Saturday, March 16, 2013

Only By Blood

Everybody remembers where they were on 9/11/01.  But do you remember where you were just six months later, when I was getting married?  What were you doing eleven years ago, about this time of the year, in 2002?  The imprecision of how dates fall on different days of the week and how it’s so hard to know an exact anniversary has always irritated me.

It pains me to say, then, that “sometime in early 2002”, the sister of my several older sisters who I’d asked to be my matron of honor—the one who is cut from the same cloth as me, whose middle name is my first name, whose first name is as short and direct as my own—came to visit me.  She of the common sense, me of the book smarts.  Back and forth we’ve gone for almost half a century now.  

She came down from Minnesota that time to meet my future husband.  Research was still important back then.  Plus, I had been her own maid of honor a couple marriages before.  Back and forth.

This sister of sisters was just here to visit me again.  Our spring breaks matched up: she, suddenly back to the book smarts, me…still sowing wildflower seeds under my birdfeeder.  We’re no longer related by marriage, only by blood these days.


We drive up north to Prescott, Arizona—I know my sister will love this town.  It’s all antique shops, historic districts, nice restaurants and jewelry stores.  One jeweler sees four blood-related arms weaving and crossing over trays filled with Indian rings and necklaces.

“What nationality are you guys?” he asks.

We look at each other.  We’re white.

“You don’t have any hair on your arms,” he says.

We smile.  

“She has less than I do,” my sister says.

I have very little body hair.  My friend Mindy’s children always preferred to sit in my lap instead of hers, because her legs were always stubbly and mine were always smooth.  For every one of the follicles on my legs that might produce a wisp, Mindy had ten that each produced twin spikes of coarse bristles.  You know when you get stitches and they leave the ends of the thread tied and sticking out of your skin?  That’s what Mindy’s legs were covered with, those types of V’s.

I pipe up: “One of my mom’s friends asked her once if she shaved her arms.”  I look at my sister.  “Did you know that?”  Suddenly the family historian.

I look down at my own forearms: practically hairless.  I know about milkmen babies and imagine a wonderful story based on my mom’s Indian babies.  My dad’s work did take us from forest to forest, after all.


I was at the wheel on our way to Prescott; my sister offers to drive back to Phoenix.  I say okay but warn her over and over about the very steep stretch of mountain road one must stay absolutely glued to between exit number blah blah blah and blah blah going well under the posted speed limit because God knows how people make it around those curves going 25.  I am also a very bad passenger.

She takes the keys from me.  My sister careens around mountains like nobody’s business, me in the passenger seat trying to hide my heart attack.  I snap photos of the glorious canyon that is whispering death to me, using her camera at her request.  The sun is so intense that I lower the sunshade over my seat; my eyes are watering.  I glance up into the passenger-side’s mirror and see that I have grown a beard.

“Oh my God!” I shout.

“What!?” my sister says.

“Do I have a beard?” I ask.  I’ve never seen my jawline or the underside of my jaw like I’m seeing them now, in this light.  Many darkish wisps cup the underside of my chin especially, with a few startlingly long ones hanging about.

My sister of sisters, for today at least—because we never know when we’ll fall out of special favor—tells me a story about a six-inch long black hair she found growing out of her chin one time when she had gone outside just to pluck her eyebrows.

“Lemme tell you something,” she says over her sunglasses, leaning towards me, sucking on her e-cigarette.  “Lookin’ at yourself in broad daylight in a magnifying mirror ain’t for the faint of heart.”  She pauses.  “So I don’t recommend it.”

She consents a small smile, making me belong somehow.  “And yes, you do have a beard.”

Monday, March 4, 2013

Little Cabin in the World

Words.  They’re everywhere.  I see dead worms.  Worms, words, worms, words.  Redrum.  Nobody ever tells you when you’re about to learn how to read that the entire world will now be entering your brain.  Feel free to move about its cabin.

I remember the moment I learned how to read, the moment it all came together.  I was sitting alone at the breakfast table as usual, my older sisters and brother already off to school, my mom in the bathroom, my dad at work.  My yellow jammies catching on the edges of the phone books I was sitting on.  Milk in my cereal bowl.  

Suddenly, one particular cereal box on the table seemed to grow larger than the rest.  It most certainly attracted my attention.  It was orange with blue writing: Kix, my favorite.

Hold on!  Did I just know “Kix”?  Had I read it?  I looked at the cereal box again: Kix.  Kix.  Kix Kix Kix!  I had read it!

I jumped down from my stack of phone books and ran from the kitchen through the living room to the bathroom.  My mom was in there and the door was closed.  She didn’t need to be disturbed, and I knew this was not a good reason, but…knock knock knock.  “Guess what!” I called out to my mom.

“What?” she said through the door.  I suddenly missed her very much.  It seemed like she’d been in there forever.  She did this every morning so I shouldn't be upset, but this morning I missed her especially.  I had important news.

“I can read!” I cried out.

What?” my mother said again.  

“I CAN READ!” I shouted to the brown-painted hinges of door.  “I read Kix and you know what?”  I knew better than to wait for an answer.  “I bet that other cereal is Life! I KNOW IT IS!” 

Waiting outside the bathroom door was no longer an option.  I raced back to the table where the other open cereal boxes sat.  I looked at them then in the same way that I still look at certain men.  I concentrated.

“Life,” I said out loud.  “Life.”  That sounded right.  Yes, that is what the older kids said!  I tried another one, a harder one—my mom’s favorite.  It was sitting on the counter, away from our boxes.  It was more expensive and we weren’t supposed to eat it.  

“Qu,” I started, standing in the sunshine in my sleeper.  “Qu.”  It was a sound I knew.  Queen.  Quick.

“QUAKER!” I screamed.  That little box of cereal—smaller and always neater than ours—came to life in that moment.  It was my mother’s cereal.  “Quaker Oats,” I said.

And then I knew everything.  I knew if we had Crest or Colgate—did my mother want me to read those words to her again?  No, she didn’t.  I knew if we were coming to a STOP sign, when we were passing the BIG BOY, and ultimately that my dad worked for the U.S. Forest Service, not the “For-Service”, whatever that was in my pre-reading mind, not that it made me any prouder of him than I already was.

I had always wanted to know more.