A Memoir       
Don Lehman

Chapter 11
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Foreword
1945-1950
1950-1957
1957-1961
1961-1962
1962-1966
1966-1973
1973-1977
1977-1983
1983-1988
1988-1991
1991-1996
1996-2002
2002-2012
2012-2014
2014-2016
2016

1991 - 1996

In March 1991, I took a flight to Heathrow and rented a car. I picked up Nicole from school and we toured The southern coast of England. We mapped out our trip as we went along calling ahead to boutique bed and breakfast inns. From Salisbury and Stone Henge we traveled south to the coastal towns then west to Penzance and St. Ives. Eventually we headed northeast to East Anglia and the small towns of Ipswich and Bury St. Edmunds then I took Nicole back to school for the spring term. I had always enjoyed traveling with Nicole. Our trips in the Southwest US and now in England were easy and adventurous. After leaving Nicole at the school I drove back to London and checked in to a small B&B. I made one of my favorite pictures that day when I was exploring the Leicester Square area. I came across a city employe scrubbing the Statue of Charlie Chaplin. I knew a little about Chaplin and it seemed to suggest metaphor. I had a friendly conversation with the worker and he permitted me to make a photograph. I then spent the rest of the day and late into the night in the old city. The next day I flew home.

I had taped the Enya CD, “Watermark” and while in England, sometimes at night I listened to those romantic lyrics on a small cassette recorder with ear buds and thought about the evening I spent with Gwendolyn at my house before the trip. I had made one long distance phone call from a pay phone near the cliff at the Lizard, the southernmost part of England. She spoke a few minutes to Nicole and that was the introduction. Her soft, modulated voice on the phone made me realize how much I looked forward to seeing her when I returned and I knew we were falling in love! Nicole and I spent that night at the edge of The Lizard cliffs, in a small house run by a, no nonsense, German woman. She seemed to accept that we were father and daughter but she gave us, the look! That night I woke and listened to the drone of a foghorn from the nearby lighthouse. In my head, I replayed the short phone conversation I had with Gwendolyn a few hours earlier, The future seemed full of excitement and possibilities. I had just completed my first artist residency, traveled in the UK with Nicole and it appeared that I was starting an exciting relationship with Gwendolyn. Before I boarded the plane for home I bought a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s, “Women in Love” to read on the plane.

I was back in Frederick, MD with my cat Herman, processing film and printing photographs I had shot in England. I spoke with Gwendolyn on the phone and arranged to go see her for the weekend.

That first weekend we were together was magical and euphoric. We slept late, took walks in Ocean Pines and on the beach. When I returned home we had long phone conversations at night. At that time, long distance phone calls were billed by the minute. Our bills were outrageous! I was in love! That summer she came and spent a week with me and the rest of the year I would go to see her or she would come see me on most weekends. I thought, so this is how my life will change. I saw Gwendolyn as a sudden fortuitous gift that I had been given. She had so much to offer and was generous. She wanted to be with me! We enjoyed every minute together. We loved, we talked and we laughed.

On one of the phone calls she told me she was selected to be Worcester County, Teacher of the Year for 1991. I didn’t know it at the time but she had already been honored for “Creativity in Teaching” by the Maryland Drama Association in 1985. There were more awards to come!

In late August of 1991 I traveled to Puerto Rico with Janice, Galen, Gerri and Janice’s daughter, Karen. We landed in San Juan, rented a car and drove south to the interior or the country. We were all there for Janice and Galen’s son, David’s, wedding to Debbie Colon. We stayed at the small, hot spring resort in Coamo. The wedding was in a local church an after the wedding there was food and dancing! It was fun meeting Debbie’s family. The part I remember most is the time with family. For me, it was a relaxed and idyllic time. It was early in my relationship with Gwendolyn and earlier in the year I had a wonderful trip through the southern parts of England with Nicole. Now I was with family in Puerto Rico. It was a good time! On one of the days while we were in Puerto Rico, Gerri, Galen and I took the rental car on a day trip to the west and around the southern coasts of the island. While we were still on the southern coast at night we were hoping to see the water glowing with bioluminescence but as I recall, we were content with the night time Caribbean breeze and the sound of the waves breaking on the beach.

