Ragtime Cowboy Joe

Summer was always the same in my house.  One by one, we children would go off to camp, two weeks at a time, until summer was passed.  The kids still at home would hang out with Grandma, spend time at local playgrounds. We’d sleep outside when the weather was good, eat popsicles and wait when it wasn’t.   Then, there’d be a vacation- the whole family on odd years, just mom and dad on even. It was fine.

Then suddenly, two weeks of hot fun in the summertime seemed meant for kids from privilege, kids who couldn’t make their own fun. My parents thought it might’ve been a waste of time- that perhaps we’d be too spoiled by adult led fun and games. Camp was cancelled, and we children went crazy.

“What do you mean you “need” summer camp?” My father cried.  “Know what Jan and I did for summer vacation?  We went to Rock Island.  We played stick ball, and read comic books.  That’s summer camp.”

“We went to Louisiana.”  My mother chimed in.  “One week with Mamma’s people, one week with Daddy’s.  It was plenty fun.”

It was settled. No camp for us.

He always sings

Ragtime music to his cattle

as he swings

Back and forward in the saddle

Of his horse

(a pretty good horse!)

A syncopated gaiter

Such a funny meter

To the roar of his repeater.

How they run

(pfew!)

When they see old Joe a-comin’

cuz the western folks all know

(what do they know?)

He’s a high falutin’, rootin’-tootin’

Son of a gun from Arizona

Ragtime Cowboy

Talkin’ ‘bout a cowboy

Ragtime Cowboy Joe!

It was my brother’s theme song that summer there was no camp.  He learned it the summer before, when camp was allowed.  It was written in 1912, and he had no idea that it was corny, finding it inspiring for a brisk bike ride.   He taught his friends the tune, and they sang it together as they rode around the neighborhood on their imaginary horses, which were really bikes, playing Cowboys and Indians.

The Indians, by the way, were always the good guys in our neighborhood.  I didn’t even meet anyone who played with cowboys as good guys until I was thirty.

Anyway, I imagine they were singing Cowboy Joe right up until the moment that he took a header over his loose handlebars and split open his forehead. Either that or the theme song from Starsky and Hutch. He walked back to the house with his friend pushing his broken bike, informed us that he probably needed to go to the Emergency Room, and waited for us to stop screaming to get help.

This was a couple of weeks after my sister tried to make biscuits, and started a grease fire.  Ms. Drier from next door came over, and dumped baking soda on it after the fire department was called.  Little brother answered the phone for my dad’s midday check in and stated, “Can’t talk now dad.  The firemen just got here.”  Then, he hung up.

Dad got home in what seemed like seconds later and told us we’d have to have fun in a way that no one got hurt.  And if we couldn’t handle staying alone for a few hours each day, we’d be grounded.

Forever.

A few days later, I was pretending to be a drum major of a marching band. No one was getting hurt this time because there was no fire, no outdoor stunt man clowning around.  No one gets hurt when it’s just your imagination, right?  I spun a yard stick from the basement, stomping all around the house while I hummed Stars And Stripes Forever.  For my finale, I threw the stick high in the air and did the splits.  The yard stick crashed into an oil painting my uncle Jimmy had just sent from his studio for my mother’s birthday present.

This trashed painting hangs in my office to guilt me into avoiding distraction

This trashed painting hangs in my office to guilt me into avoiding distraction

Dad got home from work, and said, “Sit down somewhere.”  My sister ran for a chair, my brother and I just sat down where we’d been walking.  There was no time to find a seat when he took that tone.

“You’re destroying our property, marring your bodies and ruining perfectly good food. Worse yet, you are pissing off my wife.”

“At least they are creative.”  Mom said in our defense.

“I think they’re just dense.” He said to her. And to us he said, “Do. Not. Piss off my wife.”

“They’re smart enough to know how to get back to camp.” Mom told him. And she was right.

The next year, we went back to camp:   My sister took a scuba diving exploration in the lake, my brother went back to YMCA camp, and I went with the Girl Scouts. All at the same time.

And no one had to run when they saw us a-coming.

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Take Me To The Water

Once, I was sitting poolside in a ritzy resort.  I was near my Catholic-rooted Italian and Armenian husband, and an American expat who’d been living most recently in Belgium.  “Americans are, oddly, the most religious people in the world.”  Said the lady.  We nodded, and looked for the pool guy who was expected to be bringing another round of drinks any second. ”What religion do you practice back home?”  She asked.

“We’re Baptist.” We said in tandem.

