Bud Vase

Packing is interrupted by the discovery — once again — of things from my life, or my kids’ lives. We’ve only lived in this location five years, and our belongings are dotted with pieces of history.

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This vase was given to me when one of my children was born. The doctor who delivered my babies always had a single rose delivered to his new moms, so I had two of these vases. One broke over the years. It was a sweet gesture by that doctor, simple and elegant, a nod of welcome to a new phase in the mother’s life. I wonder if he gave two roses to mothers of twins.

This bud vase has stayed intact in my life for 27 years, assuming it came with the delivery of my oldest child. It’s a piece of delicate glass that’s traveled through several moves, too many to count, and has been used every summer for lily-of-the-valley bouquets and single daisies on shortened stems. It’s useful, yes, but it also serves as a meditation object for me on my life as a mother. This slender vase reminds me of the tentative beginning of my motherhood, fragile and vulnerable and scared. That moment of my own birth into my new self, the glass occluded then but clear now.

Were I to design a vase now to represent my life as a mother from this vantage point, it would look different. There would be room for more than one bloom, its base would be rounder and more stable, and the glass might well be rose-colored. Perhaps the side would be stamped with an emblem reflecting our family, a five-headed bouquet of vastly different flowers, a tiger lily for Matt and sweetheart roses for Sophia and a sunflower for Thomas, some yucca for Tim and my own peony, surrounded by a thick circle. It would be a wild, ill-matched bouquet, like us. Perhaps there would be a band running along the bottom with the names of my children, and must include the child to whom I didn’t give birth and so I did not receive a flower. But being a mother to Thomas — that motherhood came hard-fought and joyfully won.

And at the bottom of the vase, in the sturdiest, most stable part would be my Tim, whose unflagging dependability and support made that motherhood flourish. We have a good family, the five of us, and I’d want everyone together if only in spirit, in symbol.

There will be more added to the family, I’m sure. Spouses and partners, children and grandchildren. Friends and in-laws. And we’ll make room. These lives will expand and embrace more love. And should that love lead to new babies, maybe I’ll offer each new parent their own bud vase, a way to remember their brief moment of perfect joy.

 

The Perfect Spot

My dog can’t find a place to pee.

It’s not for lack of trying, because he stops at every bush en route from the door up the sidewalk to the grassy hill across the parking lot, lifts his leg, decides this bush or blade of grass or discarded branch isn’t quite right, and moves along. I haven’t counted, but I suspect his attempted and unsuccessful pees count in the dozens each time we leave the house.

This is only an issue for me because we live in an apartment, and I can no longer just open the door and let him pee in the yard at his leisure. Maybe he used to take this much time finding the perfect spot when we lived in a house with the yard and I just never bothered to pay attention. I don’t know. But as an apartment dweller, I have a new perspective on my dog’s habits, and I find a lot of it puzzling.

With my human-level sense of smell, I will never be able to enjoy the ability to detect the nuances of odor he does, so I’m sure much of it will remain a mystery. But I can’t logic my way through what could possibly place one spot for peeing on higher than another. And the distractions! The moment a leaf lifts on the tree, or a person walks into the parking lot, or a car passes on a neighboring street, this dog is off task, nose in the air, trying to scent the disturbance in the Pee Force.

This dog, who keeps his snowy fur beautifully clean with no assistance from us, also hates to get his feet wet. If it has rained in the last few days, he resists walking on the grass, and hops off the moment his pads get damp. Living in Portland is especially hard for this poor pup. His prissy behavior decreases the possible locations for pee, unless I drag him by the leash up the slope to where he previously found the perfect spot, in the hopes that his moisture aversion will prevent him from loitering. It never does, since he overcomes this hesitation the moment he takes two steps up the hill. After that, he’s in for the long haul, sniffing every leaf, lifting a leg, changing his mind. On and on.

And even worse is the pooping. This dog will wander all over hell’s half acre looking for The Spot, which invariably comes back to the same spot he passed up four times. I have taken the tack of wandering to a level spot in the grass, standing in one spot, letting him wander in circles around me at the length of his leash. He makes it about three times around before he decides to drop a load.

We call this “Loops and Poops,” and it works like a charm. It seems that he is conned by this habit into thinking he’s searched more of the grounds for the perfect spot than he has. In these moments, I suspect he’s not quite as smart as other dogs. He’s rather easily conned.

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Not a Saint Bernard. No, really. 

I wonder sometimes if this looking for the perfect place isn’t something we’re all doing, on some level. Looking for the perfect place to start. Getting distracted by a ripple in the air, something setting us off course, and then, if we’re lucky or smart or determined, we go back to seeking. Has someone done this particular thing before? In this particular place? Am I going to be thrown off balance by trying to do this thing *right* here? What if the moment isn’t exactly right? What if a better place comes along in a few days…maybe I should have waited?

What I know for sure is that I need to start taking some waterproof reading material along when I take the dog out, to stop me thinking deep thoughts about dog poop.

Holidays are Joyful?

I made a choice this year: I will not be making a big Thanksgiving meal. The goal of my decision was to avoid spending the entire day in the kitchen. Yes, I love cooking, and I’m good at it. Yes, I love my family, and I enjoy feeding them. Yes, all of that.

But we have a small apartment that can’t accommodate a big celebration: One small table and three chairs total. Our “couch” is a two-seater futon, and we have no additional comfy seating. We only have two of our kids in the same time zone. We have a small fridge and smaller freezer, so after-dinner storage is an issue.

And we don’t even have a TV. What will everyone do while I’m cooking?

I’d rather have everyone over for board games and snack food, which is what we gorge on all day anyway. I’ll put out some bowls, the kids will bring what they like, and we’ll sit on the floor and laugh ourselves silly.

And no one has to get up and down tending to food in the kitchen all day.

And yet I have these pangs of sadness, entering Thanksgiving week, that are borne surely of glossed-over holiday memories, fuzzy in their lack of detail. Or maybe it’s the image of what the holiday is supposed to be, with the table groaning with food and a family sitting around it that actually likes each other.

Parts of my family like each other, and I *really* like parts of my family, but taken as a whole, my extended family should just not be in the same room.

I had hopes that my husband’s family would provide some kind of pleasant holiday experiences, but that didn’t work out the way I planned. I didn’t fit in, and in my troublesome presence, I brought my husband outside the relative comfort of his family. So now, we’re both ‘men’ without a country.

And I know lots of people just brush that aside and hang out with family anyway, because that’s what you do, or that’s what THEY do. It’s what I used to do too. I don’t have that option anymore, now that I’ve moved across the mountains and two time zones away from the family epicenter. So on Thursday, I can’t even pretend, like much of the country does, to tolerate the people I’m related to by blood or marriage. I could make the gorgeous feast my children love; turkey and my grandfather’s sausage/sage stuffing, sweet potato casserole,  Pinot Noir cranberry sauce, Tom Colicchio’s turkey gravy (seriously, it’s so good you could have it by itself and be in heaven), and the green bean casserole I made from scratch especially for my youngest, using my garden beans, an improvised mushroom sauce and homemade fried onions on the top. Despite being overstuffed, we’d find room for the pumpkin cheesecake and pecan pie with fresh whipped cream.

Doesn’t it all sound delicious? Describing food is my version of Instagram.

But I can’t bring myself to do it. All that food just for us. Maybe it’s enough to evoke my children’s memories of our own happy times. Maybe I should just cook it all so I have my own delicious meal to enjoy for the next four days.

But I can’t. The smells of those dishes alone threaten to disturb the truce I’ve made with my past. It’s easier to move into my own future without a thought of the ties I’ve cut from painful relationships, and this holiday, all of these holidays, really, have the potential to recapture me and lose me in sadness over what I’ve lost. Yes, I have cast off some of it intentionally, the family members who shot snide comments across the kitchen, the ones who refused to hide their disdain for me and shared it with my children, the ones who made insanely racist comments in front of my bi-racial children, the ones who targeted my husband with their criticism in their jovial salesman voice, telling him what a failure he is while offering him a beer.

And other things. Yes, there are other things.

Yes, I know I’m well shot of them, the ones who began my children’s education about suffering through holidays because that’s what we’re supposed to do.

But I still harbor the reflexive hope for family and love and good cheer around the holidays. When my kids lived at home, we achieved that bubble of gluttonous enjoyment suggested so lovingly by Norman Rockwell. Now that it’s just Tim and me, with the occasional (still much loved and welcome) young adult, the holes in our space yawn at me on holidays, a vortex of shame and envy.

Come Thursday, we’ll be elbow-deep in hummus, artichoke dip, carrot sticks and Cards Against Humanity. This might be a new Thanksgiving tradition, or it might be just a space holder moving me a little distance further away from the painful family past.

I will be donating a portion of the food budget I would have spent on that glorious but unnecessary feast to people who really need it. Hell, standing out on a street corner handing out care packages is a huge step up from crying at 9 a.m. over the smell of celery and onions sauteing in butter. My grandmother said the best way to stop feeling sorry for yourself is to help someone else. So that’s what I’ll do.

You won’t see pictures of my food online this week. With any luck, a bunch of us will drive out to the coast to enjoy some non-traditional sea lion watching.

I love my children. I love my husband. I love where I am in my life. I am happier now than I have ever been as an adult. During this week of reminders of what family is “supposed” to be, I will lie low, ducking the triggers that fly like throwing stars.

Grandma

This grandma looks a lot like my mother, in later years. Someday, maybe I’ll look like that. But my grandkids probably won’t be blond.

At this point, I’m just waiting for grandchildren, so Tim and I can start establishing a different epicenter of family. We’re not in any hurry, of course, since our kids have lives to explore before starting the baby parade. I know the only way to counteract the negative family history is to build a positive family history, and I look forward to doing that as our kids establish themselves in their lives.

So for now, I suppose, I’m taking a holiday from this holiday.

Six Degrees

I had a dream last night about an old friend of mine, Krista. I was helping her with a move, stationed at the new house to help unpack while others went to bring another load from the old place. While I was wandering among the boxes stacked in the garage, a family of about 10 wandered into the stacks, picking up items and asking how much they cost. They thought it was a yard sale. As I was trying to keep them from walking off with Krista’s family heirlooms, Krista appeared, and in her typical fashion, welcomed the family as if they were old friends. She was open to their suggestions of purchasing some of her things, even showing them hidden items they might like. Then she started playing the violin for them. Or viola, I guess, since that’s what she used to play.

I watched her being her kind, generous self with these complete strangers and marveled at how the Dream Krista was exactly like the Real Krista.

I’ve known Krista since I was in junior high, when she was Krista Norris. She was, by her own account, initially friendly to me because I was new to the school, having moved over from the Catholic school to start seventh grade. Krista knew and was known by everyone, but not in a “Queen Bee” way, just in her own way of being kind to people. Everyone knew and loved Krista. So she saw this shy kid feeling out of place and befriended me, and her friendship allowed me to ease into life in public school. We remained friends through high school, where I was often simply known as Krista’s nameless best friend; as a really shy person, that was okay with me.

In junior-high ritualistic fashion, I attended many sleepovers at her house, and she at mine occasionally. Her house was my preference, though, with her parents as welcoming and kind as she was. Mrs. Norris, a true southern belle, gave me the only nickname that has ever stuck (Megery), and listened with an attentive and non-judgmental ear. Mr. Norris had a warmth and humor that set in my head the way I wanted dads to be. I’m sure there were things about their family I didn’t know, as there are with every family, but in my childhood memory, the Norrises were my model.

I can hear Krista’s voice now, warning me not to put people on a pedestal. I know, I know…

What Krista’s family showed me was a different way for families to be. My family, vexed as it was by mental illness and isolation, often functioned poorly, badly regulated emotions swinging us from drama to drama. My brothers were often physically violent with each other, sometimes with me and my sister, and I crept into my shell of books and music and nature. My parents did the best they could with what they had, but life in my house wasn’t peaceful or loving. Certainly not supportive. In Krista’s family, I had the chance of feeling like I was part of a healthy group of people who loved each other.

Being at Krista’s house on the weekend meant witnessing the constant flow of people visiting the house. The family ran a funeral home right in the heart of town, and while that’s not the kind of business that encourages repeat customers, this family seemed to know everyone in town–but not in the snooty “WE know EVERYONE, darling” way. They knew people who had lived in the homeless shelter two doors down, and those who had complex medical issues, and mentally challenged people, and yes, some people in local politics, but that was never how they knew them. They were involved in church and volunteer work, and if a call came in that someone needed help, they jumped into action, connecting people in need with people who could help. Devout Christians, they lived what Christianity preaches: kindness, service, acceptance, love.

Krista was my first non-Catholic friend, and I was so sad that she was going to go to hell for being a Methodist. But it was in getting to know her family better that I started realizing that non-Catholics weren’t doomed, that people of other faiths could be good, and that the whole basis for my religious teaching (Catholic=GOOD&Heaven Bound, all others=EVIL) was flawed.

As an adult, I now realize how lucky I was to have had contact with Krista’s family. They showed me what it means to be loving, open, to share what you have even if it isn’t a lot, to accept people for who they are and not because they match your lifestyle or way of thinking. They weren’t afraid to talk about different philosophies, to argue religion, but stood their ground firmly, as people rooted in their faith tend to do.

I didn’t end up being the same kind of people Krista’s family was. I hewed to the Christian path for many years, but my life took me and my beliefs in another direction. But I tried like hell to do what Krista’s mom did for me: be kind, loving, open, and accepting for my kids and their friends, no matter who they were. I’ve tried to be just as charitable and giving as I saw them being, and to step into service when I have had the chance.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized the effect Krista’s family had on me, and on the adult I have become. I am so grateful to have been allowed to get to know them, these truly good people, and to learn from them how to be an adult and how to be a parent. My children were lucky too, in that they got to know the Norrises in their childhoods, and knew these kind people as de facto grandparents. There is so much love that stems from Mr. and Mrs. Norris, and they shared it with my children. And I am so grateful.

Krista has created a life that looks similar to her parents. Her husband and she are constantly surrounded by their kids and their kids’ friends, and are involved in the community in a small business right in the center of their town. They are purveyors of coffee, kind of the opposite of funeral homes, but they serve with such love and commitment that they touch everyone around with the same kind of light and joy.

We joke that the world is connected not through six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but six degrees of Mrs. Norris, which can also be applied to Krista (Norris) Andersen. Everyone seems to know them, and everyone who knows them loves them. And with good reason. They willingly share their love with the world.

I don’t know why that dream happened to me last night, but I am so glad to be reminded of this family that touched me in ways they probably don’t even know. And I’m glad that now I have the chance to tell them. Thank you, Norris family, for showing me how to live a life of love.

A rose for Mrs. Norris

A rose for Mrs. Norris

The Joke

I’m no good at telling long jokes, partly because I forget some detail that makes it funny, but mostly because I am overcome with laughter before the punchline. I prefer short jokes (my favorite: a baby seal walks into a club. It’s awful. Makes me laugh every time.) But there’s one long joke I can recount verbatim. It goes like this:

An elderly couple were driving along the highway when they got stopped by a state trooper. The husband, who was driving, pulled over and stopped the car. The trooper approached the window.
“Excuse me, sir, do you know how fast you were going?”
The wife, in the passenger seat, is terribly hard of hearing. She leaned toward her husband and croaked “Huh? What’d he say?” (if you do an annoying old-woman voice, it’s much funnier)
The husband, dutifully accustomed to repeating conversations for his wife, repeated what the trooper said. “He wants to know if I know how fast I was going.”
Wife, “Oh, okay.”
The trooper continues his stop, “I’ll need to see your license and registration.”
Wife, “Huh? What’d he say?”
Husband, “He needs to see my license and registration.” The husband hands the trooper the documents.
The trooper looks over the documents, then says “Oh, you’re from Illinois. The worst fuck I ever had was from Illinois.”
The wife leans in, says “Huh? What’d he say?”
The husband responds, realizing he has a rare opportunity, suddenly victorious in his drudgery, “He thinks he knows ya!”

This joke was seared into my memory by my college roommate Gillian, who told and retold the joke about two dozen times at a music department kegger we attended. As the night wore on, and she got drunker and drunker, she told the joke in increasing volume, to the point where I could hear her across the crowded party delivering the punchline with gleeful abandon, “HE THINKS HE KNOWS YA!”

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And so the joke, and its provenance, became part of my personal lore, and part of the stories I told my kids over the years. When they were too young to hear the word “fuck” I replaced it with “sex”, but it is funnier with “fuck,” and when they were old enough (I waited until all of them were 18, I SWEAR), I used the original text.

The story is now told in shorthand in our family, and the line “He thinks he knows ya!” is thrown around when one of us asks for something to be repeated, or in other circumstances when we’re being goofy.

Last night, my daughter (who is now 21, for those of you who can’t stand the idea of a child drinking alcohol) admitted that once, at a party, she was so drunk she tried to tell this joke, but couldn’t remember anything except the punchline. And she’s like me–she can’t tell a joke because she collapses in giggles before the funny part. So there she was, drunk off her ass, laughing so much she can hardly speak, sputtering the one sentence “He thinks he knows ya!” over and over, perplexed about why nobody else thought it was funny.

It’s deliciously funny to me that the one joke I know because someone was drunk off her ass repeating it all night long is the one joke my daughter can’t remember because she was drunk off her ass trying to repeat it all night long.