Father’s Day

My father was not sure what to do with children, since he had never been allowed to be one.  He spent my childhood bemused by me,  I think. One of the last stories he told my husband, for the nth time, was how, when I was four, I insisted that he was pronouncing maraschino wrong,  and that it was “ma-ra-SKEE-no.” He told my husband that I was a dickens, and my husband assured him I still was. As borne out by the maraschino story,  I was quite the handful, not the most docile child in the world.  He seems comfortable with four-month-old me in the picture above, but then again I couldn’t talk yet.

My grandparents on my father’s side were no role models for how to raise children. They seemed to have no idea of how to relate to children emotionally. My sister remembers our grandfather as a gruff, blustery fellow, and my grandmother was so upset by having a fourth boy, my father, instead of the daughter she wanted, that she ignored him once his sister was born when he was two years old. My father’s stories do not describe warm, fuzzy parents. When I was six, my father was teasing my mother at the breakfast table, telling her how smooth his freshly shaved face was, didn’t she want to feel it? I ran over to him and pressed my cheek to his. He froze as though made of stone. It is only in retrospect that I recognised how odd and sad his reaction is, and how it illuminates how bereft his own childhood must have been of hugs and affection.

As we children got older,  my father found the role of tutor suited him and made him far more comfortable with us. I delighted in his helping me with my Latin homework, and still have his Latin grammar and dictionary from his college courses. Latin was the warmup to get me to do my math.  I never came to like geometry as he did, but with his help, became proficient and even enjoyed trigonometry. My father taught me the love of words, languages, and literature, which eased topics of conversation during my turbulent teenage years. Things became even easier for my father even I became an adult. He found he could talk to me and I found that he could accept it when I told him I loved him and hugged him goodbye after a visit.  He looked shocked for a moment, then said that he loved me, too. It became the closing ritual of our weekly phone call.

I was lucky to see my father for a few days before he passed away, and although he did not speak to me, he looked straight at me when I told him I loved him. What surprised me, but should not have done, was how many people loved him. I was surrounded by people telling me how he had helped them, many just in normal course of knowing him,  but several more through a bereavement group he had unwillingly joined the year before when my mother passed away.  When he talked to me, he claimed that he never had anything to say, but the members of the group told me how eloquent he was about my mother and their 69 years of marriage, and how he had helped them with their grief.

Most notable was a man who was 18 when he met my father, while dating my sister. He told me that my father changed his life, taking him from someone who didn’t have much of a direction, encouraging him to go to college, find a career, and have a family. The man told me simply, “Your father taught me how to be a man.” I think of my father’s upbringing, and am amazed at the adult who raised some good human beings, made a lot of friends, and helped a lot of people in his life. Not a bad epitaph, and not a bad goal. Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.

Garden of Steel Magnolias

Mother’s Day

One of my earliest memories is of going out the back door to the camellia bushes before going to church on Mother’s Day. My mother always cut red camellias for my sisters and me, and another for herself.  I remember the year that she cut a white one for herself. When I asked why, she answered that white was for a mother who had passed away. I remember thinking at her funeral that now I had to wear a white camellia on Mother’s Day.

My mother was an enigma when I was little. She slept from the time my brother and sisters left for school to the time they got home in the afternoon. I didn’t recognize the signs of depression for a few decades, despite being immersed in it myself since my teens. Every so often, I could rouse her to talk to me about the plants she loved, but it often made her yearn for an acre of deep, dark, earth that would respond to her touch, rather than the red clay of our Atlanta back yard. I hated to make her sad.

When I was in college, my mother convinced my father to let her take art courses at the same women’s college I attended. She bloomed there in a way I had never seen before. My mother was intelligent, with an intellectual curiosity and love of learning she passed on to me and my siblings. She excelled in art, enjoying every medium, but falling in love with textiles and pottery. I remember seeing her with her friends in the campus center, laughing and smiling, as she shared some hard-won life lessons with them.

After my mother’s death, my sister found hundreds of pictures that had been kept in the attic for decades, all dating from before my parents’ marriage. Neither she nor I had ever seen them before. The mother we knew was quiet, almost dour. She did not complain, but she did not seem to enjoy her life. These pictures showed a vibrant, laughing young woman having dinner with friends, or shockingly, posing with a young serviceman whose hat she had placed on her own head. The serviceman was not our father, either.  

In them I saw the smile from her college years. I recognized that young woman, confident and smiling with her friends, vibrant and playful. I often wonder what happened to that young woman in the intervening years. My guess is that she was forced to choose between marrying and taking care of a husband and children or staying unmarried and taking care of her parents. I think she would have chosen to live alone until her mid- or late-twenties, something that is no longer unusual. I write about women in the middle ages with limited choices about how to live their lives, yet am surprised at the lack of choices my mother had in the middle of the 20th century. Perhaps I am not the only one born in the wrong century.



Birthday musings

Today is my birthday.  I am now old enough to add an Amtrak discount to those at the local movie theater and Denny’s. I am old enough that I haven’t been carded in two decades.  I am old enough to wake up with stiff hands and a knee that clicks as I head down the stairs to the kitchen. I am old enough to find myself in the middle of a room with no idea why I went there or what I went there to get.

I am still young enough to marvel at sunsets and to have my heart lift at the narcissus and forsythia blooming in the neighborhood this week. I am young enough to dream about what I want to be and to believe in the power of one person to change the world.

I will always root for the underdog, cry at commercials with baby humans or animals, and sing when I’m alone. I will always have the shy, misfit four-year-old in my brain, sharing space with the depressed, sarcastic teenager, and the nerdy graduate student who outlined a short story with characters speaking Anglo-Saxon.

I am old enough to take fewer things for granted, to spend less time on things I cannot change. I am old enough to feel less like a misfit,  not to voice the sarcastic thoughts I have when it is not helpful or appropriate. I’m old enough to realize that education does not make a person better, and sometimes not even smarter.

Despite all my decades, I’m still learning and evolving.  Here’s to learning more in the next year.  

WIPpet Wednesday

WIPpet Wednesday August 27, 2014

I have to do some magic with math to make this excerpt fit.  If one takes the end numbers from the year 2 + 4, and adds the final digit of the date + 7, one gets 247 words.  Ha!  I pulled that magic off!

My alien sons drew unknown resonances from me as they travelled through childhood.  On an early morning walk, my two-year-old tugged me down to his level, pointing at the grass.  I ended up lying on the wet, cool, grass to see the rainbow displayed in a drop of dew.  My explorations in childhood had been through books, except for pools of water large enough to swim.  The senses were suspect, kept muted and at bay, so that the life of the mind could run unimpeded by the physical body that wrapped it in flesh and bone.

My sons were bold explorers of the life of the senses. The first time my son snuggled next to me, glorying in my touch,  I felt a trespasser in a foreign land, as these ways were not countenanced in my parents’ house.  My father often teased my mother, proclaiming the smoothness of his cheek after a morning shave.  I can’t have been more than six, pressing my cheek to his to feel what he meant.  He turned to stone as if my hair were snakes, pushing me roughly from him. I never touched him again without invitation. He willingly touched me for the first time when I was moving a thousand miles away at age 22.  My sons’ bold assessment of, and joy in, the physical world allowed me to see through the curiosity and somehow right reckoning of my boys, opening my mind and heart to things unknown, unseen, and untasted.


WIPpet Wednesday

Wednesday WIPpet, August 13, 2014

I give you 13 sentences of my memoir for the 13th day of the month.  WIPpet Wednesday is hosted by KL Schwengel.  If you would like to participate, post a date-related (calendar date, not romantic date) snippet of a WIP (hence, WIPpet) here.

My complicated childhood echoed through the years in odd ways. Although family is very important to me, I rarely tell any of my family how important they are to me. My sons encouraged that reticence when they were teenagers, fleeing emotion as if it were hydrofluoric acid. However, those sons also helped me learn how to be a mother to alien creatures, who acted nothing like their sisters. Furthermore, I had met my daughters when they were 5 and 3, so 0 to 3 was unmapped wilderness, filled with snapping wolves and lumbering bears. My sons laid to rest any nature versus nurture discussions I had in my mind; their drive and fearlessness taught me how to take risks, while making my face pale with fear. They put up with my inability to help them with math and physics homework, as well as my crying through nearly every movie I took them to see. Well, not Pokemon.

My daughters, who accepted me as a second mom, weathered my learning how to be a mom. I remember the stark terror I felt when my oldest daughter handed me a Barbie, inviting me to play with her. I had never played dolls with anyone in my life, and I knew nothing about being a child. She was very gentle with me, explaining the rules, “Barbies are plastic, so they can’t talk back to us. We can imagine them talking, though.”

Both girls guided me through playing in the park, swinging and talking, giving me a childhood I had imagined but never lived.


Renegade Reflections, ROW80

More Gratitude and ROW80

Siesta Key Elizabeth Anne Mitchell December White ChristmasI’ve included a very cute video of a puppy playing with his favorite toy below this post on gratitude, above  my ROW80 check-in.  I hope you enjoy!

After writing about some of my family in the last post, I wanted to express my gratitude to some other family members: my aunt, my brother, and my sister. I am very grateful that my aunt found time to spend with her niece, and that my brother and sister have endeavored to stay connected with me despite the centrifugal force that characterizes my family. My mother’s sister was nine years older than my mother, with no intervening children; my mother always looked upon her as a mother, and I saw her more as a grandmother.  A big believer in idle hands leading to devil’s work, my aunt taught me how to knit, crochet, embroider, and tat when I was very young.  She was teaching my oldest sister, but I hung around like a pest and learned as well. She came to see us every month or so; we were always glad to see her, because she knew all sorts of stories and could bake the best pies and cookies I’d ever had.Even though she always made me keep my hands busy with knitting or tatting while we talked, I looked forward to her visits.  I felt as though she could see me, when very few other grownups could.  She despaired when I became a perpetual student, often shaking her head at my explanations of why I studied all these things.  When I finally got married and settled down with my instant family, you would have thought she had been the matchmaker, she was so proud.  And when we added more children, she was ecstatic that I had given her more children to love.Two days before my youngest son was born, Aunt Ellene felt ill, describing it somewhat like indigestion, but worse.  The hospital gave her heartburn medication and sent her home.  Three hours later, she passed away from a massive heart attack.  My mother debated delaying her planned trip to help me with the new baby, but she came the day he came home from the hospital, missing her sister’s funeral, because that was what my aunt would have wanted. My son is nineteen now, and I still miss talking with Aunt Ellene over our knitting or embroidery.
My brother didn’t become a human being until I was 11 and he went to college.  He actually corresponded with me; when he was home on vacation, he still acted like a jerk sometimes, but that behavior diminished through the years.  He married into one of those huge families that gets together for birthdays and holidays and weddings; I have never asked him directly, but I suspect he felt the same kind of attraction/curiosity at the concept that I did when I first saw this unaccustomed behavior.  No matter, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly, leaving my father to shake his head in consternation at how he and his wife travel cross country to see their kids and grandkids.  I stand back in admiration.Last year, my brother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and had one lung removed.  I had not realized until that point how much I thought my siblings were immortal, nor how hard it would hit me.  He is still fighting, but it is a long path through the woods.  He cannot fly anymore, but he and his wife pack up the car and still travel hundreds of miles to see their families. I am so grateful that he has tried valiantly to establish the sort of relationship with me that his wife has with her siblings. I am thankful to them both for showing me that it could work when I was still young enough to do the same for my own family.

