This is my mom with her first car.
Here she is with her most recent purchase. 🙂
This is my mom with her first car.
Here she is with her most recent purchase. 🙂
This will be the first in a series of 5 short articles.
Kathryn is my grandmother.
Above–her home in the 40s. She kept chickens out back.
She washes people’s clothes for money. She is a woman who works hard and seldom rests. She does not tolerate humor or fuss. About kidding around, “There’s a little bit of truth in every joke.” Meaning: jokes are hurtful. Barbed jabs meant to demean and humiliate. Laughter is a luxury. Feelings are downright obscene.
She is a force of will.
Grandma’s hair is yellowish white, faded from stress, time and negativity. She keeps it tight in a bun and hairnet. Her face is just as faded. Her beauty quickly spent on marriage, children and hard times.
She always wears a dress. Not a fancy frock, but a well-worn print. The only days she didn’t wear a dress were those spent in a factory during WW2.
She wears sensible shoes. Always. Black leather with a low heel. The kind that deform feet into fleshy, pink lobster claws.
She has a large, round nose and large, droopy Buddha-like lobes. Those ears have heard ten thousand centuries. Those earlobes were made for clip earrings. She has ten thousand clip earrings. Never wears them.
Hard, metallic eyes that saw her father’s mistreatment of her mother. Those dark beads saw his fortune taken away as well. She saw her comfortable childhood home revoked and replaced by a dirt-floor shed.
There’s a picture of her when she was 5. Small. Golden. Tiny, pursed lips. Serious. Head cocked. Like a dog listening to a child practice the clarinet. Droopy earlobe kissing the receiver of an old-fashioned candlestick phone. Impossible. I only knew her as a crinkled crank in her 80s.
A very handsome young girl. She marries in her teens. Only to quickly lose her husband’s farm to the tax collector. She rears 3 children through the Depression, Dust Bowl and war. She raises and kills chickens with her hands. She milks the cow (the one they could keep from the lost farm). She sews. She cleans (not well). She cooks.
She hardens; she resolves. She is determined to forbid fate from having its destructive way.
She works hard because she doesn’t know anything else. She works hard because she learned that you can’t rely on anyone except God and yourself. She works hard because that is her pathway to happiness.
She works hard because everyone is counting on her.
If I stop moving, I’ll die.
These are her lonely, driven thoughts. She is an ever-swimming, scarred-up shark who’s tired of the feeding frenzy and bloodbath.
She dies from heart failure.
Christmas is fleeting. All year long, we wait in anticipation of the holidays and then we complain the whole time. It’s too crowded, cold, busy, expensive, gluttonous, hurried. I didn’t get what I wanted. I gave everyone a present and now I’m broke and alone.
The spirit. The spirit of the holidays. The joy of Christmas. What is it? Is it lights? Is it cocoa? Is it candy, presents, cookies? Is it the promise and hope of magic? But it never comes. We wait all year and it never comes. And then the lights fade and the tinsel is taken down.
Christmas is temporary.
But it’s not. What is it we are waiting for? What is it that we miss every year and chase after time and again? It’s Christ. That’s what we are really looking for and we’re looking in the wrong places. Is it in this tin of cookies? Is it in this neatly-wrapped box? Is it at the bottom of my second cup of cocoa? Is it at my 2nd, 3rd, 7th Christmas karaoke party?
An entire season is dedicated to what started out as a celebration of giving and hope. Hundreds of years have come and gone, each renewing the tradition of Christmas. But each year some family grows further apart. Each year some person grows more jaded, cynical, greedy and Scrooge-like. Each year our eyes grow more narrow and short-sighted. Each year we try to chase our pleasure, fulfillment and that indescribable magic that only caught us as children because we were bright-eyed and open.
Years ago, at the Blue Ridge Mall, they had a display. I don’t remember now if it was all the time or just at Christmas, but I remember it at Christmas. We were in line for Santa and the line snaked by a huge oil fall. It’s a waterfall except they used oil on strings. It’s like a waterfall in slow motion. It was magical, beautiful and a wondrous summation of the holiday experience for me. I lost myself in the endless strings dripping with glowing, hypnotic oil. I felt warm, silly and excited. I drank in the luxury of it all as I waited for Santa. I don’t remember Santa exactly, but I remember the strings. I wanted to reach out and grab them. But instead I swallowed my fingers and excitement over and over again at simply being near them. At that point, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I remember Mom and Dad close by. I remember my siblings there too. I remember the sounds of cheerful shoppers as they shuffled by and their muffled packages swaying back and forth in their clasped hands. I remember the soft mall lighting and the quiet aromas of furniture, leather shoes, popcorn, clothing, carpet and mall food. I remember feeling safe, happy, joyful. The mood was love. And everyone felt it.
Now, I’ve begun a tradition with my family. We try to see Longview Lake Lights. We’ve been coming off and on for a few years now. And the best part. They have a field full of trees made from lights. Those are my favorite. They remind me of the oil fall. Delicate pearls of light suspended in the darkness, soft purple and blue, hanging on invisible strings melting into the night. For the last couple of years, it’s the most peaceful and the most child-like capture of innocence and wonder I’ve known. I’m five again. I’m eight again. I’m me before all the bad. I’m in Christmas up to my neck and in love with the world.
I wish I could take that with me. I wish I could visit the lights every night. But I can’t. The lights are even closer now that we live here, but even so, I can’t see them every night. But I can look for Christ. I can look for him every day and celebrate his birth. I don’t have to wait for “the day”. And I can try to capture his joy, his love, his intention, his gift every single moment, all year long. I can look for it as I drive, shop, eat and talk. I don’t have to wait all year and miss it. I can look and find it. I just have to be bright-eyed and open. His love is hanging right in front of our faces on an invisible string of light, dripping down and mesmerizing us with the delicate, graceful fall and we just have to reach out and grab it.
Merry Xmas! Happy Holidays! May you find many joys and love.
The week of Christmas.
Every year, on the Sunday before Christmas, we gather at my grandmother’s house and celebrate. Celebrate=eating and lazing about.
The house is cold and has funny smells. It’s an old, large house so the smells could be many things: the renters upstairs—smoking cigarettes and cooking on hot plates; the occupants downstairs—natural gas, human gas, perfume, stale cookies in the cookie jar, turkey, deviled eggs, homemade stuffing, unbathed elderly people, dirty children, unwashed crocheted afghans, well-worn rugs, mothballs, fake logs, fake trees, fake food. Even fake has a smell. “Guess the Smell” could have been a fun, family tradition. But it seems that fun was not the focus of these feasts. Kids, though, steal fun whenever they can.
My sister, my nephew (only a few months younger than me) and I ran from room to room, trying to find the fun. If any was to be had. Sometimes, our same-age cousins were there to horse around and magnify any fun-having. We normally played outside, played games, told jokes, made jokes or snooped around the tree room, looking for the presents with our names. I think it’s socks again. Tube socks.
I am sitting across from Cousin Julie. I was asked to sit. Otherwise, I would be swiping food or fun. I don’t know what to say. People think I’m shy, but I just really don’t know what to say. I feel uncomfortable to look at Julie. Not because she is repulsive to me, but because I am scared that I will stare and ask questions.
Julie has spina bifida. That means her spine is open. She was born that way. She has a wheelchair, which is cool. I would like to ride around in it. That seems like it would be fun, but you can’t do that when someone needs it. I want to ask, but I’m not supposed to ask those questions.
“How are you doing?” Julie asks. Julie is beautiful. No one else thinks so, but I do. She has soft, light brown hair, large eyes, large red lips and a sweet, smiling face. I’m not sure if Julie combs her own hair. I don’t know if she is capable of combing her own hair. Her shoulder-length bob is curled and shiny, but looks slightly bygone. Her mother must comb it.
She is so kind. She has on a cozy holiday sweater and plain, stiff skirt. She is slightly overweight, but so am I. She’s so different from my own family. My sister would never ask how I was. But in my mind, I can’t accept Julie. She’s different.
My family does not engage weakness, illness or difference. Julie was rolled into the family room and locked into place. The people who happened by are the only contact she has. There are older people sitting with her, talking to her, but she is not capable of finding the fun. The moments she steals are connection and kindness.
Why is Julie so happy? I am sad for her. Sad that she can’t run, play, hide, snoop. Sad that she only has old people talking at her. I am sad for Julie because I see that people treat her with sympathy. They approach her wheelchair as a casket. I do too because that is what I see. That is what I learn.
I want to play with her. These are my goals. But she doesn’t play. She can’t play. I want to know Julie, but I can’t ask any questions. But Julie is happy. I see it in her smile. She makes me feel cute. I silently squirm, answering questions when asked, until I am released to find the fun again. I want to understand how to discover Julie, but the desire fades as soon as I am freed.
I never know Julie. I never seek her out. She is gone before I graduate high school and her memories and ideas are lost. We lose her to ovarian cancer and her experiences are not shared with me. I love Julie. I am thankful for her tenderness and brief kindness. I understand now why Julie is happy. She is happy to be alive. She was taught to be nice.
when i was 14 or 15. i can’t remember exactly. but i was with my friend. Girl (i will call her). she was cool. she accepted me for whatever i was and i think she just appreciated me for being nice and understanding. most people looked at her as poor, white trash. or a slut. she was friendly, outgoing and immediately liked by boys. she had a slim figure and a pleasant smile. she knew how to flirt, but probably because she had been sexually abused. she had a boyfriend, and as far as i knew, was never unfaithful to him. he protected her. and she loved him for that.
my sister, my own sister…told me to stay away from Girl. “Why???” I asked. there was only a shoulder shrug and another head shake of no, telling me to stay away from her. funny, i would rather hang out with Girl than my own sister, that’s for sure. and i wasn’t going to take any advice from my sister who had her own questionable relationships with people of ill repute. whatever! can you say whatever and repute together? that sounds stupid, huh?
so, Girl and i hung out. those were fun times.
i never knew though. i never knew in all the time that we hung out that she was being abused. i was being abused too. physically. verbally. but i didn’t tell anyone. i guess she was the same.
when i tried to kill myself, she was there for me. she comforted me as much as another teen can. and when she had problems, i tried to be there for her. at least to listen. but there were things that she didn’t tell me. those were the real things that mattered. and she didn’t share them. there was too much shame in what she had to tell me. i might have seen her in a different light. that’s what she feared. but i wouldn’t have. i really wouldn’t have. i would have fiercely protected her, as her boyfriend did. and i would have gotten her the hell out. Boyfriend must have known. and he loved her anyway. something in him loved her brokenness. he had probably seen it before in his own family.
but we did get her the hell out. eventually.
a day like any other day that i got to hang out with Girl, we went to the mall. i think. i can’t remember now. we went somewhere to hang out. mall, movies, something. and then we came home. we went with Boyfriend. someone other than our parents took us because when we came back, we stayed at Boyfriend’s house. hung out, ate snacks, smoked cigarettes (not me), and drank pop. Boyfriend’s mom was not home and that was the holy grail of hangouts. no parents! there was another boy there. someone from school who would never speak to me at school, but was willing to be kind in this environment. it was a fun time. just talking and being cool teenagers. but then things went bad really quickly.
as the evening came and darkness rose, Girl started talking about leaving. leaving and running away from home. i had heard this before from other friends, so i figured it was because her mother did not approve of Boyfriend. i didn’t realize it was to escape the abuse. she knew all day that today would be the day that she ran away, but she didn’t let on til now. she started talking about how her stepdad had sexually abused her. she said these things in front of the other boy.
my mind was exploding in anger, shock and repulsion. this is a man that i sat at a breakfast table with, that i was polite to, a man that i respected because he was the head of the house. had i known, i would have told someone, hounded someone, punched this worthless human being in the nose. i was bigger than him at 15 and 5’9″. and he was a puny, little pervert. or i could have just hit him over the head with a frying pan in his sleep. a girl can dream.
or i could have simply stood up for my friend when her mother wouldn’t stop contacting him. i could have NOT encouraged Girl to see and reconcile with her stepdad after he had to leave the house because he was abusing the other girls too. i actually encouraged her to see him. being a Xian and knowing the power of forgiveness, i told her to see her stepdad when he tried to make amends. she really didn’t want to. but i didn’t know about the abuse. NOW i understand! i thought she was just being stubborn. if i had known what he was doing, i would never have told her to see him, speak to him, ever have contact with him.
but i didn’t say a word in Boyfriend’s living room when she told me about the abuse. and when she asked me, “you knew didn’t you?” i just nodded my head yes. i couldn’t speak. why??? why didn’t i scream, “NO! you never told me! how could i know??!” but i nodded yes. that must have broken her heart. because now she thought i was another person who knew and didn’t do anything. but i was too afraid to make her say any more about the abuse. i could tell that she wanted to stop talking about this subject that she brought up. she was simply trying to justify to us and the other boy why she was leaving and why we should help her. no justification needed.
we stopped talking altogether. we started preparing for her to leave. our good time came to a close. we started helping her get things together, we all understood, there was no going back. we were all in. the other boy left.
finally, after talking about a plan and believable lies, we were downstairs and ready to leave. then. there was a knock at the door. Girl panicked. she thought it might be her stepdad looking for her. she was right.
Boyfriend went to the door. to make up another lie about Girl and where she might be. Girl and i hid downstairs in the garage behind a car. she was that scared. she knew if she was discovered, that would mean going back to this hell of a life and not making it out. we hid in silence and i prayed that this horrible man would believe the lie and go away without further incident. i prayed for a lie. that feels weird to type. but he did go away. without further incident.
Girl and Boyfriend got in his truck, i said my goodbyes and they drove away. then i walked down to her house, just 2 houses away. the plan was to tell Stepdad and Mom, Girl ran away. that Girl and another person that wasn’t Boyfriend had dropped me off. that i walked home by myself. that they didn’t tell me where they were going and that i didn’t see where they headed other than out of the neighborhood. half truth, half lie. i lied. to protect her. and they believed me.
i was in tears when i said these words. so the tears made it seem like truth. but i was crying for the whole mess. being in the presence of this monster. looking at him and pretending that i didn’t know what he did. how he touched all the girls. crying because i lied to my mother. she was there when i told Girl’s parents the lie.
Girl and I had been missing for hours and my mother was very worried. i told her the truth later that night, after we left Girl’s house. she didn’t rat us out.
i cried for not knowing. for not protecting my friend. for living a day of lies. i never saw that house again. or those people.
i never saw Girl again. she never came back to school. she made it out. i hope.
I hear the buzz phrase, “Your past does not define you.” Even I thought this sounded like a good mantra. At first. I might have even said it a few times. But, my past DOES define me. For better or worse.
Running from your past is like that old saying, “Going nowhere in a hurry.” You can’t forward your future until you address the past.
I grew up poor. Near a small town, in the country on 20 acres, graduated from a class of 65 people.
Maybe not poor. Maybe just so far in debt that I had to choose between difficult things. And, I didn’t wear name brand clothes. My mom made most of my clothes by hand. That, at least, put me in a different category.
Other category pushers:
My father was emotionally and physically (infrequently) abusive. I was overweight (of course). Often teased. Often at the bottom of some chaotic, emotional barrel of feelings. Struggling to have a voice of any kind in a farm community full of rednecks and intellectual infants. I was (am) a girl/woman (not always a plus).
These things define me. They are my etymological birth. The source of all my words. I can write today because of what happened or didn’t happen in the past. I thank God for my past.
My whole youth can be summed up as the jump ball for the tip off of my adulthood/writing career. A frantic scrambling to find my voice in the elbows and sweaty armpits of rural America.
Now, I am free-throwing and making it swish from the top of the key. Thank God I had to scramble.
I lost my voice, the strength of it anyway, a coupla years ago when I had my thyroid removed. They cut through muscles and nerves to get through to the organ. It can effect your vocal cords. I was hoarse and genteel for months. Totally unlike me.
From a young age, I have been identified as the loud laugher, talker, whiner, live-r. When others tittered, I guffawed. When others whispered, I announced. When others went about their feelings in a shy, reserved way, I emoted all over the place.
So. To be made relatively mute for months on end? THAT was a struggle.
I joined a local community theatre production, even when my voice wasn’t fully healed, to exercise the shit out of said vocal cords. I struggled again, this time for my literal voice.
I honestly thought my voice was ruined. I had no volume and no ability to inflect. But it came. My voice emerged. I rebuilt my annoying, distinctive, loud, full-flavored signature.
But that’s what I was doing all those years ago. Fighting for air, time, attention, my voice. I certainly found it by exercising my mind. Flexing my writing muscles. Clearing my thoughts. Coughing up all the bad stuff to get to the sweet, well-trained music of good writing.
If you met me in person, you might think, she’s pretty tame, dull, quiet, shy. But that’s just the surface. That’s just the public wall that’s been graffiti’d by others. There’s a garden behind those gates. A well-tended garden kept by me. Plunking away at the keyboard, digging out rows, mining for richness, turning up the past. Seeds of words flowering into thoughts, emotions and ideas–volumes of deep-rooted life. This is my courtyard. The sign says WELCOME.
You have to push past that gate. Be patient enough to know me.
Welcome to my past. It defines me. All that you read here is real, honest, beautiful. Though some starts out as dirt, hurt and manure.
My dad was dying. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was would be gone within two months. He had end-stage lung cancer and could no longer drive. So I had to cart him around. Which he hated. So did I.
He’d lost all autonomy and that was hard for him. A fiercely independent, strongly opinionated man. He couldn’t even decide to go home from the hospital at his leisure. He wanted to die in his own bed. He finally got his wish.
One day, we were taking the interstate home and I was dutifully going the speed limit. I was afraid if I went over the limit, Dad would say something. Criticize me. He did anyway.
“You need to speed up. Move with the traffic.”
At the time, I was extremely annoyed, but all I could mumble was, “Sorry.” And I put the pedal to the floor.
There, Old Man.
“Why do you have to find fault with me in everything I do?” I wondered.
Too fast, too slow. Too lazy. Too everything you think I shouldn’t be. But your sick. So I’ll just keep quiet and take it.
But today, when I remembered his nudge (I still think about and remember these things, ugh), I thought, “Thanks, Dad. Good advice.”
I drive for a living now. All I have is time in the car to think about things, past and present. Too much time, perhaps. It’s like all the thoughts you ever have when you’re working out and in the zone.
I’m a very good driver. I pay attention and know a thing or two about cars, thanks to my father. He was a mechanic by trade. He taught me how to take care of a vehicle, inside and out, and how to drive one.
I know why I was so sensitive at the time. Any opportunity my parents had to correct me was unwelcome and resented. They behaved in ways that grownups shouldn’t: fighting, engaging in unfair behavior, inconsistency, neglect. They were normal parents from the 80s.
Who are you to tell me anything??
And I held them accountable with my teenage indignation. Except, it didn’t help and I was just as wrong. Even if I was totally justified in rebuking their correction, they were still my parents. And they were, on the whole, usually right. Or steering me in the right direction.
I’m 44 now and much more confident about who I am and how well I drive. I’m well-adjusted and have worked through most of my past. I take criticism, for the most part, in stride now (thanks to mandatory art school critiques). 😉
Today I’ll just say, “Thanks, Dad. You were right.”
I miss my dad. I mourn all the years I lost to his mental and physical illness. But I also mourn all the years I lost growing up without him or knowing him as an adult.
He never saw my daughter. I know he would have been proud of the job I did/am doing with her. I wish he could have held her, heard her, helped her. But it was enough that he ever did that with me. I can only remember a handful of times, but it was enough.
I forgive you and I’m sorry, Dad.
Parked out back
Rusted out truck
Pushin’ up peonies
Forgotten or stuck
Ain’t goin’, nothin’ doin’
Just sittin’ there now
It’s a bed for crickets
Scratchin’ post for Cow
I wish you were my bed again
Sleepin’ under the stars
Takin’ me every place
Like a string of old boxcars
We wouldn’t have to go
Never turn those tires
I’d simply think of where
And you would spark those fires
Like a child, grip the wheel
Dream of great, big skies
Visit the past, where we find at last,
The vast wonder of wandering lies
Curl up cozy on your smooth, old lap
Smell of well-worn leather
Rolled-up, dusty blanket
When we’re in for colder weather
I hear you callin’, askin’ me,
“Honey, where you been?”
It’s not that I haven’t wanted to play
I really do miss you, Friend
Why am I in the cabinet? LOL
1974. I am willingly sitting in the cabinet. Under the stove, from the looks of it. I think this is where the Cheetos were kept.
This is my favorite place to sit. Hide. Eat. Play.
Some days I wish I could go back there and shut the door.
How could anyone be mean to little ol’ Me?
Plastic lids and drooling kids.
Baby blues and blondie ‘dos.
Slack-jawed, already flawed.
Only 1 year. How’d I get here?
Shut the door, please!
More from Vol. 2 of Present Tense
My mother and father have lost the will to parent. I am sitting in a dark movie theatre with Mom, Dad and my sister. I am five, almost six.
Oh, God. That man’s face has just been attacked by an octopus egg.
Oh, God. The android’s head is decapitated from his body and milky fluid is shooting out from his neck.
I am screaming. I am crying. I am being ushered quickly to the lobby by my mother.
The synopsis of this movie may be slightly inaccurate. It’s what I remember and the impression that remains.
I lived through what seemed like a very real threat of nuclear annihilation during the height of the Cold War and was constantly worried about being microwaved to oblivion by a nuke. These movie nights and paranoid world destruction fantasies could be considered the bright, sunny moments of my childhood with an abusive father. My prayer, as I got older, became this: