Excerpt from book:
“Valerie, don’t overdo.” This parental reprimand was the constant refrain of my childhood. One more jump off the diving board when my fingertips were shriveled and my lips blue. One more turn on the swings when my palms were long since shredded by the metal chains as I tried to propel myself higher. One more twirl around the living room to “The Blue Danube,” even though my legs were already covered in rug burns. One more. One more.
I was also always looking for something to eat. When I was two years old, I bit the tail of our neighbors’ yellow Labrador because it looked delicious. I couldn’t help myself—I was drawn to that fluffy golden Twinkie of a tail, and I just had to sink my teeth into it. The dog was not amused; he spun around and bit me right on the lip. (It would be years before I’d overcome my fear of dogs. Though in truth, perhaps they should have feared me . . . )
When I was three years old, while watching my mother get dressed for the evening, I uncorked her beautiful bottle of perfume, Intoxication by d’Orsay. The bottle was so stylish, so alluring. It was in the shape of a cut-glass liquor decanter. How could I resist? I chugged the entire bottle in one gulp. Like the Labrador’s tail, the perfume did not taste as good as it looked and boy, did it burn as it went down! Throughout my life I’ve had no desire to drink anything intoxicating because to me it all tastes like perfume. Talk about aversion therapy!
My mother, Iva Mildred McConnell, was a petite, blue-eyed, blond Canadian. She met my father, the tall, dark, and handsome Howard Donald Harper, through their mutual interest in hockey. Mom played on a women’s team in Canada and spotted Dad at a match where he was playing for a visiting team—the Oakland Sheiks, who were named after Rudolph Valentino’s famed role.
My mother had always dreamed of becoming a doctor, but her parents insisted that she go into teaching instead. She first taught eight grades, all together in a one-room schoolhouse out on the Saskatchewan prairie, where each row in her classroom was a different grade. After about two years, when she’d saved up enough money, she put herself through nursing school and became a registered nurse, a job she truly loved. As much as she enjoyed nursing, when she met Dad, she obeyed the edict of the day: “No wife of mine goes to work.” Throughout most of my childhood, Mom stayed at home with my sister, Leah, my brother, Don, and me, though she always rejected the term housewife. “I’m not married to the house, I’m a home executive,” she would say. How true.
My dad was fabulous and charming—a radiantly positive man with a big smile. When his brief professional hockey career came to an end, he became a lighting salesman. One of several companies he worked for did the lighting for New York City’s Holland Tunnel—a fact we were reminded of every time we drove into the city from New Jersey. He also dealt in those unflattering lights that used to be in every ladies’ room, the fluorescent bulbs that make everyone look like the Cryptkeeper.
Because he was a sales manager and trained new salesmen, my father was often on the road. He also received regular promotions, which meant that my family moved every two or three years as Dad moved up the ladder. Most summers we traveled with my father to work, incorporating family visits to my mom’s folks in Vancouver. We had the best times with my Canadian cousins, Michael and Dean—swimming, walking trails, exploring the enormous Stanley Park. Some years we’d go see my dad’s relatives in California, where Don and I learned to ride two-wheelers in Canoga Park. Or we packed our things to move to another town and settle in before the school year began. We spent a lot of hours crammed into the back of our Kaiser-Frazer car, traversing the West Coast. During these trips, my little brother, Don, became obses
“Valerie is brilliant, frigging talented, funny as hell, warm, generous...and her book is a HIT! Detailed, delightful, and delicious—I've found myself starting to read it again!"