Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 16

When our second little girl was born, the unthinkable happened. The Bible study ladies wanted to pamper me, to throw a baby shower for me, to bring me meals and to clean my house. It was their tradition: They did it for all the new mothers in the group. I had personally cooked meals and helped clean for some of them. Now it was my turn. I just could not let them see my house. During the week after I came home from the hospital, Dan ran interference for me. He picked up the meals from my friends on his way home from work to “save them the trouble” of driving all the way to our place. Luckily, they held the baby shower at another lady’s home. I put off the house cleaning visit for as long as I could. I told Glynis, “No, thank you.” I told her, “No need to trouble yourself.” I smiled sweetly, secretly clenched my fists, and said “Really, I’m fine. I don’t need any help.” My fingernails dug little bloody marks into the palms of my hands as I politely resisted and resisted. When the baby was about a month old I caved. Glynis and I set a date. I was supposed to take my two girls for a lovely outing, while she, Debi, and a couple of their helpful cleaning cohorts ravaged whatever dignity I had left.

The day before my friends were supposed to come clean my house, I worked harder than I had in my entire life. I picked up everything in the yard and pushed it away from the open shed door. I stuffed piles of magazines, toys, and craft projects into closets and under my bed. I washed all the dishes and pans and put them away in the cupboards. I made sure all our laundry was done and hung up in the closet. I vacuumed, swept and mopped. I stayed up well past midnight getting the house ready for the ladies to clean it.

When Glynis, Debi, Rachel and Donna showed up at my door the next morning I was showered and confident. I loaded the girls up in their double stroller and headed off to the park. I tried not to be nervous about what was possibly going on back home. The babies and I enjoyed a picnic lunch, visited the local library and headed home a couple of hours later.

When I walked in the door, I could not have been more shocked. The ladies were gone, and the house was CLEAN. I mean sparkling, shining, Pledge commercial CLEAN. The difference was so remarkable, I was dumbfounded. The kitchen sink was completely white. The edge of the linoleum around the bottom of the oven no longer had a greasy, crumb infested film around it. The drip trays on the stove were covered in fresh aluminum foil. The ladies had hung the curtain in the front window. The floor behind the toilet was no longer yellow. There were no toaster crumbs in the utensil drawer. The rubber dish drainer mat beside the kitchen sink looked like new. They had scrubbed off the slimy brown film with Ajax. Worst of all, the dish drainer was full of freshly washed baby bottles, nipples and rings. Up to that point, I had not known that baby bottle caps came apart into two pieces. Black slime grew between the rubber nipple and the plastic rings, and I had been giving my babies water out of those bottles! How could I have not noticed? I wanted to scream.

Something weird and new and wonderful and horrible happened inside my soul. I felt as though scales had fallen from my eyes, and I could see my life clearly. Ever since I was a teenager, I had been working at fitting stray puzzles pieces together, trying to build a picture that did not make any sense. My home, my dreams, my efforts ultimately looked nothing like the real me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 15

The ladies were all so nice to me. We went out to lunch together, and sometimes one of them would invite Dan and me over for supper. Their houses were clean, their lawns were manicured and their time seemed relaxed. Back at my house, the manager of the mobile home park was leaving threatening notices on my front door to clean up the mess in the yard.

Dan and I worked together to build a bigger shed. We needed the spare room and the crib because we had another baby on the way. As quickly as it was erected, it was filled up with stuff. In went the box of ironing, the pink taffeta covered cardboard dresser, the three gallon spaghetti pan and the piles of couponing and refunding junk. It all could have stayed reasonably contained, if only we had finished the project by adding a door. More space in the shed just meant more stuff. No door on the shed meant that our little mobile home lot looked like a perpetual flea market. The key word here is “flea.”

Somehow projects never got finished. The shed did not have a door. Our yard had a garden, but no lawn. I made curtains for our front window, but never hung them. Dan got a course and a half of brick laid for a planter, but ran out of mortar before the job was done. In December of that year, we took a wonderful drive up to the mountains with my family to cut a Christmas tree. We brought it home and left it out in the yard until the needles fell off sometime in March. It seemed that we never had enough time to finish a project before the next one came along. With my husband gone to work all day, another baby on the way, and an infant who split her time between sticking everything in her mouth and pooping her cloth diapers, I felt helpless. Even if I had the time to hang a door on the shed or put up the Christmas tree, I totally lacked the skill.

Now as a full-fledged adult I was right back to where I had been on my eleventh birthday: My house looked like crap, and I did not understand why. Nobody else in my circle of friends had homes that looked like mine. I felt different, and somehow wrong. I tried to keep a positive attitude. I worked harder and longer every day. I went to Bible study every Wednesday and smiled. My struggles were my secret. I was sure that if any of those Bible study ladies ever found out what a mess my house was, I would be back to calling the Adolph’s recipe hotline.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 14

My messy home kept me isolated. Any time someone came to the house, I would push back the overflowing debris and stick my face out a crack in the door. We were active in our local church, but obviously we could not invite any other young couples over to dinner. I was very lonely. My refunding newsletter listed an Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer 800 number which featured a recording of a new recipe daily. Home alone with a only a nursing baby for company, I secretly called it three or four times a day, just to hear an adult voice on the other end of the line. A woman from church kept bugging me to go to Wednesday morning ladies’ Bible study with her, but I felt trapped by my own failure. If I could not keep the house clean with the time I had available to me, how could I spare two hours away from home every week? I told her that I could not go because I had too much housework to do. She promised that she would come help me, if I went with her. There was no way that I was going to let her even see my house, let alone clean it! I agreed to go with her, just so she would leave me alone.

The ladies at Bible study seemed to have it all together, especially Glynis, the assistant pastor’s wife. She lived in the parsonage next door to the church with a tie-wearing husband and one very tidy child. Everything in her house was white, and she organized her spices in alphabetical order. I once asked her casually how she kept her house so neat even with a small child at home. She told me that, unless her daughter was in eminent danger, Glynis made her wait until she was completely done with her housework before she allowed the little girl to interrupt. Another lady, Debi, had three children, the youngest of whom was the same age as my baby girl. Her house was immaculate. She was also exceptionally stylish and good looking, but Debi said that she did not breastfeed because she could not bear to sit still and to hold the baby that long. Another lady, who sat beside me every week, lived her life out of a day planner. I had never even heard of a day planner before, but this gal could flip a few pages and tell you where she was going to be in six months and how much she spent on gifts last Christmas. Even though we shared the same faith, I felt like I had almost nothing in common with these people. Nonetheless, they were better than the Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer recording.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 13

Setting my mind against the inevitable disillusionment that followed took every ounce of my energy. I was happy at home. “Happy!” I say, “Happy!” What I was unhappy about was finding that, at the very core of my being, I was not the woman whom I had dreamed that I would be.

My mind had deluded me into believing that I was the Pledge commercial lady, but my soul was kind of a leftover hippy. I planted the biggest garden that I could in our little rented mobile home space amongst the debris that trailed out from the lean-to. I breastfed the baby full time, and I used only cloth diapers. My mind and my soul were in a constant battle: My life did not look like I had imagined it would, but I could not change who I really was deep inside just to please my imagination. I could not bear the thought of strapping artificial paper and plastic diapers on my baby and suffocating her sweet little bum. She wanted to be held and nursed constantly. Feeding her a bottle of artificially produced soy formula would have been nothing short of betrayal. I felt the same way about prepackaged food for Dan and me. I cooked fresh from my garden as much as I could and determined to spend as little as possible at the grocery store.

I started reading books on how to live on less. I clipped coupons and signed up for a newsletter that kept me up to date with the latest manufacturers’ rebates. I had seen people on television who used “couponing and refunding” to buy $500 worth of groceries for $4.32. The trick to doing this, however, is to keep every package, bag and wrapper from every product that you buy, to ask all your friends and neighbors to give you theirs and to dumpster dive for the rest. The baby was sleeping with us, so I used her crib to hold my refunding stash.

