Talking to Myself

I talk to myself all the time. When my husband Bill was alive before his strokes, it drove him nuts. After his strokes, he said he liked it because he could always tell what I was doing. When you can’t see, walk, or use your left arm or leg, hearing your significant other chatter about nothing can be reassuring, I suppose.

That’s not what this post is about, though. I just finished reading Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself by Alan Alda, the actor who portrayed Hawkeye on MASH, one of my favorite television shows during the 1980’s. This book is a collection of humorous essays on a variety of topics including his childhood, army life, acting experiences on stage and screen, and what it’s like to be a celebrity. In one piece, he explains how his father encouraged him to consider a career in medicine, although he really wanted to be an actor, and then talks about a commencement address he gave to a class of graduating medical students. In another, he describes how he learned to shoot with a rifle at age eleven, used it to euthanize his pet rabbits, then helped his grandchildren bury their pet rabbit after showing them how to make telephones out of old shoes. Most of his essays contain speeches he gave at various commencement ceremonies. His final piece is an address he would give if he were on his death bed in which he urges graduates to “go forth and stay there.” Alan Alda was born on January 28th, 1936 in New York City. His original name was Alfonso Joseph D’abruzzo. He’s known for his work on MASH, The Aviator, and What Women Want. He married Arlene Alda on March 15, 1957. They have three daughters: Eve, Elizabeth, and Beatrice.

Did you know that Alan Alda almost turned down the offer to star on MASH because he didn’t like the idea of using war as a backdrop for humor? He then agreed but insisted that each episode have at least one scene in the operating room to show the ravages of war. He studied at Fordham University in New York where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1956. He also attended the Sorbonne in Paris during his junior year. In the army, he went AWOL every weekend because he was dating the woman he eventually married. He was selected as the most believable actor in the U.S. and did a cartwheel down the aisle on his way to accept an award. To learn more, visit http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000257/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm / .

Alan Alda is like his character on MASH. Although Hawkeye cracks under pressure a few times, he takes life in stride, tells a joke or two, and goes on. Sometimes, I wish I could do the same. I recommend this book to anyone needing a few laughs.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author

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A Story in a Picture

I decided to take a break from memoir writing to focus on fiction for a bit. I was inspired by Mike Staton’s post on Writing Wranglers and Warriors at https://writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/finding-short-stories-among-intriguing-paintings-and-photos/ . He talks about finding stories in artwork and photography. Being visually impaired, I find this tricky, but I once wrote a short story inspired by a photo I heard described.

Several years ago, I participated in NPR’s 3-minute fiction challenge in which listeners were encouraged to write a story based on a picture of someone looking through a window at a newspaper lying on a table upside down. The story could be no more than 600 words because it needed to be read in three minutes or less. Unfortunately, my tale metastasized into something larger, and I couldn’t find a way to cut it down to 600 words so I never submitted it to NPR. However, since my blog has no word count limitation, I’ll post it here for your enjoyment. It will eventually be included in a collection of short stories when I get around to publishing it.

AMBER’S ALERT

My stomach growled, and my mouth watered, as I looked in the café window. It had been a long time since I’d eaten anything but breakfast cereal, crackers with peanut butter, and canned soup. I wished I’d looked in Mom’s purse to see if she had any cash before I left the house.

I saw a newspaper on a nearby table. I couldn’t read the print because the paper lay upside down, but I recognized my school picture from last year. I walked into the café and up to the table and picked up the newspaper. The headline jumped out. “$50,000 Reward Offered for Return of Missing Girl” That was me.

I sat at the table and read the article. It was all about how I’d been kidnapped by my mother a month ago. Dad was out of town, and Mrs. Miller, the housekeeper, thought I was spending the night with my best friend and didn’t report me missing until the next day when I didn’t come home.

When Mom left last year, she didn’t even say goodbye to me or Dad. She just left in the night, pinning a note on the refrigerator for Mrs. Miller to find the next morning. Mom was an artist, and she told me she was forced to marry Dad because he got her pregnant with me.

