Once Jeff and Karen, Arlen’s kids, had left home, I often visited her and Harry in her little cottage with the wild back yard, using the guest room with the wicker bed to spend the night. In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

Harry is lounging in an easy chair, munching Rolaids for his chronic dyspepsia. Liesel, their crabby, angle-faced Siamese, sits in his lap, enjoying all the comforts of a vibrating chair, for Harry’s foot, laid across the opposite knee, is jiggling with a frenetic life of its own. Liesel pads up his ample shirt front and sets her fangs affectionately in his chin. Harry remarks, with a sly expression, “I call her the fart in a catsuit.” In a scatological mood, we compose the following limericks:


Me:             A corpulent monarch, Queen Joan,

                     Was wont to get stuck on her throne.

                     She admonished her court

                     When she heard the report

                     That the butt of their jokes was her own.


Harry:         An ingenious young fellow named Bart

                     Found a method for tuning a fart.

                     Though the public found queer

                     His melodious rear,

                     The critics agreed it was art.


In a philosophical mood, he tells me that in Norse mythology, the universe ends with the triumph of the God of Chaos. I remember the theory of maximum entropy, the heat death of the universe, and shiver with premature chill.


Harry was knowledgeable on all kinds of subjects, loved a wide variety of music like Arlen (he introduced me to Eric Satie), and improvised beautifully on Arlen’s quaint, white piano. He also had an astonishing palette and could discern the subtlest flavors in any culinary concoction. He read all kinds of literature, loaning my mother his mysteries and me his science fiction. At the time, he was writing his doctoral thesis for a Ph.D. in German philology, “the branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages,” according to the dictionary. At the same time, he had an idea for a mystery novel, he told me, that he was working out in his head.

Evenings with Arlen and Harry were full of good food, lively conversation, and, of course, music. In the morning Arlen would make her lemon crepes, or Harry a delectable quiche. 



Meryl came from a bustling, affluent family, as I’ve said, the fourth of six kids. Her father and grandfather were prominent Bay Area architects; her mother had studied architecture too but given up a career to raise her children. I never knew whether Meryl wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, but I did know she had a lot of frustrated creative energy. While her older brother was groomed as the heir apparent to the family firm, I didn’t see her gifts being taken seriously at all.

Her family owned a beautiful stretch of land, north along the coast, with a cove and redwood forest, as well as some acreage inland, along a river. On a few occasions I was invited along. We kids slept in a separate bunkhouse; the family ate dinners of fresh abalone we’d just collected and artichokes, which I’d never had before, and sang together around the stone fireplace. There were horses, a tennis court—I even helped build an outdoor bowling alley (which was when I developed a brief crush on Meryl’s younger brother). Now that we were older, Meryl and I sometimes drove up to the “ranch” ourselves and slept in the “Moon Viewing,“ her parents’ bedroom—a cozy, hexagonal cabin with skylights you could see the stars through before you fell asleep.

After high school, she’d floundered for a while, depressed and adrift—went to UC Davis, where she trained a pig for credit, dabbled in courses at California Arts and Crafts, and finally decided to go for a Master’s in Botany at Chico State.

During these same years I was floundering too. What drew us together, I’ve always believed, was a feeling of kinship, of sympathy and identification. In her struggles as an artist and her grapplings with existential issues, I saw my own.



Shelly was a student in one of my art classes and lived just a few doors down in the Pine Creek Way condo community. One day her mom, Jean, told me there was an opening for a part-time teacher’s aide at Seven Hills School, the private elementary and preschool where she taught. Initially, I was thrilled to get the job, though I would be earning only $2 an hour. (Kids were about the only people I wasn’t painfully anxious around, as I’ve said.) The school was located in some farmed hills in Walnut Creek, the main building a ranch-style house with a garden and pool and a number of bungalows clustered around it. We had a cat, chickens, and a peacock and peahen underfoot, and cows in our back yard.

First I worked under a preschool teacher I’ll call Betty in the Red Barn, an actual barn that had been converted into two classrooms. From early on, I sensed that, like me, Betty suffered from depression, her repertoire of activities so limited that they didn’t provide much stimulation for the kids. Remembering how much I loved making forts as a child, one day I arrived with a large cardboard box that I had cut a door and windows into, big enough to be a tiny “playhouse”—well, big enough for a couple of kids to sit in, at least. I also brought a bunch of old wallpaper sample books, which the kids tore the pages out of and pasted onto the exterior of the “house.” They were so enthusiastic—and unruly, Betty thought—that forever after that she rejected all my creative ideas. I don’t know how many months I spent as her aide, but when the opportunity presented itself to work with Jean, Lu (the principal) allowed me to switch. Jean, it turned out, was masterful with kids—warm and patient and relaxed—and appreciative of my creativity as well.

My second year as an aide, I worked with Karl, the one male teacher in the school, who had the most advanced class of the five preschools. We had a choice location—two cozy rooms in the main building, one with a little nook that I turned into an actual playhouse. There was already a small round yellow table and chairs, but I created the illusion of a window with a  poster of two children walking down a scenic road that I framed with gingham curtains and added a matching tablecloth and napkins; then I scoured the local thrift shop for kitchen utensils. In a Woodshop for Women class I took in the evenings, I built a faux fireplace for the playhouse that I covered with contact paper with a brick pattern and hung a picture over it.

As for the academic side of things, Karl was a wonderfully creative teacher and would introduce a different letter of the alphabet each week, centering the daily activities around that letter. If the letter was C, for example, he might bring a cricket in a jar, a geode with crystals, serve cantaloupe for a snack, read a story about a crocodile, etc. Soon I was making my own contributions and starting to design card and board games that provided practice with letters and numbers. I also made felt finger puppets, wondering if I could sell my designs. At Christmas I gave one to each student in the class.



“Dear Ella,

“I tried to call you last Saturday—riffled through last year’s letters trying to find mention of a phone number at your Venice apartment—no luck. LA information didn’t have one either.

“The Bomb finally gave out. I sold it to a disreputable-looking guy for a demolition derby (where’s the *#&% dollar sign on this damn typewriter?)—for $30. Lizzy from one of my art classes was crestfallen. ‘Now you won’t have any more neat adventures to tell us about,’ she complained.

“The last neat adventure was a blowout on the freeway. I rode on the rim to the nearest shoulder, found out I was on a lengthy overpass with no apparent way down to the residential area below, was offered a ride by a young man who was petulantly irritated by my refusal. I then went down a hill of brambles in my dress shoes, saw at the bottom that I was surrounded by a six-foot cyclone fence, and turned to see that greasy young man had followed me. “Trapped,” he said, menacingly. I started to climb the fence. He was smiling, “You know what you need, lady?” Some adventure. By the way, I made it over the fence, but my skirt caught as I jumped down and wound up around my ears.

“Mutton chops, a.k.a. Mutty, my cockatiel, died of pneumonia with complications—a mineral imbalance or some such thing. I was force-feeding him Kaopectate, medicine, and baby food at the end. He died in the veterinary hospital. I was nearly in tears each time I took him in for his shots. He was having convulsions every half-minute. The vet sent me a note of sympathy after it was over.

“Arlen finally married Harry a couple of weeks ago at the Unitarian Church on the hill. The five-minute ceremony was held in the back courtyard with a panoramic view of the Bay Area as a backdrop. The minister read a Shakespeare love sonnet that Harry had chosen. Only fifteen or so people were present. Arlen is working now—as a file clerk. She’s unhappy because she’s clearly not as efficient as another girl they’ve just hired. Reminds me of you and your anxieties working at the V.A.

“And what’s new with you? (As I’m writing this I’m wondering if you’re even with us anymore. Maybe after our last phone marathon, you died of shock when your March bill arrived.)”

Arlen had gone back to Cal to finish her B.A. and get an elementary school teaching credential because her ex-husband, who’d left her for another woman and was now Vice Chancellor of one of the branches of U.C., gave her no alimony, only child support. So when their kids Jeff and Karen left for college, Arlen would be on her on. In group therapy at Cowell Hospital, where I’d seen Dr. C and Dr. F, she met Harry, who was seventeen years her junior and working on a Ph.D. in German Philology. She did earn a teaching credential, but decided belatedly she wasn’t cut out for the job—and wound up doing secretarial work instead.



Just like my faces, I started out drawing realistic depictions that soon became more whimsical and abstract.

Sometimes I just drew shapes.

So I was drawing again, but to what end?



While I began by drawing realistic faces from my imagination, they quickly became more stylized and eventually looser and more minimalistic as I continued to explore possibilities.



One day, as I was considering subjects for my art classes to draw, it occurred to me that I now had the skill to depict the fairy tale figures I couldn’t as a child (to my own satisfaction, at least—except in profile). So with pen and India ink I began to draw fanciful female characters that became more abstract as I went along, some of them even a little risqué. I designed a card with an angel at Christmas and started doodling animals, as well. Then I tried to market packages of my work as cards in a local shop but didn’t have any success. I also created a nude calendar, but that I never worked up the nerve to try to sell. I went through a number of artistic phases in rapid succession, beginning with realistic images that quickly became stylized and eventually abstract—important stages for me to go through because, perfectionist that I was, I’d always been meticulous in my drawing and bound by the literal. I needed both to explore a looser style and to exercise my pictorial imagination.


I couldn’t resist an inclination to push the envelope towards whimsy—tilting the neck at an improbable angle and drawing a tortuous root on the end of the rose, which I eventually decided to lop off.

How much can I lengthen the limbs, I wondered, before the figure starts to look misshapen?

How much can I exaggerate the features of the face, I asked myself, and still make it appealing?

Christmas 2021

Christmas 2021

This year Christmas with my godkids almost didn’t happen!

In the first place, the morning Arielle, Ella, and I were to go tree-shopping I woke up with a rough throat and thought: #%$! If I’ve got Covid, kiss Christmas good-bye! Luckily, there were still test kits available and within the hour I knew I was negative.

In the second, there was a shortage of trees again this year, thanks to California’s recurrent wildfires. At the first lot we went to there were only stunted rejects, while at the second the one noble fur worth considering was browning at the top. So I had to take it on faith when a worker claimed the tree wasn’t desiccated, it was sunburnt.

In the third, there was hurricane Ida. Because of her, Emma had been evacuated from Tulane University in the fall and spent unexpected weeks at home while the damage on campus was being repaired. Consequently they extended the semester to Dec. 23, one day after Ella flew down to southern California to spend Christmas with her brother. Which left only December 27 when we could all be together.

But then it turned out that Michael’s work shift started at 3:00 in the afternoon. So instead of an evening celebration, we had to have a makeshift Christmas luncheon that day. I set a festive table, anyway, with holly placemats and poinsettia napkin rings, and we ate out of plastic—takeout from Picante, a favorite restaurant of the kids. (By then, of course, our tree was dried up and sagging—the tinsel rope straggling all over the place and some ornaments touching the floor.)

Because our boom box gave out last year, this year Arielle created a Spotify playlist for Ella and me of all our favorite Christmas albums that we listened to as we ate, including songs by Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Celine Dion, Kathleen Battle, and Patrick Ball on the Celtic harp.

Ella and I hadn’t been able to find Bud’s eggnog— the best!—in any of the local stores, so we settled on Trader Joe’s, though Arielle abstained, determined this holiday season not to lose the definition in her abs.

As for the Christmas crafts we do always do together, when I went to buy sequins at Michael’s beforehand, the shelves were empty, so I ordered packets from two different companies—and paid a whopping shipping fee, though the merchandise weighed only a few ounces, to get it here in two days.

And that’s how we cobbled together a Christmas celebration!

I’m attaching photos of the candles we made—and of the nine sets of earrings Arielle also made.