Category Archives: My mother

American Thanksgiving . . . meh

Me with my daughter Sabrina and my grandparents at a long ago Thanksgiving

Me dandling daughter Sabrina with my grandparents at a long ago Thanksgiving

I’ve never been keen on American Thanksgiving. In the first place, it’s way too close to Christmas. The memory of my grossly distended belly and the self-loathing that invariably attends that phenomenon have scarcely begun to fade before there it is again: The Holiday Meal, in the case of my family, the exact same meal we ate a month earlier, including the dressing which we always had to call rice because my brother Peter refused, for some reason, to eat anything called dressing.

Then there’s the 2 p.m. timing of the meal. It’s Thanksgiving dinner, for God’s sake, not Thanksgiving lunch!   If Thanksgiving dinner happened at a decent hour – any time after 6 p.m., for example – the torment of having to remain awake while cruelly stuffed might be mitigated by an early bedtime. But, no. This insistence on an “early dinner” blows a black hole in the middle of your day — everything is sucked into it; nothing can escape its relentless gravitational pull, and you are left to lie there, beached and disconsolate, a helpless, unwitting witness to the televised spectacle of giant men in tight pants sustaining the kind of traumatic brain injuries that lead to dementia, debilitating neurological diseases and suicide. By which I mean football.

Great Dane Lovey admires the turkey

Great Dane Lovey scrutinizes the turkey

My family is surprisingly functional – which is not to say that we don’t have our fair share of little traumas, pretty much all of which can be characterized, as per my daughter Alice, as, “first world problems”. However, not even we were not immune to the kind of dysfunction that seems to go along with quivering tubes of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie that looks like baby pooh. Case in point: one Thanksgiving when we were children, my mother, frustrated at my brother who was being all winge-y, shook him. Now my parents were not into corporeal punishment; Mom far preferred a good shaming larded with barely veiled threats that she was on the verge of disowning us, as conveyed by such statements as, “No child of mine would ever do (that thing you just did).” All this to say that Mom probably didn’t shake Peter very hard, but, on that one occasion, shake him she did, and, every year thereafter, Peter would kick off Thanksgiving dinner by dolefully recollecting, “And then there was that Thanksgiving Mom shook me. . . ,” sending the poor woman into fresh paroxysms of guilt.

Sometimes we had Thanksgiving Dinner at my paternal grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. My Aunt Elaine and Uncle Clyde would come down from Winston-Salem and Aunt Elaine, who was something of a gourmet cook at a time when that was regarded with some suspicion in the South, would bring along a little something for the family to savor. One year she presented the assembled, bleary crew with tomato aspic, confounding us all. “What is this?” “Do you eat it?”   This reminds me of a conversation we had with my husband’s Auntie Gloria in which she described the eating habits of her daughter-in-law. “She eats strange things,” Gloria confided in us. “Like vegetables.”

Between her alcoholism and her morphine addiction, my grandmother had succeeded in pickling herself by the time my memories of her congealed into some kind of coherence. Noni contributed but one dish to the Thanksgiving feast – her signature dish, a sweet potato,marshmallow casserole awash in a sea of bourbon. At fifteen minute intervals throughout the dinner preparations, Noni would lurch to her feet, weave her way to the kitchen, baste the sweet potatoes, baste herself and return to the living room to stew in her own juice.

My father carves as my mother looks on

My father carves as my mother smiles for the camera

In the meanwhile my grandfather, by dint of steady  drinking, would wax from sentimental to downright maudlin before deciding to check on the mail.  I would accompany him to the mailbox at the end of the long driveway, both of us knowing full well that there was no mail on Thanksgiving but that we needed the air.

So, all in all, I’m thankful for Canadian Thanksgiving, which takes place in the second week of October.  Canadian Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest rather than that time before we exterminated them that Native Americans saved our bacon.  It doesn’t result in a four-day holiday and, therefore, a loyalty test wherein persons are forced to travel vast distances in inclement weather to prove that they love their families of origin. And finally, being on a Monday, Canadian Thanksgiving isn’t followed by Black Friday, about which don’t get me started.  And then there’s the fact that my ex chose Canadian Thanksgiving 1989 to come out of the closet — scarcely festive at the time, but, in the great scheme of things, something for which I am truly grateful.

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Enjoying ill health

Me, Mom and Peter

Me, Mom and Peter

My mother took a dim view of people who, in her words, “enjoyed ill health,” which meant that, any time I sought to be absent from school due to illness, she would ask me two questions:

1) “Do you have a fever?”

2) “Are you projectile vomiting?”

If the answer to both these two questions was, “No,” then, as far as my mother was concerned, I was good to go. For some reason diarrhea did not make the cut of maladies deemed note-worthy, presumably because diarrhea, though loathsome, tends to take place in bathrooms, whereas vomiting is more likely to be spontaneous, resulting in messes mothers would be expected to clean up.  (When it came to vomit, Mom greatly preferred dogs to children, since dogs, given a sufficient interlude, are inclined to return to their vomit, with generally happy results.)

Aspermont StarThe No Fever/No Vomit/No Note rule did not apply to my brother Peter, whom my mother deemed ‘puny,’ by which she meant not ‘small’ so much as ‘sickly.’ You will not find this meaning of the word ‘puny’ in your dictionary; I checked. It appears to derive entirely from The Puny List, which appeared in the weekly newspaper of Aspermont, the widening in the road with a post office that was my grandfather Zant’s West Texas hometown. This column assiduously listed all those people in the newspaper’s catchment area who were “feeling puny,” i.e., suffering from maladies ranging from mysterious female trouble to shingles, whose put-upon families might benefit from the quiet conveyance of a covered dish or pie.  Because Peter was disposed to chronic respiratory infections, he was “puny.” As was established in my last blog post – Pretty Feet — I was “chunky,”and thereby better evolutionarily equipped to fend off germs.

I did not get sick often but, when I did, I made sure to pull out all the stops, for example, when I managed to extend a bout of the three day measles into two weeks by cunningly getting them not on the outside of my body, but on the lining of my stomach. My piece de resistance, however, my crowning triumph, was the contraction, at age 30, of Guillain-Barré Syndrome – a catastrophic disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system, resulting, in extreme cases, in complete paralysis.  Mine was an extreme case:  at its nadir, I could blink and that was about it. I may not have had a fever and I certainly was not vomiting, but, boy, was I sick. I did recover, except for the occasional tick, twitch and tremor, but only after a lengthy stint in the ICU, followed by weeks on the Neurological Ward, followed by a month in Rehab where I had to learn to walk again.  It’s like I always say: go big or go home.

The only photo you'll ever see of me in short shorts.  Post GBS I weighed in at 99 pounds.  Me and daughter Sabrina enjoying one of the only guilt free ice cream treats of our lives.

The only photo you’ll ever see of me in short shorts. Post GBS I weighed in at 99 pounds.  Here my daughter Sabrina and I enjoy one of the only guilt free ice cream treats of our lives.

As I have with so much else that was my mother’s, I have internalized her suspicion that, when I claim to be sick, I am, in fact, malingering.  Unless I am running a fever or vomiting (or, post GBS, paralyzed), I find it exceedingly hard to tell whether I am actually sick or just trying to put one over on myself. This leads to me soldiering on in ways that are inimical to public health and probably, on occasion, detrimental to my own.  My yoga teachers are always exhorting me to listen to my body, but I find it very difficult to hear the poor old thing over the accusatory remonstrations of my super ego.  Because I know deep down, just as Mom always did, that I am a shirker by disposition, that I will go to great lengths to get out of practically everything, and that, when it comes right down to it, there’s every chance that I’m just faking it.

For  The Puny Column, a short story based on the Puny List,  click here.  It appeared in the journal Exile, 27, 1 in 2003.

Halloween

wizard hatWhen I was a kid, Halloween ranked right up there with Christmas as the best holiday ever. You got to dress up in costumes and, along with others of your tribe, wander around in the dark with paper bags or – for the more ambitious – pillowcases, soliciting candy from oddly complacent grown ups. Second to the candy, it was the being out at night, with no pesky adults riding herd over you, that was the most compelling thing about Halloween. It felt dangerous — like freedom. All too soon, I knew, my mother would confiscate my loot and, from then on, it would be her doling out the candy, lest I spontaneously combust, leaving in my wake a little heap of refined sugar. But so long as I was out on the town and footloose, it was Candy Land. And I loved candy.

My mother was a fine seamstress and an actress; you would have thought my brother Peter and my costumes would have been spectacular. But, just as I, a competent seamstress, loathe hemming or mending things for other people (boring!), so my mother wasn’t overly keen on constructing elaborate Halloween costumes. Left over from some random children’s theatre production was a wizard’s black peaked hat, appliqued with silver stars and crescent moons, and a cocker spaniel costume – basically a black skullcap held in place by a chin strap to which  floppy ears made of Persian wool were appended. The origins of the cocker spaniel costume were obscure. We had a black cocker spaniel– Ughy – the costume was black and Mother had at some point and for some reason sewn it … from which I can only deduce that the costume referred to the dog. Beyond that, I cannot say.

The upshot of all this was that one year I was a wizard and Peter was a cocker spaniel and the next year Peter was a wizard and I was a cocker spaniel. We didn’t seem to invest in our costumes as much as children do today; it was not important to my sense of self-worth that I be the right kind of fairy princess or to Peter’s that he be his favorite super hero. Really, when it came right down to it, it was all about the candy.

When my daughter Sabrina was born, I decided that, unlike my mother, I was going to go the extra mile when it came to Halloween costumes. Accordingly, by the time she was two and ambulant, I was in full Halloween mode. In September I took her to a fabric store and showed her patterns for Halloween costumes.

Sabrina as  a very sick Kermit the Frog

Sabrina as a very sick Kermit the Frog

“What do you want to be?” I asked.

“Kermit the Frog,” she replied.

Now, let me tell you, I have sewn some pretty complicated things in my life, but nothing . . . NOTHING . . . as hard as that damn Kermit the Frog costume. Good Lord! The huge stuffed head alone took me weeks to construct.

Then, on Halloween Day, Sabrina got the flu.

