Monday, November 30, 2009

Losing Ruthie

Last Thursday night, cotton towels tumbled out of our upstairs hall closet as I tried to stuff in a set of flannel bed sheets. The towels’ domino action roused a memory from December ’95, when my father-in-law, Albert, had just died of congestive heart failure. The day before the funeral, I sat refolding towels on my in-laws’ family-room floor, while my mother-in-law, Ruthie, sat dazed in Albert’s rattan armchair. She looked down at me and said hoarsely “I fold the towels into thirds so they’ll fit in the closet.” I was comforted by her attention to something so mundane. It gave me hope that despite her heartbreak, she would eventually move on.

Now, I’m hoping I can move on when the expected happens. Ruthie is in hospice care, bleeding from an unknown source, her energy leeching out with her blood. She’s too frail for anything heroic to be done anymore; all the do-not-resuscitate papers have been signed.

The impending mourning period, however, may be shorter than the one we’ve experienced these last few years.

Seven years ago, we started losing Ruthie to Alzheimer’s. Sometimes she forgot places where she’d been a million times: “What a lovely home you have. How come you’ve never invited me here?” Or, after everyone had eaten dinner and we’d picked up their plates, seeing the now-empty setting in front of her, Ruthie would ask, “Aren’t you going to give me something to eat? You’re feeding them.” I often detected that undertone of hurt.

In the 27 years I’d known her, I’d never seen any reason why Ruthie should hurt. In fact, I’d always been a little jealous of her. Her four children and their spouses (including me) and her seven grandchildren had loved and pampered her. We filled her closets with stylish clothes and dressed her like a Barbie doll for special occasions. We framed her family photos and mowed her lawn. We funded shingles for her roof, the Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center, and her trip to California. We drove her to the drug store, grocery store, ophthalmologist, and cardiologist.

Over time, Ruthie sank deeper into Alzheimer’s, forgetting her husband of 54 years, our names, and her age. We welcomed her into our homes and gave her books that she’d read over and over and over. We bought her medicines and new underclothes. We took her for wheelchair rides among azaleas, treated her to decaffeinated coffee at a diner, and escorted her to all the family dinners and parties.

Thanksgiving last year, I was sitting next to Ruthie on my brother-in-law’s sectional sofa, my hand on her shoulder. I had just served her a plate of turkey and potatoes and a decaf coffee the way she always drank it: black with one-and-a-half packets of Sweet and Low™. She said, “You didn’t have to do that, but I really appreciate it. I don’t even know you, and look how well you’re treating me.” Then, she leaned over conspiratorially and, stabbing the air with her index finger, said, “You see those people?”


“They’ve known me since I was a little girl, and they won’t even give me the time of day. I don’t care what they think of my parents.” I looked up at the room full of everyone who loved Ruthie most: her children and spouses, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren—generations of a family all originated with her. “By the way,” she said, “are my parents coming?”

“Who are these people?”
Ruthie, front and center, surrounded by family,
Thanksgiving 2008

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


More people need a Greek mom like mine that can home-cook her ass off. I’m not joking either; she puts everything into it and must lose some weight doing it. From a pumpkin spice roll to dover sole, from that clean white fish to an assortment dish—this woman does it all and it’s always amazing, always alluring, always….awesome. That’s my mom—she’s sen-sational!

I believe that garbage food has inundated our lives, that there are truly horrible things that people are putting into their bodies, and that there are waaaay too many fallacies out there concerning the things we eat. We are constantly bombarded with messages that recommend we eat this or that for whatever effect. “Use splenda,” buy “fat free,” make sure it’s “sugarless.” It never ends! I grew up eating organic without even knowing it, before it was the latest fad, and during the time of McDonald-mania. And yet, I never appreciated the goodness that exists in a meal that is made with love and from scratch. I appreciate it today, mostly because I can’t cook anything like my mom, but also because I’m realizing the sudden urgency to want to know how to cook….exactly like her.

When I was around seven or eight, I went to Greece to visit my maternal grandmother. It wasn’t my first or last time but I do remember this time in particular when considering cuisine. My yaya (grandmother) lives a couple of hours outside of Athens in a small town, the type where everyone knows everyone and eachothers business. Anyway, I remember her asking what we (my mom and sister) wanted to eat and chicken being the unanimous answer. Well, imagine my surprise when I walked to the back of the house and witnessed yaya beheading a live chicken! I was horrified. I won’t ever forget seeing the headless chicken’s body aimlessly walking around for a few seconds before collapsing. I could not believe my eyes. I had always eaten chicken, was aware that it was an animal, but didn’t quite put it all together quite like my grandmother did for me that day. But the point it is—it was organic, straight from her home farm to the kitchen table—no antioxidants, no pesticides, no toxins—just right, just the way it should be. Try that one on for size in a commercial, Mr. Perdue.

Today, some twenty years later, I realize that my eighty year-old grandmother is living proof of what eating healthy farm fresh food can do: she is not fat but fit; she is not weak but wild; she is not run-down but radiant; she is healthy, she is old and she is still kicking with a strong foot forward! And she’s not the only one, the Greeks in her town who didn’t smoke, like my papou (grandfather), are also the same way; it’s a way of life and one that I want to embrace. Greeks are passionate people who are centered around their kitchen tables—it’s where they bond while filling their bellies. Eating is not done in front of a TV or in a hurry.

The older I get the more I realize how special it is to have good food. I love food, I love eating it and I want to love making it just as much. My beautiful Greek mom doesn’t behead chickens in our backyard but she does the best she can to always have home-cooked meals prepared for us. The funny thing is that we own an American steakhouse—ah, the irony! So this is where I stand on my beliefs:

1. Cook from scratch. Home cooked meals are healthy, hearty, and irreplaceable. Canned soup pales in comparison to the kind that is made over a stove. And, the aroma of cooking food can excite the memories or create new ones that can last a lifetime.

2. Food heals. Whether they’re labeled cancer-fighters, prevent aging, or can cure common ailments, food has unbelievable properties that we can all stand to benefit from—and the kind of food I’m talking about are foods that are farm fresh and natural.

3. TV dinners are a sin. I could vomit thinking about them. Processed foods gross me out and I regret their conception. I know people don’t have time and this shit is supposed to make things easier, but get real. They’re not that good, not good for you, and don’t hold a match when compared to the real thing. There are several alternatives for those who are faced with time or money constraints.

4. When you can’t cook, eat at a good restaurant. This coming from someone that owns one, but still, hear me out. I have witnessed people’s eating behavior and habits on a regular basis and am appalled to think that eating has become a task. When I eat out, I take my time and relax and ENJOY myself and my food; I can’t be bothered, take my time, and relish in every delicious moment. Follow suit. Our lives are busy busy busy, separate the time you eat and when you eat out from that mentality, and allow yourself to have fun with your friends or family while breaking bread.

I’m so blessed to have a mother that has cooked such exceptional meals for me my entire life. I’m saying this as a daughter who wants to emulate that talent; I’m saying it as a girlfriend who wants to dazzle her boyfriend with amazing cuisine; and I’m saying it as a person who believes that eating and home-cooked meals don’t get the credit they absolutely deserve.

Mellowcreme Hangover

This time of year, pumpkins sag on their stoops with sullen, warped expressions, choking on slivers of wax, wick, and cool air. And many bats, cauldrons, cobwebs, ghosts, gravestones, and witches on broomsticks remain fully intact in yards and in windowsills.

Halloween has come to an end, and the next holiday is rounding the bend, but I, like many others, haven't let it go just yet. I think sometimes people get stuck in that awkward "Should I leave it up for a few more days or take it down now?" period that comes along with the conclusion of any holiday. Or maybe people just feel fatigued.

Fatigue must be the case for me because I've been staring wearily at the Halloween-themed Martha Stewart catalogs taking up room on the couch, the haunted house with tea lights sitting in the living room, and the string of pumpkin lanterns in my bedroom for days now wishing they would put themselves away.

The only items I don't mind having around are the sugary ones in the kitchen: the Brach's Mellowcreme Pumpkins, the vanilla-frosted cupcakes with orange and brown sprinkles, and the bag of leftover candy with Hershey bars, Reese's Cups and Whips, and M&Ms.

Then again, the cupcakes are starting to get stale, and the thought of eating another Mellowcreme makes me sick to my stomach. I hate to admit it, but I've been eating them since September. After all, that's when I usually begin my Halloween festivities.

By mid-September, I had already scoped out most of the costume stores nearby and online, the Halloween shows that were to air, the craft and decorating tips in magazines, the haunted houses in the surrounding areas, and, of course, the goodies in the grocery stores.

By mid-October, I decided to gather up some friends and drive them to a haunted house in Pennsylvania called "Haunted Mill Scream Park." The roads were windy and there was a bad rain storm that started an hour or so into our trip. But, I suppose it was worth the drive because we were scared out of our minds in four different houses by masked people chasing us with chainsaws.

A week before Halloween, I volunteered to work in a haunted house in my hometown. This was a bad decision. I ended up stuck in a fake well for hours pretending to be Samara from The Ring. Being in there for so long with flashing lights, loud, creepy noises, and screaming children made me have a panic attack. My heart began to palpitate out of control, and I thought perhaps I would die in the well.

By the time Halloween arrived, all I wanted to do was sleep, but my parents had other plans. We were to go to the Charles Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, an old movie theatre with a curious choice of films. At noon, we were to see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a movie my dad used to play for me when I was much younger.

As the movie started, I lightened up and began to laugh along with the rest of the audience. I was stunned by how many lines and scenes I could recall after nearly 15 years. As we left the theatre, I thought of my younger days when Halloween seemed magical without having to try so hard.

That evening, I decided to stay home and give out candy to the trick-or-treaters, knowing that it was their turn to enjoy the magic.

Send out the clowns

I am 31 and afraid of clowns. I don’t remember the incident that sparked this fear, but my grandmother told me that I was two when she was with me in my living room, while my parents got ready for a Halloween party upstairs. When my father came down the steps, unrecognizable in clown makeup, I ran to the corner, screamed and cried.

Today, things aren’t much different. I’ve given up the screaming and crying, but when I see a clown or scary character at a party or bar, I dash for the nearest corner and cower. I need to put as much distance between me and the clowns. Walls and corners are the best protection, preventing surprises from behind. I think it’s a clown’s unpredictability and sudden movements that scare me most.

About eight years ago, I went to Fells Point for Halloween with friends. I dressed as a scarecrow, but soon realized I should have gone as the cowardly lion. I dreaded the experience, but wanted to see my friends, so I went. On the way, we picked up a couple my friends knew. When we got to their house, they were in the basement, getting ready. I knew the guy was going as something scary, but nothing more. I crept down the stairs into the dark basement behind my friends. A single red bulb in the bathroom provided the only light. When I saw the creature in question, I knew it was going to be a long night. Not only was he dressed as a clown, but an evil one. He had grown a Mohawk just for the holiday. His entire head, except for the black Mohawk was painted white, with a black evil smile painted in place, along with a black mask painted around the eyes and a perfect red circle on the tip of his nose. He wore a one-piece gray jumpsuit and carried a plastic meat cleaver. By the time we got there, he was painting a similar face on his girlfriend, who wore her long brown hair in two ponytails, one on either side of her head, like a child would. I was not as afraid of her, because she looked cute in a creepy sort of way.

He seemed friendly enough, even polite.

But when he stepped aside to let everyone go before him up the stairs, I stopped and shook my head.

“You have to go first,” I said.

I just couldn’t walk in front of him.

In the bars, I was able to stand closer to him, but had to know where he was at all times. I couldn’t relax knowing that he could surprise me from behind.

The fear of clowns carried over to anything in costume when I was a child. My parents had to spoil the tooth fairy for me when I lost my first tooth. I didn’t like the idea of something strange hovering around my bed while I slept. I can remember a couple years of not wanting to go to sleep on Christmas Eve for fear that Santa might decide to venture into my room. I never sat on his lap in the mall, but chose to tell him my wish list from a distance, through letters.

I still get that initial quiver in my chest when I first see the Oriole bird nearby, at a game, but then walk by him with ease once I remind myself that I am an adult.

I only went to Fells Point on Halloween once after the occasion with the evil clowns. I went early with friends and we staked out a spot in a corner on the second floor of a bar. We stayed a little too long and as we descended the stairs to leave, I felt the need to return to my corner. The first floor was packed with ghouls, skeletons, monsters and clowns. I gave myself an internal pep talk and held my breath as we pushed our way through the crowd to the door.

Last year, I went to dinner at a Canton corner bar. Of course our waiter had to be in clown makeup and we had a table in the middle of the floor, near the kitchen. He rushed by surprising me from behind all night. At first, I couldn’t concentrate on the menu, but as I reminded myself of my age and watched everyone else enjoying dinner, oblivious of the clown in the room, I began to relax.

I was almost proud of myself as I left the restaurant, glad to have gotten through an entire dinner, served by a scary clown. I thought I had conquered my fear, but a few months ago my friend and I went to McDonald’s for lunch. As we were walking through the parking lot, my friend said, “Oh, Ronald McDonald’s here today.”

I almost stopped in my tracks.

“You saw him. . . in there?” I asked looking at the restaurant.


“I don’t think I’ve ever told you, but I don’t like clowns.”

My friend looked at me and laughed a little. “Well, do you want to go somewhere else?”

Remembering my age again, I said “No, I’ll be alright.”

As we waited in line, he got closer and his sudden movements in those floppy shoes made me want to run, but I looked at him hard and could see the wrinkles that were accentuated by the white makeup caked on his face. I tried to imagine how old he was and determined mid-50s. Once I could see some of the human details beneath the makeup, I was fine. But I knew I had not completely conquered my fear.

This year I got invited to a lavish Halloween party in a big old house in Bolton Hill. I warned my friends that I get scared easily and hate Halloween.

“It’s OK. We can leave if you get scared,” my friend said.

“No, I won’t need to leave. I just might need to find a corner to survey the room from.”

It was the most enjoyable Halloween yet. There was not one clown or scary mask and the number of people in sleazy costumes had dwindled. Everyone put thought into their costume. I dressed as Julia Child and mingled easily with Abe Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, Frida Kahlo, and Rosie the Riveter. I envied Amelia Earhart for her boots and leather jacket.

I noticed everyone at the party was at least in their 30s and most worked for the Associated Press or the Baltimore Sun, which explained the more creative costumes. I may not have conquered my fears, but I have come of age - the age when my peers no longer want to dress sleazy or ghoulish for Halloween.

'Salvaged' Part II: The Child Within

“Objects Found” is a labyrinthine antique collection with something for everyone in the heart of Catonsville: any turn down one hallway could lead you to a dead end, so you have no choice but to back yourself into another tiny alcove. Treasure boxes are scattered throughout, filled with postcards or photographs. One black and white photograph is of a young toddler in large breeches and an even larger tunic; his head seems to sink below the surface as he stares with big eyes. He is no doubt eager for the posing to be finished so he can eat or play.

Wander away from the pictures and up a short staircase into a room with two open closets, one with Christmas ornaments (on sale) with a Baltimore Hon flamingo to greet you. The other closet is devoted to music (Schuberth’s Serenade), records (“Learn to Hustle” and “French Folk Songs”), and Elvis.

Here in this closed in space of note scales and purple wooden mouth harps, I found my object.

My intent in visiting was to study the vintage clothing, the ones they advertise for Halloween (dress like a 19th century bride!), but I fell in love with a small wooden piano sitting on a shelf. It was not really a piano, but a jewelry box in the shape of a piano (I am reminded of my middle school grammar teacher stressing, “Things are not always as they seem”). The designated place for A through G hold no black and white keys, but blue fuzzy material for a small bracelet to rest in. When you open up the top of the grand piano, it transforms into staircase for storing pearls and earrings. On a whim, I considered buying this authentic looking commodity. I set it back down and then picked it up again, turning it on its back. Sure enough there was a rusted key at the bottom, revealing its true musical nature. How could a person ever make a piano jewelry box and not make it a music box as well? I almost put it back without turning the knob. It’s as if the object was too fragile for me to test it out. It’s not one of those green and white singing Christmas bears in the department stores that say “Try Me.” This was something different, something valued and beautiful, something rare.

