Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Peeled By Chuck

There, in the bottom of the little bedroom closet, a forgotten bag of memories.

Who left them, and when, and why, in the white trash bag under a mountain of shoes, belts, curtain rods, and an old beach chair, I will never know. The two people who could have told me are gone. My goal that hot Sunday afternoon was to tackle my mother's bedroom closet and separate trash from treasure, and the crumpled, nondescript bag almost went directly into the trash can without a second glance.

A rattling sound stopped me as I prepared to lob the bag out into the hallway with the rest of the things I knew no one wanted. What I saw inside made me gasp.

An old matchbox from the Mad Men era holding two tiny carved figurines, one of a turtle, the other of an anvil; faded postcards from southeast Asia; an envelope full of menus; 2 poems; report cards; receipts; a paystub. All were from the years between 1959 and 1963, and all were my father's.

Where the figurines came from, whether they were bought by my father or, in an uncharacteristic burst of artistic ability, carved by him, I don't know. But the other items, when taken together, give me a clearer picture of who my father was than the 31 years I actually spent with him.

The envelope, addressed to my grandmother and postmarked, contains nothing but mimeographed breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus from the army base here in the states where my father was first stationed. At first, I didn't understand; there's no letter. As I flipped through, I got it--Dad told me once that he had never eaten anything other than soup beans and cornbread until he got in the army, and while everyone else complained about the mess hall chow, he felt like he had died and gone to heaven because of the multitude of exotic choices and plentifulness of the bounty. Sending the menus was his way of celebrating the way he was being fed and letting my grandmother know that he was happy. Certain items on the menus he sent to my granny were underlined or had exclamation points--"STEAMED ASPARAGUS!" "FRESH PINEAPPLE!" "SALMON LOAF!" He had also written notes under many of the items--"sliced by Chuck" under the glazed carrots, "peeled by Chuck" under the mashed potatoes. He wanted to make sure Granny knew he had been helping out in the kitchen.

The report cards show that while Dad's grades began to slip in his junior year at the high school in Knox County, he did much better after moving out to Del City to live with his uncle and finish high school there. The failing grade in junior English became a B+, and he aced U.S. history with a 99% average for the year. Not to mention stellar marks in what I am sure was that football and basketball player's favorite class, physical education.

Receipts from fuel deliveries to oil companies, a crumpled paystub, and postcards from various ports of call give me some idea what his military life was like as a green Merchant Marine on a tug boat crew at the dawn of the Vietnam War. But none as much as two poems I found in the bag, written in his own hand.

One called "The Ship" details a busy day spent doing absolutely nothing important; another is a parody of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" with Santa visiting the ship and finding the crew too drunk, sloppy, and incompetent to leave gifts. For a guy who failed a semester of high-school English, they are marvelously well-written, clever, and witty. My mother used to think that my meager writing ability came from her side of the family; I cried while reading Dad's poems because the voice sounded so like my own. In that same time and place, I could have written those same words.

I knew that cleaning out my parents' house would be one of the most difficult jobs I will ever have. I knew that, because my mother had not fully cleared out all of my father's belongings, I would be sorting through the material remnants of his life as well as my mom's. I did not know that a handful of old papers long-forgotten in a trash bag could make me feel such a mix of joy and sorrow, mystery and resolution. I know more about his personality, his young life, and his talents than I've ever known. But I want to know so much more. What I wouldn't give for just one more day with my parents to ask them everything I've ever wanted to know. Who were you guys? What did you aspire to be? Why did you follow the paths you followed? And what on earth happened to kill some of the humor and joy I see so vividly in each of you when you were young?

If only the universe could grant this wish. I would be sure to ask that we eat well, with potatoes peeled by Chuck.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Every group of friends needs a hangout. A place to call their own, away from the pressures of work or family. For examples of this you need look no further than your television.

Our most beloved TV friends meet daily in their signature diners, bars, coffee shops, and electromagnetic subterranean island hatches (Lost, I don't know how to quit you) to unwind, catch up, and bond. Any event of true importance in their lives happens here: first kisses, accidents, incidents, spiritual revelations, soul mates met, soul mates lost, life-changing pronouncements about engagements, divorces, and pregnancy made.

