Veterans Day 2018

Veterans Day 2018

Tomorrow is Veterans Day. As always, my thoughts turn to my favorite veteran, Colonel Arthur Philip Murphy, my dad, who spent nearly five years in the Philippines during World War II, most of that time listed as “missing in action” (translation: presumed dead). His was a fascinating story. During the last week of this month, November 2018, my book about his experiences will be published and available through First Steps Publishing, Amazon.com, and other sources. I’m excited and happy; writing it and following through to publication has been a long, sometimes arduous, though ultimately rewarding process. But on this Veterans Day I’d like to quote some of my dad’s own words, written in North Luzon, Philippine Islands, in mid-1945 as the war was drawing to a close, finally, and it was becoming more likely each day that he was actually going to survive to return home to his wife and family in California. His words doubtless reflect the sentiments of many veterans of many wars.

June 6, 1945: “War can be a boring thing. The trouble is you don’t have an opportunity for any other interests, so when the fighting isn’t exciting—which it is not most of the time—I’m like a fish out of water. I’m afraid that when I get home, I’m going to have to learn to have fun all over again. Sometimes, when I think of living back home with no war to engross me, it seems an incredibly boring prospect, and that scares me. You see, this war has calloused over many of my tender spots. When one learns to look at destroyed towns and cities without emotion, when one learns to give information to the Air Force for the wholesale destruction of others, when one learns to have little regard for the uniqueness of human life—‘We took Hill X cheaply, only ten men killed’ or ‘In Town Y are 100 Japs and 100 civilians; recommend bombing and strafing’—in the process one becomes hardened. During the [Japanese] occupation, many of our [guerrilla] soldiers surrendered to the enemy because their families had been imprisoned or tortured. We regarded them as traitors and, if we caught them back in our area, we shot them on sight. Cruel and tough, it’s true, but that’s the reason we survived and grew while other [guerrilla] units failed. The worst thing about this war is not the destruction and death that men have accomplished but the indifference with which they’ve had to learn to accomplish it in order to stay alive. Sometimes I think of the damage and destruction these years of war have done to the world and I shudder.

    Art Murphy, North Luzon, Philippines, 1945

“But I’m getting morbid. This is not the first war in the world’s history, and it probably won’t be the last. I suppose death and destruction will always be just another aspect of living. I only hope that when I come home, I can learn again to do the everyday, inconsequential things and get a bang out of doing them. Right now, that’s hard to imagine.”

August 16, 1945: “Well, the war is finally over, but the Japs haven’t started to surrender yet. The radio says the [Japanese] Emperor’s order to cease firing and surrender will be given sometime today. But just yesterday we had four men killed and twenty-one wounded up on our front, and last night a lone Jap was killed trying to attack one of our command posts. But there’s a general feeling that the big show is over. Anything after this will be an anticlimax. Not that the news caused any big celebrations here. Our principal reaction is that of a plow horse when his harness is removed at the end of a long, hot afternoon. He just feels like having some chow and resting in his stall, not going out and kicking up his heels. We’ll leave that to the people back home who can muster the necessary excess energy in spite of the privations they’ve endured.”

 

Harriett’s Gift

“You certainly do like yard work,” I called from my seat at the picnic table on Harriett’s screened-in porch as I waited impatiently for her to finish whatever it was she was doing in her yard that day in 1991. Since moving to the isolation of the Tahoe National Forest eight miles above Nevada City, I looked forward to the fiercely competitive rounds of Upwords that she and I played each afternoon, once she’d finished her chores for the day.

“I think of it as gardening,” she shot back, “not yard work.”

Though I’d known them only a few months, I loved our across-the-road neighbors already. Walt and Harriett had retired to their eight forested acres in the mountains after raising four strapping sons on a dairy ranch outside Santa Rosa. I guess you might term them old-fashioned farm folks—no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth people whose door was never locked, whose dining table always had room for unexpected guests, and who would do anything for anyone, once they perceived the need.

Tall and lean, Walt had a full head of silvery waves. Strikingly handsome in his plaid shirts, he could tell a good story and laughed with gusto whenever a new one tickled his funny bone. In addition to his boys, he loved three things in life: Harriett, his bride of nearly fifty years; his 150-pound Lab-Saint Bernard cross named “Hercules,” or “Herky” for short; and his John Deere tractor. Next down the list was his love of professional sports, especially baseball. Then came politics—the conservative Republican kind. He had a well-equipped shop and could build or fix anything, from toys to cars to tractors to washing machines and chainsaws.

Sharp as a tack, Harriett was tiny. Just over five feet tall, she weighed fewer than ten pounds more than she’d weighed at fourteen, when she and Walt first fell in love. Her face was weathered and lined now, the penalty for a lifetime of days spent in the sun. She wore her brownish hair short-cropped, without much plan but easy to care for. Her long nails, strong enough to double as screwdrivers, belied her image as a farm wife. She was inordinately proud of them and kept them polished bright pink. It was her personality I found most fascinating, though. With an acerbic tongue and a dry wit, Harriett never rattled on mindlessly. More often she listened, a sly, barely discernible smile playing around the corners of her mouth, waiting for you to hang yourself. Then, if she had something to say, she said it. Slow to offer an opinion, when she did, there was no point in arguing. Most often, she was right.

“If you’re in a hurry, you could give me a hand hauling this stuff to the burn pile,” Harriett called.

And so began my education, my transformation, my rebirth. In the coming weeks and months, as I trailed after her, helping with the chores, I peppered her with questions: “What are those tall things with the purple flowers?” “Why are you hoeing around those bushes?” “Won’t coffee grounds kill the plants?” “Why are you putting Epsom salts in your watering can?” “Why are you digging up your beautiful iris?” “Why are you burying nails under those bushes?”

Patiently Harriett explained, her incredulity only thinly veiled that the college professor’s wife from Aptos could be so dumb. She taught me how to double-dig; how to gather flower heads in a brown paper sack, secure the top with a rubber band and place it in the sun for days in order to harvest the seeds; how to carefully pinch the spent flowers from rhododendrons to avoid snapping off next year’s blooming shoots; which bushes and trees to prune after their spring flowering and which later on, in the fall; and how to divide rhizomes and bulbs in order to start new clumps or share. She taught me about nitrogen and potassium and phosphorus in the soil and how to enrich it by using what others might term garbage: coffee grounds and tea bags, crushed eggshells, ashes from the woodstove, dog droppings, shredded newspapers, and leaves. She even told me the best garden gloves to buy, not the little winky ones in pretty pastels that are marketed to women in the garden centers, but the more reasonably priced, heavier ones made by Atlas that lasted a whole season even under constant assault by her long nails.

Before long I began gathering boulders and muscling together low retaining walls to create paths and planting beds around our new home across the road. But Harriett rolled her eyes at my frequent trips to the local nurseries. “It isn’t about spending money,” she snorted. “Why spend a fortune on all those commercial soil amendments when all you have to do is go into the forest with a rake, clear off the top layer of pine needles, and gather all the forest mulch you want, for nothing?” She believed in doing it the old-fashioned way: composting, propagating, dividing.

“But that takes so long,” I wailed.

Again Harriett rolled her eyes. “Gardening is about patience,” she said, “and you’ll value the results more if you do it right. Like children. Who’d value kids if you just bought them in batches at the store? It’s the hard work and care and time and love that are important, not instant gratification. It’s about creating something uniquely yours, something beautiful and worthwhile; something that will reward you anew every spring; something that will enrich your life year after year. Your garden doesn’t care how old you are, the size of your bank account, how many teeth you’ve lost, how much you weigh, what you’re wearing—or not wearing—or your position in the local social hierarchy. Let other women have their Valium, their therapists, their retreats, their endless books on meditation and self-improvement; you’ll never need ‘em. Your garden will be all the sustenance you ever need. You’ll never grow too old to cherish an early morning stroll along your paths, coffee cup in hand, visiting your garden family and cheerfully planning your day.”

Now, more than three decades later, Harriett and Walt are both gone. But Harriett’s influence is not. I’ve created three gardens since those long-ago days, each more elaborate than the last, and every morning, as I stroll, coffee cup in hand, I think of her and the precious wisdom she shared. I smile as I tend the descendants of her early generosity—iris and carpet bugle and lamb’s ears and a variety of dianthus I don’t even know the name of but which blooms vivid hot pink every May and June and scatters its seeds widely. “Fingernail-pink,” I call it. I think of Harriett every time I pinch my Vulcan rhododendrons, expertly preserving next spring’s show of brilliant scarlet flowers. I think about her as I pause, warming my back in a patch of early morning sunshine slanting down through the towering Ponderosas. I think of her and of the wealth of knowledge she shared, about gardening and about life. I think of Harriett and her gift and I give thanks.

Musings at First Light

It’s only five o’clock, but already I’m wide awake. What is it about this time of the day that I love so? Later on, the sun will arc high overhead, forcing the lizards and frogs to shelter from the blistering rays of another hot August afternoon. I’ll shelter too. But now, in the very early morning, the air is exquisite. It beckons. As soon as it’s ready, I pour my first mug of coffee and head outside. A slight breeze is cool and bracing and tingles on my arms and legs and the back of my neck. I breathe deeply, again and again, taking in this miracle of a fresh new day.

The first bird awakens and chirps its song of greeting. Two more join in. I feel a kinship with them. We’re all early birds.

I walk to the garden shed and turn on the pump so that once more a thin trickle of water gurgles over the brick edging of the upper pool into the lower, a soothing alto to the winged, chirping sopranos that now number a dozen. Soon, it’ll be an entire chorus.

Many years ago I planted water lilies in pots in the lower pool and stocked it with a dozen feeder fish I bought for practically nothing from a young kid working part-time at the pet store. But the kid couldn’t tell carp from koi—at that time I couldn’t either—and I ended up with as many koi as carp. They all grew quickly, were very tame, and would wriggle right up onto my palm for food. My favorite was a white butterfly koi. I named her Princess. She was beautiful—flowing, gossamer, four-inch fins and a small pinkish spot on her snout. Then one day she disappeared. I never knew what got her, but I felt terrible because she was so trusting, and that trust probably had cost her her life.

The rest of the fish multiplied rapidly, and soon the filter couldn’t keep up. The water turned to thick, smelly pea soup. Finally, I called a company that specialized in ornamental water features, and their crew came out and drained the pool and pulled all the plants and fish out and took them away in big barrels. They didn’t charge me a dime. In fact, they refurbished the filter, resealed the inside walls of the pool, and paid me several hundred dollars. I guess good-sized koi and water lilies bring good-sized prices.

I place my now empty cup on the bricks atop the wall of the lower pool and bend at the waist to pull a couple of weeds that have sprouted in the woolly thyme that eventually filled the spaces between the flagstones. It’s not a very ladylike posture, but my knees no longer bend effortlessly. Besides, no one else is up at this hour. I tell myself it is exercise and that it’s a good thing. At least I can still touch my toes.

An Anna’s humming bird comes streaking from nowhere and hovers at eye level a few feet in front of me, its wings a blur and its brilliant magenta throat flashing, signaling that the feeder tucked up under the clematis vine on the trellis above the back terrace is empty. I used to think these actions were random, but now I know they’re not. It’s a silent pact between the humming birds and me. I get the stool from the kitchen so I can reach the feeder, fill it with a four-to-one water-sugar mix, and return it to its hook. Within moments three or four of the Anna’s are vying for the first taste. Dipping and swooping, they will provide entertainment throughout the day, sometimes hovering a few moments just outside the open window above my desk and my computer, just to say thank you.

One thing in the garden inevitably leads to another. I’m reminded to refill the suet feeders hidden in the branches of the Japanese maples, out of reach of those pesky voles that have created a labyrinthine web of tunnels beneath my garden. There was a time when I battled them. I tried flooding them out with a hose and blocked their access by stuffing rocks into their adits. Neither worked. At the hardware store I bought gas bombs in a package; the label claimed they were “guaranteed to eradicate voles.” Hah! Hidden in the shadows, the critters watched and cackled among themselves. I gave up the fight. Unlike gophers, at least the voles don’t leave raw, ugly mounds behind as they drill. I have no idea what they do with the excess soil. They must eat clover seeds, though, because, industrious little farmers that they are, they poop the seeds out inside their tunnels, and the seeds then sprout and spread so that the voles have well-stocked pantries spaced conveniently all along their hallways. There was a time I zealously tackled the clover trails with my hand-weeder, but no more. With voles, you can’t win, unless you get a few cats at the shelter and keep them half-starved so they’re motivated. But the birds, especially baby California quail, are much easier prey than voles, so I no longer keep cats.

My second cup of coffee sustains me as I prowl the rest of the garden. This year, for some unexplained reason, the native oaks have been dropping leaves ever since June. Green ones, not brown. And dropping acorns too. You’d think, with last winter’s record rainfall, that the oaks would stay thick and lush well into fall. Maybe later I’ll call the agricultural extension office and ask about it. Or maybe I’ll just wait and let someone else do it. And I’m not going to rake the leaves, either, not yet. Let them swirl and play in the breeze. I’m not the perfectionist I used to be. And it’s a good thing, because I’m not as young as I once was. I’m more tolerant now—of others’ shortcomings as well as my own.

Bambi, Bambi

Except for a section of wrought-iron screen fencing along the upper street side—totally useless for keeping anything in or out—my garden is open to all. The wild critters were here long before we came along—preemptive rights, I think is the legal term—and they depend on the pond across the road below our property during the hot summer months in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It seemed only neighborly to preserve an unobstructed path for them to access the water.

It didn’t take long, though, for the deer to discover my garden affords a much closer water source, a straight-sided, two-level ornamental waterfall and pool that wrap partway around the back terrace. They also soon discovered I have plenty of fresh, green, growing things to nibble on. Mostly, they’re polite and limit their munching to the plants they like best, the six-foot-tall “carpet roses” and a few of the smaller hydrangeas in the shade garden. The deer don’t do any lasting damage. And they don’t touch my favorite azaleas and rhododendrons, or the daffodils in the early spring. Sometimes they take midday naps in the shade beneath the low-hanging branches of half a dozen redwoods below our meadow, but, otherwise, they generally meander through, have a little snack, then move on to the neighbors’ properties and the larger forested parcels farther up the mountain. I like knowing they’re around.

I first discovered how hospitable the deer find my garden one day years ago while puttering around outside—just pickin’ and pokin’, I call it. I noticed two rather strange leaves sticking up amid the groundcover alongside one of the paths. Furry, brownish points among the mottled green leaves. I stopped in my tracks. The strange leaves twitched, as though ruffled by a welcome breeze. Only there wasn’t any breeze. The small fawn lifted its head just enough to see whether I represented a threat, then nestled back down, folding its ears out of sight against its skull.

I remembered Harriett telling me one time that a mule deer will often hide her young fawn in the thickest foliage she can find, press her muzzle down on top of its head to instruct it stay put, wander off to graze a while on her own, and finally return for the baby a couple of hours later.

“But why doesn’t the fawn just scramble after her?” I asked.

“Right from the moment of their birth, fawns are programmed to obey instantly, without question. It’s a matter of survival. If the does don’t eat, there won’t be milk for the babies. Actually, they’re much better behaved than our own youngsters,” Harriett replied with a wry grin, remembering her own four rambunctious sons.

So this baby hadn’t been abandoned at all, merely dropped off at daycare. I slowly backed away and left it alone, and an hour later it was gone.

One of the highlights of spring in my garden is catching a glimpse of a brand new fawn wobbling along on spindly legs behind its mama as she makes her daily rounds. I usually see several each year. The spring of 2016 was no exception. One morning in early May, through the French door in the library, I spotted a doe and her new baby down in the Cedar Circle. I slipped outside for a better look. As I drew closer, Mama didn’t panic but moved slowly down the rock steps into the meadow. Bambi tottered along behind. I followed as far as the top step and from there watched as the two disappeared into the shadows beneath the redwoods on the far side.

Already very close to one of my Martha Stewart-green hoses, I decided to give the azaleas some extra water as I’d sprinkled on a little fertilizer the day before. Still gazing absentmindedly at the spot where the deer mama and baby had ambled into the trees below, I reached down for the nozzle with my left hand and at the same time leaned over to turn on the spigot with my right. Suddenly I got the fright of my life! On top of the neatly coiled hose, only inches from my hand, was something strange, round, and dark. I shrieked and jumped back, certain it was a coiled baby rattler and I was a goner. But it didn’t strike. It didn’t move at all, just lay there, motionless, looking like a wet, partially deflated football with mottled white spots.

Gradually my heart stopped pounding and my breathing slowed to normal. This fawn was much smaller than the first, no more than ten minutes old, still wet from the doe’s tongue where she’d eaten away the amniotic sac. Bambi Two!

I knew enough to leave the newborn alone, that the doe would return for it, so I went back into the house and continued to watch through the window. Sure enough, twenty minutes later mama came back alone. She licked the tiny creature all over and tried to nuzzle it to its feet, but it was so weak it couldn’t hold its head up, let alone stand. Mama left again.

Over the next several hours, she returned three more times but still couldn’t get the baby to its feet. It shuddered every few seconds but still didn’t lift its head. It occurred to me that the fawn needed nourishment to gain strength, but if it couldn’t stand, it couldn’t access the doe’s teats. I watched and fretted. Another hour passed.

Certain now that mama had abandoned this pint-sized infant, I couldn’t just sit by and do nothing. In the kitchen, I pulled out my Pyrex one-cup measure and poured in an ounce of evaporated milk, an ounce of warm water, and a couple of drops of Karo syrup. I found an ear syringe in the bathroom, swished it in rubbing alcohol, and washed and dried it. From the ragbag in the laundry room, I grabbed an old towel and headed for the Cedar Circle.

At first I thought the baby was dead, it was so still. Then it quivered, and its tiny sides rose and fell a time or two. I sat down on the ground, carefully wrapped the towel around the fawn, pulled it onto my lap, and began gently massaging it all over. In a few minutes the baby’s eyelids fluttered. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I murmured softly as it fastened its gaze on my face. I saw no fear, only trust. With my left hand, I lightly grasped Bambi Two under its chin and nudged the ear syringe between its square white teeth. Big teeth for such a tiny baby. At first the milk dribbled out the sides of its mouth onto the towel, but as I kept stroking its throat with my thumb, finally it swallowed once, then twice. Then several more times. I continued gently caressing the baby all over until it fell asleep, then left it there atop the coiled hose, wrapped in the towel, and went back inside to make a phone call.

