A friend I met when I was 12 is now in critical condition in the ICU.

A friendship that started in middle school covers a lot of history. Successes and set-backs, bad boyfriends and good husbands, the exciting and the mundane. And all the messy, contradictory and unimportant bits in between that aren’t milestones or “life events.”

She is an attorney with a mind for details and a memory like a steel trap. I’m more of a sieve. I know this fact about myself  so if something feels important I always write it down so I don’t forget. Everything else I can ask her.

A question like “What was the name of the club where we saw …?” will get me the club, the date we were there, who opened and who we were with. It’s a great skill and probably made me more lazy about remembering the details over the years.

I stand by her bed in the ICU and talk to her about this and that because the nurses say she hears even when she doesn’t respond. I monologue about getting my daughter ready to leave for college, what I’m working on, how the garden is doing this year, and running into a mutual acquaintance at a coffee shop.

I tell her if her nurse that day is attractive (most have been male), how the parking is free when you are visiting the ICU, and how she is a VIP with 24 hour service like a fine hotel.

What I don’t tell her is how important she is to me. I don’t tell her how devastating her illness actually is or how ridiculously slim her chance for recovery.  I don’t say I love you. That would surely signal to her that the end is near and it’s not my job to do that.

When she passes, whenever that may be, I will no longer have that one friend “who knew me when.” No one else will ever again so precisely understand the ways in which who and what we both are now is grounded in what we were then.

The past shapes the present but what we decide to focus on in our memories is a choice. It’s hard for most folks to focus on the good memories because we’re  wired to learn from mistakes in order to survive. So we easily dredge up the slight, the hurtful comment, the embarrassment, or the questionable choice.

So while I ruminate on the choices and chance that got us to this place today, I am also remembering the raucous, reckless fun and the countless ways we supported each other through the years.

It strikes me that how we remember is part of what’s driving the turmoil around Charlottesville and the removal of confederate monuments across the country. A line from George Orwell’s 1984 keeps running through my head  – “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls that past.”

Of course I have a lot to say on that topic. But not now.

Now is for remembering how lucky I am to still have my childhood friend.

I re-post this as a salute to my friend who is brave, kind and more than just a pretty-good Mom.


A Mother’s Day Essay

A Pretty Good Mom

An ugly third-degree burn scar covers most of my left outer thigh. This is one legacy my mother left me. I was two years old and, the story goes, I climbed on top of our stove, turned it on, and sat down on the red-hot electrical burner while my mother vacuumed upstairs, unable to hear my screams. Neglect? An accident?  It’s a strange story, but it’s possible. I also knocked out my front teeth around the same age, falling down the stairs. Again, it’s possible. Nothing strange or unusual about a toddler falling down the stairs, especially in the late 60s before baby proofing was common.

Another legacy my mother left me was her voice, first in my ears, later in my head, telling me I was a mistake, an accident, that I was not loved but tolerated, and that I was capable of ruining lives (well, hers at least) by merely existing. I wasn’t even supposed to be alive, so I’d better watch it. It throws the accidents into a different light, this admission from her that I was not loved, was not wanted. It puts a small, scratching doubt in my head, enough to make me wonder what really happened.

It’s hard not to think about these things around Mother’s Day. All the stories in social media, newspapers and magazines that idealize and praise mothers and mothering, stories of bonds between mothers and daughters, are powerful triggers.

It’s also hard not to think about these things because I am a mother.

I like to say that my mother helped me become a good mother by demonstrating what NOT to do. I don’t yell, I don’t belittle, I don’t insult,  I don’t shame, I don’t slam things, I don’t break things. I’m not saying good mothers don’t lose their tempers and do these things sometimes. They do. But good mothers who do those things make up for the mistakes with love and affection, even apologies, that hopefully balance it all out.

Looking back, though, I think what was worse than what she did do was what she didn’t do. She did not cuddle, she did not praise, she did not thank, she did not protect, she did not apologize, she did not love. She fed, she clothed, she cleaned, she tolerated, grudgingly. When she wasn’t angrily doing housework, slamming cupboards and drawers, she was smoking and drinking coffee in the kitchen, one eye pinched against the smoke curling from the cigarette clamped in one side of her mouth, the other fixed on the pages of a Harlequin Romance.  I knew better than to seek attention from her, and usually just watched her from the kitchen doorway, trying to gauge her mood.

My most vivid memories of her from my childhood are saturated with feelings of fear and guilt. One afternoon she tried to show me how to clean my room. I know I was very young because I remember the vacuum cleaner was too heavy for me—try as I might I could not push it under the bed where I had been told to sweep. When she returned to find it unswept, she raged at me. I cried, feeling worthless. She eventually left me alone.

Another dim memory, playing Candyland, the only memory I have of her playing with me. I must have cheated, as very young children do–maybe trying to move my piece ahead without her noticing? Who knows. The game was put away very dramatically, with huffing and puffing and scolding and slamming and indignation. I cried, feeling worthless. She eventually left me alone.

That was our pattern.

And so it went. The fear and guilt morphed into loathing and guilt when I was a teen, and eventually pity and guilt when I was an adult and finally had a child of my own.

Oh, the waste of love. Until I had my own, I had no idea how eager children are to love and be loved, how easily it happens. It would have taken so little for her to have it, to give it. But for a variety of reasons (the subject of a future essay, perhaps), she could not. And as much as I tried to love her, I could not overcome my fear enough to do it.

I cried when she died, not because she was gone but for the life she had wasted. I do not miss her, and I am, if not exactly happier, at least relieved that she is gone.

Her voice is still with me, but it gets quieter as the years pass, crowded out of my head more and more by thoughts of my son, my husband, my friends, my work, my world. In spite of her, I give and receive love easily, even fiercely, especially with my son.  And I am grateful for that every day, but especially today.

Happy mother’s day.

speak truth to power

 

 

 

Every now and again I come under attack from my family because of my bad memory. It’s usually started by my innocently remarking that I don’t know some random bit of information like my age or how many years I’ve been married. I honestly don’t see why this is such a big deal. I guestimate, round-up or, when pressed, stop and do the math.

My husband and daughter insist that this is abnormal. That everyone knows their age off the tip of their tongue. I’m not convinced.

I remember lots of things. My daughter’s age for one. The remarkably discounted price of the Land’s End down coat I bought two years ago ($179 coat marked down to $15.99!). Dialogue from books, statistics from gender bias studies, characters from old TV shows, the words to American Pie and Horse with No Name. All of these have permanent space in my memory banks.

But not my age.

If I point out that I am born on an even year so its easy to calculate this leads to more shrieking and arguing. Apparently I am the only one who thinks that five is an even number. I was born in 1965. Five is a number you can easily count by if you have to figure out your age at the drop of a hat, so I consider it an “even” number. Simple.

I doubt I’m the only one who forgets how old they are. It’s not like it matters much between the ages of 21 and 65. That’s probably why I can never figure out anyone’s age by looking at them. Everyone who is clearly not a child seems like + or – 10 years of my age. A close friend revealed last year that she is 70 years old. I had no clue.

Memory is a game. Some things stick and somethings don’t. I’m not bothered by my age, and if I had some really compelling reason, I would commit it to memory.

But I can’t really think why I would bother as long as I can still count by fives.

I am driving my father-in-law Sheldon’s car. Not his actual car as he passed away a few years back and no longer drives, but the car that he would be driving if he were alive.

This is a rental because I get to drive all over rural America for my work this month, and each time I do I rent. It ends up being cheaper and I don’t have the wear on my car. This time I have a 2012 Chrysler Altima 300 Luxury Series sedan – the car that practically drives itself.

I got the super premium upgrade because last week when I had to drive 2 1/2 hours (each way) with my current project team and I needed a mini van, which I dutifully ordered 10 days ahead of time. Which Enterprise called me on my cell phone the day before to confirm that I still needed it. Which was not ready and waiting for me when I arrived to pick it up.

The guy tried to hand me the keys to a 15 passenger panel van instead of the tricked out minivan with the captains seats for all the comfort of those I was toting around. Being short of temper I snapped at him that this was not an Orthodox Family Outing, I was driving senior executives and I expected the minivan I ordered.

So they offered me a van that was at another dealership and what choice did I have I let the guy drive me to the dealership 10 minutes away. I had one hour to get the car, go home and put my suit on and gather my files & briefcase. This whole transaction usually takes 10 minutes because the rental place is so close to my house. So off we go to the other rental place 10 minutes away. Except the rental boss calls the guy while he is driving me and says that place no longer has a van so now we have to go and additional 10 minutes. So now I am 30 minutes into my hour with no hope of being on time. Still trying to roll with it, make some calls and tell people I have a problem, and tell the kid to call ahead and make sure this van is ready to drive away the minute we get there.

Then he gets lost.

Because you see he’s never been to this location in the middle of East Nowhere so we get on and off the highway a couple times before he actually finds it. And there it is. The most piece of shit van I have ever seen at a rental place. It rattles. It makes clicking noises. And it smells like candy-coated smoke. I turn it on and the Change Oil light comes on. No kidding. And it has pickup like I’m dragging a U-Haul. But I am stuck so I off I go to run the red light camera gauntlet back to my house, pickup my team and drive for five hours in the nasty van.

So today I was treated to the super upgrade as consolation for the Van Incident.

This Altima is some kinda thang. Its like that Knight Rider car from the ’80s but better. Its got leather everything and is silent as the grave with the windows up. The windows open and close themselves because holding that button the whole time to make the window go up is clearly taxing. The lights and wipers “sense” when they need to come on, the cup holder keeps your beverage hot or cold, it has voice command for using your phone, changing the radio station, picking songs on your ipod, all controlled by a touch screen as big as an ATM in the center of the dash.

I could go on but there are too many features. You can see the crazy luxury at Chrysler if you like.

The reason this car made me think of my father-in-law Sheldon is because he was a man who could really appreciate both luxury and laziness. He would have loved this car. He would have pre-ordered this car last September and gleefully listed its qualities and features to anyone who would listen. Of course its really safe too. You need a lot of air bags to protect people who no longer know how to turn their wipers on.

The thing I covet from the car, other than the 100% silence and feeling like I am in the Mafia with the tinted windows, is the Satellite radio. If I was filthy rich and could buy whatever I wanted, I would pay for Satellite and have 150+ stations to choose from. I always liked the radio best. Punching the buttons, hearing the DJ’s, stumbling on something you forgot or never knew. On my drive I heard Wet Willie, Dan Hicks and Boz Scaggs mixed in with De La Soul, AC/DC and Pittbull. And I thought about Sheldon.

Sheldon was a hoot. I miss him. And I liked driving his car.

I was deleting old text messages today and I came across one from a number I didn’t recognize. It was my daughters old cell phone so I started reading the texts. There was a hilarious string of commentary when she was stuck one evening with some relatives that were less than pleasant.

She reported at one point that her Uncle was threatening his children by saying “Don’t make Mr. Slap come out!”

I immediately pictured a character from those bizarre Little Miss books from the 1970’s – Little Miss Sunshine, Mr Tickle and now introducing Mr. Slap! A cautionary tale for parents to read to their children before they Get On Their Very Last Nerve.

All joking aside, talking about hitting children is always controversial. The line between what some folks call discipline and others call abuse can very fluid depending on your perspective.

I have never spanked my child, and, although my husband and I blow off steam to each other by saying ‘Let the beatings commence!’, I can’t imagine what would actually push me to hurt her.

I grew up watching people hit their children and each other out of anger, frustration, defeat and/or a misguided idea that they were “beating some sense into them”. Nothing about it ever looked effective.

I remember a woman my mother played cards with that lived on our street who never went anywhere without her two boys and a six-pack. Tall, beautiful, with Crystal Gayle hair and an easy laugh, she was a benign drunk rather than violent. Her method of disciplining her older boy Mikey, who was “always bad”, was to tell him to hit himself. And he would. He would slap his own arm and carry on with whatever he was doing.

I don’t know if this relative of ours ever brings out Mr. Slap or not, as we are not very close. But since I have witnessed this couple threatening consequences that they didn’t deliver, it is likely that Mr. Slap is also an empty threat.

Makes you wonder which is worse violent language or the violence itself. One problem I see is that most folks don’t call violent language abuse. A parent (or other adult) can beat on someones self-worth everyday and never leave a visible bruise. Little Mr. Vicious Insult maybe.

Something to think about.

I am conflicted about baking this holiday season. No one really needs the treats and fewer and fewer people (wisely) indulge.

I like baking but have pretty much stopped doing it unless I know there is a large enough group to share with. Comes in handy that I can usually invite neighbors & their children over when I feel like making a cake or some such thing. But often as not some goes to waste.

Holiday baking is loaded with family baggage. My mother showed her love with food, not words, and you accepted her love by eating. Christmas in her house meant 10 – 15 kinds of cookies, fruitcakes soaked in rum for 2 months and assorted pies. Much of it was packed up in pretty tins and given away to priests, friends and family.

The only cookies I miss are the ones we used to call Italian Death Balls, because they are rolled in powdered sugar that, when inhaled, made the cookie eater choke and cough. Hours of sibling amusement.

She sugared them when they came out of the oven and then again when she layered them in the storage tins. Butter and sugar, what can be bad? No commercial ones I have tasted were ever the same.

I asked my daughter if I should make any cookies this year and she said just a few cut outs (the butter cookies with icing) and maybe some brownies. But not too many. So there you have it. I should be able to finish that in one afternoon. Food does not = love to her, which is a good thing to quote Martha.

I think I will invest in some lovely, expensive vodka and spend my extra time perfecting a new holiday cocktail.

Since I now have both feet firmly in the second-half of my life, it seems like a good time to examine the first half, so I decided to start working with a therapist.

I have tried this route before, in times of crisis, with mixed results. Talking to a therapist is always a dicey business because they, like all humans, come with a complete set of their own crap that sits down in the room and shapes the discussion like we are a threesome. The best you can hope for is that their agenda intersects with what you need at the moment. Not usually the case, but it can happen. I am hopeful.

My childhood – those years before you have real agency in life – is stored away in a locked box with enough slush of detail left over to be turned into blog fodder or a funny story. That is usually enough. While I’m curious about looking closely at the stuff I deliberately shut away, I’m a bit anxious because I know good instincts are usually about self-preservation.

I am curious. Curious to see if looking at the past – my kaleidoscope of fractured memories – will reduce its power over the present. Maybe willing those boxes locked sucks more energy than its worth. Who knows. Like a good Gothic romance, could be the rooms in the abandoned house locked so long ago are just… empty.

I am anxious because – what if it really was that bad? Then what? Lots of folks have had a crappy childhood. I’ve spent my whole life telling myself, and others –  ‘It wasn’t that bad. My folks did the best they could with the tools they had.’

Granted, this may have been lingering Stockholm Syndrome given that their toolbox was full of hammers, but I moved on with my life. I left the neighborhood and the expectations of my family, and they said “Who needs ya anyway” and cut me off. Nineteen at the table for thanksgiving became three. There really is no going back once you jump class lines.

One of the stock phrases my mother used when one of us went looking for sympathy was “Some people don’t have any legs”, meaning, it could be worse so quit your whining. I am not looking for sympathy by understanding the past, I am not peddling a story of “triumph over adversity”. I have a fine life. And I have my legs.