Foremilk china, bone
Yeast dough swell
This is the cheek of the red-haired boy.
I think I have to bite it.
Foremilk china, bone
Yeast dough swell
This is the cheek of the red-haired boy.
I think I have to bite it.
If you want to solve world hunger, look no farther than my mother’s bread drawer. This is what it looked like after she and my stepfather hosted four of us for the weekend. I don’t think this photo could possibly do it justice. We must have looked underfed because Mom sent my stepfather out Saturday afternoon to buy dinner rolls.
In preparation for our brief visit, my mother had done a little shopping. In other words, there was enough food to feed every creature on Noah’s ark.
I haven’t decided if I’m joking. My mother has the best-fed critters around. She lives in the country, and I bet her neighbors love her. Especially the ones who hunt. The birds and squirrels are fed year ‘round, and the deer get corn in the winter. Her “pet” chipmunk eats Cheerios on the front porch. Have you ever seen a fat Greyhound? Me neither. We try to get to her before she gets to our dog. This is a hereditary condition, apparently, and I will have to manage my risk factors. My grandfather used to hand feed racoons from his back yard. His neighbors loved him too.
I try to tell my mother to take it easy. Another part of me loves that I still get to wake up to the smell of coffee and a Mom bustling around the kitchen.
I can offer to plan the food, shop and cook, and she will say yes, but somehow we always end up doing things her way. I don’t think she entirely trusts me. She still hovers over me while I cook.
There was a time when I experienced a certain Shadenfreude but I have good-naturedly surrendered it. I no longer try to coax–or corner–her into eating curries and Korean pancakes. The last really naughty thing I did was about two years ago during one of her visits to us. With a straight face, I asked her and my stepfather to join us for dinner at the Pakistani restaurant down the street. I just wanted to see what would happen. My mother once sent back a plate of pasta at Ruby Tuesday because it was too spicy.
On this weekend visit, I did bring a bag of quinoa thinking it might help me stay on my [insert expletives] low fat diet when everyone else was eating lasagna and hamburgers and the four containers of ice cream in her freezer. She wasn’t sure about that “quinola.” Mom concluded she needed to round out our dinner with rice. She stood over the stove concentrating on those Uncle Ben’s boiling bags, skimming the froth from the pot with a very serious expression. The rice would not have cooked if she had not done this.
I snapped this photo as we were cleaning up and heading out. Oh, we were cleaning up, all right. We scored two giant Ziploc bags of her famous chocolate chip cookies.
My mother knew I was having a laugh at her expense, and she was a good sport: she obligingly offered to rearrange the drawer to give me a better picture. I wonder what she would say if she knew I was going to talk about her on my blog. Oops, wait. She doesn’t know I have a blog. And don’t you tell her!
I’ll be taking a break from posting for a while. My children are coming into town, and I’ve got to go stock up on bread.
Now that my time machine has hurtled forward a few decades, ejected me onto my ass, and gone up in a thick cloud of black smoke; I am stuck at age 48. At least, until I become stuck at age 49. After which I will become stuck at age 50. And so on. Unto death. But things on Planet Middle Age aren’t as bad as I would have thought even two months ago. For example…let me share one puzzling outcome of my crash landing:
I am developing a genuine fondness for Old People.
Old People are endemic to my church, where the median age is about 70, and where, until recently, I have been a bona fide Young Adult. There are no children at my church, or if there are, they are in hiding. We had a nursery once but we closed it because no babies had turned up for the better part of a year. I’m not sure why I’m still attending. Admittedly, my Old People are the best Old People you can find anywhere; however, they are Old. Most of the other Young Adults have long since jumped ship, and the Old People are dying off at the rate of about one per week.
Each Sunday I watch from an emotionally safe distance as the Old People move about in a routine so well choreographed, it would put an NFL coach to shame—they in their Sunday finery and coiffed hair, and I in my skinny jeans and hoodies. I smell Coty face powder and Estee Lauder. I know that if I peek in the men’s closets, I’ll find pairs of white Reeboks reserved for their Saturday romance with the riding mower. Sometimes I think of the Old People as busy bees, cheerfully tending the hive, doing and saying what they always have, pitifully oblivious to their imminent demise. I don’t really want to know them. I especially don’t want to be them.
Things look a little different since the time machine crashed. Where to start?
For one thing, while I was having my protracted adolescence, my Old People finished raising their families, brought their professional lives to a close, and began to enjoy their retirement. This, of course, required significant advance planning. Most adolescents don’t plan too well, and neither did I. My husband tried to talk to me about things like savings and retirement but I didn’t listen very well. Do you know any teens who want to dwell on these topics? Me either.
Now as I watch the Old People take cruises and go south for the winter, I wonder how they do it. I’d love to go on a cruise. I’d like to remodel my kitchen, circa 1961, whose original cupboards boast a large brass medal: “Gold Medallion Home. Live Better Electrically.” At the end of the day, I thank God that I went back to school to become a counselor. As long as I can sit upright and nod my head, I can contribute to our upkeep. I don’t think I can afford to retire.
I realized, at some point, that my Old People were once Young Adults. I also realized some of them were much smarter and educated than I am. It took a few awkward and (unintentionally) patronizing conversations to set me straight. Linda can do just about anything on the computer, and she’d be the first person I’d call if I ever needed to program my VCR. (Is this a good time for me to confess that I do not know how to use my TV and have begun to stuff used tissues up my sleeves?) Despite a possible Reebok habit, Lyle is as sharp as a tack in all things financial. And don’t mess with my boy Sean. He may wear sweater vests, but it takes huevos to be a courier downtown.
My Old People include retired professors, retired accountants, and retired nurses, just to name a few. Even more impressive: many of my Old People have raised children who actually turned out to be very nice Adults. (Can you see how hard I’m working not to put the words “retired” and “Mom” in the same sentence? I think we all know Moms never retire.)
Bottom line: I think I could do a lot worse than joining the Old People. Besides–consider the alternative.
I came to you for training when I was 18.
I was one of several young women who hung on your every word, eager for your attention, your approval, any sign of special favor. We were your first recruits–pups in a large and rowdy litter, away from home for the first time and climbing all over each other to get at a teat. The guys tried every bit as hard as we did but they would rather have died than seem eager. They acted knowing and peer-like. You tolerated this pretty well until you caught them doing things like wandering around the locker room drunk wearing kimonos and cowboy hats….
I’d stop by your office only to find I had to take a number. I wanted to be your number one! I wanted to be your top runner and your top girl. Girl, I was. And terribly innocent. My eyes grew large, and I froze when I learned that Siobhan, older, worldlier, and afraid of being bumped from top dog, had rumored that we were sleeping together.
I can see you standing on the track in your stupid reflective sunglasses. I knew it was more than coolness you sought. Hidden beneath the bravado was an introverted soul seeking privacy in plain sight. Where else could you hide? Necessity and convenience had landed you, along with a few of your charges, in a handful of the derelict rooms above the track office and a hop, skip, jump from the track itself. In those early days, you had no car and nowhere else to be. Your work was your life, and your life was your work. We pressed in, tails wagging, hungry.
I remember your rapid-fire gum chewing and see your bemused smile as you punctuate your observances with that quick, trademark jut of the chin. I remember your short waist and long arms. Your square hands and fingers. The port wine stain on your thigh. The smell of your sweat after a run. Nobody else smells like that.
I stroked your cheek now and then. It sounds more intimate than it was. We all stroked your cheek. You bragged that you had been showering without soap for years, and it had left your skin baby soft. You had to make sure we believed you. Yep, soft as a baby’s behind.
You always were weird about food too—inspecting scrupulously for flaws and checking expiration dates. Milk had to be rushed from cow to carton. Only bananas firm and just-ripe need apply. I knew this. I’d smuggle a fresh, ice-cold pint of milk and a spotless banana out of the dining hall on my way over to visit. Low fat was an abomination. You liked your milk whole and your meat red.
If I could turn back time, I’d leave things as they were. This, despite the parts that hurt. I’m thinking of the gut-churning Tuesday/Friday interval workouts. You tested us, and we tested each other. And of course, there were the races themselves. These pains were short lived.
As I was leaving the track office one day, you joked at my freshman backside, blossoming under the tutelage of the dining hall buffet: “Harpoon that whale!” My relationship with food changed that very day, and I became a statistic.
I recall how angry you were when I failed to reappear after finishing a disastrous 1,500m at a big indoor meet. “Always come find me after a race,” you had growled. I had run off to ferment in my self loathing and had been running laps beneath the dome’s bleachers as punishment. I hated myself and was too ashamed to show my face, yet tears would not come and relieve me. Young Yvette–you went on and on about her potential–had just placed in the 800m and broken the school record. Your upset took on new meaning when I thought about a peer from another school, someone we had chatted with at meets, who had attempted the unspeakable.
Our running life wasn’t all fun and games, but good times were in no short supply. Traveling with you and the rest of the pack was a bit of a rolling slumber party. Chemistry homework, body odor, screaming muscles, and the pre-race shits were balanced by friendly banter, naps, shared meals, practical jokes and, ideally, victory.
Remember how annoyed I got with Coach Cook when I needed a bathroom stop on the way to the conference meet? No? I was in his van, and I just couldn’t hold it. Nobody wanted to be the person to stop the caravan before it was necessary. We lost time when people started spilling out of vans in search of toilets and Pop Tarts. Sometimes one van stopped, and the others kept going; and that caused other problems. We had no cell phones or Google Maps. No worries! Coach Cook had this problem licked. Thereafter, whenever a stop was needed, the driver of that van just had to move to the front of the queue while honking and holding a large, handwritten sign in the window: JANE HAS TO PEE!
You had your childish moments too. I remember how you leaned forward and stretched out your hand every time the van rolled across a state line. You crowed! You had been the first to enter! Ha! But then you had to go and listen to Bob Seger. My wretching sounds just made you more determined. “Keep passing the open windows,” you’d say.
Remember when I mooned you? Twice. Once, as I left the track in a petulant steam after a frustrating workout. Another time, I roped some of the other girls into joining me just for the shock value. An odd way to show affection, I know. But neither of us was good at it.
Now and then you’d wrap a gorilla arm around my neck so we were head to head. “Dearie,” you’d say. But you didn’t hug. I knew you loved me because you named me after cars: “Ford” on normal days–to make me run faster. “Chevy” when you were feeling silly. You named us all so we would belong. We came when called.
I glowed with pride when you called me “Bitch.” In our code, it was a term of highest respect. It meant I had reached down deep and come up with rocket fuel.
I was no longer a puppy. I had become a beast.
I created a rule for myself called “One Friend at a Time.” I had to.
I have explained trying, and failing, to create closeness and safety within my family of origin. You can go back and read about it if you want but I’ll sum up here: I was never going to get everyone in my family to get along at the same time AND the effort was taxing AND I kept trying. Just call me Sisyphus.
This dynamic is one I have played out many, many times: finding, or happening, or arranging myself between two individuals–or as a hub for several–who then begin to relate to one another through me. I try to be all things to all people. I don’t do it on purpose. At this point, I have become so conscious of this trap that I rarely get too far into it before I smack myself silly.
I see my counselees doing this all the time: they unknowingly recreate their painful pasts in the hope that their story will eventually end happily. This madness even has a name: repetition compulsion. ‘Round and ’round and ’round she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows….It can’t be an accident that I sought specialty training in couples therapy. At least now I use my damage for good. And in most cases, we all get a better outcome.
Back to the rule.
I knew how to be a friend. That wasn’t the problem. I just had a hard time being friends with more than one person at a time. I sought one-on-one interactions because they were the safest. Being with one person made it less likely I’d disappoint, annoy, or get stuck in a triangle in which I had to manage more than one relationship at once. I do mean manage. Parties gave me palpitations well into my 30’s. I had to have a single neat box for each friendship. On my plate, the peas; carrots; and mashed potatoes weren’t supposed to touch. Mixing them could get too messy.
The best way to work the one-at-a-time method was to have only one really close friend. I took the title “best friend” as gospel. I had to find one person—Karen was my first best friend–and squeeze close enough so that we practically heard each other’s thoughts.
I don’t think I would have betrayed my family in any serious way; but in in day-to-day matters, I chose my best friend over my family every time. When Karen came over, I played cruel pranks on my sister and made rude gestures at my mother’s back while she stood at the kitchen sink. When Karen went home, I behaved differently. My conscience troubled me but my best friend thought I was funny; and securing her was paramount. I needed a sure thing.
Hanna was my last best friend. I am no longer willing to use that designation for anyone except my husband. I’ve retired her jersey.
I always said my husband was my best friend because that is what wives are supposed to say. I’m not sure I was completely truthful. Maybe I crossed my fingers behind my back because he was my best male friend and there was no competition.
Hanna and I had been “family” for over a decade by the time I met Henry, and it was as though we agreed to shove over a bit and make room on the plate. Did I love him? Yes! Did I want to want to spend the rest of my life with him? Yes! Did I want to have his babies? Oooooooh, yes! He was and is the only guy for me. But did I actually leave and cleave?
It just took me decades to complete the process.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the trouble this hanging chad has caused. Maturity came late in this area of my life. I’m glad I’ve grown up a bit but the collateral damage has been considerable.
This post belongs both to Family Rules and The Story of Hanna. You can find the prior post in the Family Rules series here and the next post in the series here. You can find the prior post in The Story of Hanna series here and the next post in the series here.