That night when Scout was finally asleep, and I was tossing and turning in my bed, Glenn told Mom is was her fault that Scout got hurt.
“Why weren’t you watching the baby?” he demanded.
“Dear God, Glenn, I can’t watch them every single minute of the day. I feel awful as it is. Accidents happen. Don’t you blame this on me.”
“Who else am I supposed to blame?” he yelled.
“Who gets them up in the morning? Mom started yelling. “Do you? No. Who makes their meals? Do you? Who takes care of them all day, every day? Do you? Are you ever here? Do you ever help? Where the hell were YOU?”
And then Glenn muttered something I couldn’t hear and walked to their bedroom. I sat in bed motionless, waiting. Ten minutes later I heard Glenn’s Ford truck crunching over the gravel, and I knew he wasn’t coming back. Ever.
I guess we were too much for him.
Mom told me the next day that Glenn had left and probably wouldn’t be back.
“It’ll be alright,” she said, looking at me with puffy eyes. “I’m gonna take care of everything. Who loves you, Sara?”
I looked down at my French toast, too shy and hurt to look at her. “You do,” I whispered.
Scout started sleeping with me a week or so after Glenn left. It’s like she knew even though she was just two. I’d cuddle her up next to me and stroke her hair. Sometimes she’d wake me up and say, “Sawa, I scare.”
“Go back to sleep.”
“No,” she’d say louder. “Monstas in here.”
“There are not.”
“Yes, go see Mommy.”
We’d walk tiptoe into Mom’s room and shake her shoulder slightly. It got to be a bit of a ritual during those early months after Glenn left. She’d groan and roll over to look at us. “Monster alert?” she’d ask. We nodded.
She sat up, grabbed a Kool from her bedside table, lit up and walked us to the back door with her hands on top of our heads. “Wait here,” she said and walked to the closet to get Glenn’s shotgun.
Scout and I stood shivering on the cold linoleum floor from anticipation as Mom loaded two shots into the gun. “Are they in the back field again, Scout?”
“Yes,” Scout whispered bravely.
Mom kicked open the back door with her bare foot and started hollering out into our back field, an acre or so of land that seemed harmless enough during the day.
“O.K., monsters,” Mom would yell into the blackness. “Get outta here or else!”
Scout and I covered our ears as Mom pumped two shots into the dark. It’s a good thing our closest neighbors were a half mile away and knew about “monster alerts.” The shots echoed from the woods, and Scout and I stood there blinking as Mom walked calmly back to the closet, emptied the gun, and locked it back up.
“I feel better,” she said to us. “How about y’all?”
We nodded, still wide eyed.
“Good, then let’s hit the hay,” she said and stamped out her Kool.
If you’re just starting this reading adventure, start with part one. Here’s part two:
My father, Glenn, left us when I was seven and Scout was just two. I don’t remember seeing him much, because he worked nights fixing cars over in Montgomery. I remember sometimes he used to come and sit at the edge of my bed when he came home from work. I always woke up because even in my sleep I could smell the mix of gasoline and metal on his jacket. I’d open my eyes, and he’d be sitting there in the dark patting my back or playing with my hair. For years when I was little I thought Glenn was just a dream, not even real.
“Hey,” I’d say.
“Hey yourself,” he’d whisper.
“Lemme see your hands,” I always demanded.
He’d give me one of his enormous hands, and I’d sit up and look at it. It was always rough and scratchy and even in the dark I could make out the oil and dirt under his short nails. I’d run my hands over the lines of his palm and try to memorize them while he pulled a Camel from his shirt and lit up with the other hand.
“That dirt won’t ever come off all the way, will it?” I asked every night.
“Nope,” he said easily. “It’s here to stay. Now, roll over, rugrat, and get you some more sleep.”
I’d let go of his hand, and he’d pat my back until I fell back asleep.
The only time I remember seeing him in the daytime was when Scout tripped and her head on the corner of the coffee table and cracked her head open. I remember Mom being so calm as she scooped Scout up off the floor screaming and gushing blood from her forehead. I thought Scout was dying, and I started bawling.
“Sara,” Mom said firmly. “She’s gonna be fine. Now run and call Glenn and tell him to meet us at the emergency room.”
When Glenn got to the emergency room, I was sitting in a beige plastic chair swinging my feet and biting my fingernails. Mom was behind a yellow curtain with Scout and the doctor. They were giving Scout 10 stitches, and she howled and sobbed like they were killing her. Glenn walked up to where I was sitting and I looked up, surprised to see him suddenly there. His curly brown hair was wild and windblown, and the skin above his green eyes was pinched and tense. He looked scared and pale.
“Where’s the baby?”
“Behind the curtain with Mom. They’re giving her stitches. That’s her crying,” I said, my voice breaking.
He sat down next to me and pulled me onto his lap. I leaned against him, exhausted, and started tracing the red cursive letters on his jacket. G, L, E, N, N, over and over.
“You girls…” he said softly into my hair. “Sometimes I can’t hardly take it.”
I recently came upon a short story I wrote during my senior year of college. I can’t share this story without thanking my professor, Dr. Bob Ready. His early encouragement, suggestions, and thoughtful questions helped me craft a story that I think still works. Maybe you can let me know if it does. I’m going to share it in bits, so, here’s part one:
Mom always says that men are pretty dumb and that neither me or Scout, my little sister, should ever expect anything from them other than “heartache and headaches.” It’s funny she always that to us and then goes off every Friday night with some greasy loser from town with a limp handshake and a plastic grin.
The last guy she brought home, Earl, was just pitiful. Black hair slicked back, and the dumbest gold ring on his pinky he kept pointing at us whenever he said anything. He thought he was so cool when he lit up his Marlboro until I pointed out to him that he had lit the wrong end. Mom had shot me a look and laughed her fake laugh to Earl, and me and Scout almost threw up right there. I hate it when she laughs like that; it sounds like a sick hyena or that dumb Marjorie James from class who’s always sucking up to the boys. I managed to give Earl the finger while Mom was putting on her lipstick which Scout thought was the funniest thing ever. Stupid old Earl just grinned and nodded. After he figured out which way to light his cigarette, Mom all but pushed him out the door. She knew we hated him; we hated all of them. Mom stuck her head back in the kitchen and shook it at us.
“Honestly, girls, he’s an O.K. guy. Give me a little credit, huh?”
Scout stuck out her tongue and began to pout.
“He’s too greasy,” I said. “And that ring is the silliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s a crucifix ring,” Mom said. “He’s Catholic,” she whispered, like it was some secret. “I’m leaving,” she said suddenly. “Bed at 9:30. No fighting. No horror movies. Who loves you?”
I rolled my eyes. Scout stopped pouting long enough to shout, “You do!”
The screen door slammed as she disappeared into the dark. We could hear Hank Williams, Jr. hollering out of Earl’s Duster as they backed down the gravel driveway. Mom says Patsy Cline is the only country music worth listening to. Hank Williams. Barf.
I write about my childhood quite a bit. Perhaps because my memories are so vivid, I feel compelled to write them down. Perhaps if I understand who I was a child, I’ll better understand who I am now.
The other day, I got an email from a dear childhood friend. She was one of the original stomp girls about whom I’ve written. We who sang Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ‘N Roll at the top of our lungs at recess.
See, I had forgotten what started us in the first place. Until my friend Laura faxed me the gem below:
Women have rights. But how come their not equal? Some say that women are weak or to fragile to do a man’s job. For instance men think that women will never play football or baseball because we might break a fingernail. They don’t know about women inside. So I’ve started a club called W-L (Women’s Lib.) It will be at recess. You may ask questions and we’ll think about what to do to make a woman’s life better. We will work as a team. Why do some men act this way? Well they want to be A#1 of course they have to be better and stronger than women. Can we fight this for equal rights? I have know idea. Alot of women feel the same way we do. For more information, call Laura or Jenny.
P.S. Keep this club private.
