Friday, December 9, 2011


When I was five, I got a direct call from the big man himself one December evening asking me what I wanted for Christmas. I could barely speak when I heard the big, booming voice Ho-Ho-Ho-ing on the other end of the line, speaking through the crackle of a long-distance phone call. But I did manage to tell him that I wanted a doll house. And when he told me to be very, very good, I blushed. Because I had not been so very, very good that fall, and I hadn't heeded my mother's warnings about Santa and lumps of coal. But to hear it from the Claus himself...well, I vowed to clean up my act.

I was the designated household phone answerer in those days. My mother was quite popular, and the phone rang a lot. I was a call screener back before caller I.D. The ritual went like this: the phone would ring, and my mother would give me a set of conditions: if it was this person, Mom would take the call. But if it were that person, I was to say Mom was in the tub and would call her back sometime that decade. And if it were Granny, my dad's mom, I was to make polite small talk for long enough for Mom to light a cigarette and gird her loins for what would likely be an unpleasant conversation filled with veiled insults.

When the phone rang that December night and Santa was on the other end, my mom listened intently and had a strange look on her face when I mouthed "It's Santa!" It turns out she had not planned this particular bit of holiday joy, and until my cousin called her a few moments later to tell her it was my uncle's idea to surprise me, she couldn't figure out whether everything she thought she knew about Christmas legend was wrong and the magic was real, or if maybe I was being stalked and the next call should be to the police.

So a few weeks later when I took another call from a mysterious man I'd never met but had heard about, my parents didn't think too much about it. They thought it was just my uncle again, following up and making sure my behavior had improved. Imagine their surprise when they found out that I had just been formally introduced to my long-lost paternal grandfather.

My father covered the distance between the family room and the kitchen in two steps when I held out the phone and said, "He says his name is Martin and that he's your dad." Mom developed an unusual need throughout the duration of the phone call to keep checking on the cleanliness of the kitchen counters.

Martin left my grandmother, and the four children he had with her, when my father was very young. My father had not seen or talked to the man since he was about the age I was when I took that call. He had heard his father had relocated to the Cincinnati area, like us, and had heard he was living with a woman decidedly not our Granny. Beyond that, we didn't even have a picture of him, and he was the "He Who Shall Not Be Named" of our family. So to get that call was like something I had seen on one of my favorite soap operas. It was Guiding Light right there in our cigarette-smoke-filled kitchen. My young head filled to bursting with daydreams of a family reunion, and meeting a grandfather I didn't know I had, and a warm, fuzzy reconciliation.

But even at Christmas, broken families don't knit back together so tidily. My father never raised his voice, but he politely declined an invitation to meet him. He did, however, agree to have occasional phone conversations with Martin. I was sad that I wouldn't get to see the person who had been so nice to me over the phone, but as small children do, I forgot about it and went on with celebrating the toy-getting season.

The next time I heard anything about Martin, it was the following October. He had passed away from cancer. We did not attend the funeral. I didn't understand it then; why wouldn't Dad want to say goodbye to his own father? But as I grew older, I understood completely. My father had said goodbye many, many years before.

Several years ago, Dad's sister-in-law passed along a photo to me. One of her sons had become interested in learning more about the family, and had unearthed the only known photo of my enigmatic grandfather. It was an old black-and-white picture of a very tall, thin man and a very short, dark-haired woman standing together on a set of railroad tracks. The man is so tall that he has to stoop a bit to be in the same frame as his wife; the woman is so short she has to stand on one of the railroad ties to come up to her husband's shoulder. They look happy, but I know by the way their story ends that their height was not the only major difference they had.

The picture allows me to put a face with the voice I heard on the phone so long ago, a kind voice that seemed, to my naive ears, to want to make things right. But for my father, anyway, it was too little, too late. If my surprise phone call from Santa that year nearly turned my mom into a believer, the surprise phone call from Martin brought us all back down to earth. Not everything can be tidied up into a Hallmark-movie ending.

I may never have met my grandfather. But I got to speak to him, and the memory looms as large as the phone call I got from Santa at the North Pole (complete with reindeer "barking" in the background.) And if you're as big as Santa in a kindergartner's imagination...well, that's saying something.

Worth a Thousand Words

I have hit the jackpot.

I recently borrowed my mother's family photo albums so that I can make copies of some of the pictures of myself as a child to keep in an album for Ainsley. The reasoning behind this is morbid, but simple: in the event something happens to me, I want it to be easy for my survivors to put together photos for the ubiquitous montage. This is what happens when I go to a young person's funeral as I did earlier this school year; my mind turns with the details of the big "What if."

These albums have been a bigger treasure trove than I thought. I've found pictures that I completely forgot about from my childhood. Including a lot of pictures that must have been in my subconscious as I've been writing blog entries; the pictures sum up the childhood remembrances I've been writing about perfectly.

So over the coming months, I will be adding pictures to some posts I've already done, and using the pictures as inspiration for future writings. When I add a photo, I'll bump it to the top. This means a lot of the very grim Christmas entries will be re-posted, but with cute pictures, if that helps. I look very happy in all my family photos, and you can't tell that anything was amiss. I guess that's a big clue for when I wonder how I turned out mostly okay despite a childhood that was sometimes a horror story; I was, underneath it all, a resilient, hopeful little kid.

I'm also going to tell the tale of some mostly happier Christmases, the Christmases in the past ten years when I've been the mom to the best daughter in the world.

Happy holidays, everyone, and keep checking back. The pictures are worth a thousand words.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods in a Shiny, Silver Camaro

There are some holiday traditions you simply don't mess with. Families take that stuff seriously. For some, it's certain foods: there absolutely will be sweet potato casserole or else. For some it's at whose house the festivities take place, or the time of day, or the ritual drawing of names for holiday gifts. Every American family has that one thing that makes or breaks a holiday and sends uptight family members into an uproar.

For the Hyden girls, it was the trip down home every Thanksgiving morning. Thanksgiving didn't happen in Erlanger, it happened in Barbourville, in the warmth and closeness of Mamaw's trailer. And this tradition was both nearly wrecked and ultimately saved by my father one year, with an assist from a rented silver Camaro.

Every year from when I was three to when I was twelve saw the following ritual Thanksgiving ritual: a long, family-wide nap after school on Wednesday; an early rising on Thursday; a few minutes of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade while Dad loaded up the car for us (I couldn't leave until I saw the Snoopy float); a stop at the Florence White Castle for provisions, mostly because they were always open Thanksgiving but also because we loved their cheeseburgers so; then the three-hour drive to Barbourville, where we could smell the roast chicken and pressure-cooked green beans from Mamaw's yard. Along the way, I always sang, "Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go..." because it was true--we indeed went over a river and through the woods, not to mention up some mountains. I loved that there was a song that described that feeling of welcome and homecoming I started to feel about the time we got to Richmond and crossed over the Clay's Ferry bridge in all its awesome scariness.

One Thanksgiving morning, a colder , wetter, grayer holiday than usual, we woke to find Dad already up, already three sheets to the wind (knowing that we'd be gone, Dad started his own holiday traditions immediately after getting home from work late the night before), and bearing bad news:

"The car won't start."

Mom only worked one day a week at that point, and we made do with only one car: an increasingly unreliable Ford Fairmont that I heard discussed as a "lemon." This confused me because it was very blue and very square and not in the least bit citrusy.

"Well, what's wrong with it? Why aren't you trying to fix it? You know we go down home today."

"I think it's the alternator. Or not. I don't really know. And in case you haven't noticed, it's Thanksgiving," Dad said. "I can't take it anywhere to get it fixed. Guess you're going to have to walk."

It would be many more years before I could recognize sarcasm. I thought of carrying my overnight bag and my favorite stuffed animal, Mousie, from Erlanger to Barbourville and knew it would be dark before we got there. And Mousie would get wet. Or the worse alternative: staying home and eating the bologna and Grippos Dad had stocked up for himself. I burst into tears. No dumplings! No Mamaw! No doting family! Not even the sight of a giant Garfield in the parade could calm me down.

Mom and Dad argued over whose fault it was (regular maintenance was never my father's strong suit), how the holidays were ruined, how we had nothing suitable to eat, how sad my grandmother would be. I didn't cry alone that morning. And just as we were all about ready to retire to our own corners and be miserable for the rest of the day, my father had a brilliant plan, inspired partially by beer but primarily by a desire to get all the crazy women out of the house:

"If one of the neighbors can drive me to the airport I will try to rent you all a car."

I was in awe. I had heard my parents say before how ridiculously expensive it was to rent a car during those times we found ourselves needing a second vehicle. It seemed such an exotic luxury that I simply had to tag along.

We found ourselves at the airport navigating the car rental area. Being a child of the 80s, I wanted Dad to pick Hertz. Because O.J. Simpson was awesome in their commercials.

Here's something to know about my dad: when sober, he was the most frugal man on the block. He only shopped for clothes for himself during off-season sales at Sears, he bought his eyeglass frames from the "Clearance" section of the optical store, and he checked receipts for any purchases made by the women in his family in his absence and criticized "designer" items like Lee jeans as being vain and unnecessary. But when under the influence, the man had no purse strings. My mom has a collection of high-end jewelry as evidence of this.

So luck was actually on our side that Dad was mildly- to moderately-inebriated this particular Thanksgiving morning. Because an hour later, we showed back up at the house in the must-have sports car for the poor white trash of the early 80s--a Chevrolet Camaro. Silver. Fully loaded. More than we probably could afford, but worth every cent.

"Quick. Before he changes his mind."

