Saturday, October 31, 2009
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
This week's homework is to write a story about how a name in our family came to be. Mine starts at the end of last week's story.
Sal walks into the house, as cool as the late fall air that follows her through the door. Her hawk-sharp eyes take us all in, then narrow on me. “Hi. You must be my cousin. So has Mom kept you entertained?” There’s no hug, handshake, or chance for me to respond - just a wry look and cryptic grin before she turns to Mommy. They hug like long lost friends. “Joycie, you look great. You haven’t changed since that last time I saw you when I was, what, eleven or so? I’m so glad you came.”
“Sally Jo Mayo, you are a sight for sore eyes. What a lovely young woman you’ve become. Your mom told me the men in Europe all wanted to marry you, and I can certainly see why.” Mommy is glowing, smiling, resting her hand gently on the arm of Sal’s black leather jacket.
“I’d forgotten how sweet you are, Joycie. You sure did a great job raising your boys. We had so much fun last spring.”
Joycie again. She is an entirely different person here than the woman I call Mommy. If calling her Joycie is what it takes to get her to smile and laugh from a place I didn’t even know existed before now, I wish with every part of me that I could call her Joycie.
Mommy and Sal continue their conversation while Bea watches quietly with her bright blue eyes dancing above a happy smile. I wonder how it’s possible to feel so alone in this circle of women whose blood I share. I didn’t realize it until just now, but I was expecting Sal and I to fall in love with each other and to become instant best friends. I didn’t expect her to choose Mommy over me.
I study the person who has just gone from potential sister to possible enemy. She is lovely: tall, thin, with thick curly black hair, milky Irish skin, and the most expressive eyebrow arch I’ve ever seen. She looks like Bea, with a wilder, less cosmetic-assisted beauty. Her voice holds a hint of Bea’s huskiness and her words hold the power to put her at the center of the universe.
“Mom, did you get Joycie and Debbie’s room ready? I’ll drive us to dinner, Joycie, so you don’t have to deal with the traffic around here. Are you guys about ready? We need to get going before it gets too crowded.”
I’ve had it with being ignored and left out. “Mommy are you sure you’re okay with Greek food? I’m sure it’s not too late to go somewhere else.” Sal chose this restaurant because it’s one of her favorites. I’ve never had Greek food before and have really been looking forward to it. Mommy, however, is not an adventurous eater, and I’m willing to forego the adventure to get her back on my side.
She looks at Sal, beaming. “I’ll try anything once. I can always get a hamburger if nothing else on the menu looks good.”
With one eyebrow cocked and that closed smile, Sal’s eyes find mine. I smile my wide smile back, determined not to let her see weakness, not sure how to read her face. Is she acknowledging how stupid Mommy sounds, or is that an I-win-and-you-lose look?
I’m not sure just how much Sal knows about me. Whatever it is came from my mom through hers. Based on what Mommy said driving over from Spokane today, I would say I didn’t come off looking good, which might explain Sal’s coolness toward me. By the end of the conversation, I was sorry I’d started it.
“Mommy, have you told Bea anything about me?”
“Of course. She’s like a sister to me. We don’t have any secrets.” Mommy stubbed out her Pall Mall in the overflowing ashtray, making it clear she meant to stub out any further questions.
I risked one more anyway. “What did you tell her?”
“I told her all those things I couldn’t tell Daddy and the boys to protect both them and you.” Her voice was developing an edge I wanted to step far away from, but my need to know was far greater than my need for safety in that moment.
“So she knows about my baby, and the adoption?” I kept my eyes focused on the road ahead and my voice as soft and even as possible. I would not let her anywhere near the pain those words threatened to explode to the surface.
“Yes. And she knows you flunked out of that fancy college you insisted on going to. I did decide not to tell her about your baby’s father being black – and married. I don’t want her to think I didn’t teach you anything at all.”
At that point, she turned on the blinker, punched in the lighter and pulled out another cigarette from the crumpled pack in the overflowing purse next to her. “This is the exit to their house. We’re almost there.” Conversation over.
