My Big Brother Mike

Mike at work in his studio

Mike at work in his studio

I always knew my oldest brother Mike was an artist, but I never imagined him as a soldier. Going to war seemed to conflict with his gentle nature.

Growing up in Michigan near the lakes 1955

Growing up in Michigan near the lakes 1955

The three of us grew up living in lake towns outside of Detroit. Dad worked as an auto engineer. Any time my brothers and I weren’t in school, we’d be in or near the water, swimming out to the raft, boating to the best fishing spot, skating with friends in winter or crammed into a tiny shack with three lines dropped through a hole in the ice.

We all had a flair for the dramatic, with Mike leading the way. He raced cars, even built a three-window coup and a dune buggy out of parts that looked like junk.  He played the drums in a boy-band in 1960 with hair like Ricky Nelson wearing a tailored gray silk suit and a smile that could melt any girls heart.

 

Mike & Sherry at Lake Mead 1961

Mike & Sherry at Lake Mead 1961

When we lived in Kingman, Arizona Mike purchased his first car, a powder blue clunker with a white rag top. When summer came, he would sometimes take me and our brother Chuck to Lake Mead for a day in the sun. As soon as we arrived, he’d drop us at the beach and disappear into a surge of adoring teenage girls.  Mike was tall, 6’3″ with blue eyes as deep as the Pacific Ocean. That summer, he started collecting a series of girlfriends named Sherry, charming them by calling each his Sherry Baby, singing Frankie Valli’s song to them like they were the one and only love of his life.

Ready to race!

Ready to race!

We moved back to Michigan during Mike’s senior year of high school. On weekends and during the summers, Mike worked at the local Chevy plant where both our parents worked. His job allowed Mike to take out a loan for his first, brand new car, a metallic red Riviera. Mom’s white Riviera and the matching silver blue one Dad brought home as a company car made our driveway look like a patriotic commercial for Chevy.

Mike heading to Army Reserve Basic Training 1964

Mike heading to Army Reserve Basic Training 1964

Mike graduated from high school in 1964 in Flushing, Michigan. The draft was still active and the war was heating up. Unwilling to go to college to avoid being drafted, he joined the Army Reserves and headed to Ft. Hood. After he completed his basic training, he came home to study art, playing soldier on weekends. He spent a year in LA, then came to Peoria, Illinois in 1967 where Dad was working for Caterpillar and I was finishing high school. Ready to settle down, Mike married a girl he’d only known a month.

"My Flac vest and M-60 machine gun"

“My Flac vest and M-60 machine gun”

Soon he learned his wife was cheating on him. Unable to face it, he ran away, signing on with the regular Army, volunteering to fight in Vietnam.  It was the first of three tours he would choose when his life became unbearable.

Mike never talked much about his time overseas but I know he built a strong bond with his fellow soldiers while terrible things were happening all around them. I could see it in the photos he sent home. Despite the sniper fire and napalm being dropped from helicopters, the boys had time to dance to the Beach Boys and surf at the beach, packing into his short life the best and worst experiences a young man could never imagine.

Our parents getting divorced in 1968 angered Mike, sending him back to Vietnam because it shattered a core belief. He finished his second tour in Fort Hood in the Military Police.  Determined to stay out of Vietnam, he became a civilian cop in Austin, married again and had two kids, a son and a few years later, a daughter. We lost touch with each other as our lives pulled us in different directions. So I have no idea what happened to send him back to Vietnam in 1974, first in the Air Force. In 1975 he joined the Marines, where he spent his last two years in the service.

My big brother and I reconnected in 1980 when I returned to LA after my divorce. Mike had found the love of his life, marrying for the third and final time. After living in the Valley for almost a decade, he and Judy adopted two babies from Honduras and moved to Tehachapi, CA. Although he worked during the day as an engineer building bombs for the war, he pursued his art on weekends, building an art studio. He spent hours in that attic above the garage throwing paint onto large canvases in homage to Jackson Pollock, showing his work in local galleries and museums.

What he went through in Vietnam would haunt my brother for the rest of his life. He survived the battle with those demons through his love of art and his love for his wife and four children–until he died in 2001 from cancer due to Agent Orange exposure overseas.

From the day my big brother first taught me how to draw a face when I was twelve, I wanted to be an artist like him. I followed in his footsteps, taking up a paint brush and going to art school. Eventually I moved into sculpting clay and working with fabric and threads. I ended up with more art education than Mike ever thought about getting–all because I wanted to be as good as he was, so he would be proud of me. I think in the end, I accomplished that goal, though I have many more I have yet to achieve for myself.

