Death Is A Mess


I decided at the beginning of 2017 that I would finally make the move I had been talking about making since I became an empty-nester. I would leave Flagstaff. Find a smaller newer home. Go on a residential adventure, so to speak. That was five years ago. The plan moved from the back and then to the front of my mind as finances and employment shifted. When I finally built back my savings, I lost my job. My savings dwindled, then disappeared, and I found new job. This year, I was finally ready to do it. And as all big life moments have proven to do–life, death and all in between–it grew messy.

As I embarked upon this journey, as with all journeys, there were the knowns of home repair: a zillion trips to the local hardware store, and to Home Depot, and to the paint store. The solving of one problem (eg. repair the brick facade on the front of the house) always led to the discovery of another (a network of wasps living behind the artwork hanging on the brick facade) and and so on.

I was used to the upkeep and re-keep of an old house. We had grown old together that house and I, and there was not much it could do that would surprise me. Granted, the hot tub, also old, leaking again the day before I moved, well . . . . chewing gum anyone?

But then there were the unknowns that continuously surprised me. How bureaucratic can a relatively simple, very common, everyday occurrence be? It wasn’t like I was in high rise rentals in Manhattan and Zurich. I sold and bought small, single-family homes in small American towns. But the paper. The paper! If I wasn’t sending the deposit, I was depositing the check,  and if I wasn’t checking on the email, I was emailing the signature, and if not signing but another electronic form I was forming a knot in my brain the size of Ponderosa pine cone.

Finally, I’m out, and I’m in. Old house behind me, new house around me. And yet, it continues. I am happily settled in these new digs, enthusiastically getting to know this part of Arizona, the Verde Valley, which is, yes, as the name indicates, green. And I have chosen a much younger house, on an un-treed lot, in a much smaller town with a much warmer climate. Goals accomplished. But wait! The bureaucracy continues. The former bank sent duplicate documents that had already been emailed. The new bank sent duplicates of thirty years worth of payment tickets when I already established that I will pay my new mortgage online. The seller’s mail arrives by the bucketloads.  Oh, we are shrouded in paper we are, shrouded until we die.

Which brings me, actually, to the other point. The business of dying. When my mother died in 2002, and my father, who had suffered numerous strokes over the previous ten years, let alone the gut wrenching sorrow of losing his wife of more than fifty years, was faced with the business of her dying, I was struck dumb. Me, who had railed at the financial aid system of yore for tying up my college funds in paper and tape and sour faces. Me, who had by then purchased two homes (although I happily agreed that my ex husband would take care of all of the business). Me, who had been a legal secretary in North Carolina where lawyers manage property sales, not realtors. Me, who had applied for university, graduate school, visas, passports, the Peace Corps, etc., I thought I knew bureaucracy. But there is none like that of dealing with the dead.

As my friend Michelle’s daughter noted, ‘but he’s dead!’ of her recently passed father and the entourage of bills and paperwork that currently bombards their lives. Shouldn’t it go away if he’s dead? No, darling. The status of the loved one as no longer existing seems to mysteriously trigger a parade of very live and fast moving pieces of debris, or mail, message, and mystery, as it will all come to be known.

The sad irony, of course, is that as I work through the time-consuming and brain-kidnapping and toilsome work of selling a house, buying a house, and moving from one to the other, I am irritated, annoyed, tired, stressed, etc., but, in the end, I have a new house, a place to fill with life, and to make my home.

And the exact opposite is true in dealing with the business of death: all you get is nothing. Loneliness. Gone-ness. Each day new reminders of your loved one’s old habits or paths or routines or favorite shirt or stained spoon or favorite topping for pizza. You think that it is all over, and you just want to crawl under a rock forever and find the depth of your bottomless grief, and then comes the cheery phone call from your loved one’s dry cleaners that his shirts are ready for pick up.

“He can’t wear them in the grave!” you want to scream, but don’t, and just quietly click the call away and make a note, on the list, that seems to have doubled in size while you weren’t looking, ‘go through paper-clipped receipts on desk.’ Then another call. Someone telling you that the part for the truck is in. What part? Then the insurance calls to tell you they need the death certificate in triplicate. The death certificates that were lost in the mail.

The charity requests were the saddest calls for my father. My mother was known to be quickly and easily swayed by the late night starving-babies-in-Africa-charity commercials. And she would call the 800 number on the screen and give her charge card number over the phone in the wee hours to some voice far away. Then thank you cards would arrive donning the same sad faces that had convinced my mother to give in the first place. And then said charities would call her regularly asking for continued funding. Even when she was dead. It broke my father’s heart all over again.

I have lived away from my state of origin for many years, and thus, I was not there for the moment of my mother’s death as the rest of my eight siblings were. They stood by her bed together as she passed. When I arrived from Arizona, post her passing, I was assigned several duties, and listened, for days, to the re-telling of my mother’s final days, hours, and then moments. The lesson of death was well-taught.

I stayed with my dad for a few weeks afterward to help him out and keep him company. He watched La Boheme, over and over again, weeping quietly, as I tended, as best I could, to the business of my mother’s death. I learned the bureaucratic ride that this simple, every day, very common occurrence was going to be.

It all gets so messy. Death, life, homes, relationships, all of it, not only do they all get ‘messy’ as in complicated emotionally, they are all just a mess, literally. A mess of paperwork and decisions and reminders and calls and forms and thousands of lines of very, very small print, an onslaught of the bureaucratic lives from which we can not escape, even when we are dead.

Death Is a Mess

We enshrouded her with white velvet, mums,
explanation, and decided against the titanium

casket, we chose brushed steel. Potato salad and hams
arrived, packaged Danish, flowers in sad friends’ hands

but death is a mess you can’t cover with food, smiles
or words, it smells. Put a lid on it, a bag, a sheet, tell

again what you witnessed with her last exhale,
how men in suits wrapped her in the stained percale;

Tell of the pastel tissue you used to wipe
her lips, her chin, her discomfort, the Kleenex piled

up like crumpled carnations in the trash, all those
layers peeling off her body until death found home,

in her throat, that rattle, and she closed your eyes,
your denial more moist than her expected demise.

I never got to say goodbye but imagined her last breath
repeated again and again by those who saw her death

those who watched the final whisper of her uneven chest
the air slowly escaping its unforgiving nest

their coffin of words couldn’t solidify death’s puddle
like formaldehyde does for the dearly beloved

but we chose the right shoes, the rosary laced
through her polished fingers, we rouged her face

then the burnished cap’s click had the final word
cousins passed holy cards and threw wormless dirt

we plant only short flowers, crocus and ivy
lawnmowers can’t reach them, we keep the grave tidy.

 

poster image from Urban Flavors

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Sadness Seems Irrelevant: Losing Tilly

IMG_20170128_120344917_HDR

With all that is going on in the world, thousands upon thousands slammed by earthquakes and volcanoes; forest fires and hurricanes; flooding and tornadoes, and literally slammed, the loss of my cat seems so minimal. My tears seem irrelevant. Each time I call her or miss or or feel the tug of her absence, I grab a bit of perspective, like a dusty tuft of Tilly hair floating across the floor, swallow my sorrow, and move on, repeatedly asking myself: ‘Really, Anne Marie?’ But then it will happen again. Little moments of sad.

Cat lovers, pet owners, they know what I mean. Loss is loss, on one hand, but on the other, the disappearance of a well-loved and really cool cat, compared to losing absolutely everything in one’s life to some raging storm or other natural disaster . . . well, I feel that I should be very quiet about missing this furry friend.

She is quite the pretty kitty, loves sinks, as the photo above indicates, and hates her nap being interrupted by my wanting to clean the sink. Heaven forbid. Even non cat lovers see at least one of her many attributes. She is not a drama cat. Not mean by any stretch of the word. Smart? Well, she does like to sleep in the middle of the street, and that worries us all, but she survived as an outdoor cat in the forest for nearly ten years. Two weeks in the desert and she’s . . . gone. Girl?

Coyotes and foxes, rottweilers and pit bulls, she could outrun them or trick them in Flagstaff. Perhaps there is not a tree tall enough for her to scamper up when chased here in the high desert. Perhaps a hawk or owl found her in said short tree. Perhaps she is curled up and snoozing somewhere checking out her new hood. She is quite the Lounger.

Perhaps, as they say, the cat always comes back. For now, as irrelevant as it seems in light of the tremendous loss so many are experiencing, I just wanted to give her a little public note. Because she is simply Tilly. The coolest cat around. Here’s a film the girls made, just to show you how talented she was (cut and paste the url). Oh, Tilly.

http://webmail.q.com/service/home/~/Chantilly%20Fredifurred%20Unlimited.MP4?auth=co&loc=en_US&id=166440&part=2

And for all those who have lost so so much more than a 10-pound, ten-year-old cat in these last few awful weeks, I am so, so sorry.

9-17
p.s. Tilly came back after 3 days. A bit bedraggled and speckled with burrs. She’ll be fine. I wish all others such great fortune.


Tilly in the Sink, by me; Painting of Tilly, by Riana.

via Daily Prompt: Irrelevant

September Baby; Celebration Pie

Blueberry-Peach-Pie-Filling-1
for Riana

Peach sky, and blueberry pie.
My baby’s birthday, she’s twenty-five.
A quarter century, and from that moment of birth
I loved rocking her, now she’s rockin’ the earth.

Feisty and tender, a complete painter’s palette.
Keen on her limits, but, oh, give her a challenge!
An artist, a scientist, smart as a whip –
She colors our world with fashion and wit.

Who knows what’s next, some amazing creation –
Like the autumn sky, she’s my sweet celebration.

 

 

Power Tools

scone maker final no3

for Susan Tweit

It is September 15.  The sun seems to have hit snooze more often than I did. It is particularly lazy today, and has, perhaps, hesitated at the tree line across the street for hours. Not too subtle a reminder, let me tell you, that days are getting shorter, and worse yet, there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. It’s more like a whack on this old soft head of mine. Darkness is coming!

I ignore the hint and feel my way in the dark as I feed the pets their breakfast; I am that stubborn. I simply refuse to turn on a light because I am certain, I insist, there must be enough early morning light for coffee and kibbles. Right? BONK! I bang my head on an open cupboard, curse, and then flip on the damn light. The big star wins again. Life’s lessons are far more patient than I deserve. They repeat and repeat and never complain, never say, “Dang, will that woman ever learn?” And, yes, I do, actually.

Some lessons come more easily. The ‘learn’ moment is gentler. The remembering easy. I recently read a piece on the power of power tools by Susan Tweit. Her words are a toothbrush (little tiny power tool) to the plaque covering my brain. She provides the creative and confident scrub my self-esteem needs. Great lessons. Thanks, woman.

She writes on power tools and the importance of being a “Tool Girl,” the importance of “knowing how to use tools, and learn the basics of building and un-building, of creating and repairing what we and others build.” She is managing the project of recreating her new (old) home. I admire her and envy her and want to curl up on the couch in her pretty, getting prettier, house and have her tell me again, “Yes, Anne Marie, you can use your miniature Craftsman drill.” And then she would serve me tea and soothe my withering confidence. Alas, in reality it would be the rotating hammer she put in my hand. “Tea later. We’ve got work to do,” she would say, and I’d hesitatingly oblige.

You see, I have always used “power tools,” or so I joked with the boyfriend who took it upon himself to teach me “real” power tools. He’s the one who bought me said mini drill. To this day it collects more dust than rpms somewhere out in the garage. I never quite got the hang of the slight, but functional, little pistol-shaped screwdriver. What’s wrong with the non-electric one? I asked. Again. And then I walked him to my kitchen.

It is there I showed him my power tools. My Kitchen Aid mixer. Kitchen Aid food processor. Black & Decker hand mixer. Osterizer blender. It is with these electric beauties that I understand the importance of speed, balance, stirring that is consistent no matter  how heavy the dough. I make power pies. Super scones. Energy bars and breakfast cookies. They pour from my aromatic kitchen like Susan’s bricks fell away from her useless planter box. She applied jack hammer pressure, I roll dough with a French pin. She covered herself in powdered mortar, I cover my counter tops with flour, my fingertips with powdered sugar, both of which I can clean with my tongue, mind you. A bonus needless to say. She gets an amazing house. I get yummies to serve to the folks, often men, who hammer, haul, install, remove, etc., for me in my house. Either way, Susan and I, we both make a home.

As I embarked on purchasing a house, I saw all the ones that said “needs a little TLC,” and I balked. I have chosen a “tight” home as the inspector said, on a pretty little street, in a place that is new for me. Single woman on her own. The house is not a fixer upper. If the plumbing leaks, the electricity fails, the floorboards pop . . . I am on my own. My Kitchen Aid will not help. Well, I take that back. Knowing me, I’ll make a batch of cranberry scones and offer them to a neighbor or friend to help me out, to bring over their power tools, and whir away.

Buying my own house is a new experience. I have not endeavored upon a move of this sort in 40 years and never walked through the bureaucracy alone. These lessons required patience, and were rewarding after all is said and done. And while part of me yearned for a fixer upper: to take on that challenge, to be at work like Susan Tweit is, sweaty and painful and physical and rewarding, I retreated from the idea. Oh, to defy the gender power tool rules. And become a favorite and known customer at the local hardware store, not because I ask the best questions and tell the funniest jokes — as was the case at Hunts in Flagstaff, my neighborhood hardware which just closed, caving after 10 years to the likes of Home Depot — but because I would be there so often with my tool belt and serious demeanor. “I know what a rotating drill is, yeah I do!” Nah.

When I walked into this house, I saw the “tight.” It does not need fixing or upgrades, it does not lack function or safety or comfort. It is to code, it is to my liking. It is simple and small and begging, I hear it daily, for the smell of fresh cranberry scones. It needs another batch of oatmeal walnut cookies. Pies? What flavor? I have frozen peaches and blueberries and strawberries and rhubarb all from the local farmers market. I am so ready. The house offers a counter top that is long and wide enough to hold my favorite power tools without having to schlep the heavy bastards from the pantry down the hall. Right there at my fingertips. Let’s make this house a home.

I read Susan Tweit’s narrative ode to ‘tool girls,’ and I am grateful, and envious. I suffer a bit of immediate shame. Did I mother poorly if my daughters do not know how to change the oil in their car? Replace a broken light fixture? Stop a running toilet? Or tear down a multi-course brick wall with a rotating hammer? They do not know how to, nor, like me, do they have the inclination to learn. Or do they? I suspect, they have braved far more than their mother, just as I did my mother. She was deathly afraid of driving. And that is another story for another post.

But was I remiss in assuming their father would teach them the likes, and then when that couldn’t happen to not step up to the plate, was I negligent? Nemo dat quod non habet. I suspect my dear enviable friend Susan would be the first to say, no. You can’t give what you don’t have.

My daughters are smart, kind, generous and gracious. So when it comes to needing help, like their mother, they know how to get it, to barter, to bargain, to trade, and to say, thanks. Be it with a 30-second video spot, a vintage dress from the collection, some other artistic endeavor, or just a handshake and a smile, they know how to be humble, and grateful. More importantly, they will acquire the skills necessary for the task at hand.

But do they bake? No. They, like me, have their own power tools. And rely, quite happily, upon my use of all the tools that bring bread into our visits. Do I earn the Tool Girl title that Susan wears, truly a badge of feminism and courage, with pride and gusto? Perhaps yes. My courage, feminism, gusto, have manifested themselves in other ways, I suppose. As Susan says, “Whatever we do in our lives, knowing how to work with our hands and muscles makes us strong and capable, more grounded.”

So my confidence may waver and slow like the September sun when it comes to my use of the Craftsmen line. But we’re all tool girls in one way or the other, making our way as strong and grounded women of the world. And in my case, full, too.

I Don’t Do It for the Hours

I bake bread because
baking it
makes me
taste it.
The moment.
The yeast water sugar moment.
Nothing else matters
but for the bubbles
the foam
the biting bitter flash
when nostril and fresh yeast
meet, yes
a fantasy
of senses
mixing in that massive
Hobart bowl rocking as the hook
wraps the dough around
and around kneading
that dough around
until it’s a fat dough cuddle.
Rub its cheek;
slap it on the bread board
and need it some more.

I bake bread because
baking it
makes me
taste it.
The moment.
The sweet hot toast moment.
Nothing else matters
when butter and bread marry
dressed in yellow
and white
and melt all the way
down the aisle
to the pleased preacher
waiting at my widening waistline
for the perfect couple.
Waiting to bless them
and keep them
warm and waiting
for the next bite.

I bake bread because
baking it
makes me
taste it
and tasting it
makes me full.

*The image above is my one and only attempt at graphic design in Adobe Illustrator. Power tool of graphic designers.  I call it “The Scone Maker” and while my Kitchen Aid is white, my dream Kitchen Aid is bright red. And, yes, the color of power tools matters. 

Please visit Susan’s site http://susanjtweit.com/; and Riana’s store at https://www.etsy.com/shop/OchreAndBone

 

Untitled

sunflowers

Everything
sings pink
this morning
where has August gone?

Sunflowers
light the sky long
after sunset
summer’s last song

Autumn’s chill
settles softly now
across my pillow
and chin

September sits
so patiently
I’ll bring
the heavy quilt in.

Be A Poet, Five Easy Steps

be a poetBe A Poet

1.
Be a poet. Be that person
who dreams at the bed’s edge.
Be that light between night
and dawn. Between the letters
that pause. Sit below w’s stems. Be
as quiet as dancing alone or be as loud
as tomorrow.

2.
Quiet days give way
to summer’s heat. And thunder.
Roll toward the apple display.
Where passion burned through her shirt.
Every cell of her body.
Saw off branches. Steer the ship alone.
Release, and joy, and lovely.

3.
The bowl is shallow, the soup barely broth.
Not telling our truths is holding our breath,
leaving a trail of who we are.
Underneath agitation, the treasure.

4.
We do not know the colors of honest.
We give into body and busy.
Reject the air that carries the words.

There are those storytellers.
That person behind the wall,
see yourself from above.

Picasso says artists see like a child.
Word manipulation and story.
The gruel and grit of the moment.

5.
I don’t get cream in my coffee,
energy or fragrance.
Smell the mess, the arrogance.
Like rain and electricity,
the colder, darker days.
Where do you dream now?

 

Photo by Steve Richey on Unsplash

via Daily Prompt: Shallow

Perfect Sanctuary: A Short Story

detroit2

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the ’67 Detroit Race Riots, I thought I would share a short story set in Detroit at that time.

“This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end.”*
(Jim Morrison)

Perfect Sanctuary

I stopped telling the truth to our parish priests in 1967, the year that Detroit lost its way.  I also lost my way that summer.  Each Saturday, near three o’clock, when I knew that most of the confessors would be gone from the church, I went to St. Mary’s and waited to divulge my sins to either Father Kelly or Monsignor Hickey, whomever was attending.  I never entered the holy stall until every other parishioner had left and I felt certain that no one else would arrive.  Confessions ended at three.  I opened the heavy wooden door of the confessional, knelt on the leather kneeler and whispered to the warm breath on the other side all of the horrible sins I had committed. I had murdered. I had robbed. I had assaulted. I had coveted another woman’s husband. I had cussed. I had lied.  I had disobeyed my parents. I confessed my sins in a different order each Saturday because I did not want the hidden clergy to grow bored. I included varying details for the same reason.  I made the decisions about which order to recite my fabricated sins, and which details to offer, as I went along.  Sometimes I got carried away and the priests, familiar with my tales, might even have anticipated my arrival.  They most certainly giggled behind their latticed wooden separator, or maybe saved it until later, back in the rectory where they had a good laugh with a friend and a beer, but nevertheless, either priest would give me my absolution.  “Say three ‘Hail Mary’s, child, say three ‘Our Fathers,’ and perform three good deeds.”  He would bless me and shut the partition between which we could barely smell each other’s lunch, and I would exit.  I went to a pew and knelt, ignoring his directives about reciting prayers, and glanced around to discover if, indeed, all of the confessors were gone.  I waited also for the priest to leave with his head bowed in secrecy, as if I didn’t know who he was.

I went to the cold marbled alter.  I blew out every single white votive candle from the three hundred there, and if feeling particularly courageous, I blew out the large candles behind the altar.  Then, with my own matches, I lit one votive, right in the center of all the rest, and I knelt before it, and told my true confessions as I tried desperately to discover and touch the lost half of my soul.

Vickie, my twin sister, and I weathered the sixties quite well considering what was going on.  We remained safely distant from the political and social movements and issues of the era, the assassinations, the protests, the guerrillas, jungles, body counts.  All that world outside our own meant nothing to us.  We remained, for a time, happily cloaked in the veil of naiveté and adolescence, and each evening waited anxiously for the end of the six o’clock news, with its blasts about hysteria and chaos, so that we could move on to the simplest moments of our own childhood and watch Leave It To Beaver reruns while our mother made us dinner.  The excitement of the era even took a local turn in the spring of ’67 when the kids from our parish high school held a walk out.  We sixth graders lingered at the window watching mobs of students march down St. Mary’s Street, and the gossip, quick and slippery, oozed between us.  I, nevertheless, remained unmoved until the rumors whispered that the female students planned to burn their bras.  It titillated (and shamed) me to think of numerous bare-chested young women, and I wondered whether they would actually bare their breasts, and I wondered who would see, and I wished I could.  But the symbolic meaning of such an episode flew over my head as daintily and unnoticed as an ash.

My faith, as rigid and sure as the Catholic church insisted, provided a perfect sanctuary; no matter how credulous I grew, it protected me.  I believed in the God, his Trinity, the saints and the Blessed Mother as dutifully as my superiors directed.  I saw my family for no more than what it appeared: twelve-year old twin girls, Victoria and Elizabeth, two teen age boys, James, seventeen and Joe, sixteen, our mother and father, the O’Reilleys–an Irish-Catholic family living in a large parish in Detroit.  My home consisted of a house, a neighborhood, a church.  I knew that Detroit was a large city spreading away from the great river it hugged, I knew that it produced popular dancing music, that it accommodated millions of people, that it housed miles of ghettos, that it exhibited fine art and industrial age history.  And it was all of no consequence to me.  Until that summer and the race riots of ’67.

The large green army trucks rumbled by, full of straight-backed young male reserve soldiers as serious as the headlines.  Black leather straps locked their chins so firmly into their faces we feared they would swallow their teeth.  Vickie said they looked patriotic and charming, and she wondered how she could use the event in the imaginary serial romantic episodes she designed for her Barbie and GI Joe dolls.

“You’re too old, now, for those dolls,” our mother had told Vickie.  “Put them away and find something else to play with.”

“But you watch soap operas,” Vickie boldly told her.  “What’s the difference?”

Our mother never mentioned it again.  She and my twin sister shared an admirable yet irritating belief that life’s little complications were easily remedied by changing the subject, or ignoring it entirely.  It kept their lives simpler than even mine, and until that summer, kept their heartaches to a minimum.

Watching the troops, I suggested we try to make the men smile as they passed.  I wanted to challenge their rigidity.  Vickie wanted to cheer them up.  She joined me and we ran beside a truck, waving, shouting, flirting and begging them to notice us, tell us their names, tell us if they were afraid.  But they would not budge.  The truck came to a stop light allowing us just enough time to reach it and catch our breath.  I dared us to raise our shirts and expose what we hesitantly called breasts (our training bras were still loose, after all).  Vickie impetuously raised her red poorboy over her head and spun and jumped on the concrete shouting “Give me your address, I’ll send you cookies.”  Her thin white Maidenform slid to and fro like a hula skirt around her delicate rib cage.  I raised my shirt only to my neck, embarrassed, although I explained that I wanted to better watch the soldiers’ responses.  I really wanted to keep my bra from fluttering quite as freely as Vickie’s did.  The soldiers remained as wooden as their obligations demanded.  But I swore to Vickie that the driver had to work very hard not to smile at me; she said I was lying.  She said that I was trying to one-up her again.

In between being best friends, or maybe as a part of it, we continually competed to be the first or the most or the best at whatever we did.  Even with the pursuits that we did not share.  Vickie was a dancer, and I had no interest in my feet ever leaving the ground, but she would tell me often how much higher she could jump or how much faster she could spin.  I was a bookworm, and Vickie read only the Sunday comics and an occasional homework assignment.  She could care less that I completed four Nancy Drews in a week.  But our general progression in life inched along, no matter how we tried to alter it, at the same pace as each other and every other twelve-year old we knew.  We talked about boys and breasts and booze; we worried about zits and periods and the boys we talked about.

With the riots of ‘67, a city-wide curfew lay its quiet shadow upon us for a few weeks that summer, each evening at seven.  It filled Vickie and me with mischief and courage.  We dared it, pressing those dreaded final minutes as far back as we could, playing on the porch or in the yard being careful not to stray from our property but resisting going indoors.  Our father would finally insist that we go in, telling us while he tended his garden, a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips, that he protected our safety and it was too close to our bedtime to be outdoors.

Our father was an electrician.  He could open any electrical appliance and not be surprised by the menagerie of colored wires.  He found comfort in re-routing high voltage currents, redirecting power.  As he had instructed, Vickie and I would go inside, obediently, but not without complaint and a little begging, more often from Vickie.

“Dad, just five more minutes.  Please.  Nobody will know,” she told him referring to the police.

“Girls, don’t argue with me.”

“I didn’t say anything,” I said in self defense.  “Leave me out of this.”

“Yeah, but you’ll stay outside if he lets us so you are a part of this,” Vickie said.

“That’s not the point,” I told her.

“Oh, Lizzie forget it,” Vickie started but our father cut her off.

“Enough, Victoria, this is not my rule, it’s the law.”

“Law-schmaw,” she said folding her arms knowing her obstinacy was punishable.  Then softening, she continued.  “Okay, then,” she began with a tone of twelve-year-old diplomacy. “Will you make us popcorn when you come in?  Please.”  She could never leave an argument without winning something, no matter how small.  Our father acquiesced.  He made the best popcorn, better than a theater’s–kernel free, consistently hot, evenly buttered and salted, and always served with Faygo root beer–and he could not resist the request.

“Alright, you’ll get popcorn,” he said.  Vickie’s successful manipulation never left him or our mother without a smile, even if they hid it as they shook their heads in amazement.  “Now, just get inside.”  And we did.

Our father could not, however, convince our brothers to come in as instructed.  As soon as it was dark, they would sneak out the back door, escape over the fence in the back yard and cross our neighbors’ lawns, headed to their friend Ray’s car on the next street, and disappear, and that week they headed to riot sites.  Our father watched, standing tall and thin, watering his wilting flowers, not saying a word.  Prior to our city being restricted by a curfew, our brothers, of course, did not have to sneak, but their nightly departures met the same parental dissatisfaction.

There had existed a time that our father would attempt to lure our brothers back to the security of the home he so proudly provided.  “James, Joe,” he would call to them as they scurried toward the evening’s adventure, a reluctant affection leaning on his voice.  “Come back here.  Your mother will want to know if she should wait up, she likes to know where you’re going so she doesn’t have to worry.  Maybe you could stay in tonight, play a game with Vickie and Lizzie.”

The boys’ refusals wavered when they were younger; sometimes they would return to the house and join us in watching t.v. or playing a game.  But finally they ignored our father’s beckoning completely, and he relinquished his efforts.

“They are not good examples for you girls.  They’re involved in things, hanging out with people they shouldn’t be.”  He attempted to explain the episodes that had erupted over the preceding months, but particularly that summer.  Our brothers had both had been caught drinking, and Joe had been caught smoking pot.  Our father screamed out suspicions about their using harder drugs and their dealing drugs.  Their behavior and his doubts led him to disconnect the phone in the basement, take away our brothers’ car privileges, cut off any allowance.  I’m not sure what reaction he expected from us.  What he received was silence.

Vickie had found rolling papers in the clothes chute.  I wondered if she should give them to our father, but she used them for her Barbies and never said a word.  I found two tiny purple dots in a small plastic bag under Joe’ pillow when I changed his sheets.  I gave them to him without a word and he put the bag in his wallet and walked away.  A need to protect our brothers was innate.  But so was the inclination to assist and mind our father.  Reticence remained a simple way to not have to choose.

Forced inside by the curfew, we would go to bed early because we knew that from the small round window in our attic bedroom, we could see everything, the garden in the backyard, the fire-filled sky to the east.  Summer’s relentless heat had no mercy on our father’s flowers.  No matter how much moisture he forced into the dark earth, his marigolds were weary, his snap dragons withered, the small pansies delivered but a weak fragrance. We watched him as he stood watering, pretending not to see the boys disappear into the darkness beyond our backyard.

Dreaming and sighing with envy and pride, we talked about James and Joe.  We knew of their escapades; they had snuck down to Twelfth Street, the center of the activity, again.  As though they were the official spectators, the neighborhood source, they boasted and exaggerated to us and our friends about what they saw.  When the boys recounted, vain and indifferent, the events and spectacles, using words like loot and sniper as calmly as newscasters, we thought of them as heroes.  They witnessed women run from burning department stores with arms full of smoking hangered clothes.  They assisted two young boys push a Coke machine from Woolworth’s and then joined them in drinking all they wanted.  They ate hamburgers by the fistfuls stolen from the burning cart of a street vendor as they viewed fist fights and gun fights and firefighters, the police, the soldiers, the reporters, all tangled up in the streets, between cars, behind windows and underneath ladders. Their young braggart tales were the only connection we had to the horrible reality that heated our city, and we needed that alliance, reckless as it was.

“Why is smoking pot so bad anyway?” Vickie asked her gaze locked toward the distance.

“It’s a drug, stupid,” I told her.

“So.”

“It’s illegal.  Dad doesn’t want the boys doing illegal things.”

“Why doesn’t he do something then?  Call the police?”

You don’t tell on them, why do you want dad to do it?  They’re not that bad.  Dad’s just dad.”

“Mom doesn’t know, does she?”

“I don’t know.”

“If she did, the house would be cleaner.  Can you imagine all the leftovers!”

Our mother cleaned and cooked obsessively whenever family disputes erupted.  The house had been clean and meals extravagant for months.  She asked our father to let up on the boys, thinking that his demeaning remarks and sarcasm lead them further away from her and from us.  She told the boys to “be good.”  Because Joe maintained high grades in school, and James kept his part-time job washing dishes at a neighborhood bistro, she couldn’t believe that either of them were half as bad as our father insisted, although she did acknowledge that they treated our father with equal rudeness.  The tensions had greater roots, and it was late that summer that Vickie and I came to learn of them.

My father’s birthday arrived while we lived under the cloud of curfew and while the inner city fires competed with late July’s heat.  Fans ran incessantly in our home, and the whirring air carried with it the smell of smoke, even though we were miles away.  Our mother had a party for our father, a picnic with many friends in the yard.  Couples much like them attended–men and women in their mid-thirties, proud in having accomplished the family requirements of the Catholic church.  They drank and complained about the riots and other current events with only their helplessness to offer.  They were stunned in how quickly and violently the world around them changed, and they felt stalled in their inability to control their teenagers, their long hair and bare feet and ragged jeans.  “Kids today.”  They drank and laughed too hard and long and uncomfortably at jokes about blacks or hippies or protests.

We children were soothed by the consistency of the adult voices, whatever they might have said, and we were enamored by the perfection of the picnic rituals we performed.  We ate hot dogs, potato chips, cookies and drank red Kool-Aid by the quart.  We slathered Coppertone onto each others shoulders and backs between dips in the Doughboy pool and admired each other’s sunburns as they developed throughout the afternoon.  We had mustard fights, watermelon seed fights, and took turns putting ice cubes down the backs of adults reclining in lawn chairs.  As evening approached, the darkening sky provided the mirage of cooling air, and the party grew more subdued with curfew’s demand for silence.  But our father, just short of too many beers, livened things up by suggesting that we celebrate his birthday not only with cake and ice cream but with a parade–curfew or no curfew, he had just turned forty, and that was as deserving of a parade as any event he could think of.  He sent the children inside to find noisemakers, and he made a trip to the beer store before it closed.

Vickie and I went immediately to the basement equally excited about the parade and to visit our brothers who played pool, waiting for dark when they would begin their rendezvous to see what was still going on down at Twelfth Street.  They were with their best friend, Ray, a tall lanky boy with a ruddy complexion, buffed rigorously in fear of even more pimples.  He had hung around with our brothers for so long our mother lovingly called him her other son.  Our little-girl crushes on him had faded; we were in junior high, after all, and we liked boys our own age.  Nevertheless, we experienced adolescent arousal when he teased or tickled us, and it happened more often the older we grew, and it was directed to me.  Vickie thought that Ray liked me, and I knew it was with jealousy that she teased me about it.

I told her she was a dreamer, but I could not deny the arousal I experienced at the idea of a seventeen-year-old boy finding me cute.  We greeted the boys, and as always, Joe let Vickie take his next shot in the pool game they were playing, James let me take his.  The boys saw to it that we played pool as well as they did, wanting someday to enter all of us into the family tournament at the bar they illegally frequented.  They were guaranteeing a family victory, they said.  The boys had obviously been keeping up with the alcohol consumption of the adults upstairs, and they met Vickie’s double bank shot with exaggerated hoots and cheers; my simple straight-in stirred equal commotion.

We tried to convince the boys to come join the parade and they objected as though we had asked them to help with the dishes.

“Shit, a parade with our old man?” James asked.  He shook his long hair out of his face in an act of defiance to our father even though he was not there.  The meaning of his attire: the tie-dyed t‑shirt, tamarind seed necklace, and patched jeans did not occur to me at the time, but in his clothing there existed a temerity that we interpreted only as “cool.”  He was the older brother, but he did not set the tone for their dress or their behavior.

“Sure,” Joe said.  “Happy Birthday!” and he imitated a drum majorette tossing a baton into the air by throwing his empty beer can to the ceiling and catching it behind his back.  His cutting words and criticisms about the world, the Church, our father, made up for his style of dress, which was not as bold as James’.  He kept his hair short, preferred button down shirts to t-shirts, and instead of wearing his old jeans, he wore new ones and let our mother use his torn and faded Levis for patches or for Vickie’s Barbie Doll clothes.  He smelled of Brut, not cigarettes as did James, and for all of this he held place as our mother’s favorite.  She denied it, and we let her, kidding her that someday she would see the error of her ways.  We had to work to keep him from jumping into the monkey exhibit when we visited the zoo, we had to work to keep him from opening fire hydrants with the hydrant wrench he had stolen from somewhere, we even worked to get him to stop going out on his girlfriend.  James looked wilder, but he was actually more calm and assisted in simmering Joe down.

Joe often made fun of our father referring to him as a fairy or mouse, trying to sever his sense of masculinity, or he would call him a johnny or paddy trying to injure his sense of Irish heritage.  Anything in retaliation for what he believed unfair treatment by our father.

“Sure, let’s celebrate even though the old man tries to keep us penned up here like little girls.” Our brother’s actions embarrassed me that night and made me feel foolish for my own excitement about the parade.  I thought our father’s idea was a good one, but after their response, I, too, wanted to understand it as immature and silly.

Vickie persisted.  “C’mon you guys, c’mon Joe, it will be fun.  We need your craziness, it’s after curfew.  Dad’s drunk and so is Mr. Philips.  Let’s go.”  They had not yet given us a straight answer, and Vickie didn’t like indefinites or idleness.

Ray told me he’d go only if he could march behind me and pinch my butt.  “Like this,” he said softly, and using the tips of his fingers, he tweaked the skin just below my buttocks, dangerously close to my crotch.

“Ouch,” I laughed and grabbed Vickie and pulled her over to our mother’s stored boxes of baby items.

We grabbed rattles and bells for the parade that our mother had saved, having never been satisfied with just four children.  She took her role as homemaker seriously, and once we children had attained even the slim independence of toddlerhood, she was ready for another baby.  Vickie and I were the grand finale, but she acted as though another one might be in her future.  She would mentioned how much a baby would like those mashed potatoes or a child might enjoy that windy day.  And when she talked this way, our father went to her, put his arm around her waist with the ease and tenderness of a young lover, and reassure her, telling her she’d get her baby when a first grandchild arrived, and not to worry.  She always wished it could have been sooner and her own.

Vickie and I hurried up the basement stairs, unable to convince the boys to join us. “Wait,” Ray cried, but we kept running.

“No, really,” Joe said.  “Vickie, Lizzie, come back.”  We stopped halfway up the stairway and turned around. “We’re having a late night party, after the folks go to bed.  Don’t be all stupid and go wake them up if you hear anything, it’s just us.”  He invited us to the party, I thought, and I felt privileged and mature, even appealing.  But I quickly realized differently.

“You girls just stay put in your beds, mom and dad in theirs, and the real celebration will be down here without interruption.”

I became the child again.  The battle tired meCthe backward movement into childhood wore me down, the forward movement into adolescence raced so fast that I suffered jet lag.  No sooner was I frightened by an impulse than I was acting on it anyway, then, too late, I figured out why I had to suffer the inevitable consequences, and as dizzy as I was from the entire experience, something new would come along and I was tempted again.

I hurried to the front porch, genuinely enthusiastic, shaking my noisemakers and calling to our father about getting the parade started soon.  The news about the boys’ forbidden party hid behind me, and like a shadow, with the right light, it would materialize again.

“There isn’t a patriotic song worth singing,” our father shouted to Mr. Philips who had attempted to explain that a parade must be patriotic.  “`What so proudly we hail as the twilight’s last gleaming?'” our father asked.  “`America the beautiful?’  Let’s just sing happy songs!” he stammered and led us through a round of scratchy Christmas carols interspersed with “Happy Birthday,” as we circled our city block.  Neighbors peaked out from behind their curtained windows to watch our spectacle, and none were alarmed or concerned because our father and Mr. Philips carried no reputation or scars in the community.  Had the boys been there as we requested there would have been sneers from a few.  Mr. Harbinger didn’t like the way James cut his lawn without edging it and Mrs. Flynn didn’t like that Joe went out on her daughter.  None of them liked that our boys were falling into the rebellious patterns of the time.

It was completely dark by nine-thirty, and we were an half hour beyond curfew, but our father insisted we go around the block one more time.  We sang louder feeling naughty for missing the deadline, and we almost didn’t notice when our brothers and Ray drove slowly by.  But our father glared at them as they neared, and he hesitated, and the parade slowed down behind him.  Ray stopped the car and James stuck his head out the window and told our father, laughing, that he would call the police and report him for disorderly conduct and for forcing minors to break curfew.  Our father told them to get home right away.  Joe howled from the back seat like a madman and Ray squealed the tires and sped away.

“We’ll bring you home a souvenir!” Joe shouted as they turned the corner.  Our father clenched his teeth and I could almost hear the grinding of his jaw.  He stared silently, knowing that the playful tone was a facade and that anger prowled their relationship like a starved beast, threatening persistently to make its final pounce.

It was many years before any of this frequent angry exchange between our father and brothers was explained to me, and by then my ears had closed, my heart hardened.  The story amazed me little, but I could never accept that I hadn’t bothered to question it at the time.

All we knew we had learned one Sunday morning when we were seven.  Vickie and I played as we waited to go to eleven o’clock mass, and from nowhere our father burst into our room and told us to go down the basement.  Although we knew him to act with outrage and without explanation, this was exceptional.  But we trusted him with what we thought was normalcy and simplicity in our lives, so we never felt fear, possibly anxiety, but we were not frightened.  In the basement, our brothers, eleven and twelve at the time, stood side by side facing the empty pool table.  Ray stood on the opposite side of the room from us.  The boys’ hands were crossed behind their backs, and we could see their faces only in profile; they were grim.  We wondered where our mother was.  Our father ordered the boys to pull their pants down and lean over the table.  I guessed that this was a joke or a game for we were nearing April Fool’s day which tended to be an eventful occasion in our home being that we were all skilled with pranks and jokes.  But when our father nervously pulled out his belt, wrapped the buckled end around his fist and then whipped our brothers’ bare asses with the long shiny black tail, it dumbfounded me.

I could not fathom what they could have done to deserve the receipt of the punishment we had only heard of in fallow and unreliable threats, and I could not believe this impossibility had arrived and that Ray and the two of us were forced to witness.  We winced with each blow, and Vickie took my sweaty hand in hers and squeezed every time the strip of leather met the soft flawless flesh.  It may have lasted seconds, only consisted of a few strikes, but it seemed hours that we watched their faces laying on the felt of the pool table with James’ perspiration and tears rolling onto the green, giving the cloth deep purple spots.  Joe would not cry, nor would he allow his face to alter.  He merely closed his eyes, and the serene strength that conquered his demeanor granted him kinship to adulthood.  Then our father told us to leave and he turned out the light and followed us up the stairs leaving the boys alone in the dark–James with his shame, Joe with tick marks to manhood, and both of them in the presence of their best friend.  We feared we were next as we ascended mutely through the house, our father’s presence torturous behind as though he was tethered to our hips.  But he disappeared near his room, and we scurried up the stairs to our own, foregoing eleven o’clock mass.

We played Monopoly with the boys later that afternoon, and Vickie asked Joe why it had happened.  He quickly lifted his hand to strike her, his face red.  “It’s none of your fucking business,” he told her.  When tears filled her eyes and her lower lip quivered, he softened, his face paled.  He lowered his arm slowly, as if it hurt to do so, he touched her shoulder and apologized.  Then he walked away from the game even though he had hotels on both Park Place and Boardwalk.  We had never heard the word fuck used in our home before, and our father across the room.

Months later, long after the riots, James told me what had happened, and by then I was numb and oblivious to exploring the reasons for my family’s fall.  Ray had made a small hole in the wall that separated the boy’s bedroom closet from our parents’ bedroom closet, and if the closet door was left open they could watch our parents, our mom, sex.  The first time that our father heard his laughter and the boys’ snorts, he discovered Ray in the closet, the boys laying on their beds, getting a report. Our dad threatened to beat them as they had never been beaten should it happen again. He puttied the hole. But Ray, unbeknownst to the boys, made the hole again, and one Sunday morning, he watched. Our father found him, blamed the boys, and thus the beating, and the witnesses. Although without having told us girls why he beat them, we never learned any lesson from witnessing the abuse, only that our father had, after all, the potential to hurt us physically as he had only threatened to do prior to that morning.  Maybe that was enough.

The incidents that led to this were innocent in nature but irritating to a man like our father who considered himself a good Catholic and a very private man when it came to revealing very personal and intimate feelings, especially regarding sex, protecting his wife. The incidents that preceded this were simple in nature, harmless, only irritating to my father.  He found Playboys in our brothers’ closet.  He found Joe and James playing doctor with Mrs. Flynn’s daughters.  He overheard the boys talking about what they would like to do to their English teacher.  Our mother insisted this was typical adolescent behavior, and tried to convince our father to let up on them.  He did, but the incidents that followed that Sunday grew more deceptive and crafty. These did not equivocate punishment, only mild reprimands and the usual empty threats because our father obeyed our mother’s wishes, not wanting to upset her gentle nature. Nevertheless, a tension grew between them that even in the heart of a frolic as lively as our father’s birthday party could not be dissolved.

The night of our father’s birthday, long after our parade had ended and all the noisemakers were returned to their boxes, Vickie and I lay in anticipation, unable to sleep.  Our brothers never broke promises and we waited for the cars to pull up.  We had pushed our bed close to the window to capture the rare breeze that happened by.  The city would have seemed on fire even without the riots, and in between slight wafts of smoky air we took turns fanning each other with a black leather cape from Vickie’s Barbie doll.  Finally, we heard cars in the driveway.

“They’re here.”  Vickie jumped to the window, too excited.

“We can’t go, you know,” I told her.

“So.  We can listen.  Do you think they’ll wake Mom and Dad?”

“Maybe we could go.”  I liked the idea.

“Oh, Lizzie, forget it.  Do you think they’ll wake Mom and Dad?”

“Let’s go, Vickie.  Really,” I told her.  “We’re old enough.  Dad won’t wake up because he drank so much.  Mom wouldn’t do a thing if she woke up anyway, you know how she is.  We’re all perfect, according to her, especially Joe.  C’mon.”

“You’re crazy,” she said as she got out of bed anyway and started dressing.  “What should I wear?”

“A formal, of course.  Stupid.  Just put on something warm, it’s always cool in the basement.”

“Don’t act like you hadn’t thought about it yourself.”

We both dressed in jeans and white blouses and flip-flops and tied our equally long brown hair in high ponytails with thin red ribbons and descended our usually creaky attic staircase like cats.  We assumed the wood’s cooperation was a good sign.  We stopped at our parents’ bedroom door and, as predicted, silence prevailed.

On the first floor we froze.  “They won’t let us stay.  They’ll make us feel dumb,” I told her.  I had lost my nerve when I heard the teenagers in the basement engaging in a typical game.  One of them owned a 45 with a recording of a Winston cigarette commercial and played it repeatedly.  “Winston tastes good like aCat this point they would all pound twice on any nearby surfaceCcigarette should.”

“So, we’ll feel embarrassed for a while, and then we’ll go back to bed.  It might be worth a beer.”

“Oh, the big-beer-drinking Vickie, party down,” I told her sarcastically.  The constant race that existed between us as we each tried to grow up faster than the other and tried to slow the other’s rate down, stopped for nothing.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know that maturation arrived only in varied and unpredictable increments; their overall effect was independent of when they happened.  Neither of us would ever be very far behind the other or very far ahead.  Had we known, we may not have competed so guilessly.  She had pubic hair before me, but I had raised nipples before her.  We started bleeding on the same day.  We had a crush on the same boy.  None of it mattered.

“Shut up,” she told me.  “I’ve drank before, you haven’t.”

“Oh, that’s right.  You had a half a beer once.  Let’s go.”

When we arrived at the top of the basement stairs we held hands out of a habit that I would miss.  There was something comforting about the other’s skin and sweat at moments of drama, but it was a behavior saved for little girls or young lovers.  We let go before we hit the bottom.  We stood on the third from last stair.  No one noticed us.

Ray and five other friends we didn’t know played Mousetrap on the floor in the far corner, but they were calm, quiet, as if playing Stratego or Backgammon or a game that required concentration.  They examined the ball as though it was part of a scientific experiment and could perform a miraculous feat.  Little did I know how intense a silver marble in motion could be under the influence of certain mind‑expanding drugs.  Joe and a girl, not his girlfriend, were making out on the big‑cushioned couch, or we guessed it was he and she.  The couch swallowed them into the cracks.  We saw only his swivelling Levied hips, both their arms, and her long blonde hair that swam all over the deep red crushed-velvet upholstery.  James was not around.  Two couples played pool right in front of us, with three bystanders, but like the kids in the corner, they were zealous in refusing to let that cue ball leave their watchful eyes for a moment.  There must have been money at stake.

The air was full of smoke, the smell of beer and patchoulli oil and quiet music.  The commercial recordings had been replaced by Jim Morrison crooning about love and drugs.  “I like this song,” I whispered to Vickie.

“Right, like you really know it.”

I elbowed her in the ribs and she gulped in pain.  Still no one noticed us.

“Let’s go,” Vickie whispered.

“Where?” I wasn’t sure if she wanted to return upstairs or go into the party.

She answered by stepping down the last steps and moving toward the corner where they played Mousetrap.

“Hey, it’s Vickie-O, give me five, little sister!”  Ray spotted her, and, as always there was a loud response.  “Where’s Lizzie-O Baby, your beautiful twin?”

“Hiding on the stairs.  Can I have a beer?”

Hiding?  The nerve.  Embarrassed by her making me look stupid and young, and herself so mature, I almost turned around to head back up the stairs.  But Ray stood in front of me before I could, and he grabbed me by the waist, twirled me like a ballerina and shouted, “Let the party begin.”

Vickie stood over the Mousetrap game and guzzled her beer as though she didn’t notice the bitter and warm taste as I did.  I sipped my own, standing against the wall near the pool table, having to force the liquid down.  I  wished the effects could take hold by simply wanting them too.  I hated the drink.  But soon I felt lighter, relaxed, and nervous with the ease with which everything suddenly existed.  I didn’t want to change the feeling and feared it would disappear if I stopped, so I took a deep breath and guzzled my beer, too.

Joe remained entwined in arms and hair and cushions, but Ray went to him and slapped his behind hard.  “Bro, we have visitors.”  Joe didn’t respond.  “Bro, I said there are young females present, chick alert!” he shouted.  Joe responded by lifting himself off the girl’s face.  His demeanor was an odd juxtaposition of blaring red skin and silken serenity.  His eyes sparkled and a slim line of sweat or saliva hooded his upper lip.  He looked the way I was beginning to feel.

“Hi, Joe,” I said.  “You didn’t invite us, but–”

“–he should have,” Ray chipped in.  He put his arm around my waist and bent to kiss me.  His open mouth neared mine, and the pull in my groin was like bittersweet chocolate, it startled and delighted me at once.  I lifted my chin slightly, hesitating, thinking for a moment that I would let him kiss me.  Thinking for a moment that I hoped Vickie saw.  Thinking for a moment about the whiteheads Ray had scrubbed off earlier that evening.  But a pillow thrown from the couch knocked Ray away from me as it fell onto the floor.

“Leave her alone, Bro, I’m serious.” Joe roared.  I would have believed that he had really wanted to protect me until he howled; then the instruction annulled the image of Joe as a savior.  His Wolfman Jack imitations were used only for moments of silliness, not moments of crisis or worry.  He ardently returned to making out.

Fortunately, Ray found diversion in the pool game, and I hoped to find comfort near Vickie, praying she had not seen the kissless episode.  I suddenly felt alone and congested with all of the smoke.  The sensation of tranquility I experienced minutes earlier had ripened into nausea.

“This is my second,” she beamed, holding up her can of Black Label.

“Should I be proud?”

I needed her friendship, but she pushed past me and walked towards James’ bedroom.  She howled.  It sounded so much like a howl of Joe’s that even he stopped his romantic endeavors and looked up.  He howled back at her, and James came from his room to see what was going on.

James and some six or seven others came out from his bedroom.  They carried with them a cool demeanor.  A single motion brought them out to the pool room, a unified smirk toyed with each of their faces.  They were one with some state of mind unnamable but certainly detectable.  I envied and almost consumed their serenity.  James rubbed my forehead. “Sister, good to see you. Where’s Vickie?”

“Behind you.”

Vickie had started dancing with three of the girls around one of the basement poles as if it were a Maypole.  She had undone her long hair as they had and along with them shook and swayed her tresses as they spun around.  Two of the teens held cigarettes, one a beer, and Vickie swung and waved the long red ribbon from her hair.

“Cool,” James said.  Then he lit a cigarette and leaned back against the wall as if equally exhausted and exhilarated by the performance.

Ray approached me once more, from behind this time, and he began to nuzzle my neck.  “Get away from her,” I heard someone say, and I thought it was Joe again, but by then I wasn’t willing to accept his protection even if it was in earnest. Ray stopped immediately and the party grew silent.  I looked up just when the lights went out.  The dark brought a moment of mystery and suspense; I thought James was playing a trick on us and I liked the jolt of calm.  The lights came back on, and our father was standing at the bottom of the stairs.  He stood in his bathrobe, his hands in his pockets, his hair combed.  “Lizzie, Vickie, come here.”  The nausea passed and I was left with one large knot of pain in my gut.

We went to him without having to be told twice.  We stood beside him in anticipation, eying the teenagers as they scrutinized him.  Jim Morrison sang on.

“You’ll all have to leave,” our father said as composedly as he would in church.  “That includes you, James and Joe.”

“What?  Old man.  You’re kicking out your beloved sons?” Joe asked.

“Yes.”

“What’s mom gonna say about this?”

At the mention of our mother, I saw our father’s eyes take light.  He thought he was doing this for her, not against her.  He knew the risk.  “It’s all over, boys.  You’re out of here.”  His voice was cool blue, as if a tremendous relief accompanied the words when they fell from his lips, not the fear and dismay that I could see the boys were experiencing, although I trusted defiance lurked somewhere behind their grave faces.  The rest of the group looked embarrassed.  Heads were low.  They wanted a way out, soon.  Vickie spoke next.

“Dad, c’mon.  It’s just a party.  Don’t kick them out.  Everything will be okay by tomorrow you’ll forget about it.”  I realized then that Vickie hadn’t yet taken a leap of maturity that I had.  My twirling stomach served as warning enough and obviously her stomach did not do the same.  Life didn’t quite work as neatly as it did for her Barbies, but she persisted in believing otherwise.

“Vickie, be quiet now.  You girls go upstairs.  Boys, break things up and get out of here.”

“No, Dad, you can’t.”  Vickie ran to Joe’s side.  Dummy, I thought.  As Joe maneuvered to keep her from running into him, a plastic bag full of white powder fell from his shirt pocket.  No one moved to retrieve it, in fact, no one even looked at it.  Everyone, like myself, was probably hoping that our father had not seen it.  Not one eye went in the direction of bag, not even his.

“Vickie, get back here!” our father commanded her, but she didn’t move.  I lost all faith in anyone’s ability to protect her, or me for that matter, and I went to her.  I resisted the temptation to hold her hand, but standing beside her made me feel at once whole and stronger.  I hid the bag by scooting it behind me with one foot.

Our father stared at the wall of family we had created: his two daughters, his two sons, and Ray, and he probably found it impenetrable.  Nevertheless, he approached, slowly, with the obligation of parenthood and the stupidity of being sober and hungover.  He stood in front of us, and once again, repeated his commands.  “Girls, go upstairs.  James and Joe, get your friends out of here, pack your bags, and get out.”  Then he moved a step closer and bent over and picked up the bag from behind me.  “Make sure to clean this up,” he said as he turned the bag over and let its soft powder take flight, dispersing into the air, some of it landing on the worn carpet.

Ray jumped to retrieve the bag, as futile as that attempt may have been, and accidently bolted into our father.  Our father took it as an attack and he drew his fist behind him, preparing to slug Ray.  I don’t know that it happened slowly because he hesitated or happened slowly only as I remember it, but the two feet of space that his fist had to cover before it reached Ray’s chin seemed like yards.  Ray fell against the pool table then onto the floor, the wind knocked out of him.  Joe hit my father, a brutal punch that cut under his ribs, then he kicked him when he was on the floor.  The three of them ended up in a bloody grunting scramble and Vickie was the first to run away and up the stairs, I don’t know if she went to wake our mother or call the police or just to run away.  The twenty some guests hurried behind her, drugged or drunk, and afraid or panicked.  James ran, too, not interested in seeing any of it or being a part of it.

I screamed repeatedly for them to stop, and at some point they did.  Ray and Joe backed away from our father, shaking and coughing, amazed.  They stumbled up the stairs and we heard them stop for a moment, then continue, and then slam the back door behind them.

Our father leaned against the pool table, then slid onto the floor, shuddering, heaving.  He looked crowded, large and cumbersome, as though squeezed into an elevator of fury and guilt.  I felt unable to get close to him, much less comfort or sooth him.

“Where’s Vickie?” he managed to ask.

“I don’t know.”

“Find her, and make sure your mother is still asleep.”  He made no recommendation for what to do should I find her awake.  We both hoped that would not happen.

Before I left his side I found the courage to approach him and pat his shoulder, surprised at its warmth.  I stroked his cheeks and was pained by the sadness I saw in his eyes.  “I’m sorry,” I whispered and then ran to the steps, flicking the light off behind me thinking he might be consoled by the sudden darkness, with only early morning’s cool new light entering the window.

Halfway up the stairs I discovered Vickie sprawled across two or three steps.  She must have stumbled in her drunkenness and hit her head, blood covered one side of her face. It was sticky and her head was drenched. None of the teens that saw her helped her up.  I tried to rouse her only to realize she was unconscious.  I knew then why I had heard Joe and Ray pause on the stairs on their way out.  They had seen her, but they had not stopped.

I thought she was dead, and I started to wail, rocking my twin in my arms, begging my God for her life,  promising Him and the Blessed Mother and St. Theresa and the Holy Ghost that I would do anything if she were allowed to live, I would never lie or disobey or even think bad things.  I would never drink or want to kiss a boy.  I just wanted my Vickie back.

I felt betrayed, not by Vickie or even the coma, but by those who did not stop for her, and by the god that did not listen to me or anyone in my family, or anyone in my city, for it too, disappeared into itself that year.

The aftermath of the riots continued and the fires burned for a few days after our family fell apart.  The remains of the tragedy smoldered for months.  To this day, the gutted, blackened skeleton of Twelfth Street, and a spider’s web of other city streets and neighborhoods, stands a symbol of the era, of the legal system, of the shriveling of sanity, the loosening of privacy, ownership, identity, but more importantly, it stands an icon to the shrinking of love, its abrupt ability to diminish.

We never saw Joe again.  He snuck into the house at some point; belongings of his disappeared as did items from the kitchen and elsewhere.  Our mother, James and I noticed that items turned up missing,  and then it stopped, and we spoke about it only to each other.  Rumors spread that he had been seen at the hospital. Watched her. Held her hand even. Our father made no comment.

James became a quiet, sad, heavy person. He was in a rehabilitation center for a while getting off the heroin.  When he returned he worked as my father’s assistant, whisper-like, obedient, and punctual.  He smoked a lot of dope and cigarettes in his basement bedroom.  He never finished high school.  Quite often he and mother and I would sit and sip coffee in the kitchen making small talk, somehow making amends.  We didn’t use the basement much.  James continued to sleep in the room he and Joe had shared, but that was all, and our mother folded laundry on the plastic-covered pool table, not one game played after that night. Our father rewired our house twice. He gardened and drank, both with even greater obsession and his garden never failed. An odd tribute to his lost children.

After that summer, my nightly prayers, once guided by our father kneeling with us at bedtime, became a solitary ritual performed in my head, and praying became random.  I would no longer say the “Angel of God” or the rosary.  I kept my long list of “God Blesses” which included well wishes for the souls of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the souls of the soldiers in Vietnam, floating in rice paddies, collapsed in ditches, and the lost members of my family.  I stopped attending Saturday confessions, choosing to no longer divulge sins that I had, in fact, fabricated (God couldn’t really have objected to anything I did save for my fascination regarding bared breasts).  I, instead, opted to smoke Lucky Strikes (stolen from my father) in the alley connecting the rectory and the grade school.  When the riots had begun the hiding place had simply served as one of many perches from where Vickie and I watched the troops come in.  Now, I sat and smoked alone.

I visit her less now, but at first, we went daily. Me always holding her hand. My dad didn’t like me to get into the bed beside her, but my mother hushed him. I ignored him. Finally he didn’t say anything.

I swore she responded to me. I’d feel a flicker. A warmth. A knowing. Certain she could hear me. I would talk to her and sing to her. Tell her she was better than me. Smarter. Faster.

That she could jump higher. All the way to heaven.

Postcard image of Detroit found on pinterest.

*from “The End,” by the Doors

Raising Feminists, part 2

roya-ann-miller-196183
When I was pregnant with my girls, and not knowing they were girls, I hoped they would be. Girls. For one reason. I thought  it would be easier to raise female feminists than to raise male feminists. That’s my truth. Not proud. Just is.

I wasn’t up to what I believed would be too difficult a task. Too big. Out of my reach. I did not trust myself at 32. I believed, due to my own personal experience growing up female in a male-dominated family, male-dominated church, male-dominated parish, school, city, country, well, world–that I would be better able to help daughters face the challenges of male dominance than I would be able to teach sons how not to create them.

This all comes to mind as both my daughters have recently taken jobs with successful start-up companies founded by women. One in the arts and education, one in science and environment, one in New York, one in Tucson. Both tremendous opportunities for these young women, my daughters, to make a difference in the communities where these companies operate and to do their part in making their states, this country, our world a better place to exist. And to be the women they are destined to be. The humans. The amazing humans.

You see, I was mistaken in thinking that raising feminist men would be more difficult than feminist women. Looking back I find it funny,  odd, that I even thought this. It’s all about raising good humans, isn’t it? Making good choices. Teaching decision making. I didn’t get it then. I saw a gap that I still see, but I understand it differently. Gender is a wonderfully evolving concept and reality in our world. Some brains take longer to upgrade.

Along with most other women on the planet, I have faced my share of sexism. Sometimes outright and frightening in its seemingly rock solid persistence. Often more subtle. For instance, I was not allowed to escort my best friend, a girl, in our senior year in high school, to the stage during the Homecoming procession at the Homecoming dance. She was on the court, but she had not been asked to the dance by a boy. This was the expectation. This did not happen. So I asked her to the dance, and I was prepared to be her escort.

But they didn’t allow it. They feared we were gay or “something.” She had to call her father, get him out of bed on a Saturday night, make him put on a suit, and drive over to the high school gym to escort his daughter to the stage so that this father/daughter couple could line up with all the other girl/boy couples as the Homecoming King and Queen received their crowns.

I was always grateful for this moment. We all hugged afterward, her dad, she and I. He went back to bed, we left the dance and went out to eat. And drink. We were duly offended, confused, concerned. But not, never for one minute, uncertain that what had just happened was wrong.  I knew this. Could I teach others this. Could I teach men this?

I was harassed by boys and by men as a young high school girl. I was asked for sexual favors from men that I worked with and worked for. As a college girl, too. Shit, sometimes all I had to do was be a sister, of a woman who was married. In steps brother-in-law. Harasser. “If I wasn’t married to your sister, I’d fuck you,” he told me. At 18. Thanks. Nice.

I was pinned, no not by a boyfriend with a promise, nor teacher with an honor, but into the back of a walk-in cooler, by the chef, my boss. He asked me to “give it up” for him. “At least kiss me,” he demanded. I did. I was expected to scratch a different boss’s back, literally. I did.

I was watched, followed, catcalled. As a woman. As a child. I was walking home from school when a man “exposed himself” to me. That’s what we called it. I was a little girl. One time it happened when I was eight. One time when I was ten.

Some might respond to these instances and say, “What did you do?” A question that begs ‘what did I do to deserve it? What did I do in response?’ I’ve always wondered why what I did before or after the act of harassment, or threat, is even a question. It so skirts the issue. No pun intended. The issue is what he chose to do. Not how I responded.

And I realize this is all nothing compared to the women who were assaulted, battered, beaten, raped. By relatives, teachers, the parish priest, or priests.

(Notice the passive tense usage throughout. I will not edit it to the active tense because this is a great example of how ingrained sexism is in who I am as a human, a woman, on this planet. It’s in our language. Rhetoric. Grammar. All of us. Watch. It’s about the victim, not the criminal.)

How often do we hear “She was raped by…..she was abused by…..she was hit by…” The she, the victim, is the subject of the sentences we use to describe what the perpetrator did to her.

NO! Could we correct this please?

As in “JOHN raped her. JOE abused her. BETSY hit her.”

Ken D’Angelosanto harassed me. Gerry harassed me.

Father Bill destroyed her, etc.

The stranger in the alley committed a felony. Indecent exposure. I was ten. What was I supposed to do?

I was asked often by family and friends why I was going to go to college when I could just get married. I was told that having an active sex life, as a young woman, in college, made me a slut. And a sinner. I was told that I was not really married if I didn’t change my name to my husband’s.

When my husband left our family the question arose as to why I didn’t make it easier for him to re-build a relationship with his daughters. Why didn’t I take the girls to see him. Why didn’t I, the woman, take care of him, the man, and his relationship with the girls? Why didn’t I do that along with raising the girls alone, during the great recession, with no support? Financially, emotionally, or otherwise. How do I raise feminist boys when our extended family believed in these rules of living.

The English department did not give me the permanent instructor position because it came down to me and another recent graduate of the English program. He got the job. He was an active member of “the good old boy” network to which I could not belong. He became a coke addict. A womanizer. They had to fire him. They lost him and me.

How could I teach boys not to be this way, I wondered, when I was pregnant and I was curious about the gender of my baby. It scared me. Because I had been scared. I had lived a life often afraid. Confused. In disbelief.

And even after I had my girls, and while was raising them as feminists–without really thinking about it, I just did, it’s just who I am–the male dominance, and sexism, in our lives, persisted and permeated who we are. I taught choices. Review the choices made. Make better choices.

My boyfriend is on the earliest end of baby-boomerhood. I am on the very end. He is amazed to learn that I do not walk comfortably, in any city, anywhere, ever, if I am alone at night. I am always aware of assault and battery possibilities. I look behind me often. I keep my keys tightly in my hand. I look under my car before I get in. I check the back seat before I get in. “Do you do this?” I asked him. “No,” he said. I suspect many men do not. I suspect more women should.

Maybe this stems from growing up in Detroit? Maybe it’s just being female. Maybe it’s a result of reading too many crime reports. I do not know. But this is my habit. My reality. Men rape women. Beat them. Hurt them. I am a woman. Be careful.

It is encouraging (hopeful?) to learn recently that 1 out of 6 women in the U.S. has been a victim of attempted or completed rape. That statistic has improved since last I checked. It was 1 out of 4 for years. More victims reporting? Less crime happening?

I worked for three years as a crisis support counselor for battered women. The stories I learned all became a part of the fabric of who I am. How would I teach a boy not to behave the way that I learned so many men behave so often behind closed doors? How would I teach a daughter to not except terms of a relationship that involved violence, abuse, assault, harassment?

My girls’ father was the subject of tremendous physical abuse as a child, and a witness to the repeated battering of his mother. It was in the weave, the fabric, of his existence, and our marriage. Not that he beat me. He did not. But it was part of how we understood our world together. It is a past difficult to escape.

How do I raise a feminist man? I was wrong in believing that I couldn’t. Had my babies been boys, I would have raised them equally as feminist as I did my girls. For I raised my girls as good humans. Humans who understand that each day is full of choices. Make those that lead most distinctly to acts of  kindness. To being smart. And that’s, really, for me, what it comes down to: feminism is not some weirdo rare form of behavior being required or requested from people. It is not that complicated. Be kind. Be smart. Be careful. And be kind again.

As always, I believe that I say it better with a poem.

Choosing

We have choices
each word each step almost
each breath is chosen not
random not happenstance
not circumstance not a
chance to sit back and point
fingers and guns and rant-
ing chants of blame fault guilt
name calling and ill will.
Take a chill pill and a second
to review what exactly did
you do. What did you do.
What did you do to
stop it change it start it
take the dance into
your own hands take
the chance into your
own hands. Pull back your
own hands and choose
what to do. You have
choices each word each
step every single breath.
What did you do what
could you do did you do
what you could did
you do all you
could do what did
you do
what?

 

Photo – Washington DC – by roya ann miller on Unsplash

Throw Rugs Like Insurance

santa-fe-2367043_1920Throw Rugs

Like insurance they seem to cover so little
no matter how big or ornate they lay;
dust bunnies hover about, forever waiting
for cleaning rolling sweeping it under.
They collect a bit of the day’s dirt or a boot’s
drips, the remnants of a monsoon or blizzard
soaked into an intricate Mexican print
or straw mat that releases vetiver with the wind.
Like a hot toddy. or twelve, symptoms
glide away, the season’s head cold suddenly
a memory no longer blowing through the litany
of regrets and resentments. Woven covers
bury the accrual of disabled dreams, neglected
love, dog hair, and pine needles.

 

photo: Santa Fe from Pixabay

 

Bury

Raising Feminists

the feminists

I didn’t know I was doing it until I had done it. It’s like going on a new hike, a bit of a mystery. You leave the trail head with a little trepidation. Can I do this? You’ve looked at the map. It makes sense. (Always a worry.) You wonder how steep the climbs will be, how knee-killing the descents. Will  you time it right so that you face west while under the current cloud cover, but will you come around to the east-facing side of the mountain before sunset bursts from behind the cloud. At ninety degrees or so. Did you bring enough water? For you? And the dog? Is there enough battery on your phone just in case? Chapstick? Check. Shoelaces tied, tightly, check. You begin, It’s gorgeous, and difficult, and you keep going. The juniper. The mesquite. You’re winded. Hot. You keep going. The views are spectacular. The smells from the monsoon rain earlier in the day are calming. Another climb. Big rock steps. The dog bounds up them like an athlete. You more or less trudge. You do it. Take a break, and you know it must be hard because even the dog lays down after a nice few mouthfuls of water. You sit in the shade. For just a minute. And then, you’re back up and you go forth. Up down around. Up down around. Keys still in pocket. Check. Bring the hat out. Sun is bright. Roll down your sleeves. Around a curve. Wow. A whole new view. Then there’s a point where you wonder, did I make the wrong turn, am I on the same trail? You haven’t seen another soul. Or dog. Just lizards and a quail. A bunny and a tarantula. Surely you didn’t mis-step. Keep going. Then, you see the power lines. You know the landmark. You’ve gone full circle. Then you see another trail head. Another trail. Oh, that’s where that one goes, you realize. This one actually catches up with that one. Next time, you’ll take that trail.  The mountain, Little Chimney, and its map, are etched onto your brain now. You know now. How it all works. Seems so easy. You arrive. So quickly. Suddenly you’re back at the trail head. What? Wow. How did that happen? Success.

Just like the first time I heard my daughters refer to themselves as feminists. Strong. Confident. Certain. What? Wow. How did that happen? Success.

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Picture of Chimney Rock @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/julia_k