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.

Writing Bleak

The problem with writing when you’re anxious or a little depressed is that everything ends up being about death – your own death, your spouse’s, your kids’, your dogs’, the death of the great American city, Death Be Not Proud, you get the idea. It’s depressing.

I considered submitting something for an essay contest. The topic was ‘the happiest day of your life.’ Oddly, I remember the happiest day of my life but it lacks drama and angst so I don’t think I could write convincingly about it.

My Happiest Day

It was a hot summer day on Lake Superior. All of our children were staying with us in our old house on the beach. I’d reluctantly come in from swimming to start dinner and, as I was chopping onions, my younger son ran into the house yelling, “Mom, why did you leave? Come back swimming.” And I put down my knife and walked back out to the beach into the water and swam along the shore with him and the other kids and our dog until the sun almost set and my husband was waving to us from the porch, “It’s time to come in for dinner.” And when I came in, Kathy Mattea was singing “Love Travels” on the stereo.

I found myself wishing the prompt was saddest day or most regrettable day. I want to start a post talking about how cocktail hour seems to be starting earlier every afternoon and how investing in Two-Buck Chuck  has been my frugal move of the month. But even with all my little snarls of turmoil, I am a Strawberry Shortcake in the world of agony writing. I am nobody’s victim except, occasionally, my own. I can’t hold a candle to true despair. Mine is hobby suffering. It’s temporal and temporary.

I have friends who are experts at suffering. They allude to the physicality of it, the aches and pains, the lack of appetite. “Why are you not hungry?” I ask. “Because I am grieving,” comes the incredulous response. Me? I am not grieving. I have avoided grieving. But I am afraid of grieving and that itself is putting me in this strange, onion-like place. There are layers to all of this and I don’t want to peel any of them away.


Photo by Tobias Macha on Unsplash



You Need to See a Shrink

Remembering that time with a fair amount of gratitude.

Red's Wrap

Lincoln Memorial Drive

Every time I drive this patch of road, which is almost everyday, I remember being told right at this exact spot, “You need to see a shrink.”

I was the passenger in the car. The driver was my friend who was also my boss who used to be a priest and then a therapist. He had come when I called, dropped what he was doing and drove to my house and then took me for a ride down this very hill, figuring if we drove along Lake Michigan, I would calm down and start thinking more clearly.

I was hysterical and paralyzed at the same time. Depressed, anxious, smoking constantly, pacing, and frantic, the only idea I could form in my head was to call my friend and then keep circling the living room looking out the window at every pass to see if his car was outside. And then…

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Don’t Play on the Catapult

One thing I can tell you from my brief experience writing about catapults is that there are no decent pictures of catapults that truly depict the risk involved in messing around with one.

The phrase “don’t play on the catapult” has been playing in my head all day.

At first, I thought, well, how many times did I say things just like that to my kids when they were growing up. Don’t climb on the roof. Don’t stand in the canoe. Don’t sleep that close to the campfire. Don’t play on the catapult. So maybe, I thought, the phrase was running through my head so I’d write about the gosh-darn, unbelievable exploits of kids growing up, their incredible bravado, their fearlessness, their absolute belief in immortality. I could draw lessons from it like how all of us too tightly wound adults should pare down our caution and play with the catapult now and then, you know, carefully.

But then, I thought maybe what I’m really thinking is that we can’t underestimate the power of people’s secret catapults and how quickly someone in the early stages of dire straits can be flung into an abyss without any of us onlookers really seeing or understanding that the catapult is in place, is fearsome and is ready to hurl giant rocks and disaster. “Are you feeling suicidal?” I ask that question now. Sometimes it surprises me that I do. What the question really asks is this: are you in that place where you feel no hope and you are exhausted? Are you about to play on the catapult?

Then, last, I thought maybe the question all day is about me. I am feeling the tiny motes of depression floating around me, the sense of time running out, of not having accomplished enough, of not being well-read, of being dependent on head gear and batteries to hear people, of glowing discontent, of wanting to be permanently on the road, watching scenery change from the passenger window. Don’t let yourself go there, I say to myself. Don’t climb up on that catapult and spend the next several weeks of spring seeding regret and unhappiness. Just stop it. Dismantle the catapult and go take a good walk. You can do that. Take a good walk. You know how.

So I think it’s ‘all of the above.’ The sentence dropped in my pocket by a stranger gave me places to go and things to think all day long. Don’t play on the catapult. It sounds simple enough, but, man, there are a lot of angles to it.


Disability depresses.

It struck me today how deeply I sank into a chronic state of melancholia over the past few years. My ever-worsening hearing disability ate away at my optimism and tested my ability to right myself. I became an Emily Dickenson figure in blue jeans, not quite confined to my bed but confined to my tightening world.

It was a cell.

I think I alternated between putting my head in my hands and trying to decorate my cell.

So now, after my cochlear implant, I am gathering up the things I’d left by the side of the road. Like having coffee with old friends. Like inviting people to lunch. Like discussing an issue with a group of people. Like going to a public hearing on police-community relations. Like being part of the talking world.

I feel like I am reclaiming myself from an old cardboard box in the attic, layers of old birthday cards and photos on top, clothes I wore ten years ago, books I read and loved. Reclaiming a time of confidence and certainty. A robust time.

I want to stand up. I am standing up. This is who I was. This is who I still am.

Jan Portrait 3 (2)



Wishing for Monsters Under the Bed

Children on swings

I wish I had been less worried.

If you ask me how I wish my childhood had been different, that would be my answer. I wish I had been less worried.

It’s not a good thing for a child to be worried. Every day. About things outside of her control. About things she didn’t cause and can’t control. About things that exist, like the air and the rain, but aren’t named.

I worried constantly about my mother. When I say constantly, I mean constantly, from the beginning of conscious memory until I grew up, married and moved away. I worried that she was sad. I also worried that she was sick. Since she was almost always sad or sick or sad and sick, it wasn’t unreasonable to worry. It wasn’t as if I was imagining monsters under the bed that weren’t really there. The monsters would have been a relief, frankly, from the oppression of worry on my little kid self.

“What the matter, Mama?”

“Nothing’s the matter.”

Every day, many times a day, I’d ask. It was so obvious that something was the matter. The silence in the house made me tiptoe so as not to bother her. When my brother, nine years older than me, came home from college and started blasting Harry Belafonte on his bedroom stereo when my mother wasn’t home, it felt like jubilation from the heavens.

Day O, day o

Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Day, me say day, me say day, me say day

Me say day, me say day-o

Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

–Harry Belafonte

It made me feel joyful and hopeful, like a prisoner with a life sentence allowed to work in the warden’s flower garden. There were happy things. There were ways to be happy. Music was one of those ways. Why didn’t my mother listen to music, I wondered. Why did my brother always turn the music off when she came home? Maybe we all would have danced. We wouldn’t have. He knew that better and longer than me.

Children growing up with a chronically and seriously depressed parent have a burden they can’t describe. It wasn’t until many, many years later that I even understood that my mother’s depression was unrelated to any event or person although I’m sure it worsened in some times and improved in others depending on our family situation. Her depression was hers. When she was asked what was the matter, it’s likely she had no way of explaining. This was in the sixties, when treatment for mental health issues was sparse, alternatives meager. Better to be mute than risk other people’s panicked reactions. Maybe that’s what she thought. I don’t know. We never discussed it.

A few years ago, I sat up late one night with my older brother, the one whose Belafonte music blasted through the neighborhood. I asked him about our mother’s depression, what he thought caused it.

“I don’t know what caused it. All I know is that she was always that way.”

I don’t feel sorry for myself or blame my mother for anything. She was always kind to me. She was gentle, her hand on my cheek the most precious memory from my childhood. She was just never happy. I don’t remember her laughing, not once. There’s no picture in my childhood inventory of my mother with her head thrown back laughing, clinking the ice in a glass on a hot day and smiling a big grin. That’s someone else’s mother.

But she stayed alive. Sometimes I think she did that just for me.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Childhood Revisited.”

Inside Scoop

The trick to being happy is knowing how to manage unhappiness.

I see all the blog posts, the lists of the ten things happy people do everyday, the five things happy people do before they wake up, the seventy secrets to happiness. I don’t even bother looking at them. I already do all the stuff they say. It doesn’t matter.

To me, happiness isn’t an affirmative thing, it’s all about containing the negative. I’m happy as long as I don’t let unhappiness crawl into the backseat and sit back there eating peanuts and throwing the shells on the floor, kicking me in the back with hard shoes, smearing food on the windows and snarling at passers-by.

But I tell you, once unhappiness is encamped in your backseat, it’s a true bitch to get it out. I know. I bought a two-seater car for just this reason.

So what’s my containment strategy you ask? How do I reckon with the belching, filthy gnome grabbing at my collar and telling me how to drive?

I don’t let it out of the car.

Because you see if I let it out of the car, it will take up residence in the house, float around me everywhere I go. Envelope me. I know this. I know how this goes. Give it an inch and it will ruin me for weeks.

So the greasy evil character stays in the car with the windows rolled up while I do the things on the lists I don’t read. I get a lot of sleep, I eat right, I walk a lot, I work. I do whatever I must to keep it in the car.

And then when it’s safe, when I sense that the nasty creature has mostly folded in on itself and is started to dry up, crumble on the back seat, I get in my car and I put the top down and I sail over the Hoan Bridge, look down at Milwaukee’s harbor and the big ships in port, see the waves in the distance, breaking white, and decide then that I am truly the luckiest person alive.

That’s how it works. This happiness thing.