Ode to a Stove

(I found this gem in a journal from January of 1998.)

The door fell off last week. Well, one hinge gave way twisting the other as gravity pullled it to the floor.  I couldn’t fix it.  Like I had before. With a part, $1.50 from the service story.

It is 23 years old.  I got it when I was only 18 along with a matching frig. To help us get a start in life.

I chose the trendy copper color.  Flat flower petals arranged in a 70s style next to the clock on the range.

“Continuous cleaning” was an enhancement not true to its name.  Black drips and petrified grit coat the oven cave.  The top was cracked, soiled, and dark.  Many years of frying and boiling left their indelible marks.

The pilot light no longer stayed lit.  The seal on the oven door cracked and blistered.  But the clock still worked and the timer too.

Alas, it’s time to go.  I bid my Kenmore adieu!

How many frozen pizzas?  How many roast hens?  How many bowls of popcorn?  The numbers boggle the mind.

To gently warm a baby bottle.  To make a pot of tea.  To quick fry a burger for Sam and Ben and me.

Our stove was always loyal.  It gave us everything it had.  Six kitchens it did live in beginning on Sheridan Ave.

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Ben’s Face

The urgent care doctor said that my boys were having an allergic reaction to something and scribbled out a prescription for an antihistamine.  “Take them to your pediatrician on Monday if they don’t improve,” he said.  I grilled the kids about what they’d eaten and what they’d touched but couldn’t figure out what had made their faces so pink and puffy.  They’d never been allergic to anything before and it wasn’t chicken pox.

I was really worried about them but I was also really worried about something else.  Tomorrow was to be my first day at the decent full time job I’d finally landed.  “It’ll be better tomorrow,” I kept telling myself.  “It has to be.”

On Monday morning Ben’s eyes were tiny slits and his lips had blown up into raw bratwursts.  I could see every single pore in the skin on his face and each oozed with sticky yellow puss.  Even his ear lobes were seriously pink and inflamed.  Big brother Sam’s face looked like a slightly inflated pink balloon but was not anywhere near as distorted as Ben’s.

“Don’t worry,” I said, doing my best to stop the terror in my chest from exploding on my own face.  “We’re going to see the doctor right away.”

I left a shaky message for my new boss and waited until Dr. Patel’s office opened at eight.  I dialed the phone and in my most powerful voice declared that we were on the way.

Clearly not wanting Ben’s face to frighten the other patients, the receptionist showed us right into an examination room.  “What happened?!” asked Doctor Patel.  I explained the progression of the boys’ condition.

“You take this one to the hospital right now,” she said, pointing at Ben.  The three of us were ushered out the back door.

I had to figure out what to do with Sam.  I couldn’t bring him along to the hospital and he needed to be looked after too.  My Grandma Miller!  We found her in her back yard hanging mint green sheets on the line.

She parted the laundry and gasped.  “Who is that?” she said pointing at Ben.  “Was there a car accident?  Don’t worry, honey, plastic surgeons can do wonderful things.”  I pried Sam from my leg and dragged Benny by the hand back to the car.

At the hospital, brisk nurses wearing masks quickly ushered us into a quarantined room.  “Bring my school picture here so they know what I’m supposed to look like,” pleaded Ben.  I promised that I would and sat by his bed until he was comfortable and fed and almost asleep.  I got in the elevator to leave along with a two young nurses.  One said to the other, “Did you see that kid in 515?” My heart was breaking in big fat sobs.

Later that night, over a bed time peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Sam was full of questions.  “Can the doctor make Ben better?”  “Will he have to have plastic surgery?” “Will we ever see him again?”

Sam worked his mouth a little like he was chewing invisible gum and then it all spilled out.  “It’s my fault,” he blurted through a storm of tears.  “We were playing army by the railroad tracks and I told Ben to eat the berries!  Poison berries!”  Of course!  In spite of the ceaseless sibling fighting, Benny will do whatever Sam asks him to do– like jump off the top bunk or ride his bike into a wall or eat suspicious berries by the railroad tracks where they are forbidden to play.

On Tuesday, at the first light of day, I climbed the hill to the tracks and found the source of the misery–raspberry bushes growing in the midst of a dense patch of poison ivy.  I could just see them, crawling on their bellies through the vines like GI Joes.

I took Sam to the sitter and went to my new job and explained the situation to my sympathetic boss.  At lunch time, I went to the hospital to be with Ben leaving his school picture on the table beside his bed.  His eyes were open again and he was starting to improve but the doctor warned that a case of poison ivy this bad could take many more days of treatments.  I had to be careful with Sam too–smearing a battery of ointments on his face and changing his sheets every time he lay down so he wouldn’t get re-infected.

Later that night, I was washing another load of sheets  in the basement, a good place to cry in private, and wondering what I was going to do when Ben was released from the hospital, when my other grandmother, Grandma Maly, called.  She ordered me to bring the boys to her house in a nearby town and said that she would look after them until the weekend.  She didn’t want me to jeopardize my new job.

I finished my first week at the job as kind of an embarrassed celebrity (the poor new girl with the really sick kids—“probably cancer,” they whispered) and headed out to get the boys on Saturday morning.  Sam flew out the door to greet me.  Almost normal looking Ben was right behind him.  Grandma Maly watched as we all three embraced and tears of relief flowed from our eyes.

Note:  Ben was 7 when this story happened.  He’s 40 now and happens to have a horrible case of poison ivy on his legs right now.  Thank you Wendy W. for coming to the rescue and caring for him.Ben's leg

Cranky

Feeling generally cranky.  Not about anything big.  It’s the miniature annoyances that get me.  The greasy butter knife he left on the counter.  His underwear on the bedroom door knob. His hair in the bathroom sink.  His beer taking up too much room in the frig.  The nonstop pinging sound of cowboys shooting at each other on his favorite old TV shows.

Yet I know, that if he leaves the scene before I do, it will be the absence of these annoyances that will bring me to my knees with grief.  me and Tom 2017

What Could Go Wrong?

It was Labor Day weekend, the last weekend in a summer full of outdoor adventures with my grandsons.  Twelve-year-old Noah and I headed up north to go white water rafting.  It was my idea.  I’d gone rafting dozens of times.  Who cares that the last time was almost 30 years ago?  What could go wrong?

We arrive at the meet-up spot near Pembine.  Our guide, Derek, fits us with life jackets and helmets.  Along with the other 6 rafters, two women and four men, we board the bus with our driver Bill who takes us to the launch spot on the Menomonie River.  We rafters chat a bit on the bus and I learn that only two of them had ever been rafting before and it was a long time ago.

The first section of the trip is just flat water and Derek uses the time to review the safety instructions and practice paddling in unison.  We all listen carefully.

The next section is class 2 rapids which I now know means “some rough water and rocks, some maneuvering.”  Only a basic skill level required.  Yahoo!  We got wet.  Everyone was laughing.  We give a high five salute with our paddles.

The next section is class 4 rapids which I now know are waves, rocks, sharp maneuvers, a considerable drop; “exceptional” skill level required.

Off we go.  Derek is calling out paddling instructions.  But the people paddling on the left are paddling way harder than the people on the right and we smash straight into a giant face of rock.  The force bounces us into a ricochet which catapults me into a backward summersault out of the raft.

My helmet pops off and I’m trapped underneath the raft.  “Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.”  Oh dear, this is bad.  I was really, really scared.  After a death defying amount of time, the raft and I drift  apart.  But now I’m going down the “considerable drop” all by myself.  Whitewater crashes over my face.  It feels like what I imagine waterboarding would feel like.  I thought I was going to drown.

Noah is screaming, “Grandma!  Grandma! Grandma!”  When you are over 60, you think about death now and then and you think, yeah, I’ve had a good life.  I’m okay with death.  But not today!  Not fucking today!  Not like this.  This would really suck for Noah.  I can’t have Noah’s last memory of me be this!

Derek is shouting “nose up, toes up” at me. He’s yelling at the rafters to paddle hard and they finally get close to me.  Derek reaches over and grabs me by the shoulders of my life jacket.  “One, two, three,” and he hauls me into the back of the raft. The bottom of my suit falls down to my knees. I’m face down, bare ass up.  As I wriggle around to pull my suit up and find a more comfortable postion, Derek says, “Sorry ma’am.”

We get through the rest of the rapids and glide to the river bank.  No one is laughing.  “Grandma, are you okay?” says a wide-eyed Noah.  I say, “I’m fine,” even though my heart is pounding out of my chest and my hands are shaking.  Derek is wild-eyed and wants to know if I hit my head anywhere.

We hike a little way to rendezvous with the bus driver.  Bill greets us with. “Wait until you see the video!  Some of you are really going to want a copy.”

Video?  What video?  I forgot about the video.  Bill had been perched above the falls recording.

I rationalize it away.   How close could he possibly have been?  Plus, the mishap was in the back of the boat.  Only Derek saw it.  I tell Noah about it just in case and he thinks it’s funny but he’s not concerned.  “They would probably fuzz it out anyway,” he says.

Back at the meet-up spot, everyone gathers around a small flat screen to view our exciting journey.  Sure enough, there it is.  My big white ass for the whole world to see.  Noah nods his head and says, “Oh Grandma.”

The two other women in the group realize how awkward this is and yank the men away.  I threaten to stalk anyone who buys the video.  Noah consoles me, “It’s okay Grandma.  It’s not that bad.  Everyone has a butt.”

I give Noah a big hug.  I’m so very grateful that our memory of this trip will be this really funny embarrassing thing that happened and not something horrible.  He tells me that rafting was the most fun he had all summer.

(The live recorded version of this piece aired on WUWM on 1/6/17.  http://wuwm.com/post/ex-fabula-adventures-children)

 

Our Anniversary

Tom and I were married in 1989.  On the eve of our wedding a friend asked him how he felt about getting an instant family.  My boys were 11 and 15 years old.  He replied that it was going to be great.  “The hard part of raising kids is already over.”  He figured they were practically grown.  And the boys loved him.  They even invited him for a sleep over.  “Mom has a really big bed.”  They told me that they liked the idea of having a man around the house full time.  At least that’s what they said.  A few short weeks after our brief honeymoon, we discovered just how difficult becoming a family was going to be.

They turned on him.  They complained about everything and the “You’re not my dad” line was practically on an hourly rotation.  Ben, the 11 year old, took me aside and said that he didn’t think it was working out.  “Why?” I wondered.  “I don’t like the way he makes eggs,” was the only thing he could come up with.   Sam, the 15 year old, just stayed out of the house as much as possible mostly at the local skate park.

And Tom, who was the only child in his family, was not used to having competition.  He was cranky.  About noise, especially boy noise early in the morning.  The sound of them slurping cereal made him insane.  And he didn’t like sharing special snacks.  Or having to compromise on the TV schedule.  I was constantly negotiating the tsunami of two pubescent boys with the thunder clouds of a spoiled child .  It was ugly.

And it got worse.  Sam would disappear for whole weekends at a time on vague skateboarding missions without adult supervision.  When Ben got to high school he became a chronic truant and found a new hobby spray painting everything in the neighborhood.   Tom suffered through a bought of depression.  I spent countless months on projects I invented in the basement and went to counseling.  We even took separate vacations.  And in the mean time, we managed growing responsibilities at work.  Our marriage was being tested everyday.

Little by little things started to sort themselves out.  Sam turned 18 and cashed in all of the savings bonds his grandparents had given him and went off to travel the world as a professional skateboarder.  Four years later, Ben started his carpentry apprenticeship and moved out of the house.  Excited empty nesters, we booked a romantic budget trip to Europe!

And then in year 10 of our marriage a letter arrived by certified mail.  It was from the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  It said, “We regret to inform you that while you are married in the eyes of god, your paperwork was never properly filed with the State of Wisconsin.”  It went on to explain that we had a year to file a special form called a “delayed certification of marriage.”

Stunned, Tom made us a drink and we reread the letter together a dozen times.  What did it mean?  Was it a “get out of jail free” card?  How strong was our commitment to one another?  How would we feel if the letter had arrived a few years earlier, in the midst of the firestorm that was our family life?  Since there was no urgency and we were busy with work, we decided to just think on it for a few weeks.

And then the Journal Sentinel came out with an article.  It said  that during a period from roughly 1988 to 1990, the church where we were married failed to complete the necessary legal paperwork.  The reporter discovered that the issue was uncovered when a woman who had also been married during that period, applied for a passport in her married name.  When the government informed her there was no person with that name matching that social security number, the shit hit the fan.

I didn’t change my  name so it never came up when I got my passport for our trip to Europe.  But we’d been filing joint tax returns the whole time.  This was difficult to understand.

The article also cautioned people affected by this mishandling of really fucking important paperwork, that it was not a “get out of jail free card.”  Looks like a marriage, smells like a marriage.  The untangling of any union would require time in court.

Tom made us a drink and we discussed our course of action.  Together we decided that the letter was really a gift.  That we could take our time, the whole year allotted to us, to think about the years that we had survived, our lives as they were now, and the kind of relationship we wanted going forward.  We established a weekly date night.  We found new interests in common like visiting art museums.  We rekindled our friendship and passion.  We went on vacation with my adult sons, mended fences, laughed about the years that we had survived together, and truly reconnected.

Weeks and months went by and soon we were coming close to the deadline.  With five days to spare and the signatures of two witnesses who attended our wedding, we filed that delayed certification of marriage form.  We finally became the family we wanted.  The rest will be easy.

This month Tom and I celebrate our 28th anniversary.  Or maybe it’s technically only 18.

Talking to Kids about Race

This is my story about talking to kids about race over the generations.  It’s the story about a lot of small conversations.  It’s about the journey to unlearn racism that  never ends. I’m white and I grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee.  I moved to Bay View as a young adult.  I have two sons and three grandsons, two of whom live nearby.

When I was very young I was at a shoe store at Capitol Court with my mom.  An African American man waited on us.  I had never seen anyone like him before and couldn’t stop staring.  I asked my mother out loud, “What is the matter with his face?”  My embarrassed mother whispered, “He’s just like us.  God just left some people in the oven a little longer.”  Hmm, I thought.  So he’s kind of like a burnt cookie.  Like me but somehow imperfect.

I wanted my conversations with my sons to be different.  I took them to Juneteenth day, Mitchell Street Sun Fair, Indian Summer and got them involved in the Boys & Girls Club where I worked.

When my oldest son Sam was in the 2nd grade, he had a homework assignment to do a presentation about his nationality.  We’re a bunch of things—Croation, Bohemian, and German—I was annoyed by having to pick just one and I didn’t like the idea of having the kids separate themselves by nationality and race.  So, I told Sam that we’re American.  Simple, I thought.  We discussed what we thought of as being American culture—hot dogs and hamburgers, baseball games and the 4th of July.  When he got home from school that day, Sam was really annoyed with me and said his teacher wanted to know if we’re native American and what tribe we belong to.  Not so simple.

When my younger son Ben was in the 2nd grade, his best buddies were two Mexican cousins.  We spent a lot of time with their families—school, soccer, church festivals.  One day, after spending time with their families, Ben asked me if he could “please, please, please be Mexican.”  Of course I had to say “no.”  It was hard to explain that we can’t choose what we are.  “We can’t be Mexican.  We can’t change our identity.”

When teenage Ben was riding in a car with an African American friend Jason, they got pulled over in Shorewood and were brought to the police station.  Ben swore they had done nothing and the police offered no explanation.  I talked to Ben about what happened.  He could drive a car through Shorewood  and no one would give him a second glance.  But it was different for Jason.  And I thought about what people mean in Milwaukee when they say “those neighborhoods,” the neighborhoods where “you’re not supposed to go.”  It depends on who you are.

Now I have conversations with my grandkids.

When Ezra was in 2nd grade, he told me that he didn’t like brown people  When I asked him why he said, “Kenny is mean.”

“Oh, so you don’t like Kenny,” I said.  “Are there any brown people in your school that you do like?”

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “I like to play with Trevor.”  “So that means you like some brown people.  What about Nathan?  He’s not brown and you don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I guess I like some brown people and I don’t like some white people.”  What I hoped he was learning was not to judge people by the color of their skin.

Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with my grandson Noah who is a 6th grader.  He asked me why anyone would discriminate against people of color.  I explain that some people think that they’re different or not as good as white people.  “That’s crazy,” he said.

I still talk to my grown up sons about race.

After an incident at a soccer game that accelerated nearly to physical violence between adult spectators, Ben shared that he was sure that it was motivated by racism.  A Latina girl had accidentally knocked off a white girls glasses during the game.  We talked about how Latinos get stereotyped as aggressive.

At another kids soccer game, while the kids battled it out on the field, the adults of a Latino family were being targeted by the adults of an all white team with taunts like —“speak English.” The Latina mom understandably blew a fuse and unleashed a firestorm of cuss words which made everything worse.  Everyone stood around and gawked at the melt down spectacle, including me.  Finally, it was Ben who came up with a solution to the stalemate.  He simply invited the Latino family to move their lawn chairs and come and sit with us.

I was proud of him.  He may not have changed anyone’s mind that day, but he did something to intervene.  To demonstrate that not all white people feel the same.

People say that talk is cheap.  But so many of the big barriers in our society are built on conversations—the things people tell kids, or fail to tell kids.  People learn about race through conversations.  We learn who we are and who we aren’t.  We learn where to go and where not to go.

But conversation can help to tear down those barriers too.  I’m going to keep on talking with my kids and grandkids and I want them to keep talking to me.  We all need to keep talking.

 

Here’s a link to the live version told at an Ex Fabula Fellowship event in 2017.  http://wuwm.com/post/ex-fabula-difficult-conversations

 

Renae

My idiot ex husband leaves a voice mail that says my old friend Renae died.  He thought I’d like to know.  It has been over 20 years since I’d last seen her.

I desperately call him back while scouring obituaries online and digging the last months-worth of newspapers out of the recycling bin.  I call a dozen times.  He doesn’t answer.  I remember that she was the one who brought me and my new born second son home from the hospital.  I was alone and afraid in the middle of a divorce.

Renae and I met because our husbands were friends.  We both married when we were 18 years old and pregnant.  Our babies were due on the same day.  We were in touch every day.  Counseling each other through our pregnancies—“I can’t believe what’s happening to my boobs!”—and motherhood—“How long do they have to wear diapers anyway?”—and coping with husbands who were more interested in hanging out in bars than being fathers—“Want to have a sleep over and play Scrabble?” It was like walking a tightrope but finding comfort in the fact that you could look out and see someone else out there along with you, far from the edge.

I take a chance and call the last phone number I had for her.  A number that I kept even when I updated my address book and discarded others.  Disconnected.  I search for her on FaceBook and LinkedIn.  I remember the time that we  took our little boys to State Fair.  She bent over to feed the baby animals and a little goat chewed the buttons off of her blouse.

Finally, the idiot calls back and says that he was mistaken.  She isn’t dead yet but has cancer and will be dead any day now.  “Do you have a phone number?  Does she still live in the same house?”  He doesn’t know.  I remember the night Renae and I called the police because we couldn’t find her son anywhere.  He’d been hiding in the clothes hamper the whole time.

I do the only thing I can do.  I write a letter to the old address.  I tell her that I miss sitting at her kitchen table with a blue mug of black coffee, with her two-year-old daughter perched on top of the table like a little eaves dropper.  I send it out into the universe and hope that it will find her before it’s too late.  I think about Renae’s potato salad recipe, the one with the chicken bouillon cube.  I’m sure I still have it crammed in that dusty old yellow recipe card box.

A week later I get a text.  “It’s good to hear from you.  I have stage four lung cancer.  Probably have less than a year to live.  I would love a visit.”  I remember how proud she was that I went to college after my divorce and that she insisted on giving me a manicure on graduation day.

I don’t know what I expected.  Maybe her lying in bed, gasping for air, weeping in anticipation of our grand reunion.  But the scene I arrive at teleports me back over two decades.  It’s exactly the same.  Her husband and her son pacing around the yard engaged in some vague chore.  Renae meets me at the back door with a cup of coffee.  Everything is the same except now she’s bald.  I remember that when Sam was a toddler with a penchant for wadding up paper and jamming it up his nose, she advised me to shake pepper into my hand and give him a whiff so that he’d sneeze it out.

We fall right back into step.  She shows me pictures of her seven grandchildren and complains about her husband.  We have several more visits.  I take her to lunch at a restaurant on her bucket list.  At a beer garden with our handsome sons who are both now fathers themselves, I have an IPA and she has a coffee.  She never liked beer.  I volunteer for a few trips to the hospital for chemo pushing her wheel chair through the vast hallways, always making a stop at the gift shop.

On the surface, I aim to be helpful but clearly being with her is feeding my own soul in a way that feels selfish.  She doesn’t really need me.  She has plenty of support from legions of friends and family members.  Yet, I get to be the long lost friend that resurfaces just in time to provide comfort.  And I’m paying my penance, assuaging my guilt for leaving her behind, for not taking her with me on the journey of life.

We talk about death.  She tells me that she believes in an after life.  She says that she has to.  She would like me to help her write letters to her children.  But she’s not ready.  I promise to do my best to stay in touch with them.

I wonder why we ever lost touch in the first place.  Would we ever have reconnected if she wasn’t dying?  Will I be able to stay in touch with her daughter Katie any better?  I decide that it doesn’t matter.  What counts for both of us is being together in this moment.  I guess my ex isn’t such an idiot after all.  He called because he knew Renae was important to me and I’m grateful.

Right before Christmas, when Renae can no longer get out of bed, I’m summoned.  She wants to see me.  It will be our last visit.  She has a gift for me.  It’s a bracelet with a “friends forever” charm.  I rub her legs to help ease her pain.  My last gift to her.