Nina Gaby

Essays, art, and healthcare


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The No-Expiration-Date of Grief

“We chose a sunny Sunday. She was about four or five. We bought bunches of daisies for the graves of our family members and and a big cherry pie for later from the farm stand across the road. As we drove around the park with the saleswoman, looking for the four plots we were planning to pre-buy, I asked the saleswoman to stop the car in the section we were considering. I got out, much as one might do when looking at real estate, and lay down in the grass under the tree at the head of one of the plots.”

Nina Gaby, “On Mentioning that our Daughter Wants to be a Mortician” from What Remains,the many ways we say goodbye (Ed: Sandi Gelles-Cole and Kenneth Salzmann, 2019, Gelles-Cole Literary Enterprises)

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In the periphery of my consciousness is the date, December 6, 2019, and that it’s the anniversary of my father’s death in 1989. Brought even closer to home by my Facebook memory page which pops up with a photo of Mexican candles and my parent’s old Danish Modern mid-century menorah, the one I always hated as a child for it’s lack of traditional design, in which I mention my father’s passing. Ahh, I say to myself as I move on with my morning.

I sit down with a cup of coffee and share some emails with a dear old friend from high school who is trudging through her first holiday season without her husband. This is a phenomenon I know I will be experiencing more and more as I look towards my 70thbirthday. Who will be next has become a daily question. After the emails I visit my favorite literary site, the Brevity blog, to read today’s selection which is all about writing memoir after people have died. Clearly a theme for the day has emerged. Then I post on my Central Vermont Writer page about our upcoming planning meeting next week and use a photo of my father’s old Underwood typewriter in the post. OK. It’s starting to snow and the dog is pestering me to go out and play but my phone is buzzing.

My precious daughter texts from her office and we volley back and forth as I try to provide support for a work related decision she has had to make and the ramifications thereof. It’s snowing harder outside and I start to feel a familiar feeling that I can’t yet place. I am feeling so glad that I am home today and I can be at the other end of these emails and texts. And then of course it hits. Just before my father died, on a snowy winter day, I was a new therapist sitting in my new office, having just realized that the system I was working for–and health care in general–was a sea of shark infested waters, that maybe I had made a huge mistake, and in the midst of a panic attack I called my father. Now retired, infirm, sitting in his recliner watching the snow from his own window, he spent time reassuring me that I was fine. That systems suck. That I was above all the crap that was going on, and then he told me…. “You always have us.” Of course, I didn’t, at least not at the end of the phone line. He had not always been that supportive, but he had mellowed into a wise old man, not much older than I am now, and very much like how I am trying to be for my own daughter. The dog looks on in horror as I sob into the sleeve of my hoodie instead of taking him out for a frolic.

Shortly after that phone call with my father, maybe a week or two, on an equally snowy night, he died suddenly, his generous and crazy heart exploding while he watched Wheel of Fortune and now every year as winter approaches, I get a tic either in my left thumb or my right eye. It’s already been and gone this year so I figured we were pretty much done with the grieving.  Although I know better. Grief has it’s own shape and takes it’s own time. And when it surprises us it’s like we have that person back, even for a moment or two.

Anyway, here’s to all of us who have had losses near and far, old and new. Take your time, be kind to yourselves.

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Some great books on grief and writing about it…….


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Luge Run, 2003

From an early draft of the memoir, Looking South on Main, a work in progress.

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Photographs don’t really show the gradient of the incline in the ten acres behind what used to be the inn, the land that used to be Jesse Fisk’s horse training area and exhibition paddock, and the trails that run from that up through the woods to the little cabin that now belongs to the heirs of Esther from down the dirt road, although I’m not sure if she has died yet. Her two sons have, however, died, and while we had an odd relationship with our peculiar neighbors, I feel a tremendous grief.

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The November snow has just blanketed the hill from what is now our home up through the woods to the cabin. The larger inn building just below us stands empty as that neighbor has died as well. The woman who was Jessie Fisk’s great-grand niece could tell me a lot more about winters on our acreage but she was never one to talk much to us and now she is dead too. As I climb the hill with our Golden Retriever, I can look down over the village and see the roofs of everyone’s houses.

