Monday, June 25, 2012

Tribute to a Great Lady

On September 1, 1990, Wilma Sehnert died. I was asked to speak at her service. She lived two doors down from us in Alhambra and became our second mother. Here’s what I said that day:

There’s hardly a significant event of my youth that Wilma was not part of. Looking back, I can remember the beautiful woman with the dark, shiny hair, the ever-present bangs, the warm twinkling eyes, the mischievous smile, and that contagious, throaty laugh.
I remember scorching summer afternoons before the advent of air conditioning, where the only breath of air was expelled from our seared lungs, and the only hope of relief lay in the Sehnerts’ backyard under the shade of a tree in the few inches of cool water contained in Dan’s small wading pool. And I remember our childish amusement when our mothers dared to share our little oasis of comfort. And amidst it all was Wilma—bringing sweat-frosted glasses of lemonade and iced tea. She refilled the little pool as fast as we emptied it with our games and always made us feel as though she enjoyed our play as much as we did.

I remember days which, with the magic of time, have taken unto themselves a sort of mythic unreality. Were we ever really that serene? Was life ever that pure and untouched?

During those lovely summers of our innocence, our families took turns hosting neighborhood potluck suppers. The Grahams, Sehnerts, and our family rotated these weekly events. But I remember the evenings at the Sehnerts with particular fondness. Perhaps it was their wonderful patio, which my dad helped build. At one end was an edifice of brick—a magnificent structure which was the equivalent of today’s outdoor kitchen. On the nights of the potlucks the built-in barbeque was put into service. During our play, however, it might be used as a walled fortress or a mountain to be climbed or a bunker.

Perhaps I remember best the quiet times after our meal when ancient grey-covered songbooks with yellowing pages would be passed around and the singing began. I can recall falling asleep to the strains of “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “Good Night Irene.” The latter may have been Wilma’s favorite, as I can’t recall a single time when it was skipped. Or perhaps I remember it best because of her enthusiasm in singing it. While she may have lacked a bit in technical ability, she made up for it in enthusiasm! Sometimes Laura Lee Graham or my mother would add harmony, and the sweet sound of those female voices still rings in my memory.

I remember the wonder of the first television I ever saw—in the Sehnerts’ living room. At the center of a massive wooden cabinet was a small, slightly blurred screen on which real people moved and talked! The Hollywood Christmas Parade was an annual tradition. We kids sat on the floor as close to the set as our parents would allow and watched the parade. Don would build a fire in the fireplace, and in the background was Wilma, serving up mugs of delicious steaming hot chocolate. Sometimes there was also popcorn or cookies. It was the official beginning of the holiday season for many years and a memory my brother and I both cherish.

I remember Wilma during the hard times, too.

She was there for Mom, too. She was the first one at the house when Mom got the news of my father’s death, and was a constant fixture for the following weeks and months. She took care of us kids and saw to it that we had a second home to go to if we needed it. My brother, Ron, and I counted on that assurance and probably took advantage of her generosity far too often.

One of the most vivid pictures in my recollection is of Wilma dragging Dan’s little wagon, filled to overflowing with good food, up the street to our house each night after my dad died when I was seven. She’d arranged with all the neighbors to prepare the dishes, and then delivered these feasts herself.

Since Mom didn’t drive, Wilma was generous about taking us wherever we needed to go and helped her practice driving.

Since there was no money in our budget for extras, I had to pay for my own bicycle: the enormous sum of sixty dollars. (To me at ten-years-old, it might has well have been a thousand!) Wilma was there again. She invented excuses to have me run to the store for her so she so she could tip me more than was required when I returned. She ‘hired’ me to help her clean her house and overpaid me for the job. (When I was older, I realized that she probably had a cleaning service and didn’t really need any help.) I don’t know how much of that bicycle was purchased through her generosity, but I do know that without her, I never would have gotten it!

