A Storyteller And Weaver Of Tales

EK_0476My Father was a storyteller, a weaver of tales. He created his life through an intricate weaving of fact and fiction, tying the loose ends of his reality into indelible knots that could never be undone. Where one story began and truth ended, where truth began and another story ended, became so confusing in the tapestry of our lives that I’m not sure my brothers and I will ever truly understand the man that was our Father.

There was little instruction for the men of my Father’s generation in how to be fathers. Heroes that came home victorious from a global War were soon thrust into the very personal war of making money and supporting families. Most of them did the best they could, battling the demons of expectation during the day while battling the demons of War in their nightmares at night. My Father was no exception. For years, he did nightly battle with the demons that had followed him across the ocean and it is my belief that he learned to conquer them, not with the sword but with the pen. Although he found the subject of the War too painful to write about, he took all the ingredients of  War, the violence, the evil men, the good men and good women, and wove them into stories where the good always won. His stories became his personal testament that God would always forgive, love would always last and good would always prevail.

His life, however, often strained those very tenets to the near breaking point. He would say the unforgivable, knowing God would forgive. He would push the limits of his family’s love, knowing that in the end our love for him would last. And if he espoused the narrow viewpoint or the critical eye, he seemed to understand that good would at last prevail, even if it prevailed over him.

It has been said that you can never go home again but I don’t believe that. I believe like Maya Angelou that you never actually leave home; you carry it inside of you wherever you go, no matter how long you live. Along with the difficult times of my childhood were many wonderful times shared with my brothers, Mother and Father. I carry those memories with me and they have indeed shaped the person I am today.

My Father wove a tapestry of stories, both confusing and comforting, to wrap around my brothers and myself. They are his legacy. And on those dark chilly nights of life when I am alone and most afraid, I wrap myself in his tapestry and I too believe … that God always forgives, love always lasts and good always prevails.

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First Memories: Truth and Accuracy

Everyone has a first memory. Some first memories may go back as early as the age of 3 or, in rare cases, 2 1/2, but seldom before that. As pointed out in the excellent book, “The Memory Illusion” by Dr. Julia Shaw, multiple studies (cited and referenced in the book) explain why this is so but perhaps the simplest to understand for my purposes has to do with language. Basically it’s that without the knowledge of language, one would know neither how to formulate a memory nor how to pick which occurrences were important enough to remember in the first place. As it turns out, misremembering events in our lives, or thinking we remember something having happened that didn’t, is a quite common occurrence.

If, for example, one’s house were on fire and everyone raced outside amidst the smoke and flames while firemen arrived in big red trucks with sirens blazing, the 4 or 5-year-old would have a good chance of remembering certain aspects of the event. That age group loves firetrucks and firemen and has a vocabulary of about 2,600 words (though they are able to understand many more.) Before the age of 2, however, there would be insufficient understanding of the language and the concept of trucks, firemen and fire because that age group typically knows only 50-75 words. In fact, this age group is just learning how to string two or three words together to make phrases. However, such a major catastrophe in a family would probably be cause for multiple tellings of the event and it could easily become woven into the family’s history, brought up again and again at family gatherings (“Remember when the cat knocked the candle off the window sill and it rolled under the Christmas tree?!) In that way, a child who was only 18 months at the time of the fire might very well believe that she actually remembers the event, everything from the screams of family members to the smoke’s acrid smell and the kindness of the firemen and neighbors.

I don’t bring this up to cast doubts on everyone’s (including my own) memories but to suggest that when it comes to memories, we all need to be aware of the complicated natures of our minds and both the limits of the brain’s physiology and its amazing capacity to absorb new information and merge it into already existing data, thus possibly altering the accuracy of the original event.

And according to the BBC Academy – Journalism: “Accuracy isn’t the same as truth – it’s possible to give an entirely accurate account of an untruth.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/journalism/article/art20130702112133794)

So now that you may be befuddled about the amount of truth and accuracy of your own memories, I will share with you what I believe are true and accurate accounts of two of my memories, both apparently vying to be my first memory.

In one, I am peering into my new baby brother’s bassinet and seeing him for the first time. I am almost four years old. My mother has been in the hospital for a week because that’s how things were done in 1954. One would think my mother’s absence would make for a traumatic time for an almost 4-year old but I have no memory at all of my mother being gone. Perhaps this is because my almost 8-year old brother was at home and also my grandmother who was living with us then.

My memory takes place in the living room of our two bedroom/one bath home, one in a tract of houses hastily constructed to serve the thousands of servicemen returning home from the war. I’m on my tiptoes, holding onto the edge of the white rattan (I know it’s rattan because the bassinet was passed down to me and it later cradled my own two daughters — you see how easy it is to absorb additional information into a memory).

In the second memory, I am standing in my crib watching my mother get dressed to go out for the evening with my father and some friends. I know this because my Grandma Finger has told me so. There are only two bedrooms in the house and this crib is in the room my parents shared. I’m not sure but I assume my grandmother and big brother shared the other bedroom. Could this memory be before my little brother was born, making me much younger than would be likely for me to be able to remember? And if it is after my brother was born, it seems like I would be old enough to have outgrown the crib. But then I remember that my brother would have been in the bassinet for at least a couple of months and my parents may have been waiting for my grandmother to go back to Charleston before moving me out of the crib.

I’m not sure which of these two memories is the earlier or how accurate they are. But, for me, they speak a truth to my past. I was always close to my little brother, much more so than my older brother. I would tell my mother, “I love you, Mommy, but I love Kevin more.” I’m not sure why that was, but perhaps peering down at him over the edge of that bassinet and seeing his tiny little face, so cute and pink, bonded me in a way I never experienced with Leo.

Kevin and I have shared some very tumultuous times throughout our years as brother and sister and we still don’t see eye to eye on many things, but as we’ve gotten older we’ve both come to appreciate how important family is and the immense value of the memories we share.

They may not always be as accurate as we’d like but they are true to us. And that’s just fine.



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How the Cowboy Stuntman Met the Southern Belle

As I mentioned in my ‘Who I Am’ page, my parents met like so many others did during those terrible turbulent years of WWII when forces brought people together who likely would have never crossed paths in a thousand lifetimes. In the case of my parents who lived on opposite sides of the continent, their backgrounds and upbringings couldn’t have been more different.

My father, Leo Joseph McMahon, was born in 1913, one of twelve children born to Edwin Henry McMahon and Grace Dixon in Sonora, California. Though Sonora was the county seat of California’s Tuolumne County, it was still a pretty small town, nestled along the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in Central California. Because of the remote and beautiful countryside, film companies would often come to the area scouting out locations to shoot Westerns which were becoming very popular and my dad would sometimes help them. He was quite a handsome young man and a great horseman and it wasn’t too long before he was doing stunts for Hopalong Cassidy’s films. But the war intervened and my dad and his brothers all joined various branches of the military. My dad was in the Army Air Corps and before he was to be sent overseas, he was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina.

My mother, Caroline Helen Finger, was the daughter of James Avery Finger, M.D. and Mary Alice Heidt of Charleston, South Carolina. Mary Alice had three children compared to Grace’s twelve, sons Avery and Watson and my mother, Caroline, nicknamed Tee by her older brother Avery. My grandfather had a private general practice and also taught at the medical school in Charleston. Unfortunately, he passed away when my mother was only 16, and though he had put away sufficient funds for both my uncles to attend medical school, he had only given my mother the choice of a “coming out” party — a big thing in Charleston society back then — or two years of college. My mother chose college, going to Brenau College in Georgia for those two years.

At the time that my father was stationed in Charleston, my mother was back in Charleston, living with her mom and working at the post office. She was 23 years old and “promised” (I think that was not considered a formal engagement) to one of the medical students, a friend of her brother who was also a med student.

But all of that changed when my father went to the post office to mail a letter to his mother Grace and walked up to my mother’s window.

He told us kids that she was like a vision from heaven, the loveliest creature he had ever laid eyes on. She said he looked like a movie star, like Clark Gable had walked right up to her post office window.

And though he already had his orders to go overseas, somehow … somehow he accidentally shot himself in the foot, delaying his deployment for several months, just time enough to steal my mother from her medical school boyfriend, court her and marry her on October 2, 1944. He was on a ship for Europe a week later.

Had my parents met today, there would likely be selfies or Instagram and Facebook pictures of them standing together at that post office window. Sadly, there are no photos to commemorate that fate-changing day. There is one photo, however, that my brother Kevin took when he and my mom went to Charleston in 1968 to visit Grandma Finger. It shows my mom standing at the very window that changed her life’s direction and allowed my brothers and me to someday have lives of our own.


Mom, standing at the post office window where she worked and met my Dad, some 24 years earlier.


Leo Joseph McMahon



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My Guardian Angel’s Name is “Retsyn”

In 1960 when I was nine/almost ten years old and in the 4th grade, two things that had absolutely nothing to do with each other got incredulously and inexplicably linked.

The first was that during one of our daily catechism classes, Mother Rose introduced us to our guardian angels. Oh, not literally; we already knew that angels were invisible. But when we opened our catechisms, there illustrated on the page we were to study that day was a beautiful angel standing protectively beside a child. Now, of course, we were already familiar with angels, those heavenly spirit messengers from God. Like the other angels that we’d seen depicted in paintings and books, this angel was extraordinarily beautiful with flawless white skin (Well, of course, it was white. How many black or brown angels have you ever seen depicted in Renaissance paintings, stained-glass windows or on those little holy cards the nuns and priests handed out if you were good? But it would be another eight or nine years before I would ever wonder about that.) On top of being beautiful what really lifted these heavenly creatures above the rest of us were their glorious bird-like wings and brilliant halos that literally sparkled with light. We didn’t have wings and we certainly didn’t have halos. In fact, on more than one occasion our third grade teacher, Mother Timothy, had yelled at Tommy Johnson (as she chased him about the room) that she could see his ‘devil horns growing right out of his head.’

Mother Rose explained that guardian angels were special. They were angels that God specifically chose to watch over each one of us. Our very own guardian angel! From the moment we were born, Mother Rose explained, our guardian angel was beside us day and night, always encouraging us to do good and make the right choices while nudging us away from those people and things that might lead us into temptation or harm. Sort of like having our very own Jiminy Cricket sitting on our shoulder! She said we should pray to our guardian angel to help us to be good and because they were so special, we should give our guardian angel a name. Mother Rose passed out a sheet with the picture of a guardian angel to take home and color and at the bottom it said: My Guardian Angel’s Name Is ___________. It was due back the next day.

I was excited at first. Coloring was a great homework assignment for religion class, way better than answering questions at the end of the chapter. But a name? The more I thought about it, the more I struggled with just the right name for my angel. All through dinner and drying the dishes afterwards, I went over name after name after name. Well, naming someone for life is a pretty heavy responsibility. If you give someone a name that they don’t like, they might never forgive you. And if that someone is your guardian angel, well, no matter how good they’re supposed to be, some of God’s angels did disobey Him and fall into Hell. This was definitely a serious matter.  You didn’t want to make your guardian angel mad.

Now we come to the second thing which occurred in 1960.

The manufacturer of the ‘breath’ mint called Certs (or is it a ‘candy’ mint? Oh yeah, that’s right, it’s both) which had been introduced in 1956, began a huge advertising campaign on television with a new slogan. Wanting to push Certs as more than just a breath mint to attract more customers, it showed two good-looking young people, cutely debating whether Certs was a breath mint or a candy mint. Thank goodness the unseen narrator’s voice would resolve this exasperating dilemma by excitedly announcing that Certs was “Two, two, two mints in one!” Ahh, what a relief: it was a breath mint and a candy mint! And the reason it was two mints in one is that it contained two ingredients, chlorophyll and Retsyn (a trademarked name, by the way, for a special mixture of copper gluconate, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and flavoring – thank you, Wikipedia).

Well, sometime during the evening that I was sweating over naming my guardian angel, I must have seen that commercial and couldn’t get the damn thing out of my head. Over and over, “chlorophyll and Retsyn, two mints in one” repeated itself like a never-ending tape recording. Chlorophyll and Retsyn, chlorophyll and Retsyn. And by the time I went to bed, my guardian angel’s name was Retsyn. Yep, Retsyn. Well, could have been worse, I guess. I could have named my angel Chlorophyll and then I would have had to color him green.

But believe me, it wasn’t because I wanted to name my guardian angel Retsyn. I didn’t even know what Retsyn was other than something that made Certs taste good. But because I couldn’t get the word out of my head, I thought that maybe my angel was putting it there and trying to tell me that he wanted that to be his name. My lord, what tricks the mind can play on you! On the other hand, if I’d named him Michael or Joseph or anything else, his name and the whole guardian angel incident might have long since been forgotten.

I don’t pray to angels anymore. But every so often, I’ll have the feeling that someone else is up here with me in my room while I’m writing and Retsyn will come to mind. And maybe that was the whole idea. Maybe Retsyn is a reminder for me to always look to the ‘better angels of my nature‘ and try to choose the good and righteous path.

Or maybe it’s just a reminder to pop a Certs in my mouth!


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An Almost Forgotten Art

From as far back as I can remember, one of the highlights of my day has been the arrival of the day’s mail. When I was small, most of the cards and letters that the postman dropped at our door were addressed to my mother. She had left her life and history two thousand miles away on the South Carolina shores to live in what she most surely thought were the wilds of California. The many cards and letters that traversed the continent were her lifeline, her connections in vellum and medium card stock, to the family and friends she might never see again.

I began writing to these unseen relatives, my Grandmother Alice, Great Aunt Hester, Uncle Avery and Aunt Lutie, almost as soon as I could print my name, and some of my most cherished treasures are the few cards and letters of theirs from the 1950’s and 1960’s that survived my many moves and spring cleanings. The most special letter that I have though is one that was not actually written to me. It was written by my Grandmother Alice to my cousin Ruth, who was my Mother’s contemporary. My Grandmother had traveled from Charleston to California and was living with us temporarily, helping my Mom who was pregnant with me at the time.

In the letter, my Grandmother describes my Father laying the cement walkways in our backyard, the very ones on which I would later roller skate and ride my bike. She talked about him planting fruit trees, those extravagantly bountiful and delicious apricot and fig trees that would become such an integral part of our lives, trees that in my child’s view had been there from time immemorial.

It is so hard to imagine our parents as young men and women; to read my Grandmother’s description of my youthful parents is to share an intimate moment with them that I would have never been able to experience otherwise. For that irreplaceable gift, I will always be indebted to my cousin Ruth who graciously sent the letter to me shortly before her own death in 1994.

Regrettably, letter writing has lost its popularity in our country. Whereas, at one time it was our major form of communicating with loved ones and friends from afar, today the technology of our harried society–text messages, email, tweets, Facebook, telephones–have pretty much replaced the slow and thoughtful musings of the pen.  People complain that they are too busy to write a long newsy letter, but I suspect that we are no busier as a people than we ever were; that instead we have replaced the time we could write letters with time in front of the television set or the computer or Xbox. Instead of committing our thoughts and impressions of the world to paper–a physical act that can leave a permanent mark of us in time–we have allowed ourselves to become passive recipients of someone else’s images and viewpoints, a process that will likely leave nothing more permanent than an indentation in our sofas.

I am not guilt-free in this leaving behind of letter writing. I love my computer; I love the instant communication it allows with email and the wider audience one can achieve with blogging, tweeting and Facebook as well as the instantaneous dissemination of important news and ideas. (An obvious downside: the proliferation of “fake news” and lies that populate the internet landscape.) But there is something very sad to me when I walk down to my mailbox and find only flyers or ads and bills and not even very many of those. The Grandmothers and Aunts and Uncles who used to write long interesting letters to me are gone now and with them my sense of anticipation and eager excitement for what the mailman has to bring.

But throughout history, some of the greatest literature ever written has been in the form of the letter. Whether from kings and statesmen, lovers or friends, letters have provided a more intimate view of ourselves as a people and nation than newspaper or history accounts could ever provide. And one of the reasons they provide this stunning and insightful viewpoint into ourselves is that letters allow us to muse, to simmer our thoughts, to let our defenses down at times; to show ourselves as we truly are.

The invention of the telephone was admittedly a landmark in human communications and no one can deny the thrill of hearing a loved one’s voice from miles away. But verbal and written communications are very different.  We don’t speak the way we write and it is the written word that years later can still bring a tear, a smile, a memory. If Sarah Bernhardt had told her lover by phone, “Your words are my food, your breath my wine. You are everything to me,” her words likely would have been lost to the rest of us forever. And what a shame that would be.2-leos-1948

Photo of my Dad with my older brother. In the background you can see the cement walkway and a young alder tree and a recently planted fig tree. Photo taken about 1949.


(This post is re-printed from my blog:  http://luv2rt-justsomethoughts.blogspot.com)


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September 1956 — I walked proudly into the kitchen wearing my brand new school uniform. Green and white plaid skirt, crisp white blouse and the best part, a deep forest green weskit. On my head, I sported a green beanie accented with round silver studs.

My parents smiled. “Ready for the first day of school?” I was more than ready. I had been going to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church my whole life and St. Pat’s School was right next door to the church. My older brother was going there and he and my father had walked me around the school numerous times. It helped that my best friend who lived one street down from me would be in the first grade, too, and we would be carpooling together so I was ready.

When my dad dropped us off, my brother showed us where the first graders would be lining up but he needn’t have – Mother Dorothy was already on the playground directing our fellow first graders into two lines, one for the boys and one for the girls. She deftly shifted students back and forth until we were ranked from shortest in the front to tallest in the back. I was second to last; only one girl was taller than I, a big girl named Donna.

Mother Dorothy was a petite woman, probably in her early 30’s, but she was also formidable. It was the habit (uniform) of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary that made her that way. It was quite intimidating. Long black flowing robes that went down to her ankles and made her tiny figure seem much bigger than she was; a pointy headdress that covered most of her face and, in fact, almost acted like blinders. (I’m sure the boys must have thought they’d be able to get away with murder but the nuns never failed to amaze us. It was almost like they had 360° vision.)

Once we were all marched into the classroom and seated in our desks, Mother Dorothy had each of us stand up one by one and introduce ourselves to the class. By the time my turn came, I could barely talk I was so nervous. I stood up and just stared straight ahead. “What’s your name, Child?” Mother Dorothy asked. Finally, I blurted out, “Alicia Fullofgrace McMahon.”

Mother Dorothy raised an eyebrow then looked down at the roster in her hands and gave a little smile. “Well,” she said, “I guess we’ll just see about that, won’t we, Alicia Fullofgrace McMahon? Sit down.” I almost knocked my desk over as I scrambled to sit down. I didn’t know what I had done wrong but I had the distinct feeling  I was pretty close to being in trouble.

Later I would have a heart-to-heart with my dad who would explain to me that my name was not really Alicia Fullofgrace but just Alicia Grace. I would not speak to him for a week.

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Hello world!

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