Friday, February 25, 2011

The Wind Doth Blow, But Will We Have Snow?

The weather forecasters are occasionally right. In the bay area this morning the raging wind confirmed we were experiencing the storm of the decade, or maybe even century. Right now, however, it looks like a summer day. Still they are saying we may have snow by midnight. Since I keep my old Monterey Pines and fruit trees well maintained, my main concern is loosing power.

The painting shown is one I did several years ago when I was trying to learn dry brush. Lacking the model of a real snowy landscape, I copied a photo from an old magazine, adding touches from my own childhood memory album, for my house on the bluff faced the year round snowy Cascades, Mt. Baker, and Mt Rainier.

Age surely changes perspective, doesn’t it? As a kid growing up in Seattle one or two snowfalls a winter was the norm. Like all kids, I delighted in the opportunities presented. Sledding down Davis street hill was the most spine tingling adventure one could imagine, and that was only two blocks from where I lived.

By age 12 I had joined Cunningham’s Ski School. I wonder if it still exists? Besides owning a sporting goods store owner Cunningham’s passion was to offer ski trips for teens to Snoqualmie or Stevens Pass. It was a treasure for me. Despite a right leg amputated at the knee, Mr. Cunningham escorted every trip, making sure all of us had a safe and wonderful time. He was usually at the base of the rope tow, offering gentle coaching in boarding without falling, sometimes even holding us on until we got the knack of it. I was always a bit slow in muscle coordination skills. That is an understatement. Quite plainly I was a motor moron. Never the less by thirteen he had taught me an adequate snow plow, which is how I climbed most slopes. My bag lunch was always a baloney sandwich on white Langendorf, with a Baby Ruth candy bar, and enough money in my pocket to buy a cup of hot cocoa. By 14 I had advanced to a T bar lift, and burst with pride that I could hang on. Of course I had never even seen a chair lift. Our ski clothes and equipment were pretty primitive in today’s world.

Still, every winter Saturday that I could afford it I would head up to the mountains. In the beginning my equipment was rented and modest. By 16 I had my own skis, boots, and powder blue ski suit. They were not the top of the line but I thought I cut a pretty cute picture. The same equipment got me through high school and college, where my down slopes changed to Mt. Baker. The temps in winter were sometimes below zero.

So it was that when I moved to California at age 26 my high school ski equipment came too. I remember my 6’6” heavy wooden skis just fit balanced from front to back seat in Lee’s ’56 red Ford.

It was a spring weekend three or four years later before I found the opportunity to experience skiing in my new home state. What a shock! The sun was beating down. Skiers were sporting tee shirts and slathering on sun bloc. Some were even clad in shorts and halters and designer sun glasses. I timidly approached the chair lift for there were no familiar rope tows or T bars. Sadly there was no Mr. Cunningham to coach first timers. Still I somehow managed, but on the top when I exited the lift I felt my balance precarious, though I did not fall. People stared. I felt my confidence wavering.

After two or three rides with this same problem I asked the chair operator at the bottom of the lift what I was doing wrong. He offered the advice that just before I got to the top I should call to the kid attending at the top tower and ask him to watch me disembark so he could tell me what I was doing wrong. Good idea, I said, and so I did.

“Hey,” I shouted to the teenager in the tower on the top, “Will you watch me get off and tell what I’m doing wrong?” There was a long hesitation. I thought he had not heard me, so I yelled again, even louder.

This time he responded with a full throated derisive snarl, “Lady, you’re too OLD.”

My face turned the color of the sun burned teeny boppers. Did my old age (30) and old clothes make me look that much a misfit? When I reached the bottom of the hill I took off my skis, forever, as it turned out. My embarrassment and wounded pride got the best of me.

Much later I learned that I was exiting the chair a little too soon, so that I was still on the up-slope instead of on the level or facing slightly downhill as I skied off. This is what was affecting my balance and skills.

Every experience offers a lesson, doesn’t it. I hope that most of the time I remember that words can encourage or words can wound. It was a lesson painfully learned. I often wish I were more aware.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Visions and Musings

Never a good sleeper, I’m annoyed that my daily rising has moved from 4 am-ish to 3-am-ish. I accept this practice as something that comes with old age, aching bones, and no partner to cuddle me back to dreamland. Perhaps, as well, my brain is too stuffed with trivia? Sometimes when sleep eludes me I find acceptance by groaning expletives out loud, for no one but my old dog can hear me. Looking up from his bed in puzzlement, even Kodi seems ambivalent, putting off his anticipated daily peanut butter treat until I have guzzled my first cup of tea.

The trade-off is that I have quiet time to peruse my email and to read by the gas fireplace, for winter or summer, its nippy at dawn on this hilltop facing San Francisco bay. And I cherish both diversions.

A lull in the unusual rainstorm visiting us has produced a view to the west that looks frozen in time. A low cloud-bank blankets the city, but strangely nothing is moving, as if it too needs sleep before rejuvenation. The setting full moon was my unexpected treat this morning. About 6:30, it gently slid into the bay. As softly and delicately as I can ever remember. I opened the kitchen sliders to fully appreciate it. The air was still. The moon grew in texture and magnitude, its surface looking like a crumpled piece of Masa paper, as it sunk over Sausilito. Oh, I wish I could capture it!

A compensation to my aging, myopic, astigmatic eyes, I’m getting a new 27” IMAC soon. My big old desk is grumbling in anticipation but my heart is singing. A couple of years ago my sweet friend Andrea introduced me to the Kindle which, like the computer, allows me to increase the print size. .I have now read about 80 books on it. Recently she taught me to download and play Every Word, so now I have another addiction to strain my eyes!

Last month I saw my dear optometrist, Dr. Eng, on his last day of practice. His retirement is a loss for me and many others. He explained to his daughter, who is taking over the office: “Bonnie is one of our patients who has interesting eyes…” I know this is a nice way of saying my eyes are complicated and challenging. Then this past week I saw my beloved opthamologist, Dr. Vastine, for my six month check-up. He happened to have an intern studying to be a corneal specialist who examined me first. I thought she was precious, as she did the initial exam. But then he examined me and pointed out to her not unkindly but without hesitation the things she had missed. He also confided to her that on the next exam he wanted to do some “special tests”. Perhaps he took her aside later and explained his concerns. I was too busy worrying about her feelings to coax him to tell me what he was worried about. Perhaps that is just as well. I don’t wish to worry about my eyes, for I have had instilled in me since childhood that my eyes are the most precious thing I have, and I believe it more every day.

I’m looking forward to Monday when I’ll be trekking to Books, Inc. in the city to buy Christmas books for cousin’s Cynthia and Michelle’s three teenager girls, an annual tradition which I started when the kids were little. The joy of it, other than seeing them, is that they love books passionately and always have, a credit to their Moms great child–rearing.

The painting above is from a photo I took of their youngest, Ella, in the process of choosing her gift books at the bookstore a couple of years ago. One can see that the children are as mesmerized in this process as am I. Can’t wait!

Meanwhile, thanks to all the readers who sent word they appreciated my two stories about Helen K. I enjoyed writing them as well.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Helen's Story, Part 2

Why polio? Bill Gates, in his hour long interview with Charlie Rose this week, recounted why he had chosen polio as the #1 disease in the world to eliminate: 1) it saves kids, 2) it is possible to raise the money to do it, and 3) it will prove that global health can improve the quality of all our lives. He explained with sincere passion that as families in poor countries experience more of their children surviving childhood illnesses they will have fewer children, the surviving children will have higher IQ’s, (from 80 to 100, statistically) and from a human and environmental prospective our world will improve.

So on with the story of a survivor whose body but not IQ was afffected, my old friend Helen. In Russian tradition, a girl child receives her father’s first name as her middle name, which identifies her evermore as his child, thus Helen Kravetzky bears the name Helen Eugenia, after her father Eugene. (It make me, the writer, wonder how I would have turned out with the feminine of Augustus, my own father, had I been born Russian rather than English and cowboy? Would I have developed a different personality as Bonnie Augustina rather than Bonnie Eloise, belle of the Mohawk Vale?)

When polio first struck, the young immigrant family was predictably distraught. All they knew was that their precious baby girl was in bed with a bad fever, and they were alone in a strange land with few resources. Might she die? A Russian doctor was summoned from San Francisco to diagnose her. Helen’s mother Ludmila, who had been teaching piano for extra income, went to pieces. One must remember that the young Ludmilla was a romantic as well as dramatic. Eugene was forced to quit Cal. It seemed like their world came crashing down. Helen was fitted at the Shrine hospital with many braces and other apparatus. The brace on her left leg came all the way to her hip, and even so she walked on the side of her foot. It was explained to the family that she would need surgery as a teenager to correct this. (It did, but one leg is shorter.)

Yet, here they were in a great new country whose president, FDR, was himself a polio victim. It gave them courage and hope. All her childhood it was drilled into Helen that in life she could accomplish anything she set her mind to. After all, the president had polio, too. When other kids would tease her on the playground, as kids will do, she thought of Roosevelt and tossed off their remarks. Her disability did not really bother her until adolescence when she yearned to dance. That was her first and only recognition of loss.

In Helen’s memory she was always lame. She did not perceive it as a disability because she knew nothing else. When she was about six her father graduated from Cal and the family moved back to Harbin to be with his family. Eventually he found work with the Ford Company in Tiensin, where they remained until just before Pearl Harbor. At thirteen it was time for Helen to have surgery, but now she was too old for the Shrine Hospital. The same Russian doctor in San Francisco who had first treated her performed the operation. She missed a year of school and was in a cast for a very long time once more. Still, she remembered the imbedded command: Helen, you can be ANYBODY. Likewise she embraced the knowledge that she had the genes of her White Russian great grandmother, the strong woman who grew wheat.

She set her sights on helping others, and eventually graduated from USC with a master’s in social welfare. a career she followed all her life. I’ve never heard Helen complain nor give in to adversity. She just keeps plugging. In her lifetime she inspired thousands of young women to love the outdoors , to take risks in life, and to set high aspirations. She inspires me today: smiling, gutsy, caring, as always. Moreover, she believes to the core that polio is what made her who she is.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Thank You Bill Gates

Growing up in Seattle in the thirties the fear of polio always put a crimp in summer. Often pools and lakes would be closed. My younger cousin, Blanche, got it, as did some classmates. This week Bill Gates declared polio his top priority, donated more of his millions to the cause, and vowed to challenge world leaders to finish the job before the disease roars back. Its scary that it has now reappeared in Nigeria, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan for we once thought it was eliminated forever.

To comprehend how my old friend Helen, a polio survivor, structured her life one must dig a bit into her heritage. “I’m a better person because I had polio” Helen insists. Today at 85 Helen lives independently, with all her mental faculties, in her Berkeley brown shingle, that is except in summers which she spends alone in a cabin in the deep woods of Idaho. Incidently it was not that many summers ago she defended herself against a bear who invited himself to crash through the living room window and partake of her home-made huckleberry jam. During the attack Helen hid in the bedroom, all energies going to protect her aging border collie.

In both environs Helen is surrounded by Russian memorabilia, like the samovar above. In recent years she finds herself drawn back to the Russian Orthodox church, though she is not quite sure why.

I first met Helen in ’55 when we both worked as Girl Scout professional workers. I don’t remember if I thought it strange that a crippled woman would be a resident camp director, but there was no doubt it was her calling and her passion.

Like so many other Russians, her parents, unknown to one another, fled Russia for the safety of China prior to the revolution in 1917. Both families were probably on the side of the Tsar. Helen’s mother’s roots were in the Volga region (White Russia). Like so many of us, parts of the real story were withheld from the children because of family secrets. This much is known: there was a great grandmother who was of some wealth, distinguished because she owned and operated many fields of wheat, an incredible feat for a single woman. She was known in the village as the STRONG woman. Helen attributes much of her power of character to this distant unmet relative. At some point this woman grabbed up her grandchildren, then about three and four, for their parents had both died. There had been some scandal. Perhaps they were even kidnapped.

Part of the story revolves around the Trans-Siberian Railroad for Helen’s Mother and younger sister soon came to be adopted by an uncle, Alexander, who was a contractor on the last leg of the railroad construction, which ended in Harbin, China. Life was good in Harbin, which is to say they had means and servants. . Eventually Alexander took in three other children. All went well until the wicked step mother came into the picture. Around age 12 Ludmilla and younger sister Tonia and the other children were sent to a Catholic convent in Shanghai, where they were given the best of classical education, including speaking four languages. Helen’s mother, a promising pianist, was sent in 1924 to America to study at Julliard (which she secretly never planned to do but did not reveal). Ludmilla had already met Helen’s father and had eyes for love, not music. She soon won the heart of Helen’s father, whom she had met in Harbin.

Helen’s father grew up in Siberia (Nikolisk). The Kravetsky family also fled Russia for the safety of China, living in various cities there and finding comfort in small Russian communities wherever they went, including Harbin. As a young man he yearned to study Business but because of his language deficiency ended up graduating from UC as a civil engineer.

While attending school, he was employed as a night watchman in a book bindery in Oakland. As it turns out, this link to the night watchman job became an important factor in Helen’s survival. Starry eyed, her parents were married in ’25 at the Russian Orthodox church in San Francisco.

When she was born Jan. 15, 1926, in what was then called Alta Bates Sanitarium, Alta Bates herself ,the famous founder of what is today Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital, admimistered drops of brandy to the wee premature babe. It was not an uncommon therapeutic measure in those days, but Helen’s mother, a Russian immigrant, though of a wealthy and well educated class, worried all her life that Helen would become an alcoholic. Thankfully that never came to be. Had she been able to see into the future however she would have worried instead that her beautiful only child would become lame. Polio struck Helen between age two and three.

The owner of the book bindery, on learning of Helen’s illness, took from his pocket a calling card. He explained that he was a member of the Shriners, and from here on out the struggling young immigrant family would have no medical concerns: the Shrine Hospital would care for her Helen.

Both legs and one arm became paralyzed. Eventually the movement came back to all the affected limbs except the left leg. Helen still remembers her father cradling her in his arms as they rode the ferry to San Francisco to see the Russian doctor, because of course no American doctor could be trusted.

This story is a little long but compelling, so I’m choosing to continue it in the next installment.