Wednesday, May 23, 2012


So very cold. And so very blue.

The first slurp stabbed my brain. I blinked and pinched the bridge of my nose in the age-old custom of the Liberty Street/Talbot Avenue gang: the first Icee of the season always hits you the hardest.

I had not stopped into the little convenience store close to my childhood home in a long time. Not much has changed; the walls are still covered in wood panelling, the letters above the dairy cases and beer and soda fridges are still in a font the 70s forgot.

The important thing is that the Icee and ice cream machines are the same. After spending a little while at my mother's house, leaving, as I do every time I stop by, with a car full of memories, I needed a drink. And only one drink would do: the artificially colored and flavored frozen concoction that I nearly lived on every summer as a child. I needed a blue Icee.

The lady at the counter was, I would suspect, a convenience store lifer. Sure, I am occasionally waited on by someone who just works at the AmeriStop part-time or on a transient basis. But I can always tell when the Icee barista is someone who is making a career of this as opposed to a surly youth simply working his way through school. This particular convenience store has a habit of drawing in ladies who haunt the register for a decade or more. When they wait on you, they do it with pride; they pump the handle on the Icee machine with a practiced precision that guarantees the Icee is at the peak of the rounded lid, with just the right ratio of syrup to frozen carbonation. It's a lost art.

The lifers are also proud of this old little store and its claims to fame.

"Did you see we have banana today?" the cashier says, as she hands Ainsley and me our red- and blue-striped cups full of impossibly cold goodness. I look at the ancient soft-serve machine and see what used to be my favorite sight in the world: a little hanging sign advertising that most rarely-served flavor of convenience-store ice cream.

"Oh, wow. I did not see that. I had my heart so set on that blue Icee I didn't even think about the ice cream. I grew up around here, and the banana was my favorite."

"Did you know that's the one flavor they make here in the store?" she asks, nodding her head toward the back office. "They mix that up in the back with real bananas. They mash 'em themselves and put the bananas into mix. That's why it's so good. All day we've had people calling asking if we have it. People are going to stop in on their way home from work. It'll be crazy in here in a few minutes."

We chat for a while and the memories flood my heart in a way I almost can't bear. I am ten years old again, and my best friend and I have been trusted to walk here by ourselves on a hot summer evening. I am bringing home a 2-liter of Coke, a can of cat food, and a pack of Vantage Light 100s. For my efforts, I can get either an ice cream or an Icee. I almost always choose the Icee. There's enough of my own pocket change that I can throw in a pack of Skittles. The cashier, who I know by name and who has seen my shadow darken the tile floor since I was three, does not even bat an eye that I'm getting cigarettes. Carol knows they're my dad's brand. I see the reflection in the glass door of  two tan girls leaving, with paper bags under their arms and Icees in their hands, giggling. The best part of the adventure is always the walk home. We will stick out our Icee-dyed tongues at each other and make fun of our blue teeth. We will ride the sugar high well into the dusk. And the next evening, we will comb through our couches looking for lost change so we can make the trip back for more Icees or soft-serve banana ice cream cones swirled so high they defy gravity.

A young mother comes in to get a treat for her daughter and the spell breaks. I am firmly back in the present. I thank my new friend and Ainsley and I head out to the car, Icees in hand, mouths already blue.

"These are better than I remember," Ainsley says from the back seat.

Yes, Ains. They are.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Still Cranky After All Of These Years

I haven't done a good rant in a while. And I desperately need to. Because most people are asshats.

I've had a lot to do the last few weeks, and every errand I run insures that I have to put up with groups of people with no social awareness or sense of self. It makes my head want to explode. Have you ever seen an old-school pressure cooker, with the little metal top that spins and systematically releases the steam inside so the pot doesn't become a weapon of mass destruction? That's me. And this is my spinning steam top.

Here are some things that are raising my blood pressure this week. These same things may not be raising my blood pressure next week. People, you see, are always finding new and different ways to be idiots. We are evolving. Into bigger and bigger assholes.

1. Slow walkers.

2. Slow walkers who walk side by side with other slow walkers, forming a deadly clot in the walkway artery.

3. Low talkers. Seriously, speak the *%$# up.

4. Indecisive people at the grocery store. You're in the condiments aisle. I know there are a lot of ketchup choices these days. But you should be able to pick a bottle and get the hell out of my way in 10 seconds or less. It just goes on your fries, you'll be fine.

5. People who still, despite the general consensus that it's dangerous and makes you look like a self-important douche-canoe, talk on their phones while driving. Unless it's me who's talking while driving, and I of course can give you a million reasons why my case is different and I am not actually being a douche-canoe.

6. Smoking sections. Because a smoker's right to smoke in that county is more important than my right to be able to go to the only O'Charley's in the immediate area for loaded potato soup of a Friday night without smelling the noxious fumes that, SHOCKER, do not magically stop moving over the plastic barrier between the smoking and non-smoking section.

7. Customer service workers who don't serve their customers because that makes doing their job too hard.

8. Humana Spending Account Administration. I'm not even going to go into details here. I feel a stroke coming on just typing the name.

9.  Helicopter parents. (They bother me so much during Ainsley's swim events that I took 2 online quizzes to make sure I'm not one. The Internet says I'm not, so it's true.)

10. Parents who don't actually parent and just let their kids roam free in public places.

11. The TB ward that filled the row behind me at Les Mis last night coughing and sneezing all over my back and, just to keep things interesting, kicking the back of my seat during the slower moments. I should mention that this entire row consisted of tweens and younger children in an extended family whose parents sat a row behind them and actually got to enjoy the show. So really just number 10 again.

12. Anybody who doesn't clean up their own mess.

13. Chronic question-askers.

Okay, then. That's it. For now. I am going to the closest drug store and using one of the free blood-pressure screening thingies. And on the way there, I will get cut off by someone talking on a cell phone to their child's swim coach asking why Junior isn't swimming the 100 Free in the next meet when clearly that's his best chance to join Michael Phelps in the Olympics this summer. When I do get there, a slow walker carefully weighing her Tampax options with her slow-walking bestie will make me have to take the maze approach to getting to the machine. Once my arm is in the cuff, an unsupervised child coughing up a lung and probably spreading bird flu will run over my foot with a shopping cart and proceed to ask me 20 questions about what that thing on my arm is doing and what those numbers mean. The pharmacist might tell him to go find his mom, but he'll talk so low we won't make out words, we'll just see that his mouth is moving and ask him to repeat himself. I will decide to go ahead and pick up my prescriptions but my Humana Flex Spending card will be deactivated because Humana lost my validation paperwork. Again. The cashier will not be at the register anyway because she'll be flirting with her boyfriend in the liquor aisle, so it won't matter. And on my way out to my car, pissed but with no better idea whether or not I actually do have high blood pressure, I will step in someone's gum, which they were too lazy to spit into a garbage can.

So...maybe not.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Little Things

Well, here it is. My first Mother's Day without my mother. It's exactly as awful as you'd think.

I am taking my mind off of it by going to see Les Miserables with Jason and the kid. And by "take my mind off of it", I mean "make me sob uncontrollably for 2 1/2 hours with its tale of love and sacrifice." It will be the kid's first time seeing it, so I will do my best to hold it together. Seeing Fantine die on stage makes me lose my mind on a good day, and this is not by any stretch a good day. But the tickets were bought long ago, before it all went to hell around here. we go.

I've been told to remember the good things today. The small things. To savor the tiniest of memories. So I am. The little things are what I miss the most.

I miss her cute shoes. Every compliment-grabbing pair of shoes I've worn in the past decade have been shoes she bought. I don't believe for one minute that she bought any of these for herself and that they didn't fit, as she claimed. We were not even close to being the same size. But she knew I felt bad when she spent money on me. I always accepted the girly flip-flops with heels, and Uggs, and strappy sandals, and high-heeled knee-high sexy boots. I trusted her judgement on these things, for left to my own devices, I purchase really ugly shoes with orthotic inserts and good arch support .

I miss how she ordered both Coke and coffee with breakfast and then wondered why First Watch always gave her heartburn.

I miss how she fixed Ainsley's hair in some neat and elegant up-do every time she was with her for more than an hour. I dropped off Cousin It but picked up Cinderella.

I miss having someone who would call on a random summer afternoon and say, "Bring Ainsley over here to spend the night and you and Jason go do something." We could sit outside at a nice restaurant on a beautiful July Thursday evening and not worry; our child was having at least as good of a time as we were.

I miss that she cooked sauerkraut for me when I craved it, since the smell alone causes a violent adverse reaction in my house.

I miss her cussing. Her accent made even "shit" and "hell" sound socially acceptable and genteel.

I miss the short, sincere notes she wrote on the inside of special occasion cards to go beyond the message of the card and tell us how much she loved us.

I miss that she bragged on my humble cooking.
I miss the unexpected kindnesses. The time we got back from vacation to see she had brought her seamstress friend to our house to finally fix the rip in our couch. Her habit of dropping by little gifts of clothes or costume jewelry and leaving them in a pretty bag on the front porch. How she never went away on a vacation without finding me a collectible shot glass.

Today we will all be remembering and honoring our mothers, whether we're still with them or not. Our mothers take care of so many of the big moments of our lives--they hold us, literally and figuratively, during our biggest milestones. The big moments make it into the Hallmark cards. So write your own note in that card today. Remember the little things.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


We stuck our feet out the car window--three pairs of 8th-grade feet, three different colors of high-top Chuck Taylors, three different girls on our way to play in a volleyball game where, I am fairly certain, we lost. We were not the winning-est middle-school volleyball team. But we had a hell of a good time getting there.

