Single Life

At 71, my father, Carroll, has been single for two years.

“What’s it like?” I ask. “Do you think it’s different from single at 30, or 40?” I’m in a relationship at the moment, but considering the impermanence of modern lesbian relationships, this is information I intend to store for the future.

He looks at the sky and smooths his gray mustache. “Probably not,” he says.

We sit on the deck of his tiny trailer in a run-down resort in the California desert. We are drinking vodka and grapefruit juice, perhaps a bit too fast. Vodka is his drink, not mine. He likes whiskey, he says, but his system just can’t take it. Gin gives him an asthmatic reaction. But with vodka, he says, he’s never had a hangover.

He has returned home from his travels to a stack of mail and he reads it as we talk, half-glasses perched on his nose. “This GD insurance company. I’ve been fighting with them for months. Who’s this from? Oh, my friends the Carlsons. You remember Ben and Karen. They’re coming to visit.

I move the stack of mail around and spot an envelope with recognizable handwriting. It is a card from my brother, Don, a notoriously poor correspondent.

“Dear Carroll,” it says, “Hope you are enjoying life in the desert. Everything is fine up here. I recently moved into a new apartment with a new roommate, a college student at the university. I’m working really hard on the Little Theater production of Cinderella, and work is going fine. Hope you had a good holiday.”

“Have you talked to Don lately?” says Carroll.

“Not too long ago. He seems to be doing fine.” I don’t elaborate. Why should I explain, when Don does not, that he plays the part of the fairy godmother in Cinderella? I have met the new “roommate,” a young man who clearly does not have his own bed.

Carroll leans back in the old metal deck chair and gives me a look, but asks no more questions. He has never wanted to know the details of my brother’s private life, nor mine, and we have never told him in so many words.

“That was something, Liberace dying,” he says.

“Yes, it was sad.” What I think is Don hasn’t had the test. I’m terrified that he is positive. For a moment I wish I could talk to Carroll about it.

“I don’t think it’s right that people should be able to hide the cause of death like he did,” he says.

“I think it was a terrible thing they did to him,” I say. “He should have been allowed to die in peace.” Carroll makes some more protests, but he’s not much of a fighter and I don’t feel very argumentative at the moment.

I go back to riffling through his mail. “What’s this?” I say, turning over an envelope with flowery handwriting.

He has saved the good stuff for last. “From Irma,” he says, opening the envelope and scanning the card quickly. He passes it to me.

A teddy bear in a lacy bed looks forlornly out from the card. “I think of you daily and miss you enormously,” it says.

Somehow I have the feeling this thinking and missing is not reciprocal. “How sweet.” I take a swig.

I suspect Carroll had been seeing Irma before my mother died, but I try not to hold that against her. Carroll was a little too pushy about it was all, wanting everything to be okay. He insisted I meet her, and the one time I did, she seemed fine. She told me Carroll was the first man who’d appealed to her in fifteen years.

“You’re obviously putting some distance between you and Irma,” I say, pulling myself out of the chair.

“She drinks too much for me,” he says. “I tell her I think she’s an alcoholic and she doesn’t like that.”

“I was just getting up to freshen our drinks,” I say, thinking Irma’s habit must be serious. For as long as I can remember, Carroll has had a drinking problem. Cracked up two company cars. Always had a pint under the front seat. During my childhood many a dinner was eaten in the tension of his absence.

I duck into the trailer’s kitchen. “Are you trying to cut down?” I ask through the screen door as I assemble juice, vodka and ice.

“The doctor bugs me about it. I try to watch myself,” he says, “but when I’m with Irma I drink more. It’s harder to control. I don’t want to get mixed up with an alcoholic.”

“I think that’s smart,” I say, resisting the burden of my mother’s anguish.

The trailer is spare as a monk’s quarters. Only one picture—of my brother Terry’s children—is displayed on the kitchen table. There are no pictures of my mother or the four of us kids, and none of her things are here. She collected old things, I believe because she wanted a link with history. When she died, Carroll ignored our objections and sold the farm and the contents of our childhood home. “What do I want with things?” he’d said. “I’ll die soon anyhow.” Then he bought a pickup and went on the road. Later, he tried to make it up to me. “Take it,” he would say about objects I expressed interest in, but there was nothing I really wanted then.

