Why I don’t call myself a writer: part one

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Four hours set aside for writing

 

Hour one:

I open my computer. Then I remember I need to throw a load of clothes into the washing machine. I go down to the basement and notice the new containers we bought to organize the boxes of pictures, the winter clothes, and other must-save-because-you-never-know-when-you-might-need-it items sitting on the shelves.

 

Hour two:

The basement is organized. I open my computer. I hear the dryer buzzer. If I get the clothes out now, I won’t have to iron anything or, more likely, wear wrinkled clothes. When I’m putting away my blouses, I notice how messy the closet is. That is one of the things on my to-do list. After I finish, I do the hall closet as well. When I carry out the bag of clothes to give to the Goodwill, I notice my computer.

 

Hour three:

I open a blank Word document. It looks sad, bereft of words. My mind, ever sympathetic, also goes blank. I enter the is-ness of the blankness. I am one with the nothing that is, or is it? Maybe nothing is not. This makes me thirsty and a little bit hungry. I make a cup of tea and cut up a mango.

I notice three or four documents on the desktop that I have not put into files. I drag them to the appropriate folders. One of the files is for the genealogy folder. Last night I had an idea about how to search for one of my great-great grandparents. I’ll do just that one thing before I start. When I find something, I get another idea.

While I’ve been researching the dead, the living have been sending me emails. I will check quickly, just in case someone in Nigeria wants to share $23 million dollars with me because, of all the people on the wide world’s web, he or she selected me.

I finish the mango and open the folder marked “Blog Ideas.” I read through all of the files. Frankly, I’m appalled. Who comes up with these ideas? Then I remember I do. I close that folder and open the one called “Blog Ready.” It’s empty. I close the computer.

Hour four:

I search for the green notebook, the one in which I write other appalling ideas. Now I must find one of my Pilot Hi-Tec-C 0.3mm pens. I convince myself that the words I need are hidden in one of those slender tubes.  I find one of the pens in the office cabinet on the upper left-hand shelf. The contents of the cabinet need sorting. When I sit down and begin writing, I notice I have thirty minutes left to write.

The moral of the story:

Some are called to write; I am called to clean and sort. My legacy will be clean closets. At my funeral, I expect one of my children to say, “Mother was a fairly good woman, almost average in the areas of mothering, being a wife, and writing; but, heaven’s above, she could clean out closets like nobody’s business. I’ll always remember her for that and for the way she organized her spices. And I’m so grateful she left all these papers for me to line my pantry with.”

 

 

Frequently Not Asked Questions: Four

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Why do you have that perpetual bedhead look?

 

First, thank you for noticing and pointing it out. Heaven forbid I should go one day without being reminded. Second, why the sudden interest in my hair? The last frequently not asked question was about my still-brown hair. Third, looks are deceiving: it’s not a bedhead; it’s a cowlick.

 

I have a beef with the cow that licked the top of my head with her big slobbery tongue. Since that time, I have lived in a whorl of pain. I am forced to wear left-headed hairstyles, in spite of the fact that I am right-handed. This leads to a lot of mental confusion, which explains much of what you read on this blog.

 

Cow Snout

 

I suppose it’s better than a calf-lick, which happens when the smaller, less slobbery tongue of a calf licks your forehead. In that case, you are forced to face the permanent tuft of hair sticking up. Since my cowlick is on the back of my head, I am able to forget  about it until some kind reader points it out and asks me about it.

 

Although I wear corrective lenses for my focus-challenged eyes, I have yet to find a truly corrective hairstyle. On a website I will not name, one writer mentioned the seriousness of cowlicks. Apparently, they’ve been known to turn hostile and threaten someone’s image. Since reading that, I have grown afraid and keep anticipating turning on the TV and hearing the news anchor say, “Spencer, we’re here at the Cow Palace near San Francisco. The entire building was evacuated earlier this evening during a concert when the cowlick on the singer’s head suddenly stood up and threatened the singer’s image. Our sources tell us this that the cowlick has shown signs of belligerence for years, but no one has been able to get to the root of the problem. Earlier tonight the mayor called in the SWAT team; you can see that they’re lobbing canisters of hair gel and hairspray into the building now. Soon they’ll storm the building with curling irons. It’s been a hairy night for all of us, Spencer, but we’ll be here until the cowlick is forced down.”

 

Thankfully I don’t have an image to threaten, but just knowing that cowlicks threaten some people unnerves me. I guess you could say I’m a tiny bit cowed.

 

Now do you see what I mean about the mental confusion?

 

 

 

Photo: stuartncook on Flicker

Whispers of Jimmy and Darla: part 3

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When mother whispered her secrets to me as a child or spoke them aloud when I was grown, she told the stories plain. This is path I went down, she said, and after that, I went this way. She never flinched or offered excuses; I never heard her say it wasn’t her fault. And she never cried when she told the stories.

 

She recited her secrets like confessions. Her penance: the bitter truth on her tongue.Tears would have only diluted the bitterness, would have made it seem as if she had had no choice. She knew better.

 

Mother chose to return to Alabama: a one-way trip down a dead-end road.

 

Grady found work in Mobile and paid the rent on a three-room house for several months before he decided he would rather spend his money elsewhere. Mother worked as a waitress and brought some money in but not enough for rent and food. Then, she got pregnant again. Grady spent his evenings in bars, drinking and chasing women. Some nights he would bring one of his girlfriends home, shake mother awake, and demand she make them something to eat. If she didn’t move fast enough, he would hit her. While she could still work, Grady demanded she turn over her tips to him. The one time she held money back, he found out and knocked out several of her teeth.

 

The landlord kicked them out of the house after Grady refused to pay any more rent, so they moved into one of the old barracks on Blakely Island, built during World War II for the war workers who had flooded into Mobile. Mother had the baby in late October at a charity hospital, out in the hall because the delivery room was for patients who could pay. Women on charity had to earn food by folding clothes or carrying trays, but mother had lacked food and care during most of the pregnancy, so she was too weak to do the chores.

 

Grady never came to the hospital; he denied the child was his. Only Connie, the oldest child, came. At twelve, she was still young enough to go trick-or-treating, and she brought her bag of Halloween treats to give to mother.

 

Mother had no clothes for the baby, other than part of old sheet one of the hospital workers gave her. Mother swaddled the baby and with Connie walked back to the barracks. Grady was gone. He found work on a ship and sailed away, leaving the other children on their own. He left no money or forwarding address.

 

Homeless and penniless, mother and the children slept in a park. Mother didn’t have enough nourishment to make any milk for the baby, so she sought help from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. They offered to take the boys, Clyde and Jimmy, to a shelter. No facilities for women were available.

 

The baby cried constantly and when her cries became weaker, mother took the children and walked the streets asking passersby to take the baby so she wouldn’t die.

 

Most people looked the other way, averting their eyes from the disheveled woman, missing half her teeth and begging on the street with her five children. Finally, a man with paper-white skin, silvery hair and pale eyes stopped. He was nicely dressed and said his wife would be happy to feed and care for the child but only if they could adopt her.

 

None of us know what lies at the end of the paths we choose. When mother said yes to Grady and returned to the place she had once escaped, she couldn’t have known that this stranger would be waiting for her when her narrow path suddenly disappeared into a trackless wilderness. Mother was hopelessly lost, and the well-dressed man pointed in the only way forward.

 

He took mother to a stranger’s house where she and the children stayed until the papers could be signed. Once that child, the one she named Jeannine, was safe, mother called my grandmother in New Mexico and asked once more if she could come home.

 

Grandmother sent what she could, enough bus money to get Mother, Connie, and Clyde out of Mobile. But not Jimmy and Darla. Mother took them to Grady’s mother, their grandmother, and left them there until she could get settled and send for them.

 

She never did.

 

Mother chose other roads, each one leading her farther and farther away from Jimmy and Darla and from what might have been. (You can go here to read about what happened after she left Mobile that second time.) One of those roads led to my daddy and finally to me.

 

After my daddy died, my mother, sister Kathy, and I flew to Mobile to visit Jimmy and Darla. I was eight years old, and I remember the plane ride because I threw up. I don’t have a single memory of the time in Alabama, but I know I was there because my older sister said I was. I could try to fill in the blank spaces, but I won’t; I’ve learned to live with my gap-toothed memories.

 

Connie and her family drove to Mobile to meet us. We returned in her car – two adults and six children. All I remember from that 1200-mile trip is the policeman who pulled Connie over for going 100 mph. He looked at the children piled up in the back, told her she needed to slow down, and walked away without giving her a ticket.

 

Darla returned to Texas with us and stayed a few weeks. She traveled with mother, Kathy, and me to Disneyland, a trip financed by daddy’s insurance money. When Darla went back to Alabama, she never wrote, or if she did, I never knew of it.

 

When I was small, I kept mother’s secrets the best I could. I learned to listen at the telling, hold my tongue, and let the hard words fall without asking any questions. She bared her secrets, each one like a bruise that would not heal, and I could not touch them, for fear of causing her more pain.

 

I carried mother’s secrets in my heart for years, told them to myself at night, hearing her voice speaking the words, crying the tears she never could. The sharp edges have grown smooth; time and telling have worn away the layers of secrecy, revealing the veins and patterns of the stories. I carry them still, small stones of remembrance, gathered from the roads my mother walked once upon a time.

Whispers of Jimmy and Darla: part 2

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Mother holding a puppy next to her sister, Peg.

 

Before Darla’s birth, mother had been unable to contribute any money to Aunt Peg’s household, so after the birth, mother joined grandmother cleaning offices at night. Both women handed over their paychecks to help with expenses and pitched in to cook and to care for the now seven children. But neither the house nor Aunt Peg’s marriage was built to handle that many people. Aunt Peg’s husband endured it as long as he could. Then he asked them to leave.

 

Grandmother wrote her sister, Vern, who lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan to ask if she had room for six more people. Vern and her husband, Ray, had never had children of their own, but they welcomed the four children and two women into their home. Vern helped mother and grandmother get jobs serving tables in a supper club.

 

Mother never lacked for tips. She knew how to smile at a man and wear clothes that showed off her curves, while being friendly and attentive to any women who happened to be at the table. Eventually she was making enough in tips that grandmother didn’t have to work and could stay home to care for the children. Mother rented a small house from the owner of the supper club so the six of them could move into their own place.

 

It wasn’t easy, but it could have worked. It didn’t though, because Grady had mother’s number.

 

Grady, the new man, the changed man, the man of promises, the man who was now going to be a good husband and father, called her up and sweet-talked mother into letting him come up to Michigan to live with them.

 

This part of the story is full of maybes. Maybe she believed him. Maybe she forgot he had denied fathering Jimmy, had drunk what little money they had when they lived in Alabama, and had beat her up. Maybe she was tired of trying to make it on her own. Maybe she needed a man, and any man was better than no man.

 

So when the past knocked on her door, mother mistook it for the future and welcomed it in.

 

Grady found work right away, and mother thought her financial struggles were over. They weren’t. Payday after payday, less and less of Grady’s money made it home. He never contributed much in the way of cash, but he did contribute in another way. He got mother pregnant again.

 

Michigan never suited Grady. From the beginning, he wanted to move back to Alabama to be near his family. As bad as the previous time there had been, mother considered it. But when she found out she was pregnant, she knew she couldn’t, especially if they had five children to take care of. Someone need to work, and not just work, but bring home a paycheck. On her next day off, after Grady left for work, she asked her mother to take the children to a movie.

 

Mother never considered trying to find a doctor to help her with this “female problem.” She knew about birth and its dangers; had watched her mother, acting as a midwife, deliver babies; and had given birth to Darla by herself. And she had learned what other desperate women did when they carried a fourth or fifth or sixth child that they couldn’t feed or provide for. She used a coat hanger dipped in alcohol and prayed she would survive.

 

After the movie, her mother found her, covered in blood and lying unconscious on the bathroom floor. Grandmother sent the children outside and called the doctor. He performed a D&C and told mother that if she ever did that again he would report her for breaking the law. Had she had serious complications or faced death, he would have had to report her in order to exonerate himself and make it clear that he did not perform the abortion.

 

Grady resented mother and grandmother for acting behind his back. Since he took to drink, his successes in life were few, and getting mother pregnant was one of them. He couldn’t believe she would do that to him. After the abortion, he pressed mother even harder to move to Mobile and insisted until she relented. Mother wanted her mother to come as well, but grandmother had heard and seen enough; she wanted nothing more to do with Grady. Vern and her husband had moved to New Mexico to open a restaurant, and when they offered grandmother a job, she packed her things and headed west.

 

Mother turned her face toward the South. Although she believed that going to Alabama the first time had been a mistake, she felt that things would be different this time. She was right. Before she left, she couldn’t imagine that anything could be worse than sleeping on someone’s dirty floor with four children and a drunk, abusive husband. Within a year, she couldn’t imagine anything better.

 

 

Next: Part 3

Whispers of Jimmy and Darla: part 1

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Whispers

 

Jimmy and Darla were one of the stories mother told when my father was not at home. I don’t remember when she first told me about them. Like fairy tales, mother’s secrets happened once upon a time, far, far away, in a world where someone was always lost. In mother’s stories, she was the one who got lost, always  in a place full of impossible loss and danger that she escaped by running away. Jimmy and Darla appeared together in the same tale, like Hansel and Gretel; but in their story, their mother, my mother, fled to the forest without any breadcrumbs and never found her way back.

 

Mother trained my sister, Kathy, and me to carry her secrets carefully. Don’t tell your father, she said, when we visited our oldest sister who lived a married life on the other side of town. Do not lie, but do not speak the truth. Just place one foot in front of the other, balance, shift your weight slowly, and do not look down. Whatever you do, do not look down: there isn’t any net.

 

Mother whispered her stories to us one by one. Jimmy and Darla lived in one of the stories that happened years ago, never to be seen or heard of again.

 

That is, until my father died.

 

Before Jimmy

When mother married her first husband, Ketz, she was 16 and the mother of a six-month-old girl. Older by six years, Ketz was not only notoriously forgetful but also impossible to divorce. When he got her pregnant just a few months after she turned 15, he  forgot that the age of consent in Pennsylvania was 16. Then he forgot to divorce his first wife before he married mother, which explains why he took her across the state line to West Virginia for the ceremony. His memory lapses proved contagious: mother forgot she was 16 and listed her age on the marriage certificate as 21. After the birth of their second child, mother left him. What little money he made working in the coal mines, he spent on gambling and other women. Mother went back home, neither married nor divorced.

 

The United States economy had been slogging through the Great Depression since 1929, looking for higher ground, and in 1937, the year mother’s second child was born, it stumbled into another recession, leaving almost 20% of workers without jobs. Mother tried to find work in Barnesboro, Pennsylvania where her mother and father lived, but few jobs were available. Eventually she left the children, Connie and Clyde, in care of her mother and moved to New York to find work. She spent her days waiting tables and her nights waiting at tables in clubs with a drink in her hand, hoping a good-looking man would ask her to dance. For the first time since she was 15, she had the freedom to do whatever she pleased. So she did. Somewhere along the eastern seaboard, she met Grady, a dark-haired officer in the Merchant Marines.

 

Mother often told me she could get pregnant if a man just looked at her in a certain way. Well, Grady looked at her that way and she got pregnant with Jimmy.

 

Jimmy enters the story

 

When mother told Grady she was pregnant, he laughed, denied that it was his baby, and then told her he was shipping out. In Europe, the Allies were bombing Hitler’s dreams into rubble; in the Pacific, Generals MacArthur and Nimitiz were securing island after island, nearing Okinawa and moving the war closer to the Japanese mainland. American soldiers needed the troops and supplies the Merchant Marines carried; mother would have to fend for herself.

 

She worked until almost full-term, then for the second time, returned home, pregnant and almost penniless. Soon after Jimmy’s birth, her father died from black lung disease, leaving mother, grandmother, and the three children on their own.

Grandmother cared for the three children, Connie, Clyde, and Jimmy, while mother moved to Chester, Pennsylvania to find work. Once mother got an apartment, grandmother and the children joined her. Although Grady denied Jimmy as his, he kept in touch with mother and showed up at the beginning of 1945, a few months before World War II ended in Europe. The resemblance must have been undeniable because Grady accepted Jimmy as his own and convinced mother to marry him. And not just marry him but move to Mobile, Alabama.

 

Grady’s family may have forgiven mother for having children out of wedlock, but they never forgave her for being a Yankee. Mother, Grady, and the three children stayed at Grady’s sister’s house, sleeping on the floor, until she asked the five of them to leave. They moved in with Grady’s mother, Virgie, whose house, little more than a cabin, lacked indoor plumbing. The only floor covering was a carpet of Alabama dirt that seeped through the gaping floorboards. The garbage tossed out the back door provided the neighborhood rats plenty to eat, and even with the door closed, they squeezed through the floorboards to explore the house. Mother refused to let Jimmy play on the floor at all.

 

Grady looked for work and after failing to find any, employed himself by drinking, gambling, and slapping mother around. She couldn’t contribute much because Grady looked at her that way again and she got pregnant.

 

 

Darla enters the story

 

When mother grew tired of living like poor, white trash and getting beat up by Grady, she wrote her mother and asked for the third time to come home. By then her mother had no home of her own and was living  with one of her other daughters, Peg. Like mother, Peg married at 16 ; by 19 she had three children. Although Peg’s husband had allowed his mother-in-law to move in, he wanted nothing to do with a pregnant sister-in-law and her three children. Aunt Peg did, so mother and her brood moved in, filling up every room in the house.

Mother was alone in the house with Connie, her oldest child, when Darla struggled into the world. Connie called the doctor, hollered, “Momma’s having the baby,” and slammed down the receiver. The doctor figured out who it was but arrived too late. Mother delivered Darla by herself, breaking the bed in the process.

 

In this hopeful part of the story, mother escaped her life of abuse and rat-infested poverty and kept all four children together. Of course, it didn’t stay hopeful for long, mother’s stories rarely did. The past came in fast pursuit and hunted her down, rattling its chains.

 

 

Next: Part 2

 

 

 

 

The Tiny Swine Trine

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Thrice upon a time, three sons of a sow sallied forth to seek success. The begetter of the bantam bacon-bearers bellowed as they bade bye-bye, “Be brave, be bold, beware. A wily wolf walks in the wild, waylaying witless wanderers. Be on your guard against that guileful granny-gulper.“

 

One of the peewee porkers, hankering for hurried happiness, hauled hopeless hay to house himself. Then the heavy-breathing hooligan came hungering that way, hammered hard on that house door. When the puny piggy paid no mind, the hairy heel huffed all the house of hay away and helped himself to ham.

 

The second short shoat, low on luck and lacking lucidity, looked listlessly for lumber, then settled for a stack of sticks and shaped a shelter, supposing he was secure. Anon the air-blasting archenemy popped up, pretending peace. When the pint-sized pre-sausage protested, the pawed poser puffed the place to pieces and packed his paunch with pork.

 

That tiny trio’s third, a bitty boar but bright, bought bricks in bunches to build a brawny bastion to block the blustering blowhard. And though the hungry harasser harried the hamlet’s home with a hurricane of huffs, the hardy house held up. Livid, the large-lunged lawbreaker leaped aloft the lodging and clambered down the chimney to clutch the clever cob roller, but that small swine set fire below the saucepan to snare the savage sparerib stealer. The shortsighted sneak splashed inside and slowly simmered into a savory stew. Then the wise weiner-wonder washed his hands and wolfed it down.

 

 

For similar senselessness, see this.