Two of my closest girlfriends and I decided to make Converse All-Stars in bright colors part of our back-to-school shopping lists. My best childhood friend chose red; she was the undisputed leader of our group and red matched her alpha-girl personality and aggressive athleticism. She was a warrior, but with a big, bleeding heart underneath the ferocity.

My other friend had a pair of teal ones. She was the girliest of the three of us, pretty, soft-spoken, pastel, and kind.

I had the yellow pair. That was my signature color. It was happy. It was sunny. When I wore it, I felt like I could be the very best me--the optimistic me, the laughing me, the spotlight-stealing me. I didn't feel yellow every day, but I certainly wanted to. Yellow represented who I most wanted to be.

I wore that pair of yellow Chucks until the soles came off. By the time they were no longer wearable, that particular late-80s fashion trend had passed and no one wore them anymore. I went on a quest in high-school to find another pair like them, but no other pair of sneakers I could find in stores were quite as fitting for me as that pair of yellow high-top All Stars.

Which is why I squealed in delight a couple of weeks ago when a friend from work showed me her bright green Chuck Taylors. They're back! And they're once again fabulous! I knew I had to have them.

I am not much of a shopper. I do not like to spend money on myself. Yet every now and then, a girl just has to have shoes. Especially when said shoes make a girl's heart ache from fond memories of joyful afternoons setting out on an adventure with feet recklessly hanging out of the car windows.

On a recent day that I woke with my heart heavy from my mother's loss, I went in search of these shoes. Shoes that wouldn't just serve as an ironic-but-not-really-because-I-kinda-think-they're-awesome fashion statement. Shoes that took me back to a time in my life when I can truly say I was the most carefree and radiantly happy.

I went into this venture thinking I would get the red ones. I am a red girl now. That color gives me strength and confidence and helps me remember that I, too, am a warrior. It makes me think of fighting a blood cancer and kicking its ass.

Or maybe the dark blue ones. Blue makes me think of my dad, and our shared love of the UK Wildcats, and the last color I saw him wear in this world.

But the Chucks I brought home, the ones I put on and showed my husband, saying, "Oh my God, do these shoes totally look like me or what?", were the classic black ones. Seriously, if you've never met me and have no idea what I look like, think of a pair of black low-top Chuck Taylors sticking out from dark-washed bootcut Levis. And there you go. We've met.

It seems trivial to write about shoes, I know. But finding a soul mate in a pair of Converse is magical and healing.

After finding the shoes, I came back home and fell into a deep sleep. Shopping on a rainy Saturday is my Ambien. I had my first dream about my mother since she died, and I woke up needing to sob but so full of grief that I didn't even have the energy to cry.

In the dream, I had come home after Ainsley's swim practice. Jason stood in the kitchen holding our phone.

"I know it's not possible, and I don't know how it happened," dream Jason said, "but your mother called while you were gone and left you a message."

He played the message we both know could not have been sent by a dead person. My mother's voice filled the room, saying,

"I just want you to know I got here okay. I was hoping I'd catch you at home because I really wanted to hear your voice. But I know you're busy and I'll call you back later."

I know, right?

I wandered around for a while, completely out of sorts. I was comforted. But also made more raw. My heart told me that my mother had just reached out to me. I had no idea how I was going to make it through the night, and have friends over, and pretend that I was okay when I could not have been any less okay.

I cooked dinner. I drank a beer. I put on my new shoes. And, for a little while, I felt whole again. Every time I looked down, I thought, Oh, hello me. There you are. You're not lost after all. You're still who you used to be, just a little darker now.

My world is no longer, and probably will never again be, yellow. For some time, it will probably be black. That sounds depressing, I know. But it's okay. I have the shoes to match.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Keep Off the Grass

Last weekend was prom weekend at my school. One of my students asked me how I spent the day of my prom. Did I get my hair done? My nails? Get ready at a friend's house, take a bunch of pictures? No, I told them, before my junior prom, I just mowed the grass. These young whippersnappers today. They have no idea.

"I am not a child anymore. You need to trust me. It's prom, and I need to do this. I promise I won't get hurt. Now, give me the keys."

It's May, 1991, and my mom and I are fighting, bitterly. A change in the mother-daughter power balance is about to happen, and the air is charged both from the storms moving in and from the electric emotions between a strong-willed 17-year-old girl and her reluctant mother. After a pause in which I am sure I am about to lose, my mother hands me the keys. And I do what every teen girl would do in the same circumstance:

I start up my dad's riding lawnmower.

