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Gifts from my mother

It was a whole year before I knew that I was mourning my mother.

I mean, yes, I didn’t update this blog. But I was busy.

And I grappled with fears of death, and sadness, and despair, but those things have hung around me before. I was stressed.

And I didn’t cry for her, not really. Still haven’t, not really. Not like with my dad.

But I was mourning her and missing her. I kept starting to call her and tell her what Nathan had done. I kept starting to think, oh, we haven’t visited her in a while, I bet she misses us.

And then I’d remember.

But I couldn’t see it, until the summer ended, and it was like a light turned back on.

It’s been so different from losing my dad, so much quieter and less dramatic. Because I’m an adult with my own family, because I didn’t live close, because she was a non-dramatic person. A quiet talker most of the time, unless she was laughing.

Like me. It isn’t until I missed her that I saw so much of what she gave me.

My mom had a harsh voice, a lot like mine, rough and not all that good for singing. She had a raucous laugh too, that she gave me.

I don’t have her nose, but my son’s looks more like it every day.

She gave me her hazel-y green eyes. Her thin, straight hair. Most of my body is like hers, in fact, except for her tiny feet. I didn’t get those.

She gave me the power of being still, and the desire to move around and clean things whenever I’m talking.

She gave me her sudden spells of sadness and depression.

She gave me her deep intense love for her family even when we are all awkward and standoffish with each other.

She gave me her toughness, or her ability to pretend to be tough, to be no-nonsense, to endure.

She gave me her restless longing to travel.

She gave me her eye for color and proportion, but not her deft hands that could sew and cook and paint and polish.

She did not give me her green thumb, or her dislike of reading, or her head for numbers.

She did not give me her courage in crowds, to overwhelm others with her friendliness until they smiled and laughed too.

She did not give me her blond hair, or her love of jewelry and girly things. My lack of that made her roll her eyes more than once.

And while I would have liked her vivacity and her way with plants, I can’t complain. Because she also gave me the things I needed by working hard, for years, often at jobs she disliked. Because she showed me two things; that women are as smart and capable as men, and that there’s still a lot of prejudice out there holding them back. She didn’t know she was giving me that last part, I don’t think, though she was proud of her ability to earn money and excel. And her pride taught me to be proud of it too.

She left me some material things too. Pictures. Old emails in my account. Christmas decorations. A denim shirt. Some earrings I still wear, and some rings I don’t. A quilt and some other things that were her mother’s, and her grandmother’s

A rose from her casket that I dried and then mixed with the old rose petals I had from my dad’s funeral, from a rose on his casket, nearly 20 years ago. It’s amazing how long it takes them to disintegrate.

When I open the old teapot I keep them in, there’s still a sweet smell.

I miss you Mom. Maybe I just miss you too much to cry right now. But I do.

Bump to Boy

Dear Boy:

You’re four this month. We call you “Boy” or “The Boy”, which happened sometime this year. Before that you were “Bump”, which was a silly name with a long boring story behind it. But you’re not a little Bump anymore.

“I’m a big boy, Mama,” you tell me, and I can’t argue with that. You’re still fond of cuddling and “squishing” (which is what we call hugs), ecstatic about it in fact, especially at bedtime. You haven’t gotten that stiff-arm resistance kids get when they get older and start to feel smothered by all the hugs and love. I’m waiting for it to show up, but grateful it’s taking so long. Because I want to kiss your head and squish you tight for as long as I can.

You conquered the potty this year, which surprised us but shouldn’t have. Every challenge that we were sure you’d never get to, crawling and walking and talking, you got to, when you were ready. We keep telling each other, let’s try to learn to trust him, but it keeps being hard. Because trusting you still means teaching you, helping you, encouraging you. While not yelling at you. While not losing our tempers.

And that’s a hard thing, a challenge for us in the way potty training was a challenge for you. Being a parent of a four-year-old requires as much of us as being four requires of you.

You can ride your bike with training wheels, when this time last year you couldn’t move the pedals on your little tricycle. You can get your clothes off and on, you can open doors and build Lego contraptions, you can do so much, and every time I feel as proud as if you’d cured cancer. I assume this is a parenting hazard, finding the mundane things your kid does so amazing. I try not to bore other people talking about it, because they can’t understand. Because they don’t remember the squinty little baby we brought home who couldn’t even smile, or hold up his head, whose expression looked like nothing so much as deep suspicion of all this life business.

I mean, how do you get from there to here?

It still boggles me. Every bit of it. Like a magic trick.

