Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Ma was married and pregnant with her first child at the age of 18.  Ten months after the birth of a daughter the second girl came squalling out.  The next year brought a boy, the year after another boy, then a girl, a boy, a girl.

A three year gap marked the coming of the fifth daughter who at the age of 9 was competent and comfortable with her station until I interrupted just before Valentine's in the year 1975.  Ma was 39.

It seems she never really had a chance to come into her own, not by the way I see it.  Despite the legal definition of it, 18 is still a kid to me.  At least, I was still a kid at 18.  Someone once said, "Who you marry at 20 is not who you'd marry at 30," or some such.  Seems about right to me, having nearly gone there too young myself.

But Ma, she was married and too far gone with babies to make any reverse decision on the matter by that time.  As far as I can tell she still measures a woman's success not by degree or profession but by marriage and childbearing.  She's old fashioned that way.

I think I'm more generous to Ma than many of my siblings who complain and grouse about matters of upbringing that are so long passed in the scheme of things it seems absurd to even bring it up, though how I'm much better with my writing every thought down I don't know.

Ma has her own ways, ways that can drive her kids mad what with her seeming disinterest in all things political, her nose for gossip and the effects aging is having on her capacity for social interactions.

My theory on the matter is that a she started her mothering early, before she was really ready to be her own person, before she had a chance to have her own interests.  I think that the only thing she ever really had to experience outside of childhood and adolescence is us, a lot of us, and her husband.  It could cause a person to go a little loopy, I would imagine.

Besides the awe her sheer fecundity has inspired over the years, it's the fact that she has never driven a vehicle that really trips people up.  I don't even know if she has ever ridden a bike, though it seems unlikely anyone with fully functioning physical abilities could get through 73 years of life without peddling a bicycle at least once, I suppose we shouldn't stifle our imaginations.

I find it difficult to explain Ma because as simple and mundane a person may seem, the layers always peel back revealing a deepest sense of regret, hope and desire.

A thing I can never get myself to recognize, to believe in, is the darkness she enveloped with the falling of my dad.  I mean, I was a kid and kids don't really know what's going on.  As far as I was concerned, dark rooms and sad country music were the way of the grown-up world.  Don't get me wrong, there was a lot I did understand, though being a kid I was just as underestimated as any other and learned to adapt.

What I'm saying though is that there are a lot of women out there with no-good, rotten, very bad cheating husbands who are willing to put up with an awful lot.  My ma though, she didn't.

This woman who was taken fresh from the farm straight to the wedding bed, who gave her entire existence over to her family, who never really got a fair shot at knowing herself did something that would scare the bejesus out of me.  She stood up after 9 kids and twenty-something odd years of marriage and said, "Enough is enough." 

Can you imagine?

Monday, December 14, 2009

What to do?

There are a lot of questions bubbling up and around this memoir project that I'm trying to sort out.  Frankly, I threw my arms up in the air and there they are, stuck, not knowing whether to gesticulate or shrug.  See, the last post gave me a different feeling about the whole thing.  The voice was that of a fictional character I used to write named Clyde.  She's sassy, non-articulate and fun.  When I write my family I can't really use that voice, I feel like I'm cheating, because I am, because the word "fun" isn't the word I'd use.

Writing the last post was freeing, whimsical and a little terrifying not because of anything it revealed, but because I could feel the edge of real tension eking in, the kind of tension I've been trying to uncover.  So now I feel like a real dim-wit.  I go from writing memoir (no, still not abandoning the project) to writing a Nano-no-show fantasy back to memoir into the adrenaline-filled caverns of fiction "loosly based on" reality.  Can I do that?

I think I need to read every craft book ever written to get a grip on what needs to be done.  And hey, there's plenty of time.  The other thing is that the memoir is really a different time period.  I'm feeling growing pains here.  I'm feeling a novel breaking through and the overall dynamic tension leads me right down the path to a girlish Stand by Me.

What say you?  What would you do?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Shitty First Draft

      The red house next to the open field, that was ours. My dad built it. Got the land for a song’s what he says, what with the way it snugs up against Interstate 90, who would want it otherwise? And that was way back in the late 60’s before the Reagan years and inflation and heaving property values. It was a good house, solid—a ranch with three bedrooms upstairs, a finished basement and another room down below for the boys. I haven’t lived there in nearly 30 years but sometimes when I fall asleep I still walk the hallways, still tip myself over with spinning on the oriental rug.

