My mother wasn’t an especially sophisticated woman. Esquire magazine and Champale she considered a little too racy. When I was in high school in the early 1970s, she squawked at me for carrying hot tea in a thermos to school because it “looked affected.” But she was a good person, a mensch.
Most of her family knew her as Eileen. Her nameplate where she worked usually said Doris Gorsline. Some of her newspaper work she signed Dodie. Early on, she sold some joke material under the carefully-chosen gender-free pseudonym of Pat Petirs.
My mother was born in a small city in the Miami Valley of Ohio to Bessie and Louis, both of them garment workers; Louis went on to become a union electrician. She came west to California after finishing high school, just after World War II. She met my father there, moved to New Mexico to start their family, split with my Dad and moved back to Ohio, and raised me in Dayton (and places you can see from there) as a single mother. After I left for university, she spent some time working in Cincinnati, then at the end of her working life returned to Sacramento. She would probably tell you it was for the climate, but I think the real reason was that her best friend Janice was there—they were genuine BFFs, all the way back to school in Ohio. And when she settled there she made more new good friends.
What a person saves, keeps by her, says quite a bit about her. When she moved to assisted living about fifteen years ago and my cousin Rita and I cleaned out her apartment—well, she’s a packrat like I am—her keepsakes spoke loud and clear: friends and family and relationships. Postcards and letters and so many, many photographs. Blank notecards for the sending. Bus schedules (I kept those) and rubber bands and pennies squirreled away everywhere. Her doll collection: what I admire about her collecting is that she didn’t keep her treasures sealed up lest they lose value; she had them out so that she could enjoy them. Of course, her own clippings from stories she’d published.
My mother accomplished a lot—in the middle of the Mad Men era—by writing full-time for a city evening newspaper, the Dayton Daily News. When I would visit her at work, I remember soft #1 pencils and cheap yellow typing paper and pneumatic tubes for moving copy around the building. Mom wrote her share of lighter features, but she wasn’t trapped in what they used to call the women’s section. Early on, her editor told her she’d need to drive to her assignments. One problem: Mom hadn’t learned to drive. So, in her thirties, she took lessons and her driver’s test—and turned it into a story for the paper. Then, later, it was too expensive to send both a reporter and a photographer out, so she learned to make her own photographs.
I wish I could have known her when she was a wisecracking twentysomething, selling gags to 1000 Jokes magazine; or when she flouted convention and summered at a writer’s colony in New England (and had her own lovesick suitor to follow her home to Ohio); or when she was a young girl in the Depression, wheedling a dime from her parents to see the new Shirley Temple movie. She drew comic strips for her own entertainment; and then, in a prescient bit of post modernism, came back to them years later and marked them up, annotating the poor draftsmanship and faulty story-telling. There was a bit of Lynda Barry’s Marlys in her: dance, draw, do whatever you are moved to do, and don’t worry about who’s watching.
We were never well-off, just somewhere-in-the-middle-class, in a succession of rented bungalows in the Dayton suburbs, but in the best public school district in the area. She had the wisdom to listen to what I needed, and did what she could to provide that. And otherwise, with an occasional nudge, she let me solve my own problems.
Truth to tell, she spent a lot of her life doing what other people expected of her, and perhaps that is her small tragedy. She started her writing career, in part, because a teacher in high school thought that she could and should be a writer. Her professional life and avocation evolved over time, as she moved from the humor columnist to the reporter to the P.R. manager. Fairly late in her career, she completed her undergrad degree in communications at what is now Mount St. Joseph University. And she continued submitting fiction and nonfiction to the magazines, with some success. She never stopped trying to figure out what being a writer meant to her.
We went to the movies together: we both loved golden age musicals and Robert Altman’s Nashville (and a certain epic centered on a plantation called Tara that we will pass over for the moment). We went to the library, first the Flesh Public Library in Piqua then the big downtown library in Dayton. We listened to music: we liked Van Cliburn’s piano and Bobby Darin’s pop and Henry Mancini’s movie scores. We had a few comedy albums that we wore the grooves out of: Bob Newhart as a monologist; Mike Nichols and Elaine May as a team. When the Beatles were beset by the “Paul is Dead” rumors, we scrunched next to the stereo, trying to hear the messages coded in “I Am the Walrus.”
We traveled the country by intercity bus and passenger train. We would go to Cincinnati just to visit the ice cream parlor set in the pedestrian bridge joining the two buildings of Pogue’s department store. New York for the World’s Fair in 1965: I was subway-smitten and wanted to ride the 7 train out to Flushing and the fair, but she more sensibly found the dedicated shuttle buses. California and Tennessee by train, to see family and friends. Washington, D.C. by bus in ’64. Parts of the original Greyhound terminal on New York Avenue, N.W. that we used is now under historic preservation, so it will always be there as a souvenir of that good time.
That’s something I learned from her: riding the bus may not be cool, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s cheap and efficient.
And I learned my liberalism and tolerance from her, as imperfect as it may be. She had Jewish colleagues and thought nothing of it. In most of the neighborhoods we lived, African Americans were scarce, but I was taught early on not to dwell on superficial differences. She would proudly tell the story of our Washington visit, when we toured the Senate chamber while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being debated. On the other hand, I’m not sure what she would make of some of my theater friends, but anyway…
Her heroes were two: fellow Miami Valley humorist Erma Bombeck; and Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc in the 1948 film: a woman alone, armed with her faith.
One day, I was telling Leta about my mom’s career, her successes and incompletions, and Leta said, “If success is measured as making a better life for your children, then she was very successful indeed.” Yes. She was a bang-up success.
Thank you, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, for your gift of The Gates.
At my desk away from my desk, 12 weeks since we started working remotely full-time. I’ve added a larger work table, a second monitor, and a rolling desk chair since I moved in. The overhead lighting is actually flattering in this case. But that’s the end of the shaggy hair: hair salons in Montgomery County reopened this week.
The wren pair in my back yard is now bringing food to nestlings. On the menu: a larva starter, to be followed by a spider main course.
First week of nest box monitoring. From my report:
Earlier and earlier! We have eggs in three of our boxes already: 12 Hooded Merganser eggs in #5 (on the remains of last year’s songbird nest), 13 Hooded Merganser eggs in #7, and 4 Wood Duck eggs in #1 — all subject to recheck and confirmation.
We did not fill boxes #68, #60, and #13 with chips, in anticipation of their replacement. Box #13 is the priority for replacement: the term of art applied was “hot mess.”
Bonus bird sighting was a flock of 500+ Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) moving across lower Barnyard Run.
A couple of snaps from the road. I rode the Auto Train south to Florida and drove my car back, swinging wide to Charlotte to visit a colleague for dinner. As an added bonus, I got to ride Charlotte’s LYNX Blue Line in to Uptown for dinner.
Back in Titusville, I circled back to get a shot of this lovely
MOTEL sign, calling out for Wade’s Motor Inn on Washington Ave. The
M and the
L have lost a few lights from their enclosing diamonds, but it’s still a cool sign.
I took a break from the birds to look at some specialties of Floridian flora with Jim Stahl. We walked the grounds of the Merritt Island NWR visitor center (some of the greatest hits had interpretive signs), as well as the oak hammock trail not far from there.
We learned some quick keys for distinguishing between two very common native palms: the shrubby Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) and the tree-sized, covered with “boots,” Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto). Saw Palmetto has flat fronds and those prickles, while a Cabbage Palm leaf has a central vein that causes the leaf to form a V, and an older leaf will split along this vein. Cabbage Palm also shows brown stringy bits. On a Saw Palmetto, the fronts radiate from the distal end of the petiole, while a Cabbage Palm is costapalmate: the petiole extends farther into a midrib, forming sort of a teardrop shape.
We saw far too many examples of the non-native invasive Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia), one of six species on the refuge’s hit list. The tree was in bright red fruit in January.
Florida has a very large fern with pinnae that suggest our local Christmas Fern; it’s Acrostichum danaeifolium. Perhaps now I can remember the back half of the scientific name of our fern, Polystichum acrostichoides.
I returned to Florida for the first time in far too many years for my first SCBWF. I twitched 120 species, give or take, including 10 new birds for me. Many of my lifers were Florida specialties, including Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) and the introduced Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). Compared to the similarly-colored Purple Gallinule, the swamphen is huge.
I did some pre-birding in Ocala NF before the festival opened, hoping to find a Florida Scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) for myself. No bird, but I did walk the Florida National Scenic Trail for about 100 meters.
On a special trip to St. Johns NWR, we heard Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) responding to a recording (habitat photo at left). Then, a couple days later, a few of us at Merritt Island NWR got a fleeting visual of the bird!
Trip leader David Simpson likes to call Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) the flying Cuban sandwich, because of its appressed body.
Chasing sharp-tailed sparrows in Shiloh Marsh, we had some extra company: a Canadian film crew collecting footage for a documentary. They were following Paul, seen here at the extreme left in the photo.
I was excited to see a few birds that weren’t new to me, but might as well have been, since I see them so rarely: Mottled Duck (Anas fulvigula), Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata), Sora (Porzana carolina), Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis). Over on iNaturalist, I have posted some observations of the easier-to-spot Limpkin (catching an apple snail) and Tricolored Heron, as well as a couple butterflies: White Peacock and Long-tailed Skipper (missing its long tails).
Our pelagic trip results were somewhat subdued (it’s entirely possible that our bad luck was due to the banana that someone brought on the boat), but we had some fun scooting around the shrimp boats. The captain will drop small “try nets” to sample the waters, haul them in and count the shrimp that have been caught, then toss the bycatch back. That’s when our birdy friends swing into action. Here, the Miss Lynn is hauling in a try net.
On our return from the Gulf Stream, about 30 miles offshore, our chum attracted a couple of kleptoparasitic Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), who put on quite the show harassing the terns, gulls, and pelicans just trying to catch an honest meal.
Every festival is a little different. Perhaps the most comfortable difference of Space Coast was the extra room in our buses for the longer trips. I had a double seat to myself for all three trips.
My to-read bookshelf has spilled out into an annex of three to-read crates. Free books rescued from work, possibly interesting reads from book exchange, a few things of Leta’s that I might pick up, a good-intentions attempt to review my college calculus text (what’s a Lagrange multiplier, again?) (water-damaged from a small basement flood some years ago), a couple of doorstops for a long train journey, some finds from the AAUW used book sale, time to read Pirsig again.
In Leta’s (and by inheritance, Ann’s) effects I found a promotional notepad from the Southern Railway System, with a handy list of freight facilities on the inside cover. (Leta’s grandfather worked for a railroad.) Southern would have used that branding up until about 1980. A historian of the system might be able to pin down a date, given the list of facilities. It’s possible that
200-79 on the inside cover encodes a printing date. Yankee that I am, I used up the notepad.
On the back of the backing is the real mystery: the inscription
GLV 823. A vehicle license plate number, perhaps? But what state? Who made the hasty note, and why did they use the backing rather than a leaf from the pad? Does it capture a red light runner? A hit-and-run accident? The imagination trembles.