I walk back out, hand him a drink, sit across from him and pick out another large envelope. “Who’s this from?”

He smiles, devilishly I think. “That’s Eleanor, my South Dakota girlfriend.”

This one has a serious message lettered on the front.

“I hope only that you can love me just the way I am,” it says. Inside a handwritten message adds, “I do hope someday this can be so.”

“What does this mean?” I ask.

He ponders the card. “Can’t figure it. She’s a pretty hippy gal. Maybe she thinks I want her to lose weight.”

“Why would she think that?”

“Oh, I’ve commented on it,” he says. A fat girl survivor of years of badgering from thin parents, I decide I’d rather not get into this.

“Who’s your girlfriend here, the one your neighbors were razzing you about?” I ask.

“Blanche? She’s a class above the rest in this place. Likes to have a good time. Likes to dance.”

I have never thought of Carroll as particularly handsome. But in his set he is the belle of the ball. Last night at the local resort dance he never lacked a partner. Women approached me and asked, “Is that your father? He sure is cute.” I haven’t seen such flirting since my generation of lesbians all discovered each other.

We look out on the slough, where fishers glide by in rowboats toward the Colorado River. Fish aren’t biting tonight. The local colony of ducks flap wings and chase each other in a frenzy of mating. I wonder why my father and I so often seem to find ourselves in the company of mating animals. I hope he senses my discomfort and doesn’t call attention to this ritual.

“The ducks are sure sexy tonight,” he says. “ ‘Let’s chase each other ‘round the room tonight.’ Ever heard that song? They played it at my sister Jesse’s fiftieth wedding anniversary.”

“It doesn’t look like much fun to me,” I say, watching a drake hold a hen under the water.

“Probably is for him,”  he says.

“So what about sex?” I plunge in. “Do these women you’re dating like sex?”

He’s pleased I asked this question, pleased to have a chance to talk about it, I think. “Hell, yes, sure they do. Irma can take it or leave it though. She can be cold but I don’t care about that. I was never one to demand sex. I never in my life said ‘I’m not getting any here, so I’m going somewhere else.’ ”

I’ve finished my drink and want another, but am afraid to break this train of thought. “What about Eleanor?” I ask.

“Now Eleanor is a different story. She’s quite a bit younger than me—fifties I guess. you know those middle-aged women, they’re sexy.”

“Yes I do,” I say, feeling middle-aged. “So you just returned from a tryst.”

“Well, you know my cousin Buford died. I had to go up. But the funny thing about Eleanor, she doesn’t want anyone to know. She’s real involved in the church, and she’s afraid someone will find out about us. I kind of get a kick out of it. She kicks me out by five o’clock so they won’t see me there in the morning. But she is something in bed. I tell her ‘if your church friends only knew what goes on in this house…’”

I have developed a sudden interest in a broken thumbnail and am picking at it intently.

“Eleanor thinks I’m really sexy,” Carroll says. “But I’m really not. You know, she expects too much of me. They all think I’m sexy. I can’t figure out why.” I rip the thumbnail off and it begins to bleed.

“So what about Eleanor? Are you getting serious?” I ask, sticking the thumb in my mouth to stop the bleeding.

“Naw. I know she’d like to get married, but I’m not gonna do it. Don’t you worry. I don’t intend to get married again.”

“What makes you think I’d worry? You’re an independent person. You can make your own decisions.” But, of course, I’d hate it if he got married to some woman other than my mother.

I hug myself. The sun has gone down and the evening is suddenly cool.

“Well, what do you say we get cookin’?” Carroll raises his furry black eyebrows at me, gets up and moves into the trailer.

The prospect does not excite me. His bachelor diet of sausage, Spam and fried potatoes gives me heartburn. “Let’s try something different tonight,” I say, opening the refrigerator, which contains little more than ingredients for various alcoholic concoctions. I pull out the biggest thing in there, a heavy rectangular package. “What’s this?”

“Government cheese,” he says. They give it away to senior citizens every two weeks at the surplus store. I want you to take that with you when you go.

“No thanks. I could never eat all this. I live alone, remember?”

“No, I want you to take that.” He is using his sergeant voice. “I can get plenty more where that came from.”

“No, really, I don’t like processed cheese. I would never eat it.”

“You take that,” he insists. “Give it to your friends.”

“Look, I appreciate the offer,” I say. “Maybe we can cook something with it tonight. Does your oven work?”

He finds some matches and kneels down in front of the little propane stove while I start turning knobs on and off looking for the one that controls the oven. “I never did figure out how to use this thing,” he says.

I am watching as he works at lighting it when the air around his head explodes with a whoosh. He is knocked backwards and ends up sitting on the floor against a counter.

“Dad, Dad,” I yell. “Are you okay?” I get down in front of him and his eyes finally focus on me. I can see his thick eyebrows and lashes have been singed. He rubs the melted nubs of hair on his arm. I discover I am crying.

“Knocked the piss out of me, but I’m okay.” He looks puzzled.

“I’m kind of upset,” I blurt out. “I’m afraid Don might have AIDS. I can’t stand to lose him, too.”

Carroll’s face betrays no anger, only resignation. “He’s always gone for men, hasn’t he?”

“Yes,” I say, and more to atone for indiscretion than anything else, I add, “and I love women.”

“I don’t understand it,” he says, “but I’m glad you’ve been quiet about it.”

I give him a hand up, then wipe my eyes quickly on my shirt sleeve. He smoothes the ruff of hair around his bald head and tucks in his shirt. I decide to cook something on top of the stove.

“Hey, I want you to see something, he says. “Look at my gold nugget.” He pulls what looks like a huge nugget from his pocket. It is attached to a gold chain.

I’m immediately skeptical. One of his favorite pastimes is making up stories about found objects or people he sees in passing, or family history. Years pass and fiction melds with truth. “Where did you get this?” I laugh.

“Well, now, some people might think this is strange,” he says, eyeing me as he places it in my hand. “You know your mother had a lot of dental work done over the years and she had her teeth pulled the week before she died. This is made from her gold teeth. I want you to take it.”

New Year New Theme

Dear Readers,

Thanks for hanging in with me in the two years since I started this blog. When I first started I was expecting to stick to a theme—the history and also the current status of the tradeswomen movement. I’m a long-time tradeswoman activist and acknowledged as the institutional memory of the movement in the San Francisco Bay Area (even though my poor memory is legendary). I figured if I didn’t write our history, no one else would and then it might be lost. In my years of organizing in the anti-war, civil rights, union, feminist and tradeswomen movements I/we have learned much from mistakes as well as successes and I regret that we have been able to create so few institutional paths to pass along our knowledge. We have continually asked the question: how can we help young activists learn from our mistakes and keep from having to reinvent the wheel with every generation? That has been one goal, to tell the history of my generation of women who broke into nontraditional blue collar trades, to share tactics, strategies and also philosophy.

Even after this disastrous election I remain an optimist because I, and my whole generation of feminists, can see how much we have changed the world. Whole new vistas have opened for women in my lifetime, and as a result I’ve been able to choose a life where I’m happy and content and doing what I want to do instead of how I might otherwise feel obligated to live. I emphasize that we did this ourselves. We women. And I take credit for my part in it. I helped change the world so that my own life could be better. That doesn’t mean we needn’t fight like hell to keep what we’ve got and expand the reach of our movement.

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With Flo’s World War II scrapbook

I do intend to write about these things. But first, my mother. If you’ve been reading my posts, you know that I’ve been discovering all sorts of interesting things while going through Flo’s old scrapbooks from the 1930s. It’s been so much fun to think about what my mother was like as a young woman, to parse out her dreams and the evolution of her thinking. The 30s was an interesting decade with many parallels to our present period in history. I want to keep exploring the 30s through Flo’s eyes, and now I want to move on to the 1940s. I’m about to embark on a most daunting project—telling the story of my mother’s time working as a Red Cross “donut girl” in the European theater in WWII. Flo left a giant scrapbook, which I’ve always been planning to document. Now is the time.

Just as I want to draw lessons from the history of the tradeswomen movement, I also hope to learn from my mother’s own personal history as an informed person engaged with the world of her time. I invite you to come with me on this journey.

My First Day Local 6

“Martin, take a break!”

I had been busy moving a cart full of wire spools, following the foreman’s orders. I looked up to see my coworkers sitting in a row on a platform drinking coffee. Shit. Nobody told me about coffee break. It was 10:05. Later I would learn that the 10-minute coffee break was a hard fought clause in the union contract. To work through coffee break was to break down conditions for the entire crew. I had needed a mentor but nobody told me anything.

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall where I worked for two days
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall where I worked for two days

When I had heard that the San Francisco electricians union, IBEW Local 6, was looking for journeyman hands at $17 an hour I resolved to figure out how to get in. San Francisco was experiencing a construction boom in 1980 and the union hall was empty. Local 6 had put out a call for experienced electricians. If the union could not supply skilled workers to the contractors, the contractors would have to find them, and the union was doing everything it could to maintain control of the hiring process. By that time I’d been working almost four years as a nonunion electrician with two different companies. I’d graduated from a CETA* training program in Seattle where I had learned wiring basics and how to read the electrical code like a dictionary to find out what I didn’t know. I certainly felt like a journeywoman.

The deal was you put together a resume and went before the union executive board to prove you really had experience. The E board was six men sitting around a table. After a few questions about the mechanics of wiring, they approved me, but I knew they were desperate for hands. I was put on Book Five. It was all about seniority. It worked like this: Book One was local San Francisco hands who had graduated from the union apprenticeship. Book Two was journeymen from other locals in the U.S. I don’t know what Books Three through Five were, but the bigger your book number, the less seniority you had. Book Five was for the dregs. Last hired, first fired. You knew if you got laid off you might never get out through the union hall again.

My number came up on a foggy day in mid-August and I followed instructions to get my butt and my tools down to the union hall. I had to rent my lover’s beat up VW bug, as I didn’t have a car. Annie was one of the few dykes I knew who owned a car, and she charged us dearly for its use, but I had no choice. My toolbox was too heavy to lug onto the bus. I only had to drive from Balmy Alley in the Mission to the hall on Fillmore Street in the Haight, but weather and mechanical issues combined to nearly defeat me. The thick summer fog lay heavily on the city, obscuring my view of the streets. It landed in tiny drops on the windshield, coalescing and running down like rain, which might have been ok had the windshield wipers not been broken. You had to stick your arm out the window and operate them by hand. Miraculously I made it to the union hall without crashing.

The union had erected the single story modern brick-faced hall at the southern end of Fillmore Street behind the New Mint in what had been the ghetto, a neighborhood of decaying Victorians that the white brothers derided as the FillMo’. Dispatch took place in the basement of the hall. The dispatcher, a bald fat guy in a white shirt no tie, read down a list, yelling the names. When he got to mine, I approached the window and got a slip with the job information. I was to go to the symphony hall at Civic Center, a big job nearly at its end. I heard the contractor was facing penalties for going over the allotted time. Or maybe he was already paying penalties.

At the job site I checked in with the electrical foreman whose “office” was in a basement room. The symphony hall was topped out, all the concrete had been poured, the roof and exterior walls finished. But the interior finishes, including sheetrock, were still to be done so workers’ paths through the building went right through the fastest routes, around metal studs and through ghost walls yet to be finished. In the cavernous hall, workers from a dozen trades rushed around making finishing touches on the rough building. The job had that fresh smell of new concrete.

On my first day, the shop steward called a meeting of the crew in the basement where the contractor’s big gang boxes were stored. I’d never been in one place with so many electricians. I counted 25, but they filled up this space and seemed like more. The carpenters were taking a strike vote and they wanted the support of the other trades. I didn’t have to be told not to cross a picket line. But I sensed the brothers were worried about me. I was an unknown quantity and I’d worked nonunion.

My job was to do what I was told and keep my mouth shut. For $17 an hour I could do that. The foreman instructed me to move bundles of conduit from one floor to another. In this endeavor I had a partner, another Book Five hand, a black guy. We were probably the only female and only black on the whole job, certainly among the electricians. We immediately  bonded and I felt I could count on him to stand up for me if harassed, and I would sure have his back.

Conduit is manufactured in diameters from a half inch and up, cut in ten-foot lengths and bundled. I learned to pick up the bundle and, like a weight lifter, heft it up to my shoulder in one clean lift. By the end of that day my shoulder was so sore from carrying pipe that I brought a towel to work the next day to give me a little padding. But the next day I was put on a different floor and instructed to vacuum out floor boxes. Fine with me. Near the end of the day the foreman approached me and handed me a blue paper. Not a pink slip, a blue slip. Same thing. I was laid off. I’d never used a tool, never seen a blueprint.

Even after only two days, I was crushed. There’s nothing like the bummer of getting a layoff notice even if you’re looking forward to the layoff. I felt lucky in a way, as I knew the carpenters were planning to go out on strike the following day and I would never cross a picket line, so I’d probably lose the job anyway. With a layoff notice I could apply for unemployment.

Did the contractor hire a bunch of hands just to show they’d made a good faith effort to meet the contract deadline? Was I laid off because they thought they couldn’t trust me to not cross the picket line, or was the foreman doing me a favor by laying me off before the strike? There was no one to ask.

*Comprehensive Employment and Training Act

Writing to Mom about Sex Etc.

10-67Over the years a horrible sickening black mold has infected the room next to the garage where I’ve stored boxes of my old stuff. In order to access anything from that dark cavernous space I must wear a respirator and gloves. Now that I can use my iPhone to photograph papers and store them in my computer, I’m slowly archiving them. Chucking the mold-infected sheaves into the recycling gives me great pleasure.

1-17-69
January 17, 1969

I’ve imagined that the mold was introduced from items that had previously been stored in my grandmother’s root cellar/basement in my hometown of Yakima, I guess because the smell is similar. That’s silly, but it started me wondering about molds and how they travel. It might be stachybotrys atra (also known as black mold). Whatever type of mold it is, and there are more than 100,000 kinds, it is nasty and takes little time to activate my asthma if breathed in. Molds require moisture to grow. When we were remodeling this building in the early 21st century I discovered a crack in the foundation that allowed moisture

May 20, 1974
May 20, 1974

into the storage room. I patched it, but of course that did not rid the room of mold, and perhaps there is no way to get rid of it. Removing the contents might help.

This week I’ve been pulling out my mother’s papers to aid in reconstructing her life in Yakima and her work as a Red Cross Donut Girl in Europe during WWII. I still have Flo’s cardboard American Red Cross suitcase issued to her in Washington DC and then carried from Italy through France and into Germany during 1944-46. She saw the liberation of Dachau, so I suppose the evil mold could have traveled in the suitcase from Nazi concentration camps. It’s a theory.

74?
A Thursday in 1974
74
A Sunday in 1974, Seattle

When I opened the suitcase I found two scrapbooks that my mother had assembled in the 20s and the 30s, a sheaf of her letters, and a bundle of letters written by me to her in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. These I perused immediately. What a gift, that my mother had saved these letters! In the days when people wrote letters as a primary way of communicating, I wrote my mother often just to tell her what was going on in my life (long distance phone calls were expensive).

The letters span a period from the fall of 1967 when I first left home in Yakima to start college at WSU in Pullman (a 190-mile three-and-a half-hour drive away), up to the summer of 1981 after I’d moved into the house where I’ve lived ever since here in San Francisco. I haven’t yet counted the number of different addresses where I lived in Pullman, Seattle and San Francisco during this time, but it is certainly in the double digits.

10-23-76
October 23, 1976, San Francisco

The most frequent subjects of the letters were money—borrowing and paying back, the cost of things, not having enough—and job hunting. I’m glad for the mundane everyday minutia, what things cost in 1970,

“The prescription for progesterone that cost $1 to fill in Yakima cost $13 in Seattle. I should have sprung for the $6 bus ticket and bought it there.”

the many jobs I applied for and was rejected from (newspaper reporter, telemarketer, printer’s apprentice, waitress, library clerk, federal civil service, county extension agent, phone operator, bus driver).9-4-77

“Thanks for your help. Didn’t include you as a reference. It’s never a good bet to use a relative, especially your mother, no matter who she knows and how well respected.”

11-28-78I was struck by the close relationship between my mother and her daughter, the “never trust anyone over thirty” feminist revolutionary. No doubt this was the work of my mother’s efforts to maintain a bond, more than mine, but the letters make it clear that I depended on her for a great many things besides loans—support in whatever endeavors I worked at, help with writing, bouncing off opinions about politics and life in general. She was truly my rock and I hope I was hers.

7-19-77
July 19, 1977, San Francisco

Letters from 1967 through the spring of 1969 when I lived in dormitories (the only option for female undergraduates then) are filled with reports of studying, dating boys, finding rides home, gossip about people from Yakima and complaints about the cost of books and clothes. I’m surprised at how conventional I seemed, but I don’t think this was just a put-on for the benefit of my mother.

After I moved off campus in the fall of 1969, my letters expressed interest in “alternative lifestyles” and “building viable counterculture community institutions.”

I wrote about founding the League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism:

“College campuses need more militant anti-Jesus freaks.”

I wrote about politics and social change, racism, feminism, sex and gay liberation. I had embraced the unconventional.

So very many things changed during those explosive years, but some things never did. The last of these letters, dated 8/18/81, starts:

“Here’s some money I promised. Still looking for work.”5-5-77

Finding Wonder Women in the Tenderloin

My story, Wonder Women, posted on this blog on 9-18-15, which takes place in a Tenderloin cross dressers’ bar, is based on true events. But I couldn’t remember exactly where the bar was, and I couldn’t remember the name of the bar. So uncovering the facts required some sleuthing.

I needed to find an old-timer who had been there. So I set about describing this gritty watering hole, as best I could remember, to every old codger gay guy I knew. Nobody could remember having been there, or maybe they just weren’t talking.

I had a vague memory that the bar was associated with Charlotte Coleman, who owned a number of gay bars in San Francisco from the 1950s through the 1990s. During the 1970s Wonder Woman Electric worked on the electrical systems in many of her bars as well as in her home in Noe Valley. I learned that Charlotte, in her 90s, lived in an assisted living institution in Vallejo. Then I was lucky to meet an old friend of hers serendipitously. Roberta, in her 80s, regularly visited Charlotte and offered to drive me there to meet her.

In the meantime, I discovered a website, Lost Gay Bars of SF, with a map made by a guy named Mike Stabile that shows the locations of gay bars in San Francisco from the 1960s through the 1980s. I needed the name of the bar or the address to use this resource. I was stuck. But Mike responded to my questions in a Facebook message. He thought the bar might be Aunt Charlie’s Lounge on Turk Street, still there, perhaps the very last of the old Tenderloin gay bars. I googled Aunt Charlie’s and found an informative web page with interviews of some of the old timers. http://www.auntcharlieslounge.com. Could this be the bar I was searching for? It looked just as seedy as I remembered. And Aunt Charlie’s still has drag shows! I had to go there.

By the time I could arrange to meet Charlotte, her health had deteriorated and new visitors were no longer welcomed. But I did get Roberta on the phone and described the bar to her. Sure, she said, she remembered that bar. It was called the Blue and Gold and it was on Turk Street. It was a black and white bar, she said, meaning it was racially integrated. It was Charlotte’s most notorious bar, site of nearly nightly fights and disturbances. “They broke the toilet regularly.” But the Blue and Gold made far more money than any other bar, Roberta remembered.

BlueGold
Site of the old Blue and Gold

Blue and Gold! I had the name! I had the street! Now I could use the Lost Bars map to locate the bar. I quickly found the address: 136 Turk. The description on the website said the piano bar opened in 1947 and closed in 1993. The Blue and Gold had been right across the street from Aunt Charlie’s Lounge.

I chose a Saturday afternoon for a visit to Aunt Charlie’s, knowing that I’d be unlikely to stay up late enough to hit the drag show. The one hundred block of Turk Street still rates high on the funky list. But the bar’s regulars and bartenders welcomed us two old dykes and were happy to talk about the old days. Barry, who had tended bar at Charlie’s for decades, remembered the Blue and Gold, as well as dozens of other neighborhood gay bars, all closed. The building’s exterior had been covered in blue and gold tile, he said. (Nobody knows what the colors meant in 1947. A hangout for Cal alumni?) It has been painted over recently and it now houses the SF City Impact Rescue Mission. I noticed that the address is now 140, not 136, Turk.

Feeling in a historical mood, we strolled the couple of blocks over to the new Tenderloin Museum, housed in the historic Cadillac Hotel. There we learned about the rich history of the Tenderloin neighborhood, including the gay and transgender scene in the 1960s. The Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966, “one of the first demonstrations against transgender and transsexual violence in San Francisco,” took place right up the street from the Blue and Gold. It was a fitting completion of my magical history tour. Tenderloinmuseum.org.

 

What Ate My Brain?

image1
Drawing by Ana Esquivel

As a child I had a spectacular memory. I routinely memorized all the books read to me. At two, I could recite The Night Before Christmas, which my parents urged me to do for adults’ entertainment. I just liked memorizing things, a concept difficult for me to imagine now, as an older adult who Can’t Remember Shit.

Climbing trees was my specialty
Climbing trees was my specialty

When did I lose my memory? In high school plays my parts were small, but my lines would desert me at critical moments. As a college student and a feminist activist who frequently gave speeches, I began to forget words as I stood onstage talking. I was told the name for that condition: nominal aphasia. Where did it come from? No one knew. When I said to my mother, “I used to be so smart. What happened?” she thought for a moment and then replied, “I just don’t know.” That was not the answer I was hoping for, but at least it was an acknowledgment that something had changed.
It wasn’t just words I was forgetting. I forgot nearly my entire childhood and had to rely on my brother for memories. I frequently forgot things I had pledged to do. I forgot the life stories of my closest friends and I routinely forgot people’s names.

I always tried to get to the top of everything
I always tried to get to the top of everything

Speaking publicly became increasingly difficult until I stopped speaking extempore and began reading my speeches. Writing has always been frustrating and slow. Just because a word is in my vocabulary does not mean it will come out of my brain. The feeling is like having a word on the tip of my tongue. I can almost see it, just out of reach. I spend much time looking up synonyms when I can’t think of the word I want.

My brain plays tricks on me. Just because I’ve finally remembered something does not mean I won’t lose the memory again in seconds. Certain words continue to elude me. For example, for years I could never remember the word lupine. Finally, it has come back to me. Still, for some reason I feel compelled to learn the names of things and I must memorize the names of trees, flowers and mushrooms again every season, like Sisyphus continually rolling that boulder up the hill.

At some point, maybe in my 30s, I began to think of my poor memory as a disability that I had to live with. I worked at letting go of feeling bad for forgetting. I accepted that I would never get better and I asked friends to adjust (they know never to tell me secrets as I can’t remember whom to keep the secret from). This helped, although there wasn’t a certified category I fell into—still isn’t.

When I fell off, I got right back on.
When I fell off, I got right back on.

Mine is an invisible disability. Over the years I’ve been able to live with it and live a pretty normal life. I do what people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s do. I fake it. I make lists. I write everything down. I apologize. Now that I’m in my 60s, I don’t feel so alone. Most of my friends are struggling with age-related memory loss, but I think to myself: This is what it’s always been like for me, my entire adult life.

Although I’ve accepted my predicament, I still want to know what happened to me and why. My wife, who worked as a speech pathologist with brain-injured clients, sees the world of human interaction through the lens of cognitive function. It’s a sort of worldview, like socialism or humanism. Her worldview has taught me to look at my own disability as a kind of brain injury. Of my memory loss my wife asks, is it a storage problem or a retrieval problem? This is one of the things she tests for as a speech therapist. She says anomia (or nominal aphasia) is not the same thing as short-term or long-term memory loss. In the case of anomia, I have a retrieval problem. The word is in my vocabulary; I just can’t retrieve it. Long-term or short-term memory loss involves a different part of the brain. So I exhibit two different kinds of memory loss.

When I was a kid, the apple trees were bigger, and the pickers' ladders taller.
When I was a kid, the apple trees were bigger, and the pickers’ ladders taller.

How did my brain get injured? Physical injury is a clear possibility. I was a rambunctious child who fell off horses (and was taught always to get right back on). Really, considering how many times I climbed to the tops of things, I was amazingly fall-resistant. But there was one time when the horse I was riding ran me through an orchard and I was swept out of the saddle by a low branch. My riding buddy told me afterward that I was knocked unconscious and had seizures. My lower back was sore from hitting the cantle, but I didn’t notice any effect on my memory at the time. Then there was a minor car accident where I suffered neck lash (not the more serious whiplash, said the doctor).

Modern apple orchard near the Columbia River
Modern apple orchard near the Columbia River

Loss of childhood memories is often associated with childhood trauma, but I don’t exhibit any other signs of trauma. I think I had a pretty ordinary childhood.

Could pesticides have eaten my brain? I was born into an era when pesticides were seen as a revolutionary antidote to bug infestations. DDT was everywhere in the 1950s and home gardeners sprayed it freely without knowledge of its destructive consequences. In my hometown of Yakima, Washington, the apple capital of the world at that time, most of us worked as apple pickers in the fall. Our schools even closed during the harvest so kids could help their families get the crop in. We lived in the middle of orchards where crop dusters routinely dusted everything around us. Farmers pulled big spray tanks behind tractors that shot a fan of pesticides clear to the top of the trees. We often stood close to the tanks and let the mist blow over us. Every spring, right at the time when farmers would start spraying, our family would harvest asparagus along the ditch banks and where it grew in the uncultivated area around the trees. We loved it and we ate pounds of it.

The Hanford nuclear plant along the Columbia River in 1960
The Hanford nuclear plant along the Columbia River in 1960

As kids, we went barefoot everywhere, but we were cautioned not to walk barefoot in the orchards or to swim in creeks and ditches, where farmers routinely dumped the dregs of their spraying (killing aquatic life in the process). When my neighbor Carla’s horse got out of his corral and into her family’s apple orchard, he died from ingesting pesticides sprayed on the orchard. The year was about 1965. What was the chemical? Trying to sort out the historical use of pesticides is making my head hurt. Besides, as Rachel Carson explained in Silent Spring, these chemicals can combine to form new poisonous compounds that we can’t even test for or identify. Research into pesticide-related illnesses among farmworkers and crop duster pilots has shown memory loss to be only one symptom of pesticide exposure.

Disposing of nuclear waste at Hanford dumping ground
Disposing of nuclear waste at Hanford dumping ground

Not only did I grow up in a pesticide-rich environment, but also Hanford, the nuclear plant that manufactured the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb and for most of the bombs in our nuclear arsenal, was only 50 miles east of our home. There was that little incident in 1949 when I was six months old. It was like the leak at Three Mile Island except it wasn’t an accident. This leak was deliberate, and it was covered up until the 1980s. The plant has been leaking radioactive isotopes and radionuclides into the environment since 1944. Radioactive materials entered the environment through releases in the air, in Columbia River fish and through food grown nearby and milk from cows pastured nearby. Now decommissioned, the plant is still leaking. There is still a huge amount of radioactive material in the soil and plants around the reservation and we are told it’s only a matter of time before the polluted ground water finds its way to the Columbia River. Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. and cleanup is the longest with no end in sight. In Yakima, we were exposed plenty, but the people directly downwind suffered most. Called downwinders, they organized citizens groups to find out more information after the government was shown in 1986 to have covered up releases. Most of those people died from rare cancers. Memory loss was probably just a mild side effect for downwinders exposed to radioactive materials.

I long ago accepted that I will never know what ate my brain. Maybe after I die some scientist will want to dissect it and I’d be happy to contribute to the advancement of science.