Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wing Man

Last year I decided to do something different during the holidays. I just couldn't stand the thought of sitting around on New Year's Eve by myself. So when a dear friend invited me to visit her in New York City that seemed the perfect solution: New Year in New York.
    Traveling to Manhattan, the trip was charmed. Planes departed as scheduled. The bus lingered outside the LaGuardia baggage claim until the moment I alighted from my flight, as if it waited just for me. Trains and subway lines picked up speed and arrived at my stations early. I was never in a hurry and never stressed about travel, and every logistic unfolded without mishap. I even extended my trip a few days to go to Washington D.C. for the swearing in ceremony of a friend who'd just been elected to the Senate. At each turn, I met very kind, generous people—both friends and strangers—who took me in, made me laugh and served me food for thought. 
   As I neared the end of my vacation, one thing had not occurred on my New Year's Trip that I hoped would happen: I had not found romance on my travels. No, I was not looking for a one-night stand. (Shame on you, for thinking that! I was upholding my Buddhist Vows, thank you very much.) But I had considered that it would be very nice to meet someone handsome and interesting while I was out and about. I'm a hopeful romantic, remember? And I was down one Prince Charming.
  Yet, upon departing D.C., I was happy and content, having just enjoyed a quiet morning strolling around Georgetown by myself. After breakfast, I rode the Metro to Union Station to catch the train to BWI, where I had a direct flight back to Birmingham. The train lets out at a substation near the airport and requires passengers to board a shuttle bus, which goes to the terminal. My luck held. The shuttle was waiting for me when the train arrived, and a good thing too since— feeling cocky about my logistic good fortune—I had not provided extra time to catch this flight. As the bus lurched forward and lumbered toward the airport, the man sitting next to me began to cough. Ever the good Samaritan, I dug into my purse and extracted a lozenge. 
   "Zinc?" I asked him. 
   "No thanks," he replied. "Keep it." 
   I thought his response a bit terse, but I let it go after noticing he was a cross between Matt LaBlanc and Matthew Broderick with just a smidgeon of Tony Shalhoub thrown in for good measure. His tone softened when he turned to look at me, the lowly cough drop offerer in my urban-chic traveler togs: black leggings, black mini-skirt and black suede boots. We struck up a conversation and discovered we were on the same flight to Birmingham. As we began flirting, I took note that his left ring finger was quite definitely bare. All good.
   By the time we boarded the aircraft, there was no doubt that we would find two seats together. Cough Drop was cute and funny and, apparently, very smitten with me. I actually pinched him once to make sure he was real. Realizing this very well might be too good to be true, as we buckled our seat belts, I asked, "So your wife or girlfriend isn't gonna to be mad at you for flirting with me?"
    "No," he said, laughing. "No one's gonna be mad." 
   In turn, I told him about my separation and impending divorce, and that I had a son. 
   "That's all great," he said. "Thanks for being so honest with me. Really, that's perfect!"
   Before the plane took to the skies, we had a date planned for Saturday night. I couldn't believe my luck. As it turned out he was 35 (I asked to see his driver's license) and I slyly dismissed his query about my age, saying coyly, "I'm older than you. Does it really matter?" Apparently, it didn't. Descending into Alabama airspace, he mentioned a recent donation to a children's hospital. That was the altruistic icing on the cake. I just met a cute, compassionate guy on the last leg of my travels, and he even lived in my hometown. Perfect. 
   As we walked through the concourse in Birmingham, Cough Drop gave me his phone number. Then he said something unexpected, "My Mom's picking me up downstairs, would you like to meet her?"
   "No," I said, laughing. "That's quite alright."
    And although I hoped he didn't still live with his mother, the fact that he would have introduced me to her made me feel more confident about going out with him.  
 On Saturday night, I took a long, hot bath and spent more time than usual curling my hair and applying make-up. It was my first date in sixteen years. Understandably I was a bit nervous and excited, but I didn't have expectations of Cough Drop. He was smart, nice and funny, but I just wanted a fun night out with a cute guy. And yes, I did think about how nice it would be to kiss him. That's the Buddhist truth. And as we sat at the bar and kissed before God and Man and a few dozen sports fans watching ESPN, it was nice, really nice, actually.