 

When we first purchased the property we ran it as an inn, both buildings and two barns, one collapsed in 2003 and the other, Jesse’s horse barn, barely made it through this past winter. Costly surgical incisions on the barn’s midsection and five dumpsters later, it stands hopefully for another two hundred years. I believe Jesse’s ghost is pleased.

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In the years after 9-11, the tourism industry and the insurance industry changed and most of the old mom and pop inns in central Vermont closed. I’m writing a book about all that but it is slow going. I get caught up in memories.

 

I stand up at the top after my slow climb, the climb I make myself do on a regular basis to combat the autoimmune crap that has invaded my lungs, and I look out over the snow, grateful for the memories that come to me every so often.

 

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In the winter of 2003, a family from Texas came to the inn for a week’s stay. Mother, father, 13 year old boy and his friend. These boys had never seen snow. The snow in our village was particularly deep and white and perfect that year. There were lights and decorations and people and a lot of holiday energy. Lumineria lined the dirt road on Christmas Eve. A fire roared in the old shale fireplace. The inn was full.

 

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We only had dial-up then, one cord from the phone jack in the dining room. No Wi-Fi. Cell phones barely worked. A black and white TV in the smaller building, which is now our home, ran off an antenna with two local stations. The boys didn’t miss a beat. Snow! My husband found them some warmer clothes, extra mittens, shovels and plastic bags to line their boots, and off they went, up the hill with our Black Lab George (who had waited his whole life for this moment) to figure out this thing called snow. Our daughter, then 11, looked up briefly from her Game Boy and grimaced.

 

Five days later we had a luge run from the tree line to the road. There must be some metaphor for my thinking of this today, some reason I can’t find a single photograph of those boys and their hard won masterpiece. The only evidence is a handwritten letter from the parents addressed to George thanking him for such a good time. And besides a surprising gratitude to have remembered this, all I have is just a deep regret that I didn’t climb up the hill and sail down the pipeline to the road myself. Was I too busy with a full inn? Did I think the opportunity would present itself again? Was it before of after my mother died? Maybe I did it and have forgotten?

 

I follow another neighbor’s cross-country ski tracks down the hill and find all sorts of critter markings and watch our dog make snow angels and promise myself to come back up here more often, next time with a sled.

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Content Warning: there is talk of the abyss and procrastination

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Whatever it may be, just do it. Write that essay. Sign up for that pottery class. Call your aunt. Send in that donation. Tell someone you miss them. Roll over that retirement fund. Fix the barn roof. Finally take T’ai Chi or read War and Peace.

 

I am not very good at all that. I am, however, way past the line of abundance–that time in life where friends are numerous and new relationships and experiences are ripe for the plucking. I need to invest better, I need to get better at all that. Because the plucking has become pretty sparse. The last of the older generation is gone, an aunt that at least I did go to visit. But that was the last of the old guard leaving me at the edge of the abyss with no one else ahead of me in line.

 

Many of my investments have not paid off. I review them regularly at four am. I am almost seventy so that highway of regret is long and dotted with many turn offs where I can spend a sleepless hour wondering what happened. When the ice and snow melted this May after a long and brutal winter that started in October, the barn roof had collapsed, a storm window blew off the house, the pine and the elm are beyond repair. Not really sudden but brewing. It’s the brewing.

 

During the long winter three more neighbors died. One does not bother me as I intervened, saved his cats, and that is a chapter in the book I am trying to write. But the other two bother me. One is a woman I wanted to interview for the book, and the other a neighbor we’d had an altercation with a decade ago and have not spoken with since. I look at myself and ask, what kind of person doesn’t forgive? But I have yet to send a condolence card to the spouse and I likely will not. I will put it off.

 

So.

 

I had a coworker in 1990, Linda, an LPN and case manager for our mental health Crisis Team. It was an innovative program and I was the first Clinical Nurse Specialist hired for this job, it was important to succeed and important to keep all these patients in crisis out of the Emergency Department and out of the hospital because they were too expensive and there were too many of them. I know now that Linda and I were somewhat exploited in terms of expectations, but we did not know that then. We were enthusiastic and compassionate and sometimes we even lied a little to get our patients the level of care they needed.