Riding shotgun as Sal drives us to the restaurant with our moms chattering away in the back seat, I’m thinking how glad I am about all the things Mommy doesn’t know about me. I’m also remembering Bea was really glad to see me, so maybe she doesn’t care the same way Mommy does. I read judgment in Sal’s silence behind the steering wheel, and I try to cushion myself from its chill with words.
“Mommy and I have been looking forward to this trip for a long time. I can’t believe I have all these cousins I’ve never met. What are your brothers like? Mommy’s been talking about them both a lot since she and your mom got back together. What did you think of my brothers? I really want to hear about your trip to Europe. I’ve always wanted to go, but Mommy says I’m too young.”
“You call her Mommy?” Sal doesn’t take her eyes off the road, but her eyebrow goes up and her voice drips with scorn.
Really? This is how she wants to start things? And with our moms in the back seat?
I glance over my shoulder and realize I could confess every single one of my sins to Sal and neither of our moms would hear. They are so involved in some story about Grandaddy, Bea’s dad and Mommy’s grandfather, it’s as though nothing else exists.
I turn back to Sal wishing she’d brought up anything, even my baby, instead of this. The best I can do is to try to sound nonchalant and not defensive. “I’ve always called her Mommy. So do the boys. It’s what Daddy calls her, too. They call each other Mommy and Daddy.”
“You know it’s weird, right?” I hear a shift in Sal’s voice, although her eyebrow stays up. The scorn softens to something I can’t quite identify.
“I guess so. But it’s the only thing I can call her. Believe me I’ve tried other things. Nothing else works.”
“What do you mean nothing works? All you have to do is say Mom instead of Mommy like your brothers do. Or even Mother. It’s not that hard.” The scorn is back in full force and Sal’s eyes bore into me searching for intelligence it’s clear she’s sure she won’t find.
Tears I refuse to release sting my eyes, and words I can’t say in this car glue themselves into a great lump I try to swallow away.
I tried Mother - once. What I got in return was, “Don’t you take a tone with me young lady. I will not stand for your disrespect.” I’ve tried Mom a number of times. She smirks at me when I say it, and I can’t stand giving her the satisfaction. No, I don’t know what she’s smirking at, but if I call her Mom it feels like I’m giving in to something I can neither define nor accept. I can’t do it.
“What do you call Bea?” I push the question out, hoping to divert the tears I’m barely managing to control.
“Mom or Betty Jo. I’ve never called her Mommy and I never would. It sounds too babyish, too much like I need her to take care of me. Besides I’ve always been the one to take care of her. I don’t need to be taken care of.”
Her unspoken words hang in the air between us, blaring, “You are a baby. Only babies call their moms Mommy. You need to be taken care of.” I want out of this car. Now.
“Are you girls having a good talk up there? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could be friends just like Joycie and I are? Then the four of us could have all kinds of fun together. Wouldn’t that be great, Joycie? You and me and our girls?”
Saving both of us the embarrassment of coming up with a good lie to answer Bea’s question, Sal says, “We’re here. I hope everyone is hungry. The stuffed grape leaves and baklava here are better than I had in Greece last summer.”
Painting by Katrina Christofferson from Flickr
Sunday, October 25, 2009
We were stopped, the car turned off, listening to the silence of the refuge while crisp autumn air, softened slightly by the distant sun, wafted through open windows. Occasional trilling warbles of incoming Sand Hill Cranes reminded us where we were.
Photos from Flickr. The bottom picture was actually taken at "our" refuge.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Here is this week's prompt for class: I didn’t know it at the time, but everything was about to change.
“Darling, look at you! You look so much like Velma. You’re so beautiful. Joycie, you didn’t tell me how gorgeous she is.”
And so began my relationship with Aunt Bea.
