They arrived on orange webbed feet, often with blue ribbons tied around their long necks. Waddling and honking, pecking and settling into every kitchen in America. I’m talking about the geese.
In 1981, I was a nanny, and my employer began accumulating the cutest dishes I had ever seen. It started with mugs by a company called Vandor. There were four, each featuring a different farm animal; cow, pig, sheep, and a pair of chickens (no geese, please note).
I know it’s hard to imagine, but at the time, these mugs were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was awash in admiration.
This was a fairly prosperous household, so the mugs were followed by salad plates, dinner plates, bowls, canisters, and salt and pepper shakers. There were some white ceramic animal heads on the walls, upon which to hang coordinating towels. Eventually, my employer had an entire kitchen full the stuff. It was amazing, this Vandor Country Collection, but it featured no geese.
My admiration was well expressed. So, when I married in 1982, my employer gifted me a huge box of my own Vandor Country farm animal ceramics. I received the original set of four regular-sized mugs, four miniature mugs with baby animals on them (highlighted by the chick), a pitcher that I’d use as a utensil holder, and salt and pepper shakers. She even got me the metal canisters. All country, all mine (but no geese).
My new husband and I moved to a nice two-bedroom town home, where I used cup hooks to display my barnyard wedding gifts. I found some country blue placemats at the thrift store and set them on the eating bar. Then I won a little blue occasional shelf with heart-shaped cutouts at some direct sales party or another. I hung that up over the pantry door and put some thrift store blue and white china on it.
I am telling you, I had that country décor thing going on. But there were still no geese in my kitchen lineup.
All around me, the geese were taking over America’s kitchens. Those geese had waddled into the world of 80s décor, usually in a line, followed by a little girl wearing a hat.
This is a charming print, isn’t it? But when I described it, you groaned in recognition before you even saw it. So did I. But look at it! It’s nice! And if I hadn’t seen it hanging on the wall of nearly every home I visited during those years, I might have wanted it on my wall, too.
I considered adding the geese as an accent. There were geese salt and pepper shakers, but I liked my Vandor shakers. Avon sold a set of measuring spoons shaped like little individual geese. They were adorable, but I didn’t want to measure out my salt in geese.
There were entire sets of dishes devoted to geese.
The trouble was, I already had floral ditzy dishes that coordinated well with my gooseless Vandor Country ceramics. Those dishes were a wedding present from my former mother-in-law. In all the years she gave me presents, those dishes were the only time she got it right. I wasn’t about to replace them.
There were geese wallpaper borders, but we lived in an apartment. I wasn’t going to risk the damage deposit by doing anything to the walls. There were geese towels. My kitchen towels came to me from my grandmother, who had this whole system where she bought dishtowels, cut them in half, crocheted a button-through hanger and sent them to me for Christmas. Thanks to her crafty generosity, I never bought kitchen towels.
My then-husband tried to come through. For one occasion or another, he gifted me a ceramic tureen, a white fowl along these lines:
But here’s the deal. I think it was a duck, not a goose. I mean, I don’t have a photo of it, but I think it was a very pretty duck. I tied a blue ribbon around its neck, and it sat on the sewing machine cabinet in the dining room, overlooking over the garage sale table and sticky chairs in a somewhat imperious manner.
My maybe-goose-maybe-duck tureen had pride of place. It deserved it. I mean, a tureen is a somewhat grand item, yes? But it was almost too special. By the time my then-husband broke it, I’d only used it once.
…I moved on to dusty pink.
Decorating trends come and go. Grey today, gone tomorrow. The stuff of mania is always packed up and donated eventually, and so it was with America’s 1980s geese. For years, they waddled up and down Goodwill’s knickknack aisle, settling bossily among the shelves of plates and bowls, honking and pecking and reminding me of the eighties. You couldn’t give that stuff away.
But everything old is new again, and other such clichés. The geese have migrated back into American homes. Now, when I see a white goose with a blue ribbon around its neck on Etsy or eBay, I groan at the outrageous prices. I groan, but I smile, too. I always knew they’d be back.
But here’s the thing. If you still love your geese from the 80s, or if you have somehow recently fallen under the spell of the geese, just go to the thrift store. They’re still there. I took this yesterday.
When Katrina sent me this writing prompt, “The Rocket,” my mind went right to “Crotch Rocket.” This vulgar little term was stuck in my head from my few experiences with men and motorcycles, but did I actually know what it meant? I had to ask my friend Daniel, who thoughtfully provided the following information:
I don’t like Harleys because they’re loud. Also, since I know/care nothing about bikes, zero zip nada, the photos in this post are simply photos that appealed to me. There may be Harleys here. Please don’t point this out! Because I don’t care!
And now, on to Men and Motorcycles.
There are motorcycle people, and not-motorcycle people. In general, I would put my family in the not-motorcycle category, with one notable exception.
When it comes to men and motorcycles, I don’t actually know if my dad ever had a bike. He was young and adventurous when he married my mom and took on us kids (also naive, obviously). A motorcycle seems like something he might have tried, maybe while he was in the Air Force, hanging around with Gary and Crazy Charlie. He’s gone, now, so I can’t ask him.
My older brother would sometimes muse about getting a motorcycle. I inwardly cringed at the idea and tried to steer the subject elsewhere. Brother Steve was an artist, writer, and musician. His fine motor skills were exquisite, but his gross motor skills were lacking. He also had terrible vision with poor depth perception. I worried about him driving. He’s gone too, and I’m glad my time with him wasn’t shortened by any ill-conceived motorcycle doings.
Brother Steve’s talk of getting a bike was probably spurred by envy of our younger brother, who was seventeen years younger than Steve and the exception in the family, as far as motorcycles go. Tall, alternately brooding and sardonic, a former water polo goalkeeper, voted “Most Rebellious” in his graduating class—riding a motorcycle suited my younger brother. He had two BMW K75 sport touring models, a K75c and a K75s. He was easy on a bike, and he definitely looked the part wearing leathers.
He lived in Seattle and I live in Portland. Very early one Saturday morning, I heard a symphony of rumbles, and then a knock on my front door. I opened it. There he stood with three or four of his friends. “We’re on our way to (somewhere) on our bikes, and I wondered if you could make us some breakfast.”
Well of course I could make them some breakfast.
That morning, my sleepy daughters tumbled out of their rooms to find their uncle and his handsome, scruffy friends occupying the breakfast bar, while I filled their coffee cups and poured them OJ and heaped their plates with toast and eggs and every last scrap of breakfast meat I could find in my fridge.
This is just one of the mythic memories my daughters have of my younger brother in his motorcycle years. Imagine, a young uncle you don’t see very often, just showing up at the Bainbridge Bakery with his bike and his beard and his deep, booming voice. For a while, he had a girlfriend who rode her own bike, which seemed even more exotic and interesting.
He eventually got married (not to the bike girl) (she was not that interesting, aside from the bike) and had a family. The BMW sat in his garage, not running, for a few years. I’m not sure how long he kept it there on the off chance that he’d be able to ride it again. I’m pretty sure he sold it. He is a family man, after all.
That leaves us womenfolk. I have no idea whether or not my mother ever got on a motorcycle, and as far as I know, my sister hasn’t had too many motorcycle adventures. But me? Well, I have, but just a few. Here are my adventures with motorcycles and men.
In seventh grade I had a boyfriend named James. He was sixteen, and I met him at my older sister’s birthday party. We probably connected during Spin the Bottle or some such game.
His black-rimmed glasses weren’t appealing to me and his face and hair were always oily. But I liked riding behind him on his motorcycle, my arms wrapped around his sweaty young torso, cruising the crumbling streets of Booneville, Arkansas. Neither of us ever wore a helmet.
If this was dangerous, I was oblivious. I was only twelve years old.
James gave me my first kiss. Much like him, it was rather sweaty and damp. I tried to enter into the spirit of the thing, but he told me, “You kiss too hard.” This was excellent feedback, and I have passed it along to various men over the years. Kiss with the lips. Kiss softly.
James was my boyfriend for only a few weeks before my older sister decided she liked him. I like to say, “My older sister helped herself to my first boyfriend,” but that really isn’t true. For one thing, he wasn’t my first boyfriend. And for another, I gratefully handed him over.
French kisses were far…too…much for my young self.
I was a senior in high school when a young man named Richard moved to Yakima. He was tall and nice looking, and wore a green army surplus coat and rode a motorcycle. He spoke with erudition and dsiplayed intellectual curiosity, which were punishable offenses in our school. He suffered instantaneous social rejection. That meant he had to hang out with us weird kids.
In addition to being socially unclassifiable, Richard was funny and surprisingly charming for a teenaged boy. The girls in our group were all a-flutter, except for me. I was taken. I lived with my boyfriend at the time, pretending to be married so the school wouldn’t call Social Services on us. Richard was intrigued that we were married and appalled by our financial situation (we lived on air). It was so different from his own comfortable life. We must have seemed exotic.
He’d ride his motorcycle over, park it on the walkway in front of our one bedroom apartment, settle onto our vinyl-covered couch and question our ability to survive. He sort of couldn’t get enough of it. He might have been my only friend who had the good sense to question how the hell I found myself in this situation.
Once his morbid interest in our poverty was indulged for the day, he would steer the conversation to his other topic of interest—World War II. Richard and my pseudo-teen-husband Phil both knew a lot about WWII, but Phil liked Patton, not Himmler. Three of his four grandparents were Jewish. He wasn’t a fan of the Nazis.
Richard was! He returned over and over to Nazi Germany’s military tactics. One day he said something like, “You can’t help but admire Goring’s strategy…”
I interrupted him. “Oh, I can. I certainly can help but admire his strategy.”
Richard didn’t understand my life, and I couldn’t really understand his. His father was the president of a local bank. His family home was all French doors and urn-filled patios, tucked into a charming neighborhood on the other end of Yakima Avenue. Richard’s room was hung with motorcycle posters, model airplanes—probably Messerschmitts—and his shelves were full of books about WWII. How had such a conventional family produced such an odd son?
He had an older brother who seemed more, well, let’s just say normal. Richard brought him to one of our weird kid parties. He looked like a darker, more attractive version of Richard. He probably didn’t know what to make of Richard’s oddball friends, WWII fixation, and love of motorcycles.
Richard tried again and again to get me on the back of that bike. He took all the other girls in the group out on rides. The experience left them breathless. Occasionally, it left Richard breathless, too, because sometimes they didn’t understand how to lean with the curves (I’ll just say it, Bev made him wreck his bike, I’m sorry Bev, but you’re no longer with us so this can’t embarrass you).
I’d learned how to lean into curves behind James, but I had zero interest in riding on the back of another teenage boy’s motorcycle. I had, well, adult responsibilities: cats, and a fake husband, and I had to finish high school in one piece so we could move somewhere else where he could find a job. Living on air can only work for so long.
Phil finally drove to Portland to work at a brake shop. This left me on my own for my last term at Eisenhower. I didn’t have a phone, and there had been fractures in my friend group, so most of the time it was just me and the cats. I liked it when Richard showed up, which he did more and more after Phil left town. Sometimes, he even took me out for coffee; I drove, he paid.
“It’s too bad you’re married,” he said in a booth at Sambo’s (or maybe it was Denny’s). “Because if you weren’t, we could hang out.”
I was confused. “But we are hanging out.”
He said something halting about how much he liked me, like, really liked me. I said something dismissive and ended that part of the conversation.
I should have recognized the signs.
One Saturday Richard came by, as he so often did. I’d gone into the bathroom (which was off the bedroom) to tend to the cat box. I’m not sure why he decided to press his case while I was sifting turds out of cat litter, but he sauntered into the bedroom, stretched out on my bed with his hands behind his head, and announced, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you and I had an affair one day.”
I stood up, pointed to the door with my litter sifter, and said, “Get out.”
This isn’t the end of the story. A week or two later, I opened my front door and he stood there, helmet in hand, looking absolutely wrecked. “I’m an idiot, I’m sorry,” he said. Of course I forgave him, but things were never the same after that. I’d crushed the hopes of a teenage boy. He had to gather his dignity around him and carry on. That required a certain distance on both our parts.
We graduated and went our separate ways. I have no idea if Richard became more conventional, or if he’s living in Northern Idaho with like-minded admirers of Nazi military strategy. Wherever he is, I hope he has a better motorcycle, instead of that teenage boy’s crotch rocket. Like, say, a BMW.
That’s German, right?
As an adult, I dated one man who had a motorcycle. Just one. I wrote about him (briefly) in Shopping at the Used Man Store.
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.
This doesn’t give you all the details. Like, how M and I were fixed up by one of my nearest and dearest friends, who lived in Tacoma. She and her then-boyfriend hosted a dinner at their house, and introduced me to their friend, and we really hit it off to the point where our second date was a weekend at the Oregon coast.
Which we would travel to via motorcycle.
On the freeway.
I was really excited about this trip, almost as excited as I was terrified. He must have left his house (160 miles north of me) very early, because he showed up at my house mid-morning, bearing leathers. The leathers were for me.
Yes, I wore the leathers. He sort of strapped me into chaps and zipped me into this enormous black leather coat. Does that sound sexy? It was not. I felt overwhelmed and immobile in all this leather, like Ralphie’s younger brother in A Christmas Story.
We went outside and he stashed my weekend supplies in his luggage compartments, put a helmet on my head (I had terrible hair for the entire time we dated), and steadied the bike while I climbed on. This was, well, managed with as much dignity as possible.
I asked about the route. In my imagination, we would travel some picturesque and nonexistent alternate route that didn’t have any cars on it, or any semi trucks. But he told me we would get on 217 and take it up to the junction with Highway 26, where we would take the long, wide ramp to the west, and continue on to the beach.
I thought this was fine, actually. St. Vincent Hospital is right there at the nexus of 217 and 26, where I’d recently had surgery, so they’d have my medical records and DNR and the like for when I arrived at their emergency room after a fiery crash while merging onto 26.
I braced for it. It had been a fine life. And who needed both legs, anyway?
We took the ramp, joined up with 26, and headed for Seaside. We reached it with no fiery crashes and all limbs attached. The thing about a Gold Wing is, it’s roomy and comfortable and quiet. This is why Harley riders despise Gold Wing riders. But it suited me just fine.
We had a perfectly nice weekend, with time on the bike leading me to mental exploration of Keats’ theory of negative capability: holding in my head the opposing ideas of, “This is so much fun!” and, “I’m going to die!” without seeking resolution.
When I returned home, I was SO GLAD that both my legs came with me! I knew that eventually, if we kept seeing each other, they wouldn’t. But I’d have fun until then!
This trip kicked off a summer of motorcycle jaunts. My knees got a bit stiff on the longer trips, but if I had knees, it meant I still had legs. I liked smelling the vegetation as we rode along, and making the peace sign to the other bikes (that is the one job of the rider and I wasn’t very good at it but I tried). The helmet was wired for sound, so I could hear Paul Simon singing about Graceland, or the acoustic Scorpions, just fine. And after every single trip, I quietly marveled that I hadn’t lost a leg. I hadn’t even lost an arm!
September came. The change of weather brought a change of heart. I could feel him pulling back. I was too, though I’m not sure he understood that. He was getting ready to leave the country on an extended business trip, and I was so ready for him to go. This was fun and all, the bike and his humor and the strange world of recovery culture I’d sampled that summer. But I wanted to get back to my real life.
I suggested we have a conversation.
So, we got on the phone to to have the conversation. I let him talk. He explained that he wanted to keep seeing me when he could, but he also wanted to start seeing people up north, because they could watch TV together during the week. He mentioned that quite specifically. Watching TV during the week (see: Larry the Cable Guy).
I told him it was fine if he wanted to see other people (obviously, he already was), but I just wanted to be done. No continuing to see each other “when we could.” Which was okay, I reassured him, there were no hard feelings. I liked him, but we were too ill-matched for anything serious (see: shirt sleeves torn off). I didn’t say that last part out loud.
My exact words were, “Let’s just call it a summer.”
He started crying. He didn’t want to let me go, blah blah blah, oh the drama (see: in recovery). He asked for a night to think it over. I saw no point, but fine. I slept poorly that night, and of course he called me the next morning, still in tears, to say he couldn’t date only me.
I told him well, that’s that.
So, my summer on the Gold Wing ended. I would miss those trips, and I would miss him (see: funny and tall). But at the back of my mind, despite the anxious grief that always overtook me when a relationship ended, I was relieved. Very relieved.
I still had all my limbs. And still do, to this day.
It was time to leave Edina behind. After an adoption and a bankruptcy, we moved to Arkansas so my new father could start a Forest Service internship. Its office was based in Booneville, a tiny town up in the lush, swampy, humid northwest corner of Arkansas. We arrived in Booneville as a legal family, a strange little family in a strange little town.
Dad went to work in the Ouachita National Forest. The rest of us spent our days in the falling-down farmhouse I’ve written about before. When we arrived, that house had no air conditioner. It was only May, but it was always hot, day and night. One hundred plus degrees, one hundred percent humidity. We went to school during the week, but on the weekend, we lay limp and gasping, dying fish on the battered linoleum of the living room floor.
My pregnant mother was disgusted. She’d hoped to inch us up the social ladder with a better address in Edina. Perhaps she thought we’d do our part and take up tennis and the like. But we were pallid indoor creatures who were no help at all. Still, this was next level torpid. She couldn’t even rouse her daughters for housework. She used all the weapons in her motherly arsenal to motivate us; rage, accusation, guilt, shame. Nothing could budge us.
One afternoon, we finally heard it on the roof. A patter, then a smatter, then a steady thrumming. Could it be? We rose to our feet, weak from inactivity, and emerged from the rotten shell of that rotten little house. We turned our chalky faces to the sky. It was raining.
Thunder rocked the earth, lightning split the sky, and our mother shouted a warning. But thunder and lightning belonged to Thor, and so did we. We were children of the North.
Well, not such children. My brother was sixteen, my sister thirteen, and I was eleven. We had lost the grace of childhood and become ungainly in our bodies. But there we were, leaping and waving, soaking and spinning, and laughing, all three of us, dancing in the southern downpour.
As a Northerner, how do you prepare for the South’s summer heat? You can’t. You can’t even describe it, through you try. Deliquescent, you might say, or oppressive. You struggle through the heavy air like one of those dreams where you’re trying to run. You don’t roast in Southern heat. You drown. It was like living in a terrarium.
But we were children, and children adjust. We more or less acclimated in the weeks before summer. In the early mornings, before the heat became unbearable, my sister and I found a pocket of time in which we could explore this strange new landscape.
We made strange Northern noises as we padded down red clay roads under overhanging trees that resonated with the songs of frogs, insects, and unfamiliar birds. We kept to the center, where we could see the telltale SSS of snakes as they crossed the road, the black scuttle of hairy tarantulas as they went about their scary business.
Within walking distance of our house, we came upon a still river, so dark and green that its depths were impossible to perceive. What was it called? We had no idea. It was just there. Was it shallow? Was it deep? Most importantly, were there snakes?
With great trepidation, we tiptoed across a concrete bridge that had no guardrails. We leaned towards each other, too frightened to shriek. It seemed to me that the viscous green water, thick as mud, would rise up over its sides and claim us, suck us down into the Arkansas waters, leaving behind no trace.
Within a few months, we were used to this different world. We made friends with neighbors who had horses and a private lake. We would modulate our voices to be heard over that symphony of flying, hopping, slithering, scuttling life. We would run across that concrete bridge without fear, without even thinking.
We wouldn’t even sweat.
No one would ever have accused us kids of being athletic, but water tends to be forgiving of that. We could splash and bob and shriek, practice our shitty crawls and pointless breaststrokes. Swimming in Arkansas gave us a break from the heat and boredom of our tiny town, and removed some of the awkwardness of our growing, graceless bodies.
As a forester, Dad had access to key information for water safety, like when a swimming hole had last been sprayed for copperheads. Once he’d decided the chance of poisonous snakebite was low, he’d pack up us three older kids in our family’s VW van and head for Jack Creek. Mom stayed home with the new air conditioner and the even newer baby brother.
Jack Creek was a pretty place. A diagonal upthrust of rock defined the swimming hole, and provided a place for the more daring to jump. Kids would scale the rocks, edge out, and plunge into what must have been the only water deep enough to safely enter.
How did they keep from breaking their necks?
Sister and I stuck to the still green waters. We would have done that without our mother’s warnings not to break our necks. I was cautious by nature, always watching for the S-shaped ripple of a swimming snake. We didn’t break our necks by jumping in, and we never got bit by snakes. Once, when we were sort of wallowing at the edge of the creekbed, a crawfish bit my sister in the butt. That was the extent of our misadventures with wildlife.
I would have lived at Jack Creek if I could. Swimming there gave us some low-key time with just our dad. He understood parts of parenting that our mother didn’t, like the fact that we needed to go outside once in a while. We would never jump off cliffs, but we needed nature, even if we stuck to the shady spots, muddy banks, and shallow waters.
I remember swimming at a lake in Arkansas. I thought it was called Green Lake, but I can’t find a lake by that name near Booneville out there on the Internet. My sister thinks it was a reservoir, but I remember seeing fish, and going out on a boat with a friend of the family’s who was fishing. Are there a lot of fish in reservoirs? I have no idea.
Anyway, if you’re reading this and you know what lake it was, leave a comment.
Because Arkansas is mild in the winter, and hot all the rest of the year, we went fairly often, but never often enough. We adored this lake. It had a sandy shore and trees nearby, offering shade if the heat became too much. There were picnic tables and a sense of social possibility. I was eleven when we moved to Arkansas and only twelve when we left, but adolescence was bearing down on my sister and me. There were boys at that lake, including those blonde and handsome Daffron/Daphren brothers.
One weekend, Mom and Dad had gone somewhere for the weekend—probably Fort Smith—leaving my sister and I in charge of our baby brother. Our older brother was away at college by this point. I was 12, which means my brother was a year old. Yes, we were all quite young to be left alone for a weekend, but my sister had been babysitting me since she was five and I was three, so we were used to it.
Anne and Tom—friends of my parents—knew we were home alone that weekend. They had possibly been enlisted to check in on us. Anne called and said Tom had the idea to take us to the lake. Would we like go to the lake with them? Oh, we wanted to go! But we couldn’t figure out how to handle a one year-old. Could we bring his playpen? Would it fit in their car? Would he be okay while we swam? Would Mom be mad?
My sister called them back and said we couldn’t go after all.
When my parents came home, we told them all about our almost-trip to the lake and our oh-so-mature decision not to go. We were pretty proud of ourselves, but I watched my mother’s face harden as we talked. Mom was stony and disapproving.
She finally said, “You know why Tom wanted to take you to the lake, don’t you?”
No, I didn’t. To have fun, maybe?
She hissed, “He wanted to see you in your swimsuits.”
The way she said it. I felt soiled and somehow responsible. That’s what happens to girls as we reach maturity milestones that trigger male interest. We blame ourselves for anything creepy.
As it turns out, that was the last opportunity we had to go to the lake. We moved to Montana soon after. There was nowhere safe to swim out at the Ranger Station. That didn’t stop me from testing the waters.
I would step into the churning, icy flow of the Gallatin River, hoping to make it to a rock before my feet froze. I was young and lonely and bored, and there was nothing else to do. Why not risk my life?
There was no swimming in that river. I missed those Arkansas waters, warm, lazy and green, my sister beside me, my dad watching to keep us safe.
In her pantry, my mother kept three translucent teacups and saucers glazed with navy blue on white, accented with raised golden swags and dots. From these elegant vessels, she claimed to sip tea with her friend Jim while they worked jigsaw puzzles or did the New York Times crossword.
I had my doubts. We weren’t tea drinkers in my family. Mom and Dad started their day with coffee in ceramic mugs bought while touring England. Still, Mom kept her regal teacups, insisting they were objects of utility.
Hardly anyone in America uses the cups and saucers that come with their dishes, and Mom had a dozen in her English transferware pattern (Johnson Brothers, Old Britain). So she had no need of those delicate cups. I think she just admired their unmistakable whiff of extended-pinky snobbery.
Mom came from rural South Dakota, but her parents relocated to North Hollywood when she was a young teen. She made friends with girls from prosperous families and enjoyed beaches, cotillions, and trips to Catalina Island.
These halcyon days came to an end when she married a sailor and became a mother at age seventeen.
Soon after, my grandfather’s business failed. My grandparents retreated to South Dakota. When her marriage failed, so did my mother, but she’d been infected with class awareness.
She never recovered.
Social class had a code, and Mom wanted to crack it. She understood that the more comfortable echelons of society actually used their beautiful objects, so she strove to do this. She glowed with pride over her Johnson Brothers dishes. My parents ate from those pink castles every single day and ran them through the dishwasher.
On her entry table, she kept a huge antique Asian bowl she considered valuable. That was where she threw her mail and keys. Alongside it stood two large white ceramic rabbits with pink eyes; knickknack outliers.
My mother first saw these rabbits in an expensive gift shop in 1977. She spoke of them with longing and bitterness, because she never had enough money to buy anything as costly and wonderful as those big white rabbits.
My brother, sister and I pooled our meager funds and bought them for her birthday. We thought she would be thrilled, but she seemed disappointed that she could no longer complain about that particular deprivation.
Eventually, more white rabbits came her way as gifts. “I don’t want to collect anything,” Mom complained.
My mother would not suffer the social embarrassment of accumulating fussy objects that had no use. She preferred to pass them along to me with the admonishment, “You should keep this. It will be worth money someday.”
I accepted various knickknacks (including the largest white rabbit), ornate teapots, and flowery teacups, and kept them against that promise of future value right up until Mom died. Then, I quietly donated almost everything she gave me.
But not everything…
I claimed the various large white ceramic rabbits. Each spring, I display the entire fluffle on my dining table. I even added one this last year, so the current count stands at six. My mother would be horrified.
She may have thought it tacky to have knickknacks, but Mom had a stash of extraneous flowered porcelain somewhere. I’d seen it. After Mom died, my father offered up her small accumulation to me and my sister.
My sister reluctantly took “Grandma Lucille’s teapot,” ancient and oval, patterned with pansies. It had been promised to her years before with great solemnity. Somehow her desire to actually own it was never taken into account. She accepted it with duty, not desire.
I took two small bowl and pitcher sets, and a Wedgewood “Windrush” demitasse cup and saucer. Mom had the pitcher sets as for long as I could remember, but where had the demitasse come from? Had she bought it on a trip to Europe? Dad didn’t remember. It held no sentimental value, but was too pretty to let go.
Finally, Dad opened the cabinet and offered up the imperial three, those delicate navy blue and white teacups trimmed with gold, saying, “I’ll never use them.” To his surprise, Cat and I both declined. They meant something to Mom, but nothing to us.
Those swagged and stately teacups reemerged seventeen years later at Dad’s estate sale. They went quickly, I imagine to a person who never uses them. That’s what I like to think, anyway. I hope they sit proudly on a shelf, gathering dust, their potential utility ignored in favor of their regal beauty.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I miss you every single day.
In 1984, my then-husband and I were ready to turn over a new leaf, and upgrade from an old Formica-topped table we’d been using for several years. This table was, of course, a parental castoff.
My parents had used it in their kitchen, then on their deck. When they bought some beautiful wrought iron furniture at a Meier & Frank warehouse sale, they passed it along with two wooden chairs, Nichols & Stone beauties marred by a strange, sticky finish. Mom let me know that they were “really good” chairs.
Yes, but they were sticky.
It was a temporary solution, but as my mother had explained to me, “Temporary solutions have a way of becoming permanent.” Her example was a crate used as an end table, something you do in college. Ten years later, you look up and that crate is still there, being used as an end table.
Mom had a point. Our entire apartment was furnished in temporary solutions, castoffs and loaners and curbside finds. We’d been using that patio table for at least three years. I used my dad’s staple gun to staple on a new vinyl tablecloth every now and then, but still. I decided to take a look at the “World’s Largest Rummage Sale.”
This secondhand extravaganza was held each year in the Memorial Coliseum by Catlin Gabel, a private school in Northwest Portland. The donation drive went on for months, resulting in an astonishing assemblage of upper-crust castoffs. I knew I could find something at the Catlin Gabel sale.
Boy, did I. A square pine table with a dark finish set me back all of $25.00. Such a bargain, for a “really good” table. It was solid, with a pieced top, braced corners and sturdy turned legs. At one time it had a leaf, because it had a central join with pegs on one side, holes on the other, and levered closures (like the ones you find on windows) underneath to hold the two halves tight.
I think someone built this table in a home workshop. Mom was a furniture snob—she’d worked selling furniture at one point in her life—and she approved of the quality. So did I. My husband didn’t understand why we liked it so much, but it fit in our apartment’s dining space, nicely accommodating our family of four.
It made the move from apartment to our first home, where we grew to a family of five. I thought we were fine. Each side could hold two chairs, especially when two were occupied by little girls. But my husband decided that we no longer fit.
He unscrewed the legs, carted the tabletop somewhere for measuring, then carted it back home and put it back together. “We need a new leaf.” I asked him who was making this new leaf. “I know a guy,” was the most he would tell me.
That’s all he would tell me about, well, anything. He followed his father’s advice to “Never tell a woman where you’re going, or how much money you have.” Fine, then. I retaliated by refusing to be curious (can you see how well this marriage was going? but that is not the point of this blog post. well, not really.).
He brought the new leaf home and unveiled it with pride. I was appalled. It had cost $85.00 to have it made for our $25.00 table, and it wasn’t even finished. He said he’d finish it himself, but I knew him. I covered the raw wood with a large tablecloth and got on with life.
The five of us ate dinner together at the elongated table for a few more years. The girls perched on rickety wooden kitchen chairs my husband found secondhand. Us adults continued to sit in the chairs with the sticky finishes.
But he made it home for dinner less and less. Shift work, most of the time. Other times? Who knew. I was resolutely incurious. It was my only defense.
His sticky chair wasn’t usually empty, though. We had dinner almost nightly with my friend Lauren, whose own marriage had ended. Her two kids came to my house after school, and it was easy to feed them dinner on weeknights. She reciprocated on weekends. That filled up the table very nicely.
When my husband finally moved out, the nightly dinners with Lauren and her kids continued. She was right there, every single day, helping me find (and keep) my footing. We formed our own little Kate and Allie situation.
But times change. I went back to work myself, and worked strange hours. My kids were with their father and his new girlfriend part of the time. One of my girls needed extensive surgery, so my family came down to help a lot that next year.
Eventually, Lauren remarried, and I began my single life adventures. But I believe she kind of, you know, saved my life. And I mean that.
Destruction brings opportunity.
That’s a realization you have after undergoing fundamental devastation. I was grieving the end of my marriage, terrified by the disruption of my children’s security, and just plain furious. But I had to move on. I needed to recognize the opportunity for change.
On the level of personal identity, this meant reclaiming parts of myself I’d set aside. I’d been told by my husband that for the marriage to work, I simply could not be me. I’d given away half of myself (or more, if I’m honest) to be part of that marriage. I wanted it all back and then some.
On the mundane level, that included making decisions about the house and how it was furnished. I looked at every part of my home to make sure it was exactly how I wanted it. Those creaking, rickety kitchen chairs had to go. I laid away four solid oak chairs at an antique mall in Newberg. They were early American in style, and very sturdy. I can’t remember what I paid, maybe $35.00 each? They’d been consigned by a Catholic monk who had finished them himself.
Once I got those home, I felt exalted. No more crappy chairs around my table! I took the table outside, painted the skirt and legs, and refinished the wood top. This included (finally) finishing the leaf, which I had considered taking out. We were back down to a family of four. We didn’t technically need it.
But I’d grown used to the sweep of a larger table. Plus there were kids’ birthday parties to consider. And family dinners on holidays. And all those freaking piles of laundry to fold.
The 2006 house fire allowed me to make more changes, not just in my home’s layout as it was being rebuilt, but in furnishings, because so many were lost. I have a new table now, a sweeping eight-footer. It took some years and some shopping, but it is now flanked by six sturdy modern chairs my daughter found for me on Marketplace.
All on my own, I found two bow back Nichols & Stone chairs for the head and foot of the table (thank you Goodwill, for pricing these beauties at $9.99 each). I like the blend of modern and traditional. And I love a bargain.
The remaining sticky chair is in the bedroom. That’s where I set my purse, and where I heap garments when I can’t decide what to wear.
The oak chairs made it through the fire, and I used them as a temporary solution around the new table. That temporary solution lasted fifteen years before they went to Goodwill. I was glad to see them go. They were sturdy, and gave me good service, but they were also tall and pale and dated. One of them had a little green paint on it. That’s how I identified it when I saw it at my local Goodwill, priced at $14.99.
So long, old oak chairs. It was good to know you.
I kept the old table, which also made it through the fire just fine. I’ve loaned it out twice, once to a friend who used it as a desk, then to a daughter until her boyfriend surprised her with a new dining set. Currently, it leans against a wall in the garage, legs detached, solid and square as ever, waiting to be called into service. The new leaf is there, too, minus a skirting board, but still usable.
I like that table. It would work nicely if I ever call it up as a desk, maybe for the office I plan to create in one of the spare rooms. I’m not sure.
Like I said, it’s a really good table. It was always a really good table.
That’s why I’ll never let it go.
Photo courtesy Pixabay
I have always despised smoking and loved smokers. That’s where the action is, at a party. Outside with the smokers, even when you’re not smoking a cigarette, like me. In fact, my first stab at writing a memoir was titled “Not Smoking.”
My parents (one mom, an original father, an eventual dad) smoked with the abandon of people who took up the habit long before the surgeon general’s warning went on the packets. My childhood was spent choking my way through a hazy scrim of tobacco smoke, complaining and whining with every breath.
When I was eleven, I spent a year removing my parents’ cigarettes from the pack, drawing a red line round the midpoint of each cigarette with a red felt tip, and carefully returning them to the package. I did this to entire cartons of cigarettes for most of a year in order to keep my parents from smoking down into the dangerous second half of the cigarette (something I saw on a PSA, I’m sure). My dad smoked them down anyway, but Mom trained herself to only ever smoke half a cigarette in deference to my concerns.
It was inconceivable that I would ever smoke.
We’d left Arkansas shortly before my thirteenth birthday and moved to a log cabin on a ranger station in Montana. It was almost as rustic as it sounds, aside from the electricity and indoor plumbing. The name “Gallatin” will be overly used in this forthcoming sentence, because we lived in the Gallatin Valley carved by the Gallatin River through the Gallatin Range, named after Albert Gallatin, who was the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury, and let’s just top this all off with the fact that I went to school in Gallatin Gateway. My sister went to school in Bozeman.
I don’t quite understand what had happened to us in Montana. In Arkansas, we were academically gifted girls who sang in the choir and had boyfriends. At age twelve, I’d been attending high school in Booneville, because it started in seventh grade. I was an odd one who only ever had one friend at a time, and counted myself lucky to have that one. My sister actually ran in cliques. She’d always included me in Arkansas.
Montana was a social challenge for both of us, since we lived an hour’s bus ride from our respective schools. She went to the bus stop later than I did, and was dropped off earlier. I was the first stop, out there in the icy darkness before 7am, and also the last dropped off. I assumed this was because the bus driver, like almost everyone else at Gateway, hated me. I had left Booneville High behind for a K through 8 grade school, and I did not fit in.
My sister wasn’t having much more luck. After a little recon, it became clear to her that even though we were “good kids” with excellent grades and definite nerd-like qualities, the only social group we stood a chance with in Bozeman was the hoods. You know, the heads, the stoners, the greasers, whatever you called them in your hometown back in the olden days. They were the hoods in Bozeman, Montana.
To be a hood, you had to smoke.
My sister had run away for a short time (I was in eighth grade, she must have been in tenth). She hitchhiked to Minneapolis and stayed with a friend from her junior high years. She returned a smoker. I wasn’t, so we stole a pack of Benson & Hedges 100s from the refrigerator shelf where my parents stored their signature smokes and went down to crouch on the riverbank.
She coached me in the fine art of inhaling. I would draw deeply, filling my mouth with the foul, forbidden smoke. “Like this?”
“No, you have to inhale it in,” she’d say.
The smoke would come out of my mouth and make my eyes water. I’d give it another try. “Am I doing it now?”
She would study me and shake her head. “You have to breathe it.”
I had no idea how to do that, which makes no sense because it was just breathing. I knew how to breathe. I kept trying.
Eventually, it was too cold down by the river. But my sister could drive. My parents had graduated from the VW Microbus to a pair of VW Beetles. One was a bright orange Super Beetle, and that was our parents’ car. The other was older, with a dull red paint job, and that was the one we could drive the twenty miles to Bozeman whenever we wanted to.
You might wonder why a pair of wayward sisters aged fourteen and sixteen were allowed to drive into a college town, basically at will. I can’t answer that for you. I wonder myself. There were absolutely no parameters put on our behavior by my parents, other than not bothering them.
Our father might try to be stern with us at our mother’s behest—in fact, that was why my sister ran away, because he’d yelled at her for something. Her running away ended his attempts to restore some order to our adolescence. So, it was my mother who made the rules. And her rule was, there were no rules. We could wear what we wanted, eat what we wanted, read what we wanted, go where we wanted. Or not! Mom didn’t care, as long as we didn’t involve her.
If we drove to Bozeman and came home at three in the morning, she did not care. If we received terrible grades, she did not care. If we skipped school but were clever enough to forge our own attendance excuses, she did not care. Even if I misbehaved at school badly enough to involve a call home, she didn’t care, unless it somehow embarrassed her, in which case I heard about it. But if we argued, and the noise from that impinged on our mother’s mental airspace, then all holy hell would rain down. We learned to argue in whispers.
My sister drove us to Bozeman often. My family was broke as usual, but we would always have a little babysitting money. We knew how to make that last.
We dragged Main, because even with the gas crisis, we were in a VW Bug and it basically ran on air. We went to Sambo’s for coffee (“Ask Me About The Tiger Club!”) because coffee cost a dime. We sat there for hours, taking up a four-top for a twenty cent tab. We went to midnight movies, even though I often fell asleep because I was a growing child. We sat at the Western Café so she could ogle her crush, who worked there as a busboy (his name was Bob, he had a sheepskin coat and a gurgling laugh, and when he pierced her ears with a needle and dental floss, she fainted).
And we went to the Student Union Building (the SUB we called it) at Montana State University. The SUB was in a basement. It held pool tables, bowling lanes, and an enormous commons that had a fantastic jukebox. It was the jukebox we loved. We only played two songs, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, and “Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan. There must have been a serious sound system involved, because you could hear the two glorious guitars dueling their way from speaker to speaker in the latter.
(put in your earbuds and crank the volume for maximum enjoyment and hearing damage)
Here, finally, I finally smoked my first cigarette. The pilfered Benson & Hedges 100. It went down easy. I was instantly cool. Inhaling was just breathing, after all. I laughed, I gestured, I casually tapped off my ash. When I’d smoked a respectable amount, I stubbed it out like a pro. I felt unbelievably sophisticated.
And then, I became incredibly sick.
This was floor-tilting-vertigo, stomach-roiling, green-at-the-gills-nauseated sick. I was definitely going to throw up. Soon. I lurched up from the table and off to the bathroom, where I opened the door on a nightmarish scene of diarrhea overflow that sent me reeling back out. I staggered to the bathrooms by the bowling lanes, barely making it to a toilet to avoid creating my own nightmarish bathroom scene.
I returned to the table, pale and trembling. My sister was concerned. She got me a Coke, I think. After an hour of sipping and shaking I was fine, but it was a difficult hour. After that, my sister and I understood that I would have to earn my hood status another way. Smoking was off the table. Thankfully, my ability to drink an entire Colt 45 40-ouncer in one night did the trick.
It wasn’t smoking, but it would have to do.
(Today’s post is from a prompt, “The Class.”)
In 1970, we’d left South Dakota for Minneapolis, and we were expected to adjust. My sister made friends, but it was hot outside. I don’t do hot, not now, not then.
I was perfectly happy to stay indoors watching “Dark Shadows” and playing a cutthroat version of gin rummy with my older brother. Darkened rooms, vampires, intense card games–there was no such thing yet, but we might have been Goth forerunners.
You’d think our contented happiness would have counted for something, but Mom was not a fan of our housebound state. She announced that she’d signed me up for a children’s theater day camp at a local school.
For one thing, this day camp was at a school and I hated schools. And this was an activity, and I didn’t do activities.
Also, I thought my mother liked me.
Furthermore, my mother had never in my short life signed me up for a thing besides swimming lessons at the YMCA in Aberdeen, and we had to wear swim caps and mine gave me my very first migraine at age seven so I was excused from further classes after I vomited in the pool gutter, sobbing and blinded by auras.
I’d hoped that debacle was enough to excuse me from any further activities that weren’t mandated by law, but Mom was firm. “You’ll enjoy it,” she told me. That was less of a reassurance and more of a command.
Whether or not I wanted to go, I would.
This honestly was not like my mother. I think she’d been unduly influenced by my (then) stepfather (soon to be adoptive father). As I’ve mentioned before, he had a good, solid, Minnesota upbringing, replete with standard childhood activities, which he had enjoyed.
I blame him. He must have told my mother I needed to get out of the house more.
At any rate, I’m not sure how she heard about this program. I’m even less sure how she thought it would apply to me. As a child, I was either silent in social situations, or funny. Like, really funny. This “really funny” side was an elaborate coping mechanism for crippling shyness. I hadn’t perfected its construction at age nine or ten. I tended more towards silent, with my mute introversion misinterpreted as either standoffishness or stupidity.
Children’s theater didn’t seem promising.
But, Mom said, so off I went. My expectations were as low as my mood.
We met in the gym. I hated schools in part because they contained gyms.
Anyway, on the first day, the teacher passed out a script and explained that we would be building sets, making costumes, and putting on this play. I don’t remember the title. I’ve done a little googling, and turned up nothing. Maybe this play is lost to the mists of time. Maybe she wrote it, because the gender ratio was just right. There were many more girls than boys in that class.
The plot was simple. A King and Queen decide that the Prince has to get married. The Prince enlists the help of a wily Wizard to find him a bride. The Wizard interviews a bunch of princesses, who present themselves for inspection/rejection based on attributes contained in their royal titles.
I don’t remember their actual names, and I don’t remember how many there were, but the idea was straightforward. There was a vain princess, something like Princess Always-Looks-In-the-Mirror. Another was clumsy, so her name was something like Princess Falls-Down. Various attributes, like silliness and greed and gossip, would be mined for the hearty laughs Midwesterners reserve for character flaws. I looked through the roles and knew I was destined for one role.
I remember her royal title very clearly.
I wasn’t lazy (well kinda) but I was tall, taller than all the boys and a few of the teachers at age ten. I’m sure sitting in the house had left me more than a little stocky, too.
I knew my fate. I’d be the large, slow, sleepy princess who would be just one more reject as the Prince made his way to Princess Perfect-And-Definitely-Not-Me.
The teacher retrieved the scripts, and that was that.
This is an aside. I’m not sure why–perhaps the plenitude of strapping Norwegian women in the Dakotas–but there is a marked preference for petite women in the Midwest. If a girl is small, she is exclaimed over in a sort of low-key way that alludes to her not being any bigger than a minute, and oh my she can’t be any bigger than a four year-old, even though she’s eight, and she’s never going to outgrow that little bike, and so on. There is general admiration for being small.
I mentioned this in front of a South Dakotan cousin recently, and she confirmed that being petite (she is, quite) had been a bonus growing up. Conversely, being out-sized carried a penalty. Large is embarrassing and unwelcome. I was treated as a mentally challenged adult from about second grade onward, slow but certainly capable, forever left in charge when teachers left the room. I was also awarded every out-sized role (The Tallest Christmas Tree!) in any skit or play.
So yeah. Big and Lazy was in my future.
Mom wouldn’t have let me.
The first week, we did various acting class exercises, and worked on set design and construction (surprise! we made a CASTLE). We didn’t start learning the script, because no one knew their roles. We wouldn’t be auditioning. Our teacher would assign the parts, so I’m sure she took that first week to learn who we were, and which roles we would be right for.
To my own surprise, I was having enough fun that I could ignore the looming specter of Princess Too-Lazy-to-Move and immerse myself in the process of putting together a show. I came out from behind my wall of silent shyness, and let my campmates in on my sense of humor.
I was enjoying myself. Really. Despite the fact that I was in a school gym, and despite the fact that I knew what role I’d get, I had fun.
The fateful day arrived when the teacher would announce our parts. I sat there, that sick resignation settling in my stomach, enduring the wait until my stupid part was called. I was determined to live through the humiliation, carry on, and have fun anyway.
I didn’t have long to wait, because mine was the first name called.
She’d assigned me the Wizard.
I was shocked. Okay, he was male, that wasn’t ideal, but he was the Wizard. He was in every scene. He conducted every interview with every Princess, and he announced the winner. He was the lead, and every boy in that class had announced his intention to play him.
We made his hat and wand in the class, but I was in charge of my own robes. I commandeered my mother’s royal blue velour hostess robe and attached stars and moons cut from aluminum foil around the hem. I learned my lines, practicing day and night, possibly adding an ad-lib here and there.
On the day of our performance, my family watched from the audience as I brought down the house as the Wizard.
This is not a story about how acting broke me out of my childhood shell to become a happy, popular child in a new city. My time in Edina was fairly rotten in most regards.
This is also not a story about how a drama camp launched me into acting. I did take acting classes in college and loved them, but I was not drawn to being onstage.
I gave birth to an actor, but I’m not one.
This is just a story about how once in a while, the very best thing happens, instead of the very worst.
(Prompts: My friend Katrina sent me writing prompts every weekday in October, and I wrote a lot of stuff, some of it great and some of it not. But I thought I’d share a few of them with my sweet readers. This prompt was “The Cobweb.”)
I used to chat in an AOL chat room for writers, but you couldn’t tell based on the screen names. I don’t know what I was expecting. A Proust or two? SusanSontag777? KerouacLives? No, I was surrounded by chatters who had names with “Vixen,” “Gypsy,” “Diva,” and “Princess” in them.
My own chat name was gender neutral and non-informative. It wasn’t chosen to attract male attention, or any attention for that matter. I went to that chatroom to banter. I was a bored single mother of three young kids who worked from home, and most of my friends had moved out of state or evaporated with my divorce. My ex never took the kids and I desperately needed a social outlet.
Chat let me trade barbs and quips with other intelligent chatters. It was like going to a bar without leaving my home (or drinking, because I don’t drink much). Harmless, right?
I remember a chatter with a Russian screen name—something like Anastasia—who would sit in the room and talk about her life, which involved seven children and a husband. You’d think a woman who’d given birth to seven living children would be of strong and hardy stock, but noooo. Nothing about her could be considered hardy.
How did I know? Because she went on about it. When Anastasia wasn’t describing the extreme lengths she went to in preparing elaborate European meals for her children and making them historically correct Halloween costumes based on medieval royalty, she spoke of her own extreme fragility.
She sounded like The Princess and the Pea. “I bruise so easily,” she said. “My husband has to be gentle with me.” After seven children? Really? Her feet were extraordinarily narrow, and her shoes had to be special-ordered, perhaps from a fairy cobbler, I don’t know. Her ring size? Three, but threatening to slip off her twig-like fingers.
Her hair was bountiful, but she couldn’t wash it too often because her natural ringlets were so fine and breakable. “I have to just let it fall free,” she said, because to restrain this massive cascade of curls might cause it to, I don’t know, shatter? Does hair do that?
She would bat her virtual eyelashes and the men would swoon, especially when they heard that her delicacy extended to her undergarments. She announced in chat, “My panties are like cobwebs. I couldn’t bear to wear anything else.”
I had several women friends in that chat room, and we all were amused by this extraordinarily dainty mother of seven. We wondered just how her slender frame had tolerated the conception of that many infants, let alone their delivery. But the cobweb underwear was the last straw.
My friends and I began to make pronouncements in the room about how we couldn’t take a step without shattering an ankle due to extreme delicacy, how one of us cracked her pelvis by sitting down on a park bench, how breathing itself exhausted us and left us with blue lips and racing pulse. We thought we were hilarious, but we were written off as “just jealous.”
I mean, many of my chat friends were conducting their own online flirtations. Maybe they resented the successful wiles of this fecund but gossamer creature. She might have been cutting in on their action. Or maybe I was envious. I’m almost offensively sturdy. Nothing about me seems particularly fragile. I could have assumed a gauzy, misty online self, but what would be the fun in that? It was more fun to be a wiseass.
My goal was to disturb the balance in that room with my frankness. My joke was, “I’m crafting an exotic online persona in which I’m a broke single mother of three who drives a minivan.” When asked what I looked like, I’d say, “Kind of like Boy George.”
(Side note: This was true. I was at a party once and this incredibly attractive lesbian said, “Karen, I mean this as a compliment. You kind of look like Boy George.”
And I told her thank you. Because look at him! Don’t you dare say anything mean about George).
Of course, I was frank about what was going on in that AOL chatroom. I’d point out that any female-seeming screen name with “69” in it was actually a man (absolute truth). I’d type that anyone with “Vixen,” “Gypsy,” “Diva,” or “Princess” in her screen name was fat (again, this was absolutely true). I maintained that the room was full of soothsaying convenience store clerks and mystical daycare operators.
Of course, you’d be wrong if you said that. I bought in. I can’t pretend otherwise. I want to make it clear that most encounters were fun, not romantic, and have resulted in friendships that last to this day.
And then, there were the not-so-fun encounters. I crossed paths with hoarders and psychopaths and con artists. I was even fed into the wood chipper! (that’s figurative, not literal language there). I realized that the chatroom was full of people who were typing from a very different place than I was, both physically and mentally. People had problems. And I’m not here to mock them for it.
I’ll leave it at this: There were many adventures, meetups, and debacles, some of which I allude to in this book, SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE, but most will go unspoken for all time. No, seriously, I do have limits as far as what I’ll reveal, even if it seems like I don’t.
My visits to the chat tapered off after 2003, when I got my very own stalker, which was hideous but chat was a habit, so I’d still check in occasionally. But you know, the less I went, the less I wanted to. It was a chatroom. A chatroom is an optional space. You don’t have to go there, even if you’re used to it, even if you like it. You have the option of disappearing.
I stopped chatting on AOL in 2006, after my house fire. I didn’t miss it until 2020. I was bored out of my mind during the COVID-19 shut down, so I tried Livewire’s chat. My options were fairly grim. I didn’t want to chat in any of the rooms, but I finally settled on an over-fifty chat. I soon realized that over fifty meant like over seventy. Well, okay, I have interesting friends in their seventies and eighties. I was willing to give it a shot.
I watched hopefully. Everyone on there had been on AOL chat at one point or another, but no one seemed familiar to me, so they weren’t my old gang. Someone claimed to remember my chat name from the olden days but he seemed a little drunk so I wasn’t sure.
There was a definite whiff of MAGA in the air. And, BRB, gotta put the laundry in the dryer kind of updates. Descriptions of what was in the crockpot. Enquiries after the health of pets. I was waiting for banter, that back and forth, the crackle, the spark. I didn’t see any.
I’d throw out a gambit now and then, and get some lols, but really, no one could dish it back. Not in a way that inspired me to stay. These chatters didn’t have the quick wits and astonishing minds of my old chat friends. They weren’t writers, or readers. But one thing hadn’t changed.
These aged chatters were on the chat make, angling for attention with the old :::chat gambits:::. Only now those people were in their seventies and eighties and…nineties. Ninety year old people flinging out their :::batting eyelashes::: and @—->— a rose for you, and so on.
I watched for a while, horrified but reassured that at least one part of chat had never changed. And then I wondered if Anastasia was still wafting around the chat rooms in her cobweb underthings, beguiling the men, her tiny bird bones made ever so much more fragile by advancing osteoporosis.
If you had asked me what I remembered most about growing up as a Christian Scientist, it would have been the disappointment I felt when my grandparents arrived to take us to church. They always made their entrance in the middle of “Beany and Cecil.”
Maybe you don’t remember Cecil the Sea Sick Sea Monster. From what I understand, he began his career as a sock puppet, but was fully animated in the cartoon of my childhood. He had a signature song, Ragmop, which he belted out at some point in the episode, “R-A-G-G-M-O-P-P, RAGMOP!” And he might be right in the middle of doubling his consonants when Grandma Lucile and Grandpa Virgil arrived, dressed in their Sunday best.
I’m sure I’d have been dressed and prepared for this trip before I ever sat down to Cecil. Cecil was probably the carrot my mother dangled to get me ready, as I was quite young when these memories begin. I don’t imagine I was too excited to head off to Sunday School. I was rarely excited to do anything that involved leaving my home, where I had my coloring books, my collection of tiny things, my siblings, and most importantly, my mother. Why would I need to leave? There were unimportant people and strange relatives out there. Better to stay home, preferably with Cecil.
But they would gather us up, my substantial grandpa in one of his huge dark suits, my soft spoken but firm-about-church grandma in one of her dainty netted hats and a pair of gloves, clutching a handbag. I would never see Beany rescued from the peril unfolding on our tiny black and white television. I would never see Cecil roar into action, lisping and invincible, to rescue him. Because we had to go to church.
Grandpa had a taste for enormous American cars and generally drove a Plymouth Behemoth. My older brother and sister would clamber into the back seat, and Grandma would tuck me under her arm in the front. If we were lucky, she would then carefully divide a stick of Doublemint chewing gum between me and my sister. “Double your freshness, double your fun, with Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum.” I loved the flavor, which lasted about as long as that jingle.
Our breath dealt with, we were off, my siblings sliding across the back seat and bumping into each other when Grandpa swung the car around corners. There were no seat belts in those cars. We didn’t slide around on curves because there are no curves in the roads in South Dakota.
We lived in Claremont, and it was 39 miles from Claremont to Aberdeen. The Sunday round trip was nearly 80 miles. This is quite a distance, even for someone like me, who regularly travels many of Portland freeways and streets to see friends and family. But I don’t travel on gravel roads.
There were a few stretches of unimproved highway between Claremont and Aberdeen. There were also the vagaries of South Dakota winters, but no one let bad weather stand between them and church in those days. A whiteout blizzard couldn’t keep us away from the First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Oh it was a grand building. Take a look.
Doesn’t it look like a bank? Or maybe a school, one of the old ones, with boy doors and girl doors? Christian Science was still a thriving concern in the early sixties, not as much as it was earlier in the century, but it seemed to be doing fine. The fact that a town of 24K could support a church like this boggles my mind. I don’t know the history of this building, so perhaps it was something else before it was a church. It is no longer a church, it now houses a law office, and when I stepped into it in the mid 2010s, it felt as grand as ever.
As a child, I thought the church magnificent, even though I never walked up those front steps. We entered through the little door on the lower left. That led into the basement, where we attended Sunday School and the children’s service. There, I learned to recite the books of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, and a few Bible verses here and there.
After Sunday School, we waited in the “Nursery” for our grandma. Grandpa stayed upstairs, but she fetched us from this room where (I guess) the children who were too young for Sunday School were kept on Sunday mornings. It had a sand table, some books, and a few toys. The walls were painted a warm color and accented with painted animals here and there. My mother had painted some of the animals. I remember taking pride in a particular tiger. “Mom painted that.”
Grandma eventually rescued us from the Nursery and took us to the children’s service. This was quite short, just a reading and then a few hymns. My sister and brother were allowed to sit wherever, but Grandma stayed close to me, in case I went wild or something (I never did). I loved the hymns. My pleasure was slightly lessened by having Grandma Lucille warbling along beside me. But nothing could dim my enjoyment of my very favorite, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Onward Christian soldiers
Marching as to war
With the cross of JEEEEEEE-ZUZZ
Going on before!
I loved the military tempo of this hymn, and belted it out with all the gusto of Cecil the Sea Monster. It never struck me as funny that “the cross of Jesus” went out before us. Christian Scientists took that “no graven images” commandment quite seriously. There was not a cross in the entire church, and there were certainly no sad-eyed Christs in the vestibule. No plaster Marys looking sweetly down on us. And the idea of a crucifix? Not on your life. Those were seen as barbaric.
No, the only cross we saw was the one in the logo stamped on the front of our seminal text, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
This book was penned by Mary Baker Eddy, the visionary who started the church after some visions. This book was the source of the readings that went on in the adult church upstairs, where my grandparents had their service. I believe they both did readings.
We used it downstairs, too. In the basement, after we talked about the Bible in Sunday School, we turned immediately to the companion book for explanations. Even in tiny doses, the Bible was incomprehensibly strange. The Key to the Scriptures took all that confusing, threatening, occasionally violent Biblical verbiage and made it comprehensible, kind, and metaphysical.
I want to stress that the verses we learned were very, very mild.
It wasn’t just the Bible that confused us. Whenever we heard of something wrong or frightening out in the world, my grandmother would soothe us with “Honey, that’s just Mortal Mind.” This was Grandma’s shorthand for a sophisticated and far-reaching concept, but I was too young to parse Mortal Mind as a sophisticated, far-reaching concept.
After church, we all got back in the car and headed to Elmer’s Café for donuts. This was probably the carrot my grandparents dangled to get us to behave. I didn’t ever like donuts as a child (this was shocking to all my family members, my dislike of sweets in general was considered aberrant, possibly dangerous or subversive because how could I be bribed?) but eventually, after much trial and error, it was discovered that I did like caramel rolls. So I got one of those at Elmer’s after church, and everyone calmed down.
That was church, when I was very young.
That’s a good question. Mom had participated in the upgrade of the nursery—I think my aunt Elaine did, too—but I never once remember Mom attending the church.
When we lived in Claremont, she and my original father probably enjoyed their time off together by adding another shouted chapter to their decade-long argument, a call-and-response of accusation and insult which provided the soundtrack to the first five years of my life.
After they divorced and we moved to Aberdeen, my mom probably enjoyed that morning alone. Maybe she relaxed on Sunday mornings. Maybe she slept. She must have been doing something, because as far as I recall, she never once went to the church with us.
By the time Grandma and Grandpa arrived back at the house on Kline Street to drop us off, Mom usually had Sunday dinner going. It was so nice to walk into the house, and find her happy and relaxed in a kitchen that smelled like her peerless pot roast.
That’s another good question. I have never studied Christian Science as an adult, so this is my understanding of it, based on my early training.
“Christian Science” is neither. I’ll get to the Christian part later, but there is no science present in a religion that teaches that physical illness can be overcome by correct thought. This thought isn’t the random cogitation going on in our heads at all times. This is directed and effective thought, applied to transcending life’s problems because they actually do not exist.
As a child, I did not understand this part. Do you understand this part? Does anyone understand it? According to Christian Science, the physical world does not exist. It is Mortal Mind, a screen of falseness between humanity and the purely spiritual plane, which is true reality.
This means that on an individual level, anything wrong with your life or your body is the result of what Grandma called “wrong thinking” (see, faith healing, including Christian Science kids who die of burst appendixes, which I almost did when I was five). On a global level, “Wrong thinking” is the cause of wars, pestilence, and famine.
Wrong thinking is part of “Mortal Mind.” Mortal Mind, as I understand it, is the level of flawed human thought/existence that stands between mankind and the perfection of God, which is always there, just waiting in all its splendor and glory, shining and divine. When freed of the entire mess of humanity’s wrong thinking, it is Paradise. Heaven, as much as it exists, is simply the oneness with God achieved by perfect thought unobscured by Mortal Mind.
What a gorgeous idea. How simple, and how transcendent. How specifically appealing this was to the various adults in my family. Think of the name of that companion text, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” Their own minds held the key to unlock the divine. You didn’t have to pray. All you had to do was think correctly.
I experienced my childhood faith as benevolent and somewhat annoying, simply because I could have been spending that time doing something that interested me. But I was not damaged by going to church, not was I damaged by my unusual faith.
Christian Science contains nothing frightening or negative. There is no sin, no devil, no hell as it is commonly understood. I remember hearing about all that stuff from some Catholic kids. I can summon up the memory and my emotions right now, but I don’t know if they were cousins or neighbors, just that they were Catholic, and we were in a wood-paneled basement room and they were telling me all about the Devil.
I wasn’t scared. I was utterly disbelieving. I could not believe that they believed what they were telling me. A devil was a Halloween costume, a seasonal figure, like the cupid shooting arrows on Valentine’s Day. And here were these kids earnestly telling me about Satan and sin, and the Lake of Fire what would burn me for all eternity.
They might as well have been describing how to walk through walls or time travel. It wasn’t real.
Like all children raised in a faith, I thought people of other faiths were misled. I still don’t believe in Satan, sin, or the Lake of Fire, and I still think anyone who does has been sadly misled. But as a child, I certainly didn’t believe that I could have been similarly bamboozled by my elders. My own belief wasn’t shaken until age seven, when I tried to repair a Little Kiddle through the power of thought. It didn’t work.
Cracks are where the light comes in, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen.
We moved to Rapid City the summer before I started fourth grade. My grandparents were no longer there to take us to church. But they were very, very concerned that we should go. So every Sunday morning, our mother harried us into our church clothes and dropped us off in front of the local First Church of Christ, Scientist for our Sunday school classes.
I don’t have a clear memory of that church, and the only photo I could find was of this present location.
Could this really have been the place? I find it unlikely, but I don’t remember. I only have a clear memory of looking across a room at my brother, slumped in a chair with his elbow on the table, kind of facing out from his class. He wore a gold dress shirt and a dark tie. He looked so defeated.
We were good kids, obedient kids. We showed up and did the lessons and Mom picked us up and drove us home. But I started to get the feeling that it was strange for us to attend without an adult.
We only stayed in Rapid City for a school year, long enough for Mom and my adoptive dad to meet and marry (six weeks after meeting). That summer, we moved to Minneapolis. We attended one of two churches there. I’m not sure which. I went looking for photos, and found this one:
You can read the sad story of this building here: A historic church is crumbling. Can anyone save it? This might have been our church, or we might have attended a different, grander church, which is now a thriving Seventh Day Adventist tabernacle. Here is a photo of the other building back in its Christian Science days.
You can read about it here: Forgotten Minnesota
Whichever building it was, this church was grand. We attended for a few months, long enough for me to go Christmas caroling with a group of church members. We strolled the wintry sidewalks of Edina, singing up a storm. We’d never done anything that fun with the churches in Aberdeen or Rapid City.
No matter how welcoming that congregation was, no matter how fun, it was strange that us three kids showed up at yet another church without our parents. And it is telling that I was the only one of us three kids who wanted to participate in caroling.
I was ten or eleven when Mom sat us down and had a serious talk with us about church. It took me a minute to understand what was happening. She was asking us how we felt about going to church. She seemed to imply that attendance was…optional.
The disbelief I felt rising inside, followed by glee. She was letting us decide. Did we still want to go? We all said no.
My grandparents, who drove over to visit us in Minneapolis now and then, were sternly disappointed. Grandma was such a soft-edged person. But when it came to church, she was firm. But Mom made it clear to her parents that we had all independently made the decision, which kind of let her off the hook, as far as their disapproval. That was all on us, the errant children who wouldn’t go anymore. My grandparents were deeply disappointed in us, but they were no longer in the same state.
All those years of careful inculcation, the rides, the hymns, the readings, the donuts, the copies my sister and brother had received of the Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. We left it behind.
Well, he didn’t enter by the usual door, I can tell you that much. That basic thing about “Christ died for your sins” seems key to every other Christian faith, a fundamental belief in the Blood of the Lamb. Jesus had to die to wash us all clean of our sins and save us from hellfire damnation. That’s why you have to embrace Jesus as your savior to live in Heaven.
I was not taught that. In fact, I was not taught much at all about the crucifixion. I knew it had happened, but didn’t pay attention to it until I was eleven, and we were living in Booneville, Arkansas. My grandparents had driven down to stay with us for Christmas. I was finishing up the school week at Booneville Elementary before the break started.
An aside: I went looking for a photo of Booneville Elementary in 1971, but couldn’t find one. There’s an elementary school, but it’s far newer. I did, however, find a postcard of the highschool I attended for part of my seventh grade year, which has also been torn down and replaced.
It is no more, BUT LOOK AT IT, FOLKS.
Anyway. Back to sixth grade.
On the day before we took our Christmas break, my teacher shut the door to our classroom and solemnly announced that she had a gift for us. Great, I liked Christmas gifts, but she was oddly somber. She then passed out Chick Tracts. Do you know what these are? I hesitate to link to them, because I don’t want to encourage traffic to their site, but I describe them in Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park.
Driving down the street, you might see the occasional bumper sticker—“Get Right or Get Left!” or “This truck will be unoccupied in case of Rapture!” And someone in the Park, probably Jeeter Tyson, passed out those small religious comic books about the appearance of Satan, masked as a cat, a neighbor, a stranger, a magazine.
In one of those terrifying little comics, three fornicating, joy-riding teenagers discover that their late-model four-door sedan is really Satan. In another, a fornicating boy discovers that the girl with the long hair and the dramatic “Y” of black-ink cleavage, the girl with whom he has committed back-seat sin, is really Satan.
On her rare trips home, Raven always found those little comics stuck into the latch of her sleeper door. As a child, she’d find them on the ground while roaming around the fairs…She would read them, throw them back down, and go off to try to forget the voice of Satan speaking through a Jack-o-Lantern or whatever horror was printed up and passed out like something for children to enjoy. She thought of those comic books as sneaky. They put fears in your head. They would haunt your dreams with their frightening threats, if you let them.
Dreams are made for haunting.
My teacher had us all read our little Jack Chick comic books, and then she explained that Christ had died for our sins. We needed to be washed in the blood of the Lamb, or we would go to hell. She was giving us a chance at Everlasting salvation. Also, Merry Christmas.
This was the first time in my sheltered little spiritual life I’d encountered such a thing. It was ugly and terrifying, so I took that little tract right home to my Grandma Lucille. And she calmly read it, and then explained the crucifixion to me. Mortal Mind had led those soldiers to put Christ on the cross. It was an error, and to rectify it, God had brought Jesus back to life. It wasn’t a sacrifice. There was no washing clean of our sins, as sin does not exist. It was simply Mortal Mind, and God had fixed it.
I sat there, washed over by Grandma’s kind, soft voice as she spoke with authority on the only thing she’d ever really studied in her life, which was her faith. She was patient and loving and reassuring. She offered a vision of faith that involved no hellfire threats, and a view of Christ’s agonizing death as a human mistake, divinely rectified.
I was greatly comforted by this interpretation of events. Together, we threw away the evil little comic book. After Christmas, my grandparents returned to South Dakota, but I still didn’t go back to church.
The short answer: Not often enough.
The long answer: Christian Scientists are not forbidden to seek medical care, but they are not encouraged to, either. This thought-healing stuff works best alone, as opposed to combined with medical care. My theory is that medical professionals would point out what wasn’t working, and faith in the working was necessary for success.
If you are ill, you can pay a Christian Science practitioner to help you. I believe Grandpa Virgil was a practitioner, defined as someone who can work with a person experiencing bodily illness to make it go away through prayer.
But there is no supplication in Christian Science prayer. You do not appeal to a higher power of any kind to take away your illness. You essentially argue with yourself until you are cleared of the false belief, the Mortal Mind inflicting your illness. Once you rid yourself of that, you’ll be healed.
We did not regularly see a family doctor, but there was a doctor named Dr. Shusha (I called him Doctor Shoeshine) who we saw now and then. We didn’t receive well care. I’m not sure there was such a thing as well care in the 1960s.
I took my polio vaccine in a sugar cube at the little Claremont school. I had the chicken pox and the mumps, but lots of kids had those. I discovered after my first daughter was born that I have no Rubella immunity. I’d never gotten the MMR vaccine. I’ve had three, now, but apparently they don’t take. So thank you to all of you who’ve had an MMR shot, because I can still get Rubella and German measles.
But what about the kids who died in the 80s and 90s?
Well, their parents were devout idiots. But I see how it happens. As mentioned earlier in this post, I languished with an attack of appendicitis for several days. I remember roaming the house clutching my tattered blankie, lying down on our deacon’s bench, getting up, pacing, crying, moaning. Nothing helped. The only similar pain in my life was the first time I gave birth, during transition. I did a lot of roaming around and moaning during that, as well.
In a more traditional household, it is likely that if your five year-old was doubled up with pain for days on end, you’d take her to a doctor. Mom didn’t at first. I have heard two different stories about it. In the one my sister tells, she was babysitting me and Mom was at a club. She called Mom and told her I couldn’t settle down and she had to come home. In the story Mom told, a neighbor came by and saw me writhing and roaming, and told my mother about a boy in town who’d had an attack of appendicitis. “She’s acting just like him,” this nameless neighbor said.
I have a dim memory of this woman standing in the front doorway, speaking, but it might be confabulated. However it happened, Mom was soon driving, and I was in the backseat of car with my blanket, then in an operating room telling Dr. Shoeshine “You talk like a Mexican,” and counting backwards from ten, and then awake, in a hospital bed, groggy and feeling my stitches under the bandage.
My mother could have called a practitioner. She took me to the hospital instead. Accordingly, I am still here. I have a huge keloidal scar that my doctors over the years have explained as, “That’s how it looks when the surgeon has no idea what he’ll find when he opens you up.” The doctor told my mother that my appendix would have burst within the hour.
Very rarely. We occasionally went to see a dentist who might have been a friend of my original father’s, or he might have been one of the great-uncles. I am not sure. There was a family connection to this Aberdeen dentist, that’s all I know.
Luckily, as my permanent teeth were coming in, we drank Claremont’s artesian well water, which tastes like sulfur but naturally contains a lot of fluoride. I had zero cavities as a child, so the lack of dentistry was not a big issue. Then, after we’d left that well water behind, my 12-year molars came in a year late and riddled with cavities. They are all capped, now. The rest of my teeth are still pretty good.
No one in my family needed braces, so I don’t know if we’d have gone or not. We definitely went to the eye doctor, because my mother, brother, and sister had terrible astigmatism. They wore glasses and got them as needed. My vision was oddly perfect until my forties, and I got my first pair of glasses at fifty. The church gets no credit for that.
It’s still here. Or there. Somewhere.
At one time, Christian Science was the fastest growing faith in the world. There were churches and reading rooms everywhere. I have always had a soft spot for the reading rooms, staffed as they are by women like my grandmother.
The Church survived a few setbacks, scandals, and public critiques, including a long one published by Mark Twain. It has lost ground since membership peaked in 1960. The Church doesn’t publish its membership numbers—probably less than 100K. But the teachings at its heart have inspired countless other metaphysical churches.
Christian Science also inspired Marianne Williamson. In the mid-1980s, I remember being at dinner with a couple who had discovered the Course in Miracles. The husband, with awestruck and shining eyes, told me the Crucifixion was human error, and the Resurrection was God’s rectification of that error.
“Oh,” I told him, “That’s just Christian Science. I was raised believing that.” I felt bad for stealing his thunder, but come on. Did he really think this was a new idea? Mary Baker Eddy wrote that down in something like 1870, and she probably borrowed the idea from a faith healer who treated her for her own myriad ailments.
No. Some years after my grandfather was incapacitated by a stroke, my grandmother relocated to Bainbridge Island for a few years (my parents lived there). She attended a Christian Science church. I don’t think she would have considered the move otherwise.
My brother occasionally accompanied Grandma to that church. Of us three older kids, he was always the most open to matters of faith. He had a curious mind and a gentle, accepting heart. I know he believed in an afterlife. My sister has been up and down with religion, following her own crooked path. She doesn’t attend any church these days, and as far as I know, she doesn’t believe in an afterlife.
I used to say I was agnostic, but that implies faith that there is some kind of a God sitting up there somewhere, and I don’t believe that. Not exactly. Despite this, I attended the Catholic church for years with my kids and then-husband. That was a compromise on my part. We wanted the kids to have a church experience, but I didn’t have one to offer. So I said, fine, I’m nothing and you’re something so let’s go with the something, which was his Catholicism.
My then-husband would never have attended a church without a hellfire-based doctrine. He was also sure I’d be going to Hell, which was just one of the many pain points in our marriage. After the divorce, he told me to stop attending his church, that he and his new girlfriend were going to start taking the kids, so I should stay away. I stayed away, but he never picked up the baton. It’s a helluva baton, getting three kids church-ready. I can’t say as I blame him.
Still, it surprised me, how much I missed going. If you were raised with church, Sundays can feel strange and empty without it.
Not much, and then everything. People who read my Gentry books assume I’m an observant Catholic, unless they’re Catholic, and they see all the holes in what I’ve written. People who read the trailer park book assume I am anti-Christian, because there;s not one positive example of a Christian in that entire book, except maybe Memphis, who is also scarred and limited by his own faith.
Everything I believe conflicts with everything else I believe. Christian Science has no doubt profoundly influenced who I am, but I do not believe I can mentally argue my way into wellness or think my way into Paradise. I still don’t believe in sin, the Devil, or the lake of fire.
Do I believe my own actions matter? Of course, and not at all. A person is less than an atom in the cosmos of infinity. I remind myself daily that my own concerns are so puny as to be imperceptible, and I also remind myself to live as if every action matters. These ideas contradict each other and I do not care. I have to live as if both are true.
I’m interested in religion, and skeptical of it. I try to be tolerant and respectful of whatever other people believe. If someone holds beliefs that are racist and intolerant and hateful, I excuse myself from their presence and avoid them strenuously. The statement, “If you’re using your religion to hurt people, you’re doing it wrong,” isn’t in the Bible, but it should be.
I don’t believe in a God that listens, but have been known to send up a supplicating prayer or two during plane landings. I do not believe God cares who wins the game. If there is a God, I do not believe he/she/it would care whether or not I believe in him/her/it. If there is a God, let’s hope pronouns have been transcended.
I do not believe in a personified God. If there is something that could be called divine, it is huge and impersonal, like the mathematical principle that orders the universe. We can’t perceive it. All religions are human attempts to understand this impersonal and infinite principle, but we are only human. Whatever we devise is woefully incomplete.
I’m fairly certain I’m an atheist. The problem is, I find many atheists to be smug and rude, crowing in a self-congratulatory way about how smart they are and how laughably stupid believers are. I really don’t want to be aligned with that attitude. I try to be respectful of religions.
I love churches, and religious art, and sacred music. I do not believe God lives in the houses of worship, nor do I believe God has ears to hear our songs and prayers. God has no face, but I love our representations of it. I love all of it, and I’m grateful for the hospitals and universities started by the church.
I also believe that most Western religions have been used as fronts for child predation and the subjugation of women and the oppression and destruction of indigenous people. At times, my cynicism and disgust are so great that I think predation and suppression are the only actual functions of organized religion.
And then I remember the years I went to church with my ex husband and my children, and how important it felt to have a place to say thank you for the blessings of my life, to listen to hymns, and to share a sense of community.
I am unable to reconcile these tremendous contradictions.
The same Bible verse is painted on the walls of all Christian Science Sunday schools: “God is Love.” I like that one. I wish for it to be true.
This is the one life I know I’ve been given, and I’m trying to live it as best as I can.
That’s really all I believe.
That title probably sounds like I’m talking about retirement, but I’m not. Not yet, anyway. No, this is something else completely. I’m thinking of switching offices at work. Not jobs, not companies. Just my office.
This is a big decision. I’m considering it because I’m rarely in the office these days, and there is a woman who is younger, busier, and in need of the kind of space my current office can offer.
I love my current office. I’m also afraid I don’t need it anymore.
The other office is small. Tiny, in fact. I love it. But do I love it enough it to consider switching offices?
The fact is, the proposed new office is a former storage closet. It has a door and a window. Years ago, when I used to go into this space to get something or other, I would wish it were my office. It had a door. And a window. I’d occasionally suggest to my manager that he clear out the storage closet and let me have it. He would roll his eyes at the idea. “Too much work,” he would groan. And I would return to my terrible little office.
At the time, I sat in perhaps the worst office in our building. It was a hemmed-in narrow strip of windowless space that held a PC, a Mac, a typewriter, and a printer. I sat in the middle of these oxygen depleting machines, and I used them all. The space was so small, I barely had to roll my chair to swap what I was doing.
On the counter at the end of my skinny space sat a huge metal spray booth. People from all over the building used it. They would stand six feet from my chair, opening the doors, flipping on the loud fan, spraying toxic fixative, usually talking to me about whatever they were doing because it was so incredibly awkward to do that in my office.
You can see why I wanted the storage closet, I bet.
When I was choking on the fumes from the booth and the dust attracted by all these various electrical things, I would look across the hall at my friend Sandee’s office, with her huge corner desk and two big windows and credenza topped with random items related to our company. I longed for Sandee’s office. It was visceral.
I switched jobs. I had a better title, more money, a troublesome manager, and a wonderful office. It had a full wall of windows that looked out onto Broadway Avenue, and a ¾ wall with no door. It was open, open, open.
My manager didn’t like that people would stop by and chat with me. I didn’t invite them, they just somehow needed to say hello. I got my work done, in fact I excelled in this position, but still, there was that friendliness, that chatting, and the fact that during the weekday, I smiled a lot. She didn’t like the smiling. Yes, this boss complained because I often had a smile on my face.
Is that not horrible? She was horrible. I don’t mean to imply that she was a horrible person. She was just a horrible manager.
The horrible manager moved me to a more enclosed office right next door to her. That was fine with me. This office was smaller, but it had spectacular windows and a door. That I would close. Whenever I could. To block out the sound of her strident voice, calling from her office because “everything turned to italics and I don’t know how to fix it!”
This manager was worried about how much time I spent on the phone. Our phones were connected, so when she saw that I had picked up mine, she would pop into my office, eyes wide and blinking, to make sure it wasn’t a personal call. It never was.
I had two enormous black filing cabinets in my office where she filed useless and unimportant pieces of paper that she considered important. She would come into my office to retrieve something from one of them, then walk through the very narrow space behind my desk chair–where I was sitting, mind you–to my side desk. There, she would rummage through my desk drawer to get a pen or pencil, or make a phone call on my office phone while I sat there in disbelief, trying to work with her bumping around to my right.
Once, while attempting to do this, she stubbed her foot on the base of my desk chair and said “OUCH” loudly, right into my hair. I went to HR, where I was told this manager had “a good heart.” She most certainly did not have a good heart, she’d had a heart attack on the golf course, but whatever.
Shortly after this event, I came in on a Sunday and methodically stripped out every single personal thing I’d ever installed in this office; the blanket over the back of the chair where my visitors sat when they persisted in dropping by to say hi, every random scrap, clipping and Cristiano Ronaldo photo on the cork board, the framed photos of my dogs, the pottery unicorn my mother gave me for my seventeenth birthday. Even the plant.
The look on the horrible manager’s face when she popped in the next Monday was priceless. She stopped stumbling around behind my desk. For a while.
There is more to write about this particular period of my employment, but the most important part is this: it ended.
In the year that followed, I found myself switching offices a few times. I had two fairly crummy interim offices with no windows or doors. One of these offices was so terrible that I went to HR and cried over it. Real tears. This might be because I’m a big baby, and it might be because the office was really that terrible. Possibly both.
The HR manager was very kind, and she took notes. And though it sounds like I was always going to HR, I really wasn’t. I’ve gone there four times in 21 years, and three times were about that manager. The other one was about the bad office.
But here’s the thing about my crummy interim offices. They came with the most wonderful manager. You might wait your entire professional life to work for someone like this manager. And this manager eventually installed me in the window-filled office I’d coveted when it was Sandee’s.
I love this office. It is grand. On the day I moved in, I wheeled in my desk chair, pinned my various and sundry ephemera to the cork board, and covered the credenza with my own crap and a few plants. I hung a blanket on one wall and a huge map of the USA on the other. I filled the bookshelf with reference books I never use, and topped it with a vintage globe, two sock monkeys, a bunch of retro souvenirs from places I have and have not visited.
I also put up a framed company photo from the “Good Old Days” that includes the terrible manager. I haven’t even affixed a sticker over her face. I consider this proof that I am a kind and forgiving person.
Last year, I was sitting in my office on one of my rare in-office days. A person from HR stepped into my office and then backed out, a new hire close behind her. That was weird enough, but then I could hear her whispering. “[Redacted]?” I called. “Why are you whispering out there?”
She came back in, embarrassed. “I was just explaining to [Redacted] here” (the new hire who had followed her in) “that some of the people who’ve worked here for, you know…” and she smiled, “some time, how you decorate your offices. And yours is just so cute.”
I smiled and said thank you! Wow! Gee! And thought about how much I hate being told that anything about my life, age, appearance, or taste is cute. It is one of the most condescending things you can say to an older person, no matter how cute she may be.
Since the shutdown of Spring 2020, I have rarely used my cute/grand office. But I miss it. I miss my team, chatting with my manager, lunching with my friends, and the give and take of office conversation. I even miss a couple of people I hadn’t really liked before the shut down. We were somewhat awkward with each other in the “before times,” but now we are all hearty with each other, practically slapping each other on the back in all our break room bonhomie.
I attribute this to the nearly forgotten pleasure human beings experience from random unplanned positive interactions. I make it a point to go in at least once a week, now.
That was how I discovered that the former-storage-closet-cum-office was vacant, due to a realignment of staff. The former occupant is on a different floor, and this tiny space, which has somehow housed two different visual managers over the years (don’t they need space?), is sitting empty.
When I broached the subject of switching offices with my manager, she gave me a look. “It’s a closet, Karen. I want you to go sit in there with the door closed for a while. You can be kind of…claustrophobic.” (It’s true, but how does she know this?)
I have, and it’s fine.
I’m not sure when, or even if I’ll be moving into the office that used to be a storage closet with a door and a window that I coveted so long ago. I’m not even sure why it calls to me. I know part of it is that I feel like my team member would make better use of my current space. I despise waste, and I feel like the space is wasted on me. I also feel like if I’m going to work mostly from home, keeping the big office is selfish of me.
I have a lot of feelings.
I’m not sure that the move will actually happen. I’m still considering this switching offices thing. If it does happen, I’m sure I’ll find a way to personalize this dinky little space.
I just hope no one tells me it’s cute.