Ellie Searl Stories


Rose to the Occasion

Ellie Searl

The phone rang at four in the afternoon just after I put the egg yolk glaze on the braided bread dough. It was a guy named Bill. He wanted to check the time of the open house.

“At five . . . No, you needn’t bring anything . . . Yes, please, your friends are welcome.” Thank god someone was going to show up.

I didn’t know this Bill, nor his friends, but now at least a couple of people would enjoy my superb hors d’oeuvres and appreciate my style and grace as a hostess. I slid the bread into the oven, poured another glass of wine, and leaned against the counter. I looked at the serving dishes ready for goodies. What was next?

The open house would be the first gathering in our home since we moved to this hellhole of a city in September. I didn’t like Youngstown. A steel town. Certainly not a garden spot. Smokestacks belched dirty clouds of iron ore debris. Street gutters ran streams of rusty water when it rained.

Back in the humidity and stickiness of July, while Ed had his interview with the search committee, I killed time and tried to cool off in the mezzanine cafe of Strouss, the city’s main department store. I looked over the railing at sluggish shoppers moving along the aisles, pawing through piles of tee-shirts, and putting earrings up to the sides of their faces, glancing at themselves sideways with a semi-pout, hoping the earrings might make them look sexy. I feared I was going to live in this god-forsaken place and become one of them. I thought I would die there.

The day before the interview, a member of the search committee had taken us for a drive through the park along the Mahoning River, regarded as one of the more attractive places of the region. It was better than the rest of the city, for sure, but I considered all the sights pure ob-scenery. Having grown up in the beauty of the Adirondack Mountains, I didn’t want this dreadful confluence of ugliness to be my settling-down place.

I knew the search committee would like Ed, and I knew Ed wanted the job. “There’s a lot going for it, El,” he said. “It’s a city church, and the salary is pretty good for someone like me, right out of theological school. Youngstown is a good place to start,” meaning – he’d take the job if offered, and I would have to swallow all the dreams I had about living in a place of beauty.

Ed began his job at the Youngstown Unitarian Church just when a multitude of people needed assistance - spiritually, emotionally, and financially. He signed his contract on “Black Monday” - the very day Youngstown Iron Sheet and Tube, one of the largest steel companies in the world, announced it was shutting down, putting over 5,000 men and women out of work. It was as if an evil force swooped down into the minds and souls of the entire population and dumped everyone’s bucket of happiness and economic survival into the river. And I felt that demonic presence close to home - sneering at my misgivings, trying to orchestrate my demise.

With Ed and our 9-year-old daughter, Katie, I became a full-time member of this deteriorating community. Katie settled quite nicely into Youngstown life, never once complaining about the city. She liked her fourth grade teachers and made friends very quickly in her multi-cultural school. It wasn’t until she showed me her class picture that I learned who was Asian, Mexican, black, or white. She participated in local activities and played with friends after school. For her, Youngstown was a great place to live.

I knew I had to make the best of it, so I registered in a graduate degree program in counseling at Youngstown State University, began taking piano lessons again after a long musical drought, and revived an old lost love of mine - entertaining.

One of the garden spots of Youngstown was, in fact, my new church. The congregation included wonderful people - artists, professors, writers, musicians, and interesting, everyday people. The church seemed to be a respite from the unpleasantness of the city’s decay. And so at Christmastime, Ed and I decided to give them a party.

The dining room table was taking shape. I placed a fresh boxwood centerpiece bejeweled with holly berries and white and red carnations between two silver reindeer with antlered candlestick holders. The table would soon be laden with a cornucopia of sumptuous treats. Poached salmon and lemon slices with sour cream dill sauce. Baked brie en croute with raspberry jam and roasted pecans. Spiral cut honey baked ham and sirloin filet slices for mini-sandwiches on my freshly baked braided egg bread. Miniature spinach and broccoli quiche. Various hard and soft cheeses, stone crackers, kettle roasted potato chips, caramelized onion dip, Chocolate chip cookies, butterscotch brownies, vanilla pound cake with a drizzle of butter icing, cranberry bread and cream cheese. Champagne punch with floating strawberries and circles of pink ice. Special beers and wines. I had plenty.

Guests began arriving a little after five. Soon a low hum of conversation mixed with clinking forks and Gustav Holtz’s, “The Planets” filled the rooms, reminding me that being with friends, especially during the holidays, is a gift, regardless of the hideousness of scenery beyond the door. I stood back and smiled at the sights and sounds - lovely table filled with a colorful array of tasty foods; small groups of people drinking, laughing, celebrating the holidays; sparkling decorations for that special touch of Christmas hospitality. Just right.

That’s when the three strangers came into the house. Two men and a woman. They didn’t knock nor ring the bell. They just opened the door, and with supreme boldness, swept into the room and spread out like they had predetermined where they would park themselves. The shorter of the two men was dressed in a dark brown and white striped suit that fit him like a flour sack. But it was his slick, comb-over hair, parted so closely to his left ear he most likely caught his ear lobe in brush bristles that emphasized his overall peculiarity. He headed for the living room and stood in front of the fireplace – hands groping the air for warmth.

The taller, hulk-like man slunk into the corner of the dining room behind the door and stood there, shoulders hunched, arms dangling in front of him as though he was about to direct a choir. He rested his chin against his chest and gaped at the crowd from under his eyebrows with a dull, menacing glare, like an eagle watching over its prey, ready to pounce. He wore what looked to be rejects from the mismatch bin of a resale shop - oversized white shirt under an ill-fitting grey suit that pulled across his stomach - jacket sleeves ending at his forearms, shirt sleeves continuing the journey, falling off the cliffs of his knuckles. His too-short pant legs barely made it beyond his calves, landing just above black high-top work boots.

The short, pudgy woman wore black baggy sweat pants that hung out of red rubber boots, ringed at the top with, what probably was, at one time, white fur. Four safety pins fastened over a broken zipper held her tattered hooded sweat jacket closed. A large, white paper Christmas bow, bobby-pinned to her uncombed bronze hair, was placed smack dab at the top of her head. She looked like a forgotten package all wrapped up for the holidays, then stuck away in the closet and left there to collect dust. She made a beeline for the buffet and without pause, began circling the table, scooping food with her right hand and dumping it into her widespread left-hand-turned-plate.

I was at once horrified and fascinated at this turn of events. I was horrified at what I assumed were three city moochers who somehow learned about the meal of the century and came directly from their cardboard box living rooms into in my house to land free food. Yet I was fascinated by the three of them. The chubby woman deftly swooping food from the buffet. Goliath standing in rigor mortis behind the dining room door. The bizarre little man in the living room, now examining lint on his jacket. Who were they? How did three rumpled people end up at my fancy party? Should I shoo them away? And if so, how? Were they dangerous? Should I call the police? What were my other guests thinking?

I stared in awe at the expertise the round woman exhibited as she swiftly and magnificently orchestrated her way through each food item, and with pure and absolute finesse, pile it onto her left hand-plate. It was amazing what that hand could hold. Across her wide-spread fingers tips she placed generous slices of ham, sirloin filet, cheese, and bread. Across her knuckles, she placed brownies, cookies, pound cake, and cranberry bread. At the V of her fingers she piled chunks of salmon, quiche, potato chips, and crackers. And in her palm, she dumped all the sloppy stuff - sour cream, onion dip, baked brie, and cream cheese. She ate a bit of everything as she went. A slice of beef into her mouth, a slice of beef into her hand. Brownie into her mouth, brownie into her hand. All around the table. Several times. Eating and piling. Eating and piling. The other guests backed away and gave extra space to this woman whirling around the buffet with such indiscretion.

The president of the congregation sidled up to me. “That’s Bill and Rose. Don’t worry, they’re harmless. We all know who they are. They live together in government housing, and they go to everything in Youngstown that has free food. They check the paper for funerals, library meetings, and church potlucks. They must have seen your open house advertised in our newsletter. They’re always at our potlucks, but they never bring anything”

Good, I thought. Who’d eat it?

“Who’s that guy lurking in the corner?” I asked. “He looks like he just got discharged from an institution – I’ll bet he’s wearing a hospital bracelet.”

“I don’t know him - he’s a new one. But if he’s a friend of Bill and Rose, he’s probably ok too.”

I thought about the phone call earlier that had excited me so much and had reassured me that my party would be a success. It had been Bill, this strange short not-quite-homeless man with bad hair who wanted to celebrate Christmas with his friends - just like the rest of us. Bill, Rose, and . . . well, . . . Lurch had come to my party to feel the warmth and joy of the season – just like the rest of us. They wanted to eat, drink, and be merry – just like the rest of us.

Shame hit my face like a hot washcloth. Who was I to feel superior to three people in need? Was this not an open house? Did I not welcome them before I knew who they were? I walked over to Rose and said, “Here let me help you.” I picked up a plate, piled it with food, and handed it to her. “Would you like to sit down?” I led her to an easy chair.

Then I made another plate and took it to the man hovering in the corner. He smiled at me and, without pause, shoved what he could into his mouth - ham, cheese, cookies, potato chips – whatever would fit. I smiled back. He refused my offer to sit down. “Naw,” he said. “I like it here.”

Bill found his way into the dining room and began filling his own plate. He handled himself with the decorum and grace of a long-practiced buffet-guest. I introduced myself, and we fell into a conversation about adding nuts to brownies.

The hum of the party regained its harmony and rhythm - clinks, laughs, music, and good conversation. It was an open house - after all.

