Monday, February 28, 2011

Waiting for Mourning

Jenny's mom served us graham crackers smothered in chocolate frosting for a snack. I wanted to ask her if she always got to eat like that, or if her mom was being nice because our Grandpa was dying.

Her house was the third place we stayed this week. On Monday, we were with Tommy's friend Conrad--which I hated, because it was two boys against me. On Tuesday, we went across the street to Gretchen and Cara's house. Cara and I pretended we were making Hershey bars using wet sand and her slide.

But Jenny's house was the best yet because she had all of the Barbies, even the dream house. Mrs. Remensberger checked in on us a few times. She stroked my hair and said, "Nancy, sweetie, if you want to talk about your Grandpa, I would be happy to listen." She smiled, but it was one of those fake smiles because she looked like she was about to cry.

I didn't want to talk about Grandpa. I just wanted to brush Barbie's hair and drive her around in her pink Corvette. I wanted Mom and Dad to be normal again, instead of gone all the time, visiting him at the hospital.

Grandpa's  lung cancer came because he smoked a pipe. Dad said he started when he didn't know that it was bad for him, and that smoking used to be something that everybody did. I hated the smell of that pipe, because it was just like burning spices and flowers. Dad said that when he was a little boy, he used to sit in the backseat of the car with Aunt Alice, freezing in the Chicago winter, waiting for Grandpa to light up and finally start the car.

Grandpa and Grandma moved out to Arizona a few years ago, to be close to us. Grandma missed Chicago, because she liked cities and culture, but Grandpa loved it here. He wore bolo ties and checkered golf pants, and picked tangerines and lemons off the trees in his backyard.There was a pool in his community, and when he took Tommy and me there, he waded in the water and gazed up at the sun, a soft little smile on his face.

That's before his hair fell out from the chemotherapy and he had to sit in a wheelchair when he got tired.

When Mom and Dad picked me up from Jenny's house, I told them about the chocolate graham crackers, and Mom said, "That's nice, sweetie." She didn't even talk to me about sugar and the importance of eating fruit and veggies, like she normally did. She just told me to go to bed, and that she would see me in the morning.

"Tomorrow is my birthday!" I reminded her, "I'll be ten!"

She squeezed her eyes like she was trying to hold back a sneeze. That's really hard to do, and it hurts. I've tried it many times. I don't think she was holding back a sneeze, though.

"I know, honey. Tomorrow you'll be in the two digit club!" She gave me a tight squeeze and said, "You're growing up so fast."

I don't know why grown-ups think it's sad when kids grow up. I've waited to grow up my whole life.

The phone rang early that morning. I sat straight up in my bed, and strained to hear what Dad was saying. All I heard was "Okay," and "See you in the morning," and the final click of the phone against the receiver. But I knew it. Grandpa had gone to Heaven.

He died. On my birthday.  Now the day was ruined---forever. I looked at the wallpaper, with its red, yellow and blue stripes. I picked out the paper because I was sick of the baby-ish Strawberry Shortcake, and Grandpa and Dad had put it up. That was only three weeks ago. And now he was dead, and looking at the wallpaper reminded me of him, made my heart hurt.

The bed I rested on used to belong to my Grandma Neuhaus. She died two years ago.  The end table, with the cigarette burn? That came from my Grandpa Neuhaus. He died when I was a baby.

No reminders. No crying. I just wanted everything to be normal.  I sat in my bed, and waited for morning.

Some of my friends have great-grandmas and lots of cousins. I would rather have that than some junky inherited furniture. Life wasn't fair.

The only grandma left was going to be really sad, and on my birthday. I heard Mom's footsteps padding up the hallway, and I knew that she was about to tell me. She was going to be sad, and Tommy would be sad and  Dad would probably cry.

I didn't want to hear her say it, but it was going to happen no matter what I wanted. I guessed part of being ten was not being a baby and crying about it. It was just a  birthday.

Grandpa and I would always be connected. My birthday would be his birthday in Heaven. When Mom came in, that's what I decided to tell her. Maybe that would make her happy. That's all I wanted.

I heard her knock on the door, and forced myself to smile when she sang, "Happy Birthday to you!"

This Saturday, March 5th, will mark the 26th anniversary of my Grandfather's passing. 

This is in response to The Red Dress Club's memoir challenge---to write a snapshot of a setting--specifically a room.

Constructive criticism is welcome. This is my first attempt to write from a child's point of view, and it was a challenge.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Red Writing Hood: Seeking


I am giving away my time. After all, the world has already determined that it is worth nothing.

I'm not talking about "free time," which  I covet with a white-hot intensity---the phrase is a bit of a misnomer, anyway.

