Is there a Heimlich Maneuver for love?

Standard

 

I am loved. My husband works out of our home, yet finds time to make meals for me, do most of the grocery shopping, and take care of cars and bills. In a few days, we will celebrate 32 years of sharing the same last name. We have walked through joy and heartbreak together, and in every step he has remained kind and patient. Not once, and trust me, I would remember, has he ever raised his voice toward me or said an unkind word.

 

 

For the past 32 years, I have worked as a Quality Control Inspector putting my husband to the test. I’ve subjected him to impatience, sharp words, anger, silence, and rigorous door slamming. No matter how I act or what I do, he remains the same, his goodness still in tact.

 

 

Does he have flaws? Yes. The most egregious: he cannot read my mind. I have powerful thoughts that I beam toward him on a regular basis. Since he claims to love me, I don’t feel it is necessary to actually say what I want or need. Obviously, his goodness has limits.

 

 

One of the greatest manifestations of his love is buying me dark chocolate. He regularly buys a box of truffles or other delights and puts them in the cupboard so that I can medicate as needed. Last month, he came home with two bags of bite-sized treats and a container of dark chocolate mint balls. I usually eat one piece a day, though two pieces a day is not unheard of. Sometimes I take some to my coworkers, and I also share with my daughter and grandchild because my husband eats only sweet, milky chocolate.

 

 

 

I worked on emptying the two bags of candy, which seemed to disappear more rapidly than usual, saving the dark chocolate mints for last. Then one evening last week, my husband walked in the living room with the clear container of dark chocolate mints.

 

 

 

“How do you like them?” he asked.

 

 

 

I looked at the half-empty container. Although I found it hard to breathe, I managed to get a few words out. “I don’t know. I haven’t eaten any. Have you been eating my dark chocolate mints?”

 

 

 

“I don’t really like them,” he said, “but I’ve been choking them down.”

 

 

 

Choking them down! Horrors! Were they deadly? Defective? Radioactive? Unsafe for older women? Did they have some ingredient that would harm me if swallowed? What depths of love drove him to risk his life for me?

 

 

 

Over the next few days, he managed to choke down the rest of the mints, saving me from that fearful ordeal. During the day while I was at school, I tried to stay occupied and not think about what he was going through; otherwise, I would envision him sitting in a corner, carefully removing the lid from those innocuous-looking but life-threatening mints, forcing himself to eat them, possibly choking, and doing it all for me.

 

 

 

I will never know what that good man spared me from and endured on my behalf, because I never tasted even one of those mints. For days after, I lauded him, recalled his deed, and thanked him for his heroism. To prevent me from making too much of his courage, he placed a big box of dark chocolate truffles under my pillow. He thinks this will still my incessant praise. He is wrong.

 

 

 

He’s a humble man and doesn’t want to talk about the mints and his act of bravery, but I do. It’s one more reason I love the man.

 

 

 

Love comes in small change

Standard

 

Love comes in small change: pennies of please and thank you, nickels of you go first,

 

ten-cent hugs, quarters of talks over coffee, half-dollar words not said,

 

and some cents of forgiveness, always held back till the end of the day,

 

for the dirty socks forgotten on the floor and the toilet seat left gaping in the bathroom.

 

Lovers save the change of love, fill their pockets and their piggy banks,

 

to spend on love’s small extravagances.

 

Love is a lifetime of wealth, mostly made of small change.

 

Love is sockless

Standard

The Climber

 

Love is sockless and never wears shoes. The mountain is too hard to climb otherwise. The toes must grip the steep face of rock and hold on tightly to the sharp ledges.

 

 

Love never sees the summit. Its feet yield to the mountain’s hard wisdom: finding rest in sudden seams of green, where the heart grows fat, and climbing past pain to reach a fractured rock to  bind its wounds..

 

 

The first bleeding is the worst, always such a surprise to the new climber.

 

 

The calloused feet never forget the grass, the cool sweet beginnings of the long climb; and when the fall comes, as it must come at the end of every life, the memory of grass makes it all worthwhile.

 

 

Love in the time of garlic

Standard

The picture of Saint Valentine, patron of lovers, depicts him with birds at his feet and roses at his side. Geoffrey Chaucer is responsible for the birds. People in the Middle Ages believed that birds chose their mates in the middle of February. In his Parliament of Foules, Chaucer wrote: “For this was on seynt Valentynes day/ Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make” (309/310). The spelling looks remarkably like that found in modern text messages and e-mails. To comfort myself at night, I tell myself that young people are not bad spellers, they are merely returning to Middle English, the language of Chaucer.

 

We can hold the Greeks and Romans responsible for the roses at Saint Valentine’s side because like Chaucer they are not here to defend themselves. Many of their stories about the god of love, Eros to the Greeks, Cupid to the Romans, included roses.

 

If I could embellish the saint’s picture, I would have him hold a box of dark chocolates in his right hand and next to the roses plant some stinking roses, an affectionate name for garlic. For me, love isn’t love if it doesn’t smell of garlic.

 

Part of the attraction between my husband and me is the love of garlic. For our anniversary a few years ago, we bought one another garlic presses. He was traveling and had to spend several months living on his own. How could I send him out into the world without a garlic press? The one we had at the time was old, so we went to a kitchen specialty store and shopped together. He looked over the presses and chose a conventional one that crushes the garlic, while I dithered over the deluxe model that could crush or slice, even at the same time! In spite of the high cost, he bought it for me. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

No matter how you slice it, this garlic press proves my husband has a crush on me.

Over the years we have met people who do not or cannot eat garlic. We understand those who cannot eat garlic, but not those who choose not to. We will still love you if you don’t eat garlic, but we will probably talk about you behind your back.

 

“Gert is coming over for dinner, honey, so we can’t use any garlic.”

 

Look of consternation. “Does she have a doctor’s note?”

 

Look of surprise. “You know I forgot to ask. She looks so honest, and she said it upsets her stomach.”

 

Later that day on the phone. “Hi, Gert. About your allergy to garlic. My husband and I were wondering, do you have any kind of documentation? It’s not necessary, of course, but if you have some, we would really like you to bring it with you tonight when you come over for dinner.”

 

Tonight, in honor of St. Valentine and his name, which comes from the Latin valens meaning strong, powerful, and healthy, I plan to make something strong, powerful, and healthy: Death by Garlic pasta. You can find a number of recipes online, but go here to find a simple one that uses 10 cloves of garlic. If that sounds too wimpy, or you have a fear of vampires, or you are feeling particularly romantic, you can double the amount of garlic and fall in love twice as hard. Otherwise, just cut a clove of garlic and rub it behind your ears and on your pulse points. If your husband is anything like mine, he will do anything you say.

 

If you are still wondering what to buy your loved one for this special day, remember that while flowers and chocolates are always welcome, nothing says Valentine’s Day like the fine bouquet of the stinking rose.

 

What are you looking for?

Standard

Imagine even shorter bangs!

I have gotten up early my whole life, except for my teenaged years when I ran marathons in my sleep and didn’t wake up until I finished. As an early morning child, after finishing my sugar-laden cereal, I could explore drawers and closets without anyone asking, “What are you looking for?” This is the kind of unanswerable question that grownups ask curious children. Imagine walking through the woods admiring the trees, and as you bend down to look at a mushroom, someone asks you, “What are looking for?” The answer is nothing, everything, I’ll know when I find it, or maybe, you are asking the wrong question.

 

Most of life is hidden, and just as the birdwatcher needs time and patience to see the birds beneath the canopy of trees, so the child needs space to explore her world, including drawers and closets, the repositories of grownups’ secrets.

 

Looking through places in the house became a habit. In the mornings, I could go through most of the house, but not the bedrooms, at least not the only bedroom of real interest: my parents’ room. Entrance into that room required an invitation, and if occupied, a knock.

 

But parents are not always at home and big sisters have better things to do than follow little sister around. I must have been in second grade when I sneaked into my parents’ bedroom. In the small drawer next to where Mother kept her underwear, I found a picture of a tiger I had colored in school. I had pressed down on the crayons, so the vivid yellowish-brown eyes glowed from the orange and black-striped creature that stood among the green, yellow-green, light green, and turquoise leaves. Seeing it there secreted in her drawer was like coming face to face with a real tiger, one of my own creation, which now lived in this unexplored place.  I felt happy that she would keep the colors that flowed out of me.

 

In that same drawer, I found a small envelope with her name written on it in textbook-perfect cursive letters.  Inside were short, brown hair clippings, not more than a tablespoon worth. They were mine.

 

One day during craft time in first grade, my best friend, Donna, leaned over and said, “I can see your bangs growing.” Her words both thrilled me and alarmed me. Donna could see the tiny hairs, still alive at the roots, pushing into the world, threatening my eyes.

 

Cutting your own hair was forbidden in our house, but nothing had ever been said about having friends cut your hair.

 

Our teacher was busy helping L.D. wash his hands, which he had painstakingly covered with the paste he had developed a craving for. Donna held the blunt-nosed scissors and clipped quickly.  In those days, teachers had eyes in the back of their head; at the second clip, she turned around and looked directly at Donna and me. Just like a game of Swing the Statue, we froze, Donna keeping the scissor hand suspended in the air, waiting for the teacher to come over and touch us to unfreeze us.

 

Instead, she said, “Come here girls.”

 

A moment earlier I had been enthralled at Donna’s powers of observation and her willingness to help me.  The look on our teacher’s face and her tone of voice shook my confidence in my friend.

 

“Scissors are for cutting paper, Donna,” she said.

 

Donna started crying.  Everyone in the room quieted down and looked at us. We were facing Mrs. Severe, so they could see only the teacher’s solemn face and the shaking shoulders of Donna as she cried.  Mrs. Severe reached into her desk and pulled out a small envelope. She walked over to the small tables where we sat, gathered up my hair clippings, and put them inside the envelope.

 

“I’m going to call your mother tonight to make sure she gets these.”  Then she went to the shelf where we kept our lunch boxes, opened the metal clasp, and put the envelope inside.

 

And she did call. Mother got out her haircutting scissors and evened out Donna’s work, leaving me only about an inch of bangs. Above my freckled nose loomed a white forehead, best hidden. The short hairs looked like the edge of a failed crew cut.

 

Mother had kept that envelope and the picture of my tiger. She was not very affectionate toward me, but here in this hidden, intimate place she kept parts of me. I opened her perfume jar and inhaled her sweet smell and loved her, secretly, like she loved me.

 

Fear of the dark

Standard

(K) The older, photogenic one

When my father died, I was eight and my sister (K) was ten. Mother’s world collapsed and she found it impossible to function. She stayed in bed under heavy medication for days, until our oldest sister (C) told her she would lose us to daddy’s relatives if she didn’t get up and start living again. Our oldest sister was 23 years old at the time and already a mother of three. We lived a complicated childhood, visiting our oldest sister and her children but hiding it from our father. He wanted nothing to do with mother’s past.

When mother got up out of her bed of despair, she couldn’t get any more medication from the doctor. So she self-medicated. And nothing dulled the pain better than booze.

Together with her best friend from work, mother began to “run the roads.” It’s what she called bar hopping. There’s something lop-sided about this story that no amount of explaining will set right. Mother said that daddy was the one she loved like no other, and yet within two months she was out most nights, drinking, dancing, and looking for love. I don’t try to explain it; I just tell the story as I know it.

During that era, I don’t think it was unusual to leave children our ages alone at home. But maybe at night it was. Mother needed somewhere to go, to find companionship, and to have a few drinks to help her forget. The bars all had a Happy Hour, and although she never found happiness there, at least the drinks were cheap. Rather than leave us at home, she would take us to a theater to let us watch the latest movie, often a horror movie. This provided me with lots of reasons to fear the dark.

Before the years struck me so hard

A few years ago, I was talking with my sister (K) and mentioned all the scary movies we saw when we were kids like The Blob,

The Tingler, The Fly, and House on Haunted Hill. I remember sitting the theater, my feet on the chair tucked under my dress, clutching my sister’s arm, thinking that if I held on tight enough the monster couldn’t get me.

She asked me if I remembered what happened after the movies on those nights mother dropped us off. I told her I didn’t have a single memory of what came before or after.

Have you ever heard someone tell a story about an event that you were part of but that you have absolutely no recollection of? What she told me stunned me.

More than once, after the movie or double feature was over, we waited out in front of the theater long past the last showing. One of those times, we were still there when the lights were shut off and the last person left the building. Then mother would show up smelling of whiskey, cigarette smoke, and sweet perfume. Beautiful, lonely, half-drunk, working hard to forget her pain, and doing such a good job that she forgot her girls out there in the dark, lonely and afraid.

For my sister the horror show started after we left the theater. She was too young to carry so much responsibility, but she had no choice. I clearly couldn’t take care of myself. I think the fear I felt during the long wait in the dark was too real, the sense of abandonment too raw to face, so I transferred it to the movies and thought they were the source of my terror. My sister was the brave one and faced the darkness for both of us. And for all these years, she has had to carry the memories alone. I cannot remember. And that’s one of the reasons I love her.

Much of my childhood I lived under water; the people and events blurred and distorted. Light is refracted when you are below water, so things are recognizable but they don’t line up. I’d come up for air now and then, then dive back under. Some of it I understand; some I don’t. I know one thing: I cannot watch horror movies. They make me afraid of the dark. I know, too, that love is strong and can carry the memories we cannot bear ourselves. But even love feels lonely sometimes.

In the desert looking for love and radioactivity

Standard

My mother and father met in Arizona in a little town out in the middle of the desert. Mother had the bad habit of marrying abusive men and had just fled her second marriage to come live with her mother. She arrived in desperate need of a dentist, having had several teeth removed, without any anesthesia, by her second husband’s fist. She left two children behind with their paternal grandmother and brought the two oldest with her, a boy and a girl from her first marriage. They traveled three days by bus from Alabama, with no money for food. Other passengers took pity on the children, who didn’t even have shoes, and shared some of their food. Her own mother didn’t recognize her when she got off the bus.

 

Once her teeth were fixed, mother started working as a waitress in a restaurant owned by her Aunt Vern. Mother’s mother, my grandmother, worked there as a cook. At first, mother and the two children stayed with Aunt Vern — a hard woman known to cheat her employees, even those who were relatives. After a few months, they were able to move into their own place. Neighbors and customers donated beds, a table, chairs, and a stove.

 

Early one evening, on the other side of sober, my father walked in. Originally from Texas, he was in Arizona for a job. As soon as he saw mother, he asked her out on a date. She told him to go home, sober up, and come back at 9 p.m. when she got off work. She never expected him to show up, but he did, and he had sobered up a bit. As they were leaving the restaurant, he said , “I want you to know that I’m not the marrying kind. I just want company, somebody to share a beer with and to dance with.”  She responded, “That’s fine with me.”

 

I guess the beer and the dance weren’t enough for either one. They married not long after they met.

 

The desert doesn’t seem like a very romantic place to find someone. Not many go in for moonlit walks among the cactus and rattlesnakes. But that’s where they found love. Later they moved back to the vast desert area of  west Texas, and one of their favorite things to do was to drive out into the desert with their geiger counter and go prospecting for uranium. In the early 1950s there was a uranium craze in the southwestern and western states fueled by the nuclear weapons program developed by the U.S. government. Prospectors armed with geiger counters searched the desert looking to strike it rich.

 

My parents never found any radioactivity, but I like to think they found what they were really looking for. There’s more than one  way to strike it rich.