A Surgery Surprise

Mary Oliver

Mary J. Oliver, July 29, 2011

As I reported in my post Life Postponed this January, I haven’t been feeling well for quite awhile.  I finally did get in to see a surgeon on February 21 for a consult. He promised to   call the following week to set up  gall bladder surgery sometime in the near future.

My body couldn’t wait that long.  I had a horrific flare-up on Friday, February 24.  The pain was almost unbearable in the afternoon, but  I “toughed it out” that night.   I have a high tolerance for pain, which has not worked in my favor this time in my life.

Saturday morning I woke up with a fever, so I phoned the on-call nurse.  She told me to report to urgent care, where I was seen very quickly. After an interview, an EKG, check-up and blood tests, the doctor spoke to Dave and me.  He said my white blood cell count and bilirubin was way up and I needed to report to the emergency room.  I thought, “Well, I’m finally going to get this ugly old organ outta me!  It may be a more expensive way, but it will be OVER!”  We were pleased that I was getting the attention I needed.  After an ultrasound of the gall bladder area, I was admitted to the hospital and hooked up to several IVS.

It took a day or so to get my blood count and bilirubin in better zones.  Once this was settled, I went to surgery at 8:40 a.m., Monday, February 27.  Surgery to remove the gall bladder is usually a one hour operation.  When I woke up in the recovery room, there were two nurses hovering around me.  Even without my glasses, I could see the clock hands pointing to noon.   Too woozy to fully take that in, Dave joined us on our journey to room 731 at St. Joseph’s Hospital–where my sister and I were born, where one of my sons-in-law was born, where my mother died 22 years ago, where my youngest grandchild was born almost six years ago.

Dave was a acting weird.  He was pacing the floor, stretching his limbs and finding it hard to sit still.  He told me that Dr. Panian, the surgeon, would be in very soon to talk to me about the surgery.  Meanwhile, I was chattering away about the Academy Awards ceremony I watched the night before.  I generally hate awards television, but it was the only show available on the hospital network that I was even remotely interested in.

Dr. Panian arrived around one o’clock.  He told me that the operation had been much more difficult than expected because the gall bladder had become hard, dried out and fused on one side to the stomach wall and the other side to the duodenum.  He had to enlarge the slits for the laparoscopic surgery.  With the laparoscope he detected a spread of cancer cells from the gall bladder to the side of the abdomen and across the duodenum.  Considering the sites where the cancer had spread, this was an inoperable cancer.  My prognosis, with palliative chemotherapy, is one to two years.

Anatomy of the biliary tree, liver and gall bl...

Anatomy of liver and gall bladder

Image via Wikipedia


Dr. Panian had talked to my husband after the surgery, so Dave knew all of this. He  had volunteered to tell me, so Dave had tried to mask the knowledge and keep me as “Mary, who did not know she had cancer,” as long as possible.

One side of my brain doesn’t think it is real, but the rest of me feels assaulted by bad karma.  I feel cheated out of the opportunity to grow old with Dave–which we had promised ourselves when we got married almost 16 years ago. I don’t want to leave my two daughters now that we are in fulfilling times in our lives.  I want to watch my three grandchildren grow up.  I still have plans and projects that I will not see through to the end. I will miss the change of seasons, my cats, the wildlife around me.  I’m not ready to leave yet.

Covered Bridge near Yellow Springs, Ohio

We will be talking to the oncologist this week to decide the course of therapy.  My nasty old gall bladder had placed me at the bottom of the surgery list.  My cancerous gall bladder puts me right at the top.  It is unusual to have gall bladder cancer at all, but a 64-year-old having it is very strange.  Dr. Panian told us the only cases he encountered were in women in their mid-seventies.

I am fortunate to have a loving husband and sister, as well my daughters, relatives, friends and friends of friends to offer up prayers and good wishes.  In the midst of tragedy, there are blessings.

Yellow Crocus between bricks


The E. E. Rockfields in New York City, 1904

Mayme Rockfield with first born daughter, Louise 1909

Mary (Mayme) Egan Horne   30 Nov 1879–26 Feb 1974    

Everett Earl Rockfield   21 Feb 1879–2 May 1943

Everett Edward Rockfield, abt 1899

My grandparents were married in August 1903.  The wedding was held in Columbus, Ohio.  Both Mayme and Ev were in their mid-twenties and the next-to-the-youngest and youngest members of their respective large families.

After their wedding, Ev got a job in NYC working for Railway Express.  What an adventure this would be for a newly married couple that had never ventured outside of Ohio!  They packed their wedding gifts and clothing in steamer trunks and headed east.

The Rockfield's New York City apartment, 1904

Mayme must have had great fun decorating their first home in the latest fashion.  These were still Victorian times, so lots of “stuff” was required.  A cozy corner was a must in the interior design of the day.

In the first picture, note the curtain on a rod stretched across an alcove.  A lamp is placed on an upended trunk.  Framed family pictures are hidden in the dark of the enclosure, but would be illuminated by the lamp when lighted.  Another trunk has been placed horizontally in front of the vertical trunk with more of the curtains thumbtacked on to it.  I doubt if this corner was designed for actual sitting—except for the cat!

Pillows are scattered around with casual elegance.   Some are lacy, others stamped with Gibson girl portraits and others covered in silk.  Patterns abound!  One floral carpet has been laid over another floral carpet while another floral pattern covers the walls and a different one adorns the ceiling.

Two swords are crossed at the top of the display.  Mayme’s father attained the rank of Captain with the Union army during the Civil War, so one of the swords is his.  Everett was a Mason and became a Knight Templar, so the other sword belongs to him.

Two decorative columns hold classical busts, one adorned with beads around its neck.  A classic Gibson girl framed picture hangs on the wall.

