Tag Archives: childhood

Food for Thought

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“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?”  –Lin Yutang

Today Anderson Cooper spent his new show talking about (disordered) eating.  Food is such a base, simple need that is loaded with unbelievable baggage.  We need food from before we are out of our mothers’ wombs, and continue to need it until the day we die.  It is ever-present, both background and foreground for the most important and mundane moments of our lives.  Food is a matter of life and death.  While it seems so simple, such an afterthought, it really is a complex piece of our lives.

As someone lucky enough to live a life where my next meal is not a mystery, where I know that I can choose what I consume, food takes on much more symbolism.  It intricately ties itself to memories and people, to places and emotions.  Cooper admitted to being a surprisingly picky eater and other people talked about idiosyncrasies with respect to their dining rituals.  As a picky eater, I felt validated that there are others out there who share in my aversions, my fears, and my embarrassments.  As I prepare to make myself dinner, with this show on my mind, I’m thinking very seriously about food.

I go through phases when I will crave something and eat it almost exclusively, and then will lose my taste for it.  Right now my taste for spicy food is dominating my palate.  While I still fear new foods, my old standbys are getting a little punch with some chipotle or jalapeno.  And while there are foods that I try and gain a taste for, there are some things that I will never refuse, that I am always in the mood for.

With the absurd request of recently-executed Lawrence Russell Brewer, many are asking what their last meal would be.  I spent a long overnight shift answering this one for myself.  After one of the most fascinating stories I gleaned from This American Life (Poultry Slam 2007), the question stuck with me.  After hearing about the legendary last meal of forbidden ortolan (you really need to listen to, or at least read, the story), I wondered what I would eat.  During a silent night of work, the thought settled on my mind and I quietly realized what I would eat, with no reservations.

If I knew I had only one meal left to eat, I would want my mother’s chicken and dumplings, drink strawberry Quick, and enjoy my grandma’s chocolate balls (yep, laugh all you want) for dessert.  When I’m hot and craving something sweet, nothing quenches my thirst like Diet Coke.  There is no pizza like a hot Round Table pie.  I love the soft, gooey sweet bread my grandma makes each Christmas.  I have a sandwich place I would eat at every day to keep in business.  There are plenty of foods that I love and would eat any time, any place, but that would be my last meal.  I would savor the hot broth, tender chicken shredded in it, saving the heavy, chewy dumplings for last, sprinkled with salt and lemon pepper.  I would remember every cold night, warmed by the scoops out of the steaming pot.  I would remember my family, silently gathered around the table, burning our tongues on the hot broth because we cannot wait to eat the delicious tradition.  I would sip my pink milk, remembering my little mouse glass, the lunches of grilled cheese and crackers.  I would remember being young, as much as I could, and the special treat that strawberry Quick was.  The cool milk soothing my burnt tongue, I would eat until my stomach burst with warmth, heavy with winter.  Then, after the hot meal, I would enjoy the semi-frozen chocolate candy that my grandmother makes each Christmas.  Small, sweet balls of graham cracker, peanut butter and coconut, coated in dark chocolate, are a sure sign that the holidays have arrived.

My mouth waters as I think of the foods, able to recall the tastes as I imagine the glorious meal.  While delicious and satisfying, the meal would be made infinitely better because it is tied together with love.  My mom, leaning against the counter as she stirs the large, stainless steel pot of chicken never gets more thanks than on those nights.  My grandma, year after year baking, her tanned hands forming each ball and dipping them, freezing them and always keeping a few hidden until New Year’s for us.  My dad, stirring the gritty drink mix in as we kids climbed up to the table for lunch.  The last meal I would choose wouldn’t be some of the best food on earth, but it would be food that makes me feel indescribably loved.  It is food that links me to my family, food that brings me home.  There are plenty of other things I enjoy eating and restaurants I love, but this is the food that sustains me, the things that make eating life-giving.  What would your last meal be?

“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” –Mother Teresa

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Summer Solace

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“If a June night could talk, it would probably boast it invented romance.” –Bern Williams

I am not a summer girl.  I loved school and hated to see it end.  Yes, a little rest and freedom from homework was welcome, and the night owl in me embraced the late nights and sleeping through the morning, but in general, I do not love summer.  I hate the heat.  I miss school.  I get lonely and bored.  I get antsy.  I am not a swimmer, not a sunbather, not a traveler.  The months creep past with slow, oppressive heat and the stale smell of sweat and lethargy invades the house.

But my disdain for the sunny months does not dim the nostalgic ache I feel for childhood summers.  I hated them in the moment, but look back with longing for those small town heat waves.

Summers were hot.  I remember lying still on the living room carpet, fighting my brothers for position in front of the big metal fan that stood on our hearth.  At night, after darkness crept through the valley, we opened windows and amped up fans to blow what little cool air existed through the house.   I remember the little brown fan, oscillating on my dresser, and the welcome touch of its breeze as it swayed side to side in the darkness.  Mornings started with a welcome chill, clean bright sun stretching across the neighborhood.  The moments were brief before the sun began its cruel work.  We bathed in sunscreen before swimming, hid in the house during midday.  Summer nights came slow, late, and never as strong as we hoped.  The heat never left, but there is something magical about a starry night, barefoot on the warm cement and cool grass.

I remember splashing in our wading pool out on the cement.  My brothers and I would fill it with cold water from the hose, sliding through the cool stream that penetrated the heated water from the day before.  We wore swim masks and snorkels and would lay on our stomachs and “swim” circles around the pool, dragging our half-submerged bodies in circles to create a small current, and then let it push us as we sat still.  I played dress up in old bridesmaid dresses with my friend, pretending we were brides and princesses, and we picked questionable berries from the shrubs to use for “real” food to play house.  I watched Stick Stickley in my bedroom as I moved furniture and cleaned out drawers until I could no longer stand the afternoon sun baking my windows.  We painted pictures and wrote poems and tried new recipes for the fair.  It was frightening and thrilling to walk the halls and find our entries, some with ribbons, and find other names we recognized.  I can smell the 4H livestock and feel the straw beneath my feet as cotton candy melted on my tongue.

As I grew older, summers changed.  It meant summer school to get ahead and to get my driver’s permit.  It was my first regular job, working at the city’s summer camp.  That was when I got my first honest to goodness tan, spending afternoons watching kids swim in the public pool.  We were mobile and employed, so we spent the summer free.  We had barbecues and parties, spent late nights at the lake and in back yards.  We walked the empty streets and played running charades at the elementary school.

Then, just like Harry Potter’s owl, letters came each August containing our school supply lists.  I loved shopping for notebooks and pens, but secretly feared that first day back.  It was so scary to see everyone for the first time, see new faces, see how everyone had changed.  There was so much at stake when we returned, frantic phone calls comparing class lists and finding someone, anyone that was in our classes.  There were new uniforms to iron and new outfits to assemble.  There was so much anticipation in the end, such a far cry from the endless, lazy days before.

I remember shorts and swimsuits, popsicles and fireworks.  When I think of summer my skin grows feverish and the heat hugs its way around my body.  I can see my mom’s beautifully browned legs as I sat between them while she covered me in cool, creamy sun screen.  I can smell the metallic water, dribbling from the hose, as we made a “safe” path of wet cement, between our chalk artwork, to walk barefoot on.  The crickets and bicycle tires echo through the dark streets in the cool of late night, as the neighborhood comes to life.  I hate the sweat and the loneliness and stagnation.  I hate summer.  And as I remember those moments, the summers of childhood, tears fill my tired eyes and I know without a doubt that I would give anything to return to those blistering days.

“Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”  –Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

“Let me tell you ’bout my best friend…”

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“Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them.”  –Marcel Proust

My best friend, E, is getting married this weekend!  I am so excited for her, and my happiness comes from how much I love her.  There is something special about a best friend, but it’s a title that I have had conflicted thoughts about recently.  I have other friends who are close, who mean the world to me.  They love me and support me and we have fun together that no one else can bring.  They are blessings.  And no matter how much they mean, E is still my best friend.

“Old friends cannot be created out of hand.  Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions.  It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.  –Antoine du Saint-Expéry

C was my best friend growing up.  We went through all of school together, and were inseparable through the beginning of high school.  She was quiet, smart, goofy, innocent, and slightly awkward–just like me.  We had so much fun, played endlessly and talked on the phone for more hours that our parents liked.  We were a team.  I had other friends, and longed to be part of the popular group.  Our class was small, and I was gradually included more and more in that crowd, but it always came back to me and C.  She understood and accepted me in a way that I never would have survived childhood without.  Her family treated me as one of their own and our worlds were intertwined.

High school came, and we stayed close in the beginning.  Then we had classes apart.  And she got a boyfriend.  And I made new friends.  And three years passed.  And this past summer, she was married.  Without me there.  I don’t judge or begrudge her that.  I do know that, if my big day ever comes, I cannot imagine it without her there.  We haven’t talked in years, but she will always have a home in my heart, a starring role in my memories.