I really wanted to have a shiny clean house, but my time was consumed with nursing the baby, loading her up in the stroller with the diaper pail balanced on the back, and walking to the Laundromat every day. In my spare time, I went dumpster diving for cereal boxes and green bean labels. I worked in the garden and cooked nutritious soups. I even tried to clean the house. I hustled and hustled, but nothing ever seemed to look right. Sometimes I would still be vacuuming when Dan came home from work at 4:00 p.m. I left pans soaking on the back of the stove and cried myself to sleep every night.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 12

Those very early days of our marriage were a blur of lovemaking, fighting, working, lovemaking, sleeping late, eating out at restaurants, watching movies, visiting friends, dumpster diving, going to church and lovemaking. Doing housework? Not so much.

Both of us were disorganized and messy before we were married, but together we created a catastrophic chemical reaction. Our stuff seemed to multiply faster than two jackrabbits on their third date. Dan built a little open-air lean-to behind our home to hold our belongings. Whenever we needed to get something out of storage we would have to pull out a dozen other things. Usually we were too busy fighting, working, and lovemaking to put things back where they belonged. Much of the time, stuff was left strewn in the yard.

Added to our mess was our miserable compulsive tardiness. Right around the time we were supposed to arrive for a movie, a birthday party, or an appointment we were just finishing up fighting, sleeping or lovemaking. We were habitually half an hour, or more, late to everything. Our friends and family started telling us that every event started an hour sooner than it did. Silly them. We quickly got wise to their tricks and showed up even later. We were blithely in love and uncaring about anyone but ourselves.

The spare bedroom did not stay spare very long. Our first baby was born nine months and an hour and a half after our wedding. (I like to tell people that we had a great wedding reception!) I quit work to stay home with her. I had finally achieved the greatest goal of my life: I got to be a real stay-at-home housewife and mother! I was going to be the Pledge Commercial Lady; Dan would be like Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver. He was going to come home from the office and sit on the couch in his tie and sweater vest smoking a pipe. Our child would sit neatly in her high chair eating strained peas and smiling. All this would magically happen because I willed it so.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 11

It took me longer than I expected to “Phil” in the blank and meet my husband. Like Diana Ross once said, “You can’t hurry love.” I was an old maid of twenty when I finally married. Lest you worry, dear reader, that my selfish motives caused the relationship to end badly, such was not the case. I genuinely loved Phil. I mean Dan. After almost 30 years I still do. Fortunately for both of us, he loves me back.

On my wedding day I was nervous and shaking. One of my bridesmaids said, “What are you so nervous about? This is the day you’ve been waiting for since you were, like, four years old!” I wondered if I had always been that obvious.

After a brief honeymoon during which our ten-year-old rusty Datsun pick up broke down in a place called Baker, Nevada, we settled into domestic bliss. We bought a ten by forty-seven foot two bedroom mobile home and moved in all our stuff. Guess what? I had married my father. He brought into our marriage forty-five boxes of I-don’t-know-what, and at least a dozen more which should have been marked, “What-was-he-thinking?”

One box was filled with just his ironing from the previous six months. What a considerate guy! He knew how much I wanted to be a real housewife, so he had saved every non-perma-press shirt he owned from the time he fell in love with me, just so I could have the joy of ironing. I found quickly that, even if I had wanted to shove Dan under the bed while I roasted plastic turkeys, he was a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood man with his own feelings and opinions. He liked his stuff. He wanted his stuff. He kept his stuff. When I suggested that, since he had not worn those shirts for more than six months, we should throw them out, he got mad. I taped up the box of ironing and hid it in the spare bedroom.

Of course I brought my stuff into the trailer, too, but it was good stuff. I only owned things that I really valued, like my mom’s three gallon spaghetti pot and Aunt Doll’s old cardboard dresser that was covered in pink quilted taffeta and filled with about twenty-five pounds of rickrack. My heartstrings were tied tightly to the things that belonged to my departed loved ones, and seriously, you just never knew when that kind of stuff would come in handy.

Added to both his boxes and mine were the wedding gifts. We got two toasters, three crockpots, and a “Hang in There, Baby” poster. We hung the poster on our bedroom door and exchanged one of the crockpots for a set of jumper cables for the Datsun. The rest we crammed into the spare bedroom.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 10

I graduated high school and set off for college with a few more of my personal puzzle pieces in place. Deep down I did not really care about getting a college degree. College, for me, was the means to an end with the end being a Pledge Commercial house and a bunch of kids like on the Brady Bunch. At college I could get a husband.

I planned for perfection: I had chosen wedding colors and themes for each season. I watched housewifey-type cooking and sewing shows on PBS. While I babysat my nieces and nephews, I thought about what a great mother I was going to be. I visited real estate open houses and imagined each one as my own. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted it all. I just knew I was ready to take on a full fledged grown up life. All I needed was my husband, Phil: Phil-in-the-Blank.

I was chomping at the bit to become a housewife. The key part of that word for me was “house.” The “wife” part had little meaning. I knew that all I needed was some guy to marry me, give me a bunch of kids, and work all day so I could be left to my own devices. My attitude toward marriage had not changed much since I was a little girl playing with Barbies.

Barbie was, for sure, my favorite toy. Using the word “toy” to describe Barbie doesn’t even seem right. She was more than a toy. She was the representation of all my dreams. With her 11½ inch disproportionately blessed frame, shapely rubber legs, and massive wardrobe, Barbie played out my future in miniature every day.

I had it all. The dining set came complete with formal dining table and six chairs, plastic dishes, teeny tiny silverware and a plastic turkey dinner. Barbie’s bed, made of glued-together Lincoln Logs was covered with groovy tie-dyed blankets and pillows. My mom made Barbie an ultra modern chair by covering a tuna can with felt, and my daddy cleverly designed a set of dresser drawers out of Diamond Brand mini kitchen matchboxes. Best of all, my Barbie had the coolest dream kitchen. It had a refrigerator, dishwasher, sink, oven and washing machine all combined into one circular unit that would spin and light up at the push of a button. Barbie’s high-heeled rubber feet didn’t have to move a step: After a satisfying plastic turkey dinner, the dirty dishes came to her. I spent hours playing with Barbie, dressing her, setting up her Dream House, and practicing what I imagined life would be like when I grew up.

Ken, on the other hand, didn’t get much play. Ken had only one outfit: an odd pair of black tuxedo pants that were left over from my older sister’s prom set and a purple letter sweater with a big white “Y” on the front. Most days I would wake Ken up, dress him, and send him off to work under the bed. He was devotedly content to lie among the dust bunnies, dried up crusts of peanut butter sandwiches and boxes of out-of-season clothing while Barbie pursued her dream of being the first woman on the block to become a housewife/pet vet/astronaut/policewoman with a spinning light up kitchen.

Ken didn’t have any dreams or desires. His purpose was to work hard and make an honest woman out of Barbie. After all, they did occasionally share a Lincoln Log bed, and of course, the Liddle Kiddles who sometimes doubled as babies had to come from somewhere!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 9

The most important influence of all was my Aunt Doll. She was my mother’s aunt who had been widowed about a month before I was born. The first time she came to visit, she must have decided that I was a pretty special baby because she moved onto our ranch and never left until her death almost twenty years later. Her real name was Katheryn, but ever since her childhood, people called her Doll because of her diminutive size. She stood a little over four and a half feet tall and weighed about eighty pounds dripping wet. Though intensely maternal, she never had any children of her own. Her sister, my grandmother, had always been a busy career woman with little time for kids, so Aunt Doll cared for my mother as her own child. When my siblings and I came along, Aunt Doll took over where she had left off with my mom.

She cooked for us, sometimes cleaned up after us, made us practice the piano, but mostly (to my father’s horror) she taught us to drink coffee. Aunt Doll drank thirty-two cups of coffee every day. I know that it was exactly thirty-two because she always counted them: Thirty-two was her limit.

My parents were afraid of Aunt Doll’s influence on me because, not only was she a coffee drinker, but she was also a smoker. She smoked three packs of red Pall Malls a day. Everything on and around her, even the food she cooked, reeked of tobacco. I have never been curious to even try a puff because I have tasted thousands of cigarettes in the air surrounding my beloved Aunt Doll. I loved her so much, but she smelled so bad. Momma and Daddy need not have worried. Her real influence on me came in the form of a 1947 green Elna sewing machine.

Aunt Doll was a professionally skilled dressmaker. As a young woman, she worked for a tailor back East where she made fully-lined winter coats and men’s suits. On the ranch she made all of her own clothes and many of ours. She even designed and constructed special soft terry cloth undershirts for my dad. Sometimes I would point out a dress that I liked in the Sears catalog, and she would appear at our door with an exact replica a day or two later. With peddle to the metal on that old Elna she spent her life sucking down coffee, puffing away on Pall Malls and watching Guiding Light on her black and white circular screen TV. What a gal!

Aunt Doll’s house was pretty and orderly. She did not buy new things for herself. Everything she owned was old, and all of it seemed to serve a good purpose. Clutter was non-existent. She had one small storage closet lined with neatly labeled boxes where she kept Christmas tree ornaments, hidden gifts for my siblings and me, and small treasures that only she understood.

On Christmas Eve of my senior year in high school, Aunt Doll was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The doctor told her that she might have as much as one year to live. With the time she had left, she marked everything she owned with masking tape which indicated the date and occasion from which each item came. She also wrote an initial of C, G, R, or M to for Clark, George, RoxAnne or Marianne. With her personal effects clearly divided, she helped ease the burden of her passing.

One item was a shoebox marked ‘M&R’ which contained nothing but napkins, napkins that she had kept from every party, wedding, and special restaurant at which she had eaten since 1927. A few months after Aunt Doll died, RoxAnne and I sat down together and read her whole life in napkins. She had cocktail napkins from bars all over the east coast, engraved napkins from her ex-sister-in-law’s various marriages, and one with the name of a mystery man scrawled across it. What a weird little education that was! We kept a few that were significant to us, like my thirteenth birthday party napkin, the one from RoxAnne’s wedding and the napkins from my niece and nephew’s baby showers, but we were in a quandary about what to do with the rest. Nobody else would want them, not even a thrift store. Nobody could use them; they were old, dusty and written on. We thought about stuffing them back in one of our dad’s outbuildings, but instead, we decided to throw them away. Our hearts were genuinely broken at the decision. I think it was the first time in my life that I had ever thrown away anything of any emotional significance.

Aunt Doll’s influence on my life was profound. I worked diligently to become an excellent seamstress. I own and use four different types of sewing machines, but my favorite is the Elna. I have never smoked. Most of all, I have never, never saved a napkin.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 8

My mother had given me my sense of humor, my love for crafts, my tenderness for children, and my (how should I put this?) full figure. Having lost her at such a young age, however, I felt like my life was a big unfinished jigsaw puzzle, and I had lost the box lid with the picture on top. I kept rummaging through the pieces trying to make sense of who I thought I should be. Besides Grandma, I looked for the answers among a few other important women who influenced my life.

My pastor’s wife, Mrs. Chism was a great comfort to me. The parsonage, which was right next to the church, might as well have had a revolving door. Kids were always welcome there, and more importantly, Mrs. Chism never seemed to be bugged by them. I would sometimes stop by after school just to visit, and she would involve me in whatever she was doing. If she was peeling potatoes, I was peeling potatoes. If she was organizing her recipes, I watched with the interest of an action adventure movie. How exciting it was for me to watch a real live homemaker at work! How mysterious were the ways of a woman whose house was welcoming, peaceful and orderly! I made up my mind that, when I grew up, I was going to be just like her.

Another woman of influence was my 4-H cooking teacher, Mrs. Parks. On her refrigerator she posted a weekly menu complete with reference of cookbook titles and page numbers for each dish. Her daughter, Connie, was one of my best friends, so I spent a lot of time at their house. Mrs. Parks lacked Mrs. Chism’s warmth, but her house was immaculate. Like one who works at figuring out a magician’s slight of hand, I wanted to unlock the secret of her organizational prowess and tried to watch carefully how she moved through her space with such diligence and efficiency. When I got to be a mom, I was going to be like her, too. I mentally scrounged through the loose puzzle pieces of my life looking for a match.