When I returned to the Cedar Circle twenty minutes later, Bambi Two was gone, leaving behind the towel nest. I began to search, first the rest of the Cedar Circle and then the Shade Garden. Climbing three more rock steps toward the utility corner—home to our air-conditioning unit and woodpile—out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the baby, collapsing on the ground even as its mama disappeared around the corner of the house. Again, I wrapped the baby in the dish towel, massaged it all over, and fed it another ounce of formula.

By now it was late afternoon, time to make dinner and tend to other evening chores. Convinced I’d done all I could, I wrapped the baby up one final time and went inside for the night, wondering if I’d ensured its survival—or poisoned it with my makeshift formula.

The next morning the towel was there, but not the fawn. Had a coyote gotten it, or the bobcat some neighbors had reported seeing?

The story of Bambi Two spread quickly up and down our street. Everyone kept watch. After ten anxious days, Suzanne from next door ran over at dusk to tell me they’d just seen a mama deer with two fawns, one much larger than the other, crossing their front lawn.

I was elated! Hubby and I celebrated with a bottle of champagne.

It Takes a Village

Several weeks after the birth of the Bambi twins, I was seated one sunny morning in the breakfast room, paying bills and tending to the mound of paperwork that routinely accumulates on my desk. You know, activities like addressing birthday cards, reading again the most recent submissions of writer friends from my critique group, inventorying and updating a list of cleaning supplies in anticipation of my next trip down to Costco. The phone rang. It was Steve, our next-door neighbor.

“Hey, Pat. Say, I’ve just been out on the driveway—gonna wash my car—and I heard something strange coming from your backyard. Like a baby crying or something. Did you guys get a new puppy, too?”

“I wish,” I replied, “but no, no new puppy or kitten. I didn’t hear anything when I was out earlier with my coffee, but I’ll go out and have a look.”

I crossed the kitchen and stepped out through the French door onto the back terrace to listen. I heard only the gurgle of water cascading into the lower pool of our water feature and the whirr of humming-bird wings as several Anas swooped around the nectar feeder, attacking one another and vying for dominance. Somewhere in the distance, a Stellar’s Jay squawked. Nothing unusual.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, off to my right I caught sight of a doe and fawn just disappearing quickly through the Cedar Circle and down into the Shade Garden. I headed in that direction, but by the time I got there, they had bounded down the rock steps and disappeared into the redwoods. I proceeded on around the house to the front, but still I heard nothing strange. Maybe Steve was mistaken. Maybe what he heard was coming from Jay and Bonnie’s, his neighbors on the other side. They had a new labradoodle pup.

I strolled down the street in the direction of Steve’s driveway, but he met me halfway. “I just heard it again,” he said urgently. “It’s definitely a distress call. Something’s wrong.”

By now Steve’s wife, Suzanne, had come outside, too, and the three of us hurried, single file, through the wrought-iron gate into our backyard to investigate further. As we rounded the garden shed, we all heard it, a piercing, high-pitched cry, definitely coming from below the back terrace. Fanning out in different directions, we listened intently. There it was again! We all heard it!

Suzanne was standing closest to the pool. Suddenly she screamed. “Here it is! Here it is! It can’t get out!”

In the shadowy corner of our pool, a small fawn floated limply, droplets of blood dribbling from beneath its chin and spreading over the water’s surface. In a flash, Steve reached down with both hands, grasped the dripping baby, lifted it gently out of the chilly water, and placed it on the flagstones. Its eyes were shut tight and it shook uncontrollably.

Racing back into the house for a towel, I wrapped the shivering baby, pulled it onto my lap, and began rubbing it all over to restore circulation, just as I’d done with the newborn fawn right after its birth only a few weeks before. Was this the same baby? Was this Bambi Two?

Soon its dark eyes fluttered open, but there was no fear, only relief. As I continued the massage, gradually the violent shaking subsided into a gentle heaving of its mottled, spotted sides. Now we could see how Bambi Two had struggled. I blotted the abrasions under its chin where the skin had been scraped raw on the brick coping of the pool.

As Suzanne ran home for her camera, Steve and I speculated about what might have happened. The mama must have come to drink from our pool, accompanied by her two mismatched fawns. Perhaps the larger fawn had been able to successfully drink also. But the littler one, Bambi Two, with its shorter legs, must have had a harder time and ultimately tumbled in, then couldn’t get out. Who could tell how long the baby had thrashed about in the water as its anguished mama stood helplessly by, unable to do a single thing, despite its beseeching cries, to save her drowning baby?

 

Suzanne returned and snapped this picture. Then I wrapped the fawn in the towel again and continued stroking its head and ears until it dozed off, finally safe but completely exhausted.

After sharing a cup of hot tea and catching up on other neighborhood news, Suzanne and Steve returned to their chores, and I to mine. Every so often, I went back out to check on the fawn and scratch its ears. Still, it exhibited no fear. Two hours later, Bambi Two was gone

Crow-Baby, Cry-Baby

Several weeks ago, on my routine early morning bathrobe-and-coffee-cup patrol around the garden, a series of raucous cries shattered my reverie, noises not terribly unlike those of the tiny fawn who once fell into our straight-sided ornamental pool and would have drowned had it not been for its frantic shrieks for help.

Instantly alert, I listened for a few moments and then began to prowl my paths in an effort to locate the source of the present cries. Determining that the sound was coming from somewhere in the tall meadow grass below the main rock retaining wall, I headed in that direction, only to have the air go silent. I stopped and stood silent, listening. Nothing. Nothing for more than a minute. I retreated to a shady area and sat on the stone bench at the base of the ancient cedar to listen again.

The cries resumed, at first mournful and plaintive, but gradually escalating to an ear-splitting screech. Once more I ventured down into the meadow. Again the air went silent.

I don’t have time for this, I thought, and returned to the house to put my coffee cup in the dishwasher and throw on my gardening clothes. My list of chores was long. It included fetching the dolly from the garage to move a dozen heavy sacks of soil amendment, well-rotted manure, and potting soil from the back of my SUV to the spots where they were needed. I grunted and tugged the dolly up and down runs of rock steps connecting the different levels of the garden, steps built many years ago with my own hands, but with no regard for how difficult they’d be to navigate with a loaded dolly. I was only vaguely aware of the squalls coming from the meadow area. I couldn’t ignore the cries completely, though. If you’re a mother, you know that feeling.

Again I ventured down into the meadow, and again the cries stopped. But now my quest had become a mission. I retreated once more to the shade of the old cedar and plopped down on a moss-covered boulder to take up my vigil.

Presently a huge black crow appeared overhead, silhouetted against the bluest of skies as it swooped in narrowing circles and landed near the top of a ninety-foot Ponderosa pine just beyond the meadow’s lower boundary. Moments later it flew away. At first I paid no attention to the crow. I kept my eyes riveted on the meadow grasses in my effort to determine the source of the distress cries. Then I heard it again. I looked up. Finally I understood. The crying baby wasn’t a fawn at all, but a crow-baby fledging from its nest high up in the pine. I relaxed. Nothing was wrong. I’m not needed here. I went back to my chores.

For two weeks I listened to the crow-baby and watched this rite of passage. At first crow-mama fed the chick in place, returning every five minutes or so, gradually lengthening the intervals to ten, then fifteen. In between snacks, crow-baby yelled, its lungs obviously developing at a faster rate than its wings.

But now crow-mama began landing on another branch a few feet away, challenging crow-baby to work a bit for its meal. Oh, how it screeched, its voice indignant and demanding. If you’re a mother, you know that behavior too. I was disappointed that she held out for less than fifteen seconds before she flew back to the nest and shoved the morsel down the chick’s throat.

Late that afternoon crow-mama finally convinced the reluctant chick to try a four-foot mini-flight to a nearby branch. So far, so good. Then she hopped to another branch ten feet away. But crow-baby was having none of that. On its own, it flew back to the safety of the nest and again took up its raucous lament. What a cry-baby! I decided the chick had to be a male. I could imagine crow-mama’s exasperation as she flew off in a wide arc over the neighbor’s property and didn’t return for nearly an hour.

Several days of rain and wind kept me out of the garden. When next I caught sight of crow-baby, he was flapping his wings hard and chasing crow-mama from the nest to the six-inch candle atop another Ponderosa pine twenty or thirty feet away. The two birds were nearly the same size now. Good for you, crow-baby. You’re finally getting the hang of it. But when mama encouraged her youngster to try another hop, crow-baby’s courage vanished. He returned to the nest and refused to budge. Soon he was yelling again, but crow-mama flew away and stayed away the rest of the afternoon. Serves the kid right, I thought.

The next day, I saw crow-baby practice a couple of times alone, flying from the top of one pine to the next, but never more than twenty feet from the nest. At his insistence, crow-mama continued bringing him his meals. Late that afternoon the two of them finally flew off together.

Over the weekend, I worked in the garden in welcome peace and quiet, glad to have witnessed the conclusion of this miracle of nature. I didn’t see a single crow. Nor did I hear any. Probably they’ve all flown down to Pioneer Park to mooch scraps from the picnickers gathered there to take in the weekend outdoor concert.

Monday passed uneventfully. I had errands to run.

