Tuesday, December 28, 2010
The neighborhood my father and I reside in once was populated by hardworking German families who were employed by the meat packing plant. As the plight of river cities go the properties nearest the river, the earliest established homes, fall first into disrepair and become rental properties and subsidized housing as the city expands in the opposite direction.
I encounter sullen looks from minority group members as I drive these streets and there are boarded-up houses that contained busted meth labs. Here in the church parking lot a gang shooting occurred while a bingo game was going on inside the school. Am I racially prejudiced? Of course I am. With my small town upbringing there is no way I could have escaped. I am more liberal than the beer-swigging red necks down at the Moose lodge, but there were few people of color in my earlier years.
Sonny is 86 years old. His reflexes, eyesight and hearing are all compromised. To be confronted by a thug, body already tensed and coiled and ready for the attack, I worry. Experts have estimated the length of time required to pull out a gun for the average citizen can be four to six seconds. An assailant already braced for action can sprint 10 feet in 1.5 seconds and disarm the innocent. He plans to wear a shoulder holster under his little jackets. How will he hide the bulge against the thin linen? What if it snags in the lining of he coat and results in a misfire? What if it jams?
Hand guns are difficult to aim and fire accurately. Our main connection with weapons is demonstrated by the cinema we watch and it just isn't as easy as Clint Eastwood shows it. "Feeling lucky today?," has no place in the rhetoric of a new gun owner. There is one comforting statistic. An uncountable amount of assaults have been aborted by the victim making known the presence of his gun to the assailant. The element of surprise has been reversed.
Thankfully, my father is a calm man and he possesses good reason and judgment and takes time to examine an issue before acting. Impulsive decisions do not define him and I believe he would use a gun as the last of any attempts to subdue the situation. He has owned a cell phone for several years and has only used it once saving the thing for emergency situations. He and my mother were exploring the hills of Wisconsin and the car stalled. Dad makes the cell phone call and . . . he couldn't catch a signal. Gotta laugh at that.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Saturday, December 25, 2010
I cooked the ham last night slicing away, electric knife whirring, saving the bone and scraps for bean soup, Sonny's favorite. I concocted a vegan potato salad with white wine vinegar, Dijon, honey and mint. Another salad needs to be constructed and this will be couscous, a funny sounding word and the pasta feels rolypoly in my mouth, little beads sliding around. Add tomatoes, almonds, purple onion, lemon juice.
Jason will prepare a vegan cheese cake from tofu and organic graham crackers. Cowboy Dave ate lots of it last year, forgetting that it was a healthy version of the original recipe.
I stop at the hospital gift shop looking for a present for my daughter, something pretty as all the gifts I have chosen for her are utilitarian in nature. The shop is too confining and my breathing turns shallow. The last time I was here my mother was dying and I leave hurriedly, my eyes automatically drawn to the third floor window where she had lain.
And so it goes. This afternoon the family comes together and we drink wassail from my mother's amber glass cups. There will be old stories to tell and new stories to speculate on the horizon. We are making a new memory this day, the first Christmas without my mother. And we are doing all right, I think, all right.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Jason in the kitchen resembles a choreographed act. He slices, dices and chops mounds of vegetables. He grates fresh ginger, squeezes real limes and presses garlic cloves with the side of a knife. He opens and closes cupboard doors, sniffing at spices and herbs, pausing and throwing in pinches. He inspires me. I realize the beauty of the process. It is all about the adventure, the experimental nature of the job. At first the curry tastes too hot, he thinks, well, that may be for Midwestern palates. He adds coconut milk and olive oil and now it's good. There is no recipe. He moves entirely on instinct.
The sauce is yams and butternut and acorn squash and Jamaican curry and other things I did not witness. We have an amazing cheese bread from farmer's market and a salad with cucumber and strawberries. Brown rice, yes, and the Merlot flows freely.
And this is what happens. I show Ethan how uncle Jason coats his pans, a shaking motion in midair that causes the butter to be evenly spread on the skillet surface. Ethan is making his phenomenal scrambled eggs. You gotta keep stirring them Grandma, that 's the best way, he says. And I taught him this from my own mother's instruction. She was famous in the nursing home where she cooked for her frequently stirred scrambled eggs. A couple of nurses at the hospital on her last visit remembered those damn eggs.
Monday, December 20, 2010
My own family begrudgingly draws together on the appointed day. We are a family of recluses and we don't apologize for this. We are breaking no laws. At Thanksgiving I emailed my youngest brother asking if he would be joining us. Back came the answer: "Dawn, don't you know what great lengths I go to avoid being with people?" Jeesh, why does he have the luxury of being a Giegerich on a holiday and the rest of us cannot? Spoiled baby.
In all sincerity, I like my family get-togethers and sometimes I don't realize this until after they have left.
My husband's family are social animals. They draw energy from human interaction, that which drains me. I reluctantly attend these parties, grumbling and snapping on the ride over. And this is very childish of me for these are good people. They fund Christmas events for childen with disabilities, sew costumes for high school muscials, and make homemade caramels for church fall festivals. Their children are musicians and athletes and students of Catholic schools. We attend numerous communions and baptisms and the little boys wear white suits with white bow ties. I can remember my own father spraying a brown pair of shoes with white paint for my brother's first communion.
Cowboy Dave's sister serves turkey and dressing sandwiches - a speciality of this small city. In fact at the local Walgreen's I could buy - and I have - a t-shirt that says: Welcome to Dubuque, Iowa. Have a turkey and dressing sandwich." There was green puffy stuff in a bowl that was tinted Cool Whip covering up coconut, walnuts, marshmallows, fruit cocktail. There was cranberry jelly from a can and cheesy hash brown casserole, another Iowa delicacy. One sister gives me a candy dish with a cheese knife that looks like a Christmas tree light and whoa, it lights up! It's not important that she gave me this same gift last year. You cannot have too many light bulb cheese knives.
A second family party has me sitting at a long table with drinking, noisy women all around and this can be a good thing. There were three conservations going that I could hear from my seat. I went into a meditation mode moving into my center and drawing on the god within me for strength and perseverance. I smiled and nodded my head a lot and that worked for about an hour and then we got to eat.
