As You Are

10857995_10203269350630921_3304702117064567952_nDear Grandma Cook,

Yesterday I learned that December 18 is your birthday.  You would have been 89 years old.

When I was growing up, you lived over on Dallas Street.  I knew this because we drove by once and my mom said, casually, “That’s where your dad’s family lives.”  Your brick house had a front porch and, if I remember right, you had a hair salon in the back.  You spent your days making people pretty.

You used to mail me birthday cards with $5 inside and you signed them Love, Grandma Cook.  Your cards always arrived on time, but I never once thanked you.  Sometimes we lived close enough that I could have just walked right over all by myself on a summer day and climbed the porch steps and knocked, but I was afraid he might be there and boy, wouldn’t that be weird.  I think you understood that.

When I was little I sometimes imagined you lifting me into a big salon chair and saying “this is my granddaughter” and telling me to sit still while you twirled my chair and put pink curlers in my hair and made me pretty, too.

When I found out today was your birthday, I wondered how I’ve been on this earth almost 50 years and never knew your birthday.  You’re a Sagittarius and I’m a Leo.  We are both fire signs, did you know that?  My mom told me you had a free smile and were a generous hugger, even of strangers.  Maybe I get those things from you.

I looked up your obituary in the newspaper.  It says you died on November 6, 2009.  It says you owned and operated a beauty salon for 31 years.  It says you are survived by 16 grandchildren.  I wonder if I’m counted as one of them.

I saw you less than 10 times, I think.  But I always called you Grandma and you called me Teri Lynn and you made me feel welcome, like it was normal for me to be in your house, sitting on your couch of an evening, even when we both knew it wasn’t.  When I got older and called you up, often after years of silence, you’d say, Come right over, come as you are! and I’d drive over and park out front and walk in without knocking and we’d sit in the living room and visit like old friends.  We drank iced tea or a Coca Cola.  One time we split a ham sandwich.  You never mentioned my dad unless I asked, and I appreciated that.  In 2002, when my mom was dying you tracked me down at the hospital and, since your husband had died of the same disease, spent the afternoon explaining the details I couldn’t get out of the doctors of what was going to happen and what I could do to get through it.  I loved you for that.

I know it’s too late, but thank you for all the birthday cards.  Thank you for being a smiler and a hugger, and for passing that on, in me.

Thank you for not forgetting me.

Happy birthday.

Love,  Teri Lynn

Shame Is A Powerful Drug

winding_stairs_paris_by_dana223-d6r5kcwToday I said to a group of good friends, “If all of the women in the world told about all of the assaults, sexual and otherwise, that had happened to them, the world would explode.”

Imagine.

__________

I have an essay coming out soon, and while it’s not at all about this, it is, of course it is, in part.

Like this part.

I’m 20. Late winter. An older gentleman with a well-shaped beard – a regular at the Sunny Hill café where I work – comes in for biscuits and gravy. He tells me he’s a photographer. “I’d love to take some pictures of you.” He tells me I have a great smile. At home I look in the mirror and make smiles, try to see what he sees. After a few weeks, I borrow my roommate’s blouses and sweaters and scarves (without telling her) and I go to the man’s apartment. It’s dark outside. It’s dark inside. I have chills and I don’t want to do it now, but it’s too late. He takes a lot of pictures. He gives me $20. I never see him again.

We’ve been taught that we get what we ask for, and that it’s not ladylike to speak of such things.

We have to be ashamed.  Of course we do.

Shame is a powerful drug.

I’m thinking about all of the times I’ve rationalized an encounter.  Haven’t we all?  I was flirting.  He didn’t mean it.  I had too much to drink.  He’s a really nice guy … otherwise.  I should not have done those shots.  I let him take me outside.  I asked him to drive me home.  He asked nicely, at first.  I wanted him to like me.

Notice how, even now, I call it, “an encounter”?

Bill Cosby.  Today his wife issued a statement:  “None of us will ever want to be in the position of attacking a victim.  But the question should be asked – who is the victim?”

I just remembered that Bill was not just a doctor on The Cosby Show.  He played an OB/GYN.

Who do you trust more than your OB/GYN?

It’s dark outside.  It’s dark inside.

Ray Rice.  You don’t cold-cock a woman if you’ve never hit a woman before, do you?  Really?  And yet his wife issued a statement, saying she’s still never seen the elevator video, that she just wants their lives back:  “I was ready to do anything,” she said, “that was going to help the situation, both help the way we looked in the media, help his image, help obviously his career.”

I have chills and I don’t want to do it now, but it’s too late.

There’s Ray MacDonald.  He plays for the San Francisco 49ers.  We have this.  “The fiancee, who was not identified by police or prosecutors, refused to cooperate in the initial follow-up investigation to McDonald’s arrest, including having photographs taken 48 hours after the incident, and told police who responded to her 911 call that she did not want McDonald arrested.”  McDonald has not missed a game this season even though “the victim, who was 10 weeks pregnant, had ‘visible injuries’.”

He takes pictures.  He gives me $20.

Today, Darren Sharper.  It now appears he’s been drugging and assaulting women.  For years.  A 2011 Miami Beach Police Department report shows two women who said Sharper sexually assaulted them went to a rape crisis center. Police wrote in their report that a nurse at the center “did not find any evidence of sexual battery,” but the nurse told CBS News she “would never say that, that’s not my role.”

What kind of person drugs women?

A man you do not know.

A man you know.

I go to the man’s apartment.

I was fully clothed in these photos.  I saw the photos.  I felt okay about them.  Some of them were good.  And yet.  He was old, the photographer.  He was not above-board.  He was 20+ yrs older than me and  I was a kid.  He was weird.  I knew he was weird.  I knew better.  And you know what?  I did it anyway.  And I’ve never told anyone this tiny little story.  Until now.

I borrowed my roommates clothes.  Without telling her.

Of course I did.  Who wants to tell anything like this?  It is still hard to tell.  30 years later.  This is what I think of when I hear the women come forward, when I hear them tell stories they never wanted to tell.

_____________

If you had to tell all of the things that have happened to you … could you, even now?

The Best of 2014

k2-_9326fbf6-7bcd-40de-8c19-1f8555a20911.v1The One I Stayed Up Too-Late While Jet-lagged For:  Gail Caldwell’s NEW LIFE, NO INSTRUCTIONS.  I laughed, I cried, I cringed, I loved every single word, her honesty, the way she lays it out and holds it back and composes every scene from her very real and not-so-perfect life.  Her great big giant heart.  Thanks to AmyG for recommending this book about 3 days before I was ready to leave for a long trip.  I remember exactly where I was, in the middle of the night, when I turned the last pages, and how I sat there with the light on, under the covers, closed book on my lap, husband asleep, thinking about it ALL.

k2-_84d8fff1-9e91-4800-9b5b-1d0f69135d6e.v1The Memoir I Tried Not to Read:  Emma Brockes’s SHE LEFT ME THE GUN.  Holy hell.  This story is so crazy you almost believe it can’t be true.  Though of course it is.  Aren’t they always?  It’s a roller coaster of what it’s like to find out, little by little, what came before you.  Like, as Joan Didion might say, being “nibbled to death by ducks.”  This book drove me batty, and for good reason.  It’s a story about inheritance; about looking back and moving forward.  Are we who our ancestors were?  What do we carry forward, and what do we leave behind?  What are the mysteries of our mothers, of the women in our families who kept their many many secrets?  If you missed it, you’re missing out.

reconstructing-amelia-1The Mystery I Carried With Me Everywhere:  I picked up Kimberly McCreight’s RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA at the bookstore.  Never heard of the writer and knew nothing about the story, and yet when I pulled it off the shelf and read the first page, I was sold.  And when I say I could not put the book down, I really mean I COULD NOT PUT THE BOOK DOWN.  I had to find out what was going to happen next.  I found out later it was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.  Yes, my friends, this is her first book.  And she’s tall and blonde and gorgeous.  I want to hate her but never ever will — and I’ll read anything she writes from here on out.  You should, too.  (p.s.  I got an email last week from a friend saying, “Have you read RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA?  I can’t put it down!! — so see, it’s not just me).

cover_untamed_stateThe Novel I Read Back in May and STILL Can’t Stop Thinking About:  Roxane Gay’s AN UNTAMED STATE scared the hell out of me.  I had trouble sleeping.  I looked at wealthy fathers and young husbands and mother-in-laws and random, seemingly harmless men differently after I read this book, and I am still, all these months later, thinking about just how f-ing dangerous it is to be a woman in the world.  This book terrified me for me, for my sister, for my daughter, for my nieces.  It put me on guard … in a good way.  This book made me more aware.  More aware of my surroundings, more aware of men the in places I’m simply being myself, a woman, more aware of how easy it is for horrific things to happen to women and what it’s like to try, and try and try and try, to survive.

9780374267704_p0_v1_s600-220x330-2And Then There Were Books About War:  My favorite novel of the year is Roxana Robinson’s SPARTA.  I won’t say much, because I don’t want to spoil anything for readers, but nobody writes as beautifully about war — or about anything, really — as Roxana Robinson.  The story is heartbreaking and the writing is just beyond spectacular.  Man, can this writer tell a story.  It’s like you’re sitting on the front porch swing with her and your iced tea glass is empty but you’re afraid to get up for a refill.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  And in other news, I just started reading Phil Klay’s REDEPLOYMENT, a book of short stories about soldiers at war and/or returning from — it’s original and devastating and even, dare I say, funny.  A new voice you have to read.  You just have to.

10daum-cover-blog427The One That Met All of My Expectations … and Then Some:  Meghan Daum’s essay collection, UNSPEAKABLE.  I regularly read Daum’s column in the LA Times, and that’s all I know about her.  But this collection of memoir pieces about so many of the things we think and feel but cannot, in polite company, “talk about” is just beyond the beyond.  Her opening essay “Matricide” is, alone, worth the price of admission, as she digs into the complex emotions she has about her mother and her grandmother, and nothing is ever wrapped up in a big red bow.  Of course there is also an essay about her dog, and you know I loved that!, though it’s not really about her dog at all, in the end.  It never is, right?  Daum’s essays are raw life; they are messy and real and will make you cringe … right before you think, “I feel like that too, but I would never tell anybody.”  Loved that most of all.

______________

One last note:  I’ve all but given up my eReader.  It’s great for instant gratification, and for reading in bed or on a dark airplane, but I can’t get past loathing its very existence.  One more screen to stare at?  No.  I have enough screens.  And I love paper books:  old, new, hardback, soft-cover, trade paperbacks and regular; books I can hold in my hands one at a time and shove into my purse and stack on my nightstand and litter the house with and page back-and-forth when I’m neurotic about missing something.

What was your favorite read of 2014?

Handsome

IMG_0298Dear People,

This time last year, I was in a kennel. I was alone and malnourished and already 10 years old. I have no idea how I ended up there. I was sad.

And then, one day in December, the good people at Norcal Golden Retriever Rescue showed up to save me!

I thought my troubles were over?

But then, right around Christmas time, a woman adopted me. Yay! She took me home and put me out on her deck and went to work. And I was alone again. After only 2 days, she took me back to the rescue group and said it wasn’t working out. I wondered what I’d done wrong.

The next thing I knew I was back with yet another foster family (thankfully the wonderful Cheryl Paul Herkenrath!) but waiting, yet again, for a family to take me home. For a family to let me love them.

My new forever family finally found me, right after the New Year. It took some months and a lot of help from Jenna at Lily Cash and Sheila Gibson and the incredible people at The Whole Pet Vet Hospital and Wellness Center with Dr. Hilary Wheeler and Dr. Kirsten Krick to get me healthy, but then the next thing I knew I’d gained 15 pounds — my mom says she gained the same 15 pounds, hahaha! — and I was going on daily walks and everyone was telling me what a good boy I am. (I’ve even overhead them saying I’m the best, calmest, easiest, most loving, sweetheart of a dog they’ve ever had, but don’t tell my new sisters!).

Which brings me back to this year, and all of my blessings. I know I will never be at a shelter or in a kennel again. And this year for Christmas I have only one wish: that families consider adopting an older dog just like me. I’m so easy! I take a couple of short walks, play a little, then sleep the days away. I’m a bit of a goofball, the real me. And I love absolutely everyone, even my difficult sister JoJo!

And now I’ve blathered on too long. I do this. I blame age. Apologies. But I hear I’ve made the cover of my family’s Christmas card (I’m a handsome star, hello!) and now I’m looking forward to the holidays for the first time in a very long time. Bless you all. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Love,
Handsome

IMG_1708

The Miles

IMG_1703

_______________

Come spring, we will be packing up the car with our 3 big dogs and driving across these United States of America.  Yes, it’s true people.  We have totally and completely and irrevocably lost our minds.  We need to spend time with our grown kids.  We need to spend some time back home.  We are kinda-sorta escaping the west coast (which we absolutely love) to be with our families/friends (whom we absolutely love).  And throwing in a hellacious amount of driving.

