all of the selves we Have ever been
Fill Me Up With Ethel
Mirth is God’s medicine. –Henry Ward Beecher
After I posted my last blog, Grease on Earth, a friend wrote to share her memory of the family-owned gas station in the neighborhood of her youth. She reminded me that we once called those places “filling stations.”
I remember my dad pulling our well-traveled Rambler station wagon up to the pump of our filling station, cranking the window down, and saying to the attendant, “Fill ‘er up with Ethyl.”
As a young child, I found that confusing. The only Ethel I knew was Ethel Mertz, Lucille Ball’s partner in crime and at least 50% of the reason that we all loved Lucy. I can recall my still-developing mind turning over that word “ethyl,” and trying to dispel the confusion. It did not compute. Concrete operations of thought made homophones a problem, one that can still bewilder me even at my advanced age. By the time I figured out the distinction between ethyl and Ethel, I was pumping my own gas, and it was unleaded.
But once upon a time, I was willing to accept that at the filling station we got gas and filled our car with Ethel, or at least her hilarious qualities. Mirth was much needed for the long drives to my grandmother’s house or across the country when my father deployed. Filling up with good humor can take you a long way and keep you from being tossed out of the car in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Today, I pump my own gas at the local BP station, but it is inside where I fill up. And I am not talking convenience store junk food. When I walk inside my local BP station, I feel like I have entered Cheers, that famous Boston bar operated by Sam Malone and frequented by Cliff and Norm. My mind wanders to the episode in which Norm enters the bar and Cliff calls out, “Hey, there Nahmy, what’s shakin’?” Norm replies, “Four cheeks and a couple of chins.” My heart fills with mirth. In this urban BP station, everybody knows my name. And I know what's shakin'--their long-distance girlfriends, health issues, roommates, and staff holiday parties. We exchange more than money. I know their names, too.
In our increasingly individualistic, technology-obsessed world, we still need places where everybody knows our names and something about us, places where we can share a laugh. Mirth is another kind of grease that keeps the wheels of life turning and the valves of our hearts pumping. Friendship has always been my filling station. Some friendships are new or casual. Others reflect a lifetime of loyalty and shenanigans. In every case, they are lead-free, but high octane still.
Alloftheselves.com became my filling station during the COVID pandemic when the doors to the world closed. You, my dear readers, filled me up during that long dry spell. I take you with me now on my new journey through breast cancer. I hope you find on these pages some mirth that fills you up, too!
Grease on Earth
Short of breath from the summer’s
lung-searing heat, I collapsed in my car after a short walk across the parking lot. I heard the flesh on my palms sizzle as I grabbed the steering wheel. Cranking up the air conditioning, I got on my way just as the radio announced it was time for the news. The local stories included an update on record-setting gun violence with multiple homicides, police shootings, politicians defying orders of the State Supreme Court, the Governor’s decision to arm teachers in public schools, teenage car thieves as young as 12, and two men cheating in order to win a fishing contest!
“Siri, am I in Hell?”
“It’s all a mystery to me.”
“Thanks a lot, Siri.”
I was on my own.
I changed radio stations, and then I changed lanes. Just off the busy interstate highway tucked between a rundown gym and a new gas station, I spotted heaven, a single-story building where the air is free. For the uninformed, heaven has many doors. You are in luck no matter which door you choose. You will come out feeling better and more grateful than when you went in assured that your car and your mind will make it a few thousand miles more.
When I was learning to drive, neighborhood gas stations still existed. These were places with tiny, dingy, cluttered offices piled high with grease-stained stacks of papers. Adjacent to the office was a single bay for repairing cars. An attendant came out to pump your gas, clean your windshield, and check the oil. Teenage boys helped out in the summers, but it was mostly the owner doing everything. Jack ran the Boron station in my neck of the woods. It was across the street from the grocery store. Jack was the neighborhood car daddy to anxious teens learning to drive. He solved some problems for a few of the overly-confident new drivers as well, and sometimes their parents were none the wiser.
