memoir

::Bread Heels on My Family’s Table::

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BREAD HEELS

We called them bread heels. The ends on loaves of bread. Once a loaf was opened, it was each user’s responsibility to keep the end slapped up against the next slice inside the plastic bag, so the remainder would stay fresh.
When there were no slices left, the two heels took on a life of their own, and a sort of bread heel caste system was born.

Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon my daddy would slather two heels with Miracle Whip, and make a sandwich with slices of raw potato and purple onion. This was the working class life of bread heels.

Then there were the heels that were lined up on a baking sheet, covered with cheese product, and slid under the broiler just long enough for the yellow stuff to char around the edges. Middle class bread heels lived through fire in a gas oven to become the cheesy toast served with potato soup on a Friday night.

Other times they were thrown into the skillet with the broken handle that lived in the oven. The ones that piled up in that skillet got hard as a rock. When there were enough of them, my mother clamped the food grinder to the kitchen table, and ground the petrified heels down to a powder.

She took that bread heel flour, mixed it with eggs and vanilla, buttermilk, molasses, spices, raisins, poured it into a cake pan, and baked it in the oven. This was bread crumb pudding; dark, dense and moist, it was just about the best thing you’d ever want to put in your mouth.

It’s been said that bread heels the world over have talked amongst themselves, and considered with reverence the fact that the heels of breadcrumb pudding had indeed lived the upper crust life of bread heels everywhere.

::JOURNAL ENTRY: OCTOBER, 1961::

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Tattered Treasure Box

My altar is secret. I don’t really even have one yet, but I’m getting ready.The things I have for it are tucked away in a box. It’s a shoebox. From Renberg’s. Christmas, 1959. My father’s slippers came in it. If I lower my nose to the box, I can still smell the leather from those slippers.

The box is in the bottom drawer with some other stuff—so that no one can tell it’s something special.

A picture of Susan Van Wyck is in there. Susan Van Wyck’s been on the cover of Seventeen magazine about twenty times. Some people tell me I look like Susan Van Wyck. But she’s so beautiful, it makes me shy to think about it; I can’t believe it. But I keep that picture to remind me.

Then there’s my scapular. I got it in first grade when I made my First Holy Communion. It’s faded and the silk straps are twisted, but it reminds me of the Holy Sacrament. I like to remember when I was seven, and believed everything they told me, without question. Sometimes I sleep with it on, because I need those feelings I had back then. Innocent. Faithful.

There’s a little rock from the time we went to Roman Nose State Park. It was the summer before first grade, and the only vacation we ever took. This stone makes me think of highways, and swimming pools, and places far away.

The four leaf clover is from my boyfriend. Rick gave it to me –or should I say he walked down the aisle at school and dropped it on my desk. That’s how I knew he was my boyfriend. We haven’t talked to each other or anything, but sometimes you just know.

The scrap of brown eyelet material is from Nanny. She taught me how to sew, starting when I was five. When I was ten, She taught me to use the treadle machine on her patio. We made doll clothes all summer that year. Nanny always said, “You can do anything you want to do. Just come up with an idea, then think backwards and you’ll know how to get there.” This piece of fabric reminds me that I can do anything.

The last thing in here is a crystal heart. Daddy gave it to me before the 8th grade dance. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen, and it makes my own heart squeeze when I look at it. When Daddy’s having a bad night and I can hear him through my door, I take the crystal heart out and put it under my pillow. It helps me remember who he really is.

::TULSA, OKLAHOMA::

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TULSA POSTCARD

I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Where you learn that the Trail of Tears was real, stopped in Tahlequah, and never really ended.

I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Where you learn that even half a can of Aqua Net cannot hold sway against the wind.

I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Where you learn that the kindness you seek at home is given by the ladies at Bishop’s Bakery, Tuesday afternoons on your way home from school.

I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Where you learn that, on a clear day, you can see the state line in all directions.

I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Where you learn what love is. And what it is not.

I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Where you learn that basements in a storm can be salvation.

I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Where you learn that having a dream, making a plan, and hatching a plot may be the only way out.

::THE BOY IN THE BAND::

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Broken Heart Guitar Pic

I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, drink harder, and show up at Mass every Sunday. I was their first child, born to them when they were young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love.

When I was a little girl I would study my mother’s face … her hazel eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star. I wondered what she was doing in that two bedroom house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and parched sapling in the front yard. Even at four-and-a-half, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.

As the oldest daughter, my job was laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal;’ imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families had no foxhole at all.

I grew up and, with what I’d learned of how life works, and my place in it, I went out into the world. Within short order, I said “I do” to the boy in the band.

The boy and I were a textbook example of symbiotic dysfunction. Our fractured parts fit together perfectly. Through twenty five years and two children, we cut ourselves and each other on those jagged edges. Part of his brokenness included repeated indiscretions. Part of my brokenness included denying they were happening, while blaming myself that they were.

