Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Bette Midler Sweetheart Soap Kind of Day

Kalamazoo, Michigan

I am in my yellow bedroom with the Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater and Jack and Jill pictures.
It is bedtime.

I hear Mama yelling.
She tells Daddy that he thinks he is special because he has a penis in his pants.
He says something, but I can't hear.

The bottom drawer of the stove opens.
I know that sound.
Mama's goin' at it with the pots and pans.
Bam on the black and white speckled linoleum floor.
Bang come the lids. I hear one rolling on its edge.
I wait until I hear it fall over.

A door slams.
Mama is crying.

I tell my friend about what Mama said to Daddy about the penis in his pants.
I ask Mama why my uncle smells like New Year's Eve in the middle of the day

You don't get to talk truth in our house.
If you do, Mom takes you to the powder room
and she holds your head
over the lavender sink
while placing a bar of Sweetheart Soap in front of your mouth.

"Bite", she says.

And I do.
And I get the bad words washed out.
Mama's always telling me to "put a little sugar in my voice."

So see truth is not good, I figure.
It is something only for the grown-ups.
Not nice little girls like me.

Nice girls don't tell the truth.
They play by the rules of how a young lady is supposed to act.

Young ladies don't get mad.
Young ladies speak in soft voices.
Young ladies don't let themselves get dirty.
Young ladies ask; they do not state.

Mama hands me a booklet called You're a Young Lady Now.
It's got pictures of something called Kotex.
And a real ugly lookin' thing called a sanitary belt.

Book says I'm gonna be changing soon.
Book says things are gonna be different now
And that I will like it.

The young lady life don't seem fun to me-
well the pretty clothes part- but that's it.
I don't wanna be a young lady.

I wanna be my own girl.
I wanna wear my little mouse shirt that has snaps on the shoulder.
Mama says I'm too old because I have little bumps on my chest now.

She says that I am a young lady now.

Down and Dirty with Bette Midler
Johnny Carson

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Giving Ourselves Mercy

A few years ago I started thinking backward more than I was thinking forward. From what I have studied, that seems to be the case for people when they pass mid life.

This thinking back is a good thing and a bad thing. It brought up feelings of sadness. It brought up feelings of intense gratitude for the good fortune I have enjoyed in terms of loving people, a myriad of fabulous experiences and just plain old-fashioned good luck.

Conversely, this line of thinking also made me face all of the dumb things I have done. I thought about opportunities that I had passed over. I was at the point in my life when I was realizing that all of the things I thought I might do at age twenty were not going to happen during my lifetime.

I went through a period of what lasted about three years in which I was so angry, frustrated, frightened and awkward-feeling that I did not like to be around myself much. And to be honest, I must say I have usually thoroughly enjoyed my own company.


early spring sometime in the late 1950's

A girl of nine stands at the window outside her bedroom door. The view to her right is of her mother's kitchen window. Soon purple irises will bloom in the area under that window. But for now there is only snow- dirty, muddy, middle of March snow.

The girl sees the gray sky and the leafless trees. Today she has been told to stay home from school to watch over her mother. Mom has been in out of the hospital a lot lately. No one will tell her what is wrong with her mom. She just knows her mom cries so much, sleeps so much, and when she does get up to do something she isn't fun anymore.

Gone is the Mom who dances to Ricky Nelson in the living room on the big braided rug.
Gone is the Mom who sings while she whips up lemon meringue pies, hot cross buns and Easter bunny cakes festooned with coconut and jelly beans.
Gone is the Mom who puts a stick of Blackjack gum over her front tooth to get a laugh.

Here is the Mom who is sad.
Here is the Mom that the little girl must cheer up.
She knows so because her grandparents and father have told her that is her job.

They have told her not to cause trouble or ask for too much because your mother has worse problems. "You just be a good girl and make Mama happy," they say.

Down the hallway in her antique bed, Mama sleeps.
Still staring out the window on this very gray of days
the little girl wraps her arms around herself as if to ward off an inner chill.
And she tells herself, "I will always have me."


During so many of my young adult days I expected too much from myself. It was like I thought I had some dues to pay or something to prove. This force inside of me propelled me.
It was a drug as heady as good sex.

A few years back I just stopped trying so hard. That in itself has been a whole new challenge.

At some point, hopefully earlier than later, a woman must take sum of who she is and rejoice.
We are all too hard on ourselves.

Shortly after my mother died, I met Ram Dass. I was struggling with grief but sadder still was that I was passing judgment on myself as to how I was grieving. Was I doing it right? Was I taking too long?

Ram Dass stared me straight in the eye and said these words, "We must learn to give ourselves mercy."

I am fine just the way I am. And you, dear reader, are just fine the way you are too.

Let us stop being hard on ourselves. We've come a long way.

*Quite a few years went by before I realized that the following song was about loving and accepting oneself. It was written by Linda Creed, a young woman who died of breast cancer at the age of thirty-six.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cracklin' Anny Pays Paula a Visit

Was eight in the morning on my birthday

Voice inside said you hang in the hole today

In the hole I don't bathe or brush my teeth

In the hole I don't try to make nice

The hole don't have no Warm Fuzzies or Smiley Faces

It got no course in compulsive positive thinking.

Here what it do got:

It got my real

The walls are plastered with icky gold-veined mirror panels

Keep me starin' back at myself everywhere

I stare so long that I see behind myself

Seein' behind myself

Hole is scary

Hole is about my Edge

Hole is about following my gut

I flash on the old lady

Who runs down Florida Avenue

She got pigtails and a backpack on

I see the guy who boogie woogies

In the median

At Florida and East Fowler

I figure it is about time

To get out of the place

I am afraid about what may happen

If I step over the Edge

Cracklin' Anny she shows up

She backs me up hard

Against the gold-veined mirrored wall

She is mad

And she has a good

Tongue-lashing for me

Let us listen to what she has to say:

"You push me back

Say I ain't nice to look at

Say I don't act right

Say you embarrassed of me"

"You treat me like refugee

But I been here whole time

Anny on your side

She got your back"

"I got some things to say

But you never listen

This time you listen

Time runnin' out"

"Your house too clean

You used to sleep in bed with kitty fur, cookie crumbs and paper piles

You happier then"

"You been thinkin' moresn' good for you

Been thinking all you life

You stop now"

"You hoop- dee- do girl

You kick it up more, you hear

You ain't nice girl"

"Nice girl smiles when she wants to cry

Nice girl agrees when she really mean fuck off

Nice girl goes along when she really want to go away"

"That ain't you

Don't mean you bad

Mean you grown-up

You sixty now"

Doris Day

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bathing Suit Gals

Paula and Marcia in their Twenties

Mom and I sit on her sexy white wraparound couch talking about everything and nothing. She has her hands folded and her fingers are laced. As she speaks she twirls her thumbs. I know what this movement portends- sad news. Rotating our thumbs is what we do when bad stuff is coming down. Mom tells me her father has cancer. She cries.

Our conversation totters a bit on the subject, and then takes a strong right turn. Perhaps we discuss the new polka dot pillows I have brought for her sofa. Perhaps we talk some nonsense about the latest in celebrity news.

Mom stands up and lifts the leg of her trousers to mid thigh. She points to the zig zaggy purple lines on legs. She tells me that she is paying $350.00 to have these spider veins removed. I detect a hint of hopeful triumph in her voice.

"Good, Mom”, I say.

But my thirty-something mind wonders why. Mom is a woman in her late fifties. Age is bursting out everywhere on her body. Visions of the little Dutch boy who tried to stop a flood by sticking a finger in the hole of a dike cross my mind. Certainly this spider vein procedure cannot stop the inevitable fallout of age, I think to myself.

Later we go for dinner at the clubhouse. Two men my mother's age offer to buy us drinks. I hate this. I am a woman who does not let men buy me drinks. I am an “I will pay my own way thank-you very much “ type, but Mom is different that way. I give way to a cocktail. We drink, chat and leave.

Back at the condo, she models the yellow linen dress she has bought for her next blind date She has high hopes, for her vein procedure will be completed by then she reminds me. She has been actively seeking men for a few months now. Three marriages under her belt and a string of love affairs later, she still believes that she needs a man to be complete. The fluorescent light of the bathroom vanity accentuates every line in her fifty-something face.

“It’s real pretty, Mom. You look good,” I encourage her. Inside I pray that I won’t be this desperate at her age. "Hey, you will find a man if that is what you want. Look at those two men who just bought drinks for us."

She turns away from the unkind light, looks me straight in the eye, and says, "Paula, those men were interested in you- not me."

My heart breaks for her. She is probably correct, but I play dumb. My stomach squeezes in on me.

Mom grew up believing that her appearance was her most valuable currency. She had been able to trade on it for most of her life. She feared losing its spending power.

Oh, Mom, why did you not see that your raucous sense of humor, your keen intellect and your willingness to share your deepest feelings were your special gifts? They could have carried you gracefully over the threshold of aging.

A Young Sarah

Now Aunt Sarah, well, she did aging differently. Her body had its fair share of pooches, droops, and discolorations. But Sarah trusted who she was. And if she did feel a bit wistful at times about the loss of her youthful looks- and I am certain she did because I knew my aunt-she was not going to dignify it with any dialogue.

In the eye of memory I visit her. Today she is wearing old shorts and a paint spattered shirt. She gardens now as I look on, and as she does she sings:

"White coral bells

Upon a slender stalk

Lily of the Valley

Deck my garden walk

Oh, don't you wish

That you could

Hear them ring?

That will happen

Only when the fairies sing"

She has a joy in her heart that will not pay duty to the boundaries of age. She pauses to admire her flowers before heading to her studio, for while she was gardening she got an idea about how to solve a problem in her current painting. This has been gnawing at her for several days now, and she cannot wait to get started.

Today she will work in her studio in the woods until the late July heat beckons her to pull on one of her stretched-out swimsuits for a delicious swim in the bay. She rejoices that her heart still beats, her legs still carry her and that her eyes continue to seek out beauty.

The water of Grand Traverse Bay is just cold enough to be refreshing this evening. The geese cry as they fly in formation overhead. She is glad and give thanks for yet another day as she enters her eighty-second year.

Sarah in her 70's

Age has made me naked. It has shucked me right down to my stalk- raw and exposed. Pretending does not work any more. I catch myself lying to myself too fast these days. I have blown my own cover.

I put on my new blue bathing suit. I am the fattest I have ever been compliments of the broken leg.

I stare at the woman who looks back at me in the mirror.

If I, but for a moment, hear myself pass judgment on that woman, I shall stop. I will hold myself tight in my own arms until I find her- my own true blue gal.