Saturday, March 27, 2010

Banishing the Bordello

Right, so now that anyone seeing that title elsewhere will think I'm on a crusade against a House of Ill Repute, the time has come to reveal the aforementioned Light Fixtures and the Sickly Beige.

When I described the light fixtures we need to replace as being befitting of a Western Bordello, did your mind conjure anything like this:

Or this?

Please note that you might be perceiving a slight haze in the air. No, it is not evidence that a malevolent spirit lurks in my home. I had the oven set to clean, you see. Since it was one of the few times the sun has deigned to grace us with its presence, I had to act quickly, ghosts of roast tomatoes in the air or no.

Here's a picture of the new paint job:

And here you get to see the sickly beige, and the tremendous mess of moving, all in one. Yes, it was the messiest of times, it was the most chaotic of times, etc. etc.

Just for grins, here is what those two rooms looked like when we looked at the house:

Furniture for the living-room will be delivered this week, so if you're picking up on the entire wide open, empty spaces thing, there's a reason for that. At present there is nothing in the living room. Other than a haze of oven smoke, that is.

Then finally we bring you the baby of the hideous light fixture family. The wall-hugging sconce. His days are numbered, oh yes they are.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Without the Glue

I think I'll call him Ivan for the purposes of this story. Yes, Ivan seems a fitting enough name. He's a tall, silver-haired man. A six foot three veteran of Vietnam, who says that life has proved more difficult than war. I take his word for it, and this coworker of my husband should know. Not only was he once a very large target, crouching in a jungle, probably pondering the inconvenience of being huge when hunkering was at a premium, he lost a wife to cancer. He saw a son of his go to jail.

Ivan also had chandeliers recently installed in his large home by, "Three men and a boy."

"I think that's an expression," my husband said uncertainly as he related Ivan's words about installation, as well as the cost. The next thing we need to have done here is to begin replacing light fixtures. Ours are hideous and look as if they belong in Western Bordello run by a Madam with a Puritanical streak. Try to conjure that image in your mind, now multiply the ugliness by two and you'll be about there on these rustic, yet garish monstrosities.

"It's either that or a labor law violation," I remarked as I search my memory banks for any expressions involving a quartet. Visions of high wire trapeze acts were dancing around in my mind, I firmly squashed them and got back to the matter at hand, "Ivan had three chandeliers installed at once?"

I don't know Ivan all that well, I've met him twice, or perhaps thrice. On one of those occasions I made the mistake of saying, "Have we met before?" and evidently introduced the concept, rather late in this gentleman's life, that someone could forget such an impressive figure of a man. One of my failings is that I don't recall faces well, but I hadn't forgotten anything important about him, I assure you.

Ivan lives in a massive house on a golf course in another suburb. He loves his vast home, far too large a place for just Ivan and his remaining son, but he adores it. Ivan has a tree room, a room in which he plunks down his fully decorated Christmas tree once the seasons passes, and from which he retrieves the same fully decorated tree when the season rolls around again. Just blow off some dust, and you're good to go.

I like Ivan. He's a tad eccentric, and a little bit strange. Just my kind of fellow. He purchased that mammoth house with seven bedrooms many years ago. Ivan has three children, he met a woman with three children. Plans were made to form a living Brady Bunch scenario, but not long after Ivan made his purchase things went rather spectacularly wrong in the relationship. I don't know the specifics, but that's how Ivan phrased it when telling my husband that although he left the relationship behind, he was always glad of the house. Something happened, he was hurt, and he carried on. Maybe he finally felt hidden in there, I don't know. Less exposed, more secure, less cramped. I do like a man that will tell you he has a Tree Room, and imply that a circus act has installed his lighting, all without further explanation.

Ivan's not like me. He's not a man prone to elaboration. He'll tell you that being Large in a war zone is not an easy thing, but that's all he'll tell you about that. It's up to you to fill in the details in whatever way you choose. Things went spectacularly wrong, he found that the lady in question was not who he thought, and that's all he'll tell you on the other thing. His son made a mistake, and Ivan hired a lawyer, but there was still a substantial price to be paid. You do what you can, he said. That's where the story ended. Ivan cuts rather close to the bone in just a few choice words.

