I’m not talking about ending relationships, or facing death. I’m just talking about leaving the room.
Last night, at about ten PM, my husband got up from the couch and said, “I’m going to go start getting ready.”
I looked around, confused. It was 10 PM. He was getting ready to go somewhere? I was just sitting there, waiting for the kitchen reveal on “Christina on the Coast” (would the decision-phobic homeowner be happy with her backsplash tile choice? I had to know). Were we going somewhere? Did we have 10 PM plans?
Finally I got it. “You mean, get ready for bed?”
“Yes.” And that’s what he did.
On the way to work this morning, my husband and I had one of those conversations in which we learned something about each other. My husband is reading a David Sedaris book, and he told me about one of the essays that talks about how his father would just get up and leave a room. No explanation, no apology, no farewell. He’d just stand up and leave the room to go do something else.
My husband thought this was strange and hilarious. I thought it was…normal. That’s what I do. At work, I am often the first person to leave meetings. I do not excuse or explain myself when I walk out of a room.
I just go.
So this morning, after he told me about David Sedaris’s father, my husband and I talked about our own leave-taking styles.
I am impatient. I’ll just leave when it’s time to go. I never linger. My favorite way to leave a large party is with the Irish Goodbye. Not even a wave to my host, I just bounce. At smaller gatherings, I often watch for other people’s exits. I quickly grab my coat and slide out the door on their slipstream.
Within the walls of my own home, I do not let anyone around me know if I am going to go in the kitchen and do the dishes, or take the dogs out, or go to the bathroom. I just do those things. I have been known to get ready for bed early and tuck myself in with a book, and not say a word about it until my husband wanders in to find me.
To me, this is simply the natural way of things. One thing ends, another begins. Let’s move on.
My husband usually lets me know where he’s going within the house. He also told me that he’s always been known for his long goodbyes, and his reluctance to draw phone calls to a close. When he goes out to eat with his friends, they often stand in the parking lot continuing the conversation for some time after they finish eating.
This would literally kill me, I think.
One of his high school girlfriends told him that when they were dating, she learned to be gentle and gradual in saying goodbye both on the phone and in the driveway (where all teenage goodbyes happen). She would forecast the parting for quite a while before she’d actually do it. She’d let the younger version of my husband get used to the idea, warm up to separation before it finally happened.
She went on to date his best friend after she and my husband broke up. The first time she pulled into his driveway to drop him off and said, gently, “Well, I think I’d better be going,” he said, “Okay, bye,” and got out of the car and went to his front door without a backward glance. She was shocked.
I love this story.
In my husband’s family, he says leave-taking was always an extended process. I am reminded of this when we visit my wonderful mother-in-law. She’s my third mother-in-law, and I lucked out this time. We always have a delightful time when we visit, and then, there is the leave-taking.
This seems to be organized into three parts. There is the goodbye in the main part of the house, followed by some extended conversational goodbyes in the kitchen while she gets us water for the drive back to Portland. Then, there is the by-the-back-door leave-taking in her utility room. If the weather is nice, there can also some goodbyeing done in the driveway. It is all very warm and fond, and no one hurries through it.
My husband says that when he was a child, saying goodbye after visiting relatives was a similar process, but that each part of it took even longer. Sometimes, part of the family farewell happened after the family was in the car. Windows were rolled down and extensive conversing would occur while his father was behind the wheel. Waiting to leave.
As we talked, I came to understand that to my husband, an abrupt leave-taking implies, “I’ve had enough of you!” In fact, he said this twice while talking about Sedaris’s essay. Because to leave like that, quickly and without explanation, implies a swift rejection of the present company.
I tried to explain that for me, there’s no rejection implied, just a readiness to turn to the next thing on the list. A drive home. Brushing my teeth. A clean kitchen. Whatever is next, I am ready to put my attention on that, and I don’t feel the need to reassure or disentangle myself before I move on to it.
I am wrapping my mind around the idea that I am abrupt.
My husband is not abrupt. He sometimes sidles up to topics in conversation, with extensive preambles that can go on to the point where I demand to know what he’s talking about before we go any further (see: me, abrupt). He is romantic and caring, and though I’d like to see myself as both of those things, I think in these areas, he probably wins, hands-down. So he handles separations with a degree of sensitivity that I don’t bother with.
The thing is, neither of us is right, and neither is wrong. No one has to change.
We both just have to understand.
Last year, I was sitting on the couch with my husband, and I said, “Oh my god, I have book group tonight!”
I jumped up and ran for the coat closet and was finding my keys when he appeared and said, “Hey!” in this way that makes the word three syllables long. I love how he does this, how he says “Hey” in this certain way, how that communicates that he is not done with me yet. It stops me in my tracks and makes me focus on the man I love.
On this night, I stopped long enough to see that he looked a little hurt. “You didn’t say goodbye.” So I did. I barked out, “Goodbye!” I was in a hurry, and I was confused. He gave me a kiss and a few squeezes and let me walk out the door.
Being married involves compromise. I will probably never clarify where I’m going within the walls of our home, but since that night, I have been careful to always say goodbye to my husband when I leave the house, and to say it with care.
Being married is strange.
I like it.
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
I used to love to watch AMC Hoarders. I was repulsed and amused as a woman said a blessing over a rotted squash before she could let the clean-up crew carry it out of her house. This same woman had kept a dozen eggs for over a year because they were pretty and her sister gave them to her. I couldn’t believe it.
Did you see the rabbit episode? This man let his pet rabbits run wild and free, and they totally destroyed the home he was renting. I am not exaggerating. They ate through the wall board, wiring and insulation, they made burrows through all the walls, and they filled rooms with dung. When the landlord stopped by during cleanup, he almost fainted.
I’d watch until a big ball of anxiety built up in my gut, and then I’d jump up and go sort through a junk drawer and do some laundry. I’d dust. I’d feel better. Then, I read a book called “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.” It takes a deep dive into the relationship between the hoarder, memories, and the actual objects a person hoards. I identified with what the case studies were saying. Things were special. Things had feelings. Things were devalued when they were used. Things connected the present with the past, and to let things go would let the memories go.
And I realized that I have a very organized, well-stored hoard in my house. My house is spacious, tidy, airy, even. But it’s there. You just can’t see it (aside from the books).
These are some of the things I have carefully packed up and hidden away in my home:
My very best teddy bears and vintage stuffed animals.
I know exactly which bears and so on are in these boxes, but I haven’t looked at any of it in 14 years, and the only reason I looked at it back then was that I had a house fire, and I had to mourn all the Steiffs that didn’t make it through. The reason they didn’t make it through? They were declared “smoke damaged,” and kept by the guy who did the restoration. This still burns me up, even though i have not touched one of these stuffed animals in FOURTEEN YEARS.
Enough Christmas decorations to adorn at least three houses.
This is a great improvement from when my Christmas decor filled the entire over-sized linen closet. I could have done ten houses at one time, but I gave 80% of it away two years before the fire, and lost about half of what was left in the fire, including all the darling vintage stuff I’d picked up over the years.
Like, 150 of them. Don’t even ask. Or if you must ask, ask something specific, and I’ll try to answer.
Of all my undisplayed collections, this one bothers me the least, because the entire lot fits in an old Christmas card box. I love them, but I don’t know how the heck you display them, so I don’t.
Vintage ceramic pins.
I have an sizable collection of realy cute and fun 1980s ceramic pins (inspired by a love of Mork-era Robin Williams) stashed in a jewelry chest. I have a glass box of metal and celluloid pins on my dresser, but that is a displayed collection, not a hidden-away collection, so it doesn’t count.
I have a pink plastic carrying case full of the ragtag survivors of my childhood obsession with these funny little dolls. They are not in good shape, since I played with them. A lot. I have no idea what to do with them. They are all shot.
American Girl Dolls.
No, I don’t have a Molly, but I do have an Addy, a Samantha, and a baby. My daughters don’t want them, and I don’t want to let go of them, so they are in a box in my closet.
There are only three (Stacey, Twiggy and Malibu Barbie), but I have them and all their clothes from the 1970s.
There is probably more stuff, carefully packed and stashed here and there. And this doesn’t count what’s actually out on display, or the two sets of dishes stashed in the breakfront, or the vintage purses on my closet shelf, or the hats in the vintage hatbox, and all the damn detritus that accumulates when you live in the same house for over thirty years.
So, believe me when I say that once I read “Stuff,” I could no longer watch Hoarders. I felt compassion for these people who were climbing through piles of junk. I had too much in common with them.
Why am I so weird about stuff? I don’t know, but I do know it’s a family thing.
For as long as I can remember, my mother rhapsodized about my grandmother’s possessions. I wrote a long blog post about this here, which you are free to read, but the point is, things were kind of a religion in my family as I grew up. The more storied a thing was, the more precious it became.
Since we lived in South Dakota, there was an abundance of farm auctions and antique stores full items that came with imagined stories about pioneers built right in. That crumbling iron rake might have arrived in a Conestoga wagon! It might have been part of a fire line in a prairie wildfire! Or it might have just been, you know, a rake, but we were expected to mythologize right along with my mother, her parents and her sister.
I realized how deeply ingrained this is in my family when my aunt called me after she sold her home, where she’d lived since the 1960s. She wanted to apologize to me for the fact that, when she moved, she left behind a loveseat that had belonged to my grandmother. That loveseat was fifty years old.
I thought about this quite a bit when my father died after a long battle with COPD. His home showed his infirmity — the gigantic oxygen compressor and all the spare bottles were cleared out, but the adjustable bed, bath chair, walker, wheelchair, and comfortable lift chair where he spent most of the last weeks of his life. His priorities showed in his state of the art TV and sound system, his curated wall of books and his carefully stocked cabinets.
As Dad aged, I felt like he’d done an admirable job of paring down and keeping things minimal, with some help from us. My brother had cleaned and sold all the family’s Turkish rugs years ago, and I’d dumped a 1967 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that my mother left with me “for the kids.” We’d done our part.
But Dad did have a lot of Mom’s precious stuff — things that were kept (and occasionally passed to us kids) with the warning, “This is worth money, you know.” We didn’t want it, but we knew she’d kill us if we dumped it. After Mom’s death 15 years ago, it mostly found its way back to my dad.
Stuff. Good stuff. Restored cast iron pieces from my grandfather, including miniature salesmen sample stoves, toy vehicles, cornbread molds and pots with seams that peg them as pioneer material. A family clock from my grandparents’ home that is broken. A working antique spinning wheel. Various stoneware crocks, also ancient. An enormous unfinished dollhouse that has been in the family (and in the way) since the 1970s, and boxes of miniatures from the years when my parents ran a miniatures business. Mom’s pink and white Johnson Brothers transferware. Blown glass cocktail glasses. The Polish ceramics she took a shine to later in life. A set of vintage blue Canton dishes that had been tested for lead, Mom pointed out repeatedly, which did nothing to make us want it.
We sold it. At an estate sale. We sold it in waves, in boxes and bags. We sold it to delighted, happy people, we sold it to hagglers, we sold it to newlyweds and drug addicts and collectors and neighbors. I’m sure we sold it for pennies on the dollar. And it was liberating in the extreme. If I could sell my mother’s cast iron miniature cookstoves, I could dispose of anything.
So this has launched me on a mission: to clear my stuff. I exempt myself from getting rid of books, which would be the first place to start, but I just can’t do it. I took eight bags of books to the Goodwill this past weekend, but that’s a mere fraction of what I have shelved. The books can stay, to be gone through at my leisure, if ever.
Everything else has to go, before the rabbits move into my walls.
Firsts come first.
