Soul-Killing, Radical Revision

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I’ll tell you what sucks.  What sucks is when an idea for a 3rd novel that gelled a couple of years ago around the idea of a highly unusual narrator — in the form of a crotchety, dying BOILER in an old house — suddenly strikes you as an idea that won’t work.  An idea that has gotten in the way of the story, rather than providing a lovely way to bear witness to the events, and relay them with a unique point of view.  THAT’s what sucks.

And,  what sucks even more is the realization that aforementioned novel is more than half completed.  Let’s say 2/3 to 3/4 completed.  With the wrong narrator.  And thus, now needs to be completely re-written.

I hate re-writing more than most.  One of the best moments of my life was when I read an interview with author Ethan Canin in which he said that he tried to do as little rewriting as he possibly could.  He poured everything into his first draft, and felt rewriting generally lost some of the narrative drive and force of the original.  I embraced his words like gospel.

Sigh.  Nonetheless, I have now revised about 12 of the original chapters.  I have at least 18 more to go.  My organizational skills are such that various files are stored in 2 different computers, in a wide array of files.  In other words, it could be way more than 18 additional chapters.

Some of the stuff needs to be tossed away entirely (ouch!!).  Other parts can, and will, be incorporated into the story fairly easily.  In the section below, I did exactly this, and I think it worked.  A snippet that was originally told by the boiler has been woven into an existing chapter.

Even when our souls are impaled, we must gather force and go on.  I guess.

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Savannah is lounging around on the couch, her belly getting so swelled up it no longer looks like it could possibly belong to the rest of her body. She’s wearing a raggedy old pair of sweatpants that she borrowed from Madeline, a T-shirt she borrowed from her sister, and a giant sweatshirt she took right off John’s pile of laundry while it was still sitting on top of the dryer. That girl dearly loves to wear everybody else’s clothes.

The television set is on, as it always is, but Savannah isn’t really looking at it. It seemed as if she mostly liked to push the buttons every so often, make the sound go up or down, or switch to a different channel she would also not watch, then go right back to pushing the buttons on her phone.

Savannah holds the phone to her ear and says, “Daddy? Hi. Hey, what do you think I should have for lunch?”

Oh my god, Madeline thinks. You have got to be fucking kidding me. Not this food thing again.

“Cereal. I had a big bowl of cereal for breakfast.”

“No. I only like creamy peanut butter, and right now all we got is the crunchy kind. I hate that stuff. Plus I only really like peanut butter with marshmallow fluff, and pretty sure we don’t have any of that either. What else?”

“No, I’ve had bagels every day cause Marie always brings them home. Plus that’s what you said yesterday. What else?”

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Madeline comes in with a big basket of laundry and sits at the far end of the sofa to fold it. Savannah puts her teeny feet in Madeline’s lap and goes on with her phone talk. The little-ness of Savannah’s feet, the childlike tone of her voice – Madeline is not sure exactly what it is – she finds herself sitting on that same couch, years earlier, watching her daughter. There was a period when Kate was four and five when she would watch the same movie over and over again, and then watch it some more after that. Her first great love was “Ghostbusters,” til everyone thought they would lose their grip if they heard that tune and heard those folks saying “who you gonna call” one more time. But just when Madeline thought she might end up a few bricks shy of a load as a permanent condition, Kate switched to “The Little Mermaid.”

Kate did not simply watch. She was totally immersed. She had a whole set of costumes and dress-up clothes and pretend furs and pink plastic shoes that she would line up all across the floor, and she would stop the show between every different scene so she could put on the proper costume. She sang every song and acted out the entire story out as well. By the time the Mermaid married the Prince, Kate was wearing a pink gown with gold stars all over it and a shiny silver crown on her head. She puckered up her lips and leaned her head way out to give her Prince a sweet pretend kiss. Madeline saw all of this as she sat on the couch folding laundry.

She thought this: there was a time when she watched those movies with Kate, and she saw them through Kate’s eyes – at first, they were brand new, and every single thing you’re seeing is a wonder and a miracle, then they’re familiar enough to feel like home, but still funny enough that you get surprised – every time –cause you keep seeing all kind of things you didn’t see before, to where you think the jig is up if you have to sit in the presence of those same words for another minute of your lifetime. Quite a bit like life, Madeline thinks.

When Savannah pushes the button that abruptly ends her call, she says, “That was my dad. I was asking him what I should have for lunch.”

“Your dad?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your father?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You were asking your father what you should have for lunch.”

Savannah can see that it ain’t a question, so she don’t answer.

“Your father, as in, the guy who put you on an airplane the minute he found out you were pregnant? Who said that you were dead to him? That father?”

“Uh-huh. He wasn’t a very big help. MadMad, what do you think I should have for lunch?”

“Oh, no. No, no. I’m not playing that game again.”

This advertisement comes on the television just then. There’s all these people setting around a table, completely frozen in time. One of them is caught right in the middle of spilling a whole pitcher of water. The first drop is just about to hit. Another is hanging in mid-air, kicking up his heels, his hair standing straight up in all directions. He is at the highest point, held in the split second before he starts on down. Yet another is tipping his chair so far back you know he’s about to tumble over backwards; but he’s caught right at the tipping point, held right there in the balance. There’s one more person. The only one who can move. He gets to walk all around this whole frozen scene, check it from every angle, ponder on exactly what’s going to happen next. He can take all the time in the world to figure it.

Elvis Has Left the Building: NEW from “Pushing the River”

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“I don’t know how much more of this I can take
She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake”

That’s what she’s thinking about; those two lines from Elvis Costello are twirling around and around in her head. Savannah lay on the couch, her belly ridiculous now on her tiny body, her feet alone looking too small to hold even one person upright, let alone one plus. It’s no wonder she has to lie down all the time, Madeline thinks to herself. Between her goddamn gigantic boobs and her Ripley’s Believe It Or Not belly, and her teeny tiny itty bitty midget feet, no wonder she can’t stand up. AND her razor-cut, rainbow-striped hair and the wad of neon fucking blue gum that never fucking leaves her mouth…FUCK YOU, Madeline thinks. FUCK YOU. She’s not entirely sure exactly whom she is addressing in her head. Nobody. Everybody.

“Savannah,” Madeline says in a casual, even tone. “Have you thought about…what happens…after this baby is born.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, It just seems like all the focus here is on…getting ready for this kid to be born. Getting all the clothes. The equipment. The stuff.”

Yeaaahhhhh?”

“It’s like the birth is the big event. The end point.” Madeline pauses for a response. Savannah cracks her gum. “You know: that’s all she wrote, the die is cast; the train has left the station; the little bird has flown; the ship has sailed; the gun is fired; Elvis has left the building.”

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“MadMad, what are you talking about?”

“I mean, are you thinking about…are you aware, let’s say, that there is going to be an actual baby that you bring home from the hospital?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that there’s going to be a baby, a real baby, that you will have to take care of, every day, every night, every minute, all the time.”

“I try not to think about that,” Savannah said.

“For eighteen years. At least. Three years longer than you’ve been here on the planet so far.”

Savannah moves the neon blue wad from one side of her mouth to the other. “Geez, Maddie, I try not to think about that!”

“Yeah, I think that’s my point here. I know you’re not thinking about it.”

“GEEZ, Maddie! What do you want from me? You’re making me feel bad!”

An intense pain gathers force on one side of Madeline’s head. My head is gonna explode, she thinks to herself. It is going to detach from my body and fly apart into a million icky gooey oozy little pieces. What’s the movie where that happens? It’s going to splatter against the walls and slap Savannah upside the face.

“I just think,” Madeline says calmly, “that the person I see lying on the couch in front of me doesn’t seem like she is ready to have an actual baby. Not one bit ready.” Silence rains down into the room like a vapor.

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Middle photo: Dorothea Lange

Becoming Billie

As I [try! to!] return to writing the novel “Pushing the River,”  the character that I find haunting me is Billie.  As regular readers may recall,  I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book.  In the novel  overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action.  But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present.  I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.

I have previously posted excepts from Billie’s story; this is a continuation, meant to be somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle.

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Billie Rae would brush her hair for hours. “That feels so nice,” she said. “Please, just a few more minutes, Stevie, pretty please?” Steve weren’t never the one who had brushed her hair – it was always Carol. But who she’d gone fishing with, and who made her special grilled cheese sandwiches just the exact way she liked them, and who done her hair, had gotten all mixed together inside of her. They was all people that used to be there, and now they wasn’t.

Billie wasn’t scared no more to walk home from school all by herself. She and Steve talked the whole entire way. He laughed and laughed at her stories. “You’re still my baby sister, Billie Rae, but I swear that when your times comes, you are going to have yourself the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop. The boys are gonna be lining up, Billie girl, so they can laugh their fool heads off.”

The door to her mama’s bedroom was closed when Billie got home. Always. She knocked on the door, said, “Mama, I’m home? Did you have a good day, Mama?”

She no longer waited for a response.

It was completely silent on the other side of the bedroom door. Billie used to remove her shoes in the kitchen, and tiptoe to her mother’s bedroom. Without making a sound, she lowered herself onto the floor and rested an ear against the cool glossy paint of the door. She sat for a long time, straining to get even the faintest hint of stirring, an audible breath, any sign that there was a life on the other side.

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She made up stories after that. Her mother had been secretly taken away by gypsies and was playing a tambourine with bright yellow and orange streamers every evening around a roaring campfire while men played the fiddle and women told tall tales and babies ran amok. Her mother had run away with a traveling circus and proven to have a remarkable talent with the elephants, who understood that she loved them dearly and would do whatever she wanted for the reward of her gentle strokes and soothing words. Her mama had been sucked right out of the window like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and was traveling through a magical and wonderful land, but all she wanted to do was get back home.

Billie had a recurring dream. She was in a beautiful place, right next to a dazzling blue sea. She said to the owner of the restaurant: “I’m waiting for my family. They’ll be right here.”

“We’re very busy today,” he replied. “Very busy.”

“They’ll be right here.”

He seats her at a table. She gazes out at the endless blue and feels a sense of tremendous peace. She enters a dozy, dreamy state. When she emerges from the deep reverie, a woman is sitting at her table, kitty-cornered from her. Billie is unsure what to make of this. She thinks that perhaps the owner has allowed the woman to sit there for a bit because it is so crowded. She’s not sure whether to pretend the woman is not there at all, or whether she should say something. The woman looks up from the book she is reading, gives Billie a small smile.

“My family will be right here,” Billie says, with an edge of assertiveness in her voice.

The woman smiles her small smile again, and resumes her reading. Friends, or perhaps they’re family, come over to the table, with much chatter and buoyant good cheer. They pull out the chairs and sit at Billie’s table, everyone talking at once as they open their menus and engage in a lively discussion of what wonderful foods they will all order. The waitress comes to the table, and Billie’s earlier sense of peace shatters like a pane of glass, the shards floating inside of her body, tearing at her.

The others look at her when it is her turn to order. “But…my family…”

They laugh, and return to their conversation. Billie doesn’t know if they don’t believe her, or if they don’t care. The little shards of glass rip at her guts.

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Top painting by Otto Pilny

I Lied. There Is One More “Stories of My Mother”

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When Heidi went into heat the next time, my parents arranged to have her spend a number of days with the breeders where we got her. They had selected a mate for her. We all drove out to drop her off. The house lay at the fringes of land that were well past the suburbs, but not quite rural. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, some in large cages set around the enormous yard, and others who roamed the house freely. I wondered if the same dogs always got to live inside, or if the breeders rotated them inside and out, following some schedule. Their immense pride in their dogs was evident. Both the man and the woman went on at length, telling me each of the dog’s names and several of their predominant character traits. I got the feeling that I was actually supposed to remember all this, because of their joy and the weight they gave to every detail they imparted.

It was a confusing mess to me, despite the good cheer. I wanted to know if Heidi would have to be outside in one of the cages, and I was told that she would, because she and her new male friend would need privacy and time to get to know one another. I could not understand the convivial good spirits everybody seemed to share. We were abandoning Heidi with strangers who were going to make her live outside all the time.

The body of a female dog makes a complete puppy from the original fertilized cell in about 63 days. The average size of a litter is 5-6 puppies, although the variation is enormous. It’s rare to have just one puppy in a litter, but it does happen. A couple of months after we fetched Heidi from her exile, my parents once again got the wooden pen ready for her in the basement. The same old blue bedspread and dingy pink blanket that her first litter had been born onto lay on the floor. Heidi occasionally scratched at the blankets, rearranged them with her nose and paws, and circled around and around as she waited.

One afternoon, Heidi squatted down in a corner of the pen and stayed in the same position, motionless, and staring straight ahead. She looked like she was trying very hard to poop. I wanted to ask my mother if this was true, but she had already told me that I needed to stay completely quiet if I was going to watch. Heidi let out a long, low moan. She inched her rear end closer to the floor, so slowly, and out came a translucent thick balloon with a puppy inside of it.

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There was only one puppy, which was an enormous surprise. My parents decided that we should keep her, and that she should be named “Elf,” the German word for eleven. She was to be the 11th dog that my family had. They counted the dog that my father’s nurse had gotten for us unannounced. We visited him where he was chained at the far end of our back yard until my mother couldn’t stand it for another minute. I’m not really sure what happened to Toby. They also counted the black puppies that had not been viable.

I don’t think my parents realized that Heidi had been a relatively compliant, trainable dog until Elf. Looking back, I think Elf was most likely just dumb as a box of rocks. Even in photographs, she has a wild, glassy look in her eye – an animal with unbridled enthusiasm, absolutely no comprehension, the brute strength of an ox, the stubbornness of a mule, and a bad bad case of ADD.

I thought having two dogs was great fun.

My grandmother (the good, good one) was visiting us, and my mother had planned a big dinner. An eight pound beef roast sat on our kitchen counter, thawing out for the upcoming feast. My grandmother heard a commotion, and walked in to find Elf with the giant slab of meat clenched firmly in her jaws. My grandmother shouted “NO NO NO,” and reached out with both hands to rescue the meat. Elf snapped at her. My grandmother called out for my mother, who came running into the kitchen and immedaitely understood the situation. My mother spoke firmly to the dog and reached for the roast. Elf snapped at her as well.

I didn’t see any of this. I came in at the part where my mother told me that my grandmother was going to be in charge for a little while, and that she would be back soon. She put Elf on a leash and left. When she returned, Elf was not with her.

The only thing that was ever said about it was this: “I will not have a dog that snaps at its owner.”

We sat around the dinner table that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, though my father seemed unusually quiet.

I understood that we were not supposed to talk about it, but I was sick with sadness and confusion. I remembered the time when Elf was brand new, her eyes still closed tight, her body squat and furrowed with newborn puppy wrinkles. I was sitting inside the pen holding Elf on my lap, and somehow she slipped off. I picked her up, horrified at my clumsiness, and saw a tiny bubble of blood at the side of her nose.

After dinner that night, after my mother had finished the dishes and turned off the kitchen light, I said, “Mommy, do you think it’s all my fault? Do you think Elf was such a bad dog because of the time when I dropped her when she was a tiny puppy?”

“Maybe,” my mother said. “Maybe.”

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Artwork: Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Mary Cassatt

Stories of My Mother: The End

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My mother loved to tell the story of when I was sick with the chicken pox. I came downstairs in my pajamas, miserable with pain and itch, wretched with a high fever. I stood in the kitchen and cried.

Our beloved family dog Heidi had recently birthed a litter or eight tiny, squiggling black puppies. My father had built her a small pen in our basement, and filled it with old blankets, so she would have a place to birth and raise her pups.

When she heard my sobs, she left her pups in their basement pen and came up to see the situation for herself. My mother never stopped delighting in telling how Heidi nuzzled into me and began giving me gentle but insistent pushes towards the basement staircase. She was trying to herd me down the stairs, so I could join the rest of the babies that needed her.

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Heidi did love me best of our family of four, but I thought it was mighty generous of my mother to say so, and to delight in it, considering that she had done the lion’s share of the hard work of housebreaking, and training, and feeding and slogging the big dog inside and outside since the day we had brought her home. I was three years old then, and therefore instantly and deeply in love. I held the sleeping puppy for hours. I examined every square inch of her as she grew, so I would know her dog body as well as I could. Til the very end of her life, whenever I would sit on the floor in front of a heating vent in order to shake off winter’s bitter chill, she would lie down next to me, resting her head in my lap. I spread her ears out across my thigh and stroked them, and reveling in their unequaled softness.

I have no memory of the chicken pox incident myself, but I heard it so many times growing up that I have formed a clear picture of it – Heidi’s expression of alertness and concern, my flannel pajamas with faded yellow flowers all over them, so small on me that my 5-year-old belly showed in the space between the tops and the bottoms. My only memory of the chicken pox is watching my mother pour nearly a full box of cornstarch into a steaming hot bath and telling me that it would help with the terrible itching. It didn’t. She told me that I had an unusually bad case. In a state of scientific wonder, she decided to count the pox on my face one day, but she stopped just past the bridge of my nose, when she had already reached 100.

I was past the worst of it. The pox were scabbing over, and though I was still sick, I felt so much better than I had that I was filled with a kind of giddy exhilartion when I woke up that morning. I bound into the kitchen and told my mother that I was going to the basement to play with the puppies. She turned from the kitchen sink to face me, and told me that one of the puppies had died during the night. “Why,” I asked.

“You never know about these things,” my mother replied. “So many things can be wrong that we can’t even see.”

“Where is the puppy?” I wanted to know.

“It’s gone,” she said.

“Gone where?” I wanted to know.

She didn’t answer.

“Was it a boy, or a girl?”

“It was a boy.”

The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual. My mother stood in the kitchen, wrapping a tiny, still black thing in a sheet of newspaper.

“You’re up early,” she said. “Another puppy died last night.”

“I want to see it.”

She unwrapped a corner of the newspaper, and I could see the fat, adorable-looking puppy that I had held and played with the day before. It was completely limp, like a rag doll. But otherwise – perfect. “How do you know it’s dead?”

“Because I know,” my mother said.

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Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Every night, another puppy died. My mother said that Weimaraners were special dogs. A highly pure German breed. We had intended to breed Heidi with a carefully selected male, but she had gotten knocked up in the back yard before my parents were sure that she was in heat. My mother explained that often times, when Weimaraners bred with other breeds of dogs, the puppies were not viable. It was a new word. Viable.

One puppy remained. A male. Each morning I woke up, and he was still alive. I studied him, trying to figure out what possible magic he possessed that allowed him to live. My parents found a young man who wanted to adopt him. My mother told me that he was going to come to our house in a couple of days and take the one remaining puppy to grow up and live with him.

“Are you sure he’ll be able to stay alive,” I asked. “Are you sure he’s viable?”

“I’m sure,” she said.

Now that I know the truth, I sometimes try to picture it. I wonder how my mother made her decisions about which one she would choose. I picture her carrying a wriggling puppy in her two hands, up the basement stairs and into our darkened kitchen. I see her plugging the drain, and running a sinkful of water. Or did she run the water in advance, I wonder. Warm, or cool. What goes through your mind when you are cradling new life in your hands, feeling that life drain away, watching for those last tiny bubbles of air to rise to the surface.

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Photos: William Wegman

Stories of My Mother #9

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My mother brought every bit of her training and rigor as a scientist to bear on her duties as a mother and homemaker. In particular, she approached the task of preparing three meals a day for growing children with fervor and precision. Everything that was put in front of us, every meal, contained a meticulously constructed, well-rounded, visually pleasing combination of food and drink that also held an appropriate calorie content in a nutritionally perfect amalgam. The chewable vitamins that I was so fond of were entirely superfluous I’m sure. In fact, I was in such glowing good health, not to mention full of bouncy energy as a young child, my grandmother suggested to my mother that perhaps the vitamin pills were not such a good idea. She was the mean grandmother; my other grandmother tickled my feet all day long, if I wanted, and would never have said such a thing. Why it was only when my parents repeatedly questioned the endless bruises on her legs that she broke down confessed to my brother’s regularly kicking her. Nice grandmother.

Not that my mother wasn’t a big believer in The Treat – she was. We regularly went to the local bakery, and always had a well-stocked supply of beloved cookies in the house. We were allowed to have one, and only one, if we finished everything on our plates. I grew up in the time, and in the household, where this was a non-negotiable given. You ate what was put in front of you, and you ate it all. My mother maintained this policy with a complete zero tolerance stance, even though my brother would regularly throw up stuff he genuinely “didn’t care for,” in the parlance one used to describe that whole mess.

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As early as I can remember, my mother said of her painstakingly-planned meals that we simply must eat it, because it was good for our Mr. Man. I have no idea where she came up with this, er, concept, but you just don’t question the things that you hear from your parents from day one. Mr. Man. Once my mother had made clear the extreme and immeasurable importance of Mr. Man, she was rather vague concerning follow-up details. I sort of understood that there was some… entity… inside of me that demanded satisfaction; after that, I was pretty much left to my own devices.

I was very young. I knew that our bodies are warm inside, way warmer than the air around us. I also had some idea that once we chewed up our food and swallowed it, it went somewhere deep down inside of us. It seemed natural and reasonable to me that there must be a fire deep in my belly, and that fire needed to be fed on an absolutely regular basis or it would go out. (We had a fireplace in my house, and once in a while my parents would let me feed pieces of paper into the dying embers, making a game out of waiting to see how long I could wait and still get the next piece of paper to ignite. Wait too long, and poof, done, out of luck, fire out.) Well, of course I didn’t think there was a nice suburban home fireplace inside my body. I thought it probably looked more like a brick oven.

And Mr. Man? Well, I watched a lot of cartoons. He looked pretty much like Wimpy from Popeye. Except without the suit – he wore a plain white t-shirt and working-man pants. After all, it was hot down there, and he had a ceaseless and essential job to do – you need to be comfortable for that.

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Stories of My Mother #8: Pierced Ears

79767-5515780-IMG_5637neu_jpg2CULTURAL NOTE:  I am writing this from Berkeley, California, where there is no such thing as a dirty car, and where the locals complain bitterly as the temperature approaches 70 degrees.  To quote from my daughter’s landlady: “We don’t move to Berkeley to be hot.”

Like most girls of my age, I longed to get my ears pierced. to complete my ideal hippie self with an array of long, dangly, shimmering, beaded, bangled, silvery earrings.  Alas, my mother did not share the sentiment that this was a wildly great idea.  She was from a different era, and more importantly, a different social stratum.  For her, pierced ears conjured up images of…immagrants.  Women straight off the boat cradling tiny infant girls whose tiny infant ears had been brutally stabbed in order to place tiny bits of stone on their lobes.  Never mind that every single infant boy of the time was circumcised, a sizable portion of skin lacerated from his newborn penis.  One was clearly a sign of the success of public health to ensure progressively better hygiene, the other a horrifying pagan ritual.

I begged, pleaded, cajoled, litigate, and prepared essay-structured polemics as to why it was absolutely necessary to have pierced ears, lest my truest and best self never be fully realized.  By the summmer that I was 14, I had worn her down.  She took me to a local physician, an Italian (cough*immigrant*cough) who was a colleague of my father.  He pierced my ears the old-fashioned way, with a surgical suturing needle and surgical thread.  I had heard the folklore that ear lobes have very few blood vessels in them, and therefore hardlybleed at all when pierced.  Ha. Haha.  One of my ears obeyed this rule, the other gushed forth in a truly impressive fashion.

In no time at all, I developed a raging infection in both of my earlobes.  They bled, oozed, and pussed in an even more impressive array of textures and colors.  My father prescribed one round of antibiotics, then another; one kind of antibiotic ointment, then another.  The infect remained undaunted.  I was forced to conclude that the only reasonable alternative was to allow my hard-one holes to close up and heal.  But I am not one to give up easily.  I tried again.  But like the world’s worst deja-vu, the entire infection calamity repeated itself.

When I talked my mother into making a third (and, I was sure, final) attempt, she thought: “Oh, for heaven’s sake; I’m doing it myself this time.”  She got her own suturing needle, her own surgical thread, and took me into the downstairs powder room of our house so I could direct her aim and watch the amazing rivulet of blood spring forth.

It was one of the rare moments that I was awake before my mother.  She padded into the kitchen in her sleippers and robe to fine me wide awake, fully dressed, and crying.  “Did you hear me talking on the phone?” she asked.

“No,” I said.  The tears were in free fall by this time. “I’m gonna have to let it close up.  Again.  It’s a mess.  A total mess.”  I had awakened to a number of different colors and viscosities of goo and blood crusting and running from both sides of my ear lobe.  “What do you mean: did I hear you on the phone?”

“I was on the phone.  I thought maybe you heard.  Your Uncle Steve died.”  She stood there in her robe and slippers, her eyes clear and dry.

I thought of the time when I was a very little girl, 5, maybe, or 6.  I was playing in my room and heard a faint sound coming from down the hall.  I followed the sound down the hallway and into my parents’ bedroom, where my mother sat crying on the bed.  My world was turned upside down.  I had never seen my mother cry before.  I believed that feelings were something that children encountered, sure.  But just children.  That they were something that you grew out of — like skinned knees, and teeth that fell out, and homework — things your bore in childhood, but never after.

My mother continued.  “He died last night.”  My Uncle Steve was her baby brother.  “Now let’s take a look at that ear.”

Photo from Flickr by David Uzochukwu

Stories of My Mother #7

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Being a lady of her era, my mother did not swear, mostly. Being a sporting gal, she tossed around the occasional “hell” or “damn” with judicious and sparse placement when the situation warranted –never in public, nor in the presence of children or anyone she did not know quite well, and never, ever within earshot of my beloved aunt, who was still a devout Catholic. I am not sure my aunt ever recovered from taking me on a girls’ overnight when I was 12 years old. We went to a movie that had recently opened and was getting a lot of attention. She was curious about it, and I was up for anything that felt so utterly grown up and fun. The movie stunned me; I found it a magnificently eye-opening, hilarious, thought-provoking jaunt. But when my aunt ordered her second drink and downed it with the same rapidity she had tossed back her first one at our posh post-movie dinner, I realized that she had been severely traumatized by The Graduate.

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When my mother swore in anger, she muttered the cuss words under her breath. This stood in marked contrast to the literary cuss, in which she used her normal speaking voice to talk about the God damned rabbits who were mowing down her tulips, or Hells Bells what in the world would become of the neighbor boy who had once again made a concoction from his science kit and sweet-talked my friend across the street into drinking it. And hadn’t he learned his lesson after he’d gotten into so much trouble after tying me to that tree? Is all reason to be damned?

She never said the s— word; and I felt pretty certain that she never even thought The F Word. If you had seen my mother’s hair when she came back from the beauty parlor and her weekly appointment with Gretta, I am certain you would understand that this was true.

Or so I thought.

My father was a physician in general practice in a different era. He made house calls, set bones and stitched people together right in his office, delivered babies and sat with the dying. His patients had our home phone number, and they called when they needed him no matter the time. Meaning that I was mighty begrudged about having to answer our phone – each and every time – by saying “Monier residence,” so they would know that they had gotten the right number for their doctor. All of my friends got to pick up the phone and say, of course, “Hello.” Also, this was before the days of answering machines, back when you called people and counted ten rings at least, to ensure they had enough time to interrupt whatever they were doing and run for your phone call! There is just no ducking calls, in other words, when your father is a physician and anyone who calls is determined to call repeatedly and let it ring a minimum of ten times.

One evening, when my father was not yet home, my mother picked up the receiver and said “Monier residence…” The voice on the other end of the line whispered, “Hey, baby, how about a little FUCK?” She slammed the phone back in its cradle. The next night, she got the exact same call at nearly the same time. When the call came again the third evening, she called the police, who said there was nothing they could really do. She consulted with my father, who quickly went from amused to enraged, but drew a blank.

When he called on the fourth night, and whispered those words, “Hey baby, how about a little fuck?” My mother said, loud and clear, “A little FUCK? What’s wrong with you? That all you got? I want a BIG FUCK. A REALLY REALLY BIG FUCK.”

He did not call again.

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Stories of My Mother, #6

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Meanwhile, my mother came home from her weekly hair appointments sporting a face that seemed only vaguely reminiscent of the one she had left with. In her her eagerness to embrace the day and to sell her wares, Gretta sent my mother home each week with shockingly inappropriate eye make-up and a passel of samples. We tried to be kind. But the colors that were smeared across my mother’s eye lids were truly an assault to both nature and my mother.

My mother never did “do” her eyes on a daily basis, but on the now-rare occasions when she and my father went out for the evening, she would spread Gretta’s samples across her bathroom counter, stand in front of her room-sized mirror and attack the job at hand in much the same way that she attacked gardening. My mother, in fact, had no eyelashes. Well, damn few, in the sense that what hairs did manage to sprout forth happened to be sparse, fine, blonde, and exceptionally short. Nonetheless, my mother grasped her eyelash curler (a medieval contraption I tried a small handful of times to largely painful and highly undesired results – meaning I either ripped out more eyelashes than I “curled,” or I ended up with lashes that formed a severe right angle, heading straight OUT for a short distance, and then straight UP) with no end of determination for the task at hand.

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Mascara of the day bore little resemblance to the technological marvel of lengthening, thickening, volumizing, curling, smudge-proof, waterproof, lash-defining, no-clump, lash-separating types that incorporate resins, waxes, nylon fibers, and light-reflecting particles that overwhelm us today. My mother’s mascara was a brownish goo that I’m pretty sure was actually a combination of shoe polish and cold cream. The applicator wand was essentially a screw, much like one would find at the local hardware store, where the tarry goo insinuated itself between the threads of the screw. Once my mother had curled her lashes, swiped the mascara screw across their length, then repeated the entire process a second time…well, it’s difficult to describe the end result. It did look as if my mother had something coming out from the edges of her eyelids – not eyelashes, exactly, but something.

My mother relished the idea that Gretta’s little eye shadow samples had taken a page directly from Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 role as Cleopatra. Like Gretta’s miscarriages, my mother followed the news of Taylor’s frightening health scare that nearly ruined the production, her great love affair with Richard Burton, and the charming fact that once married, she referred to herself as Betty Burton. So. My mother stood before me, clumps of…something… on her lash line where her real lashes had once been, colors that could scarcely be imagined swathed across her lids; and as a final touch, a kiss of lipstick in one of the exact pale, frosted shades that I had recently tossed away. In her gown, and her glory, my mother asked me how she looked.

I loved my mother. I said she looked just swell.

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Stories of My Mother, #5

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Everything changed the year that I was 13, and before my 14th birthday I had tossed out my last jar of Dippity-Do, deep-sixed my hair curlers, and thrown away a large number of white and pink-white and nearly-white tubes of frosted lipstick. Even though I was slightly late to the party, I considered myself A Hippie, and pared my wardrobe down to one pair of jeans that were long enough to abrade the bottoms in an artful fashion, a pair of moccasins that I wore in all weather conditions, 4 identical mock turtleneck sweaters in different colors for winter, and four men’s T-shirts for summer.

Suddenly everyone who had been desperately trying to get their hair to hold a curl was straightening it! I grew my hair to my waist and beamed when people asked me regularly if I ironed it to get it so straight! I was a Natural Woman. I told my mother she had given me her last Toni home permanent, thank you very much, and gathered up my bras for a ritual burning. My mother was actually quite accepting of the changes in My Look, never getting especially excited when I came home with frozen feet from wearing moccasins in mid-winter, or put the same pair of jeans in the laundry time after time (though jeans were not meant to look clean at this time – we doodled on them with ink pens, and if we didn’t smoke ourselves, we co-opted friends’ cigarettes any chance we got, so we could grind the ashes into our jeans to create a look that was just so.)

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My mother drew the line at the bra thing, however. She commenced in giving me anatomical lectures about the Cooper’s ligament, and how I was putting myself and my 14-year-old breasts in danger of developing a ghastly condition known as “Cooper’s Droop,” due to my poor, unsupported B-size breasts being unable to support their own massive weight, the ligaments stretching under the immense strain, and ending up with – Cooper’s Droop. Her own mother had suffered this fate, she told me. Being a fashion victim of the 1920’s, the “flapper era” when women’s ideal appearance was flat-chested, my grandmother had bound up her ample bosom, resulting in – Cooper’s Droop. My mother alleged that things degenerated to the point where my grandmother had to lift her breasts out of the way in order to fasten her belt. My mother attempted to horrify me even further by saying that at least it was easier for grandmother to see the breast lumps she kept developing.

I was unfazed. Cooper’s Droop be damned. My girls were set free.

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