Yet he once said something that contained such a huge truth within his spare words, that it is worth sharing. He has three children, one son with MS who lives with him still, another son who erred in some corporate setting, and was packed off to jail for eighteen months for it. A daughter with whom he has a strained relationship, but they're trying. The reason he'll give for that caught me, and held me.

"Every life, every family has someone within it that is the glue. The person who holds it all together, and makes it right, makes it work," he said. "When my wife died, I found out that person wasn't me."

And all that followed makes sense, but he likes his life, he loves his children. He's got good advice to give, such as, "Don't let your cat outside here, or the Coyotes will get him. Happened to my girlfriend, all we ever found was the paws."

Funny, and gruesome, eccentric and wise. Some people are good with words in the most casual of ways.

Every time I think of Ivan, even when it comes to chandeliers, I end up thinking about my life and who in it is the glue.

How I might manage if I had to. How grateful I am that I have not had to find out precisely how that might look, or feel and may I never.

He makes me think of the good in my life, hold it closer, value it even more dearly.

All as I admire a man who learned to live his life without the glue.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Painting with Passive Aggression

At long, long last we have banished the last of the beige in this house. There was much rejoicing and some shouting with glee to be heard, that's for sure. The last remaining area was the vast, echoing living-room, dining-room area and the transformative powers of having a color I don't despise on the walls cannot be underestimated. I wish I could hug the entire room at once, now that it has stopped offending my eyes. I'll attach pictures in a bit, after I take them, that is.

In photographs that color just looks dull, or neutral. In life it looked like the sad after effect of food poisoning following the consumption of oatmeal. Grayish-brown, tinged with an underlying bile-yellow. Despite looking like a course of antibiotics was needed to cure the walls of some dreadful infection, it had been in place for years before we got here.

Although we frequently do our own painting, we opted for pros in the two-story room. Visions of plummeting from scaffolding or high ladders danced in our heads, so we called in people who merrily balance atop these precarious perches as a profession. Really, that's just not something you wish to discover is outside of your skill set in the middle of a project. Gravity being a harsh task master, and all that.

At our old house we were the veterans of many a remodeling project. During one six-month period we had an addition constructed that was close to 1000 square feet. On another occasion we had the kitchen and bath ripped down to the studs and reconstructed from scratch, thereby releasing dust circa 1912. Even the dust was made of tougher stuff a century ago. Swiffers were not equal to the task, by a long shot, I had to mop the walls to be rid of the last of it, and even then, I have my doubts. There is likely a pile of it remaining in that old house, and it is probably hatching a plot for world domination even as I type. The darned stuff clung with such determination that I can only assume it had an actual, sentient quality to it. It seemed to elude me with ease. That's a story for another time, though.

Just saying, we've danced our way through many a quote process, and dealt with contractors of every description. We even had one general contractor (briefly) die mid-project. His heart stopped entirely in the midst of a round of golf, and four retired Navy SEALs waiting to play through brought the man back from complete heart failure. We could never quite decide if that meant we had been cursed by some really perverse fairy or not. After all, I've heard a lot of remodeling horror stories but we are the only people I know who experienced a work stoppage because their contractor was recovering from a brief bout with death.

In a complete aside, my very favorite part about that story is that the four men who saved Hal went on to play the rest of the round before stopping by the hospital to see how he was doing. I'm no shrinking violet, but I think having someone briefly perish in front of me would likely fell me like a tree for, at least, the rest of the day. For these guys, a man down on the seventh hole was something that happened before the eighth, I guess.

We've been around the block and heard the various stories that people will put forth to try and disparage their competition. It's just the nature of the business, and in a tough economy, it becomes more so as various contractors wrangle for jobs. Now, with painting, there are only so many ways a job can go wrong. It's not like construction, where other contractors will hint that so-and-sos company didn't lay duct work correctly, and their poor clients now live in an airless box, to this day. Pretty much the worst a painting contractor can imply about an interior job is that so-and-so won't provide proper coverage, or will buy inferior paint while charging for the superior stuff. Or paint everything puce before disappearing into the ether forever, money in hand.

The quotes ranged around so wildly there was absolutely no way to determine how much the actual job was worth. The highest quote was well over three thousand, leading me to remark that I assumed the paint would be kissed onto the walls by a host of angels for that price. The lowest turned out to be eight hundred and I can only assume that involves hopefully hurling paint around by the bucketful and calling it a day.

But the strangest sales technique I encountered was from a painter I had used previously, one I knew to quote a bit high, but do good work. He actually didn't end up quoting on the job. I had him scheduled, he had to cancel, and we re-scheduled. In the interim, I met the painter I hired, and who did a beautiful job, I might add. So I sent off an email telling the other painter that I had no wish to waste his time, and that hopefully we could work together in the future. Thus began the weirdest volley of emails I've ever had from any contractor.

I probably shouldn't have mentioned the fact that the reason I was canceling was that I'd received a low quote that, having worked with him before, I was sure he wasn't going to be able to match. I completely understand that anyone trying to keep a business afloat in tough times would be irked by that. I wish I'd thought of that before, you see, it might have stopped this painter, who I'll call Ted, from implying that the men I hired were likely vagabonds, thieves and would-be murders.

This is one of those instances wherein people reading can end up thinking, "Oh har, har, surely you are overstating for humor." You'd think, right? So I'm going to cut and paste from the emails:

"Does he have current liability insurance?
Do you know the reference and/or the kind of work he has done for the references?
Has he given you a thorough estimate that spells out the project?

Okay, now first of all that's none of his concern, but I'm not rude by nature. They are also fair questions to ask when hiring someone. I answered in the affirmative on the first two, and knew enough about contractors and estimates to know that the third one is actually one of the bigger tricks contractors pull. For instance, one contractor looked me dead in the eye and gave me a piece of paper that listed the paint cost as $775 dollars, which only if the meaning of life is contained in the pigment could that be true, and I've done enough painting to know that. Another told me it would be over a thousand for paint and materials. The painter who did the job gave me the receipts and the actual cost on paint and materials: $238.49. Just because there's a number in a box on an estimate, it doesn't mean much.

I didn't bother to tell Ted that because implying that a person is in a trade involving much broad fiction is not exactly a polite move.

I again bid him a good day, and told him I was pleased he was so busy, as he assured me he was. I'm quite willing to believe that, his company does very good work. I was a little surprised that he was fighting so hard to try and dissuade me from hiring someone else, but hey, in that kind of business you really do have to expect that contractors will do their best to win your business. It was actually the paragraph proceeding it that made my jaw drop:

"I am not trying to scare you, but a lot of times when guys are in the desperate mode, they do irrational things. I would be highly suspect if the guy is half of what others have quoted you. I know we are not the least expensive out there, but know that we provide exceptional value for the quality we provide. Not to mention the caliber of individuals that I would bring into your home."

Holy crow. Desperate and irrational? Plus an implication that I was hiring criminals? Also, in my personal experience, when anyone says, "I'm not trying to scare you..." and it isn't a close friend? They're doing their level best to scare the tar out of you.

There's always some risk attendant to letting people you don't know well into your home. It's just part of the risk of being alive. Or in leaving the house, for that matter. I'm even willing to believe that Ted was honestly concerned about our welfare, because I had mentioned that I knew this guy had quoted low because he needed the work. I knew this because the man had told me that, to my face. In turn I had asked him, "Okay, so what would your quote be normally?" He said, "On labor, it's a twelve hundred dollar job. Don't let anyone charge you more than that."

That's the guy I ended up hiring, and I paid his regular price. He'd showed up on time, been very forthright, and he didn't impugn anyone else's character to get the job.

In my own turn I lobbed back something to Ted that, while true, is also a way of pulling a passive aggressive end to a debate. I told Ted, truthfully, that this was a painter my husband had found, and that when stubborn people marry you end up ceding to each other on a regular basis. It's true, but it was also an attempt to shut the door on the conversation. Another thing I've found is that male contractors tend to back down when someone, in this case me, produces a stubborn 6'4" husband as the buck-stops-there. People may assume, because my appearance doesn't quite match my interior, that I'm easy to push around. Oddly enough, no one ever assumes that about my husband. So yes, I played the card that essentially reads, "Yeah, take that up with my large, obstinate husband, it'll go well. Ha. Ha. Ha."

There's only one thing that gave me pause. Back when I met Ted and had him paint our kitchen/family room I had asked him another important question, "Do you use subcontractors for any of your work?"

I asked him because it's an important question, and one I urge people to ask. Some contractors use subs for labor, which is fine, but make sure they use the same ones over and over. That they are not contracting people they don't know well. Hal, our risen contractor, made a big mistake on our addition. He hired a sub contractor on drywall that he'd never worked with before. The crew did great work, but Hal, due to the entire "briefly dead, back soon!" footnote on our project, didn't pay this contractor in a timely manner. Causing the biggest drywalling crew boss in the land to walk into the half completed addition, knock on an interior door, and try to muscle a check out of me right then and there, by means of threatening me.

I'm married to a big guy, I barely even notice when someone tops six feet these days, because my daily reality is a guy who dwells far above me. This drywaller was Gigantic. Paul Bunyan's cousin who went into contracting, essentially. Probably somewhere around 6'8" and he was clearly trying to use that to his advantage. He encountered the fact that, realistically, I may look a bit China Doll-ish, but that conceals my inner Roller Derby Queen, who only comes out in special circumstances. For instance, when a mammoth contractor demands a check, while attempting to chase me backwards through my house. For the approximately six seconds I was backing away in confusion, I'll bet he thought it was working. The seventh second proved him wrong when I blew up like a volcano directly in his face. People across the street heard me, and we lived in a brick house. The man's hair practically blew back in the gale force of my extreme fury .

I simply lucked out in that the guy was all bluster, and not dangerous, but believe me when I say, the entire reason I flew into the loudest, and most threatening rage of my life was that as I took one last step backwards in shock, it occurred to me: The security door on the front door behind me was locked, if I didn't back that man out of my house, and he actually had any ill intent, I was in very, very serious trouble.

He retreated, practically cowering. I called Hal to inform him that the man needed to be paid by the end of the day, or there would be consequences beyond the telling of it. Make no mistake though, that had scared the bejeebers out of me and I've been very careful ever since. A further footnote to that is that my husband does not yell. I've heard him yell on exactly three occasions, the man doesn't shout unless safety is on the line and, to understate it, he got a little loud in his own turn. Poor Hal.

I mention this because, after I had retrieved my jaw from the floor, and rounded up my eyebrows from the lap they were taking around my entire skull after reading Ted's email, I remembered something. I'd told Ted the story of the Towering Drywall Man.

"I'm not trying to scare you, but..."

I do have to wonder if the end of that sentence should really have been, "...I know how to."

It remains possible that Ted truly was just concerned that the painter I'd hired was going to murder us all in our beds, and that I'd end up having my body identified by means of the remnants of my tattered left earlobe.

The last I heard from Ted and his portents of doom was to not pony up any dough until the job was done. That's sound advice.

I've dealt with a lot of contractors, I've seen a lot of sales techniques that range from the above-board to the sly implication, but I'll tell you something, I don't think Ted would have chosen that approach had he been communicating solely with my husband. Gender intimidation as a sales technique?

I'll pass.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Unimaginable Choice

I feel like I should slap a warning label on this particular story. I love to write non-fiction humor but this is a story from the land that funny forgot. The point isn't the trauma, or the horror though. At the root of this there exists something beyond admirable, if difficult. It's the story of a difficult woman, who made some sad choices, some self-destructive ones too. That could be anyone's story, really. It describes most of us, but this woman did something I'm not sure I could do, and it is the stuff of nightmares. Some of them mine, I suppose.

It's the story of how my grandmother saved the life of a woman she hated, and in doing so made my entire life, as it stands, possible. She just had to do the unthinkable to accomplish that.

