Hitching a Ride on the Mayflower

This serious looking man is Francis Cooke and according to my cousin Gene, the family historian, he is my 11th great-grandfather. Oh, and he hitched a ride on The Mayflower and was a signer of The Mayflower Compact. Before I go any further, let me submit this disclaimer. My family is so not your stereotypical Mayflower family. Oh, sure, we share ancestors with the Bushes and the Roosevelts, but that’s where the similarities end. Somehow their branches were the rich, preppy, Ivy-League types and mine, is well, not that.


While those other descendants of Francis Cooke were out creating political dynasties, some of my relatives were carving out names for themselves in other ways. Take for example, this fellow.

His name is George Rowe and if I have the genealogy correct, he was my great-grandmother’s brother. And this is his mug shot from Folsom Prison. He was convicted of First Degree Burglary in 1896 and was sentenced to 15 years, serving nine. Take that, Mayflower Society!

Later on, there was my great-uncle “Honey” who ran a book-making operation out of his cigar and candy store in San Francisco’s Mission District while his sister, my always prim and proper Aunt Evelyn, took the bets over the phone. Years later, some of my earliest memories revolve around going with my Dad to place bets at a bar in the Mission that shall remain nameless. Here I’d sit at the bar with the bookies and sip a Shirley Temple. It was in this bar that I learned how to shoot pool. And despite being right-handed, I shoot pool with my left. I guess one of those bookies was a southpaw. One day the police rounded up the bookies and when it was reported in the paper, I read aloud the names of my “friends” who had been arrested and I cried.

So, as you can see, being a descendant of The Mayflower isn’t all penny loafers & Lacoste shirts, Martha’s Vineyard and the Harvard-Yale game. It’s also bookies and burglars. I am grateful to ‘ol Francis for making that long journey across the Atlantic. And I’m grateful to my Irish, Italian and German ancestors who also made that trek. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do it. The seasickness and cramped quarters alone may have kept me in Europe.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all, no matter how or when you got here, be you patrician or plebeian, saint or sinner. It’s who we are now that makes the difference, not who our family was. We make our own history every minute, so go make some with friends and family this Thanksgiving.

Babies Crawl and So Does My Skin

Some of you may remember my rant about the Nutella commercial in which I take umbrage with the premise that giving Nutella to your kids for breakfast is acceptable. Well, boys and girls, once again a commercial has elicited a strong reaction from me and yes, it relates to my childhood. (I know that you’re shocked.)

This time the commercial is for Huggies and it features miscellaneous toddlers crawling all over the floor. I’m sure that most people find it cute, perhaps even amusing. It creeps me out. In case you haven’t seen it, here it is:

Why, you may be asking, does this commercial bother me so much? Well, to answer this question, I need to give you a little back story that may help. In my first post on this blog, I told you that my parents tried for nine years to have a baby and after multiple medical tests and novenas, ta dah! I was born.

Well, with all that effort, you can imagine how wanted I was and how protective my parents were. (I wasn’t allowed to cross the street by myself until I was 10. I’m not kidding.) One of the ways my parents protected me was by controlling my environment. Compared to the rounded corners, helmets, knee pads, elbow pads and the like that today’s kids deal with, my parents seem almost negligent. Then again, back in the 1960s and 1970s, kids got boo-boos and weren’t micro-managed. But that is a different post.

There was one area in particular in which my mother was obsessed. Dirt. I’ve written about growing up with an aversion to the beach because sand was dirty and dangerous. My mother had the same fear about floors. Not any particular floor, but all surfaces on which you walk: linoleum, wood, carpet and of course, pavement. These surfaces were teeming with all sorts of disgusting and unmentionable things. When I was a teenager, my mother and I were at some function and I saw the look she got on her face when some mother put her kid down on the floor to crawl. The look was a combination of shock and disgust.

Naturally, I asked her about this and here’s how the conversation went.

What’s that look for?

That baby. Crawling all over the floor.

That’s what babies do.

You didn’t. We didn’t let you.

What do you mean you didn’t let me?

Floors, no matter how clean, are not
hygienic. That child over there had his
hands where shoes and dogs have been.
Now his fingers are in his mouth. God
knows what germs he’s picked up.

O-kay. How did you stop me from crawling?

You went from standing in your playpen to
walking. Every night, your father or I would stand at
the opposite end of the playpen and get you to walk
to us. Then you started walking all over the place.

Except across the street alone.

What was that?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

So, according to my mother, I went from this:

to this without missing a proverbial beat.

(There was no way this outfit was going to get dirty, no sirree!)

So fast forward to me today at age 46 and this commercial comes on. I don’t see happy, giggling kids scampering across the floor. I see little human Petri dishes of disease. I bet you’re not surprised that I decided not to have children, are you? My cats are enough work and it’s a good thing that they wash their own paws. But, I do have these on hand just in case…

Whole Lotta Soul

This is me around age 3 with my dog Soul. Soul was a Belgian/German Shepherd mix and technically, he was my cousin Jimmy Joe’s dog. Due to a lot of factors, Soul primarily stayed with my grandmother in her flat just down the block from ours. This picture was taken in her backyard on a very hot summer day in the Mission District. For those of you unfamiliar with San Francisco’s many micro-climates, the best weather in the city is found in the Mission.

I actually have some memories of taking this picture. My mother and Jimmy Joe were there and I remember one of them telling Soul to put his ears up. (He had them hanging down. I blame the heat.)

Soul was very loving and tender with me and despite his size, I could walk him with proper leash technique even as young as I was. He never pulled me. Not once. He was the same way with my Dad, but Dad was the alpha male, so that’s not surprising. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t have the same luck walking him. As soon as the leash was in my mother’s hands, off Soul went, dragging her down the street. Sometimes I thought I could detect a smile on his face.

However, he was extremely protective of us, and one afternoon, we discovered just how true this was. My mother, grandmother and I returned to Nan’s flat to discover Soul sleeping as usual on one of the twin beds. (As a side note, he never enjoyed it when my Aunt Florence came to visit because he lost his bed to her.)

My grandmother went into the bathroom and all of a sudden Mom and I heard her scream. Mom told me to wait and when she reached the bathroom, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Apparently, there was blood everywhere: on the window, on the lace curtains and on the walls. Everything that had been sitting on top of the sink and toilet tank was scattered all over the floor.

Before leaving the flat that day, Nan had left the window open a bit to let some air in. The only thing Mom and Nan could figure was that someone tried to break in and got as far as getting an arm through the window. That’s when Soul took matters into his own paws (and teeth).

We never found out who the would-be burglar was. But if you had your arm practically chewed off, would you come anywhere near the sweet little old lady with the big dog? Needless to say, I’m sure Soul got an extra special dinner that night and that I got to take him for a nice leisurely walk with my parents. Just a typical day in the neighborhood.

Prepare Yourself

The scout’s motto is “Be Prepared”. Well, I’d be a horrible scout and not just because I recoil from group activities and the great outdoors. I would suck at scouting because I’m ill prepared. I don’t mean that my checkbook is overdrawn or that I fail to pay my bills. No, I’m talking about preparation for natural disasters. I can’t even find a flashlight at the moment.

While watching Hurricane Irene prowl up the East Coast, I was reminded once again that I have no plan or preparations in the event of an earthquake. Yes, you heard me correctly. I, Kelly Reiterman, a native Californian and 4th generation San Franciscan, no less, have no earthquake plan. It’s my sense that transplants to California do seem to have a plan and all the gear ready. It’s those of us who grew up feeling earthquake after earthquake who aren’t prepared.

My grandmother was nine years old when the 1906 earthquake and fire hit and burned her family out of their flat on Clementina Street in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco. She was understandably terrified of earthquakes for the rest of her life but not enough to prepare for the next one. Her preparation consisted of praying at her home altar.

Little earthquakes happen all the time. You learn to discern between one that “shakes” and one that “rolls” and you’re just not fazed by them. If you were, you’d be on anti-anxiety drugs all the time. Sometimes, though, when an earthquake lasts a little longer than usual, a native has a conversation with himself or herself. It goes something like this:

I wonder if I should get up and go under the door frame.
Wait. Didn’t I hear that we shouldn’t go under
door frames any more? I wish they’d make up their minds.

And before the dilemma can be resolved, the earthquake is over and the native goes back to what he or she was doing before.

I didn’t feel the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake because I was on a bus rounding a corner downtown (not too far from good old Clementina Street) and with the usual bus shaking, there was no way to tell an earthquake had happened. That is, not until I got up to Market Street and saw hunks of buildings in the street.

I did feel the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles. I was shaken awake in my little studio apartment in West Hollywood and it wasn’t from my neighbor’s Madonna CD. I heard wine glasses falling in the kitchen area and I do remember saying out loud, “This can stop now!” Yet even after that, I never thought of preparing myself for “The Big One”.

I’m now thinking about getting more prepared. I’ve been scouring websites that offer earthquake survival kits and comparing them. I’ve gotten as far as this:

Hmm. This one has a whistle but no wrench. Do I need a whistle?
Dammit! Why didn’t I ever learn to whistle?!

Scoff if you must, but at least it’s a start. Hell, I even found my flashlight! Now all I have to do is find batteries…


Gratitude isn’t second nature to me. My tendency is to focus on what’s wrong or missing and not on what’s right and what I already have. I’m not proud of this and it’s something that I’m trying to change, but it’s not always easy. Some of you know that this year has been a bit challenging for me. My mother had major back surgery that I helped her through. I subsequently hurt my back and lost my job. I’ve often felt like I was living in a depressing country song, without the big hair and sequins, that is.

While I realize that there are many people in extremely dire and depressing situations all over the world, our personal stuff is our stuff, after all, and it’s important. That’s why the news yesterday about my mother’s back was so welcome.

The surgeon wanted her to go for a CT scan in order to really see how her spine was fusing. Her recovery has been excellent so far. The debilitating spasms have disappeared and other pains have diminished and at age 78, she has her life back. And yes, I have been grateful for her renewed lease on life. However, I’ve still been operating in crisis management mode, monitoring practically each and every move she makes to make sure she’s not doing too much and worrying over every single thing. It’s exhausting for me and I know it’s annoying to her. This little coping strategy of mine hasn’t been conducive to slowing down for a little gratitude.

So, she went for the scan and the results couldn’t have been better. Her spine is completely fused less than seven months after surgery. This is amazing. Part of this is due to some innovative techniques by her surgeon. The other part of it is due to my mother.

She has survived more than her fair share of health issues and traumas throughout her life and she never gives up. She wants to live more than anyone I know and she puts in the work to get better. I, on the other hand, can brood about my birthday and feel that all my chances for happiness are behind me. (I know. Overly dramatic, much? I am a Leo, after all.)

Hearing that she has recovered faster and more completely than some patients half her age gave me pause. How can I not live each day fully and embrace life’s journey after watching my mother this past seven months? Without even realizing it, I became filled with gratitude, not only for her brilliant surgeon and other doctors, but also for her. I’ve always been proud to be her daughter. I’m even more grateful that she’s my mother.

Death and Catholics

To those of us who grew up Catholic, especially of the Irish and Italian variety, funerals and cemeteries were as much a part of growing up as playing CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) sports and dodging a nun’s fury. The first significant death in my life came while I was in utero. When my mother was seven months pregnant with moi, her best friend, who was her brother, was killed by a drunk driver, He was 36 years old and the father of seven. Can we say that the last couple months of her pregnancy were stressful? There are no pictures of her pregnant because she was crying all the time. For years I insisted that I was either (a) adopted or (b) the next Immaculate Conception. With my mother, the latter was definitely more plausible.

From 1965 to 1976, there were at least seven immediate family members who died. I must admit that I didn’t attend the rosaries and funerals of these relatives until my maternal grandmother’s funeral in 1976. You see, a traditional Catholic rosary features an open casket which, to many, let alone a child, is a tad gruesome. So, when Nan died, my parents wanted to spare me the trauma of kneeling in front of her, seeing her decked out in one of her prettiest dresses with hair and makeup perfect. It never occurred to them to just CLOSE THE CASKET. No. Not an option.

What I was required to do on practically a weekly basis was to schlepp between four cemeteries with flowers for the various dead relatives. In those days, the Catholic Church didn’t allow cremation; so getting scattered to the wind wasn’t an option. You were buried in the ground and that was that. The dead needed a place to go that the rest of us could visit. Kind of like that one rich kid in school or a rich relative who had the summer place you got invited to occasionally. As with the rich kid or relative, the cemetery served as a reminder to the living to pay some damn respect. Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the saints and the dead relatives were ALL watching. Guilt does survive the grave. Don’t you forget it.

This sentiment is why it’s so ironic that my mother doesn’t visit the cemetery anymore. The change seemed to have happened when her mother died. After that initial pilgrimage following the funeral Mass, she hasn’t been back. She doesn’t even know if the headstone has been updated. And when my Dad died 20 years ago, she has only visited a handful of times. I haven’t really asked her why mainly because I haven’t wanted to get re-acquainted with the weekly cemetery crawl. I don’t need to visit a plot of ground with a stone slab on it in order to think about my father or my grandmother. I have my memories and that is enough. Maybe after a lifetime of open caskets, chanted rosaries and funeral plots, it’s enough for Mom too.

The Key Thing

I lost my keys for a full 24 hours. Ever done that? Yeah, it’s not fun. I re-traced my steps of places I’d been, checked pockets and purses, and accused the cats of hiding them. (They may be cute, but they’re sneaky little buggers too.) Eventually I did find them in one of the purses I had searched multiple times. I have no explanation for why they were there except that the cats took the keys from wherever they hid them and put them in the purse. I knew I shouldn’t have let them watch Gaslight.

Once the crisis was averted, I looked for a deeper meaning behind losing the keys. This is what I do. I always look for deeper, hidden meanings in life’s every day occurrences. I took a lot of media analysis classes as a broadcasting major and we always looked for hidden meanings in commercials, newscasts, you name it. Looking for death masks and naked women in ice cubes in liquor ads wasn’t just a class assignment; it was Friday night entertainment when drinking with friends!

So, I got online and started searching for information on the symbolism of lost keys. Here are some of the tidbits I found:

Losing keys can represent loss of identity or personal power: I lost my job in May rather unexpectedly so, yes, my “9-to-5” identity is no more and it’s an odd feeling. As for personal power, that’s one of those things I always want, but never seem to find… like a healthy relationship. Uh, yeah. Moving on…

Losing keys can represent a loss of security: See job loss above and I’ll raise you dealing with my mother’s major back surgery in January and her recovery, a cat’s major surgery at the same time and hurting my own back. Woo hoo! The bulk of this year has felt like I’m on a 24-hour, 7 day-a-week Tilt-A-Whirl. Hey, little girl on the video. I feel like crying and screaming too. But unlike you, I can make myself a martini.

Losing keys can represent shirking responsibility for yourself: What are you insinuating? I told you the cats took my keys. It wasn’t my fault. Shirking responsibility my as…

As I was saying, I lost keys, I found keys and who really knows the reasons why. It could all have a larger, more cosmic, symbolic meaning or I can just be a pre-occupied 40-something who needs to slow down, watch any movie but Gaslight and enjoy a nice cocktail.

Nutella It Like It Is

Every once in awhile, a commercial comes along that annoys me beyond words. Well, maybe not beyond words, since I’m now blogging about it. But, you get the idea. This Nutella commercial is the current target of my advertising angst. We see a harried Mom of three oozing gratitude that Nutella came into her life. Now she can give her family “a breakfast they’ll want to eat” and she can feel good “that they’re ready to tackle the day”. Really? You popped toast in the toaster, slathered chocolate and hazelnut on it and threw it in front of your kids. Wow, you are SO getting the mother of the year award!

I don’t have kids and have no idea how difficult it is to get them fed, clothed and out the door every day. But, still, is this what we’ve devolved into? I can tell you this, if my mother had sent me out the door with toast and a spread for my “nutritious” breakfast, the neighbors would have called Child Protective Services.

But, you know, maybe I need to not take things so seriously. It’s just a commercial after all. I should look for the lighter side of life. Like this. Ah, parody always makes me feel so much better.

What’s in a Name?

I’m named after a priest and a saint. And not just any priest, but the one who married my parents. And the saint? None other than the grandmother of Jesus, St. Anne. If this isn’t either (a) pressure to be really, really good or (b) a damn good reason to rebel, I don’t know what is. (In case you’re wondering, I practically wore a halo until college.)

Anne is my middle name because of infertility. You see, it took my parents nine years to have me and it was during those nine years that my mother and grandmother would go out to St. Anne’s Church in San Francisco and attend St. Anne’s novenas. Apparently, St. Anne is the “go-to” gal for women who want to have a child. So, for nine days every year for nine years, my mother and grandmother made the pilgrimage and prayed for a baby. I’ve told my mother that St. Anne must have gotten tired of seeing them and finally had a serious chat with Jesus. I imagine it went something like this:

(sighing and rolling his eyes):
If this is about my hair again. I can’t help it if
hippies like it. I’m not getting a “Beatles” cut.

St. Anne
But you would look so cute! Like Paul! But this
isn’t about that. It’s about a baby for the Reiterman
woman. It’s been nine years and it’s getting depressing.

Well, it sounds like she’s been devout. Have you spied
on her and her family? Are they sane? Loving? Amusing?

St. Anne
Yes, yes and yes. And if they have a girl, they will
name her after a priest and a uh, very special saint.

Oh, really? Let me take a wild guess. You?

St. Anne
Well, I have to take the naming where I can.
It’s not like my own daughter honored me that way.

How could she? I’m the Messiah and a man! Can you imagine
the teasing I would have suffered with a girl’s name?

St. Anne (pouting)

Okay, okay. I’ll put in the requisition. Happy now?

St. Anne
Yes, dear boy. But, really, just a little trim…

In case you’re wondering about my last name, I’ve been told that Reiterman means, “man riding a horse” or a “horseman”. So, in addition to being named for a priest and a saint, I’m descended from a German jockey. That certainly explains why I’m short.