Tuesday, December 02, 2014

We aint got money, honey, but we got rain: Charles Bukowski

We Ain't Got No Money, Honey, But We Got Rain by Charles Bukowski
call it the greenhouse effect or whatever
but it just doesn't rain like it used to.
I particularly remember the rains of the
depression era.
there wasn't any money but there was
plenty of rain.
it wouldn't rain for just a night or
a day,
it would RAIN for 7 days and 7
nights
and in Los Angeles the storm drains
weren't built to carry off taht much
water
and the rain came down THICK and
MEAN and
STEADY
and you HEARD it banging against
the roofs and into the ground
waterfalls of it came down
from roofs
and there was HAIL
big ROCKS OF ICE
bombing
exploding smashing into things
and the rain
just wouldn't
STOP
and all the roofs leaked-
dishpans,
cooking pots
were placed all about;
they dripped loudly
and had to be emptied
again and
again.
the rain came up over the street curbings,
across the lawns, climbed up the steps and
entered the houses.
there were mops and bathroom towels,
and the rain often came up through the
toilets:bubbling, brown, crazy,whirling,
and all the old cars stood in the streets,
cars that had problems starting on a
sunny day,
and the jobless men stood
looking out the windows
at the old machines dying
like living things out there.
the jobless men,
failures in a failing time
were imprisoned in their houses with their
wives and children
and their
pets.
the pets refused to go out
and left their waste in
strange places.
the jobless men went mad
confined with
their once beautiful wives.
there were terrible arguments
as notices of foreclosure
fell into the mailbox.
rain and hail, cans of beans,
bread without butter;fried
eggs, boiled eggs, poached
eggs; peanut butter
sandwiches, and an invisible
chicken in every pot.
my father, never a good man
at best, beat my mother
when it rained
as I threw myself
between them,
the legs, the knees, the
screams
until they
seperated.
"I'll kill you," I screamed
at him. "You hit her again
and I'll kill you!"
"Get that son-of-a-bitching
kid out of here!"
"no, Henry, you stay with
your mother!"
all the households were under
seige but I believe that ours
held more terror than the
average.
and at night
as we attempted to sleep
the rains still came down
and it was in bed
in the dark
watching the moon against
the scarred window
so bravely
holding out
most of the rain,
I thought of Noah and the
Ark
and I thought, it has come
again.
we all thought
that.
and then, at once, it would
stop.
and it always seemed to
stop
around 5 or 6 a.m.,
peaceful then,
but not an exact silence
because things continued to
drip
drip
drip


and there was no smog then
and by 8 a.m.
there was a
blazing yellow sunlight,
Van Gogh yellow-
crazy, blinding!
and then
the roof drains
relieved of the rush of
water
began to expand in the warmth:
PANG!PANG!PANG!
and everybody got up and looked outside
and there were all the lawns
still soaked
greener than green will ever
be
and there were birds
on the lawn
CHIRPING like mad,
they hadn't eaten decently
for 7 days and 7 nights
and they were weary of
berries
and
they waited as the worms
rose to the top,
half drowned worms.
the birds plucked them
up
and gobbled them
down;there were
blackbirds and sparrows.
the blackbirds tried to
drive the sparrows off
but the sparrows,
maddened with hunger,
smaller and quicker,
got their
due.
the men stood on their porches
smoking cigarettes,
now knowing
they'd have to go out
there
to look for that job
that probably wasn't
there, to start that car
that probably wouldn't
start.
and the once beautiful
wives
stood in their bathrooms
combing their hair,
applying makeup,
trying to put their world back
together again,
trying to forget that
awful sadness that
gripped them,
wondering what they could
fix for
breakfast.
and on the radio
we were told that
school was now
open.
and
soon
there I was
on the way to school,
massive puddles in the
street,
the sun like a new
world,
my parents back in that
house,
I arrived at my classroom
on time.
Mrs. Sorenson greeted us
with, "we won't have our
usual recess, the grounds
are too wet."
"AW!" most of the boys
went.
"but we are going to do
something special at
recess," she went on,
"and it will be
fun!"
well, we all wondered
what that would
be
and the two hour wait
seemed a long time
as Mrs.Sorenson
went about
teaching her
lessons.
I looked at the little
girls, they looked so
pretty and clean and
alert,
they sat still and
straight
and their hair was
beautiful
in the California
sunshine.
the the recess bells rang
and we all waited for the
fun.
then Mrs. Sorenson told us:
"now, what we are going to
do is we are going to tell
each other what we did
during the rainstorm!
we'll begin in the front row
and go right around!
now, Michael, you're first!. . ."
well, we all began to tell
our stories, Michael began
and it went on and on,
and soon we realized that
we were all lying, not
exactly lying but mostly
lying and some of the boys
began to snicker and some
of the girls began to give
them dirty looks and
Mrs.Sorenson said,
"all right! I demand a
modicum of silence
here!
I am interested in what
you did
during the rainstorm
even if you
aren't!"
so we had to tell our
stories and they were
stories.
one girl said that
when the rainbow first
came
she saw God's face
at the end of it.
only she didn't say which end.
one boy said he stuck
his fishing pole
out the window
and caught a little
fish
and fed it to his
cat.
almost everybody told
a lie.
the truth was just
too awful and
embarassing to tell.
then the bell rang
and recess was
over.
"thank you," said Mrs.
Sorenson, "that was very
nice.
and tomorrow the grounds
will be dry
and we will put them
to use
again."
most of the boys
cheered
and the little girls
sat very straight and
still,
looking so pretty and
clean and
alert,
their hair beautiful in a sunshine that
the world might never see
again.
and

Thursday, August 21, 2014

curly hair, People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck

Recently, hot curlers popped into my thoughts. Do people still use hot curlers?

As a child, my mom was determined that I have curly hair. She put my hair in bobbie pins every night, before electric hot curlers and curling irons (do they still exist too?!!) were around. At least around our world in Irish Southside Chicago. Every single night, I had to stil on the floor in front of my mom and let her pins tight curls in my hair.  Every morning, she pulled out the pins, criticized me if any had loosened in the night and styled my curls.

The curls would not last until I had walked the few blocks to school. I moaned, groaned, begged and pleaded to escape mom's determination that I have curly hair but she never relented.

The habit became so ingrained in me that by high school, I put my hair in curlers, altho not yet electric ones, every single night. Again, the curls would have fallen apart by the time I go to the bus stop, not even lasting until I got to school.

Then hot curlers, the kind that came in boxes, each roller sitting on a hot tiny stick that heated the curlers, which, presumably, held more metal. Those curls would last awhile.

In M. Scott Peck's book, People of the Lie, in which he posits his theory that evil should be a psychiatric diagnosis instead of a judgment on a damaged, supposedly 'evil' person's values and morals.  I like the idea of seeing evil as an illness and not a state of being.

I bought and read People of the Lie because I had gotten a lot out of Peck's book, The Road Less Traveled.  I didn't really know what it was about. Once I started reading it, I read it straight through, staying up all night, in spite of the fact that I had a child to get to day care the next morning and a court appearance to get to by 9. I could not put the book down.

At the time, I was in the midst of an ugly custody battle from a physically and intensely emotionally abusive man. Our PhD marriage counselor said my wasband was the cruelest person he had ever met. He said "Most people have a certain threshold beneath which they will not sink. As far as I can tell, and I have been a psychologist 20+ years, this is the cruelest person I have ever met. He seems to have no threshold. He has done things to Tree that I have had a hard time believing but which definitely were true."

You better believe a book about evil kept me up all night. It was like reading my life.

It took some years before I associated some of Peck's anecdotes with my parents.

Note:  I have not read the book since 1983 but I remember it vividly. One of the saddest anecdotes was the story of a little girl born with blonde hair to an Italian mother. Her mother dyed the child's hair black throughout her childhood because the mother had wanted a dark-haired Italian daughter. That mother ignored who her child was and tried to impose a different persona on her.

Another example I will never be able to forget:  Peck once treated a teenager, not the parents, of a boy whose brother had committed suicide with a shotgun that the parents had given the brother for Christmas. The next Christmas, the parents gave the same shotgun that Peck's patient's brother had used to kill himself to the son.

Dying a blonde haired girl's hair black throughout her childhood is evil, in Peck's view. Giving your one surviving son the shotgun his brother used to kill himself as a Christmas gift is evil.

Something was wrong with my mom. All her children were very damaged by her.  For a long time, I thought I was the only one she was cruel to, for I was the only girl until I was fourteen and my sister was born. I thought my sister got favoritism as the baby in the family. And my sister did get treated a bit better than me. But I gradually learned my sister also felt mom had been emotionally abusive. All my siblings feel that way.

And my mom, I totally believe, did not wish to be so hurtful to her children. Like just about all parents, my mom wanted to do her best for us. She did do her best. Her best sucked.

Shaming me my whole childhood for having straight hair may not have been evil but it dismissed who I was.

Mom also took me to get permanents a couple times, in her relentless quest that I have curly hair as she had. Mom's hair was softly wavy, not tightly curly. And mom wanted my hair to look like hers.

My hair is straight as a stick. So is my daughter's.  My daughter doesn't look much like me. When we used to be seen together, more than a few people asked me if she was adopted because she does not look like me. She got my very straight hair but she is a brunette. She got her coloring from her dad:  big, dark brown eyes, a light olive complexion that tans well, as opposed to my Irish light tone that burns burns burns.

The curly permanents literally washed out of my hair. After the first fail, the beauty shop gave me a second permanent. When that one washed out of my hair, which was too fine to hold the chemicals, the shop refunded mom's money and refused to try again.

The beauty shop accepted that I was not destined to have curly hair. My mom never did.

I am wondering, just now, if mom's curly hair obsession is analogous to that woman who dyed her blonde daughter's hair black.

What did Peck say?  he said that people of the lie, people sick in darkness/evil, can be surprisingly unfeeling, unaware of the darkness of their behavior. He talked to the parents who gave their livng son the same shotgun his brothe had used to kill himself and those parents could not grasp what might be wrong with having given their surviving son that shotgun. The Italian mama who dyed her blonde daughter's hair black throughout her childhood could not grasp what was wrong with doing that.

I know, for certain, that my mom never wished to harm me. Well, except for the time when she pretty much lost her mind and brutally beat me 100 times with my father's leather belt.

I see that my writing skills are improving. Altho I had not edited what I have written here I see instantly what I should edit out, see how I lose the thread of my piece, take to many side paths and diminish the power of my story.

Was my mom evil?  Only in the sense Peck used the word evil. She was sick.

Growing up with such a damaged mother, I seem to have failed to develop, until now, radar to detect people who are heedlessly unkind to me for no discernible reason. And, until fairly recently, such people would be the ones I would become desparate to earn their love and approval. If someone was angrily abusive to me, their anger was like a gravitational pull, compelling me to dance like a circus pony hoping to win their approval. And such people are always delightfully charming. If I were a devil, I would be very charming.

Lucifer, after all, entices humans into sin with light. Lucifer is all charming delight until you are enthrall to him and then he hurts you. That Broadway play, 'Damm Yankees' captured the lightness of Lucifer's lure brilliantly. My sister once played Lola in a high school production of that play, so I have read it and watched the film, supporting her vicariously.  I remind anyone reading:  Lucifer makes a delightful, enticing, seemingly light-filled offer to the ballplayer who wants to win a World Series. Lucifer promises him he can win a World Series but then his soul will belong to Lucifer. And Lucifer enchants also with the 'light' of Lola's sexy luring.  Lola is part of the 'light' Lucifer uses to get that ballplayer to sell his soul.

Many people sell their souls to evil, although not in overtly negotiated contracts.  Oh no.  Humans slide into darkness one small step at a time, one angry outburst, one blast of verbal abuse. Step by step.

I have been in thrall to darkness a few times. I think I have finally figured out how to avoid darkness or evil. Kindness. Compassion.  Empathy.

And most importantly, at least for me:  I never, ever forget that how other people behave is never about me. Never.

I am kind and good. Trust me to be kind and good and I am. Filter me through a lens of negative expectations and I falter. I make mistakes. I lose touch with my goodness and slip and slide in the slime of darkness, of evil.

I do not use the world evil here the way most people think of evil. I use it to indicate some darkness in a person that crops up in how they behave towards others, towards me. If anyone ever treats me with disregard of my feelings, wants or needs, I consider that darkness. Or evil. And I flee.

Fortunately, once I earned this understanding, my whole world shifted. Light started streaming into my life. New friends. Love. Kindness.

I think I will always be vulnerable to Luciferic charm. I pray I have learned some lessons that have staying power.

I was glad those permanents washed out of my hair.  I never wanted to have curly hair.




Wednesday, August 13, 2014

the time my grandma bought her first pair of tennis shoes

I was staying with my maternal grandparents for several weeks, the only grandchild for that period of time. An aunt and uncle, with cousin, had driven me from Chicago to South Dakota. I got to stay alone with my grandparents a few weeks and then my mother would come to visit, bringing my brothers.

It was the only time, other than my last visit to her when she was dying and I was a young adult, that I got to visit my grandma all alone. Grandpa was there but my maternal grandpa completely ignored children.  This was a big deal treat, to spend a few weeks with my grandma.

This special visit happened, maybe, around 1960. My grandmother had always worn black tie shoes with a small heel that lifted her a tiny bit. Grandma shoes. Sensible. Good arch support. Ugly, at least to my eyes.  My mom was always trying to make me select sensible shoes that I would reject, turning up my nose and saying "Uck, those are grandma shoes." She would say "Your grandmother wears them. They will last a long time and you are hard on your shoes."  "Grandmas wear them. You don't. I won't."  We had that little exchange pretty much every time my mother bought me new shoes, forced to do so because, dang it, my feet had grown again.

I have always been an intense letter writer. Before I learned how to write, I used to write pretend letters, scribbling on lines up and down the page, pretending I was writing. And in my mind, I was telling stories, writing real letters. I knew no one could read my scribbles. I couldn't wait until I could write.

Once I learned how to write, I wrote to every distant relative I had, which were not many. Everyone from my dad's side of the family lived in Chicagoland. Although I did maintain a correspondence with my Chicago grandpa, who lived just across town, throughout my childhood. He always answered, very briefly. His answers were the excuse I needed to write again. I might have written, Dear Grandpa, Today me and Tammy (my best friend that he knew all about) and I played dress up.

When I was staying at grandma's, I wrote letters to my parents in Chicago. I wrote and told them grandpa had bought a pair of tennis shoes at the dime store.  I can still see those tennis shoes. They were navy blue, with white laces and a white band around the bottom. Very basic. Not well shaped atheletic shoes like today.  Grandma said she bought them because they were cheap and she would cut holes in each one for her corns. And she did. And she wore them the rest of that summer. Tennis shoes were newish, at least new for the middle class. They had not always been in the dime store. And there was no such thing as an athletic shoe store in those days. Mitchell had a JCPenneys but grandma mostly shopped at the five and dime. Cheaper she said. And, yes, my grandma was cheap.

I have always been a truthteller.

Yet my mom wrote back, "Good heavens, you have a wild imagination. Your grandmother would never buy tennis shoes."

I was hurt that my mom disbelieved me.  I wrote back to her and said "She did, honest." And I described them.

When mom arrived to claim me, and visit her parents, the first thing she said getting out of the car was "I want to see if your grandmother really bought tennis shoes."

Of course she had. She was wearing them, the holes on the side cut out for her corns.

Grandma did not wear them out in the world. Only at home. And maybe a run to the grocery store.

My grandma Joy did not have a cool bone in her body. She wore old lady dresses, old lady shoes and old lady hats. She was really into her hats. She had quite a collection, spanning most of the 20th Century. When she did, her daughters, including my mom, donated them to the local college's theater department for costumes. I was disappointed that they did that. I would have loved to have had her hats.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

a long, warm robe for college

I had a part time job at a local branch of the Chicago Public Library in high school. I loved that job. The work was much easier than being at home and doing all the family's housework, cooking and ironing. And I got paid at the library.

Since I earned money, however, my mom announced that I had to pay my own Catholic high school tuition. Almost all my money went to paying that tuition bill. I would go into the office after each pay day and slowly pay it down each year, plus I worked in the cafeteria at lunch to reduce my bill.

My mom also completely stopped paying for anything I needed. If I wanted new clothes, I had to buy them.

I had thought my part time job in high school would allow me to save for college. Nope. Mom said that I was helping her finish college and she would then help me pay for college when she got a job with her diploma. I was in my forties before I realized that mom had been motivated to finish college before I left for college, something she said a million times during my high school years, was because when her slave left for college, she would be in a jam. Mom did not believe in giving her sons any of the households chores she gave me. Housework, babysitting and cooking was girl work. My brothers only had to take out the trash. My four brothers only had to take out the trash.  And help with the dishes. I tried to make the case for letting me out of doing dishes if I cooked dinner but mom said that would upset my brothers, seem unfair. Unfair?!

I didn't need a lot of clothes because I wore a uniform to school. I did need some, however. And it was a constant struggle to pay my tuition and find money to buy some clothes. I actually sewed a lot of my clothes in h.s. I didn't do it because I liked sewing. I did it because it stretched my dollars further. And, oh yeah, I would do this sewing surrounded by my baby sister, my two toddler brothers and dinner on the stove needing me to keep an eye on it.

Mom said she was not using me, that families pulled together. I once remarked that why didn't my brothers have to pull together as much as me. My mom considered that remark sass. If you sassed my mom, you were punished. She couldn't give me more household work cause I was responsible for all of it, unless dad was home on the weekends. My dad helped out.  I wonder, seriously, what my mom did al the time. Well, she went to college, had a part time job to pay her tuition and had to study, which she must have done on campus for I never saw her studying at home. Still, what did she do?

Gosh, I have veered off course so far.

In my senior year, I focussed all year on getting things I imagined I needed for living in a college dorm. I saved up to buy a hairdryer to take with me. And bought few things. I began college in 1971 when wearing Levi male jeans from The Gap, which only sold male clothing when it first opened, at least where I lived and t-shirts was standard college fashion so I didn't need to buy many clothes for college.

I obsessed about having a warm, quilted robe for the dorm. It had to be floor length. And it had to be quilted. I don't remember why I was focussed on floor length and quilted. I just was.

I remember exactly what i paid for the robe I finally scraped the money together to buy. Thirty bucks plus tax. And I remember very specifically asking my mom not to wash my new robe. She had a tendency to toss things into the washer a bit carelessly in her desire to not waste water on a less than full load. For some reason, mom always did the laundry. I just ironed. And for some reason, I asked her not to wash my new robe because it said, on the care label, to not dry in a dryer. I told all this to my mom.

My mom never paid much attention to me, unless I had not finished her chores.

Now I believe m mom was very unhappy and she focussed much of her unhappiness on me because, until I was fourteen, I was her only daughter. When I was born in 1953, women had less options than they have now.  My mom had me in South Dakota. In my childhood, she said she had me in South Dakota to be near her mother, for my grandmother to help her with my 1.5 year old brother. It wasn't until I was married and a mother that I learned mom had me in South Dakota because she wanted to leave my dad and sought her parents help. In 1953, a college drop out woman with two babies had few options. There weren't daycare centers like now. And then in 1954, eleven month exactly after I was born and 9 months ezactly after mom returned to our father in Chicago, my Irish twin brother was born, also in South Dakota.

Both times, my grandparents said it would be a sin to help my mom break the Catholic sacrament of marriage.

Now I have empathy for my mom.  Now I remember that in my senior year of high school, with my mom cracking down hard on me to pay for everything, she was saving up to pay her divorce lawyer and moving company. She did not tell her children she had filed for divorce. I think part of the secrecy was related to keeping me working for her so hard and part of it was dysfunction. And my dad could have told us. He later said he didn't tell because he never believed she'd go through with it. He said he thought she filed to get him to straighten up. Man, I didn't learn what dad needed to straighten up until my daughter was born. My dad was a compulsive gambler and sometimes gambled away his paycheck, leaving my mom struggling to feed a family of 8.

Now I understand why mom made me use all my part time job money on what I needed. She didn't have money to give me but she hid dad's gambling, the elephant in our living room. And, as children too often do, I blamed my mom for just about everything. Why are kids so hard on their moms?

Of course mom ruined my brand new robe for college. I had never worn it. I was going to wash it, to wash off the sizing put on new clothes so they look their best in the shops and then save it for corm life.

My mom must have been overwhelmed to have ruined that robe.

She did give me money to buy a new one.  I bought the exact same one and used it happily for many years. It zipped up the front, had big pockets and was perfect for hanging out in the dorm study rooms, the dorm lounges and my room.  She apologized and admitted she had been wrong to ignore my request that she not wash it. She had been trying to fill a load so as to not waste water.

I get that now.  I get so many things.

What I don't get, and I am not sure I ever can get it, is how to take care of myself instead of putting too much energy into taking care of others.  I was raised to focus on other needs. I was vividly alert to both my parents moods, which were always labile and easily inflammatory.  I did everything I could to antipcate both parents' needs to try and avoid blow ups. I didn't know about the gambling. I didn't know about the many times my mom turned to my dad's father to ask for money to feed her children.  now that I know about mom asking grandpa for money, and knowing my mom as I did, it would hve cost her dearly to have to ask for money from grandpa. Fortunately my grandpa was very kind. Fortunately he knew aobut dad's addiction.

Boring, moping story, eh?

Funny, I have no memory of slipers for dorm life. I must have had slipopers. Rights?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sister Francesca

Nowadays, I think many Catholic nuns use their real names. When I was a child going to Catholic grammar school, all the nuns, at least in the order at my school, chose new names when they became nuns. Many of them chose the names of male saints, like Sister Mary David or Sister Jerome Marie. They liked to honor the Blessed Virgin, I guess, but also liked the chops of a male saint's name.

Sister Francesca was my older brother's second grade teacher. I had little interaction with her. I believe most of the nuns were aware of me because starting in the second grade, all the way through eighth grade, I stayed after school every day to clean, then prepare the altar for the next day's masses.  When I became tall enough, I also helped lay out the vestments for each priest who would be saying a mass the next day. The vestments had to be laid out in an elaborately precise way, placed with the last thing the priest would put on on the bottom and the first things he put on on top. They had to look beautiful and the beautiful layout gave me a sense of reverence. Sister Mary David explained to me that all the vestments had been blessed so I should treat them as blessed things. I learned the names and meaning of the ritual vestments under the robes people see at mass. Cords, belts, strings, layers. I don't remember any of the official names now. At  the time, I treated each item with the reverence due things that were not only blessed but used by priests. Near as I could tell, all the nuns revered all the priests.  Everybody I knew revered the priests.  Everyone I knew was Catholic and, for the most part, of Irish descent.

Sidebar:  my gay baby brother also grew up going to Catholic school, and was an altar boy, as all my brothers were.  Now Dave gets a good laugh when he remarks that he was a twink from the day he was born, around priests daily when he was an altar boy and no priest ever hit on him. Not one. Then he laughs his radiant, light-up-the-world laugh. And if you hear him say this, you laugh too. And you think, or, rather, I think, "I am so glad no pervie priest got my baby brother." 

For a few summers, when my mom was bullying me to become a nun and she had told the nuns at school I was going to be a nun, mom actually made me go to summer mass every day of summer vacation that I was in Chicago. During the summer, there was only one daily mass, at 7:30. And typically, only the nuns, who all went to mass together at the 7:30 mass, with weekday masses being quickies compared to Sunday. No sermon on weekdays.  The nuns invited me sit with them,  so I had to, being too shy to say no, especially to nuns. The nuns were supporting my vocation.

The whole parish knew about my putative vocation. Sometimes at Sunday mass, my vocation would be one of the things everyone at mass would be asked to pray for.  I hated the attention because I knew I did not want to be a nun but my mom kept pushing. I'd sit there dying on the inside, praying feverishly for God to get me out of this nun thing.  It was such a large parish that only my actual friends and actual teachers knew me, plus nuns, so the request felt anonymous. I cringed anyway.

Our parish was huge. Our church was quite large and it filled every seat for three or four masses every Sunday. Additionally, the parish had built,  so they could build the huge church, a church in the basement of the school. That basement church always had a couple services on Sunday. The crowds that packed my parish's Sunday masses still amaze me. I believe my childhood parish no longer is nearly as big. The school, on itsww website, only had one class per grade. It had three classes per grade when I attended. It was the Post-War Baby Boom and a time of prosperity for the middle class.

Yet Sister Francesca was aware of me. I was like the mascot for the nuns of our parish.

Mom often said "My mother gave one of her children to God, so I am giving you to God." I would think, but did not say, "Why do you have to give me away? You have four boys, give one of them away."  Mom's baby sister, my Aunt Jody, Sister Ignatius, or maybe it was Sister Ignata, when she was a nun, was the child my grandmother had given to God.  I rarely saw Jody. I loved her from afar, for she was my godmother. She took her final vows the day after my baptism. Both my baptism and her marriage to God took place in Chicago, where I grew up.

I also hated Jody, blaming her for my predicament.

When I was in grammar school, the nuns still wore black robes resonant, now,  to me, of burqas. By the time I was in college, nuns wore regular clothes.

One summer in college, I took a couple college classes as a nearby Catholic college to use some of my Illinois grant money. I went to college in WI so I could not use the grant money. Each summer, I would take classes for free, and take classes I never would have taken at my 'real' college.  The summer I went to St. Xavier College, near my dad's home, I took a pottery class, throwing clay into lumpy pots all summer. I never would have used up credits at my 'real' college for pottery class. Altho why not, I don't recall.

I took two classes, clay in the morning and Judaism in the afternoon. Judiasm I took because my choices were few.  And I wanted to use as much of my state grant as possible.

In between classes, I would hang out in the student union. One day, sitting on a sofa, with a middle aged woman on a sofa nearby whom I ignored, the woman spoke to me. She asked me if I was a Fitzpatrick and if I had gone to St. Gall's. I was astonished. How did she know I was a Fitzpatrick?  She said "You still look exactly the same and all of you looked alike. I spotted you the first day of summer school."

I was astonished, truly, because I had  believed I had moved invisibly through my childhood, that no adults ever noticed me. True, I was also known for my vocation. I imagine lots of folks knew who I was, especially all the nuns, but when I was a kid, it didn't really grok for me that other than the cringe-inducing moments at Sunday mass when the packed church was asked to pray for my vocation, I had no awareness that anyone paid attention to me. Plus it was a huge parish and a huge school, with three packed classrooms per grade. In the post war baby room, Catholics had tons of babies. The school is much smaller now. And mostly Latino. I had white blonde hair then, blue eyes and a sweet demeanor. All the kids in my family, except for my dark-haired older brother, had blonde hair,  and blue eyes. Well, Dave got green ones. The black and white lawyer in me has to clarify the color of Dave's eyes, eh?Plus I did not dare be anything but angelic around nuns and nuns were all over that school.  I had never quite realized anyone, ever, had noticed me.

Sister Francesca had.  I had no idea, when my life revolved around that parish that anyone but my family and best girlfriends noticed me. And Patrick Snooks, Bucky Cywinski and Frankie Vacco, boys who live on my block that I knew before I started school.  Bucky's real name was Richard. All the nuns called him Richard and no child dared to call him Bucky at school. Bucky, however, said he liked Bucky and hated Richard. Bucky had the full buck teeth any human has ever had. As we grew older, all the kids on my block, and there were quite a lot of kids on our block full of no-birth-control Catholics, debated why Bucky's parents did not get him braces. Both his parents worked, unusual in our world. He was a late-in-life surprise baby, with a much older brother. It seemed to me that, like me, no adult paid much attention to Bucky. He was a sweet, gentle boy. I asked him more than once if he was sure it was okay to call him Bucky because I liked him and I did not want to hurt his feelings. I didn't ask too many times, because maybe asking again and again would hurt him. I took him at his word. It was hard to buck the ride of his nickname. Come to think of it, Bucky had that nickname before he had buck teeth.

Sister Francesca was leaving the convent, she told me. She was finishing college, which she had not done before she had taken her final vows and started teaching. Her order had always promised to give her a college degree so they were making good on that promise.  When I was a kid, Catholic schools did not have to hire licensed teachers. I think this is still true for most private schools in most states.  Sister Francesca shared a few vaguely pleasant memories of my family. We nodded to one another throughout that summer session but never really talked again.

Once you feel that duty to behave well around nuns, it doesn't go away.  As I listened to Sister Francesca reminisce about me and my family, I did not tell her what I remembered about her. She was seen as a holy terror. All the kids were frightened of her. All first graders would pray, as the time came to be told our assignments for the following year, that we wouldn't get Sister Francesca.  Instead, I told it it was fascinating to see what she looked like without the veil and the nun outfit.  I also told her that although I had not recognized her as a nun I had once known, I had spotted immediately that she was a nun.

She glanced around at herself as best she could and said "How could you tell? What do you see that signals I was a nun?"

"I don't know, Sister,"  I said.  "I just knew the moment I spotted you here that you were a nun. Even though you are an ex-nun, you still give off the nun vibe."

She asked me how she might dress differently to stop giving off the nun vibe. I shrugged and said nothing, acting dumb and being polite to a nun, as I had been trained.  Laughing, trying to make my words sound light, I said "Maybe once a nun, always a nun."

I was about 19 then. When I was in my early forties, I got another graduate degree. I took one class with an ex-priest. We hit it off. I had spotted the fact that he was a priest right away. He had been going to the school, he said, for three years, for he was working on a doctorate, and no one had spotted his religious history. How could I tell?

By then, I had lost some of the shackles of respecting nuns and priests, just a little. I said "I don't know what I saw but I knew the first instant you spoke to me that you either were a priest or had been one."

He was a bit upset for he had been hiding his background. He asked me not to tell other students and I didn't. He was nice about it. He got a nice laugh, actually, being 'seen'.  He was a brother, and still a brother. Not exactly a priest, but basically the same thing.

How did I know that these people had been in Catholic religious orders? Vibration. My empath ability. I feel things vibrationally and I think I felt their religious order vibration.  I guess.

Like I told that brother I met in grad school, I don't know how I knew these people in street clothes were a nun and a priest. I just knew. I felt it.  I knew.






Minuet in C

I took piano lessons for eight years as a child.  I loved playing the piano until my first piano teacher, a nun and music teacher at my Catholic grammar school left the convent and lost her Catholic school teaching gig. I loved my piano teacher. I loved being able to leave class for my weekly half hour lesson, walking down the silent school halls to the music room and having that one on one attention.