I spent a lot of time in her studio, watching her paint. Mom gave me an easel and paints for my twelfth birthday, and she gave me a few lessons. After that, we worked together at our own easels.

Dad was away most of the time. He worked in a bank just like the dad in Mary Poppins. The day I turned thirteen, Mom was gone.

I kept painting. It made me feel closer to Mom, being in her studio. She didn’t take much when she left, and I had a feeling that someday, she would come back, and everything would be okay.

A few weeks later, Dad said he thought Mom was dead and gave all her clothes to charity and sold her jewelry. I begged him to leave the studio alone. He did, but when I asked if we could sell some of Mom’s paintings, he said, “That rubbish isn’t worth the canvas it’s painted on.”

I didn’t dare offer to show him my paintings, and he didn’t ask to see them. I signed up for an art class at school, and my paintings were displayed on the classroom walls during open house. Dad never went to open house.

A year later, Mom showed up at school in a maroon Cadillac. She wore a pink linen suit and a lot of make-up. Her hair was dyed a dark brown. I almost didn’t recognize her until she said, “Amber darling, there you are.”

I thought this was weird, but I told my best friend Susan I couldn’t spend the night and got in the car.

“Mom, I’m glad you’re back,” I said, as she pulled away from the curb. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I know, honey. I’ve missed you, too. You were the best thing that ever happened to me. Now, we’ll always be together.”

“Where are we going?” I asked a few minutes later when it didn’t look like we were driving home.

“We’re going to take a little trip,” said Mom, patting my knee. This was also weird, but I would have gone anywhere with her, even to the moon.

She pulled into a McDonald’s outside of town, and my mouth watered at the thought of some French fries or a milk shake. But instead of going inside or to the drive-through window, she drove to the front door, and a man came out wearing black slacks and a white t-shirt with a black blazer over it. He didn’t look happy and climbed into the back passenger seat saying, “You sure took your sweet time.”

“Chuck, this is my daughter Amber,” said Mom. “Amber, this is Chuck. Are we ready?” The man grunted.

This wasn’t right, I thought, as we drove out of the parking lot, but what could I say? We drove for miles and miles and miles. Chuck said nothing while Mom and I talked. When I asked Mom why she left and where she went, she ruffled my hair and said, “Don’t worry your pretty head about that, sweetie. The important thing is we’re together, and I’ll never leave you again.”

She asked about me, and I told her about the art class I signed up for at school, about how the teacher put some of my paintings on the classroom wall for all the parents to see during open house. “Someday, you’ll have to show me those paintings,” she said. I wondered what she meant by someday. Weren’t we ever going home? It didn’t look like it.

When we finally stopped to eat at some sleazy diner, Chuck kept giving me weird looks across the table. He also kept putting his arm around Mom’s shoulders. I didn’t like this. If anybody should have been doing that, it was Dad. Mom didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she loved it.

When we got back in the car, Mom told me to sit in the back seat so Chuck could drive, and she could sit up front with him. I didn’t like the look of his back, either. He kept taking one hand off the wheel and putting an arm around Mom’s shoulders. It made me want to throw up. I finally fell asleep and woke up hours later in front of a run-down house in a strange town.

“This will be our new home,” said Mom. I got out of the car and walked with her to the house. Chuck drove off before we even got in the door which was fine with me.

The house had a small kitchen dining area combination, a large living room, and two small bedrooms: one for Mom and one for me. An easel was in the living room next to a window. There was no other furniture in the room.

Mom had several outfits of clothing for me. They weren’t as nice as the clothes I usually wore, but she said, “Someday when I have more money, I’ll be able to buy you better clothes, and we’ll be able to move to a bigger house in a better neighborhood where I can have a room I can use just for my studio.”

When I asked about school, she said, “I didn’t get past the eighth grade, and look where it got me.” She pointed at one of her paintings on the living room wall. “Besides, it’s April. The term’s nearly over. Maybe by next fall, I’ll have enough money to send you to an art school.”

I was relieved not to have to start school right away in a strange town where I didn’t know anyone. Mom told me not to leave the house, even during the day. “There are creeps in this neighborhood. Don’t open the door to anyone. If someone comes to the door, go to your room and stay there until you’re sure they’re gone. You just never know what could happen to you, honey,” she said, hugging me.

We never went out to eat. There was no telephone, computer, television, not even a radio. Unlike Dad, Mom never read newspapers. She promised we could have this stuff when we got more money.

Chuck helped Mom put an old bookshelf containing used books in my room, and they were even able to squeeze in a beat-up old armchair and lamp. Mom painted in the living room. She said she didn’t want me to watch her anymore because it distracted her. In fact, she wouldn’t let me come out into the living room until after dark when the blinds were pulled.

I liked to read. Although the chair was uncomfortable, I didn’t mind sitting there for hours reading the Judy Bloom books Mom gave me. I missed Susan and my other friends and even Dad, although he was away a lot and didn’t want to have anything to do with me when he was home. I also missed painting and wondered why Mom didn’t get my easel and paints before we left home.

The only person who came to the door was Chuck, and I was glad to stay in my room while he was there. I didn’t like the way he kept looking at me. Luckily, my bedroom door had a lock that worked. Mom and Chuck drank. He often spent the night, and I heard sounds that I rarely herd from my folks’ bedroom at home. I buried my face in the torn covers of the old bed and tried to tune them out.

One sunny day in May, I couldn’t stand being in the house any longer. While Mom was in her room with a hangover, I quietly closed the front door and started walking. I memorized the house number and street name in case I got lost. Now, here I was, sitting in a café downtown, reading a newspaper article about me.

I felt a light tap on my shoulder and looked up to see a waitress with gray hair, smiling and holding out a menu. She looked old enough to be my grandmother. I smiled back and pointed at my picture and said, “How would you like fifty thousand dollars?”

She stared at the photo and then at me, and her mouth opened wide. The café door opened, and in walked Chuck. I shrank in my seat, hoping he didn’t see me, but he rushed straight to my table. “Amber, what the hell are you doing here?”

The waitress turned to the old man behind the counter who was grilling chicken. “Mel, call 911. That gal who went missing with the fifty thousand dollar reward is here, and the guy who kidnapped her is about to grab her again. Hurry!”

Chuck turned and ran. I felt weak. The waitress put her arm around me and said, “Don’t worry, honey. We won’t let him get you again. You’re safe now.”

Mel hollered from the grill. “Sally, tell that gal to order anything she wants on the house, and if that jerk comes back, I’ll butcher him, fry him extra crispy, and serve him with coleslaw.” He held up a knife. Other people laughed, and I couldn’t help giggling.

I didn’t even look at the menu. I ordered a hamburger, French fries, and a milk shake. It was the best meal I had in a long time. Other customers went to the counter and offered to pay for my meal, but Mel waved them away with his knife.             When the cops showed up, I gave them Mom’s address and told them what Chuck’s car looked like. They found Mom at the house right away and soon caught up with Chuck who was speeding down the highway, heading out of town. Mom and Chuck were wanted for crimes in other towns so they ended up doing a lot of jail time.

When I flew home, it was Dad who picked me up at the airport, not his chauffeur. What a surprise that was. He hugged me hard and said, “Oh Amber, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, princess.” He hadn’t called me princess or anything else in a long time. For the first time in quite a while, I cried on his shoulder and smelled his aftershave. It was so good to be home.

Dad took everything out of Mom’s studio, even my easel and paints, but frankly, I didn’t care. “This is your studio now, honey,” he said.

I picked out new wallpaper and carpeting. He bought me a couch, an entertainment center with a television, stereo, and big speakers, a corner desk, and a computer with everything I needed. He even got me my own phone with a private line plus a cell phone. My friends said I was lucky to have the best dad in the world, and they were right.

Dad was usually home by supper time, and I ate with him in the dining room instead of in the kitchen with Mrs. Miller. On weekends, he took me out to fancy restaurants. When the weather was warm, he often played golf at the club, and I went with him and swam in the pool and hung out with my friends. Before school started, he took me to an expensive clothing store and asked a sales lady to pick outfits she thought were appropriate.

Six months later, I looked at the story I wrote down for a creative writing class I elected to take at school instead of art, wondering how it should end. I never heard from Mom. Of course people who were arrested could only make one phone call, and she couldn’t have called me because I didn’t have a cell phone. She could have written a letter, but what could she have said?

“Amber darling, I’m having such a lovely time at Club Fed. Let’s do lunch sometime.” I snorted at the thought.

Then I thought of Mel and Sally at the cafe. Mel would have gotten the reward since he was the one who called the cops. Of course he would have split it with Sally. They were probably already married. They could have done a lot with fifty thousand dollars.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome, How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver, and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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Happy Marriage?

Yes, Bill and I were happily married for seven years despite the fact that I had to care for him at home, but that’s not what I’m writing about this time. I just finished reading This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. I blogged about this author a year ago when I reviewed The Patron Saint of Liars.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of essays not just about Ann Patchett’s marriage but about other aspects of her life. In one piece, she talks about what it was like to be a child of divorced parents, living with her mother in Tennessee and occasionally visiting her father in California and talking to him on the phone. In another, she describes how her father, a cop, influenced her to train for and take the Los Angeles police academy’s entrance exams which she did just so she could write about the experience. She also talks about her memoir, Truth and Beauty, in which she describes her friendship with another writer who was disfigured as a result of cancer and died of a drug overdose. She provides the impassioned speech she gave to incoming freshmen at a small southern university in 2006, despite controversy surrounding the book. In “The Bookstore Strikes Back,” she relates how she opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in 2011 when the city had no other bookstores. In the’ title essay, she talks about her first marriage and divorce and how she married her second husband Karl years later after swearing she would never marry again.

Besides The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett wrote five novels: Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, and State of Wonder. She edited Best American Short Stories in 2006 and wrote one other nonfiction book besides Truth and Beauty and This is The Story of a Happy Marriage. It’s called What Now and is an expansion of her commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s workshop and received numerous awards and fellowships including England’s Orange Prize, the PEN/Faukner Award, the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Book Sense Book of the Year, a Gugenheim Fellowship, The Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize, the American Bookseller’s Association’s Most Engaging Author Award, and the Women’s National Book Association’s Award. Her books were New York Times Notable Books and New York Times Bestsellers. Her work was translated into over thirty languages.

Since she opened Parnassus Books, she has advocated for independent booksellers and talked about books and bookstores on NPR’s “The Colbert Report,” “The Martha Stewart Show,” and “The CBS Early Show.” She was the honorary chair of World Book Night along with James Patterson. In 2012, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. She lives in Nashville with her husband Karl VanDevender and their dog Sparky. For more information about her and her books, visit http://annpatchett.com/ .

One essay in this book made me wonder if I should like Ann Patchett. She talks about her dog Rose and how she made the painful decision to have her put down when the dog could no longer walk, see, or eat. Then she talks about how she acquired Rose.

She and her husband saw Rose as a puppy at a local park. At the time, a girl was planning to give Rose away at an upcoming dog show. After Ann and her husband left the park, Rose tugged at Ann’s heart strings, and she insisted on returning to the park and collecting her. When they did, they found Rose in the arms of a five-year-old deaf girl. Ann lied to the little girl’s mother, saying there was a misunderstanding, that the owner promised the puppy to her, and unfortunately for the little girl, her mother believed Ann’s story. Here’s the irony. Rose is the name of the main character in The Patron Saint of Liars who doesn’t tell anyone about her husband when she checks into a home for unwed mothers, not even after her baby is born.