Throughout most of the 90s, my group of friends and I had such a hangout. It was not a bar, it was not a restaurant (though the food was excellent), it was not a coffee shop. (It might have had a subterranean electromagnetic hatch. The basement was a little other-worldly and I am fairly sure some weird space-time continuum stuff went on down there.) It was a well-kept house ruled by a woman I simply knew as "G-Ma."

The first time my friend Matt took me to his grandmother's house, I thought it was just a temporary stop on the way to somewhere else. I had no idea I would spend much of the next decade of my life there.

It sounds strange now to say that my young adult location of choice was a friend's grandmother's house. But if you have any doubts about how a group of teenagers, and later, college students, could possibly have fun hanging out with a grandma, well...that's just because you didn't know this particular grandma.

She was a recent widow, and I think we started going by at first just to provide some company and to check on her. Where Matt went, I followed; I did not have a car but I hated to be stuck at home, so friends just had to rattle their keys and I was in the passenger seat ready to go along for the ride. A group of four or five of us began to tag along with Matt and make regular appearances at the house, and we began to fall in love with the woman who lorded over it.

Pretty soon we were invited over to play horseshoes in the backyard. Then we were invited over for dinner. Then for cards. Then for any reason at all. We could stay as long we liked and more or less do as we pleased. We were grateful and respectful in return for this unbelievable trust and kindness from a woman not related to all of us by blood. She became a grandmother to us all.

We bonded with G-Ma over long card games around the kitchen table. I think we started with Euchre. I have a hard time remembering, though, because before long G-Ma taught us to play Rook, and for the remainder of my 20s that was the only card game that existed. As a teacher she was patient; as a partner she was sly; as a competitor she was ruthless. I spent every night one summer as her Rook partner playing against Jason and Matt, who consistently beat us. No, they didn't just beat us. They demoralized us. They ripped out our still-beating hearts and shoved them in our faces. To this day, I don't know whether G-Ma and I had supernaturally awful luck that summer or if Matt and Jason had supernaturally awesome luck, or if those two cads were cheating outrageously. I do know that nothing brings two women together like a shared frustration and white-hot anger aimed at two smug card-playing men. So G-Ma and I, we became pretty tight.

Eventually our group of friends paired off and married. G-Ma and her house were important at these events, too. All the groomsmen in our wedding, in a move that probably confused outsiders who didn't know this was our happy place, met at G-Ma's before the ceremony. The pre-wedding pictures taken of Jason and his best men were snapped there. G-Ma attended both my wedding and my wedding shower as a special guest and friend. I do believe a different marriage proposal took place at her house several years later. Ainsley napped upstairs on her very first Christmas while the rest of us played a cut-throat round of Trivial Pursuit in the time-warp basement. (I'm telling you, you could spend hours or even days in that dark, quiet basement and think you had only been in there an hour.) Holidays, birthdays, Super Bowls, college basketball games, Reds games, Friday evenings after our first jobs had started to make us crazy--no big occasion was needed for us all to meet there. And presiding over it all, with smiles and warmth and love, was the lady herself. If you were at G-Ma's, you were home. She made it feel that way.

When Ainsley was almost a year old, G-Ma sold her house. Matt invited everyone in his extensive group of friends who had ever made his grandma's house a home to celebrate that special little corner of the world one final time. Over the years, at some time or another, many young people had been invited; most of them showed up to say goodbye. We stood on the front lawn, in matching custom t-shirts, surrounding the wonderful woman who had become our grandmother. It was like the last episode of a sitcom.

For a couple more years, we visited G-Ma at her new place on the holidays. But our families were growing. The last time we all got together with her was to watch a basketball game at a family reunion in the clubhouse of her condo. We ate. We laughed. We played cards. We cheered on the Louisville Cardinals in spite of ourselves.We promised to try to do better about staying in touch and pledged to meet up every year for a similar dinner. I am sorry to say that life got in the way of keeping these promises.

I had heard that G-Ma wasn't doing very well years ago and that she was no longer able to live alone. My correspondence with her was limited to cards and letters sent at the holidays. Once after sending her a Christmas picture of Ainsley, I got a letter back, a quick note that our daughter was beautiful and that she clearly took after her MOTHER. ("MOTHER" was in all caps and underlined; G-Ma wanted to make sure Jason picked up on the subtle and playful slam. She never quite forgave him for that awful summer of Rook.)

A couple of Christmas Eves ago, when we were feeling a little blue and sorry for ourselves that it was our first Christmas without Jason's mother, the phone rang. A bright light on a dark day--it was G-Ma. She had received our card and wanted to wish us a Merry Christmas and brag on Ainsley. Her voice had become frail. Her humor and warmth, though, were still intact. I wept when the conversation was over; sometimes, when you talk to someone, you know it's for the last time.

This week, G-Ma passed away. I feel for her family, who lost a wonderful mother and grandmother and great-grandmother. I feel for all of us in that little merry band of misfits who found refuge for most of the 90s with a woman who welcomed us as one of her own, loved us, fed us, and taught us how to gracefully win and lose at cards. (Well, she tried.)

I think this weekend I will honor her by baking an orange cake from her own recipe, drinking lots of sweet tea, playing some cards (not Rook; I've not forgiven Jason for that awful summer, either), and coming together with my closest friends. We will think of her, and miss her. But her kindness, generosity, and love will live on.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

That's a Big F***ing Snake.

I started this the week after this actually happened, and then forgot about it. So I finished it. And published it. I bet you feel whole now.

Whenever I am startled and let out one of my infamous squeals, a little rational voice inside my head speaks up as soon as the sound leaves my mouth: You idiot. That's technically not an axe murderer who just entered your bedroom. It's your husband. Shut. Up.

But on Saturday, I was startled by something so great and terrible that the voice inside my head actually told me to just keep on screaming until help arrived. And help did arrive--in the person of the Kona Ice Man. Yes. The Ice Man cometh.

I had just enabled Ainsley's shaved-ice addiction and was turning back toward the house when I stepped on something that felt like a stick, but not really. It gave a little and I shivered because whatever had just gotten underfoot gave me the distinct impression of being...alive.

And it was. Very. For what I stepped on then began slithering down the driveway and into our open garage.

I let out a startled scream. And the voice of reason inside my head, instead of saying, "You idiot," said, "Ho-ly mo-ly SHIT what the f*** is a snake that big doing in Kentucky oh my God oh my God OHMYGOD!"

For it was not the width that shocked me so much as the girth (that's what she said.)

My scream bounced off of the walls of the adjacent houses and I just stood there, frozen. I am not particulary afraid of snakes. Unless they are huge. And I've just stepped on them. And they've taken cover next to my car in the enclosed space of my garage. Then, I'm not ashamed to say, I'm not a fan.

"Ma'am, would you like me to get it out of the garage for you?"

Yes, random stranger who just sold me a small cup of ice. Yes, I believe that I would.

By this time, the man of my house had come to the door. Now here is a little-known fact: Jason is a wee little bit afraid of snakes. And by "wee little bit" I mean moderately to severely. Snakes are to him what spiders are to me. (Wait, nothing is to Jason the way spiders are to me. He is mostly brave and stoic. But to make this a good story let's pretend he's terrified of them. Because he kinda is.) He will kill them when absolutely necessary but would prefer to not know that they exist inside the perimeter of our yard. I was really hoping to not have to involve him in the little drama unfolding in our driveway, but being a responsible human being, he thought the least he could do was hand the Kona Ice Man our hoe and stay close enough to the action to help but far enough away to run if needed. We are nothing if not considerate of others when the others are ridding our home of unwanted serpents.

I suddenly remembered, in the adrenaline afterglow, that I had a child. Somewhere. Thankfully she had not passed out and seemed fascinated by the proceedings. She had a front-row seat and a snow cone; she looked at me and shrugged and just kept eating. Kids.

The snake was discovered just inside the entrance to the garage, coiled behind the garbage can. My body tensed and Jason and Kona tried to flush him out. When two grown men are hesitant and deliberate when dealing with a creature that's kind of inside your house, you know things are bad.

"I see why you screamed," the Kona Ice Man said. "That's a f***ing big snake."

He suddenly lifted the snake out with the hoe and plopped him onto the driveway. I gasped. At least 5 1/2 feet long, black, and apparently fresh from a meal of fat rodent, it was the largest snake I've ever seen outside of a zoo. I realized it was not poisonous and had nary a rattle in sight, but my legs grew weak just the same.

"Dead or alive, ma'am?"

"Dead. Please."