After getting over the nervousness that comes with driving a car that's not your own, we began to enjoy our trip down home even more than usual. My sister, a new driver, was even allowed a turn behind the wheel.

"I could get used to this."

We all could. And the oohs and ahhs of our family when we finally pulled into the gravel driveway made the morning's drama disappear and any residual anger we'd felt at Dad for not taking care of the car, and not seeming particularly concerned that it wouldn't start, went right out the powered windows.

And later that night, after chicken and pie, my sister and I got to participate in an old Barbourville custom we had previously only dreamed about: cruising the town square in a hot car. I believe my sister received some catcalls and honking appreciation for both her good looks and the looks of the Camaro. I could feel proud of the latter, as I had had some say in the matter of the color at the rental lot.

We eventually had to return to Erlanger and give the car back, relying on that Ford Fairmont to get us from place to place. But the silver Camaro made such an impression on my sister that several years later, as a young married woman with a good job and some disposable income, she leased a new silver Camaro for a year as one last hurrah before moving on to a mother's minivan. She dropped me off at one of my middle-school Christmas dances in it not long before the lease ended, and we laughed about how cool we thought we were cruising the square that one Thanksgiving.

I laughed, but at that age I was convinced I, too, would have a shiny, silver Camaro one day. And I would cruise the square of my hometown in it. And there would be no limit to the noise I would hear from appreciative country boys about the awesomeness of my vehicle. When Chevy discontinued the Camaro for a while, I might have shed a tear for a dream lost.

Thanksgiving is a low-key affair nowadays. The trips to Barbourville ended a couple of years after my Mamaw passed. We no longer go over the river and through the woods for the holidays, unless of course we're heading into Cincinnati to do some shopping. But that's a much bigger river and much smaller woods. And no vehicle I've driven in since has had quite the ability to make an entrance that our accidental rental had. Our current dark-gray Prius makes a much different statement.

My father had an uncanny ability to wreak havoc on holiday plans. But he had great taste in cars.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

85 G

It was good to be the president.

In fifth grade, I had a brief but glorious flirtation with the world of politics. My term was short-lived, and the organization I was elected to run fizzled out due to tween drama and general apathy. But I got to sit on top of the world (aka, the school playground merry-go-round) for a few glorious fall days, and though I never re-entered the world of school politics, it was heady while it lasted.

My fifth-grade school year was one of the best academic experiences of my life to date. Our elementary only went up to the fifth grade, so we were kind of the graduating class. We were the top of the heap, and we knew it, walking the halls with new found superiority and popped collars. We had a new teacher, a young man (gasp! Only ladies can teach elementary school!) from New Hampshire, which might have been the dark side of the moon for how different and fascinating his culture seemed from ours. I had spent most of the previous year feeling like a complete outcast in Barbourville, and was unbelievably happy to be back home with kids who talked like me and dressed like me. Never underestimate the value of being around people who talk and dress like you; wars have been waged by groups trying to rid their turf of people who speak strange tongues and wear peculiar costumes.

The girls in my class decided that we should form a club. Our goals were simple: to have something that was just ours that we didn't have to share with the obnoxious boys in the class, and to have a forum where we could scope out/gossip about/flirt with the obnoxious boys in the class while seeming like we despised them. Fifth-grade girls really can't decide whether to start being romantically interested in boys or whether to hate them with white-hot fury.

We immediately decided that before we could have any further business, we had to elect a president. It was decreed that the main perk of this job, besides being an awesome title to have, would be that the president could sit in the sweet spot in the middle of the merry-go-round and reign in majesty over the school yard. This appealed to me, mostly because of physics. The middle of the merry-go-round was the one spot on the contraption where I could sit and not fear for my life once the thing got spinning to mach speed or suffer the rest of the day from ringing ears and a migraine.

The position of president also appealed to me because I had just been inspired by Geraldine Ferraro. I felt similar yearnings to those I felt after Sally Ride became the first American woman in space; I've never been really comfortable being the first to do something, but I am a world-class follower. I had wanted to be the second woman in space, or maybe the third if someone beat me to it. So in the fall of 1984, I decided, despite my shyness and lack of popularity, that I would someday be the second female Vice President. That's right, not candidate, Vice President. I was too young and idealistic to realize that Ronald Reagan was an unstoppable force.

My friend Denise, who was an Alpha if I ever saw one, decided to run our elections instead of running for the position herself. Which left the door wide open for me. She announced that we would have to make a short speech from atop the merry-go-round perch at recess answering this one, simple question: Why did we want to be president of the 5th-grade girls club?

I pondered over my answer for 2 whole hours. And at recess, the speeches began.

I couldn't believe what I heard. My classmates were honest, and if I learned anything from the national debates that fall, it was that honesty in politics is fatal. One girl said she wanted to be president because she liked being in charge of things. Another girl said she thought it would be really cool to be able to sit in the middle of the merry-go-round every day. Another said she was running "just because." Amateurs.

My turn came, and I made the first prepared speech of my life. I had my audience in the palm of my hand, and I hit my constituency where they lived. I mentioned boys.

One boy, in particular: Tom, my fifth-grade crush. And I also appealed to the soft hearts and sentimentality of my friends; I kid you not, by the end of my speech, one of my classmates was in tears.

"I want to be president of our club for a couple of reasons," I began. "First of all, I wasn't here last year, and I really missed all of you. You are very special to me." I paused dramatically and made eye contact with the two weepiest girls in the class, the ones who cried at the end of the novels our librarian read aloud to us every year. "It would mean a lot to me to come back and be your president.

"Also, as you know, I have a crush on Tom. But he doesn't know I exist." (He did know I exist, because I was kind of a creeper, but they didn't need to know that. Yet.) "Maybe if I'm president, he will notice me, even though I am not the prettiest girl in the class. Because I will be a leader. And I will also be sitting right in the middle of the merry-go-round every day. Thank you for your vote."

I won by a landslide.

The first order of business was to give us a name. If I do say so myself, I more than lived up to my presidential promise with this task. I decided to name us simply, "85 G." There were 8 of us, and we were in fifth grade, and we were the elementary graduating class of 1985. And our teacher's name was Mr. Goering. That's too many 8s, 5s, and Gs to let go to waste. I exercised my mandate.

So much so that I decided to have our first business meeting at my house. Which is where it all went wrong.

Only two girls could show up, and I wasn't allowed to have anyone inside the squalor pit we lived in, so the three of us met outside on a cool, damp day. As usual, I over-prepared by having an agenda to follow when what the two attendees really wanted to do was goof off in the side yard. I also didn't account for the fact that I was at war with my former best friend who lived across the street, and she was outside taunting us and making fun of me for thinking for once that I was maybe perhaps popular.

Just when she went inside and we thought we had gotten rid of her, she came out and flipped me the bird. And I ended my political aspirations as so many do, with a spectacular show of bad judgement. I flew into an unaccustomed rage, ran across the street and grabbed her by her shirt collar. I had just backed her into the brick at the side of her house and was giving her what-for when her mom hollered out the window and stopped me. She threatened to tell my mother, and even presidents live in fear of their mothers. Everyone was shocked, and maybe a little in awe. I didn't get bullied by anyone again until after Christmas; word spread fast that I had resorted to almost-physical defense and everyone treated me with wary respect until they realized that I weighed 60 pounds soaking wet and couldn't do any real harm, anyway.

The club disbanded the next week, either because their leader had been involved in a scandal or because we were fifth-grade girls with the attention spans of cats, one or the other. And I eventually made up with my frenemy across the street a few weeks later when she showed up on a day off from school with the ingredients to make homemade peanut butter cookies. We were both home alone and she wasn't allowed to use the oven when her parents weren't there, so we whipped up a batch of cookies in my kitchen and buried that hatchet. The cookies turned out pretty good (if you didn't mind cat hair in your cookies), as did the the friendship.

My further political success, however, went the way of the Mondale campaign. I ran for secretary or treasurer of things a few times, but never won (my middle-school NHS sponsor chastised me following one election when I didn't vote for myself and lost by a very small margin. The fact that it never occurred to me to vote for myself shows I am not ambitious enough for politics.)

The middle of the merry-go-round might be a good place to be for a while, but it's not near as comfortable, or have as nice a view, as my couch.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


One year at Halloween, my mother found herself low on time and money but high in creativity. And so, 30 minutes before trick-or-treat time, she threw together a gypsy costume that made me feel less like a tramp and thief and more like a princess.

It was a great lesson in how to make something out of nothing with just a little imagination.

The plan had been, since my father was on strike from GM that year and money was more than tight, to recycle an old surgeon's costume my older sister had worn to a raucous work party the year before when she still hung out at home. But we didn't check the logistics out until late that afternoon, and I could have cried when I tried it on: the surgical coverall was way too long and dragged the ground. The little mirror that was supposed to go above my eye and look like a surgical light had a broken strap, and the stethoscope was so warped and twisted it looked more like an errant hangman's noose. 15 minutes of fussing, fidgeting, and pulling did nothing to make me look acceptable to go out in public.

I pulled the costume off, grabbed one of the "Cricket in Times Square" books I'd been devouring, and crawled into bed so I wouldn't hear all my friends knocking on the door and having fun.

"So, you're not going out? You could just go out in your normal clothes. No one would care. Put on your overalls and say you're a farmer."

"I don't want to be a farmer. I already have to wear those ugly overalls to school. I don't want to wear them as a costume. I guess I'm not trick-or-treating this year." And I sighed as only a very put-upon 3rd-grader can. I had been hit hard by the cracks in the family foundation that fall; my sister had just met the boy she was going to marry a year later, and between work and him she was never home. She had always taken me out for tricks and treats, but this year, if I was going at all, I had to go with my friend's parents and little brother, which felt like tagging along. I missed my sister, I missed having enough disposable income to have my own Halloween costume, and wished, for the millionth time in my young life, that I had a mother with a sewing machine instead of a portable hard-hat hair dryer.

"Suit yourself, then." And Mom disappeared to clean up the remains of the Campbell's chicken noodle I had slurped down for dinner. I felt very sorry for myself as I tried to focus on Chester, Tucker Mouse, and Harry Cat while trying to tune out my envy of all the kids in the neighborhood with store-bought or hand-sewn costumes about to bring home pillowcases full of fun-size Snickers bars.

Wordlessly, mom ran back into the room we shared. She began opening dresser drawers, tossing some objects she found aside and putting others into a little pile on the dresser. She was smiling, and I stopped reading.

"What are you doing?"

"I have an idea. Give me a minute."

She went through her jewelry box, pulling out  old rings, earrings, necklaces. She went to her closet and produced a long red, ruffled skirt and her favorite winter leather boots, which had a rubber high heel. Heaven forbid my mother not wear a heel, even in a blizzard.

"How about you go as a gypsy? You can wear my skirt and your frilly white blouse from last Easter with my boots. We'll put 2 or 3 pairs of socks on you and stuff something in the toes so that they'll fit good enough. I've got a red scarf for your hair, and you can wear my gold hoop earrings and my big mood ring. What do you think? Hurry now, we don't have much time."

It was the ultimate 15-minute makeover. Mom wrapped the red scarf around my head and tied it in a jaunty little side knot. I slipped into her clothes and slid my feet into her shoes; it was a better fit than I thought possible. Her treasured real-gold giant hoops dangled from my ears and jingled pleasantly against my face when I shook my head. She decided that gypsies wear a lot of makeup, so I was slathered in blue eyeshadow, a generous swipe of blush, and bright red lipstick. Every finger was covered by a ring, and every toy bracelet I'd ever gotten as a prize at a birthday party or school carnival lined one arm. I suspect some of the adults I saw wondered why on earth anyone would dress their 8-year-old like a hooker. And by today's standards of political correctness, I was pretty offensive to the real gypsies of the world. But I felt gorgeous.

When I joined my adopted trick-or-treat family, they all loved my costume. At most of the houses on our street, our neighbors commented on the cute little gypsy girl (though one person thought I was a pirate, and I used this as inspiration years later when I wore many of these same items to my senior-year costume party as a pirate wench.) No one knew that it had been pulled together from bits and pieces just minutes before the witching hour.

I did not bring home a pillowcase full of candy that year (it was the Tylenol Killer Halloween, and everyone gave Frisch's coupons and pennies instead) but I did bring home a sense of pride. My mother, who didn't sew or knit or crochet or glue-gun and relied on plastic masks for Halloween disguises, a woman who usually didn't even have to put down her cigarette to get me ready for trick-or-treat, saved the holiday with a creative home-made costume. And taught me the power of makeup and accessories to boot.

Friday, October 14, 2011


When I was two, my dad made my believe I could fly.

In one of my earliest memories, I am soaring above my parents and my sister. My arms and legs are outstretched, and there is nothing holding me up. I am flying, weightless, looking down on the family I spent so much time looking up to. I feel free, I feel adored, I feel special. After all, in this memory, I can fly.

I learned the truth as I got older and gained wisdom but lost magic. I wasn't really flying. My father was holding me up with one strong, invisible hand around my tiny toddler waist. One of my favorite pictures of my father shows him holding my sister up  in a similar way when she was an infant. As a parent, it terrifies me a little. But there is a look of absolute joy on both their faces.

My mother caught me staring at this picture when we were sorting through the family album after my father died.

"He loved to hold you girls up that way," she said. "It scared me to death, but you both laughed and laughed when he did it."

Of course we did. It was a great illusion. We never felt like we were being held, we just felt...aloft.

"Hold me up, Daddy," I used to say. "Make me fly!"

"You're getting too big now," he'd say. There's a very brief period in our lives when our parents are able to hold us above their heads.

The years passed, and as they did, my relationship with my father changed. At best, we ignored each other. At worst, we engaged in verbal wars that included name calling and cruel accusations. Some children of alcoholics play the role of mediator and try to make peace in the family; I was not that child. I instigated arguments as much as possible, thinking some day I would get through. I didn't. By the time I left for college, I gave up. I did not respect my father, he did not respect me. He did not support me when I was in plays, musicals, or in my very brief tenure as a student athlete. He showed up to my high-school graduation and watched as I gave a speech to my classmates, but I didn't truly feel his presence. I had spent a good chunk of my life seeking his approval, but had grown convinced it would never come. I chose to go away to school in part to have as little to do with my dad for the next 4 years as possible.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college found me working harder than I ever had in my life. Dad had just enough seniority and just enough overtime in the year prior that our family income had crept out of poverty level and into solid lower-middle-class territory. My financial aid package reflected this, and it was uncertain whether or not I could afford to stay. I had to come up with a startling amount of money that summer if I were to return to Centre College the next year. So I worked two jobs: one filling orders for The Nature Company and lifting heavy boxes over my head, one standing in a walk-in refrigerator in the Kroger produce department cutting up lettuce for the salad bar and lifting heavy boxes over my head. I worked at least 60 hours a week, often going right from a blazing hot warehouse to a freezing cold storage room. I was constantly dirty and hungry and my feet were always tired. On the other hand, my shoulders have never looked so fabulously sculpted.

I did not see my parents much that summer. What little free time I had I spent with my boyfriend. Dad was sober that summer, but I had learned that sobriety was short-lived and I tried not to get used to it. I did this by avoiding him as much as possible.

My last day of work, when I had met my summer earning quota as best I could, my father stopped me on the way out the door.

"Today your last day?"

"Yeah. One more shift at Kroger and then that's it. I'm meeting Jason after so I'll be home late."

"Listen," he said. And I stopped, thinking I was going to get one of his morality lectures about running around with boys late at night, even if said boy was probably the guy I was going to marry.

"I want you to know that I know you worked real hard this summer. To make sure you could go back to school. And I'm proud of you for that."

His voice quivered at the end, and he had tears in his eyes. He was sober, and the sentiment was genuine. My father was proud of me.

And all of a sudden, I felt like I could fly.

I've held on to that moment in the years since. After Dad died and we had said everything to each other that needed to be said, I would still revisit those words and know how wrong I had been about my father's feelings for me growing up. My father was hard to please, and knowing that I made him proud makes me proud. In dark moments where I feel like there's not much in this world I'm good at doing, I remember.

So last week when my own daughter and I had a bad day, I seized the moment. She had been forgetful and unfocused, failing to turn in a couple of homework assignments and running late for school, for guitar, for swimming. She had not made me happy, and I had let her know. Like my father, I am not so easy to please.

One morning, I took her face in my hands and looked into her eyes.

"Listen. You are smart. You are beautiful. You are talented. And you make me proud every day."

From the look on her face, I knew. She's way too big now for me to lift up.

But I just made her fly.

Monday, October 10, 2011


For most of the late 80s, we had a sign in our living room that said, "Warning! An Attack Cat Lives Here." I found it in a drug store one day with other signs meant to be displayed as jokes. In our house, though, it was  not a joke. It was a warning to all who entered that the green-eyed creature with the pretty white fur, who ruled over all from the back of the recliner, was not to be tampered with. Unless you happened to not enjoy having both of your eyes.

Katie, aka Snowflake, aka Bitchcat, was the meanest thing I've ever seen anybody keep as a pet. And we kept her, inexplicably, for 11 years.

"Why do we keep her?" I asked my mom once, while she was bandaging up my leg after a particularly gruesome tangle with the battle cat. "She doesn't use the litter box, she attacks us, and she won't even let me pet her."

"Well," Mom said, "She's mean, but she can't help it. I can't just turn her loose on the street."

"Would you keep me if I peed all over the family room, bit you, and puked hairballs in the hallway?"

She said she would, but there was a longer pause than there should have been.

Katie wasn't always mean. When she first showed up on our doorstep, a scrawny, bedraggled stray, she was quite the sweetheart. Her seemingly gentle personality, along with the fact that she walked right into our house when we opened the door to get a better view of her, convinced us to make her our very first indoor cat. Our last cat, a misplaced Siamese named Pood-Pood, lived his 9th life with us exclusively outside, and with Interstate 75 right over the fence, it didn't end well. Katie seemed like a poor little rich cat down on her luck. Like Scarlett O'Hara, starving on the inside but holding on to her dignity and wearing a dress made of velvet curtains. Once bathed, fed, declawed, and spayed, her dark green eyes stood out from her long, white fur and made me think she was aristocratic and so very hoity-toity. Like the cat from the Fancy Feast commercials.

The first time she stalked me, I changed my opinion. I could see her at the end of the hallway, crouched, pupils dilated and huge, her rear end wiggling to better ready her pounce.

"Don't you dare!" I ran past her in fear, which she could smell like day-old tuna salad. She leapt, and I felt clawless front paws wrap around my leg, and definitively un-declawed rear paws digging into my calf for balance. She bit, and it wasn't kitten teeth. Three of her fangs dug into my leg, and when she let go and cowered under the bed, I was left scratched, welted, bruised, and bleeding.

Hydrogen peroxide was poured into my wounds, Band-Aids applied, and Mom did not believe that I had done nothing to provoke the cat (who we called Snowflake at the time). Cats don't just attack people, she said. Was I playing with her, was I teasing her, was I being mean to her?

No, I swore. I was just, you know, walking.