“What!  Baptists are crazy!” She shrieked.  “They hate everyone.  Blacks, Jews, Gays…. I can’t believe you’d be Baptists!”

“What’s wrong with Baptists?” I asked. She went on for a while but in summary, Baptists are like Amish, but really mean.

What she didn’t know is that I didn’t exactly choose to be Baptist.  I am.  Cradle raised Baptist.  And to tell the truth, if I’d been born Buddhist, or Jewish, or Muslim, I’d probably practice that, to the same extent I do now.  A person like me needs order, and tradition, and Faith.  I just do.  I know how much Baptists are loathed, and there are things I hate about us, too.  And yet… I am Baptist.  At Baptist church, I know when to stand up and sit down, and when to say Amen. Moreover, at my Baptist church, I know that I am loved.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,

Praise Him all creatures here below

Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Amen

-Thomas Ken, 1674

That feels like home.  As flawed as it is, home it remains.

When the invitation to be baptized was opened one Sunday earlier this month, my daughter said to me, “Can I go?”

“Go where?”  I asked her.  “We’re almost done.  We’ll be leaving in two minutes.”

“Up front.” She pantomimed walking to the front of the church, where new members sit to get their names on the church roll and be baptized.

“Oh! Yes.  Are you ready?”

She nodded and put down the sweater she had lying across her lap.

“Should I go with you?”  I was discombobulated.  Being baptized is a huge deal in our faith. It’s the ultimate expression of free will. But I had problems:

  • Her dad was somewhere in Iowa at a motorcycle rally.
  • She’s only eight years old.
  • What does she know about faith?

She nodded, and started leaving our pew.  I hustled behind her, and found her waiting for me at the aisle, with her hand extended.  I took it, and we went to sign her up.

As we passed the row my mother was sitting in I could hear her classic sporting event yell. “Yes!”

I looked back to tell her with my eyes to be quiet, but she was ignoring me, caught up in the moment of her grandchild joining the Christian Jubilee, “Whoo! Get it girl!”

The Good Baptist part of me was delighted. The rest of me was terrified that she wanted to sign up for a team that doesn’t have a very good reputation.  “Christian” people have done rotten things in the name of God spanning back since the beginning of the church. Killing, lying, cheating, love of money, generalized jacked up oppression…I won’t list all the specific examples here, I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. I am often creeped out by the atrocities committed in the name of God.  Could we teach her to be a real Christian, loving her neighbor as herself? Casting no stones?

I’d told her from the time she first saw someone be baptized that it was entirely her decision, and we’d support her, any way she felt moved. And so, I did.

She was Baptized this past week, and her father and I, plus her extended family, stood with her in support. She cried once she got out of the water, overwhelmed by the emotions that can flood a person rising up from the water of a baptismal.  She came to my arms, where I think she belongs, and whispered in my ear, “I did it!”

“Yes, you did.”  I told her, kissing her flushed cheeks. And then I told her again what I’d said the first time I ever saw her- her cheeks were flushed and she was crying then, too. “Welcome home, baby.”

Glory be to the Father

And to the Son

And to the Holy Ghost.

As it was in the beginning,

Is now, and ever shall be

World without end.

Amen, amen.

Hubbard Park lodge

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Swimming In The Water

When my little daughter was a baby, we’d bring her along to swim lessons with her older sister.  We wanted for her to be unafraid.  She loved it, and would float peacefully on her back while her sister dove and splashed all around her.  When people would ask her how she was doing that day she’d say in her froggy baby voice, “swimming in the water”.  That meant good.  If you asked her what she wanted to do, the answer was always swimming the water.  The pool was definitely on her favorite things list.

Years later, we put her in lessons of her own, so that she could learn to officially swim, and she was petrified. She’d stand at the side of the pool as though she’d never seen one before, let alone loved swimming in the water.  And because life without a beach is just odd, and she gets further and further away from us each year, we kept her in lessons until she became comfortable again.

And that is me, these days.  Staring at the pool, petrified.  Things that used to be easy and peaceful are suddenly not going so swimmingly. Maybe I’ve been out of the pool for too long, and I’m old enough to know the dangers of the deep end.

She's always ready. Am I?

She’s always ready. Am I?

I watched my baby from an upstairs observation deck the last time she took a swim test.  I was calm when she started out but as she approach water that was well over her head and she started looking around the pool, my breath caught in my chest. It was a very long way to the other side, and we both knew it.

