Victoria lives on a spec between mother and writer in a small town outside Madison, WI. She writes memoir, personal essay and flash fiction when she's not cooking curry or baking a triple batch of cowgirl cookies.
I cannot sit with my children. I cannot stay home day in and out cleaning bathtubs and hanging clothes to dry. We become restive, smitten by the outside, romanced by adventure.
It's this part of summer, the late season quell, that brings peace of reflection. I follow my children down sidewalks; let them pick up sticks to poke the ground, fill miniature pockets with stones, roll in the sand, and stamp dusty feet.
I'm still rebelling.
My childhood was spent at home watching Ma scrub the kitchen floor, down on her knees, buffing out the smallest scuff from black-bottom shoes. "Outside," she'd say, "Go play outside." And I'd scuttle off with my little plastic picnic basket heaping with little plastic plates and little plastic spoons.
Dirt cakes and grass pie.
Real buckle sandals impossible to do up.
An empty field of clover.
The neighborhood waited out its days in silence.
As if we were the only people left anywhere, Ma and I were home. We stayed put. I waited for the mailman. I yapped over garbage collections. By 5:30 I was hiding under the stairs expecting Dad to walk in with a pocket full of butterscotch candies, his work shoes scuffing the floor.
When I finally went to school I found out the other kids had parents who took them places on weekends and summer vacations, small adventures to lakes, boat rides, flying model airplanes over empty fields of clover.
Once a year, maybe twice, our family went camping. Governor Dodge State Park mostly.
My earliest memory: a tiny wooden chair with a hole and a tin pot waiting outside our huge yellow canvas tent, a morning of bribery, a trick to get me to sit and let it all hang out.
I'd put all of my childhood into one of those camping trips if I could, just fold it up and stamp it down. It was the marshmallows for me, I'm sure of it, marshmallows and a campfire and Dad probably breaking a hundred State Park regulations coaxing the raccoons from trees, enticing them with sweets.
I'm still a sucker for State Parks. Give me any random day with the scent of campfire on the air and I'll pack up a bag of food and two wild girls faster than you can say, "Raccoons have rabies."
These kids don't scoff at the drive, I've been hauling them every-which where since they popped their little heads out and blinked at the wide world. "What should we do today?" I ask, honestly befuddled at the openness of our schedules.
Nag Champa, a scent that carries memory. It's autumn 1993. I'm 18, not getting ready to go off for college.
I have a job at Perkins picking up after everyone else. Friends from school hang out till 4 am choking the smoking section with quotes from Monty Python and Nietzsche, sucking down coffee creamers and bending spoons into neckties. I talk too loud, give myself away to customers who shouldn't be listening, turn red, laugh it off.
The manager, just two years ahead of me in school and locally famous for organizing punk shows at TT's Hotspot calls me over to where he's standing on a ladder. He unscrews a light bulb, hands it down, "Fix this, would ya?" he says.
At 7 am I leave carrying an overburdened bag stuffed with a uniform and waitstaff training books. I walk along Milton Avenue. It's the weekend, traffic is light. A cop car pulls ahead of me into the parking lot of the KFC. He demands my ID. I think, only in Janesville do you get pulled over for walking. "You fit the description of a runaway," he says.
A cup of hot coffee turned ice cold. I still drink it, dependent on its chilly bite for a few more letters hacked out on the page.
Children's color-coded love notes pinned to the wall, I've waited lifetimes for these. Even the baby, old enough to tell me she isn't, proclaims her mastery of the arts, "See! See, Mommy, I did that!" And she did. Whatever marker scribbles taste like, she did that too with gusto.
I have a corner in a room that for five years has been the undertaker of all things not easily categorized--old journals, maternity clothes, magic cards, wedding paraphernalia, baby shoes, poster frames. Our basement is at capacity. Our extra rooms are spoken for. The attic is questionable.
We did things backward I've been told. When you buy a house you should take care of the bedroom first, this is where you will be resting, where you will recover and recoup. We did as most proud new home owners do, take care of the places people see. It seemed reasonable, the first floor is where the living happens.
Then there were the babies. We spared nothing on fun and function in their sweet little rooms.
Though the house has little to no curb appeal, (as proof we were ready to walk away before stepping in on that frozen January noon), the inside is warm and inviting, cozy. A three bedroom Dutch Colonial replete with hip roof and breakfast nook, it's achingly minimal on closet space. We've had to be inventive.
Finally, after bustling over clothes baskets and baby bibs, we loaded up the donation bags and cleared out the overstock. Once our room uncluttered I found myself organizing, decorating even. This isn't to say it's a finished work, not even close. I can't stand the color of the walls, all robin's egg blue and sea foam green, and our bed (blushing here) doesn't even have a frame. But there is order, a new openness, a brightness where once there were moving boxes. It feels hopeful.
And this place, this is where I'm at--a corner of one's own.
The river's dam is gorged with flying carp. I follow the dirty downtown walk way. I carry a notebook and black ink pen. It looks like rain.
It's summer on Sioux Court. I'm grown and dating. My boyfriend walks next to me. I point to the house my father built before I was born and sold when I was 7. It's gone from red to green. I wave to Stell. She doesn't know who I am.
The railroad bridge is black against a gray sky. The slightest pink edges the eastern horizon.
A sparse treeline divides the corn field from the soy. We find a knotty oak. We climb rotting slats nailed to the trunk and sit closer than we should.
Places are as important as people.
This is Penny Jar, the blog I started one year ago today with the hope of finding the story inside the life. I'm realizing that the stories I want to write and have been writing as of late are not memoir. Oh, they do as most fiction does and careen in and out of reality like so many drunken sailors on shore leave, but they certainly can't fess up to their actions (like so many drunken sailors on shore leave).
That being said, I'm not ready to leave Penny Jar behind. The examination of past events can be fascinating. The examination of past places can be even more so, which is what brings me to the slices I have laid out so far.
You cannot hold a place, it holds you.
Often where you are is insignificant to an event or moment. Later it may come back to you or you to it. I'd like to experiment with short meditations on places, similar to the writing exercises from Old Friend from Far Away.
I don't know where they will end up, but it will be some place with a story to tell.
This is kind of a lead in to an upcoming post. Since I first wrote this list a few things have changed, but let's keep it simple.
From: Friday, January 16, 2009 at 10:44am
1. The story I always come back to in life is that I am the youngest of nine children and I have been an Aunt since I was three.
2. My parents divorced when I was 7
3. Mike and I went to Burningman in 1998 and I hope someday we will be brave enough to take the kids
4. I love Facebook for bringing back people I thought were gone forever
5. I am very picky about movies I call my favorites and Harold and Maude is still at the top of the list.
6. Still use Big Mac’s quote, “Scare yourself” on a daily basis and thank him for giving me some balls
7. I do not attend church. I believe religion comes from the way life is lived.
8. I am a very crummy swimmer
9. When I was a child my favorite book was Richard Scary’s Best Word Book Ever.
10. That explains the obsession with giant dictionaries. I can cross reference for hours.
11. I want to read James Joyce’s Ulysses and have started three times
12. On November 4, 2008 I took my 72 year old mom to vote for the first time in her life
13. I am a book geek and have always been uncoordinated and non-athletic
14. I have spent years under the tutelage of supportive English teachers urging me to hone my craft and submit for publication, but I inevitably submit to laziness after the excitement wears off
15. Ivy, Azalea and Mike are the warm center the world crowds around
16. Tom Waits is my favorite lyricist. I have a soft spot for the dark and beautiful.
17. Two things that make me very happy are an excellent cup of coffee and Candinas Chocolate
18. We were the “freaks” in High School and started a cult.
19. I married a guy I knew and admired since I was 17.
20. We were married in the Redwood Forest with 6 witnesses. We honeymooned in an Oregon tree house.
21. At the park I always ride on the swing
22. Motherhood is the most important thing I have ever or will ever do
23. I started writing poetry when I was 10 because my parents never let me take music lessons. I was trying to write songs.
24. When I was in middle school I was obsessed with Poison. I know.
25. Places are as important as people.
My husband married me because of my shortcomings, not despite them. There's my penchant for sudden change; spontaneous upsets with scissors and hair dye; a love/hate relationship with the written word that has been festering more than half my lifetime; my crooked teeth; and when I'm really, really tired, a ravaging hysteria of laughter so intense I get stomach cramps. Still, we're weirdos in love.