Things were complicated at home that spring. Dad had fallen spectacularly off the sobriety wagon, foregoing all responsibilities including, but not limited to, basic hygiene and employment. Yet somehow I was at the peak of my high-school success: I had been selected as a Governor's Scholar, won my grade's school-wide essay contest, played The Artful Dodger in Oliver! and, most importantly, had really great hair and had kept a serious boyfriend for over a year. I put those two things together because I am convinced they are related. I knew people suspected my home life was, in the words of Allison in The Breakfast Club, "unsatisfying." But I did not want to confirm this. I felt on the brink of actually getting away and making a decent life for myself and I didn't want any busybody teachers or pesky counsellors finding the skeletons in that particular closet. It was fine if they could smell the corpses, I just didn't want the bones to poke out from under the door.

So when my dad decided that keeping the grass mowed was optional, and mom decided anything not worth dad's time was not worth hers, either, I began to panic. There for all to see was clear evidence that all was not right with the Crankies. Having grass grow to hip-high in a house people actually live in raises a pretty big red flag.

I didn't care about the neighbors. They knew we were screwed up long before. But when my best friend offered to drive to junior prom, I knew that he and his date would see the jungle that had grown around our house and, for the first time, I worried what people might think. That grass had to be mowed.

The problem was that despite my parents being two people who didn't care nearly enough about matters of the home, they cared almost too much about their youngest daughter. Their overly-protective parental restraining order mandated that I was not allowed to come within 5 feet of a working lawnmower.

"You'll cut your toes off on that hill," Dad would say in reference to the steep front hill which had given him several close calls over the years.

"I know a guy whose son got killed when his riding mower flipped and fell on top of him," Mom would say when I suggested I drive Dad's little lawn tractor instead of the death trap that was our ancient push mower. Ah, nothing brings the grisly like a worried mother.

Meanwhile, a warm, wet spring nourished our untended lawn. It grew above our ankles; then to our knees; then to a height where Mom and I thought for sure we were going to get cited by the city. She took a run at the grass one day only to have the mower clog and choke while her smoker's lungs and years of inactivity prohibited her from making any real progress. We feared what might be growing in there; snakes and wolf spiders for sure, for we saw them scurry across our walkway from time to time. Whatever else might have been hiding I hoped I'd never see. My closest girlfriend, who knew my secrets but who never let on like she knew, much to my eternal appreciation, called it my "Children of the Corn yard." She joked that if we didn't do something soon the Corn God was going to start speaking through me and asking for a sacrifice. I was both amused and terrified.

The morning of prom I stopped being amused. The situation had tipped to critical. Before anyone else in the house rose from their hangovers/depressive slumbers, I threw on a pair of old jeans, two pairs of socks, boots, and a pair of winter gloves. The ancient push mower was rusted and I didn't exactly know what tetanus was, but I knew it was a possibility given the conditions. I thought maybe I could get out and start mowing before anyone was the wiser. I did not anticipate not knowing how to start a lawnmower and that riding mowers actually use keys. Mom learned of my scheme pretty quickly when I began rummaging around the house.

"Are you crazy? You're not going out there and mowing. We'll hire someone next week."

"I am being picked up for prom in 6 hours and I can't have people show up and see our yard like this."

"Have them pick you up at the top of the street."

"It's supposed to storm. And I will be wearing a dress and heels. I'm not walking up the street in the rain to get picked up at the corner like a hooker."

We argued. And somehow I won. We figured out how to start both mowers and I was let loose in the wild. I would have felt very grown-up and superior except that I was seriously afraid I might accidentally run over a stray dog or cat or perhaps some small deer that had taken up residence in our own private wilderness refuge.

It was a slow process. I'll never forget the noise the two mowers made as they stuttered and coughed through the high grass--grrrr---chkchkchk---grrrr---chkchkchk--as I walked and rode so slowly I thought for sure I would never get finished and the lawn would just have to have a reverse Mohawk.

4 hours later everything was mowed except for a small portion of the Hill of Death. It would have to do. Once the rain started I had to acknowledge my mother's hand signals from the front door, calling me to just walk it on in. A gallon of water, a hot shower, and some quality time burning my ears off with hot rollers, and I found myself picture-ready on the walkway with Jason and our best friend. I did not and could not invite them in, but from the outside they probably couldn't tell that I had anything other than a semi-normal suburban life. Well, the unnatural mounds of grass clippings might have given something away. But maybe they thought we were making hay.

Several days later my father went to rehab for the umpteenth time and we hired someone to finish the lawn job I had started. As it always did, the listing ship that was my adolescence righted itself. Since I did not die under rotating blades, it became my job over the rest of the summer to help mow the grass. Being trusted to not to kill oneself with heavy equipment does have a downside. I grumbled, but I enjoyed it. At one point I even added a copy of the lawnmower key to my key chain, much to my parents' amusement; I didn't get my real driver's license until August and didn't have a car of my own to drive, so the Craftsman out in the shed was as close as I could come to vehicular independence. I named her "Sally" and threatened to take her with me to college.

For I earned those keys. I fought the lawn. And the lawn did not win.