Finding “Home” in the Heart

doormat

 

Mike and I began house-hunting, as a couple, nearly a year before we married. He had been planning to buy a home of his own for him and his daughter well before we met. Before my divorce I’d owned a home too, with my then-husband, until our divorce brought about its sale. After it was clear we were a permanent thing, Mike and I needed a dwelling large enough to accommodate a blended family of five. Mike’s daughter was only with us on the weekends, so she had little concern about where we lived, as long as she had her own space. It was a reasonable expectation. My daughters found the prospect of moving to a new school district, and leaving their friends, to be a source of hysterics and great drama. Anyone that has lived through having teen and pre-teen daughters understands that it doesn’t take much for them to feel like the entire world is ending. So, we acquiesced. We made certain our house hunting focused on places within their school district. We found an adorable four-bedroom, two story traditional, on three-fourths of an acre, in a tract that had once been an orchard. It was in a “country-like” setting, around the corner from a family farm with horses and a donkey, in a quiet little neighborhood, and removed from the hustle and bustle of town. It had a huge backyard that butted up to a wooded area. The lot even had some original fruit trees, one apple and one pear. Each girl had her own bedroom. There was a family room with a wood burning fireplace, a redone kitchen, and a semi-finished basement (well, circa 1975 “finished”). It was idyllic. I have a very clear memory of seeing it for the first time. It was bright and spacious. I mouthed the words “I want this house!” to Mike as the realtor took us from room to room explaining the house’s features.

As we settled into life on Gleneagle Drive, we noticed that the neighborhood was mostly populated by senior citizens and retirees. There were almost no families or children. My kids didn’t mind, though. They had their friends at school, so we drove them to see those kids. What our neighbors noticed about us was not so innocuous. We were loud. My kids played their music loudly. Opening the windows during warm weather meant everybody within 100 yards of our house could hear the girls bickering. They could hear me or my husband yelling at them to stop or any one of us calling to one another between floors or rooms. We also had a huge yellow Labrador that was prone to “jail breaks.” He roamed the neighborhood getting other dogs riled up or nosing through stuff on people’s property. Retrieving him was a spectacle. It was me driving the junky family mini-van around the neighborhood whilst the kids dangled from the open sliding door, calling to him and waving slices of bacon as bait.

Our home saw quite the menagerie of pets over the years. Besides the aforementioned Labrador, we had two cats, two fish, a rat, three guinea pigs, and two more dogs. One of the cats and at least two of the guinea pigs are buried in the woods behind the house. We honored one fish, a red beta named Tony Beets, with a Viking funeral in the fireplace. He passed after a particularly long stretch without power one winter. The entire neighborhood lost power an average of two to three times every year. And that is something I do not miss.

The kids grew up and moved out and our crazy dog got too old to run around like a terrorist. Time mended our reputation in the neighborhood. Somehow our neighbors forgot who we once were. I know this because one year my husband and I took up running. We began by walking. We mixed in some running intervals until, over time, we worked our way up to running a three-mile series of laps through the neighborhood. One day some of the folks on our route started giving us smiles, waves, and happy thumbs up. A few of them even motioned us over to congratulate us on our progress and to tell us “how proud” they were of us. We were surprised, because we had always kept to ourselves. We weren’t aware that they had been observing us. They remained our little white and gray-haired cheerleaders as we trained for our first 5K. Sadly, our foray into running ran its course (please excuse the pun), but I will never forget the caring and support those lovely people showed us.

Our immediate neighbors to the South were Roy and Gloria. Like nearly all our other neighbors, they were older and had grown children. They were both still working when we moved in, but a few years later Gloria retired from her job at a nursing home. Shortly after that, Roy retired from his job as a materials manager for a local construction company. IEventually, the reality of being at home with Gloria all day every day set in for Roy. He ended up going back to work part-time in Mike’s store. I am certain his decision to return to the work was Roy’s way of escaping, if only for a few hours a few days a week. Once he got over the “shock to the system” of retirement, Roy quit working altogether and seemed to “up” his landscaping maintenance game. One summer morning I awoke at about 8:00 a.m. to the sound of Roy using his leaf blower to blow stray leaves…in the SUMMER…from his lawn and into the road. Good on ya, Roy. You’re the Beyonce of neighbors. Fuck the sleeping neighbors! You go on with your bad self! You go and do what you wanna do! Here, lemme get up and put on a bra, so I can pass you a mic to drop!

The thought of Roy and Gloria brings many things to mind. First, Roy was the consummate handyman. Whenever my “all thumbs” husband would attempt any project – like building a picnic table or fixing the mower or starting the snowblower – Roy would appear out of nowhere for an assist. I once watched him “help” Mike assemble a picnic table meant to be a memorial to our late oldest daughter. With Mike being a huge Star Wars fan, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Wow. That looks like a Jedi Master (Roy) with his padowan (Mike).” I also remember feeling awestruck by Roy’s skill. It seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do. He rebuilt our deck, and insisted on adding a badass elevated octagon-shaped platform. He and his son reroofed our garage. He fixed the sump pump on the drain for our washing machine. He even diagnosed the source of a leak we discovered upon arriving home from Mass one Christmas Eve that had sprung from the kitchen ceiling. When he wasn’t “helping” his negligent homeowning neighbors, he was “just checking in” with us. We affectionately referred to this as “getting Royed.” What it meant to my husband was a fifteen to thirty-minute conversation about a variety of topics. Sometimes simply going to get the mail would take ten minutes. “What happened to you?” I would ask Mike. “I got Royed,” he would reply. He never had to explain what that meant.

I was somehow able to avoid getting “Royed” much of the time…except in the summer. In my former profession as a teacher, I had summers off. I typically used that time to do home projects like painting, replacing electrical fixtures, or landscaping. In fact, by the time we moved, I had replaced every light fixture and painted every room with my own two hands. One summer I decided to plant flowers and bushes around the backyard. I put in a patch of my favorite lilies and, against the back of the house, a lavender hedge. I wanted its lovely fragrance to waft through the ground floor windows and to deter mosquitoes in the backyard. I also decided to plant azalea bushes around the awesome deck Roy had built. During the project, I thought I would be smart. To avoid getting “Royed,” I made sure I wore earbuds and listened to music while I worked. I also wore sunglasses, so I could remain on the lookout…on the downlow. The strategy was minimally effective. I’ll reluctantly admit it. There were times I peed my pants, just a little, when Roy snuck up on me while I was rockin’ out to my 90’s alt jams and vibin’ with my landscaping vision. Aaaaah! Having to put on cool dry underpants on a hot summer day after having wet yourself as a grown-ass woman (HEY! JUST a little). Yes. Thanks, Roy. Good times. Great memories.

There are so many memories that live at 7971 Gleneagle. Weeknight dinners around the family dining table featuring stories from our respective days. Meals that devolved into quarrels and ended with one or more children leaving the table in tears and stomping off to her room. Opening gifts Christmas morning in the room we spent the least amount of time in most of the year because it lacked a television. The sweet smiling faces of extended family gathered ’round the table for a Thanksgiving dinner I lovingly prepared. The way light poured in from the big picture window and changed, ever so subtly, with each season. Moments of calm, watching all three daughters getting along for a change. Seeing them laying on the trampoline, gazing up at the wide blue sky and talking about nothing in particular. How quiet the house became after the loss of our oldest daughter. How even quieter it got when our remaining two graduated and went on to make their own lives. Parting with that place was sweet sorrow.

Two years before we moved, my husband bought a fire pit. He’d insisted on getting one ever since he began working at the outdoor sports store he now manages. I didn’t see the point of such a purchase, but I finally relented. It proved to be one of the best he ever made from that store. It created some truly lovely memories of us as empty-nesters in our last days in the house. I had camped a few times in my life. Those experiences never led me to appreciate the relaxation that comes from sitting in front of a good ole fashioned fire. We spent two consecutive summers and well into the following autumn seasons relaxing by that damn fire pit. We enjoyed many campfire dinners – hot dogs, pan fried fresh lake caught blue gills, s’mores, and pie iron sandwiches. We even found the perfect campfire adult beverage – a red wine that recreates the taste of s’mores with chocolate and marshmallow flavors. Those summer nights by the fire pit were sublime. We often spotted deer near the woods at the edge of the yard. They always found their way to the apple tree to nibble fallen apples. Fireflies dotted the air and little bats would wing in and out of the trees. At twilight, the hydrangeas, lavender, and lilies made the yard look like a water color dream.

Selling our house was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For both my husband and me, it was the place in which we’d lived the longest of our lives. We decided to move for several reasons. One was the upkeep of such a big house and large yard. We knew it would become too much for the two of us as we age. When we had three able bodied teenagers in need of spending money, having the lawn mowed or the bathrooms cleaned was a non-issue. Once our kids were gone, we grew weary of the housekeeping obligations. We also watched my parents age. We watched as it became clear their home, which was like ours, no longer met the needs of aging bodies with limited mobility. We knew we needed a dwelling that could accommodate the changes to come. We needed a home where we could “age in place.” My leaving teaching necessitated the move, as well. We needed to eliminate the sizeable debt we’d incurred over the years. We needed a way to reduce our monthly mortgage payment to offset the reduction in my wages, too. The facts converged. We resigned ourselves to the fact that selling our big, beautiful, beloved, and memory filled home was the only way to achieve our goals.

I’d spent years making improvements to the house – room by room, summer by summer. I decluttered and purged and staged and invested every spare penny. We were excited when we finally listed. I bought a little St. Joseph (patron saint of home and family) statue and, per Catholic lore to expedite the sale, buried it upside down in the front yard. I chose a spot near our lovely birch tree. I prayed the prayer every morning before I went to work. We immediately had people interested in seeing it, and, happily, we had an offer within the first week. We were thrilled, but that meant the pressure was on to find a condo. There was little available within our budget. We somehow managed to find a place we liked. It wasn’t ideal. It was a third-floor unit, defeating one of the main purposes for moving. It also posed a headache when it came to taking the dog potty. Still, it was the best option, and we made an offer. Then, as if on cue, our universe seemed to enter some sort of karmic retrograde. My father died suddenly. His affairs, including guardianship of my incapacitated nursing home resident mother, were left for me to sort out. I had just begun a new job and had little time off to devote to the sale of a home, the purchase of a condo and taking care of my parents’ stuff. The inspection of our home revealed a myriad of issues, including some very pricey ones. The appraisal of the condo came back under asking price and the seller was unwilling to come down. Ultimately, the sale of the house and the purchase of the condo both ended up falling through. Our heads were spinning. We had to start over.

It wasn’t long before we had another offer on our house. Though the inspection once again revealed issues, the buyers were less demanding than the previous one and we were weary. We agreed to their requests and the sale went through. Once again, we found ourselves in a position where we had to find a place to live…quickly. The condo we settled on was adequate – a two-bedroom, one bathroom 880 square foot former rental property five minutes from Mike’s store. The seller lived in another city. For some reason, he’d had the electricity shut off when the tenant moved out. So the first time we saw the place was by lantern. Another oddity was that the owner’s realtor had little involvement. His dad, who lived nearby, did the showing. Still, I found the quiet wooded setting appealing. It was a second story unit, but the ground floor was below grade, so it was up just seven steps. Once again, it was not ideal. Once again, it was the best option…and a hell of a deal. We offered the asking price and were delighted when the seller accepted. Then karma again had her say. The buyers for our house had a to coordinate closing on the purchase of our house with the sale of theirs. Foster parents with three young children, they needed to be able to move in within the month. Closing on the condo could not possibly be completed within that time frame time, and we were heading into the holiday season. We would close on the sale of our house and have to be out before we had a place to go. But, as fate would have it, we did have a place to go – my parents’ house, now empty following my father’s passing. My father had lived there alone for several years. It looked like an episode of Hoarders come to life – a filthy, smelly, pack-rat disaster. We pitched, donated, and cleaned as much as we could to make it habitable. Having to spend Christmas in the dilapidated shell of my family home was salt rubbed into months of wounds. We washed and dressed them. We took some Tylenol, gritted our teeth, and rented a U-Haul.

Even though I felt like I had spent weeks packing, the week leading up to our last weekend in the house was chaotic. It was the holiday shopping season and Mike, a retail manager, could take a limited amount of time off. My daughter and her girlfriend ended up helping me with the lion’s share of packing and loading the moving truck. They could only help for one of the three days we’d carved out for the physical move. Sunday, the third day, was our final day in the house. Mike and I were left to finish on our own. Mike made runs to my parents’ house. He packed our Toyota Rav4 to the gills with the remaining miscellany of our shit. I cleaned and touched up nail and screw holes with spackling and paint. The vacuum broke, at one point, and it was more than I could take. I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Mike returned from a run to find me sitting on the floor, in the empty living room of the now almost completely empty house. I was ugly crying with swollen red eyes and gasping for breath. He was drained and exhausted, too. He had little patience for my meltdown. There were still odds and ends that needed to be moved…or left. We battled over what to keep and what to leave. In reality, we were both grieving. His grief manifested as wanting to “Just leave it! Leave it! We won’t have room for it!” Mine was the opposite. “I can’t leave it. I just can’t. I might need it. We might need it.”

In the end, we took more with us than Mike wanted to…and I left more than my heart could comfortably part with. We both simply had to reconcile. The clock was ticking, and we needed to leave. Exhaustion was catching up with both of us. As Mike took the final load of stuff, I mopped the kitchen floor. It was the last task left. When I was done, I walked from room to room. Twenty years of good and bad and wonderful and horrible memories played like a video in my mind’s eye. When Mike returned, it was time to say goodbye…for good. It was cold and raining. Mike had backed into the driveway, so sight of the house appropriately filled the rearview mirrors. It wasn’t until that moment that I remembered St. Joseph. “Wait!” I said glancing toward the birch tree. Mike knew what I was thinking. “Nope! No! You’re not digging that thing up now. It’s raining. I’m exhausted, and we need to leave now!” I felt a twinge of panic. What if leaving it would bring us more bad luck? What if leaving it was like taking for granted the blessing it had bestowed? I searched my mind for a rationale. “Okay, okay, okay! I’ll leave it here to watch over the family, the new owners,” I said. Yes! That was it! It would be a talisman for the new occupants and their family. Mike’s expression was that of relief.

The thought did not keep me from going back, though. One December evening just before Christmas I persuaded Mike to be my partner in crime. We returned under the cover of darkness and when it appeared no one was home. He aimed the headlights at the spot by the tree. I had nothing but my bare hands with which to dig. It was cold. The soil was beginning to freeze and dead leaves carpeted the ground. I couldn’t find the stone I’d placed to mark the spot. I retraced the paces from the tree I’d measure out that warm September day all those weeks before. I bent down and started to dig, paw over paw like a dog. Nope! Not there. I moved a few feet to the left and repeated. Still no luck. I was beginning to get nervous that we’d be discovered. I made one more unsuccessful attempt before giving up and returning to the warmth of the running car, dirt caked beneath my fingernails. Mike’s expression this time said “I can’t believe you just did that.” It’s an expression I’ve gotten use to after all these years.

What Mike and I have learned from our recent experiences, and over the years, can best be expressed by an Oliver Wendall Holmes’ quote. “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” Our house on Gleneagle was a dwelling for us and our girls for many years. The experiences from our time there made it home and, because of that, it will always be our home. Still, memories are made by people and attached to places. We’ve made a few good memories in our condo so far. We have new, equally amusing and fascinatingly strange neighbors (but that is a story of for another time). We’ve celebrated some holidays. I found spots for almost all my Christmas decorations. We added to our family in the condo – a tortoise shell calico cat named Roni. Unfortunately, we’ve subtracted, too. My mother passed away and my daughter ended her long-term relationship. I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve learned to enjoy having a smaller space to clean. I’ve learned to enjoyed a nice cup of coffee while relishing the tranquility of the woods, up-close, from a rocking chair on my balcony. I’ve savored a nice cup of Earl Grey on my couch while watching the gently falling snow on a Saturday morning in January. I’ve awoken on a spring Sunday morning by a cacophony of birds in a tree just outside my bedroom window. After my first trip abroad, I couldn’t wait to come “home” to my comfy bed in this condo. The photo attached to this post is a picture of the actual doormat that sits in front of my door. I got it a few months ago. It took a while for me to feel the sentiment. I guess this new place is becoming home now too.

 

My Love-Hate Relationship with Modern Appliances and Major Life Changes

stove on fire

We’ve lived in our condo for a year and a half now. We moved from a house that we’d lived in for about twenty years. Our house had a big yard, lots of room, plenty of natural light, and appliances I’d picked out myself – including an amazing stainless-steel gas range I got a killer deal on. The family that bought our house insisted we leave all the appliances, including my beloved range. I was heart-broken at having to say goodbye to it. Getting use to my new electric range in the condo was one of the hardest things about moving. Though I’d used an electric range before, I’d been cooking on a gas one for a long time. So, I had a very steep re-learning curve. Of course, it didn’t help that, for some reason, electric ranges seem to have two temperatures – “raging fires of hell” and “barely lukewarm armpit.” One of the first things I tried to cook was pasta. It wasn’t some kind of fancy Italian pasta either. It was basic Kraft Dinner Macaroni and Cheese. Yeah. Simple, right? Easy, right? No! It came out chewy and sticky. The frustration was more than I could take. Through streaming tears, I told my husband, “I don’t know how to work this damn thing! I can’t cook on it! I’m not going to cook anymore!” Granted, my overreaction was due more to the stress of moving and a variety of other difficult life events I was going through at the time, but the struggle was real.
 
I had better success with the oven and often resorted to bake-able meals in those early days. Even that, though, seemed like cooking with some strange “European” appliance. Everything…and I mean everything…seemed to take exponentially longer to cook. I persevered, though, and baking got a little better, a little easier. Apparently, all I needed to do was lower my expectations and double the baking time for any lovin that came outta this stupid oven.
 
The range continued to be a challenge. The peak of the aforementioned learning curve culminated in what will forever be known to my family as “the Easter ham glaze debacle.” Easter dinner was the first holiday meal I tried to cook on this devil device. Holiday meal preparation has always felt like a “spinning plates” performance set to The Sabre Dance, and my inability to master the use of the new range amped the panic factor tenfold. I was somehow able to complete every part of the meal without great incident…until it came time to make the glaze for the ham. I was trying out a new recipe. It was one I’d seen on a cooking show – a sweet and glossy orange maple delight. It would be the crowning jewel of the main dish, our holiday ham. I put the saucepan on a smaller back burner to simmer and let the glaze reduce while I finished up the other dishes. I had only turned my back for a moment when I heard hissing and fizzing from behind. I turned back to see waves of brown cascading over the sides of the saucepan like (in the words of Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil) “hot liquid magma,” coating the entire screaming hot cooktop and instantly hardening into a thick black crust.
 
I panicked and started trying to wipe the mess from the still piping hot cooktop with the scrubby side of a soapy sponge. Steam wafted around me as the wet sponge’s nubby plastic side began to burn and singe. “Shit, shit, shit!” I exclaimed as I felt my self-restraint dissolve into tears. How the fuck can cooking on a modern appliance bring a grown woman to tears? I ask you. How can such a thing occur in today’s world? In the end, I decided to leave the mess and finish preparing the meal. Miraculously, the food turned out well and everyone enjoyed it. Still, a year later, this cooking fail has left me scarred.
 
It’s been a year since my ham-glaze-hell-on-earth incident, and I’ve become accustomed to my sub-par range. I’ve boiled ears of summer corn on the cooktop without incident and heated taco shells for Taco Tuesday weekly. I’ve prepared baked birthday macaroni and cheese for my hubby in August. I’ve even prepared a full holiday meal for Thanksgiving – roast turkey, dressing, and all the trimmings. I’ve made my signature dishes (that same mac-n-cheese as well as my corn casserole) to pass at the Christmas Day celebration hosted by my daughter in her new home. I even made Easter dinner numero dos, albeit only for two thanks to the Covid-19 quarantine. Yes, I did, indeed, make another ham with glaze. The recipe de jour this year was a sweet tea brown sugar glaze, and, no, there was no “debacle” this time around.
 
It’s taken over a year to get use to cooking on my electric range. I still miss my old gas one. I miss a lot of things. I’ve been through a great deal of change in the past few years and little of it has been comfortable. I left a profession that I worked in for almost twenty years. I’ve lost friendships. I lost both my parents. I left a house that I lived in longer than any other place in my life. It was the place where I raised my children. My life has felt strange and unfamiliar for long time.
 
There is comfort in the familiar. The job you’ve been going to since you graduated from college. Your family. The friends you’ve known forever. The house you’ve lived in for years. The range you’ve cooked dozens of holiday dinners on. Familiar feels good. It’s warm and easy. Some people find change exciting and interesting. I do not. It’s hard, for me, and stressful and I often fight it. Not having my parents around will never feel quite right, but I’m adapting to it. Working in a job that pays half of what I made in my former profession hasn’t been easy, but I’m getting used to it. Living in a two-bedroom, one bathroom 880 square foot condo has been an adjustment. Cooking for two on the electric range in our condo will never be the same as preparing meals for a family of five on a bad-ass gas range in a two-story family home on an acre lot in a quiet neighborhood. Change is hard, but if you grit your teeth and can endure it, I’m convinced you emerge further evolved than you once were…and that’s a good thing. This thought reminds me of a portion of the song Everything Will Change by Gavin DeGraw.

Back when it used to hurt
Took you a little while just to find the words
Losing, well, it sometimes burns, but you keep moving on
You’ve got to grow strong like you’re leading the nation
Got to make the best out of this situation
Get your hands up like it’s a celebration
And you keep moving on

Singing hey, before it gets too late
Before the night is over, before the world’s awake
Everything will change
Hey, I feel it coming on
Starting like a fire, tonight you lit the flame
Now everything will change

 
Yes, adapting to cooking on an electric range after cooking on a gas one is a purely first world problem and not at all a true traumatic, life altering change. Still, for me, it’s a symbol. It’s a symbol of resilience. It’s a symbol of my will to “fight” when I’m feeling defeated, overwhelmed, and beaten down. Yes, it “took me a while to find the words,” but they’re found now and Change has been embraced. So, do me a solid, Change, okay? Return the fucking favor.

Internalizing Atomic Numbers and Counting Sunrises

titanium

Thirty-years ago, I became a mother. In an instant I learned what it meant to care about another human being more than myself. I remember the strange sensation of hypervigilance that first night. Every sound, every slight stirring my newborn made from the bassinette positioned next to my bed woke me all through the long night. When they whisked her away in the middle of the night to do her vitals while I was asleep, they kept her a little too long. I awoke in a panic. I swear I heard and recognized her cry all the way down the hall. They brought her back to me and placed her in my arms. The sound of my voice instantly calmed her and her eyes intently gazed up at me. We’d long since bonded during the months I carried her inside my body. Meeting simply galvanized the connection.

My oldest child, Sarah, would’ve turned thirty back in October. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that fact. I might find it easier were she still here. I might find it easier, and I wouldn’t have to wonder. I wouldn’t have to wonder what she’d be doing right now. I wouldn’t have to wonder what she would look like at thirty and if she’d have a husband…or a wife…or a child. I wouldn’t have to wonder if I would have a grandchild. I wouldn’t have to wonder if she would’ve pursued a career in music, as she’d always talked about, or found a different path to happiness. I wouldn’t have to imagine what our relationship would be like now. It was pretty contentious back then. What would her relationship with her sister be like? They were so close – the inseparable now forever separated.

I have heard that each human heart possesses a finite number of beats and that that number varies from person to person. Of course, I’ve also heard that that is merely a myth. Still, it is another thing about which I now wonder. I wonder if death will, for me, come when, as Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl describes in the song One of These Days, my heart simply “plays its final beat?” Or, as it did for my parents, will illness bring my demise? Might an accident bring my life to an abrupt end, as it did for Sarah, or will I lose my lifelong battle with depression someday and die by my own hand?  Recent events have caused such murky thoughts to resurface after a long stretch of being submerged deep within my subconscious. Both my parents died about a year ago. So did Sarah’s cat, our precious Peanut.

My resting heart rate is about 70 beats per minute. There are 525,600 minutes in a year. That means my heart has beaten over 533 million times since Sarah died and over 2 billion in my lifetime so far. How much is left on the meter?

Before you dismiss my words as the wild ranting of some weird math nerd, I wasn’t always so obsessed. It wasn’t until the losses in my life began stacking up like the score of a video game. Maybe it’s a return of my childhood OCD behaviors. Maybe I’ve always been a little “on the spectrum” and the counting and calculating are just the latest indicators of it. Math is good. Math is solid, and unlike most things, it’s predictable.

It’s twenty-five paces from the pavement to my daughter’s grave. I count it in my head every time I go. I’ve never told anybody that. We visit on her birthday or the anniversary of her death or when I’m feeling an instance of disbelief that she really is gone – which still happens occasionally, even after all these years – and I still count.

The day after Sarah died, I remember feeling like the world should’ve stopped turning, and I was so perplexed that it had not. It just kept spinning. Everyone’s lives went on. They went to work. They went to school. They ate their meals and watched television. They did their laundry and shopped for groceries. The lives of many of the people that loved Sarah went on. In reality, it turned out that our lives were, more accurately, on pause for a bit. Then, somewhere along the way, time hit the “play” button, and even my world began turning again. Before I realized it, the world had revolved over 5,000 times and made its trip around the sun nearly fifteen times.

My heart, the muscular organ inside my chest, has beaten over half a billion times since that black day. My heart, the figurative seat of my emotions, has ached and made my eyes produce what could easily be measured as several gallons of tears. The sun has risen and set over 5,000 times since my beloved girl left this world, 5,292 to be exact. Maybe someday I’ll be able to stop counting – stop ticking off days, stop counting steps, and stop marking mental tallies on a slate in my mind. Maybe.

It’s funny that grief unleashed such an odd obsession inside my brain. I remember being in AP science classes in high school and thinking, “I’ll never be like these nerds.” In retrospect, I now wonder if their affinity for science and numbers and things grounded in the observable might’ve been an anchor for them in the tumultuous sea of social uncertainty that was high school. I never dreamed that one day I would have a “favorite element.” And, yet, now I do. This reminds me of a song that is dear to my heart, Atomic Number by Niko Case, KD Lang, and Laura Veirs:

Why are the wholesome things
The ones we make obscene?

Latin words across my heart
Symbols of infinity
Elements so pure
Atomic number

I am the spark
Of this machine
Purring like the city bus
why are the wholesome things
The ones we make obscene?

Well if your mercy’s lost
I have enough for us
Latin words across my heart
Symbols of infinity
Elements so pure
Atomic number

That’s right. In keeping with my numeric obsession, I now have a favorite atomic number. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I have an atomic number…well, one with which I identify. It’s twenty-two. Twenty-two is the atomic number of Titanium – the strongest metal. Titanium can withstand anything…any assault…any abuse…and maintain its integrity. That’s me. I’ve withstood the elements…the wind…the rain…the fire…all of it, and I’m still standing. I’m still opening my eyes each day to see the sunrise. I’m still walking around. I’m still breathing. How is that even possible?

The cliché goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Here’s the thing. I’m not quite sure what the point of that actually is. Why? Why do we need to be made “stronger?” This is another of the many things about which I wonder. It’s true that, these days, I am hard pressed to subscribe to the teachings of any particular religion. I do, however, believe in a “higher power” of some kind and you can bet your sweet ass I’ve got a shitload of questions for he/she/them/it, if and when we meet. “Why you gotta do this kind of shit to folks…perfectly good people?” is top on the list. Until then, I’m left with my wonderings, with my questions, and with my numeric obsession. This post has 1,273 some words. I’ve read it and reread it half a dozen times. My heart hopes it helps you, if you need it to, and speaks to your heart like zero others. Namaste.

Girl Stuff

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Okay. Here’s the scenario: It’s a commercial for Victoria’s Secret lingerie. It features Kate Upton’s ample bosoms spilling over the top of a lacy black bra – the kind the sales girl calls a “balconette.” Whatever. Right? It’s the kind of bra some gals have no business wearing. There’s a soft-filter on the camera, accentuating her “come hither” look. She gazes intently into the camera and softly whispers, “I want you. I REALLY want you…but…but…I’m on my period.” Wicka-wicka wuuuut? Got you didn’t I, boys? Yeah, I hooked you. Well, you can console yourself with the notion that Justin Verlander, World Series-winning future Hall of Fame pitcher, has had to hear those very words uttered from the luscious lips of that woman. Now you fellas can do me the favor of a continued courtesy read. Ladies, I think you will find what I have to say amusing and all too relatable.

Ever since the day Aunt Flo first rang my doorbell, some forty years ago, that bitch has had it out for me. Yeah, she’s always had my launch code…my address, my zip code, and my social security number, too. And I’m not sure why, but she really doesn’t seem to like me. I realize that many of the experiences of “womanhood” are rarely positive for anyone, but DAMN! Could the Creator be any more spiteful? For instance, I remember my mother’s initial reaction when I got my first period. Most moms are like, “Oh! My baby is all grown up!” They get sentimental. They’re caring and sympathetic. They think about their own experiences with “the curse.” Not my mom. Nope, that wasn’t Bonnie.

It was Thanksgiving, and Mom was busy trying to concoct a show-stopping dish-to-pass that would rival my grandmother’s culinary expertise. She was way too busy to deal with anybody’s bullshit. Even though I had friends with older sisters and knew what to expect, all of a sudden finding my drawers soaked with red stain freaked me out. I felt stunned, and, like any girl would, I went to my mother. “Jesus H. Christ, Christine! Already? And now? God, I thought I had a few more years.” She ushered me into the bathroom, showed me the pad stash, and said, “HERE!” Then she turned and went back to the daughter-in-law versus mother-in-law Turkey Day throw down. I was left to my own devices. Luckily, there were instructions on the back of the package.

It isn’t just menstruation, though. I have had a contentious relationship with the workings of my female body all my life. I wasn’t much of a “girlie girl,” when I was growing up. I wasn’t a “tomboy” either, though. I just really liked running around, climbing trees, riding my bike, and spending summer days barefooted and getting as filthy as I possibly could. It felt like important work at the time. Then, one-day, genetics dealt me the cruelest blow. I “developed” early…and I’m talking, like, age nine. This necessitated an uncomfortable conversation, initiated by my tactless mother, about my need for a bra. The talk “segued” into a tangential lecture about the importance of wearing deodorant. The worst part is that the entirety of this conversation occurred in public…IN THE SUPERMARKET! Needless to say, it was not helpful. The only thing that “talk” did was to make me feel even more self-conscious about my body than I already was.

In spite of her less than supportive initial reaction to my premature burgeoning womanhood and since I was such a good student, Ma was totes cool about letting me skip out on school for “girl stuff” any time I wanted. So, that was cool. If on my way to the bus stop, my cramps made me feel like I might literally die, Bonnie had no problem calling-in to school for me. When my crazy-ass hormones made my face look like a zit-studded pizza, she was A-Okay with letting me stay home for a couple days until it got better. I’m not sure I would’ve made it through adolescence were it not for her leniency.

In adulthood, my body continued to wage a battle of wills against me, especially when I was trying to get pregnant for the second time. I badly wanted a sibling for my daughter, but my body was like, “Hey, dude, we did you a solid by letting you have ANY babies, and you want another?” It was during these attempts to conceive that I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. After my primary care guy, the hippie doc that delivered my first child made the initial diagnosis, I went for a second opinion from a doctor that was recommended by a friend. The experience was yet another negative interaction with a healthcare provider to pile onto the heap I’d previously experienced. I can best describe this guy and his bedside manner as a combination of Hannibal Lector and Dr. Cox from the television show Scrubs. He confirmed hippie doc’s diagnosis and said, “You know, if you REALLY want to have another baby, all you need to do is lose some weight.” He might as well have added, “Fatty” to the end of that proclamation, as insulting as it was. Weeeeell, I proved THAT MOTHERFUCKER wrong within the next couple of months! I found myself pregnant post-haste. This perceived victory over my body’s contrarian will was short-lived, though, because it quickly began to look like I might lose the pregnancy. I started to spot, and my ob-gyn told me to prepare myself, just in case. I was put on bed-rest. During this time, in addition to eavesdropping on my neighbors’ cordless telephone conversations via my then husband’s police scanner, I constantly talked to my unborn child. “Come on,” I would say, “You are so, so wanted, little baby. I can’t wait to meet you. Please, please, please come meet me and your big sister.” Happily, my pregnancy made it full-term, but my child’s final symbolic protest against entering the world was a forty-eight-hour labor that had to be aggressively nudged along with Pitocin and Olympic level pushing. Luckily, she was a cherubic dreamboat of an infant once she got here and is now the truest love of my life. My body, on the other hand, continued to be a spiteful bitch.

All I can say is that I thank the sweet baby Jesus for mankind’s greatest invention – the contraceptive pill. It was this miraculous pharmaceutical invention that finally allowed me to conquer the wild and erratic hormone rollercoaster with which my body or genetics chose to supplement the storied consequence of original sin. Still, years later and after being lulled into a false sense of normalcy, I decided to stop taking the pill. The “hell on earth” that is having three teenage daughters in our house convinced my second husband and me that we were done with our need to breed, so I convinced him to have a vasectomy. Compared to most men, I guess his procedure was relatively traumatic. I felt bad and pretty guilty.

Maybe it was the universe’s revenge for my insisting that the hubs have such a “barbaric” procedure. Maybe it was my body’s treasonous desire to avenge the years my hormones languished in containment at the hands of synthetic control. I’m not sure. But I will tell you that hell hath no fury like female hormonal imbalance. A couple years after going off the pill, my crazy-ass symptoms returned – acne like that of a thirteen-year-old boy, menstrual cramps that sometimes rivaled labor pain, and mood swings you’d swear were the basis of a script for Dexter. I’d dealt with it all before, so I just endured. Medically speaking, eventually, you reach an age at which synthetic hormones present more of a risk than a benefit. So, I was advised by my doc not to resume use of them.

A few years later, however, that same physician began overreacting to every tiny “symptom” of something being wrong with my lady parts. Knowing she had had problems of that nature, I suspected she might be projecting. I trusted her, though, so I complied with every test and procedure. Then one year during my annual exam, she was convinced I might have some sort of serious problem. She wrote me a referral to an ob-gyn colleague of hers. Almost as soon as I sat down on the exam table this guy started throwing the “c” word around. Believe me when I say that nothing makes you willing to let a doctor run every test in the book like the idea that you might have cancer. He hadn’t even examined me when he told me he was going to do a biopsy.

I was nervous, but I desperately wanted to know if there was something really wrong. The nurse got me prepped and soon the hellacious invasive procedure began. Once he started, he said, “Yeah, I think I’m going to have to dilate your cervix a bit, so things might get a little uncomfortable.” “What?” I said, “You mean MORE uncomfortable, cuz this is already pretty fucking uncomfortable!” He laughed, “It really won’t be that bad. I’ll numb you up,” said the person who doesn’t even HAVE a cervix. Many women are familiar with the feeling of your cervix dilating…naturally…as it does in childbirth. And it’s FUCKING painful! Now imagine your cervix not having the motivation of a human being coming through it to make it cooperate. Yeah, it’s like that. For you fellas, I can describe it to you like this:  someone takes a tiny tightly wound spring, shoves it into your dickhole, and then, “POP!” springs your shit wide open. Uh-huh. I was out of my mind in pain and on the verge of passing out from hyperventilating when the whole nightmare was finally over. Doctor Marquis De Sade and his RN minion looked worried. Perhaps the vision of a malpractice suit was dancing their heads. I dunno. But they acted concerned enough that they offered to crack the exam room door to, “let in some fresh air while we let you have a moment to rest here a sec.” Afterward, I couldn’t get to my car fast enough.

Once inside the safety of my vehicle, I began bawling. I phoned my husband and told him about the ordeal. He said he’d make sure to bring me a bottle of Pinot when he got done with work. You are probably thinking, “Okay, surely this trauma caught some horrible problem in the nick of time.” It did not. The results were negative. The procedure was completely unnecessary. What’s more is that I got billed nearly a grand out of pocket for that shit show.

The following year my doc did the same damn thing again. “Uuuuhm. I think I see a polyp or a mass or something,” she said, “I think I need you to see the gynecologist.” She gave me another referral to Dr. Immacrook. This time I politely declined. I let the office know I’d be in touch with them about to whom I wished to be referred. After asking around, I found a wonderful doctor at a highly recommended practice. Still, I avoided going for the “annual exam” thing. I hated it. It made me psycho. I couldn’t sleep the night before my appointment. God forbid an appointment would be scheduled on a workday. Then I’d have to take the entire day off…no matter what time the appointment was. I avoided going. I didn’t go. I wouldn’t go…until there was a problem. Then there was a problem.

As I mentioned, my lady business has always seemed to be out to get me, and it recently put me through a pretty big scare. I missed a period, which at first, I thought was the sign of a perfectly natural change – menopause. Then, like some kind of sick macabre surprise party, I started. And when I say I “started,” I mean I began to bleed like a stuck pig. I hadn’t been expecting it and, I certainly hadn’t been expecting anything of that magnitude. I wasn’t prepared, and, what’s more, is that it happened at work. Such a situation is really unfortunate for someone that works in a profession where they are unable to use the restroom when they need to. I’m a teacher. So there are times that I have to wait five to six hours to use the toilet. On this day, I was certain my five and six-year-old students would go home to tell their parents about how they watched a pool of blood form around their teacher’s ankles as she sat in her “teacher chair” while reading the day’s Big Book story. Seriously, I thought I’d have to call my husband and have him bring me a change of clothing! Luckily, it didn’t come to that. What did follow, however, was a straight month of bleeding. And that’s something freak-out worthy for any woman of any age.

Okay. For most women, once you get to a “certain age” you begin to anticipate the big “change.” Though it’s talked about even less than menstruation, most women know enough about it to recognize a few hallmark signs – hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, inconsistent periods, etc. Still, by and large, it’s a process shrouded in mystery. No one wants to talk about it, because it’s depressing…it’s a fucking drag…and it’s nature’s way of saying your days of being biologically useful to the human race are done. Consequently, I didn’t know if what was happening to me was normal…or if it meant I was dying or something. So, I called my gyno’s office. It took me nearly a month to get in to see someone, and, by the time I finally did, the bleeding had stopped. I saw a midwife named Patti. I really liked her. She was a little older than me and had a very relaxed, accepting bedside manner. She examined me but found nothing of immediate concern. She did, however, recommend an ultrasound. She thought they’d be able to do it there in the office that day, so I’d leave with at least some information. Unfortunately, there were no technicians available that day so the procedure would have to be performed at one of the area hospitals…nearly another month later. Afterward, I was told I’d get a call within the week to tell me the results, but after a week of handwringing and no word, I phoned. Midwife Patti was on vacation. It would be another week before I would know anything. When Patti finally called, she told me they’d “found something,” They wanted to schedule a sonohyterogram, a procedure that would give more precise results. Color me officially freaked out at this point. I called to schedule the appointment only to find it would be another month of high anxiety before I’d get any answers. Facing another semi-invasive medical procedure, I spent the month ruminating about every worst-case scenario.

When I called to make the appointment, I had questions. The receptionist/scheduler did her best to answer them, but it was clear her knowledge was limited. “Are they gonna need to dilate me for this?” I asked. “Uuuuh, lemme see (click, click, click – keyboard sounds). Yeah, it says that they will,” she answered. “Well, I’ve had that done before and it hurts like hell. Will they sedate me for it?” I continued. “Oh no, no. Most women say it’s just like really bad menstrual cramps. You just need to take some ibuprofen beforehand,” she laughed. “Well, I’m allergic to ibuprofen,” I replied. She was silent for a moment and then said, “Gosh, I guess you’ll just have to do Tylenol then.” Acetaminophen has never done more than take the edge off any pain for me. “Ooookay,” I said, “Should I have someone drive me?” “Well, you know your body, so I’d say it’s up to you,” was her answer. Yes, I DO know my body…and my history of sexual abuse…and how even the most routine gynecological exam sends my anxiety into the stratosphere, so I made sure my husband took the day off work to take me.

The first time I forced my husband to go with me to my gynecologist’s office, we both remarked at how we seemed to be surrounded by screaming reminders of our particular stage in the human condition – post procreation but pretty far from post-mortem. I didn’t ask him to come into the little room with me that time. I remember sitting alone, bare-assed, on the crunchy paper of the examination table, gazing out the window. I wondered if the architects had tried to create a perfect frame of the woodlands in the window, in an effort to ease the anxiety of women that would soon find themselves recumbent and in the most vulnerable of postures – feet in stirrups, privacy torn asunder amidst the glare of a spotlight and under the gaze of a stranger. Patti the Midwife was compassionate and sensitive. I trusted her. I trusted my new doc, too. None of my appointments at this practice had been as bad as the ones I had elsewhere, so I was hopeful that this procedure, in the hands of gentler kinder folk, might not be as bad as I feared.

My girlfriends all rallied around me prior to the second procedure. I had their steadfast support. That helped. At my request, they shared a couple Xanax to help me through it. Like before, even though the appointment wasn’t until the afternoon, I took the whole day off work. Doing so allowed me to prepare the way I prefer to and the way most women get ready for a date that presents the possibility of “getting lucky.” You know what I mean – shaving like you’re about to have surgery and being particularly thorough about what gets well lathered in the shower. I sifted through my underwear drawer to find a pair without holes and free of period stains, ones that were regular knickers and not “sexy lingerie.” Cuz, of course, wearing the really good stuff would be weird and just plain inappropriate. I know, I know, I know. They never even see your drawers, but I’m convinced that they just know. Part of why I go to all this effort is that I’m a lunatic, and the other part is that I absolutely adore my doc. It took me forever to find this kind Southern gentleman. So I always try to get things extra tidy…out of respect for him and a profession that revolves around having to stare at all manner of cooches every day all day. To me, gynecologists are like the Georgia O’Keefes of the medical profession – completely accepting and understanding of the uniqueness of every vag. Something I’m not sure I, myself, could do.

I had some leftover Hydrocodone from a previous dental procedure, so just before the appointment, I took it with the Xanax in anticipation of the worst. Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling a care in the world once we got to the office. I planned to ask if my husband could come into the exam room with me. I expected to be told he couldn’t, so I had a response planned. I would say, “Okay. Now it’s not like he hasn’t seen my lady junk all up-close-and-personal-like…of course, without the benefit of that glamorous lighting.” Sadly, I was denied the opportunity to slay with that bit of wit. Without objection or questions, they allowed him to accompany me. Once in the little room, he nervously scrolled through his phone while the technician completed yet another regular ultrasound. I’ll admit, it was probably the teensiest bit awkward for him – sitting just a couple feet away from his wife lying with feet in stirrups while a lady stranger shoved a big bagged-up dildo shaped camera into her business. The tech finished the procedure, and we waited for the doc to arrive for the “main event.” He was running late. I was worried the Xanax/Hydrocodone cocktail might wear off. All I could think about was the itty-bitty-spring-thingy blowing up my shit.

Dr. Southern Comfort knocked before he came in. He apologized for his “taaahdineeess,” and he introduced himself to my husband. He explained what he’d be doing, showed me the instruments he’d be using, and told me how the procedure would help him make a determination about whether or not something was wrong. He immediately said there’d be no need at all to dilate me. Hallelujah! Then he got down to the business at vag, alternating between telling me what he was seeing/doing and discussing baseball with my husband. “Boy, he’s good,” I thought to myself, “What a masterful multitasking motherfucker!” It seemed like he’d only just begun when he pronounced that there’d be no need for a biopsy either. There was nothing…absolutely nothing…wrong with me. He de-gloved, shook my husband’s hand, and bid us a lovely remainder of our day. I was stunned but relieved. I’d been certain I’d be setting up a surgical consult for my hysterectomy at the checkout desk. Instead, I paid my copay, and we went for a late lunch. My narcotics hadn’t even worn off yet. It was the best lunch date ever.

I have the utmost reverence for what the female reproductive system is capable of, and as someone who has passed two human beings through her cooch medication-free, I am humbled by the miraculousness of it all. With that being said, I still find myself mired in the love-hate dichotomy that is my relationship with my body – specifically my reproductive system. I hate my period. I hate the pain. I literally feel physically ill for about a week before until a few days after. I hate the mess. I hate how self-conscious it makes me feel, just like I felt that very first day of my very first period. I hate the way it affects my entire life for days. Still, the thought of not having a period is almost as bad. Looming menopause pushes all my insecurity buttons. It makes me feel old, dried up, and “less than.” Reproductively viable or post-menopausal – both states suck in their own way, and both are intimately tied to the way a woman is perceived by society.

Still, I feel like our culture is slowly shifting…for the better. Reproductive viability is no longer the be-all-end-all of a woman’s value. Though the value of a woman’s appearance still seems to be dying way too hard, in my opinion, the trend toward gender role nonconformity and gender fluidity have made a positive, albeit small, impact on how women see themselves. It’s my hope that, if I ever have a granddaughter, she can shrug off all the myths, negative connotations, and stereotypes about “girl stuff” that my mother, my daughters, and I grew up with. I hope she can see herself, first and foremost, as a human being…one that just happens to have two X chromosomes, a uterus, and all the other things – good and a little less than good – that go along with being born genetically female. That’s my hope…my wish. Well that, and maybe legal-in-every-state cannabis-infused tampons. That’d be pretty bitchin, too.

 

 

 

 

Soul Food

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I will never be a proponent of the “food is just fuel” philosophy. Where I come from meals are more than mere nourishment. To me, food is the most complex necessity. Human history has shown as much. In Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective, Robyn Fox describes food’s unique role in the lives of humankind.

We have to eat; we like to eat; eating makes us feel good; it is more important than sex. To ensure genetic survival the sex urge need only be satisfied a few times in a lifetime; the hunger urge must be satisfied every day.

It is also a profoundly social urge. Food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is also an occasion for sharing, for distributing and giving, for the expression of altruism, whether from parents to children, children to in-laws, or anyone to visitors and strangers. Food is the most important thing a mother gives a child; it is the substance of her own body, and in most parts of the world mother’s milk is still the only safe food for infants. Thus food becomes not just a symbol of, but also the reality of, love and security.

All animals eat, but we are the only animal that cooks. So cooking becomes more than a necessity, it is the symbol of our humanity, what marks us off from the rest of nature. And because eating is almost always a group event (as opposed to sex), food becomes a focus of symbolic activity about sociality and our place in our society

Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around food and cooking. I fondly remember standing, perched on a stepstool at the counter in my Grandmother Vesta May’s kitchen, helping her roll out the dumpling dough for her chicken and dumplings. During summertime, I often accompanied my grandparents on their trips back home to South Pittsburgh, Tennessee. I remember sitting in rocking chairs on the porches of individuals whom I barely knew that were supposedly my “relatives.” The unfamiliar company never kept me from wolfing down the delicious pimento cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, and sweet tea that were served to us so graciously on a tray with the good “company” dishware by those people. Even at that young age I recognized what a lovely thing Southern hospitality is. Another tradition I was always eager to help with was picking wild blackberries from the thorny bushes in my grandparents’ backyard. My enthusiasm was largely due to the fact that I knew Grandma would magically transform those dark jewels into sweet, rich jam that I’d get to spread thickly onto warm homemade biscuits. I’d spend the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in the summer, too. Since the house wasn’t air conditioned, on particularly warm nights I’d sometimes awaken feeling sweaty and uncomfortable. Seeing a light down the hall, I’d stumble bleary-eyed toward it to find Grandpa in the kitchen having a “midnight snack.” Sometimes it would be peanut butter spread upon Ritz crackers. At other times Grandpa would be slurping, from a tall glass, a mixture of buttermilk with cornbread leftover from supper crumbled into it. He’d motion for me to sit in the chair opposite his, and he’d push the plate of peanut butter crackers toward me. On nights when he was enjoying the buttermilk-cornbread concoction, he’d make a glass of it for me using regular milk. He knew I didn’t care for buttermilk. Elaborate Sunday suppers with an extensive menu, another Southern tradition, were my grandmother’s favorite ways to show off her mad cooking skills. They were a showcase for her culinary talent and also made my mother acutely aware of her shortcomings in the kitchen.

My mom’s mom wasn’t much of a cook, so my mother never had the benefit of learning much from her. At my father’s behest, Mom reluctantly submitted herself to her mother-in-law’s tutelage and came away with a few decent meals in her recipe collection. Beef Stroganoff was my favorite dish and what I always asked for as my birthday dinner. Mom also had an opportunity to expand her horizons by learning a few “ethnic” recipes. My father grew up in a relatively diverse blue-collar neighborhood. He forged lifelong friendships with the sons of a few Polish and Italian immigrants. After everyone was married and had families, my mother learned from their wives. She added Italian and Polish dishes like indulgent cheesy lasagna, spaghetti with huge meatballs and authentic Italian “gravy,” tender homemade pierogis, and crispy-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside mashed potato pancakes to her repertoire. Once Mom went back to work, after all her children were in school, these kinds of meals were reserved for holidays, special occasions, and the occasional Sunday supper to which my grandparents were invited.

 My mother’s return to work and the subsequent infrequency of those labor- intensive meals inspired my father to pursue cooking “as a hobby.” He got interested in the cooking shows that were broadcast late Saturday afternoons when he got home from work. He studied the cooking techniques and recipes detailed on The Frugal Gourmet and America’s Test Kitchen as well as those on reruns of The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child. It was always a surprise to see what Dad would try his hand at from week to week. To provide the freshest ingredients for his cooking, one year he even planted a garden…the vegetables of which his spoiled, entitled children resoundingly rejected once they found tiny (harmless) green inchworms in the broccoli. And that was the end of that. Even though he lives alone now, Dad still enjoys cooking and talking about food. His newest obsession is the Insta-Pot craze. Yeah, don’t get him started on that one. “Know what I made last week?” he’ll ask. “No, Dad. I don’t. What did you make?” I’ll respond, taking the bait. “I made a pot roast, a good old fashion pot roast! Wanna know how long it took?” he’ll continue. I’ll humor him and say, “Okay. How long did it take, Dad?” His eyes will light up at the chance to share the miraculous feat of technology with which he believes I’m unfamiliar. “Fifteen minutes! I’m not shitting you, kid. It only took fifteen fucking minutes! Isn’t that incredible?”

 Barbecues were the summer family tradition on my mother’s side of the family. Unlike my father, Mom had a slew of siblings who, in turn, had spouses and kids. Less refined than my Dad’s Southern relations, Mom’s family was all about the PAR-TAAAAY! Booze flowed freely at these events. Music played, loudly, and many hijinks ensued. During one particularly raucous gathering, my mother chased her brother into the house (HER house) with the garden hose and proceeded to spray him with it, full blast, in the face! One of my favorite memories of those barbecues is when, one Independence Day, the family gathered ‘round the boom box and sang Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody together at the top of their lungs. My Aussie boyfriend at the time found himself speechless at the spectacle.  Apparently he was under the mistaken impression that Aussies had the market on boisterousness cornered. And yet, here were fifteen “Aaaamurakins,” ranging in age from about four to eighty and all of whom being the furthest thing from professional vocalists, making a decidedly less than joyful noise unto The Lord. My youngest daughter still mentions this wonderfully amusing memory from time to time. That says a lot about its impact. She was only six at the time. At these events, my dad loved to man the barbecue grill, and my mother loved to pass off her mother-in-law’s wildly popular potato salad recipe as her own. It was a centerpiece of every summer gathering. My aunts loved to compete for the “runner up” spot with their own potluck dishes. Summer barbecues culminated with a big Labor Day bash. My mother, her mother, and her sisters put their own spin on the traditional Southern dish of “fried green tomatoes.” Something only blasphemous Yankee women would do, in place of the green they used the red ripe tomatoes that are always in abundance during summer months in these parts. May the dear soul of my Vesta May forgive me, but, truth be told, I like ‘em better that way. Sweet red ripe tomatoes coated in crushed Corn Flake crumbs and fried in bacon grease are truly a crunchy, sweet, smoky, succulent slice of heaven! Once everyone had eaten their fill of the tasty bastardized delicacy, any leftover tomatoes were stewed, canned, and put up for winter dishes like meaty goulash and spicy chili.

 The loving experiences I’d had cooking with my grandmother, my fond memories of her delicious food, and the positive associations I had between food and family made me eager to take home economics in junior high. It allowed me to build upon the skills I’d learned from Vesta May. I often put my newfound knowledge to use when I had to cook for my father and siblings on the nights when my mother worked a closing shift or when I gave baked goods and other foods as gifts to family and friends. Later in life, as a young wife and mother, I loved to find new recipes to make for my family or to take as my “dish-to-pass” at potlucks. When my mother got older, I took on the mantle of preparing the big holiday meals – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. I prided myself in creating elaborate meals – the kind my grandmother prepared. I found great satisfaction in the enjoyment of my family. In recent years, inspired by cooking shows on Food Network and The Cooking Channel, I’ve found a similar satisfaction in cooking for friends on the rare occasion that I entertain. Like my grandma, I just love making people happy by cooking delicious food for them. I’ve sometimes dreamt of having a restaurant of my own where I could do that on a greater scale.

 Now that my children are grown and gone, I don’t have much occasion to cook on a grand scale. My husband enjoys a very limited number of foods and dishes. Though the byproduct is a ton of leftovers, there are still times when I cook things that I love just for myself. Sometimes I freeze the leftovers to have for meals in the future. Sometimes I take them to my dad. As he’s gotten on in age and after never having done so for most of my life, he now tells me he loves me. He uses the actual words. He never did that before. Unfortunately, it can’t erase the effects of a lifetime of not hearing them. So I just can’t bring myself to say the words back. I bring him leftovers instead because as is the case in many families, food is code. It’s saying, “I made this, see. I took great care. I invested time, and I’m giving it to you because I want it to make you feel happy. I want you to feel happy.”

Loving people means wanting happiness for them. It means wanting big things for them. It means you wish them things like falling in love with their soul mate or finding the job that’s their purpose in life or having a life filled with health & wellness. But it can also mean you want the little things for them, too. It can mean you wish them a sunny blue-sky day or a day free of stress. It can mean you want them to have a day when they can do something fun or have an adventure or maybe just sleep to their heart’s content. Sometimes it means, “Taste this! I made it for you! It’s so good, and I want eating it to make you feel good!” Tonight I’m making my husband’s favorite pasta, Cavatappi, with homemade Alfredo sauce and pan-seared scallops. It’s a love letter to him…and to myself. It’s me saying, “Before we go back to the daily grind, let’s take the opportunity to enjoy one small pleasure of life – a lovely meal.” No, it’s not like this is the last time we will enjoy such a meal, but it is a symbol…a celebration…of the good things and pleasures in life – things like vacations and sunshine and sleeping in.

 So, sorry Jillian Michaels…and Harvey Pasternak…and Gwyneth Paltrow…and all the rest of you amongst the subconsciously masochistic haters of the human experience, I think you’re wrong. Food is not simply fuel. It’s a complex necessity. It’s a pleasure of being human, and I’m claiming it! There is simply far too much misery in the world, so why create more by denying this simple fact? I’m pretty sure that people who languish in starvation on a daily basis would agree with me. Yes, food is a necessity for physical survival, but it can also bring happiness. Think of a starving man in Sudan as he greets a box of food dropped from the heavens with happy tears streaming down his face. I’m pretty sure that food is going to taste amazing to him and fill him with joy. Food can be love. Giving food can be a gesture of love to a co-worker or a beloved family member or a stranger that you’ve never met in a faraway land or the disheveled guy that parks his shopping cart at the exit ramp of the highway and talks to himself all the time. It can be altruism.

 We are the only animals for whom food is such an incredibly complex, emotionally charged, and multi-faceted thing. We produce it, we share it, we withhold it from others, and we sometimes deny it to ourselves. We cook it, create it, and consume it. Food nourishes the body of any organism, but, truly, it can only feed the souls of humans. Can I get an amen?

The Rarest of Things

stoneheart2

I’ve always been a guarded person, badly scared by situations in which my trust was horribly violated. The many abusers, bullies, perpetrators, and violators precipitated my extreme cautiousness, and my wounds have frequently gotten in the way of relationships. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t many lovely souls about whom I care deeply. I can, however, safely say that I can count on one hand those who hold the largest pieces of real estate in my heart. One such individual is my beloved husband, Michael.

Mike and I met a few years after my divorce and following one fairly serious relationship and a string of several meaningless ones. I felt like I’d been through the ringer when my Yahoo Personals ad led him to me. The only reason he was even on Yahoo Personals was that his roommate had, without his knowledge, placed an ad there for him. His reply was intelligent, honest, and funny – all the things I was looking for. We exchanged phone numbers via instant messenger, and he called me. The connection was instant. We talked for hours. At the end of our conversation, I agreed to meet him at my favorite restaurant, which wasn’t far from his apartment. I’d been through numerous blind dates, at this point, and, frankly, I wasn’t very confident that this one would be any different. But it was. He was handsome and funny and charming, just like he was on the phone. I felt comfortable with him instantly like I’d known him for years. In fact, I felt comfortable enough to invite him back to my apartment, something I’d rarely done on a first date. He was a perfect gentleman, though, thus confirming my instincts about him.

It might sound like a cliché or some kind of fiction, but we’ve been inseparable ever since that first date. In fact, not a single day has gone by, since the day we met, that we haven’t spoken to one another, even before we lived together, and, even after we were married, at times when we were apart physically. That’s pretty remarkable for someone with the history I mentioned previously. It takes someone with an extraordinary capacity for nurturing to heal an animal as badly wounded as I was. It took time and great patience. He worked diligently, with surgeon-like skill, to heal the wounded hearts of my daughters. He was always there, and that proved his commitment to them. Ultimately, he earned their love and trust, too. I couldn’t have found a better father or a better husband. It was clear. The remarkable part, though, was that he, like me, had been through more than his share of heartbreak, mistreatment, and pain. The odds of us finding one another, in the whole wide world, and being able to overcome the wounds of our respective pasts were pretty slim, and yet, we did. We’ll have been married seventeen years in September.

A couple years ago, during the winter of 2016, Mike had to travel out-of-state to train for his new job. He and I were apart for some of the longest periods of time we’d ever experienced since that first day we met. During this time, I happened upon and fell in love with a song by Nathan Sykes (featuring Ariana Grande) that had recently been released. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, music has always had the most profound effect on me, and the lyrics of this song were like a window into my deepest feelings:

From the way you smile to the way you look, you capture me unlike no other. From the first hello, yeah, that’s all it took, and, suddenly, we had each other. I won’t leave you. I’ll always be true. One plus one is two, for life, over and over again.

So, don’t ever think I need more, ‘cause I’ve got the one to live for. No one else will do, and I’m telling you, just put your heart in my hands. I promise it won’t get broken. We’ll never forget this moment. Yeah, we’ll stay brand new, ‘cause I’ll love you over and over again.

It’s a rare thing, in this universe, when we find something that meets almost every need we have. When and if you find that, my friends, be aware that you are so, so lucky and never ever take it for granted. I surely will not.

The Fluidity of Faith

 

faithfluid

When I was in my early twenties, I felt a certain “spiritual stirring”. I was a newlywed, at the time, and expecting my first child. I felt like I finally had some of the things I’d been longing for all my life – a husband, a home, the best paying job I’d had to that point (but it actually wasn’t well-paying at all). I would soon have a family of my own. In spite of this, I found myself fighting feelings of unhappiness and deep depression.  I didn’t understand why. In hindsight, I now realize that these feelings had more to do with a chemical imbalance in my brain and a dysfunctional marriage than any kind of “spiritual” issue. Still, I wanted answers. I’m an analytical person by nature. I do research. I Google. I pull every issue into its minutia and evaluate each speck. So I set out to dissect the “spiritual.” Of course, Catholicism strongly discourages this type of shenanigans. Maybe it’s because I never attended parochial school or maybe it’s because I did attend the school of hard knocks. Either way I was just defiant enough to look beyond The Church and not care about the consequence to my immortal soul. I was open to any and all philosophical, religious, and spiritual orientations. I read books. I attended worship services. I had heart-to-heart conversations with devotees of many religions and spiritual persuasions. Although he was no longer a practicing Muslim, my husband at the time had been raised as one. I found the faith interesting and horribly misunderstood, but I felt no connection with it. Oddly, I identified most closely with an obscure faith called B’hai – in theory, anyway. Unfortunately, there was no B’hai presence in my community, and I never felt strongly enough to seek it elsewhere.

 I was working as an assistant home coordinator at a group home for developmentally disabled adults during this time of “spiritual quest.” My co-workers were lovely, kind, and caring people. They seemed super happy. I wondered what made them so damn happy. So, one day I asked the happiest of these happy people – the only male direct care worker. The group home was his main gig, to pay the bills and support his adorable little family, but he was also a Pentecostal minister. I learned that nearly all my co-workers were “born again” Christians. I was somewhat familiar with this “born again” thing. My father was not Catholic, and although they didn’t necessarily raise him in the in the Baptist church, my grandparents considered themselves Southern Baptists. As were many men of his generation, my dad was the boss of our family, so my mother could offer no objection when I went to visit relatives in Tennessee during the summer with my grandparents and attended Baptist services or when I begged to go to Vacation Bible School at the Methodist church with the little neighbor girls. So here I was working in this warm, cozy, joyful place with a bunch of sweet happy Protestant folks that were high on Jesus. Of course, Pastor Happy was more than eager to lead another lamb to the foot of the cross. I was in pain, so I held his hands and prayed with him to have my soul saved. I sound bitter, don’t I? I’m really not. Pastor Happy was a truly beautiful human being and really did “walk the walk” of The Savior. He saw that I was suffering, and he wanted to help. I’ll admit being “born again” did help…for a while. I’ll tell you that there is nothing quite as intoxicating as having the “joy, joy, joy, joy down in your heart” when you’re surrounded by others who seem to have it in every square inch of their bodies. In the long run, though, I knew I was just faking it. It simply didn’t feel right or natural to me, and there were times that it actually felt quite strange– like the first time I heard someone “speaking in tongues.” That straight up freaked this Catholic out! I was raised to believe that when a person does something like that they need an exorcism not a microphone.

 My stint as a full-blown born-again believer, complete with tax-exempt tithing to First Assembly Churches, the Christian Broadcast Network (Yup! That is Pat Robertson, folks), and Chuck Colson Ministries was short-lived. Look, I acknowledge the ridiculously of this period in the evolution of my belief system. Luckily, cynicism is not a quitter though. Like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, she builds slowly but gets louder and louder and LOUDER until she is heard. I abandoned my “new-found faith” almost as quickly as I had embraced it. Still, the yearning persisted.

 It was about this time that I discovered the book Embraced By The Light by Betty Eadie. It’s Betty’s account of her near-death experience, and one of the most vivid detailed accounts of an NDE experience on record. I found it incredibly compelling. Betty describes her experience in great detail, but what struck me most was her discussion of how she learned that, before we are born, we are presented with a life and a mission, which we can accept or reject. We are made aware of every detail of said mission, every detail of the life, and the ultimate purpose of both. We can accept or refuse, without consequence. For some reason, the idea made perfect sense to me and resonated deeply. The ideas in that book stayed with me for years and years. Even after tragic events that would unfold far into the future, I never forgot them.

 When my daughters were young, I resisted the urge to indoctrinate them in any religion. Their father wasn’t too keen on the idea either, and we hadn’t been married in the Catholic Church anyway. I didn’t feel compelled to have them baptized or to receive first communion or be confirmed – to receive any of the sacraments, as I had in spite of my family’s ultra-loose grasp on the faith. I arrived at my decision, though, mostly because I’d come to feel as though faith and spirituality are only meaningful when we find our own way to them rather than being dragged down a path. Most of the time, while the girls were growing up, I felt satisfied with that decision. It wasn’t until my oldest daughter hit a particularly difficult period in her development that I began to have doubts. She was a willful and rebellious teen. Somewhere in the back of my Catholic mind, I wondered if it was because of her Godless upbringing outside The Church and being raised by a Muslim father and agnostic stepfather. Catholics are taught that devotion to God and The Church is the key to a happy life. Maybe if recommitted myself to Catholicism and The Church, God would forgive my transgressions and fix my failures as a parent, even if I couldn’t erase my decision not to raise my children Catholic. I started going back to Mass every week. I prayed the Rosary every single morning and pleaded for the Blessed Mother’s intercession. It’s pretty ironic that, during a time when I was most devout, I should suffer one of the greatest losses a person can endure. My daughter was killed in a car accident. I remember devout Catholic friends, fulfilling their roll as “guardians of the faith” saying, “Give your pain to the Holy Mother. She understands more than anyone what it’s like to lose a child. She lost her only son.” It didn’t help. My daughter’s death reignited the cynicism that had been deposited in my heart and mind from every trauma I’d ever suffered. How could a merciful God strike such a blow to someone that had already been through so much, someone who was trying so hard to be a faithful servant? You needn’t cite scripture, my devout friends. I am familiar with the tale of Job. What can I say? I’m just no Job. Losing my child all but extinguished the compulsion I once felt to be a good, devoted, and obedient Christian.

 It’s been many years now since the loss of my daughter and the spiritual crisis that followed. My feelings have softened…a bit. If pressed, I would still say that I consider myself “a believer.” I still love the beauty of The Mass and never fail to feel awestruck by its ancientness. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I still observe Lent. Why? Because I appreciate just how much such a small sacrifice or minor inconvenience can remind me of how good I really have it. I adore Pope Francis. I think he’s a good and compassionate man. In fact, I think that somewhere down deep within the heart of The Church, Christ and his message of kindness and compassion lives on. I still don’t regret having not raised my children as Catholics, though. I can’t imagine the additional pain and guilt my youngest daughter, who is gay, might’ve endured if she’d had to contend with the judgment and condemnation of a 2000-year-old institution in addition to that of society. These days I really couldn’t really label my spiritual beliefs as “Catholic” or “Protestant” or “Agnostic.” I will tell you that I believe in the connectedness of all human beings. I believe we are connected to one another. I believe we are connected to the natural world. And I do believe in a divine presence of some sort because I just find it so unlikely that the incredible beauty that exists in the world could occur randomly.

 I have also come to believe that all of us are here, on this planet, for a reason – for a mission, one that we signed up for even before we were born. In our current physical form, that mission might be unknown to us. Still, we live it anyway, as we were destined to do. For some of us, the mission is short-lived. It is impactful all the same. What I know is this – a life is like a pebble. It strikes the water and creates ripples. Those ripples expand exponentially. They move things in the water. They cause pond-dwellers to jump or move. The movement of those life forms stirs the sediment on the pond floor, which, in turn, sets in motion more activity. We cannot know the full impact of a life, whether it is short or long. We can only trust that there is a bigger picture, like an expansive eco-system, of which one life is a small but important part.

 I think faith is so much more than religion. It’s more than clinging, steadfastly, to the teachings of a certain belief system. It’s even more than believing without the benefit of seeing. Well, at least, I think it can be anyway. I think faith can be the best of being human. I think it can be seeing the divine in one another. I think faith could change the world if we didn’t equate it with religion. If we could only view faith as a fluid – taking the shape of its container – we’d be better off as a species. I will never be “anti-faith.” I still think “faith” is a good thing, a positive thing. Label me, if you must. But don’t label me with a religion. Label me as what I am – a faithful human. Namaste.

 

 

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A Misshapen Heart

handheart

My sister was born in the fall of 1970. I was five going on six. Having been an only child for so long made the adjustment of sharing my mother’s attention with another particularly difficult. In retrospect and after having experienced what it’s like to go from having one child to having two, I now empathize with how impatient and frazzled my mother was with me during her first few months with a preschooler and a newborn. As a child, though, I felt adrift and alone. I remember her telling me, “Now that your sister is here, I just don’t have time for this anymore!”

We were living in a three apartment building that my father’s parents owned. My grandparents lived in one of the downstairs units. Our place occupied most of the second floor. A woman and her elderly father lived in the other downstairs unit. The building was in a rundown urban area. There were few children around, but in the ramshackle building next door, there lived two ragamuffin little school-aged girls. Always in dirty clothes, it looked like they rarely bathed or washed their ratty brown hair. They ran wild through the neighborhood day and night. Attracted by the only swing set for blocks, they found me one day in early spring, swinging happily in my backyard, determined to touch my toes to the sky. Desperate for playmates, I eagerly obeyed their every command. They loved treating me like their baby doll by brushing and braiding my clean blonde hair and by painting my tiny fingernails and toenails. I followed them everywhere. One day we visited the downstairs neighbors, the woman and her father. We had fun. More importantly, we had cookies. The wild girls were gone one day, so I went there alone.

The old man was the only one home that day. The girls called him Mr. R. They adored him so much that, with the crayons and paper my mother gave us to help keep me occupied, they often drew and colored pictures of him. I could see through the screen door that Mr. R. was sitting in his easy chair watching television. I knocked. He came to the door with a broad smile and invited me in. “I’ll go get some cookies for us,” he said. He returned with the package of cookies and settled back into the recliner. He patted his knee and motioned for me to come sit on his lap. It started with a tickle. I felt my face flush with pleasure. The tickle turned into a touch. It felt good, but it felt bad, too. When he was done touching me his lap was wet, and I knew whatever had happened was bad, and I was bad for letting it happen. I told my mother about the “tickling” visit. Her face registered the briefest moment of shock before saying, “You don’t need to go back there. Okay? Stay away from that apartment.” Here’s the thing, though. I didn’t stay away. I went back again…on another day when the wild girls weren’t around.

This time the daughter was there, too. She brought out the cookies and smiled at me. She seemed nice. She asked me if I wanted to see the rest of the apartment and took my hand. She led me to the only bedroom at the back of the tiny apartment. I now realize how odd it was that a middle-aged woman and her elderly father would share a one-bedroom apartment. She sat me on the edge of the bed. Mr. R. followed us into the room. She sat beside me and put her arm around my shoulders. Mr. R. stood in front of me, smiling like he had the last time. Then the woman put her hands on either side of my head. Mr. R. unzipped his pants. My memory of what transpired next is this: the feeling of the nubby, chenille bedspread beneath my fingers; the glare of the light fixture above me; the buzz of that same light fixture ringing in my ears so loudly it made me feel dizzy; the smell of perspiration; and a salty strange taste I would only remember again years later during my first consenting sexual experience.

For some reason, they didn’t feel the need to tell me not to tell. Maybe they knew my mother had told me to stay away. To my child’s mind, though, that made it my fault. I didn’t listen. I never listened. A few days later, after my bath, my mother was brushing out my hair in front of her bedroom mirror. I looked at my reflection and felt disgusted. “Look at that ugly girl. What an ugly little girl.” For many years, I mistakenly believed those words had been spoken by my mother, and I hated her for it. It turns out that those words were my own thoughts. Those thoughts signaled the beginning. It was then that a handful of tiny black seeds were planted within me – the seeds of self-loathing and shame.

Though it went largely unnoticed by my parents, my behavior changed after that “visit.” I became anxious and secretive. I had an unusual curiosity about things adult and sexual in nature. At a time when most children abandon thumb sucking, mine intensified. I spent hours alone in my room spinning and twirling and pacing to the music of records on a little record player that would automatically kick back to the start and replay a record over and over again. It was like hypnosis. It sent me, deeply, into an internal world of my own making – one in which I could control everything that happened. Much later in life, I learned that this behavior is called dissociation. Dissociation is a common psychological coping mechanism for children suffering abuse. My parents just chalked it up to my “weirdness.”

We moved into a tiny two-bedroom house in a suburb a few miles away the August after my sister’s birth. We were a growing family. We left the place that would chart the path of my entire life, but the events that happened there never left me. For some strange reason, that place is still the setting of my dreams sometimes.

A few years later I suffered another instance of sexual abuse at the hands of a friend’s mentally ill relative. This time I was old enough to understand how wrong it was. My friend was dealing with it too, though, on a regular basis. I thought telling would get her in trouble. So I didn’t. I don’t know if my friend eventually told someone or if the abuse was discovered another way. I do know that it eventually stopped. Still, the strange behaviors that began when I was younger never went away completely, and they only intensified after this. I was dissociating more than ever – hours and hours at a time. I’m certain the music playing loudly from behind my closed bedroom door over and over again didn’t seem out of the ordinary for a girl my age. I’m not sure if my parents ever had a clue about the pacing, though. I also started lying and stealing. I overate constantly and was obsessed with food. I engaged in crazy, OCD-like behaviors. I have a distinct recollection of feeling an urgent need to have every hanger in my closet equidistance apart and to keep the crayons in my crayon box at school arranged in Roy G. Biv order – the order of the spectrum. I was still sucking my thumb at the age of nine. I didn’t stop until I was twelve. I suffered insomnia, and I engaged in a variety of alarmingly adult-like behaviors. All these things should’ve looked and sounded like a four-alarm fire to my folks. Unfortunately, their own dysfunctional family background made them blind to it, so they did nothing. I guess, once again, they considered all to be a part of my peculiarity.

We moved again when I was twelve going on thirteen. Enduring such a transition for any child that age is difficult, but it was particularly hard for a kid as battle worn as I was. As I got older, things only worsened. My lack of confidence was excruciating. I had trouble making friends. I had three or four female friends, but, by and large, I wasn’t very social and had little interest in doing the normal things that teenage girls do together. Conducting even the most normal interactions with boys and men, even my male teachers, was impossible for me. The typical contentiousness of an adolescent’s relationship with her parents only exacerbated the angst already inside me. It was then that my battle with depression and suicidal thoughts began. I withdrew further into myself. I was still dissociating, but after a summer with my grandparents and being forced to display a semblance of normalcy, I’d trained my mind to do it without the pacing. I only needed the music now. The music…and the tiniest glimmer of hope that things would get better…is what kept me alive during this time.

I emerged from adolescence rudderless, socially and emotionally stunted, and lacking even a thread of self-identity. I had grown up spending too much time in a world of my own making to be able to conduct an adult life in reality. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. I couldn’t find a career path. I was desperate to get away from my emotionally and psychologically abusive family. I was even more desperate to find a relationship, though. And, as it often does, desperation resulted in poor decisions. I dropped out of college. I did a lot of stupid, dangerous things and put myself in situations that were incredibly risky for a woman. I got involved with men who neglected, used, and mistreated me. I even married one…all because I was once a little girl who went looking for love and attention only to find malice.

I wonder who I’d be now if it wasn’t for that fateful day in the tiny apartment. Would I have had the self-confidence to pursue my dreams? Would I have actually known what my dreams were? Would I be so guarded and mistrustful of people? Would I have allowed boyfriends and husbands and bosses and friends to treat me with such cruelty? Would I have treated myself better? Would I have expected more?

