When did everyone start loving ranch homes? I remember when the battle cry for house hunting was “Anything but a ranch!” Ranches were plain, boxy, a capitulation to suburban living in all its mundane boredom.
I know, I know, it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like what they do so much that I can tell you the names of my favorite ranch home rehabs: Big Daddy’s House and the Worm Brick House. It’s not the décor so much–Joanna’s initial enthusiasm for flaking paint and patchy rust are not to my taste, nor are her more current themes of black metal and artificial flowers–but they take those houses apart and put them back together in such pleasing ways. When I watch House Hunters on HGTV (which I started to do a week after the last election, because MSNBC was making me lose my will to live) I am surprised at how many people go looking for ranches as their preferred style. Something has CHANGED, people.
As a house-hunter in the late 1980s, I was one of those people, of course. What I wanted more than anything was a Craftsman home with intact, unpainted woodwork. We (my ex-husband and I) even found one, but lacked the necessary fortitude to trust our guts and make an offer. That rundown Craftsman sat on a large lot, right next to a house we called “the Amway Dream Home.”
The Amway Dream Home was a new construction ranch that was landscaped with grass and red lava rock, like a military base. This house had been for sale forever for very good reasons. It was a yellowish tan shoe box with trim painted the color of the contents of a baby diaper. It had an oversized double-car garage with a room of some kind next to it (my ex would drawl, “that’s for the praw-duhct”). The front yard was dominated by an enormous satellite dish. This house was absolutely devoid of architectural detail or charm.
The complexities of how, why and from whom I bought the Amway Dream Home make a great story, but that’s a story for another day. Ranch homes have their charms, as EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FIGURED OUT BY NOW. They generally have all the things missing in so many cuter, quainter styles, like entries, hallways, adequate bathrooms, laundry rooms, yards, storage, parking, and so on. It’s the sheer practicality of the ranch that won over a pragmatic person like me.
And have you ever been inside a really nice daylight ranch? These are also known as walk-outs and split backs, and that lower level is a goldmine of space and opportunity. As my family grew to two adults, three kids and a medium-sized dog, my one-level ranch felt increasingly cramped. I often longed for a walk-out. And eventually I got one, but not of the architectural variety–a marital walk-out is an entirely different matter, but at least the house was no longer so small, then.
Ranch home architecture features in the short passages that introduce the season changes in The Iris Files. These passages delight some readers, and baffle others. I call them them prose strophes, which is term I’ve coined to hide the fact that they are probably just indulgences. These poetic litanies have stayed in every version and draft of the book–even when a former literary agent asked me to remove them. “Are they really necessary?” she asked. Well, listen, is ANYTHING really necessary? If I were to hold up the filter of necessity to anything that is written today (by me or anyone else), it would all fade away. This leaves me with only one answer: these passages are necessary to me.
Here’s an example:
It’s a fall afternoon, in California.
California is the land of air conditioners. In the fall, California air conditioners work steadily, and the hot air of September is monitored, measured, drawn in, cooled off, pumped out, and re-circulated.
California women are all that, and waxed.
On a fall afternoon in California, the streets are full of the sons and daughters of the mighty hunters. These children are shuttled from school to practice to lesson to playgroup. Despite their busy schedules, these children occasionally find time to play.
When the shadows of the afternoon begin to lengthen, the women step out of their climate-controlled homes. They call their children in for dinner. And the women lift their expensively highlighted heads of hair, and wonder when and if their men will return home.
Ranch architecture is varied, but predictable. There are one-levels and tri-levels, walk-out basements and split entries. Everyone envies the tri-levels. Everyone despises the split entries. But people are divided on the walk-outs. No one knows if the walk-outs are a good thing, or a bad thing.
Nothing ever changes, in California.
I’m worshiping with words in these passages, and I’m worshiping the idea that each of these cookie-cutter homes is unique. If you were to step inside one of them, you’d see a thousand differences that tell the story of the lives lived within. Yes, there are bland and annoying people in every neighborhood, living in every kind of home. But I’m not convinced that any neighborhood in my city is more or less likely to hold annoying neighbors.
I have lived in my ranch home for thirty years, now. The bulk of my life has been spent at one address. For someone whose childhood was as fractured and nomadic as mine, this is a miracle. It’s also weird as hell to live in one house for thirty years these days. No one does it. Except–all around me, I have neighbors who have. We have lived here forever, side-by-side.
I used to feel the need to apologize for my determined rootedness. But then I found this sweet meme on Tumblr, and it made perfect sense to me.
I mean, if Simone Weil says so…
These days, my ranch home feels mighty spacious, as it holds only two tall people and two miniscule dogs. The dogs are old, but the man is sort of young. He’s younger than me, at least. We both feel the pull of other places, other ways of living once we retire. We talk about where we might buy next, send each other links to places we like that won’t even be for sale in ten years, but it doesn’t hurt to look, to plan, to speculate about where we might end up.
As it turns out, in addition to our many other areas of compatibility, we both have the same dream home–the aforementioned Craftsman with rooms full of intact dark brown woodwork, built-ins, you name it, we want it. I have no idea if we will ever live in a place like that. In all likelihood, we’ll get a boring condo that’s an excellent deal, because we’re both so practical.
But until pragmatism rears its head to ruin everything, it’s fun to dream together.
On December 6th, I lost my older brother to an array of medical woes that have been changing the shape of his life for the last ten years.
If I were to list for you what he endured, you wouldn’t believe anyone could. At birth, my brother got a bum ticket when it came to his body and health. But he lived life as large as he could within the bounds of his earthly container, and he fought long and hard for each day, no matter how much pain and discomfort it held.
Steve promised me that he wasn’t actually going to die. His specific promise was “Keith Richards, the cockroaches, and me.” Despite this promise, he’d been trying to die for a long time. Many times in the last ten years, we’ve been summoned as a family to make the hardest decisions, the final decisions. We’ve been asked to come to terms with his end and to prepare ourselves and wait. Every single time, he’d rallied in what was no less than a medical miracle.
After each of these events, Steve expressed, with some huffiness, his disbelief that the doctors expected him to die. He found it unthinkable and a little personally insulting. “They thought I was going to die.”
So in early December, when he came to the point where he was done fighting, none of us could believe it. We sat with him and waited, but at some point, he turned to the love of his life, Elaine, and whispered, “I wish we could just be alone. Just the two of us.” And though what he probably wanted was their life at home, with the cats and their favorite music and her gently preparing the simple meals he could eat, he also meant that he wanted to be alone with her as he struggled his way out of here. They did so much living that way. He loved his life with her.
Brother Steve died on the sixth of December. He died during my busiest month at work, the peak of deadlines and sales meetings and project coordination. And there’s that little thing called Christmas, which brings far-flung girls home to roost, and family gatherings, presents and parties and concerts. If you’re trying to avoid sitting alone with your grief, I recommend December. You can careen from distraction to distraction, especially if you can add the anxiety of writing an obituary and planning a memorial service on top of everything else. You can do so much to avoid your grief in December.
There are no good words for losing your brother. There just aren’t any. And I know it’s this “time of life” and all that, I’m in my late fifties and I know this is the season of loss, that all around me my friends are facing the same thing. As I said to my friend Kim years ago, we are designed to outlive our parents. That loss is survivable. But siblings? My big brother? Brother Steve? Even though I have been staring down the barrel of this for a decade, I still can’t stand it. So I planned him a pretty little memorial service with friends and family and a slideshow, my brother’s life projected on a wall, from his beginnings in California to his death in Portland. I had mostly my own photos to draw from, so there are many shots of my brother and I side-by-side, with our long hair and big noses and big smiles. Eventually, we both had big glasses.
You could always tell that Steve and I were related.
I dislike the sainting we do of people after they die. The polishing up and perfecting. My brother Steve, like any human being, was deeply flawed. He had sustained grievous injuries to his psyche, along with the life-long difficulties of his health. He was perhaps the most passive-aggressive person I have ever known, but as he said to me once, “Isn’t passive-aggressive better than outright aggressive?” Which made me laugh, even as it exasperated me.
He did things that drove me a little nuts, like ascribing long, complex motivations and desires to pets. He also had a unique mindset about the past that I can best explain this way; if it happened once to Steve, he saw it as always going on. So an isolated event loomed larger for Steve than it should have—having been followed home from school by a bully one afternoon, he remembered this as if he were followed home from school every single day. He extrapolated long, murky motivations from awkward social interactions, and had his feelings hurt accordingly. There was a tangle in there around his great big heart, mostly made of insecurity about whether or not people really loved him.
Trust me. People really loved my brother.
Steve had gifts that far outshone his flaws; a curious, brilliant, lively mind. Artistic and writing gifts of staggering proportion. A delightful sense of humor—playful and a little sharp, with a gleeful sense of mischief. And oh my gosh, could he converse. Steve focused on you when he was with you, and that gift of singular attention made him one of the finest conversationalists you would ever have the good fortune to know. I think he got both of these from our mother. Their conversations were epic. But if you really wanted to know Steve’s genius, you would find it in his relationship with music.
Steve’s involvement with music went so much further than just his own personal gifts. Yes, Steve had a voice like an angel from his earliest years. My aunt remembers him at age three, hearing things on the radio and then going over to my mother’s piano and picking out the tune by ear. He had a perfect soprano, she says. I remember when my mother was teaching him to play the guitar. Mom played the piano and the guitar, which she learned so she could play classical style, like Segovia. And it wasn’t easy for Mom to teach Steve—I have a distinct memory of her stern face, her cat eye glasses somewhat askew, as she worked and worked with him—but once Steve learned, he blew right past her in skill and devotion. Nothing made my mother more proud than when Steve surpassed her on the guitar.
So I remember my brother playing the guitar and singing. His voice, people, my brother’s voice. So high and clear and strong and beautiful. Singing at talent shows and in choir and in school assemblies and at his high school commencement, where he sang “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I was an adult before I understood the relationship between Steve’s weight and his incredible voice. All I knew was that when he was twenty, and he had the bariatric surgery to lose weight, his voice changed. He loved it, Steve enjoyed that his voice got a little lower, a little grittier, but I always missed that high tenor that rang like a bell.
Steve wrote songs, played in bands, picked up other instruments and learned them easily—banjo, mandolin, ukelele. Music formed the basis of his social life and it brought him Elaine, who he met on an Americana music board. You know how some people shut down and stop listening to any new music at some point in life, and there they are, back with Huey Lewis or whatever? That never happened to Steve. For his entire life, he was alive and curious and omnivorous in his musical tastes, and he shared them all with me. I’ve already written about how he brought home music that has always played a key role in my life and creativity.
