Staring Down the Dark

Staring Down the Dark

I really did plan to write a cheerful holiday post today. I put the order in and sat poised at the keyboard, ready for inspiration. Instead, here is what came out: that time I thought I might die. Proceed with caution if this isn’t your bag 🙂

When I was a kid, I loved being afraid.

Grocery shopping with my mother, I would be drawn by a force I didn’t understand, to the far end of the meat section, where they stocked the chicken and pigs feet, frog legs, fish heads and tongue, all stamped with bright orange stickers, “Low low price!” I’d creep toward the display and stare at it, shivering.

It was brutal, scary, and weirdly soothing.

I learned then that if I could look long enough at the white belly, the bone, the hoof, my fear would eventually turn to curiosity. By the time I heard Mama calling me, the parts had lost their grisly pull, and although I never wished to see them on my plate, I wasn’t afraid of them anymore, at least until the next time we went shopping, when once again I would wander from the kid-friendly entertainment of the cereal aisle, into the place where nice girls didn’t go.

I remember creating haunted houses in the sweltering attic of our small house, hanging my dolls, bloodied with magic marker, from the ceiling, and arranging bowls of spaghetti brains, broken mirrors, and rubber knives in creepy tableaus.

As I got older, I added to the scene, with death threats scrawled on paper that I carefully burned around the edges, and descriptions like this, next to each installation: “This very baby carriage and it’s human contents was crushed by the axe of a madman!”

It was a little intense for the other grade schoolers in my neighborhood, so usually it was pretty much just me up there, hanging out on summer afternoons, hot as hell and perfectly at home in the dark.

My friend Risa told me that the fact that I wasn’t afraid of the dark was proof that I was The Devil. We were living in the Bible belt, so this was a pretty big deal. After I got over that first rush, similar to getting cast as the lead in the school play, I admit it gave me pause.

I had good reason to think she might be on the right track in her assessment of my character, but in the end I was way too insecure to think I could be the Anti-Christ himself. For one thing, I was having a heck of a time memorizing my multiplication tables, proof, in my own mind, that I would never be tapped for such an important gig.

By fifth grade, I was an avid reader of horror comic books. After comics came ghost stories like The Bell Witch. Later, while my friends were reading Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, I read Amityville Horror and Helter Skelter.

I was the kid who was always looking up leprosy in The World Book Encyclopedia, or holding a seance.

My idea of fun was slipping into fear like a pair of comfy slippers and walking around for a while. There were a lot of demons inhabiting my world. For some of us, feeling scared helps us, well, not be so scared.

Once I grew up, my world felt a lot safer, and I mostly seemed normal-ish, at least when it came to my idea of a good time.

Then a few months ago, I decided to address a slowly percolating health issue.

Let me preface this by saying that all the tests have come back clear and I am basically fine. No biggie, as they say. But during the whole biopsy/second opinion process, my entire being was screaming “Are you fucking kidding me? This is a biggie– this is The Biggie!”

Even though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, looking back now it’s clear that I employed the skills honed way back when, at the grocery store.

I looked.

Not at Google! I repeat: NOT AT GOOGLE. (Please don’t look at Google while waiting for test results. You’re welcome.)

I looked at what was scary.

After meeting with a surgeon who painted kind of a bleak picture, I found myself strolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s, planning my funeral, making a mental list of the friends who I could call on to help my sons and husband once I was gone.

Like a lot of women I know, one of the ways I cope with stress is to share with friends, which I did.

Some friends responded to my news with a big smile and, “Oh stop it– you’re FINE!” They meant only the best, of that I am sure and I love them for wanting to save me from my own dark side, but flipping on the lights isn’t always the compassionate move.

And plus, how could they possibly know I was fine, at that point? I couldn’t know that about them and I would never pretend to.

One friend and I talked about what we could binge watch during my chemo. We discussed the merits of something called “exposure burial” vs. cremation. I instructed her to save my journals but delete my texts, which she totally understood. We laughed about how crazy it was, but we never shut each other down.

She sat with me in the dark.

Although I had been talking funerals, and chemo, and loss, my real fear was of having to go through it alone.

By the simple act of not looking away, she told me that nothing about me was too scary. She would be there, even if/when things got that fucking bad. She would watch t.v with me, and find me banana popsicles, and help me change my bandages.

I’d do the same for her.

There’s an image in my mind that, if it had happened back in 1972, would have made all the difference: it’s of a little girl, at the far end of the meat section. She is shivering from cold coming off the refrigerated cases, and from what she sees when staring into them. She doesn’t want to look away, but feels her friend standing next to her, and knows she is not alone.

They both look.

And they are both afraid, and less afraid, together.

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Killing Mama (First draft of part of a thing)

Killing Mama (First draft of part of a thing)

Mama is down at Kirsten’s house having whiskey and Cokes with Kirsten’s daddy. While she is gone, this is my plan:

  1. I will sneak into the bathroom in the dark.
  2. I will take mama’s yellow toothbrush out of the cup by the sink.
  3. I will take the bottle of Windex, which is poison, and I will dip her toothbrush all the way down into the bottle.
  4. I will put the now poisoned toothbrush back into the cup and tonight, when she brushes her teeth, she will fall over onto the pink tile floor and be completely dead.