Yesterday was Tuesday. I went out early to plant two azaleas I’d gotten on sale Monday afternoon at my favorite nursery. What? What’s that? Screech, screech, screech! That crow-baby was back, perched on the edge of the nest and yelling his head off.

Should’ve changed the locks.

Who Needs Video Games?

From a clematis-covered pergola a dozen feet outside the window over my kitchen sink hangs a hummingbird feeder. I planned it this way. Nature’s garden gifts often come in the form of fleeting moments; if I’m not Johnny-on-the-spot to experience them, pffft, the opportunity is gone. The intimate world of the hummingbird feeder is like that. I cannot arbitrarily decide that “I want to see something wonderful, so I’ll take ten seconds out of my cluttered day and watch the garden.” It doesn’t work that way. But I have structured my surroundings so that, even as I tend to routine chores, within my field of vision are the spots where the magic might occur: the birdbath, the birdhouse, the hummingbird feeder.

Last night, an early spring storm pounded our community. Two inches of rain fell in less than an hour, imperiling unprepared drivers and knocking the buttercup-yellow faces of the daffodils along the freeway right down into the mud. Storms as heavy as this one, like late-season freezes, may do some damage, but the morning after—as though Mother Nature were offering an apology— often dawns brilliantly, enhancing every facet of the landscape. The air is nippy, not icy cold but invigorating, pulsating with new life and new possibilities. Colors boast psychedelic intensity, reflected in each raindrop that clings to a leaf or swelling bud. Deer, squirrels, rabbits, lizards, frogs, and a dozen bird species emerge from their shelters in search of breakfast and, more urgently, a mate.

This is one of those mornings, fairly glittering and pulsating with possibilities. As I stand at the kitchen counter grinding coffee beans, my attention is focused outside. Suddenly the sun picks up movement at the hummingbird feeder: a flash of copper, glowing like a hot coal, gone in an instant.

The regulars at my feeder are Anna hummingbirds, the females generally a dull, uninspiring greenish-brown but the males adorned in bright green with an otherworldly headscarf of iridescent hot pink. I see them all the time. They’re my friends, so predictable that the males will chirp loudly and swoop down and hover in front of me in the garden when the feeder is empty. Well, I call it a chirp; I understand they actually make the sound with their tail feathers as they fly a hundred feet into the air and then plummet at dizzying speeds back toward the earth.

But this isn’t an Anna. I watch intently. There it is again, that brief fiery glow of copper! Then a third time, hovering in the sunshine near the feeder. It’s smaller than an Anna, the color of a newly minted penny.

More than thirty years ago, my close friend and garden mentor, Harriett Hendrickson, taught me about Rufous hummingbirds. The most belligerent of all the hummers, they hold the title for unparalleled maneuverability. The Rufous are also migratory, traveling thousands of miles each season from their winter habitat in Texas, Louisiana, and northern Mexico to their preferred breeding grounds in western Canada and Alaska. In the spring, some of them follow a route that passes through the Sierra Nevada foothills in early April, and in late summer they head south again by a more easterly route, over the Rocky Mountains.

So the timing is right. It’s April 10th. My garden visitor is a Rufous.

As I watch, an Anna male darts toward the feeder. But the Rufous will have none of it. Though much smaller than the Anna, the feisty orange newcomer ruthlessly drives the Anna off, swooping and diving in a fury of whirring russet-colored wings, then returns to keep watch from a branch of the pink clematis vine covering the pergola, just beginning to leaf out. Over and over, the Anna returns and they skirmish, but each time, the Rufous wins the dogfight and triumphantly returns to his post on the vine to guard the feeder. He’s a selfish little beast. I never see him take a drink, but he’s not about to share his prize.

After fifteen minutes or so, I tear myself away from the ongoing war and serve breakfast, put in a load of wash, and then sit down at my computer to try to write. Suddenly, the Anna male is hovering just outside the window above my desk. Without warning, he darts forward and actually pecks on the window! Just a brief peck, but unmistakably meant for me. “Can’t you do something?” he seems to implore me. “It’s our feeder! That trashy orange pipsqueak doesn’t belong here! Can’t you make him go away?”

The action of the Anna confirms what I’ve long suspected; he actually is communicating with me! Except for crows—and maybe eagles and hawks—I’ve never heard much about the intelligence of wild birds, but I’m certain now they can and do try to interact with humans. As with most of the delightful gifts from my garden, all it takes is a bit of observing and listening—and keeping the feeder clean and well-stocked.

Two days later, the Rufous is gone. The Annas are peaceably dipping their needle-like beaks into the nectar of the feeder, two and three at a time. Do you suppose I got the credit?

Where is Ellen Birdsell?

In writing about genealogy, I originally planned to devote a segment to each of the strong women from whom I descend—partly the nuts and bolts of the research itself, but focusing more on their character and personality as I’ve come to know them, who they were as individuals. One or two of them were influential and left an indelible mark, albeit small, in the annals of history. Others were adventurous and markedly independent for the times in which they lived. All seem to have had traits in common—incredible strength, stubbornness, outspokenness, an iron will, and just plain gall—traits I suspect have been passed down to me through inherited DNA. While most of them probably had more enemies than friends, I find these women fascinating, and I looked forward to writing their stories.

Given the news of the past few days, however, the ongoing reports of Hurricane Harvey wreaking massive destruction on the south Texas coast, an obscure, nearly invisible great-great-grandmother on my father’s side has elbowed her way into first place. She was the wife of Lockwood William Birdsell, about whom I have a goodly amount of information, but she wasn’t particularly notable—at least not that I’ve been able to discover—and official census records about her are ambiguous. In most, she’s called Ellen Birdsell, but sometimes she’s called Helen Birdsell. She and her family were actually counted twice in the 1860 census in rural Texas, only days apart, yet one record suggests she was born in 1832 while the other says 1834. Both state she was born in New York. The 1880 census, taken in San Antonio, suggests a birthdate of 1836 in New York, of Irish-born parents. The 1900 census says she was born in Ireland in March 1829 of Irish-born parents and came to America as an eleven-year-old in 1840. Though plausible, I’ve never been successful in locating an immigration record, so I don’t know if she came alone or with family, or if any of this is even true. The death certificates of several of her children give her maiden name variously as Ellen Shener, Ellen Glenn, and Ellen Wren. I have no idea who her parents were despite years of pursuing possible leads that ultimately led nowhere. She remains an enigma, one of those ancestors called, in the language of genealogists, a “brick wall.”

I believe Lockwood and Ellen probably married in New York in 1848, though I have no proof.

The Republic of Texas was annexed as the 28th state of the United States on December 29, 1845, and I have found Lockwood on an Agricultural Census Schedule dated July 8, 1850. By the 1860 census, the couple had five children, all allegedly born in Texas, although one obscure record claims the oldest, daughter Mary, was born “at sea” in 1842, an unlikely date. They were living in Karnes County, fifty miles south of San Antonio, where Lockwood had purchased 160 acres of land and was raising cattle and horses. I surmise Ellen was a typical hard-working frontier wife and mother, but I cannot know this for certain. In the early 1860s, Lockwood no longer owned the land but was still raising stock.

When the Civil War broke out, Lockwood—a New York Yankee, by all accounts—was conscripted into the Confederate Army and saw action for six months as a private assigned to Company G, 8th Texas Infantry, also known as Colonel (Alfred M.) Hobby’s Regiment, which distinguished itself in the battles of Corpus Christie and Galveston. By early 1864, Lockwood was “sick in Goliad Hospital,” according to official military records, and finally in August of 1864 he is listed as having “deserted in Karnes County.” A family legend fleshes out the story: “Lockwood was drafted into the Confederate Army, but never received any pay. With a wife and a houseful of children depending upon him for support, when he became ill and was confined to the hospital in Goliad, he simply got up from his sickbed and walked home. He was captured once and was going to be shot, but he escaped and was not captured again.”

The defeat of the Confederacy in 1865 did not bring peace to Texas. Indian depredations were once again on the rise, and there was widespread unrest. Lynching of freed slaves was not uncommon and often went unpunished. In an effort to gain control—of the Indians and of the many still-defiant Texans—the United States government created a string of military posts to protect rural settlers. One of these was Fort Mason in Gillespie County, north of San Antonio, where a Frontier Battalion (Companies A and B) was established in 1870 under the command of Captain Franklin Jones. Lockwood served two and a half months as a lieutenant in Company A and was discharged on November 11 of that year. This Frontier Battalion was disbanded a few months later, replaced by the newly formed Texas State Police; Lockwood served for a number of months with the 1st Brigade at Galveston, earning $60 per month.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Lockwood’s name appeared in San Antonio city directories, working as a teamster or express man. In 1883 he purchased residential property in the “Maverick Addition,” and then in November of 1891 sold it to his wife Ellen for one dollar. On that deed he is described as “of Garland Co., Arkansas,” suggesting that Ellen and Lockwood had separated. Ellen remained in San Antonio and was twice listed in city directories as “widow of Lockwood,” a more respectable status at that time than being separated or divorced.

Another surviving deed dated March 1894 reveals that Lockwood Birdsell “from Hot Springs, Arkansas” purchased for $200 a property in Rockport, Aransas County, Texas. He soon returned to Texas to occupy this house because in August of 1899 he applied for and was granted a pension based on his Civil War service, stating in the application that he had lived in Rockport for five years and owned a small home, but was otherwise indigent. The application does not mention Ellen, but at some point prior to the 1900 census, Ellen rejoined him there.

On September 8, 1900, a hurricane slammed ashore from the Gulf of Mexico. There was little warning and no defense. In the early morning, high tides were evident, then heavy swells began to appear, but the blue sky prompted a confidence that nothing out of the ordinary was about to occur. Most residents had seen these storms before and weren’t worried. By mid-morning, rain clouds took over the sky and the wind began to pick up. By mid-afternoon, the hurricane hit with an intensity and fury that only increased through the night. By the next morning, the storm had passed and the sun shone brightly, but the devastation was complete.

This hurricane remains, in terms of human life, the worst natural disaster in America’s history. The primary force of the hurricane struck Galveston (a port built on an island a few miles northeast of Rockport), completely wiping out that city and killing 8,000 of its 38,000 residents, but the force of the storm spread death and destruction up and down the Texas coast. No record has been found of Lockwood selling the little house in Rockport. I suspect it was destroyed.

At some point Lockwood returned to San Antonio to live with a married daughter until his death in December 1908, at the age of 92. He was buried in City Cemetery No. 3. His death certificate indicates he was a widower.

But what happened to Ellen? Death certificates were not required in Texas until 1906, and even then compliance with the new law was sporadic and slow in coming. Repeated inquiries by mail to Aransas and Bexar county officials turned up no information at all.

Finally, in 2015, under the auspices of Find-A-Grave, I found an answer. The Rockport City Cemetery had recently been surveyed and the results posted on-line. In that cemetery, the surveyors located a small metal marker inscribed only “Mrs. Birdsell, February 1903.” Despite knowing so little about this great-great-grandmother, at least I finally knew when and where she died and where her remains were laid to rest. In March of 2016, on the 113th anniversary of her death, I ordered red roses placed on her grave. That act brought peace and closure. Or did it?

According to yesterday’s news reports, the town of Rockport has been completely destroyed by Hurricane Harvey’s 170-mile-an-hour winds. All residents have been evacuated, and further catastrophic flooding is anticipated. Will Ellen’s grave marker survive, or will her bones be washed up and scattered in a sea of mud, once again disappearing without a trace?

Religion as Background for My Spunky Grandmothers

Among my earliest English ancestors in America, the Buffums, Southwicks, Birdsalls, Allens, Calvins, Popes, Buxtons, Osborns, and others were Puritans who became Quakers, members of “The Religious Society of Friends.” The earliest Gisweins were Lutherans in Germany, probably Reformed Lutherans in Russia, and later became Seventh Day Adventists in Kansas. The early Murphys were Scots-Irish Protestants in Northern Ireland who later became evangelical, or “primitive,” Baptists in Virginia, then Tennessee and Missouri. In each case, their religious beliefs subjected them to persecution and were at least partly responsible for uprooting families and seeking new homes. To understand their motivations, it’s helpful to know something of the history of religion in the Western World and the part religion played in their lives.

In the 16th century, when most nations had official religions and tolerated no others, the Roman Catholic Church dominated all of western and northern Europe and most of the Christian world. It was a tight but increasingly corrupt and vulnerable world, centered in Rome under the leadership of the Pope, filled with conflict and seething with social, economic, and national unrest, a festering condition that was bound to erupt into open conflict at some point.

In 1517, a German monk, Martin Luther, became the first to openly voice opposition to the Pope and the Catholic Church when he nailed to the church door at the University of Wittenberg a list of 95 questions or challenges to the Church, which he intended only as subjects for debate. But so ripe were the times and so widespread the discontent that within months all of Europe was inflamed and in arms, the beginning of more than a century of bloody wars between the Catholic Church and its numerous opponents. Central to Luther’s challenges—and to the entire Protestant Reformation—was the idea that every man was his own priest, a belief that, if followed to its logical conclusion, would render unnecessary priests, bishops, the papacy, and the entire church hierarchy. Key also for Luther was the idea that men should be justified before God by an inner faith, not by good works or any outward show of virtue.

At about the same time, in Zurich, Switzerland, a reformer named Zwingli preached much the same reforms, and for the same reasons, until he was killed in one of the earliest bloody battles fought between Protestants and Catholics. In Geneva, a third reformer, John Calvin, preached another form of Protestantism, which then swept through Germany, France, and the Lowlands, and across the channel into England.

In England, the Reformation, fused with all these elements, took a very peculiar turn. The then English king, Henry VIII, formally broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 over the matter of divorce—he wanted to be able to get rid of his wives when he tired of them, and the Catholic Church forbade divorce—and formed the Church of England (or Anglican Church) with himself as head. The Anglican Church, however, continued to adhere closely to many Catholic rituals, and Henry’s break with Rome was more a break from the Pope than from religious belief. It did nothing to free his people from religious domination and tyranny.

Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving behind three children by three different wives. His third child and only son was Edward VI, who briefly became king. He was but a boy and ruled by way of a Regency Council. Sickly and weak, Edward died in 1553 at the age of 15, and upon his death, his oldest sister, Mary, daughter of Henry and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, who was Spanish and very Catholic, assumed the throne. She hated Protestants and committed unspeakable crimes against them, earning for herself the historic title of “Bloody Mary.” She especially hated her half-sister, Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by his second wife, Ann Boleyn, and for years Mary kept Elizabeth locked away in the Tower of London. Upon Mary’s death at age 42, however, Elizabeth, then 25, became queen. She was an avid Protestant, primarily because under Catholic law—the Catholic Church, of course, recognized only Henry’s first marriage—she was an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, and therefore could not sit on the throne.

During the long reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England enjoyed a half century of prosperity. There were no major wars. The first footholds were established in North America, the English Navy gained world dominance, world trade grew, and there was great advancement in the arts. She, of course, favored a Protestant nobility, many of them from East Anglica. This part of England was heavily Anglo-Saxon as opposed to Celtic. It became a hotbed of Protestantism and was culturally more like parts of Holland than England. Both Yorkshire and Norfolkshire, birthplaces of a number of my ancestors, are part of East Anglica, and although some of them favored the Anglican Church while others sought greater religious reform, life must have been pretty good for all under Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I died childless in 1603, and the next in line to the throne was her cousin, James Stuart, King of Scotland. Because James was Catholic, all of England feared turmoil when he took the throne. However, James was a realist and established Protestantism as the official state religion. He also commissioned the King James version of the Bible, which became the most widely owned, read, and studied book in England, now with a population of several million. His oldest son was Charles, and when James I died in 1625, Charles assumed the throne.

Charles I, although graceful and handsome, was headstrong, foolish, and totally influenced by Catholics in England and on the Continent, taking the position that he as king could do no wrong. He instituted religious wars in France and Spain, nearly bankrupting his country in the process, and finally dissolved Parliament. He taxed his people unmercifully, abolished courts, and was a real tyrant. The Protestants of East Anglica began to fear their king.

Meanwhile, there was great division within the Protestant religion itself. The Anglican (Church of England) Protestants continued to adhere to many Catholic rituals, and this upset those who wanted greater reform. During Elizabeth’s reign, various new strains of Protestantism or “reformed” churches had emerged: reformed Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and others. The followers of these “reformed” churches were inevitably also classified as “dissidents,” rebels against the established churches, their unorthodox beliefs subjecting them to vigorous persecution. There were “turf wars” of the most bitter and bloody sort.

Out of this mix came the Puritans, one of a number of groups preaching reformation and opposing certain practices and beliefs of the Anglican Church, mainly that priests should be the official presenters and only interpreters of scripture. The Puritans, following Martin Luther, felt that individuals could have a relationship with God based upon their own faith, independent of clergy. The English government forcibly attempted to smother the newly formed and strangely dressed sect. The Puritans, striving to be “pure” and pristine in their daily lives, became true social oddities. But even the Puritans were not united. One branch became known as Separatists because they wanted to sever all ties to the established Anglican Church. Another branch of Puritans was comprised of non-Separatists who wanted to reform the Anglican Church, not form a new sect. Members of these two branches of Puritans and other dissident religious groups who rebelled against the official state religion were treated as outlaws in England, were often imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. To practice a religion other than Anglicanism was to defy the king of England, the official head of the church. Puritans were not allowed to congregate freely; their ministers were often prohibited from preaching and were imprisoned for disobedience; and members were sometimes subject to arrest if they were found even to be reading scripture.

In 1620, the English monarchy, as eager to be rid of the Puritans as the Puritans were to be rid of the king, granted a group of Puritan Separatists a charter to make a settlement in the English colonies in the area that is now New York. There were economic incentives for the Puritan move to the New World, including economic upheaval in Europe and the prospect of making a profit in America, but their chief incentive was religious: they would be able to practice their religion without impediment. In the late fall of 1620, some 103 colonists, making a clean break with the Church of England, sailed on the Mayflower, missed their mark in New York by several hundred miles, and arrived in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. The group was somewhat underfunded by their sponsoring corporation back home in England, and although the colony at Plymouth did survive, by the end of the first year, the harsh conditions had taken the lives of more than half of their people.

