Writing My Life

Now and Then

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Barbershop Saturdays

Based on memories from my childhood, I penned the following poem for my creative writing class. This creation follows the “complex French verse form” called a sestina. While it was difficult to write, it led me in a direction I hadn’t fathomed. I dedicate “Barbershop Saturdays” to my wonderful father and his barber Frenchie Brasseur.
My best to you,  Renae


The morning sun highlights customers captured in the giant mirror
that stretches across the back wall, duplicating rows of glass jars –
some filled with liquid green and blue; others with puffs of cotton.
Frenchie, with his pencil-thin moustache, trims and tapers – measured clips.
Scissors snip, gum smacks, chatter snaps; trademarks of the slender man.
The room is warm. Sandalwood scent fills the air. No one minds the wait.

I stand by Dad as he searches the scene, then asks, “How long is the wait?”
“ ’bout fifteen,” answers Frenchie. He whirls the man in the chair towards the mirror,
and Dad sits on a vinyl chair. I sit on his knee. Frenchie whips the cape off the man.
While the client pulls dollars from his wallet, I gaze at the contents of the jars:
all lengths of combs and scissors, razor blades and metal files. And one bottle of clips.
I like it here; the cluttered order of the shop; the informality of khakis and cotton.

On this Saturday trip with Dad, I sport a ponytail, a suntop, and shorts of red cotton.
This man’s world doesn’t intimidate me. I sneak peeks at ARGOSY while we wait
‘til Dad snatches it, then hands me LIFE Magazine. I blush and listen to scissor clips
and talk of weather and baseball. I skim headlines and scan photos, then mirror
“Audrey’s” smile, “Marilyn’s” pout, Khrushev’s scowl. His shoe-pounding jars
me. I fear his words. I fear his threats. I fear his bombs. I fear this man.

I wonder, “Does he take a little girl to the barbershop?” This scary, bald man.
The notion fades as I snuggle onto Daddy’s lap, inhaling Old Spice and pressed cotton.
Dust motes waltz in sunlight’s shafts. I smile at prisms of azure refracting from jars.
The welcome bell jangles me, and I sit up to stare at the boy who joins the wait.
Frenchie nods hello before clicking on the trimmer to buzz the man in the mirror.
He had ordered a crewcut. Tiny hairs drift to the pile of Frenchie’s snips and clips.

The barber whisks away the heap of calico curls. Deftly, he wraps the cape and clips
it closed ‘round the patron’s neck. I think of my ponytail. I am glad I am not a man.
Still, I might like the trimmer’s tickle, spinning in the chair and whirling past the mirror.
Pixie cuts are “in style”. Could Frenchie style a pixie cut on me? Mom would cotton
to the idea. Maybe. She likes curls, and that means home permanents. I think I’ll wait.
Dad slides me off his lap. “My turn, Honey.” I settle into his chair and start counting jars.

Daddy climbs the chrome-plated step and sits. Frenchie draws clean combs from the jars.
I smile when the barber pushes a lever to lower the chair for my tall father. Then he clips
and combs my dad’s dark hair. And soon he will look even more handsome. I can’t wait!
Without his horned-rimmed glasses, he seems so young. But he is our Super Man!
Dad fought a war, found his love, and begot two daughters. All without a red “S” of cotton
on his chest. And Saturdays he gets his haircut as I watch, loving that man in the mirror.

Innocently, I store these gentle memories in the jars of my mind while learning to man
the fast clip of life. I have safely wrapped those faraway Saturdays in layers of cotton:
tender recollections that patiently wait then emerge – blurred images in the mirror.


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Back When I Wanted to be Catholic – and an Ice Skating Olympian

I think my fascination with Catholicism was born at St. Anthony’s Hospital where my mother gave birth to me. Somewhere in my early growing-up years, I heard rumors that before nuns brought babies to their mommies, priests baptized tiny infants. I therefore concluded that I had dual citizenship in the Catholic and the Mormon Churches. I may have even told a few people that I was Catholic.

Vern and Mary with their daughters and Penny, their Cocker Spaniel

Vern and Mary with their daughters and Penny, the Cocker Spaniel

I vaguely remember one or two neighbor children who were bona fide Catholics, but it wasn’t until 1954 when we moved across the street from Vern and Mary and their daughters Ginger, Susan, and Sharon that I learned some details of my “alter-religion”. Susan was closest to my age, and so I assume she served as my mentor in all things Catholic. While she shared some complaints about her faith, I loved everything I learned. For example, I really liked the idea of confession and the resulting absolution from sin. Yes, I know that a tenet of Mormon theology includes repentance, but when I prayed for forgiveness of what I considered many grave transgressions, I wasn’t sure I had been forgiven. I wanted somebody to make it official. Additionally, I was a repeat offender so the idea of frequent trips to the confessional bothered me not in the least. And because I thought of myself as pretty sinful, I also longed to pay penance. For example, I welcomed saying extra prayers especially if I could use a beautiful rosary to keep track of my efforts. In fact, I once bought an early treasure while vacationing at San Juan Capistrano when I was eight: a bracelet designed like a rosary, cross and all.

I really liked the idea of sacrifice, too – at least the ones my friends made. When I was young, Catholics abstained from meat every Friday, not just during Lent, and Fridays were my favorite school lunch days. Cafeteria workers at Lewis and Clark Elementary and Alameda Junior High always served fish sticks or toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup to all students, Catholic or otherwise. I even wanted to “give up” something for Lent. Susan and her sisters usually said goodbye to candy for the six weeks prior to Easter. I think I may have tried to do the same, but if I did, I doubt I lasted 6 days, let alone 40. (Recently I gave up Diet Coke. While this “abstinence” correlates with the Lenten season, it was unintentional, AND I plan to make this a permanent change. I know friends and family are snickering at this – “oh ye of little faith!”)

The biggest attraction to the Catholic faith, however, was First Communion – not because of the importance of receiving the Eucharist for the first time, but because of the beautiful little “wedding” dresses Susan and then Sharon wore. I was SO jealous. When I was baptized into the Mormon/LDS Church at age 8, I wore white knee-length bloomers and a white blouse. I didn’t get a new frock – white or otherwise – for my confirmation. No veil either. Not even white gloves. The adorable Easter dresses and bonnets Mom always bought or made for us did little to diminish my Communion-dress envy.

Looking back at that experience, I find it interesting how religion was often a topic of our childhood conversations. And while my interest in the Catholic Church was fleeting, there was a significant reason I was enamored with my Catholic friends. They were such good, good people. The family was fun and kind. Mom Mary’s wide smile invited friendships, and the girls were intelligent, talented, and beautiful. One summer Ginger kept us busy when she organized a backyard carnival. Under her tutelage, her sisters and we friends created booths by hanging blankets from their clothes line. We featured all sorts of games and prizes, and promoted the event beyond our street to nearby neighborhoods. We charged for the activities but then donated the money – which I don’t recall as being very much, maybe $12 or $15 – to a local charity. Somewhere in my archives is a newspaper photo of us presenting our profits to the organization.

Skating with Mom at Caribou Nat'l Forest rink

Skating with Mom at Caribou Nat’l Forest rink

Then there was Dad Vern; quiet and unassuming, he spent winter nights watering down their back yard to create an ice skating rink. Small at first, the rink’s popularity inspired him to enlarge the square footage until several inches of ice covered all but a tiny corner of their yard. We loved the rink and often hurried home from school to spend a couple of hours there before dinner. I remember one particularly freezing week when schools closed for fear of bursting pipes; nevertheless, the temperatures didn’t dip enough to keep us off the ice. Everyday we spent time playing Crack the Whip and other games with our friends, taking breaks now and again to thaw our toes or sip hot cocoa before resuming.

Wearing our "ice-skating dresses" with Daddy at Caribou rink a few years later

Wearing our “ice-skating dresses” with Daddy at Caribou rink a few years later  


When I think of how much time we spent there, I wonder that Vern and Mary rued the day they started that tradition. I can’t imagine how many times children rang their doorbell to ask permission to take the ice, but I don’t remember being turned away very often.

Because of this neighborhood experience, my sister Connie and I became skating devotees, and while our “expertise” did not qualify us for the 1964 Winter Olympics, Mom believed that our love of the sport warranted red corduroy skating dresses!!

The best outcome of that neighborhood skating rink, however, was the closeness we felt to our friends and neighbors. Vern and Mary created lifelong memories of a fun, happy, and safe place for all of us to enjoy regardless of our differences – religious or otherwise. I’ll never forget them!


Results of the Second Writing Contest I’ve EVER Entered

I even wished upon a falling star but still wasn’t numbered among five winners of a writing contest I entered.  But unlike my first competition in junior high, the news didn’t make feel like a total loser.

