Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Remembering Carobel

This little gem made its appearance on my Kindle the day before Mother’s Day.  It’s a collection of essays by 31 women who reflect on the gifts their mother left them, both spiritual and physical.  I had heard about this book from one of the essayists, Lillian Daniel, who is a Third Culture Kid, like me.  I wrote a little about Lillian’s dad, Leon, and her mom in this post from 2011.  

Lillian’s mother, Carobel Calhoun Daniel, was a drinking buddy friend of my mom’s in Manila.  They met at our church, Holy Trinity Whiskeypalian Episcopalian, down the street from our house.  Leon was a UPI correspondent and they had lived in Japan, India and Thailand before landing in Manila.  Most of what I remember about these women is cigarettes and flowing caftans, big hair, lots of lipstick, laughter and dirty jokes.  At the time, Lillian was about 10 years old, a tow-headed, pig-tailed, freckle-faced ball of energy; she was always running, it seemed.  One time she fell and smacked her head on the concrete floor, and Caro had to watch her closely when she developed the symptoms of a concussion. 

My mom and Carobel being outdoorsy

Lillian and my sister Debi
Carobel and Leon had taken in their young nephew, Robert, who had, I surmised, run into a little trouble at home in South Carolina.  His parents thought a year in Asia might do him some good.  Granted, his older sister Lisa had lived with their aunt and uncle when they had lived in India, so it wasn’t a stretch to send Robert to Manila.  My mom and Caro thought it would be “cute” to throw a little “get to know you” party for Robert and me in our back yard, with a small group of kids from school.  I cringe when I think about that occasion, replete with all the awkwardness that 14-year-olds are prone to.  Tinny music played on a stereo and empty bottles of Chianti with drips of candle wax adorned the tables.  We swam in the pool, sitting afterwards, damp and frizzy, trying to break through the shyness and the silences.  Someone turned out the lights at one point (I’m not naming names) and a game of spin the bottle was organized.  The next day Robert took me to see “Serpico” and I fell for him, big time. 

Awkwardness ... ouch!
Together, our families went on beach trips to Batangas and Matabungkay, where my dad scuba dived (dove?) and the rest of us snorkeled.  Afterwards there were late-night car trips home in wet bathing suits and a sunburned state of exhaustion.  I have a vivid memory of Carobel in her pink bathing suit, smoking a Virginia Slim, fretting over Lillian, who had swum through a patch of jellyfish. 

The youngest in a family of sisters, Carobel was the mischievous one.  One of my favorite stories about the young Caro was when the bossy older sisters made her bring them drinks of water.  She repeatedly brought each of them a nice cool glass with a smug smile and a toss of her head.  After all the sisters had drunk their fill, Caro sassily chanted, "I got it from the toilet!!" I can only imagine the hilarity that ensued.  I bet she was a fast runner.

Aunt Caro (as I called her) and Leon were only in Manila for six months; in December UPI transferred them to Hong Kong.  (It’s so strange how events in one’s young life seem to have transpired over a very long time, when in reality it was over in a flash).  We saw them off at the airport, me sad about losing my first crush, but equally sad because I really loved Aunt Caro.  She was like that: her laughter, her bawdiness, her hilarious facial expressions, well, you couldn’t help but love her.  She didn’t dismiss Robert’s and my relationship as “puppy love”.  She got it: that first rush of teenaged love was real and powerful.  That was the first time that an adult had acknowledged me as important and as a real, living and breathing person.

My mom and Carobel stayed in touch over the years.  We visited them in London where they were posted in the late 1970’s.  Caro, after she and Leon divorced, ended up living in Washington DC, where she worked for ABC News, an assistant to anchorman Steve Bell.  When Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1992, mom won a lottery to go through a receiving line to meet the new president, and she took my sister Debi along for the ride to DC.  They, of course, looked up Caro.  While visiting ABC studios one day, Mom and Carobel were waiting for an elevator.  The doors opened and the majestic Peter Jennings exited right in front of them, saying, “Hello Caro!”  My mom, a longtime fan, nearly fainted.  Caro arranged for Mom and Debi to be interviewed by Spencer Christian on Good Morning America the day of the inauguration.  My sister was playing hooky from her teaching job that long weekend, telling her principal that she was ill.  Unfortunately for her, the power had gone out at her school, classes were cancelled for the day, and the principal was home watching at the very moment she appeared on national television. 

That was the last time mom and Caro saw each other.  As sometimes happens, life goes on and we forget to write a note or make a phone call.  Years pass.  Just when you think, I really should get in touch with so-and-so, you learn that it is too late.  Caro died in the 1990s at an entirely too young age.  I was devastated when I heard, and a rush of colorful memories came over me, making me smile through the sadness. 

Lillian today.
Little Lillian, the perky little girl of my memories and the spitting image of her mother, is now a national speaker and writer, a minister at First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.  I can’t say I wasn’t surprised to hear that Lillian had gone to divinity school; her mother had been such a colorful character.  I’m sure Caro herself saw the irony in it.  Lillian writes about her mother exactly the way I remember her.  This story that Lillian wrote in "What My Mother Gave Me" sums up Caro in all her glory, a perfect example of the energy and humor that made up her persona, the "hostess with the mostess" at a dinner party:

"(S)he came out of the kitchen more than an hour late, dressed to the nines in a sparkly outfit a couple of sizes too small, red high-heeled shoes clicking across the floor, and she was holding – on another giant Japanese pottery tray – a magnificent roasted duck.  It was a brand new recipe for her.  We had waited a long time for the meal, but it was hard to see the duck on the plate, for in her enthusiasm for her project, she had gone heavy on the garnish.  It was like a parsley explosion of culinary enthusiasm, a product of a long day’s work, cheerfully given.  But then, the combination of the greenery, the grease of the duck, and a fold in the carpet just underneath her high-heeled shoes all came together in the perfect storm.  As she tripped, the duck she had spent the whole day preparing went flying across the room.  The bird landed where once it had had its tail feathers and skidded across the floors, only to stop on the muddy doormat in the front hall, a brown trail of grease, gravy and parsley garnish in its sad wake …

“(S)he pulled her little shoulders back and marched over to the defeated duck on the doormat.  As she stooped down and picked it up, she announced to the group, ‘Let me just throw this duck away in the kitchen, and I’ll be back in just a minute with the other duck.’”

It’s the nature of the expat life, that friends are made quickly and deeply, and the relationships are long-lasting.  We remember the times and the places we shared, and upon reflection we are transported back to a tropical house, to a dinner shared, a voyage taken together.  Some of these friends make more of an impression than others, and we smile and laugh to ourselves at some of the audacious memories.  While we may be sad that those times are over, we can celebrate that they happened, and that we were lucky enough to know and love truly extraordinary people.  

Lillian touches on being a Third Culture Kid in her book "When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough".  She co-wrote "This Odd and Wondrous Calling" with Martin Copenhaver, in which they address the ups and downs of the ministry.  She also co-hosts a show on Chicago PBS channel WTTW  called "Thirty Good Minutes" which covers faith stories and ideas from different faith traditions. 


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful portrait of Carobel.

Anonymous said...

Carobel was a character with a southern drawl. When I think of Caro, my first thought is always her shoes...backless heels that she clattered around the office, and house in. So happy I stumbled on this page. I'm also happy to know Lillian is doing well.