The Great Sassafras Debacle

Often, my sister Kathi & I got into uncontrollable laughing fits. They would come out of the blue, based on nothing at all. Or, from incidents like The Great Sassafras Debacle. One Saturday in Great Falls, the rain poured down in hellacious sheets. We’d spent hours drawing, listening to records, dancing & telling each other stories. We were bored.

Suddenly I got a brainstorm: “Let’s make sassafras tea!!”
“How?” my 10 year old sister wondered.

“You pull up young sassafras trees, cut the outer part off the roots, boil them in hot water. I read about it in a library book on how hippies live off the land. There’s some growing in a ditch up by the Nichols’s house.”

I often baby-sat for the Nichols, a young couple with two little sons. Mr. Nichols was a lawyer. His wife was German. They had all sorts of books. I’d read “Mein Kampf” in two evenings while sitting for their sound-asleep boys. Manias help if you want to Speed Read!

Kathi & I put on our plastic rain hats, the kind that fold up & fit into a coat pocket. We pulled on rubber boots. Levi’s & sweat shirts kept us warm as we ran up Ellsworth Avenue, searching for magical sassafrass bushes.

There’s one! No, three!” I shouted.

We figured it would be cinchy to wrench such small saplings out of the mud. I took ahold of one, Kathi grabbed another. We pulled. We grunted, we tugged. I fell into the mud. Kathi burst out laughing. I caught the fever, both of us giggling like mad.

We would not give up–both of us had inherited the Elder stubborn streak.

Using bare hands, we dug in the slimy clay. Wrenched again. I looked up, toward the highway. “Oh, no! Mr. Nichols!”

The young attorney often worked long hours, including Saturdays. He was heading for his house & turned to glance at an odd sight down the street. His eyeballs were bugging out, seeing Kathi & me covered in mud, laughing & pulling on tiny trees.

Oh my God! He’ll never hire me to baby-sit again!”

“We’re mud creatures!” Kathi screamed. All of a sudden, both our sassafrass roots let go, throwing us back into a huge mud puddle.

That’s it,” I yelled. “Two has to be enough for two cups of tea.”

We ran back home, down to the basement double sinks beside the washing machine. We took off all our clothes & scrubbed them with hot water. I hung them up on the inside clothesline while Kathi wiped our boots off & put them in the proper place: beside the back door.

We washed off the roots, making them pure. Snorting with laughter, my sister & I went upstairs. I put on a pot of water to boil. Then we went to our bedrooms to get dry clothing on. Just as I was dropping the roots into the hot water, Mom came in the front door:
“Come help me with these damned groceries. It’s like The Flood out there!”  “Lordie!” Kathi whispered, laughing wildly.
“OK, Mama,” I answered in my best imitation of Eddie Haskell (“Leave It To Beaver”)

My sister & I dashed downstairs & retrieved two wet bags full of food. Our tea was nearly brewed. It smelled wonderful. “Tea!” I shouted. Kathi burst into peals of laughter.

It only took us 2 hours to make this.” I was laughing so hard, I fell down.

Mom appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. Seeing us falling all over the place, she snapped “Hebephrenic Schizophrenia.”

Our mother had worked with mental patients at a prison hospital in Pueblo, Colorado after being an RN in a Denver pediatric ward in the late 1940s. She often pronounced my sister & me insane with one or another type of mental illness she’d learned about working with mental patients.

Kathi & I  helped her unload groceries, then sat down to enjoy our bitter, unsweetened sassafrass drink. Never again, we vowed! Tea bags from here on out.

Kathi, MB, Susan Lake Fairfax 
My sister (back right) & her two best friends at Lake Fairfax.
She was a little older here than the day of the Sassafrass Debacle.
The 1960s!


Hop Heads

It was a hot summer’s day. I put on the Jimi Hendrix LP my brother & I had chipped in to buy. I was trying to play my flute along with the wild music of “Stone Free.”

After just one song, Dad came down to the den and told me to turn the volume down. It was up to 11! 

That guy is a genius but like every jazz musician, he’s a hophead. All great musicians get on drugs or become alcoholics.”

Why, Daddy?”

Their brains run too fast. They need drugs to cool themselves down. Like Poe took laudnum.”

If Hendrix is a genius, why can’t I listen to him? I’m trying to play along.”
I held up my silver Bundy. I aspired to become a first chair flautist in George J. Horan’s symphonic band.

You can play anything you put your mind to but don’t get on drugs like him.”

Dad went back upstairs to read the Washington Post. I thought about being born a genius musician or writer & getting addicted to drugs & alcohol. I was fifteen. I had never drunk a whole beer. Bob & I tasted leftover cocktails while cleaning up our parents’ party messes. But we both made horrible faces and wondered how the heck grown-ups could stand such putrid stuff.

So I went outside, wandered into the woods and played my flute as I strolled through the oaks, maples & summer flowers. Notes came to me from trees, sky and birds. I was lost in music. Stone Free. I needed no friends, nothing but my flute and Mother Nature.


When I was in 5th grade, we moved to a town. We kids hated living in towns—we preferred the countryside & wildwoods. While Dad mapped the Smoky Mountains, Dad, his survey party, wives & kids lived in park rangers’ stations. We played in clear creeks, undamming them so water could flow freely. We’d swim in the fresh water pools after our hard work. Bob dared me to swing on a thick vine across the “crick” on day. I did it! Yee-Ha!

Now we were in Boring Christiansburg, Virginia. Yuck! Kathi & Bob made friends immediately. Bob & his buddies played cops & robbers in back yards. Kathi & her friends played pick-up-sticks & other games that made no sense to me.

So Dad gave me a tiny brown diary. “You may never become a famous writer like Poe but some people just need to write.”

Dad had diaries from when he was young. Bob & I knew where he hid them, in a drawer under his neatly ironed (by me) handkerchiefs, next to his Colt .45. Whenever Mom & Dad went out to dinner & dancing, we’d rush to that drawer & read all about our father’s life in the 1920s, 30s & during World War II.

Dad diary movies

Our father wrote about cleaning, working in a steel mill (earning $20/day in the 30s!), peeling pears & cracking pecans for his mother, getting ready for college. His major lament was being far too skinny to get into the Air Corps during WWII (he ate 6 bananas a day for 4 weeks & still didn’t pass muster—so the Navy took him.) He also wrote about current events, including atomic power, the  threat of more war (after WWII) & the United Nations. His diaries were far more interesting than mine!

“Dad had Girlfriends before Mom!” Bob shouted one night. The baby-sitter was ignoring us, reading a book. Which was fine by us.

“So, lots of guys date.”

“But they’re in love! They kiss all the time. Bleagh.” Bob made a face.

Typical boy. I was far more mature at nine years old. Grown-ups do way more than kiss. I knew this from reading our mother’s Merck Manual &  studying transparent human body diagrams in the Encyclopedia. Mom had a nursing degree. She used medical terms for body parts. Penis, vagina–I hated those words. Human bodies looked weird, especially when you peeled back the transparencies to see into their guts! And that fetus in the uterus! I would NEVER get pregnant!

I began keeping a diary but most of my entries were dumb. Like “boring day” & I’d draw a long line through 5 or 6 days, indicating that entire time was no fun. Or I’d write “wish we could move back to Cosby! Tennessee is the BEST!”

diary age 15

Later, in high school, I started a scrapbook. I cut pictures out of Teen & Mad magazine then taped them into the pages of a spiral notebook. I wrote down my favorite songs.

I kept it all my life. One night in Boulder, Colorado when I was in my 30s, I was sleeping over at a girlfriend’s house. Alyson was a gifted actress. She did a great impression of Marilyn Monroe, performing at parties & corporate events. She was Hungarian & gorgeous. Our men were out working late—my husband Peter driving cab & then performing at Denver’s Comedy Club. We were drinking tequila & dancing to old soul songs on her hifi.

“Look what I brought!” I produced my 60s Scrapbook.
Alyson grabbed it, rapidly flipped through the pages.

Diva that she was, she fell onto the carpet, laughing so hard she wheezed.
“Dixie! Oh my GOD! I had a scrapbook (haha) exactly like this (haha!).”
Her laughter was infectious. We both cracked up as we paged through my crucial record of that decade.

