Saturday, December 31, 2011

News Flash

Sugar Plum... and Boo

I don’t want to disappoint anyone, but….

The world is not going to end in 2012.

Tell ya how I know:

First off, I just got news from the nice Chicken Soup folks that my piece on Sugar Plum will be included in the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: I Can’t Believe My Cat Did That! The book doesn’t come out until late in the year, and I know Sug would be particularly disappointed if her book doesn’t get as much attention as Boo's book did.

Next off, I will be finishing the long-awaited dog book in the next couple of months, to be released some time this coming summer. I’ve promised the spirits of Sandy, Rufus, Sapo, Niki, Alex, Ellie, Ian, and Osa that this book will honor them as the good dogs they were (and still are, always, alive in my memory).

In addition, I will (finally) publish Ghost Grandma, the YA novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo six years ago. Yay! I love that book!

Then there’s that presidential election thing going on. We gotta see how it turns out, right? Enough said; I don’t want to alienate any readers with my intense political rantings. Mouth closed. Tongue quiet….

Best of all, some strange and wonderful things have been happening with Tainted Legacy. From what I can tell from TL's Facebook page and my Amazon stats, the book seems to have taken off in other parts of the country besides Missouri. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but I am grateful to the Universe that the story of Bertha Gifford continues to be told (even though she doesn’t like it when people talk about her—yes, Great-Grandma, I knooooow).

And my grandson will graduate high school… and start college. Wow….

And anyway, we’re not getting out of this as easy as all that. We’ve created a lot of problems for Mother Earth with our greed and consumerism and self-centeredness. Just like when we were kids and made a mess and Mom came along to tell us, “You’re not going anywhere until this mess is cleaned up!” so the Universe will hold us accountable. We have many lessons yet to be learned. I’m still trying to remember to stand up straight and not slouch. (OK, Mom, OK!)

Osa, my dog, my soulmate, will be featured in the upcoming Lessons I Learned from the Dogs that Saved Me.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Things We Hold Dear Part 2

(Christmas Bear)

In September of 1977, my oldest son was born. For a year prior to his birth, we had fought with Doris, our narrow-minded, power-hungry bigot of a caseworker from Children’s Home Society. My husband and I had told her that we would adopt a child of any race. She had responded by asking, “Any race?” We knew what she meant. “I can’t think of any race I would exclude,” my husband tossed back at her. She was not pleased. For a year we looked at available children. We wanted a girl close in age to our daughter, and there were several ready to be adopted. But each time we found one, Doris thwarted our inquiry with some excuse. “She’s too far away” (San Francisco) or “Her caseworker thinks she should be an only child.” Really? We knew what all the stalling was about.

In August, after we’d been approved to adopt for a year, I confronted her on the phone one day and let her know I was prepared to request another caseworker if she didn’t open her mind to interracial adoption. In that conversation, she told me about a woman who was pregnant at that time. The baby’s father was a different race. “I have you folks in mind for that baby,” she said. I honestly thought she’d made it all up—until she called me a month later and told me that child had been born. “He’s the color of coffee beans,” she told me on the phone. “We don’t care what color he is,” I told her defiantly. But wouldn’t you know, his nickname—at first as a joke, but you know how these things go—became Beanie Man.

For Christmas that year, a dear friend, Janet Lockett, made us a Christmas Angel for the top of our tree… a Christmas Angel with brown “skin” and black, curly hair. It was perfect. And for the next three decades, it topped our tree every year. That little angel outlived my marriage and was still at the top of our tree in 1994 for my grandson’s first Christmas.

But after I moved to the mountain in 2007, I didn’t feel the need to put up a tree (since I’m literally surrounded by them). So the little angel stayed in a box in the basement that year… and the next… and the next.

Last year, I was feeling pretty blue, it being the first Christmas without my mom, the second without my brother Dan. On an afternoon of reminiscing about Christmases past (as the Spirit of Christmas Past would have us do from time to time), I decided to go looking for all the decorations that had meaning for me. Up from the basement came all the boxes, and several hours later, the cabin was blinking and twinkling with tiny white lights and candles and various other decorations. Several years before I had moved to the mountain, Dan had given me a special bubble light as a gift after I’d told him that those had been my favorite as a child. I found that light and plugged it in every night in the weeks before Christmas, remembering my crazy brother with great fondness each time. There was no tree for Christmas Angel, so I sat him on a table where I could see him… and remember the Christmases that had been special for my kids (the first one after the divorce, when we were so poor we had nothing… but each other… and my grandson’s first Christmas, when the tree, hastily erected on Christmas Eve, fell on Nana).

This year as I discovered that the mice had gotten into the boxes of Christmas decorations (destroying nearly everything with fabric, including Christmas Bear, pictured above), I held my breath looking for that Christmas Angel. I didn’t know how I would tell my kids if it had to be discarded. I believe my daughter is pretty confident that she will one day take possession of Christmas Angel, and if I had to tell her that Christmas Angel had met his demise at the hands of indiscriminate rodents, I know she would have taken it hard. Me, too.

But there it was, safe and intact. Whew.

It’s not just the Christmas memories that it conjures with its magic; it’s a reminder that, way back then, we made a decision to let our family be defined by love, not by race or color or origin.

Our little family is bigger today (with more colors!), and love is still our common denominator. Our little Christmas Angel will always remind us of that.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Things We Hold Dear Part I

When Mom and Dad moved to Southern California in 1954, just before I was born, they did so partly because my maternal grandmother, Lila, lived in Los Angeles. In that year, homes were being built in the biggest housing tract undertaking of its time in a suburb oddly named “Lakewood.” (No woods, no lake—just cow pastures and the Santa Ana River.) With lots of open space and a reasonable distance from downtown L.A., it was a great place to raise kids. Mom and Dad bought a brand new three bedroom bungalow—probably about 1,000 square feet—and they settled into the neighborhood just before I was born.

Frequently on the weekends, Grandma would ride in on the train and Dad would pick her up. She and Mom would be in the kitchen for hours on a Sunday, cooking dinner and talking woman talk. For Christmas, the hours were extended. Mom and Grandma would sit at the kitchen table and make cookies and fudge and dates stuffed with walnuts and rolled in sugar. When the treats were ready, they’d be placed on our large dining room table—which was covered by Mom’s holiday table cloth.

When I was a child, there were certain items that were pulled from the rafters of the garage—or out of the back of the linen cabinet—every year in the run-up to Christmas Eve. We had our favorite ornaments and decorations, including the little copper angels that hung from a mobile and spun slowly with the heat from candle flames below. And of course, our nativity.

I never thought much about the table cloth… until a few years ago when I was going through some of Mom’s things, and there it was. The unfolded cloth lying in my hands became a screen upon which a thousand memories materialized… my dad—before we knew he was dying—bringing in the boxes of Christmas decorations from the garage, then putting up the tree… my sister and I making holiday scenes on our windows with glass wax. (My loves, you would have to be over 50 to know what that is!) And, more vivid than any of the others, Mom and Grandma working tirelessly for days to make food and treats and wrap gifts and (clandestinely) fill stockings so that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would be special. Oh, the memories that table cloth has seen…. I put it away carefully, and last Christmas, with friends coming over, I spread it out on my humble little table, fresh and clean from the dryer and still showing a gravy stain from fifty years ago.

This year, when I went to the basement to retrieve my Christmas decorations (packed carefully and stored in a closed cabinet), I discovered mice had gotten into the boxes. In years past, Sug (and Boo, when he was still with me) has taken care of the mouse problem quite efficiently. But the whole of Mt. Baldy was plagued by rodents this past summer, and my little Sugar Plum just could not keep all of them away.

Opening one of the boxes, I carefully extracted Mom’s table cloth—and immediately saw holes chewed through the cotton material. Oh no. Oh my god, no. Was it ruined? Would I have to discard it? The cream-colored fabric bordered in snowflakes and pine boughs represented a gossamer connection to some of the few sweet memories of my childhood. Why hadn’t I stored it in a more secure place?

Bereft, I carried the cloth still folded to the washer and dropped it in, setting the machine for a long wash on hot. Later, I tossed it in the dryer without looking at it. I wasn’t yet prepared emotionally to uncover the extent of the damage.

This morning, I finally had the courage to pull out the table cloth and examine it. Except for those few small holes I saw initially in one corner of the border, the piece is still in good shape. The table cloth will once again grace my holiday table… and, for the days it is displayed, remind me of those brief years when the fabric of my family was still intact.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

In My Father's Eyes

My father, who was first a soldier, then a taxi cab driver, then a cop, then a security guard after he and Mom moved to California in 1954, was a stern man. He worked the swing shift because he had gone back to school, law school, and so would attend classes during the day, then leave for work about the time I got home from Kindergarten every day. I feared him, in his imposing uniform, which included the classic Sam Brown belt and side arm, and Mom and Dad never ceased to get a kick out of my intimidation.

As busy as he was with work and school and home improvements on the weekends, Dad made time to visit our local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Dad, at forty, was a youngster compared to most of the men who stopped in there for a beer or two with a fellow comrade-in-arms. How strange and unfair that all those old men would outlive him, as my father would die three years later.

It was around that time, when I was five, that Mom, Dad, my three older siblings and I, one chilly December day, headed out to the VFW hall. Rumor had it Santa Claus would be making an appearance.

I have to confess here that I never believed in Santa, even as a very small child. I was too logical, too analytical, even back then… and too prone to hiding behind Dad’s big chair—the invisible child whom no one saw even when I was in plain sight—eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations when they thought I’d gone to bed. And yes, even at five, I was the same withdrawn, wary-of-people creature that I am today, so I had nothing but reticence and trepidation about sitting on Santa’s lap. Telling my parents I would rather not participate was not an option, unless I wanted to subject myself to their scorn and a lecture about how ridiculous it was to be shy. I kept my mouth shut, pulled my tiny cardigan around my hunched shoulders, and soldiered on.

I can’t remember whether they served us dinner at the hall that day, but I know Mom and Dad had a few beers while they chatted with people they knew, and the large group of children in attendance tried to guess what was contained within the many packages stacked beside a Christmas tree in the corner of the room. At some point, I grew concerned as I realized I hadn’t seen my parents in awhile. (They had once walked off with the other kids and left me in a strange place, and I still suffered post-traumatic-stress moments because of it.) I tugged on my big brother’s shirt and asked him where they were, but he shrugged me off as someone made the big announcement: “I hear jingle bells!”

A man in a Santa suit entered the room with a few requisite ho ho ho’s and proceeded to take a seat near the stack of presents by the Christmas tree. My sibs grabbed me and dragged me up to stand in line with them, and I stood there watching this man talk to each kid in turn, eventually handing him or her a wrapped present. Even the promise of a surprise gift couldn’t entice me; I had no desire to sit on the lap of a stranger. I couldn’t even communicate well with the people who were familiar to me.

When it was my turn, I trudged forward, and the man’s hands lifted me to sit on his thigh, one arm stretching around my back to hold me snugly. He asked me what Santa could bring me for Christmas. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer. There was no correct, appropriate answer. If I said a doll or a tea set, I would have been lying, something I’d learned from my strict Catholic upbringing was a terrible sin. I couldn’t tell him what I really wanted—a Tonka toy truck—as Mom and Dad had already told me that girls cannot ask Santa for a “boy’s” gift. So I just sat helplessly staring down at the floor, wishing the ordeal could be over with.

The man asked me a second time what I wanted from Santa. This time his voice was less affected, more gentle. And somewhat familiar. I found the courage to look up at his face. Thinking back on it now, I can still see his eyes through the fluffs of cotton batting glued over his eyebrows and onto his sideburns. They are the same eyes that look back at me every day when I look into the mirror… my father’s eyes.

I want to believe that something changed for him when he looked into the sad face of his little daughter, her eyes beseeching him to simply let her be the person she was meant to be.

I know that something changed for me. My father, this strict, uncompromising man who enforced God’s laws as if he were the good Lord’s cop incarnate, was capable of playing Santa, of bouncing children on his knee and asking them to share their dreams.

Oh, to have that moment back, to look into his eyes again, and this time, say exactly what I should have said.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Moments when you know you can die happy

My kid, chatting casually with one of her poet-heroes, Billy Collins

Last night I left my mountain and drove an hour and fifteen minutes to my daughter’s place in Lake Arrowhead. The occasion was a poetry reading she had arranged at a local coffee shop for her peers in the Master of Fine Arts program at Cal State University in San Bernardino. Whenn I arrived at the pre-reading snack-fest, her house was filled with professorial and college student types (and husbands and cats and kids).

I can’t begin to express how happy this makes me.

We never do anything in a conventional way in my family. As hard as I tried to impress upon my children the importance of going straight to college, each one chose his or her own way, and all were working immediately after graduating high school. Shali, too, and then she was married and a mom and divorced and married again and a mom again. Somewhere in there she found time to work and go to school. While she was at Pitzer, the word got around to her professors that she was a poet—a really fine poet in her own right, not just because her mom says so (though you should believe me if I do; I have a fancy degree, too—just not as fancy as hers). Her teachers encouraged her to apply to an MFA program back then. Again, she went her own way, choosing something more practical. She headed to Claremont Graduate University for a teaching credential and master’s degree, and she’s been teaching school for some years now. This year it’s first grade.

But now at night she dons her Super-Woman attire and heads down the mountain to Cal State, where she is studying with well known and respected writers and poets. Yay! Finally! I’ve been thrilled ever since she was accepted into the program… because I’m her mom, of course, but also because, through all these years, I’ve just wanted people to hear her, to be exposed to her amazing work. It is a gift that came out of nowhere. It didn’t come from me. It’s as if I said to her one day when she was a teen, ‘Wow, isn’t turquoise jewelry amazing?’ and a dozen years later she came to me with an intricately crafted necklace and said, ‘Oh hey, Mom, I made this,’ and it was perfect.

Last night’s event was fun and marked by sincere camaraderie among the students reading. And it was attended by Jim Brown, author of The Los Angeles Diaries and This River. If you’ve heard me speak of him, you’ve heard me say that he sets the bar for memoir writing. He is achingly honest in the stark depictions of his life, and his nonfiction is more compelling than any I know.  After the readings, he came over to me.
“Your daughter has real talent,” he said.
“Thank you,” I replied, trying not to sound like the sappy, proud mom that I am.
“She was my favorite tonight,” he said quietly.

That was the moment.

If my kids are all safe, happy and well provided for, I will die happy. If they are recognized for the incredibly unique people they are, well, that might just cause me to dance my way into heaven.