Author Archives: gwendungy

Before the fire…

HUGUENOT! This is a hard word to spell when you’re in kindergarten. I had just learned how to spell the name of the street I lived on when the name was changed to Hollywood. Without moving, I now lived at 494 S. Hollywood Street.

Our house seemed big to me, but it was just a three-room shotgun house. The front room was immediately followed by the bedroom and then the kitchen. The front and back doors in alignment, earning the name of a shotgun house, for the saying goes that if one shot a bullet straight through from the front door of the house to the back door, it would exit without ever touching anything.

This was the house my grandparents felt blessed to live in after moving from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis as part of the Great Migration. My mother and I lived in the house with them. One of my earliest memories of living in the house was using a slop jar to do our “business.” It was not until the house was rebuilt after the fire that we had a toilet in the house.

“Mother dear”—“Muhdear” in my mouth—and I slept in the same bed, which took up most of the space in the front room. Just across from the foot of the bed was room for a small couch where my grandparents sat and listened to the radio and later watched television. On the right side (when facing the bed), there was just enough space for a chair at the head of the bed. In a corner on the left side was a tiered “whatnot” with a picture of me as a baby on the top shelf. I don’t remember the picture, but I do remember the frame—oval with a wide black border with pink and white flowers on one side. I liked the frame. Years later, I was told that this only picture of me as a baby was lost in the fire…

Campus Climate: The Significance of Thoughts and Feelings

It used to make me angry and demoralized to think that my race, gender, assumed economic position, body image, sexual identity, religion, or my divergence from commonly accepted standards of beauty could diminish the power of my contributions, whether in public speaking, writing, or being part of a group where I was the minority. These prejudices were wrong and will never be right. In hindsight, though, I am grateful for the results these challenges afforded me.

I think that these challenges and experiences have…

  • been invaluable in enhancing my desire and capacity to learn about the lives and experiences of others, especially those who are often described as “marginalized;”
  • deepened my well of empathy and compassion for others;
  • honed my skills in identifying and supporting individuals and groups who feel that they don’t belong and are not valued; and
  • fueled my resolve to be ever diligent in remaining self-aware in my interactions with others.

Recalling and reflecting on my experiences leads me to conclude that they have been instrumental in making me the person I am, for which I’m grateful. However, the intellectual analysis is only part of the reflection:

  • The feelings of pain, humiliation, and anger are easily relived when I recall how vulnerable I felt as a student. I sometimes wonder how I might have achieved at my university if I had not feared and distrusted my academic adviser, who was also one of my professors.
  • These feelings were magnified within me because I felt that assumptions were being made about my intellectual abilities leading to questions about whether or not I had the right to walk the grounds and enter the classrooms.
  • The times when I felt worse were those times when I was made to feel invisible.

Recalling my feelings and thinking as I do now, I’m encouraged that many colleges and universities are taking their role as humanist institutions seriously by taking giant steps to create a campus climate where no one—faculty, staff, student, or administrator—will feel as I often felt on college and university campuses in each of these roles.  


Words that stick

“Magnificent obsession.” I have been intrigued by this phrase I find oxymoronic ever since I first heard it as the title of a book and at least two films. 

While an obsession can be helpful if it ultimately leads one to success after doggedly pursuing a vision about one thing above all else, it can be detrimental if one thing is pursued to the exclusion of all else yet the goal is never achieved.

Therefore, I don’t think an obsession can ever be “magnificent” because of all the other wonders that are missed while pursuing the one vision or goal.

However, I think it’s magnificent to be obsessed or passionate about something.

How did she know?

As evidence of how loving, obedient, giving, and helpful her teenaged daughter was, the mother would often tell the story of how when she was deeply occupied and intent on her writing, she would drink copious cups of tea. During these times, her sweet, kind, and perfect daughter, without any hint of resentment, would, when the cup was empty, ask her mother if she wanted more tea.

To keep the cup full, the daughter would have to interrupt the cleaning,  washing, ironing, or studying that she was doing, walk down a long hallway to the kitchen, put the kettle on the stove, wait for the water to get hot, pour the tea, and bring it back to the front parlor where her mother sat writing. The daughter was mindful to fill the cup to the rim with hot water covering the Lipton tea bag, carefully carrying it so as not to spill any tea into the saucer where it would wet the wedge of lemon.

On one of these days, the daughter asked, “Mother, do you know that this is your 13th cup of tea?” The girl’s mother replied, “Yes, baby, 13 is your lucky number.”

Triggers of deep memory


Her feet are never dirty because she showers twice a day and uses a long-handled brush to scrub her feet with soap. Every time she scrubs her feet unnecessarily thoroughly, she recalls a time when she would use her forefinger to slowly rub the area between her ankle bone and Achilles heel into rolls of moist black dirt. Though she yearned for a bath, there was no opportunity.


She brushes her teeth more than twice a day when possible. Each time she has to caution herself not to brush too long and too hard. She is so grateful that she has what she needs to brush her teeth because there was a time when she did not have a toothbrush or toothpaste, and rinsing her mouth with water and using her forefinger to rub across her teeth was not enough to keep the green border from forming just below her gums on her upper front teeth. She covered her mouth when she smiled so the green would not show.


It is not enough that food be freely given – it must be plentiful and eagerly given or she will lose all desire for it. She will become angry with the person who, in her distorted interpretation of the situation, is withholding the food or grudgingly giving it. It’s only after one of these episodes of feeling infuriated and then ashamed for being so unreasonably angry that she reflects on why she reacts this way.

There was a time when her meals consisted of a small amount of food apportioned on a plate, which was left on a stove as if for a pet. Unable to access the snacks in the pantry or the popsicles and ice cream in the large freezer chest because they were padlocked, she chose not to eat at all.

Heading Home

Read previous: Cuearnavaca, Morelia, and oh, Acapulco!

Having finally navigated out of the pitch-black courtyard after our stay at the unique Posada de la Soledad hotel in Morelia, we were finally on our way. Even after sunrise, it remained dark for quite a while due to heavy cloud cover.

We took turns driving every two hours with a stop in Guadalajara. In my mind’s eye, I can recall scenes in Guadalajara, such as the lovely flower-covered gates and street vendors, but perhaps because our stay was so brief, I didn’t record anything about our visit in my journal.

We powered on to Mazatlán, arriving 12 hours after we began this leg of our road trip. We were fortunate to get a room at the first place we stopped. Our goal was to scrub our bodies, wash our hair, and eat in a nice restaurant. It was in Mazatlán where we ordered fried fish and were surprised when we were served a whole fish including head and tail.

After supper we sat on a concrete wall overlooking the Pacific Ocean and watched the waves for a very long time before retiring for the night.

July 20

I don’t know why, but clearly I was in a goofy mood when I wrote this journal entry:

Chuckie and Gwen left Mazatlán at 5:30 a.m. They thought the streets and beaches would be deserted, but they were so wrong. The Pacific, near the shore, was full of bobbing heads of people taking an early morning dip. People were walking the streets as if it were midday.

It took nine hours to drive from Mazatlán to Guaymas. Gwen only drove two of the nine hours. Poor dear Chuckie! The kids ate cookies, peanut butter sandwiches, and tuna with mustard all the way to Guaymas. After finding a room at the Guaymas Inn, with stuffed tummies, they went directly to bed.

July 21

We know that today is Sunday because by 7:00 a.m. the highway leading out of Guaymas is relatively free of farmers. Traversing a relatively flat terrain in sunny and warm weather was a joy. We made good time driving, reaching the border around noon. We had to return our tourists’ permits at the Mexico Customs Station, and at U.S. Customs we had to take everything out of the car for inspection. We were lucky that the Customs Officer we had was nice because he didn’t dump our things out like some of the other inspectors did when inspecting the cars of other tourists.

As we drove away from the Customs Station into Nogales, Arizona, Charles started screaming and pointing at stop signs, street signs, and store signs because they were in English! We were laughing and screaming because we were so happy to be back in the good ol’ USA!

We went directly to the AAA office to exchange the little currency we had left. We marveled at the fact that we didn’t have to check to see if we had enough bottles of water because we could just go to a water cooler and drink the water.

Tucson was about an hour’s drive from Nogales. We welcomed the 97-degree temperature in Tucson because we had been cold so much while in Mexico. Our first task was to find a laundromat to wash our dirty clothes. We knew that there would be one near the University of Arizona.

After washing our clothes, we went to a campsite where it cost $2.32 to secure a space to pitch our tent – the Giant Genie. (I have no recollection of why I called the tent the Giant Genie in my journal.) I put the tent poles together while Charles unfolded the canvas. When these tasks were completed, we moved quickly because it looked as if it were going to rain. I began to pump up the air mattresses while Charles put the poles in the tent. Lightning began to flash as the sky grew dark.

Just as Charles got the tent set up, a strong wind began blowing everything away, including the Giant Genie! While I tried to hold down the air mattresses and loose articles, Charles struggled to keep our tent from blowing away, but he wasn’t able to keep one of the poles from breaking. We worked for at least an hour trying to improvise a way to keep the Giant Genie up despite the broken pole.

While we struggled with the tent, the wind and rain turned into a major storm. Drenched, we took the Giant Genie down, let the air out of the mattresses, and repacked the trunk of the car. Wet all over, we drove back into Tucson to an Arby’s where we ordered roast beef sandwiches and milkshakes. We felt better after eating and set out to find a room.

In our hotel room, we had a telephone that we knew how to use. We each called our mothers to let them know that we were back in the United States. I was thrilled to see that there was a television in our room, since there had not been one in any place we stayed while in Mexico. With great anticipation, I turned on the tube. Unfortunately, there was only static. Thoroughly disappointed, we cleaned up and went to bed.  

July 22

Although we had been drenched the day before and disappointed in not being able to watch television, we were in good spirits at breakfast as we made light conversation with the waitresses who were dressed in cowgirl outfits. We were feeling rested and optimistic as we discussed our options for the day: We could go to the Grand Canyon if we could get another pole for our tent. If we failed at this, we could visit Los Angeles.

After breakfast, we stopped at a service station for gas and selected an option that we had not previously discussed. The service station attendant noticed that our right front tire was low, so he suggested that we let him put the car up on a rack to check the tire for a nail. With sympathy in his facial expression and voice, the attendant told us that we were in for big car trouble. While there was no nail in the tire, he informed us that the front wheel alignment was off and, as a result, our tire was going to be completely destroyed.

Resigned to adjust to this new development, we unpacked the other maps, bought food supplies, and headed east for home. We drove to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and stayed the night.

July 23

After a sleepless night because of a storm, we took a tour of the campus of the University of New Mexico before hitting the highway. Impressed by the pueblo-style buildings, we’d never seen a university campus such as this.

We drove for about an hour before stopping for breakfast at the Longhorn Ranch restaurant. The street looked like what we’d seen on television as main street in Dodge City during the days of Dillon, Earp, and Hickock.

After breakfast, we went to the adjacent shop where I bought necklaces made of beads and corn. We sent postcards home, and for the final leg of our road-trip honeymoon, we hit “Highway 66” toward Oklahoma City and did not rest until we got home sweet home!

Cuernavaca, Morelia, and oh, Acapulco!

Read previous: Wrong Turns and Singing Frogs

July 13

Not that it makes any difference whether it’s the weekend or not when we don’t have to go to work, but today is Saturday—what is usually a shopping day for us—so why not shop today?

We got up early to drive from Taxco to Cuernavaca, where one of Charles’ aunts who had visited Mexico years before directed us for a particular kind of leather purse for her. Once we were there, it took us about an hour to find the store. There were no leather purses like the one we were supposed to get for Charles’ aunt.

With nothing else to do and feeling less like tourists now, Charles drove us to Mexico City, where we went directly to the San Juan Market. After buying two purses that might be what Charles’ aunt wanted, we decided to shop more at another market, La Merced, where I bought a large sewing basket and a bread basket.

After shopping, we were famished, so we stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken! This food we understood, and it was a welcome change. Since Charles had driven earlier, I drove back to Taxco, where we just collapsed. We even slept through the supper hour and didn’t wake up until the next morning. 

July 14

We wake up to a cloudy and rainy day. In fact, given the fact that our hotel is atop a hill, we find ourselves actually in the low-hanging clouds. This was an unusual experience for us.

