Posts Tagged: Karen Berry writer

Having Enough

Putting Away

bars of soap on an IKEA bar rag
Photo via Pixabay

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.

Extras.

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.

Not good.

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.

A crocheted blanket on a red vinyl couch.
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

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.

The Birds

Image via Pixabay

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.

The movie.

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.

I’m not dead.

I’m not dead, I’m languishing.

Languishing is that in-between place, where you’re not one thing or another. You just are. And we all are, right now. Is it over? is it not? Where do we stand with opening up, here in my rigorously liberal city where we have been dutifully masking and distancing and vaccinating and boostering? Are we going to throw away our masks or just wait for the next wave? Will we start eating in restaurants? Are there any restaurants left? Will my book groups start up again?

Can I have a goddamned dinner party already?

I’m not dead, I’m sleeping.

Sort of. I’m tossing and turning my way through some nights, unsure what time it is, if it can be over, if I can get up and get on with the day, if my husband is asleep or not, if I’m asleep or not. Last night I slept eight full hours, and would have slept more but woke up to the sound of a horn giving one loud honk. I started awake, wondering what in the world that was. Was it a foghorn? Unlikely, since I live almost 100 miles inland. Was it a car? Also unlikely because I knew the honk originated within my own head. Yes, it was me. I honked. I honk when I’m falling asleep.

I woke myself up, and who can I blame for that?

I’m not dead, I’m waiting.

I’m waiting for…something. Well, one thing for certain, another grandchild arriving this month. This is the third time I’ve awaited the birth of a grandchild, and the first time was an agony. Now, three times in, it’s more like this. Imagine a woman and her three daughters, who made it through so much together, waiting for one of them to give birth. Three of the four focus on the pregnant woman with keen intensity, watching and waiting and worrying and fussing over every scrap of information as if we are the pregnant ones, not her. She’s merely incubating the baby for us. We will take ownership immediately, as a grandmother and as aunts.

We will all have our new baby soon.

I’m not dead, I’m writing.

Yup. A project that was an idea, then a germ, and then a sprout, is now 60K+ of words. Good words. It’s not quite enough words to send out to my carefully selected first readers, but it’s there and it’s real and I am so delighted and baffled with this project because it’s nothing like Iris or the Gentry books. It’s more like the Trailer Park book. I’m not trying to unravel the knots in anyone’s soul through suffering and humor, well, maybe I am, but it’s a work of pure imagination in a version of America that has never existed. I believe that’s called alt-history in the lexicon of terms I don’t give a shit about when it comes to writing.

Look, this place isn’t real, but my hope is you’ll enjoy the visit.

I’m not dead, I’m bingeing.

I’ve been really miserable this week with the state of my aging, leaky gut, and my husband has been in rehearsals every evening, so I’m watching my streaming channels with an unlikely intensity. Here’s what I can tell you. If you don’t have HBO Max, you should get it in order to watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re in Schitt’s Creek withdrawal, watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re languishing, and waiting, and sleeping, watch Somebody Somewhere.

Are you getting the message? Good.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this:

I’m not dead. I’m just here. And I’m glad that you are, too.

Mean Girls

I was never a mean girl.

But I have known a few mean girls in my life.

As a child I was shy, and then, when people got to know me, I was goofy and overly loving. This wasn’t a formula for social success, but that didn’t matter much in the tiny town of Claremont, South Dakota, where my memories of life begin. You only had a few choices as far as children your age to play with. I always had friends. I remember running up to one of them on the playground at Claremont’s tiny school and hugging her and saying, “I just love you so much!”

This is near Claremont, and I will fight anyone who says SD isn’t beautiful.

I’m still this way about friendship. Puppyish and delighted. I find myself thinking, “Dial it back, Karen, don’t be so effusive!” But no matter how much I try to be cool about it, I haven’t changed much in the intervening years, despite my interactions with some…

Really. Mean. Girls.

Surviving Edina

This story starts in December of 1970, when we moved from Rapid City, SD, to Edina, Minnesota. At the time, Edina was the most prosperous suburb of Minneapolis, and my prosperous uncle lived there, so of course that’s where we absolutely had to live according to my mother.

Edina, Minnesota is a bad place to be poor.

At first we rented the parsonage of my uncle’s church, which wasn’t an auspicious debut to Edina society, but there we were, the poor relations from South Dakota. My sister and I were enrolled in the same grade school, where the social hierarchy seemed to be centered on a playground slide called the “barn door.”

Let me describe this thing to you, please.

The barn door was a huge piece of metal set at an angle, like a 12-foot wide slide. There were ladders at each end, and a thick pole attached across the top. The idea was, you’d climb a ladder and shinny out on that pole, then slide down, landing I-don’t-know-how because it was really steep. The other side was just an empty drop to the playground.

I’m not making this up and I’m not describing it very well, but I ran it by my sister and she confirmed that this was real. Before I asked her, I spent ten minutes Googling “dangerous old playground slides.” I’m properly horrified, but I didn’t find an example.

So, back to the barn door.

No one actually used this as a slide. It was more like a set for a grade school production of Lord of the Flies. Kids would edge out onto the pole and straddle it like birds on a wire, clinging to their perch, crowing and jeering while the kids beside them tried to shove them down the slide. Other kids scrambled up the face of the slide and dragged the pole sitters down, something like the zombies swarming the wall in World War Z.

I was a retiring child, but I did love a challenge. That spring I’d gotten myself up there, which was nearly impossible to do because this playground feature was always mobbed. An older girl yanked on my coat to drag me down and I told her she was a ding-dong. So that’s what they called me. They were three nameless, faceless older girls who bullied me. I’d be walking down the hall minding my own business and one of them would see me and shout out “DIIIIIIIING-DOOOOOONG” and the others would join in.

There went my day.

I never made friends at this school and was desperately lonely. When summer came, I played with my sister and her friend Susan, or hung out in the basement where my brother’s room was, and we played Matchbox and Hot Wheels for hours. I was basically fine. That’s how it always was, right? Three weird kids moving somewhere new, enduring their time of being social pariahs by retreating into imaginative play. That was us.

A Fresh Start.

That summer, my parents bought a little Craftsman house in what felt like (to me) a neighborhood of sprawling contemporary fantasy castles. We were still in Edina, but our new home was in a better school district and a fancier neighborhood. I know the prevailing wisdom was to “buy the worst house in the best neighborhood.” But that means you’re always going to be the poorest people in the neighborhood.

That’s what we were, there in our tiny house with 1940s bark cloth wallpaper we couldn’t afford to replace, because my (then) stepdad immediately got laid off or fired, and my mother was newly pregnant and she certainly wasn’t going to go back to work. In contrast, our neighbor had an indoor swimming pool. And a sauna. And five kids who each had their own room.

I’d never understood how poor we were until we moved to this second house in Edina, but I figured it out quickly. Edina was the beginning of my education in the particulars of the American class system, which fascinates and angers me. That’s another blog post entirely, or you can read the Gentry books, because his struggles with it echo my own.

But back to fifth grade. When it came time to start school, I didn’t have any shoes; the heel had broken off my summer sandals, and my other shoes had a big hole in the sole. Mom took me to Southdale mall in my socks to get a pair of shoes.

Strangely enough, I was not a social pariah in this new school. I was immediately befriended by two girls; Nancy and Mary Ann.

Nancy, the Queen Bee

Nancy was short and blonde, with a pinched face and small, sharp teeth. She lived in a large multi-level ranch home on a cul de sac within walking distance of my house. She had a teenage sister who was blonde, plump and mean, and a middle-school-age brother who was also blond and mean. These three kids dealt with each other in a spiteful, cutting way that baffled me. Yes, my sister and I fought, and sometimes we ganged up on our older brother just to be creeps, but we were essentially calm with each other.

Still, I liked going over to Nancy’s house because it had the first family room I’d ever encountered, with wood paneling and special casual furniture and a big color TV. And they had snacks. We never had snacks at my house. Ever. The likely reason was my brother, who mercilessly ate through anything like that. But they had snacks at Nancy’s, and every so often, she’d ask me “Do you want a snack?” and I’d sheepishly say yes. And then she’d regale me with a wonderland of choices, from ice cream sandwiches to chips to Pudding Cups and so on.

I don’t remember ever seeing Nancy’s father, though he lived there. Her mother was a short, stocky, scowling presence with a brunette beehive. My only clear memory of her is from that Christmas. One afternoon that winter, I came over and Nancy let me in the front door and we walked past their formal living room. Nancy’s mother was in there sitting on the couch, cocktail in hand, staring at the lights of her flocked white tree, decorated with green and blue and gold glass ball ornaments. She didn’t even look at us.

I was disturbed by Nancy’s mother that day. She seemed palpably miserable in her sophisticated living room; silent, brooding, and drunk. To be fair, maybe she was simply having a drink and enjoying her fancy tree.

But I don’t think so.

Southdale decorated for Christmas
A Christmas postcard from Southdale Center, where my mother shoplifted all our Christmas presents in 1971, but that’s another blog post.

Mary Ann, the worker bee

The other part of our trio, Mary Ann, was going to be gorgeous, but at age 11 she was overly coltish; tall and thick in that athletic, muscular way that signals Scandinavian heritage and athletic ease. She had a huge smile with big straight white teeth, and tawny skin and wavy golden brown hair that was always done up in two childish braids.

Her hair and clothes were oddly juvenile, for a fifth grader. This was 1971, so there were cute, mod choices out there for girls, but Mary Ann always had on a plaid Polly Flinders smocked dress and those braids. The effect was very Cindy Brady. She was the youngest of many girls–she had four or five older sisters–so there must have been a sizable pile of hand-me-downs.

I only went to Mary Ann’s home a few times, but her many sisters were amazing. Tall and toothy and fashionable, laughing and joking, radiating intelligence and vigor, like healthy, strapping versions of the sisters in The Virgin Suicides. Someone was always getting ready to go skiing.

So, that’s Nancy and Mary Ann. I’d gone from friendless to having two best friends. They apparently didn’t mind my poverty, and the fact that I had very few clothes, and there were no snacks at my house. But I soon discovered that I’d been ushered into this trio for one reason, and one reason only.

They invited me in so they could leave me out.

To be part of a clique felt wonderful, at first. That sense of inclusion was intoxicating. But my lack of experience meant that I didn’t understand that along with inclusion came exclusion. I was clueless as to their social dynamics. I had no defenses when they’d not speak to me for a day or two, or do things secretly without me and then let me know “accidentally” so I’d be sure to feel left out. At least once a week they’d “ditch” me. Ditching was new to me, and humiliating. We’d all go to the girls’ room, and I’d come out of my stall, and they were gone.

Exclusion was devastating. And constant. One day, I was so upset by them that I came home and cried to my mother about it. That was a mistake. Without my knowing, she called each of their mothers and basically told these women that their daughters were rotten little brats who should have been drowned at birth. Mom maybe even used those words, I don’t know, she had a temper.

And of course both Mary Ann and Nancy sneered at me the next day, accusing me of “having your mom call our moms.” I had no idea Mom had done that, and was humiliated beyond words. Also, Nancy sneered at me for “eating all our snacks.” I was angry about that, because I’d had maybe a snack a month over there. Did my delight show that much? (probably). Then, miraculously, they decided to bring me back into the fold.

This went on for just a few months. Occasionally, they’d fight with each other, and each vie for my friendship. I found this triangulation excruciating. I was always relieved when they’d make up and I could go back to my role as third wheel, in spite of the fact that sooner or later, I’d be on the outs myself.

Listen, I had options.

When I was home, I played with my neighbor, Marcy, who lived in the house with the pool. I went to slumber parties for my other classmates, even though I despised sleepovers. There was a girl named Robin—a smart girl, but she was an only child, which was unheard of back then, so she could be a little intense. She invited me over to play, and lobbied hard for me to be her best friend. She even wrote some desperate notes to me about it. I didn’t know how to handle her ardent girl crush, so eventually, I ignored her (I’m sorry, Robin, I should have been friends with you, I really should have).

I could have made other friends, but there was an allure to the roller coaster of friendship with Mary Ann and Nancy. It was so awful when they were being awful, and then so fun when they were being fun. I couldn’t break free, but I was increasingly miserable. My stomach hurt all the time. I was missing school because of it.

Events come to a head.

That January, bronchitis kept me out of school for two weeks. I probably could have come back sooner, but it was a relief not to participate in the drama, and my stomach needed a rest. Of course, when I finally had to come back to class, it knotted right up again because they weren’t speaking to me.

At that point, it was almost normal. I got busy on my makeup assignments and waited for my time in exclusion hell to be over. But that wasn’t going to happen. Another girl, Renee, stopped by my desk and let me know with a smile that one day at recess, Nancy and Mary Ann had held a mock trial in my absence, to decide whether or not they still had to be friends with me.

The verdict was no.

I remember what that felt like, to hear about that trial, to imagine something like this taking place in front of (and with, there had to be a jury, right?) my classmates. I felt the scald of shame and humiliation under my skin, but I didn’t cry. I turned to steel. I resolved to never speak to either of them again.