This is one of those ideas that sounds great in the abstract — “sure, of course, no big deal” — but as it creeps up I’m breaking out in all manner of teen/stress-face; it’s time to think about the real-life logistics of a feat like this.  The analysis of maps and routes.  The finding of pet-friendly lodging along the way.  The what-will-we-pack to wear??  The list of books I’ll need to take along to read in the passenger seat for two thousand five hundred miles.  Maybe it’s finally time for A SUITABLE BOY, or CLARISSA, or WAR & PEACE?  Or maybe just a string of light audiobook mysteries to solve?  Help!

Today my husband printed out driving directions.  I’m pretty sure I lost my logic when I saw this:  1,200 miles on one road??

IMG_1704

Don’t mind me.  I’m just over here tamping down the panic.

If you have any advice or stories about taking such a long crazy trip, do share.  I need all the practical advice, or all the funny/crazy, you can offer.

The Tomato Story

imagesMy grandmother grew tomatoes.  She would gently pluck them from the vine and bring them in from her summer garden and line them up on her windowsill, stem side down, and wait.

First thing every morning, while coffee percolated on the stove, she would light her first cigarette and then gently, so very very gently, pat (not squeeze, never squeeze!) each tomato along the sill, to see if one or two or three might be ripe enough, might be perfect enough, to serve her family.

God forbid she’d serve a non-perfect tomato.

I thought about this after I heard the Janay Rice interview this evening.  About tomatoes, of all things.  Mrs. Rice is sitting on the sofa next to her mother, talking about the night of “the incident” and the fact that she has never watched the second video, the one where her husband drags her limp body out of the elevator and drops his injured, unconscious wife to the floor.  I think of gentility.  I think about perfection and responsibility.  My grandmother and her tomatoes.

My grandmother had big strong hands, and she was often embarrassed by them — “Just like my dad’s,” she would sigh — and by the  time I knew her, her hands, the knuckles of her fingers, were swollen and stiffened with arthritis.  She envied the delicate nature and physicality of other women, especially her neighbors/friends, who spent their evenings with a lapful of blue or pink or yellow yarn, knitting heirloom baby blankets for newborn grandchildren.  “I’m so sorry,” she would say when giving a store-bought blanket as a gift, and sometimes she would add with a forced laugh, “But this is so much prettier than anything I could every make.”

I was at a dinner recently with a large group of women, and though I forget exactly what we were talking about, I remember making this statement:  “Women are always apologizing.  Apologizing for themselves, for their opinions, for other people’s actions.”  And at the other end of the table, a woman rolled her eyes big and said dismissively, “That’s just not true.”  I stopped talking.  I moved tomatoes and mushrooms and onions around my plate with the tiny tines of my fork.  And I worried she was right.

I listened to Mrs. Rice say in her interview that the Baltimore Ravens — her husband’s football team, where he recently signed a $35M contract  — “suggested it would be really good if” she make an apology at their news conference.  Suggested she accept blame. “I do deeply regret the role that I played in the incident that night.”  I looked at her, and at her mother sitting next to her on that couch, and I thought of my grandmother.

For days and days after, I wondered about the woman at the dinner.  Her eye roll.  “That’s just not true.”  Was she right?  Was it just me?  I wondered what it would feel like to not feel responsible for every single thing that happens.  I thought about women I see when I play sports, like on the tennis court when women say, every time they miss a ball, “I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!”  I often chastise them for apologizing.  “It’s just game,” I say.  “Come on. No apologies!  You never hear the men saying they’re sorry for missing a ball!”  And yet the next thing I know I’m apologizing, too.  I’m sorry.  Because hey, if this game is going wrong, it must be somebody’s fault.  And maybe it’s mine.

I know where I learned that.

Eons ago I wrote a short story.  Back when I pretended I was writing fiction.  There was this paragraph:  Tomatoes were too plentiful this time of year. She lifted the hem of her dress with her left hand and gently squeezed each tomato with her right, intent on disconnecting only the softest, most mature bulbs, and placing them in the soft hammock of her skirt. Back in the kitchen, she flipped on the light over the sink and deposited her tomatoes on the counter. A few fell to the floor before she could stop them, making her feel like a failure.

I always thought that was a throwaway scene.