That is my plan and I do it.

Later, I’m on my bed in the dark, thinking about finding Mama on the bathroom floor after I poison her. I imagine telling Molly and Lynne to come in and see her, lying completely still, in her black robe, with her infected ear, right beside her yellow toothbrush.

The neighbors come over to comfort us because it is a sad day when your mother dies, usually.

I stop thinking about that.

Mama is still not back from Kirsten’s. I’m surprised because when Kirsten’s mother comes home Mama usually skidaddles right out of there because Kirsten’s mother is a health nut and hippy-dippy, Mama says. But she must be having a whole lot of fun over there tonight.

Staring at the glowing stars I have stuck to the ceiling, I start thinking again.

I think about how maybe the police would be called to the scene to solve the mystery of the dead woman with the toothbrush. It’s not what you would call an everyday thing. There would probably be a detective like Columbo, and he might get a feeling about the case. He might take me down to the station to answer a few questions. He would give me a coke and a donut while he smokes a cigarette to help him think.

He will ask me for my alibi and I will tell him this: I went to Rose’s department store to find a certain color of lipstick that I need. They did not have it, I will tell him, because it is sold special only at Castner-Knott’s, which is in Nashville where I couldn’t get to, so I spent the whole afternoon looking at Rose’s department store and didn’t end up buying anything, but I was there, is what I’ll say.

I thought of that alibi a long time ago when I was making the plan, which is how I had it ready.

In the end, Columbo would probably get one of his funny feelings, where he touches his nose and sort of looks up, closing his eyes. He would have a feeling about me, but he wouldn’t say anything because he would be able to see that I was a good girl underneath it all, even if Risa Niedermeyer and all those priss-pots say different, and that Mama was just a bad egg who got what she deserved. He would talk to Miss Nunley at Hobgood Elementary, who would tell him that I am almost never late, and that I won the poster making contest about the four food groups, and I would tell him that I am going to be a Campfire Girl when I am old enough, which is proof that I am a normal person inside, no matter what things look like on the outside.

And then I do the thing professional murderers never do. I get a picture in my head and I look at it: Mama on the floor, next to her toothbrush, dead and gone. I see how she’s funny sometimes, and how Grammie says she can’t help the way she is. And I think how I could never tell anyone the bad thing that I had done, not even Molly and Lynne because even though they hate Mama as much as I do sometimes, they would never commit the crime of poisoning.

I’m the one who would do that.

In my imagination I see Mama walking home from Kirsten’s house. She is happy and talking to the alligators, like she always says, taking her clothes off on the way. She puts on her pink nighty, not the black bathrobe. I see her reaching for her toothbrush and I know what will happen next and I don’t want it to happen after all.

I jump from my bed and look out the window down the street. I don’t see Mama coming, but I know she’ll be here soon. I only have a minute.

I run to get the yellow toothbrush in the pink bathroom. I turn on the hot water and hold it under until it’s steaming. I smell the toothbrush and it smells ok but what if it’s not? What if Windex is so poison that even a little could kill you? Like the people next door who had a baby that drank just a little lighter fluid and died before someone could get to it? Or what if the poison just makes Mama sick and she wonders maybe did someone poison her toothbrush and she calls the police herself, and maybe it won’t be Columbo, but a real scary policeman like the one in that movie I saw about the Badham County Women’s Prison?

There’s not much time.

I take the dripping toothbrush, wrapped in toilet paper, and sneak down the hall. I go out the back door to where the trash cans are. It’s pitch dark and hot as Hades. I lift the lid of one of those cans and push the toothbrush way down under some old hotdogs and a wet Cap’n Crunch box, where even Columbo wouldn’t have the nerve to look.

Next thing, I am washed, in my pajamas and under the covers, staring again at the glowing stars.

I can’t stop thinking. Risa and those girls and even Miss Nunley, they would all say the same thing– no matter what your reasons are, almost killing your mother is nearly as bad as really doing it. It’s not something you do if you are good.

I squeeze my eyes shut and wish so hard for god to change my insides.

All Souls, Forgiven

All Souls, Forgiven

So it’s that time: All Souls Day, Dia de los Muertos, Samhain.

These holidays, celebrated during  the time of year when the veil between the living and the dead is at it’s thinnest, call us to remember our ancestors.

Which is why, when it came time to write this week’s post, I was all set to talk about my mom, who passed away just over a year ago.

If you’ve read any of my past posts like this, you know a little about her, but I thought it would shake things up a bit if I tell a nice story about my mother, for a change.

True, it would take some digging, but I was determined.

Until, that is, I sat in front of my computer and thought, why would anyone care about that??  

A story about how my mother once cooked a nice leg of lamb won’t mean anything to anyone. It’s self indulgent and uninteresting.

Also, it’s not even true.

Blogging is dumb, I decided.

So,  I quit.

Just like that.

(It is worth noting that I quit blogging exactly two and a half times a week, and don’t really think it’s dumb, except sometimes. )

All of this brings me to Sunday night, when my sons and I were hanging out, eating the homemade chicken soup I had so lovingly prepared, and discussing something that had happened between my 13 year old and one of his friends.

(Those of you who are parents will know that, in recounting a conversation about my son’s friends, I am skating on very thin ice. It is for this reason that I will scramble all details, rendering the whole thing completely mysterious. If you think I’m being paranoid, check out this cautionary tale.)

So anyway…

My son mentioned that a friend (we’ll call him Chauncey) had an issue with a girl we know. According to my son, Chauncey finds this girl “spacey.” I, being an astute observer of human behavior (and also clueless in the workings of the adolescent mind) said, “Well, Chauncey is a little spacey, himself, so he shouldn’t talk.”

“No he’s not,” 13 said, his spoon frozen in mid-air.

(I know what you’re thinking. This is where I should have stopped talking. Who the fuck cares what Chauncey thinks?? Certainly not me, and yet…)

“Yes he is,” I said.

“Name one time he has acted spacey,” he countered, in full defense mode, like only a 13 year old can.

Looking back, I am warmed by his loyalty, by his willingness to have his friend’s back, even in the face of his own mother, who’s approval he still grudgingly,

almost imperceptibly,

but still most definitely, craves.

The rest of the conversation went pretty much like this: me giving lots of amusing examples of Chauncey’s spaciness. I was careful to keep it light, peppering the list with other observations, like how smart Chauncey is, and funny, and kind to animals.

“I love Chauncey!” I assured 13, who had already dumped his bowl of hot soup and was busy making cinnamon toast (a passive aggressive move that wasn’t lost on me), with tears in his eyes.

God.

The whole night went south from there, with 13 giving me the silent treatment, leaving me to wonder why in the world I feel it necessary to share my opinion on every little thing to anyone who will listen, or, in this case, anyone who has no choice but to hear it.

I let a little time pass, then delivered a sincere apology.

This wasn’t the “I’m sorry if I said something that bothered you” kind of apology, but the three part real deal apology.

He deserved it.

I had, for no good reason, criticized a friend of his. It  wasn’t kind, it wasn’t necessary and, as far as he was concerned, it wasn’t true.

Like the good and compassionate egg he is, he accepted my apology.

So why didn’t I feel better?

The maternal anxiety I was feeling was clearly out of proportion to the pretty minor screw-up. What was my deal?

It wasn’t that my son was mad at me, puh-leez. Happens all the time.

Only later, in bed, as I stared into the dark and hoped for sleep, that I realized what was gnawing at me: the whole thing, the petty observations, the criticism disguised as humor, the taking down of someone smaller and weaker—

all of it was straight out of my mother’s playbook.

Shit.

Thus commenced a longish stretch of self-loathing, which brought me to my kitchen table at around midnight, pen in hand, to hash it out on paper.

The veil felt thin alright. In fact, I had the unsettling sensation of my mother sitting right beside to me. 

Maybe even a little bit inside me.

I hated the idea of being like her in any way. Because I saw her as wholly awful in the mother department, I wanted her as far away from me as possible.

I remembered her falling asleep with her cigarette burning, spending the scarce money on Jack and stealing from my ballerina jewelry box. I would never, I thought, and opened my journal.

Unforgivable. 

I began to write.

But, weirdly enough, what ended up on the page, was this:

Yes, She Did That. But She Also Did This

She taught me to eat a balanced diet

She taught me that making art was worthwhile

She didn’t obsess about her looks or her body and that rubbed off on me

She was funny, and I learned that laughter is a survival skill

When I was eleven and chipped my front tooth, she didn’t let the dentist give me a silver cap, even though it would have been cheaper.

I put down my pen and looked at what I’d written.

Not bad, Mama, I thought.

I didn’t plan to post a blog about it. The list was long overdue, and it was just for me.

But then I noticed something had lifted.

I could see, or was finally letting myself see, in the dim light of the midnight kitchen, that I couldn’t help but occasionally sound like my mother. By the time I was thirteen (ah, 13), she had gone, but, like the sculptures she made of me as a child, I was covered in her fingerprints.

The only way to live with that, to forgive myself when I occasionally sounded a bit too much like her, was to raise the veil and take a long slow look at the truth, even if it complicates the story.

Even if it means I have to give in a little.

Like a lot of us, she was just an imperfect woman, raised by an imperfect woman.

And we are all forgiven.

 

This Post Is Not Clickable or Funny or SEO Friendly

This Post Is Not Clickable or Funny or SEO Friendly

I could not come up with anything to write last week.

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I guess it’s more accurate to say that, although I did come up with something last week, I could not stand to publish what I came up with last week.

I could not stand for one more minute, the sentences beginning with I,

the licking out of every corner of my mind.

And then presenting it for you to read?

Unthinkable.

“If you don’t enjoy doing it, don’t do it,” my husband sometimes tells me.

“But I am. I am enjoying it,” I tell him right back.

I enjoy learning that what catches my eye isn’t always the shiny thing, like it was when I was younger. At fifty, I’m not afraid to reach in and pluck the dark moments of any given day. Writing about them, I find they are like berries, the darker the sweeter.

I even enjoy the things about blogging that make me want to take an ice-pick to my computer screen.

Things like software issues, algorithms, SEO optimization and grammar zealots. Last week, after I posted this, I got an email from someone telling me that I should get a proofreader, as I had misused it’s and its several times.

And you know what?

I loved her for that.

In another situation I probably would have gotten shitty about her comment. “That wasn’t the point,” I might have shot back, in defense of myself. I might have made her wrong to whoever would listen, only later taking a bath in my own shame, thinking, it’s true. I’m not smart enough to do this. Everyone sees it.

But because I want to improve my writing more than I want to bubblewrap my ego, and because she was absolutely right, I corrected the mistakes she pointed out (there are many more, I know) and gave a silent prayer gratitude for her suggestions, and for my own surprising ability to not be a jerk about it.

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So yes, I love writing here.

Then what’s the problem? Why am I so worried that I’m taking up this tiny bit of space that should be given to someone else?

Sandra Cisneros gave this piece of advice: “Do not write about what you remember. Write about what you wish you could forget.”

It is Christmas afternoon and my mother is yelling at me that the gifts I made for her and my father were an embarrassment. I had not taken the time I should have, she stands over me and yells, to make sure they were done well. She tells me that I am selfish, thinking I could give him that awful ashtray with “Daddy” painted in red over blue paint that had not yet dried. The paint smeared and looked muddy.

Slapdash.

Mama is furious because, even though I am in third grade, I should know what is high quality work and what is not. That plywood I had been so happy to find under the house, on which I painted a picture of a fish and a ferris wheel for her, was still rough, she yells. It should have been sanded, goddamnit. I should be ashamed, she says, before slamming her bedroom door.

And I am, because she is an artist, and my mother, so she knows.

I never told anyone this story because it always seemed both too sad and also not sad enough to make for interesting conversation, but eventually, I shared it for the first time with a therapist. I couldn’t understand why this quick scene wrecked me when I thought of it.

“That’s must have hurt when your mother said those things,” she said.

“Yeah, but she had a point,” I smiled and shrugged.

“What do you mean?”

“I could have done better.”

“You were in third grade and these were gifts you had made. For her. Who cares if you could have done better?”

“I know, but I knew the paint was wet,” I reason. “And I should have sanded the edges of that painting. She was right.” My therapist looked at me a long time, the way they do. My mother’s words, like a splinter, were in too deep.

Then decades pass. I have not seen my mother in many years. When she is hospitalized, I go to clean out her apartment, where I find stacks of her sculptures, and an outside storage unit filled to the ceiling with even more.IMG_6571 (1)

Taped to many of the pieces are notes describing how they could be improved. Some read like passionate letters of apology, full of frustration and plans of how to make it right next time.

She was in love.

She was in love with the process of creating but her work,  precious in her own eyes, was never, ever good enough for the eyes of others. So she packed all those sculptures away until she died.

The healing of shame is a lifelong process, and the shitty part of it is that the only way I’ve found to heal shame is to let myself feel it.

To write the sentences that begin with I.

When the time came to post on this blog last week and what I had to say seemed half-baked, I picked at that scab a little bit.

Amateur.

Uneducated.

Bored housewife.

This week I wrote what you are looking at right now. I could (part of me thinks that I should) just put it in a box labelled “Proofread. Needs work.” I could leave it to the real writers, wait until my boys are grown, until I get an M.A. (or even a B.A.), or some other permission slip from the People On Top. Until I learn, once and for all, the difference between it’s and its.

Instead, I’m giving it away.

Fuck it.

Because that’s what a personal blog is all about.

Oh, heads up, the edges are a little rough.

 

 

 What My Best Friend Taught Me, Forty Years In

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As William Wordsworth once said, “To begin, begin.”

I have a long scar across the palm of my left hand. The story is that, when I was a baby, I fell on my glass bottle running after my mother, as she was walking out the door. I had good reason to be anxious. When either one of my parents left, it was never certain that they would come back. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. As I got older, sometimes they answered when I called, sometimes the number had been changed. My friend JoDee was the first person who’s presence I had the luxury of taking for granted; I never had to run after her because she never left.

We met in 4th grade, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when we lost our balance, like all middle schoolers do, that we were pulled into each other’s orbit. We both faked our laps in P.E., loved meatloaf day in the cafeteria, WMAK radio, and Queen. Lying on the grass, making clover chains in the heat of our adolescence, we shared stories about our lives (her father, strange and occasionally missing, and me, left on my own at thirteen) until, over time, the stories piled up, undisturbed, and our friendship took root.

By eighth grade, I had a botched home perm and a revolving door of care givers, none of whom lasted. I was like that box of random do-dads left behind when you’re moving— the stuff no one wants to throw away but no one really wants to keep. I wish I could say I weathered this all with grace, but the truth is that I was extremely angry. I was a little mean, an eye-roller, and not up for loving anyone. So, I was basically a total pain in the ass.

But I needed somewhere to go after school. JoDee and I cracked each other up, and her house had an open door policy, so that’s where I found myself. Literally.

JoDee’s mother, Dee, took me in and, as far as I could see, treated me like one of her own. She didn’t mind that I walked through their front door without knocking and went straight to the fridge for onion dip and Tab. She didn’t mind when I called her Mom, and best of all, she usually answered. I wonder how that must have felt to JoDee, to have the finite resource of her single mother’s attention stretched to nourish a kid as hungry as I was. But I didn’t think about that then. Instead, I made myself comfortable on one side of JoDee’s queen size bed and plunked my toothbrush down by the small bathroom sink.

For years I gave JoDee’s mom all the credit for this arrangement and how it changed my life, but even though I still am deeply grateful to Dee, now that I have kids almost the age that JoDee and I were then, I realize I need to share that gratitude with her, too. In a pattern that would repeat for decades, JoDee made room for me when I needed it.

How long did I live with her in high school, what was it, weeks? Months? I can’t remember. It seems like a lot of my Freshman and Sophomore year was spent at her house, piled together on the La-Z Boy watching MTV or lying on her bed staring at the pictures of Sting that papered the walls of her room. It wasn’t a perfect world. We got up to a lot of teenage shenanigans (sorry, gotta leave that part out in case her kids read this), but at JoDee’s house I didn’t have to jump when an adult entered the room, and I let myself experiment with not being afraid.
This was great for me, but again, I wonder how it was for her. She was the first one I’d call when a boyfriend dumped me, or when I needed a roommate, a car, an alibi, a pep talk, a date, a meal. She saw every terrible play I was in and stayed awake during most of them. I’m exhausted just thinking about it all.

JoDee thinks of herself as a fixer in remission. She’s come a long way and works very hard now on not taking on people’s problems and not feeling like she has to rescue every stray person who lands on her doorstep. I hear her struggle with that tendency still, and cheer her on when she manages to let people handle their own shit. But the truth is that if she had been a little less of a fixer, I’m sure I would have stayed broken.

I would love it if she had a list this long of the ways I helped her through the first half of her life. I could say that I plan to help her just as much during the next half but, thankfully, neither of us need that kind of help anymore. She is the most grounded, big-hearted person I know. She has a wonderful husband and kids, a job she’s good at and a community of friends who know, just as I do, how special she is. So, yeah. She’s all good.

I have to accept that our friendship wasn’t always even-steven, and guess what? No one is keeping score. When I see the memes and read the popular advice that you should “only surround yourself with positive people!”, I thank my lucky stars that JoDee didn’t do that, back in the day.

One of the great things about reaching middle-age is that I can see trouble coming a mile away, and I make a sharp turn to avoid it. When I see someone whose life is full of a suspicious amount of drama, I make myself scarce. (Oh the irony.) A friend told me recently that she admires the fact that I “do not suffer fools.” I think she’s probably right, and even though I’m glad that I’m not surrounded by people who drain me, or come attached to their own personal dark cloud, I wonder if I’ve missed some lovely friendships just for sheer lack of patience.

JoDee, I’m grateful that you suffered at least one fool, and that was me. I may not be able to change my tendency toward self-preservation at all costs, but, just like I did years ago when I crashed your family, I can experiment with not being afraid. I can try to have just a little more courage and make a little more room for foolishness. Who knows what could happen?

So you may not have been able to teach me how to drive a stick shift, or talk me out of bringing that guy back from Paris when we were eighteen, but see?

I’m still learning from you.

Happy Father’s Day, In Two Memories

Happy Father’s Day, In Two Memories

 And why should I expect anyone to be interested in this piece of writing, when we all have memories of our own, plenty to keep us busy for a lifetime? I shouldn’t. And I don’t. But if I let that question stop me, I wouldn’t have this blog at all. This is, after all, a practice in not stopping… xo

My father was a funny guy. When I think of him, it is with a Camel unfiltered cigarette in his mouth, and auburn hair falling across his forehead.

In what was a typical 1970s custody arrangement, my sisters and I lived with our mother and spent Sundays with Daddy. Sometimes he’d take us to Moon’s Drugstore for hamburgers and sometimes to visit my sister’s horse, at a small family farm way out Hwy 70. The farm was in the country and, while my older sister rode, I wandered the property, smelling the hay and oats, tasting the salt lick and whistling the way Daddy taught me, by blowing through sharp blades of grass I held between my thumbs.

There was a big shady tree on the property, and one Sunday I noticed it was covered in what looked like a bristling black carpet. Holding my hand up to the tree, I let one of what turned out to be thousands of caterpillars crawl onto my palm, where I pet it with one finger. I played with the little thing the rest of the afternoon, letting it explore my hand and wrist, venture up my arm and, when it was time to leave, I kept it because it was just so dear, and in need of love.

