Saturday, February 21, 2009

Nell, Priscilla's mother

My time after school was usually spent at an extended day program on school property. Some days, I was allowed to leave early (thank goodness – no one liked extended day) to go to Nell’s house. I was supposed to practice piano or help Nell with household chores, but more often than not we watched The Brady Bunch or The Facts of Life instead. Nell politely told me that my performance on the piano was improving, but I suspect I will live the rest of my life without someone noting my natural musical inclination. Nell and I had so much fun together. She was my truest confidante, and I could tell her all about my problems, secrets or delights.

I remember once being so angry with Dad and Priscilla: after a birthday party weekend graciously hosted by Priscilla, Dad insisted that I vacuum the basement. I gather that my first effort was less than sincere, and he yelled and screamed at me to vacuum again. I stubbornly holed up in my bedroom instead. When he and Priscilla left the house for some reason, I sneaked out and vacuumed again – this time with a genuine effort to pick up every speck of dirt on the basement floor. After all, I was bored and anxious to rejoin the family in the rest of the house. Dad returned and I shyly apprised him of my latest effort. He was not impressed and he insisted that I had not actually vacuumed a second time. That was it! I returned to my bedroom and called Nell, sobbing. The next day, I went to her house after school, still fuming. She hugged me, assured me that I was in the right, and dismissed my father’s actions as typical parental tyranny. I’m pretty sure that was the day that I decided Nell was my best friend.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Second grade with Dad and Priscilla

Dad and I bonded over baseball. We loved the Orioles with a similar passion as Priscilla had for the outdoors. Once I had sufficiently prepared myself for school in the mornings, I liked to check the sports section of The Washington Post and memorize the box score from the previous night’s baseball game. You could have asked me anything and I would have been able to tell you, even when I was only in second grade. While I certainly enjoyed The Cosby Show and other age-appropriate television, Dad and I spent most of our nights watching Mel Proctor call the Orioles’ games. I’m not sure what Priscilla thought about this; she never said anything one way or the other. She may have simply appreciated the respite she could take in the evenings when Dad and I left her alone.

Priscilla loved to read, and I really mean loved. She had a passion for the written word that I have never encountered in anyone else. She found true delight in the pages of books and she was always recommending something to read to someone. Once Dad and I had settled in for an evening on the basement sofa with the Orioles, Priscilla would remain upstairs and usually she would read in bed. As a child, Priscilla encouraged me to read books by Jil Ker Conway and I poured over pages about Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst, active leaders in the suffragette movement. Priscilla passionately wanted me to learn more about educational and intellectual interests and although they were not-so-coincidentally her own interests, I know I benefited from her persistent support.

(I also had the support of my mother, another voracious reader. One Christmas or birthday, my mom bought a handheld Donkey Kong game for me. When we opened it, it did not work properly. Mom asked me if I wanted to exchange it, or return it and spend the money at Waldenbooks instead. I chose Waldenbooks.)

Having developed these reading habits at an early age, I rebelled at the dinner table. Most nights we ate in front of the same basement television (our only tv set) that would later showcase the Orioles and watched the McNeil Lehrer NewsHour. Sometimes I would tune in with Dad and Priscilla, but most nights I chose to read a book instead. Then I might head off to the bathtub, book in tow. I was so thankful when Priscilla contracted a remodel for my bathroom – the new bathtub had these wonderful handles that were perfect for resting my arms while reading. I don’t know if she designed it that way intentionally, but I like to think that she did. She was very observant and while this characteristic did not always manifest in an outward display of generosity, Priscilla did quietly do the most unselfish, considerate things.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Some of my earliest memories

Priscilla was introduced to me when I was four years old. She had long blond hair that she wore either in a braid or in a bun on top of her head. She liked flowing dresses and she didn’t really like underwear, although she wore it because it seemed like something she should do. Priscilla and my father married when I was five and I grew up living with them.

The first year of Priscilla and George’s marriage we lived in the house my mother and father used to own in Maryland. I was a brat who was still adjusting to life with divorced parents, and Priscilla was primarily responsible for my upbringing. She didn’t know many people in Maryland other than my father’s friends, and while no one ever said as much to me, I suspect many of my father’s friends were members of my mother’s family. The situation was more than mildly challenging for her and within a year, we had moved to Arlington, Virginia.

Priscilla still owned a house in Arlington, only about a mile from where her mother lived. She was renting it out, however, so we lived with Priscilla’s mom Nell the year that I was six. I started first grade at Nottingham Elementary, the school two blocks down the road.

I don’t remember all that much about the year we lived with Nell except that one night my father asked me if I wanted to take a bath. Ever pleasant and agreeable, I said “No.” Dad had a quick temper and started yelling at me. Priscilla sided with me and told my father that because he had given me a choice, he should honor my response. I was a sobbing mess, but Nell held my hand and walked me downstairs to bed. That was the way things started – over the years a pattern developed where Dad and I would argue (though we'd always make up), Priscilla would play peacemaker and I could count on Nell to make me feel better.

By second grade, we had moved to Priscilla’s house, which was thankfully free of renters. I was supposed to switch schools, but evidently my parents thought I had endured more than enough changes in the past three years and they kept me enrolled at Nottingham. There weren’t any buses to my neighborhood because I lived in a different school district, so this meant that someone was responsible for arranging my transportation to and from school each day. Most days Priscilla would drop me off at the morning daycare program, but some days she thought I should walk. It was hardly an arduous distance, but I was stubborn and not interested in doing something that no other kids were doing. To soften the torture of forcing me to actually get some exercise, Priscilla left me at the house of a friend who only lived a few blocks from school. The problem was that Priscilla never called ahead and several times my friend had already left for school and her parents were startled by my presence.

That was the kind of woman Priscilla was – she knew what she thought was best and she didn’t really concern herself with ancillary details. She had a keen sense of adventure and she was afraid of very little. She loved to spend as much time as possible outdoors and an early morning walk was a true delight for her. I, on the other hand, loved staying inside. All I wanted to do when I woke up was be alone and maybe read the newspaper before school.

Why I'm here

I'm walking the 3-Day in Atlanta this October with my dear friend Meredith and my cousin Lisa. We're on the "Wii Kinda Fit" team and we've each committed to raise a minimum of $2,300 in order to participate.

My cousin Lisa has an absolutely terrific blog that she's posted to her fundraising page, and she inspired me to publicly journal some of my memories of my stepmother here I am.