The little black seeds that were planted all those years ago took root without me really even knowing. All the abuse, neglect, and mistreatment drove the roots deep. They grew so well and so strong that they’ve been next to impossible to excise, even after all these years. I’ve tried to pull them up. I’ve tried to dig them out. I’ve tried to burn them down. I’ve tried to eradicate them with religion and therapy and medication. I’ve medicated myself with food and drink and drugs and other reckless, self-destructive behavior. Nothing has gotten rid of those roots completely. The person I am today had to grow around them. My mind is more cynical because of it. My personality is a little darker. My soul is a little older, and my heart…my heart is forever misshapen.

I’ll never stop working at those roots, y’all. I’m still fighting to rescue that little girl who was trying to touch her toes to the sky that day, and I still love, even if it is with a misshapen heart.

“Come on Ramona. Make it your mantra. Fuck what they taught you. Take back the life that they stole.” (from Ramona by Night Beds).

 

 

 

 

Santa, Clark Griswold, and Me

clarkgriswold

Like so many things in my life, I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. When I was a child I got so excited about it that I found myself unable to sleep not just on Christmas Eve but for a full week prior. I’m not sure why I experienced such anticipation. I waited, with baited breath, for the JC Penney Christmas catalog to show up in the mailbox every November. I spent days pouring over each page and laboring, tirelessly, to craft the most comprehensive Christmas list – complete with prices and page numbers. In hindsight and now having lived through being a parent at Christmas myself, I imagine this unswerving focus probably intimidated the fuck out of my parents. That was probably why they were particularly cranky in the days leading up to Christmas. The financial burdens of a traditional American Christmas (gifts, tree, food, etc.) combined with the expanded, winter-break presence of their children sent them into full-blown-stressed-out-holiday-hell. Yeah. So they were even less warm & fuzzy than normal. When my siblings and I became teenagers, Christmastime was even more volatile. Raging hormones and self-centeredness are hard enough for parents to deal with without the added pressures of the crown jewel of commercialism. Screaming, yelling, slamming doors, tear-stained faces, and stuffy noses red enough to compete with Rudolph appeared each year, every year, along with the evergreen tree and cheerful décor. I hated Christmas as a teen. I longed for the happy family gatherings I saw on each “special Christmas episode” of my favorite T.V. shows.

Once I got married and had a family of my own, I was committed to making Christmas a magical time for my children. The excitement and anticipation for Christmas that I’d felt as a child returned. I eagerly fueled the Yuletide fantasies of my daughters by insisting that we create the kind of Christmas memories I’d grown up watching on television and in movies. I helped them write and mail a letter to Santa each year. We made the annual pilgrimage to the mall to “visit Santa.” We baked Christmas cookies. We drove around town “ooooing” and “aaahing” over neighborhood Christmas light displays. We bundled up and braved the harsh West Michigan winter elements to see the mother-of-all holiday light displays that the area zoo puts up each year. We sipped hot chocolate and strolled down Candy Cane Lane in our downtown park through gently falling snow. We went to a Christmas tree farm and took a hayride out to cut down a fresh tree each year. One year I even used fireplace ashes to make Santa’s boot-shaped footprints on the carpet. I saved money all year long in a “Christmas Club” account to give my girls the Christmas of their dreams each year. As you can see, I took “Santa Clausing” very seriously. The year I got divorced and moved in with my parents, I still tried to make Christmas special. And since my parents enjoyed being grandparents way more than they ever liked being parents, happily, they were willing to help me. Truth be told, I’m pretty sure they loved seeing the joy in the eyes of their grandkids on Christmas morning even more than I did.

I remarried when the girls were still school-aged. My current husband has always worked in retail and had become a bit desensitized to the holidays when we met. He had also been married to a woman that didn’t celebrate holidays and he shared a daughter with her. Those factors, combined with a contentious relationship with his family, made celebrating Christmas less than enjoyable for him. I was undeterred by his lack of enthusiasm and pressed him to forge Christmas traditions for our newly blended family. After a few years, we found our identity as a family, and our Christmas celebrations gradually took shape. Many happy memories were made. Over the years our family has weathered losses that have altered some of our traditions. The death of my oldest daughter had a monumental effect on every aspect of our lives and had a lasting impact on many of those traditions – the greatest being a deepened appreciation for them. The year after my daughter’s death, my stepdaughter decided that, because of her faith, she didn’t want to celebrate holidays anymore. My husband cut ties with his family the year after that. A couple years later, my younger daughter went off to college nine hours away. She was always home for Christmas, but the schedule demands of the job she was working meant her time with us was limited. Our holiday celebrations got smaller and smaller. Still, I soldiered on in my role as Santa just like the real St. Nick would.

Two years ago, my stepdaughter had a change of heart and came back to the holiday-celebrating fold. And though they couldn’t make it for Christmas Eve, my daughter and her partner planned to be home for Christmas Day. My dad made transportation arrangements so my mother could come from the nursing home and have Christmas dinner at my house. I was as giddy for Christmas as my girlhood self. No, it wasn’t everything I wanted. That would’ve been Christmas Eve dinner with everyone – both daughters, my daughter’s partner, my sister, my nephew, my mother, my father, and my husband; Midnight Mass with my husband, my daughter, and her partner; Christmas morning with the girls and stockings and presents and overnight French toast; and Christmas Day dinner with everyone all over again! Still, this Santa would take what she could get. And it was wonderful.

Since then, there seems to have been a slow downward-winding spiral. Last year, my stepdaughter was in a treatment facility at Christmastime. Well, actually, she hadn’t planned to celebrate the holiday again anyway. My daughter, who’d moved to Florida, planned to come home on a flight that arrived Christmas eve. Her partner had just lost her father, needed to drive to Arizona, and, obviously, could not come to Michigan for Christmas. My brother in-law had had an aneurism in the weeks leading up to Christmas and could not travel. Yes, it was a shit-show only the most resilient of Santas could salvage. Still, we had a nice Christmas Eve dinner with Mom and Dad at the nursing home. On Christmas morning my daughter, my husband, and I all opened gifts before enjoying some nice overnight French toast. My dad was delighted with the ipad my sister and I got him, and we had a nice dinner with him and my daughter. All in all, it was a pleasant time.

Santa’s patience this year was truly tested. My daughter could not get time-off to come home. My sister, who’s going through a messy divorce, was (understandably) unable to commit to any kind of event. Though she did plan on celebrating, my stepdaughter had to work on Christmas day, so we needed to move our “main event” to Christmas Eve. Oh, and by the way, this is probably the last Christmas she’ll be celebrating because she’s going back to her religion in the new-year. My dad wanted to reserve Christmas Eve for my sister “just in case.” Again, I remained committed to making happy family Christmas memories. It was particularly important to me because my stepdaughter’s fiancé would be spending the holiday away from his family in Peru. I wanted him, in particular, to have a nice Christmas. And it was nice. I guess this Santa shouldn’t complain since I have had much worse. Still, I missed my child terribly. It was the first time since she was born that we have been apart on Christmas.

Yes, I know that there are many parents who regularly spend the holidays…and birthdays…and anniversaries apart from their child/children for a variety of reasons, but, up to point in my life, I have not. I have particular sympathy for parents with a child in harm’s way, serving in our armed forces. Still, this Santa has never had to be without her only living child at Christmas before, and it was rough. In spite of my stepdaughter’s declaration that this was her last Christmas, a small part of me still hopes that next Christmas will be THE ONE – the Christmas I have always dreamed of – with everyone, altogether, under my roof celebrating. I am reminded of the movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” My husband has always likened my lofty holiday ambitions to those of main character Clark Griswold.

Clark Griswold: All my life I’ve just wanted to have a big family Christmas.

Ellen Griswold: (hesitantly looks at Clark and grasps his hand) It’s just how you         build things up in your mind, Sparky. You set standards that no family event can ever live up to.

Clark: Now when have I ever done that?

Ellen: (gestures ‘thusly’) Parties, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, holidays,graduations…(trails off)

As I was cleaning the house on Christmas Eve, the two little neighbor girls came up the walk. They’d just come from Sunday Mass and were still clad in tights, church dresses, and patent leather Mary-Janes. I watched them walk gingerly up the snow-glazed drive, in those slippery soled shoes and bundled in Sunday dress coats, surrounded by swirling snowflakes. “You’ll go take those next door,” I heard the older one direct the younger as she motioned toward the home of my elderly neighbors. “My mom made you some cookies,” she said to me as she approached my door with a foil covered paper plate. “Thank you, honey. Merry Christmas!” I replied. “Merry Christmas,” she said with a pensive smile. My husband and I haven’t exactly been “good neighbors.” The polite term for people like us is “anti-social.” In actuality, the fact is…we’re assholes. We never went over to introduce ourselves when this sweet little family moved in. In fact, the only welcoming overtures we ever made were polite nods and waves while getting the mail or walking the dog. I first met the neighbor woman months after they moved in. She came with her daughters to sell Girl Scout cookies last spring. She introduced herself, but I’m such a dick that I don’t even remember her name. It’s Rachel – maybe. I asked the older girl if she went to the elementary school near our neighborhood. The mother replied that both girls went to one of the area Catholic schools. The girl told me she was in first grade. “Oh, I teach first grade,” I replied. “My husband is a teacher, too. He teaches at their school,” the woman said. I bought two boxes of Girl Scout cookies that day, to assuage my guilt for being such a shitty neighbor. I’m probably gonna send a thank-you card for the Christmas cookies and apologize for my failings as a neighbor.

The sight of those little girls coming up the driveway in the snow set off a cascade of emotions for me that day. They reminded me of my own daughters. It made me ache for a magical time that has long since passed. I sat at the dining room table, between bouts of cleaning, and cried. I couldn’t stop it from coming. “Clark Griswold wouldn’t be crying,” I laughed to myself as I tried to get it together. I somehow managed to finish all the things I needed to do – clean, cook, wrap. By the time my stepdaughter and her fiancé arrived, the melancholy had subsided, been folded up, and neatly tucked beneath my heaped pile of emotional baggage. We had a lovely evening. A long, long way from home and far from his own family, my stepdaughter’s fiancé seemed to appreciate our wish to make him feel at home and loved. An avid Star Wars fan, he was particularly delighted by the “talking” Chewbacca mask my husband chose as one of his gifts. My mother straight-up “threw down” on the beef tenderloin I prepared for Christmas Day dinner. I just wanted her to have some good, home cooked food for Christmas – the kind she can’t get at the nursing home. The fact that any Christmas might be her last is always at the front of my mind. So I want each one we get to spend with her to be special. That’s what it’s all about to me. See? Me. Santa. Clark Griswold. We all just want to see smiles, hear laughter, and make magic! We just want to be able to say, when all is said and done, in the words of Clark Griswold, “I did it!”