Letter to My Adult Niece — About Her One Wild and Precious Life

Images from Sacramento’s 16th Street at Night

I love you, think about you all the time, always want to see you. I realize you’re too busy to bother with me, but want you to understand I know the single-mom drill, did it day in and day out for 40 years with 2 to 3 boys — depending on the situation. It’s very hard, no argument there.

Because you’re going through it, you may finally get why I quit my good-paying corporate job and the daily BART commute to San Francisco to take on freelance assignments from home in Berkeley; why I chose later to work at a small newspaper three miles from my house in Sacramento, although they paid poorly.

Commuting is the worst! When BART broke down my kids suffered — I wasn’t there to pick them up on time from daycare, got charged extra and warned if it happened too often, I’d have to make other arrangements for daycare. “Too often” wasn’t defined, so I worried and paid for daycare first, the cost came off the top, otherwise I couldn’t work.

Basically my kids lived with a grumpy, resentful mom. On Saturdays I started worrying I couldn’t get everything done on Sunday to start the workweek squared away. For many years I was a renter and didn’t have a washer and dryer. Nothing like Sundays at the laundromat followed by a rousing game of “let’s go grocery shopping!”

So you say “I’m not doing this!” I have reached that point at various times in my career. I understand. The decision to make life changes, however, comes with trade offs. In my case, it involved drastic pay cuts and constant money worries. I just refinanced my house and paid off $80,000 in accumulated credit card debt, which was absolutely crushing and paying on the debt was not sustainable in retirement.

How did that kinda debt happen? Well . . . Kids need experiences and resources to participate in American life. They need education, training, social outlets, equipment, special clothing, celebrations, toys, books, electronics and various travel and adventure opportunities, to name a few necessary resources for healthy growth and development. Then there’s college and weddings, grandchildren. Kids can’t grow up in a closet. They need opportunities to explore and participate in their world and that costs money.

When they were small, my children and my writing business had to come first, after that I’d buy my clothes at thrift stores. My car was 20 years old. My house never had a complete, professional interior paint job. I needed a new roof. It took me 17 years to afford a righteous redwood fence for my yard. (Whoo Hoo!) I bought my bed at a garage sale for $20. The sacrifice list goes on and on.

That is how I’ve lived for the past 40 years — taking care of my kids first. The truly special part of my unwavering commitment and sacrifice is that my kids are dismissive of my efforts, rude, self-centered, demanding, at times disrespectful and belligerent. Guess I made it look easy, should have complained more. But, in truth, I did my duty and don’t regret it.

Now that I’m retired, I relax — get up about 4 a.m. and write, then go to work on my house and garden, back to bed by 9 p.m. I don’t go anywhere in my rickety car except to run a few errands and get groceries. I have to save my gas. When my grandmother retired, she went blind and lost her wits. My mother died of lung cancer three years before retirement. Both of their life experiences were similar to mine. Work hard, get little in return. I’m the fool who expected something more, forgetting that life itself is precious. That’s a mistake.

I thought I could build a better life for me and my kids by myself. I was wrong. My grandmother and mother were both courageous women who persevered through incredibly tough times — The Great Depression, WW II, and I survived the Summer of Love. I’m no better than they were, which is to say I’m wonderful in many ways, in others, not so much. I will be 67 on Nov. 16 and damn proud of it. I’m surviving, but I’m not sure my struggle is better than anyone else’s. Getting here has been a lot of hard, often thankless work, I’m just grateful I made it this far.

So, as the poet Mary Oliver asked: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I’m still thinking about it and loving you.

The Summer Day — Library of Congress

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Wise Up, Skip the Crap

Six months into retirement, contemplating the stretch of 2017 from the fresh vantage point of January – rainy and cold – it looks like carnage, a quiet village overrun by marauders, chairs toppled, sink filled with dirty dishes, windows stripped of coverings, a mound of wet plastic and cardboard in the courtyard, switch plates missing, electric outlets busted. A mess of biblical proportions.

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My post-holiday garage storage space

A friend suggested writing a story about my whole-house update, my remodeling project that has gone on for months, finally overtaking me a few days before Christmas. The idea was to share the before and after images, the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly.

On Dec. 20 at 7:38 p.m., I signed off on installation of the new carpeting. At that point I was just the tiniest bit over budget and a mere two weeks behind schedule. But I had managed to make six fruit cakes and buy and wrap Christmas gifts, if only I could find the boxes they were in in the garage. What I’d hoped would be a triumphant transformation has turned into – well, a lot more work.

My son and his wife arrived from Los Angeles on Dec. 23 to spend two weeks in a house freshly painted and carpeted, yes, but totally empty. Everything I still own was packed tightly into the garage. I got rid of about half the crap I’ve been hoarding for years, but even so it was a tight fit. It was then I realized putting my house back together was going to take a lot more time than I’d expected. I’ve spun a thick cocoon and it’s going to take a bit longer to kick my way out.

So I tried playing Grinch, wanting time to think about how I would put my house back together, winced at the sound of Christmas carols, squinted with disapproval at the neighbor’s festive outdoor lights, refused to buy a Christmas tree.

My sons, who are those annoying Whos from down in Whosville, said, “No! Christmas is coming no matter what,” and proceeded to drag tables, chairs and boxes, what is left of my junk, back into the house. They bought a table-top tree with oscillating fiber optic lights. I have never in my life owned a fake Christmas tree. My friends Carol and Tony also arrived with a couple of energetic teenagers to help with the household liberation. And then we built a fire, broke out the champagne and partied—for days.

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My Grinchy Christmas Tree

Writer Anne Lamott in a Dec. 30 Facebook essay referred to the yearly resolution to lose weight or make other big life changes and pointed out: “Horribly, but as usual, only kindness and grace–spiritual WD-40–can save us.” Here Lamott is referring to saving us from ourselves. In my case, it’s the quest for perfection, order, absolute control and other delusions I really need to let go of. “Grace” is my word for contemplation in 2017. Grace is the grease I’m looking for.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) comes into play in my makeover project. I’m about 80 percent done with my project and the last 20 percent will be the hardest part. I tried to finish my project before the holidays so I could sit around in my black velvet slacks and an ugly Christmas sweater – everything in place for a graceful and stylish celebration with friends and family—and accept compliments about what I was able to accomplish in the home improvement department. After all, I am on a first-name basis with half the staff at the Truxel Road Home Depot. But no.

img_4133My plan to wow folks with my ability as a general contractor and interior design expert, not to mention my multi-tasking skills, quickly turned to shit. As you can see, my hubris got ahead of me. The result was a letting go of my constipated expectations and instead enjoy two weeks of fun and a heart swollen with love.

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My favorite Christmas gift, a butterfly trinket box made by Fortuna CA artisan Lawrence Harvey. From my beloved sister-in-law Melanie. The silver coffee and tea service added a grace note in an otherwise absurd situation.

So, I offer you a sincere Happy New Year! I take comfort in the words of Thomas Merton from his essay Hagie Sophia (Ramparts magazine, March 1963) “There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister. Wisdom.”

In my case and at my age, it’s hard won wisdom. I wish you Grace and Peace in 2017.

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Son Mark and daughter-in-law Janie, who celebrated their first wedding anniversary on Christmas Day.

Malaise and Mayonnaise — One Month Post-retirement

Malaise and Mayonnaise — One Month Post-retirement

Retirement party July 15, 2016. Photo by Dave Kranz.

The “Happy Retirement” mylar balloons have finally deflated and straggle on the carpet, the hoopla marking the end of my 40-year journalism career is muted now. Good-byes have been said, hugs and tears exchanged and dozens of “thank you” notes written, even with my broken right arm, now healed enough to be supported in a brace. But, there’s never enough “thank you” in our world and there’s plenty of trouble to complain about.

I’m not good at transitions, hate change. I’m a mule — sleek and strong, with a big, beautiful rump, yes, but a mule just the same — an old gal who loves her harness, the plow and the hard work.

Retiring wasn’t a sudden decision. Nope. I read everything I could on the subject, planned, plotted and visualized the next phase of my life. Expected the best, but found the approach I’ve used all my life is the only one I know. Basically, if I’m not suffering, I’m not happy. Unwittingly, I turned my first month of freedom from the work-a-day world into a big mess. How big? Well —

My 14-year-old granddaughter came to visit for a month from Wisconsin. I picked her up at the airport in San Francisco the day after I retired. Her father, my son, came along and took her back to his house in Los Angeles. Five days later I drove down from Sacramento to pick her up. I had plans to see some sights on the way back home. We stopped at Mission Santa Barbara, had lunch in the Danish-style village of Solvang.


Santa Barbara Mission, established on the Feast of Saint Barbara, Dec. 4, 1786, tenth of 21 California Missions founded by Spanish Franciscans.

My 17-year-old car blew a radiator hose after pulling over Cuesta Grade, coming out of San Luis Obispo. The 7% grade is along El Camino Real, the historic road connecting California’s missions all the way to Sonoma.

So, while other retirees were rejuvenating in a swanky spa in Calistoga, I was sweating triple digit temperatures at Motel 6 in Atascadero, a farming town of 30,000. The overflowing pool sent water coursing through the parking lot, forming white caps as it reached the down slope. The guests were well drillers, fiber optic cable installers, truckers and homeless families given vouchers for overnight stays to get them out of the heat.

I met Larry. He was wearing a rakish blue bandana and hospital pajamas. His skin was the color and texture of waxed paper, his flesh barely concealed his knobby joints, but his eyes sparkled with illicit merriment, revealed him as a raconteur. He sat in a wheelchair holding a Gideon bible on his lap, asked me to tell him the story from Genesis of Joseph and his brothers’ betrayal. With Larry fact checking me, I pieced the tale together sitting in the early morning sun.

Car fixed, two days behind schedule, we drove Highway 41 — the James Dean Memorial Highway — where at the junction with Highway 46, the iconic actor died in a horrific crash. It’s no man’s land out there, scorched hills rolling away in all directions.


I had oil, water and an air mattress I planned to use for a lean-to shade if we broke down on a day when temps topped 113 F. We pushed the car as hard as we dared to get home and packed for five days at Lake Tahoe, where months before I’d reserved a vacation house that sleeps 10, planning a family celebration in honor of my blessed retirement.

My friend kindly loaned me her new car for the run through the mountains to the lake since my Mountaineer has become suspect. I picked up the keys to the house prepared to party. We unloaded and I went to make coffee. The coffeemaker had moldy grounds in the basket, no carafe to catch the brew. I used a beer stein, mopping overflow as it brewed. The place was hot, 86 when we arrived above 90 by late afternoon. I switched on the AC, adjusted the dials. No help. I tried the fan over the stove, no go. I flipped on the light for the loft, nothing. The overhead fan she was busted.

Then the bears arrived, a sow with two cubs. The mama sniffed the car with the fast-food wrappers on the front seat and the sunroof open. I charged out to shoo them away and the cubs shot up the pine tree beside the house. The sow snarled and sidled off. My granddaughter freaked because she thought I would be attacked.

Eventually my family arrived. The handyman came with a new coffeemaker and rotating fans, but could not improve the green images on the big screen TV. The fake Christmas tree in the corner added a festive touch in July. The children played with broken toys, we worked a couple of jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces. After dinner I hit the garbage disposal and rotten food flew out of the sink, the smell so bad I retched. I removed a mutilated sponge with serving tongs. The handyman came back. The kids picked up cigarette butts in the yard for fun.



Rounding the corner on my street after my Lake Tahoe adventure, I found five-gallon buckets had been tossed in my side yard, paint and oil all over the ground, fence, plants and sidewalk. The kindly police officer I spoke to said, “Lady, use common sense. If it’s in your yard, it’s your problem. Take the stuff to the hazardous waste dump out on Bradshaw Road.”

Welcome home mess

A friend emailed me a New York Times personal essay titled “I’m too old for this.” Author Dominique Browning concluded her piece about being 60-plus with the observation: “At least once a week I encounter a situation that in the old (young) days would have knocked me to my knees or otherwise spun my life off center. Now I can spot trouble 10 feet away (believe me, this is a big improvement), and I can say to myself: Too old for this. I spare myself a great deal of suffering, and as we all know, there is plenty of that to be had without looking for more.”

I’m not sure if Browning’s mantra would have helped me during my first month of retirement, but agree there’s plenty of trouble going around without looking for it. Sometimes I feel like the past honored queen of Job’s Daughters, a woman tested along with her father by the Almighty, but they were ever faithful. Wish Motel 6 Larry was here to quiz me so I can keep my stories straight while undergoing tests of Bibical proportions.

P.S. The vacation rental agency sent a letter of apology for the inconvenience and offered a 15% discount off the rent for a future stay. The hazardous waste is secured and it will be hauled to the dump in a week or so.

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Why Childhood Memories Matter

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Sunnydale housing project, 1941
[Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

A child went running from the playground at Sunnydale Projects in the early summer of 1955, beating on doors, breathlessly telling grownups that I’d fallen from the monkey bars and couldn’t get up. When she finally found my mother behind one of the uniformly plain front doors, she explained and my mother came running. Trying to learn how to circle the bar and come upright like the older kids, I misplaced my hands on the bar and crashed to the ground, dislocating my kneecap.

I spent most of that summer hobbling from my bedroom to the couch. The doctor said my leg had to be immobilized and my mother made sure his orders were followed. There was no TV in most San Francisco homes in those days. Commercial TV broadcasts didn’t extend to the West Coast until 1951. Instead I colored, played with paper dolls, listened to the radio with my mother, and meditated on the swirls and flourishes in our burgundy oriental carpet. I went from cast to elastic bandages, my mother wrapping my knee tightly several times a day. Eventually I was allowed to walk, then permitted to go outside.

That’s how I met her. After walking dutifully for days around the projects, I went to a building beyond the view of our unit’s windows, and ran as fast as I could up and down the narrow sidewalks, testing my knee. A woman came out and asked my name and where I lived. I was only about six and answered truthfully. I went on running. When I got home, my mother said a nice lady had stopped by. My knee stiffened and I sat down, waiting for the wrath because I’d been running. The lady asked, my mother said, if I could come and play with her daughter, who couldn’t go outside because she had polio and couldn’t walk. I knew very well how that felt and agreed to visit.

This fuzzy, black and white, memory comes back now because of a recent conversation with my niece. She lives in Orange County, where a major measles outbreak is under way, and just had a baby. She’s leaning toward not vaccinating her infant daughter. She asked me what I thought about that decision. Trying to remain supportive of her parental prerogatives and not freak out, I said it was her decision, but the memory of the day I met my playmate kept coming up.

My mother dressed me in nice school clothes the first time I visited and walked me down the hill. We were welcomed, I went inside. In the living room was a large metal cylinder, horizontal sunlight through Venetian blinds striped the gray tube. Only my new friend’s head extended beyond the coffin-like enclosure, a mirror positioned above her so she could watch the room. The girl’s mother sat me down at a children’s table. She brought me crayons and a stack of coloring books, children’s playing cards, board games. I listened in shocked silence as she explained her daughter, Eunice, couldn’t walk or sit up, that she had to stay in her iron lung, but she could watch and she wanted to see me play. I caught Eunice’s eye in the mirror, sensed her wariness as it slipped into indifference.

Eunice’s mother fluttered about, brought me red Kool-Aid as I colored. She adjusted me in the child’s chair so I could be seen through the mirror. I don’t recall Eunice speaking. She just made animal sounds that signaled her mother when she needed attention. The polio vaccine had not yet been invented.

 Iron lung 3
Members of Rotary International volunteered their time and personal resources to help immunize more than 2 billion children in 122 countries during national immunization campaigns.

The vaccine became available when I was about 10. We all got it, everyone, including my parents and grandmother. About 1962, people lined up around the block to receive the vaccine on sugar cubes in the Alvarado Elementary School auditorium in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. There were long tables of nurses passing out the doses to grateful families, every member chewing the sweet protection.

“I respect your decisions about what’s best for Adriana and support you in whatever you decide,” I told my niece, but told her I had my sons immunized because I’m old enough to remember when immunizations were not available, perhaps with the exception of small pox vaccine, which my mother received in the 1930s as a girl. It left a distinctive scar that I often saw on people’s arms when I was a child.

Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says about 30 percent of measles cases develop one or more complications, including pneumonia, which is the complication that is most often the cause of death in young children. Ear infections occur in about 1 in 10 measles cases and permanent loss of hearing can result. These complications are more common among children under five  years of age and adults over 20 years old. As a child, I knew children who were deaf from the effects of measles, the twisted beige wires of their hearing aids draped across their chests as they worked at their desks in school. There was no licensed measles vaccine in the U.S. until 1963.

“Your father had the most horrendous case of mumps I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” I told my niece, hauling up another memory. “His head was literally the size of a basketball. He was very, very sick for weeks, literally. Joyce, Steve (my other siblings) and I also got mumps. There was no vaccine at the time for that virus either. Joyce and Steve were very sick. My case was mild and only put me in bed for a few of days.”

Chicken Pox: Because there was no vaccine, we all had it, I said. My own sons had it, in the 1980s, too.

Whooping Cough: There was no vaccine available and fortunately none of us kids got it.

“If you’ve ever heard the sound of whooping cough, you’ll know it. It’s a horrifying sound,” I told my niece the other day.

In the fall of 1955, I attended first grade at Sunnydale School. My mother was president of the PTA. Eunice and I would have been classmates. She died that winter and her family moved away. My parents bought a house thanks to money they saved living in the projects and we moved away too. But the memory of Eunice, her translucent face and wispy hair spread out on a pillow, her inquiring eyes reflected from the mirror above her head stay with me and flood back whenever someone talks about the dangers of vaccinating children.

I tell you about this conversation with my niece because I survived a time when common vaccines were not available and hundreds of thousands of children were damaged or died. I got my children immunized because in my view the risk to their health and very lives was too great to ignore. I tell you this in memory of Eunice and because it matters.

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Characters in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle