Friday, December 30, 2011

Early Money In a Small Town

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My first job was plucking gray hairs off my mother’s head, nickel a hair. I was eight. She would sit on the couch and I would stand behind her, picking through her black hair for offenders. I’d find a gray one, pull it out by the roots, and place it in the ashtray she had cleaned out just for that. Sometimes I pretended to drop the tweezers and pull one gray hair in half, making two.

Every time I had six hairs, I would cash them in for a quarter and a nickel: the nickel for the collection basket at church on Sunday, the quarter for me and our next trip to the grocery store. Seemed like a fair deal.

A machine in the lobby of the grocery store dispensed one toy for a quarter: one ring, one whistle, one fir tree magnet. These toys came in round plastic containers with replaceable caps, which I coveted as much as the toys inside. My mom would let me buy one, and only one, each time we left the store. Traversing through the aisles with her for an hour, holding on to the cart lest I be kidnapped right out from underneath her nose, I could barely contain myself through the check-out process before the toy machine pulled me from my mother’s side like some kind of poltergeist.

Some children spent their earnings on candy. I spent mine on fake tattoos.

It wasn’t long before my work ethic had been coaxed from the core of my being. My desire to work evolved quickly into need, fluttering in me like a new addiction, setting the stage for my next job: working for my father as a lumberjack. I was ten, again being paid by the numbers.

The three of us would pile into the cab of my dad’s truck and go to the woods. I wasn’t big enough to haul timber yet--my mother took care of that, dragging trees my father cut down into the bed of our truck--but I got a quarter for hauling in any piece of wood that was thicker than my leg.

I earned more for stacking logs back home: a dollar per foot of firewood in the basement, up against a wall in a row about ten feet across. I hauled it in from the big pile that my dad left in the backyard, my summer playground now a sawmill.

If I was working alone after school, it took many minutes to get ahold of enough pieces of wood to make the trip to the basement worthwhile, but if I was working with my father, he would tell me to stretch my arms out in front of me, palms up, loading me down with as many pieces of wood I could hold without pitching forward.

He knew I was in it for the money.

Teetering under the weight of cut logs, peeping through the cracks, I would stumble down to the basement and heave this load onto the basement floor before picking up each piece again to stack one against the other.

My mom wouldn’t let me stack wood if it was below zero because the open door let in too much of a chill, counteracting the productivity of the wood stove. I had to stack when the stacking was good. That it always took me two hours to build up one foot of logs deterred me not.

This was my first dependable source of income, my first taste of dollar bills.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hush

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One strange day, I heard noise.
It was the day I entered a family of noisy people.
Before that, it was just the rush
of my mother’s blood around me.

43 years later I listen to buzz saws and shouting,
a neighbor’s home being demolished,
the one next to mine
shingle by shingle.

How do those people get a new house
and I have to keep living.

Neighbors gossip: They’re illegal. The dad’s been in jail.
Living in a noisy bubble, we have in sight a good mother
but are not yet seeing.

This is doing nothing for our necks,
twisted and stretched,
still looking for neighbors.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Born Without Miss

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One terrible time, my parents left me at camp.
I gripped my teeth and tried to make friends.
My mom had equipped me with postcards
addressed to herself.

I hadn’t been alone or by myself for years, or so I thought.
I didn’t know what alone meant.

Mail call—an uncertain term to a child’s ears,
a child trying to get used to a cot.
My worry was always about making friends
and if they would be quiet when I slept.

Would I ever hear a song again,
my older siblings’ records kept safe
now that I was at camp.

I bunched up my bones
and decided I would never miss anybody again.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Funeral Hotdish

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For my dad.

My parents are both alive and well, busier now than they were before my father retired. Much of their time is still spent guiding their children back to safe territory. They’ve driven cross-country at a moment’s notice to help one daughter climb out of the abyss of alcoholism, and then zoomed back across the country when a grandchild went missing. If it weren’t for my parents, my siblings would be rudderless, and I might still be in jail.

The remainder of my parents’ time is spent assisting, entertaining, and eventually burying the elderly population of their small Minnesota town. My mom serves as a bridge substitute at the retirement home when regular members of the bridge club expire, and—during their church’s monthly senior citizen excursion to the Indian gaming casino—my parents’ heads are the only brown ones bobbing along with the gray hairs on the bus.

I don’t know exactly how they came to this role in their tight-knit community. I’m sure it was my mother’s doing. She was born to help.

Elderly people by definition do not last very long in this world, so not a week goes by that I don’t hear those matter-of-fact words from my mother, “We have a funeral tomorrow.” Most of the time my parents simply attend the funeral, but if the deceased was Catholic and attended Sunday mass regularly, my mom will volunteer both herself and my dad to “work it.”

Toiling alongside other women in the hot church basement, my mom will help to make and serve the post-funeral meal. My father’s job is to breeze through the crowd of mourners, refilling coffee cups and being sunny. He is the only husband in the parish whose wife asks him to help in this way. Working funerals does not come easily to my father, who is neither breezy or sunny by nature.

He does it because my mother wants him to.

It’s a simple equation.

With similar gusto, my dad volunteers to help my mother deliver Meals on Wheels to elderly invalids in and around their town. Their three-day shift comes up once a month and takes precedence over any funerals scheduled during meal delivery time, as feeding the needy outranks praying over the dead on my mother’s to-do list.

After stopping by the hospital cafeteria to fill up their station wagon with aluminum-foil covered meals, they drive from house to house, bringing hot food to hungry old people. Even in the midst of heavy snowstorms that erase any discernable difference between road, ditch, or sky, my parents are still out there, marshalling their meals. In the summertime, when the deer flies and mosquitoes are so thick that small children must be weighted down lest they get carried away, my parents will don their beekeepers' netted caps and forge ahead. Come hell or high water, sleet or flies, my parents cannot be deterred from delivering those meals.

Click here for new song. Long post.

Meal recipients know when a warm meal and a warm body are due to arrive on their doorstep, which is often their only social interaction of the day. Not surprisingly, many of them take advantage of this opportunity to interact with another human being, which often leads to “visiting”—another of my mother’s many fortes, and my father’s greatest pet peeve.

While my father fumes in the car, my mother will grab a meal, enter a house, and emerge twenty minutes later bubbling over with old person news, still waving at the old person from the car as my father drives off to make their next home delivery. This is enough to make my father ban my mother from ever again taking meals to the door, marching them up there himself until he eventually gets sucked into a visit, after which the ban on my mother is lifted.

My parents have also learned that delivering meals often entails non-food-oriented tasks, such as helping to find lost glasses, opening pill bottles, and jimmying locked doors.

One time my dad returned to the car grumpier than usual. “I had to wipe Frank’s ass,” he said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

He doesn’t have a lot of choices anymore, and probably wouldn’t eat Sunday brunch at the Senior Center every week either if my mother didn’t go. The Senior Center is their town’s nursing home, where my mom volunteers to call Bingo and waltz. She likes to eat Sunday brunch there because, at $2.50 a plate, it’s a nice way to support the facility, and conducive to more visiting.

I’ve joined my parents for Sunday brunch at the Senior Center occasionally throughout the years. The least surprising aspect of this adventure is that the food is served cafeteria-style, with everyone walking, limping, or rolling through the serving line and back to the long tables with their food. The most surprising aspect is that the food is actually quite good, as if Emeril Lagasse is in the kitchen whipping up steak and potatoes, sausage and sauerkraut, platter after platter of fried fish.

Bam! I bet Emeril would like my dad. I bet my dad would like Emeril.

My father, at his sunniest and breeziest, eats heartily and rivals my mother’s visiting abilities, chatting up toothless old men about railroads and fishing lakes. Old women drink their drool right back out of their orange juice and occasionally somebody shits his pants, but none of this fazes my parents, who are usually the last to leave.

For a long time, Sundays also entailed the transportation of one Mrs. Josephine Sears from her apartment to church, from church to the Senior Center, and then from the Senior Center back to her apartment. Dad would climb the stairs to her second story home and carry her down to the car, her frail body lost in the depths of winter wraps. At the church he would escort her up the steps and into the vestibule, both arms around her for safety. Almost a year went by in this manner: my parents taking Josephine to church with them, to the Senior Center with them, and then back to her apartment after brunch, always with Josephine tucked firmly under my father’s arm.

Only the word of God and the fear of a lawsuit could have changed this routine, and both came to pass one day when Father Joe ran into my father in the hardware store.

"You can't take her out anymore, man. If she ever slips on church property, she could sue you, the church, and in fact the entire diocese for neglect. Don't take her to Sunday brunch anymore either. You don't want an injury on the Senior Center’s property."

Josephine would be taking communion in her apartment from now on, Father Joe said, which was best for all parties concerned.

Usually it's my mother who calls me with news of change or trouble, but this time my father called, upset and angry. He railed against lawsuits and liability, executive decisions that hindered the quality of a 92-year-old woman’s final days. While my mother took the situation in stride—invalidism a sad but unavoidable matter of course for old folks—my father saw only injustice. I think what upset him just as much was that he, too, was losing rights: to help who he wanted, to socialize with others as he saw fit.

My dad was internalizing what my mother externalized every day: duty mixed with empathy, mixed with the certainty of one’s own demise.

I think he wanted me to know that he expected better out of all parties concerned if he made it to 92.

***

In most parts of the country, a dish made up of noodles or rice, any combination of meat and whatever else you have in the fridge is called a casserole. In the Midwest, this is called hotdish. Its purpose is the same: to use what you have on hand to feed however many people you need to. It is utilitarian in nature, hard to ruin, and can be extended indefinitely with the addition of more rice or noodles.

My mom makes a special one that she calls Funeral Hotdish, which she says is “easily double or tripled, easily digested, and pleasing to mixed crowds.” Here is her recipe:

FUNERAL HOT DISH:

1 1/2 lbs. hamburger
diced celery and onions
1 cup Uncle Ben's Converted Rice (be sure and use only Uncle Ben's)
1 large can chicken noodle soup (family size)
2 small cans cream of chicken soup
1/2 to 1 small soup can water

Brown meat, onions, celery. Put all ingredients in small roaster. Mixture should be somewhat juicy. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, checking after 45 minutes to besure there is enough liquid. Add more liquid as needed.

She makes Funeral Hotdish every time somebody dies, taking pots of it with her to church basements and funeral halls, to grieving families at their homes. She leaves extra plastic containers of it in her own refrigerator too, for her husband and children, if she gets the death call and has to run out.

Funerals, for my mother, lead to the best: Godliness and a good example for her children, who need to know what to do when their own friends and neighbors start dying. She taught us to make Funeral Hotdish, a teenage rite of passage that confirmed our ability to help others cope.

Funerals have had the opposite effect on my father. With each one that he attends—an old high school friend who died early of a heart attack, another widow he helped down the church steps—his jaw sets more firmly as he compares their turn against his own, their fate against his.

By the same token, he would gladly die tomorrow if it meant not having to bear my mother’s death first.

He has taken each of us children aside and explained his wishes: “If we get old and your mother dies before I do, tell me we’re going for a walk in the woods and shoot me in the head.”

Despite my father’s occasional foolish decisions over the years and his repeated request for a mercy killing, if push came to bullet, he would have to take his own life before any of his children would agree to his murder.

The fears and regrets that live in every one of us are all directly descended from our father's good heart; it is from him that we inherited our penchant for being human.

From our mother come the ability to love unconditionally, and to forgive—even ourselves.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Secret to Staying Together

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Have you ever wished that your wife
didn’t have parents? That she was a leftover
test tube baby, waiting for you on a shelf,
then grown and ripened just for you
and placed at your breakfast table.

But wait: a boy from down the street wants to chime in:
I really like her and even better
since her parents died in that crash.
She's all mine.


So many years waiting for so many deaths,
deaths that we would never even admit to knowing could happen,
the very idea of them so unimaginable
to our wife. Yet there we were,
plotting. It’s going to be so much easier
when her parents are gone.


And then her parents were gone.
Your parents were gone. My parents, also gone.

We spent the rest of our lives wishing
we could give people back to other people,
wrap up a dad and stick him under the tree.
Have her mom sitting at breakfast one morning.
Surprise.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Going Home

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“Mother,” I heard in my ear. A soft paw batted my cheek. It was 5:25 a.m. It was Sara.

“What!?” I said. I knew this was my child but breakfast was an hour away.

“There’s a new and odiferous plant on the kitchen table.”

“It was there yesterday,” I mumbled. “You liked it then and should like it now.”

My little black one who speaks broken English then chimed in: “Meep!” Scolding me.

It meant the same thing: I knew these girls didn’t like our new tabletop Christmas tree. They’re like me: they like nothing new. But I had to get the tree: we’re two and a half now and need to get acclimated to new items in the home. I for one never like new stuff, but—living in a new generation—I know it’s important to embrace the world.

I was a little apprehensive myself, walking out this morning to see my midget tree. I couldn’t get a word in even for hello or good morning before Sara cocked her ear towards the little tree and said, “You know it’s wrong.”

I hated her then, as one does a little sister spilling the truth. But I loved her, because she only says what I’ve taught her to say.

“Listen,” I said. “This is the best tree I could get us this year. Your sister would have stayed under the bed for weeks if this was a big one. Don’t you cock your head at me. I’m doing the best I can.”

Worlds of not being a real parent whirled in my mind. Laws that I would like to enforce dissipated. All bed-head and scrumpled, feeling the pressure of a new day, I pumped myself up.

I made coffee. I invited the children in. I put out tuna.

“What?” I said, after a polite time of waiting for everyone to come in for everything. “What do you guys want?”

They ran away, but came back in shifts, as children do.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Not Yet a Fisherman

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I was unaware in the 70’s that my father didn’t always go fishing because he enjoyed it, nor that the packages of venison he stored in our freezer after deer hunting season were anything more than products of his favorite pastime. Now I know that my father worked very hard—in both his profession and spare time—to make sure his family remained warm and fed. One spring when I was four, putting food on the table became a group effort: my parents took me and my four older siblings smelting.

We were living in Upper Peninsula Michigan, and though my father and some of the older kids had gone smelt fishing many times before, this was the first time that our entire family went together. After supper was over, the dishes washed and put away, we loaded up the station wagon with our galvanized metal wash tubs, dip nets, a few sets of waders and my father’s seine, then drove down to Chequamegon Bay to join hundreds of other similarly-equipped families under the stars, on the frigid, wave-beaten shore of Lake Michigan.

The campfires up and down the beach and the beams of hand-held flashlights made the water shimmer like lightning; this I remember, as I do the cold air on my face and the smell of wet sand, fresh fish and campfire smoke all mingling together. The lake was alive with millions of tiny silvery smelt, and people were scattered everywhere in the water with nets and fish buckets and all manner of sieve-like contraptions, working singularly and in pairs to scoop up as many smelt as possible before having to wade back to shore to dump their haul into picnic coolers, old metal trash cans, pillow cases, anything that would hold the fish.

My clearest memory of that night is standing knee-deep near the shore in my rain boots and slicker, hanging on to my long-handled dip net with both hands and leaning precariously as far as I could into the rushing waters to scoop up my own smelt. My mother’s cries to be careful and come in closer to the shore mixed together with the thumping of my heart, the constant splashing and the shouts of other smelters. I probably only added a hundred or so to the thousands of smelt already squirming and jumping in my family’s collection containers, but it didn’t matter—I was four years old and had just experienced my first adrenaline rush.

As any smelter knows, you can either smoke ‘em or fry ‘em, whole or gutted, however you prefer. My father had two favorite methods of preparing ours: he would either smoke them whole over apple wood chips in the rickety smoker machine set up in a shed in our backyard, or gut them out before dipping them in batter and frying them to a perfect crisp. If he chose to batter-fry them, that meant that everybody in the family (not including me, thankfully) had to gather around the picnic table in the backyard and, using sewing scissors, relieve our thousands of tiny freshly caught smelt of their heads, their tails, their innards, and their yellow, mucousy eggs.

Sometimes my family did this late at night, after we’d returned home and my father had rigged up spotlights in the back yard. If it was too late an hour and time for bed, he would put the smelt on ice and save gutting for the next day. I don’t know of too many dads who took annual leave to clean fish, but my dad did. When the smelt ran, you ran with them.

Looking back, I wonder if my parents realized how lucky they were to have five liver-loving, smelt-crunching, venison-stir-frying children on their hands. Refusing to eat what was on our plates never crossed our minds. In fact it took years for us to finally recognize, or at least admit, our distaste for certain foods. I clearly remember the day when I was 25, home from graduate school, helping my mother pack a picnic lunch for a weekend outing. She had made tuna melts—baked tuna on a bun with cheese, then chilled and wrapped in foil for the cooler. I asked her if it would be okay if I made myself a peanut butter and jelly. Now remember: I was 25.

“Of course you can make yourself a peanut butter and jelly,” she said. “But why? You love tuna melts.”

“Um, no I don’t,” I said.

She looked at me, incredulous. “You always ate them when you were little.”

“I thought I had to,” I replied, slapping together my alternative sandwich and sprinting out the door before she could question me further. The truth was that I hated tuna melts and had always hated tuna melts, from the soggy bits of cooked onion inside the tuna burger to the way the orange cheese stuck like chewed gum to the tin foil wrap. Ugh. We had chilled tuna melts every time we went on family road trips, and to this day I can’t think of Yellowstone National Park, the Badlands, or the headwaters of the Mississippi River without the smell of tuna melt always on my mind.

This is not my mother’s fault. All she ever wanted was to make us happy and take care of us, no matter how much or how little money my father was making at the time. When we could afford it, we ate out in restaurants, all seven of us. When we were a little short, bring on the spaghetti. We learned to make do with what we had, and nobody ever complained.

There is no question that my parents stretched their early family dollars to the snapping point. Just like my father pulled fishing worms apart in the garden when he himself was a boy of four—“to make more,” he told his mom—he and my mother always found creative ways to make it appear that we had enough of whatever we needed. One particular method of stretching their dollars came to the water bill.

When all of my sisters and my brother were old enough to bathe themselves, I was still young enough to require my mother’s assistance. Every other night she would run a quarter-tub full of water and take a quick bath herself. Then she would dry off, get dressed, and call for me to come in. Since she was interested in saving on the water bill, she would simply add some bubble bath to her own water and wash me up in that. My bath was never too hot or too cold; it was always the perfect temperature. Afterwards, my mother would towel me off with a big JC Penney towel, bigger than me even. She always had my pajamas at the ready, and she always combed my short wet hair into curly-cues with a kiss before sending me out into the family fray.

I still believe that my baths were perfect only because my mother had been in the tub first, warming the water for me. I know for sure that my childhood days were perfect, because I have chosen to remember them so.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Own Private Oreck

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Two Christmases ago, my mom sent me an Oreck. Not being much of a vacuum cleaner connoisseur, I didn’t know what to think as I unwrapped this delicate creature and attached her neck. It was true that my old vacuum cleaner, Mr. Bagless Hoover, was messy and heavy, and he couldn’t reach all the way under beds. However, he had many attachments for all manner of nooks and crannies; even picking up bird seed and pebbles outdoors on the patio didn’t faze his durable plastic cup.

I was good to go in the suckable-mess category, and my mother knew it.

So, her sending me this upright vacuum with absolutely no attachments struck me as odd. My mother had always been an attachment woman; I remember learning about each brush and tube as she taught me how to keep a clean house. But she had recently discovered these no-attachment Orecks, and she’d been talking them up like they were the second set of hands she’d always wanted.

Who was I to say that my new Oreck was anything less than the ultimate in cool Christmas presents? My mother sharing her enthusiasm with me? Vastly better than just money.

When I called to thank her, she told me she loved me and went directly into how much she loved Orecks too: “I absolutely love mine. Honey, they are so lightweight—you’re not draggin’ around 100 pounds—and the cord is the longest cord I have ever seen in my life. I only have to move the plug once to vacuum the entire downstairs. But the best thing is that you can bend it totally flat to get under beds and chairs and I don’t know what all!”

I knew what the underlying story was here, the part my mother was leaving out: rolling around on the carpet with a three-foot plastic attachment stuck to the end of a hose so she could vacuum under a bed wasn’t as easy now as it was sixty years ago. Hauling a hundred-pound vacuum down to the basement to suck up mice droppings was probably also getting old, especially if she had to haul it back up the basement stairs to put it away. No wonder my mom loved her Oreck.

“But what about the nooks and crannies?” I asked, not quite sold. I knew my mom would never give up on a cobweb.

“That’s what your Dustbuster’s for!” she said triumphantly. Of course!

This glowing report from my glowing mother shut me up about the lack of attachments and earned my new lightweight XL X-tended Life Oreck the top spot in my hall closet. Mr. Bagless Hoover got transferred to the garage. He sits out there now with his extension tubes, waiting for the heavy-duty sucking disasters like dirt from a knocked-over plant or dried cat something. He inhales those kinds of messes like nobody’s business, then I empty his icky cup.

I could push the Oreck and her special compression bag to the limits regarding mud and dried poop because she did come with a fragrance tube, but I like to keep internal festering to a minimum, even inside my vacuum cleaners. I coddle my Oreck, only asking her to pick up human hair and animal fur from the carpet, crumbs from the kitchen floor, dander, dandruff, dead bugs after the exterminator has been here, tumbleweeds I drag in from playing outside, gray hairs I pluck out of my head, lint from the dryer, dust bunnies from the cats, sins and mistakes I don't have time to cover up.

That's all.

My Oreck worked like a charm for two years but recently she bucked; for as gently as I’d push her and for as hard as she’d inhale, she would retain little in her bag. I didn’t want to seem overbearing, so I let her do her thing for awhile without complaint. I didn’t realize the severity of the problem until my sister came to visit from Minnesota last month and kept writing my name in the dust on my furniture. “Clean me” she would write, and giggle. “Wash me.”

“I dusted right before you got here!” I kept saying, which was the truth. I had dusted and Orecked; the place should have been spotless. Instead, my furniture was coated with grit, and whatever had been on the carpet in the spare room was now on the walls in the living room: pigeon feathers and red lint from washed Christmas stockings.

In my heart of hearts, I knew something was wrong. Instead of cleaning, I’d just been moving dirt from place to place.

Frustrated, I took my Oreck to the Oreck store to see what the problem might be. The gentleman behind the counter examined her from top to bottom, as a pediatrician might a child. He picked her up gently and turned her upside down; she didn’t complain. When he asked her to jump up on the counter, she readily complied.

I can tell you that Mr. Bagless Hoover would not have made me so proud. He’s strong and durable, but he’s just…dirty. His cup drops dirty all over the place when I empty it, and his filter makes a twelve-inch high pyramid of ash-like material when I bang it against the house outside. If The World's Heaviest Smoker lived here or if the industrial cleaning of Mount St. Helen’s had taken place in my backyard, I wouldn’t expect more from my Hoover’s cup, because it would have done its job. But I don't live near Mt. St. Helen's, and nobody smokes in this house.

I’m not sure I would bring Mr. Bagless Hoover to a Christmas Party. I'm not sure I'd bring him to the Hoover doctor if his sucking abilities diminished further. I might let him go.

I stood quietly on the customer side of the counter while the older gentleman on the other side inspected my Oreck. It didn’t take him long to diagnose the problem: “She plugged. She suckin' real good but she plugged up down there so she’s blowin' it all out the back. She ain’t retainin’ a thing, see?” He showed me the near-empty bag. No wonder my furniture was always covered with dirt that used to be on my floor.

No wonder my sister had been writing my name in spewed cat litter.

“How much to fix?” I asked, using my best poor-me, I-have-no-money Asian impersonation. Probably a thousand dollars. It’s always a thousand dollars.

“Free,” the man said. “It’s still under warranty. Just let me get you a tag and do some paperwork.”

Free? Still under warranty? What language was this?

A happy flush warmed me and I wanted to hug my mom and would have waved at this older gentleman if he had been more than twelve inches away. I wanted to make a nice gesture. I looked around at the words spelled out in shreds: grt brkfst on the Oreck store’s otherwise clean carpet. Happy Hol days, with the “i” vacuumed up. “Merry Christ as” said another, the “m” neatly sucked into some Oreck, somewhere.

“Your store is really clean,” I said to the gentleman who had been helping me as he handed me a claim ticket and looked past me at the new customers coming in. Just like I had, these people had Orecks over their shoulders or swinging by the neck, hauling them in like the lightest of weapons.

"Not clean enough," Mr. Oreck said with a twinkle in his eye, bending over to bang some of the letters for "Let it Snow" out of a bottle of baby's talc. "It's never clean enough."

I totally understood.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tough Girl

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Today was a day of spills. It began in another time zone, as most days do, when a woman who was awake earlier than I was went to her computer and posted the following on Ratemyprofessors.com: “Maybe if you got a boob job, you could keep a man.”

I sat at my computer reading this rating very early in the morning, in my morning duds: slippers, socks, sweatpants, my old Bruce Springsteen t-shirt, my daddy’s old flannel. The zit on my chin festered; my bed-head of hair rose slightly at the roots. My voluminous but walleyed natural breasts heaved with perplexity, as if they had read my mind: Great, now the whole world knows. For however long it takes RateMyProfessors to remove the word “boob” from their web site—not to mention MY rating—God and students and my mother and all future love prospects will see right there in black and white that Professor Mohler is sagging and therefore cannot keep a man.

The wife of one of my former flames had accidentally revealed me to the world. How did I know it was her who left that comment? Because her words had the same ring of truth and good will that my ex’s did whenever he used to comment on my build: “You have the body of a seventeen-year-old.” That’s what he used to tell me back then, and I did. Now, maybe not so much.

Obviously this woman only had my best interests in mind and would now be offering me “anonymous” but helpful beauty tips on RateMyProfessors from a computer located at her work in a nearby state. She didn’t want me to know it was her because she didn’t want me to feel beholden. Awww.

The truth is, I do need a lift. Who wouldn’t, I thought, walking out the door a few hours later to lunch. You don’t carry twenty pounds around inside your chest for 43 years without one or two of them eventually wanting to befriend your belly button. And then on a documentary I watched the other night, a man said to his son, “Firm tits and a tight ass! That’s what a man wants! Doesn’t matter how nice a woman keeps herself; once the tits and ass are gone, it’s over.” I think it was a documentary on backwoods living in Texas.

So, with official and documented information, commentary from The New Wife, and the news I make for myself in my head, I drove to the restaurant. I met and ate with a retired and famous colleague, a genius poet. God looked kindly upon me during lunch: no spills. I cannot say the same for my lunch partner, who had arrived with old food on his shirt and left with new food on his shirt. “I can’t go anywhere without getting food on me!” he laughed cavalierly as we parted ways.

To live the life of a man.

I had no profound thoughts as I left this lunch encounter. I had been asked no questions; therefore, I must have been innocent. That was my line of thinking anyway.

It still is.

I left the restaurant and sallied forth down the sidewalk back towards my car, across the street. I touched South Africa and the Iraq in my mind, feeling like a cross between being green and being hardened, talented and not.

And then, I fell. Does it matter how high my heels were? Did my intentions matter, regarding being timely or clean for my next appointment? No. I was just another girl running in heels to make the light, and I didn’t make it.

I could feel the scoundrel of fate breathing down my neck, four seconds, knowing that I would be falling, trying to prevent it in a hang glider kind of way, hanging on to a stack of student papers, my purse, a Styrofoam container of leftovers. Three seconds: What might happen here, kind of knowing. Willing the universe against it. Two seconds between “I’m so embarrassed” and “Hope nothing breaks” and in the end, at one second: I can’t stop this train.

Asphalt, blue sky, pebbles of asphalt—this is what I recall from falling and then, for some reason, rolling. Fire would not have had a chance on me. I popped up brilliantly and quickly, finding my errant shoe and hurrying off the tough landscape of that situation.

On the way to my car, to the quiet and dreamish life I lead, I knew that most people hadn’t seen me stop, drop, and roll. How stealthy.

Must be the Army Ranger in me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hung Up Wet

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I was doing laundry this morning…ever so carefully as usual. I picked up a damp cotton t-shirt that’s a little tight on me and snapped it hard to stretch it out. I took it by the arms and pulled them apart to accommodate my Horsewoman’s shoulders; I stuck my hands inside and stretched the front and back to make room for my Horsewoman’s chest and withers. Only then did the t-shirt get hung on a hanger to dry. Tomorrow, that shirt will fit me perfectly at the gym, where I will go in hopes of working off the few extra pounds that have turned me into Horsewoman in the first place.

As I worked on the laundry, a conversation with my niece came to mind: the last time she’d visited, we had also discussed clothes that don’t fit quite right. It started with my giving Shanna a compliment before we headed out for dinner: “Hey, I like those jeans on you. They’re very flattering. Are they new?”

Shanna replied, “No, they’re just a little tight. I forgot to stretch them out.”

I’m used to seeing Shanna in baggy pants because it is nearly impossible for my hourglass-shaped niece to find a pair that fits correctly. Her waist is so small that when I hug her hello, my arms wrap all the way around her and I end up hugging myself too. Men look at Shanna like men looked at Marilyn Monroe. They look at me and wonder when I’m going to win my first Kentucky Derby.

Shanna and I proceeded to discuss all of the various techniques we employ to make our clothes fit. I shared my snap-n-stretch approach: “If a shirt’s too tight, I whip it around when it’s wet—snap it hard—for an overall stretch, then get inside with my hooves for a more precise fit.”

Shanna shared her favorite technique: “If my pants are tight, I put them on when they’re wet and squat down. First I do the duck walk, then I open and close my knees and bounce, like I’m trying to push a baby out or something.”

“The problem with the duck walk,” I said to Shanna, “is that it cuts into your belly and doesn’t stretch the waist, which of course you don’t need. To make the waist bigger, you have to actually pull on it when it’s wet.”

You might say I have an aversion to wearing anything tight around my waist, perhaps even a phobia: even as a child I couldn’t stand to have my belly restricted (see Exhibit A). While Shanna has to wear a belt every day, I’ve never even owned one.

Last year I was pulling on the waist fabric of a favorite old pair of jeans so hard that they ripped all the way down to the knee. I had them repaired; it was the least I could do for my Tommys. I always buy quality clothing, pieces that will last for years and hold up under my brand of care. While hearing the fibers of my DNKYs, my Taharis, my Michael Kors rip a little each time I pull a 28-incher into a 30 is always painful, and I regret hurting my jeans, it has to be done. My apologies to the designers as well, especially Ralph Lauren, whose Polo jeans are—of course—my favorite.

Right now, if you looked in my closet, you’d find three pairs of damp jeans hanging there: pulled, stretched and whipped in such precise ways as to render them all exactly my fit. The ones that somehow got too short, I stepped on the waist and pulled the legs up to the white patch on my forehead. None of those pants would look good on anyone else because they are all exactly in the shape of me.

A good friend said to me once, “I’m built like a sturdy pony. You’re built like a racehorse.” At first I disagreed, but in hindquarters, I can’t deny it.

I’m a dying breed. See Exhibit B.

***

Exhibit A.
_______________________________________________________
Exhibit B.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Own Jesus

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I went to a Catholic school with grades kindergarten through eighth, and while Catholic schools have the reputation of sheltering their students from the harsh cruelties of real life, the only people that my school sheltered were the white boys who got expelled from public school for being juvenile delinquents. The only other kids there were children of the teachers, rich kids from the rez, and me.

These were the last of the years when I believed everything.

I remember clearly the day when I discovered that the cast of larger-than-life holiday characters who I had grouped together with the saints became nothing more than costumes. I was eight and in the third grade, weaving an Easter basket out of colored pieces of construction paper, when Chris Whitebird, the evil boy sitting next to me, chirped, “Ay, guess what? There’s no Easter Bunny!”

I made my best “get real” face at him and replied, “Yeah, right. Who puts candy in your Easter basket then?”

“My dad,” Chris said.

What was he thinking? What blasphemy was coming out of his mouth? Was he retarded? I had to set him straight, but not before I pointed out the idiocy of his belief. I looked at Chris and said, “What do you think, the whole world’s lying to you?” That pretty much summed up the vast extent of my own belief system: How could everyone from your parents to your teachers to the people on TV be wrong on purpose?

I went home that afternoon and hung myself on the cross over my bed, where—for whatever reason—I felt most comfortable. Positioned in, draped from nail to nail, I turned a tired eye upon my mother, who dusted the wooden slats of my tomb. “Mom,” I said. “Is the Easter Bunny real?”

She hesitated in the way that mothers do at times like these, in the tradition of parents everywhere who eventually get caught between not wanting to disappoint their children, and not wanting to lie. “No,” she said. “He’s not.”

“What about Santa?”

No.

“The Tooth Fairy?”

No, not her either.

“What about Jesus?” I said, the entire world as I knew it suddenly a practical joke.

“Jesus is real! Jesus is real!” my mother responded, insistent and sincere. She helped me down from the cross and helped my brother up. Everybody got a turn in my family.

***

Many years before this, in my fours, Jesus had left Easter treats in my yard. It was a one-time event: my savior, candy, and Spring, all in my hand. I had a brightly colored woven basket and might as well have been in it. Life was good. If it sounds like a dream to you, it did to me too.

But then I slept or napped—a season changed? I remember foraging with my old Easter basket under the front bushes, looking for sustenance, still four. I found what I thought must be the perfect leftover: an overlooked candy egg, dyed the most perfect Robin-egg blue as to appear almost real, lying there waiting for me in the twigs and groundcover. I picked it up and popped it into my mouth, expecting malted milk and chocolate.

But of course it was a real bird’s egg, and out of season at that.

***

I round the corner from my living room to my kitchen, past a stack of clean dishes drip-drying in the sink, a full calendar, a pile of stamped bills ready for the mail. It’s between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., pill-taking time again. I look at the little pile of amber and white and purple that I laid out for myself earlier.

They remind me of jelly beans.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Late to the Party

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I have always been an early-to-bedder. This trait flies in the face of every time I have danced on a bar, shimmied my butt on a dance floor, gotten married, and eaten pizza with a best friend at 2 a.m. Those were the late acts of my 90’s show.
The truth rests with my family—my four older siblings and our parents. Two repeated sayings from my mother led me, in the end, to acknowledge that she was right about me: “She figures out how to make herself breakfast” and “It doesn’t matter where we are. At 8:30 p.m., this child sleeps.”

I have to give my parents props on this: they did let me sleep and wake up pretty much on my own schedule. I was the happy kid who couldn’t wait for the day to begin. I consumed the days and early nights as if they were meals.

As I grew, my longing for boys became a constant, as did my new desire to look good as a feminine creature. I remember one summer that I was growing so fast, I only ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They were easy to make and totally the right thing. My hips needed those PB&J’s. I remember that summer as one that my parents could never have controlled or changed. That's how powerful peanut butter can be.

And then we moved cross-country, from Minnesota to Pennsylvania, blammo. As always, it had something to do with my dad's job. The official word is that he had to save the Allegheny. My dad played cowboys and Indians for a lot longer than most, and he usually won. The unofficial word? Who knew. As a thin and skampy girl-child, I was not to be trusted.

I remember one time when my dad commissioned a county helicopter just to find out where the beer parties were.

Chop chop over the finest of clear-cut fields. "Is that your dad up there?" a fellow beer-swigging friend asked.

"Yup," I said. My own personal Vietnam.

While most kids harbor ill will regarding the 14-18 years, I don’t. My parents had turned into different people too, much different than the parents I thought I knew before. There we were, the three of us, trying to survive as a unit in our new Pennsylvania town after fleeing Minnesota. The fleeing part seems sad now. It was tougher on my mom than anyone else. Now I know.

I had never moved anywhere with my parents alone, just the three of us. We always had the older kids as buffer. But now…then…it was just me, the only planned child, and them: recovering.

While my parents had been nice to give me the upstairs bedroom, some other girl’s parents had thought to lay the blue carpet and put up the pink wallpaper. I had the girlie room I’d always wanted, but it was too late. By that time I just wanted to sip wine coolers and look for cute boys, smoke a stogie or two. I cared not about what my parents were doing or planning.

I sit here now, 30 years later, that long-off misadventure still charged, but only on my end. If my dad could name anything he wanted, I would get it for him. If I could name anything I wanted, it would be my dad. Simple equation.

I want to bring my dad to the ropes of the ring and give him the best of every coach, especially the “hang in there” part. I want every one of his new tears to reveal him as a prize fighter. I want to pour over my dad with ice packs and heat treatments. I want to cuddle my dad and rub his feet, clip him, make sure his hair is cut and clean.

I want the feathers in his mattress to be the finest, the sweetest words in his ear to be my mother's.

Filthy Living

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I sit outside on the back patio enjoying my morning coffee. Fluffy white bird feathers cling to me here and there, hooking their fibers into my fibers. I shift in one of the uncomfortable chairs I purchased years ago as part of the small “bistro” set that called to me from atop a freezer case at my local grocery store. It outshined what I was using at the time: cheap green plastic chairs placed around a Shamrock milk crate.

Why make a special trip to a patio furniture store when you can get the same thing for cheaper in the frozen food section? Even then, it took me about a million trips to the grocery store before deciding that yes, this was the patio set for me, that one right up there on top of the frozen dessert case.

I don’t know why, but I often drag my feet when it comes to making what should be fairly easy home improvements. While the bistro set is better than what I had, the green plastic lawn chairs and milk crate still sit on the patio, pushed to a wall, caked with dust and mud, spider webs and pigeon crap. I can’t bring myself to throw them out: I’ll need those chairs someday, right? Aren’t milk crates good for storage? They were in college.

Now that the semester is almost over and teachers throughout the country are looking at a little holiday break, a little free time, I can’t be the only one glancing around at the filth I’ve allowed to accumulate in my house and on my property from the day school started back in August, or—if we’re being really honest—the day we decided to become teachers in the first place. I was a very clean and tidy person before I took up teaching, a clean liver, but now—twenty years into the game—the truth can come out: Filth is alive and well in my world.
Nowhere is this most apparent than on the patio.

I am out here now taking inventory of my patio’s shortcomings, top down. The roof leaks. It’s leaked for six years in the same place. Up to this point, I simply haven’t sat under the leak. Problem solved.

Another issue is that whoever nailed the top of this patio roof down in the first place used the wrong length nails, so the sharp ends of nails stick out about one foot from your head. Be careful when you jump.

The crack in the cement that is the base of my patio floor always bothers me. It’s just one crack, starting at the house and ending at the patio’s edge. I’ve tried to befriend it: “You are a crack caused by the house settling. I apologize. I still admire you. Cracks remind me of rivers that separate counties and countries.” Admitting to the crack that I would rather have it gone seemed selfish, so I tried to identify with it.

Conversations with the one crack in my patio’s cement led to other observations: my screen door has fallen off again, many empty flower pots remain empty, the filthy R2D2 of a patio cabinet still sits there, testing my patience.

My contributions to this dead space took six years. I may have been in shock after trying to love an unlovable man for too long. Forgiveness and understanding are essential. I could still be in shock.

I sit on my patio now—with a good sunset view—and instead of being calm, I am verklempt. Pavers need to be laid, shade screens installed, the roof lifted, maybe a misting system. I know it will take five thousand dollars, if not more.
Ten thousand.

What’s nice is that I get to do this alone. No matter how white-trashy my patio is at the moment—no matter how dirty—I know for sure that I will fix it and make it better.

Without a man during this holiday season.