One of my sisters is four years older than I am; reportedly she told my father that I was not the fun kind of baby doll, and would he please take me back.  No luck, sorry!  After this bumpy start, my sister and I started to bond her senior year in high school.  I stopped being the “faery child” who did not seem connected to the world, and started being able to see her.  During her college years, we shared hopes and dreams, despite long periods where one or the other of us would pull away to nurse our wounds in private–she, an abusive marriage; me, an early failed marriage, the abyss of graduate school.  Even now, she calls me regularly; I promise to call her, and forget (I am a very bad sister).  She and I are so different in so many of our world views, but we get each other, especially given our shared history.  I am grateful that she continues to knock on my door and pull me out of my little world now and again.

ROW80 Check-in:
While there is still a lot going on behind the curtain, I haven’t much to offer.  I am uploading hundreds of photographs from the past several years, creating a pool to use in my blog from those and others that are not copyrighted or restricted.  I am slowly shoehorning three blogs into one, and endeavoring to find my voice and my niche.  The hardest part so far is to find what might be most interesting about my odd pockets of knowledge or interests.
The day job is heading into high gear, the rush before the holidays. I’m facing longer and longer days, but enjoy most of the work.  I feel the tidal pull to get back to writing, which is only slightly sated by doing the day job writing.  Soon!
If you can take a break from NaNo or your other projects, please go encourage some of the ROW80 folks here.
Renegade Reflections

Gratitude of a 21st century daughter

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Matt Hofferth about how, while the 19th century has a lot of coolness to offer, it didn’t have things like antibiotics and electricity.  Soon afterwards, I realized that it was fitting that my last post on Lapidary Prose was on gratitude, since I am grateful for several things I take for granted.

I do not have to imagine the life of my grandmother or great-grandmother to appreciate the difference between the 19th and 21st centuries. My mother grew up in Appalachia, in circumstances that had not changed since the nineteenth century. She learned how to cook on a wood stove, splitting wood to replenish the woodpile, hauling water from the well.

My grandparents grew all their own food.  They raised chickens and cows for eggs, milk, and meat.  If they needed things they could not produce, my grandfather would barter his carpentry skills, or work to get the money for things beyond barter, such as postage stamps. My aunt taught my mother how to make dresses from flour sacks; the scraps were sewn into quilt tops. There were fireplaces for heat, and kerosene lamps for light to read and sew. Transportation was by mule; one of the funniest stories my mother ever told was of a first date conducted on mule back.

Although my mother did very well in school, graduating as valedictorian of her high school class, my grandparents did not believe that girls should go to college. At age fifteen, my mother was sent to Atlanta to get a job, sending money home to pay for her brothers’ college educations. Also, my grandparents expected that my mother, as the youngest daughter, would work as long as her brothers were in college, but would then return to take care of her parents for the rest of their lives. They were shocked and unhappy when she met my father and made other plans.

I am ashamed to admit that my teenage self was bored by her stories, uninterested in how her life had changed so thoroughly in her lifetime. When I was learning how to cook, it annoyed me that she could never just give me a number for the temperature, but always had to work her way through the vague description of warm, medium, or hot fire, only then settle on an approximate temperature.  She insisted on calling plants by their botanical names, telling me the medicinal uses and folklore of each. I thought she was hopelessly out of touch, frozen in an earlier time that had nothing to teach me.

Now that I am older, and no longer as focussed on myself, I remember my mother’s childhood with admiration for her grit.  At four years old, she was standing on an orange crate to cook dinner on a wood stove for her family.  At four, I was daydreaming and writing stories in my head.  I am grateful that I have water and fuel delivered into my home without my having to haul it there. I am grateful that I do not have to wring a chicken’s neck to cook my dinner of an evening, nor cut up flour sacks to make a dress. However, I am more grateful for my mother’s strength. Because my mother never went to college, she and my father made sure that their daughters never had any doubt they would go; it was an assumption made before I was born. My parents taught us to take care of each other as well as them, but never to the degree of sacrificing the youngest daughter, from which I, as the youngest daughter, have benefited. There are times when I feel sorry for myself as part of the “squeeze generation,” when I bemoan the independence of my frail and elderly parents, but it was that independence that fostered my own, and for that I am truly grateful.