A Moving Story

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We lived in our house for 11 years and I’d wanted to move for the last 10. It finally happened, but good grief was the whole process ever a pain in the butt.

We showed the house about 20 times before it sold. Rarely did we get more than an hour’s notice. I’d get off the phone, run to the stairs, and scream, “Emergency clean up!” My three kids would come scurrying. Lastly, we’d throw the dirty laundry into the back of the totaled van, load up two gassy dogs, and squeal the tires, barely making it out of the house before the potential buyers came to look.

Worse, far worse than this was the actual packing. Don’t get me wrong: I was grateful and happy that the house sold, but I never dreamed I had so much STUFF that had to be removed. Where did it all come from? Was it the extra kid we had since living there? I came to regret every collection, every saved item over the years. Eventually, any attachment I ever had to anything ceased. I became hardened. A wedding gift? Whatever. Dolls I had played with when I was a kid? Sure, I was going to play with them again at age 46. Yeah, right. Where’s that trash bag?

Then you start moving large pieces out. You know you were a clean person, but HOW DID THAT FILTH GET THERE? Was I living in a crack house? Gee, and I have five oreganos. I also had a major food coloring spill some time ago. OR IS IT FOOD COLORING?

It was somehow liberating to purge, like a giant household enema: Uncomfortable while it’s happening, but leaving you with an empty, pleasant sensation when done. We took a final look around after 3 weeks of endless packing and transporting to the storage unit that became two storage units, packed like a Tetris game. We had almost left the trash can. I would have abandoned it, but it was full of three-week-old extra ripe garbage that had been completely forgotten. Not good for the buyer’s walk-through the next day.

Anyhoo, we did find a new house as we were packing up the old and I am super excited about it. I have to be, because we’ve all decided that we will die in the new house before we EVER move again.

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Praying for Cookies

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A group of little children sits on the floor at the foot of their teacher. It is the 1960’s, in Castro’s Cuba. Winning hearts and minds is most effective when the heart belongs to a child, as these young ones are going to discover.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have milk and cookies?” the teacher says to the thin faces peering up. They look excitedly at one another, nodding, smiling.

“Well, let us all bow our heads, close our eyes, and pray to God that He brings us some.” All heads bow and the teacher leads in prayer.

“Children! Look!”

They look around. Nothing. Their faces fall.

“You must not have prayed hard enough. We will pray again.”

“Children! Look now!”

Disappointment again. They are told to try a third time: God must not have heard them.

Then………well, God did not hear them or He didn’t care, she says. They are told to pray one last time. Deflated, they do. Slumped shoulders, tightly clasped hands. As expected, nothing happens.

“This time we are going to pray to our leader, Fidel Castro,” says the teacher to the group with a determined voice. They wearily bow their heads.

“Children! Look! Castro has heard your prayers!” Trays of cookies and glasses of milk are brought in to squeals of delight and smiles all around.

Maybe a group of communists was born that day. At least one child wasn’t, however, and that was my future Spanish professor in college, who related the story to my class. I recently thought of it again. I have been thinking about hope: what I hope for, who I put my hope in, how fragile it can be, how another person can crush your spirit. As an adult I can use my experiences to refix my eyes on my goals. When my hope gets derailed, I can eventually find my way back. My heart grieves for those children back in Cuba whose hope was purposefully taken. We should all be so careful of the words that we speak to ourselves and especially to our children.

First Jobs

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First jobs tend to imprint your memory with good or bad experiences. I can relate to migrant farm workers, because my very first paid job as a young teen was picking tomatoes. My mother, sister, brother, and I woke up early, before the sun grew unbearable and walked to the neighbor’s field. We got 50 cents CASH per bushel basket. Yes, you read that correctly.

My next most memorable job was in the Singer store at the new Hickory Hollow Mall. I was bursting with experience after a single home economics class and various small sewing projects at home. At 17, they didn’t have to pay me minimum wage, so I got $2.79 an hour. I felt rich. Even cooler, I drove myself to work.

