Thursday, November 25, 2010


As my friends and I walk toward Mrs. Dole’s car, I’m wondering where each of us will sit for the ride home. Mrs. Dole is Susan’s mom, and Susan is my classmate, as well as my distant, distant cousin...or so they say.

Riding home in Mrs. Dole’s car will be a first for all of us. Not only is Mrs. Dole not the carpool type, but she also hovers over Susan like something bad is about to befall her. As a result, Mrs. Dole personally delivers Susan to each and every activity throughout the school year, thereby assuring for herself full absolution from car pool duty.

And whenever Susan is delivered to us by her mother, Susan approaches our group as though she is the overburdened princess of the hour - expecting us to be her emotional cheerleaders. She typically looks tired and focused and special, but not in a good way.

She often tilts her head to one side before speaking, as though to suggest communicating with us is too tedious for her. She seems to say, “I am lowering myself to speak with you girls, so help me understand what’s going on, will you please?” Strangely enough, this stance earns her special attention from some in our group.

Funny thing is that Mrs. Dole is about four and a half feet tall and almost as wide, and Susan is even shorter. More interesting, however, is the odd size of Susan’s legs. She has unusually thick legs, prompting Mrs. Dole to explain, on various occasions and in a defensive manner, that Susan has “double muscles in her calves from birth."

What is that?" people ask, though no answers come forth. It's more like Mrs. Dole feels sorry for her daughter, maybe because she feels responsible for having given legs to Susan that don’t match the rest of her body.

By now we are standing at the car, and Mrs. Dole is unlocking the driver’s seat door of her two-door Oldsmobile. Someone, maybe Barbara, runs around to the passenger side to get in the front seat. Before she gets in, Mary, my best friend, pushes the passenger seat forward and climbs in the back seat. I am in line to push the driver’s seat forward to climb into the back seat also. This all happens quickly, but I can see this is turning out nicely because Mary and I will be able to sit next to one another.

Suddenly from behind I feel a hard pull on the neck of my coat. I turn around expecting to see one of my friends playing a little trick on me, but before I get a good look at who it is, I feel a solid shove that pushes me to the side and away from the car door. I lose my balance for a second and nearly fall down – only catching myself in time to see that Mrs. Dole has pushed me away from the back seat long enough to allow Susan to enter the car before I can!

“Here Susan,” she says, “Didn’t you want to sit next to Mary?”

Mrs. Dole then turns immediately away from me to see who is next in line to get in the car and acts as though she has done nothing wrong – like she’s never even touched me. I stand there stunned for a moment, and then I walk around to the other door to get in the front seat, thereby putting myself in the unfavorable position of being dropped off first.

Mrs. Dole never makes eye contact with me, not even when we get to my house. She pulls in the driveway, and says in a flat voice while looking straight ahead, “Do tell your mother I said hello, dear.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Weight of It All

Christmas is tomorrow, and I imagine most organized people are home in front of their fireplaces. Nevertheless, we are having some fun, I think. I don’t know for how long, but I am enjoying feeling happy in this moment.

I’m standing toward the front of the department store, and through large plate glass windows I see new snow piled high along the walkways around the courthouse across the street. Smokey exhaust trails every slow-moving car on the street. Looks like clouds on the ground as shoppers search for parking. No one is in a hurry. Heavy snow is crippling the pace, even as last minute shoppers experience surges of generosity.

I begin walking toward the counter where Charleen and Mother are placing items beside the cash register. The wooden floor groans, forecasting my arrival. Mother turns to acknowledge me with a frown, yet I hold on to my hope and excitment about Christmas as we head toward our last shopping destination. I am starting to believe we may very well have a good Christmas this year.

For one thing, Mother seems genuinely happy and relaxed these past few days, and though I initially can’t say why that matters, I realize I do notice the difference. When things are not right with her, things aren’t right for any of us.

Mother’s moods dictate the day, no matter if it’s Christmas or last Tuesday. We live with that truth and seem only to be able to appreciate its reality in hindsight. Like the awareness after someone loses weight that, yes, in retrospect, that person really was overweight, Mother’s dominating moods seem not to challenge and oppress until for some unknown or inexplicable reason, she has a good day. And then, in hindsight, the reality of life with her washes over me like a wave of nausea I can't escape. Suddenly, life with her seems too much to manage. I wish for good days, but somehow, they are more painful. Despite that, I think about tomorrow and pray for a really good day.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Not a Secret

It’s not a secret that Mother has issues with me. Try as I might, I can never get it right, that’s for sure. I want to please her more than anything, but this is how she lets me know I have a long way to go.

You have bad hair. You’re hippy, and you always will be. You’re not smiling enough. When will you ever learn to stand up straight? You never listen to me. You’re an awkward child. Your sister is more creative than you….and so much more artistic. You have a fairly good personality, but you should approach people more. If you had tried harder, you would have gotten all A’s. In fact, this B ruins everything. You take too long to get ready. You look pale. You’re not showing enough enthusiasm. What’s wrong with you? Don’t worry about your piano lesson; Charlize is the one with the talent.

