Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Castles in my life

I've been lucky enough to have lived near two different castles in my life. It might be commonplace to Europeans, but in America we don't have that many castles. I have had more than my share.

In the very early eighties, I lived in the country near Camdenton, Missouri, at the Dead End of Spencer Creek Road on a defunct turkey farm. Our land backed up to a state park that contained Ha Ha Tonka castle, built by a wealthy businessman, burnt, and never lived in.

The castle sits up on a 250-foot cliff and looks out over Lake of the Ozarks. I used to take the Jaybird there often, because he was fascinated with any place where you were likely to see wildlife and plants and human ruins.

Down the road and around a curve was what the locals called "the slab." An enormous tree was uprooted and lay across what used to be the road; on its side, the tree was taller than I stand. The road was broken into six- and eight-foot pieces, and tossed up into a pile. The first time we came upon this place, Jaybird said, "Oh, wow. Something happened here." I have no idea what it was that had happened, but it was wild and beautiful.

Three or four feet of crystal clear water had gathered in the low areas. We could see the pebbles on the bottom and our feet on the pebbles. You could reach right down and touch crawdads and fish. The trees were so tall that they made a greeny yellow canopy above so even a fair-skinned lass like myself wasn't likely to get sunburned. On a hot afternoon, that place was heaven.

The first time I saw the castle here in Lexington, I had taken a wrong turn in the early morning and out of the fog, away in the distance, was a castle just sitting there. I thought it was a mirage.

This castle was also built by some wealthy person who never lived in it. You hear rumors of it changing hands, and it burnt at least once since I've lived here. I love seeing it sitting out there on the side of Versailles Road, but you can't take a decent photo of it because there's no good place to stop on the busy road. I've heard there's a back way but I don't know it. Supposedly someone is busy turning it into a hotel now.

I like a little magic in my life. What's more magical than a castle?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Birdie and I have a crash

I had a magnificently maddening day yesterday. Herein lies the story of my morning. There is a lot more to tell about the day, but I'd simply go into a coma if I had to tell it all at once.

I got out of bed with a neck ache more powerful than usual, and the day went downhill fast. I was late out the door for work, but I only work 2.2 miles from home, so I didn't worry much. I backed out of the drive and tooled the car in first gear out to Nicholasville Road, where I stepped on the brakes.

There were no brakes. Nothing but a hard pedal that would go nowhere. I stood on it.

Funny how your brain slows everything down when you think you're going to run into five lanes of morning traffic without control of your vehicle. I had time to think of shifting gears, and time to reject that notion on the grounds that there is nowhere down to go from first. I had time to realize that all I had to do was pull the emergency brake hard.

Which I did.

I drive a 17-year-old car, so I expect it to malfunction. Actually, the car holds up her end of the bargain better than I do because I forget to check her fluids and provide new supplies until she coughs or spits, but she cheerfully functions as transportation, book storage, canine wagon, and an extra closet for shoes and jackets. She rarely refuses to give me what I ask. And she has a super charger and a low center of gravity that makes her hug curves like a pro.

I don't own this car. I don't even think that the Woodsman knows she's a girl car. I call her Birdie.

So I'm dead at the stop sign with my blinkers on, trying to decide what to do. I carry my bags back home and call the service center just a few blocks away, where I've done business for twelve years or so, to ask if they have a wrecker. They don't, but they recommend one. I grab my little purse out of my bag and leave the rest of my work things in the chair. This is where I really went wrong, but I don't know it them. I walk back down to where the car is still blinking blinking blinking and waiting.

The wrecker comes and hooks her up and drives me and the Thunderbird a few blocks to the service station. But I'm a diabetic and I realize I don't have anything in my tiny purse to eat. I thought I was going to go straight to work and eat something there. I left my big bag of comfort sitting in the chair.

The walking and the stress have lowered my blood sugar, and I need a couple of starlight mints or a Coke. I start to feel like the wrecker seat is swallowing me, but I keep making small talk with the very nice wrecker driver because I want him to take a check from me, when a lot of times they won't. I have experience with wrecker drivers, and this is the way it's done. They have to connect with you to take a check; he'd already said how cozy and nice my neighborhood was, so we were well on the way to striking an understanding.

Oh, Mr. Wreckerman, do you have to write so slowly? He's so conscientious and neat on his invoice, but I start to wonder whether I should tell him I'm about to keel over or just let him find out on his own. Finally we're finished; he took a check.

Thank goodness I know the co-owner of the service station, and she fed me Fritos and let me sit around until I felt better. Boy, a big infusion of carbs when you haven't been having them sure tastes luxurious. I never thought I'd be waxing poetic over a lunch-size bag of Fritos. Lesson learned. A cowgirl never goes on an adventure without some high-protein snacks.

I got a ride home and sat around trembling and thinking of what might have been, which is never productive or calming. I got to where I couldn't tell whether it was blood sugar or shock that had me so disoriented. I finally emailed my boss to say I couldn't come in. I don't know if anyone ever used the excuse of being trembly and unsettled as a reason to take a vacation day.

Maybe I'm a wimp.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Frankie is dead and there's nothing to be done about it

Cover the mirrors and stop the clocks. My dear Frank McCourt is dead.

The author who changed my life by making me want to write again, who taught my son that a good book is a good friend, who showed us all that no matter how mean or dirty or short your life is, there is always some meaning to the story.

"Imagine if you'd had Mr. McCourt for a teacher," my son said. "I'll bet you'd be a writer then."

That hurt. I was a little bitter back then, believing that I'd settled for editing and a paycheck when I should have suffered for my art and produced a masterpiece. And single parents don't do that. Then there I was, skating toward middle age.

Hey, wait a minute. Frank McCourt's first book was published when he was 66 years old. There were no rules about when you could be brilliant.

"But I did have Mr. McCourt for a teacher," I told the Jaybird. I realized that I'd better get busy. I started writing again the next day.

My mother, who grew up poor and ashamed of it, could not read half of Angela's Ashes. It pained her so. "Those worthless parents!" she raged, and I had to agree in a sad way. After all, I had read all of Angela's Ashes and McCourt's second book, 'Tis, so I knew a lot more than she did about just how worthless the parents were. But those worthless parents made Francis McCourt, just as my parents - who weren't shiftless but did have a rather unconventional approach to childrearing - had made me. Just as my sweet grandmother and her bigamist husband had made my mama.

"You just don't like to think about growing up poor without a father," I told her.

"No, I don't. Who would? But we weren't hungry, or dirty, or dressed in rags. My mother worked hard."

"Then you were lucky," I said.

She looked away so long I thought she wouldn't answer. She was known for that.

"Yes I was," she finally said.

Some people called Frank McCourt a liar, including his own mother. Well, that has happened to me too. And who cares if you lie a little if you write of the absurdity of your position in life with humor and goodwill? I don't. Even the saddest passages in a Frank McCourt book are underpinned with the music of language and the charm of a little laugh choked down behind the sorrow. So he hasn't written a history book. I don't care.

"I did not like the jackdaws that perched on trees and gravestones and I did not want to leave Oliver with them. I threw a rock at a jackdaw that waddled toward Oliver's grave. Dad said I shouldn't throw rocks at jackdaws, they might be somebody's soul. I didn't know what a soul was but I didn't ask him because I didn't care. Oliver was dead and I hated jackdaws. I'd be a man someday and I'd come back with a bag of rocks and I'd leave the graveyard littered with dead jackdaws" (Angela's Ashes).

See what I mean? The beauty is in the telling, and the Irish are famous for that.

Frank McCourt made the world better with his words. He made me better with his words.

Open one of his books anywhere, any page, and you will find something to cry about while you're laughing about it too. Life is hard. We agree on that. Life beats some people down; some people it enriches in the most amazing ways. You're lucky if, like Frank, like my mama, you get most of your beatings and starving and death out of the way during your early life so you have the rest to decide what it all means, if you can. And he did.

I cannot do him justice. I do not have the skills for eulogizing Mr. McCourt. I only tell you how his words ran through our family and caused us to pass our feelings from hand to hand, sharing them and giving them their freedom.

All of Limerick might have once been mad at you, but I love you for that, Frank McCourt.