But Steve was also my singing partner. Because of arthritis and illness, it’s been years since Steve could sing or play, but it always felt like, as long as he was alive, it might happen. We could still lift up our voices together on “Grievous Angel,” “Love Hurts,” “Six Blocks Away,” “Blackbird.” We sang together constantly. My voice is loud, so he often did harmonies while I took the lead. And Steve and I are both musical omnivores. The earliest songs I remember singing with him? The Beatles. We were always planning a CD, our CD that we would cut together and share with family and friends.
That CD won’t be made, now. I can’t believe I will never sing with my brother again. I can’t hold this in my heart.
I thought I could choose the music easily. Just start with the Beatles and come forward. But Steve loved so many styles of music, jazz and classical included. And like, Bjork. EVERYTHING. He listened like I eat—happily, with great curiosity and interest and openness to anything new. As a result, the thought of choosing music for his memorial service made my head spin.
Listen, I had figured out all the rest of it. Where to have it, and when, and who to include, and which photos to put on the board, and what should be on the table, and which flowers to bring, and food, and format. But the most important part of it was the MUSIC, and yesterday morning, I was sitting in my armchair crying because the day had arrived, and this was the most important part of the entire event and I hadn’t figured it out. How could I not have figured out the music for my brother’s memorial service?
I have always turned to Steve for music. We swapped songs like marbles. Have you heard—let me play—listen to this—you might like—All our LIVES we have done this. And Steve had curated a series of CDs for me that he called “Sweet Harmony.” There is a Sweet Harmony 1, 2, 3 and 4. These were the songs Steve wanted to sing with me on that mythic record that we were going to cut together, and never did. So I loaded those CDs into my shelf stereo, unplugged it, put it in a Winco bag and carried it to Nordia House. Steve chose the music for his own memorial service, after all. Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, and the Beatles, too.
The other CD I chose was a compilation of two records by an obscure artist that Steve and I loved to distraction in 1974. She was a heroin addict and a hold-up artist who spent time in prison and found God and music and made something magical of all these ingredients. I believe she was the first artist ever signed by David Geffen. She made two records that were not commercial successes, and died poor and alone. Her music is haunting, sacred, and strange. She has that singular musical sensibility of Dennis Wilson—swooping and eerie and deeply personal. It makes the hairs on my arms stand up.
So I had that playing while people arrived. We were going to have some light catering by Broder Soder, and as Casey from Broder was setting out the food, he lifted his head and said, “Are you playing Judee Sill?”
We find our consolations where we can. Despite these times when I am left alone with my grief, my tears, and these songs my brother left me, and this emptiness where he should be. This has to be survivable, too.
When I was 11, and my brother was 16, and our sister was 13, the three of us were sitting around a kitchen table in a ratty little house on a rundown farm outside Booneville, Arkansas. We were strange kids, all too smart for our own good, exhausted by the burdens of being outsiders, but strangely proud of it. Our childhood honed us, made us sharp and keen. And I said, “I don’t want to go to Heaven, and I don’t want to go to Hell. I want to start my own place.” My brother and sister loved this idea. After some discussion, we decided we’d name it “Joe’s Bar & Grill.”
So, Brother Steve, I will see you there, at Joe’s Bar and Grill. Please stock the jukebox with all my favorites.
Please bring your guitar.
It’s hard, asking for things, isn’t it? At least, for me it is.
The word my mom always used to describe me is “self-sufficient.” She was amazed that a baby could have internal resources. She used the example of cleaning the sun room, which served as a toy room, when I was a baby. She’d dump all the toys from my brother and sister in the middle of the room, and then start sorting them away. I’d sit and play with whatever was left. Eventually, she said, I’d be sitting there, contentedly playing with dustbunnies and a clothespin.
Mom loved this story and I find it illustrative, but not in a “poor pathetic me” way. Oh look at me, the baby on the floor of the sun room, playing with dirt. No, that’s not how I see it, but I have a hard time articulating exactly how I do see it.
I asked my mother for three things. A small bisque doll from the Shackmans catalog when I was five, like a tiny Bye-lo (it was just like this one). I tried to demand this and it didn’t work. I remember the tantrum I threw. Mom was adamant, but the doll showed up on my sixth birthday, and I remember internalizing the lesson. Things are given. One does not demand. One displays the need, the preference, and one is granted, like magic, what one desires.
I put this strategy to work with the next thing Mom said I asked for; a set of Raggedy Ann and Andy books that would come in the mail, like a book club. I brought her the flyer, talked with her about how I would happily share them with my older sister, how much I wanted them. And asked respectfully if we could at least sign up to get the free book. And miraculously, my mother agreed.
You’d think, having learned how to ask, I’d have tried again. But it wasn’t my nature. The bisque baby tantrum was an aberration in my childhood behavior, and not rewarded. But the book club request was also an aberration, and even though it was rewarded, it wasn’t repeated.
I didn’t ask for anything else until I was thirteen. I was at this cool boutique in Bozeman, and I found an alpaca cape trimmed with llama hide. It was a true 1973 leftover hippy wonder garment, and my sister and I wanted it. But I was the one who told our mother about it, I was the one who went home and described it and it cost forty dollars, do you have any idea how much money that was in 1973? I knew I would never get it. My dad made 11K a year as a forester, if that gives you any idea. From somewhere, Mom got the money and bought it for me. It seemed miraculous.
On the way home she explained, “It’s that you never ask for anything, Karen.” And she was right. I didn’t. I think those three things were it, as far as asking my mom for anything at all. She offered plenty and she gave plenty, but it wasn’t because I asked.
When my friend Jay was still alive, back when we were still friends, he said, “You don’t ask for much. Hardly anything, to be honest.” But I do ask for things, I really do. I actually lost my friendship with Jay because I asked for one week off from hearing about his problems with a friend of mine. I was so tired of hearing about it that I asked them both for a week where we talked about anything else but their breakup. She completely understood. He ended our friendship. Look, I wanted to say to him, look what happens when I ask for something. But of course, I never said that to him, and he passed away, so that was that.
Asking for something carries risk, then. There is the risk of rejection, of disappointment, of denial.
Still, I continue to ask. I ask for space. I ask for quiet. I ask for respect of my intellectual boundaries, the uninterrupted time I need to live in my head so that writing can come out. I ask for less engagement, less conversation. Sometimes I ask for conversations about dogs or TV shows, rather than emotions or disappointments. I ask for time to go away and be alone. I ask for weekends to myself. I ask for rain checks.
I ask for things that make people feel rejected. Because even though I love them, what I’m really asking for is less of them.
Everyone else wants more time, more contact, more conversation. I am atypical. And when I admit this, I see how much of the estrangement in my marriage was my fault. Because my ex is a man who needs more. More time, attention, affection and affirmation. Even now when he stops by, I set up my little fences, look at him over my glasses, over my laptop. Sorry, I say. Not a good time. Go talk to your girls.
I remember that he expressed this when we were married. He said, “You never make a fuss over me.” And I said, “What do you want, a one-man-band in the living room every night playing the ‘you are special’ song? A little party to celebrate you?” I also said, “What do you ever do to make me feel special? Ever?” He had no answer, because he basically didn’t do that (as a side note, whenever someone calls me nice, I crack up).
I’m not very nice, and I don’t need anyone to make me feel special. I don’t require it. I’m at times embarrassed when people make me feel special. There will be a birthday or the like and everyone will be so nice and giving and sweet and I’ll become completely flustered, unsure of how to graciously accept the attention. I do like it, once in a while. I just don’t need or want it most of the time.
I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand that with my emotional self-sufficiency comes a lack of empathy for the millions of normal people who aren’t emotionally self-sufficient. Not everyone else is a self-repairing emotional robot. Not everyone wants to go live in their head and make up people and stare at a monitor and type until their fingertips go numb and their eyes bleed. I think anyone who doesn’t is missing out on the one true and real joy of life, but there you have it. Not everyone goes through life listening in on it, recording it for later use in the illustration of some basic emotional truth. Not everyone is interesting in observing life rather than living it.
This is why it shocks me when people say I’m a good mom. I’m not. I’m far too self-involved. I love the interior of my head and I adore my own company. I’m also not a very good friend because I forget people and I don’t make time and I pull away when I want to write or when I’m sad, tired, or overwhelmed by stress. That’s maybe ninety percent of the time. And yet I’m told I’m a good friend, too. I already know I’m hopeless as a wife or girlfriend and have periodically withdrawn myself from that market, though I appear to be doing a good job at the present time. But we are on our second go-round. He knows me. He knows how weird I am. He loves me anyway.
That is a wonderful thing, to ask for acceptance and love, and to receive it.
I guess I never really understood how strange I am until I started thinking about this. I think I should have to wear a sign. It would say, “Faulty wiring.” It would warn the world that I’m not quite the norm in the head, but I like it in here, anyway.
And now, I’m off to play with my dustbunnies and clothespins.
Yes, I’m going to make a book announcement about The Iris Files. Yes, it’s actually going to be called The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife. Yes, I’ll talk more about that book in a minute. But first, I want to talk about…
I never wanted a yard, but I have one. I wanted a big house on a small lot, but my ex-husband wanted the reverse and he won. But then he left, and here I am on this junior acre, twenty years later. My yard is TERRIBLE. Various broken stragglers lean here and there like emaciated beggars in a third world city, begging to be pruned or moved or just dug up and put out of their misery. I’m not a yardwork person, and so this is just how it’s going to be until I give up and buy a condo.
As I mentioned, I still live in the house I bought with my ex-husband. He was my second husband, and I have this tendency to call him my ex-husband, instead of my second ex-husband. It’s embarrassing to have two of those, and since he is the father of my children, he’s the ex-husband who counts. So he is heretofore referred to as my ex-husband.
Back when we bought this house, it had minimal landscaping. It was basically Kentucky Bluegrass (a terrible choice for Oregon) bordered by long channels of red lava rock. Like a military base. The only flowers were bearded irises. MASSES of bearded irises, rising in a long line up the walkway. Yellow, purple, maroon, with a few of the purple and white, blooming madly and emitting their toothpaste smell as I went to my front door. They were not my kind of flower—I prefer the more delicate wild iris—but the bearded blooms have a certain acromegalic majesty. Our iris display was dramatic enough to draw commentary from passers by.
Over the six years that my ex and I shared this home, we tried valiantly to find plants and flowers that would thrive in the horrible clay soil of our yard. We added some rhodies, which still wither in the reflective heart of the driveway to this day. We tried roses, which have somehow survived the heinous neglect I have subjected them to. Neighbors gave us gorgeous white calla lily bulbs, which did fine for years. But of course, like irises, lilies must be unearthed and divided now and then. Guess who didn’t do that after her husband moved out? That’s right. The death of the irises is all my fault.
But not all the Irises have died!
Some years after my divorce, I wrote a book about a woman named Iris. It’s about a failing marriage, and I probably thought it was too personal to publish. No, my name is not Iris. I do not have five children, nor do I have four dogs. But in too many ways, it is the most personal book I will ever write. And it is going live soon.
The Iris Files is coming out for these reasons:
I will soon have a cover and a link for preorder and all the things one must have in order to make a book real. Until then, read something else and pray for my yard. Thanks.
Christmas travel is happening this year. I’ll be visiting a daughter who is working on the east coast. She doesn’t have enough time off to make the trip home and I really miss her, so I’ll be leaving home for the holidays. I have to trust that Christmas will be okay without me, which is difficult for the self-appointed Fairy Godmother of Christmas Celebration.
In my first marriage–my starter marriage–we always traveled for Christmas. Often we went by car, barreling through the northern passes on our way back to Montana, where he would drop me with my family in Missoula and carry on to his own family and their opulent gifting in Bozeman. Once we moved back to Montana, I’d drive my own way over the passes on my way to Portland. In a tiny Datsun. With barely an ounce of fear, really, because that was how I did it in those days. I believe that in the six years I spent with this man, we spent one Christmas together. It was the only year we had a tree.
My second husband and I announced our intention to stay home and create our own Christmas traditions when our second daughter was born. My mother didn’t mind, as she hated Christmas (yes, such people exist). His mother was a mighty domestic potentate, and demanded appeasement. We calmed her by coming to her home for Thanksgiving and Easter each year. Again, my mother wasn’t upset. She didn’t so much dislike Thanksgiving and Easter, as she simply had no interest in hosting them. As long as I made plenty of non-holiday visits, my mom was fine with not seeing us.
My mother made some tentative Christmas visits to my house over the years. Mom approached the holidays with such a high level of wariness, and so much suppressed fury, it wasn’t always easy to have her there. She was tense and suspicious and ready to spring out the door at any moment. She could be persuaded to partake in a meal, but this had to be handled very gently. Just, you know, the idea, the aroma, the possibility. No pressure. And she’d have a plate, but then they’d need to go, down and back in one day, eight hours of driving for a short visit, but it was all she could handle.
As a child, my mother’s attitude about Christmas (which started in about 1970–before that, I remember her enjoying it) was a crushing disappointment. All I wanted, as a kiddo, was to enjoy the season without reservation. I didn’t care so much about presents–our home was not one for opulent gifting–but I was excited about the tree, driving around to look at lights, Christmas cards, Rudolph on the TV and carols on the radio. How baffled she felt as we raptly watched Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, loving every moment, while she felt nothing. She didn’t get it. That made her angry. She called it “Holiday depression.” We called it “Christmas rage.”
My mother’s holiday tirades left me feeling tremendous guilt over how much I enjoyed all the trappings of the season. But as I got older, and created my own Christmas holidays, I no longer felt guilty. I felt smug. I was doing things right. And yes, I went overboard, compensating for what I wished I’d had as a child. It was manic, what I did to the house, how many gifts I wrapped, how intently I played the music, planned the menu. And then it happened–a string of sad, bad holidays. No details are needed, because these events aren’t even funny in retrospect.
I realized after a few rough years, that my excess of Christmas cheer was not contagious. It was, in fact, oppressive. No one else but me seemed interested in setting aside the difficulties of family life for the space of two days in order to have a “perfect” Christmas. I had turned into the sister in the green dress in “Home for the Holidays.” I felt sad and incredibly stupid.
I also started to feel sympathy for my mom. The trappings of the season infuriated her. I could imagine how awful it was as all around her, people blindly wrapped themselves up in mindless commercial cheer, staggering through malls like holiday zombies.
But once the pressure to provide a holiday was lifted from Mom’s shoulders, I think she came around. She could go to a friend’s house and have turkey, or stay home and watch Masterpiece Theater with Dad, or come to my house for a tense visit, or ignore it all entirely. No prescribed steps, no have-tos. I hope it got a little bit better for her.
I have toned it down, people. But my baseline Christmas cheer has been a tenuous saving grace this year. Like so many in America, I am deeply concerned about the four years ahead. So I have retreated into holiday mode; decorating my home, planning my seasonal celebratory activities, listening to CDs that are supposed to cheer me. The wrong song can plunge me right into maudlin. It’s been a conscious choice to concentrate on the holiday. My other alternative is to fill up on despair while reading about disastrous cabinet appointments and wondering if public education, civil rights and the Earth’s atmosphere will actually exist for any future grandchildren I might have.
So if I’m a little quiet, it’s because I’m girding myself for what’s ahead. I won’t be buying many gifts this year, because I have other plans for my money. I’ve doubled my United Way gift and dedicated all of it to Planned Parenthood. I’m going to make a monthly contribution to the ACLU. And by God, I’m going to start eating Kellogg cereals again. I wonder if any of it will make a difference, but I have to try.
For now, I will light the candles, trim the trees, inhale the scent of cinnamon, open my heart and close my eyes. They will be opened soon enough.
Happy holidays to all of you. Let’s hold each other in our hearts.
Over the course of four weeks this fall, I had an unexpected amount of contact with four exes. It was a concentrated dose of visitations from my past, and just like Ebenezer Scrooge, I found it uncomfortable. But you know what? I’ve decided to view it as an opportunity for personal growth. Growth is never comfortable.
I have one person blocked on Facebook, and the first ex who contacted me is that one person. He’s blocked on my personal profile, but I received a lengthy letter from him at my author page. Eyebrows up, user banned. That is all I have to say on this matter.
I’ve been submitting a lot of work over the last few months, which involves sorting through writing, old, new, in-progress and best forgotten. It’s all part of building up the inventory.
I found a group of poems and a piece I wrote about an affair that ended years ago. It was on-and-off, adolescent in its furious breakups and emotional reconciliations. It’s difficult for me to track just how long we carried on like that. Two years? Three? I honestly don’t remember. I look back on it with a distant amusement. Who was that woman, mowing down the traffic cones, having all the Big Feelings, writing those tortured love poems?
Yes, love poems. I write very few, because I’m not in love all that often. But I read this flaming little bouquet of poems, and I thought, wow. Look at that. I was totally insane.
Despite all the stormy crashings and thunderation of our time together, this man and I have remained on friendly terms. It probably helps that we live in different towns. I found him online, said hello and asked him if he wanted to see the document. He did, very much. It triggered a bittersweet rush of memory and emotion on his part, just as it did for me. The exchange was short, pointless, sweet. And over.
So, then, contact number three. A year after the breakup, I received a long email from my most recent ex. I actually woke up to this email. What a way to start a day. It was a catalog of all the ways that he was perfect, blameless, faultless, selfless and giving, while I was mean, cruel, uncaring, selfish and inconstant. He backed up his claims with copious evidence, including a list of every single time I’d changed my mind over the course of three and a half years, including something about my dining room table. I change my mind a lot, it appears.
After thousands (yes, thousands) of words, he pronounced that he will never be able to love again for as long as he lives, for which he blames me. And not to write back as he is “completely done” with me.
He signed off, “GOODBYE FOREVER.”
Just a thought, here. If, after a year of silence on her part, you have to create a new email address to write to someone because she’s blocked all your other email addresses, maybe it’s not necessary to write her to let her know that you’re completely done with her. Maybe this is redundant. Maybe you can just write the email and delete it, rather than sending it.
Because if you don’t, you’re going to get one hell of a scathing reply.
A week before that email hate-bomb arrived, I’d decided that I might like to try dating again. I know, I know, I wasn’t going to DO that, but apparently this old grey mare isn’t dead yet. I like having a man in my life almost as much as I don’t.
So, I signed onto a site to create a profile. I’d not used this site before. One of the features? When someone is looking at your profile, his face pops up in a circle with a little ‘boop’ to say hello.
The very first face that popped up was a familiar one. I dated this man ten years ago, and I thought at the time that we broke up for really good reasons. I realized within a few months that they were really stupid reasons, but one must live with one’s actions. He’d gone on to get married, and I’d gone on to do whatever it is I do.
But there he was, and I said hi! and he said hi! and we started to chat and we started to laugh. I remembered how funny this man is, and how smart, and how well-read and deep and intellectually curious. He is so many wonderful things, plus the additional wonderful things added by ten more years of living a full and interesting life.
Reader, I’m dating him.
I will write sometime about the fluttery, intense, eerie feelings around this reconciliation. But for now, just know that little birds are circling round my head, trailing ribbons and chirping songs of happiness. My stomach dances with delight and anxiety. I smile like a fool. I’m happy.
I change my mind a lot, remember?
My children are United States citizens, born and raised here. They are the children and grandchildren of US citizens. And this is how they got here.
On my side, my children’s ancestors are relatively fresh arrivals in the early 20th century.
My birth father’s grandparents arrived from Bohemia and Germany, though the family tree holds Prussian and Belgian ancestry as well. It’s hard to track my birth name as it seems to be an Americanized name. All the people who have it in the world (625 of them) live in America. My paternal grandmother was born in America, but had a German accent all her life. Her tiny community was so German that school was conducted in that language.
My mother’s father was a first generation child of Norwegian immigrants, or maybe second generation. My aunt could confirm this. On my maternal grandmother’s side, we go right back to England, with forebears who came over on the second sailing of the Mayflower. I believe this entitles my daughters to membership in the DAR. My mother always identified with her English heritage, and my aunt always identified with her Norwegian.
So that’s me. German, Czech, Norwegian, English, with a Czech face and a Norwegian build; tall and broad, heavy-legged and ready to carry children and work the fields like a horse. I am so clearly a Northern European.
My children’s father’s people came to the USA earlier than my people did. His father’s father’s people came to Louisiana in the 1790s or early 1800s, a full hundred years before my ancestors. The exact date of arrival is hard to place, though, as his family has no record of when they were sold at market.
The girls’ grandmother’s people are based in Texas, but were an import to the area. Slavery flourished in east Texas from 1850 on, but that’s not a date of arrival or a place of origin. It’s just where cotton was growing. At some point, people were rounded up from wherever they’d been living, taken to Texas, put on the block and sold. Again, there are no sales records to consult.
Eventually, the war came. They were free. Her people stayed in Texas, and his people stayed in Louisiana. But when the girls’ grandparents came along and grew up, they didn’t stay. During WWII, my girls’ grandmother traveled to Seattle, became a CNA, and met the man who would become their grandfather. He’d come up from Louisiana to join the Merchant Marines after his heart disqualified him from the military, and traveled the world cooking on a ship. They married in their thirties, and stayed in Seattle for the rest of their lives, raising three children, welcoming four granddaughters, three of whom are mine.
Through DNA testing, my middle daughter has learned more about the genetic heritage she shares with her sisters, a history that has to replace the kind of history I have; recorded, researchable, anecdotal. On her father’s side, she seems to be almost purely Central and West African, with a tiny bit of Malaysian. The Malay Peninsula was a stop on the route of many slave ships, so that Malaysian blood makes quiet, horrible sense.
Because of how DNA testing works, there are probably white ancestors on her father’s side hiding in the general totals of this or that, bits of white that don’t actually belong to my side of the equation. That makes its own horrible sense, too. But my sober Midwestern family tree hides its own horrors. No heritage is exempt from that.
What we did discover is that there is zero Native American ancestry in my girls. Anecdotally, they’d been told they were Blackfoot and Cherokee through their great grandmother, a tall woman of severe cheekbones who still had smooth coppery skin in her nineties, when I met her. But the DNA test didn’t bear that out.
So it’s safe to say that my children, citizens of this United States, are strictly the progeny of immigrants. And if you live in the USA, and unless you are Native American, so are you.
So let’s raise a glass, Immigrants of America. Let’s toast the fact that we are all johnny-come-latelys. Those of us who were brought here against our will are the least guilty in this country of land-grabbing interlopers with no real right to be here. Those of us who are newer to the game should be welcome to join. That’s what America is built on, after all. Taking what doesn’t belong to us.
Let’s enjoy our Thanksgiving.
Note: This really is a ten year-old piece of writing about my favorite microwave and my second-favorite microwave. Seriously. Apparently nothing is too mundane for me to write about. And for the record, I still have that second microwave.
I just dropped off my microwave at a repair shop over here. Now, I know you all say, what? Karen G. Berry, are you nuts? how much does a new microwave cost, anyway? Why not just buy a new one?!
Well, for a couple of reasons. I like the way this one looks, and I like the way this one works.
I dislike programming things. I have a hard time figuring out just which information the microwave requires. When I select defrost, why does it wait? Why doesn’t it just get to the defrosting? But no, it wants some weight and some power levels entered, and every microwave is different. When I try to make a frozen dinner, sometimes it wants to know how many. Like, cooking a frozen dinner in the microwave may be one of the most pathetic “I am single and on a diet” statements a person can make, and it feels like the microwave is mocking a person, asking if perhaps she wants to put two frozen dinners in to cook. Which she doesn’t. Same with cups of “beverage.” No, the microwave is the single person’s appliance of choice, and it should be built for one.
Of course, my first microwave was large enough to hold a small turkey.
When I was 19, my mom won a $1000.00 certificate, to be redeemed for something energy-saving. She went to a microwave dealership and negotiated three Amana Radaranges, one for her, one for me, one for my sister. These usually cost $450.00. Back in 1979, $450.00 was a lot of money, and these machines were built like tanks. Moving it was a disc-rupturing event, but move it I did, because I loved that machine. (click here to see exactly what it looked like: Perfect Microwave)
It was brown, heavy gauge metal, like the cladding of a refrigerator. It had a big chrome door with a handle, and the glass in that door was thick like the glass in a real oven door. It pulled out and down like an oven door, and closed with a satisfying thunk and latch, like the door on an ancient Buick, the kind my sister’s friends were bought back in high school because parents believed those Buicks would keep their kids safe in an auto crash (my parents bought us VW Bugs…hm).
There was no digital programming. There was no such thing as digital programming in 1979. It was a big dial that you set to the time, and spring buttons you pushed to start, like an old car radio or a push-button transmission. The glass tray inside was half an inch thick. The microwave itself took up about half my available counter space in any given apartment, and sometimes had to live on top of the fridge, due to space constraints or concerns that it was so heavy that it would go crashing through the floor to the apartment below mine.
It was a beauty. It lasted forever.
Okay, obviously it didn’t last forever. If it had lasted forever, I wouldn’t be hauling in some piece of crap machine I got a year and a half ago for repair, would I? But the old microwave was a tank. In about 1987, when it was eight years old and the lightweight models were flooding the market, my former husband wrenched it open while it was running. “Oops.” That was pretty much impossible to do.
Only a man with the massive muscles of this former husband could have managed this, as it was LATCHED while it ran. These were the days when people were terrified of radiation and the thing cooked with it, but he managed to do it. It was part of his plan (I was sure) to break everything we owned that I liked, which is what he started doing after he accomplished his first plan, which was to lose every nice thing I ever gave him (his first wedding ring, his expensive leather wallet, his tank watch, and his leather attache).
Anyway. Back to the microwave.
We had a repairman out who fixed it and went it over with a Geiger counter. “Keep this,” he said. “The new ones don’t even compare.” We did. I kept it in the divorce, and I know my former husband missed it. He missed it much more than he missed me, as it always heated right up and I was more iffy.
One day after school, Oldest and Middle were fighting. This must have been in 1998 or 99. And Middle Daughter took a plastic plate and hurled it at Oldest. It hit the microwave. It cracked the glass in the door. It was not fixable.
Middle: “Mom, I’m sorry!”
Me: “You broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “She was trying to hit ME with a plate!”
Me: “And she broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “Don’t you even care if she was trying to hit me with a plate?”
Me: “She broke the microwave!”
The girls still talk about this. It’s okay. It’s listed in the Big Book of Motherly Sins, listed under Bad Parental Priorities. “Caring more about microwave than inter-child acts of violence.” My picture is there, too, staring at a 20 year-old brown microwave, my face stunned and grieving. But that’s fine. It’s labeled “Bad Mother.” Whatever. I still couldn’t believe she’d broken the microwave.
So then I had to start using regular cheap-ass microwaves, like all you other people out there. You little people with your inferior little microwaves. Plebeian microwaves. Predictable microwaves. Pedestrian microwaves.
I scorned you. And then I was one of you.
I had lost my Buick Regal microwave and I had to use the stupid little white plastic microwaves that were designed to pop corn in dorm rooms, the kind that sprung open when you pushed a plastic button, the kind that had all the little choices on plastic film on the other buttons, no dials, just weird buttons that you pushed, hoping the microwave knew that your cocoa was merely tepid and only needed thirty seconds but the beverage was set permanently at 45 seconds so it was always TOO HOT when you got it out of there.
Stupid, shabby, cheap, plastic, stupid microwaves. I’ve had several over the years. And some required programming, and I don’t even have a programmable alarm clock, that’s too complex for me, all right? My new kitchen stove is programmable and I have learned to use it, but only under duress because otherwise I’d have to ask the kids to turn on the stove for me like I did the first three months we were back in the house, and after a while they refused and made me learn to do it myself.
So, after years of grieving the old microwave, complaining about the parade of shoddy, crummy microwaves that worked for ten months and then died, comparing them to the lost splendor of the gigantic Amana Radarange, the mechanical superiority of the One Perfect Microwave, finally one day my dad brought me a microwave from Costco. And he opened it up and we looked at it and you know what it had?
It had a DIAL.
That’s right. A dial. It’s digital, but I can turn this dial to the right and it dials up the amount of time I want, and then I hit start. Oh, the display is digital, and I do have to program it to get certain things done, so it is not exactly like the old Buick microwave. But it’s enough like it that when this one stopped working, I wanted to take it in and have it repaired, rather than replacing it.
I’ve been carting the microwave around in my car for about a month, now, waiting to get to the repair shop. Everyone who has ridden in my van has remarked on the presence of the microwave, generally with a snickered little aside about why would I have it repaired when a new one costs how much? And I’ve had to explain the knob thing to all of them, how I like knobs, not really good with digital programming, and this one is nice-looking, it has a HANDLE, even, rather than some spring button you push to open it. And they all scoff but people are generally kind when they realize how simple I am, so they leave me alone.
It took sort of a harmonic convergence to get it there, a special moment when the shop was open, I was near the shop, and my memory functioned enough to jog me into stopping there.
That happened today.
So first, the door opened and a nice looking young man with his name stitched on a tag on his shirt came out and I told him I wanted to drop off a microwave and he smiled and said he didn’t work there but he’d help me carry it in. So that was embarrassing because apparently I have turned into my mother, but then this woman came out of the repair shop and said “I’ll help her!” And my, what an extraordinary creature she was.
She was statuesque, not in the euphemistic sense, but in the tall and strongly built way, strong arms and shoulders, slimmer legs, good shape but plenty of curves. Tanning booth tan. She had long fluffy bleached blonde hair, all layered and curled and with bangs, even. Lots of eye makeup, all of it black, maroon lipstick, teeth were kind of badly spaced. She had on a black knit tank dress with slits up the sides, a very elegant dress to be wearing to check appliances in at a small repair shop, and she had on strappy black high heeled sandals, as well. Manicure, pedicure.
And then she had on the most amazing array of strange costume jewelry. It was like, big fake square rhinestones, and rings that had the plating worn off to the base metal, and all of it clearly, obviously false and very worn.
She was all business, checking me in. I looked around as she did so, looking at the machines for sale, answering the information questions, and when it got to where I needed to tell her what was going on, I started on my “I know it’s not a deluxe model, it’s just that it has a dial and I…”
“You don’t have to explain that to me,” she said with a smile. And I realized that she was right. I was talking to perhaps the only person in the greater Portland Metro area who understood why I wanted to keep this microwave, rather than getting a new one. Not only did she understand me, she supported me in this, as it meant business for her and the man who actually does the repair.
I felt validated.
And so, now, it’s just waiting. Waiting to find out if the machine is able to be repaired, waiting to see how much it will cost, waiting for the Goddess of the Microwave to call me and tell me that my microwave-with-the knob is ready to come home.
I wonder what she’ll be wearing when I pick it up.