Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sexual Abuse: Shame and what I wore

Do you remember the first time you were sexually abused? I do. I was in the fifth grade, at a ballroom dance class. I loved that class. The girls dressed in Sunday-best dresses, white anklets and patent leather shoes. The boys wore ties and sports jackets. Mr. Richards taught the basics of ballroom dancing, the box step, the fox trot, and then, my favorite, the cha cha. The class assembled in a circle in the gym, and every few minutes the music would stop and the boys would move on to the next girl in the circle. That way, everyone spent a few minutes ballroom dancing with everyone else.

One day my dance partner was Kenny Brown, a kid who was in the sixth grade but should have been in the seventh. He'd stayed back a grade and was older and bigger than the rest of us. We got into position,  Kenny's right hand on my back, his left hand in mine, and began following Mr. Richard's instructions.  But then Kenny moved his hand from around my back to my front. He rubbed circles on my chest, in the place where my breasts would eventually be, but were not yet.  There was nothing there but bone and ribs. This did not deter Kenny.

Stunned, I pretended not to know what was happening. I looked at Kenny's face for some sign of recognition from him, an explanation of what was going on.  Was I imagining this? Would he burst out laughing? No. I watched Kenny's eyes busily scanning the room, over the top of my head, darting from Mr. Richards to the couples around us, making sure no one saw what was he was doing.  No one did. Then Mr. Richards announced it was time to change partners and Kenny moved on to the next girl in the circle.

I did not tell anyone, but shame dogged me for weeks. I searched my mind a thousand ways, trying to understand my part in the thing, and even wondering whether or not it had truly happened.  I'd looked forward to the afternoons when my mom helped me get ready for dance class, made me as pretty as I could be. But then I felt guilt at making myself so pretty that Kenny had taken it as an invitation to run his hand all over my chest.

What haunted me the most throughout those two weeks until the next dance class was the thought of what I would do or say the next time Kenny was my dance partner. I dreaded that moment every night before I went to sleep. I thought of it when I woke up. I thought about it in school. I considered quitting dance class, but I knew if I did my parents would demand to know why. I had no idea how to tell them.  I feared they wouldn't believe me, or, if they did, I was afraid my father, who was Italian and a bit rougher than most other fathers I knew, would go after Kenny's father and there would be trouble. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to make trouble.

Kenny Brown never came to dance class again. I figured he'd quit. Or maybe he had fondled another girl with far more self-esteem than I, and she'd told her parents.

This all happened more than 50 years ago! Still I recall distinctly the moment when Kenny Brown robbed me of the girlish pleasure of being pretty in a pink party dress, and replaced that sunny innocence with shame. The memory still has the power to make me cry. 

Today, as the dark subject of sexual bullying has become front and center in this shameful and bleak political season that is the presidential race, I am remembering how much that first episode of sexual bullying -- yes, first, there were more to come as my life went on -- hurt me and even changed my feelings about myself, as well as my sense of who I was in relation to boys and men.

Yesterday I took a survey.  I asked every woman I saw: "Do you remember the first time you were sexually abused?" Their responses were nearly the same, every time I asked.  First surprise at the question. Then reflection. Then the answer. 

"Yes, I do."

"Did you tell anyone?" I asked.

"No," was the answer. Every time.

 "Why didn't you tell someone?" I asked.

"Because I thought no one would believe me."

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Make Me Move!

Is there any more daunting challenge than placing your home on the market?  Finding a new owner for your house, your home, your shelter, your nurturing boards and batten, is surely at the top of the list of things that make your nerves feel like downed power lines, hissing and snapping wildly on a wet and windy and lonely street.   It feels like being on stage, in a bikini and high heels, in a beauty pageant, flashing a big, phony smile on your face.  It feels like trying to please a lover who is a complete stranger.  Would they like it this way? Or that way? White walls or green?  Blue towels or beige?

We property sellers are advised to wipe our houses clean of our personalities, so that potential buyers may envision themselves living here, with their own chairs and quilts and paintings.  Mementos of living, of children, of friends and many good things that have happened to us, are referred to as "clutter" and "stuff".

First we made many trips to the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Then we simply put stuff out on the sidewalk, where it was gratefully carried off by passersby, to furnish their houses and dreams. And so we have stripped our house of anything evocative of our many years in Paradise.  Our house now resembles a hotel room. Practical. Easy in and out. Temporary. Sensible. Just the facts, Ma'am. At its stuffed and cluttered best, our house is warm, cozy and ever so sweet, so full of the riches of love and laughter and life it should sell for a billion dollars. But, though it feels as if we are, we are not selling our love stories.  We are selling a wooden house, a house built way before we were born, a house that will stand long after we are gone.
Pregnant with Miguel and a new house.
411 Truman down to her Dade County Pine bones.