During my high school years, she was there for me, too. I remember once when a particularly important occasion arrived (so important that the particulars have escaped me) and as always, there was no money in our tight budget for a new dress. I had nothing close to appropriate in my wardrobe. But Wilma loaned me one of her dresses. It was a favorite of hers and mine. I can picture it clearly: white pique cotton with a V-neck, tight bodice, low back, and flared skirt. I felt like a princess wearing it! And I was frightened throughout the evening of soiling it.

She saved me the night of my senior prom, too. A girlfriend had offered to do my hair and makeup the afternoon of the dance. By the time she left my house, my hair looked like a huge rat’s nest and I was hysterical. Mom did the only sensible thing she could think of: she called Wilma. Still sobbing, I went to her house where, in a very short time, she transformed the disaster into perfection. She styled my hair into a sleek and sophisticated French twist with wispy bangs and fragile curls in front of my ears. Then she added her own lovely hair band of tortoiseshell, to match my hair, studded with rhinestones. It looked as though someone had sprinkled stars in my hair. She redid my makeup, and when she was through, I felt like Cinderella with my very own fairy godmother.

As I grew older and moved away from the neighborhood, I didn’t see as much of Wilma as I probably should have. But I always knew she was there. We met several times for lunch, and I’d stop by if I was visiting my mother.

She was always such a constant in my life—rock-solid and dependable. When I try to picture the world without her, I know that much of its sparkle and energy would be dimmed. What a bright light she was to so many of us!

She took in all of us strays and gave generously—of her possessions, but mostly she gave of herself. She was never easy on us. Quite the contrary. She expected the best from each one, and we did our best not to disappoint her.

One of her most memorable phrases to us kids was, “come on, you can do it!” And, although I know it would embarrass her terribly to hear it, much of what I learned about the kind of love they tried to teach in Sunday school came not from that source but from the example she set. Through her faithful and constant acts of selfless love, I observed what commitment and unconditional love were all about.

Love is a verb, and Wilma put it clearly into action. Those acts of love are very real and precious to each of us who was blessed to be a recipient of them and had Wilma touch our lives.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Visiting the Past

Not long ago, we had occasion to drive through Arcadia, California, the city where we’d lived for seventeen years. We bought our first home where we raised our daughter there in 1970. Fortunately Larry’s cousin purchased the house from us and still owns it, so it remained in the family. That alone made it easier to leave.

We ate breakfast at one of the restaurants we’d enjoyed when we lived there. At that time (twenty-five years ago), the population was primarily white-haired seniors. On our recent visit, however, the place was packed with young families of several ethnicities. It felt good to know that the area was once again alive and that a new generation would be growing up there.

Many of the familiar stores and other businesses were gone and replaced with newer ventures.


Driving by the old house was an exercise in nostalgia. It looked fresh and well-maintained. Of course, the roof line is different than when we first moved in. A fire in 1980 required replacing the original. We decided to go for a full gable on the front. The yard has also been completely replaced. The tree roots had lifted the brick entry so that it had become dangerous. There is now a nice railing around the porch and a new front door.


The same afternoon, we found ourselves in Alhambra, the town where we’d grown up, so we decided to drive down Main Street to see what it looked like now. We were surprised that several of the old businesses remained. Since they were family-owned establishments and we had moved away many years before, we were delighted to see them.

We also drove to the neighborhood where we had both lived. All the houses looked well-preserved, and most had additions, including the ones we had been raised in. They were very small to start with, so the addition of more square footage was no surprise.


It was fun visiting the past, and we were grateful for the time spent in both locations, but we were also very happy to return to our current home in Dana Point. We adore the neighborhood, the neighbors, the proximity to the beach, and the house itself.

Have you ever gone back to places you’ve lived in the past? How did it feel? What did you learn?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Word(s) of the Day

At a recent women’s retreat, we were given an opportunity to be alone and consider how we were feeling that day. We were to define that emotion in one word. However, being a wordsmith, I couldn’t limit it to one word. Instead I came up with three:

The day before, as part of a book study, we had discussed contentment and discontent. I realized that especially since we’ve retired, I’m truly content with my life.

I love my home, my family, my neighbors. I’m living a life I couldn’t have begun to imagine when I was young and very poor. We’ve visited places all over the world that I’d only read about and never expected to see. We’ve had experiences far beyond my wildest dreams.

And we’ve managed to retire together with enough financial security to allow us relative peace of mind.

Many friends are suffering from various debilitating physical ailments. We are both in good health, adding another reason for contentment. Larry surfs nearly every weekday, and I walk two miles each morning with friends.

We are still active mentally as well. We continue to write, both together and apart. Larry published his book, Lakeview Park, last December. My new book, Ghost Writer will come out this summer. And we have several more currently in the works.


I feel truly blessed to be surrounded by people whom I adore, and who love me in return. We have been active in the same church family for many years. Those relationships are our emotional and spiritual safety net.

We are blessed with a wonderful, loving family. And that is truly a gift.

We live in Paradise, otherwise known as Dana Point, California. Our neighbors watch out for us as we do for them. In a time when most people are transient, we’ve lived in the same place for twenty-five years with nearly all the same people. We know our neighbors as good friends.


I was born in the most prosperous and free country in the world. And I get to live in one of the most beautiful places in that country in a large, beautiful home.

I’m wrapped in the love of friends and family, all of whom are close and treasured

I was actually able to retire, despite spending many years as the filling in the ‘sandwich generation.’ That’s more than many baby boomers are able to do. And I get to spend a lot of time just hanging out with Larry, my soul mate and best friend.

I get to write books, both together with Larry and separately. I love writing and appreciate having something constructive and pleasurable to do in retirement.

Unlike when I was working, I can now spend more time doing for others. For instance, on Mondays, we go to Del Obispo Terrace, the assisted living facility where my mother spent several of her happiest years. We sing and share with the residents. These people are truly an inspiration, and we always feel blessed to be able to spend time with them.

Larry and I are both healthy and active and expect to continue to be so going forward.

Is it any wonder that I start each day with a prayer of thanksgiving?

How about you? What is your word of the day?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow

I've rarely mentioned it... Actually, for many years, it was a joke and a little bit embarrassing.

In school, I was "the smart one." I was a life member of the National Honor Society, won a couple of scholarships, concentrated hard on the academics, and made outstanding grades. I designed the emblem for our high school’s senior sweater and had my picture in the paper often during my senior year.

So how did I also win the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow contest?

My friend, Marie Mazetta, was a homemaking student. When they announced that there’d be a test for the Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year, I had no intention of entering. But Marie wanted to, and she didn't want to go alone. So I finally agreed to go with her.

It was a multiple-choice test, and I really thought I'd blown off the answers. I was the first one finished, and I left. The part I hadn't counted on was that I'd been doing most of the household tasks for years: cleaning, shopping, budgeting, etc.
No one was more shocked than I when my name was announced as the winner!
I received a cute little gold pin and a certificate. And I thought it was a hoot!
However, about fifteen years ago, I decided to wear the pin to work to show it to someone, and I lost it. I hadn't realized how much that silly thing meant to me until it was gone. After searching for several years, and finding several that looked the same but were a larger size, I finally located another on eBay and purchased it.
The 'new' one is now back in the shadow box where I'd kept my original one, and my world seems complete once more.

Silly, the things that seem to define you. I never recognized that this award, another in the long string of awards I've won over the years, actually mattered to me. Perhaps, it was because it was so unexpected. Perhaps it was because it demonstrated a different skill set than I was normally recognized for. But, for whatever reason, that silly little pin became more precious as the years went by.

I ran across the ‘wrong’ ones one day shortly before Christmas a couple of years ago and realized that I knew women who embodied the values measured by the competition: “family relationships, spiritual and moral values, child development and care, health and safety, utilization and conservation, money management, recreation and use of leisure time, home care and beautification, community participation, and continuing education” (Copied from the Betty Crocker website My sister-in-love and two nieces had truly created homes where friends and family gather, where children are welcome, where nurturing and love can be found.

So I decided that each of them should have one of those little pins to remind them of what a special gift ‘homemaking’ is and how much I loved and admired them for doing so for their families.

Isn’t it strange how things we thought were unimportant take on significance as we get older? Is there anything in your life experience that has become more important in later years?