Daddy drove us home at the end of the day and as I stepped out of the car, he told me to put the caterpillar down on the ground outside, to set him free. I stared at my father and then at the tiny creature in my hand, realizing what I had done by removing it from it’s home, knowing that I could not, as my father had suggested, just “put him in the grass.”

“He won’t know where he is,” I said. “He’ll be all alone.” But even though I was only six or seven at the time, life with my mother had already taught me the survival skills needed in my particular habitat: Do not ask for anything. Do not inconvenience anyone. Do not, under any circumstances, upset the grown-ups.

Still, I couldn’t stop my eyes from filling with tears. And then somehow, looking down at my muddy white sandals, I managed to ask, “Can we take him back where he came from?”

Daddy started the engine. In utter shock that he had agreed, I slid into the front seat next to him and together we drove in awkward silence back to the tree. I don’t think we had ever been alone before and the silence was scary, only because it was new. Daddy unrolled the window and we listened to Mac Davis on the radio until our wheels hit the gravel road leading to the dirt driveway and, finally, to the wet grass by the tree. In the pitch black, he lit a cigarette and walked with me, as I felt a scratchy tickle between the palms of my cupped hands. When we reached the tree, I returned the caterpillar to where it belonged, to its rightful place among the other caterpillars, to its family and friends and the daily toil of the insect kingdom.

On the way back to my mother’s apartment, we were silent again. Daddy wasn’t a big talker and I was shy around grown-ups, even the ones I loved. He parked and, before I stepped out of the car, our eyes met. “You’re a good egg, Moonbeam,” he said, patting my knee.

“You too,” was my response.

My mother would be awake and waiting, he knew this. She would be angry that we had taken so long. He knew that too. And he knew that she may be drinking, or packing to leave, screaming as she tossed nighties into a suitcase. Then he did the thing that he did every Sunday. The thing that I understand now, a little, but didn’t then, at all. He opened his cupped hands, and left me in the grass, alone.

 

Years later, when I was a junior in high school, my father and I lived together in an oddly shaped condominium, up a steep flight of stairs. It was actually part of a larger place where my mother, sisters and I had lived until I was thirteen, at which point everyone, for their own reasons, hit the road but me. After that, a wall was built while I was at school one day, separating the condo back into the original two units, one to be sold and one to house the leftover person, me.

Eventually, my father moved in and by eventually, I mean that what happened in the years after my mother left and before he moved in is a whole other story, but this is about my father, not about being left behind. This is about my father who, eventually, moved in with me at a time when I wanted nothing to do with him.

We rarely saw each other. We left notes: Daddy, I have rehearsal tonight. Be home at 10:00. Mag, I have a meeting tonight, D. We shared chores and grocery shopping, living on Kroger’s chicken salad, peanut butter and pickles. He was a plastic surgeon, one of the first to practice in Nashville, but there never seemed to be much money. I was a kid who grew up drinking powdered milk, but going to private school. I don’t know why we lived the way we did, and even after my father died and my sisters and I got a look at all the history and paperwork, it never added up. This isn’t about that, either.

There wasn’t much furniture in our place, but there was a low round coffee table in front of the television, where the two of us ate dinner off paper plates and left our scribbled correspondence. On the table, next to an overflowing ashtray, there was also a Folger’s coffee can filled with scissors, pens and surgical instruments he sometimes used for what he called “chores around the house.”

My junior year, the year Daddy moved in, I had a steady boyfriend, Steve. Daddy knew Steve, but not well because I never let friends up the dark wooden stairs to where we lived. I was embarrassed of the used office furniture, the old linoleum and the smoke stained walls, but the bigger reason was that I didn’t want to give my father even the slightest glimpse into my life. Daddy was all I had, so I was afraid to be angry with him but, at sixteen, I was also afraid not to be. So on Friday and Saturday nights, I would stand watch for Steve at my bedroom window, running down to meet him when his VW bug pulled into the parking lot.

On prom night that year, I got dressed in the tuxedo I had rented for the evening, black tie and tails, to match Steve’s. I was late and groping around under my bed for the high heels I’d borrowed from a friend, when I heard my boyfriend bounding up the stairs. I put on red lipstick, ran a comb through my shoulder length hair and raced out to catch my worlds colliding.

In the hallway, near the wall (yes, that wall), Steve and my father had already said hello. My date, a boy well loved and impeccably coached by his mother, had brought a corsage for me, a cluster of white sweetheart roses that he tried, and failed, to pin on the lapel of my jacket.

“Want me to give that a shot?” My father asked.

Steve might have been embarrassed, but I don’t think so. Daddy had a way of putting himself in your shoes, of offering help without judging you for needing it.

And then my father did the best thing. He went to the coffee can and got his magnifying headset with the light, the one he used for operating, taking out stitches and checking incisions. Lowering the magnifying visor over his eyes, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he pinned the flower in the proper spot, on the tuxedo jacket of his sixteen-year old daughter. I stood rooted, enduring the confusing wave of emotions, blushing beneath my collar and tie.

We made it through the moment, and with a quick hug, said good-bye. I imagine Daddy sitting down afterwards, at the coffee table, to have a peanut butter sandwich that he cuts in half with a scalpel.

That scene in the hallway with the corsage was the corniest moment in my life, and though at the time I would have denied it, I was a girl sorely in need of corny moments. My Dad needed them too, I think. And while it’s true that my relationship with him continued to exist in the realm of the painfully awkward until his death, when I was thirty-three, there are a few memories, like the corsage and the tree of caterpillars, that I have held onto for years. I’m putting them down, not in the grass alone, but here, with others like them, because they are so dear, and in need of love.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs

Getting a dog was a huge mistake.

My husband knew it and was adamant that he wanted nothing to do with this latest obsession of mine.

“Listen to me,” he said, one night in bed. “I do not want a dog. Never.”

My eyes were glued to a dog rescue website on my laptop. So many adorable little creatures, some wearing little bandanas! “I know, sweetie,” I replied, in my husband’s general direction.

“Are you hearing me? I won’t change my mind. I don’t want any part of this.”

“Uh-huh.” I had moved on to the puppies section, furry darlings staring from playpens and the laps of volunteers.

I was warned. The woman who was helping me design a drought tolerant landscape in our front yard tried to talk some sense into me. She pointed out the time and care a dog requires and, when I changed the subject to perhaps getting a flock of chickens, she was decidedly against that, too.

“Don’t do it,” she declared, shoving a razor sharp agave plant into the dirt. “You’ll have crap everywhere. A mess. You’ll hate it.”

I took the advice to heart, at least when it came to the chickens.

But a dog was different, I reasoned to myself. Looking around my urban neighborhood, it seemed like everyone had a dog and, judging from the number of dog parks, dog boutiques and even dog bakeries that were cropping up all around the San Fernando Valley, they downright worshiped them.

I remember a friend of mine confiding to me that, as she was desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, she began to see pregnant women everywhere, imagining their lives to be perfect and her own to be sorely lacking. I experienced a less painful, but vaguely similar feeling. Those people with dogs must be more loving, more laid back (bring on the crap!) and just plain happier, in general.

Of course, there was also the matter of my two young sons who, if I didn’t do something quick, would miss out on the requisite “boy and his dog” experience.Though most of my friends smiled and agreed when I suggested my kids would love a dog, they cautioned me about my expectations.

“You’ll end up being the only one who walks it,” they said.

“I’m ok with that. I could use the exercise anyway,” I countered.

“Your kids will be grown and gone and you’ll still have to take care of that animal.”

“I’m not getting it for the kids. This will be my dog,” I assured them.

“It’s like having another child.”

Ok, I had to give this last one some thought. My kids were just getting to the point where they could do for themselves a little more and I’ll admit, I was loving it.

Eventually, I shook it off. “If it was that hard, no one would do it! Everyone I know has a dog, so it can’t be that much of a pain in the ass.”

Oh, the hubris.

It turned out that having a dog was a gigantic pain in the ass and that everything I had been told was true. It was also true that my dear husband, always so willing to do his part with the house and the kids, really meant it when he said he wanted zero part of my grand plan to become a dog owner. On this issue, he was crystal clear. I was on my own.

Except now, I had company. Constant company.

During our first week, Jackson, our new two year old terrier mix, followed me everywhere, and when he couldn’t follow me (on the advice of the trainer at Pet Orphans, we were crate training the little darling), his oddly human-ish eyes were pinned on me with a kind of psychic Velcro. I was reminded of those early days of parenting when all my senses were heightened in response to my baby’s needs. But whereas that had been a fulfilling and exciting time, aided by bonding hormones and the knowledge that I was doing an important job that would one day result in a grown up who might, god willing, at least take me to lunch, caring for this dog, this “orphan”, drained me.

Within the first few days, I noticed that I smelled like dog. I asked my husband if he noticed and he said yes, in fact our whole house now smelled like dog. He wasn’t happy about it and, predictably, this made me feel guilty since, through no fault of his own, he was now forced to live my nightmare. I bought lavender candles and opened the windows as often as possible.

Although quiet during the day, Jackson barked all night long. All. Night. Long. I moved the crate next to my bed and that did the trick but then, instead of the barking, we had what amounted to an elderly fat man with an adenoid problem sleeping with us. My husband moved into the guest room and told me he’d return when I “figured everything out.”

We relocated the crate into my son’s room, who willingly agreed to keep the pooch company during the night. I thought this very sweet, especially since Jackson had taken to “hearding” my boy through the house, nipping at his backside and staring him down. This sleeping arrangement worked at first, but eventually he started having nightmares, waking in tears and asking to sleep with us. I’m referring to the dog, of course.

Finally, after a few weeks of my sleeping on the couch nearby, Jackson acclimated to the family room and I cheerfully remarked to my husband, over a third cup of coffee (I wasn’t yet used to the six a.m. wake up that was to be my new normal), how great it is that dogs sleep at night, unlike cats, who prowl around and walk on your head.

“And it’s so sweet how he just goes right to bed at night, just like a little person!” I intoned, adding up all the ways I could think of that dog ownership didn’t suck. “Also, he really seems to want to please me. Cats don’t care what you think,” I heard myself say. This was a pro-canine argument I had long heard dog people make, and the minute I said it I looked at my husband, sipping his coffee under the ever-watchful eye of Jackson. Did I detect a look of betrayal?

Chris and I were cat people when we met. We each brought two with us when we moved in together and one, at twenty years old and counting, was still hanging on.

“I think there’s something in a dog person that needs to be adored,” he would say, on those lazy Sundays early in our relationship.

“I think all people like to be adored.” Sometimes I just liked to be contrary. The truth was, I thought he had a point.

“But there is a personality type that needs someone waiting for them when they get home. That needs all the slobbering and tail wagging.” I’d nod in agreement as our black cat walked over the morning paper, situating himself dead center on the Style section.

So there I sat, fourteen years later, with a new dog I desperately wished I had never brought home.

Though I loved the exercise I was getting on our twice daily walks, I soon developed plantar fasciitis and a bunion. And no one warned me about the cost of grooming, food, vet bills and, if you planned on having any life whatsoever, occasional doggy daycare. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had, of course. I was hell bent on trying it out for myself and would never have listened.

Late one night, I found myself trolling the internet looking for how I might deactivate his chip, the little homing device that all rescue places insist on putting in your animal before you take them home, so that I could bring him to a shelter anonymously. It had been a month at that point, I was exhausted and depressed and had come to the conclusion that a royal mistake had been made. I wanted to turn back the clock and take it all back. The memory of my life before Jackson had a rosy glow about it: the mornings spent making pancakes with my boys instead of tying on running shoes and being pulled out the front door with a fist full of biodegradable poop bags ($5.00 for a box of thirty), the long days at the beach without dashing home in the hope that he hadn’t, once again, peed on our bedroom curtains. God, the simplicity of it all!

A word of warning to anyone who recognizes themselves in my story. Do not go online and say that you want to get rid of your dog. Forget flaming, you will be incinerated. Just an innocent question about, say, finding your dog a new home will bring down onto you such holy hell as cannot be described here.

Pet Orphans, agrees to take any animal you adopt from them back, no questions asked and I considered doing it, telling the kids that he bolted away from me on our walk (never mind that he wouldn’t let me out of his sight for even a minute, much less take off on his own), but I couldn’t imagine the shame of returning him to the disapproving volunteer, tail between my legs, so to speak. Besides how is one, in this day of Social Media (status update: introducing the newest member of the family!!! J 63 Likes) supposed to explain to friends and relatives that no, there was nothing technically wrong with the dog, other than his being one? No one would understand. I would have not a friend in the world.

“Just do it. Who cares what people think?” My best friend JoDee lives a thousand miles away, but because the dog walks were long and boring I started calling her to chat twice a day.

“I can’t. I’ll feel terrible,” I admitted. “Can’t I get someone to do it for me?” I thought of all the people I knew who might like to earn fifty bucks for a half hour of work.

“You could totally pay someone to take him back for you. Get a teenager to do it. Just don’t let the boys find out.”

I thought of my boys and how Jackson licked them head to toe as we snuggled on the couch to read at night. My own mother had a habit of bringing animals home and then giving up on them, sending them “to the farm,” or sometimes just cutting to the chase and releasing them into the night. Most of these animals weren’t around long enough for me to feel close to and, as you can probably guess, I’ve never been a real animal person, exactly. But still, those are sad memories and I refused to recreate those in the minds and hearts of my own kids.

And my husband— would I have to lie about it to him too? As much as he maintained his position on my decision to get a dog, I knew he was a softie at heart. He was the one always putting ice cubes in the cat’s water. The one who insisted on keeping the porch light off when we discovered a bird’s nest on top, with three little blue eggs inside. He talked a good game, but he would never look at me the same if I gave Jackson back and made him an orphan again.

In her TED talk on regret, Kathryn Schulz said, “the point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.”

If I could turn back time and, as with he chickens, heed the warnings of friends and not get a dog, would I? Absolutely. Jackson is now four years old and, thanks to a few sessions with a trainer ($50.00 an hour x2), he no longer snaps at my son’s rear, but he’s developed a neurotic habit of licking our couch and we will have to order new bedroom curtains soon. Nothing about this experience turned out like I’d planned, but seeing as how we’ve all made it through four years at this point, it’s safe to say that Jackson will live out his days as a permanent member of our family.

Tonight I’ll take him for a long walk he loves down the block with the purple Jacarandas and the white cat who sneers at us as we pass her yard. I’m almost fifty years old, and I’ve never dreamed of living my life free of screw-ups. I do dream of owning my mistakes with humor and, if I can manage it, compassion. The cat’s tail doubles in size and she lets out a hiss. “Come on, buddy,” I say, Jackson strains at his leash, always ready to make a friend. “You’ll never win her over.”

Maybe not but, just like a dog, that won’t stop him from trying.