It was his final, spectacular betrayal with my sister that made me sit up and say, “No. There is no amount of glue that can put us back together this time.” I gathered up the pieces of my heart; I left the boy in the band.

The next eighteen months were like a slow motion train wreck. All I could do was hang on, and wait for it to stop.

I remember the date. May 10, 1991. That morning the phone woke me up. My attorney, calling to tell me the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I think I said, “Thank you,” but I wasn’t grateful for any of it. I hung up, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought I would surely feel … relief? Excitement, maybe? No. Just silence.

I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared at the face in the mirror. Who will I be now? I whispered at her. A sincere question. I’d lurched through the decades, constantly reinventing myself, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. Now I had no one to tell me. I was at a loss.

The next months and years were like being born, over and over again. I was the mother giving birth;  I was the baby shooting out of the canal into what I prayed would be a gymnast landing. I wanted a 10 from the judges.

But it wasn’t working anymore, as if it ever really had. I finally raised the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. I was exhausted. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.

For months, going out in public unvarnished was really frightening; but there was also an undercurrent of excitement. And eventually, slowly, what I’d feared most became easier, partly because it was natural. And I’d have to say the surprise for me was that while life is always full of challenges, showing up in it doesn’t have to be hard. Sometimes there are still glitches, but every day I’m moving closer to the center of someone I’ve always known; the person God put here and breathed life into. There’s a peace in connecting with what’s true in me; authentic perspective gives a clarity like nothing else.

During those years, I was living in Toluca Lake. On my walk one morning I glanced at a flower growing up through a crack in the asphalt. I went past it, then stopped, backed up, and studied it. That little flower was blooming and reaching for the sun, in spite of the considerable efforts made to stop it. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s me.”

Ever since I was a tiny girl, I’ve felt a check in my spirit … like a tiny thread of light, deep inside. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have snapped, or caught fire, or disintegrated. It never did. And that’s what I’m back in touch with now.

These days, I know where home is. I’ve discovered that I was right here all the time.

And I have to smile because the truth is, I’ll always love the boy in the band.

::SAFE HARBOR::

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SAND AND SEA

I got back from the beach last night. On my morning walks by the shore I harvested a few beautiful shells. Now I stand at the kitchen sink with my coffee, lower them into the basin of water.
And my mind drifts …

“Come out of your shell.” Or, “She needs to come out of her shell.” I’ve heard it said about others, I’ve heard it said about me−both sincerely and sarcastically, as in , “Umm, girlie, you need to climb back into your shell; you’re a little ‘too far out’.”

But the shell thing−like sea urchins or snails−what a Divine idea. To carry your protection on your back; to be able at a moment’s notice to dodge any bullet simply by “climbing in.”

If I could have, I would have. Especially in the nineties. Those were ‘the paranoid years’. The time when my hair fell out in clumps. I knew people were whispering about me through the soup cans at the grocery store. One of the things Tim did was he copied my journal, rewrote it, then showed it to everyone he could think of. Hell yes, I wanted a shell. One that could hold a woman in her forties, protect her from the man who’d claimed to love her; one where she could cry every tear until they made an ocean she could float away on.

I run the water till it’s a little warm, and begin massaging each of the small, ridged shapes with my fingertips until their pearly surfaces become visible.

Some say time heals wounds. But it never says anything about what you’re supposed to do while the healing happens. Sit on the floor, back corner of the closet? That was a favorite spot. Fall asleep on the couch, with the TV on? That happened more times than I can count. Get home from your therapist, pace for twenty four hours, watching the clock til it’s time to get in the car and head back to her office? For months I did that. She saved my life.

Those experiences−the closet floor, the couch, Dr. High’s office−they never felt like healing at all. They felt like one big gyroscopic attempt to hang on. I thought the spinning would never level out, that I would never find solid ground. But the truth is, I did. And healing happened.

When I think about the woman I was then, I am moved by her pain; by her need to hide away. I want to reach back and hold her. I want to tell her it will be okay. Tell her that, believe it or not, she’ll survive. And she’ll be glad she did.

I swish the water gently and choose a shell, think of the moment I picked it from the sand. I turn this delicate vessel over in my hand. It is a profound reminder of protection and release.

Where have the creatures gone? Perhaps they found other shells for safe harbor. Perhaps their time came to transition, becoming one with the flotsam and jetsam. Or perhaps they are braving this world like I am−out of my shell, ready to move forward into whatever this day and this life will bring.

::THE TRUTH, OR SOMETHING LIKE IT::

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Girl In Chair - Jessie Wilcox Smith

Lately the world seems like it’s spinning out of control. People who in years passed could “agree to disagree” now act ready to destroy anyone who fails to share and to celebrate their point of view. So, in large part, I’ve gone pretty silent. I think many people have; that makes me weary and sad. And confused. No matter which way you go, it feels a little dangerous out there.

When I was a girl, I can remember sitting quietly in a chair at my grandmother’s, listening to my Daddy and my uncles talk animatedly about politics, religion, how high the mower blade should be set so the grass won’t brown out in the summer heat. Their voices would raise and lower, there were long pauses. Then they’d talk over each other, louder and louder, things like, “Nonono, you got it all wrong on that one …” It was bold, lively, and strong. One thing it never was is hate filled. Or mean.

When they’d finally had enough–because no minds were changed during their debates, or if they were no one admitted it at the time–the men headed to the kitchen for another cold beer. I was still in my chair; I could hear them popping off the beer caps and laughing together.

For me as a kid there was something so reassuring and grounding about those eavesdropping episodes. I learned that the people I loved most could fiercely disagree, and still throw their arms around each other. I learned that when hearts are good and true, the opinions carried by those who love each other do not stand as executioner of relationships when positions don’t line up. My Uncle John and Uncle Jim, Uncle Ferd and Uncle Leo were no less connected to me and mine after those conversations than they were before. In fact, the experience of being a seven year old “fly on the wall” taught me that these moments were the fire that forged stronger relationships, not weaker ones. Those men were staunchly opinionated, but they could also laugh at themselves when they needed to. Looking back I realize that I learned something else on those afternoons at grandmother’s: to not take myself seriously.

Today, Uncle Leo is the only one still with us. I was thinking about that crew this afternoon, and I wonder: are there still people on this planet who engage in Sunday afternoon discourse, where they share ideas and different points of view with passion, but with no fear of retribution or retaliation? Are there people out there, anywhere, who love each other enough to risk disagreement? Are there people it’s safe to trust? Can anyone disagree without becoming the enemy, or being verbally belittled? Is it safe to be oneself anywhere?

I don’t know the answer. But here’s what I wish: I wish every kid could climb into a chair in their grandmother’s living room on a Sunday afternoon, and listen to the men in their lives verbally duke it out. Then I wish they could observe those same men head to the kitchen for a cold drink, laughing and cutting up as if nothing had happened. Because the truth is, so much happened. It’s a heart-deep lesson about how people truly love, how they navigate, how they get into and out of verbal challenges with their relationships, and their integrity, intact.

And it’s about the importance of leaving the grass at least four inches long in hot weather.

::SILENCE::

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2_broken+heart

It’s funny how, when I think back on that night, I can see the silence was bigger than anything else. It was bigger than the darkness. It was bigger than the moonlight that dappled the room with lacey patterns through the curtain at the front window. It was bigger than him, sitting on that sofa. It was bigger than me, standing in the doorway. That night, everything seemed bigger than me. The clock ticked. The children were upstairs sleeping but I swear I could hear them breathing. Soft, rhythmic, surrendered. But there, in that little living room: Silence. He sat. Across the room, I stood.

Finally,
“How much of you did she have?” The words hung in the air like balls, floating on water. I heard them, then realized it was my own voice.

Silence. Then,
“She had all of me.”

In the room: Silence.
In my head: A sort of screaming that, though through the years would grow faint, would never, ever stop.

No one tells you that your moment of confirmation, of validation, can also be the single most horrifying moment of your life. What do you do, once you hold the truth? Where do you go with it? What pocket do you tuck it into? Do you take it, like old ticket stubs, and paste it in into a scrapbook? Do you also glue pictures of your heart, the night it shattered?

Strength is sometimes overrated. But in the end, it’s strength you need, if only to find your bones, and tell them to stand up, to move your body forward, mind your broken heart, and – because you have not yet been given a pass to leave the planet – carry on as best they can.

::THESE LINES::

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Hands with Tea

I’m sitting at my kitchen table, studying the palm of my hand, and waiting for snow.
The house is warm, but my nose is cold. The wintry chill around the edges of the house drives me to the center so I’m here, at this table. And thinking of building a fire.

But these lines. They’ve been on my palms since I grew hands while in my mother’s belly. Had I known them to reveal things, had I known there was a map, I might have done life differently. I might have checked the highway that starts at my wrist and curves up to the center-point between my thumb and forefinger.
I would have read the road signs held in the two that cross from left and right.

Years ago I went to a palm reader in New Orleans. I was newly divorced and trying to figure out how to navigate in the world as nobody’s anything. The palm reader looked at my hands, traced the lines she saw, and nodded.
“Three children.” I shook my head.
“No. Only two. Two children.”
“Oh well,” she said, still looking at my hand, “You will have a third. There are three children here.” She looked up and smiled.

I paid, left as quickly as I could, got outside, leaned against the wall, folded into myself, and tried to breathe. Apparently my palms didn’t show the complete hysterectomy I’d had the week of my twenty seventh birthday. There would be no more children. But I could still feel her fingernail tracing that line. I looked at my palm. How could she see that? How did she see the one I lost? How is that written there? I choked back sobs, slouched against a building in the French Quarter. I’m teary now, just writing the words. So be it. The question I had, and still have, is this: is my story really written here? Right here? And how I could never read it, never even know it was here to be read?

I had wanted a house filled with children, but looking back – even through the grief of loss – I can see it all came together exactly as it should have.

Life is a fascinating tapestry of love and its heartbreak, growth and its pain, choices and their consequences … and the freedom to know that all things work for good in the hearts of those who believe.

So I sit here, check the weather forecast, watch The King’s Speech, and … realize that I’m idly running my finger across the line. The one that told her there were three. And I remember: whatever any of us might think we know about anything, we don’t know everything … we simply cannot. We’re inside it, looking out. There’s a certain relief in that, really. And how exciting it is to be aware that there’s always more to learn, reasons to wake each day, eager to wrap our arms around this miracle of life.

::FORGIVENESS::

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RED FORGIVENESS

It’s a nippy day in Middle Tennessee, and I’m sitting here in my wonderful home office. It’s a big room over the garage in a house I bought in 2003. The place was terribly dilapidated, and needed a ton of renovation. I took the year, busted my hump working on it, and have lived here ever since.

That may seem like it has nothing whatever to do with forgiveness. But truly, it has everything. Here’s a little backstory:

I was married for twenty-five years to a man who was emotionally abusive and spiritually and creatively draining. He did his best to suck the life right out of me; told me I was utterly incapable of doing anything. He was perennially unfaithful, but his final betrayal was a doozy. The last scene of our matrimonial bliss featured him and my youngest sister in a big public affair. He had reached the pinnacle in his industry, he believed he was bullet proof, and they trotted themselves all over the place as a couple. I could go into details about it, but I won’t. It doesn’t really matter. Clearly, in so many ways, he was just – wrong.

As I typed that last paragraph, I realized that I was chuckling softly. How did I get here? How did I end up, the ebullient person I was born to be? If you looked at the facts of my life, you’d say I have no right to be this happy. And you’d be right. I really don’t … but I am.

I can’t exactly explain how I got here, but I can tell you this: it comes down to one word. Forgiveness.

When the blow up happened, I watched myself collapse into the deep, the dark – I felt out of my body; out of my mind. In an effort to reclaim my sanity I wrote, sometimes in twenty-four hour sittings without stopping. I lived my aching heart, and all the accompanying feelings. I screamed at them as I stripped wallpaper in the bathrooms of that house. I dressed them up, took them out, they paraded ahead of me. Fear, anger, pain, the need for justification, they were my team. Or I had been drafted to theirs. I wanted it to stop, but I couldn’t find center, so I went with it. I had no choice, did I? I mean, after all … what they did. What they DID! How is it possible to recover from that, right?!

Well, it’s possible. In fact, we’re given the opportunity to opt for recovery, every minute of every day.

I haven’t always known that about recovery. But one day it hit me that keeping the deadening hurt was me, robbing my own life of its sweetness. I was sick of it. So I started praying about it. At first, and for months, my prayer was two words: “Help me.”

I prayed nonstop, sometimes just to keep from drowning. I prayed out loud as I drove, I whispered over the cauliflower in the produce section, I Dominus Vobiscumed myself to sleep at night. My whole life became a prayer.

Through the winter into the spring I was painting, and praying, and crying, and renovating the awful house. Picking colors is tricky when you feel like your hair is on fire. But I look back now and can see that God was using everything and everyone in my life to draw me closer to Him. My heart had been cracked wide open, it hung there in my chest, a gaping hole of hurt. He reached right in and grabbed it all. As tightly as I may have been holding my grievances, He was holding me. Knowing this still brings tears to my eyes.

Happiness and joy are products of peace. Or maybe it’s the other way around? I’m not sure. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, the raging waters began to calm. The more calm I felt, the more I wanted to feel until, one day months later, I realized the peace I’d prayed for was everywhere.

There’s no drama unless we inject it. Things happen. People make promises. People make choices. Some promises are kept, some are broken. Some choices bring happiness, some bring heartache. When I finally realized this, I could look back and see the trail of brokenness behind me. But by that time my view was from higher ground. Without realizing it, I’d been on the path of forgiveness. That’s when it became clear that forgiveness is a process, and the peace I’d prayed for was the journey itself. Forgiveness defines my joy. It’s a freedom and a lightness of load unlike any other. If you are wondering how you will ever get here from there, I can only tell you this. When it awakens in your spirit, you’ll know. Once you feel it, you will have navigated the narrows of your heart. You will never lose your way again.