Hold That Trash! (by Janet Clark)

In the late 1960’s, I suddenly found myself with no independence and no income of my own. Overnight I became a non-person. My husband and I packed our household, sons nearly 3 and almost 5, and moved to Northern California where he would become a college professor. I had to leave my job with a brokerage firm where I was finishing studies and testing for a stock broker’s license, paid for by my employer. Having been our family’s main bread winner while my spouse finished his Masters, I not only left behind a big paycheck plus generous bonuses, I also parted with my main source of self-esteem and suddenly felt adrift. In our new community, a total stranger informed me he could tell I was a “city girl” because my skirts were “too short for this town.” And so I was—a city girl stranded in the middle of almond orchards, rice fields and a daily 10 page Republican newspaper. It would take many years for me to appreciate almonds and brown rice.

First I tried a few months of typing and secretarial work for the campus English Department, but they were housed in the same building as the Art Department my husband worked in and I soon overheard that the staff was unhappy with him because he blatantly used the “F” and the “Sh” words in public. My job did not pay as much as the cost of day care for my children, so one day I responded to an ad for part time evening work with the Blue Diamond Nut Company. It seemed like the perfect solution. My husband could watch the children while I worked the evening shift sorting nuts, which couldn’t be a far cry from what my life was like already. The pay was fairly good.

The interview was brief and I was hired on the spot. Provided with a big green hair net—the kind worn in medical facilities—I was introduced to the conveyor belts. There were three of them, each divided into six sections so that the women perched on stools on either side of the belt had a total of three “trays”. The tray closest to the employee carried almonds that had been cracked by a big machine. The other two trays were for broken almonds and the last was for the trash—bits of shell, leaves, sometimes unspeakable things. I was instructed to pick the trash and broken bits of almond out of the first tray, leaving only the perfect almonds, drop the broken nuts into tray two, and anything not edible into the third tray. Made sense. Sounded pretty easy.

I was provided with a backless stool and someone helped me adjust it to the proper height for working on the conveyor. Settling in, things went well until the belt was turned on. It moved much faster than I imagined and I immediately began to laugh out loud. Trying to pick out the trash and damaged nuts and drop them into their proper places on the conveyor was like some kind of dexterity game you might play with children at a party. And then, all of a sudden the belt seemed to stop and it felt as though I was moving. I must have looked alarmed because the woman sitting next to me (we had never been introduced) hollered over the noise of the machinery, “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.” The next couple of hours until break time were grueling. All the motion made me nauseous and the noise made my ears ring. Every ten minutes, my supervisor, a wiry little woman with a southern twang, stopped behind me, glared in my direction and screamed, “Hold that trash!” It was like being in the middle of a Felini movie and I no longer felt like laughing. I wanted to cry.

It only took a couple of days for me to develop a very negative attitude. Driving off to work I’d pass my neighbor, a doctor’s wife, outside chatting with the pool man, another neighbor riding her big Arabian horse back out of the park toward their stables. I imagined what they’d think of me if they knew what I was doing. I started hating my husband.

The job lasted for two weeks. One morning I couldn’t get out of bed until I’d called the Diamond office and told them I was done. They didn’t sound surprised. They were probably relieved. The supervisor had started referring to me as “I Love Lucy” and asked me several times, “Girl, what are you doing here?” Each time I looked at her—wearing a T-shirt from a local bar, missing a couple of front teeth, recalling the battered Ford pick-up she plowed into the company parking lot every afternoon—well, I just never found an explanation I thought she might appreciate.

Upcoming Events for DYLS

Readers and writers,

We have some exciting events coming very quickly as our semester speeds to a close.

First off, I am about to post our first student blog submission for the session, an essay from Janet Clark. Hopefully her fellow students will follow in her wake and soon there will be a broad sampling of some of the wonderful works that these writers have been working on right here on the blog.

Secondly, the due date is approaching for submissions from our writers for the Fall 2014 Writing Anthology. This printed compilation of student work will serve as both a keepsake from the class, as well as a physical means of sharing work with one another. Submissions are due by the end of November. Copies will be available at our reading on December 10th.

Which brings us to an exciting announcement! Document Your Life Story will be hosting its first ever Celebration of Writing Class Reading, during which members from the class will share some of their incredible stories. The reading will take place in the Elderberry Room of the Lafayette Community Center (500 St. Mary’s Road) on Wednesday, December 10th from 2:00-3:30 pm. Refreshments will be provided. Family, friends, and members of the community are invited to attend. Hope to see you there!

Imagery and Sensation

This past week in Document Your Life Story (DYLS) we discussed scene and summary as well as the importance of imagery in evoking emotions and giving us a sense of tone and mood. We read Mark Salzman’s short essay “The Kiss,” taking note of the small actions, language and setting that Salzman uses to take the reader from a laid-back dinner party to a boisterous discussion to an embarrassed round of throat clearing, only to end on a tender and delicate moment of intimacy.

We also looked at Sandra Cisneros very short piece “Bread,” using it as a point of entry into the topic of sensory images. Identifying the sensory images in the work of other writers (Cisneros’ use of the overwhelming smell of bread, for example), helps us to identify those images in our own writing. Those images and the sensation they evoke–hunger, in this instance–help us to find the heart of a piece, the “about-ness” of it.

Our assignment leaving class was to pay attention to the images we use as we work on our essays and memoirs. Personally, I’m about to sit down and write about a tender moment I shared with my dog many years back. I’m hoping the soft sweet scent of his freshly-washed fur and the click-clack of his toenails against the hardwood floors of my childhood home are enough to get the memory going.

A Season for Beginnings

Fall is here in Lafayette and this semester of Document Your Life Story (DYLS) is well underway. It is an immense privilege to be working with these wonderful students and to hear the beautiful, painful, wonderful stories they have to share. Our first three classes have been back to back to back, including two excellent craft talks hosted on Saint Mary’s campus and a surprise celebration for my September 24th birthday.

In addition to some discussion on scene versus summary and the elusive nature of the narrative arc, we have been talking about beginnings. Where do you start when it comes to telling the story of a life? How do we open a narrative? What is that moment from which the future is born? We’ve shared stories of early birthdays, of first memories and historic events, of the point from which the trajectory of a story was set. The students have been great, their stories rich and deep, with first lines ranging from “I was meant to fly” to stories that open with a little girl playing in the grass of a monkey tree to the cold and premature birth of an isolated infant.

 

I have been honored to read the writing of Marcia Thomas, John A., Janet Clark, Joan Wahl, Marice George, Treva Perkins and Marilyn Harrison already this term and look forward to seeing what they have to share with you.

Lafayette Seniors Writing Workshop Anthology (Spring 2014)

It was an absolute honor to be working with the senior citizens in Lafayette, CA from February until May 2014. I had the opportunity to not just impart the little knowledge I had in memoir writing, but also to learn about life itself from reading and listening to the stories that the participants shared.

Here’s an anecdote from the class.

I had prepared two readings, they were both experimental collage essays. One was “Considering the Lilies” by Rebecca McLanahan, and the other was Brenda Miller’s “Brief History of Sex”. Due to the essays’ similarities and time constraint, we had to choose one.

So I asked, “Which one would you guys like to read? Fashion or sex?”

And these senior citizens, without any hesitation whatsoever, said, “Sex!”

Senior Services Memoir Workshop Spring 2014 02

(Left to right: Nahide Craig, Joan Wahl Countryman, Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta, Janet Clark, and Treva Perkins)

You’ve enjoyed short pieces by these writers on this blog, now you can read their longer work. Click here for the anthology.

At Our House

By Janet Clark

 

When my daughter was three years old we joined a nursery school cooperative.  Parents helped staff the facility on a rotating basis.  Angela was blessed with big brown eyes, a mop of shiny curls, her father’s imagination and her mother’s smart mouth.  She was a constant source of amusement for some of the more conservative parents.  Typical of three year olds, she was usually her most entertaining on the days I did not remain at school with her.

One noontime, when I arrived to collect her, the parents on duty were waiting for me.  They argued over who would get to tell me what had happened earlier that morning.   It seems that during snack time, while the children were all seated around little tables, munching slices of fresh fruit and drinking chocolate milk, Angela’s neighbor accidently knocked over his paper cup.  The contents spilled across the table soaking her napkin.   “Oh, shit,” she declared.

Shocked, one of the mother’s stepped over to the table and shook her finger in Angela’s direction scolding,   “No, no, Angela, we don’t talk like that here.”

Angela gave her an incredulous look and continued to mop up the spill with someone else’s napkin, then stopped.  Shrugging her shoulders at the other children at the table she smiled big and announced proudly, “Well, we do at my house!”

The Cherry Popsicle

By Edna Coulson Hall

 

I was ten years old when My Grandma Coulson died, my mother’s mother. I was told death meant Grandma was gone far, far away from this life, our life, all the way to Heaven where she would live with the angels, and we would never see her again until we went to Heaven ourselves one fine day. I said I understood.

At the funeral I stood by Mom while she talked to my aunts and uncles and other people who seemed to start every sentence with “She was.” It made a buzzing sound in my head. My Aunt Mildred said Grandma was in a place now where her heart was strong again and where she didn’t hurt anymore and never would again. She didn’t call the place Heaven, but I was sure that was what she meant because when someone said Grandma was with the angels now, Aunt Mildred smiled and
nodded.

Afterward, when we were home from the funeral, I looked at my picture book Bible and studied the images of angels there in their long flowing robes, their great white wings, their glowing halos. I had rarely seen Grandma except in a cotton house dress covered over with a long bib apron made from flour sacking. It was impossible to imagine Grandma among these dainty beings each strumming a small gold harp.
The only musical instrument I had ever known Grandma to play had been a pocket comb wrapped in waxed paper.

Before Grandma got sick, she would write Mom every week, ad her letters always came on Tuesday. The first Tuesday after Grandma’ funeral I was sitting on the front steps of our house sharing a homemade cherry popsicle with our dog. The mail man came and left mail at the end of the lane. Dust rolled up from the road.

I heard the kitchen screen door open and slap shut as Mom rushed out and started down to the road. As she neared the yard gat, she suddenly stopped and bent forward as if something had kicked her in the middle of her body. I watched and waited. Then she straightened and walked slowly on down to the mail box.

When I put the popsicle back in my mouth I could taste the dust from the road. I held it out to the dog.

“Here,” I said. “You can have it. My grandma’s dead.”

It Was One of Those Days

By Janet Clark

 

Today I ‘d waited longer than I should have to drag Lurch, my old and battered Honda lawn mower, out of the garage. Now the sun was high and after only two rows I began to sweat. There were a million other things I’d rather be doing. “Keeping up appearances” is what I call mowing. I tell myself I need the front yard to look well-groomed for the neighbors and that I don’t really give a damn. An attractive landscape makes people in the neighborhood believe that I am a good person. Intelligent, clean — trustworthy. What a bunch of rot. At my age, I could kill myself mowing this enormous lawn in the heat of the day. Sometimes I feel resentful that I’m one of only three people on my block who doesn’t have a gardener. The other two have strapping husbands who love gardening while poor little old me just can’t afford yard help.

Right in the middle of my “woe is me”, I spotted something shiny in the grass a fraction of a second before the mower gobbled it up. I’ve learned to react quickly because Lurch has been known to pick up things and spit them out at my knee caps like shot-gun blasts. Not needing anymore scars, I stopped the mower in the nick of time. It was half-buried in the grass. Turning it over, I discovered the sparkling object was a name plate – black plastic with white lettering. It had a shiny silver magnetic clip on the back, which apparently hadn’t worked very well.

Elder Thomas
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Now what in the hell had he been doing in the middle of my lawn?

Slipping it into my pocket, I resumed mowing with much more enthusiasm. Aided by my imagination, I walked Lurch back and forth across the grass thinking of various ways Elder Thomas’ name plate could have ended up on my property.

Possibly it fell off as Thomas was being carted away by a huge bird of prey.

Or maybe while canvassing my neighborhood, passing out religious literature, he was mugged by the Devil himself.

More than likely, my neighbor Jack got pissed off when Elder Thomas knocked on his door and threatened to hose Elder Thomas off the front porch. This name plate probably flew off the poor kid’s tie as he ran for his life.

Whatever.

It’s a lot of fun being a fledgling writer. You can find stories almost anywhere. If it isn’t book-length material, it might just enough to blog.

Today was just one of those days. Found a story while out mowing the lawn.

Treasured Memories

By Joan Wahl Countryman

 

Grammy’s Cookies

Take Four Grandchildren One By One

A High Stool

The Kitchen Aid Mixer

Brown and White sugar

Butter

Vanilla (enjoy the smell)

Add

Flour

Baking Soda and Salt

Chocolate Chips

Hersey’s English Toffee Bits

Mix gently with love, laughter, mess and disaster

Joyous memories held close as children grow too old to join me in the kitchen

Where treasured memories reside

Pick Up

By Joan Wahl Countryman

 

In February every year a hardy group of tennis players from Lamorinda join together for tennis in Palm Desert:

The youngest is around seventy five

The oldest is eighty eight

Levels of tennis from very good to not so good

All levels are accommodated with encouragement with good humor

This year my husband Jim and I decided to fly down instead of drive, we rented a car from Budget – a Toyota Yaris.  Upon our arrival the following ensued:

“Sorry Sir we don’t have the Yaris.  How about a VW Bug?”

“I do not want a Bug or a Ford whatever – I ordered the Yaris a month ago.”

“We have a Mustang which we will discount.”

After much wrangling we said yes to the Mustang. With keys, paperwork, suitcases and Jim’s cane we headed out to find parking spot E5.  That was the easy part.  Electric Green, two door with barely enough room to hold our suitcases in the trunk.  A not too happy Jim tossed his cane in the back seat and we were off.

Driving to the motel we began to notice people staring along the way – I gave a wink to a truck driver.

In the motel parking lot there was a team of young Lacrosse players getting ready to leave on a bus for a game – they stepped aside as we drove to the nearest handicapped parking spot.

The young men gave the car the once over while speaking among themselves.  As we alighted from the Mustang, they took a second look. Smiling, I said:

“Didn’t expect a couple of old fogies to be driving this – did ya!”

“It’s very cool,” one said.

“Great pickup,” Jim said.

During our stay, we made more friends because of the green machine.

Never lost it in the parking lot.

Every trip out was an opportunity to have a good laugh and talk to some young buck who wished he could be behind the wheel.

Jim, my old buck, enjoyed the green machine’s pick up – sure you are never too old to laugh and play!

Jim and the Green Machine

Jim and the Green Machine