 I made her go out anyway.

Well, to one or two houses until, shamed by her plaintive whimpers, I packed the poor thing up, took her home and put her to bed. That’s when I decided that my mother was right and it was not a great idea for mothers to get too invested in their kid’s Halloween costumes.  Also it meant that I would never again have to construct a stuffed head. From that point on, my kids were on their own when it came to Halloween, which meant they were ghosts or hobos (a quaint notion in today’s world) or something that required a great deal of time for them to explain to those grown ups who leaned in and gamely asked, “And what might you be?”

faunLately photos of people in their Halloween costumes have been appearing on Facebook; it happens every year. My husband believes that this constitutes a trend, that, in time,  instead of Halloween parties, people will just post selfies of themselves in a costume and sit at home in the dark, eating the candy they pretended to buy for Trick or Treaters while watching videos of adorably costumed cats and dogs on YouTube. Virtual Halloween, if you will.

As for me, I’m not a big fan of dressing up. In the first place, I no longer rock a sexy nurse costume. In the second place, costumes can have consequences. The last time I donned a costume for Halloween was  in 1976 — my first date with my ex. I wore a blue velvet 1930’s style gown and purported myself to be “Blue Roses” from Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie (admittedly, it was a stretch). My ex, on the other hand, came exquisitely decked out as a faun in a costume he had himself created.

I don’t know what I was thinking, but I can tell you one thing. It sure wasn’t straight.

My mother. The conversation continues.

Mom's last head shot. She was beautiful at every age.Five years ago today (October 14, 2009), I wrote the following post.  It’s as true today as it was then … perhaps even more so.  As my dear friend Catherine Leggett observed,  “Death doesn’t end a relationship. The conservation continues; it’s just that it’s a little one sided.”  Every day I look into the mirror and my mother looks back and there’s not a day that goes by that I am not in constant touch with the woman who was . . . is my touchstone.

Martha Nell Hardy

Four years ago today my spectacular mother, Martha Nell Hardy, died. I was with her when she passed away, for which I am profoundly grateful. She was unconscious; she had been for several days. Perhaps she didn’t know I was there. I hope she did, but I can’t be sure.

Mom and the second dog my Dad gave her, Ughy

Mom and the second dog my Dad gave her, Ughy

We are not a religious family and I have come full circle from ridiculous Roman Catholic convert steeped in studies of doctrinal development (my graduate school experience) to avowed and crusty pantheist, by which I mean that I revere creation, but do not put any credence whatsoever in the existence of some single entity that invented and now micromanages the universe according to some cosmic game plan. Sorry, guys, but no. So I don’t think she has gone to Heaven. I think she has gone to me. She probably has gone to other people as well, undoubtedly my brother Peter, but I can’t speak of their experience. I can only speak of mine.

In the years following her death, I have become more and more like her. I especially notice this with my children, with whom I increasingly interact in much the same way she did. And I am grateful for this, because I think I wasn’t a very good mother before, so maybe she’s helped me make up for some of the bad years.

Then there’s knitting. I’ve always knitted, but now I knit maniacally. And the way I’m going, I might even challenge her record for dying with the most yarn and, let me tell you, hers was an AWESOME record.

I’ve also taken the torch from her as regards politics. She read several papers daily, listened to liberal commentators on TV and ranted with a vehemence and clarity that I now see in myself. As readers will know from previous blogs, I listen to political podcasts all day long and am more than willing to speak my mind, loudly, and for a very long time, indeed, perhaps ad nauseum — you be the judge. Had she lived, I would have gotten her hooked on podcasts, which she would have enjoyed more than newspapers because she could knit and inform her opinions at the same time.

Some might say that it was inevitable that I become like my mother over time, not some voodoo mystery transformational experience wherein her spirit, upon leaving her body, flowed into mine. She was, after all, my mother and provided me with both nurture and nature. But no. I think her spirit, upon leaving her body, did flow into mine, for which I am very, very grateful. It means I don’t have to miss her so much, because, guess what? She’s right here. And because I loved her so much, it means I like me more.

Mom, I love you. Thank you for being my mother.

Mom in Light up the Sky ... which she did.

Mom in a production of Light up the Sky in the sixties.

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“Little ****”

Touli

Touli

When Tenney, the second of my parents’ two Great Danes, bought the farm, my parents decided that it would be best, given their advanced age, to go with a more compact version of The Family Dog. Accordingly, they reverted back to their first choice of dog breed  and saddled themselves with the worst dog ever – a black cocker spaniel named Skatoula, Touli for short. They had just returned from Greece and “Skatoula,”my father was fond of telling people, is the Greek word for “Little Shit.” Which about sums Touli up.

Maybe because my parents were old and didn’t move around much, Touli got it into his head that people should just stay where they were. If anyone stood up and headed, say, for the bathroom, Touli would lunge for his or her ankles, snarling and snapping. And he meant business; my parents were forever nursing some Touli-related injury that inevitably became infected thanks to the apparently toxic nature of his drool. My grand dog Albert gets anxious if anyone strays from the pack and Harry, our old collie, was forever herding the children, but corgis and collies are herders; that’s their job. Cocker spaniels are gun dogs and soft-mouthed retrievers; Touli had no business herding people and he knew it. For him it wasn’t about the flock; it was about the power.

Cerebrus

Cerebrus

When it comes to clothes, my husband eschews flamboyance. The only thing that trumps his aversion to standing out sartorially is family feeling. That is why he one day donned a pair of fluorescent lime green swimming trunks in preparation for a dip in the pool – his sisters had given them to him as a birthday present. This was when we discovered that Touli was an undercover officer in the Fashion Police. He took one look at Ken’s trunks and his head exploded. It was like a horror movie. Before our eyes Touli metamorphosed into the Cerberus of classical mythology, the multi-headed dog who guards the entrance of the underworld to prevent the dead from escaping and the living from entering. The only way to appease the hell hound he had turned into was for Ken to retreat to the bedroom and replace the green trunks with a more subdued pair. Only then was he allowed to pass. (Touli later had the same reaction to a set of golf clubs. Which I sort of understand.)

 

In order to procure treats, Touli would snatch a high value target – Mom’s glasses, the remote, and, on three separate occasions, one of my father’s hearing aids — and dive under the bed with it. Any attempt to regain the purloined object manually would result in savaged fingers and yet another suppurating wound for my parents. Instead, they would raid the supply of dog biscuits and cry, “Meat cookie! Meat cookie!” until Touli would slink out from under the bed, grr-ing, and a grim exchange of prisoners would take place. Two of Dad’s hearing aids did not survive the ordeal and had to replaced at great expense.

During meals, Touli would stand beside my mother’s chair and bark at her. He would pause in his barking every few minutes to give her a little nip – this by way of impressing upon her the fact that she’d better feed him or else. He did this all meal long, without interruption. (In our house dogs do not do this. Our first golden, Buddy, would sit silently by as we ate, looking stricken and drooling, but never making so much as a peep. As for Nellie, she’s proactive without being too pushy. First she steals the napkin from my lap exactly twice, then she lies down directly on my feet, just to remind me that she is there and would like to be considered for the prized gig of pre-rinse cycle.) One night my husband had finally had enough of trying to talk over Touli’s incessant, insistent barking. He seized his muzzle, looked him straight in the eye and shouted, “SHUT UP!” Touli stared at him, incredulous. Clearly no one had ever yelled at him before. His mouth opened and closed as if to bark; no sound emerged. I don’t know who was more shocked – the dog or my parents. “Your Mom and Dad looked at me,” Ken remembers, “and I realized I’d crossed a red line.”

My brother Peter once saw a different side of Touli – desolation in a dog suit. “Mom and Dad had gone out and there was just me at home,” he told me. “Touli sat by the window and howled. Then he collapsed on the door sill and lay there in a heap, looking completely abject, as though he couldn’t believe they had left him and he had no idea how he was going to cope going forward.” Peter then keeled over on the couch and lay there on his side in imitation of Touli, whimpering softly and shivering, looking frightened and pathetic.

Mom made me promise to take Touli if anything happened to her and Dad. I reluctantly agreed. Fortunately, that day never came. Touli contracted a rare canine virus at the young age of seven and slipped away in a matter of a couple of days – days over the course of which my parents forked out over $3,000 in an attempt to save his miserable ass.

Big Mac

Big Mac

Touli had one trick. “Find Big Mac,” Dad would say and Touli, charged with purpose, would bustle off, returning some time later  with a squeaky rubber hamburger. My parents saw this as a sign of Touli’s intelligence. I didn’t have the heart to point out that there are border collies who can recognize and retrieve hundreds of different objects – one famous one can identify over a thousand. When we were packing up Dad’s apartment, I found Big Mac and gave it to Nellie. She played with it for a while, then ate it, squeaker and all.

And that was that.

Ughy — My Ur Dog

Dad with me, Peter and Ughy.

Dad with me, Peter and Ughy.

My father courted my mother with puppies.  The first was a mixed breed called Pot, who was summarily run over. The second was a black cocker spaniel  named Ughy.  Ughy arrived on the scene four years before I was born, at a time when Mom and Dad were both married to other people, but clearly gearing up to bolt – you don’t give just anybody a puppy, not in my family. And Dad gave Mom two.

My mother’s childhood dog  was Poochie, a terrier who spent his dogs days asleep in the sunny middle of the street in front of their house in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  Unlike Pot, Poochie died in the fullness of time and of natural causes — for the dozen or so years he was on this Earth cars just edged around him.  If this seems extraordinary, consider this: my grandmother never learned how to back up a car.   She didn’t need to.  She only went two places — her beauty salon and  the grocery store — and both her hairdresser and the boy who bagged her groceries were more than happy to turn the car around for her so that she could drive herself back home.  That’s the kind of town Stillwater, Oklahoma was — women could drive cars in one direction and dogs could sleep undisturbed in the middle of its streets.  Of course, if you were a black man and dusk was approaching, you would have been wise not to count on the same degree of insouciance.   We’re talking Oklahoma here and some things don’t  change.

People assign names to dogs; their dog names emerge with time.  Thus Bill’s Fancy became Mary Frances; Luv (allegedly Danish for Lion) became Lovey;  Tennessee’s Waltz became Tenney, which also happened to be the name of the circle we lived on. Ughy’s given name was, improbably,  Lord Ogilthorpe, thence Oggie, thence Ughy, a.k.a, Boodle Dog.  My Grandfather Zant always called him, “Black Dog.”  “Hi, Black Dog,” he would say.  “Come here, Black Dog.” Ughy adored Grandaddy, perhaps because Grandaddy recognized his true essence.  He was, after all, a black dog.

Ughy watching over my bassinet . . . or was he?

Ughy watching over my bassinet . . . or was he?

My mother told the story of how Ughy would drop his toys into my bassinet. She maintained that this indicated a desire on his part to share his toys with me.  I think it’s more likely that he was actually trying to take me out from the air. Then again, he used to bring Mom mice that he had killed and how can that be interpreted other than as an act of largesse?  In his seventeen years, Ughy only bit me once and that was because I stuck my face in his food dish.  I would do the same to anybody who stuck their face in my food dish.  Consider that fair warning.

Growing up, I was convinced that Ughy could talk; I figured he was just holding out.  On weekends, my father would take me and Ughy along on various errands and, while he was in the Hostess Outlet Store or at the roadside corn stand, I would edge closer to Ughy and whisper in his silky ear, “It’s all right.  He’s gone.  You can talk now.”  That’s when parents left kids in the car and no one thought a thing of it.

Golden Retriever with false teeth.  You get the idea.

Golden Retriever with party teeth. You get the idea.

Ughy had two tricks.  He could sit up on his hind legs for hours  while wearing one of my Dad’s white t-shirts, and he would happily circulate amongst party guests, gag teeth clamped  between his jaws, for so long as people applauded. He taught himself those tricks in his spare time, which was copious.

Ughy buried bones in the carpet.  He would dig and dig and dig, creating no hole whatsoever, then deposit the bone in the no hole  he had dug.  There it would remain until someone glanced over at it, at which point he would promptly dig it up from the no hole and bury it in plain sight somewhere else.  Once a kid on our block dared to call Ughy fat and I beat him up.  He was the only person I have ever beaten up and I never felt a shred of guilt about it. Call my dog fat: you’ve crossed a red line.

Ughy was my first dog –  the original dog; the archetypal dog; the Ur dog.The worst thing I could imagine, apart from the death of my mother or father, was Ughy’s demise.  I would lie in bed at night and try and imagine what a world without Ughy would be like.  But then I’d have to stop myself; his loss was too painful even to contemplate.

The last year of his long life, blinded by milky cataracts and wracked by cancer, Ughy was falling apart the way old dogs do: at the seams. During that sad period Dad carried him tenderly up and down the stairs as required.  My husband and I can relate. For the better part of three years we hefted our aged and enormous Golden Retriever up and downstairs, hoisting him into cars and airlifting him onto beds. Recently a fit-enough looking neighbour  told us he had been forced to put his Springer Spaniel down because she could no longer climb stairs.  As soon as he was out of earshot, my husband and I looked at one another, aghast.    “He couldn’t carry a Springer Spaniel up and down stairs?” we asked.

Ughy contemplates his Christmas stocking

Ughy contemplates his Christmas stocking

Every night Dad fed Ughy his green cancer pain pills, stroking  his throat to make him swallow, as he sang:

“Green pills, they taste so good/

when doggies eat them like they should./

Green pills, they taste so nice./

They taste like they’re made out of sugar and spice.”

He sang this to the tune of Green Sleeves.

Then one day it happened — Ughy was gone.  A chasm opened up in the earth and in we fell, only to struggle out, not twenty-four hours later, with the parti-coloured ball of fur and bad news who would become Crocapuppy – the infamous Frances of the Socks.  If Ughy was a true gentleman — and he was — Frances was bitch incarnate.  Life goes on and new dogs come on stream — one after another. And then they die, and you feel like you’re going to die, and then you don’t.

. . .

And then you do.

A sense of foreboding

The Last Resort

The Last Resort

The day I helped move my then 78 year old mother and 82 year old father into The Cedars of Chapel Hill (or, as my father calls it, ‘The Last Resort’), Mother advanced grimly into the elevator brandishing a large kitchen knife  capable of wreaking considerable mayhem on vegetables and meat alike.  It was, as she was careful to point out, extremely sharp. I’m not sure why she felt she had to personally convey it to her new home.  Maybe she didn’t trust the moving company to pack it correctly.  Maybe she wanted an assurance she’d be able to make a break for it.

The facility was new and all around us milled future neighbours, also moving in, although not, it would appear, so heavily armed as my mother.  These were not the young old you see in ads for golf resorts or Grey Power. These were the old old, the target market for walk-in tubs, stair lifts and catheters – people wasting away, all right, but definitely not in Margaritaville. Not anymore.   We were joined on the elevator by an elderly man with a black eye.  We eyed the eye.  He eyed the knife. No one spoke.  “What happened to him?” my mother asked, when we were safely off the elevator.   Then she shook her head. “They’re all so old!”

I did not personally feel old until we moved into this house three years ago.  In part that was because my husband and I stayed in our “starter home” for almost twenty years.   In that house’s mirrors I looked more or less the age I had been when we moved in; this house’s mirrors told a different tale.   “Hello!” they said.  “You’re sixty years old!  What’d you mean, you hadn’t noticed?”

This realization was corroborated by the fact that people I knew started to die. People my age.   It began with a passing acquaintance from junior high. He started to leak Tea Party sentiments onto Facebook. Deciding he was off The Team, I swooped in to defriend him, only to encounter the following posting:

“Hello, Dad’s Facebook Friends, this is Jennifer, Danny’s daughter.  Dad died suddenly last night and I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next few days.  He was my best friend and I already miss him SOOOOOO MUCH!!!”

If I were a religious person, I might have felt guilty, as though I were in some obscure way responsible for Danny’s demise.  Or perhaps  I would have felt all powerful, as if all I needed to do was think about defriending somebody, and poof!   Or maybe I would have felt vindicated, as in, “God clearly agrees with me that Danny was a horse’s ass and so He offed him!”

But I am not religious, so the whole incident just creeped me out.    I did end up defriending Danny.  It’s the only way to exorcise ghosts on Facebook.   However, his death turned out not to be an isolated case. He was followed in short order by another, dearer friend and then another.  Then a friend our junior by more than a decade had the temerity to die!  Thanks a lot, guy! (You know who you are.)

Both my husband and I began to feel what we describe as “a sense of foreboding.”  We wake in the morning and lie there for a few minutes, deep in dogs and feeling the foreboding settle on us life a suffocating blanket, a miasmal fog.  Am I going to die today?  I wonder.  Is he going to die? Will it be a heart attack?  Maybe an aneurism?  Will my upcoming physical result in a fatal diagnosis?  What about a car crash that leaves one of us paralyzed?  When will we be forced to leave this house that we love? How many years do we have left?  Is it years or is it months?

After my parents moved into the Cedars, the man on the elevator became my parents’ good friend.  Sam owned Kentucky racehorses and was married to a lively Holocaust survivor.  One day I was sitting on my parents’ balcony, looking out over the gardens when I saw Sam collapse in the roadway.  I jumped up in alarm and called out to my mother, “Sam’s fallen!”  White uniformed staff materialized as if by magic from behind the bushes and collected Sam, helping him to his feet and brushing him off.  Unfazed, my mother glanced down at the unfolding scene.   “He falls a lot,” she said.

Which explains the black eye.

Dad and his dog Poppet

Dad and his dog Poppet

Sam is gone now and so is Mom.  Then there’s my Dad,  ninety two this March, waiting out his days in Death’s antechamber like an old dog in the sun, biding the time that remains to him with remarkable equanimity and grace.  I sometimes try and imagine what his sense of foreboding must be, how it must feel to be him, to wake up every morning to find oneself, against all odds, alive.  I bet it trumps ours.

I have three looks: gussied up, not gussied up and OMG.  My friend Catharine says that I should include ‘Gone to the dogs’ but I argue that that’s just a subset of OMG.  I used to have many looks: most of them pleasing.  .  . .  But now I have only the three.

The Ladies of the Book Club c. 1987. Left, Linda Nicholas, Back, Mary Malone, Bottom, Nancy Bjerring and Right, me

The Ladies of the Book Club c. 1987. Left, Linda Nicholas, Back, Mary Malone, Bottom, Nancy Bjerring and Right, me

My brother Peter once exclaimed at how my mother and I could go from plain to pretty in a matter of minutes with a little judicious hair and makeup.  For years the women in my now nearly thirty-year old book club were able to “come up well” . . . until we couldn’t.  We had a group photo done of us in those glory days.  We have not repeated the exercise.  Before and after. You don’t want to go there.

An old family friend used to say of women wearing housecoats and curlers in public, “It’s all right to look like that, but do you have to come out of the house?”  Every night I don a denim bag I brought used off of eBay, put my hair in pink foam rollers and my feet in Wellies and take the dogs out for their last pee, praying that we don’t run into anymore.   If I do not curl my hair, I look like a woman who kidnaps children from shopping malls.   No, really.  And blow drying isn’t an option.  I can’t bear to look at myself in the mirror long enough to successfully pull it off.

At CREA PAC c.1993

At CREA PAC c.1993

Last year at the Canadian Real Estate Association’s Political Action Day in Ottawa I opened up a new publication outlining CREA’s lobbying successes over the years.  There was a candid black and white photo of me taken twenty two years ago.  I went around the conference showing everybody the photo and saying, “See! This was me!”  To my alarm and distress, most people looked incredulous and asked, “Really?” or, “Wow! You’re kidding!”  Needless to say, a downward spiral quickly ensued. I knew it was pathetic to persist in my quest to find somebody, anybody who would respond to my showing them the ancient photo by saying, “You haven’t changed a bit,” but, alas, I could not help myself.

Right now I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and watching Ken Burns’ Civil War for the third time, trying to wrap my mind around what tore my native country asunder during that conflict.  This is my idea of a good time.  I am a history nerd, a political junkie and a tree hugging, left leaning radical Obamist.  Documentaries are my guilty pleasure, a pleasure in which I indulge perhaps to excess.  I subscribe to serious podcasts and listen to them religiously.  I sit on the Steering Committee for the London Homeless Coalition, for Pete’s sake.  From all of which you might deduce that I am a fairly serious person, but you would be wrong.  You would be wrong because, at the age of 61, I’m still expending blood and treasure – that is to say, my dwindling stock of time – on pretty.

Ruth Skinner Zant. OK, but she didn't last.

Ruth Skinner Zant. OK, but she didn’t last.

Once, while visiting my then ninety-five year old grandfather, I gestured to a photo of my grandmother taken in her early twenties; she had predeceased him by a dozen years.  “Grandmother was awfully pretty,” I said to spark a lagging conversation.  To which Granddaddy replied, “She was OK, but she didn’t last.”

I guess none of us do.

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.  And then they didn’t.

Bare ruined choirs

Grounded!

Pilot Mountain in North Carolina

Pilot Mountain in North Carolina

I have a hallux abducto valgus deformity – in laymen’s terms, a bunion, and, no, it’s not because I wore pointy-toed shoes when I was young and am now reaping the utterly predictable and deserved whirlwind of my overweening vanity.    Bad feet run in my family. My father gave me many wonderful gifts; his feet were not among them.  The deformation happened overnight. Literally. One night, my right big toe seized with a spasm registering around a 9.5 on the Richter scale of toe woes and the next morning I woke up with a bony protuberance reminiscent of Pilot Mountain hanging off the left side of my right foot.  We refer to it as ‘my knob.’

My father has a bunion on both feet set off by a matching pair of hammer toes.  His feet are square, as in ‘Bob Square Pants’ square.  When describing them to me, my brother Mike said, “They are like two boxes.”  Dad also has toenail fungus.  It happens; he’s 92. Once one of the girls dropped an earring back on the floor and it rolled under my father’s feet.  I had to retrieve it.  Not a task for the faint of heart.

My mother had foot woes too.  Towards the end of her life, she could only wear Birkenstocks, thereby proving those Republicans who characterize Democrats as latte-sipping, Birkenstock wearing, Volvo driving elitists right in two out of three respects.  She never cared much for lattes.

Ken and me at the 2003 CanAm DanceSport Competition -- Best Newcomer Couple

Ken and me at the 2003 CanAm DanceSport Competition — Best Newcomer Couple

My husband and I were ballroom dancers back in the day.  In fact, in 2003 we won Best Newcomer Couple at the CanAm DanceSport Competition in Toronto.  Then my knob reared its ugly head.  As it turns out, it’s hard to dance in orthopedic shoes.   Not to mention the fact that it wreaks havoc with your balance.  Someone once said of Fred Astaire, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards…and in high heels!”  But did she do it backwards, in high heels, with a bunion?  I think not.  We stopped dancing and, generally speaking, I’m fine with it, just so long as I don’t have to watch dance competitions or dance shows on TV.  Those leave me vaguely melancholy and embittered; I want to curse my knob and that is no good.  For better or worse, my hallux abducto valgus deformity is a part of me. You can only stay mad at your own feet for so long.

What my foot looked like

What my foot looked like

My toenails have issues too, though not of the fungal variety.  When I was at University, I ripped the entire nail off on my right big toe by pulling a door that read, “Push.”  I don’t take direction well.    I was exiting my doctor’s office at the time, so medical assistance was onsite.  I exited the diabolical door a second time with a very large bandage encompassing my entire foot.  The next day I tried out for a part in the chorus of the Music Department’s annual musical, Fiddler on the Roof, wearing a pair of hot pants and sporting my wholly swaddled foot.  As I have never been able to sing, I was relying entirely on my dancing chops.  This was perhaps an overreach. I didn’t get a call back.

Ever since my encounter with the doctor’s door and at intervals of every couple of years the toenail on my right big toe turns a ghastly bluish black and starts to lift from the nail bed.  It lingers there for upwards of a month, horrifying pedicurists and spa visitors alike.  Then it falls off, leaving a perfectly normal nail in its place.  I’m not sure why this happens.  Perhaps my right toe is where all the toxins in my body pool and my toenail bed is the portal through which they drain; perhaps it acts as  Hell Mouth for my personal demons.

Not to be outdone, my left big toe has recently taken to spontaneous bruising — like spontaneous combustion only with blood. It does this for no apparent reason.  I’m just standing there doing nothing whatsoever and suddenly I feel a twinge, look down and it’s  black and blue.  Now and then the stars align and I get both a black right toenail and a black left toe simultaneously.  This happened to coincide with my last physical.  I’m sitting there on the edge of an examination table, draped in something made out of paper towels, staring at my feet and thinking, “WTF?”

Our dancing career having foundered on the rock of my knob, my husband and I joined Tru Hot Yoga in St. Thomas, Ontario. It’s a good thing yoga is not competitive because, as matters stand, I can’t.  At least not on one foot.   The arthritis in my right toe has given rise to peripheral neuropathy, a fancy way of saying that my right foot feels like a bean bag filled with pins and needles. As for my mutinous left foot, while it has yet to sprout its own bunion, it’s clearly got one in the oven, and, by way of preparing me for that eventuality, refuses let me balance on it either.

So not only no dancer, no dancer’s pose.    I’m well and truly grounded.  By my feet. My father’s feet.

My parents: Captain Star and Vampirina

Mom and Peter and me.  Our matching dresses are red.

Mom and Peter and me. Our matching dresses are red.

I am the child of celebrities. Going back to the fifties, when my father played Captain Star on a local children’s television show and my mother, a.k.a., Vampirina, rose out of a coffin to host late night horror movies.  To get to the gig, off she would scuttle off in the dead of night just as Dad was coming home from rehearsals; they would pass like ships in the night. He was teaching Drama at Texas Western at the time and she was gnawing on her knuckles as a largely stay-at-home Mom in a new subdivision of tract housing separated on one side from El Paso by ten miles of cactus strewn, rattlesnake riddled dessert and, on the other, from Mexico by the same.

One day she heard  breaking news from the local radio station that a mysterious space ship had landed on the highway separating El Paso from our subdivision and that the army had been sent out to investigate.  Mother, being Mother, kicked into survival mode. She filled a thermos with water, stuffed a bag with sandwiches and  tied Peter, me and Ughy to her waist with ropes; she was ready to set out across the dessert towards Mexico with two toddlers and a cocker spaniel in tow.   Then she tuned back in to get an update and found . . . nada.  Back to regular programming.  Never a mention.  Never an explanation.   A complete news blackout.   Fort Bliss, a major Cold War military center, was close by; possibly the alleged “space ship” had been a top secret test gone awry.  The weird thing was . . . Mom was apparently the only person who ever heard this story.  No one else has ever corroborated it. Yet she swore all her life that it was true and I believe her.  Mom didn’t lie; she did, however, exaggerate for effect.

Demographics ensured that my brother Peter and I, being somewhere between two and five years old at the time, were far more impressed by Dad as Spaceman, than by Mom as Living Dead.  Captain Star was typical of the kind of locally produced kids’ programming of the time –  hosted by a colorful host with an exotic persona such as cowboy, jungle explorer or, in Dad’s case, spaceman, whose job it was to DJ cartoons and, in the breaks, engage with a live studio audience of adorable kids, who, as Art Linkletter was fond of pointing, “say the darnedest things!” Case in point, my brother, who, when allowed to participate in the studio audience, blew Dad’s cover by replying to the question, “And who are you, Little Boy?” with, “You know who I am!  You’re my Daddy!”  Apparently, Spacemen, like monks, were not supposed to have children.  Peter was banned from the set.

I, being older, and a far more accomplished liar, adroitly handled the subterfuge, as a result of which I was allowed to come on the show a number of times.  Honesty might well have been the best policy, but the stakes were high. The show was sponsored by a local bakery.  There was cake and I was willing to do anything to get some. In later years, my family would continue to be impressed by the sheer brio with which I could and frequently did prevaricate.  “Lightning is going to strike you dead!” my mother would cry reproachfully, but it was reproach tinged with admiration.  I would like to point out here that I only lie to weasel out of things I don’t want to do — white lies, intended to avoid hurt feelings. “Now you’re going to have to figure out some other excuse for why you have to leave early,” my friend Linda Nicholas told me when my dog Buddy died.  Dammit, I realized.  She’s onto me.

Another thing Captain Star did was to call apparently random  numbers and ask whoever picked up the phone a question like, “Who discovered America?”  Then, if that person couldn’t answer, he’d ask the studio audience the same question.  What he actually did was call his hung-over friends, who, it being nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, would roundly curse him.  At which he would smile and nod and  say, “I’m  sorry, Bobby, but ‘oak’ is not the right answer.  I guess I’ll just have to ask the Boys and Girls what kind of tree George Washington chopped down.”

We don’t actually have a photo of Captain Star.  I can’t think why not.  I can tell you, however, that he wore black tights, a black turtleneck, a Papier Mâché space helmet and a cape.  The cape, which Mom had fashioned, was black and featured appliqued sequins and stars of silver lamé.   It hung in our hall closet when not in use, next to the raincoats and the windbreakers.   Captain Star was a tad portly.  Dad had been skinny all his life, but living in close proximity to cheap Mexican rum for an extended period had resulted in him acquiring a notable pot belly. His fans didn’t seem to mind.  A four year old boy once appeared on our doorstep with a toy car to bestow upon his hero and Dad was regularly mobbed at the local swimming pool with cries of, “It’s him!  Captain Star!” while he sat, slouched and distended,  nursing a hangover in the shallow end, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

Vampirina

Vampirina

Vampirina had her fans too, although not among the toddler set.  The apogee of her fame came when she was featured on the cover of the local TV Guide, together with a story about this nice, pretty Mom who, amusingly enough,  moonlighted as a horror show host.  What they didn’t write about . . . what they couldn’t have known was the woman who was ready to strike out across the desert to avoid alien abduction.  That woman’s day was to come.