     The empty field next door was never mowed when I was a kid. The gully ran off between it and the interstate until it came to our property line, then the water sort of slunk off down the sewer tunnels so we could have a nice yard with no pit. If you followed the gully through the field you’d find the creek bed (pronounced “crik”, if you’re wondering) and some warn-down paths stretching out below the interstate bridge.

     I was 7 when we moved out of that house, when the divorce was finalized, when all but my sister and I had left home. The three of us, Mom, Sis and I, moved to the other side of the bridge. There is something telling in that, but I can’t figure out what it is just yet.

     That place just under the bridge was one of those places kids hung out when there was nothing better to do, a place to catch crayfish with ice cream buckets, to toss rocks, call names and spray paint. It was a place for secrets.

     “I heard if you hit someone with a rock in just the right place you can kill ‘em,” Laura said.

     “Duh,” the rest of us clucked. As if stoning were ever a new thing.

     “No, I mean, my sister told me. If you get hit right here,” she tapped at her temple, “you can get killed.”

     It seemed improbable that a tap with a pebble on the side of your head could knock you out much less kill you. It was nothing like a stab to the heart or bullet wound. It would be like skipping stones. Innocent. Yet it gave us a sense of power.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Nanowrimo Pouring Down

I've neglected this blog. There isn't time or reason to make excuses. As an amends I offer this token--Nanowrimo. Though it is a bend in the rules, memoir writing is not noveling, I am using Nano to hoist Penny Jar into the atmosphere.

Midnight November 1st is soon, too soon and I am beset with pains and worry and guilt about everything that won't get done in that time. But,you know what? It never does anyway. I also have a favor to ask of you. For those of us who have experienced the Nano marathon in the past and have, ahem, not completed the required 50,000 words-it can be quite a trying experience. Words of encouragement are encouraged. Nods of affirmation are affirmed.

If you excuse the shitty first draft that is Nanowrimo in it's purest form I will include snips and snaps on this blog from time to time-just so you know.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Two If By Land

My daughter is just on the verge of 3 years old, but already she has a favorite story of when her mama was a little girl. It hearkens back to the days of Atlas Pit before it became a reputable fishing spot, when drunken teenagers broke their necks diving from cliffs.

I was the only subscriber to the every other week Dad Weekends. The rest of the kids were grown, and on their own or nearly so. It had to be hard for Dad, I imagine, working himself up to an entire weekend as the prime caretaker of a young girl. He would have had to have been out of his element considering his entire family history was made up of two nearly full time jobs and until then, a wife to tend the children. But, he took me on and often times I groaned to myself of the boredom. What an older father thinks is interesting to a young girl often is not.

The day my daughter dreams about came with chocolate malts and summertime. As was a normal weekend event, we went for a drive through town in Dad's big, black Chevy pick-up truck. The window behind my head was open so Butch, hot and wind-free beneath the truck topper, could drool over my shoulder. We pulled into the drive at Atlas Pit.

Dad must have thought I would be excited or impressed to see what a 4 wheel drive could do as the tires ground over a loose gravel shore. He talked about trees, water, fish. I sat, a docile, complacent child when in his presence. He wasn't a terrible man, I just feared the raising of my father's voice after hearing the pandemonium prior to my parents' separation and tried to stay under the radar.

In his talking he pointed out the shore, the trees, the ducks dropping their metallic green or spotted brown heads below the flat reservoir. He inched the truck up, closer to the shoreline, dipping the front tires like toes in a pool. I watched, disbelieving. He was driving into the water.

I held on, quiet, a slow terror rolled in my gut. This was my dad, nothing would happen, the truck is safe, the water, shallow. We rolled forward still. I looked out my window and down. Water, but not deep. Still. Water!

Out it came, a horror, my complacency denied. A cry I tried to suck up escaped into the cab, then another sob. I was terrible at swimming, frightened by the thought of not being able to touch bottom. My body required I find purchase on land, stable and safe. Though I adored any chance I had at a beach or pool, I was timid and panicked if confronted by the deep. Whatever Dad was trying to prove, this was not okay.

He didn't persist, but threw the truck into reverse and calmed me with a laugh and easy words.

My daughter is fascinated by this story, that Mama could be so small and scared. She presses for details and I give what I can. It is comforting for her, I imagine, to know the little grow big and the scared grow strong as she looks to me for guidance, for purchase on this huge overpowering land.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Leigh leaned over me, “Say, ‘Shit!’ or I’ll tell mom you swore.” She was only fifteen, but scared the forbidden word right out of me.

“I can’t,” I whined all of four feet tall and nine years the younger.

“Say it,” she threatened again and laughed with Kate, her best friend.

I can’t imagine why Mom thought it was a good idea to send me along or why Leigh agreed, but we were walking a good mile and a half up Pontiac Hill past the elementary school and Eagles grocery store, across E. Milwaukee St. to Kate’s front door. We had almost made it to the cornfield before the threats began.

“Say, ‘Shit!” she said again and I buckled.

A whisper, “Shit,” hands clenched to my mouth trying not to let the word escape.

Kate laughed. “You’re mean,” she said then laughed some more. We were in front of the flat red brick apartment building I’d see every time I went with Mom to the credit union. The front yard was always scattered with plastic riding toys and discarded whiffle balls.

Across the street the cornfield threatened, even in the day. Leigh could see I was wary of this, we’d been here before. “Watch out for the Children of the Corn,” she chided on to a new tack.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

True Love Explained?

When I was a roller girl I didn't like to skate alone. And when Anne, the oldest of the mob, came to visit with her spoil-making husband Brad (married the year I was born) I was in basement heaven. Mom and Leigh and I were living in the duplex by then, our house downsized by divorce. But the duplex basement was better than a finished basement for skating anyway, a good, solid concrete floor was what I needed--forget carpet and couches, a girl needs space.

If I begged, if I pleaded, I could drag Brad down the stairs to sit and watch and talk while I rolled circles around the poles and dipped past the floor drain. Watch me go backwards. Watch me spin around this pole. Watch. Watch. I constantly demanded and his patience complied. He always was my favorite.

We talked. I skated and quizzed him on the various routines of life. He answered without showing rancor. This discourse may have taken an hour, but I was quick to get to the meat of things.

Why did you and Anne get married?

Because we love each other.

Did you always love each other?

And on and on.

I might have left it there, love to float freely among the cobwebs, but kids aren't that way. Dinner is a time for discussion as well as food and I wanted to let everyone know that I too understood.

Brad told me that him and Anne got married because they love each other. There was a general agreement, so I went on. Can anyone get married who loves each other?

Yes, they can.

What if two girls loved each other and wanted to get married, would that be weird? This caused an exchange of glances around the room.

A chuckle. Yes, it would.

I was getting into the swing of things.Would it be weird if two boys loved each other and got married?

More laughing. Yes, that would be weird too.

I sat there content, mulling over the implications in my mind. The world didn't work just any old way.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Paradise by the Dashboard Light

If you have ever ridden in the hatchback of a 1979 Chevrolet Chevette you must have been small, and you must have been me. What I remember clearly is someone having a great idea, the kind of idea that takes you places. This is an idea so wonderful it will get all your friends and your kid sister exactly where you want to go, in one teeny, tiny little car--the kid rides in the trunk.

Hey, why not? She's small, right? She'll fit. It'll be fun. Besides, it's a hatchback. I think it was fun, at least at first. Until the trunk closed and I was again in the fetal position, though this time, not wrapped safely and soundly in amniotic fluid. This time I got to see outside my little metal womb. I should have, the glass was practically pressed against my face.

And I was privy to all the action up front--adult talk, cigarettes out the window, a beautiful spring day. It was nothing to me, the going with a big sis and hangin' out with her and her friends. I loved it. Someone would take me to the laundromat and I'd plunk in the coins. At the gas station, I'd happily run in and pay. Trunk-riding was a new game. I rarely complained.

The radio was on and the car was filled with hair and chevron mustaches. We were going to my sister's flat on Cherry St. I spent my fair share of nights there gorging on ice cream and chocolate milk. Her boyfriend taught me how to play backgammon and he probably let me win half the time. It was a happinin' place.

One night, later on, when I was a little older (though not old enough by my current standards) I was spending the night on Cherry St. when the boyfriend called. Did she want to go out? Yes, but her little sister was over. She's old enough to stay by herself. Hmmm. Tempting.

Did I think I could stay by myself? She would call to check up on me. I could eat anything I found in the fridge, watch anything on TV, stay up and have a party. By my self.

In a strange apartment.

Sure, sure. I was fine, would be fine. Terrified. For hours on end. MTV was great. I couldn't watch that at home (I loved Cindy Lauper). There was a window in the kitchen near the refrigerator. Outside that window was a tree with branches scratching and scraping in the wind. Terrified. Awake. Awake. Waiting for the phone.

Was I alright? Of course, fine, fine. She'd be home in a few hours. The ice cream went back in the freezer half eaten, waiting for breakfast.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Penny Jar

This is reposted from my other blog Mama's Experience Initiative where it originally appeared. It is the inspiration for this current project.

As a kid I adored thunderstorms, still do. Something about the charge in the air makes me want to crank up the music and dance like nobody's mother. I have a very vivid memory of thunderstorms as a kid back in our old red house near Interstate 90.

My brother was newly home from the Marines. I guess it was spring or summer and I couldn't have been more than five. Our family, being sizable, constituted a party in sheer numbers. The mood was festive, my brother tall and muscular and commanding in his dress blues. (Mom loved to see him dressed so) He divvied out trinkets he'd gathered from his tour, answered the questions, ate the food, walked the walk.

What I remember so clearly was the descent of the evening storm--how we left the front door open and listened to the thunder rattle the metal screen. It seems there must have been some candles lit or an oil lamp preparing for a fight against the dark.

We didn't use the living room much. The finished basement served as family room and main entertainment, but this night I was upstairs sprawled on the shag carpet. I counted pennies sprung from a glass jar, wishing money, he had saved for his youngest sister. What a normal, mundane family we felt like then.

They say that when my brother was over seas in Okinawa, I drew him pictures to go with every letter my mother wrote--all line drawings of a single person, naked, with belly-button featured prominently. He hung them on the wall of his barracks. That's what they say.

The pennies rattled together competing with wind, thunder and a room full of people. Something other than a coin rolled from the jar big enough to excite a young girl living through her princess dreams. It could have been a gumball ring, he never said.

I love the memories of my family then. The house was full and moody. I could eat off recollections of camping trips and snow falls. Of course, it changed and sides were chosen, but for my part (the epilogue) I hold to the storms and count and sort like so many pennies in a jar.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thelma J.

The clearest memory I have is of cinnamon apples. My sisters and brothers would say fudge—chocolate, or peanut butter, or maple, but I stand by cinnamon apples. Years ago, I mentioned those apples, how sweet, and crisp and unnaturally red, like pickled beats. Someone said they are sold in cans at holiday time, that Grandma didn’t make them, but bought them and served them whenever we visited. I don’t care. I love the memory of her cinnamon apples.

My paternal grandmother will forever be my idea of what a grandmother is. She was a soft, warm bun of a woman, gray-haired and virtually blind. She lived in a trailer a few hours north-west of where I grew up. Everything about her was homemade.

The trailer's crafted-up interior was filled with afghans and crochet dolls. Her chair sat along side a small table she used to keep her large-print Reader's Digest and over-sized magnifying glass. To get to the bathroom, one had to pass through the kitchen and squeeze past the plant table with its buzzing purple glow and trays of african violets. I loved to visit this place, to poke around. There were so many textures.

Grandma died when she was 74 of a heart attack. I don't remember the year or how old I was. I don't remember my reaction to the news or the funeral and dinner after. And yet, how clear it is, her home, her face, her coke-bottle glasses. I can feel her chubby mama's arms and taste the cinnamon apples.

Friday, August 7, 2009


Yesterday I saw a cat in the window of a resurfaced Victorian house. It had Siamese features but with gray stripes on the legs. Not really a Siamese at all and not a tabby either--someone all together different. Someone familiar.

And I got to talking to my husband about the cat named Animal I had as a kid. Although my dad hates cats, finds them useless, he brought this one home from work to live with his wife and kids. Someone at work, he said, couldn't keep this cat and it needed a home.

It is interesting to me now to consider his brashness. How he walked into the house carrying that cat with a name and a full adult life. How Animal became a part of our home free to torment the dog and lounge across freshly laundered clothes. How Dad made the rules, but didn't tend to them, not as a mother would, not mine.

Oh, how Dad broke the rules with that Animal cat insinuating its place on the couch. A coworker at the plant, he said, couldn't keep him and he needed a home. It wasn't the cat who would answer the phone. The cat would have recognized the voice, "Your husband," it said, "is sneaking around with my wife."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lead me not into temptation

I remember being saved at Dee's house. I was close to 6 years old wrapped fully in the imaginings of the Rapture--the horns calling me home, complete disappearance from this wanton world, harps and angels and bliss forever.

Dee is my sister, the second oldest of our brood, 19 years older than me. I've never known her without religion, and quite honestly, I don't know her now. Our responses to the world are generations apart despite our shared heritage. But when I was a kid, these were some magical times.

The apartment Dee shared with her husband and young children was so different than the ranch house I was raised in. Religious art pronounced itself against egg-white walls. In the morning, there was Christian radio in lieu of the local country and western station. My parents were never much for board games, but Dee and her family would spend the after dinner hours playing Mouse Trap and Uno. And (gasp) they didn't have a TV.

Because I was the youngest and Dee was the first to start having children, the difference in age between her first son and me is only 3 years. I spent a good many nights over at their place and my share of Sunday mornings visiting the Baptist church.

I think it is fair to say now that I have a very separate world view than that of my 6 year old self. Back then, religion was mysterious. How easy it was to become intoxicated with Bible stories and pageantry. It was the story of the Rapture that wound around me that late night entangling me with promises of love and faith. The ideas were so intriguing. Questions bubbled from my lips, "How do I get saved? If I pray today will it last forever? How will I know when the Rapture is coming?"

It was true, they said, I would be one of the few, the lucky, the forgiven.

That night I knelt and prayed by incandescent light. I offered my sin, that of a 6 year old girl, in retribution for the safety of my soul to ascend the golden stairway leading to my eternal life.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

When your sister calls, answer it

I received a phone call yesterday from one of my sisters. She stated her concern over what kind of material I might include in my writing project now that I have committed to a memoir. She gently reminded me that she reads my posts insinuating that I should tread lightly where her name is concerned. She also stated that I can write whatever I want about the rest of them since they won't read it anyway.

Of course, she is right about this-perhaps with one exception, maybe two. Regardless, this is hardly cause for alarm. I barely know where to begin much less do I have great designs on breaking up my (ha ha, this is funny. you'll get it later if you don't already) family.

I'm also not out to burn bridges. Relationships are tenuous enough these days. I don't so much think that we're building bridges as knocking down trees to cross a dam.

As it is, I gave her a couple flashbacks I promised to write about her and she agreed they would have to be included. There are so many moments in a lifetime, do we really narrow it down to just a few words?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


"Are you Catholic or Mormon?" Apparently, people only procreate for God. The answer is no. My parents just had a lot of kids. So it was 1975 and there was no farm work to be done in the city--they liked having babies, I guess. Mom isn't exactly forthcoming on any sort of reasoning here and Dad's only comment that I know of was, "Seems like they were all surprises back then."

Yeah, okay, so my parents never learned anything about biology in school and never had to take a health class about the miraculous of the body. Seems it couldn't have been too much of a surprise after, say, number 2? Regardless of why Bev and Chuck multiplied 3 to the 3rd power, here I am writing to tell you all about what a crazy idea it was. Welcome to Penny Jar: A heads up on being at the tail end.

This is my second blog and probably the more focused of the two. I have only been at this a week so far, but my enthusiasm should make up for the other shortcomings (most of which I am probably not aware of). My goal is to use Penny Jar as a catalyst for memoir writing. I have been threatening my family with a book for years and I believe this is the momentum I need.

There is a wonderful English professor at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater named Alison Townsend. I studied under her for a course in Creative Nonfiction several years ago. She had us make a list of "The stories that you keep coming back to." Despite the fact that there are so many other things I would like to write about that don't involve my family, the story I keep coming back to is this: I am the youngest of 9 children. My parents divorced when I was seven. Nobody has ever called me an "accident" to my face, but I think the fact that I was born 9 years after my closest sister speaks for itself.

She has called me, "Afternoon Delight."