Friday, September 28, 2012

Innocent Until Proven Worldly

The Easter bunny. Santa. The tooth fairy. They all three still visit my house. And now that the kid has rolled over into the double-digits and is the grand old age of ten, I've been thinking it's time we uninvite them. Like Sookie has done to both Vampire Eric and Vampire Bill on various occasions.

Yesterday provided the perfect opportunity for The Talk. Not the Sex Talk, the "You do realize none of these people are real and that it's your dad and I who have been sneaking around on Christmas Eve and Easter Eve and wandering into your  room at 3am with singles we almost forgot to put under your pillow?" talk. The kid hid in a far corner of my library after school with a Kleenex and some ambition and emerged a few moments later with a freshly-yanked baby tooth and a bloody grin.

I thought that, even though she has not asked, she knows deep down that there is no tooth fairy. She hangs out in a locker room with a bunch of pre-teen girls after swim practice; I know some innocence is being lost on numerous fronts. By her age, the bubble had been burst for me and only babies still believed in Santa and the tooth fairy, which when you think about it, is a pretty big leap of faith, anyway. A real-life tooth collector who sneaks into children's bedrooms at night while they sleep is beyond creepy, and you just can't spin that situation the way you can with a kind, fat man who breaks in but doesn't steal anything and leaves Furbies in his wake.

I took a breath.

" we still believe in the tooth fairy?"

She looked at me like I had just asked if the sky was still blue.

"Yes. She's real. And Santa, too." And with that she finished her homework, no doubt or uncertainty in her mind about whether or not she would get some coin left under her pillow that night.

She could be playing me. Any kid would be smart to hold on to these cards as long as possible. But if you believe that, you don't know her. She's clever and quick and funny, but she's also innocent and emotionally immature. In a good way. The ugliness of the world has not shown itself to her yet, and she still believes in magic and miracles and the inherent goodness of humanity.

God, how I envy her that.

Her times, though, they are a'changing. She's in fifth grade--that horrible time in a kid's life where you leave most of your innocence behind. Girls buy their first training bras, which boys will learn about and start snapping. Boys will start noticing girls and feeling torn between liking the Transformers movie for Optimus Prime and liking the Transformers movie for Megan Fox. Both genders will find themselves divided up and seated at tables of uncomfortable silence in the school library watching a video called "Your Changing Body." Nothing will be the same after that. Few will unwrap toys this year at Christmas; there will be clothes and wallets and cheap jewelry and a strong, lingering odor of adult disappointment. When you don't believe in Santa, and you're no longer really a child, and you know all about menstrual cycles and nocturnal emissions, is this all that's left? Yes, kids-who-aren't-kids. Yes, it is.

As much as I want her to stay my innocent little girl who has never asked me where babies come from despite my long-standing offer to answer any question she ever has about sex honestly and openly and without giggling, the time is coming to break some facts to her. Before she can get teased about it in the swim team locker room or by the boys in her classroom after they can't find a bra strap to snap, I will have to tell her about the whole Santa thing. And possibly about the baby thing. And by way of extension, the Easter-bunny thing and the tooth-fairy thing and the "You-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be-regardless-of -talent-or-skill" thing. Because when one domino of innocence falls, the whole mechanism tumbles.

I know it's coming, and soon. But it did not happen last night. The tooth fairy came, though not without drama. (Unbeknownst to me, Ainsley came home and put her tooth in a Dixie cup of water on the bathroom counter to rinse the blood off. I thought it was just an errant cup and dumped the water and tooth down the drain. So Ainsley wrote a note to the fairy and still got a few bucks, and I get the joy of knowing there's a lower incisor rattling around the bathroom drain somewhere.) I wanted one more time to creep into her room and make magic happen. And see the joy on her face this morning, and know that this, too, shall pass. And that right soon.

For the first training bra is only months away. Today, though, she's still my innocent little girl.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

You Might Be Appalachian

It was a bad weekend. I sought comfort in soup beans.

If you know better than to correct me and ask, "Don't you mean bean soup?", you might be Appalachian.

Because I've seen way too many Jeff Foxworthy comedy specials and maybe, in a dark corner of my home library, have a book full of his redneck jokes, I've been compiling a list since I cooked those soup beans on Sunday night of how to tell if someone is Appalachian at heart. Many of us are one generation removed, and have moved into Yankee territory, but if you pay attention, you can still find us out.

You might be Appalachian if:

You didn't know your great aunt's real name until you saw it in an obituary because no one in your family pronounces names the way they're spelled. (My example: when my Mamaw died and her surviving sisters were listed in the obit, I asked my mom, "Sarah? Who's Sarah?" Turns out she was the woman I knew as "Surrey." Without a fringe on top. This also goes for my other great aunts "Berthie" and "Donie.")

 Your great-grandma was rumored to have been a half-blood Cherokee. (The amazing part here is that no one seems to make the connection that this would mean one of your great-grandma's parents was an actual full-blooded Native American, which is kind of a big deal if true, but no one seems to know or care which parent it was.)

You have ever been told you are descended from either a Hatfield or a McCoy, or Pocahontas, or all three.

You've ever given directions to your house and described your specific part of the county in a colorful term such as "up Stinking Creek" or "down in Scratch Ankle", and the person you're talking to needs no further instructions than that.

Your mailing address is a house number followed by  "_______________ Holler Road." And you can spot a Yankee a mile away if they say it as, "____________ Hollow Road."

Somewhere among your most treasured family recipes is your granddaddy's top-secret moonshine formula.

You have to drive an hour and a half to make a beer run in the closest "wet" county.

You've ever gone out to pick poke.

Your kin are buried in a cemetery up the side of a mountain only accessible in good weather with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, but you haul yourself up there every year on "Decoration Day" just the same.

You've ever needed a translator despite the fact that you are technically speaking English. (Rule also applies to people representing us on reality TV shows who have to be subtitled.)

If I left any out, feel free to chime in in the comments. Keep it classy; after all, jokes about missing teeth and inbreeding are low-hanging fruit. Y'all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Blame It All On My Roots

I can sometimes go years without remembering that I am, indeed, a little bit white trash.

My branch of the family tree behaves well and has been well-educated, so we blend in. I was raised above my raising. Good manners, cleanliness, appropriate clothing, and a strong grasp of proper English usage were values taught. My parents had very humble beginnings, but they strove for me have better.

I can honestly say that I didn't even understand the term "white trash" until college. I started being aware of the use of the term in different formats both from pop culture and from literature. Reba's "Fancy" was born just plain white trash, but Fancy was her name. Hannibal Lecter wounds Clarice in his first meeting with her by telling her she's just one generation removed from it. Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! makes a distinction between poor white trash and black house servants in a scene where a house slave prohibits poor-white-laborer Sutpen from entering the plantation house at the front door and orders him to go around the back. In our class discussion of the scene, our professor told us to ponder what this meant for antebellum southern caste systems: white trash is absolutely the bottom rung.

Being raised mostly as a middle-class child, I thought I had seen enough and experienced enough to feel comfortable in any social setting. I had never been an attendant at a formal wedding reception with a fancy-sit down dinner with multiple plates, forks, glasses, and spoons, but I had worked as a caterer in high school and knew enough to fake it. I had never eaten in a restaurant nicer than Red Lobster, but I had seen tuxedo-clad waiters on TV scraping crumbs from white cloth table coverings and knew that when one orders a bottle of wine, one is supposed to swish it around delicately and pronounce it serve-able.

What I did not account for were social settings where you're not outclassed so much by the place as by the people in the place, with whom you have to make conversation.

My sophomore year in college, the singers got invited to sing at the annual trustee's dinner. We would be singing for them after dinner, but as a special treat (and no doubt to make the trustees feel in touch with their investments), we were also invited to mingle during cocktail hour and to be spread out among the tables at dinner, breaking bread with the upper crust. We begged our director to just let us all sit together; it was for naught. There would be two of  "us" and eight of "them" at every table. And our job was to be delightful.

