Here’s a “beds” warning. I’m planning to offend you as gently as I possibly can.
The round bed
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.
The Instamatic Years
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.”
Travel with me
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.
The test of travel
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.
And that is really all I have to say. Happy Holidays!
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.
1. An Ex from the ether
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.
2. This Ex was all my doing
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.
3. The “you have got to be kidding me” Ex
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.
4. And then, this Ex happened
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.
The Hidden Side
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.
All Our Sides
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.
Living through it
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.
Oh! The joy of collaboration!
I’m here to announce the publication of a new book, ORCAS INTRIGUE, but my name isn’t on it! This is a collaboration with my friend, Shannon Page. And I’ve never collaborated before but let me tell you, I am absolutely going to do it again. Soon.
The Fan Club
I’m a great collaborator at the day job. I love to sit in a meeting and bounce ideas back and forth, watching them build or deflate accordingly. But I never collaborate in my personal writing, ever. Except…Shannon and I have this mutual fan club going.
Now, please understand that Shannon is well-and-often-published. One of her first, early novels has been acquired by a publishing house, and she’s working on it in order to deliver it for publication. My early work has been repped by three good agents, but no one could sell it (ah, the story of my life). So I am working on my stuff in order to bring it out myself.
We both have WORK to do.
Helping each other out
Shannon and I help each other in this process by reading, suggesting, enjoying each other’s stuff. Shannon is also a professional editor and proofreader, so when I hand off something to her, I never get back weird suggestions that ruin the syntax of my sentences. In fact, I will go out on a limb here and say that she’s never once suggested a change that has done anything but improve my syntax. Because I get a little windy at time. Lengthy. Or, choppy and fragmented.
This probably has to do with the pressures of what I write at work, which is by nature brief, cogent, persuasive or informative. Though I am permitted fragments galore while writing certain types of work copy, my run-on sentences have no place in the office, so I indulge them magnificently when writing on my own dime.
So, a year ago, I approached Shannon with the very unusual idea of collaboration on a specific project. I’ll tell you about that another time, but Shannon countered with another idea. In fact, Shannon was on FIRE with this other idea, and before I knew it, a 30K+ draft landed in my inbox. It was amazing. She had the basic characters, initial plot and fantastic setting all laid out in this draft. All I had to do was bat it back and forth with her until the manuscript had acquired a dead body, lost a romantic ending and doubled in word count.
People, this was so much fun. I had no IDEA how fun collaboration could be.
Why collaboration is a GOOD thing
As a writer, I read other people’s stuff all the time. And I conceive these strong ideas of what something needs (or doesn’t need) and I have to think of a way to diplomatically convey my absurdly strong opinions to the writer, knowing full well that whatever I suggest probably won’t be adopted. Imagine, then, the joy and freedom of opening up the document and just MAKING THE CHANGES. Right then and there.
Now, I am aware that in Shannon, I had an experienced collaborator who was happy and open to change. It might not be that way with anyone else, I don’t know. But the experience was fantastic. Under our nom de plume, Laura Gayle (Laura is Shannon’s middle name, and Gayle is mine plus an “L”, to make it sound more like a last name), we plan to collaborate much more and very soon.
So, let me tell you about this book we wrote.
ORCAS INTRIGUE opens with Camille Tate taking the ferry to Orcas Island. Orcas is part of the San Juan Islands, which snuggle up so far north, they are practically Canada. She’s fleeing a broken heart, and has decided the best way to handle her disappointment and misery is to go to a cold northern island where she can steep in her misery and work on a screenplay. Of course, she is almost immediately embroiled in terrifying events, and those events show the reader something strange and special about Camille.
This is a cozy mystery with elements of suspense, mystery, romance and the paranormal. There is also a lot of humor to be found as Camille explores Orcas Island, learns about its eccentric inhabitants, and solves a crime. It’s available in paper and Kindle. And has a beautiful cover by Mark Ferrari.
So give it a look-see. I love it and I hope you do, too. And if you do, please leave a review! Amazon reviews are incredibly helpful!
Note: This really is a ten year-old piece of writing about my favorite microwave and my second-favorite microwave. Seriously. Apparently nothing is too mundane for me to write about. And for the record, I still have that second microwave.
I just dropped off my microwave at a repair shop over here. Now, I know you all say, what? Karen G. Berry, are you nuts? how much does a new microwave cost, anyway? Why not just buy a new one?!
Well, for a couple of reasons. I like the way this one looks, and I like the way this one works.
I dislike programming things. I have a hard time figuring out just which information the microwave requires. When I select defrost, why does it wait? Why doesn’t it just get to the defrosting? But no, it wants some weight and some power levels entered, and every microwave is different. When I try to make a frozen dinner, sometimes it wants to know how many. Like, cooking a frozen dinner in the microwave may be one of the most pathetic “I am single and on a diet” statements a person can make, and it feels like the microwave is mocking a person, asking if perhaps she wants to put two frozen dinners in to cook. Which she doesn’t. Same with cups of “beverage.” No, the microwave is the single person’s appliance of choice, and it should be built for one.
Of course, my first microwave was large enough to hold a small turkey.
The One True Microwave
When i was 19, my mom won a $1000.00 certificate, to be redeemed for something energy-saving. She went to a microwave dealership and negotiated three Amana Radaranges, one for her, one for me, one for my sister. These usually cost $450.00. Back in 1979, $450.00 was a lot of money, and these machines were built like tanks. Moving it was a disc-rupturing event, but move it I did, because I loved that machine. (click here to see exactly what it looked like: Perfect Microwave)
It was brown, heavy gauge metal, like the cladding of a refrigerator. It had a big chrome door with a handle, and the glass in that door was thick like the glass in a real oven door. It pulled out and down like an oven door, and closed with a satisfying thunk and latch, like the door on an ancient Buick, the kind my sister’s friends were bought back in high school because parents believed those Buicks would keep their kids safe in an auto crash (my parents bought us VW Bugs…hm).
There was no digital programming. There was no such thing as digital programming in 1979. It was a big dial that you set to the time, and spring buttons you pushed to start, like an old car radio or a push-button transmission. The glass tray inside was half an inch thick. The microwave itself took up about half my available counter space in any given apartment, and sometimes had to live on top of the fridge, due to space constraints or concerns that it was so heavy that it would go crashing through the floor to the apartment below mine.
It was a beauty. It lasted forever.
The Perfect Microwave is Compromised
Okay, obviously it didn’t last forever. If it had lasted forever, I wouldn’t be hauling in some piece of crap machine I got a year and a half ago for repair, would I? But the old microwave was a tank. In about 1987, when it was eight years old and the lightweight models were flooding the market, my former husband wrenched it open while it was running. “Oops.” That was pretty much impossible to do.
Only a man with the massive muscles of this former husband could have managed this, as it was LATCHED while it ran. These were the days when people were terrified of radiation and the thing cooked with it, but he managed to do it. It was part of his plan (I was sure) to break everything we owned that I liked, which is what he started doing after he accomplished his first plan, which was to lose every nice thing I ever gave him (his first wedding ring, his expensive leather wallet, his tank watch, and his leather attache).
Anyway. Back to the microwave.
We had a repairman out who fixed it and went it over with a Geiger counter. “Keep this,” he said. “The new ones don’t even compare.” We did. I kept it in the divorce, and I know my former husband missed it. He missed it much more than he missed me, as it always heated right up and I was more iffy.
Tragedy strikes Again
One day after school, Oldest and Middle were fighting. This must have been in 1998 or 99. And Middle Daughter took a plastic plate and hurled it at Oldest. It hit the microwave. It cracked the glass in the door. It was not fixable.
Middle: “Mom, I’m sorry!”
Me: “You broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “She was trying to hit ME with a plate!”
Me: “And she broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “Don’t you even care if she was trying to hit me with a plate?”
Me: “She broke the microwave!”
The girls still talk about this. It’s okay. It’s listed in the Big Book of Motherly Sins, listed under Bad Parental Priorities. “Caring more about microwave than inter-child acts of violence.” My picture is there, too, staring at a 20 year-old brown microwave, my face stunned and grieving. But that’s fine. It’s labeled “Bad Mother.” Whatever. I still couldn’t believe she’d broken the microwave.
Diaspora: The Years of Stupid Microwaves
So then I had to start using regular cheap-ass microwaves, like all you other people out there. You little people with your inferior little microwaves. Plebeian microwaves. Predictable microwaves. Pedestrian microwaves.
I scorned you. And then I was one of you.
I had lost my Buick Regal microwave and I had to use the stupid little white plastic microwaves that were designed to pop corn in dorm rooms, the kind that sprung open when you pushed a plastic button, the kind that had all the little choices on plastic film on the other buttons, no dials, just weird buttons that you pushed, hoping the microwave knew that your cocoa was merely tepid and only needed thirty seconds but the beverage was set permanently at 45 seconds so it was always TOO HOT when you got it out of there.
Stupid, shabby, cheap, plastic, stupid microwaves. I’ve had several over the years. And some required programming, and I don’t even have a programmable alarm clock, that’s too complex for me, all right? My new kitchen stove is programmable and I have learned to use it, but only under duress because otherwise I’d have to ask the kids to turn on the stove for me like I did the first three months we were back in the house, and after a while they refused and made me learn to do it myself.
My Dad Gets Tired of Hearing Me Complain
So, after years of grieving the old microwave, complaining about the parade of shoddy, crummy microwaves that worked for ten months and then died, comparing them to the lost splendor of the gigantic Amana Radarange, the mechanical superiority of the One Perfect Microwave, finally one day my dad brought me a microwave from Costco. And he opened it up and we looked at it and you know what it had?
It had a DIAL.
That’s right. A dial. It’s digital, but I can turn this dial to the right and it dials up the amount of time I want, and then I hit start. Oh, the display is digital, and I do have to program it to get certain things done, so it is not exactly like the old Buick microwave. But it’s enough like it that when this one stopped working, I wanted to take it in and have it repaired, rather than replacing it.
I’ve been carting the microwave around in my car for about a month, now, waiting to get to the repair shop. Everyone who has ridden in my van has remarked on the presence of the microwave, generally with a snickered little aside about why would I have it repaired when a new one costs how much? And I’ve had to explain the knob thing to all of them, how I like knobs, not really good with digital programming, and this one is nice-looking, it has a HANDLE, even, rather than some spring button you push to open it. And they all scoff but people are generally kind when they realize how simple I am, so they leave me alone.
It took sort of a harmonic convergence to get it there, a special moment when the shop was open, I was near the shop, and my memory functioned enough to jog me into stopping there.
That happened today.
So first, the door opened and a nice looking young man with his name stitched on a tag on his shirt came out and I told him I wanted to drop off a microwave and he smiled and said he didn’t work there but he’d help me carry it in. So that was embarrassing because apparently I have turned into my mother, but then this woman came out of the repair shop and said “I’ll help her!” And my, what an extraordinary creature she was.
She was statuesque, not in the euphemistic sense, but in the tall and strongly built way, strong arms and shoulders, slimmer legs, good shape but plenty of curves. Tanning booth tan. She had long fluffy bleached blonde hair, all layered and curled and with bangs, even. Lots of eye makeup, all of it black, maroon lipstick, teeth were kind of badly spaced. She had on a black knit tank dress with slits up the sides, a very elegant dress to be wearing to check appliances in at a small repair shop, and she had on strappy black high heeled sandals, as well. Manicure, pedicure.
And then she had on the most amazing array of strange costume jewelry. It was like, big fake square rhinestones, and rings that had the plating worn off to the base metal, and all of it clearly, obviously false and very worn.
She was all business, checking me in. I looked around as she did so, looking at the machines for sale, answering the information questions, and when it got to where I needed to tell her what was going on, I started on my “I know it’s not a deluxe model, it’s just that it has a dial and I…”
“You don’t have to explain that to me,” she said with a smile. And I realized that she was right. I was talking to perhaps the only person in the greater Portland Metro area who understood why I wanted to keep this microwave, rather than getting a new one. Not only did she understand me, she supported me in this, as it meant business for her and the man who actually does the repair.
I felt validated.
And so, now, it’s just waiting. Waiting to find out if the machine is able to be repaired, waiting to see how much it will cost, waiting for the Goddess of the Microwave to call me and tell me that my microwave-with-the knob is ready to come home.
I wonder what she’ll be wearing when I pick it up.
It’s been a year now, a year of being single. It’s time to celebrate with a fresh, crisp bulleted list.
What I enjoy about being single:
- Comfortable cotton underthings. Yes, that’s right, Jockey for Her is number one on the list.
- Long uninterrupted stretches of time in which to write. Or not. But it’s mine.
- Control over the type and amount of music in the car. And type and amount of conversation, too.
- No mansplaining. I hate the term because I’ve heard it too much, but it’s the best there is for a phenomenon I can’t abide.
- A general lack of huffiness. I’m not sure why I attract huffy men, or maybe all men are huffy. I don’t miss the huffy.
- Zero discussion as to what or where or when to eat.
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.
The inalienable right to happiness.
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.