 

My father died suddenly. Linda made sure I got flowers at work. As personal and professional crises abounded, as they do in life, we happily trashed everything that was not going right in our daily team meetings. Bad things never seem quite as bad with people like us around.

 

One day Linda locked me in my office and shoved the phone across the desk. “You aren’t going anywhere till you call your obstetrician.” I was forty, first pregnancy, and Linda was a bit of a mother hen. I hadn’t been feeling well and was not dealing with it. I described my symptoms to the nurse at the OB-GYN office and she told me to come over immediately. I was put on bed rest and did not see my own office again for five months. (Actually I never saw it again as after maternity leave they’d given it to someone else and I was placed in an old janitor’s closet with no window and no panic button.)

 

During bed rest a day did not go by that Linda didn’t call me. I became more depressed and didn’t want to answer the phone if she called during the soaps or Geraldo Rivera. She helped host a baby shower, and her boys, then about ten and twelve, made me cards with candy pasted in them. They named the baby “Skittles.” I hope Linda knows how much I appreciated her kindness.

 

I left Crisis Team, we gently fell out of touch. I eventually moved to Vermont and Linda to Florida. Last I heard from her she was happily working as a nurse in a tennis camp and had a new boyfriend.

 

Fast forward eighteen years to Facebook and her grown son with whom I am now friends. This is how I find out that Linda has dementia, and yesterday I see that she is on hospice. I can’t help but think that if I were on hospice, I would want Linda to be my nurse.

 

I still have the card with the dried up Skittle. And I will pass through our hometown next week and stop and say hi. I will. I swear I will. I’m teary and can’t stop grieving for those days of energy and abundance. And kindness.

 

But today the winter’s wood is being delivered, it needs stacking. There’s no putting that off.

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Another Opening Another Show, UNBOUND IX at Artistree Gallery, Pomfret, Vermont

“Unsent”…porcelain pages bound in rusted wireNina Gaby Art (Web Ready) BDP-1623

“If Counting Could Betray Disaster”…slip rolled porcelain scrolls bound in gravel and vintage boxNina Gaby Art (Web Ready) BDP-1636Nina Gaby Art (Web Ready) BDP-1638What do we owe to inspiration? Happenstance? Several years ago–six, seven, we lose count at my age–I came upon a book arts show outside of Woodstock, Vermont at a then small gallery (it has since moved to a beautiful building with a barn and theater) I’d never been to before. “UNBOUND (maybe V, maybe VI)” was up, their annual show. That voice in my head that I know so well, the “I want to do this” voice, rang out loud and clear. It’s happened before–holding a baby when I was young and hearing the voice convince me I wanted to have one someday. While considering my options for the future (I was in therapy at the time) the voice encouraged me to become a therapist myself. While devouring a book I realized, “I want to do this myself,” and I became a writer. And the first time I touched a mound of clay in the art studio in high school–”I gotta do this”–followed by looking at contemporary porcelain emerging as its own art form while I was a student at School for the American Crafts. And then seeing the show at Artistree Gallery–the many ways narrative could take form. BAM. I was at a low point creatively, was in a job that was less fulfilling than I’d hoped, and reeling from the financial and emotional disasters of the still recent past–and I got to work and my mixed-media-loosely-called-book-arts pieces were accepted the following year. A year or two after that I won First Prize. I owe so much to that moment of happenstance coupled with inspiration.

In the past, as an artist, I was lucky, hardworking, had many shows at galleries across the country. Galleries clamored for me, it seemed so easy. The wonderful art community in Rochester, NY and the Shoestring Gallery, the Memorial Art Gallery, pieces in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and Arizona State University–I was embraced as a young artist. An old friend warned me back in 1977 that I “self actualized” too early, and it would be downhill. Certainly these recent years in Vermont have been more difficult at times, nonetheless, at the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, rejection makes acceptance that much sweeter.

