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It’s been so mean lately.

Oh, I know it’s always been mean. “Off with their heads!”; machetes removing limbs; “We will kill you for dancing”; waterboarding a workaday torture; “Tell us what you heard your father say about our glorious leader”; pogroms; labor camps; piles of bodies.

It’s always been mean.

The current mean is insidious as much as shocking, though, during this era when well-off people wrap themselves in privilege and self-righteousness to deflect from the tight bitterness of their begrudging. The current mean erodes my belief in foundations, makes it impossible to feel easy, causes me to yell at phantoms in my head when I’m out for a run. 

I don’t know how to write when the only thing I have to express is an extended scream down an open neck as I nestle a bloody head into the crook of my arm. I don’t know how to write because boundaries and tone become impossible to manage, drowned in a deluge of anger and disappointment.

So I try, very deliberately, to focus on the flashes of pure and good — a fine encounter with a stranger, a happy wave across the yoga studio, a student excited that she gets to take a trip to Greece. I try to open a channel and let the good stuff flow in. 

I started this essay one year ago, a month after my dear friend Virginia died; the opening sentence about “It’s been so mean lately” popped out of my fingertips then, as did the subsequent paragraphs. Even then, I was struggling to stay right as people got meaner. 

Then life reared up, and the essay draft languished. There was too much else to do, not enough time to sit and focus on one of the pure, good things that had saved me from complete disillusionment. 

But now I’ve recently returned from a trip to Europe with Virginia’s widow, Kirsten, an ashes-scattering jaunt during which we not only left bits of bones in places that had been special to Gin but also took her to some new venues, whisking that intrepid traveler on one last journey. Along the way, as the bitter and self-righteous sloshed in their own sourness, we were reminded again, through Virginia’s lasting impact on a crew of devoted friends in Germany, that mean frets itself into unyielding little knots, but goodness turns its face to the sun. 

I’m being cliche and mixing metaphors here, of course, but the sentiment is true: people have been making me sad, yet the person Virginia chose to be in the world gives a powerful lift.

When I started this essay a year ago, I wanted to share the contents of a small red volume found after Virginia’s memorial service in a desk drawer in her basement — in the “museum” of Ginnie’s Stuff. 

Feeling tired and sad these past few days, I suddenly remembered that tiny journal she’d kept and realized I do have something to say that isn’t an extended scream down an open neck, dismembered head stuffed into my elbow — “Oh, I should scan those pages and write a blog post!”

Today, when I sat at the computer, I found a folder containing images I’d forgotten I scanned after her death. Today, when I came to the Dashboard of this blog to begin a new essay, I found a post I started in June of 2018. 

In looking at the scanned images and re-reading the notes Virginia jotted in 1984 about a Cambodian family she was sponsoring during their relocation from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields to a small Minnesota town with a kill line, I fell in love with my friend all over again. 

And I fell in love with Hieng and Sakun and Sokong and Soksan. (In particular, I really, really, really fell in love with Soksan on March 31, 1984.)

Looking at the notes Virginia dashed into a little book during the months when she poured time and money and love into a traumatized family, I remembered not everyone sits in their houses where they have too much and complains about brown people showing up where they don’t belong. I remembered that some people live according to the Law of Abundance, some people start and end with the principle that all human beings deserve an equal chance, some people don’t complain publicly about things they don’t acknowledge privately, some people check and challenge themselves: “Am I embodying graciousness? Am I truly living with grace?”

Virginia’s notebook, as it tracks purchases and errands with not only the Hao family but also other refugees being absorbed into her beloved town, provides a snapshot of genuine grace in a mean, mean world.

Virginia was not a saint. After these initial months of language learning, household establishment, health worries, and friendship joys, she left the Hao family more and more in the hands of others. Like me with this blog post, she had other priorities.

When I met her in 1996, however, Virginia was fully in the swing of sponsoring a Bosnian refugee family — helping them find work, enrolling the kids in school, spending hours and dollars to soften their landing. 

It’s been so mean lately.

But once there was a Virginia. And all of us now, if we try to live with similar grace, have it in ourselves to earn the title of “Mom,” to feel our hearts fill, to listen to our doorbells ring repeatedly, to eat watermelon together.

We have it in ourselves to believe that if we buy two bikes for $70 for people who need them, they’ll be as good as their word.

If we can just stop being so tight and mean, we can trust:

They’ll pay us back.


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friends

To Feel the Sun from Both Sides

I met her fifteen years ago, when I was 29, and she was 59. We taught at the same college, and my first semester there was her last.

She retired when she turned 60, and although we’d met when we were colleagues, our friendship didn’t really begin until we no longer worked together. Having encountered each other at a few dinner parties and grazed glances over the cassoulet–recognizing in each other a mutual humor—we took to email, where our acquaintanceship evolved over months through nightly typed conversations.

I courted with my husband through email a few years later, but Virginia was my first modern epistolary love.

In our nightly emails, we shared stories of romances, dysfunctions, students, travels, families, community involvements. As we grew closer through writing, we grew closer in life, as well. I ate dinner at her house often; we met over coffee; we eased the transition of a Polish Fulbright Scholar and her daughter into Midwestern American life.

At some point along the way, Virginia admitted her sexual orientation to me, which came as no surprise. I like boys; she likes girls. That openness freed us to discuss her on-again-off-again-always-there-but-never-healthy long-term partnership with a woman in town. That openness freed us to agree that, because hair, including that on the chin, continues to grow after death, we would be there for each other to perform any post-mortem plucking or shaving necessary to present a respectable corpse. That openness freed me to gift her with a pair of thong underwear covered with smiley faces; when she tried them out by wearing them to church one Sunday morning, she was gripped with such giggles about her I’m-sixty-one-and-guess-what’s-under-my-pants-as-I-take-Communion secret that she had to bury her head in the hymnal and search for a non-existent song called “Oh Holy Jeebus, I’m About to Pee My Thong.”

After awhile, we took trips together: visiting Madison to eat Ethiopian food; driving to see the circus and National Crane Foundation in Bariboo, Wisconsin; flying to Ireland to travel the West Coast in a group of four women. As we rode on the bus that took us from Dublin to Galway, Virginia provided me with one of my all-time favorite memories. We were traveling with my cousin, someone prone to fits and pouting when not given her own way; said cousin—adult in chronology more than temperament–was in a snit about some aspect of the travel plans and had crossed her arms belligerently and refused to look at or talk to anyone, creating tension and anxiety amongst us all. After a stretch of tolerating the manipulative huffiness, Virginia leaned across the aisle and announced, gently but firmly, to Crabby Cousin, “Say, you see that clock up there?” When Crabby Cousin cut her eyes up to the clock at the front of the bus, Virginia continued, “You have until the big hand hits the twelve to get over yourself and shape up.”

I still regret that I wasn’t wearing a thong, as I would have peed it right there and then before sliding it out the leg of my jeans and quietly setting it onto my seething cousin’s knee.

The years followed each other, and Virginia was always there, always attentive to me, always gracious, always thoughtful. When I turned thirty and was living alone in our small town, she invited me over for cake and candles. Without her, there would have been none. When I was cavalier about recycling and couldn’t be bothered to set up a system, instead tossing my pop cans into the trash—clearly being an adult in chronology more than temperament runs in the family–she suggested, “Just put them into bags in your garage, and I’ll come pick them up every few weeks.” When my car neared death, and I needed a replacement but couldn’t see how to finance such a thing under the weight of existing debt, she noted, “I’ve been needing a new car.  Why don’t you take my old one? Pay me, let’s see, $500. Payments are due whenever you can make them, in any amount.”

Then I fell in love with Byron, and she did too. When I suffered a miscarriage on a night when Byron was five hours away, and I called her in tears at 10:30 p.m. to whimper, “Something bad just happened in my toilet, and there’s lots of blood,” she was at my house by 10:35 and held my hand for two hours as I lay on the table in the ER and let the medical staff extract bits of tissue from my cervix.  A few days later, when we discovered I’d been carrying twins, and one Little Gripper still hung in there, Byron and I called Virginia first. A few weeks after that, at our wedding, at our request, she stood up and recited the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian, thus including Byron’s Norwegian-speaking Christian grandparents. A few months later, as I pushed my first baby out into the world, Virginia stood at my knee, welcoming Allegra into the world.

But I am just one person, just a speck in her larger sphere. Outside of all the many everythings she has done for me, Virginia has a long history of public service, in particular of easing newcomers into the community. As a former foreign language and communications teacher and someone who lived at one point in Germany and some decades later in Madagascar, she is particularly sensitive to the hurdles immigrants face. Thus, she sponsored a Bosnian family when they moved to town and for several years after, setting them up in an apartment, getting them work, caring for their children. This, she has also done for multiple other families and couples; her kitchen table has a permanent open seat for those wanting to learn English, wanting to learn how to drive in the U.S., wanting help translating a letter from one language to another.

She also has worked building community amongst the GLBT population and their families through her decades of work with a group originally called SMAC (Sexual Minority Advocacy Council) but which has evolved in name to Q & A (either Questions & Answers or Queers & Allies—as she says, “Take your pick”).  In the spare minutes not occupied with helping all the struggling souls in a sixty mile area improve their lots or overseeing the care of her Alzheimer’s-riddled mother, she has also helped awaken the community to the need to make sidewalk corners, public buildings, and bathrooms accessible to people with mobility impairment. Rounding out her volunteerism (but in no way completing the list) have been her work with People Needing People, a weekly social group for developmentally challenged adults, and her participation on the boards of the Christian Education Center and a local nursing home.

At some point, do-gooder work can turn into a litany of “did this, did that” and sound self-congratulatory or like resume stacking. Here’s where Virginia is different: her purpose is not to be a Do Gooder. Her purpose is to live life right and well and, thusly, to do some good.

More than a decade ago, she noticed that the new family across the alley, having just moved up from the South, seemed oblivious to the way the frigid Minnesota weather was affecting their tiny dog. They left the three-pound dog outside all day and night, all year ‘round. Once she realized this, Virginia ventured over and caught the mother of the family when she was hanging up laundry, taking the opportunity to offer a piece of thick foam for the dog to stand on; to offer a smaller, lighter chain for the dog to be tethered on; to offer the addition of a dog house; to offer to adopt the dog as her own. “Oh, no,” the mother replied.“The kids love Purdy too much to let her go.” Eventually, the mother—overwhelmed by parenting children with disabilities and an unhappiness with her life—approached Virginia and said, “You can have Purdy. For $50.”

Unable to stomach the name “Purdy,” Virginia morphed it to “Perky” and bestowed upon that pup the finest of love and care (sharing dog ownership, as she had with her previous dog, halving it with a woman in a neighboring city, an agreement that afforded them both the benefits of life with a pet and freedom to travel). Soon thereafter, a hot fifty bucks in her pocket, the mother across the alley left her family. The father had a job and was not the right person to tend to his left-behind children. However, in keeping them—despite severe disabilities—at home, he continues to receive state aid. With the most functional child, whose issues stem from Asperger’s and neglect, Virginia has forged a life-altering relationship. When he was very young, she took him to the library every week, read to him, fed him, rode bikes with him to the nature center for picnics, spent two years teaching him to blow his nose.  Now that he’s in high school, she still feeds him (steak and potatoes—the meal he’ll eat), buys him the winter coat and boots he wouldn’t have otherwise, washes his hair in her kitchen sink once a week with the vegetable sprayer, loans him her shaver, requires him to brush his teeth with every visit. More recently, Virginia and her wife, Kirsten, have constructed a hygiene chart for him and reward his achievements with Pokemon DS games; they also helped him obtain a violin so that he can continue to learn the instrument. Were it not for them, his friend count would be zero. As it is, his friend count hovers at two: Virginia and Kirsten.

In the midst of living this rich life, Virginia was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in the mid-1990’s.  She had a full hysterectomy and underwent an intense three days of radiation at the Mayo Clinic, during which her movements were restricted due to the little diamond of radioactivity suspended inside of her; she was dressed in blood-circulating balloon pants, no thong required.

After being declared “clear” for a few years, the cancer returned. More radiation. Remission.

It was after that second round of fighting off mutant cells that Virginia met Kirsten (in a darkened theater, their fingertips touched…), a woman roughly half her age. Early in their relationship, when it was becoming clear they would have a future together, Virginia advised Kirsten, “You’ll lose me to cancer, you know.” Accepting the odds, Kirsten committed fully to sharing the rest of Virginia’s life with her (my standing up as one of Virginia’s two witnesses during their ceremony remains a life honor). On a daily basis, they have been living out a dizzying love story.

And then, well. Last spring. There was a new diagnosis. The cancer in Virginia’s pelvis was awake. Growing. It was time for new action. In the past, it had been radiation. This time, it would be chemotherapy.

Bolstered by Kirsten’s upbeat approach, Virginia viewed chemotherapy as a chance to rock the world of head gear. However, even a dresser drawer full of beautiful scarves, knit caps, and biker hats didn’t ease the painful morning when Virginia staggered out of the shower in full tears, holding a handful of hair.

How full of grace is the universe that, at that moment, she didn’t have to shave her own head? Kirsten held her, hugged her, and revved up the clippers.

Some weeks later, still missing the feel of hair and the ability to pass as “normal,” Virginia decided she wanted a wig. Kirsten and I shared a quick “Ewww. But we hate wigs” before taking a look at the bewigged Virginia and conceding that she looked incredible. Probity channels through the eyes, not the hair.

As her chemo neared its end, Virginia developed a persistent, dry cough. However, her energy remained good, to the point that she spent hours each day doing yard work, one day tying off eight bags of raked leaves before remarking, “I’m not sure why, but I do feel a little tired.”

The cough became worrying. Follow-up scans revealed that a side effect of the chemotherapy was infection in the lungs. She was put on a drug to treat the spots.

Some months later—fairly recently–further scans revealed that the “infection” was, in fact, not so benign. Rather, the spots of infection are cancerous tumors. During the months of chemo, the pelvic cancer had metastasized.

The thing about tumors in the lungs is that the conversation changes. Hopeful words like “remission” no longer apply. More common are words like “How much time does she have?”

When I first received the news of the lung cancer, I greeted it stoically, feeling that I’d done my major grieving last spring, when the pelvic cancer had first returned. Okay. So there was a new development. We were dealing with a different beast. Okay.

Stoicism doesn’t become me—it holds my face falsely rigid. More natural are the acrobatics of sustained weeping. While we were staying in the idyllic setting of The Fairy Chimney, the weeping hit. At random moments—chopping carrots, logging onto email, putting away groceries—I’d realize I had tears on my cheeks. One night, Kirsten called, and I ended up having the kind of lovely chat with Virginia that made me feel 29 again. As we made moves to hang up (or, in Virginiaspeak, “ring off”), we both were flooded with the unspoken, with the thought of “I wonder if I’ll ever see you again.” The sound of Virginia blowing her nose lingering in my ear, I clicked the off button on the phone. And then I sat at the kitchen table, heaving and heaving, speckling the merry red-and-white checked tablecloth with tears.

As grief gnawed, I continued to wonder if I would see Virginia again. One day, as I attempted to monologue while crying, Byron interrupted me and noted, “Some of this is about your dad, you know.”

I did know. I did. During the weeks when my dad was dying, I was nine months pregnant, and he was more than a thousand miles away. He died in alone, in a room he’d been moved into the day before. Having undergone an emergency C-section thirteen days before he passed, I wasn’t there. We knew he was going, but I didn’t see him One Last Time.

Even more, the way I loved my dad is the way I love Virginia. It’s pure, full of respect, steady, gentle; similarly, with both my dad and Virginia, their returned love—feeling the sun from the other side—landed in me easily and was uncomplicated by show, contrivance, need. The quietest love lodges most deeply, and these two low-key people occupy the same homely corner of my heart.

My dad’s story is over. Virginia’s carries on. Several weeks ago, another scan of her lungs was done, this time to see if the current medication was having any effect. In what could only be good news to someone living with the word uncurable, she and Kirsten were told that the tumors had not grown. They had not shrunk, but they had not grown. Good news. A day for celebration, in its way. The doctors predict she has somewhere between nine months and three years left.

Such a prognosis changes the tenor of every remaining day. Despite feeling guarded, Virginia and Kirsten are now gripped with a desire to live every day intensely, to grab at everything, to make every minute count. Unfortunately, with her diminished health, there are many things Virginia can’t and shouldn’t do. For example, her plan to visit Turkey this year is out; should she run up against a health crisis, adequate medical help might not be available. Yet travel has been her life’s blood, and so, in deciding how to spend their remaining days together, Virginia and Kirsten are trying to satisfy that need and assure, no matter the restrictions nominally put on her by doctors’ cautions, that Virginia revisits the places and people that have meant the most to her. Thus, they are planning a trip to Denmark and Germany this spring, with Kirsten, perhaps, extending her time by tacking on a leg to Turkey while Virginia flies back to the States. Before that, though, they are capitalizing on Virginia’s current high energy and taking a trip (sponsored by the college where Kirsten teaches, where Virginia used to teach) to London this next week. Anything Virginia wants to do there, Kirsten will make happen.

As a bit of a rainmaker, in fact, Kirsten will make things happen that Virginia hasn’t even imagined.

Like flying me there.

I hit Heathrow on Virginia’s 74th birthday.

—————-

Indeed, I’m about to get on a plane to London and, Sunday night, walk into a fancy restaurant whereupon I, quite cinematically, will interrupt Virginia’s birthday dinner. Although she doesn’t know I’m coming, I have no doubt that she will draw upon her greatest gift and make certain there is a seat at the table for me.

Then, for three days, we will tour castles, go to the theater, gaze upon past beauties in museums. Personally, I don’t care if we do nothing, if we sit in a bare room made out of cinderblocks. I just want to be with My Dear Virginia and see her

not One Last Time

but,

rather,

One More Time.

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Cub Scouts friends poker vision quests vodka

Starring Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino, with a Special Appearance by Madonna

I have a friend of a friend.



What?

It could happen. I might have a friend, like from Cub Scouts, and this friend might talk to a bartender sometimes, and after about four vodka tonics, my Cubby Scouty friend suddenly has a new shot-pouring, swizzle-sticking “friend” blurrily weaving around there behind the expanse of oak. See?

Chant it with me: we are all part of a vast and thrumming–a harmonically converging–interconnectedness of spirits. We are all just friends who haven’t met yet.

Especially when Cub Scouts and vodka are involved.

So Friend of Friend is single, sans kids, which means he actually has time to sit and stare and partake in self-exploration. Were he twelve, this would mean he enjoys many-a-private-diddle.

Oh, all right. Even though he’s in his late thirties, I suspect it still often means that he’s using his vast personal time to, em, wet a tube sock.

However, sometimes free time and self-exploration take another form, something woven into ancient cultures and traditions, something sprung from the very heartbeat of the earth. Sometimes Friend of Friend gets on a plane and flies to a place where he might find himself.

Sometimes Friend of Friend goes. on. a. Vision. Quest.

…and pays hecka lot of money to Vision Quest Company, Inc. for the chance to sit next to a fire, amongst the trees of Oregon, unmoving, fasting, pondering, awakening, for five days.

Indeed, for a substantial fee, Friend of Friend bought himself an experience that can be had in my backyard, for free. I have trees. I have a fire pit. I am always happy to strap people to a bench, as well, and refuse them food. Even better, I toothpick their eyes open and make them watch me eat a steak-dangling-from-a-string right there in front of them. I wear ear plugs as I do this, to block out their intestinal growls and pleading mewls. In fact, I have replicated the entire “Vision Quest Enriched By External Torture” experience on several occasions, for well beyond that pansy “five day” stretch. If the wind is blowing the right direction, and the yard’s squirrels are otherwise occupied giving each other Mary Kay facials, I can make a steak-on-a-string last for a full week.

But okay. Friend of Friend needed to pay the money to make the experience “authentic.” So there he was, in Oregon, staring at the fire, letting his mind drift, getting hungrier and hungrier, and whaddya know? ‘Round about Day 3, the hallucinations began; as it turns out, hunger is the new peyote.

Most Vision Quest participants welcome the hallucinations, for it is through them that life direction is revealed when their Animal Guardian decloaks. Modern Man will pay big bucks for an Animal Guardian. Look at what that sod Alec Wildenstein put up with in a wife, just to keep a cat nearby.

Curiously, for Friend of Friend, no Animal Guardian revealed itself. Could it be that his Vision Quest fee would have been better spent on the purchase of a really gnarly home theatre system?

Fortunately, just as despair–and the dream of an Arby’s Beef ‘N Cheddar–threatened the success of the quest, Friend of Friend began to channel,

well,

something.

The surreal images wafting through his brain started to align into some kind of sense. For some time, he had been seeing a queen. Then the king. Then their son. The entire family sent messages of jubilation; they were flush with victory. They were Friend of Friend’s Guardians– not animals. Nay. Royals.

At the end of the five days, Friend of Friend emerged from the wilderness, greeted the civilized world by gulping down a dozen Krispy Kremes, and then, simultaneously cleansed and sugar-buzzed, analyzed his hallucinatory revelations.

It was easy, really.

Clearly, he was meant

–had always been destined–

to play in the World Series of Professional Poker.

His vision complete, and with $1500 still burning a hole in his wallet, Friend of Friend promptly entered the first qualifying tournament. With his Guardian Queen, King, and Jack (Daniels) by his side while he plays the circuit, he is a shoe-in for the finals.

As Celine, Penn, Sigfried, Carrot Top, Blue Man, Wayne Newton, and thousands of gals teetering around in pasties and enormous head dresses well know, all the best quests end in Vegas, the city where bruised hope staggers back to the hotel at dawn in search of a cheap buffet.

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birthdays college friends reunions

Arc of Some Skivers

In the fall of 1985, my mom dropped me off near the little town in Minnesota where I would be starting college.

Fortunately, my aunt and uncle lived at the spot where she stopped the car, so it wasn’t like I was left trying to hitch a ride to campus or anything. Mom had a meeting back in Montana the week my college experience commenced; thus, she dumped me on my aunt and uncle a little early with instructions to “ditch the girl at the dorm next to the smelly ponds sometime next week. Oh, and here are her sheets, size Extra Long.”

They heeded her words, and a week later, Sheets and I were deposited at an imposing cinderblock structure on an otherwise bucolic campus. After the goodbyes, I felt as many freshmen do: a little excited; a little bewildered; a whole lot lonely. I tried to act confident and cool as I blasted my cassettes of Howard Jones (“OOOOH, what’s love got to do, got to do with it?”) and bought new highlighters, accoutrements which would, I hoped, help me decipher my HISTORY OF EARLY MODERN EUROPE textbook. Who was this Balzac, I wondered, and would covering his life story with bright yellow marker make it more meaningful?

Essentially, I was bewildered and adrift.

Gradually, though, that business of hanging in there and faking it did pay off. I met some people, and we flirted with each other. Pretty much, they all lived in my dorm. On some levels, they affirmed my feelings of worry and inferiority, for they were Big Smart, well-traveled, and accomplished. In comparison, I felt Just Smart Enough, provincial, and a touch hayseed.

More importantly, however, they affirmed my worthiness. They thought I was funny; they invited me to sit under their tapestries and listen to The Replacements; they wanted to go in with me on a late-night Domino’s double cheese pizza. Together we wrote (in highlighter) own new history. They transformed me.

Now, twenty-two years later, these pals from college still rock me like a hurricane. After graduation, everyone cast about for careers, spouses, homes. While we threw our voices into the greater world, this college crowd also continued its common thrum. I was with some of them the first time they got drunk. Later, I was with them when they got married. We’ve carried each other through divorces and the deaths of parents and the joys of babies being born. Damn it if these people haven’t turned out to be found-siblings that only cost our families about $30,000 per year in tuition to discover.

Along the way, there have been times when our closeness has waxed. Then it’s waned. For a few years, I thought some of the relationships were gone, that they’d shriveled beyond repair or care.

Now that I’m forty, though, I sit at the vantage point of a queer maturity: I can see the larger arcs of friendship. It came as a big life lesson to realize that even when a relationship has seemed dead for some time, it can still be revived. What I sometimes thought was belly up had simply gone dormant. With the slightest puff of air, we always resuscitate completely.

Hence, when many of us gathered a couple of months ago to celebrate the birthday of one of our luminaries, it was a true celebration–and not just because there were little hors d’oevres of butternut squash soup served in shot glasses and shrimp tacos and scallop empanadas and free wine and Red Velvet cupcakes and itty spanikopitas.

It was a celebration of longitudinal camaraderie.


And buttercream frosting.

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bigotry bread divorce emergence friends past summers

Emergence

Four years ago this summer, in 2003, I started to think I might be an adult. I was 36.

Sure, I had been married for a few years, I’d been teaching at the college level for more than a decade, I’d been a homeowner several times over, and I had two kids. But up until that summer, a big part of my self-definition had always been as “daughter.” However, after my dad died the previous winter, and my mom started spending more and more time in California, deepening her relationship with The Other Man, I underwent a clear separation from the influence of my parents–a separation that many people go through during adolescence. For me, my parents had always been such good friends to me that I never saw them, metaphorically, from a distance; I was their baby, even into my thirties, basking in their attention and love.

But then my dad died, and my mom started transforming herself into someone entirely new (Exhibit A: the morning after she surprised my dad by having divorce papers served on him, she got a nose job; I remind you she was 67).

I felt as though somebody had put Baby in the corner.

Fortunately, my corner was bustling with matrimonial pleasure and the swirl of small children and the enlivening presence of friends and entertaining, so the diminishment of my “daughter” role felt okay. Things had changed. Things do that.

Thus, although I felt orphaned from my previous relationships with my parents, many good things emerged that summer:

–First, I had a really big, healthy baby who gave his sister an outlet for her desire to squeeze and wuv. At age 3, she already had two avocations: babies and clothes. She was already, and I strangle as I write this, a mini-Nicole Ritchie…although I daresay Nicole Ritchie is a actually a mini-Nicole Ritchie, and my three-year-old already outweighed the real Nicole Ritchie, so maybe she was a Big Nicole Ritchie. At any rate, our Girl surely doted on her brudder and her ponchos and her embroidered jeans.

–Secondly, with complete mercenary intent (read: I didn’t really care what I learned), I was taking a couple more graduate courses, one online and one through correspondence. I did this to earn enough credits to move over on the payscale at work; we would be needing more money, what with having to feed our lug of a baby and keep his handler in ponchos. My strongest memory of these courses pertains to the online advanced grammar course I was taking; every time I had to take a timed quiz, which only lasted ten minutes, I would get to the second question, only to hear Wee Niblet start his predictable yowl. For about three minutes, I’d sweat it out and let him yowl, as I muttered, “Okay, so I’m thinking about generative and transformational grammars here, not about how my breasts are leaking milk onto the keyboard. Screw the baby. Ace the quiz.” Then I’d give it up, and as the clock continued to tick down the minutes, I’d race upstairs, grab him off the bed, and then nurse him at the computer while I frantically finished the quiz. The pudgy little bastard.

–Thirdly, even though our house measured in at under 1,000 square feet, our willingness to entertain and our sense of hospitality were equivalent to Oprah’s Santa Barbara mansion in size–we had fourteen bathrooms and eight bedrooms…in our hearts. That June, during Duluth’s yearly major event of Grandma’s Marathon, we delighted in hosting out-of-town guests and filling the house with no fewer than 63 other random stoppers-by, many of whom were not the slightest bit interested in cheering on sweaty runners but, rather, who had heard the Legend of Jocelyn’s Chocolate Dump-It Cake (frosting: melted chocolate chips stirred into sour cream, spread on top of the cake at least 1/2″ thick). For Groom and me, happiness is a front porch piled high with piles of shoes and stacks of jackets, discarded there by visiting friends.


–Fourth, our backyard garden patch offered up a cornucopia of raspberries, and, as it turns out, picking raspberries is one of my avocations (that and ponchos). The canes had been untended until we moved in, and once Groom cleaned them up, their daily yield in August had me picking both morning and night. Naturally, a fridge full of raspberries demands that a cream cheese pie be made–and that friends be invited over to share in it, so long as they insisted on having “only a slice” and leaving the lion’s share for us’ns.

Yes, it was a charmed summer, save for one thing.

The reality of my mother’s new boyfriend also emerged.

It wasn’t gracious or or fashionable or hospitable or raspberry-tinged at all.

When Mom and Beau decided to visit Minnesota to attend a high school reunion together, I realized this was my chance to affirm that I was still behind her, despite all the rips and tears in our relationship that had taken place with the divorce and my dad’s subsequent death. I definitely wanted my mom and her “friend” to come to our home, where we could play out The Family Acknowledgement part of this new relationship.

Before their visit, I asked my mom what kinds of things Beau liked to eat and if he had any food issues we should know about and plan the menu around. The response was, “Beau says you should make a roast and potatoes. And he likes bread.”

Um, okay. It appeared we were to put the recipe books away and just follow orders.

The evening of the meeting came, and, as the roast slow-cooked in the crock pot, we welcomed Beau into our home. He was chatty, which my mom liked in contrast to my dad. He was jokey though not funny, again a departure from my dad. He said, clearly and loudly, positive things about my mom, which my dad had rarely done.

And within five minutes, he had worked the words “Spics” and “Poofs” into casual conversation.

Indeed, he could not have been more unlike my tolerant father.

When the bigotry and homophobia emerged so easily, I was speechless. Then I experienced an all-over body flush, and not in a good way. Simultaneously, my brain started to spin around frantically, knocking against my skull:

“I can’t just stand here and let him say those things in my house. I can’t. It violates every value I hold dear. And he’s saying those things in front of my kids, especially my impressionable three-year-old! This is unacceptable, and to remain silent would compromise who I am.”

However, I did remain silent. In the midst of the tangled web of that previous year, with everyone in my family barely hanging on to anyone else, with so many misunderstandings and hurt feelings, this evening of deliberate acknowledgement of my mom’s hard-wrought choices was huge. I couldn’t see how to walk the line between my values and keeping my mother.

Hoping to compromise, I played around, internally, with ways to phrase my dismay to this stranger that my mother was thinking of marrying. How could I express my astonishment and upset in a way that wouldn’t shut down our future as a family? (albeit one that would stand around awkwardly together at any rendezvous)

As I mulled over the options, Groom and I exchanged panic-stricken glances and then found ourselves, against our wills, distracted and entranced by the spectacle unfolding at the dinner table. See, not only was Beau racist, he was a bit of a pig. As he chomped on his roast and potatoes, he discovered he also liked the mandatory bread a great deal, to the point that he needed to eat seven pieces of it in quick order. Rather than asking that the board of bread be passed down to him from the far end of the table, though, he simply stood from his chair each time he wanted more, meat knife in hand, reached down the three feet of the table, across everyone else’s plates, and speared himself a new piece. Seven times.

As it turns out, there comes a moment when awestruck silence is the best approach. We floundered through the rest of the evening, me with a hard nugget of sadness in my belly. In the past, I had been bewildered by my mother sometimes, but this was a new feeling.

This was disappointment.

I later asked her what she was doing with someone like that–pointing out that such language had never been used or accepted in the house I grew up in, that I had never seen bigotry tolerated from her before. My mother’s response was that she just shut her ears when he started in; she didn’t want conflict, so she said nothing.

This, in my view of the world, is nearly criminal. Yet I, too, had sidestepped conflict with Beau that night at our house. I had let it slide, in the hopes of some larger reparations.

Pretty quickly, though, I made up my mind that I wouldn’t participate in the tacit support of his damaging views in the future. It just hurt too much.

Strangely, that whole episode–of being shocked by the new man my mom had chosen–ended up helping me understand her better. For her to abandon the values she’d lived by her whole life, just to have a boyfriend (her rationale for being with him, when I asked, was “He’s a good kisser.” I was very glad she was only acting sixteen and didn’t actually have the eggs of a sixteen-year-old, or she’d have been pregnant within a month), well, it smacked of desperation.

Somehow, really getting how desperate my mom had been all those years, for affection from any male, well it softened my judgement into understanding. To sacrifice one’s beliefs for a kiss–now that’s tragic. That’s lonely.

I did tell my mom how I felt and what I saw. Beyond that, it wasn’t much my business. She was 68, had a new nose and a new boyfriend…and they were going to get married. In Reno. At a class reunion.

Shortly before the wedding, though, my mom called it off. She had realized that Beau not only kissed; he ranted. After extended harangues–she didn’t order right at a restaurant one time, and she didn’t put a stamp correctly on an envelope another time–Mom realized her stomach hurt a lot in this new relationship. Eventually, she realized he was borrowing a lot of money, not so much requesting it but rather telling her how much he needed. She also noted that he kept a lot of side relationships with other women brewing. So she called off the wedding.

Instead, she just shacked up with him in California. Rants continued. Money “lending” continued.

After more than a year, she moved out and got her own small apartment, Praise the Gay Dios! But they continued to date until just recently.

A couple of months ago, after they’d attended a bagpipe concert, Beau had a heart attack outside of his house, fell, and hit his head (something that’s been known to happen after bagpipe concerts); as my mom dialed 911, he bled from the ears, and his lips turned blue. He died.

A few weeks later, another guy my mom went to high school with called. They’ve been dating now for a bit. The report is that he doesn’t rant.

I haven’t asked what kind of kisser he is.

Thus, four years ago this summer, the biggest thing to emerge was a need to be willing to renegotiate my relationship with one of the dominant people in my life. Continually doing that can be exhausting. But, heck, she attended every one of my piano concerts and cried in the audience when my Home Ec class had its fashion show. She could date David Hasselhoff and I, gulp, would still be there.

Mostly through email, though. A little distance never hurt anybody, especially when The Hoff is involved.

———————–

Wow. After all this typing, I’m a little peckish.

Pass the bread, woncha?

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Categories
college friends reunions

Time After Time

I’m currently the bologna in a Colorado sandwich.

I’m aware makes no sense, so don’t scrutinize it too closely. Cutting through my nonsense, what I’m saying is that I’m currently in Minnesota, having recently come back from a kamikaze weekend in Colorado. And tomorrow, the family and I are taking off for, you guessed it, Colorado.

Compared to my opening statement, that makes lots of sense, right?

Here’s the deal:

Last weekend, a good friend of mine from college who lives outside of Boulder, CO (she’s in the sassy orange halter top in the photo here) was the recipient of a suprise 40th birthday party. Her husband, knowing how wiley she is, threw the party six weeks before her actual birthday; in addition to that, he went through all sorts of machinations, created tangles of lies, and even went so far as to fake a phone call or two in her presence…and if that isn’t the definition of a loving relationship, I don’t know what is.

Because my college years were a floodlit time in my life–when everything seemed heightened and special and life changing and full of promise–making the trip to Colorado for a patio-top restaurant party to honor this friend seemed well worth the effort. Of course, since I was so busy being all floodlit and stuff, I ended up majoring in English in college and then becoming a teacher, which means I now don’t make enough money to pay for such a boondoggle weekend myself. Enter My Benefactress (the brunette in the photo–and if you want to say anything about her like “nice rack,” go ahead. She can take it), the pal who funded the trip. In my defense, I would like to stress that, although she paid for plane fare, car rental, and hotel room, I did shell out on a $6.00 toll road, thus carrying my weight.

The party was gratifyingly fun, the after party back at their house even more so. Stir in some good meals, a lovely run up Boulder Creek canyon one morning, and my introduction to a new drink called a Dark and Stormy (check it, cocktail fiends: put some ice in a glass, squeeze some lime over it, toss in a shot or two of rum, top it with ginger brew [non-alcoholic…kind of a ginger soda pop, available at co-ops or organic food type shops], and, if you’ve got it, mash up some fresh ginger and stir it in, too), and the weekend was outrageously happy making.

I also considered it a scouting mission for the upcoming family road trip. Yup, we’re leaving on Monday, the 18th, and will be driving a huge loop around the West for almost three weeks. First, we’ll head down to Austin, MN, where I used to live, for a visit with a sainted friend; then we’ll head through Iowa into Nebraska, where we’ll stop over in Lincoln for many hours of play in the tremendous children’s museum there (seriously, this is the third time we’ve worked that museum into our trip plans), eventually meandering into Colorado, where we’ll see all sorts of friends in Denver and Boulder (including my sister, freshly back in Denver after her two years in Guatemala); after that, it’s up through Wyoming, stopping to see my great-aunt in Cody, and then heaving over, bravely, for a glimpse of boiling mud pots in Yellowstone Park; after all this, we’ll drive to Billings to help my mom clean out her storage locker there (she’s now a Californian) before we hire a trailer to help us haul our storage locker spoils across North Dakota and back to Minnesota. At that point, we’ll collapse in a heap and stare at the new furniture in despair, as it’s not like we actually have room for it. But how very fun to go get it!

Indeedy, I’ve just been to Colorado, and now I’m heading there again. I do so love the shortness of breath and leathery skin I get while there, you see.

So I’ll be trying to post from the road and check in occasionally. But my trolling through your blogs, which has already taken a hit this summer since I’m never in my office, which is where all the best computer loafing takes place, may suffer even more.

However, I have little copies of each of your avatars framed and hanging in a shrine in the corner of my dining room, and I’m hiring a neighbor kid to come light the candles and incense in your honor twice a week, so I’m certain you’ll still feel the lurve, even in my absence.

Gotta go get the motor runnin’ now.

And, even though I do intend to keep posting with my usual regular irregularity, if you start to miss the feeling of Jocelyn Holding Forth, just come here and gaze upon this photo

The sight of me, mid-monologue, is certain to quash any wistful pangs you might be feeling. I’m here for ya like that.

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