KNOWING MYSELF: Miss Penny of Long Ago and Far Away Maryland

Her name was Adele and she was a widow who had sharecropped in North Carolina tobacco.  She was so tiny that she made me feel tall, and at 5’3″ there are not many women whose heads I could tuck under my chin when I stood behind them.  I believe she was over 75 years old when I moved in next door, and she smoked like a Hoover on fire.  She had the kind of skin that only a Camel smoker can cultivate over many years.  My only defense to her smoking at the time was that I smoked my Marlboros along with her as we drank endless pots of coffee.  Everyone called her Miss Penny but nobody knew why or how, since neither her first or last name was Penny.

She was my next door neighbor in North Laurel, Maryland 1971-3.  I lived next to her when George Wallace was shot at the GIANT FOOD store where we went to shop for groceries together with our fists full of coupons.  I was collecting the brown and mustard floral ironstone ‘dish of the week’ that you could buy if you spent $10 on food.  Miss Penny would always buy Eggo waffles even though I told her I would make them for her homemade on my Sunbeam.  She thought them to be very modern, popping them into a little toaster oven in her closet-sized kitchen.

If you could picture the house below painted white it would look a lot like the house she lived in, it was made out of a steel shipping container.  I believe her husband had done the work just before he died.  She lived there alone, and since it was very tiny, maybe that was a good thing.  There was another shipping container in the back yard sitting at an angle that said it had been dropped off without any idea that it would sit there with weeds growing up around it for many, many years.  It was going to be a second part of the house, but then death intervened and the house stayed small and housed this sweet little widow for about three decades.

boxcar cottage

The front had an elevated tiny front porch and stairs that were built of cinder block and painted grey.  It was not so large as the one shown here, I think one fan back metal chair fit there and I painted it red.  There was an old galvanized bath tub out in the back too.  I painted it red, brought it around to the front yard and  filled it with dirt and planted it full of Anenomes, Muscari, Daffodils, Geraniums and Creeping Charley for a Mother’s Day present.


Miss Penny sewed for folks to augment her tiny Social Security check.  I think her daughter sometimes sent her some money.  I only saw her there visiting her mother once in three years.  It wasn’t that long a drive to where she lived in Virginia, I knew because I drove to National Airport two or three times a week in my little Volvo 122S.

1968_Volvo_122SMiss Penny taught me to refine my shopping mojo.  She was the queen of thrift shopping.  She knew all the stores and when the annual tag sales were held by churches and civic organizations.  She was my second hand shopping mentor.  I would take her to lunch after we plundered the sales and spent less than a couple of bucks to drag home dishes and pots and utensils that I didn’t have as a young bride who married far from my family in California.   I found vintage 1940’s clothes that fit my taste and she taught me to alter them.  Dresses like this:

 1940's Pink Sequin Bow Black DressPeplum Dress

Now it cost hundreds or more to get these.  I got them for something like $2.  Maybe I’d have to renew the sequins.  Miss Penny would show me how.

Now here’s the truth about what I was like at age 21.  I was a snob about getting to know anyone who wasn’t close to my age.   I was just beginning to get over a painful childhood and I hid out in the culture of my youth and I smoked a lot of pot and dropped quite a few psychedelic drugs.  I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted out of life or what I could actually have.

One day, I was in the kitchen washing the dishes listening to John Prine album we had just gotten.  It had a song on it that got right under my skin.  Here’s a video of him singing it recently:

Because of this song I got to be friends with Miss Penny.  I learned a lot about being helpful to others, about learning to have fun some other way than what I already knew how to do.  I learned that making do isn’t the worst thing that could happen.  I learned how to be something more than a stupid kid.

In Memory of Miss Penny


Knowing Myself: List Part Three, I meet Eleanor Roosevelt

A Few More Good Things That Happened  

  •  Reading, EVERYTHING
  • Valley Center
  • Making ice cream from fresh cream separated the day the cow was milked
  •  Learning to garden with Grama and later, Mom
  • Living at Rancho Lilac
  • Meeting Eleanor Roosevelt

Early Spring Garden @ Toad Hollow

Socrates was asked once why it was that Alcibiades, who was so brilliant, was so unhappy.

Socrates replied, “Because wherever he goes, Alcibiades takes himself with him.” This is still very profound for each of us today.

Have you ever tried to move to a new place, to start over, only to find the same situations following you from place to place?  This certainly happened throughout my childhood, the issues of poverty following us from place to place as my mother lied to one landlord after another, changed jobs and clung to survival as tenaciously as is possible.  The deeper, and more personal issues followed me into my adulthood for resolution.

I changed schools about 27 times, counting the schools at Hillcrest Receiving Home and the high school classes at San Diego County Juvenile Hall.  I counted that out about 25 years ago, now some of it is a blur of forgotten names and circling back to schools I had left already.

I have been thinking of what I am grateful for. It is quite ordinary to be so loved and so appreciative. My gratitude extends to everything about my life these days and particularly to very ordinary things. I am grateful for the kindness, encouragement and intelligence of my husband with whom I live in a consistent state of Love. We live comfortably without any particular excess. I am grateful for the wisdom to live simply and to live trusting that our needs will be met.  With all the shortcomings my family may have had, I am grateful that I was raised to take good care of what I am given, preserving it and honoring the privilege of my abundance. For that I say “Yea and Amen!” to Grama Cavanagh with affection.

I know that outside the window where I sit there is a colorful garden that represents in microcosm the entire basis for my deep appreciation of nature and all its gifts to human life. I am grateful to those who have been so generous in my life and I am amazed as I discover the depths of that well of generosity out of which we take our gifts for one another. I believe that we live lives infinite in the means whereby our gifts are created and dispensed. We are avenues of Spirit’s self-givingness and grow in that capacity as we open to the possibility of endless gifts.  We are meant to be generous and responsible for how we use the lives we are given.

Eleanor Roosevelt


When I was a little girl, I had the privilege of meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, who was visiting Rancho Lilac, in Valley Center, California, where I lived as the daughter of the ranch cook.  Interestingly, Colonel Irving Solomon, who owned the ranch with his wife Celeste, had served with Roosevelt at the UN.  During her visit to Rancho Lilac he had apparently told her that there was a little girl who wanted very much to meet her.  When the school bus stopped at the gate to drop me off, there she was waiting to meet me!  Imagine such a generous and wonderful surprise!  It was a short visit, only a few minutes at best. But they meant a great deal to me in the years to come.  Because I met her, all my life thereafter I have been inspired by what I learned of her as I grew up.

As I got older I  felt driven  to find out more and more about her, she was the most important public figure I had met,  and I was inspired to discover in her qualities that I could later find in myself.  Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman who stood up when others sat down on their rights.  She was a self-defined woman who decided who to be in her life no matter what the challenges she faced.  She was a champion for civil and women’s rights.  She didn’t worry about being liked as much as being an effective force for good.  In 1948, when the following Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed without dissent by the General Assembly of the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt served as the chair on the Commission on Human Rights, which brought the Declaration to the Assembly for approval.  What a fine legacy the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was to leave the world!

On a more personal level, I wonder what would happen if we each took the time on a daily basis to think, “Today, how could I spend a few minutes acknowledging someone, a child, an elder or a colleague so that they would be changed or even, that they would remember the precious gesture decades later?”

“Rancho Lilac was the site of the smallest post office in the United States. The post office, which still exists, was not much bigger than a phone booth. It functioned until about 1912. The property changed hands many times and eventually was purchased by Col. Irving Solomon in 1945, who raised Hereford cattle. Solomon was instrumental in the formation of the United Nations.” [1]

I played post office on the site of this tiny post office without knowing its history until recently.  I simply came upon it while playing in the yard in front of Col. Solomon’s ranch house.  I didn’t know as a child that Col. Solomon had worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on the formation of the UN.   I did know that his cattle were prize winners and that he was a really nice man.  I have no memories of his wife and family at all.  I am indebted to him for his kindness to me on that one day when he could have left Mrs. Roosevelt to enjoy a rest beside the pool, but instead asked her to greet me.

“Sometimes the days they can be very busy, so I like to stop and think now and then.  I think of the reasons I have to be happy, and that makes me happy all over again.”

From the Broadway musical “A Year With Frog and Toad”

[1] (This page has since been taken down)