I’ve known most of the crew for around ten to twelve years, others fewer than that. Morrey, for instance, was the first of the coordinators of Life Story Writing classes that I took. I poured my heart out in those stories about growing up in a small midwestern town, where everyone’s life was similar to everyone else’s: white, Christian, poor (only most of us weren’t aware of how poor we were), and anxiously awaiting to see what the future had in store for us. Few of us had any real plans for the future; we just waited for Fate to allow us to go wherever. That is what most of you first learned about me. Now you know that I got lucky when a family friend herded me into college, when I got lucky in love for forty-some years, when my children were healthy and happy, and so was I.
Dear Readers: Now you are about to learn the story of my former life – one that was not so lucky.
My first memories were of an orphanage in South Boston. I never knew my father; my mother died of the flu pandemic in 1918. After her death her brother took me to a convent and left me on the doorstep. I was just five-years-old. I was alone in a crowd of small children like myself who didn’t know who they were or where they came from. They were the only family I ever knew. We went to school together, played and prayed together, and hoped that some desperate couple would see fit to take us into their home. It didn’t happen.
My first experience with good luck was when I turned fourteen and was enrolled in a local high school. There I learned to play the piano and sing. Music became my new reason for living. My first job after graduating from high school was working in a café. It was just after the Crash on Wall Street, and it seemed everyone was in a state of anxiety. Those who had money spent it foolishly on booze and women. Those who had no money just took what they wanted. The café, desperate for business, settled for using the employees for other purposes like dancing and singing and other less satisfying occupations. It was humiliating, but we were compensated with two meals a day. I made some extra cash (ten cents a dance) by dancing with customers who expected more.
One day a guy wearing a cashmere coat with a fur collar and soft leather gloves came into the café looking for “talent” to travel to Paris, France, to entertain disenchanted American artists and writers who had escaped looking for an easier life. Anything was better as far as I was concerned. I signed up then and there.
Life in Paris was much like Boston, but with more people looking for camaraderie and excitement than jobs. It was there I fell in with a group of ex-patriots like myself. They were an interesting group of individuals who spent most of their time in a bar or salon, talking, arguing, pontificating and speculating. Their names, mostly unknown for the most part, would not become famous until a bit later: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein, etc. I was not important to them, just an observer, really, an eavesdropper, but I found their opinions and emotions to be of great interest to me.
One hot summer Saturday evening, gathered at a sidewalk café, Zelda Fitzgerald, Scott’s wife, languidly suggested going to Madrid for the bullfights the next day. It was what they did – made instant plans – when they were bored.
“We can take the early train, have lunch, watch the bulls, and take the overnight back to Paris,” said Stein. That was it.
“Okay, everybody, that’s it then.” Hemingway usually had the last word. He glanced at me and muttered, “You in, kid?” My head nodded, but my brain screamed YES! Although I tended the bar and ran errands for the group, I wasn’t really a part of the group – until now. They actually asked me to go on a trip with them. I was elated.
My elation was short-lived, however, as we boarded the train for Madrid. The train was dirty, due to the necessarily open windows which allowed the dust and noise to settle over the group. They took their seats and ordered drinks. A few took out their notebooks to begin writing; others stared out the window at the passing view. A few sipped their drinks and engaged in sophisticated gossip. As I sipped my drink, I, too, was rapt by the casual banter – it was my favorite pastime: listening to them chat. I knew that I was not one of them, but they seemed to tolerate my presence. I caught their attention if they wanted to listen to me sing, or if they needed a favor (Darling, would you mind getting my wrap from the trunk?). However, they never failed to refill my glass or put me to bed if I passed out.
When we arrived in Spain, we went directly to a bodega to have lunch before going to the arena. There the group was greeted by a table of “aficionados,” lovers of the bullfights. They all seemed to know each other, and soon the table was doubled to accommodate our group. I was seated by a young man who ran his eyes from my head to my feet. He was gorgeous, but I didn’t see beyond his eyes. He put his hand on my knee and asked if I wanted a drink. I did – more than one. His name was Miguel. We were instantly a “couple.” The group invited Miguel to go with us to the arena and then accompany us on the train back to Paris. They seemed to assume that he would do so – and he did.
Although I was smitten by Miguel, he was more smitten with the group than me. It was like I was his “entry” into their midst, nothing more. I was desperate for his attention, and he accommodated me only to keep me from sniveling and whining, then went back with the group. It was when I discovered absinthe that I was able to escape to another level of despair. The milky green liquid, made from wormwood and anise, seemed the ideal combination to soothe my “troubled soul.”
I continued to exist among the group, still the observer, but rarely observed. I viewed them through what seemed to be a mist, but saw nothing; I listened to their talk and laughter, but heard not a word they spoke.
Eventually, I saw and heard nothing except their alarm at my passing out. I have to assume they took care of me in their own way.
As for me, I will be forever thankful for the life I was subsequently given and the family and friends who know me as I am now.
Mary Bowers has been writing for most of her life, beginning as an English major and teacher, and continuing in the workplace as well as with volunteer organizations. Now, as she describes it, “in the evening of her life” she loves being a part of Marilyn Myerson’s writing group. Highly respected by her colleagues, Mary is referred to as “the queen of narrative” by fellow group members. Three of Mary’s stories can be found in the 2013 publication of member-created works. Reflections: Prose, Poems, Photos, and Artworks, a 374-page volume consisting of written and visual materials submitted by OLLI members to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the OLLI chapter on the USF Campus.
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