Search This Blog

Monday, August 25, 2014

Remembering Pearle

On July 18, 2014, we lost the 102-year-old woman who had been our best buddy for the last four years. Pearle Shepard was a friend of my dad's from the 20's through the 40's, and they corresponded for years. She saved the hundreds of pages of letters that he wrote her and returned the letters after the end of WWII. These letters my father wrote had intimate details about his life growing up on a farm in southern Michigan in the 19-teens, a wonderful story about a month-long move from Michigan to Florida, and hundreds of paragraphs that enabled me to learn about my father's personality, morality, political and religious beliefs, and his favorite books and authors. Had she not been so generous as to return these letters, and had my parents not been so smart as to not save those letters for me to read, I would have never been able to learn my dad's history. Through the miracle of the Internet, I was able to meet her for the first time in April of 2010, when she was 98. Here is the remembrance I gave at her funeral on August 23, 2014.

Pearle Gay Shepard was a part of our family since the 1920’s. She and my father went to school together, traveled in the same circles in St. Petersburg, and corresponded with each other from two sides of the earth while my dad was in the army during WWII. She saved every letter my father had written her. These pages he wrote her from New Guinea became the autobiography that my dad didn’t live long enough to tell me about in person.

When I first heard about her when I was a kid, I asked my mother, “What happened to that Pearle lady?” She didn’t know. Nobody knew. No one even had a picture of her. She wasn’t in the phone book, and back then that was what our search options were limited to. Mom said, “I’m sure she got married and had a good life.” Well, she was half right.

The letters my father wrote her always started with, “Dear Pearle,” and the collection amounted to about 400 pages. Not all the letters were dated, so it was a big chore, five or six years ago, for me to try to put them in chronological order and then re-read them, start to finish, so I could make sense of the relationship the two of them had. In this pile of paper, there is one single undated page that just reads, “Dear Pearle, I love you, I love you, I love you.” That’s all it says. There is no explanation in any of the other letters as to why he wrote that.

Now I know that my dad wasn’t in love with Pearle, even though she probably had been with him.

Right before I found Pearle in 2010, I Googled “Pearle Shepard obituary” because I didn’t think there could be a chance that she was still alive. But I didn’t get a result until after I removed the word obituary, and then I was floored to see on my computer screen, “Pearle Gay Shepard, 98, West Palm Beach, Florida” and a phone number.

Initially I just figured this was a mistake. I waited a while before I picked up the phone, because I wondered: What is the likelihood that a 98-year-old woman would be healthy enough to take my call? And if she was, what if I told her who I was, and she had a heart attack? And frankly, what are the chances that this is the same Pearle Shepard, who wrote to my father from Tallahassee, Arizona, and California in the 1940’s? How is it possible that someone so well-traveled is living just an hour away from me? What are the chances she never married or took some man’s surname? I pondered all these realities, but I decided the risk of a wrong number was worth an amazing surprise. So I picked up the phone, and a strong voice answered hello.

“Hello, is this Pearle Shepard?” I asked.

“Who’s calling, please?” She snapped. She probably figured I was just a telemarketer.

“Uh, my name is Bill Wiley. Is this the Pearle Shepard who wrote my father in New Guinea during World War 2?”

There was a sustained silence. Then she said cautiously, “Maybe.”

I knew she had been a school teacher, but I had come to class unprepared for the pop quiz she then proceeded to task me with. She asked:
    Where did your father go to high school?
    What year did he graduate?
    Where was he born?
    How many siblings did he have, and what were       their names?
    What did he do for a living?

I think I got all the answers right, except maybe I was off on his graduation date by a year. She, on the other hand, knew all the answers. At 98.

This interaction, the first few things I heard Pearle say, defined exactly the person she was. She may have been ancient, but she was nobody’s fool, and she would never allow herself to be taken advantage of.

We continued talking, and as she realized that I was who I said I was, and I realized that I had found someone alive who not only knew my father, but who gave me the gift of learning all about my father’s history—we both became very excited, although both of us were a little freaked out with disbelief. The odds of this happening were just so miniscule.

During the call she told me that she didn’t go by Pearle anymore. She now went by Gay. I said, “Oh, your middle name.”

“How in the world did you know that?” she asked.

“It’s in the letters,” I said. It was all in the letters.

“What letters?” she asked.

“The letters he wrote you when he was in New Guinea.”

“You read those letters?”

“Yes!” I said. “I still have them.”

It was a little too much to absorb. For both of us.

One thing had been bothering me for years. In those hundreds of pages, there were a few letters from Gay, and it was very clear that she had much more than just a passing interest in my father. But there were a couple of letters from my dad which explained what everyone hates hearing: The “I only like you as a friend” line. So I asked Gay on the phone the question that had been eating at me for years.

“Did my father break your heart?”

She laughed for a second and said, “A little bit. But I got over it. I’ve had a very full life.”

And for the next few years, we did what we could to keep it full.

We read my dad’s old letters out loud and talked relentlessly. We went out to lunch. Delis. Chinese. Mexican. Burgers and sandwiches, salads and soups. Sometimes we cooked and ate in. Once we choked down a botched meatloaf that she relentlessly teased Bill about for months afterward. We had picnics and went swimming and grocery shopped and ran errands. And while we continued to do that, she wouldn’t let obstacles like hearing aids or new dentures stand in her way. Even after she retired her walker and was forced to use a wheelchair, we were still traveling to restaurants, parks, and movie theaters.

The last time we went out, which was Christmas of 2012, we wheeled her out on the floating dock on the Palm Beach waterfront. She was wrapped up in a sweater, and even though it was chilly, you could tell she was loving being outside in the fresh air, bobbing up and down with the rise and fall of the floating dock. The sun was shining and the wind blew her fine, white hair. And it was then I remembered the two-line letter that my father penned to her,

Dear Pearle,

I love you, I love you, I love you.

How could you not love this woman? Even though her vision and hearing were severely impaired, and even though she could no longer bring fork to mouth, she still maintained her sense of humor, her love of the outdoors, and her impenetrable compassion and devotion to her friends whom she made into her family. Even from her bed, and even after turning 100, she maintained her southern charm and protocol, dictating lovely, grateful letters of thanks, congratulations, birthday greetings and her annual Christmas letter. I’m sure everyone here has received a letter at one time or another from Gay, and although I don’t have 300 pages of letters from her, I am so very grateful for the ones I do have. They bring to me an even stronger bond with my father, whom I lost when I was just six.

I’m so grateful and honored that Gay allowed me to be a part of her life, even if it was for just a short time. She didn’t have to. She could have easily held a grudge against my family and not reopened a part of her life that was probably best left on the shelf. But Gay had such strong faith, such compassion, and such a forgiving nature, and I think that she saw that I needed her more than she needed me.

Thank you, Pearle Gay Shepard, for enriching my life. We love you, we love you, we love you.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Famous Bushes

According to Snopes, the world’s largest pubic hair is 32 inches from the armpit and 28 inches from a vagina.

Neither belonged to Crystal Gayle.

Nor 1960’s Cher.

I think someone needs to rewrite Rapunzel.

Tell your friends, folks. I’m here all week.

Apparently this megabush is attached to the body of a South African woman named Manoi Vi. I don’t know if this is how she makes her living, but apparently she isn’t afraid to memorialize it in photographs. If you Google her, there it is, hanging down from her ladyparts like Spanish moss in a bayou bog.

What you don’t see  is a picture of her in her underpants. How does she pack all that in, underneath, say, a thong? Dredlocks, worn belted, maybe? When you stuff that much mass in a piece of fabric, what does that look like? A well-stuffed throw pillow? A hot air balloon?

Do they not have scissors in Cape Town? Why would anyone want to be running around with two Afghan hounds under their arms and Cousin It dragging on the floor between their legs? Honey, get that osprey nest under control! Here, try this Brylcreem.

According to Scientific American, evolutionary biologists believe one reason we have hair is for insulation; in other words, for retaining heat. So I guess Ms. Vi has given up her Hotpoint electric range, since she could easily bake a nice pan of lasagne right in her lap.

Pubic hair is supposed to reach a certain length and then fall out as it gets replaced by new hair. Hair in the scalp, however, can live for years without falling out. So apparently Manoi has four scalps: head, armpits, and, well, you know: down there. Good thing she was never in an early Western movie. Once the Native Americans finished scalping her, there’d be nothing left but a belly button.

I suppose that in the long run, it’s good that she isn’t male, because guys sometimes have strangulation issues. Hair can sometimes snake its way around a penis, making things a little awkward in our pants. Sometimes the hair can get pulled like two girls in a cat fight. One of the reasons that men get the sudden urge to adjust ourselves is because Helen Lawson and Neely O’Hara are having a little altercation in our crotches, and we need to manually separate them. Go to your corner, Neely, and you, Helen, go out the same way you came in.

You may be wondering why this topic is appearing in this blog. Recently I noticed what seemed to be an increase in the recurrence of my favorite Valley of the Dolls scene in my pants. So I went to Google to see if pubes get longer with age. To my disappointment, there wasn’t even an unreliable source to tell me that they do. Ergo, I have to assume than instead of the hair growing longer, something else is getting smaller. You know how men who gain weight jokingly say their pants are shrinking? Yeah, something like that, only true. Or maybe this new underwear I bought has teeth.

So I guess a little trim would make things a little less restless down there.

And I think a little landscaping would also make Manoi Vi a little less infamous.

Ladies and Gentlemen, start your mowers.

(photo credit:
Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Dining in the Dark

They say don’t knock it until you try it, but there’s a food fad that I won’t be participating in. Apparently there are some restaurants that are offering “dinner in the dark,” where customers eat their meals either blindfolded or in a pitch-black room.

They claim that not being able to see your food enhances the whole savory experience. This isn’t a blind taste test we’re talking about. It’s the whole meal. Although in the grand scheme of things, this sounds like a really stupid idea, I can’t think of a smarter place to take a blind date who turns out to be ugly.

Being a city known for its rich and stupid, Miami has at least one restaurant that offers this, and here is an explanation from their web site:

“A cavernous candlelit retreat, Catharsis lives up to its name, and the juxtaposition against the locale stimulates the senses immediately upon arrival, as all tension vanishes away. Arched white washed walls are adorned with warm, glowing wall sconces and soft dropped lights, while white tablecloths are sparkled with wild orchids.”

What a crock of shit. Are you having a meal or getting a massage by Yanni? Who writes the copy for their web site? A junior high creative writing class? I don’t think my tension is going to vanish. Quite the opposite, in fact.  I don’t know the owners of this restaurant, so I’m not going to trust them right off the bat. How do I know that they are indeed going to serve me the osso buco, and not some delicacy fished out of the cat box? Who are these restaurants kidding? This is just how they get rid of their spoiled food and stale leftovers and save on their electric bill. I also hear that after the waiter takes your order and puts on the blindfold, they force you to play pin the tail on the donkey until your meal is cooked.

I wonder: Does Catharsis offer carryout? Okay, I’ll sell you this food, but no peeking!

I have questions. If you’re blindfolded and order a nice steak, how are you supposed to cut your meat? Or do you just pick up the whole T-bone and eat it with your hands? Hopefully the rest of your party is also blindfolded, so they don’t have to witness the beef blood running down under your collar. Also, if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand it if your peas touch your mashed potatoes, this is not the place for you. Take your divided Melmac plate elsewhere.

Knowing the people with whom I routinely dine out, I would be in the middle of some delightful blindfolded dinnertime repartee, chatting away, only to find out that the rest of my party has quietly left the restaurant and stuck me with the bill.

Part of the fun of eating, I think, is enjoying the visual presentation of the food. If a chef doesn’t have to worry about what the food looks like, then he should be preparing okra puree for Gerber.

The web site tries, a little overzealously, to entice you to try the blind dining event: “Imagine the possibilities…the challenges…the excitement of tasting food you cannot see…not to mention…a very sexy experience.” The junior high creative writing teacher needs to teach her kids about ellipsis abuse (dot, dot, dot.)

If Helen Keller were alive today, I bet she wouldn’t be able to recall a single meal that was “sexy.” And probably not any sex act that was sexy. On the other hand, I can easily “imagine the possibility” of ending up with a few spoonfuls of ceviche in my lap and a spilled glassful of red wine on my new white shirt. And I can also picture the excitement of trying to remove black beans from my nostrils because I missed my mouth. I’m also pretty sure I would decline hot beverages with dessert, thereby saving me an embarrassing trip to the ER.

The restaurant is trying to get you to believe that blind people’s sense of hearing, touch, and taste are more vivid than their non-blind counterparts. Maybe that’s true, but it takes a long time for those senses to be honed. You don’t just walk into a strange restaurant, put on a blindfold, and expect to become super-aware. The website reads:  “Since your sense of sight is hampered, all of your other senses are on high alert.” So why not pinch off my other senses to make the food taste even better? Put a clothespin on my nose, tie my gloved hands behind my back and smear a strong topical anesthetic all over my body. I’m sure that would make a slice of Wonder bread taste like scallops provencal.

If restaurants really want to make a killing in the sensory deprivation market, they’d offer customers ear plugs instead of blindfolds. That way you wouldn’t have to hear the intimate details of your next-table-neighbor’s recent colonoscopy or the delightful, high-decibel squeals of her 2-year-old twin grandkids.

One positive thing that blind eating could do for you is to get you to try things you ordinarily wouldn’t touch. If you’re a finicky eater, you could go to a buffet where they blindfold you at the start of the line. They give you a big serving spoon and no plate. You just plop unknown food onto your cafeteria tray as you proceed to the end of the line. How else would you learn to enjoy strawberry-kiwi cheesecake with ranch dressing or Brussels sprouts with chocolate sprinkles?

I’m willing to try a variation on this blind dining theme. I’d like to dine at a really pricey restaurant where I can see, but the waiters are blindfolded. In addition to witnessing some fun slapstick entertainment (dropped platters, slip-and-fall accidents), I could get away with paying for my entire party’s meal with my Pet Supermarket rewards card.

I’d like to open a Chinese restaurant and serve blindfolded patrons. No forks would be allowed; only chopsticks. In addition to not seeing your food, you could also get it in your mouth.

I’ll call it Ming’s Eating Disorder Cafe. And as soon as word gets out in the anorexia community, I’ll be a millionaire.  

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.