Then. . .

Selling a house is hard on a marriage. Even the best marriages, therapists say, are prone to buckle under the weight of complicated fiduciary affairs.  Every high-impact window, every appliance, every tile in the bathroom has arrived only when we could afford it.  We have worked hard. None of it has come easy.  There is pride invested in this place. We did not swoop into this house and make it a home in a week or a month or even a year. Our home has evolved. And evolution is hard-won and very often painful. A wooden house is demanding.  Alive.  It has needs which must be met. It is old, and a bit crotchety. But with age comes enormous strength and fortitude. This is a sturdy house; safe and sane shelter from the storm.

In strictly practical terms, our greatest attribute, a feature not to be viewed lightly by potential buyers, is our off-street parking.  There is a driveway! Do you have any idea of the value of off-street parking in downtown Key West? It has occurred to us that we might put the driveway on the market and keep the house.

Our house has central air conditioning, making our lives much more than bearable. On the very occasional cold day, there is heat.  No more warming ourselves by sticking our feet into an open oven!  Our sweet haven is cool, calm, remarkably quiet and serene. What makes it all the more remarkable is the wonder of having Key West right outside our door.  Walk a block in any direction and you will find something worth seeing or doing or just being next to. Or sit on the porch and watch the whole world go by, on their way to the Hemingway House or Blue Heaven.  Planes fly overhead and we feel happy for the passengers, some coming home, some coming to visit, all about to bask in the special light that is Key West -- and only Key West.

There are ads for houses that state: "Make me move!"  I want to post an ad that says: "Help me move on!" It has been a long struggle to come to terms with the cold, hard facts about retiring in a town where everyone's biggest problem is finding a cozy place to live, and a place to park a car. 

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom's just another word for not having a  mortgage.  What we need now is freedom. 

Selling our house is like having an appointment with the dentist to have our wisdom teeth pulled. We are ready. We are scared, but we know it must be done. When it's over, we will be happy, and healthy, and comfortable. Let's just do it!

From our back deck I can see the tops of Hemingway's trees, swaying in the breeze, and sometimes, his ghost, snickering just above the tourists lining up, with their cameras and their guidebooks, to visit the house he once called his own.  When all is said and done, a house is just a house. Creating a story, living the dream, that's up to you.

For a virtual tour of the home click here:

Saturday, February 13, 2016

We'll Die For You

Dilys relishing fresh lobster. Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.

Darling I Love You So.  That’s how Dilys taught me to remember how to spell her name. Of the hundreds of wonderful, brilliant and creative people we have known and adored during our many years in Key West I would rank Dilys Winn among the all-time greatest.  Dilys was a genius, a rebel, and a writer of mystery novels.  In New York City she founded the nation's first all-mystery bookstore and called it Murder Ink.  In Key West she staged a mystery theatre/bookstore, Miss Marple’s Parlor.  After Key West she moved to North Carolina, where her first address was “Mars Lane.”   In N.C. she was promptly discovered and hired by a country bed and breakfast inn as a hostess. Her job was to pour tea and entertain the guests, which she did with aplomb.  Imagine sitting down to tea with Dorothy Parker!  She even looked a bit like Dorothy Parker – not tall, plumpish, and with brown eyes, generally sparkling with amusement. She cut her own hair into a sort of pageboy and preferred drapey, linen clothes with big pockets and buttons.  I called Dilys my own private Dorothy Parker.  And in honor of that, Dilys presented to me a first edition of Dorothy Parker poems, a prize I will cherish forever. Sometimes I simply called her “Darling I Love You So.”

Dilys and June at the beloved lover's desk. Asheville, N. C.
Dilys lived in interesting places, and in none of them for long. Sometimes she lived in an abandoned building for sale and had to move when the sale happened.  Sometimes she lived in a garret in someone’s creaky attic. Sometimes she lived in the backrooms of her shops. Her final residence was in Asheville and it was lovely.   Dilys had a vast array of fascinating things that she gathered along the long and winding road of her life. Her favorite possession was a lover's desk, ancient, heavy and unique which she had brought home from England.  On the last evening we spent with her, some five years ago, I asked her to pose with me at that desk. And she did.

