Stories of My Mother #9

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

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

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

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

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

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Stories of My Mother #8: Pierced Ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo from Flickr by David Uzochukwu

Tales from the Gym, #3: The Speedo, part 2

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I know this Speedo is the right damn size, and yet, by the time I have figured out which holes to put my legs through, and gotten it up to approximately my knees, I am reminded of the deeply humiliating times that I have tried on jeans that are too small – way too small. You move around in ways you didn’t even know you could accomplish, and yet you know those babies ain’t going nowhere. I guarantee this experience makes even the most body-confident woman (wait – is there such a person?) immediately visualize a mental list of at least 623 things that are tragically wrong with her body, her life, her entire place in the universe.

As the brand-new Speedo hovers around my knees, I silently thank my lucky stars that I decided to try this little fucker on in the privacy of my own home, rather than – oh my god – the gym locker room. For now it occurs to me that there was one other excellent reason that I was so gleeful about abolishing the health club experience from my life for that wonderful 15 years: the locker room.
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While I was still busy avoiding the idea of swimming (and waiting for my eBay Speedo to arrive in the mail), I got a free trial week at a different local “Athetic Facility,” where I stuck my toes back into the fitness club waters by arriving there in my full regalia of workout clothes, hanging my ground-length down parka on a hook, and trying to convince myself that as long as I was going to sweat in the service of my health, I may as well have a very nice view of Lake Michigan. Forty minutes later, I put my parka back on and went back to the private confines and comfort of my own home to shower and change. I was delighted to see how many scores of other people did this same thing! Scores of students from the Affiliated University of this Athletic Facility walked right over in the full brutality of winter, wearing their shorts and running shoes!! And hung up their coats, did their thing and left!!

Alas, if you’re gonna swim, you’re gonna have to find yourself in the locker room.

Sigh. I recall a woman from my old gym. I can picture her standing in front of the mirror, doing her entire routine of hair drying/styling/coifing, and then skin care regimen, and then multiple layers of make-up – stark naked from the waist up. Showing off what was obviously a state-of-the-art boob job. Those girls were expensive, carefully planned and deeply tanned, and she wanted them to be seen. I never actually saw her working out, come to think of it; and for all I know, she just stood there in front of the mirror and did her routine over and over, all day.

Then there was the time that the mother of a teenager I worked with accosted me in the locker room at the precise second when I had emerged from the shower, returned to my locker, an let the towel drop. I was stark naked. She wanted to talk with me about her bill, the fact that she owed me a great deal of money. And she was crying.

 

 

Tales from the Gym, #2: The Speedo

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Ok, ok. I will try swimming. For more than 2 years, my doc has been gently asserting that this activity would be a wondrous way to get an all-around workout with the least amount of strain on my degenerating joints. I steadfastly ignored him, for what I thought were a number of excellent reasons: first of all, I live in an inexcusably cold climate, and jumping into a giant pool of cold water in the roughly six or seven months of the year when it is unlivable here – well, that’s just crazy. Secondly, as I mentioned, snipping up my old gym membership card remained a glorious memory; and swimming would obviously require a pool that was located in one of those…places. And last but not least, well, I can barely swim.

The thought of it immediately brings to mind a friend who is Very Serious Athlete, the type who can not only do, but excel, at nearly everything. She tells the story of how one day, when in the pool doing her effortless laps, she decided she would try the butterfly stroke. Just one pool length, she told herself, as she hadn’t done the fly for years. She made it close to one length, but not quite, and when she gave up and poked her head out of the water, she found herself nearly eye-to-eye with the lifeguard on duty, who was crouched at the end of my friend’s lane, a hair’s breath away from making the rescue dive, with her full regalia of lifesaving gear and devices in hand. Yep, I think to myself. That’s gonna be me.

However, I am of the very firm belief that it is critically important to take on challenges throughout one’s life that stretch one immensely, are therefore appropriately and deeply humbling, and where simply living through it indicates complete success. My children seem to have inherited this trait, which I suppose is how they found themselves walking 2,173 miles a number of years ago, brother and sister together, the full length of the Appalachian Trail.  They began at Mt. Katahdin, Maine and ended five months later at Springer Mountain, Georgia,  where they walked from the woods, casual as could be, into my sobbing arms.  I was standing in a parking lot holding two bags, one containing 3 bottles of champagne, and the other — 6 cans of whipped cream (for whipped cream high-fives, of course).

I’ve done very little swimming for exercise in my life, but I’ve done enough to know that you simply cannot swim laps in a regular bathing suit. Even the most comfortable, favorite, well-fitted suit you may own will be in your way in a hundred different places once you are actually trying to swim, and that’s if it stays on at all. Which it quite often does not. I need a Speedo.

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Anyone who knows me will tell you that I never try anything on in stores. I know what size Speedo I wear; I log on to eBay and feel that deep sense of customer satisfaction that comes from nabbing a $70 Speedo for a mere $20, AND there’s free shipping. From my days as “Equipment Manager” of my kids’ youth swim team (equipment consisting of, um, team swimsuits, period), I have watched a large array of children and teenagers putting on brand new racing Speedos. So I am not surprised when my my shopping triumph arrives in the mail, I take it out of its plain white Speedo wrapper, and am confronted with a crazy mishmash of material that has holes and straps and openings everywhere, but is no more than 2” x 4” in its entirety. The brand new wonder has no less than FOUR tags describing the technology that has been brought to bear on the Speedo Endurance Flyback Training Suit that I am holding in my hands.

I put both hands inside the Speedo. I pull it in every direction with all my might. I will sum up: a suit that is designed to hold up through a minimum of 10 hours a week swim training (as I learn from the tags!) in a miasma of chemicals under conditions of constant friction is a garment that comes out of the box with absolutely no stretch whatsoever. Suddenly the mental picture of all those girls doing the most amazing and jaw-dropping gyrations in order to try on their team swim suits comes back to me. I always thought it was just because competitive swimmers have this folklore that you cannot swim your fastest unless your suit is at least one size too small. Preferably more. This made a certain amount of sense to me, as I watched elite girl swimmers in suits so unbearably tight, they were pulling their straps down before they were fully out of the water. Well, sure, who wouldn’t want to get out of the water as fast as you possibly could before losing all sensation in your fingers, for god’s sake.

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Tales from the Gym, #1

A man trains at the Kachalka outdoor gym on the banks of river Dniper in Kiev

The day that I cancelled my gym membership – a good 15 years ago – was one of the most joyous days of my life. My daughter insists that every single time she goes to a gym – any gym in any city – she walks through the front door and has an immediate sense that something really, really good is going to happen. I love my daughter passionately; but this strikes me as very nearly psychotic.

My ex-husband and I joined our local gym towing along an infant. We dutifully went three times a week, doing a prescribed combination of strength training and cardio. Now that I am facing down my 60th birthday later this year, this strikes me as hilarious and disheartening. A high point of each week is my Sunday, wherein I putatively help my kids out by “babysitting” my adored foster grandson, and thereby get a strong dose of the miraculous wonder that comprises the world of a two-year-old. However, going out of my way to locate any additional exercise on these days is a preposterous idea. Taking care of him for a six-hour stretch is my workout, and I spend much of the day hoping I will have enough remaining strength to carry him up the long flight of stairs that ends my stint. In fact, when I first began taking care of him, I came home early Sunday evening, sat in my favorite chair with my Sunday paper, and was absolutely sure that I was dying. Terminally ill. A goner. There could be no other possible explanation for the level of my exhaustion, the depth of which was awesome and terrifying. Must. Get. Food. Important. To. Brush. Teeth.

Through sheer force of will I remained nearly-awake until 9:00.

The thought of doing anything on Sunday evening – even though I was invariably back home no later than six o’clock – was entirely out of the question. And to think there was a time when I did this all day long, every day, and sought out MORE exercise!?

For the ensuing 15 years since I gleefully snipped my old gym membership card into little teeny pieces, I have been a runner, of sorts. But a vast array of medical appointments involving all kids of thumping noises, radioactive dyes, extraordinarily unnatural body positions, little cameras being put in little orifices – you get the idea – have resulted in me having a high degree of technology to verify that I am in excellent health. Except for one thing: a significant amount of “wear and tear” degeneration, strange bone growth, and good old-fashioned arthritis, that sprawls through my back and hips.

My running days are over.

Two weeks ago, I joined a gym. Watch for the stories to prove it.

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Stories of My Mother #7

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

He did not call again.

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Stories of My Mother, #6

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

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

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

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

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

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