Yesterday at the clinic I was working with a patient who, while struggling with depression and anxiety, has some exquisite moments in their studio. We paused together and celebrated that lucky crapshoot of creativity and the amazing energy it can bring if we pay attention. What would happen to us if those moments were made unavailable by funding cuts and the disappearance of brick-and-mortar galleries, museums, bookstores? A subject for another day.

UNBOUND IX opens tonight. It’s always a fun time.


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“Breaking Omertà” interview with Alexandria Goddard, whistleblower in the Steubenville rape case

In 2015, crime blogger Alexandria Goddard agreed to write an essay for my collection of women’s stories about being dropped by their close female friends, and Goddard allowed me to interview her for the anthology. Had it not been for Goddard, the rape would never have made national attention and the award winning documentary “Roll Red Roll” would never have been made. Given the nature of the town of Steubenville, Ohio, a town devastated by the loss of jobs and self esteem, we see how it turned to its high school football team, the only source of pride it had left. We see a classic situation of shredded male privilege and the anger that accompanied it when that privilege is called into question. Goddard had been sued, threatened, and when she mentioned the essay in my book, people from Steubenville threatened to sabotage me as well.

Nancy Schwartzman’s documentary “Roll Red Roll” is now airing on PBS this month, starting in many regions tonight.

Editor’s note:

Sixteen-year-old high school student “Jane Doe” was raped in August of 2012 by Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, high school athletes, in the foot- ball town of Steubenville, Ohio. She was unconscious at the time. The athletes and others documented the rape and degradation on their cell-phone cameras. The photos went viral. Crime blogger Alexandria Goddard, who had once lived in Steubenville, brought it to national attention on her blog and was instantly vilifed and discredited, as described in this article by Katie Baker from http://www.jezebel.com, “We Wouldn’t Know About the Steubenville Rape Case if it Wasn’t for the Blogger Who Complicated Things”.

The Steubenville story, in all its complications, was picked up by the New York Times, 20/20, Dr. Phil (“Football, Booze and Bad Behavior,” 1/17/13) and later by Rolling Stone in the article “Anonymous vs. Steubenville” by David Kushner, on 11/27/13. In April of 2014, Brad Pitt bought the rights to make a movie about Deric Lostutter, a member of the hacker collective Anonymous, who along with Goddard had originally pushed this story beyond the small-town attempts at cover-up and into the national consciousness.

Some might say the whistleblowers have been judged and treated more harshly than the rapists themselves. Much of the town considers itself the “Big Red Nation,” the fan base of the football team in a town that has fallen on hard times and has little else for residents to a liate with. At the time of this writing, Lostutter faces more jail time than the convicted boys. Goddard has been sued, and her reputation and safety have been repeatedly threatened, as she describes in the blog post on her site: prinnieed. blogspot.com, 1/14, Why Steubenville Matters. 

And she was betrayed by one of her oldest friends. As a preface to her essay about this friendship, I interviewed Goddard:

Alexandria, I started following you when you were speaking out against the injustices of the rape case in Steubenville. When you spoke of losing friends because of your commitment to bring national attention to this crime, I knew I had to have you in my book. What prompted you to take this risk?

What prompted me to take the risk was the absolute outrage I felt at some of the online discussion regarding Jane Doe, which started almost a week prior to the arrest of the two juveniles. I was disgusted at some of the comments being made about the victim, and the number of individuals who immediately began making accusations that the only reason this was an issue was because it involved Steubenville High School athletes. It seemed everyone in town was talking about this, and the chain of events was documented on Twitter, yet no one had called the police themselves to report it. It was only reported after Jane Doe’s family was made aware of the online evidence. The absolute absence of bystander intervention shocked me, and the victim blaming tore at my heart.

You speak in your essay of the code of silence, the omertà, but did you ever think that it would ever happen that your friends would turn on you?

I always felt that I was taking this risk, but I thought that those who knew me would not be surprised, as I was always someone who voiced my opinion—whether it was the popular one or not. I was honestly very surprised when I started seeing posts online directed to me from people that I once considered close friends.