I did get a driver’s license as a teen, but after years of driving, things changed--drivers were on their own to pump gas, diagnose their cars’ troubles, and find help in an emergency. This caused a rise in vehicular neurosis, that constant nagging fear that something will go wrong with your car at the most inopportune time and place. By the time I was a professional making home visits for a living, my own vehicular neurosis was at its peak. That’s when I discovered this heaven. Thankfully, said discovery was made just before the tire pressure light became standard.
This new heaven is a place where people fix cars and offer life support to keep them running. That alone makes these people gods in my book. In this heaven, there is actual customer service where you can speak to a live person, get answers, understand your bill, and make an appointment that is convenient. The main act here is honesty combined with courtesy toward their many new and lifetime customers. It was in this heaven that I received an extra measure of grace: the manager and assistant manager, Steve and Jim, became car daddies to my teenage daughter as she learned to drive. How blessed can a single mom be?
A far cry from the old neighborhood garage of my youth, this heaven has multiple bays. When one of the doors opens, my eyes are blinded by the well-lit, pristine shop that could substitute for a surgical suite at the Mayo Clinic. The people inside wear clean uniforms and manipulate the many high-tech instruments that now diagnose the functioning of our automobiles. Enter through the front of the building, and you will find a spacious, well-lit waiting area where travel experts are on standby to help you plan your next vacation.
Interested? Don’t ask Siri. Artificial intelligence is missing wonder, heart, and conscience, all necessary for an understanding of heaven and hell. But do Google AAA Car Care Plus Grandview. You can get there on your own, or they can send an angel to tow you in.
In the meantime, remember to change your oil. For that heavenly peace of mind, you must grease on earth.
I arrive for my appointment to get measured and marked for the start of 16 sessions of radiation therapy. The busy scheduler apologizes for the crazy schedule as she tries to find a consistent time of day for my appointments, appointments that will span four weeks from start to finish if all goes well.
“Do you have far to travel,” she asks me.
I am aware that people drive hours each way every day to get their treatments in this world class treatment facility. “I live three miles from here; schedule me at your convenience and the convenience of those who have to travel.”
In the treatment changing room, I don a lavender gown and take a seat in the waiting area where I sit with other women in matching lavender gowns. We each wait for our name to be called. Some days, things go smoothly. Other days, things happen like the air conditioner breaking down in a treatment room. The schedule backs up. The staff is so apologetic, kind, and hardworking that no one would consider complaining.
Some of the women wait in silence. Others stare into their phones or up at the television screen, a few feel compelled to share their stories; they are containers about to burst. Their trauma needs to be revisited. The re-telling helps to break through the shock and disbelief, and it helps to make it manageable. The only similarity among us is the matching gowns. Each cancer story is different. Each story re-defines bravery: the misdiagnoses, the years of treatment and recovery, crossing the finish line at the ten year mark only to have the cancer return in the bones seven weeks later, women holding down demanding jobs, mothers trying not to frighten their children, expectant women trying to keep their hopes up as they navigate breast cancer and pregnancy at the same time.
I sit across from a young woman. I see her bald head and tired eyes, and my heart fills with grief for her. I think of my own daughter about the same age. And I think this woman is someone else’s daughter. And I think that she is too young for this. I want to open some tap in my own body and fill a cup with the good health I have enjoyed. I want to give it to her and say, “Drink.”
The women come and go from the waiting room. In quick exchanges they share their fears of losing jobs, and not just their livelihoods, but their precious health insurance. They continue to mask up while the rest of the world breathes freely. COVID will never be over for them.
There is a loneliness in the experience of illness that cannot be understood except by a fellow traveler. It does not matter how many people love you. It does not matter how much support you have. There are stops on the road where others can wait, but they cannot go into the dark and frightening spaces they don’t know exist. They can only carry the load and stay with the pain for so long.
Family and friends remain optimistic. Often they don’t want to hear about that which is hard. Treatment professionals are quick to diagnose “depression,” when, in fact, it is coping. Others cannot stay awake to the pain and fear for as long as the patient must. And, to be fair, they cannot. That is what makes these moments in the waiting room so precious. Perhaps someone receives a gift on the day the air conditioner breaks down.