The thing is, with this sort of story, why tell it? There's the "well, it could help someone know that it's possible to overcome." That's entirely true. We are, all of us, more than the sum total of our traumas. I am, and I always have been. This part of my life is no more important today than any of the other things you might know about me. That I like to make people laugh is really how I'd rather be thought of, and about.

I'm very protective of other people when it comes to my childhood. I talk about my love of books, and the good memories I do have but I don't share many stories often, and there are only a select few who know of this memory. I don't like to upset people, why should I? I'm fine. Folks, I'm beyond fine. I'm happy, and I have a lovely life. It took hard work to get there, for instance, I wouldn't really recommend my twenties to anyone. It was what it was, and I made a good life, with some incidental tears, sweat, and the occasional horrific dream.

But this isn't really about me. I've tried to figure out a way to tell this story without referencing the center part of it, and there isn't a way to do that. So, with many a disclaimer, warnings galore and not a little trepidation on my part, I'm going to launch here in a moment, and tell you how thirty years after her death, I realized how much someone cared about me. I guess bravery can wear a lot of faces. That when I say, "We are more than the sum total of our traumas." We are also more than the sum total of our failings.

When I was six-years-old my mother left my father, an event with much drama around it. She took with her my half-brother, and I remained behind with my father and grandmother . She left because, as she will tell you, my father was going to end up killing her. She's not wrong, and her life has been hard. Please don't judge her. I don't, I love her even if I feel rather distant from her. If you knew her? You'd like her, she's a pretty good person on top of everything else.

I caught a bit of guff from a longtime friend not long ago when I referenced some of the more positive things about my father here, and didn't mention the bad. I wasn't concealing anything, the good parts of my father, of both of my parents really, are what I remember these days.

I suppose people could say that my mother is overly dramatic. That she's overstating something, but sadly, she wasn't. Whatever the official diagnosis on my father's problems might be it is lost to time. He's long dead, but he had a long, sad story and a violent one. Every now and then my father would snap, and it was as if he was an entirely different person. Honestly, I remember that, and it really was like being in the presence of someone I didn't know. My mother describes it as such, also. He fought in a war, and was pulled from combat following a breakdown. He was hospitalized for over a year, long before I was born, but ever after he had exceptionally violent episodes. Stress brought it out in him, and three times he very nearly killed my mom. He once beat her head on an asphalt driveway, as a for instance. A neighbor intervened. It was the seventies, the approach to domestic violence was quite different.

When you're five-years-old life is pretty simple, or rather, your assessment of a situation is pretty simple. The person who is bleeding is the wronged person. Whoever has the biggest owie has been done wrong, and that's all there is to it.

I've heard this story more than I've ever told it. My mother tells it frequently. She will tell it to people who know me, on the rare instances that they are in the same space. I really wish she wouldn't. For one thing, it scares the stuffing out of them. What exists in my memory is a slippery, rather terrifying thing. I was playing "boat" on the bed in my room, with my brother and two neighbor children. Heaven help them, by the way. Oddly enough they weren't allowed to play at my house again.

There was an argument about an oven, of all things. My father had cleaned the oven, and my mother was irritated, tired, and snapped at him about that oven. It could be something that small for him. The landing in front of my room was next to a staircase, with a radiator up against the bannister. It was a bending staircase, a back staircase. What I saw was this, my five foot tall mother, being choked by my six foot tall father, and a great deal of screaming. The force of the attack propelled my mother backwards into the radiator, and my father continued to choke her, bending her back over the staircase. The only thing that might have saved her life was actually if she had fallen, it would have been a fall of about six feet and she might have survived that. She wasn't going to survive being throttled, and my brother and I (along with our poor, terrified guests) were locked in place, screaming our collective lungs out.

The next thing I remember is a lot of blood spurting from my father's head. This is where the fact that I've been told this story so often comes in. I can tell you that what happened is that my grandmother hit my father in the head with a lamp, hard in order to stop him from killing my mom and that blow was no joke.

I have no memory of that blow, I only remember the blood afterward and screaming, "You hurt my daddy!" at someone. I didn't really understand choking, but I understood bleeding.

And having heard so often, "Nana hit your father in the head with a lamp." I assumed that it was my tiny, Scottish grandmother, over for a visit. I don't know why I never questioned that. I knew my grandmother lived in Scotland, but she visited, so that was possible. However, my grandmother from Scotland is four feet ten inches tall, and alive to this day. My other grandmother was 5'9". I don't know why I still have no memory of the fact that it was my father's own mother who brained her son with a lamp, and saved a bunch of lives that day.

My mother has a habit of repeating the same stories, over and over when I talk to her on the phone. Don't we all? I've gotten into the habit of trying to prod her along when I've heard one too often. I know why she brings up that memory so often. She feels guilty about having left me. People judge her for that, too. I forgave her long ago. I don't see her all that often, but I send her flowers on Mother's Day, give her the occasional spa certificate. My mother was in a terrible situation, and she had to make a terrible choice. It happens in life. She'll tell you that there was no way to take me, and she's right. I was my father's only child, and he never would have let me go.

My mother was telling me this story again, I don't know why. I tend to hear it every couple of years, and she doesn't need to ask for my compassion any longer. I prompted her, "And then Nana hit him in the head with a lamp."

"And he picked her up by the hair, and threw her." Yup, another delightful gem that I'd just as soon not revisit but, it is what it is. I probably sounded a little bored, or impatient.

"Yes, Pat...", my mother continued, and if life had a soundtrack, there would have been a needle screeching for me.

"What? What did you just say?"

"Pat hit your father in the head."

Pat was my father's mother. The woman I lived with growing up until I was twelve, and she died of cancer of the almost everything. She was an alcoholic, as it happened. One rather funny sticking point is that my mother remembers her as not drinking much before I was in bed, but I suppose that's because when my mother knew her best, that's what she did. Pat went on to drink all day, every day but she took care of me when I was little, almost from the time I was born. My mother worked and went to school.

A lot could probably be said about that, about my grandmother who had lost the husband she adored years before I was born. She wasn't fun, but she wasn't horrible either. She did sort of nearly kill me as one of her last acts, but it wasn't intentional. Pat was a smoker, who would take a bottle to bed with her. She managed to set her mattress on fire three separate times, and on the last occasion, didn't realize she'd done it. I assume she felt sick (because she truly was, the cancer was in her brain by the time it was discovered), and after she dropped her forgotten cigarette, she went downstairs to her den to watch TV. The house caught fire, with me on the same floor. I'm fine, but that's yet another thing I don't recommend. Waking up with the house on fire.

It is a sad, but true fact, that is the only time I ever lashed out at my grandmother. When I awoke to bedlam, I threw open the window -- dumb, but I was twelve, and couldn't breathe -- sucked in enough air to remain conscious and ran to the downstairs phone to call the fire department. When I discovered my grandmother, asleep in her den in our very large house, I woke her by yelling at her, "You almost killed me, you stupid drunk!"

Not my proudest moment, and luckily not the last thing I ever said to her. She was taken to the hospital by the firemen, as was I, for smoke inhalation and there she was diagnosed with a cancer that took her life six months later.

But for all her faults, when Pat saw her son attacking my mother, she tried to stop him. He evidently had pushed her down, hard, down the hall, out of my sight. Then she got up, grabbed a lamp, and did what I can't even imagine doing, she hit her own son with as much force as she humanly could. My mind always inserted my mother's mother into that, no image required. I knew the story, and it's very easy to think that a mother would attack the man attacking her daughter. It is a very different thing entirely for a mother to do that to her own child. My father was not the product of an abusive home, by the way. All of his problems seem to have started with Korea, his childhood was happy, even though he was a kid in the Depression.

It becomes important to tell you that both of my parents were only children. I have no uncles, aunts or cousins. I have no idea what would have happened to me if my father had killed my mother. None. I suspect it would have changed a great deal. Foster care seems likely, although poor drunken Pat probably would have fought for me. I also suppose it's possible that my father would have simply stopped killing my mother, and jeez, you'd hope. Rather unlikely, and you'll just have to trust me on that. He never really just snapped out of his fits by himself.

Pat stood by the side of her only son through all of his troubles. She hated my mother because Pat blamed my mom for many of them. Evidently my dad had been doing well for years. He'd studied in Ireland, he'd gotten his doctorate. When he came back from Ireland with his Scottish wife, and her son, he stopped doing well. If you think I'm blaming my mother, that's not the case, at all. My poor, tiny, rather brilliant, and exceptionally pretty mother had no clue what she was getting herself into when she married my father.

I cannot imagine the horror of the choice Pat made. If you're a parent, heck, if you're able to read this and therefore human, I doubt you can imagine it either. I cannot imagine hitting my son with a lamp, or anyone for that matter. There'd have to be imminent peril for another human being involved. I cannot imagine the desperate moment in which she realized it was the only way to keep him from killing that Scottish woman. And then she did it, and he threw her across the room.

So she didn't stop him, did she? No, but she set in motion the thing that did, and she tried like hell to stop him. The thing that stopped him, as he turned around to get my mother was a five-year-old's reaction to blood. When I saw my father bleeding, I ran directly into the proceedings, and it all ground to a halt.

Why tell this story? Well, you see, when I hung up the phone, I had to sit down. Everything in my life, the one I cobbled together through sheer force of will. My determination to be happy, meeting my ex-husband who is the father of my son, meeting my husband now and being loved, and happy? All of that is a path that would have changed forever had my father killed my mother. I never realized that the person I had to thank for that was a woman who made a very hard choice, a choice I wouldn't wish upon another soul. Even if my father hadn't managed to kill my mother, that was the catalyst for leaving my dad. If it hadn't been such a complete horror show, she might have continued to stay, particularly if he had stopped on his own. Because he had to be stopped, my mother knew that he was capable of killing her, or at least she came to believe it firmly that day.

What really struck me is that it clicked with something else. When I woke my grandmother up, tearfully shouting at her in a the sort of blind howl of outrage only a truly terrified kid can muster, she did something. Something I never mention when I tell the story of the night I woke up to the house afire. I never thought it mattered, because I had already called the fire department. And I have always been angry about that fire.

Pat got up, and ran towards the fire, to try and put it out. She collapsed, and as she lay on the floor struggling she yelled, "Call the fire department."

She was still trying to crawl up the stairs when the firemen got there. I never thought about how I lived with a very unhappy, troubled, but almost insanely brave woman until I found out about that lamp and her impossible choice. One of many, I suspect. Until that phone call, I never thought about my grandmother in any positive sense, or her courage in continuing to stay in an impossible situation she hated. Pat didn't like me much, but I guess she must have loved me.

I doubt I ever knew her very well. There was more to her. There was more to her than the unhappy drunk who set houses on fire, and always made me feel an unwelcome burden.

There's more to everyone, isn't there?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Label Reads...

Sitting at a kitchen table in Texas, gathered for the wake of a man universally acknowledged to be quite the curmudgeon, the bomb was dropped.

"Tell me one thing about your dad he wouldn't want us to know," David prompted his nine-year-old nephew.

There wasn't any air conditioning, everyone had long since run out of things to say about David's deceased father, who had lived a long life and gone on to the hereafter without much tragedy being involved in the event. Everyone was at loose ends, sitting around talking over cups of coffee and beers that were rapidly becoming either too cool, or too warm to be enjoyable.

The young boy looked around, and with a decidedly delighted grin announced at such a volume it went booming out to the living room, "My dad has a pimple on his butt that won't go away!"

This is probably why whenever I think of Carl (whose name I am changing for extremely obvious reasons), I can't help but remember him as the unfortunate butt-pimple man. I don't know him well, to me he is one of my husband's Texas cousins, there's a passel of them, after all.

"Carl's been transferred to Phoenix," my husband told me.

"Carl..." I said vaguely, trying to search my memory banks, "which one is Carl, again?"

"You know, the guy with the..."

"Oh! Yes, him." And we went on to talk about Carl's promotion, as I wondered whether his backside was still blemished. What an association to have for a human being. If I ever see Carl again I'm going to have to stop myself from inquiring about the hindquarters in question, but you know I'll be wondering, wouldn't you?

As an aside, Carl's likely a wonderful human being. He was in that kitchen to witness his son's over-share and didn't promptly ship his son off for medical experiments. In fact, at the present time he's paying to put that same child through college. Parents are, generally speaking, a forgiving lot.

But we all know someone who exists in our memory with that sort of tag. So-and-sos niece, "You know, the one who used to be a stripper..." That woman's husband who had the unfortunate habit of writing bad checks. The neighbor who suffered from Lyme's disease, and in the grips of a delusion attacked his mailbox with a hammer at three o'clock in the morning.

You know you've got someone in your memory like that. Someone who is known by whatever ill-fated thing happened to them, whatever misfortune has befallen them, whatever weird tag is the thing that pulls them up in your memory. Their most easily identifying characteristic.

"You know, the one who lives in Seattle? Not the lawyer, the son who was going to make a fortune raising turtles? Him, anyway, turns out..."

Those identifying labels. Some of them are good, of course, and we all hope we're known to someone by a good label, a positive tag.

"Carolyn's son, the guy who married that beautiful Swedish girl? Yeah, that one. Anyway...."

"Larry, you remember him, don't you? He has that big house in Tahoe..."

For the most part we don't know how other people label us, remember us. Sometimes we do. Like my friend Tilly who found out she is known by the tag, "Oh, you did the raw food diet! Yes, of course, how are you?" and when she heard that, she had to flinch. Mainly what Tilly found out about the raw food diet was that it was only suitable for people living a hermetic existence, as it had certain side effects, you see. Luckily this did not seem to be the association being made. At least she hopes, better to be known as a Health-Nut than as being Self-Propelled. I changed her name, too just in case you were wondering. If it has to do with an individual's posterior, or the workings thereof, I tend to do that, funnily enough. No one wants to be known by anything relating to buttocks, that's my motto.

Yesterday, I found out one of my labels. Whereas I might like to think that people remember me with some sort of wonderful tag, some highly flattering means of identifying me, chances are good someone, somewhere associates me with something I'd just as soon they didn't. I'll spare you what the majority of those might be, as I'd just as soon not promote the idea of remembering me as, "Oh! That woman who set Marta's stove on fire at New Years?" Yippee, like it's my fault the flambe went that far wrong? Clean your drip pans, woman or "Oh yeah, she split her skirt on the subway, didn't she?" and then half of NYC got to see what I was wearing underneath for the hour it took me to troop back to my hotel. What a spiffy walk of shame that was. Thanks for burning it into the recesses of your brain for all time. I know that's what happened to me with that one, too.

I was taking a walk around the neighborhood, enjoying the beautiful day when I encountered my neighbor from across the street, Miranda, out for a stroll of her own. A lovely person, I might add. She had her mother with her, and took the trouble of introducing me.

"From across the street." Miranda indicated me.

"Hello, are you having a nice visit?" I asked, as Miranda's mother squinted at me.

" You're from Florida, aren't you?" She asked, and I allowed as how I wasn't. Miranda pointed out that I lived in the beige house. No, not the smaller beige house, the big one. The one with the pool. I am evidently not particularly memorable. Then a look of recognition crossed her face, "Oh, you're the one with the spiky things, aren't you?"

I managed to muster a laugh, as I nodded. I am indeed the one with the spiky things that I keep sticking up in the eaves, that kept falling out because the temperature had been too low for the epoxy to set properly.

"Yes, that's me. Winning the war, at last." I admitted, and began forming the sentence that would bid them both a good day.

"You're the one with the thing about birds, you're The Pigeon Lady."

Ah c'mon! Couldn't I at least be known by something that sounds imposing, intimidating? Something that would send a warning out into the avian world that I am not a woman with whom to trifle? Something featuring The Impaler? The Conquerer?

The Plucker, maybe?

Oh well, at least it doesn't involve my butt. I hope and pray.

Here, by the way, are the Spiky Things. That at least sounds vaguely imposing, right?