Posts Tagged: personal history

Living While Fat

Zaftig

ZAHF-tig

Part of speech: adjective

Origin: Yiddish, 1930s

Having a full, rounded figure; plump (typically used of a woman)

Dating while fat

Back when I was filling out those online dating profiles, I used to wonder what to call myself. My weight varied and I didn’t own a scale. I was fairly sure I wasn’t “a few extra pounds” because it was way more than a few. There was “curvy,” which was true—in those days I had a true hourglass with a flat stomach and admirable waist-to-hip ratio—but that didn’t take into account the exaggerated nature of the hourglass.

“Big and beautiful” seemed too much of a value judgment on my part. Big, yes, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A man I dated a few times confirmed my reluctance around that term when he said, “Just because you’re fat, doesn’t mean you’re pretty” (he did think I was pretty). He told me I was what his black friends in the military called “thick” (now “thicc” in the parlance of the day). To me, that term implies a certain firmness or muscularity I lack.

There was “full-figured.” I probably chose that the most, but it was a term that no one (including me) understood. My dear friend and dating guru, who is exactly what “curvy” should mean on those profiles, thought I should instead put “curvy.” She believed in casting a wide net. When the inevitable coffee date came, she thought my superior wit and charm would cancel out the fact that I hadn’t been honest.

I tried that a few times, but the disappointment in men’s eyes on meeting was more than I could take. So I always made it quite clear that I was not thin. I did this on purpose. If weight was an issue, I didn’t want to meet. I was being…efficient.

Even so, I’d be gently questioned by my correspondents, politely asking the equivalent of, “Just how fat are you?” Pretty damn fat, thanks for asking. This might be followed by a polite request for some specific data, as in, height, weight, measurements, dress size, and so on. Or better yet, a nude photo.

To which I replied, “Next.”

Other times, men would try to argue with me about my size. Something equivalent to, “I bet you’re not fat at all. I bet you’ve just bought into our society’s unrealistic weight standards for women.” The wishful thinking behind this was pretty obvious, and there was no point in stringing them along. “Nope,” I’d insist, “I’m actually overweight. I don’t hate myself, I’m not slamming myself, I’m just being honest so that neither of us wastes any time.”

Despite all my efforts to weed them out, some men who objected to my weight would be brave and meet me anyway. My guess is, they were taken enough by my face and wit that they thought they could get past it, and were disappointed that they couldn’t. A few asked me why I didn’t lose weight. “Oh, I don’t know,” I’d say. “I’ve gained and lost so much weight over the course of my life, and I want to take a break from all that.”

This was a revolutionary stance, back in the day. I wasn’t loud and proud about my self-acceptance, but I was firm in my quiet refusal to accept the idea that I had no worth or value in the world because I was fat. I also made it clear that this probably wasn’t going to change. This attitude actively antagonized some men. I guess I didn’t hate myself enough for them.

At any rate, the point of all this is that when I wanted to, I found men who admired and accepted me, and were proud to take me out and about. And even though I wrote an entire book about a very specific time in my dating years when I was laser focused on finding a man worthy of commitment, and how fruitless that particular search was, that was less than six months. Most of the time I did fine. I’m also glad to be married, and off the market.

As a side note (and to be fair), I think that combination of fat/devoid of self-hatred is rare out there in the dating arena. So many fat women cower in shame over taking up any space at all. I understand, because every six or eight months I slide into self-loathing over my weight. Usually this happens when I have to fly, because sometimes I have to ask for a seatbelt extender and sometimes I don’t. I have not completely reinvented contemporary womanhood, and that experience can melt me right down. I might even start a diet when this happens. The last thing I tried was intermittent fasting, which worked for a week, and then I boomed right back up to my starting weight, so forget that.

I have a life to live.

Living while fat

I was over at a friend’s house for dinner the other evening, and we talked about weight. My friend is healthy and slim, with a graceful, classically proportioned shape. Like, those elongated Venus on the half-shell proportions. But she was an overweight kid and teen. That will scar you. Even though she lost her weight forty+ years ago, it still haunts her. It’s hiding around the corner, a big pink blob waiting to jump back on her if she relaxes her vigilance. She weighs herself each morning, and carefully considers every bite of food that goes into her mouth. She doesn’t trust her thinness. She says she has body dysmorphia.

I told her that (like Ann Wilson of Heart) I have body promorphia. That I always think I look fine. I walk around here like I have a right to be here, thinking I look great most of the time. And occasionally I see a photo or a reflection that contradicts this, a self-view that makes me say “Yeesh, Karen. Seriously?” Those moments of reckoning (like the seatbelt extender) can trigger self-loathing, but I furiously beat it back.

The thing is, I wasn’t always this way. I used to feel extremely upset with any weight gain. Here’s a very old photo of me right after I had a baby, and was awash with self-loathing over how fat I was.

It is clear that I was not fat. It is also clear that I like myself more now than I did then, despite the enormous difference in my size.

I don’t care if anyone else understands or accepts my acceptance of being fat, but I realize this is an affront to people who fight hard not to be fat. I’ve likened it to religion. Some people find a religion and are gripped with apostolic fervor. They organize their life around it, and forego certain of life’s pleasures, and resist temptations and struggle through dark nights of the soul because they have found the answer, the one true way.

And there they are suffering for their beliefs, and here I am, shrugging, because as far as religion goes, I’m fine without it. I realize this is a slap in the face to true believers. My “whatever, no thanks” attitude about diet and fitness probably feels the same to those who have devoted their lives to it.

The formerly fat fitness influencers I see on Instagram have gorgeously muscled bodies and post things like, “If I can do it, you can do it. You have to want it enough.” I agree, you do have to want it enough and I don’t. Whatever the cost is to being thin—eating 900 calories a day, time at the gym, all that damn sweating—I don’t want to pay it. I’ll just stay over here, putting half and half in my coffee, eating whatever the hell I want to, and being fat.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I have a life to live.   

Eating while fat

Believe it or not, I don’t eat that much. I have something called lipedema, or lipoedema, or lipoeadema, depending on who you ask. You can fall down the rabbit hole of googling it, or you can look here: https://www.lipedema.org/  This condition has been recognized since the 1940s, but American doctors don’t diagnose it because isn’t it easier to tell your patients that they can lose weight if they just want it enough? Isn’t it more effective for the medical community to shame you for your weight? Isn’t this poorly understood medical condition just another excuse for women to be lazy and fat?

But the reason I don’t eat that much has nothing to do with lipidema. I went through a bunch of foregut testing six years ago. My mother died of small cell carcinoma of the esophagus (as opposed to the kind of throat cancer caused by HPV), and I wanted to understand my own risk factors. I’d had chronic heartburn for years and years, and treated it with OTC acid suppressors, but I was starting to have a lot of night regurgitation and thought it was time to get things straightened out.

So in addition to an endoscopy, I did all these tests. Like, they implanted a little capsule-sized sensor in my esophagus that measured every acid spike that rose into my throat. Every time I had a stab of heartburn, I clicked a thingie that then coordinated with the information gathered by the capsule. And yes, if you’re wondering, I could feel the capsule in there. I felt like I’d swallowed a pill that wouldn’t go down. It was supposed to fall out after three or four days and go through my digestive system, but it took two weeks to do that. Fun times.

But wait, there’s more!

Next, I had a tube snaked into one nostril and down into my stomach to measure something else. That was also uncomfortable. That was a swallowing reflex text. Then I sat in the office and drank something disgusting and had my swallowing reflex measured in another way.

We found out some interesting information during all that.

I had serious chronic heartburn, and yes, I could tell when I had acid spikes. Believe it or not, that’s good, because some people’s esophagi are so scarred, they don’t feel the pain anymore. Despite my huge nostrils, I have tiny sinus passages and a small esophagus that narrows at the bottom due to scar tissue from acid reflux.

I have a hiatal hernia that a nurse called “cute.” “You have a cute little hiatal hernia bobbing around in there.” I’ve always wondered about that. What makes a hernia cute?

My swallowing reflex is pathetic, which is the cause of my esophageal spasms (these are so painful that some people mistake them for heart attacks).

I have chronic heartburn because don’t have a valve at the top of my stomach. Oddly enough, my sister and younger brother are the same. My guess is, this is an anomaly inherited from our mother, and explains why her esophagus became cancerous.

There are surgeries that might help with some of this, but if they go wrong, they really go wrong. Like, goodbye to solid food wrong. So I have developed an entire protocol for how, when, and what I eat to try to deal with all this stuff. A big part of it is, I never want to be too full.

I don’t eat that much.

I’m a queen of the leftovers. I cook for two at home, but still save leftovers from most dinners and eat them for lunch. If we eat out, I always have to ask for a box.

I also eat early. This makes me a difficult dinner guest because I need two or three hours and a bunch of water before I go to bed, and if we start eating at 8 PM, I have to sit up and sip water until the wee hours before getting prone. I’ve been eating like a senior citizen for many years. There is a certain relief in actually reaching senior citizen age, because now my early eating habits seem less absurd.

So you’d think with all that, I’d just give up food and switch to protein shakes or something. But even though I’m fat, and I’m supposed to be ashamed and secretive about it, I actually do enjoy eating food, so I muddle through.

Growing up with fat

As previously mentioned, I haven’t reinvented womanhood. I do care about how I look, and it does get tiresome to be fat sometimes, but I’m determined to like myself because I was raised by a woman who didn’t. My mom also had lipidema, though we didn’t have a medical name for it. We just called it “Mom’s legs.” Mom’s legs were her lifelong shame, and I inherited those same legs—well, not exactly the same, but my fat-legged genetic destiny was inescapable. I accepted that, but I didn’t accept that my body should be a source of pain, anger and self-loathing, like it was for Mom. She inspired me to try to find a different path.

But first I had to get through my childhood.

There is so much I could write here about my mother, and my older brother, who was morbidly obese before he was a year old, and the diets my mother started subjecting me to at age seven, and my sister’s eating disorders, and my birth father’s very vocal hatred of fat women, and my own decades of up and down dieting. It would fill a book and at some point I might even write that book. I’m taking a memoir class with a friend this summer, and I assume we will be asked to pick a topic to write about, and maybe this will be mine.

I’m not sure I want to do that.

There’s a crew of people who have recently decided it’s okay to be fat because they watched some Lizzo videos or read Lindy West’s books or whatever.  They’re trying to stop pitying and/or despising fat people, and are desperately trying to find them admirable.

“You go girl, look at you, over there being fat and everything! Whoohoo, chubby woman! I feel you! Team cellulite!”

Writing a book about my weight might feel too much like initiating a conversation I’m not quite ready to have, especially with those people. I dread the idea of offering up my fat reality to their new understanding that I’m a human being.

But whether or not I ever write at length about how deeply weight affected my earliest years of life, and what weight loss and weight gain meant to my personal happiness, at some point I decided to get on with life without worrying about my weight all the time. I had a life to live, and no matter what I weighed, I went ahead and lived it.

I’m starting to understand what a radical act that was.

A New One Arrives

Recent travel for reasons delightful

A baby girl whose name is Pearl.

I’m recently back from Brooklyn, where my daughter and her wife have welcomed a new baby girl to the world. This is my first granddaughter, so I braved a plane ride and Omicron to visit them, to help with the baby, to enjoy my three year-old grandson, and to just spend some time with my far-flung girl, who left Oregon at age 22 and has been a Brooklynite ever since.

I was warned that my grandson had a cold. I’ve had lots of colds, so that was not going to deter me. I got on that plane and kept my elbows in for five hours and arrived at JFK fairly late. The long ride in was quiet. My Uber driver didn’t chat me up, so I was free to watch the neighborhoods unspool before my Oregon eyes; commercial strips that seemed like perfectly constructed movie sets with marginal businesses with their graffiti-sprayed pull-down doors. I honestly don’t know where I was, even thought I’ve taken this ride many times on my way around Prospect Park, and into Park Slope, where the kids live.

Park Slope

I love this area. I often visited one my best friends here from 1997 to 2014, when she moved away from Brooklyn. I can’t say that I know my way around Park Slope, because I really don’t. But I know the feeling of it. The brownstone streets soothe and delight me. When I walk down one of these streets—or even just look down one of them from a more commercial street—I’m instantly delighted and uplifted.

Here, my gut says, here is a place you could actually live in New York, Karen. You actually belong on one of these streets, with these fenced and tended trees, with these curving stoops constructed to last centuries. My entire body thrills to the idea. But I am hopelessly rooted in the Pacific Northwest. I count myself lucky to have visited this neighborhood, to have understood the beauty and allure of this part of the city.

After a 45 minute drive, I found my daughter waiting on the street for me. We shared the first hug in years, because the last time I saw her was pre-vaccine, and our visits were distanced. So we had a nice, long hug, me and my girl, there on the streets of Park Slope. And then, I went in to see her “new place.” It was close to 11pm, and I’d had hopes that the new baby might be awake. But she is what one calls “a good baby,” so she sleeps at night. All I had was a quick peek into a darkened room, to see her swaddled form in her bassinette.

The next morning, I got to meet her.

And oh, what a peach she is. Just a snuggly little armful of new baby girl, with bright eyes that open up so wide that the whites show over her irises! And so many things made her eyes open like that; the miracle of the front windows, some particular picture frames, and of course, our faces. She was seven weeks old, two weeks older than her brother was when I first met him. Smiling and occasionally giggling, interested in her baby books, prone to evening colic with a fierce, low, pissed-off squall, and occasionally catching sight of her own hands with bemused wonder.

There are not too many things to say about new babies, which is too bad, because they truly do function as the center of the universe. There is the baby’s appearance, which is, in the case of my granddaughter, absolute perfection. This baby is a beauty, with brown eyes and wavy, almost-black hair, and beautiful darkly golden skin. After a blonde, blue-eyed grandson, and a strawberry blonde, hazel-eyed grandson, it appears that the dominant genes have come into play. She looks like my first two daughters, and it’s pretty special, I tell you. She is a substantial, healthy baby. Her feet are tiny, with narrow heels, and her hands? Well, certainly no other hands have such intriguing wrinkles and perfectly shaped nail beds.

Every tiny piece and parcel of a new baby is fascinating, even though they don’t do that much besides the rudimentary functions of life. For these functions—nursing, burping, spitting up, peeing, pooping, sleeping, crying—they are endlessly praised. As they should be. I am here to report that my granddaughter is an absolute champion at all of these, just so you know.

Rolling and Back Sleeping

Her older brother rolled over for the first time while I was visiting him at five weeks, but she hasn’t. I hope she does soon, because she loves to sleep on her stomach.  Did you know there are rules, now, about babies sleeping on their stomachs, and not having any blankets or bumpers in cribs or cradles? Babies sleep on their backs in swaddles, something I learned when my oldest grandson was born four years ago. It’s a wonder my kids survived their infancies, because they slept on their stomachs under baby blankets, surrounded by lethal bumpers and killer teddy bears.

Once my granddaughter can roll, she can safely sleep on her stomach, which was her favorite thing to do while I was there, to fill up at the breast and then sleep on her stomach on someone’s chest for hours, safe and warm and soothed by an adult heartbeat.

So that’s what I did.

I held her and rocked her, changed her diapers, and walked her fussies away. I entertained her with various black and white picture books and things that squeaked and jangled. I also became terribly sick with my grandson’s cold, and managed to live through a day when I couldn’t get out of bed. But I think, on the whole, I was a benefit to her moms.

I haven’t even talked about my grandson, who I was really able to get to know as a talkative three year-old. We had mountains of fun. Nothing entertains me more than kids. I want to observe their ways, and understand how they see the world, and cherish up all their funny little ways of saying things, like, for example.

Okay, like this one.

My daughter was looking forward to my cooking while I was there. One night she asked me to make my special pork chops, and to show her how to make them. My smothered pork chops are really easy to make, but the recipe is not mine. I actually learned how to make these from her great aunt on her father’s side, who used to sell dinners off her back porch in New Orleans. So there was a lot of talk about these chops, and how to make them. My grandson was intrigued, but he had already eaten by the time they were done.

So the next night he kept asking about “Nonna’s peshul foe charts” which sounded to us like he wanted my special flow charts, and then his mom figured out he was asking about “Nonna’s special pork chops.” We’d saved him one, he ate it right up for dinner, and all was well. But I giggle over the idea of my special flow charts, every time. He also helped me make tuna casserole, but when I served him some, he didn’t like it at all. “It’s not tasty to me! Why it’s not tasty!” Hey, you can’t please everyone, even an omnivorous, adventurous eater like this grandson.

Becoming Nonna

We definitely built a nice rapport while I was there. I could type in about a hundred different times when he chose me for reading night time stories, playing magna tiles, holding his hand, doing the post-potty paperwork, painting pictures, watching the paleontology episode of Sesame Street, and so on. He was a delightful guy to hang out with.