  Afterwards, my very chatty traveling companion grew quiet.  
  "There's something I've been meaning to tell you." 
   Crap, I thought, this can't be good.
   In keeping with my Buddhist practice and finding the good in all events, what he told me could have been so much worse. For example, he could have said, "I am a serial killer and you're going to be my next victim." But what he confessed halted our interlude just as quickly. He hem-hawed around for a moment or two and then blurted out: "I'm married."  
  Apparently this fine fellow had been so taken with me on the bus to BWI that he removed his wedding band along with all moral underpinning—the latter of which he may never have possessed. 
 "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner," he said, as he explained that he and his wife were "having problems. Sort of like you and your husband."
 “Where is she now?" I asked, incredulous. 
   "Back at our condo. What's the problem? You're married, too!"
   "Oh my God! No, it's very different! I'm separated! My husband and I are getting divorced. There are attorneys involved and papers being drawn up! My husband already has a new girlfriend. It’s a done deal.”
    “That’s what you say.”
    “No, really,” I said. “My marriage is over. Yours, however, is not. I have to go.”
    "Listen, please, I don't want you to think I'm a bad guy,” he said. “You have to understand. You see, my wife is crazy! I mean really crazy. I spend all my time trying to keep her from going off the deep end."
 “Great! Is she going to show up here?”
   Cough Drop paused, then smiled.
   “You know, you would probably like my wife if you met her. Everyone loves her. She doesn’t seem crazy at all when you first meet her.”
 “And what does she think you’re doing right now?" I asked, but then thought better of it. "Never mind. I have to go. It’s okay. No harm. No foul. I’m not mad, but I have to go now.”
   "Please, don't go," he said. "Stay and talk to me."
 I put on my coat. I just wanted to leave this bar, get in my car, drive home and forget the whole awful mess. As I walked to the door,  Cough Drop followed me like a point guard, apologizing and begging me not to go away mad. It occurred to me then that his poor wife was probably a perfectly nice, sane person. He was the one who was crazy.
  “I just feel so sorry for you," he said. "I mean, your husband has a girlfriend and here you are, all alone.”
   “Really, I’m good," I said. "Don’t worry about me. Honestly, I’m not upset, but I should go.”
   “You know, I’d like to be your friend,” he said. “I could be your wing man. We could just go out and have fun, you know? You could call me anytime, for anything. Really. And you know, my wife really would like you. She could use a friend like you. I think you would like her, too.”
   “I'm sure I would,” I said, edging out of the door. 
   “Hey wait! I have an idea,” he said. “Maybe we could have a threesome!"  
    I did not see that coming. I'm sure my jaw dropped.
   "Not gonna happen,” I said, laughing at the absurdity of it all. “I'm leaving now. Thanks."
   So endth my official first date. I walked out of the bar and into the cold, clear night. Once in the parking lot, I sprinted to my car without looking back. I locked the doors, started the engine and sped away. I chose a circuitous route home, in case Cough Drop decided to follow me. Some houses in my neighborhood still had Christmas decorations on display, but the holidays were over. It was January. I made it through my first Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years Eve alone, without having a mental meltdown. 
   Though not an ideal entree back into the land of singledom, the date was not a total loss. I learned some important lessons. First, under the header of Be Careful What You Ask For, I learned that next time I traveled and wished for a romantic encounter, I would be more specific, as in: "I would like to meet a man, who is available and not a liar, nor a man who thinks his marital problems can be solved with a threesome." And I also knew that if a man I just met ever offered to introduce me to his mother at first blush, I would definitely take him up on it, and I would get her phone number—instead of his. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sticky Edges: A memory

Sometime after I left for college, my mother planted holly bushes and pines along the front of our house. After twenty years of growth, she finally had her wish: the foliage was so tall and dense that passersby could not see the old rock house from the road. Years ago, before the city expanded its boundaries, our house was considered "in the country." My parents' little farm—with its cows and pigs and large vegetable garden—was typical for the rural area. Now a strip mall replaced the dense woods across the street.  
My Mom with Jack (age 3-months) in 2002.
   It was dark by the time Jack and I turned off the road onto the hidden driveway. The porch light cast a yellowish light on the nandina bushes in front of the house. Although their simple branches were tangled in sticker vines, they set out red berries doing their best to look festive. The stone house was unchanged, yet it seemed smaller, as if its structure was shrinking with the same aging process as my parents, who were now well into their 80s. 
    As your parents reach this age, you hope to appreciate all the nuances about them. You want to breath them in like air. You hope to remember all those tiny details later. The sound of voice and laughter. The smell of fried chicken. The warm embrace. The coolness of their hands in yours. I tried to cling to these sensory gifts, though almost immediately they began to fade, like perfect snowflakes melting on my outstretched palm. Yet, sometime during each visit, patient appreciation gave way to reality and reminders of why I was always leaving: My life was no longer contained here.
   Brass bells tied with hay bailing twine cried out as Jack and I entered the too-warm house. The first thing I noticed was what was not there: No Christmas tree.
   The tree was always placed in the same spot, to the left of my Dad's red chair. There were years when my father had to fasten fishing line between the tree and a nail in the wall to anchor it in place. We never bought a tree. Dad went out in the nearby woods and cut them down. Mostly cedars, they were, with imperfect, crooked trunks and sticky branches that made my arms itch. No matter their shape or size, these home-grown trees were always perfect by the time their branches were weighed down with lights and ornaments and shiny, glass balls, and strewn with silver tinsel that shimmered and spun when the air stirred. But not this year. A tree had been too much this year, and besides, Jack and I would be back home before Christmas Eve.
   "Come in, come in," my Mother cooed, her soft voice broken by the remnants of a cold. I bent slightly to hug her. She was so thin. When had she become so thin? I prompted Jack to step closer. He hugged her around the legs and she bent to extend her arms around him.
   "Oh, Jack, you've gotten so big!" Mom said. "What do you have there?"
    She pointed to the black and white plush cat that he gripped by the tail. His right thumb returned to his mouth as he worked the thread-bare tail through his left thumb and fingers.
   "Let Grandma see," I said.
   "It's Gawky," Jack said, holding his beloved toy out to my Mom. Jack settled on this favored toy when he was two. Somehow "cat" came out "gawk" and then was turned to "Gawky." Jack could not sleep without Gawky.
   Mom took the cat and held and stroked it, as if it were real. She knew children. She knew just what to do and say. In fact, she was almost silly when talking to a child. She slipped into this tender role so easily. I put Jack down.
   "Oh, no!" she said in feigned distress, as she examine the ruined tail. "What's happened to his tail?"
   "That's his scratchy spot!" said Jack, smiling.
   "His what?" Mom asked.
   "His scratchy spot," I said loud enough for her to hear.
   "His scratchy spot?" Mom repeated. She positioned an oversized pair of reading glasses that must have been my Dad's on her nose and took a closer look. "Looks like his tail is coming apart."
   I looked and sure enough, the end of the tail had split and the poor cat's stuffing was exposed.
   "Jack, maybe Grandma could fix Gawky's tail for you while we're here," I offered. "She's a very good sewer!"
   Mother handed Jack back his cat and he grabbed the scratchy spot and plucked his thumb in his mouth, rubbing the well-worn place where comfort was known.
  Mother moved slowly, balancing herself on the doorframe as she walked from the living room to the kitchen. Among her known health concerns were osteoporosis and high blood pressure. After experiencing what she first called a "mild heart attack," and then insisted was nothing at all, her doctor placed her on a low-cholesteral, low-salt diet, which she mostly followed dutifully. Mom had been a nurse after all. She once worked in surgery. She knew how to follow the instructions of doctors.
   "Are you hungry?" Mother asked.
    "No Mom," I said, following her to the kitchen. "Jack was hungry, so we had to go ahead and eat. We stopped at Wendy's on the way."
   "Oh? Well, you must still want something! I have some cookies out in the freezer. I bet Jack would like a sugar cookie! I've got some icing made up, too. Jack, do you want to icing some cookies with Grandma?"
    Jack nodded, and I was sent to the old garage—which to my knowledge never housed an automobile— to forage through the large deep freeze and find frozen cookies.

   Mother was a good southern cook. She taught me to make fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy from roux. She made German dishes too: Potato pancakes and bean soup and mashed kohlrabi. Her recipe box was jammed full of yellowed clippings from The Arkansas GazetteSouthern Living, Family Circle. There were recipes clipped from bags of flour and chocolate chips and from the labels of soup cans. She collected these scraps, sometimes pasting them onto index cards before filing them away, but some were left as provided, such as the recipe for tamale pie scrawled on a scrap of paper by  a church friend at a potluck. She rarely made any of these new recipes, especially after my sisters and I moved away from home. Dad was a meat-and-potatoes man. No wonder Gazpacho—or "salad soup" as my mother wrote in her cramped cursive on the card—was never realized in her kitchen.
  Mother also liked to bake. Her thin-crusted Apple Pizza was a favorite, but her signature sweets were her sugar cookies. They were buttery, sweet, crisp and thin. Slice-n-bake was anathema in our home. The process of making sugar cookies from scratch was time consuming, but Mother always made them before every major holiday. She had dozens of cookie cutters that she had collected over the years. My favorite—and the oldest—were made of a thick red plastic and had fancy indentations that would imprint details into the dough. There were Santas, reindeer, wreaths, angels, camels (for the Three Wise Men) and snowmen at Christmas. Rabbits, chicks and egg shapes at Easter. Shamrocks for Saint Patrick's Day. Hearts at Valentines, and stars and flags for the Fourth of July. She had a menagerie of circus animals, dinosaurs and barnyard critters, too. She often took cookies to church functions when children would be present, and always had some ready for her grandchildren.

  Mother's deep freeze was an enormous white, metal beast that held everything from milk and cheese to steaks and potato chips. She hated to see food spoil, and since it was only Dad and her at home these days, she she found freezing the best solution for storing excess.
   I lifted the door of the freezer, pulling against the its vacuum seal. A cloud of cold air issued forth and it took me a minute to orient myself to the items cast in frost. Mother labeled most items with a slip of paper attached by a rubber band. There were also plastic containers of chicken broth, egg yolks, bread crumbs, fresh parsley and lemon juice. No item was too minescule to save for future use. A child of the Depression, Mom's sense of practical frugality hadn't waned over the decades.
   Just as promised, the jar of sugar cookies was in the back left corner of the freezer, behind the saltine crackers. A film of condensation covered the container as I carried it into the warm house. Jack was sitting on his knees on a chair at the kitchen table, a dish towel tied around his waste as an apron. Mom held a small bowl in which she was showing him how to mix red food coloring into white icing. She stirred with a toothpick until the sweet stuff was a bright pink. Then she picked up another bowl, dabbed a bit of white icing in it and added blue food color."To make Santa's eyes," she explained. "The eyes really make them come alive." And on she went, creating green and yellow and a dab of orange.
   Meanwhile the fog on the jar of frozen cookies began to disperse and I could discern an unusual yellow cast to the contents. I opened the jar and removed a few cookies. Usually, crisp and clearly defined, this batch was thick, hard and misshaped. Had she added too much baking powder? Or used self-rising flour? Something was distinctly off. The cookies possessed a faint sulfur, eggy odor, perhaps the reason for their yellow hue. Mom didn't seem to notice, nor did Jack, who grabbed a cookie and began to nibble at its frozen edges.
   In most aspects of life—with money, sex, religion, politics—Mother was very conservative, but when it came to decorating her sugar cookies, she was down-right decadent. She spent hours carefully glazing each cookie with buttery-sweet icing, adding red hots for Santa's nose and coconut beards. The reindeer got red-hot noses, too. Camels received special attention, often sporting silver dragees on their ornately iced backs. They were modeled after a picture Mom clipped from a magazine.
   Mother picked up a cookie shaped somewhat like a Christmas stocking and began to apply a thick layer of green icing. Her icing was usually quite smooth, but tonight it clumped in places where the powder sugar was not well integrated into the butter and milk, creating an acne of sugar. She placed the stocking down on a tray on the table, and picked up a camel. I tried not to stare as she labored through the process of applying the thick icing. Mom was—her own term—"slowing down." By this time, Jack abandoned his cookie to play in the adjoining room with all the old familiar toys that Grandma kept for his visits.
  "Oh fiddle!" Mom said. "I just can't get this eye right."
  I looked at the camel. Instead of a delicate dot of icing for an eye, he had a swath of blue across his nose.
   "Let me help," I said, taking the cookie from her. I did my best to transform the blue blotch into a bridle and reigns and then applied the slightest dab of icing to make an eye. It looked better, but not like Mom's famous designs. 
   Sitting down at the table across from Mom, I watched her cover an angel in white icing, her slender fingers grasping the knife. Then she handed the cookie to me to place the small details. Blue eyes, yellow halo, an oval mouth of pink. We worked together like this for a while. I didn't know that this odd batch of Christmas cookies would be her last. The slow unraveling of her mind was gradual and subtle, her thoughts catching on the sticky edges of the past. As dementia stole her, the careful tasks she perfected were among the first to be taken, and yet those Christmas cookies—and the memories they stir every year—remain a legacy of her love.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Oh! Christmas Tree

My Christmas tree, front view:

As if on cue, the weather turned chilly on Thanksgiving Day. When you're driving six hours in the rain, there's little else to do but grip the wheel, focus and try to quell your mind while the windshield wipers slap out a steady mantra. When we left on Tuesday before the holiday there were still a few golden leaves on the trees. Now, just a few days later, the cold front brought rain as if to target the those last leaves of fall and bring them down to earth. 
   Arriving back in Birmingham, I noted that some houses already had their Christmas decorations up, but the wet and barren chill didn't inspire a sense of merriment.
    I've always loved Christmas, or maybe just the promise of Christmas. A holiday so filled with songs about Peace of Earth and Joy to the World and topped off with giving and love, must generate a lot of good karma. No matter your religious beliefs, Christmas is hard to ignore. Gift giving is intoxicating, really, as are the parties and festive lights and delicious food. 
   Last night Jack and I made the definitive step into the Yuletide: We purchased a Christmas tree. The skies were gray and a light mist was falling when I picked Jack up from school, but no matter. We needed a tree, and today was the day. 
   By the time we made it to the Boy Scout tree lot, the rain was coming down steadily. I grabbed two umbrellas from the backseat, but Jack preferred to run ahead through the maze of trees. (Thankfully, it was a warm day.) We were handed a price list. The trees ranged from thirty-nine dollars up to over a hundred dollars. I asked where I could find the thirty-nine dollar trees.
   "They're in the back over there," explained a kindly Cub Scout Master. "Those are the trees with the yellow ribbons." 
    "Look for yellow!" I shouted after Jack. He was eyeing a blue, which was not in our price range.
    Jack stood by a stately spruce that towered over his head and mine. 
   "I like this one," he said.
    "Look for yellow," I countered, "That tree is $159."
    Jack looked at the tree with new respect, and then ran ahead to find a yellow-ribbon tree.
   The yellows were in the back of the lot, as foretold. The tallest was about the same height as Jack. This was not what I had in mind for the foyer of my new home. I had envisioned a stately evergreen, shimmering with lights and ornaments, visible from the street through my windows and door. My hopes sank. This was not the tree of my dreams, but I wasn't ready to settle just yet.
   "Let's keep looking," I said.
   "I like this one," said Jack, petting the fronds of a diminutive spruce. "It's cute and cuddly." 
   It's times like this that I feel unworthy to have this child. He would be happy with the littlest, scruffiest tree. He always goes for the underdog—like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the cartoon.
   "Okay, we'll keep that one in mind," I said, looking down at the price sheet. "Let's try to find the white-ribbon trees."
   Jack sprinted through the trees as I looked for white ribbons. The white-ribbon trees were fifty-four dollars. Not a bargain, but perhaps worth it if they were a bit more grand.
   Smelling a sure sale in the air, the Cub Scout Master approached us.
   "Did ya find one ya like?" he asked.
   "We're still looking around," I said. "Where are the white-ribbon trees?"
    The Scout Master trudged to the other end of the tree lot and pointed to a row of white-ribboned spruces. The first one was stout and full and—tall. It was the tallest of the white-ribbons. Jack ran up behind me and shouted, "I want that one!"
   "We'll take it!" I said to the Scout Master. 
   The rain was steadily coming down now. The Scout Master took off his glasses and wiped them on the end of his shirt. He motioned to an Eagle Scout who was standing under a tent, and together they hoisted the tree and carried to my car.

   As I drove home with the large tree strapped to the hood of my car like a prize elk, I begin to wonder how I would get the tree into my house. Surely it wasn't as heavy as all that. I couldn't recall what I had done on Christmas' past—before I was married, but then, I probably hadn't purchased an eight-foot tree. Well, I would manage, I thought. How heavy can a tree possibly be? I drove slowly, fearing the tree would shift and slide off the back of my car. A lot of discordant karma could be caused by a tree flying off of a car into traffic. "I'll figure it out when I get home," I thought, focusing on the wet road. 
   And as if scripted, as I pulled up in front of my house, a man who was out walking his dog in the rain stopped and asked me if I needed help with my tree. (Note: I am not making this up.) I'd seen this guy before, sometimes in scrubs. He lived on my street, but we'd never met. His dog was a well-groomed Sheep Dog, who probably weighed almost as much as my tree. I took the dog leash, and in no time, Dr. Do-Good had my prize tree on my front porch. 
   "It'll probably be lighter once it dries out," he said.
    I thanked him profusely and marveled at my luck. Getting the tree to the porch had been no problem at all, surely getting the tree into its stand and into my house wouldn't be so hard...

  There have only been a few points in my life where I felt that I had bitten off more than I could chew. One instance occurred while I was editing a story for NPR and the deadline was ticking down by the second. The other instance occurred while I was hanging on for dear life to my eight-foot tall spruce as it swayed precariously threatening to fall. 
   The following day, while Jack was at school, I determined to set up the tree so it would be ready to decorate when he came home. Problem: The tree—even dry—must have weighed eighty pounds. I could lift it, but only for a brief time. I managed to grab it full-on and wrangle it inside the front door. Then I managed to lift it into the stand. But once in the stand I had no way to secure it with those maddening metal screws provided in the tree stand. I couldn't hold the tree and secure it at the same time. While I was contemplating my next move, the tree swayed, swinging its weight and almost tipping over in the stand. I felt it falling toward me, and braced it with both arms. An image flashed in my head: There I was lying on the floor for days, pinned beneath my Christmas tree. I somehow found the strength to right the tree, but now I was stuck holding it up. And my arms were beginning to ache. I wasn't sure how long I could hold on.
   Fortunately, I brought my cell phone downstairs. Unfortunately, it was on the foyer table about four feet out of my reach. If I let the tree fall, it might ruin the tree and my new floors. This was an "I Love Lucy Moment" if ever there was one. And yet, I was determined to accomplish this feat. I hated to think that I had to depend upon a guy to do all the heavy lifting. Surely I could think of a solution.
   Slowly, I maneuvered around the tree to position myself closer to the phone. Keeping one hand on the trunk, I fully extended my arms until my fingertips grazed the phone and pulled it closer. Then, still holding up the tree with one hand, I called my next door neighbor, Emily, and prayed that she was home. (She's a freelance writer, like me, so there was a good chance she'd be there.) I put the phone on speaker and waited for the sound of the Emily's phone ringing. The call dropped. I redialed and waited for the sound of Emily's phone ringing. The call dropped again. My right arm, which was holding up the 80 lb. tree, began to tremble. I hit the redial button again...and the phone began to ring. Emily answered right away. She was at my front door in moments, following the trail of spruce fronds and laughing at me for trying to handle this enormous tree by myself. Within about five minutes we had the tree secured in the stand, but there was one little problem: The trunk was hopelessly crooked.
My Christmas tree, side view:
the Crooked Tree
I once thought of Christmas as the ultimate romance—filled with longing and love and hope. As a culture, we have a love affair with this holiday. And like a good love affair, Christmas is fleeting and intense and brings with it the heady feelings of joy. And as with romantic love, often the payoff is not as good as the build-up. Once the presents are opened and the parties are over, it's back to business as usual.  

   But maybe I've been going about it all wrong. Maybe—like the rest of life—Christmas is about the journey and not about the Big Day. Perhaps this Christmas will be about how I was almost smothered by my Christmas tree. And this tree will be special not because it is stately and grand, but because it's imperfect and funny—just like me. Christmas won't be perfect this year, but—with spruce fronds in my hair and the gentle scent of Ben Gay perfuming my aching arms—it could be the best Christmas ever.