“No, don’t you remember? There’d be, like, this one person, who had, like, perfect hair, or perfect breasts, or they were just so funny, and you just wanted to eat them up — just live in their bed, and just be them. It’s like everybody else was in black and white, and that person was in color. Well, Rayanne thinks Angela is in color. Major color.”  My So-Called Life

Then came A.  We became friends in high school and she was in major color.  We had mutual friends and got along well.  And then we spent more and more time together.  And then she knew me better than anyone did.  She was everything I wasn’t, what I wished I were.  She was loud and confident, cute and likable.  School was an option and grades weren’t a stress.  Her dad was cool and laid-back.  She did what she wanted, how she wanted, and answered to no one because she didn’t need approval from anyone.  She made me laugh and feel free.  She reminded me that there were more important things than papers and grades, that adventures could be fun and life could be spontaneous.  She was a splash of cold water on my face.

Then I left town for college and started to build a new life hundreds of miles away.  A was the only person I visited when I went home, the only friend I would go out of my way to see.  It only felt right to see her, because she made home what it was before I left.  But I made new friends, people who were living life with me, experiencing my school and world.  She had loss and revelations and one day, in some big ways, she wasn’t the same.  There are still things that she posts on facebook that make me smile and break my heart, because they are why I love A.  They make me miss my friend, wish we were still close.  But distance and discoveries made us new people, and it became hard to get to know those people.  So we send quick notes, but the friend that I had no business adoring has drifted off into life.

“The most beautiful discovery true friends can make is that they can grow separately without growing apart.”  –Elisabeth Foley

And now there is E.  We became friends our freshman year mostly because of the weird similarities we discovered.  Both the oldest with two younger brothers, we participated in Mock Trial in high school.  We love Heavyweights.  We love to buy office supplies.  We dip pizza in ranch.  And as we did more together, more commonalities appeared.  We shared a room and apartment, and everything that happened.  We talked and laughed and cried, studied and procrastinated, and we saw four years fly by.  We lived in the same apartment, but made a point to meet up for meals and go to the beach for our favorite sandwiches once a week–just us.  Somewhere in there, she went from a person who happened to be placed on my hall to someone who knew me inside and out.

E moved to the east coast after school for the Navy and has spent time at sea.  She has had relationships and friends, literally seen the world, and found the love of her life.  When many of my friends studied abroad in college, including her, I worried about their return.  I worried that they had seen so much, their world was now so big, that little me no longer had a place in it.  They had changed and I had not.  But she still has a place for me.  She doesn’t treat the mundane life I have lived, the smallness of my world, as insignificant.  She still lets me in to her life.  She makes me feel important and loved, even with all the other things she juggles.

I feel so guilty saying I have a “best” friend, because there are so many others that I love and have loved.  There are so many who have shared secrets and experiences with me, grown with me, changed with me.  But I would be lying if I said that these girls were not special, didn’t stand out in my memory.  A part of me grieves for the loss, that a new friend has replaced the old, but that’s the way of life, I guess.  They have new friends now too.  I would like to think that, when they look back, they remember me with the same aching affection, that they feel bittersweet tears spring up when they remember the beautiful friendships we had, and now do not.  As I think about these special people who sustained me, I can only hope I lived up to the friend that they deserved.

“Think where man’s glory most begins and ends/ And say my glory was I had such friends.” –William Butler Yeats

sO lOng Oprah

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 “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”  –Anatole France

I know that this is a week late, but I’ve been thinking about the end of Oprah this past week.  The final episode of her show is strongly tied to the upcoming wedding of my best friend, in an odd way.

I am not a fan of Oprah.  I do not follow her book club.  I do not watch her show.  I don’t cling to every word that her drones spout, especially Phil.  I don’t see her as a saint, a prophet, or demigod.  I mostly disdain her for her hubris, her cockiness, her pretense.  It was a very, very rare day that I turned on her show to see what the topic was, and even more rare that I watched.  I caught perhaps three shows in the past year, and one of them was the very last.

I won’t say that I watched like an execution gallery, wanting to make sure it ended.  I watched for much the same reason I watched the royal wedding–it was history.  I wasn’t working, and there was nothing better to do or see, so I watched history take place.  The previous day I had seen snippets of the orgy of Oprah love that took place.  I was disgusted with the celebration of her, the emotion leaving love behind and venturing into worship.  It was all too much for me to stomach.  That being said, I’m not sure what compelled me to keep watching the finale.  It started with her declaring her desire to impart all her wisdom to her audience… again, the gross self-indulgence.