And yet, with all of this said, it is a cheerful group of women with more to share than their woes. There are grandchildren and great-grandchildren, travel and restaurants, birthdays and anniversaries. We all come here for the hope--the hope offered by treatment, and the hope in each story. In this place we can relax with the truth without judgment or self-consciousness. In this group I am grateful for the health I have, for my strength, for the optimistic outlook for my own disease, and for the people and resources in this remarkable treatment center.
I reflect on the beams of light that will penetrate each of us who come to this waiting room. I think of the human genius that harnessed the power of the sun to cure cancer. And I think of The One who said, “Let there be light,” and made order out of the chaos. It is the same One who made man, and seeing that man was lonely, He made the rest of us.
We are the cure. We were made for each other. If only we could remember this in both sickness and in health, that would be paradise.
A Distinguished Gentleman
As I sat in the dentist’s waiting room, another patient arrived and took the seat across from mine. We both heard someone in the back say, “Barbara is here,” and she laughed.
“You must be important,” I said. This got Barbara laughing again and reflecting on her eight-year-old great-nephew scheduled to be in an upcoming family wedding. Recently, her nephew tried on the tuxedo he would wear to the event. He looked at himself in the mirror and said, “I look like a distinguished gentleman.”
Barbara delighted in describing her precocious great-nephew. I, too, love the earnestness of children, and I pictured the boy staring at himself in the mirror with his eyes full of pride and his heart filled with dreams.
I waited for my own appointment dressed in amazement--amazed that there is still a child living in this crazy world today who believes that distinguished gentlemen exist! I thought the species had become extinct. I urgently wanted to find the young man to encourage this desire in him and to provide some advice before the world twists his noble ambitions.
If only clothes could make the man, a massive wardrobe change would be in order. I wanted to warn this sweet child that it is not by the treasure of a man’s closet that he distinguishes himself. No, a man distinguishes himself by the treasure of his heart.
Just this week more children and school staff were gunned down inside a grade school. An elected Nashville representative said there is nothing that can be done. A helpless elected official who homeschools his own children and leaves the others to perish does not distinguish himself as leader no matter what he is wearing; he reduces himself to an unwitting accomplice in the next school shooting. Do these words truly reflect the treasure of this man’s heart?
I cannot bear another helpless round of “thoughts and prayers.” It is time for examination. Let us not become a culture extinguished by guns and violence. Let us be a people distinguished by the good treasure of our hearts. Let our words and actions reflect the treasures we value. Surely, our children are among them.
“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” - Luke 6:45
"You don’t know how lucky you are to be loved,” Meg said in a startled way, “I guess I never thought of that. I guess I just took it for granted.” – A Wrinkle in Time
We didn’t know it then, but it would be the last time we would all be together in this common joy, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandchildren, great-nieces, and great-nephews. It was a reunion engineered by Cousin Marcia. “Just cuz," she said.
We came from far and near toting car seats into the home where once we had been carried as babies ourselves. Familiar voices slipped out of the house and onto the front porch as soon as the door swung open. Inside, the table overflowed with favorite foods that smelled of home, prepared from cherished family recipes passed down for generations. With every seat in the room already taken, our bottoms rested on the upholstered arms of chairs even as our own arms clung to the shoulders of people we had loved for a lifetime. Out on the basketball court, just beyond the kitchen door, Cousin Tom lifted petite second-cousin Elizabeth onto his shoulders so she could dunk a basketball.
In this home, we first cousins were simultaneously young and old—children and grown-ups. If the walls could talk, they would remember each of us. Somewhere in this precious place, our childhood shadows were stuffed into drawers awaiting our returns.
Here, now, our children sat on the same porch steps, ran down the same long driveway, slammed the same doors, marveled at the same tiny bathroom under the stairs. As my own children were being stirred into this love cocktail, my eyes surveyed the property that had once been a fantasy island: the built in-swimming pool, a pasture where a horse had grazed, a play house, a basketball hoop, a tennis court. The ghost of a sleepy Lassie dog rested on the warm asphalt taking it all in too. Inside the house, books lined the living room shelves and a piano occupied the space in front of the window. This place had been our personal Magic Kingdom where every childhood interest had been encouraged.
“…the joy and love were so tangible that Meg felt that if she only knew where to reach
she could touch it with her bare hands.” – A Wrinkle in Time
Through the archway I saw into the family room where my mother sat illuminated by sunlight and memory. The brilliant and beloved youngest of my grandmother’s many children, mom had a rare moment to be the center of attention. A new generation became her enraptured audience hanging on to her every word.
This home belonged to our adored Uncle John and his wife, Aunt Janet. Kind and unshakeable, generous, and a lover of gadgets and emerging technology, if he bought one new item, Uncle John bought nine—one for himself and one for each of his sisters and his brother. Aunt Janet never complained. The latest miracle invention revealed on this Cousin Reunion Day was the hot air popcorn popper. Even as the sun began to set, fluffy, fresh popped kernels rose from the machine’s spout, but even magical popcorn could not make the day last forever. We loaded our cars in preparation for our departures, each of us believing that there would be more popcorn on a future day, that this was the first of many cousin reunions to come. We strapped ourselves and our children inside the vehicles that would rocket us to our homes in distant galaxies and far from this star where all of our lives began.
As we pulled away, Cousin Tom stood in the driveway holding a sign: “Does anyone have to tinkle?” We left laughing at this reminder of Aunt Gen’s frequent and famous last words, a necessary question in an extended family where as many as 21 nieces and nephews might be traveling in a single pack.
Of course, we had all tinkled! It was a life lesson not eliminated but retained, a lesson written in a family language for words too impolite to shout in public, a tutorial on self-care, being prepared, and showing consideration for others.
As the procession of cars inched down the driveway, we looked back at this place that had been our sun. We each had journeyed through space and time on many a quest. Sometimes we returned to celebrate, other times, we returned to console. And then the demands of life grew along with our families. We never reconvened for another cousin reunion. Now, I ask myself, “Where did the years go?”
It was all just a tinkle in time.
On Bagels and Blessings
“Keep looking where the light pours in.”
Morgan Harper Nichols
Well, I passed the wellness exam--
and failed the mammogram.
Things really got rolling a few days later during the ultrasound. The radiologist stood at my bedside as I asked some questions. While she was careful NOT to say what it was, she was very firm about what it was NOT. I left with an intuitive understanding that it was something. This would be confirmed soon enough by a pathologist.
In the interim, I was referred to a surgeon, a brilliant and energetic young woman who loves science and trendy shoes. At our brief visit, she remained optimistic that it could still be nothing. Nonetheless, surgery was scheduled, even as I prepared for a biopsy the next morning.
I left the surgeon’s office with a busy mind and a tight schedule. I was due at work shortly, not really enough time to settle in at home, and maybe not a good idea even if I had had the time. It seemed to me that an asiago cheese bagel was in order. I took the advice attributed to the early Greek physician Hippocrates, and I headed to my local Panera to fill his prescription: Let thy food be thy medicine…
As it turned out on that day, my local Panera was not so much a dispensary as it was a most unusual monastery. In what would become a reversal of my misfortune, I found myself standing at a counter with the bread of life stacked on metal racks behind it. A holy man graciously took my order. Just as I was about to insert my debit card into the card reader, the monk said, “There will be no charge for you today.”
“Why is that?”
“It is Halloween.” And as he said this, he looked so deeply into my eyes that he seemed to take hold of me. So moved was I by his gaze that his eyes could have been the eyes of The One. And then he said, “God bless you," and the light poured in. While doctors had looked inside my body and proclaimed me ill, he looked inside my soul and proclaimed me blessed.
I moved to a table where I enjoyed my bagel and counted my blessings, among them excellent health and good medical insurance, wonderful friends who infuse me with laughter, the company of countless women who have gone before me and those who travel travel with me now, the remarkable emerging science and technology that makes the treatments our mothers received seem barbaric and my own treatment seem like science fiction, a specialty breast cancer treatment center practically at my doorstep, and a lifetime grounded by a faith tradition promising that there is something greater than me, and that when this life is over, I will be gathered to my people. How lucky am I to live with so many resources and so much hope?
Yes, the Paneran monk was a messenger: I am blessed.
More to come.
Of this I am sure.
This short story is dedicated to my dear friend known to all as Aunt Jean. She is by God-given nature, the funniest storyteller I know. She has a magical pair of slightly bent glasses that see the entire world tilted toward the hilarious. This story is a potpourri of the characters and happenings from her actual lived life. I played with the ending. Thanks for sharing your stories, Aunt Jean, and for a lifetime of friendship, a friendship that rose to every occasion, especially in the worst of times. You belong with Erma Bombeck in the Hysterical Society.
Oh, how Mary wanted a lace mantilla for Christmas! Canon Law required Catholic women to cover their heads in church, and the lace mantilla was quickly becoming all the rage among the church-going women in Mary’s rural parish in the winter of 1960.
At first, Mary was subtle in her request. At mass on Sundays she would whisper to her husband Rudy, “Oh, look at the new mantilla Jenny’s husband brought her from Spain! And doesn’t Agnes look lovely in her lace mantilla? Just like the Blessed Mother.”
Rudy didn’t even look up. He owned and operated the local slaughterhouse and was first and foremost a butcher. His mind was always busy calculating the price of livestock and anticipating the special orders from his regular customers. Which cut of beef would Mrs. Shelton want for Christmas this year? She was always trying recipes for dishes he had never heard of. What on earth was cordoned blue chicken, and why was this woman taking cooking advice from a child named Julia? And that Davis family with its eight children always peppering him for the meat ends and asking for sale prices…
Mary knew that Rudy worked hard and was a good provider. She accepted his role as the breadwinner, but, darn it, she was a partner in the family business as well as the bread maker and the one responsible for the family’s salvation. She’s the one who herded them off to church on time, him with starched shirt collar and folded cloth handkerchief, the twins in matching petticoats with starched netting that gave their Sunday dresses a fashionable flare. All Mary wanted was a lace mantilla. And she wanted to wear it to Christmas mass.
Mary got a mixer.
“What’s this?” she asked Rudy
“But I didn’t want tools, I wanted a lace mantilla!”
“I don’t know nothing about lace mantillas.” That was the end of discussion. Mary knew it was pointless to persist. Unless she was talking about a cow’s innards, Rudy’s response was about as deep as he went.
Not one to give up on such an important need, Mary scheduled herself an “appointment.” “You will have to take the twins with you to the livestock auction. I have an appointment.”
Rudy did not even ask. While he could butcher an animal with his bare hands, he feared the details of a woman’s “appointment.” And so, on the day of the auction, with Mary already out of the house, Rudy put the twins into the back of the pickup truck and headed for the silent livestock auction. He hoped to get there early, scout out the livestock, and grab some good seats up front where the children might be entertained by the action.
That evening when Rudy and the girls returned home from the auction, Mary was already at their farm completing evening chores. She had a new lace mantilla.
Rudy had a new jackass. The winning bid had been made when one of the twins raised her hand to slap her bored and rambunctious sister upside the head. The girls named their new purchase “Taffy the Jackass.” The minute Taffy the Jackass bucked her way off the truck it became clear the animal was deranged. She immediately began terrorizing the family and the neighborhood. Her size and strength threatened the lives of small children, toppled fences, and trampled gardens. She ran away frequently and refused to come home. The county sheriff became a frequent visitor. The term “Taffy Pull” took on new meaning in this picturesque farm community. It consumed every spare minute of family time and some of the neighbors’--pulling and coaxing the stubborn jackass from one spot to another.
As all good Catholic mantilla-wearing women do, Mary feared that Taffy the Jackass was punishment for wanting something for herself—for coveting that lace mantilla. Humbled by a jackass, Mary had seen the light and done her penance. Now, Taffy the Jackass had to go.
A neighbor woman who also wanted a lace mantilla agreed to take Taffy if Mary would throw the lace mantilla into the deal. The neighbor knew Taffy, and so without shame or guilt, Mary sealed the deal. Gone was the lace mantilla. Better yet, gone was Taffy. Peace was restored, and so was Mary’s soul.
The next Christmas Mary requested nothing. And Rudy didn’t ask. He gave Mary some white doilies his mother had crocheted. Mary accepted the doilies, put one on her head and wore it to church. This move by Mary is said to have launched the chapel cap craze that continued until 1983 when the Catholic Church finally dropped the head covering requirement for women.