Unemployed Again

Unemployed Again

Monday, April 15, 2013

Walking on the Wing of a Whim

    My neighborhood looked like a ghost town.

     As far as I could see down the block, the driveways were empty of cars.  I had already been walking about a half a mile, but hadn't seen a single soul. It was Monday morning and everyone had scampered off to their jobs and commitments, leaving the neighborhood in peace. 

      I used to be one of those people, I thought to myself,  as I walked, noticing a tree blooming with pink blossoms.  A beautiful tree filled with tiny little pink slips.  I could see how beautiful pink slips could be.

      It was only 10 days ago that I, too, was fighting my way through the urban jungle to earn a living.  But all of that had suddenly stopped.  I had gotten the proverbial pink slip.

     I turned onto my favorite path through the park.  Now I was safe to close my eyes, and walk as if blind as long as I could.  Without sight, the sounds of the morning formed a necklace of tweets and chirps and roars, like different colored jewels.  I took a huge breath of cool air, and tried to distinguish all of the different bird sounds I could identify.  I heard a distant roar of a jet plane.  A lone bark of a dog.  I was almost in a trance-like state, and forgot I was even walking.

      "Good Morning!" came a new sound which startled me.  I opened my eyes to see a short Asian woman, dressed in white sneakers and a wide brimmed hat.  She had chubby cheeks and was sporting a wide grin.  "I hope you enjoy your walk today!" she said, as if we'd been friends all of our lives. I muttered a cheery retort, noticing specifically that I was smiling wider than I had in a long time.

      Calmness.  Happiness.  It all seemed unfamiliar.

    I decided to walk with my eyes open for awhile, and soon I encountered an elderly gentleman walking his dog.  I was surprised when he, too, spoke.  "Beautiful morning, isn't it?  I hear the wind will be coming back today though," he said to me smiling.  He spoke with such informality, I expected him to call me by name.

      "Yes, I heard that too," I heard myself say.  It felt odd to be speaking to a perfect stranger on a Monday morning.  But even stranger was the happiness I encountered.  The world seemed at peace.  There was oxygen to breathe.  There was space into between the sounds, like the rests between the notes of a concerto.

       It struck me how different these encounters were than those I came across when I still had a job.  My daily commute felt more like going to war; I left the house with a stern stare, prepared to enter into battle.  The pervasive feeling on those stretches of concrete for me was eat or be eaten, kill or be killed.  The semi-trucks surrounding me towered like buildings in Manhattan; they blocked the sky.  But worse, they'd purposely push me off the road when changing lanes.  A sweat shop of angry people, not letting you in, not letting you pass.  Loud honks of frustration; cars battling for a slice of highway, just to be allowed to go where they needed to go. 

        "Merry Christmas, bitch," the words spoken to me by an angry driver four months ago, flashed in my mind.  I was struggling to get into the proper lane to get on the Bay Bridge, which often seemed impossible until it was accomplished.  She wanted me to let her in, but she couldn't see that on the other side of me, a car had angled perpendicularly in front of me, and I couldn't move.   "You'll get your Karma one day, bitch," she said.  "Happy HAPPY holidays."

          I rolled up my window to block out her continued diatribe, which stung.  I wasn't that person.  I was a giving loving sort, who tried to live my life with kindness and generosity.  I wasn't designed for this daily war zone.  I just wanted to go home.

           "I want to go home," I heard myself say out loud in the quiet empty park as I continued my  walk.  And it wasn't the first time I'd uttered that exact phrase out loud.

            Many years ago, I had developed a verbal tick; a sort of tourette, where I would unconsciously speak those words out loud.  "I want to go home."

      I never really knew precisely where this disorder had come from.  But I thought I'd normally say it in moments of anxiety or sadness; or when an unpleasant thought crossed my mind.  But when I entered my 20's and 30's, I began to say it louder and louder and with more frequency.  It was a joke among all of my friends and family who knew me well.  If I yelled it out at home, they'd yell back, "You are home," with peels of laughter.  I found myself saying it loudly in movie theaters when the plot took an objectionable twist.  Then once I said it so loudly in a clothing store, because I couldn't find a blouse to fit me right, that I thought I should see a psychiatrist.

       After weeks on the couch, as it were, the shrink determined it was a death-wish, in some senses, but it was also a desire to return to the womb, where it was safe.  She worked with me not on eradicating the annoying habit, but rather to help me get it under control.  She didn't help me stop saying it, but rather to stop saying it so loudly, and she taught me how to halt it, on occasion, mid-phrase.  I've been better ever since, but there's never been a day my entire adult life, I don't think, where I haven't said it at least once.

         Ironically, it was this bad habit that in part caused me to lose my job.

          When my two bosses called me into the conference room at 3:00 o'clock on that last day, I had noticed that the entire office had been cleared of my co-workers.  It was then that I knew. I was about to get laid off.

         But when my bosses began spouting off the reasons they came to this decision, they told me  that they had walked by my office on several occasions, and heard me say, "I want to go home."

        "We kept overhearing you say you wanted to go home," they told me.  "It's obvious to us that you don't want to be here anymore."

        And while this was in part true, I burst out laughing.

        Even in the midst of this horrible moment, and getting fired or laid off is a horrible moment, their reasoning filled me with mirth.  I explained to them that this was a verbal tick that I had had most of my life, and I couldn't help it.  In fact, most of the time I didn't even realize I was saying it.

          "Well, you can understand why we might misinterpret that, can't you?" they told me.

       I wanted to further explain just how silly they were to base their opinions of me on that, but I could see the writing on the wall.  The dye had been cast, the decision had been made.  My severance check was on the table.

        I had no desire to argue with them.  I had no desire to defend myself.  I wanted to begin the unceremonious ritual of cleaning out my desk and packing my belongings.  I wanted the final walk of shame to my car, trying to hold my head high.  But most importantly, I wanted to go home.

        As I sped away, attacking that bridge on-ramp for the last time, my head was filled with a myriad of emotions.  Shock, outrage, fear, and humiliation.  I was hit with financial concerns.  The apprehension about what was to come next. 

         But I realized I wasn't crying.

       My bosses were like Goodfellas, or Wise Guys.  They knew how to skirt the system.  How to steal.  How to get work done for free.  Everything was everyone else's fault.  They took no responsibility for anything.

         "The porta potties need to be cleaned at the job site,"  I told my boss one day.  "They're beginning to stink.  The neighbors are complaining.  We have to pay them something so they'll come out and clean them."

          "Tell them to go fuck themselves," was his response.

        "But your employees have nowhere to use the bathroom," I argued.

        "Tell them to use a bush."

        Conversations like this, and many others whirled through my mind.  I thought of the daily barrage of phone calls I received every day; people crying that we needed to pay them, people screaming at me, people threatening.  "There's nothing I can do," I'd say softly, trying to keep a wall around my sanity.  I needed to create my own boundaries to keep myself safe.

          "Thanks a lot.  Tell your bosses they're assholes.  And you're an asshole too."

          I thought of how often I was called names out there in the world of work.  How I had tuned out being abused on a daily basis.

           That last day, my car careened down the freeway toward home.  My job was gone.  My paycheck was gone.  But even as I experienced a heap of nasty emotions, I also felt an undeniable bliss in the deepest part of my gut.   I would no longer be called a bitch every day, when I was anything but.  I would no longer have to aid people in stealing from hard working folks.  I would no longer have to sell my soul to make someone else rich.

      I flew through the horrendous commute traffic as if I had wings for the first time; as if my car was flying overhead, looking down upon their madness.  I was free of that freeway; I had been liberated from the ugly humanity cursing in their vehicles, honking and shouting.  I was no longer one of the rats scrambling through a maze, or a hamster spinning needlessly on their wheels.  I was free.  I was free!  My car was traveling high in the clouds, keeping pace with the birds, soaring without boundaries.
          "I don't have to go back!" I screamed out with glee.

         I have always had a difficult time expressing to others how much I detest working.  Most people see it as a sign of laziness, and society views it as wicked. 

      The idea that the poor should have leisure has always seemed shocking to most people.  In the past, fifteen hours was the ordinary day's work for a man, and twelve hours per day was the norm for children.  In those days, if people voiced their opinion that perhaps the hours were too long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief.  Our culture has long taught us that we should consider it a privilege to be allowed to exist only to work.

     When I would voice my obvious hatred for what I perceived as wasting my life and going somewhere to be yelled at, ridiculed and treated disrespectfully, I was told, "You should be grateful you have a job.  Many people would feel lucky to have what you have."

      "Yes, of course I'm grateful," I would dutifully answer back, but I never really felt I was telling the truth.  I thought instead that I should be grateful, and wondered why I was the only one who really wasn't.

       "What would you do if you didn't work?" I would be asked.  This was the question which always amused me the most.  My mind would fill with joyful images of travel.  Of long walks in the sunshine.  Mornings celebrating my true passion of writing.  Afternoons of cooking, and creating healthy culinary masterpieces.  Evenings of singing. 

       Afternoons of just being.

        Space to hear the rests between the notes.

       Time to close my eyes and listen to bird noises, and to greet strangers with a cheery hello.  To embrace life.

         I was deep in thought, thinking of how I'd lost my job, and all that I had left behind.  When I looked up, I found myself standing in front of my house.

         I had walked for miles and miles, but I was hardly aware of having done it.

         When I had a job, I walked every day.  A desk job and a long commute is a sedentary lifestyle, and I did everything I could to counter attack it swallowing me into ill health.

          During my lunch time walks, I was often plagued with horrible sciatica, a pain that extended from my lower waist, down my right leg, and all the way into my toes.  And while I wanted to enjoy my walk, I sometimes could not, because each step was painful.  I had long wondered if it was caused by commuting, by my right leg being poised for hours a day between the gas and brake pedals.

          I realized I hadn't felt that pain for 10 days, since I had lost my job.

          I realized that my walk had felt more like flying than exertion.

          I was cleaning off the dust that had covered my soul and was seeing a fresh and shiny being underneath.

         I was 53 and unemployed once again. I had wanted to go home, and now I was home.
          I smiled, then turned the page and began the next chapter.

Friday, November 4, 2011

My Mother Has Alzheimers

My mother has Alzheimer's.

I know. Isn't that terribly sad. So painful for the family. What a horrible disease. Blah, blah, blah.

As a child, I was terrified that my mother would die. I worried about it daily. Now, most days I wish she would die. She was always very proper; she would find her current state most undignified.

But, yes. It is sad. My mother was bright--very bright--I even considered her an intellectual. She was a voracious reader, and nothing delighted her more than a rollicking debate on religion, politics, or whatever.

Now she's been reduced to a child-like state. I see her sitting at the kitchen table; she is adamant about having her pen and paper; and she scribbles notes all day long--being very careful with her penmanship, much like a five year old--and writes tiny notes about who she loves, and who she misses.

I guess that's what it really comes down to in the end, doesn't it?

Whom you love, and whom you miss.

I miss her.

Her capacity to love me hasn't changed a whit. And it fascinates me to see what else hasn't changed. Her humor is unchanged. She both makes jokes and understands them. I always thought humor was connected to your intellectual capabilities, but I no longer think so.

What has happened is, she's been reduced to her true essence. She's been boiled down to who she really was all along.

After spending time with her, I notice how people spend a lot of time hiding their true essence. They put forth a facade to the world; and for some reason struggle to cover up who they really are; their true essence; and their tender underbelly.

My mother now is sweet, polite, and funny. She was always that.

But she's also plagued by constant fear and anxiety.

She was always that too.

She just did a damn good job of covering it up.

My mother took a lot of valium. That helped calm her anxiety. She never really dealt with the cause of her anxiety and fear. She never just took it out, put it under a bright light, and faced it.

Instead, she spent her energy trying to forget. Trying to forget the past that hurt her. She tried to bury it. She kept shoveling the dirt of obscurity on top of her spirit.

Maybe she finally succeeded.

They say, "Be careful of what you wish for."

A fairy godmother came down, and granted my mother her one wish. "Help me forget what hurts me," she whispered. And her wish was granted.

If only forgetting finally brought her peace.

It didn't.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Long Good-Bye-My mother's eulogy

When I was a little girl, I was consumed by fear that my mother would die.

At the time, she worked for Bank of America in Pacifica, and she would travel each day over Devil's slide from our home in Moss Beach and back again. The windy bit of road, with its sheer cliffs on each side terrified me, and I was convinced that a mere gust of wind might blow my mother's small V.W. bug off the road and plunge her into the sea. I would wait for her each night, my face pressed to my bedroom window, almost holding my breath until I saw her car turn into the driveway. On nights that she was inexplicably delayed, I would be in tears by the time she arrived, and I would run out to greet her, crying and wrapping my arms around her waist. She would collect me in her arms and laugh in that comforting way she had, and would remind me that cars don't just blow off the road. "Don't be silly, my car will not fall into the sea. You needn't worry anymore, okay? I love you."

I was always terrified about losing my mother. I thought it might happen in an instant, and I would never have the chance to hold her again. But as it turned out, losing my Mom took an agonizingly long time.

They call Alzheimer's "The Long Good-bye" for a reason. Because I've been grieving my mother's death for a good ten years, ever since she was diagnosed with a disease that terrified her. From the first day she told me-- when she and Dad called me at work to deliver the devastating news-- I went outside and sobbed uncontrollably. They may have well have told me she had died; it felt no different. To me, at least, a part of her died that day. But what I couldn't quite grasp is that I'd be experiencing her slow death for the next decade.

Each month, each day robbed me of my mother; and piece by piece I would watch her deteriorate; I would watch her die.

I had always known that my mother was brilliant. Not only was she a linguist, who could speak several languages fluently and effortlessly, she had a grand command of the English language as well. She had a wickedly good vocabulary, and there was no one I trusted more than her to read my writing, to grasp and edit my work, and through her gentle teachings, open my mind more and more to a language that I loved.

Like me, she loved words. She loved crossword puzzles. She loved scrabble. She loved chimpanzees that talked. She loved languages. She loved vocabulary. But what she really enjoyed the most was intellectual discourse. Nothing pleased my mother more than a good debate with the family; her favorite subject being the existence--or non-existence of a God. A staunch atheist, she would only accept science as a way of explanation for life and the Universe. She had no use for such fantasies as a supreme being, heaven or hell, or an after life of any kind. If I close my eyes, I can see her in her favorite chair; legs crossed underneath her like a woman a third of her age; a cold martini clasped in one hand and a cigarette held tightly in the other. Soon enough we'd all be embroiled in a rather lively discussion about the meaning of life; debates so heated that new friends would find themselves alarmed; they would fear they were witnessing a family squabble. But in reality, it was a way that our family loved each other. "We are a clover passionate lot"--that was what my mother would say.

I never saw Mom happier than during cocktail hour with the family, with a good rousing discussion about the meaning of life. "Is the sun over the yard arm yet?" she'd say excitedly when 5 o'clock approached. Mom was always counting the minutes to cocktail hour. Eventually Mom and Dad set an alarm that would go off at 5 o'clock to warn them that it was time. "How about a nice cold martini?" Mom would ask me, as if it were the very first time she ever had. But each time she would wait for my excited response. "Oh yes, a martini sounds perfect," I would reply. And Mom's eyes would light up as if it were Christmas morning.

When Alzheimer's started stealing my mother from me, what pained me the most was watching her lose that great intellect of hers. When I first received emails from her with misspelled words and grammatical errors, the pain was almost too much to bear. Mom was a great linguist; but I'll never forget the day she asked me to teach her French --a again-- using the Rosetta Stone software on her computer. To see her struggle with a foreign tongue she had all but mastered, would greatly depress me. Mom was a life long banker and mathematician; but I remember the day when I realized she could no longer balance her checkbook. Mom was a voracious reader; but there came a day when I found her pretending to read a book upside down and I knew she could no longer read.

She was regressing--she was turning back the hands of time--she was becoming a child.

Some days her slow decline was so painful, that I wanted to avoid her company.  Her constant questions and anxiety unnerved me, and I would find myself growing impatient with her.  But other days I couldn't get to her fast enough; I needed to feel her kiss on my cheek; I needed to have that moment of clarity or lucidity that was evaporating before my very eyes. There was no time to waste. If I waited two months to see her, her decline would be evident. I had to catch every moment that I could. But those moments often left me dissatisfied and depressed.

For a long time, I never believed that I would find any peace with my mother's disease. But the biggest gift in all of this, is that I did. While her brain seemingly began to deteriorate into ash, I discovered that her soul was still very much there, unharmed, untainted, exactly the way her soul had always been there.

I can hear my mom arguing with me now, pointing out that there is no such thing as a soul; that life is nothing but a series of brain synapses firing. But I witnessed her soul first hand, and even in her final day, her soul was the way I had always remembered it. Though she spoke nonsensically, she had the same lyrical voice and particular way of phrasing. Her humor was intact, she knew when we were joking with her and would laugh right on cue. Her love of music remained the same; I can hear her singing along with Peter's guitar as he played her Beatle songs at the rest home. Her love of her family remained constant; on my last visit with her she knew us all, and still referred to me as "My Cathy." Her soul was the same. Her huge heart and capacity for love, her gentle loving spirit. All the same. That hadn't changed a whit. It was still Mom.

But what was gone, and what I was grateful for, were her fears, her anxieties, her constant nagging worry, and the grief she wore like a glove; a grief that she never seemed to heal; anger that she never could let go of from experiences in her life and choices that she had made. All of my life, I have known that Mom could never forgive herself or others who contributed to the worst period of her life. But as her disease progressed, that was all gone. Suddenly she was lighter; she was freer than she'd ever been. I learned to love her in a new way. She was still alive. She was still there. She was still my Mom.

So when I learned of her death on Monday, it still came as an utter shock. I was once again that little girl with her nose pressed against the window, not wanting her mother to die. I sobbed from a place that I had long buried, and I realized, finally, that I was at last able to grieve. I couldn't give myself permission to grieve her when she was alive, so I disconnected. But finally I could. And ten years of anguish bubbled up inside of me. I missed my mother. I wanted her back.

I love my mother with all of my heart, and today I remember all the things that made Mom, mom.

How as children, she made Chris and I the sweetest little breakfasts every day. A fruit course would be served first, along with some orange juice and a vitamin pill. Then a second course would be served. Even if it was only toast, she'd make it cute, with little individual pots containing such things as butter, cream cheese, or jam.

She was the kind of Mom that would type your papers, darn your socks, iron your blouses, sew outfits for your teddy-bear, embroider flowers on your wedding dress, and tell you that everything was going to be okay, when you were in the bottom of despair. "Something so so bad has happened," I'd tell her. She'd stroke my hair gently, and say, "Tell me what happened, so I can fix it." And fix it she would.

I still love the time I got kicked out of the Brownies, and she was so angry that she called up the Troop Leader and demanded to know what had happened. When the meek troupe leader told her I had used unsavory language, my mother began a litany of guesses. "Did she say SHIT? DID SHE SAY FUCK?" The poor troupe leader, all a'tizzy whispered, "No, she took the lord's name in vain." My mother laughed. "OH GOD," she yelled, duplicating the words that had gotten me thrown out. It goes without saying that she got me reinstated in the Brownies, although I never went back. And when I was fired from a job for not working on a holiday, she called my boss and got my job back for me as well. I only needed to tell her what troubled me, and she would fix it. I think people saw her as meek, but when it came to her children, she was a fierce lioness intent on protecting us.

Mom never lost her English accent, although she thought she had. But she remained a true blue Brit her entire life. She was proud of the fact that she had never become an American citizen, although I think she was jealous when we would discuss voting issues and Presidential races. You could take Mom out of England, but England never left her; from her roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, to her sausage rolls and English trifle. And to me, what made Mom, Mom, like a black and white photograph, were her stories of World War II in London, and how living through that experience shaped her, including her strong dislike for English tea and margarine.

The other time of her life that most shaped her, is when she was in the Linguist Club. Whenever she'd talk about it, her eyes would light up, and she'd often say it was one of the happiest times of her life. On one visit to Hopland, I learned part of the reason she was so happy. She showed Chris and I a scrapbook of sorts that she kept during that time, which had been signed by members of the club. My sister and I laughed when we read the entries from the men; many were apparently quite smitten with her, and one professed his love.  Mom had never considered herself very attractive, even though that wasn't true.  But still, I'm glad that for a time she was the Belle of the Ball.  She deserved that.

Mom loved to cook and she loved to entertain. How can any of us forget her other signature dishes. Her curry with the endless tiny bowls of toppings. Her Paella. her Coq Au Vin. Her brussel sprouts with chestnuts at Thanksgiving. Her strawberry pie at Easter. How she lovingly prepared everything ahead of time, so she could spend time with her guests. There are many things my siblings and I learned from Mom and Dad, but how to throw a party was certainly one of them.

Her favorite song in the world was the Rolling Stones, "I can't get no satisfaction." That is the song that she chose to walk down the aisle to when she married Ray, and she enjoyed nothing more than when we would blast the Stones, Janis Joplin, Jacque Brel, Dr. Hook or one of her favorites. Sometimes I'd go wild, singing at the top of my lungs, expressing myself with a fiery passion, and she would watch me with a big smile on her face. "I wish I could be like that," she often told me. "I wish I could be more like you.  I like you."

 And I liked her.

Of all the memories that have been flooding my head this week, it's funny the one that has been coming back most often. It was one day when Chris and I were talking to Mom as she was getting dressed. She thought she was putting her sweatshirt over her head, but instead she tried to put her pants over her head. With one arm in each of the legs, she tried to push her head through the neck hole which didn't exist. In short time, Chris and I both fell on the floor howling in hysterics, and when Mom realized that it was pants she was trying to get over her head, she rolled onto her back, pants still over her head, howling with laughter. The three of us laughed until our stomachs hurt.

I liked my mother. Because beneath that English demeanor, she did have a fire. She did have a great passion. She was an artist, creating her ceramics and all the daemons and angels and creatures that she created. She was that mother lion. She was Artist. She was Sculptor. Banker. Linguist. Cook. Entertainer. Intellectual. She was all of those things.

But mostly what I saw was a woman that took care of me, and took care of everyone that she loved. A woman that was so self sacrificing it was to her own detriment at times. A mother, a grandmother and a wife who let us know--every single day-- how fiercely she loved us.

And today I want to say how fiercely I loved her. She is at last at peace. She has her dignity back. She is now preserved perfectly in our memories and hearts. She lives on in me, and she lives on in her family. We are a part of her. We came from her. And she will always be a part of us.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Grandmother's suicide (said the spider to the fly.)

I never thought my grandmother was the type of person who would kill herself. She was too self-absorbed, too spirited, and much too selfish to take herself willingly out of the game. Or at least that’s what I thought.

I had always seen my grandmother as someone who was both cunning and artistic; not unlike a spider. I do know that she spent a lifetime spinning a web that while beautiful, had a soul purpose of trapping prey. But I didn’t know how many fell victim to her silky ambush until I was much older.

As a child, I considered her a larger than life sort of character. She wasn’t like my friend’s grandmothers; there was no grey bun or dowdy clothes. In fact, we couldn’t even call her grandmother; we had to call her “Gogo” which was originally my sister’s attempt at saying her first name Dorothy.

My grandmother considered herself quite fetching, and loved to dress the part. She was a Cracker Jack seamstress, certainly the best I’ve ever seen. Not only did she make all of her own dresses, but mine and my siblings as well. She rarely needed a pattern. She would lay the fabric on the floor, and like a mad artist clutching a pair of scissors, she would quickly snip out the sections she would need for her creation, take them to her sewing machine, and hours later would present the most beautiful creations. Perfect tailored suits for the boys, custom fitted dresses for the girls. She herself always looked stunning. She preferred tight dresses, sometimes backless. With a perfect hat and gloves to match, and her rather tallish frame, she would make quite an entrance into any room. She thought her long slender legs were her most valuable asset, and she loved to hike up her dresses as high as possible whenever she had the chance, and would revel in the attention she received for her striking gams.

When I got older, she’d make regular shopping trips to Europe and would buy clothes for me. She’d bring me back the tightest pants and skimpiest of halter tops to wear. “Show it off, Duckie,” she’d tell me. “Show the world just how fetching you are. Be a heartbreaker.”

My grandmother came from England. With her thick cockney accent, and the gift of story-telling, I could listen to her for hours. Some days, she might regale me with tales about World War II in England. “Yes, there were strict rations. But I bought me butter and me eggs from the black market. I wasn’t having any of that nonsense. I had a husband I wanted to keep happy.”

Other days, she’d tell me about the poltergeists she believed lived amongst us. “Don’t be frightened,” she’d tell me when something mysterious and peculiar would happen, which was a regular occurrence whenever I was with her. Things would disappear and reappear; cigarettes would go out cold, and once her dress flew up. “They’re just having a bit of fun with you. Be grateful that their existence proves that there’s a world beyond the one we know.”

She also believed in ghosts. Deceased members of her family would often visit her, even more so as she grew old. “Duckie, come quick,” she’d yell at me as I lay asleep in bed. “Look at this imprint on the bed. My brother was just sitting here, real as life he was. He was welcoming me to the other side. I couldn’t make up that imprint, now could I? Do you see it? Feel it, it’s still warm.”

One day she told me about a flying saucer that flew right over head. “Big as life it was, Duckie. As real as you standing there. It was a total eclipse of the sun. I could smell it.”

My grandmother was on a steady diet of methamphetamines. Although the medication was prescription, we all knew that what she was taking was speed. “Oooh, I love my tablets, Duckie. I get so depressed sometimes, you know. So sad. And all I need do is take one of my tablets and the world is right again.” When she took her tablets, she was full of piss and vinegar, and had boundless energy. She would do hours and hours of yoga, an activity few people had ever heard of back then. She would play the piano and sing. She would paint landscapes and flirt with young men.

When I was younger, she would usually make me a cup of English tea to sip while she told me her stories. When she put the kettle on the stove, I knew she was in the mood to talk. “You must SHOCK the tea bag,” she’d tell me as she’d pour the boiling water into the cup. “Otherwise the tea will be just dreadful.” But when I got a little older, her choice of beverage changed. “Vodka Orange?” she’d ask me, when I was only 15. I would never say no. “Let’s have ourselves a chat then, shall we?” she’d say as she poured me my drink over the rocks.

Over cocktails, she’d often talk to me about sex. “I believe in enjoying sex to the fullest,” she’d tell me, almost getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. She was always very dramatic. “Me Grand Mum couldn’t enjoy sex at all. Her and my grandfather’s sleeping costumes had holes cut into each of them, in the strategic place, so they could have relations without touching or seeing each other, do you understand?” she’d ask me and I’d nod. “And it wasn’t just me Grand Mum. Me own Mum thought it a rather dirty activity herself. When I was going through puberty, she talked to me about sex, told me how disgusting it was. She advised me just to lie there and think of the Queen,” Gogo told me. “But I wasn’t going to have any of that nonsense. I enjoy the passion, do you understand Duckie?”

My grandmother left her husband, my mother’s father, when my mother was only a little girl. They met in the 1920’s when my grandmother played piano in a tavern, and he was hired to sing. “He was a lovely man,” she’d tell me, “but he was too proper English for my taste. I have always been a bit daring, if you understand,” she’d say with a lift of her eyebrows. But she didn’t just leave him, she left him for another man. “But when I first laid eyes on Spishek, oh Duckie, I could have fainted dead on the spot. He was so dashing; he nearly took my breath away.”

My grandmother met Spishek, a Polish air force pilot, during World War 11. A good 22 years her junior, she immediately lied about her own age when she met him. She went so far as to lie about my mother to him as well; she didn’t want him to know she was old enough to have a daughter my mother’s age. Whenever Spishek was around, she forced my mother to say that they were cousins. She would do anything to have him; she would do anything to keep him. She would tell any lie as long as it supported the fantasy she was trying to create.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. The spider was dropping down her web at an alarming speed. The silk was unraveling out of her abdomen faster than I could imagine. But my grandmother’s silk was so sticky, that Spishek never had a chance.

In their wedding photo, you can hardly tell the difference in their ages. My grandmother stands tall, wearing a slim-fitting dark dress; I have always wondered what color it was. Although the picture is black and white, I have always imagined that the dress was red. Wearing red on her wedding day would be something my grandmother would do.
The dress hugs her figure tightly until just below the knee than flounces in a frilly skirt at the bottom. Her legs are still visible in very high heels. She has an explosion of white flowers which dance over her left breast, and atop her curly hair she wears a wide brim hat, with a jungle of white flowers around the lip. Her painted mouth is smiling widely, and her expression is just like a spider that snagged an unsuspecting fly into her web.
"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the spider to the fly;
"'Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy.

The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,

And I have many curious things

to show when you are there."

But Spishek looks a tad more innocent in the photograph. He has a dazed expression on his face, and he is looking off camera somewhere, as if he’s thinking, “What have I done?” He wears a loose fitting suit with a white flower and a white kerchief peaking from the breast pocket. He holds the fingers of my grandmother’s arm with his left hand, which she has tucked underneath his right arm.

"Oh no, no," said the little fly; "to ask me is in vain,

For who goes up your winding stair

can ne'er come down again."
We called Spishek “Beba”, and to me, he was my grandfather. To the children in the house, we thought Gogo and Beba looked like Ricky and Lucy Ricardo from the “I love Lucy” show. Gogo, like Lucy, had the same curly hair-do, and they seemed to dress in similar styles, with the most dramatic of hats. And Beba, with his thick accent and handsome swarthy looks, could be a dead ringer for Ricky.

In front of the children, my grandparents were just like Lucy and Ricky, affable, tender and funny. But their marriage more resembled that of Lucy and Desi Arnez; it was passionate, volatile, and explosive. I could never understand what the dark cloud was that seemed to follow them around. But that is because I didn’t know the truth. That they had put a burden on their marriage that few couples could withstand; they shared a secret. But more importantly, they shared a lie.

My grandmother had coerced my mother into giving her a child.

My grandmother would have done anything for her young husband. He eventually forgave her for lying about her age, but he never gave up on the idea of having children. My grandmother, in her 40’s, tried and tried to conceive, but she never could get pregnant. She feared her young husband would leave her, and find a younger woman who could bare his children.

She was desperate. She asked my Mom for her only child, her daughter, Chris. My older sister.

“You can have loads more children,” my grandmother told my mother, trying to convince her. “Just give me Christine. Spishek and I cannot conceive and he wants children so badly. Please.”

My mother refused. My grandmother begged. She fainted. She pleaded. My mother would not relent.

“Then have another one for me, Duckie. Have a child and I’ll raise him. We’ll never tell a soul. The child will be known as mine and Spishek’s. Please.”

My grandmother eventually wore her down, and my mother became a surrogate for her own mother. And the day she gave birth to my brother George, she immediately relinquished him. My mother never even held him. The doctor handed over her first born son directly into her own mother’s arms. My father had not wanted this surrogacy, and even as my mother was in labor begged her not to give their son away. He left my mother after that; he couldn’t live with the lies. But he didn’t leave until he impregnated my mother with me. Then he was gone for good.

I was told my brother was my Uncle, and he was told his Mother was his sister. We all lived in one big house where they had to be reminded of their deceit every single day. From that day on, our family home, became a house of cards. Our foundation was no more solid than a floor of Jack’s, Queens and Aces. Our family was based on a falsehood, and thus everything that went on in our home was a sham.

We were in a web of lies. And in the center of that magnificent web, was a spider. A black widow.

My grandmother.

She had spun a silken masterpiece, a symmetrical tour de force, with threads that were nearly transparent, save for their sliminess, which glistened in the morning sun. Which gland had my grandmother used this time? Was she merely spinning thread to make a safety line, or was she making sticky silk for trapping prey. Or today might she be producing the finest of her threads to completely wrap and envelop the fly?
I’m still trying to understand the web that she wove over time. She created netting so complicated and coarse, that she was ultimately trapped in her own trap, and she became her own prey. She was strangled by the complex maze of threads that she herself created. She had become the fly.

It was truth which was the real super hero in this story. At first, the truth only barely seeped out; it was a trickle, if that. But soon thereafter the trickle became a flow, and that flow grew in strength and magnitude, and it became a river, which overtook the banks of our reality. The truth has a way of doing that. You can suppress it for a time, but it has a strange way of wriggling out; it is a little like a Houdini. And this truth was eventually set free, and one by one we learned the facts about who my brother really was.

Eventually, we all knew. But we didn’t let onto my grandmother that we knew. We grew up in a house of lies, so it was easy for us to protect her delusions for a time. Besides, my mother begged us not to let her know that we had learned the truth.

My brother was still living alone with her, that winter that she died. He came home one day from college to find her sobbing. “Mum, what’s wrong?” he asked her, scrambling to his knees and grabbing both her hands in his. But he knew what was wrong. He had known what was wrong ever since he learned himself about the truth of his identity. He knew that she cried nearly every single day because of the secret she held inside; because of the lifetime of lies.

It was the same pain I had seen in my mother’s eyes my entire life.

It was that day that the final bits of truth at last came out. Spontaneously, my brother confessed that he knew. “Mummy, I know. I know. I know the truth. And I love you.”
My grandmother’s tears stopped and her gray eyes glanced upwards to his face. A look of recognition took over her expression. Perhaps there was just a flicker of relief, as if she’d been unburdened at last. But soon her face expressed a look of horror and shame.
The next day, Gogo called my mother. “I won’t be making the English Trifle for Christmas this year, Duckie,” she told my mother. “Be a good girl, won’t you, and make it this year? Your trifle is every bit as good as mine; why I taught you of course. Be a dear?”

The next day she called me. “Don’t buy me a Christmas present this year, Duckie,” she told me, her voice sounding weak. She was only 74.

“What do you mean?” I cried. “I already bought you one thing, and it’s wrapped and under my tree.” I had bought her a book about Princess Di’s wedding, which had only just happened.

“No ducks, take it back if you could. I won’t need any presents this year. Tell your sister too.”

The next day, my brother came home to find her about to swallow a mountain of pills. She had dozens and dozen spilled into her lap, and she was staring down at them. She had always liked her tablets, here and there, but her doctors had long cut her off. And to make matters worse, she had just gotten out of the hospital from a bad case if pneumonia. They had put her on steroids, and she was forbidden to have any other medication whatsoever. “Mum,” George yelled, grabbing her arm. “What the hell are you doing? You’re not supposed to be taking any pills! Are you trying to kill yourself?” My brother took her pills away from her and she burst into tears. It was too late. Her fantasy had all fallen apart. Spishek was gone. Her shame was plastered onto each of our faces. “You promise me you won’t take any more pills?” my brother said, scolding her. She nodded as if to promise that she wouldn’t. But the next day, she would swallow as many pills as she could.

I was driving alone that day in my white mustang, speeding down the coast highway toward Half Moon Bay. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, my hood came loose and flew up with a terrifying jolt, and blocked my vision. I skidded to the side of the road, shaken, but relieved that I was able to stop safely.

But then I realized my heart was thumping for a different reason. I knew. I just knew. I knew the hood and my grandmother were connected. For some inexplicable reason I knew that the hood flying up was my grandmother, saying good-bye.

I raced home. By the time I reached my front door I was sobbing myself. I spotted her wrapped gift under the Christmas tree as I reached for the phone.  I called her apartment over and over and over, but there was no answer. At this point, Gogo rarely left the house. I became frantic.

At last someone picked up. It was her next door neighbor. And when I identified myself, she promptly hung up on me.

It took several tries before the woman would talk to me. She was breathless and teary, and explained how she’d seen my grandmother through the window, lying motionless on the floor. Neither loud knocks nor frenzied screams seemed to rouse my grandmother, and eventually the neighbor broke the window and crawled in to help. She thought she had felt a pulse and had called paramedics. “They’re here now,” she told me. “They’re trying to resuscitate her right now,” she said, as she hung up on me for the fifth time.

I knew my grandmother was dead. She died when my hood flew up.

I never thought my grandmother was the type of person to take her own life. I thought her too self-absorbed, too spirited, and too selfish to take herself willingly out of the game. But everything she had worked so hard to create, was gone. Even the illusions.

My grandmother was a spider caught in its own web; she was nothing but a corpse enveloped by yards of her own slimy textile. She had become tangled in her own web of lies.

I learned that day that lies can kill us.

An itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout. Down came the lies and washed the spider out. Up came the sun and it dried up all the pain, and the itsy bitsy spider lives in our hearts again.
I apologize for being gone so long...life can just get too busy sometimes.  Please feel free to leave a comment below.  Happy Labor Day Weekend!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

James Brown and Me; Harlem, N.Y.

The only white faces on the street belonged to me and my companions. All of the other faces were black. They smiled at us from behind their paintbrushes as they painted broad brightly colored murals on the storefronts. They leered at us as if we were a curiosity they had never really seen before. They nodded at us with shy respect as if they thought us brave to visit their neighborhood at all. But mostly they just smiled.

The only other white faces were on tourist busses that rolled up and down the street, carrying drivers who described Harlem culture over loud speakers. The white faces peered out of the glass in long rows. Their eyes were both probing and inquisitive, yet they told of fear. It was as if they were on an African Safari, and wouldn’t dream of getting out of the vehicle to join the natives and wild animals in their habitat. They preferred the safety of something on wheels.

I could only laugh. I had always wanted to go to Harlem. I had long imagined it like a brightly woven tapestry of culture. From the art, to the gospel, to the jazz, I had always been intrigued by this jewel of Manhattan.

I was intrigued by the Apollo Theater which had featured jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, as well as reputedly being a hangout for Malcolm X.

I was intrigued by the restaurants, spilling out the smells of Soul Food into the gritty streets. I could imagine cooks boasting of hot ribs which fell right off the bone, and pork chops that induced finger licking.  I heard the black eyed peas sizzling in bacon fat.   I could smell the sweet potato pie, and the Rum and coconut cakes baking on every corner.

I was intrigued by the churches. And I was intrigued by the art; the murals of their culture painted on every storefront. All of it spoke to me. And I wanted to go.

My family didn’t think it a very good idea.

I remember that when I expressed my desire to go to Harlem to my family, many of them discouraged me from going. I had been born into a family of left wing liberals, open minded and intellectual folk who fought against racism at every turn, and I could hardly believe my ears. “We’re just afraid for your safety,” they told us. “It’s a fact that Harlem is full of crime.” I believed they had succumbed to the fear mongers who exaggerated stories to create drama for their news shows.  I was not deterred in the slightest.

 In fact, I made the pilgrimage to Harlem twice, and both trips were unforgettable journeys.

I remember attending a gospel service at a downtown Baptist Church one Sunday. My companion and I were the only white faces in the church that Sunday morning, and as the Ladies arrived, I had never seen in my life such a dizzying array of costumes. They wore every color of the rainbow; one might be dressed head to toe in orange, with an enormous orange hat perched on their head and orange right down to their orange shoes. Another would be in lime green, and the third in purple. Each hat was more outrageous than the next; reminding me of Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. I noticed there were very few men, only women and children. They preached hard about the black men abandoning their families. But mostly they just made music. The band made you want to jump out of your seat and dance in the aisles, which most of us did. And the singers raised the roof.

I remember visiting the Apollo. I touched the walls as if to soak in the history. I remember buying street art from street vendors. I treasured that art for years to come.

But the best moment of all was the night we went to the Cotton Club.

The Cotton Club called me like no other place in Harlem. Even the name evoked romantic feelings inside of me, and I could almost taste the history when I said the name of the Club out loud.

The Cotton Club.

Since its inception in 1923, The Cotton Club has gained worldwide notoriety for booking the finest musical entertainment in the country. It has been home to numerous legendary greats, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. I found that the thought of going was irresistible.

But even the locals warned us we might not want to hang out in Harlem at night. “You’re fine during the day,” our new friends would tell us. “But after dark is another matter.”

But it didn’t stop us. We were determined to go. And that night, we jumped in a cab and entered the Cotton Club just after eight o’ clock in the evening. It was already packed.

A few eyebrows rose as we found our way to our table. It was apparent that the regular patrons were a little surprised to see a group of white folk enter their club, but mostly, all I remember  were smiles. Smile after smile. A sea of smiles.

“Excuse me,” I said to the cocktail waitress. “I hear it is not at all uncommon for some big names to wander in here on any given Saturday night.”

She smiled big. “Well, you’re in for a treat. Rumor has it that James Brown and his entourage is coming in tonight.”

We were all stunned. Our eyes got as wide as saucers. “THE James Brown?”

She laughed. “Yeah, yeah, that’s what they’re sayin’. I’ll keep you posted.”

But she didn’t need to update us. When James Brown entered the Club, he would have been pretty hard to miss. His presence alone filled the room with energy. His black cape made a dramatic twist to his velvet suit.

Standing beside him was the Reverend Al Sharpton. Beside the Reverend stood the X Mrs. Sharpton.
Behind him stood a half a dozen body guards, all sporting black suits and sunglasses.

Behind the guards we spotted the actress Clarice Taylor, who played Anna Huxtable, the grandmother on the Cosby Show.

The cocktail waitresses fell all over this tribe of Greats, and ushered them to the very front row of the Club, directly in front of the stage. But they weren’t far from us, and I watched James Brown like an eagle hunting it’s prey; I was glued on every move he made. I was literally bubbling over with excitement.

The band called Rev. Al Sharpton’s wife to the stage almost immediately. I really didn’t know much about her at the time, but she turned out to be funny and engaging, and she had a powerful singing voice. She wowed the crowd with a James Brown song, and as she performed, the crowd went wild.

But I don’t think anyone went as wild as I did.

I was beside myself, singing at the top of my lungs, dancing on my seat. I was swept over by a passion I can hardly explain.

When Mrs. Sharpton finished her song, she pointed in my direction, and said loudly into her mic, “Yo sho look like you’re having one hell of a good time!”

The crowd at the Club burst into laughter. I looked to my left, and then to my right, wondering who she was talking about.

“I’m talkin’ to YOU!” She said, pointing directly at me.

“Me?” I whispered pointing to my chest.

“Yes, YOU. You got the spirit in you TONIGHT! You sound GOOD. You know any James Brown songs? Why don’t you get up here on stage and sing him one.”

Suddenly, my reality snapped out of focus. I was dreaming, certainly, and Mrs. Sharpton’s voice started sounding as if it were underwater. This surely couldn’t be happening. My cheeks were hot.

My friends all started shoving at my shoulders, pushing me out of my chair. “They want you to sing,” they’re all whispering. “Go.”

“But why?”


It was one of the craziest moments of my life.

To this day, I can’t remember which James Brown song I sang. I was in some sort of delirious auto pilot as I took my place on the stage and told the band the song I would like to sing. The music started in earnest, and I found my way to the mic.

But what gave me chills was seeing James Brown himself, seated directly in front of me. He removed his sunglasses and stared me down, eyeball to eyeball. And then he winked.

And I began to sing. I was in Harlem, New York at the Cotton Club. I was singing a James Brown song to James Brown himself. And when James Brown got up to sing after me, I realized that in a way, I had just opened for James Brown. It was an ethereal moment. I can’t remember finding my way back to my seat. I was utterly limp.

I often think that people who live their lives in fear miss out on all of the best stuff.

I can still hear the pianist tickling the ivory and doing a tap dance up a ladder of sound. I can still feel the saxophone blowing kisses on the back of my neck as I cried the blues to the moon. I can still smell the sugar on the streets of Harlem. They smelled like cinnamon buns. Hot and sticky.

I can still remember that hot summer evening in Harlem. It smelled like caramel.
Please feel free to leave a comment down below.  And thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pickle Nose

During the summer between my Kindergarten year and First Grade, my mother moved my sister and me to a rural town called Half Moon Bay, an isolated hamlet which hugged the Pacific Coast and a bay the shape of a crescent moon. We were moving in with my step-father Ray, a man my Mom planned on marrying. He had found us a cottage near the beach, and rent was only $60 per month.

It was a house that is difficult to forget, as each room was painted a bright vivid jewel tone. Living there was like living inside of a Kaleidoscope, and I would roam from a purple room to an orange one, through a yellow one and into the green. It was the 60’s and the house only matched the hues of an era, where love and peace had taken on new meaning. But the coast side seemed far from the revolution that was happening in San Francisco only 30 miles away. Remote, inaccessible and secluded, the town felt more like an island, with a low moaning fog horn as our only reminder that we were a part of the world.

That summer I only had cypress trees and the succulent plants which lined the bluffs to keep me company. For the most part, my sister and I stayed indoors and played records; she was determined to teach me all of the latest dances before I started “real school.” I remember long afternoons where I struggled to learn The Twist, or The Jerk, watching my sister’s white go-go boots teach me the tempo. But that summer isn’t a joyful memory for me; I remember feeling scared. The world outside of those fluorescent walls seemed ominous to me. I was certain there would be death or dismemberment if I explored the town too thoroughly. The farmers in their tractors, the fields of artichokes and Brussels sprouts, the hermit crabs in the tide pools all intrigued me. But I felt frozen with fear. I dreamed of the suburban street where we had just moved from, where lawns were all identical and there was a sense of order in a neighborhood. But Half Moon Bay felt more like chaos to me; I saw ghosts everywhere, from the haunted trees to the rusty boats in the harbor.

That summer seemed endless, the way that summers do when you’re very young. I was painfully lonely, and I began to look forward to the first day of school with excited anticipation. I wanted to make friends. While I enjoyed spending time with my sister, we were too far apart in age to be fit companions, and I needed someone who spoke my language. I chose a very proper dress for my first day, a red knit dress my grandmother had made which sported a big yellow school bell over the heart. I felt very grown up as I walked into a brand new school that morning. But my excitement turned into anxiety almost immediately.

I saw a huge girl in the corner. She was at least twice the size of any of us, maybe even more. She looked out of place, and it took me some time to realize that she was both retarded and older than the rest of us, even though she was in our class. She was pleasant enough in an awkward way, and I found her to be more of an oddity than anything else. But the other children teased her, calling her “Pickle Nose,” and taunting and bullying her. I thought it was horrible what they were doing to her, and it filled me with profound grief.

I was too afraid to try and befriend her. Not that I wanted to pal about with the big girl, I only wanted to say something nice, to soothe her somehow. She was often in the corner crying, but I didn’t dare approach her to pat her comfortingly on the arm. I couldn’t go against the crowd. It was a pack mentality, and I didn’t want them to know I didn’t agree with them.

It was then that I noticed a girl named Linda. Linda wasn’t afraid to go against the crowd at all; she walked right up to Pickle Nose and asked her to be her friend. I was startled by her bravery, and her maturity. I wished I could be so brave. But I knew the consequences of taking such a stand.

Within a matter of days, the children had turned on Linda for befriending the big retarded girl. And now it was this brave girl named Linda who was being called Pickle Nose. In fact, they hardly bothered the original Pickle Nose anymore. They’d found a new victim. And they were relentless in trying to make every day a living hell for her.

I admired Linda for the way she seemed to brush it off. Where I would have been terrified, she just went about her day as if the taunting children didn’t exist. She would spend her days with the original Pickle Nose, or would spend time by herself. I often noticed her. And it seemed that she noticed me as well. And one day, she had come up to me and introduced herself. “I’m Linda, do you want to be friends?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond at first, if I were willing to link arms with the girl who had cooties. I looked around to make sure that the other kids weren’t watching. I wasn’t sure what might happen to me if they spotted me talking with her. But it was then that I noticed the red ball in her hands.

I learned almost the first day of school that in order to be cool, you had to have a Super Ball. A small red rubber ball with a dramatic bounce was all the rage that year, and I begged my parents to buy me one. I, like all of the kids, would take our super ball out at recess and play a variety of games. But I noticed the ball that Linda was holding didn’t look like all the rest. “That’s not a Super Ball, is it?” was how I responded to her request.

“My Mom told me she didn’t have any money to buy a Super Ball. But I found this, and it’s close enough.”

Well, it wasn’t nearly close enough, I thought. In a time when everyone had to be exactly the same or face being ostracized, her huge red rubber ball didn’t fit in. Just like the original Pickle Nose, it was at least twice the size of all the others. It seemed to me she was breaking all the rules.

She threw it on the ground to show me, and I watched it hit the pavement like a bag of rocks. She laughed, knowing how ridiculous it looked.

“But it doesn’t even bounce,” I said laughing.

It was then that the ball rolled over to reveal a face. I didn’t believe what I was seeing at first, and bent down to retrieve the ball so I could study it more closely. On one side of the ball, she had carefully glued two eyes, a nose and a mouth that she had drawn on paper and glued. And then she had glued real hair to form a mustache and a beard. She took the ball from my hand and started squeezing it, and making a funny voice. “It doesn’t bounce,” Linda said, “but it talks. Watch.” Soon the ball was talking a mile a minute, making me laugh as loud as I could.

I was mesmerized with Linda and this ball. “Yes,” I said. “I would like to be your friend.” And so it began.

But I wasn’t brave enough to befriend Linda in the open. I carefully explained to her that because she was so intensely disliked at the school, that our friendship would have to remain private. We couldn’t let the children know we were friends, or else I would have to face the same ridicule as she did. She said she understood, but I always remember the pain in her eyes. And while we played together every day after school, and began sleeping over at each other’s houses almost nightly, we pretended not to know each other during the school day.

Every day at lunch Linda and I would sneak into the girl’s bathroom. We would take turns standing on the toilet so that only one pair of legs was visible underneath the door, should someone peek beneath to check for occupancy. We would eat our lunches that way, whispering and giggling, until we heard the bathroom door swing open and we’d eat in silence until the intruder left. We maintained our relationship like this for a long while.

Each day as we drove the big yellow school bus home, Linda and I would sit separately. I would fight back tears watching Linda when it was her stop. She would always begin to get out of her seat before the bus came to a complete halt; she was intent on getting a head start. Because once the big door swung open and Linda sprinted down the street toward home, she’d be chased by a gaggle of twits who would scream pejoratives and hurl insults toward her. The bus driver never did a thing about it. I would watch her until she turned the corner and I couldn’t see her anymore, praying every day she wouldn’t be hurt. But more important, I was struggling with my conscience.

It took me a long time to have the strength to face my guilt and make some changes. I’ll never forget the day when lunchtime came, and I said to Linda, “Let’s eat at the picnic bench today.” I remember the look of surprise and relief in her eyes. I remember how wonderful it felt to sit in the sunshine, laughing and eating peanut butter sandwiches together, while the kids surrounded us with looks of shock on their face. And I’ll never forget returning to the classroom that day after lunch and being pelted with chalk board erasers by all of the children, and the vicious screams of “Pickle Nose” in my direction.

But that was the end of it. I was well-liked, and my boyfriend was a popular boy who told the kids to shut up. And no one tormented me, or Linda, or the Original Pickle Nose ever again.

Years later Linda admitted to me that she resented me during the period when I hid our friendship behind a bathroom door of shame. And I told her how sorry I was, and that I did the best I could at the time. I’m still sorry it wasn’t enough. But despite that, Linda’s and my friendship has endured for forty-five years.

She didn’t invite me to her last birthday, for the first time in our lives. And she has spoken with me in soft tones how our lives have taken different directions. While we’re not estranged, it feels as if we are, as if I’m losing another sister.

I can still hear our laughter echoing over the rocks near our favorite blow hole at the beach. I can still hear the whir of my bicycle wheels as I chased her bike through the hay fields and through the cypress trees. I can still feel the sting of the salt air on my throat as I tipped it back to let out a roar of joy.

I had thought I was being a hero. But I only added to her shame and humiliation. Linda was the real hero. She had strength in the face of adversity that I’ve never forgotten. And she taught me to never hide how I feel just because it’s different. And I never have again.

To this day, I cannot look at a pickle without hearing those vicious taunts. While I try and enjoy this crisp cold snack, pickles will forever remind me of hatred and prejudice, of injustice and small minds. But worse, and a pickle reminds me of my own failures. And I choke on it.

Please feel free to leave a comment below!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Even after they knew she was dead, they continued to shove birthday cake into her open mouth. It’s an image that will forever haunt me. But that’s not how it started.

My friend Siobhan was a personal chef to Alice Kent, a wealthy living legend with a history that could fill volumes of gold gilded manuscripts with fascinating tales. Kentfield, a quixotic little town in Marin County, California, was actually named after her family. She was born both wealthy and powerful, and lived a life that most of us only dream about. Her husband, Roger Kent, was a powerful attorney, who had Richard Nixon as his client. And Alice, a staunch democrat, was known for rubbing shoulders with Jimmy Carter. They knew artists and writers and famous people from around the globe. And they had lived the glamorous life that only a few, and very rich, can even imagine.

But by the time my friend was hired on as her personal chef, Alice was approaching the final days of her life. Alice was old, and her husband was dead. She had long ago given up her mansion and most of her belongings, and moved to a modest condominium in Kentfield. She used her money to surround herself with a variety of talent; she hired astrologers, masseuses, psychiatrists, writers, Professors, and live-in caretakers to fill her days. And my friend Siobhan cooked for her; filling her mouth with every delectable treat that she might have a yen for. “This morning, only a raspberry scone seems palatable,” she might say. And soon the kitchen filled with the sounds of Siobhan’s laughter, and the smells of rising yeast and butter.

Siobhan mentioned to me that Alice was looking for a writer, and I applied immediately. All of my life, I’ve dreamed of making my living as a writer. Of course, for the most part, this was just a pipe dream, imagined by a little girl who believed she would always have a mountain of opportunities at her feet. Life never turned out that way for me, and it seems I’ve always struggled in a career I detested. But occasionally, because I enjoyed writing so much, opportunities came my way. With my friend’s wonderful references, I was hired.

When I met Alice, I realized her body was on its last legs. She was so hunched over, I don’t think she stood over four feet tall, if she could stand at all. For the most part, she got around in a wheel chair, and for much of the day was hooked up to an oxygen tank. Her day was scheduled and regimented; a reflexologist might come to massage her feet at 9:00 a.m., and a holistic healer might be scheduled to give her nutritional recommendations at 10:00. But while her body was withering, her mind was sharp, and she had stories to tell. She asked me to help her tell those stories.

So my days at my new job began.

My shift was 6 hours, which took up most of Alice’s day. Certainly we might break for one of Siobhan’s exquisite luncheons, or to take tea on the veranda. But for the most part, my instructions were simple. She wanted me to talk with her. She wanted me to converse with her for hours and hours, while all the while I would be taping the discourse. Then using a transcriber with a sticky pedal, and her archaic apple computer, I would transcribe our entire conversation.

Following that, I would turn her words into prose.

I loved this job. Alice Kent was a fascinating spirit. She regaled me with stories about the Kennedys, rejoicing in little quips about what Jack or Bobby might have done as children, recounting her memories of the First Family with a wistful look in her eye. She captivated my attention as she told how she helped to start the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. “I had a vision, it was that simple,” Alice told me in her no nonsense way. “So I set out to create that vision. I’ve always had money.” She had met the Beatniks, including Jack Kerouac himself. “He was devilishly handsome,” I remember her telling me, her eyes lifting in a flirtatious way. I was mesmerized by her stories, and was always egging her on to go deeper and deeper into her rich history. I was fishing for golden material that I could use later that day when I turned her stories into living fairy tales.

In the mornings we would talk about anything and everything, from her Jungian Therapy work to her belief in astrology. Sometimes we’d have other guests, from Theology Professors to Historians, sitting in on our chats. It was always a far more difficult job to transcribe conversations when there were more than two people talking. I can still hear the whir of the tape and the clicking of the pedals, as I stepped on them rewinding and forwarding and rewinding again, to catch every phrase and nuance. Sometimes I would take a little respite and sneak into the kitchen to giggle with Siobhan, and poke a spoon into her aromatic concoctions. Then, in the afternoons, as Alice was having her massage, I would sit at the dusty Apple, turning her words into paragraphs and then into chapters, creating until it was time for me to go home for the day. I felt happy.

I hardly noticed the months passing, or how rapidly Alice’s health was deteriorating. She began to take to her bed more and more, and we began to have our taped conversations while she lay flat on her back, staring at the ceiling. She became incontinent, and our conversations often took an unpleasant turn to her urine concerns. Soon, a little potty was set up right next to my work station; and as I tried to create paragraphs of lyrical prose, I was treated to the sight of a bowl filled with yellow liquid, that didn’t have a particularly good smell. The condominium became more like a hospital to me as time went on, and it became more difficult to find my inspiration.

One cold winter morning in December, I arrived at work to find her alert and sitting up in her wheel chair. “Good morning, Alice,” I started. “You look well.”

“We need to talk,” she said gravely. “Please wheel me into the parlor. Siobhan is preparing our tea.”

I did as she asked, and was soon seated directly in front of her on a pink French Chintz chair. Siobhan came in and served us tea, and she and I exchanged a meaningful giggle as we always did. “Enough carrying on,” Alice warned us sharply. “I need some privacy with Cathy please.” Alice’s live-in caretaker ushered Siobhan from the room.

Alice didn’t waste any time. “I am about to die,” she told me. The words hung in the air as if they were heavier than most. As if they were incapable of dissolving.

“Of course you’re not,” I quickly assured her, the way we do even when we know we’re lying. “Look at you today! You look well.”

“I will be dead, in my estimation, in approximately a fortnight. In fourteen days, give or take a day or two. I’m not sure of the exact day,” she said, sipping on her tea and looking placidly out of the window.

I saw no sense in arguing with her. “In that case, I’ll miss you.”

“I know you’ll be flying to Washington D.C. next month for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I should have really done this sooner, but I have arranged for you and your companion to have a special invitation into the Presidential Ball, and two tickets to sit in the V.I.P. section when the President is sworn in. These are highly coveted tickets, and worth a mint. They’ll be arriving by mail.”

I was both overjoyed and touched, and I fell all over myself trying to thank her properly.

“Thank you so much, Alice. You’re too kind.”

“There’s more.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. With great difficulty, and with her fingers shaking, she unfolded it, and then held it out toward me. I put down my tea and reached over to fetch the paper she was holding. It was a check. And for a pretty healthy amount of money.

“What is this for?” I asked, astounded.

“I wanted you to have that. It’s too late to put you in my will, and my family would battle you for the money for years. Just take that and use it for something that would help you in your writing. Perhaps a magical trip somewhere. Perhaps a writer’s retreat. Whatever you think best. Perfect your gift. Hone your craft. Follow your passion.”

I was stunned. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome,” she said quietly. “But you mustn’t tell anyone. For instance, I am not leaving anything to any of the staff. And that includes Siobhan.”

This hurt me to my core. “But I don’t understand. Why not?” Siobhan had worked for her for years, while I’d barely completed thirteen months. Not to mention, she’d gotten me the job.

“As liberal as you know me to be, this might come as a shock to you. But the way I grew up, the cooks were merely servants. Your services are on another scale. You are an artist, and your efforts must be supported. You are not my employee. I am commissioning you for your talent. Do you see the difference?”

“Not really,” I told her. “Siobhan is an artist. She is a chef. What she creates in the kitchen is mind blowing.”

“And I agree with you,” she told me. “It’s just not the way I was raised to believe. I hope you don’t think less of me, and that you use this money to further your craft.”

“I will,” I said, folding the check and putting it in my pocket. “Thank you.”

“Because I can’t pinpoint my exact moment of death, it is impossible for me to know if I will die on your shift or not. It could be in the middle of the night, while you’re sleeping at home. But if at all possible, I would like you to be here.”

“I hope I will be.”

“Thank you. And once I’m gone, I’d like you to publish this book you’ve been working on for me. This is the legacy I want to leave behind. I’m certain my family will try and prevent it. I hope you’ll persevere. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Good,” she said loudly clapping her hands together. “Then let’s get busy. We have a lot of work to do. We need to come up with a viable ending for this story that has become my life. Go grab the tape recorder. I am ready.”

For the next two weeks, Alice and I worked tirelessly, my six hour shift stretching to eight or ten hours per day. In the evenings I would type away next to her bowl of urine, working as quickly as I could to write my conclusions to her life story. Time was running out, and Alice wanted to make sure it was completed.

The last day I saw Alice, it was her birthday.

She had been doing well during her last few weeks of her life. But when I arrived at work that day, I found her stretched out in her bed, moaning into her oxygen tank.
“Happy Birthday, Alice,” I said softly, as I stood at her bedside.
Alice took the oxygen tube out of her mouth for a moment, as if she was struggling to say something to me. I waited, but no words came. She put the tube back into her mouth, and began breathing slowly and methodically. The sound reminded me of snorkeling under water.
“Are you up to doing any work today?” I asked.

She shook her head vehemently, indicating that she was not. Then she took out her tube and spoke.

“You finish.” She said in a labored way. She raised her eyebrows as if to ask if I understood. I nodded. “I will lie here and listen to you type. I love the sound. It sounds like rain.” It took her several moments to get those three short sentences out. I didn’t want to tire her, so I took my place on the computer and began to write.
I wrote for hours, with the slow labored sounds of her breathing my only company. Once in awhile I’d look over and smile at her and she would only nod, as if to say, “Keep working.”

The afternoon slipped by, and by the day’s end, I felt as though I finally had a finished draft. “Alice, I think we have a book!” I shouted excitedly. “Would you like me to read you the end?”

She struggled to take the oxygen tube out of her mouth. “No,” she almost choked. “I. Trust. You.”

I smiled. “My shift is over .Would you like me to go home?”

“Not. Yet.” She struggled over every syllable. “Sit. With. Me.”

I pulled a chair near her bedside and took her hand. “Funny we finished the book on your birthday,” I said.

“Yes.” She tried to laugh. “And. My. Death. Day.”

I didn’t argue; I just held her hand tighter. We sat in silence for at least fifteen minutes.

“You. Go. Home,” she said at last. Her breath had become even shallower.

“Are you sure?”

“Good. Bye.  Good.  Luck.”

“You sure you don’t want me to stay?”

She shook her head again, although this time it seemed a bit sad. I grabbed my purse and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. The last words she said to me, as if with a sudden burst of energy, were “Do you hear the sounds of the birds singing?”

I strained my ears, but there were no birds. It was utterly silent. I nodded yes, and then left.

Alice died later that night.

After I left, her children came over and joined Siobhan for what was supposed to be a birthday celebration. Siobhan had just put the finishing touches on Alice’s birthday cake as the family arrived. But when the family went in to say hello to Alice, they realized it was only a matter of time.

They gathered around her bedside, and held hands with Alice, in a complete circle. Siobhan recounted later that they had called her in to join them. “It’s any minute now,” they had told her. “Come join our circle and say good-bye to mother.”

Siobhan wasn’t sure what to do with the birthday cake, but she wasn’t a chef that would allow one of her stellar creations to go to waste. With shaking hands, she put candles in the cake and lit them. Then she brought in the flaming dessert to Alice’s bedside. She was singing “Happy Birthday.” The family joined in, and they all serenaded her as Alice slipped away.

A final gasp was heard before she passed over to the other side. The family, along with Siobhan, continued to sing; they blessed her spirit as it filled the room, and just as quickly vanished.

To this day, Siobhan isn’t sure why she did this. But she broke off a piece of the birthday cake, and opened Alice’s mouth and laid it on her tongue. Of course I joked with her later that she was too conceited over her creation for Alice to die without even tasting it. But the real reason is a mystery to us all. All I know is that she continued to shove bits of birthday cake in Alice’s mouth as she lay dead, and as her children continued to sing. Soon the mouth was too full, and crumbs began falling into the crevices of her neck. It is an image that has always haunted me.

By the time I went to Clinton’s inauguration that winter, the VIP tickets and invitations she had promised me hadn’t arrived, and I left to D.C. without them. But when I returned home, I found them in my mail. Sadly, Alice had procrastinated a little too long in getting them to me on time, but I still treasured them. I framed them, and hung them on my wall as a remembrance.

A few days later, a funeral and wake was held in Alice’s honor. Both Siobhan and I attended this event, and felt quite honored to be there. The guest list was long and distinguished; from politicians to actresses to writers. The event was featured on the Society Page.

At the wake, I pulled aside Alice’s son to tell him how sorry I was to lose her, and how much she had taught me. He met my smile with reproach, and ignored my offers of sympathy. Instead, he told me that he had heard of my “little endowment,” as he called it. “I hope you didn’t take advantage of my mother and her money,” is what he told me. “In her diminished state, I’m sure you could have convinced her of anything.”

I was hurt and offended. “I never asked anything of Alice, except my paycheck. She offered me that money.”

“If you say so,” was his sharp reply. Then he scoffed. “Enjoy it.”

“Her only request was that I finish and publish the book the two of us have been working on.”

He laughed and tipped back his glass of champagne, letting the last few drops of expensive effervescent bubbles fall onto his tongue. “There will be no book,” is what he said, wiping his mouth and wearing too big of a grin.

“That was her last wish.”

“Let me make this clear,” he told me. “I’m an attorney. There will be no book.” And with that, he turned on his heel and left me standing there.

And there was no book. I contacted the rest of the family following the funeral with parts of the manuscript, and her dying wish to have it published. I was ignored, rebuffed and even threatened. I eventually dropped the idea.

But I think of Alice and her stories often. I’ve always wondered what birds Alice heard that winter day when there were no birds. All I know is that she heard them.

I, too, often hear birds that aren’t there. They are the sounds of ultimate peace. And with them I am able to pull an entire blanket of stars over my shoulders like a blanket, and for just one minute, I am reminded how things never really die. And how if we listen very carefully, the birds are always singing.

Me in Kindergarten

Me in Kindergarten