Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Cookie Crumbles

The crunch of his tires on the gravel driveway announced 12:00 noon as faithfully as the fire whistle in any little country town. Daddy made the two-mile trek home every day to eat lunch and watch “The Cookie Crumble,” which was Dad-speak for a soap opera called “As the World Turns.” When we were home in the summers, his appearances were the highlights of our days.

About 11:30, one of us girls set the table while the other “made the tea.” Making tea was part of the preparation for every meal other than breakfast. You put water in a pan and set it to boil, got out the Lipton’s Loose Leaf tea and a spoon, and waited. When the water boiled, you put three or four teaspoons of leaves into the pan and turned off the stove. Next, you got out the strainer and a pitcher and put ice into the glasses waiting on the table. By the time you finished with the ice, it was time to pour the tea through the strainer and into the clear glass pitcher. The hot tea usually filled the pitcher about a third of the way until you added cold water, and then the pitcher was full and the tea was ready.

Mom cooked three hot meals, including dessert for lunch and dinner, nearly every day of our lives. Lunch wasn’t as big a meal as supper, but it was an honest-to-goodness meal—meat and potatoes and vegetables and bread and butter. Daddy couldn’t sit down to a meal without bread and butter.

When Dad opened the back door, the three of us kids bum-rushed him, each one trying be the first to get a hug and a kiss. He wrestled us and kissed Mom, then walked to the back of the house, where he washed his hands before coming to the table. We all sat down together for lunch, and then Debbie and I did the dishes and swept the floor while Mom and Dad watched the cookie crumble (we could see the tv from the kitchen, too).

When the organ music cranked up to signal the end of the program, Daddy kissed Mom and went back to work. Five days a week, 52 weeks a year, this was the rhythm of our lives.

There was one variable. Every once in a while, Mom decided not to let Dad kiss her good-bye, which meant he couldn’t go back to work. When he leaned over for his kiss, she covered her mouth with her hands and took off running. Daddy, of course, chased her, and we chased him. Out the front door, down two wooden steps, around our little white house, through the garden, and around the LP tank we went, a 6 foot 4 inch man chasing a 5 foot 4 inch woman, both of them followed by three shrieking, laughing children.

The three of us did everything possible to keep him from catching her, and when he finally did, we tackled them and clapped our hands over his mouth and hers so their lips couldn’t touch. Eventually, we were always defeated: Daddy collected his kiss and went back to work. Mom and Deb and I went back to cleaning or cooking or doing laundry; Jeff went back to whatever game he was playing. We all went back to waiting for the crunch of tires on the driveway.

In a comment the other day, Prema said something about what I thought loved was like. This was it.

Love was three hot meals a day, clean, ironed clothes every morning, never coming home or leaving without a kiss. It was winter picnics of tomato soup and fried Spam sandwiches, skating together on the frozen creek at the roadside park, all five of us scrunched into Mom and Dad’s bed on Sunday mornings.

More than anything, it was knowing that we had each other and always would, no matter what.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hot and Good

I love the hokey old movie, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a story about the incredible life of a Titanic survivor and all-round fascinating character. The movie isn’t particularly true to the historic facts of Molly’s life, but it’s charming in a ridiculous kind of way.

If you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember Mrs. Gladys McGraw, Molly’s next-door neighbor in Denver. Fresh out of Leadville, Molly is enthralled with Mrs. McGraw’s elegance, including the news that she “gives a party when her roses bloom.” Later, Molly meets Mrs. McGraw’s mother, Buttercup Grogan, who is a rough and tumble, good-hearted, backwoods woman. Mrs. McGraw keeps Buttercup hidden most of the time to protect the elegant image she’s created for herself since moving into Denver society.

This is a long explanation to get to the fact that this morning I feel like Mrs. McGraw. Might even answer to Gladys if anyone calls it out. I don’t hide my mother and father in the basement, but I don’t often tell their stories, either.

It’s easy to tell stories about how shocked we were when the teenagers next door showered behind the lilac bushes in the rain. We were shocked. We were only 7 or 8 and had never seen anything like it. It’s harder to report that my dad bathed in ponds and creeks all over Iowa and Missouri when he was a teenager.

You see, Dad and his family traveled with a carnival during the summers of 1948 and 1949. He was 17 and 18 during those summers and they've marked the rest of his life. Part of the musical score of my life has been the call of a carney. Engaged in some mindless task, Dad sings out, “Hot and good and good and hot. Fried in butter and golden brown. Half a cow on a bun for one. Come on in.”

Dad tells stories of living out of the back of a truck, taking baths in ponds, and sleeping on the ground. At every little town, he got paid $4 to help put up the Ferris Wheel and $4 more to take it down afterward. Dad’s mom and dad ran “The Cookhouse” hamburger stand; his younger sister ran a photo booth; he ran a string game.

“Oh these lucky strings. Every time you play, you win. A winner ever time for a dime. Can’t win if you don’t play. Come on in.”

Dad later went to college. I remember his college graduation, as a matter of fact. He was a teacher when we lived in California and owned a substantial business in the town where I grew up. Like Mrs. McGraw, we became “second generation.”

Even today, if Dad is served a large portion of something or another or comes across something larger than expected, he’ll exclaim, “Now that’s half a cow on a bun!” The rest of us say it, too.

How much of my "not that kind of girl" attitude has been an unconscious attempt to cover those roots? I have no idea, but you can bet that now that I've come upon the question, I'm going to dig around down here for a bit.

Our family may not be crazy, but it's damn colorful, don't you think?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Not That Kind of Girl: Unbound

Stares and whispers follow Lunissa through the halls like the vapor trail of a jet in a clear blue sky. We have no idea what to make of this full-grown woman masquerading as a high school student.

We hear she’s married. We hear she’s from a rich Jewish family back East. We hear her folks are famous. If her appearance is indeed a masquerade, her costumes disguise her well: long, wild, dirty hair, three or four men’s shirts at a time, long cotton skirts, and steel-toed work boots.

When spring comes Lunissa peels off several layers of dirty clothes and her husband’s boots, and we discover she doesn’t shave her arms or legs. Evidently she doesn’t believe in deodorant. Or underwear.

She doesn’t believe in the regular order of things, either. For as long as anyone remembers, boys have taken Shop and girls have taken Home Ec. Lunissa says she knows how to cook. She wants to learn how to weld, how to build and fix things. She takes her fight all the way to the school board and wins. The Board doesn’t want to be sued by fancy New York lawyers.

Lunissa can take Shop, they say, but if she gets hassled or hurt, she’s on her own. She does not get hassled (all the boys have seen her moving mountain of a husband) and she does not get hurt. She does learn how to weld.

As the weather warms up, Lunissa wears fewer and fewer clothes. Teachers say her appearance disrupts classes; girls say she’s weird; boys say leave her alone. Meetings are held to discuss the situation.

Finally Lunissa appears at school wearing NOTHING but an extra-large man’s white t-shirt. Well, nothing unless you count the red silk ribbon tied around each big toe. These ribbons, she says, are her shoes.

