Monday, December 13, 2010

One Good Hit Deserves Another

I come from a family of hitters. My parents were hitters, and their parents were hitters. For all I know, their parent's parents were hitters. Not something I love or am proud of; but there you have it. Smarting off? Wham. Objecting to a comment? Wham. Voicing an opinion? Wham. Parents were the aggressors, children never dared to retaliate. That's just how it was.

However, by around fifteen years of age, I'd had my fill. My mother, unfortunately, was not very good at reading me during that period, and had not realized that this mental shift had occurred. The next time I said something that she did not approve of; she let me have it, hitting me on my arm...and I let her have it back, hitting her on her arm. Not hard, mind you, but a warning that enough was enough. Registering complete shock, she came back at me with another blow. I returned the favor. She did the same, turning the exchange into what became a game of 'slapsies'. The both of us were going so fast and hitting so sissy-like that it finally looked absolutely ridiculous. We stopped hitting each other and started to laugh. That is the first and only time I have ever laid a hand on my own mother, and, to her credit, it is the very last time she ever chose to hit me, breaking that long family chain. Left over is a somewhat fond memory of the two of us facing each other, sissy-hitting just as fast as we could, in a lame, limp-wristed style, and then collapsing into uncontrollable laughter.

I come from a family of hitters.

My children do not.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Toilet Paper and Tornadoes

It was the coolest thing, ever.

I took the toilet paper, layered it into the sink, turned on the water, and it disintegrated like cotton candy meeting moisture. Amazing. Most things like this were amazing when I was six years old. Just to make sure; I needed to try it again. And again...and, yeah, one more time.... Yep. Toilet paper turns to mush in water. Exceptional. And very, very interesting...

But suddenly I was faced with the dilemma of a wad of mush in the bottom of the sink....of course I knew that my parents would maim me or worse if they knew what I'd been doing. I needed to destroy the evidence. Using my actual hands to muck out the sink and throw the whole lot into the toilet did not even enter my mind. Besides, then I would have to touch it, and that would just I thought to myself that if you can flush toilet paper down a toilet....surely you could flush it down a drain. And I did, with the help of a lot of water, and my fingers, gingerly poking and encouraging the clump to go down the hole from time to time. After right properly disposing of the...evidence...I shut off the water, flicked the switch on the light, closed the door to the only bathroom in the house and forgot entirely about my adventure.

Until...My father came home from work. Of course the first place he went, after a rather long drive home from the hospital where he was employed, was the bathroom. Of course when he attempted to wash his hands, there was a problem. Of course there was hollering involved. Of course I didn't have a clue why...I was innocently watching tv, after all...what was that adult's problem, now? Sheesh, it was always something. I paid little heed until I saw his shadow towering over me in the afternoon light. I was lying on the floor in front of the tv and suddenly felt very vulnerable.

Here is the part where I get to admit what a good actress I am....with no small amount of shame...When it became apparent what the issue was, I froze in fear. Pain was a given; when Father gave a spanking, all of his frustrations with his marriage, fellow employees, his receding hairline, and the bullies that picked on him in grade school went straight to our backsides. So when questioned; I lied. He then went after Lauren, who was eight and just laughed at the question, saying, "Why on earth would I do a stupid thing like that?" So then Father turned to Hildy, who was four. The interrogation began. She denied it, but he didn't buy it. Confused, he went back to me. Think light bulb hanging from the ceiling in a small room; very similar set was tough, but I once again got away with it; he believed I didn't do it. Relentless, he went back to my utter astonishment...confessed! I guess Father had worn her down, and she figured he wouldn't leave her alone until she coughed up the goods, real or imagined.

Father came into the room where I was watching tv and actually... apologized to me...this was unprecedented for him, an apology of any sort was unheard of. Lie or no lie, that was the most uncanny part of the whole thing. I still remember how great it felt to see him humble for a change. He said he wanted to make it up to me and told me in a moment he would bring me to the five and dime for a Slushie. This was getting apology AND my favorite, a Slushie? Incredible.

It didn't feel so incredible when Father turned on his heel to hunt down Hildy. This was something I was not anticipating...that she would take the 'hit' for me...I guess Father's frustrations had to go somewhere....just why there?... I heard her cries from the room down the hall as he spanked her. I felt terrible. I cried, too. But I didn't feel terrible enough to confess; after hearing my sister's spanking I was truly terrified. If I confessed then; well, it would have been really, really bad. I kept silent.

My slushie that night was the worst one I'd ever had. It was disgusting...just like, I thought... me.

I let eight long years go by before I said anything. I was fourteen. We were huddled in the family car in the middle of a tornado and the wind was screaming and rocking the car. Nothing puts the fear of God into you quite like a good tornado. My mother suggested that we sing hymns to calm us. In between hymns I cleared my throat and announced to my family that I WAS THE ONE WHO PUT THE TOILET PAPER IN THE SINK WHEN I WAS SIX. The car went silent. Followed by thunderous....laughter.....

"You're such a dork!" Lauren said, and she punched me on the arm.

"I don't even recall that," Father said, perhaps not being able to sort one Federal Offense from the other.

But Hildy was quiet for a moment, until she said, very softly, "I remember that."

I turned to her, weeping, and apologized with all my heart. The others were too busy laughing to even catch the exchange, so we had the moment to ourselves. I've apologized repeatedly since that night in the car.

Knowing what I know now, I would've taken that spanking a dozen times over so that my sister wouldn't have suffered. Far better, I've learned, to have it be me than her. And the guilt I carried in my heart over that one incident was some heavy guilt, indeed. And so not worth it.

And to my dear sister, who took the blows for me....thank you. You didn't deserve it. There's not enough chocolate in the world to repay you. Love ya, Sis.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bless The Cook

I've been told that you can say just about anything about anyone, if you add the phrase 'bless their heart' afterward.

My mother is a bad cook, bless her heart.

She wasn't extremely young when she married, but hadn't learned domestic skills yet, including cooking. Her mother did all of the housework while my own mother was growing up, even made the children's beds, and at the times when the girls would offer to help, she would shoo them away, saying, "Ach! Go! Go! Enjoy your childhoods!" they did. My mother never did so much as a lick of housework, never did dishes, never cooked.

My father announced one random evening to my mother, very early on in their marriage, that his parents would be driving all the way from their small town in Pennsylvania to my parent's humble apartment in Brooklyn. He requested that she make a meal 'fit for a king' for them, even though they didn't have much money and had been eating not much more than soup and bread those days. My mother knew of just the thing; a simple spaghetti recipe that she thought would suffice. In her mind, she really thought she was going to impress the in-laws and make her husband proud. The Tomato Soup Spaghetti Sauce recipe did not go over very well. Unbeknownst to my mother, my fraternal grandmother was an amazing cook, and spaghetti sauce just happened to be her specialty....her sauce would literally simmer all day and all night, just to get the precisely right flavor. She'd won numerous awards for it....The in-laws were gracious, but the meal was essentially 'not a hit'. After the in-laws made their exit, my parents had an...altercation...over it.

But my mother tried, (bless her heart). Not everyone has imagination in the kitchen, and her budget must have been very hard to work around, with my father's meager earnings, so early on in his career. Add this to the fact that he had several personally imposed 'restrictions' on what she could not add to dishes, and it would have been difficult for anyone. No green peppers. Not too many onions. Easy on the spices. Perhaps he had spent too much time working at the hospital; because our fare was essentially hospital food...very bland, not much flavor, and usually of a terribly unpalatable texture. Unbelievably, hanging in every kitchen they'd ever owned was a plaque, bought by my father and hung on the wall by Himself as well.... that my mother took as a compliment; but one we children viewed as a solemn warning. It said, "MARRY A GOOD COOK. KISSIN' DON'T LAST. COOKIN' DO."

Given these circumstances, I would argue, some mercy needed to be given to the our home. But alas, no mercy was extended. Meals were made to stretch and stretch, where the main ingredients were coarsely chopped cooked celery and oatmeal (even in my hamburgers) and were tough to gag down. I grew to detest cooked celery. But the meat was the worst, when we actually had meat. I am a carnivore at heart, and I LOVE a good steak...but I learned early on about fat and gristle. Mother did not believe in cutting those parts off; that would be wasteful. We were told to eat EVERYTHING on our plate, no excuses. So I would chew. And chew. And chew. And the gristle would lose its flavor and not want to be in my mouth anymore....and I seriously didn't want it there, either. Waiting for it to break down so that I could swallow seemed to take an eternity. Heaven forbid it should wind up back on our plate; a Federal Offense...

Since we couldn't leave the table until our plates were empty, at times I would sit there for literally hours, deserted by the heartier eaters. I remember the ten o'clock news coming on a lot of the time. The house was always cold, and those wooden chairs seated around the table could put a dent in your derriere for good. Eventually I would just swallow the required portion in tiny pieces like a pill, if I could. This would make me gag and it would require a lot of mental toughness on my end, with some self-talk involved to be able to do it... But I would resist for a long while before I reached that point.

