Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Miami Dog Races

     My father always liked spending Christmas in Miami. We'd pack into the car and head down Route One. There were no Interstates at that time. It was a pleasant drive. Those years the weather was pretty consistent. When it got cold in New York it stayed cold. The minute you crossed the Florida state line, you knew you had entered a tourist's mecca. Not only did palm trees line the roads, but the sun warmed your bones and you shed winter coats for summer gear.
      At twelve, I was a very mature, full busted, five-foot-seven-inch tall girl. At that age it used to embarrass me because I was so much taller and more developed than my friends. I was the kid with the big boobs. I never appreciated those remarks.
      My father decided to take advantage of my stature. “Let's take Audrey to the dog races with us,” he suggested, grinning.
      “She's too young,” Mother argued. “They'll never let her inside the track.”
      Never one to be daunted, my father got this idea to dress me up, put some lipstick on me, and pile my hair on top of my head. The transformation was incredible. I actually looked eighteen. I suddenly felt very grown up.
      When we got to the race track, no one blinked an eye as I walked through the gates.
      “See, Helen,” my father said as he kissed me on the cheek. “I knew we could get Audrey in.”
      So our night at the races began. I was having fun at first. As the hours ticked away, and the screams of the betters rang in my ears, all I thought of was how tired I felt. When were we going back to the hotel?
     Mother was winning every race. She never checked the “Track Insider”. She'd simply watch the dogs as they paraded in front of the crowd. Then she'd pick one because she liked the way the dog looked. I was fascinated at this strange ability she had. People around us were asking Mother which dog to bet on.
     I finally pushed my way through the crowd that surrounded my mother, and tugged at my father's sleeve. I pointed to a nearby bench. “I'm just going to sit down for a while. My feet hurt.”
      “Sure, Baby, sure.” He turned back to Mother and I slumped onto the bench.
      I fell asleep. The woman turned into the child who needed to be in bed. I vaguely remember Dad waking me up. I slept the whole drive back to the hotel.
      My father loved telling the story to our family and anyone who would listen. At first I was embarrassed, but then I realized how proud of me he had been that night. You could hear it in his voice and, for once, Mother didn't say “I told you so.”

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Child Is Born

     I was the eldest of five children. Unfortunately, I was also the only one to survive the trauma of birth. My unknown brothers and sisters died while still in our mother’s womb. I have often wondered, why me? Why did I survive while four, who may have made a significant contribution to the world, never breathed at all?
     Mother had been in labor over twenty-four hours. Complications set in. Between pain and fear, she had reached the point of exhaustion. I finally struggled and pushed myself into this world at six o’clock the morning of May 22, 1928.
     While holding me, the nurse asked, “Well, Mrs. Kaas, what do you want?”
     “A glass of water, please.” Later Mother laughed about her answer. “The nurse had meant did I want a boy or a girl. At that point I didn’t care. It was finally over and I was so thirsty.”
     My father was ecstatic.
    “Helen, did you see her? She’s beautiful, with thick black hair and laughing blue eyes.”
     Mother looked at him as though he was demented. “Bill, don’t be foolish,” she insisted. “All babies are born bald.”
     Bill grinned. “Not our daughter. She has real black hair. C’mon, I’ll show you.”  
    He helped Helen walk slowly to the hospital nursery. For the first time she really looked at me. I did have a head full of black hair. She took Bill’s hand and he held her close, his lips brushing her moist forehead.
     “We created her, Helen. Isn’t she a wonder?”
     I don’t know how much of a wonder I was, but born under the sign of Gemini, I think I’ve had a split personality all my life. Gemini is the sign of twins. I have always felt there were two sides to me, the obedient don’t-make-waves self, and the devil-may-care adventurous, restless me.
     When I was four years old, one of mother’s friends asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
     “A man,” I promptly answered.
     Everyone laughed. “How cute.”
     I think even at that early age, I sensed it was a man’s world, and I longed to be a part of it.
     Instead I opted for motherhood and have never regretted that decision.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Braids And Bitches

    There was a time when I had long, wavy hair. My mother, enamored by Shirley Temple's looks, wanted me to have curls. Every night before I went to bed she put curlers in my hair.
     I was twelve at the time, ready to graduate from elementary school. I hated curls. I hated Shirley Temple and her influence on my life. What was wrong with naturally wavy hair?
     One night,  mother and dad were out. I decided to skip the curlers and  went to bed.
     I couldn't believe mother's reaction the next morning.
     “All right, young lady,” she scolded,  “ If you  can't have curls, you'll have braids.”
     Braids? That was for little kids. Mother had this obsession about combing my hair each morning.    This particular morning I felt she was out for revenge. I had defied her and she had no intention of letting me get away with it.
     “You just come into the bathroom, “I'll show you.”
     “Ouch,” I yelled several times. She braided my hair so tightly I felt like the roots were being pulled out.
     When she had finished I looked in the mirror, mortified at what I saw. How could I face my friends looking like Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm?
     No amount of pleading would make mother relent, so off to school I trudged.
     As I walked down the hallways of  my school, I imagined all eyes were staring at me. How ridiculous I must have looked. What twelve year old wore braids?
     Suddenly a voice behind me asked, “Audrey, is that you?”
     I whirled around, feeling my face flush. It was my teacher, Mrs. McDonough. I wanted to evaporate on the spot.
     She smiled. “You look so grown up I thought you were one of the high school girls from upstairs.”
     She softly touched one braid. “You know, braids are all the rage right now.”
     As she continued down the hall, a grin played  at the corner of my lips. Even if she was just trying to be nice, it was a lovely gesture and made a tortured day easier.
    Even after I graduated and married, we kept in touch by mail. I'm not sure why, except for the fact that I liked her and she was a great teacher. So I sent Christmas cards, pictures of each new child, and an occasional note. When she died her daughter sent me a letter.
   “Thank you so much for corresponding with mother all through the years. She so looked forward to your letters and cards.”
     A gesture of kindness made a young girl's day. As an adult, I like to think that I somehow  made her days a little happier too.