Of course, those two were annoyed that I’d moved on, and within days they tried to get back in my good graces. I remember sitting in a lunchroom, eating from a tray by myself. They sat down at my table and had a long, loud conversation about how sad they were that “Karen won’t talk to us anymore.” “Even though we’re sorry.” “I really miss Karen, don’t you?” On and on in that vein.

I finished my lunch and picked up my tray and left them sitting there. They were dead to me.

Edina wasn’t all bad.

I try to remember other parts of this school year that had nothing to do with those awful girls. The school was a good one, with fine teachers, which isn’t surprising because this was Edina, Minnesota. I made excellent grades in everything, and won a penmanship award (which will amuse anyone who has to read my handwriting today).

I had my first crush on a real boy (as opposed to Ringo Starr, Davy Jones, and Jack Wild). His name was John. Instead of a short British man with dark hair and a heavy accent, I fell for a tall redheaded boy with chubby cheeks and a great sense of humor. Sadly, he had a crush of his own on a girl named Jane (more on Jane later).

For my classroom’s Minnesota history fair, I wrote a play about pioneers for me and my classmates to perform, and I played the father because we decided we didn’t want any boys to be in it. We brought down the house. For that same fair, one of the girls brought in an electric skillet and made frybread for us all. Does this seem minor to you? It wasn’t. It was a revelation, and I’ve loved frybread ever since.

Since this was Minnesota, we sledded at recess. I smashed into a tree on my (imitation) Flexible Flyer and rode in an ambulance to have my knee checked out (I was fine, and this remains the only time in my life I’ve ridden in an ambulance).

A prim school librarian quietly introduced me to the Narnia and Black Cauldron books at this school. She so had my number. I remember bringing her a plate of Christmas cookies in gratitude.

This period of my life lasted most of a school year, with other classmates and teachers and projects and and recesses full of jumping rope, and jacks competitions, and teaching each other cat’s cradle, and all those sing-song-hand-clap games I could still play if I just had a partner. Why aren’t these memories stronger than my memories of the Mean Girls?

I wish I knew.

A Happier Ending

Within a week, I’d made better friends. I finished the remainder of my time in Edina with Jane and Sarah. Jane had long wavy dark hair and sparkling eyes. There might have even been some freckles involved. She was fresh and steady and smart and funny, like a main character in a middle-reader book. Plucky, cute, smart Jane, a born leader and a fierce ally.

Sarah was kind and diligent, and the most beautiful girl I’d ever met; her honey-colored hair was long, her bangs trimmed with mathematical precision. I remember the gentle, methodical way she’d button her coat, draw on her mittens, and tie her hat before we went out for recess, like she was a loving adult dressing a cherished child for cold weather, only Sarah was the adult and the child, both.

These girls and their sincere, good natured friendship were an antidote to the spiteful machinations of Nancy and Mary Ann. We spent our recesses happily and without incident, until my parents decided to move to Arkansas in early April of that year, 1972. I had a week of popularity before I left, because it was glamorous to be moving. And during that week, Jane and Sarah and I let Nancy and Mary Ann play with us.

I could be merciful, thanks to my elevated status as the girl who was moving away.

Once I moved, I exchanged letters with my former friends, including Mary Ann, who wrote a very concerned letter after I wrote to her about falling off Mark’s horse. Or maybe Sarah wrote that, she was probably more likely to be frightened by something like that.

At any rate, all was forgiven. As it should be. We are all fifth graders at some point in our lives, and we all have lessons to learn about how to be, and how not to be.

Even mean girls.

Looking back

I like to imagine that Mary Ann outgrew her attachment to Nancy, along with those Polly Flinders dresses, and became more like her dazzling older sisters. I’m sure that sweet Robin found a best friend to whom she could pledge her starry-eyed devotion. I’ll bet Jane and Sarah grew from smart, happy girls into capable Minnesota women who live pleasant, educated, liberal lives in the Edina way. But I think Nancy was just a miserable person, period, and that probably didn’t change.

I don’t know. These are conjectures.

I do know from raising three daughters, that every girl seem to go through a year of social pain like my fifth grade. I’ve told each of my daughters the Ballad of Nancy and Mary Ann, my tragic tale of being ditched in the bathroom and put on mock trial to end the friendship. I wanted my daughters to understand that social humiliation is an inescapable part of growing up for girls. I wonder why, though. I wonder why we’re like this, and if it will ever change.

But that’s not my point. I do have one, you know. And mine is this: I’ve never found myself in a situation like this again in my life. Not even in high school, where Mean Girls thrive.

Oh, I’ve had some lopsided friendships, and friendships that ended in anger, and friends who faded away due to geography or inattention or the reality of how much of myself I can realistically share with other people before there’s nothing left. I’ve been dropped cold by two of my nearest and dearest, both of whom were men, by the way. I’ve even been friends with mean women, but that toxic stuff hasn’t taken hold in my life. They might still play these games, but I barely notice that part of them, and I certainly never engage with it.

So I guess I owe those two fifth graders a debt of gratitude, don’t I? Thanks, Nancy and Mary Ann. You inoculated me against your kind, and the immunity has lasted for fifty years.

No boosters needed.

Some other reading

Why does everyone hate on Edina?: Also linked above, but here it is again, in case you skipped it

A post about Polly Flinders dresses by a funny blogger, with photos: How Polly Flinders Ruined My Life

An academic paper on the Mean Girl Phenomenon: Queen Bees

A photo essay on America’s first indoor shopping mall, where I learned to shoplift: The History of Southdale Center, with photos

Arkansas and the Vagaries of Memory

A Snort of Derision

My sister and I have worked out a division of labor, as far as childhood memories. I ask questions, and she provides answers. It’s assumed that she remembers it all correctly. But recently, as we were talking about our Arkansas memories, I made an assertion about the past that generated an actual snort of derision from her.

Let me explain.

In March of 1971, we moved to Arkansas so my dad could begin his career in the Forest Service. Booneville is up in the northwestern corner of the state, in a region that’s below sea level. I think. This is what I was told and I’ve never done any research to back it up. The hot soup of humidity we swam through was evidence enough for me.

It certainly felt like we were living underwater.

On arrival, we stayed in a motel; three kids in one room, my parents in another. I was just barely 11, my sister was 13, and my brother was 16. It was too hot to breathe without air conditioning, so we kids stayed in our dingy little motel room and started fights with each other while Mom and Dad went out each day to try to find us a place to live.

They couldn’t find one. That same spring, a small toy factory had opened, and it lured in workers from around the state. All the rentals had been taken.

We were used to moving at that point, I guess, but we’d always moved from one house to another house. Motels were never involved. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a motel in Booneville, Arkansas, pop. 3200 or something like that.

My parents were desperate.

They finally drove us all out to see a tattered little farm in the country with a house on it: a one-story six-room rectangle that had sat empty for quite a while. It appeared to be right on the verge of falling over. There was no obvious sign of vandalism, but it was filthy. There was (biggish) poop in the kitchen sink, and invasive greenery growing around the window frames and into the rooms.

Six rooms, no hallway. This is not the house, but it reminds me of the house. Good times.

Image by SEspider from Pixabay

To give you an idea of how desperate my parents were to get out of that motel, they rented this place. They rented it despite the fact that it was miles out of town on a red dirt road. They rented it despite the rotting outbuildings that included an outhouse. And, most importantly, they rented this dump despite the fact that in just a few short months, they’d be welcoming a newborn baby.

The rent was delivered, the keys were ours, and we all pitched in to make the place habitable. Understand, my parents could transform anywhere into a home. Even this place. They weren’t ever going to buy it, so this was basically just a cover up job. Paint over the peeling plaster, lay down indoor/outdoor carpet in the kitchen and bathroom, deep-clean the linoleum floors in the rest of the house. What couldn’t be painted was papered. Somehow, they made this leaning, crumbling little wreck of a house into a place we could live.

My explorations

Even though that house was tiny and terrible, I found interesting things to consider about it. I was fascinated by the idea of a home with no hallway. If you came in via the back door, you entered the kitchen and began your circuit. Counter clockwise, it went: kitchen to bathroom to first bedroom to second bedroom room to living room to dining room and back into the kitchen. Or you could go clockwise and go kitchen, dining room, living room, second bedroom, first bedroom, bathroom, kitchen.

And if you’re a kid, which I was, you can’t wait to make the circuit while running, even though running in the house was verboten.

The farm itself held places of additonal interest. There were the outbuildings, which we were forbidden to enter. I explored them at length. One shed was full of empty moonshine bottles and wasps’ nests. I picked up a lot of bottles in there, and kicked my way through rotten hay in a tiny building that was possibly a barn, and I avoided the outhouse.

There was a stock pond that I was forbidden to go near. I picked my way to it through fields of ancient cow pies, to stand at the bank and consider wading in. Those cow pies made me squeamish about what the bottom might be like. There was a clear creek, where I spent hours watching water bugs skate on its surface, and trying cross it by walking on fallen logs. It was shallow and swift. I could walk across it without getting very wet, but those logs were always beckoning me. I fell into that creek a lot, that first summer.

The photo below is not that creek, but it’s how I remember it.

Image by G Johansen from Pixabay

We also had neighbors.

It was these neighbors my sister and I were discussing the other day. We were remembering how, during a visit from her Minneapolis friend, Salle, we climbed out our bedroom window and walked across acres of pasture to a neighboring farm, where we picked up our friend Deena (who had also climbed out her bedroom window) to join us for a terrifying midnight walk.

I’ll save the full story of the midnight walk for another time, but my sister started talking about Deena’s family. “God, they were trashy,” she said. “Just utter trash. They had those milk cows, and they’d get into skunkweed, and I remember sitting at their table during dinner, dreading when I’d have to drink that horrible milk.”

I was puzzled. Yes, that milk was awful, but I remembered this family very differently. I started talking about what I remembered, like how their ranch house had three levels and two hallways, and a dining room where we were periodically invited for glasses of icky fresh milk. Their barn was huge, and full of cows. I watched the kids milk those cows and strain the buckets into big milk containers, to get the flies out. And there were horses, because the kids all rode.

And swimming! “They had that lake,” I said to my sister. “Don’t you remember that private lake they had?” It was small, and Arkansas green, but that water was cool enough to make the heat bearable.

I described the six kids; two (now nameless) older teenage boys who struck me as impossibly alluring and breathtaking. They barely said a word to us, but when they did, it was indulgent and kind. Deena, at age thirteen, had long dark hair and a perfect figure, though her legs were a little bowed because these kids were always on horseback.

Those were the original kids, and then there were three adopted kids; Stacey, Mark, and Donna. Stacey was 12, Mark was 11, and Donna was somewhere between eight and ten (too young to hang out with us). They were nice-looking kids on the cusp of looking like whatever they were going to look like; a trio of siblings who had found a home with our neighbors.

I remember the boys explaining that they’d been adopted fairly recently. We’d also been adopted recently by my mom’s third husband, but our mother had forbidden us to tell anyone. Mom didn’t need to put the fear of God into us about it. I never mentioned being adopted, not because Mom wanted it that way, but because I was ashamed. The pride that my new father wanted me was overshadowed by the fact that my other father hadn’t. I’d been given away, which left me feeling unwanted, defective, and deeply ashamed.

And here were these boys, proudly talking about how they’d been able to choose new names as part of their adoption.

I try again.

I reminded my sister of all this. Well, I didn’t mention that shame part, because I assume she carries as much lifelong trauma as I do, but I did remind her about the neighbor kids picking out new names.

“And do you remember that even though we lived on neighboring farms, they went to school in some other town?” I asked her. “And in that town, wherever it was, the mom had a clothing store that she called ‘The DeenaDonna Boutique’? Don’t you remember that?”

“Oh my God, the DeenaDonna Boutique. I do remember.” My sister stopped laughing, and went a little quiet. “You remember more than I do,” she said. “That’s not how it usually is. I’m the one who usually…”

I interrupted her, “Of course I remember them. Stacey was my first boyfriend.”

My sister let out that previously mentioned snort of derision. “He was not your first boyfriend!”

“He sure was. Don’t you remember? I liked Mark at first, but Stacey was the one who asked me to be his girlfriend.” I went on to describe how that summer, Stacey and I would tie up the party line. Irritated older women would pick up and scold us to get off the phone.

My sister seemed to remember most of these details, but she still searched her memory for the idea that I’d had a boyfriend. She brought up the horses. “We rode horses with them all the time. You and I rode on the back, behind Deena.” Her voice was trailing off at this point. I could feel her remembering.

“No, you rode behind Deena, and I rode behind Mark or Stacey. Remember when I was alone on Mark’s horse, and it started for the barn and I slid right off the back?” He’d gotten down and left me sitting behind the saddle, and I couldn’t reach the reins and didn’t know to grab the saddle horn. I was so afraid of horses after that, and I still am. “And don’t you remember that Stacey would ride over on his horse, and we’d ride out together, just him and me?”

I could hear her voice change, as those memories were resurrected from wherever they’d been hiding. No one in the family could forget my falling off that horse. “Maybe they weren’t as trashy as I remember,” she said.

I don’t think they were trashy at all.

For me and Stacey, that was the extent of our young romance; a summer of swimming, horseback rides, and tying up the party line with awkward, giggling phone calls. We never so much as held hands. It was pretty perfect. When school started, I stopped hearing from him. He probably found a new girlfriend at his school in whichever little town that was.

Later that school year, we moved out of the farm and into Booneville proper, where we crammed the six of us into another absolutely stupid living set up. I’ll save that for another time. I had a new boyfriend that year, and another after that, but I’ll save those boys for another time, too.

For now, I just want to talk about yesterday, when my sister finally accepted that in this case, my memories were correct: My first boyfriend, at age 12, was a boy named Stacey, who lived on a neighboring farm with three brothers and two sisters. His father ran that farm, and his mother owned a clothing store. Their home was large enough to hold six kids. Their barn was huge and full of valuable livestock. They had five farm dogs, chickens, a private lake, and more wonders than I probably knew, because I was eleven years old and didn’t pay attention to campers and boats and the like.

My sister, who was my daily companion on that farm, didn’t remember Stacey or anything else about our neighbors besides their stinky milk. I think it was that milk that made her remember this family as trashy, even though at the time, they lived like they lived, while our family of six rented a decrepit two-bedroom farmhouse where my parents slept in the dining room with our new baby brother.

Here I am with that baby brother, who turns fifty today. Happy Birthday, E.

Memory is a strange, strange thing. I’m glad that between the two of us, my sister and I can patch together our shared past. But it definitely takes the both of us to sort through and figure out what really happened.

Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day – an Anthology of Hope

I’m excited!

Book cover for BLACK-EYED PEAS ON NEW YEAR'S DAY: Stories of Hope

Yes, that’s a new book cover, and it’s an anthology of hopeful stories (including one of mine).

Really, it couldn’t have come at a better time, could it? When a friend sent out a call for stories centered on hope, I scoffed. “Hope? I don’t write anything hopeful. I HAVE NO HOPE.” And then I remembered this little hopeful story I’d written, and I sent it in, and, well…

…it gave me some hope.

Here’s the introduction:

2020 wasn’t kind to any of us, was it? (And 2021 is off to a shaky start at best!) Pandemic, economic collapse, out-of-control wildfires the world ’round, ice storms, murder hornets…and that’s without even discussing politics. It’s time to send some good energy out there into the world. Good luck, good wishes, good magic, talismans and rituals and lucky charms–you name it, we’ve got it here.

BLACK-EYED PEAS ON NEW YEAR’S DAY is a multi-genre anthology focused on hope. Here you’ll find more than a double dozen tales–fantasy, science fiction, literary, even nonfiction–that will bring a smile to your face and some optimism to your heart. After all, we’re all in this together. (Except the murder hornets. They’re not welcome here.)

REVIEW:

This is a wonderful, diverse, and extensive collection of short stories (and a few miscellany) based on the theme of Hope. Which is understandable, and in some ways mandated by the past year of Covid, racial injustice and tension, political divisiveness, conspiracy craziness, and simple mean-spiritedness that has permeated almost all levels of culture. Of course, there is another way to view the past year, and that is the unfettered  creativity and triumph of the human spirit that emerged in front-line workers, parents, teachers, and a whole host of others. And this is where the Black-Eyed Peas Anthology is situated. On the positive side of the line. It is, quite simply, an antidote.
-Paul S. Piper, author of Dogs and Other Poems and The Wolves of Mirr

How to get it

There’s Amazon: Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day

And e-books can be ordered and downloaded directly from the publisher, Book View Cafe: Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day

My own hopes

I’ve had my first shot, and I’m scheduled for my second. My one great big hope right now is that I’ll be able to SAFELY take my older grandson to the Dinosaurs exhibit at OMSI in May.

Fingers crossed.

THESE SAFE, SELFLESS CREATURES, THESE WIVES

A long conversation between author Karen G. Berry and Susan Sabol, her dear friend of many decades, which is included in The Iris Files, and reprinted here for your enjoyment. And you WILL enjoy it.

Sue: Why did you write this book?

Karen: Iris was a character in a short story I wrote trying to get into a creative writing class. I didn’t get in, I don’t write good short stories. But I always wondered about her full story. One day, I decided to tell it.

Sue: You write as if you are intimately familiar with life in suburbia. Are you?

Karen: Absolutely. I moved out to the suburbs when I was 23 years old. I hated it at first, but I stayed out here. And the truth is, I have grown to absolutely love the suburbs. Tall trees and birds and open windows, a big yard for my dogs, and the sound of the train on a quiet night. I always have a place to park.

Sue: Talk about the ways in which you think Iris speaks for all mothers.

Karen: Wow. That’s a question. I think motherhood is a very messy, visceral job. Before you become a parent you’re fed this Pinterest ideal of cotton clothing and handmade wooden toys; co-sleeping and making your own baby food and four years of breastfeeding, all carried out at an aesthetically pleasing level. That’s something that’s gotten so much worse over the years. And how motherhood looks is not how motherhood is. It’s a battlefield, and Iris is a front-line soldier.

Sue: What makes Hart Bourne tick?

Karen: I’ve always seen him as a man who is desperately unhappy with himself, who externalizes his self-loathing on the people around him. If you have the misfortune of being married to a man like that, you’ll spend your entire existence trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong. And he’ll let you do that so he doesn’t have to face the source of his pain—himself. It’s so much easier for him to blame Iris, isn’t it?

Sue: Do you think that Hart is an archetype?

Karen: He’s such a personally constructed character. I hope he’s not a common archetype. But thank you for asking about him—I actually feel for Hart, and most people despise him too much to wonder what he’s made of.

Sue: Minah Bourne showed up first in Love and Mayhem. It’s nice to see her again. Will you continue to include connections between your books in work to come?

Karen: Absolutely. My books are influenced by writers who are very much better than me, but they do things I admire. The obvious connection in the trailer park book is Faulkner. Lots of Joad in there, and Fossetta Sweet is a Faulknerian character. Now, I know that I am NO Faulkner. But I read him and I love him and this interconnectedness is something I strive for. Another writer who does this brilliantly is Haven Kimmel. She writes the books I would write in my dreams. I’ve read every book she’s ever written, and we’re in a dry spell while she rewrites a new novel, so I went on Amazon and found her mother’s self-published stuff and bought all that on Kindle. I’m desperate. I love the way she weaves her characters together even in the most glancing ways. I feel so intelligent and so jubilant when I make the connections. I’m not Haven Kimmel, but I do want to do that for my readers.

Sue: So you’ll carry on with these characters?

Karen: Some of them. Not telling which ones.

Sue: Do you hide secrets in your books?

Karen: Absolutely every time.


Sue: Do you want to talk about that?


Karen: Well then they wouldn’t be secrets, Sue.


Sue: How do you come up with the names for your characters?

Karen: I’m actually terrible at names. I usually start out with some stupid name, and then at some point the name is so overwhelmingly wrong that I have to put some thought into it. So I have baby books, and then there’s the Internet. I also save lists of names I hear when I’m out and about. I worked at a business-to-business telemarketing company and I kept a big list of names, and I still use it. The first name on the list is important in a book I’m currently writing.

Sue: What’s your favorite childhood book?

Karen: When I was thirteen, I read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Those books were long and grotesque and wonderful and they probably warped my perception of life, but I loved them. I reread them all through my teens and twenties.

Sue: Do you still have them?

Karen: I still have the original copies. But thirteen is not childhood. Childhood was the Raggedy Ann and Andy books, and the Oz books, and the Black Cauldron books and the Narnia series. I loved a good series and always will. I did love some standalone books, like Linnets and Valerians, and The Wind in the Willows, and Journey Outside by Mary Q. Steele. Have you read that? It’s about a boy who lives in a community made of a series of rafts that travel an underground river. He realizes that they’re traveling a loop, so he jumps off and comes out into the world. It’s a fantastic quest story that involves a nasty sunburn and shorts made of fish skin. I highly recommend it.

(please note, after this conversation, Sue sent me a copy of this book, so now I have two.)

Another series that was important to me was the Whiteoaks of Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche. It’s a long historical romance series about a Canadian family, and it’s idiosyncratic and personal and hilarious and wonderful and flawed. When I was 19, I spent a summer feverishly checking the books out of the Missoula public library. They had the same pleasures that my favorite childhood books held, like recurring characters and the power of a place and fascinating buildings and long difficult family meals and even pets, things I loved long before I ever read Faulkner. That’s what I’ve always wanted to write.

Sue: What’s the first book that made you cry?

Karen: Books make me cry all the time, and I started reading early, so I probably can’t remember what it was. It might have been one of the Mother West Wind books. I was raised in part in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and L. Frank Baum is from there, so the Wizard of Oz books were all on the shelf at the library. I started walking to the library when I was seven, and I took them all out, so it might have been something in there. The glass cat with the ruby heart struck me as glamorous and tragic.

Sue: Are your characters ever based on real people?


Karen: Absolutely not. Everything is made up. EVERY SINGLE THING.


Sue: Is this book autobiographical in any way? Can’t you share something?

Karen: I’ll tell you the part about answering this question that’s difficult. Every horrible thing that Hart says to Iris was said to me in one of my marriages. Most of it was word for word. It’s painful when people read this book and say, “How could any self-respecting woman let her husband say these things to her without leaving him?” And those people have a point. It’s horrifying what you’ll tolerate when you’re trying to hold a family together. I hope readers extend some empathy to Iris for that. There are some other similarities, but Iris is her own character, and her marriage is her own marriage, and what happens in it is her own story.

Sue: I love that answer.


Karen: Did I successfully skirt the issue?

Sue: I think so. Talk about why this book needs a Nick.

Karen: Nick reminds us all that we have the capacity to accept life and be happy for it. We can roll with it. That’s something we lose as we get older and become more cynical. So I love his innocence.

Sue: That’s why I love Nick, too, Karen.

Karen: Wike it?


Sue: Wike it.


Karen: Atsa awesome.

Sue: What was the hardest scene in this book for you to write and why?

Karen: The hardest scene to write was Iris’s epiphany at the end. Because Iris is very much like I was, in that she doesn’t choose or plan what happens to her, she just copes with whatever comes at her, and she endures. And she finally reaches a point where she is going to have to make a choice, and it almost kills her. It was hard to write because I honestly didn’t know what Iris was going to do until I was writing the scene. I knew what I wanted her to do, I was cheering her on, but she could have gone either way. I’d have had to live with it.

Sue: What, if anything, did you edit out of this book?

Karen: Originally I had a deranged character who sort of floated around the edges of these women’s lives as a specter. She still makes some appearances when Jane and Iris are at the Goodwill. She’s frightening and prophetic, but I already had the dogs in there as a canine Greek chorus, so I didn’t need another suffering witness to the pain of Iris and her family. I also took out Raymond’s father’s story, because I didn’t like it. But I wanted Iris’s first pregnancy to be unplanned and outside her marriage. That much stayed in.

Sue: Iris certainly availed herself of many forms of birth control.

Karen: People love that part!

Sue: Now, we’re talking about many women not even having access to that kind of care.

Karen: Terrifying, isn’t it? And for women, our biology is very often our destiny. That is not a very popular viewpoint right now, because birth control is supposed to help us reshape that. But even with every barrier, conceptions happen, and children are the most overwhelming and irrevocable choice that most of us ever make. I guess having birth control not work for Iris was a way to examine how fertility can affect your life and your goals. You try to plan, and instead you just cope and endure. I think it’s important to remember how profoundly women’s lives are shaped by their fertility.

Sue: Are marriages supposed to be happy?

Karen: I’m not sure. We take our cues from our parents’ marriages, and we can repeat some terrible patterns. I think you have to have seen a good relationship to appreciate what one is supposed to be. Most early marriages are based on what you already know. That’s why I believe we should marry a lot of times until we get it right! But seriously, I’m at the point in my life where I only want to have a relationship if it’s predominantly happy and pleasing. And I envy people whose marriages were like that from the get-go, but mine certainly were not. I keep learning and changing and trying. I’d like to get this right at least once.

(another note: I believe I have finally gotten this one right.)

Sue: What do you think about divorce?

Karen: Divorce is so terrible, right until it’s not. Breaking up a marriage is hideous and painful and awful, and you’re dying inside and hopeless and crying all the time and looking for bridges, then—one day—there’s a moment when you realize that you’re surviving. More time passes, and then you’re thriving. Then, you go on a nice long honeymoon with yourself, and it’s the best relationship you’ve ever had. Eventually you decide to see other people, and life gets stupid and complicated again, but in the beginning when it’s just you and yourself on that honeymoon? It’s magical.

It’s astonishing to think you can survive something that wretched, and have life get better. I always compare it to a really bad pruning job on a sick tree. You hack it back and you think it has to be dead. And the next spring it’s the prettiest and healthiest tree in the neighborhood.

Sue: Like Arno’s tree.


Karen: Exactly like Arno’s tree.

Sue: So are you pro-divorce?

Karen: Oh, no. I’m not pro-divorce. I am pro surviving divorce. At heart, I have a really traditional view of marriage and commitment and fidelity, which surprises me because I remember being so angry when I was married. I knew I was diminished in some basic ways. And you know, I don’t think it’s men who expect women to diminish themselves in marriage. I think we do it to ourselves, probably because of some big blanket of perceived societal expectations. We carve off big hunks of ourselves to be safe and available. I did, at least. And the husbands are baffled by these safe, selfless creatures, these wives. They’re left wondering where those funny, interesting women they married have gone to. Men would probably prefer to be married to independent, interesting women, don’t you think?

Sue: What do you wish you could tell Iris?

Karen: Iris has no perspective on the fact that parenthood at the level she’s doing it is a temporary state. I have the advantage now of having moved through that part of parenting. But when you’re in it, you’re in the trenches and you have no idea that it’s ever going to be over, or how you’re going to survive it. I wish I could tell her, “If you just hold on, it gets better!” I think her mother gently tries to tell her that. Her mother is quietly determined to enjoy her life. She loves being a grandmother and she loves the kids, but she isn’t going to take it on again.

Sue: Selfish.


Karen: It’s a necessary selfishness. One of my kids has thanked me for what she used to see as selfishness on my part. She says it showed her that women have the right to pursue creative goals, and to have pursuits in their lives that have nothing to do with their children. She thinks that’s a valuable lesson.

For me, I was selfish about writing and relationships. I barely dated anyone, I wasn’t dragging men through here or anything, but I’d go away for a weekend now and then. I had a life. So I think Iris needs to be more selfish from here on out. More determined to have some scrap of something that belongs to just her.

Sue: Why does Iris act so out of character in Hawaii?

Karen: She takes an exquisite revenge. I think if you don’t violently cheer on Iris for that evening, then you probably won’t like anything I write, ever.

Sue: Sonny’s story is a difficult one, because when the book ends, you have no idea how it will come out for him.

Karen: Well, this world of gender and identity is a difficult one. I want to love and respect and support what everyone is going through in the world, and in society, and in my family. I believe that people have genders that don’t match their sex organs, 100% I believe that is true. But frankly, it’s confusing to me, and it’s difficult for me in ways that surprise me. I need to grow, and growth is never comfortable. Writing about it is one way to deal with that.

All right, now I want to ask you a question.

Sue: Cool. All right.

Karen: When you and I were young moms together, how did we help each other survive?

Sue: Oh. We had an alternate reality where for like, four hours at a time, we pretended that we were normal twenty-somethings. Watching videos and drinking beer and cracking each other up.

Karen: And eating M&Ms. Beer and M&Ms sounds terrible, but it worked.

Sue: Sometimes we got to go out. Rarely.

Karen: I remember when we went to Gaffer’s Pub and there were all those Jimmy Buffet fans, and we kept interrupting their Parrothead songs on the jukebox with Al Green and Terence Trent D’Arby and Prince.

Sue: They kept coming over to talk to us. And buying us drinks. And showing us their watches.

Karen: Yes! They all had big fancy watches! And when they asked for our numbers, you chastely demurred that you were married, but I gave them the attendance hotline number at the grade school. That was one of the few numbers I knew by heart.

Sue: You created that feeling perfectly with Iris’s friends, their little enclave on the deck.

Karen: I’m so glad I captured it. Those times were perfect. I think our friends keep us sane. I think we’re probably supposed to live in little groups of maybe six women and one man, helping each other raise the kids and keeping each other sane. These polygamy people probably have it right. I’m not ready to be a sister wife, but one husband would probably be adequate for six women. And if he wasn’t, well, there would be roofers.

Sue: By the way, have you ever gawked at real roofers?

Karen: Sue, you’ve known me since I was 26 years old. You know how much “vague lustful speculation” I’ve engaged in over the years. Not particularly for roofers, but do you remember?

Sue: I remember everything!

Karen: Oh dear. Let’s talk about something else.


Sue: Okay. Do you think Iris has the right to write about her life?

Karen: That’s an important question. He says, “You can’t write about us,” and she says, “But you’re all I’ve got.” The question is more important now than ever. So many women are turning their families into businesses. These curated, blogged-about, Instagrammed families are monetized, but it’s not really a new thing. Joyce Maynard wrote about her family, and before that Erma Bombeck wrote about her family, and before them Shirley Jackson wrote about her family in Life Among the Savages. Jackson was a premier American horror writer and she also wrote these beautiful, hilarious books about raising her family in upstate New York.

So this is a tradition for women writers, and it’s still a big question. For many of us, the domestic realm is our subject matter, this is where we live, where we fight our battles and have our triumphs. And if we deny ourselves the right to write about those, what do we have? It’s a personal issue for me. I used to keep an anonymous blog, and one of my kids found it, and she felt so invaded when she’d pop up in it. And I see her point. That’s why this book, where it’s autobiographical, it’s really buried deeply. I don’t want to be accused of writing about my family and violating their privacy.

Sue: Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Karen: Energizes me.

Sue: I knew you were going to say that. What’s your writing Kryptonite?

Karen: Is Kryptonite what kills you? Because I’m not dead yet.

Sue: Kryptonite takes away your power.

Karen: Okay. A lack of solitude and privacy and uninterrupted time. Without those I can’t write. That’s why writing is a selfish endeavor.

Sue: Has publishing your books changed anything about how you write?

Karen: It didn’t change how I write—it gave me permission continue to writing what I want to write, the way I want to write it, period. It is enormously freeing to self-publish. There is so much advice out there about finding your commercial niche, and that has nothing to do with my goals for my writing.

The writers I love are all firmly mid-list. And they’re all assistant chairs of the creative writing departments at small colleges or something like that. None of the writers I adore are making a lucrative living with their brilliant books. Realizing that I can publish my books, sell my modest amount of copies and not have to worry about changing them to be more commercial so one of the houses will take a chance on me—it’s just changed everything for me, Sue, it’s made me so happy.

Sue: What does literary success look like to you?

Karen: Literary success is when you write work that deeply affects the people who read it. And it has nothing to do with how many copies you sell. If anyone is affected by anything I write, I count myself as a success.

On ranch homes and roots.

When did everyone start loving ranch homes? I remember when the battle cry for house hunting was “Anything but a ranch!” Ranches were plain, boxy, a capitulation to suburban living in all its mundane boredom.

I know, I know, it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like what they do so much that I can tell you the names of my favorite ranch home rehabs: Big Daddy’s House and the Worm Brick House. It’s not the décor so much–Joanna’s initial enthusiasm for flaking paint and patchy rust are not to my taste, nor are her more current themes of black metal and artificial flowers–but they take those houses apart and put them back together in such pleasing ways. When I watch House Hunters on HGTV (which I started to do a week after the last election, because MSNBC was making me lose my will to live) I am surprised at how many people go looking for ranches as their preferred style. Something has CHANGED, people.

Amway Dream Home

As a house-hunter in the late 1980s, I was one of those people, of course. What I wanted more than anything was a Craftsman home with intact, unpainted woodwork. We (my ex-husband and I) even found one, but lacked the necessary fortitude to trust our guts and make an offer. That rundown Craftsman sat on a large lot, right next to a house we called “the Amway Dream Home.”

The Amway Dream Home was a new construction ranch that was landscaped with grass and red lava rock, like a military base. This house had been for sale forever for very good reasons. It was a yellowish tan shoe box with trim painted the color of the contents of a baby diaper. It had an oversized double-car garage with a room of some kind next to it (my ex would drawl, “that’s for the praw-duhct”). The front yard was dominated by an enormous satellite dish. This house was absolutely devoid of architectural detail or charm.

Reader, guess who bought it.

The complexities of how, why and from whom I bought the Amway Dream Home make a great story, but that’s a story for another day. Ranch homes have their charms, as EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FIGURED OUT BY NOW. They generally have all the things missing in so many cuter, quainter styles, like entries, hallways, adequate bathrooms, laundry rooms, yards, storage, parking, and so on. It’s the sheer practicality of the ranch that won over a pragmatic person like me.

And have you ever been inside a really nice daylight ranch? These are also known as walk-outs and split backs, and that lower level is a goldmine of space and opportunity. As my family grew to two adults, three kids and a medium-sized dog, my one-level ranch felt increasingly cramped. I often longed for a walk-out. And eventually I got one, but not of the architectural variety–a marital walk-out is an entirely different matter, but at least the house was no longer so small, then.

Ranch Strophes

Ranch home architecture features in the short passages that introduce the season changes in The Iris Files. These passages delight some readers, and baffle others. I call them them prose strophes, which is term I’ve coined to hide the fact that they are probably just indulgences. These poetic litanies have stayed in every version and draft of the book–even when a former literary agent asked me to remove them. “Are they really necessary?” she asked. Well, listen, is ANYTHING really necessary? If I were to hold up the filter of necessity to anything that is written today (by me or anyone else), it would all fade away. This leaves me with only one answer: these passages are necessary to me.

Here’s an example:

FALL

It’s a fall afternoon, in California.

California is the land of air conditioners. In the fall, California air conditioners work steadily, and the hot air of September is monitored, measured, drawn in, cooled off, pumped out, and re-circulated.

California women are all that, and waxed.

On a fall afternoon in California, the streets are full of the sons and daughters of the mighty hunters. These children are shuttled from school to practice to lesson to playgroup. Despite their busy schedules, these children occasionally find time to play.

When the shadows of the afternoon begin to lengthen, the women step out of their climate-controlled homes. They call their children in for dinner. And the women lift their expensively highlighted heads of hair, and wonder when and if their men will return home.

Ranch architecture is varied, but predictable. There are one-levels and tri-levels, walk-out basements and split entries. Everyone envies the tri-levels. Everyone despises the split entries. But people are divided on the walk-outs. No one knows if the walk-outs are a good thing, or a bad thing.

Nothing ever changes, in California.

I’m worshiping with words in these passages, and I’m worshiping the idea that each of these cookie-cutter homes is unique. If you were to step inside one of them, you’d see a thousand differences that tell the story of the lives lived within. Yes, there are bland and annoying people in every neighborhood, living in every kind of home. But I’m not convinced that any neighborhood in my city is more or less likely to hold annoying neighbors.

Over at the Ranch

I have lived in my ranch home for thirty years, now. The bulk of my life has been spent at one address. For someone whose childhood was as fractured and nomadic as mine, this is a miracle. It’s also weird as hell to live in one house for thirty years these days. No one does it. Except–all around me, I have neighbors who have. We have lived here forever, side-by-side.

I used to feel the need to apologize for my determined rootedness. But then I found this sweet meme on Tumblr, and it made perfect sense to me.

I mean, if Simone Weil says so…

The future of the ranch

These days, my ranch home feels mighty spacious, as it holds only two tall people and two miniscule dogs. The dogs are old, but the man is sort of young. He’s younger than me, at least. We both feel the pull of other places, other ways of living once we retire. We talk about where we might buy next, send each other links to places we like that won’t even be for sale in ten years, but it doesn’t hurt to look, to plan, to speculate about where we might end up.

As it turns out, in addition to our many other areas of compatibility, we both have the same dream home–the aforementioned Craftsman with rooms full of intact dark brown woodwork, built-ins, you name it, we want it. I have no idea if we will ever live in a place like that. In all likelihood, we’ll get a boring condo that’s an excellent deal, because we’re both so practical.

But until pragmatism rears its head to ruin everything, it’s fun to dream together.

 

 

 

Cover Reveal: The Iris Files

It’s time for a cover reveal for that book I was going on about; here it is!  Well, a draft of it, anyway. This beautiful cover (featuring Reba, the Dachshund matriarch) was designed by the fantastic Mark Ferrari. The cover has me so excited!

Synopsis

The book will be live soon. Here is the synopsis, so you know what’s in store:

“I have five kids. I don’t have time to be happy.”

Each day, Iris Bourne runs a gauntlet in the California suburbs: dealing out meals with the ease of a professional card shark, scaling mountains of laundry, acting as judge and jury for sibling battles, negotiating bedtime with the skill of a career diplomat.

Iris has time for exactly one hobby—entering contests—and she’s just won a trip for two to Hawaii. She’s ready for a taste of Paradise, but her husband, Hart, keeps spoiling the mood by asking her if she’s happy. Happy? Iris has no time to be happy. When Hart announces that he is not, her life becomes even more complicated.

With nonstop humor and heartbreaking honesty, Iris navigates parenthood, loss, new romance and the burdens of caregiving. Most importantly, she learns the lessons and limits of forgiveness. Readers will laugh, cry, and cheer as Iris rallies friends and family to defend her glorious, messy, beautiful suburban life.

Ordering the Iris Files

I’ll have an ordering link soon. Watch this space for further developments.

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