He drank coffee, black. Breakfast, lunch, dinner – whenever we went out to eat, it was his beverage order.
I never once heard him complain about the coffee, any coffee, anywhere he got it. Back then my father drank every cup of coffee with the same level of expectation, much like he seemed to approach everything else – just happy to get it. For most of that time I was completely unaware that coffee could be good or bad. It always smelled good to me, one of the few smells I could identify, like peanut butter or Lucky Strikes. But now – now I know crappy coffee when I swallow it, and I know there is a lot of it out there.
We didn’t have a coffee maker. We did have a percolator, but only used it on special occasions, or for company. My mother drank hot tea. We all drank tea, like the Canadians who drank tea like the English, with milk and sugar. We had a kettle on the stove and a teapot nearby. We drank Red Rose tea – a Canadian tea that Granny would bring with her on visits, or my mother would stockpile when we were in the country to visit her family.
My father drank instant coffee. I realized later that it was nasty tasting stuff, especially in comparison to brewed coffee. Even the best instant coffee tastes like feet.
He worked on construction and had a bad fall, resulting in, among other things, the loss of his taste and smell. In the years to follow, when Kathy or I would ask my father if he liked what he was eating or drinking, my mother would point out that he couldn’t really taste anything, so why did we even bother to ask?
Maybe we were just being polite.
I dreaded it. Not just spending the money, but the process. It was going to be a drag – inconvenient, messy, and invasive. It would be difficult to keep things organized, impossible to keep things clean. And we had lost Michael. We were going ahead with this big project – his design, his plans – without him, and it was going to be horrible and sad.
But then we met Ray, and he brought in Matt and Jim, Dean, Shon, and Ernie the tile guy and Neville the painter and they were all considerate and professional – men of great skill and meticulousness. And then we met another Michael – Ray’s son – and he became the guy who showed up at our house every day, and he answered our questions and made suggestions and was patient and got things done. And it wasn’t horrible or even just tolerable, but actually pleasant.
From September 2013 until March 2014 – six months, as predicted. Our refrigerator was in the dining room, microwave in the den, toaster oven in the exercise room. Washing spoons in the bathroom, eating off paper plates and out of paper bowls. And the cat jumping out open doors and windows every chance he got – all those guys chasing him down to retrieve him and bring him back inside.
Then no washing machine for six weeks, carrying laundry across town with pockets full of quarters, or occasionally to the homes of generous neighbors.
And then, finally and suddenly, it was done. We had an amazing new kitchen. And a master bathroom with a door, a laundry room and a mudroom. And a rebuilt carport and brick patio. They were finished, the project complete. And they packed their tarps and tools and equipment into trucks and drove away. And I felt sad to see them go.
My first friend was my best friend and was until she became my longest friend, which she remains.
We became friends by virtue of geography – she lived next door.
She, a year older than me, a year younger than Kathy, prettier than either one of us,
introduced me to Bruce Springsteen. I was in her wedding, she was in mine.
We have friends; we disconnect and reconnect again, as life allows.
Once, in high school, I yelled at one friend in a righteous fit of defense of another and made her cry; I was harsh, and feel perpetually sorry for that blunder.
I’ve been a friend to some who were not my friend, but never seemed to notice.
It’s hard to break up with a friend, even harder than breaking up with a lover.
Wendy made me add color to my life. Karen made me want to teach Pilates. Ginny made me see the humor of honest self-awareness.
With Dawn, I share books; with Noelynn, music. And with both, the particular joy/frustration of parenting.
Hope opens my heart to poetry; Mary Jo’s writing unravels me. And Valley makes me write – even about those things I could never ever write about.
And Kathy – if I don’t share it with her, it doesn’t seem real – whatever it may be.
No matter what we do, or who we are, we don’t get there alone. And if we are lucky, we realize that.
Oswego friends, Syracuse friends, North Carolina, school, work, life – I keep my them with me. I’ll paraphrase that ridiculously violent NRA slogan –You can have my friends when you rip them from my cold, dead hand. Because the thing that remains is how deeply I appreciate these people, and how determined I am to keep them close, regardless of life’s obstacles.
I knew little of the story; I didn’t even know this much when I was young.
And then I heard more.
The story told by the younger sister, about how much she adored her older brothers.
About how her oldest brother paid for her piano lessons when her parents
couldn’t afford to. About how he helped her and her fiancé buy a car.
About how much he did for their parents, helping with projects and the
upkeep of their house.
Then about how he married a Canadian girl when he was 31, and hardly ever came home again.
I had heard that story, but it was a different version. It was the story of the Canadian girl
who was not welcome in her fiancé’s home, because she was Canadian, because she came
from a “broken home,” because she wasn’t good enough.
He and the Canadian girl moved to Niagara Falls, had a daughter, then to Oswego and had another.
He didn’t see his family much after that, and as the girls grew up, they were told
that his family didn’t want to see them. They heard that his sister and her husband thought
“they are better than us; they don’t want anything to do with us.” And because the story came from the
girls’ mother, of course they believed it.
They didn’t hear the story about the early lives of the two young boys; they never heard the story
about the piano lessons or the car or other acts of loyalty. These were stories about a man
they never knew, and not the man they recognized as their father. Not the man who yelled
more than spoke, who had no patience with any one in his home. The man who didn’t care who he hurt.
What happened to that man?
There’s always more to the story.
Like the story of a little Boy, born in 1928 to Armenian immigrants. His mom is young,
only 25, at home with him every day, until the day she is never home again.
It isn’t her fault; it isn’t his baby brother’s fault, even though she leaves when he arrives.
And then his father is alone, with no family nearby, ill-prepared to raise two babies on his own.
So he takes them to his wife’s sister in another State, to take care of; to raise.
And what then, becomes of his father? Who, every night, comes home to a silent house, instead of one brimming with his wife and sons? Does he make himself a meal, or go to a diner? Does he have friends, perhaps friends’ wives who deliver meals, invite him over, try to fix him up with single women? Does he drink, maybe alone or in a neighborhood bar? Does he believe in God? And if so, does his young wife’s death disrupt that belief?
Five years pass and his dad remarries. He is 43 and his new wife is 25, and it is time to reclaim his boys,
now eight and five, to take them back home. A home they’ve never really known. Two years later, the Boy’s dad and new mom have a baby; he has a sister.
The sister adores her brothers, but her mother does not. And how can she, this young woman
inheriting little boys who are now removed from the only family they have ever known?
Do those boys get to meet her before she becomes their mother?
Did their dad visit them during those years?
Does that Boy remember anything of his mother, the one he lost, now replaced by one he barely knows?
Her food tasted of fear.
She cooked the way she lived – afraid. Every piece of meat, vegetable, even pasta had to have
the contamination scorched out of it, lest it harbor disease.
Botulism, trichinosis, streptococcus, staphylococcus, things that had nothing whatever to do with
undercooked food, but just to be sure, she would broil and boil the shit out of it. Just to be sure.
Dinner every night at 5:30 – gray, unidentifiable meat, mashed potatoes, vegetable and a glass of milk.
“Drink your milk, goddammit,” my father would yell at Kathy.
She was lactose intolerant; he was utterly intolerant. “It doesn’t give you a stomach ache – that’s all in your head,” he would yell.
There was no reason to yell; it was a small table and just the four of us.
I ate each food, one at a time, always saving my favorite for last. I still eat that way.
“What the hell’s the matter with you,” he would yell. “It’s all going to the same place.”
Kathy and I would constantly antagonize each other. Once, she put salt in my milk, just for fun. I took a sip
and complained – “my milk tastes salty.”
I forget how many times he yelled that I was imagining it before he tasted it for himself and proclaimed it to be salty. Because our parents prided themselves on being equitable with their daughters, we both got into trouble for that one.
We got on her nerves, her perpetually frail nerves. One night she hit her limit
and threw a plate full of food against the wall, then went to bed. It was an extreme reaction,
but that was always her favorite kind.
Anne Lamott once wrote about how hard it is to enjoy your dinner when you’re holding your breath.
I could relate.
Ian turned 13 today.
I remember being 13.
I remember my mother forcing me to keep my unruly hair pulled into pigtails, my teeth half-way
through the purgatory of braces, my ears freshly pierced. Catholic school uniforms,
meant to level the playing field, doing no such thing.
I remember falling in love with a boy named Scott. I remember sneaking out of Granny’s apartment
at midnight to meet him in the stairwell and spend the next two hours kissing and talking,
but mostly kissing. I remember Scott introducing me to Supertramp and David Bowie.
I still listen to them both.
I remember being told that when you fall in love at 13 it’s not really love. I remember thinking
that was bullshit. It pleases me now, at 50, to know I was right.
I remember trying out for cheerleading. I remember that my number was “7.”
I still have that number, the one that was pinned to my shorts, in case I ever forget my number, or
forget trying out for cheerleading.
I remember thinking I would probably need to be a writer when I grew up. That I would have no choice.
I remember at 13, being simultaneously sad, happy, resentful and ridiculous. I remember having no
idea of who I was or was supposed to be, but always suspecting that I would be fine, no matter what.
I remember realizing that I couldn’t trust my parents, that they didn’t have my back. I remember
thinking, at 13, that I couldn’t wait to be 18. To be a grown-up.
13 was sweet, and difficult; it was exciting and confusing. It lasted forever, and it was over in a heartbeat.
Ian is 13 and I have his back, and I think he knows that. But his 13 is his 13….
My mother is a problem I can’t solve.
People say, make peace with your mother. But, like Iran and North Korea,
my mother doesn’t want peace; she prefers war. Or, at least, hostility.
There was no disagreement, no single event which set the wheels in motion – nor is it the first time
she’s chosen estrangement. She simply stops answering the phone when we call.
She sees herself as a victim, the long-suffering mother/sister/daughter/wife–
wronged by everyone she’s related to. She claims abandonment by her daughters,
and without us to say otherwise, she can perpetuate this story. She hasn’t spoken to her sister
in over 20 years; she wasn’t speaking to her mother or brother when they died, both in the same week.
And she didn’t attend either funeral – she claims that no one told her they had died,
which also can’t be refuted if no one speaks to her daughters.
We send her cards, letters – and she sends them back, unopened. Kathy still calls her every day.
Mom keeps her answering machine off, relying on caller ID to let her know who called.
Or, who is calling.
I have a philosophy – don’t complain about a problem unless you’ve exhausted every avenue of solving it.
Some say there is no problem – she has cut us off, we should do the same. Except – she is 76 years
old. Except, she lives alone, and, we care if she is okay.
Except, that she has now taken every photo of her daughters and their sons, and had them delivered to
Kathy’s house. Another chance to let us know that we have been boxed up and thrown out.
It seems ridiculous because it is – but still, it is. And it goes on, and it will go on, and it is a problem
I cannot solve.
Before my senior year of high school, knowing I couldn’t take another summer of babysitting,
I started filling out job applications. I finally got two interviews, both on the same day – McDonald’s and Ponderosa Steakhouse– conveniently located across the street from each other.
McDonald’s rejected me; Ponderosa became my first paycheck.
Ponderosa had recently changed their female employees’ uniforms from a hideous polyester skort, cowboy shirt and hat, to a hideous polyester brown jumper with a printed polyester blouse which shared its fabric with a headband. And the nametag – my Ponderosa Steakhouse nametag, SEMA, embossed in white and stuck there-on. I was official.
I loved having this job. I sucked at this job.
The set-up was like a cafeteria line, with a meat order taken at the front of the line, followed by stations
of various sides, before ending at the cash register. My first station was drinks and rolls,
the most remedial of the stations. Simple tasks – put the rolls onto a tray, place tray in the giant baked
potato oven for 60 seconds, remove from oven, paint with melted butter and dump into warming drawer.
As for customer interaction, also simple – ask them what they want to drink, give them what they want to drink, and hand them a butter-bathed roll on a plate, with a pat of butter on the side.
My biggest problem was keeping track of the rolls once I put them in the oven. Tray after tray of what more resembled hockey pucks than rolls, tray after tray tossed into the trash.
I cannot, to this day, explain how I kept that job for more than a week. But I did – I was there for nine months, and if you’d asked me at the time, I would have told you, I loved that job.
I never saw it coming. The nurses warned me while going over the release checklist – reasons
to call: excessive crying. “You, not the baby,” they clarified. I laughed.
I wasn’t home 20 minutes before the crying began. Mine, not the baby’s.
No one else took it very seriously, so I tried not to either. “You’re so tired,”everyone pointed out. “Just hormones,”was another plausible explanation. “You’re overwhelmed,” I was reminded.
I wasn’t sure if these comments were meant to placate me or modify my behavior, or maybe just to
say this is all normal and you’re fine. But I didn’t feel fine – I felt like I’d fallen down a hole, and it was
dark with steep sides and no apparent way out. And the more time passed and the less anyone seemed
to notice I was in that hole, the more I settled in there, and the less I tried to climb out.
Ian’s pediatrician was the first to ask, to really question, was I okay? “It can be very lonely,”
was all she needed to say; I started crying again.
The desire to conquer the hole took time, and it wasn’t a straight path. Doctors, faith, meditation,
medication, pilates – I worked hard at it. I still work at it.
It’s not simple, not for anyone. I didn’t know it then, but I do now. That every other person out there is
fighting a battle, and maybe that battle is just to get through the day.
And sometimes the battle is lost. And it’s nobody’s fault, and it was never for lack of trying.
Everyone who knew Michael might not have known he was fighting, but they don’t doubt that he fought,
and that he tried.
Everyone who loved Michael will love him always, and miss him forever.
I was born in Oswego, NY,
"I had always wanted to be a writer, but was impeded by the belief that to be a writer one had to be extraordinary, and I knew I wasn't. By the time I was ready to give up my academic career I had realized that while books are extraordinary, writers themselves are no more or less special than anyone else." The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield