The good old days
(Prompts: My friend Katrina sent me writing prompts every weekday in October, and I wrote a lot of stuff, some of it great and some of it not. But I thought I’d share a few of them with my sweet readers. This prompt was “The Cobweb.”)
I used to chat in an AOL chat room for writers, but you couldn’t tell based on the screen names. I don’t know what I was expecting. A Proust or two? SusanSontag777? KerouacLives? No, I was surrounded by chatters who had names with “Vixen,” “Gypsy,” “Diva,” and “Princess” in them.
My own chat name was gender neutral and non-informative. It wasn’t chosen to attract male attention, or any attention for that matter. I went to that chatroom to banter. I was a bored single mother of three young kids who worked from home, and most of my friends had moved out of state or evaporated with my divorce. My ex never took the kids and I desperately needed a social outlet.
Chat let me trade barbs and quips with other intelligent chatters. It was like going to a bar without leaving my home (or drinking, because I don’t drink much). Harmless, right?
But other chatters had other goals.
I remember a chatter with a Russian screen name—something like Anastasia—who would sit in the room and talk about her life, which involved seven children and a husband. You’d think a woman who’d given birth to seven living children would be of strong and hardy stock, but noooo. Nothing about her could be considered hardy.
How did I know? Because she went on about it. When Anastasia wasn’t describing the extreme lengths she went to in preparing elaborate European meals for her children and making them historically correct Halloween costumes based on medieval royalty, she spoke of her own extreme fragility.
This lady was dainty.
She sounded like The Princess and the Pea. “I bruise so easily,” she said. “My husband has to be gentle with me.” After seven children? Really? Her feet were extraordinarily narrow, and her shoes had to be special-ordered, perhaps from a fairy cobbler, I don’t know. Her ring size? Three, but threatening to slip off her twig-like fingers.
Her hair was bountiful, but she couldn’t wash it too often because her natural ringlets were so fine and breakable. “I have to just let it fall free,” she said, because to restrain this massive cascade of curls might cause it to, I don’t know, shatter? Does hair do that?
Anastasia’s methods were successful.
She would bat her virtual eyelashes and the men would swoon, especially when they heard that her delicacy extended to her undergarments. She announced in chat, “My panties are like cobwebs. I couldn’t bear to wear anything else.”
I had several women friends in that chat room, and we all were amused by this extraordinarily dainty mother of seven. We wondered just how her slender frame had tolerated the conception of that many infants, let alone their delivery. But the cobweb underwear was the last straw.
My friends and I began to make pronouncements in the room about how we couldn’t take a step without shattering an ankle due to extreme delicacy, how one of us cracked her pelvis by sitting down on a park bench, how breathing itself exhausted us and left us with blue lips and racing pulse. We thought we were hilarious, but we were written off as “just jealous.”
And maybe we were.
I mean, many of my chat friends were conducting their own online flirtations. Maybe they resented the successful wiles of this fecund but gossamer creature. She might have been cutting in on their action. Or maybe I was envious. I’m almost offensively sturdy. Nothing about me seems particularly fragile. I could have assumed a gauzy, misty online self, but what would be the fun in that? It was more fun to be a wiseass.
My goal was to disturb the balance in that room with my frankness. My joke was, “I’m crafting an exotic online persona in which I’m a broke single mother of three who drives a minivan.” When asked what I looked like, I’d say, “Kind of like Boy George.”
(Side note: This was true. I was at a party once and this incredibly attractive lesbian said, “Karen, I mean this as a compliment. You kind of look like Boy George.”
And I told her thank you. Because look at him! Don’t you dare say anything mean about George).
Of course, I was frank about what was going on in that AOL chatroom. I’d point out that any female-seeming screen name with “69” in it was actually a man (absolute truth). I’d type that anyone with “Vixen,” “Gypsy,” “Diva,” or “Princess” in her screen name was fat (again, this was absolutely true). I maintained that the room was full of soothsaying convenience store clerks and mystical daycare operators.
I guess you could say I didn’t buy in.
Of course, you’d be wrong if you said that. I bought in. I can’t pretend otherwise. I want to make it clear that most encounters were fun, not romantic, and have resulted in friendships that last to this day.
And then, there were the not-so-fun encounters. I crossed paths with hoarders and psychopaths and con artists. I was even fed into the wood chipper! (that’s figurative, not literal language there). I realized that the chatroom was full of people who were typing from a very different place than I was, both physically and mentally. People had problems. And I’m not here to mock them for it.
I’ll leave it at this: There were many adventures, meetups, and debacles, some of which I allude to in this book, SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE, but most will go unspoken for all time. No, seriously, I do have limits as far as what I’ll reveal, even if it seems like I don’t.
I lived to tell, even if I’m not going to.
My visits to the chat tapered off after 2003, when I got my very own stalker, which was hideous but chat was a habit, so I’d still check in occasionally. But you know, the less I went, the less I wanted to. It was a chatroom. A chatroom is an optional space. You don’t have to go there, even if you’re used to it, even if you like it. You have the option of disappearing.
I stopped chatting on AOL in 2006, after my house fire. I didn’t miss it until 2020. I was bored out of my mind during the COVID-19 shut down, so I tried Livewire’s chat. My options were fairly grim. I didn’t want to chat in any of the rooms, but I finally settled on an over-fifty chat. I soon realized that over fifty meant like over seventy. Well, okay, I have interesting friends in their seventies and eighties. I was willing to give it a shot.
I watched hopefully. Everyone on there had been on AOL chat at one point or another, but no one seemed familiar to me, so they weren’t my old gang. Someone claimed to remember my chat name from the olden days but he seemed a little drunk so I wasn’t sure.
There was a definite whiff of MAGA in the air. And, BRB, gotta put the laundry in the dryer kind of updates. Descriptions of what was in the crockpot. Enquiries after the health of pets. I was waiting for banter, that back and forth, the crackle, the spark. I didn’t see any.
I’d throw out a gambit now and then, and get some lols, but really, no one could dish it back. Not in a way that inspired me to stay. These chatters didn’t have the quick wits and astonishing minds of my old chat friends. They weren’t writers, or readers. But one thing hadn’t changed.
They still liked to flirt with each other.
These aged chatters were on the chat make, angling for attention with the old :::chat gambits:::. Only now those people were in their seventies and eighties and…nineties. Ninety year old people flinging out their :::batting eyelashes::: and @—->— a rose for you, and so on.
I watched for a while, horrified but reassured that at least one part of chat had never changed. And then I wondered if Anastasia was still wafting around the chat rooms in her cobweb underthings, beguiling the men, her tiny bird bones made ever so much more fragile by advancing osteoporosis.
Today, in honor of everyone’s favorite romantic holiday, I bring you everyone’s symbol of love and romance…GUNS.
Where did these come from? I really have to wonder about the level of frustration in the lives of designers of vintage valentines. Were they so tired of doing commercial illustration that their Valentines took this macabre turn?
Goodness me. It’s Valentine’s Day.
I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day. Here are further thoughts on the subject:
Flowers at Work on Valentine’s Day
The Church of Memory
If you had asked me what I remembered most about growing up as a Christian Scientist, it would have been the disappointment I felt when my grandparents arrived to take us to church. They always made their entrance in the middle of “Beany and Cecil.”
Maybe you don’t remember Cecil the Sea Sick Sea Monster. From what I understand, he began his career as a sock puppet, but was fully animated in the cartoon of my childhood. He had a signature song, Ragmop, which he belted out at some point in the episode, “R-A-G-G-M-O-P-P, RAGMOP!” And he might be right in the middle of doubling his consonants when Grandma Lucile and Grandpa Virgil arrived, dressed in their Sunday best.
I’m sure I’d have been dressed and prepared for this trip before I ever sat down to Cecil. Cecil was probably the carrot my mother dangled to get me ready, as I was quite young when these memories begin. I don’t imagine I was too excited to head off to Sunday School. I was rarely excited to do anything that involved leaving my home, where I had my coloring books, my collection of tiny things, my siblings, and most importantly, my mother. Why would I need to leave? There were unimportant people and strange relatives out there. Better to stay home, preferably with Cecil.
But they would gather us up, my substantial grandpa in one of his huge dark suits, my soft spoken but firm-about-church grandma in one of her dainty netted hats and a pair of gloves, clutching a handbag. I would never see Beany rescued from the peril unfolding on our tiny black and white television. I would never see Cecil roar into action, lisping and invincible, to rescue him. Because we had to go to church.
The Trip to Town.
Grandpa had a taste for enormous American cars and generally drove a Plymouth Behemoth. My older brother and sister would clamber into the back seat, and Grandma would tuck me under her arm in the front. If we were lucky, she would then carefully divide a stick of Doublemint chewing gum between me and my sister. “Double your freshness, double your fun, with Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum.” I loved the flavor, which lasted about as long as that jingle.
Our breath dealt with, we were off, my siblings sliding across the back seat and bumping into each other when Grandpa swung the car around corners. There were no seat belts in those cars. We didn’t slide around on curves because there are no curves in the roads in South Dakota.
We lived in Claremont, and it was 39 miles from Claremont to Aberdeen. The Sunday round trip was nearly 80 miles. This is quite a distance, even for someone like me, who regularly travels many of Portland freeways and streets to see friends and family. But I don’t travel on gravel roads.
There were a few stretches of unimproved highway between Claremont and Aberdeen. There were also the vagaries of South Dakota winters, but no one let bad weather stand between them and church in those days. A whiteout blizzard couldn’t keep us away from the First Church of Christ, Scientist.
The Church Itself.
Oh it was a grand building. Take a look.
Doesn’t it look like a bank? Or maybe a school, one of the old ones, with boy doors and girl doors? Christian Science was still a thriving concern in the early sixties, not as much as it was earlier in the century, but it seemed to be doing fine. The fact that a town of 24K could support a church like this boggles my mind. I don’t know the history of this building, so perhaps it was something else before it was a church. It is no longer a church, it now houses a law office, and when I stepped into it in the mid 2010s, it felt as grand as ever.
As a child, I thought the church magnificent, even though I never walked up those front steps. We entered through the little door on the lower left. That led into the basement, where we attended Sunday School and the children’s service. There, I learned to recite the books of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, and a few Bible verses here and there.
After Sunday School, we waited in the “Nursery” for our grandma. Grandpa stayed upstairs, but she fetched us from this room where (I guess) the children who were too young for Sunday School were kept on Sunday mornings. It had a sand table, some books, and a few toys. The walls were painted a warm color and accented with painted animals here and there. My mother had painted some of the animals. I remember taking pride in a particular tiger. “Mom painted that.”
Grandma eventually rescued us from the Nursery and took us to the children’s service. This was quite short, just a reading and then a few hymns. My sister and brother were allowed to sit wherever, but Grandma stayed close to me, in case I went wild or something (I never did). I loved the hymns. My pleasure was slightly lessened by having Grandma Lucille warbling along beside me. But nothing could dim my enjoyment of my very favorite, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Onward Christian soldiers
Marching as to war
With the cross of JEEEEEEE-ZUZZ
Going on before!
I loved the military tempo of this hymn, and belted it out with all the gusto of Cecil the Sea Monster. It never struck me as funny that “the cross of Jesus” went out before us. Christian Scientists took that “no graven images” commandment quite seriously. There was not a cross in the entire church, and there were certainly no sad-eyed Christs in the vestibule. No plaster Marys looking sweetly down on us. And the idea of a crucifix? Not on your life. Those were seen as barbaric.
No, the only cross we saw was the one in the logo stamped on the front of our seminal text, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
This book was penned by Mary Baker Eddy, the visionary who started the church after some visions. This book was the source of the readings that went on in the adult church upstairs, where my grandparents had their service. I believe they both did readings.
We used it downstairs, too. In the basement, after we talked about the Bible in Sunday School, we turned immediately to the companion book for explanations. Even in tiny doses, the Bible was incomprehensibly strange. The Key to the Scriptures took all that confusing, threatening, occasionally violent Biblical verbiage and made it comprehensible, kind, and metaphysical.
I want to stress that the verses we learned were very, very mild.
It wasn’t just the Bible that confused us. Whenever we heard of something wrong or frightening out in the world, my grandmother would soothe us with “Honey, that’s just Mortal Mind.” This was Grandma’s shorthand for a sophisticated and far-reaching concept, but I was too young to parse Mortal Mind as a sophisticated, far-reaching concept.
After church, we all got back in the car and headed to Elmer’s Café for donuts. This was probably the carrot my grandparents dangled to get us to behave. I didn’t ever like donuts as a child (this was shocking to all my family members, my dislike of sweets in general was considered aberrant, possibly dangerous or subversive because how could I be bribed?) but eventually, after much trial and error, it was discovered that I did like caramel rolls. So I got one of those at Elmer’s after church, and everyone calmed down.
That was church, when I was very young.
Was my mother a Christian Scientist?
That’s a good question. Mom had participated in the upgrade of the nursery—I think my aunt Elaine did, too—but I never once remember Mom attending the church.
When we lived in Claremont, she and my original father probably enjoyed their time off together by adding another shouted chapter to their decade-long argument, a call-and-response of accusation and insult which provided the soundtrack to the first five years of my life.
After they divorced and we moved to Aberdeen, my mom probably enjoyed that morning alone. Maybe she relaxed on Sunday mornings. Maybe she slept. She must have been doing something, because as far as I recall, she never once went to the church with us.
By the time Grandma and Grandpa arrived back at the house on Kline Street to drop us off, Mom usually had Sunday dinner going. It was so nice to walk into the house, and find her happy and relaxed in a kitchen that smelled like her peerless pot roast.
What is Christian Science, exactly?
That’s another good question. I have never studied Christian Science as an adult, so this is my understanding of it, based on my early training.
“Christian Science” is neither. I’ll get to the Christian part later, but there is no science present in a religion that teaches that physical illness can be overcome by correct thought. This thought isn’t the random cogitation going on in our heads at all times. This is directed and effective thought, applied to transcending life’s problems because they actually do not exist.
As a child, I did not understand this part. Do you understand this part? Does anyone understand it? According to Christian Science, the physical world does not exist. It is Mortal Mind, a screen of falseness between humanity and the purely spiritual plane, which is true reality.
This means that on an individual level, anything wrong with your life or your body is the result of what Grandma called “wrong thinking” (see, faith healing, including Christian Science kids who die of burst appendixes, which I almost did when I was five). On a global level, “Wrong thinking” is the cause of wars, pestilence, and famine.
Wrong thinking is part of “Mortal Mind.” Mortal Mind, as I understand it, is the level of flawed human thought/existence that stands between mankind and the perfection of God, which is always there, just waiting in all its splendor and glory, shining and divine. When freed of the entire mess of humanity’s wrong thinking, it is Paradise. Heaven, as much as it exists, is simply the oneness with God achieved by perfect thought unobscured by Mortal Mind.
What a gorgeous idea. How simple, and how transcendent. How specifically appealing this was to the various adults in my family. Think of the name of that companion text, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” Their own minds held the key to unlock the divine. You didn’t have to pray. All you had to do was think correctly.
Understanding, Questioning, Believing.
I experienced my childhood faith as benevolent and somewhat annoying, simply because I could have been spending that time doing something that interested me. But I was not damaged by going to church, not was I damaged by my unusual faith.
Christian Science contains nothing frightening or negative. There is no sin, no devil, no hell as it is commonly understood. I remember hearing about all that stuff from some Catholic kids. I can summon up the memory and my emotions right now, but I don’t know if they were cousins or neighbors, just that they were Catholic, and we were in a wood-paneled basement room and they were telling me all about the Devil.
I wasn’t scared. I was utterly disbelieving. I could not believe that they believed what they were telling me. A devil was a Halloween costume, a seasonal figure, like the cupid shooting arrows on Valentine’s Day. And here were these kids earnestly telling me about Satan and sin, and the Lake of Fire what would burn me for all eternity.
They might as well have been describing how to walk through walls or time travel. It wasn’t real.
Like all children raised in a faith, I thought people of other faiths were misled. I still don’t believe in Satan, sin, or the Lake of Fire, and I still think anyone who does has been sadly misled. But as a child, I certainly didn’t believe that I could have been similarly bamboozled by my elders. My own belief wasn’t shaken until age seven, when I tried to repair a Little Kiddle through the power of thought. It didn’t work.
Cracks are where the light comes in, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen.
We moved to Rapid City the summer before I started fourth grade. My grandparents were no longer there to take us to church. But they were very, very concerned that we should go. So every Sunday morning, our mother harried us into our church clothes and dropped us off in front of the local First Church of Christ, Scientist for our Sunday school classes.
I don’t have a clear memory of that church, and the only photo I could find was of this present location.
Could this really have been the place? I find it unlikely, but I don’t remember. I only have a clear memory of looking across a room at my brother, slumped in a chair with his elbow on the table, kind of facing out from his class. He wore a gold dress shirt and a dark tie. He looked so defeated.
We were good kids, obedient kids. We showed up and did the lessons and Mom picked us up and drove us home. But I started to get the feeling that it was strange for us to attend without an adult.
We only stayed in Rapid City for a school year, long enough for Mom and my adoptive dad to meet and marry (six weeks after meeting). That summer, we moved to Minneapolis. We attended one of two churches there. I’m not sure which. I went looking for photos, and found this one:
You can read the sad story of this building here: A historic church is crumbling. Can anyone save it? This might have been our church, or we might have attended a different, grander church, which is now a thriving Seventh Day Adventist tabernacle. Here is a photo of the other building back in its Christian Science days.
You can read about it here: Forgotten Minnesota
Whichever building it was, this church was grand. We attended for a few months, long enough for me to go Christmas caroling with a group of church members. We strolled the wintry sidewalks of Edina, singing up a storm. We’d never done anything that fun with the churches in Aberdeen or Rapid City.
No matter how welcoming that congregation was, no matter how fun, it was strange that us three kids showed up at yet another church without our parents. And it is telling that I was the only one of us three kids who wanted to participate in caroling.
Then, of course, it happened.
I was ten or eleven when Mom sat us down and had a serious talk with us about church. It took me a minute to understand what was happening. She was asking us how we felt about going to church. She seemed to imply that attendance was…optional.
The disbelief I felt rising inside, followed by glee. She was letting us decide. Did we still want to go? We all said no.
My grandparents, who drove over to visit us in Minneapolis now and then, were sternly disappointed. Grandma was such a soft-edged person. But when it came to church, she was firm. But Mom made it clear to her parents that we had all independently made the decision, which kind of let her off the hook, as far as their disapproval. That was all on us, the errant children who wouldn’t go anymore. My grandparents were deeply disappointed in us, but they were no longer in the same state.
All those years of careful inculcation, the rides, the hymns, the readings, the donuts, the copies my sister and brother had received of the Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. We left it behind.
By the way, where did Jesus come in?
Well, he didn’t enter by the usual door, I can tell you that much. That basic thing about “Christ died for your sins” seems key to every other Christian faith, a fundamental belief in the Blood of the Lamb. Jesus had to die to wash us all clean of our sins and save us from hellfire damnation. That’s why you have to embrace Jesus as your savior to live in Heaven.
I was not taught that. In fact, I was not taught much at all about the crucifixion. I knew it had happened, but didn’t pay attention to it until I was eleven, and we were living in Booneville, Arkansas. My grandparents had driven down to stay with us for Christmas. I was finishing up the school week at Booneville Elementary before the break started.
An aside: I went looking for a photo of Booneville Elementary in 1971, but couldn’t find one. There’s an elementary school, but it’s far newer. I did, however, find a postcard of the highschool I attended for part of my seventh grade year, which has also been torn down and replaced.
It is no more, BUT LOOK AT IT, FOLKS.
Anyway. Back to sixth grade.
On the day before we took our Christmas break, my teacher shut the door to our classroom and solemnly announced that she had a gift for us. Great, I liked Christmas gifts, but she was oddly somber. She then passed out Chick Tracts. Do you know what these are? I hesitate to link to them, because I don’t want to encourage traffic to their site, but I describe them in Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park.
Driving down the street, you might see the occasional bumper sticker—“Get Right or Get Left!” or “This truck will be unoccupied in case of Rapture!” And someone in the Park, probably Jeeter Tyson, passed out those small religious comic books about the appearance of Satan, masked as a cat, a neighbor, a stranger, a magazine.
In one of those terrifying little comics, three fornicating, joy-riding teenagers discover that their late-model four-door sedan is really Satan. In another, a fornicating boy discovers that the girl with the long hair and the dramatic “Y” of black-ink cleavage, the girl with whom he has committed back-seat sin, is really Satan.
On her rare trips home, Raven always found those little comics stuck into the latch of her sleeper door. As a child, she’d find them on the ground while roaming around the fairs…She would read them, throw them back down, and go off to try to forget the voice of Satan speaking through a Jack-o-Lantern or whatever horror was printed up and passed out like something for children to enjoy. She thought of those comic books as sneaky. They put fears in your head. They would haunt your dreams with their frightening threats, if you let them.
Dreams are made for haunting.
My teacher had us all read our little Jack Chick comic books, and then she explained that Christ had died for our sins. We needed to be washed in the blood of the Lamb, or we would go to hell. She was giving us a chance at Everlasting salvation. Also, Merry Christmas.
This was the first time in my sheltered little spiritual life I’d encountered such a thing. It was ugly and terrifying, so I took that little tract right home to my Grandma Lucille. And she calmly read it, and then explained the crucifixion to me. Mortal Mind had led those soldiers to put Christ on the cross. It was an error, and to rectify it, God had brought Jesus back to life. It wasn’t a sacrifice. There was no washing clean of our sins, as sin does not exist. It was simply Mortal Mind, and God had fixed it.
I sat there, washed over by Grandma’s kind, soft voice as she spoke with authority on the only thing she’d ever really studied in her life, which was her faith. She was patient and loving and reassuring. She offered a vision of faith that involved no hellfire threats, and a view of Christ’s agonizing death as a human mistake, divinely rectified.
I was greatly comforted by this interpretation of events. Together, we threw away the evil little comic book. After Christmas, my grandparents returned to South Dakota, but I still didn’t go back to church.
A Common Question: Did we go to the doctor?
The short answer: Not often enough.
The long answer: Christian Scientists are not forbidden to seek medical care, but they are not encouraged to, either. This thought-healing stuff works best alone, as opposed to combined with medical care. My theory is that medical professionals would point out what wasn’t working, and faith in the working was necessary for success.
If you are ill, you can pay a Christian Science practitioner to help you. I believe Grandpa Virgil was a practitioner, defined as someone who can work with a person experiencing bodily illness to make it go away through prayer.
But there is no supplication in Christian Science prayer. You do not appeal to a higher power of any kind to take away your illness. You essentially argue with yourself until you are cleared of the false belief, the Mortal Mind inflicting your illness. Once you rid yourself of that, you’ll be healed.
We did not regularly see a family doctor, but there was a doctor named Dr. Shusha (I called him Doctor Shoeshine) who we saw now and then. We didn’t receive well care. I’m not sure there was such a thing as well care in the 1960s.
I took my polio vaccine in a sugar cube at the little Claremont school. I had the chicken pox and the mumps, but lots of kids had those. I discovered after my first daughter was born that I have no Rubella immunity. I’d never gotten the MMR vaccine. I’ve had three, now, but apparently they don’t take. So thank you to all of you who’ve had an MMR shot, because I can still get Rubella and German measles.
But what about the kids who died in the 80s and 90s?
Well, their parents were devout idiots. But I see how it happens. As mentioned earlier in this post, I languished with an attack of appendicitis for several days. I remember roaming the house clutching my tattered blankie, lying down on our deacon’s bench, getting up, pacing, crying, moaning. Nothing helped. The only similar pain in my life was the first time I gave birth, during transition. I did a lot of roaming around and moaning during that, as well.
In a more traditional household, it is likely that if your five year-old was doubled up with pain for days on end, you’d take her to a doctor. Mom didn’t at first. I have heard two different stories about it. In the one my sister tells, she was babysitting me and Mom was at a club. She called Mom and told her I couldn’t settle down and she had to come home. In the story Mom told, a neighbor came by and saw me writhing and roaming, and told my mother about a boy in town who’d had an attack of appendicitis. “She’s acting just like him,” this nameless neighbor said.
I have a dim memory of this woman standing in the front doorway, speaking, but it might be confabulated. However it happened, Mom was soon driving, and I was in the backseat of car with my blanket, then in an operating room telling Dr. Shoeshine “You talk like a Mexican,” and counting backwards from ten, and then awake, in a hospital bed, groggy and feeling my stitches under the bandage.
My mother could have called a practitioner. She took me to the hospital instead. Accordingly, I am still here. I have a huge keloidal scar that my doctors over the years have explained as, “That’s how it looks when the surgeon has no idea what he’ll find when he opens you up.” The doctor told my mother that my appendix would have burst within the hour.
Another question: Did we go to the dentist, orthodontist, eye doctor?
Very rarely. We occasionally went to see a dentist who might have been a friend of my original father’s, or he might have been one of the great-uncles. I am not sure. There was a family connection to this Aberdeen dentist, that’s all I know.
Luckily, as my permanent teeth were coming in, we drank Claremont’s artesian well water, which tastes like sulfur but naturally contains a lot of fluoride. I had zero cavities as a child, so the lack of dentistry was not a big issue. Then, after we’d left that well water behind, my 12-year molars came in a year late and riddled with cavities. They are all capped, now. The rest of my teeth are still pretty good.
No one in my family needed braces, so I don’t know if we’d have gone or not. We definitely went to the eye doctor, because my mother, brother, and sister had terrible astigmatism. They wore glasses and got them as needed. My vision was oddly perfect until my forties, and I got my first pair of glasses at fifty. The church gets no credit for that.
Where is the CS Church today?
It’s still here. Or there. Somewhere.
At one time, Christian Science was the fastest growing faith in the world. There were churches and reading rooms everywhere. I have always had a soft spot for the reading rooms, staffed as they are by women like my grandmother.
The Church survived a few setbacks, scandals, and public critiques, including a long one published by Mark Twain. It has lost ground since membership peaked in 1960. The Church doesn’t publish its membership numbers—probably less than 100K. But the teachings at its heart have inspired countless other metaphysical churches.
Christian Science also inspired Marianne Williamson. In the mid-1980s, I remember being at dinner with a couple who had discovered the Course in Miracles. The husband, with awestruck and shining eyes, told me the Crucifixion was human error, and the Resurrection was God’s rectification of that error.
“Oh,” I told him, “That’s just Christian Science. I was raised believing that.” I felt bad for stealing his thunder, but come on. Did he really think this was a new idea? Mary Baker Eddy wrote that down in something like 1870, and she probably borrowed the idea from a faith healer who treated her for her own myriad ailments.
Would I ever go back?
No. Some years after my grandfather was incapacitated by a stroke, my grandmother relocated to Bainbridge Island for a few years (my parents lived there). She attended a Christian Science church. I don’t think she would have considered the move otherwise.
My brother occasionally accompanied Grandma to that church. Of us three older kids, he was always the most open to matters of faith. He had a curious mind and a gentle, accepting heart. I know he believed in an afterlife. My sister has been up and down with religion, following her own crooked path. She doesn’t attend any church these days, and as far as I know, she doesn’t believe in an afterlife.
I used to say I was agnostic, but that implies faith that there is some kind of a God sitting up there somewhere, and I don’t believe that. Not exactly. Despite this, I attended the Catholic church for years with my kids and then-husband. That was a compromise on my part. We wanted the kids to have a church experience, but I didn’t have one to offer. So I said, fine, I’m nothing and you’re something so let’s go with the something, which was his Catholicism.
My then-husband would never have attended a church without a hellfire-based doctrine. He was also sure I’d be going to Hell, which was just one of the many pain points in our marriage. After the divorce, he told me to stop attending his church, that he and his new girlfriend were going to start taking the kids, so I should stay away. I stayed away, but he never picked up the baton. It’s a helluva baton, getting three kids church-ready. I can’t say as I blame him.
Still, it surprised me, how much I missed going. If you were raised with church, Sundays can feel strange and empty without it.
What do I believe today?
Not much, and then everything. People who read my Gentry books assume I’m an observant Catholic, unless they’re Catholic, and they see all the holes in what I’ve written. People who read the trailer park book assume I am anti-Christian, because there;s not one positive example of a Christian in that entire book, except maybe Memphis, who is also scarred and limited by his own faith.
Everything I believe conflicts with everything else I believe. Christian Science has no doubt profoundly influenced who I am, but I do not believe I can mentally argue my way into wellness or think my way into Paradise. I still don’t believe in sin, the Devil, or the lake of fire.
Do I believe my own actions matter? Of course, and not at all. A person is less than an atom in the cosmos of infinity. I remind myself daily that my own concerns are so puny as to be imperceptible, and I also remind myself to live as if every action matters. These ideas contradict each other and I do not care. I have to live as if both are true.
I’m interested in religion, and skeptical of it. I try to be tolerant and respectful of whatever other people believe. If someone holds beliefs that are racist and intolerant and hateful, I excuse myself from their presence and avoid them strenuously. The statement, “If you’re using your religion to hurt people, you’re doing it wrong,” isn’t in the Bible, but it should be.
I don’t believe in a God that listens, but have been known to send up a supplicating prayer or two during plane landings. I do not believe God cares who wins the game. If there is a God, I do not believe he/she/it would care whether or not I believe in him/her/it. If there is a God, let’s hope pronouns have been transcended.
I do not believe in a personified God. If there is something that could be called divine, it is huge and impersonal, like the mathematical principle that orders the universe. We can’t perceive it. All religions are human attempts to understand this impersonal and infinite principle, but we are only human. Whatever we devise is woefully incomplete.
I’m fairly certain I’m an atheist. The problem is, I find many atheists to be smug and rude, crowing in a self-congratulatory way about how smart they are and how laughably stupid believers are. I really don’t want to be aligned with that attitude. I try to be respectful of religions.
I love churches, and religious art, and sacred music. I do not believe God lives in the houses of worship, nor do I believe God has ears to hear our songs and prayers. God has no face, but I love our representations of it. I love all of it, and I’m grateful for the hospitals and universities started by the church.
I also believe that most Western religions have been used as fronts for child predation and the subjugation of women and the oppression and destruction of indigenous people. At times, my cynicism and disgust are so great that I think predation and suppression are the only actual functions of organized religion.
And then I remember the years I went to church with my ex husband and my children, and how important it felt to have a place to say thank you for the blessings of my life, to listen to hymns, and to share a sense of community.
I am unable to reconcile these tremendous contradictions.
The same Bible verse is painted on the walls of all Christian Science Sunday schools: “God is Love.” I like that one. I wish for it to be true.
This is the one life I know I’ve been given, and I’m trying to live it as best as I can.
That’s really all I believe.
Twenty One Years In the Office
A decision looms.
That title probably sounds like I’m talking about retirement, but I’m not. Not yet, anyway. No, this is something else completely. I’m thinking of switching offices at work. Not jobs, not companies. Just my office.
This is a big decision. I’m considering it because I’m rarely in the office these days, and there is a woman who is younger, busier, and in need of the kind of space my current office can offer.
I love my current office. I’m also afraid I don’t need it anymore.
The other office is small. Tiny, in fact. I love it. But do I love it enough it to consider switching offices?
The fact is, the proposed new office is a former storage closet. It has a door and a window. Years ago, when I used to go into this space to get something or other, I would wish it were my office. It had a door. And a window. I’d occasionally suggest to my manager that he clear out the storage closet and let me have it. He would roll his eyes at the idea. “Too much work,” he would groan. And I would return to my terrible little office.
The worst office in the building.
At the time, I sat in perhaps the worst office in our building. It was a hemmed-in narrow strip of windowless space that held a PC, a Mac, a typewriter, and a printer. I sat in the middle of these oxygen depleting machines, and I used them all. The space was so small, I barely had to roll my chair to swap what I was doing.
On the counter at the end of my skinny space sat a huge metal spray booth. People from all over the building used it. They would stand six feet from my chair, opening the doors, flipping on the loud fan, spraying toxic fixative, usually talking to me about whatever they were doing because it was so incredibly awkward to do that in my office.
You can see why I wanted the storage closet, I bet.
When I was choking on the fumes from the booth and the dust attracted by all these various electrical things, I would look across the hall at my friend Sandee’s office, with her huge corner desk and two big windows and credenza topped with random items related to our company. I longed for Sandee’s office. It was visceral.
Better offices come at a price.
I switched jobs. I had a better title, more money, a troublesome manager, and a wonderful office. It had a full wall of windows that looked out onto Broadway Avenue, and a ¾ wall with no door. It was open, open, open.
My manager didn’t like that people would stop by and chat with me. I didn’t invite them, they just somehow needed to say hello. I got my work done, in fact I excelled in this position, but still, there was that friendliness, that chatting, and the fact that during the weekday, I smiled a lot. She didn’t like the smiling. Yes, this boss complained because I often had a smile on my face.
Is that not horrible? She was horrible. I don’t mean to imply that she was a horrible person. She was just a horrible manager.
The horrible manager moved me to a more enclosed office right next door to her. That was fine with me. This office was smaller, but it had spectacular windows and a door. That I would close. Whenever I could. To block out the sound of her strident voice, calling from her office because “everything turned to italics and I don’t know how to fix it!”
This manager was worried about how much time I spent on the phone. Our phones were connected, so when she saw that I had picked up mine, she would pop into my office, eyes wide and blinking, to make sure it wasn’t a personal call. It never was.
And yet, in she came.
I had two enormous black filing cabinets in my office where she filed useless and unimportant pieces of paper that she considered important. She would come into my office to retrieve something from one of them, then walk through the very narrow space behind my desk chair–where I was sitting, mind you–to my side desk. There, she would rummage through my desk drawer to get a pen or pencil, or make a phone call on my office phone while I sat there in disbelief, trying to work with her bumping around to my right.
Once, while attempting to do this, she stubbed her foot on the base of my desk chair and said “OUCH” loudly, right into my hair. I went to HR, where I was told this manager had “a good heart.” She most certainly did not have a good heart, she’d had a heart attack on the golf course, but whatever.
Shortly after this event, I came in on a Sunday and methodically stripped out every single personal thing I’d ever installed in this office; the blanket over the back of the chair where my visitors sat when they persisted in dropping by to say hi, every random scrap, clipping and Cristiano Ronaldo photo on the cork board, the framed photos of my dogs, the pottery unicorn my mother gave me for my seventeenth birthday. Even the plant.
The look on the horrible manager’s face when she popped in the next Monday was priceless. She stopped stumbling around behind my desk. For a while.
There is more to write about this particular period of my employment, but the most important part is this: it ended.
When an office makes you cry.
In the year that followed, I found myself switching offices a few times. I had two fairly crummy interim offices with no windows or doors. One of these offices was so terrible that I went to HR and cried over it. Real tears. This might be because I’m a big baby, and it might be because the office was really that terrible. Possibly both.
The HR manager was very kind, and she took notes. And though it sounds like I was always going to HR, I really wasn’t. I’ve gone there four times in 21 years, and three times were about that manager. The other one was about the bad office.
But here’s the thing about my crummy interim offices. They came with the most wonderful manager. You might wait your entire professional life to work for someone like this manager. And this manager eventually installed me in the window-filled office I’d coveted when it was Sandee’s.
I love this office. It is grand. On the day I moved in, I wheeled in my desk chair, pinned my various and sundry ephemera to the cork board, and covered the credenza with my own crap and a few plants. I hung a blanket on one wall and a huge map of the USA on the other. I filled the bookshelf with reference books I never use, and topped it with a vintage globe, two sock monkeys, a bunch of retro souvenirs from places I have and have not visited.
I also put up a framed company photo from the “Good Old Days” that includes the terrible manager. I haven’t even affixed a sticker over her face. I consider this proof that I am a kind and forgiving person.
Discovering that I’m a stop on the tour.
Last year, I was sitting in my office on one of my rare in-office days. A person from HR stepped into my office and then backed out, a new hire close behind her. That was weird enough, but then I could hear her whispering. “[Redacted]?” I called. “Why are you whispering out there?”
She came back in, embarrassed. “I was just explaining to [Redacted] here” (the new hire who had followed her in) “that some of the people who’ve worked here for, you know…” and she smiled, “some time, how you decorate your offices. And yours is just so cute.”
I smiled and said thank you! Wow! Gee! And thought about how much I hate being told that anything about my life, age, appearance, or taste is cute. It is one of the most condescending things you can say to an older person, no matter how cute she may be.
Working from home, like everyone else.
Since the shutdown of Spring 2020, I have rarely used my cute/grand office. But I miss it. I miss my team, chatting with my manager, lunching with my friends, and the give and take of office conversation. I even miss a couple of people I hadn’t really liked before the shut down. We were somewhat awkward with each other in the “before times,” but now we are all hearty with each other, practically slapping each other on the back in all our break room bonhomie.
I attribute this to the nearly forgotten pleasure human beings experience from random unplanned positive interactions. I make it a point to go in at least once a week, now.
That was how I discovered that the former-storage-closet-cum-office was vacant, due to a realignment of staff. The former occupant is on a different floor, and this tiny space, which has somehow housed two different visual managers over the years (don’t they need space?), is sitting empty.
When I broached the subject of switching offices with my manager, she gave me a look. “It’s a closet, Karen. I want you to go sit in there with the door closed for a while. You can be kind of…claustrophobic.” (It’s true, but how does she know this?)
I have, and it’s fine.
I’m not sure when, or even if I’ll be moving into the office that used to be a storage closet with a door and a window that I coveted so long ago. I’m not even sure why it calls to me. I know part of it is that I feel like my team member would make better use of my current space. I despise waste, and I feel like the space is wasted on me. I also feel like if I’m going to work mostly from home, keeping the big office is selfish of me.
I have a lot of feelings.
I’m not sure that the move will actually happen. I’m still considering this switching offices thing. If it does happen, I’m sure I’ll find a way to personalize this dinky little space.
I just hope no one tells me it’s cute.
The other evening, my husband and I were putting away groceries. When we do this, there’s always a small stack of HABA items (Health And Beauty A- what does the second A stand for, grocers of the world? Anyway…) I trotted off to our bathroom to settle in these items: a deodorant, my husband’s shampoo, eye makeup remover towelettes, a new blush.
Except for the blush, none of these items were going to be used any time soon. They went into the plastic bucket under the sink that holds the extras. I came out, pleased with myself. “We have at least two of everything,” I said in a calm and happy voice. He looked a bit puzzled. “Extras,” I said. “We have extras of everything under the bathroom sink.”
You have to have extras, in order to have enough.
I was introduced to the concept of extras in my teen years. In my own home, we only ever had just enough, and sometimes not even that. There was usually more month than money in our household of six people. That seemed normal to me. But when I was fourteen, I had a boyfriend. I spent enough time at his house to get a closer look at how it was in someone else’s home. And it was so different there.
They had extras.
For one thing, they had a pantry. A full pantry. There was enough food in there to last his family of six for at least three months, maybe more. I was familiar with some of the contents, like commercially canned fruit, fruit cocktail, corn, peas, beans and the like. We bought those, too, but just enough for the week, and rarely fruit unless Mom was making her fruit salad for a special occasion. This pantry held at least twenty cans of fruit.
I was shocked to see how much canned protein was in there; Spam, yes we ate that too, and tuna, yes, we always had tuna, it was the one fish my mom would eat. But there were clams, oysters, and many cans of something I’d always been curious about called “Underwood Deviled Ham.” Do you remember those little paper-wrapped cans? We’d never tried this luxurious looking little delicacy.
There was also a can that held an entire cooked chicken. It couldn’t have been a very large chicken, but just the same, this can (about the size of a big chili can) purported to have a whole chicken in there. I was intrigued and repelled in equal measure.
The shelves held an array of soups, and not just the cooking soups stockpiled by Midwesterners (Campbell’s Cream of Whatever, I’m looking at you). There were all the lunch soups in there, and varieties of crackers we never had at our house. Saltines, sure, but Club crackers and oyster crackers and breadsticks and Rye Crisps, whatever those were.
There were olives and martini onions, pimientos and pickles. I’m sure there was canned chili, which my family liked but never ate, and Chef Boyardee. There was never any of that at our house. I remember opening, heating, tasting, and dumping some Spaghettios into their turquoise-colored kitchen sink.
I just didn’t get it.
Elegant fixings and luxury items aside, there was a distinct bomb-shelter quality to this stockpile of supplies. There was such a bounty that when a group of us decided to take a weekend car trip to Lewiston, Idaho for the drag races, the boyfriend offered up the pantry contents to his less fortunate friends. They came over and loaded up bags of canned goods to eat for the weekend. If you’re wondering how he managed this, his parents were out of town. When they returned, they probably chalked up the dent in the stockpile to their teenage son’s appetite.
I wanted to interrogate this pantry, to understand the why of it, and more importantly, the how of it. How did a family of six accumulate that much food?
I’m sure they ate a lot. They had to, because there were four boys in that family, four tawny-skinned boys with wiry hair, and all of them were muscular and skinny and in constant motion with skiing and paper routes and hiking and just being flappy and fidgety because they were all a little autistic.
How was it that they hadn’t eaten up all this food? At my house we were a rather torpid and lumpen bunch by comparison, and we’d have cleaned that pantry out in a month.
Except for the Chef Boyardee.
But wait! There’s more!
I think toiletries were even more of an issue in my house than food. You name it, if it was in the bathroom, we ran out of it. We ran out of toothpaste on the regular. Hello, baking soda. And my mother was brand specific. We used Colgate toothpaste so if we ran out, we had to wait until we could afford the damn stuff. We even ran out of toilet paper and had to call in its more expensive stand-ins.
At the boyfriend’s house, which had three full bathrooms and one half bath, the cabinet under each bathroom sink was completely stuffed with a jumble of every soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo under the sun. Boxes and cans and bottles, all in a jumble, willy nilly.
There was barely any room for the multiple packages of TP. You’d look under there and find Mitchum and Arrid and Dial Roll-on and Right Guard spray, and Head and Shoulders and Prell and Breck and Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, and Ivory and Dove and Irish Spring and Palmolive and Lifebuoy and Dial, and Colgate and Crest and Close Up and Pepsodent and Gleem and freaking Pearl Drops.
It blew my mind.
Whenever he visited his parent, the boyfriend would assemble a bag of this and bring it back to our apartment. I used it all, but objected to the Mitchum. It really did smell too manly. I decided roll-on deodorants were best, especially Dry Idea, and became a Close Up believer. All of these were brands I first found under the in-laws’ bathroom sinks.
I finally ask the question
I was with this boyfriend for six years, all told, including a year and a half of marriage. My future mother-in-law and I were never what you’d call close, but we did rech enough of a détente that I could ask her about her shopping habits when it came to toiletries. Leaving out the part where her son took home bags full of them, I just sort of, you know, perkily inquired as to how she came to have so many different brands on hand.
She smiled proudly. “When I shop, I always pick up a few of whatever’s on sale, whether we need it or not,” she told me.
That was it. She just walked down the aisle and threw a few of whatever was on sale into her grocery cart. Every week. All year long. And it didn’t bankrupt them.
Again, mind blown.
Now I understand.
All of this is to say, I am now in a similar position. I am no longer eking it out from paycheck to paycheck, but even when I was, my kids always had soap and toothpaste and shampoos of choice and whatever else they needed to be fresh and groomed. The pantry was full enough to make it through a lean month. Maybe two.
Today, there are only two people living in this house, but the pantry is still decently stocked. My husband does a pantry patrol to make sure the foodstuffs he requires, like Fritos, are at acceptable levels. He monitors the jars of spaghetti sauce very carefully. I don’t make spaghetti sauce-based things very often, but rest assured, I always have six jars in there, waiting to be called into marinara action.
We could live out of the pantry for a while, but probably not for a year, as I have no whole canned chickens. Not even one. Pantry protein is restricted to canned tuna. I pay close attention to food expiration dates. If I don’t, my microbiologist best friend will shame me (she’s only done that once, when I had the entire contents of the overstocked pantry spread out on the counters while battling ants, but once was enough). I’ll keep something a month after it expires, but not a year. A pantry is both a comfort and a responsibility.
I hate food waste, so every few months, I go on a tear and refuse to buy food until we’ve “eaten through” the pantry and freezer. It’s all very fine to feel stocked up and safe, but it is not my intention to curate a food museum. I don’t need to stockpile. If there’s a nuclear war I hope to go in the first strike, so I’m not prepping for that. But I want to have…enough.
Toiletries are where I can go a little overboard. I know which things I like and need, and I’ll buy them in almost any brand with a few exceptions. Under my three bathroom sinks, you won’t find mountains of extra stuff, but you will find at least two of everything I use on the daily. Maybe more, if I find a good deal or get paranoid, which I am right now about mint-flavored antacids. I can’t have too many bottles of mint-flavored antacids. For the last year or more, they’ve been hard to find, and I don’t think I am the problem. One lady in Oregon can’t create a shortage, can she?
Likewise with Cetaphil face wash. Did you know there was a Cetaphil face was shortage in 2020? Well, I knew, and now there are probably too many bottles of that under one or the other sink. But I’ll use them. Eventually. I will use it all up.
There is always enough. There are always extras.
The Hideabed: A ten-part personal history told through the pull-out couch, fold-out sofa, sofa-bed, or hideabed as it was known in my family.
One: A Boyfriend’s Hideabed.
When I was in ninth grade, my boyfriend was a senior in high school and a rebel in his family. He was the second son of four boys raised by educated, politically liberal but socially conservative parents in an upper middle class family. His father occupied a special chair in the history department at Montana State University, in Bozeman. His mother was a librarian at the university library.
Three of his four grandparents were Jewish, a fact his parents didn’t want known in Montana. So there was no religion in this family, but there were rules. He and his brothers wore dress slacks to school (in Montana), kept their hair cut short (in 1973), and went to bed (in pajamas) by 8PM on school nights. Owning a car was out of the question, but his parents did relent and allow him to work as a lot boy at the Fiat dealership. I have no idea why Bozeman had a Fiat dealership in the 1970s, but it did.
Anyway, he secretly saved his money, bought a car, and used it to run away with his girlfriend at age sixteen. By the time the police found them (somewhere in the Deep South) they had broken up, and both worked in a chicken processing plant. He was arrested and faced charges of statutory rape, but the liberal application of lawyers made all that go away.
Once his parents got him safely back home, the rules relaxed for my boyfriend. He grew his hair long, wore jeans and flannel shirts, openly smoked cigarettes, worked at a gas station, and bought a noisy Chrysler hot rod with a 440 engine. He also gave up the pajamas. Within the family’s tastefully appointed midcentury home, he further demonstrated his freedom from the rules that bound his brothers by vacating his childhood bedroom.
He moved to a spare room on the lower level that contained not much more than a hideabed and a large black and white TV. The room had sophistication, I would give him that. It was just down the hall from the little door he and his brothers had shimmied through to reach a dirt crawlspace, where they’d created a magnificent series of roads and excavations for their Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. He opened the door to show me once, and let me tell you, I wanted nothing more than to go in there and play. But that was childhood, and he was grown.
I was grown, too, I guess. I was fourteen, on the Pill, and had been released into the wilds of unsupervised adolescence by my parents. Whenever his family traveled—he never went along, preferring to stay home and work—I spent nights on that hideabed, the first I’d ever slept in, with the bar across its middle pressing into my back, and him pressing into all the rest of me.
Two: A Parental Hideabed Appears.
I spent part of ninth grade and the summer after it living with my older brother in Bozeman, but Brother Steve moved back in with my parents late that summer. I stayed with my sister in Bozeman for as long as I could (she’d moved out at age sixteen and had a basement apartment off Main Street), but eventually I had to move to Missoula, too.
My parents, in one of their stabs at reinvention (law school for my dad), lived in married student housing for the University of Montana. So that’s where I landed at the beginning of my sophomore year. My family’s first hideabed appeared here, a small fold-out loveseat for this apartment, a “really good” one, according to my mother. She was particular about furniture brands, something she bequeathed to me, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
No one slept in the loveseat hideabed. I slept upstairs in a twin bed, displacing my older brother, who took my little brothers room/bed. Eric bunked in with my parents in a game of Musical Beds. It was a three bedroom with five of us and one bathroom. Then my boyfriend showed up. He’d put off enrolling in college because he was miserable and lonely without me, so he got a job in Missoula and moved into my twin bed.
The situation was untenable, but we’d lived in plenty of untenable situations before. This one proved too much for even my parents. They decided to clean house. They would keep Steve—my mom almost always kept my older brother—and my little brother was only three years old, so he wasn’t going anywhere. My parents decided that my boyfriend should return to his plan of enrolling in an auto mechanic program at the junior college in Yakima, Washington, and that I should go with him. So I did. At age fifteen. I moved to another state, where we pretended we were married so CPS wouldn’t put me in foster care.
Three: Sorry, I’m trying to stick to writing about hideabeds, but this other crap intrudes.
I hated Yakima. Hated being so far from my family. I ached and pined and had what I know now were anxiety attacks. I was so excited to go home for Christmas that year, but it was a disaster on more levels than I have the heart to recount. I’m not sure who slept in their miniscule living room on the miniscule hideabed that Christmas. My boyfriend–let’s call him “Phil,” because that was his actual name–Phil was with his family in Bozeman having his usual opulent Christmas, so I think it might have been me and my sister.
After that sad little Christmas when I was fifteen, Phil and I didn’t go back until the next summer. I was sixteen. We worked for my parents, whose miniatures business had really taken off. They still lived in the University’s student housing even though neither of them were taking classes. That summer wasn’t bad, really, aside from sleeping on that teeny hideabed. It was cramped and the bar pressed across our backs, but we fit. And I learned to ride a bike, finally.
And then, my sister moved to Missoula. Yes, that same summer. So we were all jammed into that tiny student housing apartment, Mom, Dad, four kids plus Phil, very little money, no space. Phil and I returned to Yakima, dropping the kid tally to three, but even so, this was just too much for my parents. They’d been moving us out since my brother turned 18, and we all kept moving back in, over and over again. They couldn’t get rid of us, but they kept trying.
So after my father flunked out of law school, my parents left both my older siblings behind in Missoula and moved to California. I didn’t know they’d moved until I made a slightly panicked phone call to my sister when I was not able to reach our parents. “Oh, they moved,” she told me.
I know we gathered in Missoula that Christmas, in a mobile home my sister and brother rented while they both went to college. This was another miserable Christmas. My parents were desperately broke. We were all so desperately broke. And there we were, trying to gather like any other family and celebrate. No wonder my mother hated Christmas.
We all went home, sadder and not merry at all.
Four: A New Gigantic Hideabed
Before I return to the hideabed, I need to make it clear that I’m not very clear on how it was for my parents in California. I’m not sure where they lived or where Dad worked, or how it even came to be that they moved there. Communication arrived via letters. They continued to move around a bit, and had a terrible experience working for a residential school, and eventually settled in Redding.
Dad returned to work for either the Forest Service or the Army Corps of Engineers. Mom was home with my younger brother Eric. I think they were also on-site managers of their apartment complex.
It was the spring of my junior year when Phil and I drove to Redding from Yakima to visit. I had only seen them for that terrible Christmas in the preceding year, so this visit felt momentous and important. On our way down, we passed through Portland, Oregon. I’d always hated large cities, but as we drove through Portland I had a bone-deep sense of wonder and happiness. I told him, “I hate cities, but if I ever had to live in one, I think I could live here.”
Redding was fun. Mom bustled around, cheerful and excited. She baked challah bread, and made a “really good” French Stew in her Dutch oven. My little brother’s hair was bleached blonde and he was brown as a nut from swimming in the apartment complex’s swimming pool. It was April, so my mother took me to a small, artsy shopping mall and had me pick out my 17th birthday present. I chose a pottery unicorn that the shop owner said she’d bought on Telegraph Avenue in San Francisco. I still have it.
This is one of the few times in my memory when my mother seemed happy with her life. It’s possible that she was just happy to see us, but she seemed domestic and contented. That was rare, and I enjoyed it.
They had a new hideabed, a large one. In fact it was Queen-sized, and to Phil and I, who slept in a double bed in our furnished apartment, it seemed enormous. Mom claimed it had a “really good” mattress, and we would be comfortable. We only stayed a couple of days, and of course we slept with the bar pressing into our backs. But I was so happy to see my mom that I didn’t care. I would have slept there forever.
Five: The Enormous Hideabed Heads North.
Of course they couldn’t stay in Redding. When my parents moved to Portland, I was quietly thrilled. It was so much closer to Yakima, and there was only one mountain pass between me and Mom (satus Pass, near Goldendale). It felt like my parents had moved next door.
Their first home was a rental in the Southwest part of the city, very near Alpenrose Dairy. It was a ranch with two bedrooms in the main part of the house and a back addition where my older brother had a room. He’d moved back in with my parents due to health problems, and took care of my little brother while both my parents worked for the Corps.
When Phil and I visited, which we did quite often, we slept on the enormous hideabed. I really hated it. It was a little older, and the mattress that my mother had insisted was “really good” had gotten softer. That made the bar even more of an issue. But it was worth it to see my parents, my brothers, and the wonders of Portland.
Ah, Portland in the seventies. We shopped at John’s Landing, where my favorite store was Talk to the Animals. The restaurants where we ate—Henry Thiele’s, Mazzi’s Pizza, Carrow’s, The Crab Bowl—are no more than quaint memories. But I loved Portland just as much as I thought I would when we drove through on our way to Redding.
I was in my senior year. Graduation loomed. I told Phil that I really wanted to move to Portland once I finished school. I pointed out that he’d chosen Yakima, so wasn’t it my turn to choose? And I wanted Portland. He’d exhausted employment opportunities in Yakima, which sounds strange, since he was an auto mechanic and there’s generally a great job market for mechanics. But the YVC auto program was the best in the region. Yakima was overly supplied with young men with good training in the art of auto maintenance.
Phil needed to change markets. Portland beckoned.
Phil moved in with my parents in the spring of 1978. He left me up north with no money and no phone. I’d walk up to a phone booth and call collect to check in. His job search was delayed by having his wisdom teeth out. That didn’t go well. Phil had zero tolerance for pain or illness, and when he experienced either, he completely collapsed. My parents lovingly tended him as he recovered on the enormous hideabed.
He eventually recovered enough to find a job at a brake shop that paid over $7.00 an hour. This was an hourly fortune. We had lived below the poverty level for three years. Come to think of it, my family seemed to always live below poverty level, one way or another. How would we spend all that money?
My head spun with thoughts of how we would live in Portland, and where, and what it would be like to live so near my parents for the first time since tenth grade. I couldn’t wait to get there, but first, I had to graduate.
Six: A Terrible Hideabed Rented Month-to-Month.
I didn’t connect with Phil via the payphone for a few weeks. When I called collect to my parents’ house, he was never there. Mom sounded really brisk and nervous. No one had time to talk to me, it seemed. I was trying to finish up my senior year, subsisting on food from a friend’s father who merchandised groceries and gave us the stuff he culled from grocery shelves, and pervasive melancholy.
Where did the melancholy come in? Well, there had been trouble in my friend circle that year. The tight group of juniors had splintered, leaving me with fewer friends and a sense that graduation was imminent and we would all be scattering. I was also living alone (except for the cats) for the first time in my young life. I didn’t much like it.
Finally, I made a collect call to my sister in Missoula. I did that rarely because it was so expensive. She accepted the charges. She sounded terrible. “I’m so sick. I’m so sick, Karen. But guess who’s here?” Who. Hmm. Her boyfriend Dan? Nope. Her friend Lisa? Not her, either.
I couldn’t guess, so she handed the phone to someone else. I waited.
“Hi,” said Phil. “I didn’t like the job in Portland, so I quit and came to Missoula.” He had already found a job at a car dealership, but they were both sick with what we called the stomach flu back then, and probably what we call Norovirus now. They were so incapacitated that they were just laying together in my sister’s hideabed, suffering.
That’s why my mother had sounded so funny on the phone. When Phil hadn’t liked his job, she’d heartily encouraged him to go to Missoula, and not to tell me as I might object! I can imagine her waving her hands, exhorting him to Just go, Phil! Fly!
Well, it worked. My plans to move to Portland were successfully thwarted, my return to the parental home narrowly averted. Mom must have been so relieved.
I trudged through the remaining weeks of the school year. My parents drove north to Yakima to watch me graduate, and Phil drove east from Missoula to do the same. After the big day, it was time to pack up our meager belongings and the cats, and move back to Montana.
I did not want to move back to Montana. I associated Missoula with six weeks of misery in the tenth grade at Sentinel high school, two horrible Christmases, and the pervasive rotten broccoli smell from the pulp mill. I had no idea, none, why I was headed back. But at least my sister was there, right? I had her, didn’t I?
Except, I barely saw her. For the first weeks, my sister stayed with her boyfriend and Phil and I slept on her hideabed. This was an especially terrible hideabed, with an especially useless mattress. It came with her furnished apartment, and I hated it.
I hated everything. I was lonely for my Yakima friends, disappointed in my sister’s lack of interest in spending time with me, and expected to marry Phil because I’d finally turned eighteen. And to top it all off, there I lay on this lumpy hideabed with the bar in my back, night after night, while we saved for an apartment of our own.
When the apartment directly below my sister opened up, we put down the deposit and moved in. It was a crumbling, drafty, ramshackle one bedroom, but it had a bed. A thin, hard, crummy double bed, but a bed nonetheless.
I remember this apartment and the year I spent there as pretty terrible. We had zero money, the heat bills were horrendous, and my sister ignored me once the tiny patio wedding was over. She had her own friends, two jobs, and an extremely dramatic life in which there was little room for me. Once again, I was alone with Phil in a place I didn’t want to be. And to top it off, we were really married.
A trip to Portland the summer after I turned nineteen convinced me that I needed to move there as soon as possible. I came home and tried to convince Phil, but he was a skier, a hiker, and a mountain climber. He loved Montana. I started at the University of Montana the next fall. I was only there for two quarters, but I made friends, took classes from some wonderful professors, and endured an escalating level of physical violence from Phil because he sensed I was slipping away.
Here’s the thing about Phil. He was considered the sweetest guy in the world by almost everyone who knew him. Only a few people knew about his raging temper, and even fewer knew he hit me while he raged. But in 1979, no one I told, including my parents, thought this was a reason to leave him. Well, except maybe my sister. She knew, and she cared. But she was busy planning her own escape from Missoula. I was bereft when she moved to Oregon within a few months of my arrival.
I wanted to leave so badly. For months, I called my parents and asked if I could come home. They said no, they had no room for me. I reminded then that Phil hit me. My mother reiterated the advice she’d given me for years. “Try not to make him mad.” She also reiterated the fact that they had no room.
Finally I called and just told them I was coming. They didn’t have to have a room for me, I’d figure something out, I just needed a place to stay until I could get a job. I would stay in their basement if needs be.
“What about Phil?” my dad asked. “Are you just abandoning him?”
“Yes,” I said calmly. “Yes, I am.”
I should never have married Phil, but when I did, my parents bought us a “really good” bed. I took that bed with me when I finally moved to Portland in the spring of 1980. I took the bed, but not Phil. My sister drove out in her big van and rescued me. And the cats. Let’s not forget about the cats. I had my bed, my books, and two cats.
It was enough.
Seven: No More Hideabeds for Me. Because I Brought My Own Goddamn Bed.
This time, I didn’t land on a hideabed. I set up a room in the corner of my parents’ basement. No, it wasn’t a walkout or a finished basement. It was an actual basement, raw walls and concrete floor with no ceiling, just beams and joists above my head. I had a pull string light over the bed, and a dirty basement window that barely admitted any light. The washer and dryer were ten steps away, as were the cat boxes. Spiders. Dampness. Mold. I didn’t care. I was in Portland, and I had finally broken away from Phil. I was determined to make it work.
The big hideabed upstairs was occupied by my sister and her husband, who had also decided to move to Portland to live with my parents. This was a two-bedroom rental house with a sort-of finished attic. Before I knew it, it somehow held my parents, me, my older brother, my younger brother, my sister, her husband, and then my sister’s best friend Lisa arrived. Where did they all sleep? I had no idea. I went to work and out on dates and hung out in the basement, doing my best to avoid all the drama going on upstairs.
I’d lived in Missoula for a year and a half, and when I got to Portland, my parents were in a state of open marital warfare. Gone were the parents who had seemed so happy in Redding, so delighted by their first year in Portland. My sister’s eating disorders made every shared meal into a sort of black comedy with sound effects. My older brother’s blue plate combo of obsessiveness and passive aggression were absolutely out of control.
In all likelihood, these things had been going on for years. But at age 19, I had returned to the parental home as an adult. I could see how the life my parents led had affected my little brother, who was only eight. I was worried for him. My parents were both having affairs, and my mother kept raging at us kids for being born and my father for not giving her the life she deserved. We were all so broken, including me.
A person shouldn’t know this much about herself at age 19. I had no choice. I understood why I’d had such a hard time leaving Phil. I understood what he’d offered me. We’d built a strange and shabby little life together, but Phil provided the only security I had ever known.
It had taken a lot of courage to throw in my lot with my parents again. I did it because I’d thought their lives had finally changed in Portland. Both of them worked decent government jobs. They rented the little house because they were building a large house in the Portland suburbs. But they were terribly broke and it was somehow our fault. All us kids contributed rent but there was never a penny to spare, and for the life of me, even now, I still don’t understand why. I hadn’t taken a dime from them since I was fifteen, and my sister moved out to support herself at sixteen, but somehow it was all our fault that they were always, always broke.
There was no security to be found, financial or emotional, in my parents’ home.
Still, I didn’t regret my decision to leave Phil. I no doubt had PTSD, but I was toughing it out, working as a file clerk, establishing Oregon residency so I could get in-state tuition, trying my best to get on my feet and figure out my next move. I was trying.
Then, out of the blue, Mom announced that she and Dad were going to sell the house they were building and move to Taos. I wanted to cry but I laughed instead. Of course they were going to move. How else would they get rid of us? They didn’t move to Taos, and within a year, we had all exited, to return or not in the coming decades.
I understand now that my parents were trapped in a wretched cycle. They were ambivalent at best about parenting, so they offloaded us older kids as quickly as possible. But they sent us out into the world far too early, with no support. We kept returning, trying to force our way back in, as if we could be re-parented and then launched successfully. And of course, our parents did love us, so they let us return, only to shove us all out again. Who could blame them?
Maybe my mother blamed the hideabed. If she hadn’t always had a place for us to sleep, certainly we’d have stayed away, wouldn’t we? So she got rid of it.
Eight: The Enormous Hideabed Moves to My House.
In 1981, with the ink on my divorce from Phil barely dry, I married again. I married at 18 and again at 21 and I really needed to find a better way to mark momentous birthdays, but there I was, pregnant, so I married Kevin.
My mom and dad had given us the Big Hideabed with the worn out “really good” mattress a few months earlier. They’d bought new couches at the Meier and Frank warehouse sale and needed to offload it, and we didn’t have a couch. So moving that enormous beast of a sofa became our job.
In our first apartment, Kevin’s mother slept on it when she came down to help us with our newborn daughter. She was planning to stay for six weeks and lasted three days. I didn’t blame the hideabed. She left because she wasn’t allowed to smoke around the baby, but if the discomfort of that bar pressing into her back played any part at all in her decision to return home, then I owe that bar a debt of gratitude.
The next person to sleep on the hideabed was my mom. My father and younger brother had moved to Bainbridge Island, but Mom was still working in Portland for the Corps of Engineers. So she slept at our house during the week, and went up to Bainbridge on the weekends. She liked her job, and her independence, and the fact that I had dinner waiting for her every evening. And she got on like gangbusters with our daughter, who was less than two at the time. She adored her Grandma and it was mutual.
This is another time when I feel like my mom was happy with her life. Mom never once complained about that bar across her back.
When Kevin and I were finally flush enough to buy our own couch, we decided on one that didn’t fold out. The enormous hideabed had served us well through many of my parents’ homes and two of our apartments. It was time for it to retire to the Union Gospel Mission, the only place in town accepting used couches. They came and picked it up, all five hundred pounds of it or whatever it weighed. I was not sad to see it go.
Nine: The Final Hideabeds.
In 1988, Kevin and I bought our first home, and promptly bought another hideabed for our TV room. We both wanted a place for friends and family to sleep. I made no claims that the mattress was “really good,” but it wasn’t as bad as some I’d slept on. I knew it had a bar that pressed against people’s backs because we occasionally slept on it ourselves. But it was in a room with a door and a nearby half-bath. These were decent guest accommodations.
When Kevin left, I bought another loveseat-sized hideabed for the Great Room (the 1980s version of “Open Concept,” look it up). It was called into service fairly often. Kids would have friends over, or someone was sick and wanted to sleep in the living room with the big TV, and out came the bed. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was serviceable. Our dog Holly really liked sleeping on it so it got a little hairy and smelly, just like sweet old Holly.
Years passed. Holly died. The kids began leaving home. My two younger daughters went to college, and lived in dorms and shared houses. Once gone, they mostly stayed gone, though they both returned for short spells after graduating. I sent the big hideabed to the dump when I turned the TV room into my bedroom, and I lost the smaller hideabed in a house fire. But there was always room for the girls on a couch or in a spare room or even in my king-sized bed, along with me and all my snoring.
My oldest daughter, in pursuit of a creative career, took a bit longer to move out. But her room was always right there waiting for her. I kept it ready because she is an actor, and had breaks between show runs when she needed a place to stay. She also came home for a few months during the pandemic shutdown. The thing is, she’s married now, and a homeowner. I should probably face the fact that she no longer needs a place to land, and convert that room into an office.
Ten: Hideabed Free.
At present, it’s just me and my beloved husband here. We have zero hideabeds. We’re happy to host people in our guest rooms, which are a little cluttered, but really, they’re just fine. One has a double bed with a memory foam topper, and one has a “really good” queen-sized bed. The bathroom is right across the hall. I tell people, “Stay with us anytime. We have room.” I feel magnanimous, offering such easy hospitality. I want people to be comfortable while they’re here. That’s why we don’t have a hideabed.
If I have a point, it’s this. If you want to avoid children boomeranging back into your home, don’t get a hideabed. Instead, provide them a safe place to grow, and don’t shove them out until they’re ready. Let them know they can return if they need to, and save a place for them in case they do. Chances are, they’ll fly and stay flown.
Guests? That’s a different matter entirely. If you want to make sure your guests don’t stay too long, get a hideabed. There’s nothing like a bar across your back to make sure you don’t stay too long.
Going Through the Garbage
I was listening to the radio in the early 2010s, and the hosts had asked people to call in with Oregon things they don’t like. Everyone in Oregon is supposed to always like certain Oregon things, except we don’t, so people were calling up with unthinkable confessions. “I hate coffee.” “I hate bicycles.” “I can’t stand hiking.” “I don’t eat salmon.” “I hate the ocean.” “I can’t stand hazelnuts.” “I won’t go camping.” The strongest radio host reaction was to this one: “I don’t like dogs.”
If I’d called in, I’d have told them that I hate recycling.
I do it badly. You know the type. We don’t flatten all the boxes. We have too much coated stock in there. We throw away the plastic peanut butter jars. We are crappy recyclers, resentfully going through the garbage, saving out what we can. But I do it, I rinse, sort, flatten, organize. It takes almost no effort but I actively resent it.
Going through the garbage.
A Child’s View of Trash
I never thought about garbage as a child. I never took out the trash, or paid attention to the garbage can, or wondered where its contents went once they left the alley. In my youngest life, garbage was invisible. Except, someone was dealing with it.
Garbage penetrated my youthful consciousness in Arkansas. I have lived at some questionable addresses, but my family’s rented farmhouse outside Booneville was the most rundown, ramshackle place I have ever called home in my life. When we arrived, the place was strewn with trash, inside and out.
Where was it supposed to go? If there were garbage trucks in Booneville, Arkansas, they certainly didn’t travel the red dirt roads out to our place. I’m sure there was some sort of decaying Southern midden somewhere on the property, and of course there was a dump somewhere. We weren’t going to seek it out. We burned our garbage.
It was a foul endeavor. A huge metal barrel on the other side of the abandoned garden collected the leavings of daily life, every food container, bathroom wad, the contents of my parents’ brimming ashtrays. It accumulated and festered until the barrel was full. Then it was dispatched to the skies with lighter fluid and wooden kitchen matches.
Our new father believed in giving children chores, and thanks to his Minnesota upbringing, he had a nicely gendered split for duties. My sister and I did the dishes, folded laundry, vacuumed, swept, helped with cooking, and took care of our little brother. Trash was a male endeavor.
Our older brother was sent out to the burn barrel. While the flames rose, he had to watch for sparks and stamp them out. This was possibly not a great use of his skills. My brilliant, artistic, musical brother was very overweight, tippy on his feet, and had terrible vision. He was soon excused from trash burning, as he lacked the visual acuity and physical nimbleness to track and stamp sparks.
Well, my sister and I were up to the challenge. We worked in tandem. Squirting the lethal-smelling lighter fluid all over the top, striking the wooden kitchen match, watching the wooooosh when it all went up. I’ve always been overly sensitive to smells, so I should have hated this duty, but I enjoyed it. Organics smelled terrible before they were burned, but plastics smelled the worst while burning. That was beside the point. The danger and heat of a fire absorbed us, no matter how toxic the flames. The sparks flew, we shrieked and chased. There were whoops of danger and triumph. If the blaze slowed, we’d give it a few more spurts of lighter fluid and get it going again. Now, that was a wooooosh.
Of course our father caught us doing this. He took over the garbage burning. And then we moved to town. As far as I know, there were garbage trucks ever after. But no one recycled. Not even my liberal parents.
There was no such thing as recycling.
My Overriding Question
Is this why I want to argue with recycling? To pick a fight with it? To demand of recycling whether or not it actually helps with the problem? The problem being us, humans, and how we are ruining everything, all the time, every day.
I want to know if recycling makes a difference. The answer appears to be, “It depends on who you ask.”
As far as plastic, according to the Atlantic: No. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/single-use-plastic-chemical-recycling-disposal/661141/
Paper is a different story. https://www.afandpa.org/priorities/recycling/does-paper-actually-get-recycled
Glass is a natural for recycling, but we don’t do well with it as a nation. https://cen.acs.org/materials/inorganic-chemistry/glass-recycling-US-broken/97/i6
I read all this. I think on it. I honestly don’t know if we are doing any good with all this sorting through of our garbage. At times, I think recycling is a scam designed to make us feel less guilty as we ruin the Earth. I imagine all the piously sorted recycling that isn’t actually recycled, loaded onto barges and towed out to sea, where it will be dumped to float in enormous archipelagoes until it reaches the Wide Sargasso Sea.
I’m always tempted to throw my plastic away to keep it out of the ocean. Am I the only one?
Taking Charge of Trash
Like my Minnesota father, I think of garbage and its tertiary duties as male. This was a problem in a post-divorce household consisting of me and my three daughters. None of us were interested in cracking gender binaries when it came to taking out the garbage, but it had to be done.
Often, when the can filled, I’d just set the full bag on the front porch. The idea was, the next person to go outside (on the way to the school bus stop, for instance) would pick up that bag and pitch it in the trashcan down by the garage.
That person was always me. Always. Unless I nagged, which I sometimes did, I nagged and yelled repeatedly to spare myself a trip to the can, and hated how I sounded, and decided at some point I’d rather just take out the trash than hear myself berating the girls for not doing it.
Almost always, then. Almost always me. I think two of my daughters enjoyed the pitching, slinging that bag up and into the container, slamming the lid. They liked it, but not enough to do it very often.
I forgive myself for not recycling when the kids were young. I had enough to deal with, didn’t I? So I threw it all away, right up until I began sorting my garbage like a good Oregonian. The trouble is, I can’t remember when I started doing that.
I dated a man for three years who recycled so thoroughly that he didn’t have trash service. Every once in a while, he’d put a small, smelly bag of non-recyclable stuff in my garbage can. Did I start recycling because of him, I wonder? Did his modest little bi-weekly bag put me to such shame that I finally set up a system and started acting like a responsible human being?
But no, it was before that. Maybe I started recycling because of the house fire.
My house burned in April of 2006, an event of such trauma and dislocation that I don’t talk much about it. I talk around the edges of it. I reminisce, say, about the unreality of living in a rental house, where every single thing—every garbage can and spatula—was also rented. I talk about our strange landlord, and how to this day I cringe when I drive past her house on Lower Boones Ferry because she has campaign signs up for various election deniers.
I talk about how Zoe the Tiniest Dachshund killed a mole in the backyard. I can talk about how it felt to endure the months while the insurance companies duked it out and the house waited, torn back to the studs, to be reconstructed. I can talk about how I couldn’t find my way around right after the fire, how I had to drive over to my house from the motel where I stayed for a few weeks, and plot my course from there.
But the fire? Ah, that’s hard.
Many of my most-treasured possessions made it through without being touched by flames. Accordingly, they were packed into smallish cardboard boxes and ozoned and returned to me six months later. Seventy boxes of papers alone, seventy-six actually, full of a tossed-together assortment of important papers, junk mail, keepsakes, photos, scrapbooks, drafts of novels, letters, all of it jumbled and random and nearly impossible to sort. Now, add in the books. Have you seen my books? Well, there are a few. And it was all in boxes.
When I moved back into my newly rebuilt house that November, I had empty boxes stacked to the ceiling in in kitchen area. My then-boyfriend (now-husband) came over to break down boxes and take them to the curb. Then came Christmas, with its own load of recycling. It took diligent effort to get it all handled, but we did it, week by week.
I’d finally gotten it all hauled away in January. February was so much cleaner down at the curb. Until that one day when I lost it.
Yes, I lost it over recycling.
I live next to a fourplex, an older building that was a commercial chicken house until it was converted into apartments. With its shingles and white trim, it’s actually quite cute as an apartment building. And that February, someone in that apartment building brought a huge mess of wet, mildewed cardboard boxes, we are talking about the size of two cords of wood, and put them in my driveway.
I want to make it clear, these nowhere near the street. Not down at the curb, where the recyclers could take them away (thought they probably wouldn’t, because they were wet and mildewed, in addition to not being broken down). And not on the grassy strip between the two properties, a sort of no-man’s land where their cans sat next to mine on collection day. These boxes were on my driveway, on the other side of a huge laurel hedge that divides the properties, and up about twenty feet from the curb.
Whoever did it had to walk around that hedge, carrying this grossness. It would have taken a few trips. They’d gone to some effort to put the boxes on my driveway and I have never been able to figure out what that person was thinking.
I am absurdly slow to anger, but when it hits, watch out. My fury bordered on derangement. I walked over and coldly enquired of the tenant in Apartment #1 if he had any idea who did it. He directed me to Apartment #4 at the back, where no one answered my knock.
I went back to my driveway and pitched the whole mess across their driveway. Not close to the curb to where the recyclers might have taken it, if they were feeling generous. Yes, with less effort, I could have done that. But I didn’t. I made sure to take up their precious parking spaces, a madwoman in sweatpants flinging around mildewed cardboard and swearing under her breath.
It felt good.
My spell of madness did not last. I gathered my wits, regained my composure, and rolled down my own garbage can. Right next to it, I placed my tidy container of recycling, with boxes broken down and flattened, unwanted catalogs in their own paper bag. I wanted to make it VERY CLEAR to the garbage people and all the people driving by that this wet mess of cardboard had nothing to do with me.
Except for the part where I flung it all over the neighbors’ parking area.
As I write this, I realize that this wasn’t the first time I completely lost it over recycling, or rather, with recycling.
Just a few months earlier, while we were still in the rental, I’d been kept up until 4 AM by my college-aged daughter and her friend, who were sitting in the kitchen of our rental house—the super shitty rental home where we lived while our own house was being rebuilt—laughing and drinking and playing music, even though I asked them several times to quiet down.
I responded by getting up at 6 AM and slamming around the recycling to sort it, waking them up on purpose, slamming and huffing like a crazy woman.
Would you all just take a look at that crazy woman?
I can be kind to this version of myself in retrospect. Her house had burned down. And that wasn’t all. Her mother died in October of 2004. She had two relationships flame out in 2005. In 2005 she also had a hysterectomy. In April of 2006, her house burned down. That woman held it together, she held it all together. She finally lost her shit over some cardboard.
Let’s be kind to her.
But the story about my daughter and her friend reminds me that there was a pile of recycling in the kitchen of that rental house. So, this means I was recycling before I dated the recycling man, and before the house fire. So when did I start to recycle? I have no idea.
Whenever it happened, however it happened, I took out the garbage for twenty-five years, and that eventually included the recycling. I rolled the cans to the curb, arranged the recycling appropriately so that the collectors wouldn’t leave me a note explaining how I was out of sorts (if they only knew). I even (usually) rolled up the cans before the neighbors got mad at me.
I did it all, and then I got married. My husband takes out the garbage now. He likes a full can liner, one that sometimes requires two people to shimmy it out of the can. He wants that trashcan liner to be so stuffed and heavy that it might break the drawstrings.
I, of course, hate this. What a pain in the ass, a bag that wants to split, those straining red drawstrings that want to amputate your fingers. Why would you do that to yourself?
And with my nose, there’s the issue of smell. I will ask him to remove a stinking but not-full bag full of meat wrappers and onion peels (I do not compost, there is a limit). He is slightly resistant, but does it when asked. First, he gives me a look. Maybe he hates being told what to do (he does hate being told what to do, and even though it’s phrased as a question, I am telling him what to do). But it’s more than that. I think he feels like taking a not-full bag out is wasteful. He’s right. But I don’t want to smell garbage.
My husband is a better recycler than I am. He diplomatically pretends not to notice when I throw away a peanut butter jar because I hate scrubbing those out. He manages our laundry room system for the recycling, which isn’t a big hassle, so I don’t know why I’m a big resistant baby about it.
Unlike me, my husband knows the collection schedule. He knows exactly when the recycling and the lawn waste will be picked up, and puts it all out as necessary. He takes care to leave the returnable cans where they can be picked up by the man who comes down the street after dark on Monday nights, gathering the neighborhood empties before the recycling truck comes on Tuesday.
I welcome my husband’s attention to all this. I appreciate that he does it. Because I hate doing it.
Please don’t come for me. I have toed the line. I recycle. I might wonder if it’s doing any good at all. That doesn’t matter. I do it even though I doubt it. I do it even though I didn’t grow up with it. I do it even though I hate it.
I do it even though I watched this video.
We might have already have passed the point of no return, but we have to try.
The last chapter of the Chameleon Chronicles – Cam Solves it All.
It’s here, and you’ll love it.
Camille Tate is ready to be seen…but is her world ready to see her?
Camille is working both sides, now, and she’s stunned by the avalanche of secrets she’s uncovering. Old mysteries are unlocked as new puzzles emerge. Is anyone who they seem to be on Orcas Island? One revelation leads to another, and it becomes more and more impossible for Cam to concentrate on her newest assignment: steering her play through the process of casting, rehearsal, and staging. As she digs deeply into the mysteries that have surrounded her since she arrived, Cam learns the truth about her closest friends and most feared enemies. It all comes together on an unforgettable opening night…when Cam finally understands everything, including herself.
Yes, it’s finally here. And was this ever a fun book to write. Cam and her crew answer the last of the questions from deep in the heart of a…theater company? Folks, it was there from the very first book. We just had to do it. And oh my gosh, was it fun to write.
Preorder the e-book here: ORCAS INTERMISSION BY LAURA GAYLE
I don’t want to spoil a dang thing. Just trust me, this book will have you laughing, and maybe even tearing up a bit. Mysteries are revealed, prices are paid, and friendships change forever. I hope all that passive voice has preserved the mystery.
It is also a little emotional for me. This is where I duck out of Laura Gayle, at least for now. Laura Gayle has exciting future plans, don’t worry, she’s not going anywhere, but she will have to carry on without me. Solo projects are calling my name.
Shannon and I have had so much fun with this project, which we started before I even visited the island. I’ve never written collaboratively before (which I talked about here: The Joy of Collaboration) and I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. I loved it. Shannon has been a perfect partner and I know we will work together again in the future.
It has been awesome to be the official Orcas Island Bestseller. Long may we reign! Thanks our readers, our editors, and to Mark for his wonderful covers. I want to give special thanks to the staff of Darvill’s Bookstore for all their support over the years.
Now, go read how it all comes out!
The Puberty Contraption
A fascinating article
I recently read this feature in the New Yorker about how there was a huge drop in the ages at which girls all over the world went into puberty during the pandemic.
This is a deep dive into the science of puberty, with an equally deep consideration of the emotional and social consequences of entering it early. It got me thinking about my own entrance into puberty. I knew I came to womanhood early in far too many ways, but I never actually thought about the biological side of it. I have tracked how I was pushed into premature adulthood by family pressures, but Nature had a hand in it, too.
In my childhood experience, boys were not interested in girls. They were interested in boy things, boy pastimes, boy games. Girls were beside the point. When boys started to notice girls, it was because of our parts.
I didn’t like being noticed for my parts.
I was a tall girl with subcutaneous body fat, so I began to develop in the fourth grade. So I was nine. I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing, and what I was wearing when this was pointed out to me. I was playing outside with two neighborhood boys. I had on a navy blue sweater dress with a tan striped collar, a hand-me-down from my sister.
It was complicated playing with boys and climbing trees in a dress, but this was after school, and in those days, in the Midwest at least, girls were not allowed to wear pants of any kind to school. So while playing, I did what I could to observe the forms of modesty, which was (I assume) the entire point of making girls wear dresses; to make us be careful and modest.
That day, one of the boys said to me with a little sneer in his voice, “You need a bra.” I looked down to see what he was talking about. Yes, there was something there, on my chest. Possibly those bumps were breasts. I didn’t want them, I didn’t need them, so I ignored them. But boys didn’t. That day of play was ruined, and I went home feeling shame and confusion.
Time to Train
I immediately told my mother what had happened, because I told her everything. She took me to be fitted for a training bra. From what I can tell, this particular garment has passed into the ether of outdated ideas, replaced by the bralette or the sports bra, so let me describe it for you.
The training bra was a flimsy little apparatus built along the lines of an actual bra, but without a support function. It was intended to get a girl used to the idea of a bra. She would learn to fasten the hooks, adjust the straps, and live with the protrusion of a small rosette trim between her nonexistent breasts.
In the literature of the training bra, there are two kinds of girls. One longs for the training bra. She thinks it is the prettiest thing in the world. She can’t wait for her dainty bra straps to show. She knows if the rosette shows, her top is too tight. Her bra is a rite of passage, a lacy privilege. She feels celebrated.
And then, there are girls like me, as illustrated by the New Yorker piece.
In Judy Blume’s 1970 young-adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which has served as a puberty handbook of sorts for generations of girls, a character named Laura Danker looms awkwardly on the periphery. Laura is studious, very shy, and very tall. When the eleven-year-old narrator of the book, Margaret Simon, sees Laura on the first day of school, she mistakes her for a teacher, not a fellow sixth grader. “You could see the outline of her bra through her blouse and you could also tell from the front that it wasn’t the smallest size,” Margaret observes. “She sat down alone and didn’t talk to anyone.” … Laura’s body commands a chaotic attention from her peers: by turns affronted and leering, repelled and keenly envious. Her body provokes their imagination, then serves to corroborate whatever they might imagine. Laura belongs nowhere: a head taller than all the boys, arms crossed over her chest, feeling the shame and confusion of the eleven-year-old she is but does not look like.
As I recall, Margaret liked getting her training bra. My own appointment in the lingerie department of a large store was a humiliating debacle, because you’re not supposed to spill out of a training bra. I was already past the training stage. My mother, unsure of what to do, simply left without buying me anything.
That was fine with me. I wanted nothing to do with such a confining contraption. I went back to ignoring the entire issue of breasts, even though the boys didn’t.
Coming of age is tricky and difficult. Some children seem to sprint gracefully into it like gazelles, but those are outward appearances. Internal realities are probably different.
My own experience was not graceful. I became the focus of unwanted attention and there was no taking it off me. My bodily privacy had been violated by early development. This wasn’t fair. I was a child, surrounded by other children. They were allowed to live their lives as kids, unencumbered in a particular way I was not. I felt confusion and shame. Shame, because that’s the backbone of how girls are socialized, and confusion, because even then, I knew I hadn’t chosen early puberty or the assumption of maturity it thrust upon me.
This bit of the New Yorker article spoke to me, even though it is specific to Black girls, who tend to go into puberty early.
A 2017 report from the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality studied the impact of “adultification,” a phenomenon in which children are socialized to act older than they are, and in which Black kids, specifically, are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers”—less in need, or less deserving, of the kinds of protections that childhood confers.
At age ten, grown men began flirting with me. I remember one in particular. I was sitting on the dryer in our sunny utility porch in Rapid City, holding court during an afternoon potluck. I thought it was my superior wit engaging the attention of this man in his twenties. I was a sharp, sarcastic kid, there is no doubt about it. But more likely, it was the allure of a very tall, very young girl with pretty eyes and the clear beginnings of a womanly body.
At the end of fifth grade, we moved to Arkansas. The South declares open season on girls at an early age. We lived way out of town on a farm, and my neighboring-farm boyfriend was a perfect gentleman, but puberty had arrived. My father finally made my mother understand that she had to do something about the bra issue.
Of course, she told me that. “Your dad told me you needed to start wearing a bra.” There was a note of derision in how she said it. Again, I felt the shame.
I’ve thought about this too much. There was nothing creepy about him saying this. He was pointing out the very obvious facts of the situation my mother and I were ignoring. But he’d only been my dad since I was nine. In certain ways, my new father was much better at parenting than my mother. He had a Midwestern Minnesota handle on what childhood should include for children, and the stages we would be going through as we left it. But I was eleven, and scalded by embarrassment.
Why did my mom even tell me it was Dad, anyway? Wasn’t that the creepy part of it? Her telling me? Maybe she knew how resistant I was to the contraption, and she wanted backup.
At any rate, she brought home what she thought would fit, and I wore it.
I also started my period that year at age eleven. I understood the first morning I woke up in a bloody bed that childhood was over for me.
On with Adulthood
I started high school at age 12, because you started high school in seventh grade in Booneville. I was sent to the principal’s office for wearing shorts under my skirts. I thought this was a solution to the problems caused by not being able to wear pants to school, but it was explained to me that it made me less modest.
As a young lady, it was my job to keep my knees together. I was threatened with a “whupping” should it happen again. Yes, you still got whupped by the principal in 1972. And of course, I kept wearing shorts under my skirts because I found this all absolutely ridiculous.
This was the South. Boys came knocking, but I was not as mature as my body. This attention was disconcerting, sometimes even frightening because it did not come from boys my age. The boys I liked in my class (Melvin, Todd, Bruce) were way shorter than me. In the sixth grade, I was 5’5” and they were nowhere near that. Especially Todd, the class clown, who was hilarious but really short. And that was okay, because it was easier for me to garner no attention, than to garner the kind of attention I was too young to want.
This is an excerpt from the article, quoting a woman named Megan Gray, who went into puberty at age eight. “When you’re shamed at a young age for a sexuality that you don’t even have, I think it inhibits you from developing a sexuality. I began to associate people seeing me in a sexual way, or even as attractive, as a negative. At the same time, when you’re entering that age, you do want people to like you. And you want to like other people. There was that constant tension of, you know, liking is good, but attraction is bad, even if, on a rational level, I understood that wasn’t true. That contradiction started very young.”
The best word to describe my feelings for boys at this time was, longing. I was longing for boys. I enjoyed this feeling, but preferred that the boys in question not be real. Teen idols fit in nicely, because you could long for them without any complications or expectations. You could practice safely. This also coincided with the growth of deeply imaginative play for me and my sister, in which my characters were always male. I felt safer when I pretended to be male. My own precipitous puberty and unwelcome sexuality were held at bay while playing at being a boy. Somehow, this allowed me to recover my bodily privacy.
But sometimes, I longed for real boys.
My family lived in Booneville, and Tommy and Floyd Daphren, or maybe it was Daffron, I don’t remember, lived in a neighboring town. They both had very wavy blonde hair down to their shoulders. I think Floyd was fifteen and Tommy was seventeen. My sister and I encountered them at the lake.
Tommy was tall and silent and stunningly handsome to my 12 year-old eyes. Just looking at him struck me dumb. I mean, he wore his hair parted down the middle. Floyd was smaller and funnier and should therefore have been my type, but my heart longed for Tommy. I was possessed with the idea of wearing his FFA jacket (dark blue corduroy trucker style with a big FFA emblem on the back and his name embroidered over the left chest pocket, if you’ve never seen one).
I did manage to chat him up at a dance. I found myself standing next to him, and cracked his stunning but rather blank façade of beauty with wisecracks. Humor was a start, but I already understood that if I wanted a boy like this, an older boy, some sort of physical contact would be involved. I was only twelve, but if we hadn’t left Arkansas, I might have been able to land him.
My parents hated Arkansas. As kids, we were happy there, academically successful, socially accepted. My older brother was possibly less enamored of the place than my sister and me, but he’d won a scholarship to art school in Minneapolis, so he went back first. My liberal parents were desperate to go back North, so we left Arkansas for Montana. Was that supposed to be an improvement? Rural Montana? Was that a hotbed of liberal thought in 1973?
We stopped in Minneapolis to see my father’s family on the way. My great-grandfather Otto took one look at me and exclaimed, “What? You’re not married yet?” I said, “Grandpa! I’m twelve!” The house erupted in laughter. As my adoptive great-grandfather, he could be forgiven for not keeping track of my age.
I finished coming of age in Montana, a gorgeous, isolated combination of natural paradise and traumatic hellhole where my young life went completely off track.
To quote the New Yorker:
The stigma of early development in girls is particularly painful because, in some cases, it may perpetuate a vicious cycle. An article published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, in May, found that early puberty put girls at higher risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, breast cancer, and heart disease along with “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and antisocial behaviors,” “earlier onset of sexual activity, higher number of sexual partners, and higher likelihood of substance use, delinquency, and low academic achievement.” The journal Hormones and Behavior, in 2013, argued that “early maturing girls are at unique risk for psychopathology.” A Pediatrics article titled “Early Puberty, Negative Peer Influence, and Problem Behaviors in Adolescent Girls,” from 2013, stated, “Early timing of puberty and affiliation with deviant friends are associated with higher levels of delinquent and aggressive behavior. Early-maturing adolescents tend to affiliate with more-deviant peers and appear more susceptible to negative peer influences.”
This photo was taken five or six years after the first photo in this post.
At fourteen, I was drinking heavily and sexually active. At fifteen, I left home.
A Pattern Repeated
When I consider my life, my misspent youth, I have failed to consider biology and generational trauma. I have thought too much about the emotional factors involved in this (see my last blog post), and not enough about the other factors.
I inherited much of my biology from my mother. It’s more than just the look of our bodies, so similar that you’d be forgiven for mistaking us for each other from behind. It’s more than the lipedema, it’s more than our wonky foreguts. If you just looked at us together, you would see it.
Mom hurtled into life. She grew up very fast, but to me, she seemed happy about it. According to family lore, she actually wanted to grow up faster than she did. She wanted to marry a sailor named Red at age fifteen, but was forbidden to do so by her parents. He was banished from the premises, so my mother married another sailor named Burl and had my older brother at seventeen.
The seeds for this were planted by her early development. She was four years younger than her sister, but taller than her by age twelve. This was exceedingly rare in the 1950s, a child who looked like a grown woman. My mother tagged along with the older kids like I did, but my sister is only two years older than me. What did it mean to my mother, to be running with the sixteen year-olds when she was twelve? Why was she allowed to go at life so early? And how could she let me do the same, when she knew where it could lead?
Oh Mom, I am trying so hard to understand.
Maybe the New Yorker can help.
A tall, developed ten-year-old who has reached menarche may not be chronologically older than a petite, flat-chested ten-year-old who has not—but she is, in a real sense, physically and even experientially older. Adults and other children will almost inevitably relate to the girl differently—and not necessarily even in a sexualized way, although that is of grave concern; but intellectually, socially, emotionally. They may have advanced expectations of her, and she may strive to meet those expectations or fail to, and, either way, that cycle of stimulus and response is determining her place in her social milieu, conjuring a mirror in which she sees herself, and wiring her brain in configurations that subtly differ from those of her average-developing peers. Nature begets nurture. For this girl, the hands of the clock simply go faster.
I tried to shield my own girls from this fate. I tried too hard. I wanted my girls to be children, not women. I hid my beautiful, bountiful mixed-race daughters out here in a White suburb, where they went untouched by the pencil-necked White boys. As a result, my girls didn’t understand their own beauty. I hope they can forgive me for that. For the most part, I think they have.
My daughters and I were texting the other day, as we do most days, on and off, all day long. I told them I was doing a deep dive into the music of our past. I texted, “I only have one question. How did we all survive the Fiona Apple “Tidal” CD? It’s like stepping onto a loopy dangerous adolescent carousel ride. Brilliant, but Jesus.”
This led to a declaration that “Being virgins in adolescence saved us,” from one daughter. Then, of sex in your teens, I said, “It is an unnecessary complication.” The girls tapped their little “HaHa” icons onto the corner of this text, because of course a mother would say this. But I stand by it. It is too much, too soon.
Biology is inevitable. I couldn’t stop it for my daughters, but I could extend the protections of childhood to their young selves while their minds and emotions caught up with their bodies. Or maybe I overprotected them.
Maybe I hurt them in other ways. Maybe I always did everything wrong.
I’m sure of only one thing.
All quotes are from Annals of Medicine – Why More and More Girls Are Hitting Puberty Early: A pandemic-era rise in early puberty may help physicians to better understand its causes. By Jessica Winter, published October 27, 2022, © 2022 Condé Nast, all rights reserved
My mother had no common phobias that I knew of, growing up. She didn’t like mice or insects, but disposed of them with a minimum of fuss. We never encountered snakes. I don’t remember her having any reaction to my fears, which are heights and bridges. But she was wildly afraid of birds.
Birds. All of them. Even the tiny finches that populate my bushes in hopping swarms, hunting bugs on branches before they flutter off. She feared the bright-beaked chickadees and fat-bellied robins, the overbearing jays, the comical crows.
I love the songbirds and the corvids, but I can understand a healthy wariness of raptors. They have a focused and lethal beauty, but I am not a mouse, a shrew, or a field rat. I am completely beside the point for a raptor. And now that I no longer have to watch for owls when I let small dogs out at night, I can let myself admire the owls.
Talking birds are a little iffier for me. Very large tropical birds have talons and beaks. They speak. This is an uncanny combination, and unsettling even to me. But the smaller talking birds? The wee parrots, parakeets and budgies? Oh, I adore them.
Mom was terrified of them. All of them. Every single bird.
My parents were both educated, literate people. They were passionate about politics, art, music, literature. They raised us to be the same.
Our house was alive with conversation.
When they lived in Missoula, my parents rented office space in the Wilma Building. If you’ve never lived in Missoula, this means nothing to you. If you have lived in Missoula, you know what an adventure that was back in the 1970s, when Bob and Eddie presided over Missoula’s small gay culture from their lavish apartments on the Wilma’s upper stories.
One day, while waiting for a ride down, the elevator opened on Mom’s floor. Out stepped Bob (or maybe it was Eddie), a small green bird riding on his shoulder. My mother went white and flattened herself against the hallway wall. She let him pass without a word. Mom, I told her, that was a parakeet.
It didn’t matter. A bird indoors was her worst fear.
I need to make it clear how much I loved my mother. I longed to spend time with her. She was my favorite person in the world.
I believe most phobias have an origin. My own fear of bridges happened after Mom had a friend—I’d describe him as an arrogant jerk—who took us out on his huge sailboat. He had a daughter close to Lauren’s age who had grown up on this boat, and he laughed when I asked for life jackets for my two children. He accused me of not trusting his expertise.
I spent the entire sail around the Sound watching Lauren in an eagle-eyed panic, with one arm tightly wrapped around baby Rachel, and the other looped into the strap of a floatable cushion. I was sick with fear the entire outing, trying to figure out how to save two children if we went into the icy water. How long would we last? Would Lauren’s swimming lessons pay off? Dear God, would it never be over?
During this sail, my mother was serene and joyful, as she was on a boat. When we docked, she alighted, refreshed and exuberant. My knees shook so hard that I almost couldn’t walk. I vowed to never back down on an issue of safety again, but the damage was done. For the next twenty years, I approached any bridge with hammering heart and prickling armpits, gripping the wheel, determined not to let this new phobia get the best of me. It has mostly abated.
Where did Mom’s bird phobia come from?
My mother’s mother, Grandma Lucille, had representations of birds throughout her home. There was a pair of large ceramic chickens on the side table in her breakfast room. There was a framed print of a nesting robin on her dining room wall. There was a ceramic cardinal, because she lived in South Dakota and my grandmother loved a cardinal. And there were two porcelain robins, a pretty one and a fat, grumpy one. I loved him.
But I discovered my favorite of Grandma’s birds in her dressing room. It was California pottery by an artist named Kay Finch, who specialized in figurines of birds and animals with signature curling eyelashes. This little bird was ivory colored and trimmed with green. He looked so happy to me with his fat cheeks and feminine eyelashes. One day, while admiring him, I turned him over. Written on the bottom in girlish script was a loving message to my grandmother from my mother, who at some point had bought this bird for Grandma Lucille and inscribed it.
Later in her life, my mother gave Grandma Lucille two Limoges plates with birds on them. They were different than Grandma’s usual birds, more elegant and stylized, and Mom had found them in France. She was a bit defensive about this expensive gift, as she was defensive about so many things. But Grandma seemed happy with them. She displayed them in her hutch.
My mother grew up feeling unloved and unappreciated by her mother. According to my grandmother and aunt, Mom was furious most of the time. She was personally affronted by her sister’s slim beauty, and found her mother maddening. My grandmother was a deliberately oblique person, determinedly serene, who hid from life’s difficulties in Christian Science. She found her daughter exhausting.
They were an ill-matched pair, as far as a child’s needs and an adult’s capabilities. But I took comfort in these gifts from my mother to my grandmother, the plump bird, the elegant plates. My mother hated birds, but she gave them to her mother. This was physical evidence. They showed (to me, at least) a desire to love.
If I were to write a memoir about my parents, I would call it “Always Starting Over.”
My grandmother’s home was lovely. It was full of items my mother coveted. She spoke of it reverently, cataloguing the origins and perceived value of its contents. Grandma kept some items her entire life. My Aunt Elaine ended up with all of it when my grandmother died, and expected me to be upset about it.
I wasn’t. I have things from Grandma, I reassured her. I have a painting, bricabrac. I have some jewelry.
She still worried. When she and my uncle finally sold their home, my aunt specifically called to apologize for leaving behind Grandmother Lucille’s loveseat in her barn.
My mother had beautiful things, but she sold them because our constant moves would wreck them. Besides, we needed the money. So one by one, they went. A secretary desk here. A massive oak table there. Daybeds and chairs. Washstands. Headboards. All left behind in my childhood, shed like the sideboards and pianos discarded by early pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
Raptors know that a comfortable chick will never learn to kill. So as soon as chicks are ready to fledge, the eagles begin to remove whatever made them comfortable. This is called “stirring the nest.”
My mother had therapy at different times in her life. The longest stretch came in her mid-fifties. This coincided with menopause, which finally brought relief from her PMDS. She didn’t have a medical diagnosis for this, only my armchair diagnosis, based on witnessing her day-long tirades every four weeks for most of my early life. Mom could fly off the handle at any time, but these rages were perfectly timed with my own period. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out.
I imagine their cessation was a huge relief for her. Maybe that’s why she was ready to do some work. Once she reached her fifties, my mother’s life was fairly serene, at least by our family’s standards.
She learned a few things in therapy. She was fascinated by a new idea that all events are neutral. She’d always interpreted every upset as a personal attack on her. But she started to repeat this like a mantra. “All events are neutral.”
Another revelation was repeated less often. I remember when she told me that she had a narcissistic personality. She wanted to share this information about herself, but she did it with an edge of her trademark defensiveness. “It means that I interpret every event in terms of how it affects me,” she explained. I’m sure it had not occurred to my mother that this was unusual, even pathological. She wanted me to understand that to her, it was only natural.
I listened, nodded. I treated the information as neutral.
My mother didn’t understand the anxiety that plagued all four of her children. We are riddled with it. It would shut down my older brother to the point where she and my dad would have to intervene at times. Pay his bills. Hold his hand. Even bring him to live with them for a bit, until he calmed down enough to take on life again.
But Steve was simply the most affected by anxiety. The rest of us dealt with it as best we could. Mom would shake her head, baffled. “I just don’t have that,” she would say. As if it were inconceivable that we would have something she didn’t. As if its very presence were a complete mystery. As if our anxieties could not be traced back to childhoods marked by her monthly tirades, her screaming arguments with our birth fathers, the divorces, constant moves, and social rejection brought on by always starting over. We always experienced financial insecurity, often to the degree of not having food in the house.
Those were our shared disasters, but we each had our own personal load to carry. My older brother lived with the torment of being extremely obese back when there were no fat kids. My sister was abused from a very early age by a trusted male relative. After the older kids left home, my younger brother was left alone repeatedly to fend for himself while my parents spent their evenings in coffee shops or bars. He was six years old.
And me? Well, in addition to what I shared with my siblings, there was the fallout from being put out at age fifteen to live in a different state with a physically abusive older boyfriend. That was terrible—with the first few months marked by profound loneliness and anxiety attacks that robbed me of my ability to breathe—but at least I could finish high school in one place. My parents lived in three states and six homes during my last two years of high school.
Besides, he didn’t hit me that often.
When I finally called my parents and told them what was happening, my mother said, “Just try not to make him mad, Honey.”
I have turned my own life over and over in my hands, trying to understand how it went so radically astray, trying to understand what it has done to me, what I did to myself. As hard as it was to be on my own at fifteen, I think it probably saved me. My worst misfortune was that I grew up in a house of volcanoes. I was the only calm person in a household of reactive, emotional personalities, screaming and crying and shaking and falling down in fits. This is its own kind of trauma.
So, yeah, we had anxiety. And Mom didn’t get it.
I wondered if Mom told her therapist about any of this, our U-Haul odyssey of a life, daughters shoved out too early. I doubt it. It would have blown her hard-won cover.
She and Dad had reinvented themselves on Bainbridge Island. They both worked at Boeing as technical writers. They owned bed & breakfasts. They moved a lot—eight houses in twenty years—but they stayed on the island where they had a group of friends, daily coffee meet-ups, the opera. Bainbridge was the base from which they traveled internationally. They went to live in Turkey for a while but came back to finish out their lives on Bainbridge.
I want that to be true. But it isn’t.
There was one more major life disruption in the works. My parents were actively planning to divorce when my mother found out she had cancer. They didn’t get a divorce, obviously. They clung together for the duration of her very short decline.
My father was gutted by her death, as were we all.
As I’ve said, I don’t know all that Mom worked on in therapy. I do know that Mom talked about her bird phobia with her therapist. At first, she thought it had to do with her own mother, something about Grandma Lucille’s love of birds, some aspects of her demeanor that were supposedly bird-like. But in truth, Grandma’s birds were simply knickknacks. After much discussion, my mother and her therapist decided it was something else.
Mom saw “The Birds” and never got over it.
During the Dust Bowl, crows built nests out of barbed wire. They built with what they had.
Once I learned that fact, I have never quite gotten over it.
I haven’t had a lot of therapy, but I have worked on a lot, mostly through writing. One thing I still work on is giving myself permission to write honestly about my life. This, of course, includes writing about my mother. It feels incredibly disloyal to tell the truth. It also feels incomplete.
I had a difficult mother, but I didn’t have a difficult relationship with her. I loved her. But more importantly, I always felt so loved by her. I never doubted her love for an instant, and her last words to me were, Oh, I love you. She feared being taken to task for the ways she had failed me, but I never had the heart to do it. I forgave her, completely, honestly, repeatedly.
I hope she felt my love flying from my heart to hers, constant and true to this day.