On a day like today - a day that's wet, rainy, cold, and grayer than a sea captain's undershirt, I always think of Glasgow. Where you're surrounded by that kind of wet cold that sinks into your bones and doesn't leave until spring. Or until you can quell it with a wee dram. I spent a lot of time in Glasgow after college. Writing in the Cul de Sac, gazing at Kelvingrove art, traveling the countryside, making friends at Furry Murray's and Blackfriars. Tromping up the hill by the Glasgow School of Art. Sleeping on a friend's couch just off Byres Road until the money ran out.
I wrote a lot. Most of it was shite (as Glaswegians say). Waxing poetic about whiskey, Scottish brogue, and heather. But a few things were all right. Okay even. I discovered glesca flip books while digging through my old skritchings. Looking at old journals and wondering who wrote them because this woman certainly wasn't me.
The poem reminds me a lot of the weather today. And of Glasgow. And of my time there. For those of you who don't spend weekends trolling around flea markets and curiosity shops (i.e., those of you with a LIFE), flip books are little books with one drawing on each page. You flip them to see a mini-movie.
glesca flip books
I take stock of my world
without you in it.
Jotting down the scenes
which reel before me
like flip books.
A child stuffs a toy gun into her mouth
pulling the trigger over
sitting at the feet of Barras merchants
under their watchful cover
Rat a tat tat
Rat a tat tat
I know exactly
where she's at.
I check off items, inspecting my navel
to see where it's been.
Pissing and spying "I love him"
teeny tiny on the stall wall.
I know who she means.
A waitress, her eye ringed with bruise
Turns, does not peruse
the screaming pages of the tabloid.
Looking up quickly,
Is someone watching?
Am I the Scabby Queen?
Do they know?
Too late, the purple eye
speaks for itself, and so
this book snaps shut.
A city full of edges, jagged lines
It's HURT to look for too long.
Red eyes full of paper cuts, observing alone.
There's no one to tell
of the things that are shown.
Slinking night shapes by my window,
empty faces at day
wearing the difficulty of being
empty sockets gouged and ghostly
under the veneer of business as usual.
Haunting grime collects in the rind of these masks,
and they are familiar.
Rat a tat clicks the gun,
"I love him" written where it is seen by one,
empty faces at day.
All of these I seem to know.
All of these snap shut.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
On a day like today - a day that's wet, rainy, cold, and grayer than a sea captain's undershirt, I always think of Glasgow. Where you're surrounded by that kind of wet cold that sinks into your bones and doesn't leave until spring. Or until you can quell it with a wee dram. I spent a lot of time in Glasgow after college. Writing in the Cul de Sac, gazing at Kelvingrove art, traveling the countryside, making friends at Furry Murray's and Blackfriars. Tromping up the hill by the Glasgow School of Art. Sleeping on a friend's couch just off Byres Road until the money ran out.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
I'm going through all my crap in the attic last week and what do I find? Some gem of a story idea? Some forgotten memory I've pushed down so far I've forgotten it? Some inner secret from my family tree I can only reveal here for the very first time? No. I find a half-empty notebook with scribbled grocery lists, memos to myself and one list more interesting. A list of songs for a mix tape I made in 1987. Holy crap.
Looking at it hit me like a scent you haven't smelled in 20 years, but the first time you do it spins you backward in a split second. Like when I smelled "White Linen" after my grandmother passed away. I actually cried. The moment was surreal.
Instead of a scent, snippets of sound hit me. As I read through the list I heard the lyrics. Some of them I hadn't sang to myself in 25 years, but here they were in my head. Can't remember where I put my keys, but can remember all the lyrics to "All You Ever Think About is Sex" by Sparks. Go figure...
1987 Mix Tape
52 Girls - B'52's
Good and Divine - Yello
Musique Non-Stop - Kraftwerk
24-24 - Cabaret Voltaire
Wood Beez - Scritti Politti
Let Me Go - Heaven 17
The Walk - The Cure
Girl From Ipanema - The B'52's
Tar - Visage
Angel No - Yello
Adolescent Sex - Japan
Worth Waiting For - Gene Loves Jezebel
Big Funk - Cabaret Voltaire
Planet Claire - The B'52's
All You Ever Think About Is Sex - Sparks
Beat Box - Art of Noise
Swing - Japan
I mean, when was the last time you ever heard YELLO for crying out loud? Except maybe in a commercial for Axe, that sweet smelling shit all my eighth grade boys would wear to attract girls. All they ever attracted was flies. Blech. And Gene Loves Jezebel? Woof. Those twins were hot. Remember seeing them play at Rockitz on South Laurel Street in Richmond to a half-empty house on a weeknight. We snuck in underage by sending someone in with a fake ID, then inking the stamp they got onto our own hands with a ball point pen. Smudging it to make it look real. Sitting in the Lum's parking lot, hoping it would work. It did. Wonder whatever happened to Gene Loves Jezebel? You don't even hear them on Sirius First Wave.
I was pretty heavy into New Wave back then. This was before my House Music slash clubbing period but right after my Smiths period. Give me tinny European pop music heavy on the synth, strange lyrics, and band names please! I was a HUGE Cabaret Voltaire fan - still have that record. (Yes, as in VINYL). And loved 9353, this band from D.C. who had this great song called, "Famous Last Words" with lyrics that went:
It's not loaded
I'm a good driver
Don't worry honey.
Over and over. See, I told you. Can remember lyrics, just not where I put the damn keys. Awww, and Green from Scritti Politti. Gotta love a man who calls himself Green and puts the very hot and mohawked dancer Michael Clarke in his video. Okay, maybe he's more pop, but his first album was weird enough to be included here certainly...
Maybe the only band who holds up still is Heaven 17. "Once we were years ahead but now those thought are dead..." Or The Cure's "The Walk" (I can still sing the opening riff, probably will be able to when I'm 90). And who can forget the B'52's "Girl From Ipanema?" Did you know "Sheeeee goes to Greeeeeen-Laaaaaaaaand....... ?
Anyway. Wonder what would happen if I downloaded all this (has iTunes even HEARD of Sparks?) and listened to it in its entirety? Would I travel back in time like Christopher Reeve in that movie? Would it be painful? Joyful? Or just weird because all the music is now crap to my 20-years-older ears?
These songs make me think of cranking music in my car. I was probably driving my '67 blue AMC Rambler and the songs were probably blaring from a boombox (no stereo). The heat didn't work, and my door handle was fashioned from a wrench with a mitten over it. I loved that car. I was probably on my way to my boyfriend's apartment on South Adams, near the Jefferson Hotel. No warmth there either, except from a kerosene heater. A real shithole. Or maybe I was driving to some crap job. But the music got me through. It still does. Today it's more Michael Franti and Zero 7 or Francis Dunnery, but the idea is the same. Crank it up, sing at the top of your lungs, and meditate. Be in the moment and just sing. Forget everything else. Relax. Or as Japan sang back then, "Relax and swing."
Thursday, December 04, 2008
This won't hurt a bit! (Is that a shot or a suppository?)
So. Here's a "cough" for ya. I got a cease and desist letter this week from a group of lawyers calling themselves Merchant and Gould, "Guardians of Great Ideas!" Barf. You know Don Draper didn't come up with that one. In murky legal-eze they demanded I shut down my blog, edible cville... Seems they have trademarked the word "edible". Okay........wait a minute. How in hell do you trademark a WORD? Supposedly they represent a magazine franchising company, Edible Communities, Inc. which owns over 40 publications around the country with names like Edible Buffalo, or Edible Austin. You get the idea. They promote local sustainable agriculture from an office somewhere else. Oxymoronic. Kinda like Wal-Mart selling organic apples. Wish I had known about it when I still taught 8th grade English, I woulda used them as an example like "jumbo shrimp". Edible Buffalo! Straight from............Minneapolis.
They feel my little operation, an operation of one woman trying in vain to gather more than five subscribers to her little blog about Charlottsville restaurants, will confuse readers of a new magazine being launched in March, Edible Blue Ridge. Okay. I'm flattered. But really?
I wouldn't even take their letter as gospel except I remembered an article I had read recently. Seriously, at first I thought I was being punked. But then I remembered the article. And I remembered I had commented on the article. As a joke. Crap! Had my little attempt at humor turned into a Plaxico Burress episode? Mayhaps.
My first thought was to fold, but then I remembered the HOURS of work I had done. Designing. Registering. Learning the ins and outs of search engines. Come to think of it, just shutting down is not really befitting of a woman calling herself, "Feisty Bourbon Girl". How can you OWN a word? And so I called the guy who had written the article. And told him my story. And about 500 other people through email, and places like Foodbuzz.com where I post pretty regularly. And you know what? They put *me* in the paper. What a whirlwind. All for a blog nobody reads.
As all this was rolling out, I tried to remember if I had ever been bullied in such a fashion. Heck, bullied at all! In not so many words, certainly, but I have had a few incidents, a few indelible memories. People have *tried* to take my feisty away.
I remember the obnoxious kid next door hurling rocks at my sister and me as we tried to play Barbies in the side yard. When he wouldn't stop, I picked up the biggest rock and chucked it at his head. The sound it made was very satisfying I will admit. And the sound of his wails as he screamed for his mother were even better. God, that kid was a little shit. He had it coming. I was probably what? 10? 11? Not sure. Makes me sound a little weird I know, but if you were there you would've cheered just as loud as we did.
I remember *another* obnoxious neighbor boy (Jeez, where did we live anyway?) pushing my sister down in the snow. She'd get up, he'd push her down. She'd get up, he'd push her down. Over and over. I watched from the window, willing her to stand up for herself. I was probably 12 by this point. Sis was 10. The boy maybe 8. When I couldn't stand it anymore, I strode out into the snow, stood in front of the boy, hands on hips, and asked, "You wanna try and push ME down?!?!" He didn't.
I'm in 10th or 11th grade, walking to Color Guard study hall. Six months of the year were spent in Color Guard practice for the school's marching band, the other six months were a study hall. I'm dressed like a punk, all in black, down to my black Granny boots that laced up and were cut out on the sides. Cut out like a latticework fence. Purchased from The Wild Pair with money I had made working at Chuck E. Cheese. I wore bright orange fluorescent socks with the shoes so they showed through. Blindingly-bright fluorescent socks. I thought I was cooler than cool, but the girls walking behind me didn't think so and started talking trash. When I couldn't stand anymore I let them have it. Turned around and called them every name in the book, stuff a sailor would blush to say. What's that saying? Cursing a blue streak? Heck, I was in the purple zone by the time I finished with them. They avoided me after that.
And then there's the punch. The only punch I've ever thrown in anger. A *real* punch to the face. I was dressed to the nines, probably 22 years old, and walking up the stairs at Fielden's at 2 in the morning on a Saturday. Or maybe it was 3 in the morning on a Wednesday. Or 4 in the morning on a Tuesday. At that point in my life I can assure you it could have been any or all of those days or times. Those of you who even know the club I'm talking about and graced its hallowed halls during the late 80's and early to mid-90's are probably shaking your heads in agreement. For the late-late-late night set, it was the place to be. Or at least, the only place open.
Anyway, I was climbing the stairs in my short skirt and heels and a guy grabbed my ass. No apologies, just a big ol' grab. So I turned around and threw a big ol' punch. His surprised look said all there was to say. He lost his footing and went sailing down the stairs, knocking down the people behind him as well like a set of dominoes. Did I neglect to mention it was the TOP of the stairs? It was. It was also frikkin' awesome. It felt strong. I remember my buddy Mike was ahead of me and wondered what all the commotion was about. "Oh, I just punched some asshole down the stairs," I replied nonchalantly. Definitely something a Feisty Bourbon Girl would do.
At this point, I have no idea what will happen. Maybe I should change the name to "Incredible Edible Cville..." and have the egg people mad at me too. Hell, with this blog entry, I may have just shot myself in the other leg. This is a fork in the road in my new guise as a writer who actually WRITES that my brain hasn't been able to get around. I'm still reeling something so small and insignificant has garnered so much attention. If it's one thing I've learned so far, it's that my deepest, most gutteral reaction to bullying isn't to back down right away. And this is bullying of the highest order make no mistake. No I'm not a back downer. But nor am I a push backer. It's not in my Buddhist nature to push back. But I will stand my ground.
Just keep smiling.
Because when you allow people to anger you, it means they've conquered you.
Monday, November 24, 2008
November 21st was our 7th wedding anniversary. I call it our Italian fairytale because hubby and I eloped to Florence, Italy, and that's exactly what it felt like. A complete fairytale. The mayor of Florence wed us in a gilded room with huge chandeliers and red carpeting like something out of a Medici household. He told us that forevermore Firenze would be, "our city." It still feels that way even though we haven't been back. That's for the 10th.
Our wedding day was magical, floaty, almost dreamlike. I'll never forget it. We eloped because at the time, there was a lot going on in our lives and neither one of us could fathom planning anything bigger than a trip to the store. It was a weird elopement though, because we told our families and friends beforehand. I even got to tell my mother before she died of esophageal cancer. That was cool. She was the first one we told. I held her hand and said, "Guess where we're getting married Momma?" She replied, "Paris!" her eyes wide. Not Paris, but pretty close. Her eyes got even wider and she said, "I always knew you'd do something like that," her voice a dreamy whisper because of the pain meds and her eyes bright. Not said in a judgmental way, but in an envious, proud way like her daughter was finally taking flight.
As I said, we were wed by the Mayor, who was draped in a ceremonial green sash, in the Palazzo Vecchio, basically Florence's city hall. But what a hall! It in fact used to house the Medicis and so the sculpture, draperies, furniture, everything was opulent Renaissance stuff. We walked in, our mouths dropping open, briefly forgetting what we were there for. Stumbling through some of the ceremony as most young marrieds do. Crying at our vows. Feeling relief after. I remember walking out and seeing a young American couple waiting to marry. She was in a dark green gown, nervously clutching yellow tulips. "It's easy," I breezed, "like falling off a log." What I didn't tell her is I had woken up with huge hives that morning and thrown up twice before the ceremony. Yeah, easy.
What I remember most is walking around after the wedding with our Italian photographer. As we strolled through Florence, the photographer snapped our picture at different famous places in the city. In the Piazza della Signoria in front of the lions. In front of the Duomo. On the Ponte Vecchio, pointing at a gold bauble in the jeweler's window. Hubby had on a sharp black suit purchased and fitted for the occasion. My dress was long and ivory, almost Grecian, and I remember feeling like I was floating along the cobblestone streets. I kept grabbing at the hem because I didn't want it to get dirty. I had bought the dress of my dreams with Mom's inheritance (and her blessing), the most expensive piece of clothing I had ever owned. I had paid extra to have it fitted. I've never had anything fitted before or since. Such luxuries are for richer people than me. But not on this day.
The photographer kept scolding at me to let go of the hem. But I didn't want the dirt of Florence's streets to be an everlasting smudge on my ivory silk charmeuse. I was incensed later when the laundry couldn't remove it. It was my father who finally showed me the dirt was a gift from Firenze. "Why would you remove the streets of Florence from your dress? It's a wedding day memento!" I thought they were just stubborn stains. But I realized he's right. When I look at the brown hem now, I don't see filth. I see our magical first walk together as husband and wife.
Because as we walked, dozens of people called out, "Aguri!" Italian for "Best wishes!" A Japanese couple wanted to take our picture. A guy stopped my husband and in Italian congratulated him on his beautiful wife. An Italian couple who had been married for 28 years came over to congratulate us and tell us it was their anniversary. A total sign of good luck.
I remember feeling on display, like I was a doll. Everyone was looking at us as we walked. Like we were celebrities. Smiling, waving, offering warm wishes to total strangers. The weather had been so cold that week, but today the air was warmer, and sunny. I barely needed the wrap around my shoulders. It was like the weather had improved itself just for us. Walking the cobblestone streets around the Duomo later that evening, when it was in the 30's, we huddled in our winter coats, watching our breath. Meditating on our day. But that day we were warm.
I had been upset that morning because I didn't have family around to help. All my ladies in waiting were missing. Those women called upon to help the bride in her time of need. None of them were present. My mother had died that March and my Nana had been gone almost three years. My sister, aunts, and my Muddy were all back in the States, either too old to fly or too scared because of 9/11. This meant I was on my own and it made me sad. My lovely soon-to-be-husband did the best he could (he definitely saw this bride before her wedding) but he's a guy. At this life moment, a woman needs her ladies.
But while walking through the streets with my new handsome husband, a small group of white-haired old ladies began to follow us. They were short, stout, dressed in their Sunday best. They looked as if they had just jumped from a WWII-era photograph, all fat ankles and big, sturdy black Oxford shoes. They followed us through the streets, calling out, "Aguri!" every so often and clapping their hands. Here are my ladies. Here they are.
A chill went up my neck kind of like when you're in meditation and for just a moment you're at one with what's around you. The message was crystal clear. This was no coincidence. Here were all the ladies who had gone before me, visiting once again, at our wedding to help out and be present. My mother, my Nana, my Aunt Bertie, my stepmom Brenda, who had died that Sunday even though we didn't know it yet. They were at our wedding. We felt it. And again, it felt like a good sign. A positive sign. We had waited so long for a positive sign. That whole year had seen us bear the brunt of so much pain and change. We had eloped to finally have a moment of happiness together. With and for each other. Here was a sign that we had done the right thing. It was a moment I've never forgotten. All my ladies were there.
Monday, November 17, 2008
The last post was called, "The Hair" why not call this one "The Jobs". I've had some jobs, and then I've had some JOBS. I've had a lot of jobs actually. If I really sat down and counted, it would probably be like 40. One for almost every year I've been on this earth. Some I miss, most I don't.
Have been thinking a lot on this lately - one, because I've got friends getting laid off, others trapped in jobs they hate. Me included. Well, I should scratch that. I don't *hate* it exactly, it just doesn't feed my spirit so very much. I never thought I'd find myself at 41 STILL answering phones and typing up correspondence. Preparing UPS packages. Ordering lunch. Doing work a temp might do. Work I used to do to put myself through school. While earning my graduate degree. I only have myself to blame for not "furthering myself along" as they say. I guess I just like doing my own writing too damn much - of course not enough to actively pursue making money at it. Is it wrong to want the job that pays to feed you the way the stuff you do at home does?
As a result of having so many jobs over so many years, I've collected a lot of work-related memories. I was an office manager at an architectural firm in 1995. I remember the entire city street below our high rise being completely deserted because people were huddled around televisions, watching the O.J. verdict. That was the same job where one day I got up and walked out at lunch because my esteemed co-workers started disparaging MLK - shortly after discussing last weekend's NASCAR outcome. Eventually I walked out on them entirely, leaving only a note, packing my bags, and traveling to Scotland to live on someone's couch until the money ran out.
I sometimes can't even fathom all the jobs I've had in my life. My first job was as Chuck E. Cheese. Yeah, really. I didn't just work there, I WAS Chuck E. Cheese. My mom made me get a summer job at 15 even though I didn't want to. I preferred to stay at home, loaf around, and read Stephen King novels. I was Chuck E. Cheese, sometimes Houndog Harry if I was lucky (his costume wasn't as cumbersome). For exactly 10 minutes, twice every hour, I would don the costume, a huge hulking thing with fuzzy feet and a big head that smelled awful because countless summer job teenagers would wear the thing and stink it up. It had never been washed to my knowledge. I dreaded becoming Chuck E. like someone going in for a root canal.
Not only was the costume uncomfortable, it was almost impossible to see anything out of that monstrous hulking head. Inevitably you'd have to get another employee to guide you around. You'd be led into the Pizza Time Theater with much fanfare, and immediately 20 screaming kids would wrap themselves tightly around your legs til you couldn't walk. You couldn't even move. "Chuuuccckkkkkeeeeeeeee!" they'd scream like you were The Beatles, wrapping their little parasitic arms even tighter, cutting off all circulation. Oh god, someone please save me from this torture. I'd wave and attempt to move. Counting the minutes. Holding my breath because it smelled so awful. Sometimes I could bribe one of the other bussers to be Chuck E. but not often. I was the last hired, so in essence, I had drawn the short straw.
I bussed tables and dressed as Chuck E. until I was promoted to ball crawl attendant. I'd take tokens from the little tykes and sometimes jump in and save kids who were drowning. One little arm sticking out from the sea of red, blue, green, and yellow, waving frantically and a little voice screaming bloody murder. I hated working the ball crawl too - we never cleaned the balls, well, maybe we would if a kid got puke on it or something. Sometimes you'd fish out stuff that would make YOU hurl a little - a dirty diaper, a snotty tissue. Yep, it was a putrid sea of plastic ball covered germs that one. Which is why most of the tokens I took from the kiddies ended up in my pocket - all the better to play video games with my dear. I figured it was hazard pay.
Working ball crawl was actually a promotion from bussing tables in the Elvis Room - scraping pepperoni off the floor. Pepperoni that was glued onto the scratchy indoor/outdoor carpet because thousands of little feet had ground it into its very fibers. Wiping tables with a dirty rag, then shaking the rag to get out all the crushed red pepper and parmesan cheese while a giant lion dressed like Elvis sang hits if you put tokens in the machine. Songs like Kentucky Rain, Heartbreak Hotel, In the Ghetto (my favorite), and of course, Viva Las Vegas. This lion was dressed like old fat Elvis, complete with white sequined jumpsuit cut down to there and a big honkin' cape.
I know every word to Kentucky Rain to this day because of working at Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater. It's not something I'm particularly proud of, but there it is. They only played the song umpteen times an hour for my entire 8-hour shift so you can't help but know it. I used to sing it in my SLEEP. I can remember wiping tables, praying the little kid walking over to the lion was NOT going to put a token in the machine, because if I heard that damn lion play Kentucky Rain one more time, I was going to go postal. There I was in my brown and red polyester uniform with a flimsy plastic bowler cap that had a headband going around it that lit up, lights flashing on and off thanks to a 9-volt battery, and I just wanted to die. Oh my God, is this really my life? Milky-mildewy smelling parmesan, ground-in pepperoni, and Elvis? Kill me now.
There was one perk - free video games. Or at least "Free free for me" because I used the stolen tokens from the ball crawl. I'd come in before my shift and kill time perfecting my score. These were the days before hand-held anything. Video games were behemoths with names like, Joust, Centipede, Dig Dug, and Galaga. I'd eat gnarly pizza, play Joust and skeeball (which I still suck at) then wander over to watch the older employees try and beat the newest, most cutting-edge video game of 1983. It was this Disney-themed game that ran like an animated movie. The prince rescues the scantily-clad princess. The first time someone defeated the game was an event - everyone crowded around to watch. People came running in from the kitchen. After that it was no big deal. Eh, so what, I saw a guy beat the game twice last week.
I didn't stay at that job long - maybe a year. I guess you can only take so much of drowning snot-nosed kids and stinky mouse costumes. To this day I look at Disney World characters and think, "Bless your heart." For years I had a huge sack of tokens that I slowly got rid of by sneaking in to play games. I eventually got tired of Joust, so I gave the rest away to friends. They thought I was the coolest. I even remember giving a guy I had a crush on a huge quantity of those damn tokens just so he'd talk to me. What you won't do for love, right?
So what brought me from Chuck E. Cheese to mind-numbing office work? Why am I thinking about all this now? It's certainly been a journey. I don't know that what I do now is all that different. I still deal with snot-nosed brats (of a different variety certainly) and I still have to "dress up" to do my job. Wear a mask that isn't me. And I still look for perks where I can find them. But maybe now, at this point in my life I'm looking for something else besides tokens.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
I found my first gray hair a few weeks ago. My hairstylist calls them "quitters". I have to admit, I was taken aback. My hair is light brown, so if I had any gray hairs up until now they've hidden themselves pretty well for the most part. They blend in. But not this one. It was definitely a quitter. Long, scraggly, most definitely gray. Sticking out at a jaunty angle screaming, "Hello! Here I am!" Winding its way crazily out of my scalp like a crooked branch on a gnarled oak. I was merciless. I yanked it.
I'd been expecting one of these things to make an appearance for quite a while now. A lot of my friends in their 30's are already dying away those grays, and my mother started her chestnut brown "highlights" around 35, keeping the rest of her hair ebony dark. But I've been pretty lucky - of course until now.
Last month I had a party for my father’s 70th, inviting everyone in the family. I hadn’t seen my cousin in a few years - she’s only one year behind me. I was startled to see her blond hair graying at the temples. But after the party I looked in the mirror and, holy crap, mine is graying too. I had just never noticed. She’s the mother of two infants, and already with gray hair. My favorite professor had her first child at 41 carrying a long mane of flowing gray hair. I'm not sure how I feel about the whole thing. Sad? Resigned? Thrilled? I guess I'm not as shocked or as troubled as some would be. It just all seems a right of passage. Are these hairs really quitters? Or maybe just hair we’ve earned?
My style icon is Anne Bancroft and truly, my first thought at finding my first quitter was, “Cool, now I can have a chic gray bob like Miss Anne.” More American Quilt though, less The Graduate. Well, okay, Quilt hair with Graduate clothes. Envisioning myself swinging a bob around like Miss Anne made me think of my mother. As I’ve said, my mother’s battle with hair was constant. She was unyielding in her efforts to stay young and brunette. Grays were yanked, and what couldn’t be yanked was highlighted with chestnut brown Nice 'n Easy. For most of my teen years she wore her hair in fuzzy curls – a frizzy fuzzy halo that encircled her head like a soft bird’s nest. Poodle hair. A nest she always complained about. “I should get a bob,” she’d say to herself while her daughters nodded emphatically, willing her to cut off the fro. Puh-LEEZ get rid of the perm we’d wish. She never did though, preferring to put tortoiseshell combs in the nest to keep it tidy and getting it re-permed every 6-8 weeks like clockwork. When I bobbed my own hair recently I was struck by the irony. I gave the bob my mother always wanted to myself. The nest hadn’t gotten me thank goodness. I had given in to my instinct and bobbed my hair. I could feel Momma nodding in approval – glad that at least ONE of us had the guts to do it.
When I was a child, my mother had hair that traveled down past her knees. Crystal Gayle hair that my dad adored. We'd sit in her lap and play with it like it belonged to Rapunzel. Our hair was long too - so long that when the three of us FINALLY decided to cut it in 1978, they alerted the media. Literally. I still have the faded newspaper clipping of the three of us sitting in barber chairs down at the local Supercuts, getting used to our sausage rolls. Yep. All three of us cut over 76 inches of hair, and all three of us ended up with late 1970's Jaclyn Smith/Farrah Fawcett sausage roll hair. The local news covered it as one of their 6:26pm-just-short-of-the-national-news-local-curiosity stories. It was a sight to see. I was 11, my sister 9, and my mother 37.
I always credited Mom cutting her hair as a symbolic end to my childhood, because at that point everything went to hell. I became a teenager, Mom and Dad started yelling a lot more, and Mom started spending more time outside the home - training for marathons, spending late hours with friends, not doing things with us. I know now she was tired of the "mother" role and was finding herself. I don't blame her for that, and I forgave her long ago. Now, I can understand and even applaud it. Cutting off all her hair was a clear break from the past. It clearly was for me an ending, but for her a new beginning.
Up to that point, her whole life had been controlled by her father, then by her husband, then by her children. Growing all that hair was the one thing she could contain, the one thing she could control. Cutting it was another way of taking control of her life. As I said my father loved her long hair, so when she cut it, it was a symbolic gesture to him to go fuck himself. That she was tired of his verbal abuse. She was growing a spine. She was finally going to live her own life for better or worse. What came later ended up being worse, unfortunately, but I think for her the hair cutting signaled a hopeful change.
A few weeks ago, my cousin was down for a visit. To walk down memory lane by going through some of Mom's old stuff. She hoped to find some memories of her own mother to share with her when she got back home. As sisters, my mother and aunt had been very close. There we sat with Mom's entire life reduced down to what could be contained within two large Rubbermaid tubs. The stuff Momma kept would keep an archaeologist busy for years. Old matchbooks from vacations taken in 1966. An actual piece of frosting from her wedding cake, crusted over, looking like gravel. The entire logbook and "How-To" manual from the time she was an electrolysis technician in New York. Ephemera so perfectly preserved, they would be great props for the show Mad Men. Years worth of love letters, some of them from my father, others from Arturo Lopez, a one-time New York Yankee. Christmas cards, grade school report cards, and newspaper clippings. And the hair.
Under a layer of tissue, there it lay. Our hair. All 76 inches of our hair. My sister's, my own, and hers. A long, dark tail of my mother's hair. I let out a little yelp, dropped the tissue, and found I couldn't go on. I felt sick. Why had she kept this? I vaguely remember her saying she had, and even chuckling about it. But finding it now, after so many years, after all her troubles, her accident, then watching her age before my eyes, watching her sicken with cancer, then watching her die. This was morbid. This was her hair from when she was 37 years old. Younger than I am now. Still dark, black, shiny, healthy. Unencumbered by sickness or the mental burdens she acquired in her forties. This was pre-Poodle hair.
From that point on, the tone of the weekend completely changed. Our reminiscing got weird. We started referring to THE HAIR every so often, then laugh nervously, and shiver. "So, should we sit and stroke THE HAIR?" I'd say, meaning, "Do you want to reminisce some more?" Then we'd laugh uncomfortable laughs and not look at each other. We didn't dig through the tubs so eagerly anymore, afraid of what we might find. So frikkin' creepy. I kept forcing myself to laugh so I wouldn't cry, or worse, run screaming from the building until the paddy wagon picked me up.
So, here's the question. What do I DO with the damn thing? Does Locks of Love take 30-year-old hair? Do I just leave it for the next generation? Let them take care of it? Is it bad juju to have your dead mother's hair in the house? It feels wrong to bury it. It feels even more wrong to burn it. Do I leave it in the woods and hope some bird builds a nest with it? Hey, I could CLONE her if I wanted, right? What would you do? I don't want it in our house, and yet, it feels wrong to get rid of it. I picture myself as a crazy old woman, sitting, crying, saying, "I miss my moooootttthhhherrrrrr," all the while caressing THE HAIR like some twisted version of Norman Bates.
I could give my sister's hair to her, "Here sis, here's your hair from when you were NINE." Yeah, right. I could somehow figure out what to do with my mother's, but even more strange, what do I do with my own? Hold onto it in case I get cancer and chemo and need a wig made? The color is wrong anyway - it's the virginal, unencumbered, never before been permed or dyed auburn tresses of an 11-year-old who still held high opinons of her parents and her world. A different person than me. A child. Not me at all. Part of me I guess, but someone I've long passed by.
These hairs are most definitely quitters. What do I do with them? How do I cut them from my life in a way that honors who they came from?
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
This blog is about memories. Things I have experienced. Stories I have lived through. Chapters in my life's novel. I attempt to take current and seasonal events and connect them to my life journey. With varying amounts of success. Most of the memories I write about are happy ones, but of course I have painful memories too. Everyone does. And coming from two parents who were raised at either end of the Shenandoah Valley in rural, Southern, white factory towns, some of those memories are ugly indeed. Comments, snide remarks, ignorance, and ugly crude jokes that make me physically cringe to think of them. I feel so much shame to have racism as an ugly, gnarled branch in my family tree. I shut it out, ignore it, hope to forget about it, but of course I can't.
But something happened last night - something switched off with a definite click inside my soul. Something long held onto was let go, and it was the weirdest thing. I felt lighter. And as I traveled to work this morning, through the colorful hills and winding roads near my home, the rainy skies finally broke after three solid days of gray, cold rain and a brilliant sun appeared lighting up the reds, oranges, and golds of the autumn leaves. And I thought of change. Real, possible change in this country. I was so proud to cast my vote for Barack Obama yesterday, to be a part of history. And today, I can't stop smiling. Because I have just added a new memory to my life experience. One that I will be proud to write about someday. One that I'll be eager to remember - to say, yes, I was there at the start of change. After so many years of being embarrassed for us as a country, once again I am proud to be American. Once again, I am proud to have come from Virginia. To be a Virginian. Thank you Barack.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
So Thanksgiving is in a few weeks. My favorite holiday. Whenever the holidays roll around, I can't help but think of my Nana's table. Now it may seem odd to think of a table when so many others are thinking of turkey and stuffing, and later on presents and Santa Claus. It is odd, but for me it's perfect. This mahogany table with its Colonial-style chairs and its lacy tablecloth is for me the complete representation of family holiday and tradition. So many memories were created there and so many stories are deeply embedded into its rich dark grain and curlicued chair backs. It remains at the heart of my family. Growing up, it was where we all gravitated to when the holidays arrived. You could even say it is our family's heart.
Creepy 1950's Thanksgiving instructional video...creepy like your Aunt Ida, and sloooooow, like treacle...
My Nana's table resided in the middle of her dining room and was so large it almost filled the entire space. Eight people could sit at it comfortably, and we did, often, when Nana was still alive. Since her death in 1999 it seems we've gravitated to other tables to create new memories. It's a shame because I can remember sitting in the chairs that looked like they came from George Washington's Mount Vernon tracing my hands through the curlicues carved into the backs. The wood was always so slick and shiny. It felt like glass. People would be eating or just sitting, sipping coffee and telling old stories that I'd heard a thousand times before. I would trace my fingers over the familiar patterns in the back of the chair. There were three teardrop-shaped holes in the top of each chair. A poet would say they looked like flowers. Then I would tap my hands on the lacy rough tablecloth, careful not to spill anything. Even as a very young child I knew it was special and therefore not to be messed with.
It was the holidays that brought the Jordans to the table at River Drive. The town of Front Royal is small, a factory town, but still relatives would travel from far and wide to make it to Nana's. There were no fancy holiday parades, and most of the streets were and still are quiet by 8pm, but at Nana's the feast was never-ending. Every inch of Nana's table was covered with food for hours on end. When dishes were emptied of their stuffing or greens or succotash or candied yams, new ones would be brought out to replace them. All of this rang true except for Nana's staples: pickled eggs, Watergate salad, and country ham biscuits on potato rolls. When these were gone, more of the same would be put in its place. The constant grinding whine of the electric knife in the kitchen was a symphony to our ears because it meant that more country ham was on its way. Nana was known around our table for her specialty dishes. Every year she would ask us what we wanted to see on her table, and every year we would beg and plead for these three. I've already written about my love for Nana's pickled eggs. Her table would be empty without them.
Thanksgiving at Nana's table always involved saying grace. But not just any old way, our grace ended up being a 15-minute affair complete with tears and memories and so much reminiscing the food threatened to get cold. First of all there were at least 10 people around the table, and most of the time twelve or fifteen or twenty - friends of relatives who had tagged along for their second or third Thanksgiving of the day. Those numbers didn't even include the kid's table - a card table set up in the living room for all the young cousins, including me. My Aunt Judy always made us hold hands all the way around, so inevitably, I'd have to stand up and stretch my arm through to the dining room. Being the oldest cousin, I had the longest arm. It looked like we were about to start singing Kumbaya, but instead, Aunt Judy would have everyone go around and say what they were thankful for, all the while holding hands. This took at least 10 minutes, the food getting colder, and our hands getting sweatier by the minute. But I loved it.
Because inevitably, Aunt Judy would start crying when she talked about what made her thankful. That would start everyone else to crying happy tears. I also loved it when she said she wanted to remember all the people no longer with us - people like Pop-Pop, who passed away when I was eight, and Ya-Ya, my great-grandmother. I always felt they were right there with us at that moment. Still around the table, watching everything. Once I had a dream I was watching everyone around Nana's table, standing just off to the side - invisible like something out of "A Christmas Carol." Pop-Pop's arm was around me. He softly whispered in my ear, "Remember this." I watched my mother spoon food into my mouth - I was in a high chair, a toddler, with bangs, wearing a celery-green sundress. I woke feeling warm and cozy like I had just taken a nap before a roaring fire.
Nana's table changed its meaning in March of 1999. I can remember driving to her funeral - through the rolling mountains surrounding Front Royal. Nick Drake is on the stereo, and I'm thinking about all the times before when I've made this trip. I know the route by heart. As a young child, bundled up against the cold, Nana's table was a beacon guiding us to home, food, and family. As a sullen young woman, hitching a ride with my cousin, smoking, dreading the visit, the questions, the looks, all the expectations placed. Traveling in my own car much later, now looking forward to the embraces, the questions, the looks I now knew to be love, the high expectations for reunion and feeding of the soul and spirit. Where before I just wanted to be left alone, I eventually came to see how important and how rare these family connections were to my well being.
And now I was traveling to Nana's funeral - very sad, feeling much older somehow. I just couldn't believe Nana was gone. The early spring sun was cold, but still I was comforted every time it decided to make an appearance. At one point a buzzard flew low and hovered over my car just as I passed under it. I was flying fast up a huge steep hill, the buzzard swooping down over me, just pausing before moving on. It was actually more sublime than creepy.
As I entered Nana's house, I found my whole family sitting around her table - eating. The activity that brings so many people together. There were platters of country ham, vegetables, fried chicken, homemade biscuits, baked beans, coconut cake, green bean casserole, all those southern fixtures. All of it brought by friends and family offering those two essential Southern funeral elements - sympathy and victuals. Enough to feed an army. The Jordans sat there for hours, picking, as more visitors dropped by and more platters were placed on every available surface. We'd eat, get full, talk some, then eat again. We were stuffing ourselves with comfort. Stuffing ourselves against grief at Nana's table. I couldn't help but imagine old southern hands pulling down the cake pans, the flour, the sugar, saying, "Erma's passed on, better make my special apple spice cake to send down."
I took my place at Nana's table, surrounded by cousins. I felt a part of something then, something greater. My Aunt Judy kept saying this was meant to be a celebration of her life. And it was...it was like a typically great Jordan get-together. Nana would've been so proud.
After the funeral, which was sad and beautiful and poetic and at times so poignant you couldn't breathe, we of course all gathered again around Nana's table to eat. This time I found a corner, my quiet corner at the first bend in the stairs just next to Nana's table. As I nibbled on a peppery piece of fried chicken I thought about how often I had sat on these stairs, watching everyone at the table below, just like in my dream, thinking about all of them and where we'd been. It seemed very right that I had found my hiding place on this day once again. Hundreds of people filed through the house and made their way around the impromptu buffet set out on Nana's table. I watched them pass, plates piled high.
Later on the beer began to flow and Aunt Judy's friend Dewey stopped by with his guitar. Into the night he played and sang song after song. Everything from Roy Orbison's "Crying" to Tom Petty's "Free Falling." There was even an extended version of a Crosby, Stills, and Nash song that I can't remember the title of but sang all the words to. Everyone sang, even if it was only to hum along. Dewey's 3-year-old daughter Rena danced and laughed and played with Easter eggs. it was nice to hear music in Nana's house again.
I sat on the couch for a while and thumbed through an ancient photo album. In it were sepia-toned pictures of Nana as a teenager out with her girlfriends - all of them in cloches and sitting with guys in fedoras, smirks tucked into the corners of their mouths like small cats. There was a picture of three guys, one with a mandolin, another with a fiddle. A small jar of moonshine lay on the ground between them. I imagined Nana in high-topped shoes smiling and tapping her foot as the fiddler eked out a tune. Laughing in that way she had - that soft, rolling chuckle that sounded a woodpecker whose beak was wrapped in cloth. How I miss that laugh. Looking at that picture, and all the music it contained, then watching the musical scene unwrap itself before me felt like two periods of time wrapping themselves around each other. So tightly, until you couldn't tell what was modern and what was the past. It made me feel like she was still there, in the room. And like we were carrying on this tradition of drinking and dancing and celebrating the dearly departed. In the Jordan way.
About midnight I went off to bed - fully realizing I would not sleep. Dewey was still going strong - his repetoire was endless. From Bob Dylan to the Bee Gees "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" to Buddy Holly. But I needed solitude - after so much hugging and talking and crying my spirit was tired.
I lay in Nana's featherbed and listened for hours to the music coming from downstairs. It was so sweet, such a proper sound for this moment. It made me smile at the rightness of it. I can't imagine a better way to remember her. I can't imagine a more perfect ending to her beautiful life. She created this - all of this. She had connected with so many people. When Dewey began a soft, lilting version of Linda Rondstadt's "Blue Bayou" I couldn't help but sing. Which was ironic, because as a child I had HATED this song. But now, in this moment, it seemed perfect. The melody was perfect. The words that spoke of hope and longing so poignant. It all felt so utterly right, and I hoped with such a force in my heart that Nana was hearing it - hearing the wonderful music emanating from her house at this hour. All of the people at Nana's table singing to her. Thanking her.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
So I watched Tony Bourdain's new one-off show last week, something on the Travel Network called, "At the Table." It was supposed to be an insightful hour where food experts come together to talk about food issues. What's hot and happening and worrisome with the culinary world. It was SUPPOSED to be this. In actuality it came off as a bunch of New York pretentious foodie wankers bragging and complaining. A lot of the viewers agreed.
However, one knight at Tony's foodie roundtable did make a worthwhile comment - something that really stuck with me. Bill Buford, founder of Granta (I heart Granta) and the terrific book, "Heat" which chronicles his experiences as a "kitchen bitch" for Mario Batali, actually said something resonating. One little thing - and it came at the very end of the show, which made me even more annoyed at this phoned-in piece of television offal. It's like they ended the discussion before it even really started!
Bill stated, "This is the first generation of people that won't have family recipes to pass on to their children." The plethora of pre-cooked convenience foods and the amount of restaurant traipsing has made extinct recipes for all-day cooked spaghetti sauce and things like homemade biscuits, pies, and cakes. People don't even roast chicken anymore but buy a pre-rottiseried one from their local superGiantEagleKrogerWegmans mart. Not that those aren't delicious (they are) but gone are the days when recipes were passed down like precious heirlooms.
This got me thinking. He's right. What I wouldn't give for my Muddy's recipe for coconut cake. She passed away in May before I could get it. Or my Nana's Waldorf salad. Or my Aunt Ann's pound cake. How will our cuisine evolve when things like this aren't learned and treasured? I don't even know my own mother's recipe for lemon-raspberry tart, which was my favorite. She made it every time I requested - usually for birthday dinners. Hell, she didn't halfway remember it herself. When asked, she'd reply, "Oh, a little of this and that. If you want I could TRY to write it down..." Things like this are important and should be treasured like photographs or old slides. Once they're gone they're only good memories. Delicious taste memories that fade.
Several years ago I had a moment of clarity and grasped one of these taste memories for a time. It was scribbled in shaky hand on the back of an envelope, the edges tattered, the paper wrinkled. It's for my Nana's pickled eggs. I love her pickled eggs. To me they sing of home, Christmas, jingle bells, and all things Yuletide. She only made them then. Sometimes I could get her to make them as early as Thanksgiving, but never in the spring or summer. No, pickled eggs were purely cold weather food. Delicious pickled cold weather food. Eggs the color of beets and so pickled your lips would pucker when you bit into them and so purple your tongue would look like a Chow dog. I loved them.
As Nana grew older, I realized my time with the eggs would grow shorter and shorter unless I did something. Unless I learned to make them myself. And so I got the recipe. I actually sat my Nana down and made her give me the pickled egg recipe. Nana gave measurements like "a pinch" or "just enough," nothing concrete. I made them numerous times over the next several years with varying amounts of success. They tasted good, but they tasted different. Never as good as Nanas. But at least I was making them.
Ironically, when I looked for this recipe to put in the blog, hopefully passing it on to the Internet generation, I couldn't find it. I thought it was glued carefully into a recipe book I made for myself. Alongside other treasured recipes culled from magazines and the Internet. My foolproof favorites I call them. But it wasn't there. I even looked in my crate of "as yet to be glued" recipes to no avail. It was nowhere to be found. Lost forever. Somehow I felt as if I proved Bill Buford right. Sure, I could find a similar recipe on the Interwebs, but it wouldn't be hers.
The hunt wasn’t all in vain though – I found other things. Recipes torn from newspapers and magazines, photocopied onto white paper with handwritten suggestions like, "Use more turmeric than is called for," and "Black beans work just as well." These were my mother's foolproof favorites. She had given me my own collection of them as a “starter pack” for my first foray into the outside world as a young woman. I still have them and by now they are mixed in with my own. There was even a scribbled slip of paper called, "Ingredients for a Happy Life," that Momma had come up with. Her food poetry I suppose. Finding these forgotten treasures was a small revelation, easing the pain of my pickled egg loss.
One recipe, "Granny's Apple Sauce Cake" was photocopied from a newspaper article. Evidently my mother had sent in this gem to the local paper. Mee Maw (the Granny in question) was my grandfather's mother. The local Waynesboro paper printed the recipe and here it was – passed on to the next generation. There's no date, but I have to think it might be from the late 1950's. A true culinary heirloom.
I love the lack of direction in this recipe. Cook for how long? Until it's done. At what temperature? Whatever one is needed. It's got a directness that's refreshingly simple in this age of foams and food alchemy. I've no children to pass this recipe to – and so I cast it to the winds and whims of the Interwebs. Maybe somebody somewhere will make “Granny's Apple Sauce Cake" and keep the taste memory alive. Mee Maw would've liked that. I haven’t made it yet, but after rediscovering this recipe, I sure plan to. It's not pickled eggs, but I love apples too.
Granny's Apple Sauce Cake
1 cup butter or lard
2 cups sugar
2 cups sour apple sauce
1 tsp soda in each cup sauce
2 tsps each of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice
2 cups cooked raisins
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup nuts (if desired) black walnuts preferred
Add soda to apple sauce. Add sugar, eggs, salt, spices and stir. Add flour gradually. Then add raisins, nuts, and melted butter. Cook raisins almost dry. Seeded raisins need no cooking. Bake in tube pan in moderate oven.
Monday, October 20, 2008
(My grandmother, left, Kathleen Critzer and Anna Lee May, 1949).
My great-aunt, Anna Lee May, passed away recently. She was 92 and had been in failing health for many years. My grandfather's sister - someone described as always doing for others instead of herself. When her father died she was 17 and so went right to work in a textile factory. She went from taking water to her brothers out on the farm to working a corduroy machine. For 33 years she did that. When her mother took ill, she took her in, caring for her until her death. She married, but never had children and so showered her nieces (my mom and aunt) with affection, pound cake, popsicles, and ice cream. She had a Pekinese named Weegee and her husband Charlie, who never spoke it seemed but always looked like Sitting Bull in his favorite tapestry chair in the corner of the living room.
This is some of what I remember. I had not seen her in many years. She had severe Alzheimer's and had lived in a nursing home since 1996. I do remember her house, a small bungalow full of doilies, and pound cake, and dogs. I remember Mee Maw (her mother) looking puny and sick in her chair near the door. Never talking, always watchful. I remember Aunt Ann's trailer that she'd hitch up to the car and camp with up on Skyline Drive with my grandparents. They did everything together, those four. They even double dated before they married - my grandfather and his sister Aunt Ann, going out with my grandmother and her brother, Charlie.
I remember she always commented on my dimples whenever I saw her. "So cute!" she'd exclaim. Then squeeze my cheeks for emphasis. An old friend of the family did the same thing at Aunt Ann's funeral and it brought back the memory so painfully and powerfully that I felt sick to my stomach. I never liked that she did that - pointing out what I already knew. Everyone back then always mentioned my dimples, and I always took it to mean that while I would never be a great beauty, at least I had dimples. Those dimples might land me a husband. At least there was that.
This funeral was so weird for me. To mourn someone I had said goodbye to so long ago. To mourn someone so like myself in so many ways. She worked at a monotonous job she probably hated. So do I. She never had children. Neither have I. She was tall, with broad shoulders, more mannish than Marilyn. And so am I. It's odd and uncomfortable to stare at a family member in a casket, dressed in a blue chiffon blouse, clutching a handkerchief, surrounded by tattered, sepia-toned photos and think that someday, that might be you. That someday that will be you. Why do they have open caskets anyway? Open "viewings" they call them. What are you supposed to view? Your future? Your own mortality? In my case my own face 50 years from now. I felt sick for days after.
The only solace came from the graveside service. As we sat and listened I looked over and saw a gravestone for "Bertha Hutchens" my favorite aunt, my grandmother's half-sister. In life as in death Aunt Ann and Aunt Birdy were neighbors. At least there was that. Birdy had taught me about gardening, had taught me about loving animals, had shown me how to grow an arbor and herbs and tomatoes. Her porch was and still is my favorite place in the world. In a parallel life I imagine buying her bungalow and living there as an old woman, never leaving my yard. As she didn't for 30 years after her husband died. Just tending my garden and watching the world go by from my porch swing. At least there is that.
It's as if Birdy was supposed to be there that day, to remind me. I hadn't thought of her in years, but here she was. Next to her husband on a beautiful sunny day, reminding me that there are other better things beyond this life. And it isn't so bad, looking into your future. Resembling your family so much it hurts. It's kind of okay. And at least there is that.
Monday, October 13, 2008
It is dawn - the blue of dawn before the world awakens. The only light is deep blue and hovers over the trees. The mountains are dressed in fog, the blue light arising behind them. I am running, panting, trying to make it up the next hill. I eventually do and light is present there, a soft yellow glow, mixed with blue, run through with fog like a swirl of cream when you make soup. I glance over at the mountains again. They seem almost as if they're waiting. The yellow glow is coming from there and it promises I won't be in the dark much longer. I run past horses standing very still all in a row, the fog washing over them. Spiders have lain their webs in the grass like washerwomen and they are shining with dew jewels. Haybales appear in the mist as the light arises, their edges soft like a Van Gogh painting. The air is cold, my lungs and legs hurt, and I smell wet mossy earth, rotting leaves, and the burning wood chill smell that is October. It is autumn and oddly, I'm reminded of marching band.
Since we moved to the country my world has grown infinitely smaller. From the entire metropolitan city of Pittsburgh to just one lane in our neighborhood. Now sure, I travel through Charlottesvile to work each day, but I find when I'm not working more than anything I want to be home. Nowhere else. I've never lived in the country, and so I'm not used to it. The silence. I'm learning to love it though. Quiet afternoons walking my dog Lois and the only noise I hear is the "slap slap" of acorns falling through the trees, hitting each leaf on the way down. We walk the woods and I'm reminded of when I was a kid, and LIVED in the woods. We'd build forts, chase each other on our bikes down the paths, pick blackberries, pretend the old farmhouse at the end of our lane across the pond housed an evil witch. Stay out way past sundown until Momma called us in for dinner. Running barefoot through grass after the dew has fallen. As corny as it sounds, I did all these things. I just forgot to miss them.
I walk these woods with Lois and the silence forces me to remember. My world has shrunk, but in my mind the memories grow and grow. I'm not old and yet feel like I'm going over my life chapter by chapter when I walk her. The silence guides me along.
Where in Pittsburgh I heard sirens, now I hear the low murmur of a cow. The squeal of a city bus has been replaced by crickets. And while this world is so much smaller in size, it's so much greater in scope. I could walk my dog once a day for the rest of my life and each of those days I know in my heart I'd discover something new. The moment a slight breeze hits the back of my neck. The squawk of a bird calling out to the day. A tiny lizard with a bright cyan tail skittering under our front stoop. When I hear traffic now it's like a roar, something very different that doesn't belong. Both Lois and I perk up to see who it is. Each car is an event, a new possibility that your day will change - for the better (UPS man) or the worse (repair man). In the city those things were minutiae, here they're something to talk about over dinner.
I've been learning to run, dragging my sorry ass out of bed at 6am to heave up the hills around my house. In the dark here lately, which has made it that much more difficult to force my eyelids open, all the while telling myself, "This is good for you, this is good for you," when what I'd rather be doing is getting some shuteye. Even Lois looks at me from her bed, an expression on her face that states matter-of-factly, "What? Are you kidding?"
But once I get out there I'm glad I did. Watching a sunrise here is like nothing else on earth. And for some reason, at this moment in my life, a sunrise seems to be the most potent memory grabber of all. I watch the sunrise, watch the colors turn from blue, to light purple, to gold, red, and yellow. I smell the dew-soaked grass, and I'm transported to 7:15, any weekday morning of my teenage life in autumn. I am 15 and standing at attention in a wet field. I am cold, hungry, still half asleep, grasping an ice-cold flag pole, and about to perform my color guard routine. The flag swings through the wet grass and promptly wraps itself around my legs like a snapped towel. I am miserable and oddly at peace at the same time. It's early, but I know this is good for me.
It never fails. Sunrise in autumn brings back marching band for me. I was a band geek all four years of high school, which meant every September saw me standing at attention at the crack of dawn, wondering what have I gotten myself into? But always glad after when we won competitions, when we went on out-of-state trips. Glad about the friendships I made. Holding tightly onto the team's camaraderie which came at a time in my life when I really needed it. Parents fighting, separating, divorcing. Me feeling out of place in every aspect of growing up. Marching band was the refuge I hid in. Swinging that damn flag was a meditation. It brought me peace.
And here I am again in my 40's out at the crack of dawn learning to run, wondering what have I gotten myself into? My Mom ran in the early mornings when I was a kid, even in bitter cold weather. Sometimes she'd run right past me during those early morning practices. I used to wonder what the hell she was thinking. But now I get it. I run along, struggling most of the time, but wondering at the beauty of the light. I run and remember other mornings, other autumns. And it brings me an odd sense of peace.
Monday, October 06, 2008
Paul Newman's death a few weeks ago made me recall my brief encounter with this screen legend. I was 19, working as a service bartender at Allen's Clam and Lobster House in Westport, Connecticut. I had told the owner I was 21, and that was good enough for him. Ron owned the place with his brother. As far as I know he may still. Ron worked the front of the house, brother was king of the kitchen. That place had been open for eons when I worked there, serving lobster, steamers, and clams to Westport businessmen, who often accompanied the seafood with two and three-hour Campari lunches. I first tasted Campari that summer, but I couldn't take its bitterness. I've since learned if not to love it, to certainly appreciate a good Negroni when I'm in the mood.
Working at Allen's became an experimentation in extended family for me. The two brothers ran the place with their wives and children. I worked there with my boyfriend, which made us a part too of this raucous, close-knit family. Every day before service we'd meet in the dining room for a family-style meal. Usually pasta or some sort of fried cutlet with sauce. Anything hearty you could make quickly and serve to a crowd. We'd eat, then go off to smoke, to capture some moments of peace. Those mornings before service were the first and last time I was ever part of a large family. I kind of liked it, the teasing, the camaraderie. I felt I was part of something - that together we would succeed or fail at service, but we would do it together. I've never had a job where I felt that way before or since.
I had moved to Westport from Virginia with the boyfriend, my first foray into the real world. We rented a room in a farmhouse 10 miles outside the city in Easton, having traveled with all our belongings plus a parakeet in an old AMC station wagon (another story entirely). We were determined to make it work. Marc had worked at Allen's as a bartender three summers in a row, and he convinced Ron to give me a job too. I worked lunches, Marc worked dinners. Afterwards we'd pool our tips to pay the rent. We kept expenses low - I would bike each way to work (the car had died), past horse farms and humongous estates, change clothes when I got there, make myself a ginger ale with Rose's lime, work some, and ride home. If the boyfriend wasn't feeling well I'd work his shift too - hanging out at the little slip of beach (Allen's was right on Long Island Sound), before tackling the dinner crowd which were more families and couples. Then the boyfriend would pick me up in his baby blue VW bug (newly purchased and barely running), stuffing the bike in the back. I remember we both had Cannondale bikes which when I think of it now makes me snicker. We could barely pay our rent, but had $1,000 bikes. Sigh. The audacious, foolish notions of the young.
The day of Mr. Newman's visit was uneventful. I arrived 10 minutes late, as usual, quickly changed into work clothes (white shirt, black pants), and began to prep the bar - my own version of mise en place. This involved making the bloody mary mix, filling wine jugs, cutting fruit, stocking shelves, and hauling ice. The bloodys were my specialty. Old Bay and extra horseradish, that stuff was positively CHUNKY. Filling wine jugs involved opening wine bottles then filling the jugs through a funnel, but I had the hardest time working the bottle opener. It was one of the old-fashioned kinds, just a little corkscrew at the other end of a church key. I crumbled so many corks that summer, but eventually became an expert. When you have 200 businessmen clamoring for a refill, you have to.
After all that I would cut limes, lemons, fill the olive tray, fill the onion tray (for Gibsons), make sure we had backups for the popular stuff like vodka and the dreaded Campari, and haul ice. I hated hauling ice. The bin was heavy, your hands froze, and half the time it would melt then refreeze into a big block. But it had to be done. Woe be to the bartender at Allen's who didn't fill up the ice bin before service then was hit so hard with orders he'd have to refill during. It happened to me just once. Just imagine a bunch of waiters, OLD TIME New York waiters who have a lifetime of smoking and taking orders beneath their belts yelling out orders to you and you have no ice. At nineteen that scared me enough to fill the bin to overflowing.
When I prepped that particular day, I was ready. I remember I was cutting lemons when I noticed our hostess was in a tizzy, in the corner whispering excitedly. It was her job to greet and seat customers as well as take reservations. What could she possibly be yammering about? And then I heard it. A little whisper traveling through the restaurant. Waiters were folding napkins, line cooks prepping their stations, the owner's kid sweeping the floor. "Paul Newman's coming." Who? "Paul Newman." We couldn't believe it, it must be some sort of prank. He did live in the area. But would he eat.............here? Maybe it was some other Paul Newman. But no, the hostess was assuring us, it was THE Paul Newman. And he was coming to eat lunch. At Allen's. Today.
His reservation was for 11:30, early. So as the minutes crept by and people pretended like it was just another lunch service, my heart began to race. What would he drink? Gin and tonic? Martini? Manhattan? Shit, hadn't made one of those in a while, what went in there again? I remember the "VT's and GT's" (vodka tonics and gin and tonics) were always so easy to make when the waiters barked the orders, but something like a Rusty Nail or Old Fashioned had you running for the bar book. Here they actually drank those things. Once this customer brought me a list of ingredients for a "Girl Scout Cookie" some kind of minty chocolaty drink that actually had mint chocolate chip ice cream listed among 10 other ingredients. He bypassed the waiters and brought the handwritten list directly to my station. In the middle of service. On a Saturday. What is he kidding? I shook my head, sorry buddy. When I told the head waiter about it later, a gravelly-voice Buddy Holly-glasses wearing old timer who had earned that voice from a lifetime of smoking non-filtered Camels, he shrugged and suggested the guy, "Grow a pair."
Such were the thoughts racing through my head that morning. What if Paul Newman wanted a drink like the Girl Scout Cookie? Some strange thing I had never heard of? I had only bartended maybe three weeks, tops. What if the drink I made tasted like crap? He was a frikkin' Hollywood legend! Worse, what if he wanted a GIRLY drink? What then? Even worse, what if I made him something and he sent it BACK?!?!
I realize in the grand scheme of things this particular episode might not warrant such scrutiny, but at the time, you have to understand this was the biggest event that had ever occurred to me. I was 19, newly out of the house. I had never experienced much of life, only lived it vicariously through movies. Mostly Paul Newman movies. I always wanted to be the girl on the bike in "Butch Cassidy" or Eileen Brennan's character Billie in "The Sting". Or hell, even Patricia Neal's character in "Hud". Anything. After a lifetime of living through movies, I was intent on striking out on my own to succeed or fail on my own terms.
Well, here was real possibility of true failure staring me right in the face. Speaking of staring, how was I not going to? I mean it's frikkin' Paul Newman and yeah, he might be 70 or whatever, but he's still the hottest movie star of all time (did you SEE Cool Hand Luke?) with the bluest eyes on the planet. How to not stare deep into them, even if he's giving you that withering look that says, "Get a life psycho." With a period, not an exclamation mark. Because he's Henry Gondorff.
I kept prepping, my heart racing, waiting for him to arrive. And eventually, he did. He walked through the restaurant with some friend of his to be seated at the far end of the restaurant. They looked at menus. They ordered lunch. They ordered drinks. Meanwhile everyone is walking around going about their business, stealing glances his way pretending they're just looking at some other old guy with white hair wearing a cardigan sweater, chinos, and Chris Craft tennis shoes that ISN'T Paul Newman. Did I tell you how sexy he looked in that getup? Only the sexiest grandfather that ever walked the earth. And the eyes? They are definitely as blue as they say. Bluer even. He glanced once, a millisecond in my direction as he walked past, and in that millisecond I totally drowned. Whew. The wine glass I was polishing almost fell to the floor and shattered in a million gazillion pieces. Holy crap were they blue.
After they ordered the waiter began to walk in my direction. This was the moment of truth. The HOURS that it took to walk in my direction were in excrutiatingly slow motion. What would it be? Wine? Scotch? Martini? Planter's Punch? Girl Scout Cookie? The waiter, napkin draped over his arm, finally reached my station. His mouth formed a smile and began to say some words. His voice slowed to a crawl. My heart was pounding. "IIIIIcccccceeeeeeeed teeeaaaaaaaaaaaa." He reached for a lemon and walked toward the kitchen.
I didn't make the iced tea. I only handled cocktails and sodas. Water and iced tea were handled by the waiters. I only cut the lemons for the iced tea. That was why he had told me the order, taken a lemon, and walked away.
The realiziation settled on me like a blanket floating to the ground - in slow motion of course. It covered me heavily - and I was crestfallen. Iced tea!?!?!?! What the fuck!?!?!?! No Campari? No Scotch? What kind of man orders iced tea for lunch!?!?!
Paul Newman that's who. He and his friend both ordered iced tea, clams casino, and they ate lunch, talking about their golf scores for all I know. I polished glasses, made drinks, and continued to steal glances in his direction, if only to look at the back of his head. He sipped his iced tea after squeezing the lemon into it. The lemon I had cut just moments earlier.
He was just a guy after all. And I was just a young girl. At the first job she ever had on her own, out of her parents' house. Embarking on a life. Cutting lemons.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
This most excellent graphic, "Casting Call" was created by Dyna Moe. I ORDER you to go check her out. Stop reading. Do it now.
So like a lot of people, I'm obsessed with Mad Men. You must know by now the show won Best Drama Series at this year's Emmys. As a result, my Google Alert "Mad Men" simply overfloweth with praise, interviews, even fashion tips.
But see, I'm obsessed with Mad Men Women. Because I know them. Growing up, I lived with them. And as a young woman, I was them. So many of the show's moments snag something inside me and give it a good yank. The first time Peggy Olsen flung out her IBM Selectric cover like it was a blanket, and then used it to secure her typewriter against that evening's dust, a memory file drawer was thrust open and I was 19 again, working for a small group of lawyers, typing their letters, their invoices, their envelopes. I wore a pink angora cowl neck sweaterdress to my interview, and later both my bosses told me it was what got me the job. It curved in all the right places. Yeah, I guess I should've been aghast, but instead I blushed. Frankly I was flattered. My whole life I was always the bookish one. I had never been viewed like that and to my utter astonishment, I loved it. For just a moment, I was Joan Holloway. And it felt powerful. Every woman should work her inner Holloway sometimes.
Another show moment - when Betty Draper, perfectly coiffed and attired at 7am, begins to make breakfast by prying open a can of frozen orange juice concentrate. My memory mind goes utterly, completely berzerko. I almost blow a memory gasket. Betty dumps the stuff in with a sick plopping sound before adding water, and there goes another yank in my gut. As a girl, that was my job. Plop it in the pitcher - that stuff that looks vaguely like something the cat yacked up - then add exactly three cans of water - or was it four? I had completely blocked out that part of growing up. Do they even make that stuff anymore? It tasted horrible. And it made crappy popsicles. That little monstery guy from the Saturday morning cartoons extolling the virtues of frozen orange juice popsicles made in ice cube trays with toothpicks. So healthy! So lacking in taste and they always fell off the toothpicks.
But I digress. Mad Men Women are brilliant. The level of detail is almost like someone had a time machine. Particularly with the clothes. I mean, my mother and grandmothers must've had literally HUNDREDS of housecoats. Now there's something that has gone into fashion extinction. Maybe it's time for a comeback? (Yeah, no thanks). And all those frilly nylon nightgowns Betty is always flouncing around the house in with a glass of red wine in her hand? If she was a long-haired brunette that could be my mother. Just unreal. I have so many memories of her lying in bed in one of those things, sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, talking about how she doesn't feel well. Or she's tired. That's one good hard hurtful yank every time a scene like that appears. What, did Matthew Weiner somehow download the contents of my brain into his computer? Is there some sort of invisible Matrix-like cord coming out the back of my head and directly into his steno pad? It's just a little too accurate to be comfortable. It makes my stomach hurt, but in a really really good way.
I used to dig through my mother's chifforobe to examine those flouncy oh-so-flammable gowns, fingering the material, wondering if I'd ever be able to fill one out. They always seemed more like costumes than clothes. They were like flimsy little Kleenex. Or Tinkerbell's wings. Or ballerina tutus. And Nan Jordan had hundreds - because she loved them, but also because my Nana worked in the lingerie department at Newberry's in Front Royal, Virginia. So Nan could count on one every Christmas and birthday. I swear if ol' Matthew ever writes a scene where little Sally Draper ends up playing with Mommy's gowns while Betty is out shopping, they might have to cart me away to the funny farm.
Nan, my mom, was so much like Betty in that everything had to be "just so" for company, but once the curtains were closed it was wine and housecoats. Her dinner parties were true practices in early 1960's Camelot protocol. I mean, the woman majored in Home Ec at a woman's college for chrissakes! The buffet was her work of art - a special serving plate for every offering, real cloth napkins, hell, we even had a multi-tiered "tree" for cookies. And Sinatra on the turntable.
My favorite scene of Mad Men Women? Well, it's one that COULD have happened. It feels so real that it might actually have. Several of the neighborhood women are sitting around the living room, looking 1960 fashionably fabulous, smoking and drinking cocktails in the middle of the afternoon. Quietly projecting that kind of unadvertised, secretive power that kid gloves, kitten heels, Tangee red lips, leopard print hats, and ornate costume jewelry impart. When you wear "clothes that fit" (to quote Michael Kors) you can't help but walk a little taller I think. These women may not have had powerful roles in their lives, but they sure as hell projected their power through their clothes.
Anyway, amidst all of this fashion "power" Sally and Bobby Draper come rushing in, wearing dry cleaning bags over themselves, screaming, "Look Mommy! I'm a spaceman!" I lost it. Laughed so hard I spilled my drink, peed my pants, then fell outta my chair. But the next line was the real classic, the clincher, pure Nan Jordan. "Children, if my clothes are balled up in a ball in a big wrinkle in the bottom of my closet, you are going to be in BIG trouble." Drag on the cigarette. Sip of the cocktail. After a withering look to the kids, another one to the ladies that says, "God! These kids today." Love it, love it, love it. This snapshot could've been pulled directly from my family album. Minus the dry cleaner bags though. Nan was a scaredy cat when it came to letting us possibly suffocate ourselves.
Simply put - Mad Men Women Rule. Their kind of power is what makes the show for me. Here's a sneak peek at this week's episode - all I can say is, "Go Peggy!"
Monday, September 15, 2008
So my husband and I took our doggie Lois for an afternoon hiking trip in Shenandoah National Park yesterday. A trip way overdue. Imagine. We moved here in April, we're less than 1/2 an hour from the park's entrance, and we hadn't yet gone hiking. Unusual for us.
The day was hot and so muggy you could drink the air. The no-see-ums were going crazy. For some reason, they leave my husband and doggie daughter alone, but they love me. I was slapping myself with a shirt the whole way - like a horse flicks its tail I was slapping my shirt, thwack thwack.
As we started down the hill at the trail's entrance near South River picnic area, it was so quiet it felt like the whole world was holding its breath. No breeze, no birds. Not even any insects. Every living thing seemed to have sought cooler shelter. At one point a woodpecker began to hammer and it was like a machine gun, sharp and painful.
The trail was so incredible, better than anything we had hiked in the Laurel Highlands when we lived in Pittsburgh. Towering trees spread their arms, carpets of fern wrapped around their feet like Christmas tree skirts. Boulders covered in moss hunkered down in shallow streams that burbled and sang. White toadstools so huge, I half expected that caterpillar with the hookah to appear and offer me a piece. We even saw a copperhead, curled up under a rock, sunning himself on a ledge by a waterfall that raced down the side of a mountain. As we walked I was internally slapping myself for not doing this more often. I grew up in Richmond! Why hadn't I spent my entire waking life, every minute of every weekend exploring every nook and cranny that this park had to offer? As a child, my sister and I had often hiked up Humpback Rock with our mother's father, but I remember those hikes with equal measures of dread and misery. It was more of a forced march than a leisurely afternoon. Not quite Bhutan, but close. Get to the top as quickly as possible, snap a photo, then back down equally fast, slapping mosquitos the whole way. I did have a glimmer of nostalgia when I spotted a child with a huge walking stick - I remember Granddaddy talking to us about the virtues of a good one.
This hike was much more my style. I even abandoned my own walking stick after a while. It became just another item to carry. The trees were so lush and cool, and the shade was wet, mossy, and green. While the other two seemed to race ahead, I lagged behind, marveling at how everything seemed to be made of fuzzy emeralds. Covered in a soft grassy carpet. For a moment I imagined myself to be the park ranger in Prodigal Summer, tracking the trails, making sure everything was in its place. In that book she and her lover spent hours just trail hiking, never speaking. As our footsteps softly plodded through the leaves and wet earth I started to understand how you could actually end up doing that. I talk a lot, a whole lot, but here I started to get very quiet inside myself. I didn't get quiet entirely, but I started to. I could feel it.
I love when I find myself in situations where I can actually feel myself slow down. Actually see my mind's eye stopping instead of darting in every direction. Just look at the leaves. Just marvel at the size of that mushroom, which looked more like an ostrich egg than anything else. Orange, white, with brown spots underneath.
So often I am racing inside. My thoughts, my mind, my tongue are all in a tither to outrun each other. But here I felt quiet. So when the breeze began, I actually heard it. I really felt it on my skin instead of just saying something inane like, "It's about time! It's frikkin hot!"
When we got lost my mind picked up again. It had been napping, but there was that old monster anxiety freaking out because we didn't know exactly where we were at that very moment. But instead of crying, I took a breath. Then another. This moment really was so sweet after all. How often do I get to walk in this incredible lush paradise of green with just my husband and my dog. It kind of felt like what heaven must be like. Just us three. Walking. Enjoying each other. Enjoying the day.