Nineteen Sixty Three (By Joan Wahl Countryman)

The small, elegant dress shop where my mother worked making alterations was about to close for the day. I sat by a long mirror on one of the pale green slipper chairs as I waited for her to finish tidying up for the day. Wind and rain blew into the shop as Mammy’s coworker, umbrella at the ready, said goodbye and left for the day.

“It’s so cold and wet outside. Why don’t we go have a cup of tea or coffee at Bewley’s Café?” she said.

“And maybe a scone?” I asked.

Bewley’s Café on Dublin’s fashionable Grafton St. was cozy and inviting. We slid into a corner nook and placed our orders. The aroma of roasting coffee and baked goods filled the air.

“Sure isn’t this grand, I’m glad to be off my feet” my mother said in her soft voice.

Her workday was long and hard. She described some of the haughty ladies she had to satisfy with dress alterations, and how her bunions hurt. My mind went searching for solutions.

“Sure they want to look like the queen, but they don’t have the figure.”

I mentioned a grey coat I had seen at Cleary’s department store on O’Connell Street.

“Would you take a look at it on me?” I asked.

“Sure I’d love to see it—grey you said. Grey is a good color, my dear.”

“You know Mammy,” I said, “I think it is time for me to go back to New York and piece together a life for myself and maybe help you out where I can.”

“My dear you will need a good warm coat there in January—I hear it is awfully cold. I can loan you some money and you can pay me back later. This sad country just does not have much to offer young people these days—sure it’s a vale of tears,” Mammy said.

“Thanks” I said. I knew she was feeling sad at the thought of saying goodbye to me once again. But she would never hold on to us for selfish reasons.

“Sure, we can look at that coat tomorrow, and if it needs any alterations, I can get that done. Go move on with your life my dear,” she said.

I was wearing my new grey wool coat when I said goodbye to my mother at Dublin airport for the second time.  As I went to the plane, a news photographer from the Evening Herald snapped my picture—Mammy sent me a copy from the newspaper later. I took the window seat so I could shed my tears and look down on the patchwork of green beauty below. As I left this beautiful land that had held such love and misery for me, I reflected on my mother’s unselfish courage and generosity of spirit. I felt torn between two worlds.

Back in New York I slept on my sister’s living room couch and went looking for a job, post haste. As luck would have it, I found a job at an advertising agency down around UN Plaza. The office manager, an unfriendly older lady, was very demanding and I did everything I could to learn the advertising business. Connecting up with old friends on the weekend, I headed out to a dance where I met a charming, tall and good-looking man with piercing brown eyes that seemed to see into my soul. His name was Richard: Good manners blended with an educated mind were impressive to this just-off-the-boat immigrant. Authors’ names like Joyce and Keats rolled off his tongue. I was impressed.

He had been in a Catholic seminary, taught at a Catholic boy’s school in New York and I found out later, had been fired.

After a few dates, I realized he was a troubled soul. He wanted to argue with everyone he met. His heated arguments about religion and the shooting of President Kennedy were constant and out of line. I told him I would not be able to see him again, but he would not take “no” for an answer. He called on the phone at all hours of the night and arrived at the apartment wanting to come inside.

My girlfriends advised me to call the police or move out. I warned my friends not to give Richard any information about my whereabouts. Someone gave him my work number. “I didn’t think he would find you,” she said later. She didn’t know Richard as well as I did.

I was typing away at my desk when the phone rang. The office manager was speaking to someone. I heard her giving directions to the office, the business hours, etc. My heart started to pound. It was my first week on the job, the manager was looking at me and I just knew it was Richard on the other end. When she got off the phone, I told her I was trying to avoid this guy, but could not get rid of him. Suddenly, the door opened, and there was Richard with a broad smile on his face.

“Joan, I just want to talk to you.”

“You will get me fired,” I protested.

“Just see me one last time,” he demanded.  Next thing, the door opened and my two big bosses came in. I begged Richard to leave. He left. But I knew he would be outside. I confided in the office manager, who understood my fear and promised to stay with me after work. He was outside when we left to go home.

“Joan, I just want to talk.”

“I can’t see you anymore.”

Sitting on a bench at The UN Plaza, I tried to convince him to leave. My manager told him she would call the cops if he refused to leave me alone. He left.

I took the bus home to Queens. As I was walking down the street to the apartment, I turned around and looked back at the elevated train track. Richard was watching me. He started running, and by the time I got to the apartment building he was there. Luckily, two neighbors came home from work and convinced him I did not want to be bothered. They stayed outside with me until he decided to leave.

Two Irish friends, Colette and Deirdre knew of my dilemma and invited me to join them on a bus trip across country. Their plan was to hit Chicago, Denver, and Salt Lake City, staying at a YWCA or other hostels along the way. I felt this was an opportunity to put many miles between Richard and myself. Digging deep to find the courage to move out west, I reflected back on my mother’s courage and perseverance. My journey was nothing compared with hers— surviving a truly bad marriage with our alcoholic father and working as a seamstress every day to keep the roof over our heads. She always encouraged her children to forge better lives for themselves.

Leaving New York meant saying goodbye to my sister and a few good friends I had made there. “You’ll be hearing from me,” I said as I hugged them goodbye.

All my earthly goods were in a small brown suitcase. We traveled light on a Continental Trailways bus, using the lockers at bus stations to store our suitcases as we found a place for the night. First stop Chicago, then Denver. In Denver I asked a cowboy if I could have my picture taken with him. I had never seen a real cowboy before. In the picture I am wearing my Irish sweater and my tartan kilt skirt. He was happy to pose with three Irish colleens, and we were starting to love the open spaces and beauty of the west. When we stopped in Salt Lake City, Utah we viewed the Mormon Temple but could not find a bar to save our souls.

Arriving in San Francisco, I remember thinking: You are going to have to dig deep girl, find the courage it will take to succeed here. There was no turning back now.

Deirdre and Colette were both from Dublin. Deirdre was a typical Irish colleen with fair complexion and striking red curly hair. Colette was a leader who kept us out of trouble. We hit the town south of Market Street the first day and night, picked up the San Francisco Chronicle and found a place to stay. It turned out to be a seedy hotel where we pulled the covers over our heads to keep from hearing the noise going on behind the bedroom wall. We bought a map of the city and discovered Herb Caen’s column in the Chronicle. Herb’s column was where I went every morning to learn all about life in San Francisco.

We found a one bedroom, one bathroom with a living room with a pull-out couch at 757 Sutter Street. It was fully furnished and had a little kitchen in a good area of town. Colette opted to sleep on the couch, giving Deirdre and me the two single beds. We picked up our food from the hot counter at Manning’s cafeteria and stuffed our bags with the leftover food and a fork or two.

Our landlady lived one floor up. She regularly met us in the hall and asked about our welfare and how we were settling in. On one of those occasions, she asked us if we would have time to escort a business-man or two to dinner or a show—nothing more. Sure, we said. I soon found out that the business-man who took me to dinner at the Fairmont Hotel had plans for a much longer evening. He was very nice and warned me to stay away from the landlady, who was really a madam. It was time to find respectable work.

Deirdre found a job at the Irish Tourist Board, Colette got a job at Spreckles Sugar and I landed a clerical position in the accounting department at P&O Orient Lines, a British shipping company. Typing and clerical work combined with a pleasant attitude got us in the door. Hard work, no money and nowhere else to turn kept us on the job. We were all within walking distance of work. Deirdre’s eye-sight was not the best. One morning she and I were walking down Post Street and I looked down at her feet. She was wearing one brown shoe and one black one. Fifty years later, I still remember how we laughed.

We didn’t waste a minute on the weekends and soon discovered the charming men at the Catholic dances in the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and the St. Francis Hotel.

Colette met George at a dance. Then Deirdre met Don at the Irish Tourist Board (he was returning to Ireland for good). They were both dating when I met Larry at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. We Irish girls were not messing around. We came to San Francisco in April 1964 and were all married by the end of December. I was the last to marry on December 26, 1964.

George, Larry and Don named our little apartment “The 757 Club.” We were on the same block as Trader Vics and the Fleur De Lis restaurants. We cooked dinner for them on weekends, making Irish stew with lots of potatoes and gravy. Colette made the jello for dessert. We didn’t always do what our mothers instilled in us, but we sure knew the best way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.

My dreams came true as I forged a better life for myself in California. I returned to Dublin many time to share that joy with Mammy at Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street.

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Tears in Africa by Joan Wahl Countryman

“You can’t go to Africa on your own, Mom” my daughter, Deirdre, exclaimed when I showed her the brochure for “Wings over Africa.”

“To see Kenya has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. Now that you and your brother Tony are all grown up and I’m alone, I feel drawn to Africa. The travel agent has worked with me, helping me use my air miles, and finding the very best trip for a widow traveling alone,” I assured her. Everything would be fine.

Landing in Nairobi in October, 1994, I began to have second thoughts about my decision. Maybe I am biting off more than I can chew, I thought. What if I get sick or even die? What if the kids are right and I disrupt their lives due to this dream of mine? The airport looked shabby and everyone was coal black. I wondered, would I understand the language? Fear took over. Then, right in front of me stood a tall, handsome, African man. “You must be Joan; I’m John from Abercrombie & Kent. I will get your luggage and take you to the bus,” he said. His dark grey well-tailored suit displayed the A&K name tag with John’s name on it. His English and communication skills put me at ease. Now I could begin to relax and enjoy the experience.

On the bus, John introduced me to the three American couples that would join me on the trip. Everyone seemed very enthused except for one man, Mr. Negative. He informed all of us, “The only reason I’m here is because my wife wanted to see Africa.”

I took the front seat in the van next to the tour guide. “Didn’t your husband want to see Africa?” she questioned. “He would have loved to,” I replied, “but he died a year ago from lung cancer at age fifty eight.” Silence reigned in the back as the newly acquainted travelers searched for something to say. I took a deep breath and swallowed hard. Someone in the back made a comment about courage, which went over my head.

After a night in a hotel in Nairobi, we flew in a small plane to Amboseli. The next day we went out in a Land Rover type vehicle to view herds of elephants on a preserve. We stopped along a grassy area and were asked to be quiet out of respect for the animals, as a very large herd approached. The lead elephant, a female, stopped in her tracks, looked into our eyes and refused to continue until the driver backed the vehicle out of their path. Her message was: this land is mine.

Flying over the Great Rift Valley on the way to the Masai Mara, we could see great herds of wildebeest on the march for water. Viewed from the air, they reminded me of ants. When we got closer to the Masai Mara, an occasional spot of red and some cattle appeared on the ground. The spot of red was a Masai herder watching his flock.

The Masai, a very tall regal people, greeted us. We were treated to native dancing and a craft show in their round house, which was made of dung and straw and large enough to hold fifty people. I noticed a little boy who was half clad with bare feet and a snotty nose. Flies flew around him. Oh, how I wished I could take him home and give him a bath. As we left the round house and took the path for the bus, the little boy walked up to Mr. Negative, took his hand and gave him a big snotty smile.

Waving goodbye from the bus, Mr. Negative turned to us and with tears in his eyes said, “That little boy was the highlight of my trip to Africa. If I live to be 100, I will never forget him. He made this whole trip worthwhile.”

Next stop, Nanuki. Flying over the dry savannah we saw an occasional acacia tree giving shade to a few wild animals. The tour guide pointed to a heard of African antelope, known as eland, taking shelter. Our next stop was the Mount Kenya Safari Club. This luxury hotel at the foot of Mt. Kenya promised experiences one could only dream about.

Along the road to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, I saw coffee plantations and an occasional village of painted huts, some with galvanized roofs. Children played outside among the colorful clothing hanging on the lines to dry. With my nose pressed against the van window I saw a woman who was carrying a huge bale of wood on her back. Bent over almost in half, she put one foot in front of the other as the road rose in front of her.

“What is that poor soul doing with all that wood?” I asked the tour guide.

“She is collecting wood to build a fire to cook the food for her family,” the guide replied rather matter-of-factly. “I wish she could have a bike to carry all that wood,” I said to no one in particular. “These people can’t even afford a wheelbarrow!” the guide replied.

I was shocked and saddened thinking of my own wasteful habits.

The hotel was luxurious. Mount Kenya was snow capped and majestic. We were greeted at the entrance with a cool fruit drink while the guide registered the group. I was escorted to my own cottage by a nice soft-spoken gentleman wearing a brown uniform. I wanted to tip him but did not understand the exchange rate. I pulled out a bill, which, when I saw the look on his face, I realized it was much too little. Later he knocked on the door around 4:00 pm with a cup of tea and biscuits. By this time, I had figured out the exchange rate and was able to give him a decent tip. “I will be back in a little while with wood to light the fire in the fireplace. Don’t miss the sun as it sets behind the mountain,” he offered.

This is really being spoiled, I thought. He came back and lit the fire. I settled in with my cup of tea. All alone with no one to share the moment, I watched the smoke and flames rise as the picture of the poor soul trudging up the road, bent under the bale of wood, filled my heart with sadness. Her image was all I could see in the flames. My tears could not change her life in this vast country, where life seemed so unfair.

When the sun went down, the night skies were very black. A buffet table displayed an array of salads and fruit to choose from. I took a seat at the table with our tour guide and another couple and enjoyed the meal, the wine, and the talk about what we had seen and what was to come. A guide with a flashlight helped me back to my cottage after dinner. Animal sounds played like music in the night air. Mount Kenya Safari club members and many famous people from around the world finance the rescue of injured wild animals that can no longer survive in the wild. The animals are adopted, living out their lives in this great reserve where well-trained, caring staff and volunteers make them comfortable.

Our next stop was The Ark in Aberdares National Park. The Ark had the feel of a tree house, overlooking a water hole and a salt lick, which were floodlit at night. The staff rang a bell in the rooms at night to let everyone know the animals were at the water. I got up and joined the other guests on the deck to watch a black rhino drinking from the pool. The next day a large stealthy leopard walked right by the window in the lounge where I sat having a drink. Amazing!

The roar of the male lion waking from his afternoon nap, the speed of the cheetah on the chase to take down an eland, the sounds of the exotic birds and the sight of other wildlife took me to a place where I hadn’t ventured before, emotionally or physically. My broken heart opened up to my new reality.

In the dark of night, on the edge of the Masai Mara with a chorus of wild animals calling out to one another, I sat outside my tent and cried like never before. I cried for the lost moments, the unshared thoughts, the love never voiced or put off for a better time, and the many things left unfinished. I had to go to deepest, darkest Africa to share my sadness with the animals.

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