Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Monday, March 6, 2017

Here? Not Elsewhere?

"Even on a cloudy day the sun is shining somewhere.”—Anonymous

The thought that children would be separated from parents at borders sickens me. I'm compelled to share my experiences with such separations. This alarms mel Have we gone mad?

 I know about separation's a story I wrote a few years ago. I called it "Elsewhere"


I hung up the phone and stared at a poster on the wall beside my desk. The visiting center had called to let me know that a mother had appeared for her court-ordered monitored visit. For three years I'd been the psychiatric social worker for the nursery at the Los Angeles County residence housing children awaiting placement by the juvenile court. I anticipated how the visit would go.

The visitor would be angry. We had her child in a locked building. It wouldn't matter that the two-year-old had been removed from his home because he had been left alone for hours and neighbors had reported hearing his cries.

The nursery aide who would escort the toddler to the visiting room would treat me and the visitor to hostile glares. Most of the nursery staff resented visiting days. The children cried when their parents left, leaving them behind. I'd conducted training on bonding and attachment, and explained that though these children might be too young to remember events, they would forever remember feelings. Nonetheless the staff still believed in "out of sight, out of mind."

"It would be better if the parents didn't come at all," they said. "Besides, they don't deserve to see their kids."

And, yes, the toddler himself after the visit would squall and kick and flail at me with tiny fists all the way back to the nursery.

"I hate you, I hate you," those old enough to talk often screeched when their visits ended, as I returned them to the nursery.

On Sundays, when I conducted these visits, I became a jumbo sponge to soak up everybody's ire, taking care not to ooze any out myself. That would be unprofessional for a psychiatric social worker.

The three earlier visits so far that late November day had been particularly unpleasant. With Thanksgiving fast approaching, parents had fixed me with sullen eyes, dropping references to having little to be thankful for.

Usually the poster by my desk brightened my spirits, with its sunflower and splashes of bright lettering in yellows and reds. A local artist had been designed it for MacLaren's annual Sunflower Day, a summer Sunday when actors, artists and musicians visited to entertain and mingle with the two hundred and fifty or so children in temporary residence. Today, though, even the poster's glowing gold and shimmering scarlet hues failed to cheer me. Instead I carried a vision of a sodden gray sponge as I trudged towards the visiting center.

I glanced out the window at the darkening clouds, and realized that by the time my shift ended and I headed home, it would probably be raining. I dreaded driving the oil-slick Los Angeles freeways in the autumn.

No sunshine for me today, I thought.

I reminded myself again that only three elements needed to converge to create a situation that could lead to child abuse or neglect: a child, a parent with poor coping skills, and stress. Many of the parents I saw were ignorant of the most basic child-care routines. Many suffered from untreated character disorders or alcohol or drug addictions. Most were so deprived in their own childhoods that they had no alternative to repeating their own parents' pattern of poor care.

What was evident, though, was that most of them indeed loved their children. Some enough that they'd enter treatment programs or ditch an abusive partner in order to rehabilitate themselves so they eventually could make a home again for the child. In my Parent Outreach project, I offered such resources to the visiting parents.

To my surprise, the visiting mother's face was wreathed in smiles. It had been a few weeks since she'd visited. I'd tried to reach her, but her phone had been disconnected.

"Guess what?" Her smile illuminated the little room. "I've been released from the recovery center and I've got a job! I've got a gift for Tommy." She held up one of the new plush Care Bears. This one, bright yellow, was Funshine Bear. I well knew the stars of the new Care Bear television series, sitting on the nursery floor and watching the cartoons with the kids. Funshine Bear had a tummy symbol with a smiling sun. He was famous for always trying to help someone, being able to use his symbol to light up the darkest night or shine a beacon for all to see.

Kind of like me, I thought, the first time he I noticed him. I'd wondered who lit up Funshine's dark days. Could he turn his beacon toward himself?

The aide who brought Tommy to the visiting room was new on the job. Her eyes twinkled when she spotted the bear. "Oh, look, Tommy," she said, a pleasant lilt to her voice.

Tommy squealed, grabbed Funshine Bear and hugged him close. He clambered up on his mother's lap and answered her questions as best he could.

"We walked to MacDonald's yesterday. I ate ice cream!"

"The nurses decided it would be a good day for an outing since the sun was out in the afternoon and the restaurant is only a block away," I explained. The Saturday nursery staff liked to get a little exercise, and pushed the younger children in buggies and strollers.

Tommy didn't even cry when his mother kissed him goodbye. She'd promised to come again soon, and confided to me that she thought the court would release him to her soon. Her probation worker was ready to vouch for her. I congratulated her.

A couple of years earlier I'd complained to my consulting psychiatrist that sometimes I felt unappreciated – by staff, by the children, by the parents.

"Honey," he'd said, "in this line of work you've got to get your loving elsewhere. You've got to get it from yourself. Appreciate yourself!"

At that time I planned to not a let a working day go by without doing three kind things: one for a staff member or parent, one for a child, and one for myself.

When I returned for my last evening report in the nursery I made a special effort to single out the aide who had been so cheerful in bringing Tommy for his visit.

"You made it so easy for him to leave," I praised her. "Letting him take the bear to his crib was a really great idea!"

I spent several minutes before I left rocking one of the four-year-old girls. She'd fallen in the playground earlier and bruised her forehead. Plus her parents didn't show up for their visit.

"I love you," she'd whispered in my ear as I tucked her into her youth bed. I gave her a final hug.

Then I climbed into my car and turned on my windshield wipers, anticipating what kind thing I'd do for myself that day. I usually saved me for last, enjoying the anticipation.

"A Christmas Story" had just been released. It played in a theater close to my home. I decided to get an early jump on the holidays and see it. Then I'd treat myself to a hot bubble bath and a mug of cocoa before bed.

Perhaps tomorrow would be sunnier. Sunshine already was breaking through in my heart.

Possum's Big Day

Mallory Kass, Dawne Knobbe, Steve Elders Celebrate Possum's Launch
About fifty fans and friends of Mari Lou Laso-Elders, my late daughter-in-law, gathered at Barnes and Noble in Orange Saturday to celebrate the launch of her young adult novel, Otherwise Known as Possum.

April, Mari Lou's beloved bear, her constant companion since her 1989 wedding, presided over the afternoon's agenda, perched atop the colorful pile of the hot-off-the-press hardbacks. Steve Elders, my son and Mari Lou's husband and champion, acted as emcee, reading the "afterward," which he penned and reads on the audio version, plus the initial chapter of the book.

Mallory Kass, the Scholastic Press editor who encouraged Mari Lou to resubmit her revised manuscript, spoke about how she fell in love with spunky Possum Porter, the book's heroine, from Page One. To her delight, her boss had warned the Scholastic staff that anybody who objected to the publication of this special novel would be fired!

Dawne Knobbe
Dawne Knobbe, Mari Lou's writing partner who finished the final edits after Mari Lou's tragic death in September 2015, discussed Possum's creator's dedication to making every line sparkle.

I shared the secret of how Possum sprang to life for Mari Lou as she floated on in inflatable raft in her backyard pool one sunny afternoon nearly a dozen years ago. Mari Lou had spent a decade spinning her Southern Great Depression-era story.

Steve introduces Possum

Her dedication as an editor was reflected by one of her former students in the Poets and Dreamers Tuesday Morning Group. That writer complained that she'd already rewritten a chapter three times. Mari Lou's response? "I spit on your three times."
Maria, Mari Lou's mom

"I can spend a whole morning trying to find exactly the right word," she once told me.
"It began on a rubber raft."

After the reading, we all reminisced about Mari Lou's notable skills,  her warmth and wit, and nibbled Girl Scout cookies, provided by another student. Mari Lou had been a devout Scout, and as an adult won first prize, an iPad, in a national poetry contest about how being a scout had impacted her life.

Children will be wide-eyed at Possum's pranks.
 The wonderful lreviews are coming in now. How Mari Lou would have beamed.  
Mari Lou Laso-Elders (aka Maria D. Laso)

"Laso saturates her debut novel with fresh figurative language that shapes her characters . . . and strongly evokes Possum's world."
– Publisher's Weekly

"The passage of time, a contest, and good friends help a grieving 11-year-old move on from the death of her mother and baby brother.
In the autumn of 1932, bowing to community pressure, Possum’s father sends her to school for the first time. This likable, capable child has been home-schooled well. She’s sure she already knows enough. Besides, she wants no more changes in her life. At school, she must share a desk with a jealous fellow student who suggests that her father is sweet on the new Yankee teacher, who insists on calling her LizBetty. It’s almost intolerable—but there’s an essay contest. Winning will not only get her the beautiful book of fairy tales she covets, it will prove she knows enough to stay home. Possum’s first-person voice is convincing, full of metaphors reflecting her rural Southern mountain background. Interspersed with the narrative covering the three months up to the end of the contest and Christmas are essays written by Possum, her rival, Mary Grace, and her friends Tully and June May. With distinctive, fleshed-out, mostly white characters, awkward beginning romances, and a satisfying resolution, this growing-up story seems both familiar and fresh.
Laso’s posthumously published first novel goes down smooth as sweet tea. (Historical fiction. 8-12)
--Kirkus Review

Available now on Amazon:

Wide-eyed children love Possum!