Mike, Chuck and I in 1990

Mike, Chuck and I in 1990

Mike also shared with me his joy of being a parent. I never had children of my own. Just before he died, he gave me his two twelve-year-old children to finish raising. They’d lost their mom only eight months before. I became a first time mom at the age of 51. Mike died when he was 56.

The kids interrupted my career in art, but changed me in ways I can’t yet measure, moving me into a life of writing, working to fulfill my need to get it down and figure it out. Now, with the kids off making their own lives, I work to merge my art, my horses and my writing. Some days I feel like I’m twenty-something, still trying to figure my life out.

Of the three things that most shaped my life, two came to me from my big brother Mike–art and kids. My love of horses is the one I claim as my own.

Mike’s been gone almost twelve years, but whenever I pick up a brush or see a painting, I feel his presence. I miss his jokes, his teasing and his laughter, and give thanks for all that my artist/soldier brother gave me.

Remembering my glamorous Mom on Mother’s Day

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom. Even in a kiddie pool, she was glamourous.

In response to Maria Shriver’s question, “What gift did your mom give you?” I must answer, INTUITION and EMPATHY.

I lost my mom six years ago, but since I’ve been working on my memoir over the last four years, we’ve had daily conversations with her (no, I’m not crazy. I talk with the mom who lives in my head, along with all my other characters, real or imagined).

In my everyday life, I find myself saying words in ways she had said them, her voice coming from my lips.  She’s an integral part of my life, existing in my head and my heart, as well as in all the things around me that once belonged to her. I especially feel her radiance when I do things that would have made her proud, like becoming a writer in order to share my family’s adventures.

In addition to empathy, she taught me grace under fire and a confidence to respond to change and tragedy.  We had plenty of both, first with moving, (20 times that I remember by the time I graduated from high school) and then when we lost both my brothers (at ages 49 and 56).  Mom was the last to leave this world, lingering for years after a massive bleeding brain hemorrhage.  Even in her disabled state, with difficulty walking and talking, she made sure the kitchen was clean and the laundry was done.  She was a perfectionist when it came to having a beautiful home and stayed in her home until her last breath.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18.  This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18. This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.


My mom exuded beauty. She was often asked to walk the runway for charity fashion events.  Heads would turn in any room she entered, not only from her looks, but from her zest for life, an enthusiasm that she radiated.

Mom loved people. She loved to hear their stories.  Strangers would reveal their deepest secrets and be healed by her empathy and compassion.  She never judged nor said an ill word about anyone in all of her days.

Mom knew how to laugh and when she laughed, we all laughed with her.  She’d be goofy, not worrying about how she appeared as long as it made people happy.  I learned late in life that she was smarter than she let on. She once explained that it helped the men in her life feel important. She never needed to compete, always turning any spotlight on her toward their talents and ideas.

“I don’t have to express my opinion,” she would say. “I know what I believe and that’s all I need.  I don’t need anyone to agree with me.  They can have their opinion and I have mine.”

Scan 12

Mom didn’t age. She just grew more vibrant. We were mistaken for sisters even after she turned fifty.

Her courage surprised me. Mom was in her late fifties when she managed a large apartment complex in LA. At the request of  the police, she helped capture drug dealers, nonchalantly handing over packages that had arrived in the mail and landed on her desk with detectives waiting in the next room to make the arrest. Mom was thrilled to help put away anyone who might involve her college-student residents in their illicit drug business.  She was telling me the story of her latest caper while the two of us were having dinner out one night. Afterward, she and I were walking from my car toward the elevator in the secure garage under her apartment building when she saw a shadow of a man lurking in the back.  Without a thought for her own safety, she pushed me behind her and charged forward, yelling, “You’d better get out of here before I call the police.  This is MY PLACE and I won’t let you harm anyone.” My mouth dropped open as I saw the figure disappear out a back exit. I’d never seen my mother so fierce.  She became a mother bear protecting her cub.

She was the ultimate mother, willing to help any needy person she came across. But she always put her children first, especially her only daughter–me.  I was her pride and joy, she would say. I was glad she was able to attend both my college graduations, first in Fort Wayne, Indiana when I received my BA when I was thirty-seven, then again at UCLA for my MFA three years later.  A college education was something she was never given the opportunity to earn, working from the day she graduated high school.

She’d wanted to be an actress, but having children kept her from having the chance to appear on Broadway.  She did garnish a leading role in several amateur productions, but for me, Mom was aways playing the role of a lifetime. Life was her stage, and she was always at her best, dressed to the nines, perfect hair and makeup, full of humor and wisdom.

I feel her with me everyday, especially when I toss back my head in laughter, like she used to do. When I’m unsure of where life might be leading me, I trust in myself and in all the wisdom she bestowed on me, confident that everything will work out somehow, just like she always said it would.

 

MOM AND ME

My mom is riding the bus into Detroit for her first job selling ladies shoes in a department store

My mom is riding the bus into Detroit for her first job selling ladies shoes in a department store

My mom has been on my mind a lot lately.  I lost her in 2007 from a stroke.  She worked most of her life, and loved working despite the struggle of raising three kids at the same time. She kept house and cooked after coming home from work, often finishing the dishes after all of us had gone to bed.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t help her very much.  I gave up offering because she said it was easier for her to do it herself.  I think, now, as I reflect back, that she was trying to make my life easier than she had growing up.

In my memoir, DANCE WHILE THE FIRE BURNS, I tell about when Mom reveals to me that she learned to drive when she was pregnant with me.  She managed with my two brothers, then four and five, without a car. Back in those days, she often rode the bus like in the picture above.  She was eighteen and on her way to her first job in downtown Detroit to sell ladies shoes in a department store, a job she was proud to have because of the independence it gave her.  I learned another secret about my birth that day, but I’ll let you read that in the book when it’s released. (No date yet.)

There is still much I  don’t know about my mom. She was good at keeping secrets.  I plan on pumping every last memory from my Aunt Dee as soon as we can get together.  I do know that Mom was a strong woman, from a line of strong women, and that I continue in the spirit of that lineage.  At the same time, she was fragile–a fact she worked hard to disguise.

Perhaps Mom was vulnerable to any criticism because she never knew her biological father. She was born from love, but out of wedlock in the Milwaukee Home for Unwed Mothers, a place that I think was connected to the Salvation Army.  I didn’t learn that piece of family history until I was twenty-four when a drunk driver hit the car Mom was driving head-on, hospitalizing her and killing her mother. Even after I learned the truth, she wouldn’t talk about her her origins unless I greased the wheels of her memory with a few glasses of wine.

In addition to her unresolved youth, Mom married two complex men–first my father for twenty-four years and then another brilliant but troubled German for thirty-seven years. Both men drank what they called socially, but was much more than would now be acceptable.  Despite the difficulties it brought her, she resigned herself to her life because she felt it was something over which she had no control.

She was a beautiful, red-haired woman who worked hard every day of her life and was at her best in her role as caretaker, balancing everyone’s needs. She sometimes struggled with too many balls in the air in her attempt to please everyone, but she managed to charm and smile her way through the troubled times.  When asked how she coped, she would say, “It doesn’t help anyone if I just mope around.  So I make lemonade out of lemons. That’s just life.”

In her later years, she could say almost anything and make me laugh.  Always kind and compassionate, she took the time to listen to any troubled soul that passed through her life, lending encouragement and words of wisdom. I still hear her voice whispered out of the ether, guiding me everyday, about all things big and small. I honor all the gifts she gave me, but mostly the way she raised me to be fiercely independent.

Many times, we’d be visiting my grandparents for a holiday or summer visit and I would hear Grandma question Mom’s leniency with me.  Mom would say, “I’m giving her her head,” as if I was a horse that was allowed to run free. As a latchkey kid, I did roam free, often coming home at night only to eat and sleep, preparing to take off for a new adventure the following day.  No wonder I’ve loved being with horses all my life.  Their spirit matches my own.

When Mom was busy working or entertaining with Dad, I spent my time with my imaginary horses. They kept me company, running with me in open fields and along edges of Michigan lakes or in the Arizona desert.

My horses are not imaginary any more.  Although I’ve lost all of my family, I have my three four-legged beauties that live in the field just beyond my front porch.  Just looking out at them brings me joy like my mother did when she smiled and laughed.  It is the small things in life that make it truly rich.

What brings you joy on an ordinary day?

Do you have a love of horses? Or a childhood memory triggered by a picture?

Please leave a comment and I will answer.  I love a good conversation. I learned that from my mother, too.

 

My sweet Anglo-Arab gelding, born the year we lived in Salt Lake City, named after my brother, my dad and my grandfather.

My sweet Anglo-Arab gelding, born the year we lived in Salt Lake City, named after my brother, my dad and my grandfather.