In my high school diary, I wrote about music, difficult AP classes & boys, boys, boys. There were exactly three references to Vietnam in that little book. It felt as if I were making the war keep going if I wrote about it, so I refused to “put my mouth on it” as Creole people said when Dad was mapping Southern Swamps. If you spoke out loud about something (or wrote it down, I reasoned), it would come true & “stick on you.” I picked up a ton of superstitions in the Old South.

60s scrapbook

First of 6 First Grades

I started first grade at age 4. It was September. I’d be 5 on October 8th. Nearly old enough for the first grade. I was the only kid on the Eastern Shore (Wrightsville Beach, NC) in 1957 who wasn’t in the tiny schoolhouse each morning. I could read words like “cat” & “go.” I could write neatly. And I got on my mother’s nerves being home all day—especially when it rained.

Mama, can you make fingerpaints?” I’d ask.

Yeah, Mama,” Bob joined in. He was two, independent as a wildcat but loved doing art.

I’ve got laundry & other chores to do. Entertain yourselves! Draw something.”

So we’d draw for what seemed like hours. Then begin again.

Please, can we do fingerpaints?”

Finally, Mom would relent. She’d mix cornstarch & food coloring, then drop dollops of warm, colored goop onto waxed paper. Bob & I loved the feeling of mushy colors smearing into abstract designs. Our parents were such neat freaks, it was a joy to be messy!

One night, I heard Mom telling Dad, that child has got to go to school. She is driving me batty.”

Well, go to the principal & see about it. It won’t hurt to ask, even though she’d have to start in first grade. This place doesn’t do kindergarten. If you think she’s ready, it’s fine by me.”

She may not be ready but I most certainly am!”

A few days later, I nervously got into a crisply starched dress, white ruffled socks, patent leather shoes. Mom clipped a barette to hold back my wavy/frizzy hair. Then I walked with Mama & brother Bob toward the small clapboard school house. Although I truly wanted to go to school, I began to sniffle upon thinking about being away from my brother all day. No fingerpaints! No drawing! Just learning.

A beautiful lady stood in the doorway of her classroom, ruffling boys’ hair & saying “Good morning” as students rushed to their desks. I had no idea which desk was mine! Sniffles turned into real crying.

Now, what on earth!” Mom exclaimed, “I thought you were happy to be going to school.”

You’ll love it. We’re going to paint today.” The teacher smiled & bent down to look into my face.

Paint! Oh, that would be great. I had no idea you were allowed to paint in school. I thought it was all reading, ‘riting & ‘rithmatic like the song went.

Look, Dixie. Your desk has an inkwell. When I went to grade school, we used inkwells.” My mother softened.

Inkwell? How do you use it? I worried.

Of course, students don’t write with ink pens any more. We use pencils and crayons,” the teacher said. “But it’s fun to have such beautiful, old wooden desks.”

The desks were elegant: worn by decades of childrens’ arms, hands & behinds into a shiny, oak patina. Dark blue stains surrounded the ink wells.

Kids turned to look at me. I stood up straight, walked to the only empty desk & sat down. I held my hands in front of me & stared at the blackboard. Other kids were scary. I was friends with my brother but didn’t play with anyone else. I could feel them staring.

The teacher told my mother & brother goodbye.

School gets out at 3 o’clock, if you could be here to walk Dixie home then, that would be ideal.”

I glanced at the doorway & saw my brother’s huge eyes looking sad. I waved at him.

School began. The teacher handed out workbooks.

Turn to page 6 . Dixie, it’s OK that you missed pages 1-5. You can catch up at home.”

Page six had a drawing of a girl throwing seed to hens. There was a list of words underneath the picture. Hen, seed, girl, sun, day.

Print the words you see. Then we will tell stories about the girl & her hens.”

The day flew by. The teacher told me my penmanship was Excellent. She loved my painting of a sun, a girl & hens. Although my chickens looked more like seals.

I messed up,” I fretted. But my kind school teacher was encouraging to all her students. We glowed in her presence.

We lived on the Eastern Shore for 3 months. Then packed up for the next assignment. Dad had told me Wrightsville Beach was where Misty of Chincoteague was born. My favorite book. We didn’t live on an island but I believed my father because on Sundays, we took a ferry from the shore to one. We’d have picnics in the sunshine. Bob & I would run around on wet sand & dash toward the sea, running away from waves as if they were monsters. We laughed gleefully. Both of us, like our father, adored the ocean. Mom, born & raised in land-locked Wyoming could not swim! I thought that was the weirdest thing Ever! Dad demanded that Mama learn how to swim.

You will always be living close to some form of water with kids who love swimming. You may need to jump in & save them if they get into hot water.”

Hot water? What did that mean? Could an ocean suddenly get hot like tap water?

Mom resisted for a long while. Finally, after baby Kathi was born & began to toddle towards the sea, giggling happily, she agreed to give it a try. Mom could dog paddle. She’d sink if she tried to stay above water.

You are all muscle, Benji. Fat people float. Now, c’mon! Kick!” Dad commanded.

Bob & I jumped around in the waves, showing how fun the water was. Kathi stayed on shore like a good girl. She shouted “Go! Go!” to our terrified, frustrated mother.

Dad gave his only days off, Sundays, holding Mom up with both arms as she did sort of an Australian crawl. He’d let go & she’d sink.

Oh No, Mama!” we kids would laugh. Then we’d dive into the sea like porpoises. Kathi had to float on an inner tube. She was too little to brave the waves at that time.

Finally, Mom learned to swim well enough to rescue us if we were drowning. But that wasn’t going to happen. We kids were born with gills. When Dad had to map deserts, we longed for salt water.

Across the country we drove in a black & white DeSota, big enough for 10 people. No air conditioning in the ’50s so the windows were all rolled down, letting air blow the girls’ (& Mom’s) hair into rats’ nests. Dad’s was Brylcreamed into Superman style. Bob’s buzz cut remained stuff with Butch Wax, even in a devil storm.

We lived in an adobe hut near Yuma, Arizona. Desert! Colorful sunsets, sidewinders in arroyos Bob & I jumped over. Burning hot asphalt road our parents told us never to run across. Ouch on bare feet!

A drive-in movie down the highway. Dad was a movie Nut. He’d take us to see flicks 2-4 nights a week. Mom would pack a picnic dinner & we’d eat it in the car, a rarity since Dad was a neatnik about his that DeSota. We kids would fall asleep on blankets in the back seat while the huge screen flickering into late night.

My brother & I called the adobe hut “the mouse house.” Desert mice scurried around at night. Bob & I slept on blow-up mattresses on the adobe floor, eye level with the tiny beasts. The creatures amused Bob & me. Mom hated us calling it “the mouse house.” She thought vermin reflected badly on her good housekeeping but it wasn’t her fault. The little rodents got into everyone’s homes.

mouse house

Both Dad & Bob said my “book-keeping” list of our moves was missing 5 or 6 places. During one visit when I was in my 30s, I sat with Mom & Dad, trying to get the data all written down correctly. They kept arguing as to where we’d lived, for how long & what happened there. I

later asked Bob to send me his memories in the mail. No letter came but he did talk on the phone quite some while about going back to old homes.

Picnic while moving from one Gypsy camp to another
Mom took this photograph. Kathi wasn’t born yet

picnic gypsies



Key West sign Dixie

June, 1970. Free At Last from Langley High.
Dad was assigned to map the Florida Keys that summer.

“Take her with you!” Mom shouted, pointing at me as I loafed around on one of my few days off from being a Junior Ranger at Lake Fairfax Park.

“Mother, I have to work! I’m saving up for college.”

I was saving up for the trip to California, Art school & LIFE. Didn’t want my parents to know of those plans. But the idea of spending a whole summer FREE from Mom, while my father & his survey team trekked around doing TOPO for the USGS was tempting.

After a long discussion, during which I Promised not to drink too much & vowed to help Dad’s survey partner’s wife clean our cottage & cook every day, my parents agreed I’d go South for the Summer.

Kathi helped me pack lightly: shorts, t-shirts & underwear. I always hated wearing a bra. Kathi & I, in a fever of Feminism fueled by the song “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” burned our bras one Autumn day in the incinerator Dad used for paper trash & leaves.

Mom blew a gasket when she did laundry that week. No bras!
“Where are you girls’ brassieres?”

“We burned them,” Kathi proudly announced. 12 year old feminist.  

“You will earn money to pay for new bras,” mother decreed.

That was easy, bras were 2 for $5.00 at the cheap-o store near Lum’s.  Kathi babysat & I worked at Lum’s Tavern & Lake Fairfax. Then I drove us to the shop, where we picked out new matching sets of panties & bras.

We walked around the house in our flower print bras & unders, singing “In Numbers Too Big To Ignore!” until Mom made us put clothes on.

“God almighty, you two will drive me straight to the Loony Bin,” mother fussed.

Now, I was riding south in the Gray Ghost. The station wagon was Dad’s Pontiac with the USGS decal on the back window. He was happy as a lark, like always when “in the field.” He clicked the radio to a jazz station. Usually, that kind of music bothered me. I’d been in a small jazz combo for a short while during high school.

George J. Horan, genius conductor & band leader, inspired some of us to the heights. So a drummer, coronet player, guitarist & I (on flute) took our show “on the road.” We played in a few nightclubs in Washington, DC before the band broke up.

I hadn’t told my parents about the group, remembering Dad’s “hop head” comments about jazz fiends. The clubs closed late & our group was usually last on the bill–midnight or later. I would get into trouble every time I got home after that 10 o’clock curfew. So I quit.

But I could never listen to jazz without mentally fingering the flute keys and being tense that my playing could never measure up to Horan’s standards.

Off we went, hot jazz filling the air. We drove down through North Carolina, South Carolina–where we stopped for Brunswick stew. Through Georgia, where we made a visit to Miss Bonnie in the nursing home.

Then to Hinesville to hang out with Uncle Jack, Aunt Inez & the cousins. Aunt Inez always had good food on the stove, so we enjoyed a massive mid-day meal (“dinner”) with them. Sweet tea! Mom never let us sugar our tea or buy soft drinks.

“You’ll rot your teeth out,” was her hex upon us whenever caught with Evil Candy.

Through Florida, a long, long state. We were in a caravan, gypsy-style. Dad lead the pack & his survey team in separate cars, all headed for the Keys. We encamped near the Everglades, toward Key Largo first. Dad & his team made pretty quick work of mapping that area. I wandered around the beaches, swimming & soaking up the sun–in glory! I have always loved the sea, it’s part of my DNA.

After finishing with Largo, we headed to Islamarado. That tiny island took 3 days to map. Dad was super manic, in fine fettle & his team followed suit. Pal Ralph & wife Gladys were along, Ralph to help survey & Gladys to cook & try keeping an eye on me. She was fun. Her toenails were always shiny red. I took up after her & began painting my own toenails a bright, fire engine red from then on.

Gladys made big pots of stew, cornbread & bought beer for the returning survey party. I always thought it was apt that they called it a “party.” My parents’ homes, all over America (as Dad & his teams did TOPO), were Party Central. Cigarette smoke, records on the portable turn-table, loud joking, Mom frying eggs & bacon, pouring gallons of hot coffee “to sober up you drunks.” Rowdy noise late into the night. That was our life.

It was no different now, just no Mom! I helped chop up vegetables, set the table & carried in big bowls full of food. The guys worked up huge appetites, hiking 10-20 miles a day. They drank beer, laughed, sang & joked all night. Started over again at Dawn. After Islamarado, it was Marathon, then Big Pine Key. All gorgeous with gloriously sandy beaches. Guys whistled at me in my white bikini but I paid them no mind. RW was in the Army, now. Not behind a plough! I’d go home to him & we’d run off to California. Dreamin’  

Then: Key West! 1970. Un-freakin’-real. Hippies & beatniks were everywhere. Dad & his team tool me with them to Sloppy Joe’s Bar every night after a hard day’s work. We ate soup, bread & drank beer. Nobody asked for my ID. I was just 17, you know what I mean. I’d put quarters in the juke box & twist. Dad would jump up & start a verision of the Lindy Hop. His pals would ask lady diners to join them. The place was a-jumpin’!

Gladys sometimes warned me, “Now promise you won’t do any drugs or get pregnant on me.” Lord! “No way!” I promised & I meant it.

I’d smoked a bit of pot in my last semester of high school, just to please my fellow anti-war protesters. But I was done with that. Beer, beaches & Hemingway were my Life that summer.

One gorgeous day, I found Hemingway’s house, where he’d lived with hundreds of many-toed cats. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” & other books by him intoxicated my fevered teenaged brain throughout high school. I was nutty for Hemingway, who had lived life to the extreme.

The house was slightly decrepit after years of disuse. A woman opened the door when I knocked. “Um, is this Earnest Hemingway’s house?”  

“Why, yes it is. Or was.”  

“I-I’m a huge fan of his. I’ve read all his books. Can I just walk around outside & look at everything?”  

“Come right on inside.” She opened the door wide. She showed me into a large room with a desk full of papers. There were books everywhere. An old sofa sat near a window, colors faded by bright island sunlight.

“WOW!” I exclaimed. “Are you Kidding me! Hemingway actually lived here!”

The woman showed me into the kitchen. It had blue tiles, many cracked but those which were intact had lovely swallows & other designs on them. Out the door from the kitchen was a patio & a moldy green swimming pool.

“Oh my gosh, can I swim in the pool?”  

“It’s rather filthy, dear.”  

“I’ve swum in swamps & lakes & ponds worse than this!”
She pealed out a laugh & said “OK.” She went back inside.

I took off my sweatshirt, t-shirt, shorts & shoes. I dove into the Hemingway water in my underwear & swam for a good half hour. My manic mind was filled with scenes from his novels. Ingrid Bergman’s tragic voice filled my head with lines from the classic film: “I don’t know how to kiss or I would kiss you.” Gary Cooper would adore me. Ingrid & I would be best friends!

Finally, I dried off with my t-shirt & put on my clothes.  The kind lady offered me a cup of tea. We sat in the living room & talked. She was trying to fix up the house as a museum. She hoped Hemingway afficionados would come from all over the world, pay a fee & get tours of the fixed-up home.

I offered to help her, super powered with energy. I returned every day that summer, to dust off books, scrub the kitchen floor, polish furniture & do what my OCD parents had taught me: Cleanliness is Next to (well, Dad was an atheist so he never said “godliness”) but I knew the saying.

Amazingly, my father & a couple of his pals found a shack on pylons that summer. They were fishing on a Sunday afternoon. They climbed out of their boat, up into the shack. There was an old typewriter on a scarred table. Stacks of papers. Hand-written corrections covered each page. Empty beer & rum bottles were scattered about the one-room, wooden hideaway. Dad took the papers, fascinated. I brought them to the Hemingway House lady. They are part of the museum’s collection now.

At the end of summer, after joyful days body surfing in the ocean, working at Hemingway House, drinking & eating at Sloppy Joe’s & dancing the night away, my father & I packed up the Gray Ghost. I had tears in my eyes. I was going to miss the kind lady who’d befriended this crazy teenager.

Dad mumbled, “OK” when I asked if I could run down & tell her goodbye.
We hugged & she asked if I wanted one of the many cats. What! Of course I did. But what would Dad think?

I ran back to the cottage & jabbered, 100 miles an hour,
“Daddy, the lady wants to give me one of Hemingway’s cats, not really His cats but a descendant. They all have gigantic paws! It’s a genetic thing. I already picked one out. He’s a kitten, not a baby but young. He’s black & white, his name is Papa.

“Jesus H. Christ, your mother will kill me!”  

“Please, please please. I swear I’ll take care of him!”

I had No idea how to take care of a cat. We’d had two daschunds, Gretchen von Elder & Duffy’s Tavern Schlitz Elder (named by Bob, Kathi & me). Never a cat.

Mom hated cats. They were meant to be in barns, killing mice & rats. Not in the house.  “They remind me of snakes, the way their mouths look when they yawn.” She’d first said that when we lived in a boarding house where I pretended a beautiful gray cat was my pet. I was only four years old then but remembered that kitty so well.

“Oh, all right. But fix up a box of sand for it & clean it out every night! He’ll stay in the back seat. And you’ll pay for his food. Get a bowl for that & another one for his water.”

Gladys stood in the doorway of our cottage, shaking her head. “Benji is going to Flip.” But she came out with two plastic bowls. I put them in the back floor of the Gray Ghost & ran like a catabatic wind toward the Hemingway House.

“Dad said Yes!” I hollered. Cats scattered, frightened by the crazy teen.
“Sorry,” I whispered & looked around for the kitten I’d named Papa. The fine lady came out of the house, carrying him. He posed proudly in her arms.

“Please write & let me know how Papa is doing. I’ll tell you know when the museum is open for business. Thank you for all your hard work.”

I walked gently back to the waiting vehicle. “Dad, this is Papa.”
My father smiled. He was always kind to animals. I got into the back seat & put Papa down next to a bowl of mushy food that had magically appeared.
“Daddy, where did that come from?”

 “You can’t let him starve.” Dad loaded ten tins of cat food into the car. We took off, going backwards from the way we’d driven in June. It was the end of summer. I felt melancholy, leaving Paradise.

I hoped Papa would like Virginia, after spending his first three months on Key West with hundreds of cousins, brothers, sisters, battle-scarred Toms & meandering mother cats.

True to form, Mom went nuts when she saw Papa.
“By God, not in My house!” was her greeting after three months.

“Dixie will take care of it. I told her she could bring him home. She earned him by working at the Hemingway House.”

Dad unpacked his gear: telerometer, tripod, optical rods & so forth. I brought in the cat’s cardboard box filled with sand & set it down in the basement, near my painting easel. I showed Papa the box. Then picked him up to show him his food & water bowls near my brother’s bathroom. Gladys had told me cats don’t like “to shit where they eat.”

Then I ran upstairs with Papa in my arms. Kathi was so excited.
“Tell me all about Key West!”  She danced around the kitchen.

Bob immediately re-named my cat “Pompous” due to his proud demeanor. Papa ran away after only two months in Great Falls. Kathi, Bob & I searched all over the countryside & tiny village for our beautiful feline. No luck. It was my fault. I was at work & taking community college classes all day. Mom probably shut him in the cold basement. No wonder he escaped.  But a year later, Kathi was hanging out with a friend. Her cat had just had kittens. Two were black & white. They all had polydactyl paws! Papa Ruled!! I knew nothing of neutering in those days, so that cat prowled just like Hemingway had.

Papa Cat

Papa/Pompous   Photo by brother Bob

Teenaged Published Poet!

Carrying sheaves of inexpertly typed poems, I knocked on the editor’s door. It was my second year at NOVA, a community college in Fairfax Virginia. I was 18. My new, artistic friends encouraged me to submit my poetry to the editor of our literary magazine & newspaper. He was trying to turn it into more of an underground newspaper, relevant to the times. He was an older guy, probably 23!

Come in!”

I entered & saw a disheveled intellectual looking guy with thick framed glasses at a desk piled with papers. He adjusted his specs to get a look at me. I was shaking with fear.

I don’t bite. Whatta ya’ got there?”

Um, poems. I-I started writing when I was 13. The first I called ‘orange & blue.”
I handed him the page with that poem on it.

He peered at it. “What else ya’ got?”

Oh, he didn’t like that one.

Here’s some about the war. And prison. And other stuff.”

He shuffled through the pages.
“I’ll take all of these. Ya’ got copies?”

I hadn’t thought of that! Oh my God, what an idiot.

Don’t worry, we have a copy machine. Xerox these, then give me the copies. Keep your originals.”

My-my friend drew pictures to go with the poems. Her name’s Michelle.”
I showed him sketches on fine art paper.

Wow, these are excellent. I can work with these.”
He flipped the sketches over to see her name on the back.

Two weeks later, I entered the college cafeteria after morning classes. All my new friends stood & applauded. I thought it was because I’d done OK in a scene from a play that day. But as I approached the table, Robert ran up to me.

Look! They printed All your poems! With Michelle’s drawings.”

Eight of my poems. In print! With amazing artwork. A dream come true.

(4 of the 8 poems with drawing by Michelle A.)

Michelle sketch my poem

19 year old poems published