As I reread these articles and blog posts describing what you went through, I am struck by how much the attacks on you parallel how quickly the public jumps to condemn and blame the victims in cases such as this. I wonder to what degree that a ected you?

The online attacks by family and friends of the “Big Red Nation” have been very traumatic at times. Not only have I been maligned and harassed, but also my family has been subject to bullying, and worse, as I talk about in my essay. There is a parallel regarding victim-blaming and condemning the victim

for speaking out. The actions of those who victim-blame and condemn others who speak out are based on the desire to silence voices that refuse to be silent.

Who besides the friend you write about in the essay—let’s call her Kathy—dumped you? Was Kathy the worst? The least expected?

Yes, Kathy was the worst. There were two others who were equally as shocking—especially an older woman who I was once very close to. I looked up to her and valued her opinion as an elder. Both of their behaviors were very hurtful. There are a few anonymous Twitter accounts who claim to be family of some of the boys, who they claim were “innocent.” They have made it a point to use intimidation. One account had a banner that used my nickname and said Run Prinnie Run. When Kathy posted my address on Twitter, I was absolutely shocked and as a result packed the car and my two dogs and headed for Ohio. I have come to the realization that allowing them to intimidate me gives them power, and I have decided that I don’t care if they know where I am. They would be really stupid at this point to try to harm me.

What other losses did you experience as a result of what I would consider true bravery on your part?

I left California in a terror. That to me is the ultimate loss, because I loved the desert. I do plan on moving back to the desert eventually.

Can you tell us about the lawsuit and the silencing? You do not seem a woman easily silenced.

When I was sued for defamation of character, I was advised by counsel to stop speaking about the case and not to do interviews. I still used Twitter, but I didn’t speak of the case. It was diffcult to do because I had a lot to say about the Saltsmans [the family of one of the tweeters who posted photos of the victim, but was not one of the rapists] trying to silence people about the case.

You were mentioned in an article in Rolling Stone about Brad Pitt optioning to buy the Steubenville story. What is new with that? And did you ever think you would be connected to a Brad Pitt project?

I have not had any conversations with Brad Pitt or Plan B Entertainment.

I never in a million years would have believed this case would have the social impact that it has. I always thought that this would end up a Lifetime movie, but never dreamed that Brad Pitt would be interested in the story. I hope that bystander intervention becomes a discussion in the movie, as I believe educating the public to be an “upstander” rather than a bystander is very important.

Has there been any reconciliation with Kathy or any of the others?

No, there has been no reconciliation. With all that Kathy has done, I’m not sure that I could ever consider her a trusted friend again. I don’t hate her, but I realized that I obviously have nothing in common anymore with the person that she has become, and I’m okay with that.

Would you do it again?

Absolutely. I will never stop standing up for what I believe in. It’s my nature. Sometimes it doesn’t make me a very popular person, but I’m okay with that, too.

Alexandria Goddard is the creator and editor of Prinnieed.com and is noted for breaking the Steubenville, Ohio rape case story. She has worked for over twenty years as a legal assistant with experience in fraud analysis and risk management. She is a former volunteer guardian ad litem-court appointed special advocate for the juvenile court system and the owner of Xander Business Group, Inc. which provides consulting services based around the monitoring of jurors, witnesses, and testimony impeachment, using social media as an investigative tool in the legal process. She has donated hundreds of hours to educators and others to promote awareness of bystander intervention, and assists veterans groups in the investigation of military stolen valor.

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This interview and Alexandria Goddard’s essay by the same name appeared in Nina Gaby’s “Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women” published by She Writes Press in 2015.

 


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New Pieces for “Faultlines” Exhibit at Studio Place Arts, Barre, Vermont Opening 5-16, closes 6-29

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I love summer in Vermont. The ice and mud is gone for a while and the art opportunities are here. Each year I show in the Book Arts Guild annual exhibit in Burlington, and I always submit to “Unbound,” the annual artist book arts exhibit at Artistree Gallery in Pomfret, outside of Woodstock. This year the season starts with Studio Place Arts group show exploring the divisions in our social network. Art New England did a little preview.

Also exciting each year is the themed show at the Old Church, Kent Museum in Calais. This year I’ve put it out there that I’d love to be invited to participate. The Hall Art Foundation in Reading is one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the US. Each summer they transport a themed group of works up to Vermont and fill the refurbished barns in this tiny town with quite amazing stuff. Worth a trip.

 


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Nancy Drew, Sibley’s and Me

Speaking of books, actual books, (the smell, the feel, the crack of the spine) it’s Nancy Drew’s 89thbirthday and I’m gonna go all nostalgic because May is my 69thbirthday month and that’s what old people do. We do nostalgia and we do it well.

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Back in the old days, the 50’s, we had actual adventures. Not the kind where you hit send and in two days you get your new book delivered to your door, or even quicker if you go the e-book route.

Buying an adventure book required an adventure.

We lived in Rochester, a small but busy city in New York state, famous for Kodak, Xerox, George Eastman, and now, Wegman’s. It had a real downtown with your choice of real department stores. The biggest was Sibley, Lindsay and Curr, although people had their favorites, maybe Edward’s or McCurdy’s. B. Forman’s for the elite. I could wander around any of them forever, depending on my mood. The toy department at Sibley’s was especially magical and included books. Series were big in those days, all lined up under the glittering lights, organized by volume. (Sibley’s also had a gourmet food department and as a child I became fascinated with exotic foreign cheese, a fascination which remains active to this day, requiring a statin.)

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I got a dollar every week as allowance. (I have no recollection of what I did to earn that dollar. Maybe I babysat my younger sister. In the old days nine year olds could babysit five year olds.) I was also allowed to take the city bus from the corner of our street. Alone, for one shiny dime, the No. 11 bus took me right to Main and Clinton and the Sibley, Linday and Curr. (Walking through the brass revolving doors always gave me the same thrill that I was, a decade later on a much bigger adventure, going to experience the first time I walked through the Damascus Gate into ancient Jerusalem, again all by myself.) In it’s heyday, all shiny and brassy with it’s huge clock and polished granite floors, Sibley’s was the largest such store between New York City and Chicago. It set my sights high, my expectations for a big and brave life. Just Like Nancy Drew.

Nothing bad ever happened to me on those trips downtown. I was warned not to talk to strangers unless they worked in the stores, and not to go farther than Sibleys, and Levis Music store a half block east on Main, where I could choose my piano music for my weekly lesson.

Soon I wandered a little farther both east and west. Scrantom’s Books and Stationary fueled my life long passion for office products and the feel of fine paper. The Planter’s Peanut Shoppe fueled my passion for hot, salty nuts (see “statins” above.) Fannie Farmer chocolates on the corner gave me the same migraines then as chocolate gives me now, but oh the smells co-mingling from the chocolate store and her neighbor the peanut shoppe. And I could get whatever I wanted! Both my father and uncle worked in office buildings a few blocks beyond but I never went that far and they would not have known what to do with a little girl popping in as this was long before ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day.’ And I would not have wanted my independence compromised with reminders of hierarchal relationships. In those hours I was my own boss. Eventually I even crossed the street to Midtown Plaza, where as an adolescent I would jump, high on cough syrup, into the fountain and get hauled outside by the police. But that was after a certain loss of innocence and nothing Nancy Drew would have ever have condoned.

My early life was tactile, sensory. I took the bus and wandered through aisles of books, I touched each one, my weekly Nancy Drew in the order I expected it to be, always crisp and perfect.

Don’t get me wrong, I know my parents were glad to get rid of me when they could. Girls like me, we are never easy. I stayed out way past dark. I rode my blue Schwinn two-wheeler wherever I wanted, to the edge of woods where I could jump off and explore creek beds, wondering how far they would take me.

My independence got the best of me for a while, but never so badly that I was changed in the ways that women often are changed. Now-a-days I huff and puff up to the edge of the woods and I don’t go too far in, although I think about it. I want my 70thbirthday to hurry up and come so I can get it over with. I’ll be a relic just like the grand dame Sibley’s and the soon-to-be 90 year old Nancy Drew.

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