This is my family, the Strothers, at my father’s company picnic at Irvine Park in Southern California. The year was 1952, and my sisters, Cynthia and Kay (The Bell Sisters), had just won a TV talent show, and they were headed off to Hollywood.
We were a scruffy bunch and quite the competitors. It was a day-long contest, family against family in sports from three-legged races to baseball. We should have won…but Dad forgot a small prize he had tucked away into his shirt pocket.
Since publishing my book several years ago, I have presented at dozens of book signings from California to Canada. I have met so many extraordinary individuals. From these contacts, one thing has become crystal clear to me…EVERYONE has a story to tell.
At the end of my presentations, I ask for questions. Without a
doubt, the most common inquiry I receive (after “Are all those crazy
stories really true?”) is “How do you go about writing a memoir?”
I love that question. Because, like I said,
everybody has a story to tell. Like, the World War ll veteran who told me he
met his wife on a small farm in France during the liberation of Europe.
“We fell in love almost instantly, and it took months of
hard work to bring her home to the States.”
Still married decades later, the herculean task and the fear of
being separated from the woman he loved was still fresh in his mind.
Or, the lady whose parents lived through the Dust Bowl in the
drought-stricken Southern Plains region of the United States.
My father said, “Nothing would grow, so we boarded up the
family farmhouse and headed west with the tired old pickup stacked high with
all of our belongings hefted up on top.”
Still seared into
his memory was the sad looks on the faces of town folks they passed by.
with dirty kids and crying babies, we must have been a pitiful sight to
see,” he told me with a hint of sadness in his watery grey eyes.
Then there was the elegantly attired lady who shared the plight
her family faced when her father died of typhoid fever, and her mother had to
work outside of the home, leaving her to become the mother to her younger
“In those days, women didn’t work in town. I was barely
eleven and had to cook, clean, and care for my three little
Or, the immigrant from Poland who landed in New York City with
only a scrap of paper with a name on it.
“I only had an address and a name of a distant cousin. I
was excited to be in the USA and terrified at the same time. This person I
barely knew let me sleep on his couch until I got on my feet.”
I heard one story after another, each unique and special in its
own way. Some were very dramatic, and others were just the musings of a life
well-lived. There were funny and weird stories as well – like paying neighbors
in beer to push a piano around the block for your songwriting daughter. Or how
you meet a rich man on the bus, and he pays for your college career … and
then your sister’s college career when you dropout.
Of course, no one’s life is pain-free. All the folks I spoke
with had trials and tribulations to overcome, some more serious than others.
But, upon hearing their stories, I felt each needed to be remembered and passed
along to family members so they might know more of their history.
I’m not suggesting that everybody needs to or wants to go to all the work and energy it takes to write and have a memoir published. (Maybe “memoir” sounds too overwhelming. Perhaps your “life story” might be a better description of the project.) I feel confident you won’t regret the decision. When I finished my memoir, numerous family members thanked me for doing it.
My grandson said, “I had no idea all those things happened. Thank you for preserving our family history for future generations”.
Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored — Aldous Huxley
live in Florida, and like many senior citizens, Home Depot is a store we
frequent. We are always working on a house
or garden project. Like many retired
empty nesters, we enjoy spending our time in useful pursuits.
For me, it’s the yard. I
love all kinds of plants and I adore the changing of the seasons, which we
enjoyed tremendously during the four years we lived in Ottawa, Ontario Canada.
Wait, let me add one small caveat to that statement. Spring, summer and fall are awesome. But winters in Canada are another story; you
can keep ‘em. Last year, Ottawa suffered several weeks of -40 degree weather. Yep, we now fly south like other smart birds
when winter sets in.
Florida ‘s climate is different from most of the country, which enjoy
the typical four seasons. The “Sunshine
State” is broken up into just two seasons, wet and dry. Wet season in Florida
usually begins in late May and ends by mid-October. Sea breeze showers and storms are practically a daily
afternoon occurrence. Vero Beach, where we live, racks up an average 58 inches
of precipitation and the wet season is hot and humid. But regardless of the heat and humidity, working
in the garden fills my heart with joy.
one sunny Sunday, as my husband and I were idly watching Rusty, the young lot
attendant, stuff all the plants, mulch and garden rocks we’d purchased into our
SUV, we chit-chatted about all the “snow birds” living in Florida (we are also called
“Q-Tippers” by the locals because older folks are often short and when they
drive all you can see is their white hair.)
our handsome helper said laughing, “Loading cars for the north folks can be a
challenge. Some people buy stuff like they are loading up their plates at at
the Last Meal Buffet. Their eyes are
bigger than their stomachs … or in this case, their cars.”
“Yeah. I get that,” I nodded. “I hate to waste the
time it takes to make a second trip. I guess you could say when it comes to home
projects, my cup (or car) runneth over.”
a lull, I asked Rusty the funniest experience he’d ever had loading a customer’s
easy,” he said. “There is one guy who is
a legend here at the Home Depot. He
always buys big items and insists, that if we really try hard enough, we will be
able to fit them into his car. We call
him Tennis Tom, because he always dresses in tennis togs.”
to Rusty, Tennis Tom refuses to admit that his spiffy white convertible sports
car is not the best choice for his do-it-yourself projects.
time he had me load a high-end Kohler toilet onto his front leather passenger
sure you attach the seat belt, will ya kid?
I don’t want to hear the darn thing beep all the way home. But, could
you hurry up a bit? My plumber is
waiting on this beauty. And you know
what plumbers cost.”
couldn’t believe it,” Rusty said, shaking his head. “Tom drove off with a giant toilet as his
co-pilot. It was quite a sight.”
time, I loaded a dozen big bags of mulch in his front seat and one of my
co-workers had to tie down a screen door for the guy. He’s just won’t take no for an answer. When he wants something, he wants it NOW!”
despite his loading quirks, Rusty said Tennis Tom was a really nice guy.
always thanks me for my efforts and tries to slip me a $10 tip. And I tell him every time that tips are not
that’s dumb,” he says. “We tip everybody
in New York City.”
hilarious,” I commented, as Rusty stuffed the last big bag of garden mulch into
our car and hit the automatic button that closed the trunk door.
sighed with relief, “I wasn’t sure all that stuff would fit. But it did.”
we drove away from the store, I just had to remind my doubting husband, “See, I
told you we could get all that stuff in the car.”
love being right, at least once in a while.
it fit alright, but our car was jam-packed and smelled like a cross between a
flower shop and a barn. I was holding a flat of begonias on my lap and a pair
of beautiful red roses were sitting at my feet with the blossoms sticking up
between my knees. And Chico, our Jack Russell mix (and constant companion on
Home Depot runs), was straddled precariously on the center console.
I chirped gleefully. “We don’t have to
make a second trip.”
A few Sundays later, I was at the Home Depot again, and this time I ended up in the checkout line directly behind the infamous Tennis Tom. True to form, Tom was all decked out in white and sported an expensive pair of sunglasses. He was purchasing a large palm tree, which was perched on a loading dolly, with trusty Rusty in attendance.
Rusty recognized me, he flashed me a quick smile to say, “This is the guy… the
guy I was telling you about.”
Wikipedia, there are over 2,500 species of palm trees and almost all of them
can be grown in Florida. The Phoenix
Robellini, the type Tom was purchasing, is often planted in clusters for visual
impact, has a maximum height of 12 feet and makes an impressive statement on
any lawn. But, like many palms, the
Robellini has sharp and bothersome thorns where the palm fronds affix to the
trunk. And when I say thorns, I mean BIG
thorns that hurt. Thick gloves are a
must when trimming a Robellini. And,
when you’re trying to plant one, you’d be smart to wear eye protection.
When I finished
paying for my purchases, I followed Tennis Tom and his tree into the parking
lot. Luckily, my car was parked directly across from his in the lot. I could
hardly wait to see if Tom would try and fit a full-size palm tree in the front
seat of his sports car.
And yes, yes he
“The safety belt
won’t fit around the palm, sir,” Rusty warned his customer. “It’s going to be loose in the seat. And I
don’t think that heavy cardboard you brought is going to protect your leather
from the thorns. Are you sure you want
to do this? You do know, sir, that we make
“I know, I know,”
Tom answer impatiently. “But my gardener
is working today and he’s at the house waiting to plant the palm. Just buckle the belt behind the tree and
don’t forget to cover the leather beneath it with a bunch of that plastic
stuff. I’ll drive very carefully. Don’t worry kid. It’s not my first rodeo. The tree and I will be fine.”
I took my time
loading my few purchases into my trunk so I could watch and hear the Tennis Tom
spectacle. As predicted, I heard Tom
offer Rusty a tip and I heard Rusty refuse, again. politely.
“Well, that’s a
dumb rule. We tip everybody in New York
With that ritual behind him, Tennis Tom adjusted his shades, revved up his beautiful white Mercedes convertible and drove out into the traffic with his six-foot tree in tow. A sports car, with a tree sticking out of top is not a common sight in our town. So, it didn’t take long for a gaggle of gawkers to develop.
light, so Tom was able to easily pull into the left-hand lane at the traffic signal.
He waited patiently until the light turned green and then he began his turn.
As he turned, it
happened. When Tennis Tom leaned into
the turn, the palm followed and instantly landed on Tom’s right side.
As the turn
progressed, so did the sounds. Even a
half a block away, we could hear loud groans and moans of a person being impaled
by the sharply pointed thorns of a Robellini palm.
“Ouch, ouch, OUCH!!! Holy shit!”
The crowd of
onlookers watched helplessly as the gloveless man tried to fend off the
onslaught of puncturing palm fronds. It was obvious from the sounds that Tom
was being skewered as he fought to upright the thorny beast in his car.
moly! Poor Tom,” yelled Rusty. “I was afraid that might happen.”
A grumpy old
guy standing next to me didn’t feel a bit sorry for Tom. On the contrary. He just shook his head and yelled, “The guy is
I didn’t mean
to laugh. It wasn’t funny, really. But the scene was comical and so I did.
Impatience can cause wise people to do foolish things — Janette Oke
I would like to
say that I’d never pull a stunt like the one I was witnessing. But of course, that would be a total
lie. My past is littered with stories
about me pushing the limit or refusing to deal with the reality of a
situation. Let me give you an example.
When Alan and I
bought our first house, we went to the hardware store (I don’t think Home
Depots were open then) to purchase an additional sheet of laminate for the
inside of a shower we were remodeling in our modest master bath. The project
was almost complete. All we needed was
one last section of laminate about two feet wide and seven or eight feet long.
When we got to
the store, my husband took one look at the laminate pieces the store had available,
and wisely said, “We can’t get that in the car.
We’ll have to wait until we can borrow a truck or something to get that
reaction to seeing the size of the laminate pieces, was totally different. In my mind’s eye, there HAD to be a way to
get that last piece of laminate to our house.
Maybe it would roll up. Nope.
Maybe we could tie it on top of the car. Nope. We didn’t have anything
to tie it to. Maybe we could put it
inside the car and leave the window open with the laminate protruding out the
barked Alan loudly. “If that laminate
get’s loose it could decapitate one of the kids. That’s not happening!”
“Okay. I get it,” I snapped back, half kidding. “But, let’s don’t
give up so easily. There has to be a way.”
anything, I’m determined. And like Tom,
I’m impatient. Especially when I get my
mind set on something (and I was dead-set on getting that bathroom done, TODAY!) So, I
harped and nagged at my husband until I bullied him into the idea that I could
hold the piece of laminate on the outside of the car, up tight against the door
as he drove home.
“We only have
to drive a couple of miles, Alan. I’m
sure I can hold it. I want to finish the
shower today. PLEASE, don’t make me wait
another week. Come on, Alan. Don’t be such a chicken. We can get this home.”
barrage of my persistent prodding, the poor man relented and reluctantly handed
me the laminate, which I held tightly up against the side of the car.
“Okay, are you
sure you have it securely?” he asked with dread in his eyes and concern in his
“It’s a piece
of cake, really. Yes, it’s fine. I’ve got it.
As Alan pulled
slowly and carefully into traffic, I was feeling less confident and I was
thinking, “If this darn laminate was one inch wider, I could never hold on.”
One mile per
hour, two miles per hour, three miles per hour, “So far, so good,” I reassured
But, when Alan
was forced to accelerate to keep up with traffic, the wind caught the laminate,
tore it from my grasp and snapped it in two…like a twig…like a bat at home
plate, like brittle kindling for a fire.
You get the idea. The laminate was broken and went flying wildly into
say, Alan was not a happy camper, nor was the startled man who was driving
behind us who had to pull hard right to dodge the laminate projectiles that careened
towards his windshield.
I can’t repeat what the guy screamed at my embarrassed husband. Let’s just say his barroom vernacular and graphic gestures made me feel incredibly stupid for being so headstrong and suggesting we try such a stupid stunt. I felt like a moron. Which I was.
I don’t get high, but sometimes I wish I did. That way, when I messed up in life I would have an excuse. But right now, there’s no rehab for stupidity. — Chris Rock
The balance of
the trip home was in total silence. But,
the story of my stupidity was the fodder for many a party joke, at my expense,
When I got home
from Home Depot that Sunday, I couldn’t wait to tell Alan about Tennis Tom and
his painful palm experience.
replied smirking. “Hard to imagine someone being so stubborn as to try something
so stupid. Right, Paula?”
to believe anyone could be such a moron.”
Normally, I’m a bit of a wimp and I try to avoid confrontation, especially if I’m considering confronting a man dressed like the leader of a motorcycle gang. But I was mad and that made me brave (or maybe just stupid). So, I confronted the biker. He had obviously stolen my money and I wasn’t going to let him get away with it.
My shopping cart was overflowing as I approached the checkout
stand at Pic-N-Save (now called Big Lots).
It was late fall and I was buying all kinds of goodies for the upcoming
holidays. Pic-N-Save was always a great
place to purchase cheap decorations and crafting items. But, during “Door Busting Sales” their
advertising tagline rings particularly true, “Pick a little and save a
I love to people-watch.
So, while I waited to be rung up, I studied the other folks in the
checkout line. In front of me was a
sweet looking grandma of a gal, probably in her late 70s (now that I’m in my
mid-70s, she doesn’t seem that old). She
wore really thick prescription glasses and was fidgeting with a handful of
carefully clipped coupons. (I admire
people who have the discipline to clip coupons. I have tried to do that, but I’m
such a scatterbrain that the coupons never make it to the store before they
Anyhow, the coupon clipper and a heavy-set checker were
reviewing her bill, item by item. It was
obvious the older lady was making sure each item had been recorded accurately
and that she’d received full credit for all of her coupons. (I have a theory about store checkers. Unless the bill seems completely out of whack,
I don’t review it. I depend on karma and assume that I get overcharged about as
often as I get undercharged and things balance out in the end.)
Standing behind me in line was a tattooed titan who looked liked a character right out of the movies, maybe Easy Rider or Hell’s Angels on Wheels (you can take your pick). When I first entered the store, I noticed a classic ol’ hog, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, parked up close to the entry. From this guy’s appearance, it was obvious he was the owner.
The burly old biker had a red bandana tied around the top of
his head. Long stringy clumps of mostly
grey hair fell from the sides of the bandana and dusted the top of his
well-worn black leather jacket. His
jacket was festooned with colorful embroidered patches, mementos no doubt, of
previous riding events he had participated in.
His motorcycle goggles hung loosly around his neck and his t-shirt, barely
visible beneath his jacket, sported some kind of message. The biker’s black leather boots were dirty,
and as he got closer, I could smell rank sweat and stale cigarette smoke. A ring of dust, which perfectly matched the outline
of his goggles, gave his weathered face an almost ghost-like appearance. I gave him a smile as we moved forward
towards the checker. He nodded and grunted
a low response. His eyes were bluish
“NEXT!” barked the seemingly overwhelmed checker towards the
two of us as coupon lady finished her business and edged her basket towards the
The checker was dressed in a bright orange company apron with
giant front pockets. She wore a tilted
name badge with “Sue” scribbled with black marker under the printed words, “Hi.
My name is…”
She had a sad face and sad eyes. I instantly felt sorry for her and wanted to
brighten her day.
“How you doing today?” I asked cheerfully. And then, in an attempt to show empathy, I
added, “Boy, this place is packed…looks like they’re really keeping you busy.”
“I’m fine,” she muttered back unenthusiastically, “Welcome to
From Sue’s sarcastic reaction to my upbeat greeting, I
wouldn’t have been surprised if her car had a bumper sticker that read, “Thanks
for refilling my ‘fed up with you’ meter.”
Sue wasn’t happy but she was fast. She rang up my purchases in rapid fire
“Twenty-two Thanksgiving swizzle sticks, eighteen gold
glitter picks, three elf wreaths with battery-operated eyes, one dozen small,
one dozen medium and eight large holiday bags, tissue (variety pack), etc.,
Not looking up at me once, or acknowledging my presence
beyond our terse greeting, Sue continued counting my items, ringing them up on
the register and shoving them into a couple of oversized plastic bags that
began to bulge at the seams. So as not to
slow down the progress, I took five $20 bills out of my wallet and placed them
on the counter as Sue was finishing. (I
don’t usually pay with cash. But we had
a big neighborhood garage sale the day before and my wallet was bulging with
Just then, from outside the store, we heard the loud screech
of car breaks and the bang of something big and heavy hitting metal and
glass. The whole building shook with the
“What the hell?” someone yelled.
People started screaming and everyone turned immediately
towards the source of the noise, the front of the store.
It only took a nanosecond to surmise the situation. A driver had failed to put on his brakes and a
big black sedan had run smack dab into the front bay window of the store. (Now that’s what a call a door buster!) Shattered glass, metal shopping carts and
holiday decorations flew in all directions as frantic shoppers scrambled away
from the oncoming car. The black sedan
eventually came to rest on top of a giant, tinseled plastic Christmas
tree. Comically, despite the mammoth
tree topper that had just flown in from the parking lot, the twinkle lights
continued to blink.
Instantly the store was a chaotic mess. The police and fire department arrived with
sirens blaring, which greatly added to the noise and confusion. But, thankfully no one was hurt and
eventually the store returned to its holiday activities, and “Joy to the World”
could be heard playing, for the umpteenth time on the store’s overhead speakers.
Once things calmed down, I turned back around to the checker
and looked down at the top of the counter.
During the melee, my five $20 bills had disappeared.
“Did you pick up my money?” I asked the checker, who’s day
had clearly brightened up with the excitement of the accident.
“What money? I didn’t see any money. Are you sure you put your money down on the
“Yes!” I answered matter-of-factly, looking down at my still open
purse. “I put five $20 bills right
I don’t know why I thought pointing to the spot would
“Well, I didn’t see any money and it’s not there now. So, I don’t know what to say.”
Just then, I thought about Easy Rider standing next to me. Instantly, I knew what must have happened. The biker had taken my money during the
excitement. He was the culprit.
The cheerless checker was getting frustrated with me because
I was now holding up the line. Shoppers were
anxious to get home and tell their family members about their near-death
experiences while trying to pick a little and save a lot.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to pay or you’ll have to leave
the stuff…that’s all there is to it.”
Normally, I’m a bit of a wimp and I try to avoid
confrontation, especially if I’m considering confronting a man dressed like the
leader of a motorcycle gang. But I was
mad and that made me brave (or maybe just stupid). So, I confronted the biker. He had obviously stolen my money and I wasn’t
going to let him get away with it.
As I boldly turned to accuse him of taking my money, the biker
calmly said to the checker, “Miss, why don’t you look and see if you accidently
put the money in with the items you shoved into the plastic bags?”
The biker’s question did not improve the checker’s attitude.
“Fine,” she huffed. “But I’m telling you there wasn’t any
money on that counter.”
With that, Sue grabed up the biggest bag and dramatically dumped
out all of the contents. Everything went
spilling onto the top of the counter and onto the floor. All my purchases.
And the five $20 bills.
Upon seeing the missing money, the checker smiled meekly and
raised her shoulders up, as if to say, “Whoops.”
Obviously, I was happy to see my money. But, I was also mortified to think how close I had come to accusing this innocent guy of being a thief. Even worse, I was basing my accusation on nothing more than his looks. I was embarrassed, even if the biker didn’t know what I had ALMOST done.
“Do not judge my life story by the chapter you walked in on.” –Lessonslearnedinlife.com
The biker helped me load my purchases back into bags and he
quickly paid for his one item, a ceramic figurine of a Chihuahua.
“It’s my mom’s birthday.
She loves Chihuahuas,” he said laughing.
“I’m on my way over to her place to clean-up before tonight’s ride.”
He went on to explain that he just rode in from the
desert. “That’s why I’m such a mess.”
I thanked the biker for helping me find my money and for
collecting all the stuff that had fallen onto the floor. When we got to the parking-lot I complimented
him on his motorcycle.
“Thanks,” he said, smiling.
“Tonight’s our big annual ride for abused kids. I’ve been doing it for years. See?” He pointed proudly to a series of matching
patches sewn on his jacket and his t-shirt which I could now see. It read, “We ride for the kids.”
I wanted to give the guy a big hug. But he waved me away. “I appreciate the gesture…but I don’t think I
smell too good.”
We laughed as I thanked him for his service. Jake Roland, the
guy that I had imagined was the leader of a notorious motorcycle gang, was a
retired plumber and a Vietnam vet from Palm Springs. I had let his appearance shape my opinion of
who he was. Obviously, there was more to
this man’s person than his clothes had led me to believe. Like they say all the time, and I had briefly
forgotten, you can’t judge a book by its cover.
When I got home, I looked up a saying I once read by an
American novelist, Lauren Oliver. I
believe her words fit the situation perfectly:
“I shiver, thinking how easy it is to be totally wrong about
people, to see one tiny part of them and confuse it with the whole.”
Yep…you shouldn’t be fooled by what you see on the outside
because what’s on the inside is very often a different story.