FATHER’S DAY

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I was born on Father’s Day.   All children are of course a wonderful “gift,” to their parents, but I must confess that being born on Father’s day made me feel like an extra special gift to my father.  A gift from above, 5 lbs. and 12 oz. of baby girl, flown in with pink ribbons on the wings of love. I share my birthday on June 20th with all fathers every seven years, but I only shared it once with my own father, on the day I was born.  By the time my birthday landed on Father’s day again, at age 7, my father was 6 months gone.  I was given the honor of placing the flowers on his grave when we visited the cemetery after church.
It was a cold winter night, with memories of Christmas and New Year’s fresh in our minds.  We were living in a 3 bedroom, picket-fenced house on Epworth Circle that we had recently rented.  I was 6, and already savvy that kids can be cruel, that dogs will bite and that the cookies and beer left out for Santa Claus were happily enjoyed by my parents.   My sister, Claudia and I were tucked into our beds, no doubt tired from a full day of Niagara’s cold winter fun, sleeping like the little angels that we always were when we slept.
Suddenly, we were awakened to our mother’s hollering for my brother, Ted.  My brother was the first up, and he ran into her bedroom. My sister and I jumped out of our beds and poked our heads into the hallway.  We were clinging to each other, afraid from the screams.  We headed to our mom’s room.  The door was open.  My mother was perched in the middle of the bed, kneeling over my dad.  My brother, Ted stopped in his tracks, taking in the scene.  She jumped off the bed and ran out of the room.  “Stay with him,” she told Ted.   She raced by us.  “Girls, don’t go in there,” she warned.  She flew down the stairs to call the doctor.  I don’t think her feet touched a step.
My sister and I stood frozen outside the bedroom door.  Peeking in we saw my father’s still body, a mound beneath the covers, my brother’s back blocking my father’s face.  Suddenly, Ted turned to us, his face white, silent with fear.  Claudia and I stood holding each other, obediently waiting outside the door.  My mother came flying up the stairs, passed us and jumped back on the bed yelling, “No, no, no!”   Soon others arrived, first the family doctor.  He rushed into the room and went to the bed.  Ted moved over to us.  The doctor and my mother huddled at the bed.
Suddenly the upstairs was filled with the heartbreaking cries of my mother.  We all burst into tears.  I had never heard my mother cry.  Her body heaved with sobs as she bent over my father’s still body on the bed.  The doctor moved us into the hallway and closed the bedroom door, our mother’s weeping escaping through the barrier.  He told my sister and I to wait together and my brother led him downstairs to use the phone.   We stood waiting.  Crying.  Trembling.
The remainder of the night is a dark flurry of comings and goings.   My mother stayed in the room with my father.   My sister and I were sent to our room to wait behind a closed door.  The ambulance came, red lights circling in the night streamed through our frosted window.   Men’s footsteps and voices came up the stairs, went down the stairs.    My brother was taking charge of this or that, helping out where he could, quickly growing into the 11-year old “man of the house.”   Eventually, our bedroom door opened.  The minister of our church was there, Ted stood behind him.
Claudia and I sat on the bed, looking to this man for some sort of explanation.   Our mother was still absent, still in her own world of pain and grief.   The minister stepped into the room, and the three of us stood there as he tried to comfort us.  He wasn’t very good at it.  He quietly said, “Your Dad has gone to heaven.”  I remember asking, “Why?”   He answered, “He’s in heaven, it’s as if he’s gone to sleep forever and he’s sleeping in heaven.”   “Is he going to wake up?” I asked.  The minister responded, “No, he’s never waking up.”  My 6-year old brain was reasoning, “If he’s not going to wake up, then he’s not sleeping.”  The minister did not make sense.  The doctor came out of my mother’s room.  Her crying had stopped.
The doctor and minister exchanged a few words.  “Did you talk with them?” the doctor asked.   “Yes,” the minister replied, satisfied with his “sleeping in heaven,” analogy.   We wanted to see our mother, but the doctor explained that he gave my mother something to calm her and help her sleep.  She was resting.   The two men looked at each other.   The doctor took my brother to his room, the minister took my sister and I back to our room.  He tucked us into our beds.  Maybe we said a prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake…”.    I didn’t want the Lord taking anyone’s soul tonight.
The minister told us, “life will be different now,” and we needed to be good for our mother and help her out as much as we can.   The doctor poked his head in, and the two men left us in the night, our mother in a drugged sleep in her room, our father sleeping in heaven.
The house was dark.  The house was quiet.  Ted was alone in his room.  My sister and I lay shocked in the dark room wondering what just happened.  Why is my dad sleeping in heaven?  Why isn’t he sleeping here?  Is my mom going to sleep in heaven, too?  Will I wake if I fall asleep?
I did wake up in the morning.  We all did because  life goes on.  That’s another lesson learned too early.  My mother, now a 40-year old widow with three kids; ages 11, 7 and 6 years old,  sat with us the morning after at the kitchen table.  We didn’t know at the time that she had no means of support, no money in the bank and only an 8th grade education to carry her on.  She was gentle but serious when she spoke with us and she was the first one to actually say the truth.  “Your dad died last night.”  As this truth sunk in, she continued.  “So it’s just us.   I don’t want you to worry.  We’re going to be OK.  People will want to split up this family, but I’m not going to let that happen.   We’re going to have to pull together.  I’m going to need your help, but we’ll be OK.”  Then we all hugged and cried.  “What do we tell our friends?” I asked.  “If anyone asks, just tell them your dad is deceased,” my mom answered.  It was a practical, honest answer that I filed into my 6-year old brain for future use.   I didn’t really understand everything she was saying, but I did understand that my father had died and that we would be OK.
My father was 36 years old when he died.   His heart stopped working.  It was a cold truth.   He was gone and he wasn’t coming back.   He’d never again walk through the front door.  He’d never again swing me through the air or lift me high so I could touch the ceiling.   A Sunday drive with Dad for an orange pop or a Dairy Queen is a sweet, faded memory.   A hug and kiss under the Christmas mistletoe is a black and white moment in the family album.   No more memories to be made.   No more father to adore.   No more birthdays and Father’s Days to share.
Slowly I Learned that my relationship with my father didn’t die that night.  I also learned that I am the person I am and have live the life I’ve lived because my father made that early exit.  Many of my interests and studies were a direct result of seeking to know my dad in his expanded existence.   I’ve had multiple profound and mystical experiences that carry the absolute reassurance that his spirit exists.   I came to understand that death wasn’t final but merely a transition and not to be feared.   I also learned to cut the minister some slack for the “sleeping in heaven,” analogy.  He was doing his best to ease a hard truth.  Slowly I Learned that my Mom was as tough as they come, she always rose to a challenge and never let anyone stand in her way.   I learned that life can change in an instant, that life goes on and that with challenges come benefits.
I learned that the night my dad died, my parents enjoyed a date at a hockey game, probably cheering the Niagara Falls Flyers.  My dad ate a hot dog and drank some beer.  They had a good time when they were out and they had a good time when they got home.  He had fun that night.  I don’t remember ever getting advice from my dad while he was alive.  The one and only time I ever asked a spiritual psychic if my father had any message for me,  it was simple and sweet.  She smiled and said, “Have fun.  He wants you to have fun.”
That may be the best advice I’ve ever gotten!

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DIAMONDS

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    Marilyn Monroe was at the top of the list of famous visitors to Niagara Falls, maybe even above the Queen of England.  She arrived in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1952 (two years before my arrival) with a film crew and co-stars Joseph Cotton and Jean Peters, for the shooting of the movie, “Niagara,” directed by Henry Hathaway.  It was her first starring role.   The movie came out in 1953.  The trailer for the movie is a fabulous spin of Niagara Falls and the movie’s dramatic parallels.   Promotional titles over raging water film footage and sexy clips of Marilyn read, “Tantalizing Temptress,” with a “Raging Torrent of Emotion,” that “Even Nature Can’t Control.” A story with a “Destructive Whirlpool of Deceit,” and the best yet; “Niagara and Marilyn Monroe – The Two Most Electrifying Sights in the World!”   Bravo to the Ad Men who spun those lines.    I don’t know how the movie did in the box office but the “Niagara,” movie brought our small-town, world-wonder the stamp of a Hollywood endorsement and a permanent link with Niagara Falls and Marilyn Monroe.
The parallels between Marilyn Monroe and myself are few, and the degree of separation is quite wide, but some are worth mentioning.  At various times in our lives, we both posed by the stonewall overlooking the Falls and we both posed by the Maid of the Mist ferry boat.   We both sat on a bench at the Niagara Fall’s bus station.   Later in life, I was once told I looked like a young Jean Peters (her co-star in Niagara).    I also spent 3 months studying at her famous teacher’s acting school; Lee Strasberg’s Acting Studio on Hollywood Blvd., CA.   During a voice class at the school, Susan Strasberg (Lee’s daughter) spent a lot of time talking about Marilyn’s singing and acting techniques.   It was magical to be sitting in the very room where Marilyn and practiced her scenes and songs; a world away from my Niagara childhood.
Marilyn’s next film after “Niagara,” was “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” with her famous rendition of the song, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”     It’s a favorite musical number of mine and I love every glittery moment.  I especially love and appreciate Marilyn’s singing.
Diamonds were not on my radar growing up.  My mother’s wedding rings were two gold bands, one slightly thicker than the other.    She had some costume jewels and rhinestones but true diamonds were not something I contemplated until I went to Princess Elizabeth Junior High in 1965.   I was 11 years old, shyly navigating my way through Grade 7.[1]
It was very scary and very exciting.  No longer did we sit in one classroom all day long. We were divided into classes that met every morning in our specific homeroom, and each class rotated as a group from classroom to classroom, subject by subject.  Timed, travel-bells first alerted our small squads of pimple-faced teens to grab our books and arrange ourselves in a line.  Another bell sent us moving. Like ants on a trail, we silently followed single file along the hallway walls, to our next dish on the schooling buffet.     No talking, no laughing, no noise.  A nod to passing friend was all we could do until lunchtime in the cafeteria.
My sister and I were in separate classes, each on our own to branch out and expand our worlds.  She had a lot of friends and was making new ones every day.  I was quiet, shy and kept mostly to myself.  My sister and her friends met and sat together at lunch.   I was invited and I usually sat on the outside edge of the group.  I didn’t want to interfere with her new life.  One day, I stuck a “16” magazine in my binder so I could hide in the pages of the latest teen idol news during lunch.  A corner of  the magazine was spotted before homeroom announcements.  There was a tap on my shoulder.
“Is that a “16” magazine?  Can I see it?” asked the girl sitting behind me.   I let her look at it briefly, but class was about to start.  “Can I look at it at lunchtime?” she asked.  I wasn’t about to give up my “social shield,” to this cute girl who clearly didn’t need any social armour.   I responded with, “If you let me eat lunch with you.”
I could tell that wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.  My heart pounded while she contemplated my magazine enticement.   Bribing someone to eat lunch with you is a very a scary proposition.   “Well…I thought maybe I could just borrow it at lunchtime and give it back to you,” she said.   I weighed my options, lunch alone again (and possibly forever) while she  (and probably all her friends enjoy my 16 magazine) OR go for the big pay off and negotiate a lunch date with my magazine leverage.  I went for the pay off.
“No, I can’t do that.  I have to stay with my magazine,” I said.   If she wants to enjoy Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles, David McCallum, Sonny and Cher and whoever else peppered my precious magazine’s pages, she’ll  have to enjoy it with it’s 4-eyed, frizzy haired owner.  That’s the deal.   “I usually have lunch with my friend, Meg,” she hesitated.   “That’s ok,” I answered,  “she can look at it too.”  Now, I was extorting my way into an innocent bystander’s lunch too.   Desperate times require desperate measures.  I had no shame.
I waited while she continued to contemplate whether eating lunch with me was worth finding out about the Beach Boys “Hates and Loves,” or if the Beatles were “Devils or Darlings,” or how to win one of the 80 signed pix from Paul McCartney.  It seemed like forever.   Then she smiled and said,  “Ok, we’ll meet at the lockers and then find Meg.  And bring the magazine.”  “OK, great,” I said.  “What’s your name?”  “Shelly,” she answered.  “I’m Laura,” I said.
