This story begins on April 13th, 2018, when I was reading a book in the living room of some friends’ house up on Orcas Island. My one true love came in and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “Do you want to get married?” and I said “Yes!” Of course I wanted to get married! To him! Absolutely! But a moment later, I said, “To you, right?” because there was always a chance it was just a general query, sort of a survey question, and not an actual proposal. He said, “Yes. To me.”
We’d both said yes to love. Love is hard to find, and rare. Love deserves a celebration. That means a wedding. I didn’t want a wedding, but I was marrying a very romantic man. He wanted a wedding.
So I said yes to that, too.
Now, I should clarify that I don’t like big weddings, especially not where I’m concerned. I was married at age 18 and again at age 21, and what those weddings had in common (besides my youth and idiocy at thinking I should marry that young) was that they were tiny events. Miniscule. Which was nice, because when the marriages ended, at least I didn’t have to apologize to my parents for spending a fortune on my bad ideas.
I liked the sound of those old weddings in the forties, when the couple went to the judge’s chamber, wearing their nicest suits. She probably wore a neat little hat and gloves, and carried a nosegay. After the ceremony, one of the relatives hosted a luncheon with things like cold meats and aspics and finger sandwiches, and cake, nuts, mints and punch. After which the couple headed out on a sweet, rustic honeymoon.
Oh, how I longed for a sweet wedding luncheon and a trip to Niagara Falls.
Why, you might ask, didn’t we just elope? Well, for a few reasons. He’d eloped to Vegas before, so that carried all kinds of associations for him, none of them happy. I talked about doing it at the courthouse, but with both our families, the have-to-be-there list was lengthy, and we’d be having some kind of a party after, so why not let everyone come to the ceremony? We both had important friends with whom we wanted to share this day.
But then we had to plan a wedding.
Getting married should be simple. All you really need to get married is a couple, an officiant, at least one ring and some expensive pieces of paper for the legal part. And a pen, I guess, to sign those papers.
But getting married is not the same as having a wedding. Weddings are all about choices and money. When. Where. Who. How much. Nothing is simple or easy. This time, our parents wouldn’t be paying for any part of this event, since (1) this would be the third marriage for each of us, (2) we are both gainfully employed, and (3) we are old, really, for getting married.
Okay, we are not quite old yet, but we are certainly not young. We are not even middle-aged, unless we’re planning to live to 106 and 118 years of age, respectively. But we’re old enough that when we hold hands or kiss in public, people assume we’re cute older people who have been together forever and still manage to be romantic. Teenage ticket sellers squint at us through the glass of the ticket booth, asking if we want senior rates. I am even able to order from the senior menu at my neighborhood pie house, a fact I like to rub in the face of anyone under 55.
Envy me. I get the bacon and eggs for seven dollars.
Timing was an issue. Some of his important relatives (sister, niece, great-nephew) had to fly in, so they needed time to book flights and plan a trip to the PNW. One of my daughters is pregnant and lives across the country, and wouldn’t be able to fly past a certain point. Another daughter lives five hours away, and would be working every single weekend with no exceptions and no choice about it until a break that started on November 1st.
The largest issue, though, was that my father was terminally ill and quite fragile. We had to decide first thing if we wanted time to plan, or to have him at the wedding. That choice was easy to make. We both wanted him there. So we chose a date seven months out, started talking about what we wanted, and hoped for the best.
I made a spread sheet, of course. It had a scheduled to-do list, a tab for guests and their addresses and responses, and a tab for expenses. We’d given ourselves a small budget so that we could pay as we went, because I refused to go into debt for any of this. The budget talk was something like this: “I’d like to do it for 4K, but it’s going to be 5K.” “We can do it for 4K!” “Oh, just you wait.”
I asked my younger brother to officiate, and we chose a date to get the license, and then we got down to the hard stuff. Where would we get married? What would we eat? What would we wear, and say, and listen to, and put on our fingers? Would there be aspics, cake, nuts, mints and punch? Would there be nosegays?
Now, here’s something I know about my man. He enjoys having lots of choices. Like, a banquet of choices. He will take the buffet any time we are in Vegas, because he likes an expanse of items to consider, inspect, and reject before he finally makes his choice. It’s one of his great joys in life. It’s one reason (I think) that he tolerated online dating better than I did. He liked that there were so many women to choose from. Me? I prefer not so many choices. I want to develop a set of criteria, drill down and get busy.
I found that this variance in our personalities was not helpful in a few areas of wedding planning. Like choosing a venue. I wanted to choose a venue. He wanted to see venues. Plenty of venues, because he loves choices. He took me to a few that summer, and they were all outdoors. He’d stand by the set-up for a summer wedding that was happening later that afternoon or that evening, and smile at how nice it all was, with the decorations and dance floor and the DIY table settings and all. The guy is so romantic.
And what would I do? I’d tap my foot and scowl and say, “Why are we wasting time looking at outdoor venues when we’re getting married in November in Oregon? What is the point?” The point, of course, was choices. Options. And being romantic. And I just poured my salty pickle juice all over his sweet, spoony enthusiasm.
I was horribly pragmatic. I would quote costs to him for a dance floor and band, for seated dinners and rented tableware and the like, all of which would drive our costs up and waaaaay over our budget of 5K. I tried not to be crabby about it, but we only had a few months to put it all together and why were we wasting time at places that wouldn’t work for our wedding?
We started pricing indoor places, and were dismayed by, well, everything. Venues are expensive, and not necessarily accessible when one of the guests is in a wheelchair. Meal choices are limited, and cost a fortune per plate. A nice place makes its money through the food and drink, and gross places were, well, gross. Not acceptable. We even looked at the tiny Oaks Pioneer Church, which is adorable and nondenominational, but you can’t have a reception there. We’d have had to wheel my fragile father to two places. Nothing was right, everything was absurdly costly, and I felt discouraged.
I can’t remember what we’d looked at when I said, “Don’t any of our friends live in a really big house, or maybe a condo with a big club room?”
Lightning bolt. Yes.
We had friends who lived in a lovely downtown condo, and they had a beautiful club room with a fireplace and a wall of windows that looked out on an elegant courtyard. The room was full of sofas and tables and chairs, with a battalion of portable tables and chairs just waiting to be requested. And bathrooms. And a full kitchen with punch bowls and serving utensils and spare silverware. And another big room where we could set up all the food and drink. This room also came with a security guard, to keep the riffraff from wandering out of the event space into the luxury condos, I’m sure, and the capable event-planning assistance of my dear friend San, who was absolutely delighted to share her lovely space with us.
We had a time, a place, an officiant, and San. We were getting closer.
We also had a terrible time picking out rings. I picked mine first, being “engaged” and all. And despite my idea of myself as decisive, I was terribly indecisive. I’d get something all picked out, show my guy, he’d get out his wallet to order and and I’d say “Not yet!” A week later, I’d have a completely different choice in mind. and of course I chose an artisan ring, which made choosing the band that much more difficult. I want to point out that I was a complete pain in the ass, here.
My guy wanted to look at choices for his ring with me, and he wanted to look at all the rings in the entire world. We went to several jewelry stores, and he’d ask to see rings, and I’d say, “Is that something you’d like?” and he’d say, “No, I just wanted to see what it looked like.” That choices thing, again. He ke[t asking to see rings, and then saying, “Weird.” Part of the fun, for him, was laughing at rings that looked like engine parts or car tires or the like.
We moved our search to Etsy. I thought pulling those rings up on our aging laptops just to scoff at them was a WASTE OF MY TIME. Plus, if he wanted something handcrafted, we’d have to order it from a maker! We didn’t have time to scoff! I didn’t care if he liked having choices! I was impatient.
He could tell when I said in an icy voice, “I have looked at literally hundreds of rings with you, and I’m tired of looking at what you don’t want. Can you please just let me know what you DO want?”
I am lucky, at this point, that he still wanted to marry me, but he did. On his own, he made a list of five rings to look at with me. I could do five rings, just not another fifty. His final choice would be coming from Ireland. I ordered it in July. I thought that gave us plenty of time, yes?
But back to the planning.
Which was another issue. FOOD AND DRINK. He has specific food tastes, and I like everything. No, seriously, there is nothing I don’t like to eat besides maybe fried pork rinds. And we had to design a wedding menu that would give everyone something decent to eat. I remember looking up and saying, “Do we really want to spend 4,000 dollars to feed everyone roast beef or salmon?”
We decided not to.
We hired the top-rated caterer in town to design a “hearty hors d’oeuvres” spread for us. Now, because there were so many choices on the list of what we could order, we were back to the languid choice-making, the “I wonder if the sauce is they talk about on this one could be served on the side?” or “Do you suppose they could make this without the remoulade?” questions from him, with me barking back “DON’T ASK THE CHEF TO CHANGE SOMETHING, JUST PICK SOMETHING ELSE FOR GOD’S SAKE, THERE ARE A HUNDRED THINGS TO CHOOSE FROM, JUST MAKE A LIST OF WHAT YOU LIKE AND GO FROM THERE.”
I didn’t shout with my voice, but I was definitely shouting inside.
We got the choices made, and a contract signed, and there would be food.
Which took me to the next stressful purchase.
Like every American bride, I had some vague idea that I’d have a new body in place before my wedding. Wedding planning didn’t exactly melt off the pounds, so I had to use the body I currently owned for the wedding. And that body needed a new dress.
I ordered one I liked from Nordstrom, and it came, and I was so excited. My youngest daughter came over to help me try it on, and then to help me get it off my body and back into the box with a minimum of comment because my god, that dress looked terrible on me. I sent it right back and thought that maybe no one should marry me because I looked so misshapen and horrid in that dress.
Then I went to Kiyonna.com, where the perfect (not white, though they have those) dress was easily found. And it came, and slipped on without so much as a zipper, and it was beautiful and elegant and comfortable and lined, and it was even long enough, and I loved it. When I shared a photo of it with family and friends, they all loved it too, except for one friend who started sending other choices in a panic, including something from David’s Bridal that would have needed sleeves to be added, but I ignored all that. I had my dress.
After watching the Shapermint ads on Facebook over and over and over again, I ordered one of those, too. In the Facebook ads, a size 14 or 16 woman stands before the camera with a pair of little elastic shorts pulled up right below her abdomen. She rolls the shorts up over her womanly rolls and bulges to just under her bra, and she has a completely different figure. It’s astonishing. I’d have liked to have given it a try, but I couldn’t even get the shorts up to my just-under-the-womanly-bulges part. So that Shapermint stayed in the drawer. But I still watch those commercials on Facebook.
My guy didn’t need to buy a suit, shirt or tie, because he’s a grown-up and has those, but he did need new black dress shoes. I was prepared for our trip to Nordstrom Rack, where we arrived shortly before they closed. I knew exactly what he needed, which was a quality pair of black men’s dress shoes that didn’t have a long, pointy toe-box. So I left him to be dazzled by the wall of men’s shoe choices. I ignored him while he was pulling out sequinned men’s loafers and lavender deck shoes to scoff at them. With steely precision, I located several quality pairs of black men’s dress shoes sans long, pointy toe-boxes. I brought them to him and refused to be distracted by the embroidered smoking slippers and two-tone patent lace-ups he was waving around in amusement. I was not there for a good time. I was there for black shoes and dammit, I saw nothing else.
We left there with a really nice pair of shoes for him.
Along the way, we were sending out save-the-dates and then invites, getting our license, trying and buying our prosecco, red wine, white wine and various other drinks, and ordering galvanized tubs to ice them, haunting Goodwills to find specific square low vases for the eventual flower arrangements, and and getting the final tally for the caterer.
I had an idea for the cakes that would be delicious and pretty, based on the cakes we’d eaten at a wedding over the summer. But my guy wanted to do cake tastings. He’d done cake tastings for his first wedding, and he was happily anticipating going to bakery after bakery to try little squares of cake with squirts of frosting on them. I told him I would happily go to as many cake tastings as he arranged. His eyebrows raised a bit, but he did it.
And it turned out that I enjoyed cake tastings, too, especially looking through books of cake designs, which ranged from opulent to decadent to rustic/woodsy, and all costing at least 600 dollars to feed 75 people a piece of cake. We didn’t order cakes, but we always got delicious treats at the bakeries to take home for later consumption. He was right, it was fun.
Then I took him to the Thriftway where my family has bought birthday cakes for thirty years. We bought five or six slices of cake, and took them home and had the best cake tasting of all. He had a chance to see how truly outstanding this bakery is, and though he liked the chocolate cake at Jaciva’s best, this one ran a close second. We went back, ordered four cakes (chocolate, banana, lemon [for my dad, who loved lemon desserts], poppy seed) and asked them to frost all but the chocolate in white cream cheese frosting, to make them as bridal and pretty as they could. Then we paid $98.00 and left, knowing they would be ready, on time, delicious and beautiful for our wedding day.
We were not without hiccups. Finding a good photographer we could afford was difficult, but with the help of one of my daughters, I did it. The red wine we wanted was sold out when we went to get it in quantity, but we found another. I’d ordered his ring in July, and by mid-October, it hadn’t arrived. After a series of panicked communications, the maker sent a replacement that got to us three days before the wedding. And flower day, where my daughter and sister-in-law were making table arrangements and a bouquet for me, didn’t go smoothly. It was the day before the wedding, and I was melting down over the music, and people were asking too many questions and having too many opinions and I burst into tears and told everyone to stop talking to me for a minute.
I texted my guy, “I suppose it’s too late to elope?”
He texted back, “I’m afraid so, honey.”
So I saddled up, and we finished the day, and everyone forgave me for yelling and crying.
The day itself was beautiful. My middle daughter did my hair and makeup in San’s luxury condo, while downstairs in the club room, everything was picked up and delivered and set up by friends and family in the club room, invisible hands doing the impossible list of last-minute tasks that brought it all together. There were flowers everywhere, and tables of delicious food, and more wine than anyone could drink. My sister-in-law had developed delicious punches and made frozen ice rings with flowers and springs of lavender to float with them, and I’d found nut and mint dishes to set out on the cake table so I could have my 1940s vision of cake, punch, nuts and mints. The music played and people laughed and smiled and hugged each other, everyone was there and present including my dad, following along with a printed-out copy of the ceremony and vows, so he didn’t miss anything. We stood up in front of everyone and said the magic words. My guy became my husband, and I became his wife, and we all cried and laughed and celebrated the impossible wonder of that, together.
So what would I have done differently? It’s easy to say “nothing,” because the day came together so beautifully. So here are thoughts and notes about what went right, and what could have been handled a little differently.
Timing: Based on my previous weddings (one of which came together from a Wednesday to a Sunday — yes, five days) I underestimated how much time it would take to put this all together. The time constraint was brutal, but my father was housebound soon after the wedding. This really was our only chance to have him there. I’m glad we did it when we did it, despite how compressed our planning and execution was.
Matron of honor: My best friend from high school was my maid-of-honor. I am glad she was and I wouldn’t have chosen a different one, but apparently, I never told her that she was going to stand up with me. She was as surprised as could be to get a corsage, to be in the wedding party photos, and then to be called up as an attendant! She says she’d have worn a dress, rather than wearing slacks! So, as a note, please let your attendants know several times that they are, indeed, attendants, removing any element of surprise from your wedding party.
Flowers: My daughters went to a wonderful florist and picked out special blooms for a bouquet for me, and my oldest daughter made the bouquet of my dreams. I really didn’t expect anything so amazing. The flower arrangements were also magnificent — white roses and greenery. These were done for me as a wedding gift from my daughter, and she was helped by my sister-in-law. There were also white orchids to set along the fireplace and here and there. When it was time to go, we invited people to take the table arrangements home. I got so many sweet photos texted to me with words like, “Still blooming” in the weeks to come. The orchids went home with our Orcas Island friends, who have a way with them. When we visit, we can count on seeing our wedding orchids blooming at their home.
Decor: My middle daughter took me on a Home Goods, Michael’s run. We found what I’d come for, which was pretty cake plates and napkins and silverware, but she pushed me beyond my comfort zone to a guest book, tablecloths and tablesquares, and these funny little coasters so people could write advice to us. “This is the fun stuff, Mom.” She bought most of it, too, and it enhanced the look of the room immensely. And it was, indeed, fun.
Cake: I thought four cakes was plenty. But after the wedding, when I asked people which cake they had, most said, “Oh, all four!” So if you do my nifty method of wedding cake provision, order more than you think you’ll need. Everyone will want to try everything.
Music: After a grueling, emotional assembly of a Spotify playlist that resulted in a tantrum and a request to elope, I didn’t remember to turn the music back on after the toasts. I advise that you do so.
Help: People wanted to help more than I let them. I should have let them. We hired a woman to keep the buffet tables straight, to organize the garbage and recycling, to just keep things going in the room of much food. She was worth twice what we paid for her services. She and San did the clean-up (San had volunteered and said she was paid in full for her own services with leftovers and have I mentioned that San is magnificent?).
Food: We ordered for fifty guests, and had 65. We could have fed twice that many people with what our caterers delivered. Everyone raved about the food, but I only ate a little because my new husband brought me a plate of what he knew I’d love; stuffed artichoke bottoms, pastry-wrapped artichoke spears, a short rib crostini with remoulade. There was so much food there. Have small to-go boxes handy so people can take food home with them, because food this delicious shouldn’t go to waste.
Favors: We overbought wine, sparkling cider and champagne on purpose, and each guest left with one or two bottles of something. I think this is a fine wedding favor/remembrance.
Nuts and mints: I loved having them out, but no one ate them. I didn’t care. I might not have had a suit, gloves and a hat, and it was too late in the day for a luncheon, but we did have cake and punch, nuts and mints.
That’s what it’s like to get married when you’re older, I guess. With family and flowers, good friends and good food, with love and laughter and lots and lots of help from people who love you and wish you well. I recommend it. I recommend it with no reservations.
But my new husband and I agree. The next time we marry each other?
We are definitely eloping.
When did everyone start loving ranch homes? I remember when the battle cry for house hunting was “Anything but a ranch!” Ranches were plain, boxy, a capitulation to suburban living in all its mundane boredom.
I know, I know, it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like what they do so much that I can tell you the names of my favorite ranch home rehabs: Big Daddy’s House and the Worm Brick House. It’s not the décor so much–Joanna’s initial enthusiasm for flaking paint and patchy rust are not to my taste, nor are her more current themes of black metal and artificial flowers–but they take those houses apart and put them back together in such pleasing ways. When I watch House Hunters on HGTV (which I started to do a week after the last election, because MSNBC was making me lose my will to live) I am surprised at how many people go looking for ranches as their preferred style. Something has CHANGED, people.
As a house-hunter in the late 1980s, I was one of those people, of course. What I wanted more than anything was a Craftsman home with intact, unpainted woodwork. We (my ex-husband and I) even found one, but lacked the necessary fortitude to trust our guts and make an offer. That rundown Craftsman sat on a large lot, right next to a house we called “the Amway Dream Home.”
The Amway Dream Home was a new construction ranch that was landscaped with grass and red lava rock, like a military base. This house had been for sale forever for very good reasons. It was a yellowish tan shoe box with trim painted the color of the contents of a baby diaper. It had an oversized double-car garage with a room of some kind next to it (my ex would drawl, “that’s for the praw-duhct”). The front yard was dominated by an enormous satellite dish. This house was absolutely devoid of architectural detail or charm.
The complexities of how, why and from whom I bought the Amway Dream Home make a great story, but that’s a story for another day. Ranch homes have their charms, as EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FIGURED OUT BY NOW. They generally have all the things missing in so many cuter, quainter styles, like entries, hallways, adequate bathrooms, laundry rooms, yards, storage, parking, and so on. It’s the sheer practicality of the ranch that won over a pragmatic person like me.
And have you ever been inside a really nice daylight ranch? These are also known as walk-outs and split backs, and that lower level is a goldmine of space and opportunity. As my family grew to two adults, three kids and a medium-sized dog, my one-level ranch felt increasingly cramped. I often longed for a walk-out. And eventually I got one, but not of the architectural variety–a marital walk-out is an entirely different matter, but at least the house was no longer so small, then.
Ranch home architecture features in the short passages that introduce the season changes in The Iris Files. These passages delight some readers, and baffle others. I call them them prose strophes, which is term I’ve coined to hide the fact that they are probably just indulgences. These poetic litanies have stayed in every version and draft of the book–even when a former literary agent asked me to remove them. “Are they really necessary?” she asked. Well, listen, is ANYTHING really necessary? If I were to hold up the filter of necessity to anything that is written today (by me or anyone else), it would all fade away. This leaves me with only one answer: these passages are necessary to me.
Here’s an example:
It’s a fall afternoon, in California.
California is the land of air conditioners. In the fall, California air conditioners work steadily, and the hot air of September is monitored, measured, drawn in, cooled off, pumped out, and re-circulated.
California women are all that, and waxed.
On a fall afternoon in California, the streets are full of the sons and daughters of the mighty hunters. These children are shuttled from school to practice to lesson to playgroup. Despite their busy schedules, these children occasionally find time to play.
When the shadows of the afternoon begin to lengthen, the women step out of their climate-controlled homes. They call their children in for dinner. And the women lift their expensively highlighted heads of hair, and wonder when and if their men will return home.
Ranch architecture is varied, but predictable. There are one-levels and tri-levels, walk-out basements and split entries. Everyone envies the tri-levels. Everyone despises the split entries. But people are divided on the walk-outs. No one knows if the walk-outs are a good thing, or a bad thing.
Nothing ever changes, in California.
I’m worshiping with words in these passages, and I’m worshiping the idea that each of these cookie-cutter homes is unique. If you were to step inside one of them, you’d see a thousand differences that tell the story of the lives lived within. Yes, there are bland and annoying people in every neighborhood, living in every kind of home. But I’m not convinced that any neighborhood in my city is more or less likely to hold annoying neighbors.
I have lived in my ranch home for thirty years, now. The bulk of my life has been spent at one address. For someone whose childhood was as fractured and nomadic as mine, this is a miracle. It’s also weird as hell to live in one house for thirty years these days. No one does it. Except–all around me, I have neighbors who have. We have lived here forever, side-by-side.
I used to feel the need to apologize for my determined rootedness. But then I found this sweet meme on Tumblr, and it made perfect sense to me.
I mean, if Simone Weil says so…
These days, my ranch home feels mighty spacious, as it holds only two tall people and two miniscule dogs. The dogs are old, but the man is sort of young. He’s younger than me, at least. We both feel the pull of other places, other ways of living once we retire. We talk about where we might buy next, send each other links to places we like that won’t even be for sale in ten years, but it doesn’t hurt to look, to plan, to speculate about where we might end up.
As it turns out, in addition to our many other areas of compatibility, we both have the same dream home–the aforementioned Craftsman with rooms full of intact dark brown woodwork, built-ins, you name it, we want it. I have no idea if we will ever live in a place like that. In all likelihood, we’ll get a boring condo that’s an excellent deal, because we’re both so practical.
But until pragmatism rears its head to ruin everything, it’s fun to dream together.
On December 6th, I lost my older brother to an array of medical woes that have been changing the shape of his life for the last ten years.
If I were to list for you what he endured, you wouldn’t believe anyone could. At birth, my brother got a bum ticket when it came to his body and health. But he lived life as large as he could within the bounds of his earthly container, and he fought long and hard for each day, no matter how much pain and discomfort it held.
Steve promised me that he wasn’t actually going to die. His specific promise was “Keith Richards, the cockroaches, and me.” Despite this promise, he’d been trying to die for a long time. Many times in the last ten years, we’ve been summoned as a family to make the hardest decisions, the final decisions. We’ve been asked to come to terms with his end and to prepare ourselves and wait. Every single time, he’d rallied in what was no less than a medical miracle.
After each of these events, Steve expressed, with some huffiness, his disbelief that the doctors expected him to die. He found it unthinkable and a little personally insulting. “They thought I was going to die.”
So in early December, when he came to the point where he was done fighting, none of us could believe it. We sat with him and waited, but at some point, he turned to the love of his life, Elaine, and whispered, “I wish we could just be alone. Just the two of us.” And though what he probably wanted was their life at home, with the cats and their favorite music and her gently preparing the simple meals he could eat, he also meant that he wanted to be alone with her as he struggled his way out of here. They did so much living that way. He loved his life with her.
Brother Steve died on the sixth of December. He died during my busiest month at work, the peak of deadlines and sales meetings and project coordination. And there’s that little thing called Christmas, which brings far-flung girls home to roost, and family gatherings, presents and parties and concerts. If you’re trying to avoid sitting alone with your grief, I recommend December. You can careen from distraction to distraction, especially if you can add the anxiety of writing an obituary and planning a memorial service on top of everything else. You can do so much to avoid your grief in December.
There are no good words for losing your brother. There just aren’t any. And I know it’s this “time of life” and all that, I’m in my late fifties and I know this is the season of loss, that all around me my friends are facing the same thing. As I said to my friend Kim years ago, we are designed to outlive our parents. That loss is survivable. But siblings? My big brother? Brother Steve? Even though I have been staring down the barrel of this for a decade, I still can’t stand it. So I planned him a pretty little memorial service with friends and family and a slideshow, my brother’s life projected on a wall, from his beginnings in California to his death in Portland. I had mostly my own photos to draw from, so there are many shots of my brother and I side-by-side, with our long hair and big noses and big smiles. Eventually, we both had big glasses.
You could always tell that Steve and I were related.
I dislike the sainting we do of people after they die. The polishing up and perfecting. My brother Steve, like any human being, was deeply flawed. He had sustained grievous injuries to his psyche, along with the life-long difficulties of his health. He was perhaps the most passive-aggressive person I have ever known, but as he said to me once, “Isn’t passive-aggressive better than outright aggressive?” Which made me laugh, even as it exasperated me.
He did things that drove me a little nuts, like ascribing long, complex motivations and desires to pets. He also had a unique mindset about the past that I can best explain this way; if it happened once to Steve, he saw it as always going on. So an isolated event loomed larger for Steve than it should have—having been followed home from school by a bully one afternoon, he remembered this as if he were followed home from school every single day. He extrapolated long, murky motivations from awkward social interactions, and had his feelings hurt accordingly. There was a tangle in there around his great big heart, mostly made of insecurity about whether or not people really loved him.
Trust me. People really loved my brother.
Steve had gifts that far outshone his flaws; a curious, brilliant, lively mind. Artistic and writing gifts of staggering proportion. A delightful sense of humor—playful and a little sharp, with a gleeful sense of mischief. And oh my gosh, could he converse. Steve focused on you when he was with you, and that gift of singular attention made him one of the finest conversationalists you would ever have the good fortune to know. I think he got both of these from our mother. Their conversations were epic. But if you really wanted to know Steve’s genius, you would find it in his relationship with music.
Steve’s involvement with music went so much further than just his own personal gifts. Yes, Steve had a voice like an angel from his earliest years. My aunt remembers him at age three, hearing things on the radio and then going over to my mother’s piano and picking out the tune by ear. He had a perfect soprano, she says. I remember when my mother was teaching him to play the guitar. Mom played the piano and the guitar, which she learned so she could play classical style, like Segovia. And it wasn’t easy for Mom to teach Steve—I have a distinct memory of her stern face, her cat eye glasses somewhat askew, as she worked and worked with him—but once Steve learned, he blew right past her in skill and devotion. Nothing made my mother more proud than when Steve surpassed her on the guitar.
So I remember my brother playing the guitar and singing. His voice, people, my brother’s voice. So high and clear and strong and beautiful. Singing at talent shows and in choir and in school assemblies and at his high school commencement, where he sang “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I was an adult before I understood the relationship between Steve’s weight and his incredible voice. All I knew was that when he was twenty, and he had the bariatric surgery to lose weight, his voice changed. He loved it, Steve enjoyed that his voice got a little lower, a little grittier, but I always missed that high tenor that rang like a bell.
Steve wrote songs, played in bands, picked up other instruments and learned them easily—banjo, mandolin, ukelele. Music formed the basis of his social life and it brought him Elaine, who he met on an Americana music board. You know how some people shut down and stop listening to any new music at some point in life, and there they are, back with Huey Lewis or whatever? That never happened to Steve. For his entire life, he was alive and curious and omnivorous in his musical tastes, and he shared them all with me. I’ve already written about how he brought home music that has always played a key role in my life and creativity.
But Steve was also my singing partner. Because of arthritis and illness, it’s been years since Steve could sing or play, but it always felt like, as long as he was alive, it might happen. We could still lift up our voices together on “Grievous Angel,” “Love Hurts,” “Six Blocks Away,” “Blackbird.” We sang together constantly. My voice is loud, so he often did harmonies while I took the lead. And Steve and I are both musical omnivores. The earliest songs I remember singing with him? The Beatles. We were always planning a CD, our CD that we would cut together and share with family and friends.
That CD won’t be made, now. I can’t believe I will never sing with my brother again. I can’t hold this in my heart.
I thought I could choose the music easily. Just start with the Beatles and come forward. But Steve loved so many styles of music, jazz and classical included. And like, Bjork. EVERYTHING. He listened like I eat—happily, with great curiosity and interest and openness to anything new. As a result, the thought of choosing music for his memorial service made my head spin.
Listen, I had figured out all the rest of it. Where to have it, and when, and who to include, and which photos to put on the board, and what should be on the table, and which flowers to bring, and food, and format. But the most important part of it was the MUSIC, and yesterday morning, I was sitting in my armchair crying because the day had arrived, and this was the most important part of the entire event and I hadn’t figured it out. How could I not have figured out the music for my brother’s memorial service?
I have always turned to Steve for music. We swapped songs like marbles. Have you heard—let me play—listen to this—you might like—All our LIVES we have done this. And Steve had curated a series of CDs for me that he called “Sweet Harmony.” There is a Sweet Harmony 1, 2, 3 and 4. These were the songs Steve wanted to sing with me on that mythic record that we were going to cut together, and never did. So I loaded those CDs into my shelf stereo, unplugged it, put it in a Winco bag and carried it to Nordia House. Steve chose the music for his own memorial service, after all. Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, and the Beatles, too.
The other CD I chose was a compilation of two records by an obscure artist that Steve and I loved to distraction in 1974. She was a heroin addict and a hold-up artist who spent time in prison and found God and music and made something magical of all these ingredients. I believe she was the first artist ever signed by David Geffen. She made two records that were not commercial successes, and died poor and alone. Her music is haunting, sacred, and strange. She has that singular musical sensibility of Dennis Wilson—swooping and eerie and deeply personal. It makes the hairs on my arms stand up.
So I had that playing while people arrived. We were going to have some light catering by Broder Soder, and as Casey from Broder was setting out the food, he lifted his head and said, “Are you playing Judee Sill?”
We find our consolations where we can. Despite these times when I am left alone with my grief, my tears, and these songs my brother left me, and this emptiness where he should be. This has to be survivable, too.
When I was 11, and my brother was 16, and our sister was 13, the three of us were sitting around a kitchen table in a ratty little house on a rundown farm outside Booneville, Arkansas. We were strange kids, all too smart for our own good, exhausted by the burdens of being outsiders, but strangely proud of it. Our childhood honed us, made us sharp and keen. And I said, “I don’t want to go to Heaven, and I don’t want to go to Hell. I want to start my own place.” My brother and sister loved this idea. After some discussion, we decided we’d name it “Joe’s Bar & Grill.”
So, Brother Steve, I will see you there, at Joe’s Bar and Grill. Please stock the jukebox with all my favorites.
Please bring your guitar.
I have a poem up at Panorama, the Journal of Intelligent Travel. That’s an excellent place to place a poem that draws on travels with my mother.
I was only 32 when I went to Italy with Mom. She would only be 55, then, in this photo taken by me on that trip.
Mom loved expensive handbags and good haircuts. This photo shows both, as well as the length and grace of her arms, and her beautiful smile. She’s standing outside the door of the Tempietto Longobardi in Cividale, Friuli, Udine.
This was taken before the Temple of the Longbeards became a UNESCO world heritage site. Mom and I were able to go in and look around in a way that you just can’t, now.
The temple was built in about the eight century, very soon after they left paganism and became Christians. It may be the only remaining Longobardi (Scandinavian) church. It was built on the site of an old Roman house with scavenged Roman columns, but the choir stalls are purely Scandinavian looking, which thrilled me. I have breed recognition for anything Scandinavian.
While we were there, I rented an audio tour, a lovely recording by a woman with a cool British accent. In describing the frieze, the narration said that they were “suave and mysterious.” No one really knows who these figures are supposed to be, but the commentary referred to them as them as “six virgin martyrs, bearing the gift of their lives to Christ.” Accurate or not, I loved that description so much, it made the hair rise on my neck.
This trip with my mother wasn’t easy at times. I’d recently found and started contact with my birth father, and she had so much anger over it. There were times on this trip when she descended into harangue, trying to leverage my love for her into hatred for him. Irresistible force, meet immovable object. No one on earth is as stubborn as I am.
But those harangues were spaced out over the course of three weeks. In between stretched days of Italy’s wonders, the sweet smoker’s voice of my history teacher mother in my ear, gently explaining what was noteworthy, special and important about whatever we were seeing with her trademark intelligence, wit, and barely perceptible lisp. Today is the anniversary of Mom’s death. I’d give just about anything to hear her voice again.
Read the poem here: Directions to the Six Virgins
Profound and bitter disappointment; we’ve all felt it, which explains our hunger to watch it on the faces of others. On Oscar night, where does the camera stay when the winner is announced? That’s right–it lingers on the losers. We are all losers at one time or another. And if it makes us bitter, we lose again. Why? because bitterness makes you hate the world. And what’s wrong with hating the world?
I think it was a good thing to start out humbled. My mom loved me, don’t get me wrong, but I was never the top dog, never the apple of anyone’s eye, never my parents’ princess. So I didn’t have to topple. I didn’t have to learn the hard lesson that even though my parents thought I was perfect, the rest of the world really didn’t care what my parents thought. The world was at best indifferent, at worst unimpressed. So be it. I learned to be strong in myself.
I’ve watched people in the world who have a different expectation. They want to know why the world doesn’t think they are as wonderful and perfect and talented and darling and captivating and destined for greatness as their parents did. Those people are lost out here, and they are angry. They spent their childhoods hearing about how special they are. They are furious at the world for not agreeing. They are perpetually disappointed.
I don’t know how to fix things for those people, but I know some of their anger because, despite my upbringing, I have tasted bitter disappointment. It’s usually (always) romantic. I think I have a mature handle on handling disappointment graciously, and then life comes along and hands me such a bitter pill that I cannot swallow it. When I’m disappointed in love, I’m as prone to being not-gracious as anyone, really. “I thought it was this way, and it turned out to be that way.” It’s so humiliating.
And if you’re a writer, you can lash out in long, hateful missives intended to make the other person feel like crap. It feels great while you’re doing it, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work, so my advice is to delete those missives before you accidentally send them. Have the catharsis, drain the bile out, hit delete.
But, you say. My words. The truth. My points. These are all very important. He needs to read this.
You see, by the time the object of your furious desire has moved on, he’s moved on. He’s done all the work before the break up, and he just feels relieved. If you send that letter, he’s going to read it (or he might not even bother to do that) and roll his eyes and think, “Whew, sure glad I’m done with that loon.” Or maybe, “What a petty catalog of gripes and garbage!” Or even, “I never knew that (letter sender) was that mean.” All your letter does is affirm the recipient’s decision to end things.
Like everyone else, I make choices and I disappoint people. There are people who have wanted me to love them in one capacity or another, and it turns out that I don’t. Usually, I feel sorrow, guilt, some kind of emotional discomfort for disappointing someone, because I’m not a sociopath. But if the disappointed person lashes out at me, I excuse myself emotionally. I no longer feel bad or sorry or anything but irritation. Those attacks are like handing the object of your anger a “Get out of jail free” card. Once you’re mean, the other person gets to dismiss you completely.
(Advice aside: Besides, if you can act like you don’t really care about the breakup, it’s galling to the other person. No one likes to feel unimportant. So go ahead and make him feel unimportant. He dumped you, he deserves it. Take your small and petty revenge and move on. Also, please note that my daughters haaaate this particular piece of KGB advice and think it’s flat-out wrong.)
I thought about this while watching Medea with my guy a few months ago. I understand that Medea might not be your idea of a date night, but it’s ours. And over and over again in this play, Medea is offered a way out of her bitterness, a path out of her spite, a chance at some kind of a life post-husband. And she does not take it. Her anger is more important to her than anything. She expresses it in a way that, while deeply satisfying in the moment, is her doom.
So there’s a moral to this blog post. You might be disappointed now, but sometimes if you’re patient, life will give you just exactly what you want. Be patient. It’s coming. And in the meantime, use your disappointment to learn. Learn to be calm. Learn to be patient. Learn to be gracious. Learn to be disappointed.
Because we might understand Medea, but we really don’t want to be her.
I’m going to start out by saying that my daughter has given me permission to write about the delivery and birth of my first grandson.
So, my daughter was overdue. She sailed through her pregnancy with perfect blood pressure, minimal weight gain, healthy habits and (mostly) good humor, interspersed with what she called her “hormone flares,” when lightning bolts shot out of her eyes and she hated everything and everyone. Aside from those, she was doing great, even when she went past her due date by a week. She was due on Friday, and the next Friday, at her doctor’s behest, she arrived at the hospital at midnight to begin the process of having labor induced. When she checked in, her blood pressure was at stroke/seizure level. The dreaded gestational diabetes had arrived.
I didn’t know this. The plan was that I’d sleep as usual on Thursday night, and hop up to the hospital with a paperback book and my phone charger in my purse. There, I would join my daughter and her boyfriend for the birth, which I assumed my tall, athletic daughter would handle with no trouble at all. The best-laid plans, yes?
So I arrived, and heard about the blood pressure, which I could see on a little screen that monitored her erratic, weak contractions, and the beating of my grandson’s heart. This blood pressure was scary. The nurse assured me that an epidural would bring it way down, but before that she needed to move into real labor. She just wasn’t there yet.
As a veteran of one completely natural birth and two predominantly natural births, I am under the impression that I know what I’m doing. And maybe I do, but I only know what I’m doing in non-medicalized births. My first labor was a rough walk—and I mean a literal walk, because at some point I got up and began to walk around and they really had to convince me to get back into bed—and my second and third deliveries were induced in hospital to avoid precipitous delivery. That’s how we do things on my side of the family after the first one comes. We go fast and hard. I know this from family lore.
My mother, a second child, was born in the front seat of a truck. During a freak snowstorm in June, my grandparents’ car went into the ditch on the way to the hospital. They were picked up by a bachelor farmer, and at some point my grandmother reached down, pulled her coat up between her knees and caught my mom. Grandma was embarrassed but I suppose that farmer was, too. I’ll tell the story of my grandmother’s third child another time—it’s great. A generation later, my brother took a reasonable time to appear, but my sister and I were born quickly. And I took the usual amount of time to have my oldest, but my second was a three-hour affair. Labor with my youngest daughter took 44 minutes.
So this was the legacy I thought I’d have passed on to my daughter. And apparently I couldn’t have been more blithely mistaken. When I arrived up at the hospital, she’d been taking Misoprostol for eight hours, without much progress. And they didn’t want to start Pitocin yet. So we spent some hours watching her progress, and talking, and laughing, but really being scared each time that BP cuff inflated and gave us scary numbers. Finally, they offered her some Fentanyl. She took it, knowing it would help with BP and anxiety and pain, but she haaaaated how it made her feel. Sorry, all you opiate lovers out there, but there are people who despise that rush and I am one of them. So is my daughter. But it relaxed her.
We did some walking around the ward. Walking is a good thing to get contractions going, and she had been training for this for months before she and her C started trying for a baby, so we walked a good half a mile or so. This got the contractions started, and we returned to the room and did the breathing that you do, that natural childbirth stuff I remembered from 27 years earlier, because you really can’t forget it. The contractions were really hurting her.
When she asked for her epidural, we all were relieved, knowing it would bring down her blood pressure. But here’s the thing. It also slowed her progress. I remember watching the monitor that showed baby’s heartbeat and my daughter’s contractions. It’s interesting that the monitor showed her lines, and then the lines of the woman laboring in the room directly next to her. It was pretty easy to tell when her neighbor was delivering–the contractions do something dramatic at that point, they go from modest, regular hills to Grand Tetons to the Swiss Alps, a big jagged mountain range that drops off suddenly–and I said, “Looks like your neighbor beat you.” My daughter said, “Remarks like that don’t help, Mom.” At that point, I guess I thought I could still be flip.
It was so cold in there, but she didn’t mind, so I dealt with it. When I say cold, I mean freezing. When I say freezing, I mean Arctic. And they kept hooking her up to stuff, and running monitors and lines and so on, and she bravely, stoically consented to all of this because how else do you get that baby out? I stopped being flip and became concerned. I would go out into the lobby occasionally to warm up, and I called T at one point and just softly poured out my concerns. He listened, and he would definitely have patted my hand had he been there, but it was enough just to let out my worries. I was okay. The morning turned into an afternoon, and the afternoon into an evening. I spent that night with them, sleeping in a chair while C slept on a bench/bed that was positioned under the window and under the air duct that kept pushing up a relentless stream of icy air on our heads all day and night.
I dozed, then would wake up and watch her contractions, which evened out as she slept (I thought they had stopped, but the monitor was in the wrong place). I didn’t remark on the appearance of a new neighbor, whose contractions didn’t look very impressive, either. I was so cold that night. And so worried. At some point, C woke up and went to take a shower (I am assuming to WARM UP) and he steered me to the bench, where I slept for two hours under that damn icy air. I apparently kept myself from waking up with a form of lucid dreaming–I kept dreaming cold dreams, like I was asleep in a chest freezer, or I was tied to the wings of a bi-plane with icy air current flowing over me, and the like. This allowed me to sleep instead of waking up to shiver.
Morning was a relief. Except of course the neighbor’s contractions did the towering peaks thing they were supposed to do, and my daughter’s stayed as gentle and rolling as hills. She was starting to feel like she was doing something wrong, because she just wasn’t dilating. All the loving support from her C, all my motherly ministrations wouldn’t hurry along the process. At 5:30 AM, they broke her water, warning her that she might get an infection. And we waited for that to make a difference. But each thing they did to her seemed like it pushed away the possibility of a regular birth, until the idea of her pushing out a baby was a tiny ship on the horizon, so far away from whatever was happening in that room.
Later in the morning, T brought me a bag with my heart medicine, toiletries and a Pendleton blanket. I sat with him in the blissfully warm lobby, telling him everything while he listened with love and care, then returned to the deep freeze labor room where I cleaned up, BRUSHED MY TEETH THANK GOODNESS, and wrapped myself in the blanket. I wasn’t sure if it gave me the gunslinger air of the Man With No Name, or maybe it gave me and air of some hippie doula lady who was wearing the blanket to usher in the birth with the help of the Universe and its blessings. I kept that blanket wrapped around me tightly. It saved me from frostbite, I think. And my daughter and C stayed calm and brave as she began gently, finally, to make some progress.
Is there any worse feeling than being in hard labor for over 24 hours, and being told you haven’t made any progress? I don’t know. I could have given birth in a field while chewing on a leather strap, then gotten up and gone back to work. I had no idea what to say, what to do, how to help. I just stayed calm and held her hand and watched that monitor, watching for peaks. C had gone out into the hallway to ask the nurses what they thought, and heard one saying something to the effect of, “You know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid that after all this, she’ll push for two hours and we’ll have to section her anyway.”
After all that work? Worry? Waiting? No. Not fair. But that little ship seemed even farther away. I could almost see the sailors waving at us, wishing us well with the Caesarean. Maybe next time, they said. And my kids would have done it, their goal was a healthy, whole baby, not a natural delivery. But she’d worked so hard. They both had. Was major surgery the only option?
To their credit, not one of the nurses, the doctor, or the midwife ever mentioned a C-section. But it was out there. I knew that if she didn’t have the baby by 5:30 am the next morning, they would take him 24 hours after they broke her water. The staff encouraged her to keep trying, and she did. I wish I’d taken notes, I really do. Because it was such an ordeal, amplified by fear, multiplied by the sheer hours we’d been there. But then, finally, after another day had turned to another night, after she’d gotten a temperature and had to start on two IV antibiotics, after an hour when C had ducked out to try to find something to eat and the epidural failed her, my daughter and I sat quietly, doing the breathing while the terrible contractions of active labor overtook her.
I knew she was making progress, because this is how my own first labor had progressed. Hours of labor. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and boom. A lot of progress in a short time. When C returned and the midwife checked her again, she was almost there. And after a very kind and sweet anesthesiologist came in and re-relieved her pain (I cannot be thankful enough for how carefully he listened to her, how gently she advised her, how sweetly he encouraged her), after the table full of draped birth supplies was rolled in, our matter-of-fact and encouraging midwife said she could push a little.
C hadn’t told me about what he’d overheard in the hall, but I believe it steeled him to be the best, strongest coach he could be for the pushing. He held one of her hands and pulled back one of her legs, and I took the other. It was just us and a nurse at that point. And after she did push a little, it was clear the baby was descending. I mean, he was arriving. C said, “We need some more people in here.” I thought it might take longer, but somehow, he just knew his son was imminent.
The midwife came back in, in they took the drape off the birth supplies and took the bed apart and made it into a delivery table and ushered in the NICU staff (there because my daughter gave birth in the high-risk area). And she pushed and we cheered and she pushed and the baby began his descent into the world, he was coming and it was happening, slowly but surely and irrevocably, all of us cheering and watching and hoping and that little head appeared and retreated and appeared a little more, and when I got too tired to pull on that leg another doctor took hold, and after fifty minutes of effort and encouragement, my daughter curled up like a potato bug one last time and pushed and then he was there, this long jumble of baby and cord and limbs and head and shoulders, his head a cone and his forehead scratched from battle, but she did it, all that work and he was finally there, 11:11 PM, just 49 minutes short of 48 hours after they got the hospital.
My grandson is the most amazing little thing in the universe to me right now. Beloved, precious and perfect. 8 lb 7 oz and 22 inches, for those of you who would like to know the dimensions. Eye color is still a mystery, hair is soft, silky, blond/brown. He looks like my daughter and C both, and he has the longest legs and squarest shoulders. Everyone is settled in and doing fine, especially since her milk came in. This is a new venture for me, this grandparent thing.
I really can’t wait to watch my grandson grow.
As I await the birth of my first grandchild, I can’t help but admire his mother-to-be. My youngest child, a mere baby of 27, is term. She has gamely carried on with a full load of working fulltime, co-parenting a stepchild, exercising, cooking, cleaning, and carefully preparing a nursery with paint, wallpaper, a crib fit for a tiny royal family member, and décor and organization suggestions from Pinterest. She’s maintained her beautiful self, though I can see the strain she undergoes in the circles under her eyes. When we go shopping, she needs to sit and rest a bit, and when she sits, she really SITS, and when she rests, she really RESTS. As I edge up here to my 60s, we are currently at energy parity. Her feet hurt too.
Of course, this takes me back to when I was waiting for my first child. I was a young mother-to-be of 22, which was pretty young, even in those days. I’d gone to school full-time and worked 30 hours a week until I was gently instructed to knock all that off by my doctor. He was young and excited by his new profession, and supported my desire to keep going for as long as I could. My blood pressure was always perfect, my health was fine, but there were limits to my energy and it was time to rest. I had finished the term at school in June. I let go of my job (nannying three kids, who I loved dearly). Even with my own on the way, that was hard. And I came home.
Home, at the time, was the ground floor of a duplex in Northeast Portland. This was a corner of Haight Street, between Williams and Mississippi. The neighborhood is completely gentrified, now, and the old place has a nice fenced yard and urban chickens, but at the time it was rough. Nowadays, Mississippi is a cool shopping and restaurant neighborhood, very hip and experiential, with a salt store and a ‘Por Que No’ and the like. Back then, it was a mess. We lived next door and across the street from drug dealers (lots of consumer choices, I guess), and up the street from a motorcycle club’s (Gypsy Jokers, to be specific) residence house. But we were also surrounded by families who had been in the neighborhood since the forties; established homeowners who carefully tended their yards and said patient, encouraging things to my ever-swelling bulk.
It was a desperately hot spring and summer that year, and we had no AC, so I kept myself cool by sitting on the sofa with large glasses of orange pop. I have never liked or drank pop at any other time in my life, but it was a necessity during those weeks for some reason. I also read. I only wanted to read scary books. I borrowed a lot of Stephen King and Peter Straub from my parents’ bookshelves, settled in with frosty glasses of sugar, and scared the crap out of myself, all day long. My due date was July 14th, and I waited for it like it was magic. Despite a complete lack of contractions, I remained sure that my child would appear on that date. It was due, after all. On the day itself, my then-husband came home with 24 white roses, and one small pink rosebud in the middle, because he knew how badly I wanted a girl. Those roses kept me company for the next two weeks as I continued to read, drink pop, and wait.
There is an old saying that pregnancy is eight months and one year long. It’s true. There is no waiting like the waiting to give birth. I remember thinking that I was the only woman in the world whose pregnancy wouldn’t ever come to an end. I would be pregnant for the rest of my life, forever. I was simply never going to have my baby. And I look at my beautiful daughter, and I know she feels the same way. He’s in there still, just hanging out. He’s been inspected, photographed, measured and scanned to a degree I find remarkable. He’s healthy and he’s ready, except he’s not ready, or labor would start. And so she waits, and works, and rests when she can, and dreams of the day when he appears. I can’t wait, but I have to. I am so ready to welcome the little boy she’s so lovingly prepared for, the grandson my daughter has miraculously grown from scratch, the sweet, familiar stranger, the strong little passenger who will finally reach the destination of his birth.
I made a trip back to South Dakota two years ago, after decades of not seeing it. I left the prairie as a child and hadn’t realized how deeply the roots of this landscape grew in me. Recognition rang me like a bell, even though many floods have changed what I found when I went “home.”
I could hardly speak my joy at the miles of wheat and barbed wire fencing, the glimpses of badlands, the red-winged blackbirds on every fence post, the tiny ground squirrels rushing across the highway. Water towers and speed traps, billboards calling me to tourist traps, the eerie grandeur of the Badlands. I drove a causeway over a lake full of migrating pelicans and dead trees gone bare and silver.
The floods that have reclaimed parts of the prairie have changed the landscape in subtle ways and loaned a pearly mist to the summer sky. It softens the summer heat I remember from my own childhood there. And it’s claimed so many of the farmhouses; farms are still active, but no one lives in the houses anymore.
This is why I couldn’t find my grandparents’ home outside Claremont. It’s gone, damaged beyond repair by flooding and torn down. I thought I couldn’t find it because the two rows of tall trees (species lost to memory–edited to add, my sister says they were oak) that flanked their long drive were cut down and sold long ago. Why keep such a welcome when there was money to be made from the lumber? But the last time I visited, in 1996, their two-story house still stood.
My grandfather bought this house for my grandmother in 1964, I believe. Their marriage had been strained by an attempt to live in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. My grandfather was an ardent member of the John Birch Society. He wanted to live in a valley that could be dynamited closed at both ends in the event of a Communist attack, and there were only a few of those in the country. He chose Montana.
My grandmother hated Montana. She loved open vistas and the prairie horizon. She felt oppressed by mountains and excessive trees (later in life, she disliked Washington state for its forests). But Grandmother Lucille was a quiet woman who rarely drove and didn’t write a check until her husband died. I’m not sure how she orchestrated a return to the prairie. My grandfather always got his way, but in this, she prevailed. Had he screwed up in some grievous, secret way? Well yes, he had, my grandfather was a man of secret practices, but that didn’t come out for another eight years. I’m not sure why he returned to South Dakota, bought the farm, and gave my grandmother cart blanche to transform it, but he did.
A grandparent’s home is always seen through a lens of childhood. It is generally larger and more opulent than any other home in your memory, by sheer dint of your own smallness back then.
We approached along a tree-lined drive, an overarching ostentation that thrilled me as a child. We parked around the side of the house (the front door was enclosed by a newer screened porch), and entered through a mudroom at the back of the house. It was for boots, jackets, for deciding where you wanted to go–the house or the basement. There was an iron grate that closed off the basement steps, a showy affair with an “O” worked into the design, but my sister and I rarely went down there. (edited to add–my sister says it was “V O”, Grandpa’s initials, and that we pretended this was the gate to the “Village Orphanage,” and we played orphanage down there ALL THE TIME, and I believe her). Birchers are preppers (apparently they are experiencing a resurgence), and he had a basement full of canned goods and other defenses against the Commies, who he sincerely believed were poised off the coast in submarines, ready to take down America. I do remember an old Hoosier cabinet that we loved to play kitchen with, and how scandalized we were when my aunt took it away to California. It never occurred to us that it was hers.
Past the basement, we walked up three steps into a hallway that held a gigantic chest freezer. My grandfather had opened the first feedlot in South Dakota. That meant he raised small herds of cattle that, once they’d been pastured to a reasonable weight, were locked up in a feeding barn to gorge on corn, which marbled their flesh with oh-so-desirable fat. My grandfather was fond of opening the freezer and sweeping his hand across the pile of meat within, reverently intoning his favorite mantra: “(However many pounds) of corn-fed beef.” Then he would close it, so proud of the fruits of his livelihood.
This was primarily a corn-fed beef household, though our grandmother fried chicken fairly often, and invited us out to eat it since my mother refused to cook chicken. My grandmother was a magnificent cook of whatever she touched. Later in life, after my grandfather had his stroke and was in a nursing home, leaving her to pursue a quiet single life, Grandma said, “I remember when I could get a pot roast around with about as much effort as it takes me to make toast, now.” And she laughed, fondly.
Grandma loved the words “fond,” “grateful,” and “lovely.”
So we would leave the freezer behind, and walk into the laundry room, with its linoleum floor. On the wall was mounted an old wooden crank telephone, something my grandfather found at a farm auction. Aside from the washer and dryer, and a high shelf full of treasures like the metal Scotty dog with a broken tail that my grandmother occasionally let me play with, the only furniture was a small antique school desk with one drawer. In that drawer was a white enameled tin bowl full of crayons. Those were for me. Other grandchildren visited, my siblings and cousins. But I, in my naive grandchild innocence, assumed the crayons were mine. On one visit, I opened the drawer and found papers drawn on by my cousins. I felt utterly invaded.
In the way of all rooms in those old farmhouses, the laundry room had five doorways. One was just the opening you passed through from the hall with the freezer. One door led to a half-bath, one to the kitchen, and a funny angled door actually led to a walk-in pantry (edited to add–none of my siblings remember a pantry, so I might be confabulating, but Grandma’s kitchen was small and she had to store her pantry stuff somewhere, didn’t she?). I wonder, now, just how small and useless that laundry room must have been. At the time, it seemed large and light to me, sitting in that school desk and coloring in my coloring books.
The main back hallway was carpeted, and similarly doored. It had the door from the laundry room, a second back door (I think this was a Dutch door), a door to the upstairs, a door to the screen porch (formerly the front door), an archway into the living room, and an opening that led to my grandparents’ bedroom and en suite bathroom. I stayed out of their room and bathroom. These were part of their adult world. I do know they had extra-long twin beds with custom-made bedspreads, and that Grandmother had a huge box of costume jewelry that I loved to play with. But that was a penultimate treat, almost the last weapon in her arsenal of tricks to amuse visiting grandchildren. The ultimate treat was investigating the contents of the small glass-lidded jewelry box where she kept her “good” jewelry; watches, her first wedding set, her own mother’s white-gold wedding band.
The stairs were carpeted, and led to two upstairs bedrooms. One was the “east room” and one was the “west room.” I have no sense of direction at all, so it remains a mystery which was which. One was furnished as a little sitting room, with a linen-covered loveseat and small tables, and a painting of a fruit basket on the wall that my mother and grandfather found at a farm auction. This room had a big closet in the eaves with an actual safe in it. Grandpa kept his gun in there. Since he was a John Bircher, he probably had a lot of money in there. I liked the closet because Grandmother Lucille kept her Mother West Wind books in there, which she read to me often in her gentle, calm voice.
The other bedroom was also called a “guest room.” It had a double bed and a closet full of cast-off clothing, including my grandmother’s navy blue chiffon wedding dress. She was small enough in her youth, and I was tall enough in mine, that I could wear it in third grade. There was a low dresser full of the kinds of things that make their way into dressers when clothing doesn’t. I found the first baby pictures I’d ever seen of myself in this dresser when I was six or seven. I’d been wondering if I was adopted due to the lack of baby photos, so I was greatly relieved to see them.
But back to downstairs, which I usually reached by sliding down the steps on my bottom, thump thump thump all the way down on the carpet, then through the back hall, through the laundry room, and through another door. So many doors!
The kitchen was a galley, and at one end was “the breakfast room.” It looked out on Grandmother’s lilac hedges, and held a table and chairs and one of my grandfather’s recliners. We would all sit at the table, and he’d sit in that recliner. There must have been a breakfront or buffet table in there, because I remember a pair of huge ceramic chickens. My grandmother loved birds and chickens, or at least representations of them. They were everywhere in her house, including a small pewter toothpick holder with a baby chick sitting on a wishbone that I handled a lot, fascinated by the wishbone.
The kitchen had dark wood cabinets, and both the kitchen and breakfast room had dark, planked oak floors laid with pegs, no nails. My mother loved to tell me this with awe and house-lust in her voice, that these were pegged floors. Grandmother eventually had these floors covered with indoor-outdoor carpeting, which horrified my mother and me.
At the other end of the kitchen was an archway that led to the living room-dining room, with a huge heavy oak dining set that was only used on holidays, set with Grandmother’s fleur di lis china and ornate sterling silver. My mother knew the names of the patterns, and loved the brown and white china. A huge oak hutch stretched along the living room wall to hold the radio (it had tubes that needed to heat up) and a color TV (same with the tubes), around which we would gather to watch The Lawrence Welk Show. My grandparents got so excited about Lawrence Welk. I’d catch the general vibe of anticipation, then become more and more confused as the show commenced through polkas, Bobby and Sissy, and so on. Why would anyone want to watch that?
The room held a beautifully upholstered tuck and roll sofa (there were matching draperies over the bay window), an oak butler’s tray coffee table, and of course, another ugly recliner for my grandfather. I thought this room was incredibly sophisticated. My mother told me the story of how Grandmother had ordered the “distressed oak” hutch top from England. A local woodworker had built the lower part of the hutch to order, and nearly cried when he had to take a bicycle chain to it before applying the finish. It had to be distressed, like the hutch top.
There was one other incredibly special part of this home, and it was the carpet. It was a wool short shag in shades of gold, and it covered the back hall, the stairs, all three bedrooms, the living and dining room. Grandmother Lucille had this carpet woven in England, all in one piece. The installers opened it up, unrolled it, and tacked it down. It fit perfectly. My mother thought this was carpet was incredible, and I have to agree. She would talk about the arrival of that carpet like it was the arrival of Christ.
And so, with its glorious details so thoroughly enshrined in my memory, is it any wonder that I couldn’t believe this house was gone? My grandparents’ home of endless doors and English wool carpet, where we spent Christmas Eves, basking in the beauty of their artificial tree with its spun cotton birds, red velvet bows and gold satin balls. Where my grandmother fixed an all-white Christmas Eve dinner for my grandfather that included oyster stew, oyster crackers, white rolls and vanilla ice cream. Where she cooked her fabulous meals and baked the best rhubarb pies and grew the sweetest tomatoes and tended her lavender lilacs and called everything “lovely.” How could this house be gone?
In my own home, I keep a little of it. The painting of the fruit basket hangs in my entry. The metal Scotty dog with the broken tail is on my bedroom bookcase, and the pewter toothpick holder is on my dining room buffet. The small antique school desk is in my living room, though the crayons are gone. And a few pieces of Grandmother’s good jewelry made their way to my keeping, because I visited her when I was fifteen and she pressed them breathlessly into my hands, wanting me to “have something.”
But the house of pegged oak floors and one-piece English wool carpeting is gone, taken by the floods of South Dakota. Everything is lost, eventually. Everything goes on. But oh, how the cradle of memory rocks us.
It’s hard, asking for things, isn’t it? At least, for me it is.
The word my mom always used to describe me is “self-sufficient.” She was amazed that a baby could have internal resources. She used the example of cleaning the sun room, which served as a toy room, when I was a baby. She’d dump all the toys from my brother and sister in the middle of the room, and then start sorting them away. I’d sit and play with whatever was left. Eventually, she said, I’d be sitting there, contentedly playing with dustbunnies and a clothespin.
Mom loved this story and I find it illustrative, but not in a “poor pathetic me” way. Oh look at me, the baby on the floor of the sun room, playing with dirt. No, that’s not how I see it, but I have a hard time articulating exactly how I do see it.
I asked my mother for three things. A small bisque doll from the Shackmans catalog when I was five, like a tiny Bye-lo (it was just like this one). I tried to demand this and it didn’t work. I remember the tantrum I threw. Mom was adamant, but the doll showed up on my sixth birthday, and I remember internalizing the lesson. Things are given. One does not demand. One displays the need, the preference, and one is granted, like magic, what one desires.
I put this strategy to work with the next thing Mom said I asked for; a set of Raggedy Ann and Andy books that would come in the mail, like a book club. I brought her the flyer, talked with her about how I would happily share them with my older sister, how much I wanted them. And asked respectfully if we could at least sign up to get the free book. And miraculously, my mother agreed.
You’d think, having learned how to ask, I’d have tried again. But it wasn’t my nature. The bisque baby tantrum was an aberration in my childhood behavior, and not rewarded. But the book club request was also an aberration, and even though it was rewarded, it wasn’t repeated.
I didn’t ask for anything else until I was thirteen. I was at this cool boutique in Bozeman, and I found an alpaca cape trimmed with llama hide. It was a true 1973 leftover hippy wonder garment, and my sister and I wanted it. But I was the one who told our mother about it, I was the one who went home and described it and it cost forty dollars, do you have any idea how much money that was in 1973? I knew I would never get it. My dad made 11K a year as a forester, if that gives you any idea. From somewhere, Mom got the money and bought it for me. It seemed miraculous.
On the way home she explained, “It’s that you never ask for anything, Karen.” And she was right. I didn’t. I think those three things were it, as far as asking my mom for anything at all. She offered plenty and she gave plenty, but it wasn’t because I asked.
When my friend Jay was still alive, back when we were still friends, he said, “You don’t ask for much. Hardly anything, to be honest.” But I do ask for things, I really do. I actually lost my friendship with Jay because I asked for one week off from hearing about his problems with a friend of mine. I was so tired of hearing about it that I asked them both for a week where we talked about anything else but their breakup. She completely understood. He ended our friendship. Look, I wanted to say to him, look what happens when I ask for something. But of course, I never said that to him, and he passed away, so that was that.
Asking for something carries risk, then. There is the risk of rejection, of disappointment, of denial.
Still, I continue to ask. I ask for space. I ask for quiet. I ask for respect of my intellectual boundaries, the uninterrupted time I need to live in my head so that writing can come out. I ask for less engagement, less conversation. Sometimes I ask for conversations about dogs or TV shows, rather than emotions or disappointments. I ask for time to go away and be alone. I ask for weekends to myself. I ask for rain checks.
I ask for things that make people feel rejected. Because even though I love them, what I’m really asking for is less of them.
Everyone else wants more time, more contact, more conversation. I am atypical. And when I admit this, I see how much of the estrangement in my marriage was my fault. Because my ex is a man who needs more. More time, attention, affection and affirmation. Even now when he stops by, I set up my little fences, look at him over my glasses, over my laptop. Sorry, I say. Not a good time. Go talk to your girls.
I remember that he expressed this when we were married. He said, “You never make a fuss over me.” And I said, “What do you want, a one-man-band in the living room every night playing the ‘you are special’ song? A little party to celebrate you?” I also said, “What do you ever do to make me feel special? Ever?” He had no answer, because he basically didn’t do that (as a side note, whenever someone calls me nice, I crack up).
I’m not very nice, and I don’t need anyone to make me feel special. I don’t require it. I’m at times embarrassed when people make me feel special. There will be a birthday or the like and everyone will be so nice and giving and sweet and I’ll become completely flustered, unsure of how to graciously accept the attention. I do like it, once in a while. I just don’t need or want it most of the time.
I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand that with my emotional self-sufficiency comes a lack of empathy for the millions of normal people who aren’t emotionally self-sufficient. Not everyone else is a self-repairing emotional robot. Not everyone wants to go live in their head and make up people and stare at a monitor and type until their fingertips go numb and their eyes bleed. I think anyone who doesn’t is missing out on the one true and real joy of life, but there you have it. Not everyone goes through life listening in on it, recording it for later use in the illustration of some basic emotional truth. Not everyone is interesting in observing life rather than living it.
This is why it shocks me when people say I’m a good mom. I’m not. I’m far too self-involved. I love the interior of my head and I adore my own company. I’m also not a very good friend because I forget people and I don’t make time and I pull away when I want to write or when I’m sad, tired, or overwhelmed by stress. That’s maybe ninety percent of the time. And yet I’m told I’m a good friend, too. I already know I’m hopeless as a wife or girlfriend and have periodically withdrawn myself from that market, though I appear to be doing a good job at the present time. But we are on our second go-round. He knows me. He knows how weird I am. He loves me anyway.
That is a wonderful thing, to ask for acceptance and love, and to receive it.
I guess I never really understood how strange I am until I started thinking about this. I think I should have to wear a sign. It would say, “Faulty wiring.” It would warn the world that I’m not quite the norm in the head, but I like it in here, anyway.
And now, I’m off to play with my dustbunnies and clothespins.
Oh you lucky dogs, two blog posts in one week.
We made a quick trip to Las Vegas last week. We flew out on Thursday afternoon and flew home Saturday morning, like some bizarre weirdos because who leaves Vegas on Saturday besides bizarre weirdos? Well, we did, and I was so happy to do so (see my previous post on introversion). Las Vegas is not an environment in which the introvert generally flourishes. The dinging, blinging half-life of the casino gets old fast, and creates in me an intense longing for a window that looks out on greenery.
Still, the trip was awesome. It was awesome because I was traveling with my own personal Vegas expert, who planned and executed the entire trip to rectify an omission in my life. A serious omission. A nearly inexplicable omission.
The story of that omission begins on a Montana ranger station in 1973.
Me in all my 13 year-old glory, me with my self-cut bangs and my big-legged jeans covered with patches and embroidery, and of course, me in my tank top, because that was my favorite outfit. Jeans of enormity and texture, and as little top as possible. There were also some giant sweaters, one with a frayed heart appliqued on it, and moccasins that were somewhat too large, and a chambray shirt worn to shreds.
I actually didn’t look like that when I arrived in Montana in seventh grade. Before that, we’d been living in a tiny town in Booneville, Arkansas. I was a fairly normal seventh grader in Arkansas, wearing normal clothing, getting straight A’s, part of a family of good singers who were welcomed and utilized in choir, and called to perform at patriotic rallies and the like. Teachers seemed to enjoy me, despite my need to argue at length about why McGovern should win with my Social Studies teacher. I was liked by most of my classmates because I was funny, and pursued by older boys because I was physically mature. I was happy in Arkansas, and I liked who I was when I arrived in Montana. But a few months there turned me into someone else entirely.
My dad was a forester, and his assignment took us from Arkansas to Montana. We lived in a little log house up the Gallatin River from a tiny town called Gallatin Gateway, on the Squaw Creek Ranger Station. The name has since been changed to something else (let’s all be glad together), and our little log house is gone. But Gallatin Gateway is still there.
Back then, the people who lived there called it Gateway. To me, it seemed that the adult residents were all some configuration of Christians, alcoholics and ropers (what they called themselves instead of cowboys). Whatever their children’s dreams might have been, the rigid suffocation of conservatism and poverty meant that their children were in training to be the same.
Just looking at the photo above, you can see that I fit in splendidly, yes?
But my appearance was a result, not a cause. I have never in my life been as scorned, mocked and hated as I was in Gateway, and it drove me to extremes of rebellion. I can talk about that in another post (though I probably won’t), but for now, just look at that girl and marvel that she was able to survive anywhere, let alone in a tiny K through 8 grade school of eighty kids in the mountains of Montana. How did I do it? A sweet, wise, deeply intelligent friend named Merry, and…
I had my own music, of course, leftover from teen idol worship of one longhaired guy or another. But my sister and I were outgrowing The Partridge Family and Jack Wild. We were ready to move on. We tried out where to go next with 45s galore and the occasional LP. When it came to albums, we had Cat Stevens, mostly. I was bewitched by his bearded male beauty. Whatever it is in me that loves a suffering man, it was incubated in his tortured, emotional voice.
But soon, I had a better source. My older brother was in art school in Minneapolis, and he brought home record after record. And such records they were. David Bromberg, John Prine, Jackson Brown. Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything, Runt, A Wizard A True Star. He would bring them home to share with me, and then he’d just leave them. Maybe he knew he’d be back home after a year. Or, just maybe, he’d watch me put a vinyl LP on the turntable of my dad’s expensive stereo, wrap those giant headphones around my ears, and escape my painful, difficult adolescent nightmare. My brother was not about to take away my magical door.
That was the year he brought home this record.
This began a love of Bonnie Raitt that has stretched through my entire life. I have almost every record she’s ever released. The first five records + Fundamental are so deeply ingrained in my brain stem that I can sing every syllable. My brother and I had a trifecta: Woman Be Wise, Give it Up, and Love Me Like a Man, him playing guitar and me singing, performed more times than I could possibly count.
I have sung her songs at karaoke and coffee shops and in acting class when we had to do some silly exercise about not breaking character. I have sung them in the shower and on my way to work and on my way home. My daughters will confirm that even though they had their own tastes and preferences, Bonnie sang the soundtrack of their childhood because I picked the music on car trips.
The point is, I mentioned to my conversational partner that I’d never actually seen Bonnie in concert. There was no reasonable explanation for it. Everyone else had seen her. People who didn’t love her nearly as well as I loved her had seen her. Sometimes, I would actually fib and say that I had seen her, because it was embarrassing that I’d never managed to see her live after all these years.
Since this was a conversation, he replied, “She’s playing at the Palms in Vegas in February. Let me do a little checking.”
This is how, last Friday night, I found myself in a nice-sized concert arena inside the Palms Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is how, after forty-three years of listening to and loving Bonnie Raitt, I finally saw her take the stage for the first time. And oh, how she takes a stage.
She’s 67 years old, tiny, trim, with that silvery streak in her big red mane. Her voice is as strong as ever, her guitar work as magnificent. She did new stuff, old stuff, good stuff, fantastic stuff. She reached way back, sending me sky-high with delight with one of my old standbys, “Woman Be Wise.” She also sang the saddest song ever recorded. It’s the song my then-husband heard on his way to work that made him pull over and cry for twenty minutes because when he heard it, he understood that it wasn’t my fault that he didn’t love me anymore. It’s a song that’s almost too painful to endure when you’ve had your heart broken, but you endure it because it hurts you so beautifully.
We have all had to forgive Bonnie for that song, and we should all thank her for it, too.
And I got to see the show thanks to, and alongside, my personal Vegas expert, my conversational partner, my guy. There is no one on earth who would have made it happen so well or so fast. And there is no one in the world I’d rather have shared this experience with. Here’s a little something about my guy. He has what my friend Grant calls “tells.” Little moves and sounds that give him away completely. When Bonnie started to sing this one, my sweet man was all tells.
So sweetie, here you go. You picked it.
And for those who thought my dream-come-true might be a Vegas wedding, nope. It was Bonnie.