My mom and I had just driven hours from Spokane to the home Bea shared with her daughter, Sal, just south of Seattle. After more than a decade of unexplained silence (how could women raised as sisters stop talking to each other?) Mommy had recently renewed her relationship with her aunt. The boys drove to Portland last summer to meet Bea and the cousins for the first time. This visit to their new home was my turn to get to know my mysterious aunt and my even more mysterious cousin.
Bea’s hug engulfed me with so much affection, energy, and fragrance I could hardly breathe. The fact that her perfume was the exact same Tabu that Mommy wore made my head spin a bit. I hugged her back hard, inhaling the scent – amber, nicotine and scotch - that would forever after put me right back in the center of Bea’s generous love.
She pushed me away, keeping a firm grip on my shoulders. “Let me really look at you. The last time I saw you you were a freckled little girl in braids and bangs and dirty clothes. Now you’re a stunning grown up young woman. You have your grandmother’s Cherokee looks. Don’t you think she looks just like the pictures of your mom, Joycie?”
I looked uneasily at my mom. Bea calls her Joycie? And she talks about my dead Grandma Velma as though it were no big deal? Mommy hated that nickname and refused to talk about her mother: the beautiful, mysterious Cherokee princess who died when Mommy was just a baby. Daring to breach either of those taboos could easily have triggered an angry freeze – would have for sure if I’d been on the other end of the conversation. She shocked me by laughing at Bea and agreeing with her.
Really ? I wanted to say and didn’t. You always told me I look more like you, which is so not true. I’m not prune-skinned with poor fitting dentures, too dark drawn-on eyebrows and over-dyed, shellacked beauty shop curls. I don’t have ugly whiskers sprouting from my witch chin, and I never will.
Tall, chesty, thin-hipped – Bea was the most elegant and sophisticated woman I’d ever met. It was love at first sight. Her hair was a soft wavy silver, styled in a chic cap that framed a beaming carefully made-up face. Her eyebrows were perfectly arched and just a couple of shades darker than her hair. Dressed in black pencil-thin slacks and a bright fuchsia silk top that matched her lipstick, her feet bare, she exuded sensuality that matched perfectly the beautiful lilac point Siamese cat twining around her ankles.
I am related to this woman. Finally I meet someone whose blood I share that I feel connected to and want to be like. I felt disloyal as this thought took up residence in my brain, but exhilarated with the relief of it as well.
Mommy and Bea were giddy in each other’s presence. Talking over each other. Lighting each other’s cigarettes. Drinking like I’d never seen grown women drink before. My mom, whom I’d never seen drunk one time in all my 21 years, became red-faced giggly with Bea. Usually eager to lose myself in the soothing comfort of any form of alcohol, this time I was more interested in watching the relationship between these two women unfold. I didn’t want to miss a moment of it, and sipped my wine with restraint.
Their sisterhood left me out, and after the newness of it wore off, left me feeling confused, alone, and jealous. I excused myself to go for a walk in the soft gray mist of the late fall Puget Sound evening. Before the door clicked shut behind me I heard Bea ask Mommy if I was okay, and my mom’s reply that I often went off by myself – that I was a very private person and it might take me some time to warm up to her.
You don’t understand me at all. I’m not okay, and you should know that. Once I was sure I was out of sight of Bea’s sweet little ranch house, I pulled a pack of Salem Lights out of my jacket pocket, lit one with shaking hands, and inhaled the smoke as though it might save my life. I’d only been smoking for a couple of weeks, so the first few drags made me so dizzy I had to stop walking until my body adjusted to the chemicals.
No one in my family knew I smoked. I wasn’t ready yet to tell them, in part for fear I’d be compared one more time to Mommy. The fact that I wouldn’t be caught dead smoking unfiltered Pall Malls wouldn’t have mattered to anyone making the comparison. I briefly considered switching to the elegant Virginia Slims Bea was smoking, but decided they fit her much better than they did me – at least for now.
