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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Our Christmas of Catastrophes

Most Christmas memories blend together as a collage of moments in the scrapbook of memories we all carry in our minds.

But there is one from my childhood that stands out. It was our Christmas of Catastrophes in 1953 when I was 10 and living in a small apartment with my two brothers, my parents and our cat, Kitty.

Chicago was under a snow and ice siege…freezing, slippery conditions that kept us inside as the biggest and most anticipated holiday of the year approached. We were excited. Our Greek mother had taught us to sing “Silent Night” in Greek to impress our relatives when the big day arrived.

We decorated our tree that just missed the ceiling and sat tucked into the corner of our small living room. The ornaments were vintage now, mostly glass tinted with silver and gold designs and old world themes, from my parents early Christmases together.

Some of our strung colored lights were candles with rising bubbles that appeared when they were lit. Once decorated, the finishing touches were slivers of silver tinsel hung from the branches. It was a happy time for a working class family in the immigrant neighborhood.

Nothing seemed different this particular Christmas except for the nonstop severe weather and the sheets of ice everywhere. The most popular Christmas song that year was Nat King Cole’s recording of “The Christmas Song.” My father who loved to sing in bars and at weddings had to have it.

He called all over the city to find a copy of the 78 record platter and finally found one. Under other circumstances, my father would not have ventured out in the Arctic grip the city was under, but he was obsessed with the song and was determined to have it for Christmas. So he cleared the car of its snow and ice and began his trek to the record store.

Our cat Kitty, we discovered, was fascinated by the slinky, snakelike glimmering tinsel dangling seductively from the branches. It was a new cat toy to play with and bat with his paws. However, it didn’t stop there. Kitty wanted to taste the tinsel, and with one stubborn tug pulled down the tree.

Branches snapped, ornaments rolled across the floor, some broke, and we gasped. With tears and laughter we put the tree upright and repaired the damages as best we could to restore it to its pristine state.

It was dark now and my weary father returned with his precious record only to find worsened street conditions for parking his big Caddie. As he attempted to seesaw into a spot, he hit the car in front and in back of him. Totally exasperated, my dad now had car insurance and damage issues as well as unhappy neighbors to deal with. He finally gave up and came inside in a foul mood.

The earlier excitement and family cheer were now gone. But there was still one more catastrophe that day. My dad unwrapped the coveted record from its packaging only to discover it was cracked and unplayable.

We did recover from that awful day and still had a good Christmas in spite of the cat, the tree, the car and the broken record. It was an unforgettable Christmas, our Christmas of Catastrophes.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Cat photo by Palmer W. Cook

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Follow the Signs

In an old Steve Martin film, LA Story, his character is asking for a “sign.” He finds it on the side of a freeway, a blinking directional sign, a kind of modern oracle to guide him. I can relate.

In times when life seemingly presents no answers, I grope for them anyway and somehow they appear when I least expect them and in the unlikeliest of places.

Coming from the doctor’s office, something prompts me to glance at the rear window of the car beside mine, with a sticker that asks, “Have you thanked God today?” There it is—the message at a time when I’m at a loss for solutions to my child’s serious health problem.

And the signs and their messages keep coming. After an eye-check up, I glance at a parked car’s bumper which shouts,
“Got Faith?” More questions to remind me that I have the answers within me.

Driving on the way to teach my multi-cultural, adult college class of Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Caucasians: a composite of soldiers back from multiple Middle East tours of duty; single parents, some never been married; some from inner-city projects and gangs; some who have served time—all wanting better lives through education and a coveted degree.

It’s a daunting challenge and responsibility to teach to this diverse population and their mismatched skill levels.

I’m waiting at a stoplight thinking about this night’s class, and to my right I see a church’s corner sign that reads, “Do More Good.” No specifics, no details or steps to take…just do more good. Seems so simple, yet profound, reminding me of what I can do.

I have learned that when I need them, the signs appear. I just have to follow them.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photo by Asif Akbar

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Scariest Place

I crept down the concrete steps praying, “I shall walk through the valley of death and fear no evil.”

Repeating it again and again, I approached the heavy, wooden door with dread— the entrance to the largest, darkest place I knew at 8 years old, a damp, sunken basement storage room that stretched in a black void across the old apartment building filled with immigrant families’ possessions.

Whenever I opened the door, I froze by what I heard but could not see: garbage-fed city rats, feral cats, and insects living in a dark world of total blackness outside of civilization and daylight. Their scurrying sounds and animal scratchings inhabited the blackness.

Frantically, I mustered all my courage and ran to the middle of the darkness, blindly navigating by instinct to the center of the room until I found the cold, damp concrete wash sinks, my buoy in the sea of darkness. Above them hung my salvation, a single light bulb and its dangling string, a lifeline in the immense blackness.

Fighting panic, I whistled to scare off the creatures of the dark. If I could only find the light before they found me. Only the light could save me. I groped the air for the string, desperately standing on my toes and waving my arms above the sinks, grasping for the slender string before the eternal night's creatures claimed me.