That morning a teacher drives Lunissa back to the farm where she lives. We never see her again, but we never forget her, either.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Not That Kind of Girl: Bold

In late spring, when Rebecca’s husband is promoted to Vice President of a major national corporation, he hires a new assistant. He doesn’t mention this to Rebecca, mind you, but she notices a new voice deferentially announcing “Mr. XX’s Office” when she calls his top floor corner office to remind him to bring home milk.

Over dinner that night, Rebecca asks Billy whether he likes his new assistant, and he says not much. He says Candi is well over 55 and not up-to-date enough to be provide much assistance with his high-powered position. He also says he’s not very comfortable being represented by a decidedly unattractive woman.

In early December, Rebecca decides at the last minute to attend Billy’s office Christmas party. She’s never gone to company functions but wants to meet the woman not attractive enough to sit outside Billy’s office. She dresses carefully, hoping he will feel she represents him well.

Before dinner is served, a woman introduces herself. Her voice is familiar and her nametag says “Candi,” but Rebecca is sure she can’t be Billy’s assistant. This Candi is not a day over 25 and stunningly beautiful.

At dinner, Candi seats herself next to Billy, leaving Rebecca to sit across the table. Candi steers the conversation to Billy’s favorite topics and signals the server to refill his coffee before he even notices it’s empty. Rebecca comments on this and Candi tells her it’s all part of her job. She has, she says, learned to anticipate Billy's needs.

The conversation lags, and Rebecca leans across the table to catch Candi’s attention. Speaking in a loud, theatrical voice, Rebecca asks what kind of skin care products Candi uses.

Candi’s perfectly tweezed eyebrows shoot up, and her lovely eyes narrow.

“I’ve just got to know,” Rebecca says. “Whatever it is must be absolutely fabulous. Billy tells me you’re over 55 years old.”

No one at the table finishes their dessert. Suddenly, every single one of them feels compelled to visit the cash bar or the restroom.

Rebecca feels compelled to call a cab.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Time on My Mind

Trailers for "The Last Mimzy" freak me out. Only moments ago, Timothy Hutton was the hot—but tortured—guy in "Ordinary People." Now he's the father, a parental foil for the real action.

Elizabeth and John Edwards announced today that Elizabeth's cancer has returned, this time with no hope of a cure, only management. Yesterday, while I was unpacking a gift sent by a loving and lovely friend or walking my dog or drinking green tea, Mrs. Edwards was waiting for news that would change her life, her family's lives, and possibly the country's future.

Neither of us knew of the other because we are separated by physical distance (as well as the vast difference in our experiences of those moments). Could similar "distances" be created by layers of time? Could time be rippled like the surface of the pond this morning?

Carrie's Rojo left her an e-mail predicting his love for 7:00 EST. "Eastern Standard Time." What is that? We collectively agree that in any given moment it's a different time on an Atlantic beach than on a Pacific beach, a different time in Poughkeepsie than in Punjab. We can objectively know that the colors and temperatures of the water are different from one coast to another. We can measure and compare the angle of the sun above the horizon at specific moments. But what do we know about time?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

As a former hospice volunteer, I've been blessed to be present for deaths. In the weeks of volunteer training, one idea came up over and over: everyone's life is different, but our deaths are all the same. Shortly before death, people believe departed loved ones are in the room with them. In my experience, no one sees living loved ones who are not present; they see people who are not, in our understanding, alive at the time.

But who or what is more alive than our memories?

Some of the memories I've been examining are real enough I can pick lint from the nap of my velvet party dresses, real enough I smell the vomit splashing on my legs, real enough I turn my head to hear more clearly the sounds I'm describing. Are those events less real today than they were when they "happened" 35 years ago?

Like the old Chicago song, I wonder if anyone really knows what time it is. More than that, I wonder if anyone really cares.

Taking a Breather

I keep trying to write the story of the Big O, but it simply will not be written. I’ve tried every trick I know. I’ve done stream of consciousness just to get my fingers moving over the keys, I’ve allowed myself shitty first drafts (several), I’ve meditated to try to find my way in. No dice.

So, I’m going to do other things for a bit. Maybe a little gardening. Certainly some walking in the sunshine. Playing with my doggie.

Meantime, Amber at The Believing Soul tagged me for this meme.

May 8:
3 events:

1886: Pharmacist Dr. John Styth Pemberton invents a carbonated beverage that would later be named "Coca-Cola"

1933: Mohandas Gandhi begins a 21-day fast in protest of British oppression in India.

1973: A 71-day standoff, between federal authorities and the American Indian Movement members occupying the Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, ends with the surrender of the militants.

Other birthdays:
1884 - Harry S. Truman, President of the United States and fellow resident of Independence, MO
1940 - Peter Benchley. (the reason my kids are afraid of the ocean)
1943 - Toni Tennille, American singer. (Muskrat Love anyone?)

1998 - Bebe Rebozo, American banker and Watergate figure (Do any of you even remember Watergate?)
2000 - Henry Nicols, AIDS activist (b. 1973)

VE Day
Parents Day in South Korea

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Holy Smokes!!!!


The wise and loving Tanya from Go Mama commented on the most recent NTKoG that there was some of me in Sheila, which is true, of course. I got to thinking about all the wisdom in the comments you guys have made and went back to read them all--every comment since the workshop.

And there--right in front of my eyes--was the answer. Several of you have commented on how these girls are pieces of me. Also how so many of them were sacrificed. That's so true. They were sacrified to greed, to incest, to social climbing, to arrogant men.

And THAT's the biggest thing we have in common. I was sacrificed to silence, to ignorance. I knew nothing in so many ways, especially about sex. So much couldn't be talked about because it made my mom and dad uncomfortable. Ignorance and fear have helped me make some really bad decisions through the years. (I'm not blaming my folks for my bad choices here. Just saying ignorance was a big part of the picture.) Among other things, I spent 30 years--THIRTY F'N YEARS--unconsciously denying myself physical pleasure out of fear and ignorance.

Stacy, the wise and fascinating woman from Life Is Art read a strange, strange dream for me the other day. Here's some of what she had to say:

There is a lot going on here with womens issues in anger, powerlessness and spiritual trust. The cord is the spiritual cord or tie there seems to be some female anger, or anger at a female guide for not (or ancestor) for not giving you the strength or power to speak up for yourself to protect you in relationships.

Geez, Stacy. Could you get a little more RIGHT?

You could read books during an eclipse by the glow on my face and in my heart right now. You people—every one of you who reads and comments here—you have filled in a space that has been blank my whole adult life.

I am SO grateful.

I feel SO blessed.

I have SO much work to do.

Thank you. Thank you all. A thousand humble thank yous.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Not That Kind of Girl, Part 7

Sheila rents a storage space her husband doesn’t know about. Its shelves are laden with fluffy towels and Egyptian-cotton sheets and goose-down pillows. Custom-made furniture and lovely vintage pieces are stacked in the corners. Gorgeous luggage stuffed with boots and shoes and silk lingerie are wedged into open spaces.

Sheila hasn’t paid retail for a single thing in there. She’s an excellent shopper.

When the space is filled, she plans to divorce her rich and arrogant husband. Meanwhile, she goes to Mexico twice a year on a girl's trip. At the beginning of each trip, the women select a fellow tourist and compete to be the first to bed him. There's a prize and everything.

Sheila’s very skilled at sleight-of-hand. It comes in handy with seduction as well as with hiding a few extra expenses in the household budget.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Slow Process

My family is not crazy. Well, if you don’t count my great-grandmother, who burned herself to death in the outhouse after she caught her husband smiling at his nurse after surgery. And it is true that my grandfather (her son) spent most of 1946 in his bedroom because he was afraid he’d catch pneumonia. But still, none of us have gone completely ring-tailed-, batshit-, howl-at-the-moon crazy. Yet.

My parents are still married—to each other, even. 55 years and counting. Their biggest arguments these days are over who could survive best if the other one died. “I better not go first,” my dad will grumble as he hands Mom her glasses. “You’d never see anything again.”

“Like you could get along without me for a week!” Mom will snort. “I feel sorry for you girls if I go first,” she’ll fake whisper out of the side of her mouth. “If I do, remember that I’m sorry.”

The strongest drug used in our home was Extra-strength Excedrin and I was in college the first time I saw anyone drunk. There was that one time my uncle passed out in the neighbor’s flower box when he came home on leave from the Navy, but I didn’t get to see anything except the lights coming on when Dad went next door to fetch him.

My daddy always had a job, my mama’s brand of discipline occasionally could be described as harsh but rarely left marks or drew blood, and we always had a good home and plenty of food. My older sister and younger brother annoyed me, but no more so than the average sibling, as far as I can tell.

I’m a garden-variety, Midwestern heterosexual raised in the bosom of a family no more or less dysfunctional than the next. So why would I write a memoir, and would read it? The only honest answer is, “I'm not sure.” But these stories have been kicking around inside my head for so long, trying to be heard. It feels like time to bring them out for a little light and air.

I’ve spent my entire life not quite fitting in. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel like the proverbial stranger in a strange land. As a young child it seemed my mom and sister formed a closed society into which I did not fit. Then my brother came along, and I discovered the peculiar (and to my mind, unpleasant) position of the middle child.

When I was seven or eight, my family moved from a good-sized town in California to a tiny one in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri. In those hills, we were outsiders, which added a layer of “other-ness” to the distance created by being a slightly chubby, too-smart-for-my-own-good book worm who was afraid of balls (inanimate—didn't know a damn thing about the other kind) and talked way too much.

From that time to this, I’ve defined myself more by what I’m not than by what I am. I’ve practically made a religion out of not being my mother, and I’ve put together whatever pieces are assembled in the puzzle-that-is-me by watching others live out their self-portraits and eliminating the shapes and colors that are not part of my own true self.

It’s a slow process.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

No dancing for Me, The End

That’s how we are when Mom and Dad and Deb and Jim clatter into the house an hour or so later. Debbie’s hair bubble bounces and her aqua feathers flutter as she tells us all about who danced with whom and who fought and went home early. She tells us over and over how great The Lavender Hill Mob was and how awful it is that we missed it.

It doesn't feel like we missed a thing. I consider telling them how nice it's been here with the Christmas lights and the fire but they'd think something bad had been going on, so I keep my mouth shut.

Mom walks into the living room and immediately back out again. The weight of her footsteps broadcasts her anger but it surely can’t be about me. A medicine bottle rattles and then the faucet runs. When the water stops, Mom calls Dad into the kitchen and they whisper. Mom's hisses slide under the kitchen walls and slither into the living room. David and I look at each other and shrug. We haven't done a single thing she should be mad about, but that sound can not be good.

The spell broken, David says good night and gathers his things. Dad practically pushes him out the door after they shake hands. We didn't do anything wrong. Why do they have to act like this?

As soon as the door closes behind David, I go to my room. My head is pounding again and I feel sick, but it doesn't have anything to do with the flu bug. I slide between my blue-and-yellow daisy sheets and curl up in a ball of anger and misery. What is wrong with them? Seconds after I turn my lights out, Dad comes in to sit on the edge of my bed.

“Jerri,” he says, “if you’re going to lay with your head in a boy’s lap, point your face into the room. Don't ever face him. It’s not fair.”

Curiosity wins over anger as I roll over and sit up to look at him. “What do you mean, ‘not fair’?”

“I mean. . . .Well. . . .Just don’t do it.”

I try to catch Daddy's eye, but he looks out the windows, into my closet, at the floor—anywhere but straight at me. His face glows in the moonlight, tight and flushed. I think he's blushing, but it's hard to tell for sure. Whatever's going on here clearly has something to do with sex. He won't explain, but I have to try. I want so badly to know what lies behind the curtain of secrecy and silence.

“Okay. But what's the big deal?”

There’s a long pause. “Ask your mom. . . no, wait. Don’t say anything to her.” Dad gets up to leave the room. “There’s nothing more to talk about. Just don’t do it,” he repeats as he closes the door behind him.

The tone in Dad’s voice, especially the sort of panicked way he said I shouldn’t ask Mom, makes the whole thing more mysterious. Sex is rarely alluded to in our home and never, ever mentioned right out loud. The not-so-subtle message is that it’s wrong and we simply should not do it. Ever.

I drift toward sleep, determined not to let them make me feel wrong or dirty. Whatever the problem is, it's theirs, not mine. David’s kindness transformed a disastrous evening into sweet romance, the way Rumplestiltskin spun straw into gold. That, I decide, is the magic of love.

The memory of that night never loses its magic. If I close my eyes now, some 35 years later, I see the Christmas lights and the fire reflected in all four panels of the bay window, and I smell the tree and the fire logs and English Leather. Most of all, I remember feeling loved despite ruining the dance, despite smelling foul, despite looking awful.

Despite it all, I remember feeling loved.

No dancing for Me, Part 7

I abandon my shoes on the bricks and head down the hall to the bathroom. My ruined dress and pantyhose land in a heap on the green carpet and stay there while I brush my teeth. In the shower I realize David and I are alone in the house. I’ve never been alone in a house—mine or anyone else's—with a boy. If only I felt better, this would be interesting.

When the hot water’s gone I step out and wipe the steam off the mirror. Oh, Lord. My eyes and nose are red and puffy, and my mascara is smeared all over. Only one streak remains of my lipstick, and it’s over by my left ear. Noxema and a washcloth get rid of the mascara and the lipstick, but nothing is going to help my eyes and nose.

I wrap myself in a towel and step into my room, where the problem of what to wear presents itself. I can’t imagine putting on a dress and the only pair of pants I have is in the laundry after this afternoon’s tree-cutting misadventures. I settle on yellow flannel pajamas and the mint-green floor-length robe Mom made me last Christmas. I don’t really know if this is a good idea, but it’s certainly decent. I’ll be covered from my earlobes to my toes. No one can object to that, not even my mother.

I carry my reeking clothes through the kitchen, put them in the laundry tub, and then go back to the bathroom to wash my hands and brush my teeth again. I rescue my poor little silver shoes—have to get them out of the hall before Mom gets home. She's been known to throw our shoes out into the yard or even in the trash if we leave them out, and even being sick wouldn't get me a free pass.

I really need to sit down, so I head for the living room.

