9/11 – What I Will Never Forget

11 Sep

September 11, 2001…Everywhere you look you see: “I Will Not Forget.”

Just about everyone has a remembrance, about where they were, or what they were doing that morning. The day the world stopped turning. The stories start off differently, then become sadly similar when we reach the parts where we share our fear, horror, heartbreak…and then our pride, patriotism, and the way we celebrated our humanity. The stories branch off in the years that followed, becoming as diverse and varied as our individual experiences and perceptions.

I can only share what I will not forget:

I will not forget turning on the “Today” show, and thinking that I was viewing a fire, or a gas leak explosion of some sort, as smoke billowed out of the World Trade Center…and I will not forget the moment of slow understanding as I watched a plane crash into the other tower. Thousands of people lost more than I did on that day; all I lost was my ignorance of our nation’s vulnerability.

I will not forget the chill that ran up my spine when it occurred to me that my sister was on one of those West Coast-bound flights just 24 hours before…had the terrorists chosen Monday instead of Tuesday, her name would be among the nearly 3,000 spoken solemnly every year, on this day.

I will not forget one single image from that day, replayed over and over for all the world to see in the days, months, and years afterward. Survivors covered in ash…rescue workers running to the scene, not away…people jumping to their deaths. I will not forget wondering about the horrific last moments of the lives of so many people, how indescribably awful it must have been, if deciding to jump was preferable to what was about to happen. With every televised replay, I wondered if there was a wife somewhere who recognized her husband sailing through the air, because it was the shirt she’d given him for his birthday. Eyewitnesses described the “thumps” – and the chilling realization that each “thump” was the sound of a human being hitting the ground.

I can’t ever forget the phone calls. There were so many…and how, through them, we could easily hear when irritation and confusion at an interrupted workday turned to fear and horrified understanding. Early messages were to reassure family and friends that their loved ones were okay; not long after, hundreds of victims were  frantically reaching out, trying to get through, with one unified message – “I just wanted to hear you one more time, and to tell you I love you.”

I will never forget the inarguable acts of bravery and heroism. Not just a handful, but hundreds. A group of people on a plane, deciding that it was worth a shot to fight back. Firefighters who went up, up into a building that, from professional experience, they must have known would not be standing very much longer. People helping others find a way out, helping those who were hurt, even if it slowed their own escape. Even the tiniest acts of unselfishness – people in the towers, who had finally found a working phone line, who gave up their precious last moments with someone they loved, so that the person standing next to them might have a turn to do the same. I don’t know that I could have been that brave.

I will never forget.

And I will never forget a city, and a nation, that pulled together in our worst time, and how the very best of both our human and our American qualities were felt deeply in our own hearts, and shone out for the whole world to see. We were a kinder, gentler nation…for a time. I will never forget that time.

But I will also never forget how quickly that swell of American pride that lifted us all and helped us begin healing became a wave of prejudice and intolerance, sweeping over and drowning anyone who dared speak with a voice of peace or reason. An atmosphere of our own extremism rose from the ashes of 9/11, and it became “unpatriotic” to oppose the “War On Terror” – trillions of dollars spent, adding nearly 50,000 American names (civilian and military) to the list of dead, missing, or wounded.

We shouldn’t forget that.

I will never forget that while we are still reeling from one vile, disgusting act of terrorism committed on our soil, that there are regions in the world where this kind of violence is a daily way of life. There are cities that have air raid sirens – a part of an everyday routine that is completely unfamiliar to me, because I live in the United States. I don’t have to live in fear for my life every day; even in our post 9/11 nation, we have regained some sense of security. It just doesn’t happen HERE. But I won’t forget that it does happen. Every day. Somewhere.

We should never forget that. It is one of the reasons we are strong and proud to live here, and not somewhere else.

I stand with every person who salutes our victims and our heroes, both on that terrible day 11 years ago, and all the days since. I hope our love and support is felt by their family and friends, and that they know America is behind them, always.

I hope they know that we will never forget.


Junk Drawer Therapy

9 Aug

Ahh, the Junk Drawer. A feature in every home as commonplace as a front door or a toilet. It doesn’t actually contain junk; if it were junk, we certainly would have thrown it away. No, indeed, the junk drawer is jammed full of items that were (at least at one time) deemed important enough that we couldn’t live without them…but perhaps not important enough for us to put them wherever they belonged. 

