99 New: Sustenance

My mother didn’t make pancakes. She made pancake.

She would ask if I wanted her to make pancakes, but then she would produce a single pancake, a pancake the exact dimension of our cast iron frying pan. It was a thick, serious piece of work, my mother’s pancake, and it could keep a person alive for a week. It would take an hour to eat and then one would have to lie down like a cow having eaten too much hay or whatever it is that cows eat. We weren’t farmers.

I put my mother’s pancake along with her bean soup, potato soup, beef heart, and baked apples under the heading DEPRESSION COOKING, the era, not the mental health condition although my mother was plenty depressed most of her life. My mother always cooked, I will give her that, through bouts of depression so severe that cooking dinner would be the only thing she did that day, rousting herself from her dark room to rattle the pots and pans in the kitchen, giving us all hope for a warm end of the day. God, I love my mother for doing that.

She knew Depression Cooking because she lived through the Depression. Her family kept apples in the basement, canned green beans, grew corn in their backyard. Her mother had a flour bin in her kitchen where I imagine she scooped out cups to make her cast iron frying pan size pancake. My mother and her mother before her had a solid repertoire of survival cooking. Both knew how to cook to keep people alive and well.

My mother also knew how to make a pattern for a dress using newspaper which she did for me one night when I needed a Pilgrim costume for a school performance the next morning. She made one from sheets or something, I don’t remember, but it was an act of maternal valor the likes of which I’ve never seen since.

My mother held our sometimes very difficult life together with her bean soup, with her relentless devotion to making do, to using what she had to create five equal portions.  Even now, so many years since I was a child, I remember her standing in her apron in the warm light of the kitchen peeling potatoes and making hamburger patties. She took care of us. She kept us alive. She gave us hope every night with that light. I don’t think she ever knew that. I wish I could tell her.

99 New: The Elasticity of Names

When my daughter was born, it was the height of the 70’s women’s movement. I was determined that my child would be strong, brave, capable, respected. I wanted to give her a name fit for a judge. I envisioned her as a judge, her brass nameplate on the bench bearing the name I would give her. Her name needed to be regal, substantial. So I gave her a queen’s name – Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is a name with an infinite number of derivatives. Betty, Bette, Liz, Lizzie, Beth, Liza. Her name shrank for a while to Liz, which I liked an awful lot, but then expanded to her full judge name- Elizabeth – and I adjusted but not easily. She had become Liz to me. I saw her face and I saw Liz.

Unbeknownst to me, my daughter finally settled on Elizabeth as her permanent name which I shouldn’t have minded since I’d given her the name to begin with. With no warning, as if she should have to give warning about the use of her own given name, my daughter stopped being the person of derivatives and became her full self. I shouldn’t have been surprised since that was the plan all along – that she would be a woman of substance – but I was surprised and then I was glad. Satisfied, as if I had done this one thing right, given her a name fit for a judge. Or a queen.

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Photo by Church of the King on Unsplash

 

Adaptation

We were set. Ready to ramble around Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. But then something happened at home and we had to turn around. We drove nine hours, most of it in a driving rain, to get back to where we needed to be.

But we had that one night in our new tent. It was hot and very humid. Before we got into the tent, mosquitoes and gnats gathered on our arms and legs. It was a relief to be inside but only for a short minute. Then the heat of it all made being in the tent like wearing a wet wool sweater in the sun.

A problem easily solved. We decided to put up the tent flaps so whatever breeze there was would cool us. We tied all of the flaps back so when we laid down on our sticky sleeping bags, we could see the trees and the stars. It seemed daring and free like we’d decided to sleep unprotected in a field, nothing between us and coyotes or the deer we’d seen earlier prowling the campsite next to ours. It felt as if that same deer could come and nuzzle my face and I would have to just accept that, become one of the creatures.

While my husband slept, I tossed. I tried to face the tent wall and forget that the tent flaps were open. I worried that someone would come upon us, peer into the tent and that if I opened my eyes, it would be to look into the eyes of a stranger. In my half-sleep, I started to see the face of Josef Stalin floating in the sky through the open tent flap. It sounds crazy saying that but that’s who I saw. I rubbed my face and then saw the moon which only minutes before, so I thought, hadn’t been there. It was bright like a streetlamp.

I covered myself with part of the sleeping bag. I didn’t want anyone peering into the tent to see my bare legs. The hot nylon of the sleeping bag stuck to my legs until I decided, so very late at night, that it didn’t matter if a peering person saw my legs, it wouldn’t change whatever would happen next. I might as well be free. So I shook off the sleeping bag and let my legs feel the cool that the longer night offered.

In the morning we made coffee on our Coleman stove and it struck me that the whole point of camping was to smell the coffee perking in the morning. So we smelled the coffee and then we drank it, boiling hot, in red plastic coffee cups. And then we went home.

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Worry Wear

I was recently asked the question: “What advice would you give to your 22-year old self?” Several tidbits came to mind: Make your own money. Keep going to school. Don’t worry about being the only woman in class. Remember other women are your sisters not your competitors. 

But the one that I keep mulling over is this one: Don’t be in such a hurry to have a baby. Where did that come from, I wondered. It was so automatic, the first thing I thought of, the first book I reached for in a mile-long corridor of books. Don’t be in such a hurry to have a baby.

Having a baby, having children by whatever means, is a wonderful, joyous, unbelievably lucky thing. I know, it’s happened to me four times. And while becoming a mother is extraordinary, sacred even, it means you will never be carefree again in your life. Your carefree days will be over, become distant, then unreal, and then mythical, as if you never lived on this earth as a person without worry.

You’ll see it sometimes, a person who appears to be carefree, a young woman diving into the surf and riding a big wave to the shore, laughing for the pure joy of being in the sun and the ocean and having no fear, just being able to be her whole physical, healthy self with a mind clear of things that might happen.

Raising kids is the fine art of keeping one’s terror that something will happen to one of them under control so you don’t ruin their lives and turn them into people who are afraid to do things. Sometimes I think I overcompensated and let my kids do things that someone less preoccupied with terrible things happening might not allow.

Once, we found a big, thick rope hanging from a tree on the shore of a blue lagoon off US 1 in the Florida Keys and my three younger kids immediately started swinging on the rope and dropping into the lagoon while I cheered them on, partly glad and partly thinking there were dozens of sharp tree stumps feathered with razors just below the surface. They emerged unscathed and delighted with themselves but eventually someone took the rope down. I shouldn’t have allowed them to swing on that rope, I thought, someone wiser than me put an end to it. Overcompensating is so fraught.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to ask women I know who don’t have children if they are carefree but I know they will say they aren’t because life is never carefree for an adult or for many children, for that matter. But if I ask them if they have worry that is constant like Mormon undergarments, there every day despite what is going on in reality, in the rest of the world, they would look at me and shake their heads. No, they’d say, I’m just wearing a bra and a pair of underwear.

There were occasions, very brief, when I thought this worry business was just me. It’s not. It is a mother’s condition. It is the price we pay for the great joy, the rent owed for getting our wishes granted, the threat that makes our children’s continued life and health and well-being the stuff of amazement and celebration. It’s a peculiar appreciation for dodging imaginary bullets, being grateful for terrible things that haven’t and will probably never happen.

I thought a lot about this on Mother’s Day. What all of us mothers do to keep our worry under control, keep it from splashing all over our kids and ruining their lives. It’s a huge invisible accomplishment. I applaud us, me, you, all of us for trading our carefree lives for the Mormon underwear. And I admire those mothers who, when it’s the right time, know when to take the heavy pieces off, fold them neatly, put them in the drawer and run into the surf.

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Tough Love

The spot on my back is gone.

It had been there for weeks like stubborn lint on a white sweater. I’d visit it a couple of times a day, feeling its rough edges with my fingers. In the morning, I’d reach under my pajama top to see if it was still there. Each time, I’d think, if it’s still there, I’m going to have to do something. But it was and I didn’t.

And then I asked my husband to look at it. He began planning my funeral.

This isn’t my first spot. But it was the first with a career as a metaphor, however brief. Because as soon as I told my husband about the spot and soon after his funeral planning had wrapped up, the spot was gone.

This is what he does for me. I might be struggling with a big project or a very public challenge and ask him, “Do you think everything will turn out okay?”

“Probably not.”

“Do you think the boat might sink?”

“It’s pretty likely.”

“Are we going to get lost?”

“We already are. And then we’ll get a flat tire and a semi will hit us while we’re looking in the trunk for the jack.”

I count on him for this. I count on him not reassuring me. I think he read somewhere that reassurance makes people weak like you’re giving legitimacy to their calamity, giving it a name, and asking it to move into the spare bedroom. All I know is that he has always been this way. And because he has, it’s made me a tougher cookie.

Even if things don’t turn out okay, even if the boat sinks, even if the semi hits us while we’re looking in the trunk for a jack, we’ll still be standing in the kitchen, drinking our coffee, ready to deal with what’s next.

I find that very reassuring.

 

 

 

 

On Writing Down the Bones

I was nervous. I worried what my son would think of the essay I’d written about his accident, the one that I‘d read on public radio. The essay, “Billy,” was about the man who rescued him from his burning car after a bad accident; it only barely mentioned him or the great struggle he’s had since that day last July.

I remembered the woman in my writing workshop who remarked, “It almost seems like you care more about Billy than your son.” She often says these blunt, difficult things which, at first, irk me, but then later make me think harder about a piece. Once she circled every time I used the word “I” in an essay. I watched her circling from across the room, her lips barely moving as she kept count. She had a point, however bothersome it might have been.

I don’t care about Billy more than my son. I just know that Billy (and his four friends) not only saved my son’s life but saved me. From grief, from changing bandages, from despair, from having to see the man who was my baby screaming in pain, from all of that. So Billy.

My son’s girlfriend, the one who nursed him through the surgery that stitched together his hip with a the long rod and a dozen bolts, said that the essay made her cry. And I was glad for that in a way because she was there when it all happened and her opinion carries much weight with me. My son only nodded with a little smile. When they left that afternoon, I hugged them both. I kissed my son on the cheek and said, “I haven’t written the piece about you yet.” And I may never. It may be too hard.

He shrugged at me, not knowing the crammed-full closet of wild emotions that could be let loose if I started just plain writing about him and his accident. Better to stay arms’ length, talk about Billy, the weather, the triumph of it all. Not all things have to become words.

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Photo by Meta Zahren on Unsplash

 

Finding My Place

Her mouth is crammed with too-big teeth. Several are crooked and overlapping. I want to fix that and other things but it’s not my place. So I focus on what I can control but the circle drawn is nearly too small for me to stand. I have to look past things that I would fix if I were her parent, pretend those things don’t exist or don’t matter, and just simply hope for the best.

It isn’t my nature. So it is a strain.

Being a grandparent is not always so easy. Oh, we all joke about it. How grandchildren are all the fun and none of the responsibility and that is true a lot of the time, or can be true. Depending. I have been teaching myself from the beginning to know my place but the boundaries of my place have been fluid at times. So I’ve had to manage the elasticity, sometimes being more parent-like than grandparent-like and then backing off to bake brownies and pay for special camps.

I go to the band concert and applaud nicely with the other grandparents, all of us there to make the occasion richer. I have to remember I am there for enrichment. Other people are in charge of sustenance, of making sure that she has the right shirt on and gets there on time. One of them is related to me and the other isn’t anymore, hence the difficulty. Life is well only half the time.

It’s taken years but I’ve figured out that my job is to be the constant. I can’t control anything in her life but myself. I can be relentlessly constant. I can scramble her eggs, insist that she shower, answer her questions, read the stories she writes, and choke back judgement and my overwhelming urge to fix her. My job is to love her. When she is old enough, she will decide what needs fixing. I guess.

There is more at stake than her crooked teeth.

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Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash