Of Moms, daughters and showtunes

58053_478240036596_4588631_nThankfully, 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.

famShe 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.”

Really?

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.

I wait.

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.

Love,

Jenny

Day 22: Before

If you’ve been following along, this post is part of a (nearly) once-a-day-month-long-blogging-brouhaha with my pals Amanda Hollinger, Monica Wyche, and Ami Worthen.

May, 1959. Houston, Texas.

Before they were married. Before they moved to Chicago, then back to Houston, then to New Jersey. Before he switched from cigarettes to a pipe. Before she told him she wanted children someday. Before any of us were thoughts, dust, molecules.

They were just two people sitting on a couch wondering what might come next.

Day 7: Music

It occurred to me today that music is family to me. Also, music. Makes the people. Come together. Yeah.

Thank you, Madonna.

In fact, I have musical memories from nearly every year of my life. Songs attached to memory. Songs attached to people.

My Dad put himself through college playing jazz trumpet in Al Anderson’s band. Now and again, when I was very young, he’d take his horn out after dinner and walk through the house playing whatever struck him. I followed him room to room in speechless awe.

My Mom, was and is, a lover of the show tunes. When I was still little enough to be bathed, she sang, “I’m Gonna Wash That My Man Right Outta My Hair,” from South Pacific in her most dramatic voice. This was, of course, to distract me from the fact that she was actually washing my hair.

When she wasn’t bursting into bits from show tunes, my Mom listened to Jonathan Schwartz, the mellifluous-voiced, storytelling DJ on WNEW 1130 in New York, who played an array of jazz and yes, show tunes.

I’d wander into the kitchen on a lazy Sunday; Mom cooking or cleaning or just puttering about and hear Jonathan Schwartz’s mellow voice stretch out a story and a song across the length of an entire afternoon.

 

Better get a bucket

Better get a bucket.

There are things you come to accept as “the way” to do things, because that’s how they were done by your parents. It necessarily follows these “things” subscribe to their own irrefutable logic. This is a story about one such “way.”

My Mom became unfortunately ill while visiting my brother and sister-in-law over Mother’s Day weekend…dizzy, nauseous, feeling ever-so-close to vomiting.

As Steve was taught to do, as Mom had done for all of us, he helped Mom to her bed, a bucket in hand.

As he passed his wife in the hallway, she asked, “What’s the bucket for?” He stopped for a moment and said, “Oh, it’s a thing from my childhood. I’ll tell you about it later.”

As he tucked Mom into bed and set the bucket on the floor beside her, (You know the function of the bucket now, right? Wait, it gets better.) Mom said, in a weak, sickly voice, “You did remember to put about an inch of water in the bucket, didn’t you?”

He didn’t.

Steve relayed this story to me over the phone as we were both driving home from work the other night. I immediately began laughing.

Me: “You forgot the inch of water?!”

Steve: “Yes!”

Me: “How could you?”

Steve: “Do you remember what it’s for?”

Me: (Cackling with laughter) “Yes!”

In unison: “To make the bucket easier to clean!”

As I struggled to catch my breath from laughter, Steve pointed out how incredible it is that Mom not only perfected a “way” to protect and nurture the sick and pukey, (Who has the energy to run to the toilet to puke when you’re that sick, anyway?) BUT ALSO had the foresight to be clean about the whole situation. (Hey, you can still be tidy; yes, even when there’s vomit involved.)

The good news is that Mom actually never needed the bucket and is, in fact, feeling much better, thank you.

Should you have any “this-is-the-way-we…” stories to share, I’d love to read them. Mostly so I can feel a smidge less weird. Thanks for sharing.

Addendum to turning 50 AKA kicking a guy while he’s down

As you know, my brother was recently inducted into the half century society. Applause! Joyful shouts!

Our 73-year-old Mom joined my brother and sister-in-law for a weekend of birthday celebration. True to my Mom’s generous nature, she came with a gift for the birthday boy. Pardon, old codger.

Quick aside: my family reads this little blog and placed a very specific phone call to me about the aforementioned gift. In essence, they asked me to blog about the gift. Which I will now return to doing.

So this gift from Mother to Son? Upon reaching the half century mark, with its accompanying wisdom and respect? Yeah, that. My brother received this:

 

Provides coiffing for both nose & ear hair.

 

It’s a TITANIUM (space age technology!) nose hair and ear hair trimmer. How warm! How thoughtful! How about kicking a guy while he’s down?

I have not yet decided which is worse for this poor man: turning 50 or receiving tangible proof that hair will now begin growing in great earnest from various orifices. I mean, if it hasn’t already. Oh, and FROM YOUR MOM!

Thanks to my Mom and brother who CONFERENCE CALLED me to share this gem. I love my family.

 

Strangely wonderful

Sunlight

As John Lennon said, “strange days, indeed.” As I write this, my Mom is on her way home from the hospital after several days battling a colon infection. About colon infections: you don’t want one.

My Mom is obviously doing much better, but the past few days have brought up giant waves of emotion in her and me. This is, after all, the first time she’s been quite ill since Dad died 14 months ago. My brother, who lives within two hours of Mom, was able to be at the hospital with her and speak to the doctors. Another aside: if you can have a family member act as your medical advocate, do it. It’s always helpful to have another person to ask questions and listen to what the docs have to say.

Before Mom was diagnosed with the colon infection, my mind twisted its way into various fearful scenarios, and I maintained an internal battle of wills to concentrate my attention on the “what we know now” as opposed to the crushed glass, hamster wheel of hell called “what if? what if?”

What my Mom experienced in the hospital: an epic feeling of loneliness is not unusual given the reality of her circumstances. Nor is it unusual that I’d feel anxious and lonely because I could not be there in person. As she grew weepy with me on the phone over the course of her hospital stay, it occurred to me that I was offering what I could in that moment. I suppose there is always the question of “is it enough?” But then, the weepy moment passes…the feeling subsides or ebbs and we are onto the next.

The day after Mom went into the hospital I spent the afternoon at my dear friend’s house watching the University of South Carolina battle the Georgia bulldogs. My friend is a Georgia fan, and we groaned and lamented as the pain wore on. In quieter moments of the game, we talked about my Mom and my friend’s sister whose marriage is breaking up. Aside: when faced with infidelity, small gestures like say, cutting the buttons off a dress shirt can provide a quick, albeit slightly petty bit of retributional joy.

Fast forward to this morning: when friends at Blue Ion and I present a new direction in marketing to the folks at Maverick Southern Kitchens: to include new strategy, copy, designs and websites. As I surveyed the room during the course of the presentation, I was humbled by the sheer fact that a group of folks was listening to what we had to say and was even moved to share their thoughts with us. There is something so primal about cooking…feeding…nourishing and nurturing others. Part of the reason I am so intrigued by what Maverick does is simply by the virtue that I am enamored by the notion of food as a means of conversation and connection. And they do it so well. Taking the food seriously, but never themselves.

Minutes ago I stood in my backyard, feeling the slightest hint (or wishful thinking on my part) of fall. I noticed an ever so subtle change in the light through the leaves that left me wondering, where does the time go?

I can’t tell you, because I just don’t know. Lately it seems that laughter is most usually followed by tears which is followed by awe, humility, confusion, elation, and now and again a Bloody Mary. But who knows…maybe it’s just me.

When you’re here you’re family

The week after Dad died we went to The Olive Garden with caring cousins who tried mightily to soothe our grief with their company and manicotti.

Chain Italian food is blasphemy in the town where my parents raised me. Tomato sauce was called gravy, and Mrs. Rizzo made meatballs that melted upon touching your tongue, bigger than a man’s fist.

Our waiter recognized Mom from all the times she brought Dad there for dinner, her last attempts at date night with her husband. I imagine her guiding his choices, choosing for him when his consciousness grew hazier, wispier, dreamier. The waiter came to know them by sight, by name and would help Dad get seated and put his walker to the side while they dined. He held sympathy in his smile; compassion in endless salad and bread sticks.

Where I grew up, Italian bread came from the local bakery. I remember holding my Dad’s hand as we stopped in for bread and Sunday pastries. I was so little I could still press my face against the cases to stare longingly at the opulently decorated cakes and pies. I would get a smiley-faced sugar cookie in my own waxy bag and eat it at the kitchen table with Dad as he read the paper, drank coffee and ate pastry.

The waiter asked Mom, “How’s John?” We all waited for her to say it.

“He passed away last week.”

The waiter half-opened his mouth, flushed and quickly paled, said quietly, “I’m so sorry.” He quickly retreated to tend to other diners.

I thought of him for days afterward. Wondered if he dropped a dish in the kitchen or spilled a glass of wine on purpose, because he was shaken. Because he had known Dad, though not long, but intimately in the way that only someone who brings you sustenance over a period of time can.

It would be like this for a while after he died. The moment of having to say he was gone out loud, still an open wound, still not believing the words as they left my lips.

What Mom Said

Happy birthday, Mama!

Today is my Mom’s 73rd birthday. As you may be able to tell from the photo, my Mom has a rather large personality. Though she measures a scant (albeit feisty) 5 foot 1 3/4 inches (she insists on the 1 3/4), she has a room-filling presence, quick wit and gift for storytelling that has made her a force of mothering power. She is indispensable in some of life’s most challenging moments, but do not, under any circumstances wake her up in the middle of the night with a bad dream. She is rather less than helpful. Unless you’re bleeding out from your femoral artery, then she’s awesome.

In an effort to honor her 73 years on this planet, I’d like to share a list I compiled several years back, a testament to all of our Moms, their personalities and most memorable quotes. Enjoy…and do feel free to comment with one of your Mom’s lines. I mean, what are we saving these gems for?

If I had a quarter for every time my Mom said…

You need to put on some lipstick.
-Katherine Barry Verano

Call me back or I’ll take you out of my will.
-Anne Chandler

You LIKE this.
-Mary Elizabeth Woods

Of course, your Grandfather gambled away MY college tuition.
-Tasha Gandy

Balls.
-Tara Laposa

I’ll break your legs.
-Joan Yax Lyman

I’m not going to ask you again.
-Emily Hedblom Currie

Get your hair out of your face.
-Kit O’Connell Menis

You know, you’re supposed to be the smart one!
-Vita Martino Larkin

Are you sure there’s enough room in the crotch?
-Jenny Badman

Our Lord is watching you.
-Patti Spaniak

What about how I feel?
-Amy Stemmler

You should keep [insert newly-dumped boyfriend’s name here] as a friend because you never know when you’ll need help moving.
-Heather Lane Lyman

My life in 1,000 words or less…and counting

A scene from my life...and an unfortunate haircut.

My latest article for the Charleston City Paper is here. And for the record, it’s an interesting writing/journal assignment to give yourself: summing up your life in 1,000 words. What would you include? What would you skip? Below is the first go-round of the article, which I had to trim to 800 words for publication.

I grew up in a suburban town of lush front lawns and tree-lined streets 30 miles from New York City. During summers, I was outside from morning until night, until my Dad’s whistle called me home.

I was a tomboy. My brother, 12 years my senior, was my idol. He played football, fixed cars, listened to Pink Floyd and had the coolest Adidas ever – white with green stripes. I had to have a pair just like them.

My sister, who I also idolized, was five years older. In addition to teaching me the lyrics to “Crocodile Rock,” she was also the first person to tell me I was gay. She was mad at me at the time. Probably because I refused to play Barbies. Again. I cried and told my Mom, who said, “What a terrible thing to say!” My sister got punished. My sister and I talked about that moment recently and she said, “Well, I was right.”

My Mom kept my hair short. Her story is my sister and I screamed whenever she touched our hair. To be fair, Dorothy Hamill’s hairstyle was all the rage at the time. I dressed in jeans and t-shirts and was often mistaken for a boy. This pained my Mom to no end. Rather than grow my hair out, she decided to sew white eyelet lace around the back of my jean jacket. It looked as horrific as you are imagining. Even at six, I knew it was awful. I was mortified and refused to wear the jacket. I joke with my Mom now that white eyelet lace is the reason I’m gay. She thinks it’s funny, most of the time.

My childhood girl crushes include Olivia Newton-John, Joan Jett, The Go-Go’s, Jodie Foster, Lindsay Wagner and Kris Evert. In more disturbing news, my male crushes include Tom Wopat and Burt Reynolds.

I’m the only girl at my friend Dave’s 8th birthday party. This is not unusual. After cake, we play football. While celebrating a touchdown, one of the boys says to me, “That’s not fair. I’m not allowed to tackle girls.”

I date and fall in love with a number of boys/men during my teens and 20s. One breaks my heart. I break another’s heart. Along the way and through the angst, I decide that there is something wrong with the way I’m built. That I’m not meant to fall in love the way other people do. It doesn’t occur to me that I’m gay.

The first gay bar I go to is called “Connexions.” I’d like to write a coffee table book about all the badly named gay bars in the world, but that’s another story. I was terrified, exhilarated and danced all night.

I live with my best boy friend for seven years in my 20s. He has known me since birth, and as I ease my way out of the closet, he is there, supportive, loving, even accompanying me to the gay girl bars in New York. The first time we talk about my sexual escapades with women, he barrages me with questions. We compare notes, and I cannot stop laughing.

The first time a gay man tells me I look hot I feel like I’ve won the lottery.

I’m folding towels and underwear with my Mom when I come out to her. I was not planning on it. She asks me if the bar where a friend of mine and I are going is a gay bar. I say yes. She says nothing. I realize this is the moment. I say, “Is there anything else you want to ask me?” She says no – and means it. I tiptoe my way out by saying, “Well, I’m pretty sure that I’m gay.” She stops folding laundry and says, “I’ll get your Father.”

My Dad suggests therapy. I think this is because I used the words, “I think I’m gay” rather than “I am.” Overall, he takes the news much better than Mom. Later he says, “I try very hard not to get upset about things I have no control over. I just want you to be safe and happy.”

I’m at a Gay Pride party in 2000. I see a beautiful woman. She’s from South Carolina and is leaving. We begin emailing and then move to the phone. I make my first visit to Charleston. On my 30th birthday, she gives me a ring and asks me to live with her. In 2003, I move to Charleston. We move into a house and are together nearly four years.

Once, when discussing the holidays, my Mom refers to my partner and me as “the girls.” This small gesture of inclusion brings me to happy tears.

I spend one summer as a stepmom during which I feel loved, hated, exhausted, elated, panicked, whole, inept, like a bizarre combination of babysitter, aunt and neighbor. I now realize that the kids were just kids – and I was with the wrong partner.

Around straight people who don’t “know” any gays, I sometimes feel like a Lesbian Ambassador.

I have come out a hundred more times since first coming out – to doctors, friends, co-workers, confused men, etc.

In case you missed it, Laura Bush supports gay marriage, saying “…when couples are committed to one another and love each other, they ought to have the same sorts of rights everyone else has.”

I could just kiss her.