It’s a hodgepodge of little items that actually belong somewhere else, but they never finished the trip. It’s a crayon you found tucked into the sofa. A dollar, a hall pass and a paper clip that you rummaged out of your daughter’s back pocket on the way to the laundry room. The measuring tape that should be in the sewing basket, but the sewing basket is tucked under your bed, and would therefore require an extra two minutes to dig out, so you just…throw it in the drawer. A hair clip, a mismatched sock, batteries (are they still good? Why else would I have kept them?), an article clipped from National Geographic (why did I save THIS?), an old menu from that Chinese place, pictures that somehow got separated from an old photo album. Lots of pens, but most of them don’t work, and every pencil has a broken tip. (You dig through the mess searching for a pencil sharpener, but you won’t find one there.) An old report card, a charger for a device you no longer own, a fortune cookie, your good screwdriver, sugar and ketchup packets, replacement bulbs for your Christmas lights, a roll of Scotch tape that is stuck to itself, a phone number scribbled on a ripped piece of paper with no identifiable owner, a collection of other peoples’ business cards, a razor, thumb tacks, a package of wooden skewers…well, I think you get the picture. 

Tonight, as I performed the Bi-Annual Cleaning of the Junk Drawer, a few thoughts came to mind. First, that each of these objects had a unique story to tell about how it came to reside in the junk drawer. (Don’t worry – the thought process stopped there. I’ve no desire to titillate you with The Life and Times of a Paper Clip.) Second, that the one thing they had in common, besides a shared space, was the REASON they were all in Purgatory – I was always BUSY. Too busy to take an extra moment to walk the screwdriver back to its home in the toolbox, or to put the measuring tape away. Too hurried to make sure all the Christmas things were in their proper boxes before I put them back in the basement. Too busy, even, to walk ten steps to the bathroom and return the hair clip to its usual place. That’s a lot of busy.

As I sat there trying to unpeel the tape from itself, spitting out a piece of stale fortune cookie, I realized that I always seem to be in such a rush to get to SOMETHING ELSE that I cut corners, and end up shoving all the loose ends of things into a metaphorical drawer someplace. I’m surrounded by evidence of this everywhere I look in my house – a kitchen that I spackled two years ago but never repainted…laundry that’s folded but not put away for weeks…Piles of paperwork stacked very neatly in a basket, but never actually addressed…an overgrown garden…a box of clothes that needed mending (five years ago, but now the kids have outgrown them), half-written stories that I can never finish because I don’t remember what inspired them in the first place! Oh, I have the best of intentions to return, and finish these things, but I almost never do. I’ve unwittingly created a chaos in my life that bears a remarkable resemblance to…a junk drawer. 

But there is good news to be had (I hope). I can take a lesson from this drawer of neglected things. I can resolve to finish the things that I start. I can promise myself that I will never again take on a task, or a project, or a favor unless I know that I will have the time and energy to see it all the way through. I should never again make myself feel guilty, or ashamed for my lack of  ‘sticktuitiveness’. As I looked upon my newly decluttered drawer, with pens and sharpened pencils in the pencil tray, and the post-it notes stacked neatly beside them, batteries tested for their worth, all other items returned to their proper homes – I felt productive. Worthy. Slightly victorious. And in a moment of pure clarity, I felt, deep in my soul, that if I stay on this path of organizational righteousness, I will rise above the chaos that challenges me every day. The chaos of my own making! But I have the power – the POWER! – to create a new way of doing things, and to unclutter my life in the pursuit of domestic – and perhaps, spiritual – Nirvana. A powerful insight, shown to me during the simple cleaning of a drawer!

Then, just as I was about to close the drawer, I spotted a tiny slip of paper. It had fallen from the old fortune cookie I had found in this mess. So I picked it up, and read: “An organized house brings peace of mind.” Incredible! Amazing! Kismet!! Clearly this fortune was meant for ME, and I must save it for posterity! Stick it on the fridge, maybe? Put it in my wallet, as a daily reminder? Tape it to the wall near my bed? 

Well, all of those choices were clearly good ideas, but I just didn’t have time right at that very moment…so I chucked my fortune into the junk drawer. 

The Sound Of Tragedy

3 Jul

Tragedy has its own sound, a horrifying timbre that imprints forever on the heart and memory of the person who hears it.  It’s that phone call so late at night that it can only be bad news; it’s the voice of the person on the other end breaking news so shocking that you will never forget one word, or exactly how the caller sounded.

Tragedy sounds like horror. Excruciating pain. The realization of something so terrible that your own life will never be the same.

I’m thinking of this because I just got one of those phone calls from my daughter.  Since the day she left for college three years ago, and I lost the ability to KNOW she was safe at home, safe in her bed, safe on the other side of a wall, I’ve dreaded, deep down, that phone call. Every parent’s worst nightmare is a strange voice on the other end asking, “Are you _____’s mother?” So when the phone call comes, and it is your own child’s voice, there is a tiny measure of relief – whew, ok, at least she’s alive, which means I can handle whatever is coming next…

This phone call sent chills up my spine. Even though I survived the never-ending drama of her teenage years, I have never heard my child so uncontrollably UPSET.  She could barely breathe, let alone speak, and her shrill, uncomprehendable words mingled with her sobs, and I couldn’t calm her down enough for the first three minutes to understand a word of what she was saying…my head was spinning…I had a vision of the car, a mangled, tortured wreck, and my daughter, equally broken on the side of the road, making her first – and possibly last – phone call to her mother.

“What’s the MATTER?? What’s WRONG?” I screamed in fear. “Are you OKAY???” Her answer was more unintelligible, choked words and tears. At this point, I started to panic. “TELL ME WHAT’S WRONG?! WHAT HAPPENED?? ARE YOU OKAY???!!!” My son heard the sound of tragedy in my own voice, and came running from his bedroom, and I saw the fear in his face too.

By this point, I had made out a few of her words, enough to realize that there was no wrecked car, no accident…another slight moment of relief…followed in a split-second by the thought that if this wasn’t an accident, then what could have HAPPENED to my BABY GIRL?? I have to tell you, I was completely freaked out, terrified. From the sound of her voice, and knowing it wasn’t a car accident, I momentarily thought she’d either just been attacked, or had witnessed the brutal slaying of her dearest friend.

You never, EVER, want to hear that sound in your child’s voice. Ever.

I couldn’t be right there to shock her into compliance with a slap to the face (like they do in the movies to calm the hyper-excited), so my mother instinct took over and I yelled at her. I’m pretty certain that no matter how old a person gets, when your mother throws her authority at you, you respond; in that moment, I needed my daughter to tell me what was wrong, so I could FIX it…HELP her…so I could get my baby SAFE again. So I yelled at her as loud as I could to CALM DOWN so I could understand her…and it worked, finally. She was able to drop her voice a few octaves closer to normal, and breathe enough to tell me…

(are you ready for this?)

She had driven out of the supermarket with her wallet on top of the car.

I’m going to say this once more for the cheap seats – she’d lost her WALLET.

(I’d like to ask any parent reading this to stop right now and take a deep breath. A moment of silence, if you will. A moment of solidarity…just between us.)

I’m certain that by morning, my heart rate will have returned to normal, and that extra box of hair color I bought last weekend will take care of the fifty shades of grey that appeared in that frantic three minutes.  The worry lines around my eyes…well, they’re probably here to stay.

Cautionary Tale ?

31 May

My curling iron has a warning tag attached to the electrical cord that reads, “Caution! Product May Burn EYES!”

Wow…I did NOT know that.

I CAN tell you, from years of hard-won personal experience, that a curling iron may burn your fingers, your forehead, your scalp, cheekbones, the super-sensitive skin on the back of your neck where the roots of your hair meet flesh, the tippy-top of your earlobe, and your big toe (if you are doubly blessed with butterfingers and slow reflexes – which I am).  I can also tell you with absolute certainty that a curling iron will  burn a mark in a wooden table, if the kickstand thingy has broken off. It will leave a lovely scorch mark on the edge of your bathroom sink. It will most assuredly burn your favorite irreplaceable silk blouse if, in a moment of hair-spray-induced blindness, you set the curling iron down without looking. A curling iron will burn the palm of an unsuspecting toddler, the paw of a curious cat, and the nose of a dog who equates the smell of burning hair with the arrival of dinner. I can, as I said, tell you all of this from personal experience; from forgetting, time and time again that this wand of beauty is actually a molten laser of searing, scorching pain.

But I did NOT know that it can burn EYES. It says so, right there on that warning label. Which tells me one thing – that at some point, somewhere, somehow, someone burned their eye with a hot curling iron, and the subsequent lawsuit resulted in the mandatory warning label I now see every time I fix my hair.

Well, I suppose it’s a good thing, then, that someone put that warning label there. I certainly feel much better, now that I know. I feel confident that, knowing it can BURN EYES, I will – in the future – never, EVER place that hot steel wand on my eyelids.  I mean, I may have done it before…before I was enlightened, educated…but now I can breathe a sigh of relief at this near-miss.

That’s about all I have to say for today.  Stay tuned for my next post, which I sense will have much to do with the not-so-mutually-exclusive topics of absurd lawsuits and natural selection.

Garden of Weedin’

20 May

I weeded a garden today. I didn’t want to.

I wanted to stay home, and try to combat this awful depressed feeling by getting some work done around my own house. I wanted to spend some time relaxing, drinking coffee and reading all afternoon, and perhaps find something interesting to write about. I wanted some time to just feel better, period, because I have not been feeling well lately, and the “simple” medical fix is not working as well as expected. So believe me, the very last thing I wanted to do was to spend my time weeding someone else’s  garden.

But there’s this woman that I work for whose husband has been battling Alzheimer’s for several years, and at this point, the disease is winning. She cares for him with part-time help from home health aides, but his care is her entire responsibility. They both agreed in the early stages of this – and she would have it no other way – that he would stay at home as long as she was able to take care of him. So her every waking moment revolves around his doctors, his medicine, his routine, his meals, his personal care, safety, and comfort. If there is any time left over from dealing with all of this, there’s the unrelenting stress and worry about him, and the uncertainty of what each coming day will hold. And if, by some miracle, she is able to steal a moment or two here or there, she tries to address simple household tasks, like laundry, cleaning, paying bills, or gardening.

The truth is, she just doesn’t have enough time. Not by a long shot. There isn’t enough time to take care of him, and the house, and the yard and gardens. There isn’t enough time to get everything done.

There isn’t enough time left to spend with her best friend, as he slips away more and more every day. There isn’t time to hold on to the man she loves, as he becomes unrecognizable. Not enough time to sit and remember this man who was her confidant, friend, lover, her rock and her safe place, because she’s too busy taking care of the confused, slow, sometimes angry stranger that she sleeps next to every night.

She is almost out of time with the man she loves. I can’t imagine how that must feel. She buried her first husband many years ago, the result of a tragic accident. I can’t imagine how that must have felt. I wonder about how many nights she cried herself to sleep all those years ago, wishing she’d had a chance to say goodbye, and then I think of now, and I wonder if she thinks this long, sad goodbye is somehow better.

I come, I visit, and I clean. So far he still remembers me, most days. This is important, because when he starts to forget who I am, my presence might agitate him. Strangers stress him out. But she needs the help, so I hope he remembers me as long as possible. I talk to him about things he always liked to hear me talk about – my writing, my kids, my job. He likes to hear me sing, too, so I play recordings for him when I get new ones made. Today was the first time I felt like he couldn’t place me; he looked at me suspiciously, and with a little fear. He was having a very bad day. Dementia is like that – good days, bad days. Seeing him on either kind of day makes me sad, because I remember the good, kind, soft-spoken man he always was. And my soft heart can’t handle this much sadness without wanting to do SOMETHING to help, so…

I weeded her garden.

I admit, at first, I was kneeling there in her garden, yanking out weeds and really wishing I were home working in my own garden. I wondered how fast I could rush through this and get home. My legs and feet were hurting, I was tired, and there were so many of those little buggers I thought I might never get done.

After about an hour, she came outside to check on me. She was so appreciative of my efforts, so grateful. She hugged me, handed me a bottle of water, and went back inside to take care of her husband. I watched her walk into the house, this woman – this kind, loving woman, bearing the weight of the world on her small shoulders.

I sat back down in the garden, wiped a tear off my face with a grimy, dirty hand, and yanked out the nearest weed with a vengeance. I held it in my hand for a moment, and thought to myself, “I am so grateful that I have TIME to weed my own garden!” Then I tossed it into the weed pile. I pulled out another, and thought to myself, “I am so grateful to have my health!” Tossed that one in the weed pile too. The third weed was my gratitude to being able to sit outside in the sun; the fourth was tossed into the pile as I proclaimed my gratitude for having healthy children. This quickly became the way I spent the next four hours – pulling a weed out of the ground, and silently stating to myself something I was grateful for, before throwing it into the weed pile.

I thought, with nearly a hundred weeds to go, I would soon run out of things to be grateful for.

I did not.

And as I worked my way through that woman’s entire garden, challenging myself with each tug to find something to be thankful for in my own life, I found that list was actually never-ending. Big things, small things – friendships, family, things I have that make my life easier, people I know who make my life better.  I could recreate that endless list here, but you get the point.  The afternoon I thought would be such a chore turned into a full day of gratitude, one scrappy, thorny little weed at a time.

So, yes, I weeded a garden today, even though I didn’t want to.

And I ended up giving my soul a much-needed weeding too.

It was a very good day.

Baby Books and Cartoon Moons

13 May

(Originally published 12/2/2010)

 There are two kinds of mothers. The first remembers the dates and details of everything each child has ever done since the moment of their birth; every illness, injury, playmate, Halloween costume, the names of every teacher, and who came to their middle child’s third birthday party. These moms can rattle off baby stats like professional sportscasters: lengths and weights of their newborns, when they cut their first teeth, took their first steps, said their first word, had their first haircuts – and they can do it all without sneaking a refresher look at the baby books they so carefully scrapbooked over the years. I, for one, am glad these women exist because I’ve often thought there aren’t enough self-righteous people on the planet. I also believe in harmony and balance, and mothers like these are the yin to my yang, for I am the second kind – the one who couldn’t update the baby books because she kept losing them. They would surface occasionally under piles of mail or laundry, and I’d take a moment to reminisce over the birth announcement I’d tucked inside. Then I’d stick it on top of the refridgerator, resolving to get back to it when I had a little more time. Of course, when you have two children, time is the joke of the century, and the next thing you know, one’s in college…the other is shaving his face…and you have absolutely NO idea when they took their first steps or which one had the chickenpox. Someone recently asked me how much my son weighed at birth, and I blanked. I stood there, stalling, while my brain tried desperately to think of how much babies GENERALLY weigh so I could MAKE SOMETHING UP! This is unconscienable to many people, I know; mothers are supposed to be keepers of their children’s memories. I am not one such mother. In fact, I’ve been known to exasperate my kids by whipping out a pencil and scrap paper so I can perform the math necessary to figure out how old they will be on their next birthdays. This alone has caused my children to threaten to put themselves in foster care.




     Dear reader, before you run to the nearest magistrate to have my parental rights revoked, allow me to redeem myself. I may not have documented every milestone in their lives, and I admit I’m horrible with dates and statistics, but I remember the moments. Hundreds of them. I don’t even carry them in my brain for fear of losing them to a head injury; I carry them in my soul, because they make up every piece of who I am:  Creeping into my daughter’s room in the morning to peer over the rail of her crib and be rewarded by that incomparable baby smile, the one that lets you know you are her WHOLE WORLD. Walking around the house late at night with my son nestled in my arms, looking up at me; we were kindred insomniacs and I would sing to him for hours. The time he told me, “Mommy, I used to be an angel, but then I fell to the earth, and that’s when you found me, took off my wings, and brought me home with you.” The night in the car when he called a crescent moon a “cartoon moon”, and how we’ve called them “cartoon moons” ever since. The time my daughter convinced her little classmates that she and I practiced witchcraft at home, and if they didn’t play with her, we would cast spells on them. (They were terrified of her for a whole marking period. So was the teacher. That was one hysterical parent-teacher conference, but that’s a story for another day…) I remember the look on her face when she let go of the coffee table and took her first independent steps toward me, as clearly as I remember my heartache as I drove away after settling her into her college dorm room. Etched into my heart is the sound of my son’s little voice, every time he cried, “Mommy!” He sounds different now, but I’ll always hear the little voice. I’ll never forget the precious look on his 4-month old face when they removed the bandages after his eye surgery. It was a fairly routine glaucoma surgery, but there’s always risk and fear, and when the doctor took the bandages off, it was clear the operation was a success – he saw me and his little face lit up like Christmas. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.



    There is one thing I have in common with the Ubermoms – ask me to tell you about giving birth to either of them, and you’d better grab a chair and a box of tissues. Every mother remembers with startling – often graphic – detail every minute of the most miraculous day of her life, and loves to share the story over and over again with anyone who will listen. And boy, oh boy, nobody loves to hear these stories more than other mothers! Get a few of them together over coffee, and it’s like “Band of Brothers” with estrogen; it only takes one to start, and then the war stories begin to flow, replete with tears and laughter and appropriate moments of silence. Not one woman needs to express how giving birth to a child was their finest hour; every woman in the room simply understands this. We never need to say out loud how watching them grow up and away makes us feel because we’re all in the same foxhole. This is why women can share knowing looks with complete strangers in supermarkets and restaurants. Our badges aren’t on our clothing. They’re in our hearts, and they shine through our eyes as courage and wisdom. 




     As the kids start growing away from me, I find myself savoring these memories. I will start writing them down; their baby books will likely be hardbound novels with no clips of baby hair to be found, but they will be just as appreciated. Someday. And maybe my documentarian shortcomings will be forgiven. Years from now, when my memory starts to fade and these little moments slip quietly from me, my children can read them back into my soul, and share them with their own children. Speaking of which, I have every intention of ensuring that my grandchildren have the most fantastic baby books EVER. It’s pretty likely I’ll have caught up on the laundry by then, and will have the time to spare. I will record every vital statistic, capture every milestone, put in pictures and handwritten stories and create scrapbooks that Martha Stewart would envy. And I’m already picturing that on the front of each one, right above the hand-embroidered name of my grandchild, there will be a drawing of a cartoon moon.





Today’s Rant

13 May

(Originally published 6/2/2011)

 It’s that time of year…school is about to let out, and 16-year-olds are pounding the pavement, looking for a summer job. Working in a restaurant, I have spent much of the last two weeks breaking the sad news to all these hopefuls that we are fully staffed and not hiring at the moment. The crestfallen looks on their formerly exuberant faces reminds me of what it was like to be young; to believe that all you had to do is walk in, ask for a job, and get one. Like it’s supposed to just be THAT easy. Hahaha…ah, youth. But lest you think I’m a complete cynic, lacking in compassion, I confess that I do feel badly enough to at least allow them to fill out an application. Everyone has to start somewhere, and learning the application process is part of life, right? Besides, as I was reminded today, there are few things that bring a smile to a world-weary face like mine; reading the job application of a teenager will always do the trick.


     One such hopeful came in today, and her application inspired this train of thought (which I suspect will shortly turn into a full-blown rant…). Let me set the stage for you: she was young and beautiful, very wholesome and healthy looking, great teeth and a positive, respectful attitude. When I explained that we weren’t currently hiring but that she was welcome to hand in an application, she thanked me graciously and asked if she could sit down and fill it out right there. She had even brought her own pen. I liked her right away; the girl that came in a few days ago was barefoot and wearing a string bikini…TO ASK FOR A JOB…but I digress…


     The best part of my night was later, when I was winding down from a busy dinner rush. I sat down for a few minutes, savoring the blast from the air conditioner as it blew across my grimy, sweaty face. I was sipping my coffee and dabbing my forehead with a napkin, and I read her application then. It was full of the usual pertinent information, and of course she was able to work any hours we might require – she is, after all, a kid, so her schedule’s wide open. Most generic applications (like ours) ask you to list any special skills you have. This, my friends, is the best part of any form filled out by a teenager, and today’s applicant did not disappoint. Under special skills, she had written, “I am friendly, I work well with others, and I’m not shy.” My face has been hurting ever since, because it is simply not possible to contain that much laughter in one head. Even a head as big and powerful as mine.


     Do you remember your first job? Filling out your first application? You had no work experience, and even less real-life experience. In fact, your experience was so pitiful that you didn’t even know enough to leave the “special skills” section blank, so you dug deep, deep into your 15-or 16- year old life experience to come up with SOMETHING! What should I write here? What do they want to know about me? What will impress them enough to hire me?? Oh, I know…”I’m not shy! I’m friendly!” Now, I’m not trying to be mean. I give the kid props for coming in, properly dressed and saying and doing all the right things. It’s not her fault that she’s, well, just a kid, and that her particular skillset could land her an excellent job as a puppy. Or a talking Barbie doll.


     I remember looking for my first job. I was fifteen, and when it came time to answer that “skills” question, I blanked, nervous that my answer wouldn’t be good enough. Years later I would come to know that nobody gives a crap about that anyway, and it was probably added to the application process as a litmus test for creativity. But then, I attempted to impress by telling my would-be employer that I was smart, friendly, and learned quickly. I remember feeling proud as I handed in the application, and even prouder when I got the job; clearly my answer was the right one. Little did I know that my boss had sized me up and correctly guessed that I was not a social butterfly, so I would always be available on weekends. That was really all that mattered. Like I said, the ignorance of youth. Go figure.



     Twenty-five years later, I am past the point where I will ever need to fill out an application again. Probably. If a job search were necessary, I am a professional now, a real bonafide grown-up, so a resume would be the most likely vehicle. But…if I could…just once…fill out one of those generic applications, I would welcome the part where it asks me for “any special skills I may have.” And I would feel just ever-so-slightly sorry for the application processor, because my answer would read something like this:


     “After 25 years of working with people, for people, and even being self-employed, I have gained a wealth of skills. I can manage people, am highly organized and efficient, can deal fairly and successfully with employers, employees and vendors alike; my customer service skills are unparallelled, and I know how to streamline processes to save time, which is always saving money. But more importantly, I don’t take crap from anybody, anymore. I can ferret out liars, wannabes, and false advertisers. I can deflect bullshit like Superman deflects bullets. The years have taught me not to waste precious energy in a futile fight against sexual discrimination, but to learn who the offenders are and bat my eyelashes at them to get the job done. Twenty years of being a single mother has taught me preparedness and how to pull off a top-notch job with substandard resources – or sometimes none at all. I know the value of a great sense of humor and a good long cry. I know that sometimes you have to keep trudging through, even when you just don’t think you can, because people depend on you. I have, myself, been driven to the edge of despair by tough economic times, betrayal, and even heartbreak, so I have compassion for the people I deal with every day, aware that they, too, have a story to tell. I am a thinker, a solver, a healer, a mother, an accountant, a mechanic, a janitor, a plumber, an electrician, a doctor, a therapist, an organizer, a sympathizer, a writer, a singer, a practical and a dreamer. Skills, you ask? Oh, yes. I’ve GOT skills. And your organization would be DAMN LUCKY to have me. P.S. I am friendly, and I’m not shy.”


     I almost feel a little bad now for poking fun at this girl who has given me so much to think about tonight. Her only ailment is that she’s young and hopeful; a decade or two in the real world will cure her of both. In the meantime, thank you, mystery teenage applicant, for the opportunity to reflect on how far I have come in my own life, and what these years have taught me. I think I’ll add another event to my bucket list; when I’m seventy, I want to apply for a position as a Wal-Mart greeter. Just so I can fill out the application. I’ll have another thirty years’ worth of skills and sarcasm to add to the list, and boy, oh boy, I can’t wait to read what I’m going to have to say then…


“UNREMARKABLE” – A Pathology of My Mother’s Heart

13 May

“Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face.” ~ George Eliot

I am a mixed bag of emotions on Mother’s Day, from pride in my own children to guilt at my failures in the mothering department; from anger at my own mother to loving and missing her, and wishing for another chance to pick up the phone and call her. I witness the selfless acts of mother-women all around me, and my heart swells to be part of this sisterhood, and am amazed for the thousandth time at the inherent strength of women, and mothers.

My mother died too soon, and by her own choice.  Perhaps her depression was caused by some sort of chemical imbalance, or maybe it was just that her life was too hard.  Perhaps it was an accident, even, and she didn’t really mean to pull the trigger; perhaps it was something darker, and worse, and the man she was married to shouldn’t be walking around free from prosecution. We will never really know the answers to any of this. We will question it forever, and each of us, in the quiet part of our hearts, will settle on an answer that gives us peace, and lets us remember her in the best way that we can.

I remember running to the mailbox every day after her funeral, hoping that her last act on this earth was to write each of her four children a letter. (In later conversations with my sister and brothers, it turned out they had done the same.)  My hopes began to dwindle after five days or so, but I still thought it possible – I mean, sometimes mail gets delayed, right? But the mailbox remained empty. No answers there.

She had gone Christmas shopping, and there were gifts for us, and for her grandchildren, all wrapped and ready to go. In fact, I was told they were near her, and she was facing them, possibly looking at them, when she checked out. When mine was brought to me, I tore into it like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning. Not with childish joy, though. All I wanted to find in this package was a clue, or some kind of gift that had special meaning only for me; a message from my mom.  But it was just a plain old set of picture frames. I cried again that day. No answers there, either.

We had heard there was a suicide note, but it had been taken into evidence by the police, and we had no idea what it said. For two months, we all imagined our occasionally-effervescent and always dramatic mother had written a novella, one that would explain everything.  There was no way this woman – who cried at the Folger’s Coffee Christmas commercial – who had “Irish Eyes” emblazoned on the bugshield of her pick-up truck – who LOVED to be the life of the party, and the center of attention – well, there was just no way she would exit this play without one last fantastic monologue.  But when we finally got the note…it was short, and confusing, and not at all reminiscent of the woman we had hoped her to be.  No answers there, either.

There was one last chance at an explanation: her autopsy. One running theory was that she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and couldn’t bear it for herself, or wanted to spare all of us.  (You see, when people die, no matter how they die, we do tend to give them the benefit of the doubt on things.) My sister picked up the autopsy report from the police station, and came to my house. I put on a pot of coffee, and we opened the envelope.  In short, there were no answers there, either. There was no illness, no cancer.  We lost her again on that day, two months after her funeral, when it punched us in the face that we would never understand what led our mother to put a gun in her own mouth and pull the trigger.

I remember reading through the medical examiner’s report, sifting through his  forms and technical jargon, trying desperately to fashion a new picture of my mother that I’d never seen before.  There were sections on his report for each of her major organs – their appearance, color, shape, etc., and the weight in grams of each one. I was halfway down the list – heart, lungs, liver – before it dawned on me just HOW this guy knew how much each one weighed…the process involved…cutting each part out of my mother and putting it on a scale!! Oh my God!! In a fresh burst of tears, I asked my sister if she thought he put them all back IN before her burial, and if so, did he put them back in the RIGHT WAY?? Or did he just toss them in there, like body organ soup, because – let’s face it – who would know the difference anyway? These are questions that no child, no matter how old they are, should ever have to wonder about their mother.

There was one other curious thing about the autopsy report. Apparently medical examiners have their own lingo, and after two pots of coffee and a serious crying jag, it just gets funny. When there is nothing noteworthy about a person’s body parts, they use the word, “unremarkable”.  So my sister and I, recovering from the horror of the whole organ-weighing epiphany, and with not a tear left to cry between the two of us, read out loud that her lungs were “unremarkable”. Her liver was “unremarkable”.  The irony – that we wanted something REMARKABLE, so we’d have an answer, goddammit – was juxtaposed against the memory of our mom’s self-deprecating sense of humor. She would have been laughing as hard as we were at that point – loud, cathartic, belly-laughs that hurt like hell – at the thought that her breasts were “unremarkable”.

It’s taken me most of the last nine years to come to this, but I believe the medical examiner was wrong about one thing.  My mother’s heart was not “unremarkable.”  It was maybe the most incredible thing about her.  That woman LOVED.  She didn’t make the best choices about who should receive her love, and that led to more terrible choices. It was for those choices that I spent most of my life being angry at her, even before she died.  It was because of those choices that I chose to stay away from her, and didn’t even call to wish her a Merry Christmas two weeks before she took her own life. It was those choices that caused me a lifetime of pain, and while I can’t change the past, I can certainly try to think of her choices in a different way.  In her own troubled way, she did the best she could.  In her own mind, she was loving all of us, and really trying. And in the quiet part of my own heart, I have come to believe that she didn’t take her own life because she was selfish, and didn’t love us enough; I think she knew full well the pain her choices created for those of us she loved the most – her children – and her “unremarkable” heart just wasn’t strong enough to bear it all. As I said, we all have had to find an answer that gives us peace.

I’ll have more thoughts on my mother, I’m sure. And some days, I might be a little pissed off again at her. But today, on this sunny, beautiful Mother’s Day, ten years after the last time I was able to call my own mother and say hello…I can only feel happiness at the thought that, at the beginning of my life, before things got muddled and dark through the years, there was me and my mom. I can’t remember being an infant, and looking up at her face – the face that must have meant the entire universe to me – but somewhere deep inside I can remember the feeling. I know she held me, cared for me, fed me, sang to me, showed me off to friends and family…and I know I was loved by the remarkable heart of a woman. My mother.

Slugs and Snails and Puppy-Dog Tails

8 May

You know those stories you read about wonderful, inspiring children? The sweet anecdotes that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, and make you want to sit and do arts and crafts with your own kids? You know the ones – little toddler fists filled with broken dandelions…Mother’s Day cards with a carefully scribbled “You’re the BEST Mom I ever had!”…and the really heartwarming stories about children so miraculous and special it makes your uterus twinge with longing….


This is not one of those stories.


Let me tell you what I’ve got.


He’s 16.


My refridgerator is empty. Always.


So is my wallet.


In fact, most of the kitchen cabinets are empty too, because while he is skilled at bringing glasses and dishes up the stairs into his room, he hasn’t mastered bringing them back DOWN.


He uses a towel ONE TIME. Just once, then it ends up on the floor, which means more laundry for me. I’ve explained the process to him eight times – use it, hang it up. I’ve even acted it out, in real time. Once I drew a picture. But despite the look of understanding on his face – despite the appropriate head-nodding in agreement – my morning trip to the bathroom always ends up with my sleepy feet on a cold, wet towel. Sometimes two.


I leave him a list of a couple household chores…he does one thing, then claims he didn’t see anything else on the list. He doesn’t understand my exasperation when I point out that his argument makes no sense…he did #3 on the list; how did he manage to “not see” numbers 1 and 2??


I gave up trying to record a tv show. There is no room on the DVR for one episode of Frozen Planet, when the entire thing is full of Family Guy reruns, Pawn Stars, X-Play, and Swamp People.


When he empties the dishwasher, it’s pretty much a crapshoot as to where I will later find ANYTHING. His definition of “putting things away” is “putting them all in the one cabinet I can most easily reach from this position”. A simple cake-baking becomes an all-afternoon scavenger hunt. Once, he dumped all the silverware into the drawer, on top of the dividers. In a pile. Near as I can figure, he then had to work harder to get the drawer shut than if he had just put them all facing the right way in the first place.


He has yet to remember a Mother’s Day or my birthday without assistance.


He has taken procrastination to an art form I may never even achieve. School clothes are tossed into the washer 45 minutes before the bus comes. Homework – if it gets done at all – consists of whatever the teachers will allow him to make up the last week of the marking period. Chores are done ten minutes before I arrive home from work.


He gets in trouble at school so often that I am afraid to use my real name on school grounds.


He revels in the velocity and odiousness of his own farts.


Like I said, he is 16.


And just when I am at my wit’s end…when I can’t stand his selfishness for ONE MORE DAY…when I’m wondering how far a woman can be pushed before it’s considered justifiable homicide…when I’m considering military school, the peace corps, or foster care as viable options…..


I wake up in the middle of the night, having fallen asleep on the sofa, and I’m covered with a blanket, the tv is off, and the house has been locked up.


He even covered my toes, so they wouldn’t catch a draft and wake me up.


He covered my TOES.


He hugs me, too. Every morning, and every day when I get home from work. And every day, he asks me how my day was. And if I tell him…he listens.


I’ve seen him drop his basketball and go running to help a neighbor.


I’ve heard him get angry if he thinks someone hurt me or his sister.


I often find him curled up with our family cat. It makes me smile.


He came to my gig this weekend – he wanted to. He helped carry equipment without being asked, and made sure I had a bottle of water. And when I got nervous, he motioned for me to just keep looking at him, and he kept my gaze, and smiled at me the whole time. He was proud of me, and proud of himself for being able to help me. So was I.


He’s not a bad kid.


And sometimes…if I’m very lucky, and the planets align just right…when he empties the dishwasher, he puts all the forks facing the same way, and for a fleeting moment I glimpse a responsible, thoughtful adult…and it gives me hope.


He’s just 16.


There’s time yet.


And I have plenty of towels.