Monthly Archives: August 2013

Mr. Gifford and My Trip through the Panama Canal

When I was working on my book, Finding My Invincible Summer, my editor encouraged me to write about the people in my life without any thought of including the material in the final version. It was a great exercise that added depth to the book. Here is one of my unpublished portraits.

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I was two months short of my fourth birthday when my mother left my father and moved to California to join my Aunt Muriel and start a new life. To save money, Mother had booked passage on a freighter, the SS West Notus, which

West Notus

carried cargo from New York to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. It was a 30-day voyage, and I remember much of it vividly. The passenger list was very short: in addition to Mother and me, there was Mrs. Bickers and her two children, who had accommodations on the bridge, and Mr. Gifford, whose cabin was across the mess hall from ours. Mrs. Bickers was seasick the entire time, and she and her children never came to meals. That left the three of us. The mess hall had only one large table and we ate with the ship’s officers.

Mother often told the story of her first encounter with Mr. Gifford. At dinner the first night out, she and I were the only passengers at the table. She therefore assumed that the cabin on the other side of the mess hall was empty. She was curious to check it out and see if it was any larger than ours. After the galley closed, she sneaked across the mess hall in the dark  (my mother was nothing if not adventurous) and went to try the door of the cabin to see if it was open. Just as she was about to turn the knob, a dark form filled the passageway, a firm hand clapped on top of hers, and a hearty voice boomed:

“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!!!”

An English major, she immediately recognized the quote from Shakespeare. She ran back to our cabin, laughing so hard she thought she’d never stop. The next day there were formal introductions and Mr. Gifford became part of our lives. He never let Mother forget about her attempt to break into his cabin.

At 6-foot-4 and over 300 pounds, James Noble Gifford was a presence that could not be ignored. His mother had been an opera singer, and he had been trained since childhood to follow her path, but stage fright had kept him from pursuing his intended career. He still had a powerful tenor voice, and he was comfortable keeping the two of us, the officers, and the cabin crew entertained with concerts in the evenings after dinner. When he wasn’t singing, he told wonderful stories, drawn from a rich cultural background. He was always jolly and knew how to make people laugh, including me.

He had booked passage on the freighter because it was cheaper than the cost of room and board for a month, but he had no particular destination in mind. During our days on the open sea, he spent a lot of time with me and gave me the kind of attention I had never had from my father. He taught me silly songs, limericks and other poems, and how to play Canfield solitaire. He treated me as an equal and made me feel that it was us against the world. We were in cahoots. I felt very special. I adored him.

He earned his living writing pulp romance novels under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms—Emily Noble, Warren Howard, John Saxon, Ross Sloane, Gerald Foster, Gay Rutherford, Griffith James, Carol Holliston, Eliot Brewster, Roy Booth, and possibly others. James GiffordHe also ghost-wrote books for other authors of the genre, including Peggy Gaddis. Each “author” had a specialty: Warren Howard, for example, wrote romances set on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that featured the local area and its people, while John Saxon’s books were what they now call “vintage sleaze.”

His publisher expected him to produce a book a month, for which he was paid just a couple of hundred dollars, and he was always behind, living off advances against books he hadn’t written yet. I remember watching him as he wrote page after page in longhand. I learned later that he was required to introduce racy passages at designated intervals, but the job of writing them went to a “specialist” in steamy prose. He would leave a blank space where they were supposed to be inserted. His role was to set the scene, create the characters, and spin the tale. Over the years, he dedicated several books to my mother and two to me—the tamer ones. My research on the Internet brings up more than 140 titles that I’m fairly certain were written by him over a period of 28 years. Many have become collector’s items, selling for as much as $125 a copy. I doubt  my mother knew about the “hotter” ones—he made sure we didn’t know all the hats he wore.

Other memories from the trip include our passage through the Panama Canal. We reached the first lock early in the morning, and I recall the eerie feeling as I watched its gray concrete walls rise through the portholes, turning everything dark inside as the ship “sank.”

My favorite memory by far was Easter morning. We were in port at the other end of the Canal, near Panama City, and I woke up to find white “footprints”—made with three fingers dipped in flour—leading all over the ship to nests of shredded green stuff that the cabin boys and crew had hidden. The fellows had gone ashore to buy the materials, and they also brought back a gigantic a carnival-sized stuffed bunny. They cooked and dyed the eggs in the ship’s galley. The big bunny was waiting for me in the center of the table at breakfast. Mr. Gifford had gotten me a smaller bunny and felt outdone.

Golden GateI also recall the excitement when we arrived in San Francisco Bay at sunset and sailed under the newly completed Golden Gate Bridge. Looking up at it from underneath, it was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen.

We settled into our new life in Berkeley and I quickly fell in love with California.  Mr. Gifford came to visit us more than once. One of my favorite places was John Hinkel Park, with its woodsy glens, views of the bay through the trees, and the amphitheater carved out of the landscape. Once Mr. Gifford climbed up on the stage of the amphitheater and sang arias to Mother and me as we sat on the stone steps. His visits distracted me from thoughts about my father’s absence.

He became a fixture in our lives. He would show up wherever we were. He claimed that when he was around my mother he felt inspired to write. When space allowed, he stayed with us. He joined us on all our vacations. When there was distance between us, he wrote long letters to both Mother and me. And poems. When I got older, I called him “Uncle Jimmy.”

Mother appreciated his quirkiness, the fun that he brought into our lives, and all that he did for me. Though he never told us his age (and Mother wasn’t about to tell hers), it turns out that he was only a year older than her. I don’t know if they loved one another in a romantic way, but turning their friendship into a committed relationship would have been difficult. Both were strait-laced and preferred jokes and teasing over talk of personal feelings. Mother remained married to my father for many years, as divorce would have been a disgrace to the family. Neither had enough money to make a home. Also, Mr. Gifford was restless. I don’t think he wanted to settle down. Aunt Muriel resented him a bit, though she tried not to show it. I think she saw him as a threat to the family unit she had created. She thought he was too “bohemian.” Mother, however, had the wisdom to accept him the way he was and welcome him into our lives. At the very least, as far as I was concerned, he filled the shoes of my absent father and made me feel happy, loved, and important. For that, my mother was deeply grateful.

When I was in my teens, he was diagnosed with diabetes and lost a lot of weight. In 1959 he was found dead in a rented room at Sloane House in New York City, having slipped into a diabetic coma.

The SS West Notus had predeceased him: she was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 1942.



The gateI still have the following books by Mr. Gifford, all of them autographed: Emily Noble, The Game of Hearts, New York: Gramercy, 1940 (dedicated to my mother); Warren Howard, The Gate, New York: Arcadia House, 1942 (dedicated to me); Warren Howard, Tidewater, New York: Arcadia House, 1945 (dedicated to my mother).

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Translating My Book into Portuguese

Cover - thumbnailI recently mentioned to a friend that I’m working on getting my book translated into Portuguese. Her immediate response was: “Why not Spanish? So many more people speak Spanish.”

My main reason is that I want my husband’s daughters, their children, and others in the family who may have some difficulty with English to read my story in comfort.

Also, the book has many references to Brazil and Portugal, and I believe there’s an audience for a Portuguese version. My husband’s story of life under Brazil’s military dictatorship in the late 1960s and 1970s should not be forgotten. Many intellectuals lost their jobs and were arrested, imprisoned, deprived of their income, and made to suffer in other ways. It was unquestionably the blackest period in the nation’s history.

The number of Portuguese readers is not to be sneezed at. While it is true that Spanish tops the list of speakers of European languages, followed by English, Portuguese is a close third, beating out Russian, German, French, Italian, and the others. According to my arithmetic, it is spoken by at least 250 million people. Based on data from Wikipedia, I see that, besides Brazil (population 193,946,886 in 2012) and Portugal (10,562,178), Portuguese is an official language in Angola (20,609,294), Cape Verde (491,875), East Timor (1,066,409), Guinea-Bissau (1,704,000), Macau (582,000), Mozambique (23,700,715), and São Tomé and Principe magellans_travels(187,356). Total: 252,850,713 and counting. The widespread use of Portuguese is the heritage of Magellan and his compatriot voyagers in the Age of Discovery, who covered much of the globe and left their country’s language and traditions behind.

imagesIn my work, I am increasingly asked to translate documents from countries that I know little about. Each new country has been an eye-opener to me – and an adventure. So far, I have “adopted” Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau, and I recently had a job from East Timor (Timor-Leste). I took the opportunity to research its turbulent history and read about its charismatic leader Xanana Gusmão and his activist Australian wife, Kirsty Sword. These adventures keep me entertained. They are also humbling: they remind me how vast the world is and how much I have yet to learn.

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Happy Birthday to Sunshine and Snow!

S&S reversedToday my twin Malt-Tzu (or Mal-Shi, if you will) pups turned 9 years old. They share a birthday with President Barack Obama. That day in November 2004 when they captured my heart and I brought them home seems like yesterday. The occasion inspired me to re-read parts of Sunshine’s online diary. She hasn’t made any entries lately, but the link is http://www.dogster.com/dogs/594409.

I was reminded that she had a rough time in 2011. She pulled through, of course, and she’s fine now. Below I’m sharing a couple of her entries on her milestones that year (with her permission, of course).

 January 23: Home from the Hospital

Sunshine after surgeryOh my! I have been through so much, I don’t know where to begin. The bottom line is that I am finally home, lying next to Sis on a cushion beside Mom’s desk. I have a big long seam in my belly, with my skin stapled together, and I’m exhausted. In fact, I have to dictate this to Mom because I don’t have the strength to type.
It all started because I couldn’t pee. We went to our regular Doc on Friday around 2 o’clock because no pee had come out since the day before. Still nothing. He said to come back Monday. Back home, Mom watched me for the rest of the afternoon and evening. I would squat and squat, but nothing came out. Besides that, I was vomiting and I couldn’t stop shaking. Around midnight she got really worried and took me to the Emergency Room for dogs. The doctor sucked up some of my blood into a glass tube with a needle on the end of it, and we waited and waited. Then he took a picture inside my belly – it’s called ultrasound. It showed more than 10 stones in my bladder! Seriously: real stones. One was stuck and keeping me from peeing. I was really, really sick. Mom was very nervous and she was crying. The doctor told her something had to be done right away; I could die if he didn’t act soon. So she agreed to let him go ahead and cut me open to take out the stone that was stuck – and the rest of them, too, of course.
The next thing I remember I woke up in a cage in the hospital. I was groggy and sore, but the people were very nice to me. Mom came the next day and brought me home. I was glad to be home, but so tired and sore that I couldn’t really show it. At least I can pee. It feels like I need to do it all the time, but I’m being careful not to do it in the house. It’s all so hard.
I hope I get better soon!

June 28: Bees!!! Yikes!!!!!! Bee sting!!!! Oooouuch!!!!!

Oh my. Why does everything always happen to me? When we woke up this morning, the house was full of bees! Yes, BEES!! Thousands of them. They were all over the windows, the floors, the walls… It was a big mess and very scary. The whole house was buzzing with the noise. Mom took pictures, but they’re too gross to show here. 
I ran upstairs to get away from them, but instead I stepped on one. OOOOOUUUUUCH!! I let out a big scream. My paw got all red and the pain was AWFUL. My leg started to swell. I kept crying and gnawing at the spot. I couldn’t put my foot down. Mom gave me a homeopathic remedy, Apis mellifica, and a couple of Snow’s antihistamines. And she put an ice pack on it, but that didn’t help much.
A man was on the way to remove the bees, and as soon as he came, Mom took me to see the Doc. He pulled out the stinger, and I screamed the whole time. I am NOT a good patient. Then he gave me two injections, and I calmed down. I’m sort of zoned out now, exhausted from the whole ordeal.
8 Tech in his bee suitBy the time we got home, the bee man (shown here in his bee suit) had sucked up most of the bees in the house with a huge vacuum cleaner and was removing a hive from under the deck on the patio. It was GINORMOUS!! About 4 by 6 feet, spreading out under the deck, attached to the planks. Mom took a picture of the hive (also too gross to show here), and then SHE got stung!!
This day will go down in history.

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