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.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A New Direction

I'm back! Well, sorta.

I've taken a looong absence from the blog. I guess moving will do that to a person. No one really wants to hear all about painting walls, picking out curtains, and happy evenings spent browsing light fixtures at home improvement stores, so I haven't really had much to write about.

Which has made me take a step back and realize I need to take a step forward.

For years now, I've used this forum as a way to rant and rave, to console myself, to express the joys and sorrows of parenting, losing loved ones, and living as a young cancer survivor. I think I've gotten pretty much everything off my chest. (Though my current gripe, if anyone cares to hear it, is that appliance repair people only work between 8 and 4. Which means that, if an appliance breaks down, even if it's new and under warranty and totally not the consumer's fault, you have to take time off work to get the repair. Really, Samsung? REALLY?) But I've always threatened to write a book someday. And I might just be ready to start.

As I've gotten older, I've realized that it is a bloody miracle that my childhood turned out a healthy product. The odds were against me. And yet somehow I made it.

I think my life could be a good story. The world doesn't need another memoir, certainly. But I am ready to tell mine.

I had really good feeback from what I did at Christmas this year, which was to tell the story of several important Christmases in my life using different points of view and different ways of writing. For a while, if you will bear with me, I want to tell some more stories about my childhood playing around with the perspective and the point of view. When I feel I've found my voice, I may just start writing something "for real." Or I may just keep blogging. Who knows? I just want to write. And if what I write can someday help another person out, and let them know that they're not alone and that there's hope even when your home life isn't, technically speaking, good, well...that's just gravy, isn't it? A big bowl of sausage-studded homestyle cream gravy.

Some stories will be funny, some not so much. Such is life.

I hope you'll come back if you went away, or stick with me if you've been here all along. Either way, I've missed writing, and I will keep on until I have nothing else to tell.