Indeed, there is something glorious about Charlize. And Mother is crazy about her. She loves her long hair and big dimples, and Charlize is the one named after Daddy. I guess she's Mother's favorite and Daddy's namesake.

Absolutely everything about Charlize seems to please my mother….and as a result, Charlize gets a lot more one-on-one time with Mother than the rest of us. I try not to notice this, but actually, there is something sad about Charlize, something that even makes it okay that she gets more of Mother’s time. I can’t understand it myself, but I know one thing: If Charlize is not happy, Mother’s not happy.

Like this afternoon. Charlize is moping around, looking dejected, and mother is fully tuned-in to her mood. About midday, Charlize goes outside and starts making little animals and make-believe creatures out of grass and dandelions, sticks and mud. She brings them all in and puts each one on the kitchen table, one at a time, like a practiced salesman displaying his goods.

Oh my goodness, everyone becomes instantly enthralled with Charlize’s little blobs of grass and mud. I am expecting Mother to phone The Echelon Reporter and demand they send someone right over to photograph our little sculptor for the social page. The conversation becomes exhausting after awhile…with Mother and now Nana and the neighbor lady all talking about Mother’s child genius. I am not even able to hang around for the full display of their amazement…nor is Charlize, who soon crawls up on the davenport and falls asleep.

I, on the other hand, escape to my room and read a book. It’s a good way to stay pale for the rest of the summer.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Scrimper Supreme

Scrimping, the art of severe economizing, was mastered to perfection by my mother.

Once upon a long time ago, she purchased bedspreads to match the childlike decor of the upstairs bedroom I shared with my sisters. Those
same spreads covered our beds when I left home for college at age eighteen.

Regretfully, I cannot recall Mother ever taking me shopping for clothes, even though she loved clothes and shoes and had a closet full of her own. What I do remember is hearing her complain there was never enough money to go around.

Perhaps that explains her instruction to use only three squares of toilet tissue at a time. She also often reminded us how long a roll of tissue was intended to last.

Mother wasn’t a big eater either. Instead, she drank Vodka with her orange juice for breakfast; switched to Old Crown Ale, her favorite beer, at lunchtime; and graduated to Scotch and soda later in the day. As a result, we almost always ate late. Mother had little appetite for food.

While we waited for supper, she offered julienne cut carrots and green peppers to pacify us. When we still complained of hunger, Mother recommended extra salt.

However, when my grandparents came over to join her and Daddy for a cocktail, Mother opened a fresh can of Planters Peanuts. Some had skins. She counted out 15 for each of us kids. We were reminded to eat them slowly - "at least 30 chews per peanut," Mother instructed. My youngest sister Carrie always managed to save her pile of peanuts the longest, leaving little for Danielle and me to do but make fun of her.

Mother tried, successfully of course, to tell me what to wear to school each day. I argued at first, but soon learned I’d be wearing whatever she selected. No matter how eloquently I begged for a reprieve, Mother never let me win.

She criticized me to my friends the next morning when I was late to walk to school. Dreading to wear what she had selected, I’d wait until the last minute to get dressed.

I could hear Mother telling Debbie and Susan that no matter how early she awakened me, I was always late, always difficult.

When I heard those words and watched my friends' reactions, I wanted to cry; but knowing tears were intolerable to my mother, I acted as if everything was just fine.

“You better save those tears for something that matters!” she liked to say.

Even when hurt, failing to scrimp on tears was a punishable offense.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Road Trip

Patsy is making a big difference in my life. Now I can take off at a moment’s notice; go where I’m not supposed to go; and get back before anyone knows I’ve gone! I'm taking chances.

I’m so bold, in fact, that Patsy and I now go all the way to South Avenue, way past the drive-in theatre.

One day, on the way back home from across town, we actually discover a brand new neighborhood. Not a single child is playing outside, and the streets are so eerily quiet, we pretend no one lives there at all.

With no one in sight, we freely peruse several streets and discover that nearly every house has a beautiful yard and wide driveway. I point out to Patsy that not even a yard dog is likely to run out and scare us.

Sometimes on a Saturday, Patsy and I also travel all the way to that little church in the country where all the grave markers look alike. The church is about twelve miles from our neighborhood, so the trip feels daring.

To make the best time, we push ourselves hard until the little church appears solo in the distance. Because the road is curvy and hilly, the trip is always exhilarating! I often get thirsty along the way, though Patsy and I never hesitate to keep on going.

Today, the country air smells fresher than ever, and the gentle wind pushes us along. Once we arrive, I walk all around the little church and look in every window. Rows of wooden church pews sit empty and waiting. I want to go inside, but the doors are locked.

And then before heading back, I sit down on the church steps and rest my legs a minute. Fortunately for me, and thanks to Patsy, Mother will never know my neighborhood is a lot bigger than hers.

Smiling at the thought, I rise to rejoin Patsy at the road's edge. With kick stand holding her upright, Patsy's ready to go.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I awaken one morning and know I am in deep trouble. Yes, something feels terribly wrong, but I am not about to admit it to anyone.

Instead, I focus on all the tasks I must soon complete; details requiring my personal attention; decisions depending solely on me.

When it becomes too difficult to ignore my painful ambivalence, I take the opportunity, which is consistently available, to drink a beer or have a mixed drink with rowdy friends who stop by my apartment to see what’s happening. Liquor is eternally available and always dependable.

And I smoke a few dozen cigarettes, too. Smoking is an excellent distraction. I simply relax and talk and smoke and freely pontificate about life. Smoking and discussing all possible trivialities makes it easier to ignore the deeper turmoil I dare not discuss.

And I tell other people who are making any number of mistakes around me what to do to make their lives better. After all…there’s so much wrong in the world; I just focus on everyone else’s bad decisions.

And of course I center my energy on making everything perfect. Perfection takes a lot of concentration – requiring just enough energy to distract me from discovering the true source of my terror. I precisely resist the idea of self-discovery. It’s just too messy.

But time eventually runs out anyway. Everyone is getting more excited, and I suppose I am, too. In fact, I can hardly wait to see my cousin Stephanie who is traveling from Portland to see me today. My bad feeling is still around, of course, but it is weaker now - amidst all the celebratory activity created by well-meaning friends and family.

So I continue going through all my lists. I smile as though I am completely happy. Maybe I am; I fake it so well.

Darn the luck, though, my troubled feeling never leaves me. Even as I now recall that day, I sense the same dreadful feeling rising up from the pit of my stomach.

As it turns out; I tell myself everything is going to be just fine. With head held high, I walk down the aisle anyway.

After all, I know how to do what's right.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Over the Edge

It’s late in the night, and I must be fast asleep.

All of a sudden, I’m awakened by a strange and peculiar sound coming from downstairs. Though startled, I try to shut out the noise and go back to sleep.

But the noise continues and now the sound seems to be coming closer! At last, in
what turns out to be a bad decision, I slip out from under the covers to peek over the banister’s edge into the room below. If I know more about the noise, maybe I will be able to ignore it.

In two or three steps, I'm standing next to the banister, stretching my neck over its edge to see what I can see. I feel brave, but I know to be careful. Getting out of bed without permission is a total sin in Mother’s eyes. I hate to imagine the punishment I would receive for disobeying her!

Oh my goodness. . .as my sleepy eyes adjust to the light streaming up the staircase, I get one of the biggest surprises of my life!

What in the world….?!

At the bottom of the steps in plain view and almost completely naked. . . are my parents! They are snuggled up together on the davenport, and. . .oh my gosh. . .what are they doing?

Oh my!

Embarrassed, I pull back from the banister’s edge, puzzled...and dumbfounded! What-ever are they doing? I wait a couple of seconds and then return to the edge for a better look.

Squinting and straining to get the best view, I notice Mother is leaning back into Daddy’s chest, nestling into him like I would never imagine her doing! And she’s completely naked "on top."

Daddy’s hands are all over Mother! He massages her breasts, first one then the other, holding and caressing the right breast and then the left breast, back and forth like it’s something he does all the time; rubbing her stomach and her arms as well. Mother lays her head back, closes her eyes, and makes loud purring noises . . . perhaps the sound that awakens me?

Daddy looks toward the television and then back at Mother. They snuggle and laugh and sip their drinks. They even share a cigarette, completely oblivious of me, the little voyeur at the top of the stairs.

I have never seen or even imagined anything like this in my life, and yet I know I shouldn’t be watching.

All the sudden, Daddy leans his head back and looks straight up, right in my direction. I snap back from the banister’s edge, praying I’ve escaped his accidental gaze. On no! Maybe he heard be breathing or felt my stare. Paralyzed, I fear he will come up the stairs any minute now to punish me.

I wait, breathless, but nothing happens.

With heart pounding, I scramble back into bed. I squeeze my eyes shut, hoping to erase everything. But no matter how I try to forget, my parents naked on the davenport and Daddy’s rubbing all over Mother's body are forever fixed in my mind’s eye.

And I feel different, too, even though I don’t really know what I feel, exactly. One thing is certain, though; I pray my secret is safe. I don’t want to face Daddy or Mother about this. . .

And so what about tomorrow? How will I act with them tomorrow? I can’t ask anybody about what I‘ve just seen, can I? I can’t just bring this up to my grandmother and get her ideas, right?

And then all of a sudden . . . I do know what I’m feeling. More than anything, I feel totally alone.

And I ask myself: When will I stop being so curious? Why can’t I just follow the rules like I am supposed to?