English: Pen and ink drawing of the Gibson Gir...

classic Gibson Girl Image via Wikipedia

In front of the display two fencing swords are crossed and two fencing masks sit behind the swords, one of which is upended.  I suspect the cat!  Most surprising is the rumpled rug.  Again I suspect the cat, sitting in blurry elegance on a pillow in the cozy corner.

Mayme saved this cat from certain death when she dashed into the apartment to drag her out from under the bed after someone threw a firecracker through the window and set the apartment on fire.

The second picture shows a large portrait of Mayme’s parents in the mid-1860s shortly before their wedding.  A restored version of that picture hangs in my stairwell.  Another framed family portrait is displayed as well, with the busy cat on another column stand.  A decorative cloth is arranged on the hearth and more photos reflected in the mirror.

The vase was a wedding gift.  That vase still survives.  I remember it in my home from childhood.  My mother hated the vase when she was a little girl and tried to break it.  Fortunately, it survived the attack and has graced a home in our family ever since.

I’ve always enjoyed these pictures and the little peek into my grandparents’ lives at the beginning of the last century.

I’m grateful that my mother saved them and took the time to tell me about it and add little notes for

My Love/Hate Relationship With Facebook

facebook engancha

Image via Wikipedia

My Facebook timeline informs me that I joined up on November 19, 2008.  Since then I have had a love/hate relationship with this social site.  I joined because my grownup daughters talked about it all the time and communicated a lot through their posts.  They also posted pictures that I would never have received until I became a user as well.

  • I love posting on their walls and downloading pictures.  It is easier for them and for me to be on FB because there is an easy, central location for sharing.  Of course, we have other communication resources as well nowadays, i.e. our smartphones!
  • I love finding old friends and keeping up with relatives on FB.  That has been fun for me, even if we don’t write lengthy private emails (something that we can also do on FB!).  We keep up with each other’s activities, and acknowledge life’s ups and downs.  I was especially pleased when my sister joined in May 2011!
  • I love the fan pages where we can like a movie, book, celebrity or television show as well as causes, hobbies or other interests.  Many of these likes mean updates and opportunities to share unique points of view or “funnies” on our FB page.
  • I love being able to link my blog to my FB page so that people who do not ordinarily read blogs can catch up with my latest posts.  I also like being able to share a post from a newspaper or NPR on my FB page.

There are probably more reasons I enjoy FB, but I can’t think of them right now.  This list covers the most important points, however.  To summarize the reasons I love Facebook:  it provides a template for sharing where I am in my life at this moment in time.  The new timeline layout does this especially well.

As far as my hate relationship, I don’t have that many to list.

  • I hate how it hooks into my childhood and teenage mentality.  I thought I’d grown beyond worrying about how many “friends” I have or how “popular” I am.  Unfortunately, no.  I’m not a highly social person and have never been, even as a child.  I always had one or two close friends and that was it.  I’m not shy, but I am an introvert.  The things I like to do are mainly solitary—reading, knitting, writing (blogging), needle felting.  People know who I am, but do not consider me a friend necessarily.  Nevertheless, in low moments I have looked for “friends” to fill out my numbers.  It amazes me how many friend requests I have made that have never been answered!  Then I wonder, “What is wrong with me?  I only have 35 friends, and so-and-so has 100!”
  • I hate the moments when I want to clean out my “friends” list.  What perversity!  I feel competition to plump up my numbers, and then complain about people who are not really “friends.”   I do have people on my list who never respond to posts on their walls or personal messages from me.  I visit their pages and they seldom, if ever, posted at all.  Maybe they are too busy, or they are only there because their kids are.  I think this urge to cull the list comes from the part of me that is so like my father—exactitude.  How can you call someone a friend if you never communicate with that person?  If that person never communicates with you?  One of my daughters suggested that people may like reading my page, but they don’t respond.  I think, “They could at least “like” a post or a status update!”  That’s what I do unless I don’t agree with or approve of a post.  In the end, I am who I am.  I review each person every few months and end up “unfriending” one or two.  I guess it is a good thing I don’t have 100 “friends” after all.

A few other reasons I have “unfriended” a person on Facebook, besides non-communication:

  • writing every post in capital letters–like they are shouting!
  • profanity
  • constant internet game updates

To summarize my hate relationship with Facebook—it is a social site and has its social ups and downs.  In the end, there are far more reasons to be there than not.

Now that you know about my FB relationship, you can friend me at:


Maybe you have some reasons of your own for “unfriending” a  FB friend.  Please share!

Some blog posts that inspired this blog post:



Wanna-Be Cowboys

Today my younger daughter, Jennifer, and my three grandchildren are visiting the National Western Stock Show .  I guess I should have been more diligent about taking my daughters, Jennifer and Julianne, to the Stock Show every January when they were young since Jen considers it a yearly event for her daughter.  She values the experience for her child and enjoys it enough to take her two nephews as well on a rare day off.

Julia, Andrew and Beck at the National Western Stock Show. 16 Jan 12

I remember my own visits to the Stock Show while growing up in Denver.  We went to the rodeo several times.  It is always held indoors, since this is Denver, Colorado in January!  There are three venues near what used to be the stockyards.

I think I got my fill, though, as a teacher of second graders for six years.  The National Western Stock Show was a regular field trip for that grade in the Denver Public Schools.   We had guides who helped us lead 30 or so youngsters through the throngs of visitors and around the cattle, sheep and horses.  Still, I always worried about those children who lagged behind or wandered off.  There’s always one!  The children I taught didn’t usually attend the Stock Show with their families, so this field trip was a good educational experience for them.  Even though they always held their noses with the first whiff of the animal droppings, they came back to the school very excited about the animals and cowboys, trailing an earthy stock show fragrance.