David has turned on the Christmas tree lights and built a fire. His dinner jacket is on the back of the rocking chair and he’s lounging on the pale green velvet sofa. “All in the Family” is on TV. Archie's telling Edith to stifle, but David's not really watching. He’s waiting for me, probably as aware as I am that we’re alone in the house. He sees me and jumps to his feet.

“What do you need, Baby? What can I get you?”

“I just want to lay down.”

“Here,” he says. “Lay right here.” He sits at the end of the sofa and pats his legs; I sink down and put my head in his lap. He comes up with a quilt from somewhere and puts it over me. We sit like that in silence while I drift in and out of sleep. When I'm awake it feels peaceful and oddly familiar, as though this is our house and we are having a cozy Saturday evening at home. After a while, The Movie of the Week comes on and we watch, talking only during commercials.

“I’m so sorry you missed the Lavender Hill Mob,” I say.

“Don’t be silly, Girl. Don’t you know it doesn’t matter? There’s no where I’d rather be than right here, right now.”

I can’t imagine ever loving anyone the way I love David at that moment. He pulls the quilt up over my shoulders and I drift back to sleep. When I wake again, his left hand is on my shoulder and his right is on my jet-puffed-marshmallow hair. I have never felt safer or more protected. The glow of the Christmas lights and the fire has soaked into my heart and everything—everything—feels right with the world. I curl into his lap and close my eyes.

No dancing for Me, Part 6

I lean against the brick wall beside me. It doesn’t matter—my dress is filthy anyway. The jumble of smells in the alley—vomit and David’s English Leather mingled with rotting trash and old cigarettes—sets me off again. Dry heaves leave me doubled over and wishing to die or at least disappear.

David’s not behind me any more. I walk toward the street, trying to get away from the smell. Off to the right, Brenda Kay is marching through the pool of light in front of the Legion Hall's entrance. David follows her, carrying a folding chair.

I sink onto the chair and turn my face up. Brenda puts her hand on my forehead and looks into my eyes, and we both know there will be no dancing for me tonight.

“You have to go home,” she says. “I’ll get your folks.”

“They can’t leave. They’re chaperoning.”

David steps up. “I’ll take her home. I can take care of her,” he says.

Brenda nods and goes off to find my mom and dad. I slump on the cold metal chair, sick and sad and smelly. Mom’s feet appear in front of me and I look up into her tight, disapproving face.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asks.

“Don’t know. Just started throwing up,” I answer.

“What?” Realization breaks and she pulls a big wad of paper out of each ear. I recognize the red-and-white paper we used to cover the Legion’s dirty plywood tables. “It’s so loud in there I can’t stand it. What did you say?” she asks.

“I’ve been throwing up. I don’t know why.”

Mom’s lips disappear. Suspicion sparkles in her eyes as she looks from me to David, trying to decide whether we’ve been drinking. She leans toward David and sniffs.

Good grief, could she embarrass me a little more or is this the best she can do?

I’m cold. I’m missing the dance. My head hurts and my throat burns and I’m miserable.

“Go home,” she says. “We’ll be there as soon as this thing is over.”

David takes my arm. I worry about what I must smell like but don’t resist. The Lavender Hill Mob kicks into “Gloria” as we walk toward his car. By the time they should be getting to the G-L-O-R-I-A part, I can’t hear them anymore. Tears stream down my face. I tell David he should come back to the dance after he drops me off.

"No way," he says, his voice a strange mixture of gruff and gentle. "I'm staying until your folks get home."

I don’t argue.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

No Dancing for Me, Part 5

David has beautiful manners. And big brown eyes that light up when I step out of the dark hallway and into the light of the foyer. My eyes probably light up, too. David’s broad shoulders are wrapped in a white dinner jacket; he’s wearing a crimson velvet bow tie and black slacks with sharp creases down the front. He holds a box from Waters Flowers. When I open the lid, I find a surprise. Not the carnations or roses I anticipate, but a creamy white orchid with crimson flecks at its throat.

The orchid is wrapped in silver netting and tied with a silver ribbon. Exotic, elegant, unique—nothing could be more perfect. My heart beats wildly as David pins the corsage on my vest, just above my breast. Mindful of my parents standing nearby, his hands don’t stray but linger slightly: whispered promises. I fetch his boutonnière from the refrigerator and pin the red rosebud to his white lapel. With a few more assurances to my parents, we step out into the night.

After he opens my door and helps me in, David circles the Rambler, rubbing his hands together and grinning. “Oh Girl,” he says as he slides in, “this is going to be good.” His teeth gleam in the yard light and frosty wisps escape his lips with his words. “You look like a million bucks.”

We roll down the driveway and across the dirt road to the highway. Before we turn onto the highway, David pulls me close and kisses me, then puts his hand on the inside of my leg, above my knee. I move his hand off my leg and slide over to put my window down. It’s warm in the Rambler and the fishy smell seems stronger than usual. After another kiss or two, we head into town, singing Temptation Eyes along with the Grassroots.

We park the car and walk down the block to the Legion Hall. I breathe deeper and deeper, trying to ease the tightness in my chest and gut. Just before we get to the door, heat rushes up my throat and across my face and I realize I’m going to throw up. I make it to the darkness of the alley before it starts.

The meatloaf and green beans do not make a graceful exit. I make awful, ripping, retching sounds as my body rejects everything I’ve eaten for days. Vomit splashes onto my legs and puddles around the trash and broken bottles lying in the gravelly dirt of the alley. David holds me from behind; he finds a piece of dirty cardboard and puts it over my feet to protect my beautiful silver shoes; he runs inside to find me a cup of water.

I don’t want him to touch me; I don’t care about my damn shoes; I briefly consider throwing the water at him. All I want is for this to stop. If it won’t stop, I want be alone. I don’t want anyone to see me like this, especially not David. But he won’t leave and I can’t stop vomiting.

Between rounds of retching, David tries to wipe my face with his handkerchief. I snatch the cloth out of his hands and push him away. He won’t stay away, though. He reclaims the handkerchief and gently mops up the mascara mixed with tears and snot running down my face. “It’s okay, Baby,” he says. “It's okay.”

But it’s not okay. The Lavender Hill Mob is playing and Rainbow Girls and their lucky dates are dancing inside the Legion Hall. Sin is happening mere feet from me, and once again, I'm not part of it.

No Dancing for Me, Part 4

The Legion Hall is decorated, my dress is finished, and I’ve had my turn at the Cut and Curl, where Betty Curnett has ratted my hair and shellacked it into an unrecognizable cotton-candy pouf. I try to eat some of the meatloaf and mashed potatoes and green beans Mom made for dinner. There’s a tight, tingly feeling in my stomach, probably because it’s less than an hour until the Lavender Hill Mob starts playing and David and I start dancing in the candlelight. For once, Mom doesn’t harp about eating everything on my plate, and Deb and I do the dishes quickly and without squabbling. I sweep the floor while she washes the counters and the table, and we’re free.

