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Retired Timonium pediatrician discovers new joy authoring his memoirs

Dr. Robert Yim finds new 'avenue of expression' as writer

By Loni Ingraham

6:35 AM EDT, June 13, 2013

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Dr. Robert Yim can't wipe the smile off his face.

For 42 years, he was a pediatrician. Now, he is an author, having self-published a 289-page memoir called "Sleeping with Mae West and Other Stories." 

It may be difficult for people to understand the joy he feels having written the book, said this first-born son of Chinese immigrants, who has called Pine Valley in Timonium home for 54 of his 87 years.

"But growing up, we never expressed sentimentality," Yim said. "There was love, but Chinese families are so reserved, no hugging or kissing, or words of affection. Now, I have an avenue of expression.

"If Shirley didn't keep me grounded, I'd be thinking I'm a New York Times best seller."

Shirley is his wife, the mother of his three children and the "truly remarkable woman" he wed 59 years ago at what is now the defunct Sparrows Point Presbyterian Church. That was the same day in 1954 that he took his surgical final in med school, he said.

Shirley is now 82 and "still so energetic," he said, that "she wears out her clothes from the inside out." She's 10 times smarter than he is, Yim said, "and she can skewer me as only Shirley can."

The 80 or so "stories" Yim tells in his book, published just over a year ago, are each less than three pages long and "all true — with a little embellishment," he said. 

"They are delightful," said Timonium resident Dorrie Wilfong, who purchased the book after a friend recommended it. "If I wasn't wiping a tear away, I was chuckling so often my cheeks grew numb."

In the book, Yim recalls his years as a pediatrician in Timonium; 500 mothers showed up for the farewell party when he closed the practice in 2000.

Yim said he never wanted to "make a mother feel that one mistake would turn her kid into a serial killer. People left my office laughing. Even if things weren't any better, they left laughing."

The book tells of Yim growing up during the Depression when his family operated a general store in a small town in Nevada.

"We kids all helped," he writes. "I remember my 4-year-old sister, Margaret, sitting patiently on a chair next to the cash register for hours. Her job was to push a button that rang a buzzer in the living quarters alerting my parents a customer had come in."

"Pop would say, 'Whatever you do — bring honor to yourself, your family and your race.' Mom … held the family together. You raised five children and … guarded your chicks like a mother hen, suspicious of anyone or anything outside."

The title of his book refers not to the sultry actress but rather to the nickname given by sailors to the U.S. Navy's official life jacket, which "bulged in the same places as the famous movie star," Yim writes. After he was drafted during World War II, he "thrashed about fighting off a watery death," and that was just during training, he writes. 

He served as a radioman aboard a destroyer escort that tended to roll. Many years later, when his children asked him, "What did you do in the war, Dad?" he answered, "Vomited mostly." 

Yim writes about the year he spent in California before he joined the Navy and having "the temerity to take a white girl to the movies." As soon as the couple sat down they heard the loud whisper, "Do you smell a Chink?"

If he had stayed in California, he might never have met or married Shirley, a very pretty Caucasian woman from Sparrows Point who worked as a secretary at Bethlehem Steel and as a model. Mixed-race marriages were against the law in many states until the Supreme Court overturned the law in 1967.

The book tells of how "children and animals gravitate to Shirley. They sense security and love. She is able to baby sit any child. Those labeled 'bad' or 'unmanageable' are returned to their parents quiet and happy. Dogs declared 'mean' and 'dangerous' roll onto their backs for a tummy rub." 

Yim continues, "When she substituted in my pediatrics office, the children never cried. I cried. She had complete disregard for the schedule."

Yim, who worked his way through the University of Nevada playing and singing in a band, today plays classical and jazz guitar. He writes about his friend, Bernadine, and how the solace from the music they have played together for 32 years has carried them through difficult times, including the death of Bernadine's husband and the devastating stroke that Yim's daughter Susan survived.

Not an orthodox pediatrician

Yim said he didn't start out to write a book. Three years ago, an acquaintance had invited him to attend an "interesting meeting" of what turned out to be the Wednesday Writers, an eclectic group of mostly older people who share the memoirs and essays they have written each Wednesday in Towson. In three years, Yim wrote more than 90 pieces. 

It was that group that urged him to publish his work. 

Wednesday Writers leader Betty Walter touted Yim's "quirky, self-deprecating wit" and called him "our rock star," referring to the enthusiastic reception he has received when he reads from "Mae West" at local venues, including retirement homes.

Yim's son-in-law once complained to him that he would like to go out to dinner just one time when somebody didn't approach the table and tell him how wonderful a pediatrician his father-in-law was. 

"You become a member of their family, sharing their childhood," Yim said. "When you perform that last exam and they are grown and leaving, there is that tug at your heart, as if your own are flying the nest. When they go on to do wondrous things … your heart sings."

But Yim was not the most orthodox of pediatricians. 

He once told a mother who had been so exasperated by her teenage son that she had dissolved in tears to "take him out in the backyard, bury him up to his neck and feed him and when he's 18, dig him up and kick him out."

Years later, he received a thank-you note with a photograph of a young man in a cap and gown. "It worked!" the note said.

The most rewarding part of his practice was dealing with young mothers, Yim said.

"All women know how to have children even in the jungle or the wilderness," Yim said. "They don't need somebody in a white coat telling them what to do. They just need reassurance."

"Women are the best segment of civilization. They hold civilization together. I can't wait for a woman president."

After he closed the practice more than a dozen years ago he didn't miss it, he said.

"The next day I felt like this great yoke had been removed. There wasn't a young kid to be worried about. I picked up a medical journal and saw the same old format, the same old data and thought, 'Enough of this already. I wanted to read some smut.' "

Writing now occupies much of his life. "It's fun. It grabs me," he said. "It's like a spigot that has been turned on. I enjoy writing, Oh yes, I really do." 

Yim is already 20 stories into "Sleeping with Mae West, Volume II."

"Sleeping with Mae West and Other Stories" is available at Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley. It can also be ordered through Barnes & Noble in Towson as well as Amazon.com.