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  • Impulse Does Not Come With Reverse

    May 17, 2009

    And now, time for a pointless story. Oh wait. They are all pretty much pointless.  Very well then.

    So then, the other day Sean dropped a gummy bear on the floor. He picked it up and started to put it in his mouth.  In keeping with Section 2, Article 4, Paragraph 3.5 of the Mothering Handbook, I instructed him not to eat it and to put it in the trash instead.  I’m not one to freak out about that kind of thing too much. I’ve been known to eat a potato chip or two off the floor, but it’s right there in the handbook and I’m working towards my mothering merit badge.

    He looked at me for a split second and then popped it in his mouth and quickly swallowed it. And then continued to look at me without so much as blinking.

    Now, according to the same handbook, this was a clear health and safety violation, meaning when one goes against mama, they are risking their health and safety.

    But I let him off the hook.  I gave him a light scolding for disobedience and a small lecture about how one probably shouldn’t eat stuff off the floor, citing the episode on Myth Busters where Jamie and Adam debunk the five-second rule. And I let it go at that.

    Normally, when Sean is blatantly disobedient, correction is swift and certain. But on that day I saw something of myself in that little gummy gobbling boy. I was reminded that sometimes at that age, the things we do are less a result of disobedience so much as that we are victims of the laws of forward motion. Sometimes, we want to be obedient, we want to be good, we do.  It’s just that we are unable to stop an impulse that has already fired — a lot like trying to put a speeding bullet back in the gun.

    When I was in about the third grade, I was walking between two rows of desks from the front of the class room towards the back. Just before I got to David Kruger’s desk, a paper he was working on slid off his desk and floated this way and then that before it settled on the floor.

    Now David was a very meticulous sort of guy, from his crew cut to the way he always colored in the lines.  Well, there was David’s paper on the floor and I could have probably stepped over it, but for some reason, a reason I still don’t understand, I stepped right on his paper leaving a big dusty footprint.

    And it’s not that I was bad or mean, unless you were to ask one of my brothers, it was just that I was caught up in forward motion and I couldn’t stop myself. And I have to tell you, to this day, I can still see that paper lying on the floor with my footprint on it and I still feel badly about it.  Sometimes being able to remember everything that ever happened to you is a curse.

    Naturally David wailed at the injustice. “Aaak! She stepped on my paper!” he bawled with all due indignation.

    The teacher looked up from her desk. I did my best impression of innocence. And because she was probably down to her last nerve and more interested in peace than justice, she suggested to David that I probably didn’t do it on purpose.

    Oh sweet undeserving grace and mercy how I adore thee.

    “Yes she did!” he gasped, “She looked right at me and stepped on my paper!” It was true. I did. And I did it without so much as blinking.  He was aghast. He look at me and then back at the teacher in disbelief.  His face was red.  I shrugged my shoulders and walked back to my seat, probably not even offering an apology.

    So David, I want to apologize. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to step on your paper. I just couldn’t exactly stop myself.

    And neither could Sean which is why he got sweet undeserving grace and mercy as opposed to time out.

    * * *

    Speaking of obedience, I’m over here too if you are following the on-line Bible study.

    Jeanette’s Strawberries

    April 16, 2009

    The strawberries I saw in the grocery store yesterday were resplendent!  Plump and scarlet, like a box of rubies.  The clear plastic containers could not contain the sweet aroma of ripeness and readiness.  I was powerless to resist their allure so I put them in my cart and took them home.

    As I sat in my kitchen dipping each fat nubby strawberry in a tiny bowl of sugar, I thought of Jeanette.  Jeanette lives across the street from my parents and has for about the past 50 years.   She used to plant a big patch of strawberries every summer and to me that was like growing your own candy.

    One summer day when I was about five, I was playing at Jeanette’s house in the backyard with her children when she came in from the garden carrying a basket of strawberries.  I watched as strawberries tumbled from her basket into a silver colander that glinted in the morning sun.  She rinsed them with the garden hose and water streamed through the holes in the colander in precise lines onto the warm concrete.

    Then she gave each of us our own little bowl of sugar to dip them in.  Four or five neighborhood kids sat on her back steps in the late morning sunshine eating sugared strawberries that still smelled of the earth.  On that day, at that moment, the world was as perfect as Eden ever was.

    I don’t know if the strawberries were really that good that day or if it was just one of those ordinary moments in life when something beyond you whispers your name and calls you into another level of awareness.

    And if you answer that call, you can return to visit that perfect place and eat sugared strawberries in the morning sun for the rest of your life.

    Random Christmas Stuff About Me You Weren’t Really Itching To Know

    December 17, 2008

    I’ve never owned a Christmas sweater. I’ve always felt like maybe I should have one. On several occasions I’ve even carried one around the store.  But I just can’t seem to take the plunge.  Just seems like too big of a commitment.

    As well, I’ve never owned a pair of Christmas earrings, little dangling bulbs or ornaments or whatever.  I guess I’m not all about festive after all.

    The red turtleneck is my standard holiday party outfit.

    I’ve always wanted some nice Christmas china but never wanted to spend the big bucks on it or spend a lifetime collecting it.  Since it’s unlikely that I would inherit or win a set in a raffle, about 10 years ago I bought four boxes of $20/box  Christmas “china” and I love it.  We use it all through December. It makes every meal of the season a little brighter and the best part? I worry not one bit about breaking it.


    See how festive a reindeer pancake can look on cheap Christmas china – does that not just scream Joyeux Noel y’all? It does, you know it does.

    The best thing I ever did was buy a 6ft pre-lit tree for $30 at Target for Sean when he was three. It’s his tree. He’s got a box of soft and unbreakable ornaments and he can decorate and undecorated it to his heart’s content all season long.  He can put all the ornaments on one branch and I will not twitch nor will I flinch.  He can even pull it over on himself and no harm done. This $30 tree has ratcheted down the freak out level around here substantially.

    I hate wrapping gifts. I have not bought wrapping paper in 15 years.  I love the gift bag – the bag that keeps on giving gifts.  Economic, easy, re-useable and no tape.

    However, I love ribbon and can’t seem to stop myself from buying it.

    I took four years of piano lessons in my early 30s just so that I could play Christmas songs. I’m not very good, but I enjoy it immensely, even if no one else does.

    I don’t like to sing, but I love to sing Christmas songs.  I enjoy it immensely, even if no one else does.

    I do not like Christmas shopping.  Truthfully, I don’t like the gifts part of Christmas.  The only time gift giving is not awkward to me is when it is spontaneous and not reciprocal.

    My favorite memory of Christmas from when I was a child was going to Midnight Mass with my Godparents and coming home to drink hot chocolate and eat pizelles.

    Three things always on my Christmas list:  inexpensive earrings, a tree ornament, books (art/photography books, poetry, cookbooks are my favorites).

    The first year we were married, I warned AD to never buy me anything for Christmas that plugs in. Over the years, my stance on appliances has changed. I wouldn’t mind having a power washer.

    When I was about five, I got a red velvet dress and a white rabbit fur muff for Christmas.  I only remember one or two other Christmas gifts which confirms my theory that sweating over finding the perfect gift is a waste of energy. Chances are you don’t even remember what you got for Christmas by the next day, let alone the year before.

    On December 26th, I will be itching to box it all up and get back to routine. On January 2nd AD and I will have our annual fight about when the boxing up should occur.  He will lobby for a day in March.  On January 3rd, he will concede.

    Sean was due on Christmas day. He is by far the best gift of my entire life, because indeed, every good and perfect gift is from above.


    * * * *

    If you’ve made it this far, tell me some random holiday factoid about yourself.

    The Paisley Dress

    September 22, 2008

    I love paisley and I always have. I think paisley adds a touch of class to nearly anything.

    Once, when I was a young girl, I was looking through our family photographs when my eye was drawn to one of the few color photographs in the box. I pulled the picture from the box and studied it closely for a long time.

    It is a picture of my mother. She is a young woman. She is wearing a paisley dress, cyan blue, the color of a shallow tropical sea. She is seated deep in a chair with her long athletic legs crossed. She is wearing high heels. Her thick wavy auburn hair contrasts with the vibrant blue green dress in the most resplendent way, in a way that makes you want to look from the dress to her hair and back to the dress again. She is looking confidently into the camera with a sultry “I dare you” expression.

    The sexy young woman in the picture is clearly my mother. But not. It seemed implausible to me that this paisley wearing woman was the same woman who nightly rescued me from the dark, pulling me into the safety of her bed, curling me into the soft warm curve of her tummy. My mother never wore high heels or fancy clothes, let alone paisley, and she certainly never sat around looking sultry!

    At that moment, I realized that my mother had a life before me and beyond me. It was an odd and uncomfortable thought, almost inconceivable, but at the same time… thrilling. And I think it was then, in that moment, that I fell in love with paisley.

    My mother is a smart lady. She could have been anything she wanted to be, she could have worn paisley every day. But she chose to have children instead and through us correct the hurts and injustices of her own childhood.

    I don’t actually remember seeing my mother wear that paisley dress, but I remember seeing it hang in the back of her closet year after year.

    If she had any regrets about the choices she made for her life, she kept them stashed away in the back of her closet along with the paisley dress. And we never knew it.

    Christmas 1961.

    Wherefore Art Thou Coppertone Girl?

    July 29, 2008

    One summer day, when I was about four-years-old, I sat in the front seat of the grocery cart as my mom did her shopping.  As she wheeled the cart around the corner, there on the end cap was a giant cardboard cutout of a little girl whose panties were being pulled away by a frisky little dog.  Her backside was exposed for all the world and the local grocery shoppers to see.  And I was mortified.


    I clapped one hand over my mouth in disbelief and pointed at the offending image in horror with the other.  I was aghast.  I remember my mom laughing, amused at my reaction.


    I think it is around this age that self-awareness and a sense of proprietary kicks in because I remember being embarrassed, for the little girl in the ad and for me. I remember feeling that I had seen something that shouldn’t be seen. 


    You probably already know that the ad to which I am referring is the sweet and innocent Coppertone ad from the 1960s.

     But oh the times, how they are a changin’.


    Last week, Sean and I were in Sam’s. He was not in a cart but walking along side me down the aisle with the books and magazines when all of a sudden we rounded an end cap and he was aghast.  He stopped dead in his tracks.  He clapped one hand over his mouth and pointed with the other at the cover of GQ magazine which was right at his eye level.


    On the cover of the magazine was not a sweet little toddler and a frisky dog, but Gisele Bundchen who is sitting on a bed, looking a little disheveled and wearing a top of some sort, but nothing else. While the cover was not especially graphic, it was not lost on my son that he was seeing something that shouldn’t be seen.


    “Mommy!” Sean whispered-shrieked, “Where are her underpants?”


    I just didn’t really know what to say, and when that happens, I just go with the truth.


    “I don’t know Sean, but she should put some on, don’t you think?”


    We kept moving along and luckily he was quickly distracted by the next thing that caught his eye, and we did not have to continue that conversation.  For now.


    I’m getting old, I know that, but I long for the days of Camelot when the raciest thing in the grocery store was the Coppertone girl.



    Liquid Time

    June 28, 2008

    Have you ever looked at your child and seen your own face? And maybe your child doesn’t look so much like you, but there is something that he does, some little expression that he makes that is unmistakably yours. And just for a split second, the thread that has stitched all of humanity and history together is brilliant and visible and eternity suddenly makes sense.

    Last year, when I was in Illinois visiting my parents, a neighbor brought over some old Super 8 movie footage that had been hiding in a closet for 40 or more years. On it were scenes from a birthday party from when her girls and I were little, maybe four or five years old.

    There wasn’t but a few seconds of me on the video, but seeing myself at that age, especially now  that Sean is that same age, was something beyond eerie. It was like watching liquid time being poured out into my cupped hands, spilling over the sides and slipping through my fingers.

    In watching myself as a 4-year-old, I realized that like me, Sean wears every emotion on his face — twitches, twists and puckers that telegraph every thought and feeling.

    And so I asked God, why did you make him so much like me, unable to hold his cards to his chest?  He will never be able to negotiate a car deal or even a nickel off on a garage sale item.

    I thought of that old Super 8 film yesterday as I sat on a park bench, watching Sean as he came barreling down a slide. The wind blew the hair from his face in just the right way and he wore a familiar expression of unfiltered exhilaration. But instead of a boy on a slide, this is what I saw:

    brother and me

    A whole lot of time has been poured out since I sat on the hood of the family car with my brother on a windy day in the early 60s and I haven’t been able to hold on to a single drop.

    And I haven’t even wanted to.  Until now.

    Now, as I sit on a park bench watching a little boy who looks something like me zip down the slide with the wind in his face, I want to catch every drop and drink it up.


    June 8, 2008

    When I was five-years-old, my parents and I drove to southern California from Illinois in their light green unairconditioned Oldsmobile. 


    I remember quite a bit about being in California and later, the train ride back to Illinois with my mother, but I don’t remember anything at all about the long drive to California except that we stopped and spent the night in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


    As a five-year-old, everything about being in Albuquerque was a new and electrifying sensory experience.  Even the name – Albuquerque! — was exotic and lyrical and fun to say.


    As I walked with my parents from the motel to a nearby diner I remember that I felt like Dorothy when she woke up and found that the tornado had dropped her house in Oz — I wasn’t in Illinois anymore.  Instead of the familiar horizontal stripes of yellow cornfields and blue sky, this landscape was a hounds tooth pattern of oranges and pinks and browns and other kinds of browns all swirling and mixing together.


    While we were eating, a sand storm blew in and when we stepped outside of the diner, hot wind and gritty sand pelted my face and threatened to blow me away.  My dad grabbed one of my hands and my mom the other and then they leaned shoulder into the wind and pressed towards the motel.


    As we made our way across the street, each step a staggering effort, a gust of wind blew both of my feet completely out behind me. I clearly remember, at that moment, the sensation of flying.  I remember the feel of the scorching wind slapping my face and the tingling stinging blast of sand on my bare legs and the grainy pixels of desert colors I could see through squinted eyes.


    As my feet flew out behind me, I was not afraid of the mighty gritty wind, but exhilarated.  I was fearless.  I knew my parent’s hands that were gentle and comforting were also capable and strong and reliable.  I was secure in the knowledge that neither they nor their grip would fail me.  And because of that I was able to fly without fear, not just in that storm, but in many storms to come.



    The Pearl Necklace

    May 7, 2008

    I was going through a box of jewelry the other day when I came across a matching set of pearl earrings and a single pearl drop necklace that I had stashed away years ago.   I realized, as I pulled them from their velvet hiding place, that I have had them for 30 years.  How could that be? I don’t even think of myself as being 30-years-old.


    I ran my fingers along the delicate silver chain of the necklace.  I pulled up my hair and fastened the clasp behind my neck.  I put on the earrings and looked in the mirror.  I turned my head from side to side.  The small pinkish pearl orbs were as pretty as the day I first laid eyes on them, even if I was not.  They were a gift from my high school sweetheart Bob, with whom I was madly in love and dated for several years.  He had worked all winter chopping and selling firewood to buy them for me for my 18th birthday. 


    It was some years later, after we had both moved on with our lives, that I realized that I was as much in love with Bob’s family as I was with Bob.  His mother LaWanda was so good and so kind to me. She was like a mother to me and I enjoyed her company tremendously.  For those few years that we dated, I spent a lot of time just hanging out at their house and being a part of their family.  


    One warm and humid spring morning, Bob broke up with me.  And then he got in his truck and drove off.  The break up was not unexpected.  The anvil falling from the sky had cast its long black shadow upon me long before that spring day.  I was not surprised, but I was crushed all the same.


    I sat on the front steps of his parent’s house and sobbed until I could no longer distinguish between the throbbing of my head and the throbbing of my heart.  Every cell in my body ached and grieved.  Deep down I knew it was for the best, but it was a chapter in my life I did not want to close.  LaWanda came out of the house and sat down beside me as I wept.  She wrapped me up in her arms and cried with me.  She told me that I was better off without him.  Yes, but would I be better off without her?  No, not really and I never was. Bob, I eventually got over.  LaWanda, I never did.   


    Eventually I dried my tears and moved on with my life.  Several years later, I moved to Texas taking the pearls with me.  Whenever I went home to Illinois for a visit, I always stopped by to see LaWanda. It was always awkward driving up that familiar blacktop driveway, hoping to see Bob and hoping not to see Bob.  But then she would invite me into her house and it was like I was 18 again.  We’d sit side-by-side on her sofa, drink iced tea and laugh and talk about everything but Bob. 


    For the next 20 years, I sent her a Christmas card and she sent me one too. She always wrote I hope you are happy, Love LaWanda.  One year, the Christmas card I sent was returned. Not At This Address an unfamiliar hand had scrawled across the envelope.  I found out later that she had died.  No one had told me.  My heart broke all over again.


    I thought of all of these things as I took the pearls off and put them back to sleep in their velvet bed.  I snapped the lid shut as if that somehow provided closure.  I pulled the lid up again and took one long last look.  I made a wish that someday Sean will give them to a girl who will love me as much as I loved LaWanda.


    And then I closed the lid one last time and put them away for another 15 or 20 years.

    The Prize

    June 26, 2007

    On the news last night, there was a story of a woman who won a house. A house!

    A lot of people say, “I never win anything.” I am one of those people who say that. I never win anything. Except a pumpkin. One time I won a pumpkin.

    The year was 1969. It was Friday, October 31st. Halloween. I was a skinny scrawny fourth grader at St. Cabrini Catholic grade school. The entire month of October, the teacher had a big fat pumpkin sitting on her desk. Just before the bell rang, she decided to hold a drawing for some “lucky” student to take it home, thus relieving her of the task of disposing of a large and soon-to-be rotting pumpkin come Monday morning.

    The PumpkinYou could have knocked me over with a feather when my name was drawn. I was thrilled! I had won something! My nemesis and rival, Erin Flannigan — who was cuter, smarter, had better hair, was more athletic, wore nicer clothes, had a sister and could do just about everything slightly better than me except possibly jump rope — really wanted that pumpkin. But there was no way I was giving it up, especially not to her!

    Intoxicated with the thrill of the win, it did not occur to me that I would have to somehow get that pumpkin home, that I would have to walk nearly a mile schlepping a ginormous pumpkin that weighed not that much less than I did.

    I proudly strode up to the front of the classroom like Miss America to claim my prize. I was so thrilled. I slid the orange beauty off the desk and up onto my knee and then I hoisted it up to my tummy, which sent me reeling backwards a few steps. I wrapped my spaghetti arms around my beloved prize and with my back swaying like a pregnant lady, I staggered two or three drunken grapevine steps to the door. Erin made one more generous offer to take the pumpkin off my hands, but I said nothin’ doin’ sister, it’s my pumpkin and I’m keeping it! And then with trembling knees and sweating brow, my pumpkin and I slowly melted to the ground.

    But I remained undaunted for I had won a prize! A pumpkin!

    For the next half mile, I slowly slogged toward home, repeating the knee-lift/hoist/stagger/squat/rest sequence about every ten steps. I was sitting on my pumpkin on the sidewalk resting up for the next sequence, when I saw Paula Vose’s mom zip by in her little VW Bug. The tail lights turn red.  The car stopped and then whirred back towards me. She rolled down her window. “Wanna ride?” she asked. God bless Mrs. Vose! She had mercy on me. I nodded my head vigorously. She got out, put the pumpkin in her car and took me home — a kindness I have never forgotten.

    The next day, I noticed the bottom of the pumpkin was beginning to turn black and soggy. I ceremoniously hauled it out to the burning barrel in the back yard. I lifted it to the edge of the barrel and with an odd sense of satisfaction, I tipped it in. It hit the bottom of the barrel with a resounding thud and sent up a cloud of grey ash. So long prize. And I haven’t won anything since.

    * * * * *

    Have you ever won anything?

    It Made Sense At The Time

    June 24, 2007

    Whenever I’ve talked about how that at St. Cabrini, where I attended Catholic grade school, our 4th grade class saved up to buy a pagan baby, I’ve gotten one of two responses.  People who did not attend Catholic school in the 1960s will look at me in stunned silence as though I were from Mars.  People who did attend Catholic school will nod their head knowingly and sigh at the utter absurdity of the notion.

    Sister Mary TwiggyHow does a fourth grader go about buying a pagan baby you might wonder?  Well, we brought our scavenged pennies and nickels into school and put them in a jar until we finally had enough to send off for a pagan baby, I guess from the pagan baby store which was probably somewhere in California.  That’s where everything cool was, or at least that’s what mid-western Catholic school kids thought.  If you could get your parents to move to California, then you could automatically be cool.  Anyway, $4 and some box tops later, or something like that, and we were the proud owners of a heathen.  I have no idea how much a pagan baby cost, no one ever told us, and being good Catholic children, we didn’t ask.

    Eventually we would get a certificate of some kind in the mail.  The class would vote on a name and afterwards we would have a naming ceremony.  For a baby girl, Sister always pushed us to choose Mary something – Mary Beth, Mary Alice, Mary Margaret, Mary Catherine, Mary Jane, whatever.  The Mary list is endless. For a boy we were expected to choose a name like Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  But in 1969 the names we fourth graders favored were names like Ringo and Twiggy.

    Since it was a class vote with Sister having two votes to our every one, we compromised on Mary Twiggy. We thought it so very funny to exasperate Sister with our zanyness.  As a class, we were supposed to pray for the salvation of little Mary Twiggy throughout the school year. So you see, there was a seed of goodness buried deep deep within such a warped idea.  And somehow?  It made sense at the time.

    I wonder what ever became of Mary Twiggy…

    Originally published July 2006.