Safe in my room, I lean close to the mirror above my dresser and take inventory. My brown eyes glitter and—under the Xs of pink tape holding a pin curl to each cheek—my face looks splashed with color. I wipe tiny dots of perspiration from my temples with the back of my hand and check for invading pimples. None, so far. I step around the corner to the bathroom Deb and I share, pull the tape from my cheeks and wash my face with cold water. The cold feels good, so I take the washcloth into my room and lie with it over my eyes for a few minutes. Finally, I get up and change into my dress.

From the clock radio on my night stand, Carole King sings about feeling the earth move. As her voice swirls in the room, my head swims, and I sit on the edge of the bed to pull up my pantyhose. I love L’eggs. Before their egg-shaped plastic-and-foil packages hit store shelves, we wore stockings and garter belts with peculiar rubber and metal clasps that poked from the fronts and backs of our legs like hugely knotted varicose veins. L’eggs go all the way to our waists and cover our crotches, which leaves our legs smooth and our skirts shorter than ever.

I wrap a towel over my dress and put on my make-up: two coats of natural beige Cover Girl clean foundation, pressed powder on my face and eyelashes, smoky grey eye shadow and two coats of Maybelline’s UltraLash mascara. No blush tonight. My face already looks like it’s on fire. Must be all the time we spent out in the cold, wrestling that stupid tree.

Finally, I take off the towel, slip on the crimson bolero, and step into my silver shoes. I’m glad David is tall because the platform shoes make me two or three inches taller than usual. When I step back and look in the mirror again, I’m happy with the total effect. My legs look long and my skirt looks short (but not short enough to get me in trouble).

Headlights flash across my windows. Moments later, Dad answers the doorbell. Swallowing hard, I sit down on my bed for a few minutes. Eventually I walk down the long hallway and into the foyer where David stands scuffing his toes on the brick floor and calling my dad Sir. “Yes, Sir. I’ll drive carefully.” “Yes, Sir. We’ll see you there.” “It’s kind of you and Mrs. Farris to chaperone tonight.”

No Dancing for Me, Part 3

This year I picked a simple pattern, a bolero vest and an A-line dress with full sleeves that end in deep cuffs connected by loops of fabric and tiny covered buttons. I chose white knit fabric shot with silver threads for the dress and crimson velvet for the bolero and the covered buttons. The silver trim for the vest is perfect—sparkly but not tacky. Debbie chose a simple A-line pattern and white fabric, too, but she added aqua and white maribou feathers for the bell sleeves and the hem.

The dresses are practically finished when we cross the line somehow and end up with them in our laps. Debbie’s dress is even hemmed—the feathers, you know. Mine still needs a hem and the facings need to be tacked down. I don’t mind because hemming the dress myself cuts down on the arguments about its length. The difference between knee-length and as-short-as-possible-while-still-decent has caused too many tantrums to count around here. Mom's and mine.

Patty Bailey kneels on the floor in the hall in front of the speech room. Mrs. Thacker stands in front of her, wood yardstick in hand. The between-class river of kids streams past them with barely a ripple. No one stops to stare, but it’s impossible to miss the shame blazing on Patty’s cheeks or the hate burning in her eyes. School rules dictate that our dresses can be no more than three inches off the floor when we kneel.

I don’t know where the dress I’m wearing would fall on Mrs. Thacker’s yellow yardstick but am not worried. Just as surely as Patty will be sent home if her dress is a fraction of a fraction of an inch too short, I will not be asked to kneel in the hallway or in front of class. I’m smart enough to recognize the unspoken caste system around here and compassionate enough to know it’s wrong, but not brave enough to challenge it. I walk past Patty with the others, turn at the stairs, and go up to Journalism class.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

No Dancing for Me! Part 2

Somewhere between selling brownies at the center of the square on Saturday mornings and decorating the tree for the dance, we pause for the serious stuff: choosing our dresses. Most of the girls buy their dresses—some even go to Springfield for them. Our mom usually makes our dresses, so Debbie and I have to plan ahead. We pick a pattern and fabric and concentrate on keeping Mom happy until the dresses are finished.

It rarely works. The plan usually breaks down somewhere around the covered buttons or the hem, the parts Mom hates doing. Just about the time she gets to that stage, one of us does something to tick her off, and she throws the dresses at our feet snarling, "Finish the damn thing yourself."

I am seven when Santa brings me my heart’s desire—a real Barbie. Not a Jewel Tea Madge or a Katie from Katz Discount City or even Barbie’s annoying cousin, Skipper, but an honest-to-God Barbie from Mattel, plus a carrying case filled with beautiful, handmade clothes. There’s a red cotton coat that covers a red shirtwaist dress; a dreamsicle of an evening coat and gown—orange satin lined in cream; a red knitted dress topped by a knitted capelet; a blue-and-white skirt knit in a basket-weave texture; blue suede pants and a matching jacket; a black-and-white gingham checked dress with tiny passementarie trim. I pull the outfits out of the case, one by one, thrilled with each. I never in my life imagined I’d have a real Barbie and all these beautiful clothes.

Everything’s perfect until I try some of the outfits on my new Barbie. None of them have buttons or snaps or zippers. I can put them on her, but they won’t stay. I don’t want to be ungrateful, so I learn to hold the clothes on her body with my thumbs. It works okay.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

No Dancing for Me! Part I

Ten Saturday morning bake sales, five Saturday afternoon car washes, three Sunday afternoon trips into the woods to collect pickup-loads of walnuts to sell at the mill. We’ve worked nearly every weekend for five months and it all adds up to this: a live band for the Christmas dance. Not just a band but the band of our dreams: The Lavendar Hill Mob from Springfield.

We get by with local bands for Homecoming and the dance we hold after the Athletic Banquet in the spring. In the real world, those dances would be given by the school or at least held there. But here at the epicenter of the Bible Belt, the shiny silver Rodeo-champion buckle itself, we aren’t allowed to dance in school. We don’t play cards, we can’t enter the contests on the backs of cereal boxes (Enter and Win an all-expenses-paid, 10-day vacation to DisneyWorld. Void where prohibited by law and in Missouri), and we don’t dance in school.

Luckily, Rainbow Girls, an organization for the daughters of Masons or the members of Eastern Star, is not part of the school. Our ancient Eastern Star advisor is mostly deaf and never sure exactly what we’re up to. We wake her at the end of each meeting and help her down the Lodge Hall stairs to the parking lot where her husband waits. No one else seems to care that we’re throwing ourselves down a greased chute to Hell, so several times a year, we pony up $50 to rent the Legion Hall, fill it with crepe-paper streamers and folded-Kleenex flowers, and invite hormonal boys to risk hellfire and damnation by dancing with us.

The Christmas dance is the highlight of our year. We spend months working and saving and planning for it. We add a Christmas tree and aluminum-foil snowflakes to the usual crepe paper and Kleenex-flower décor. This is no ordinary Christmas tree. We cut it down our very own selves. Sue Curry’s father lets us have a tree from some land he owns out south of town. Debbie and I talk Dad into letting us use his big green Ford pick-up and a handsaw.

Bundled in 14 layers of warm clothes, the three of us drive as far as we can get, then hike the rest of the way to the ridge where the big trees grow. We take turns pulling the saw back and forth until we can’t stand it anymore and then push the damn thing over to break it off. Then we haul its carcass back to the truck. No matter how many times we do this, we never learn to pick a tree we can drag easily or one we can throw over the fences between us and the truck. Instead, we choose a tree that requires a series of physics experiments to get it back to town. There are sharp words and more than a few tears. When Sue and Debbie and I finally get the tree up in the corner near the stage at the Legion Hall, we agree that it was worth all the trouble. It’s beautiful.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Music, Heard and Unheard

My daughter sleeps in her bedroom. I have an hour or so before the demands of the day begin. I pour coffee into my red "Love" mug and contemplate how to invest this precious time. Shall I repot my new Buddha Hand Citron? Make a piece of art that's been richoceting in my head? Write?

Riches. My life is filled with riches.

My sister and nephew and I went to see a house yesterday, one we might buy for the boys to rehab. People lived in this house until September last year. It was beyond horrible. Entire walls consumed by mold. Ceilings falling in. Flooring worn away down to the floor joists. We all agreed that the boys would have to wear heavy-duty respirators to do the demolition. We felt the need of them, just walking around in there.

People live in these conditions. Some are happy to have the shelter, such as it is.

I've been skeptical about this venture. But what better choice could our sons make than to create decent, affordable housing for those who have none. I'm in.

Watch the dust grains moving
In the light near the window.

Their dance is our dance.

We rarely hear the inward music,
But we’re all dancing to it nevertheless.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Happy, Happy. Joy, Joy!!!!

Look what I found at my front door this morning!

The Girl surprised me by showing up for her spring break. No beaches and beer for my college girl. Nope, bless her heart, she picked Mom and movie marathons. And I had no idea until she opened the door. Awwwwwwwwhhhhh.

I could not be happier!!!!!!!

Good Day to Die?

Headlines tell us Brad Delp, the lead singer of Boston, died yesterday. He was 55.

Looking for things to jog my memories, I've been reading my hometown newspaper on line lately, including the obits. I'm shocked at how many people die in their 50s.

A dear friend is critically—some doctors say terminally—ill. We were born in the same year: 1954.

It was 65 degrees and sunny here yesterday, I put Paula's top down on the drive back from the multi-million dollar mansion. Stopped at Costco and bought a rose tree and a big carton of fresh blackberries. Stopped at Barb's house and we sat on her deck in the sunshine. We ate every damn one of those blackberries over thick Greek yogurt flavored with real vanilla and stevia. Swung into a garden store and bought a Buddha's Hand Citron tree, an enormous pot of lavendar, and a gardenia. Came home and repotted several of them.

All afternoon, I was filled with gratitude for life, for my life. For its real and sometimes messy details. For sunshine and friendship and the smells of growing things. For my beautiful little house and all the real things in it.

Talked to my son while walking through the greenhouse. He agreed to think about moving here. That's all I asked, just that he honestly consider it.

Not inviting death, but I am acknowledging it's time—way past time—to begin making every day a good day to die. It's the only way to fully live.

Got to go. Sooooo many wonderful things to do today. Just in case.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Friday Five

Taking a page from the brilliant and lovely Amber over at The Believing Soul who does a Thursday Thirteen, here's my Friday Five, in no particular order:

1. Spring is trying to be sprung here on the pond. The heron came back yesterday, always a good sign. The air smells different now than it did just two weeks ago, before I went to Portland. Soon, green things will be peeking their heads out and I will be prowling the aisles of nurseries and greenhouses, inhaling the smells of growing things. If they have them yet, I'm going to buy a lemon tree today so it can fill the house with the smell of promises.

2. My son called yesterday, distraught after yet another disagreement with his dad. It breaks my heart to hear and see him beaten down over and over, his self-image battered by The Wasbund's opinion of him. I've suggested that Evan move here. Many times. Yesterday he said he was considering it. It would be a major miracle and one I'm praying for. We'll see what happens.

3. Barb and I are have been invited to lunch today at the multi-million dollar home of an acquaintance of Barb's. This woman wants to write a book of the sort I already write, so Barb promised to introduce her to me. This should be big fun. Barb and I have been practicing not appearing to be wowed by the multi-million dollar surroundings and we've promised to pinch or kick one another if we notice mouths dropping open or drool forming.

4. The salon dramas continue. Yesterday we had "the mystery of the missing pregnancy test." Someone had left a pee-stick thing in a drawer a month or so ago. It was left from a two-pack, I was told. One of the girls wanted to use it yesterday, and it was gone, leaving just the empty package in the drawer. The girls were wild, absolutely wild, with theories, and made a list--a written list--for God's sake. They asked every staff member, including me, whether they'd taken it. I told them if I were pregnant we'd be alerting the media and preparing to create a shrine to another IC. They didn't seem to think that was as funny as I did. When I left, they were still interrogating one another over it. No one cared about the pee-stick thing, they wanted a story to tell. (sigh)

5. The "Not That Kind of Girl" stories and the memories they've stirred up have taken over my head since the workshop. When I get ready to write one, I think of the girls I knew growing up, choose one, and slip into a kind of meditative state where I can see and hear and smell the times we spent together or the stories I remember of their lives. There've been a few I've passed on after looking carefully at the memories, not ready to write them. But mostly I just start typing and let the story form itself. I leave it for a couple of hours, then delete as many words as possible and post. Hours slip away unnoticed and I'm as happy as if I had good sense.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Looking for Love

I’ve been searching for love as long as I can remember. I haven’t exactly looked in all the wrong places, but God knows I’ve looked in some peculiar ones. Damn peculiar.

Speaking of which, you couldn’t find a place much more peculiar than XXX, Missouri, the town where I grew up. We moved there in 1961 when I was 7 years old. Landing in the Ozark Mountains after living in southern California was a lot like landing on the moon, except that was the year President Kennedy announced we were racing the Russians to the moon. No one was racing anyone to XXX, Missouri.

* * *

We’d never seen anything even remotely like it in our whole lives. There they were—the neighbor girls, I mean—naked behind a big lilac bush beside their house. Two teenaged girls buck naked in the yard. In broad daylight. Through the foggy living room window and the pouring rain, my sister and I caught glimpses of bare boobs and butts and everything else. “Mom would kill us dead if we did that,” I whispered.

Debbie nodded and replied, with all the accumulated wisdom of her eight-and-a-half years, “Deader than doornails.”

Debbie wiped the window with one of the dishtowels we were supposed to be folding. When she finished, we stood on our tiptoes and craned our necks to get a better look. Behind us, Mom walked into the living room, carrying more clean laundry. We were too absorbed to notice until she dropped the plastic basket on the hardwood floor.

Both of us jumped like we’d been shot for the nosy little peeping Toms we were. My head smashed into Debbie’s nose; she squealed and smacked me. I was just getting cranked up when Mom grabbed my arm and stepped between us.

“You know better than that,” she said.

“What about her?

“I’m not talking to her, I’m talking to you.”

Of course you are. Debbie always gets away with everything. Tears filled my eyes at the horrible injustice of it all.

