Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"We're Here!"

Until I was three, Mom, Dad, and I lived in a duplex overlooking Allen Grade School, which stood below street level. A blacktopped playground surrounded it. On three sides, a sloping, grassy embankment separated this playground from the bordering streets.
            The duplex in which we lived faced the back of the brick school building. My dad’s parents lived two blocks north of it. Often, Mom and I visited Grandma while Grandpa was away being a fireman.
            Mom and I would race down the slope shouting, “Here we come! Ready or not!” She’d take my hand and we’d skip across the playground, hike up the alley with its overhanging oak trees, cross at the corner, and climb the steps to Grandma’s.
            At the end of our visit, Grandma would hand me a nickel. Mom and I would hurry to the corner drugstore and spend my nickel on an ice-cream cone. Then we’d amble home, me licking, Mom whistling.
            On the day of this story, which took place right before my third birthday, Mom was ironing.
            “Mommy, could we visit Grandma today?” I asked.
            “Not today, Dodo. I’m too busy.”
            I kept asking. She kept ironing. Ultimately she simply set the iron aside and gave me my marching orders: “I want you to go outside, Anna Dolores,” she said. (She always got formal when frayed.) “Go and play house with Jimmy.”
            Once out in the yard, I told my four-year-old playmate about the ice-cream cone.
            “You’d get a nickel too, Jimmy. Want to go?”
            “How’d we get there?”
            “Walk.” (I’d figured out how to open the gate latch. Wouldn’t Mom be surprised!)
            Jimmy and I left the yard, crossed the street, and plunked ourselves down on the embankment. Giggling, we rolled down its grassy slope. At the bottom, I took off running. Jimmy lagged behind. “Come on,” I shouted, trying to galvanize him.
            Jimmy shouted back, “I’m an old slowpoke!” We grinned delightedly at one another and waved our arms like dove bombers.
            The alley at the tail end of the playground stood in deep shade. Ominous. Half way up, Jimmy started to cry.
            “Don’t cry, Jimmy,” I said. “It’s okay. We’re almost there.”
            He just kept sobbing. Wailing. “Mommy says I’m a crybaby!”
            “You’re not, Jimmy! Come on. Remember what I said. Grandma’s got nickels.”
            I continued marching up the steep alley, singing—shrilly—“Whistle While You Work.” (Mom had taught it to me. We sang it as I used my little red-handled broom to sweep corners.)
            I could hear Jimmy sniveling. Wiping his nose on his sleeve, he sniffled a couple of times then shouted, “I’m going to get chocolate!”            
            “Me too,” I shouted back. We scampered the rest of the way up the alley in our Buster Browns. Mounting Grandma’s porch steps, we banged the door. “We’re here!” we bellowed.
            Grandma shooed us into the kitchen, fixed lemonade and peanut butter sandwiches, and told us to settle our bottoms on the kitchen chairs and stay put. Then she left.
            A few minutes later, I heard the screen door slam and Mom say, "Where are they?" I didn't hear Grandma's reply, but the two of them didn't come into the kitchen right away. 
            When they did, Mom wasn’t smiling or whistling. She had the serious look she wore when I’d been naughty. She took my hand and Jimmy's too and marched us back to the duplex. The only thing she said was "Never do that again, Dolores. Never. Promise me." I promised but kept my fingers crossed behind my back. You just never knew when you might need a nickel.
            What was said between the two of them? Mom never said, but more than once in the years that followed, Grandma told me, “Your mother’s shanty Irish. We can’t expect much of her.” She thought her son could have done better than this “no-account Catholic hussy.”
            Grandma tried hard to get me to agree, but I didn’t even know what “shanty Irish” meant. (Much less “hussy.”) I only knew that Mom made me laugh when we danced together. She let me dry the dishes. She stood on her head against the wall—to get the blood rushing to her brain she said. I loved her.                       
            Oh sure, I got a swat on the seat of my panties when she took Jimmy and me back to the duplex. But in the days that followed, I bet she told the story to anyone who’d listen. This Irish lassie wasn’t going to let my dad’s mom make a wimp of me.
            Mom anchored me. This was the woman who told me at every turning point of my life, “Dolores, you can do anything you set your mind to.”
           The next day, Mom walked Jimmy and me to the corner drugstore and bought us both ice-cream cones.  "You don't run away, Dolores," she said. "You ask for what you need."
          During the years since, I've often forgotten that. Such forgetting always leads to heartache.  

Saturday, May 28, 2011


These memoir memories resemble jigsaw pieces. In the past two years, I’ve emptied the puzzle of my life on a figurative card table. Now you’ve gathered with me around that table. We pick up a piece, examine it, and place it somewhere in the landscape of my life. Lower left corner. Upper right. A border piece. Smack dab in the middle.
            Together, we view that picture as it emerges.
            The individual pieces may seem haphazard. How do convent, Meniere’s, work, growing-up, and cat stories relate?
            (Would I have stayed in the convent if cats had lived there with us? I've wondered about that. Picture a long-haired calico cat like Maggie with whom I now live. Watch her weave her way down the choir-chapel aisle as we chant Compline. The nuns gathered there try to suppress their laughter. It erupts into loud guffaws and we mangle the Latin. Maggie ignores us. She's ambling now for her fleece pillow in the sanctuary. Now that's contentment.)
            I want to alert you that the color of these memoir memories will sometimes be dark; other times, light. I hope many stories will tickle your funny bone. For myself, some are poignant; others just strange. If you stick with me in this venture, you’ll get to read the whole shebang.           
            I hope you’ll gather often with me at this card table. I hope also that you’ll jog my memory by adding comments and asking questions about something I’ve mentioned that bemuses or intrigues you.
            It’s apparent to me that my life choices frequently seem mistaken. But one wonder of growing older is being able to look back on a longer life. We get a chance to discover that what may once have felt like a bad choice turned out to be good. It’s all in definition and meaning.
            Living in this new locale and facing months of illness have forced me—willy-nilly—to explore the arc of my life. Here’s the pot of gold: I’ve come home to myself. That is to say, I’ve embraced my whole life. I am who I am. Take it or leave it. I’ve taken it with a lightness of heart that surprises even me.
            Walt Whitman wrote, “The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything.” That Whitman knew metaphor.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Garage Poltergeist

“Dee, write a memoir,” a Minnesota friend suggests.
            “Why? My life’s so ordinary.”
            “My life’s ordinary,” she counters. “Yours is interesting.” Stunning moment.
            I toss around the idea and even set to writing. But rather quickly I stop. Too much work. And somehow, my life seems boring in the telling.
            Then another friend suggests a blog. Ah. A post whenever a story from the past  moseys to the street corner of my mind and announces, “Tell ‘em about me! I’m a humdinger.”
            So that’s what this blog’s going to be—the story of my life as moments present themselves to me. We’ll move together from convent to cats to Meniere’s Disease to edging into the 21st century. Back and forth. No trying to be sequential. Just meandering.
            Let’s begin.
            I used to live in an 1870 house with a 1907 dilapidated garage at the side of the yard. No matter what the weather, I’d be carrying groceries from way back in that yard to the kitchen.
            Recently I moved to a 2002 house with an attached garage. Think of it. A garage attached to the house. Twenty-first century for sure. (I’m not even going to talk about the marvel of a dishwasher. That’s for another time.)
            My brother and his family gather on the driveway to greet me. We explore the house. Then he hands me the garage-door opener: Lock this way; open this way. Simple enough I think. (I immediately name the opener “Sesame.”)
            The family leaves around midnight. Within minutes my cousin and a friend show up. We settle on the bedroom carpet—the furniture won’t come for three more days—and talk about my drive down that day.
            Around 2 a.m., I lead them to the kitchen and open the connecting door. With a flamboyant flourish of my hand I proclaim, “And here’s my attached garage!” I invite their oohs and aahs at the wonder of it. They struggle to find something to say about an attached garage; I lean against the wall, expectant.
            Just then the garage door opens. What the heck happened? I examine the door but what do I know about the personality of an attached garage and its opener? I lean back against the wall while the three of us consider possibilities. The door comes down. But before it can grab hold of the floor, it heads back up again. Then it changes its mind and starts back down.
            I’m still just leaning against the wall watching this strange phenomenon. What if this keeps happening? How will neighbors sleep with this racket? And what about me? Anyone could get into the house. I’ve left a place of safety for this. Suddenly the 21st century doesn’t seem so tempting.
            I’ve collapsed against the wall in bewilderment. My cousin and friend seem equally perplexed.
            I call my brother. He answers groggily. Always helpful, he comes over. By this time the door has done its hokey-pokey several more times.
            He questions me, then asks for the opener.
            Where had I put it? Oh, yes, in my pocket.
            All of you who have attached garages know what was happening. The opener doesn’t just accept finger taps. A hip bump will do.
            My cousin, our friend, and I giggle. My brother just shakes his head. After he leaves, I feel foolish for a moment and then excited. Perhaps this is an omen. Maybe the 21st century is going to be filled with laughter. Adventure. Creativity. (I did sort of figure I’d unwittingly been fairly creative with that opener.)
            One can only hope.