Holiday World

Thanksgiving 1970

Thanksgiving 1970

 

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When you are a kid with divorced parents, the holidays are all about the clock and loyalty.  Time must be split and split evenly.  What does the paperwork say, the official court documents signed yesterday or eons ago?  What are the rules?  The who gets who.  The when.  The how.  The pick up, the drop off, the clock going tick tock tick tock tick tock.  The who’s late and are they coming and they got the time wrong and I’m not ready to let her go yet because we haven’t finished supper or the presents are still wrapped under the tree.

The enormous difference between who “gets you” for Christmas Eve (the loser) and who “gets you” on Christmas Day (the winner), and when, really, does the Eve end and the Day begin?

There are the big-table-family-meals or just-the-two-of-you and the money spent and the presents wrapped, the built-in competition of who has more and who can do more and who goes into debt trying to keep up.  And oh what it feels like to be one very small and powerless little girl with hair that needs combing, in the middle of all that ramped up, grown up energy.  Like being trapped under buzzing power-lines.

What do you want for Christmas?  You want everything and you want nothing.  Either way, you already understand, as little as you are, unable to do your times tables or read chapter books, that enormous prices will be paid.

Do you ask your mother to help you buy your stepmother a gift?  Do you spend more on your mom (yes! always!) than on your dad?  What if you get more gifts, better gifts, at one place than the other?  The confusion of it all.

I am 49 years old.  I love the holidays.  But only in the last few years.  It was a tough transition.

Whether I was 7 or 17 or 27, I dreaded November and December.

I felt guilty leaving my mother, seeing her stand solo in the doorway, waving goodbye, and yet even more guilty because, sometimes, I could not get away from her fast enough to be “at Dad’s house,” the fun house, the house full of kids and my stepmother waking us up at the crack of dawn, banging posts and pans, “Santa was here!  Santa was here!”

When I was 7, I went where I was told to go; I figuratively stuck my fingers in my ears and pretended I did not hear Every Single Word Spoken about the unfairness of it all.

When I was 17 and could drive myself to and from, I remember being so obsessively aware of the clock and where I was expected to be and when, that I barely remember being anywhere.

By the time I was 27, I lived far away and could only fly home for a few days.  Whose house would I sleep in?  Where would I spend the most time?  Where would I have coffee?  Eat lunch?  Sit down for supper?  Could I stay late and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”, or was someone else, someone more important, waiting on me?

Would there ever be a right choice?  The lack of a clock?

This holiday season, I’m thinking about all of you kids — even the grown up ones, old now, like me — who still have parents and families in different houses.  The division of our loyalty.  Our guilt.  Here’s to you, to us.  Here’s to finding our Happy in Thanksgiving and our Merry in Christmas.  Here’s to keeping our eyes off the dreaded clock.  It only goes tick tock tick tock tick tock, after all, if we watch it.

That’s What It’s Like

jello-pudding-pops-bill-cosbyI was listening to an exchange between CNN’s Don Lemon and Joan Tarshis, the latest in a dozen-plus women to come out and tell her story about being raped by Bill Cosby.  She says she was drugged and, as she came to, he was pulling off her panties; she was smart and quick-thinking in the moment (applause!) and said she had a disease, that if he had intercourse with her his wife would find out. So he made her give him a blow job instead.  And all Don wanted to know was why she didn’t bite his penis. (you can watch or read the full exchange here)

Translate: Why did you let that happen?

Translate: It’s your fault.

Being drugged and afraid and raped — by a powerful celebrity no less, an icon, The Cosby Show Dad, King of Jello Pudding — is not enough; you have to take the blame for it, too.

If you are a woman or a young girl listening to or reading this exchange, this is what you’ve learned:  If you are raped, your credibility and your inability to think on your feet — or think on your knees, as it were — will be questioned.  And boy doesn’t that sound like something you want to get into to ruin your already ruined life?

That’s what it’s like to be a woman, after being raped.

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One of the last questions my mother asked me before she died was this:  Did any of the men in my life ever do anything to you?  I knew instantly what she meant, and she knew I knew.  She was in her hospice bed, with rails.  I remember she could not look at me.  I remember reaching through the cold rails and rubbing my hand up and down her arm as I said, “No, of course not.”  Which was the truth.

How devastating that this was something she was worried about, that this had obviously gnawed at her for years, and yet she never asked.  Until the very end.  Why?  Because she was terrified of the answer.  Why?  Because she could not die without knowing.  Why?  Maybe she knew she could not have lived with the answer.

That’s what it’s like to be the mother of a girl.

I’ll never know.  She died 6 days later, relieved.

And even if something had happened, which it didn’t, I would have lied to her in that moment.  I would have spared her that.

That’s what it’s like to be a girl with a mother.

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Today I read the words of a woman my age (50-ish), a former defense attorney, about what she thinks about making Consent a Law.  No means no, and all that.  She said it’s not that simple, and she’s right.

She said that when she was young she would say “no” even if she wanted to have sex, because saying “no” at first, even though she wanted to, meant that she was a good girl.  It proved something.  I knew exactly what she meant.  When I was a teen I knew I had to say no at first, because that proved I was talked into it, that I was, maybe, just stupid for agreeing.  If I’d said yes right off, that proved something completely different, that I was a slut or a whore or dirty or easy.  Saying “no” was a way of maintaining some weird semblance of virtue.  It was so much easier to be thought of as “stupid” than “easy.”

That’s what it’s like to be a young girl who wants to have sex with one person, her steady boyfriend of 3 years.

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I just listened to a prosecuting attorney discuss rape charges that were filed years ago against Bill Cosby.  (you can find it here)  He said he believed the accuser, but that she’d come forward too long after-the-fact and lacked physical evidence.  He said he interviewed Bill Cosby, who vowed innocence, and knew Cosby was lying.  He could not file charges because he knew, even though he thought the woman was telling the truth and her rapist was lying, there was not enough proof.

That’s what it’s like.

It’s A High Tech Cell, But It’s Still A Cell

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I just read an excellent essay over at The Huffington Post where Anna Fonte describes what it’s like, in this age of high tech gadgetry, not to own a cell phone.  “When people find out that I do not own a cell phone on purpose, they can move quickly from sympathy to scorn. I see it in their eyes: Suddenly, I’ve got some freaky social disease. They back slowly away before I infect them with whatever is wrong with me.”  (click here, you’ll want to read the entire piece)

I was a reluctant cell phone convert.  But I remember my first cell phone, and I remember when I started texting.  My kids were grown and gone, thousands of miles from home, and they did not have landlines; they had cell phones.  Cell phones they rarely, if ever, answered.  I quickly learned that young people (under 40?) do not answer their phones (“It’s rude to call people.”) nor do they listen to voice mail (“It’s a waste of time, I can see that you called.”)  Young people text, and they text instantly.  If I wanted to talk with my children — if, in fact, I just wanted to make sure they were alive! — I needed a cell phone and I had to text with them.

That was almost a decade ago, and I see that over these years I’ve been slowly and steadily and completely sucked into the cell of having a cell.  Not all of which has been bad.  I have a horrendous sense of direction, so I get lost a lot less.  I rarely wear a watch anymore, and since I don’t care for jewelry this is a huge bonus.  I have entire “text message conversations” with my far away friend Lisa, and I can’t imagine with the 3 hour time difference that we’d be able to talk on the phone as much as we text back and forth.  I don’t buy apps or play games, though I must confess I’m a Scrabble addict and had to delete my Words With Friends account.  When my Aunt Mary was sick, when she could not get around quickly and was going to the hospital a lot, her cell phone was a godsend; she could carry her phone in her pocket.  I could always reach her, and she could always reach me.  My stepmother got a cell phone and we text back and forth; she’s in ill health and sometimes it’s hard for her to talk without getting out of breath, but she can text like a pro and this means we “talk” a lot more than we otherwise could.  My stepdad also has a cell phone and he sends his messages in ALL CAPS; he always ends his messages with “LOVE YOU” … words I have never in my life heard him speak, but he sure can shout it out with a keypad and that’s been, as you might imagine, lovely.

I read Anna’s essay about not having a cell phone, on my cell phone.  A big (really big) part of me is so envious — what would it be like to not feel shackled to my phone, to not feel like I have to answer messages immediately, to not spend free minutes hitting the refresh refresh refresh button?  But I realize I’m not envious of Anna not having a cell phone; I am envious of Anna’s brave choice, and of her freedom.

Last weekend I flew across the country to visit my son.  He’s 28.  I texted him when I found out my flight was delayed; I texted him when I finally took off, and again when I landed; I used the Google map on my phone to guide me, in the dark, in the rain, to my hotel; I texted him when I got to the hotel and was checking in, and I no sooner hit *send* when I heard,  “Hello mother!” and turned to see him already sitting in the lobby, waiting for me; then we got in his car and I used the Google map to see where he was taking me for dinner.  The next day we went to a college football game and I asked the stranger sitting behind us to take our picture — a picture I wanted to post instantly to Facebook (“Here we are!  See!  having fun!!”) but couldn’t because the lines around the stadium were jammed … too many people trying to do the same thing at the same time.  Because if we can’t post an instant photo saying how much fun we’re having, are we really having it?

As we left the game, I pulled out my phone — I still had to post that photo! — and saw my battery was dying.  I panicked a little.  Though, what did it matter if my phone was dead?  I didn’t need it.  And yet I could feel the low-buzzing panic — what if my husband needs me, what if I can’t check email or Facebook or read the news headlines on CNN, what if I’m getting left out of a funny texting loop with friends, what if what if what if what if what if.  And for the next few hours I kept pulling out my phone and pressing the white button, pressing it and pressing it, just to make sure the screen lit up, just to make sure it was still there for me, that it was not dead.  Or maybe to make sure I wasn’t.

 

* comments are off *

Hey There Sports Fans

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It started when we were just joking around like we always do, like we have for 30+ years, old friends ribbing each other via text message about the World Series.  And the next thing I knew I was standing in my kitchen with my phone in my hand, sending increasingly defensive, angry messages, while trying not to cry.

I was born and raised in St. Louis Cardinals territory.  Grandpa Pete watched every Cardinals game on TV with the sound muted and the radio blaring, because everyone knows radio announcers are better than TV, right?  My little brothers played baseball as soon as they could hold a bat.  Their dad (my stepdad) coached their little league teams.  Sports of all kinds — baseball, football, basketball, wrestling — ruled weekends both on the local field and on TV.  And yet, I paid little attention.  Sports was something “the boys” did, and shared.

I wasn’t much of a sports fan until I was grown and long gone.  The first time I moved out of state, I right-off learned that following local sports was a fast way to meet people and be welcomed into a community.  Sports were a way to feel settled, to feel like part of the place.  In Phoenix I cheered for the Suns and Charles Barkley; in Cedar Rapids I bought a black and yellow Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt; in Seattle I followed the Seahawks; in Minneapolis I rooted for the Vikings and the Timberwolves and the Twins.  Here in northern California, where I’ve lived longer than I’ve lived anywhere, it’s all about Giants baseball and getting together with friends and the neighbors to watch the playoffs while we share food and cheer for Buster and The Panda and crazy man Hunter Pence.

But sports is not always about sports, even during the World Series.  Weeks have gone by, and it’s only now that I see what brought on the tears.  In one text message amidst the lighthearted dozens where I was cheering for the Giants, a good friend wrote, “I can’t imagine a place I could move to and not be a Cardinals fan.”  A perfectly innocent statement, right?  And yet in that moment, standing alone in my California kitchen, I felt the 2,000 mile blood-rush of loss; the ache of not being back home with old friends; of the baseball playing brothers I have not seen in years; of their once-coaching dad they no longer speak to; of Grandpa’s blaring, staticky radio, You are listening to Cardinals baseball!, gone silent; of how very far away home has become.  How, some days, that distance feels an awful lot like loss, irretrievable and permanent.  How it feels a lot like grief.

Symphony of Clocks

Owl_Cuckoo_Clock_5778201530My mother-in-law’s home is a symphony of clocks. A grandfather clock that sounds like a church organ plays its deep, sonorous dirge every hour. The cuckoo clock in the hallway, the gentlest timekeeper, chirps so softly it sounds like it might be outside, like it doesn’t want to disturb anyone. The tarnished brass wall clock in the living room with its four enormous, heavy, organ-like brass tubes, clangs with each hour and half hour, and gets double the playtime of all the others.  The wood clock on the roll-top desk, with its heavy bold black numbers, sits silent, its hands still, long dead.

I think of my mother, long dead, and of the clocks I no longer remember.

My mother-in-law, barely-five-feet of her in a lovely, soft, matching pantsuit, legs crossed, sitting close on the couch with my son and my daughter, paging through old photograph albums of their lives; the woman who quietly cooks and serves dinner for 4 or 20, with little or no notice; the woman who does the daily crossword and shoves the folded newspaper my way and asks if I might know the leftover answers.

I rarely do.

I’ve got time on the brain.  I  keep thinking about my grandparents’ cuckoo clock, that spectacular work of intricate art in the house on Locust Street.  The clock that Grandpa Red, a master woodworker, made; the details of its glazed wooden leaves; the cuckoo bird’s delicate, colorful beak and soprano chirp; its gentle, sweet song; the longish acorn-shaped brass weights, hanging low and then high, from my grandmother’s chains.  It was her job, after all, to set it every night.  The master built it, but it was, like all things in our family, her job to keep that clock going.

I look around my house.

Every clock is digital.

And precise.

And silent.

Decades ago in shop class, my brother Butch built a grandfather clock.  My mother’s husband still has it, and he’s holding it hostage.  I have not heard my brother’s voice, or his grandfather clock’s chimes, for years.

The hands on my watch stopped a few months ago.  The battery is dead.  I haven’t worn it since.  I try not to notice.

My mother-in-law’s home is a symphony of clocks.  There’s a little white plastic ticker in the guest bedroom where I sleep, and I always forget about it until everyone’s in bed and all the lights are out and I suddenly hear the tick-tick-tick, like a grandmother slowly clucking her tongue, and the next thing I know I’m scrambling in the dark to find the little bastard and yank out the battery.  Thankfully, she shuts down the brass banger before bed.  And we rest.  We rest until morning when I am wakened, a guest yet again, by my favorite new noisemaker in the kitchen: the lighthouse-themed clock above the sink that blows its foghorn at least a minute or so later than all the others. No matter when I’m here, this clock is always off. But its foghorn has grown on me.  I anticipate its lagging “eee-uuuhhh,” “eee-uuuhhh,” its bellowing so out of sync with the rest of the house that it yanks me, every single time, back to who I am.

 

 

The Full Fridge Fantasy

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A few weeks ago, my fridge went empty.

My husband was traveling and it was just me and dogs and I was basically down to almond milk, kale, yogurt, strawberry jelly, coffee creamer (aka goat milk), and the few ingredients it takes to make spinach quesadillas.

I loved it.  And yet it totally stressed me out.

I’m a person who needs a full fridge.  Really full.  The full fridge gives me comfort.  The full fridge lessens my anxiety; anxiety I don’t even know I have until the fridge is full again and — like that cheesy but true line from Waiting to Exhale — I exhale.

I grew up in a food-less place.  When I was 5 and 8 and 10 and 13, it was normal to have a small, old, groaning Frigidaire in a rented half-house with a bunch of white potatoes and some onions and milk and a carton of eggs in tow.  This looked normal to me.  And I appreciated it.  I never panicked about it.  I could work with it.  In Summer, when my mother was at work, I would start my day around 9 am by turning on the TV to reruns of All in the Family and Alice and One Day at a Time, and I’d cook.  I’d plop a bowl in my lap on the couch (during an All in the Family rerun) and I’d peel the potatoes and then slice them thin-ish; then I’d chop up some onion and slap some lard in the skillet and toss in some salt and pepper, and fry.  Sometimes I’d stir in an egg.  A big treat!  And I’d add milk to the egg to “stretch” it.