Blinded by the blackness, I grabbed for the light bulb’s string.

When my small hand caught it in mid air, a dim light entered the space, and my body sighed with relief as the string swayed above me.

That single, small light conquered my terror in the dark space. The other living things became silent in their hiding places as I found my way to our storage locker.

I know now that the dark, scary place is a metaphor for when the blackness and the unknown seem to engulf my life. Sometimes it is hard to find the light when there are fearful things around me and I cannot see where I am.

At those times, I remind myself I can overcome the terror of the dark when I grab hold of the light.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Bulb photo by Szekér Ottó

Thursday, November 19, 2009


I close my eyes and breathe deeply. As I take deeper, longer breaths, in my mind, I am transported.

I stand before an arch looking at the path that takes me into a golden field on the way to the garden, my beautiful, tranquil garden.

I follow the path to the water and the secluded garden where my guide awaits.

It is a spiritual retreat, and only I have access. It is an inner resting place I have created when there is nowhere else to go.

Life’s pressures and stresses are not allowed in my secret garden.

Once I am there, I escape the cares and weight of life. My guide is always there …when I am afraid, uncertain and alone. We are connected. We sit beside the water, and my guide listens to my doubts and apprehensions.

I know I can rely on my guide to help me when life is too much, and I need refuge. This is our time and place, an inner world untouched by others where there is peace and comfort from external reality.

In the garden, I am comforted by my gentle guide. We are detached from the material world.

In this oasis of meditation, I transcend responsibilities, worries and anxieties.

In my garden I am calm. I am safe. I am free.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Archway photo by Maureen McGarrigle

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Meaning of Pearls

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but for me it’s always been pearls. All gems have attributed meanings and qualities, especially when we look at birthstone definitions.

Pearl’s origin and meaning:
"The pearl is the oldest known gem, and for many centuries it was considered the most valuable. Unlike all gems, the pearl is organic matter derived from a living creature - oysters and mollusks.

It was said in some early cultures that the pearl was born when a single drop of rain fell from the heavens and became the heart of the oyster. Pearls have been called the 'teardrops of the moon.'

Some believe that pearls were formed by the passage of angels through the clouds of heaven.

Over time, the pearl has become the symbol of purity and innocence and it is often sewn into bridal gowns, or worn as jewelry by the bride."

I’ve never been a diamond girl. Pearls suit me better and represent singular moments in my life. At 22, fresh out of college, I received my first strand of long, lustrous, cultured pearls as an engagement gift.

My fiancé and I shopped at Marshall Fields for the perfect strand to wear at the engagement party his aunt was giving me in the Chicago suburbs, a gathering for her friends to meet her nephew’s bride-to-be.

The pearls stood for his love and commitment. Pearls were also sewn on to the bodice of my wedding gown.

The next time I received pearls they came directly from the Orient. My second, shorter pearl necklace was strung with more refined, dainty pearls.

They were sent from my Army husband from Hong Kong where he, like so many other soldiers of that era, spent an RandR from their tours of duty in Vietnam.

The pearls arrived along with a 12-place setting of porcelain china, and the latest stereo and camera equipment of the time. Most GI’s sent similar care packages to their waiting wives in the late ‘60s.

When I turned 40, elegant pearl earrings were gifted to me again, this time from a new love for my birthday. The problem was that the earrings were pierced, and my ears weren’t.

The pearls were beautiful, and I had only one choice. I dreaded the thought of punching holes into my earlobes, but I could hardly wait to wear the earrings.

My teenage daughter accompanied me to the mall to get the job done. She held my hand, like a patient mother, as the stapler popped the openings for my new pearls of love to rest.

The pearls joined my collection, and my daughter enjoyed them too when she wore them for special occasions.

At 47 when I married the second time, I thought it was only fitting that my daughter, my maid of honor, should have her own pearl earrings. They were my gift to her on that day of love. Pearls were sewn onto the sleeves and hem of my tea-length bridal gown.

I have added to my pearl treasures over the years. They stay cloistered together in their own jewelry box, and I still favor them over other gems.

They connect me to wonderful memories and gifts of love. Over the years, my affection and fascination for pearls has deepened.

I’m especially drawn to pearls that are irregular, created in an emerging state and preserved in the process of transformation. They are known as blister pearls, "mabe (ma-bay) pearls" grown in a Mabe oyster.

I still love traditional pearls but find a different kind of beauty in the unique shapes and free forms of the blister pearl. Unlike the attempt at perfection of the cultured pearl, they are imperfect and more interesting reminders of life itself.

"Eastern cultures believe that pearls symbolize purity and spiritual transformation. Simply wearing a pearl reminds the wearer to be honest, pure, wise, and to walk with the utmost dignity."

From the Meaning of Pearls:

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photo of Strands of Pearls by wemedge

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An Object of Affection

Best camera I ever had. No adjustments, no gadgetry…just press the button, indestructible and compact…my Kodak Instamatic.

It was our first summer in Virginia, and the camera was filled with priceless photos and memories from our trip back to Illinois for my father’s second wedding: my daughter as the ring bearer, my children reunited with my brothers, and dad with his siblings from CA who came to see him marry his new wife. There were still a few pictures left on the roll.

Later that summer, the Instamatic preserved pictures from a trip to NYC with my son, 10 and daughter, 7. A native New Yorker and theatre friend took us “parading,” as he called it, to the Empire State Building, Staten Island and Central Park.

My children and I were making new memories together as we explored the East Coast after our move to northern Virginia from a small town in the Midwest.

When we returned to Virginia, I discovered the camera was missing along with all the memories it carried. I knew I could never replace those Kodak moments. Several weeks passed before I received a package from someone who had also been in Central Park during the marathon.

The Good Samaritan found our address in the camera case and mailed the camera to us. So the camera and its treasures found their way home, like a faithful family pet that was lost and then returned.

Later that summer, we were exploring Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and stopped for some ice cream at Swenson’s. With tired kids in tow, I left the camera behind, this time on the booth’s seat at the ice cream parlor.

A couple days later, I realized it was gone along with the pictures from our Baltimore trip. A few weeks passed and I received a call from someone who had also stopped for ice cream, found the camera and dropped it off at our home. Once again the camera was reunited with our family.

I never lost the Instamatic after that summer when we explored our new surroundings. It's now packed away with family albums, slides and other memorabilia.

It preserved the adventures of a single mom and her children adapting to a new life and geography. It was part of the family, and through the kindness of strangers who found it in NYC and Baltimore, the camera made it back where it belonged. Somehow the camera and the memories it saved always returned safely to us.

Objects do evoke memories. Perhaps that’s why we hold onto them. Our inexpensive, uncomplicated Instamatic preserved our family’s history and helped us hold on to those times when we started a new life together.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

New York photo by clemmeson

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Homes: The Way They Were

There’s a scene in the movie, The Way We Were, where two men are sharing “best of” memories. Inspired by that scene, I am remembering the many homes of my life and their “best of” moments.

Though I have lived in many places, not all of them felt like home. The ones that I think of as home were those where I felt connected to my surroundings. These are my “best of” home memories, “the way they were.”

First home, early childhood in a multi-ethnic Chicago apartment complex where our playgrounds were asphalt and concrete, alleyways sandwiched between brick buildings, underground storage basements and a large empty, weed prairie. I always dreamed of having a real backyard with flowerbeds like my aunt’s old Chicago house in South Shore.

Best memory: climbing the advertising billboard's wooden scaffolds on the State Street side of the prairie to get a great view of sparks flying when the boys threw cans on the streetcar tracks, a game for city kids.

Second home, teen years in the south suburbs of Chicago, in working class Dolton, where we finally had a yard where my mother hung the wash to dry on a clothesline that doubled as our theatre curtain, a blanket attached with clothespins, for our backyard plays.

Best memory: the fir tree my mother planted that grew taller than our house and became a giant Xmas tree every winter that we lit for all to see.

In my married home 20’s to mid 30’s in Eureka, a central Illinois bedroom community of churchgoing gentlemen farmers, home was a rambling farmhouse that we modernized on our semi-timbered five acres adjacent to neighbors who rode their horses past the cornfields up the road.

Best memory: my young children playing in a tree, one in the big tire swing and the other in the crook of the tree.

Second best memory: growing a vegetable garden for the first time and preparing the homegrown produce for my family and putting fresh cut flowers on the table from my own backyard.

My home on a cul-de-sac in Falls Church, VA, where some nights the sky was a planetarium with constellations that shone brightly as crickets serenaded us on a summer evening.

Best memory: watching our beloved cat, Frisky, roll around in the ivy while I rested lazily with a book in the hammock slung between two giant White Oak trees.

Last home in an apartment townhome in Marina del Rey overlooking the channel, watching the moon play on the water with the shimmering lights of boats and distant planes looking like UFOs blocking the stars as they descended into LAX.

Best memory: walking the boardwalk piers between the slips of the anchored sailboats and yachts during a crimson sunset, almost as much pleasure as strolling the beach a few blocks away.

Home today in a condo overlooking a former golf course in Phoenix.

Best memory: drinking my morning coffee while I watch a hummingbird pause for a sweet drink at the feeder just above the orange tree.

All of the home bookmarks are where I felt centered. They are the places that are always with me and are the “best of” memories.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tree photo by Sue Byford
Hummingbird photo by Tiffany Clark

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sweet Ride: Discovering a New World

At 10, I inherited an oversized boy’s bike from my cousin. We couldn’t afford the popular Schwinns of the day. I was happy to have my first bike. I cleaned and painted it, adding a thunderbolt on the fender to make it look fast and give the hand-me-down a new look.

Once it looked like a bike to be proud of rather than a dust catcher from someone’s basement, I had to learn to ride. The first step was to find a place to mount the boy’s bike since I wasn’t tall enough to reach over the frame without starting from a stoop. Then I had to manage to stay upright and balanced.

After several falls and scraped knees, I wobbly made my way over the streets and sidewalks of our immigrant Chicago neighborhood in the ‘50s. Eventually I wanted to see more and ventured beyond the boundaries of my Greek, Irish, Polish and Swedish neighborhood. I was curious to know what was outside the safety of the few blocks I already knew.

So I mounted my bike and boldly crossed the ethnic borders into foreign territory on the South Side, into a new place of different ethnic faces, their open market stalls, family-owned shops, churches and schools.

As I rode my bike by their open markets, I saw and smelled unfamiliar foods on display on sidewalk tables strewn with breads, produce, clothing and trinkets. I didn’t feel comfortable getting off my bike just yet. After all, these were strangers I was told not to go near.

I knew I was breaking the rules by leaving my neighborhood, but I couldn’t pass up the adventure. I didn't dare tell anyone of my explorations just a few blocks away from home. I kept my travels a secret so I could return to this exotic place.

Thanks to my secondhand bike, I got to discover a new world and its inhabitants in Chicago's immigrant melting pot of the '50s.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Grandfathers and Cigars

My Greek Grandfather

It was the Great Depression. My immigrant Greek grandfather’s produce stand in Chicago was defunct. But he was a proud man and would not let the other Greek men know how bad things were.

To uphold his position in the community of first generation Americans, he met in the evenings just as he always had with the other Greek men to smoke a cigar and play cards. No one knew how desperate things really were for him.

My mother, only 12, adored her father Vasileios, a man who stood tall with erect, almost stiff posture, strong cheekbones and groomed moustache, an honest, hardworking man who came to America from a small village in Greece to build a new and prosperous life.

To help the family get by, my mother worked long hours at the factory and visited her father faithfully every evening where she discretely slipped a quarter into his jacket draped over his chair to pay for his cigar.

Nothing was ever said…no thank you or acknowledgement of the child’s nightly gift to her father. It would not have been fitting. The ritual continued until his death of a broken heart, according to my mother, from having lost everything, including the American dream.

That is the only story I remember being told about my grandfather, but it gave me a portrait of a proud man who kept his dignity in times of adversity.

My Jewish Grandfather

My father's father, Grandpa Harry, was a true entrepreneur who came from Hungary to also build his fortune in the new world. He started working in Minnesota for the Edward Hines Lumber Co. and soon became an interpreter for the other immigrant men.

He spoke seven languages and was a clever man who seized opportunities wherever he found them. He also became the banker of sorts for the other men helping them as they found their way in a new land.

Grandpa Harry had many businesses, some succeeded, some failed, but he never quit. After the crash, he pawned his wedding ring to pay his bills and start again. Tall for the time, over 6 feet, he dominated others, including his sons but adored his grandchildren, especially the girls.

I was one of his favorites. He gave me my first instrument, a second hand clarinet. He wanted to give me a piano but there was no room for it in our small apartment in Chicago. He also gave me a used typewriter that I still had when I went off to college.

There are many funny stories about Grandpa Harry like the time we woke up to find new bushes that he had planted in our yard while we slept in our new house in the suburbs. We never knew where the shrubbery came from. It was just the way Grandpa did things.

One of my memories of him was his cigars. Every time he took one out of the cigar box, he gave me the seal which I immediately made into a shiny ring for my finger.

 It was a game we played, a special ritual in the bond we shared. So "smelly" cigars became gifts and symbols of love in my family.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photo of Two Cigars by Josiah Gordon

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Following My Bliss

For me creative writing is awakening. I feel fully alive. I lose self-consciousness and become conscious. Writing feeds my soul and completes me. It connects my heart and mind and opens me to self-exploration recreated into words. It exalts my spirit and the real me sings out.

Creative writing puts me in touch, makes me aware, and connects all my parts. It makes me feel whole and free…a watershed release from deep inside. It’s joyous and fulfilling.

It gives my life force a voice that speaks my inner truth.

Because most of my writing is for business, writing creatively is a rare luxury, stolen moments to tell my stories. I’ve waited to tell my stories, until I could take the risk, until my children were independent, until I believed in my work, until others affirmed it.

The stories have been gestating far too long, and I feel as if I’m going to burst soon. They seem so insistent, demanding to be told. I am “very pregnant” with them. They’ve been waiting for their time to live and refuse to wait any longer.

I’ve seen the effect my stories have on others from my Writing from Life classes, at a public reading in Woodstock where the audience was brought to tears, and at a Writer’s Studio memoir workshop in New York City. I’ve learned that my stories are not just for me.

They need to be told and shared. Through them, I experienced the power to connect to many. They’re universal stories of family, relationships, sorrow, and healing.

I’ve been told for years, “You should write a book.” And so the time has come to nurture my self-expression and transform my experiences into my memoir of blog stories.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Photo by asafesh

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sea Sanctuary

I’m with my old friend, the sea…just the waves, a few sailboats, occasional shorebirds, scattered shells, polished stones and shifting sand.

The sea, my sanctuary, place of worship and salvation… soothing, grounding, sacred, peaceful, a place to be alone and protected where I can shut out the distractions of the world and my mind and become whole, balanced and connected—my soul’s home.

Here I am free of worry, stress, responsibility and uncertainty, safe from a world of money, relationships, deadlines, and demands, uncluttered and unfettered. Basic shelter from life’s storms and disappointments with powerful forces that mirror my unconscious, shifting, mysterious, creative, unknown.

I am awed by the sea’s strength and endurance, its unceasing change: beauty in the bright sun, dusk and blackness—reassuring, lasting, and transforming like life itself.

Its shoreline provides an ever changing altar of glass chards, sparkling in the sun like tiny stain glass windows, hallowed ground for fish sacs, driftwood and seaweed.

The sandy tableau displays the sea’s random creativity and many moods reflected in the sun’s mirror complemented by the sky’s designer backdrop, brilliant in crimson at sunset and stunning in black velvet with shimmering stars at night.

The sea is my sanctuary, life affirming, reliable and unpredictable, free to be itself, stormy or placid—no limitations, no should’s or have to’s, no one to answer to—a universal constant that transcends love, war, politics, career and family. It only answers to itself.

The sea manifests its deity without icons, saints, incense, catechism and hymns, and I come to worship as a parishioner who speaks and prays for strength, wisdom and direction.

This is the place where I become centered, renewed and readied to be part of the world again, a spa for all of my senses where I can reconnect all my parts and return revitalized to life itself.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Sea Photo by Jack Oceano
Shell Photo by Karunakar Rayker

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Halloween Treat

My aunt grinned as she finished applying my dark, red lipstick and thick, black mascara. These were the finishing touches along with large hoop hearings, rope necklaces and shiny, arm bracelets that accessorized my striped orange, brown and black midriff blouse worn saucily off one shoulder above my swirling skirt.

I was only 12. What I saw looking back at me in the mirror was a wild gypsy girl, a dramatic, mysterious me seeing my adventurous self for the first time. No longer a ghost or a witch, this year’s costume and make-up revealed a sensuous, exciting version of myself I had felt but never seen.

This was much more than playing dress-up in my aunt’s high heel shoes when I visited her during the summer. I saw myself blooming, still a child but in woman’s make-up and jewelry, a preview of what I was becoming.

The future me in the reflection was daring, the heroine of a bold, passionate life. She looked back at me, pleased with herself to allow me a glance at a life I imagined from books I read and movie stars I admired.

This Halloween I discovered I could be more than an awkward, gangly girl. I caught a glimpse of the woman who was waiting for me to be her. I didn’t know her yet, but I liked her.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Georgie’s Girl

I was the new kid in seventh grade in the suburbs of Chicago. Georgie was the leader of the eighth grade boys. He was cocky, mischievous, wore his jeans slung on his hips without a belt, a black leather motorcycle jacket with his collar up…an irresistible mix of James Dean and John Travolta with thick, blonde, wavy hair and blue eyes that made me melt.

All the girls adored him. Georgie was king of the school and everybody tried to please him, except me. I was so shy that I wouldn’t talk to him and only looked at him when he couldn’t see. The others thought my awkward standoffishness was what they called “stuck-up.”

I fantasized about Georgie but never dreamed he would notice me. I’m not sure what attracted him to me except that I was the only girl not fawning over him. One day, his simple “hi” broke our silence as he walked me to my locker.

After that, we were “a couple,” and he escorted me to my classes regularly. Of course, I was thrilled as if my dream had come true. Georgie also started riding his motorcycle to my house, the ultimate display of affection to a girl who never had a boyfriend before.

Since Georgie liked me, the 8th grade girls’ clique called the Sub-Debs (like the Pink Ladies in Grease) invited me to their lunch table, and soon I became one of them. We wore identical yellow jackets and rolled down our bobby socks an inch at the top to look cool.

I cut my hair short in a slick DA shaped into a duck tail in the back with side curls that I taped to my cheeks at night to train them to lie plastered against my face during the day.

Though Georgie looked like a gang member from West Side Story, he was always a gentleman with me. Our relationship was innocent and delightful, just handholding and closed-mouth kissing. We never “made out.” I was still very shy, and he never tried.

I remember his asking me to “go steady” on a summer day on a bench near the park at the end of our street. He even gave me his engraved ID bracelet to wear so everyone would know I was Georgie’s girl. After that, I gained new status in the school and became the envy of the other girls.

Other than a few sweet kisses, my first love and I only shared socializing at school and some parties at other kids’ houses, usually in the basement, the knotty-pine, paneled party room for working class families in suburban Chicago homes.

I’m not sure when Georgie and I went our separate ways. We seemed to drift apart when I went to high school. I started spending more time with student leaders and other teens that wanted to go to college. That didn’t interest Georgie. He was street smart, savvy, and in a hurry to make money.

We no longer had much in common. He still had a following of the boys from Berger Elementary School, but was not a high-school achiever in sports, scholastics, or extra-curricular activities. I lost track of him in our overcrowded high school of 4,000 students. The following year I was elected the first girl president of the sophomore class.

After I graduated and moved on to the University of Illinois, I came home for the summers and worked in downtown Chicago. One day I ran into Georgie on the street in my hometown. It felt awkward. We really didn’t know what to say to each other. It had been much easier in seventh grade. We were now in very different places.

I was dressed for business and he was still in his construction coveralls. Working in the sun made him blonder, rugged, and more handsome. He was still mischievous and his confidence was disarming.

We made small talk and scanned each other. I felt sexually attracted to him at 19 and wondered what it would be like to be intimate with him. I sensed that the feeling was mutual but neither of us tried to revive our lost love.

I never saw Georgie again. I married my college sweetheart and moved to another state to teach near where my husband was attending law school. My father later told me that Georgie married one of the quiet, pretty girls from my class who never went to college.

They seemed to be doing well: big house, cars, boat, etc. I knew Georgie was a hustler and was not surprised that he was earning big money in the construction business. He always had to be number one.

A couple years later, I heard that Georgie was in prison. His ambition had led him to his own private plane, major drug deals, and connections to cartels smuggling drugs into the country. As always, he did things in a big way and never stood for being second best at anything.

Many years have passed, but the memory of him as my first love remains tucked away in my heart forever. He made an awkward, young, skinny girl feel pretty and special. I will always be thankful that I was Georgie’s girl.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Rooms R Us

I could hardly wait!

My own room for the first time ever. I didn't have to sleep with other people in the room anymore...a place where I could close the door and escape into daydreams, fantasies, and PRIVACY.
My parents even found a used vanity table with a mirror and chair for my room. The cosmetics on the vanity crowded my stuffed animals. I knew sooner or later there would not be room for both. I felt so feminine and grown-up in the vanity's mirror seeing the reflection of a future acclaimed actress or best-selling author.

The closet held only "my" things, no one else's. My storybook dolls, timeless princesses adorned in beautiful gowns and tiaras, slept undisturbed in their plastic, see-through boxes, unspoiled and forever perfect. Like Sleeping Beauty, they awaited the kiss of the handsome prince to awaken them.

I would transform my room into a sanctuary, dreamscape, and bigger-than-life movie starring me. Sometimes the room became a time machine transporting me to a wonderful future filled with love, romance and riches.

On my fantasy stage, I would confront my parents and win; accept the Oscar graciously; be crowned Miss America; and passionately kiss the senior class president. It was here where I rehearsed for life; and, all my stories had happy, victorious endings written, produced and directed from the theatre of my mind.

Years later, I shared my room, this time with my husband. How strange to be lying there beside him with my parents in the next room. I felt self conscious about the squeaky bedsprings and refused to make love, for somehow that was sacrilege. In this place, nothing in reality could compare to the exquisite romances of my girlhood fantasies.

After my divorce, I stayed in my room for the last time. The house was empty. My parents had divorced long ago and my mother had passed. I went there with a man I cared for but had no plans to marry.

As I lay beside him, memories and ghosts swept over me. I wept as I realized my lovely, girlhood dreams had shattered in the outside world. Now I possessed wisdom and experience, but the innocent girl imagining her first kiss was gone forever.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Monday, September 28, 2009

The First on Our Block

My parents were raised with radio, and it looked like my brothers and I would be too, until the day new technology arrived as a Motorola television set. We didn’t know what to expect when dad unpacked the large, cardboard box. It looked a lot like our radio in its big wooden cabinet; but instead of a speaker, there was a screen in the middle.

Our parents were excited, so we knew this was something special, not like the way they acted when we got a new car. This occasion was more like the anticipation of getting ready for a family outing to Cedar Lake.

With great curiosity we watched our dad fiddle with the antenna and knobs and waited for the screen to do something. Up until now, the only screen we watched was at the local movie theatre where on Saturday afternoons for 25 cents, we could fill up on popcorn and Good N’Plenty candy while we laughed at Bugs Bunny cartoons and cringed when Tarzan wrestled a crocodile.

Could this new fangled contraption, this TV, bring that kind of adventure and fun into our home every day of the week? All the time? It was an exhilarating possibility. As my dad tuned the fuzzy little screen and adjusted the antenna, we eagerly awaited to be greeted by the daring deeds of our movie idols.

What emerged was our first commercial for Texaco gasoline introduced by someone who called himself Uncle Miltie. He made us laugh. We decided that “TV” was fun, and we could even watch it while we ate dinner. And so my family transitioned from radio to television.

We sat mesmerized in front of the screen watching anything that moved: live demonstrations of food being chopped and people showing how to get stains out of the carpet. With only two channels, and most them on at noon or dinnertime, we were captives of whatever appeared.

We were also the envy of the neighborhood. No one else had one yet. Kids would ask to come over and see it. We felt a real pride of ownership and the distinction of being the first family on our block to have a TV.

Dad took our newfound technology leadership even further by buying an accessory for the TV. It was a plastic sheet divided into three color stripes. When overlaid on the screen, we had “color” TV. It didn’t matter if everybody’s face was red, torso yellow and legs blue. It was color TV. We were ahead of our time. We felt rich.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Comfort Food

The sweet, sugary scent of my mother's rice pudding is unforgettable. As I stepped off the school bus, the breeze carried a strong whiff of cinnamon that conjured the steaming bowls that waited for me on our kitchen table. Its aroma was intoxicating. I could hardly wait and ran across the park and onto our home’s porch, eagerly anticipating the pudding’s soft heat melting in my mouth. What a welcome! Cinnamon mixed with warm, milky rice I could already taste accompanied by an inner sigh of being home.

It wasn't just rice pudding. It was my mother's being there to feed and nurture me. The hot, heaping mound of rice dusted with cinnamon awaited me along with my mom, my best friend, who I told everything about what happened at school as I gulped down her love offering.

She knew all about my friends, classes, and activities. She was my confidante and adviser and understood my adolescent insecurities. Mom’s rice pudding was soothing, a warm food hug that embraced my teenage angst and me. Not chicken soup… but rice pudding for my soul.

How I long for my mother's rice pudding, a recipe of safety, fullness, and comfort. It made everything OK…food for the heart, mind, and stomach…delicious mouthfuls of mother food to warm and fill me with her love and protection.

There has not been any food like it since. For years, I have searched for rice pudding like hers in restaurants, delis, and gourmet grocery stores, but never found any that compared in taste, texture, or feeling. Like Water for Chocolate, there was a special ingredient from my mother in the pudding that cannot be duplicated in someone else’s recipe. It was uniquely hers…never written down…but saved nevertheless in my memory. It satisfied my hunger like only she could.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

D.C. to LA: A Monumental Change

Whenever I lost my way in DC, I looked for the Washington Monument, the tallest building in the District of Columbia, an obelisk sentry overlooking the city. I remember relaxing as I navigated my way home on Constitution Avenue flanked by its powerful Federal buildings.

Today I look to the Santa Monica Ferris wheel as my compass with the sea on one side and the canyons and hillsides on the other. Wide-open space accompanies me home now, nine months after the move from East to West. Along with the change of geography came a cultural change.

Even though I'm in the same country, speak the same language, I feel like a foreigner. Here are some of my observations as a newcomer to LA. One of the oddities of LA is that people who live here give each other directions constantly and never go anywhere without their traffic Bible, The Thomas Guide.

Perhaps the unwieldy sprawl of the place and the sardine freeways necessitate that Angelenos tell each other how to get around. It's part of their way of life. In a town where image is everything, billboards, "big screens," are everywhere, touting causes, movies, and designer fashions throughout the city. The images are built into LA's geography for maximum visibility. Sides of buildings display giant TV and film stars who gaze upon their fans like mythical gods and goddesses imbued with the power to dictate fashion and cultural trends.

Youth and beauty reign in LA. Younger women glide evocatively like island women in their city village. Aware of their physical power, they exude a sensual beauty and confidence. They have attitude; they are liberated, reminiscent of 1920s women, seductive in their natural bodies in clothing that provocatively reveals their charms.

Older women can't compete with the "bodies" of starlets and models in LA, but they haven't stopped trying. Regardless of age, there are almost no flat-chested women in LA; bodies are rebuilt here, "youthinized" to attain perfection and admiration. It is not unusual to see elders who look more like Zsa Zsa than grandma.

I discovered that I'm at an awkward age again, midlife adolescence, not comfortable with the seniors or the hip, caught between the too old and the too young. I studied other women to see how I could fit in better. I grew my hair longer, put in blond highlights, started working out at a gym, wore tighter clothes and more makeup, in hopes that my new exterior would help me blend into the LA "look" and wondered if I was headed toward Botox and collagen next.

I tried to meet people by attending singles events, singles everything: sailing, skiing, Christian, Jewish, cultural happenings. One gathering, under the guise of being a "spiritual" workshop, was actually a front to coax women to proposition men. Another singles function, a dating service's Valentines Party, initiated courtship by having singles find the people who matched the numbers on their admission ticket.

Contacts are what count in LA. The established protocol is an introduction. As laid back as LA is, the custom of an introduction is quite formal. Behaving like the hierarchy of a royal court, insiders grant favors to outsiders with an introduction. Soliciting without one is not readily accepted by LA's contact rules. To become acknowledged in the right circles, an introduction is required from someone who knows the "prized" contact. Such favors are chits, IOU's that are banked and exchanged like currency in the contact system.

Life outside of LA seems not to matter to the natives. Local TV news coverage ranges from 30-second reports on world events to detailed stories about cosmetic surgery procedures and, of course, a car chase, the LA news staple. I now understand why Jay Leno's jaywalking interviews feature people who don't know what's going on outside of LA. The external world seems to be of no consequence, so there's really to need to pay attention to it.

In this new place, at least I speak the language, movie speak. It is the common dialect of a sprawling cityscape and multicultural geography. Everyone is a film critic whether it's at the supermarket checkout line or the local video store. I also participate in one of the local spotting. Off screen in their life-size bodies, actors appear surprisingly small in contrast to their celluloid images.

LA's most famous celebrity is its weather. Angelenos delight in being weather blessed as if the sun favors the city with divine weather fortune. No matter what else is happening in LA, the weather seems to be a constant source of pride to the locals. It is a privilege that sets them apart from other cities, and it makes them smile whenever they talk about it.

For all of LA's eccentricities, as a writer, I find its creative energy exhilarating. The culture values artists. It's as if self-expression is an inalienable right in LA's creative democracy. I know I will not have this perspective of LA indefinitely. It's my ninth-month view. I'm still exploring its glitter, glamour, and illusion as well as its creative life. In the meantime, I look for the Santa Monica Ferris wheel, a lighthouse on the pier, to guide me home.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Sunday, September 27, 2009


OK. I'm 60 something. The American dream of getting married and living happily or at least securely thereafter didn't happen. It wasn't supposed to be like this. I followed the script at 22: married my college sweetheart, became a lawyer's wife with two kids and a house in the country in a small, safe town in the Midwest.

At 47, I had another chance for the American dream: a professional career and a second marriage to a charming therapist, ten years my junior.

Now I'm pursing a different reality as a single woman in her 60's. I'm moving to Phoenix after almost four years in Marina del Rey, LA's sailing area known for singles. At this point I thought I'd be approaching a comfortable retirement and enjoying wonderful trips to exotic places along with free time to write, do pottery, and volunteer for worthy causes.

Instead, I'm relocating to a more affordable city to start again. According to the original script, at this age I was looking forward to relaxing in my paid for home, enjoying leisure time and grandchildren.

So it's time for me to take the advice of my philosopher son, "Blaze a trail, Mom. You have before." And, I'm not alone. The majority of the women I know my age are still in search of the dream through Internet dating, singles events, and speed dating...seeking that happy ending.

We are educated, attractive women with no defined role for this unexpected passage. We exercise, play tennis, and pursue hobbies; but mostly we are solitary figures who previously defined ourselves as wives, mothers, and career women. We live longer, look better, and lead active lives only to return to our single lives in apartments and condos.

There's not a prescribed identity or path for single, mature women. We don't fit in the conventional roles of matron or grandmother. Our social life is primarily with other women like ourselves. What is our place now in the tribe?

Sure we've thought about the bag-lady syndrome and worry about getting sick. The stats for remarrying at this stage of life are not promising. There seem to be too few available knights in our age group. Some of us prefer to remain single and free, but most of us still want to relate and be connected.

What are our options? We talk about living together and creating new family units in group houses and modern communes.

As for me, I'm not giving up. It's an adventure far different than what I expected. Today's script is being written by those of us living it. So I'm on the road again with Phoenix as my next destination. Will I find community there? My place? I remain hopeful.

There needs to be a name for this phase of mature women's lives. Post something: postmarriage, postchildren, postcareer. I think we could call it womenpause. I can say I'm going through womenpause.

I have no roadmap and few role models. With the others, I will blaze a trail so the women that follow us will know how to navigate womenpause.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Flight from Phoenix

Back in L.A. driving my daughter’s Land Rover she’s named Lola. Passing through my near past in southern CA where I lived until seven months ago. Familiar but no longer home…remembering and lingering only for the moment. The vehicle carries me through the changing scenery and the memories with it.

I’m here for a UCLA writing class back on the campus where I taught a year ago. Still feeling a bond…still a part of me…wondering if at some point, I’ll return.

Last night for a split second, I considered going back to the marina, parking in the dark, and walking back to my former home. Just before the light changed, I moved the car back into the left lane to return to Manhattan Beach where my daughter lived and not back to the Marina where I had lived for almost four years.

Not sure why I couldn’t go back…would it make me feel bad? Am I emotionally letting go of the past and that chapter of my life? Is that symbolic of my move from LA to Phoenix, especially now since I’m moving my possessions from storage and signing a year’s lease? Is it the final parting and commitment to a new place and new life? It’s as if with my name on a contract, I now have to stay and start over though I’m not sure I want to.

Other than a piece of paper, internally I have not signed myself to a life in Phoenix. It’s the desert where I will stay inside for the summer and age when I’m not ready to do either. Did I choose a place I’m not ready for and perhaps will never be ready for?

If not Phoenix, where?

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED