Toe Nails

Ezie's footI hold my grandson Ezie’s foot in my hand and pull away his sweaty sock while he watches The Amazing World of Gumball, his favorite cartoon.  When he was a toddler, he would dangle his foot in front of my face so that I would hold it to my nose, breathe deeply and toss it away in mock horror at the atrocious odor.  His feet smelled like sweet baby powder then and he’d giggle uncontrollably at this game.  “Do again,” he’d squeal.

Now his eight-year-old feet really do stink like boy dirt and he merely tolerates my need to play with them.  I examine his toe nails.  So like his father’s, my son Ben.  The rounded big toe’s nail is wider than it is long.  All the others are completely uniform.

I remember holding Ben’s foot while he watched Pee Wee Herman, peeling away his sock and being horrified that his toe nails had grown so long that they were curving over the ends of his toes.  So, I clipped them and this became a ritual.  Holding his feet and clipping his toe nails while he watched TV.

What I didn’t know then was how much I would miss it.  How much I’d long for those sweaty socks and toe nail clippings, that sticky face and matted hair, lethal farts and urine dribbles.

You don’t tickle even good friends or hold their feet, examine for excess ear wax or head lice.   These things are a sign of family intimacy.  The bond between children and parents, grandchildren and grandparents.  It’s about trust and innocence.  It’s easy and messy and stinky and good.

And very one-way.  Kids grow up and don’t want to be touched and groomed.  They clip their own toe nails.  But grandparents and parents get old and can’t clip their own toe nails any more.  My friend Jill makes a weekly stop at her parents’ home to clip their nails.  She’s the only person I know who takes on such a saintly responsibility.

When my grandmother was alive, I witnessed one of my cousin’s kids spend a whole hour gently playing with the loose skin on grandma’s upper arm as they sat together in the back seat on a long car ride.   She looked so relaxed.  The only time I’d touched her in years was to slap a mosquito on her forehead.

Touch.  It’s such a basic human need.  A family intimacy that cannot be replaced by the clinical touch of professional caregivers.  I’m going to start touching my parents more.  I’m going to linger in my mother’s parting embrace instead of fleeing for the door.  I’m going to sit on the couch very close to my dad with my hand on his knee and whisper into his ear.  But I think I’ll still leave their toe nail clipping to a pro.

Grocery Shopping

As a single mom, I hated one chore above all others.  Grocery shopping.

Juggling a baby and a rambunctious four year old while trying to navigate the aisles with a grocery cart was a nightmare.  Benny, the baby, would gnaw right through plastic packages to try to get at the apples, the hot dogs, the bread.   At eight months, he only had a handful of teeth but made good use of them on anything he could get his hands on.  By the time I got to the check out counter, a good portion of my groceries were open or mangled and wet with baby slobber.  Once, in an attempt to distract him, I gave him a bar of Dove to hold.  Little Sharky quickly chewed through to the soap, made a gagging sound, and flung the bar into the Pepsi display.

Sam, the four year old could, not be contained.  He was Mr. Curious—touching and smelling everything.  Rearranging canned goods.  Adding random items to the cart—Count Chocula cereal, shaving cream, dog biscuits for his imaginary dog.   I tried putting him in the cart with Benny but then I didn’t have any room for groceries.  I tried putting him in a second cart but he hated it and effectively pulling one and pushing another was impossible.

My only option was to lessen the pain and agony by power shopping just once a month at one of the new gigantic warehouse stores.  And it was on one of these trips that the unthinkable happened.

Stressed out and distracted, I had reluctantly let Sam stay in the paper goods aisle to look at  the Star Wars Kleenex boxes while I made a quick loop around the next aisle with the cart, Little Sharky happily trying to eat grapes through the bag.

I returned quickly but he was gone.  I tried not to panic.  This had happened before at Target.  That time, I didn’t even know he was gone when an announcement was made—“We have a four year old boy named Sam who has lost his mother”—because I was standing just two feet away from him.

So, I figured he’d show up.  I continued to do my shopping, keeping an eye out for him, and returning to the Kleenex section every few minutes.  But when I’d finished my shopping and scanned every aisle one more time, and there was still no sign of him.

I proceeded to the check out counter to unload my months worth of mauled groceries, and explained to the cashier in what I hoped was a light-hearted way that I had looked everywhere but couldn’t find my four year old.  She shrugged.

“Could you have someone look for him?” I asked.  She paged a stock boy and explained that a kid was missing.

I chewed my nails and waited with my bagged groceries and Benny for what seemed like an unbearably long time when the stock boy returned with a child who was struggling to get away from him.  He was about the right size, but this kid wasn’t my son and I wasn’t willing to settle for a replacement.

“Maybe you should call the police,” the cashier said and gestured toward the pay phone near the door.

Near hysteria, imagining all of the horrible things that could have happened to him, I pushed my cart full of groceries and my baby toward the door to call the police.

I had just dialed the first number when I heard something.

“Beep.  Beep.  Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep…….”  It was the sound of a car horn.  Not like a car alarm had gone off.  But like someone was beeping the horn in rapid succession  And it sounded suspiciously like my car.  I dropped the phone and flew out the door with the cart and my baby.

Yep.  There he was.  Sam, the curious one.  In my car.  Laughing his head off and smashing his little fists into the horn. “Where were you?” he said.

Crisis averted.  I dried my tears and started to load the groceries into the car.  But the parking lot had a slight hill.  And while I was lifting the last bag into the trunk, the cart started rolling.  Fast.  By the time I picked my head up, it was out of my reach and I could only watch in horror as it hit a cement parking curb and launched Benny right out of the cart seat and into the bushes.

He survived with just a small scrape on his head.  But I would never recover.  For the next several years, I paid a baby sitter when I had to go to the store.

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The Fest

It’s my favorite day of the year–the annual pilgrimage to Summerfest.  The Fest is a tradition that’s picked up momentum over time and created a focal point for an annual Milwaukee reunion of a bunch of friends that go as far back as Catholic grade school. This was my time to let loose! 

We’ve been going together since the largest music festival in the U.S. wasn’t much more than a muddy field with a raggedy tent, a rickety stage and a beer stand on the shore of breezy Lake Michigan.  We danced our butts off on top of picnic tables to CCR, Tina Turner, Kool and the Gang, Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers, Bonnie Raitt,  The Thunderbirds, Morris Day and the Time, Joan Jett, The Go Go’s, Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder, BB King and way too many others to recount.

Typically, the event starts with me, Tom my husband, and California Dave heading off to Slim McGinn’s (Now O’Lydia’s)  where a quick vodka and lemonade buys us a trip on the “slimozine” to the front gate of Summerfest where we meet the rest of our posse.

Dave left Milwaukee for warmer weather in 1977.  He vowed never to come back again in the winter.  And he didn’t except for one snowy December 22 years later when a family member died.  He showed up at our door wearing snow pants.  Dave is the party instigator too.  He’s the one all of the old friends gather to see.  The one who says, “Of course we can go to Summerfest five days in a row” not considering that some of us aren’t on vacation.

This year, we parked the car a few blocks away as usual but when we walked around the corner to Slim’s, we were surprised by the presence of a horse and carriage “parked” right in front of the door.

“Why not?” said Dave.

“How much to take us to the Fest?” he asked the top-hatted driver.

“Ten bucks a piece,” she said.

Given that we were now empty nesters with 401k’s and pension plans, $10 for a one mile ride meant nothing and we jumped right in without question.

A big smile spread across my face as we began our journey.  The lowly people who had to walk gazed upon us with envy.  Anxious drivers stalled in the tangle of traffic and gas fumes rolled their eyes as we passed.

“This is the life,” I said and the three of us giggled at the clop, clop, clop sound of the big Clydesdale.

But after a few blocks I started to notice that the walkers were moving faster than we were.  In fact, they were passing us.  The driver was doing her best to be gentle while encouraging the horse to keep moving.  The three of us exchanged wary glances.

“How old is this horse?” I ask.

“This old girl is about 27,” she said.

“Is that pretty old for a horse?”

“It depends,” said the driver.  “If they’re well cared for like old Cindy here, they can live 25 to 30 years.”

We didn’t say another word for the rest of the slow trip which concluded with sighs of relief.

“Well, it’s a good story to tell,” said Dave, as we walked toward the entrance.

Tom legitimately qualifies for the senior citizen discount so we sent him to the ticket booth to make the purchase while Dave and I held a place in line for the gate.  Saving a few bucks on the tickets would make up for the splurge on the horse and buggy ride.   We still like to be frugal 401k and all.

We inched our way forward until it was our turn to submit to the search which is now standard for all big public events.  Back in the day, I just shoved a few bucks and my ID card in my pocket and went.  But now I have to bring a purse, a big cloth hippy bag to carry my wallet, cell phone, lipstick, glasses, allergy pills, some tissue, and a sweater in case I get cold.  I strap it across my chest so I can keep my hands free to hold a beer.  The guards waved a metal detecting wand over my body and took an obligatory peek into my hippy bag and I was able to join Dave and Tom who were already through.

We headed straight for the nearest beer stand.  A Miller Lite in my hand and I was awash with euphoria.  Let’s get this party started.  Dave calls the look I get on my face my “perma grin.”

Now it was time to hook up with the two other Toms, Tom P. and Tom H., and Tom P’s kid, Rudy.  (Tom was a popular name during the Baby Boom.)  We surfed through the streaming crowd like the Summerfest pros we are and found them quickly.

“Heyyyyy,” the guys said and slapped each other high fives.  And right behind us, a group of younger guys snickered and did the same thing.

“We’ve been mocked,” Dave said with mock outrage, and we laughed.  We started to head off for the first band together and to meet some more friends– Pat, Carl, Terry, and Gebs but we had to wait for Tom P. to pee first.

There they were, right in the usual location, Miller Stage to the left of the beer stand on the far left.   The conversation was lively.  Catching up on kids and jobs, health and erectile dysfunction.  Dave’s daughter started college.  My grandson started first grade.  Carl got another promotion.  Tom’s brother had prostate cancer.

I went to get another beer and find a nearby picnic bench to sit on.  My bunions were killing me.  I watched my friends from a distance for a few moments and noticed that everyone except for Tom P.’s teenage son was wearing glasses; and that they all had grey hair; and that some of them hardly had hair at all.   And except for Dave who wears a circa 1994 Mexican Fiesta shirt, when did they all start wearing baggy Hawaiian shirts?

I stood up to rejoin them and as I did I felt a quick slap on my ass.  What the hell?  A guy actually smacked my butt.  I was stunned.  It was a young guy who just kept moving through the crowd with his buddy without even a backward glance.  The feminist in me wanted to go after them and give them a stern talking to about respecting women.

Only Dave saw what took place.  He moved to my side quickly.

“Did that guy just do what I think he did?” Dave asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“See, Elaine, you’ve still got it,” said Dave with a laugh.

For a moment I was flattered.  And then my face flushed as the realization overtook me.   “No, Dave.  I think I was mocked,” I said.

After waiting for Tom P to come back from the bathroom again, we reassembled and took a position on the benches for the main reason we were there—George Clinton and Parliament, a funky band that fills me with glee.  The band came out with a blast–Red L:ight/Green Light.  It was their big hit when I saw them the first time in 1978 and it took me right back there.  I was instantly a vibrant, energetic, sexy 22 year old again.

It was a spectacle.  I was disappointed that guy with the big diaper was no longer part of the show but there was a young woman roller skating around the stage in a skimpy outfit, a paper mache monster with a doobie in his mouth, and one of the extraterrestrial brothers looked like he was wearing cellophane pants.  Instead of the multi-colored dreds and bright clothes he used to wear, George wore a pimped out admiral’s uniform.

We all bobbed our heads and swung our hips to the funky beat, and screamed every lyric loud “WE WANT THAT FUNK, GOTTA HAVE THAT FUNK!” enjoying every blessed second of it.  George took a few breaks and let his son and granddaughter do a few numbers.

Midway through the show, we slowed down and had another beer.  Tom P. had to go to the bathroom again.  Tom, my husband, put cotton in his ears because the loud music was getting to him.  He had come prepared.

During the second set, I stopped shout/singing every lyric.  A few of the guys had enough and left.  After all, it was the late show and it wouldn’t be over until 10 p.m.

After the last song, Tom, Dave and I made long trek back to Slim’s on foot like we always do.  “Another great Summerfest memory,” said Dave as we walked.

I tried to ignore the blisters on my feet which I thought I would have avoided given the special orthopedic sandals I was wearing.  Tom and Dave talked about how the line up at Summerfest wasn’t as good as it used to be and that they hadn’t even heard of a lot of the bands that were performing.  We had a drink at Slims and waited for the traffic to die down before heading home.

I was looking forward to a long sleep.  But I was up before 6 with an aching neck and back.  My feet were on fire and my calves felt stiff as a pirate’s peg legs.  Thank god for Aleve.  I feel like such a cliché.  The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be.

The Vocation

Our Lady of Lourdes and Bernadette
Our Lady of Lourdes and Bernadette

Sometime during my elementary school years, one of the years after the toothless second grade and before breast buds, at a time when I thought that liking or thinking about boys too much could get you in “trouble” whatever that meant exactly, I wanted to be a nun.

It must have been around the time of fourth grade when my parochial school chums and I were embarked upon a full year of studying the lives of the Saints in preparation for our Holy Confirmation the following year.  I understood Confirmation to be the important act of “confirming” our Catholicism, proving that in addition to our Baptisms over which we had no choice, our now mature minds choose this path for ourselves.

Anyway, I liked the Saints.  They were brave and scary–fighting lions, getting stabbed lots of times, hanging out in the desert all by themselves, losing their heads…  They were glamorous too.  Mere children seeing visions, having the whole world take notice and make pilgrimages to their magic spot, being revered for their special piety.  These children were my heroes.

I especially liked Saint Bernadette.  I saw a picture of her and she had brown hair like me.   She was an oldest sister like me, too.  She was strong and brave and held on to her special secrets.  She only told the Pope and he wouldn’t tell anyone.  Then she got to be a nun.

Since I plainly knew it wasn’t a good idea to think about boys, I got really carried away with fantasies about Bernadette and her siblings.  I began to think that if I prayed a great deal and acted real pious, maybe I could earn that special kind of attention.  However, being an older sister, I knew that to get any real attention for anything, you couldn’t wait around for someone to notice.  You had to specifically ask for it.

So, one day, during recess, I rang the rectory door bell and asked to speak to Father Brown.  We arranged ourselves in his office.  He on the working side of the desk.  Little old me in a big leather visitor’s chair on the other side.  There was a lot of paper.  I explained my quest for holiness; my desire to spend my life in devout servitude; my commitment to never liking boys; and my attraction to wearing the really neat outfit of a nun.  In fact I shared with him that I wanted to enter the convent now and I hoped he would help me.  “The world’s youngest nun.”  I liked that idea a lot.

In hindsight, I’m amazed he didn’t laugh out loud.  He probably called all of his priest buddies the second I was out the door.  “Hey, Father Jones!  You’ll never guess who was just in my office!  The world’s youngest nun!”

But Father Brown gave me his sincere attention.  He said he thought it was wonderful that I found my vocation but that if I left my family for the convent now, they would miss me and would be sad.

“I don’t think so,” I pleaded.  After all, there were two other kids to keep my parents busy.  It couldn’t hurt to ask.

Father Brown wouldn’t budge.

I cried a little.

Instead, Father Brown suggested that I could get started on the path to nunhood by giving up my recess time every Wednesday to the service of the Lord.  And so, every Wednesday for the remainder of the school year, I earned “brownie points” toward my convent goal by vacuuming and dusting the sacristy area.

I was real grateful at first.  A few other nun wannabes had already been given the assignment so they showed me the ropes and where the priests kept the magical holy things every church needed to be a real church of God and not just a fancy building.   I did my chores and I stared at the statues of Jesus with his bloody palms, and the paintings of the Madonna, who was a virgin, a woman who had been very careful not to like boys too much.

But after a while, after dusting these icons dozens of times and finding chips in their paint and uneven brush strokes, after seeing our communion stacked up in boxes like saltine crackers, and after plowing the noisy Hoover around the sacred relics a few hundred times, these embodiments of holiness began to lose their charm.  By the time the school year was ending, all the other wannabes lured by the warming weather and recess, and boys I presumed, had abandoned their posts, leaving me to Wednesday cleaning chores on my own.