I might have been the teeniest, tiniest bit melodramatic back then, but being the middle kid wasn’t easy. Debbie was special because she was the oldest. Jeff was special because he was the baby and the only boy. But me? I was just plain old me. Plain, straight brown hair. Plain brown eyes. Nothing special at all. I'd long since decided that when I grew up I’d have two kids or four kids, but not three. Never three. No one would be stuck in the middle in my family.

“What are you two doing?” Mom asked.

We tried to look innocent. “Watching the rain,” Debbie said.

Mom looked out the window. Her eyes got big and we knew she’d seen them, too.

“Good grief,” she said. “They’re out there washing their hair.”

We ducked under Mom’s arms to look again, and sure enough, two soapy heads were clearly visible through the leaves near the top of the bushes.

“And they’re na-ked!” Mom said, her breath coming out in a rush.

We looked at each other in wonder. What’s she going to do to them?

Mom wasn’t exactly mean, but she definitely had ways of letting us know when we’d crossed the line. She didn’t hesitate to let us have it with the business end of a fly swatter or with a belt. Never with the buckle, though. Only the leather. Once in a great while she made us cut a switch out of a tree and then she spanked us with it. But not usually. Usually, she just yelled.

To our everlasting surprise, Mom didn’t do anything to those girls. She didn’t even go out and yell at them. Instead, she handed each of us a laundry basket and made us go to our room to fold the towels and washcloths. “I’ll put up the ironing board,” she said. “You can iron Daddy’s handkerchiefs when you’re done with those towels.”

Later, I thought I heard Mom crying in her bedroom. It bothered me when Mom cried. Grown-ups weren’t supposed to cry.

That night, when she thought we were asleep, Mom told Daddy what we’d seen. “Out there in broad daylight, Chuck,” she said. “Completely naked.”

“Their house doesn’t have running water, Honey,” he said. “They’re trying to keep clean.”

Mom knew all about not having running water. Our grandma’s house in Iowa, the house where Mom grew up, didn’t have running water either. When we visited Grandma and Grandpa, we took baths the same way they did, the same way Mom took baths when she lived there. We went out in the yard and pushed the long, silver pump handle up and down to fill buckets with water. Then we carried the water into the house, heated it on the stove, and poured it into a small metal tub. We didn’t stand naked behind a lilac bush in the rain, for goodness sake.

“What kind of place is this, Chuck?” Mom was crying again. “What kind of place did you drag us to?”

If Daddy answered, we didn’t hear him.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Looking Back

Just went through a box of stuff, jogging memories for this memoir writing thing I seem to be doing. Fasinating to see all those girls I am not. Thought you might like to see some of the girls I've been (sort of). Sorry about the orientation. Blogger and I are failing to communicate.

Circa 1964, approximately. I think this is the year we moved to the little town described in the Strange and Wonderful posts that follow.

Let's not forget the piano recital mentioned in the S&W post. L to R, my sister Debbie, Miss Woods, and me. Look, we've got red corsages to match the red sashes on the white satin dresses our mother made us. Oh, pardon me. No color. This is from the time when (as Evan once said) the world was in black and white. Anyway, we had taken our gloves off to play, but they're around somewhere, too. Oh, check out our corsages from Waters Flowers. Seriously. That was the name of the place.

Circa 1972. My senior picture. Didn't my mom teach me to sit up straight? What's the deal? Again, Mom made the dress. I bought the jazzy ascot myself, though.

Me, appropriately surprised at being named "Miss Something," which gave me the golden ticket to the first plane ride from our airport, also mentioned in the Strange and Wonderful posts.

Strange and Wonderful, Part 2

Now, some of the wonderful. It’s only fair.

We lived in the midst of incredible beauty and abundance. Spring-fed creeks ran everywhere, clean and cold and sweet, and the hills were alive with flowers and fruits and nuts (the edible kind).

You could get an excellent education in our schools if you tried. A handful of dedicated teachers (Florence Garrison and Shirley Piland and Harold Reed) and one assistant librarian (Gertrude McDonald) made sure of it.

One of our teachers, Wanda Williams, won the game show, “Queen for a Day,” in 1967. Like all the other contestants, she could wish for anything her heart desired. Mrs. Williams wished for—and won—a trip to a distant city, a meal in a restaurant, and a night in a hotel for all her students. (Unfortunately, many of the parents refused to let their children go to the distant city, so they ended up doing a day trip to a town 60 miles away. The kids did go to a zoo and have hot dogs, though. Now, 40 years later, some say they still remember every minute.)

We knew nearly everyone we saw from day to day. In fact, we knew them, knew their folks, even knew their dog if they had one. We knew who could be counted on to get their car washed at the Pep Club fund raisers, knew who would buy brownies at the Rainbow Girls bake sales, knew who to hit up to place ads in the Echo, our school newspaper, and the Docomo, our yearbook. (We also knew who to stay away from after dark on a Saturday night and whose business was a front for running drugs, but that’s not so much on the wonderful side of things, so we’ll let it go for the moment.)

Many of the people who landed in our town were warm, intelligent, interesting folks willing—maybe even anxious—to make friends. (The natives were not so welcoming. 18 years after we moved to town, Mom was invited to a "Newcomer's Party." She'd want me to tell you that. It still makes her laugh.)

Our piano teacher, Miss Dee Woods, had been an international concert pianist, with scrapbooks to prove it. She came to our house to give us lessons and held recitals in the elementary school gym. We wore "formals" and white gloves to her recitals and sat up straight and tall, just like she taught us. Miss Woods must have been in her 60's when we knew her. She had marshmallow-y white hair and walked with a slight limp. She lived alone in a falling-down house way out in the woods. Her house was absolutely over run with cats and so filthy Mom wouldn't allow us to step inside after she first saw it.

The local hermit allowed himself to talk for one week each year. One time Miss Woods lured him to our piano recital with the promise of tea and cookies, delicacies for a man who lived on whatever his brother monks left in front of his cave. When the recital was over, Brother Theodore sang "They Call the Wind Mariah.” It was—and remains—the most beautiful thing I've ever heard. That man's voice might have been the reason God gave us ears. It reverberated through the blue steel rafters of the gym, the metal folding chairs we sat on, the marrow of my bones. If I concentrate, I can feel it still.

So, how was it, growing up in this strange and wonderful place, you ask? Ah, that. Now, that’s a story.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Strange and Wonderful

This is what I remember about the town where I grew up: it was full of strange and wonderful. Equal measures, strange and wonderful.

First, some of the strange.

Our sheriff was illiterate. His wife rode in the squad car with him in case they had to write out a ticket.

Our district court judge was an alcoholic kleptomaniac who swam laps with her French poodle in the ponds on the golf course, wearing a flowered rubber cap and an honest-to-God bathing costume that came to her knees. (She might have been persuaded to swim in the pool if only Cherie had been welcome, too.) Everyone in town knew she stole. Don Newton, the owner of the Town and Country Grocery Store, rang up $10 before he even started checking her out each time. He figured that came close to covering what she had stuffed in her clothes and purse. Gladys never, ever mentioned the extra $10. Neither did Don.

Our mayor’s wife kept a shotgun under the counter at her café on the town square. She waved it around on more than one occasion, mostly at family members who made her mad, and once shot at her son-in-law in front of half-a-dozen patrons. Didn’t kill him, though. (Didn’t mean to or he’d be dead.)

The airport in this one-stoplight town had a tower, lights and radar. (As Miss XXX that year, I was a guest of honor at the dedication and rode in the first plane to take off and land there.)

Marijuana was the largest cash crop in the area. (Think that's how we got the fancy airport? Really? Me, too.)

Our town and the hills beyond were filled with churches, mostly evangelicals and fundamentalists. On any given Sunday you could see snake handlers, speakers-of-tongues, faith healings, full immersion baptisms in rivers, or people “struck down” by the Holy Spirit.

The Superintendent of Schools was married to a woman he had an affair with while she was his student, many years before. She had no qualms about telling people she set her cap for him and got him. She told these stories in the class she taught on "Home Arts."

There were more students in our school system than people in our town. Kids were bused in more than 20 miles. Many of them rode the bus almost two hours each way.

You could—and I knew people who did—graduate from our high school unable to read or write anything but your name.

Few of the people born there had ever been out of the county. Very, very few had ever been out of the state.

The hills were a refuge for hippies and burn-outs of all sorts. We had communes, monasteries, Wall Street dropouts and one bona fide, cave-dwelling hermit among us.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Not That Kind of Girl, Part 6

We—Mom and Dad and Deb and Jeff and I—we walk into the gathering room and sit among the people of The Ranch. A commune, Mom calls it. I don’t know what to call it, but I don’t like it here. The houses look like shacks. They're all connected to one another and to the big, tumbled-down building in the middle that holds this gathering room.

Victor, the man who invited us here, is the leader. He and each of his five sons look like what they are: timber cutters and tree haulers. They are tall—practically giants—and their arms look like tree trunks; their hair and beards are long and wild. Their women are small and quiet; their hair is long and neat, their dresses long and modest.

Victor walks to the center of the stage at the front of the room. His granddaughter walks behind him, leading Teddy. Teddy must not be related to Victor. He’s short and not so hairy. Everything about his small frame speaks of power: The muscles of his arms, his shoulders—even his neck—stand out like coiled ropes. His gray eyes are blank, unlike Victor’s dark eyes where small fires burn fiercely.

After Victor's introduction, Sonia leads Teddy to a blue mat at the side of the stage and retreats to the opposite corner.

Sonia’s bare feet slap the hardwood floor as she runs. Her long ponytail swishes from side to side, flying higher and higher as she picks up speed. She flings her tiny body into the air and Teddy catches her on his shoulders. He grasps her white ankles, takes a couple of steps toward the edge of the mat, and stops. He lets go and holds his arms out wide. Together they stand, completely motionless.

Teddy brings his hands to his waist and Sonia leans down and to grasp them. She slowly transfers her weight to her hands and then kicks her feet into the air. Balanced there, her crotch rests inches from his face and his from hers.

I shift on the hard wooden bench and look at Mom. She and Daddy share a glance that reflects what I’m thinking: Something is very wrong here. Sonia and I are the same age and I damn sure wouldn't want Teddy's hands all over me. I don't even want to watch this. I want to go home.

Teddy lowers his hands; Sonia folds her legs over her head and down to the floor. A dozen children swarm the stage, tumbling across the mats. For an hour, Teddy leads the group in fantastic displays of strength and grace. When they gather for their bows, Sonia stands next to Teddy, holding his hand. His gray hair glistens with sweat; her small chest heaves. When the applause fades, Sonia leads Teddy from the gathering room.

* * *

Sonia isn’t there for the first day of school in the fall. We didn’t expect her—none of the girls from The Ranch go to school after 8th grade. We hear her grandfather performed the ceremony when he married her off to Teddy. The two of them are putting on gymnastics exhibitions around the country now. Evidently lots of people will pay good money to see a beautiful young girl thrown around by an old, blind gymnast.

Did I mention that Victor came to town in a brand new pick-up last week?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Be ON the Body

Broke my toe again last night. I've broken this toe and the one next to it 4 times in the last two years.

It's not enough to be ON the body in my writing, I've got to get out of my head and start being IN my body from day to day. Starting with watching where I put my bare feet.

Just one little whine. . .It really, really hurts.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Lighting the Fire

I’ll light the fire
While you place the flowers
In the vase that you bought today.

Outside, the wind howled like 15 Irish banshees in a basket. Inside, the smells of onion rings and Tic Tacs mingled in the frosty, fishy air as we sang along with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I scooted down to put my head on David’s shoulder, aching with the need to rest, to rest my head for just five minutes. I loved the idea of a very, very fine house. But no cats. Cats scared me.

Out on a dirt road, miles from home and miles from the lights of town, the Rambler felt like our own private world. I didn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations—didn’t have to be a good student or a good writer or a good girl. I didn’t have to be anything but myself.

Graham Nash slid into the la la, la la la la’s. David straightened and reached behind him to turn the radio down. Fumbling for the knob, he turned sideways and moved closer to the dash, taking his warmth with him. The rush of cold broke the spell and I realized just how close I’d been to forgetting my most important rule: Never let anyone get too close.

That rule had been with me always. It was, in fact, the fiber and substance of my very first memory.

Two or three years old. Standing in front of a tall, dark dresser, trying to figure out how to get to the drawer that holds dry panties high above my head.

Too late. My older sister has seen the puddle on the hardwood floor. She runs from the room, a victor ready to claim her spoils. When she returns with our mother, they are laughing at me. They are laughing together, and I am, as always, standing outside their charmed circle crying to be let in.

They call me a baby and tell me I should be wearing diapers. They talk about how funny my wet panties look. They hold their noses and make “peeeee yeeeeeewwww” sounds. I promise myself never, ever to lose control again.

By the time David returned to my side, I had moved to another place entirely—practically another planet. I was ready to go home. Then he took me in his arms, and I slid beneath the spell of the darkness and the freedom and his warmth once again. He kissed me gently, then passionately, and I responded with the same mounting fury. My heartbeat thumped in my ears and my cheeks burned.

Minutes later—who knows, maybe it was hours later—David moved away and unwound his arms. With infinite tenderness, he lifted one hand to each flushed cheek and stared deep into my eyes. In the romance novels I’d read as a kid, women were always “melting into” something or someone. That phrase, which had always seemed ridiculous, suddenly made perfect sense. My insides felt like warm chocolate dripping down the edges of a graham cracker. David kissed me again, and the warmth began to pool somewhere south of my belly button. I drew away, bristling at the unfamiliar feeling. Panic overtook me when a strange dampness began gathering down there.

“Take me home,” I demanded.

“But, Jerri. . .” he said.

“Right. Now.”

Silence filled the car. I huddled near the door, miserable and confused. When we got to my house at the top of the hill, I threw the door open before he’d gotten the car into park. From the brick steps of the front porch, I watched the Rambler slowly round the circle drive and creep back down all 10 acres of our hill. I stood, frozen in place, until the rectangular taillights disappeared behind the scrubby elm tree at the front of the property.

Early, early the next morning I sneaked out to the garage and buried my pale pink panties at the bottom of the garbage can. My heart didn’t stop racing until the garbage truck squealed down the hill later that afternoon.