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.
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) 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 an 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 horrific secret practices, but my grandmother didn’t find that 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. 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.
We usually ignored the basement, and 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.
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.
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. 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, 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 twin beds, 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 grandmothers 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, 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
Oh you lucky dogs, two blog posts in one week.
We made a quick trip to Las Vegas last week. We flew out on Thursday afternoon and flew home Saturday morning, like some bizarre weirdos because who leaves Vegas on Saturday besides bizarre weirdos? Well, we did, and I was so happy to do so (see my previous post on introversion). Las Vegas is not an environment in which the introvert generally flourishes. The dinging, blinging half-life of the casino gets old fast, and creates in me an intense longing for a window that looks out on greenery.
Still, the trip was awesome. It was awesome because I was traveling with my own personal Vegas expert, who planned and executed the entire trip to rectify an omission in my life. A serious omission. A nearly inexplicable omission.
The story of that omission begins on a Montana ranger station in 1973.
Me in all my 13 year-old glory, me with my self-cut bangs and my big-legged jeans covered with patches and embroidery, and of course, me in my tank top, because that was my favorite outfit. Jeans of enormity and texture, and as little top as possible. There were also some giant sweaters, one with a frayed heart appliqued on it, and moccasins that were somewhat too large, and a chambray shirt worn to shreds.
I actually didn’t look like that when I arrived in Montana in seventh grade. Before that, we’d been living in a tiny town in Booneville, Arkansas. I was a fairly normal seventh grader in Arkansas, wearing normal clothing, getting straight A’s, part of a family of good singers who were welcomed and utilized in choir, and called to perform at patriotic rallies and the like. Teachers seemed to enjoy me, despite my need to argue at length about why McGovern should win with my Social Studies teacher. I was liked by most of my classmates because I was funny, and pursued by older boys because I was physically mature. I was happy in Arkansas, and I liked who I was when I arrived in Montana. But a few months there turned me into someone else entirely.
My dad was a forester, and his assignment took us from Arkansas to Montana. We lived in a little log house up the Gallatin River from a tiny town called Gallatin Gateway, on the Squaw Creek Ranger Station. The name has since been changed to something else (let’s all be glad together), and our little log house is gone. But Gallatin Gateway is still there.
Back then, the people who lived there called it Gateway. To me, it seemed that the adult residents were all some configuration of Christians, alcoholics and ropers (what they called themselves instead of cowboys). Whatever their children’s dreams might have been, the rigid suffocation of conservatism and poverty meant that their children were in training to be the same.
Just looking at the photo above, you can see that I fit in splendidly, yes?
But my appearance was a result, not a cause. I have never in my life been as scorned, mocked and hated as I was in Gateway, and it drove me to extremes of rebellion. I can talk about that in another post (though I probably won’t), but for now, just look at that girl and marvel that she was able to survive anywhere, let alone in a tiny K through 8 grade school of eighty kids in the mountains of Montana. How did I do it? A sweet, wise, deeply intelligent friend named Merry, and…
I had my own music, of course, leftover from teen idol worship of one longhaired guy or another. But my sister and I were outgrowing The Partridge Family and Jack Wild. We were ready to move on. We tried out where to go next with 45s galore and the occasional LP. When it came to albums, we had Cat Stevens, mostly. I was bewitched by his bearded male beauty. Whatever it is in me that loves a suffering man, it was incubated in his tortured, emotional voice.
But soon, I had a better source. My older brother was in art school in Minneapolis, and he brought home record after record. And such records they were. David Bromberg, John Prine, Jackson Brown. Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything, Runt, A Wizard A True Star. He would bring them home to share with me, and then he’d just leave them. Maybe he knew he’d be back home after a year. Or, just maybe, he’d watch me put a vinyl LP on the turntable of my dad’s expensive stereo, wrap those giant headphones around my ears, and escape my painful, difficult adolescent nightmare. My brother was not about to take away my magical door.
That was the year he brought home this record.
This began a love of Bonnie Raitt that has stretched through my entire life. I have almost every record she’s ever released. The first five records + Fundamental are so deeply ingrained in my brain stem that I can sing every syllable. My brother and I had a trifecta: Woman Be Wise, Give it Up, and Love Me Like a Man, him playing guitar and me singing, performed more times than I could possibly count.
I have sung her songs at karaoke and coffee shops and in acting class when we had to do some silly exercise about not breaking character. I have sung them in the shower and on my way to work and on my way home. My daughters will confirm that even though they had their own tastes and preferences, Bonnie sang the soundtrack of their childhood because I picked the music on car trips.
The point is, I mentioned to my conversational partner that I’d never actually seen Bonnie in concert. There was no reasonable explanation for it. Everyone else had seen her. People who didn’t love her nearly as well as I loved her had seen her. Sometimes, I would actually fib and say that I had seen her, because it was embarrassing that I’d never managed to see her live after all these years.
Since this was a conversation, he replied, “She’s playing at the Palms in Vegas in February. Let me do a little checking.”
This is how, last Friday night, I found myself in a nice-sized concert arena inside the Palms Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is how, after forty-three years of listening to and loving Bonnie Raitt, I finally saw her take the stage for the first time. And oh, how she takes a stage.
She’s 67 years old, tiny, trim, with that silvery streak in her big red mane. Her voice is as strong as ever, her guitar work as magnificent. She did new stuff, old stuff, good stuff, fantastic stuff. She reached way back, sending me sky-high with delight with one of my old standbys, “Woman Be Wise.” She also sang the saddest song ever recorded. It’s the song my then-husband heard on his way to work that made him pull over and cry for twenty minutes because when he heard it, he understood that it wasn’t my fault that he didn’t love me anymore. It’s a song that’s almost too painful to endure when you’ve had your heart broken, but you endure it because it hurts you so beautifully.
We have all had to forgive Bonnie for that song, and we should all thank her for it, too.
And I got to see the show thanks to, and alongside, my personal Vegas expert, my conversational partner, my guy. There is no one on earth who would have made it happen so well or so fast. And there is no one in the world I’d rather have shared this experience with. Here’s a little something about my guy. He has what my friend Grant calls “tells.” Little moves and sounds that give him away completely. When Bonnie started to sing this one, my sweet man was all tells.
So sweetie, here you go. You picked it.
And for those who thought my dream-come-true might be a Vegas wedding, nope. It was Bonnie.
Here’s a “beds” warning. I’m planning to offend you as gently as I possibly can.
In a recent conversation about whether or not the kind of bachelor parodied by Austin Powers ever actually existed, I found myself discussing the round bed. In the sixties, it was the symbol of the swinging bachelor, an entirely average looking man with strange clothes who was surrounded by giddy, willing women with large hairstyles who wanted to join him in his big round bed. Was he real? My conversational partner and I remain doubtful, but round beds titillated and impressed us in our youth.
We first saw a round bed in Casino Royale (but not with each other). There a point in this movie (I think it’s in this movie) where Peter Sellers presses a button and the bedspread lifts off his round bed. After that, I forever associated the round bed with that swinging bachelor who navigated his seductions with the pushing of many buttons, buttons that managed the closing of the drapes, the dimming of the mood lighting, the volume of the slow-jazz musical selection.
As a very young man (okay, a kid), my conversational partner associated the round bed with orgies. He wasn’t exactly sure about why or how the round bed would be involved. Perhaps people were arranged on it like spokes in a wheel? But did this really increase the possible points of connection? In truth he had limited understanding of anything about orgies at that age, but the association existed.
These were definitely bachelor beds. Occasionally, though, you walked into a friend’s parents’ room and they had a round bed, and you just backed out of the room in horror because you knew what that round bed meant. Horrible.
“…the Round Bed is definitely not for squares. But active playboys (and those retired) will appreciate the potential this House of Menna exclusive represents. Your bedroom will be the talk of the town.”
Okay. But what exactly is the town going to be talking about? What is that Round Bed “potential”? Can anyone tell me? I never personally experienced one. By the time I was sharing a bed with anyone, the round bed had been supplanted in suggestiveness by…
Ah, the classic waterbed. That burnt wood sin bin.
Many thanks to the Waterbed Doctor for this fine photo.
These were some mighty beds. Oh, the painful edges (unless you had padded rails), the gold-veined mirrors and round-edged shelves, the pedestal base with drawers on the deluxe models. It was astonishing in its rustic ugliness, but this was a real piece of furniture, and it was as just as rife with suggestion as the round bed. It carried so many 1970s seduction associations– component stereo systems, pot smoking, incense, candles stuck in wine bottles, Orleans albums and so on.
(Yes, that’s Jimmy McNichol. Please note his padded rails.)
The waterbed had quite a reputation for carnal gymnastics, but it was undeserved. It was just a big, bouncy bag of water. My conversational partner and I had both had waterbed experiences (though again, not with each other). We agreed that the problem was an inability to gain the necessary purchase to make anything happen. Was one supposed to just set the bed a-slosh and then ride it out, so to speak?
“Pleasure is…a waterbed.”
Not in our experience. But it was at least comfortable to sleep in, which made it so much better than what came after.
At some point, this happened. This bed of a monk.
Those slippers kind of seal the deal there, as far as being non-sexy (please note, I wear slippers like that).
No futon on which I have ever slept is this fluffy. They have been about a half inch thick, and full of hardened cotton lumps that press painfully into my aging body. And somehow, the futon became the bed of choice for nearly every man I dated in the nineties and aughts. Sometimes the lumpy futon sat on a little wooden frame with slats, and sometimes the lumpy futon sat on the floor. This was the new bachelor bed.
Now, even though I put them in the same category, I consider the futon to be a total about-face from round beds or the waterbeds. This cotton-stuffed sleeping mat has nothing to do with imaginary seductions accomplished in remote controlled mood lighting. The futon is as sexless as brushing your teeth after a rousing session of tai chi.
I rest my case.
The futon is humorless, organic and chaste. It fits nicely in a tiny home. Ads for the futon look like this:
How very yoga.
You would never flip a switch and lift a bedspread electronically from a futon. There is no hint of satin sheets or mirrored ceilings in the futon. If you were installing a bed in your custom Chevy van with airbrushed stallions painted on the side panels, it would not be a futon. And the futon is never going to offer you a bong hit, or give you a ride home in a Camaro.
How did we come to a place where THIS is the new bachelor bed? I shudder to think of what’s coming next.
I’m just home from traveling to Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was a WONDERFUL trip. And that got me thinking about how traveling has changed for me over the years. I remembered when a friend wrote me the following email about travel plans:
My husband has this habit of trying to sew up ALL loose ends in life before going on vacation. He goes into hyper-responsible mode. His anxiety about traveling results in him cleaning the freezer, going to the Salvation Army with old clothes, you name it. It completely sucks out one of my favorite things pre-vacation, which is anticipating reckless abandon. Last night as I was lying in bed he asked me what electronics I could get ready to recycle before we leave on Thursday. I mean REALLY? Are you kidding me?
This made me smile, and it made me think about traveling with men.
My first husband was an uber-planner. We started taking trips together in the mid-seventies, back when our travels were a violation of the Mann Act. Our planning methods seem quaint and archaic to me now. He would stop in at the AAA office and get little plastic-bound triptych maps, very detailed flip-books with all routes traced out for you. He traced our actual route with a red pen.
In a small notebook, we recorded all gas purchases (amount, price per gallon, total charges) and odometer readings for eventual gas mileage reckoning. He was happy to be the planner, and I was happy to learn how the hell to read a map, estimate distances with the rule, figure out how to backtrack when he’d charged off on a wrong turn.
Wrong turns happened because he was an aggressive driver, passing and jockeying and speeding along to get past every single vehicle he possibly could, and then I’d announce I wanted to stop, and then we’d get back on the road and he’d find all those cars and get ahead of them again. This annoying, aggressive driving style seemed to contradict the cheerful ease with which he would stop at any and every wayside, overlook, local museum, you name it, he’d stop and look at it. We’d snap photos with our Instamatic and get back in the Duster and keep going.
We traveled a great deal and on the cheap, staying at Motel 6 when we could afford it, camping or sleeping in the car when we couldn’t. We grew up and outgrew each other, but the boxes of Instamatic photos remain. In the hazy, soft tones of those old square photos, I see a chronicle of my strange and rootless teenage years, my only security the young man with the wild hair at my side.
My second husband and I jumped feet-first into parenthood within months of getting married, so we didn’t do much traveling the first years of our marriage. It took six years for us to get up the nerve and the money to start traveling, and I’d missed it. It was also quite a different undertaking, traveling with a man AND children.
For this, I had three jobs. The first job was every speck of the planning, reserving, deciding, purchasing. The second job was all the packing for myself and three kids. To do this, I kind of took a note from my first husband’s obsession with gas mileage. I would make comprehensive lists of each day’s activities and decide on outfits for each, making sure that each (somewhat matchy) group of three outfits had shoes and hair doodads to match. Outlining a novel has nothing on this.
My third job was all the child-wrangling. For the actual plane/train/automobile part of it, that meant packing special trip backpacks with books, art supplies, games, toys and snacks. All that was done to convince myself that they would be entertained on the plane, that it was actually possible to divert your children adequately so that they didn’t whine, kick, bicker,complain, cry, knock over the coffee of the person beside them, throw their dolls over the back of the seat to land in the lunch of the person behind them, wet their pants and generally make the trip into a living hell (they really weren’t that bad) (most of the time). Managing that hell was my job, as was taking care of all three kids for every minute we were at the actual vacation destination.
My second husband also had three jobs, as far as traveling. His first job was to pack his own stuff the morning of our departure, generally using as many suitcases for himself as I had used for myself and the girls combined. His second job was to haughtily and continuously complain about every single decision I had made concerning airlines, flight times, hotel reservations, and clothing worn by anyone but himself. And his third job was to take lots of breaks. Breaks for conversation with other adults, shopping, Scotch in the hotel bar, cigars by the pool, and whatever else he needed to do in order to take care of himself and make sure he had a good time, because he found traveling so stressful.
After divorcing my second husband, I discovered the joys of traveling alone.
Going solo was completely effortless, like entering a no-gravity zone. I packed light, knowing that if I forgot something, I could buy it somewhere. I drifted weightless as a cloud into airports, on and off planes, out to cabs or shuttles. If I missed a connection, I bought a cup of coffee and read a book. If I forgot to bring something, I bought it. I went to whatever restaurants I chose, and the tabs were tiny. I dawdled in museums. I slept in, stayed out late. I had forgotten that it was possible to relax on vacation, but like riding a bike, it all came back to me. Buying one theater ticket instead of four, bypassing the American Girl store entirely, spending the afternoon in bed if I was too tired to sight-see. What a luxury it was. Eventually, I actually missed my girls. That might have been the greatest luxury of all.
I also learned how to travel with my daughters. Not long after the divorce, I took the girls to Disneyland, and we had a blast. Then, they got older and could pack for themselves. If one of them didn’t bring the right thing, she could borrow it from a sister. The girls usually slept all the way wherever we were going–something magical that happens in the teen years–and they exercised autonomy and free will as far as activities once we arrived at the destination (which tended to be a lake, so, they could just go to the dock and do whatever it is teenagers do at the lake) (I didn’t need to know really) (no one ever drowned so it was fine).
And I could, as a last resort, level one of my stony gazes at whichever of my children was complaining about boredom or a sibling or the lack of a can opener and say, “You know, this is my vacation too.”
As I age, I find that sitting jammed into a plane seat for six hours is pure torture. The occasional offer of a glass of ginger ale and a bag of “savory snack mix” does nothing to alleviate the pain of enforced, cramped immobility, and any man who travels with me must endure my shifting, stretching, groaning.
I’m aware that I’m a sissy.
I prefer to travel in a car. Stopping at clean motels with soft beds. Listening to music I like. Enjoying the peace of the road. Conversation should be minimal and pleasant. And I will not stay in motel rooms that are creepy or gross. Don’t ask me to define “creepy and gross.” I know them when I see them. I will draw myself up with the horrified snobbery of the Dowager Countess if expected to stay in a room that is either. And the BED, what about the BED, what if the BED is HARD. A HARD BED is my worst nightmare.
And once we find a room that is to my liking, I will insist on keeping it ultra-tidy for the duration of our stay. I will talk in my sleep. I will snore. And in the morning, I will get up waaaaay too early.
I am aware that I’m impossible.
I believe that traveling together is a test, a crucible.
Some years ago, I went out with a man who lived up in Washington. He rode a Gold Wing, and he was incredibly funny in an entirely inappropriate way. Every weekend, we found somewhere to go. These trips flowed like long shots in movies, smooth and unbroken and entertaining. We saw each other for an entire summer of jaunts, and the ease with which we traveled together disguised the fact that we had almost nothing in common. We were both funny and tall, and that was the sum of what you could call compatibility. In case you think I exaggerate, he ripped the sleeves off his shirts, chain-smoked, enjoyed Larry the Cable Guy, and collected coffee mugs from all the events he attended for his sobriety program.
But the travel was fantastic.
I’ve had relationships cement themselves into serious, and I’ve had relationships completely fall apart on trips. The close quarters, the sheer duration of contact. It’s a killer. It’s not just men who are under examination during travel. I’m being tested, and failing.
A friend of mine took a girlfriend somewhere exotic, like Bora Bora, where they slept in open tiki huts on the beach. In HAMMOCKS. I don’t actually remember where they went, just the horrifying details, like communal meals, questionable bathroom accommodations, no WALLS, what the holy hell? He was so excited about a trip that sounded absolutely awful to me, and I kept ribbing him about it. They had a blast. He came home shouting his love for this woman to the stars. And they got married. And they are still married. Years and years later.
Whatever future travel test I have to pass, I only hope it does not involve sleeping in a hut.
Christmas travel is happening this year. I’ll be visiting a daughter who is working on the east coast. She doesn’t have enough time off to make the trip home and I really miss her, so I’ll be leaving home for the holidays. I have to trust that Christmas will be okay without me, which is difficult for the self-appointed Fairy Godmother of Christmas Celebration.
In my first marriage–my starter marriage–we always traveled for Christmas. Often we went by car, barreling through the northern passes on our way back to Montana, where he would drop me with my family in Missoula and carry on to his own family and their opulent gifting in Bozeman. Once we moved back to Montana, I’d drive my own way over the passes on my way to Portland. In a tiny Datsun. With barely an ounce of fear, really, because that was how I did it in those days. I believe that in the six years I spent with this man, we spent one Christmas together. It was the only year we had a tree.
My second husband and I announced our intention to stay home and create our own Christmas traditions when our second daughter was born. My mother didn’t mind, as she hated Christmas (yes, such people exist). His mother was a mighty domestic potentate, and demanded appeasement. We calmed her by coming to her home for Thanksgiving and Easter each year. Again, my mother wasn’t upset. She didn’t so much dislike Thanksgiving and Easter, as she simply had no interest in hosting them. As long as I made plenty of non-holiday visits, my mom was fine with not seeing us.
My mother made some tentative Christmas visits to my house over the years. Mom approached the holidays with such a high level of wariness, and so much suppressed fury, it wasn’t always easy to have her there. She was tense and suspicious and ready to spring out the door at any moment. She could be persuaded to partake in a meal, but this had to be handled very gently. Just, you know, the idea, the aroma, the possibility. No pressure. And she’d have a plate, but then they’d need to go, down and back in one day, eight hours of driving for a short visit, but it was all she could handle.
As a child, my mother’s attitude about Christmas (which started in about 1970–before that, I remember her enjoying it) was a crushing disappointment. All I wanted, as a kiddo, was to enjoy the season without reservation. I didn’t care so much about presents–our home was not one for opulent gifting–but I was excited about the tree, driving around to look at lights, Christmas cards, Rudolph on the TV and carols on the radio. How baffled she felt as we raptly watched Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, loving every moment, while she felt nothing. She didn’t get it. That made her angry. She called it “Holiday depression.” We called it “Christmas rage.”
My mother’s holiday tirades left me feeling tremendous guilt over how much I enjoyed all the trappings of the season. But as I got older, and created my own Christmas holidays, I no longer felt guilty. I felt smug. I was doing things right. And yes, I went overboard, compensating for what I wished I’d had as a child. It was manic, what I did to the house, how many gifts I wrapped, how intently I played the music, planned the menu. And then it happened–a string of sad, bad holidays. No details are needed, because these events aren’t even funny in retrospect.
I realized after a few rough years, that my excess of Christmas cheer was not contagious. It was, in fact, oppressive. No one else but me seemed interested in setting aside the difficulties of family life for the space of two days in order to have a “perfect” Christmas. I had turned into the sister in the green dress in “Home for the Holidays.” I felt sad and incredibly stupid.
I also started to feel sympathy for my mom. The trappings of the season infuriated her. I could imagine how awful it was as all around her, people blindly wrapped themselves up in mindless commercial cheer, staggering through malls like holiday zombies.
But once the pressure to provide a holiday was lifted from Mom’s shoulders, I think she came around. She could go to a friend’s house and have turkey, or stay home and watch Masterpiece Theater with Dad, or come to my house for a tense visit, or ignore it all entirely. No prescribed steps, no have-tos. I hope it got a little bit better for her.
I have toned it down, people. But my baseline Christmas cheer has been a tenuous saving grace this year. Like so many in America, I am deeply concerned about the four years ahead. So I have retreated into holiday mode; decorating my home, planning my seasonal celebratory activities, listening to CDs that are supposed to cheer me. The wrong song can plunge me right into maudlin. It’s been a conscious choice to concentrate on the holiday. My other alternative is to fill up on despair while reading about disastrous cabinet appointments and wondering if public education, civil rights and the Earth’s atmosphere will actually exist for any future grandchildren I might have.
So if I’m a little quiet, it’s because I’m girding myself for what’s ahead. I won’t be buying many gifts this year, because I have other plans for my money. I’ve doubled my United Way gift and dedicated all of it to Planned Parenthood. I’m going to make a monthly contribution to the ACLU. And by God, I’m going to start eating Kellogg cereals again. I wonder if any of it will make a difference, but I have to try.
For now, I will light the candles, trim the trees, inhale the scent of cinnamon, open my heart and close my eyes. They will be opened soon enough.
Happy holidays to all of you. Let’s hold each other in our hearts.
Over the course of four weeks this fall, I had an unexpected amount of contact with four exes. It was a concentrated dose of visitations from my past, and just like Ebenezer Scrooge, I found it uncomfortable. But you know what? I’ve decided to view it as an opportunity for personal growth. Growth is never comfortable.
I have one person blocked on Facebook, and the first ex who contacted me is that one person. He’s blocked on my personal profile, but I received a lengthy letter from him at my author page. Eyebrows up, user banned. That is all I have to say on this matter.
I’ve been submitting a lot of work over the last few months, which involves sorting through writing, old, new, in-progress and best forgotten. It’s all part of building up the inventory.
I found a group of poems and a piece I wrote about an affair that ended years ago. It was on-and-off, adolescent in its furious breakups and emotional reconciliations. It’s difficult for me to track just how long we carried on like that. Two years? Three? I honestly don’t remember. I look back on it with a distant amusement. Who was that woman, mowing down the traffic cones, having all the Big Feelings, writing those tortured love poems?
Yes, love poems. I write very few, because I’m not in love all that often. But I read this flaming little bouquet of poems, and I thought, wow. Look at that. I was totally insane.
Despite all the stormy crashings and thunderation of our time together, this man and I have remained on friendly terms. It probably helps that we live in different towns. I found him online, said hello and asked him if he wanted to see the document. He did, very much. It triggered a bittersweet rush of memory and emotion on his part, just as it did for me. The exchange was short, pointless, sweet. And over.
So, then, contact number three. A year after the breakup, I received a long email from my most recent ex. I actually woke up to this email. What a way to start a day. It was a catalog of all the ways that he was perfect, blameless, faultless, selfless and giving, while I was mean, cruel, uncaring, selfish and inconstant. He backed up his claims with copious evidence, including a list of every single time I’d changed my mind over the course of three and a half years, including something about my dining room table. I change my mind a lot, it appears.
After thousands (yes, thousands) of words, he pronounced that he will never be able to love again for as long as he lives, for which he blames me. And not to write back as he is “completely done” with me.
He signed off, “GOODBYE FOREVER.”
Just a thought, here. If, after a year of silence on her part, you have to create a new email address to write to someone because she’s blocked all your other email addresses, maybe it’s not necessary to write her to let her know that you’re completely done with her. Maybe this is redundant. Maybe you can just write the email and delete it, rather than sending it.
Because if you don’t, you’re going to get one hell of a scathing reply.
A week before that email hate-bomb arrived, I’d decided that I might like to try dating again. I know, I know, I wasn’t going to DO that, but apparently this old grey mare isn’t dead yet. I like having a man in my life almost as much as I don’t.
So, I signed onto a site to create a profile. I’d not used this site before. One of the features? When someone is looking at your profile, his face pops up in a circle with a little ‘boop’ to say hello.
The very first face that popped up was a familiar one. I dated this man ten years ago, and I thought at the time that we broke up for really good reasons. I realized within a few months that they were really stupid reasons, but one must live with one’s actions. He’d gone on to get married, and I’d gone on to do whatever it is I do.
But there he was, and I said hi! and he said hi! and we started to chat and we started to laugh. I remembered how funny this man is, and how smart, and how well-read and deep and intellectually curious. He is so many wonderful things, plus the additional wonderful things added by ten more years of living a full and interesting life.
Reader, I’m dating him.
I will write sometime about the fluttery, intense, eerie feelings around this reconciliation. But for now, just know that little birds are circling round my head, trailing ribbons and chirping songs of happiness. My stomach dances with delight and anxiety. I smile like a fool. I’m happy.
I change my mind a lot, remember?
My children are United States citizens, born and raised here. They are the children and grandchildren of US citizens. And this is how they got here.
On my side, my children’s ancestors are relatively fresh arrivals in the early 20th century.
My birth father’s grandparents arrived from Bohemia and Germany, though the family tree holds Prussian and Belgian ancestry as well. It’s hard to track my birth name as it seems to be an Americanized name. All the people who have it in the world (625 of them) live in America. My paternal grandmother was born in America, but had a German accent all her life. Her tiny community was so German that school was conducted in that language.
My mother’s father was a first generation child of Norwegian immigrants, or maybe second generation. My aunt could confirm this. On my maternal grandmother’s side, we go right back to England, with forebears who came over on the second sailing of the Mayflower. I believe this entitles my daughters to membership in the DAR. My mother always identified with her English heritage, and my aunt always identified with her Norwegian.
So that’s me. German, Czech, Norwegian, English, with a Czech face and a Norwegian build; tall and broad, heavy-legged and ready to carry children and work the fields like a horse. I am so clearly a Northern European.
My children’s father’s people came to the USA earlier than my people did. His father’s father’s people came to Louisiana in the 1790s or early 1800s, a full hundred years before my ancestors. The exact date of arrival is hard to place, though, as his family has no record of when they were sold at market.
The girls’ grandmother’s people are based in Texas, but were an import to the area. Slavery flourished in east Texas from 1850 on, but that’s not a date of arrival or a place of origin. It’s just where cotton was growing. At some point, people were rounded up from wherever they’d been living, taken to Texas, put on the block and sold. Again, there are no sales records to consult.
Eventually, the war came. They were free. Her people stayed in Texas, and his people stayed in Louisiana. But when the girls’ grandparents came along and grew up, they didn’t stay. During WWII, my girls’ grandmother traveled to Seattle, became a CNA, and met the man who would become their grandfather. He’d come up from Louisiana to join the Merchant Marines after his heart disqualified him from the military, and traveled the world cooking on a ship. They married in their thirties, and stayed in Seattle for the rest of their lives, raising three children, welcoming four granddaughters, three of whom are mine.
Through DNA testing, my middle daughter has learned more about the genetic heritage she shares with her sisters, a history that has to replace the kind of history I have; recorded, researchable, anecdotal. On her father’s side, she seems to be almost purely Central and West African, with a tiny bit of Malaysian. The Malay Peninsula was a stop on the route of many slave ships, so that Malaysian blood makes quiet, horrible sense.
Because of how DNA testing works, there are probably white ancestors on her father’s side hiding in the general totals of this or that, bits of white that don’t actually belong to my side of the equation. That makes its own horrible sense, too. But my sober Midwestern family tree hides its own horrors. No heritage is exempt from that.
What we did discover is that there is zero Native American ancestry in my girls. Anecdotally, they’d been told they were Blackfoot and Cherokee through their great grandmother, a tall woman of severe cheekbones who still had smooth coppery skin in her nineties, when I met her. But the DNA test didn’t bear that out.
So it’s safe to say that my children, citizens of this United States, are strictly the progeny of immigrants. And if you live in the USA, and unless you are Native American, so are you.
So let’s raise a glass, Immigrants of America. Let’s toast the fact that we are all johnny-come-latelys. Those of us who were brought here against our will are the least guilty in this country of land-grabbing interlopers with no real right to be here. Those of us who are newer to the game should be welcome to join. That’s what America is built on, after all. Taking what doesn’t belong to us.
Let’s enjoy our Thanksgiving.
I’m learning to live with your best
sugar bowl in my hutch, sweater on
my skin, watch on my dresser.
I’m sweeping the rug you gave me
snowed under with tissues I wept in,
shredded and scattered by the dogs.
I’m bewildered, most of all,
rinsing out vases, my hands stained
yellow with the pollen of lilies.
It happens each year. October 30th draws closer, and I’m a wreck, and it’s been long enough that I don’t actually remember why I’m a wreck. And then I do. A daughter always remembers losing a mother. She remembers it in her bones.
The power of the calendar baffles me. How can a date on a manmade chart have power? But it does. Maybe the calendar isn’t manmade. Maybe it’s just discovered, and it ties in to deeper natural rhythms. Maybe we socialized, higher-thinking creatures have decided these rhythms don’t apply to us, but they do. We are animals, and animals feel grief.
Grief is not a function of whatever higher mind we think we possess. When our big Holly dog had to be put to sleep, we brought her body home to bury. Zoe, our little dog, gave her a last, sad sniffing-over. Then she put up her snout for one loud, sad howl. For the rest of Zoe’s life, when we talked in Holly’s special voice, Zoe’s ears pricked up and she looked around, expecting Holly to show up when we talked the big dog talk.
So I guess it’s not surprising that for years, I waited for Mom to show up. I mean, I know it’s insane and all, but I still kept thinking this terrible mistake would somehow be reversed, rectified. On my first trip up to Bainbridge Island after she died, I fully expected her to appear. She would step out from wherever she’d been hiding and we’d all laugh at how she’d put one over on us.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted by my own disrupted expectation.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion talks about saving her husband’s shoes after he died, because, well, he’d need them, wouldn’t he, when he returned. She knew he was dead, of course she knew that. But still, he might need those shoes. I understand that perfectly.
Here’s something else I understand. You all have moms, and your moms are not going to die. That only happens to other people’s moms. I know that, okay? But you all don’t have moms like my mom, that’s what I should make clear. No one, aside from my brothers and my sister, had a mom like mine.
She loved us deeply. Profoundly. Imperfectly. She was emotionally expansive and inclusive, easily wounded and unforgiving. She was magnetic, intelligent, frustrated, passionate, narcissistic, petulant, sarcastic, educated, manipulative, conniving, loving, caring, hopeful, idealistic, hilarious. Most of all, my mom was alive. She was on fire with living, from the soles of her size-12 feet up through and out the roots of her silky silver hair. She was larger than life, and though she hated that about herself physically, she wore it like a queen intellectually. She was a force of nature.
I don’t write much about Mom’s actual death. The official version is, I drove to Seattle with my oldest daughter, my sister and my nephew on a Saturday. I was going to argue with Mom about cooperating with her cancer treatments. I walked in to the hospital to find my brothers and father there, and my younger brother told me, “We think it’s going to be today.”
I’d been told she had six months. It had only been two weeks since they told me that.
I remember too much of the hours between when I entered the hospital and when I left. Reading to her, talking to her, trying to calm her down. Every shapeless syllable that rose from her throat, because she was not able to speak anymore. What comforted her and what angered her. Her determination to die.
At the moment when it happened, I remember my family in that room, our heads thrown back, the rising, keening cries that reminded me of Zoe’s last howl for Holly. We just wailed. I called my ex-husband from the bathroom of the hospital room. To him fell the task of telling two daughters who weren’t with me.
I called my friend Elizabeth and let her know it was over. Saying the words still didn’t make this real or understandable. The last time I saw my mother’s body, my little brother was bending over her, gently talking to her and cutting off a piece of her hair with his pocketknife, so I could have it as a keepsake. Then it was time to leave.
When I paid for my parking at the hopsital, I asked the attendant, “How long have I been here?” and he said “Three hours.” I said, “Your whole life can change in three hours, did you know that?” He nodded and gave me my change.
I kept patting my daughter. That was not for her comfort, but for mine. I’d feel this terrible spinning, like I had nothing holding me down, like I was going to fall off the earth, and I’d reach out, touch her hair, regain my footing through the primal reassurance of her presence.
While we waited in the ferry line, I called my friend San from work, to ask her to let the office know I wouldn’t be back the next day. I wasn’t crying. I was too shocked to cry. I remember the questioning tone of my voice when I told her, “My mom is gone?” and the questioning tone in her voice when she said, “Oh Karen, she is? She’s gone? I’m so sorry?” Like the weight of declarative statements would have crushed us as we gently interrogated this new, nearly unspeakable truth.
Like a pile of sand
Churned to bits and heaped
Waiting for the tide to take me
But daughters come, with pails and pats
And shore me up
Not letting me wash away.
The first Christmas after losing my mother, my family gathered and made our way through, stopping now and then to just cry. We would carry on and cook or eat or open a gift, and then one of us would choke up, and then all of us would. Tears upon tears, dominoes of grief, one after another, until we had all fallen down. Over and over that day, we stopped what we were doing and grieved.
My grief was exacerbated when my younger brother and his wife announced that they were expecting their first child. I was so happy and so devastated. How could it be that my mother would never meet this child? Worse yet, how could it be that this child would never meet my mother? This child who is nine years old, now. I try to tell her about her other grandmother, some halting explanation of how wonderful she was to my girls. But what am I trying to do? Make my niece experience a loss she doesn’t have to experience? I don’t know. I just know I want my niece to have some concept of her other grandmother, some idea of her.
At one point, a friend said something like, “Your mother wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.” I said, “You didn’t know my mother. Mom would want to be missed. She’d want me to be miserable. She’d want me to lie down in the middle of a road and let cars run over me.”
If a desire for advice brought you to this post, I’m sorry. I’m not much for advice. But I can tell you that it does get better, I swear, it does. You look at each other and express disbelief that it’s been five years, then ten years, then more. This year, it is twelve years since that day in Seattle.
Losing my mom was like this: I was standing on the prairie alone, and the ground was dry and the sky was getting dark. Somewhere behind me, a gigantic roar started. It was a roar and a wind and a howl, and I could hear it back on the horizon, and I knew it was coming but there was no getting out of its way. It gathered up and blew through me with the force of a freight train, and it left a hole that wouldn’t close. The world became a place I didn’t recognize.
It felt like this for years.
But at some point, I realized that I’d made it through the worst. I forgave myself for not going to the cemetery on her birthday one year, or on Mother’s Day the next. Eventually I forgave myself for going on. I understand that we are designed to outlive our parents, to survive losing a mother, a father. Eventually, we are supposed to be all right, and I am. I hope my mother would forgive me for that.
I will always remember her last words to me, spoken over the phone on a day when she was too sick to talk, so I said I’d let her go and told her that I loved her. I could hear the nausea and misery and pain in her voice when she said, “Oh, I love you.” Best last words ever, I think. I feel profound gratitude for those words, every damn day.
So, I take it back. I do have some advice: think about ending more conversations with the words, “I love you.”
Grief’s handmaiden bears a bowl
Where once her heart beat
Her ribs encircle it
It goes all through her
Her mourning is soft and dappled
Like the wing of a pigeon
Fanning the surface
Testing the tension
And she spills a bit here
And she spills a bit there
Minding her grief
Making her way.
It’s been a year now, a year of being single. It’s time to celebrate with a fresh, crisp bulleted list.
I know this seems like a relatively modest list, as far as happiness components. But these small things can absolutely wear away at me until happiness is impossible. Wearing uncomfortable underwear while riding in a car with a huffy mansplainer who can’t figure out where to eat sums up too much of my last relationship with [redacted] (I’d also like to point out that he’s happily established with another girlfriend, so it’s not like there isn’t someone who can handle all this stuff).
Here’s how it happened. Not the relationship’s end. Relationships tend to grind to a halt while you’re not paying attention, they’ve usually ended before you start to notice, and are actually over during that terrible, pointless part of the process called “working on things.” This is how I admitted it was over, because admitting it meant I had to take action, and taking action is the hardest part.
Just over a year ago, I was sitting in my neighborhood pie house having breakfast with my youngest daughter and a friend visiting me from Tacoma. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but we were laughing over some rapid-fire group of observations. I was enjoying myself so deeply, so joyously. In the pause that comes after people laugh, I spoke without having a clue what I was going to say. As best as I can remember, this is it:
“I feel like I’ve had every conversation I’m ever going to have with Redacted, and now we’re just going to repeat. I’m so unhappy. And the weird thing is, I feel like I have no right to be happy. I feel like I’ve somehow signed away my right to happiness.” It only took saying it out loud to hear my own stupidity.
I’d been hanging in there for a few months trying to work on it, making myself absolutely miserable so that he wouldn’t be. It had to change.
Do we have a right to be happy if it causes someone else pain? I know, it’s surprising that anyone still asks that question, right? We’ve been living under the imperative of personal fulfillment for decades, now. Self-sacrifice is out of fashion. The last thing anyone in our society is ever supposed to question is the right to personal happiness. But I did. I’ve been asking that same question for much of my adult life when it comes to ending relationships. Am I entitled to want personal happiness?
I’m afraid I’m going to have to come down on the side of yes. Yes, even if it makes someone else unhappy. Even if I’ve discussed commitment and planned for the future. Worst of all, even if it disappoints someone who has been good to me. I am entitled to at least try for happiness. Because, to be fair, I’ve had to allow that same right to several men who decided they would be happier without me. And though I greeted their decisions with more than the usual amount of disbelief and anger–I guess I think I’m really something special–I did know, deep down, that they had the right to leave me to pursue happier lives. I think this is in the American Bill of Rights or the Constitution somewhere.
But back to breakfast. And figuring out how to leave. Leaving is never easy, even when it’s easier than staying.
What followed was a discussion on timing. Late summer meant the fall holidays were approaching. Would I drag out the inevitable through Thanksgiving, our anniversary and Christmas? And having gritted my teeth and made it through Christmas, there was his birthday, and after that Valentine’s Day, and…no, best to do it soon. ASAP. On the double. So, in early October, after what I thought was a very kind and amicable discussion, I walked out of Redacted’s house feeling lighter than air. That was not the end of it, of course. There were dismaying reverberations that still echo around today. But the difficult deed was done.
The relief of ending a failing relationship is considerable, but the tension-filled months before the breakup had been sandpaper to my psyche. After the breakup, I stayed abraded for a while. Skittish, scuttling away from human contact like a fragile crab, I spent the first six months hiding from the world to repair my damaged introversion.
Eventually, I could get back out there and see my friends again. Oh, my wonderful friends, waiting with open arms, accommodating my single self in their couples-oriented events, rounding out dinners with charming men who were often a foot shorter than me, but still great company. They even found games that three people could play, instead of just four. I love my friends. One, though, was not supportive of the idea of a breakup. When I called her to say that I was tired of being with Redacted and ready to be alone for a while, she said, “I can only support your breaking up with Redacted if it’s to find a better relationship. I can’t support it if you’re breaking up with him to be alone.” I said, “Okay.” She said, “Thank you for putting up with me.” I hung up the phone and burst out laughing. And of course, I broke up with him to be alone.
So wish me happy anniversary, people. It’s a year now, of being single. Let’s hope this time, it lasts. Except–it never does.