When it was time to go, we were both sad. When I left him in Brooklyn three years ago, I cried all the way across America, wondering when I’d see him again. And you’d think that this time, since I was leaving two grandchildren behind, I’d have cried twice as much. But I didn’t.

You know why? In August, they are moving back to Oregon.

I’m not dead.

I’m not dead, I’m languishing.

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

Can I have a goddamned dinner party already?

I’m not dead, I’m sleeping.

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

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

I’m not dead, I’m waiting.

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

We will all have our new baby soon.

I’m not dead, I’m writing.

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

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

I’m not dead, I’m bingeing.

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

Are you getting the message? Good.

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

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

Mean Girls

I was never a mean girl.

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

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

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

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

Really. Mean. Girls.

Surviving Edina

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

Edina, Minnesota is a bad place to be poor.

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

Let me describe this thing to you, please.

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

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

So, back to the barn door.

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

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

There went my day.

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

A Fresh Start.

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy, the Queen Bee

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

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

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

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

But I don’t think so.

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

Mary Ann, the worker bee

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

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

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

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

They invited me in so they could leave me out.

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

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

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

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

Listen, I had options.

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

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

Events come to a head.

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

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

The verdict was no.

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

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

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

Edina wasn’t all bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish I knew.

A Happier Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even mean girls.

Looking back

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

I don’t know. These are conjectures.

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

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

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

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

No boosters needed.

Some other reading

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

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

An academic paper on the Mean Girl Phenomenon: Queen Bees

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

Arkansas and the Vagaries of Memory

A Snort of Derision

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

Let me explain.

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

It certainly felt like we were living underwater.

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

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

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

My parents were desperate.

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

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

Image by SEspider from Pixabay

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

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

My explorations

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

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

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

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

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

Image by G Johansen from Pixabay

We also had neighbors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I try again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think they were trashy at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature Wants In: A Suburban Wildlife Safari

Mice

A mouse
Image by Here and now, unfortunately, ends my journey on Pixabay from Pixabay

When my second husband and I first bought this house in 1998, we loved the pseudo-country setting. Our paved street turned to gravel after our block, and three blocks later, the gravel road deadended at an undeveloped seven-acre parcel of land.

I don’t live in the country, but it feels like I do. There were still horses in the neighborhood when I first moved here. And lots of domesticated rabbits that had gone feral. And so many possums. And skunks. And moles in the yard. And field rats and field mice.

The thing about mice is, they don’t stay outside if given an opportunity to move into a nice comfortable house. And as much as I enjoy artistic representations of mice, and detailed somewhere in the meandering mess of this blog post over here, I don’t like the real thing at all.

When we found mice turds in our lower cabinets, we adopted a stray dog and left the lower cabinet doors open a few nights in a row. She took care of it and I’ve never seen a trace of a mouse in here since.

I loved that dog. Her name was Holly. She hunted birds, rats, mice, and whatever else she could catch. She’s the only dog I’ve ever had who earned her keep.

Wasps

A wasp
Image by wpoeschl from Pixabay

As the millennium wound down and we approached the year 2000, I was sitting in my family room at my computer working on some writing when I heard a strange chewing sound. It sounded expensive, so I ignored it. Maybe it would go away if I ignored it.

It went on for some time, to be honest. Just a gentle undertone of mastication. It was quiet at night, when I was home and typing away at my novels or papers or chatting in my chat room. During the day, I was in school, so I could more easily pretend it wasn’t there, but if I was home, it was getting louder and louder and louder.

Yes, something was devouring my home, but I’d become skilled at ignoring things I didn’t want to deal with over the course of my second marriage (which had also gone away at that point, so sometimes this approach worked, yes?).

But then one overcast afternoon while I was typing, the light from one of the two globe light fixtures on the family room ceiling darkened.

I looked up to see if the bulb had gone out. It hadn’t.

The light was on, and full of wasps—wasps that filled the glass globe entirely, then slipped around the edges of the fixture mount and into the room. Wasps spilled through the ceiling like a soft, buzzing liquid, flying in sleepy spirals around and around the light fixture, more and more of them, hundreds and hundreds of wasps, gradually creating an entire layer of wasps in the upper reaches of my family room.

I quietly stepped out of the room and gently closed the door. “Girls,” I said in a very calm, firm voice. “The family room is full of wasps. Don’t go in there until I call an exterminator.”

They didn’t go in, though I think they all peeked and squeaked while I made the call. It was only a hundred dollars to have the insects removed. Years later, when my roof had to be torn off due to a house fire, the contractor saved a nest he found in the family room rafters and showed it to me.

It was over three feet across.

Skunks

A skunk
Image by Christel SAGNIEZ from Pixabay

I’ve lived in this house since 1988, but my backyard was never fully fenced. There a nice fence across along one side and a crappy fence across the back, and a hedge on the other side. I closed things off with a dog fence eight years ago, but for 22 years the yard was a porous enclosure at best, and that meant animals traveled through it, especially at night.

There were raccoons aplenty, and possums until the coyotes cleaned those out of the neighborhood. Coyotes have been seen in my back yard. And for years, almost nightly, I saw a skunk or two, sometimes a mama skunk and her babies, traipsing on the diagonal through the yard from front to back, exiting somewhere under the cedar tree through the laurel hedge.

Before I took the dogs out, I’d sweep the yard with a flashlight. I still do that now, even though the yard is fenced. Coyotes go where they want to and my little dog fence won’t slow them down a bit. But that fence does stop the skunks. And the skunks don’t like it.  

I sleep with a window open, a window that’s right over the new stretch of dog fence.  And every week or so, I wake to the smell of skunk. Not an overwhelming amount, but when it comes to skunk spray, a little is a lot.

I imagine the skunk gets to the fence that blocks its familiar route, and lets out a little spray of irritation. The equivalent of the skunk saying, “Damn these detours.”

In the morning, the smell lingers inside the window, a reminder of who lived here first.

Birds

four sparrow chicks
Image by Monika Helmecke from Pixabay

Like most houses, mine has vents under the roofline. So does the building that houses my garage and a little studio apartment. These vents are covered with heavy-duty mesh that’s supposed to keep the birds out. It doesn’t.

Years ago, one of my tenants came home and found a baby bird drowned in her toilet. After I sealed up a gap around her bathroom sink pipe, she had no more problems, but my next tenant let me know that he could hear baby birds cheeping, cheeping, cheeping over his ceiling. My tenant was a tenderhearted man, I’m a tenderhearted woman, and we both felt like we didn’t want to disturb the nests until the babies were out of there.

Back then, in my extended single years, my dad often helped me out with home maintenance and repairs. When I told him about the birds cheeping, he happily volunteered to take care of it once the nests had emptied. We all agreed, then; me, the tenant, my dad. We’d let the nesting run its course.

One day I came home from work, and my dad had sealed off all the roof vents with stronger metal grates. “I took care of it!” he announced. “I didn’t hear any birds.” I was so grateful. But here’s the deal. My dad was almost completely deaf. He didn’t know he’d sealed off active nests.

My tenant had to listen to the baby birds die.

Ants

three ants on a peony bud
Image by Here and now, unfortunately, ends my journey on Pixabay from Pixabay

I have a sign up on my front window that I made at work. It’s a stern warning about NO SOLICITATION OF ANY KIND, including religious, political or sales. It’s trimmed in red white and blue, because I want it to look like the work of a hateful reactionary who probably owns guns and wouldn’t possibly contribute any money to Greenpeace and OSPIRG, because those people were taking up too much of my softhearted liberal time and I want them to leave me alone forever.

If anyone ever does knock on the door, I generally don’t answer it. I don’t roll down my car window when panhandlers knock on it downtown, so why would I open the door of my home, simply to tell someone to go away?

This is my home. My sanctuary. I don’t want to hear your Good News or learn about about your run for city council or buy your magazine subscriptions. I want you to leave me alone.

But three years ago, my neighborhood was overrun with ants. I don’t know what kind of ants they were and I don’t care. They were tiny and dark and smelled odd when I popped them under my fingertips.

They streamed in through invisible cracks and made long ant caravans across my floors. They gathered for huge ant parties on any scrap of food or drip of grease they found in the kitchen, and ruined the butter and took over the sugar bowl and hid in my houseplants. They walked across my arms while I was trying to sleep. They bubbled up out of the bathroom sink drains and found the toothpaste. They were on the dogs, for chrissakes.

We tried all the tricks and traps and baits and sprays. If someone suggested it, I tried it. Nothing worked. The ants were the topic of many over-the-fence and across-the-driveway conversations with my neighbors. We all had them, and we were all going nuts.

One evening, a young man in a uniform with a clipboard braved the warnings of my sternly pseudo-patriotic “GO AWAY, YOU” sign, stepped up to my door, and knocked.

What a brave young man.

I looked out and scowled, but he smiled. “Your neighbors suggested I stopped by.” He was with a pest control company, and he spent that entire day signing up my neighborhood up for “green” ant control.

I don’t know how “green” this ant control really is. I don’t care. Every three months, someone comes over here and makes sure those ants have their parties elsewhere. It also keeps away the carpenter ants, which I’m not going to bother writing about because even i can’t pretend that carpenter ants are interesting.

When it comes to ants, I am a total NIMBY.

Rabbits

a rabbit on high alert
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Two years ago, in the spring, I started seeing a pair of wild bunnies in my back yard every morning. They were quite small, and extremely cute, and apparently living under one of my patios in a hole dug by my first dachshund, a sleek little demon named Mylo.

I thought the bunnies had moved into whatever Mylo dug all those years ago, but I didn’t know for certain. I didn’t know much about these bunnies. I didn’t know where they came from, or their genders, or if they were going to mate and fill the space under my patio with tiny bunny kittens that would in turn enlarge the warren and invade my crawlspace and tunnel up into the walls of my home and take it over like I saw on this terrifying episode of Hoarders in which a man let his pet bunnies eat a rented home from the inside out.

I only knew they were cute.

Well, I also knew that despite how cute they were, I should probably do something about them. But I didn’t. I ignored them and hoped they would go away.

This past spring, during the pandemic shutdown, I started working from home at my dining room table, which has a nice view of my backyard. I soon realized that there was only one bunny left in my yard. I saw this bunny almost every single day.

I enjoyed watching him nibble away at the greenery. He would eat for a while, then disappear through the back fence to the neighbor’s garden. Eventually, he’d hop back towards the house along the dog fence to…the patio? I wasn’t sure.

What did I do about this bunny? Well, let’s see. I showed him to my grandkids. I talked about him in group texts. I tried to take photos of him. I called him, “my bunny.” “Oh, my bunny is out in the yard.” “Here, let me show you my bunny.” “Ooops! There goes my bunny!”

But I’m not a moron. I know I can’t ignore rabbits forever, no matter how adorable they are. I’ve seen that episode of Hoarders, after all.

My husband and I had a talk. One morning, after we’d seen the rabbit go through the back fence and we knew we wouldn’t be trapping him, my husband filled in the presumed bunny hole at the side of the patio. He then arranged logs and pavers over the area, to really block it off.

After that, whenever I saw the bunny in the back corner of the yard, I let the dogs out. They would charge across the lawn, barking at top volume. My bunny was no moron, either. Long before they could reach him, he popped through the fence into the yard next door. I was sad to see him go, but it was time. I haven’t seen him in weeks.

I hope the neighbor likes his new bunny.

More Birds

Sparrow chicks
Image by Veronika Tóth-Péter from Pixabay

So, those vents around the roof line. Every vent needs to be covered with a heavier metal grate whether it looks like it’s been pecked through or not, because once you block one vent, the birds move their attentions to another. They want in.

They want in, and they get in.

After they could no longer nest in the garage/apartment building, the birds moved to the main house. At first I thought it was raccoons up in the attic, because it was so noisy. There’s all the scratching while they build the nest. And then, there’s the endless peeping of the hungry hatchlings. This peeping is more like screaming. Baby birds are hungry. We all got to hear about it. All the damn time.

The parent birds are protective, and they do a lot of swooping at you as you approach your home. You’re just walking up to your door, of your own house, where you live, and your new uninvited tenant comes swooping out at you. Clearly, the bird knows its nest and babies are a giant pain in the ass, and it needs to scare you away from evicting it.

You know exactly where these new bird neighbors live, because the entrance to their nesting place (a roof vent above a window) is soon streaked with bird poop. That means the siding, and the screen, and the glass, and the ground directly below are covered with droppings. Lots of droppings. Kind of a decorative fan shape of droppings.

I can tell you where the birds nested at my house. One site was directly over my oldest daughter’s former bedroom. The other was over the family room window. The poop fans made interesting additions to the front of the house.

And of course, me being me, I ignored it. The nests were active for (at least) two full springs and summers. Okay, maybe three. But this year, we were home all the time, and the peeping and the scratching and the swooping and the pooping were impossible to ignore.

It was time to evict the birds.

I ordered a bunch of metal grates from Amazon. My husband laid in spare drill bits and screws. He also got a taller ladder. We listened. We waited for silence, because that would mean the nests were empty.

The peeping and cheeping and rustling and scratching went on and on.

Had we missed our opportunity? Had the spring babies flown, was this actually a second nesting? Were we always going to have decorative poop fans on the front of our house? Or were we going to be terrible people, and nail up the grates, and kill the fledglings? We didn’t have the heart to do that.

So I ignored it, and hope it would go away.

Guess what? It did.

One day, we realized that we heard nothing. My husband went out with his electric drill and new ladder and got to work with those metal grates. After he had the grates up, he scrubbed the siding. We worked together on cleaning screens and windows and windowsills, and restored the house façade to respectability.

What’s next?

I don’t know. It’s not a jungle out there, but it’s a field and a forest and a meadow disguised as a backyard. Squirrels bury their nuts in my flowerpots, raccoons eat my flowers, geese occasionally fly over and drop massive curtains of crap on my cars, and a ground-nesting wasp nest boiled up and stung the crap out of me one day while I was working in the yard. The aforementioned coyotes are hard at work keeping the outdoor cat and chihuahua populations in check. Nature is out there and at times, it tries to get in or under or through my house. I’m going to continue ignoring that fact, right up until I can’t.

Also, I saw my bunny again this morning…

Your Motherly Clipping Service

Minah Bourne

A row of mailboxes.
Image by Amber Avalona from Pixabay

The first book I ever published was Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park. But I actually wrote The Iris Files before I wrote the trailer park book. And those who’ve read them know that Minah Bourne is a character in both books.

If you read Iris first, then your first introduction to Minah was my first introduction to her. She came into my mind as Iris’s mother-in-law, and she was introduced via those envelopes full of clippings that arrived in Iris’s mailbox every so often.

Then, there are the Minah clippings. Minah is my mother in law, and she sends clippings at least once a week. Each thick envelope seemed to be organized along a theme. Sometimes, it’s medical. “The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer.” “Better Living Through Bran.” “Medical Miracles that could Change Your Life!” These are accompanied by a note in her slanting hand. “No one lives forever, Iris. Minah.”

She also sends articles on “Keeping Your Man by Keeping Him Happy,” and “Five Fast Relationship Quick Fixes!” Again, the note, “Iris, take a lesson, here.” She sends articles about raising kids, about watching too much TV and how to get your kids to clean their rooms. “Worth a try, don’t you think? Minah.” Clearly, Minah believes I can use all the help I can get.

Iris didn’t find these clippings helpful. She didn’t know her mother-in-law very well, and she didn’t know why she kept getting these fat envelopes full of clippings every month, and she really didn’t look forward to Minah’s arrival. She found the very idea of Minah to be, shall we say, a challenge.

We all know how that went, don’t we.

If you’ve read the Trailer Park book, you know where the clippings came from, and why they often had tack holes in the corner. There were reasons. Good ones. And Minah is a quiet hero, clippings and all.

Where that all came from

I try to skirt the issue of what might be autobiographical in my novels, but I freely admit that I based the clippings on events from my own life. For whatever reason, my mother saved and sent a lot of clippings. I mean, a lot. I’d open a letter, and find a wad of clippings with little pencil notations in my mother’s almost indecipherable handwriting, telling me who the clipping was for. It could be me, or it was just as likely to be for one of my (now ex) husbands, and later for my sister (who didn’t write letters much with my mother so I was supposed to save and deliver these to her for Mom) or much later, for my oldest daughter.

I think most of the clippings had to do with schemes. Please understand that my mother would have disliked how I call her ideas “schemes.” To her, they were perfectly reasonable “ideas.” Mostly they were ideas for how other people (who were not Mom) should live their lives.

Say, for instance, she read an article about Christmas tree farms in Oregon. She would think, “Karen and (ex) should do that.” So she would send that with her spidery pencil notations in the margin, “Think about this!” and then she’d eventually call me and ask if I’d read it, and had I been looking into opening a Christmas tree farm, and she’d found some listings for them, and she was sending them down so I could check them out with this realtor friend of hers.

I stood firm. “Mom, I don’t want a Christmas tree farm.”

Which would only strengthen her resolve that this was indeed the business venture that we should follow. She’d get very testy and defensive. She didn’t like being dismissed out of hand like that.

But I would hold my ground by stating the obvious. “Well, if you like the idea of owning a Christmas tree farm so much, why don’t you and Dad do it?”

This was a dangerous rejoinder. My parents spent years charging off in one direction or another, chasing their schemes, until finally settling down on Bainbridge Island. My parents loved it there, and shaking up their lives was then geographically limited, so it mostly involved local real estate as opposed to career changes.

This left my mother with a lot of pent up scheming energy, so she began working on getting other people to shake up their lives. My mother was so persuasive that she convinced a couple of friends to leave their jobs, sell everything they owned, and move into an RV and travel. And this couple DID IT. They lasted about a year before they sold the RV, bought a house, and went back to work. But that was my mom, an early #vanlife prophet who loathed RVs, but liked the idea, so she just urged the lifestyle onto someone else.

To be fair, my parents did charge off on a few financially ruinous schemes of their own during their Bainbridge years, including opening a pizza restaurant after they’d entered the years when they should have been consolidating their resources and planning for retirement.

Like I said, schemes.

Clippings from other people who are not my mom

My point is, I knew firsthand how annoying it was to receive a bunch of clippings. And the clippings weren’t limited to my own mother! When my second ex husband began his own lengthy and painful exit, his mother sent me the very clippings Iris receives about how to comport yourself around your children when your husband begins to pull a disappearing act.

Minah express-mailed me an emergency packet of clippings about divorced women who had been beaten, cheated on, financially devastated and abandoned by their husbands, but these women had NEVER said ONE word against their husbands to their children. They suffered in saintly silence, so their kids could have a high opinion of their fathers.

Scribbled in the margin, “Iris, take a lesson.”

Iris received that advice with more grace than I did.

Another clipping received came after my first child was born with a physical condition that came as a true surprise to everyone. Several well-meaning people sent me the Dear Abby Holland/Italy column. It starts with:

Welcome to Holland

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability-to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this . . .

‘When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, `Welcome to Holland.’

‘HOLLAND?!?’ you say. ‘What do you mean, Holland? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.’

But there`s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

If you’d like to read the rest of this thing, it’s here: That Holland/Italy Dear Abby column people send to new parents who are grappling with the reality of having a child who is going to face a lot of heartbreaking challenges in her life and maybe this will help, I guess.

There’s another advice column from one of the Ann/Abby sisters about God choosing atheists to raise disabled kids. Apparently we are divinely chosen for this special task because we’re going to be so good at it. I don’t have the heart to track that one down. Nothing about that column brings an atheist any closer to the idea of God.

And if you’re reading this, and a friend has a child with a challenge, spare them these columns. You might have the very best of intentions, but a lot of people do brutal things with the very best of intentions. Don’t do it.

A Sea Change

At some point, my mother got angry about the clippings. She let me know that it was taking up a large portion of each day to read things, clip them out, sort them into piles (because my brothers and some of her friends were getting them, too) and get them sent off with proper postage. I remember the hurt in her voice when she said, “I don’t even think you’re reading most of them.”

I replied, “Mom, did I ever ask you to be my clipping service? Did anyone ask you to do that?”

Mom kind of huffed up and gathered her dignity, then. Like most of us, she hated to find out she’d been doing something unnecessary, even annoying, as opposed to helpful. No one likes to feel ridiculous, especially not my mom. But I like to imagine that after her hurt feelings subsided, she started to read her papers and magazines for herself, rather than reading them for other people. I imagine it was a relief.

A Confession

Here’s the rub. I do this, or a version of it. I send links to poems and essays to my friends. Just a select few friends, and I try to keep it under control. But I get daily poems from Rattle magazine and Poem-a-Day, so I send poems off now and then. I even sent this one to my husband, because we watch so many of these (and please read it slowly, and all the way to the end, because it’s magnificent in how it builds):

I am Tired of the Movie about Sentimentalized Male Failure

And I loved this trailer park poem so much, I posted it on my Facebook page (it’s heartbreaking and full of courage):

Torch

I recently sent this amazing NYer essay by Ann Padgett to four of my dearest friends.

How to Practice

And really, isn’t this what a Facebook feed is? A curation of links and memes and photos we think our friends will enjoy? An endless online clipping service?

So, am I just my own mother, now, as we are all our own mothers? I wonder. I also wonder if I would have loved getting envelopes from Mom if they had been full of poems and essays and stories, instead of schemes for changing my life. But Mom read mostly nonfiction, and she actively disliked poetry. She said she never “got it,” and felt stupid and angry when she tried to read it. She would never have sent me poems.

It’s Always About Your Mother

I recently read The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. It’s fantastic, but there’s one passage that stood out to me. Here it is:

It is difficult for a woman to admit that she gets along with her own mother–sometimes it seems a form of betrayal, at least, it used to be among women in my generation. To join in the company of women, to be adults, we go through a period of proudly boasting of having survived our own mother’s indifference, anger, overpowering love, the burden of her pain, her tendency to drink or teetotal, her warmth or coldness, praise or criticism, sexual confusions or clarity. It isn’t enough that she sweat, labored, bore her daughters howling or under total anesthesia or both. No. She must be responsible for our psychic weakness for the rest of her life. It is all right to feel kinship with your father, to forgive. We all know that. But your mother is held to a standard so exacting that is has no principles. She simply must be to blame.

“She simply must be to blame.” I sighed in recognition when I read this, because I am a mother and I am a daughter, just as my own mother was. We only really forgive our mothers when we become mothers ourselves.

I loved my mother so much. She sent what she sent. She sent it with love. And of course, even though I love the life I’ve crafted, and I guard it from intrusion and meddling with everything I have, I’d give anything to open my mailbox and find one of those fat envelopes from my mom full of clippings on how to best change my life, annotated with her penciled notes in the margins.

You Should Learn to Ride a Bike Before you Lose Your Virginity

But what if you don’t?

In writing about my own life, I’m terrified of pathos, or maybe bathos. I want to be honest when I (someday) write that memoir, but Jesus Christ, when I look back at the mess of my childhood and young adulthood and then maybe add in my 20s and don’t forget my 30s, it seems a daunting task to write honestly about everything I’ve lived through. So, despite the inherent OMG involved in this blog post title, I’m not going to write about how and why I decided to become sexually active. I’m going to write instead about learning to ride a bike.

The Normal Age for Riding a Bike

Let’s go back to me, at age five or so, in a tiny town called Claremont, South Dakota. My older brother and sister had both learned to ride a bike by the time a small blue bike was bequeathed to me. I assume they learned to ride a bike the usual way; my birth father put them on the bike, ran behind them holding the seat while they pedaled, and then let go. I don’t remember this happening to either of my older siblings, but they could both ride bikes just fine, so whatever wobbles or spills they endured didn’t throw them off the path of bike ridership.

Me? Not so much. I don’t have the daredevil gene. I guess that’s a real thing, the daredevil gene. It makes you a risk taker and an innovator. I was born without this gene, which means that I make cautious choices, like living in the same house for over 30 years, and shopping at thrift stores, and building up my 401K with steady contributions rather than playing the stock market like the goddamn casino game it actually is.

Casinos are not for me, folks. Ten years ago, I was in Vegas with a friend who informed me that I never win at games of chance because I don’t ever believe I will win. I tend to think that MOST people don’t win at games of chance—hence, Las Vegas itself—but maybe she has a point. Maybe if I bought into the whole idea of winning at gambling I’d enjoy it. Instead, I simply endure it until whatever puny stake I’ve decided to lose is gone, and then I can do something I actually enjoy in Vegas, like eating or looking at the crazy sights or going to a show or reading a book in my room or something like that.

My point with all this is to say, I don’t like risks. When my birth father let go of the little blue bike, I didn’t sail happily down the sidewalks of Claremont, South Dakota. I fell over. I scraped stuff. I cried. And soon after, before he could coax me back onto that bike, he and my mother divorced. My mom was a lot of cool things, but she wasn’t the kind of mother who was going to run up and down the block behind her timid six year-old, promising not to let go right up until she did.

So I never learned.

Yes, I felt left out in fifth grade when everyone in my Edina, Minnesota, neighborhood jumped on their bikes and pedaled off to the Southdale mall. But sometimes they would walk, so I could come along and shoplift to my heart’s content.

