I was on the phone with my sister the other day, trying to distract her from a painful medical situation, and we were discussing the fact that someone she briefly dated asked her to take his dog. The dog in question is a fine little gentleman of a chi mix. He’s old, but sturdy and well-behaved, especially for a chihuahua. But my sister lives on a fixed income, and she likes to spend lots of time at her little cabin at the beach, and she doesn’t want a dog. “Besides,” I told her, “dogs are expensive.” I added up how much my current dog is costing me, and I got a little dizzy.
This is the dog in question. I have had her for seven years, and she was around six when I got her, so that means when she goes to the vet, they talk about her as a “sweet old girl.” I fear my doctors talk about me the same way behind my back, now–there is new and unfamiliar level of solicitude extended my way by the cardiologist, the GP–so maybe I’m a little sensitive about aging.
I don’t see my girl as old, even though her spine is starting to emerge as her muscle tone goes, and her eyes are slightly cloudy. She’s my vital, expensive, adorable little rescue dog, a mix of Chihuahua, Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu. She’s going to live forever, even though her special food, vet plan, and medications cost me close to a hundred dollars a month that could be going into my retirement fund.
She’s worth it. She’s worth it because I love her. She’s worth it because seven years ago, I saw her funny little face on Petfinder, and felt a pang in my heart that could only be cured if she came to live with me. I wanted her so much that I agreed to adopt a bonded pair, and the other dog was way too small. I’d zipped right past her photo on Petfinder, thinking, “That’s a cute little dog for someone who wants a dog that small.” I have never had a dog that small and I never intended to.
Just look at that little monster on the left, that adorable killer. Six pounds of territorial spite. Fiercest guardian of the front door, attacker of ankles, biter of children. She was 3/4 chihuahua, 1/4 unknown. She had the coat of a polar bear and feared no weather, and I don’t think she feared anything else, either. Or maybe she feared everything. She never, ever stopped barking at my neighbors, and bit every finger extended through the fence to make peace.
I couldn’t believe I had adopted a vicious dog. I tried for three months to cure her using every method I found on the internet.
I gave up.
She spent countless hours locked in the bedroom during family gatherings, books groups, potlucks, and more. She drew blood on at least five friends, and we won’t talk about my poor niece, who eventually became the only child she liked. And we put up with this. We put up with this because she was such a strange, sweet, comical mini-mutt, who intensely loved her people and kept us entertained with her stiff-legged little antics.
She was a spite pisser and a slipper killer, a fence racer and a cuddler who shed constantly, covering us with hair from an undercoat worthy of an Alaskan sled dog. She started each day by bounding up on our chests in bed, letting out a big sneeze to let us know she meant us no harm, and covering our faces with endless flicks of her oversized pink tongue. Kisses. Loves. Demands for breakfast. But so much joy and love.
When we walked in the door each day after work, she turned a few stiff little circles, then flopped on her back for belly rubs, crying with happiness. Or maybe that was more food demands. She was always hungry.
God, she was such a pisser. She was so loving to us and so terrible to everyone else. We loved her and forgave her. I had taken her on, and I lived around her ways, and she gave me back her fierce devotion.
She was also a remarkable fighter as far as her health went. In the time I had her, she had throat cancer (which went away, as cancer sometimes does in dogs), three different bouts of vestibular disease, which is supposed to last three days and in her case, lasted a month or more each time. She had two strokes that I witnessed, and recovered from both.
And there were seizures. She didn’t respond to the medication prescribed by the vet–it made her rear legs stop working, and the seizures actually increased. So we took her off, and she had maybe one seizure per week at night–screamers, as we called them.
My other dog would run to her, put a paw on her, watch her, and then when she came around, encourage her to lick her feet. This is a cooling mechanism, and since overheating is the biggest danger for dogs with seizures, I think it helped. And you might say, how could the other dog know what to do? She’s a special little dog, a canine nursemaid who takes care of everyone when they need it. And she took good care of Lita when the seizures happened.
Lita was probably eight or ten when I got her, so she was somewhere between fifteen and seventeen years old. She was failing, but in my heart, she was still the fat and happy little tyrant of our household. The thought of letting her go devastated me. She kept fighting. I kept letting her.
I remember one long night, holding my husband’s hand and crying in the dark, saying, “It’s just that I know I’ll never have another dog like her.” Because there was no other dog like her.
At that point, I’d had her for seven years. The last year was rough, particularly the last six months. When we came home for the quarantine, we understood that her seizures were not just happening at night. She had constant “gum chewing” seizures, small events that were fairly quiet. But the grand mals were happening while she slept during the day, too.
We would be quietly working away. One or the other of us would say, “There she goes.” We would watch her little body spasm, wondering if it was time. Of course it was time. But I couldn’t face it. So we treated her with massive doses of CBD, which made the seizures less intense, but they still happened.
Then the food issues started. Her love for food was always strong. When she was being fostered, they fed her so much that she went up to ten pounds. She would take her plastic bowl and throw it across the room at them when she was hungry.
I switched her to a heavier ceramic food bowl. She broke two of them. I kept her at six pounds for the seven years I had her, which meant waking up to her crying for food every morning at 5:30 or 6 AM. This dog loved her kibbles.
But one day about six months ago, feeding became incredibly difficult. She barked over her food bowl for ten or fifteen minutes, then walked away without taking a bite. I tried canned food, tuna oil. Nothing worked. She would go for a day or two between meals.
But when my oldest daughter had to move home due to pandemic-related unemployment and brought her dog, spite became Lita’s favorite sauce. She started guarding her food so viciously that she’d kick it all over the room. The only time her tail came up was when she assumed her guarding stance, by her bowl. But she still wouldn’t eat.
We tried many different ways to get her to eat. The most obvious one was the least successful–isolating her. She had no interest in food unless the other dogs were there. She flatly refused. Our days were measured by if she ate, and how much she took in. She’d only eat if one of us sat with her, scooping out small amounts of food by hand, keeping the other dogs in sight, but back.
So that’s what we did.
This photo makes me cry. Look at that skinny little girl. Her hunched back, her lowered tail, her hollow tummy. And yet we kept her going like that for three months, because I didn’t want to let her go. Because I remembered this little girl.
When you have a dog, this day arrives. And you kiss that stubborn little head for the last time, and you make yourself say goodbye. You let her go.
She’s buried in the front yard, next to the magnolia tree that we planted over the first dog we buried at this address. Mylo was a sleek little dachshund who was only two years old when she slipped the fence and got hit by a car. Mylo’s been joined by Holly, Zoe, Tessie, and the ashes of my dad’s dog, Rupert. And now my little Lita.
I miss her every day. And so does my other dog, who has bonded nicely with my daughter’s dog. But between the time they were fostered and the time she was with me, she spent close to ten years like this, cuddled close to her Lita. I know she is sad.
So when you total up the cost of having a dog, you do the math. You add up vet visits, dog licenses, vaccinations, health plans, prescriptions and food. You figure in the baths and grooming, dog sitting so you can travel, having to be home right after work so you can give the dogs their dinners and let them out. You factor in poop in the yard and pee in your shoes (Lita did that when she was mad). You consider the constant annoyance of dog hair on your clothes, in your mouth, on your bed.
But that is not the real cost of a dog.
The real cost is, you have to say goodbye.
A long conversation between author Karen G. Berry and Susan Sabol, her dear friend of many decades, which is included in The Iris Files, and reprinted here for your enjoyment. And you WILL enjoy it.
Sue: Why did you write this book?
Karen: Iris was a character in a short story I wrote trying to get into a creative writing class. I didn’t get in, I don’t write good short stories. But I always wondered about her full story. One day, I decided to tell it.
Sue: You write as if you are intimately familiar with life in suburbia. Are you?
Karen: Absolutely. I moved out to the suburbs when I was 23 years old. I hated it at first, but I stayed out here. And the truth is, I have grown to absolutely love the suburbs. Tall trees and birds and open windows, a big yard for my dogs, and the sound of the train on a quiet night. I always have a place to park.