(Creeping out of bed while the sheets are still warm to eek out an hour of alone time? I pay for that. Specifically, in Mary Kay under-eye concealer).

I'm talking about the daily pockets of time which are presently snatched from me. I've decided I would rather give it away than let people take it from me.

Each morning, I buckle in my children. Although they have just eaten a kingly breakfast of yogurt, waffles, fruit, and milk, the Pavlovian response to the seat belt click triggers the cries of "Snack, please, snack please, snack please."

It's less charming than one would think. Particularly since the younger one, the one prone to yelling, "I wanna HIT THAT!" prefers to simply yelp, "NACK! NACK! NACK!"

I don't give them snacks and/or nacks. The two year old weeps. I drive down my one-way dirt road to get the spawn where they need to go. I am thwarted.

My neighbor's truck, roughly the size of a small tank, blocks the only exit off my street. He is talking to another neighbor, probably about the rouge emu recently shot and trussed by a tobacco farmer up north.

I sigh, and tap my horn once. Oldest stops asking about snacks long enough to whine, "We're going to be late. Just drive over the guy."

My neighbor nods and waves, acknowledging my horn,  then takes another drag off his cigarette. I wish I had a rifle to shoot in the air. To better speak his language.

With a turn of the key and an ear-piercing blast of Pantera, my neighbor finally clears a path. Fifteen minutes, stolen.

A further inventory reveals: 

*I lose at least thirty minutes daily searching for microscopic yet crucial Lego pieces.

*When my pediatric dentist tells me that I need to floss my two year old's teeth, I take small pleasure when he bites her moments later. But it doesn't take back the twenty minutes in the waiting room.

*There's nothing I enjoy more than breaking my day into three categories: the moments I place Youngest on the potty so he can cry, the moments he soils the floor with his waste, and the moments I scrub at said waste with Oxy Clean.

* Lest I forget, I spent almost four hours camping out in the lobby of the preschool to secure Youngest's spot. I arrived, blurred eyed and surly, at 6:00 AM. I was sixth on the list. The earliest person had signed in at 5:25 AM. (As I write this the next day, there are still four spots open).

I suppose, if I want to regain control of my time, I could consider returning to work. At least I would earn a salary. After all, there's always a story there. My friend shared with me that she was discussing Mother Theresa with her sophomores. One of them piped up, "Oh, you mean the one on the syrup bottle!"

So, gentle reader, consider taking my time. It's my gift to you. If you don't take it, surely somebody else will. That, I can guarantee. 

Serious seekers only. Don't waste my---oh, who am I kidding?

This is my rant/submission for this week's Red Writing Hood challenge: 

Write a humorous listing for eBay or Craig's List. Talk about the history of the items, why they must go.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Here I am, circa 1978.

Here is my Owen, circa 2009.

My second grade report card: "Nancy is very smart, but she rushes through her work and doesn't always take her time." 

Owen's parent-teacher conference: "Owen is a smart boy, but he rushes  so he can get back to playing blocks. He doesn't take his time." 

1988: My racing suit clung to my skin as I slumped in the backseat. I crushed the red ribbon into a ball. Third place. My best butterfly stroke had not been enough. My dad glanced at me through the rear-view mirror, a thin smile spreading across his face. He liked that I was angry. I would use it the next time I stepped on the starting block.

2010: Owen hunched in his booster seat, his face flushed from playing T-ball. He mumbled to himself, "I didn't get the game ball. Next time I will try harder." I smiled. I recognized that hunger. 

We are alike.

We love people and books and attention.

We dip in our toes instead of doing cannonballs.

We notice when people need love.

We chat up the baristas at Starbucks.

And yet...he is not me.

He's meticulous. 

He takes direction and advice. 

He is spatially gifted.

Today, he is five years old. He's a geode. Each day, I view more of his precious, secret light. I discover more of what's inside. 

Every glimpse takes my breath away.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fiction: A Step Forward

For this week's fiction challenge, the Red Dress Club ladies said:

Write a piece - 600 word limit - about finding a forgotten item of clothing in the back of a drawer or closet. Let us know how the item was found, what it is, and why it's so meaningful to you or your character. 

I welcome constructive criticism. 

A Step Forward
"You know what you need?" She paused to take another sip of beer. "You need something shexy for your honeymoon."

I snorted. "You just said SHEXY! Cheers to SHEXY!"  We both tipped our glasses. The amber liquid was cool and effortless.

"SHEXY! That's what you need." She slammed down her glass. "Tell me that you have something hot for your honeymoon. I mean something really, really....erotic."

