by Dee Schaefer, Becketwood Member
At the suggestion of Member (and occasional blog-writer) Tracey Gulliver, a series of ongoing writing groups have been meeting at Becketwood. This has served as the incentive for the following collection. -Ed.
A Collection of Vignettes
What attracted me to the word vignette is that it comes from the French for little vine.
In the nineteenth century, vines were often used by printers in books as decorative borders. The idea of a brief, written message that could be contained on a vine leaf is also appealing.
Now, vignette is commonly used in literary terminology for brief descriptions, anecdotes, and portraits. They may include short essays, fiction or nonfiction, and even impressions.
In other words, a collection of disconnected memories and stories would qualify. Should there be vine-like connections between them, that could be an advantage. Should they remain unrelated and somewhat random, that would not necessarily detract.
Of course, behind each word is the voice of the narrator with her fading recollections and vivid imagination. That in itself unifies this collection.
May the vines become untangled as the weeks, months, and years pass. May the freedom this category encourages nourish the past and engage this writer in the present.
Are there any difficult choices that have shaped my life? Yes, there certainly are. Two business-size envelopes delivered one afternoon after my college classes lay on the dining room table, one from the Fulbright Commission and one from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. It was the spring of 1958, the year I received my undergraduate diploma from The College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, with majors in French and English.
My mentor in the French Department, S. Marie Philip Haley, had nominated me for a year of study in France as a Fulbright Scholar. My mentor in the English Department had nominated me for a doctoral program in English at a university of my choice with funding from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.
My interview for the Fulbright was a series of questions to which I was invited to respond in writing. Those of us who were nominated could type our responses. The interview for the Woodrow Wilson took place in a downtown Minneapolis hotel conference room. When I opened the door, I was confronted with four male professors seated behind a long table covered with a green felt cloth. At the time, some enlightened educators realized that women professors were sadly lacking in academe. Perhaps I would qualify to be one of them. It was a nerve-wracking experience. Since it was the first year that women were eligible for this generous funding, the panel was very interested in my motives. They must have liked what they heard.
To my surprise, I was offered both opportunities. My imagination saw me crossing the Atlantic by ship from New York to Le Havre. Orientation in Paris followed by an academic year at the University of Poitiers, a medieval city in western France, would plunge me into French culture. All of Europe would be at my doorstep.
On the other hand, a four-year graduate scholarship for a touted writing program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque beckoned as well. It was tantalizing to imagine learning about the American West and the desert climate along with the art of writing.
Both scholarships were gifts. My problem was deciding which one to accept. In the end, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation deferred my grant for one year because the seduction of life in France proved to be too much for me. When my Fulbright advisor in Poitiers suggested that I stay another year with the offer of a University of Besancon assistantship in its English graduate program, I couldn’t resist. Needless to say, The Woodrow Wilson Foundation was not pleased. After two years in France, I returned home to Minnesota, where I embarked on a master’s program in French at The University of Minnesota. My fate was sealed.
In graduate school, I was not comfortable with the competitive academic atmosphere, the chaotic task of teaching large groups of undergraduates, and the lack of guidance. When I was invited to fill in at the last minute for a French professor who had resigned over a salary issue at The College of St Catherine, I opted to spend one year in its department. Thirty-six years later, I retired from that institution.
My First Theological Discussion
On a hot, summer day in Kramer, North Dakota, a little neighbor came to play with me in our lilac-enclosed yard. This yard surrounded a spacious, white three-story house on the edge of town known as the Kretchmar house. Thanks to my mother, it was a green oasis set beside a prairie field and a dusty road.
When I heard the metal gate creak, I knew my friend had arrived. My little sister was nowhere in sight so we could have the sandbox to ourselves. We played happily together until we engaged in a feisty exchange.
My mother had taught me that God was everywhere. Of course, at the age of four, I had no reason to question her. My friend insisted that God was not everywhere.
“Yes, He is.” “No, He isn’t.” “Yes, He is.” “No, He isn’t.”
As my indignation mounted, I said, “He is even on the end of your nose.” And I punched her in the face.
Howling with more surprise than pain, she ran for the gate and down the street to her parents’ home. Within minutes, her mother appeared in the yard. My mother emerged from the house. As the screen door slammed shut, I knew I was in trouble.
Perhaps I was encouraged to say I was sorry. I don’t remember. What I do recall is that I experienced an unforgettable moment of self-righteousness. Did my now nameless little friend return to the yard to play with me, or my sister? I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t. Reflecting now on my behavior, I realize that this spontaneous anger could surface very easily. And it did over the years.
And who could have predicted that I would marry a Theologian?
An Ongoing Theological Discussion with Myself
Yes, I married a theologian at the age of fifty. Thomas Patrick participated with his wife in a Renew discussion group in my home in Highland Park in 1986. This gathering’s focus brought parishioners together to reflect on biblical texts. One of my St. Catherine University classmates had invited me to open my doors to this group from St. Leo’s Church. She was desperate for conveners. She insisted in spite of my two refusals. In subsequent weeks, Tom’s wife died of cancer. The group continued to meet. Tall, educated, French-speaking Tom seemed to be a perfect match. He was. We were married six months later.
In my naivety, I somehow imagined that his strong Catholic faith would enlighten my faded belief system. It didn’t. Annunciation Grade School, St. Margaret’s Academy, and The College of St. Catherine exposed me to a solid, Roman Catholic education. My parents’ priorities were firm. Both were raised in German-speaking Catholic families in the North Dakota prairies. Both were grounded in a spirituality that shaped their lives and those of their two children.
The fading and questioning began over a long period of time. As the so-called New Theology became available in the Post-Vatican Two era, both Tom and I read voraciously. His faithfulness to the Church remained firm; mine did not.
One summer, we joined an ecumenical session at the Tantur Institute in Israel. Located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, this Benedictine Monastery gathered English-speaking participants from England, Scotland, Australia, and the United States. We were all on a spiritual path. For Tom and me, this exchange offered us the opportunity to create a liturgy using readings from Liberation Theology. The Franciscan priest in charge of our group was pleased. A visiting French priest was not. He informed us that the Vatican did not approve of Liberation Theology. While feeling like a heretic, I rebelled. Why would the Vatican not wish to nourish the poor, the homeless, and the destitute? My sister had long ago abandoned the Church for its patriarchal stance. Of course, I thought of her.
After Tom’s sudden death just five years later, I found myself unable to say the Creed at Mass although I continued to join the Sunday gathering in Our Lady of Victory Chapel on the St. Catherine campus. It is the space in which I’d celebrated my undergraduate baccalaureate and where Tom and I were married. As the months rolled on, I felt more and more like a hypocrite. It was painful to think about abandoning what had once been an integral part of my existence. Betrayal ruled my thoughts. Uncontrollable tears washed my face. It finally dawned on me that I needed help to make a break.
A loving face came to mind. At this point, I determined to talk about my pain with a former teacher, S. Mary Virginia Micka. A poet and scholar, she and I had always resonated in an inexplicable way. She had once written a lovely poem about a visit to our garden where she sipped a glass of sherry on an autumn afternoon.
Once in her small office, I struggled to explain my dilemma. She listened. She smiled. Then she asked, “Do you believe in God?” At that point, I wasn’t sure of anything, but I said quietly, “Yes.” She went to her bookshelf, pulled down a spiral-bound volume, and placed it in my hands. My eyes fell on the title: “Zoe’s Path, A Wisdom Story.” She inscribed it with this message: “It’s such a gift to me, dear Dolores, that we walk this path together.” It is one of the few books still in my possession.
In my Becketwood home, there stands a small sculpture of The Walking Buddha. Now I am walking that wisdom path.
Dark brown hair. Curly red hair. Dark brown eyes. Light blue-green eyes. Olive complexion. Light, freckled complexion. Small stature. Tall stature. Warm temperament. Cool temperament. Easy going. Highly-energetic. Thinking. Acting. Yet my sister Rosella and I have long been best friends. That does not mean that big sister Dolores did not attempt to dominate. She did.
When we were both preschoolers, one of our favorite books was Walt Disney’s “Ferdinand the Bull.” We had it read to us many times until Ferdinand became one of our friends. He sat under his favorite cork tree and smelled the flowers while his siblings romped, butted, and fought. Our parents gave us a stuffed Ferdinand to share. Loving Ferdinand was the easy part. Sharing Ferdinand was the hard part.
One summer day, we were both in the yard with Ferdinand. He was a sturdy little plush bull with small horns and a bright flower in his mouth. At some point, I grabbed Ferdinand to have him all to myself. Rosella was far from happy. To end her sniffling, I rushed across the lawn to the out-house at the end of the garden. Ferdinand ended up down one of the holes, where he disappeared.
After the demise of Ferdinand, I must have remembered how efficient this dramatic act was because I repeated it one more time. My father was called home from work to retrieve a kitten. It, too, must have been an attempt on my part to possess or else.
In retrospect, I remember Ferdinand as a pacifist, a lover of flowers, and an independent character who spoke a foreign language. Some would observe that Rosella and I share those qualities. Unfortunately, neither the book nor the toy exists among our memorabilia. Fortunately, the memories do.
It all happened one hot summer day in Kramer, North Dakota.
When I was about five years old, my mother occasionally sent me to the small grocery store on Main Street to buy items on her list. Sometimes it was just a bar of soap. To protect my skin from the scorching sun, I sported a big straw hat to shield my face and shoulders. My homemade cotton sundress swished in the prairie wind. The switchboard operator in the local hotel saw me from her window and waved as I passed by. With a purposeful gait, I headed toward my destination.
Once inside the store, I heard the wood screen door slam behind me. The interior seemed cool and dark. This was all business. My errand took very little time. I asked, paid, and headed out with a brown paper bag in my right hand. In it I could hear the jangle of change and feel the weight of my purchase. It was all so easy, and I felt so grown up.
The store had some weathered benches under the front windows facing the street where local retired men gathered to enjoy a smoke and catch up on news and gossip. As I exited ready to walk down the wood steps to the wood sidewalk, one of them called out to me, “Hi, Red.” The others chuckled.
For some mysterious reason, I burst into tears. The boards under my feet blurred. The road to our yard’s front gate seemed far away. As I continued to sob, I suddenly felt so different. And I was. My flaming red hair neatly braided into two pigtails bobbed as I ran.
Had I ever been teased about my hair before? Never. Somehow the shock of being “other” hit me. Besides, my hair wasn’t red. It was rust.
Years later, I learned that both my German-American parents carried a recessive gene which was their gift to me.
Lost and Found
It all began in 2006 in Islamabad, Pakistan, outside a beautiful hotel frequented by American journalists. Our travel group guided by ElderTreks, Canada, was setting out on its first day of an exhausting month-long exploration of the Silk Road in Pakistan, western China, Kurdistan, and Uzbekistan. Most of us had spent twenty or more hours in planes in order to join the group. My short night had been restless and non-restorative. As I looked around at others, I marveled at how refreshed they seemed.
Approaching one of the elderly gentlemen, I asked, “What is your secret?” He blithely replied, “Ambien.” He quickly observed that I had never heard about this sleep drug. It seemed to have very few if any side effects.
Once back in Minnesota and preparing for yet another international adventure, I asked my internist about it. He agreed to give me a prescription with just enough medication for my next trip to France.
Subsequent trips to Burma (Myanmar), England, Norway, Iran, Ethiopia, Cuba. The Balkans (Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece), followed by a cruise on the Black Sea (Turkey, Russia) found me in an alert frame of mind ready to absorb history, geography, and cultural differences. My friend was Ambien.
The small, amber canisters containing leftover pills from six years of meandering the globe accumulated in my medicine cabinet.
On the fourth of July 2011, I decided to sell the Highland Park home in St. Paul, where I had lived for over thirty-six years and to move to a new home at Becketwood. The stress of showing my Tudor cottage and garden while downsizing became monstrous. I was not sleeping at night. Feeling desperately sleep-deprived, I started relying on Ambien for at least five hours of induced rest each night. Eighteen weeks later, I lost my mind.
Becketwood became a prison. I was obsessed with the beckoning specter of death. The person who changed addresses was not anyone I knew or had ever met. This person was severely depressed. This person contemplated suicide.
The young friend who had helped me move was aware of a dramatic change in my very being. She insisted that I see my internist. After a brief interview, he decided to have me admitted to the psych ward at St. Joseph Hospital where my behavior could be closely monitored. Fortunately, there was no space available on that floor so I was housed in the post-operative unit.
Among the mental health professionals who interviewed me was an intuitive psychiatrist who was convinced that I was not mentally ill. She in turn convinced my doctor to allow me the freedom to heal through a slow detoxification process. My enemy Ambien was no longer a part of my life.
After seemingly ineffective sessions with a Behavioral Modification Therapist over a period of weeks, I found myself. At my side for my recovery was a devoted college friend, a retired physician, who spent hours with me until she was assured that I could be alone.
Yes, it took a team. As I reflect on that short period of my life, I am overcome with gratitude for my friends, the health professionals who helped me heal, and most of all to my mind and body for their resiliency.
This retired gardener loves to celebrate her mid-October birthday. Having passed a memorable eighty, the next one called for special moments. One of them was to indulge in a manicure. The other was to purchase flowers for my Becketwood home.
At La Nails on St. Paul’s Lexington Avenue, I waited patiently as I watched false nails being glued and painted scarlet on the young woman in the chair next to mine. My request was simple. “Please cut my nails short and apply a colorless polish.” My face is familiar in this salon since I go there regularly to have my finger and toe nails cut for a modest price.
The older Vietnamese manicurist with her dyed black hair, painted eyebrows, and bright red lips, understood my request. She nodded. When I told her this was a gift to myself for my birthday, she smiled and looked up. “Flowers?” Thinking about the bouquets soon to adorn my coffee table, I nodded. “Yes, flowers.” Before I could object, she had painted a miniature white bouquet on my left baby finger. It was like delicate lace, but somehow I could not imagine living with ornamental nails. If only I had been sixteen. “No, thank you,” I mumbled. With a frown, she briskly removed the tiny flowers.
My next stop was across the parking lot at Trader Joe’s where bargain flowers entice entering shoppers. While there, I picked out two tall bouquets of alstroemeria, one white and the other a soft pink. At the checkout, the young man behind the counter quickly packaged my organic avocados and chocolate-covered almonds. While my credit card functioned, he looked up and smiled. “The flowers are on us.” I stammered, “Thank you, but why?” “Vibes,” said he.
Yes, this was a memorable eighty-first birthday.