My senior year and the following summer, I lucked out with a job at the Vanderbilt main library. Prestigious sounding, but all I did was put bar code stickers in books. See, there used to be something called a CARD CATALOGUE where you had to open a drawer and find a book alphabetically. I know, outrageous, right? But times were a-changin’, and our little group of workers put thousands of those little bar codes in books as they converted their system. The basement of the library was my very favorite place. I found some books that hadn’t been checked out in nearly 100 years. The smell of the books is what I remember most and the crinkling sound of the bindings as I opened the cover.

The summer after my first year of art school, I got a job as an artist at Opryland Theme Park where the current Opry Mills Outlet Mall is located. I had an easel set up on the sidewalk, a uniform, chalk, and an immense fear of people. I was supposed to solicit theme park visitors to get their profile portraits drawn, an introvert’s worst nightmare. Two of us did this type and two or three other artists did caricatures. I got $2 for every one that I drew, though they cost $12. I also had to pay for my own supplies. I could draw one in 20 minutes if the person cooperated. I preferred dental surgery over portraits of children, since it meant drawing a moving target. The most memorable drawing was one of a young adult woman. It was obvious that she and her sweetheart didn’t get to “the big city” too often. She wouldn’t stay still. She kept moving to see my progress and asking questions. “How long you been artin’?” she asked in a thick Southern accent.  How do you answer that?

My son is now looking for his first job. I don’t think it is quite fair that minimum wage is over $7 compared to my 50 cent bushel basket of tomatoes. It’s a different world now, but I wish him all the best.

Kitchen Taxidermy

“Mom, what are you doing?

“Boiling this skull.”

See, this is what happens when you leave home. You come back for a visit and your mom is boiling skulls. I guess I should clarify that it was an animal skull – specifically a mink, which was probably on an endangered list somewhere. But…….this was many, many years ago and I’m hoping the Statute of Limitations has run out.

This mild-mannered mink had viciously killed 24 chickens near the barn on our little mini-farm. It met its match in the trap Dad set. Since you never know WHEN you’re going to need a mink, my mom froze it in our huge deep freezer. I was only frightened the first fifty times I went out to get a roast or pound of hamburger and accidentally glimpsed a stiff, furry leg. Amazing what you can get used to.

I left home at 18, but frequently visited. It was on one of those visits that I discovered the mink had finally found a purpose. It was my sister’s latest science project, freezer burns and all. Now, this was before the internet, before everyone could be an expert in a .03 second Google search. Before You Tube videos and Wikipedia. Mom figured all she needed was needle, thread, and sawdust. Yeah, that’s going to look real professional.

One other ingredient: A mother’s love for her daughter. Flashback to every late-night trip to Walmart for markers and poster board. Salt clay relief maps of the US. Volcanoes of vinegar and baking soda. Tired moms and kids relieved to have moms who care.

For a time, that stuffed mink sat on the mantle, it’s pose reminiscent of repeated electrical shock therapy. Every once in a while, a puff of sawdust escaped from a grisly seam, as if a shoulder or hip were exhaling. It’s final spot was in a window, where it gradually turned white. Every time it tipped over, it coughed a cloud of sawdust. It’s one of those images you just can’t get out of your head even if you try REALLY hard. I don’t know what ever became of it, but I still can get a little apprehensive when I see Mom at the stove. I’d rather just not know……

Life is Like a Low-Budget Theme Park

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If our lives are like theme parks, mine has been a low-budget one that I entered the day I was born. When my parents carried me out of the hospital, we headed to the Kiddie Zone, where I soon was making mud pies and feeding them to my little brother. But the best ride in this section of the park, was a second-hand red bike. My parents bought it for me after a neighbor complained that I wouldn’t let her daughter have a turn on her own. Riding down one hill, a mini-Mount Everest, I closed my eyes just long enough to get an exciting surge of fear that at such supersonic speed I just might crash. In the summer, the tar-patched road in front of our house became a sizzling, seething cauldron. Tiny bubbles of tar swelled and I carefully aimed my front tire so they would burst as I rode over.

At age nine, we headed for the area of the theme park I like to call Deliverance Revisited, after the movie, of course. It was a shell of a house, really, on 15 rugged acres of scrubby cedar with only two or three inches of topsoil covering part of that single slab of solid limestone that underlies Middle Tennessee. The rides in this section of the park were safari-like in the summer and included walks accompanied by wildlife of ticks and chiggers, fleas too, since the previous tenant had a pack of stray dogs. They had been evicted and generously left us large appliances on the back porch, where they spray painted peace signs on the clapboard siding.

The best ride, though by far, was motorized: The big yellow school bus.

I vividly remember the voyages to and from school growing up. We kids were nearly the first on and last off for a one hour commute.

The door would open and there she was – Marge Simpson in human form, who drove that enormous diesel on the curvy back roads like a bat-out-of-hell with bleached hair piled up so high, it nearly touched the roof. We held on, white-knuckled, as she took the bends Andretti-style. It was especially brutal the years before seats became high-backed and more padded.

The bus was where I met more theme park visitors. Buddy lived at the next stop up from us. He and I sometimes hunted crawdads in the creek behind my house. He was sort of annoying in a gross boy kind of way and was the only kid I ever remember cussing at the bus driver.

Kelly’s stop was an apartment complex. She had perfect hair, perfect Jordasche designer jeans, and a beautiful rabbit fur jacket. In sixth grade she could compete with the older high school girls for boys. Her glasses were even tinted blue-to-pink. Amazing.

On the other end of the social spectrum was Anna and her little sister, who had a little growth thing that dangled from one ear that I tried not to look at. Their house was set really far back from the road and looked exactly like “Jennie’s” childhood home from the movie Forest Gump. Anna frequently wore the same dirty jumpsuit with no underwear. She always headed for the back of the bus and fell victim to those kids who preyed on the weakest ones. “Come on, sing a song, Anna!” they would prod, pretending to be really interested. She would start in on a gospel song and the kids would turn and snicker. I looked away feeling sick. The only thing worse were the days when the bus would slow down as it approached their driveway, see that no one was there, and pick up speed again. I would strain to look as long as possible at the awful, ramshackle house till it disappeared, wondering if they were inside.

I don’t know how many hours I logged on that ride. It was my introduction to the unfriendly attractions at the theme park.

As my life went on, my family and I walked farther to where the scary attractions were located. My grandparents went into one and never came out. Then my brother. I screamed at the exit where he was supposed to come out and waited until I had no more strength, but he never did. Then I understood why there was always screaming over there and faces were contorted into masks of pain.

The bravest thing I ever did was leave and go on to the next ride. I had to go alone: It was at this point that it was decided that we would all meet when the park closed. Funny, the precise closing time wasn’t posted anywhere.

Lucky for me was the Tunnel of Love. Even though it was dark in places, it is where I met my husband and my three little babies. We left there and have been on a few bumper cars, cliffhangers, and to the petting zoo. I wonder sometimes what we could have seen had we been able to go to one of those deluxe theme parks, or buy one of those exotic vacation packages.

I’ve made new friends here in the park and new attractions are being added each day. The new technology astounds me. I’m glad they are trying to improve the rides, because the old ones are less comfortable than they used to be. Some of them make my back hurt.
I’ve got lots of souvenirs and am filling up the memory card in my camera. We have cartoons of the kids and a Wild West photo of myself and my husband. We’ve eaten a lot of greasy, expensive food, and sticky cotton candy. My pants feel tighter than before. I find myself thinking more and more about closing time. There are still lots of rides I want to see, but I long for sweet reunion at the gate. Maybe we could all go on together to another theme park I’ve been hearing about where none of the rides make you sick. Admission is very expensive, they say, but it’s already been paid. Sounds good, as long as I don’t have to take a big yellow bus to get there.

