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.