It wasn't long after that when Mom got attacked while walking past the cat with a basket of laundry. A sock had been dangling over the edge of the basket, and as we learned, nothing quite got Katie going like a waving or walking sock. "Snowflake" was in a chair, and when she leaped to get Mom, she got her good, right below the hip. Mom cussed for five solid minutes. And then chased the cat around the house with a rolled up Dixie News for emphasis.

It took little time for us to realize that the newest member of the family was no Snowflake. We avoided calling her anything, lest we draw attention to ourselves and have her hunt us down like the Terminator. One night Dad, while listening to our stories about the various ways we'd been stalked, chased, bitten, clawed, clamped, and nibbled that day, looked at our tormentor and called out, "Kat--eeee! Katie ol' cat!" And so she became. We found "Katie" to roll off our tongues so much nicer in the heat of anger.

Her namer was the one person she did not bite. Ever. She and Dad had a grudging respect and love for each other that Katie did not share with the rest of us. When Mom and Dad separated for one year, Katie and Dad were the sole occupants of my house. We heard from my sister and granny, who visited during that time, that Dad would go out and get Katie food and make sure she had water when he was barely physically able to do the same for himself. He's also the one who realized that, in spite of her being declawed, Katie was meant to be an outdoor cat. She preferred the carport-turned-family-room shag over her litter box, so Dad started letting her out, dog-like, whenever she pawed the door to go do her business. We were certain she'd get eaten by something; sure, she had great teeth and a strong bite, but how could a declawed, snow-white cat possibly fend for herself in the big outdoors? Very well, actually. And over the years we had quite the collection of dead birds and vermin left on our front stoop to prove it.

My wounds from Katie attacks were numerous and epic. She favored the fleshy upper leg, but I was also bitten in my back and head. The back bite was the worst; I had come in from swimming with a bare back and a ponytail, and it was too much for Kaite to resist. While I was sitting in the floor on my towel watching TV, she came up behind me, wrapped her front paws around my neck, and took a hunk out of my upper back. I thought that was the worst, until a few years later when she decided she and only she should ever be able to sit in the recliner, and jumped up to the back of it and sicced my head. Scalp wounds bleed a lot.

I didn't realize the hold Katie had over us all until I went away from home the first time to be a Governor's Scholar. In the dorm, I found myself looking over my shoulder every time my feet hit the floor, looking for a flash of white bounding out from nowhere. It took a week to realize I could get all the way down the hallway to the communal bathroom without getting bitten by something. Ah, bliss.

By the time I got out of high-school, I had taken to calling Katie "Bitchcat" and wanted nothing to do with her. There's only so much stalking one can take.

"How's Bitchcat?" I would say when I called home from college.

"Oh, she's not a bitchcat. She's mellowing out. She hasn't bitten me in months."

But we both bore the scars from pounces past.

Christmas break of my sophomore year, I noticed that Katie looked frail. She was bony, and her beautiful fur wasn't as well-kept as it usually was. She snuggled next to me on the couch, which was unusual, and didn't bite my toes under the aghan, which was even more so. I snapped a picture of her with my camera, not sure why I wanted to get it, but nagged by the notion that it might be the last time I saw her. Sadly, I was right.

A call came in January that Katie had a cancerous tumor on her spine.

"We're trying chemo," Mom told me over the phone. "And she's on valium to help calm her down, and it's made her really sweet."

"Are you crazy?" I asked, because I was 19 and had all the answers. "Chemo? Valium? For THAT cat?"

"THAT cat," Mom said, her voice breaking, "has been all I've had since you went away. With your Dad working so much and drinking when he's not, and you gone, she's been company to me. I love that cat." And she hung up on me.

A month later, my roomate entered the common room of my dorm where we had just gathered to spend a cold, snowy Wednesday night watching the beautiful people of Melrose Place and 9021-Ho.

"Your mom's on the phone."

Weeknight phone calls from home were almost always bad news. It had been snowing terrifically all over Kentucky that February, leaving roads icy and dangerous. I feared the worst. But I didn't expect the news I received.

"Katie's dead."

Mom was upset, not so much that Katie was gone, but the way it happened. Just after the heavy snow started falling the night before, Katie suddenly became paralyzed. She was in pain, crying out, unable to move. Despite the weather, our vet agreed to meet my parents at his office to put her down. Six inches of snow covered the ground as Mom and Dad set out with our family pet. At midnight, she was put to sleep. They waited to tell me mostly because they had spent the day too exhausted to talk about it. The drive home had been long and awful; the snow mixed with ice, and their drive home from the vet had taken over an hour, Mom crying most of that time. Phone lines had also been down, leaving my parents cut off and grieving their loss alone.

"Are you okay?" Mom asked.

"Yeah, I'm okay. I know you loved her, but she never was really my cat."

But when my dorm mates asked me if everything was okay when I came back downstairs, I lost it.

"Our family cat died." And for no reason I could think of, I wept.

Katie made my life miserable sometimes, what with making the whole house smell like cat urine (sorry, college roommates; I know when I rolled back to Centre from a trip home that I smelled like I had been marinated in cat-sprayed tobacco fields), attacking, biting, and being generally terrifying. But she was the closest thing to a younger sibling I had, and I felt better about leaving home knowing that Mom had her there. In her last years, she slept on Mom's bed (occasionally biting her feet through the covers), took care of the house's mouse problems, and gave my mother, who has to be caring for something or someone at all times, a warm, living creature to dote on in my absence. I would barely miss her, but I knew my mother would. And my father, too. Before hanging up, Mom had whispered into the phone that she had caught Dad with red eyes amd a runny nose the morning after Katie had been put to sleep.

"Chuck, you okay?"

"Yeah. Allergies." But then he gave a weak smile that admitted the truth: he would miss his Katie more than anyone else would. They were cut from the same cloth: sometimes mean, but mellowing with age. And kind when it counted.

She was the meanest cat in the world. But she was our mean cat. And, for better or for worse, there would never be another quite like her.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Passing Notes

I realized at a very young age that words have power. I clearly remember the night that I was following along with my Rapunzel book-on-record and realized that I didn't need the record to read the book aloud to me anymore. The letters on the page had transformed into words, and I recognized those words. And the words made me see, hear, taste, and smell things. When Rapunzel's mother, great with child, craved the carrots, greens, and radishes from the witch's garden, I could see and smell them on my own dinner plate and I craved them, too. When Rapunzel let down her long, golden hair, I could see the sunlight hitting the strands and see them tighten under the tension as a handsome prince used them as a rope ladder. When said handsome prince was pushed from the tower and was blinded by thorns, my own eyes wanted to water and sting. The power of words to conjure images in a person's mind amazed me, and I was only 4 years old.

Which is why, I think, I began to love "dirty" words not too many years later.

I grew up in a house where I heard these words all the time, but knew that they were off limits. My mother was fluent in cursing; my father was not as fluent but went around damning things regularly. Especially from November through March during the years Eddie Sutton was UK's coach.

Before we had even moved from Knox County I had gotten in trouble for quoting my mom and complaining in front of my paternal grandmother about Dad "pissing" all over the toilet seat.

"That's not nice."

"But you say it."

My mother smiled sweetly and apologetically at Granny, then shot me a venomous look. "I shouldn't."

I didn't practice my 4-letter vocabulary in the house much after that, though there was a time after starting kindergarten when I liked to go around the house taking familiar words and switching out the beginning consonants with other consonants in alphabetical order.

"Duck! Buck, cuck, duck, f-"

"That's enough of that. There's a very bad word you're very close to saying."

I filed that interesting bit of information away for later use.

As I've heard is typical of kids that age, my little gang of neighborhood friends and I started exploring the power of profanity on the sly in 4th grade. The "f" word and taking the Lord's name in vain were still taboo, but when out of earshot of any adults, we tried out lesser vulgarities and found them pleasing. I am my mother's daughter, though, and I cuss in a country accent that makes everything two syllables. "Shee-it" loses a little of the real word's bite and cracked everybody up, which wasn't quite the effect I was going for.

In middle school, finding shocking and new terms for those most private parts of male and female anatomy were all the rage. Each term's various strengths and weaknesses were discussed at length. When we found a term we liked, we test-drove it by calling each other that name as the ultimate put-down. I swear, we were more charming and well-behaved than we sound.

I played the role of perfectionist, Good Girl, and straight-A student well. But those closest to me knew that I harbored a secret: I really had quite the filthy mouth, and the dirtier the joke, the more off-color the put-down, the more lewd the comment, the better. And the only adult who found out about it was my 7th-grade math teacher, who also, unfortunately, was the mother of one of my good friends.

In 7th-grade, I had a tremendous crush on a tall, dark, and slightly nerdy 8th-grade boy. He was in several classes with my friend Rosi, and I got her to talk to him on my behalf. One awkward phone conversation and several passed notes later, and I had secured a promise of a slow dance at the after-school party the following Friday. I became convinced he was "the one."

The day of the dance, word came that he was no longer interested. 8th-grade boys as a general rule are not interested in 7th-grade girls, especially those in such an aggressive group of pestering friends. One of these friends went up to him at the dance and stomped on his foot in my honor, and his shock and pain should have been enough. But I held a grudge.

In anticipation of a 7th- and 8th-grade Honor Society meeting later the next week, I passed my friend Denise a note during math class that expressed, in great detail and using words that conveyed lots of vivid imagery, what I would like to do during this meeting to the Honor Society president, aka the guy who had most recently broken my heart.

I left no stone of vulgarity unturned. I used the queen mother of all curse words in both its noun and verb forms. I called my former crush every name in the proverbial book. I hurled invectives that would have made George Carlin blush. And I ended my written tirade with a wish to emasculate my enemy using all my favorite terms for the male member.