When I stopped laughing at how totally awesome and hilarious this little manifesto is, I felt that old feeling. I remember when the boys stopped letting us play football with them. I remember how some friendships vanished because we had reached the age when differences started creating distance. And, I remember how mad we were about it. Because all of a sudden, we weren’t just uninvited, we were no longer equal. Holy junior feminists, Batman! I get it. Now I remember the source of the stomping. If we were no longer invited, we would make our own party. We would sing loud. We would raise our fists. We would stomp. We would raise our fists. And one day, we would be equal.
Aaron Draplin is an incredibly talented and prolific graphic designer, and I’m a huge fan. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few years back. Even got to shake his hand (solid, warm grip), get a signed South Cackalackee Draplin poster, and grab a photo with him. He was as great in person as I had imagined him to be. Who lives up to that? Awesome.
I follow Aaron’s blog and work, and like all of his friends and fans, I was shocked and saddened to hear the news of his Dad’s sudden passing last October.
If you’ve been on this site before, you know I did a lot of writing about my Dad after he died in 2009. I did a lot of reading, too. All, I suppose, in an attempt to make sense of his death, his life, my feelings, and who in the world I was supposed to be without him. And, I suppose, to keep him “alive” even after he was gone.
Aaron wrote about his Dad, too. His 30 Day Sad For Dad series is full of heartbreaking, funny, warm, and honest moments of grief and memory. And I couldn’t be more grateful that he wrote his way through them. Some men speak kindly about their Fathers. Some men revere them.
Meet Aaron’s Dad:
And meet my Dad, if you haven’t already.
It’s strange. When Dad died, I learned that the fathers of two friends from high school had died around the same time. In those early days when my grief was at its most raw, I thought of my friends and imagined what they were going through. Sometimes they commented on posts I wrote about Dad, and I think somehow it all helped us feel a little less alone.
Reading Aaron’s posts about his Dad made me remember those feelings, even now, 4 1/2 years later, and again, I feel less alone.
Thanks to Aaron for writing down the things we’re often afraid to even say. And, for sharing his Dad with us. I wish I could’ve met him. And I wish he’d met mine.
Last week, a 14 year old girl and her Mom; a Southern-born, Indian-bred self proclaimed “fat, hairy, brown femme-trans-masculine queer bodied magic pony;” an engineer/activist transgender woman; and a critically acclaimed actress, African American transgender woman made me cry and made me proud all in one night.
Sera, the 14 year old, was born Seth. Every night, starting at age three, she asked her Mom, Amy, “When is God going to make me a girl?”
Over the course of several years, Seth began being Sera…at home. By the time Seth was in fourth grade, he began transitioning at school, growing out his hair, dressing more femininely. By sixth grade, Sera was fully transitioned at school.
That transition, as you might imagine, was not always readily accepted. Sera was and is bullied…by kids and even parents.
Her Mom always told her, “You are an individual.”
And she is. She’s a bubbly 14 year old girl, talking excitedly with her hands in front of 500 people. She and her Mom both seem nervous, and utterly brave.
At the end of their tag teamed speech, Sera addressed us as if we were all going through what she has been going through, as if our mere presence in that auditorium meant that we understood, as if we were all still 14. And I realized that we all do understand, because no matter how old we are, if we think back, we can tap into that feeling of insecurity and uncertainty that comes with being a teenager, that overwhelming desire to belong, that unbelievable angst and longing for something you cannot name.
Anne Lamott wrote, “This is a difficult country to look different in…and if you are too skinny or too tall or dark or weird or short or frizzy or homely or poor or nearsighted, you get crucified. I did.”
Whether you think back to your teenage years and acknowledge that you were the bully, the target, the popular kid, the fringe kid, or the invisible kid, you know now (at least I hope with all of my bleeding heart that you do) that we are all much more alike than we are different.
After the speeches and the candlelight vigil, there was an after party where the keynote speaker and Orange Is The New Black star, Laverne Cox graciously posed for photographs with party-goers. And when the music got started (courtesy of Megan Jean and The KFB), the kids from We Are Family started dancing. Laverne quickly joined them, and everything, the room, the air, the light, just got brighter and lighter and together and better. And I thought to myself, “God, we all need to dance more,” because remember what it feels like to be in your body and move and feel free? It was music and dancing and laughter and people being exactly who they are.
And it was miraculous.
Sera and her Mom weren’t at the after party, because after all, she’s only 14, but this is what she left us, her fellow, forever 14 year olds, with:
“People are going to say to you that ‘it gets better’ and you’re not going to believe them. And the truth is, it hasn’t gotten better for me yet, but I promise to come back and tell you guys when it does.”
Thankfully, my Mom was never one of those Moms who commented on weight or personal appearance, other than to say things like, “Stop slouching. Stand up straight.” Or, “Are you sure there’s enough room in the crotch?”
I count myself lucky for that.
Both my Mom and Dad taught us from an early age that the world was not fair, that it didn’t owe us anything: a job, a car, or even love. It was, after all, up to us to learn everything we could; to be good people, good friends, good citizens in order to secure these things. As a result, my childhood was often like an ongoing lecture series in self-sufficiency, entitled: Here’s How, starring my mother.
“Here’s how to hold the potato when you peel it…”
“This is how to make a hospital corner…”
“How on earth have you gotten through life this far without knowing how to ____?”
“Ask the doctor questions. It’s your body.”
“Look it up.”
When my sister and I were young, Mom kept our hair short.
She says she kept it short because we screamed whenever she touched our hair, although I have no recollection of this. I do, however, remember her scorching the tips of our ears with the curling iron as she curled our short, Dorothy Hamill hairdos under.
Me, screeching: “You’re burning me! You’re burning me!”
Mom, flatly: “Don’t be silly. That’s just my finger.”
Because I had short hair and dressed in jeans and t-shirts, I was often mistaken for a boy.
This pained Mom to no end.
One might think a nifty solution to this problem might be say…grow the child’s hair out. Put it in pigtails. With ribbons even.
But if you did that, you’d miss the magic that is my Mother.
Rather than let my hair grow out, she decided it was a better idea to sew white eyelet lace around the back panel of my jean jacket.
My jean jacket.
It looked as horrific as you are imagining.
Even at six, I knew it was awful.
I refused to wear the jacket.
I joke with her now and again that white eyelet lace is the reason I’m gay.
She laughs. Most of the time.
Actually, she and I were folding underwear in her bedroom when I came out to her.
I chose neither the venue nor the timing of this discussion, but when she specifically asks me if the bar where I’m going that evening is a gay bar, I say yes.
She says nothing.
I fold and refold a pair of Dad’s underwear three times and realize this is the moment.
I say, “Is there anything else you want to ask me?”
She says no, and I am certain she means it.
Something inside me clenches with fear so fiercely that rather than come out, I tiptoe forward.
I say, “Well, I’m pretty sure that I’m gay.”
She stops folding and says, “I’ll go get your Father.”
Also not in the plan.
The other night I went to see a friend perform in a production of Oklahoma! She was amazing, and the bunch of us that attended were very proud. Also, we sat in the second row which is really not the best idea for a musical. The truth is, you need a little physical distance from people who burst into song every few moments.
At any rate, there’s a scene in which the “bad guy,” Jud, sings a song that turns into a monotone dirge about his own death. The line he sings is: “Poor Jud is dead. A candle lights his head.”
This is the very line my Mom would sing to us when she woke us when we were kids, or if she caught us dozing off somewhere, or if we were being overly dramatic teenagers who might “die” if we didn’t get to [insert the thing we wanted to do here]. So here I am at the play the other night, laughing uncontrollably at a scene which is decidedly not funny, all because my Mom sang that bit to me at least a thousand times.
I am certain that using that line to wake her slumbering babes was never part of her plan. I mean, at least I hope it wasn’t, because talk about dark…However, it is for just this reason and a thousand others that I love her, that I find her maddening and irreplaceable and funny and frustrating and perfectly mine. Happy Mother’s Day, Mama, there’s simply no one quite like you.
This is for you, Steph.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the late seventies and eighties in a tight-knit neighborhood full of kids. In those days, my best friends and most everything I loved or needed was a short walk away.
We played outside for hours at a stretch – in the creek, trees, streets, backyards, and basements.
We lived by simple truths:
Older brothers and sisters were in charge.
Mr. Rosenberg made the best pancakes.
The O’Connors had the biggest kickball team (11).
But perhaps one of the greatest but forgotten places to be during my childhood were the far flung regions of my friend’s parents’ station wagon – what we called “the way back.”
In literal terms, the “way back” was so physically far from the front seat it may has well been in a different universe, which I suppose, lent it its magic.
I remember crawling over the back seat to the “way back,” the scratchy feel of the avocado felt, like the fuzz of a new tennis ball, wiry enough to give you a rug burn, soft enough for hours of travel or adventure.
Sometimes we leaned against the leather-covered sideboards. Sometimes we lay on our backs, heads close to the back door and watched the sky whisk by, thin clouds racing, sunlight and shadows making patterns across our faces. On long trips, we made beds out of sleeping bags and pillows in Stars Wars and Muppet Show pillowcases.
The “way back” was a safe zone. You were much less likely to get pinched or punched or kicked or glared at by an older sibling if you were there.
On some summer evenings, while our parents sat in lawn chairs, talked and smoked (it was the ‘70s) in the backyard, we kids hung out in the front yard and driveway – sometimes sitting in the parked “way back” with the door open, like a kind of club house.
What I didn’t realize when I started digging into my “way back” memories is that the station wagon was much more than fun for us kids. It was a literal vehicle of empowerment and independence during the ‘70s. It was a call to take to the open road.
Don’t think so?
Think of The Brady Brunch journeying to the Grand Canyon.
Think of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the movie on which the sitcom “Alice” was based. Alice packed up everything she owned in her station wagon, and she and her young son set out on a journey to find a better life. The station wagon their transitional home, big enough to hold all or most of their possessions, big enough to sleep in if they had to.
Think of One Day At A Time. Ann Romano as the quintessential ‘70s single Mom divorcee. She dumped her husband and packed up her girls and her life in their station wagon – and unpacked and remade them all in an apartment of their own, on their own.
And, let we forget, perhaps the most memorable station wagon of all, from National Lampoon’s Vacation.
I’m assuming the station wagon went out of fashion fast when the gas crisis hit, and when times got better, someone came up with the next generation: the minivan.
God, forgive us.
I guess the “way back” is gone forever. Children without seat belts romping around in the backs of fast-moving cars? Well, no.
Oh, 1970s, we miss you and your cavalier attitude, your winged hair, your independence.
But mostly, we miss the “way back.”
You put yourself through college playing gigs and working odd shifts at the local hospital.
Were you buddies with the other guys in the picture?
Is one of them actually Al Anderson?
In my head I hear you say, “They were all nice fellas.” That was one of your words.
Years later, when I was about eight, you said to six of my boy friends who were playing a bit too rough for your liking, “Hey fellas, take it easy.”
To this day I’m not sure if they stopped because of the inherent authority of your presence, or because they were so startled by the word “fellas.”
You called Steve, my brother, “Ace.”
Even me, once in a while too.
Neither of us knows from where that came.
I imagine you taking a break at that gig in the picture. Outside the back door of this school auditorium? Dance hall? It’s freezing cold, and you’re all hunched over in stiff tuxedos with smoky breaths rising, cigarettes cupped in your hands. You talk about what song to play next, which girl is the prettiest, how much snow will fall.
Isn’t it funny, this life you had? I’ve spent countless years trying to understand the Dad you were. These days I wonder about the younger you…before you were a Dad, a husband, a businessman, a coach. When you were just a horn player. Just a fella.
Love is patient, kind…and sometimes wears a monkey hat.
Love is not proud…unless it has a mink stole and a walkin’ stick, y’all!
Love keeps your food delicious…and free of extraneous hair.
Love is a DRAG QUEEN.
Everyone knows that.
Love is freedom and equality for all.
Love is the Pig Power t-shirt your Grandma did not understand, nor approve of, but never said a word about.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours.