Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Good Memory of My Dad

He used to drive me to White Castle.  We would roll the windows down because my mother wouldn't allow it when she was in the van.  He always played jazz or blues on the stereo because they were his favorites, and my mother wouldn't listen to anything but oldies when she was around ("the best of the '50s, '60s, and early '70s!" the radio ads used to tout).  My dad and I listened to Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and Muddy Waters.  He liked guitarists because he played the guitar, or maybe he played the guitar because he liked the sound of it.  I didn't like or understand jazz or blues at the time, but he seems to have planted a seed that grew up with me.  Scarcely a day went by in the first 18 years of my life that I didn't hear "Misty" or "Willow Weep for Me."  I have the voice for them now too.  I didn't even know those songs had words back then.

We would order our tiny cheeseburgers at the drive-thru and then sit in the parking lot with the windows rolled down while we ate.  I always took the pickles off mine, and he would add them to his own.  I was a picky eater back then.

Monday, April 18, 2016

My Piece on the AnonymousUs Podcast

I wrote a piece about my sister a couple of weeks ago for (and posted it here too because I crave attention and recognition), and Hattie Hart did a very nice reading of it for their podcast this week.  Mine is the last of the three stories, starting at the 5:45 point.  (Thank you, Hattie!)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Good Memory of My Childhood Home

When I was in elementary school, when it was cool enough, back before styrofoam insulation and clear plastic covered every window of our house for years at a time, sometimes my mother would open the windows.  I can only remember it happening on a handful of occasions.

I remember riding the bus home from school once and, when it pulled up to my house, seeing that the heavy wooden front door was open wide with the screen door visible behind it.  I felt a jolt of happiness.  The windows would be open.  My mother must be in a good mood. 

My parents' house usually smelled of stale air.  My mother liked to keep the air conditioner cranked up and the house cold inside, but it still managed to feel stuffy.  Just being inside it with its unnaturally dark rooms and cavelike dankness made me feel drained.  From childhood to college, I remember having that feeling, like something in the house was sapping me of my energy.  I think my mother felt it too.  When she wasn't asleep, she often wanted to get out and go somewhere, and when we went out to dinner in my teen years, she was as loath to go home as I was.

On the rare occasions that my mother opened the windows, she also turned on the house's attic fan, which I can only vaguely remember because the last time I remember seeing it in use was when I was in elementary school.  I remember a large metal vent in the ceiling that would open when the attic fan was on, allowing me to see the fan spinning behind it, whipping up what I remember as strong winds through the hallway.  It was loud and powerful.  It felt nice to be surrounded by so much moving air. 

Sometimes when the windows were open, my mother even cleaned.  This is one of my favorite memories of my mother.  She put a Dolly Parton record on the big turntable in the family room and blasted the music through the house.  Because closed doors and narrow doorways were tricky for my dad in his wheelchair, our house had an open floor plan back before it was fashionable.  My mother hated how she had no way to close off portions of messiness to visitors, but the music carried well.  I don't remember if she mopped or dusted or what -- I remember being too young to be of use myself, maybe four or five -- but she sang along to the music, and I loved it.  She seemed happy and full of energy -- so rarely did she have any energy -- and it made me happy to be close to her with the music and the breeze playing around us.  The air smelled fresh, and cleaning products always smelled better than the heavily clove-scented air fresheners my mother used to cover up the other smells of the house for company. 

It's warm here today where I live now.  I have the windows open, and the house smells fresh.  I can hear birdsong and some of my neighbors talking outside, now that the drone of what sounded like a dozen lawn mowers and weed wackers has ceased.  None of the lights are on because the sun makes it brighter in my white-walled home than any amount of electricity could achieve when I was a kid.  I'm glad I don't live there anymore.  The good days were too rare, and they were still worse than the bad days are here.  Here I can clean and open windows whenever I want.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The First Time I Remember Being Blamed for Getting Hurt

When I was four years old, my best friend was named Kimmy.  Our older brothers were the same age and were friends too, which was how Kimmy and I had playdates -- I was deposited at Kimmy's house most of the times Dante was.  I remember Kimmy calling me outside to see something her brother and some other boys seven years older than us were doing. 

When I got outside I saw a thick, knotted rope hanging, probably from a tree though I don't remember for certain.  One of the boys pushed or dropped the end of the rope and it swung toward me, the hard knot landing hard on my nose.  Suddenly blood was gushing down my face.  (I still don't know what they had been doing with that rope.  I had only been outside for a few seconds.)

Kimmy pulled me inside to her mother.  Kimmy's mother called my mother to come pick me up and tended to me until the bleeding stopped.  It was my first of many nose bleeds, but my nose wasn't broken and there was no permanent damage.  When my mother arrived, she was mad at me for injuring myself playing.  Confused at being in trouble for something that I didn't even do, I explained that I had only been standing there when the rope the boys were playing with hit me.  I hadn't even touched it.  "Obviously you were somewhere you shouldn't have been or you wouldn't have gotten hurt," my mother snapped.  I cannot remember a time I got hurt that she didn't operate under this logic.

I was thirty years old and pregnant with a child of my own when I saw a school-aged child running across cobblestones at a local festival.  She fell and burst into tears, and her mother comforted her and told her she would be okay.  I had been reading books on parenting for the last year or two and expressed surprise to my husband that her mother had comforted her instead of scolding her for having been running in the first place.  How is she supposed to learn if they comfort her instead of correcting her behavior? I wondered.  Comfort is something children want.  It's certainly something I wanted.  Comforting a child when she cries just trains her to cry more, doesn't it?  I'd assumed my parents reprimanded me instead because they wanted to decentivize me from ever doing anything dangerous.  It was either that or they were angry and emotionally stunted to the point of being illogical, and I used to assume my parents had reasons for  everything they did.  I knew by age thirty that they had been emotionally neglectful and not always made the best choices, but the scolding after injuries was something I simply hadn't thought about in years.  What else hadn't I thought about in years?

My husband looked at me like there was something wrong with me.  He explained that it's normal to comfort a child until she stops crying before correcting her behavior as necessary, if she had been misbehaving at all.  I also learned that not every parent thinks running is always bad behavior like mine did.  I also learned that not everyone blames their children to their face every time something bad happens to them.  That was when I realized I was way out of my depth when it came to parenting, I was already pregnant because I had thought I was fine, and most books on raising children didn't even address the "scratch" from which I needed to start.

Another Good Memory of My Mother

The table in my parents' dining room was usually too covered in hoard to use.  Subsequently we usually ate at TV trays in the living room.  But one day when I was nine or ten and had a friend over at dinner time, my mother set up a card table and chairs in the living room and told us we were going to play restaurant.  She pretended to be a waiter and told us the special of the night was spaghetti.  She set the table with napkins and silverware, which seemed very restaurant-like since we never set the table at home.  She even brought the meal out to us from the kitchen in courses with bread first, just like at a restaurant.  It was fun and exciting doing something different and seeing my mother be playful. 

A Good Memory of My Mother

When I was in Girl Scouts in elementary school, my mother became a troop leader.  I had previously attended Girl Scout meetings at another girl's house where her mother was the leader, but my mother had volunteered to join as assistant leader or something of that nature, followed by a fight between the two mothers about something still unknown to me, followed by a schism of the troop.  The girls who were my friends came with us and joined our new (and admittedly better) troop, and other girls from school joined too.

There was a Girl Scout special event held in our church's basement one Saturday.  About a dozen troops from the area came.  Each troop had been assigned a table and chairs where they would each represent a different country.  We were supposed to set up a booth for our country where the other girls in attendance could do a craft or activity native to that country, or eat a food native to that country, or learn something about that country.  Most of it ended up looking about as interesting as a job fair.

My mother's troop represented Switzerland.  I didn't know what we were going to be doing that day until we arrived at the church.  My mother scrapped the traditional "booth" style everyone else used.  She set up the folding chairs side-by-side and then covered them with a large gym mat she'd brought from home (previously part of the Swamp of Sadness), creating a medium sized hump.  We would be offering people the chance to scale the famous Swiss Alp called the Matterhorn, she told us.  As each girl scrambled over the gym mat mountain and came down the other side, my mother congratulated her and presented her with a chocolate.  "Switzerland is known for its chocolates," my mother explained.  As the only booth offering both not-sitting-still and candy, ours quickly became the favorite of the day.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Show Everyone What a Good Actress You Are"

Up until my late teens I thought I wanted to be an actress.  I was in school plays and church musicals and even the occasional summer Shakespeare program, but after enough of them, I realized I didn't like performing or even rehearsing.  I liked attention and I liked pretending to be something I was not.  If I could have skipped the plays and gone straight to being hugged and told I'd done a good job, that would have been my ideal situation, but I didn't realize that at the time.

When I was in high school and depressed and had to speak publicly or mingle with strangers or do something social I desperately didn't want to do, my mother would urge me, "Show everyone what a good actress you are."  It worked.  I didn't want to fake happiness for the sake of making my mother happy.  My mother vastly preferred complaining to strangers over feigning happiness, and it irritated me that she wanted me to be a shiny happy person while she said whatever she wanted about me right in front of me (sometimes comically flattering, sometimes cruel or mocking) and continued her reign of martyrdom.  But I didn't want to be like her either, and I'd already learned that being cheerful made me dramatically more popular, so I "showed everyone what I good actress I was." 

I felt painfully shy growing up, but behaving as though I were shy tended to get me yelled at and publicly humiliated, so I'd learned to shut down my shyness along with my depression.  They were still there, but I locked them in a room of my brain where they temporarily couldn't get out or show themselves. I knew they were there, but I temporarily couldn't feel them.  I wouldn't have been able to function the way I was expected to if I could have felt them. 

It was a sort of pleasant dissociation in which the feeling part of me went on lock-down and I wore a smiling mask set to a socially acceptable autopilot program.  I don't think I said anything particularly charming or clever on autopilot, but I knew how to smile and respond politely and ask simple questions.  Based on people's reactions, I seem to have done fine.  I don't even think my mother had a socially acceptable autopilot program.  She simply smiled and laughed a little too loudly while she complained and overshared ("How are you today, Annie?"  "Oh, fairly partly cloudy.  My hips hurts, my son's unemployed, and my daughter is a moody teenager who can't wait to spend all my money a thousand miles away at college.  Kids and dogs and husbands!  Ha ha ha ha!")

I remember once in high school I won a small scholarship award and my mother told me I'd have to give an acceptance speech at the scholarship luncheon like it was the Oscars or something.  I'd learned to perform songs and plays from memory without panicking years ago, regardless of the audience size, but I was horrified at the idea of having to come up with my own words.  Writing always made me freeze up, even though I always eventually got through it.  I can't remember if she told me in advance or sprang it on me in the car on the way to the function, but I panicked until I had formulated a plan for something vague and sweet and humble to say.  When we arrived I, of course, learned my mother had been lying.  None of the other scholarship winners gave speeches or even said a word beyond, "Thank you."

I asked when I got to the podium if I should give a speech and the person in charge said, "If you like," in a surprised tone of voice.  Whatever, I thought.  I've panicked and written, and I might as well say what I wrote.  I also knew I'd probably be in trouble with my mother on the car ride home if I didn't give an acceptance speech after she'd expressly told me to.  So I gave my acceptance speech.  I pretended what I was doing wasn't absurd -- that I'd been so moved by their generosity I simply had to speak -- and I beamed and thanked everyone present and pandered to the organization so effectively that they gave me the scholarship again the next year when I didn't even apply for it.  I'm proud of that.  I was an average actress in theater, but I'm pretty good in real life.  I know how to behave anyway.  My mother should have thought about that before she started slandering me to her few friends and family in the years that followed.  She doesn't know how to behave.  It was yet another valuable lesson she taught me despite never learning it herself. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Time My Dad Rolled over My Arm with His Wheelchair

When I was a child -- old enough to be in school but not old enough for high school -- I remember my dad rolling over my arm with his wheelchair.  I keep thinking I must be remembering this wrong.  Wouldn't a 250 lb man in a wheelchair rolling over my forearm break my notoriously bird-like bones?  Regardless, I remember it happening.  

I often laid around on the floor of the living room back then, coloring or snuggling with my dog Angel while the TV played.  It was a hoard house with limited clear spaces for sitting -- a couch and three chairs in the living room, two of which were usually covered in miscellany and faced away from the television anyway -- and since my mother spent multiple hours per day stretched out on the couch napping or trying to nap, the floor was the obvious choice for me. 

I remember crying out in pain as his wheelchair rose up over my arm like it was a speed-bump.  I remember my dad yelling at me that I shouldn't have been in his way.  I remember looking down at my arm and being surprised that it was okay.  Nothing was broken.  It didn't even hurt for that long.  I was mostly surprised.  I assumed at the time that he hadn't seen me there at his feet and that his indignant response had been a reaction to the guilt he felt for having hurt me.  I'm not sure though, looking back, if he could have run over something as three-dimensional as my arm without some effort. 

Now that I think about it, it would have only been one wheel of the chair that rolled over my arm.  My arm wouldn't have had to withstand all 250 lbs of my dad.  Plus, he was in a lightweight manual chair back then, not the heavy-duty electric one that weighs more than me that he got when I was a teenager.  Plus my forearms have always been pretty flat, as far as human limbs go.  I guess it's not so hard to believe I came out unscathed.  I still would have preferred it if he'd said, "Sorry.  I didn't mean to do that."