We lived in Youngstown for the next five years, and as much as I continued to dislike the city, I came to love the people – even Bill and Rose, who began bringing a package of English muffins to our potlucks after Ed told them it was important to contribute. We never learned anything more about the guy who hid in the corner.

EVS 12/09


Canadian Landing

Ellie Searl

Dan’s laid-back attitude and grubby appearance made me skeptical - wrinkled, flannel shirt, frayed jeans, scruffy boots, yellowed fingers, and long, greasy hair oozing out of a ratty Montreal Expos cap. Would he pull out a pocketknife and scratch dirt from what was left of his fingernails? He lit a cigarette. Did he take drugs, too? Drink? The snob in me bubbled over. But then we couldn’t be choosy about who would escort us through this critical event. We either drove ourselves - with our own car, sporting our own license plate, risking arrest - or let someone else drive - someone like Dan – someone with experience sneaking people like us, American war resisters, back and forth across the Canadian-US border.

It was an underground operation. Dan, a Canadian Aid to Immigration and Draft volunteer, would pick us up at our safe house in Ottawa, Ontario, and drive us across the border into the US at Ogdensburg, New York. There, border guards would question us, and we would lie to them about who we were and where we were going. Then we would ride along the US side, hoping not to run into the police or anyone who might recognize us as war resisters, to another border, and cross back into Canada. At that border, Ed, Katie, and I would enter the Canadian Immigration Office and apply for Landed Immigrant status. On the spot. One chance. If we didn’t make it, we’d have to return to the States and face the consequences of the US court system. It was a big deal.

Time seemed to play favorites - moving along at a sweet, comfortable pace for everyone else, turtle-crawling for me. My head ached. I felt nauseous. Weary. I wanted to sleep. . . throw up . . . go to the bathroom . . . cry. Just get this day over with.

Ed handled the tension better than I did. He had stopped his banter with our housemates and stared at the kitchen floor, as though the worn tiles held wisdom from previous Vietnam War resisters who had ventured through the unknown territory we were about to enter. I didn’t want to push Ed’s emotional buttons, so I remained quiet. Only Katie was immune. She played in the living room with her new doll and the dogs. That she might be soiling Raggedy Ann and the red pinafore I had made for her second birthday a month before we left the States was the least of my worries.

“You guys all set?” Dan took a sip of coffee and sputter-coughed.

All set? What was all set? Calm? Excited? Ready for adventure? Packed with a picnic, bathing suit, and beach balls?

We headed to the driveway where Dan’s rusty green two-door Ford Falcon sat waiting for us. The front left fender, secured with rope and duct tape, heightened my anxiety. Katie riding in this junk heap? I quelled the urge to say forget it - I couldn’t go through with this - we’d take our chances and drive ourselves.

My digestive system spoke for me. Emotional turbulence caused a new cyclone in my belly – and a beeline to the toilet. Katie scooted after me. I let her pull toilet paper off the roll and yank towels to the floor. She made a mountain of white and jumped in it. Her delight in the simplicity of this amusement gave me hope - maybe she won’t be affected by all the havoc and instability in her life. Maybe she won’t even remember. I felt a little better, changed Katie’s diapers, and took her back to the car.

Dan opened the trunk and gave us blank, uncharacteristically clean, white legal envelopes. “Take all your identification out of your wallets or wherever it is, and put it in these - and seal them. All of it. Don’t forget anything. And put these in.” He took some documents out of a manila folder.

“What’s this for?” Ed asked.

Dan rolled his eyes and sighed. He’d answered the question before, many times. “Because you can’t cross the border as yourselves. You’re going as . . . uh . . .” He skimmed the papers. “. . . John and Martha Smith from Timmons, Ontario.” He looked up and handed each of us a credit card, driver’s license, library card, and birth certificate.

“When you get to the US border, you’re John and Martha Smith. Memorize your birthdays and where you were born. Can’t have the border guards catch you looking at your papers to prove who you are.” He laughed. “And we’ll tell them we’re going into the States for the day to . . . uh . . . to shop. That way it won’t look funny if you don’t have luggage or anything.”

“What about Katie?” I asked.

He tossed our sealed envelopes under some old newspapers and slammed the trunk. He waved his arm. “Oh, just tell them you forgot to bring her papers. Tell them she was born in Timmons. They’ll probably be satisfied with that.”

Probably? My mind reeled. What if they’re not? What if they catch us? What if . . .?

“Now, they might wanna search the car for drugs. Gotta expect that. So they could look in the trunk and see the envelopes. Don’t panic or make faces or say anything that attracts more attention. They’re not allowed to open the envelopes without a warrant. See, that’s why they’re sealed.” He sighed again and shook his head - like he was already irritated that we’d blow our cover. He turned his back to us, walked to the driver’s side of the car, and got in.

The harshness of it all. So raw. So real and frightening. Ed must have sensed the burn catch in my throat. He hugged me. “El, it’s going to be ok. Don’t worry. We’ll make it.”

All this intrigue. Like a CIA operation for the untrained. Our own personal “Mission Impossible.” Would Ed climb through heating vents? Should Katie and I be disguised as circus freaks?

I swiped aside car litter and flopped into the back seat beside Katie and Raggedy Ann.

Dan pulled out of the driveway and onto the main road south.

The car rose over the crest of the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge toward the New York side. Below the metal slats, the St. Lawrence River drifted to the gulf and then on into the Atlantic. I thought how restful it is for rivers and gulfs and oceans to have no worries as they venture to new lands and, in spite of logjams or sand bars or drops in elevation, they meander calmly, in relative freedom, knowing their destinations are long established and time-honored. Such peace.

I studied Ed as he watched the river snake around a small peninsula just south of Ogdensburg. Sturdy profile – straight nose, strong chin and cheekbones, hidden somewhat by a short, trim beard. And always a sparkle in his blue-green eyes. Confident. Optimistic. But now his almost six-foot frame slumped against the passenger seat door. He knew it was time.

Dan said, “We’re almost at the border. You guys ready?”

Ready? Hell no . . . I wanted to shout. And quit asking that.

My sweat glands had worked overtime since we started this journey from Ottawa, and blood thumped against my ear drums . Where did I put my fake papers? What was my name? Where was I born? And when? Who was this child – this little girl sleeping soundly beside me on the back seat, lulled by car-sways? I hoped Katie wouldn’t wake up when the border guards started asking questions. But then again, maybe she’d charm them into a kind-hearted “Welcome to the States.” I dug through my purse to find my wallet.

My dehydrated lips stuck together, and my tongue felt fat. What if this didn’t work? What if we were caught? The thought of Ed in handcuffs incited new commotion in my now-empty intestinal tract. Was there a term for dry-heave diarrhea?

“You ok?” I asked Ed. Stupid question. How could he be ok? He was responsible for seeing us successfully through this . . . this charade. The impending border inspection was only one of several twists, turns, and possible dead-ends in the maze of our becoming legally established in Canada.

Ed had a way of slowing my frenzied agitation to a steady calm. If my nervousness began speeding down a hill, he’d locate level ground to help the anxiety take a breather. I figured he was fighting his own nerves, but it wasn’t in his nature to let them win. “I’m fine, El.” Ed smiled. “It will all be fine.”

Dan slowed the car to a stop and rolled down the window. A uniformed US Border Patrol Officer bent over and peered in. He looked at each of us – for a second or two longer than necessary, it seemed. What was he thinking? Could he tell? Would our phony identities flash - Pretense! Pretense!?

Did Ed have - I didn’t show up for induction in the US Army because I don’t support the war in Vietnam and now I’m a wanted criminal in America and after we lie our way across this border we’re heading back across another border where we’ll apply for immediate Landed Immigrant status in Canada - because Canada, bless its heart, has taken us under its wing . . . written on his forehead?

The guard started with me.

“Names? Date and place of birth?”

“Martha Timmons . . .uh . . . Smith . . . born in Timmons . . . New Yo. . . Ontario . . . July . . . uh, 1945. . . . this is Katie, my dau. . . our daughter. . . I forg . . . I don’t ha . . . carry them with me.” Jesus what an idiot!

“What is your purpose for coming to the United States?”

My chest hurt. “Shopping . . . in Ogdensburg . . . for shoes.” Shoes? They don’t sell shoes in Canada?

“And you sir?” He looked at Ed.

Ed was a better imposter. Cool. Unruffled. Level.

The guard settled on Dan. “Sir?”

Dan didn’t have to lie, but his demeanor was devoid of deference to authority. He said his name over his shoulder as he mashed the butt of a cigarette into the ashtray.

“Please open the trunk.”

Dan got out and walked to the back of the car. I couldn’t look. I whispered to Ed that I thought Dan was behaving like a shifty ne'er-do-well.

“El - He knows what he’s doing. Remember, he’s done this before. He’s drawing attention to himself and away from us.”

I heard the trunk slam shut and the guard say, “Move on. Watch the speed limit.”

When we finished perjuring ourselves into the US, we entered the second phase of our scheme – getting to the next border crossing without incident. Every person in every car and on every sidewalk and on every park bench was a potential spy, a selective service tattle-tale.

Dan had insisted we stop and eat at some diner in Ogdensburg, stretching time once again, adding more fuel to my anxiety and frustration. I quietly seethed as he savored tomato soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and fries, Ed managed coffee and toast while Katie blithely munched on peanut butter crackers. I was too nervous to eat.

After the prolonged lunch, we drove along the St. Lawrence River to Massena, a meandering thirty-five miles east. Our car and the river drifted together, it seemed, synchronized in purpose and speed. Each on its way into Canada – each traveling as slowly as clouds moving across the sky on a windless day. At least Dan didn’t speed and risk being stopped by New York State Troopers.

Half way across the Seaway Bridge, the song “Joanne” came on the radio. Ed hummed along. I watched the ripples in the water and wondered if all this effort, all this expended energy, all our work to establish ourselves in Canada during “the time that made them both run,” was just going to end up “a most hopeless situation.”

With our identifications back in our wallets, we could at least be ourselves again at the border crossing into Cornwall, Ontario, where the final twist in this life-changing maze would play out – convincing Canadian immigration officials we were worthy of legal status in their country.

We sat in the waiting room for over an hour, distracting ourselves by leafing through French editions of Life Magazines and recently discontinued Saturday Evening Posts. The ads were easy to figure out: Tide Détersif de Blanchisserie, Milky Way Bar de Bonbon, Crest Dentifrice avec Floride.

Actress and activist Candice Bergan graced the cover of the July 24 issue of Life, along with the heading “Dilemma of New Standards – The Draft Board Rules on a Conscientious Objector.” I didn’t read the article.

A few months earlier, we had been stuck on that Selective Service merry-go-round. I knew what the article said. And it still felt like an open wound to recall those months of waiting for the draft board to render a decision about Ed’s request for Conscientious Objector status. His request was denied - his religious, moral, and philosophical objections to the war deemed expedient. After all, they reasoned, how could a Catholic promote a liberal Unitarian Universalist belief system? But then, after Ed’s selective service standing was sealed and beyond appeal, and after he received his notice to report for induction into the US Army, the Supreme Court ruled that CO status could, in fact, be granted on moral and philosophical grounds, those very principles that were the foundation of Ed’s convictions.

Ed was snagged in the Vietnam War net just a few weeks prior to the one Supreme Court decision that could have changed the course of our lives, had the timing been different.

Katie ran up and down the long, dark hallway, trying unsuccessfully to turn knobs on office doors. The water fountain was just high enough and the on-button just loose enough for her to get a good spritz at her face, startling her into gawks and giggles. She was instantly fascinated by this mysterious gadget. I hoped her curious new toy would keep her busy until it was our turn. As long as she was occupied, it didn’t matter to me how wet she got. Office workers stooped to tickle her tummy and say hello. She tucked her chin into her chest and swayed with shy delight at the attention - then hid her face in my knees.

I felt a burst of optimism for adventures in an unfamiliar territory. We had an entire new nation to show Katie - and partly French at that. Memories of weekend excursions meandering through the Vermont hinterlands calmed my nerves. Saturdays and Sundays bumping along dirt roads, exploring back woods, eating in small-town diners, discovering better than good bakeries – and just reveling in the magnificence of mountainsides that sloped gracefully into the lush green lowlands dotted with wide-porched white houses, red barns, and grazing sheep, goats, Holsteins, and Morgan horses. I thought, too, about our recent camping trip from Quebec to Nova Scotia and how much I loved the special beauty of the Eastern Provinces. There would be so much more to discover when . . .if . . . we were settled in a new home, in a new land.

I joined Katie at the water fountain, got a drink, and wiped her off as best I could. She looked so sweet and normal in her red Stride Rite shoes, lace socks, and that sopping wet, hand-sewn pinafore. I wondered if I’d ever make another outfit for her. Or for me. I loved making clothes – the more complicated the better. My sewing machine was still in our Burlington town house. When would I be back to get our things? And then it hit me – hard. When would I be back . . . ? Not, we.

Ed might not be going back. Maybe not ever. Never again sleep in his old, growing-up bed. Never again debate world issues with his parents over pie and coffee in his family dining room. Never again help his dad take down storm windows in spring or put them back up in the fall. If Ed couldn’t go back, I probably wouldn’t either – at least not very often. The idea of going back home without Ed threatened to deplete what was left my energy.

The Registrar’s office door opened, and we were asked in by a tall, red-faced grandfather-type in a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and an open gray vest. He was friendly enough, and tickled Katie under the chin. “Would you like something to play with?” He gave her a pad of paper, a pencil, and a big, pink eraser, reminding me of simple grade school days.

“Please, have a seat. Only one of you needs to fill out these forms.” He handed Ed a pen and a pile of papers written in English and French.

The interior of the office seemed so lackluster - so nondescript. Nothing about it suggested this room was the gateway to a new country. I don’t know what I expected – maybe a big sign that said “Welcome to Canada,” or maybe a huge Canadian map on the wall behind the desk with a big red pin stuck in Cornwall that said, “You Are Here” and a trail of green pins heading to Ottawa, saying, “And Here’s Where You Are Going.” But then this office was just an immigration holding place, where forms were completed and interviews held. There was no guarantee that this was the portal for everyone who wished to live and work Canada. Some were sent back to their homelands.

I watched Ed fill out the forms. So many locations to record for each of us: birth place, first family home, current home, all the homes in between, elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, occupation, other occupations, church affiliation, other church affiliations, and on and on – each with a complete address.

And at the end of every single address, Ed wrote “The United States of America.” All over the place - The United States of America. . . . The United States of America . . . The United States of America. The forms looked like a crazy quilt of protracted inky tributes to his country. It was as if Ed needed to prove to the Canadian officials that, although he was seeking asylum in their country, he still loved his homeland enough to splash its name all over the application – that he respected his nation, regardless of his desire to leave.

Either Ed was showing remarkable patriotism or he was procrastinating - because as soon as he finished the forms, our points would be tallied - and that would be that.

With two index fingers, the registrar pecked our interview answers on the manual typewriter..

“So, you both graduated from college?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He just clicked the keys. “Hmmm, hmmm . . . ok.” More typing. “And do you have a place to live in Ontario?” We gave him the address of our AID sponsors in Ottawa. “Hmmm, hmmm. . . ok.” Every now and then he flipped the carriage several times in a row – switching to new questions on the form.

Katie sat on the floor folding the pieces of paper into tiny squares, as if she, too, were trying to organize chaos into a manageable size.

“And what job to you expect to get, Mr. or Mrs. Searl?”

I spoke first. “I can get a job teaching. I’m a certified teacher. I taught in New York, Delaware, and Vermont. And I can teach swimming and canoeing - I have my Life Saver’s Certificate. I used to be a camp counselor . . . I’m a really good seamstress . . . ” Ed put his hand on my knee and tapped. I stopped.

“That’s fine. And you Mr. Searl? What will you do?”

“Whatever I can find to support my family. I’m not particular. I have talent in many areas, and I believe I’m quite hirable.” Cool. Unruffled. Level.

Two-Fingered Fred finished his form and yanked it from the typewriter. He looked it over, said a couple of “Hmmm, hmmms,” signed it, folded it, and put it in an envelope.

Then he stood up, expressionless, and gave Ed the envelope. My brain lost its balance. Please.

He bent down to Katie’s eye level. “You, sweetheart, are about the cutest, most well-behaved little lady I have ever seen. You take good care of your mommy and daddy, now.”

He stood back up shook Ed's hand. “Congratulations! You are now officially Landed Immigrants of Canada. Good luck to you.”

Tears of relief collected in the corners of my nose and made me sneeze.

“Thank you, thank you so much,” I choked. Did he know that my brain regained its equilibrium? That my anxiety dissipated and was floating along level ground? Did he know he had just saved our futures?

We walked out of the immigration office into the glory of the afternoon sun and over to our friend Dan, who waited for us beside his charming, green Ford Falcon, all nicely secured with rope and duct tape.

Katie, Raggedy Ann, and I settled into the comfort of the back seat as Dan pulled out of the parking lot and headed north to Ottawa. I wiped relief tears from my cheeks and thought about ways to sneak Ed home once in a while, Katie played with Raggedy Ann’s hair, and Ed scanned our Live-Work-Breathe-Eat-Shop-Explore-and-Enjoy-Life-in-Canada papers.

I made Dan stop at the first diner.

I was starving.

EVS 11/09


Small (Town) Friends

Ellie Searl

Before Becky moved to town, Gloria was supposedly my best friend, although I never much liked her. She was mean. And bossy. At her house, we played her games, danced her way, and ate her peanut butter, potato chip, cream cheese, and pickle sandwich creations. At my house, she rode my bike, used my mother’s lipstick, and dulled the tops of my new crayons. But she seemed popular with the other kids, so by association, I was popular too. I didn’t understand enough about personality types to figure that because she bullied her way into relationships, probably everybody hated her.

My friendship with Gloria rounded a nasty corner in 5th grade, a month before her soon-to-be-mirror-image arrived. It was at Christmas time, when schools actually celebrated Christmas, before public institutions had to recognize the separation of church and state.

Our school had a tradition of painting scenes on classroom windows for the holidays. On Halloween, we not only painted scenes on the school windows, but we also took a field trip into the village with all of our paraphernalia and painted our designs across huge store windows - Jack-o-lanterns, and witches with black cats riding on broom sticks across a crescent moon, and ghosts wafting over scarecrows sitting in dried-up cornfields - all the while keeping balance on ladders propped up against thick panes of glass. My parents owned the general store in the center of town, so it was a special treat if I painted those windows. But the big kids usually got there first, pushing and shoving their way to the front of the bus; then racing to the best windows when we arrived.

This particular Christmas, our teacher announced a contest – four students would win the honor of painting a scene on the classroom windows. And not only that, the winners would go into town and paint Christmas on all the storefronts. To be considered, we were to submit a hand-drawn picture of Santa. The rules were simple: draw the picture at home, have no help from adults, and do not trace anything. This was a cinch, I thought. I was good at drawing pictures, so I knew I’d win. There were a few times when solid confidence led my way, and this was one of them.

In the Saturday Evening Post that afternoon, I found a small black and white sketch of a smiling Santa, a bag stuffed with toys slung over his shoulder. He stood ankle-deep in a pile of wrapped gifts, boot-fur peeking over the bows and ribbons. This was it.

I had a good eye - a natural instinct for proportion and the elements of detail. With a sharpened pencil and oversized sketchpad, I drew a likeness of the picture, making it much bigger, and Santa much paunchier, than was represented in the Post. No, I didn’t trace it; that would have been cheating. Miss Cuomo never said we couldn’t look at a picture and make one just like it. She never said it had to be straight from our imaginations. I submitted my big Santa to her the next morning.

Most of the other kids in the class didn’t bother to enter the contest. They already knew they weren’t good enough and wouldn’t win, their levels of artistic confidence much lower than mine. Miss Cuomo said my picture was the best, and she gave me the window that overlooked the playground and parking lot where everyone could see it. Was I proud! And I’d be going into the village the next day with the other winners. I’d get to paint the front window of my parents’ general store.

I gathered my colors, hopped up onto window ledge, and started my painting. The non-winners watched with envy, and the non-participators colored mimeographed pictures of Santa’s Workshop.

Within five minutes, Miss Cuomo called, “Eloise, come here.”

I turned around, holding a long, thin paintbrush in mid-air and looked at her, not sure I had heard correctly. A splot of red paint dropped onto the toe of my Mary Janes.

“Eloise. Come down from there.”

I stuck the paintbrush into the tin can and hopped down. The hem of my dress caught on the long handle and knocked the can to the floor. Red paint oozed out, spreading a blood-pool across the linoleum.

Miss Cuomo bent over to rescue the brush and can. She looked up at me from the floor. “Did you draw that Santa yourself?” She walked to the counter and heaved the dripping supplies into the sink. She jerked around, giving me one of those stern teacher glares and slapped her hands on her hips. “Did you?” she barked.

“Yes, Miss Cuomo,” I stammered. “I drew it. . .. myself . . . yesterday . . . after school. Ask my mom.”

“Gloria said you traced it.”

I looked over at Gloria, who was standing at her desk, arms folded, grinning. My brain heard her snarl, “You’re a pig. My picture wasn’t picked, so I’m going to make sure you can’t paint either.”

I stifled the urge to leap across the room and wring her neck. Hate isn’t a strong enough word to describe how I felt about her right then.

My throat tightened. “I didn’t trace it,” I cried. “I saw it in a magazine and drew one like it.” Tears welled in my eyes making my nose tickle. Everyone stared. They probably all thought I cheated.

“Well,” Miss Cuomo huffed, “I should have looked at your picture more carefully.” She took a breath and continued her attack on the exhale. “Now that I think about it, your picture is really too good for anyone your age to draw. So . . .” She paused. I waited.

When I think back at that pause, I realize she was stuck in the undermining mire created by fear and a tattletale - cheating might be running amuck on my watch and, if I let it continue, will ruin my integrity as an authoritarian forever. But at the time, I thought she was a mean old hag who believed a brat.

“ So . . .” she sighed, “. . . you aren’t going to paint anymore.” Her voice regained its momentum - strong and loud - as she settled into the finality of her decision. “And you’re not going into town tomorrow. Go to your seat. Now.”

I was devastated! How could I extricate myself from this humiliating, exceedingly unfair situation? Gloria had lied, but the teacher had spoken with conviction. I was doomed.
Keeping any trace of whine from my voice, I protested one last time. “Gloria lied. I drew it myself. The picture was much smaller. I drew it myself. I did. She lied.”

“Enough. Go to your seat. Here - color this.” She shoved a wrinkled mimeographed paper into my hand - a purple outlined picture of Santa’s elves pounding nails into a doghouse with “Fido” printed on the gabled roof.

I looked at my feet and, through tears, saw red paint trickle from the tip of my shoe into my sock. I’d been stripped of my place of honor, I wouldn’t get to paint my mom and dad’s store window the next day, I was embarrassed beyond belief, and I would more than likely get in trouble for wrecking the shoes and socks I was only supposed to wear on Sundays. I sat at my desk, and shook with silent sobs, feeling my faith in humanity go looping round and round a downward spiral.

I sent dagger eyes at Gloria, but by this time she was hiding her face inside her open desk and sniggering, as though she shared some sadistic secret with her scissors and glue. Everyone else was silent, having been stunned into their work with such pretend concentration that only the fire alarm could have raised their heads.

After that episode, my association with Gloria dwindled from friend to acquaintance. She switched her attentions to Becky when she arrived in January, and I took up with Kristen, whose family moved to town a few months later.

For the next few years, Kristen and I carried on as much of a friendship as she could muster, given her predisposition to ignore me whenever someone more important was around. We drank cherry cokes and ate Nabs at the drug store, drooled over pictures of Paul Newman, smoked cigarettes behind the fair grounds, read smutty magazines at the beach, and gossiped about Gloria and Becky.

I felt like a grown-up with Kristen. She had a city sophistication about her and knew the Exclusive Summer People who sailed to Westport from New York and Washington, DC, on their private yachts and stayed in their lake houses. Besides, meals at Kristen’s house were better than Gloria’s PB&P&PC&CC sandwiches. Roast beef served at the dining room table on gold placemats, and formal, somewhat stilted conversation with Kristen’s librarian mother and doctor father. They treated their guests with respect; although, as represented in Kristen’s on-and-off attention, a bit of arrogance mixed in with condescension was present in most of the family gatherings with locals like me.

At the beginning of 9th grade, Kristen was sent to a private boarding school. It was less than a two hours’ drive away, but it was on the other side of the Adirondack Mountains, and it seemed like a million miles to me. A couple of days before she left for her first semester as a freshman, she mused about being so far from home for so long. She said, “Don’t be surprised if I forget your name. I’m going to meet lots of new friends at school, and I won’t have space in my brain for everyone.” The funny thing was, I thought this made sense – I didn’t get offended until a few years later when I realized how insensitive and particularly stupid her remark.

In our town of 800, most of the kids my age came from farm or logging families and lived way out on unpaved country roads in the foothills - the Rural Route, according to the post office. Their family circumstances didn’t allow them much opportunity to socialize - lots of chores and little access to transportation into the village. So, when we were in 9th and 10th grades, before we all started to drive, I had to pal around with kids who lived in the village. Becky, Gloria, and Kristen lived in the village, and Kristen was off learning new names and forgetting mine.

So when Kristen left in September, I was stuck with reestablishing a quasi-friendship with Gloria and Becky, who by this time, had morphed into the Doublemint Twins - same sweater sets, same clutch purses, same bouffant hairstyles pinned up with the same sequined barrettes, same sing-songy voices.

Conjoined twins saw less of each other than did Becky and Gloria. Attached at the emotional hip, they didn’t go anywhere or do anything without the other – at least not during the day. Their identities must have taken a nosedive when they went home. How did they survive alone with just their families? Did they experience mini-emotional breakdowns? Lose their appetites? Wither away in their rooms? Did their mothers, with sinking feeling and crinkled brow, wonder, “Where did my cheery little girl go?” Did they stare at, but pay no attention to, gorgeous David Considine saunter across their small TV screens, showing off his good looks during episodes of “My Three Sons”?

For two years, I tagged along as an extra in the Becky and Gloria Act, remaining only as congenial as required without compromising my moral codes. When we walked to school, I trailed behind on slate sidewalks too narrow for three abreast. In class, they sat together in the back corner and passed notes. I sat near the window. When one of their moms drove us to the movies, they squeezed together up front and whispered; I rode in the back, unless, of course, my mom drove, and then I sat up front, and they sat in the back and whispered. At the movies, they sat side-by-side and shared a bucket of popcorn - and whispered about – well, maybe me. I never knew. I bought my own popcorn and sat beside our driving mother of the day.

Their birthdays fell close to each other in late November, and that year their moms bought the two of them the same gifts. The Twins traipsed through the snow to my house to show off what they could wear and brag about what they couldn’t. They looked like candy canes stuck in marshmallow in their new shiny red boots and new white, puffy, ski parkas - swishy jobs, with fake white fur bordering the hoods and cuffs, and swirls of red and green embroidery zigzagging around the pockets and down the sleeves. With breathless excitement they boasted about their matching record players – portable, pink, and the matching 45’s - Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino. They gave each other that secret friend look, that hush-hush, all-knowing look, the one that says, “We know something else . . . and you don’t . . . we’re just waiting . . . because keeping it from you is fun . . . and will make you feel left out. . . and super jealous . . . because we’re so perfect . . . and we might laugh at you . . . or maybe we’ll just keep looking at each other with these smirks on our faces . . . while you envy us.”

Then with practiced choreography, they cocked their heads to the left, shoved their arms out from under their furry sleeves, and said, “Look at thee-eeze,” as they flaunted scarab bracelets – expensive ones – 14-karat gold dangles of multi-colored silicone-encased dung-beetles dug from some ancient Egyptian cave, at least that’s what their mothers told them - probably in unison.

But the best part, they crowed, was that they got to open all their gifts at Gloria’s house – both families – together – everyone oohing and aahing while the matching boxes with the matching wrappings and the matching ribbons revealed the matching loot, on Gloria’s dining room table that most likely was decorated to match the one in Becky’s house.

At the time, I recognized the ridiculousness of this welded affiliation. I didn’t trust either of them a whit, but they were right if they thought I envied them. I was jealous that at least Becky and Gloria had each other.

Once I entered 10th grade, and we all had our drivers’ licenses, my friendship dilemma diminished as my loyalties shifted and my interests grew. Cheerleading at championship basketball games, a boyfriend on the team, sock hops in Port Henry where I won contests with their best dancers, and a generous, not very professional Algebra teacher, who let us play tennis during class, made the Twins of Westport obsolete.

Eventually, Becky and Gloria drifted apart. I think they got tired of each other. How long can you look at someone else only to see yourself reflected in the other person’s skin?

Kristen ended up running away from home after she graduated from boarding school. Becky became a secretary, took up with some guy twice her age, and moved to Florida. Gloria opened a hair salon in Port Henry, called “Absolutely Gloria’s,” a name she saw in a magazine.

I went off to college, and then on to new adventures, never to be associated with any of them again.

EVS 10/09


The Greatest of These

Ellie Searl

Ed smiled and said, “Now is the time to declare with a kiss the wedding you have performed and we have witnessed.” Friends and family dabbed tears. The just-married couple embraced, kissed softly, and held onto each other, a little longer than usual, as though they couldn’t let go for fear it might all be a dream.

I took pictures of the crowd, and of the lanterns, and of the flowers, and of the tasseled wedding program resting on the seat of a white chair, and of the radiance streaming through the branches.

My husband Ed, a Unitarian Universalist minister, often asks me to go with him when he officiates at a wedding for people I don’t know. Ed gives me compelling reasons to attend, probably because he doesn’t like to go alone: the mother is a famous writer, the father is a New Delhi cartoonist, the bride is an Argentinean swimmer, the groom is a relative of Andrew Wyeth, the reception will be at the Newberry Library. “It will be great fun.” He says. “You’ll love it.”

So when Ed asked, “Want to go to a wedding in Dubuque? It’s in a park overlooking the Mississippi and the reception is at Eagle Ridge Resort. Should be pretty,”

I thought - Road trip. Wedding in Iowa. Reception in Galena. Great.

And when he told me who was getting married - Absolutely. This was an event I wanted to honor and celebrate, and it didn’t matter that they were perfect strangers.

It took almost an hour to drive west, past the Chicago suburban strip malls, parking lots, and repetitive housing, into any scenery worth admiring. Pumpkin stands, white-fenced horse farms, grazing Herefords, and endless fields of drying corn stalks released the city knots from my brain. No radio, no cell phone. Just the serenity of sweeping glacier remnants - a perfect blend of smooth, black dirt for harvesting, ponds for fishing, and hills for tobogganing. Glorious.

We arrived in Dubuque at exactly 4:00 pm, just in time for the rehearsal.

The wedding was to be held in Iowa’s famed Eagle Point Park, overlooking the grandeur and gentle flow of the Mississippi River. The road meandered up and around and up and around the park, past limestone and wood Depression-Era WPA pavilions scattered among maples and elms, oaks and sycamores, to the highest point where the ceremony would take place.

The cloud-cover and damp air during the rehearsal kept people huddled inside jackets and shawls. Rain was predicted, and I worried that the outdoor wedding the next day would be a bust and everyone would be cold and barely protected under the roof of the open pavilion. I looked at the available space and tried to image a hundred white folding chairs squeezed together on the cement square. Anyone seated on the edges would be caught in the rain. I kicked at dead leaves and spider webs and wondered if anyone would sweep all this away before 4:00 pm the next day.

Tree branches, sensing the inevitable fall chill, held on tightly to their amber leaves, knowing frost would toss the leaves to the ground, where they’d lie in wait for the winter freeze and eventually be buried in snow. That overall sense of tenuous security permeated the atmosphere and unsettled the thoughts of family and friends who supported the almost-newlyweds and wished them well, but who didn’t know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic for the couple’s future.

Sean and Greg had been in a committed relationship for several years, and they were ready to solidify their union with a civil and spiritual ceremony. But there was a major hang-up. It wasn’t legal in Illinois where Sean grew up. Then once married, if the couple wanted to live and work in the United States, Greg, a native Australian, would have to procure an American Visa with means other than through his marriage to Sean. Because the US federal government didn’t recognize gay marriages.

This fabulous couple, who delighted in each other, who intended to spend the entirety of their lives together, and who wanted to have jobs, buy a house, pay taxes, contribute to society, be legally responsible for each other, and live peaceably among other peace-loving people, couldn’t do so as a married couple in most states – due to laws governing – actually stifling - the lives and activities of same-sex partners. There were only a few states that allowed gays and lesbians to be lawfully married, complete with the constitutional rights that accompanied the union. Iowa was one of them.

I thought about my Uncle Charlie and his partner Jack, who for so many years hid their love for each other under a barrel called “friends who travel together.” Uncle Charlie and Jack stayed in a strong, committed relationship until Charlie died after a long illness at 83. I adored Charlie and Jack. I loved their visits to our house when I was a kid. They made me feel important. Jack read stories to me and played the piano while I sang. Charlie and Jack listened to me yammer on and on, and they never once told me to go away. They paid more attention to me than my parents did. They helped me build my confidence, and they treated me with respect and admiration.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I figured out their relationship, and then I wondered why my mother, who certainly knew, always made them sleep in separate bedrooms. Eventually Jack adopted Charlie as his son. That was the only way Jack could legally make medical decisions when Charlie was hospitalized. It was all so secret. All so cautious. And all so sad. Charlie and Jack, my dear, wonderful uncle and friend, had to keep their relationship clandestine because same-sex relationships were judged vulgar, immoral, illegal. Something to ridicule.

I wished Charlie and Jack could be at the park with me, witnessing this event. I wanted them to see for themselves that attitudes in our country had slowly changed over the years – that some states respected same-sex commitments and even offered them legal status. It was too late for my uncle and Jack to have a marriage recorded in the archives of any state history, but it wasn’t too late for Sean and Greg.

Sean’s mother, Jackie, asked me to take extra pictures of the rehearsal and wedding, so I accommodated my desire to have my own set of photos as well as her need to document her son’s celebration. There was something particularly special about this wedding, this couple, this family, this venue – and I wanted photos for me so I could memorialize the event, not merely through personal recollection, which could alter truth and feeling, but with tangible images that captured the love and beauty of this short, yet momentous, slice of Sean and Greg’s journey to happiness. Perhaps I also wanted an homage to Charlie and Jack.

Ed was great at the rehearsal. He helped the wedding party find comfort levels within the anxiety that ran rampant among them. The couple was anxious about the huge commitment they were making, and they worried they’d falter when they said the vows they had written. Those standing up for the couple worried they’d mess up their parts and spoil everything. And they all worried about the reactions of naysayers and skeptics who still didn’t support this, nor any other, gay marriage.

Ed calmly directed everyone through the processional, the readings, the pronouncements, and the recessional. He reminded them that, yes, this was serious business, but it was a joyous occasion; it should be fun. He cracked jokes. They laughed and relaxed.

Sean’s sister, Maureen, practiced her reading from 1 Corinthians Chapter 13. She figured that if she read it ahead of time, she wouldn’t cry during the ceremony. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. So faith, hope, love abide – these three. But the greatest of these is love.”

She turned to Ed. “Is it ok if I hug Sean after I read that?” And everyone laughed again.

There is always the moment at the conclusion of a wedding when the minister presents the couple to those gathered. Ed makes sure it what the couple wants. Most times it’s the traditional “. . . George and Mary, Husband and Wife.” Infrequently it’s the outdated, patriarchal, “. . . Mr. and Mrs. Walters,” Sometimes it’s simply, “. . . The Newlyweds.”

“So how are we going to announce you two? Do you want me to say, ‘I now present Greg and Sean, Spouses? Mr. and Mr.? Newly Wedded Men?”

Someone offered, “How about Husband and Husband?” And it was settled.

Sometimes rehearsal dinners can be awkward, with people seated at long tables in a restaurant’s back room, where conversation is difficult and food is passed family style, the big eaters taking the best pieces of chicken before it reaches the last person. But Jackie and her husband Dan hosted their rehearsal dinner with charm and grace at The Irish Cottage in historic Galena. No sit-down dinner. Instead, a lovely array of entrée hors d’oeuvres - displayed buffet style, with beer, wine, and cocktails - all in the comfort of a private living room. Just like home.

We sat on couches and over-stuffed chairs and drank champagne and ate cocoanut shrimp and chatted about whether or not it would rain at the wedding, and when the couple would return to London so Sean could finish Veterinary school, and why no one from Greg’s family was able to travel all the way from Australia for the wedding, but that there would be a celebration in his hometown later on in the year, and how Greg, a baker by trade, was going to take courses in a career that was needed in the United States so he could apply for an American work visa. Then we all went to the bar and watched Irish dancers toe-tap their way through precision routines.

It was when I showed Sean’s dad the rehearsal pictures that I understood the full significance of this wedding and his deep gratitude for all the support and encouragement extended to Sean and Greg. Dan’s eyes filled with tears, and he talked about being a father. “ I have only ever wanted happiness for my son. There is nothing more important to me than seeing Sean find his true path in life. He is so much in love, and there is nothing more wonderful than finding one’s true love. I’m so grateful that he found Greg and that Greg makes him so happy.” Dan lowered his head and wiped his eyes.

What does one say after a such a deep-felt declaration of the heart? “You’re right?” “I agree?” “I know what you feel?” No. It wasn’t about right – or wrong. It didn’t matter if I agreed – or not. And how could I possibly know what he, Sean’s father, felt after twenty-some years of hoping his son would find his rightful place in a world where overly-traditional people were still too ready and willing to denigrate those with differences, whether related to race, gender, age, religion, politics, or sexual preference. I hadn’t experienced that. I hadn’t experienced a callous populace unsympathetic to, nor intolerant of, the direction my child had taken in life.

I said, “Sean and Greg are fortunate to have each other. Sean is especially fortunate to have you and Jackie as parents. He grew up in a loving, accepting household. Ours would be a better country if we could say that about everyone.”

Dan thanked me, smiled, and clinked my glass. “Here’s to Husband and Husband.” Then someone grabbed Dan’s arm and dragged him into the bar to watch the Irish dancers. I laughed and thought about how much I loved my life right then.

The day of the wedding changed from overcast to slightly sunny to magnificent, rather like a bad mood that realizes it’s more pleasant, and even easier, to laugh off whatever is making the nerves ache. Guests assembled at the pavilion, and although there were a few people unable to sanction the soon-to-take-place same-sex marriage, they were there, in attendance - with gifts, which spoke louder, and held more importance, than any private opinion about holy matrimony and its traditions.

“Family and friends, I present to you, Sean and Greg, Husband and Husband.” Everyone clapped as the musicians played the first notes of the recessional. Sunlight streamed through the golden tree-gazebo, creating a wispy glow, like a luminous blush under a billow of sheer fabric as it floats in slow motion to the ground. The halo-effect hovered over Sean and Greg touching them like a blessing as they held hands and walked down the aisle, through the leaves, into their lives together.

Ed and I drove back to LaGrange late Saturday evening after a traditional, sumptuous reception at Eagle Ridge Resort and arrived home long past midnight. Ed had church services that morning and then football and a nap in the afternoon. It would be a regular Sunday for us.

It would be a brand new, exceptional Sunday for Sean and Greg.

EVS 09/09


Exit Center Stage

Ellie Searl

Perhaps I shouldn’t have resigned.

Drama and my life have been a tight weave since words began to cascade from my imagination. I told stories with great flair - performing stream-of-consciousness sagas, updating the adventures of my characters-du-jour. They somersaulted when excited, stomped when frustrated, danced when amused, wailed when upset, shrieked when scared, and pouted when ignored, which was often, due to failure of the audience to remain as interested in my stories as I. Center stage. I thrived on center stage.

For years, my mother called me a pest. I heard it often in one guise or another. “Stop your blather.” - “Quit being a nuisance.” - “Be more like your brothers - they don’t annoy people.” Once she called me histrionic. I thought that was a compliment.

I was in my first play was when I was six, cast as an apple tree, draped in brown and green crepe paper with red felt dots. I stood erect under the August sun with my bent limbs held in position for the length of the play, which to me seemed like hours, sweat dripping down my tummy making me itch. I wanted to be Alice – the lead – but my friend Karen, Miss Alpha Pants, a doctor’s daughter who always got what she wanted, played that part. Besides, the show was in her back yard, and it was directed by her mother, who also made the white cupcakes with orange icing and pink lemonade. In time, I learned to accept that there are no small parts, just small actors. Often it’s the small role that’s noteworthy. Take Robert Duvall. He played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. All he did was stand behind a door. Mute. Like a tree.

In high school, I played Mammy – in blackface. Highly non-PC today, but at the time it wasn’t considered objectionable. There was one African American family in our town of 800, but even the eldest child wasn’t yet a Freshman, so he wouldn’t have qualified. No one would have asked him anyway because that would have been considered objectionable.

It was when I moved to Ohio that I became active in “living room” theater. Once a month our friends gathered in someone’s home and read a play, acting it out - complete with costumes and props. My first part with this ensemble was Margot Wendice in Dial M for Murder. I performed my role without a hitch, holding the script in my left hand and scissors in my right, so my character could cut coupons from a newspaper.

Our "troup" wasn't a group of aspiring actors - just people who loved theater. Poor Bill, who played Inspector Hubbard, was performance-challenged. He read his part in a monotone, pondering over each syllable as though it had some dramatic significance. But it was reading his own stage directions that threw Hitchcock into a graveyard tailspin. “So, Mrs. Wendice, exactly why did you stab Swann with the scissors? Parenthesis turns to Mrs. Wendice holding the scissors in his handkerchiefed hand parenthesis.”

Sandy, a member of our local community theater happened to be at that play reading. She said I was a natural and should check out the Mahoning Valley Community Theater.

I was somewhat familiar with MVCT. The building was beautiful and spacious and gracious: a large lobby with plush red carpet, mahogany paneled walls covered with photographs of past productions, and an easel holding headshots of the actors in the current play. The proscenium stage looked out onto a semi-circle of seating for over 1000 people. Backstage had rooms, nooks, and crannies designed specifically for props or costumes or rehearsals or carpentry. The separate dressing rooms for men and women had counters and seats for 10 actors each, with lighted mirrors for make-up and hair. This might have been small community theater, but the facility sent off a big-city theater vibe - and I wanted to be part of it.

Within the week, I was at the theater introducing myself and dropping Sandy’s name all over the place. Within two weeks, I had a foot in the door as an intermission hostess.

From the outside the theater seemed vigorous – a spirited force. It didn’t take long to feel the strong undertow eroding its soul.

MVCT at intermission was a performance in itself. The attempt at elegance resembled afternoon tea with the Duchess of Excess. Oak tables, red gilded table runners, tiered candelabras, ruffled paper tart-cups filled with shell-shaped shortbread cookies, towering brass pull-handle urns full of decaffeinated coffee, and heavy cut-glass punch bowls loaded with a sticky foam concoction of raspberry sherbet and Sprite, chilled by a Jello-mold ice ring. I swallowed my love of simplicity, ladled the garish goo into glass cups, and sachayed my way through the crowd with trays of cookies.

But I wanted the stage, and the lobby wasn’t the stage. So I played my role of hostess with enough syrupy sweetness to refill the punch bowls, hoping Important Theater People would notice my charm and enthusiasm. I wasn’t aware that I was breaking Rule #1.

To participate in any type of MVCT event, even serving cookies at intermission, a volunteer needed be a season ticket holder. And to be considered for an on-stage role, a volunteer also needed to be a graduate of Acting Forum I, the theater’s two-week September orientation and acting class, led by the director himself. Acting Forum II, held six months later, was not required, but it was encouraged, advocated, promoted, underscored, and expected, if the actor wanted credibility, respect, and first-name rapport with any of the Regulars.

It wasn’t until I returned a borrowed theater prop to a died-in-the-wool, rule-abiding, finger-shaking theater veteran that I learned of my major indiscretion. She padded to her front door.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Ellie - from the theater. I’m returning your vase.”

She straightened a bit. Her eyes burned into mine. “Hm! You Searl?”

Where was the thank you? The smile? This wasn’t what I expected. “Yes, Ellie Searl.”

“You don’t have a season ticket,” she croaked. “You’re not supposed to work at the theater until you have a season ticket.” She snatched the vase from my hand.

My throat slammed shut. I managed to choke a weak, “I . . . I’m just helping - with intermission – setting up - serving. Sandy is a friend of . . .”

“Doesn’t matter. You want to work at the theater, you get a ticket.” Her chin slumped into her chest as she shut the door, leaving me on her front porch like yesterday’s trash.

When I reported the incident to the volunteer supervisor, I expected to hear gossip-stories about the old bag - but I was chastised - again.

“What? You don’t have a season ticket? You’re not supposed to work at the theater until you have a season ticket. So until you get one, you can’t be a hostess.”

This was Serious Business. My desire to have an acting part overtook common sense. I bought a season ticket, signed up for Forum I, reserved a spot for Forum II, volunteered for the costume committee, and reinstated myself as intermission hostess, sticky punch notwithstanding. I figured I’d better do things according to protocol if I wanted that credibility, respect, and first-name rapport with any of the Regulars.

That’s when I discovered Rule #2. Parts for all play productions were invitation only. MVCT did not have auditions. Any actor aspiring to have an on-stage role - speaking, non-speaking, statue, sauce pan - was sent a letter that revealed the upcoming play and urged the recipient to participate. The letter did not tell the recipient what part he or she would have. It could be the maid. It could be the lead. It could be Boo Radley behind the door. These invitations came from the Script and Cast Council, the Supreme Court of MVCT - whose members continued serving until they died, moved away, or were sent to a home.

The anonymous members of the SCC evaluated prospective actors’ stage presence and acting ability by sneaking in on Forum I and Forum II sessions and taking notes. I could see them lurking in the shadows of the empty theater seats while the class worked on the techniques of voice projection and vowel pronunciation. They sat in the darkened corners of the top rows with their spiral notebooks, coils shimmering red and gold from Exit signs and stage lights. These mysterious creatures are my future in this theater, I thought. How do I appear from their vantage points? Is my voice strong enough? Are my a’s and o’s round enough? Will I ever be in a play? Will I ever receive THE LETTER?

During Forum I, I met some lovely people with whom I developed a comfortable relationship. Whenever I bumped into one of them, I felt welcomed. But the Regulars, I discovered, were a different breed altogether. Forget the credibility, respect, and first-name rapport. Getting recognition from the prima donnas of MVCT was like trying to toss water through a wall of glass. Those Experienced Actors fed each other’s egos and padded their own self-importance under the pretext of theater loyalty. During breaks in rehearsals they talked about the good-old-days when people, themselves included, of course, really understood what real theater was all about – when actors were “off book” before the third run-through, or when actors were so good they didn’t need voice lessons, or when cast parties were fun. “Not like today,” they’d say, “when everybody and his uncle wants to be on stage, but can’t act their way through a rat hole.” No, I wasn’t comfortable with the Regulars.

I repaired and pressed costumes, organized outfits on backstage racks, assisted with quick changes, and stayed late to clean up. But I was an underling and didn’t warrant recognition by the actors who had more important things to consider – like their write-ups in the playbook or their headshots on the lobby wall.

One afternoon, I received a letter from the SCC inviting me to play a role in Twelve Angry Women. Thrilled to be asked, I removed everything from my personal calendar that interfered with rehearsals six days a week for six weeks and three long weekends of production after that.

I loved everything about the on-stage portion of the production. I learned my part quickly, followed the directors’ instructions, and acted well, I thought. I thrived on playing someone else night after night, allowing my character to take charge of my life for a few hours, stepping into my character’s soul and letting it lead me through the imaginary world of the playwright until the curtain fell. What a charge it was being “other-personed.”

I had very few wrap-up notes from the director after rehearsals or performances. Every now and then he’d give me a suggestion. There were virtually no negative comments. And there were never positive comments. I asked a Regular why the director didn’t give much feedback about my on-stage performance.

She said, “If he doesn’t give you notes, he likes what you’re doing. Don’t look for compliments. You’ll get a big head.”

Droves of big heads roamed the theater. I wanted to answer, "Like you?" but didn't.

Despite joining the ranks of those who had received an on-stage role, backstage was as uncomfortable as ever. The Clique of Regulars held court, and the Others, like me, stayed in their corners waiting until approached to take part in conversation.

Once I volunteered to be a Director’s Assistant for Steve, one of the Regulars, who was invited by the SCC to direct a one-act play for the little theater-in-the-round. Steve was a terrible actor. I couldn’t imagine Mr. Wretched directing others and making it a decent production. My husband and I had seen Steve play the lead in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two. Stiff, robot-like gestures, monotone delivery – emoting less passion than a throw rug. Ed and I left at intermission while those who could stick it out elevated their sugar levels on liquid treacle.

For six weeks as Steve’s assistant, I sat beside him, followed the script, cued the actors, took notes, checked on props, and located costumes. I even prepared a dress rehearsal feast of bagels, veggie spreads, and coffee. “Good job, Ellie,” I congratulated myself after opening night.

A week later, Steve passed me in the hall, stopped, looked at me with a slight squint, and said, “Can I help you?” in a tone that really meant, “What the hell are you, a stranger, doing, running amok in my theater, where everyone else around here is a Regular, and you aren’t?”

“I’m Ellie – Ellie Searl.”

No reaction.

“I was your Director’s Assistant for last weekend’s production.”

“Oh. Right. Hi.” And off he went.

Had Steve not been such a terrible actor, I might have dissolved into the linoleum, but by then I had realized that the Clique of Regulars, those people I so envied and wanted to be like, consisted mainly of acting automatons, like Steve, who hadn’t learned their craft at all, or if they had, they had forgotten the main concepts of verisimilitude, voice control, natural stage gestures, pacing – all those skills that hold people in their seats beyond intermission. The Regulars flouted the notion of self-improvement. Repeating Forum I or II? Putting themselves under the scrutiny of the Script and Cast Council? Ridiculous. Those classes were for amateurs.

The director frequently gave notes to the Regulars during performance recaps. “Show more emotion.” - “I want to believe that you’re angry. - “Don’t sway when you speak. You’re not HOLDING A BABY!” I flashed my high school play when we sing-songed our way through the script, stomped for emphasis, and flailed our arms without purpose.

What I didn’t understand was how the Regulars continued, season after season, to buffalo the SCC into thinking they were still worthy of lead roles. Probably the director wished like hell he could hold auditions - cull the old-timers from the list.

MVCT was built on a foundation of antiquated tradition, which hadn’t been evaluated in decades. Loyalty to the theater’s dead founder was strong, and no one had the where-with-all to challenge her design. The theater was haunted by long- departed big-city theater wannabes: their footsteps creaking stage floorboards, their apparitions spewing tucked-in-the-attic-thinking.

Yes, the building was beautiful and spacious and gracious - and if used according to physical design, had great potential in developing a welcoming stage for the community. But as long as the Powers that Be held onto the old rituals and continued to dilute the spirit of new blood, the theater would be a shell - without heart and without passion. Eventually I came to accept that community wasn’t a priority and probably wouldn’t be for a very long time. So, after a five-year love-hate relationship, I severed ties with the Mahoning Valley Community Theater.

Sometimes I regret giving up that real-theater rush of on-stage performance. I continue with the occasional play readings in people’s homes. Just last September I played Sister Aloysius in Doubt. It was a hoot being an irate nun vying for the removal of Father Flynn, an alleged pedophile priest.

Every so often, when I return to Ohio for visits, I run into a Regular from the theater. We’re polite, but there is a lingering tension and a slight sting, the kind one feels when a small wound is exposed to the air.

I played a variety of roles at MVCT, both center and back stage. Some were big, some were small, and some were barely visible. I even stood behind the door.

In retrospect, I am glad to be out of the shadows. If you see Boo, tell him I said ‘Hey.’

EVS 08/09


Happily Ever After

Ellie Searl

. . . they lived happily ever after. THE END."

Night, night, sweetie girl, sleep tight.”

“How do you know?”

“How do I know what?”

“That they liveded happily ever after.”

Lived, not liveded. Well, they just did, like in all your other stories.”

“Bambi’s mommy didn’t - she got shotted by a bad hunter.”

Shot, not got shotted.”

“And the poor little match girl got frozed.”

“Just say froze.”

“But they got dead! They didn’t lived happily ever after.”

“You mean they died, not got dead. And it's live happily ever after, not lived. Well, true, they didn’t, but that’s not how you say it.”

“What about the blinded mice? Their tails were cutted right off . . . with a carvenife . . . what’s a carvenife?”

Blind mice, not blinded. Cut off. It was a carving knife, not carven - it's like the one we use to slice our roast beef with.”

“She chopted their tails off with her meat cutterer?”

Chopped their tails off. . . with a meat cutter . . . oh my, . . . yes. . . . she did. “

“Why? Did she hated the mice? Were they bad?”

“You mean, did she hate the mice. I suppose she didn’t like the mice very much. They must have been very, very bad mice. Let’s tuck you in now.”

“Did they bleeded?”

“Did what bleeded? . . . bleed. . . . It’s bleed.”

“The mice tails.”

“Yes, they probably bled. Now go to sleep.”

“How much?”

“How much what?”

“Did they bled?”

Bleed! It’s bleed. Probably only a little.”

“Did they got band-aids?”

Get band-aids. Yes, yes, . . . ok, now it's got. They got band-aids. I imagine they got band-aids.”

“From who?”

Whom! Say from whom. Their mother, I suppose. Now good night.”

“What about me?”

“What about you?”

“Are you going to chopted me up if I’m bad?”

Chop. It’s . . . not . . . chopted! . . . No, honey, I’m not going to hurt you, ever.”

“Will I live happily ever after?”

“What? Oh, of course you will. You’ll be the happiest big girl in the world. Ok, that’s all for tonight.”

You aren’t.”


You aren’t.”

“Aren’t what?”


“I’m not?

“No. You shout at Muffin and you tell me to wipe my face in a meany voice and you get mad at Daddy when he helpted you wrong . . . and . . . sometimes . . . you cry.”

“ Look . . .Sweetie . . . I love you and Daddy very much. . . but, every now and then, I might get upset . . . just a teeny bit. . . but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy. You’ll see someday. You really do need to go to sleep now. And it's not helpted me. It's helped.”

"Where does the prince and princess lived happily ever after?”

"Do live . . . I mean . . . did live . . .they lived . . . Oh, Lord, . . . ok . . . they did live in a castle.

“Did the prince helped the princess?”

HELP! It’s HELP! . . . did help the princess. Yes, he . . . well, ok . . . here’s when you say helped. . . he helped her . . . all the time . . . mm mmm.”

“I hope they getted a dog.”

Don't say getted! . . . Say got!. . . Yes, they got a very, very magnificent dog.”

“What kind of dog? Like Muffin?”

“Absolutely! Exactly like Muffin.”

“Read it again, Mommy.”

“Tomorrow night. It’s late. Now, goodnight."

I kissed her forehead and turned out the light, feeling like going to bed, too. Verb tenses was exhausting. Next time, I'll just stick with the story.



“Does they ever got a cat?”

EVS 07/09


Just a Kid

Ellie Searl

He was just a kid, and he used to live in that shack-turned-shrine.

Gaudy bouquets of sagging paper roses fall into the weeds. Wrinkled posters scrawled with “Rest In Peace,” and “I will love you forever,” written in black magic marker above a distorted sketch of his face - the ink, purple from rain and dew, bleeds across the page. Candles, balloons, American flags, and melted candy lump together in piles. Stuffed animals - bears and tigers and dogs - with faded bows and grubby, matted fur, are topsy-turvy, tossed among crumpled sympathy cards and hand-written notes.

Slumped mourners take snapshots of each other, marking history and capturing tears of personal loss in front of the twisted, yellow Do Not Cross police barrier, stretched from the fence and around the stubby tree - jammed with soggy dolls, hand-made gifts, and toys – into the bareness of the backyard.

And across the street, protected from the hot sun and rain by black and white striped tent awnings, card tables are stacked with souvenirs - over-sized t-shirts, CD’s, and DVD’s - each on sale for the low, low price of $15.00. “Get your t-shirts here!” Seems like a deal. Mourners pocket their cameras and hold up t-shirts to their chests. “Do you think I look best in this one? Or this one?” Boom boxes at top volume play “I’ll Be There,” and “Thriller,” and “Billy Jean.”

He was just a kid. A cute, black kid. One of nine - all squeezed together in a foursquare shack – all trying to find space, like too many broken crayons shoved into a torn, over-used box.

He was just a kid. Handsome. Talented. Could he sing! And dance! He was the best of the five. He was the lead. Still . . . just a kid. And all the while, they say, as he was growing up, they say, he was filled with fear. He cried and endured the onslaughts of an abusive dad.

He and his brothers were very well behaved. Their dad made sure of that. No playtime, no running around the backyard, no friends, not even real school – just rehearse and perform. Rehearse and perform. Entering contests. Winning competitions. Entertaining the patrons of black nightclubs from Chicago to DC. Then Motown. Then LA. Then Neverland. Then . . . what?

He was just a kid who grew from a sweet, round-faced Gary, Indiana, toddler into an exceptional and celebrated entertainer and into stardom and world-wide fame and then into a grotesque, disfigured, emaciated man-child who liked to spread love by sleeping with little boys after serving them the wine he called “Jesus Juice.”

That tiny, garage-shaped home –an empty, rotting, paint-chipped, clapboard house - now the backdrop of a massive mound of tributes to the one who had captured the hearts of devoted fans and had filled the pocketbooks of enabling promoters and had satisfied the photo-lust of the paparazzi and had crammed the agenda of the media and then, after years of mystery, and innuendo, and hanging his baby over a balcony, and being tried for pedophilia, and reshaping his body into a sculpture so skeletal and so removed from the robust cherubic-like child he had been, had finally given the world the option to ignore his misdeeds, his over-spending, his drug use, and his scandalous behaviors.

He had given the world a final performance – one that would wipe his tainted slate clean – one that would allow him to rise out of the mire he made of his life and ride new waves of esteem and veneration – one that would crescendo him into virtual saint-dom: an extraordinary, untimely, unrehearsed death.

But he was always and ever just a kid. A very, very sad confused disturbed talented little kid.

EVS 06/09


My Mommy Is Better than Yours

Ellie Searl

I knew my daughter, Katie, would be a far more charitable parent than I when she was twelve. It was while she was babysitting our four-year old neighbor, Laurie, an outspoken, precocious child. You know the type. The over-indulged genius-spawns who are taught that adult conversation is of minimal significance, and interrupting a discussion about mortgage meltdowns or the President meeting with dignitaries in the Middle East with such earth-shattering news as, Mommy, see? I made the letter L, is a far more critical issue in the scheme of world events.

Such children are encouraged to speak their minds – no matter what. They’ll stare into a poor soul’s face and say, That fat man looks like a gorilla – when he unfortunately does – and the mother, in her need to take every opportunity to reinforce her child’s powers of perception and add yet another word to the child’s burgeoning, somewhat annoying, vocabulary, responds with, Yes, Honey-Bunch, aren’t you the observant one! Observant means you see things very accurately, “accurately” having been taught the day before during dinner while the family contrasted the various green shades of arugula, pesto, and blanched broccoli.

Katie bent down to buckle Laurie’s Mary Janes. The little imp held onto Katie’s shoulder with her right hand, pointed at me with her left, and announced, in her usual whiny tone, “I don’t like you. You’re mean.” Then she put her hand on her hip and said to the top of Katie’s head, “I like my mommy better than yours.”

My first impulse was to reproach this insufferable undersized snot with, Hey, you spoiled brat, that’s no way to talk. Don’t your parents teach you to be polite? Oh, and polite means nice – as in times you aren’t spanked, when Katie piped up with a soft, “Of course you do. She’s your own mommy. Everyone loves his or her own mommy best. I love my mommy best of all, too.” Katie looked up at me and smiled as she pushed the leather strap through the buckle. “There, Laurie. You’re all set. Let’s go for our walk.”

That was it. No blame, no recriminations, no scolding. Just appreciation and that esteemed attribute, so necessary in parenting - pure acceptance. Chagrinned, I snapped my jaw shut and reflected on the difference between my at-the-ready disapproving response and Katie’s generous one.

Pandering to over-pampered children has never been my forte. Perhaps it’s because I taught school for so many years and encountered bunches of coddled kids whose parents thought their children’s proverbial shit didn’t smell. They say teachers don’t have pets. Well, they do - and their pets are those kids who respect the world and the people in it. Actually, truth be told, teachers’ pets are those kids whose parents are so aware of their child’s malodorous shit, they’ll tell you themselves.

I remember one seventh-grade boy in particular. Ryan. This kid’s sneer suggested he possessed information only the devil could appreciate - and his swagger suggested he was about to act on it. He disrupted class with sniggering, throwing stuff, and just acting like a smart ass most of the time.

The boy was bad enough, but it was his mother who really pissed me off. She worked as a nurse’s aide in a nearby middle school, so you’d think she’d be sensitive to the typical shenanigans of twelve-year-olds, and perhaps even be aware of the appalling behaviors of her own son. She wasn’t.

One day I was forced to discipline Ryan for blatant insubordination and outright defiance. He was to stay after school for a thirty-minute “meeting” with me to review his disobedient classroom behavior and come up with a plan for improvement.

However, it was a policy in my school district to notify, in writing, in advance, the parent of any child who was to serve an after-school detention – no matter what. That meant I had to fill out a Disciplinary Notice of Non-Compliance and document the child’s name, grade, advisor, date, what the child had done, when he had done it, where he had done it, why his behavior was considered out of compliance with the school’s Code of Conduct, and what disciplinary measures I would be taking to help improve the child’s wayward behaviors and over-all school deportment.

So I did. I filled out the form and gave it to Ryan after class, telling him that he had to take home the form, have his mom read and sign it, bring it back in the morning, and then stay after school with me the next afternoon to develop his Improvement Plan.

“I’m not staying after school tomorrow.” He grinned. “You wait and see.” He grabbed the form and walked off.

Early the next day I received a phone call from Ryan’s mother. “How dare you try to keep my son after school? Who do you think you are?”

Startled, I took a second to regroup, and then said in my most welcoming voice, “Oh . . . Hi . . .Mrs. Hollister. Thanks for calling. Did you see the disciplinary form I sent home with Ryan yesterday?”

“You’re damned right I saw it. I got the form right here in front of me. What do you mean by non-compliant and defiant?”

“Well,” I said, “non-compliant means he isn’t going along with what is required here at school, and defiant means he isn’t obeying the . . .”

“What do you think, I’m an idiot? I know what non-compliant and defiant mean.”

“You asked what they meant.”

“No, I want to know why you wrote non-compliant and defiant on this God-damned form! He’s just a kid. He’s twelve years old for Christ sake.”

“He disrupts my class.”

“He’s an active boy. He enjoys life. You teachers are all alike. You people just want robots in your classrooms.”

“He is rude and disrespectful. He shouts out obscenities, he walks around the room during our lessons, he’s mean to the other students - he takes their things.”

“I don’t call that non-compliant. Or defiant. That’s just energy. And I don’t appreciate your writing anything like that on this form here. I’m throwing this away, and you better get rid of yours. It’s not to go into any file. You’re out of line. And he’s not staying after school.”

My heart started to pound. I could feel my emotional state begin to disintegrate. Built-up hostility and rancor toward all those parents who defended the monstrous actions of their terrible children took over my ability to reason. Any good judgment I had stored up became useless -paralyzed. My mouth opened and the awful truth poured out of me as never before in my entire career. I couldn’t hold back.

“Mrs. Hollister,” I said, “I think you should pay more attention to your son’s colossally obnoxious behavior than the wording on the disciplinary form. He’s a shit-faced spoiled brat and one of these days someone is going to whack him up-side the head. You are a coddling mother who thinks her kid’s poop doesn’t stink. And because of your inability to see the oversized layers of crap in your precious juvenile delinquent of a son, he will either end up in the local detention center for youthful criminals or get pitched into a backyard garbage dumpster before he’s old enough to see an R-Rated movie. Oh and by the way, I will deny ever saying any of this to you.”

She may have tried to interrupt me during this harangue, but I kept on in a flurry, fueled by years of pent-up adrenaline and bad-will toward inadequate parenting. Then I hung up. A rush of blood flooded my face and burned my ears. I had to remind myself to breathe. It took several minutes to settle into a modicum of my usual teacher mode and attitude, but then, throughout the rest of the morning, I felt strangely calm, as though I had just risen from a deep-tissue, full-body massage.

I was called into the office later in the day. Since Mrs. Hollister had a reputation for being an insufferable, over-protective parent, and I had a reputation for being a fair, honest, and gracious teacher, her accusations didn’t get very far. My conference with the principal turned out fine. “What did she say I said? Really? That’s terrible! Imagine.” And so on. Poor Mrs. Hollister. No credibility. No resolution.

And Ryan? He still acted like a jerk in my classroom, and I still tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to guide him into becoming a citizen of the world – without his mother’s help. I figured it was best to steer clear of her. Between his seventh and eighth grade years, Ryan and his mom moved to Reno, Nevada. They are now probably quite prosperous, grifting their way through small-town America.

My daughter continues to be charitable toward children. And I continue to believe most of them need lessons in civility.

EVS 05/09