Class was starting.  We stood and listened to a scratchy rendition of “God Save the Queen.”  In grade school, we had to sing it, but in Junior High we just listened to the music.   Then, we bowed our heads for the Lord’s Prayer.   My prayer took a selfish turn that day.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name (and the names of Herman’s Hermits, John, Paul, George and Ringo, Chad and Jeremy and Illya Kuryakan, who are on the cover of my magazine.)
Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, on earth as it is in the lunchroom.
Give us this day our daily friend.  And forgive us our bribes, as we forgive those who resist our desperate bribe.
And lead us not into temptation.  But deliver us from eating alone.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Amen.”

I sat with a happy heart to listen to the daily announcements.     The morning classes flew by and the lunchtime bell rang.  Shelly and I grabbed our lunches from our lockers, and with coveted magazine in hand,  we walked over to a cute, blonde girl who was getting her lunch from her locker.  “Meg, this is Laura.   She’s has a “16” magazine we can look at during lunch.  Do you want to?” Shelly asked.
It was another nerve-racking, magazine-bribing hoop to jump.  Meg quickly assessed the situation and said, “Sure,” with a little smile.  We headed to the cafeteria and found 3 chairs in the area unofficially designated for the newbies at school.   I sent a happy, “I found some friends!” wave to my sister.  I self-consciously sat with my magazine hostages, and giggled nervously as Shelly took command of the magazine, flipping the pages and making comments.  I was thrilled beyond belief to be sitting with these two girls.  They were older by a year at least, and so pretty, so straight-haired; each dressed in the latest, Niagara department store offering for the modern, junior high school teen.   Meg had shoulder-length, wispy blond hair and big blue eyes that were magnified when she put on her reading glasses.   She lived in Cherrywood Acres, a new subdivision in the Falls that replaced acres of Niagara’s cherry orchard farmland.  Her family was from England, but she’d lived in Canada since third grade.  Her dad’s work required them to relocate.  I think he sold jewels or diamonds.    She had even lived in Africa for a while.    Her life sounded rich and new, shiny and glamourous.
Shelly lived on Montrose Road, which was close to Cherrywood acres, but may as well have been Africa as far as I was concerned.   She was blue-eyed with a confident, dimpled smile that exposed a little chip on her center corner of her right, front tooth.   She had bangs and a chin length bob that hung in perfection, and could rival any magazine model’s coif.   She was funny and self assured, and clearly a leader.  When the “end of lunch” bell rang, my hostage’s were free to return to a world free of their frizzy haired captor.  As we walked to our lockers, Shelly asked, “Can you bring another magazine tomorrow?”   “Sure,” I answered, thrilled at the promise of another chance at friendship.
We all lunched again, and our friendship slowly bloomed over wax-paper wrapped sandwiches, cool milk cartons and  teen magazines.    Shelly and I shared classes and classroom antics together.  Meg met us at lunchtime and we all shared after-school and weekend hours looking for our version of small town fun.  We stood together at school dances, dressed in our finest neon mini-skirts, hoping someone would ask us to dance.  Nobody did.   We combed peroxide in our hair in the school bathroom (something I wouldn’t recommend to people with curly, brown hair), and applied the makeup we weren’t allowed to apply at home.  The make-up easily washed off, but the peroxide was permanent.  I was petrified to return home with the orange, scarecrow mess I had willingly created in the school bathroom.   I was pretty sure there would be “hell to pay,” when my mom saw my hair, but she must have thought the result was hell enough.  She took one look and simply said, “Well, I guess you’re going to have to live with that.”
Over time, we morphed into copy-cat versions of each other, talking alike, walking alike, and trying our best to look alike with the latest fashion-forward image we could manage.  Considering the limited funds and limited shopping options in Niagara Falls at the time, we had to get pretty creative in our quest to be trendy.  We made the best of Woolworth’s accessory and make-up counter, flush with Madras mini purses and the latest pink or white frosted lipsticks.   Basic items from the bargain basement at Rosberg’s department store helped us round out the our “look,” be it the latest trend in pleated or A-line skirts, flower print blouses, and plain or patterned knee-socks.  Girls were not allowed to wear pants at school but for after school and weekends, we searched high and low for the au courant flowered, colored or beige wrangler jeans.
Shelly and Meg had no problem wearing a professionally styled  “Twiggy’” or “Slicker Girl” hair cuts, perfect for anyone with straight hair.  I got the home version of the Twiggy cut.  “Curl Free,” the boxed hair straightener wasn’t on the market yet (not that I’d be allowed to sabotage my natural curls with chemicals), so I had to devise a straightening program to pull off the look.   My ingenious program involved plastering my wet hair flat with “Dippity Do” hair gel, tracks of metal hair clips to stop any curling, and capping my metallic head with a tight nylon stocking I designed to hold down my hair project.  After a head-denting sleep, I would awake to a stiff, somewhat crimped but almost straight hairdo. I must confess, it was not the best look for me, but it was the look of the day and I did my best to carry it off.   Unfortunately, any moisture, (and there was plenty in Niagara Falls), would quickly cause a frizzed out hairdo backslide.  Luckily for me, Canadian’s are polite and humiliation was kept to a minimum.
At some point between 7th and 8th grade, our heel-crushed, penniless penny-loafers worn with knee-socks became shiny, Beatle Boots worn with nylons or fishnet stockings.   In the winter, we often replaced our snow covered Mukluk boots with the knee high leather boots that we stored in our lockers for indoor wear.     Whatever we wore, we were sure to scuff our feet and drag our heels down the middle school halls, so we were heard and hopefully seen by whoever we thought counted.  Teachers were constantly admonishing us to “pick up our feet,”  an impossible option for our version of  “cool.”   Even threats of a trip to the Vice Principal’s office could not silence our scuffling.  Eventually, a new version of “cool,” would take hold and the scuffing would be replaced with funny walk or wiggle.
The famous artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, who is known for her up close and personal paintings of flowers, famously said,  “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small.  We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.”   And we three; Shelly, Meg and I, took our time and we became lifelong friends.   We’ve popped in and out of our lives,  from then until now; moving around,  staying close, taking breaks, losing touch, and getting it back.   We’ve all had joys and we’ve all had sorrows, sometimes helping each other through them.  One of us bravely battles an illness that makes curly or straight hair obsolete, another one worries if she’ll remember her family, her friends, her memories; or if will she’ll succumb to a disease that made her a stranger to her dear mother.   Another, has felt the constriction and pain of a heart that’s trying to squeeze through the odds of it’s genetic history, and takes preventative measures, hoping to keep the genetics at bay.
I have a small, brown autograph book that I asked school friends and teachers to write in at the end of the school year.  My 7th grade English teacher, who taught us Haiku and made us memorize and recite every stanza of Robert Frost’s “A Road Not Taken,” wrote a little poem in my book in 1965; the year I negotiated my way into the lives of my two friends.  It read,

“Dear Laura,
True Friends are like Diamonds,
Precious and Rare,
False ones like autumn leaves,
Found everywhere.”
Mrs. D.

The wisdom of that little poem has lived in my heart and mind every bit as much as the wisdom found on the travels of Robert Frost’s “Two roads diverged in the yellow wood.”   SLOWLY I LEARNED that some friendships bring color and fun and passions that last a season or even a few years, then somehow like autumn leaves, the friendship falls away.  Sometimes it hurts and you miss the beauty and the color, and you can only hope their ride on the wind was a good one.  I’m grateful for the autumn leaves that blew in my life, adding to my rainbow of memories.   And the diamonds, the friendships that live forever and sparkle through time; these are the friendships I cherish.  They are precious and they are rare.  I hope that Marilyn found a diamond or two among the autumn leaves in her life.  The diamonds that truly are “a girl’s best friend.”


[1] Junior high in Canada was 2 years, consisting of Grade 7 and 8.  High school was 5 years, from Grade 9 to Grade 13.  Grade 13 was considered a College Prep Class.