Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Story, at least a chapter

I bullied my parents into sending me to an all-girls' convent school because that's where my two best friends were going. It was a mistake, the school was inadequate. The nuns had us shelling corn during classroom hours. I graduated fifth in a class of 126 but that was easy, the curriculum far from challenging. I played first violin in the orchestra and volunteered for the yearbook. We were the last class at this old outdated place, the time had passed for convent schools and the state had lots of problems with our physical education program. I was glad to leave high school. There wasn't much about it I liked.

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

A Tale of Two Cooks

Not so long ago I came upon a realization that must have been buried deep in my psyche and never revealed to my conscious mind. And it is this, I don't like to cook. I was raised by a 50's housewife who grew up on a Depression-era farm with inadequate food supplies for the widow and her nine children. Food was a sacred product for my mother and the cooking process a holy ritual. Until the last day my mother was able to sit upright she had a stack of cooking magazines next to her and she read these like Danielle Steele's latest novel (I, myself, am not a fan of Ms. Steele but let's face it, she owns the numbers.) My mother served three homemade squares a day, a meat roast and fruit pie on Sundays, and her freezer was full of muffins, cookies, walnuts, leftover vegetables for the soup pot. In short, food was everywhere.

I am the eldest Catholic daughter in the family so I was trained as the back-up person should my mother choose to take to her bed or whatever. Myself and other women who share this birth order position go on to be great leaders, planners, acceptors of responsibility as well as micro managers, know-it-alls, and basically, pains in the ass.

One would assume being raised in this household, so full of food and gender-biased roles I would put on the pink ruffly apron and become Miss Just-Like-Her-Mom girl hero. All these years I thought I had done this although the fit never felt right.
That was until my moment of clarity on cooking occurred. This is what it is: I like reading the food magazines, I have several shelves full of cook books and I continue to add more volumes and I absolutely ate up Julia and Julie. I bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking and flirted with the idea of copying Julie Powell's culinary adventure. I started with Julia's Boeuf a la Bourguignonne not realizing until deep into the two-page recipe that there were references to other parts of the cookbook for additions to the dish like caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms and it was hours before I got out of my kitchen and it would take days to clean up all the pots.
I realize I am in love with the idea of cooking, and not cooking itself. I want to go to chefs' cooking demonstrations, eat all kinds of exotic stuff at food shows, browse the cooking aisles in small book shops. I just don't want to be in the kitchen chopping onions.

Too add to this calamity, I am somewhat of a good cook. Not excellent, not even creative, just good. Always a craftsman, never the artist. After 38 years a few things have clicked like add small amounts of milk to mashed potatoes unless you want potato soup and really good scrambled eggs need to be stirred a lot. I can go outside the recipe, but I'd rather not. I don't want to have to think about what might be missing in the sauce, or ponder what combination of recipes would taste better, or get a little sassy and use sesame oil or cumin when none is stated. Just give me the tried and true recipe and get out of my way.

My German father was far too picky and would not allow a teen-aged daughter to cook for him so my mother did all that and I was kicked down to chief baker, a position I loved because it is much harder to screw up cookies than a beef roast and at that age sugar was my passion.

So when I got married and moved a hundred miles away, I made a panicky call to my mother. "How do I cook?" I asked, "what do I do? I don't know how to cook!" A couple of days later I received a copy of Betty Crocker's latest cookbook in the mail, courtesy of that wise woman.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Karma Chameleon

We are firing up the convertible again and this time we are headed into Wisconsin, home of cheese and cheeseheads, those Green Bay Packer fans. Now I love cheese but that other group makes me want to lock myself in a closet. They are an elitist group and like cyclists and vegans, they believe they are superior to the rest of us based on, well, nobody seems to know. I thought when Brett Farve left the pack they might find some semblance of sanity and decency in their ranks but this was not to be. My own family must mask the fact that one of our own adheres to just such a philosophy. My youngest brother Albert would send out his Christmas greeting postcards with the whole family including the dog wearing the green and gold jersey.

From thirty miles away we can see our goal.

The natural mound called Sinsinawa rises three hundred feet above the Wisconsin landscape. The Mesquakie Native Americans named this area Manitmouie - "the land where the Great Spirit dwells." And the mound itself, Sinsinawa - "the young eagle." Here now is the mother house of the Dominican sisters and the Catholic parish of St. Joseph.
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."
Kevin Koch

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pretty Things

My mother's birthday was a week ago, and in her honor, I dressed in bright colors. My own wardrobe leans towards anonymous - khakis and white t-shirts, navy blue and grey and brown, a Catholic student's closet. I want to fade into the background, not attract attention. My mother would throw together orangy pinks and purple berry and forest green. And it worked for her. Her Capri's were ironed with a sharp crease and she wore delicate chains of pink pearls and turquoise. Her last purse had crocheted pictures of women's faces from the flapper generation. She found this at a flea market while visiting my son in Ann Arbor. My mother loved clothes. Marie was raised in flour sack dresses and castoffs from charity contributions. My talented older aunt would rip open the seams and redesign the fabric into new outfits. Irene would not allow the children to be seen in the original clothes.

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.

Pretty things.

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

And Rudy Had to Leave Us

I am pouring orange juice and the sound of small footsteps and baby prattle is coming up my lane. I turn to see Cameron, all of 30 months old, wearing her purple teddy bear pajamas that she refuses to take off. Carrie shuffles in and when I look into her face it is swollen and tear-stained. In a shaky voice she explains that she has been up through the night with their family dog, Rudy, who inexplicably began suffering seizures. By five a.m. Carrie was holding the poor animal trying to keep him from hurting himself. She had spent the night by herself with the baby and the dog, her husband working in Chicago and the boys staying with their father. I imagine her alone and scared watching the early strains of light in the cottonwoods outside her window knowing something fearful was going to happen and it would affect her young children in a negative way. Between the two families several dogs were lost in a few years, timeless friends for my grandsons. Cameron turns to me and says, "Rudy's broken."

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

Beach Baby, Beach Baby, Give Me a Chance

Beware, river walkers. This Odonata Anisoptera has been cited hovering in the area. Known to pick up unleashed dogs, unsuspecting cell phone users and even a dude with his jeans down around his knees and his Joe Boxer underwear showing, but no one was upset about that.

I wish I were the family pet and could leap out of bed in the morning and go directly to the task at hand. But like the rest of the civilized race I must attend to that morning ritual of personal hygiene and it just takes too long. There's the shower, the pill-taking, toilet time, the tooth brushing, the hair thing, the spraying and rubbing of ointments and creams, and all that clothing to choose and shoes and which pieces of metal to adorn my body. It doesn't help that I have 27 shampoos, conditioners, and shower gels on three piers in my tub. I can't pass up smelly stuff. I have streamlined the process a bit with an extremely short hair style and the avoidance of cosmetics. If it's a choice between the toothbrush and breakfast I go to work smelling minty-mouthed and not with teeth studded with shredded wheat.

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.

Under heavy eyebrows he will be sweeping snow from some one's driveway all too soon.

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.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Starbucks Guy Made Me Do It

I am walking into the local mega mart and the guy from the Starbucks kiosk comes running at me with his little tray of overly sugared drinks. He is smiling so hard MY mouth is hurting and I mumble under my breath, I don't do coffee. "But this isn't coffee!" he practically shouts at me crazy pleased that he has backed me into a corner. Ooh, what is it, I squeal sounding like Hannah Montana on a particularly bad day. "It's strawberry-banana blended fruitee!" he sings with his eyes cast heavenward. It is kind of a cute little glass with whipped cream and a baby straw. But then I leave it in my cart and I take a corner too fast and the thing is flinging strawberry goop everywhere. Like all public accidents we try to slip away but a clerk with a very determined look finds me. I'm sorry, I say, the Starbucks guy made me take it. He should clean it up.

And then there's this guy in produce, a short little hunter-looking fellow, you know the kind, a male who has let every single follicle on his neck, face and chin produce hair. I suppose it's more honest than all those carefully coiffured goatees that seem so popular these days especially among bald guys. What's that all about? Isn't shaving enough work already? And bald is sexy, especially if there is a fit, tight body underneath. But, I digress. I must have been wearing my Martha Stewart expression - the one with pursed lips - because he asks me when should he put carrots into a slow cooker that is cooking a roast. I swirl around and start firing questions, what temperature are you cooking this, what kind of carrots, how many hours for the total cooking time. He backs away from me and looks, well, like a deer in the headlights. Some people put them in with the meat but they get mushy and take on the color of the gravy, I begin. Put'em in for one hour at the end and I give him my best helpful old lady smile. I almost add, women just love a man who cooks, but again, I am leaning towards overkill and he's probably just making this for himself and his dog.

No one else seems to need assistance so I can now exit the store. I go through the check-out hoisting up my frozen spinach, rotisserie chickens, Alfredo sauce. The bagger lady says "Ooh, Irish coffee!" as she bags my Kessler's and coffee. Leave it to the Irish to come up with a drink that results in a waste of good whiskey, but for once I check my tongue. Every other surname in this town is Kelly or Sullivan or O'Keefe. In the parking lot I swipe at a bug near my ear with the hand holding my keys and this means five pounds of medal whacking up the side of my head. I seem intent on injuring myself these last couple of months.

I call Big Dave and see if he would join me on the floodwall for a birthday walk, his, not mine. Yesterday was Susan's and she says to me on the phone last night, "I can't believe I am 64
@*$#ing years old!" That's what you get for having friends all younger than you, I tell her, no sympathy.

Dave is 62 today and he should be retired and collecting some of that Social Security stuff. Dave has been employed for 37 years ago in the same place and ten years ago the company presented a huge retirement offer that all of his friends latched onto hungrily. But Dave did not get his job right after high school like his co-workers. Instead he went to college and then Viet Nam so he did not have the required amount of accumulated work years to qualify for the plan. Now all of his buddies are gone and they have been replaced by snotty-nosed college grads that stick around long enough to include the company logo on their resumes. Dave is in a continuing merry-go-round of stress and change, corporate decisions made one week only to be reversed the following week. Dave has steadfastly refused to leave this crazy place. He wants more money even though he has a wife who is a very cheap date. I get my hair cut at Cost Cutters, wear no makeup except for bright lipstick (okay, it's Estee Lauder,) and wear my son's old t-shirts. Dave's blood pressure is scary along with his frame of mind, and consequently, my frame of mind.
Happy birthday, sweetheart. In the next year I wish you more silliness, less worry about money and fewer dermatology appointments. Oh drat, I wish that for all of us.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Travelers We Three

We are heading out in the 1986 Chrysler Le Baron, a boxy vehicle with no cup holders and ashtrays in the back seat full of candy wrappers from my mother's purse. My father is a car person and he drove his first at age 13. This is when he and his bandit gang of friends would "borrow" cars from unsuspecting neighbors late at night. When he was 16 he took a curve on the north end of town too sharply and landed upside down. He remembers thinking there is something decidedly wrong here and his dad let him spend the night in jail to make sure the lesson would stick. And it did. Now when he would drive those borrowed cars he took the turns much more slowly. And most of his adult life he owned a second car , a convertible. He started with a '66 Chevy Impala and went through a series of MGs, some forest green and his favorite, the Blaze Orange.

We take turns in the wind tunnel that is the backseat. The rains have not visited the Iowa plains for several weeks and the mammoth farm machines chugging along on the sides of the highway are churning up blimp-sized clouds of dust. I won't need to foliate my skin for awhile. Also, not a good day for lip gloss, discovered too late.

Just beyond this bluff is the junction where the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers meet.
In 1673 Marquette and Joliet paddled their bark canoes down this tributary and became the first Europeans to see the land that would become Iowa. In 1805 Lieutenant Zebulia Pike of Colorado fame had evaluated this same place for a possible military fort, but decided not, and aren't we glad.

The German pioneers who settled this rich valley brought the names of their favorite Rhineland towns. We pass through Luxemberg, Guttenberg and a tiny berg, Osterdok. My great-great grandma Leora gave birth to her daughter Amanda here in the 1880's. She had come to this bleak spot to join her husband as he worked a winter logging camp. Logs transported more easily on frozen ground. Snow-covered lands, a makeshift cabin and an impossibly difficult life for the women of this time.

These bluffs are made of bedrock, a substance so hard it is impossible to plow up. Thus, these untouched areas are covered with forest uninterrupted by building or telephone pole. I know the views I am enjoying today are the same that greeted the Native American people as they made their way down the winding ancient buffalo trails to the river.
We buy honey and cranberry jam and a wreath made of bittersweet on the overbluff.

Sonny is full of conversation and easily convinces us that we must take this gravel path back behind the hills where a deserted mill town had once flourished. Is there any part of this state he has not explored? I see Dave grimace until he remembers it is not his car that will be crunching down the gravel.
My father has taught me that the most interesting sites a country can offer are at the ends of gravel roads.

Gretel Ehrlich has written that the Japanese word for autumn means "beauty tinged with sadness." And like most midwesterners I am longing for those nights by the fireplace hearing the lonely song of the winter wind against my well-sashed window and the crystallized snowflakes tap dancing on my pane. But essentially I know all the beauty I see today is based on a continuing death.

Empty limestone rooms and I wonder about the people who came here and worked and sang and sat in the sunshine and wondered about the people who came before them. Sonny and Dave are arguing again, two men too much alike when it comes to inborn stubbornness. I lose interest when the subject of ethanol comes up and I lean back in the car and let the wind swallow their conversation.

. . .how with time and a little tutelage
we learn to read the earth.
Kevin Koch in The Driftless Land

Friday, October 8, 2010

On the Road Again

Earlier in the week Sonny dropped in with a newspaper article from Sunday's Des Moines Register reporting on an excellent leaf ride through northeastern Iowa and ending in the Norwegian town of Decorah. He has another newspaper dated two years ago interviewing a married couple who had opened a pizza joint in said Norwegian town and it had experienced instant success. You know
how your mother loved pizza, and we kept this article thinking we would check it out. Did my parents have a file cabinet somewhere that held info on intended places to visit? Sonny says it will take the better part of the day and I don't think I want to spend all those hours in the car after so recently returning from Colorado and Minneapolis road trips. Like so many overworked women, weekends are catch-up time to right all the household wrongs in preparation for the next hectic week. Your mother always packed a picnic lunch. Argh, mother, why did you need to be Mrs. Perfect 50's/60's Housewife? All that was missing were the high heels and pearls. But Sonny tells me we could stop at a Subway and we could bring fruit and other supplements for the meal. When we return, he tells me, we could do an early dinner. As usual, my father has all meals and snacks planned for the next 48 hours and there will be no diversion from his schedule. That's negotiable, I tell him, and he looks confused. We'll just wait and see how things go, I add. He leaves the articles with me but reminds me he does want them back. Later that evening I make several attempts to screen them but they do not hold my interest.
I am growly these days and I find it difficult spending time in the kitchen. I cook two meals weekly for my father and I have lost my rhythm in the culinary department. I can't get all the dishes ready at the same time. When the meal is over I am exhausted and almost every dish and pan is lying greasy and crusted on the counters.
Cowboy Dave says perhaps he will not need to go along on this trip and maybe I would rather just have Dad and the day to myself. I study him and realize that I am glaring in a menacing sort of way. You can go, I tell him, I can't keep up a conversation that long. And I realize I need him tomorrow. His conversation peppered with sports statistics and John Deere stories will be the diversion we need. My dad and I will no doubt flounder too often into reminisces of my mother. A few will be all right, but not too many. I am glad that he is brave enough to make this trip even though it is without my mother, his constant companion on these kind of road adventures. They loved to traverse the back roads of Wisconsin and the rich farmlands of the Mississippi valley.
With a sigh I visit the corner mart and pick up some deviled eggs that get tossed into a bag and resemble a box of yellow glop with white chunks thrown in. Chips and dip, deli-baked cookies - I honestly do not have the energy to do the bake thing right now and watermelon and grapes. I discovered a cantaloupe on my kitchen counter that had been there for awhile - kind of forgot about it. Has a few soft spots, but it goes in the fridge and it could be all right. We'll know more tomorrow.
I pack a bag with the good paper plates and Vanity Fair napkins, only the best. And with a sigh I tuck in my mother's red-checked gingham table cloth. I had taken this from her linen closet after her death - it reminded me of countless picnics from my youth. She has ironed it with even creases and I know that when Dave washes it upon our return I will need to iron it again.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Some Days there is a Darkness

Cameron and I visit Sonny. We decide to go out on the patio and Cameron escorts me to the swing. She would like to push me and you do not argue with a 20-month-old child, well, at least not this one. I close my eyes and lay back, lulled into a dreamy state by Cameron's song , her baby song. I hear the wind rustling the leaves of the lilac grove and hear the tinny tinkle of the little wind chime above the picnic table. The late afternoon light is dappled and uneven on the dry leaves. I think I can feel my mother close by. Cameron keeps singing and the wind is now shrill and I'm hoping for a sign and I don't know what that would be. I'm listening for my mother but I can't hear her. She can't get through. Or she's just not there and my brain is tired, overworked, and fragile.
She and I loved the lilacs.
I first became acquainted with that fragrant flower at my grandmother's house. Nana had lilacs on the eastern and southern borders of her home. When I was eight years old my family moved into that great white house. Ivory and purple flowers, the ancient vines of twisted branches brought spring into my life every year. The huge cottonwood above our house with its plastic shiny leaves blowing flap-a-flap-a-flap, twisting in an Iowa wind storm. Wind was my comfort while growing up and when I was younger I thought it might contain the voice of God.
But now it sounds empty and hollow and I am at a loss. I had felt safety with the wind blowing against my window and me inside tucked into a warm bed. I thought the wind was my friend and it would comfort me on nights I could not sleep. Now it confuses me and I feel it taunting me as I toss on the mattress. I wish I could leap ahead and not feel this great barren desert I am in, but that is not to happen. Today, I lose Cameron's glasses and I eat fried food and I argue with David over stupid things and I am too tired to apologize. I just want to lay down somewhere and I don't want anyone to find me or interrupt me or ask where I want to go for dinner or when is my next dentist appointment. I don't want to live a normal life right now.
I transplanted lilac bushes to my parents' yard from the last house I lived in. Lilacs are important to the Giegerich women. Every spring my mother and I would discuss the status of the lilac nation. Were they plentiful this year, abundant, long-lasting, the best blossoms ever? I would stand on the hood of my car clipping the rich blossoms from my brother's lilac bushes listening to his pit bull hissing at me. What I would attempt to keep that little parent happy. And today I have trouble breathing while shopping for orange juice and other things. My chest is tight and consticted and I feel I must will the air to move into my lungs and back out again. My reflexes have stopped working. This is crazy. I need to find something fun to do.

Sassy Susan

Oh happy day, Susan called me much too early this morning, but for some people, we make allowances. Like Jane, she does not read my blogs and she checks her Facebook communiques only once a week. I know, fellow FB addicts, what's the point . . . She is alarmed and firing questions at me re: the dog incident. I'm getting weary of repeating the story but I dutifully do and it is like I am reading from a script. We get past that and onto other things most importantly that she is moving back to San Diego this month. Susan is a midwesterner in love with the ocean and although she does enjoy a snowy Christmas eve by the fireplace that's about all of old man winter she can handle. She is now living in Alexandria, Virginia and the summers resemble sitting in front of an operating oven with the door open. When the spring winds of cherry blossom season howl up and down her elevator shaft she growls, "I hate this place. Can't wait to get out of here."
I first met Susan in 1985 at my Human Services job. Jane had left for the big city and I was experimenting with different social groups around the office looking for a new comrade. A supervisor had passed my cubicle during the noon break and once again saw me eating my lunch alone. "Dawn," she said. "You need to make new friends." It was dreary work and not easy for someone who did not make friends easily and was essentially shy. "Most people have an egg shell around them," Jane had said, "you have a walnut shell."
At last I came into the company of Mary Osbourne, a droll, academic woman whose sense of humor was desert dry. Occasionally, Mary would invite another friend of hers, Susan, to join us.
I did not like Susan. A few years older than me she wore tight black leather skirts and a stylish, slightly stiletto pump. She laughed too loud and too often and she would flirt outrageously with the young men in the office. A few years went by and I was in the process of buying a new home. I was divorced several years at this point and I found a little bungalow with real woodwork and a yard with lilacs. I made an appointment to meet with the realtor after work. "Is your husband coming?" he asked. I replied that I did not have one and he audibly sighed, the rude chauvinist that he was.

I was leaving the office to meet with my bank person and I ran into Susan returning from her errand. She asked where I was going and I told her. She looked at me for awhile and then said, "you're buying a house? Wow, that 's scary. Almost as scary as getting married." And it was one of those moments. A woman of like mind, Jane would have said.

Usually I was surrounded with well meaning women who wanted me hitched and excitedly would tell my about a friend of theirs who they thought I should meet. It seems they had spent considerable time studying this man sometimes employing other persons in this project, sort of a Team Dawn approach. And sometimes I would give in if nothing else so we could change the subject. But I put my foot down with the guy in the beige snakeskin boots who even with two inch heels was still shorter than my own five foot height. I opened the door and a cloud of Jack Daniels hit me and he continued to imbibe at the bar. He stumbled and slurred out his words and told me how much he wanted to meet my children. I excused myself for the ladies' room, called a friend - not the blind date friend, and escaped to her car out the back door. Rude? Yes. Necessary? Totally.

But the conversation with Susan clinched it for me. We were comrades of spirit, not ready to take the marital plunge, ready for discussions late into the night about how lucky we were to be the women we were - manless, but lucky.