I was curious if (or what) my cousin Sal smoked. All the way over from Spokane my mom talked about Bea’s daughter as though she were the daughter Mommy was meant to have, so much more like her in personality than I was – tomboyish, serious, mechanically inclined, athletic, pragmatic. I hoped Bea might return the favor and wish I were her daughter, the two of us sharing traits the exact opposite of Mommy’s list: feminine, happy, creative, sensual, romantic.
I wondered if, when we met for dinner later that night, I would like my oldest girl cousin on my mom’s side of the family. Would Sal’s two-year age advantage, her famous refusal to follow social conventions like being polite if it didn’t suit her, and our opposite personalities leave any room for us to like each other? Could I like someone so much like Mommy? Was it possible for her to like someone who had made such a mess of her life?
Photo from Flickr
Monday, October 19, 2009
Sometime in the last few days all the big leaf maples turned from tired green to soft pumpkin gold. As the skies faded to infinite shades of gray, the space between above and below began to glow with the light of thousands and thousands of leaves in their last moments of glory.
photos from Flickr
Thursday, October 15, 2009
“After we talked a bit about Bea’s latest health drama, and had our usual laugh about how hard it is to be a big sister – her with Mommy and me with you guys, she asked about Daddy. I told her how tough it is for Mommy to deal with a husband who’s slipping further into dementia every day. I told her the four of us were worried this might be Alzheimer’s because it can run in families, especially when it strikes young. I told her we didn’t want to have to consider that our lives might end before we hit sixty; I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around having only twenty more years to look forward to.
“As we often do, Bea and I talked about what a mean, self-centered jerk Daddy has always been. How it was one of the reasons it took so long to diagnose his illness. How we all thought his anger and stubbornness were only a bit more extreme than usual. How it took his walking naked up the railroad tracks in the middle of the day to cut through the denial. I told her I couldn’t bear the thought of ending up like him.
“ ‘Darling, I have something to tell you. I can’t stand to see you worry like this.’ You know her voice – whisky-soaked and purring and full of that happy regret she gets when she’s gearing up to say something she’s not supposed to.
“I know it sounds weird, but I knew what Bea was going to say; like I’d been waiting my entire life for that one moment. Time slowed like it did that summer the car almost went off the cliff. My whole world narrowed to Bea's pale powdered face framed in those elfin silver curls, the sparkle and arch of her eyes, and that bright pink lipstick.
“Then she said, ‘He's not really your father.’
“I think I said something stupid back like, What do you mean?
“I can still hear her answer as clearly as if she’s sitting right here. ‘Your mother was married before she married your daddy, and she and her first husband had you. He left her before you were even born. You deserved to know sooner, but they wouldn't let us tell. Your mom said she’d never speak to us again, we’d never get to see you kids again, if any of us breathed a word.’
“Bea kept saying us and I asked her what she meant. She said, ‘Everyone else in both families knew. Even the cousins. You and the boys were the only ones who weren’t told.’ ”
This was a part of the story I hadn’t shared before, so I stopped, took a deep breath, and searched the faces of my brothers for their reactions.
Frank, jittering with excitement, jumped in before I’d exhaled. “Remember when I found that mistake in Grandpa’s Bible when we were little? Remember when Grandma said someone had written the date wrong and then she changed it? The date wasn’t wrong and Grandma knew! You were born in 1951 and Mommy and Daddy weren’t married until 1953 because she was married to this other guy in 1950.”
Mark, with a look of stunned concern on his face, shook his head and said, “Leave it to Bea to find a way to tell the secret. I still remember when she told me about your daughter, which none of us boys knew about either.”
And Geoff, laughing like this was the funniest story he’d ever heard, said to his bossy big sister, “Since you’re really only a half, does that mean we only have to listen to you half the time now”
photo from Flickr
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
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Monday, October 12, 2009
Restlessness plagues me today. A kitten attacking my toes or climbing my leg, not a mountain lion stalking me for food, but enough of a distraction I can't seem to settle into anything. Like a kitten, she skitters away when I try to get close enough to put her out or snuggle her into calmness.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Here's my homework for today's writing class, based on this prompt:
“Grandma, I think there’s a mistake in your Bible.” I look at Frank with all the big-sister scorn I can muster – just short of what I really feel, just short of the power of one of Mommy’s looks, just short of what will get me into trouble and ruin everything. So typical of a nine-year-old, and especially know-it-all Frank, to believe it’s even possible for a Bible to have mistakes. God doesn’t make mistakes and Frank is not smarter than God.
He’s not even supposed to be in the kitchen with us women. He’s supposed to be playing in the parlor with Mark and Geoff. For once he was told to make sure our little brothers stay out of trouble, and instead he’s interrupting my time. And I know the Bible, which we’re not supposed to ever touch without a grownup helping, sits on the bookcase in the living room. It’s not in the parlor with the baby grand piano we’re not allowed to touch and the basket of old baby toys we’re supposed to play with where he was told to be. I slip from annoyance to anticipation of the great trouble Frank’s about to get into. I look at Mommy, expecting her to ask what he was doing looking at the Bible, or where the other two boys are, but she’s just sitting there with a funny look on her face.
This is the first year I’ve been invited to sit at the kitchen table with Mommy and Grandma while Grandma keeps an eye on the turkey, and it’s not fair that he’s butting in. Just a minute ago the three of us were sitting alone at Grandma’s gray metal table with an African violet blooming on the side under the window, talking about how well I’m doing in junior high and how grown up I’m getting. I just turned twelve, and because I’m in seventh grade now I don’t have to wear my hair in braids any more. I’m really proud of the curls that Mommy gave me with the Toni home permanent kit.
“I don’t know why she insisted on having curls. I’ve always hated mine.” Mommy gives Grandma her what-am-I-going-to-do-with-her look. Grandma looks at me and twinkles her eyes without smiling so I know she likes my hair, but so she doesn’t make Mommy mad. Grandma’s look makes me brave and I talk back to Mommy just a little, “I’m the only one who didn’t have curls.” Which is how I convinced her to give me the permanent in the first place – Mommy, Daddy and all three boys have really curly hair. Mine is sort of wavy, but in a boring way. So now all three of us sit at this table with pretty curly hair, Grandma’s gray, Mommy’s black, and mine reddish brown.
Even though it’s just November, a plate of Grandma’s special Christmas gingerbread cookies sits in the middle of the table. I like the gingerbread men the best because they’re bigger than the trees and stars, so there’s more hard frosting and redhots and those hard little silver things to eat. I’ve had two already and may not ask for more.
Earlier I spotted the Red Riding Hood cookie jar that is my favorite thing in this house. It’s on the counter next to Grandma’s cool electric stove with buttons instead of knobs. I think I might be able to sneak a couple of cookies on my way to the bathroom when everyone is eating dinner in the dining room. I know I can get the lid off quietly, and the drawer she keeps the extra cookies in squeaks, so it will have to be the cookie jar or nothing.
I’m on the side of the table facing the back door and the covered porch filled with ferns and wool coats and crisp laundry smell. I’ve been watching the door, praying that Grandpa and Daddy won’t come in from Grandpa’s shop and end this special time. Mommy’s on the side facing the dining room so she can watch the boys in the parlor on the other side of the dining room, and Grandma sits across from the window, between us, closest to the oven. The air is full of turkey and pumpkin pie and the clean but old smell that is Grandma’s starchy kind of love.
Daddy says Grandma is that way, sort of stiff, because she’s German. Daddy is half German from Grandma and half Irish from Grandpa, so that means us kids are a quarter German and Irish, plus half of Mommy which is English, Welsh, German and Cherokee Indian. Mommy says it’s the German that makes Daddy and Grandma so stubborn. She says I’m stubborn, too, so I guess it must be the German in me.
I like Grandma, even though she scares me a little because Mommy says she was a mean mom to Daddy. She’s tiny like an elf and is the first grownup I ever knew with glasses. I really like the rhinestones in the pointy corners. She always buys me Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden books for my birthday, even though I don’t read little kid books like that any more. She talks to me like I’m a grownup, and she convinces Mommy to let me do things I never could do at home. “Joyce, let her have a sip of sherry. It’s Thanksgiving, and it won’t hurt her.” I even got my own little glass, a pretty crystal one, just like Mommy’s and Grandma’s. Sherry tastes really good, but not as good as gingerbread. I like how it makes me feel: warm and swooshy and big.
“Grandma, really, your Bible has a mistake in it. Come see.” I notice Frank is not looking at Mommy at all. Smart move, but I know she’ll get him when we get home.
“Let’s take a look, honey.” Grandma gets up to follow Frank through the curved doorway into the living room. Mommy doesn’t move, and when I start to get up, she looks at me hard. “Sit down. This is none of your business.” Her voice is angry, and I have no idea how I ended up in trouble. I feel a little mad back at her, but do what she says. Then she gets up without looking at me again, and goes after Grandma and Frank. I wait, consider the cookies, consider my sherry glass, consider how much trouble I’m going to be in if I get caught disobeying. Curiosity wins out, and I tiptoe through the doorway, past the formal cherry wood table and chairs, set with Grandma’s best linen and china and silver for dinner, into the living room.
Grandma and Frank are bent over the huge old Bible that came over from Ireland with Grandpa’s family. It’s a little funny that they’re almost the same height – two curly heads, one gray, one brown – side-by-side, but I’m careful not to laugh. Mommy has stopped at the edge of the living room. She’s always a little weird here because she doesn’t really like Grandma very much, but she’s always extra sweet to her no matter what. Now she looks really really mad. I hope she doesn’t turn around and see me standing right behind her because if she does I’ll be spanked and grounded even before we get home.
“Look, Grandma. In this family tree part. It says you and Grandpa had two children, Daddy and Aunt Bev. And then it says Bev married Gene and had Sherry and Ricky, and Daddy married Mommy and had Debbie and me and Mark and Geoff. But look. This date is wrong. How could Mommy and Daddy be married in 1953 when it says Debbie was born in 1951?”
“Oh, honey, let me see that. You’re so right. That is a mistake.”
Something feels wrong, although I can’t tell what. So God didn’t make a mistake, but apparently whoever wrote in the Bible did. Mommy stands so still, with both her beautiful hands smoothing the white flowery doily on the back of Grandma’s scratchy green rocking chair. She’s leaning so hard into the chair it tips forward a bit. Grandma goes back to the kitchen, and even though she has to walk right past me, doesn’t seem to see me at all.
She returns from the kitchen with a pen, stops under the large arch between the dining room and living room, and looks at Mommy. When I realize that I’m invisible to them both, I shiver a little bit. Frank doesn’t even notice their look, he’s so busy trying to find more mistakes, but for some reason it makes me scared. Mommy’s face doesn’t move, her eyes don’t blink, but her hands keep smoothing and smoothing. Grandma finally looks away and walks over to Frank and the Bible. Under his watchful eye, she carefully turns the three into a zero.
“There you go. You’re such a smart boy to find that mistake. I can’t imagine who put that wrong date in there. Come on, let’s get you a gingerbread man.”
photo by Jason Robb from Flickr
Monday, October 5, 2009
I seem to see red everywhere. As summer fades into fall and the turning begins, the color that stands out most this year is red. Autumn is my favorite season, has always been, and I anticipate and revel in its unique palette with the same enthusiasm as a quilter in a fabric store. I know fall colors. This red is not one I've ever seen before.
Friday, October 2, 2009
I have a friend, Deb, who once worked as a librarian. She also writes stories for children. Deb is passionate about books, and words, and teaching. We go to writing events together, and once a month we meet with Patty and Lou as a book group, as we have for more than ten years. When you first meet Deb you see a bright, quiet woman who listens well and speaks little. You might think, shy.