i’m really winging it today; something is telling me to talk about this and something is telling me to not care if anyone reads it or likes it or relates to it. but i always tell people to tell their stories because we all have one and so how can i actually tell people to tell their stories when i still keep mine packed away? after all, my kids know the mom they experience and i am doing this blog for them too so they have a sense of who i am and why they are and so it’s a necessary part of the process for me to do this for all of us.
before you panic, chill. i’m not about to blow the cover off some sacred family secret or share my well of woes with you. that’s private and personal and while it’s part of the 21st century definition of my story, it’s really no one’s business but mine. i may watch YouTube but i’m not a lay-it-all-out-there-in-all-its-nakedness type of person. most of that is because of my breeding, i’m certain. and don’t go all “she’s totally repressed! busted!” on me because well, that’s absurd.
what i’d like to write about and sorta get off my chest is a feeling of disconnect that i often experience with people whom i actually love very much intellectually but feel ambivalent about emotionally. these people inspire me, they stir me, they throw mirrors in my face and they vex me but they are the ones who day in and day out, no matter where i am or the distance apart physically, they are on standby. and i dig that. i am blessed. these people know me deeply, they should know who they are and the safety i feel with them nourishes me. so it’s because of them that i’m here and i’m writing anything online. i hope they’re here too.
i’ve recently taken to having pen and paper near the bedside because i’ve been waking in the middle of the night for the past few months almost with an urging, tender but persistent, to get up and write. i wake with these fabulous ideas, give my muse, God love her, a pat on the fanny and tell her to go back to bed and that i’ll get on it in the morning. come the sunrise: the ideas are vapor.
i have faith they’ll be back, and while i don’t mean this to sound lazy, i just do have that faith because we are all creatures experiencing renewal all the time. if we forget that we have thrown in the towel. i woke this morning with the phrase: “i grew up with a fair amount of chaos.”
part of my story obviously involves my parents who made me and are still with us, thank goodness. i’m not the best daughter. i have bristle issues when it comes to my parents and i think the fact that i’m even admitting this shows a little bit of growth. there are things i’d like to do for my parents, be more a part of their lives but i’ve gotta get to peace with some stuff before i can really do it. helping them grows my heart, that is for certain. we had a situation a couple years ago where my brother and i were able to really assist them and it felt great to do. i didn’t like the circumstances that engendered the assistance, but we do these things when we can. so there is a part of me though, deep inside, that resists. and being a “couch time” veteran, i know that what we resist persists. so i’m trying to step into it a bit. babysteps.
so, i grew up with a fair amount of chaos.
i read with great relish about 5 years ago Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors which reminded me at moments of my own days. but mine weren’t quite so woo-woo and despite the chaos and the real problems in that world of ours i was infinitely safer than Augusten and am thus slightly more stable. his writing is outstanding though so if you get a chance, read about him and try him.
i read some time later Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. that memoir also spoke to me. she’s fantastic and inhabits a world with her parents (her mother survives; i believe her dad has died) that appeals to me: it’s a sort of “love them how you can and let them live they way they want” method and at times i feel as though i am exquisitely close and then intellect steps in and i’m out.
i read Broken by William Moyers, son of PBS journalist Bill Moyers. this book helped me from the standpoint of being an observer of what he has experienced and the gift it gave me is perspective and a modicum of patience for those circumstances.
if you know these books, you know their central theme.
my parents are brilliant people. i mean off-the-charts IQs and abilities that astound me even in their late 70s and almost 80s.
my mother can recite Shakespeare’s sonnets off the first two words if you happen to be quoting within earshot. and you best know your shit because she will correct the mistake playfully but with the confidence of a pit shark in vegas. she can play Gershwin, Porter, a little Beethoven on the ivories by ear… both hands. she can illustrate and catch the subtle nuances (which are super subtle, by the way, so they seem even more esoteric to many) of life’s inconsistencies. her two senses of five i suppose are what power her: hearing and sight. they fill her mind and imagination with the gifts she shares. they also can crowd her mind with darkness and fixations. she grew up in the 40s and 50s; a teenager by 1950. that black and white world we only see through magazines and old TV / movie clips. college educated, catholic and artistically gifted she was forced to use her right hand in her catholic school (how i got away with using my left in the same type of institution escapes me) and i believe all the stigma, crap and paranoia that surrounds left-handedness has also shaped her in an intractable way. she is the oldest of her siblings and like i am, the only daughter of her parents. she has survived two brothers’ deaths, along with her own moments of profound loss as a mother. in those moments however she is fierce like a lion and has a strength she pulls from somewhere deep inside her. i wish she would access it more often because i believe she has many more years in her and that strength could help her physically thrive. she has illuminating and flawless skin (i have more wrinkles than she) thanks to her collection of wide-brim straw hats and her physical beauty is without peer. her classiness tacitly reminds me that silence is always an alternative and usually the finest choice. she’s witty and charming too. but she thinks she can sing better than she can and to the expectant delight of many of my cousins and the curdling chagrin of her children she sings anyway with panaché at weddings and family events. she introduced me to “Auntie Mame” and many Judy Garland films and often calls when a good one is on TCM. she is a champion of anything i write (we’ll see about this one) and she taught me to not use parenthesis because if it can’t stand on its own, don’t write it. i agree with her on that, but i still like (). her softness, something i used to repel and have a hard time reconciling with, is her finest feature but has also been her undoing at times.
my father is a classic strong guy who is a prime example of the self-made man but whose weaknesses despite his many strengths prove the adage “we are only as strong as our weakest link.” despite all that, he’s really quite amazing as well and he inspires me daily with his bootstrap attitude. super bright, the product of a top-tier education whose tuition was paid by an unknown donor along with his recommendation to that school, he has an efficient no-nonsense demeanor save for his occasional and apropos lapses into his gift for mimicry, song and literature. his sense of humor is cultivated and ranks among my favorite things about him. many evenings as a child i would waft to sleep hanging on the notes from his tinkering on his classical guitar or piano meanderings, which he also taught himself. masculine in his exterior but very tender hearted for those he lets in, he’s an example of trust then verify. he chose rowing as his sport although i recently learned that he favored baseball more but didn’t play it because of his size and abilities when interested. given that testimony and the fact that rowing was his default sport i can’t imagine how he would have excelled at baseball when considering the following: rowed in the ’56 Olympics in Melbourne (i’ve been corrected, i thought they were in Sydney… wonder who sent the correction?). i’m still not clear on the issue that brought his boat, a 4+cox, to its fate of missing the final races but true to his nature he didn’t let that end his love of the sport as he went on to successfully coach crews for many years. one of the spurs that comes along with a successful bootstrapper attitude however is the tendency to tell your own tales of greatness, of which he is often guilty. children love to hear about their awesome parents from observers. he is a writer of difficult and controversial things as he got started in investigative journalism and while i am proud of his excellence in that genre i can’t help but wonder if that world fueled a sense of extra vigilance and distrust in the bigger world as well as his need to break his own stories with the lede on A1. he has at least one fellowship under his belt and spent some time in the hippie heyday on the campus of a northern California university in the late 60s. as an emotionally conservative person honed from the granite of the new england education system being in California must’ve been quite a paradox for him. i relish to think mom rather enjoyed it being the free spirit she is. nonetheless, he and my mom made it back to the east coast with me and my older brother in tow without many effects from the hippies’ second-hand smoke….
i was born in 1967 in buffalo, ny. yes, it’s cold there. yes it snows in the winter. yes the springs last 4 weeks and the summer another 8 and then it’s cold again. but it’s a lovely town with eye-popping architecture, cultural outlets and history gilded by America’s explosive growth during the industrial revolution of the 1800s to the mid 1900s. people like my hero F Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain hail or spent many years in buffalo. Frank Lloyd Wright built a few landmarks there and many members of my childhood family are still there helping that place hum despite its economic straits. i sailed on the best lake in the world, Erie. i peed, nearly drowned, lost a mary jane (one of several lost i assure you), soothed a melted marshmallow burn, psyched the bejeesus out of myself after “Jaws” (which i never saw until i was much older), waterskied and frolicked in those beloved waters every summer. they are in my blood. during the winters i stood on the nature-made and wind-shaped ice sculptures that harken the “fortress of solitude” in the movie “Superman.” we could walk to get groceries, and often did. as we grew older we would walk to the penny candy store and get our fix of those spicy soft cinnamon coins, bittersweet non-pareils, shoestring licorice and fake gum cigarettes that emit “smoke” powder when you blow just right between the wrapper and the gum. our dog toby would pull a sled with our small brown paper bags, one of them holding chocolate for him that we didn’t know he shouldn’t have. i still refer to buffalo as home because my heart and blood and spirit are from there; i left when i was almost 14 and the effects of leaving that town was probably the hardest time my family has ever endured.
in my awkward, confused and attitudinal 14-year-old female self: that moved really sucked.
we came from a fantastical victorian on buffalo’s west side. you couldn’t get more west really. the house had a turret, cedar shaker siding shingles (say that again!) and a tenacious ivy that mocked my father’s attempts at its extinction thriving on its south side, arabesque terracotta chimneys, servants’ bells, a pile of coal in the “coal room” in the basement and a photographer’s dream: a dark room in another basement room, tall big windows, a 70-foot wooden flagpole, a carriage house, inlaid wood floors, tiffany globe chandeliers, massive mahogany pocket doors, a back staircase, hand-turned cherry banisters and spindles gracing its open 5-foot wide main staircase, stunning architectural details and 4-inch thick doors bolstered by 1/4-inch brass chains and hasps facing my beloved, the greatest Great Lake that boasted Canada every morning. i wasn’t afraid of that attic.
i still dream about that house.
we moved into our next house, a “Kleenex box” as my mother described it. i have to say i agreed with her when compared to our fortress on the lake.
being a teenager i was just excited the new place was clean and orderly; it made sense in the era it was built as did the home we left. it had an ice maker, touch tone phones, a deck, a garage, a basement that wasn’t scary, a dishwasher and an in-the-house washing machine and dryer. in buffalo we sent out for a laundry service.
we moved in on a Monday. it was hot as hades because it was mid-June. i remember sweating as i stood still on that inward-sloped asphalt driveway of the house i’d never seen until that day. waiting for our giant Mayflower truck with all our belongings wrapped in musty horse blankets and humidity-leaching cardboard boxes labeled “PBO” or other codes i didn’t understand at the time to arrive. i remember being so, so terribly and weakly hot. how buffalo is cold in winter is how the DC suburbs are hot in summer. each near water but only one is built near a swamp.
we moved into that house on mom’s 47th birthday exactly. i still sorta physically waver and am overcome by emotional exhaustion when i recall that unfortunate coincidence. i don’t remember much from that day other than the heat and seeing my mother as a ghost.
i have to believe somewhere in my mind that my dad actually got my mom’s approval to formally install her person by moving her from: her parents, friends, the academic and civic relationships her family heritage afforded her and then her brothers, sisters in law, aunts, uncles and all those cousins we all loved on her actual birthday. i mean, couldn’t it have waited a week? this is a discussion or agreement or privileged treaty between them i may not ever know. as a child, i never really considered that fact: that we moved on her birthday. i mean i knew it was her birthday, that was sort a point of celebration for me actually. but now as a mother, in my 40s with a teenager actually (and as i write this i just realized that my mom and i had our kids at relatively similar times in our lives give a month or two difference) i think i would too have checked out emotionally as she did if that happened to me. i see this experience in my family now, with adult, maternal eyes and heart as a defining moment in my family’s history.
i remember the way i found out we were moving: i was watching TV and my father’s promotion / new assignment was announced by a broadcaster and the feed was live and he was being interviewed. i was standing in our little butler’s pantry amongst the golden oak and glass cabinetry with their brass latches and hinges. my left hip leaning on the patina’d handle to the flour bin beneath the built-in, slide-out cutting board my mother used for her illustrations. i can recall with clarity the awe of seeing my dad on TV but confusion from the announcement. i believe my mother was on the phone with one of her myriad cousins, one of the sisters of broad-smiled, auburn-haired, tall, smart and powerful dutch-irish beauties who would float in and out of my consciousness as a child.
there was no dramatic pause. she didn’t gasp, i remember that clearly. it was january or close to it and the news being announced was that he would start soon and move after the school year ended. my older brother was wrapping up his senior year of h.s. and i would have begun my first, but apparently not in buffalo.
despite its clear indications for internal familial challenges, the move was a very good idea. my father started a new job in the same field; one that brought him to the center of it all: Washington DC. the axis of the political universe in the 80s or so it seemed and he was excited to meet new people. being in the army at the same time as elvis he says, traveling with his sport and all the doors it opened meant he had a different outlook. my mother lived in buffalo all her life, was educated there, learned her arts there and moved out from her parent’s house when they married. the schools we were leaving in buffalo were pretty good and private but in DC my younger brother and i’d be going public. the namesake of my eventual high school in Virginia was considered a traitor by any self-respecting yankee.
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that’s it for now. i’ll write more later. i hope you enjoyed it. let me know. but i’m gonna do more even if you don’t like it.