I got good at timing.  I would, for instance, time the frying so it was between shows and/or during commercials.  I could miss the beginning or end of Alice, but I could never ever miss the entirety of One Day at a Time with my favorite ’70s mom Ann Romano, that single tornado of a woman, raising her daughters, with the lessons to be learned.  Ann and Julie and Barbara.  Alone in the world.  Kicking ass.

Whenever I got the chance, I looked in their TV fridges.  They weren’t as empty as mine, but they weren’t full, either, and I remember loving this about them.

In those days, my mom and I ate most of our real meals at my grandparents’ house.  Ham and Beans.  Chicken and Dumplings.  Fat Back and Saurkraut.  Hot tamales from a can.  Tony’s Canadian Bacon frozen pizza, but only as a late night treat.  Cheese grits.  Shit-On-A-Shingle (hamburger gravy over white bread), which was especially satisfying because it meant there was enough money in the family for hamburger meat.

These days, I stare into my full fridge — with its kale and yogurt and goat milk, and all I could ever want in the whole wide world — and all I want is some fried potatoes and onions.  Some ham and beans.  Tamales.  Shit on a shingle.

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Tell me about your favorite food memories.

 

 

Posting Up, While Female

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In basketball, to “post up” is to establish your position at an area near the basket.

A few years ago, my (adult) daughter and I decided to spend a mother/daughter weekend in San Francisco.  We chose a small hotel in the heart of Union Square, a place where, it seemed, all of the people were.  It was early December, chilly and damp, and so festive with the sparkling holiday lights and overly-decorated trees and roaming carolers and huge crowds of shoppers loaded down with Christmas gifts.  I remember a female opera singer who stunned the sidewalk still and quiet with her a cappella of Little Drummer Boy.  On our first evening, we went to a tiny Irish bar right behind our hotel for a drink before finding dinner.  We sat at the bar.  We’d had a great day.  We hadn’t been there long when a tall man in a t-shirt and jeans cozied up behind and between us to order a drink.  He squeezed between and said hello to us.  We ignored him and kept face-forward, and also kept up our conversation.  He said hello again.  And again.  My daughter finally turned and said politely, “I’m sorry, excuse us, but I’m trying to talk to my mom.”  He waited a few seconds and then put his hand on my daughter’s arm, wrapping his long fingers around her forearm.  She instantly shook herself free and hauled around and said, “Don’t fucking touch me!”  He snickered, stood there a little longer to hold his ground, and finally moved on.

There was a thick crowd at the bar.  Two busy bartenders.  Everyone, including my daughter and me, pretended like nothing had happened.

Today I saw this short video at Slate.com of a woman walking through New York City.  The video itself is less than 2 minutes long, and yet that was more than enough for me to get it, for me to understand how crowded and harassed and even fearful this woman would be.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/10/28/street_harassment_video_a_hidden_camera_records_what_women_go_through_on.html

The woman never, never once, engages with the men.  And yet they feel perfectly fine getting in her space, talking to her, hitting on her, asking why oh why she won’t answer them, won’t engage because, after all, hey, they’re just giving her a compliment by “noticing her” and shouldn’t she be thankful?

Even though her posture remains neutral, a few of them get angry and get closer.  She claims her space, small as it is walking down the sidewalk.  She is posting up, establishing her position in the world.  But no matter.  The men are relentless, and even affronted by her lack of attention to them.

I am thinking now of that mother/daughter weekend in the city.  We were just 2 women wanting to spend time together.  We were covered up and dressed in winter clothes (not that that should matter, but we’ve all heard, over and over, how much it matters); we kept to ourselves; we were exhausted; we were not looking for attention.  And yet.

How many times does this happen over and over again, and we keep quiet about it?

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To post up is to establish your position, to say, “I am here.”