That year, I took Gwendolyn to a Lehman family Christmas. Daddy sat in a wheel chair and stared, a condition he had been in for a few years as a result of Alzheimer’s Disease. That year we all were at Nate and Kathy’s house for a luncheon. We sat in a big circle in their living room. A few gifts were exchanged. Mother had begun giving money to the four of us and to her grandchildren. She made dish cloths that snapped onto the oven handle for others. She did not like to make a show out of gift giving but apparently wanted to do something. She took the dish cloths and gave them out. When she got within about three feet from Gwendolyn she tossed it to her. She may have said something like, “this is for you.” Nate and Kathy’s son Jeff was not there but his former wife, Patty was there. Mother tossed a wash cloth to her as well. Later Gwendolyn and Patty talked. Gwendolyn was experiencing something between amusement and confusion. Patty told her, “oh, she has always treated me that way.” they sort of laughed it off. The rest of my family treated Gwendolyn well. Of course Mother did not come to our wedding. I don’t think I formally invited her but she would have been welcome. I did not want her to have to formally decline an invitation, or maybe I did not want to give her the opportunity to decline. I was no longer greatly effected by her criticisms but avoided giving her the opportunity whenever possible. The most Mother recognized and spoke to Gwendolyn was when Janice and Gerri brought her to see us a few years before she died. She admired the meal Gwendolyn made.

By the beginning of the next year 1992, I was ready to move to Worcester County. Two sisters who worked in education in Worcester County had a house in Snow Hill that they were willing to rent to me for $300. per month which at the time seemed reasonable. It was a small, three bedroom house near the Pocomoke River. A little less than 30 minutes from Gwendolyn’s house. I moved all my stuff and took Herman with me. I continued working with Professional Promotions and picked up art residencies in several Worcester County schools and summer workshops. I started doing condo painting for a property management and rental agency in OC. I was in code violation since I did not have a home improvement license. That didn’t seem to be much of a problem but I was wary. The painting helped bring in a little extra money that first winter but when spring came I was still broke. Vacationers returned and the work diminished. I had used up my available money and was accumulating credit card debt. Lack of money was never much of a concern but debt was beginning to create stress.

Mother knew that I moved to Snow Hill to be close to Gwendolyn and I sometimes received letters from her. She would say things in the letters that was difficult for her to say in person. It was mostly expressions of disappointment and condemnation. I think I opened them all but stopped reading them beyond a quick scan. I remember one of the letters saying something like, “I just feel like coming down there and getting you and bringing you home.” It was an amazing thing for a forty-six year old man to hear from his mother.

I had liked moving from Hagerstown to Frederick where I had a bit of anonymity. Now moving to Worcester County, I had a completely new start with people. I made almost no effort to find friends and I was quite happy with that aspect of my life! I was completely in love and enjoyed every moment I could be with Gwendolyn. I did get to know some of Gwendolyn’s friends and enjoyed their company.

I wanted to do things for Gwendolyn. I remodeled her small bathroom. I built a storage shed. I helped her students create sets for their theatre performances. We did everything we could, together.

In the winter, December 27, 1992, Daddy died after, at least six years, of alzheimer's disease, most of which he spent sitting in a wheel chair unable to feed himself or respond in any way. He was at Menno Haven, nursing home, in Chambersburg, PA where Mother had an apartment. She spent her days sitting with him and helping with his care. The funeral was at the Mt. Olive Mennonite Church. I did not want Gwendolyn to go with me. I felt that my relatives would not be accepting. I thought it would be a distraction. I’m not sure she understood but was accepting. Mother lived another ten years and Died on August 3rd, 2002. Her funeral was at the same church. By this time Gwendolyn and I were married and she obviously went with me. Doris was also at the funeral and it seemed OK for them to both be there. I was happy that Doris came.

Nicole was going to Haverford College. I build a high bed with a small work space underneath and set it up in her dorm room. Doris had honored her agreement to cover Nicole’s education and expenses. Nicole was now in her first year of college at Haverford. Doris suggested that I contribute some money to her. She insinuated that it would mean something important to Nicole. I dismissed it. The truth was that I was struggling to make ends meet. Actually, I was not making ends meet. There was no painting work available in the spring and summer. I had no commercial photography work. I did a few artist residencies but not enough to pay bills. Out of desperation I took a job at a little Radio Shack store. It paid very little and many days I was there from open to close alone.

