Therapeutic Hiatus

When I started writing, this space was intended to be filled with stories about my mother, and about life with my mother. I’ve been sort of looking forward to writing about my middle-school love affair with Styx guitarist/frontman Tommy Shaw. Okay, it was mostly one-sided and consisting of angst-filled letters written in my sloppy 8th-grade longhand and sent to an anonymous soul at the record company, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Before I could get there, I got a little derailed. It turns out that dredging up the past can come with pitfalls, pratfalls, general agita, and the occasional bout of post-traumatic stress.

I had lunch with one of my very dear friends, a chemical-dependency counselor, and described my symptoms (insomnia, irritation, angst, anxiety, agoraphobia). I asked if she thought I needed professional help. Luckily, she’s a very good friend and she gave me a phone number. “Call this guy. I think you’ll work well with him.”

So I called the guy and we’ve been working on my shit. Is it helping? Yeah, actually, it is even though it doesn’t much resemble Dar Williams’ “Therapy Song”.

This week, we talked being chameleons (yes, that’s me raising my hand)–those people who become the person we think people need us to be rather than simply being.  I’m working on figuring out how to be consistently myself even when that self is at odds with the company I’m keeping. Luckily, the people who love me will keep loving me anyway. Your loss, Tommy Shaw.

I have a lot of stories left to tell, and hopefully plenty of time left in which to tell them.

Thanks for reading along, and life is just too damn much to cope with, get help. It actually does help.




Last summer, on a bus headed toward the Grand Canyon with my husband and son, I turned my head at just the right moment and there it was: the Bedrock City (of Flintstones fame) Campground and RV Park. It was a place out of time. Irrelevant, faded, seemingly abandoned. No one on the bus gave it more than a passing glance, but I reacted as though I’d been slapped. There was nothing life-altering about the place, nothing that I can point to and say “this made a profound impact.” It was simply the fact that the place existed, that I had once been there, and that some 35+ years later, I remembered. Our tour bus didn’t stop there. I didn’t jump up and down pointing, or even think to mention it to the hubs until much later that evening. I just…remembered. And that was enough.

Somewhere in a box of moldering things I used to have a photograph of Bedrock City Campground and RV Park. And honestly? I’d forgotten all about it. I was, I dunno, 12 maybe when I took pictures of it with my little Kodak 110, and I thought it was one of the weirdest and coolest places I’d ever been. 

It was 1979, and I was traveling in the back of a Gran Torino with my mother and Julie and Jeremy, two of the short-lived step-siblings. My mother and I had picked them up in Georgia and we were all heading to Kingman, Arizona where James’ crew was working that late summer. It had been a long trip—longer yet for my mother, I imagine, since she’s the only one who could drive and she had to put up with a lot of back-seat fights between me and Jeremy. We’d spent a lot of nights in roadside motels, visited a lot of Stuckeys Stops, and had what we collectively decided were armadillo tacos at Guy’s Tastee-Freeze in Gallup, New Mexico. Jeremy stole a hunk of wood from the Petrified Forest, and I can still sing all of the words to Robert John’s Sad Eyes because it was on the radio every 12 minutes no matter what radio station we managed to tune in.

Kingman was finally starting to show up on the mile signs and I have no doubt my mother was desperate to get out of the car and away from all of us. Except that there were also signs that said “Grand Canyon, 30 miles” and “Grand Canyon, exit here and go left”. And somehow we convinced her to veer off the route and take us on a 3-hour side trip to the Grand Canyon. 

An interesting factoid that I recent learned is this: most people spend about 15 minutes at the Grand Canyon. They head to Mather Point on the South Rim, ooh and ahh, take a few pictures and then leave.

Fact: that’s exactly what we did back in 1979, and then got to spend the rest of our lives talking about having seen the Grand Canyon and how amazing it was. Frankly, it was kind of anticlimactic, given that we’d been traveling for who knows how many days and were hauling a hunk of felonious wood underneath the front passenger seat of the car. 

Before we made it to the Canyon, though, we stopped at the Bedrock City Campground and RV park near Williams, and it felt like Mecca. We peed. We got snacks. We took pictures. We argued. We left. And I forgot all about it until last summer.

Last summer we took a family trip to the American West. The teenager and I started with a road trip from our home here in western New York that took us across the heartland and on to Grand Junction, Colorado. From Grand Junction, we flew to Phoenix, where the hubs met us and we then joined a tour that meandered from Phoenix to Sedona, then the Grand Canyon and Moab. We saw the Red Rocks, the Canyon, Arches National Park, Monument Valley. We rafted down the Colorado, hiked, and toured, and then bus dropped us off at the Grand Junction airport where our car was waiting. From there we drove to Taos, New Mexico, down to Roswell for the aliens, then back through Arizona. The family portion ended in Las Vegas where after a couple of days the boys hopped on a plane and soloed it back home in the car. I am at my happiest when I am driving.

I thought about my mother a lot on that trip. Although I have a hard time reconciling them in my memories, the mother who didn’t want to deal with the hassle of traffic to get to the Ice Capades is the same mother who never said no to a potential road trip and who understood the power of curiosity well enough to think that a 3 hour detour was worthwhile. I get my love of road trips from her—I’m always willing to hop in the car and see where we end up. And I think its fair to say that she was happiest when driving, the car pointed down a long and often-lonely stretch of road leading to somewhere she’d never seen before. Despite her lifetime of protestation that she was just an old country woman who never did anything worth mentioning, my mother saw a lot of America from the driver’s seat of a Gran Torino, me sitting next to her, my feet propped up on the dash while I read my beloved Archie comics and waited for the next Stuckey’s Stop.

Becoming Miss Janice

I have spent the better parts of many days trying to chase down some memories. This is both the power and the curse of the internet–you know the information you want is out there, if only you click one one more link. One more link. One more link. And if you’re me, you’re too cheap to actually pay for a subscription service that might answer some, if not all, of your questions.

Here’s what I know for sure: In 1978 I was failing the 5th grade. Miserably. I wasn’t even passing my beloved Language Arts, I was doing so badly. My brother was slogging through the 9th grade, a year behind, having repeated the 7th as another part of the Ronnie fallout.

Also in 1978, my mother remarried. His name was James, he was originally from Georgia, he looked strangely like Abraham Lincoln, and he drove a beautiful white Ford LTD with plush burgundy upholstery. His car had an FM radio and a CB antennae. He was the foreman of an underground cable crew. Their marriage lasted for about a year, maybe a bit longer legally. That’s one of the pieces I haven’t been able to find, when they were legally divorced. Perhaps they never were.

James had three kids (that we knew of), all of whom shared a first initial and referred to my mother as “Miss Janice.” (The correct pronunciation was JaNEICE, but we all gave up on explaining that after a couple of weeks.) I believe one of my crowning childhood achievements was the day I called one of them, to his (and my mother’s) face, an asshole. My mother slapped me, for the first and only time ever, then as soon as we were alone apologized saying, “He is an asshole, but you can’t say that to him.”

It was a long time ago. We didn’t keep in touch. Now, I’m trying to find them. Not because I want to reconnect, but because I have so damn many questions. The first is this: was their father a sociopath? Because that’s how I remember him. The second is how many times was he married? Because my mother once admitted that she thought he’d only been married once before, but when we met his mother she called my mother by so many different names that it just got confusing–even more confusing than this sentence has become. It seemed James been married quite a few times before then. The third question, well, I don’t really have a third. The first two cover pretty much everything I want to know.

I’ve spent most of my energy trying to answer the second question. Google couldn’t tell me that one. Neither could free trials of various subscription services that I now need to go cancel before they bill me. I finally went to Facebook, which I gave up over a year ago because I couldn’t handle it any more. You may now call me Penelope Bottomwater, because I dunno, I didn’t feel like being myself. Brooke Baker isn’t much of a stalker, but Penelope Bottomwater? That bitch is nothing but trouble.

Penelope has now stalked every single person she could find matching any and all variants of their names. She thought she found one of them, and spent a good couple hours reading every single one of his posts, hoping to see a reference to or photo of his father, only to find a three-year-old post in which he referred to himself by his full name and it wasn’t the right guy at all. I now know a whole heck of a lot about a random stranger, so that’s something.

I think, though, that I’ve finally found two of the three. I picked the one most likely to respond and sent a pm that included my real name. We’ll see if that goes anywhere. In the meantime I’m trying to come up with polite words for “sociopath” and “complete nutter.”

On the assumption that I’m going to have to tap into the sketchiest of recollections to tell the stories of her Miss Janice year, I keep making notes to myself. The look something like this:

  • Alabama, sulfur water, John
  • New Boston, bowling, campground
  • Georgia, Cleta, green beans, bike wreck
  • Kingman, roller skating, Pam
  • Missouri
  • Sad Eyes
  • The Jellystone Campground, Grand Canyon
  • Lake Mead

And truth told, this is where I really wish I could talk to my mother because I can’t help but wonder how closely my memories dovetail with her reality. But hey, I’ll keep chugging along, trying to make sense of it because it’s what I do both as a human and as a writer.









Wishing and Hoping


There’s the old adage about being careful what you wish for, because sometimes you might actually get it. My mother’s philosophy, though, was “don’t bother wishing for anything, because you’re not going to get what you want.” Wishing and hoping were, for my mother, some kind of dark force. Don’t go there, because you’ll just be disappointed—it’s better to want nothing than to be disappointed. What’s fascinating is how pervasive this attitude is, and how it haunts you even when you try to get away from it. You know, like a chigger—those little red bugs that live in long grass and make you itch until you want to crawl out of your own skin.

After Ronnie, my mother and brother became even closer than they’d been. As is pretty much the story of my life, I see and react to that from two different places. The first, and most logical, part of me understands that their closeness was borne of his role as “man of the house.” He was, in many ways, the only one she could always count on, and this was true throughout her life. Once, when he was maybe 16, maybe not even, my mother sent my brother to the pawn shop to sell the good silverware. I was young and self-absorbed enough to not have any understanding of what was going on or why, knowing only that he left with the big wooden box of silverware that we never used, and it never came back. My disappointment was mudane and short-lived. I was fascinated by the way the silver would tarnish and how, with a bit of scrubbing, I could make it shine again. I didn’t know what “good silver” was at the time. Nor did I understand the crushing poverty that we lived in as a result of my parents’ divorce. My father refused to pay child support, and this was a time when the courts didn’t have the protocols for insuring that it was paid. There was neither legal nor material recourse for us; we simply had to make do the best that we could. Until she died, my mother was proud that she’d always kept us clothed and fed. “Maybe you didn’t have exactly what you wanted, and maybe it wasn’t always brand new,” she’d say almost pugilisitically, as though expecting me to argue the point, “but you always had shoes on your feet and food in your belly.”

What my mother, with her blazing pride, would never understand is that I still feel kind of left out. My brother got the memories of the room mother who brought tuna can drums to his whole class, and who laughed, and who threw birthday parties that were the talk of the neighborhood. I got the mother who, when I was bullied by a couple of girls who threatened to kick my ass on the way home from school, promised to hide in the bushes and jump out if I needed help. Did she hide in the bushes on my walk home from school? Of course not. She had to work. And the girls never did try to kick my ass so it turned out okay. I get this, believe me, I get this. But where my brother got respect and attention, I got the trip to the Ice Capades that didn’t happen. Someone had given my mother free tickets, and I was oh so excited about it. The Ice Capades! In Texas! Yay! The day finally arrived, we got in the car and pulled out of the driveway, me bouncing in my seat so ready to BE there already. We drove out of the neighborhood, toward the freeway that would take us to the auditorium and the Ice Capades! My mother pulled over to the side of the road, turned to me and said “you don’t really want to go, do you?”

“Yes! Yes I want to go!”

“It’s a long drive” she said.

“That’s okay” I assured her. “I don’t mind a long ride to see it.”

She sat there by the side of the road for a long minute, staring out the windshield, let out a long sigh, then turned the car around and drove home.
“But mom! What about the Ice Capades?”

She pulled into the driveway, got out of the car, and said “You don’t want to go to that.” She walked into the house, and it was over. I already knew there was no arguing, no attempting to convince her to change her mind. She had told me I didn’t want to do this thing that I was desperate to do…that was that.

Over time, I understood that that was her way of dealing with every kind of disappointment—“I (or you) didn’t want it anyway.” Truth? I still don’t understand that pathology—it is as if, by admitting disappointment, we become something weak and pitiable. Instead, denying that we wanted a thing meant that not getting it couldn’t hurt us. What the hell is that all about? How is this healthy? If we don’t allow ourselves to experience disappointment, how on earth do we learn to move on from it? As I got older, I started fighting back. And by older, I mean my 30s and 40s. I’d tell her about something I wanted, or wanted to do, and when it didn’t happen I was disappointed. She’d respond with “Well. You didn’t want it anyway.” To which I would always reply “But I did. I did want it. And now I’m disappointed that it didn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want it in the first place.”

She’d just look at me and shake her head at my foolishness. “Then there was no point in wanting it, was there?”

Trevor Noah, in Born a Crime, writes about his mother bringing him a pair of Abbidas sneakers, when desperately wanted a pair of Adidas. His mother argued that there was no difference between them; Trevor pointed to the fourth stripe on the Abbidas. His mother, the story goes, smiled and said “Aren’t you lucky! You got an extra one!”

I was listening to the audiobook with my son on a roadtrip last summer (to be fair, it was the third time I’d listened to it. It’s that good), and when I again laughed out loud at this section, he turned to me with a puzzled expression. “Why is that so funny to you?” he asked. I tried to explain the poverty mom perspective but he really didn’t understand it, because he couldn’t understand it. He has never had to worry about adding water to make the shampoo last, or putting tape on the soles of his shoes to keep the water out, or patching over a non-artistic tear in his pants because there is no money to replace them. And for this I am truly grateful.

Harder, though, than explaining poverty to a privileged child, is ignoring the incessant voice that tells me to squash his dreams because he’ll only be hurt when they don’t come true. That it is better to want for nothing than to be disappointed. Research shows that abusive families beget abusive families, that alcoholism is genetic, that the only way to beat them is through constant vigilance. What it doesn’t say, though, is that wishing, and hoping, and believing in the impossible is something that has to be re-learned every single day.


I have to believe that being a divorced woman in a neighborhood of nuclear families was pure hell for my proud mother. At that place, in that time, women stayed married for the kids, for the paycheck, for appearances. When my mother found it unbearable to stay married any longer, the neighborhood wives worried that she would start trolling for a man to pay the bills, fix the plumbing, mow the yard. And she damn sure wasn’t getting one of theirs. They closed ranks quickly and silently.

After finally breaking up with Ralph, my mother started dating in earnest. There was the guy who took us all out to dinner at Sambo’s and let me order ice cream for dessert. There was the one who looked slightly horrified when I opened the door. There were the ones who occasionally showed up for breakfast. And then there was Ronnie.

In my memories my mother looms large as a humorless (except when humor was at the expense of others), angry figure with zero tolerance for shenanigans. Like zero tolerance—in 5th grade, I tried to surprise her on her birthday by making a fancy card, putting candles in a Little Debbie snack cake, and having a mini-party where we all jumped out and yelled “surprise!” Seriously, who doesn’t love that shit? She responded with a put-upon sigh and “I knew you was all hiding in there.” No joy, no excitement, no appreciation. Just a flat statement that she had not been surprised, making it clear that I had wasted my time and hers. This, in my experience, is the core of who my mother was.

None of which explains Ronnie. Ronnie was at least ten years younger than my mother, maybe more. I remember him as tall and lanky, with hair like Jackson Browne’s—a bit long, kind of feathery. He moved in with us, and he enjoyed what he called his “wacky tabacky”.

Have I mentioned that I was a clueless, flighty kid? I didn’t know what he was smoking, I just figured he rolled his own cigarettes because he liked to roll his own cigarettes. I never occurred to me to think beyond that. Ronnie laughed a lot, had the munchies a lot, and my brother hated him.

I think my brother would’ve hated anyone our mother brought home. When he was 11 years old, after our parents’ divorce, my mother took him aside and said “you’re the man of the house now.” He took those words to heart. Ronnie, therefore, was an interloper. A scrawny, long-haired, weed-smoking interloper, and my brother wanted him gone. I mean, my brother also helped himself to Ronnie’s stash, but mostly he wanted him gone.

He used to plot ways to get rid of Ronnie. One notable time, my brother hid a walkie talkie in the kitchen fruit bowl (plastic fruit, because it didn’t go bad. Just dust it once in a while and it stays fresh forever), went around to the side of the house and fired up his end of the two-way radio then announced that he was the police, the place was surrounded, and Ronnie needed to come out with his hands up. It sounded like serious stuff to me. Ronnie’s eyes got big and he looked worried, except that I couldn’t stop giggling which kind of gave the game away. Ronnie went stomping out of the house, his arms folded across his chest. When our mother got home from work, she sent me to my room. Raised voices happened. Unsurprisingly, my brother’s plan didn’t work and Ronnie stayed on.

During Ronnie’s tenure at our house my mother’s standards, always too high for mere mortals to maintain, started slipping. Dishes spent a little longer in the sink. Vacuuming was less of a priority. The grass in the back yard reached epic heights; I remember wading through it, the tips of the stalks up to my hips. I felt like a grand adventurer on the savanna, pretty sure there was a snake getting ready to pounce on me, and yes, I expected them to pounce. The usual Banquet turkey dinner with canned corn was scaled down to Hungry Man on TV trays. She was out a lot, and occasionally would be at home in the middle of the day, sleeping. I came home from school once to find my mother and Ronnie asleep, naked, on top of her bed. It was weird, and so unlike my mother that it made a life-long impression.

For as long as I can remember, our back yard was littered with big wooden spools—spools taller than I am now, and they were the best things ever. My father, an electrician, had brought home from his various jobs. We would tip them on their sides and race them around the yard—think log rolling, but on a spool. I was the undisputed champion of spool racing, the envy of my friends. After Ronnie entered the picture, the spool racing stopped because you just can’t roll those things through long, thick grass, and that was if you could find them in the first place.

In the beginning of Ronnie’s time with us, friends didn’t stop by as much as they had before. As he continued to live there, they stopped coming over altogether. I learned that if I wanted to play with them, I had to go to their houses. Eventually I stopped doing that, either, because I always felt out of place and uncomfortable, like they knew something I didn’t and never would. Slowly, our lives began to atrophy. My brother, then about 14, discovered not just weed but also booze and the occasional hit of speed. His anger at the situation—our father, Ronnie, the atrophy—solidified into a single target that couldn’t effectively fight back. Me.

I debated, when I set out to write these stories, how much time I wanted to spend on my relationship with my brother. The conclusion I came to was very little because while his choices and behaviors have had a profound impact on my life, and while he had a very different relationship with my mother than I did, these stories aren’t really about him. Not directly, at least. Kind of like my father, he’s a key player but one who most often offstage. But there are things that need to be acknowledged.

During the Ronnie year, my brother was physically abusive. With the hindsight that comes from of a lot of years and a little therapy, I understand him better. Understanding has made forgiveness possible. He was a young teenager, hitting puberty pretty damn hard, whose life had been upended without any explanation or warning. The father he remembered as a good guy, always willing to help him build his beloved models, to play ball, to go chasing rainbows, had effectively disappeared. His mother gave him responsibilities that should never have been placed on a 14 year old boy, including looking after me. And he had been replaced, again without warning, by Ronnie.

Before you assume that I spent my time cowering in corners, be assured that I fought back in the best ways I knew how. Sometimes sneaky ways like flushing his drugs down the toilet and pretending innocence (I was 8, of course it was convincing), and sometimes by screaming at the top of my lungs until the neighbors called my mother who called my brother and told him to knock it off. For the record? I can still scream queen with the best of them.

Despite all of this, I really was the world’s most clueless kid. I thought that Ronnie’s whole wacky tabacky thing was a big joke and would tell it to anyone who asked and even a few folks who didn’t—it was just that funny. It never occurred to me that there might be something wrong with it.

What was a lot less amusing, however, was when a month after my brother’s walkie talkie gag the real cops knocked on the door and asked to take a look around our back yard. Someone, it seemed, had reported our resident stoner to the cops and the overgrown yard was the perfect hiding place for a few plants.

My mother suspected the neighborhood wives, any and all of them. She wasn’t discriminating about casting blame and pointing fingers; the women she’d known and liked for years had all become mortal enemies. I suspect, though, that he was reported because I’d been running my big fat mouth about the guy with the wacky tabacky living in our house and someone didn’t think it was as funny as I did. I don’t know if she ever figured that out or not. Sorry mom.

Not long after that, Ronnie was finally gone. The yard got mowed, I got a cat named Patches for Christmas, my brother, though still angry, was learning how to redirect his temper, and life returned to a semblance of normal though my mother was even less happy than she’d been before. Possibly this was because as Ronnie was leaving he and his brother cleaned out our house. I came home from school and the TV and stereo were gone, along with my mother’s not-so-secret cash stash.

The neighborhood women never did warm back up.

The often disconcerting thing about telling my mother’s stories is the insight they give into who she became, in her later years. Her life was regularly neither kind nor fair and the resentment that clouded most of her later years becomes almost understandable. And yet, my brother doesn’t remember her this way at all. If you ask him, he well tell you about her warmth, kindness, and generosity, waxing poetic about the woman who raised him and who set the unreachable bar for every other woman he has known.



My family’s heirlooms all come from Wal-Mart, so the traditional divvying up of the goods wasn’t much of a fight.

The one thing I wanted most, and the one that I have, is her old sewing box, the one I remember her having as early as 1972 and probably even before that. It stands about 3′ tall and folds out accordion-style, and came filled with great treasures: rickrack trim, dull scissors, thread she bought for 19 cents a spool at Woolco, a pencil supporting the Houston Sheriff’s department back before phone numbers had 7 digits, and some self-stick pocket inserts that have lost their adhesive over the years. There are bits and bobs and bobbins and rusty pins and needles, and odds and ends that I don’t understand in the least. Growing up, I knew her sewing box to be a place of wonder. I was allowed to look through it so long as I put everything back where it belonged, so I learned to at least emulate meticulousness for a while because there was always something new to find; it was endlessly fascinating.

I’m not a seamstress. Through some trial and error, I’ve learned to sew well enough to tack up pant legs or make straight-sided curtains with lumpy hems, but my skill ends there. I occasionally think about taking a class but I’m just not that motivated. Even the funky fish fabric I bought at a shop in Dublin because for a brief moment I thought I might make some cushions for the new bay window hasn’t motivated me to learn. As an adult, I asked my mother to teach me how to sew and she just shook her head. “I can’t do that” she told me. “You’ll have to find someone else to teach you. I just can’t.”

I understood what she meant, that she didn’t have the patience to teach me, or anyone, how to sew. As badass as she was, she wasn’t a particularly patient woman. You had one chance to get a thing right, and then it was over. In truth, this often worked out in my favor. For example, I couldn’t sweep the floor to her standards, so I never had to sweep the floor. The couple of times that I tried, she took the broom away before I could get more than a whoosh or two into the process—my whooshes, she said, just made it worse. Sure, that made things a little challenging when I reached adulthood and had to figure out the most efficient way to sweep the damn floor, but it certainly made childhood less chore-filled.

Digging through her sewing box, sorting the brittle thread from the safety pins, I am reminded of her sewing space at home. She would set up a folding table in the den and meticulously cut around the tissue-paper thin pattern carefully pinned to her fabric. The scraps and edges didn’t even touch the floor before they were swept into the trash. I loved watching this process because usually she was sewing for me and the anticipation was electrifying.

My paternal grandmother always accused her of spoiling me, and promised that I would come to no good if she didn’t stop. I finally asked my mother, many years later, why she’d always said that. My mother stared into the distance, her face slightly twisted as though she’d tasted something bitter, then finally admitted it was because she had made all of my clothes, but not my brother’s. And she didn’t make his, she explained, because collared shirts were just too damn hard. Buttonholes, in her estimation, were the worst. She made one cowboy shirt for him and then gave up on the idea; it just wasn’t worth it.

I admit I’m still kind of puzzled over how her simple A-line dresses with rickrack trim ruined me for life.

I think about my mother and her impatient perfectionism often, mostly because I feel a little guilty that she got stuck with a kid like me. A kid who was clumsy and clueless, and chatty and curious, and much too flighty to focus on one thing for too long unless it was a Nancy Drew. I can only imagine how challenging I was, not because I was confrontational but because I was so completely different than she was that she just didn’t know what to do with me most of the time. My brother and I are complete opposites in many ways, and she understood him. He made sense. Their bond was always strong; even during the hardest times they counted on each other. I, on the other hand, made no sense at all.

Enter Margaret.

Fred and Margaret moved in next door the year I was in 3rd grade. Fred worked for NASA and puttered in their yard every evening and on the weekends. Mowing, weeding, that sort of puttering. I would follow him around like a lost puppy, telling him about school, the books I was reading, how much I hated Tiffany, what I wanted to be when I grew up (a businesswoman named Anne. Or else a ballerina, despite never having had a single lesson), what Pepper the dog had done yesterday. Fred was a patient man.

Eventually, Fred decided it was time for me to meet his wife, Margaret. We bonded immediately. My mother was at work every day until almost 6. My brother was too young and too angry to be a good caretaker, and Margaret, who had never had children of her own, was always there, always welcoming.

Where my mother was meticulous about putting away her sewing things, picking up the pins and threads from the floor, returning everything to its original state, Margaret’s sewing room was a complete disaster. I would spend hours sitting on her floor digging pins out of the carpet and making balls out of all the stray threads. She would sew, and I would dig up pins and chatter on and on and on. And Margaret would listen and thank me for picking up her pins.

I would show up every day right after school, and Margaret would make me toast on Mrs. Baird’s French bread. Or pancakes with Br’er Rabbit molasses syrup, or grilled cheese and soup. I would eat my snack, and then we’d watch General Hospital in their sunken living room with the white sofa and mirrored walls. I’d do my homework then read, or pick up pins, or take a nap.

One birthday, she gave me a stuffed Pink Panther (I loved the Pink Panther cartoons that she would let me watch when General Hospital was over, he was just so put upon and yet also smooth and debonair). Pinky went everywhere with me. Everywhere. Margaret made formal wear for him so that he was ready for every occasion. When Pinky’s neck was broken from an excess of love, she helped me fashion a collar that would keep it upright. Margaret was everything my mother wasn’t—patient, gentle, affectionate. Not a badass, but a caregiver who relished the role.

In truth, I credit my not growing up to be a complete asshole to Margaret’s care. I learned from her that when guests stop by, they should be offered refreshments. I learned to wash my hands and face even if I didn’t think they were dirty. I learned how to be grateful, and the meaning of real kindness—lessons that didn’t wholly sink in for a lot of years, but she was the one who planted those seeds.

In her later years, my mother acknowledged that if it hadn’t been for Margaret, she doesn’t know what she would have done. That knowing I had Margaret made it easier for my mother to get through some really rough years. One of my biggest regrets is never telling Margaret how much she meant to me, and never thanking her for always being there when I needed her most.

I worry that I make my mother sound like a flaming bitch, but that is neither a true nor a fair assessment. What is true and fair is that we were mismatched—she wasn’t the mother I needed, and I wasn’t the kind of daughter she could understand. In truth, we each did the best we could and there has never been any question but that we loved each other, each to the best of our abilities and in our own imperfect ways.

I treasure her sewing box in ways that I can’t articulate. I sorted through it, tossing the old zipper feet and buttonholers from long-ago machines, and most of the rotting thread as well as those unsticky replacement pockets. But I kept the orange and green rickrack and the bit of lace left over from one of my favorite dresses, because they remind me that every damn day we get up, we do the best we can, and this is the most that we can ask of each other.


We’re Streakin’

My son is more like me than he knows, or wants to know. When he was little, maybe four-ish, Buzz Lightyear was his hero. He loved Buzz so much that every night his dad would have to wash his favorite Buzz t-shirt, and at preschool he insisted that they start calling him Buzz to the extent that he found one of the little name circles they used and wrote in the word “Buzz”. At least, we think that’s what it said. Bless you, Miss Jennifer. During the Buzz years, we were at Disney World (we’re self-confessed Disney Geeks; we go all the damn time even though it’s a thousand miles away), standing in line to meet Buzz…again…and when finally reached his hero, he looked as awkward and uncomfortable as I have ever seen him. His hands, instead of doing the classic Buzz Lightyear, Galactic Hero pose, remained firmly affixed to his chest and he looked terrified. Mind you, he’d communed with Buzz a good half dozen times before and never had this issue, but that day? He was a wreck. It wasn’t until later, when we were looking at the photos from that day, that we figured out the problem: he didn’t want Buzz to know that he was wearing a Stitch shirt. He’s been particular about matching the shirt to the occasion ever since.

To the end of her life my mother claimed that my memory was faulty, but I swear by all that is holy she once got us matching t-shirts. In 1974, Ray Stevens’ “The Streak” was everywhere (Is that you Ethel???), and she thought it would be fun to get us matching shirts. Classy ones, with naked cartoon women and the words We’re Streakin’ emblazoned across the front. I was a weirdly modest child, and those were the most horrific things I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe that she was going to make me wear one. In public no less. I was also an aggressively people-pleasing child and gave in pretty quickly because I didn’t want to upset her. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned the phrase “cognitive dissonance.” Turns out I’m the poster child for it.

It was a summer night in southern Texas. We were at the dikes in Texas City, fishing like we did on so many Friday nights. I was so mortified that I stood around in the dark with my arms folded across my chest. Every time my mother told me to stop crossing my arms and go do something, I swore I was cold. For a minute she was concerned that I might be coming down with something until Ralph, the man she was seeing at the time, found me a jacket and the problem was solved for everybody. The memory of that damn shirt never goes away. As I got older, I couldn’t wear cartoon t-shirts because all I could see when I put them on was We’re Streakin’. Even on vacation I’ll occasionally give in to something I think is interesting or cute or funny, and when we get home it goes straight into the back of my closet because I just can’t go there.

For a very long time, my mother dated Ralph. I remember him as a funny, happy man with a white El Camino. Every Friday evening Ralph would come to the house, my brother and I would climb into the back of the El Camino, and we’d go out to the dikes in Texas City. There was always a cooler of beer and soft drinks, fishing poles, and bait, and a whole community of fisherfolks linking the seawall. We did this every Friday night for years. Did we ever catch anything? I have no idea. But we went, and we had fun, and the night air rushing through the back of the El Camino on the way home always had just a touch of coolness even in the heat of a Texas August.

I eventually learned from my mother, many years later after I’d found the courage to ask, that Ralph had been married and a good Catholic who didn’t believe in divorce. Their relationship was taboo, especially for the time, which is why we spent so many Friday nights out fishing. It mean that Ralph could go home, say he’d been out fishing, and be telling the absolute if perhaps incomplete truth. As for my mother, she was always just a little bit happier after those Friday nights out in Texas City.

As a parent, I remember that stupid shirt every time my son doesn’t want to wear something that he just bought. Granted in his case they’re things he has chosen, but I’m still twitchy enough that I quietly load them into bags and deliver them to the One World Clothing Donation boxes, pretending all the while that it never happened.

Carol Dimler, Driving Instructor

We lived in a neighborhood of classic post-war ranch houses on the southwest side of Houston, Texas. We had a kitchen and dining area in the front, a formal living room where nobody was allowed to go, and a den where we watched a lot of after school Batman and Speed Racer. I still want to be Speed Racer when I grow up, or maybe Maude if that doesn’t work out. I’ve pretty much ruled out becoming Nadia Comanice. We had three small bedrooms, a bathroom with a wall-mounted gas heater that was absolutely terrifying in the middle of the night—so much so that I was known to wet the bed rather than face it—and a fairly large, fenced-in back yard where Pepper the dog lived. We were as middle class as middle class gets, though I didn’t know it at the time. Mostly, I just thought that we were happy.

I also didn’t know that my mother was a badass. Back in the day, she was the classic 1960’s television mom: room mother for my brother’s elementary classes, head of the PTA, queen of the neighborhood coffee klatch, keeper of the casserole recipes. She hated baking but loved puzzles, and applied that love to sewing and crafts. Anything with an absolute solution made her happy. Then I came along. Poor woman.

It’s weird, the things we remember; my brother is 6 years older than I am, so I couldn’t have been more than 5, but I still remember the year she saved all of the tuna cans (we ate a lot of tuna) and turned them into little drums filled with candy, one for each student in his class. That was also the year that she made angels out of empty toilet paper rolls and pipe cleaners, decoupaged everything she got her hands on, and kept the house so clean that it squeaked. Okay, so the house was always so clean that it squeaked. She also made all of my clothes. I was completely into dresses, and I loved the ones she made, the ones with the rickrack trim and little embroidered embellishments. She made them, despite having to take on a full time job, through most of my elementary years. Style-wise they got simpler and simpler—less rickrack and fewer embellishments—but she kept at it until one day she’d had enough and dragged me down to the Sears catalog store, where she ordered a couple of their girls’ size 6x polyester pantsuits. But I showed her. I kept wearing those dresses even as the hems frayed and the seams drooped; no pantsuits for me, by golly.

Eventually, as her marriage was falling apart and my father wasn’t coming home at night, my mother decided it was time to learn to drive. It was 1973 in southern Texas. Driving wasn’t necessarily on the list of things that nice women did, but she had reached the point of not giving a damn what nice women were and were not supposed to do.

My mother, badass that she was, didn’t spend a lot of time agonizing over whether or not to learn how to drive. Instead one morning, with me in tow, she marched down the street to Carol Dimler’s house and asked Carol, clearly a bit of a badass herself, to teach her how drive.

I had no idea how momentous this was. What I did know was that I loved going down to the Dimlers’ house. They had a huge fish tank that mesmerized me for hours on end. To be honest, it didn’t take much to mesmerize me for hours on end. When you live in your own head, everything becomes a part of your story, and that story is always significantly more interesting that whatever is going on in real life. See also: “clueless dork.” And when it was feeding time and Mrs. Dimler tossed in some fish kibble? Pure magic. Plus, I had a big crush on her son Michael Dale, who was my brother’s age. I would sit there for hours waiting to catch a glimpse of him and spent a very memorable 7th birthday chasing him around the backyard because I really wanted kiss him. For the record, he was way faster and I never did catch him, especially after he jumped the fence into the VanNatters’ back yard.

I spend a lot of time spinning my wheels trying to piece together a timeline for my mother’s life, and I have this strange snippet of memory from kindergarten at the King of Glory Lutheran Church because kindergarten wasn’t really a thing in Texas in the early 1970s so when you could find it, it was run by private or religious organizations. We were not Lutheran, but their kindergarten was within walking distance of our house one day, coloring a picture of the three little pigs (memory is a bitch, isn’t she?) that was, bar none, the best job I have ever done coloring anything ever because staying inside the lines just isn’t one of my strengths. I carried my masterpiece up to the teacher’s desk and promptly puked all over it. I don’t remember feeling unwell beforehand, mind, I only remember that my most perfectly colored thing was utterly ruined. They sent me to the sick room to lay on a cot, and my mother and Carol Dimler showed up to take me home.

I digress. One minute I was sitting cross-legged in front of the Dimlers’ aquarium, communing with the fish, and the next I was in the back seat of their station wagon watching my street creep while my mother had her first driving lesson. After that, she became unstoppable.


Easter Grass

One of the things my mother hated the most was plastic Easter grass. You know, the static-filled, pastel-colored plastic wonder found in bags at the local dollar store to bulk out a meager haul of jellybeans and Palmer’s brand chocolates. Easter grass. Despite her hatred, every year my mother went out and bought it, cursing all the while. It was her manifestation of sentimentality—shittin’ baskets were supposed to have the grass in them, they were by damn going to have the grass in them even if it meant she spent the next 6 months getting it wrapped around the roller in the vacuum cleaner.

My son is a teenager now, and we haven’t bought Easter grass in years. In fact, we’ve moved at least once since our last expedition into Easter grass. So when the occasional strand of it shows up, I just assume it’s my mother saying “hey there”, or “why haven’t you called” or “pay attention, dummy.” When I was kicking around the idea of tackling our stories, that shit started showing up everywhere. Literally, every damn where. In the corners by the closet. In the dryer. In the pantry. And one notable time, in the bathtub. Whether its meant as encouragement or a sign that she’s mad as hell, I don’t know and won’t bother guessing. I’m choosing to assume it’s encouraging, or will do just as soon as I get my vacuum roller cleaned out.

I was 6 when my parents divorced. All I know for sure is that my father was there, and then he wasn’t. Probably my fondest memory of my father is of this “magic” trick he used to do. He’d come into our rooms and chat for a minute, then tell us to close our eyes and count to 10. When we opened our eyes, he’d be gone but there’d be a candy bar on the desk. After he left, I would sometimes close my eyes and count to 10, hoping that there’d be a candy bar on my desk. Not because I wanted the candy, but because it would mean that he had been there. Thing is, when he left the man I knew as my father was truly was gone; who he had been was lost to cheap Scotch and bad decisions that ultimately punished all of us for the rest of his life.

I need to acknowledge something: I’m a completely clueless dork about most things. I was as a child, and adulthood hasn’t changed me that much. I mean, when Uncle Mike and his friend Bob came for Thanksgiving, I never gave it a second’s thought. They were Uncle Mike and Bob. I never wondered why they hung out together, or why people referred to them in stage whispers. What I did know was that for Christmas the year I was 10, they got me a leather purse and a make-up kit. They had good taste in gifts; that’s all I knew and all that really mattered. A lot of years later—and I mean a lot as in I was an adult who paid her own rent and car insurance—they came up in discussion and it was only then that it hit me. They did more than just hang out together at the family holiday celebrations. I mean, it also explained that time when my brother smacked Uncle Mike on the butt and he laughed, but when I did it I got yelled at. I suppose that should have been a clue. But as I say, I was clueless.

Really, what I’m trying to tell you is that I am notoriously unreliable as an observer of my own life. Of course, the accuracy of a six-year-old’s memories is dubious at best even without my inherent unreliability, and trying to sort through those memories 40-some years later means that I could just be making all this up. But I’m not, not really. The stories are true even if the facts are distorted. During my remarkably brief tenure as a writing teacher, one of the things I always tried to emphasize was the idea of truth v fact. “Truth,” I would tell my students, “is subjective. Every story has at least three sides—yours, mine, and the facts.” When we send fact through our own lenses—experience and belief and a whole host of other bits and bobs that shape our worldview—we end up with a version of the truth. Fact, on the other hand, is provable and largely immutable despite our current predilection for “alternative” ones. It is a fact that the earth is round, that water is wet, that my parents divorced when I was six. Based in fact, but not necessarily factual, is my experiences of these events. You may find the ocean terrifying because a wave swamped you when you were three years old and have never really recovered from it. This fact becomes your truth, but it is a truth, not the truth because I love the ocean and will throw myself into it any chance I get. And so it is with my experience of my parents’ divorce and my life with my mother. There are facts—they divorced. I was six. We lived in Texas. My father was gone. And there is truth: life was hard, my mother was unhappy, I was sad, and none of us ever quite got over it.

Wasted Days

After my my mother died in 2008, I took on the challenge of sorting through her things. Other than bins upon bins of fabric she wasn’t a hoarder, preferring to chuck things out the moment their usefulness was outlived. She stopped buying newspapers because they were nothing but clutter. Books were returned to the library posthaste. The occasional knick-knack, usually a Christmas gift from the uninformed, was admired, returned to its packaging, and stored until the giver had departed. Then she would frown at the gift and rhetorically ask “What am I supposed to do with this shittin’ thang?” By the next morning, it would be in the trash along with all of the paper, packaging, instructions, and effluvia. That was my mother.

Imagine my surprise when I opened a drawer (in the chesterdrawers, of course) and found three things: a photograph of my father from his Coast Guard days back in Galveston, Texas; a copy of their divorce decree from 1973; and an 8-track tape of Freddy Fender’s Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.


I recently did one of those “Discover your Heritage!” genetic testing kits; that thing where you spit into a tube and a lab somewhere tells you from whence you came. I am, according to the results, about 50% Scots-Irish, 25% unspecified European, and another 25% hodgepodge of Native American, Southeast Asian, and North African, with just a sprinkling of Jewish from somewhere. Unsurprisingly this raises a lot of questions.

A troll through offers zero answers. According to the records I can find, I come from a long line of hillbillies and rednecks. My mother’s side appears to have simply sprung fully-formed from the Missouri Ozarks, while my father’s side has Alabama red clay and Mississippi River water running through their veins. Except for that one ancestor back in the 1690s who claimed to be from Gloucester, Virginia, we’re all a bunch of good ole boys and girls. Which doesn’t come anywhere near explaining that 50% Scots-Irish thing.

If she were still alive, I would try to ask my mother about all of this though I already know what she would say. She had three stock responses to things perplexing. The first being “well how should I know?” The second and third were variations on the theme.

What I know for sure is that my mother was a farm kid, raised with her 5 siblings on a green patch in the middle of nowhere Missouri. When she was 18 she decided that she’d had enough of that and moved to St. Louis, where she got a job as a secretary. Eventually, the company she worked for offered her a transfer to Houston, Texas, and she took it. The details are pretty sketchy. “Why do you want to know that?” She’d ask, followed by a change of subject—usually about my shitty teenage years and what a brat I was. She wasn’t wrong about, but it didn’t get me the answers I wanted. Occasionally she’d let things slip, but mostly she kept her past as tidy and inaccessible as the Bounty bars she’d squirrel away in the back of the refrigerator, under the heads of iceberg lettuce that no one else would touch.

Even though she was arguably more cosmopolitan than most of her family, she was always an Ozarks hillbilly at the core. This was most evident in her speech patterns and cold, hard pragmatism. At least, I remember her as being a cold, hard pragmatist. As I’ve been exploring my stories, I’ve started questioning that perspective. I suspect I’ve gotten it all wrong, and that she was actually a disappointed romantic, and god knows there’s nothing meaner than a disappointed romantic.

She was the kind of control freak who would make control freaks cry. There was this one time, I was a young adult and living with her and my brother while trying to figure out how to get through college—that’s a thing they don’t tell you, btw, how to get through college when no one else in your family has even tried to go—I made some toast for breakfast. Because I knew how fastidious she was, I cleaned up after myself. Wiped off the counter AND the toaster, washed and put away my dishes. And still, she came home after work, looked around and said “you had toast for breakfast.” “How,” I asked her slowly, “did you know that? I cleaned up.”
“Oh,” she answered, “you moved the toaster a little to the left.”

That was the woman I grew up with. And the woman who left me with far more questions than answers. I know hers isn’t the most compelling story. She wasn’t famous, or funny, or fabulous. But she was definitely a mystery, and I’ve never met a mystery I didn’t want to solve.