The Skinny Kid in the Corner

A Swift Current shares the writing of Gerry Sell, a good story told with an honest voice

Vuillard…At The Revue Blanche…1901…Guggenheim Museum New York

As Thanksgiving approaches, A Swift Current changes direction.

I have long hoped to share others’ memories and reflections, and now, for the first time, I am honored to share the writing of Gerry Sell.

Gerry Sell is a retired Mathematics teacher, and currently a resident of The Waters at 50th in Minneapolis. A participant in The Waters’ Writers Group, her essay Thanksgiving was originally published in Cardboard in Our Shoes, an Anthology of Reminiscences. The Writer’s Group meets twice a month, and over time their instructor Kathleen Novak observed that the group’s writings “…more and more centered around childhood and young adult memories during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and World War II.” In the anthology, Novak writes, “they’ve culled the best for friends and family and all others who love a good story told with an honest voice…”

Here is one of those stories.

Thanksgiving by Gerry Sell

The note was on the table when I got home that night. “Mom, call this doctor at this number tonight! (underlined) Urgent! (underlined twice)”

I looked at the clock. It was after 11 PM. I looked at the name. I did not recognize it. The area code for the number was Chicago. I didn’t know anyone in Chicago. Why was a doctor from Chicago calling me? All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind. Did one of my Milwaukee relatives go there, get sick, and give my name as the contact? Was it someone calling from the university who got sick there?

I kept repeating the name. I didn’t know anyone by that name, yet I felt I should. I dialed the number. A woman answered. “I have a message to call this number,” I said.

“Oh I am so glad you called. I’ll get him. Please don’t hang up. He’ll be right here.” Now it was even more mysterious and the name kept gnawing at the back of my mind.

I heard the phone being picked up. “Hello Gerry. It’s Manuel. You remember me?” The voice was seductive, the pronunciation accented.

“No, I don’t think so.” I replied.

“Come on, Gerry. You have to remember.”

“I’m trying.” I said.

“Come on, Gerry. Think back along time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. Nothing was clicking.

“Think back a long, long time ago. “

“I’m trying.”

“Come on, Gerry. Don’t you remember? I was the skinny kid in the corner!” And, then, I did remember—yes, Manuel! He was indeed the skinny kid in the corner of one of my first college classes.

It was my first semester at Marquette, 1951. The class was zoology. The professor was an old man who was the department chair and who had written the textbook. He lectured by reading from the book, never looking up except to take roll.

We were all having trouble in that class. Not only were the lectures a waste of time, but the grad study for the lab was not a zoologist and had trouble distinguishing between male and female frogs.

The skinny kid in the corner was having more trouble than the rest of us. He was all of 5’4” and maybe 100-pounds. His English was reasonable, but he was struggling. One thing that he did know, as did the rest of us, was that without an “A” in that zoology class, there was no chance that he would be admitted into medical school.

Back then, there were no MCATS entrance exams. One did three years of pre-med, and based on grades in science classes and professors’ recommendations, one was admitted. Unless one was female. All scholarship money was reserved for MALE students.

His accented pronunciation interested me. I found out that he was from Belize. He worked on campus to pay his dorm fees. There were other students from Belize, but he was the only pre-med student and zoology threatened to make him a non-pre-med.

Another complication was that all scholarship students had to maintain a 3.5 GPA or they lost their scholarships. Manuel had to get an A in zoology for his GPA, because he was not getting an A in English.

I towered over him. Before I ever heard of “spinal compression”, I was 5’9”. My troubles were not academic but economic. I kept my coat on in class because I was still wearing my high school uniform. That didn’t matter to Manuel.

One day he very shyly asked if I would help him. So we started working together, sometimes a few minutes and sometimes two to three hours.

The day of the final exam, he looked so apprehensive. The exams were passed out and I saw him write at the top of the paper “AMDG,” Ad marjorem Dei gloriam—for the greater glory of God, which is the Jesuit motto.

I was the first person finished. I turned in my paper and left, but I just had to wait until he came out. When he did, he took my hand and smiled and said, “I answered every one and I think correctly. Thank you.”

“Good luck,” I said then asked, “Are you going home for the summer?”

“No, I cannot. I know I will have trouble in chemistry.”

The following year we were in different classes, but I saw him some. He had studied hard all summer and the textbooks were better.

He commented once that I wasn’t wearing my coat so much and that he hadn’t seen my blue jumper for a while. He also said he knew I was poor, but it was better to be poor here than in Central America.

At the end of my sophomore year, I had to quit school. My scholarships were for two years and my application for a third year was turned down because all the money was going to veterans. I tried to borrow one hundred dollars, but was told that the school didn’t give money to girls. They never paid it back.

I corrected papers for one of the Jesuit religion teachers, Father Maddigan. He was a Canadian who had served in WWI and reminded me of my dad. Even with his recommendation, I couldn’t get any money.

On the phone Manuel was now saying, “I got into Medical School because you helped me. And when I went to tell you, you were gone. My daughter graduated from Marquette and had the Alumni directory. I looked through every page until I found you.”

We had started talking about 1953 and what happened to us, how he had gotten into medical school and I was teaching first grade. He laughed. “Good it was first grade. High school juniors were older than you.” We talked about how each of us had married and had children.   He took a deep breath. “Gerry, I want to ask you something. Please don’t be offended. Your husband, he is a good man?”

“Yes, he is.”

“In the directory, it says he graduated Summa Cum Laude.” He is also a smart man?” It was a question that was also a statement.

“Yes, Manuel. He is so smart he married me.”

“Oh Gerry, I like that and I am going to remember it. I must go now. I want you to understand what I am saying. I am what I am because of your help. Without that A in zoology, I would not have been in medical school, and I would not be a doctor. It is 50 years, but it is never too late to say thank you. Promise me you won’t forget me.”

Through my tears I said, “I won’t forget.”

“Thank you again, Gerry.”

 

 

A Swift Current guest author Gerry Sell wrote Thanksgiving, a good story told with an honest voice

Author Gerry Sell graduated from Marquette University in 1957. This is her graduation photo.

Thank you to Gerry Sell for permission to share her story on A Swift Current.  All rights reserved.

Thank you also to Kathleen Novak, novelist and poet, who introduced me to her students’ writing. Their book of reminiscences is unfortunately sold out. However, Kathleen is the author of two novels published by Permanent Press: Do Not Find Me, a finalist for the 2017 Minnesota Book Award, and the recent, charming Rare Birds.

 

As we gather together for Thanksgiving, please remember this is a chance to share and record our stories.  Once again, National Public Radio’s StoryCorps is sponsoring “The Great Thanksgiving Listen“–providing the opportunity to interview an elderly loved one using the free StoryCorps app. StoryCorps even offers suggested questions.  Interviews become part of the StoryCorps Archive at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress.  For more information, visit

https://storycorps.org/participate/the-great-thanksgiving-listen/

Listen. Honor. Share.

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Remember The Ladies (Reprise)

A Swift Current Remember the Ladies--Christmas Owl Tree

The Owl Christmas Tree–Just Because–Photo by Hallie Swift

The head nurse was concerned.

She knew many of her residents had outlived family and friends.

She knew

come Christmas morning

many of her residents would not find gifts under the tree.

Determined to end their disappointment,

she issued an appeal:

WE NEED SECRET SANTAS!

Eagerly accepting the assignment,

my friends and I started to plan—

but what do you need at 90?

Chocolates and sweaters and books and stuffed animals and comforters and…

You need lipstick!

Lipstick?

Yes, urged my friend,

after all, you never lose your vanity.

She was inspired.

But let’s not give just one lipstick–

let’s get lipsticks for everyone!

And in our annual Christmas party invitation,

we issued our own appeal.

Instead of a hostess gift,

we included a specific request:

Please bring a lipstick for the ladies!

And a tradition was born.

That year,

and every subsequent year,

we were showered with

gorgeous reds, shimmering corals, hot pinks;

a cornucopia of small rectangular boxes

adorned with festive ribbons and bright paper.

Our friends were enthusiastic–

I even needed an extra suitcase for

the lipstick express!

And Christmas morning,

when the nurses presented our beautiful little packages to the residents,

the response

was electric

(you never lose your vanity!).

The head nurse was effusive:

you made my residents happy–

And when my residents are happy, my nurses are happy–

And when my nurses are happy…

Well, you made our Christmas!

And girls—

Estee Lauder; Elizabeth Arden, Chanel…?

My ladies are beside themselves;

you girls are too much!

Wayne Thiebald, Lipstick (detail), 1964

Wayne Thiebald, Lipstick (detail), 1964

But actually, our friends were too much. They gave us elegant brands in luscious colors, lovingly selected and carefully wrapped. One friend reported that she and the saleswoman chose lipsticks with tears in their eyes—then added every powder, polish and hand cream sample in the department. Even friends who couldn’t attend the party joined the lipstick brigade.

I wish they could have seen the smiles.

A few days after Christmas, a resident approached me; her eyes wide and glistening; her beautiful grey hair pulled back in a long braid.

Are you Hallie?

She reached into her pocket and produced a lipstick.

She giggled as she waved it high in the air;

her voice light, girlish, melodic;

I’m Dorothy.

I just love my lipstick. Thank you!

The pleasure was ours.

For many of us, the trip to buy lipstick became a defining moment of our holiday season. Some friends even continue the tradition; now taking lipsticks to their local nursing homes.

And recently

a friend told me

she always thinks of my mom

this time of year;

I say a little prayer

for your mom…

remembering the lipsticks of years gone by…

Remember The Ladies.

A Swift Current Vuillard The Earthenware Pot

Merry Christmas from A Swift Current and Vuillard (Le Pot d’Argile 1895)

Remember Us Here Together

You Are Mother of the Year!

You Are Mother of the Year!

I taped the faded telegram to her wall.

I wanted the nurses to see it.

I wanted her to know it.

That’s you, Mama;
that’s you–

Mother of the Year.

I added a photo:

the Opening Night Gala of the

Metropolitan Opera–

That’s you, Mama;

that’s you–

on Placido Domingo’s arm;

Cinderella at the ball

floating in layers of green chiffon

donned in a giddy swirl of panic and euphoria.

I covered her wall with photos; a dog-eared tapestry of beaming smiles; shining faces; triumphant moments;

This is your life, Mama.

This was your life.

Similar shrines began to appear in other residents’ rooms. Some families hung stately framed portraits; others created ragtag mosaics like ours; but the message was the same:

he fought in the war;

she was a great teacher;

Attention must be paid.

In the early days, I walked through the nursing home with blinders;

I saw only my Mother;

worried only for her.

The other faces blended in my peripheral vision;

frail bodies;

bent figures;

lonely lives;

not my problem.

Until one day

an elderly woman in a wheelchair beckoned.

I looked around.

Me? You want me?

(What could she possibly want?)

You don’t know me, but I watch you coming and going. I decided it was time to introduce myself. I look out for your mother; she is a lovely woman but you know, she gets quite confused.

(Well, how do you like that …)

Jean was bright; elegant; sparkling. Always draped in soft pink hues, she looked lovely. And she always had a book in her hands; a joyful laugh; an incisive observation.

I never quite figured out why she lived in the nursing home. She didn’t appear ill; she didn’t have dementia; she didn’t seem to belong here. But no matter, I enjoyed spending time with her.

And I was grateful she looked out for my mom.

One day, I peeked into her room; her bed was neat. I couldn’t find her the dining area. I returned to her room

and realized:

the nameplate on her door was empty.

I ran to the office.

Jean?

I wasn’t family;

the head nurse wasn’t supposed to say anything.

But she broke the rules

and told me:

a suspicious cough;

a terminal illness;

Jean declined treatment.

She faced her death with same sweet energy and unwavering grace that had carried her through brighter days.

She had even approached the head nurse with a memorial request;

She asked we sing

In The Garden;

She said it was her mother’s favorite hymn…

And with those words, the head nurse broke down.

Now

I still see Jean

as she beckoned across the room

so many years ago;

take off your blinders;

Attention must be paid.

And so I did.

I still see

Ruth—ecstatic over her 90th birthday; Marguerite—desperately gripping my hand; Kathryn– grinning as she received gifts of chocolate;  Patti- a cat loving, Grammy-winning record producer; Elizabeth– excitedly reliving that day’s entertainment; Jim—a five-star general; Julia—an unassuming speechwriter for one of our country’s most beloved leaders; Leonard—a renowned concert pianist; Gladys—composing so many hits she’s in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame; Florence—rescued from her Ninth Ward rooftop while her family watched on CNN;

And Mary–

who began to cry when the staff took her photograph.

Please don’t be upset. Why are you crying?

No one has wanted to take my picture for years.

A Swift Current Photo of a beautiful accomplished senior

I Will Never Forget You– Photo by Hallie Swift

And I will never forget a lazy Saturday afternoon; a quiet autumn day; college football on TV. From her room, a resident began to chant

U-S-C!

U-S-C!

Not to be outdone, my mother wheeled to her door:

U-C-L-A!

U-C-L-A!

A voice cried from down the hall:

Let’s Go Bears!

Let’s Go Bears!

And the nursing home erupted;

a cacophony of cheers

echoing through the corridors–

it was comical, absurd, thrilling.

A generation of

proud

strong

accomplished

men and women;

making a goal line stand.

Their distinctive faces;

their distinguished lives;

fading fast in the autumn light

like the blurred edges of an artist’s pastel.

She

fought in the war.

He

was a great teacher.

Now

they are

here together;

waiting.

From a wheelchair

in the corner

an old woman beckons

(What could she possibly want?)

I thought it was time to introduce myself.

Attention must be paid.

Remember her.

Remember Us

Here Together–

Speech-writing;

Grammy-winning;

Chocolate-loving;

Mothers

of the Year.

I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses…

And the joy we share as we tarry there…

None other has ever known…

(for Jean, with thanks)

Bench in Central Park--Remember Us Here Together-- Photo by Hallie Swift

Bench in Central Park–Remember Us Here Together– Photo by Hallie Swift

In the Garden written by Charles Austin Miles in 1912, copyright in the public domain.

The phrase Attention must be paid is of course from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, first published by Viking Press, 1949

The Gift

It was months after my Mother’s death.  There were no more flowers; no more cards; no more donations to the scholarship fund.

“How are you” meant “how are you” not “How are you?”

How was I?  Glad you asked.

I thought I was losing my mind.

No matter what I was doing; my mind would flash back to the moment I learned my Mother was dead.  Walking down a crowded Manhattan street; standing at a grocery check-out; watching a movie; without warning, I was suddenly transported back to the night of October 11.

October 11 at 9.10 PM, to be precise.

Back to the apartment; back to the den; back to the ringing phone.

Hello Hallie, this is the nursing home.

Do you have bad news?

Yes, I have bad news.

Do you have bad news?

Yes, I have bad news.

Do you have bad news?

Yes, I have bad news.

The words were like a drum beating in my brain; a rhythm that would not stop; a sound heard only by me.

Is she dead?

Yes.

Is she dead?

Yes.

Is she dead?

Yes.

I was Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, except Bill Murray was funny.

This was exhausting.

For months, the shrill ringing phone and staccato drumbeat words were my unyielding soundtrack. On the outside, I was “fine.”  On the inside, I was unraveling.

My rescue was equally sudden and unexpected. Walking in my neighborhood one cold winter day, my eyes fell on a newspaper kiosk. A flier in the window stopped me in my tracks:

Be Brave. Write.

I had heard that message before.  Within weeks of my Mom’s death, a childhood friend visited New York. She had lost both her parents. We went to museums and theater and talked and talked and she never tried to change the subject.

At the end of our visit, she gave me a gift: a small lavender-colored book with pressed flowers on its cover and blank pages inside.

Write, she said.

She explained that when she wants to talk to her parents, she writes to them instead.

Writing helps, she said.

Thank you, I might have said.

I put the book on a shelf. It was soon covered by other books. And I resumed groundhog days–my mind repeatedly thrust back to the den; back to the phone; back to the voice from the nursing home.

Is she dead?

Yes.

Be Brave. Write.

This time I listened. I found the book with the pressed flowers and empty pages. And I started to record my groundhog life.  I described every single thing that happened from the moment that phone rang on Oct 11 at 9.10 PM; every single thing I said and she said and he said and they did…

And as the words appeared on the page, the scenes stopped unfolding in my brain. My words, my own written words, were healing me.

The moment did not own me anymore.

Later I met one of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, whose stunning memoir A Widow’s Story recounts in minute detail the months following her husband’s sudden death.  At a roundtable discussion, Oates nodded vigorously when I described the flashbacks of the endlessly ringing phone and the interminable conversations replaying in my brain.

She had endured the same flashbacks.

And while that might be the only thing I ever have in common with Joyce Carol Oates, it is good enough for me.

I was not alone.

Writing helps.

As this season of giving is upon us once again, I remember with gratitude the simple gift of a lavender book with pressed flowers.  I remember the blank pages and straightforward advice.
And I remember the healing words.

 A Swift Current || Letting Your Parents Go ||  Be Brave Write


Photo by Hallie Swift

Sometimes You Get What You Need

The morning after my mother died, the doorbell rang; flowers were sitting on my doorstep.

And again a few hours later, there was another bright, beautiful bouquet at my door.

Later that day, the phone rang: How are you doing? Have you eaten? I am bringing dinner.

I am not surprised that my friends tried to rescue me.  For many years, I had tried to do the same. I’d sent flowers and notecards; attended wakes and funerals; made charitable contributions.

But it had always seemed pointless; do you really assuage grief with your sympathy”? How could a store-bought card could begin to offer solace in the face of profound sorrow and loss.

I was wrong.

I had never expected my friends’ efforts would mean so much; I was astounded that the trappings of the “grief industry” could actually lessen my pain.

To this day, I take tremendous comfort from the gestures to honor my Mother.

Friends called: You don’t have to get back to me. I just want to know I am here for you.

Friends sent cards; prayer cards, Mass cards, and an avalanche of condolence cards appeared in my mailbox.

You know the cards; they have poems and flowers and sunsets…the cards you reluctantly peruse in the store; the cards that don’t begin to say what you would say if you only knew what to say.

I studied each word as though it held the secret to the universe.

Part of me thought I was nuts. And part of me lingered over every poem; every flower; every sunset.

Friends got on airplanes.  Friends got in their cars.  As I crossed the church parking lot, I greeted people from every chapter of our lives.  I will never forget those faces; childhood friends, cousins from other cities, business colleagues who drove hours to be with us.

At the same time, faraway friends sent emails and texts.

I wasn’t the only one holding my heart.

“’In lieu of flowers,” we requested contributions to a high school scholarship in our parents’ names.  But a group of childhood friends sent a bouquet to the church, providing a sweet adornment on the altar.

Sometimes people just know what to do.  And some of those friends contributed to the scholarship as well.

The scholarship; a young woman is getting a great education.  A young woman knows my parents’ names.   School officials sent updates about new contributions, and shared that they were deeply moved by the outpouring of support.

I was startled by one of the names on the very first list; a friend of a friend whom I had met only twice. I called her: Well, you know darlin’, in the South when we hear someone is in trouble, we grab our checkbooks.

Someone in trouble”… that was me.

But I should not give the impression that all of this support just flowed in my direction.  It is true that my friends knew what to do.  It is also true that I asked for their help.

I reached out to everyone.  I sent emails about the funeral and snail mail notes to her Christmas card friends. I wrote her obituary for the newspaper. I used Facebook to share photos and prayers and Jackson Browne’s For A Dancer.

And when people said: is there anything I can do, I probably surprised them.  Yes, I said, there is a scholarship!

Rescue Me.

One year later, on the first anniversary of my Mother’s death, I received a copy of the high school Annual Report.

And there she was: my Mother’s name, followed by name after name after name after name…

Team Louise

Sometimes you get what you need.

A Swift Current || Sometimes You Get What You Need

Swift Current Sunset Photo by Hallie Swift