Trippin’ With The Murphys’

The crazy thing is, of all the Murphy kids, younger son Chrissie was the one sibling I really disliked.  I thought he was mean, hateful, and angry at the whole world all the time. 

I recently asked Chrissie, who’s now closer than a lot of my family, what he thought of me all those years ago.

To him, I was an annoying friend of his little sister.  An interchangeable mosquito.

My feelings were very different toward oldest son, Mike.  I had a huge crush on the boy who was always sweet to me.

The patriarch of the family was Bear.  He was commander of the base in Puerto Rico where we all lived.  He was a no-nonsense military man. 

He was strict with all the kids.  But with his sons, he was tough and cut no slack.  He had very high standards and accepted no excuses.  None of the kids would ever dream of back-talking or sassing that man.

Bear’s attitude manifested in anger with Chrissie.  His defenses were always up.  Most emotion was hidden behind a mask of aggressive apathy.

Kitty was the same age as me and my best friend.  She was smart, funny, proud, and had a very full inner life that was never shared.  Her defense against the world was a comic flakiness.  Teachers and parents, and even friends had a hard time holding her accountable when it was clear that she had full knowledge of her shortcomings and they made her far more disappointed in herself than anyone else ever could be.

Min was all of these, and more.

Minnie was the oldest daughter.  I’d never before or since met anyone like her.  She was a comedian/tomboy/secret agent/big sister to the sister-less/rebel/Dr. Dolittle/business genius/magical wood sprite.  Almost fifty years later I still think about conversations and adventures we shared.

The family matriarch’s smart and sophisticated is Mama Cat.  She showers her children and their friends with warmth, affection, and humor.

Lighthouse Beach, where we often went.

 Often, Bear and Mama Cat would take us all to nearby beaches.  Michael, Minnie, Kitty, and I would bodysurf and Chrissie surfed.

Many of the older kids surfed.  Lawns were mowed, children were babysat, dogs were walked, all in the pursuit of the cash to purchase their own boards. 

One afternoon we were on our way home from the beach.  Chrissie’s surfboard was partially in the car, with about a quarter of it out the window, like an exuberant dog on a ride.

The garage was a two-car with no doors, but with a four-foot-wide supporting pillar that divided it.  Bear pulled into the driveway.

The house on the right is the Murphy’s actual home in Puerto Rico.

I saw it coming, but didn’t have time to say a word before it happened.

As Bear pulled into the garage, Chrissie’s hard-fought surfboard was still sticking out the back window.  Never noticing, never slowing, the inevitable happened.

The board hit the pillar and a huge gash was neatly excised from the board, instantly and forever rendering it useless.  Except as modern art.

Actual Modern Art.

The care went completely silent.  I was watching Chrissie.  His face was red and his jaw was clenched.  If anyone else had destroyed his board they would already be begging for the sweet release of death.

Bear, sat as a stone—immobile and unreadable.

Actually Grandfather Mountain; it’s a metaphor.

Something was coming.

We just sat there—nobody opened a door.  We were waiting for an explosion, but couldn’t tell which Murphy man would be the catalyst—Chrissie to scream at his dad, or Bear to blame and berate.

Actually part of a movie.

Finally, after what seemed like eons, there was a slight clearing of throats.  One of them would speak!

Bear, with an unfamiliar sheepish look on his face, said five words I’ll never forget.

“I’ll buy the new one.”

An actual highly embarrassed bear–not the patriarch of the Murphys’.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at

Three Views On A Holiday

It will come as no surprise to a student of the human mind, or frankly, anybody with a lick of sense, my view of Christmas was informed by the first one I remember.

It is a saccharine, nostalgic, romanticized vision of the holiday.That earliest Christmas memory, when I was five or six, was spent on the couch.  I had pneumonia, and just enough energy to observe.  My holiday was whatever went on around me.  I had a Disney Christmas anthology book and many seasonal Little Golden Books, including my favorite, “The Night Before Christmas”.I watched all the Rankin/Bass shows of Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, and the Island of Misfit Toys.  And of course, Charlie Brown’s Christmas.  The Peanuts gave me an appreciation for jazz, in the form of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and the beautiful, majestic Shakespearian language of the King James version of the nativity.In 1973 I was nine, and it was all about my brother Homer’s wedding.  He was marrying Kelly, a very sweet young woman.  Mom told me she’d sew my outfit for the wedding and it could be whatever I wanted.  She probably regretted that promise when she found herself stitching together a purple velvet skirt and vest, with a coordinating lavender frilly-fronted shirt.

Yeah, I wish.

I looked like a cross between a Vegas pit boss and a Victorian couch.

In 1975 we were in in Puerto Rico.  Most gifts were shipped in.  To place a catalog order, one had to fill out a complicated order form and calculate price and fees.  Then write out a paper check, and mail the whole thing in.  Once Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck received it and the check cleared, a box would be packed and shipped.Mom was panicked because the order she’d placed in mid-September for my gifts hadn’t yet arrived.  My little brother’s presents had been received and wrapped weeks ago.  I knew nothing of this drama.

After unwrapping a spectacular haul, heavy on Barbie and Donnie Osmond, (the original catalog order had finally come), I was about to start opening each box and removing the dolls from their twisty-tie manacles.  Then I planned to dress them in their new duds and have a fashion show.Until my dad asked me to go into the kitchen and fetch him a cup of coffee.  I was more than a little grumpy.  C’mon, I had just opened my gifts!

I’d poured the coffee and turned around before I saw the true motive for Dad’s errand.

A glorious dayglo orange 10-speed bike!  For me!  Convinced the presents would never arrive, she and Dad had gone to the base exchange and bought me a beautiful new pair of wheels.Later I proudly wheeled it outside for a ride.  Along with twenty or thirty other kids.  It seems the exchange had received a huge shipment of one particular model of cantaloupe-hued 10-speeds.  That day a horde of tween Mongols mounted on tangerine bicycles was released upon the streets.  We traveled in packs as wobbly as new-born colts on our brand-new, slightly too-big bikes.x14But it was that 1960s holiday convalescence on the sofa which deeply and irrevocably set a reindeer on rooftop, joyfully over-decorated, scary fruitcake, white Christmas in my heart.It made my expectations high, but my standards low.  In my head is a Currier and Ives print set to the dulcet tones of Johnny Mathis.  But to make me think, “Best Christmas ever!”, all I need is the sound of bells, a glimpse of ribbon and tinsel, a few thousand Christmas carols on a playlist, and the pure crystalline happiness when passersby smile back.x26The Kid calls this annual lunacy my Chistma-thusiasm.

Thanks for your time.

How to Grow a Bookworm

One might think, knowing me and my love of fashion, that boots and shoes are taking over my house.

Not true.

While I do have a somewhat extensive array of footwear there’s another object in our house that threatens to take over, which I cannot stop acquiring, and which in the case of an earthquake would almost certainly bury us alive.It’s books.

Back in the stone age, children entering kindergarten didn’t already know how to read.  Heck, I didn’t even know the alphabet until late in the first grade.  Or maybe I just was slower than all the other kids.

But, in the second grade when I had a real handle on deciphering that alphabet in stories and books, I never looked back.  Once I began reading, I was lost, and kept reading until the story was finished and I knew for sure if Sally ever found Puff hiding in the back yard, and whether Dick and Jane had successfully pulled off that armored car job in Philly.In the fourth grade we moved to a Coast Guard base in Puerto Rico.  When it was light outside, there was plenty to do—we rode bikes and horses, swam in pools and the ocean, climbed hills and trees, and just goofed around outside.

But when it got dark, our options were sorely limited.  We could watch TV, but there were no English language programming at the time (But I do know that the Pink Panther doesn’t speak in his cartoons. Inspector Clouseau does, but not in French, in Spanish).

We could go to the movies.  It was fifty cents to see a movie that was usually about eighteen months old.  By the time we got to see Jaws, we already knew the shark did it (But it still scared the bejeezus out of my twelve-year-old self).But even at half a buck, we couldn’t go to the movies every day—they ran for two weeks, and there aren’t many films I can think of that I’d wanna see for 14 days straight.

I don’t know what other kids in other houses did, but I read—a lot.  Our school librarian, Mrs. Baraza and I became quite close.  By the time we moved, I had read almost all the young adult titles in the joint, and quite a few adult novels as well.  And when it was time for the Scholastic book sale, my wish list was longer than Noah’s packing list for the ark.

And as I got older, I kept reading.  Most of my girlfriends were big readers too.  It drives me nuts when I see a couple of kids together and they’re all on their cell phones, not paying a bit of attention to each other.  But when my best friend and I hung out, we’d read for hours, never saying a word to each other.If you want to know if you or someone you love has grown up to be a bookworm, there are some tells.

1.)Much like a drug addict, a bibliophile will get visibly, increasingly anxious if they get close to the end of a book without at least two more in the on-deck position.

2.)This person, while driving a car, will pop open their current book to get in a few paragraphs while waiting at a red light. 3.)A reader has occasionally bought a book twice because although they already own it, it’s so far down in the “to be read” stack that the original purchase has been forgotten.

4.)And lastly, a devotee of the written word will never say the words, “The movie was better.”  Won’t happen.


I’ve done all the above, plus quite a few things that were even more neurotic and embarrassing.Thanks for your time.

Love Letter To The Sand

There’s one huge bonus which comes from growing up in a Coast Guard family.Every base where my Dad was stationed was on the water.  I’ve lived on both coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the beautiful Pasquotank river, and Lake Michigan.

When I was 5, we lived in Alabama  The Coast Guard owned cottages on Dauphin Island, approximately 35 miles from our house in Mobile.  We stayed there occasionally on vacation.  But the much more important aquatic story took place in Mobile at the end of our street, at the neighborhood swimming pool.

I think my Coast Guard rescue swimmer father is part otter, so he was the designated swimming pool, river, ocean, overly-filled bathtub, deep-potholes-after-a-heavy-rain parent. Dad and I spent many hours together in the water.

The Ross family, circa 1969, at home in Mobile.  From left; Homer, Blond Bombshell Mom, Bud, Dad, and me.

One day I was bobbing around in the shallow end when I saw a kid younger than me swimming.  I thought to myself, “I’ll bet I could do that.”

And, just like that, I did.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me.  This was a graceless stroke that a drunken penguin might employ.  But I was swimming; and I’d taught myself.  My style could be refined later.Four years later, we were living in Elizabeth City.  My folks sent me to a Girl Scout camp in Virginia.

Yeah, it did.  It totally did.

This was where I got formal swim training.  I became proficient in all the strokes, and a junior life saver.

Later that year we moved to Puerto Rico.  We lived on a military base on the very northwestern corner of the island, thus were surrounded by beaches.  The base also had two Olympic-sized pools.  For three full years, I swam somewhere almost every day.

This is where I learned what an undertow was, and how to deal with it: Don’t fight it-you’ll only exhaust yourself, which is when people drown.  Keep your head up and tread water until you come out the other side, then swim to shore—you’ll know when you’re out.

I was best friends with Kitty Murphy. We were inseparable, and became honorary members of each other’s families.

Lighthouse Beach at Punta Borinquen, in Puerto Rico.  The spot where I learned all about flushing.

Very often I would tumble into the car with the rest of the Murphy kids for trips to the beach.  I learned how to body surf, and learned the definition of an ocean related phenomenon: being flushed.

A truly unpleasant and unnerving experience, flushing is when one is caught up in a breaking wave and held underwater while the ocean spins you like a Maytag washer.  It’s an occasional, unavoidable occurrence when body surfing.

The entire Murphy clan found it pie-in-the-face funny.  Truthfully, I did too, when it wasn’t happening to me.  It’s hilarious to see someone furious with the ocean.

Always a classic.

My beach of choice has always been the Outer Banks.  My very favorite thing to do in the ocean gives poor Petey heart failure.  I swim straight out as far and fast as I can (maybe a quarter mile), stop and rest a minute, then turn around and swim to shore.

I relish testing my limits and the absolute solitude.  Petey sits on the sand and mentally rehearses the phone call to inform my parents their only daughter has drowned, been eaten by a shark, or lost in international shipping lanes.My watery tale has a heartbreaking ending.

In 1986 we moved to the Piedmont and four hours from the beach.  My maritime opportunities dwindled drastically.  It has now been so long, I no longer even own a bathing suit.

So, if you hear I’ve been arrested for indecent exposure, don’t worry.

It just means I’ve finally gone swimming.Thanks for your time.