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 Came across this from an old journal . . . made me miss my grandfather all over again.

 

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It’s Wednesday.  I’m driving up U.S. Highway 55 North, Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World” playing out it’s pre-historic horror tale through the cassette player.  E sits beside me, alternating between fussing with the straps on her sandals and looking out the window at the overwhelming greenness of Mississippi streaming by.  S and H are fussing and giggling over an esoteric game they play that makes sense only if you are six and two and trapped in the backseat of an Isuzu Trooper for God knows how long.

 

We are headed to Missouri; first to my grandfather’s house, in New M-town, site of the famed New M-town earthquake of 18-something.  Only a few years ago, a seismologist of some reputation insisted that the second great New M-town earthquake was on its way, and the little town over flowed with reporters and scientists, only to be abandoned a few weeks later when the only earth-shaking occurrence was the local merchants filling their coffers from the expenditures of their visitors.  Now I am on my way there, expecting no earthquakes, just a couple of slow, leisurely days where my children will hopefully get a feel for the sweetness that is their great-grandfather, my Poppity.

 

After New M-town, we plan to go further north to F-town, a little, backward place, the county seat of Madison County, Missouri, where both my parents and I were raised, and their parents, too.  A lot of my family has died or moved on, but my father’s people, the Starkeys, are still there and holding a family reunion on Saturday.  I’m taking the girls and, again, hoping that in one afternoon they can glean something from being surrounded by people to whom you are tied by blood that will last them.  I don’t know if it will work, if it’s even worth the trip, but I’m going to try.  We’ll know in the years to come how it turns out, I guess.

 

 

The following Monday, we intend to head southwest to my Cousin P’s place in Harrison, Arkansas, forty-five minutes or so outside Branson, Missouri.  I’m excited to see her – we are very much alike – and a little nervous, too.  Maybe we’re too much alike.  She’s recently divorced and man-crazy, and there’s something about that combination that makes me jumpy.  Afraid of too much information, I guess.  Anyway, the girls are getting to go to Silver Dollar City, an amusement park set in the 1860’s, and maybe to The Shepherd of the Hills park, based on the novel by Harold Bell Wright who, I’ve read, outsold Hemingway and Fitzgerald at one point in literary history.  I can’t help but wonder if it’s Sherman Hemingway and Harpo Fitzgerald he outsold, but it is a book that made me long for a history, whose re-reading made me want to make this trip in the first place, so maybe.  From P’s, we’re headed homeward, a grueling 14 hour drive south that I am hoping will be fueled by an abiding desire just to get home. 

 

Now, however, home is the last place I want to be.  I’m road-tripping, that glorious phrase from my college years.  I started college seventeen years ago, and the words ‘road-trip’ haven’t lost a single shade from the delirious corona they sported then.  Road-trip then meant freedom and new experiences, it meant just maybe drinking too much and just maybe sex with just maybe strangers, it signified potential.  This road-trip has me driving north in an old Trooper with three little girls and a cooler full of bologna and cheese and whole milk for bottles, and the only just-maybe I’m aware of is just maybe getting into an argument with one of my notorious relatives over my father or money, both moot points, and just maybe getting to go out for drinks with P in Harrison.  But it’s still there, the old excitement, the unknown, leaving my own self behind and breaking new ground.  Even with an extra pacifier hanging off the rear-view mirror, even with the back seat littered with coloring books and plastic figures from McDonald’s.  My foolish heart knows no better.

 

Mississippi is a surprise; nicest rest stops I’ve ever seen.  Our first official stop has a Welcome Center, incongruously furnished with antique chairs and a china cabinet, paintings on easels.  Only rest stop I’ve ever been to where I was afraid the girls would break something.  But the people are nice, and the air is cool.  A white-haired man behind the counter offers E and S a soft drink, and S accepts, though I have to hunt her down to accept it once he has it ready for her.  She says thank you without prompting, but he talks over her, and doesn’t hear.  I give her the points anyway.