Professional Promotions was doing pretty well after 6 years of work and taking no income. I convinced Richard that it was time that we begin taking a small salary. Initially it was just enough to offset the monthly payments I was making to him toward the stock I had purchased when we incorporated. This took a little pressure off but did very little to improve my finances. The Radio Shack job was intolerable. The store manager was a despicable person and the corporation was abusive to it’s employes. They had a system that, instead of punching a time clock, had employees writing down their their hours on little cards that we turned in weekly. Our salary was calculated on a formula that established an hourly rate based on your “average sales per hours worked.” You were told to keep a strict accounting of your hours (wink, wink.) Everyone knew that if you worked more hours than you recorded you could increase your pay per hour. Many employees worked long unrecorded hours to get a few more pennies per hour in their pay. After 10 months in the fall of 1993 I quit without another job. For the next few months through Christmas I was again without an income. I worked with Professional Promotion and made the 400 mile round trip to Waynesboro, PA. each month for a meeting, just making enough to cover stock payments. I had no income or health insurance. Occasional Nicole would come and she seemed accepting of my bohemian lifestyle but somewhat confused. She once asked how I could afford to live without a job. She still had a sadness and disappointment over the separation. While she seemed to like and admire Gwendolyn, her conflicted feelings made it difficult for her to completely accept the relationship. I was accumulating credit card debt, hoping I would soon be able to take a decent salary from Professional Promotions.

I spent much of my time with Gwendolyn and I loved the time we spent together. We were happy. I liked hanging out with her at school in the evenings. I admired her intellect and her skills. It was amazing to watch her work with students and I was learning a lot about teaching. During the day, I worked on Professional Promotions, photographing products, designing logos and brochures and doing a little art photography. Herman, the cat, kept me company. I continued to teach some photography workshops through the state arts council.

I got to know many of Gwendolyn’s drama students. One of her African American students repeatedly invited us to his church. He told us he was involved with the music and I had told him how much I liked African American church music. We did not attend church anywhere but after several invitation we told him we would come to a Sunday service. We agreed on a date and he was pleased. The church was in the back country in Delaware. This was before GPS and we had trouble finding it. We arrived about a half hour late to find that they were waiting for us before starting the service. It was quite an honor but we were uncomfortable being the focus of the service. We were asked to stand several times and referred to as the teacher and her friend. The music was the best part with drums, organ and guitar. There was a lot of singing and the women who dressed in white with large white hats raised their hands and danced. When the preacher got started the service when on and on. We were shocked to hear him say that “parents must mark their children” in reference to discipline. He said, “ if you do not mark you children the police will kill them.” This was the first time I was exposed to the fear that black parents had, that white police would kill their children for the slightest provocation. That day, from the pulpit, it was presented as a fact without doubt. At that time I found it incredible and difficult to accept. I'm still not sure what he meant by “Mark your children.” At the time I assumed it meant whipping.

Money was a problem. Maybe it was the first time in my life that I actually worried about my finances. Professional Promotions was taking so long to provide substantial income. I didn’t know if it would ever become successful. I couldn’t face another miserable, demoralizing job like the Radio Shack. My credit cards were nearly maxed out.

In the early spring of 1993 I decided to apply for a job at a new Lowes store that was opening in Salisbury. It had to be better than Radio Shack! My application looked pretty thin. Self employed from 1968 to 1975, unemployed with part time jobs from 1975 to 1982, self employed as photographer from 1982 to 1989, part time jobs from 1989 to 1991, 10 months at Radio Shack and quit, unemployed for 6 months, and trying to build a business since 1986. I didn’t include any reference to my work as an artist. I only had a high school GED and a few college courses. I think they only hired me because it was spring hiring season and they were hiring a lot of people on a provisional basis for the new store. I was hired to work in the garden department selling lawn mowers and gas grills, etc. I loved it. I was busy, I had a low but respectable regular income, a 401K and health insurance. I was glad to be employed and I worked my ass off. After Christmas, in early 1994, I was offered a management position in the electrical department. I found myself in the position of managing people who had more seniority and product knowledge. I sensed their resentment and it was a little difficult at first but soon it was running smoothly. I got a salary and was expected to work fifty or more hours. I still loved the job and worked hard. It was about a half hour drive to and from work. My shift varied and often I worked from four in the morning until mid afternoon. I’ve always been grateful to Lowes for that job opportunity.

Those years, in my late forties and early fifties was a kind of re-education. A blue collar job was what I needed and I worked with good people. While the first store manager was a stereotypical “hotshot” who was making too much money for his ability, he was soon gone and the subsequent managers were much better. I was not experienced in “big box” retail, but I was accepted and mentored. I liked the people I was working with. They were honest and generous with me.

Herman, the cat, died in 1994, He was 19 years old and had been my constant companion from Nicole’s childhood, my days at the studios in Hagerstown, Gerri’s basement apartment, the Fifth Street house and the move to Snow Hill. The day he died I experienced a flood of emotions that surprised and confused me. I laid on the bed and cried. I remember thinking, Gwendolyn must be concerned about my emotional stability.

Herman and Gwendolyn’s cat Dexter could not coexist! After Herman died there was no longer a reason to keep the house I was renting in Snow Hill. I moved in with Gwendolyn. Without a rent payment, the Lowes and Professional Promotions salaries greatly improved my finances. Combining my income with Gwendolyn’s teaching salary, we both benefitted. Professional Promotions rented a small office space in Berlin for me to use as a studio for the photography and design work.

From 1993 to 1998 I worked at Lowe's and continued to work at building Professional Promotions into a successful business.

Once a month I drove the four hours to the Professional Promotions office for a staff meeting. These meeting would start at 9AM and usually end at around two or three with a break for lunch. I would drive to Mennohaven after the meeting and spend a few hours with Mother. In the early 1990s, I often drove back home the same day and would catch up on rest the following day. Later, when I stopped working at Lowes full time, I made it a day and a half spending a night with Janice and Galen in Frederick. On one occasion, after a meeting and a visit with Mother, it had started to snow. By the time I got to Hagerstown and started heading toward Frederick on I-70 it was dark, the road was covered and the snow was blinding. There was almost no traffic and in spite of the hazardous conditions, I was driving much too fast. My day had started at 5AM. I had driven four hours in the early morning, sat in a six hour meeting, driven on to Chambersburg to see Mother and now this. I wanted to get to Frederick as soon as possible and relax with Janice and Galen. I would see how the road looked in the morning before heading back home to Snow Hill. Occasionally I would encounter another car as I was passing on the left. I found myself staying in the left lane and following the edge of the road. Near the top of the mountain, near Frederick I changed to the right lane. The snow in my headlights was hypnotic and I had limited vision. In what seemed like seconds, I zipped by a tractor trailer that was jackknifed. The tractor was sitting in the median and the trailer was blocking the left lane. If I had stayed in the left lane I would surely have had a fatal crash. I was numb with shock and almost failed to believe what I had just seen. It seemed like a nightmare. It must have just happened because someone, maybe the driver was standing near the truck, I guess preparing to flag the oncoming cars. I did not stop or go back. I slowed to a crawl and recovered from the shock. Many time since then I think about how my life story could have ended that night.

In the spring of 1995, Nicole graduated from Haverford College with a degree in math. She spent much of the summer on a cross country trip with her friend and college room mate. Her friend had a job waiting for her when she returned from their travels but Nicole did not. Her first employer was a Philadelphia temp agency. I was privately concerned because my impressions of temporary employment agencies was a job of last resort. I had worked for a while for a temp agency when I was living in Frederick before I started doing artist workshops. For Nicole, this turned out to be a success as one of her first assignments was with the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in the marketing department, working on patient satisfaction surveys. She enjoyed the work and they were happy with her performance. An agreement was workout between UPenn and the temp agency and Nicole went to work full time employe. Over twenty years later she is still there. Gwendolyn and I were at her graduation and helped move her into her first apartment. She and her college room mate rented a place together at Bishop Hill Apartments just off Baltimore Avenue in Springfield, PA., near the train station. Erik Muther had also gone the Haverford College and graduated the year before Nicole. He was renting in the same apartment complex and they started dating, I guess, later that year or early 1996.

 

 

 

Something I found in an old file.
Must have been given by Lowes as a birthday card.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Chapter 12, 1996 to 2002

 
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