The thing that began to save me was the 'flicking' of the most useful things I ever learned to do with my fingers. When a meal like that came along, I would take the offending piece, and, using my other hand as a platform, and flick the fat or gristle onto the floor under the table. This was working splendidly for a time, except for that I remember my mother loudly complaining when she got around to vaccuuming under that table that she was finding all of these 'dried pieces of food' all over. But then the fateful day when I flicked my last flick; the piece of gristly meat landed squarely...into my mother's lap. Game over.

But not to fear; there were other methods. I discovered the joys of a paper napkin...and my parents, being rather proper, always, always had a paper napkin folded beside our plates. Did you know that you could wipe your mouth and use your napkin as a depository? Well, you can. My napkins must have weighed at least a pound after I got done eating some nights. I used to joke to myself on meat nights that it was a 'Full Napkin Night'.

I shared this memory with my sister yesterday. She and her husband live in the same town as my parents presently, and they are frequently invited over for dinner. She mentioned the blandness of the food, and their new specialty, "Special Macaroni and Cheese", aka...burnt noodles with precious little cheese, drenched in...wait for it....Worcestershire sauce. When I began to mention the coping techniques of my childhood, Lillian began to laugh uncontrollably and said, making a mental connection perhaps... "I noticed that my husband was using his napkin quite often!"

My mother is a bad cook, bless her heart. If you are invited over for a meal; bring along some extra napkins...just to be on the safe side.

Copyright (c) 2009 Amy Larson. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Thrift Store: Twenty-five Cents!"

I used the term 'cheap-wad' last night, in reference to a Christmas gift we were buying for someone. We were admittedly 'cheaping' out, but, as they say, "Tis the Season."

I come from a long line of cheap-wads. My mother was the Queen of them. Often she would approach us and slyly say, "Do you like these shoes?"

Often, we didn't. But not wanting to be blatantly rude, we would just nod our heads. Mother would put her hand up to her mouth, in a conspiring way, and say, "I just got them for twenty-five cents at the thrift store."

Or, a certain flaming orange-red polyester dress, complete with white and red gingham collar. "One dollar!" she'd say, gleefully, like she'd just gotten away with a bank robbery.

It became a joke among the sisters, whenever we complimented each other on an article of clothing, to whisper, "Hey, THANKS...I got it at the Thrift store....ten cents!"

We made bets on whether we could comment on any of Mother's clothing, without her telling us the origin, and the price. We stopped making those bets. It never happened.

Mother also believed in 're-cycling' clothing. We were alotted one pair of jeans per school year. For those of you that don't know; one pair of jeans for a girl, is simply not enough. If we were lucky enough to fit into last year's jeans,(or if they'd survived the past year) we could alternate between days. If not, we'd be stuck wearing the same pants day in and day out. Talk about nerdy. Plus, we had to wash them frequently, so they faded to oblivion. Lauren came up with the bright idea of dying them back to their original blue, so every so often, we did this. Worked like a charm, except for one problem...the white or brown or whatever color stitching always got dyed, too....and that was back when all dark colored jeans were not that cool. So... bummer for us.

Other items did not escape rationing. Food was one of them; especially cheese. We all loved it. My mother put the kabosh on the gorging ourselves of this commodity by dividing the cheese bricks into for each sister. She would mark each baggie with our first initial. It wasn't long before Hildy figured out how to turn one of our initials into an "H", and war ensued. The War of the Curds....

Mother was also a 'Do It Yourself-er'. Years later, after I'd moved out and married, I was talking to her on the phone, and she was discussing some issues that the Youngest was having. She was worried about her. It was becoming clear that she might be in need of some counselling. A week later, I talked to Mother and she'd come up with a BRILLIANT solution.

"Well," she began, "the Youngest and I talk a lot. And our conversations always seem to do her a lot of good. So I was thinking....." she said, in that tone I knew all too well,"....I was just thinking that I could be your sister's counselor! AND...we could save a LOT of money! Do you have ANY IDEA how much a counselling session costs?"

I wanted to interject that sometimes the parents are the REASON that a child needs counselling....but I refrained.

Having said all of this, I have to concede that the grand finale of cheapness happened late one evening at our home. Lauren had been out with a friend, and had gone to a neighboring town, about twenty-five miles away. It was getting late, and my mother was beginning to fret. Midnight came and went. Finally, around one-thirty in the morning, a car pulled into the driveway. But it was not Lauren's car.

When Mother saw Lauren hop out of a car containing two young men in the front seat, she was livid. She began to give Lauren a tongue lashing, and gave the young men dirty looks. She was glaring at Lauren's friend, too, blaming her for being a 'bad influence' on her daughter. Finally Lauren was able to get a word in.

"MOM! STOP!" She said, "My car broke down. We were stranded on the highway. We waited forever for someone to help us. These guys tried to get my car started for the longest time. They couldn't. So they gave Marci and I a ride all the way back home."

Mother was having a hard time adjusting to this new information. It was obvious that she owed these boys a debt of gratitude,(not to mention an apology) at the very least. Even more decent would have been an offer to reimburse them for the gas they'd burned, in taking Lauren and Marci back home. Mother knew that she should do....something. She began with verbal rewards.

"Ohhhhh.....THANK YOU.....! THANK YOU for bringing my daughter home!"

Lauren had told me later that the internal struggle going on within Mother had been clearly visible.

Mother went on, "THAT WAS SOOOO NICE OF YOU! Thank you!"

She hesitated, knowing that she should make some sort of an offer, a generous gesture to compensate somehow. She began to move toward that direction, gingerly.

"Could I get you a......" She stopped herself, doing a mental inventory of something she'd be willing to part with.

"Could I get you something?"

Some Days

It's official. Some days are just plain better than others.

One a frosty morning I burrowed under a fluffy, thick comforter.  When I pray at the start of each 24, I think God understands about the cold thing, and also about my bad knee from the first and last marathon I attempted to run. I stayed buried under the blankets. My 'undercover' prayer was this: I was yearning for some time to reconnect with my kids. I asked God for a day where that could happen.

Since the offspring have matured, I've seen them less and less. Splitting up their time between their dad's and my house, there's a cut. New driver's license. Cut, cut. Social life. Big, big cut. Dating: I'm lucky if I see them at all.

Yesterday, something peculiar happened. Time eased up as if it were slogging through peanut butter. The day seemed to move along very slowly. The kids came home and stayed home.  My huge now-adult-age boys flopped on the couches in the living room and--amazingly--remained there. I flopped too, and witnessed their usual Abbott and Costello act. I begged my oldest to rub my feet, poking him in the leg with my toe. He and his brother burst out laughing, openly mocking me. "Yeah, RIGHT," Son One said, "I'm not falling for that one!"

They all knew the story about how I used to con my little sister into giving me footrubs by promising her a quarter each time. When she'd been reluctant, I'd bump it up to fifty, possibly even seventy-five cents. I now probably owe her in excess of a hundred dollars. These days, it would be really cool to unexpectedly send her a hundred bucks in the mail. I should do that. But currently, my sons are aware that I still owe, so no foot rub.

Both were moaning and groaning, sore from the flag football tournament the day before. When Son One said something I didn't approve of, I lightly kicked him in the fanny with my nearest foot, and he howled. I'd momentarily forgotten that was the spot that had taken the brunt of things during football.

Son Two loudly complained about the craziness of the older guys. I tried to explain why that might be a semi-dangerous situation to put one's self into. Men in of a certain age that still regularly wear their high school practice jerseys and are living with their parents. Combine that with single girls they're trying desperately to impress...and no matter if it's flag football or tiddly winks, someone's gonna get hurt.

Sis bursted through the front door a few moments later and I followed her into her room for a debriefing, since she was wearing a look that said she could use one. She was, indeed, feeling very contemplative. The people she'd just spent a day with didn't turn out to be what she had thought they were; she was somewhat disillusioned. Sis expressed gratitude that we had our own brand of crazy, a kind she was used to and could handle. I was glad to hear she liked our craziness.

We joined the boys in the living room where they were still flopped on the couches. Long ago we had discovered that Son One's skin was made of rubber.  Proud of his natural talent, he now pulled skin five inches off his arms and claimed he was wearing a flying suit, while  I exclaimed, "Ew, ew, ew!" He wrinkled the skin up around his knees and created lovely rosettes. He then pulled two panels out from his tummy like giant lips and made them talk. 'HELLO MOMMIE! I AM THE TUMMY MONSTER AND I AM GOING TO EAT YOU ALL....HAR HAR HAR!"

Son Two, not to be outdone, smooshed his stomach together and made it talk in an even lower, more sinister voice. It was the Tummy Monster on steroids. He also created a double chin that ballooned out, while croaking like a bullfrog. Sis and I were delighted. Apparently we had two elasti-kin.

Son One tried to top that by now pulling the skin of his neck out and over his chin, creating a pocket. We were curious to see if he could hide some candy in there. We found that he could. We all concluded that this would be a nifty magic trick to do for young children. "Want some candy, kids?Just reach right into my neck...."

The grand finale consisted of two talking tummies, singing and conversing with each other, with Sis and I in tears on the couch, begging them to stop since we were exhausted from laughing. Mixed into the concert was Husband, doing very serious work stuff down the hall. Not at all amused, he would occasionally holler from the office, "You guys are outta control!"

---Which only made us laugh harder.

With mascara sliding down my face and holding my (non-talking) stomach, it suddenly dawned on me that my morning prayer had been answered. Right in the middle of so many days where we'd only orbited around each other, we'd just had one miraculous day of connection.

Some days are just plain better than others.

Wedge on the Ledge

Several years ago, when I was well into my thirties, I got a bee in my bonnet to learn to ski. I enrolled in a special program that offered several lessons. After completed those lessons, I would be given my season pass. Sounded like a good deal;  it all cost less than a normal yearly pass.

After the involved drive up the mountain (turning and turning and turning some more), I arrived. Stepping out onto the snowy parking lot, I took a deep breath, terrified, and attempted to carry my skis (slippery little rascals if you haven't got the technique down) while walking in clunky ski boots towards the lodge, looking like a Russian soldier.

Our beginner's group was smallish. The two divas with perfect, coordinated gear, including teeth whiter than the new snow, felt compelled to let us know right away they were both from the exclusive part of town. Why we needed this information, I'm still not sure. One of them laughed, "If I can't be good, I can at least look good."


The doctor's wife was very kind and sweet, the couple from England had traveled everywhere and were ultra-polite, using terms like, 'If you please'. And then there was Lenny. Lenny was beside himself at the thought of being propelled down the hill and was whining audibly.

Ted, the instructor, swaggered towards us. Short man, craggy beard and rough voice. I got the impressionTed worked at the resort more for the night life perks than for the pay. He spent five minutes instructing us on how to turn and stop, then impatiently put us onto the lift.  Ted did not mention it was important to keep our ski tips up, and I happened to miss the sign that advised it. I can tell you now that if you don't keep your ski tips up, you could snap off your feet at the shins. Experience--and pain--are great teachers.

Ted, who'd decided to ride up with me on the lift (which only added to my nervousness), thought he'd comfort me by trying to hold my hand. I swiped my gloved mitten back away as soon as I could, just in time to glide off the edge of the chairlift, hastily regain both composure and balance, and glide right into Lenny, who was lying in a bewildered heap in my path, moaning.

Irritated over having been shunned on the ski lift by a middle-aged mom, Ted morphed into Little Hitler. He yelled at Lenny and made him cry. As I tried to carefully make my way down the bunny hill, (the snow had an icy crust that day, not prime for a new skier), Ted hollered after me, "WEDGE, WEDGE!" Had I not been terrified, he'd have gotten a terse reply.

Lenny, far behind me, both fell and cried all the way down the mountain. He and I formed a sort kinship, both being targets of the formidable Ted.

The Divas skied past us on occasion and laughed, as the 'true' beginners were sliding down the slope on our backsides or clung to the edge of an edge, trying frantically not to slide off the cliff into the parking lot below. We all knew that the Divas were pros in disguise, pretending to be beginners so they could get that discounted season pass. Had I been a better skier and a better aim, they might have met with a snowball or two on their way down.

That night I hobbled around at home, having wedged myself to oblivion, since Ted had told me to. My son asked, "Well, how do you like skiing?"

I wasn't sure how to answer that.

The next week we were told the resort management had deemed it necessary to divide our little class. One group for the so-called beginnners (wink, wink), and one for the real beginners. The real beginners were reassigned to a new instructor, Kevin, who was Mister Rogers on skis. Soft-spoken, gentle, encouraging. Kevin never once hollered at me to 'wedge'. Mister Kevin Rogers is the reason I do not hate skiing.

Because of Kevin, I still ski. Because of Kevin, my children ski. My children ski at the highest levels, doing backflips and double backflips in the process. We've had years of playtime as a family, because of the fact that once, in my thirties, I was taught to ski by someone who didn't try to hold my hand, and didn't yell at me.

Kevin, wherever you are, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And what would I say to Ted?
That's right: