Posts Tagged: personal history

The Rocking Chair

The Sugarbush Rocker by Nichols & Stone

In the 1950s and 60s, there were two predominant design styles for the American housewife; Midcentury Modern, and Early American. My mother liked the Early American aesthetic. She had picked up plenty of antiques at farm auctions and sales, and balanced them with modern reproductions. Mom only liked “really good” pieces.

She also sold furniture for a time, so she developed strong brand loyalties based on quality. One brand she admired was Nichols and Stone. Over her life, she had five pieces from this time-honored company, including a Sugarbush rocker she bought in the early 1970s.

The Sugarbush rocker had a very thick white pine seat with deeply carved indentations for a comfortable sit. The rest of the rocker was made of birch, including the high back with curved slats. It was usually offered in a dark oak finish, and stenciled in the best tradition of Early Americana with gold lines and a cornucopia across the headrest.

The Sugarbush starts to Spread

Mom was proud of this rocker. It sat nicely in her living room on the huge oval braided rug that was our carpet for my early teen years. It wasn’t just Mom, though. We all loved that chair. My teenage boyfriend really loved it. I suspect (no—I am dead certain) that he was on the spectrum, so maybe that’s why he loved it. Rocking, etc.

When we married in 1978, he received a large check ($150.00!) from someone on his side of the family. This huge sum demanded to be invested. We always rented furnished places, but we decided buy our very own Sugarbush. Off we went to the furniture store in Missoula, where for $165.00, we had our own. It had a lighter colored finish, possibly intended to be maple-like, and it was distressed (fancy!). This meant some knicks and dents, one of which had a little wood filler in it.

I thought this was fantastic. My then-husband was delighted to have his own rocker. He would come home from work, sit down, and fire up his bong. After he was sufficiently toasted, he would slurp down several bowls of cereal while I made dinner. Good times.

When he wasn’t sitting in it, our dilute calico, Shasta, would hop up into the seat and ask me to rock her. When I obliged, she’d slip and slide herself into a happy, writhing trance. The harder I rocked, the happier she was. Shasta was a tense, neurotic cat, but in that rocker? She was loopy and hilarious.

So Long, Sugarbush

When I left Montana, I took the cats, but I had to leave the rocker. No more Sugarbush for me. My loss was all the more poignant because a year earlier, when my sister married for the first time, my parents bought one for her, too. Hers had the dark oak finish without the stenciling. The women in my family had all owned giant microwaves and Sugarbush rockers. Now, I was just down to the microwave.

Scant years later, when I was pregnant, Mom loaned me hers. That rocker was where I rocked my first baby, the generous arm the perfect height for mine, where I cradled her head while nursing. My second child seemed to hate being rocked. She was a little goer, a mover and a shaker, and the rocker didn’t do a thing for her. So my parents reclaimed their rocker, and my household was without for a few years.

Luckily, by the time I had my third baby, my sister had fully embraced vintage Mid-century. Her house was a trove of the streamlined and atomic. “Do you want this?” she asked one day, pointing to her rocker. I sure did.

One More Round

It looked out of place with my own décor, which was pink and khaki, very southwest-inspired. I didn’t have a print of a howling coyote on the wall, but I had a print of a cactus. I’m not apologizing, as this describes many 1990 living rooms. That dark rocker didn’t fit in at all, but there was no other chair that could hold me so comfortably as I nursed my last baby.  

Eventually, my parents unloaded theirs. They might have given it to my older brother, or sold it, I’m not sure. It disappeared at some point. I kept my sister’s rocker. It moved from one room of my house to another. It was perfect for watching TV or reading alone in my room. It even served as a desk chair for a while. Eventually, after much wear and tear, it was demoted to the garage.

Where it Sat for Decades

When my last baby grew up and was pregnant with my first grandchild, I offered the old rocker to her.  We went out to take a look at it. Scarred, one arm wobbly, creaky, it looked pretty rough. I realized it was at fifty years old. She politely declined and I didn’t blame her.

It was like when I offered my mom’s wedding rings to my middle daughter when she was getting married. She popped into my room, found the ring, took a look, and politely declined. I had a mental image of that elegant white gold set with its knife-edge detail. Mom wore that set every day for thirty-five years, and it showed. The prongs were dangerously worn and the knife edge was smoothed. I had no idea. My mental image, formed when I was nine years old, hadn’t aged a bit. My oldest daughter wanted a very fine, rounded white gold band when she got married, so she took the band, and I recently had the diamond reset.

BUT I DIGRESS. AS I ALWAYS DO. This is about rockers. And one Nichols and Stone Sugarbrush is still out there in my garage. It needs repair, refinishing, it’s Early American. But maybe someday it will rock me again. Maybe on a front porch, or a back porch, and it will render me quaint. I will take up knitting, and quote the Bible. Or perhaps I’ll subvert gendered expectations and whittle charming hickory animals for my grandchildren and drink shine from a jug perched on my shoulder. Perhaps a banjo will be involved, or a fiddle.

Who knows what the future holds.

It’s the last Sugarbush in the family, and I’m not giving it up.

More info/if you want your own

Nichols and Stone went out of business in 2008 after 151 years in business. My Google searches mostly found some scraped together AI crap. “Pine seat” became “Pine seed” and so on. This reader comment at CollectorsWeekly.com seems to have the best information:

The 546 Sugarbush Rocker was introduced into the Nichols & Stone line circa 1970. The thick seat is made of White Pine and the structural members of the chair are made of Birch. The design continued in production through the 1980’s. This design was finished in a solid wood tone color stain and an optional stenciling application could be applied for an upcharge. The Sugarbush Rocker was the most popular selling item for Nichols & Stone in the 1970’s. It was named after Sugarbush Mountain in Warren VT.

You’d think if it was that most popular item they sold, the secondhand market would be swarming with them. These are completely out of fashion and basically indestructible! And yet, I found exactly one for sale. There might be some out there on Marketplace or Craigslist. I’m not sure. But here is one on Mercari:

https://www.mercari.com/us/item/m98241130362/,

1st Dibs has nice photos, but does not have one for sale, which is fine because their prices tend to be unrealistic: 

https://www.1stdibs.com/furniture/seating/rocking-chairs/nichols-stone-pine-stenciled-windsor-rocking-chair/id-f_36286172/

Anyway, I’ll keep looking. Maybe I’ll find one like my wedding rocker.

A Tip for the Server

Servers at the Talkative Table

An alley with bars and neon signs.
Image by Daniel Nebreda from Pixabay

Back in the 1980s, my family had many intense conversations in restaurants. We were younger and more alive in both a metaphorical and literal sense. We were tall, smart people with the resonant voices of singers. If you put some or all of us around a table with cups of coffee, those voices rose up to discuss politics or history or music or real estate, loudly and at length.

At times, our conversations were spirited enough to invite participation from the wait staff. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” a server might say. “Excuse me, I heard you talking about…” a server would shyly offer. Of course, we listened politely, but I didn’t really care how the waiter voted, or what neighborhood the waitress grew up in. Backpacking in Italy was probably an adventure, but excuse me. I was talking to my mom.

Once, way back in the eighties at a Mexican restaurant, a young server stood at our table and recited a poem he’d written. It was a lengthy, worshipful ode to Oliver North. He may have been an actor, but he clearly did not know his audience. We never returned to that restaurant. Now it is long gone. Decades later, most of the places we used to go are gone.

The family has also suffered some attrition. Our most recent all-family restaurant gathering was after my father’s memorial service, when we filled a long table at his favorite restaurant–Bannings–for one last meal on Dad.

My Dad and Bannings

Bannings is one of those places we all hope to find in our neighborhoods–a family diner with good food and comfortable booths and the most attentive servers on Earth. All the servers at Bannings knew Dad. They vied to have him in their sections. They made him welcome, brought him sides of sausage gravy at no charge, and kept his coffee hot. He always tipped well.

At this post-service-last meal, with all the family and some friends ranged around a long table, meal, many of the servers came by to say they were sorry. They hadn’t seen him because Dad was housebound for months before he died, but they certainly remembered him. “I’d wondered when we didn’t see you.” “We’ll sure miss him.”

You forget, or at least I did, that his decline was pretty obvious from the outside. He changed rapidly from a relatively hale man who took smoking breaks after a meal, to a frail man wearing an oxygen tank. Of course they noticed when he stopped coming.

After that last meal, I couldn’t go to Bannings without Dad. It was just too sad to sit there and think about all the years we’d met there for breakfast, all our conversations about everything in the world. Dad knew so much about the mechanics of the world, and how our government actually worked. We met there nearly every week for fifteen years.

So I left Bannings alone. A year and two months after Dad died, Covid hit and everything shut down. It was 2021 before I started going there again. One August day, I was having lunch with my friend Sarah and realized it was my dad’s birthday. Our server, who I remembered, didn’t remember Dad when I asked her. It had been almost two years, after all. But she asked me what his favorite dessert and brought me a piece of strawberry shortcake as a gift.

This was so human of her. So kind. And yes, I cried.

Servers in Context

My husband and I were at a company Christmas party on the Portland Spirit years ago, and a young woman who looked so familiar came up to me on the dance floor and said, “Karen!” and hugged me. I knew her but I couldn’t place her, so I bluffed my way through the encounter, smiling and laughing and wondering where the hell I knew her from.

As I walked back to our table, it hit me. She was a server at Bannings. She was a doll. And I knew she was going to school, and she was bright and kind and funny, but I absolutely couldn’t place her out of context.

This made me feel like a real jerk.

In my home city, almost no one who waits tables does it for love. They do it while preparing for something better; a new job, an upcoming move, a leading role, or a paying gig. The people who wait on me are human beings with opinions and passions. I know that. I grant them privacy for that part of their lives. I think this is more dignified.

If you are a server or a waiter and you’re reading this, I probably owe you an apology for the fact that your dreams don’t concern me. I know you’re a real person who has tied on the apron. I appreciate you. But I only want your attention when I want it.

Swoop in with more coffee, more water. Bring me extra napkins. Don’t make me wait forever for my check, but reassure me there’s “no hurry” when you lay it on the table. I know some days it takes everything to show up, put on your apron, and tend to your tables. I admire the seemingly effortless ballet of your service, a dance that is actually a great deal of work. I like that you perform it with the invisible grace of a professional.

For what it’s worth, I always tip well, too.

The Ladder

Making a Living

Wooden ladder in an orchard
Image by Bryan Stewart from Pixabay

(This post is from a Katrina prompt, the ladder).

When I was fifteen and my boyfriend was eighteen, we moved to Yakima, Washington, part of America’s Fruit Basket, where picking fruit is an almost year-round affair. This fertile stretch of Washington valleys produces much of the country’s apples, pears, and stone fruit. Back then, most of this fruit was harvested by migrant workers who followed the harvests. They made enough to live on. Certainly we could do the same.

He had enrolled in an auto mechanic certification program at Yakima Valley College, and I went to high school. That next June, I’d finished tenth grade and his two-year program had let out for the summer. We lived on very small monthly draws from a trust fund his wealthy grandparents had set up for him at birth and whatever else we could patch together; babysitting for me, pumping gas for him. We were young, alone, and very poor.

So we thought it was time to make some real money by picking fruit.

Reporting for Duty

I’m not sure how you signed up or were dispatched for fruit picking, but the boyfriend handled that part of it and we showed up at a farm at 6 AM, ready to pick cherries. We were met by the orchard owners, an older married couple. They were White, and so were we (well, the bf was actually mixed race, but that’s another blog post).

Everyone else was from somewhere south of the US border. The youngest pickers were maybe five years old. Everyone got buckets that hung by straps around our necks and rested against our stomachs. “Don’t fall on those,” we were warned. “You’ll break your back.” Okay, then. We each took a wooden orchard ladder and went to work.

Orchard ladders are wide at the bottom, narrowing at the top, and have one leg. They are also known as tripod ladders or apple ladders. I looked them up on the internet to find the correct terminology, and discovered they are all made of aluminum now. I found a weathered wood version for sale on 1st Dibs for over two thousand dollars. Those orchard owners could have really cleaned up, because their wooden ladders felt antique fifty years ago.

I’m really not much for ladders in general. We decided that I would pick from the ground and the boyfriend would handle the ladder work. He was a young creature of muscle and bone, and clambered up with no problem. When his rickety ladder swayed out from under him, he simply grabbed a tree limb and hung there until I could reposition that wobbly back ladder leg, poking into the soft earth below the tree.

Learning the Ropes

Picking fruit requires skill and stamina, and I basically had neither. We were a source of amusement to our fellow pickers, and they were a source of valuable help to us. After watching me trying and failing to do anything right, a kindly man showed me exactly how to snap the cherries off in bunches.

Later, a kindly woman came over and told me to make sure I was picking in in the shade. Sun made the stems pliant. They snapped better when they were cooler. The children just laughed at us, but I suppose even that was kindly. In its way.

You were supposed to let anything without a stem fall. If you put too many stemless cherries in your bucket, the grower could reject it. I picked thoroughly but slowly, because I didn’t want my bucket to be rejected. I really don’t handle rejection of any kind very well at all.

The boyfriend continued to maneuver the trees like he was born to it, but he didn’t pick much more than I did. Well, he might have, but in my memory, he didn’t. When the lunch break came, I checked my tally. I’d picked half as many buckets as the five year-olds.

Taking a Break, and Making a Break For It.

The bf went to our car to get our lunch, and I asked the wife where the bathroom was. She expressed great embarrassment that I would have to use the worker facilities. I reassured her that was fine. I was a worker, right? But I understood her embarrassment when I saw those facilities. It was all concrete and filth. Asking an animal to use that bathroom would have been an insult to the animal.

I was most insulted by a hand-lettered cardboard sign advising me to “BE CLENE.”

We picked for a week (maybe less) and made very little money compared to our fellow workers. They earned the big bucks, as well as my deep respect for their skill and stamina. Toward the end of that week, I got a letter (we never had a phone in Yakima) from my parents asking if we’d come to Missoula and help them with their business of making and selling miniature furniture. They were way behind with their orders.

The boyfriend could run a saw and I could sew. We could both pack boxes. Best of all, there were no ladders. So, we packed up the cats, drove through passes, and came to Missoula, where we stayed for an entire month (and I learned to ride a bike). I might have been hopeless at picking cherries, but I could stuff a tiny sofa like a pro. And there were absolutely no ladders.

The Skin – A Trip in the Dakotas

Another Roadside Attraction, and another, and another…

South Dakota is full of roadside attractions, advertised with tempting billboards that tout the wonders of the Prairie Dog Town, Wall Drug, The Dinosaur Park…it goes on. As children, the three of us were whisked past one after another, with a parent issuing the dismissive, “It’s a tourist trap,” whenever one of us begged to stop.

This did not stop us from begging.

Both my mother and my birth father were born in South Dakota in the 1930s. No doubt they were repeating the highway mantras of their own childhoods. I doubt it would ever have occurred to my grandparents to stop at some dusty place on the prairie. The Depression and wartime budgets of the Odlands and the Zwebers didn’t include spending good money to see tunnels full of crop-eating pests. They had neither time nor cash to waste in an old storefront full of cheaply made souvenirs that would fall apart on the way home.

Still, from the backseat of whatever large American car we were riding in, these places looked like meccas of wonder to my sister, my brother and me. Wall Drug, with its endless roadside couplet signs offering free ice water and nickel coffee, especially beckoned. But the parents would roar past, shaking their heads. No time, no patience, no way.

When things change…

Divorce is a strange thing. It might be a source of lifelong trauma in the long run, but in the short run, it can be an enormous liberation. When my mother left an unhappy marriage after nine years, she entered a personal renaissance. She stood prouder, got a little slimmer, raised her hair to beehive heights, and traded in her glasses for something more fashionable. She moved us from Claremont (population 50) to Aberdeen (population 20,000). This was a considerable change. She re-enrolled at Northern and finished her degree. And she decided to take us on a vacation.

She had the best idea.

Mom would rent a trailer large enough to accommodate her, our babysitter Maryanne, and us three kids. We would tow the trailer behind our current car, a tank of a ’57 Buick (sky blue, white top, and chrome trim).

We would stay in a different KOA campground each night, and we would would stop at every single roadside attraction, except one. By group vote, we skipped the Bible park–as good little Christian Scientists, that would have been an overload of graven images, which were verboten to us. Aside from that, we would leave no billboard ignored on our quest to visit every tourist trap in the Dakotas. And each one of us received five dollars spending money.

In 1968, that was a LOT of money.

Our itinerary.

My impressions of most places are fleeting. The Reptile Gardens? That place smelled terrible. We walked on wooden paths through a swampy enclosure. I found most of the animals repellant and yet…interesting. Snakes and gators have never been my thing, but there were plenty of them. The Prairie Dog Town? With my love of small furred critters, you’d have thought this would have made an impression, but I have none. I don’t even remember seeing the gigantic cement prairie dog that still stands there today.

The biggest let down was the Petrified Forest. In my eight year-old mind, I expected, you know, a forest. We didn’t have those in the part of South Dakota where I lived, so I leaned on children’s literature. I was expecting something like the talking trees in The Wizard of Oz, but turned to stone, with stone branches and stone leaves. I didn’t expect them to talk, but I did expect the to be standing. But the “forest” was nothing more than a large expanse of dirt and gravel, upon which were scattered fragments and chunks of petrified wood.

But some attractions were GREAT!

The dinosaur park in Rapid City was fun and free. We have a few photos of us kids there, and we’re smiling. The dinosaurs were smooth and green, like the Sinclair dinosaur, so of course we assumed they were scientifically accurate. I have pictures of us somewhere and might add them, but not today.

We spent some time in the South Dakota Badlands, which were eerie and beautiful and so hot that I hallucinated and saw a ghost. From there, it was only a short drive to Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore. This is a shot I took in 2014, which is why it's in color.
A beautiful shot of a staggering desecration.

In 1968, there was a gravel parking lot, a gift shop with a panoramic view of the memorial, and that was about it. That was plenty for me. I looked out the window for a while, recognizing and admiring three of the four presidents. Then I found a little naked souvenir doll more suited to Hawaii than South Dakota, and took her right up to the cash register.

The big finale!

On the way home, we finally stopped at Wall Drug. Back then, it was just a short stretch of Old West-appearing storefronts. To get your free ice water, you went behind the store to a little pump and helped yourself. I’m not sure where the nickel coffee was dispensed, but it was somewhere. You could smell it. I don’t recall any actual drugstore merchandise, as in home remedies or a pharmacist’s counter, but apparently they have always been there, too.

What I do remember is touristy crap galore. The store was a wonder. I wish I had photos from back in the day, but I took a few in 2015 when I went back. Taxidermy dominated the walls, hung with every dead animal you could imagine and a few you couldn’t, like the jackalope.

The molting taxidermy wonders of Wall Drug, South Dakota.
This is a minute fraction of the taxidermy, but, a water buffalo? Or is that a yak?

It even had animatronic tableau. I stood for too long in front of some weird looking robot cowboys doing rope tricks while their eyes spun. When I went back in 2015, these were still there and operational. Sadly I don’t have a video, but here are some stills.

Animatronics at Wall Drug.
The dog looks like animated taxidermy. This isn’t creepy or anything, is it?
More animatronics. Yikes.
One assumes the glove was added to cover the terrifying decimations of time. Also, creepy.

I also remember putting a nickel in a slot so a robotic cowboy would say “Draw, Pardner!” and fire his gun at me. I couldn’t find him, but here is General George Custer.

Cigar Store Custer. I like it.
A Drugstore Custer. Nicely ironic.

Thrilling stuff. But not as thrilling as what I bought with the money that remained to me. I wanted a beaded necklace with a tiny Native American on it, but that was rich, and I’d already spent part of the five so I had to be discriminating. I selected an onyx egg, an onyx “worry stone,” a vial of agate crumbs, and a pure white rabbit pelt. That was the end of my five dollars.

I kept that pelt long after I let the rocks go. I knew it was the skin of some poor rabbit. Somehow that didn’t bother me. I loved how soft it was, how white. And then, in the eighth grade, I made it into a purse that eventually disappeared. But for years, it was my comfort. I would take it out and stroke it, soothing as petting a cat, and remember that trip.

It was our first family vacation, and our last. And it was perfect.

Do You Want to Play?

A girl on a swing.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The Attic

Our bedroom was an attic, probably 32 feet in length, and seven or eight feet wide. A chimney neatly bisected the space, so our dad installed a plywood panel next to it, just wide enough for the heads of our twin beds. There was no door between us. We each had our own room, but slept with heads only inches apart. I waited for my sister to ask, “Do you want to play?” I always said yes. We would lay in the dark and spin out our fantastical imaginary worlds for hours.

Sometimes I wondered. Would we ever stop our childhood play?

Kids always play.

When we were younger in Claremont and then Aberdeen, we mostly played with toys, but purely imaginative play was on the roster quite early. My brother and sister started by pretending to be the Beatles. I joined in as soon as I was allowed to. I couldn’t wait to be Ringo. My brother was John, my sister was George, and no one wanted to be Paul.

This game was straightforward. While the 45 played, so did we, lip-syncing along to the lyrics and pretending to play instruments. When the song was over, so was the play. This evolved into playing at being The Monkees. I immediately claimed Davy. My sister was Mickey, and my brother was Mike. No one wanted to be Peter.

Then, the summer I was nine, we discovered “Tommy.” When you hand three musical, imaginative, socially awkward kids a record like “Tommy,” it will eventually change everything. First, laying the groundwork I guess, we learned every note of this rock opera, every single note. We even sang all the instruments. The plot was weird as hell, and none of us saw character potential in the deaf, dumb, and blind boy. But we loved the work itself, and it went to work in us.

Getting older, and playing better.

We lived in Rapid City for less than a year. Mom had moved us there to start her teaching career, and to finish it, as it turned out. She met a young Air Force captain and married him six weeks after their first date. We all moved to Edina. There, in our first Edina house, my sister met a charismatic girl named Sue. And did Sue ever have an imagination.

Sue wanted us to play Star Trek. We divvied up the characters and played plots from the show itself, or made up our own. When Sue wasn’t around, we let my brother in on the game. Steve was Spock, my sister was Doctor McCoy, and I kept up my run of short brunette men with accents by playing Ensign Chekhov. No one wanted to be Kirk. 

Doesn’t everyone play Dickens?

Then, Sue and my sister saw the movie Oliver!  They dragged me to it, and that was that. We entered the seamy London underground of Dickensian London and barely came up for air. We all wanted to be Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger, but there were three of us and only one of him. I didn’t ever get to be him, but there was this other pickpocket kid with reddish hair and a green cap who seemed acceptable. I could handle being him when we played. No one wanted to be Oliver.

I hate to admit it, but a big part of this game was going to the Southdale Mall and shoplifting. We were Fagin’s crew, and we had to steal. Thankfully, before any of us were apprehended, Sue’s family moved to Bellevue and we moved to another neighborhood in Edina.

This was a posh neighborhood, especially for South Dakota kids. My sister made friends, I made frenemies. My brother suffered initially, but he joined a track-car racing club where he made friends with a boy named Dave and a British kid named Chris (who would go on to lead Prince’s Paisley Park studio). My brother had real friends, he didn’t want to play. So it was my sister and I, escaping to Dickensian London and stealing at the mall on the regular.

We were never going to make a go of it in Edina, so it was time to re-invent our lives. My stepdad joined the Forest Service and adopted us so we could all have the same last name, and health benefits. A newly united family, we moved to Arkansas.  

Isolation = Creativity

As I’ve written about before, the only rental we could find was a wretched little house on an abandoned farm, miles outside Booneville on red dirt roads. That isolation drove all three of us kids back to “Tommy.” We couldn’t leave that record alone. Inspired by our deep love of music and the intensity of imaginative play we’d experienced with Sue, the three of us morphed our previous endeavors into a game called “Band.”

“Band” was the best. We could literally be any musicians. Cat and I were deeply into our teen idols, and our brother had more mature musical taste. This led to some strange musical bedfellows, like John Lennon and David Cassidy. Disparities of style didn’t matter, because we were always lip-syncing to either Jefferson Airplane or The Who. 

I remember one night when my parents had gone out for coffee (quite a trek, in Arkansas), and we were engrossed in our play. My sister was rolling around on the coffee table, mouthing the words to “Somebody to Love” while Steve and I backed her up on our air instruments. My parents came in quietly—or maybe not so quietly, the stereo was loud—and watched us for a moment before I saw them. The looks on their faces. I let my sister continue her bit before I broke out laughing, and then we were all roaring.

I imagine my parents were proud.

Moving to Town

A move into Booneville proper lessened our isolation. In this tiny town, which probably had a sundown law, our young lives were full of friends, school, parties, and more. Our older brother (who had outgrown our play once we left the farm) excelled academically and musically. Despite the weight that had inspired so much mockery when he arrived, he was accepted, even celebrated at Booneville High. The year I started seventh grade, he left for art school in Minneapolis.

My younger brother was a few months old at this time. My sister and I were both in high school, which started in 7th grade in Booneville. I loved changing classes, flirting with senior boys in the hallways, having an actual study hall, and singing in the high school choir. My sister was kind enough to absorb me into her friend group. We were very happy.

Even with all we had going on, my sister and I found time to spin out our worlds.

Glam rock had entered the pop culture consciousness. We might have pinned up photos of David Bowie in drag and Mick Jagger in eyeliner, but we weren’t going to use those men as characters. They were far too combustible.

We stuck to the Partridge Family and (for me) teen Jack Wild, still short with a Cockney accent, but mature. I added a new character based on Rick Springfield—the “Speak to the Sky” Rick, young, brunette, with sky-high hair and (you guessed it) an Aussie accent.

Back to the boonies.

No matter how happy my sister and I were, my parents hated Booneville. I do not blame them. They only had two couples as friends; Anne and Tom, and this extremely cool couple, Wayne and Mag. My parents were liberals, and educated, and they were claustrophobic.

So it was time for the rest of us to move again, this time to Montana. This move, toward the end of my seventh grade year, was wrenching and harsh. I transformed from a happy, active star student to a social outcast on my first day at Gallatin Gateway Elementary, by the simple act of my teacher giving me a more advanced English workbook. It wasn’t just a higher level than the other seventh graders were using. It was a higher level than the eighth graders were using.

That bit of seventh grade was over swiftly. I turned thirteen, school let out, and summer started. We were living on a ranger station, which remains the most isolated place I have ever lived. Aside from Ranger Dick and his wife Jane (who was always after us to babysit), we had no neighbors, no friends, no way to get anywhere to do anything at all. What else was there to do but play?

Since we were older, the games became sneakier. There were times we played during the day on weekends or in the summer, but mostly, we saved our imaginary world for night. There, in the dark, hidden away from the realities of daily life, our peculiar recombinations made sense.

Get on the Peace Train

Rich material arrived in the early 1970s, just begging to be incorporated. Cat Stevens transported us with his tortured, gorgeous voice. We kept the orphan thieves from Oliver! and added Cat Stevens as a grown-up version of the Artful Dodger, valiantly trying to overcome his childhood as a pickpocket.

This play had two versions, because sometimes Dodger was young and still picking pockets, and sometimes, he was a stunning troubadour pouring out his tortured soul in music. We wrote down a lot of it with Susan’s help. She still lived in Bellevue, and she and my sister traded pages all the time in the mail. One summer, Sue came out to visit us, and that was incredible. Sue brought us a present.

She brought us Jesus.

You know, the musical.

Jesus Christ Superstar landed like manna from heaven. It was kind of mature for us, seeing as how it was based on works that were thousands of years old. We were not Jesus and Judas when we played, we were the actors working on the production.

We learned this soundtrack by heart, too, and saw the movie at least a dozen times so we could learn every twitch and scowl of the actors. Neither of us knew a thing about how a movie was made, but this didn’t stop us from imagining ourselves into the Israeli desert in our dusty cotton costumes, being temperamental and difficult while the director raged.

Sadly, no one had an accent in this movie. I was Ted Neely and my sister was Carl Anderson. No one wanted to be Yvonne Elliman.

The Grand Mishmash of PF on ST.

Trying to describe our play at this point starts to sound like trying to recount a dream. It all made perfect sense to us, but you’re going to have to bear with me.

Even with the bearded hippy boys of Superstar, and the rich vein of masculine suffering offered by Cat Stevens, our favored game was called “PF on ST.” This stood for Partridge Family on Star Trek (I cracked up typing that). But we loved Star Trek, and we loved The Partridge Family, so we came up with the idea of the “Teen Academy” boarding school on board the Starship Enterprise.

We spent hours going through magazines, choosing what our characters looked like and what they would wear. Well, my sister did. She was either Keith Partridge or a character named Ceci. Ceci had an amazing teen girl wardrobe culled from the pages of Seventeen. I preferred being a boy, so I was generally either Jack Wild or Rick Springfield.

We both played independently during the day. When I felt insecure or unsafe, I would slip into character in school, as would my sister when she felt alone. I suppose if we’d had cell phones back then, we’d have texted in character, but we were reduced to writing notes.

If we wanted to play together at the dinner table, we used verbal shorthand to suggest the idea to each other. Speaking in code words, we could pick our game, announce our characters, and assign roles to our family members. Our baby brother even had roles to play.

When he came home from art school, our older brother sat at the table and knew we were playing. It drove him nuts, and we risked discovery, or even worse, mockery. So we tried to keep our play in the dark, as in, we played at night.

We would lie there, inventing romances, assigning talents, changing appearances, having long conversations and arguments in the voices of our characters. These were the happiest hours of our troubled young lives.

Embellished to the point of unrecognizable.

I wish I could remember more of the plots we spun, but in truth, they were pretty standard high school plotlines. The students would have trouble with a teacher. The students would have trouble with a Star Fleet officer. The students would have trouble with each other. We liked drama. 

We both despised Bobby Sherman (I have no idea why), so once in a while, he’d show up on deck and throw everyone into a dither. Occasionally, a new student would arrive at the academy via shuttlecraft. Then everyone would have trouble with everyone else. It didn’t matter if the new arrival was male or female, because anyone could be problematic to a group of teenagers trapped on the Enterprise.

A concert was often in the works, because of course Keith Partridge had to sing. For the record, Cat Stevens was far too mature to be a student at the Teen Academy of  PF on ST, but he might have made a concert appearance now and then. I’m also remembering that the Enterprise transported a movie crew to a dusty planet for the filming of Jesus Christ Superstar more than once.

It’s been fifty years. The specifics are a little misty. But I do remember how absurdly chaste most of these imaginings were. Occasionally there was a romance, but rarely. That was too much for our young psyches to handle.

Why we continued.

Today, there is a vocabulary for activities similar to what we were doing. There is fan fiction, with all its shipping. Also, LARPing (though we never costumed ourselves, we were certainly out and about in character). The problem with naming something is that it creates parameters. We had no parameters. We had no name besides “play,” so our freedom was complete. It was our private world, created from anything and everything, and hidden because we knew how strange it was, and we were way too old for what we were doing.

But we needed to play. We were two girls in our early teens, living on a ranger station in the middle of a national forest. The entire family was jammed into a one-bedroom log cabin, from which we’d carved extra bedrooms from the attic and a storage pantry. There was never any money, and our parents’ marriage was always precarious. We had to babysit our baby brother all the time while they drove off to have coffee and work on it. Everyone in the family was miserable. None of that mattered while we played. 

Yes, we lived in a verdant paradise, I recognize that. I climbed the mountain behind our house several times, and explored the riverbanks, and sat on a cold cement bridge over the icy foam of the Gallatin River, and sang my heart out. But when it was winter—and this was Montana, so it was often winter—there was nothing to do and nowhere to go.

So my sister and I made up a different paradise. We invented characters that were nothing like us, and brought them to life in an outer space world. We made up the teenaged lives we longed for, there on the ranger station in western Montana. No wonder we couldn’t leave our play behind.

Time, space, and basic logic were ours to manipulate. We sometimes played all night, only stopping when it was light out. When one of us (usually me) got too tired and began falling asleep, the other would ask, “Should we keep this?” Because that was a key part of playing. We could spin out an extreme plot, with someone getting lost on a planet or even dying, but we didn’t have to keep it. We reserved the right to discard the night’s play. It was a joint decision. We might keep part of the play, all of it, or none of it. It was all up to us.

The end of imagination.

I don’t know how long we would have kept it up, but at some point, our “real lives” began to take shape. We still didn’t have any money, we still lived in a remote and beautiful location, but we had some friends. My sister got her license, and my parents bought a second car (a tiny red slug bug) so we started having misadventures in Bozeman. It was terrifying and exhilarating.

She was sixteen and I was fourteen. We drank, smoked pot, gained boyfriends, lost virginities. Breakups. Pregnancy scares. Car accidents. We had plenty of drama. There was no need to lay there in the dark and imagine more.

Life was complicated when you weren’t allowed to decide whether or not to keep what had happened to you. But I remember one last night when I sheepishly asked my sister to play. We had one last session, one last trip to the galaxies. Then we gave it up forever. Real life had taken over.

Still at it.

When I was thirty-seven, I quit my job and decided to go back to school and finish my degree. A friend showed up at my house with an ancient Mac. “You’ll need this for papers,” she told me, as she and her husband set up the whole hateful thing. I’d never owned a computer, in fact I loathed computers, and had only used one when I worked in a B2B telemarketing agency. But hey, she was probably right. I was going back to school, and I probably needed to have a computer. So I sat down and opened up a document and entered a state of magical creative flow. 

I wrote a screenplay first. It was based on a dream I had at age nineteen that had haunted me ever since about a woman with two daughters at the Oregon coast, and a teacher she rented to. It had been the most cinematic dream of my life, and I’d tried and failed to make something out of it all through my twenties and thirties.

At 37, that finally changed. It wasn’t hard to imagine all the conversations and settings and drama. But 115 pages? That wasn’t enough time to spend with these characters who had become so real to me. I wasn’t done with them. I started typing out notes in each character’s voice. And more and more came, and the plot changed, and deepened. It took hold and grew.

I sat up later and later each night, typing in my darkened home. This was my only time to write, because I was a single mother with three kids and two dogs and a house to keep and a divorce to recover from. The demands on my life were constant from before the sun rose to after it went down. During these late night hours of quiet and dark, I found the peace and solitude I needed to get it all out of me.

Before I knew it, I had the draft of a novel. I was so proud of this messy first draft, and absolutely sure it was perfect. Of course it wasn’t even close to finished. But I printed it out and sent it to my sister, who lived in South Dakota at the time. She loved it. How could she not? A tortured, beautiful man. An icy, withholding older woman. And teen drama galore.

She called me to rave. “I can’t believe you did this.” She kept questioning me as to where I’d gotten this idea, “This isn’t you is it? This isn’t me?” I explained to her that this was truly fiction. Everyone was made up. “Well I love it. I’m so proud of you.” And she hung up.

She called me back within the half hour. “I figured it out,” she said. “I figured out how you did it.” I waited. I could hear the smile in her voice. “You’re playing.”

I hope she could hear the smile in mine when I told her she was absolutely right.

Rocket Men: Of Men and Motorcycles

The Prompt

When Katrina sent me this writing prompt, “The Rocket,” my mind went right to “Crotch Rocket.” This vulgar little term was stuck in my head from my few experiences with men and motorcycles, but did I actually know what it meant? I had to ask my friend Daniel, who thoughtfully provided the following information:

  • What it’s supposed to be: A high-performance motorcycle, especially sport bikes, often of Japanese make.
  • What it usually is: Just some small motorcycle that goes fast.
  • What it never is: A Harley.
  • Also known as: A Rice Burner. Am I aware that this is a racist term? I am. I believe it was coined by Harley riders.

I don’t like Harleys because they’re loud. Also, since I know/care nothing about bikes, zero zip nada, the photos in this post are simply photos that appealed to me. There may be Harleys here. Please don’t point this out! Because I don’t care!

And now, on to Men and Motorcycles.

Men and Motorcycles – my family

Image by Monoar Rahman Rony from Pixabay

There are motorcycle people, and not-motorcycle people. In general, I would put my family in the not-motorcycle category, with one notable exception.

When it comes to men and motorcycles, I don’t actually know if my dad ever had a bike. He was young and adventurous when he married my mom and took on us kids (also naive, obviously). A motorcycle seems like something he might have tried, maybe while he was in the Air Force, hanging around with Gary and Crazy Charlie. He’s gone, now, so I can’t ask him.

My older brother would sometimes muse about getting a motorcycle. I inwardly cringed at the idea and tried to steer the subject elsewhere. Brother Steve was an artist, writer, and musician. His fine motor skills were exquisite, but his gross motor skills were lacking. He also had terrible vision with poor depth perception. I worried about him driving. He’s gone too, and I’m glad my time with him wasn’t shortened by any ill-conceived motorcycle doings.

Brother Steve’s talk of getting a bike was probably spurred by envy of our younger brother, who was seventeen years younger than Steve and the exception in the family, as far as motorcycles go. Tall, alternately brooding and sardonic, a former water polo goalkeeper, voted “Most Rebellious” in his graduating class—riding a motorcycle suited my younger brother. He had two BMW K75 sport touring models, a K75c and a K75s. He was easy on a bike, and he definitely looked the part wearing leathers.

He lived in Seattle and I live in Portland. Very early one Saturday morning, I heard a symphony of rumbles, and then a knock on my front door. I opened it. There he stood with three or four of his friends. “We’re on our way to (somewhere) on our bikes, and I wondered if you could make us some breakfast.”

Well of course I could make them some breakfast.

That morning, my sleepy daughters tumbled out of their rooms to find their uncle and his handsome, scruffy friends occupying the breakfast bar, while I filled their coffee cups and poured them OJ and heaped their plates with toast and eggs and every last scrap of breakfast meat I could find in my fridge.

This is just one of the mythic memories my daughters have of my younger brother in his motorcycle years. Imagine, a young uncle you don’t see very often, just showing up at the Bainbridge Bakery with his bike and his beard and his deep, booming voice. For a while, he had a girlfriend who rode her own bike, which seemed even more exotic and interesting.

He eventually got married (not to the bike girl) (she was not that interesting, aside from the bike) and had a family. The BMW sat in his garage, not running, for a few years. I’m not sure how long he kept it there on the off chance that he’d be able to ride it again. I’m pretty sure he sold it. He is a family man, after all.

That leaves us womenfolk. I have no idea whether or not my mother ever got on a motorcycle, and as far as I know, my sister hasn’t had too many motorcycle adventures. But me? Well, I have, but just a few. Here are my adventures with motorcycles and men.

James, Booneville

A battered motor bike on a dirt road.
Image by Khalil Ahmad from Pixabay

In seventh grade I had a boyfriend named James. He was sixteen, and I met him at my older sister’s birthday party. We probably connected during Spin the Bottle or some such game.

His black-rimmed glasses weren’t appealing to me and his face and hair were always oily. But I liked riding behind him on his motorcycle, my arms wrapped around his sweaty young torso, cruising the crumbling streets of Booneville, Arkansas. Neither of us ever wore a helmet.

If this was dangerous, I was oblivious. I was only twelve years old.

James gave me my first kiss. Much like him, it was rather sweaty and damp. I tried to enter into the spirit of the thing, but he told me, “You kiss too hard.” This was excellent feedback, and I have passed it along to various men over the years. Kiss with the lips. Kiss softly.

James was my boyfriend for only a few weeks before my older sister decided she liked him. I like to say, “My older sister helped herself to my first boyfriend,” but that really isn’t true. For one thing, he wasn’t my first boyfriend. And for another, I gratefully handed him over. 

French kisses were far…too…much for my young self.

Richard, Yakima

A motorcycle parked on a street full of falling-down buildings.
Image by Jens Birner from Pixabay

I was a senior in high school when a young man named Richard moved to Yakima. He was tall and nice looking, and wore a green army surplus coat and rode a motorcycle. He spoke with erudition and dsiplayed intellectual curiosity, which were punishable offenses in our school. He suffered instantaneous social rejection. That meant he had to hang out with us weird kids.

In addition to being socially unclassifiable, Richard was funny and surprisingly charming for a teenaged boy. The girls in our group were all a-flutter, except for me. I was taken. I lived with my boyfriend at the time, pretending to be married so the school wouldn’t call Social Services on us. Richard was intrigued that we were married and appalled by our financial situation (we lived on air). It was so different from his own comfortable life. We must have seemed exotic.

He’d ride his motorcycle over, park it on the walkway in front of our one bedroom apartment, settle onto our vinyl-covered couch and question our ability to survive. He sort of couldn’t get enough of it. He might have been my only friend who had the good sense to question how the hell I found myself in this situation.

Once his morbid interest in our poverty was indulged for the day, he would steer the conversation to his other topic of interest—World War II. Richard and my pseudo-teen-husband Phil both knew a lot about WWII, but Phil liked Patton, not Himmler. Three of his four grandparents were Jewish. He wasn’t a fan of the Nazis.  

Richard was! He returned over and over to Nazi Germany’s military tactics. One day he said something like, “You can’t help but admire Goring’s strategy…”

I interrupted him. “Oh, I can. I certainly can help but admire his strategy.”

Richard didn’t understand my life, and I couldn’t really understand his. His father was the president of a local bank. His family home was all French doors and urn-filled patios, tucked into a charming neighborhood on the other end of Yakima Avenue. Richard’s room was hung with motorcycle posters, model airplanes—probably Messerschmitts—and his shelves were full of books about WWII. How had such a conventional family produced such an odd son?

He had an older brother who seemed more, well, let’s just say normal. Richard brought him to one of our weird kid parties. He looked like a darker, more attractive version of Richard. He probably didn’t know what to make of Richard’s oddball friends, WWII fixation, and love of motorcycles. 

Richard tried again and again to get me on the back of that bike. He took all the other girls in the group out on rides. The experience left them breathless. Occasionally, it left Richard breathless, too, because sometimes they didn’t understand how to lean with the curves (I’ll just say it, Bev made him wreck his bike, I’m sorry Bev, but you’re no longer with us so this can’t embarrass you).

I’d learned how to lean into curves behind James, but I had zero interest in riding on the back of another teenage boy’s motorcycle. I had, well, adult responsibilities: cats, and a fake husband, and I had to finish high school in one piece so we could move somewhere else where he could find a job. Living on air can only work for so long.

Phil finally drove to Portland to work at a brake shop. This left me on my own for my last term at Eisenhower. I didn’t have a phone, and there had been fractures in my friend group, so most of the time it was just me and the cats. I liked it when Richard showed up, which he did more and more after Phil left town. Sometimes, he even took me out for coffee; I drove, he paid.

“It’s too bad you’re married,” he said in a booth at Sambo’s (or maybe it was Denny’s). “Because if you weren’t, we could hang out.”

I was confused. “But we are hanging out.”

He said something halting about how much he liked me, like, really liked me. I said something dismissive and ended that part of the conversation.

I should have recognized the signs.

One Saturday Richard came by, as he so often did. I’d gone into the bathroom (which was off the bedroom) to tend to the cat box. I’m not sure why he decided to press his case while I was sifting turds out of cat litter, but he sauntered into the bedroom, stretched out on my bed with his hands behind his head, and announced, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you and I had an affair one day.”

I stood up, pointed to the door with my litter sifter, and said, “Get out.”

This isn’t the end of the story. A week or two later, I opened my front door and he stood there, helmet in hand, looking absolutely wrecked. “I’m an idiot, I’m sorry,” he said. Of course I forgave him, but things were never the same after that. I’d crushed the hopes of a teenage boy. He had to gather his dignity around him and carry on. That required a certain distance on both our parts.

We graduated and went our separate ways. I have no idea if Richard became more conventional, or if he’s living in Northern Idaho with like-minded admirers of Nazi military strategy. Wherever he is, I hope he has a better motorcycle, instead of that teenage boy’s crotch rocket. Like, say, a BMW.

That’s German, right?

The Gold Wing, Washington

A parked Honda Gold Wing motorcycle from behind that is a completely different year and color than the person's in my blog post.
Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay (note, this is not the same bike I rode, which was newer and grey and had no ballsack)

As an adult, I dated one man who had a motorcycle. Just one. I wrote about him (briefly) in Shopping at the Used Man Store.

Some years ago, I went out with a man who lived up in Washington. He rode a Gold Wing, and he was incredibly funny in an entirely inappropriate way. Every weekend, we found somewhere to go. These trips flowed like long shots in movies, smooth and unbroken and entertaining. We saw each other for an entire summer of jaunts, and the ease with which we traveled together disguised the fact that we had almost nothing in common. We were both funny and tall, and that was the sum of what you could call compatibility. In case you think I exaggerate, he ripped the sleeves off his shirts, chain-smoked, enjoyed Larry the Cable Guy, and collected coffee mugs from all the events he attended for his sobriety program. But the travel was fantastic.

This doesn’t give you all the details. Like, how M and I were fixed up by one of my nearest and dearest friends, who lived in Tacoma. She and her then-boyfriend hosted a dinner at their house, and introduced me to their friend, and we really hit it off to the point where our second date was a weekend at the Oregon coast.

Which we would travel to via motorcycle.

On the freeway.

I was really excited about this trip, almost as excited as I was terrified. He must have left his house (160 miles north of me) very early, because he showed up at my house mid-morning, bearing leathers. The leathers were for me.

Yes, I wore the leathers. He sort of strapped me into chaps and zipped me into this enormous black leather coat. Does that sound sexy? It was not. I felt overwhelmed and immobile in all this leather, like Ralphie’s younger brother in A Christmas Story. 

We went outside and he stashed my weekend supplies in his luggage compartments, put a helmet on my head (I had terrible hair for the entire time we dated), and steadied the bike while I climbed on. This was, well, managed with as much dignity as possible.  

I asked about the route. In my imagination, we would travel some picturesque and nonexistent alternate route that didn’t have any cars on it, or any semi trucks. But he told me we would get on 217 and take it up to the junction with Highway 26, where we would take the long, wide ramp to the west, and continue on to the beach.

I thought this was fine, actually. St. Vincent Hospital is right there at the nexus of 217 and 26, where I’d recently had surgery, so they’d have my medical records and DNR and the like for when I arrived at their emergency room after a fiery crash while merging onto 26.

I braced for it. It had been a fine life. And who needed both legs, anyway?

We took the ramp, joined up with 26, and headed for Seaside. We reached it with no fiery crashes and all limbs attached. The thing about a Gold Wing is, it’s roomy and comfortable and quiet. This is why Harley riders despise Gold Wing riders. But it suited me just fine.

We had a perfectly nice weekend, with time on the bike leading me to mental exploration of Keats’ theory of negative capability: holding in my head the opposing ideas of, “This is so much fun!” and, “I’m going to die!” without seeking resolution.

When I returned home, I was SO GLAD that both my legs came with me! I knew that eventually, if we kept seeing each other, they wouldn’t. But I’d have fun until then!

This trip kicked off a summer of motorcycle jaunts. My knees got a bit stiff on the longer trips, but if I had knees, it meant I still had legs. I liked smelling the vegetation as we rode along, and making the peace sign to the other bikes (that is the one job of the rider and I wasn’t very good at it but I tried). The helmet was wired for sound, so I could hear Paul Simon singing about Graceland, or the acoustic Scorpions, just fine. And after every single trip, I quietly marveled that I hadn’t lost a leg. I hadn’t even lost an arm!

So far.

September came. The change of weather brought a change of heart. I could feel him pulling back. I was too, though I’m not sure he understood that. He was getting ready to leave the country on an extended business trip, and I was so ready for him to go. This was fun and all, the bike and his humor and the strange world of recovery culture I’d sampled that summer. But I wanted to get back to my real life.

I suggested we have a conversation.

So, we got on the phone to to have the conversation. I let him talk. He explained that he wanted to keep seeing me when he could, but he also wanted to start seeing people up north, because they could watch TV together during the week. He mentioned that quite specifically. Watching TV during the week (see: Larry the Cable Guy).

I told him it was fine if he wanted to see other people (obviously, he already was), but I just wanted to be done. No continuing to see each other “when we could.” Which was okay, I reassured him, there were no hard feelings. I liked him, but we were too ill-matched for anything serious (see: shirt sleeves torn off). I didn’t say that last part out loud.

My exact words were, “Let’s just call it a summer.”

He started crying. He didn’t want to let me go, blah blah blah, oh the drama (see: in recovery). He asked for a night to think it over. I saw no point, but fine. I slept poorly that night, and of course he called me the next morning, still in tears, to say he couldn’t date only me.

I told him well, that’s that.

So, my summer on the Gold Wing ended. I would miss those trips, and I would miss him (see: funny and tall). But at the back of my mind, despite the anxious grief that always overtook me when a relationship ended, I was relieved. Very relieved.

I still had all my limbs. And still do, to this day.

A really cool shot of a motorcycle leaned against an abandoned gas station (and yes that's probably a Harley chopper).
Image by Joe Bennett from Pixabay

Arkansas Waters

Arkansas Rain

This is Ecuador, by the way. But it has the feel of Arkansas.
Image by Alejandro Miranda from Pixabay

It was time to leave Edina behind. After an adoption and a bankruptcy, we moved to Arkansas so my new father could start a Forest Service internship. Its office was based in Booneville, a tiny town up in the lush, swampy, humid northwest corner of Arkansas. We arrived in Booneville as a legal family, a strange little family in a strange little town.

Dad went to work in the Ouachita National Forest. The rest of us spent our days in the falling-down farmhouse I’ve written about before. When we arrived, that house had no air conditioner. It was only May, but it was always hot, day and night. One hundred plus degrees, one hundred percent humidity. We went to school during the week, but on the weekend, we lay limp and gasping, dying fish on the battered linoleum of the living room floor.

My pregnant mother was disgusted. She’d hoped to inch us up the social ladder with a better address in Edina. Perhaps she thought we’d do our part and take up tennis and the like. But we were pallid indoor creatures who were no help at all. Still, this was next level torpid. She couldn’t even rouse her daughters for housework. She used all the weapons in her motherly arsenal to motivate us; rage, accusation, guilt, shame. Nothing could budge us.

One afternoon, we finally heard it on the roof. A patter, then a smatter, then a steady thrumming. Could it be? We rose to our feet, weak from inactivity, and emerged from the rotten shell of that rotten little house. We turned our chalky faces to the sky. It was raining.

Thunder rocked the earth, lightning split the sky, and our mother shouted a warning. But thunder and lightning belonged to Thor, and so did we. We were children of the North.

Well, not such children. My brother was sixteen, my sister thirteen, and I was eleven. We had lost the grace of childhood and become ungainly in our bodies. But there we were, leaping and waving, soaking and spinning, and laughing, all three of us, dancing in the southern downpour.

An Arkansas River

As a Northerner, how do you prepare for the South’s summer heat? You can’t. You can’t even describe it, through you try. Deliquescent, you might say, or oppressive. You struggle through the heavy air like one of those dreams where you’re trying to run. You don’t roast in Southern heat. You drown. It was like living in a terrarium.

But we were children, and children adjust. We more or less acclimated in the weeks before summer. In the early mornings, before the heat became unbearable, my sister and I found a pocket of time in which we could explore this strange new landscape.

We made strange Northern noises as we padded down red clay roads under overhanging trees that resonated with the songs of frogs, insects, and unfamiliar birds. We kept to the center, where we could see the telltale SSS of snakes as they crossed the road, the black scuttle of hairy tarantulas as they went about their scary business.

Within walking distance of our house, we came upon a still river, so dark and green that its depths were impossible to perceive. What was it called? We had no idea. It was just there. Was it shallow? Was it deep? Most importantly, were there snakes?

With great trepidation, we tiptoed across a concrete bridge that had no guardrails. We leaned towards each other, too frightened to shriek. It seemed to me that the viscous green water, thick as mud, would rise up over its sides and claim us, suck us down into the Arkansas waters, leaving behind no trace.

Within a few months, we were used to this different world. We made friends with neighbors who had horses and a private lake. We would modulate our voices to be heard over that symphony of flying, hopping, slithering, scuttling life. We would run across that concrete bridge without fear, without even thinking.

We wouldn’t even sweat.

An Arkansas Creek

No one would ever have accused us kids of being athletic, but water tends to be forgiving of that. We could splash and bob and shriek, practice our shitty crawls and pointless breaststrokes. Swimming in Arkansas gave us a break from the heat and boredom of our tiny town, and removed some of the awkwardness of our growing, graceless bodies.

As a forester, Dad had access to key information for water safety, like when a swimming hole had last been sprayed for copperheads. Once he’d decided the chance of poisonous snakebite was low, he’d pack up us three older kids in our family’s VW van and head for Jack Creek. Mom stayed home with the new air conditioner and the even newer baby brother.

Jack Creek was a pretty place. A diagonal upthrust of rock defined the swimming hole, and provided a place for the more daring to jump. Kids would scale the rocks, edge out, and plunge into what must have been the only water deep enough to safely enter.

How did they keep from breaking their necks?

Sister and I stuck to the still green waters. We would have done that without our mother’s warnings not to break our necks. I was cautious by nature, always watching for the S-shaped ripple of a swimming snake. We didn’t break our necks by jumping in, and we never got bit by snakes. Once, when we were sort of wallowing at the edge of the creekbed, a crawfish bit my sister in the butt. That was the extent of our misadventures with wildlife.

I would have lived at Jack Creek if I could. Swimming there gave us some low-key time with just our dad. He understood parts of parenting that our mother didn’t, like the fact that we needed to go outside once in a while. We would never jump off cliffs, but we needed nature, even if we stuck to the shady spots, muddy banks, and shallow waters.

An Arkansas Lake

I remember swimming at a lake in Arkansas. I thought it was called Green Lake, but I can’t find a lake by that name near Booneville out there on the Internet. My sister thinks it was a reservoir, but I remember seeing fish, and going out on a boat with a friend of the family’s who was fishing. Are there a lot of fish in reservoirs? I have no idea.

Anyway, if you’re reading this and you know what lake it was, leave a comment.

Because Arkansas is mild in the winter, and hot all the rest of the year, we went fairly often, but never often enough. We adored this lake. It had a sandy shore and trees nearby, offering shade if the heat became too much. There were picnic tables and a sense of social possibility. I was eleven when we moved to Arkansas and only twelve when we left, but adolescence was bearing down on my sister and me. There were boys at that lake, including those blonde and handsome Daffron/Daphren brothers.

One weekend, Mom and Dad had gone somewhere for the weekend—probably Fort Smith—leaving my sister and I in charge of our baby brother. Our older brother was away at college by this point. I was 12, which means my brother was a year old. Yes, we were all quite young to be left alone for a weekend, but my sister had been babysitting me since she was five and I was three, so we were used to it.

Anne and Tom—friends of my parents—knew we were home alone that weekend. They had possibly been enlisted to check in on us. Anne called and said Tom had the idea to take us to the lake. Would we like go to the lake with them? Oh, we wanted to go! But we couldn’t figure out how to handle a one year-old. Could we bring his playpen? Would it fit in their car? Would he be okay while we swam? Would Mom be mad?

My sister called them back and said we couldn’t go after all.

When my parents came home, we told them all about our almost-trip to the lake and our oh-so-mature decision not to go. We were pretty proud of ourselves, but I watched my mother’s face harden as we talked. Mom was stony and disapproving.

She finally said, “You know why Tom wanted to take you to the lake, don’t you?”

No, I didn’t. To have fun, maybe?

She hissed, “He wanted to see you in your swimsuits.”

The way she said it. I felt soiled and somehow responsible. That’s what happens to girls as we reach maturity milestones that trigger male interest. We blame ourselves for anything creepy.

No more Arkansas waters

As it turns out, that was the last opportunity we had to go to the lake. We moved to Montana soon after. There was nowhere safe to swim out at the Ranger Station. That didn’t stop me from testing the waters.

I would step into the churning, icy flow of the Gallatin River, hoping to make it to a rock before my feet froze. I was young and lonely and bored, and there was nothing else to do. Why not risk my life?

There was no swimming in that river. I missed those Arkansas waters, warm, lazy and green, my sister beside me, my dad watching to keep us safe.

Pass the Teacup – Happy Mothers’ Day

Tea Time

A fancy teacup, a hot cup of tea. Happy Mother's Day.
Image by M. Maggs from Pixabay

In her pantry, my mother kept three translucent teacups and saucers glazed with navy blue on white, accented with raised golden swags and dots. From these elegant vessels, she claimed to sip tea with her friend Jim while they worked jigsaw puzzles or did the New York Times crossword.

I had my doubts. We weren’t tea drinkers in my family. Mom and Dad started their day with coffee in ceramic mugs bought while touring England. Still, Mom kept her regal teacups, insisting they were objects of utility.

Hardly anyone in America uses the cups and saucers that come with their dishes, and Mom had a dozen in her English transferware pattern (Johnson Brothers, Old Britain). So she had no need of those delicate cups. I think she just admired their unmistakable whiff of extended-pinky snobbery.

Heading West

Mom came from rural South Dakota, but her parents relocated to North Hollywood when she was a young teen. She made friends with girls from prosperous families and enjoyed beaches, cotillions, and trips to Catalina Island.

Mom on the beach, 13 or 14.

These halcyon days came to an end when she married a sailor and became a mother at age seventeen.

Mom marrying my brother Steve's father. Mom is seventeen, and that handsome sailor isn't that much older.

Soon after, my grandfather’s business failed. My grandparents retreated to South Dakota. When her marriage failed, so did my mother, but she’d been infected with class awareness.

She never recovered.

The code

Social class had a code, and Mom wanted to crack it. She understood that the more comfortable echelons of society actually used their beautiful objects, so she strove to do this. She glowed with pride over her Johnson Brothers dishes. My parents ate from those pink castles every single day and ran them through the dishwasher.

On her entry table, she kept a huge antique Asian bowl she considered valuable. That was where she threw her mail and keys. Alongside it stood two large white ceramic rabbits with pink eyes; knickknack outliers.

My mother first saw these rabbits in an expensive gift shop in 1977. She spoke of them with longing and bitterness, because she never had enough money to buy anything as costly and wonderful as those big white rabbits.

My brother, sister and I pooled our meager funds and bought them for her birthday. We thought she would be thrilled, but she seemed disappointed that she could no longer complain about that particular deprivation.

Eventually, more white rabbits came her way as gifts. “I don’t want to collect anything,” Mom complained.

Collecting was middle class.

My mother would not suffer the social embarrassment of accumulating fussy objects that had no use. She preferred to pass them along to me with the admonishment, “You should keep this. It will be worth money someday.”

I accepted various knickknacks (including the largest white rabbit), ornate teapots, and flowery teacups, and kept them against that promise of future value right up until Mom died. Then, I quietly donated almost everything she gave me.

But not everything…

I claimed the various large white ceramic rabbits. Each spring, I display the entire fluffle on my dining table. I even added one this last year, so the current count stands at six. My mother would be horrified.

The legacy.

She may have thought it tacky to have knickknacks, but Mom had a stash of extraneous flowered porcelain somewhere. I’d seen it. After Mom died, my father offered up her small accumulation to me and my sister.

My sister reluctantly took “Grandma Lucille’s teapot,” ancient and oval, patterned with pansies. It had been promised to her years before with great solemnity. Somehow her desire to actually own it was never taken into account. She accepted it with duty, not desire.

I took two small bowl and pitcher sets, and a Wedgewood “Windrush” demitasse cup and saucer. Mom had the pitcher sets as for long as I could remember, but where had the demitasse come from? Had she bought it on a trip to Europe? Dad didn’t remember. It held no sentimental value, but was too pretty to let go.

Finally, Dad opened the cabinet and offered up the imperial three, those delicate navy blue and white teacups trimmed with gold, saying, “I’ll never use them.” To his surprise, Cat and I both declined. They meant something to Mom, but nothing to us.

Those swagged and stately teacups reemerged seventeen years later at Dad’s estate sale. They went quickly, I imagine to a person who never uses them. That’s what I like to think, anyway. I hope they sit proudly on a shelf, gathering dust, their potential utility ignored in favor of their regal beauty.

My sis, my mom, me. Oh and my oldest daughter in that gigantic baby belly.
1982. I am nine months pregnant, here. My sister is adorable. So is my mom.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I miss you every single day.

A New Leaf

Temporary solutions

Baked goods on a table.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

In 1984, my then-husband and I were ready to turn over a new leaf, and upgrade from an old Formica-topped table we’d been using for several years. This table was, of course, a parental castoff.

My parents had used it in their kitchen, then on their deck. When they bought some beautiful wrought iron furniture at a Meier & Frank warehouse sale, they passed it along with two wooden chairs, Nichols & Stone beauties marred by a strange, sticky finish. Mom let me know that they were “really good” chairs.

Yes, but they were sticky.

It was a temporary solution, but as my mother had explained to me, “Temporary solutions have a way of becoming permanent.” Her example was a crate used as an end table, something you do in college. Ten years later, you look up and that crate is still there, being used as an end table.

Mom had a point. Our entire apartment was furnished in temporary solutions, castoffs and loaners and curbside finds. We’d been using that patio table for at least three years. I used my dad’s staple gun to staple on a new vinyl tablecloth every now and then, but still. I decided to take a look at the “World’s Largest Rummage Sale.”

A heck of a sale

This secondhand extravaganza was held each year in the Memorial Coliseum by Catlin Gabel, a private school in Northwest Portland. The donation drive went on for months, resulting in an astonishing assemblage of upper-crust castoffs. I knew I could find something at the Catlin Gabel sale.

Boy, did I. A square pine table with a dark finish set me back all of $25.00. Such a bargain, for a “really good” table. It was solid, with a pieced top, braced corners and sturdy turned legs. At one time it had a leaf, because it had a central join with pegs on one side, holes on the other, and levered closures (like the ones you find on windows) underneath to hold the two halves tight.

I think someone built this table in a home workshop. Mom was a furniture snob—she’d worked selling furniture at one point in her life—and she approved of the quality. So did I. My husband didn’t understand why we liked it so much, but it fit in our apartment’s dining space, nicely accommodating our family of four.

It made the move from apartment to our first home, where we grew to a family of five. I thought we were fine. Each side could hold two chairs, especially when two were occupied by little girls. But my husband decided that we no longer fit.

A new leaf

He unscrewed the legs, carted the tabletop somewhere for measuring, then carted it back home and put it back together. “We need a new leaf.” I asked him who was making this new leaf. “I know a guy,” was the most he would tell me.

That’s all he would tell me about, well, anything. He followed his father’s advice to “Never tell a woman where you’re going, or how much money you have.” Fine, then. I retaliated by refusing to be curious (can you see how well this marriage was going? but that is not the point of this blog post. well, not really.).

He brought the new leaf home and unveiled it with pride. I was appalled. It had cost $85.00 to have it made for our $25.00 table, and it wasn’t even finished. He said he’d finish it himself, but I knew him. I covered the raw wood with a large tablecloth and got on with life.

The five of us ate dinner together at the elongated table for a few more years. The girls perched on rickety wooden kitchen chairs my husband found secondhand. Us adults continued to sit in the chairs with the sticky finishes.

But he made it home for dinner less and less. Shift work, most of the time. Other times? Who knew. I was resolutely incurious. It was my only defense.

His sticky chair wasn’t usually empty, though. We had dinner almost nightly with my friend Lauren, whose own marriage had ended. Her two kids came to my house after school, and it was easy to feed them dinner on weeknights. She reciprocated on weekends. That filled up the table very nicely.

New Chairs

When my husband finally moved out, the nightly dinners with Lauren and her kids continued. She was right there, every single day, helping me find (and keep) my footing. We formed our own little Kate and Allie situation.

But times change. I went back to work myself, and worked strange hours. My kids were with their father and his new girlfriend part of the time. One of my girls needed extensive surgery, so my family came down to help a lot that next year.

Eventually, Lauren remarried, and I began my single life adventures. But I believe she kind of, you know, saved my life. And I mean that.

Turning over a new leaf

Destruction brings opportunity.

That’s a realization you have after undergoing fundamental devastation. I was grieving the end of my marriage, terrified by the disruption of my children’s security, and just plain furious. But I had to move on. I needed to recognize the opportunity for change.