I am surprised I can't remember the name of my first piano teacher. I adored her and took in her focused attention like a child dying of thirst. No one paid much attention to me, not adults anyway.  I had two lessons a week, one in music theory where I learned chords, scales, rhythm, how to read music.  She taught me how to transpose whole songs from one key to another.  I don't remember all the stuff I learned about reading music and converting the instructions on the sheet music into how I played but I knew all that stuff then. I didn't understand why she taught me all those things until I got sentenced to lessons with my next teacher.

Mom switched me over to a cranky, stern, cold woman who gave piano lessons in her home, in a dark, poorly lit room.  That piano teacher had me play music I didn't like. I quit piano lessons, after begging my mom for some time to either find me a teacher I liked or let me quit. I quit when my cold teacher announced she did a recital with all her students once a year. I liked playing recitals. My nun music teacher had always had recitals. I loved performing in front of my proud family, getting polite applause. This new gal, however, informed me I would be playing a duet and I was to play the left hand.

I kept expecting her to pull out a ruler and rap my knuckles when I displeased her, which I seemed to have a knack for.  She often remarked that she was used to teaching students from the beginning and she thought I had been poorly taught until then.

I may not have impressed the new teacher with my ability. She impressed me with her ignorance of rhythm. At the beginning of every piece, there are anotations that tell the player what key the song is written in and at what pace it should be played. If it is written in B flat, then you play different keys then if it is written in B minor, or G.  Or C. My first teacher taught me this stuff. I don't know someone could really play the piano if they didn't know this stuff.  If one doesn't feel the rhythm in what they play, they aren't destined to play. The new teacher seemed oblivious to the annotations at the beginning of a piece, at least oblivious to the rhythm the composer annotated at the beginning of a piece. She pushed me to play every piece as fast as I possibly could. Even when I pointed out to her that certain pieces were not supposed to be played as fast as she said, she insisted she was right. She even ratted me out for insubordination to my mom. And I was right. I knew how to read music, not just the notes, but the key and the pace at which it should be played. My mom loved hearing I had been insubordinate. My mom loved to accuse me of sassing her when I stood up for myself in any way.

I wish I could still read music as I once could.  Now I can remember the trickier finger poses required to play some of the sharps and flats. You had to know how to move your hands to get to the next note, at the right time, in the right position. And then the next one. The new teacher never once talked to me about how to move my hands. She never reminded me of the pace. And she wouldn't let me use the pedals, even when the sheet music told the player when to use them. I don't think she knew how to read music as well as I had been taught to read it.  She just pushed me to knock out her boring songs as fast as I possible could with no discernible rhythm. I was no virtuoso but I knew the difference between 3/4 time and 2/4 time. I don't know the difference now.

If you don't know piano duets, you might not know that the left hand in a duet plays chords, not melodies. It was the melodies that I played piano to hear and feel. I didn't mind playing chords for solo pieces but no way was I going to play background music for someone assigned the melody of a duet.

I discovered a bit of my own power. I told mom I would never go back. She argued some. I brought dad into the discussion and he said if she wants to quit, let her quit. "If she's unhappy with this teacher, find another one or let her quit." Mom claimed there was no one else. We lived in Chicago. I do not believe there was no one else.

That cold piano teacher did assign me one song I liked during the months I studied with her.  Another thing she did:  she would only assign a few stanzas per week so it took weeks, sometimes months, to learn a whole piece.  Since I didn't usually like the music she assigned, I was happy to only play small pieces of it week to week. And get this, this woman never had me play a piece all the way through. Looking back, I conclude that woman did not understand music. Not in a meaningful way. She approached playing the piano mechanistically. Music is about vibration and spirit. Not letting me play pieces all the way through was like a bird beginning to soar and then crashing into a window. Maybe not that dramatic but it was a flat, non-energizing way to play piano.

When she gave me Bach's Minuet in C, I loved it.  I can still remember the first time I tried to play it. I was instantly drawn to the music. I practiced more that week than I had since my nun piano teacher left my school. I learned the whole piece. I got fairly fluent in it. And I also felt guilty, feeling like I was doing something wrong because I had not been assigned the whole song. At my next lesson, however, I only intended to play the few assigned stanzas.

This piano teacher was not completely tone deaf. She heard instantly that I had learned the piece well. When I got to the end of the assigned stanzas, when it was time to look at the next page of music to play on, she said "You might as well play the whole thing". She spoke in a tone that made it sound like I had done something criminal. I swear to goddess she sneered when she said 'go ahead, play the whole thing." I had soared with the beauty of Minuet in C. I had played many more hours that whole week from joy.

Minuet in C was one of the best moments playing music I ever knew. I happily concluded that I had finally shown that teacher that I could play more complicated music than she was giving me.  I assumed she would start assigning me whole songs and give me better songs. I believe it was the very next week when she told me I was going to be playing the left hand in a duet for her recital.  I believe it was crashing after my soaring joy from Minuet in C that gave me the courage to stand up to my mom. And the courage to enlist my dad, something I rarely did, mostly because he was not around much and he mostly left me to my mom, being a girl. Gender roles were less flexible than they are today, even in families, at least the  gender roles in my family. I had four brothers and no sister until I was fourteen. Mom and Dad both told me only I had to do lots of housework, dinner preparation on school nights and endless babysitting for their endless sons. They couldn't, they both explained to me, ask boys to do girl work.

A girl in my class at school had always studied piano with my second teacher. I was shocked one time when she played in front of me. She played a piece I knew but which was barely recognizable because my classmate played it as fast as she possibly could, as that teacher pressed her students to do. My classmate was her star pupil. Believe it or not, I was too polite to tell my classmate she played the piece too fast. And I never told the teacher she didn't seem to understand the rhythm notes on the sheet music.  I told my mom who was, like most of the adults in my childhood, except a couple nuns at school, dismissive of me. I was just a girl at home, not a boy.

I was oppressed. In a way, that oppression strongly shaped who I am still.

I had also asked my mom to talk to the piano teacher about the left hand role. Mom refused, telling me I should respect my elders and trust the teacher's judgment of my ability.  I had proved my ability when I played Minute in C. The teacher, however, asked why I was quitting and when mom told her I wouldn't play the left hand of a duet, she offered to give me another piece. No way.  I had found my out.  And dad said it was okay. In those days, dads totally ruled the universe of their family.

I missed the piano for a long time.  Mom occassionally brought up more lessons, telling me as soon as she found someone, I could start up again.  Now I realize Mom only looked in our parish for another piano teacher. When she said 'there was no one else' to teach me, she meant there was no other piano teacher in our parish, in our small patch of Chicago's South Side.

Someone in my apartment building plays piano. It is a student. I believe it is a Chinese girl, whose parents don't speak much English but always nod friendly to me. She's maybe 12 now.

Once at a community meeting or party or something, I remarked on the student piano player. The woman who lives next to me,  also lives just across the courtyard from piano practice, and she exclaimed "It's more than a student. That's a real piano player, a skilled musician."  This next door neighbor doesn't seem to like me so I did not tell her that she must not know much about piano playing if she thought the music we hear from the piano across the courtyard was a sophisticated player's work. 

I don't think the girl on my floor is going to be a concert pianist. Her playing has not appreciably improved in the five years we have all lived here. Well, she's better. And she practices a lot.  I have not yet heard her play a piece with soaring joy, with fluency, working the pedals at all the right points, moving in an even tempo throughout a piece. She's a student.

I hope my piano playing neighbor has a Minute in C moment.

My daughter played cello. Her school insisted all the children play in the string ensemble, take lessons.  When she was in h.s. and doing a lot of dancing, with regular dance recitals throughout the year, as I sat in the audience for a recital, her favorite dance teacher sat next to me. We chatted a bit about Katie. I mentioned, for some reason, that she played the cello. Her teacher said "I didn't know she played the cello. That explains a lot about her dancing. She feels music and it shows when she moves."

I wish all the apartments in my courtyard with children had music practice floating out windows. I  wish I heard many kids, many instruments practicing. There is only one person who practices music lessons in the courtyard. The Chinese girl who takes piano lessons.

Music is a way to more closely connect with the vibrations of this amazing cosmos.

I spent one semester studying in Mexico. I went with a good friend who was much more accomplished on the piano. She had continued playing through her high school years and practiced daily back home at college. When we were in Mexico, we discovered that the only bar women could go in, which was in the hotel on the main plaza, had a piano. The bartenders were happy to have her play all she wanted.  I loved going along and listening.  We would go in the afternoon so men did not bother us. And we would gone stoned. Very stoned.

She played Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring with the joyful fluency I had once played Minuet in C. Both Bach pieces, of course.  I was humbled to hear her skill level and thrilled to hear that song played over and over. She couldn't get enough of it, so she always played the whole piece, knew it from heart.

Isn't that a lovely expression:  to know something, or someone,  by heart.

I had another nun buddy, a nun who had been my kindergarden teacher and then my second grade teacher when she was reassigned. I'll write about her another time.

I also was forced to take flute lessons for a couple years. My grammar school had quite an elaborate band program. Our band performed at McCormick Place, a massive event venue on the Chicago lakefront.  I hated the flute and disliked my flute teacher. I guess I only disliked her because she gave me flute lessons.

Hated the flute. Loved the piano.

I guess my parents, especially my mom, placed a high priority on music lessons. I think all my siblings took some kind of music lessons.

Now I remember. My mom played the piano pretty well. The piano was just outside my bedroom. When I was still young enough to nap, I loved to have mom play "They call me little buttercup". She would sing with operatic flair, very dramatically. 

The song went on:  dear little buttercup, sweet little buttercup, though I will never know why. It's dear little buttercup sweet little buttercup," then something else I don't remember. I did feel loved when mom played and sang for me. I stopped feeling loved by her when I was seven. Something awful happened.  I think I still have some PTSD from what happened.

















Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I did quite a lot of cooking growing up

My mom did not like to cook. She did not like to tend her children or house clean. as the only girl in the family until I was 18, I cooked, cleaned and tended her babies.

Mom also liked to try new recipes, things she considered exotic and I suppose for our South Side Chicago world, many of her 'exotic' ideas were exotic.

Mom would choose a new recipe, like egg foo young (yung?), hand me the recipe and money to buy the ingriedients and order it for supper. This would be, of course, on an evening when my dad not home for dinner. My dad never, ever ate eggs; he was violently allergic to them plus he was a very fussy eater.

My point is from age 7 until I left home for college, I cooked dinner for my family and from about age 13, I did all the grocery shopping with two babies in two in a gigantic double stroller with room for one grocery bag. That meant we had to grocery shop daily but the kids and I both enjoyed being outdoors. I cooked weeknights. Dad covered the weekends.

Our meals were mostly mundane:  meatloaf, potatoes, green beans (never once did fresh green beans enter our meals in those days!); oven fried chicken, potatoes (what can I say, we are Irish Americans!, we ate potatoes at almost every dinner) and maybe corn.  We had desserts when I had the time to make them. I didn't just have to haul kids and groceries after school every day through high school, I had to houseclean. Mom was going to college. How many times did I ask her "why can't the boys do some of this?"  AFter all, I have one brother a year older and one a year younger, old enough and perfectly capable of helping out. all they ever had to do was help with the dishes, which was also one of my chores. I argued, pre-lawyer-advocate, suggesting that since I shopped and fixed dinner, perhaps it would be fair to give me a ps on the dishes.

I vacuumed our house every single day. with six kids, a house needs to be vacuumed that much.  I remember feeeling some trepidation fater halloween, because vacuuming meant vacuuming up candy wrappers and I feared the vacuum cleaner would break down from all the wrappers. What did my siblings do, just throw their trash whever they were, knowing Cinderella sister would tidy up?

Mom did not put me on much laundry duty, something I never pointed out to her. I was afraid that if I asked her why she didn't have me do the laundry, along with everything else while preparing supper*, why did she give me a pass on laundry, that's she say "Now you will do the laundry too."  I still, in a way, can't elie ve I was spared that burden. Not always. Sometimes I did laundry but my mom actually tended to do it on the weekends. During the week, she was gone from dawn to dinner time or even later. Studying is an excuse that covers anything, like the men she dated before she landed her net husband and filed to divorce my dad.

And those awful parents, both of them in this instance, never told their kids they were getting divorced. Later mom said she was afraid I'd stop working for her. And dad said he hoped until the lst minute that she was just trying to get him to shape up (that meant stop gambling).  He never even hired a lawyer, he was so sure the divorce petition was a bluff. but it wasn't.

In court, dad said to the judge "Your Honor, all I care about is that she not take my kids out of state. Could you put that in the divorce?"  Mom was on the stand and the judge asked her to promise, under oath, that she would not remove the kids she was taking out of state.

An hour after the hearing, a big interstate moving truck pulled up and hauled away most of our furniture. In her new life, get this, she tried to pretend her two youngest children were the only children she had so she did not tell her four older children where she lived for a long time. We all missed our babies but they had really been like my babies. I cried about them every single night at college, being a drag to those around me. 

I didn't do everything from scratch cooking when I cooked for my family as I grew up but I did a lot. I rememer that the egg foo young patties in the grease looked like mounds of puke. I had worked long hours to make them chopping everyting, like water chestnuts, chives, and whatever went into them. But I couldn't tate them. They looked, truly, like puke. 

Mom belonged to a ladies club that met at a different member's house each month. When it was her turn, she chose elaborate menus. For egg foo young, she served sake, evening buying  a set of sake cups to impress the ladies. The 'ladies' would all come into the kitchen to rve about my meal, being polite, good mothres themselves. They all said "My daughter would never do this for me."  I was emarassed and proably blushed very red when they thanked me. I knew egg foo young was Chinese and that sake was japanese. I was embarassed about that. I didn't have the heart to tell the women the egg food young looked like puke as it cooked. My mom would have killed me.

But not my dad. He would have taken one look, agreed they looked like puke and thrown the stuff out and made something else.

My dad was not around much in the evenings in my last couple years of h.s. Perhaps in an effort to hang onto my mom, he worked a second job.


Later, much later, my dad said the only regret he had in life was that he had occasionally worked two jobs. he said he should ha ve spent the time he spent on those second jobs just hanging out with his kids, that those jobs stole his kids from him.

We had no parents. I was the closet thing the six of us had to a parent. If someone needed a shirt ironed, I ironed it. As mom ointed out, and this started when I was seven, there was no reason I could not do some ironing once I had dinner started. And this was before permapress. I didn't have to wash clothes but I had to iron six white shirts for each of my four brotheres and my dad:  five for the weekdays and one for Sunday, and five whitte blouses for my uniform. I had to wear a uniform to grade school and coillege. The boys just had to wear white shirts and specific color ties.

I hated ironing the yoke the most. And mom inspected my ironing by checking those cursed yokes.

I have not ironed anything in, maybe, 30 years. I don't think I ever ironed for my kid. I didn't buy anything that needed ironing. I had my fill of ironing before I graduated from grade school and the ironing lsted until college. Then I was done.

Now, I have one nice white dress shirt, one I quite like. it would look much nicer ironed and I think I haev a small a tabletop ironing board and an iron -- somewhere. I have never unpacked the so they ust be in my close fll of unpcked boxes. If they are here.  Like I am going to dig out the ironing board and an iron for one shirt. No way, no frakking way.

Friday, April 25, 2014

mark it on the ice

I miss my dad this evening.

My dad had a gambling problem.  One story will illustrate how serious it was.

In 1958, my parents had a baby born premature.  Mary Ann. Her lungs were not fully developed. Nowadays, Mary Ann's survival would be all but assured but in 1958, modern medicine did not know care as well for premature babies as they do today.  Mary Ann wasn't all that premature, esp. compared to the miracles for very preemie babies these days.  I think she was born half way through the sixth month of her gestation.

They kept her in the hospital for most of her two months life.  She came home for a few days.  One night, our parents awakened all of us -- there were my two brothers and me at the time -- and we all knelt in the dining room, just outside Mary Ann's bedroom, which was also mine, and prayed for her while we awaited the ambulance that took her back to the hospital.

During her short life, after my mom came home from the hospital -- in those days, people stayed in the hospital much longer than they do now.  My folks had great health insurance, as did everyone else we knew. Gosh, health insurance has changed, eh?  My mom stayed with her in the hospital a long time so she could breast feed her. Mary Ann's little life was so precarious that everyone wanted her to have the benefit of mom's breastmilk. When my mom finally came home -- someone had to tend to her other children -- my mom pumped breast milk and my dad took it to the hospital every single day.

During this time, with dad taking several busses across Chicagoland because my folks did not own a car yet,  I often mentally accompanied him on his route. I had always paid close attention to travel, directions, patterns.  At age five, I could have directed most adults better than they directed themselves all over the city. So I knew the route my dad traveled to get to that hospital and I mentally accompanied him, waiting with him when he transferred, noting the darkening afternoons as Mary Ann's live emerged into that fall.  I keen in sadness for my dad's journey, for some reason. He seemed so heroic to me, so loving.  I was sad that he did not have a car, aware, I think, that my dad was ashamed that he could not yet afford one.  I flashed a little anger that my grandfather did not drive my dad on this errand.  I railed at god for making my baby sister sick -- a sister!!! -- and me with two brothers!! -- and for placing this burden on my folks. For some reason, I didn't really see my mom's sorrow, only my dad's.

And I remember longing to meet the baby.  In 1958, at least in Chicago, children were not allowed to visit babies in hospital nurseries.  Only fathers were. No adults could visit the nurseries but the fathers. Adults could visit patients but not the new babies. This has changed.

Once in college, around 1973, a boyfriend had an appendectomy.  I walked all the way to the hospital, which was no where near our campus to visit him. I brought magazines and treats. Bob was full of self pity. Bob was always full of self pity, as I recall.  I don't know what I saw him him. Well, he was not a major boyfriend. But now I have just remembered what I liked about Bob:  Bob had a big crush on me  Don't worry, anyone reading. If the goddesses ever approach me, seeking my help to design a better world, I will repair many of the problems related to romantic love.  There will be no more unrequited loves, no  fairies in the forest sprinkling fairy dust on innocent humans and tricking them into loving someone who does not love them back. Everyone will know love, be loved exactly as they long to be. Although, having said this, I think the universe is already designed this way. I think we humans muck it up.  I think it is always possible to be love. To be love, to be loving, to be loved.  We can blink twice and thus it will be so. Or we can go on struggling.

I digress. This was about Mary Ann. No it wasn't. This is about dad's gambling.

I think the main reason the doctors let Mary Ann come home was to give her siblings a chance to meet her.  How it cut me knowing I had a helpless, sick new baby sister across the city, alone among strangers, literally fighting to take breath.  How I longed to hold her and love her.  I don't remember holding her.  I don't remember seeing her alive. But I must have. She was definitely home for a day or wo. Or maybe I have made that up. Maybe we all got up and prayed in the dining room because the hospital had called to tell us Mary Ann had taken a turn for the worse.

I have no one to ask. My mom's mind is gone.  My brother Chuck the fuck might remember. He was a little older. But he is Chuck the fuck. I won't ask him. His name says it all, right?

During Mary Ann's short life, my grandfather had spent a lot of time with us. He was out back up babysitter with mom in the hospital. And he was also our backup income when dad gambled his paycheck on the ponies.

My dad was a sucker for harness racing.  He took me to the racetrack with him a few times when I was very young, like ages four, five, six.  My mom used to insist that dad only leave the house with one of the kids with him, hoping that having his child with him would shame my dad into not gambling. But this did not work. He just took my brothers to the track and told them to keep quiet. My brothers would keep dad's secrets, too, but dad couldn't hide the missing food money so mom would find out.  My grandpa always stepped up. He would come over and hand money to my mom, making a big show of not giving it to my dad, not risking it to the ponies.

So mom started to send me out with dad. When dad said he wanted to run an errand, visit an old friend, mom knew he wanted to go out to the track. Or at least go to a tavern with bookies. She assumed, wrongly, that our gender solidarity would cause me to rat my dad out. But I loved my dad much more than my mom. We all did. Moms get it hard, don't they?  Kids hate their moms far more often than they hate their dads. It's not fair. But I kinda get it.  Your mom is going to love you no matter how bad you treat her. It is less risky to shit on the mom. That's my theory.

My kid's father all but abandoned her. He paid his child support, although I had to take legal action a few times to enforce it. But my kid only knew that he stepped up, he paid. And the fact that he did not exercise his visitation rights, did not even, sometimes, place a fucking phone call to her on Xmas day, let alone, um, send her a Christmas gift?  That was my fault.  I kept her from him.  In his very rare interactions with her, he would say "I wanted to call you on Christmas but your mom got an unlisted phone number".  Or whatever crap he said.  In order to get my child support, 'the system' always knew where I was. as a lawyer, her father could always find out where I was. Not that he needed to find us.  I kept in contact with him. I sent him countless letters begging him to show up in her life. I wrote letters to all her relatives on his side, begging them to be family to her.

She had a paternal aunt that had moved to Florida. I wrote to that witch and told her that my Katie needed her family, that it was not my wish to keep her from having a relationship with her father's kin.  I offered to fly Katie to visit that auntie, even though the aunt is a very successful medical doctor. This aunt owns several small day-surgery clinics. Her husband manages the businesses. She's not just a prospering doc, she is a wealthy business owner.  The kid's father bragged to the kid about her aunt's wealth, the indoor pool on the oceanfront home her auntie owned.  He sent her a photo of that pool.

Swimming pools were a big deal to all of us. Me, the kid, her dad, we're all lap swimmers. Or were. I don't know if my daughter still swims.

I digress.

I am sad and angry.  I hate my life.  I hate me.  I wish I could hate myself dead.  That probably sounds way crazy, does it?  I tried to hate myself dead. After my big, serious, carefully planned suicide attempt failed in 2003 -- I was determined to not turn fifty without my kid --

My dad stopped gambling when Mary Ann was born and was so sick.  The adults in my world of 1958 never talked openly about dad's gambling. We all pretended he didn't gamble.  A classic elephant in the living room dynamic.  But I heard them talking when they pretended we did not hear them.  I heard my dad promise my mom, over the phone, cause she was in the hospital with our sick, dying baby, that he would never gamble again. And during the two months of her life, he did not gamble.

On the day of Mary Ann's funeral, grandpa came over. He was going to drive us for the funeral. But he also had to give my parents money for the funeral.  He handed the money to my dad. I was only five, just a kid, supposedly clueless, but I knew that wads of cash in my dad's hands were always at risk.  I knew the race track was far away but I knew dad could gamble at the corner tavern.

Do cities still have dingy corner taverns like Chicago had when I was a kid?  I'm talking about dark bars, with one long dark, usually black, bar on one side, a very few tables with very few chairs along the wall opposite the bar/ Mirrors behind the bar. The only light fixtures were beer light fixtures. Or so it seemed to me. For yes, I had been in these taverns in my mom's fruitless attempts to shame dad into not gambling.

It must have hurt wicked hard to see your man gambling away the money you needed to feed his children.  It is so unfair that we loved dad more than mom. But I'll tell you why.

My dad was nicer than my mom.  My mom acted like she begrudged me everything. She sent me the message, seriously, when I was so young that I had not yet figured out how to roll over in my crib, let alone raise my head.  She did not want me to ask her for anything.  She probably did not literally say these things but humans communicate with one another without using their voices. In Madeleine L'Engle's great young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time, L'Engle describe 'kything' which is people tlaking to one another mind to mind. In the novel, kything unfolds in language but I think that 'in reality', what reality is, people can convey their thoughts to one another and they do. They do it all the time. But science has not yet identified this sense so we don't count it.

My mom told me, kything, when I was brand new, to want nothing and to need less.

I have internalized that stricture my whole life. I am 57 and I still feel like I am not supposed to want anything, not supposed to need anything. Want nothing, need less.  Want nothing, need less. It was practically the goddamned mantra of my childhood.

But as a kid, you love your mom and you don't know different.  You don't know that other moms, maybe, want their kids to come to them and ask for nurture.  In our family, the message was clear:  leave mom alone.

And what did she do?  I used to wonder, long and hard, about what my mom did.  When she had a newborn, sure, she kept the kid alive.  But when my brother Tom was born, when i was 7, my dad sat me down for a private chat in my parents' room, which we were not normally allowed to enter. He used that parent bedroom to give the event more portent. He said as the only girl it was my job to help mom now tht she was preggers again.  He was counting on me to step up, to do whatever i could for mom. And I did And when Tom was born, I did a lot for him. But I was only 7 so I did not completely take over. When Dave was born, I was 10, it was just about summertime, and I had expereince from caring for Tom.  I took care of baby Dave dawn to dusk that whole summer.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Did she say stuffing?

My niece Ruby was nine months old for her first Christmas. My sister, Flannery, and Ruby came over for a Christmas Eve supper with me and my daughter, Rosie.

Rosie and I had a few Christmas traditions. We tried to visit relatives over Thanksgiving because we preferred to spend Christmas in our own home. This had the added benefit of avoiding the Christmas fights. We had Cornish game hens for dinner on Christmas Eve. We went out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. Some years we spent time with friends but we always spent a lot of quiet time together, just the two of us.

My sister had decided that she and Ruby would spend their first Christmas Day alone together so they had come over for Christmas Eve supper. I served stuffed game hens. We probably exchanged gifts that evening but I don't remember presents.

I remember the moments when we sat down to dinner. My daughter, my sister and my niece were like shimmering orbs around my table. I was aglow with my love for them and their love for me. I remember noting that my daughter was more vibrant than usual. I remember noting that Rosie loved having my sister and my niece join us. I loved Flannery and Ruby deeply but I found myself loving them just a little bit more that evening as I noted Rosie's joy to be with them. Sometimes we went to friends' homes for Christmas dinner but I think this was the first time Rosie and I had Christmas company. And what special guests! In my mind's eye, we had candlelight but I don't think we actually did. I think my memories glow because of love, not candlelight. I was happy, full of love, as I sat down to that Christmas Eve dinner with three people I loved so much.

Having a baby around is always bliss. Ruby was at a peak of perfect plumpness. I think of how many nativity paintings have a radiant light focussed on the Christ child. All babies glow like this for me and Ruby was alive with radiant joy. My daughter, now thirty two, still dazzles me with her radiance when I think of her. Come to think of it, all the people I love glow for me.

My sister, of course, was also in a bliss state. How could she be anything else when she had baby Ruby in her arms?

We had dressed up for this dinner. As I write this, I am really having a great time. In my mind's eye, I keep looking from Rosie to Flannery to Ruby, then back to Rosie, around and around, noting the radiance in each of these women as they sat around my table, loving them with all my heart. I had this experience at the time as well, looking loving at each of my beloveds around that table. Rosie, a high school freshman, was doing a spiky thing with mousse in her hair. She was wearing a brown velvet dress. Flannery was a picture perfect madonna, with her thick, blonde hair and red-lipsticked lips. And Ruby. Ruby wore red, a precious jewel in any color but she popped in red.

They were all beautiful. I loved and love all of them so much.

We began eating, all of us chattering happily. The meal was not very fancy. My big flourish had been to place a few tablespoons of stuffing in each of the three birds. We joked about that stuffing. It was delicious but it seemed like such a lot of trouble for such a small return. Digging it out of the tiny birds for such a tiny reward. Two tablespoons, maybe three.  We talked about stuffing recipes. Flannery was partial to stuffing with chestnuts. I was partial to stuffing with walnuts. Rosie was fussy, sliding into her eating disorder but I didn't know that yet, liked her stuffing plain: bread and seasoning, no onions, no celery. The stuffing this night was plain one of my gifts to Rosie. We were all happy to have it the way Annie liked it. Stuffing, stuffing, stuffing. We had a lot to say about stuffing.

Which might explain what happened next. It was a Christmas miracle.

Flannery was feeding Ruby tiny bites of stuffing. Ruby had just begun to eat solid foods. She couldn't eat the poultry. She didn't like the cranberries. Ruby liked that stuffing.

As we laughed and chatted about all things stuffing, Flannery began to exclaim, "Look at Ruby! Look how she likes the stuffing!" We all gazed adoringly at our baby.

"Here," I said, "She can have my stuffing." And I scooped out my tiny portion of stuffing and put it on my sister's plate.

My sister kept feeding the baby stuffing. We were all rapt, joyfully watching Ruby gobble stuffing as fast as my sister could spoon it into her mouth.

"She can have my stuffing, too!" Rosie exclaimed. This was a miracle in itself. Rosie was fussy about sharing her food. She had never been willing to share food, not even when she was a baby herself. She was a little obsessive about it. When Rosie offered her stuffing to Ruby,  we all radiated a joyful vibration. It was so perfect that such a little thing could make us all so happy.

"Stuffing!" Ruby said.

Ruby was not yet talking. She and her mother communicated, of course, but we were not yet thinking of Ruby as someone who could talk.

"Did she just say stuffing?!" my sister cried out.

"Did she just say stuffing?!" my daughter cheered.

"She did, she did. She said stuffing. Ruby say it again. Stuffing. Say 'stuffing! She said stuffing. I know I heard it right."

We all tried to get her to say it again.

"Give her some more stuffing, maybe she'll say it then."

"She's already eaten all of it."

We dug around our poultry carcasses looking for more stuffing. The stuffing was all gone.

"It was not our imagination. That baby said stuffing."All three of us kept exclaiming the same things. We were so thrilled that the baby had finally said a comprehensible word and such a complex one. Stuffing is not a daily vocabulary word. We all nodded meaningfully back and forth, signaling to one another that our baby was a genius if her first word was stuffing.

My daughter's first word, at least the first one I understood, was Snuffleupagus.  She loved Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. That's a very big first word. When her pediatrician asked me what her first word was, he said I had imagined that Snuffleupagus was her first word. I realize, in hindsight, that my baby must have been using lots of words before I got Snuffleupagus. I also learned that she rolled words together, making them sound different because she was learning not just language but how to use her vocal muscles to imitate the sound of my language. Once I figured out that babies roll their sounds together when first trying to say words, I could understand most babies sooner than their parents. I bet most babies talk much sooner than their parents realize because the parents are listening for how language sounds to them. Babies are experimenting on many levels as they learn to talk.

We had some holiday pie after the stuffing thrill died down. . Cranberry pear pie. Ruby got some smashed up pears, turning up her nose at the berries.

I love my daughter, my sister and my niece so very much.

Friday, April 11, 2014

poetry is not a luxury: Audre Lorde

Civil rights activist and poet Audre Lorde writes in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Lorde was an African American activist and poet.  Here is one of her poems. This one fits the above quote, at least to me.

Power

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn't notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4'10'' black Woman's frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody's mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”