My first grandson came ten days after his due date, after three days of hard labor and medical intervention. I was in the room when he made his entrance, a bundle of long, floppy limbs and loud squalling and curly cord who was pushed out of and deposited on my daughter’s stomach, where he stayed for just a moment before he was whisked away to be weighed (8lb 6oz), measured (22 inches), and counted (24 digits, yes, that’s correct, thank you very much).
I remember his first cries, how soft his skin was, and my daughter’s plaintive call, “Can I please have him, now? Can I see my baby?” But her blood pressure had been at stroke level when she reported to be induced, and they were taking no chances with her and her baby. They both came through just fine.
The second grandson arrived on his original due date, making his debut at a Brooklyn hospital almost three thousand miles from my home. I was in a meeting when I heard my cell phone, and burst out with, “That’s MY PHONE!” and ran to my office, completely abandoning a discussion about finding efficiencies to cut our print costs.
Everyone in the meeting understood, by the way.
Why wasn’t I in New York? I’d thought about flying back for the birth, but my daughter wanted me to come out a little later, to help when her wife went back to work. So I had a ticket booked and paid for. I would see the baby when he was five weeks old, and that was fine. Maybe I would see his first smile?
But when my daughter’s water broke on the morning of her due date, I wanted to be there. I wanted to walk her around the hospital, to count off her breaths, to encourage her in any way I could to have a natural birth. Because that was something I believed in, something I valued, and my other daughter hadn’t been able to do that. Aren’t us parents great? Trying to force our values on our kids long after its appropriate. Meaning well. Screwing up.
So, my daughter was laboring along with her wife’s help when I went to sleep on Tuesday night. She was making progress, but the baby really wasn’t descending. There was all kinds of bouncing and walking to get him to move down. He needed to move! All I could hear in my head was that new song by Hozier, “Move me, baby…” which is still echoing in my head, but that’s okay, because I love that song.
I was falling asleep to the strains of Hozier when the image of my daughter forcing a baby out of her body came into my mind. I was overwhelmed with it, the literal pushing of a human out of my body and into the world. I’d done it three times, and I’d been present at two births, that of my nephew and my first grandson. This should have been old hat, yes? But the image of my daughter pushing her son into the world disturbed me so much that I sat up in the dark and shook my head, blinking. The idea was inconceivable. I couldn’t bear for it to happen.
When my first grandson was being born, I almost forgot about the baby part of it. I spent three days in the hospital with my daughter and her partner, waiting and watching and worrying about my daughter’s health and safety. I almost forgot about the fact that there was a baby in there, a little boy waiting to make his entrance into the world. I just wanted my daughter to be all right.
My daughter-in-law’s mother (who lives near me) hopped a red-eye that night, rather than sleeping. Ann is a midwife. Ann and I were each three-time veterans of natural childbirth. We believe in non-medicalized births, unless absolutely necessary. I trusted her to help my daughter labor. Ann called me, enlightened me, calmed me. When a c-section became necessary for my daughter, Ann reassured me that she was completely in alignment with medical thought behind the decision.
So, I was not with my daughter when she gave birth. And she didn’t push her baby out of her body and into the world. My second grandson was plucked out through an incision, introduced to one mama, and then held by the other while my daughter’s incision was closed. He got here just fine without me.
I have to admit, I am relieved about that. Birth is HARD. It’s a wracking, wrenching experience, fundamental in the real sense of the word fundament. It’s a freight train of pain, a muscular expulsion, a cascade of fluid. Things go wrong, collarbones break, pelvises crack, cords wrap around necks, babies get stuck. Birth is as hard on the baby as it is on the mother.
I’m sure he was startled. His eyes are so tightly screwed shut in his first photo, refusing to let in this loud, bright place in which he found himself. I can’t imagine what it’s like to spend all those months thinking the world was a warm and watery place where you get progressively more cramped, where all you hear are the whooshes and swishes of your mother’s internal workings, her voice reverberating through membranes and fluids to strike your tiny, developing eardrums. And then, in an hour or an instant, you are brought into a world that is huge beyond comprehension.
I haven’t held him yet. I have a lot of photos, and little videos, and thanks to those, I’ve heard him cry. He’s been weighed (8lb 4oz), measured (21 inches), and counted up (just twenty digits this time around). I wish I could touch his soft skin and soothe his little cries, experience the wonder of his long fingers and toes, see if his hair is really red like they say, inspect his eye color, feel the warmth of his small, swaddled body against mine.
Soon, I tell myself, soon. Just in time for his first smile.
And what if it’s the truth?
I’m not sure if I’ll watch “Leaving Neverland.” At this point, I’ve had to accept that one of my favorite musical icons of the 80s was abusing children in the name of love. I’m not afraid to listen to these men describe what he did to them.
I’m afraid of hearing them express their great and lasting love for the man who manipulated, abused, exploited and abandoned them.
One of my dear friends shares an ex with me. This man, who is dead now, was a hero in his community. I had no intention of dating this man when I met him. We were casual friends, and then my mother died. To escape that grief, I threw myself into a bad decision for six weeks. That bad decision was him.
He was an unlikely Romeo with a jolly, avuncular presence. A wonderful conversationalist, a great joker. It ended badly between us, but after the dating ended, we became good friends. He called me his “best friend” for years before he dropped me cold. I never understood why. I was not sufficiently loyal to him, I guess. I mean, that’s what I think happened. I think that’s the reason, because he would never tell me.
He knew my sudden absence would cause some questions, and I was determined not to have a messy, public thing going on that would strain the emotional resources (and patience) of our mutual friends. So, I suggested to him that we downgrade from friendship to “friendly acquaintances.” We would be pleasant to each other in public, and estranged from each other in private. He agreed.
I went on to watch his antics from a remove. And he went on to lie about me to anyone who would listen. People who had never met me were told stories about who I was and why our friendship was over. We were no longer friends because I was crazy, was the gist of it. Crazy and jealous, some jumble of untruth that preserved his public image as a good guy. A real mensch. The best. He was practically a saint by the time he succumbed to cancer. Yes, he had cancer, and yes, he died from it. It was a long, public, awful fight. But even as he was sick, he continued a pattern that had gone on throughout our friendship, and, I had to face it, had included me.
He would choose women who were especially vulnerable for one reason or another; an empty marriage, a fresh divorce, a recent death in her family, or his favorite, the person who hadn’t dated in so long that she’d forgotten what romance felt like. And he would use his friendly, harmless appearance to slip under her fences, and love bomb her. Once she was conquered, he would stay for as long as he wanted to. Then he’d end it, and leave her devastated and blaming herself, because everyone had warned her that he was like that.
I am embarrassed by how long it took me to see this about him. Once I did, I blamed myself for falling for this, and I blamed myself for believing his reasons during our friendship — reasons that always boiled down to, “She’s crazy.”
He carried on with more and more women, more and more publicly as the years went on. He maintained a robust and messy romantic life through bout after bout of cancer treatment.
And then it was over.
As his community grieved, some of us who knew him quietly touched base. We were sad, we were angry, we were grieving. But we were not speaking publicly. One friend said it best; “I didn’t say anything when he died because if I was kind, it wouldn’t be honest, and if I was honest, it wouldn’t be kind.”
There is a version of this person that lives on in his community. It is the kind and jolly man who is remembered. People who see him differently keep their mouths shut. They never speak the truth, that this man was an emotional predator and a narcissist who preyed on vulnerable women and made us think it was our fault when he hurt us. He was pathological. He was also brilliant, hilarious, generous, and so much fun to be around.
When I drive by The Barley Mill Pub on Hawthorne, I remember years of sitting across from him in an upstairs booth, talking about his crazy love life and laughing my head off At all those crazy women of his. I adored him. He confounds me to this day. I still miss him.
In my family, there are some truths that cannot be told by me, because they don’t belong to me. A man operated like an octopus in our family, reaching into different generations, choosing a child, working her free, squeezing her in his death grip of favoritism, blackmail, and predation.
I was bothered by him. I was not completely unscathed–I doubt that any female child in our family went unmolested to some degree–but I was not singled out as the special child he preyed upon and warped. That happened to someone I love. And I have lived my entire life with the damage he did to to her, and the damage she wreaked on everyone else.
I grew up in a family that was been intentionally fractured so that the octopus could go to work. This is the story of my life, but to tell it, I will have to tell stories that belong to other people.
In one of my novels, I have two predators. One of them is a man of god, and one of them is a trucker. And oh, they are bad. I mean, they are evil. Bad men doing bad things. Because they’re BAD. I wish I’d made these characters a little more appealing, a little more confusing. Villains should see themselves as the wronged parties, shouldn’t they? I assume that every writer looks back at her published works and wishes she’d done something just a little better.
But after I published this book, I sent a copy of this book to someone in my extended family. She also writes. She read my book carefully, and called me to talk about it. There is plenty to discuss in this book, but she wanted to discuss how the predators met their terrible ends. “So, there’s no love for the abusers?” she asked me. “No forgiveness? They die, and that’s that?” She had a point. There was no love for my one-dimensional villains. They are lovingly portrayed from their hats to their boots, but I do not love them.
But we loved the octopus predator. I was eleven or twelve when it all came out. The family was calling and crying and threatening and defending, appalled and betrayed, unearthing who had known and who hadn’t, who had able to protect their children and who had driven their children to this man’s door.
Everyone blamed each other, and everyone blamed themselves. Because how could a child not tell. And how could a mother not know. And how could a former victim not understand that this abuse wasn’t restricted to her, that it would happen over and over again for generations.
My household was in a roil. Finally, my mother had to explain to me what had happened. After she did, she said, “I don’t know what to do with my love for him.”
He lived a long life. His wife never left him, even after she knew. And I have stayed silent, because there are people in my family who love him still.
When I was very young, he often sat me on his lap and told me story after story about three animals. They were cats or dogs or rats or horses. There were always three, and one was black, and one was red, and one was brown. And one of the three was always named Pete. And these animals had great adventures in the alleys and pastures and barns and backyards of the octopus’s imagination.
Imagine how delightful that was for a child. How special. All of that is tainted by the fact that I loved the octopus.
It’s an old saying, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” It is unfair to speak ill of those who are no longer here to defend themselves.
There are people who love the person you’re talking about. He has his defenders, his family. You will hurt them if you tell the truth, and incite their wrath. You will expose people who wish to maintain their privacy and silence on the matter, who do not want the lid pried off their experiences, their pain. You will tell stories that don’t belong to you.
There are others who don’t see what happened to them as abuse. When you tell the truth, you take away their choice in the matter. They’ve lived their entire lives seeing themselves as complicit at best, or part of a grand love affair at worst, and they don’t feel they are victims. You are, in your way, victimizing them.
What you’ll find most often, though, is people who blame themselves for not knowing, for not seeing, for not understanding what was happening to their children, their siblings, or even to themselves. You will find, over and over again, people who feel responsible for what happened, even though they did none of it. They will hate you for making them feel responsible and defensive.
Which brings us back to watching the Michael Jackson documentary, and whether or not I’ll do it. I’m afraid to hear these men talk about how much they loved him. I don’t even want to hear their mothers talk about how they didn’t know.
All these victims, blaming themselves.
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.
I didn’t plan to get married on Valentine’s Day. It just kind of happened. It was February 10th, I needed to get married that weekend, and my mom came over to where I was working. She said, “You know, Sunday is Valentine’s Day.” We shrugged and smiled and pulled together a little wedding for family and friends in my parents’ living room. I wore a red dress and our cake was heart-shaped. It made our anniversary easy to remember.
I’m not sure what happened to Valentine’s Day. When I was growing up, it was a kids’ holiday, small and sentimental. We all brought in milk cartons, which we decorated as mailboxes into which our classmates slipped small cards in thin white envelopes. There would be a party, where we would eat cupcakes and open our Valentines. This sounds harmless, yes?
Back then, you were not required to give Valentines to everyone in your class. I certainly didn’t. I got fewer cards than the popular girls, which wasn’t crushing. But my cards always included drawings of hippos, elephants and the like. I was not fat, just tall and shy, but that was enough to get me the insulting cards back in the day. That was crushing. But that’s what Valentine’s Day was in the sixties — small and sentimental, sometimes disheartening.
And as my marriage progressed, we had kids, and they had their school Valentine parties. These were much as I remembered, but some things had changed; everyone brought everyone a card, which I thought was nice, and the card assortments no longer included anything insulting, which I thought was VERY nice. I sent cupcakes for the parties and thanked my husband for the card and flowers that he invariably remembered to get, and that was that, for Valentine’s Day.
I didn’t foresee it being a big deal, having a February 14th wedding anniversary. But somewhere in the 12 years I was married, Valentine’s Day had transformed from kids’ parties to some overwhelming romantic holiday spectacle. A holiday full of jewelry, travel, dinner in places that required reservations, and couples massages. It ballooned in importance, and its approach reminded me that I was alone, abandoned, raising three kids by myself, and bitter.
I was a mess. All it took was one pink cardboard heart to shred my own. I’d walk into the grocery store, just innocently going to get some milk, and I’d be confronted with BANKS of pink flowers and rows of cards and towers of heart-shaped candy boxes. Above it all waved colonnades of shiny Mylar balloons, with sappy messages that reminded me of how alone I was.
I tried several ways to fix it. First, I contained it. That’s SOP for me — I put pain in a corner, erect a barrier of humor around it, and deal with it when I’m ready. I made a lot of jokes about how stupid I was to get married on Valentine’s Day, exaggerating my agony for comic effect, fooling no one, I’m sure. Because no matter how biting, how caustic I was, everyone knew I was speaking from my hurt.
Next, I put little decorations here and there, to harden my heart to the pain they caused. Sort of a self-vaccination approach. If I surrounded myself with enough cardboard hearts, maybe they would lose their power to shred my real heart.
Then, I decided to stop moping about not having a Valentine, because I had three. My daughters always woke up to Valentines; a sweet card for each of them, some candy or a troll doll, whatever I’d found to tell my girls that they were, indeed, my Valentines.
That helped, but it did not cure me. I still felt my loneliness in a terrible way when February 14th rolled around. So I started on another strategy; Valentine dates.
All the societal build-up had apparently made grown-up, middle-aged men worried about whether or not they had Valentines. There were little articles about it on the news sites, “How to handle being single on Valentine’s Day” and the like, and they were aimed at men as well as women.
I almost couldn’t believe it. I can guarantee you that none of the men in the generation preceding mine EVER GAVE A MOMENT’S THOUGHT TO HAVING A VALENTINE. But these men cared, and so did I. So we’d kind of fumble our way together in January, and endure some awkward date on February 14th, and then cash it in a week or two after. That only made it worse. Something wrong won’t make it right.
Independently of my Valentine agony, I worked on filling the hole my divorce left in me. Recovering from my divorce took years, therapy, writing a novel about my experience, and a crash course in forgiveness. I had to give up the righteous anger of being wronged, and let myself heal.
The kind of relationships you can’t have when you’re toxic from your bad divorce. And when I was seeing someone, Valentine’s Day would come and we’d exchange cards and/or candy, and we might go out to dinner, or stay in, or forget about it entirely. It didn’t feel like a make or break.
And when I was single, I wasn’t hurt by radio commercials for heart-shaped diamond pendants that no woman wants to wear. I didn’t feel pangs when those silly balloons were gently bumping overhead while I grocery shopped. Every heart-shaped candy box stopped being a painful reminder of marital disaster. February 14th wasn’t a yearly anniversary of loss and failure. It was just Valentine’s Day. A sweet, sentimental holiday of cardboard hearts and pink roses.
I kind of like it, now. And I still send Valentines to my daughters.
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