Almost Blind

For many months during 2012, I struggled to see anything closer than three feet away. I didn’t talk about it to anyone.

It is very typical in your forties to require “cheaters” or bifocals, so I wasn’t surprised to find out that I needed them. I also heard that if you are nearsighted like me, that tends to improve. Well, I guess I am an exception to that. All my life I’ve worn powerful contacts, because without them I can truly see nothing from six inches past my nose. Glasses give me a headache within the hour. Oh, and I get vertigo too.

So, last year I consented to trying progressive lense bifocals. I bit the bullet.

Instant vertigo.

So now what? Am I going to be a blind artist? Maybe I’ll take those piano lessons again.

I was barely able to complete two commissioned pieces, then I left the studio: I thought it might be for good.

At the next eye appointment, I got my new prescription. No improvement in my far vision and my close vision was worse than ever. I  called a few days later to find out if there were any other options for me.

They said I could wear one contact for close, and one for far. Knowing myself, THAT, wasn’t going to work. Or, I could try the bifocal contacts. Hmmm…. Well, here goes nothing.

I put them in at home and was amazed. Looking into the bathroom mirror, I could see! Gee, I look older than I thought.

Shortly thereafter, my husband and boys came home from the store. My eight-year-old drama king comes over to me and says he’s starving. He’s got to show me how skeletal he is by lifting his shirt and sucking in his gut. He does this ALL the time.

Does he have hair around his belly button? I look closer, horrified. No, it’s –

“Your stomach is covered in dirt! Rick, come and see this!” I called for my husband.

“But I wash my stomach like this!” as he shows us a scrubbing motion.

Needless to say, he got a good soaking and scrubbing with my assistance that night. I’m happy to note that the first layer is off and we are working on the second. All those times these past months that he demonstrated his abject hunger and showed his stomach, I couldn’t see the dirt. How much else have I missed?

The bifocal lenses are far from perfect, but at least I can see up close. Now it’s back to the studio!

Love what’s left

I am moving up in line.

I remember when I was a young teen and we went to visit my maternal great-grandmother in a nursing home. She loved it there. She said she had friends galore and that some man had told her she had “nice legs.” I liked her waist-length hair: The bottom half was coal-black and the roots to shoulder were white, then gray.

She passed away and I didn’t really notice very much.

My maternal grandmother died of lung cancer and also had Alzheimer’s. I knew her much better than my great-grandmother, though I had not seen her more than once or twice a year throughout my life. I didn’t see her toward the end when her mind raced with confused thoughts. I prefer to think of the happier times – the Thanksgiving dinners and her laughter. She was the one I talked to about Rick, my future husband, being “the one”.

She passed away and it hurt.

I have been very close to my mother-in-law, Sylvia – yes, my mother-in-law and my mother are both named Sylvia –  since I met her two weeks before my wedding. She had three sons. Rick, the middle child, was the first to marry. He sprang the news to his parents in May and we were married in July. I was immediately welcomed, the first Anglo, into a family of Cuban heritage.

Last week I visited Sylvia in a nursing home where she’s been for the past month. She did really well for about ten years after the removal of a brain tumor that was supposed to have been terminal, and had led an active life. But the last three years have been rough, with one health problem after another. Most likely it is the gradual degradation of the brain following the radiation therapy. What bought ten years, is now grimly requiring its pound of flesh.

She sometimes says a coherent, clear sentence, but mostly doesn’t speak. She cries almost constantly and tries to say that she wants to die. She can’t walk or feed herself. It is hard to know what she understands, because so often she appears to be present in body only. I visited nearly every day last week when we were in Tampa.

I talked to her about her grandchildren, fun times, and then about heaven and Jesus. I prayed with her. I hugged her. I held her hand. I gave her sips of water. She was calmer and didn’t cry so much.

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I understand something very clearly: I will love what is left of her. I will love what is left until there is nothing left. I will love her until there is nothing left of me – until it is my turn to move up in the line of life.