However, I will, humbly, admit that her last show was not horrible.  In fact, much of what she said was, surprisingly, wise and important to hear: find your passion and pursue it, acknowledge and validate others, give God His due.  And while I will give her kudos for her message, I was moved much more that I expected, no thanks to her sermon. 

I watched the show and thought about the countless episodes I watched when I was younger.  I remember watching her and Donahue with my mom, after school.  I remember hot afternoons in my stuffy bedroom in front of the old tv watching her talk.  The topics were far over my head, but I drank it all in.  I remember when her theme song changed for her tenth season and marveled that that was fifteen years ago.  The show is just about as old as I am.  And now it’s gone.  I don’t miss her and the show will not leave a hole in my life, but I am sad to see it end.  It is just another thing that is changing.  It is one more small piece of my childhood that has faded away.  The show reminds me of my mom.  It reminds me of being small and precocious.  Now I am old, average, and alone and hating to admit it.  I deeply dislike Oprah, but the end of her soapbox was much sadder than I was prepared to admit.

And now to E, my best friend, and her wedding.  I am excited and happy for her as she begins this new part of her life.  Since she has been back in town, I almost always hang out with her and her husband-to-be together.  I haven’t had her to myself for a long time now, and that is fine.  I miss our girl talk and being able to say anything I thought without a guy there, but I like him and we have fun all together. 

Nevertheless, her wedding signals an end to our relationship.  I know she is not about to leave me behind and stop our friendship in its tracks.  He is really respectful of our talk time, even when we’re all together.  But now, with those two little words, every one of her relationships changes.  She still has family and friends, and I know that she values them deeply, but he will become her first and foremost.  He is her family.  He is her roommate.  He is her best friend.  He is her person, her world.  I do not say this with bitterness or cynicism–this is exactly what a marriage should be.  He should be everything to her and for her.  That does not make the change easier.

I’m happy that E is happy and starting life as a “we.”  I am happy that Oprah will never again tell me what I ought to eat or read or do.  I am glad that life is changing and growing and that exciting new worlds are beginning.  But I am also saddened by what must end, what this newness closes.  It breaks my heart to know that my roommate will never again be my roommate.  She is going to be a wife, someday a mother, and we can’t be the same.  I am in disbelief that something so common, so mundane from my childhood is no more.  The little things that help bring me back are so precious, and another one is gone.  I don’t do change well.  I don’t like ends and goodbyes.  I don’t like newness and diving into something with no direction.  While life continues and the world gets bigger, I feel an ache for things to stay the same.  I know that they cannot, and will not, but in all the happiness, a quiet sadness sits still and watches it all pass by. 

“Those who expect moments of change to be comfortable and free of conflict have not learned their history.”  –Joan Wallach Scott

The speed of childhood

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 “But to be most effective, the faces of the children would need to be painted in a blur, the way all children’s faces truly are.  For they blur as the run; they blur as they grow and change so fast; and they blur to keep us from loving them too deeply, for their protection, and also for ours.”  –Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister 

In the past week, I got to visit my babies that I’ve had the privilege of watching live.  My baby cousins, now little boys with hobbies and voices and lives, and the children I babysit, now in preschool and building Lego houses, are not the tiny ones I once knew.  I have held them and fed them bottles, burped them and felt their tiny fingers squeeze my own.  I have propped them on my hips and stroked their wispy hair.  And now they are all walking, talking tiny people.  They like some food, hate others.  They tell jokes and giggle and tell me stories.  They say my name and climb into my lap all on their own.  In the past four years, I have stagnated and life has passed with no noticeable changes.  For them, life has made them unrecognizable.  I love their little toddler voices and the little boy stories they tell.

To see these children grow is bittersweet.  They bring us all so much joy as they develop and change.  They become more complete and whole as we watch.  I do not see them nearly as often as I would like, so each time I meet new children, find new little lives that have developed.  I watch as their scribbles straighten into shaky letters and words.  Their steps stabilize and evolve into endless running.  I love seeing them become more every day, but I miss those tiny bodies that slept and cried and just wanted to be cuddled.  It’s the pull everyone feels, every parent agonizes over: an ache to keep the baby frozen in time and an excitement to watch the child come into their own. 

I watched Voyage of the Dawn Treader this week too.  The Chronicles of Narnia were a fixture of my childhood.  I can remember sitting on the couch, next to my dad, in my brothers’ room, listening to the stories before bed.  But, in the scariest way possible, the memories are fading.  They stories are hard to remember, the details vague.  I can’t remember the nightgown I wore or which side of my dad I sat on.  I remember the story time, feel my heart swell each time I hear the books even mentioned, but the details are fuzzy.  It scares me that twenty years have melted away and that life will never return. 

 Watching the movie, I lost it and cried uncontrollably as the children slept on a dark beach.  They lay next to the fire, Eustace quietly crying his giant dragon tears.  I felt that fear, that pain so deeply.  I wake up and have no idea how I became this monster, this grown-up with freedom and power and authority.  I don’t know where my old life went and how I managed to let it slip away.  It is lonely and uncertain and all I can think is how much I want to be back home with my parents protecting me.  Somehow, my life got away from me.  That story, those words that lulled me to sleep all those nights, are forever a memory, never again reality.  I don’t get to go back, to return to those nights.  This, more than anything, breaks my heart. 

I marvel at the little lives I get to watch unfold.  I am a witness to their stories being written, their memories branded, their persons formed.  I love knowing more of them, privy to more of their thoughts and ideas and joys.  I do mourn the quiet, small times when they couldn’t play tee ball or chase after the dog.  I miss the soft weight of their tiny bodies curled against my chest.  I am trying to remember to enjoy them just as they are, each time I see them.  It is exciting to tell my parents about the changes they have to miss, the wonders of the everyday.  As I was told all about cars and school, I was just struck by how fast is has all gone by.  It is a reminder that each day is only here for a moment, that things change and people grow.  The first girls I ever babysat are now graduating from high school. 

The years streak by and there is joy in the changes that they bring.  The danger is not savoring the changes as they come, enjoying the process of life.  The more I drink in the present and force myself to be present, the more salient the memories become, sinking deeper into me.  Those nights, listening to stories of dragons and fauns and witches, my mind was not wandering.  I was not worried about the next day or regretting the one passed.  I was quiet and still, drinking in the story as it happened. 

“…Stop this train I want to get off and go home again/ I can’t take this speed it’s moving in/ I know I can’t/ ‘Cause now I see I’ll never stop this train…”  –John Mayer, “Stop This Train”

“My mother, that’s who I mean…”

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“A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.”  –Washington Irving

I love my mom. 

Writing about her proves a little harder than writing about my dad because I have always been a daddy’s girl.  On the other hand, I had quite a few years where, at best, I maintained a shallow truce with her and, at worst, was furious with her.  Perhaps that is every adolescent girl’s fate.  Perhaps it is the timeless Greek tragedy, the younger determined to tear down and defeat the older.  Perhaps these are just excuses.  The truth is, I said and did so many things that I now regret.  This shame is why it’s hard to write about my mom.  I didn’t have a life-long friendship, a close companionship.  I have guilt and deep, unquenching love.

I spent a lot of time angry at my mom.  I was angry because I had two little brothers.  I was mad that she babysat other children.  I hated that she was a dedicated teacher that loved her students.  I hated that (I thought) she had all the time in the world for every other child.  I wanted her to myself.  I can seen now how much I craved her affection and attention.  She was in no way distant or absent–it was just never enough for me.  No matter how present she was, I needed more.  To this day, I don’t know why.  I may have been a deeply unhappy child, lonely and unpopular, that just wanted someone to fill that emptiness.  Maybe my jealousies just got the better of me.  Whatever the reasons, I resented her.  I also burned with hatred for her rules.  She was so strict with me, lenient with my brothers.  She was unreasonable when I wanted to go out in high school, unwavering with her rules when it came to boys.  She wasn’t like the other moms who bent curfews and trusted their girls to make good choices.

Because she wasn’t like other moms.  She has lived a harder life than I will ever understand because she shielded me from it.  She struggled more through childhood than she let me.  Her family was unstable and fractured–she held ours together.  Her mom still works endlessly to support her children–she spent years at home so we were not alone.  She saw what drugs and violence do to people, and put up her iron walls to protect us from those evils.  She is a stronger woman than I ever knew.

As I’ve grown, I’ve understood her better.  My dad told me this time and again, but I now see how deeply she loved us, loved me.  She is not an overly affectionate woman, but I never went to school without a clean, ironed uniform.  My lunch was always full and fresh, my hair washed and combed.  Our home was clean and comfortable, our homework checked and complete.  Our birthdays were photographed and Christmases video taped.  She crocheted me afghans and sewed my bedspreads.  She stitched me Easter dresses.  And Christmas dresses.  And birthday dresses.  And Halloween costumes.  She found the perfect stocking stuffers and underwear.  She made dinner every night and birthday cakes, snacks for class and cookies for the fair.  We never went without. 

I would have prefered more cuddles and tender moments.  But I see as clearly as the keys beneath my finger tips that this was how my mom loves us.  This is how she knows to show her love.  She spent every last penny, every moment giving to us.  She gives things, does things, and makes things to show her love.  She doesn’t say it often and doesn’t talk endlessly about it, but she gives it. 

As I grow older, I see what this has done to me.  I send cards every holiday.  I send gifts every birthday.  I buy things that remind me of my friends when I see them.  I don’t regret spending money on others.  I am happy to run errands for them.  I bake for people.  I do for people.  I try to be better than she is about telling people how I feel, but without realizing it, I have taken on her generosity, the physical form her love takes.

Today, I love my mother just as much as I did when I was young, if not more.  I know more of her, have had more of her, and have been given more of her now.  I like to call her and talk about the television shows we both watch.  I like sending her websites to look at.  I like making her recipes myself.  But I also love making her laugh.  I like to make people laugh in general and want to be thought of as funny, but there is a pride that comes with making her laugh that no one else gives me.  I want to make her proud.  I know that there really isn’t a lot that is remarkable about my life right now, but there was a time I loved to call and tell her about tests or papers I aced, programs I coordinated, projects I completed.

I loved her so much more deeply when I was young than I realized.  My anger and pain eclipsed my devotion to her.  Now that age has tempered that angst, that love is clear and easy to find.  It courses through me, it crosses the miles, and it beats like the life blood she infused me with.  I wish there were no asterisk to our relationship, nothing that I want to forget, but the reality is that life and relationships are complicated.  I would rather not think about the monster that I was, the cruelty that she loved me through, and focus on the now, the true friendship that we have forged.  My mom may not be the easiest person on earth to love, but neither is her daughter, and we both overcome that.  I am so proud of her, so amazed by her strength and resilience, that “love” seems too small a word, my heart too weak to hold all that I feel for her. 

“All women become like their mothers.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That’s his.”  –Oscar Wilde

“Land that I love”

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“You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness.” –Erma Bombeck

The Fourth of July has always been a small, quite holiday with a big end.  We never did much growing up.  Perhaps there would be a barbeque, some time spent by a pool, but generally it was a day spent trying to hide from the cruel heat.  In high school, I spent the day working at the local celebration at the park and since I left home I have had to work as well.  However, no matter how big the fireworks I watch are, nothing compares to a small town Fourth.

After we ate dinner, my parents would load us into the car and head down to the fairgrounds to watch the fireworks.  We would leave early, well before sunset, in order to find a good spot to set up our blanket and chairs for the night.  We collected our walkmen and gameboys and books and made last-minute requests for sodas and snacks to go in the cooler, and then headed out.  We had different friends that joined us over the years, sitting on the grassy hill, but the night was always the same.  We swatted bugs and fought boredom and saw dozens of people we knew pass  by.  We’d chase down friends and heave overly dramatic sighs when people would stand in front of us.  When the sun set and the cool drifted in, our attention would wander as we whined and wondered when the show would start.  Rogue fire crackers would sound in the neighborhoods behind us and tease eager kids.  Then, finally, the first real one would rise.  We’d lay back and watch the sky above us, ooohing and awing at the raining sparkles.  Babies cried at the loud screams and booms and for a moment the whole town stood still.  The grand finale would always come too soon and life would start again.  As soon as the last light disappeared, under the drifting smoke, we would pack up and try to beat the traffic out of the middle of town.

I’ve seen some really impressive displays since moving to a big city.  I’ve listened to radio stations sync patriotic music to fireworks.  I’ve spent the night drinking and eating with friends.  I’ve sat home, exhausted, and done absolutely nothing.  None of those nights has yet to compare to Independence Day at home, in the summer breeze, with my family. 

Yesterday I spent time with friends, and friends of friends, doing nothing particularly patriotic.  We ate and drank and played games.  We watched the boys play baseball and walked through the streets barefoot.  Unexpected and thick clouds led us to choose to forgo a fireworks trip and opt for the hot tub.  Beer in hand, we headed to the pool to talk and soak.  As we walked we listened to the crack and whizz of fireworks just beyond our view.  A sparkle or two made their way above the trees, but we saw very little.  A dozen twenty-somethings sitting around watched colored clouds reflect the celebrations as the displays went on.  A barrage of booms signaled the end, the best of the night.  With no prompting, with no explanation or expectation, one of the guys began to sing.  By the second “America,” we were all singing along.  Perhaps it was the alcohol, the day, the way we were raised, or just an authentic feeling of love for our home, but no one hesitated to sing along.  We finished our verse just as the last fireworks echoed across the neighborhood, and just as quickly went back to our conversations.

Perhaps these simple holidays are a little more patriotic than I give them credit for.  Sitting on a street with family.  Walking and talking freely with friends.  An abundance of food and drink and laughter.  Fearlessly going out into the night.  This is the Fourth of July, what our nation is.  We don’t fear war or occupation in our back yards.  We don’t cower under dictators or hide from the military.  We live free and joyful, boldly and hopefully.  This country is not perfect, and I am not always as grateful as I should be for its gifts.  While I was not at home, last night was an unforgettable birthday celebration for my home.  Being alive and young and free is worth celebrating.  Having a home that allows us to be who we are, fights for us to be safe, protects our right to be happy–these are things worthy of our gratitude.  Voices raising in the darkness, singing through the night about a country that, for better or worse, we love?  That’s what the Fourth of July is all about.

“America!  America!/ God shed His grace on thee/ And crown thy good with brotherhood/ From sea to shining sea!” –Katharine Lee Bates, “America the Beautiful”

A Toy’s Story

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“We’ve done our duty.  Andy’s grown up.” –Army Man, Toy Story 3

Last week I went and watched the newest (final?) installment of the Toy Story world.  I knew going into the film that it was an emotional story for me.  Andy, like any real boy, grows up and leaves home.  He heads off to college and leaves behind the toys that defined him, the story of his childhood.  I looked back through photos that I took of my room before I cleaned it out after graduation.  I looked at my collections, my awards and pictures that plastered the walls.  My dolls, my toys, my books and movies–it was the product of fourteen years of life.  I decorated rooms in college and now have my own apartment, but nothing has ever been as truly, deeply, boldly me as that room I grew up in. 

I was choked up within a matter of minutes watching that movie.  It pulled at  my heart throughout the story.  I later read a “confession” in Entertainment Weekly by a man who had seen the film.  It was about his own emotional outburst, and those that men confessed to him they cried while watching it.  Something about the movie is so painful, so beautiful, so personal to adults.  Yes, there are moments that children are enjoying, but Pixar knew that they were targeting every person who had ever packed up toys, ever decided to grow up, ever had to become an adult.  It asks the question of what a toy really is.  Is it something that you enjoy and then put away until it’s needed again?  Does it wait for the next generation to find joy in it?  Or is it never really happy unless it’s being loved and played with  by a child?

I know that all of this is silly to question, because toys are pieces of wood and cloth and plastic.  They do not feel or think.  They just are.  But this is the whole magic of the movies.  Everyone who has ever carried a toy everywhere, who has had ongoing games and stories they imagine, knows that a toy is much more than what it’s composed of.  I think of my Polly Pockets (the real ones, the tiny ones I couldn’t play with if my brother was awake) and Barbies and Precious Places and American Girl dolls all packed away.  The Littlest Pet Shop (again, the real ones, not the creepy new generation) and Beanie Babies and Legos that fill buckets in the garage make me feel guilty.  Should we give them away?  Should they be somewhere where children will love them as much as we did?  Is it selfish to keep them for the children I want someday?  Is a toy something that we can rightfully hold onto?  The army men left because their job was done: they saw Andy through his childhood.  After that, they had no more use.  Is there truth in this?  Or do we really never outgrow our need for the toys that accompanied us through the years?

“‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’

“‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'”  –Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

I grew up in America.  I had parents who loved me and my brothers, who provided for us and wanted to make us happy, give us a childhood of joy.  Part of this meant that we never wanted for much.  We had clean clothes, plenty of food, shelter and attention.  And we had toys.  We had too many toys.  Many of them I would never recognize if I saw them in a thrift store, but there are many others who I can feel in my hands, who I can smell and hear and never forget.  I remember the cardboard Grocery Store my parents assembled for me.  They painstakingly kept boxes from food and resealed them so I had REAL food for the shelves.  I can remember the way my mom’s doll house she handed down to me smelled, even after I started using it more to throw clothes on top of than to play with.  I can hear the swish of the water and plastic that swirled in my little pot, made to look like soup cooking.  Nothing on earth sounds like the clatter of hundreds of Legos falling out onto the floor. 

We were raised to appreciate our toys.  We were relatively good to them.  We didn’t draw on them or leave them outside.  We loved our toys.  My brothers both had a propensity for choosing the ugliest, hardest, sharpest toys to take to bed with them every night.  We kept the accessories and pieces and took care of what we loved.  My dolls all had names.  My mom made beds with blankets and mattresses for them. 

“‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?'”

Another part of Toy Story’s universality is the tragedy of it.  Again, the unnecessary guilt sets in.  We all have favorite toys.  We would be excited by new ones, revel in the adventure of playing new games, but they would mostly fall by the wayside.  I feel sad for those toys, who were wonderful and gifts and special, but not special enough.  They were fun, but not lasting.  There were so many that eventually broke, or were lost, or handed down to other children.  As irrationally sorry as I feel for these toys, I feel an awe for the ones that stayed around.  When my grandma continues to give my little brother Legos for Christmas, a little part of me stings with jealousy.  Where’s my new doll dress?  Don’t I get a new stuffed animal?  There’s a piece of me that wants to know that others recognize that child that’s still inside me, that I still love my toys, that I’m not the only one who has no idea when I got old enough to live on my own or hold a job or make restaurant reservations.

“‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.'”

On my bed right now, next to my pillow, is the Pound Puppy I got for my fourth birthday.  She is now old enough to buy alcohol.  She has been everywhere with me.  She has gone to the hospital with me when I was scared.  She left for school with me when I was terrified.  She has been dragged all over our home, shoved in suitcases, gone on sleepovers, and seen two decades of my life come and go.  When I read this passage from The Velveteen Rabbit my throat tightened.  My dad told me that the last time he saw Nicky he got choked up.  She doesn’t look like she did coming out of that box.  She looks old.  She has almost no fur left, few of the strings that separate her “toes” and much of the paint on her big eyes is scratched.  Her nose and bow are faded.  She is dirty and stained, looking more like she’s gray on accident.  She has soaked up tears and secrets.  She has no stuffing left in her neck, the perfect place for a child to carry a toy.  She is soft and floppy in all the right places for her to fold in half and fit perfectly in the crook of my arm as I sleep.

“‘I suppose you are real?’ said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.”

I know one day Nicky will have to go away.  My parents have talked about having her cleaned and preserved, like they would in a museum.  One day I will have someone else to occupy my bed, and her place will be taken.  One day she will simply not be able to withstand the demands a girl puts on her.  I dread that day and prefer to think that if she’s made it this far, she’ll make it forever.  At a time when my family is far away, she is closer than anyone else.  When I’m alone and realizing that friends are not as true as I thought, she is steadfast.  When I feel like things are out of control and chaotic, she brings me back to the simple.  When all the fears and anxieties and dreams and wishes that I build up in my head get too big, she can bring me back to the small, to the little me that made her leashes and buried my face in her tummy.  She is more real than almost anything in my life, more than cloth and stuffing and thread.

‘The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,’ he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.'”

Lasting Impressions

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“Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.”  –Oliver Wendell Holmes

One afternoon, in Junior High, I sat on my best friend’s driveway with her.  We sat on the warm cement talking about boys and music and whatever else was important to our barely-formed selves.  We watched cars drive past and her cat at it pounced around the yard.  Slowly and softly, rain began to sprinkle down on us.  We laid down, sprawled on the gray slab, side by side.  We lay still and talked, letting the rain fall steadier and harder on us.  The ground warmed us for a while, until we steadily grew colder and damper.  We ignored her mother’s requests to come inside and stayed still.  We let the driveway grow wet, dark, shiny around us.  When we finally gave in and fled the chill, we stood up to examine our handiwork: two pale bodies, laying side by side, silhouetted by the rain.  We watched drops splotch over our images which eventually disappeared completely into the wetness.

Tonight I drove home with my window down, taking in the smell that can never be fully captured.  When I ran home at lunch today, my car was hot and stuffy, barely bearable even with the air conditioner blowing.  By the time I left, gray had covered the city and darkness had fallen early.  As sprinkles hit my windshield, I could smell it beginning.  I opened the window and reveled in the memories and peace of the beginning of rain. 

Nothing on earth smells as good, smells as safe, smells as comforting as rain on a warm sidewalk.  I inhaled so deeply that my lungs could have burst through my ribs.  I could not breathe in enough of the smell, could not possibly take in enough of the air around me.  It is warm and sweet, clean and alive.  I remember the smell drifting through the screen door of my childhood home, hearing the rain begin to lightly hit the fiberglass roof over our patio.  I am suddenly sitting in our living room, in front of the big window, watching the world be bathed.  I remember sitting outside at lunch in high school, sitting inside for lunch in elementary school.  I am back on that warm driveway, sharing life with my best friend.  The smell is safety.  I feel at home, draped in a blanket of memories, warmed by a simpler time.

Our outlines did not last.  They were quickly blurred and disappeared.  The smell of rain drifts away as the clouds continue to drop, lasting only long enough to be missed.  The moments, the smell, are fleeting.  The memories are indelible. 

“Let the rain kiss you.  Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.  Let the rain sing you a lullaby.”  –Langston Hughes