And with a few quick strikes, the f***ing big snake was dead. The Kona Ice Man, ensuring that I will buy from him every single time he drives down the street for the rest of my life even when I no longer have a child at home, lifted the carcass with the hoe, walked it into our back yard, and threw it into the woods. Then, with a good-humored comment about this being sort of an unusual and memorable day for him, he climbed back into his truck and restarted the faux-island music:

Don't happy.

And they say chivalry is dead.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Yes, He Makes a Ton In Endorsements, But Can He Ever Pay Back His Mom's Grocery Bill?

Being the mother of a young competitive swimmer, I, of course, was enraptured by the Summer Olympics. There was young Missy Franklin, who made me cry, because she seems like such a playful and sweet young girl right up to the moment she gets in the water and kicks her competitors' collective asses. She is what so many of us want our daughters to be: good, but tough. Then there was Rebecca Soni, who excelled in my kid's favorite stroke and inspired her to work on her "pull outs", whatever that means. And let us not forget the whole Lochte/Phelps showdown, which in the end felt terribly anticlimactic. It took Mr. Phelps a while to get warmed up, as it does when you're "old." But in the final analysis, Michael didn't just yell at Ryan to get off his lawn. He chased him down and beat him up with his walker.

Every time the cameras flashed to Michael's mother, I saw the sheer joy on her face and thought of all the times she sat on hard bleachers in suffocating natatoriums watching little Michael swim. All the practices she drove him to, all the times she sat in her car after dark waiting for a little boy to walk out with his swim bag slung over his back, all the suits and pull buoys and fins and goggles she bought.

But the most burning question I have for Mrs. Phelps is how in the world she managed to feed him.

There have been news stories done about the freakish appetites and caloric needs of swimmers in the midst of serious training. Yet you don't really get it until you're the one sitting across from a young swimmer who just cleaned her plate and half of yours and is suddenly eyeing you in a way that makes you think of Hannibal Lecter.

My particular swimmer is whip-thin and colt-ish. She does not look at all like a chow hound. A trip to Chipotle after practice reveals her true nature. We have to remind her to chew and swallow and not just inhale.

Heaven help us when we have a growth spurt during a swim season. Weekend breakfast lasts an hour as the kid raids pantry and fridge in search of carbs like a Walking Dead zombie in search of flesh. An hour later, she asks for lunch. She is starting to outgrow the children's menu of most restaurants; I try not to let it make me sad that her meals are no longer happy.

It's a blessing that I like to cook and that she likes to eat what I cook, even when it includes vegetables. I can't imagine what the parents of picky-eating swimmers go through. There are only so many chicken nuggets and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a person can stand.

In just a couple of weeks we begin a new season of training and competing. The kid got moved up to the next age-group level and practices are longer, the demands for her performance just a little higher. A dentist visit yesterday showed signs that she is poised for a pretty intense growth spurt; she has a group of permanent teeth ready to erupt at any moment, and this is apparently a sign of whole-body changes. It's a perfect storm and our local Kroger is in the path of the eye.

My only shelter is a bunker full of cereal.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Do Over

I started this waaaay back on my 15th (!) wedding anniversary on July 19. Consider this a late love letter to my dearly beloved, that tall, lanky, handsome man who puts up with all my crap.

I've told several friends over the years that I would like a wedding do-over.

Not that my wedding was a disaster. I just don't remember much of it. And what I do remember seems stressful and bland all at the same time. I was 23 years old on my wedding day, and though I felt so very grown up, I was still just a kid. A kid who took herself way too seriously and didn't even know how to enjoy her own wedding.

 I remember that things went badly at the rehearsal. And because things went badly at the rehearsal, I decided I had no choice but to micro-manage the ceremony itself. If the deacon officiating our vows couldn't get the order right, by God, I would just cue the lector and the pianist and the bridesmaids myself. Because I did not let myself embrace being the bride, my wedding had all the romance of a rotary club meeting.

My second wedding to my husband, my do-over wedding, would look a lot different. It would just be about us. We would, with only our child and maybe one or two closest friends in tow, say our vows into each other's eyes on a Caribbean beach at sunrise, or in a tacky-but-lovely chapel in Vegas, or with a justice of the peace at Devou Park overlooking the smoggy Cincinnati skyline. If I had to walk down an aisle, I would do so to "You and Me" by Dave Matthews Band. Unless my friends can play the "Bridal Chorus" on Rock Band instruments, which would be awesome.

I'd like to do our first reception over, too. It was fun, I've heard, but there were a lot of people to meet and greet, and my groove thing did not get shaken nearly enough on the dance floor. Our second reception would be smaller. And have better alcohol. The first dance would be to "You're The One That I Want" in the style of Danny and Sandy from Grease, complete with costume changes into black hot pants and a T-Birds jacket. I know first dances performed in imitation of iconic movie musical scenes are overdone and cliche, but they're not overdone and cliche for me, because I haven't done one yet. Darnit.

My do-over wedding would fit our relationship and our personality in a way that we would actually enjoy. It would beat the heck out of that first affair in 1997 when we were two kids with no clue and little money, still holding on to an overwhelming desire to fulfill our parents' wedding expectations rather than our own wishes.


A new wedding wouldn't have its own built-in choir the way our first wedding did. When our pianist invited everyone to join in singing our opening song, a wave of beautiful and well-trained singing voices unexpectedly filled the church. My mother asked me later where I hid the choir. Among our wedding crowd was: our college voice teacher, who had a side job as an opera performer; the conductor of Centre Singers; various former members of Centre Singers and of the Lloyd High School Chamber Choir; and our high-school chorus teacher and his lyrical-soprano wife. All four vocal parts were well-represented. The only time that day I fought back tears was when that wall of sound arose and went straight to my stressed-out heart strings.

A second wedding also wouldn't have centerpieces painstakingly created from wrapping Little Hugs drinks with irridescent cellophane and topping them with votive candles. It was cheap, it was a little tacky, and in the dim light of the American Legion hall, it was beautiful.

And I doubt very seriously I could recreate a moment from the reception that is one of the most dear memories of my entire life. As the opening chord of Garth Brooks's "Friends in Low Places" sounded throughout the hall, all Centre College alumni were called to the dance floor. In a completely unscripted moment, we stood in a circle and wrapped our arms around each other's shoulders. A dozen voices rose above the din.

 "I'm not big on social graces/
Think I'll slip on down to the OH!-asis..."

 This was magic, and magic is hard to duplicate.

Someday Jason and I will feel compelled to renew our vows. Maybe next year, maybe five years down the road, maybe on our golden anniversary when we're toothless and forgetful, it will occur to us that we've fulfilled the promises we made on July 19, 1997 well enough that we can make new promises. I may get my wish of having the romantic and irreverent wedding that befits both my hard and crunchy exterior and my big, gooey, sentimental heart. Regardless of whether or not I have a wedding do-over, the fact remains--I still get to leave with the tall guy in the tux.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


All summer, I've been under water.

Some days, literally. Kentucky summers are always hot; this one was oppressive. The pool was my escape when it was too hot to even sit on the couch and wish the folks who built our house had put the vents in the right places.

But every day I was under water in spirit. I have felt endlessly adrift and separated from the bright, noisy world above the surface. I have been removed, distant, and muted. Not that this is a bad thing; I think anyone who suffers a sudden loss finds themselves in a cocoon of some sort for a while. If we didn't, I don't think we could bear it.

Last week, after struggling to rise for the three brightest months of the year, I broke the surface. I gasped for air, took a look at all the vivid colors and hazy sunshine and gleeful noises, and decided, like that beloved Disney princess, to be part of that world.

I'll never be the same person I was in March. Losing my mother has changed me forever. I kept waiting for everything to go back to the way it was; I thought by summer's end I would be healed and be myself. I've come to realize, however, that being healed and being just the way you were are not really the same thing. I am out of the extreme depression I was in in the weeks immediately following Mom's illness and death, but I am not the same. There's a new normal. Learning this has gotten me out of the water and onto dry land. But the person who crawled out is not the one who jumped in.

I've thought, several times, that I could never laugh again. Or that I could never be funny again. That I could never again see the humor and absurdity of even life's darkest moments, an ability which got me through cancer and through three other losses.

I have laughed, though. Maybe not as loudly, maybe not as often. Yet I have laughed. And I've even been laughed at. And I finally see the funny around me. Pretty soon, I think, I will be able to write about it again.

I guess what I'm saying is...I'm back.