There was a wonderful ham and meatballs in a crock pot swimming in ketchup, brown sugar and beer. All the other dishes were concoctions of cream cheese and sour cream or could be categorized under desserts. It was a great buffet and I had no guilt from not eating veggies because, there wasn't any.
My own event is coming up and there will be ham sandwiches. A couple of years ago I was complaining to Jane how I dreaded the holidays. Everyone came to my house because nobody else volunteered and I spent all the time in my tiny kitchen attempting to do the big dinner in my usual unorganized, floundering style. I could hear laughter from my brother's stories coming from the living room but I never got to hear the stories and I was exhausted and disappointed after it was over. Jane allowed me no time on the pity pot and made it quite clear that it was my choice how I spent the holidays. Damn those sensible friends. So last year I did sloppy joes in a crock pot and I sat next to my brother in the living room and laughed until my belly hurt.
Yes, I (slightly) exaggerate on the personalities and events described above. I am honored to have all these people in my life and my days would be lonely if they were not in the background pulling for me. They ask questions because they are truly interested in how I am and where I am going. I lift my glass of holiday drink and toast all you dear, dear people.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
We visit monuments honoring two young men, gone from us now.
First, a stone bench with a carved inscription,
"Good friends, good books & a sleepy conscience. This is the ideal life." Practical words from our own Mark Twain. This resting place is dedicated to a friend of my son Jason and his name was Tim Miller. He was a gentle sort of fellow, a clever man who was a librarian and a musician. My parents were frequent visitors to the library and they liked Tim. He was witty in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way and he was respectful to this quaint little couple and he charmed my mother. Tim and Jason were rebels in arms, pierced ears and tattoos, lovers of alternative music and alternative lifestyles, torn jeans and Gothic emotions, forced to suffer their teens through the idiotic late 80's and early 90's. They were 18 years of age at the start of the Persian Gulf war and after endless nightly discussions they decided to leave the country should the draft be reinstated. They would not kill.
The bench is next to the Julien Dubuque monument, a small turret-like building constructed in memory of another young adventurer, an 18th-century French Canadian who explored and mined these hills. The Native Americans trusted him, deeded their land to him and burnt his property after his death so scavengers would not benefit. The fair city I now inhabit would be named in his honor.
It is a cold and grey day. a monochrome day, my father says. All is soft and muted, gray and white, the stark black branches, patches of frozen soil upon the snow. It is a dead world now and it is difficult remembering the brilliantly hued Indian summer just a few weeks ago. April's soft song is far, far away. Jason is quiet, somber, difficult memories circling him. This is a magical place with much history and legend. Far below us on the southern side we see the mouth of the Catfish Creek and this was the site of a Mesquaki village during Julien's time. Historians say 500-800 Native Americans lived here and I can hear the drums, smell the cooking fires and imagine voices of young and old. I know if I would dig below the surface of this land I would find arrowheads, beads, piece of crockery.
I am in love with the history of this place. The early miners, the colors and poetry of the Native American nations, the Irish and German families that eventually settled the land. I study the books of Dubuque history and drive past the old elegant homes knowing the stories of the wealthy families that inhabited them. I roam the old cemeteries, study the river from the bluffs, watch the eagles circling above me. Oh, to go back for a day or two and walk the wooden sidewalks, ride the trolley car, walk across the Mississippi when it was shallow and possessed many islands, before the system of lock and dams was introduced.
He is making a Wellington with puff pastry and a bourdelaise sauce that would make you swear you taste beef. Herbs and sea salt are flying and I am watching an artist at work. This boy has the same talent my mother possessed, the ability to make food sing. How do you do this, I ask, I am so self-conscious in the kitchen, fearing the inevitable mistake and then everyone will be disappointed. "Don't think so much," he answers. Probably good advice for a number of situations.
The majority of a bottle of Merlot goes into one of the pots and I am in love with the smells wafting above my stove. This man is a magician of herbs.
Look at this, yes, look at this. Emeril could not have done better. Mashed russets with the skins on, chunky vegetables with zucchini-flavored sauce topped with puff pastry and broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onions - oh, and there's rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley. Sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel tune.
And here is the reward - Sonny smiling as he piles high his plate with spinach and chickpea salad. There is warm fruit compote dusted with nutmeg and more red wine. All plates are wiped clean and bellies are taut. Sonny attempts four words at the Scrabble game that are not words as proven by my dictionary. I should call him on this, sneaky boy, but he looks so forlorn when I do.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Sonny chuckles when I remind him of this story. We talk about Miracle on 34th Street with the elfin Natalie Wood cozying up to the bearded kindly fellow. My father relates the last scene when the old man's cane is found leaning against the fireplace tantalizing the audience to question what they thought was real. It aways made him shiver. There is still a lot of child in Sonny, a solid reason to love him.
Adam has more questions. The Easter Bunny? No way, I tell him, such a fake, those huge plastic eyes that never blink. Tooth Fairy? Another stretch, I say. It can't be Mom, argues Adam, why would she want all those teeth? Well, I have to agree with him.
We grandparents watch and wait as the children grow. We are lucky to be involved in this process a second time around. We're not plagued with those doomsday feelings we had as young parents. We don't worry that we are making gargantuan mistakes, turning the children into cold, soulless psychopaths or serial killers and social deviates.We know childhood days are fleeting and too soon these youngsters will be moody adolescents with guarded looks and you wait for years, sometimes years, until they come up for air and look around them and realize you have always been on their side. And I will tell the future generations that I am blessed to see that like their old grandpa Sonny, I still believe.
Friday, December 3, 2010
My knees creak and grind as I attempt to reach a standing position. I have been on the floor wrapping Christmas gifts. I have decided to buy only toys this year for the grandchildren in my life. Like normal youngsters they groan when they open boxes of polo shirts and sweat pants in their next upcoming size so why should I contribute to any youthful disappointment. Give'em what they want, I say, and I wrap books about fairies and tractor puzzles and pink jewelry boxes with twirling ballerinas. Let their parents worry about wardrobes. I'm in it for the happy factor.
I have purchased toys that make no noise, do not require a battery or computer chip, and involve some reading or assembling by the child. As I gaze around the cluttered floor I realize I have not bought any of the adults a gift as of this date. No branch trimmers or 12" skillets or Target gift cards. I'll buy the boring people their boring gifts later.
Christmas can be magical but try to convince the average American woman of that phenomena. The Powers That Be have declared each of us THE PERSON IN CHARGE OF EVERYTHING and this is not a good thing. To counteract this insanity I keep these rules in mind:
- With 2/3 of the American population obese excessive Christmas baking is not necessary. Make the fantasy fudge on the marshmallow creme jar and some red/green m & m cookies using the toll bridge recipe and call it a day.
- Buy at least one Homer Simpson moving doll decoration. Personally, I like the Santa Homer stuck in the chimney that says (among other things,) darn, the one time I didn't have a pocket full of bacon grease.
- Watch Jimmy Stewart. Takes you back to that simpler time. Black and white flicks aways make you breathe easier.
- Enjoy the snow, one of nature's rare purities.
- Hang out with children. They have the answers. And better yet, they have interesting questions. Children absolutely glow this time of year.
- Stay away from the mall. Don't buy into the scheme. Just how much of this stuff does anybody need? Do it on the net or check those cute little novelty shops with the smiling owner sitting inside the front door. Sometimes there is a jar of candy canes and you can take one with you. If you must do the mall then do it Tuesday morning at 9:00. Take the morning off work - its worth it. Most shoppers clog the stores after office hours. Bringing a list is mandatory - no impulse shopping when you are thinking of those darling grandchildren. It will back fire.
- Egg nog. Rum and egg nog. Tom and Jerry with rum. Or Kessler's and diet coke in one of the holiday glasses the grocer was giving away last year.
- Smile at the old ladies wearing those corny holiday sweatshirts, snowflake earrings and sensible boots.. They know how to have fun. Have you noticed they are always laughing?
- Play Christmas carols. A lot. Especially in the car. Sometimes I play them in the middle of August if I need a little holiday cheer.
- Nix on the huge dinner with the good china and linen napkins that will need to be ironed later. Everybody bring a horsey-derve and you make a crock pot of sloppy joes. No one is allowed in the kitchen unless they are getting a beer. Oh, and get some cheap red and green paper plates at the dollar store.
- I am not a particularly religious person. But I do find peace and wonderment in the story of an infant born on this eve centuries ago who would radically change the course of history and philosophy based on one single concept, love.
- Lastly, it's about family and the friends that still cling to you like barnacles on the old submerged ship. Be good to each other. 'Tis the season - you get to be sentimental and no one will laugh.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
The baby has large liquid eyes that wobble between green and blue and soft dark crescents for eyebrows. Both girls show traces of their mother's Persian birth heritage and will be beauties in their own right. The littlest one honors everyone with immense and frequent smiles and her grandmother took several videos ranging from 32 to 106 seconds demonstrating her incredible ability to make a series of spitty raspberry sounds.
I have been a busy person these last few days. I go out to the garage to get my mother's roasting pan and as I pull it from the box I double over as a hard wave of emotion finds me. I sob a few times, a lonely sound, and then I return to my kitchen. The next morning the ingredients for my dressing lie on the counter for a couple of hours and I know I am stalling, afraid that my combination of spices, sausage, bread, celery and onion will be inferior to my mother's famed concoction. She never wrote the recipe out for us fledgling cooks. I got the "look," the one that said, just taste it - you'll know what it needs. Amazingly, it is good and so was the gravy which was the bigger concern.
And the holiday was a good one despite the sad thoughts lapping at our collective consciousness. There was laughter and shared stories, card games and barbecued weenies in a crock pot - love them weenies. We played Candyland and Clue with the younger set and it was indeed Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the revolver. Jason calls from his Colorado home and he is making dinner for friends: sweet potato and lentil casserole, roasted vegetables, pecan and pumpkin pies. Jason will be joining us in a few weeks and he and my father will walk the snowy hills of the driftless land.
The house sits quiet now and it feels strange not to have a wiggly baby on my lap or her older sister handing me Goodnight Moon to read. I carry my bittersweet wreath down to the wooded area at the bottom of our hill. My memories have been as intense and deeply colored as the bright orange berries on this vine. I hang it on a low branch knowing I will see the wreath from my window. At some point a strong winter wind will take possession of it.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
They had talked about leaving Tuesday and possibly taking a couple of days for the eight hour trip because two of their group are youngsters, age 3 1/2 and the littlest pumpkin seven months, a breastfed infant. Jim has always been an accomplished procrastinator and has shown up hours even days after his intended arrival time. So, this will work for me as I have toilets to sterilize, sheets to wash, recipes to study and groceries to buy. Sonny wants to go to Olive Garden tonight and I must work the evening shift.
My email screen flashes before me and I feel a slight tightening at the back of my neck as I read Sara's message sent 5:14 a.m., Iowa time. They left at 7 o'clock this morning and I hit the ground running.
Not bothering to change out of my nightgown or putting on underwear or brushing my teeth my eyes run around the room calculating the best mode of attack. I live in a clutter of litter despite my love of an overly organized environment and this is what I am observing right now. I live with a hoarder. David throws nothing away, the old shoes when he buys a new pair, the barrage of postal paper that gags our mailbox everyday, used deodorant and shaving cream bottles because there might be a few drops left.
In years long past I would wait not so patiently for my children to return from faraway schools and mountain homes, and visits to their father in Omaha. Over icey treacherous highways and slick runways I would will them home safely for the winter holidays. I would lay in my bed that night looking out at the Christmas snows knowing that they were here, protected, all of them for a few short days and nights. This was a peace that came only occasionally and I basked in its warmth. I have loved my husbands, my friends, parents and siblings, but not until the birth of my first child did I experience the terrifying, beautiful skip a heart can make when confronted with a love more powerful than the self.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
My granddaughter and I find cold-weather substitutions for our outdoor play. We check out the library, the mall (shudder,) the book store, and if the late afternoon sun suffices, the park. She has grown so much since you left us. I can hear you saying, look, look how big she is.
I remember your last coherent day with us. Several pillows were piled at the bottom of the bed. They were used to anchor ice bags against your skin when your body temperature fluctuated and you sweated through the sheets. You saw the jumble of pillows and said, there, there she is! Do you see her? It's Cameron, she's hiding under the sheets! My daughter cries at the foot of your bed. Can I bring the baby here? The doctor is soothing and speaks softly, it may not be best for your child. There! my mother says, she just ran past the bed! I am happy for your fantasy.
I need to find your recipe for cranberry salad and I never did like the stuff. Carrie says we must have this and she is right.
I remember last year walking into your house the day before the holiday and smelling your turkey breast cooking. It was a lovely scent - you had coated the bird with rosemary, garlic, sage, and peppery butter. Your gravy was serviceable to the gods and I cannot repeat what you did but I'll try my best. You cooked for years and I never documented the magic that were your recipes. I guess I always thought you would be here, silly me. You and I would talk about the holiday meal, you with your lists and I,with mine.
I miss you. Our talks, our private jokes, our gossip about those closest to us. We had no secrets, you hid nothing from me and I hid just a few things from you because our roles had become reversed. You were a friend and you were my mother. Not all daughters can claim this distinction. Your death was a substantial loss for me.
So, Sonny and I will go to my daughter's house for the meal. I have ordered three pies from a young woman in Guttenberg who seems to know what she is doing. I cannot cook the turkey, dressing, gravy and cranberry salad and the desserts. I just can't, Mom. Even in your darkest, sickest days you were standing in the kitchen, mixing and stirring. We will miss your pecan pie, your pumpkin pie with the walnut-butter-brown sugar filling, your cherry pie criss-crossed with crispy dough for Jimmy. We will gather, your family, and we will toast you and hold close your memory. As long as I am alive you are strong and vibrant in the stories to my grandsons and after my voice has been stilled, you will live a lusty life in the written chronicles I record for my granddaughters.
Friday, November 12, 2010
It's 5:20 and I'm in a foul mood. I have been invited to a party tonight and I don't like parties. I find it difficult to feel celebratory at a specified time.
It doesn't help that I married Mr. Socialman who makes eye contact with every person, dog and butterfy we encounter on a walk. He comes from a family of social enthusiasts and though they are good hardworking people they find it necessary to recognize the baptism and first communion of every great niece and nephew. I imagine them to have freezers full of cheesy hashbrown casseroles and jello whipped cream desserts just waiting for the call. I have chosen the wedded state and tonight I must succumb to another's schedule.
In my younger years I often stayed longer than I should at the party trying to please other people. And then one night I pushed the empty beer glass aside and waited for a lull in the conversation. "Going home, " I announced to the table.
" WHAT!" an annoying person with overly teased 80's hair shrieked. "Everybody's gonna think you're a party pooper!" her voice got louder as she scanned the circle of faces looking for approval. I stood up, got my cigarettes and said,"I don't care." That night a new phoenix rose from the ashes, a bird of dazzling plumage, an independently thinking woman. It had been so easy. I should have done this years ago.
Cowboy David once announced to a group , "Dawn had a similar experience. Dawn, why don't you tell us about that?" I felt my head swiviling towards him slowly as if in a dream sequence. My eyes stared without blinking into his deepest parts. I could tell by his face that his soul was feeling a cold wind blowing across it, and he never said that again. I don't need to be talking. Listening requires all the energy I can muster in social settings. I love my Dave, but he needs to understand this strange and separate person that has agreed to stay with him.
I have no ability to maintain a contemporary wardrobe unlike my fashionable daughter and her cousins. I have spent too many years in Catholic schools. My mother tried to jazz up my closet with wild magentas and tangerine oranges but I always settled into my cozy earth colors, trying to blend in with the background. But when I pull on my boots, my lovely boots, I have a sense of confidence in group situations. I love my boots. They make me feel scrappy, a desperado, a mysterious person. They are softly scuffed and when I wear them I feel tall and lanky even though I am just a whisper above five foot. I swagger about like I jumped off a saddle.
There were pulled pork sandwices. I myself never pull pork. There was a casserole that David said was potatoes but I knew to be crab and too many dishes had olives, but there were three kinds of cake, glorious cakes with raspberries and dark chocolate and white sparkley whipped puffs. I was stealing my second and third pieces to take home unaware that my theft was being recorded in several group photos.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
I walked out of an 8 1/2 year marriage and for some reason my father assumed that my first order of procedure would be to find a new husband.
He instructed me to take my time, look around, get to know different kinds of men. This from the guy who wouldn't let me cross the street until I was five. Seventeen years later we were watching one of Sonny's famous slide shows and a picture of my sister-in-law and I flashed up on the screen. I have my arms outstretched and fingers pointing up as if demonstrating a measured length. Sonny who had a few beers commented to the assembled group, "there's Dawn talking about the one who got away and she doesn't mean a fish." Oh, let the earth open up and I be swallowed.
My first sailor had his astrological sign inked onto his upper arm and he was Sagittarius, the winged hunter, but just the loaded crossbow was imprinted on his skin. Never mind that every horoscope I read on the sign stressed the irresponsibility, the footloose demeanor, the infidelity of that birth class. This clashed with my Taurus bull, so logical and anally retentive. None of those attributes surfaced in the young man but it didn't work out because the only things we had in common were food and sex and I could not take him home to meet my father. My mother when she eventually met him loved the boy on sight, as she did all my boyfriends.
Another fellow named Jerome did a homemade job on himself while sitting through a boring civics class. He got the first four letters of his name carved into his forearm with a pocket knife and ball point pen. When I asked why he didn't finish he said, "the class ended." A third fellow was raised in an affluent south berg neighborhood, first born and devilishly handsome and riding the biggest baddest Harley this town has ever seen. Evidently when he and his cohorts broke into a neighborhood deli to borrow some cigarettes and steaks the local jurisdiction decided they would not forgive and forget as his doting mother always did and he got eighteen months in lock-up. Feeling the victim he had BORN LOSER in thick block letters engraved across his bicep. I never saw the original tattoo and by the time I met him he had decided he had some worth and had a huge turquoise peacock emblazoned over the words. Each letter was incorporated into one of the eyes on the tail feathers.
To my credit, barely, my children did not meet these clowns. Mea culpa.
I got past my bad boy stage and started dating men who read newspapers and voted. It had been an interesting stretch of my life and I felt something had been burned out of me.
At the age of 16 my son Jason got my attention by saying he was thinking of getting a tattoo. Oh, I was ready for this one and I reminded him that until he was 18 I owned him, mind, body and soul. It's a simple statement and does not leave room for discussion. I had become my German father. Two years later I was frying pork chops and the boy came up behind me. "Remember when you said I had to wait until I was 18 to get a tattoo?"he started. My parent's mind began drawing into its vortex all argumentative points regarding the subject. "Well, I got one," he ended. It's one of those parental moments that you remember always, the look of the room, the way the sunset came through the window, my youngest son looking up from the kitchen table. I sighed, "do you know how many hours I spent when you were a baby rubbing lotion onto your skin?" He countered "thanks, Mom! The tattoo guy said I had great skin!" Gr-r-r. He had slashes of varying lengths crisscrossing his bicep. But what does it mean, I asked. He didn't know, some kind of east Indian symbol. He's going to be walking down the streets of New York and some Indian will read his arm and accost him thinking Jason has insulted the guy's mother. And tattooing like so many other self-absorbed hobbies is addictive and years later Jason had Japanese koi stencilled across his back, gently turning towards each other. And his last was around his bony ankle, "that one hurt," he says and that proves a point. Don't get inked on a bony area, find a pad of fat which leads up to my tattoo.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
I don't eat much meat anymore. And I can point to several reasons for this. I have a dyed-in-the-wool 37-year-old vegan son, a chef in a Boulder vegetarian restaurant who tsks-tsks me about the amount of paper products I use. I'd like to see him care for toddlers without paper towels. My youngest son is swerving in that same meatless direction now that his life is becoming more settled. He had strong inclinations towards the philosophy as a younger man but then med school and all that hell would not allow him the time and concentration needed to maintain the diet. But he is making vegan noises again and ordering portabello sandwiches so I am curious what his visit at Thanksgiving will bring.
In Jim's first year of medical school he was required to take the make'em or break'em class of human anatomy. At this particular university there was an interesting miniature museum of sorts housed in the anatomy lab and when we first visited he wanted us to see it. It included all kinds of human abnormalities swimming in formaldehyde behind the glass doors. We would need to walk past the cadavers lying open and dissected on the trannies. I glanced furtively at the strange bodies, their innards exposed and blooming. My six-month-old grandson whimpered in his carriage - he knew something was amiss in this place, not natural. I was glad to leave this room behind, the strong chemical smell like covered-up death. But it had been interesting and the flesh of those slabs of former humanity resembled, well, turkey.
So when turkey is spooned onto my plate, these memories come back and when I cook a Thanksgiving turkey I feel like a first year med student slivering off sections of grey-beige tissue and the smell of the cooked meat is unpleasant.
I avoid meats that remind me of tissue and feel like tissue in my mouth, beef, pork and poultry. But I continue to enjoy the processed meat - sausage, braunshweiger, baloney, and did I say sausage? I would be better off with the lean cuts but when it comes to food I don't need to make sense.
My father may appear conservative for all the usual purposes but underneath beats the heart of a true rebel and he also has disdain for any society tradition that has no productive purpose. And one of these would be the practice of using perfectly good land to bury boxes full of preserved bodies. He and my mother wanted cremation. They wanted their ashes combined and then thrown to the wind over a beautiful portion of the driftless land, the Mines of Spain. These are old lead mines south of town, at one time dominated by five different European powers, Spain being the most prominent.
But now he's suggesting he only wants half of those mixed ashes to fly freely with the wind and the other half to be buried in the Protestant cemetery in an urn. His thoughts have turned now that my mother is gone and he wants a place where we can visit and meditate. I could plant geraniums and I like that. Heck with the 'using up the good land' theory.
Wild pictures race through my head. I see myself standing at my kitchen counter with my largest mixing bowl and wooden spoon. There are two small boxes postmarked University of Iowa Medical School. Do I really need to stir? My overly animated mind tells me, yes, I should probably stir. And then what? Do I put the bowl and spoon in the dishwasher? Some of my parents' dust is still attached and will go down the sink and that doesn't feel right. Do I bury the dishes near a peaceful steam? I really like my metal mixing bowl. My father's sister and I had talked about this and she asked, "Does all of this bother you?" I was about to answer to the contrary, brave daughter that I am, but then sanity and honesty swept into my psyche and I answered, well, yes.
And now Sonny is talking about a third resting spot for the ashes. I give him the scalding look I gave my teenager years ago when he suggested an unlikely time to return home from a party. It was a bit rusty but the power was still there and that was enough, no more discussion, done deal.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
I had lunch with Leona and Irene and Sandy, Irene's daughter.
I liked listening to their conversation, the familiar cadence of my aunts' voices, so much like my mother's.
I brought her name up frequently in the conversation. I was hungry for information.
My mother was the second youngest of nine children. Leona said she was shy as a child. If company came to the door Marie would hide. My grandmother joked that she actually had only eight children. Marie made herself scarce when strange faces were around. I'm thinking, I know that feeling. A solitary person myself all my life, other people drain me. Leona says that when my mother and Sonny met he liked her immediately. Well, what able-bodied fellow would not. Jet black thick curly hair, teasing black eyes, an hour glass figure. As her son David told his father when viewing a picture of my mother in her twenties, "I can see why you made so many trips to Cascade."
Leona and Irene talked about how witty and sarcastic her nature had been. Lord, she had a caustic perspective on the world. No one and nothing was safe from her pick-it-apart critiquing. I have seen my mother walk into the kitchens of restaurants and tell the chef how the meal should have been prepared. My mother and I were not always polite to each other during my teen-aged years. I was that moody adolescant, a crappy daughter. I preferred my father, he seemed more sophisticated and cosmopolitan, a reader of history and non-fiction. My mother was moored in romance paperbacks and ladies' magazines. At a city-sponsored event for parents and honor students in my senior year of high school the subject of reading came up at the table. I worried what she might say. She said I used my "college vocabulary" to out talk her in arguments. Whatever her opinion may be I would take the exact opposite stance. Not until I was in my advanced 30's did I realize her tremendous worth in my life.
I look at these women, their well worn-faces, their stories of hard work and obligation. My grandmother took in laundry from the town's well-to-do class and the creases needed to be ironed straight and perfectly. My mother remembers bringing in the frozen white shirts in the winter, their hands raw and red. All the girls hated the hours at the ironing board. Irene had calloused ridges on her palms from gripping the heavy irons. It was years before they went away. They talk about present day duties, using home-grown strawberries in their jam and whose fields yielded the best fruit. Days of cutting vegetables and quarts of preserved green beans on the pantry shelves. Hills planted in potatoes and dozens of harvests through the years, some good and some scanty. I am glad to be in their company. It is the first time since my mother's death that I feel safe. They are kind and introspective women. They talk of their neighborhoods, whose baby is sick, who will have hip surgery, what needs to be done. Bake sales for the nursing home, fund raisers for the library, they are the silent and necessary people in the community.
I think my mother purposely looked for a city boy when it was time to marry. She was quick to move to an urban setting and take an apartment a few blocks from the tavern where she would meet my father. She worked a job at the packing plant slicing bacon on the line. She had enough of farm life, the dependence on soil and weather for survival, the inconsistency and irregularity of a life based on the whims of nature. After scouring hundreds of jars every season, she vowed never to put up a jar of preserved food and she kept that promise to herself. The next day my aunt Leona drops off a box of Ball instant fruit pectin at my house. They're trying to convert me.
In the years of my childhood we spent most of our holidays and summer vacations with my father's family. They had had an easier time during the Depression years, continuing to work in the family paint and wallpaper business on Main Street and living in a mansion-like house on the hill. My grandfather kept his car and put it up on wooden blocks in the garage. He knew he would be able to afford gasoline again when the economy improved. My father's sisters were artists and muscians, college educated and riding around town with the local boys and playing nightly euchre games at the family home, brown beer bottles on every flat surface. A stark contrast to my maternal grandma's situation, Elizabeth never having enough money, enough food, enough coal and wood to warm the house. I assumed that my father wanted to spend time with his more frivolous, party-loving sisters and brothers instead of that serious, hard-working family in Cascade. It was the 60's, the season of the alpha male, husbands got their way. I was wrong, it was my mother who chose to keep her family at a distance. I'm not sure why. Perhaps she did not like people in general, her children understand this, all of us, but one, are loners. I will continue to study this.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
He will be leaving in January and this trip should take a year. He and friends will visit southeast Asia, India, and then back to Central America. This will be his third international journey although he has camped and travelled numerous places in America including Alaska. They will stay in hostels, most of them researched online ahead of time and they will take only what can be carried on their backs. They will camp when the natural setting is appealing and will buy and prepare food only when it is cheaper than eating out which surprisingly is not frequent. Jason's employer owns five restaurants and a young waiter working in the Latin America cafe will join him for six months of the trip. Kate, Jason's associate manager and friend, is also going and will hopefully be able to make the entire trip. Plans are flexible and changeable when one travels in this fashion. Jason and Kate have given two and a half months notice to their employer and if necessary, will postpone their departure so as not to leave the boss in a predicament, they being important to the running of the restaurant. A fair and generous guy, this one, too.
Jason's trip to South America a year and a half ago caused me some trepidation. Jason had done the backpack-across-Europe thing after college but somehow the knowledge that he was visiting a continent of politically unstable countries who any day of the week would suddenly announce that all Americans had to leave their borders NOW was unsettling. I pictured Jason hog-tied with a dirty bandanna stuffed in his mouth thrown in the back of a jeep driven by desperadoes holding machine guns and smoking Cuban cigars. Or he would be chased from the jungle by a giant anaconda hissing angrily as he gained on my terrified son. There was the thought that maybe he would survive all these prementioned calamities and come back safely to his own people but months later while shaving he would notice a small worm crawling across the inside of his eyeball. I actually saw this on a parasite show on a science channel.
This is what mothers do when their children leave the country. There are enough frightening occurrences from the moment the child rises, steps into the slippery shower, chews undercooked bacon, and drives the freeway to the job. But send him to a foreign country and the possibilities multiply by the thousands.
And when he travelled to South America, one of those things did occur. A little over a day after his departure from New York I came home to a message on the machine. Jason in his usual slow spoken manner said something like," He-e-e-e-e-ey, guys, it's Jason. Uh, I have something I needed to ask you but I guess I will need to talk to you later. Okay, uh-h-h-h, by-y-y-y-ye." Just a hair and a half rose up on the back of my neck. He sounded calm. But I semi-joked to David, did you hear any guard dogs barking in the background. Next day on the phone he tells me in an even voice that on his arrival in Lima he traveled to the hostel, deposited some of his stuff in the room and then asked the proprietor for a map. He went out into the city and crossed a bridge unknowingly entering one of the worst neighborhoods that slimy side of Peru had to offer. Before reaching the end of the bridge he felt two arms encircling his neck and when he instinctively reached up he realized the arms were the size of tree trunks and to fight back may bring an even worse result. He was left unconscious on the street - his money belt and new camera gone. When he awoke the two policemen he found could not understand this gringo's gesturing and Jason had not begun the Spanish lessons that would start next week. He was unhurt, a sore neck, yes, and he did not blame the forgetful proprietor who had neglected to mention this area on the map. "I should have known," he said.
I was going to set up an account at the embassy in Lima and wire $500 cash, thanks to the generosity of David. I took my legal pad covered with underlined phrases and I drove to the transfer office . The young woman at the desk said she had done this many times but she hesitated and studied the forms, obviously not understanding. I decided to try the 800 number just to make certain we were not making mistakes with these complicated instructions. The robot voice on the line identified the office and then said, "If you are calling about an American citizen traveling abroad and this is an emergency situation, please press 1." Not an emergency, a damn sad and scary situation, but not an emergency. "If you are calling about an American citizen traveling abroad and that person is missing or has been kidnapped, please press 2." If I had been calling with that hellish situation, I'd be damn well pressing 1. What the hell was an emergency then? Death? How could it be? That traveling citizen is dead and nothing can be done so you better not be pressing 1. My stomach felt sick as I realized the tremendous scope this situation was developing into. So much evil out there past the Iowa cornfields.
Jason went on to have a remarkable adventure and to meet many interesting people. He took surfing lessons, tracked through jungles, sat at the tops of mountains, climbed ancient Inca ruins and stood breathless at the bottom of great waterfalls. I admire his courage to continue the trip. Others would have returned home but his strength of character is not to be reckoned with.
I tell this story not as a reflection on Jason's judgment. He is one of the most intelligent people I know, continuing his education like my father, reading, traveling, meeting all kinds of people. It is to say, be careful, children, all children. Go forth, your lives are not here with your parents. Your life is out there. Go find it, live it. Just, be careful.
"It liberates the vandal to travel - you never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born."
Mark Twain, 1868
Thursday, October 28, 2010
And then all of a sudden there was college. I needed to go to college. But I wasn't interested, I didn't feel like going. I think I was tired and just wanted to coast for awhile, sit by a stream or something. It was the 70's and I wanted to retire from my overly achieved but short life. The culture was changing quickly and my younger sister by four years was wearing halter tops and smoking joints and I was still my mother's daughter. A large part of me was true blue to her values but the new society looked beautiful and seductive. My father watched the news every night that summer and would announce that there was no way I would be attending the university with all those war protests going on. But in the end I got in the car and he drove me a hundred miles to the campus and within six months I got drunk for the first time, smoked my first joint and lost that overrated virtue, virginity.
My art major roommate and I hitchhiked to her home town many times that winter and once I had undetected mononucleosis, falling asleep in a snow drift. My roommate's mother sterilized the towels after I left. Moria was my roommate's name and she hid joints in her paint box and she never could get high. I didn't seem to have that problem. Did I say I lost my virginity? I did, to a 6'4" gymnast with orange hair from Little Turkey, Iowa. I first learned about sex from a seventh grade teacher, Sister Mary Paschal, a permanently unhappy woman with the proverbial corn cob up her ass. I always scored very high in the archdiocesan music tests having studied piano from age five. I was learning the letters of the scale at the same time I was learning the alphabet at school. But that year I pulled a lowly 86 and Sister Paschal berated me in front of the whole class. She was also in charge of the altar boys so a friend and I snuck into the altar boy locker room and dressed in their vestments. Sex? I can still see the nuns ranting, shaking their fingers at us, don't do it, girls, don't do it - keep those zippers zipped. With this kind of limited information and my natural sense of curiosity there seemed to be only one solution.
Fast forward, I went home that summer and hooked up with the man who would become my husband. I was sitting at a friend's house and two guys knocked at the door. Kathy had a "rep"so I figured they were here to score and I drifted off, not interested in their conversation. The short moustached fellow asked me what grade school I attended because he remembered me from said school. I looked at him closely and ran his name over in my mind and then I saw him, a kid in plaid flannel shirts and corduroy pants that went swish-swish-swish when he walked past my desk. He had blue-black hair, white skin and very pink cheeks, blue eyes and freckles. Yeah, Irish. He told me he had a crush on me back in the day and I was the kid with the pixie haircut, black pointy glasses, socks and grey hush puppies. Who would find that worth a second look? I was the only girl, except for Laurie Farlan, at the eighth grade Christmas party who did not get to wear nylons. My mother said I had to wait until I was 16. Laurie came out after college but I remember once she and some friends and I started a club in the walk-in closet at my house and she put a red plastic bowl on her head and did an impersonation of the bishop and God, she was so funny.
Anyway, long story short, I got pregnant in my sophomore year in college - I had talked that same boy into joining me at my school - his father had wanted him to study engineering but this is not what the man was about. My school had an experimental music department that drew his interest, he was a jazz guitarist. When I realized I was pregnant my first impulse was to run. I thought about joining Moria who was moving to Seattle, but in the end I would need to let the boy know and it was the right decision. It was 3 o'clock in the morning and Joe became very quiet. "I know I should be scared, but I feel really happy." Corny, but my 20-year-old self felt good with it.
Jason had very naive and simplistic parents. We were thrust into a serious situation with very little forethought. We did all right. We loved our baby and those years were peaceful and comfortable. We came back to our hometown and lived in my father-in-law's apartment house. I would leave signs on every body's door knob when Jason was sleeping. He had the best of us. This may account for the calmness in his center.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Sonny worries that Dave will be chilled in the back seat of the convertible. "Is he cool with that?" he asks. I stop midway while blowing my nose. "I have never heard you use that word," I tell my father. Unless he is describing a drop in temperature. The old guy's showing some friskiness - I like that. When the wind blows cold Sonny just jacks up the car heater. Dave sits in the back content it is not his gasoline bill being eaten up. The rolling hills of dried corn and grazing animals lull me into a lazy state of mind.
And here is our reward - so to speak - a bowl of mulligan stew at the church festival. Mulligan is another word for Irishman and the stew was a staple of the Irish hobos in America around the turn of the century. Into the pot went whatever was available by hobo standards but fortunately today for our recipe we have Midwestern fare: three kinds of meat (I know, I know - but this is the farm belt and we need animal flesh to build up stamina for the wicked winter ahead,) plenty of root vegetables and secret seasonings. There is a makeshift bar of plywood and barrels set up in the middle of the gymnasium. And a huge blue and gold eagle painted on the wall, thanks to the class of '95. Volunteers are selling raffle tickets for cash prizes, kids with crew cuts are playing the homemade festival games, good Christian women are offering chances on a quilt. I want to sit here for awhile and soak up the small town atmosphere. I buy a jar of raspberry jam for a dollar.
The school is small enough that every graduating class is pictured on the wall. Look at this innocent group. All shining faces and well scrubbed nails. Where are they now? Are they farming the valleys like their great grandparents or have they journeyed to foreign ports? The young fellow standing next to the priest looks especially pleased with himself. Why, I believe it's a young Boy George.
"I don't dread autumn's slide toward winter. It's not the coming cold and snow that I dread; it's knowing that the earth will be brown for months on end. Snow in this globally-warmed region is intermittent, softening the landscape when it falls, but winter thaws bring back a deadly beige. Green won't return until April."
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Mom squirreled away money for clothing purchases. Dad would cluck-cluck his tongue. He wore forty year old shoes that needed resoling every few years. He took pride in his purchases from second hand stores, even the corduroy pants, shiny seats from too much wear. My mother especially loved coats. She bought a new coat every year but would bring it out of the closet a day here, a day there. Slowly, so my father would not notice. After her death my sister and I looked at the closets and dressers and numerous Rubbermaid tubs full of all that clothing. Check the pockets, I said to Amy. We found approximately $7000 at the bottom of boxes, tucked away in purses, Social Security envelopes and, yes, pockets . My father would shake his head thinking why this strange, unnecessary behavior. I knew she needed to spend money on what she was denied for so many years.
I took my mother shopping. She needed a dress for her grandson's wedding. I came out of the dressing room to see her wearing a hot pink teddy. "I want to buy that dress over there, but look at the cleavage. Your brother will never allow that." That day I bought a jacket of orange and red panels with grape purple lining. Never would I have bought this thing if it had not been for her influence that day. It seemed the right and authentic thing to do. The jacket hung in my closet for a year and then was donated.
As the days lengthen I am beginning to realize the awful loss. She was the best of friends. She lived up the lane and I could stop in numerous times a day with stories and jokes. Now those moments are stilled and I fill them with other things, I just don't know what those will be yet.
So, I wore the wine-colored blouse and the sky blue earrings and the mother-of-pearl shell necklace. I find the pink Birkenstock slip-ons I bought the day after her death. I wanted something new and brilliant for the upcoming wake. I was drawn to the soft coral orange but knew my mother would buy the pink and that is what I chose.
Today is another perfect autumn poem and my oak tree outside the french doors is nude of leaves. A few tough maples are still holding out with their dressy autumn colors but harsh wintry winds are starting to blow and I hold my own on my daily walks. Once again prolonged exercise helps to staunch the feelings of loss. In one day and night's time I have exercised four hours. My legs and arms are telling me this is too much. I am obsessed these days.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Carrie has always been a strong girl. She comes from a long line of strong women. My mother's mother lost her husband to blood poisoning from a pulled tooth before he was thirty years of age. Elizabeth raised nine children during the Depression in a small Iowa farming town. Clothes from flour sacks, two of my aunts losing all their teeth in their early teens, no milk. Elizabeth could make soup from anything, even cows' lungs, her sons walking ten miles a day to pick someone else's corn.
It's hard being a woman. It's hard being anything, but we still have to put up with pornography and low wages and push-up bras and the Moose Lodge. Sooner or later these old farts will die out. I will personally lead the celebratory parade.
I don't want my daughter to deal with all this. She has not had an easy life. Her mother was a strange and estranged parent who still has the note Carrie wrote at age six asking when her mother would come home. I also have the school photo from that same year, a little girl with crooked bangs and red-checked dress and scared eyes. I keep these things together in the back of my recipe box, her brothers' pictures, too.
I remember the night of her senior prom. She had bought a dashing red gown that would set off her black hair and sparkling eyes - her hair was in huge rollers and she was adding bright red paint to her nails when the call came. Boyfriend had crashed into a tree and he had jumped out of his purple truck, orange flames painted on the sides. He circled the stalled vehicle screaming, "I can't believe I totalled my truck!" I instructed my son to take the cookies out of the oven and Carrie and I drove the short distance to the hospital. After sitting around and thumbing through very old magazines we learned that the young man was all right - just bashed in a few places like the purple truck. I stood and stretched and said, Carrie, I'm going to walk home - you take the car. The mother of said young man jumped to her feet and said, 'What! She is in no shape to drive!" Carrie and I looked at each other and there were smiles in our eyes. To keep the level of melodrama at a low point I did take the car home and Carrie was chauffeured back by that overly emotional woman. Oh Lord, life can be so tiring.
Carrie counsels young children from abusive and neglected homes. She talks to their parents, a scared and bullied lot themselves. She never tells me the stories, and I never ask. She goes to court, writes endless reports and she was in her office at eleven o'clock the night before she was scheduled to have her labor induced at 6:45 the next morning.
She awes me, inspires me, and I am humbled by her.
And Rudy had to leave us, a brain tumor. Now we deal with the aftermath.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
You know what I love about a farmer's market? Everybody is in a great mood. People put bandannas around their dogs' necks for all the wrong reasons, the smell of veggie burritos is in the air, and the farm people are just so gosh darn glad to be out of those smelly barns and here in the sunlight with the city folk. And it proves that just because the fingernails are dirty doesn't mean a nasty person resides.
$7.50 is too high for a jar of gingered pear preserves whatever that is, but you do get that little straw thing around the lid. Her prices are up there but as every good chef know, appearance is everything. Potatoes and other root vegetables are everywhere, peppers for my brother's chili, the last batches of greens and spinach and some anemic-looking tomatoes. Dave and I eat a breakfast of animal fat and processed flour at the local greasy spoon (fork and knife) and then proceed to try and walk off the toxins.
The Mississippi has carved a deep ravine in its wake and the hills of Illinois are directly across from us.
Barges are frequent this time of year with coal and corn, staples for the frigid days ahead.
Window shopping: a demonic metallic monster glares out at me menacingly.
I would so wear this dress. And those circles are actually plastic baubles attached to the material at their tops. Think of how this would look when in motion, twirling and dancing. I would probably not buy this dress as I feel safe in my Catholic student wardrobe, lots of blue and white, brown and grey. Why attract unwanted attention, which all attention is unless I have fallen down a staircase or off a bar stool - both of which I have done and was glad for the helping hand. Also, I would not twirl while dancing. Again, a balance issue. All day long I have had a Beach Boys song rattling around in my head, "Beach baby, beach baby give me a chance. . ." Tomorrow's gotta be better.