National Western Stock Show Parade - 17th Stre...

Herding longhorns down 17th Street Denver National Western Stock Show Image via Wikipedia

English: Downtown skyscrapers in Denver, Colorado.

Denver SkylineImage via Wikipedia

My sister-in-law has visited Dave and me in Denver several times.  She lives in Evanston, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.  On one of those trips she mentioned her surprise that people from Denver consider themselves Westerners.  When Dave told me that, I was surprised.  Of course we consider ourselves part of the West—the Wild West even—although throughout my lifetime Denver has been trying to be considered MORE than a “cow town.”  Anyone who visits Denver today will see a city that has grown beyond the “cow town” image.  Maybe that’s why Connie was surprised that Denver’s citizens consider themselves Western, not Midwestern!

My mother’s family came to Denver from Columbus, Ohio in 1920.  My grandmother’s younger brother, Edwin, had moved to Denver for a job opportunity selling mining equipment.  My grandparents and family followed a few years later.  Eventually, the entire Horne/Rockfield side of the family had settled in Denver.   The legends and myths of “The West” were clear in their minds, as you can see by these pictures.

My Ohio to Denver family saw themselves as pioneers when they moved to Colorado. This is taken in about 1925 in Indian Hills, a mountain community outside of Denver. It is almost in the suburbs now.

My mother (the tall "Indian") with her cousins, parents and sister at their cabin in Indian Hills. circa 1925 They look rather grumpy here. A fascination with western lore, the many westerns on TV in the 1950s and early 1960s, influenced Baby Boomers around the country. When I visit antique stores and look at old pictures, people in cowboy clothing prevail.

World War II brought my father to Denver.  Lowry Field, as it was called in those days, provided technical training for the Army Air Forces involved with armaments, i.e. gun sites and the loading and dropping of bombs from the air.  He fell in love with my mother, Denver and the mountains and returned here after 3 years as a Bombardment Officer in the Mediterranean Theater.  This is where I was born and my love of Denver began.

English: Lowry Field, Denver, Colorado

Lowry Field Denver, CO World War II era Image via Wikipedia

A fascination with western lore, the many westerns on TV in the 1950s and early 1960s, influenced Baby Boomers around the country.  When I visit antique stores and look at old pictures, people in cowboy clothing prevail.

Aunt Emily visiting from Illinois, with my sister Beth (pointing the gun) and me, Mary Julia 1954

Last year I wrote a post titled The Code of the West in which I referred to a set of principles developed for a curriculum unit in a local school district.  I believe this code applies to our lives today as well in the past, whether we live in the west, the east, the north or the south.  These are universal principles.

The Code of the West
▪   Live each day with courage
▪   Take pride in your work
▪   Always finish what you start
▪   Do what has to be done
▪   Be tough but fair
▪   When you make a promise, keep it
 ▪   Ride for the brand
▪   Talk less and say mor
▪   Remember that some things aren’t for sale
▪   Know where to draw the line

                                                                                                                 Happy trails to you!

I’m Remembering A Sunny Christmas: Redux

English: A Christmas tree lit and decorated, s...

Image via Wikipedia

Today I’m reposting a blog entry from last year.  It was one of my early posts, but I think it bears repeating because I didn’t have many followers back thenThis year we had a sunny Christmas too, but it was also a white Christmas—that is, there was significant snow on the ground.  Our Christmas was different this year for other reasons as well.  Our grandson Andrew was sick with the stomach flu for several days, including Christmas Eve.  My daughter, Julianne, did not know how this was all going to turn out and didn’t want to expose us to the lingering germs.  She texted us about 9:30 p.m. on the 24th with the news that Christmas was off for the following day.

 As it turned out, we are having our feast and gift exchange today, December 27th, with everyone well  and my other daughter and her family back from Omaha and able to join in all the fun.  We will have an extended Christmas season in 2011.  That’s fine with us!

Andrew, Christmas Day 2011, with new skateboard

REPOST: I’m Remembering A Sunny Christmas (2010)

Andrew skateboarding on a snowy Xmas day 2011

 On this sunny day with no snow on the ground, we still enjoy Christmas.  Everyone thinks Colorado is perpetually covered in snow, but that isn’t true in Denver.  Some years, maybe–but I don’t have nostalgic memories of snowy Christmas days from my childhood.  Yes, I am a Denver native and I grew up here!

The persistent rumor that Denver is like the mountains isn’t true.  We are high, dry and sunny most of the time.  The Christmas days I remember when I was a child include running around outside without a coat, wondering what to do with the sled stored in the garage.

When I was a child, we spent Christmas time driving to different people’s houses to visit, admiring the gifts spread under the tree and eating tasty snacks.  When we were young we enjoyed a big dinner with all the old relatives coming over.  Eventually they didn’t travel, so we went to them on Christmas Eve day.

When I had young children at home, my parents came to our house.  My daughters and stepsons would watch out the window until they arrived, then jump up and fly out the door, crying, “Grandma, Grandpa!”

We unwrapped gifts for hours it seemed, since there were eight people sitting around the family room.  No ripping into gifts for us!  Everyone watched the person opening the gift, waiting for that pleased look of happiness and surprise.  The wrappings were neatly disposed of, the presents set in each family member’s personal pile.  Then the next person would unwrap.  The youngest person in the family always handed out the gifts.

Some years my mother brought the turkey, all cooked and cut up, while I prepared everything else.  I usually concocted a fancy dessert.  My specialty was Baked Alaska, created several days ahead of time, with the finishing touches done just before eating,

After we finished dinner, my parents and I would sit around the table and talk. The kids would drift away to play, but mother, dad and I would reminisce about the old days.  The candles would burn down to stubs, leaving wax on the tablecloth.   The short winter day dimmed to dusk.  This ritual is what I miss most at Christmas, especially since both my parents died around Christmas time, many years ago.

Christmas is nostalgic for many folks.  Maybe that hint of nostalgia makes the holidays that much richer.   A few tears for those who are gone–mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, children…

They exist in other places and times, maybe in another city or state or country.  They may be only a memory, their bones in a grave under a headstone,  or their ashes blown away by the wind.  However, for as long as we live,  they are the beloved wisps of memory around our Christmas tree.

I have worked for years on a poem about the losses time brings.  I end  my 2010 Christmas thoughts with this work, dedicated to my parents.

Mary Elizabeth Rockfield Harris                 16 Sep 1915-4 Jan 1990

Roy David Harris                                  25 Aug 1911-14 Dec 1997


“sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”

“these are the tears of things, and our mortality cuts to the heart”

Virgil, The Aeneid

Little did I know of time,

when wishing for tomorrows,

these moments I was living in

would never be again.

There would never be again an

hour when growing shadows

dimmed every dear face

gathered near, the candles

weeping their demise

upon  the white linen.

There would never be again a

time when sunlight streaked the

faded carpet, while you sat beside

me, dust motes between us

swirling to the rhythm of our words.

The  hope of our tomorrows lost,

too soon today becoming yesterday;

Sunt lacrimae rerum–

these are tears for all those things

that will never be again.

©2010 M. J.

Revised post: Survival Stories Inspire Us

I’ve always loved to read.  I completed every story in my elementary school reader (you must remember those) in a week.  We weren’t supposed to read ahead, but I couldn’t wait! For me, words are manna from heaven—both the written and the spoken.

When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher had us keep a card file with a small book review of every book we read that year.  I kept up my card file until I went to college. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it after that.  Fortunately, one of my sons-in-law gave me a book journal for Christmas in 1999.  I filled it up in a year, and then started a new card file based on the journal format.  Now I have a record of twelve years’ worth of books!

Eloise May Library

Two years ago, our local branch of the Arapahoe Library District moved from a small space on the third floor of a local government building to a new building two miles from our house.  Once it was so close, Dave and I made a pledge to stop buying books and start borrowing them.  Neither of us has ever had trouble finding a book to read in this library branch. We keep lists of favorite authors and new book titles, but we also have found authors unknown to us on the May’s library shelves. I have also requested books for us, even though we sometimes wait a month or two for a best seller. Every visit to the library is an adventure for us, searching the shelves for the right book that will provide us hours and hours of reading pleasure.

Dave urged me to publish my book reviews for many years, but I didn’t know where I could do it until I started blogging and using Facebook.  I’ve done two reviews on this blog and a few on Facebook, but I decided to make book reviews a regular blog feature. So, let me begin with two of my favorite recent reads…

Alexandra Fuller (Bo Fuller) at cabin near Pinedale, Wyoming. Offhand decor includes an even mix of African and cowboy artifacts. CREDIT: David J Swift

This summer I stumbled upon the author Alexandra Fuller in the book review section of The Denver PostShe had written a book about growing up in Africa.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

Alexandra Fuller (nicknamed Bobo) lived in Africa from 1972 until 1994. Her parents lived in Kenya and then Rhodesia before she was born, beginning their family with her sister, Vanessa, and a brother who died from meningitis in his infancy. Unlike her older siblings, Bobo was born in England, where her mother retreated to recover her health and give birth to Bobo.

Before Bobo arrived in Africa, the Fullers acquired their own ranch Rhodesian ranch where they could grow most of their food and run some sheep and horses.  Unfortunately for them, after a few years of ranching, a civil war interrupted their lives.  Bobo’s father joined the white colonial army, fighting unsuccessfully against the black Rhodesians.

When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the Fullers lost their home and began a peripatetic lifestyle fraught with deprivation: poverty, homelessness, hunger, danger and illness.  They moved from Zimbabwe to Malawi and finally to Zambia, running from conflicts and hellish conditions. The family lost two more children, numerous pets, livestock and land.  Bobo’s mother fought depression constantly, but her condition worsened with alcoholism. She displayed manic episodes as well and became unpredictable.

Bobo wrote this 2001 memoir based on her childhood memories. She uses a light and humorous touch as she describes learning to load and shoot a gun and riding in the family truck over roads that could be mined. I was captivated, as well as appalled, at the conditions this family endured, but their love for Africa was clear.  Bobo’s irrepressible spirit and her family’s indomitable pluckiness shine through their troubles.  I couldn’t put down this fascinating book.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

The sequel to this book was published this year, a few months after I read the first memoir.  After Nicola, Alexandra Fuller’s mother, read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she condemned it as “that awful book.”  She didn’t like her one-dimensional portrayal. She made the point when she told her daughter, “You don’t know me, and you don’t know anything about me.”  The book was written from a child’s memories of her parents.

For Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller listened repeatedly to hours and hours of family interview tapes and tackled her second book as portrait of her mother.  In a New York Times review she is quoted, “This book is my love story to (my mother).  Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was a love story to place.”

There is no question that this portrayal of both the Fuller parents comes across differently, especially for Nicola.  She is a vulnerable woman who overcomes her depression with resolve and comes to terms with her losses through self-acceptance and forgiveness.  As a reader, I grew to admire Nicola and Tim Fuller for their courage, self-sacrifice and ability to build themselves the life they always wanted.  There is no doubt that the star of Cocktail Hour is always Nicola–and Africa.

Nicola Fuller pulled herself together and taught her daughters to make the best of their situations.  She cultivated their artistic and literary gifts and inspired them to endure.  Vanessa still lives in Africa and is the mother of several children. She is also a graphic and textile artist. Alexandra went to college in Nova Scotia and met her American husband there.  They live in Wyoming with their two children. Cocktail Hour is her fourth book.

Both of these memoirs are beautifully written, but Cocktail Hour has a compact, spare quality that is powerful as well as eloquent.  It is also laced with humor, a quality the Fullers must possess in triplicate to have survived their African troubles.

I close with some favorite passages from each book.

Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight: “What I can’t know about Africa as a child … is her smell; hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.”               

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness:  “No one starts a war warning that those involved will lose their innocence—that children will definitely die and be forever lost as a result of the conflict; that the war will not end for generations and generations, even after cease-fires have been declared and peace treaties have been signed. No one starts a war that way, but they should.  It would at least be fair warning and an honest admission:  even a good war—if there is such a thing—will kill anyone old enough to die.”                                                     


▪    Running From Grief (seattleweekly.com)

▪    Books of The Times: A Mother’s Long Love Affair With Colonialism (nytimes.com)

▪    Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller: review (telegraph.co.uk)

Another favorite book about an African childhood, this time in Kenya.

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

Remembering Roy D. Harris–On His 100th Birthday August 25, 1911-December 14, 1997

This post is abstracted from the Preface of my as of yet unpublished book Uncommon Valor.  I have used information from an unpublished autobiography of Marshall Harris and a biographical sketch written by Roy Harris.

Roy David Harris Memorial Album

My father, Roy David Taylor Harris, was born in Pindall, Arkansas, on August 25, 1911, 100 years ago.   His two middle names honored his paternal grandfather, a Methodist preacher from southern Illinois.  He was the oldest of two sons and one daughter born to William and Julia Harris.

When William Harris found steady employment with the Great Northern Railroad, his small family lived in a boxcar while he worked as an expert cement finisher on a bridge construction crew.  The boxcar was fitted out as living quarters that had to be packed up tightly whenever it relocated to a new job site up or down the tracks from Illinois to North Dakota.  In spite of how well Julia packed the cabinets, inevitably some dishes flew out of the cupboards and crashed onto the floor.  Roy recalled playing alongside and inside the railroad tracks as a toddler.  In fact, this was his earliest memory.  The boxcar home became more crowded when Marshall Fields Harris was born in 1913.  A sister, Emily Ruth, was born in 1924, after the family had settled down to farming.

Once Roy and Marshall were school age, William and Julia realized that their gypsy lifestyle had to end.  After renting several small farms in southern Illinois, they bought their own farm in Dorchester, Illinois, near the state’s border with Missouri.  This farm was surrounded by six acres of rich, fertile soil.  William loved gardening, so he established a large garden that provided vegetables, berries and peanuts.  They had a cow for milk and dairy products, chickens for their eggs and fried chicken dinners, and hogs for meat and sausage.  William also raised bees and Julia raised parakeets.  To subsidize the farm’s income, William returned to work for the Great Northern, this time laboring in their coalmines.  Once the brothers were old enough, they also helped on the farm and hired themselves out to work for other farmers.  Although the Harris family had little disposable income, and only a small savings account, their farm kept them well fed, even during the Great Depression.

Recalling his childhood, Roy remembered camping trips with his family.  In those days cars were unreliable and cranky, so trips on undeveloped and dangerous roads included several unexpected stops along the way to fix the car.  Nevertheless, Roy spoke fondly and humorously about these adventures, as well as the campfires and the stories told under the stars.

He also recounted tales of the mischief the two brothers dreamed up.  One of those stories involved catching unwary drivers in a hole the two of them enlarged in the road after a rainstorm.  The boys would hide, waiting for someone driving too fast or not paying attention, to become stuck in the hole.  The boys would conveniently appear, offering to help free the frustrated driver.   Invariably, the grateful victim would give them a few cents as a reward for helping.  As soon as the car was out of the way, they would hide again, awaiting the next unlucky automobile.  A day spent as “Good Samaritans” could net some candy money at least!  Eventually word traveled into town about the “helpful boys” and the hole in the road.  Their Dad immediately ended this profitable enterprise.  In addition to adventures and misadventures, the horses, geese, cows, barn cats and dogs provided tales of a pleasant and loving rural Illinois farm life.

With a large extended family in and around Dorchester, Shipman and Bunker Hill, as well as an active church life, relatives and friends socialized a lot.  Cousins became best friends, and there were several good neighbors on the nearby farms.  Roy knew a number of immigrant families during his childhood in the southern Illinois.  Many of them were not new immigrants, but they still spoke their native languages at home.   He remembered that the local Methodist church offered German language services while he was a child.  A search of the census records reveals surnames from Italy, Bohemia and Scandinavia. Besides the Methodist church, there was a busy Catholic church as well.

Roy and Marshall began school together due to the years spent in the boxcar.  Despite their 23-month age difference, they remained in the same class throughout their public school days.  Since they attended a small country school with several grades mixed together, wide age differences were not uncommon.

Julia and William recognized that a good education would broaden their opportunities, so they provided some financial help to their sons when they enrolled at McKendree College, a small Methodist school in Lebanon, Illinois.   It took them over six years to graduate from college because they had to take time off in order to earn additional money for their books, room and board.  Gerald Harris, their cousin and the assistant pastor of a St. Louis Methodist church, was also the administrator of Goodwill Industries in the St. Louis, Missouri area.  Besides helping Gerald set up the church for services, teaching Sunday school and providing janitorial services, the Harris brothers worked as solicitors for Goodwill.  This required traveling to other states in the summer to arrange for and collect donations.

After college graduation, Roy and Marshall headed to St. Louis.  While Marshall started work in a bank, Roy followed his interest in electronics and machinery.  He found a job as a motor tester with Emerson Electrics until the factory had a labor cutback and he was laid off.   During visits back home, several people approached Roy about becoming a teacher and principal of a small two-room school in a nearby town.  He accepted the job, attending Southern Illinois University in the summers to obtain necessary teaching credentials.

In 1940 Marshall Harris married and joined the Navy, moving to San Diego.  In 1941, after a few years of teaching, Roy decided that he would not renew his contract when it ended.  The world was changing.  Hitler was marching unimpeded throughout Europe while draft notices were arriving in young American men’s mailboxes.  Expecting a draft notice, Roy

a choice about his branch of service.  After investigating the training possibilities, he chose the Army Air Corps because they assured him he would be assigned to Scott Field in Illinois.  They also promised him training in radio communication, one of his great interests.  Rumors of a girl friend in his hometown may have influenced his desire to stay nearby.  However, the promise of remaining in Illinois proved to be untrue, as did the radio training, when he was notified just a few days after signing his enlistment papers, that he would be sent to Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado.  Roy’s disappointment with his reassignment faded as he first viewed the Rocky Mountain backdrop from the train window.  The sudden appearance of the mountain range rising up from the plains captured his heart and never let go.

There was another benefit of this new training field–Roy discovered how interesting armaments could be.  The classes involved both manual and hands-on learning with generators, bomb racks, propellers and machine guns.  Roy was very successful during the training and graduated at the top of his class.  He also demonstrated leadership skills and was asked to become an instructor of the power turrets class.  Because power turrets were a new invention, Roy and the other instructors had to design the course of study and test questions from manuals and their own experiences during training.  The intellectual challenge was stimulating, and the opportunity to work with new machinery and technology exciting, so Roy was pleased with this new adventure.

There were many advantages to becoming an instructor.  He liked the teaching, he was now a sergeant with a technical degree and his pay was better than what he had been making as a civilian.  Additionally, he was not subject to bed checks, K.P. or any other duties—and he had Sundays off!  On his first free Sunday, he headed right to the place where he felt most at home, the nearest Methodist Church.

Within a few weeks, Roy met Betty Rockfield, an elementary school teacher and the woman who would become his wife.  Their “official” introduction occurred at a special Halloween party Betty planned for military men and other young adults attending Warren Methodist Church.  Before the night was over, Roy asked her out on a bowling date.  By St. Valentine’s Day they were engaged.  They were married in a hurry-up formal wedding on 9 May 1942, just before Roy was shipped off to Officer Candidates’ School in Miami Beach.

Betty followed Roy to Miami Beach when the school year ended in June.  The officer candidates’ wives were billeted in luxury hotels along the beach and were able to see their husbands on weekends.   Betty spent her time getting to know the wives and exchanging recipes with them, playing bridge and ironing Roy’s shirts.  By early September 1942 she was back home and teaching again.

Roy and his fellow officers shipped out to England, then Scotland and on to North Africa.  Roy spent World War II serving in the Mediterranean Theater as an armament officer for a light bombardment group.  He moved from North Africa to Sicily, Corsica and Italy.  He also spent time in France and Germany during the Battle of the Bulge.  Roy and Betty did not see each other again until July 1945.

Roy and Betty had two daughters, Mary Julia and Elizabeth Ann, born fourteen months apart (1947 and 1948).  The family lived in Denver, Colorado.  Betty was a teacher and school administrator.  Roy searched a while before settling on a career as purchasing agent for American Smelting & Refining Company.  In 1964 he was offered a job as head of purchasing for the entire company, requiring a move to New York City, but turned it down.  The war had drained Roy of his early ambitions.  He wanted a dependable family life, regular hours and a routine.  His Denver ASARCO job suited his post-war lifestyle choices and his orderly nature.

Besides his work, Roy enjoyed a routine in his private life.  He played volleyball every Tuesday night and exercised at a local gym two nights a week.  He loved following his favorite baseball teams (the St. Louis Cardinals and a local AAA minor league team) and football teams  (the Denver Broncos and the University of Colorado) on radio and television, sometimes using both media at the same time!  His interests also included keeping up with the latest technological advancements in radio, television and phonograph equipment.  He loved cars, keeping the family automobiles in tip-top condition.  Whenever he traded in a car, the dealership never had to clean it or tune it up.  In quieter moments, when the lawn had been cared for, household repairs made and other duties accomplished, my father would sit down with the daily newspaper, which he read cover to cover, or the most recent The Reader’s Digest.  He loved jokes, comics, word puzzles and sports stories.   He also solved the daily crossword puzzle.

Roy’s steady habits were a good antidote to Betty’s frenetic pace.  His structured days, neat habits and bookkeeping skills continued into his retirement and the years after Betty’s  1990 death. On a personal level, I found his apartment a sanctuary from my harried days of work, children and a difficult second marriage.  We drank Diet Seven-Up from glasses filled with ice, placed on neatly folded napkins and arranged on snack trays.  Around his reading lamp, with soft drinks in hand, we often discussed my mother.

All the time that he seemed to be neutral in our lives, Daddy was lending moral and emotional support to his beloved Betty.  I found evidence of his devotion in little notes and cards my mother saved throughout the years.  After she was gone, he would say, “Poor Betty, she always put making her mother proud before anything else.  She was never really happy.”  By that time I had also decided that my mother’s lifelong pattern of preoccupation with tasks outside of her domestic life had driven her into a corner from which she couldn’t escape.

During these special times with my father, politics, religion, television programs, my teenage daughters and my disintegrating marriage were also discussed and dissected.   It was then that he paid me a high compliment after my second divorce.  “Mary Julia, there is no man smart enough or good enough for you.”  I still cherish that assessment, although I did eventually find someone who met these criteria.  By the time I met and married Dave, my father had slipped into dementia.  When he died in December 1997 at the age of 86, I became a 50-year-old orphan.

I feel privileged to have spent quality time with my dad during the seven years between my mother’s and his death.  When she was alive, he seemed to sit apart from my sister and me.  Once she was gone, he established special relationships with his two daughters.  I treasure the discoveries I made about my father–his kindness, keen insights and the similarities of our values, politics and personalities.  My husband, who never knew my mother, told me that I looked much more like my dad than my mom. While searching for pictures to scan, I could see this clearly.  My sister has his wide smile.

I’m grateful for those few precious years and all that I learned about my modest, sweet and caring dad.  Finally my father stepped out of the shadows so we could become friends as well as father and daughter.

The Third Time Is A Charm


Dave and Mary Xmas 1994

When I told my husband that I was writing a blog post about him, he dismissed the news with, “That’s going to be very boring.  Why would anyone want to read about me?”  He liked the title, but thought a good alternative would be, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”  I have to say, that is fitting as well.

Although I’ve written several posts during the 18 months I have kept this blog, I don’t think I have given proper due to Dave Oliver.  He definitely deserves credit for everything does everyday to show his love, attention and thoughtfulness.  He sees to all the little things that make the difference—grocery shopping, vacuuming and mopping the floors, cooking and CLEANING OUR CATS’ LITTER BOXES.  Dave also steps up to help my daughters, their spouses and our grandchildren.

I mentioned in my last post [Time Tunnel] that I have been married three times.  The first marriage was in November 1968, lasting until we divorced in June 1978.   My second marriage was on the rebound.  We met at Parents Without Partners and blended our families with a wedding in June 1979.  We were not the Brady Bunch, although each of us doubled our families, including the cats!  My younger stepson described my cat as his “step-cat,” which seemed quite humorous at the time.  My second husband had two boys and I had two girls.  That marriage withstood many ups and downs, finally ending in September 1992.

I was in my middle forties in 1992, with 23 years of marital experience stretching between two marriages.  Some of my friends were also divorced by then, one of those failing at a second marriage too.  I was in psychotherapy with a skilled psychiatrist who guided me through this divorce, its aftermath and my years of self-discovery.  My daughters were happy that I was on my own, having witnessed the chaos and darkness of the past 13 years.  When they both left for college, I was living by myself for the first time in my life.   I expanded as an autonomous being—missing my children, but savoring time as my own best friend.

David Oliver and I met in November 1993 at a weekly singles group listed in the Denver Free University newsletter.  It was called The Sunday Night Club [SNC].  I enrolled in this activity along with a writing class titled “Writing the Wild Woman.”

The members of the SNC got together for activities and networking.   Like-minded people organized outings to local theater productions, salsa dancing, wine tastings, board games nights, etc.  Dave and I connected through a breakout group that loved going to the movies.  The first movie we scheduled was The Piano on the following Tuesday night at an art theater near downtown.

As luck would have it, this theater was located in the Governor’s Park neighborhood of Denver, where I had bought a condo in January 1993.

A heavy snowstorm blew in early in the afternoon, but I decided to drive to the theater and see the movie anyway, even if no one else showed up.  Three other people did arrive—Dave and a couple in a relationship.

Dave and I became a couple from that evening on because we didn’t want the conversation to end.   We set another movie date for the next Tuesday, followed by a Friday night date a few days later.  A routine quickly developed–our Tuesday movie nights, dinner with a rented movie on Friday nights, a dinner we cooked together on Saturday nights and a Sunday afternoon walk around the historic neighborhoods we shared.  We talked on the phone every night we weren’t together. This kind of friendly romance was new to me.

Dave is an architect and he taught me lots of architectural terms as we picked our favorite houses along the streets we explored.  Since I am a Denver native, I knew historic details that enhanced our growing familiarity with the beautiful old homes we admired.  My mother had grown up in this same area of Denver, so the stories she had told me became wonderful nuggets to embellish what we were learning.

Dave at Beck's birthday party July 2011

Dave and I were fortunate to live close to each other, each of us in corner condos on the ninth floor of our buildings facing west.  Dave’s condo sat on the edge of beautiful old Cheesman Park and mine overlooked the Governor’s Mansion and other notable mansions and grounds that I could see from my balcony.  We have been talking and loving movies ever since, as well as reading and discussing mysteries and history, poetry, music, our previous relationships and marriages.  In addition, we have traveled to cities all over the country to visit plantations, estates and famous homes.

For the first time in my life,  I was spending time with a man who was also a friend—who loved to talk and shared many interests with me. We had the same attitudes about politics and religion, and we agreed on ethical and moral standards–all the basics that create a strong relational foundation.  He even listened to NPR—the first of my friends who did!  He was also a Democrat!  Another plus.

My daughters loved him and he loved my daughters and their boyfriends.  He even grew to love my cats!   Eventually we decided to marry and picked the date of September 20, 1996.

When I was a young girl, I never envisioned myself in  “serial” marriages.   Although my sister’s first marriage also failed, she remained content in her second union.   By the time Dave and I married, I understood my previous failures. Both of us worked through our problems separately in therapy, combining the techniques and strategies we had learned to build a strong relational foundation.

I overheard fellow teachers at school whispering comments about me when my third wedding became public, including snickers about my name changes.   I chose to view these as sign posts denoting my growth as a human being.   I didn’t plan to explain myself and no one asked.  Only one person told me that it took courage to marry again.  Smiling, I replied that was a tribute to my extreme optimism.We have never regretted our leap of faith. Our goal is to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in 2021.  Hope all of you are there to celebrate!

The Code of the West

My family in 1925 in the mountain community of Indian Hills, outside of Denver. They shared a cabin there when they weren't in their Denver homes.

Last week I finally got my desk sorted–again, although it isn’t cleaned yet.  Eraser shreds, dust from the open windows, crumbs, cat hair, cottonwood fluff, bits of yarn, all still linger here.  What really bothered me was the stacks of paper everywhere–print outs, receipts, folders that I kept moving from place to place.  After the garage sale bust of last weekend–never again!–there was even more stuff to be sorted, stored or given away.   All this organization took time, but it was purging!  Now I know where everything is again as well as what needs to be accomplished.
One benefit was finding a folder where I stuffed newspaper clippings that I wanted to think about.  One of them was a profile about the granddaughter of a Colorado pioneer family who had just turned 100.  She was a truly amazing woman…I say was, because just the day before I had read her obituary in the newspaper.  She died at 101.  Synchronicity!  Another article I found inspired the title of this blog posting.

The Code of the West has inspired a curriculum unit developed by the Ann Moore of Cherry Creek High School and is available from the Cherry Creek School District, a suburban district in the Denver Metro area where my children and one son-in-law attended school, my grandchildren attend now and my other son-in-law teaches.  The curriculum is titled, “Making a Difference: Cowboy Ethics in the Classroom.”  It is intended for middle school and high school students.

The key principles are good for life on the range, in business and on Wall Street.  After watching several documentaries about the recent financial collapse around the world, including the Bernie Madoff debacle, maybe the code has worldwide applications!   See what you think.  It’s very simple:

  • Live each day with courage
  • Take pride in your work
  • Always finish what you start
  • Do what has to be done
  • Be tough but fair
  • When you make a promise, keep it
  • Ride for the brand
  • Talk less and say more
  • Remember that some things aren’t for sale
  • Know where to draw the line

Happy trails to you!

Remembering Tumultuous Times…

3. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights act...

Image via Wikipedia

In July my husband will be drawing Medicare, in addition to the Social Security he now receives. He was born in 1946, one of the first year tide of “baby boomers.”  I was born in 1947, during the second year of “baby booming” in post-war America.  While drinking coffee and reading the paper–a rather old-fashioned notion in my children’s household (not the coffee, just the newspaper!)–I read that the sixties are going to trend in television next season.   The sixties are cool again, thanks to Mad Menit’s the style, not the substance, however.  Don’t get me wrong.  We love Mad Men too, but we watch it with more irony than the generations that follow us.

Don’t get me wrong!  I remember the sixties and the late fifties as well.  My sister and I used to play “apartments” in the new fifties ranch house suburban neighborhood we moved to in 1954.   Lots of slamming of doors and a drinks cart always played prominently in our games, as did smoking.  My parents both quit smoking early in the fifties, so we copied the elegance of TV starlets.  Apartments, drinks carts and cigarettes were all the height of sophistication we didn’t actually see anywhere except on television. My parents didn’t have a drinks cart or a bar, so we used my mother’s glass tea cart with water glasses.  My parents hid a lot of their true selves when we were growing up.   They secreted their liquor in the master bedroom so my tee-totaling grandmothers never knew they imbibed.  Just for the record, they also kept it a secret that they were Democrats, since The Grandmothers were rabid Republicans and would have disapproved.

My sister and I were in junior high and high school during the first half of the sixties.  Fear was in the air then, with the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the glow of President Kennedy and then his assassination.  Civil rights conflicts raged in the southern states,  filling the TV news and the headlines–Freedom Riders, lunch counter sit-ins, peaceful marches ending with police batons and fire hoses.  The angry faces and hate-filled quotes from angry white southerners amazed me, although one of my grandmother’s said the same kind of thing when she visited us.   I graduated from high school in 1965, just on the cusp of more turbulent times.  The Vietnam conflict ramped up and both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.   I attended a quiet teaching college, but MLK’s assassination prompted class closures and protests.  No one could have escaped the clear message: The times they are a-changing…

This is how I remember my childhood and adolescence–sophistication, strictly defined gender roles, frightening upheavals, fear, threats of war and war.  Television messages: cowboys and Indians, pointy bras and ruffly aprons, housewives concerned with their dish and clothes detergents, wise dads and well-intentioned kids.   My own life included a working mom torn between her home, family and huge ambition;  a father whose dreams were never the same after World War II–all he wanted was his home, family and a steady, 9-5 dullish job.  My grandmothers who remembered a past without cars, telephones, washing machines, played a prominent part in my life.

The fifties AND the sixties were iconic times for me, as are the times for anyone remembering the 18-21 years of  growing up.  Both my sister and I married early, within six months of each other.  Our weddings were almost identical since we each wore our mother’s circa 1942 satin wedding dress.   Boy friends, engagement rings and weddings were expectations when we were very young women.  We had church weddings and receptions in the church basement.  Do people do that anymore?  Church basements?  No chocolate fountains or champagne at our weddings!

The new retro television shows coming this fall resurrect the overt sexualization of women that many women, as well as men, bought into.  They are titled The Playboy Club  and Pan Am.  The Playboy Club  needs little explaining, butPan Am does.  Fifty years ago, flight attendants were good looking women only.  No men were allowed, no married or older women were allowed, no overweight or unattractive women were allowed.  Stewardesses were sexualized by innuendo, but that was seen as a plus.  So, these programs will romanticize the style over the substance, once again.  We will tune in for Mad Men on AMCenjoying our blast from the past, but give the network shows a miss.  I don’t really want to be reminded of Playboy or stewardesses.

My sister, my father and I near the beach in Southern California, 08/1960

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