Readers Write-Making Ends Meet

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by March 1, 2015, for consideration for the September 2015 issue.

Is ignorance bliss? Or does a positive attitude beget positive results?

I married for the first time at 20 years old. Too young. And to the wrong man.

But the first few months felt like success. I’m still trying to figure out if it was because he and I were actually on the same page working towards the same goals or if I just didn’t know enough to recognize failure when it stared me in the face.

We were both still students, though set to graduate with our bachelor’s degrees within five months. We each had part-time jobs. His salary paid the rent. My salary paid for groceries. That’s all the expenses we had, and we had them all covered. At least for the six months our student loans were deferred and the four months of grace on our car loan. We didn’t have a plan for what we would do then. We just thought we’d figure it out when we needed to.

My part-time job was very part time. I worked 16 hours a week at 70 cents an hour. After withholding, my take-home pay each week was $7.67 cents. So long as I had three pennies to round the amount up to $7.70, I could cash the check at the Black Hawk bar next door to the movie theatre where I was an usher. The bar wouldn’t hand out pennies, and I didn’t want to settle for $7.65. Because that was all I had to buy groceries and all the other non-grocery items, such as toilet paper and shampoo, each week.

We got our checks every Friday evening. Saturday mornings, I headed for the warehouse grocery store in town with my detailed list of necessities. In order to stretch the money, I picked up canned and packaged goods first. Each shopper was handed a grease pen on arrival with instructions to write the prices on the items as we picked them up. I am amazed now at the trust the store placed in all its customers. But it never occurred to me to write anything other than the listed price. The act of writing also helped me total up the prices as I walked up and down the aisles.

Once I had the cans, boxes, and paper products I needed, I calculated how much money I had available for meat. Ground beef was about 49 cents a pound in those days, chicken was even cheaper, but only sold as a whole bird, and a package of hotdogs was also 49 cents. So for every dollar I didn’t need for canned goods, I could buy two pounds of beef, two packages of hot dogs, or a chicken. That determined the proportion of meat to rice or noodles in the meals I could prepare for the upcoming week.

It never occurred to me to complain that I had so little money. I had what I had. And that had to be enough. So it was.

 

 

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Readers Write-High School

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by January 1, 2016, for consideration for the July 2016 issue.

This year marks 50 years since I graduated from high school. One of the buildings that housed the high school back then no longer exists. A grocery store fills that block now. The primary building still exists (see below), but serves a completely different function.

MHS

I loved my classes, except for one. Physics. Now I’m not saying I didn’t like physics. I didn’t like my physics class. I never got the chance to discover whether I liked physics.

And that’s because the teacher ignored all the girls. He assigned the boys to seats in the rows closest the window and the girls to seats on the opposite side of the room. And then he talked only to the boys. He didn’t even make it convenient for the girls to daydream by looking out the windows.

If one of the girls raised a hand and asked a question, he’d tell us we didn’t need to know the answer. If we pressed him by asking if there would be a question on a future test, he’d tell us that didn’t matter. We were only going to look for a boy to marry anyway.

The boys loved the guy. Maybe they even learned some physics.

I don’t think any of the girls ever complained to anyone other than one another. We were used to things not being fair by then.

I’m going to my class’s 50th reunion. Maybe I should test out just how much physics those boys learned. Any ideas how I could do that?

 

 

 

Readers Write-Right and Wrong

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by May 1, 2014, for consideration for the November 2014 issue.

More than 40 years ago, I lived and worked in Tehran, Iran. While there, I met several members of a Jewish Iranian family. I dated one of the younger sons of the family, Abraham, throughout the two plus years I was there.

I never expected more from the relationship–just pleasant company and someone to explain aspects of the culture that confused me. I never expected to see anyone in the family again, though I kept up a correspondence with Abraham until the Iranian revolution disrupted most communication between Americans and Iranians.

Seven years after I left Iran, while I was working as a consular officer at the US Consulate General in Stuttgart, Germany, I learned that Abraham had been arrested by Revolutionary Guards shortly after the revolution got underway. He was executed by the ruling regime. I cried myself to sleep for days afterwards.

I learned of Abraham’s death through one of his nephews, also named Abraham, who had managed to escape Iran and settle in Los Angeles with his family. Most of his larger family, including his father, Abraham’s brother, had also settled in Los Angeles. When they learned I was trying to find Abraham, the nephew gave his phone number to the person I had asked for help along with the invitation for me to call him. When I called, he pretended to be Abraham, but I knew the voice was wrong. After a few tentative comments, he asked if I had heard that his uncle had been executed by the government. I asked him who he was, and he admitted he was the “other” Abraham.

A few days after that conversation with Abraham the nephew, he called me. It was about 2 a.m. in Germany so I wasn’t really awake when I answered the phone. So when he asked me to help his wife’s aunt get a visa to the US, I agreed and then immediately realized this was not a good idea. The aunt had previously been refused a visa in another country.

I told my boss about the telephone call that morning ,and she advised that I contact Abraham to tell him I wouldn’t be able to interview his wife’s aunt, that she should instead return to the consulate where she had applied before.

Abraham tried to change my mind, referring to my friendship with his uncle and the hospitality his family had shown me. I continued to refuse, and in the end he said he would instead tell his wife’s aunt she should apply in Madrid.

In Madrid? It didn’t make any sense to me. And that made me suspicious. What was going on in Madrid that would make Abraham think it was a place his wife’s aunt might get a visa? Should I mention this strange conversation as well to my boss? Or should I just forget about it? I didn’t really know anything. I only had suspicions.

I said nothing.

A few months later, I learned that a consular officer in Madrid was arrested for fraudulently issuing visas to Iranian citizens in exchange for money.

Was I wrong not to have said something? After all, it was likely officials in Washington had already begun to suspect the consular officer given the short time between my conversation with Abraham and the officer’s arrest.

Or was I right to have said nothing since to do so might add to the grief of a family who had meant so much to me when I lived among them?

 

 

 

 

 

Readers Write-Houses

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by February 1, 2016, for consideration for the August 2016 issue.

My grandfather made the downpayment on the house my parents moved into when they married, a one-story, two-bedroom bungalow on a quiet, two-block long street–Dudrey Court–in the county seat. The house was big enough for the first four children while we were all under ten–boys and girls shared bedrooms in those days–but my parents hoped for five children, which would be difficult to manage without a third bedroom.

Anticipating that fifth child, Dad converted the attic of the house into a third bedroom. My sister and I moved upstairs and the boys kept the downstairs room. Both rooms were now large enough for three children.

But the fifth child turned out to be twins, two boys. While the boys’ bedroom would work for a couple of years, Dad decided we needed a bigger house. I didn’t want to move. My friends lived in the neighborhood. And I really didn’t want to move to the other side of town. If we moved further south, I would have to switch schools, and that would mean not having the same orchestra teacher, Mr. Pulicicchio, I had had since fourth grade.

I don’t think my parents were eager to move from Dudrey Court either. After looking at a few houses outside the neighborhood, my dad made a decision that surprised everyone. He placed an offer on the only house on Dudrey Court that was for sale, a two-story, two-bedroom house across the street. That house was on a larger lot than our house, large enough to add two more bedrooms at the back of the house.

For another year, four of us shared a bedroom again, but this one had a walk-in closet so big my desk fit in it, giving me as much privacy as I needed. During that year, Dad added two more bedrooms, a master bedroom for Mom and Dad, a small bedroom for the twins, and once again my sister and I moved out of the shared bedroom into our own.

For more than 60 years Dad lived in one of those two houses on Dudrey Court. We kids enjoyed those houses, too, but we grew up and moved away, coming back to spend time in that second house for holidays. Grandpa made a good choice when he selected the house my parents first moved into.

 

 

 

Readers Write-Holding On

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by November 1, 2014, for consideration for the May 2015 issue.

I was ten when my baby brother, Brian, was born. He was the younger of twins my mother hadn’t known she was carrying. Brian was just a tiny bit bigger than his older-by-four-minutes brother, so he was able to get out of the incubator and come home from the hospital first.

Since I was the oldest and already had experience babysitting my younger siblings, I felt possessive of Brian. He was the cutest baby I had ever seen. When his older brother came home, I didn’t even pay attention to him. Brian was the cute one. Bruce was the other one. And because Mom needed help when both babies wanted to be fed at the same time, I fed Brian while Mom fed Bruce.

Brian was my baby.

Because of the difference in our ages, it didn’t take long for me to leave Brian behind in favor of other interests, such as boys my own age. Ten years later, I was ready to leave home while the twins were still in elementary school. I considered them both cute by then, but they were just twerps who happened to share the same living space.

Then in 2010, my brother Brian went to the emergency room after spending a weekend at the lake with his wife and kids because he thought he had come down with a cold. He never left that hospital.

It wasn’t a cold that brought him to the emergency room. It was the early stages of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia, AML. In his case, the A could as easily have stood for aggressive as acute because just seven weeks later, Brian was gone.

He made it through one round of chemotherapy, but the remission lasted only two weeks, not long enough for his body to regain strength for him to breathe on his own. And the tube in his throat that permitted the ventilator to keep him breathing had taken away his ability to talk–but not to communicate. He used a board with letters to spell out words. Or he whispered.

During his seven weeks in the hospital, Brian taught me three things through his example. He taught me the importance of saying thank you. He taught me the importance of saying I love you. And he taught me the importance of maintaining a sense of humor.

Brian knew he was dying. He had plenty to complain about, but he didn’t complain. When the nurses came into his room to give him a shot or to take a glucose reading or to change the bedpan, Brian always whispered, “thank you,” before they left the room.

Brian had plenty to be angry about, but he never expressed anger. Whenever someone came to visit him, whether family or friend, whether the visit was one time or every day, Brian always whispered, “I love you,” before we left his room.

Brian couldn’t eat or drink anything. Tubes delivered both food and water. What he wanted most of all was a drink of cold water. And whenever a doctor or nurse asked him if there was anything else they could do for him, he would whisper, “I’d like some water, please.”

I can’t let go of Brian. His name is still in my iPhone directory. When I want to talk with his wife or his daughter, I look up Brian’s name to get the number. I have a folder in my GMail account where I keep all the messages he sent me. It also contains eight messages that arrived several months after he died, the result of someone having hacked his old account. I’ve never opened them, but the previews include statements I can just hear Brian saying, if he ever got his voice back:

“hey Sandra, I told myself to stay positive at first. . .”
“hey there Sandra, I found something that could change how you live. . .”
“hey there Sandra, I wanted to prove I could amount to something. . .”

I will hold on to those messages in order to hold on to Brian.

What are you holding onto?

 

 

Readers Write-Leaving Home

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by January 1, 2015, for consideration for the July 2015 issue.

Leaving home had been my goal from the time I learned the world was made up of more than one country. Of course, I had to grow up before acting on such thoughts was possible, but even then my parents and I disagreed on just how much growing up was needed.

My first attempt at leaving home was when I applied to a college in the southern half of the state, one where I would have to live in a dorm. I would have considered such an arrangement to meet the definition of leaving home, but my parents insisted that I instead attend a college in town so that I could stay at home.

After one year of college, our next door neighbors moved to Wisconsin, leaving their daughter, Margaret, behind so she could complete college. Margaret was my age, though she attended the other college in town. Her parents rented out the house. Margaret lived in the basement apartment which she shared with a friend from her work. After one year, her roommate decided she wanted to move back home. Margaret asked if I would like to move in with her, rent free. I was convinced my parents would agree. They didn’t.

Another year passed. That summer, I applied as a volunteer with an arts and crafts and recreation program for children in Jersey City, New Jersey. The program wouldn’t pay anything, but they would reimburse my plane fare and provide housing as well as breakfast, lunch, and dinner five days each week. It was only for seven weeks, not exactly leaving home, but my father objected to my going. Fortunately Mom intervened, saying I was over 18 years old so he couldn’t stop me. I think she stretched the truth a bit since I was still under 21. But Dad relented, and I spent the summer living in a house in Union City, with seven other college coeds from the Midwest, and working in nearby Weehawken.

While my excursion in New Jersey lasted only seven weeks that summer, it marked my leaving home more profoundly than my eventual departure. Most of my second grade students that summer were children of Cuban immigrants. And their parents did not all speak English. I had always wanted a career involving foreign languages which led to my studying both German and Russian. But being around my students’ parents, I realized that I already knew a foreign language–English.

When I returned to Minnesota, I remained in my parents home for an additional two years before I left home permanently. I changed my major from German to English and took every English course that didn’t involve reading literature to prepare myself for teaching English as a Foreign Language, a concept I had never thought of before my summer in New Jersey.

It turned out that leaving home wasn’t an event; it was a process that began with a group of seven-year-old children of Cuban origin who helped me recognize I had the knowledge and ability that ignited my passion for teaching English as a language. That was the inciting event that changed the direction I would head for when I finally left home.

Readers Write-The Backyard

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Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.

This piece should have been submitted by November 1, 2015, for consideration for the May 2016 issue.

Few fences or hedges separated the backyards of the block I grew up on. That meant our backyard was huge–consisting of many contiguous yards behind our house and those immediately next to it. Clotheslines made up the biggest impediments to our freedom in the backyard. The T-shaped metal supports at the ends of the lines interfered with our football games. And if the lines held clothes, our backyard was off limits. I always knew when there were clothes on the lines; it was my job to hang them up after Mom completed washing each load.

We had an old fashioned wringer washing machine in the basement. In order to save both water and the energy needed to heat it, Mom always washed the light clothes first, the only load that got fresh, hot water. Instead of allowing the water out through the drain in the floor, Mom caught the soapy water in a galvanized tub, to be used with the next load of darker colors or heavier items. Clean, warm water rinsed the clothes before the washer tub spun to get rid of the majority of the water. But to ensure the clothes would dry as quickly as possible, each item went through the wringer to squeeze out the last, reluctant drops before Mom filled the basket with clothes for me to hang outside on the line.

I learned how to pin items on the line with the fewest possible pins by overlapping the edges so one pin held an edge of two items. Once the clothes were dry, I removed every other pin on all the lines so that the clothes remained in place until I moved the basket, into which I would fold and pile the dry clothes, from one end of the line to the other, then repeating the steps with the clothes on the line behind it.

The clothesline represented one of my chores, but it also represented something magical. With a few blankets held in place on the front and back lines, our backyard was transformed into a stage. An older neighbor, Gayle, organized the gaggle of younger kids from our neighborhood to form a circus. We performed for our parents who took seats on the back porch, on the grass, or on folding chairs carried to our backyard for the event. Gayle served as the ringmaster and pulled the front blanket to one side to reveal the performers behind it and then closed the curtain so we could prepare for the next act.

Gayle’s circus inspired me to write a play to raise money for the March of Dimes the following year, also starring my neighbors, the first step on my road to becoming an author.