After giving this careful consideration, I realized that not reading any more of Ann Patchett’s work because she stole a puppy from a five-year-old would be like not letting my teen-aged niece listen to Michael Jackson because he died of a drug overdose. As a society, we often allow a person’s actions to reflect on their careers. There are worse things than stealing a puppy from a five-year-old, and as I write this, I find myself at peace with the issue. Ann Patchett is a baffling author, and I definitely plan to read more of her work including Truth and Beauty. Her writing makes me wonder.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome, How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver, and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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Vote for My New Book Idea

Two years ago after Bill died, I started working on a memoir about meeting, marrying, and caring for him. After a couple of months, I had to put it aside because it was too difficult to deal with emotionally. Two years later, I’m ready to start work on it again. After reading Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats, I decided to combine prose with poetry to tell the story the way she does. I’m revamping what I’ve written so far.

Before I even finished the book, I found a possible publisher. Something or Other Publishing has a different concept. I posted my book idea on their site where readers can vote for it. The more votes I get, the better chance I have of publishing the book with this company. I’m asking you, my readers, to go to the publisher’s site and vote for my book idea. The working title is My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds. I’ll paste a brief description and prolog below.

Description

In September of 2005, Abbie Johnson married Bill Taylor. She was in her mid-forties, and he was nineteen years older. Three months later, Bill suffered the first of two strokes that paralyzed his left side and confined him to a wheelchair. Abbie Johnson Taylor uses prose and poetry to tell the story of how she met and married her husband and then how she cared for him for six years despite her visual impairment.

At first, there was a glimmer of hope that Bill would walk again, but when therapists gave up on him seven months after his second stroke, Taylor resigned herself to being a permanent family caregiver. She discusses trials and tribulations: learning to dress him and transfer him from one place to another, sitting up with him at night when he couldn’t pee or move his bowels or because of other medical problems, battling doctors and bureaucrats to obtain necessary equipment and services, purchasing a wheelchair accessible van and finding someone to drive them so they wouldn’t always depend on the local paratransit service’s limited hours.

She also talks about balancing caregiving with writing and how she managed to publish two books and various poems and stories in journals and anthologies. In the end, she describes the painful decision she and Bill made to move him to a nursing home when he became too weak for her to care for him in September of 2012. He seemed to give up on life after that and passed away a month later.

PROLOG

THE BIG DAY

This couldn’t be happening, I told myself, as in my underwear, I paced the upstairs hall in Grandma’s house between my aunt’s old bedroom and the bathroom. It was a warm September afternoon in 2005, and out in the yard, I heard strains of music from the string duo my father hired for the occasion mingled with the chatter of arriving guests. Soon, the ceremony would start. Would I have to walk down the aisle on my father’s arm in my underwear? Where was my sister-in-law Kathleen who agreed to be matron of honor?

She was probably still at the motel with my brother Andy, their two sons Dylan and Tristan, ages eight and six, who were to be ushers, and their two-year-old daughter Isabella, who would serve as flower girl. Not only did we not have ushers or a flower girl but my dress was with Kathleen at the motel. Why wasn’t she here?

The front door banged, and to my relief, I heard the excited voices of my nephews and niece. “Go out back, and don’t mess up your nice clothes,” Kathleen called before rushing up the stairs to greet me.

“You have my dress?” I asked, noticing she wasn’t carrying a garment.

“No, it’s right there on the bed,” she said, pointing to somewhere I couldn’t see. With my limited vision, I could only make out people and objects close to me, and in the heightened emotional state of any bride-to-be, I didn’t think to look closely for the dress. I’d been pacing the floor and ringing my hands for twenty minutes, wondering where it was, and all this time, it was right in front of me.

Later, fully dressed, I sat on the toilet while Kathleen applied my make-up. From the yard below, the string duo’s music and the din of voices drifted up and in through the open bathroom window. When I was ready, Kathleen said, “Okay, we need something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Let’s see…”

While she wandered through the upstairs rooms, I made my way to the ground floor, feeling anxious. The living room was deserted. Everyone was outside, waiting. Just as I sat on the couch to compose myself, Dad appeared and said, “Honey, they’re starting Pachelbel’s Canon.”

I leapt to my feet and called up the stairs to Kathleen, “Screw something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Let’s do this.” I took Dad’s arm, and we maneuvered through the living and dining room and kitchen and out the back door. In minutes, Kathleen was at my side.

Isabella strolled down the makeshift aisle. “Oh look,” said someone in the crowd. “She’s dropping rose petals and picking them up again. Isn’t that cute?”

I wanted to be annoyed, but she was only two. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what else could possibly go wrong. Finally, I heard the musical cue for my entrance. “Okay now,” I whispered to Dad, and we descended the back porch steps and moved down the aisle.

At first, I didn’t see Bill. Was he still at the Mint Bar? Then all of a sudden, there he stood with his gray hair and sunglasses, wearing a green suit that complimented my gown. He took my hand and said, “Hello sweetie. Are you nervous?”

As usual, his touch and voice were reassuring, and I smiled and said, “No, now that you’re here.”

Nothing else mattered, not the lost and found wedding dress, the late arrival of the matron of honor, the absence of something old, new, borrowed, blue, or the errant flower girl. After a long day of preparation and celebration away from each other, we were finally together.

I’LL KEEP THIS MEMORY

of my wedding always,

guests seated in rows of white plastic chairs,

an arch framed by flowers and balloons,

the string duo that played Pachelbel’s Cannon,

as I marched down the aisle

and “Ode to Joy,” as we recessed,

unaware that tragedy would change our lives.

If you like what you’ve read so far, please vote for this idea at http://soopllc.com/blog/book-ideas/ideal-partner-met-married-cared-man-loved-despite-debilitating-odds-abbie-taylor/?doing_wp_cron=1420821398.1607348918914794921875 . Thank you.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome, How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver, and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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A Day in Lorraine’s Life

Up with the rooster,

she milks cows, feeds and waters stock,

gathers eggs, shovels manure.

After breakfast, it’s off to the bus barn.

She picks up children from other farms,

drives them twenty miles to school.

 

After that, she goes to the YMCA,

jumps in the pool, once, twice, three times,

encourages adults to jog, jump,

breast stroke while sitting on kick boards,

teaches little kids to swim,

makes sure no one drowns.

 

In the afternoon, back in her school bus,

she drives kids home.

When she returns to the farm,

there’s milking to do,

stock to feed and water,

more manure to shovel, supper to fix,

and oh yes, she must bake cookies

for her water exercise classes.

Tomorrow’s the last day—

they should be rewarded.

 

From That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

 

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Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

As If I Wasn’t Busy Enough, Now I Have Multiple Sclerosis

Believe me, reading this post will make you thankful for good health.

Critical Dispatches

“Only fools and rakes fall ill, my boy. You know me: I am busy from morning till night and abstemious, so of course I am well.” Nicholas Bolkonski in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

With the appointment confirmation letter neatly folded into the breast pocket of my winter coat, I arrive ten minutes early at the National Neurology Hospital in Central London on a fresh Wednesday afternoon to meet with a highly regarded medical researcher and practitioner who informs me in a softly-cultivated Anglo/Indian accent that the inflammation they detected in my brain five months back was neither an isolated nor an inexplicable happening, but is instead attributable to my having developed Multiple Sclerosis.

02dw_0_This was not the news I had hoped for and it really kicked the chair as regards a pleasant transition into the second half of the week. I was told much of what I already know, i.e…

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An Elephant In The Living Room

This reminds me of the song “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Have you ever wanted a large animal for a pet?

rachelmankowitz

 

My brother and I had a fascination with elephants when we were little. It’s possible this started when we went on an elephant ride. You had to climb up to a platform and be placed on the elephant. It was not like a horse; the elephant almost didn’t know I was there, like I was a fly on his back, but the idea that the elephant was alive, and moving, and not a bus or train but a real live being, seemed magical to me.

Happy elephant! (not my picture) Happy elephant! (not my picture)

I might have been four years old, because I can’t place when or where it happened. I don’t know if it was at a circus or an elaborate petting zoo, near home or away. I just remember the moments of elephant, and the plan that started to form: we wanted an elephant to live at our house.

We never…

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