Deciding I would regret not playing the song, my hand rotated the key slowly and gently just to get a brief sample of the tune, to see if I even recognized it. The first few notes were slow twangs amid the clash of Frank Sinatra in the background but the tune was a pleasing version of “La Vie En Rose.” I was in awe of the tiny bell notes turning out the French medley immortalized by Edith Piaf. Again I had the crazy impulse to buy it, it reminded me for some reason of being younger and using jewelry music boxes as houses for my tiny dolls I made from yarn and string. The box unleashed the child within, so to speak.

I was perhaps like the toddler from the old photograph sitting on a bench waiting for a picture to be taken, so he could go back to his imaginary world... The tune ended and I returned the grand piano music box back on the shelf to collect dust. My journey continues throughout the cluttered maze of ceramic, quartz, and nostalgia.

Gram Belle

I wake up in the dark to the sound of my grandmother’s voice coming loudly from my cell phone which has slipped down my pillow. “That damned husband of hers had better not mouth off again. He really doesn’t want to mess with me, does he Boo?”

Pretending I have not dozed off and have no idea if we’re talking about a family member or a soap opera character I say, “No ma’am. He sure doesn’t.” I look at the alarm clock across the room and when my nearsighted squint clears the red digital glow I see that it is almost 3am. Gram picks up the conversation and after five minutes of context clues I determine that we are talking about my aunt and her newish husband, who really is turning out to be a no-count dick.
This isn’t an odd scenario for us, we’ve always been abnormally close. My mother is a career woman who took her only child to her mother’s house to get on and off the bus while she worked her way up the corporate ladder. It was in the hours after school that Gram taught me how to play poker, Foxtrot, and walk the line between a lady and a good time. On some rainy days when a particularly good sale was going on or a major story line on General Hospital was slated to unravel, Gram would call my mother to tell her I had developed a strange cough and would need to be in for the day. My mom caught on quick, but reprimanded us only when I got close to the absentee limits. My grandmother loves to tell stories about how I would bring her flowers, statuettes, and other treasures stolen from the yards of neighbors. She leaves out that she kept them all.

As we both grew older our relationship changed. I became a latchkey kid and she went a little nutty, confining herself to her bedroom. I visited to gossip, help her balance the checkbook and file her mail. After I started driving I would sign myself out of school to take her to a doctor’s appointment. At seventeen, I became anxiety ridden and depressed and she was the only one with the sense to give me a Vicodin and a splash of sherry and really really listen to what I was feeling.

When I left for college My Gram and I had both evolved into creatures who consumed mind altering substances and kept strange hours. We became the best of late night phone friends and in ten years our conversations haven’t really changed. She tells me about her aches and pains and reads me letters from her first love. I sing Patsy Cline on request and we discuss the escapades of day time television characters. Occasionally though, one of us slips up and the benign conversation gets interesting. Our loose lips bond us and on nights when we are both particularly bored with life and our drugs of choice. We enter the walk-in closet and toss family skeletons back and forth.

These calls are where I learned that my aunt was pregnant, my grandfather had cancer and my uncle was getting divorced. It was during one of these calls that I found out that my mother was born out of wedlock and that my Pa-Pa was not my biological grandfather. My grandfather is a retired lawyer who lives in Chicago and was a prick to my mother when she went to meet him the year she turned sixteen. My Pa-Pa was the submarine sailor who went AWOL to marry my nylon model of a grandmother in 1960. He adopted my mother and raised her as his own, his “Ichiban Baby-san.” Two children followed my uncle and aunt, and the family moved to Aiea, Hawaii to reside on the naval base.

The woman has lived three lives in seventy-two years and I wonder what it must feel like to be done. I want to be done. I want to know if I’ll ever have babies and what they’ll be like when they grow up. I want to know if I’ll marry and to know who will die first. I want to know my happiest time and my saddest time and know that everything else is going to fall somewhere in the middle of the road. I want to sleep when I want, eat what I want and tie a scarf around my head before I leave the house.

On the other end of the phone, I hear her light another cigarette and I reach for one of my own.

Grace-ful John

I was sitting gin a hotel room in New York City last Thursday on the second day of the PhotoPlus convention I was attending with my colleagues. As a pro photography lab, our company was an exhibitor, which meant 10 hours on our feet each day, no time for breaks (or eating for that matter) during the show, and horrendous color coordinated outfits. On Thursday night, we all drudged back to the hotel exhausted and ready to finally sit down for a meal. My cell rang as we were deliberating whether or not to make reservations or venture out onto the street without them, and my Dad was on the other line.

"John Shank passed away," he almost whispered. I didn't understand what he said at first and asked him to repeat it. "John Shank passed away," he said again in a slight yell. I think he must have been terrified knowing that John, just a few years older than himself, dropped dead without warning.

John was the father of Carrie Shank, a dear childhood friend and friend to this day. Although we lead very different lives, mine in the city and hers in the country, we always manage to reconnect whenever it is that we see each other again. Carrie is expecting a baby in mid-December and I actually visited her just two weeks ago at the baby shower. We had spoken when she found out she was pregnant and again when she found out baby Grace's sex, but I hadn't actually seen her with that tummy. I teared up as I wrapped my arms around her for a hug and that bump hugged me back. She looked just gorgeous.

That Shanks were the family always brave enough to invite all the kids to their house, so growing up, their farm was the epicenter of parties, sleepovers, and swimming in the summer. Mrs. Shank, Sharon, loved a busy house and John just went along for the ride. Although there was a time or two when my Mom dragged me away from such parties because the Shank's weren't home to supervise, John and Sharon were always on their way home or not far away and would call my Mom to explain and ask if I could come back.

Sharon was so proud at the shower and thrilled to see me there. We too hugged and she asked about my upcoming wedding, my parents and brothers. It had been a long time since I had seen her so happy. She had a particularly hard time when Carrie, the only girl in the family, went away to college. She shut down and just looked empty when I happened to bump in her the few times I was back in our hometown. Yet, at the shower, she was surrounded by several old girlfriends with whom she had reconnected, laughing and telling stories.

When I got the news, I collapsed back on the hotel bed and asked a blur of questions. John had celebrated his 55th birthday with his entire family and headed home after dinner to fix the mailbox he had accidentally run over with his tractor. A neighbor found him minutes after he collapsed. He died at the end of his driveway from a massive heart attack. When I got as many answers as there were to be had, I hung up the phone and started to cry.

I wasn't exactly what I would call "friends" with John, he was my father's age after all, but he was a part of my life as a teen and most importantly, Carrie's Dad. What hurt most was that my friend had lost her father. It stung even more knowing that baby Grace was just a few weeks away from meeting her grandpa. And what about Sharon? I'm sure when Carrie left home for college and eventually got married and moved out, Sharon turned to John for support. I am confident he was an integral part of helping her cope and bringing her back to life. Now, he had left her too, but this time it was forever.

Of course friends and family asked the typical questions, "why did John have to die?," "why was he taken at such a young age?," but all I could think was "why right now?" People die, I've come to terms with that, and it can sometimes happen when least expected, but didn't John deserve to live just two more months to see the birth of his first grandchild? Kiss her just once? What could the family have done to be punished so severely? This is something I don't think I'll ever be able to wrap my head around.

I am not a religious person, but I think I am spiritual, and I truly believe that John will be a part of baby Grace, beyond simply genetics. I want to hope that he will be felt in the hospital room that day in December and when Carrie and Sharon look at that precious newborn, they will also see a rebirth of John.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Of Mice and Yen, or: How I Learned to Use My Japanese Washer and Dryer

What do you fear most?

I fear that “technology” has left me so far behind that I’ll never catch up. I don’t Twitter, I don’t have a My Face Space . . . Book, whatever. And until this class, I didn’t blog.

I’m also afraid of being eaten by a shark.

Dying in a plane crash sounds horrific. Not the dying part, but the screaming-on-the-way-down part, knowing I shall certainly not land softly and unharmed.

I’m terrified of mice, and their chubbier, pinker-tailed cousins, the rats.

So my worst fear might be boarding a doomed flight piloted by two mice so busy linking on their laptops that they overshoot their landing zone and run out of fuel over the sharky parts of the Pacific.

But it’s really the rats that make me feel the icy hand of fear at the small of my back.

I don’t think I had this problem when I was very young. No mouse trauma that I can recall. Once, when I was in college, living at the illustrious Wentworth Domicile and Partyshack, a mouse scrambled over my roommate’s foot while we were standing around discussing the latest panty-raid. I don’t remember being particularly troubled by witnessing this event, but then again, the mouse was smaller than some of the Palmetto bugs that used to crunch under our bare feet as we stepped into the shower.

No, I believe I can trace the origins of my fear to a summer night in 1988. I was a newly married girl-woman fresh off the boat in Okinawa. Consider that the first year of marriage is daunting enough in familiar surroundings, and then ask yourself: Who would want to make that any harder? The United States Marine Corps, that’s who. We’d barely crossed the threshold when some crusty CO handed my husband orders for the aptly named “unaccompanied tour” on an island in the South China Sea. This is when I came to understand the military maxim “if we wanted you to have a spouse, we would have issued you one.” They can’t tell you that you cannot follow your beloved, but they can make you wish you’d never set foot in the land of monsoons and bike-rusting humidity. Uncle Sam does not pay, on unaccompanied tours, for your stuff to follow you, nor does he pay for you to live with other Americans in the womb-like comfort of the base. You are on your own, baby, living with the locals, scrounging for furnishings and friends, and as an added incentive for never attempting to buck the natural order of unaccompanied tours again, the Corps waits until you’ve been on your new island just long enough to remember what your spouse looks like, and then whisks him off to some place you are most definitely not allowed to go. Ha! That’ll show you.

I was undeterred. I loved our apartment that smelled like soy sauce from the restaurant below. I loved my bilingual neighbor from Nagasaki who told me Hurry up! A Marine just left all his furniture in the dumpster! I grew to love the caribou, hooked by a nose ring to a post by the road. I even loved my stupid little red car that fostered a new kind of independence in me – that of a young woman who knew how to put clutch fluid in the proper receptacle so she could make it home, and who knew how to hitch a ride when she ran out of clutch fluid. I taught English, got paid in yen, ate a live shrimp, read a bunch of bad novels and some good ones, and missed my husband. I was alive.

I was not, however, of a mind to learn to use the washer and dryer in our apartment. It was a tiny, stacked model, with the operating instructions written in Japanese, so I just bundled up my weekly wash load and drove it out to the base for a rip-roaring evening of standing around the laundry facility, watching whatever baseball game the Marines happened to be playing on the field by the bachelor officer’s quarters.

The washers and dryers lined each wall of a small cinderblock hallway, with a bank of sea-salted windows on the side overlooking the field. A door, always left open in the humid summer, led to the parking lot. I was usually alone when I got there, and sometimes lonely. The smell of soapy laundry mixed with ocean breeze soothed me. Since I’d worked my way through a summer Physics class at a laundromat, I considered myself a professional laundress, and I kept hoping some feckless Marine would come in needing my assistance, perhaps some advice on how to determine if those middling colors belonged with darks or whites. But no one asked for my help.

One evening, as I rested my hip against the pulsing dryer next to the open door, I saw from the corner of my eye a large something waddling through the doorway toward my feet. I looked down in time to see the biggest damn rat I had ever seen in my life just before it disappeared, with some difficulty, beneath the dryer on which I was leaning. Because it did not streak or whip or zip or any other fast verbs that I usually associated with vermin, I had ample time to see the fat, plodding gray body squeeze itself under my dryer, long fleshy tail in tow.

I believe I screamed. I know I jumped on top of that dryer with complete disregard for any damage it might incur. As blood drained from my head to protect my vital organs, frantic thoughts vied for top position in my mind. Could I fit through the window? What would I do for clothes? How the hell did it fit under there? Was it still there? I needed to look, but I couldn’t look. I was afraid if I saw it again I would faint and drop onto the floor where it would surely attack me. Paralyzing fear froze my innards, and I was unable to move voluntarily, though shudders kept racking my frame.

Just as I had resigned myself to standing on the dryer and screaming until someone heard me, Grant walked through the open doorway. Grant was another Marine and a friend from the States, not to mention my savior in a white polo. He wanted to know what I was doing on top of the dryer with a very pale face.

“There’s a rat under here.”

He laughed and leaned on the dryer.

“No, I mean a really big one.”

But Grant just continued to smile. “We used to have mice and rats in the walls of our house in Oklahoma,” he said. “He’s more scared of you than you are of him.”

I felt that was an arguable and imbecilic point, but I refrained from hysteria and from asking him if I could ride out on his back. He talked me down from the heights of fear like a psychologist does a jumper, and after a time, I became convinced my nemesis was gone – probably having slunk behind another machine. If he felt it, Grant never once showed the slightest squeamishness. He helped me get my clothes out of the dryer and walked me to my car, though I sprinted and he walked.

I learned to use that washer and dryer in my apartment. I learned to keep from overreacting whenever I thought I saw movement in my peripheral vision. I learned how to calm myself when visions of that gigantic rat encroached upon my nights alone. And I learned a useful technique for vanquishing fear. Nothing less than this, my friends: Send in the Marines.

Rotten Baby

The books, veterinarians, and our friends warned us that Bichons were known as attention-cravers. “High maintenance,” they said, “don’t let their small size fool you.” My parents took note of everyone’s advice, but their curiosity took the better of them when she was born on December 6, 2007.

The litter was unusually large. Bichon litters tend to consist of three to four pups, but she was from a litter of seven. “The more, the merrier!” I thought, even though they said large litters can create overly hyper, aggressive puppies. Still, my mom fell in love with her when holding her in the palm of her hand. I fell in love with her when I bathed her at the breeder’s house and her delicate white curls melted away in the sudsy water.

After much thought, we settled on the name “Missy.” She was, after all, going to be the proper miss-priss, well-trained type that would wear bows in her ears and pink princess t-shirts. But when we took her home, she knew we were mere fools at her disposal and “well-trained” flew through the doggy-door. If the pink fleece blanket, array of soft, plushy beds, or scattered bones didn’t give us away, well, maybe the fact that the house looked like PetSmart upchucked in it did.

It only took a couple of weeks for Missy to learn that her pleading, black-eyed stares would earn her scraps of steak and cheese at the dinner table, which soon transcended into packages of cheese bought especially for her at the grocery store. She learned when I ate a bowl of icecream that she could nuzzle her way onto my lap with a kiss and then freely dip her head into my bowl for licks. And she learned to sit at my father’s feet at night, when he read and ate snack mix.

After a couple of months, we quickly learned that bathroom doors must be kept shut. If a door were inadvertently cracked open, she’d edge her way in to snatch the ends of the dangling toilet paper. She’d then run through the bedrooms and down the hallway, all the while keeping yard upon yard of the quilted, perforated squares intact. I always knew when Missy had assailed the toilet paper, because I’d find mounds of it looped back into the holder by my mother.

It also didn’t take long for our clothing to accumulate small holes and tears from Missy’s constant nips and gnawing. I no longer have elbows on my favorite burgundy sweater or embroidery on my sweatshirts from Missy’s attacks. “No, no” my mother would sternly warn Missy while holding up her index finger. “Be the alpha male,” they said. But Missy would have none of it. She always responded with growls that ended with her lounging in to tap my mother’s finger with her nose as a final act of defiance.

And chase her tail? Oh no. Missy’s too smart for that. She literally catches her tail, even if it’s paired with a couple of yelps here and there. And when she’s done, she’s beaming, with clumps of hair hanging from her mouth.

These days, we are quite accustomed to Missy’s affinity for shredding paper. In fact, just the other day, she stumbled upon my father’s stack of insurance records that he hadn’t had time to file. Shredded paper can’t even begin to describe the mayhem in his office, which was reminiscent of the annual winter wonderlands in malls. Think of his office as layered with the plastic, artificial snow mounded around Santa’s chair.

“Rotten bay-beeeeeeee!” my father says every evening, when he steps in the door from work. “No touch, no talk, no eye contact,” they say. But he follows this with an upwards scooping of Missy who is still squealing and wriggling in his arms. She licks him everywhere—up his nose, in his mouth, on his glasses, in his ears. After my dad sits her back down on the floor, she runs in laps, faster than Danica Patrick could drive, around the house: through the hallway, kitchen, family room, living room, then back through the hallway, all the while half-shrieking, half throaty-growling this “raaaa—raaaaahh-raaa—rahhhhh!” of hers. This has been their routine for the past two years.

At night, Missy always curls up against me, and she nuzzles her nose in the nape of my neck. We share the same pillow, and I cover her up with my comforter until only the tip of her black nose peeks through. Her baby breath lands in soft poofs against my cheek, and I hear her snores. “I love you,” I say, “you’re mine.”

Par For The Course

I recently read an article about a mother and son who were kicked off of a Southwest flight because the child was unruly. What was most surprising to me wasn’t the crew’s decision to have the women ousted rather the reaction from people who read the article and posted comments. Most folks agreed with the crew but took it a step further and attacked the woman for allowing her two year old child to disturb others. Moreover, they expressed their disgust for passengers who show little if any consideration for the people around them. It got me thinking about all of the different times I’ve flown and the people I have encountered along my journeys some kind, some mean but all interesting.

My first flight was over thirteen years ago out of Dulles on British Airways. It had stormed all morning. The traffic jammed on the Toll Road leaving me with an anxious stomach and little time to get through the airport for my afternoon flight. I checked my bag and ran to the gate. Passengers were already boarding and my friend was restless waiting for me. “Finally,” she said. “I was getting worried.”

“Well, I’m here, so let’s go. Europe or bust!” I replied as my stomach turned.

We boarded our flight in very different states of minds. I was a nervous wreck and Em was calm. She was a seasoned traveler and wisely took Dramamine while waiting for me. As we settled into our seats, which were the middle two in a row of four, Em fell asleep. The rain continued and pelted the plane amplifying my anxiety. Forty five minutes later our flight ascended and the turbulence that followed turned my stomach against me for good.

No more than thirty minutes into the flight and I had filled up my barf bag and was searching for Em’s. She was fast asleep and unaware of my condition. The man next to me kindly offered up his bag. I smiled sheepishly and began to fill it. I wanted to crawl under the seat in embarrassment or at least get up and go to the restroom but the turbulence was so bad I couldn’t. The flight attendants weren’t even walking around. I just hunched over in my seat and cried. The kind man next to me rubbed my back and told me it would be okay. He was only a few years older than me and spoke with a British accent. And over the next five hours, he talked to me about home, travel, family and life and helped me get through my first flight.

The following Fall I moved to Charlotte and alternated driving and flying home. I also began to travel more with business, so flying became a common occurrence for me. It happened so often that I rarely got sick. Plus, the flights were short and didn’t allow much time for my stomach to attack. Closing my eyes and sleeping became my fail-proof remedy. One time though I sat next to a kid who had gas. It was the longest hour flight of my life. He didn’t say a word the entire time just smiled uncomfortably. If it wasn’t for the rancid stench coming from his direction, I would have felt sorry for the kid, who was about nine years old and travelling by himself. Instead, I did everything in my power not to look at him or utter a sound in his direction. I knew if I opened my mouth something embarrassing would come out. So, we both sat in silence.

In an attempt to drift away to another place, I closed my eyes. But the only thing in my mind was the scene from Tora! Tora! Tora! when the Japanese dropped bomb after bomb on Pearl Harbor. My eyes stayed open for the rest of the flight. My fail-proof remedy crashed and burned, and the short flight home was plenty of time for the boy’s stomach to declare war.

I eventually moved to Atlanta and flying became my only means of transportation home. There were planes of plenty in and out of Hartsfield-Jackson and they were always packed. I was flying back to Georgia from a long weekend with the family when a young blond woman asked if she could have my aisle seat. She said that her husband was sitting next to me and they were unable to get seats together. I agreed and asked where she was sitting. The woman pointed to a seat several rows back. I reached up to get my laptop out of the overhead as I was planning on using it in flight when she snapped, “Why do you need your bag? You’re just going over there. It’s not like anyone will take it.”

Several things ran through my head to say to her at that moment: I plan on using my laptop once we take off. I want to have my belongings near me during the flight. It’s none of your business. I’m giving you my damn seat, back off. I didn’t say any of them though. Instead I replied, “What does it matter?”

She barked back, “You don’t need your bag. You’re just going a few rows away.”

Why did this woman care so much about my bag? After all, she was getting what she wanted -- my seat. Did it really matter if I took a few extra minutes to remove my bag from the overhead? It wasn’t like we were taking off at that very moment.

My patience had faded and I regrettably retorted, “Do you want my seat or not?”

Her hands flew up in the air and she started yelling things I can’t recall. Her husband stood up and got involved. People were staring. I grabbed my bag and ran. I wasn’t ready for all that excitement. I just wanted to get home.

For the rest of the flight all I could think about was that woman and what happened. My stomach cramped from anxiety. I had sweat marks on my t-shirt. And I never opened my laptop bag.

Nowadays, I hardly ever fly. The few times that I do, I usually sleep or try keep to myself. When I do fly, I don’t want to be inconvenienced just as much as the next person but that is kind of par for the course. We can’t control what happens in the plane anymore than we can control the elements outside of it. You just have to go with the flow and hope the ride is full of sunshine and roses. Lots of sweet smelling roses.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Columbus Day

When my son, Joel, was in elementary school, I was a working mom. That meant caretaking, meal making, housekeeping, homework battles, and bedtime stories after work. That meant shuttling the kids to choir, karate, gymnastics, or band after work. When permitted, I’d watch their activities—while paying the bills kept in my handbag. When not permitted, say by the director preparing choir for concert, I’d pop a wheelie out of the parking lot and squeeze in an hour’s worth of grocery shopping. Weekends and holidays were the same, except Columbus Day, my one day without work or activities.

Every year, I looked forward to Columbus Day when I had off while my husband worked and my kids went to school. For weeks, I’d plan the favorite thing I’d do that day, maybe book browse at Borders or shop at Pier I.

One Columbus Day I was home—feet up, sipping hot Lipton, laughing with I Love Lucy—when my second-grader’s school nurse called: “Your son has a fever and is complaining of a sore throat. Can you get him?” I rushed over. We went to the doctor, who prescribed Amoxicillin. After filling the prescription, we stopped for Slurpees. At home, he put on pajamas, and I read to him on the den couch until he fell asleep.

The next Columbus Day, I was on my way to Annapolis to visit the Main Street Gallery and sit on the pier to read a novel, when I got a phone call: “This is the school nurse. Your son has an upset stomach.” To my exasperated “are you sure?” she handed the phone to Joel, who begged, “Please come get me; I feel really sick.”

When I picked him up, he said “Can I get a movie from Blockbuster’s?” We rented the movie and bought ginger ale for his upset stomach. At home, after he put on pajamas, we watched the movie from the den couch, my arm wrapped around him.

The next Columbus Day, I didn't even remind my husband that I had off. Wanting to not jinx anything, I dressed in business clothes to drop the kids off at morning care. Later, I got the inevitable phone call.

Every year, the phone calls from the nurse got earlier and earlier. Eventually, I gave up making plans for myself and started looking forward to spending the day with my son. By the time he was in high school, all pretense was out the door and when I’d pick him up he’d say, “Mom, it’s a miracle—I feel better already!” At home we’d have naps, watch movies, and enjoy hot tea while reading novels on the den couch.

It’s Columbus Day. I rarely hear from him unless he’s read my cryptic text message: You still alive? Then, he’ll call and tell me the latest about sessions he’s teaching at Penn State.


The thing about emergencies is that there’s no hard and clear rule on when an “issue” escalates into a “crisis.”

A few months ago, a friend of mine and I were waiting for a table outside of a restaurant when we noticed smoke billowing out of a car. Watching it seemed only to fan the invisible flames, so I walked into the restaurant and informed the non-committal hostess of the event taking place outside. There, I thought, dusting it off my hands as I returned to my friend; not my problem. Yet that wonderful feeling of transference began to wear off as the minutes passed without a resolution. The restaurant was crowded, and as people began to take notice of the event, that sense of responsibility began to set back in. I mean, we did notice it first; didn’t that mean we had to take partial ownership, at least until the real owner of the car showed up?

My friend Jesse and I deliberated for a few minutes about what to do. “Do we call the fire department? It’s not very obviously a fire,” I said.

“I don’t even know the fire department’s number,” Jesse added.

“Isn’t it…9-1-1?” I pondered aloud. There is so much stigma associated with dialing the forbidden number that I hardly knew if we should have called. When the chef from the restaurant came out of the kitchen wielding a fire extinguisher and marched around the car scratching his head, Jesse however decided that it was time to phone in a professional. In a matter of minutes, the fire truck sounded its way over and with a shatter of broken glass and the gush of a fire hose, a car was destroyed along with the danger it posed. We never did get to see its owners, though. I wondered whether they stayed in the restaurant throughout the ordeal, whether from embarrassment or hunger.

And so a few months later, when I am moving into my new house and my father directs me to clean paint off the electrical outlets using steel wool and Goof-Off, I hesitate. Fire is bad. And real. And, I don’t know whether that sprinkler system actually works yet, and I’ve never much cared for finding things out the hard way. But this is my father speaking; surely, if there was any threat of danger, real or imagined, he would give me due warning. After a quick game of “are you sure? Are you sure-sure?,” I found myself mindlessly scrubbing away at the sage green paint residue on each electrical socket of the master bedroom. “What a lovely unexpected flash of light,” I thought, calmly, and looked down to find, in my palm, the homey glow of a flaming piece of Brillo. At least I had the sense to throw it down, and what amazed me more was what happened next.

As it sat on the brand new carpet, flaming higher by the second, I screamed “FIRE!” in the jazziest most soul-gripping voice I never knew I had. Of course, it was preceded by a string of obscenities, starting with holy and advancing to the opposite end of the spectrum, but that was requisite. At that moment, my mother ran into the room, demonstrating what can only be called a text-book example of the word “panic.” Before she could make a sound, involuntarily her elbows began pumping the air like a bellows (and, like a bellows, somehow made it worse), and her knees marched violently up and down like a redneck at a hoedown, but it was the look of shock on her face that startled me to my feet. Seeing nothing around that I could use to douse or smother the flames, I began stomping them with one Isotoner-clad foot. The flames licked upward and neared my hip, and I feared that my aged cotton sweatpants might ignite, so I ran to the bathroom in search of…?

A towel! I grabbed a towel, a slightly damp one at that, and spun around for the bedroom. I saw my mother, helplessly stomping at the Brillo with her foot, but three feet away from it. She had been stomping at bare carpet in her panic. Long story short, the towel sufficed where the sprinkler system, Isotoner, and panicking mother did not. The carpet looked a little worse for wear even after a good vacuuming; its singed tips had to be painstakingly trimmed, and the nap will forevermore be uneven. Yet somehow, the hardest part was after it was all over. “You ought to go downstairs and tell your father what happened,” my Mother said gravely.

Resigning to my fate, I solemnly walked downstairs to where my father tinkered with the garbage disposal. “Don’t panic,” I began, “but we had a little fire upstairs.” It took all my might not to laugh, and I quickly extinguished the vision of my Mother the Scarecrow that danced in my head.

“Oh, you must have touched the electrical screw with the Brillo and it arced out,” he responded flatly. “I thought about warning you, but then I didn’t.” Hours later, after he had surveyed the damage and heard the full accounts of the only two witnesses, he added, “well, that sounds a lot worse than I thought it would be,” which in Dad speak means, “HOLY FUCKING SHIT, FIRE!”