Another group of East Anglican Puritans, largely non-Separatist, founded the Massachusetts Bay Company and took a different tack. They were dissatisfied, if not disgusted, with Charles I, and they had a notion of founding a new Puritan Commonwealth in America, so relocated the entire corporation from London to Massachusetts, giving it greater independence from the English crown. By 1630, a thousand English settlers, largely Puritan and non-Separatist, had immigrated to the Boston area north of Plymouth, and many of those moved further north to Salem.  By 1643, there were some 20,000 immigrants in the general area of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, making Boston the largest and most prosperous town in America.

For close to 80 years, these Puritans held absolute power in New England. On the plus side, they contributed positively to the eventual breaking away completely from English control, the development of education, and the development of sea trade, urban business, farming and, eventually, manufacturing. America’s modern political system derives from the legislative model they set up, with fixed dates for regular elections by the voting populace, completely disregarding inherited titles. On the negative side, the Puritan government was hardly democratic. Only males who owned land and were members of the established church could vote. In addition, religious doctrine became civil law, and the rule of the leaders was absolute. They were cruel and intolerant, and disobedience brought punishment ranging from fines to imprisonment to banishment, on pain of death, from the colony. In a few cases, dissidents were put to death. Failure to attend the regular worship services of the established church, or failure to tithe a sizeable portion of one’s income for its support, were deemed disobedience, as were many other seemingly innocuous behaviors. In short, conditions under the Puritans were little improved over what they had been under Charles I back in England.

During and after the English Civil War (1642-1651), the Religious Society of Friends, known more commonly as Quakers, emerged in England as an offshoot of Puritanism and spread rapidly to the New World. In England, George Fox, the most prominent Quaker leader, taught that every person had the seed of Christ or a true “light” within, and that if one listened to and respected this “inward light,” he or she would go to heaven, contradicting the Puritan idea that only a few select people, chosen before the creation of the world, could achieve eternal salvation. Fox believed scripture was not the only or even the principal way of knowing God, that inner revelation could be truer than the Bible. Further, Quakers opposed war, believed in the equality of all people—including women and people of color, a unique characteristic within Christianity at the time—tolerance, and fairness toward all others, and were encouraged to live a simple, spartan, disciplined existence. Clearly, there was the potential for a clash between Puritans and Quakers in the New World. In fact, given the strong beliefs of both, it was inevitable.

The Quakers were hardly unobtrusive. John Higginson (1616-1708), Salem’s minister, had put into the covenant of the Puritan Church that the “Quaker Light” was “a stinking vapour from hell.” Quakers believed that “one did not need the preachings of a learned, salaried ministry to cultivate the Light and be saved.” But in “cultivating the Light,” they employed methods that horrified the Puritans. The Salem Quaker group was never large. It met in secret in the woods on the west side of town, where visiting missionaries were brought in to preach. Avowed Quakers were repeatedly fined for not attending the established church meetings, and some were banished. Four Quaker visitors from England were hanged in Boston. Finally, when Charles II ascended the English throne in 1689, he was so offended by the reports of persecution of Quakers in New England, the Act of Toleration was issued and an order given forbidding the killing of Quakers. Yet the sect continued to outrage many colonists, and crippling fines, beatings, and imprisonment of its most outspoken proponents resulted.

This was the world in which my early ancestors lived. The Buffums, Southwicks, Birdsalls, Murphys, Gisweins (and probably others) nearly always found themselves in opposition to the establishment, and this opposition prompted them to leave their homes and seek opportunity and freedom from persecution elsewhere. Perhaps the only exceptions were my Crawford/Peers ancestors, who did not suffer religious persecution, remained loyal to the English Crown, but, after the American Revolution, were forced to flee to Nova Scotia as the penalty for being on the losing side.

Meeting Daddy

I was never an orphan, not even a half-orphan, but until I was five, I remember only Mommy and a photograph she called Daddy. That silver-framed photograph sat on a nightstand in the bedroom I shared with my older sister, Eleanor, in a small, stucco-clad bungalow on Spaulding Avenue in Berkeley, California. Sometimes Mommy told us stories about Daddy, about how he was in the Army and was far away across the ocean doing a very important job in the war in the Philippines. I asked a million questions about where is the Philippines and how did Daddy get there and what is a war and what were its jobs and why did Daddy have to have a job so far away and why didn’t he send me a bike for Christmas. Sometimes Mommy tried, but after three or four answers, she usually ended up by saying, “I don’t know, Trish. I just don’t know.” Other times, she just turned away and blew her nose in her Kleenex.

I had stared at that photograph of Daddy so long and so hard that I didn’t really have to look at it anymore, I knew it in my head. But knowing it and having a real daddy weren’t the same thing. The Bradley kids next door had a real daddy who came home from his job every afternoon and played with them and kissed them and told them to eat their spinach and bought bicycles for them. My daddy was different. In my head, I tried talking to him, but he would only smile his same little smile from the photograph and wouldn’t say a word, not even my name. I didn’t know if his voice was high and squeaky or deep and scary or soft and sweet. Sometimes in my head I tried to get on his lap and snuggle up close to see what he smelled like or if his chin was scratchy like Mr. Bradley’s was on Sundays. I tried really hard, but I just couldn’t feel him and I couldn’t smell him and I couldn’t hear him. In some ways, I felt like an orphan, or at least a half orphan.

Most nights, before she tucked us into our beds, Mommy listened as we recited a little prayer that always ended with: “Please, God, bless our daddy and bring him home safely to us.” I had memorized all the words perfectly, but they meant little to me, no more than “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are….” I’d never heard the term “missing in action, presumed dead.” Even if I had, it’s doubtful I would have fully understood its meaning.

In 1943 and 1944, during the middle years of World War II, our lives on Spaulding Avenue were predictable. Before dawn, every morning except Sunday, Mommy turned on the light in our room and shook us awake. We had to dress ourselves and we were always in a hurry. Eleanor knew what she was doing, but I often put things on backwards, and sometimes my colors clashed. My favorite outfit was a pair of red-striped seersucker overalls under a bright yellow dress, with a pink cardigan sweater on top to keep warm.

“That doesn’t match,” Eleanor said, her voice snotty and condescending.

“Does, too!”

“Does not! Red doesn’t match with pink. Mommy said so.”

“Does, too,” I replied, raising my voice half an octave.

“If you don’t change that sweater, I won’t tie your shoes!”

“I don’t care. I can do it myself.”

But I couldn’t and she knew it. I had one pair of shoes, white high-tops with laces all the way up. I was trying to learn. I knew how to shape one lace into a loop and hold it between my right thumb and pointing finger, but the next step stumped me. My left hand kept forgetting which way to wrap the other lace around, and pretty soon my right hand would drop the loop and I’d be right back where I started.

“You girls hurry up and get out here,” Mommy called from the kitchen. “Your oatmeal is getting cold.”

Eleanor tossed her curly hair and flounced toward the kitchen. I stuck my tongue out at her back, shoved my stocking feet into my shoes, and shuffled to the kitchen, laces dragging.

“Eleanor, honey, would you be a good girl and help Trisha tie her shoes?”

“Yes, Mommy,” Eleanor replied in her best mommy’s-little-helper voice. Then, with a big smirk on her face, she knelt down and tied my shoes. She was a big girl, and I was nothing but a baby who couldn’t figure out how to tie a bow.

Not content with one win, Eleanor added, “Trisha has on her pink sweater with her red-striped overalls. I told her not to, but she wouldn’t—”

“Stop it, you two! We don’t have time for that nonsense! Finish your breakfast and get your teeth brushed or we’ll be late again.”

If it was spring or summer, we had Cheerios or Rice Krispies with sliced banana on top, but in the wintertime we always had oatmeal with raisins. As we ate, Mommy brushed Eleanor’s curly hair and twisted her top hair into a knot. Sometimes she braided the sides into pigtails. I didn’t have enough hair for pigtails. Mine was blonde and very fine, and Mommy said it had a mind of its own because it mostly stuck straight out. Even with water, it wouldn’t stay smoothed down for long, so Mommy kept it cut short all around—a Dutch bob, she called it—with bangs trimmed straight across my forehead.

The reason I only had one pair of shoes was because they were rationed. I liked that word ration, the way it whooshed out between my top and bottom teeth. I’d repeat it over and over: ration, ration, ration. But I didn’t really understand why Mommy had to stop at the post office every week to sign for a little paper book that had rows of coupons in it that were torn out whenever you bought anything at the store. Well, a lot of things, anyway. Kids’ shoes were rationed. You only got enough coupons to buy one new pair for each kid every six months. Even if you wore holes in the toes, you weren’t allowed to get a new pair ahead of time. Mommy said our government needed all the leather it could get to make combat boots for the soldiers away in the Philippines fighting the war.

“Why don’t they just make more leather?” I wanted to know.

“It’s complicated, honey. Leather is made from cow skins, but our milk also comes from cows, so they can’t go around killing all the cows to get their skins or we wouldn’t have any milk.”

I didn’t like hearing about killing cows to get their skins. “Maybe I’ll just go barefoot when my shoes wear out.”

“You can’t do that. You’d freeze your feet off in winter.”

“Would not!”

“Would so!” Eleanor nearly always got the last word.

Around seven-thirty, Mommy dropped us off at a child-care center just over a mile away. Dozens of other kids got dropped off too, from babies all the way up to six-year-olds, because just about everyone’s mommy had a job. The kids were divided into three groups: the babies; the two-, three-, and four-year-olds; and then the older ones. Each group had its own room and its own uniformed ladies in charge.

Eleanor was five, so she crossed the playground with the other five-year-olds for morning kindergarten from nine until noon at Washington Elementary before returning to the child-care to eat lunch and spend the afternoon in the big kids’ room. They had real schoolwork in the afternoons, like practicing their numbers or reciting the alphabet or singing songs like “God Bless America” and “Yankee Doodle.” They had jars of paint and brushes and a big easel and could paint anything they wanted.

How I wished I could be in that room! I already knew my numbers all the way to a hundred, and could say most of the alphabet too, as long as I sang it: Aye-bee-cee-dee-e-eff-gee, aitch-eye-jay-kay-ellemeno-pee…. But I had to stay in the room with the little kids. I spent ten hours there every day except Sunday. My group had wooden alphabet blocks in a wagon, a bunch of hard-cover picture books, and coloring books and crayons, but most of our stuff was just dumb baby toys.

The best part of the day was recess. The child-care had its own playground, with swings, a slide, monkey bars not as high as the ones on the regular playground, and a merry-go-round. The merry-go-round was just a flat, round, wooden platform with a circle bar in the center for the riders to hold onto and another circle bar on the outside for the pushers to grab and run alongside and push as hard as they could to make it go fast. I liked the merry-go-round, but I never rode it when we first got there in the morning because it made me dizzy and my oatmeal would try to come back up.

I liked the monkey bars best. The girls who just wore dresses wouldn’t go on the monkey bars at all because they were afraid a boy might see their underpants. You know, boys were always trying to look under girls’ dresses and see their underpants. A few girls who wore overalls under their dresses climbed up and swung from the bars by their hands, but they were afraid to hang by their knees. Not me. I always wore overalls under my dress at the child-care, and I had big blisters on my palms from swinging from one end of the bars to the other just as fast as I could. And I could hang by my knees too, just as well as any of the boys. Mommy said she thought I must be half monkey.

The charge ladies in the little kids’ room made us take naps on the floor after lunch every day. We each had a cubby to keep our nap rugs in. Mine was a red-and-pink-and-yellow rag rug that Mommy let me pick out at the dime store on University Avenue. It had some black in it too. I thought the colors were perfect all woven together, not clashing at all. At naptime, I always spread my rug in the corner where I could face the wall. You see, I had a problem.

Sucking my thumb was a big problem. I always sucked my right thumb and twirled a lock of hair on the top of my head with my left hand. I was ashamed of doing it because it was such a baby thing, but I just couldn’t stop. Mommy nagged me, Eleanor nagged me, and even Grammy nagged me: “If you don’t stop that, your front teeth will stick out like a gopher’s!” Mommy tried painting awful-tasting stuff on my thumb just before bedtime, but that didn’t help much. The bad taste in my mouth only lasted a few minutes. I tried wearing a mitten to bed, but that didn’t help either. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I’d just pull it off. Sometimes Mommy even put a Band-Aid around my thumb. In the morning, my thumb was right back in my mouth and the Band-Aid was on the floor. I just couldn’t go to sleep without my thumb.

The child-care center was the worst. If Cynthia Ellerby caught me with my thumb in my mouth, she’d yell, “Patricia is sucking her thumb!” and in a flash every other kid would chime in and make fun of me too: “Patricia is a baby, baby, baby, thumb-sucking baby!”

The lady in charge was just as bad. “Now, Patricia, you take thumb out of your mouth. Don’t you know your thumb is covered with germs and it’s going to make you sick?” Once when I was taking my nap on my rag rug in the corner, she snuck up on me, bent down, and yanked my thumb right out of my mouth and held onto it tight while she told me again what a nasty habit it was. I got so mad that I grabbed her other hand with my left one and bit her middle finger as hard as I could. That got me a spanking, one at school and a harder one with a coat hanger from Mommy after I got home. The spankings made me cry, but they didn’t break my habit.

I have to tell you about Cynthia Ellerby. She was two months older than me, and I hated her. She was my emeny. On her first day at the child-care, when the lady in charge introduced her to us as Cindy, she stamped her foot and announced, “My name is Cynthia, not Cindy. You can call me Cyntha, but not Cindy. My mother says Cindy is a common name and you’re not to call me that!” I don’t remember exactly when I started hating her, but probably it was that very first day. She was one of those girls you knew right away you weren’t going to like.

Cynthia was an only child. She lived with a real daddy and her mommy and a grandmother who sewed all her dresses, the prettiest dresses you ever saw, with ruffles and lace or rickrack trim on the skirts and collars and sleeves, just like princess dresses. Cynthia never, ever wore overalls. She also had pink cheeks, creamy  white skin, and shiny, dark curly hair down to her shoulders. She wore it pulled back and up on the sides, held in place by pairs of barrettes to match each dress.

And Cynthia didn’t chew her fingernails right down to the quick like I did. Hers were always nice and smooth and painted pale, pale pink. She had a dainty gold ring with a tiny pink stone that she’d gotten for her birthday in June. She was always stretching out her fingers to show it off. “It’s my birthstone, a real amethyst,” she’d say. “That’s nice, Cindy,” I’d mutter under my breath. I always called her “Cindy” in a voice she could barely hear because it was a common name and I knew she hated it and she was my emeny.

At recess Cynthia never went on the monkey bars or the merry-go-round but instead went straight for the swings. If she wasn’t on the swings, she played hopscotch or a skipping game called “Duck, Duck, Goose” with the big girls. I loved that game, but I never played it at the child-care because I could only skip on one foot, not like Cynthia and the others, who could skip on both feet.

The worst thing about Cynthia, though, was that she watched me like a hawk, just waiting to catch me with my thumb in my mouth. Then she’d march up to the charge lady and tell: “Patricia is sucking her thumb again just like a baby.”

Mommy worked six days a week as a clerk in the Intelligence and Public Relations Division at Oakland Army Base, and she didn’t pick us up until five-thirty. Twice each week, Mondays and Thursdays, she had to work until ten at night. On those days Aunt Lucille, Mommy’s youngest sister, picked us up at child-care after her last class at University High. Aunt Lucille was sixteen, I think. She walked from her school to the child-care and then walked us home to Spaulding Avenue, where she’s play with us, feed us dinner, supervise our baths, and get us ready for bed. Because she didn’t have to do any washing or ironing or housecleaning after dinner—Mommy always did all that stuff at night—Aunt Lucille read us at least six stories before turning out the lights. On those nights, we didn’t have to say any prayers.

Our lives were busy and had schedules, but we weren’t sad or bored. We had Rusty, a mischievous cocker spaniel whose favorite pastime was chasing cars or cats. We also had a black-and-white cat named Mittens that sometimes got kittens in her tummy and squeezed them out in the middle of the night under the stacked boxes in the musty garage at the back of our lot.

Rusty had to stay alone in the backyard every day except Sunday, but he came in the house at night. If we didn’t let him in, he’d howl and wouldn’t stop. He wasn’t allowed to sleep on our beds because sometimes he had a few fleas. But just like my thumb found its way into my mouth when no one was awake to see, Rusty found his way up onto my bed every night after everyone was asleep. He’d jump up at the bottom, then wriggle forward until he had his head right on my pillow, where I could burrow my face in his fur. He felt warm and soft and smelled s-o-o-o-o good—kind of like the insides of my shoes. He didn’t give a fig if I sucked my thumb, and I didn’t care one bit about a few fleabites. I loved him with my whole heart.

On Spaulding Avenue there were plenty of kids to play with, including our cousins, Margie and Brycie, who lived with their mommy, Aunt Charlotte—Mommy’s other younger sister—in a tiny house behind the Bradleys’, next to the garage at the end of the driveway. Their daddy, our Uncle Bryce, was away in the Army in the Philippines too.

The Bradleys and their kids—Mike, Kate, and Jay—lived next door, on the other side of our shared driveway. Mr. Bradley owned a drugstore, so he didn’t have to be in the war. That was just fine with me because sometimes, as a special treat, we got to drive to the drugstore for milkshakes or sundaes. Bradley’s Claremont Pharmacy was on Domingo Avenue, right across the street from the fancy white Claremont Hotel and Tennis Club in the Berkeley hills. I’d never set foot inside the Claremont—and I certainly didn’t know how to play tennis—but I remember hearing Mommy and Grammy talk about it. Mommy had played tennis there sometimes when she was a student at the University of California, long before her marriage, before her babies, before the Japs became our emenies, and before our daddy had to go across the Pacific Ocean to do a very important job in World War II in the Philippines.

Inside Bradley’s Pharmacy, right next to the cash register, a row of clear glass jars held red and black licorice ropes, yellow lemon drops, chocolate-covered raisins, cinnamon red hots, and just about every other good thing you could think of. If you had a penny, you could buy a handful. If you had a nickel, you could buy a whole bag. At the soda fountain, we sat on silver stools, their seats upholstered in navy blue, mottled plastic. The stools weren’t really silver, but I had a hard time with the word a-loo-mi-num. If you pushed off from the edge of the counter, the stools would spin. Once I got my stool to go around four times before it stopped. At Bradley’s, I always ordered a chocolate sundae with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Sometimes Mr. Bradley even gave me two cherries. He never made us pay for anything. The Bradleys were our best friends.

Pictured left to right: Our cousin Margie Brooks, me, our cousin Brycie Brooks, Eleanor (minus her two front teeth), and Kate Bradley.

Most of the kids on our block helped in the war. Eleanor took a dime to school every week to buy a red stamp to paste in our War Bond book. When the book was full—it took 187 stamps to fill all the pages; then you added a nickel in a slot at the back to make a total of $18.75—Mommy exchanged it for a $25 War Bond. I had no idea how a paper book full of red stamps or even a War Bond would help win the war, but Mommy always let me lick the stamp and stick it on the page, so it must have been important.

An older boy at the other end of our block had a red Radio Flyer wagon, the biggest model you could buy, and every once in a while a pack of us would go door to door up and down Spaulding Avenue, collecting paper or anything made of metal: tin cans, wire coat hangers, broken tools, rusty muffin tins, strainers, anything at all made of metal. When we collected enough to fill up his daddy’s pickup truck, his daddy would take all that junk somewhere to help win the war. Just like the stamps, I never could figure it out. His daddy said our boys needed tanks and airplanes, but I didn’t see how they could make a tank or an airplane from a coat hanger or an empty tin can. Anyway, I cared less about winning the war than about being part of the gang on Spaulding Avenue.

One weekday morning in early December 1944, when I was four, a catastrophe happened at our house. Across the end wall in the breakfast room—really just an extension of the kitchen—a built-in wood cabinet filled the space between the floor and the sill of the window that faced the Bradleys’ kitchen window on the other side of the driveway. Our new dial telephone sat on top of the cabinet, not far from a dime store glass bowl, home to two fish named Goldie and Fin.

That particular morning, Eleanor and I were eating our oatmeal-with-raisins at the table when the phone rang. Mommy, exasperated because we were in a hurry, picked up the receiver, put it to her ear, and snapped, “Hello?” She didn’t say another word, but after several moments, she collapsed on the floor in a heap, the phone cord upsetting the fish bowl as she went down. The bowl remained on its side on top of the cabinet and didn’t break, but gunky water, pink aquarium gravel, and greenish water plants sloshed all over the floor, where Goldie and Fin flipped and flopped about in the mess.

Eleanor sprang into action. She raced out the kitchen door, down the back steps, and across the driveway to the Bradleys’, screaming all the way, “The fish are dying! The fish are dying! The fish are dying!” Jayne Bradley didn’t ask questions. She hurried after Eleanor back across the driveway, up the steps, and into our kitchen, where she discovered that not only were the fish gasping for air, but her close friend and neighbor, Lillian, was lying on the floor, just regaining consciousness. The receiver dangled by its cord, emitting the piercing beep-beep-beep-beep that meant an interrupted conversation.

Jayne grabbed the fish bowl, added a few inches of water, then scooped Goldie and Fin back in, putting an end to Eleanor’s and my wailing. Next she dipped a dish towel in cold water and knelt down beside Mommy, who by now had pulled herself up to a sitting position and was slumped against the wall. As Jayne held the wet towel to Mommy’s forehead and cheeks, she asked, “What is it? What’s happened, Lil? Is it your mother?”

Still dazed and disoriented, Mommy blurted, “Art is alive!”

“What? He’s alive? How? Where is he?”

“That was Western Union. They read a telegram from the War Department. Art is alive in the Philippines. They’re sending a letter.”

Jayne burst into tears, threw her arms around Mommy, and the two of them wept together as Eleanor and I stared, bewildered about the need for all this crying now that Goldie and Fin were saved.

Finally Mommy turned to us and held out her arms. Wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of one hand, she gathered us close and said softly, “My darlings, our prayers have been answered. Your daddy is alive, and soon he’ll be coming back to us.”

“Tomorrow?” I asked. “Is he coming tomorrow?”

“No, honey, not tomorrow, but soon.”

But it wasn’t soon. It didn’t happen for another nine months. In the meantime, Mommy and Daddy wrote letters to each other to tell about what they’d been doing during all those years while Daddy was missing in action and presumed dead. Mommy sent him pictures of us, taken at different ages, but for a long time he couldn’t send any back because he didn’t have a camera.

Once Mommy read part of a letter to us so we’d know what was going on with the guerrillas in the war in the Philippines. Eleanor listened intently, but I started to laugh and kept laughing until tears came out of my eyes. I could just picture in my head a whole bunch of huge black gorillas carrying guns and chasing the Japs up and down mountains and my daddy being the leader and riding in a tank and yelling for the gorillas to hurry up and shoot all the Japs.

“What’s so funny?” Mommy asked.

“Gorillas,” I said.

“What’s so funny about guerrillas?”

“I know about gorillas ’cause they’re in a book we have at school about Africa—”

“Oh, no, no, no, sweetie. Not gorillas. Guerrillas. It sounds almost the same, but they’re two different words. Daddy doesn’t mean gorillas like the ones in Africa. He’s talking about the thousands of native Filipinos who formed a big army up in the mountains of North Luzon and fought as hard as they could against the Japanese who had invaded their country and were trying to turn all the Filipinos into their slaves. But for a long time the guerrillas didn’t have enough guns or bullets, and the Japanese killed them by the thousands.”

“Are all the guerrillas dead now?”

“No, not all of them. But many thousands have been killed. General Douglas MacArthur and our American Army arrived just in time to help them defeat the Japanese. And now the job is almost done.”

“Oh.”

Mommy resigned from her job at Oakland Army Base on July 15, 1945, telling the Army she needed to get ready for her husband’s homecoming in late September.

She and Aunt Charlotte repainted the whole inside of our house on Spaulding Avenue. I remember that because Eleanor and I got to choose the color for our bedroom—pink, of course—and then we were allowed to paint the inside of the closet all by ourselves, up as far as we could reach.

Mommy pulled the weeds in our yard and planted bright red geraniums in the bed below the front window and in flowerpots on the porch. Those geraniums were the brightest red you could imagine, and I wished right away I had a dress that very same color, or at least some seersucker overalls. I remember a flurry of clothes shopping, but we couldn’t find a red dress, so I had to settle for a blue one.

Mommy made a trip to the beauty shop and got a permanent wave, but she went back to an older hairstyle because, she said, it had always been Daddy’s favorite.

Finally, the news came. Daddy sent a telegram saying the work of the war was nearly finished, and he was ready to come home. After a stopover in Hawaii, he would land at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco at 10 a.m. on Monday, September 17.

By Sunday evening, everything was ready. The house was spick and span, we were all bathed, and our new clothes were laid out. Mommy tucked us in at our usual bedtime, around seven-thirty, and Eleanor fell into a deep sleep. I slept for a while but then woke up again. Seeing a light on in the living room, I went to investigate.

Mommy was sitting on the couch, her legs curled up beneath a brightly colored afghan, her white chenille bathrobe pulled snug around her shoulders. Her pin curls were covered with a yellow string hairnet that kept the bobby pins from falling out. In her lap lay an open magazine, but she wasn’t reading, only picking at a freshly manicured nail, deep in thought. She looked up. “What’s the matter, honey?” she asked.

“I woke up, Mommy.  What are you doing out here?”

“I couldn’t sleep either. I guess I’m just too excited.”

She lifted up the corner of the afghan and patted the couch beside her. Relieved at not being sent back to bed, I snuggled up close as she described again our itinerary for the next morning. We would get up early, just like on a school day, dress in our new clothes, have a quick breakfast, and then drive up to Travis in plenty of time to be there before nine.

“Can Rusty go? Please, Mommy, please?”

“No, not this time. I don’t know how much luggage Daddy will have. It might not fit in the trunk, and some might have to go in the back seat with you girls. Daddy can meet Rusty after we get home.”

“What does Daddy look like?”

“Well, honey, he used to look like the picture on the nightstand next to your bed. I thought he was the handsomest man in the world. I’m not sure how he looks now, but I’m sure he’s still very handsome. Remember, he’s been away in the Philippines for nearly five years, ever since you were a little baby.”

“Did he kill all the Japs and so now he can come home?”

“I don’t know about killing all the Japs, Trish, but the war is finally over, so now he can come home.”

I guess I must have fallen back to sleep there on the couch—I don’t remember—but sometime after midnight, I was startled awake by a loud banging on the front door. Mommy jumped too.

“Who is it?” she asked, frozen in place, her voice quivering.

“Colonel Arthur Philip Murphy!”

Still Mommy didn’t move. She just sat there, uncomprehending.

The big, booming voice continued: “I got an earlier flight out of Hawaii and then caught a cab. Let me in!

With that, Mommy jumped up and rushed to unlock the door. In barged a tall Army man dressed in a rumpled khaki uniform and big black boots. He dropped his duffel bag on the floor, and Mommy threw herself into his arms. There was a bunch of hugging and kissing, and some crying too.

After a bit, Mommy turned and led him over to the couch, where I still huddled under the afghan, my thumb in my mouth, my eyes as big as a lemur’s. “Trish, honey, this is your daddy. Can you say hello?”

I took my thumb out of my mouth and wiped it on my pajamas. “Hello, Daddy,” I said, holding out my hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.” Very polite, just as I’d been taught.

At first he took my hand and gave it a gentle shake. Then he broke into a big grin. He reached down, swept me up into his arms, and planted a big kiss right on my face. “I’m pleased to meet you too,” he said.