Monday, November 24, 2008

All My Ladies.

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.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Jobs.

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.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hair.

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.

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?

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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.

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