 

Outside, I let them run for a bit.  H takes off into a tree-lined clearing, and the big girls chase her. She’s delighted.  She chortles and runs faster, curved legs and blonde hair bouncing across the grass.  We get back in the car and I replenish drinks and snacks from the cooler in the back; we’re all antsy to get back on the road.  Even H doesn’t fuss at the buckles and straps of her car seat.  She wiggles and grins – “Let’s go, Mama!”  and we do.

 

Mississippi, the corner of Tennessee, Arkansas, then Missouri.  We’re getting tired now, and glad we’re close.  I plan to call Poppity when we hit the state line, but don’t.  Just want to keep going.  I find Locust Street easily, and his little house near the end.  I don’t really think of it as his house, still.  He and A have been married for twenty-five years, and I still think of it as her house, hers and Mr. S’s house, I guess.  As though Poppity were a guest who came to visit after Mr. S died and just never left.  When we pull into the drive, Poppity bursts through the front door; he’s been watching for us.  “Oh-ho!” he says, and hurries down the steps.  I get out of the car and come around to hug him, and he squeezes me hard, then pulls back and looks past me into the window where H sits in the car seat.  She looks at him for a split second, then grins broadly, and waves.  I’m tickled – I know this means a lot to him.  I go to get her out of the car, and S runs around the back, hugs Poppity, and they tickle and talk.  E gets out quietly, stands self-conciously, waiting.  As I pull H free and shut the door, Poppity turns to E and says, “Well, this must be our E!  Hel-l-oo, E!”  He hugs her, too.  I am relieved, and I know she is pleased.

 

We all walk up the stairs and into the house. I remember the last time my father and I visited here.  Dad, in his wheelchair, had become accustomed to waiting on the lawn of houses with stairs, waiting in the car, waiting all the time.  Dinner was ready when we arrived, and Dad was prepared to wait outside while we ate in the kitchen.  Poppity was mortified.  Over my father’s protests, he gathered the Sheriff from across the street and a truck driver from next door, and they lifted Dad, chair and all, up onto the porch, and assured him they’d bring him back down when he was ready.  My dad was pleased and embarrassed and grateful, and I remember thinking how humiliating it would be to rely on the passing vagaries of people that way.  I gave Dad the points then, too.  Now we open the full glass front door and step into the living room, and I am not surprised to see that virtually nothing has changed.  It’s a place out of time, with the ceramic basset hound under the end table, the swinging doors into the kitchen, the comfy old couch, the air smelling vaguely of fried bacon and A’S cologne.

 

The first time H is put down on the rug, Poppity opens his arms and she runs straight to him, snuggles into his neck.  He is visibly touched, and their bond is forged.  I remind him that she was named after his sister who died, and he tells people during our visit about this several times, changing ‘sister’ to ‘daughter’.  I correct him once, and then drop it – it doesn’t matter to people, and it’s still a nice story.  I’m thinking that he has his sister H confused with the tiny daughter, Patsy, that they lost. Poppity tries to draw E out a bit, but his real talent is with the little ones.  He brings out his toys – things that rattle and play music, roll across the floor, explode.  H is fascinated by everything, but he gets a little possessive when she starts saying ‘mine’ about his toys, and puts a lot of them away.

 

It’s still early evening, and A is playing Bingo at the Eagles Club, their home-away-from-home.  Poppity wants to take us there, to buy us dinner and ‘show us off’.  E is nervous, asks if it’s a bar, and I tell her it is, but not to worry.  Poppity drives us; I worry about his driving, but he appears to do very well.  We park outisde the building, and he tells us that people watch for the red flag on his car antenna to know when he’s there.   Inside, it’s the same as it was five years ago, probably the same as it’s been for twenty years.  We choose a table, and a friendly waitress takes our order – burgers and fries, grilled cheese for H, and beer for Poppity.  I don’t remember him drinking beer before, but it’s a nice change from Southern Comfort and Coke.  At least he might get some nutrition from the beer.  A dashes in from Bingo and greets us all; she seems genuinely glad to see us, and I am surprised to see that her hair is now nearly all white.  Poppity, at eighty-three, still has more dark hair than white, but A’S has faded fast.  She used to tease him and tell us that he colored his hair, but the way the white is distributed, I don’t believe it, at least not anymore.  Must be the Cherokee in him, I think.  She dashes back out again before the start of the next Bingo session. It’s an hour and a half ‘til her game is over, and I manage to wrangle H that long, but only with effort and help from E and S.  She’s fascinated with the juke box, and repeatedly runs to it and presses the buttons.  She also discovers a new ‘trick’, stepping up onto the carpeted foot rail on the bar and after much preparation and goading from us, making the daring five-inch jump off into space.  We all clap, and she claps for herself, too.  She’s very loving with Poppity, calling him Daddy and giving him hugs and kisses. E is very uncomfortable; has decided that everyone in the room is a drunk, and that they are all staring at her.  She’s a very pretty girl, and people do notice her, but in this instance I think she’s being paranoid, and it makes passing the time here even more uncomfortable having her talk about it. At last A is finished, and comes in for a single beer before we leave.  Back at their house, we bring in our suitcases and talk until bed time.  They pull out the couch in the living room for the big girls, and H and I sleep in Dan’s old room. S is thrilled to be a ‘big girl’ with E, rather than a ‘little girl’ lumped in with H. She throws on her pajamas and gloms onto E for dear life, and E allows it.  H-baby has a short episode of calling for her Daddy, then falls asleep cuddled against me.  I fall asleep wondering about H’s daddy, if he’s enjoying the solitude, if he’s thinking about me.

 

The next morning, A is in her chair, and gets up painfully to greet us.  She says she’s broken a rib that isn’t healing well, and every movement appears to cause her a lot of distress. Much later we will find out she has cancer, and it takes her life. Now we sit on the couch and make small talk.  Poppity and S sneak off together for his morning walk.  They are gone quite awhile, and when they return, Poppity proclaims that S is a ‘walking fool’, and that he could hardly keep up with her.  They have had a good time, I can tell – S’s face is flushed from exertion, and she’s hanging onto Poppity’s hand.  This is what I came for, I think.  This is what she’ll remember. A insists on making a big lunch, their only meal of the day.  They skip breakfast, have a large meal at eleven, then snack in the afternoon and, although she doesn’t say so, I know they drink dinner.  For lunch today, she makes green beans and new potatoes with bacon, fresh corn, sliced tomatoes, lettuce and green onions from their garden, sliced turkey breast in gravy, a few other things on the side.  Even E eats heartily . . . .

 

 

 

 

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I had a bad day yesterday. In the waiting room at the dentist’s office, before my root canal (any sentence beginning that way tends to make me shudder), I took a phone call from the woman I work for. I work in tourism, and to cut to the chase, something I had neglected to do left six tourists standing in front of their hotel waiting for a tour van that was never coming, a driver/guide out $115, and cost my employer $360. She was not pleased. She didn’t yell at me, though; after we ascertained that I did, indeed, not make the call I should have made, she just said my name in the most disgusted way possible, then hung up. I was in tears. Had she yelled at me, I could have yelled back, but the way she did it left me nowhere to go. All during the root canal, tears would slip out of my eyes and down the sides of my face, and the dentist kept asking if I were alright. I tried to tell her it had nothing to do with the root canal, but probably didn’t communicate that well with four hands and a couple of metal instruments in my mouth.

I was needed at the office after my dental procedure, and was dreading calling her. I have seen how she handles people when she’s angry, and expected her to be abusive, and I knew I would not take that from her. So I was upset about having to quit a job I quite like, generally. I am always pleasant to her, no matter what my real feelings are, because I have known from the first few days of my employment that if she and I ever argued, and she spoke to me the way I hear her speak to others, I’d have to quit. And I didn’t think she knew this about me, but I think I was wrong. When I called after my appointment, she quickly went over how the morning had been, and then dropped the subject of the morning tour-that-wasn’t. Before I hung up, I said, “Thanks for not being really pissed-off at me.” To which she replied, “I am, I just know better than to say it to you.” And that was it. I sat there with my cell phone in my hand, half-smiling – she apparently knows me better than I think she does.

