My novel is up at Amazon, and I’m THRILLED with my final cover.
Yes, the desperate housewife is out and ready to make you laugh. And, maybe, cry a little. I’m excited to have an author interview in here, and book group discussion questions, and I love my beautiful cover that shows Ruby, the matriarch of Iris’s little clan of wiener dogs.
See it here: The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife
I have a poem up at Panorama, the Journal of Intelligent Travel. That’s an excellent place to place a poem that draws on travels with my mother.
I was only 32 when I went to Italy with Mom. She would only be 55, then, in this photo taken by me on that trip.
Mom loved expensive handbags and good haircuts. This photo shows both, as well as the length and grace of her arms, and her beautiful smile. She’s standing outside the door of the Tempietto Longobardi in Cividale, Friuli, Udine.
the temple of the longbeards
This was taken before the Temple of the Longbeards became a UNESCO world heritage site. Mom and I were able to go in and look around in a way that you just can’t, now.
The temple was built in about the eight century, very soon after they left paganism and became Christians. It may be the only remaining Longobardi (Scandinavian) church. It was built on the site of an old Roman house with scavenged Roman columns, but the choir stalls are purely Scandinavian looking, which thrilled me. I have breed recognition for anything Scandinavian.
suave and mysterious
While we were there, I rented an audio tour, a lovely recording by a woman with a cool British accent. In describing the frieze, the narration said that they were “suave and mysterious.” No one really knows who these figures are supposed to be, but the commentary referred to them as them as “six virgin martyrs, bearing the gift of their lives to Christ.” Accurate or not, I loved that description so much, it made the hair rise on my neck.
This trip with my mother wasn’t easy at times. I’d recently found and started contact with my birth father, and she had so much anger over it. There were times on this trip when she descended into harangue, trying to leverage my love for her into hatred for him. Irresistible force, meet immovable object. No one on earth is as stubborn as I am.
But those harangues were spaced out over the course of three weeks. In between stretched days of Italy’s wonders, the sweet smoker’s voice of my history teacher mother in my ear, gently explaining what was noteworthy, special and important about whatever we were seeing with her trademark intelligence, wit, and barely perceptible lisp. Today is the anniversary of Mom’s death. I’d give just about anything to hear her voice again.
Read the poem here: Directions to the Six Virgins
Profound and bitter disappointment; we’ve all felt it, which explains our hunger to watch it on the faces of others. On Oscar night, where does the camera stay when the winner is announced? That’s right–it lingers on the losers. We are all losers at one time or another. And if it makes us bitter, we lose again. Why? because bitterness makes you hate the world. And what’s wrong with hating the world?
My dang history, as always
I think it was a good thing to start out humbled. My mom loved me, don’t get me wrong, but I was never the top dog, never the apple of anyone’s eye, never my parents’ princess. So I didn’t have to topple. I didn’t have to learn the hard lesson that even though my parents thought I was perfect, the rest of the world really didn’t care what my parents thought. The world was at best indifferent, at worst unimpressed. So be it. I learned to be strong in myself.
I’ve watched people in the world who have a different expectation. They want to know why the world doesn’t think they are as wonderful and perfect and talented and darling and captivating and destined for greatness as their parents did. Those people are lost out here, and they are angry. They spent their childhoods hearing about how special they are. They are furious at the world for not agreeing. They are perpetually disappointed.
Been there myself.
I don’t know how to fix things for those people, but I know some of their anger because, despite my upbringing, I have tasted bitter disappointment. It’s usually (always) romantic. I think I have a mature handle on handling disappointment graciously, and then life comes along and hands me such a bitter pill that I cannot swallow it. When I’m disappointed in love, I’m as prone to being not-gracious as anyone, really. “I thought it was this way, and it turned out to be that way.” It’s so humiliating.
I’ve wanted to lash out.
And if you’re a writer, you can lash out in long, hateful missives intended to make the other person feel like crap. It feels great while you’re doing it, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work, so my advice is to delete those missives before you accidentally send them. Have the catharsis, drain the bile out, hit delete.
But, you say. My words. The truth. My points. These are all very important. He needs to read this.
Nope. No one needs to read that.
You see, by the time the object of your furious desire has moved on, he’s moved on. He’s done all the work before the break up, and he just feels relieved. If you send that letter, he’s going to read it (or he might not even bother to do that) and roll his eyes and think, “Whew, sure glad I’m done with that loon.” Or maybe, “What a petty catalog of gripes and garbage!” Or even, “I never knew that (letter sender) was that mean.” All your letter does is affirm the recipient’s decision to end things.
How do I know this?
Like everyone else, I make choices and I disappoint people. There are people who have wanted me to love them in one capacity or another, and it turns out that I don’t. Usually, I feel sorrow, guilt, some kind of emotional discomfort for disappointing someone, because I’m not a sociopath. But if the disappointed person lashes out at me, I excuse myself emotionally. I no longer feel bad or sorry or anything but irritation. Those attacks are like handing the object of your anger a “Get out of jail free” card. Once you’re mean, the other person gets to dismiss you completely.
(Advice aside: Besides, if you can act like you don’t really care about the breakup, it’s galling to the other person. No one likes to feel unimportant. So go ahead and make him feel unimportant. He dumped you, he deserves it. Take your small and petty revenge and move on. Also, please note that my daughters haaaate this particular piece of KGB advice and think it’s flat-out wrong.)
Disappointment and classical anger.
I thought about this while watching Medea with my guy a few months ago. I understand that Medea might not be your idea of a date night, but it’s ours. And over and over again in this play, Medea is offered a way out of her bitterness, a path out of her spite, a chance at some kind of a life post-husband. And she does not take it. Her anger is more important to her than anything. She expresses it in a way that, while deeply satisfying in the moment, is her doom.
So there’s a moral to this blog post. You might be disappointed now, but sometimes if you’re patient, life will give you just exactly what you want. Be patient. It’s coming. And in the meantime, use your disappointment to learn. Learn to be calm. Learn to be patient. Learn to be gracious. Learn to be disappointed.
Because we might understand Medea, but we really don’t want to be her.
