Friday, November 21, 2014

Cold meatballs

It might have been a sign from God and I ignored it. My late-ex-former husband was never satisfied with my cooking or anything else I did that involved food. I worked on it, honest I did, and it seemed everyone loved my cooking. Everyone but himself. Here’s the sign from God that I missed. Early in our marriage the former husband complained to me that I “never” had anything good in the refrigerator like his mother had. When I asked him for a specific example of something that was in his mother’s refrigerator and never in our refrigerator, his response was “cold meatballs.” Yep, I was making beef stroganoff and he was looking for cold meatballs. Let me point out that these allegedly wonderful meatballs that I could not produce would have been sitting on a plate in his mother’s refrigerator completely unwrapped. Just sitting there like the day they were produced with nothing between them and the cold air circulating in the avocado green Coldspot. They most likely would have been next to a plate of cold unwrapped spareribs, another thing I failed to produce. I should have said, “Well, if cold meatballs is what you want, my darling, then maybe you just need to park yourself in front of your mama’s refrigerator and leave me alone with the vichyssoise.” I can come up with some great comebacks, given 40 years or so to think about it.

There is no implication that his mother was not a good cook. She was a wonderful woman, I loved her probably as much as he did, but she was an Irish woman from Philadelphia who knew how to cook meat and potatoes. Thanksgiving dinner at her house involved the slaughter of a number of animals from someone's farm. It would include: turkey, ham, roast beef, cocktail shrimp, spareribs, mashed white potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing with sausage, rolls (always burned), gravy (homemade, of course), and a seasonal Jello mold. Note the absence of a single green vegetable. Nothing. Nada. The Jello might have been green but I recall it was usually red and it might have included canned fruit cocktail and maraschino cherries. Dessert included pumpkin pie, apple pie, banana cream pie, cheesecake, and various flavors of ice cream. Cool-Whip for all.

Okay—it’s less than a week before Thanksgiving and now I’ve done what I needed to do. I have completely lost my appetite for all things Thanksgiving. But I might go look in the refrigerator to see if there are any cold meatballs.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

With open hands

There once was a man, very dear to me, who called me Stands with Fist. Stands with Fist is a fictional character, a Lakota woman from the book and the film Dances with Wolves. She was a symbol of defiance and strength. And perhaps I embraced that image and have seen myself as someone who could withstand the blows that life threw at me. (I have written about Stands with Fist briefly on this blog before—at http://donnaxander.blogspot.com/2011/05/stands-with-fist.html.)

Perhaps that defiance, that perceived self-reliance, does not serve me well when it comes to relating to God. My strength comes from God; my weakness becomes an asset because it reminds me of my reliance on Him, that His grace is all I need. No need to be strong, no need to clench my fists, just rest in His grace. Probably my most favorite Bible verse, from 2nd Corinthians, is:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

I am reading a short Henri Nouwen book entitled, With Open Hands, a guide to prayer. He writes about being comfortable in silence and coming to God in prayer with acceptance and trust. Funny, but in a literal sense, that’s the way I’m most comfortable praying. With open hands, beseeching Him, receiving what He has to say to me. The hands clenched in desperation don’t seem appropriate.

A quote from the Nouwen book:
The wisdom of the world is the wisdom that says: “It is best to stand firm, to get a good grip on what’s yours here and now, and to hold your own against the rest who want to take it away from you; you’ve got to be on your guard against ambush. If you don’t carry a weapon, if you don’t make a fist, and if you don’t scramble to get what you need—food and shelter—then you’re just asking to be threadbare and destitute, and you’ll end up trying to find a mediocre satisfaction in a generosity which no one appreciates. You open your hands and they pound in nails! Smart people keep on their toes, with muscles tense and fists clenched; they squint and are always ready for an unexpected attack.”
So much for the wisdom of the world—let down your guard, unclench your fists and they will pound nails into your hands. Maybe the wisdom of the world doesn’t serve us well. I need to unclench my fists, open my hands and trust God.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

I done good

The lights were out, the house was getting cold, and I was settling into my warm bed. I was beginning to fall asleep, thanking God for so many blessings. I thanked him for my children—a daughter and a son, now grown and both with children of their own. I thought about them, about all the times I worried about them and prayed, pleaded with God to keep them safe. I worried before they were born, I worried when they were babies, especially worried when they were teenagers and when they went to college. I worried about health issues, about their learning abilities and their psychological health. I worried about alcohol and drugs and “bad companions” and anything else that seemed even vaguely threatening. And I worried about whether I could really do it, could I be a good enough mother. There were times when I failed. But last night in my cold, dark room, as I was talking to God, I realized that it had happened. My kids have grown up, they are doing well, raising their own beautiful families. Of course I had realized it before but the reality had never quite hit me the same as it did then. I sat up in bed and said to God, “I done good!”

I love my children more than words can express and I am so proud of them. I still pray that God keeps them safe and now I’ve added my precious grandchildren to the mix. Thank you, Lord, for so many blessings.

What if I had never had children? What if my children became jihadists or ran away and became mimes? (No disrespect for mimes but it would creep me out.) I know a number of women, both young and beyond childbearing age, who wanted children but were never able to have them and I've heard them speak of their heartache. I can't begin to imagine. I know women who have had children who have been huge disappointments, despite seemingly good parenting. I wish I had words of wisdom or comfort for these women. I hope they can find some peace, some way of accepting God’s plan for their lives. Every day I struggle with that acceptance, trying to find peace knowing that things didn’t work out in my life according to my plan. No one gets exactly the life they expected. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, most of the time it’s much different. Whether they have children or not, I hope that they can find something that fills their life, something that one day lets them say, “I done good.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Rabbi

Today I was going through the books on my office bookshelves, rearranging and culling through to see what could be cleared out. I came across When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner, a book that I have loved for years. I then found another copy of the same book. Not unusual for me to have more than one copy of the same book. If it’s something I love and I see a copy in a thrift store, I can’t bear to leave it there; it seems like an indignity to be on a shelf being sold for less than a dollar, next to Astrology for Cats and books by Jacqueline Susann. The original copy of the rabbi’s book was given to me by a Jewish friend (Phil Freedenberg—thank you, Phil) and it has been a true treasure.

At the time when my former husband John was sick and dying, I was working in a rather grubby office above a Chili’s restaurant on Rockville Pike. I was struggling with John’s situation and I needed to pray—then and there I needed quiet time with the Lord. There was no way I could do any serious praying in the office—much too much mayhem there. So I left the office to walk around, past the deli and the dry cleaner, past the parking lots. There was a synagogue down the street. So I walked into the vestibule of the synagogue and the rabbi came out and asked me what brought me there. I told him that I was a Christian, that my former husband was dying, and that I just needed to be in a house of God. He asked me my husband’s name and the name of his mother.

“John, son of Marguerite,” he said, “I will pray for him. Come in. Stay as long as you like.”

With that he unlocked the door of the sanctuary and I sat and prayed for John. And I thanked God for the rabbi and his graciousness to let me in and his offer to pray for John, son of Marguerite.

So rabbis have held a special place in my heart. After all, Jesus was a rabbi too.

Rabbi Kushner turned to the Old Testament Book of Job when his young son Aaron was dying from progeria. Progeria is a horrible condition that causes very rapid aging in young children. He understood, through great trial and searing questions about the goodness of God, that in the end all he could do was to trust God and pray to get through his ordeal. In his book, Rabbi Kushner wrote of prayer:
We can’t pray that God will make our lives free of problems; this won’t happen, and it is probably just as well . . . But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have. Where did they get it? I would like to think that their prayers helped them find that strength. Their prayers helped them tap reserves of faith and courage which were not available to them before.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold S. Kushner, p. 125

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Make love not war

 
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us . . .”
– Charles Dickens, the opening words of A Tale of Two Cities


Yes, we had everything before us. The days of my youth, the mid-1960s, were much like the times Dickens writes of, the time of the French Revolution in the late 1700s. In a sense it was a wonderful time to be young. We were so alive. The country was fighting in Vietnam, the young men of our generation were facing the draft, forced to fight in a war they didn’t believe in. Our nation was struggling with civil rights and with equal opportunities for women. We were rebels with a cause. We thought about what was happening, we read, and we talked and talked. College campuses were embroiled in controversy. We marched, we sang, we protested, and we wore anti-establishment clothes. There was so much anger and confusion, so much uncertainty about our future, and so much injustice. Yet I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been young then, to have been part of it. We had a purpose that was bigger than us and it formed us for the rest of our lives. Many of my generation joined the Peace Corps or later became environmental activists or advocates for social justice causes. We’re more than grown up now—we’re AARP members. But we’ve got a touch of the anti-establishment, crazy hippie war protester in us still.

When I look back at those times and compare them with the generations that came after us, it seems that those who followed us had much less intensity, or perhaps a different kind of intensity. At least from my point of view, they went to college, they got jobs and maybe starting raising families, but they missed the opportunity to have a connection with something beyond themselves. Their focus seemed to be more individualistic, like graduate school, making a lot of money, having big weddings and buying a big house in the right neighborhood. Maybe it’s not possible to have the intensity we had without a war. And it’s not easy to do what we did when you’re older and you have a family to support. The 60s was the perfect time to be young, even for those of us who didn’t go to Woodstock.

But we are now in the midst of a war, and have been for years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where are the mass protests? Why aren’t people rising up and marching in the streets? Why don’t I hear protest songs?
 
Just listen to Protest Radio on Pandora and tell me that our generation didn’t have the best music ever. It still gives me goosebumps and I’m still singing “four dead in Ohio” with Neil Young. The music is the soundtrack of our generation.
 
It was the best of times—we had a cause, we felt alive, and we had great music. It was worst of times—our friends were getting drafted and dying in Vietnam, those who came home were scorned, people were still getting lynched, our leaders were assassinated one after another. What a time to be young. Even if it means I have to be approaching old age now, I am grateful that I was once young in the best and worst of times.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Skeeter del Puente

A couple of nights ago I awoke from a dream with the name Skeeter del Puente floating in my semi-comatose brain. Even half asleep, it made me laugh. “Who the hell is Skeeter del Puente and what is he doing in my head?” I asked the darkness. I got up and wrote down the name, knowing that I wouldn’t remember it in the morning. There’s nothing I can do with Skeeter except work on a writing exercise and see what I get. Here goes . . .

“A voice in the crowd erupted: ‘Now don’t you go forgetting the skeen!’” Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, p. 101

"Don’t believe him,” Cherise whispered in my ear. “He used to live in my neighborhood when I lived in San Angelo. I don’t care what he calls himself. He was born and bred in San Angelo, Texas, not in Hispaniola and his name is Dwayne Lee Skeen.” No, no, no, no. Cherise had to be wrong because everything about Skeeter del Puente was so right. He had transferred to our school in the middle of junior year and stole the hearts of nearly every girl in the school. Even the teachers’ voices seem to soften and go up a little higher in a flirty way when they talked to Skeeter. Well, I mean the women teachers but I probably should include the chorus director Mr. Miller in that group. Mr. Miller was a little . . . umm. . .light on the feet. Skeeter’s hair was black as coal, almost like Elvis’s hair. His skin was nearly perfect except for a couple of zits that I noticed on his neck, but he flipped up his collar to cover them. His eyes were a dreamy golden brown and when he spoke to me, his eyelids were half-closed. And when he spoke . . . that exotic voice, the voice that only could have come from the prince of Hispaniola. I wasn’t sure where Hispaniola was, but Skeeter del Puente said it was a beautiful island, surrounded by the aqua sea, and there were wild parakeets in the coconut trees, and the women were the most beautiful women in the world. When he described his homeland to me, he said with his eyelids half closed, “One day I will take you there. And you will be the most beautiful of all the beautiful women.” Oh, swoon. Skeeter explained that he had moved here from Hispaniola to spend some time with his aunt and uncle and to go to an American high school to perfect his English. Besides, his father was taking an extended trip to Arabia to buy the finest horses and his mother was busy learning her role for the opera and he took the opportunity to live in a small town in America. When he said the word America it seemed like it had about 15 rs in it. . . Amerrrrrrrica. I thought maybe I was in love with Skeeter del Puente. I couldn’t concentrate in class and I kept writing in my notebook: Mrs. Skeeter del Puente, Mary Margaret Donnelly del Puente, Maria Margarita del Puente. I wondered what our babies would look like. I dreamed of going to the prom with him and imagined myself in a red dress, dancing the tango. Surely Skeeter danced the tango like all the great Latin lovers. He would teach me and, even if the DJ was playing a Ricky Nelson song, we would dance the tango. It would be so perfect. But Cherise was jealous and she kept trying to spoil it for me. She would wave at him from across the room and say, “Well, look, it’s Dwayne Lee Skeen! How’s things in San Angelo, Dwayne?” Skeeter just looked through Cherise like she didn’t exist. He was cool that way. So later in the term we had a junior class meeting on plans for the prom. There were nominations for prom committee, and suggestions for the prom theme. People suggested themes like Hawaiian and future in space (that was Bernie Wojik, that nerd) and moonlight in Paris. The prom committee would make the final decision. Then it came time to nominate junior class members to be prom queen and king. I didn’t even want to be nominated for queen. Big deal—Vickie Sterling and Barbie Knutz and a couple of others got nominated, all blondes who had already grown chests. Then time for nominations for prom king. I was sitting way up front. People called out names—Billy MacKenzie the football player, Richie Stearns the baseball player. Then I heard her. I knew who it was without even turning around. A voice in the crowd erupted: “Now don’t you go forgetting the Skeen!”

No Woman No Cry

Okay, I can accept this, just balance the bitter with the sweet. Yesterday I got some news I've been waiting for. A couple of weeks ago I had my annual mammogram. Two days later I got a call from the radiologist’s office saying there was something suspicious, that I need to come back for further testing. I’ve been down this road before and have had surgery (not just biopsies, but the full-tilt boogie with general anesthesia, stitches, and fear, but—thank you, Lord—both turned out to be benign). Here we go again. I wasn’t panicking but certainly was hoping and trusting that it would be okay, no matter what. The news was good. The short answer is everything is okay, no surgery, just come back next year. Thank you, Lord, for favors large and small.

So I will take the water-damaged drywall in my kitchen in stride. It’s just a nuisance. It probably was caused by an overflowed toilet incident in the bathroom upstairs. I dug out all the crumbling drywall and waited for two weeks, watching to see if there were any more signs of water. No more water. So I’ve begun patching the holes and soon I’ll get to paint my entire kitchen. It was painted a few years ago, too long to get by just touching up the damaged part. Oh well. It's just drywall, paint, time, and a few days of disorder.

When I had my most recent breast surgery several years ago, I wore headphones in the operating room. I went out and came to listening to Bob Marley . . . No Woman No Cry seemed perfect for the occasion. I just may go on a Bob Marley binge while I’m painting the kitchen to remind me that I can handle what I have to handle, that God will get me through both big fears and minor aggravations. No Woman No Cry.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A book that could change what you think about living and dying

On Saturday night I finished reading an incredible book that I can’t get out of my head. It has had a profound effect on my convictions about aging, death, and how we make decisions in this age of supercharged health technology. The book is Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. Dr. Gawande teaches at Harvard Medical School and is a practicing surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I’m not loaning my copy of the book to anyone. Ever. This book is staying on my bookshelf. It’s that important.

About halfway through the book I realized that Dr. Gawande is the author of an article I read in the New Yorker magazine several years ago. The article touched on several of the same issues discussed in the book. I read the article over and over again, just to make sure I got it. Dr. Gawande opened my eyes to the fact that medical professionals have bags of tricks at their disposal to extend life for even the worst diseases with the most dire prognoses. Doctors want success, they want to give their patients hope, they want to use everything they have available, and they don’t want their patients to die. But often these treatments make patients much sicker because of their horrific side effects. So the patients spend their final days in agony, paying a high price for very little time on this Earth. And often the treatments don’t even buy them any time. In the long run, death is inevitable. Sorry but true. But when facing death we have the right to make some decisions about our health care.

The article is entitled Letting Go from the August 2010 New Yorker. It’s available online at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/02/letting-go-2.

So after finishing the book, I wrote an e-mail to Dr. Gawande, thanking him for writing the book and explaining why I am so grateful to him. Rather than reiterate my story, I’m copying my letter to Dr. Gawande here.


Dear Dr. Gawande—
 
In my mind I’m going through words, trying to come up with a beginning to this letter that doesn’t start with the word “I”. But it’s not important what words I use, but rather that I convey to you what is in my mind and heart. 

I want to tell you how deeply grateful I am for your work and, if you will give me a few minutes, I would like to tell you a little story, just a snippet from my life.

Four years ago my beloved father died at the age of 88. He was almost completely blind from macular degeneration and he had developed heart problems. Despite the blindness, he had been incredibly independent and energetic until the heart disease began to take its toll. He had a couple of angioplasty procedures and eventually his cardiologist told him that he needed to have a heart valve replaced. Washington Hospital Center, where he was being treated, had a supposedly wonderful new valve replacement procedure that did not involve the full open-heart surgery. The only problem was that my father’s valve problem was not “bad enough” to qualify for the surgery. His cardiologist advised him that his heart would soon fail with surgery, so after a lot of thought and prayer, my father decided to go for it and had open-heart surgery. According to the doctor the surgery was a great success. But my father never left the hospital. He developed an infection that raced through his body. He was put into the ICU, on a ventilator, in a medically induced coma. After a number of days, brain activity ceased, and he was disconnected from the devices and died.

Less than a year after my father’s death, my little brother was shot in the back at point-blank range by his next-door neighbor. The neighbor was angry that my brother’s dog had come into his yard. There is nothing medical science could have done in that horrible situation.
 
Several months after my brother’s murder, his son was in a near-fatal car wreck. He was flown to the shock-trauma unit at the University of Maryland. He was in a coma for three months and had a number of broken bones and other injuries. But, to the amazement of everyone, Jasen survived.
 
