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.

 

She Must Have Known

I never wanted summer camp to end. I loved the strict routine, the grits in the morning, daily chapel, learning how to build fires and shoot a 22. But the summer I was eight, what I loved most about camp was my counselor, Pam.

The Carpenters played on her eight-track while I braided her hair and listened to stories about college, her boyfriend and life at home in Mississippi. I can’t remember if I told her about how things were for me back in Nashville, but I’m sure I didn’t tell her everything. It would be years before I could put my home life into words that made sense. My mother’s drinking and abusive behavior was mixed up with memories of shoplifting comics and paddlings at school. All of it reflected badly on me and I wanted, more than anything, for Pam to like me.

And somehow, for reasons that I could not understand, she did.

When my father came to pick me up on the last day of camp, he entered my cabin, with it’s dusty wooden floorboards and rows of metal bunk beds, to find me standing on my trunk, holding hard to Pam and sobbing. He peeled my arms from around her neck and led me to the station wagon, thanking Pam and clearing his throat. I rolled the car window down and held her hand while Daddy lit his cigarette and started the engine.

“Will you write me?” I hiccupped.

And she did, every other day.

Every other day I would run through the sharp brown grass and out to the mailbox at the end of our driveway, to find a letter with my name on it. They were always small letters on matching stationary, with big loopy writing and i’s dotted with stars or daisies. She wrote about her classes, memories of camp and asked me questions about my life. I sent her back drawings of my parakeet, Clyde, and jokes on bubblegum wrappers.

She couldn’t have known how much I needed her, and yet she must have known.

Those letters from Pam were exactly the kind of thing that my mother would usually take to, like a dog with a bone. Because any tender spot was fair game to her, I was smart enough to keep them private, saved in an old muddy stationary box in my closet, where I read them over and over, until my flashlight dimmed.

And every other day, a new one came.

When we moved from a small town outside Nashville back to the city, the letters came to our new apartment. They came when my mother went into rehab and they came when she came home, sober and angry. They came when the girls in my class made fun of my bad haircuts and dirty clothes and when my father married someone who scared me.

When the invitation to Pam’s wedding came, it was in a big envelope the color of vanilla soft serve. I opened it slowly, finding a smaller envelope inside that, and then an even smaller one, with a stamp on it, inside that. The invitation itself, covered with tissue paper and embossed with ink you could almost read with your fingertips, was the loveliest thing I had ever owned. Because it was too big to fit into my secret letter box, I slept with it next to my cheek.

Several weeks later, on a humid June morning, I rode my bike, speeding down the street where the neighborhood dogs ran in a pack and bit my heels, to the pay phone outside Scooter’s Market.

“Is Pam there?” I asked, breathless from the dogs, the heat and the sadness lodged in my throat like kindling.

“Who’s calling?” said an older woman on the line. Her mother? She sounded like a peach crumble.

“Maggie… from camp.” I held tightly to the metal phone cord, waiting, digging dimes and nickels from the pockets of my cut-offs.

“One moment please.”

It was Pam’s wedding day. Now I can imagine her, getting dressed (something borrowed, something blue…), her mother buzzing around like a bumblebee in a field of Queen Ann’s Lace, when she ducks out of a cloud of Aquanet to talk to me, a nine year old girl on a pay phone far away.

The conversation was short and mostly one-sided, since I choked on everything I wanted to say. Would she stop going to camp now? Did she know I was moving in with my Grammie for a while? Did she have the address??

Eventually, only pennies were left, and Pam needed to get to the church. I hung up, wiped my face with my t-shirt and picked up my bike from where it lay in the gravel.

“Are you alright?” The door to the market jingled and an older woman with a Tab and a pack of cigarettes came out, her face so sad it was like looking in a mirror. “You need me to call someone for you, hon?”

“No,” I said and looked away. I stood on the blazing pavement, trying to stuff the pennies back in my pockets, finally hurling them to the ground, where they bounced and scattered.

“Well, now you gotta make a wish” she said, bending to pick them up.

The tears came again as I threw myself onto my bike and took off, away from Pam and the man she loved more and the letters with stars and daisies that I knew, no matter how many wishes I made, would stop coming.

I looked back over my shoulder at the woman, who’s orange hair shone like a flare in the sunlight. “Go to hell!” I yelled, and peddled, with all my might, for the pack of dogs.