I've spent an entire lifetime discovering how strange the people of the world think I am and how, secretly, many of them delight in the off-beat.
It's nothing to me. I mean, when you're a kid and do and say kid things and your sister's mantra is, "You're weird," well, what can you say? I'm creatively driven.
My big brother, the one who's been riding Harleys my entire life and is tattooed up and down, has scoffed at my hair and clothes more times than I can count. "You've always been the black sheep," says he.
I smile. Family.
I was insecure, oh, so insecure. "You're weird", the other kids always said. But they hung around.
Later on, in high school, when they loaded up the insult cannon with the word "Freak" it bounded right back at them, splattering a little pride across their Esprit. Freak was a compliment, an homage to beloved Ralph Waldo Emerson who gave us permission not only to love, but to be art.
"Be yourself; no base imitator of another,but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.
To be great, is to be misunderstood."
And it was art, and music, and poetry that drove me into myself. It was writing that saved the soft bits, that firmed up the wants and dreams, that gave me permission to disregard expectation and head on out and be misunderstood.
I want to give you something. I don't want to sound wounded because I am not. What I want to do is reach in and draw out the truth, a nod to Hemingway perhaps, a reaction to rain in June to be sure.
I love the rain.
A few days ago on Twitter's #writechat we were talking about the writer's voice which inevitably moves on to truth which in turn becomes self examination and honesty in your writing. And I wonder how honest I am in my writing, in memoir writing.
And to a certain extent we don't want memoir writers to be too honest because too honest can lead to blame and contempt. I just don't want to go there. It's not enjoyable. Drama disagrees with me, it gives me heartburn. It makes me growl.
But rain in June does funny things to me. Listening to Leonard Cohen does funny things to me.
Before I dropped out of college, I had several poems published in the school's lit mag. This was before I let English take me back, while I was still pretending to want a reasonable career in Interior Design. The day the journal came out I nabbed a copy and took it with me to class. My instructor, a women, opened the book, searched out my name and proceeded to read my words out loud to the class. It was fine, all our classes were together for the most part, we knew eachother well and I sort of stood out as the...I don't know what I was, but not timid, and to them, not dull.
So, she read the first poem in a very cavalier fashion and moved on. This is what she read next:
I wanted to read from dirty old men
to dry up the lisp
to learn the currents of the belly
what they hide in them
to turn a word.
I began by smoking cigarettes
and hoarding brandy
followed the swing of words down the spine
and returned in my bra and underpants
to the living room floor.
I wanted to read the smoky old ramblings
the canterings on
about campfires and ships and women
but when I started
the sky closed up
and threw down its rain.
Though I sit here fully clothed with nothing but a cup of cold coffee, the rain still seeps into my spirit, while the words of men, this time the music of Leonard Cohen, inhabits me and I think I should do something, write something honest. This is not to say women don't have this power over words, quite the contrary. It's only that this day in particular is for Cohen.
So what do I write? What total truth needs to be revealed?
My sister, all grown up and married with kids, thought it'd be a great idea to have a Halloween party at her place. Sure, of course, sounds perfect, great.
We papered the mache, stacked the corn stalks, dumped dry ice in a plastic cauldron and made s'mores bars out of cereal, marshmallows and chocolate chips.
The party would do double duty--she'd have her friends, I'd have mine. Mine were all girls, tween style and tittering.
Early on we took to the Ouija board and a dark little bedroom where we tried to contact Sid Vicious. Fingers played around the pointer, always someone pushing, denying, pushing, giggling.
Eventually some woman came in, I think her name was Sue, I didn't know her. Maybe she worked for the county with my sister moving the elderly from bed to bed, any guess is good. There's nothing an adult likes talking about more with young girls than boys, especially a drinking adult.
Sue warmed herself up to us. Who did we like? Did we go on dates? Titter. Have we kissed a boy? Titter titter. Then came the instructional, "You know, it's a good idea to practice first."
Uh, okay. How do we do that, then?
"You can practice on a pop bottle. You have to kiss it and don't forget to use your tongue."
The tittering was out of control by this point. There was no going back. The entire Halloween was tinted with soda pop fizz. After the party died down we girls sat in the living room giggling around an empty Coca-cola bottle and gave instruction to my sister's video camera. Married now with 2 kids, I think it was pretty poor advice.
Of course, it was just before Freshman year that my hair had to take the hit for me. That, and the cajoling of a dear friend who knew of my impetus for spontaneity. "Let's get your hair styled," she'd said. As harmless a word as any, styled didn't mean cut, it meant a small change, a cool beginning.
Later I would come to realized "Let's get your hair styled" also meant, let's not touch mine.
My dear friend and her perfect shoulder length dishwater blond and high, flat wall of bangs was not one to fall victim to the shears. It would be me and an unceasing hunger for change.
So there at the end of summer, my butt plopped down in a chair at Cost Cutters and I pointed to a picture in a magazine. The stylist must have thought I had a sense of humor. Maybe she thought she'd help show off my over-sized spectacles and shiny braces. Whatever she was thinking, it was not about giving me the style I'd asked for. It was about butchery.
Those were not bangs, they were spikes. Those were not layers, it was a mullet. Going into high school just got that much better. I couldn't wait to find my locker in Dirt-ball Hall.
I couldn't help it. Car rides made me sick. From the time I was first strapped in all wiggly and cooing, it wasn't long until the nausea set in.
And since Mom didn't drive and there were so many older kids, I didn't go too many places except on the big trips, to grandparents', to aunts' and uncles'. They were always long drives, scenic, up and down "tickle-belly" hills.
Dad had a van, it was two-tone brown and tan with the extra tire on back and a ladder to the top. The back windows were shaded with those nifty pictures you could see from the outside, but didn't hinder the driving--trees hinting at a forest, an orange sun, the tail end of a buck looking back, listening.
After enough trips Ma found a medicine to help with the motion sickness, a liquid, amaretto flavored, thick like cough syrup. In the morning, after a big breakfast and right before we piled our masses in to the back of the van, she'd take me to the kitchen, have me tip back my head and choke it down.
I remember what it was like to love winter, frozen toes inside thick snow boots, wet mittens, a red nose. Suzy and I would spend days outside her yellow house just up the hill from the creek. We'd slide down through the trees, land on hard, slick ice, and skate in our boots. The ice never froze in the smooth, perfect way of skating rinks, but in jagged lumps punctuated with broken sticks and rocks.
The creek was our battle field and our home. There were places beneath the trees where roots stuck up through the snow and we'd dig in, building a nest, proving you could stay warm before the melt. We dared ourselves, taking off socks and gloves, feeling the cold prickle against our skin. We'd redden, and swear it didn't hurt. We'd lie down and try to sleep, then jump up, a new battle on the other side of the creek.
Don't touch the bottom, we'd warn, grabbing branches to keep ourselves aloft. I was the clumsy one, never coordinated or graceful, always heavier inside my bones. I'd skitter through the trees, scrambling to keep myself in Suzy's graces, following her until I finally lost her scent.
My mother's favorite color plasters the bathroom walls, the floors, the shower curtain, the towels--ripest cherry screaming out at you, warning you not to bother if you have a hang-over or get easily jettisoned by boldness. Always, my mother's favorite color was a blindfold to me, a given to nature, but I never stopped to think of the "her" underneath the screaming scarlet.
As my age moves along an upward scale I feel a sort of gravitational pull to the poisoned apple grazing all my memories, so much so that my daughter has begun to think I belong there among the poppies. I mix metaphors, speak in obscure phrases that mean little, do little to increase my station. The thoughts that are so obviously mine bore me so much that I slouch, sniff the candle with the word "fire"on it's box, roll my eyes at the pictures on the wall.
There is nothing to see here. Please step aside. It's time to go home.
When I turned 5 my second cousin Tony sent me a record in the mail. It said, "Happy Birthday, Erin", my first name. It was a 45 and came in a square envelope with cartoon drawings of a space man riding on the back of a rocket ship carrying a birthday cake held high above his head with lit candles. The record was thin, easily bent and cheap, but I loved it anyway.
When my mom put it on the turn table it started up with weird space music and then a song, "My name is Zoom/ and I come from the moon/ I came down to earth just to sing you this tune/ Hey, Erin, it's your birthday...today!"
It was my name in a song, a record for me, about me and about all the creatures this space man wanted to bring me as birthday presents. He didn't though, he wrote the song, that's what he decided. That was the present, not a Wild Womp or a Tickle Chu and it worked for me.
The record got put away in a Mason shoebox, the one my mom had kept for me through the years filled with cards, birthday candles, that record and a few art projects and report cards. I never shined in school, but stuck away in that box, I shined with the stars.
It is so fortunate to have such a wealth of talented writers from which to learn. The blaze of the internet's possibilities should not be lost on anyone looking to find some kind of connection to interest or dream. Just recently, I read Angela Kelsey's post Book 24 of 24 Books in 28 Days: Old Friend From Far Away.
The thing that struck me about reading her post is that not only had I neglected to consult Natalie Goldberg'sOld Friend when I began memoir writing, but I completely let it escape my mind. Whats more, I purchased the audio version of the book directly from Ms. Goldberg while attending one of her famous workshops in Taos, NM with the plan to listen to it on my drive back home. That I did, but wasn't really in the market for memoir advice at the time.
I'm grateful to Angela for bringing it back to the fore.
With this in mind, I am going to begin on a series of blog posts specifically derived from the writing exercises in Old Friend. It has been a long time since I've participated in Goldberg writing practices. I'm looking forward to seeing what they uncover.
I'll also try to make my best effort at overcoming the inner-editor and post them in all their ugly glory.
Exercise 1: Tell me a memory about your mother, an aunt, or your grandmother
I remember my grandmother like the first cold autumn wind that blows in bringing with it little affection, but a certain reminder of who you are. And my grandfather who was warm, blowing smoke rings with his sweet-smelling pipe and whom I later found out, after his death, she hadn't loved, and hadn't been happy to marry.
There are a lot of guesses about my grandmother and grandfather, their life, my mother's birth so early in their marriage. We wonder if he had the been the one to throw racism in the face of my sister, to encourage the coldness in his wife's heart.
Though she was never cold, not really, not to me. She was simply not affectionate, not enveloping like I had imagined a grandmother to be, warm and doughy and soft as a fresh baked cookie. Nor did she bake cookies or bread, or fudge like my father's mother Thelma. No, Evelyn was the stricter of the two, offset and reserved, willing to bring you in, but not to warm the bed.
I remember spending a week at her house in the summer with my mom. She had told me to bring my rollerskates because there were kids in the neighborhood who would wear theirs and we could ride together. I did, but I was shy and waited for them to approach me. The entire first few days I would be out in the driveway in my roller skates hoping someone would notice me and ask me to play.
It did happen and I made friends with two girls and a boy. We spent days in the dirt tromping strawberry beds because my grandma said I could eat whatever I found. At night, after dinner, my mom would sit me at the table, bring out a basin of warm water, soap and a clean wash cloth and I would sit while she washed the day off the soles of my feet.
I've been misled in my thinking, or rather, I mislead myself years ago when I first considered memoir writing and my childhood. First, I thought being the youngest of 9 was a story in itself, with all the characters to draw from, the odd clashes and bang-ups, but it isn't. Most of those memories aren't mine, I don't own the stories behind them because they didn't happen to me, I was just looking over my shoulder while playing dress up in my big sister's clothes.
Then I thought I'd dive a little deeper, ring myself out by depositing small glimpses all around the blogosphere. It helped seeing that when I really hunker down in my skin and examine the early years a lot of my family disappears. I'm not saying that I want them to disappear, only that they fade out creating their own rotations leaving my perception that much clearer.
In reading Vivian Gornick's highly acclaimed memoir instructional The Situation and the Story I have come to realize that my place within my family, my parents, siblings, the divorce & subsequent moves result not in a story at all, but the situation surrounding a story I have yet to fully tease out.
Tonight I am breathing a sigh of relief and letting myself relax knowing my story is unbinding. The words will come.
Growing up all you ever wanted was talent, to be big, to know you were somebody doing something important. Kids really do believe they can be anything.
You have to face up to reality though, life ain't gonna put you on a stage. You have to want, kiddo, bigger than anything. Then, you have to beg.
"Mommy, can I take ballet lessons?"
"Mrs. Beard, I might take ballet lessons!"
"Uh-huh! My mom said she'll see."
A few years later...
"Mom, can I take viola lessons?"
"Now why do you want to do that?"
"Jenny isn't taking lessons anymore and the teacher said I could take her place. It would be free and I can use her viola."
"It's too much noise. We live in an apartment."
"No. Now drop it."
If begging doesn't work try something else.
You adore music, how it rushes in and yanks away at you, pummels your senses, throws you into some place you haven't been for years and wrestles you to just shut up and listen already. You wanted that for yourself, begged for lessons, borrowed books from the library, listened deeply trying to pull out those few hidden secrets that would finally help you make sense of a sheet of music.
It never came.
So you thought this, you thought, some people learn music by ear, I could just start writing it down myself, to the tune in my head. Sure, that might work.
What happened instead was this.
Right here. This thing you're writing now. This is the music in your head, the tune you can't get out. Whatever happens in your life, this thing, this writing is what holds you together. You hate it. And you need it.
The first time you read out loud to a crowd of people...well, that was something, not at all what you expected. Not at all. But you're pretty sure it was equal to what you would have experienced had you played your first concert piano solo.
You're certain that night and the people lurking in that drafty, smoke-infested cafe and your shaking and stuttering are all going with you to the great nut house in the sky.
So whatever it is--whatever circles you spin around in, whatever goals you meet or fail at, whatever success you hype yourself up about--there's always this at the end.
Gardner's white bread in the yellow bag, butter, a leaf of iceberg lettuce, a slice of bologna; a Twinkie, Zinger or HoHo; an apple; 15 cents for a carton of milk. If we were taking a field trip we could bring a can of pop wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it cool.
Once when we went to the Outdoor Lab to track squirrels and pick wild mint leaves someone came across a grass snake all curled up and green in the main building where we were to eat. There would be no going in until the snake came out, but I think we should have lunched right there jowl to jowl with the tired green thing whose world we'd intruded upon.
Instead, a high school boy clomped through the building armed with a broken stick and heaps of bravado, scooped up the snake and emerged victorious, snake curled and perturbed above our heads.
We filed in, paper sacks twisted tightly in our cold, early morning fingers and reformed our social groups in coagulating masses.
Where ever we were, lunch was always a proving ground--who would sit by Suzy, what secret was passed around behind cupped hands, sleep-over invites, weekend spoils, copy-cat jealousy--they all made their play. Our lunch bags stayed the same. Until 5th grade.
Homeroom lunch ticket sales on Thursday afternoons didn't concern me unless I conned Ma into some spare change for a couple weeks worth of pizza tickets. Every week without fail the lunch lady left her steamy pots and dusty hairnets behind and trundled through the hallways with a plastic cart, tickets and lock box.
Now, I always tried to stay under the radar in school and most of the time did just fine by that, (except when I got conned into taking the fall for the "Vaseline on the window sill" incident, but that's another story). As it was, my wallflower tendencies usually kept me out of the lime light even though I always had my ear cocked for the slightest sign of recognition.
That recognition came just before 3 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon. The lunch lady called me out into the hall. I weird-walked, (people say I have a weird walk, I don't know) out of the room with my usual "somebody said my name" crimson face on and approached the ticket cart.
She glanced at me, pulled five tickets off the roll and handed them over with a sealed envelope. "This is for your mom," she said and moved on to the other kids.
I didn't know what was up at the time, but was mildly excited for the prospect of tater-tots and hot dogs everyday. As it turns out, I would be eating hot lunch for the rest of my tenure at Monroe Elementary.
See, when I turned 11 Ma and I moved into an apartment building. This would be the beginning of the "only-child years" as I like to think of them, all my siblings off and living their lives, Ma and me left to our own devices. The apartment was in good shape, 2 bedrooms, upstairs with a balcony. It was also low income housing which led the way to all sorts of marvels, namely free lunches, government cheese and crocks of cheap peanut butter.
Lucky for me my friends didn't cotton to any pretensions involving hot lunch. They may have even been a little jealous that pizza day was always on my agenda, while bologna on white bread got permanently scratched off.
But like that cozy snake in the middle of the woods the natural order of things was upset, because standing in line for a country-fried steak assures your place at the table is already filled.
I've been known to mistake Johnny Cash for my dad. Not that there's a resemblance of any kind. I think it has something to do with the voice, or the country-boy slang. Whatever it is, there's always been something interchangeable about them.
In his heyday, before he retired and moved to Arkansas and started dressing like the Cajun Chef, Dad wore plaid western shirts with pearlized snaps and carried a Parker ball point pen with blue ink next to the check book in his breast pocket. Sometimes he came home form work with butterscotch candies tucked in his denim jacket and I'd meet him at the van door all jumpy in collusion.
I got off easy I've been told, never having received a spanking or belt-whipping from the old man. Seems he could be hell on wheels if you crossed him. Later, he would brag to his mistress about never laying a hand on me while her kids, my expected every-other-weekend playmates, ran raging through his house threatening the well kept order.
During the week, Dad was Levis, plain black work shoes, and black steel lunch box. On the weekends he was brown cowboy boots, hat and punched-leather belt. Whatever he was wearing, if he wasn't smiling his face looked sour, all scowly and pinched in the forehead. I worry for frown lines because of this.
"I was so ugly as a kid ma had to tie a steak around my neck to get the dog to play with me," he'd say trying to rouse me. It's no wonder I get a little nostalgic listening to Johnny Cash sing Country Trash:
I’m saving up dimes for a rainy day
I got about a dollar laid away
The winds from the south and the fishing's good
Got a pot belly stove and a cord of wood
Mama turns the left-overs into hash
I’m doing alright for Country Trash
It just sounds like part of a story he'd tell.
I don't have any particular insights into Dad's character like I suppose I do with Ma. It seems he chose his life and if he regrets it now I wouldn't know. We don't talk about anything real.
What I do know is that most of the things in the world I love to love I understood as a course from him. It was always Dad who loved being outside best of all, wrote his own brand of poetry, painted pictures on our walls and grew dark and burnt digging in the garden.
I'm guessing there's a lot of the old man stored up in these bones, a lot I'd like to do away with, a lot I'm good to keep.
As a kid I believed in amnesia. Thanks to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd I knew if I got a conk on the head I could forget myself completely and all it would take was another conk to make me right again. Those were the days.
The red house, the first house, had a spacious back yard, kept up and organized in the only way I imagine there was to deal with the noise and constant motion of the Interstate. There was a patio with a built-in dog kennel and brick barbecue, a huge weeping willow out by the ditch, the laundry line with my white plastic swing attached to a pole and an inordinate amount of ordinary flowerbeds. I loved the moss roses best.
Along the left side of the yard was a row of fruit trees, apple, pear and cherry, that acted as the natural barrier between us and the neighbors. I always heard how Dad and the Mr. didn't get along. "They're too much alike," Ma said throwing my notion of an ideal playmate through the spin cycle. It would be a good long while before I figured that one out.
Whatever the original intent, those fruit trees were the perfect size, just right for my little self to climb into the saddle of a low branch and bonk my head against the trunk. Nothing happened, save for a few lost cherry blossoms.
So, I'd bonk again, test myself and realize I still knew my name, still knew where I lived. Maybe amnesia didn't agree with me.
I eventually went and grew up and learned it takes more than a whack on the cherry tree to make a girl forget, and that forgetting isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Right now I would give next to anything to remember clearly, to be present inside the workings of that little me mind, to wonder at how it all fits into the tiny box that is one moment.
This was later. But I want to tell it anyway. I lied to Ma all the time. I was only sometimes where I was supposed to be, other times, I was anywhere I wanted to be. That's just how it is when your left on a short leash and you get the scent and feel for a little freedom.
I had wildness in me like you wouldn't believe. And passion. As a teen-age girl, I wanted nothing to do with that cubbyhole of an apartment. I wanted air. And breath. And life.
Even moms forget that, what it's like to be young. Oh, they think they know; even come back to it later in life, when they're recounting their stories, hoping to pass something on; but they forget when it really matters, when their own daughters are burning.
A lot of the times, it was just a matter of getting outside. Sure, I got outside whenever I wanted, but there are rules to follow and those rules say, "Don't stay out after dark." I grew up in the '80s. Remember that? We were afraid for our candy.
Anyway, a friend of mine lived close enough that we could walk and meet-up half way. We'd swing by the Stop-N-Go for an ice cream sandwich and ogle the curly-headed guy working the counter.
Then, we'd head down the street to nowhere. Nowhere really was the underside of an overpass along a busy road. In case you noticed a trend, I have a fascination with bridges.
We'd climb up the steep concrete underside and make a home of rushing cars and passing bicyclists and evening walkers. It was as good as confession up there.
I don't think anything ever got figured out. Seems it was probably a route to boy-talk and angst. But we all have our places we like to go, don't we? They may even be places right there out in the open where nobody is looking, like hiding a Christmas present under the bed.
The first time I fell in love I was wearing a borrowed red sweatshirt with a hole in it. The boy wore a similar shirt and we flirted across a volleyball net. I was six. You can imagine how important this was.
Ma and I were at some farm. A friend of our neighbor's was having a party. I think Mary wanted to get Ma out of the house for a little fun so they invited us along. That may have been the night I realized my affection for farms and barns and haylofts. It could have been the boy.
There was another girl there, a few years younger than me. She hung around us too, but we didn't pay her much attention after a while. We ran through the yards, ate the ice cream and swung from the tire swing. I always did like a good tire swing.
Greg, the boy, was strawberry blond and freckled and two years older. He made up jokes. I blushed. He put his arm around me. I giggled.
Evening showed up as she always does, so pretty in the summer. Ma took a tour of the farm. We went with, chasing through the hayloft, finding quiet.
Greg got close then, looked at me so seriously, "Do you wanna kiss?"
"Okay," I said and he leaned in. It was just a little peck on the lips, a little boy's peak into the real thing.
He must have had big brothers. He must have known something, at least. "We have to lay down," he said.
"Yeah. If I'm going to kiss you we have to lay down."
"Someone might see us," I said.
We bobbed our heads around the corner. The adults were lost to us. "Okay," I said and lay down. He crawled on top of me, closed his eyes and again, a little peck.
That night we drank lemon aid in a stranger's living room. Somebody took our picture.
You want to know something stupid? I can't tell you a good damn thing about most of my sisters and brothers. I sure can't tell you what it was like to live with them, because most the time, I didn't. That's the thing about being the youngest in a hurricane of offspring, at some point they make a jump all willy-nilly and sometimes, they don't make a show of coming back.
Unless, maybe, every time they come back is a show.
Seems to me I can't write a story about my family if I can't talk about my family, not with any acute knowledge, that is. So, I'm just going to sit here every now and then and write a few things down, leave a little tangible evidence of my presence, stir it up once-in-a-while and see what kind of story to make of it.
I'm sure if I found some misspelled, grammatically incorrect, thoroughly embarrassing school project 20 or so years after the fact and transcribed it in all it's agonizing glory for you to read, it could be construed as a self-flagellation of sorts. I'll do it anyway. As you can see, I have little pride.
My Inheritance by Little Me I inherited my big mouth, thick hair, and nearsightedness from my mother. My father also gave me nearsightedness so I guess I'm pretty well stuck with it. I got my temper, my hight, and my sister said skinniness from my dad. When I have my child I would like him or her to be skinny, tall, and have thick hair.
I really don't have any medical traits I have inherited. I think the only thing is needing glasses.
I really am a "mutt" as my dad called us because we come from all over. My mom was mostly from Germany and my dad was from Englad, Irland, and Holland.
My mom doesn't work but my dad works at G.M.A.C.
I really don't know what my family structure is it's very different. I live with my mom so it's only my mom and me at home. I go visit my dad everyother weakend from Saturday-Sunday. My dad is remarried and I have two step-sisters, Dawn and Dianna.
I don't know how I would change my family structure but I know I would. I think I would like my mom to get remarried and have maybe a stepsister or brother at home so it wouldn't be like I was an only child. I also wouldn't go to my dad's Every other weakend because I have other things I would like to do but my father has a way to make me feel guilty.
The family structure of my ansesters on both sides of my family were nuclear. When my family makes decisions by usually asking me how I feel but some important decisions are made without me.
In the future I would like to have a nuclear family structure. I think it would be to hard to be a single parent and I would like my children and there father to be together.
In my mom's family their was three girls and my grandma & grandpa. In my fathers family their were 7 children and mom & dad.
In my future family I want to have 2 children. One boy and one girl.
We don't really have any rituals or traditions but we usually have most of my brothers & sisters come to our house for Christmas. We have been doing this for about 6 years. After my parents got devorced.