I needed a test to see if this holy stuff was going anywhere.  I needed to see a beam of light, some mysterious smoke, a statue crying real tears or bleeding!  I needed a vision.  I needed a sign.  Something from God, The Virgin Mary, or little baby Jesus, or even a Saint to let me know that I was indeed worthy of nunhood and that I should keep this cleaning junk up.

Of course I couldn’t just wait around for the holy family to know I needed this sign.  I had already been watching carefully for weeks.  So, on the last Wednesday of the school year, after completing my tasks and putting away the Hoover and the dust rags, I stood in the sacristy, in front of the alter, facing the choir balcony and said the dirtiest most awful word I knew, “shit.”

I waited.  Nothing happened.  My profanity in the holiest of holy places evoked no response.  No bolt of lightning.  No sudden cold breeze.  Not even a whisper of smoke.  It was over.  My dream of becoming not only the world’s youngest nun, but a nun at any time in my life, was dashed. And as young people do, I quickly moved on to a new passion—baseball.   I even thought it might be ok to play with the boys a little bit that summer.

By Elaine Carol Bernadette Maly

confirmed 1967

(This essay was featured on WUWM’s Lake Effect program in 2012.)

Condom Mom

Me and Ben when he was a senior in high school
Me and Ben when he was a senior in high school

Benny came home from school all excited.  “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom.”  “Guess what we learned about in school today?  Condominiums.”

“You mean like apartments?” I ask.

“No,” he says.  “The kind you use for sex.”

A while back I had to sign a permission slip for him to participate in his fifth grade class’s sex ed program.  Talking to my sons about sex was going to be a difficult job for a single mom, so I was really happy about this.  I wanted them to have all of the information possible to prevent any chance of a teen pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease.

“I think you mean condoms.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says.

“Well, did they show you one?” I ask.

“No,” he says.

Nothing like a teachable moment I think and ask him if he’d like to see one.  He does and I make a huge mistake.  I bring out the paper bag full of them that I got at the clinic.

“Oh my god,” he screams.  “Why do you have so many?  That asshole Larry brought them here didn’t he!”

“No,” I say in defense of my ex-boyfriend.  “They’re mine.”  Another mistake.

Older brother Sam comes home at about this time and I’m ready to serve the hot dogs I’ve been simmering on the stove.  We sit down to eat.  I take a condom out of the package and explain that they fit over a man’s penis.

“It’s so big,” he cries.  “How could anyone fit into that?”

“I could,” says 13 year old Sam as he hops his naked hot dog across his plate. I fake a sneeze to hide my laughter.

And then it dawns on me that I better find a reasonable way to end this conversation because I have to drive Ben and three of his friends to basketball practice in about 10 minutes.

“Look, Benny, these aren’t illegal.  When you’re 18, you can buy them at the grocery store.”

“Where?” he wants to know and I explain that they are probably right near the tampons which makes him roll his eyes and sob some more.

I promise to show him sometime.  And then because I don’t want to get any phone calls about my bag of condoms from other parents, I say “Now, Ben, this is private business.  I don’t want you talking about it at basketball practice.”

“If it’s so private, why do we have to talk about it all the time,” he shoots back.

We get in the car, pick up Tommy, Julian, and Vinnie, and head off to practice.  As we’re passing the grocery store, I see Ben in my rear view mirror.  He’s raising his eye brows up and down in a Groucho Marx sort of way.

“Hey guys,” he says.  “Do you know what you can get at the grocery store?”

“Ben, what did I tell you!” I warn.  But not before he whispers, “condoms.”

Two years later, I am home from work a little earlier than usual and intercept the mail carrier.  Among the bills and junk, there’s an unusual brown puffy envelope addressed to Ben.  It’s suspicious enough that I can’t resist the urge to open it.  Apparently my darling boy is a member of the condom of the month club.

As soon as Ben gets home from school, we have a talk.  He informs me that he, Tommy, Julian, and Vinnie are all members.  They saw an ad in a “magazine” and signed up.  He said that he thought that I’d like it because condoms are so important.

“Well what are you doing with them?” I ask dreading the answer.

“Nothing really.  We just show them to other guys.”  He assures me that he’s not having sex.

I cancel his membership and have a chat with the other parents.  But I’m glad that he’s comfortable with condoms.  When the time comes, I want to make sure he’ll use them.

A few years later, as a sophomore in high school, Ben has to give a “how to” speech in his English class.  He asks me if he could demonstrate how to use a condom.  “If it’s okay with your teacher,” I say, thinking that this is good information for teenagers to have.  Miraculously, the teacher agrees and gets every parent to agree too.

The night before the speech, we go to the grocery store.  Ben picks Trojan brand condoms and the longest bananas in the produce aisle.  We spend the evening on the weirdest mother/son activity ever—rehearsing his speech and rolling condoms down our practice bananas.

You know, as moms, we want desperately to protect our children.   We teach them how to safely cross the street, to not take candy from strangers, to “just say no” to drugs.  But we don’t always know when to hover and when to let go, or how much information is too much information.  We make mistakes.  But we do our best because our love for our children is earnest and true.

The next day Ben greets me after work by flinging the text of his speech in my face as he dances around the room flexing his biceps.  A+   I make banana bread to celebrate.

(I read this essay for Listen To Your Mother on 4/26/15.  Utube video scheduled for late summer.)

Keep Your Legs Together

My new friend Harriet and I were laughing about the things our mothers told us when we were kids—like not to wear patent leather shoes because boys could see up your skirt; make sure to always wear clean underwear in case we were in a car accident; and most importantly, to sit with our legs together, close together.

“It was so silly,” we agreed.

“As though something would fly up there,” I said.

Harriet snorted.  “Fly up there?” she said.  My mom was afraid something would fly out.  I guess that’s the difference between Catholic and Jewish mothers,” she said.

Pie

Bronson
Bronson

“Hi Grandma E. Come in my room I have something to show you,” says three-year-old Bronson. I’m thrilled that my husband and I are past the point of having to reintroduce ourselves to him every time we visit. Unlike my older two grandsons who live just 10 minutes away, Bronson and his parents live as far away from Milwaukee as you can get and still be in the Continental U.S.—San Diego, California. So, while San Diego is a beautiful place to visit, we don’t get there as often as we’d like.

It’s been interesting to watch him grow in three and four month increments. One visit he’s crawling, the next he’s walking, and the next he’s talking. His vocabulary has come a long way. He knows all of the names of dinosaurs. And he can give detailed instructions about how to skate board. But like many little guys Bronson’s age, he says “yike” instead of “like” as in “I yike dinosaurs;” and his favorite affirmative expression is “ohtay”.

When my husband and I made the trip to San Diego in January, we noticed a little trouble with “p’s”. He doesn’t make the p sound when it’s at the beginning of a word. He substitutes it with an “f.” For example, he asked my husband to “fush” him on the swing. He asked me to play “fuzzles” with him. And when he has to go to the bathroom, it’s time to “foop.” Adorable right?

A few days into our visit, we were finishing dinner at a nice restaurant. I always sit next to Bronson so we can talk. I said, “I see that you ate all of your rice and beans. I’m glad you like them.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I yike rice and beans.”

To keep the conversation going I asked “What other kinds of food do you like? Do you like cheese burgers?”

“No, I don’t yike cheese burgers.”

“What about brats, do you like them?” I asked, hoping that our Wisconsin roots have taken hold.

“Yes, I yike brats.”

“I bet you like cake, too.”

“Oh yes, I yike strawberry cake. Will you make one for me?”

“Yes, I will make you one when you come to visit me in Milwaukee,” I said.

“Ohtay, let’s go,” said Bronson.

Then I asked if he likes pie.

“No, I don’t yike fie.”

“Really, don’t you like apple pie or blueberry pie?’

“No I don’t yike fie,” he says with increased vehemence.

“Didn’t you have any pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving?”

He responds at ear drum piercing three-year-old volume, “No I don’t yike fuckin fie. Fuckins are for hawoween. Fuckins have yights in them in all of the houses. I don’t yike fuckin fie!”

The whole restaurant went silent. “Check please,” said my husband.