Nothing says “Happy New Year” like a misshapen potato playing at dandyism with boots, hat, and umbrella, am I right? His trailing roots add a special festive touch. I also found a pickle man, but couldn’t capture the image for you (so sorry). I just showed this to my husband because it’s the weirdest one I found, and he said, “It seems like in the not-too-distant past, vegetables had more active social lives.” (So you can see why I married him).
And speaking of anthropomorphism…
Okay, that is almost as cute as it is weird. Like, getting so drunk that you drop your glass and kiss the whiskey when you’re clearly Chianti. Does that seem like you’re thinking of Glad Memories and Future Hopes? Or are you just trying to blot out a terrible year with some cross-spirits over-indulging? Either way, these tipsy bottles send New Year Greetings to one and all.
There’s nothing anthropomorphized here. Just a giant wasp, its barbed tail curled and ready to strike, determined to wish you a “Joyous New Year” by stinging these innocent tots in their middy blouses and sailor suits.
I’m looking for deeper symbolic meaning here, like, the wasp is the old year, chasing away the new year as symbolized by these children? And there’s another umbrella for whatever reasons (the potato man is also holding an umbrella). Does the umbrella mean anything? So many mysteries, lost to Time’s unending march…
This is German. I’d know that even if I didn’t recognize the phrase, which translates as Happy New Year, but looks like I’m being wished a Frolicsome new year, which sounds more fun.
It’s the roasted pig on foot that gets me. He’s already roasted, so wouldn’t this be a New Year’s Pig Zombie? Right? There’s an old ad for sausage where the pig is slicing its own middle into perfectly round slices of sausage. This Neujahr Greeting reminds me of that, as if the pig is willingly participating in his own slaughter by running along with carving tools in his back. So weird, so German.
If the pig must be running, I prefer this:
“Happy driving in the New Year.” Can’t you just hear the song that goes with this? Dashing through the snow / in a four pig open sleigh / mushroom by my side, and hey…why is that crow wearing pants? I’m not sure, but those piggies look as focused as sled dogs, really giving their all to the Swine Iditarod, or whatever this is. Clearly, pigs have skills.
“Feliz Ano Nuevo.” This one is in Spanish, I can tell that even without Google’s help. This is one fierce pig, just look at the intense focus in his wee piggy eyes. He’s been trained by a chimp, and we all know how smart chimps are. But again, my friend April, the vegetarian, is always telling me how smart pigs are, and how sweet, and how pigs have surprising skills.
I just reply, “Bacon.” But anyway…
I think this next card is taking it too far. I don’t know what language this “Boldog Ujevet” greeting is in, and if I weren’t so lazy I’d Google it (okay I Googled it and it’s Hungarian), but this is a dark, dark story, here.
That man clearly has designs on the piggy in the ruffled apron and fetching pink shoes. He appears to be a chimney sweep, what with the ladder and broom. So he’s going to clean the chimney, get her drunk and do something bestial before roasting her in the newly cleaned fireplace.
And then I thought, no, this is an even darker story of survival at all costs. A subversive effort on the part of the pig. She (or possibly he, it might be a male pig disguising himself as a sow because desperate times call for desperate measures) is going to use its porcine wiles so as to avoid being dinner. Get that sweep drunk and shove him and his Boldog Ujevet right up his own damn chimney. Start a fire and say, “Oh heavens no, I didn’t know he was up there!”
I’m cheering on this pig. Like I said, pigs have skills.
Unless they’re drunk.
It’s a Piggy Party! This one is pretty funny, especially when you see the boy holding the switch gazing lovingly at the drunken pigs. Why is he so happy? He came out there to beat them into their sty (see: switch), and there they are drunk out of their little piggy brains. It’s a happy story! No pigs will die! He’s too charmed to even beat them! Oh, those silly pigs!
A drunken pig must be a sign of good fortune in the year to come. Why else would so many of us transform ourselves into drunken pigs on NYE? (Not me, we will be lucky to make it to ten PM, I’m a sleepy pig).
This grinning frog and I wish you a Happy New Year full of many symbols of good fortune, including keys and mushrooms and four-leaf shamrocks and horseshoes, and of course (if you drink it), champagne. It’s been a difficult year for too many people I care about, which means it’s been difficult for me, but only because I care. My husband and I are fortunate enough to end this year healthy and happy and surrounded by family and friends. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.
Here’s to 2024!
(from a Katrina writing prompt, The Frost)
The frost is here, and I want to park in my garage. I have rarely, if ever parked in my garage. Let’s take a look at why.
When my then-husband and I bought the house in 1988, my father broke a sliding screen, and his father immediately broke the lock on the garage door. I’m not exactly sure how. He manhandled something. After that the bolt never worked right. Rather than throwing ourselves against the stubborn thing, or paying someone to repair it, we mostly kept it bolted. The door is an old one, made of wood, and very heavy.
I could have parked in the garage, but I was a young mother with young children. Imagine a young mother pulling up to that garage in her minivan. I wasn’t going to get out of my car, walk around to the back of the freestanding garage, make my way through it, use an enormous amount of strength to unbolt the door, then get back in, drive in, pull the door down, bolt it, get the kids out of their car seats and shepherd them through the garage and up some steps and over to the front door.
This meant my car windows were often frosty on wintry mornings. But the nice thing about being a stay-at-home mother whose kids ride the school bus was that the sun took care of it for me. Frost melted away before I ever started up my minivan.
My ex did sometimes park in the garage, but once he moved out, that didn’t mean it was empty. It was stuffed full of his possessions for a good seven years after he left. Once I sold all of his remaining items at a garage sale, my sister sensed an opportunity. I wouldn’t call her a hoarder, but given a chance, she would completely fill up other people’s storage; my garage, her friend’s basement, wherever she lived, and of course, she also had two storage spaces. My sister had quite a longstanding love affair with my garage. I was always trying to get her stuff out of there.
During the ten or so years she monopolized the garage, I became an expert at scraping my windshield. I was working an office job, so I would go out and scrape, scrape, scrape my windows, and run the defroster, and curse my life and grumble about my sister at 6am on a cold Oregon morning.
I had good scrapers and bad scrapers. The best was a thin blue tool about the size of my palm and not much thicker than a business card. It was a freebie from my health insurance company during a benefits fair at the office. I almost didn’t take it because it looked flimsy. But during the three years I used it, it peeled off the frost with a scalpel’s precision and a blowtorch’s efficacy. Then it snapped in half.
After some rather dire threats, my sister finally removed her belongings from my garage. This was a difficult time in our relationship, but she rode the bus out and got to work, and she hauled and donated and finally, my garage was empty enough to park in. If I’d wanted to bother with that heavy, malfunctioning garage door, I could have started each day with clear car windows and saved myself all that bother. But I didn’t, so I still parked outside.
While I was dating [Redacted], he found it upsetting that I didn’t park in my garage. I’d go so far as to say it was an affront to him. But once he’d lifted that heavy door a few times, he understood why I didn’t want to. So for my birthday, he helped me clear out my garage and then bought and installed a garage door opener for me.
This was truly a halcyon time in that relationship. Together, we enjoyed cleaning out that garage, getting rid of an old wooden bed frame I’ve written about (but not posted), clearing shelves of the many many things left by the man who built the house in 1984 ([redacted] took a lot of that, to squirrel away in his own stuffed-full garage), and rooting out the last of my sister’s belongings, because they haunted the corners.
The opener was a real gift. It made parking in the garage so easy. I loved it. I enjoyed frost-free car windows for five years. Five years of not having to scrape a windshield. It was heaven, I tell you. And then, my guy moved in. We began to commute together. In his car. Which was parked in the driveway. Where the windows frosted in the winter.
I spoke the words of self-sacrifice. “You should park in the garage. That way, your windows won’t be frosty.” That was mutually beneficial until 2020. We both worked from home that year. But in 2021, he began working somewhere else and I had to commute in my own car again. Which was parked in the driveway. With frosty windows, in the wintertime. But I still worked from home half the time the time. He had to go to the office every morning, so it only seemed fair to spare him the scraping.
Why didn’t we both park in the garage? Well, one daughter put a big ass desk in there. She just dumped it in my garage one day, and she left it. It was there for one year. And then it was there for two years. “Honey, will you get that desk out of there?” “Sure. But I don’t have anywhere to put it.” “Well can you come get it?” “No, you should sell it.” We finally hauled it to the curb and gave it away. This cleared a lot of space, but not quite enough. With a little compression, donation, and rearrangement, we were almost there.
I could practically taste those frost-free windows.
Three weeks later, my youngest daughter and her son moved in with us. Guess where her stuff landed? Yes. That’s right. In the garage, where my car would be parked.
I work in the office three days a week. Most of the time, I’m fine parking in the driveway. But on mornings when it’s dark and cold, I approach my car with trepidation. Will there be frost? I replaced my nimble blue ice scraper with an orange behemoth of a tool that looks like I could use it to strip paint off a submarine. It is almost useless on a curved surface.
Another winter of frosty windows. But it’s so fun to have my daughter and grandson here that I really don’t mind at all.
(This post is from a Katrina prompt, the ladder).
When I was fifteen and my boyfriend was eighteen, we moved to Yakima, Washington, part of America’s Fruit Basket, where picking fruit is an almost year-round affair. This fertile stretch of Washington valleys produces much of the country’s apples, pears, and stone fruit. Back then, most of this fruit was harvested by migrant workers who followed the harvests. They made enough to live on. Certainly we could do the same.
He had enrolled in an auto mechanic certification program at Yakima Valley College, and I went to high school. That next June, I’d finished tenth grade and his two-year program had let out for the summer. We lived on very small monthly draws from a trust fund his wealthy grandparents had set up for him at birth and whatever else we could patch together; babysitting for me, pumping gas for him. We were young, alone, and very poor.
So we thought it was time to make some real money by picking fruit.
I’m not sure how you signed up or were dispatched for fruit picking, but the boyfriend handled that part of it and we showed up at a farm at 6 AM, ready to pick cherries. We were met by the orchard owners, an older married couple. They were White, and so were we (well, the bf was actually mixed race, but that’s another blog post).
Everyone else was from somewhere south of the US border. The youngest pickers were maybe five years old. Everyone got buckets that hung by straps around our necks and rested against our stomachs. “Don’t fall on those,” we were warned. “You’ll break your back.” Okay, then. We each took a wooden orchard ladder and went to work.
Orchard ladders are wide at the bottom, narrowing at the top, and have one leg. They are also known as tripod ladders or apple ladders. I looked them up on the internet to find the correct terminology, and discovered they are all made of aluminum now. I found a weathered wood version for sale on 1st Dibs for over two thousand dollars. Those orchard owners could have really cleaned up, because their wooden ladders felt antique fifty years ago.
I’m really not much for ladders in general. We decided that I would pick from the ground and the boyfriend would handle the ladder work. He was a young creature of muscle and bone, and clambered up with no problem. When his rickety ladder swayed out from under him, he simply grabbed a tree limb and hung there until I could reposition that wobbly back ladder leg, poking into the soft earth below the tree.
Picking fruit requires skill and stamina, and I basically had neither. We were a source of amusement to our fellow pickers, and they were a source of valuable help to us. After watching me trying and failing to do anything right, a kindly man showed me exactly how to snap the cherries off in bunches.
Later, a kindly woman came over and told me to make sure I was picking in in the shade. Sun made the stems pliant. They snapped better when they were cooler. The children just laughed at us, but I suppose even that was kindly. In its way.
You were supposed to let anything without a stem fall. If you put too many stemless cherries in your bucket, the grower could reject it. I picked thoroughly but slowly, because I didn’t want my bucket to be rejected. I really don’t handle rejection of any kind very well at all.
The boyfriend continued to maneuver the trees like he was born to it, but he didn’t pick much more than I did. Well, he might have, but in my memory, he didn’t. When the lunch break came, I checked my tally. I’d picked half as many buckets as the five year-olds.
The bf went to our car to get our lunch, and I asked the wife where the bathroom was. She expressed great embarrassment that I would have to use the worker facilities. I reassured her that was fine. I was a worker, right? But I understood her embarrassment when I saw those facilities. It was all concrete and filth. Asking an animal to use that bathroom would have been an insult to the animal.
I was most insulted by a hand-lettered cardboard sign advising me to “BE CLENE.”
We picked for a week (maybe less) and made very little money compared to our fellow workers. They earned the big bucks, as well as my deep respect for their skill and stamina. Toward the end of that week, I got a letter (we never had a phone in Yakima) from my parents asking if we’d come to Missoula and help them with their business of making and selling miniature furniture. They were way behind with their orders.
The boyfriend could run a saw and I could sew. We could both pack boxes. Best of all, there were no ladders. So, we packed up the cats, drove through passes, and came to Missoula, where we stayed for an entire month (and I learned to ride a bike). I might have been hopeless at picking cherries, but I could stuff a tiny sofa like a pro. And there were absolutely no ladders.
I have a few regrets in this life, and not recording some songs in harmony with my siblings is absolutely one of them. I’m speaking of the original three siblings: myself (youngest), my sister (middle) and my Brother Steve (oldest). At my mother’s parties in Aberdeen, South Dakota, my sister and I used to bring down the house with our childish rendition of “Those Were the Days, My Friend.” The three of us together graduated from car-trip singalongs to rousing a crowd with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971 at a political rally in Booneville, Arkansas. Despite the heights of our harmonic glory during the refrain, we remained staunchly liberal, like our parents, and we did not become the next Von Trapps, though my sister and brother were in a band together in the 80s (it wasn’t particularly harmonious).
Harmony came easier to my brother and me. We dueted constantly from about 1974 on, at home and at parties. It was our thing. Somehow, we never got a moment of it on tape. I regret that.
The way sibling voices blend moves me. Even when the voices are very different from each other, there’s alchemy in how they come together, constant infinitesimal adjustments to smooth the harmonies. I believe this is done by instinct rather than decision. Here are a few of my favorites, almost all of which fall into the country category. And please note, even though these are sister acts, I sang far more with my older brother than with anyone else. I miss you, Brother Steve.
I’m all for the rename. But in the Dixie days, the harmonies of sisters Martie and Emily provided a soft grounding for Natalie Maines’ forceful lead vocals. This band has been through the wringer both professionally and personally, andthey are still together. Gaslighter is a BRILLIANT record/song/video, but I like these earlier songs. Also, that fiddle, and the banjo. I mean…
Talk about country! I first learned about the Browns while reading Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass. I had no memory of the Browns, and thought I was reading a not-so-good novel with real characters like Elvis Presley dropped in. At some point I began to understand that, yes, this was a not-so-good novel, but the Browns were real. At one time, they were one of the most popular musical acts in the country world. Bass described how they twanged and arced and hung in the air, blending and bending together like the tones of a bandsaw. I wanted to hear their voices. I ordered a CD, which took months to reach me. When it finally arrived, I played it obsessively.
These sisters have intense, rich voices. Shelby’s is full of emotional punch and power, and Allison’s is low and heartfelt, as big as the sky. I couldn’t prefer one over the other. Each sister has a record that sits on my all-time favorites list (Shelby’s Temptation, Allison’s The Hardest Part). They join each other onstage now and then, and have one joint project, Not Dark Yet. Individually, they are powerhouses. Together, they are sublime. The video below gives me constant shivers from beginning to end.
That’s pretty much perfection, in my book. Lest you think these sisters do not rock, here you go:
I have one CD by SheDAISY, their debut “The Whole SheBang”, and that appears to be enough. I have never bought or even listened to another. I’ve been playing this record on car trips since the year 2000 and still love it. It’s straightforward commercial country done right. I have no idea if they’re still performing together, but the harmonies these three sisters create are grand, swooping, impossible to tease apart. I’m going to post two examples and I hope you listen more than watch.
The first one, “Little Goodbyes” is such a funny song, very country pop, but the video is of the “beautiful women make sultry faces while singing” variety. It distracts, then gets old.
“This Woman Needs” is a HEARTBREAKER ballad and has hair-raising shivery harmonies. It’s also an oddly crappy video with too many jump cuts. But it’s a gorgeous song.
Okay, finally, a sister act that is not country at all. My kids told me about these three sisters long before I actually heard them. “Mom, you’d love Haim.” “Mom, have you ever heard Haim?” “Mom, I think you’d like Haim.” I finally encountered them as actors in Licorice Pizza. This led to watching the video below and while watching it, I fell hard. Este, Danielle, and Alana (who starred in the movie) are so…talented, striking, odd, fascinating. They have quite different voices but listen to them blend into something special! And watch the whole thing because it builds in a wonderfully strange and subtle way. When did they film this, and how did they do it, and could they be any more cool?
I played this for my five year-old grandson and he was transfixed. He remarked, “They all have the same shoes.” He’s right. They sure do.
Did I miss anyone besides the Jacksons (can’t/won’t talk about them, it makes me too sad)? Because I’m sure I missed some people. Let me know in comments.
Catachresis: The use of a word in a way that is not correct — for example, the use of “mitigate” for “militate.”
I describe it like this. I reach for a word and grab the one beside it on the shelf. I want to say “cerebral,” and I say “cereal.” “Mutual” instead of “mutable.” Almost immediately, I catch myself and correct. But we both notice.
“I did it again,” I say to my husband. “You did,” my husband affirms.
I’ll do this like four times over two days. Then it subsides for weeks, even months. But I know it will come back, especially when I’m exhausted. You know how Autocorrect will plug in the wrong word, even when you’ve carefully typed out the word you want to use? That’s what my brain is doing to me right now. It’s AutoIncorrecting.
Sometimes it’s not the word right next to it on the shelf, but more kittycorner to it. I might mean to say the doctor prescribed something, but I say she subscribed something. Almost there but not quite. It reminds me of my grandson, with his “consplosions” and “conspiraments,” his use of “extract” rather than “distract.” Except I don’t find it charming when I do it, because I’m not five.
It’s been a couple of months since I mixed up my words, so I’m probably due for a run of stumbles. It only happens while speaking, never while writing. Since I make my living at the latter, I’m grateful for this, but still embarrassed. I have an expansive vocabulary that can also be a bit cumbersome. I’ve been teased about my wordiness my entire life, but I love words. I’m particular with them. This catachresis overrides my careful choices.
Please don’t come at me with advice about having my brain checked out for early senility, because I know where this came from. This started after I had COVID-19 in January of 2020. I’ve been struggling with this particular piece of neurological fallout ever since.
I believe that most of us who’ve had it are struggling with at least some damage from the virus. Catachresis one of three symptoms of long COVID that I try to ignore. I get a little wheezy some evenings. Occasionally, something will taste completely wrong to where I couldn’t identify what’s in my mouth without visual cues. I deal with these other lingering guests as small inconveniences, but I hate it when the wrong word comes out.
I whine about getting sick quite enough on here, but since I had “the birthday flu” this spring, my daughter and five-year-old grandson have moved into our house, where we hope they’ll stay for the school year. My grandson arrived with a cold, so I promptly caught that. It was horrible. We got over it. Then he picked up another cold in swim lessons. I came down with it on a weekend getaway to Yakima with friends.
The bad news is, I’m going to get all his kindergarten colds. The good news is, my immune system seems to be working again. Yes, I had a cold, but my body seems to know what to do with it. I was tired over the weekend, blew my nose now and then, had some cough drops. But I was functional and even able to taste all the fine food we sampled on a weekend of restaurants, antiquing, and talking about our lives.
A week later, I seem to be over it with no secondary infections, sleepless nights, or hacking. I haven’t even had a flare-up of the catachresis.
I try to stay calm. I’ve had COVID twice and I can’t do anything about that. I don’t think this is the last time, either. But as I was coming down with the cold on Friday night, I was terrified that it might be COVID again.
Both of my weekend traveling companions are recently retired frontline workers. One has had COVID three times, but the other has not had it, not even once. She worked with the actual virus for years, and she did it on the daily. She’s either the most cautious person in the state, or she’s immune. Maybe both? I did NOT want to be the person who gave it to her.
This friend is a scientist. She has patiently listened to my crackpot theories about the virus, and read the Vanity Fair/ProPublica article at my urging. She might not buy the lab leak theory (and please don’t assume that I do, here’s a rebuttal), but she was the first person to explain to me that Covid is not actually a respiratory virus. It uses the respiratory system to hitch a ride to its actual target; the heart, lungs, or brain. No one knows exactly what it does in there, but she fears what it has done to the population as a whole.
As I told her, “Well, we’re all just going to be a little more stupid from now on.” My stupid is Catachresis. But I don’t say the word out loud. I’m afraid it will come out as “catechism.”
(I’m still stuck in the past, and stuck in the kitchen. This was from a Katrina prompt, “The Napkin”.)
My grown daughters don’t use cloth napkins, or paper napkins, or any napkins. I’ll be served a beautiful, even elegant meal at one of their homes, then handed a small section of paper towel to use as a napkin. I’m not much on formal table settings, but it feels wrong to me, a mistake, as wrong as if I’ve been handed a wad of toilet paper with which to dab my mouth while eating.
Where are the napkins in my daughters’ homes?
I’m not sure, and I want to trot out that old saw, “They weren’t raised like that.” But really, they weren’t. We had a basket of paper napkins on the counter for breakfast and lunch. At dinner, each place was set with a cloth napkin.
I didn’t encounter cloth napkins until I was a nanny, working in the aforementioned Vandor Country Kitchen home where I learned to roast a chicken, bake a fish, and use cloth napkins. I wanted to incorporate them in my own home. It made me feel fancy.
Proof of this is that I only use them now when company is here. So take note. If you come to dinner at my home and I’ve set the table with cloth napkins, I’m being fancy on your behalf.
I was considering that idea, the cloth napkin as fancy, so I did a little research, which means I Googled it and clicked on the first promising link that popped up in my results. I found this blog post while trying to find out when paper napkins arrived on America’s tables: The History of Paper Napkins (this is a blog for a store that sells paper napkins). Here is an excerpt:
Paper napkins themselves originate from ancient China, when paper was invented in the 2nd century. Chih Pha, folded paper square napkins, were used for serving tea. The historical accuracy of this is backed up by documents describing the possessions of the Yu family from the city of Hangzhou.
And when did North America start getting in on using paper napkins? They arrived in the late 1800s, but didn’t pick up in popularity until 1948 – because Emily Post proclaimed that “It’s far better form to use paper napkins than linen napkins that were used at breakfast.”
Emily Post approved!
My mother had adopted so many markers of class and taste reminiscent of the 1950s, but for all my mother’s airs, we always used paper napkins. Perhaps Emily Post is why. We still had to use our napkins correctly. She trained me to always keep my napkin in my lap, or if I rose from the table, my chair. A used napkin on the table was a definite manners misstep.
My mother wouldn’t have dreamed of using a paper towel next to a plate. Is that why I’m so horrified by that idea?
Mom liked to imitate how her sister, my aunt Elaine, carefully and firmly pressed a napkin to the edges and corners of her mouth. “It was like she was staunching blood,” Mom explained. I try to imagine handing my Aunt Elaine a scant section of paper towel for this act. What would she say? How would she adjust?
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO NAPKINS, I ASK YOU?!
(Yes, “napery” is a word I discovered while working on my latest project, which is a novel narrated by a somewhat fussy man. Anyway.)
As I’ve explained before, I’m an inveterate thrifter. I also go to antique stores, which is less satisfying because everything needs to be looked at, and I find it exhausting. Anyway, I think, as a secondhand shopping wizard, that I’ve seen everything. But in this thrifting group I belong to on Facebook, someone posted one of these and I had no idea what the heck it was. It was something like this:
Does this confuse you? Good. It certainly confused me.
This is a serviette lady. A very fancy example, with salt and pepper shakers, and a tray to hold toothpicks, and something (a candle?) sticking out of her head. Less fancy models just have the skirt with all the slots in it. The idea is, you fold your napkins (clearly cocktail napkins for this one, which were a thing) and arrange them in the slots so that they make a bouffant skirt of sorts. Then you put her out with your lady luncheon or bridge club spread, and people take their napkins out of her skirt.
I probably don’t need to explain that my mother would not have had such an item in her home. She was gifted a ceramic frog scrubber holder by a neighbor that she grudgingly used for years, but that was the extent of Mom’s tacky ceramics. The woman had taste (unlike me, who has a full shelf of ceramic honey servers).
But I don’t have any lady serviette holders. That is a bridge too far, even for me.
My husband and I both have big noses that drip constantly as we eat. I have no idea when this started to happen but it’s annoying and makes the use of cloth napkins problematic. So we use paper. Big, fluffy white paper napkins, the costly kind.
He has a whole system where he folds down the top edge of the napkin, creating a demarcation between the part used for his nose and the part used for his mouth. I admire this while also thinking it’s kind of weird. He also sets his napkin on the chair next to him, as opposed to his lap. Whatever works, at least he’s using one.
Over at my plate, I’m working my napkins like someone trying to clean up after a flood. I use more napkins than anyone I know. Sometimes I’m eating in a restaurant with a friend, and I’m on my third while theirs is untouched. How do they do that, I wonder?
Alternately, is there something wrong with me? Even if my nose weren’t drippy, I’m wiping my hands and mouth constantly while I eat. Am I leaky and strange? Unduly repelled by food juice? Why am I such a mess?
The last time I ate dinner at my oldest daughter’s home, her in-laws were there. As she set the table, my daughter let me know that her mother-in-law had made this beautiful set of cloth napkins for her. I smiled and complimented her MOL on the beautiful fabric and workmanship. Did I only imagine that we shared a swift but knowing glance?
Acknowledged or not, I’m not the only person who believes in napkins.
In 1984, my then-husband and I were ready to turn over a new leaf, and upgrade from an old Formica-topped table we’d been using for several years. This table was, of course, a parental castoff.
My parents had used it in their kitchen, then on their deck. When they bought some beautiful wrought iron furniture at a Meier & Frank warehouse sale, they passed it along with two wooden chairs, Nichols & Stone beauties marred by a strange, sticky finish. Mom let me know that they were “really good” chairs.
Yes, but they were sticky.
It was a temporary solution, but as my mother had explained to me, “Temporary solutions have a way of becoming permanent.” Her example was a crate used as an end table, something you do in college. Ten years later, you look up and that crate is still there, being used as an end table.
Mom had a point. Our entire apartment was furnished in temporary solutions, castoffs and loaners and curbside finds. We’d been using that patio table for at least three years. I used my dad’s staple gun to staple on a new vinyl tablecloth every now and then, but still. I decided to take a look at the “World’s Largest Rummage Sale.”
This secondhand extravaganza was held each year in the Memorial Coliseum by Catlin Gabel, a private school in Northwest Portland. The donation drive went on for months, resulting in an astonishing assemblage of upper-crust castoffs. I knew I could find something at the Catlin Gabel sale.
Boy, did I. A square pine table with a dark finish set me back all of $25.00. Such a bargain, for a “really good” table. It was solid, with a pieced top, braced corners and sturdy turned legs. At one time it had a leaf, because it had a central join with pegs on one side, holes on the other, and levered closures (like the ones you find on windows) underneath to hold the two halves tight.
I think someone built this table in a home workshop. Mom was a furniture snob—she’d worked selling furniture at one point in her life—and she approved of the quality. So did I. My husband didn’t understand why we liked it so much, but it fit in our apartment’s dining space, nicely accommodating our family of four.
It made the move from apartment to our first home, where we grew to a family of five. I thought we were fine. Each side could hold two chairs, especially when two were occupied by little girls. But my husband decided that we no longer fit.
He unscrewed the legs, carted the tabletop somewhere for measuring, then carted it back home and put it back together. “We need a new leaf.” I asked him who was making this new leaf. “I know a guy,” was the most he would tell me.
That’s all he would tell me about, well, anything. He followed his father’s advice to “Never tell a woman where you’re going, or how much money you have.” Fine, then. I retaliated by refusing to be curious (can you see how well this marriage was going? but that is not the point of this blog post. well, not really.).
He brought the new leaf home and unveiled it with pride. I was appalled. It had cost $85.00 to have it made for our $25.00 table, and it wasn’t even finished. He said he’d finish it himself, but I knew him. I covered the raw wood with a large tablecloth and got on with life.
The five of us ate dinner together at the elongated table for a few more years. The girls perched on rickety wooden kitchen chairs my husband found secondhand. Us adults continued to sit in the chairs with the sticky finishes.
But he made it home for dinner less and less. Shift work, most of the time. Other times? Who knew. I was resolutely incurious. It was my only defense.
His sticky chair wasn’t usually empty, though. We had dinner almost nightly with my friend Lauren, whose own marriage had ended. Her two kids came to my house after school, and it was easy to feed them dinner on weeknights. She reciprocated on weekends. That filled up the table very nicely.
When my husband finally moved out, the nightly dinners with Lauren and her kids continued. She was right there, every single day, helping me find (and keep) my footing. We formed our own little Kate and Allie situation.
But times change. I went back to work myself, and worked strange hours. My kids were with their father and his new girlfriend part of the time. One of my girls needed extensive surgery, so my family came down to help a lot that next year.
Eventually, Lauren remarried, and I began my single life adventures. But I believe she kind of, you know, saved my life. And I mean that.
Destruction brings opportunity.
That’s a realization you have after undergoing fundamental devastation. I was grieving the end of my marriage, terrified by the disruption of my children’s security, and just plain furious. But I had to move on. I needed to recognize the opportunity for change.
On the level of personal identity, this meant reclaiming parts of myself I’d set aside. I’d been told by my husband that for the marriage to work, I simply could not be me. I’d given away half of myself (or more, if I’m honest) to be part of that marriage. I wanted it all back and then some.
On the mundane level, that included making decisions about the house and how it was furnished. I looked at every part of my home to make sure it was exactly how I wanted it. Those creaking, rickety kitchen chairs had to go. I laid away four solid oak chairs at an antique mall in Newberg. They were early American in style, and very sturdy. I can’t remember what I paid, maybe $35.00 each? They’d been consigned by a Catholic monk who had finished them himself.
Once I got those home, I felt exalted. No more crappy chairs around my table! I took the table outside, painted the skirt and legs, and refinished the wood top. This included (finally) finishing the leaf, which I had considered taking out. We were back down to a family of four. We didn’t technically need it.
But I’d grown used to the sweep of a larger table. Plus there were kids’ birthday parties to consider. And family dinners on holidays. And all those freaking piles of laundry to fold.
The 2006 house fire allowed me to make more changes, not just in my home’s layout as it was being rebuilt, but in furnishings, because so many were lost. I have a new table now, a sweeping eight-footer. It took some years and some shopping, but it is now flanked by six sturdy modern chairs my daughter found for me on Marketplace.
All on my own, I found two bow back Nichols & Stone chairs for the head and foot of the table (thank you Goodwill, for pricing these beauties at $9.99 each). I like the blend of modern and traditional. And I love a bargain.
The remaining sticky chair is in the bedroom. That’s where I set my purse, and where I heap garments when I can’t decide what to wear.
The oak chairs made it through the fire, and I used them as a temporary solution around the new table. That temporary solution lasted fifteen years before they went to Goodwill. I was glad to see them go. They were sturdy, and gave me good service, but they were also tall and pale and dated. One of them had a little green paint on it. That’s how I identified it when I saw it at my local Goodwill, priced at $14.99.
So long, old oak chairs. It was good to know you.
I kept the old table, which also made it through the fire just fine. I’ve loaned it out twice, once to a friend who used it as a desk, then to a daughter until her boyfriend surprised her with a new dining set. Currently, it leans against a wall in the garage, legs detached, solid and square as ever, waiting to be called into service. The new leaf is there, too, minus a skirting board, but still usable.
I like that table. It would work nicely if I ever call it up as a desk, maybe for the office I plan to create in one of the spare rooms. I’m not sure.
Like I said, it’s a really good table. It was always a really good table.
That’s why I’ll never let it go.
I haven’t seen one of my dear friends for over six years. I’m not sure of all the reasons, but none of them have a thing to do with how much we value each other.
She lives in Tacoma. I met her when she started dating a friend of mine. She enchanted me. Yes, she was intelligent and beautiful but there was something else about her. Something deep and dark, a resonance that is difficult to put into words without sounding a little ridiculous. She had a calm, low speaking voice, the kind that has rivers running in it. Even her laugh was gorgeous.
When I first stepped into her subterranean living space, it was full of treasures. Ornate screens hung with jewelry, candles in sconces, bead-trimmed satin pillows. The walls were hung with framed prints of fantasy and pre-Raphaelite art.
They were all mermaids.
I was a senior in high school in Yakima, Washington, in what passed for an advanced Spanish class. We were playing a game called “Loteria,” like Bingo played with picture cards. My teacher would display the card and enunciate the name of whatever it showed. El Diablito. La Dama. El Borracho. La Sirena.
I looked up, my interest piqued. I had always loved a mermaid.
Ah, the mermaid. She was singing, as mermaids were once thought to do, luring sex-starved sailors to their deaths with her breasts, her siren song. Odysseus lashed himself to the mast to resist the songs that lured his sailors to their deaths, navigating between Scylla and Charybdis.
Those songs were sung by mermaids.
Growing up, I had a children’s edition of The Little Mermaid illustrated with photographs of posed dolls. To my young eyes, the dolls were beautiful, as were the props around them, especially the sea-witch’s undersea lair. The coral, the cauldron…the photos were wonderful enough, but the book also featured a lenticular panel on the cover. It gave a 3D quality to a photo of the mermaid herself, swimming underwater.
The photo pages alternated with text pages, some of which had line drawings in black and white. One of those showed the mermaid right after she’d traded her voice for a pair of legs, lying on the beach unconscious, her hair flowing down around her naked body so discreetly.
As a child I was fascinated by this drawing. I remember so clearly taking my colored pencils and with a few adjustments, moving her hair to reveal a little of her derriere, giving her blonde hair, peach skin. I promise, it was tastefully done.
After I started writing about mermaids, I went on a hunt for my old book, the one with the posed dolls. I saved all my childhood books so it had to be around here somewhere. It took some looking but I found it. I turned to the page with that drawing I’d changed and found it untouched. Had I simply longed to change the drawing so much that I thought I had?
Memory is a strange thing. As mutable and misleading as a mermaid. And this isn’t the first time a mermaid led me astray in my memory. It happened with a present I gave to my mother, who was notoriously hard to please with gifts. If the gift was wrong somehow, it disappeared, or sometimes she just handed it back.
This isn’t as bad as it seems, not to me, because I get it. When someone gives me a “wrong” gift, I feel like they don’t know me. I don’t feel seen. So with Mom, I never took it personally, but a correct gift felt like a triumph.
One birthday, I gave Mom this Danish plate with a line drawing of the Little Mermaid statue. “Oh!” she exclaimed with tears of delight. “I’ve always loved her, sitting in the bay, her eyes out to sea.” She hung it on a wall, so touched.
That plate was a hunch, a six dollar Goodwill gamble. It’s a beauty, but it’s a collector’s plate, and not the kind of item my mother gravitated towards at all.
I wondered why my mother loved it so much. I wondered what she saw when she looked at that statue. I wondered how this particular mermaid made my mother feel seen.
In my memory of the plate, the girl has legs. So I thought she was in her human form, looking out at the ocean, missing her sisters and her life in the underwater kingdom. She’d traded away her tail and gills along with her voice. She was stranded on land.
But I have the plate now, and photos of the statue like the one above make it clear that I was wrong. Look at her lower half. She does have legs and feet, but she also has fins of some kind. And she’s bare-breasted, so she’s definitely in her mermaid form. This means she’s watching the waves, pining for her prince.
Mermaids are supposed to be dangerous, but once they’re lovesick, they’re only dangerous to themselves.
Sometimes, mermaids are less woman and more fish. They are scaly creatures of the deep. I’m okay with that. Last year, I read a scathing book by Lydia Millet called Mermaids in Paradise. Imagine you were on your honeymoon at an inclusive resort taking some silly snorkeling excursion and you saw mermaids. Real ones. Imagine what might go on. The collision of greed and conservationism. The danger and collusion. This is a strange and hilarious book, a book like no other.
But there are mermaids. And they are real. And they are creatures.
I found Something About a Mermaid in a thrift store back in the 1990s. It was published in 1978. My oldest daughter has our copy, treasured and worn and hopefully to be read to my children’s children.
Like many books from the seventies, the book tries to teach a lesson about harsh life events a child might encounter. This was new in the seventies, writing books about bullying or divorce or other painful realities. Historically, books for children were didactic, but more instructive. Like, eat wisely and be obedient and clean, versus, how to deal with the fact that your parents don’t love each other anymore.
It’s difficult to strike the balance between fanciful and didactic, but this book does it. This little mermaid is wild. What a sweet, otter-like face she has. She doesn’t talk, or sing love songs. Her song is one of yearning to be set free. She is a creature. A wild thing. This book asks children to accept that wild things should be left wild.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
I moved to Yakima, Washington with my boyfriend in the fall of 1975. We stayed at the Motel 6 until we could find an apartment. There was a pool and he had nothing to swim in. “Let’s go to a thrift store!” I suggested. Despite his rough hippie exterior, he’d never been to one—he came from a prosperous family—but he was game.
We went to the Salvation Army thrift store on Main to hunt for a pair of jeans he could cut off. I scanned the shelves, as I always did, and saw a rough little clay statue of a mermaid. She lay on her stomach in the waves, faceless and crude, a student effort at best.
It is hard to believe that once, representations of mermaids were so rare that I paid a quarter for my little clay mermaid, just to own one. What’s even more difficult to believe? I still have her. Especially since mermaids are common, now. They are used as a motif in children’s rooms. They adorn shower curtains and word art.
The decor mermaid is sweet and cartoonish. She has no teeth, her breasts are modestly obscured by clam shells. She holds no threat. Once, on a cruise, I saw a grown woman wearing a t-shirt, claiming to be a mermaid.
I know my mermaids. And you, madam, are no mermaid.
I’d read my childhood version of the tale to my oldest daughter many times before I took her to see Disney’s “Little Mermaid” with its charming and goofy Ariel. I sat in that darkened theater and I was terrified. I knew how it ended for the Little Mermaid. Voiceless, endangered, flinging herself at the groom’s feet, begging him to understand that she saved him, and now he must choose her or she will die. Her sisters arrive with a sword and a choice.
This didn’t happen in the movie. The happy ending was a surprise. Wrong, mind you. But a relief. Speaking of Disney movies, I didn’t like the mermaids in “On Stranger Tides.” They were underwater vampires. I do love a vampire, but this mermaid seems to take the masculine fear of seductive women and make it justified. I suppose that started back with Odysseus, didn’t it.
It shouldn’t surprise me that female creatures born of male sexual longing have the capacity for destruction. I didn’t see that capacity for destruction in “Splash.” That sweet, hapless mermaid had no teeth. “Splash” set The Little Mermaid fairy tale on its ear. They could never be happy on land, so he leaves it behind and becomes her companion under the sea, completely dependent on her.
We had to wait for a merman in “The Shape of Water,” to show us how powerful and dangerous a mer-creature born of romantic longing could be. Maybe because women know men are dangerous, whereas men only fear that women are dangerous. Del Toro’s creature was far from toothless. He was a god, after all.
I forgave him for eating the cat.
Most children today know the Disney version of the Little Mermaid. They are unaware of the old version with the sword and the choice. I wonder if my daughters remember the original at all. I still wonder about the sword. Shouldn’t we tell our daughters about the sword? I’m still asking myself that, though my daughters are grown. They have already fallen on it.
One of my first published poems is called “Ariel.” It was published by Goblin Fruit, a fantastical and defunct online magazine. Here it is:
I settled for so little, for so long,
rotting muslin instead of a wedding dress,
wet pebbles he bestowed like pearls.
He kept me as a pet, and I let him,
my hair gone seaweed round my shoulders,
my voice bartered away, leaving me
with half-mad shrieks, porcine grunts and
clumsy gestures that amused him
until I performed my frantic pantomime
at the feet of his new bride,
flopping and heaving as if I still possessed
that column of scaly muscle I traded
for the legs I’d hoped to part for him.
Certainly it mattered that he was killing me?
While my secret gills closed in pink-edged grief,
the priest cried demon and the horrified court stood by,
wheezing with scandal, faces puffed and popping
like those furtive, skimming creatures
on the darkest floors of my father’s house.
My three sisters came to save me, and
they wore the shorn heads of disgraced daughters.
They handed me a sword. The story says
I had a choice, to cleave him as I was cleft,
to find within his sundered trunk
my own salvation.
I ran myself through instead,
but not for love.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.