"Did you just say, 'erotic'? Oh my God, you're so drunk." I watched her laugh, tuck a stray hair behind an ear. For once, her smile was completely natural. "I love you," I said. "You know that? I really, really love you.... Please don't be mad at me tomorrow."

She cocked her head, "Why would I be mad at you? I love you, too." She stretched,  "You're such a dork. I've gotta go pee." She kissed my head, and stumbled away.

I felt the imprint of her lips, burning like cinnamon. I rolled my empty glass around the moist ring on the bar napkin, and waited for the air to return.

When she sat back down, I recognized the glint in her eye. "Hey, call Ethan. Tell him that we're going to the mall and he's driving."

"OK. Why?"

"Because, dork, I'm buying you something SHEXY for your honeymoon. I know you don't have anything yet." She glanced up and down, "You've got a hot little body, and I'm going to take care of you."

Oh, my. "You're the boss."

Soon, were in my fiancee's car. The sunlight and landscape blurred. I watched her profile, memorized each contour. He said something about staying out of trouble, of picking us up in a few hours. When I kissed him goodbye, it was like kissing a dream, right before it fades to dawn.

We walked into the department store, and I flipped through the rows of creamy silks and lace. "You need something totally smokin', so stop looking at the old-lady nightgowns."

I walked away from the peignoirs and teddies. "You know this isn't my thing."

"Yeah. That's the point." She scanned the aisles and racks, surgically. Professionally. She gasped, "Duuuuuuuuude. You're getting this."

She held up a seafoam green bodysuit. It was covered in lace, and the bodice was bursting with feathers. Naturally, it was crotchless. I backed away.  "Hell, no."

She pressed it into my hands. "Shut up. Try it on."

I watched her mouth form the words, and nodded. "Underwear on?"

"Were you raised on a Mormon compound or something?" She laughed, deep and throaty. "What do you think?"

I retreated to the dressing room, holding the ridiculous thing with one hand. Underwear or not? I thought of my mother, "It's not yours until you buy it," and  stripped down to my white cotton panties. As I pulled the bodysuit over my head, my skin bristled at the rough, unfamiliar texture. 

"How's it look?"

"Like Big Bird!"

She sighed. "I'm coming in."

I turned away, covering my feathery breasts with my hands. "Hey," she said, "Let me see."

"You're gonna laugh."

"Do it."

I dropped my hands, and took a tentative step forward. "Don't laugh."

Her eyes glinted with tears, "You're beautiful. I wish you would see that in yourself."

I took another step forward. I held her gaze, wishing I could carry it with me forever.

This has a basis in reality. The real story is that I did go drunk-shopping for my honeymoon lingerie. My friends really did make me buy a feathered, insane bodysuit. But, no, alas, there were no lingering gazes in the changing room.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Memoir: Proposal

The heat covered us like a lead blanket, relentless and pondering. Sweat trickled down the small of our backs, leaving amoebas of moisture on our T-shirts and underarms.

"You're right," I said, "I admit it. A Virginia summer is way worse than an Arizona summer. Hands down."

He smiled, his eyes crinkling like a fan, "That kills you to say, doesn't it?"

"Well, yeah." I peeled my shirt away from my skin, a temporary release. "I mean, I know heat. But this humidity? Game over, man. You win."

"If you call that winning."  He swung the bucket of blackberries in his left hand.

I had insisted on berry-picking at a local farm. In July. When he grimaced and said, "Have you been outside?" I reminded him that it was twenty degrees warmer in Arizona. After all, toughness ran through my lizard veins, and my leathery, desert-rat skin would protect me from the supposed "elements."

"We'll go," he said. "It'll be miserable, but we'll go." He sighed, squeezed my hand, and added, "You're lucky I love you."


The berries were lush and bursting with juice, but in between the horseflies and the soupy air, we lasted all of ten minutes. We staggered up the rutted dirt road towards the parking lot. The Maple trees, heavy and verdant, provided temporary respite from the sun. I reached for his hand, and he shrugged it off. "Too hot," he grumbled.

I pouted. "Are you mad at me?" It was early in our relationship. I hadn't yet learned that heat and hunger suck the happy out of him, as deftly as a syringe.

"Why do you always ask that?"

Because I've been hurt. Because I'm afraid. "I don't know."

We walked, the silence as heavy as the air between us.

"Hold on," he said, heading towards the middle of the road.

"What are you doing?" I called.

"C'mere."  He perched on the balls of his feet. His hands were cupped, folded over something small and precious.

I peered in, as he opened his fingers like a ribbon. Inside, sat a small box turtle. "I always pick them up and move them to the side of the road."

"Really? Why?" I stared at the creature as it blinked in its somnolent haze.

He rubbed its shell gently, "It's just something I do. My dad taught me. They're slow and helpless, and I don't want them to get run over by cars."

I hugged him. "Too hot," he grumbled, but he returned my embrace. I held this man, the one that looks out for the turtles. 

And every time we stop by the side of a road to rescue a turtle, as we have done countless times in our marriage, I whisper, "I do." 

The Red Dress Club, in its quest for world domination, has begun a weekly memoir challenge, which posts each Tuesday. I'm giving it a go. The prompt is:

This week, we want you to imagine that after you have died and your daughter/son will be given the gift of seeing a single five-minute period of your life through your eyes, feeling and experiencing those moments as you did when they occurred. What five minutes would you have him/her see? Tell us about them in the finest detail.

I'm not sure why my five minutes ended up being this, but I let the writing flow the way it wanted to go.

Constructive criticism is welcome. I'm posting early, so this may evolve over the next few days.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Smooth Criminal

I never could have imagined this as my "me time"---paying somebody to rip hair out of my face with hot wax.

And yet, there I was. As I rested on the maroon towel, I closed my eyes, my hands in tight, white-capped fists.

"They look like caterpillars," I told Yvonne, as she rubbed a concoction across my brows, "Do your worst."

"They not so bad," she replied, and paused. "You want me do mustache too?"

I couldn't speak for a moment. Like many of my small, over-analyzed imperfections, I had always assumed that my hairiness was a perception in my mind, a product of this Barbie-doll culture.

I guess I was mistaken. I guess my husband and supposed friends had let me walk around looking like Yosemite Sam for months, nay years

I croaked, "I'm afraid it's going to hurt." In the past, I've done my own furtive plucking, attacking rogue hairs armed only with tweezers and good light. I've made myself sneeze, cry, and consider a career as a bearded lady. 

Yvonne, a woman who has escaped a communist country, learned a new language, and built her own business catering to the grooming needs of privileged housewives, simply patted my shoulder and said, "No worry. I good. I do it quick."

I nodded my head quickly in assent. I closed my eyes again and gritted my teeth. She applied the wax, and I looked for solace in the dulcet tones of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal.

Yvonne  loves  Michael Jackson.

She pressed and ripped, as MJ yelped, "Aaow!"

Annie are you OK, are you OK, are you OK Annie?

I didn't have the energy to worry about Annie, with every ounce of blood  flooding to my pulsing, swelling face. I blinked back the tears, and wondered where waxing fell under the Geneva Convention bylaws.

"Do you like?" Yvonne asked, holding up a mirror.

I assessed myself. My eyebrows now arched like two dancers in arabesque. I looked less sweatshirt and yoga pants, more knee-high boots and statement necklace.

As for my lip line? It was a clean, hairless marvel. I trusted Yvonne, and because of that, I walked out of that salon a little taller, and one step closer to my eventual (hairless) world domination.

In other words, in a waxing room in Southern Maryland, my world shifted.

Monday, February 7, 2011

God Box

Wedding gifts are wasted on the young.

My husband and I were married at the tender ages of 25 and 24, respectively. We registered, and received the normal cookware, linens, and stemware. We unwrapped multiple packages of  "Beer Fest" glasses and acquired at least two platters dedicated to serving chips and salsa.

A few rogue gifts also came our way. Gifts from rugged individualists who pooh-poohed the registry and bought what they thought we would love.

For example? We were the lucky recipients of chalice shaped like a heart. As you can imagine, we use that all the time. For those nights when only a chalice will do.

We were also gifted with several pieces of pottery. Although these items were not on the registry, I treasure them. Frozen light and heavy grace, these handmade creations inspire me daily.

I recently unearthed one bowl. It had been sitting in a cabinet, getting musty and lonely. I placed it next to my sink, so I could see it every time I washed dishes or sliced apples or smeared peanut butter on bread.

After my husband's mother was diagnosed with cancer, I started calling it my "God Box" in my head. I wrote little notes to myself. Prayers. Things that were tugging at me, mewing like a sick cat.

I wrote about things I needed to release. A formerly close friend  inexplicably cut off all contact. I scribbled her name, and placed it in the God Box. I told myself that putting her name in the box meant that I was releasing my feelings of hurt, and my questions of "why."

I acknowledged my feelings:
 "I am very angry."
"I am jealous of other writers."
"I am scared that the doctor is going to tell me I can't run."

On other occasions, I sent up my wishes and hopes: 

"Please be with Paul's mom."
"Please help [my son] Owen when he starts kindergarten next year."
"Please help me find  love when I am out of patience."

I happen to believe in prayer, but even if one does not, I attest there's power in acknowledging feelings,  good and bad.

It's good to explicitly state hopes and dreams.

And sometimes, when the feelings are not serving you, it's good to state them--once--and close the lid.

And lest this get too preachy, there is one other crucial element of my God Box:

Because sometimes, the closest thing to the divine comes wrapped with the Hershey's label.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Red Writing Hood: Mantra

For the Red Writing Hood Challenge this week, Cheryl, Nichole or Katie brought us this (originally developed for an NPR fiction contest):

The premise of the contest is to write a piece of flash fiction - it should be no more than 600 words and should take no longer than 3 minutes to read aloud.

And the requirement for this particular one is a character MUST tell a joke and a character MUST cry. One character can do both.

Okay, then.

(I'm taking a break from my Walter and Lydia characters because they're getting on my nerves).


The instructor announced, "Prepare for final relaxation. Savasana." Her voice was a polished stone skipping across a clear lake.

The class shifted on their yoga mats. The girl's limbs felt like wilted spinach. She splayed her arms and legs into corpse pose and closed her eyes.

"I will be placing scented hot towels on your forehead," the instructor said. "Please cross your hands across your torso if you would prefer I do not touch you."

The girl soaked deeper into her mat, and sighed. This was the closest thing she had to worship most days. Trust. The word echoed in her head as she rested.

She had set the word as her intention at the beginning of class. Trusting her body to hold the poses. Trusting in the power of her breath and her strength.

And as she sat there, absorbing all the trust of the universe, her neighbor let out a meandering, tuneless melody from his rear end.

A fart. A yogic fart.

"Just relax," cooed the instructor, "Let go. Let it all goooooooooo."

She bit her lip, and attempted to arrange her face into a mask of Zen contemplation. Where, she thought, is my scented hot towel? I really, really could use the scented hot towel.

"Breathe deeply. Take it all in. Take a collective deep breath."

How about not? She tried to think of flowing streams, of birds flitting from branch to branch. All that came to mind was that old Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey bit from Saturday Night Live---"Dad always thought humor was the best medicine, which is why I guess several of us died of tuberculous."

She snorted. I've got to get it together. Her body shook with silent laughter as she held her breath. The instructor pit-patted towards her mat.

Her soft, cold hands caressed the girl's forehead, stroking her forehead, strumming the taut tendons of her neck and shoulders. Like stained glass, her fingers were eternal and holy.

She placed the Eucalyptus-scented towel on her eyes, and whispered, "It's so good to finally see you smile again."

The instructor glided away, leaving the girl alone on her mat. She could still feel the lingering touch and smell essential oil lingering in the air. How good it felt to be touched again! She missed it more than anything else. Her eyes pooled up, and she let the tears fall. She basked in the mysterious grace of human touch, and the sanctity of a soul simply noticing.

"Gradually move yourself into a comfortable seated position." The scented towel fell to the floor as the girl positioned herself into lotus pose. The instructor smiled, a serene wisp of light, "The divine in me recognizes the divine in you. Namaste."

The girl bowed forward, her head heavy, yet mercifully light. She walked out the door, and took a fresh, green breath of air.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It Really Helps

In high school, I was the one that wore head-to-toe black on Valentine's day.

Despite all that I read in Sweet Valley High, not once did the incredibly hot senior seek out my shy self. There were no kisses over the birthday cake a la Sixteen Candles.

I was kind of a geek, and boys didn't notice me. So naturally, that meant that Valentine's Day was stupid.

That was my story, anyway.

I eventually found somebody. Sadly, he's not a romantic. We don't go out for Valentine's Day. We don't feed each other heart-shaped chocolate mousse. We just don't. 

This year, however, I read Monica's blog. She's amazing. I love her.

Her boy needs love. Lots and lots of love.  So, she's making Valentine's Day a big deal. Countdowns. Decorations. Parties.

And she's right. We need love. All of us. In between the smog and Tucson and cold weather, I've been having days where the world feels as dark as my high-school Valentine's garb.

So, I'm defiantly embracing love. I'm even doing crafts, people.

The boys and I made these vases out of Mod-Podge, tissue paper, and jelly jars. We numbered a heart for each day between now and Valentine's Day.

Each morning, Owen pulls out a number, and we brainstorm how he can show love that day. We've sent cards to Grandma. We've bought food for the food bank. We've made a birdfeeder out of pinecone and peanut butter for the birds. Today, I think, we're baking cookies for our neighbor.

We've decorated with our heart fences.

And you know? It helps. It really, really helps.