99 New: Bama Hound

Our new dog is from Alabama.

For some reason, things didn’t work out down South and he was shipped up here to Milwaukee. With mange. It doesn’t reflect well on that part of the country, sending their mangy critters up to us Northerners to adopt. The shelter here treated him for it and swears it’s not contagious but still.

His name is Romeo but we rarely use his name. I always call him Buddy, Honey, or Sweetie – the same names I used for my other dogs and sometimes my kids, never my husband though, he hates terms of endearment. So we are working on using Romeo but it might be shortened to Romy. Three syllables seems too much for a dog’s name.

Romeo was in the last ‘cell’ on the right at the Humane Society. Lying in his bed on the other side of the room, he raised an eyebrow and his tail, what there is of it, wagged. When he decided we weren’t leaving right away, he came over to wag closer. He was small – just 28 lbs it said on his rap sheet – wiry, tan, and white, with a most abbreviated tail like it had maybe been lopped off by a hoe or a truck door.

In my mind, I had him living in a pen outside down South with a lot of bad barking companions, eating and eliminating happening every which way. I thought of all our new rugs at home, bought after our dearly departed BowWow’s diabetic-inspired peeing left new paisley patterns everywhere. He doesn’t know how to live inside I decided. Of course, they don’t tell you any of this stuff at the Humane Society, you basically have to create a narrative for your dog. Mine was that he was practically feral, that’s how I feel about the South, I guess, which is terrible but true.

As it turns out, Romeo has manners, a lot of them. He is attentive and pretty obedient, cheerful and uncomplaining. He is also, at least for the moment, profoundly grateful, which adds to his charm no end. He is mindful that there is, in our house, a ‘resident dog’ as the Humane Society calls her and he is properly deferential without being a wimp. It means that they can sleep on the same blanket, if only for a bit.

He is a dog who seems delighted to be alive. And he is young, only a year old, so he could be alive a long time. I forgot that calculus in my fascination with his wagging stump of a tail. He could very well outlive us or not. We don’t know.  Or care, not right now anyway, there’s no point in thinking ahead.

99 New: Toothy

I told the dentist that the gold crown in his hand which he was about to re-cement on my #15 had been put in forty years ago by a dentist who, because I had no dental insurance at the time, let me pay off the $250 charge in $25 increments. Today’s dentist was astonished by this as if it was a fable involving talking bunnies rather than a real life experience and he then proceeded to tell me about all the new dental technology as if I hadn’t been to a dentist since. (He skipped over the payment plan part.) It was sweet in a way, his desire to update me, but it quickly became tiresome so I told him about how the gold crown dentist used to sing to me while he was working and that disconcerted today’s dentist much like it had me forty years ago.

99 New: Endings

It was my custom to make peanut brittle on Christmas Eve, early so it was done but slightly warm at dinnertime and we could wrap it in boxes for my daughter to give to her grandparents where she spent Christmas Eve while I stayed home because we were divorced, missing their lovely house, the goldenness of it, you could see it from the road, the people happy inside if you went to look, which I didn’t, I sent the peanut brittle instead, until one year they joked they had broken their teeth on my brittle and I stopped making it.

99 New: A Stroke Short

I was in the kitchen finishing the dishes, my daughter was washing, I was drying, and we were both listening to the conversation in the living room.

My sister had flown in late from the west coast for my mother’s burial the next day, having missed the visitation because of weather or something, it wasn’t clear. She always gave off the air of needing to stay out of the sun and so it seemed natural that she was sitting in the recliner in the living room while we cleaned the kitchen after the meal we’d made and put on the table. I wasn’t resentful, just observant.

My sister was telling my father it was time for him to sell his home in Michigan and move near her and my brother in Oregon. She pressed her case. He was alone now. There was no reason to stay. He would enjoy the better weather. He’d be safer there, there would be people to take care of him.

He waved her suggestion away with his right hand, the one with the crooked little finger that he’d broken somehow fifty years before. My sister was undeterred. It was as if she’d plotted this gambit with my brother, who was sitting on the sofa but silent. I could hear him nodding though and waiting to make his move.

“She’s right, Dad. You’d be a lot happier.”

Now they were double-teaming him. He’d listen for a few stanzas and then do his wave.

“It’s not for me. I’m staying here.”

He had a lot of patience. It surprised me. My sister took up the fight once again, listing on her fingers all the reasons he should move. He was old, he could fall, he might get sick, he should come live with them.

And then he shut her down. “You know how they tell an artist to stop one stroke short of what he thinks will finish the painting? You’re a stroke over.”

I thought of my dad today and my sister’s arrogance in telling him – a grown, self-sufficient, intelligent, but very old man – what he should do. I thought of the presumption of privilege, that moment when a child somehow believes she should become the parent, and I admire how my father kept his life in his own hands until his hands fell to his lap one day in August while he was watching C-SPAN. He was a role model in a lot of ways.

 

99 New: Lipstick Touchers

“If I was a big tall guy, would I be a looming, space-taking, oblivious asshole or would I be nice?” I asked the question of no one in particular but my husband was within earshot. “Oh, you’d be nice.”

I had just crumpled my ticket to the football game in my hand like it was a gum wrapper I was about to throw out the window of the car if I was so inclined which I’m not. I never litter. Never.

It started with the giant men in line to get into Lambeau Field. Big men with big parkas, hunting pants on, and boots thick as bricks. Each of them took up triple human space – their own physical bodies, their extraordinary garb, and their auras fueled by Miller Lite, begging the question, what is the point of drinking a light beer when you are already giant?

We waited in line to go through the metal detector. I held in my right mittened hand my phone and my lipstick. This is all I travel with these days – these two little items – having long ago left my beloved Coach purse in a heap under my desk. I can’t be bothered with satchels like some damn donkey. I just want to go on my way with my hands in my pockets.

The big looming man on my left reached across me and touched my lipstick. And then he murmured something that sounded like instructions or advice about the metal detector, I couldn’t discern the specifics because I was so focused on the question: Why are you touching my lipstick? Who touches somebody’s lipstick? Seriously, is this something that you would do? I would never. Especially a stranger’s.

So I shouted at him “I can’t hear you” which is my reflex response to people I have no intention of listening to and he moved forward, felling trees and scattering small wildlife as he clomped ahead.

Lord, I thought, my hatred of men is getting out of control. I was with a man, my husband. He is substantial but not tall and looming and pretty unfailingly polite and if he’s ever touched anyone’s lipstick, he’s kept it a secret for all these years.

Finally, we are inside Lambeau Field just as the Green Bay Packers are taking the field. We march up to Row 49 which is a major hike, and we get to where there are several men sitting in a row. We stand there, say excuse me and they stand but as they stand, their enormous, booted feet are covering all of the space in front of them so in order to get to our seats, we will have to swing from the zippers on their outsized parkas, one to the next. So I said, “Don’t make it too easy, guys” and we went to the row below, walked down several seats and then hoisted ourselves up to our seats.

It was then I smashed my ticket in my fist.

My husband, meanwhile, took his seat happily, he’s always happy at Lambeau, I could be in a coffin beside him and he’d be remarking on his good fortune at being at a Packer game when the sun was shining.

After a while, a quarter to be specific, I reminded him of his promise to get us something to eat after we got our seats. Going back the way we came seemed fraught with danger because of my still percolating hatred of the looming, space-taking men at the end of the row, so we opted for the other direction. Magically, if on cue or warned ahead of time, all four men, also tall and plentifully garbed, not only stood but walked to the aisle so we would have an unencumbered exit from our seats.

Oh my God, I thought. They’re so nice.

When we came back from the hot dog stand, the four men again stood up and moved to the aisle so we could walk to our seats without crawling over their knees. Thank you, thank you, we said, like they had sprinkled rose petals in our path. They’re real gentlemen we decided and it gave me hope that not all men think they can touch my lipstick.

Later, after he’d chatted them up, which he is prone to do, engage in conversation with other men at sporting events like they have been pals since 6th grade, my husband turned to me and said, “They’re from Nebraska,” which was illuminating and disappointing at the same time.

99 New: Beloved Friends

As I listened to the priest describe how former Secretary of State James Baker had rubbed President George H.W. Bush’s feet as he neared death, I wondered to myself, do I have someone who would do this for me?

A wife would do this or a husband. But it is a rare friend who would take such care. Do I have such a friend? Would I be such a friend?

Sitting at the end of a pew at the National Cathedral, James Baker leaned forward and sobbed when the priest told this story. His sorrow took up his whole body and he shook for a long moment thinking of the time he spent holding his friend’s feet while his friend was dying.

I will remember this for a long time.

 

 

99 New: The Coat

“Whatever you do, don’t start buying them things.” It was the second day of our training, a dozen earnest women determined to rescue children from the foster care system. The instructor was stern. “Your job is to build a trusting relationship, not be Santa Claus.” I wrote Don’t be Santa Claus in my notebook.

Once trained and sworn in, each of us was assigned to a foster child. Our job was to advocate for whatever would get the child safely reunited with their parents and help them be healthy and reasonably happy in the interim. But we weren’t supposed to be their best friends, the instructor stressed, we were their advocates. I wrote Don’t be best friends, be advocates in my notebook. The key thing, he added, was to make the system do its job, not do everything ourselves. I wrote Make the system do its job in my notebook.

I was assigned to a 13-year old girl who had been in foster care for two years. She was thin and wiry, tense but friendly and open to the idea of having an advocate. She was always hungry. So every time I picked her up to talk or to go to a meeting – school, therapist, social worker, the meetings were endless – we’d stop for chicken nuggets and iced coffee, double vanilla. I didn’t consider this being Santa Claus but some might have seen it as a slippery slope. I saw it as wanting her not to hate being with me.

She texted me when she wanted something. Most often, she wanted to move or change schools or see her mother. She pined for her old neighborhood and her friends from grade school and nothing would quiet her deep and constant yearning for her old life. Meanwhile the experts in the system insisted on treating her problems as if they had sprouted organically rather than stemming from the separation from her family.

She had a gift for the subversive and at times it was hard not to admire her creativity and pluck, always bending the rules, causing consternation amongst the adults, sometimes including me. But I was clear on my mission. My job wasn’t to love her, it was to help her get out of foster care. It was exhausting. I tried, first one approach, then another, always at the last minute, something would foil reunification with her mother and we’d be stuck again at the drive-thru window, more nuggets, more iced coffee. This went on for months.

One very cold and wet day in mid-winter, I arranged to pick her up from school. She was waiting outside when I pulled up, her hands jammed in the pockets of her hoodie.

“Where’s your coat?” I asked.

“I wasn’t there when they went to get coats,” she answered.

What did that even mean? She wasn’t where when they went to get coats? I texted the group home supervisor. It was true. There had been a time established when all the group home kids were going shopping fpr winter coats and she hadn’t shown up. Hence, no coat. It was explained to me that not having a coat was the consequence of not showing up, but maybe they would try to get her a coat later even though it would make an extra trip for staff.

We went directly to the department store and I bought her a coat and then a hat and gloves. It felt great to watch her shopping, trying coats on until she found the right one. “This makes me feel rich,” she said. In the parking lot, stepping around piles of slush, I wished I’d bought her boots. I wanted her to walk around looking like somebody cared if she was cold. I felt like Santa Claus and part of me wanted to swear her to secrecy. Don’t tell anybody that I bought you a coat. I might be disbarred or whatever it is that happens to an advocate that starts acting like a friend or, worse, like a mother.

She lost the coat not two weeks later. It irked me that she hadn’t taken better care of it, left it somewhere at school and it wasn’t there when she went back. It was a kid thing, not a foster kid thing, she’d just plain forgotten her coat. Still,the loss of the coat seemed a metaphor for our whole effort – so often coming close to getting her back with her family and then losing at the last minute – and I wondered about my judgment buying the coat in the first place. Maybe the instructor was right, Don’t be Santa Claus, Make the system do its job. But what he said felt hollow to me and detached. He hadn’t been there when she was standing in the cold in her hoodie.

I had to buy her that coat but it was the only coat I bought her.