P.S. Lydia at UnderstandBlue wrote a grand tribute, and her brother, Bob Blakley, traveled on a bus with the author for an entire week and took a wonderful photo of him. Lucky duck.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Poetry for Sunday

It's that time again: this week's poetry post. I don't know if I can pull this off every week. I think I hear some of you saying, "Yay!"

I was inspired by one of my best blogger friends to write this poem. She's given me a lot of support, and she knows who she is, so we'll leave it at that. If you've given me a lot of support and don't see yourself in this poem, wait your turn. I'm a slow writer.

I also must admit that I've taken a bit of poetic license with the geography, since she's not really all the way around the world from me.

The Wolf of the World

A woman on the other side

of the world sleeps when I wake

wakes alone without map or net

and watches each way while I sleep.

A candle burns on both ends.

A harsh note on the other side

of the dark vibrates up my last nerve

and sets me humming in my spine.

Speak now. You will not be allowed

to forever hold your peace.

I must stand with the woman

who stands with me, because

women can do these things: pull

each other up by the boot buckles

carve each other out sin by sin.

I send notes to the other side

of the void to say: yes

I have not only heard of the wolf

I have seen him from the corner

of my eye, that sly worn devil

nearly toothless in the light of cold day

but often so large and so patient.

I hope your weekend has been poetic.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Waitress Dude

We went out to dinner on Friday, at the same restaurant we usually visit on date night. But our experience was distinctly different than usual.

Our waitress was clearly experiencing a reality of which we were not part.

I felt as though I was a character in A Clockwork Orange. If you recall that dystopian novel (or the Kubrick movie), Alex the antihero and his droogs speak in a slang that is not explained in the book, at least not in the first version to be published, the version I read. But after slogging through a few chapters, I found myself understanding the lingo and reading faster and faster as if the text was written in ordinary English.

But I really didn't have enough time at dinner to learn to understand our waitress.

I don't believe that we have been served by this girl before, but I have seen her there. She was dressed in a t-shirt, as all of the wait staff are, but hers was as long as a dress. Long seemed the theme of her ensemble: her dark pants were at least four inches too long, and her shoes were somewhere in the stringy mess of cuffs, although I never saw them.

She moved quickly with some ghostly power, across the room as though she were gliding a couple of inches above the floor. Her face was propped open on the verge of confusion. Her eyes had a shine you see on animals hiding in ditches beside the road.

Everything she said we had to ask her to repeat. Everything.

Because she was talking ninety miles per minute.

Doyouknowwhatyouwanttodrink? We looked at each other, and I could see the Woodsman tamping down a smile, as I was myself. I felt as though I was a stranger in a strange land, not understanding the common customs of the planet.

Areyoureadytoorderordoyouneedmoretime? I truly listened very hard, but I could not decode the sounds she made.



Finally came the one that made me laugh out loud. Poof. She appeared next to my elbow and said, Wouldyoulikeformeto getyoua--

She couldn't think of the word. The name of the thing she was supposed to provide that would allow me to take my soup home with me.

In broad gestures she mimed the container. About this tall, about this big around, with a lid... and then she said--I kid you not--


Yes, I told her, swallowing my smile, I would like one of those leftover dudes.

We giggled and snorted until we saw her coming back toward the table with the leftover dude, and then we tried to pull it together and act like grownups. Which we look like. But we're not.

You know that saying: I'd like to have some of what she's on?

Neither of us said that.

I hope she got home okay. The way she was moving, she could have started walking and ended up in Chicago by morning.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Poetry for Sunday

I haven't written much poetry in the past ten years, although contemporary poetry was the subject of my master's thesis long long ago. But it's a wonderful habit to have, writing poetry. It focuses and disciplines the mind, and it allows the poet to crystallize a philosophy or thought into images that can be transferred to the reader. A poem says so much more than it says.

I was inspired to get back to this healthy habit by reading Dave King's blog Pics and Poems. If you would like more poetry after you finish here, today Dave has posted these beautiful lines:

Unreal, I thought, him being dead,
with all that life, those plans still unfulfilled.

And more.

I would like to know what you think of the following poem. I drafted it only this morning, and I usually write in layers, going back and over the words to find exactly the ones that most convey my meaning. So this may not be the final incarnation.

(I can't make the poem look the way I want it to. I'm going to have to ask my computer geek mentor Lydia to help me with that.)

Old Love

I may need a stout rod

for the journey but

I can walk it on my own

because of the scent of your skin

because your eyes are the same

sea glass shade as your laugh

because you are here.

I expect certain considerations

a touch on the back

a brief clasping of hands

a kiss that has nothing to do

with a peck. An opening:

your mind into mine, an emptying:

your baggage, the polished suitcase

in which you carry your heart.

And then we fill each other gently

with secrets torn apart and shared

like bread. Spread like a net to keep us

each from falling into wilderness.

Know that I choose

exactly this.

You may expect me

to be more of a trellis

than a blade. More of

a rich dark vein and less—

not at all—of a potion mined

in the crevice where conceit

intersects with air. Forget the old

except for the parts that contain us.

I will keep in my heart for you

a small portrait, a mirror that shows

you standing in your finest pose.

We are too old for games of chance.

Some seeds don’t open

until fire and heat have brazed

the useless outer layers.

May the remainder of your weekend be poetic.

Don't forget that my friend Lydia is taking reservations for her next webinar. In the webinar I took, I learned so much about how to refine the design of my blog and how to use various analytics. And it was a lot of fun too. I blogged about it here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pixie and Taz: I Didn't Know You Cared So Much

I think the first time Taz became really aware of Pixie's existence was when he was gaily galloping through the house, joyous and oblivious, and she shot out of the kneehole of the desk and took him to school.

She kept schooling him for six months or more. Every day. He could do nothing right. She bullied him into giving up his food, stole his treats, and tried to scare him into packing his bags and leaving. He was long-suffering. He was humble. He did not put up a fight about anything at first.

Taz loves attention. He wants to camp out on humans as often as possible. This was completely disconcerting to Pixie. The poor little neurotic thing, she would trot in circles with her tongue hanging out, worrying about change and its implications.

Finally, she decided that she could not let the boy get all the human affection. Perhaps she could enjoy a little of that too. She started to jump up in a chair with us and after a year or two even learned to give kisses, although if she stops to think about it, she cannot possibly kiss anyone. Kissing can be frightening.

Pixie's shell grew thinner. Sometimes I would see her looking at something Taz was doing with a look on her face that on a human would mean, Oh, that's how we do it. She did not know how to be a dog, but with Taz's joyous example, she was learning.

You would be amazed at the number of people who torture my dog until I get mad and take the dog and refuse to let people touch her. Strangers, relatives, friends, acquaintances. I say, "She is afraid of people." If you ask me, anyone with a little bit of empathy would not try to scare her further, thereby proving to her that her suspicions are well founded.

Taz is very clever, makes up his own tricks, hates to wear clothes, loves to play hide and seek, and hates dry dog food. The way he plays is a treat to watch. I can't imagine feeling that much abandon. He is a fierce hunter in the small backyard, terror to birds, squirrels, and snakes. One day I saw him on his back legs trying to jump up into the sky and get the traffic helicopter.

So Pixie's shell melted little by little. She began to let Taz into her bed, and they'd lie side by side with their heads resting on rumps. Pixie would groom and groom Taz, cleaning his whole face and inside his ears, until he would make a noise that meant, Alright already.

Taz began to settle down and care about what we think. He's very sensitive and can't stand to be spoken to harshly. He minds well unless he's in the presence of other dogs. We don't know what's up with that. I think he needs good citizen classes. At home he's quite hen-pecked.

Pixie still jumps on him sometimes when he's playing with abandon. He will be chasing a ball or just dashing through the house, and little bitty Pixie launches herself at him. Even though she's starting all the trouble, I still get mad at Taz for squeaking her.

Once a little girl at the dog park looked down at Taz and said, "Oh, hi, little wolf guy." I think that's really cute.

Taz claiming the Woodsman as his own.

He still prefers men, and if he gets loose on the street, he runs up to women and barks. I don't know what's up with that either. God forbid he ever gets loose. He leaps about the streets barking with joy and accosting people with dogs on leashes. I have to keep running after him saying, "He's not vicious, just stupid." He chases bicyclists and children on Big Wheels, barking and trying to herd them. He went into the house of a neighbor who left his front door open and the Woodsman had to track him down.

The funniest thing he does: He runs up to the front door of every house, smells the doormat, and pees on the bushes. He continues down one side of the block and up the other, barking, sniffing, peeing, leaping, ever joyous. He knows where he lives and comes home when he feels like it. I try never to let him run out the front door.

So Pixie is becoming a real dog now. She is still easily scared but she has learned the basic commands - sit, down, stay, come, wait. Taz refuses to lie down on command, although he is often eager to lie down. When he is ready for bed, he unmakes my bed and crawls between the sheets. We took to calling him B(eauregard) Tazwell because he isn't really a tasmanian devil anymore. He's older and smoother now.

When we went to the family reunion a few weeks ago, I asked Exley to babysit for Taz. Two little dogs are a lot to handle with thirty people, a lot of them kids, and Taz has a habit of whining nonstop in the car. Exley's backyard is fenced and overgrown with the sort of things that interest a joyous dog. He thinks it's a canine wonderland and Exley likes him, so I didn't feel bad about leaving him.

Exley took this self-portrait for me so you'd know who I'm talking about.

I never expected this to happen, considering the way she acts, but Pixie was bereft without her partner. She hardly wanted to eat, and she just lay at my feet except when she needed a walk. She seemed so sad, and she wouldn't let me get two inches away from her. I imagined she was thinking, Well, she got rid of that other dog, so she could be planning to leave me here.

She was so happy to see that crazy joyful boy again. She twirled and twirled with joy. Somewhere in the past two years she's learned to love him. Some of his habits still annoy her, and you know how it is when a guy gets on your last nerve... you have to school him.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Pixie and Taz: A Love/Hate Story

I got my little Chihuahua Pixie from a dog rescue in Nicholasville, Kentucky. That's her on the left in the pink linen frock. Nobody knew where she came from; a guy in Nicholasville said he tried for a week to catch her, but she was so fast and scared that he couldn't get close to her. That's all we know, except that she has a tattoo (A-1) in her ear. I swear sometimes I think about contacting that pet psychic from Animal Planet because I can't even guess what the poor little thing went through before I took her home with me.

The rescue lady suggested that a breeder probably put the tattoo in her ear. I know that she was isolated and not properly socialized. Maybe she was a lab specimen. She was clearly underweight and hungry, but she would not eat anything. After two days, I took her to the vet, who injected water under her skin because she hadn't had a drop to drink since I adopted her. I finally learned that if I put her in the bathroom with her food dish and closed the door, she would gobble the whole thing in minutes.

When I brought her home, she was so frightened of me that she jumped into the cubbyhole in the entertainment center and would not come out. I finally put her bed in there to comfort her, even though the rescue lady had warned me not to let her hide.

It broke my heart to look at her. She didn't even walk upright: she almost crawled on her belly. If anyone reached down to her, she shrank to half her size and put up her little front paw as if to say, Please don't hit me. She was afraid of feet and brooms and purses and kids. Her ears were tightened to her head like two little fur and flesh roses. Her tail was so tightly clamped into her butt crack that our neighbor argued with me that she was a male. I had to say, "That's just the end of her tail clamped under her belly." (Now, stop grabbing; you're frightening the life out of her, old woman, I wanted to say.)

I felt like I had a stuffed animal instead of a pet. She just sat in that little bed I got at the shelter with her eyes so wide I could see the whites all the way around her irises. If I tried to take her out on a leash, she hit the deck and would not move at all. I would reach in and pull her out of the entertainment center and cuddle her and coo to her, but she was not impressed. The minute I let go of her, right back into the cubbyhole she went.

This went on for months. I began to give up hoping she would come out of whatever trauma had reduced her to a fear-ridden shadow of a dog. I wondered whether I was going to be able to increase the quality of her life at all. I read dog behavior books and online articles, but none mentioned a dog as pitiful and frightened as my little girl. My own dog wouldn't even take a treat from my hand, and she cringed as though I was going to beat her every time I wanted to touch her.

I put a small set of steps beside the bed, but she only used them to affect an escape. Until one night while I was lying in bed in the dark thinking before sleep. I felt a rough little tongue in the middle of my back. Pixie was showing me as much love as she could by sneaking up behind my back when she thought I was asleep, giving me little puppy kisses in the night.

I felt like Annie Sullivan the first time Helen Keller spelled a word and knew what it meant. I felt as though I'd just triumphed over one of the biggest problems I'd been given to solve thusfar.

The Woodsman and I came up with the idea that another dog was what Pixie needed. Even if it didn't help her come out of her shell, we thought, at least she would have company. We wanted to find a dog about the same size as Pix but much more outgoing. (Any dog was going to be more outgoing, but we wanted to find her the right partner.)

Eventually we found a little grey Chihuahua mix online. He was living with a foster family just one county over from where I lived. I filled out the application and waited for an appointment to meet the little guy. The shelter sent someone to check out my place and make sure I could accommodate him.

The day we took Pixie to meet the little guy, he did not pay any attention to my little girl, even though she had learned to walk on a leash by that time and wasn't nearly as pitiful as she had been. We took her into the play yard where the little guy was running full blast from one end of the yard to the other, through tunnels and over hurdles as if they weren't even there. Pixie did not have eyes for him; she just stood under my skirt, her favorite place to hide when anyone looked her way.

Lenny didn't pay a bit of attention to Pixie either. But the moment he locked eyes with the Woodsman, his life changed. He wanted to be chased, and the Woodsman obliged him. Quite a bit of chasing was necessary before he stopped for a break. Then he just flopped on the ground at the Woodsman's feet and stayed there.

After the appropriate business transactions, we took him home. I began to doubt our choice the moment we walked into the house. He hiked his leg and tried to pee on one of only two chairs I owned back then. He only had two speeds: full out or dead asleep. He was clearly a man's dog. He didn't want anything to do with me. It was probably the fault of the weird foster mother, who said his name like "Lennnnn-ay!"

When we met him, he was wearing a tight little muscle shirt. When we took it off, we could see his ribs. Oddly, he had no interest in eating, even though he was very thin. We soon found out that the poor little thing was full of worms. I let out a little scream when I saw a white worm log instead of the dog turd I expected. He smelled funny, and he began to shed most of his fur, which was dull and as scratchy as a floor brush.

When we called him Lenny, he winced as though it hurt him. We discussed a new name. Duke? Shadow? Ghostboy? Speedy? "He's kind of like the Tasmanian Devil," I said, while the dog whipped from the front of the house to the back, disturbing anything in his way.

The Woodsman turned to the dog and said, "Would you like to be called Taz?" The little dog leaped into the Woodsman's lap and leaned against him, resting his head against the Woodsman's chest. We decided he liked the sound of that name. He came when we called him that, although every once in a while we'd say "Lennnnn-ay!" just to see him cringe.

Did Pixie like her new partner? No, she did not. Not one little bit.

Tomorrow I will tell you the rest of the story, how Pixie was cured and how Taz became Beauregard Tazwell. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Blue squirrels and other creative endeavors

I've always had a problem with unimaginative teachers, when I was a student, and later as the mother of a smart little boy with a creative meteor trailing behind him.

One day my son came home from school with a large picture he'd drawn and colored. It featured a curly branch with a few green leaves and a big blue squirrel eating an acorn. It was magnificent.

When I took it from him to put it on the refridgerator, as was our usual practice, I noticed a note stapled to the corner.

It read: "Dear Mrs. Whatever My Name Was Back Then, Please tell the Jaybird to color things the correct colors."


We were an artsy family. My father painted in watercolor and made us a fake cardboard fireplace to hang our Christmas stockings on. My mother embroidered and crocheted elaborate patterns in thread and yarn. I sculpted, first with Play Dough and later with air-dry clay. One of my sisters drew little girls with big eyes and decorated them with sayings about love and determination, and my other sister made dolls. My brother constructed vehicles of meticulously layered brown paper sacks (I think that was only one summer) and by high school was painting complex paintings in oils. These are just a few of our talents. We never saw a craft that we thought was worth buying; "I can do that" was our motto.

We played cut-throat Masterpiece, our favorite game. My siblings and I still play it when we get together. My brother, who attends the Art Institute in Chicago, now can show off by telling us which of the masterpieces he's seen in real life and what size they actually are. As I said, we're just an artsy fartsy family. Neither of my parents finished high school, but they knew what they liked.

The best thing my parents provided was a shelf full of art books with every painting of every old master known to man, starting with the cave paintings and moving up to Pollack and Hopper. I used to like to look at them because they contained so many naked people, but I was also absorbing centuries of color and style.

So I ripped that snotty little note off the Jaybird's squirrel and told him to go to school the next day and ask his teacher if she'd ever heard of Picasso. The Jaybird knew what I meant. He could identify all the paintings in the Masterpiece game too.

I was always doing things like that. I always thought I knew more than the teachers, and I was not willing to let them mold my child in ways I found short-sighted and designed to make him docile and unthinking and dull.

When the Jaybird got off of the bus the next day, he said, "Yes, Mom, the teacher has heard of Picasso, and Picasso is not in second grade." He handed me a summons to appear before the teacher.

My mom refused to go to the school unless we killed someone. She told us to fight our own battles. She said that if she heard that the teacher had paddled us, she'd paddle us again when we got home. If we wanted her to come to an open house or Halloween parade, she'd look toward the ceiling and sigh out a lungful of cigarette smoke. That was the end of it.

I wasn't that thrilled about going to school, but I got a ride into town the next day. I met with the Jaybird's teacher in her miniature room. I'm not going to go into what I said after I sat on a very small chair and listened to the teacher suggesting that I was doing my child a disservice by being less than conventional. She explained how she had been taught to interpret a child's mental state by whether or not he could color items the colors they were in real life.

Oh, boy.

Suffice it to say that her eyes were wide and her hands were clenched when I left.

I did not tell my child to color the correct colors. I said, "You can look outside if you want to see a brown squirrel. Color things whatever color you want."

He looked at me and said, "I love you."

Isn't that what we mothers do everything for? To hear that.

Children are naturally creative. A good teacher can bring that out and make more of it, and a bad teacher can squash it into a little puddle of mush on which the janitor will sprinkle that smelly green sawdusty stuff.

Some kids are lucky enough to have a shelf of oversize art books, along with tape and glue and macaroni and paint and modeling clay and oil cloths to spread like picnic blankets. My parents, no matter how odd - and they were odd - and no matter how lacking in academic credentials, provided us with materials and adhesives and ideas.

Please do that for a kid.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dad and Virginia

When Dad was really "sick" and my mother sent him to my granny's, he got the car and she kept the house. He put a sign in the back window of his car that read, "Pete + Siddie" (my parents' nicknames), as if all he had to express his love for my mom was a third-grade intellect. He also bent his radio antenna into the rough shape of a heart. My heart nearly bleeds when I tell you this now, but then I had only the one thought: escaping the humiliation. When I graduated high school, I moved to another town to avoid dealing with the worst of it. There was nothing I could do but watch.

Suddenly, with Virginia, he was my old Dad again, annoying but definitely in possession of his faculties. The more Virginia needed him, the kinder he became. He still had his bullying tendencies, but Virginia took those for concern and did whatever he told her to do. She didn't even notice his criticisms and answered each of his comments with a teasing, flirtatious banter. Once she made him laugh so hard he spit his teeth into his ashtray. Those things count for something.

Virginia's children had nothing to do with her - and that is for them to live with because I know it must have been hell to deal with the situation - but we loved her because she had unwittingly and cheerfully cured my dad. And she loved him with a fierceness that she was forever shouting from the rooftops, and that made him stand taller.

As I said before, there was a lot of money. Once when my dad and I were were driving around at dusk looking for Virginia, who sometimes wandered farther than she should and got caught out in the dark, he told me she was a millionaire. Just matter of factly and without any of the greed that used to sparkle in his eyes when he thought he could get the better of you. He said she got a monthly allowance and had to ask the financial planner for money for extra purchases, like the computer. I was completely amazed. They lived in an apartment that rented for $250 a month.

"She gives me an allowance," Dad said. "Five hundred dollars a month. It makes her happy. I don't spend it; I just put it in the bank. I have my own money."

"I guess you're a modern husband," I teased, "being taken care of by your wife."

"She takes pretty good care of me," he said. "She always pays the dinner bill."

Virginia and my father went to Alaska on a cruise ship, and they came home with a camera full of photos, mostly of the food the ship served. Dad was an old hand at ships, but Virginia could not stop talking about the opulence. It seemed that they had no memory of icebergs or whales or dolphins, which I assume you might see on an Alaskan cruise, but instead they told about their lodgings, as if they had spent ten days in Buckingham palace.

Virginia would still buy a store cake every once in a while, and sometimes Dad would let her enjoy it in her own compulsive way, and sometimes he would put half of it in the freezer when she wasn't looking. She covered her closet floor in bags of potato chips, pretzels, and corn curls, toilet paper and fun-size candy bars, two or three layers deep.

"Be sure and come over here for the Apocalypse," my dad would say. "Virginia's got everything we need."

When Virginia put up new curtains and announced that my father should smoke outside, he picked up his kitchen chair and set it outside the door. I can only imagine what he would have said if my mother had suggested that years before. He had a colorful vocabulary when he wanted to use it. After all, he had been a sailor. Instead, he sat outside the front door and smoked, watching the grass grow, squinting into the sun. Virginia would stand in the door and talk to him through the screen until he'd say, "Quit air-conditioning the whole neighborhood" or "Stop letting the heat out."

When Virginia would become agitated and confused, as she did occasionally, my dad would say, "Ah ah ah," as he used to say to us when we were young and headed in the wrong direction. That always seemed to break Virginia's fixation and she would come back to us. He made the same noise when she tried to take four pieces of pie from the dinner buffet, and then she would put some back.

So they lived a small life in a small town, eating at restaurants, driving on Sundays, watching Lawrence Welk. They seemed well suited to each other, two damaged people holding their hands over the other's broken spots.

They were happily married for six short years, filling in each other's blanks, keeping each other company, giving and receiving by turns, when my dad dropped dead in the middle of the night. With no warning at all: Gone.

Virginia was whisked off by her children, and taken to a town near her money and put into a home for those who couldn't take care of themselves. I know she couldn't, but it seems so unfair. She had all that money and it couldn't fix her. I used to wonder whether she remembered her six years of happiness, because to me that seems like a very small slice in a life very full of disappointments and pain. None of us ever saw her again.

Virginia died a few weeks ago, nearly seven years to the day after my father. She was buried next to him under the big fancy headstone she had installed when he died - with the ghostly engraving of my father's face superimposed over a picture of the ship they took to Alaska. It's gaudy and I hate to see it when I go to the cemetery.

But I will always be thankful for Virginia, who was a lot like Aunt Clara in the old Bewitched show. Nothing went according to plan, but it kind of worked out in the end. She gave us our dad back, even a new improved dad who had feelings and opinions and desires, not like the lump of flesh we'd tried to relate to for years. Can you imagine what it means to his children to have those six years of memories? Like the commercial says: Priceless.

So, Virginia, I hope you rest easy. I am so grateful to have known you. I carry you in my heart.


Today's a better day than yesterday. I got dressed and made the bed and jumped rope until I sweated but good. I'm going to have to get a sports bra before I do too much more jumping. I was surprised that I remembered how to do redhots and crossovers and didn't get tangled too many times. The dogs did not appreciate my talents, or the noise I was making on the hardwood floor. I don't think I'll take it up as a regular activity. I like the purposeful walking much more. Now, I wonder if I could find my old baton and see if I still remember how to twirl it...


So, how did you like my story? I feel better for having told it to you.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Here's Virginia

I guess this is background to the background. I wanted to tell you the story of my life pretty much in the order it happened, unveil events in more or less the order they occurred - explain to you and to myself How I Got the Way I Am - but I need to tell you some things about my dad in order for you to understand the sweetness of Virginia's story.

The summer I was in eighth grade my father went haywire. My uncle covered for him at his job for a while, but then he was home all the time, as my mother called it, "sick." He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and no treatment offered relief. We were ashamed, embarrassed, and torn by the idea that this was our dad, when in reality he was someone we had no acquaintance with.

Eventually my parents divorced, and my dad went to live with his mother, my granny, which wasn't a good combination. I lived with them years later in one of the more surreal parts of my life, and by then they had settled into a rhythm of criticism and pettiness not unlike a tired old married couple. He seemed to carry a torch for my mother, about whom he would never listen to anything bad, not from me, nor my granny, nor my siblings. My granny died, and my dad went to live in a converted schoolhouse known as the Haven of Rest, which is where Virginia lived after her husband died and she was acquitted by a jury of her peers.

Virginia was the sweetest, oddest woman I have ever met. I have been having such a hard time describing her that I fear I may miss my midnight deadline for posting here (writing every day is my goal). I realize that all I can do is tell you the stories I was part of and those that were told to me. I feel silly saying that the affection I feel for Virginia is like what I feel for my best and most loved pets. It was an honor to know such a pure and unfiltered human being, but you knew that, in the most harmless way possible, she was as mad as a hatter.

So one night at the Haven of Rest, my father was sitting on the couch after dinner watching an old Lawrence Welk rerun. Virginia sat next to him. She loved music, especially the kind on you heard on Lawrence Welk. She conversed with my dad during the commercials.

In the middle of some silliness she was recounting, Dad turned to her and said, "I would like to have sex again before I die."

Virginia drew herself up very straight and said, "I don't do that with people I'm not married to."

During the next commercial break, my dad said, "Well, do you want to get married?"

And she did. They wasted no time.

I heard about it from my sister. She was so upset. I forget how she found out, but she called me and blurted out, "Dad married Virginia B___!"

"The one who killed her husband?" I asked.


"That's weird," is all I could think of to say. My sister always wanted to stop someone from doing something, and my philosophy is to leave them alone.

The people who ran the Haven of Rest were not equipped to deal with the newlyweds, so they got a little apartment and furnished it cheaply by virtue of the fact that my father was not too shy to walk into the houses of his brothers and sisters and announce, "We need a couch" or "It doesn't look like you're using that table."

Virginia did the strangest things.

She was obsessed with cake. She would buy a cake from the store, and then she would consume it over the course of a day, opening the refridgerator, opening the cake box, cutting a bite, closing the box, putting it back in the refridgerator, closing the refridgerator, eating the bite of cake, washing the knife, putting it back in the drawer. Ten minutes later she would do it again.

She took some sort of computer classes at the senior citizens center - which was just the basement of the Nazarene church with a 40-cup percolator and an activity director - then bought a computer and hired someone to set it up. She would call me over and over and ask me to tell her how to look at her email. Sometimes she would ask me to come over and get the computer to work, and I'd have to explain that I lived five hours away. One day she sent me an email message that read, "Angie, we are going to have to cut this off. We have been seeing entirely too much of each other."

My father had a miraculous recovery, possibly proving my theory that he was only happy when he had someone to boss around. The more Virginia needed him, the more he rose to the occasion. He got her a bright orange hunters cap so that he could find her when she got lost in the store. He distracted her from the cake ritual. He taught her to be obsessed with the Fighting Illini.

And Virginia was delighted by her overseer. She would tell everyone how much she loved him, how good he was to her, how sweet and kind he could be. My siblings and I always got to laughing when she did that, because Cains are known to be impossible to live with and in truth there are very few who can do it, and some say you have to be crazy.

I am ashamed of the way I spent the day. I didn't get dressed, and I ignored everything around me, sitting at the dining room table drinking coffee. Other than producing a dinner from the freezer (I did cook it myself, but a couple of weeks ago) at the appropriate time, I did nothing but read The Green Stone Woman's blog and take a five-hour nap. Now I'm writing this post with as much speed as possible, and I know that to write well I have to go over it several times.

I have been out of my regular sleep cycle, and that's something I have to watch because it is one of my depression clues, although sometimes it isn't, if that makes sense. I checked my houseplants just to be sure, but they are all doing well. I'm not sure that's a clue at all this time of year, because they always do very well once I carry them outside in late spring. I also have that stomach ache which is usually accompanied by a vague sense of dread. And then there are the dining room blinds... Well, so far I'm just reporting. I'll try to do better tomorrow.

Exercise: turning over in bed.

I am going to have to make a powderpuff. My mom gave me a nice porcelain powder box, and I am using an old footie to foof the powder on after my shower. I think I'm better than that.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Meet Virginia

This story is long, so I'll have to write it in parts. This particular part, the background, will seem somewhat dark and harsh, but it's only the background. I promise you will find the story uplifting, if a bit unusual.

I don't know what my stepmother was like before she married my dad. But, I imagine that she was a lot different. There was a day when she was walking a country road and her life was suddenly cleaved in half. Stop. Begin again as a new person. A different kind of person. Of course, I'm guessing here.

All this happened before I knew Virginia, but I come from a small town, and we know everything about each other, or we know where we can find out everything. I'm telling it as accurately as I can, but most of it comes from gossip and newspaper articles I read at least twenty years ago. The rest I guess I just made up.

So Virginia was walking along a country road, which she did every morning. Whatever was in the fields she passed glimmered with fat drops of dew. Birds called: quail and pheasant and red-winged black birds. She had a lot of energy. She loved to walk. Because her mother and one of her sisters weighed hundreds of pounds each, she was petrified of gaining weight. Her walks were her only peaceful moments. She sang, prayed, and talked to God, right out loud if she felt like it. She held membership in three churches because she loved going to church. She would have liked to go every day. She was seeking peace.

Semi-trucks never used to go on the two lane country road, but in the past decade some of the Amish in the area had started manufacturing furniture in barns here and there, and they had wood delivered by trucks that drove too fast for the narrow roads and misjudged the width of the lane or didn't see an old lady at all. An old lady can fly through the air for what seems like a mile and not remember her name when she lands.

That Virginia who set out on her walk would never be again. That Virginia was gone completely, killed by a wood truck on a country road. The body was left alive, and eventually a new personality filled it. The body had to learn to walk again. The personality had to mark time in a convalescent home because it had no one to come to its rescue, although there were grown children and a husband. The insurance paid for it.

There was a load of insurance money. The truck driver was clearly in the wrong. Luckily the settlement was put in the hands of an impartial financial officer who meant to protect Virginia's interests.

After being beaten with all manner of objects, tied and bruised and browbeaten and scorned, flung in closets and hung in barns and left without water in the sun, Virginia was not inclined to express her own needs at all. (My uncle Joe was a cop, and he was called out to that farm many times. Men weren't usually arrested then for getting drunk and scaring the devil out of their wives.)

When Virginia came home from the nursing home, she was addled and nervous and unable to stand, fragile but somewhat stable. Her husband wanted some money wanted some money wanted some money and he couldn't get it away from that lawyer.

Virginia couldn't think, couldn't get away and walk between the fields, couldn't get a hold on her emotions, couldn't hear God speak. In the home, her church friends came and went in a long parade from breakfast to afternoon nap. They brought so many little treats to cheer her up. She had held court in her wheelchair with a nice lace shawl on her legs, and now she was heavy. She feared being heavy. She would have to get out of that chair and learn to use her legs again or she was going to go mad from his constant harping about the money and her fear of her weight and her overwhelming confusion about how she got in this state.

She was able to walk by the evening he took her by the neck and said he would never let go. He wanted some money. There was nothing she could do about it. She was incompetent and her money was in the hands of some lawyer. When he threw her into the corner, she stayed there crumpled and choking. She couldn't do anything.

But she did do something. There was that money at the lawyer's office to be spent to make her well. It was like a ticket on a train that went far across the mountains to a new life. She waited for him to fall asleep. This is the part that could have put her in prison for life. That she waited.

And when he was snoring, she took the gun he kept on the nightstand and pointed it down at his chest and pulled the trigger. He wasn't dead when she put the phone next to him on the bed and took the van he parked out back. She didn't even have a license to drive.

Virginia drove all the way to Ohio without stopping. Actually she drove without thinking. She drove as if she knew what she was doing, and luckily had stopped in the parking lot of a truck stop to wipe her eyes and wonder when the car ran out of gas, chugged once, and was dead to her.