And then I went and picked the worst person in the history of the world to pass a dirty note to. My friend Denise had the exact opposite of a poker face. I saw her shoulders shudder and shake, and I knew she was going to laugh. I coughed to get her attention to try to get her to simmer down, but when she turned to me I saw tears in her eyes and knew she was going to erupt any minute.

"Girls, what's so funny?"


"It doesn't look like nothing. Can I see that note?"

I heard a rushing in my ears and my stomach dropped into my shoes. Our math teacher was not only our math teacher, but also my friend Annie's mom and the National Honor Society sponsor. She had no tolerance for foolishness, and I was already wary of a woman I knew I was going to have to deal with for  years to come. And she had just busted me, and in a matter of seconds was going to learn what kind of girl I really was.

Denise walking to her desk was one of the longest 10 seconds of my life. We did not look at each other. I watched my math teacher's face for signs of horror, shock, and disgust. Unlike Denise, however, she had an excellent poker face.

"See me after class, girls." And she tucked the note inside her desk drawer and carried on with her lesson.

I sat wondering what was going to happen to me next. Expulsion seemed reasonable, and reform school after that if my parents let me live. Hell for certain if they didn't. I could kiss my friendship with both Annie and Denise goodbye after that, I reckoned, and possibly everyone in my entire class if word got out. And as for the guy I had so vividly written bodily harm to...well, I guessed a restraining order wouldn't be much worse than being denied publicly at a middle-school dance.

 The bell to begin my doom rang. My teacher did not move from her desk or stand when we approached. She looked at us steadily and evenly and for a long time did not speak.

"You're lucky you're both friends with Annie." And with that, she got out the note and ripped it up.She led the Honor Society meeting as usual, though we avoided eye contact with each other for some time after. I would learn later that she never shared our secret, not even with Annie, though Denise and I filled our friend in on it in the interest of full disclosure. The closest we ever came to discussing it again was at my high-school graduation when the teacher came up to me to shake my hand and say, with a wry smile,

"I guess you did okay once you got past 7th grade."

I toned it back a bit after that. But I still pepper my language with words I know I shouldn't love. But I do. I love the simplicity and directness of profane words. I watch what audience I use them in, sure. Sometimes, though, they just feel right. When a land-barge driving soccer mom with a cell phone glued to her ear cuts me off in traffic, when I slam my fingers in a dresser drawer, when my plate of scrambled eggs falls off the counter and scatters buttery yolks all over my feet. A socially-inappropriate interjection lets a little steam out of the pressure cooker. Though little ears are sometimes listening and learning.

"Do as I say and not as I, wait, don't do as I say...well, do as I say but don't say as I say...oh, for the love, just eat your eggs."

So every night, I pray the Swearer's Prayer.

"Please, Lord, let me never drop an errant F Bomb in front of a student, or when I drop the collection basket in Mass, or during my annual mammogram when the tech gets a little aggressive. And watch over my child while she learns the English language, and let her sponge brain not absorb every 4-letter word she hears slip out of my mouth, or the mouths of others. And finally, Lord, preserve the PG-13 rating, and keep it holy. Amen."

Over and out, motherlovers.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Piano Girl

I ran home as fast as my legs could carry me. I had to be first, I just had to. My burgeoning musical career counted on it. I did the math in my head, over and over, not believing this could actually happen.

65 dollars...65 dollars...that's all I need...65 dollars...

My chorus teacher had just pulled two of us aside and presented us with an opportunity.

"Now that we have a new piano for the high school, I am moving the high-school piano over to the middle school," he said. "And that means I need to find a new home for the old piano in the middle school. Whichever one of you can put $65 in my hands first gets a piano. And I will even deliver it."

I looked at the other student, who was my some-time adversary. The two of us had been teaching ourselves how to play piano on small keyboards, which was the best our financially struggling families could do. We had worked together to accompany the choir before, but mostly we were in competition with each other for the unofficial title of "most musical" in our grade. I didn't know how quickly he could hit his parents up for money, but I had just started taking piano lessons from an actual human teacher instead of a hand-me-down instruction book. Two-and-a-half octaves on my Yamaha were not cutting it. In a rare moment of aggressiveness, I decided I was getting that piano. Even if I had to throw someone under the wheels to do it.

I got home so quickly that afternoon that my dad hadn't left for work yet. Mom was home early. I exhaled for the first time since the bell had rung. Being able to make my case to both of them would save me precious time.

Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he finally got to tell Santa what he really wanted for Christmas, I took a deep breath and rattled off my argument in one long, unbroken stream of pleading.

"Mr. Durham said he needs to get rid of the middle-school piano because he got a new one for the high school and the old high-school one is going to the middle school and whoever gives him $65 first gets it and he will even borrow a truck and deliver it if someone can help him get it into the house and the bottom octave doesn't sound really good but I can work around it and it's really the only chance I'll get to have a piano and I really need a full-sized piano to keep practicing the songs Ms. Judd wants me to practice and if you do this for me I swear it can be my Christmas present and birthday present and everything for the whole entire year so can I?"

My parents looked at me the way a scientist studies a new bacterium under a microscope: part awe, part confusion, part concern for the future.

"Don't you have almost that much money in your savings account from the $50 prize you won in the 5th grade?"

Oh, God. I had forgotten about that. I had won an essay contest sponsored by the PTA in honor of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. My ability to wax poetic in regards to Lady Liberty was about to pay off in a way I hadn't even thought about when my dad forced me to use my winnings to start an interest-earning savings account instead of starting a sticker collection like I had wanted to do.

Dad fished out the bank statements he had been saving to teach me all about interest and the importance of saving money. I hadn't particularly cared, mostly because the statements involved math, which I tried to avoid as much as possible. Suddenly I cared a great deal. Nearly four years of sitting in an account and occasionally being augmented by quarters dug out from under couch cushions had gotten the account to just shy of sixty bucks.

"I think we can put ten dollars in on a piano," Dad said. And with that he left for work and left me to hitch a ride with Mom to the bank and then to the band room in the hope that it wasn't too late.

As luck would have it, my teacher was still there. As luck would not have it, so was my frenemy. The select choir was still practicing. This was a sore point; I had auditioned for and not gotten one of  three alto spots while my adversary had easily gotten on the bass squad. While I had not won that battle, I was about to win the war.

My teacher saw me running into the band room and smiled mischieviously.

"Yes? Do you have something for me?"

I held out a white banking envelope with crisp bills inside.

"I have the $65. Is the piano still available?"

He looked at the other student, questioning. The bass shrugged.

"She was first with the money while I've been here practicing. It's hers."

I felt the subtle dig, but I didn't care. I had a piano. I hoped that someday my fellow musician would find it in his heart to forgive me. But if he didn't...well, I could cry about it over my new instrument.

Several days after purchase, my dad and my chorus teacher unloaded an old, worn spinet into our house. The only place it could go was in the kitchen, but it fit perfectly on the wall behind our dining table. Like it was meant to be. Dad left for work and I had the house to myself. My fingers touched the keys and I began to play. And for years, I didn't stop.

In one of life's twists, I later started dating the guy I stole the piano from. I think he forgave me long before we became husband and wife, though one can never be sure. He eventually had a piano of his own, an aesthetically beautiful instrument much nicer than the one he lost. When you're talented and your family recognizes your talent, things have a way of happening. He started taking lessons from my piano teacher, and his ability soon eclipsed mine. Once it did, I didn't much feel like playing anymore. He was truly gifted as a pianist, and I had other things to compete with and other people to compete against. I didn't touch a piano in any serious way after my junior year in high school. And eventually Mom got rid of the old piano I so eagerly raced home to get. Priorities changed.

Recently, we welcomed our first shared piano into our home. Like my old piano, it was a deal too good to pass up. Someone needed a piano gone quickly and asked a price I knew we wouldn't see again. My daughter's skill was starting to surpass the available keys on my old Yamaha keyboard. (My mother had kept that all these years; she said she knew my child would need it someday.)

When the piano movers showed up, I had a few quiet moments with the instrument all to myself. I touched the keys and began to play an old, favorite melody. Some things you just don't forget.

I thought of the incredible joy I used to get from playing. And then the pride I felt when I watched my then-boyfriend play in college. And how now I feel both whenever our daughter makes either her guitar or her keyboard her first stop after homework is complete.

And to think that the seeds were sown one afternoon long ago when I rushed into the band room with my life savings and tried to break my future husband's heart.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Smell of Perm Solution in the Morning

Sometimes it was awesome having a mom who happened to be a hair stylist. But as anyone who has seen all of my school pictures can tell you, it was mostly awful.

I got my first perm in 4th grade. I was not the only curly-haired child in my class, but I was the only one who smelled like ammonia for a week to have it. Technically, it was supposed to be a "body wave", but my hair has always been dramatic and over-reactive, much like me. Just wrapping it up in in foam curlers gave me Orphan Annie coils, so Mom shouldn't have been surprised.

"Huh. Well," she said, releasing each plastic roller from the soup of neutralizer resting on my scalp.

"What? What is it? Is it bad?"

"No, not bad, it just...took better than I expected."

She rinsed me out in the kitchen sink at my grandmother's trailer, where she had chosen to give me my first perm on a lazy Sunday in Knox County. Mom was a hair dresser by trade and by hobby, and both my sister and I fell victim to her cosmetological whims when she got bored. I excitedly looked in the big mirror over Mamaw's couch expecting the fluffy, feathered layers the lovely lady on the perm box had. What I saw instead was more like Roseanne Rosannadanna.

I swallowed hard.

"I look ridiculous."

"No you don't, you look great. Like Amy Irving."

Being 10, this was not a huge consolation. I wanted to transform the bowl haircut I had been sporting since I was in kindergarten to something more like what was my classmates were starting to wear, something layered from bangs to ears, long in the back, and curly all over. Later, we would call this a mullet and make fun of it, but if you were alive in 1984, you coveted one. Mom did not feel that she could cut my hair to make it do this magical feathery thing, but she thought a perm would do it.

It did not.

Throughout the rest of the 80s and into the early 90s, I was permed, highlighted, and layered a multitude of times in the family kitchen to varying levels of attractiveness and success. Mom definitely reached her peak of expertise with my hair in 1987, when I was in the eighth grade.

My eighth-grade class picture is my favorite picture of me ever because I am what I can best describe as a beautiful disaster of late-80s style. My hair is both very long and very permed; I outgrew my layers and let my hair grow wild down my back with a perm that finally could be called an intense body wave. My mother let me start cutting my own bangs, and she showed me how to layer them so that, with a curling iron and an abundance of Final Net, I could create a deceptively messy Kentucky Claw that looked like I had just rolled out of bed and into a briar patch. No one would have guessed it took me 15 minutes per morning just to get those bangs to look so carefree and casual. I had the rest of my hair pulled back into a banana clip, with loose tendrils curling whimsically around my face. The ponytail part of the banana clip is so long it hangs a little over my shoulder and around the popped collar of my Coca-Cola shirt. Mom also sold Mary Kay around this time and turned me loose with all the creams and powders in her pink saleswoman's suitcase, and Teen magazine had just told me that wearing one color of eye shadow all the way to the brow bone created a dramatic look, so I smeared satiny brown eye shadow from lashes to brows. It was dramatic, it was trashy, it overdone, and it was fabulous. My mother was so very proud.

Other cuts and perms created school pictures I am less proud of. The last time I let my mother lay hands on my hair was the fall of 1990 when I was trying to grow my bangs out so I could look like the most beautiful woman in the world (in my opinion): Kirstie Alley. Mom thought it would help me through that awkward stage where my they just wanted to fall into my eyes if she permed just my bangs (a body wave again, of course). The logic was that they would curl back away from my face and blend in with the rest of my hopelessly damaged and over-processed hair.

"Oh, look," my dad said, taking a stroll through the kitchen while Mom tried to figure out what to do with the wreckage her little "just perm the bangs" experiment left behind. "It's Bill the Cat."

A couple of months later, as soon as an inch of straight hair had grown out from the crimped mess covering my forehead, I cut my bangs so short I looked like a 9-year-old boy and used the excuse that I had just landed the role of the Artful Dodger in Oliver.

"I did it for the role," I told my friends. My hairdresser knew the truth.

From that day on, even if I came to her begging for a haircut or something more intense, my mother vowed to keep at least 500 feet away from my hair at all times. And I became something of a hair artist myself, cutting my own bangs and several of my dorm mates' in college using the techniques Mom taught me for lift and volume. My husband did, however, learn of my limitations the night in Lexington when I tried to give him a haircut with electric clippers right before a big job interview. The initial result was a reverse mohawk, which he chose to correct by just shaving his head down to the scalp all over and hoping that his potential employers did not brand him a skinhead. (He got the job.)

I am my mother's daughter, after all.

Before she retired from her job to be a full-time nanny to Ainsley when I went back to work, I used to go watch her work her magic. Whatever errors she had committed to me she did not do to the little old ladies at the nursing home where she worked the last decade of her career. With a bucket full of hard, plastic rollers, a rat-tailed comb, a sharp pair of scissors, and a stationary hair dryer, she could work magic. Sometimes her clients had hair so thin they barely had hair at all, and in those cases, she coaxed elegant curls out with just her fingers and some bobby pins. No matter how sick and haggard a patient looked coming into Mom's salon, she always looked like a lady on the way out.

And when she gave the occasional perm, she always got it right.

I may not have always liked the results, but I loved the process. When I was in Mom's chair, I felt like an adult. I had her full, undivided attention, and I knew she was going to do something that would, hopefully, make me feel beautiful.

Some mothers and daughter bond over baking, or shopping, or clothes. My mom and I bonded over perm solution and hard-hat hair dryers. My hair was never the same, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Up a Tree

"You've never climbed a tree before? How are you 14 years old and never climbed a tree before?"

"There's a lot of things I've never done."

The new brother and sister duo in my neighborhood, who had just moved into the "old lady's house" at the very top of our street (that "old lady", as it turned out, was their grandmother), could not believe it as I stood under the big maple tree in their front yard, watching them ascend into the thick, leafy branches. I had never climbed a tree. I had used my friend Denise's plum tree as leverage to shimmy over her back fence, but Mike and Annie, the newest members of our gang, assured me that did not count.

Climbing a tree was just one of many childhood joys I had never experienced. I was a cautious child with an even more cautious mother who saw mortal peril at every turn. I had never built a snowman, for too much time in cold air could cause my fragile lungs to become pneumonia-ridden. I had never played outside in the rain, for damp air could cause a chill. I had not camped outside, set off a bottle rocket, gone fishing, ridden on a recreational vehicle. Among a neighborhood of tomboys and thrill-seekers, I was certainly an anomaly.

"It's easy," Mike said. "Stand on the lawn chair, put your foot on the big crook, and pull up by the big branches."

My hands shook, for what's easy for a fearless boy can be terrifying for a timid girl with no upper body strength. My friends' eyes peered down on me from dangerously high branches; being branded as a chicken, as it turns out, is scarier than the thought of broken limbs.

I stood on the chair Mike and Annie had dragged around to help everyone step into the massive crook in the ancient sugar maple. That tree had seemed huge to me when we first moved onto Liberty Street when I was three, and now it overtook the top half of our road. I felt reassured by its sheer mass as I looked up into its high, sprawling branches, most of which were as thick as my skinny little legs. Surely it could hold my weight.

Don't look down, don't look down, don't look down...

I pulled and stepped, each tentative step pushing me higher and higher from the safety of the shaded lawn. Finally I found myself as high up as my friends, who told me they had tested all those branches and deemed them safe.

"There," Mike said, as I settled my rear onto a branch close to his, hiding my trembling hands, "you made that look easy."

I looked out. Or tried to. I thought the whole reason for climbing a big, old tree would be the view. But all I could see were branches and leaves.

"Now what do we do?"

"Absolutely nothing."

Annie had taken a book with her up into the branches. As big a bookworm as I, she sat quietly, with her back against the trunk, reading. Mike, all boy and older than Annie but not nearly as mature, threw small sticks at us and blamed it on Annie to try to start a war. Rosi dangled her legs for a while and then inched out to try to find higher sturdy branches. I just sat, wondering what, besides the danger of the climb, made this so special.

Then the wind blew.

It felt both powerful and intimate. The wind was all around me and rattled the leaves in a gentle roar. The branch beneath me swayed but rather than scaring me, it felt reassuring and comforting. Almost like being rocked to sleep. For the rest of that fall, that tree was the only place I wanted to be.

Most days after school found me climbing the tree, seeking cool shade and tranquil breezes either with friends or solo if they had other mischief to get into in the yard. We told our best dirty jokes to each other one afternoon, cackling at each other through the limbs. When Mike and Annie went away for the weekend, their parents gave me $5 and unlimited tree-climbing in exchange for checking on their house every day and feeding and watering their cat. By then most of the leaves were gone and I needed a coat, but I didn't care. I suddenly realized why every kid wants, nay needs, a tree house in the yard.

When the weather turned too bad to climb the tree anymore, my freshman attentions turned to more pressing matters. Our class started selling soft drinks out of the concession stand every day after school and I could escape my home life there for a few semi-supervised hours. When I wasn't selling Cokes and smiles for 50 cents a pop, there were blood-thirsty volleyball games between the choir kids and the band kids; talk about your grudge matches. I got a part as Amaryllis in The Music Man in the spring and life became about afternoon rehearsals and set decoration. I outgrew such childish things as tree climbing.

Years later, I was driving down the street and saw linemen for both the power and phone companies parked at the top of the street under "my" old tree. Men in cherry pickers with power tools were clearing massive old limbs away from the lines. To do so, they practically had to remove the entire middle of the tree, including most of the branches we used to sit on and swing on. I worried that my old retreat was in danger, that it wasn't going to survive such an impressive pruning.

I felt a sudden desire to knock on Mike and Annie's door and ask them to join me in the old maple one more time. But they were both, like me, "grown up." We could drive, we had jobs, we went on dates. Who I was friends with was no longer dictated by who lived within a short walking distance. I put away childish things. I was an adult, and my tree-climbing days, short though they were, were behind me. There was no time for such foolishness.

That didn't make me want one more afternoon up in a tree any less. I had an epiphany, there on the eve of my high-school graduation: I missed childhood. Maybe more so than most, because I had really just started to enjoy it before it was gone.

I can't drive down my mom's street anymore without looking at the old tree, which is still standing and has been pruned many times. Mike and Annie's parents, like all of our parents in the old neighborhood, still live in our childhood homes. Sometimes when I drive past, and it's a beautiful afternoon, I see an old lawn chair pressed against the trunk. When I see that, I know to look up; one of my old friends' own children, who go to their grandparents' after school, is in the tree. They don't go as high as we did, but I see them there all the same.

Childhood is fleeing, sometimes lasting just one season. There are worse ways to spend it than doing absolutely nothing in the branches of an old maple tree.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

40 Channels and a Remote

Nothing could bring a family together in the 1980s like cable television.

The day Dad read in our hometown newspaper that cable television was coming to our city street-by-street was a happy day indeed. We were lucky to live close enough to Cincinnati to be able to clearly pick up the 3 networks. But in 1983, 3 channels were starting to not be enough. Dad had risked his life to put a big antenna on the roof that, during basketball season, would get pointed south twice a week to pick up WKYT in Lexington. Rain, snow, or shine, when Dad was home and the Cats were playing, he climbed on the roof to manually point the antenna (the in-house pointer that came with the used antenna was tragically broken) as we monitored the clarity on our old console television.

"It's good!" someone would holler out the front door once the picture was snow-free enough to make out the score. And sometimes Mom would holler out that it was good when it wasn't, just to keep Dad from breaking his neck.

(And here's why kids today should be grateful for DVRs--when Dad had to work during a UK game, it was my and my sister's job to hook a microphone up to our tape recorder and set the microphone close enough to the TV to record an audio version. Seriously.)

So the prospect of cable television in all its glory made our mouths water. I had heard they had a channel devoted exclusively to kids' programming (Nickelodeon, natch) and also this one channel with nothing but music videos (I wanted my MTV.) My mom and sister were eying the movie channels, and Dad was all about an increased number of sporting events. When I saw the installers putting up line on the street next to ours, I came running home to tell the news.

"Don't get too excited yet," Dad said. "Money's tight, and I'm not paying for anything unless they have WKYT in the lineup like the newspaper said they would."

It turned out WKYT was in the lineup--oh, joy! No more roof-antenna extreme sporting! And also, when we looked through the little glossy brochure the cable guy left on our door...Star Wars was coming to HBO.

Oh. My. GOD.

At only 8-going-on-9 years old, I was as big a fan of Star Wars as any freaky dude you'd now see going to Comic Con dressed like Chewbacca. I was obsessed. I had gone to Corbin to see the movie with my family when I was 3, but the only thing I remembered clearly was how scary-cool the Stormtroopers looked on the big screen. No matter. It was a theatrical event that I knew was awesome even when I couldn't remember what was awesome about it. Dad had gotten me the action figures after we moved to Erlanger, and I had them re-enact what little I could remember of the plot on a near-daily basis. Dad had also taken me to see The Empire Strikes Back, and even though it rocked my world with its huge, shocking revelation (that it was Leia and Han who were going to pair off, and not Leia and Luke, of course) I could not contain my utter devotion to all things related to that galaxy far, far away.

"We've got to get Home Box Office!" I pleaded. "They'll have Star Wars! I have to see Star Wars! I don't remember that much about it from the first time, and the third one's coming out this summer, and YOU HAVE TO DO THIS FOR ME!"

"I have heard good things about that new HBO kids' show Fraggle Rock," my sister chimed in, helpfully.

For the first time in my life, my parents made a semi-major family financial decision, to subscribe to a certain cable movie channel, because of me. I gloated in silence. And went to tell Luke, Leia, and C3PO the good news.

Our street got cabled just in time. The day before Star Wars premiered on HBO in February, 1983, an angel in Carhartt work pants came to hook up our house. And he left behind a "remote"--it was wired to the back of the TV, but the cord to this magical box was long enough that we could, technically, sit on the couch and browse our selections. It had an A/B switcher, and through it we could flip through over 40 channels.

40. Channels. So long, playing outside and reading books. That stuff was for the poor saps on the other side of town who hadn't been paid a visit from the cable guy yet. Hell-o, junk television.

Of course, I really only had my mind on one thing: the premiere of Star Wars at 7pm. Mom was in a bowling league, and I was scheduled to be in the kids' area of the bowling alley that night while she and her team, The Gutter Dusters, ate nachos, smoked, and tried to hold steady to their second-to-last-in-the-league standings.

But here's the awesome part of being in a family of avid TV watchers--they get it. They get that sometimes, there is nothing more important than your show coming on. My dad, who usually believed kids in the 80s had it too easy and were going to go soft from being coddled, a man who made me walk home from school on unplowed sidewalks following minor snowstorms because apparently wet shoes and frozen toes build character, a man who only wanted me to stay home from school if I had a fever of around 1000...this man arranged transportation and a paid babysitter for me so I could be picked up from the bowling alley and come home to watch the big event.

"I am serious about this," he told my older sister, who was born early and has been late for everything else since. He peeled a bill out of his wallet and handed over a competitive hourly wage. "I would stay home from work myself if I thought you were going to be late. She has had her heart set on this and you will have her back here by 7. Or else."

She agreed, even though like every other night that winter she had plans to hang out with her fiance. And she was almost true to her word--I didn't get home right at 7, but I got home early enough for Darth Vader's big entrance onto the rebel starship.

It was love. I watched Star Wars roughly 100 times that winter and spring, or until my parents threatened to cancel HBO if I didn't give it a rest. Along the way I met Mokey, Red, Wembley and the rest of the gang down in Fraggle Rock. My mom became a big fan of BET (yeah, I know, don't ask) and, later, the Home Shopping Network. Dad rarely came up for air during what my mom called "sports season", which strangely lasts all year long. He watched the Cubs play at Wrigley on WGN even though he was a Reds fan because, like Everest, it was there. I watched videos on MTV back when there were such things on MTV, and when Mom wasn't looking, whatever R-rated scary movie I could find. It would be years before we got a VCR and started renting movies, so Saturday family movie night often revolved around whatever the big release was on HBO that month. The whole extended family, which soon included a brother-in-law, sat together watching such cinematic greats as First Blood, Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Poltergeist, and, for our sensitive sides, Places in the Heart. My entertainment diet at a young age consisted of blood, guts, violence, and gratuitous boob shots, but there was always stuff like Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas to keep me somewhat wholesome.

My husband is amazed at my wealth of 1980s TV knowledge. He wonders, whenever I recall an obscure show or movie or talk about how I watched Porky's in all its bawdy, uncensored glory one night when I couldn't have been more than 10, if I ever did anything as a kid besides watch vaguely inappropriate television. And I did. I finished my homework each night, I rode my bike, swam, ran, played 4-square, and fell out of trees just like any non-TV-addicted child in the neighborhood.

But when the sun went down, the "remote" went to A 21 to see what was on HBO. I could hardly remember what life was like B.C.--Before Cable.

Some families camp, or hike, or volunteer in their church. Some have family game night or sit around a roaring fire pit. We were, and are, TV watchers. No, it doesn't sound terribly noble. But whether your family is bonding over toasting marshmallows or the pilot episode of The Wonder Years, what really matters is the bonding part.

Now, where's my remote? True Blood's coming on.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Perfect Day

When I was 14 years old, I had a perfect day. For years after, whenever life failed to live up to my expectations, I would think of the simple, unadulterated perfection of a certain summer day in 1988.

There was absolutely nothing special about that day. It was not my wedding, not a birthday, not the day my child was born. It is impossible, I think, for any big-ticket day to be perfect. Weddings are stressful. Childbirth is painful. Birthdays can be celebrations of life or one mile marker closer to death. Special event days might be the most joy-filled days of a person's life, but joy does not equal perfection. A perfect day is a rare, fragile thing indeed.

On my perfect day, nothing went wrong. From beginning to end, there was nothing that caused me so much as one nanosecond of anxiety, fear, pain, or sadness. The day wouldn't even stick out in my mind until many years later, when I would find myself comparing every summer day to that one. They have consistently come up lacking.

It was late summer, and school was about to start. I had spent most of the summer in the above-ground swimming pool we kept in the backyard. Some summers, when Dad was drinking, we had to clear a thick layer of algae off the top of the pool and be okay with not seeing our feet if we wanted to "swim." Most of the time, it wasn't worth the health hazard. This particular summer, Dad had a rare moment of sober clarity and decided that our house and yard and pool were all disasters and needed attention. Bushes were trimmed with regularity, the walls were freshly painted, the pool kept chlorinated, filtered, and vacuumed. Just as I was at an age when I was never home anymore, Mom and Dad went and made the place livable.

I was about to start high-school, and I decided that if I could just become tanner, blonder, and somehow grow the necessary body parts to fill out a bikini, I could magically transform into a popular girl. So most days found me and a friend floating on reflecting rafts atop crystal clear water in  2-piece swimsuits, either lemon juice or Sun-In spritzed in our hair (which we could not destroy by getting wet), causing my dad to huff and puff under his breath about why he even bothered to have a pool when no one actually ever got more than waist-high in the water.

My perfect day featured the suffocating, sauna-like heat and humidity that dogged us most of that summer. And yet it was beautiful outside, with not a single cloud to block my rays. With no one home that day in my circle of friends, I resigned myself to spending a long, hot day hanging out with my parents, who I had just discovered were not cool. I was 14 and thought I had them all figured out. I grabbed my reflective raft, donned a new bikini that my mom had bought off of a McAlpin's clearance rack (I rolled my eyes when she got it out of the bag and said it wasn't really my style, but secretly I thought it was terribly cute), and let the flow of the filter carry me on big circles under a hazy sky.

I heard my mom climb up the rickety steps of the tiny little pool deck (rumor had it a new deck was the next planned home improvement job, and it was, just a decade later) and through my Coca-Cola sunglasses saw her spread out her towel. We basked in silence.

Later I heard Dad come up. Though Dad would vacuum the pool and blow up rafts for his girls, and spend a largish portion of each paycheck on chemicals, we rarely saw him use the pool for fun. He said he did not like to get burned, which was further evidence of his uncool-ness. Everyone, I thought, should have a little color, skin cancer be darned.

It was too hot a day to just float on a raft, so I slid into the water. Mom hopped down and began doing something like water aerobics, though less strenuous. Dad did laps, as well as one can do laps in a circular pool. Icy cold Cokes appeared on the deck, and at Mom's next trip inside, so did fried bologna sandwiches with sliced tomatoes from our attempt at a garden. Dad hooked up a radio and I actually got my hair wet. For hours, we splashed, floated, ate, and laughed until we were exhausted and the sun sank behind some forbidding-looking clouds to the west, chasing us indoors.

The inside of the house was cool and dark. We were always a napping family, so with little discussion and fuss we drifted to our own parts of the house: Dad to his room, Mom to hers (a big secret to why my parents stuck with each other through 35 years of rocky marriage: separate bedrooms), me to the couch. As I drifted off, I noticed that the house had become gloomy and I could hear the rumbling of distant thunder.

A nap after a day at a pool is the best kind of nap. A nap during a summer thunderstorm is a close second. We all awoke sometime later to the end of a magnificent thunderstorm, the kind you get at the end of a long, hot summer, that clear the air and remind you that fall is just a couple of weeks away. The wind bent the wild black cherry tree and scattered mimosa flowers all over the yard. We stood and watched in awe and breathed a collective sigh of relief at the much-needed rain.

Mom began to cook as I showered, applied a generous slather of aloe to my over-exposed skin, and lounged in front of the TV with a book in the fading light. I began to smell one of the most fabulous scents on earth: chicken being fried by a southern cook who knows what she's doing. I wasn't sure what we had done to deserve such riches, but I was grateful.

I went to bed that night full, tan, and happy. No one had fought. I had barely had to lift a finger, and yet good food and a day of solid entertainment had simply materialized out of a hot, blue sky. I doubt I realized, being young and naive, that such a simple, uneventful day would shape my life for years to come.

I've been trying to recreate that day ever since. But perfect days can only be lived in the moment. No other family gathering since, either pool-side or in the dead of winter, has had such a profound lack of strife and discord. I guess I come from a long line of high-strung people. As I grew older, none of us seemed to have time to just play in the pool all day and eat ourselves senseless. There were always places to be, things to do, other people to take care of. That summer day in 1988, I was still enough of a child to take pleasure in my parents' company, even if I was beginning to realize they were hopelessly old and not cool. A summer later, I was in my first dating relationship with a boy and no longer felt I needed my parents to entertain me. And without feeling they needed to entertain me, my parents moved on and began to pursue their own interests (including, but not limited to, spending hot summer days exclusively indoors.)

Nowadays, any summer day spent at the pool has me longing for cold Cokes and fried bologna sandwiches with just-picked tomatoes. When I come home, I always want a nap and a thunderstorm. I want to wake up to the smells of fried chicken and aloe gel. But it's been tough to get those stars to align.

And yet I know now it wasn't so much those specific things that made the day perfect. Those are just my associations, and the concrete things I'll always remember. What really made that day perfect are the very things that make it the most un-repeatable: me being 14, my dad in good health and sober, my mom unworried and happy. That day is a touchstone I go back to often when I think about my childhood. There were some really, really bad days. But in the midst of it, there was this one incredible moment of simple happiness, filled with love and sunshine.

And fried chicken.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Horror Picture Show

My maternal grandmother was the classiest southern lady I've ever known. Every day, even if she wasn't going anywhere, she put on heels, stockings, and a skirt and blouse. Her snow-white hair was always elegantly coiffed, her natural nails buffed to shine and a clear coat on top. She held court every day on her floral-patterned sofa in her immaculately-kept trailer, unless it was Saturday, when she went to town to trade at Nell's Dress Shop, the Rexall drug store and soda fountain, or the dime store. Whether at home or making an appearance on Court Square, she was treated with respect and reverence and she treated others with the same. She was never alone in her own home; my maiden aunt lived with her, and there were always  visitors. Mamaw, as I called her, doled out advice, cooking suggestions, scripture, and hand-stitched quilts and crocheted afghans to a large number of relations, both close and distant. Her admirers were many; she never judged, never gossiped, just sat and listened and occasionally expressed dismay over her crochet hook with a quiet, "They law..."

I loved her dearly. But I felt distant from her, too. She was not a hugger and did not openly show affection to her kids and grand kids, though I never doubted her love for me. When we visited her on our one designated "down-home" weekend a month, she often wiped tears from her eyes when we left. But she was such a well-mannered, well-kept lady that I kept my distance from her. I was afraid I would get dirt on her lovely pastel suits, or muss her perfect hair, or interrupt her from her constant crocheting or sewing (she firmly believed that idle hands were dangerous things, and even if she was watching television, she felt she had to be productive.)

When I was in the 4th-grade, Mom and I moved from Erlanger to a tiny 3-room apartment a 5 minute walk from Mamaw's trailer; it was a tough time for the family. I spent every weekday afternoon and many weekend nights at the trailer, and though Mamaw never once quarreled at me, I know she wasn't always keen on having a ten-year-old constantly sharing her living room. She was, in my mind, old. She ate old-people food and watched old-people shows and made my aunt June read me books and play Connect 4 with me when I was getting antsy, which always made me feel even more in the way.

I grew accustomed to Friday and Saturday nights watching Mamaw's "stories" on TV. I didn't like to admit it, and I would make a face when the theme music started to express my displeasure, but Falcon Crest was really starting to grow on me.

"Jane Wyman was President Reagan's first wife," Mamaw would say over the opening credits.

"Yes, I know," I would reply. She was trying to make something about the show seem relevant to my life. Little did she know I kinda had a crush on Lorenzo Lamas.

One Friday night saw me at the trailer much later than usual. My mom had been working 1 full-time and 2 part-time hairdressing jobs for months; her cousins decided she needed a night out. The stories were all over for the night, and after June retired back to her room, it was just me and Mamaw. When this had happened before, Mamaw would sometimes go on to bed, leaving me to watch Friday Night Videos in peace and without having to explain why young people today dance like that and wear such ugly clothes.

"Watch whatever you want," Mamaw said. "I'm going to finish up this row and then go to bed." She was working on a ripple afghan and had taught me the stitch one rainy afternoon to keep me from being underfoot. Ripple stitches are a complete pain and require counting, which means I was able to do it for about 10 minutes at a stretch before becoming bored. How she could sit there for hours and do it was more reason for me to believe that being old meant you were completely incapable of having any fun.

"Whatever you want" became an edited-for-TV version of the horror classic Friday the 13th. Despite having HBO back in Erlanger, this particular horror movie was one I had never seen all the way through. Even by 4th grade, I had seen more than my fair share of age-inappropriate horror movies. I held my breath and hoped she didn't start paying too much attention to the T & A and gratuitous violence just beginning to unfold on the screen. I honestly did not think I could get away with watching this slasher flick in front of my grandma, but I was 10 and willing to try.

"What kind of picture show is this?" she asked. I sighed. Picture show.

"It's scary. Mom lets me watch 'em, but you wouldn't like it. You should probably go on to bed."

"I will in a little bit. Don't know why, but I'm wide-eyed tonight. June must've made her iced tea too strong today." June made a pot of sweet tea every morning in an old Mr. Coffee coffeemaker and there was never a drop left after supper.

As the body count started to rise, I kept peeking back to see if Mamaw was watching, and wondering at what point it would become so uncomfortable she would either tell me to turn such un-Christian-like garbage off or go to bed and leave me alone with the sin. But every time I looked, I would see her with her crochet needle poised in mid-air, her mouth agape, her attention focused

"Huh. Well," she said after Kevin Bacon bit the dust in a particularly shocking and gruesome fashion. I knew then. My grandma, who never swore, read the bible daily, and had never, ever put on a pair of pants, was actually enjoying this movie. Would wonders never cease?

I felt I was witnessing something rare and precious and I needed to tread lightly. I really wanted to sneak into the kitchen for a snack, perhaps some Fisher's bologna and saltines, but I chose to stay perfectly still and not break the spell.

Her ripple stitches hopelessly not counted at this point, she put down her crocheting and just watched, uttering a "Huh. Well," every time someone was murdered on screen. And when the killer was revealed to be a middle-aged lady avenging the drowning of her son, she let loose with a "They law..." The film's final moments, with the great shocker moment of Jason popping out of the water on the serene lake, made us both jump and prompted a "Well, I swear."

Mom came in just as the ending credits were rolling.

"You all are up awful late. What you been doin'?"

"Toni turned on some crazy movie and I couldn't sleep." Mamaw shook her head. "Lord, I've never seen anything like it."

Mom didn't ask what it was until we'd said our goodbyes and headed across my great-aunt's yard to our little apartment, where I knew I wouldn't sleep for fear of boogeymonsters under the bed. But I didn't care. I had just witnessed something awesome.

"So what did you watch? Whatever it was must have been good to keep your Mamaw up that late."

"Friday the 13th. You should have seen her face. I thought she was going to make me turn it off but she loved every minute of it. I had no idea she would watch something like that."

Mom started laughing. "There's a lot about your Mamaw that would surprise you."

And there was. Over the next couple of years, until she left this world well before we were ready to see her go, I would learn that my Mamaw could cock and shoot a BB gun at mangy dogs one-handed; that my Papaw was actually her second husband, and that she had the guts to divorce a first husband who treated her badly at a time when such a thing was considered a grave sin; that she left the Pentecostal church because she didn't want to be told she couldn't wear a little makeup; that as a younger woman she occasionally partook of whiskey and thought neither dancing, nor drink, nor cigarettes equaled eternal damnation. She was devoutly Christian and took the Bible as the infallible word of God, but was tolerant of everything but hypocrisy.

Everything including her youngest granddaughter's taste in picture shows.