I am not a homemaker. I have three or four recipes I can cook and proudly stake claim to (I’ll put my chicken pot-pie in a blindfolded taste test any day of the week), but in general, I’m a hurricane in the kitchen. Ditto in the laundry room. Yes, I manage to get things agitating without soap bubbles pouring from the closed lid, but inevitably there’s a tinted lip balm in a pocket or a new red shirt mingling with the whites. The same goes for sewing. The simple task of replacing a button brings out the OCD in me: There aren’t enough knots in the universe to hold that sucker in place and so I keep tying them, one after another after another, knots lining up like an endless string of ben wa balls, unable to stop myself until the button disappears beneath a big clump of thread.
I thank my mother for my domestic ineptitude. It is she—the Queen of Beige Food, the one who boasts of her culinary ability to prepare all things pasty and grey—who once forgot to add sugar to Baked Alaska.
In her defense, she was probably high when baking it, so despite the sour look on her guest’s faces that night, she’d had a good time in the kitchen and eventually, after the initial horror wore off, a good laugh. Still. Baking-while-stoned only further serves as a reminder of the old apple-and-tree cliché, a fact I’m intent on defying as I’ve made it my purpose in life to break the mold.
And so it goes that a couple weeks ago, while under the influence of Vicodin following a little abdominal surgery, I decided the time had come to hem the curtains on the French doors in my bedroom. I’d purchased them at Ikea and go figure, they were three feet too long. Damn those Swedes and their extra-tall doorways.
Not to fear. I asked a talented seamstress friend, who makes fabulously stylish Mad Men-era clothes for herself and her daughters, if she would hem them for me and then never got around to bringing the fabric to her house. Which is aaaaall the way across the street. Instead, my mother-in-law pinned the curtains during one of her visits and that is how they stayed, no one the wiser, for five years, six months, three weeks and four days. I am lazy. And pathetic.
To offer some perspective on my state of mind at the time of the “hemming,” I had been unable to pee without immense effort for two days. Were you to have peeked through the bathroom window during this time, you’d have seen a very disheveled me, sitting on the toilet with my laptop open to this:
I was drugged and delirious and fighting tooth and nail to avoid catheterization. I was dribbling urine after hours of concentrating on Niagra Falls and then lying sleepless in bed—bladder full—on top of Ruby’s special potty-training mattress pad just in case my urethra came to in the middle of the night. I actually hoped to wet the bed. Isn’t that sexy? This was new turf for my relationship. Suffice it to say, being bedridden did not suit my mental health. I had no business using scissors. But enough excuses.
I’d been staring at those curtains from my bed for three days and the more I stared, the more I began to resent them. Their imperfect existence was a reminder of my domestic shortcomings. They were unfinished and they needed to not be unfinished immediately.
How hard can it be? I thought. By following the hem line, I can cut them to the proper length with just enough fabric left over for a little break. Any caveman can do that!
I shuffled to the kitchen, grabbed the scissors and shuffled back to the bedroom where I knelt at the curtains, careful not to bust the stitches in my bellybutton. I lined the scissors up and I cut. Slowly, at first, but then I picked up speed as I cut and cut and cut. It was cathartic in a nobody-gets-hurt, NO! MORE! WIRE! HANGERS! kind of way. I may have grunted. I was a caveman. I was Wilma Flintstone.
And I have Flintstone curtains to prove it.
The Gaydi Project: Oh! Here it is! It was in front of my face the whole time! Duh.
Sam: Why didn’t she just look there first?
The first postcard arrived within days of my suggesting that The Gaydi Project document her road trip. I bought a map of the United States to hang on my daughter’s bedroom wall and planned to line my mother’s route with the postcards as they arrived. I thought it would be fun for my kid to see where her grandmother and my godmother were headed. Also, it was my way of keeping tabs. And learning my states. And riding shotgun in absentia.
Dear Ruby, I’m in Washington D.C. with Mary Jane. We took Perrito to the White House but couldn’t find Bo (Sasha and Malia’s dog). I love you madly. Yer Tutu
My thrill at the notion of a meandering road trip with a best friend was matched ounce for ounce by my daughter’s apathy, an indifference that should have been predictable. Running to the mailbox was exciting, sure. But listening to me read the postcards was no competition for that shiny object right over there! After four years as a mother, I’m still reconciling the fact that parenting is almost always the vision of reality colliding with the reality of reality. Reading the first, second and third postcards out loud to an empty room, it occurred to me that perhaps this is why my mother didn’t invite me along for any part of her journey.
This trip was at least two years in the making. It took almost that long for my godmother to sell her house in Pittsburgh, a length of time that, one could argue, adds some legitimacy to Sienna Miller’s 2006 assessment of the city. No sooner was the offer accepted than my mother bought a plane ticket and headed east, losing her fancy prescription sunglasses somewhere between boarding and deplaning the red-eye.
Not being one to wallow in setbacks, she bought a hat and carried on. (Fifty bucks says her shades are on her desk at home.)
She helped tie up the loose ends in Shittsburgh, and then Mary Jane, my mother and her yarmulke-wearing Chihuahua piled into the car and pointed it toward Seattle in a squiggly, we-don’t-have-any-place-to-be kind of way. The goal was Route 66 via Graceland.
Dear Ruby, Here is a delicious recipe from Elvis’ Kitchen. It’s for peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Only make it in an emergency. I love you! Tutu
Though these two adventurers are not fugitives—as far as I know—I could only envision Thelma & Louise. I saw red lipstick, twisting cigarette smoke and billowing scarves. I saw Brad Pitt with his hair dryer stuffed into the waistband-holster of his jeans and a car soaring off a red-rock cliff. I saw sexy. I saw dangerous.
“No!” my mother hooted when I mentioned my visions on the phone during one of my check-ins. “We’re Lucy and Ethel and Little Ricky!”
This was hardly reassuring. Just what the interstate needs, two Vitameatavegamin Girls behind the wheel. Sexy: No. Dangerous: Terrifically.
“Well, are you having fun?” I asked.
“Oh, Aaryn—we’re having a blast!”
MJ and The Gaydi Project—I think I’ve coined a band name—visited friends in Chicago, cut through St. Louis, attended a hoedown in Tulsa thrown in their honor and survived Amarillo.
Dear Ruby, I’m getting closer to you everyday… & I’m coming via this old road. Right now I’m in the state of Texas. Pray for me (or ask your parents for bail money). Love, Tutu
They stopped in Santa Fe and scooted through bustling Prescott before detouring to San Diego, where they’d committed to a babysitting gig. The entire trip had been problem-free until they exited College Avenue on their way to my place. My mother was driving when they were rear-ended and couldn’t say definitively whether she’d slowed down or stopped. (Neither of them was hurt, thank God, because I needed a night out like Dick Cheney needs someone to cut his mic.) The silly man who hit them took off, but Thelma and Louise—er, Lucy and Ethel—tailed him until he gave himself up. You might be intimidated, too.
At first glance, these two 60-something women are totally different: MJ is reserved and L.L. Bean-y, while my mother is flamboyant and Eileen Fisher-ish. MJ is an extraordinary chef. My mother excels at preparing beige food. MJ smokes cigarettes. My mother smokes MJ. None of this really matters, though, because they’re both touched by a little bit of The Crazy and appreciate cocktail hour. At breakfast.
During college, the two of them spent a summer in San Francisco with six other women. There, they frequented bars using fake IDs and my mother picked up on men using a fake accent, which dissipated in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed. I don’t know, but if I had to guess, based on their personalities, I’d say Mary Jane pretended she didn’t speak English at all and maintained the ruse for the duration.
Though they eventually did it on different coasts, each woman raised a family, ended a marriage, created a successful career and maintained a friendship that has never failed to pick up where it left off the last time they said goodbye. It truly is something to spend time with them together.
Now my unintentional heroes are making their way up the 101, the rear bumper hanging a little lower than when they set out. At last contact, they were someplace along the Oregon Coast, a tad too close to sheer drop-offs for my taste. MJ is jobless and homeless, but my mother has an appetite and an empty daybed. I think the relationship is going to last. If they don’t fly off that cliff.
I’m hoping they make it to their destination safely. Until then, I am anxiously awaiting the next postcard. I hope it’s addressed to me.
(As published today in San Diego CityBeat, sans pictures. Also, no pic of MJ not included since I sort of feel like I’ve exposed her quite enough for her taste. Again, just a guess. However, this story was written with blessings.)
My Godmother—The Gaydi Project’s dearest friend from college—was visiting her sons in Seattle over the holidays. She stayed at my mother’s place which was fortunate for us, given that she’s a chef. This meant Sam, Ruby and I didn’t have to go the usual route of subsisting on Red Vines, red wine and weed. Far from going hungry, this year we feasted gourmet-style until our pants were uncomfortably tight. At least mine were until I secretly unbuttoned them beneath my long sweater and then went back for second helpings.