Sue: Talk about the ways in which you think Iris speaks for all mothers.
Karen: Wow. That’s a question. I think motherhood is a very messy, visceral job. Before you become a parent you’re fed this Pinterest ideal of cotton clothing and handmade wooden toys; co-sleeping and making your own baby food and four years of breastfeeding, all carried out at an aesthetically pleasing level. That’s something that’s gotten so much worse over the years. And how motherhood looks is not how motherhood is. It’s a battlefield, and Iris is a front-line soldier.
Sue: What makes Hart Bourne tick?
Karen: I’ve always seen him as a man who is desperately unhappy with himself, who externalizes his self-loathing on the people around him. If you have the misfortune of being married to a man like that, you’ll spend your entire existence trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong. And he’ll let you do that so he doesn’t have to face the source of his pain—himself. It’s so much easier for him to blame Iris, isn’t it?
Sue: Do you think that Hart is an archetype?
Karen: He’s such a personally constructed character. I hope he’s not a common archetype. But thank you for asking about him—I actually feel for Hart, and most people despise him too much to wonder what he’s made of.
Sue: Minah Bourne showed up first in Love and Mayhem. It’s nice to see her again. Will you continue to include connections between your books in work to come?
Karen: Absolutely. My books are influenced by writers who are very much better than me, but they do things I admire. The obvious connection in the trailer park book is Faulkner. Lots of Joad in there, and Fossetta Sweet is a Faulknerian character. Now, I know that I am NO Faulkner. But I read him and I love him and this interconnectedness is something I strive for. Another writer who does this brilliantly is Haven Kimmel. She writes the books I would write in my dreams. I’ve read every book she’s ever written, and we’re in a dry spell while she rewrites a new novel, so I went on Amazon and found her mother’s self-published stuff and bought all that on Kindle. I’m desperate. I love the way she weaves her characters together even in the most glancing ways. I feel so intelligent and so jubilant when I make the connections. I’m not Haven Kimmel, but I do want to do that for my readers.
Sue: So you’ll carry on with these characters?
Karen: Some of them. Not telling which ones.
Sue: Do you hide secrets in your books?
Karen: Absolutely every time.
Sue: Do you want to talk about that?
Karen: Well then they wouldn’t be secrets, Sue.
Sue: How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Karen: I’m actually terrible at names. I usually start out with some stupid name, and then at some point the name is so overwhelmingly wrong that I have to put some thought into it. So I have baby books, and then there’s the Internet. I also save lists of names I hear when I’m out and about. I worked at a business-to-business telemarketing company and I kept a big list of names, and I still use it. The first name on the list is important in a book I’m currently writing.
Sue: What’s your favorite childhood book?
Karen: When I was thirteen, I read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Those books were long and grotesque and wonderful and they probably warped my perception of life, but I loved them. I reread them all through my teens and twenties.
Sue: Do you still have them?
Karen: I still have the original copies. But thirteen is not childhood. Childhood was the Raggedy Ann and Andy books, and the Oz books, and the Black Cauldron books and the Narnia series. I loved a good series and always will. I did love some standalone books, like Linnets and Valerians, and The Wind in the Willows, and Journey Outside by Mary Q. Steele. Have you read that? It’s about a boy who lives in a community made of a series of rafts that travel an underground river. He realizes that they’re traveling a loop, so he jumps off and comes out into the world. It’s a fantastic quest story that involves a nasty sunburn and shorts made of fish skin. I highly recommend it.
(please note, after this conversation, Sue sent me a copy of this book, so now I have two.)
Another series that was important to me was the Whiteoaks of Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche. It’s a long historical romance series about a Canadian family, and it’s idiosyncratic and personal and hilarious and wonderful and flawed. When I was 19, I spent a summer feverishly checking the books out of the Missoula public library. They had the same pleasures that my favorite childhood books held, like recurring characters and the power of a place and fascinating buildings and long difficult family meals and even pets, things I loved long before I ever read Faulkner. That’s what I’ve always wanted to write.
Sue: What’s the first book that made you cry?
Karen: Books make me cry all the time, and I started reading early, so I probably can’t remember what it was. It might have been one of the Mother West Wind books. I was raised in part in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and L. Frank Baum is from there, so the Wizard of Oz books were all on the shelf at the library. I started walking to the library when I was seven, and I took them all out, so it might have been something in there. The glass cat with the ruby heart struck me as glamorous and tragic.
Sue: Are your characters ever based on real people?
Karen: Absolutely not. Everything is made up. EVERY SINGLE THING.
Sue: Is this book autobiographical in any way? Can’t you share something?
Karen: I’ll tell you the part about answering this question that’s difficult. Every horrible thing that Hart says to Iris was said to me in one of my marriages. Most of it was word for word. It’s painful when people read this book and say, “How could any self-respecting woman let her husband say these things to her without leaving him?” And those people have a point. It’s horrifying what you’ll tolerate when you’re trying to hold a family together. I hope readers extend some empathy to Iris for that. There are some other similarities, but Iris is her own character, and her marriage is her own marriage, and what happens in it is her own story.
Sue: I love that answer.
Karen: Did I successfully skirt the issue?
Sue: I think so. Talk about why this book needs a Nick.
Karen: Nick reminds us all that we have the capacity to accept life and be happy for it. We can roll with it. That’s something we lose as we get older and become more cynical. So I love his innocence.
Sue: That’s why I love Nick, too, Karen.
Karen: Wike it?
Sue: Wike it.
Karen: Atsa awesome.
Sue: What was the hardest scene in this book for you to write and why?
Karen: The hardest scene to write was Iris’s epiphany at the end. Because Iris is very much like I was, in that she doesn’t choose or plan what happens to her, she just copes with whatever comes at her, and she endures. And she finally reaches a point where she is going to have to make a choice, and it almost kills her. It was hard to write because I honestly didn’t know what Iris was going to do until I was writing the scene. I knew what I wanted her to do, I was cheering her on, but she could have gone either way. I’d have had to live with it.
Sue: What, if anything, did you edit out of this book?
Karen: Originally I had a deranged character who sort of floated around the edges of these women’s lives as a specter. She still makes some appearances when Jane and Iris are at the Goodwill. She’s frightening and prophetic, but I already had the dogs in there as a canine Greek chorus, so I didn’t need another suffering witness to the pain of Iris and her family. I also took out Raymond’s father’s story, because I didn’t like it. But I wanted Iris’s first pregnancy to be unplanned and outside her marriage. That much stayed in.
Sue: Iris certainly availed herself of many forms of birth control.
Karen: People love that part!
Sue: Now, we’re talking about many women not even having access to that kind of care.
Karen: Terrifying, isn’t it? And for women, our biology is very often our destiny. That is not a very popular viewpoint right now, because birth control is supposed to help us reshape that. But even with every barrier, conceptions happen, and children are the most overwhelming and irrevocable choice that most of us ever make. I guess having birth control not work for Iris was a way to examine how fertility can affect your life and your goals. You try to plan, and instead you just cope and endure. I think it’s important to remember how profoundly women’s lives are shaped by their fertility.
Sue: Are marriages supposed to be happy?
Karen: I’m not sure. We take our cues from our parents’ marriages, and we can repeat some terrible patterns. I think you have to have seen a good relationship to appreciate what one is supposed to be. Most early marriages are based on what you already know. That’s why I believe we should marry a lot of times until we get it right! But seriously, I’m at the point in my life where I only want to have a relationship if it’s predominantly happy and pleasing. And I envy people whose marriages were like that from the get-go, but mine certainly were not. I keep learning and changing and trying. I’d like to get this right at least once.
(another note: I believe I have finally gotten this one right.)
Sue: What do you think about divorce?
Karen: Divorce is so terrible, right until it’s not. Breaking up a marriage is hideous and painful and awful, and you’re dying inside and hopeless and crying all the time and looking for bridges, then—one day—there’s a moment when you realize that you’re surviving. More time passes, and then you’re thriving. Then, you go on a nice long honeymoon with yourself, and it’s the best relationship you’ve ever had. Eventually you decide to see other people, and life gets stupid and complicated again, but in the beginning when it’s just you and yourself on that honeymoon? It’s magical.
It’s astonishing to think you can survive something that wretched, and have life get better. I always compare it to a really bad pruning job on a sick tree. You hack it back and you think it has to be dead. And the next spring it’s the prettiest and healthiest tree in the neighborhood.
Sue: Like Arno’s tree.
Karen: Exactly like Arno’s tree.
Sue: So are you pro-divorce?
Karen: Oh, no. I’m not pro-divorce. I am pro surviving divorce. At heart, I have a really traditional view of marriage and commitment and fidelity, which surprises me because I remember being so angry when I was married. I knew I was diminished in some basic ways. And you know, I don’t think it’s men who expect women to diminish themselves in marriage. I think we do it to ourselves, probably because of some big blanket of perceived societal expectations. We carve off big hunks of ourselves to be safe and available. I did, at least. And the husbands are baffled by these safe, selfless creatures, these wives. They’re left wondering where those funny, interesting women they married have gone to. Men would probably prefer to be married to independent, interesting women, don’t you think?
Sue: What do you wish you could tell Iris?
Karen: Iris has no perspective on the fact that parenthood at the level she’s doing it is a temporary state. I have the advantage now of having moved through that part of parenting. But when you’re in it, you’re in the trenches and you have no idea that it’s ever going to be over, or how you’re going to survive it. I wish I could tell her, “If you just hold on, it gets better!” I think her mother gently tries to tell her that. Her mother is quietly determined to enjoy her life. She loves being a grandmother and she loves the kids, but she isn’t going to take it on again.
Karen: It’s a necessary selfishness. One of my kids has thanked me for what she used to see as selfishness on my part. She says it showed her that women have the right to pursue creative goals, and to have pursuits in their lives that have nothing to do with their children. She thinks that’s a valuable lesson.
For me, I was selfish about writing and relationships. I barely dated anyone, I wasn’t dragging men through here or anything, but I’d go away for a weekend now and then. I had a life. So I think Iris needs to be more selfish from here on out. More determined to have some scrap of something that belongs to just her.
Sue: Why does Iris act so out of character in Hawaii?
Karen: She takes an exquisite revenge. I think if you don’t violently cheer on Iris for that evening, then you probably won’t like anything I write, ever.
Sue: Sonny’s story is a difficult one, because when the book ends, you have no idea how it will come out for him.
Karen: Well, this world of gender and identity is a difficult one. I want to love and respect and support what everyone is going through in the world, and in society, and in my family. I believe that people have genders that don’t match their sex organs, 100% I believe that is true. But frankly, it’s confusing to me, and it’s difficult for me in ways that surprise me. I need to grow, and growth is never comfortable. Writing about it is one way to deal with that.
All right, now I want to ask you a question.
Sue: Cool. All right.
Karen: When you and I were young moms together, how did we help each other survive?
Sue: Oh. We had an alternate reality where for like, four hours at a time, we pretended that we were normal twenty-somethings. Watching videos and drinking beer and cracking each other up.
Karen: And eating M&Ms. Beer and M&Ms sounds terrible, but it worked.
Sue: Sometimes we got to go out. Rarely.
Karen: I remember when we went to Gaffer’s Pub and there were all those Jimmy Buffet fans, and we kept interrupting their Parrothead songs on the jukebox with Al Green and Terence Trent D’Arby and Prince.
Sue: They kept coming over to talk to us. And buying us drinks. And showing us their watches.
Karen: Yes! They all had big fancy watches! And when they asked for our numbers, you chastely demurred that you were married, but I gave them the attendance hotline number at the grade school. That was one of the few numbers I knew by heart.
Sue: You created that feeling perfectly with Iris’s friends, their little enclave on the deck.
Karen: I’m so glad I captured it. Those times were perfect. I think our friends keep us sane. I think we’re probably supposed to live in little groups of maybe six women and one man, helping each other raise the kids and keeping each other sane. These polygamy people probably have it right. I’m not ready to be a sister wife, but one husband would probably be adequate for six women. And if he wasn’t, well, there would be roofers.
Sue: By the way, have you ever gawked at real roofers?
Karen: Sue, you’ve known me since I was 26 years old. You know how much “vague lustful speculation” I’ve engaged in over the years. Not particularly for roofers, but do you remember?
Sue: I remember everything!
Karen: Oh dear. Let’s talk about something else.
Sue: Okay. Do you think Iris has the right to write about her life?
Karen: That’s an important question. He says, “You can’t write about us,” and she says, “But you’re all I’ve got.” The question is more important now than ever. So many women are turning their families into businesses. These curated, blogged-about, Instagrammed families are monetized, but it’s not really a new thing. Joyce Maynard wrote about her family, and before that Erma Bombeck wrote about her family, and before them Shirley Jackson wrote about her family in Life Among the Savages. Jackson was a premier American horror writer and she also wrote these beautiful, hilarious books about raising her family in upstate New York.
So this is a tradition for women writers, and it’s still a big question. For many of us, the domestic realm is our subject matter, this is where we live, where we fight our battles and have our triumphs. And if we deny ourselves the right to write about those, what do we have? It’s a personal issue for me. I used to keep an anonymous blog, and one of my kids found it, and she felt so invaded when she’d pop up in it. And I see her point. That’s why this book, where it’s autobiographical, it’s really buried deeply. I don’t want to be accused of writing about my family and violating their privacy.
Sue: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Karen: Energizes me.
Sue: I knew you were going to say that. What’s your writing Kryptonite?
Karen: Is Kryptonite what kills you? Because I’m not dead yet.
Sue: Kryptonite takes away your power.
Karen: Okay. A lack of solitude and privacy and uninterrupted time. Without those I can’t write. That’s why writing is a selfish endeavor.
Sue: Has publishing your books changed anything about how you write?
Karen: It didn’t change how I write—it gave me permission continue to writing what I want to write, the way I want to write it, period. It is enormously freeing to self-publish. There is so much advice out there about finding your commercial niche, and that has nothing to do with my goals for my writing.
The writers I love are all firmly mid-list. And they’re all assistant chairs of the creative writing departments at small colleges or something like that. None of the writers I adore are making a lucrative living with their brilliant books. Realizing that I can publish my books, sell my modest amount of copies and not have to worry about changing them to be more commercial so one of the houses will take a chance on me—it’s just changed everything for me, Sue, it’s made me so happy.
Sue: What does literary success look like to you?
Karen: Literary success is when you write work that deeply affects the people who read it. And it has nothing to do with how many copies you sell. If anyone is affected by anything I write, I count myself as a success.
My first foray into nonfiction is here. Are you ready to jump into computer dating? This book tells you everything you need to know about all the men you could ever hope not to date while shopping at the used man store.
I wrote this book during a period in my life when I was seriously trying to find a serious prospect for some serious dating (seriously) and these were my serious results. The book comes from my not-so-serious attitude about my adventures, because you have to laugh, or you’ll cry. No crying allowed. So grab a cart, and get ready to join me on an extended metaphor!
Did you date me, and are you curious as to how I remember you? Be prepared, I am not nearly as nice as I appeared to be over that drink!
Are you single, and hoping to read about dates that are even worse than the ones you’ve been going on lately? I guarantee you, I win at bad dates!
Are you married, and want to rub it into your single friends’ faces by giving this book to them along with the words, “If something happens to (spouse), I am NEVER dating again!” My book is absolutely perfect for that.
Or are you single, and do you want to give this to your fellow single friends, so they don’t completely lose hope in the dating process? If they can take reading it until the end, this book just might give them some hope. Or, it might just make them wet their pants, who knows.
Anyway, here it is. I hope you laugh.
Oh, and there are other writings included–a few essays about my adventures with men outside the “serious prospect” dating period, including the worst Valentine date ever–and, a runner up. Also, exactly how to kill a relationship by traveling together. And, just a note, please don’t feel sorry for me when you read this, because I swear, I am just FINE.
Available in paperback here: SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE
And Kindle (including Kindle Unlimited) here: SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE
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.