I also didn’t know how to whistle. I taught myself to whistle really badly when I was in fifth grade, and I still whistle very badly, but I really don’t care. And there were other childhood gaps that could be filled in with diligent solitary practice. Cat’s Cradle, jacks, hand-clap games, and every type of jump rope. Those were my kinds of activity. I don’t have a clue if anyone plays those games anymore, but they were the deal when I was growing up.

They were a big deal in Minnesota, and they were still a big deal in Arkansas, where we moved while I was in fifth grade. I was still playing “Say Say Old Playmate” at recess when I got my first boyfriend…and my period…and my second boyfriend. He went to my school and passed me passionate mash notes that told me I looked like Marcia on The Brady Bunch, which was high praise in those days.

Here’s me at 12.

Here’s Marcia and her TV sisters.

Look at their shining, smooth hair, tan legs, and adorable dresses. I could study this photo all day in complete admiration. I don’t think I looked like Marcia, but I certainly appreciated the compliment.

All the Brady kids could ride bikes. I still couldn’t.

It was less of a problem in Montana, where we moved after Arkansas. We lived up in the mountains on a ranger station. There were no sidewalks and no paved roads, aside from a narrow paved highway that snaked above the sheer banks of the icy Gallatin River. Kids in Gallatin Gateway, where I went to part of seventh grade and all of eighth, rode horses, not bikes.

When we moved into Bozeman, there were sidewalks, but the kids I hung around with (the boys at least) had cars. If you had a boyfriend, he was your source of transportation.

At 14, I lost my virginity. I still couldn’t ride a bike.

At 15, I got my driver’s license. I still couldn’t ride a bike.

Also, at 15, I moved out of my parent’s home and to another state (Washington) with my older boyfriend—yes, in tenth grade.

I still couldn’t ride a bike.

Pathos? Bathos? You decide!

So now, those of you still reading understand that my life had really gone off the rails at this point. I’ve taken you from South Dakota to Minnesota to Arkansas to Montana and finally to Washington, with multiple moves and schools in each of those locations. My early life was unsettled, but at this point it veered into somewhat tragic territory. And of the various tragedies around my 14th and 15th years (let’s just extend this tragedy time on up to age 19), not being able to ride a bike was the least of them. However, that particular tragedy could be rectified.

What To Say About Him.

I have a strong need to contextualize people in order to understand and eventually forgive them. The boyfriend with whom I lived in my teens has a really interesting life of his own that lends context to what was wrong with him. I’m not ready to write about him in any detail. But I think it’s safe to talk about the fact that he was a gearhead. He loved anything wheeled, especially if it was motorized or had an engine. He worked on cars constantly. But before he could drive, he poured all that gearhead passion into his bikes.

He had two. This was the era of the ten speed, and I’m not sure his “good” bike was one of those, but it was complex and had gears. He’d modified and tinkered with it so much, it was a miracle that he could still ride it. And then he’d held on to his childhood Schwinn with the banana seat, on which he’d delivered papers for years in all kinds of Montana weather. 

Pay attention, these bikes are important in a paragraph or two.

During the school year, we both went to school. He went to YVC, and I went to high school, where I managed not to drop out despite just hating it. In the summer, we did various things to earn money. My parents were living in Missoula, where my father was busy flunking out of law school and my mother was running a small, successful miniatures business.

So my boyfriend and I packed up the cats and went to Missoula to make miniature furniture for the summer. We slept on the hideabed in the tiny living room of my parents’ married student housing apartment.

Small hideabed where we slept, along with an adorable little brother, an antique doll and basket that are now in my possession, and a very sad, miserable, lost teenage me.

We assembled tiny chairs and sofas and table,s and we made more money doing that than picking fruit, our other summer employment endeavor. And at some point early on, my boyfriend drove back to Bozeman and retrieved both of his bikes from his parents’ garage, and brought them to Missoula.

He taught me to drive before he taught me to ride a bike.

I started on that little Schwinn. I think it looked a lot like this one, which is for sale for over 2K on eBay:

see it here: Schwinn

I’m a tall person, so I probably looked ridiculous on this boy’s bike, but the banana seat was comfortable and the handlebars were tall, so I could sit up, instead of that hunching over you had to do on a ten speed. I got on that bike, and he held onto the back of the seat, and he ran behind me while I pedaled down the sidewalk, and eventually, he let go.

Guess what? I rode just fine. This bike was fast and easy to maneuver. The only problem was, one of the pedals was incomplete, so every so often, my foot would slip off and my ankle would bang into the end of the pedal peg. That hurt.

Ankle bruises aside, I was finally riding a bike. Each evening, we rode all over the University of Montana campus; him on his age-appropriate adult-sized bike, and me on that little Schwinn. I remember a boy we passed calling, “You look funny on that bike!” I yelled back, “I know!” I knew, and I didn’t care. It was so fun to finally know how to ride a bike. And the campus, back then, was empty in the summer, so we could whiz all over the paved paths and brick courtyards, riding recklessly in circles around the bear sculpture.

This image of the Grizz shows the winding paths around this pretty campus, the “M”, and the dun-colored hills around Missoula.

I fell in love with this campus that summer, thanks to that bike. Eventually, we moved to Missoula and I attended my first two quarters of college at the University of Montana. I made wonderful friends and came into my own and finally started to question the path my life had taken. I started to wonder if that path could change. I decided it could, and forged a new one.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I stayed at the U of M after I ended things with the boyfriend, who had become my first husband. If I’d left him but stayed in Missoula, I could have applied for financial aid, and I would have been helped in that because I was in the honors program and had a 4.0 GPA. That used to matter to schools. I could have moved into the dorm, which was actually a cheap place to live back then, and finished my studies, and…and then…and then I peter out. Because I’d have eventually ended up in the hospital, or worse, if I’d stayed in the same city where he lived. Because he wouldn’t have let me go, if I’d stayed in Missoula. And because my real life, with all that it holds, has taken place in Portland, where I moved at age 19.

Portland, Oregon, is the most bike-friendly city in America.

Everyone rides a bike in Portland.

Everyone except me. 

I wish I could tell you that my hard-won teen mastery of bike riding had inspired a lifelong love of biking. That this was the start of something important. But that small bike with its comfortable banana seat and busted pedal went back to my boyfriend’s parents’ garage in Bozeman, and it took my love of biking with it.

I know that I had a big brown three-speed of my own at some point while we lived in Yakima, but I never took to it. It was so BIG compared to the swift little Schwinn. I rode it a few times and found it heavy and tiring, nothing like zipping around on the wee bike. Eventually that big bike went to my older brother, who did ride it around Portland for a while. And then I suppose it was sold.

I haven’t been on a bike since I was 17 years old. But I like to think that riding a bike is just like…riding a bike. That I’ve never forgotten what it took me so long to learn. That it’s back there, deep in my muscle memory.

That even now, I could get on and go. 

Planning a wedding when you’re old(er).

The proposal

This story begins on April 13th, 2018, when I was reading a book in the living room of some friends’ house up on Orcas Island. My one true love came in and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “Do you want to get married?” and I said “Yes!” Of course I wanted to get married! To him! Absolutely! But a moment later, I said, “To you, right?” because there was always a chance it was just a general query, sort of a survey question, and not an actual proposal. He said, “Yes. To me.”

We’d both said yes to love. Love is hard to find, and rare. Love deserves a celebration. That means a wedding. I didn’t want a wedding, but I was marrying a very romantic man. He wanted a wedding.

So I said yes to that, too.

A wedding? Kill me now.

Now, I should clarify that I don’t like big weddings, especially not where I’m concerned. I was married at age 18 and again at age 21, and what those weddings had in common (besides my youth and idiocy at thinking I should marry that young) was that they were tiny events. Miniscule. Which was nice, because when the marriages ended, at least I didn’t have to apologize to my parents for spending a fortune on my bad ideas.

I liked the sound of those old weddings in the forties, when the couple went to the judge’s chamber, wearing their nicest suits. She probably wore a neat little hat and gloves, and carried a nosegay. After the ceremony, one of the relatives hosted a luncheon with things like cold meats and aspics and finger sandwiches, and cake, nuts, mints and punch. After which the couple headed out on a sweet, rustic honeymoon.

Oh, how I longed for a sweet wedding luncheon and a trip to Niagara Falls.

Alternatives examined and discarded

Why, you might ask, didn’t we just elope? Well, for a few reasons. He’d eloped to Vegas before, so that carried all kinds of associations for him, none of them happy. I talked about doing it at the courthouse, but with both our families, the have-to-be-there list was lengthy, and we’d be having some kind of a party after, so why not let everyone come to the ceremony? We both had important friends with whom we wanted to share this day.

But then we had to plan a wedding.

Getting married should be simple. All you really need to get married is a couple, an officiant, at least one ring and some expensive pieces of paper for the legal part. And a pen, I guess, to sign those papers.

But getting married is not the same as having a wedding. Weddings are all about choices and money. When. Where. Who. How much. Nothing is simple or easy. This time, our parents wouldn’t be paying for any part of this event, since (1) this would be the third marriage for each of us, (2) we are both gainfully employed, and (3) we are old, really, for getting married.

Okay, we are not quite old yet, but we are certainly not young. We are not even middle-aged, unless we’re planning to live to 106 and 118 years of age, respectively. But we’re old enough that when we hold hands or kiss in public, people assume we’re cute older people who have been together forever and still manage to be romantic. Teenage ticket sellers squint at us through the glass of the ticket booth, asking if we want senior rates. I am even able to order from the senior menu at my neighborhood pie house, a fact I like to rub in the face of anyone under 55.

Envy me. I get the bacon and eggs for seven dollars.

But back to the wedding

Timing was an issue. Some of his important relatives (sister, niece, great-nephew) had to fly in, so they needed time to book flights and plan a trip to the PNW. One of my daughters is pregnant and lives across the country, and wouldn’t be able to fly past a certain point. Another daughter lives five hours away, and would be working every single weekend with no exceptions and no choice about it until a break that started on November 1st.

The largest issue, though, was that my father was terminally ill and quite fragile. We had to decide first thing if we wanted time to plan, or to have him at the wedding. That choice was easy to make. We both wanted him there. So we chose a date seven months out, started talking about what we wanted, and hoped for the best.

I made a spread sheet, of course. It had a scheduled to-do list, a tab for guests and their addresses and responses, and a tab for expenses. We’d given ourselves a small budget so that we could pay as we went, because I refused to go into debt for any of this. The budget talk was something like this: “I’d like to do it for 4K, but it’s going to be 5K.” “We can do it for 4K!” “Oh, just you wait.”

I asked my younger brother to officiate, and we chose a date to get the license, and then we got down to the hard stuff. Where would we get married? What would we eat? What would we wear, and say, and listen to, and put on our fingers? Would there be aspics, cake, nuts, mints and punch? Would there be nosegays?

A banquet of choices

Now, here’s something I know about my man. He enjoys having lots of choices. Like, a banquet of choices. He will take the buffet any time we are in Vegas, because he likes an expanse of items to consider, inspect, and reject before he finally makes his choice. It’s one of his great joys in life. It’s one reason (I think) that he tolerated online dating better than I did. He liked that there were so many women to choose from. Me? I prefer not so many choices. I want to develop a set of criteria, drill down and get busy.

I found that this variance in our personalities was not helpful in a few areas of wedding planning. Like choosing a venue. I wanted to choose a venue. He wanted to see venues. Plenty of venues, because he loves choices. He took me to a few that summer, and they were all outdoors. He’d stand by the set-up for a summer wedding that was happening later that afternoon or that evening, and smile at how nice it all was, with the decorations and dance floor and the DIY table settings and all. The guy is so romantic.

And what would I do? I’d tap my foot and scowl and say, “Why are we wasting time looking at outdoor venues when we’re getting married in November in Oregon? What is the point?” The point, of course, was choices. Options. And being romantic. And I just poured my salty pickle juice all over his sweet, spoony enthusiasm.

I was horribly pragmatic. I would quote costs to him for a dance floor and band, for seated dinners and rented tableware and the like, all of which would drive our costs up and waaaaay over our budget of 5K. I tried not to be crabby about it, but we only had a few months to put it all together and why were we wasting time at places that wouldn’t work for our wedding?

So we go indoors

We started pricing indoor places, and were dismayed by, well, everything. Venues are expensive, and not necessarily accessible when one of the guests is in a wheelchair. Meal choices are limited, and cost a fortune per plate. A nice place makes its money through the food and drink, and gross places were, well, gross. Not acceptable. We even looked at the tiny Oaks Pioneer Church, which is adorable and nondenominational, but you can’t have a reception there. We’d have had to wheel my fragile father to two places. Nothing was right, everything was absurdly costly, and I felt discouraged.

I can’t remember what we’d looked at when I said, “Don’t any of our friends live in a really big house, or maybe a condo with a big club room?”

Lightning bolt. Yes.

We had friends who lived in a lovely downtown condo, and they had a beautiful club room with a fireplace and a wall of windows that looked out on an elegant courtyard. The room was full of sofas and tables and chairs, with a battalion of portable tables and chairs just waiting to be requested. And bathrooms. And a full kitchen with punch bowls and serving utensils and spare silverware. And another big room where we could set up all the food and drink. This room also came with a security guard, to keep the riffraff from wandering out of the event space into the luxury condos, I’m sure, and the capable event-planning assistance of my dear friend San, who was absolutely delighted to share her lovely space with us.

We had a time, a place, an officiant, and San. We were getting closer.

Put a ring on it

We also had a terrible time picking out rings. I picked mine first, being “engaged” and all. And despite my idea of myself as decisive, I was terribly indecisive. I’d get something all picked out, show my guy, he’d get out his wallet to order and and I’d say “Not yet!” A week later, I’d have a completely different choice in mind. and of course I chose an artisan ring, which made choosing the band that much more difficult. I want to point out that I was a complete pain in the ass, here.

My guy wanted to look at choices for his ring with me, and he wanted to look at all the rings in the entire world. We went to several jewelry stores, and he’d ask to see rings, and I’d say, “Is that something you’d like?” and he’d say, “No, I just wanted to see what it looked like.” That choices thing, again. He ke[t asking to see rings, and then saying, “Weird.” Part of the fun, for him, was laughing at rings that looked like engine parts or car tires or the like.

We moved our search to Etsy. I thought pulling those rings up on our aging laptops just to scoff at them was a WASTE OF MY TIME. Plus, if he wanted something handcrafted, we’d have to order it from a maker! We didn’t have time to scoff! I didn’t care if he liked having choices! I was impatient.

He could tell when I said in an icy voice, “I have looked at literally hundreds of rings with you, and I’m tired of looking at what you don’t want. Can you please just let me know what you DO want?”

I am lucky, at this point, that he still wanted to marry me, but he did. On his own, he made a list of five rings to look at with me. I could do five rings, just not another fifty. His final choice would be coming from Ireland. I ordered it in July. I thought that gave us plenty of time, yes?

But back to the planning.

People have to eat

Which was another issue. FOOD AND DRINK. He has specific food tastes, and I like everything. No, seriously, there is nothing I don’t like to eat besides maybe fried pork rinds. And we had to design a wedding menu that would give everyone something decent to eat. I remember looking up and saying, “Do we really want to spend 4,000 dollars to feed everyone roast beef or salmon?”

We decided not to.

We hired the top-rated caterer in town to design a “hearty hors d’oeuvres” spread for us. Now, because there were so many choices on the list of what we could order, we were back to the languid choice-making, the “I wonder if the sauce is they talk about on this one could be served on the side?” or “Do you suppose they could make this without the remoulade?” questions from him, with me barking back “DON’T ASK THE CHEF TO CHANGE SOMETHING, JUST PICK SOMETHING ELSE FOR GOD’S SAKE, THERE ARE A HUNDRED THINGS TO CHOOSE FROM, JUST MAKE A LIST OF WHAT YOU LIKE AND GO FROM THERE.”

I didn’t shout with my voice, but I was definitely shouting inside.

We got the choices made, and a contract signed, and there would be food.

Which took me to the next stressful purchase.

What to wear

Like every American bride, I had some vague idea that I’d have a new body in place before my wedding. Wedding planning didn’t exactly melt off the pounds, so I had to use the body I currently owned for the wedding. And that body needed a new dress.

I ordered one I liked from Nordstrom, and it came, and I was so excited. My youngest daughter came over to help me try it on, and then to help me get it off my body and back into the box with a minimum of comment because my god, that dress looked terrible on me. I sent it right back and thought that maybe no one should marry me because I looked so misshapen and horrid in that dress.

Then I went to Kiyonna.com, where the perfect (not white, though they have those) dress was easily found. And it came, and slipped on without so much as a zipper, and it was beautiful and elegant and comfortable and lined, and it was even long enough, and I loved it. When I shared a photo of it with family and friends, they all loved it too, except for one friend who started sending other choices in a panic, including something from David’s Bridal that would have needed sleeves to be added, but I ignored all that. I had my dress.

After watching the Shapermint ads on Facebook over and over and over again, I ordered one of those, too. In the Facebook ads, a size 14 or 16 woman stands before the camera with a pair of little elastic shorts pulled up right below her abdomen. She rolls the shorts up over her womanly rolls and bulges to just under her bra, and she has a completely different figure. It’s astonishing. I’d have liked to have given it a try, but I couldn’t even get the shorts up to my just-under-the-womanly-bulges part. So that Shapermint stayed in the drawer. But I still watch those commercials on Facebook.

My guy didn’t need to buy a suit, shirt or tie, because he’s a grown-up and has those, but he did need new black dress shoes. I was prepared for our trip to Nordstrom Rack, where we arrived shortly before they closed. I knew exactly what he needed, which was a quality pair of black men’s dress shoes that didn’t have a long, pointy toe-box. So I left him to be dazzled by the wall of men’s shoe choices. I ignored him while he was pulling out sequinned men’s loafers and lavender deck shoes to scoff at them. With steely precision, I located several quality pairs of black men’s dress shoes sans long, pointy toe-boxes. I brought them to him and refused to be distracted by the embroidered smoking slippers and two-tone patent lace-ups he was waving around in amusement. I was not there for a good time. I was there for black shoes and dammit, I saw nothing else.

We left there with a really nice pair of shoes for him.

Cake and cake and cake and more cake

Along the way, we were sending out save-the-dates and then invites, getting our license, trying and buying our prosecco, red wine, white wine and various other drinks, and ordering galvanized tubs to ice them, haunting Goodwills to find specific square low vases for the eventual flower arrangements, and and getting the final tally for the caterer.

I had an idea for the cakes that would be delicious and pretty, based on the cakes we’d eaten at a wedding over the summer. But my guy wanted to do cake tastings. He’d done cake tastings for his first wedding, and he was happily anticipating going to bakery after bakery to try little squares of cake with squirts of frosting on them. I told him I would happily go to as many cake tastings as he arranged. His eyebrows raised a bit, but he did it.

And it turned out that I enjoyed cake tastings, too, especially looking through books of cake designs, which ranged from opulent to decadent to rustic/woodsy, and all costing at least 600 dollars to feed 75 people a piece of cake. We didn’t order cakes, but we always got delicious treats at the bakeries to take home for later consumption. He was right, it was fun.

Then I took him to the Thriftway where my family has bought birthday cakes for thirty years. We bought five or six slices of cake, and took them home and had the best cake tasting of all. He had a chance to see how truly outstanding this bakery is, and though he liked the chocolate cake at Jaciva’s best, this one ran a close second. We went back, ordered four cakes (chocolate, banana, lemon [for my dad, who loved lemon desserts], poppy seed) and asked them to frost all but the chocolate in white cream cheese frosting, to make them as bridal and pretty as they could. Then we paid $98.00 and left, knowing they would be ready, on time, delicious and beautiful for our wedding day.

Hiccups and meltdowns

We were not without hiccups. Finding a good photographer we could afford was difficult, but with the help of one of my daughters, I did it. The red wine we wanted was sold out when we went to get it in quantity, but we found another. I’d ordered his ring in July, and by mid-October, it hadn’t arrived. After a series of panicked communications, the maker sent a replacement that got to us three days before the wedding. And flower day, where my daughter and sister-in-law were making table arrangements and a bouquet for me, didn’t go smoothly. It was the day before the wedding, and I was melting down over the music, and people were asking too many questions and having too many opinions and I burst into tears and told everyone to stop talking to me for a minute.

I texted my guy, “I suppose it’s too late to elope?”

He texted back, “I’m afraid so, honey.”

So I saddled up, and we finished the day, and everyone forgave me for yelling and crying.

Let’s do this thing

The day itself was beautiful. My middle daughter did my hair and makeup in San’s luxury condo, while downstairs in the club room, everything was picked up and delivered and set up by friends and family in the club room, invisible hands doing the impossible list of last-minute tasks that brought it all together. There were flowers everywhere, and tables of delicious food, and more wine than anyone could drink. My sister-in-law had developed delicious punches and made frozen ice rings with flowers and springs of lavender to float with them, and I’d found nut and mint dishes to set out on the cake table so I could have my 1940s vision of cake, punch, nuts and mints. The music played and people laughed and smiled and hugged each other, everyone was there and present including my dad, following along with a printed-out copy of the ceremony and vows, so he didn’t miss anything. We stood up in front of everyone and said the magic words. My guy became my husband, and I became his wife, and we all cried and laughed and celebrated the impossible wonder of that, together.

What worked and what worked better

So what would I have done differently? It’s easy to say “nothing,” because the day came together so beautifully. So here are thoughts and notes about what went right, and what could have been handled a little differently.

Timing: Based on my previous weddings (one of which came together from a Wednesday to a Sunday — yes, five days) I underestimated how much time it would take to put this all together. The time constraint was brutal, but my father was housebound soon after the wedding. This really was our only chance to have him there. I’m glad we did it when we did it, despite how compressed our planning and execution was.

Matron of honor: My best friend from high school was my maid-of-honor. I am glad she was and I wouldn’t have chosen a different one, but apparently, I never told her that she was going to stand up with me. She was as surprised as could be to get a corsage, to be in the wedding party photos, and then to be called up as an attendant! She says she’d have worn a dress, rather than wearing slacks! So, as a note, please let your attendants know several times that they are, indeed, attendants, removing any element of surprise from your wedding party.

Flowers: My daughters went to a wonderful florist and picked out special blooms for a bouquet for me, and my oldest daughter made the bouquet of my dreams. I really didn’t expect anything so amazing. The flower arrangements were also magnificent — white roses and greenery. These were done for me as a wedding gift from my daughter, and she was helped by my sister-in-law. There were also white orchids to set along the fireplace and here and there. When it was time to go, we invited people to take the table arrangements home. I got so many sweet photos texted to me with words like, “Still blooming” in the weeks to come. The orchids went home with our Orcas Island friends, who have a way with them. When we visit, we can count on seeing our wedding orchids blooming at their home.

Decor: My middle daughter took me on a Home Goods, Michael’s run. We found what I’d come for, which was pretty cake plates and napkins and silverware, but she pushed me beyond my comfort zone to a guest book, tablecloths and tablesquares, and these funny little coasters so people could write advice to us. “This is the fun stuff, Mom.” She bought most of it, too, and it enhanced the look of the room immensely. And it was, indeed, fun.

Cake: I thought four cakes was plenty. But after the wedding, when I asked people which cake they had, most said, “Oh, all four!” So if you do my nifty method of wedding cake provision, order more than you think you’ll need. Everyone will want to try everything.

Music: After a grueling, emotional assembly of a Spotify playlist that resulted in a tantrum and a request to elope, I didn’t remember to turn the music back on after the toasts. I advise that you do so.

Help: People wanted to help more than I let them. I should have let them. We hired a woman to keep the buffet tables straight, to organize the garbage and recycling, to just keep things going in the room of much food. She was worth twice what we paid for her services. She and San did the clean-up (San had volunteered and said she was paid in full for her own services with leftovers and have I mentioned that San is magnificent?).

Food: We ordered for fifty guests, and had 65. We could have fed twice that many people with what our caterers delivered. Everyone raved about the food, but I only ate a little because my new husband brought me a plate of what he knew I’d love; stuffed artichoke bottoms, pastry-wrapped artichoke spears, a short rib crostini with remoulade. There was so much food there. Have small to-go boxes handy so people can take food home with them, because food this delicious shouldn’t go to waste.

Favors: We overbought wine, sparkling cider and champagne on purpose, and each guest left with one or two bottles of something. I think this is a fine wedding favor/remembrance.

Nuts and mints: I loved having them out, but no one ate them. I didn’t care. I might not have had a suit, gloves and a hat, and it was too late in the day for a luncheon, but we did have cake and punch, nuts and mints.

And that’s that.

That’s what it’s like to get married when you’re older, I guess. With family and flowers, good friends and good food, with love and laughter and lots and lots of help from people who love you and wish you well. I recommend it. I recommend it with no reservations.

But my new husband and I agree. The next time we marry each other?

We are definitely eloping.

On ranch homes and roots.

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

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

Amway Dream Home

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

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

Reader, guess who bought it.

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

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

Ranch Strophes

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

Here’s an example:

FALL

It’s a fall afternoon, in California.

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

California women are all that, and waxed.

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

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

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

Nothing ever changes, in California.

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

Over at the Ranch

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

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

I mean, if Simone Weil says so…

The future of the ranch

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

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

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