Just after my father’s death, Mike, my dear friend and music partner was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He went to Johns Hopkins to see one of the country’s top mesothelioma experts. Mike had chemotherapy, followed by surgery to remove his right lung, followed by intense radiation. This doesn’t even include all the biopsies and lung drainage procedures he endured.
 
Mike was an incredible guy—strong and independent. He was serious about his hobbies—training horses and playing guitar. He only worked a day job to support his other interests. He had the most quiet, fierce determination of anyone I’ve ever known. For example, when he was a teenager he decided he wanted to learn how to pole vault. He came from a family of very modest means. So he cleared a place in the woods, somehow made himself a pole, and taught himself how to pole vault. He ended up holding the South Carolina state record for the pole vault his senior year in high school.
 
He worked in a factory for a year between high school and college to earn money for his college tuition. It was there that he was exposed to the asbestos that killed him 40 years later. He died about 14 months after the mesothelioma diagnosis.

So in a little over a year’s time I lost my father, my brother, and my dear friend Mike.
 
But here’s where you come in to the picture.
 
I have a master’s degree in counseling psychology and did my graduate internship in a senior residence. So for a number of years I have been following the growth of hospice care with great interest. I tried to get my father to enter hospice and he did at first, but when he thought there was some hope that he could scrape a few more years out of his life, he withdrew from hospice and had the open-heart surgery. We now know how that turned out.

So when Mike’s health situation developed and began on its horrific predictable path, I began to wonder how to broach the topic of hospice care with him. I read an article in the New Yorker entitled Letting Go that made a huge impression on me and verified everything I knew from life experiences with the medical system and quality of life issues. With fear and trepidation I gently discussed it with Mike and gave him the article. It took him months to read it, but when he finally did read it, it transformed his state of mind. He got it. He knew he couldn’t change the hand that fate had dealt him, but he could still make decisions about what mattered to him about the time he had left. He was brave and independent throughout his life and he realized that he could face death the same way.

So when the oncologists offered him yet another round of an experimental chemotherapy, he turned it down. He lived about 5 months after that. Predictably, there was a lot of medical intervention controlling the pain and symptoms, but he was coherent until nearly the end. He spent time with his daughters, friends, and me. He died in a nursing home, under the care of hospice.
 
Mike told me that his final year was the worst year of his life, but also the best—because he knew how much he was loved. The last time I saw him, he was fading in and out of consciousness. I said to him, “Haven’t we just had the best time?” And he responded, “Why stop now?” He told me he loved me and I told him I loved him. That was it.

His ashes were thrown on the Gettysburg battlefield, at the exact spot where the 20th Maine pushed back the Confederate forces, the spot they call “the end of the line.” And his death certificate lists his occupation as “cowboy”—he would have loved that.

Last night I finished reading your book Being Mortal. And in the course of reading the book I realized that you were the one who wrote the article in the New Yorker that had such a profound influence on the final months of a cowboy named Mike Ball.

I am sorry that you lost your father—I wish I had known him. He must have been incredibly proud of you.

Thank you, Dr. Gawande, for your work, for your heart, and for your clear writing. I am so grateful to you for having the compassion and the courage to say what you have said. I thank God for giving you that brilliant mind and that warm heart. You have made a difference in the lives of people you have never met. Thank you.

Yours truly,

 

 

 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday morning mortality


Sunday. A tranquil morning, drinking coffee, reading the paper, thinking I should start getting ready to go to church. At this point things start to fall apart. The phone rings and caller ID tells me it’s my mother. I can’t ignore a call from my mother. What if she’s in distress? What if she has called 911 for a medical crisis and I have to meet her in the emergency room? (I thought, please don’t let the ambulance take her to either Laurel Hospital or PG Hospital—rings of hell. Please take her to a decent hospital.)

I answered the phone. She seemed amazingly lucid and energetic this morning, much to my surprise. The crisis was that she wanted me to take her to the thrift store today so she can get some little gifts for her friends. Today happens to be half-price day at the thrift store in honor of Veteran’s Day. Do you have any idea what it’s like in the thrift store on half-price day? It’s like the Social Security office combined with the DMV except that people have shopping carts and there are broken toys and plastic food containers, mismatched stinky old sneakers, and 12,000 pairs of jeans on the floor. People are trying on clothes in the aisle, children are wailing, and the toilets are always broken. Into this ring of hell (still better than the hospital emergency rooms) I am invited to bring an 88-year-old woman who can barely walk and is dependent on her portable oxygen machine. Her favorite is the crystal aisle. She thinks everything in the crystal aisle is genuine Waterford. God bless her for her optimism. She loves the thrift store but the mean, impatient daughter in me said no can do. I was hoping to go to church. That didn’t happen but I ended up doing the Lord’s work so I’m sure I am forgiven for missing church. Again.

From there we got into a discussion of all the people she knows who have just died or who are going to die soon. She said she thinks all of her organs are failing and she doesn’t think she has much quality time left in her life. I told her about the book I just finished reading last night (Being Mortal by Atul Gawande) and how it has deepened my convictions about modern medicine and choices about dying.

I have been given medical power of attorney for my mother. One of the things Dr. Gawande stresses in the book is how important it is to truly understand what a person’s wishes are when faced with life/death decisions. I already knew much of what my mother’s wishes are, but since she brought up the topic it gave me an opportunity to clarify what she wants when her days are growing short. So we talked and I feel that I have a firmer grasp on what she wants. It was great, but sad.

Sad and stressful to hear my mother talk about her fears, facing the end of her life, and how much she still misses my father. (I still miss him too.) She says Daddy would be really mad at her to see how she’s living now—staying up until 2 in the morning, sleeping until noon, eating sweets. She wonders if heaven really exists and if she’ll really get to see him again. I assure her she will. Please God, make it happen for her. All things for those who are called according to His purpose.

I missed church, I had a sad but necessary discussion with my mother, and I hadn’t had breakfast. My solution? I ate half of the package of candy cane Joe Joe cookies that I bought yesterday at Trader Joe’s. I don’t know how many cookies that is. I am afraid to count. Now I have a stomach ache to match the sadness in my heart. I know the good Lord will forgive all of my failings but the jeans are not so forgiving.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The book

Just in case you think I'm blowing smoke, that I'm the master of the empty gesture, I want to show you something. I really am writing a book. I wrote one non-fiction book but never was able to get it published and it now feels stale to me. This newer unfinished book is fiction, but I've been stalled for a long time because I can't figure out the voice and structure. The current working concept is that it is a connected series of short stories similar to Olive Kitteridge. (If only I could write a book worthy of being compared to Olive Kitteridge.) Instead of being connected by a single character, it is connected by a place, specifically a town called Breezy Point on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. There is a real town called Breezy Point that I knew in my childhood, but here I'm just using the name of the town and fictionalizing details. It takes place in the late 1950s and much of it is written from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old girl. But there are other voices too, and that's where I'm making myself cray-cray, trying to sort it all out and unify the pieces. The working first chapter is in the voice of the 12-year-old girl (obviously my alter ego because I write in her voice all the time). Current draft is over 100 pages, so it's a start but needs so much more work. But here is the draft of chapter 1 of the book, working title, Breezy. I used to call it Believe but I think Breezy may work better. Some of the chapters are much more serious, haunting than this, not all attempts at my version of humor. And much of this has been inspired by real life. You can't make up this stuff.


            “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” That was my mother talking. It was sometime in the spring, 1959, I was 12 years old, and I had just been hit by a bread truck. I was innocently riding my bike home from my hula lesson when the Strosneider’s bread truck came barreling around the corner, hit my bike, and sent me flying about 10 feet through the air, clear over the prickle bush hedge, and onto the lawn. The guy driving the bread truck didn’t even stop. My bike was a mangled pretzel by the side of the road. I was stunned, scraped and bruised, but I managed to get up in one piece. Mama just stood there by the front door, holding two bags of groceries from the A&P, shaking her head, saying, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie.”

            I suppose that little story could give you the wrong impression about a couple of things. First of all, my mama was never a mean person—she just believed in self-reliance. I never would have expected her to drop those groceries and come running to see if the bread truck had killed me. She had faith in my powers of resilience; she just knew that I’d bounce back, that I was stronger than any bread truck.

            The second wrong impression you might get from the story of my collision with the bread truck is that my name is Ralph. Not so. My name is Marie Antoinette Zimmerman, but my mama rarely called me by my given name. I often wondered whether it was a bad omen to have been named after a woman who was beheaded. Perhaps, because when my mama called me Marie Antoinette I knew it meant trouble. Actually she never called me by any girl’s name and she rarely called me the same name twice. But somehow I always knew she was talking to me when she called me Wilbur, or Thurgood, or Gus, or any of the thousands of boy names she used. There was just something in the tone of her voice that I knew she meant me. Everyone in Breezy knew she meant me too.

            Breezy is the town where I grew up. Actually, you won’t find it on any map listed as Breezy. Its official name is Breezy Point. It’s in Calvert County, Maryland, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The houses in Breezy have little in common except they are all rather squished into the town, some on the shore, others high up on the hill, or back in the pine trees. Most of them were built by the people who live in them. And some of the builders were more skilled than others.  [MORE DETAILS ABOUT THE TOWN]

My mother was named Mary Magdalena Zimmerman, but everyone called her Maggie. She was more than a little eccentric—in some ways like a rabid butterfly, flitting around, changing to suit her whims, but in other ways she was as immutable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

One of her most obvious whims was her hair obsession. On alternate weeks, she changed her hair color. It could be magenta, burnt umber, platinum, or a combination or any of the above. These were never colors known in nature. She had an entire collection of falls and wiglets and little chignons that she attached to her hair with no regard for trying to match the color of the fake hair to her hair color du jour. Once she cut tresses out of one of her hairpieces and glued them to her scalp with industrial strength glue. She thought it looked great for the first day and she believed she was on to something, that she had discovered a great new beauty tip and she began brewing a plan to market her discovery. Then the glued-in pieces started falling out along with large chunks of her natural hair. She didn’t miss a beat though and didn’t fret about the big bald spots on her skull. It gave her an opportunity to get some new hair pieces until her hair grew back. And it gave her a chance to be philosophical, to impart a little of her wisdom to me, saying, “What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, Grover. What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”

Mama was totally into the glamour business in general, which accounted for her career choice. She sold Avon for 35 years and eventually worked her way up to regional manager. People in Breezy used to say, “Ding dong” almost any time they saw her. She loved Avon and her customers loved her.

Then there was her redecorating obsession. But the redecoration whim was limited to the living room. The dining room never changed; it was wallpapered with lords and ladies dancing the minuet and cluttered with stacks of boxes of Avon products, a gallery of paint-by-number oil paintings, portraits of saints, and Mama’s extensive collection of Queen Elizabeth coronation china. Nothing in the dining room ever got moved. But the living room got painted once a month, whether it needed it or not. Mama bought the paint at yard sales, liberated it from the neighbors’ trash, or borrowed it from her sister Eloise. I don’t know how she intended to return the borrowed paint once it had been applied to the walls. She often mixed paint to create her own “special blend” of colors that could not be replicated. On more than one occasion she mixed in hair color to make the living room match her. Mercifully, these colors could not be replicated. Mama’s plan was to make the living room her little oasis of elegance. Accessories included cherub lamps and American eagles and ashtrays with swan wings. There were framed photographs in the living room but she bought the picture frames with photos already in them, never photos of anyone we knew. Mama called me Marie Antoinette once when she overheard me telling Barbie Grant that the handsome young man in one of the framed photos was my cousin Pierre from France and that he was going to send me a French poodle and a box of chocolate-covered cherries for my birthday. Although Mama’s own interpretation of truth could be a little wobbly at times, she held me to a higher standard.

Although the dining room furniture was threadbare and held together with duct tape, Mama was constantly redoing the living room furniture. She made window swags and pillows and reupholstered chairs with fabric she got dirt-cheap from her best friend Darla who was the manager of Jo-Ann’s Fabrics. (Darla also was into competitive ballroom dancing so she always wore high heels because she said she had to keep her feet in training. Darla was married to Vince, a telephone repairman. Vince was a competitive body builder, he shaved his chest, and used Mantan because he wanted to look like a bronze god. Once Vince was doing some telephone repair work in a house when no one was home. Seems it was a hot day and Vince decided to take a shower. Imagine the surprise when the lady of the house came home and found the telephone man in her shower. Vince got fired and began selling World Book encyclopedias. He couldn’t read that well himself but the ladies liked him.)

And there was like a revolving door of pets coming into and out of our house. Mama’s friend Blanche was the pusher, keeping Mama supplied like some sort of dope fiend who was a sucker for a furry or feathered face. Blanche worked at the county animal shelter and Mama was always willing to take in another cat, dog, bird, or miscellaneous pet. But the animals usually didn’t stay for more than a week or two. When the new pet seemed to be AWOL and I asked her where it was she always said, “Guess it must have run away. You know that God created all the wild animals according to their kinds, Louie, and He saw that it was good. Yes, He saw that it was good.” Seems most of them ran away because they objected to being house-broken. One time Blanche sent from the shelter a lovely yellow and green parakeet. I named it Chiffon, but pronounced it “Chee-phon” with a heavy French accent. I didn’t know any French but I thought it might be the French translation of the word chiffon. I might be right—I never looked it up. The bird stayed for about a month but it got mites and gave them to me. Soon after the mites appeared, Chiffon just up and disappeared too. When I asked Mama where the bird was, she said, “Guess it must have run away.”

“If it left, it probably flew away,” I muttered. “And when it flew away it took its cage with it.” The sarcasm was lost on her.

Just before Easter one year, Mama came home from the feed store with a baby duck. I named it Elmer. Elmer had the run of the house, waddling free, quacking and pooping. Apparently it’s difficult to house train a duck. I tried. I tried to shampoo him too, but he would have none of it. As if the duck poop wasn’t enough of an issue, Elmer developed a serious limp. Mama decided that the duck was terminally ill and the humane thing to do would be to put him out of his misery. So she turned the gas on in the oven without lighting it and put Elmer in the oven. As we were getting asphyxiated on the gas fumes, Mama kept checking the oven, expecting to see the poor little duckling’s limp body. Every time she opened the oven door, he just quacked and looked at her. Fearing we all would die in a house-leveling explosion, she finally turned off the gas and took him out of the oven. Elmer was fine. Actually, he was cured—he stopped limping and eventually he went to live with the other ducks in the pond at Gate of Heaven cemetery. For all I know, he’s still there, quacking and pooping.

So there were the things in our household that were always changing, like Mama’s hair, and our home décor, and passing parade of animal shelter refugees. Then there were the things about Mama that were immutable.

For example, she had these little food obsessions. Every day, without variation she ate exactly the same thing for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was two of the big shredded wheat biscuits, warm milk, one teaspoon of sugar. Lunch was a sliced hard-boiled egg with mustard on Wonder Bread. There were slight variations for dinner because I made dinner—pancakes on Sunday, spaghetti on Monday, tuna noodle casserole on Tuesday, hamburger surprise on Wednesday, scrambled eggs on Thursday, and fish sticks on Friday. On Saturday we went out to Lula’s for hamburgers. On the first Sunday of every month we had cream chipped beef on toast and peas—it was a crazy way to celebrate.

Bugs—Mama was obsessed with bugs, especially flying bugs. She was convinced that mosquitoes were responsible for all manner of illness including chicken pox, tuberculosis, polio, leprosy, acne, and diarrhea. She sprayed me with insect repellant every time I left the house. She’d check the outside thermometer—if the temperature was above 20 degrees F, I’d get sprayed. To this day, the smell of insect repellant and wet paint reminds me of home.

Mama never wavered from Catholicism either. She had memorized both the Baltimore Catechism #1 and the Baltimore Catechism #2 and could point out the fine points of all the differences between the two. She did novenas and First Fridays and knew the patron saints of everything, even obscure things—like St. Lucy the patron saint of electrical contractors. (She said special prayers to St. Lucy every time Bert Wojcik came to fix the fuse box—she didn’t quite trust Bert on his own merits.) And she went to confession every Saturday afternoon at Immaculate Conception Church, whether she needed it or not. She didn’t have many sinful habits. She didn’t exceed the speed limit, or curse, or drink alcohol. (Once Doc Betz, the druggist, told her to try a little glass of wine to help her sleep. So she poured herself a shot glass of wine, climbed into bed, drank the wine, and immediately lay down.) I think she went to confession in lieu of going to therapy. Father Mahoney could have set his watch every Saturday when Maggie Zimmerman appeared on the other side of the confessional screen. The only thing she probably had to confess was that she lied so frequently about the disappearance of the pets.

But here’s the ultimate proof that Mama’s tenacity never stopped at the border. When I was 12, Mama had been married to Daddy for 20 years. But it had been 10 years since Daddy walked out of the house to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned. No word from him, no explanation, simply gone. Mama still considered herself married. Occasionally I’d get up the nerve to ask her about him. She’d say something like, “Well, I’m not sure where he is, but I do believe he’ll be home by Thanksgiving. He just loves a good turkey.”

She baked him a birthday cake every year on his birthday. (On one of Daddy’s no-show birthdays we had a new dog. It was a big, black dog who drooled and smelled bad. The dog ate most of Daddy’s birthday cake. The following day the dog “ran away.” Mama said the dog favored Daddy and just wanted to be with him.) And every year she bought my missing father an anniversary card, signed it “with all my love, Maggie” and put it on the living room mantle. The cards were always those really mushy cards with poems about how their love had grown over the years.

And my father the disciplinarian, though absent in fact, was ever-present in her mind. When I misbehaved, she would say, “When your father gets home, you’ll have your day of reckoning, Homer, you’ll have your day of reckoning.” Wherever he was, he was perhaps more powerful in his absence than if he had been there.