At 6 feet, my palms were a little sweaty.  Why wasn’t the teacher next to her?

At 9 feet I thought, “Shouldn’t she have one of those float-y things?”

And I held my breath at the deepest of the deep end, waiting for her to touch the wall.  I exhaled, no one drowned, and I watched her swim back until she could climb out on her own.  She threw me thumbs up, and grinned.  Maybe she could feel my worry through the glass.  I was standing up – one hand pressed to it after all.

That’s what I remembered this week.  When things get scary, start swimming.  Looking around, considering how far I am from the end is not getting me there any faster. I know what I’m doing, in fact, it’s one of my favorite things!

I’d better go get back in the pool.

Thanks, Amen.

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Mother Wit

I didn’t notice my mothering until this moment:  I was nine years old, and my mother had gone back to work full time since her youngest baby, my little brother, was in school full time.  I felt adrift, and I’d called my grandmother to bring my cold lunch to school that I’d forgotten – again.

She arrived to the school office, making a scene.  Grandma always made a scene: She of the infamous hour glass figure and bedroom eyes. She was so beautiful that even I could understand why my grandfather would steal off with her in the heat of strawberry picking season to marry her. The landowner he picked for- her father -wasn’t looking.  She stomped wet leaves off her high heeled boots, and brushed her wavy black hair back from her eyes.  She handed me the lunch and said in her South Louisiana accent, “Michelle.”  I stared up at her, as silent and plain as she was outspoken and colorful. “Minou….Do you know that Grandma loves you?”

I was confused for a moment.  Did she mean her, or was she talking about my other small and cuddly grandma? I thought it over…All I really knew that she knew of me is what I’d overheard her tell my mother the hippie, “You’ll have to watch that one. She doesn’t have much Mother Wit.”    But, it appeared that she had decided to love me, knobby knees on pencil legs topped by coke bottle glasses because my mother wasn’t available.  I nodded yes, thanked her for the lunch and the love, and went back to my classroom.

I saw my grandmother every day from then until I left for college.  She came to my house after school each day so that we wouldn’t be home alone. Never mind that there were three of us, and we wouldn’t exactly be alone. Grandma was there, talking.  She told us we looked “sharp as a skeeter’s peter” when we dressed well, and that we looked like “the cat been suckin’ on it” when we didn’t.  We knew, thanks to her, how to tell if someone was “crazy as a road lizard”. She came on Saturdays to tend the garden, and on Sunday we saw her at church.

She was everywhere.

And she learned me my Mother Wit.

She couldn’t whisper even when she tried. She let me eat dessert first, because nothing can come before fresh strawberry shortcake. She trained me how to snap green beans and how to spit watermelon seeds.  And when I was older as she was teaching me to press sheets soft enough to make you believe you were sleeping on a Jasmine scented bayou, she taught me to “never, ever sleep with a man who wears his watch to bed.  Means he has someplace else to be.”  Every time she left me, she said, “Grandma loves you.” Then she would grab my face, and plant a big fresh-from-the-Avon-lady kiss in the middle of my forehead.

She called me on the telephone only twice a year. Once on the birthday we shared, at the crack of dawn.

“z’at Michelle?” She’d coo into the phone. I’d smile and I think she could hear me, because she’d say, “Happy birthday!”

I’d say, “Happy Birthday, Grandma”.  And then she’d get off the line, because phone calls are expensive – even local ones.

The other time she’d call was Christmas morning.  She’d sing the blues in her husky voice.  “Merry Christmas, baby.  You sho’ll do treat me nice.” It was mother. But more Grand.

One Christmas day, I had to call everyday Grandma in her hospital room.  “Merry Christmas, baby.” She rasped.  “You sho’ll do treat me nice…”  I got off the line, like I should, and went down there, even though she’d told us not to.  Once we skid into the room she said, “I don’t want no more surgeries. I’m tired now.  And it’ll be so good to see my mother again.”  That shut me up, and instead of arguing, I put a thick French braid in her glorious hair.  She said she didn’t want to look a mess when the doctors came by.  And she told me to go look in her front hall closet for my Christmas present.  It was an afghan she’d finished knitting just the week before.  “That’s for you, Michelle.  You throw it on, you – when you get cold. You keep cold.”

Grandma died that night, and I’d been orphaned.

Our birthday came six months later, and I woke up early, to no call. I sat in the center of a perfectly warm albeit crappy apartment wrapped my Afghan and thought, “Grandma loves you.”

Today, when I see my daughter lean her head forward to get a kiss in the center of the forehead from my mother, I know that Mother Wit is at work.  It’s something she can’t learn from me –  And, it is Grand.

My mother and my daughter, cuddling.

My mother and my daughter, learning.

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Somewhere Else

I admit there are obvious advantages to working from home, as I do.  There are two school aged children in my basement this very moment painting and listening to people their age sing pop songs. They’re yelling along, full of smoothies and grilled cheese sandwiches, as though there is no tomorrow.  Happy as clams.

You know what they’re going to want to do when that playlist is over?  Listen to it again, help me Jesus.

Pleasant, but so dang repetitive.

This is my life as of late:

#FeedthedogDropoffthegirlExerciseWorkfromhomeofficePickupfromschoolCookClean

Or sometimes it’s like this:

#FeedthedogDropoffthegirlExerciseconferencecallmeetingPickupfromschoolCookClean

This dog ALWAYS wants to eat

This dog ALWAYS wants to eat

How many times can a person be expected to do that before they kick out a window or something?

I understand that routine stabilizes children, and helps people to get more done every day.  Routine takes care of the little stuff so that the mind is free from clutter and able to be more creative.  Exercise routines lead to better health. I’m just saying that I may not be cut out for it.  Planning ahead of time, instead of making me feel secure, makes me feel all… squirrely.

I don’t want to know what I will wear the next day before I go to sleep, I don’t even want to know how I will wear my hair.  I resent making appointments too far ahead of time in case I’m otherwise occupied when that appointment actually comes around. But I do it, for the stability for my kid and the head room for myself. And then, I feel like I’m trapped in a cage looking for the nearest exit.

When I was a girl I had a map of the United States where I’d color in new states as I visited them.  My goal was to have them all colored in someday.  I was thinking that America is a big, beautiful place, and I wanted to see all of it, at least once.  I did pretty well as a child (probably because my parents thought it was a good goal, and invested time in making sure that we saw the good old USA).  And then I grew up, visited all of New England, and my mental map coloring stopped at the 46th state.

That map has stayed in the back of my mind though, and when it came time for my husband and I to plan our annual anniversary getaway, I got kind of whiny. “I want to go somewhere ELSE. (Whine, whine, whine.) I can barely stand it anymore… Let’s go somewhere else!”  I was heard, and he got online and booked a trip to the last place in continental America that I haven’t been.  The Pacific Northwest.  He’s never been there either and we are glad.  We’re going to see new vistas and meet different people from the people we already know. Maybe we’ll watch the guys at Pike Place Fish Market throw stuff, and take a lighthouse tour or drive along the Pacific coastline.

Maybe.

It depends how I feel when I get up in the morning, which will not come until I decide that the time is right.

There are children in here, with the rainbow lamp Nonna sent.  They're probably wanting to eat...

There are children in here, with the rainbow lamp Nonna sent. They’re probably wanting to eat…

Thanks for vacations.  Amen.

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Skinny Fat

I am currently ensnared in a state of Skinny Fat.  Normal amount of pounds, too many of them made of fat- not alarming yet, but worth my attention.  I have no excuses. Gym memberships, perfectly paved roads, good sneakers… what gives?

I have worn probably every size from here, a well filled out medium/baggy large, to baggy small since being an adult.  And let me tell you, well filled out is a much safer place, in my mind.  When I was very thin, people would tell me I looked great, which always caused me to look at them sideways.  How could I look great?  I rattled around in my clothes, cheekbones jutting out of my face in a skeletal fashion.  That isn’t great.

I felt afraid among the super slim: vulnerable, as though any stiff wind might knock me over.  And no matter how skinny I became, my hip bones were still the same width apart.  I was wide and terribly small at the same time. Skinny left me feeling weak, and my sickness showed.  A man, who seems rather random from this vantage point, broke off dating me because he wanted a “healthy mom” for his children. I was certainly in poor health, but dang.

I had splitting headaches from the moment I woke up until I fell asleep for the night.

My legs ached, pin and needling me from the tips of my toes to my hips.  My fingers were almost always numb, sometimes curling uselessly into loose fists in their ineffectiveness.

During The Sick Years, I would pray, and my prayers were promises.

Lord, when you heal me, (somebody told me to pray as though it were already done.  I thought it would be a good idea to incorporate any kind of mojo I could conjure…) I will walk everywhere I go.  I’ll park at the edge of every lot, just to use my amazing legs.  I will take good care of the body you’ve given me.  I will dance.”

I wasn’t only praying for healing, though.  I visited doctors, and naturopaths, and chiropractors. I changed my whacked out bar food diet. I walked every day, although I would always cry on the way home. It was so tiring, walking just two miles, that I would go extra early so that I could have a nap before work.

There were times I was so exhausted that I would lie on the floor between meetings to avoid fainting.  One day a colleague saw me lying on the floor, and said, “That’s bad, isn’t it?”

I told him yes, and he said, “Well, I don’t want you looking lazy if someone comes by.  I’d better lay on the floor with you.”  And he did.

I still love the guy for that.

We talked over departmental goals as though nothing was wrong.  Someone did come by, and because the entire meeting was on the floor, she joined us without even mentioning where we were sitting.

Walking back to our hotel that night, my colleague asked me if I wanted to hail a cab.  “No.”  I told him.  “I’d better walk.  I’m going to walk until I fall down.”

And so, what keeps me from the gym these days, now that I fight Fat back on a daily basis?  The idea that I am healed and it will last forever?  Thinking that I’ve had my share of pain and will not be asked by the Universe to go back?  I think it is a short memory.  I think that once the dust of hard times settles, it is simplest sometimes to pretend that everything is always alright, and always has been.

Not so.

I remember the sick years, and I remember my promises from them.

I will dance the new year in.

Skinny or fat or skinnyfat, my body is amazing.

Thanks, amen.

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Ho Ho Hell

I’m told that my great, great grandmother used to tell her kids that it’s important to celebrate life, so it doesn’t just pass you by.  Her children believed her, and celebrated EVERYTHING, right down to the change of season.  Then, those children married people who also celebrate everything.  And a couple of generations later, you’ve got us-my family.  We’re a celebration inbred tribe of the most holiday finding, merry making, everything’s-better-with-a-live-band batch of people you ever met.

Every day is SOMEONE'S  birthday.  Might as well celebrate...

Every day is SOMEONE’S birthday. Might as well celebrate…

Five things to help you survive stopping in this holiday season:

If you can’t hear it from outside, you’re probably at the wrong house There will be people parked up and down the block carrying pans, or presents or bottles of liquor.  Just follow them and the sound, and you ought to be fine.  And if you think it’s loud from the outside, wait until one of the kids takes your coat. It will be the last time you hear yourself think until you go home. There will be a theme of some kind once you’re inside; a Cook Off, karaoke, send off, welcome home, birthday celebration, ugly sweater, Seventies. Be ready.

Dinner is at two o’clock   It’s a ridiculous time to serve lunch, and far too early for supper.  Sure, we’ve tried to have holiday parties at other times, more convenient times, but tradition keeps winning out and people keep showing up for two anyway.  Just, we eat at two.  If you walk in after, you will be the butt on the jokes for at least the rest of the season.  Because you couldn’t remember what time’s dinner.

Have a few words ready We’re going to circle up and hold hands. Someone will make an announcement because they’re having a baby/moving/ got a new job/ left their fundraiser on the front table and you should stop over there and help send someone to DC. Or New York City.  And then, we’re going to pray.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe or haven’t been to church since your first communion.  Know a prayer, in case an elder passes the honor of blessing the table to you.  If you don’t know one, please think of something- for our sakes.  They’ll pray for you and we could be standing there for hours if you say something crazy like you don’t know how.  Let us eat.

Find a spot There will not be a place set for you. If you find a seat at a card table, be glad you’re not sitting on the hearth or on a step, and be prepared to give that spot up to anyone who’s older than you.  There will be no such thing as personal space.  You will have a baby on your lap at least twice.  You will be kissed, hugged, and pet. Someone is going to sit with you in a chair that is made for one person, or use your legs as a backrest while they sit on the floor in front of you.

Ladies, someone is going to ask to try on your shoes. They’ll then walk away from you in them, because there’s a full length mirror in another room.  We all wear the same size and love shoes more than is probably normal.    Sorry.

Eat Someone who likes you is going to bring you a plate full of food. It means they like you. Have at least a bite of everything you’re handed. It means you like them back.    Unless you’re a kid. Then being handed a plate of food means you’re on the list of people who spill things and aren’t exactly to be trusted.  If you can, bring home an entire container of leftovers and while you pack it up, say something about how you just can’t live without more of it later on. It’s a compliment, and you win.

Almost Christmas is almost as good as Christmas!

Almost Christmas is almost as good as Christmas!

Best of luck and happy holidays.  See you at two o’clock!

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