She didn't know who she was. She certainly didn't know where she was. She remembered her sister's phone number. That, and her weight.


Let's not talk about Virginia yet. It hurts me to tell this part of the story, although she will find a little broken piece of happiness in the end.


The exercise is better than I ever thought it would be. After only five days I have noticeably more energy and perhaps even a better mood. I'm proud of myself. Yay.

So, how do like cruising around with me so far? I've had a ball this week and will try to blog each day next week. It's therapeutic. Blogging sounds like a good reward for jumping around sweating like a fool, doesn't it?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This is my place

I have finished reading a book by the man I call @scattermole, and a review is percolating in my head. While I ignore that and let it simmer, I’ll tell you about how I’m trying to learn to be happy with a frugal amount of everything.

Because I’m broke (paying off bills from the carefree days) and frugal and smarter than I used to be, I look for small pleasures in my life. The Woodsman tells me it’s the little things that are the most important. Mom (and a lot of other old wives) say the best things in life are free. I find these little things everywhere. They cost less than shoes, and they make me just as happy.

Last year I rented an ugly little duplex with human animals living in the unit next door. This family’s surname was the same as a popular nut. The universe handed out something appropriate there. When the lease was up, I was too tired to move a third year in a row, but I did. For the quiet. And the calm. Now I live in a cute little house with its own yard in a quiet neighborhood on a pretty street—for the same amount of rent as I paid to be disturbed on a daily (and nightly) basis.

As you can see, the place is cute, no matter the season, and you know how good it makes you feel to be surrounded by cute. For the same amount of money as I paid to live next to the zoo—and throw in a nice landlord too.

I didn't even realize just how stressful the year next door to the "Walnut" family was until I moved. Now I am grateful every single night that I don't have to share in some other family's hateful noise and rage and thumping and bumping and yelling.
I have friendly neighbors now, and that means something. Sometimes I come home from work and think that Mr. Sweep next door has built some sort of steampunk amusement park in the driveway we share.

But he and his wife, the Feng Shui expert, are as sweet as you could ask for and always willing to help. They had a neighborhood cookout this last weekend to celebrate Mr. Sweep’s fiftieth birthday, and I got to see their backyard.

My dogs are different creatures now that they have a yard to play in without being molested by screaming children who were never taught respect for other creatures. (The hellions would actually bark at the dogs. I kid you not.) I don’t think my dogs are ever going to stop barking at the good neighbors, but I understand why they have trust issues.

And there’s a little green tomato on one of my tomato plants. I forgot to get a shot of that.

These are really good things to take pleasure in, I think. What a difference a year can make.

Are there little free things that bring a lot of pleasure into your life? Now that I've started learning to appreciate them, I feel pretty clever. And I'm a cheap date too.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The universe gives what we need

Every year on my son's birthday I wear a button I was given as a gift by the hospital where I gave birth. It's beat up and faded, and I love wearing it.

Thirty-five years ago today I was sitting in a hospital bed braiding my hair and waiting for the nurses to bring me a baby. A baby that scared the snot out of me--he was mine.

I wasn't one of those little girls who dreamed of a wedding and played with her dolls as gently as if they were actual children, diapering and blanketing and cooing. I wanted to ride an ocean liner again and learn how to spit six feet and own a dog who could understand what I was saying. I was unprepared, to say the least.

Just as it always turns out, the universe had a better idea of what I needed than I did. And apparently what I needed was a cute little eleven pound boy covered with peachfuzz and possessing enough of my looks to fascinate me from the moment I saw him. We didn't have ultasounds back then, and we waited until the moment of birth to learn the gender of the baby we carried. But I had a dream about him, swaddled in a blue mohair blanket that I would receive as a gift months in the future.

Even though I thought I didn't want any children, I am so grateful that I accidentally got one. My son Jaybird has been a joy and still is. I had my sister and my mom to help with him, and I truly don't remember ever changing his diaper. I remember the sweet stuff. I bathed him and dressed him and told him stories, taught him to talk, and squatted down on the sidewalk with him to point at ants.

I'm not tossing the word joy around lightly. Perhaps the universe also arranged for me to have the kind of child I would be good at raising: a smart, independent, creative little man who brought back to me that childlike sense of wonder that I was missing. A talkative boy who said the most insightful things and had a streak of the curmudgeon. Serious and funny. Look! His favorite word was Look!

Now he's a grown man who likes to play guitar and read history and biography. He draws and paints and researches genealogy. He loves his dogs and knows himself in a way that makes him practical and steady. Sometimes we get to talking and the conversation strides off in all directions because we are so eager to swap what we know. He is a good man. What mother would ask for more?

Happy birthday, Jaybird. I love you.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My fifteen minutes in the sun

The first memory I am sure I remember is of a day at the beach with my parents. My dad swung my little sister in her carrier, which had its own awning to keep the sun off of her. She wore that little blue hat tied to her bald head, her little wrinkled face screwed up, always squinting as if an answer was about to come to her.

My mother wore her modest black bathing suit with a white terry cloth robe over it and a new pair of black flip-flops. She had a bright print scarf tied around her big black hair. She shook out a horse-hair navy-issue blanket and arranged herself on it with her freckled legs out in front of her, teetering a little from side to side, catching herself on her elbows. My dad always teased her that she never really tanned, just became one big freckle. I had a half a cup of my mom's freckles poured across my nose, but I was rosy and fair (flushed and pale?) with light pinky blonde hair, and I burned to a crisp in half an hour.

My dad loved to take photos and movie film. He pointed the camera at my mother, and she threw her hand up to her collarbone and turned her head as though she didn't want her picture taken. Later she would send out three copies: one to each of her sisters and one to Grandma. We had one in our album too.

I stood in front of my mom while she rubbed sun cream on my back. She spun me around and greased up my front side too. As my dad put the baby down his shadow fell across us. My mom looked up, and her husband was reflected in the lenses of her big black sun glasses. She looked like a minor movie star with her big white teeth glittering in the sun, her shiny black hair tumbling down her back. “Go on,” she said to me. “You can only spend fifteen minutes in the sun.”

“But I want to build a castle–”

“You’d better get going, then. You’ve already wasted a minute. Go with your dad and get in the water.”

My mom took sunburn seriously. The first year they were married, she and my dad had been attracted to the beaches as only two young newlyweds from Illinois could be. They'd awake early on Saturdays, pack some snacks and drinks, and drive to the beach. The world was Technicolor, and they were wholesome young adults in a salty, vivid land.

Everybody hears the warnings; they are all over the place. But the sun on a tropical island is not the same as the sun that ripens corn and beans on the Midwest prairies, and even if a man has sported a farmer’s tan for twenty-four years he can’t lie out in the island rays and expect not to cook like a chicken thigh.

So one time my dad didn’t turn over when my mom told him to but said instead that he’d turn over when he damn well pleased. He thought the heat was clearing up the acne on his back. He didn’t really start to smell like frying bacon until they were on their way home.

He was so sick that a couple of times he said he wished he’d turned over when she told him to. He slept at the kitchen table the first night. He moaned and roared when he tried to move. A fan oscillated across his skin and my mom kept slathering on handsful of Noxema.

Mom said he was so sick she wanted to call the doctor. He was vomiting from the heat and dehydration, and his skin was as red as a hot dog. His body temperature was high, and his mood was hot as hell. He slept at the kitchen table the next night. The skin on his back curled up like pork rinds and fell to the floor like husks. He was in so much pain that he began to converse with my mother. “I could be court martialed for this,” he told her.

“For a sunburn?”

“For damaging government property.”

She put that piece of information away in her little mental tote, filed under “court martial” and cross-referenced to “sunburn”. By the time I was born her fear of the sun had gelled into a standard operating procedure, and I was always subjected to a lecture and a creamy rub before I went outside in the sun.

“Go on, go on,” she said as she shooed me toward my dad. “Dwain, take her into the water,” she directed. She lit a cigarette and blew the first drag up into the sparkly air. She checked my sister with one eye only, the other one squinted up from the smoke. She rubbed cream into her thighs with the palms of her hands, keeping her fingers splayed back so the Coppertone would not collect under her red-lacquered nails.

My mother never went into the water. Part of it was that she didn’t want to muss her hair. She did have a beautiful head of hair. The other part was that she couldn’t swim a lick, and my dad was a trickster. She might have enjoyed a lazy bob in the waves, but she didn't trust her husband not to turn her weakness into a nasty practical joke. Our outings nearly always ended with someone crying.

I couldn't swim either, but I took hold of my father's hand, and he led me along the sand to where the wetness began, squeezing my knuckles together until the bones rolled against each other and hurt. I didn't say a word because complaints usually caused him to decide to play rougher, squeezing my pinkie finger into a little white swirl and rolling it into a knot until I began to cry and he began to laugh. Being good meant no whining, and that was not always easy to achieve with my parents.

So we dug our toes into the sand and waited as the waves approached. I stood in the little oval spot of my dad's shadow. The water tumbled over our feet and backed away again, seeming to suck the sand from under our feet. Each time a wave retreated, I felt as though I was flying backward toward the blanket and I laughed.

“Watch this,” my dad said. He picked me up and tossed me about three feet away into the water.

The whole world slowed almost to a stop. The water twirled me around and I saw shells and crabs and sticks and silt spinning around with me. I was jerked out to sea as the wave receded. I felt as if I traveled a hundred miles from the beach. I had not known that you could see under water. My ears echoed with a rhythmic sound that I didn’t recognize as my own heartbeat.

Finally, my dad grabbed me by the arm and lifted me up out of the water. I heard myself choking and gagging and spitting, before I lay still in the hot sand. This afternoon was the first time I felt that hot anger that drove me through my twenties, thirties, and forties before I gradually learned to loosen its hold. The first time I let myself feel anything but afraid.

"She's drowning," my mother said to my dad.

"She is not. It was only a foot of water." My dad poked at me with his foot as if I were driftwood that had washed up on the beach. "Hush up," he said, “or we'll just go home."

I lay on my belly in the hot sand, my father's bad toe with its thick yellow horn of a nail an inch away from my nose. I didn’t make a sound while I tried to calm my breath and stop sucking in great gulps of air.

"It's your own fault," my dad said. "The sea hates whiney sailors. Get up. I'm not going to tell you again.”

I lay there hiccupping and burping up sea water, feeling the skin on my back grow crinkled, as my fifteen minutes in the sun burned away.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Hawai'ian Dream

My father was a sailor, and he and his sixteen-year-old bride had set out on an adventure that landed them in Honolulu, thousands of miles from the Illinois prairie where they grew up. Two years later I was born, and they raised me until the age of eight not knowing that there were places cold and colorless and dull.

My dad told me that he wanted to name me Sugar and my sister Candy. Since our last name is Cain, my mother wouldn't let him do that. I don't know if that story is true or not. Once I said to him, "My last name would be Payne (my mother's maiden name) if it weren't for you." He said, "If it weren't for me, your name would be Mudd." I had to wonder about that one a long time before I learned about Dr. Mudd.

Plumeria plant at GriffithGardens.

Even though my father’s academic career ended a few months short of high-school graduation when he threw a basketball at the coach’s head and stormed out of the gym, he was smart. Perhaps the fact that he rarely spoke and did not waste too many words on feelings or tales of the past (or the present, for that matter) made him seem smarter than he was. He usually spoke for practical reasons: Hand me that hammer. Get me some coffee. Where’s the twine?

When I was about six years old, my father came home from working in what he called Uncle Sam’s engine room and said he was going to become a millionaire. He had a plan. He would be rich by the time he was forty years old. He was getting in on the ground floor of an opportunity to strike it big. Everyone in the house had drawn near and grown still just to hear him talk. My mom stood by the stove with a wooden spoon in her hand, letting the white chicken gravy drip while she stared at him.

Tropical Floral Barkcloth at The Rockpile

“Mutual funds,” he said.

What my father was proposing was no more imaginable than me flying to the moon on a clothesline. My mother did not entertain the thought of my father becoming a salesman. She simply turned back to the stove and continued stirring as though he had not spoken.


For two weeks after that, my dad sat around in his spare time reading looseleaf notebooks and writing up worksheets for fictional clients. He even practiced his sales pitch on my mom while she was peeling potatoes.

I could not picture my father coming into someone’s house the way the carpet sweeper man had come to ours, making small talk and then turning the topic to what he had to sell. And he didn’t get the least bit upset when it became clear that my parents were not going to buy, even though he was obliged to leave the free gift he had promised (four steak knives, I think). I couldn’t imagine my dad nodding politely, listening politely to potential clients. Spit it out, he’d tell them. I haven’t got all day. If they couldn’t spit it out, he’d say. Yak, yak, yak.


Then my dad announced that we were going to a fancy fake luau at the home of a couple who came from Boston but now owned a three-story glass house with a lake and a waterfall, wild birds and a tame monkey, all from selling mutual funds. This was even stranger to us than the fact that my father had found himself a second job.

Sears catalogue 1939.

With the exception of a few friends, my dad did not visit people: He visited car shows and zoos and Sears, places you didn’t dress up or worry about manners. Right away my mom went into a frenzy of planning. She feared that we wouldn’t know how to behave in a nice place, as if our house was the pig sty she was always telling me it wasn’t. Get those toys picked up! You don’t live in a pig sty! Apparently even my dad was too ignorant to be allowed in public without coaching, because she kept giving him etiquette tips until he said, “Who made you the goddamn queen?”


My mom was a slave to women’s magazines that told her how to make a gracious home on a shoe string, and that servitude was going to serve her now. She was twenty-four years old, cute and coltish, but her family… well, she had a lot of work to do. For the four days remaining before the visit, she discussed our wardrobes with herself. She tried to make us the smart, young family on the go. I was going to wear a turquoise dress with a white sash that made me look plump. Nearly every time she grabbed me at the last minute and started to improve me she ended up embarrassing us both, and I feared that. In her nervousness she began to cut my hair, and each day the bangs of my pixie cut grew shorter as she tried to match up the sides.

Hawaiian dress at UpscaleVintage

My sister Lissa, who was two years old at this time, looked like a little old man. She had no hair and a squinched up suspicious little face, and my mom always stuck a bow to her head so she was identifiable as a girl. Lissa was going to wear a blue dress with matching ruffled panties and ridiculously useless sandals. She was to sit on my mom’s lap, and she was not to snot, to cry, or to throw up. And I was not to do any of my nervous habits: harumping or clearing my throat or biting my fingers. “Just try me and see,” Mom said. “I’ll blister your butt in front of everybody.” But she wouldn’t. I knew that. She would never call attention to herself.
(I hope my sister sees this.)

As we drove on the narrow twisted lava roads lined with trees and plants I've never seen the equal of even yet, my parents sparred half-heartedly, my mom describing my dad’s shoes in unflattering terms and my dad calling her a fat ass. All the time my mom sat in the middle of the bench seat with her hand on my dad’s knee while he drove.

The party was not a success for the young family on the go. There weren't any other children there except a snotty teenage girl with a dog under her arm. I stayed a little behind my mom and said nothing. I thought the guests looked at me as though they were holding little pieces of poop on the tips of their tongues. Just like a sitcom, everyone was wearing casual luau clothes except us. My mom took the belt off my turquoise dress and let me remove my shoes and socks in hopes that I would look billowy and in a luau mood, but instead I was sweaty and graceless, starting to burn.

My little sister fell asleep on my mom’s lap and saved her from having to mix. She sat silently and soaked up the uncomfortable smiles as if she didn’t notice. When her feelings were hurt, you’d never know it. Later she’d unleash a streak of venom and clean the house furiously as she ranted and eventually run down to a headache and a nap. I sat on the grass next to her chair with my big old feet politely stuck up under my dress so I wouldn’t look like I came from Dogpatch, as my mom described it.

And do you know what we got from all of this? We were invited to attend the hosts’ church home, and my parents, now fired with the idea that they could have a mansion and a fake luau, accepted.

Honolulu, Hawai'i, taken by Steve and Pam Paulson from Amos Griffith's Giffin and Hoxie.

I don't remember even once going to church before this time, though my mom would talk about the church ladies who helped her through pregnancy, stillbirth, and tumor, so I must have. We had a big book of Old Testament stories that had colored drawings my mother deemed too active for us to read before bed. I believed that God made the world out of clay and it thundered when he was bowling and rained was when he was crying. Lightening, he was sharpening his sword. He put a rainbow in the sky to say I'm watching you. He lived in the sky in a country called Heaven, but we couldn’t see him because of the clouds. When someone died it was because God needed them for something up there. Sometimes I got God mixed up with Aesop, but these were the tenants of my secret religion, a collection of lore I had gleaned from many sources.

So, we went to church for a month. The Sunday school teachers taught us songs that I can still remember. I’m in the Lord’s Army and Zachias Was a Wee Little Man. I sang without emitting a sound and never recited an answer when my name was called. I felt proud of the stars they put up on the wall chart next to my name, though I had done nothing to deserve them but show up. One week we sang Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain in front of the church before the sermon, all of us making the motions like little mimes, the teachers standing in front of us singing with exaggerated cheerfulness and drawing big smiles in the air with their hands as we sang faces all aglow.

After a few weeks of scuttling to church once a week, making Sunday as stressful as a school day, or any other day you had to get ready to go somewhere with my mom, I learned what a revival was: a chance to go to church every night for a week and all day on the concluding Sunday. My heart sank into my shoe. It was one thing to tolerate a once a week visit, sing a few songs, make a craft, listen to stories that were not as good as the ones my mom read to me before bed. I didn't like other kids. I didn't like strange adults urging me to participate and speaking to me like I was an idiot because I wouldn't. About this time I was developing my habit of fuzzing my eyes up so I couldn't see clearly and staring off into space as though I was deaf.

But now I had to go to church in a hurry every night after my dad got home from work and cleaned up. My parents both were oddly enthusiastic and talked excitedly about the future in the car on the way. Mom carried a dish for the fellowship dinner in the church basement. I’d get a shaky stomach from eating other people’s food and having my mom whispering directions and threatening punishment. I had to go to bed at seven o’clock in the evening when we were home, so by the time the congregation was gathered, I was falling asleep, and my sister was sacked out on a pew, sleeping like a baby.

The church was packed and we all sat looking toward the front, where we expected our minister to appear. The sanctuary was hung with banners about our lord and they were twirling slowly from the big fans in the ceiling. Music came out of the huge speakers on the walls, instrumentals that sounded familiar and inspirational. We were in back of the sanctuary, which was built like a plush coliseum, the seats staggered upwards so that everyone could see. Throughout the room heads were turning and people were mouthing words that could not be heard over the vibrations of the speakers.

Suddenly the whole room went quiet and our special musical guests appeared. They were identical twins, The Good Twins, who sang in perfect harmony and witnessed for the lord with their music. The minister’s wife introduced them and made them sound like someone famous that we had somehow missed hearing about. Their hairlines were receding identically and they were dressed exactly alike. They introduced their beautiful wives, who were also twins, who smiled and sang a number with them.

They put on a heck of a show, my dad said. Several times my mother stilled my little sister’s feet because she was kicking the back of the seat in time to the music. During an intermission my parents shelled out for one of their albums, Good News, so either they really wanted to impress the guy with the glass house or they really liked the music. I was pretty fond of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” because it swelled to a dramatic moment at the end.

As the minister began to speak, my mom motioned me to take my sister to the restroom. It took me a minute to realize what she meant because she never trusted either one of us out of her sight for a moment, and usually she would rather keep shushing Lissa than take her downstairs before she whined with desperation. My only guess is that my mom was so touched by the holy spirit that she forgot that she didn’t trust us any farther than she could throw us, which she didn’t do back then. Or The Good Twins had stirred her in a way she hadn’t been stirred before.

(I still have the albums.)

So I took my sister down the stairs, holding her hand and the banister. I was a clumsy child, and steps terrified me; I had fallen down them so often. We got into the roomy one-room bathroom without a calamity.

“Hurry up and go,” I told Lissa. My mom always locked us in, so I turned and fiddled with the lock on the door. I heard the little click and felt a stab of maturity before I heard Lissa let out a shrill scream that filled me with a greasy-stomach dread.

She was standing there with her ruffled blue pants around her ankles, her underpants nested in them. She pointed at the toilet as she let out another siren. Something was splashing in the bowl. I crept forward and stretched my neck out like Pippy Longstocking.

“It’s a mongoose,” I said. “Look. He’s taking a bath.”

Lissa was bent over at the waist, her rosy butt cheeks pointed toward the door, staring into the commode, her hands thrown up at the sides of her head, her little white church gloves reminding me of a clown. We looked like someone should paint us: two homely urchins and a mongoose in the toilet.

The mongoose pulled himself up by the elbows and hung on the toilet ring. He opened his pointy little mouth and made a rude noise at us. Lissa screamed again before I could grab her and try to keep her quiet. I put my hand across her mouth and said, “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” She just bobbed her head around trying to get away.

I talked to her in a sing-songy voice. “He’s taking a bath, then he’ll go home. See? He’s taking a bath in the toilet.” I didn’t think a mongoose was any more dangerous than a rat, and we saw them all the time. Rats are a part of living in the tropics. They would run off with a kitten if you didn’t watch them.

Giant rat. BBC news.

Pretty soon Lissa was repeating after me, “There’s a mongoose in the toilet.” She was wrestling her panties up, and I helped her, my gloves clamped under my arm, forgetting all about the original purpose of our visit to the restroom. The mongoose leaped out of the toilet and started moving around the edges of the room looking for an escape. This set my sister off again. She was loud, and we were not allowed to be loud, especially not in church. The mongoose ran behind a carton of toilet paper, and she stopped--

Dwarf Mongooses at linohype

A commotion arose at the door, pounding, shouting, stomping, pounding. Open the door! What's the matter! Is someone hurt? Open the door!

The door would not open. Now the yelling crowd outside the door had frightened us more than the mongoose, and Lissa started wailing. We were breaking my mom's cardinal rule: Don't call attention to yourself. I kept trying to shush my little sister, but I was so scared that I had to bend over and clear my throat of the nervousness before I tried to unlock the door. The little button that had so easily slid to the right wouldn't budge back toward the left. I fumbled. Break it open! Unlock the door! What's the matter? Get back! I'm coming in!

Click. I swung the door open and there stood my parents, frowning, glowering, surrounded by the congregation, all with eager, concerned looks on their faces. Even The Good Twins were peering into the bathroom. I squinched my nose. I leaned over and hurumphed a few times. I think my mother thought I was going to throw up, because she put her gloved hand on my back and tried to lead me away from the crowd. I thought she wanted to get me alone so she could lecture, pinch, and smack me, so I stood there doubled over in the midst of the churchgoers knowing that for one brief moment she could not touch me except gently.

My dad squatted down and put his arm around Lissa's legs and lifted her up so she was sitting on his forearm, her favorite seat. "What was going on in there?" he asked her.

He never expected her to answer. She never spoke except in her special Lissa babble that no one could understand but me. My mom always said that Lissa was too lazy to talk because I talked for her.

"There’s a mongoose in the toilet," she said, plain as day. Then she wet her ruffled blue panties, my dad’s sleeve, and part of his pant leg.

Mom would not leave me alone on the way home. Never had she been so mortified, she said. Her own children screaming and playing grab-ass in the church! In the church! She grilled me about the mongoose.

“It was probably a rat,” she said.

“It wasn’t a rat,” I told her.

“There’s a mongoose in the toilet,” Lissa said.

“You,” my mom said to her, “lie down and go to sleep.”

“Because a mongoose doesn’t look like a rat,” I said.

“Well, then, Miss Smarty Pants, what does a mongoose look like?”

“A little like a weasel,” I said. "A little like a cat."

“Dwain?” she said to my dad. “Dwain! Is that what a mongoose looks like?”

“It looks something like a weasel,” my dad said. "They kill snakes and birds."

“Weasel or no weasel,” my mom said, “if you ever scream in church again I’ll whip you into next week. You hear me?”

"I didn't scream," I said.

She turned to my father and said, “We can’t go back there. I’m absolutely mortified."