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 ancestry.com 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.