This year was a strange one for us, so much good and so much bad all mixed together. Your mom and dad had a rough time, and narrowly avoided walking away from each other. I’ll tell you about that some day, when you’re grown and it won’t freak you out too much. We’re good now, though.

Your Mamaw died, my mom, and I miss her and miss having her in your life. It wasn’t a great way to go and it was too soon. I will try to be sure you know who she was even if you won’t remember her, just like I’ll tell you stories about your Papaw who died before you were born. They were something special.

The world is a turbulent and uncertain place. As I write, there’s a swine flu epidemic and an economic crash that may just be healing by the time you’re in jr. high, if we’re lucky. There’s a lot of fear, and a lot of anger, and no one knows what’s going to happen. But we hope. You help us hope, because you are fearless and full of sly jokes and sideways smiles, loving and sensitive and sweet and full of stormy anger too, when you’re crossed. Harder and harder to fool, quicker and quicker to figure things out on your own. Determined to do things your way.

Your dad started doing his music full-time this year, that was one of the good things, and well, I really and truly hope that by the time you read this, he’ll have been doing it ever since. I hope he’s done with dayjobs forever.

I’m working on a project of my own that I don’t want to talk about yet, but that means a great deal to me. That gives me hope, too.

Your birth is still a hard thing for me to think about; like this year, so much good and so much bad happening at once. You of course, are the good, and only more so the longer you are with us.

I can’t imagine that in 12 months you’ll be five, an impossible milestone, hardly any more likely than the idea that you’ll be in junior high, driving, moving away some day. Impossible but out there all the same. I’d say I can hardly wait, but that’s not how it works; I love the idea of your future, but hate the idea of giving up any of this time here, right now. Thankfully, none of that’s up to me.

Can’t wait to see what you surprise me with next.

Love, Mama.

 

Materiality

On Twitter, where all my random thoughts are magically collected these days, I remarked that I really don’t own any new furniture, bought by me, to speak of. And what I do have is IKEA or some other discounter of plywood-based durables; two beds, some bookshelves, an office chair.

And that’s unusual in my age set; my inability to settle in a profitable career path has meant not having the luxury, as so many of my coworkers do, of buying houses, having more than one car, investing in new furniture, or the like. I am not much richer in material things than I was as an entry-level stiff five years after graduation.

It would be tempting, or unsurprising, if this made me feel bad about myself. Now and then it does; I have to conceal my relative poverty in some ways, not because I care that much but because it makes others uncomfortable. They don’t laugh and commiserate; they get quiet or look awkward. I’m not ashamed, but maybe they think I am or might be? A gulf is revealed between us.  Women my age aren’t supposed to still be scrimping; we’re supposed to be planning our next house makeover. Or something like that.

I do see what they would see if they came to my house, sometimes; an aging rent house with hideous 70s entryway tile, carpet the landlord really should have replaced already, furniture that kind of matches but was not super expensive to begin with and has some wear and tear.

But I kind of love my secondhand stuff, the things I had to scavenge and repair and rescue from garages, thrift stores, and landfills. Even more poignant, so many things were gifts from my mom, a woman who did decorate with a vengeance and liked nice new things most of the time. I am glad to still have so many things that she gave me, even if they’re not things that are super-beautiful or expensive. Not antiques, just hand-me-downs that will give out, eventually, one day.

I like the odd little pieces of framed needlepoint that I’ve collected from Goodwill, that cover the battered walls, too. Somebody cared enough to sew them and frame them, and then what? Died? Got tired of them? Gave them to someone who hated them? Who knows.  At least a few of them have a new home, now.  I love the English Pastoral oil painting from the 1930s done by an amateur artist and given to my grandmother as payment for some favor in lieu of the money no one had. It is smoke-stained and undoubtedly has no value, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

I like the faded blue bedspread on Nathan’s bed, that will keep him warm and yet not be anything I cry about when he has accidents, as children do. I like the artwork on his walls, also Goodwilled when some child got too old, plus some maps and cool pictures I got from a teacher supply store. I like his little thriftstore lamp shaped like crayons, and the raggedy secondhand loveseat where we read bedtime stories.

I guess what I like about all this really breaks down into two things; the satisfaction of salvaging and recycling things other people discard, and the happiness at not feeling too tied to my possessions.  I enjoy them and like them, but none of them sent me into hock, or were something I had to agonize about buying. Most of them could be replaced if I had to.

When we were going through my mom’s stuff after she died, it kept hitting home to me how little of anyone else’s life can really be passed down. Every person acquires a satellite ring of stuff that they need or can’t bear to throw out, but only a small percentage of that can absorbed into the lives of their survivors. That’s how stuff gets to Goodwill, after all; no one needs that ugly side table Mom’s been keeping since 1982 in the garage. Or the collection of potholders she made as a little girl at summer camp. You don’t want to throw out any part of the life of the person who’s gone, but you can’t keep it either. Without them around to give it meaning, it’s just stuff, lifeless collections of papers and debris.

Maybe some of it ends up being valuable, later on; a silver punch ladle, a memento that some collectors seek. But when you’re the survivor, it’s funny how little you care about that, initially. Who cares if her china doll collection has value, when she’s not here to enjoy it?

 

 

Dreams and my mother

My mother died, three weeks ago.

My mother died, and it was not a good death. She was only 68; she had been in a lot of pain. Her marriage was troubled, her relationship with her kids was troubled (though the love never went away).  She had lost almost everything in the economic collapse, her savings and her business and her house, and she and her husband had a place to live with my brother, but well, she was sick. Sicker than we knew, or for me at least, were ready to deal with.

She never said “I’m going to die” maybe because she didn’t want to think that either. Or didn’t want to make us sad. But I think she must have felt death was close. Maybe even wanted it. Because the pain was bad, arthritis, lupus, infections that led to hospitalizations, small illnesses that would not heal, a heart compromised to 30% by disease and damage. Medications that made her feel bad from side effects. So many foods she couldn’t eat, or didn’t want to eat because she couldn’t taste much anymore. Loss of independence, loss of dignity. Stress. And depression, a family curse which had always pursued her, finally caught up with her; she wasn’t able to move fast enough to get away from it anymore. Which is  how I think she had escaped it so long.

Because before she was sick, she never slowed down. We moved maybe 10 times when I was growing up, not because we had to, but because she and my Dad were seekers, restless, looking for more–money, room, security. Challenges, maybe.  They raised us four, but after we left, barely slowed down. Until he died when I was 20, and then it was Mom all alone.

But she kept going, traveling, living, doing exactly what she wanted. Always working, always with a plan. Sharp, unafraid to learn things, like how to use computers to build a business, open a Web site, find another husband, even. She was full of surprises. She was a tough customer, and a survivor.

And she had secrets; she did not talk, except in fragments, about bad times, though we know she had them. A first marriage before my Dad, that ended in pain, that she would never discuss, though it gave me my brother and sister that I can’t imagine being without.  Problems with she and Dad, too, money and in their relationship, and struggles when his heart began to fail. We all knew little scraps here and there, me least of all because I was the youngest, but she kept her secrets pretty close to her heart, even when they hurt her.

I wish she hadn’t done that, because I think all those hurts made it harder for her to keep going. I think she could have used a therapist, someone outside who wouldn’t judge or worry, to listen to her hurts. I would have been glad to listen to her, if she could bring herself to tell me what was in her heart.  But that wasn’t an easy thing for her, and as she began to get sicker, she couldn’t take the energy to take care of herself in that way. She wondered at the way I exposed my life online, and I think she was intrigued as well as alarmed; but it was not a path she was ready to walk down. And then her body began to fail, one system after another.

And we all felt so helpless, and that’s the worst; we watched it all happen, but didn’t know enough soon enough or have resources enough to stop it.

I’m angry about that, in a way I wasn’t about my Dad; maybe because that was nearly 20 years ago, maybe because he was sicker longer than my mom was. Maybe because I know more, about the things that wear women down, especially. The lack of opportunities for women that she faced in her career; the blatant sexism that ensured that she was never paid as much as the men who did the same work she did. I remember her telling me how angry that made her, in a tight, resigned voice, years after it happened. The horrible way she was treated by early bosses, when she desperately needed the work.

What she gave me, and what I tried to tell her that she gave me, was invaluable, though; the understanding that work is something women do, too. She always worked, and she always loved us, and so I never felt the conflict over whether work was ok for a mom or a wife to do. She wasn’t perfect at either, but she did her best under a stress I only appreciate now that I have a child and a job of my own.  I never doubted that I would grow up and work and have kids if I wanted to, that I could do those things, because she showed me that it was possible.

I can’t write all about my mom in one blog post, or in one year of them. I need time to remember her the way she deserves, not as a saint but as herself, the person I will always love and always miss and always measure myself against.

When my Dad died, one weird but comforting thing for me was the way I would dream about him, and in my dream, never remember that he had died. He was just there, just like he’d always been. Last night, I dreamed about Mom in that way for the first time. Just there, just herself, alive and right where she belonged.

Cosmic Cowboy

Note: if you are seeing weird slashes in the text, it’s not typos, the blog software’s acting up. I will fix if I can–emjb

One of the reasons I read Slacktivist as much as I do is that he shares my upbringing, in the strange side-world of Christian separatist evangelism; church camps, re-dedications, witnessing to total strangers, and being “protected” from the secular world.  (Fred came through his experience with a bit more gracefulness than I did, I think, but I don’t begrudge him that.)

But this post touched off a swirl of memories for me, and sent me skipping along across the Internet to try and put some of the stranger bits of my fundamentalist past back together.

The first and most important thing to remember is that, when it came to music, everything was suspect. Not just Madonna in her lingerie, but neon-colored clothing. Not just heavy-metal bands with demons on their album covers, but harmless pop-groups like Mister Mister.

Everything. Was. Suspect.

The math went something like this: Doesn’t explicitly say Jesus is the answer in the song=Not Christian=Possibly Leading to Demonic Influences.

Sometimes, even that wasn’t enough; my dad agonized over whether “rock beats” and electric guitars (but not electric pianos, for some reason) were inherently evil, meaning, even if you sang songs glorifying God on them, the fact that they had a quick danceable beat might mean you were tempted to think impure thoughts.

I know now that much of this was leftover John Bircher, White Panic crap, fear of the “Negroes” and their hypnotic beats impurifying the youth of America, but back then, I was possessed of enough logic to argue with my dad about that last part. “A guitar is an instrument; it cannot be good or evil, Dad!”(/me tosses permed 80s hair, stomps out).

But that minor rebellion aside, I mostly tried to live inside the  restrictions; I did feel guilt when I watched MTV (on the sly, one finger on the remote button to turn it to the news), and mostly accepted that popular music was bad for me.  But I was hungry for music of my own, and developed a burning hatred early on for the Sandi Patti and Amy Grant dreck that was shoved down my throat. Maybe because, before my dad plunged back into religion when I was 10, I grew up listening to funk and disco and country on the radio and on tapes and 8-tracks. I used to spin my parents’ old Herb Alpert and Statler Brothers LPs on the giant stereo console (oh I wish I had that now!) and I had my own collection, Grease and Kenny Rogers and the Nutcracker Suite, and some Disney showtunes. Hooked on Classics was one of my favorites for a summer. Also some Beatles, my sister’s Saturday Night Fever 2-LP set.

Suddenly having to switch to all Maranatha and Amy Grant was too strict a reduction in diet, even for a good Christian girl like me. So I looked for loopholes.

Flipping in despair through the tapes at Joshua’s Christian Stores, (an approved source), I found some buried treasures; Second Chapter of Acts, (some of) Randy Stonehill (more about him in a minute), even an old Debby Boone tape (not this one, but that’s all I could find online–bland as she was in public, that girl could sing and she did some interesting things with hymns.)

My other way of skirting the rules was to judge that my dad would be less prone to censor music from the 50s and 60s, when Life was Perfect (so he said).  So I got to know the  playlist of the local oldies station,  which taught me to love the Gladys Knight version of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” as well as Aretha Franklin’s brassy insistence on getting what she wanted from her man.  Doo-wop and early rock and a few hippie songs.

Anything, anything, to get me away from Amy Grant, or, God help me, Carmen.

And then I grew up, and moved out, and eventually married a musician with a prog-rock fetish, among other weird tastes, and began to see even more of what I’d been missing. (And what I hadn’t, considering my high school class picked a Whitesnake tune as our class song.)  And ever since, I’ve been climbing gleefully through the genres, scouring for new artists and expanding on my abiding love of soul and early R&B, indulging my disco nostalgia, my old-country nostalgia, and deciding that though I like some Cure, I was never in much danger of becoming a Goth kid.

And then recently I came across blip.fm and twt.fm, and was finally able to re-hear some of the things I loved as a repressed Christian kid, that survived my transition to an agnostic adult, and to share them with you.

The first is this truly, awe-inspiringly strange song, “Cosmic Cowboy” by Barry McGuire, notable not for its excellence, but for its feeling of ecstasy, of weird hippy-dippy tripping on the whole Jesus thing, which later, more cynical Christian artists just didn’t have. Like Second Chapter of Acts, McGuire was doing something that was, however cheese-ily produced, original. There just isn’t anything else out there like it.

Second is a Randy Stonehill track, Christmas at Denny’s, which is possibly the most melodramatic thing I have ever heard, and more interestingly, doesn’t ever mention Jesus once; it’s a straight-up, go for broke, over the top country blues song. I don’t know that he really hits what he’s aiming for, but for a Christian album, wallowing in despair in this way was, at the least, unusual.

And then I loved Kim Hill all through college, on the strength of two albums which had some dark, strange songs, like this one, “Snakes in the Grass”.

None of these artists are super impressive next to the other things going on in the late 80s and early 90s, REM and Nirvana and Insert Your Favorite Band here; they could be a little weird or niche, but the Nashville Christian music establishment, and the customer base it served, didn’t tolerate too much that might be considered dark or disturbing. I hear things have loosened up a little since, but I have so much else to listen to these days that I haven’t gone back to check.

There is just so much, that’s so full of life and joy, and anger, and pain, and power, out there in Secular Music Land. That was the biggest lie the scaremongers told us in church, that real feeling and emotion, and pain didn’t exist outside of approved music, that they were all about (bad kinds of) sex, shallow, meaningless, and corrupt.

And when you set it up that way, then no wonder you have to “shelter” kids from outside, because once they realize that life isn’t confined to the sacred approved space, they’ll leave, and they might never return.

Pain, Promise, Perspective

This post made me sad.  It’s a feeling I often get over at pandagon.net, whenever Amanda writes a post on childbearing. Not because I disagree with 99% of what Amanda says, or because I think choosing not to have kids is wrong in any way. Or that women (especially) who don’t want kids aren’t subject to lots of unfair pressure about it. All true.

The point of the post I linked was that, in light of the crashing economy and new studies about how much of a grind it is to raise children inside a typical marriage, fewer people might consider having kids. And that maybe this is a good thing.

And that cuts close, because I have fewer kids than I want for pretty much those exact reasons (money, plus stress on my marriage) and it’s not something I can shrug my shoulders over or celebrate.  It’s a situation that weighs on me, but that I also cannot change, that was imposed on me by forces outside my control, not one I chose. And since Amanda doesn’t want kids, or understand people who do, I think that’s why she cannot see the difference. She’s smart and one of my favorite bloggers, but she’s younger than me, and considerably more ruthless in her ideology. I don’t begrudge her that, but I cannot step into that perspective and embrace it. I’ve known too much, seen too many other sides of this particular mountain.

But the whole subject is so rife with sadness for me that I start to feel at a loss, and also irritated at how much any discussion about this topic turns into “those unthinking breeders” vs. “those clueless childless crazies”. I usually try to wade in and divert the conversation into a more productive channel, to get people talking about why we have these extreme stresses and strains on people who raise children, when we know that someone, after all, has to.

And it seems like an unnecessary road to go down, for someone with progressive beliefs; people having kids are not the problem. People having kids are necessary to society, and people who don’t have kids are also necessary. Which camp you end up in should be about what you truly want, not what you’re forced into against your will. I would not celebrate any woman being forced to have kids she didn’t want; neither can I celebrate women or men who want to be parents having to give it up for lack of basic resources.

Golden Calf

False economy is a term that means, basically, being too cheap costs more in the long run. Buy a cheaply made car and pay more for repairs later. Buy shoddy clothes and have to replace them more often.

But when I’m confronted with the resistance to using public money for public goods that comes up so often when talking to hard-core conservatives, it becomes even more clear that they operate under a false-economy philosophy. Skimp on education now, pay for jails later. Refuse to fund sex education and contraception, pay for more moms on welfare and kids locked into poverty…and more STDs. Refuse to fund mass transit and pay in increased pollution, highway maintenence, and unsustainable sprawl. Refuse to invest in intelligence and diplomacy, and start wars that cost us in trillions of dollars and thousands of lost lives. And then blame all the bad results on others; on democrats, or sexually active teens, or black people, or Saddam Hussein. Anyone but us.

I’m told this sort of thing is common in politics, where pandering trumps strategy, and winning elections trumps any idea of working for the long-term good of the American people. But while I can see the logic of that explanation, it doesn’t really work either, because even a Senator or House member will probably have children, and grandchildren, to inherit the country they leave behind, to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water. Even riches won’t protect you from those things indefinitely.

Which is why I think the Republicans who are left (more seem to retire every day) have succumbed to a sort of madness, have forgotten that what they do affects the ones they love, and untold others, for generations, have told themselves that ideology trumps reality, that if they just pray harder to the almighty market to save them, all will be well. That America can never fail, therefore there is no risk to doing anything they wish. They’ve made a god of free markets and patriotism and shut their eyes and their minds to what is actually happening around them.  And their gods have failed them, but they dare not admit it.

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