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Christopher, The Rest

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

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.

For two other posts on Christopher, click here and here. For another post related to college recruitment/running, click here.

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Christopher, Part II

Cross CountryMay 2, 2015

Dear Christopher,

You would have been 62 tomorrow.

I just spent some time looking at old photos and re-reading your obituaries. My reserve has punctured, and these words have begun to swim. Don’t worry—I will be fine. I AM fine. I don’t want to pathologize the tears I shed when I allow myself to go to that sacred place of memory and appreciation.

I don’t think about you every day or even every week or month. I haven’t for decades. I graduated, and we pursued our separate lives. Part of the distance between us was born of my shame at not having lived up to my potential despite your having offered me every opportunity and all of your skill and—I felt it—love. Part of the distance was a necessary and normal development. There were crops of new athletes to coach, and the weight of maintaining old relationships would have dragged you under. This is the human life cycle, compressed. I may live to be 100 but my athletic death had been foretold a blink after my birth. My leaves had yellowed and dropped by the time I had become a wife and mother. I had made my choice.

I was afraid that my failures had caused you to stop regarding me, stop loving me. Unable to manage that pain, I tried to forgot about you and lock that chamber of my heart to you and anybody else from that time. But kairos had other ideas: I ran into Kendra.

Remember when Kendra and I gathered some of the other “girls” and showed up at your house unannounced about 10 years ago? That day is precious to me. I cried like a baby in secret for days after, and a long-time wound began to heal. How I cringe when I recall the letters I sent in those early years of separation: needy, angry, immature tomes in which I thrashed about, trying to understand myself and striking out at you instead. I am glad that time is behind us.

I was your first female recruit. Do you recall telling me, long, long ago, that you hoped, one day, to have a daughter like me? How could I believe that? I, who had quit when my body was strong and ripe. I, who had reached outside myself to explain the origins of my hurt and fixed you in my crosshairs.

I was afraid to see you. I was afraid to be seen by you. I had aged, and my body had softened and begun to bend. Time is less kind to women. You were in your coaching prime and turning out champions. I felt ill but I knew I was going to make the trip.

And you welcomed me. You welcomed me and my awkward ways as though no time had passed. You had loved me all along! And I, you. We spoke this without words. You never were one to display affection outright. I am not sure I could have tolerated it.

We had never stopped knowing one another after all.

I read the muscles of your face and the crinkle of your blue, blue eyes. I read the warmth of your joy, and it was more than I had dared to hope. Comfortably wrapped in the happy chatter around me, I said almost nothing as we sat around your table that afternoon. But my cup overflowed. From across the table, I saw and felt all you spoke to me in the secret language of friends. Words would have gotten in the way.

What if we had not had that day–that day of communion and completion?

How can you be gone?

Rest in peace, dear Christopher.

C.H.T., III
5/3/53 –- 7/1/11.

I wish your dash had been longer.

For Christopher, Part I, click here. For Christopher, The Rest click here.

Aunt Mimi

Image courtesy of Cath

Image courtesy of Cath

I had to tell you more about Aunt MiMi because I’ve been thinking about her so much.

My Uncle Stanly’s position as a bigwig in the MVA of major city had afforded my aunt plenty of opportunities to indulge in her favorite pastimes: shopping, going to parties, and making friends! Aunt MiMi was both flashy peacock and hardworking pragmatist. She had worked a full-time secretarial job downtown and earned every inch of her big, fat Cadillac and every ounce of flounce in her ample closets. She could easily have become pretentious and jaded. She never did. Aunt MiMi maintained a girlish enthusiasm for life until her last day on this earth.

Aunt MiMi was as vivacious as Uncle Stanly was stern. We kids were instructed to keep our voices low and tiptoe around him. He never really talked to or acknowledged children; in fact, he rarely spoke at all. I don’t think I ever heard him laugh. He usually sat like a statue, his pipe clamped between thin lips. I do have one warm memory of him, however. One Thanksgiving he sat to my right. As he passed me the next dish, his lips curled five degrees heavenward, and he spoke: “I bet you don’t love lima beans as much as I do.” That was it.

Unburdened by angst, Aunt MiMi kept things simple. She didn’t introspect or ruminate. Her world was populated by Good People and Bad People. She had it on good authority that Bad People existed, but she had never actually met one herself. She was the kind of woman I could imagine disarming a burglar with a frying pan and then serving him a side of ice cream and cookies to go with his ice pack. He’d end up thanking her and swearing off a life of crime. She probably had such faith in people because of her childlike faith in God. She was childlike but not childish. She attended Mass weekly, prayed faithfully, cast her burdens upon the Lord and didn’t look back. She believed. She had God to do the heavy lifting, so why should she?

Aunt MiMi was fiercely loyal. Loyal to friends, family, brands, traditions, and institutions. Make no mistake about it: those cookies would have been Chips Ahoy; the ice cream, Breyers Natural Vanilla. And both would have been purchased at the same family-run grocery store she had been patronizing since it opened its doors in 1946. Aunt MiMi couldn’t help but make fast friends everywhere she went.

Incredibly, she genuinely doted on dour old Uncle Stanly. Aunt MiMi even doted on her mother, the formidable Odessa A. Tilghman. Once known as “The Belle of Georgia Avenue” (said she), and pursued by the entire male sex (of course), she had become a jowly tyrant in a flower-print house dress.

Though it may seem at odds with her mischievous nature, Aunt MiMi was not a fan of change. She managed to make it work for her without ever seeming stuffy. The style and color of Aunt Mimi’s teased hair never changed throughout my lifetime, and I never saw her without coral-painted nails. She never seemed to change size, either. As far as I could tell, she stopped buying clothes at some point and just rotated through her two-million-and-fourteen outfits and their matching accessories.

Aunt MiMi’s house got the same treatment she did. I don’t recall Aunt MiMi’s ever changing a stick of furniture or a stitch of upholstery. She and Uncle Stanly had never been able to have children, so I guess nothing ever wore out. Her blue velvet armchairs fascinated us kids during our more formal Sunday visits. If we rubbed the fabric in one direction, the color lightened. If we rubbed it the other, it darkened. The chair cushions were another matter. Sitting for decades with scarcely a warm bottom for comfort, they had petrified disconcertingly.

My aunt often said that if you could just hang on to things long enough, they’d come back into fashion. And she walked her talk. Her house was a magical museum of exotic tchotchkes, fine china, and 1940’s Americana. Her kitchen never changed. Not one iota. It was a delicious study in strawberries, one of her favorite foods. Her downstairs bathroom was amazing too. My sister Gwen and I could scarcely stay out of it. It had sparkly butterfly wallpaper and a crystal dish of scented soaps shaped like tiny roses and other lovelies! Her attic and basement were chock full of treasures, and I lived for the day she’d invite me to rummage through them. I sneaked into her basement for a quick peek whenever I could. The attic sang to me like a siren and promised Ali Baba’s Cave of Wonders but I didn’t dare chance it. I would have had to sneak upstairs, through the master bedroom and then up another flight to reach it.

Sadly, I never made it to Aunt MiMi’s attic until after her death when my mother and I helped our cousin sort some of her belongings. It did not disappoint.

On January 27, 2005, at one hundred years of age, the fabulous Aunt MiMi slipped peacefully out of this world and into the next. She fell asleep while waiting for her bowl of strawberries and woke up in the arms of Jesus.

Does He tango? Because I’m pretty sure there’s a party in the house.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

Photo credit here

The Big Red Robe

The Big Red Robe

My big red bathrobe is 100% cotton and should smell like a clean towel. Yet for some reason, it has always been a little stinky. Laundering doesn’t help. But according to one daughter, the robe smells like love. Kids are funny that way. And scents are evocative. So I guess I’ll go with that compliment and try not to invalidate it by recalling that another daughter once publicly declared that my armpits smell like heaven.

My Dad died in Feb. of 1990, over a year and a half before our first child arrived. The Christmas before his death from cancer, he and my mother went on a grand shopping spree. I believe he sensed he would not recover.

One of his gifts to me was this red robe. I appreciated the robe but I never liked it. It was so thick, so heavy, so ENORMOUS that wearing it made me clumsy and sweaty. The sleeves were so long I could never roll them up far enough to do dishes without getting them soaked. Mostly, the robe hung in my closet and awaited its true calling.

As our children came into the world, the robe started to come in handy. I wore it as I nursed them. I rocked them in it when ear infections kept them up at night. It was big enough to wrap us both cozily within its folds. When the girls were a little older, we’d sit together inside the robe, each of us taking one sleeve and closing the robe around us. Claire wore it at breakfast so she could smell the love. Wearing it when they were sick helped the girls feel better.

I will never be able to get rid of that smelly robe now. And I no longer want to.

Thank you, Dad.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post click here. For the next post, click here.

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