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The Acid Test
Life's best lessons may come by surprise

by Mary Terzian

Mary TerzianI barely saw a yard away as I drove in the pouring rain to a writing class at UCLA, half a century late. The tapes engraved on my left brain were turned on full blast.

“What are you doing? Who do you think you are to write memoirs? At your age you should be sitting by the fire, knitting.”

By the time I found parking, the building, and the room I was half an hour late. I walked in, drenched to the bones, parading my defeat all the way to the front corner of the class, the only seat available under the professor's nose. No, she didn't have a big nose, nor was she the literary giant I expected. She had a cute face and a tiny frame lost underneath a jungle of hair. She was like a spring ready to pop loose from her high chair any minute, nothing like your run-of-the-mill, be-spectacled, age-old, erudite professors who sport their white beards as proof of their wisdom. She had a sharp wit though.

“What's your name?” she asked and made a point to account for my presence.

I looked around. What was I doing among these kids? The bright 20-year old on the first row particularly unnerved me. I could be her grandma!

The professor rambled on for a while. All I could hear was “what to put in, what to leave out”. Easy to say. These young adults had not lived yet. I had a whole lifetime to squeeze into 300 pages. The recount of any five-year period in my life span would be longer than that.

“Before I put you to sleep let's have some fun,” she roared to the class. “Get your pens and paper ready.” Everybody's interest was piqued.

“We're going to have a fun exercise for ten minutes.” She held up a brown bag for all of us to see. “I will pass this bag around. Don't look in it but grab an item and write about it from your stream of consciousness, whatever it reminds you of. This is just a warm-up exercise to stretch your memory. Don't expect a masterpiece and don't edit please, let it flow. Nobody is going to read it except you. Wait till everybody has picked an item.”

One by one we drew something: a comb, a logo, a key…. a lemon!

“Does everybody have an item? OK! Start!”

What could be exciting about my item? I pondered for a while. As time went by, under the teacher's raised eyebrows, I became nervous. Was she considering me a failure already? “A senior! What is she doing here occupying valuable space? If she starts her memoirs now when will she finish?” I banned those negative thoughts from my mind for a more productive exercise:

“I picked out a lemon,” I wrote, “What else! This is the story of my life. I always end up with lemons.

When I was young I loved sucking on lemons. I dipped them in salt to further enjoy their acidity. I wish I had not. Those lemons predicted the future course of my life.

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