On the level of personal identity, this meant reclaiming parts of myself I’d set aside. I’d been told by my husband that for the marriage to work, I simply could not be me. I’d given away half of myself (or more, if I’m honest) to be part of that marriage. I wanted it all back and then some.

On the mundane level, that included making decisions about the house and how it was furnished. I looked at every part of my home to make sure it was exactly how I wanted it. Those creaking, rickety kitchen chairs had to go. I laid away four solid oak chairs at an antique mall in Newberg. They were early American in style, and very sturdy. I can’t remember what I paid, maybe $35.00 each? They’d been consigned by a Catholic monk who had finished them himself.

Once I got those home, I felt exalted. No more crappy chairs around my table! I took the table outside, painted the skirt and legs, and refinished the wood top. This included (finally) finishing the leaf, which I had considered taking out. We were back down to a family of four. We didn’t technically need it.

But I’d grown used to the sweep of a larger table. Plus there were kids’ birthday parties to consider. And family dinners on holidays. And all those freaking piles of laundry to fold.

More destruction brings more opportunity

The 2006 house fire allowed me to make more changes, not just in my home’s layout as it was being rebuilt, but in furnishings, because so many were lost. I have a new table now, a sweeping eight-footer. It took some years and some shopping, but it is now flanked by six sturdy modern chairs my daughter found for me on Marketplace.

All on my own, I found two bow back Nichols & Stone chairs for the head and foot of the table (thank you Goodwill, for pricing these beauties at $9.99 each). I like the blend of modern and traditional. And I love a bargain.

The remaining sticky chair is in the bedroom. That’s where I set my purse, and where I heap garments when I can’t decide what to wear.

The oak chairs made it through the fire, and I used them as a temporary solution around the new table. That temporary solution lasted fifteen years before they went to Goodwill. I was glad to see them go. They were sturdy, and gave me good service, but they were also tall and pale and dated. One of them had a little green paint on it. That’s how I identified it when I saw it at my local Goodwill, priced at $14.99.

So long, old oak chairs. It was good to know you.

And yet…

I kept the old table, which also made it through the fire just fine. I’ve loaned it out twice, once to a friend who used it as a desk, then to a daughter until her boyfriend surprised her with a new dining set. Currently, it leans against a wall in the garage, legs detached, solid and square as ever, waiting to be called into service. The new leaf is there, too, minus a skirting board, but still usable.

I like that table. It would work nicely if I ever call it up as a desk, maybe for the office I plan to create in one of the spare rooms. I’m not sure.

Like I said, it’s a really good table. It was always a really good table.

That’s why I’ll never let it go.

The Cigarette

A lit cigarette sits in a crystal ashtray, its smoke curling seductively.

Photo courtesy Pixabay

Not smoking

I have always despised smoking and loved smokers. That’s where the action is, at a party. Outside with the smokers, even when you’re not smoking a cigarette, like me. In fact, my first stab at writing a memoir was titled “Not Smoking.”

My parents (one mom, an original father, an eventual dad) smoked with the abandon of people who took up the habit long before the surgeon general’s warning went on the packets. My childhood was spent choking my way through a hazy scrim of tobacco smoke, complaining and whining with every breath.

When I was eleven, I spent a year removing my parents’ cigarettes from the pack, drawing a red line round the midpoint of each cigarette with a red felt tip, and carefully returning them to the package. I did this to entire cartons of cigarettes for most of a year in order to keep my parents from smoking down into the dangerous second half of the cigarette (something I saw on a PSA, I’m sure). My dad smoked them down anyway, but Mom trained herself to only ever smoke half a cigarette in deference to my concerns.

It was inconceivable that I would ever smoke.

Things change.

We’d left Arkansas shortly before my thirteenth birthday and moved to a log cabin on a ranger station in Montana. It was almost as rustic as it sounds, aside from the electricity and indoor plumbing. The name “Gallatin” will be overly used in this forthcoming sentence, because we lived in the Gallatin Valley carved by the Gallatin River through the Gallatin Range, named after Albert Gallatin, who was the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury, and let’s just top this all off with the fact that I went to school in Gallatin Gateway. My sister went to school in Bozeman.

I don’t quite understand what had happened to us in Montana. In Arkansas, we were academically gifted girls who sang in the choir and had boyfriends. At age twelve, I’d been attending high school in Booneville, because it started in seventh grade. I was an odd one who only ever had one friend at a time, and counted myself lucky to have that one. My sister actually ran in cliques. She’d always included me in Arkansas.

Montana was a social challenge for both of us, since we lived an hour’s bus ride from our respective schools. She went to the bus stop later than I did, and was dropped off earlier. I was the first stop, out there in the icy darkness before 7am, and also the last dropped off. I assumed this was because the bus driver, like almost everyone else at Gateway, hated me. I had left Booneville High behind for a K through 8 grade school, and I did not fit in.

My sister wasn’t having much more luck. After a little recon, it became clear to her that even though we were “good kids” with excellent grades and definite nerd-like qualities, the only social group we stood a chance with in Bozeman was the hoods. You know, the heads, the stoners, the greasers, whatever you called them in your hometown back in the olden days. They were the hoods in Bozeman, Montana.

To be a hood, you had to smoke.

That took practice.

My sister had run away for a short time (I was in eighth grade, she must have been in tenth). She hitchhiked to Minneapolis and stayed with a friend from her junior high years. She returned a smoker. I wasn’t, so we stole a pack of Benson & Hedges 100s from the refrigerator shelf where my parents stored their signature smokes and went down to crouch on the riverbank.

She coached me in the fine art of inhaling. I would draw deeply, filling my mouth with the foul, forbidden smoke. “Like this?”

“No, you have to inhale it in,” she’d say.

The smoke would come out of my mouth and make my eyes water. I’d give it another try. “Am I doing it now?”

She would study me and shake her head. “You have to breathe it.”

I had no idea how to do that, which makes no sense because it was just breathing. I knew how to breathe. I kept trying.

Eventually, it was too cold down by the river. But my sister could drive. My parents had graduated from the VW Microbus to a pair of VW Beetles. One was a bright orange Super Beetle, and that was our parents’ car. The other was older, with a dull red paint job, and that was the one we could drive the twenty miles to Bozeman whenever we wanted to.

Our unthinkable independence.

You might wonder why a pair of wayward sisters aged fourteen and sixteen were allowed to drive into a college town, basically at will. I can’t answer that for you. I wonder myself. There were absolutely no parameters put on our behavior by my parents, other than not bothering them.

Our father might try to be stern with us at our mother’s behest—in fact, that was why my sister ran away, because he’d yelled at her for something. Her running away ended his attempts to restore some order to our adolescence. So, it was my mother who made the rules. And her rule was, there were no rules. We could wear what we wanted, eat what we wanted, read what we wanted, go where we wanted. Or not! Mom didn’t care, as long as we didn’t involve her.

If we drove to Bozeman and came home at three in the morning, she did not care. If we received terrible grades, she did not care. If we skipped school but were clever enough to forge our own attendance excuses, she did not care. Even if I misbehaved at school badly enough to involve a call home, she didn’t care, unless it somehow embarrassed her, in which case I heard about it. But if we argued, and the noise from that impinged on our mother’s mental airspace, then all holy hell would rain down. We learned to argue in whispers.

Pin money.

My sister drove us to Bozeman often. My family was broke as usual, but we would always have a little babysitting money. We knew how to make that last.

We dragged Main, because even with the gas crisis, we were in a VW Bug and it basically ran on air. We went to Sambo’s for coffee (“Ask Me About The Tiger Club!”) because coffee cost a dime. We sat there for hours, taking up a four-top for a twenty cent tab. We went to midnight movies, even though I often fell asleep because I was a growing child. We sat at the Western Café so she could ogle her crush, who worked there as a busboy (his name was Bob, he had a sheepskin coat and a gurgling laugh, and when he pierced her ears with a needle and dental floss, she fainted).

And we went to the Student Union Building (the SUB we called it) at Montana State University. The SUB was in a basement. It held pool tables, bowling lanes, and an enormous commons that had a fantastic jukebox. It was the jukebox we loved. We only played two songs, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, and “Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan. There must have been a serious sound system involved, because you could hear the two glorious guitars dueling their way from speaker to speaker in the latter.

(put in your earbuds and crank the volume for maximum enjoyment and hearing damage)

The perfect setting.

Here, finally, I finally smoked my first cigarette. The pilfered Benson & Hedges 100. It went down easy. I was instantly cool. Inhaling was just breathing, after all. I laughed, I gestured, I casually tapped off my ash. When I’d smoked a respectable amount, I stubbed it out like a pro. I felt unbelievably sophisticated.

And then, I became incredibly sick.

This was floor-tilting-vertigo, stomach-roiling, green-at-the-gills-nauseated sick. I was definitely going to throw up. Soon. I lurched up from the table and off to the bathroom, where I opened the door on a nightmarish scene of diarrhea overflow that sent me reeling back out. I staggered to the bathrooms by the bowling lanes, barely making it to a toilet to avoid creating my own nightmarish bathroom scene.

I returned to the table, pale and trembling. My sister was concerned. She got me a Coke, I think. After an hour of sipping and shaking I was fine, but it was a difficult hour. After that, my sister and I understood that I would have to earn my hood status another way. Smoking was off the table. Thankfully, my ability to drink an entire Colt 45 40-ouncer in one night did the trick.

It wasn’t smoking, but it would have to do.