance of a divine or universal “Hello, Dennis” moment. However it happened, I am grateful for the results.

The Day My Life Changed

It’s funny the things you remember. Like that day in March 1952.

I am seven years old. I will be eight in May. I am in the second grade at Tahoe elementary school at 60th and Broadway. I walk to and from school along Broadway. I am walking home, alone. I walk past the row of white California bungalows adjacent to the schoolyard. Swan’s Dry Cleaning is at the end of the block on the corner of Broadway and 58th Street.

I cross 58th Street and pass the small shopping center where my mother buys groceries at the Emporium Grocery, Lyon’s Five-and-Ten-Cent Store, where she buys buttons and thread for the shirts and dresses she sews for my sister, brother, and me, past the California Barber Shop with its walls lined with Breck Shampoo posters featuring beautifully groomed young blonde, blue-eyed women and children where my dad and I get our hair cut on Saturdays.

At the end of the parking lot, I quicken my step to hurry across the front of the weather-beaten old house, the sort of place designed to terrify little kids. Faded and tattered shades cover the windows facing the street. No one is ever seen coming or going from the house. The yard is overgrown and dry. From the heights of a tall palm tree comes the chirping of birds. Featherless dead baby birds are often seen on the sidewalk beneath it. Looking straight ahead and holding my breath, I pass the old house quickly. I heave a sigh of relief as I walk in front of the vacant lot next to the old house.

Beyond the vacant lot are more houses, newer, modern homes. I cross 56th Street, another vacant lot, and finally cross 55th Street to the safety of my own block where our house sits across Broadway from the California State Fairgrounds.

Fourth from the corner, our gray stucco house is typical of the California-style family homes built in Sacramento after the war. It has three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, dining room, kitchen with a breakfast room, a laundry room, and a two-car garage. Mother and Dad bought this house in the spring of 1950. The move meant changing schools, so I finished the last couple of months of kindergarten at Tahoe Elementary School.

Arriving at the edge of our front lawn, I take a shortcut across the grass rather than going to the driveway and up the walk as I have been asked countless times to do. Approaching the house, I can see through the large picture window into the living room where Grandma, my dad’s mother, and Auntie Beth and Auntie Vera, two of my dad’s three older sisters are seated. Odd, I think, but what a thrill to come home to find the people I love most.

Entering the house, I am aware that this is not the usual out-for-a-Sunday-drive-drop-by visit I’m accustomed to. The room is quiet. No one acts happy to see me. The misty-gray walls and dark green draperies reflect grim expressions. “What are you doing here?” I ask with a smile and a hint of twenty questions in my voice. No one answers. Auntie Beth sits on a straight back dining room chair, her permed blue-gray hair framing an expressionless face, mouth a straight line, eyes downcast, not looking at me as though she has a secret she fears making eye contact will reveal. Auntie Vera, small, bird-like, with large dark eyes and an expression of wonder, sits, hands folded in her lap, on the rose-colored sofa. Grandma, wearing a black dress and holding to her mouth a white lace hanky that matches the color of her hair, sits in the big rose-colored easy chair. Wide mahogany strips resembling Greek pillars running up the fronts of the chair’s two arm rests from large mahogany feet, suggest gravitas befitting the matriarch of a large family.

My mother appears in the hallway at the far end of the living room with her friend, Peggy Spotts. She’s dressed in a simple cotton dress with a plaid pattern, shirt-like top with gathered skirt and sandal-like shoes, probably white but maybe not because it’s March and white wouldn’t be appropriate.

“Denny,” she says softly, “come with me. I want to talk to you.” We walk down the hall together to my parents’ bedroom. At the foot of the bed is a low backed vanity chair painted white with a floral upholstered cushion and matching ruffle. She sits down.

Standing in front of her, she takes my hands in hers. I look into her face, young and beautiful, the soft brown hair gently caressing its edges. Her blue eyes are bright, intense. “Denny,” she says, “Daddy has had an accident and he’s not coming home.” Tears fill her eyes. I begin to cry. At first, I cry because my mother is crying. I don’t like seeing her cry. I am not certain I have ever seen my mother cry; but, today, she’s crying and it upsets me. She puts her arms around me and holds me close to her breast. I feel the pounding of her heart and the shudder of her sobs. I am angry that something has hurt my mother. The awareness of my father’s death hasn’t registered. I continue to cry because I don’t know what else to do. Peggy, who followed us to the bedroom and sat quietly on the edge of the bed, rises and comes toward us putting one hand on my mother’s shoulder and the other on mine, then kneeling down and holding us in her arms, presses her cheek to my mother’s. The tears stop, the convulsions ease. We are quiet together for what seems a long time.

My sixteen-year old cousin, Teddy, appears at the bedroom door. “Come on, Champ,” he says. “Let’s go change your clothes.” Teddy takes me to my bedroom where he helps me into a clean pair of gray chinos with sharp hand-ironed creases and a shirt my mother sewed, laundered, starched, and ironed. “I don’t have a daddy and more, Teddy.”

It’s funny what you remember.

I remember, later, sitting on my grandmother’s lap and seeing her cry. I don’t remember what we said to each other.

I remember hordes of relatives and friends and tons of food.

My cousins came from San Diego. I remember going to the train station in Sacramento to meet them. Grandpa was with us.

I remember my cousins and I made crosses from pieces of cedar shingles and climbed up to the roof with them. We acted out something that had to do with death. I posed behind my small wooden cross like a statue in a cemetery, or something like that. Who knows what was in my almost-eight-year-old mind. My mother came out of the house and yelled at us for being on the roof. It’s easy to get up there. Just climb up the fence next to the garage, stand on the flat cross piece at the top of the fence and then pull yourself on to the garage roof. Walk across the garage roof over to the front porch roof. It’s easy. Getting down from the roof, I slipped and scraped my arm. My mother screamed. I don’t remember what she said, but I can still see her, later, sitting in the living room looking out the big picture window over the back of the sofa and crying.

My mother’s sisters were there.

It’s funny what you remember.

The landscape of memory is not like a video recording. There are many blank spaces. Some things I wish I could remember, like who said, “Now you’re the man of the family,” a simple declarative sentence that changed my life forever.

I am from…

I am from Clyde and Drusilla, William and Hattie, Albert and Emma, George and Elizabeth, Daniel and Nancy, William and Ittle, Charles and Minnie.

I am from colonial Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota farmland, the Oregon Trail, Arizona Territory, California.

I am from the converging objects of the universe perpetually written to me;  and, I must get what the writing means.

I am from Grandma’s pasties and spice cookies, Mom’s macaroni and cheese, pinto beans with hamburger, pear crisp, Auntie Beth’s carrot cake.

I am from Broadway show tunes, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, opera, Billie Vera, Bette Middler, and Miss Otis Regrets.

I am from Little House on the Prairie, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Leon Uris, Harper Lee, Charles Dickens, Boris Vian, L’écumes des jours, J’irai crachet sur vos tombes, Froth on the Day Dream.

I am from the Mickey Mouse Club, I Married Joan, I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, Moonstruck, Steel Magnolias.

I am from bike riding, piano lessons, Steele Lane Chorus, Schurman Drive, fort-building, roller rink skating, junior college, U.S. Navy, veterans’ educational benefits, graduate school, Herr Professor Dr. Dennis, Sir.

I am from men who smoked too much, drank to much, worked too hard, died too young from heart disease and prostate cancer.

I am from strong women, intelligent, self-reliant, no-nonsense, homemaking, professionals, not defined as their husbands’ chattels, survivors.

Whether Bakserfield

The heat of the Bakersfield summer sun beat down on the faded red 1971 Volkswagen squareback as David and Bill drove south on Highway 99 through the dusty brown expanse of the Southern San Joaquin Valley toward Los Angeles.

“God, I hate Bakersfield in the summer,” David said, squinting, unable to make out the Tehachapi Mountains through the dense summer haze.

“Only the summer?” said Bill. “David, this place is a pit three hundred sixty-five days a year. I can’t believe you lived here for ten years. And without air conditioning in your car!”

David glanced over at his friend who had pushed the wind wing as far forward as it would go to direct the air toward himself. Bill’s face was flushed from the 108-degree heat, his shirt damp with perspiration.

“It’s the people,” David said, as he eased forward with a twisting motion to unstick himself from the vinyl upholstery. “People make the difference. I don’t think much about geography.” There was a brief moment of what he imagined to be coolness as they sped through a rare patch of shade offered by a stand of eucalyptus trees on the west side of the highway.

“It’s such a gritty place,” Bill said. “Even the people are gritty.”

David ignored Bill’s intolerance. People are more important than places, he thought. The roar of the Volkswagen’s engine and the wind blowing through the wind wings made it difficult to carry on a conversation. Anyway, there was no point in defending Bakersfield or its people to Bill.

Merging from Highway 99 into the southbound traffic of Interstate 5, David eased the car into the left lane and accelerated to seventy miles an hour to have enough momentum to make it over Tejon Pass without shifting down. The tires slapped against the separations in the concrete pavement in a steady rhythm casting a hypnotic spell as David thought about Bakersfield.

When he left Bakersfield two years earlier, he hadn’t planned to return. But friends kept calling him back. Robert got a job in Sacramento. David drove to Bakersfield to see him before he moved. Paul retired. David drove to Bakersfield for Paul’s retirement party. Eileen died. David drove to Bakersfield to see her two days before she died.

It was a blistering 111-degree day in July. He drove up in the hottest part of the afternoon delayed by some last minute business with a Ph.D. student whose dissertation he supervised. He parked his car in the lot of Colonial East Convalescent Hospital, aware that he did not want to be there. He hadn’t seen Eileen in over six months.

At the hospital entrance, David paused, preparing himself for the usual convalescent hospital smells of urine and pine scented disinfectant. Ready to be depressed, he opened the door, surprised by a cheerful lobby and the cool relief of air conditioning.

“I’m here to see Eileen Burke,” he said to an overweight, overstarched nurse seated behind the reception desk.

“Burke. Eileen Burke,” the nurse said, running her fat index finger down the cardex file. “She’s in Room 209-B. Straight down the hall on the left,” she said, pointing over David’s right shoulder.

“Thank you,” David said, turning in the direction the nurse indicated. The carpet deadened the sound of his footsteps as he walked into the mint green hallway. He approached the room dreading his first sight of Eileen after such a long time. A desire to turn and run back through the lobby to his car seized him as he stopped, sucking in a deep breath and holding it to calm his nerves. Taking another step, he exhaled as he walked past Room 207. Eileen’s room is next, he thought.

The door of Room 209 was open. David looked into the darkness. The window shades were drawn against the intense afternoon sun. David could make out three beds. His eyes were drawn to the middle bed by the unmistakable whiteness of Eileen’s hair. Eileen slept, propped up on a mountain of pillows. Not knowing what to do, David walked back to the nurse’s desk.

“I’m here to see Mrs. Burke. She’s asleep,” he said.

“Oh,” said the nurse. “Are you her son?”

“No,” said David. “Just a friend. She isn’t expecting me. I don’t want to startle her.”

“Eileen’s expecting her son,” said the nurse coming from behind the desk, her starched uniform scratching and scraping with every movement against her fat body. “She’s a dear lady. Sharp as a tack.” She walked down the hall ahead of David, turning toward him as she asked, “Have you known Eileen a long time?”

“About twelve years,” David said. “She was Chair of the English Department at Bakersfield College. My first teaching job after graduate school.”

The nurse walked into the room and straight to the bed. “Eileen,” she said, taking Eileen’s hand. “Eileen. Do you know this man?”

Eileen opened her eyes and looked at David standing against the wall at the foot of her bed.

“That’s David,” Eileen said without hesitation. “Dr. David Holland.”

“Thank you,” David said to the nurse as she left the room. David walked to the side of the bed and took Eileen’s hand in his.

“David,” said Eileen, “how good of you to come.”

A lump choked David’s throat. He didn’t speak.

“How are things at U.S.C., Professor?” Eileen asked. “Professor. I love the sound of that,” she said. “You make me so proud.” Tears filled David’s eyes.

“They’ve ruined Bakersfield College,” Eileen said. “All of that football nonsense. At the expense of the academic program. It’s not the first rate academic institution we worked so hard to maintain, David.” He squeezed her hand. There was nothing to say.

“Well,” Eileen said after several minutes of silence, “I’m planning to get out of here soon. One way or another. I hope to go out on my own two feet.”

The sight of this once vital and robust woman, now frail and helpless, struck with the force of an earthquake at the foundation of his well-ordered universe. David felt uneasy. He wanted to leave.

“Well, Mrs. Burke,” he managed to say through his tears, “I don’t want to tire you.” He paused, tears running down his face. “You have enriched my life, Mrs. Burke,” his throat tight and his voice thick with emotion.

“Oh,” said Eileen with a faint snort, “I doubt that. And besides, David, there’s no need for hyperbole.” David leaned down and kissed Eileen’s cheek. That’s the old Eileen, he thought. Their verbal sparring. He longed to respond to her baiting. Holding her hand tightly in his, he stood up trying to smile. Weeping was the best he could do.

He kissed her hand. “Good-bye, Mrs. Burke,” he said, letting go of her hand and turning to leave.

“Good-be, David,” Eileen said.

“Let’s stop at Gorman,” Bill said. I want a large Coke with lots of ice.”