There is a prize named after Dilys Winn.  At the Mystery Book Writers of America annual Award Night gala the prize is given to the mystery novel that booksellers most enjoy recommending to their customers. It is called “The Dilys.” It honors Dilys Winn's elaborate conversational skills. Start at a mystery book and end up at Freud. Somehow Dilys was able to knit all the pieces together into something whole and brilliant. Her fascination with mysteries was her portal into the vast universe.

Nova Scotia morning. Shirley, Suzanne, Dilys, June and Babe.
In the last five years of our friendship Dilys was housebound, suffering with the kidney disease that finally took her on February 5.  We kept in touch with occasional marathon phone calls. An hour with me, and then, what she liked best, an hour with my husband, one of her favorite men. Had we recorded those wild conversations I’m sure we would have something Dilys would have deemed publishable by now. We didn’t, and so we will warm ourselves with memories of Dilys visiting us in Nova Scotia and chasing lobsters and puffins; Dilys treating us to dinner in a fabulous and remote restaurant in Asheville; and, of course, those many crazy days and nights hanging out at Miss Marple’s Parlor.

The attached column first appeared in the Miami Herald.  Pictures would have been a good idea.  But who thinks of that when you’re laughing so hard you can barely breathe?

We'll Die For You 

    After watching a couple friends perform in a campy, interactive whodunit parlor game at Miss Marple's Parlor and Mystery Book Shop, I suggested to shop owner Dilys Winn that if she ever needed a big blonde, I was available. Her bright eyes, aglow with a glimmer of lunacy, turned neon when I said my husband would act, too.
    Finally, our chance came. Last week Dilys called and asked us to appear in one of her zany dramas. I would play a whorish psychic. Michael would be a nerdy IRS agent. Were two roles ever so clearly ours? All we had to do, Dilys explained, was enter the parlor at 8 p.m., clutch our throats, stagger like poisoned people dying hideous deaths might do, and - die. Easy enough.
    "Sure," I told Dilys. 'We'll die for you."
    Dilys sent me to the Knot So New Consignment Shop where Ilene, the shop owner, who really is psychic, handed me dress after whorish dress to try, while a salesgirl named Lucy and I discussed the meaning of the word "whore." Does a whore get paid a lot for sex, or simply have a lot of sex? I say the second. Please don't ask me why.
    After I'd found my costume, a tight green and gold skirt with a giant flounce in a shimmery fabric, with a matching leopard-skin print jacket, I was to report to Dilys for costume approval.
    "Here are my corpses now," Dilys said to someone on the other end of the phone, when Michael and I walked into her shop.
    Dilys loved my costume, and was so encouraged by our enthusiasm for acting, she made an impulsive decision to expand our roles. After our death scenes, according to the new script, we were to quickly change into angels' wings and choir robes. Oblivious to anyone else but our ghostly selves, Michael and I were to wander around, discussing bright white lights at the end of a tunnel. We were also to drop occasional clues.
    Late Friday afternoon, while I teased my hair and applied a half-pound of makeup, Michael hunted for the gray flannel suit he'd stashed in the back of his closet 10 years ago. While he knotted his tie, I parted his hair down the middle and plastered it with gel. We found his old briefcase.
    At 7:30, we headed on foot for the mystery theater, with absolutely no clue of how our appearance on Duval Street would affect sunset pedestrians. Michael, the nerd in the suit and tie carrying a briefcase, and I, his whorish companion in the leopard skin suit, jangley jewelry and cheap perfume, created a bona fide scene.
    "Is this your first blind date?" I shrilled to Michael as we passed a group of pedestrians. Some polite types tried hard to not stare. Others glared at me disapprovingly. "How do you like Key West so far?" I shouted gaily, as Michael managed to stay in poker-faced character.
    A girl sitting on the sidewalk stared hard, and then when we were past, sighed loudly and gasped "My nerves," as if she'd hallucinated us.
    Soon, it was 8 o'clock. Showtime! As we waited in the wings, with the other, more seasoned cast members, Dilys appeared to give us some last minute directions.
    "When you do your death scenes, really camp them up," she said to us. "You should really overact, and don't worry about looking foolish."
    Then, as a sort of afterthought, Dilys murmured, "I could never do what you're about to do."
    But Michael and I had no qualms about looking foolish, and no fears of losing our dignity. Our impromptu dress rehearsal on Duval Street had cured us of all that.

Here's a video of Dilys' appearance on "To Tell The Truth" in 1972.