There was a lot of history in that candle-lit apartment, where two families—both headed by women—gathered on Christmas night with four grown children, one grandchild, a husband, a girlfriend, several members of the chosen family and so many intersecting stories alongside them. Memories were shared and re-shared and at one point, hysterically re-invented. Wine was consumed. Laughter predominated. There was an over-abundance of love, a richness that can’t be bought and an open recognition of how lucky we all are to have what we do between us. I may not have had the most traditional or even the happiest upbringing, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything.
As is the ritual in my Godmother’s home, she selected and read a short passage that was particularly meaningful to her and surely as it was intended, perfectly captured the sentiment overflowing in my mother’s apartment that night. It’s posted below.
I hope everyone spent their holiday season surrounded by people they love the deepest and that 2009 brings more of that for all of us.
(Excerpted from The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard)
“Just as few men love their wives so much as their daughters, few, if any, women love anyone so much as their children. Parents love adopted babies with the same passion. Often she missed infant Petie now gone—his random gapes, his bizarre buttocks. How besotted they gazed at each other nose-on-nose. He fit her arms as if they two had invented how to carry a baby. While she walked, he patted her shoulder in time with her steps. If he stopped patting, she stopped walking. If his pats speeded up, she stepped lively. He was driving her; they both died laughing.
Later, she washed his filthy hair and admired his vertebrae, jiggled his head in toweling that smelled like his steam. She needled splinters and sandspur spines from his insteps as long as he let her. Every one of those Peties and Petes was gone. That is who she missed, those boys overwritten. Their replacement now sat at the green table wiping crumbs onto his plate. Pete’s friends came by to get him for a party no one wanted to attend without him. He was good-natured; could he also be the life of the party? Did she ever know a noisy fisherman?”
“Would you care for an olive? Auntie Mame says olives take up too much room in a little glass.”
Being a mother makes you crazy. I used to think The Crazy was directly correlated to the act of squeezing a human being out of a too-small opening, making me immune because I adopted. Initially, there is no evidence anything has changed, but The Crazy surfaces and intensifies over time. Trust me. I have the craziest mother of anyone I know.
Gaye Donna came from Seattle for a brief visit last month. She had business in L.A., so she stopped in for two nights, shimmied her way north for a bit and flew back to San Diego on her broomstick for two more nights. Sam and I have a strict Four Day Rule for visiting parents, should they choose to opt out of the enthusiastically encouraged hotel option. Pointing out that we never stipulated the four days had to be consecutive, my mother creates fun combinations of overnighters, discussing at great length all the various permutations, thus complicating the simplest of situations. It is in this manner that her craziness begins to permeate my world before she ever explodes her suitcase in my living room.
To an outsider, two nights here, two nights there might seem like a cakewalk. But remember The Crazy. It’s a good crazy if you’re not her daughter, a very difficult-to-endure crazy if you are.
Gaydi is like Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell’s Mame, not Lucille Ball’s Mame—an important distinction). Only, she’s Mame with attention deficit disorder and blurred vision. She’s Mame on a shaken martini, two-day-old coffee, stale Red Vines and lots of kind bud to even it all out.
I call her The Gaydi Project because being with her is an event. She necessitates more patience than navigating the Cox Communications call center and the concentration level of a tourist trying to spot a green flash. My Auntie Carroll—who herself is bat-shit crazy—used to lovingly refer to her as “Gaye Donna Marie Donnetta Louise Vagina Clitoris Unique,” a bit of a tongue twister, sure, but it stuck—because it fit. Gaydi’s friend Jon explains away her nuttiness to strangers by claiming she’s a world famous Russian ballerina. “Don’t y’all know who she ee-is?” He’ll say in his charming Okie drawl. “Why, she’s Whirrled! FAY-mous!” By this time people have already gravitated to the Pied Piper, their eyes swirling under the hypnotic powers of her eccentricity.
This is a woman who doesn’t much care to color inside the lines, whereas I like to boldly define them, making for a tumultuous, sometimes treacherous bond between us. She careens wildly through life much the same way as she smashes against and bounces off curbs when she drives, which is, thankfully, infrequent. She prefers the freefall of life; I like to keep my feet on the ground. She likes to start little fires, figuratively and literally; I run around behind her with an extinguisher.
Her wild conversational gesturing has been known to knock a glass of port so magnificently that spilled wine has splattered into the corners of adjoining rooms. She misplaces necessities—glasses, keys, purse, bus pass—with such regularity that going to the grocery store requires a dedicated event planner. She chews ice vigorously; no other mastication has ever made ice seem more jam-packed with flavor. Her little Chihuahua wears a service-dog vest so she can take him to restaurants and circumvent additional charges for air travel. Sometimes she dresses Perrito in a yarmulke.
When I picked her up at the airport several weeks ago, she immediately kicked off both shoes and began picking at the dried skin on her heel, a habit that makes me want to replace her morning yogurt with Eucerin and caused one of our more pointed arguments.
“You know, it’s the oddest thing,” she said in the car after I grumbled that she was Doing. It. Again. “Your brother comes over and I sweep. I have to sweep. I can’t help it. And I get in your car and, without even realizing it, I pick.” With that, she chuckled and flicked a little bit of calcified flesh out the window.
“Well,” I said. “At least you’re throwing the detritus of your foot outside instead of leaving it on the floor mat like before. I’d say that’s progress.”
We laughed and she put her shoes back on. In recent years, The Gaydi Project and I have found some middle ground, each of us becoming a little less of who we are, to the betterment of who we are together. We’re more conscious of stepping around each other’s last nerve rather than directly on it. She works hard to let go when I become tense in response to her maddening loosey-goosey style. And I work hard to let go when she takes my latest New Yorker—the one I haven’t even cracked yet—into the bathroom, getting poop fumes all over it, rendering it unreadable. So maybe I haven’t let that one go just yet. But I kept my trap shut when it happened. I’d say that’s progress.
Minutes after breaking the No Reading Material in the Bathroom Rule, my mother accidentally Super Glued her lip to her teeth, which is the danger of impatiently trying to yank the lid off the tube with your mouth. In her defense, there is no warning about this particular hazard anywhere on the label. “Oh my God!” I yelled at her before I folded in half with laughter. “You’re not supposed to eat it, you’re supposed to sniff it!” We were a mere 10 hours into her stay.
Our bookendish adventure carried on like this, The Gaydi Project crashing through my world and me trying not to short-circuit from frustration. I held my ground. But I’m beginning to wonder whether The Crazy isn’t actually contracted by cumulative exposure.
(As published today in San Diego CityBeat.)
After using a fahncy, marble encased bathroom stall at Bloomingdale’s this afternoon, I met my mother at the row of sinks. Incidentally, for all of her outrageousness, she’s more of a rule-follower than I am and she opted for a regular stall, whereas I have no qualms about using the one intended for the wheelchair bound.
That’s actually not entirely true: I use the handicap stall only when I’m with The Gaydi Project, an antagonistic way to honor a good friend of hers who is so rigorous in his moral code, that he would never set foot in one because it just isn’t right! For whatever reason, it makes me feel good to know I’m doing something of which he’d disapprove. (And I really like like the guy. Figure that one out, Internets.) So today, I parked my ass on the toilet in an extravagant room the size of my kitchen and sent good thoughts to my favorite über-human, Jeff C.
But back to that row of sinks.
There we found each other again—my mother, my self—and while washing our hands, The Gaydi Project said to me, “I really do hope I’m past that point in my life where I accidentally tuck my skirt into my underwear after going to the bathroom.”
“That would be a good thing,” I said.
“Just promise you’ll let me know if I do that?” She asked.
“Yeah…I’ll start walking a few paces behind you from now on.”
I took a step back from the sink to assess the situation—just in case—and do you know? Her long, black-and-white batik skirt was tucked into her panties so perfectly, so symmetrically, that it created a bustle more beautiful than the one on my over-priced wedding dress. I almost wanted to let her go about her day like that. It looked so lovely, it was nearly trend-setting. But I’m a good daughter (finally) and I’d just made her a promise; truly, I’m nothing if I don’t keep my promises to the woman who once passed me through her cervix. So I un-fluffed the fluff, we had a solid laugh at her expense and headed out the door.
The only thing worse than waking with “Dragon Tales” in my head first thing in the morning is when first thing in the morning happens at 12:35am. Wait. Let me revise that: waking up at 12:35am with “Barney” on the brain is definitely worse, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain. But it really blows that my mind instantly conjures up these at first seemingly innocuous, but truly insidious, little tunes before I can even pry my eyes open. I finally gave into the fact that I wasn’t sleeping and, instead of doing bun exercises (ala Kathie Lee Gifford) to my silent songs while lying prone, I decided to drag myself to the computer. Life isn’t simple, though, and on my way I busted Ella sleeping on the couch. Though my tone was sharp and abrupt, I sort of felt sorry for her as I woke her from a tightly curled up position (which I rather resented at the moment) with a harsh and pointed “Ella, NO!”, to which she startled, jumped down, tucked her tail between her legs and ran off to her kennel. The dog has at her disposal every single surface in this house, including our bed and two of her own, and my only wish is to maintain one small space that is free of dog hair. Harumph. Just a stress-free segue into what has been a slightly stressful 10 days (understatement).
We dropped my mother at the airport last night which brought to close a two-week onslaught of grandparents. Note to self: do NOT allow Grandparental Units to conduct back-to-back visits. Why I persist in attempting such radical stunts before learning what, for most humans, would probably be an intuitive lesson, is a toxic form of familial masochism. I love ‘em all but HOLY CRAP! The past two weeks has been one extended exercise in patience, letting go and biting of tongues. After saying our good-byes at the airport this evening, Sam and I let out a collective sigh—I’m fairly certain I heard Ruby release a small chirp of relief, too—and began our ritual decompression consisting of a few loud expletives (5 bucks each to the college fund) and an out-of-chronological-order re-hashing of each event that had pushed us to the limit.
There was the endless humming; non-stop talking at deafening decibles; 7 phone calls to Wisconsin during each day to find out “what the weather was like back home”; complaints of aching knees or the joint-pain-of-the-moment and the overall sucky proceess of getting old; audible outbursts of bodily functions that are only cute and/or acceptable when they come from the baby; dirty old man jokes; dirty old man sexist jokes; and did I mention the non-stop talking yet?
There was lots of talk. Talk. Talk. Talk. Talk to anyone in the room or not in the room. Talk to the baby. Talk about the baby. Talk to the new parents. Talk on the phone. Talk to the dog. Talk to the computer. Talk to the neighbor or the stranger at the park. Oh! My! God! If any of you think that I can talk, you must meet my each of our mothers. Now, LISTENING…well, listening is a whole different challenge which, I have to say, Sam and I met with Gold Medal contention. It’s difficult to admit but it’s true: Ruby’s grandmas don’t engage in a whole lot of listening.
Sticking to just my side of the family, listening skills are both crucial and sorely lacking in my mother and therefore, major hand holding is required if the desired result is anything resembling communication. As a policy, we accept the reality that communication is going to break down and remain that way throughout the duration of her visits and we’re becoming increasingly proficient at managing this set of circumstances. During her most recent stay, however, things really devolved when Sam had to PHYSICALLY SHOVE Gaye Donna out of the way. This happened more than once, actually, until he finally shrugged, gave up and let her struggle with the poop all over the nursery rather than intervene in the final diaper change fiasco. The first shove, though, was instinctual; a fight-or-flight type of decision. She “was just trying to be helpful” and opened the door to the mailman, despite us repeatedly telling her not to do this since Ella thinks it’s fun to run through the hole she made in our screen door when we first brought her home. Of course, my mother didn’t listen to us and for a very long 15 or 20 seconds, all hell broke loose in this house. Ella bolted to greet the unlucky visitor, Perrito (my mother’s Chihuahua who travels in a sweater that reads “Service Dog.” For reals.) followed in Ella’s shadow yapping incessantly, Ruby squeeled with glee at the doggie commotion from her safe distance in my arms, I tsk-tsked my mother from across the room and Sam quietly—if a bit roughly—threw elbows, kicked Perrito out of the way, grabbed Ella’s collar with one hand, the stack of mail with the other and offered profuse apologies to the exasperated mailman who grumbled that he’d already been knocked down and bitten that day. Given this level of chaos and energy is sustained over a 5 day period, I can barely believe we made it to the end of her visit alive and physically unscathed. I generally fall into a deep sleep (some may say coma) immediately following the end of a visit. So, the fact that I’m awake now may be a sign of a quickening recovery time. Or severe trauma. Not sure which.
Right now, thankfully, all I hear is the rain outside, the clicking of the keyboard, the hum of the computer and the night-coo’s from Ruby’s bedroom. These next few days, things will return to normal, which is not to say uneventful or unbusy. But getting back to our usual routine will be a like going on a tropical vacation. Which, in all reality, is only 3 and-a-half weeks away. Sigh. I can’t wait.