The Desk

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This is my new writing desk.  I ordered this desk two months ago.  It finally arrived in a giant, heavy, cardboard box and needing assembly, for my new, empty until today, writing room.

As small as this seems in the grand scheme of all things, it’s huge for me.

For the last 9 years I’ve been writing on either the dining room table (taking my computer down and storing it during holidays when I needed the table) or in a spare room on a bedside table barely big enough for the computer and keyboard and where I used the bed behind me as my credenza (which I also had to pack up and put away when we had houseguests).

Now I have a desk.  A desk!  A real desk.  With 2 skinny drawers for pens and notes and old photos and plain M&Ms.  And my new desk is in a tiny basement closet-like room with a door that closes to work in.  To write in.  To think in.  To escape in.  To connect in.  To be in.

And, maybe just as importantly??, a place for our sweet and elderly Handsome to crawl under and keep my feet warm while I work.

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Do you have a room of your own, or a room you’re dreaming years for?

 

Paris, Missouri

 

9780525427209_BettyvilleDear readers:

If you are not yet reading BETTYVILLE, and if you are not yet madly in love with its author George Hodgman, you are in for such a treat.  I’m going to be so sad when this book is over, and how often, really, do any of us say that about a book?

George Hodgman leaves his New York publishing life and heads to Missouri for his mother’s 91st birthday, and never makes it back.  BETTYVILLE is about growing up and getting older, for the both the mother and the son, and the reversal that happens when it’s time to take care of our elderly parents.  It’s about loss and love and mothers and sons and how small town life — really small, as in a thousand people small — can end up being exactly the kind of community you’ve always craved even after you moved far away to New York City to escape and live your big life.  I knew when I read sentences like this, in the first few pages, I would be hooked:

“I am an unlikely guardian.  A month ago I thought the Medicare doughnut hole was a breakfast special for seniors.  I am a care inflictor.”

“I am probably going to have to stay here in Missouri and become a horse whisperer….  Turns out I’m a person who needs people.  I hate that.”

You can listen to George Hodgman’s NPR interview with Terry Gross here, and you should because he is so incredibly charming you’ll want to read his book AND give him a giant hug and take him home with you.  Or visit him in Paris, Missouri.

It’s A Stormy Romance

IMG_2092Three weeks in the midwest and it’s been all about managing expectations of weather.  Early on I was telling a local gentleman that I heard bad Spring weather was coming our way and how I missed a good storm and couldn’t wait for it to get here already.  He looked at me like I was nuts.  He told me to be careful what I wished for.  He turned away.

Since our move to the west coast — with our Midwestern family and friends opining on the dangers of earthquakes and joking about California falling into the ocean — I’ve missed hearing a good thunder crash, missed seeing the bold flashes of light across a daytime sky that can go dark at three in the afternoon and set you back with a scare.  When I was little, my grandmother loved sitting out on the front porch swing and telling scary stories while we waited for the Missouri storms to come.  Storms were the perfect background for what she liked to spin, stories full of vampires and werewolves and dark castles with coffins in locked chambers and lightening flashing outside too-tall windows.  Candles would be blown out by unexpected winds (ghosts).  Lights would flicker and go out (more ghosts).  The men in Grandma’s stories were charming but hiding madness and evil secrets.  But the women.  The women in my grandmother’s stories were always young, always unusually beautiful, always desired and even craved by the devils (man and ghost) who came to call during the rage of a storm.  The women would use the storm flashes and lack of light to hide, to show their smarts and cleverness, to trick, to buy themselves more time, to escape.  To save themselves.

When my husband and I first got married, our house sat atop a hill.  The bedroom was on the second floor, and when I knew a storm was coming I would run upstairs, like a kid, and call my mother and sit cross-legged in the middle of the bed and talk to her while I watched the sky turn darker and the treetops blow.  Mom told me how Grandma, even when she was young, loved nothing better than to sit on the porch telling stories, waiting for a storm to blow in.  Storms broke up the monotony of long, miserably hot, summer days.  Storms cleared the air.  Storms, in a strangely reliable way, brought the unexpected.  Storms meant the whole family might have to run to the basement and huddle down, and being together like that meant not feeling so alone.  Storms brought the chance to feel alive and, for a little while, escape a world controlled by my powerful grandfather — the charming madman with his secrets.  A world that, to the beautiful women trapped in the house, often felt flat, and stuck, and dead.  It’s only now, looking back, that I can see it was the women and the storms — never the vampires or the werewolves or the men — who held the all power.

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I hate to admit it, but the local gentleman was right.  These last few weeks have been exhausting, and even terrifying.  In my last decade in California, I’ve experienced exactly one earthquake that lasted, maybe, 25 seconds.  It was scary, yes, but one thing in 10 years feels like such a relief.  I’m back in storm country and I’m tired of being awakened at 3 am (like last night) and running around the house with a flashlight checking for a flood.  I’m tired of listening to the dog pant and pace because he knows to be scared.  Storms have lost their pull on me. Now, when I hear the rumble of thunder rolling in, I worry and feel trapped.  Now that I can’t call my mother from the second floor bedroom while I watch the sky go dark.  Now that my grandmother is not longer here to tell me a story about a clever, beautiful young woman who knows exactly where to hide and how to escape.  Now that I’m not the little girl, safe, or so my grandmother’s stories assured me, on the porch swing.

The Decision

IMG_1842If there’s a question I used to dread more than most it was this:  Are you going to have a baby?  

Now that I’m turning 50, nobody asks that question anymore.  But there’s a replacement, often leaned into and more under-the-breath:  So, why didn’t you have a baby?

These questions are often followed by offers of sympathy: “I’m so sorry,” or “I’m so sad for you,” as though someone has died.  These questions have been followed by indignation: “You’ll be sorry when you’re old and alone,” or “Who will take care of you?”  These questions have been poised with cruel and narcisistic assumptions: “I guess you’d rather travel and see the world!”  And of course these questions have sometimes been asked with the utmost kindness and generosity of spirit, though this has admittedly been more rare.

I usually give the quick answer, “I never really wanted to have kids,” because it’s easy and I don’t know what else to say and how do you even begin to explain a decision like this in 10 words or less over drinks in a loud bar, or in a group of women who have all given birth?  How do you begin when you don’t know where the beginning, or even the middle, is?

That said, I’ve often wondered what would happen if I asked, “Why did you decide to have a baby?”  And that maybe those answers, if given the space, would be just as complex and fraught with anxiety and ultimately as unexplainable as my own.

Last night I read this essay by MG Lord about her decision, and it might well be one of the few times in my 50 years that I’ve ever felt like another woman on the planet both understood and told the story that I am still not completely capable of telling.  Rounds of applause, MG.

From “You’d Be Such a Good Mother, If Only You Weren’t You”

Many women who lost their mothers as children go on to flourish as mothers themselves. Some claim to have healed their grief through parenting. I wanted to be one of those women. When the prospect of a baby loomed on my horizon, I felt pure horror. But I thought I could white-knuckle my way through this and become a different person, a better person. – See more at: http://damemagazine.com/2015/04/01/youd-be-such-good-mother-if-only-you-werent-you#sthash.JQP6VPLE.dpuf

 

Because Smoke Means Home

Have you seen the COPD commercials?  My favorite is the one with the elephant sitting on a woman’s chest.  She says it’s hard to breathe.  Then she inhales Spiriva, the miracle drug, and the next thing we see she’s showered and dressed and fit and laughing and out chasing butterflies.  It’s a fucking miracle.

The first time I smoked a cigarette, I was in 5th grade.  I was hanging out with Donna, a girl my mother and grandmother would have described as “trouble” and they might have been right.  While we smoked menthols in her bedroom, Donna bragged and told stories about real drugs and sex and boys and scared me so much I stopped going over there.  And being as I have never even liked the taste of mint toothpaste, her menthols made me feel like puking.

57520726Mom smoked Marlboro 100’s.  They were long and lasted longer and came in a pretty, feminine, gold and white box.  So elegant.  Grandma smoked Winstons in their red and white short boxes.  Mom felt so evolved.

While I was trying out menthols, we lived with my grandparents and Grandpa Red was already well into his emphysema.  He had a twin bed down in our unfinished concrete basement, and when he tried to mow the grass or work in the garden or butcher the rabbits stem-to-stern out back he’d have to take lots of breaks to sit and gulp — literally, gulp and gasp — air into his expanding chest, his panting mouth shaped like a small O.

One day my mom switched to Marlboro Lights because she thought they would be healthier.  Being “light” and all.

Being in my grandmother’s kitchen with her and my mom and my aunts and uncles was like sitting in choking, impenetrable fog while hearing all the local gossip.  My grandmother claimed she never inhaled.  I believed her.  They had to shoo me away from the table.  “Grown up talk ain’t for kids ears!”  I loved it.

When I was in my 20s I smoked once a year on girls’ weekend.  On my annual summer get-together with my oldest friends — camping, river-tubing, boating — I would buy a pack of my mom’s Marlboro Lights and smoke them as fast as I could.  The feel of being a grown up, the feel of Her.

My grandfather died of emphysema.  As my doctor friend says, “He suffocated to death over years.”  My grandmother died of a heart attack.  Years later Aunt Mary said, “She had emphysema!  You didn’t believe all that ‘I don’t inhale’ nonsense, did you?”

When I was in my 30s, my mother was trapped in her house, unable to smoke and unable to leave because she was on oxygen 24-hours a day and tethered to her oxygen tank like a dog on a chain in the yard.  If she left she’d have panic attacks and feared wetting her pants, so she augured in.  Stayed home.  My mother, at age 56, was a prisoner.  Except when she escaped to the hospital because she thought she was dying.  But wasn’t.  Yet.

When we caught my teenaged daughter smoking, I railed.  But she didn’t care.  She only stopped smoking when she got a boyfriend who said he wouldn’t date a girl who smoked.

The great benefit of having a mother who is sick and always home is that she is always there to answer your calls.  The sicker she got, the more she couldn’t breathe, the more I called.  Sometimes 3 or 5 times a day.  There’s nothing like a mom who can’t wait to hear from the-all-important-Y.O.U.

A doctor friend told me my mother would die a horrific death.  That she would suffocate slowly, over years, like someone holding a pillow over her face every day, all day long, all night long, for hundreds of days and nights.

Fuck him, I thought. Fuck. Him.

But that’s exactly how it was.  Until she finally gave up.  Until she finally died.  In a nursing home.  Among the elderly.  Nurses came from other areas, saying, “I heard we had a young one ….”  A week later, my mother died.  At age 56.

Just 6 years older than I am right now.

In my 30s I was taking classes at the University of Minnesota, taking classes with 20 year olds and working to get my Bachelor’s Degree.  Every time we had a “break” and everyone went outside to smoke it took everything I had not to scream, “I HOPE YOU’LL ENJOY YOUR CANCER AND SUFFOCATING TO DEATH.”

A few years ago I went home for another grandfather’s funeral. On the way to the wake I sat in the back seat while my father drove and smoked a cigarette — what kind??? — through a cracked winter window, while my stepmother rode in the passenger seat with plastic nose tubes, on oxygen.  COPD.

When my son graduated from college, I stood outside on the deck of a Kentucky bar with my sisters-in-law, smoking a cigarette.  He came out and caught me and said, “I can’t believe you’re smoking a cigarette, after what’s happened with your mother!”  And I was sufficiently shamed.  And indignant.  And inhaled some more.

IMG_2058Today I was in the checkout line at Kroger and saw this display.  My mother’s cigarettes. Right!  There!  The young couple in front of me asked the clerk for a carton of Marlboro Blacks — which I’ve never even heard of — and the clerk had to leave her station and go get the carton from another area of the store.  I stood there, looking at the locked-up pack cigarettes, and thought about safety.

When I’m driving next to someone smoking in a car, with their window cracked, it sometimes takes everything I have not to run them off the road, yank them out of their car, and scream at them as they lie on the gravel shoulder.

Now it’s 2015 and my mother has been dead 13 years and my stepmother, a lifelong smoker, has exactly what my mother had.  COPD.  Can’t breathe.  On home oxygen.  She goes to the hospital often.  And she’s afraid to tell my dad it’s bad, that she can’t breathe, that it’s time to go, because hey, she doesn’t want to bother him.

Though, of course, he still smokes.

Which makes me hate him.

Which makes me love him when he chooses not to smoke, like the last time I visited in November.  “Did you see he didn’t smoke the whole time!” my stepsister said.

And yet some days, I imagine the smoke of my childhood, even as much as I hated it.  Smoke is so familiar.  Smoke means home.

I’m often tempted to buy a pack of cigarettes.  A whole pack.  To carry in my purse.  To smell the raw tobacco.  To hear the crinkle of the pack as I dig for my keys.  Marlboro Lights, to be exact.

My stepmother has been in the hospital this week.  She’s got a new regimen, and maybe a new doctor.  She’s hopeful.

I imagine sitting out on my deck at night, alone with glass of bourbon which I don’t even drink, looking up at the stars, the moon, and lighting up.  I think about the 8 miles it would take me to drive to Kroger and how I could be there and back home in minutes.  The click-click-click-click-click of the plastic lighter.  The sound of the burn.  The smell of love, of death, of home.

On This Road

When I was little I hated feeling trapped in the car.  My parents smoked and it seemed, when I was 5 and 7 and 10 and 13, there was nothing worse on this earth than being held hostage in the back seat of a Chevy or Dodge while my mom and stepdad, and then just my mom after the divorce, smoked one cigarette after another.  “Please let me stay with Grandma,” I begged.

I’ll turn 50 this year, and not much has changed.  My husband tells people I have a 4 hour limit.  Bless him.  He’s giving me way more credit than I deserve as I’m fairly certain I have about a one hour limit, if that, and that I also need to be the one driving and deciding which route to take and when and where to stop and eat and pee and stretch my legs.  And stop.  Just stop.

We recently drove 2,392 miles in 4 days.  With 3 big dogs in the back hatch.  We struggled about how best to take them, coming to agreement that 2 could be in the far back with 1 comfortably in the backseat but, as dogs do, they let us know that wasn’t happening.  200 lbs of 3 dogs huddled tight into the back hatch and were, I kid you not, the best travelers you’ve ever met.  We barely knew they were there.  They were so good.  So quiet.  So much better than, well, me. IMG_2017 And here’s what I learned:

1.  I can go for more than an hour, and even more than 4 hours, but I can’t do anything but look at the map and plan the next stop.  I brought 7 books and read nothing.

2.  People do not pick up dog poop at Rest Stop “pet areas.”  I stepped in a huge pile of shit the first day.  People!

3.  Wendy’s has the best chicken sandwich.  Burger King as the best French Fries.

4.  Unlike at home, I cannot take 3 dogs for a walk, at the same time, in a strange neighborhood, at 6 a.m., in the Motel 6 parking lot.

5.  If there are people with German Shepherds and aggressive Boxers in a dog park screaming obscenities, do not be lured in by the words “dog park.”

6.  Gas stations often have poop-free zones in which to walk your dogs!

7.  There is such a thing as being too tired to drive.  Or function.  Or speak.

8.  It seems our rescued 10+ yr old Golden used to belong to a truck driver.  He pulled desperately toward every tractor trailer he saw, and he literally hugged our SUV as if he thought we would abandon him at a truck stop.  We wish he could talk.

9.  Our favorite hotel chain, by far, was the La Quinta.  I requested a “dog friendly” room by an outside (not lobby) entrance, and it was perfectly lovely until the next morning when the carpet suddenly smelled like dog piss.  But it was roomy, and comfy, and convenient.  And as perfect as it could be.

10.  I met a 70+ yr old woman who travels every year from her apartment in New York to her house in Phoenix, with her big Golden Retriever and a cat.  She was a hoot.  Said it takes 5 days.  Loves the drive.  Loves her animals.  Was gone by 6 am the next morning.  And she’s a love, my hero, period.  I wish I’d gotten her name.  She’s got more than a one hour, or a 4 hour, limit.  And so do I, really.  Especially now that there are no cigarettes.  No smoke.  Even if some damage can occur when the dog pulls your entire shin into a tree stump while trying to get into the nearest truck.  But I digress. IMG_2056   ___________________

How do you travel by car?  And do you travel with pets? 

The Standalone Gift

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“No matter our age, it’s so hard to understand what our mothers need. Looking back, I wonder if I ever stopped staring into my own mirror—worrying about some weight I’d gained or a bad haircut or the wrong clothes—long enough to care. There would be time for that later, right?  Later, there would be time?”

Click here to read my story over at The Manifest-Station website today.