Failure to win the “My Mother is the World’s Best” in-50-to-100-words-or-less contest back in the day convinced me I was a poor writer and a pathetic daughter. This time around, however, I not only learned from preparing my entry, I also benefited from reading  the winning efforts.

I’ll do better next time.

And I still think I have the world’s best mother!

I still remember the story behind the story of this essay, but I just couldn't tell it in 97 words!

Hmmm. I think I thought bringing God into the content would increase my chances even though I could only eek out 85 words.


… maybe techno-bullying ISN’T a NEW trend …

I wrote this narrative to use in a writing lesson with 9th graders special ed students. I’ve often thought about that experience and how it affected me. The incident occurred in 1960 when there were no cell phones or home computers. Nevertheless, the good old telephone could be used as a weapon in spreading ill will!

By the way, the following piece is INSPIRED by actual events. No one ever remembers the exact details, and I changed the names because some of my school friends read my blog.) 


I had known Sandra and Mitzi since fourth grade. Those two were the dynamic duo of Lewis and Clark Elementary School. The tiny girls looked nothing alike, but each was a cutie in her own way. Sandra’s olive skin, dark eyes, and short, natural curly hair contrasted with Mitzi’s fair skin, blue eyes, and long honey-blond hair.

Those girls were the type that every girl wanted to be friends with, and because they were actually shorter than most boys, the guys liked them, too. Even in fourth grade, boys chased Sandra and Mitzi during recess, and slid lovey-dovey notes to them during class. I know because I read a few before passing them along. That was when they didn’t even know my name.

Couldn't find my 7th grade picture, but this 8th grade photo is close enough.

By seventh grade, the guys were taller; so were Sandra and Mitzi, and I had finally stopped growing. I was still taller, but at least I didn’t tower over the two by a head and a half. That was the year we became friends.

For some reason the two buddies didn’t have any classes together, but I sat by Sandra in my first three classes and by Mitzi in my last three. We had gravitated to each other because there were so few people from our elementary school in our classes. We knew no one, except Tommy and Billy who were super goofs that irritated us every time they opened their mouths.

“Hey,” they called to me. “Runnin’ ‘round with the big girls, huh?”

“Mitzi, where is your Siamese twin?” Tommy asked my friend. “Little desperate to be running around with BearTracks, aren’t you?” That’s what they called me and I hated it.

So it went, but the two pest-boys were right about one thing: I had become friends with two very popular girls. While I couldn’t totally explain the phenomenon, I was feeling pretty good about myself – until November.

As Thanksgiving approached, Sandra and I decided to have a party over the break, and as we talked about who to invite, I was surprised that she was debating whether or not to include Mitzi.

“She’s really changed since we started junior high, don’t you think?” I didn’t know what to say because I DID think she had changed; she was NICER, but obviously Sandra didn’t think so. I wasn’t about to jeopardize my new friendship with her so I just asked how she thought Mitzi had changed.

“She is SO stuck up. Don’t you think so?” Again, I was worried about what I should say to that. If I agreed, she might tell our friend, and Mitzi would hate me. But if I disagreed with Sandra, she might think I liked Mitzi more than her, and so I copped out.

“If you promise not to tell Mitzi, I have to agree with you. Ever since Brent Caldwell started calling her, she really thinks she’s something.”

Sandra jumped right on that, “I KNOW! She doesn’t have time for her friends anymore because she’s always talking to Brent or hanging around him. And I don’t even think he’s that cute. Do you?”

Now I thought Brent Caldwell was the most gorgeous boy in the whole state, maybe in the world, but I answered, “Are you kidding me? I don’t know what she sees in him, and he’s such a jerk, too. One day I walked up to the two of them when he was talking to Mitzi, and he totally started flirting with me! Right in front of her! I couldn’t believe it!”

Sandra added her opinions; we said good bye, then went our separate ways without coming to a final decision about whether or not to invite Mitzi to Sandra’s party.

A few days later, Sandra and I were walking home together, and she asked if I could come to her house to plan the party. I was so excited because this event was going to be a Renae and Sandra production instead of a Mitzi and Sandra social.

While talking about food, music, and decorations, Sandra interrupted the planning to ask what I was wondering, “Well, should we invite Mitzi or not?” I just shrugged my shoulders because I really didn’t want to make the decision. “It’s your party, Sandra. Do what you want,” I finally blurted out because she wouldn’t stop staring at me.

Finally, she suggested that we call Mitzi and see how she acted towards us. “I’ll get on one phone and you get on the extension, okay?” Sandra ordered. “But don’t tell her you are on the line, and I’ll just talk to her for awhile, and then you tell me what you think. Besides, I don’t want her to know that you and I are planning this party.”

Something told me this was not a good idea, but being the wimp I was, I nodded in agreement and headed to the basement to pick up the other phone.

After a few minutes of friendly chit-chat, Sandra paused in the conversation with Mitzi and then asked, “Hey, what do you think of Renae?”

I was stunned. Why would she ask a question like that? And then I thought maybe she wanted to see if Mitzi would say something rude about me and that would determine whether or not Sandra would invite her old friend to the party. Still, I did not want to hear Mitzi’s answer because I really did like her. I held my breath.

“Oh, my gosh,” she started. “I can’t stand her. She is so conceited, and I seriously don’t know why.”

My heart sunk, my stomach churned, and then I heard Sandra say, “I KNOW! She used to be so sweet, and now she is the most stuck-up person in our school.”

I couldn’t believe what I heard, and tears started welling up. Part of me wanted to scream into the phone that I was listening to every word they were saying, but somehow I realized they knew that. Mitzi spoke up, “Can you believe she’s even trying to take Brent away from me. Every time we’re all together, she totally plays up to him right in front of me! But he can’t stand her and she doesn’t even see that.”

Carefully, I placed the phone in its cradle, quietly climbed the stairs, and let myself out.


… the monkey bites again, part 1 …

The biggest, blackest lie I remember telling was in second grade. One spring day Mrs. Quidor announced our class was going to organize a pet parade. While nearly all my friends cheered the news, I did not. I think I was the only child who had NO cat, dog, bunny, turtle, or fish to parade around the school.

It isn’t as if I had not owned a pet. Indeed I went through a slew of mammals, reptiles, and birds. Here’s a short history of what I remember:

  1. A puppy that was hit by a car – I swear I saw tiny angels carry away the body. (Mom doesn’t remember this dog – dead or alive.)
  2. A Pekingese named Nicky that my mom gave away because of too much barking and shedding.
  3. Apparently dyed chicks are still popular in IRAN!!!

    Dyed chicks. As in purple, blue, or pink. Seriously. Around Easter, retailers would give away little LIVE PeePs as part of some sort of promotion. I don’t know how many times we talked Mom and Dad into taking a couple home, but I doubt it was more than once after they found me rocking my colorful but DEAD new pet.

  4. Hand-painted turtles. I believe the shoe store that sold Buster Brown shoes gave away these amphibians around school-shopping season. They were creatively painted in a multitude of colors, but once again, they died almost before we could get them home. I understand it had something to do with paint softening the shells. I’ll bet money the bright colored designs were also applied with lead-based paint. WHAT WERE PEOPLE THINKING????

Rather than to admit that “I was BETWEEN pets,” I reported to Mrs. Quidor that I would bring MY PET MONKEY to the parade, and NO, it was NOT a stuffed monkey, but the real deal. (Please don’t ask why I came up with such an exotic lie. I don’t know. The closest thing I had to a monkey was indeed a stuffed one – Ms. Phoebe B. Beebe, live-in girlfriend to J.Fred Muggs; my sister owned the Freddy version. The two stuffed animals honored Dave Garroway’s guest and co-hosts on the Today Show. Of course, I didn’t know all that then. )

At any rate, I reported the daily shenanigans of the pet monkey to my teacher and classmates. For some reason, Mrs. Quidor sort of went along with the story, asking me questions in an attempt to either trip me up or to guilt me into truth-telling. But I was dedicated to the BIG LIE and continued on until the day AFTER a PTA meeting.

Surprised that Mom and Dad didn’t return and question me about the mysterious monkey that supposedly lived in our house, I thought I had pulled off the ruse, OR that Mrs. Q. decided NOT to throw me under the bus. But when I walked into the classroom that day, she immediately called me up to her desk to tell me that she had chatted with my folks.

“Renae, your mom and dad didn’t seem to know anything about a monkey,” she said.

Rather than fold, I just looked her in the eye, and with tears in mine, reported that my poor little pet had been hit by a car, and I no longer owned a monkey, and therefore, had NO pet to carry, lead, or drag through the pet parade.

I don’t remember her response. I just recall that I was awarded the honor of leading the parade wearing a majorette hat my mom made. Now, here is the irony of the whole incident: a stray puppy wandered onto the school grounds JUST IN TIME for the parade, and guess who got to carry him.

By all rights, this story of dishonest mischief should NOT have ended this way. But it did, and here is a newspaper clipping to prove it!