Carefully sipping my cocktail of straight ginger ale, I waded into the waters. I was lucky to have as the fellow singer at my table a girl from upper-middle-class Boston who knew how to swim in these depths. I whispered to her that I could figure out what the little spoon at the top of my dinner plate was for, but that if someone asked me where I summer, I would need her help. I was joking. Mostly.

I can answer any question put to me. I love to talk about myself (clearly.) But I froze when asked:

What do your parents do?

I had listened to my friend handle this question first, and listened as the various rich old men at my table introduced themselves to us as lawyers, doctors, and chief executives. I am ashamed of my own discomfort when I told the group, rather quietly, that my father was a laborer for General Motors and my mother was a beautician. Today I am ashamed of myself that I let myself be intimidated in such a way, and that I was not in that moment intensely proud that my father worked on an assembly line to put food on our table and send me to Uppity University.

A few minutes later the whole table bonded over the mysterious white meat product on our plates that seemed neither chicken nor fish and was later identified as broiled swordfish steaks. One of the trustees announced that he would really rather be home eating a fried bologna sandwich, and I felt comfortable enough that I immediately regretted not just letting my hillbilly flag fly.

Since then, my knee-jerk reaction to feeling a little outclassed and over-judged by the people surrounding me at whatever snooty event Jason and I have found ourselves mistakenly invited to is to just go ahead and Cousin-Eddie it. I so far have been able to successfully stop myself from coming out of the bathroom and announcing that the shitter is full, but someday I will have too much beer at one of these things and then I can't completely rule out that possibility. Don't get me wrong, I was raised too well and respect myself too much to not keep my behavior classy. But the minute I detect a dash of condescension served alongside the risotto, I feel a rush of meanness that can only be expressed by exaggerating my accent, looking for pork rinds, and ordering an MGD that will stand out among the martinis and pinot noirs. Not that I wouldn't rather have a martini or a pinot noir, but I feel obliged to play a certain role here. I'll show up in boots and ruin that black-tie affair yet, y'all.

This Sunday, we found ourselves in a private box suite at a Bengals game. Jason was offered them through work, and though I am not a big fan, I was not about to turn down this opportunity to see how the other half enjoy sporting events. A few hours before, I actually started to get nervous. I wouldn't know anyone else in the suite; the likelihood of snootiness could be high. And yet, as a friend reminded me, this was a Bengals-Browns game; there is no such thing as classy at such an event. I blended in just fine, save for the fact that I have no Bengals fan attire. In fact, I chose the bottled Sam Adams from the cooler while everyone else was drinking canned Buds; I may actually have been the designated Snoot at this particular gathering.

My parents would be so proud.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Voices In My Head Have Names

I threw him out of the car window while traveling down I-75. I launched him into our gas furnace. I even ratted him out for taking my grandmother's J.C. Penney card when it's quite possible he did no such thing. And yet he was one of my best friends.

Starting as far back as I can remember, and staying with me until I was in elementary school, I had two imaginary friends who were my constant companions. Their names were Kitty and JoJo, and we got each other into all kinds of trouble.

I've read a lot about children and their imaginary friends in the years since I said goodbye to Kitty and JoJo, and I know that this is completely normal behavior, particularly when a child is an only or has a large age gap with her sibling, as I did. I needed companions, so I made a couple of them up. But because these creatures were born in my brain, they were not your normal, average, everyday imaginary friends. In fact, JoJo was kind of an asshole.

When I was with Kitty and JoJo, I was not a child. We were three young adults hanging out together. We weren't sitting in my living room watching movies on TV; we were transported to JoJo's convertible outside a drive-in. I didn't sit at the kitchen table with them drinking a Coke; we were at a posh supper club sipping Cold Duck champagne. I was even a bridesmaid at their wedding, held in my mother's bedroom. I wore a baby blue beach towel wrapped around my bare torso and tied in a knot below my shoulder; it was a stylish gown years ahead of its time.

They were so real to me as a young child that they had to be accommodated by my patient parents.

"Don't sit there!" I hollered to more than one house guest. "JoJo is sitting there!" And to my mom's credit, she simply asked me to invite JoJo to sit elsewhere, rather than freak out and have me evaluated, which I might have done.

She didn't even freak out the day I rolled down the car window on a trip back from Knox County and made a throwing motion with my little arms.

"What did you just throw out the window?"

"JoJo. He was being bad."

I never knew what Kitty saw in him, but she married him, so she must have been able to look past his constant teasing and wisecracks and being a big meanie in general.

They were tolerated, but not without controversy. When the J.C. Penney charge card that my depression-era-raised grandmother guarded in a bottom dresser drawer disappeared from its hiding spot, every member of the family was interrogated, including me. I denied having ever seen it or touched it, but did offer what I felt was helpful information:

"I bet JoJo stole it and threw it in the garbage."

When Mamaw and Mom and her two sisters thought I wasn't listening, I heard them say that by my saying that JoJo did this, I was clearly confessing to it. Children blame their imaginary friends for the bad things they do, one of them said. She probably sincerely believes he did it, chimed in someone else. They all agreed: I had thrown the card away in an unusual fit of mischief, and I felt badly about it, so my alter ego JoJo became my scapegoat.

What they didn't know, and what I tried to tell my mother for years, is that no such thing happened. I did not throw out my grandmother's sole credit card. I was merely trying to offer a suggestion, and clearly thievery was not out of JoJo's character. I an guessing Kitty eventually divorced JoJo; she was pretty smart and had been taking classes at NKU when I last saw her, and I bet she realized that bad boys cannot be reformed.

I remember one cold winter morning walking to school and realizing I was too old for imaginary friends. I had made real friends at school and no longer felt the need to populate my life with Kitty and JoJo. I also had become very aware that they were not, in fact, real. I was 6, not 16. The TV movie was just a TV movie and the Coke was just Coke. But I felt the need to say goodbye to them just the same.

Midway up our street, where one of the driveways seemed to disappear into the wooded area that separated our street from the next, I stopped. I imagined them right beside me, holding hands.

"I think it's time for you to go," I whispered. In my mind's eye, I watched them walk down the driveway and into the woods behind it. I shed a tear; I might have been a child, but I knew something was ending that I would never get back.

The way my mom told it was that I stopped talking about them, and when she asked where they were, I shrugged and said they went away. She never knew that it was a conscious decision, and never knew just how real they once seemed to me.

When we spoke of it when I was an adult with a child of my own, she confessed that she never worried about it because a psychic she once visited told her that I had two guardian angels. When Kitty and JoJo first appeared on the scene, Mom figured they were angels in disguise and let them be. If that were true, she should have been worried--if JoJo were an angel, he was definitely a fallen one.

I am pretty certain they were not guardians of any sort but were figments of a very active imagination. I even think I know where the names came from. One of the first TV shows I can remember watching was Gunsmoke; I loved the reruns, and greatly admired Miss Kitty. My Kitty was even a redhead like her. (Though Miss Kitty would never have put up with JoJo's shenanigans.) The first time I really listened to The Beatles' "Get Back" with my best friend when I was in 7th grade, and paid close attention to the lyrics, I recognized my JoJo:

Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner
But he knew it couldn't last...

Get back Jojo, go home...

My sister listened to The Beatles when I was very small, and this song could have entered my subconscious and created a character so vivid that his star completely outshone Kitty's.

Or maybe I could see dead people. Either way, it worked out fine.

A friend recently asked for advice dealing with her daughter, who is engaging in epic power struggles with her imaginary friends. This is a non-spanking home, and yet her young child is bossing her imaginaries around, threatening them with spankings, and getting so frustrated with their bad behavior that she's asking her mother to intervene.

Do not worry, I assured her. Imaginary friends are a normal part of childhood and a sign of a vivid imagination.

And sometimes, they misbehave.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Probably Nothing But Possibly Everything

"I heard a heart murmur when she was sitting up but not when she was laying down so blah blah blah anemia blah blah blah blood test something something something six months."

This is how I heard the kid's pediatrician at her 10-year well-child visit this week. As soon as I heard "heart murmur", my brain switched off and I can't really be certain what was said after that. The pediatrician started sounding like the teacher in Charlie Brown TV specials. Because when you hear there might-maybe-possibly-but-not-terribly-likely is something wrong with your child's heart, you sort of go numb and shock-y and I am pretty sure your soul leaves your body for like, a minute.

No, really, I did understand most of it. Eventually, after a period of serious thought and remembering and Googling. There was a new murmur not noticed at previous physicals; about 50% of kids have an audible heart murmur at some time in their lives and only a few of those will go on to have a heart condition; she was tested for anemia, since that can cause a murmur; the test was negative so we are just going to watch it and have another listen in six months. Everything's cool. Nothing to see here.

Except that later that night, right after dinner, Ainsley suddenly looked up from her plate with a suddenly white face and hollow eyes and announced, "I'm so tired." She then burst into tears and moaning and groaning and not making a whole lot of sense for about half an hour.

And that's the story of the night I thought my kid was dying, and I couldn't feel my face for a few hours.

Just so you know, everything ended up being fine. It turns out the freak-out and sudden onset of fatigue and an unwell feeling was just extreme constipation. (Someday, she will kill me for writing this. Honey, everybody poops. Or tries to.) She also had a flu shot at this particular appointment, and I am sure that didn't help. It was all just a coincidence that she had a meltdown and scary physical symptoms the night after the heart murmur was found. A trip to the bathroom and a warm bath later and all was well, and she even went to school the next day.

When it was all over, when she was sent happily to bed and the color and smiles had returned to her face, I had a meltdown of my own. Statistics that are meant to comfort you that your babies are going to be just fine are not comfortable to me. It just makes me think of Fate standing on some parent's doorstep holding the world's worst lottery ticket.

"Somebody's gotta win...might as well be you."

In the past year and a half, I've seen two children be diagnosed with cancer. One of them is on Ainsley's swim team, the other is the younger sibling of someone on Ainsley's swim team. There have been fundraisers and bracelets and t-shirts celebrating the bravery of these two young girls, and I see them often at meets and waiting outside of practices. They have a tough road ahead, but the statistics, for what they're worth, are in their favor. They are responding well to chemo, though the toll on their little bodies is evident. Every time I see them, I hug Ainsley a little tighter and pray a little harder.

Please, God, not her. Not the only one I have.

But praying that makes me feel like I'm wishing it on someone else, and that's not that case. I wish it for no child, ever. A deathly sick child is the ultimate evil that nature can throw at us. A complete reversal of the very laws that govern our universe. A smack in the face to order and justice.

It is, I think, the very worst thing you could live through.

This morning, when she zipped through my library before catching the bus, running around and smiling and laughing like nothing's wrong (and I'm sure it's not, almost), I stopped her for a long, embarrassing hug. I felt her heart against mine and thought of how I had gone into her room the night of the heart murmur scare of 2012 and, while she was sleeping, put my ear to her chest and listened to what sounded to my untrained ears like normal, healthy rhythms.

And how many other parents have listened to their child's heart in the middle of the night, and felt their breath blowing on their faces, and known that while the news they got from the doctor's office is probably nothing, it's possibly everything.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Mother Cluck

I knew it was not going to be a good day when even the nuns were drinking.

Good girls don't drink, or so I was raised to believe. According to the Holiness Pentecostal churches of my youth, alcohol is the surest road to hell, with gambling a close second and voting Democrat not far behind. I've long reconciled that since I've regularly indulged in each of those sins, my southeastern Kentucky relatives think I'm headed for the big Down South when I die. To me, hell can't be any worse than an outdoor summer family reunion without a cooler full of Buds on ice, so I just let them worry about my soul all they want while I worry about the tequila-to-lime ratio in my margarita.

My own social drinking no longer gives me any sort of religious guilt, but I will never, ever get used to the glorious Catholic tradition of getting hammered at church events. Drinking is one thing; drinking inside the church is another animal altogether.

This weekend was the annual church festival to benefit the kid's school, and Saturday night saw us buying frozen cocktails from the same little old church ladies who lead the rosary before mass. If that felt odd, it was nothing compared to seeing the priest walk around with his little single-serving plastic bottle of Merlot. And yet still not as odd as the annual ladies-only fundraiser where the men of the parish pass out trays of jello shots. It would be creepy, but the only thing they're trying to get us too drunk to say no to is pull-tab lottery tickets and split-the-pot chances.

I've been Catholic for 15 years now and I imagine it will eventually no longer surprise me. Especially since I am a big fan of church-basement draft beer. Nobody painstakingly ices down a keg quite like a deacon.

What will continue to surprise me, though, is how very un-Christian people can behave at events benefiting a good Christian cause.

The last day of the festival features a fried chicken dinner, and I had the un-pleasure of volunteering at it for six long hours last night. What I saw there were enough examples of human selfishness, gluttony, and messiness to make me want to get on my hands and knees on the beer-soaked reception hall floor and say prayers for the human race.

I never waited tables while putting myself through school, but I did work catering jobs. And there I fully expected people to not clean up after themselves, be occasionally rude, and eat themselves into comas. After all, we were getting paid well to wait on them and keep them happy.

More shocking to me by far than the fact that four nuns showed up to the dinner giggling over peach daiquiris was how not-nice people felt okay behaving at a church charity function.

I saw people feverishly saving entire tables for 8 for a few relatives who wouldn't be getting through the chicken line for another half an hour while other folks were wandering around with trays full of food, and small children in tow, desperately trying to find just a few seats in the crowded hall.

I saw people turning what was already an ample serving and a great value into an all-you-can-eat chicken buffet simply by camping out at tables for 2-3 hours (did I mention it was crowded and seating was at a premium?) and sneaking back up to the head of the dinner line and pretending to be part of families who had just dropped their dinner tickets into the basket.

I cleaned up after people who could not be bothered to so much as throw away their drink cups and used Kleenex. True, adult volunteers like myself as well as a local Boy Scout troop were helping to bus tables. But even as a minor lush, I believe in cleaning up my own beer cups. And, when possible, cleaning up my own mess in general. Boy Scouts should not have to touch half-full stale beer cups with dip spit mixed in for good measure.

I was hit on several times by an older gentleman whose family sat at one of the tables for over 2 hours going back through the desert line and getting free refills on iced tea, and who thought it was hi-larious to keep asking me to give him some "sugar" and pretending to be offended at the stockpile of sugar packets I kept dropping at the table. It started off playful and good-natured; the flirting, if that's what it was, took on a mean edge as he became more bored with the desert selections and after I became too busy clearing chicken bones off of tables for families desperate for somewhere to sit to bring him his 16th refill.

I've worked the gambling booths before and have been really put off by people who go to church festivals seemingly just to try to rip off the church and cheat at the Big Wheel. I didn't realize people would also try to milk a charity chicken dinner for all they could.

By the end of my long shift, I was finished. Finished with people in general, finished with fried chicken and tea and sugar packets, finished with drunk people milling around a church undercroft trying their best to get something for nothing.

Yet I know that I will be back next year, because I'm required to volunteer. Which means it's not volunteering, technically, but whatever. Because we're doing it all for the good of Catholic education. It's for the kids!

Who get an important life lesson about the nature of humanity right there alongside their mashed and gravy and their parents' beer.