My experience yesterday morning also had me thinking about something else. My youngest daughter, H, is always in trouble with me, and with my husband. She is forgetful, willful, she doesn’t pick up after herself, is willing to perform no chore, including picking up her own room. She refuses to do homework, taunts her sister into unholy rages, and on and on and on. And we yell at her a lot. But I also use that tone with her, call her name in that disappointed, disgusted tone. And I remember thinking of her after talking to I on the phone, and thinking, oh, this is what H feels.

So I talked to her about it last night. I was exhausted, and after coming home and having dinner, I went up to bed. She came in for a snuggle, and I told her about my day, and how I wondered if that was what it felt like to her when dad and I treated her that way. She nodded yes. She said, “Everybody gets so mad at me, and I keep thinking somebody will feel sorry for me, but nobody ever does.” We talked about things we could all do differently, to keep her from feeling that way. Ideas included having her do what she was asked when she was asked, and ways we could let her know we were displeased without making her feel like she’d failed us as a human being. Getting homework done, doing a few things around the house, picking up after yourself – these things are not worth losing your sense of self-worth over.

Yesterday had its moments of grace, too. The dentist, who knew I was extremely frightened of having dental work done, was extremely gentle and supportive. My root canal was virtually painless. I had to work all day with my boss, and in spite of the morning, she was upbeat and positive the rest of the day. When I dashed home before going to pick the girls up from school (and then going back to work), I wanted to throw some red beans in the crock pot, expecting to have to wash it, and my middle daughter had already washed it and had it ready to use. For some reason, this specific small act of kindness touched me deeply. Picking up the girls, one went missing – H was supposed to meet me at a certain place, and she wasn’t there, nor was she anywhere near there. I drove around looking for her for as long as I could, then called my husband, who was calm and pleasant when offering to let me get back to work (already a little late) and him leave work early to drive uptown and look for her. No drama, just kindness (she was fine, just goofing around with her friends). S had made the final seasoning adjustments to the red beans, and made rice, and all had eaten when I arrived home, so no last-minute dash to feed my starving horde. I was able to eat, spend some time talking to everyone about their day, and go to bed. Seen that way, it wasn’t a bad day at all.

I need to work on being grateful for what I have, and less self-obsessed over every little thing that doesn’t go my way. Today is beautiful, still very warm, and I’m going to go out to my lovely pool and swim with the dog, one of my favorite things to do. This life is very good.

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Sometimes it’s difficult to know when we are helping our children, and when we are hindering them. My youngest child, H, has mild learning disabilities, but her biggest handicap may be my willingness to help her even when she should be doing things on her own.

She is a procrastinator; I am fond of saying that ‘that little nut didn’t fall far from this tree’, meaning that I am a terrible procrastinator as well. And ever since H began school, even before we knew she was dyslexic, dysgraphic, and had attention deficit disorder, I would always save her at the last minute from the wrath (and poor grades) that went along with her not having done the work required. She’s in 7th grade now, not a little kid, and everything about her academic experience thus far has taught her that if she doesn’t do the work, Mom will step in at the 11th hour and do it for her.  This is not good.

But I also wonder how (effective? fair?) good it is to cut H off cold-turkey. Just announce that I will not be stepping in to save the day any longer, and stick to it – let her sink or swim on her own. Don’t I have more responsibility than that, since I’m the one who set the precedent in the first place? She has to learn to stand on her own. But I am reminded of my father, who ‘water-proofed’ me by throwing me into the water, over my head, repeatedly until I learned to dog-paddle. In one sense, it worked. I can dog-paddle like nobody’s business, and at least for the short term in a body of water, I will be able to move around and keep afloat (technically, because of the fat I carry, I float anyway, but that’s neither here nor there). However, I am terrified of putting my face beneath the water; it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to put my face under the stream of water in the shower, and that with my eyes scrunched shut, breath held, cloth at the ready to wipe my eyes. I’m terrified of having water over my head, and beyond that dog-paddle and a half-assed side-stroke, I can’t swim. Am afraid to try to learn to swim. I have a pool, for heaven’s sake, and I can’t actually swim in it. But I can by-God dog-paddle the hell out of the thing.

My point: I’ve been holding her above water all this time, whether I should have or not. Now, when it’s becoming imperative that she swim, would it do any good to just throw her in over her head? Or rather would stepping up the training, letting go more often, letting her know that while she has to swim on her own, I’m there just in case, be the more prudent course of action?

 Right now she has a very large, involved ‘packet’ that was due to be turned in to her science teacher this past Friday. Today is Wednesday. She lost the packet within hours of receiving it, and recovered it yesterday. Her teacher gave her until today to turn it in. Now, this was intended to be a three-day project, worked on in class and at home. H wound up with one night. And last night was not a normal one for us – we had her sister’s school open house to attend, where there is usually dinner provided. Last night there was no dinner, so we went out (to Taqueria Corona – so good!) for dinner after. Which meant we got home fifteen minutes before her bedtime. She was exhausted, and I told her to go to bed, and we’d get up early to work on the packet. Mistake #1: I did not look at the packet. At this point, I didn’t realize how much work would be involved. Mistake #2: Letting H do the work in the morning virtually never works. I know this, and yet I buy into the fantasy almost every time it’s suggested. Shame on me. So of course she was impossible to get out of bed, we argued, she sat sullenly with her science book and the notebook she’s supposed to be working in, and did nothing. When she went to eat breakfast, I checked everything out, and found that out of approx. 45 questions/definitions/activities she’s supposed to do to complete this thing, H has done one. One question.  *What is the difference between a eukaryote and a prokaryote? A eukaryote has a nucleus and a prokaryote does not.* One down, 44 to go. So far, so good.

So I advised her, against my better judgement (and I advised her of that, too) that her best bet was to fib and say she left the notebook in my car. Ouch! That hurt! Stop throwing things! I know it was a bad call. I regretted it as soon as I’d said it, but there it was, out there in the air, floating around, my voice, my advice: lie. And she will, too. Convincingly, I might add. Case in point: a few days after 9/11, H told a little girl that her sister (who was in high school and living at home at the time) was in New York when the planes bombed the World Trade Centers, and was in an elevator and crushed to death. Totally not true. The little girl told the teacher, and the teacher questioned H: was this true? She told the same story flawlessly. The teacher told the vice principal. The vice principal brings H into her office. Did this happen? H repeats all the gory details. The vice principal takes H into the principal’s office: this child lost her elder sister in the horrors of 9/11. The principal asks H to tell her what happens, and she does, in vivid detail. The principal calls me – why weren’t we notified of what this child has been through? And I must admit, there was a part of me – quite a large part, actually – that wanted to say, “Yes, well, we’re all quite devastated. The memorial service will be on Friday . . . .” It felt disloyal to tell the truth, but I did. Then they brought in a social worker since the child obviously had a problem with lying. I disagreed; I thought she lied beautifully. Besides, it wasn’t a habit, she was in second grade, and it was just an attention-getting mechanism. But I was aware then that my inclination was to save her, and the truth be damned. Again, not a good thing.

Back to the packet. She left this morning, and I have it with me now. I’m trying to decide if I should work on it for her or not. There is too much here to do for her to accomplish in one night. Maybe I’ll compromise; set up the format on the computer for her, and offer her multiple choices on some of the answer sections, just to give her a headstart. It ain’t the butterfly stroke, but it beats dog-paddling.

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It’s more important that I write, than it is that I write well. It’s something I want to make into a habit. If I were a nun, that last sentence would have an entirely different meaning . . . .

I feel I’m on the edge of an epiphany (again with the nun-speak). I’m on the verge of grasping something very important in my life, but the entire truth has yet to be revealed. I think it’s about service, and the joy that can be found there. Offering service to my family, to the people around me, in my job, etc. I can bless myself and those I love through service. Not sure, but that’s what’s coming through right now.

 I’m also beginning to suspect that it might not all be about me. A shock to the system, let me tell you. It might – might – be about the connectedness of all things. And I might – might – not be so special after all. Actually, this works both ways. It appears to be turning out that I am special in that I am a part of all things, I have a role to play, and that role is an important one. However, I am not THE one, and my role is no more or less distinct than that of others around me. So it looks like I am both more and less important than I thought.

It’s starting to dawn on me how precious my children are. I thought I knew this, but I begin to see how very short our time together will be, and I am sorry for the way I have taken their love and presence for granted. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to cherish what time we have together, and I want them to remember Mother as a kind, funny, welcoming, nurturing person. It might be too late, but then again, it might not.

 I am still struggling with what happened in Munich. I keep waiting to feel badly, to feel guilty, to have the realization of how much I screwed things up with D to hit me, and it doesn’t. I don’t know if this is because I didn’t screw up, that what I said was justified, or if it’s just that I’ve reached new depths of denial. Either is entirely possible. I also find myself re-living, every so often, the things D had to say, or shout, to me. Most often is her coming at me, shouting, “You’re afraid of  being laughed at? Here’s an idea – lose some fucking weight! Walk or swim, do something for God’s sake. Lose some fucking weight!” It stunned me then, hurt me to the core. It still shocks me a little each time I re-live it in my head. But I also recognize that there is a truth there that no one else is brave enough to share with me. I expect everyone to understand that it’s not as easy as just ‘losing weight,’ that I have extenuating circumstances, everything from heredity to the way I was raised, from emotional issues to physical ones. But, honestly, didn’t she hit the nail on the head? I’m afraid of being laughed at, I can’t stand being ridiculed, I am self-concious 100 percent of the time because I am so fat. Is it as complicated as I have made it all my life? Or do I just need to lose some fucking weight? I suspect the latter is true.

The next obvious question to me is: do I dislike D so much now because she said this to me? I thinI my dislike of D is not nearly so dramatic – she voiced a universal truth to me that I was not ready to hear. No, I think she just annoyed the hammered fuck out of me. From the beginning. Now, going in to this, preparing to make the trip, it did occur to me that she gets annoying, but I thought I could handle it. Turns out, I was wrong. Virtually everything about her makes me want to slap her across the face, or at least find the mute button. She is ignorant, but believes herself to be educated. That is a huge piss-off to those of us who actually are, in the most general of ways, educated (what a pissy thing to say).  She talks constantly – you cannot get a word in without fighting for it. That complaint is definitely the pot calling the kettle mouthy, but still, it makes me want to scream. I can’t tell you how many times I said, aloud, “Okay, I am going to finish this story come hell or high water.” She doesn’t apologize, even when she really, truly should. She tells the same thing over and over and over and . . . well, you get the picture. Each time she tells you a new story, or something that has lodged itself inside her brain as fact, you can count on hearing it at least another three times as she cements this version or tidbit into her marijuana-addled brain. The pot-smoking is annoying, too. Her philosophy of life pisses me off (why? it’s none of my business and yet ….), and all the ghosty-spirity-I-see-dead-people crap makes me angry, too. Not angry in general, just angry to have to sit and listen to it. She’s fucking crazy. As I write this, I realize I’m still pissed about it. Not sure if I’m pissed at me for going, or her for being that way. Arrrgggh! Either way, I don’t feel guilty about what happened. I wonder how I would feel if she killed herself? Probably badly . . . but maybe not that badly. Meaning that while I do not want her to take her own life, or to die any other way, if it were to happen, I wouldn’t feel like it was my fault. I am afraid that she’s headed that direction; maybe I was placed in her path to wake her up, make her angry, see herself from a different perspective. I don’t think she saw herself as a decrepit, pitiful homeless person with mental illness and a drug problem before me . . . and though her ability to listen or perceive anything that doesn’t fit in with her self-image is limited, maybe she took something useful away from our boring couple of weeks together. The countryside was nice, anyway.

I feel like, as far as my writing life goes, I am waiting for something to write about. I know that’s not likely to happen, but it would certainly make things easier. Ah, well. Maybe even this I can overcome. On to the day!

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