There are no throwaway scenes.

9 Hours in Missouri

The new bridge.

_______________

Come three o’clock Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, we are driving our rental car over this new 21st century bridge — leaving Illinois Rte 146, crossing over the Mississippi River, connecting to Missouri Rte 34/74.  Bridge and sky look exactly like this.  Cloudless, blue, bright.  Brand new.  Spectacular.  The future.

_______________

Missouri is not part of our plan.

This story begins in Kentucky, where my husband Rex and I are visiting our son.

On Monday night at a Residence Inn, we watch the “no indictment” announcement in the Darren Wilson case.  I watch as Ferguson burns.  I turn up the volume on the remote control, wiping any germs off the buttons with a wash cloth, as if all that wiping will make a difference. I keep refreshing my Twitter feed and looking for photos of National Guard Troops.  Every time I spot a line of the Guard holding automatic weapons, I enlarge the photo and zero in tight on every face, looking for my baby brother who is in the Missouri National Guard.  Is that him?  Is that??  I’ve heard he’s been deployed to Ferguson; I’ve heard this 3rd hand because we have not spoken in 4 years; I do not want to see my baby brother — the giggling little boy I knew, with freckles — holding a gun.

The conversation Friday morning, in the spare bedroom at my in-laws’ house, goes something like this.  We’re kinda done here.  Wanna drive over to Missouri and see my family?  And the next thing we know we’ve said our goodbyes and we are in our Hundai rental car and driving 3 hours until we cross the new bridge.  Look at this! I say.  The new bridge has been here a decade, but it is my first time to cross.  How shiny and modern and nothing like the scary old bridge I grew up with.

At my step-parents’ house, they’ve called everyone.  My stepsister and her husband and son and daughter; even the daughter’s boyfriend, who was out hunting deer this morning when she called him out in the field and said, Come back in!  Aunt Teri and Uncle Rex are coming!  They have to change work schedules and pile into a car and drive an hour and a half to see us.  Next, my stepbrother and his wife walk in the back door and the next think I know there’s a full house.  A full house, even with one brother, long absent but living right here in this tiny town, so close I said to Rex as we cruised into town, There’s his house, right over there. You can see it from the highway.  A full house, even with our baby brother in the Missouri National Guard, deployed to Ferguson.  And I think we are all trying our best not to notice.

At my stepparents’ house we drag in dining room chairs for more places to sit, and we talk nonstop, trying to drown out the sound of my stepmother’s oxygen generator.  We show each other photos of our dogs; we are all “dog people.”  We talk about sports.  We talk about holidays back when we were little.  My stepdad says something about a colored boy, and though I haven’t heard the word “colored” in eons it is so much better than what I expect that I feel relieved.  I think about the Grand Jury No-Indictment and hope no one brings it up.  My little brother, National Guard in Ferguson, is never once mentioned.  I wonder if he has the same giggle, the same freckles.  I wonder if I would even recognize him if I saw him on TV.

Later that evening, Rex and I are in a taxi.  The dispatcher comes on, screaming too loud on the radio, telling her drivers to avoid Broadway, that there’s trouble, that there are Ferguson protestors.  And yet we take Broadway all the way downtown, and there is no one.  The heat blasts on high in the taxi and I feel like I’m suffocating as I stare out the windows, looking for someone, anyone.  I refuse to take my jacket off, refuse to move.  I’d rather sweat.  I want to grab the taxi driver’s mic and call dispatch and scream, What protest?  There’s no one here!  No one!  

______________

The next morning, we drive back across the bridge, leaving Missouri to reconnect with Illnois Rte 146.  The new bridge looks the same going as it did coming in, it’s modern cables stark and bright white against the sky.  I’m only 2 hours from Ferguson and yet nothing feels urgent here.  It’s like my brother who lives off the highway — I can see his house, but there’s no connection.  Like my baby brother in Ferguson, 3rd hand news.  I recall the old bridge, the bridge of my childhood, built in 1928, and as we cross the river I tell Rex about how we only had 2 narrow lanes back then, no shoulder, no forgiveness, nowhere to stop for an emergency, no way out if something went wrong.  How dangerous it felt, crossing that old bridge back in the day, hoping we would make it.

He nods.  I don’t think he understands, but I feel like I can’t say whatever it is that I’m trying to say.  And we drive on.

The old bridge, built in 1928.

 * comments are off *