I’m going to start out by saying that my daughter has given me permission to write about the delivery and birth of my first grandson.
So, my daughter was overdue. She sailed through her pregnancy with perfect blood pressure, minimal weight gain, healthy habits and (mostly) good humor, interspersed with what she called her “hormone flares,” when lightning bolts shot out of her eyes and she hated everything and everyone. Aside from those, she was doing great, even when she went past her due date by a week. She was due on Friday, and the next Friday, at her doctor’s behest, she arrived at the hospital at midnight to begin the process of having labor induced. When she checked in, her blood pressure was at stroke/seizure level. The dreaded gestational diabetes had arrived.
The only cure is birth.
I didn’t know this. The plan was that I’d sleep as usual on Thursday night, and hop up to the hospital with a paperback book and my phone charger in my purse. There, I would join my daughter and her boyfriend for the birth, which I assumed my tall, athletic daughter would handle with no trouble at all. The best-laid plans, yes?
So I arrived, and heard about the blood pressure, which I could see on a little screen that monitored her erratic, weak contractions, and the beating of my grandson’s heart. This blood pressure was scary. The nurse assured me that an epidural would bring it way down, but before that she needed to move into real labor. She just wasn’t there yet.
As a veteran of one completely natural birth and two predominantly natural births, I am under the impression that I know what I’m doing. And maybe I do, but I only know what I’m doing in non-medicalized births. My first labor was a rough walk—and I mean a literal walk, because at some point I got up and began to walk around and they really had to convince me to get back into bed—and my second and third deliveries were induced in hospital to avoid precipitous delivery. That’s how we do things on my side of the family after the first one comes. We go fast and hard. I know this from family lore.
My mother, a second child, was born in the front seat of a truck. During a freak snowstorm in June, my grandparents’ car went into the ditch on the way to the hospital. They were picked up by a bachelor farmer, and at some point my grandmother reached down, pulled her coat up between her knees and caught my mom. Grandma was embarrassed but I suppose that farmer was, too. I’ll tell the story of my grandmother’s third child another time—it’s great. A generation later, my brother took a reasonable time to appear, but my sister and I were born quickly. And I took the usual amount of time to have my oldest, but my second was a three-hour affair. Labor with my youngest daughter took 44 minutes.
So this was the legacy I thought I’d have passed on to my daughter. And apparently I couldn’t have been more blithely mistaken. When I arrived up at the hospital, she’d been taking Misoprostol for eight hours, without much progress. And they didn’t want to start Pitocin yet. So we spent some hours watching her progress, and talking, and laughing, but really being scared each time that BP cuff inflated and gave us scary numbers. Finally, they offered her some Fentanyl. She took it, knowing it would help with BP and anxiety and pain, but she haaaaated how it made her feel. Sorry, all you opiate lovers out there, but there are people who despise that rush and I am one of them. So is my daughter. But it relaxed her.
We did some walking around the ward. Walking is a good thing to get contractions going, and she had been training for this for months before she and her C started trying for a baby, so we walked a good half a mile or so. This got the contractions started, and we returned to the room and did the breathing that you do, that natural childbirth stuff I remembered from 27 years earlier, because you really can’t forget it. The contractions were really hurting her.
When she asked for her epidural, we all were relieved, knowing it would bring down her blood pressure. But here’s the thing. It also slowed her progress. I remember watching the monitor that showed baby’s heartbeat and my daughter’s contractions. It’s interesting that the monitor showed her lines, and then the lines of the woman laboring in the room directly next to her. It was pretty easy to tell when her neighbor was delivering–the contractions do something dramatic at that point, they go from modest, regular hills to Grand Tetons to the Swiss Alps, a big jagged mountain range that drops off suddenly–and I said, “Looks like your neighbor beat you.” My daughter said, “Remarks like that don’t help, Mom.” At that point, I guess I thought I could still be flip.
It was so cold in there, but she didn’t mind, so I dealt with it. When I say cold, I mean freezing. When I say freezing, I mean Arctic. And they kept hooking her up to stuff, and running monitors and lines and so on, and she bravely, stoically consented to all of this because how else do you get that baby out? I stopped being flip and became concerned. I would go out into the lobby occasionally to warm up, and I called T at one point and just softly poured out my concerns. He listened, and he would definitely have patted my hand had he been there, but it was enough just to let out my worries. I was okay. The morning turned into an afternoon, and the afternoon into an evening. I spent that night with them, sleeping in a chair while C slept on a bench/bed that was positioned under the window and under the air duct that kept pushing up a relentless stream of icy air on our heads all day and night.
I dozed, then would wake up and watch her contractions, which evened out as she slept (I thought they had stopped, but the monitor was in the wrong place). I didn’t remark on the appearance of a new neighbor, whose contractions didn’t look very impressive, either. I was so cold that night. And so worried. At some point, C woke up and went to take a shower (I am assuming to WARM UP) and he steered me to the bench, where I slept for two hours under that damn icy air. I apparently kept myself from waking up with a form of lucid dreaming–I kept dreaming cold dreams, like I was asleep in a chest freezer, or I was tied to the wings of a bi-plane with icy air current flowing over me, and the like. This allowed me to sleep instead of waking up to shiver.
Morning was a relief. Except of course the neighbor’s contractions did the towering peaks thing they were supposed to do, and my daughter’s stayed as gentle and rolling as hills. She was starting to feel like she was doing something wrong, because she just wasn’t dilating. All the loving support from her C, all my motherly ministrations wouldn’t hurry along the process. At 5:30 AM, they broke her water, warning her that she might get an infection. And we waited for that to make a difference. But each thing they did to her seemed like it pushed away the possibility of a regular birth, until the idea of her pushing out a baby was a tiny ship on the horizon, so far away from whatever was happening in that room.
Later in the morning, T brought me a bag with my heart medicine, toiletries and a Pendleton blanket. I sat with him in the blissfully warm lobby, telling him everything while he listened with love and care, then returned to the deep freeze labor room where I cleaned up, BRUSHED MY TEETH THANK GOODNESS, and wrapped myself in the blanket. I wasn’t sure if it gave me the gunslinger air of the Man With No Name, or maybe it gave me and air of some hippie doula lady who was wearing the blanket to usher in the birth with the help of the Universe and its blessings. I kept that blanket wrapped around me tightly. It saved me from frostbite, I think. And my daughter and C stayed calm and brave as she began gently, finally, to make some progress.
Is there any worse feeling than being in hard labor for over 24 hours, and being told you haven’t made any progress? I don’t know. I could have given birth in a field while chewing on a leather strap, then gotten up and gone back to work. I had no idea what to say, what to do, how to help. I just stayed calm and held her hand and watched that monitor, watching for peaks. C had gone out into the hallway to ask the nurses what they thought, and heard one saying something to the effect of, “You know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid that after all this, she’ll push for two hours and we’ll have to section her anyway.”
After all that work? Worry? Waiting? No. Not fair. But that little ship seemed even farther away. I could almost see the sailors waving at us, wishing us well with the Caesarean. Maybe next time, they said. And my kids would have done it, their goal was a healthy, whole baby, not a natural delivery. But she’d worked so hard. They both had. Was major surgery the only option?
To their credit, not one of the nurses, the doctor, or the midwife ever mentioned a C-section. But it was out there. I knew that if she didn’t have the baby by 5:30 am the next morning, they would take him 24 hours after they broke her water. The staff encouraged her to keep trying, and she did. I wish I’d taken notes, I really do. Because it was such an ordeal, amplified by fear, multiplied by the sheer hours we’d been there. But then, finally, after another day had turned to another night, after she’d gotten a temperature and had to start on two IV antibiotics, after an hour when C had ducked out to try to find something to eat and the epidural failed her, my daughter and I sat quietly, doing the breathing while the terrible contractions of active labor overtook her.
I knew she was making progress, because this is how my own first labor had progressed. Hours of labor. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and boom. A lot of progress in a short time. When C returned and the midwife checked her again, she was almost there. And after a very kind and sweet anesthesiologist came in and re-relieved her pain (I cannot be thankful enough for how carefully he listened to her, how gently she advised her, how sweetly he encouraged her), after the table full of draped birth supplies was rolled in, our matter-of-fact and encouraging midwife said she could push a little.
C hadn’t told me about what he’d overheard in the hall, but I believe it steeled him to be the best, strongest coach he could be for the pushing. He held one of her hands and pulled back one of her legs, and I took the other. It was just us and a nurse at that point. And after she did push a little, it was clear the baby was descending. I mean, he was arriving. C said, “We need some more people in here.” I thought it might take longer, but somehow, he just knew his son was imminent.
The midwife came back in, in they took the drape off the birth supplies and took the bed apart and made it into a delivery table and ushered in the NICU staff (there because my daughter gave birth in the high-risk area). And she pushed and we cheered and she pushed and the baby began his descent into the world, he was coming and it was happening, slowly but surely and irrevocably, all of us cheering and watching and hoping and that little head appeared and retreated and appeared a little more, and when I got too tired to pull on that leg another doctor took hold, and after fifty minutes of effort and encouragement, my daughter curled up like a potato bug one last time and pushed and then he was there, this long jumble of baby and cord and limbs and head and shoulders, his head a cone and his forehead scratched from battle, but she did it, all that work and he was finally there, 11:11 PM, just 49 minutes short of 48 hours after they got the hospital.
My grandson is the most amazing little thing in the universe to me right now. Beloved, precious and perfect. 8 lb 7 oz and 22 inches, for those of you who would like to know the dimensions. Eye color is still a mystery, hair is soft, silky, blond/brown. He looks like my daughter and C both, and he has the longest legs and squarest shoulders. Everyone is settled in and doing fine, especially since her milk came in. This is a new venture for me, this grandparent thing.
I really can’t wait to watch my grandson grow.
As I await the birth of my first grandchild, I can’t help but admire his mother-to-be. My youngest child, a mere baby of 27, is term. She has gamely carried on with a full load of working fulltime, co-parenting a stepchild, exercising, cooking, cleaning, and carefully preparing a nursery with paint, wallpaper, a crib fit for a tiny royal family member, and décor and organization suggestions from Pinterest. She’s maintained her beautiful self, though I can see the strain she undergoes in the circles under her eyes. When we go shopping, she needs to sit and rest a bit, and when she sits, she really SITS, and when she rests, she really RESTS. As I edge up here to my 60s, we are currently at energy parity. Her feet hurt too.
Of course, this takes me back to when I was waiting for my first child. I was a young mother-to-be of 22, which was pretty young, even in those days. I’d gone to school full-time and worked 30 hours a week until I was gently instructed to knock all that off by my doctor. He was young and excited by his new profession, and supported my desire to keep going for as long as I could. My blood pressure was always perfect, my health was fine, but there were limits to my energy and it was time to rest. I had finished the term at school in June. I let go of my job (nannying three kids, who I loved dearly). Even with my own on the way, that was hard. And I came home.
oh, that neighborhood
Home, at the time, was the ground floor of a duplex in Northeast Portland. This was a corner of Haight Street, between Williams and Mississippi. The neighborhood is completely gentrified, now, and the old place has a nice fenced yard and urban chickens, but at the time it was rough. Nowadays, Mississippi is a cool shopping and restaurant neighborhood, very hip and experiential, with a salt store and a ‘Por Que No’ and the like. Back then, it was a mess. We lived next door and across the street from drug dealers (lots of consumer choices, I guess), and up the street from a motorcycle club’s (Gypsy Jokers, to be specific) residence house. But we were also surrounded by families who had been in the neighborhood since the forties; established homeowners who carefully tended their yards and said patient, encouraging things to my ever-swelling bulk.
pop and horror
It was a desperately hot spring and summer that year, and we had no AC, so I kept myself cool by sitting on the sofa with large glasses of orange pop. I have never liked or drank pop at any other time in my life, but it was a necessity during those weeks for some reason. I also read. I only wanted to read scary books. I borrowed a lot of Stephen King and Peter Straub from my parents’ bookshelves, settled in with frosty glasses of sugar, and scared the crap out of myself, all day long. My due date was July 14th, and I waited for it like it was magic. Despite a complete lack of contractions, I remained sure that my child would appear on that date. It was due, after all. On the day itself, my then-husband came home with 24 white roses, and one small pink rosebud in the middle, because he knew how badly I wanted a girl. Those roses kept me company for the next two weeks as I continued to read, drink pop, and wait.
There is an old saying that pregnancy is eight months and one year long. It’s true. There is no waiting like the waiting to give birth. I remember thinking that I was the only woman in the world whose pregnancy wouldn’t ever come to an end. I would be pregnant for the rest of my life, forever. I was simply never going to have my baby. And I look at my beautiful daughter, and I know she feels the same way. He’s in there still, just hanging out. He’s been inspected, photographed, measured and scanned to a degree I find remarkable. He’s healthy and he’s ready, except he’s not ready, or labor would start. And so she waits, and works, and rests when she can, and dreams of the day when he appears. I can’t wait, but I have to. I am so ready to welcome the little boy she’s so lovingly prepared for, the grandson my daughter has miraculously grown from scratch, the sweet, familiar stranger, the strong little passenger who will finally reach the destination of his birth.
I made a trip back to South Dakota two years ago, after decades of not seeing it. I left the prairie as a child and hadn’t realized how deeply the roots of this landscape grew in me. Recognition rang me like a bell, even though many floods have changed what I found when I went “home.”
I could hardly speak my joy at the miles of wheat and barbed wire fencing, the glimpses of badlands, the red-winged blackbirds on every fence post, the tiny ground squirrels rushing across the highway. Water towers and speed traps, billboards calling me to tourist traps, the eerie grandeur of the Badlands. I drove a causeway over a lake full of migrating pelicans and dead trees gone bare and silver.
The floods that have reclaimed parts of the prairie have changed the landscape in subtle ways and loaned a pearly mist to the summer sky. It softens the summer heat I remember from my own childhood there. And it’s claimed so many of the farmhouses; farms are still active, but no one lives in the houses anymore.
Floods & Lost homes
This is why I couldn’t find my grandparents’ home outside Claremont. It’s gone, damaged beyond repair by flooding and torn down. I thought I couldn’t find it because the two rows of tall trees (species lost to memory–edited to add, my sister says they were oak) that flanked their long drive were cut down and sold long ago. Why keep such a welcome when there was money to be made from the lumber? But the last time I visited, in 1996, their two-story house still stood.
My grandfather bought this house for my grandmother in 1964, I believe. Their marriage had been strained by an attempt to live in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. My grandfather was an ardent member of the John Birch Society. He wanted to live in a valley that could be dynamited closed at both ends in the event of a Communist attack, and there were only a few of those in the country. He chose Montana.
My grandmother hated Montana. She loved open vistas and the prairie horizon. She felt oppressed by mountains and excessive trees (later in life, she disliked Washington state for its forests). But Grandmother Lucille was a quiet woman who rarely drove and didn’t write a check until her husband died. I’m not sure how she orchestrated a return to the prairie. My grandfather always got his way, but in this, she prevailed. Had he screwed up in some grievous, secret way? Well yes, he had, my grandfather was a man of secret practices, but that didn’t come out for another eight years. I’m not sure why he returned to South Dakota, bought the farm, and gave my grandmother cart blanche to transform it, but he did.
A grandparent’s home is always seen through a lens of childhood. It is generally larger and more opulent than any other home in your memory, by sheer dint of your own smallness back then.
We approached along a tree-lined drive, an overarching ostentation that thrilled me as a child. We parked around the side of the house (the front door was enclosed by a newer screened porch), and entered through a mudroom at the back of the house. It was for boots, jackets, for deciding where you wanted to go–the house or the basement. There was an iron grate that closed off the basement steps, a showy affair with an “O” worked into the design, but my sister and I rarely went down there. (edited to add–my sister says it was “V O”, Grandpa’s initials, and that we pretended this was the gate to the “Village Orphanage,” and we played orphanage down there ALL THE TIME, and I believe her). Birchers are preppers (apparently they are experiencing a resurgence), and he had a basement full of canned goods and other defenses against the Commies, who he sincerely believed were poised off the coast in submarines, ready to take down America. I do remember an old Hoosier cabinet that we loved to play kitchen with, and how scandalized we were when my aunt took it away to California. It never occurred to us that it was hers.
Past the basement, we walked up three steps into a hallway that held a gigantic chest freezer. My grandfather had opened the first feedlot in South Dakota. That meant he raised small herds of cattle that, once they’d been pastured to a reasonable weight, were locked up in a feeding barn to gorge on corn, which marbled their flesh with oh-so-desirable fat. My grandfather was fond of opening the freezer and sweeping his hand across the pile of meat within, reverently intoning his favorite mantra: “(However many pounds) of corn-fed beef.” Then he would close it, so proud of the fruits of his livelihood.
This was primarily a corn-fed beef household, though our grandmother fried chicken fairly often, and invited us out to eat it since my mother refused to cook chicken. My grandmother was a magnificent cook of whatever she touched. Later in life, after my grandfather had his stroke and was in a nursing home, leaving her to pursue a quiet single life, Grandma said, “I remember when I could get a pot roast around with about as much effort as it takes me to make toast, now.” And she laughed, fondly.
Grandma loved the words “fond,” “grateful,” and “lovely.”
It’s kind of amazing that my memory tour hasn’t even left the back hallway, isn’t it?
So we would leave the freezer behind, and walk into the laundry room, with its linoleum floor. On the wall was mounted an old wooden crank telephone, something my grandfather found at a farm auction. Aside from the washer and dryer, and a high shelf full of treasures like the metal Scotty dog with a broken tail that my grandmother occasionally let me play with, the only furniture was a small antique school desk with one drawer. In that drawer was a white enameled tin bowl full of crayons. Those were for me. Other grandchildren visited, my siblings and cousins. But I, in my naive grandchild innocence, assumed the crayons were mine. On one visit, I opened the drawer and found papers drawn on by my cousins. I felt utterly invaded.
In the way of all rooms in those old farmhouses, the laundry room had five doorways. One was just the opening you passed through from the hall with the freezer. One door led to a half-bath, one to the kitchen, and a funny angled door actually led to a walk-in pantry (edited to add–none of my siblings remember a pantry, so I might be confabulating, but Grandma’s kitchen was small and she had to store her pantry stuff somewhere, didn’t she?). I wonder, now, just how small and useless that laundry room must have been. At the time, it seemed large and light to me, sitting in that school desk and coloring in my coloring books.
The main back hallway was carpeted, and similarly doored. It had the door from the laundry room, a second back door (I think this was a Dutch door), a door to the upstairs, a door to the screen porch (formerly the front door), an archway into the living room, and an opening that led to my grandparents’ bedroom and en suite bathroom. I stayed out of their room and bathroom. These were part of their adult world. I do know they had extra-long twin beds with custom-made bedspreads, and that Grandmother had a huge box of costume jewelry that I loved to play with. But that was a penultimate treat, almost the last weapon in her arsenal of tricks to amuse visiting grandchildren. The ultimate treat was investigating the contents of the small glass-lidded jewelry box where she kept her “good” jewelry; watches, her first wedding set, her own mother’s white-gold wedding band.
The stairs were carpeted, and led to two upstairs bedrooms. One was the “east room” and one was the “west room.” I have no sense of direction at all, so it remains a mystery which was which. One was furnished as a little sitting room, with a linen-covered loveseat and small tables, and a painting of a fruit basket on the wall that my mother and grandfather found at a farm auction. This room had a big closet in the eaves with an actual safe in it. Grandpa kept his gun in there. Since he was a John Bircher, he probably had a lot of money in there. I liked the closet because Grandmother Lucille kept her Mother West Wind books in there, which she read to me often in her gentle, calm voice.
The other bedroom was also called a “guest room.” It had a double bed and a closet full of cast-off clothing, including my grandmother’s navy blue chiffon wedding dress. She was small enough in her youth, and I was tall enough in mine, that I could wear it in third grade. There was a low dresser full of the kinds of things that make their way into dressers when clothing doesn’t. I found the first baby pictures I’d ever seen of myself in this dresser when I was six or seven. I’d been wondering if I was adopted due to the lack of baby photos, so I was greatly relieved to see them.
But back to downstairs, which I usually reached by sliding down the steps on my bottom, thump thump thump all the way down on the carpet, then through the back hall, through the laundry room, and through another door. So many doors!
The kitchen was a galley, and at one end was “the breakfast room.” It looked out on Grandmother’s lilac hedges, and held a table and chairs and one of my grandfather’s recliners. We would all sit at the table, and he’d sit in that recliner. There must have been a breakfront or buffet table in there, because I remember a pair of huge ceramic chickens. My grandmother loved birds and chickens, or at least representations of them. They were everywhere in her house, including a small pewter toothpick holder with a baby chick sitting on a wishbone that I handled a lot, fascinated by the wishbone.
The kitchen had dark wood cabinets, and both the kitchen and breakfast room had dark, planked oak floors laid with pegs, no nails. My mother loved to tell me this with awe and house-lust in her voice, that these were pegged floors. Grandmother eventually had these floors covered with indoor-outdoor carpeting, which horrified my mother and me.
At the other end of the kitchen was an archway that led to the living room-dining room, with a huge heavy oak dining set that was only used on holidays, set with Grandmother’s fleur di lis china and ornate sterling silver. My mother knew the names of the patterns, and loved the brown and white china. A huge oak hutch stretched along the living room wall to hold the radio (it had tubes that needed to heat up) and a color TV (same with the tubes), around which we would gather to watch The Lawrence Welk Show. My grandparents got so excited about Lawrence Welk. I’d catch the general vibe of anticipation, then become more and more confused as the show commenced through polkas, Bobby and Sissy, and so on. Why would anyone want to watch that?
The room held a beautifully upholstered tuck and roll sofa (there were matching draperies over the bay window), an oak butler’s tray coffee table, and of course, another ugly recliner for my grandfather. I thought this room was incredibly sophisticated. My mother told me the story of how Grandmother had ordered the “distressed oak” hutch top from England. A local woodworker had built the lower part of the hutch to order, and nearly cried when he had to take a bicycle chain to it before applying the finish. It had to be distressed, like the hutch top.
There was one other incredibly special part of this home, and it was the carpet. It was a wool short shag in shades of gold, and it covered the back hall, the stairs, all three bedrooms, the living and dining room. Grandmother Lucille had this carpet woven in England, all in one piece. The installers opened it up, unrolled it, and tacked it down. It fit perfectly. My mother thought this was carpet was incredible, and I have to agree. She would talk about the arrival of that carpet like it was the arrival of Christ.
Gone with the floods
And so, with its glorious details so thoroughly enshrined in my memory, is it any wonder that I couldn’t believe this house was gone? My grandparents’ home of endless doors and English wool carpet, where we spent Christmas Eves, basking in the beauty of their artificial tree with its spun cotton birds, red velvet bows and gold satin balls. Where my grandmother fixed an all-white Christmas Eve dinner for my grandfather that included oyster stew, oyster crackers, white rolls and vanilla ice cream. Where she cooked her fabulous meals and baked the best rhubarb pies and grew the sweetest tomatoes and tended her lavender lilacs and called everything “lovely.” How could this house be gone?
In my own home, I keep a little of it. The painting of the fruit basket hangs in my entry. The metal Scotty dog with the broken tail is on my bedroom bookcase, and the pewter toothpick holder is on my dining room buffet. The small antique school desk is in my living room, though the crayons are gone. And a few pieces of Grandmother’s good jewelry made their way to my keeping, because I visited her when I was fifteen and she pressed them breathlessly into my hands, wanting me to “have something.”
But the house of pegged oak floors and one-piece English wool carpeting is gone, taken by the floods of South Dakota. Everything is lost, eventually. Everything goes on. But oh, how the cradle of memory rocks us.
It’s time for a cover reveal for that book I was going on about; here it is! Well, a draft of it, anyway. This beautiful cover (featuring Ruby, the Dachshund matriarch) was designed by the fantastic Mark Ferrari. The cover has me so excited!
The book will be live soon. Here is the synopsis, so you know what’s in store:
“I have five kids. I don’t have time to be happy.”
Each day, Iris Bourne runs a gauntlet in the California suburbs: dealing out meals with the ease of a professional card shark, scaling mountains of laundry, acting as judge and jury for sibling battles, negotiating bedtime with the skill of a career diplomat.
Iris has time for exactly one hobby—entering contests—and she’s just won a trip for two to Hawaii. She’s ready for a taste of Paradise, but her husband, Hart, keeps spoiling the mood by asking her if she’s happy. Happy? Iris has no time to be happy. When Hart announces that he is not, her life becomes even more complicated.
With nonstop humor and heartbreaking honesty, Iris navigates parenthood, loss, new romance and the burdens of caregiving. Most importantly, she learns the lessons and limits of forgiveness. Readers will laugh, cry, and cheer as Iris rallies friends and family to defend her glorious, messy, beautiful suburban life.
Ordering the Iris Files
I’ll have an ordering link soon. Watch this space for further developments.
It’s hard, asking for things, isn’t it? At least, for me it is.
The word my mom always used to describe me is “self-sufficient.” She was amazed that a baby could have internal resources. She used the example of cleaning the sun room, which served as a toy room, when I was a baby. She’d dump all the toys from my brother and sister in the middle of the room, and then start sorting them away. I’d sit and play with whatever was left. Eventually, she said, I’d be sitting there, contentedly playing with dustbunnies and a clothespin.
Mom loved this story and I find it illustrative, but not in a “poor pathetic me” way. Oh look at me, the baby on the floor of the sun room, playing with dirt. No, that’s not how I see it, but I have a hard time articulating exactly how I do see it.
Asking for things.
I asked my mother for three things. A small bisque doll from the Shackmans catalog when I was five, like a tiny Bye-lo (it was just like this one). I tried to demand this and it didn’t work. I remember the tantrum I threw. Mom was adamant, but the doll showed up on my sixth birthday, and I remember internalizing the lesson. Things are given. One does not demand. One displays the need, the preference, and one is granted, like magic, what one desires.
I put this strategy to work with the next thing Mom said I asked for; a set of Raggedy Ann and Andy books that would come in the mail, like a book club. I brought her the flyer, talked with her about how I would happily share them with my older sister, how much I wanted them. And asked respectfully if we could at least sign up to get the free book. And miraculously, my mother agreed.
You’d think, having learned how to ask, I’d have tried again. But it wasn’t my nature. The bisque baby tantrum was an aberration in my childhood behavior, and not rewarded. But the book club request was also an aberration, and even though it was rewarded, it wasn’t repeated.
The third and final ask.
I didn’t ask for anything else until I was thirteen. I was at this cool boutique in Bozeman, and I found an alpaca cape trimmed with llama hide. It was a true 1973 leftover hippy wonder garment, and my sister and I wanted it. But I was the one who told our mother about it, I was the one who went home and described it and it cost forty dollars, do you have any idea how much money that was in 1973? I knew I would never get it. My dad made 11K a year as a forester, if that gives you any idea. From somewhere, Mom got the money and bought it for me. It seemed miraculous.
On the way home she explained, “It’s that you never ask for anything, Karen.” And she was right. I didn’t. I think those three things were it, as far as asking my mom for anything at all. She offered plenty and she gave plenty, but it wasn’t because I asked.
When asking backfires.
When my friend Jay was still alive, back when we were still friends, he said, “You don’t ask for much. Hardly anything, to be honest.” But I do ask for things, I really do. I actually lost my friendship with Jay because I asked for one week off from hearing about his problems with a friend of mine. I was so tired of hearing about it that I asked them both for a week where we talked about anything else but their breakup. She completely understood. He ended our friendship. Look, I wanted to say to him, look what happens when I ask for something. But of course, I never said that to him, and he passed away, so that was that.
Asking for something carries risk, then. There is the risk of rejection, of disappointment, of denial.
Still, I continue to ask. I ask for space. I ask for quiet. I ask for respect of my intellectual boundaries, the uninterrupted time I need to live in my head so that writing can come out. I ask for less engagement, less conversation. Sometimes I ask for conversations about dogs or TV shows, rather than emotions or disappointments. I ask for time to go away and be alone. I ask for weekends to myself. I ask for rain checks.
I ask for things that make people feel rejected. Because even though I love them, what I’m really asking for is less of them.
Asking within the marriage.
Everyone else wants more time, more contact, more conversation. I am atypical. And when I admit this, I see how much of the estrangement in my marriage was my fault. Because my ex is a man who needs more. More time, attention, affection and affirmation. Even now when he stops by, I set up my little fences, look at him over my glasses, over my laptop. Sorry, I say. Not a good time. Go talk to your girls.
I remember that he expressed this when we were married. He said, “You never make a fuss over me.” And I said, “What do you want, a one-man-band in the living room every night playing the ‘you are special’ song? A little party to celebrate you?” I also said, “What do you ever do to make me feel special? Ever?” He had no answer, because he basically didn’t do that (as a side note, whenever someone calls me nice, I crack up).
I’m not very nice, and I don’t need anyone to make me feel special. I don’t require it. I’m at times embarrassed when people make me feel special. There will be a birthday or the like and everyone will be so nice and giving and sweet and I’ll become completely flustered, unsure of how to graciously accept the attention. I do like it, once in a while. I just don’t need or want it most of the time.
I’m not like the other girls, you see.
I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand that with my emotional self-sufficiency comes a lack of empathy for the millions of normal people who aren’t emotionally self-sufficient. Not everyone else is a self-repairing emotional robot. Not everyone wants to go live in their head and make up people and stare at a monitor and type until their fingertips go numb and their eyes bleed. I think anyone who doesn’t is missing out on the one true and real joy of life, but there you have it. Not everyone goes through life listening in on it, recording it for later use in the illustration of some basic emotional truth. Not everyone is interesting in observing life rather than living it.
This is why it shocks me when people say I’m a good mom. I’m not. I’m far too self-involved. I love the interior of my head and I adore my own company. I’m also not a very good friend because I forget people and I don’t make time and I pull away when I want to write or when I’m sad, tired, or overwhelmed by stress. That’s maybe ninety percent of the time. And yet I’m told I’m a good friend, too. I already know I’m hopeless as a wife or girlfriend and have periodically withdrawn myself from that market, though I appear to be doing a good job at the present time. But we are on our second go-round. He knows me. He knows how weird I am. He loves me anyway.
That is a wonderful thing, to ask for acceptance and love, and to receive it.
I guess I never really understood how strange I am until I started thinking about this. I think I should have to wear a sign. It would say, “Faulty wiring.” It would warn the world that I’m not quite the norm in the head, but I like it in here, anyway.
And now, I’m off to play with my dustbunnies and clothespins.
Yes, I’m going to make a book announcement about The Iris Files. Yes, it’s actually going to be called The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife. Yes, I’ll talk more about that book in a minute. But first, I want to talk about…
I never wanted a yard, but I have one. I wanted a big house on a small lot, but my ex-husband wanted the reverse and he won. But then he left, and here I am on this junior acre, twenty years later. My yard is TERRIBLE. Various broken stragglers lean here and there like emaciated beggars in a third world city, begging to be pruned or moved or just dug up and put out of their misery. I’m not a yardwork person, and so this is just how it’s going to be until I give up and buy a condo.
As I mentioned, I still live in the house I bought with my ex-husband. He was my second husband, and I have this tendency to call him my ex-husband, instead of my second ex-husband. It’s embarrassing to have two of those, and since he is the father of my children, he’s the ex-husband who counts. So he is heretofore referred to as my ex-husband.
Back when we bought this house, it had minimal landscaping. It was basically Kentucky Bluegrass (a terrible choice for Oregon) bordered by long channels of red lava rock. Like a military base. The only flowers were bearded irises. MASSES of bearded irises, rising in a long line up the walkway. Yellow, purple, maroon, with a few of the purple and white, blooming madly and emitting their toothpaste smell as I went to my front door. They were not my kind of flower—I prefer the more delicate wild iris—but the bearded blooms have a certain acromegalic majesty. Our iris display was dramatic enough to draw commentary from passers by.
More Yard Nonsense
Over the six years that my ex and I shared this home, we tried valiantly to find plants and flowers that would thrive in the horrible clay soil of our yard. We added some rhodies, which still wither in the reflective heart of the driveway to this day. We tried roses, which have somehow survived the heinous neglect I have subjected them to. Neighbors gave us gorgeous white calla lily bulbs, which did fine for years. But of course, like irises, lilies must be unearthed and divided now and then. Guess who didn’t do that after her husband moved out? That’s right. The death of the irises is all my fault.
But not all the Irises have died!
Some years after my divorce, I wrote a book about a woman named Iris. It’s about a failing marriage, and I probably thought it was too personal to publish. No, my name is not Iris. I do not have five children, nor do I have four dogs. But in too many ways, it is the most personal book I will ever write. And it is going live soon.
The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife
The Iris Files is coming out for these reasons:
- Because my progress with the new Orcas book is slow and steady, even after my co-author’s magnificent SFWA reading of the first chapter had them roaring with laughter the other night.
- Because it is Sue’s favorite.
- Because I am impatient with a much larger project, basically my life’s writing project, that will hopefully arrive this fall. I needed an interim project to give my mind something to work
onover like a bone.
- Because I can.
I will soon have a cover and a link for preorder and all the things one must have in order to make a book real. Until then, read something else and pray for my yard. Thanks.
A first person account of a day spent thrift shopping–written probably ten years ago. I’m putting it up because, aside from being alone as much as i want these days, it’s still that same feeling to go to a thrift store.
I’ve spent today doing what I like to, instead of what I have to. This is because I am alone. Me, alone. I am never alone. Imagine me, alone. Just imagine you’re me, and you wake up and you know you’re going to be alone.
Union Gospel Mission
I start the day by dropping off Oldest at a long rehearsal, and then get myself some coffee and go to the Union Gospel Thrift Store. It’s always been a waste of time to go to Union Gospel. They have the worst crap ever. I go for sociological reasons, I tell myself, I go to see the abandoned detritus of every pointless garage sale in my neighborhood, arranged and priced as if anyone anywhere would ever buy it, and the secret hope that any thrifter has, which is that she will find treasure.
First, there’s the building. I believe at one point this was a waterbed store. Do any of you remember waterbed stores? Well, I do, I remember the waterbed as you will all remember the futon when everyone abandons those. At least waterbeds were comfortable. The building is concrete-floored and hangar-sized, with high, bright florescent lights that buzz unmercifully and a back loft reached by two staircases made out of what looks like heavily bolted waterbed wood. This is one sturdy building, which makes sense when you think that at one point they probably had a hundred full waterbeds on display.
I love to think of those days, the heyday of the waterbed, all burnt-edged and mirror-hutched. I spent them drinking too much and finishing high school, completely unaware of what my life was going to be. I lived in the moment. But those days are over, along with feathered hair and perms and aviator-shaped wire rim glasses and A Smile and Gelato pants and disco dancing. We are back to the present, we are not in a waterbed emporium, we are at the Union Gospel Thrift Store, facing life after the End of Waterbeds. And I am the only customer in this enormous building.
Contemporary Christian music blares out over the junk, and the walls are hung with Praise banners. There is also a big sign telling me that there is a sale going on, in which everything over the price of five dollars is half price. Wow. I look around, and realize it won’t make a lick of difference. No one is going to buy anything. Union Gospel is one of the few thrift stores that will take old sofas, and so they always have lots of those, sagging, flattened, faded, filthy sofas with price signs that say “10.00 Flat!” on them. What is “flat”? Even the books are bad, because they won’t sell anything supernatural or racy, due to the overwhelming religious sensibilities of the Union Gospel Mission. For this same reason they will not sell anything Halloween-related.
I carefully, slowly, langorously inspect the offerings, which are too pathetic to describe in any detail. It is a graveyard of ugly clothing, spotted mattresses, rejected dinettes, early American wood veneer hutches, and wall art that is too dated to grace the bathroom wall of a Grocery Outlet. But I look at it, because, you know, there might be treasure. I inspect the television cabinets, hoping one will be right for my personal papers, but of course they are all wretched. I even look at the luggage, looking for an old piece of Samsonite, you know the kind, with the satin pouches and grogain ties inside. But no luck. No treasure.
Under one set of stairs, I see a painted booth erected for trying on clothes. It has a latch and a mirror and a sign about not bringing merchandise other than clothing in, while trying on. Since the stairs are just treads, not risers, it has a ceiling on it. I cannot imagine trying on clothing in it, even on the off chance that I found something worth trying on in the racks. It looks like an outhouse. But I never look at clothes at thrift stores, so it’s only an object of passing interest.
I walk up one of the wide, sturdy waterbed furniture staircases, and I look at the books, which are as bad as usual, though I note with interest that they have separated the “Man authors” from the “Woman authors” and alphabetized accordingly. Is this a new thing, the sexual segregation of reading material? Whose idea was this, I want to ask? But the ragged man slamming videos into the table that is already stuffed with videos (Uncle Buck, Curly Sue) doesn’t invite conversation about the sorting methods utilized there at the Union Gospel Mission Thrift Store.
I can’t even find the housewares, which I am only trying to find because I’m hoping there will be a super-heavy vintage Revere soup pot, the big size. Oldest ruined mine a couple of years ago and I still haven’t gotten over it. I finally find what appears to be the kitchenwares corner, but it’s predominantly filled with airpots for hot beverages. I count 14 of them there in the corner. 14 airpots, and not one vintage Revere soup pot.
I go back down the other massive wooden stairs, and make my way to the front of the store, where the woman who works the cashier desk is making the popcorn while singing along to the song on the PA system, which I have never heard before. This music is as meaningless to me as the buzzing of the lighting. “Bye,” I say to her, and “Have a good day,” she replies. Which she seems to mean, so it makes me smile.
I make my way down the highway to Value Village, because I have no treasure. None. And perhaps I’ll find some there.
Value Village used to be a Safeway, and it is large, clean, well-lit, with nice booths for trying on clothing and a clean bathroom. They used to sell popcorn, but they don’t anymore, which is fine. Popcorn breaks my teeth. I have a definite circuit in Value Village, which is: dishes, housewares, furniture, books. They never have any books. Value Village (or “Savers,” if you live in another state) buys their stuff by the ton from Goodwill, and I think Goodwill is not letting them buy books anymore, so I never find anything there. But I find two glasses that match my glasses, which is great because my glasses are always disappearing, so I snag those, and then I find a pretty throw pillow for my pretty bed (my bed is really pretty, if I haven’t already mentioned this ten times, it’s very pretty), so I snag that.
And then while perusing lamps, I see a vintage typewriter and it’s really cool, and it makes me think about a lovely chat friend turned blog friend who adores typewriters, but the truth is it weighs a ton and I have nowhere to put it and if I move this fall, I’ll have to move this. But it’s a good price, and a cool thing, so I make myself a deal. I will advance it until I have to use the return lever, and if it dings, I’ll buy it. The dinger does not ding. So I leave it there for someone like my friend to find, someone who really loves it and wants it and will know how to fix the dinger, as opposed to someone like me who recognizes that it’s wonderful but does not really want to own it.
And then I cruise past the luggage, always hoping because well, you never know, and yes, there it is. The treasure. It’s a large mottled ivory piece of real Samsonite. I set down my glasses and my throw pillow and I swing the suitcase up on a pile of mattresses to pop the shiny brass latches, you know the kind, they are pointed at each end and you pull the lower point towards you and they pop out and up, and they both work. There is a Samsonite shield near the lock, and the initials of the original owner, AFC, as well. The interior is intact, all the taffeta lining, the ruched divider, the side pockets with their ruffles and elastic, the plastic bar to hold things down. It’s perfect and lovely and it’s marked at 6.99.
SIX NINETY NINE!!!!
Salvation Army Boutique
A find like this can keep a woman thrifting for hours. A find like this is what drew me out to the thrift stores, to be honest, because I’d stopped by the Salvation Army “Boutique” after work last night, hoping to find a vintage jewelry box for my sister. I didn’t, but I found an old frame for an old photo I already have of a towheaded child with a Prince Valiant haircut dressed in white lawn and kid maryjanes (the first name is written across the bottom of the photo–“Cleo” something–I still can’t tell if Cleo is a boy or a girl, but I love the photo), and then I found another framed sepia photo of a small graduating class in 1920-something, three rows of somber boys and girls holding rolled (I think grade school) diplomas, and then I found three old wind-up alarm clocks, three, all ivory painted metal and faded brown dials with a million keys and levers on the backs, for 3.99 each, and I bought all three and brought them home and it’s the lingering memory of last night’s finds that has brought me out today, and it could keep me thrifting all day, it’s what keeps the slots-player plugging in the coins after the jackpot has been hit, the card player meeting the ante after a spectacular hand, it’s the desire for another hit, and I could circle thrift stores all day hoping for another find like this suitcase or that Big Ben and its two lovely wind-up companions, and never find one more thing worth buying.
But I am saved from this fruitlessness by a call from Youngest. She’s awake and where am I and would I please bring her a biscuit? Of course. And so I leave the treasure hunting for the day, and return home to give her a hug and a biscuit, and listen to her make fun of her hair and hear about a very lame party she went to the night before, and then I watch her leave, leaving me alone in my home, alone, alone. I am blissfully alone to listen to music, sort out my jewelry box, work some more on my new short story, listen to CDs at any volume I like, eat Brussells sprouts for lunch, mend the broken legs on a horse netsuke, and prepare two big quiche for Sunday dinner tomorrow.
Oh, it’s a nice day. When it rains I feel cozy, and then the sun breaks through, I feel euphoric. I have listened to Brandi Carlile, and William Topley, and Mindy Smith’s newest, and now with the Ryan Adams. And you should see the suitcase.
It’s treasure, I tell you, treasure.