High Sierra Static

I am folding laundry while my eleven year old perfects his front flip on the bed beside me. “Hey, dude, can you knock it off, I’m trying to fold here.”My phone rings and it’s my sister, Cinda. Her voice is tired. “So, Mama fell and broke her hip. She’s ok. Sort of. Who knows where they got my number— I’m sure she didn’t give it to them.

“Uh-Oh,” I say.

It’s an admittedly lame response to hearing the first real news of my mother in many years. But my emotions are on lock-down, at least where Mama is concerned, and reaching those feelings is like trying to ice-fish with a Q-tip. I know they are there, under layers of frost and years of running, but there’s just no way in.

“Her case worker called. Apparently she won’t be able to live by herself anymore, so they’ve moved her to a little place in Reno.”

Growing up, our mother’s mental illness and alcoholism meant car rides to school with her drunk at the wheel or learning how to walk in high heels on the icy stairs outside our apartment at midnight (a skill she decided should not wait until morning). Our father, in case you’re wondering, willing to take us to James Bond movies on occasional Sundays and pay for summer camp, was hard pressed to provide a home, and in those days, no one thought to argue. She was all we had, until finally, in the summer of 1978, the same summer my sisters left for college, she packed her car with clothes and the sculpting tools she cherished, and disappeared for good.

So, thirty-five years later, I listen as Cinda tells me that Mama will not be going back to her government subsidized apartment in California, and that someone will need to clear out all her belongings within the next two weeks. I wait for her, as usual, to say she will book a flight and do it herself. This perk of being the baby, even at forty-eight and the mother of two, is one that I’ve come to expect and fully enjoy. But she stays silent.

“I guess…I can go?” I am as surprised as she is to hear me say this and, at that moment, my son lands a perfect back flip, right onto the folded shirts. As any mother of young children will tell you, four days alone is dream come true, and if my dream has to come wrapped in a cloak of family disfunction, then so be it.

“I could use some time to myself,” I say to friends who reach out. “And anyway, it’s easier for me to do it. I’m not emotionally connected to her at all.”

Over the past three decades, both my sisters have spoken to our mother a handful of times, but I, claiming to have no feelings for the woman who abandoned me to live alone just before starting the eighth grade, never felt the need. Needing my mother was, quite simply, not on the menu.

So I rent a car and pack boxes, garbage bags, rubber gloves and cleaning supplies. Ever the optimist, I also pack books, wine, my journal (freedom to write in peace is but a distant memory) and running shoes. I will do this and maybe have a little time left over to enjoy the Sierra mountains. Like any busy mom, I’m a boss at multi-tasking.

After driving ten hours to Mama’s small apartment in Quincy California, I am met by Bill, the building manager, who hands me the key. The group gathered behind him looks like a casting call for “Dog the Bounty Hunter”.

“If you get rid of any of that in there that’s hers, I could come take a look!”

“We did talk, me and her, about me taking that desk, what she don’t need.”

“I know people steered clear of her, but me and your mom got along good.”

Moments later, I am inside the apartment that has been my mother’s home for twenty plus years. The walls are covered in her charcoal drawings. Across the room from the dusty television, an old plaid couch is piled with magazines, pill bottles and plastic tubes. “No tears?” Bill says, with eyes so kind I almost wish I could cry, just for his sake. “No I’m fine.” I reassure him.

Her sculptures are everywhere. Animals and women, some broken or with drawings taped to them, clearly works in progress that she hoped one day to complete. From what Bill (who seems to be both manager and de facto care-giver to the residents here) says, she’s been in no shape to work for years, but here they are, waiting. “Careful who you let come in here.” he says softly, before closing the door behind him. ”Not all these people knew your mother.”

By day three of packing, hauling and sorting I am physically and mentally exhausted. In all her belongings there isn’t one photo or mention of me or my sisters, but I find this oddly comforting. I always joke that I was raised by wolves. I picture my own photo albums at home and imagine how a stranger looking through them, seeing no pictures of a mother or father, might assume I am an orphan, or maybe, instead of being born, simply crashed to earth like a tiny meteor. If Mama has erased me, well then at least I did the same to her, I think, filling yet another garbage bag and throwing it hard into the dumpster.

It is early morning, hours before I am finally ready to head home, when my phone rings. This time it is my other sister, Emily. They are twins, and have always handled family business by tag teaming, which used to make me jealous. “Ready for this?,” she says through the High Sierra static, explaining that my mother needs to sign papers, in front of a notary, that give me and my sisters access to her medical records and doctors. “In person, if you can—” and the call is dropped.

Damn mountains. I grapple with the possibilities. I could ask the people at her board and care to handle this, but they had made it clear already that taking Mama out was problematic and unsafe, due to her “acting out.” Reno is only a few hours away from Quincy and no one has actually seen this place where the social worker placed her. I roll my eyes. Maybe it’s the altitude, but I can’t for the life of me see a way out of this without revealing myself to be, as my boys are fond of saying, a total wuss.

I text my husband: Hey baby. Gonna be a day late getting back. Kiss the kids. Remember Chester’s game.

The six bed board and care where Mama lives is located on a treeless cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Reno. I follow the calm voice of the GPS, aware that she seems to be handling this much better than I am. “Who can I get to do this for me?” I say out loud to the carload of terra-cotta figures I had carefully packed in pillow cases and towels. Sweating, I think about the unopened wine on the floor of the backseat, but digging out a bottle and opening it on the curb with my son’s Swiss army knife makes me feel more like my mother’s daughter than I care to admit.

I ring the doorbell and wait, reading the handwritten notes taped to the doorframe: Please don’t visit if you have a fever or flu symptoms. If you think you may be ill at all, please wear a mask or come back another time. No smoking. No cats. Just as I’m fairly certain I feel those pesky flu symptoms coming on, a short man appears behind the screen door. “Evalyn, someone here to see you!” he calls.

She is wearing lipstick, her shoulder length hair pinned back with a silver barrette. She is so thin and small that my first instinct is to pick her up and hold her. I am completely unprepared for this, the cracking of ice beneath my feet. Plastic tubing reaches from her nose to a tank of oxygen that rolls behind her. I could use a little of that myself, I think. I consider hugging her, but it is horribly awkward, and neither of us knows how. The man who has answered the door says his name is Cody and goes to gather the few suit cases of Evalyn’s from the car. Clothes I packed for the cooler weather and simple art supplies.

“Well, my hands don’t work” she declares, when I pull out the drawing pad. “But I’ve had ideas. You get ideas here.” I’ll bet you do, I think, noticing a Phillipino program blaring from one television, CNN from another.

“I have to get to the goddamn dentist, people!” She has become completely convinced that her teeth are loose and falling out, like, right now, and makes her way to the bathroom, in pretty good time. “Evalyn, your teeth are fine,” Cody says, smiling. “You saw the dentist last week, remember? He put a crown on that one that hurt you.” “Oh, right.” She calms at once and sits down between us. “He was a good looking one, that dentist. Remember that? Divine!” Cody laughs, adjusting the tubes.

I have never seen my mother so willing to be soothed. Little tantrums like this were an everyday occurrence when I lived with her, especially when she wasn’t drinking. But instead of passing quickly, they would gather intensity for hours sometimes, ending with her crouching in a corner in tears, driving away (for how long we never knew) or worse.

A few excruciating hours later the notary arrives, and she ushers my mother through the stack of papers, several of which Evalyn tosses aside. “God almighty, I’m not that old!” she says, truly angry. But most get signed with her shaky hand, and that will have to be enough, for today. I can’t wait to get on the road and back to my life and I check my watch again.

Then, the notary (a woman I decide is just a little too pushy for her own good), pushes the stack of papers over to me and hands me a pen. Apparently, there is an empty space that needs filling and, while I’m aware that this suggests a level of responsibility and connection that I haven’t come close to making peace with, I’m also aware that I’m doing this not only for Mama, but also for my sisters. Our mother was a wild card who hated the sight of us so, eager to please, I learned to become invisible, while Cinda and Emily took the bullets for me. After coming this far, I know I am strong enough to take one for them.

She’s right about one thing, you get ideas here.

As I go through the papers, signing my name next to hers, I wonder if my mother knows that she saved me, when she disappeared that early summer weekend so long ago? Was it her way of giving me a chance, however slim, of having a normal life? Or did my mother, like a therapist had suggested when I was in my twenties, just not think of me very much at all?

I watch her amble once again to the bathroom and peer nervously into her mouth. It is clear to me now that I will never know the answer; the truth is that either of those scenarios could be true and probably is. The mother who once held me after a nightmare, whispering “bless her heart…bless her heart” over and over is the same mother who, accusing me of being a selfish brat, set loose my pet rabbit during the night. And the little girl who stayed locked in her room, hoping to be forgotten, is also now a mother with a temper, who sometimes reaches for the wine too early and struggles to hold a space for her own creative life. I won’t leave just yet, I decide. Instead, I reach for her hand, cool and papery in mine.

“This way, Mama.”