It rained hard all day, making it impossible for us to get out of our room. We were going stir crazy! Trying to find something to do, Charles repaired a broken handle on the sewing basket we bought the day before, while I washed clothes in cold water in the small wash basin and ironed two shirts and a dress on a tiny square table.

We talked about how we missed eating the foods we were accustomed to back home. We even crafted a seven-day menu, including a lot of artery-blocking foods that were our favorites. Later, we regretted that we had spent a lot of time daydreaming about favorite foods and planning menus before going to dinner at the hotel restaurant because our real dinner was definitely no comparison.   

To break up the monotony and to get out of our room, we took a drive after supper before returning for yet another game of Gin Rummy. Our road-trip honeymoon is beginning to drag, though neither of us admits it.

July 15

We were up early, excited to get on the road to Acapulco. It was an easy drive, and we were happy that it was warm and sunny after so much rain and cool weather.

Acapulco, itself, and the hotel we planned to stay at were the ultimate destinations for our honeymoon. I had read that our hotel, Las Brisas, was the hotel where the Kennedys had spent their honeymoon. The hotel is high on a hill, commanding a full view of Acapulco Bay and the city of Acapulco. At $45.00 a day, we thought that this must be one of the most expensive hotels in the world—and it was worth every cent!

Everything was painted pink and white. Our pink-and-white cottage, enclosed by a white concrete wall on one side and shrubbery on the other, has its own private swimming pool and terrace facing the ocean. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages of every type are available in the refrigerator. Breakfast is brought to our cottage every morning and fresh fruits are brought daily, as well. This is living!

Midday, we went to town for a walk-around and a snack. When we returned, we luxuriated poolside before going back to town for supper. What a life!

July 16

This must be how the rich and famous live. Waking up around 10:00 a.m. to the smell of coffee and fresh rolls brought to our room is still unreal to us. It is here at Las Brisas where we experienced breakfast in bed for the first time and, possibly the last time, in our lives. With nothing to do but lounge around and play in the pool, we didn’t leave the hotel until midday. Because it was cool, we put sweatshirts on over our swimwear and went to town for lunch.

For our trip to town, I had worn beach walkers, but Charles had not worn any shoes. He was full of regret when the pavement heated up, so we set out looking for sandals. To our surprise, every shop was closed between 1:00 and 4:00 p. m. If we had taken more time to read our tourists’ materials, we would have known about this custom.

Since there were no sandals to be bought this afternoon, and we didn’t want to go back to the hotel yet, we went to the beach. The waves in Acapulco Bay were strong, turbulent, and beautiful. We walked down to the waters’ edge and sat in the sand like two children enjoying the waves as they washed over us leaving us covered with sand and salt.  

After a while, we went back up the hill to Las Brisas, where we cleaned up before returning to town for supper. Before retiring for the night, we played our twelfth game of Gin Rummy. The score is six to six. We sure do miss television.

July 17

It’s not bad having a birthday in Acapulco ensconced at Las Brisas. We decided to splurge and order lunch from the expensive hotel restaurant. I won’t go into the description of the pepper steak we ordered, but it was not money well spent. We had to go to town for a burger.

We dressed up for our evening meal to celebrate the special occasion at an expensive French restaurant called Normandie’s. We looked forward to this night out with eager anticipation, and we were not disappointed.  We had a delicious meal and felt a great sense of satisfaction about the way the day had unfolded as we went back up the hill where we could luxuriate one more night in our pink-and-white cottage.

July 18

We got up at 4:00 a.m., checked out of the lovely Las Brisas Hotel, and were on the road by 5:45 a.m. Driving through scenic mountainous country, we ran into low clouds and rain periodically before we arrived at our destination in Morelia.

Our destination was a hotel named Posada de la Soledad. Charles and I liked a lot of the same kinds of things and that’s why our relationship had so little friction. However, this hotel showed us that we didn’t agree on everything.

Charles was fascinated by how unusual the hotel was and I was so disappointed. Before we arrived at the hotel, I decided that I would stay in our room and relax while he went to supper. I was getting concerned about my expanding waistline. 

We were taken to our room and let in by a man who took the key with him. There was no key for us and no way for us to lock the door from the inside. Our very cold, high-ceilinged, dark room was large with heavy Spanish-styled dark furnishings. Above the bed was a huge picture of the Virgin Mary gazing down at the bed. The windows were covered with thick wooden doors. When I told Charles that I had changed my mind and would go to supper with him after all, he laughed and said, “Don’t tell me that you’re afraid in a monastery!”

The dark and dank restaurant was in what used to be a dining room for the monks who lived in this monastery. The few of us who were there for supper sat at a long and narrow wooden table in extremely uncomfortable chairs. The flowers that should have brightened the room just made the place more eerie to me because there was a funeral parlor next door, and I could not help but think that the red gladiolas were left over from someone’s funeral.

July 19

 Ordinarily, I would be reluctant to get up at 4:00 a.m., but not on the day we were to leave the Posada de la Soledad. When we left our room, we were surprised to find that the desk was closed. At all the previous hotels, there seemed to be someone at the desk all night. Since we had paid in advance and had no key to return, we slowly and cautiously moved through a pitch-black courtyard toward what we thought was the exit.

 When we reached what seemed to be a door, we found it barricaded! As we stood there shivering from the cold and fear in the dark, we heard a shuffling noise behind us. Unable to see anything because it was as black as night wherever we were, Charles called out in a deep but querulous voice, “Who’s there? I say, Who’s there?” Suddenly a man appeared directly in front of us. Using every word we had ever learned in Spanish, we tried to communicate that we wanted to leave. The man removed the barricade, we gave him a generous tip and moved as rapidly as we could to our car.

Final two nights in Mexico

Wrong Turns and Singing Frogs

Read previous: Bullfights and on to Puebla and Oxaca

July 10

The experiences of this day would remain vividly in our minds throughout the remainder of our trip.

We headed out for Taxco in our newly washed car with half a box of stale cookies for lunch. We had been quite specific about not wanting to have our car washed when approached by a man in the courtyard of the hotel the previous evening. Nevertheless, when we walked out of the hotel the next morning, our 1968 dark blue Cutlass with the white vinyl top, was sparkling like new. The Industrious man we had seen the night before made a job for himself in order to earn a little money.

The reason we only had a few stale cookies for our trip was because the hotel we went to for breakfast only made enough lunches for its guests. We shrugged our shoulders and said we would just get all the little hiccups and inconveniences out of the way during the morning so we could have smooth sailing on our journey to Taxco.

I drove the first 100 miles with the windows down enjoying the balmy weather. We were in a good mood as we sang our favorite songs all the way to Cuatla where we stopped for gas. Cuatla is famous for its association with several revolutionary leaders including Emiliano Zapata, one of Charles’ favorite heroes.

We encountered another hiccup in Cuatla when we realized that we didn’t have enough of the right currency to pay for the gas. The local bank was closed, and the hotel we found would not cash a traveler’s check. We eventually found a restaurant that would give us an exchange for our U.S. dollars.

By early evening, we were starving and the road out of Cuatla toward Taxco was unpaved. The towns we passed through were not on the map, and it was getting dark as we maneuvered our way across nearly unnavigable terrain. We eventually realized that we were hopelessly lost. We just kept driving until we came to a stop at a gate, and men in uniforms carrying rifles seemed to appear out of nowhere! There were blinding lights shining through our front windshield and through the side windows. I frankly don’t recall the exchange we had with the men, but we apparently had driven up to an army base. To say that we were frightened in no way describes how scared we were. We must have indicated in some manner that we were headed to Taxco.  

We were both shaking as we drove back in the direction from whence we had come. By sheer luck, we finally blundered onto Highway 95. After the experience with the soldiers, we had no inclination to talk, so we sat quietly as we drove the last 20 miles to our destination. We finally began to exhale when we were registering as guests at the Hotel Loma Linda in Taxco.

July 11

Yes, we were starving the next morning when we had breakfast at the Hotel Loma Linda. In daylight we made note of our room number, 108, and we knew that this must be our lucky number.

We could see where people lived from the balcony of our hotel room. It was fascinating to see that the houses, like white stacked boxes, were built up and throughout the mountainside.

Taxco is known for its silver. While Charles put the Hemisfair sticker from the San Antonio World’s Fair on our car, I walked next door to a shop that was advertised as a “silver factory.” I was disappointed to see that the prices were so high since I thought it really was a factory. I should have known that the prices would not be good because of all the tour busses outside.

After breakfast, we decided to walk to the center of town, stopping at every silver shop along the way. We marveled at how the streets composed of rocks, stones, and bricks just seemed to naturally grow up into the mountainsides.  

After spending the entire day walking around town, we returned to the hotel to inquire about tickets to a famous night club we had heard about called “Las Cantarranas,” translated in English as “The Singing Frogs.” The tickets were not yet available, so we took a drive to locate the place during daylight hours since there were no lights on the highway or roads at night and we didn’t want to end up in a place like we had ended up the night before. The club was open so we went inside to check it out. We wished we hadn’t seen it in the daylight. It was not at all inviting, but we had heard that it was “the” place to go for entertainment.

After dinner at the hotel, there was a thunderstorm, so we had to postpone our night out. It’s a good thing we did because after the most delicious ice cream that we had ever had in our lives, we took turns in the bathroom the rest of the night. We learned later that we had such a reaction because the ice cream was made of goat’s milk. For years after this trip, if we saw any type of food indicating that it was made of goat’s milk, we would recall our Taxco experience and take a pass.    

July 12

On this day, we headed for silver shops along the highway. All the “Platarias” seemed to have the exact same merchandise. Just before we decided to go back to the hotel, a young man ran out of his shop and literally dragged us inside to show us something “different.” His jewelry was beautiful and unusual because he had blended copper, brass, and silver. He proudly showed us how he executed his craft. Unfortunately, we had spent all the money we had allocated for silver and could not buy any of this unique jewelry.

Other than walking around and shopping at shops for silver, according to our Trip Tik, there was nothing else to see or do. We took an afternoon nap before supper and played Gin Rummy until it was time to dress for our evening out at Las Cantarranas.

That night, we learned that the mansion or hacienda where Las Cantarranas is housed was built in the 1500s. We thought that it had to be the most unique club in the world. While it looked like a pile of ruins in the daylight, it was transformed at night.

Upon entering, we found ourselves in a cave-like room lighted only by candles in brown paper bags placed on top of tree stumps that also served as tables for drinks. Tables and chairs were small and placed close together in front of a raised platform for the band. The platform was also a place where guests could dance if they chose to do so.

After about 45 minutes in the room with the band and some dancing, everyone was led downstairs to a cozy room that had windows. In this room, all the guests sat on padded benches very close to the floor and the raised platform was just large enough for a single chair. After everyone was seated and had been served drinks, the owner of the club came out to welcome the guests, first in Spanish and then in English. After a most effusive welcome, he shared the history of the building. Then he introduced the main attraction. We sat spellbound for about half an hour as we were entertained by a most gifted and marvelous Flamenco guitarist.

Our next stop was outside on a patio. When we were all seated, five gaily decorated men climbed a 70-foot pole that did not appear to be too stable! Four of the men sat on a square that they put together with four wooden boards. The fifth man stood on another piece of wood that was about twelve inches in diameter in the center of the square of boards where the four men were spinning around like they were on a merry-go-round. The man on the 12-inch platform in the center danced on this small piece of wood while playing a flute-like instrument. All the while, the four seated men had been holding torches. Suddenly, while everyone was watching and listening with amazement to the music of the man in the center, the four seated men fell backwards and started spinning around the top of the pole. They were only held by a rope attached to their feet! Now all five men held lighted torches as they spun around down the pole until they reached the ground. As onlookers, we were out of breath just watching this performance.

Next, we were all ushered into another room where entertainers from Trinidad and London put on a very spirited and fun show with a lot of singing and dancing. After this, there was, yet, another space for entertainment! This second patio was built over a natural waterfall, and the loud music and psychedelic lights created the right atmosphere for dancing. When the music stopped, we thought it was time to leave, but not yet. Two male dancers from the Ballet Folklorico topped off a most entertaining evening!

Can’t wait to get to Acapulco!