I was fired once and evicted once.
I was fired by a billboard company that took payments in cash from customers. This alone should have signaled something very strange. I made the mistake of joking about counting all the cash and that was that. Well, there might have been other things. Who can remember, it was so long ago.
I was evicted because the landlord said his son needed to move into the upper flat where I’d lived for several years, the flat two blocks from the elementary school my little girl attended, in the neighborhood with all her little friends, with the tree in the front yard which she would climb, sometimes so high she watched me smoking and drinking beer through the front picture window.
If I had to bet on it, the eviction was about my crazy boyfriend. But that’s another story. Ancient history – 40+ year old history.
So, a few days ago, I told my son and his partner about when I was evicted, and they both seemed surprised that such a thing could have happened to me. Really, your kids have no idea when you went through as a younger person – a young single mom, whatever it is you were – unless you tell them. And when does it come up? Mom’s prior evictions?
Of course, there was the eviction with a scant 30-day notice for a single mom with a little girl in school down the street and then there was the dirty deed done by the landlord of an apartment building several blocks away. In desperation, I gave him first month’s rent and a security deposit for a tiny one-bedroom apartment on a busy street. No cats, though. So, in addition to moving away from her buddies and her school, and her tree, we had to get rid of our cats, the sorrow started to layer up.
But then, miraculously, on the same day I gave the apartment landlord $500 – my last $500 – I drove past a For Rent sign on a duplex and the landlord said, sure, cats are fine. And so, I called the first landlord to get my first month’s rent and security deposit back since the sun had not yet set on the payment. But he said, no, sorry, no refunds. I still remember the big hole in my gut.
The upshot was I had to ask my parents for money. This was something I had never done. Can you loan me a thousand dollars and my father, very flinty and unindulgent, said I’ll send you a thousand dollars but it’s a gift. It’s not a good idea to loan money to family.
I remember all of this. The panic. The guilt. The shame. The asking. The gratitude. When I asked for help, my folks just responded and didn’t make me work for it, explain myself, make a case, make a promise. They just sent a damn check.
It was just that one precious time and it meant everything.
I’m not sure I would recognize my sister if she walked into this room and sat on my lap.
It’s been that long. Twenty-two years.
The last time I saw her was when my mother died. She came across country for the funeral, arriving two days later than planned because of bad weather, and then sat in the living room while I washed dishes with my daughter after having made dinner, which, I think, she missed or skipped. It was lasagna.
My sister had very high cheekbones and flawless skin. She was older than me by six years, but casual observers placed her as my little sister, her face not having the wear and tear so prominent on mine. More than her perfect face, my sister had extraordinary attitude. She had a regal demeanor as if she’d never spilled coffee on a white tablecloth or been left on the side of the road by a bad boyfriend. It fascinated me and I envied her. Always, since I was a little girl staying on my side of the bedroom at all times.
She didn’t speak to me that night of the lasagna. She spoke to my father and my brother and maybe to my daughter, but not to me. I noticed this but I didn’t mind. I felt at home in the kitchen. It was, after all, where my mother had spent much of her time, leaning against the counter, sometimes with her arms crossed, occasionally smoking a cigarette before mashing the potatoes. The kitchen was my mother’s home turf. I knew where everything was. I knew which apron was her favorite.
At the graveside service the next day, I sat next to my father in the front row. It was March and very damp and the metal chairs were cold and unfriendly. I held a Bible in my lap with my finger holding a place of a verse I’d planned to read. But I knew I wouldn’t read the verse. I could stand in the kitchen but not read the verse. It was alright though, I’ve said the verse many times since. My mother would be fine with that.
After the service, I saw my sister standing on a hill overlooking the small group of people who had come. She wore a trench coat and had her hands in her pockets. People we knew from a long time ago walked up to comfort her. I didn’t comfort her. We didn’t comfort each other. And, at the time, that seemed almost sadder than our mother dying.
Anyway, I haven’t seen my sister since that afternoon in a cemetery in Michigan. I have sent her letters which she returned unopened. She has her reasons. I can’t argue with her reasons though I can be mystified by her devotion to them.
We all have what we have and choose what we choose.
After Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house in Hastings in the 1950’s, we rode in the dark for three hours on two-lane roads to get back to Detroit.
Sometimes, because he was tired and needed a cup of coffee or because he hadn’t had enough of the joking and conversation that came with Thanksgiving, my dad would suddenly announce that we were going to drop in on J, his brother.
Yes, his brother’s name was J. Not Jay. And it wasn’t short for anything. My dad’s brother’s name was a letter. J.
J and his wife Charlotte were usually in a new place, doing a makeover of an old house, somewhere around Lansing. The place I remember best was an old one room schoolhouse that they’d acquired and were turning into a home. I remember the rooms being framed out with 2 x 4’s so the whole inside of the place looked like a picket fence. My aunt and uncle propped plywood against the 2 x 4’s for the bathroom for privacy, but even so we held it lest something we did in there got heard by the others gathered around a worktable hurriedly spread with a sheet for us to sit down together.
My aunt put on a pot of coffee. That was first.
Then she would make sandwiches. It didn’t matter if it was Thanksgiving that day, the sandwiches would be baloney sandwiches with mayonnaise on white bread. She’d make them and cut them straight across – not diagonally which I thought was a much classier way to slice. When she had a pile of sandwiches made, she’d bring the plate to the table.
My Uncle J would talk about the progress on his latest ‘house.’ My dad would drink coffee and listen hard. Then my mom would say, “Roy, I think we need to get these kids home,” and my dad would pull on his jacket and we would leave. Everyone but my dad would fall asleep in the car.
There was never a plan to visit J. My dad never called in advance. He decided at that moment to turn his car in J’s direction. Then he knocked on the door and whoever answered it – J or his wife, Charlotte – acted like they knew all along that five people would be stopping by for a snack at 9:00 o’clock at night.
That’s how it was then, Thanksgiving when I was a kid.
I am having but one guest for Thanksgiving this year. And my husband, well, he, too, is having but one guest. We are each other’s guest.
This may be a first. We are experienced at pulling the dining room table apart to insert a leaf, sometimes two, finding extra chairs in the basement for people we didn’t know were coming, having folks stand in the kitchen while I worry over lumps in the gravy. This morning we reflected on this while we drank our morning coffee and read the newspaper in bed, including the obits which were mysteriously brief in Wednesday’s special edition. I told him, “Everyone’s waiting for Sunday to make a bigger splash.”
The idea came to me in a flash. We weren’t having guests, so we had no guests to cater to. We could cater to ourselves. So, that’s what we are doing. There is a pecan pie in the oven instead of the usual pumpkin and apple. And a new carton of French vanilla ice cream. We are going to eat some tonight as a kick-off to tomorrow’s day long feast. We are not in the mood to save things for later.
There was a time when having a single guest for Thanksgiving would make me sad. But now is not that time. My people are in other places, literally and otherwise, and that is fine.
I spent many Thanksgivings away from my parents when I easily could’ve gotten in the car and driven a few hours to their home. I can’t remember the last Thanksgiving I had with them. I should. I always loved Thanksgiving growing up. I have no unhappy memories, no scars from Thanksgivings gone bad. I loved my mother’s midwestern cooking, her Wonder Bread stuffing, her giblet gravy, everything. My brother sometimes gave me headaches, but those faded quickly with a visit to the porch for some cold fresh air.
Still, there came a last Thanksgiving with my parents, but I don’t remember when it was. Memory is gentle that way, not annotated with dates and times. It’s all hazy but comfortable. There is my father playing the upright piano in the basement while pool cues click. When it was doesn’t matter.
We have a day planned tomorrow that involves a long walk in the woods with dogs, watching Green Bay Packers football, having our lovely Thanksgiving dinner, and watching some odd assortment of British mysteries. There will be blankets on the couch, as always, and two dogs laying at our feet. A cat will appear midway through the evening to walk carefully across my legs to a place to curl up. Once he does that, I am still for the duration. I am loathe to make the cat unhappy. I am loathe to make myself unhappy or my guest.
I smell the pecan pie baking. It must be nearly done.
Start by buying a bigger bird than you think you need. It will be frozen solid so don’t wait until the last minute like last year. On Thanksgiving Day, get up at 4:00 a.m. In a dark house with a single kitchen light burning, make stuffing by tearing two loaves of Wonder Bread into little pieces. Add onions and a lot of sage.
Wash the bird and study the skin for pinfeathers. Pull them out with a paring knife until you can run your hands over the bird’s skin and not feel a single feather. Pack the turkey with stuffing and put it in the oven. Turn off the kitchen light and go back to bed. At 9:00 a.m., when everyone is awake and dressed for Thanksgiving, take the midnight blue roasting pan with the nearly done turkey out of the oven and set it on top of the stove. Put the lid on the roasting pan. Wrap the lidded roasting pan in a dozen layers of the Detroit Free Press and tie with twine. Call one of your children to put their finger on the knots so they are tied nice and tight. Place the wrapped roasting pan on more layers of newspaper in the trunk of the car.
Ride three hours in the blue and white Chevrolet your husband is driving. Listen to your kids in the backseat counting telephone poles and reading Burma-Shave signs. Worry a little that you didn’t buy a big enough bird. Doze off with the smell of roasted turkey heating the car and wake up in your mother’s driveway. See that your brothers are already there and know they are having cocktails and joking in the kitchen. Put the turkey in your mother’s oven and then look for the yellow baster you left in the drawer last year.
Originally published 11-17-2017 on Dead Housekeeping
I told my friend at lunch that I was taking a break from line dancing at the senior center on the north side.
Instead, I’m going to tai chi and chair yoga at the senior center on the south side.
Without thinking, I told my friend that line dancing was what? different? stressful? odd? because I would usually be one of only two white people in the class, me and my friend of forty years.
The feeling – whatever it was or is – didn’t come from the Black women in the class. People were unfailingly kind to us. One woman might sidle up to us to coach us through difficult steps. Another would give a wink from across the room. One woman with her fedora cocked just so over her eye, who danced with perfect steps and great joy, walked over to me after an especially difficult dance and said, “Now, you’ve got that one down.” Yes, people were pretty kind.
So, where was the fatigue or stress or oddness coming from?
I think I know. It came to me today. It came from being so visible. Or probably more accurately, feeling so visible, feeling so acutely white. Thinking I didn’t belong there. Also thinking that I would never improve, that I would never be able to get outside of myself, to become oblivious to being one of only two white people in the class. It was always in my head.
I couldn’t relax.
Whatever the reason, I brought it in the door. My baggage. Fortunately, baggage can be unpacked. That’s what comes next. And then, hopefully, back to line dancing.
The mouse was in the garbage disposal.
That’s right. There was a live mouse in our garbage disposal. I called my husband and then walked out the front door.
“I’m leaving. Do you want a pair of gloves? You can’t turn it on. Oh my God, don’t turn it on.” I said, covering my ears.”I’ll be outside.”
He was rummaging in the drawer with all the spatulas and big mixing spoons. Did he think there was some kind of ‘getting the mouse out of the garbage disposal’ utensil in there? Tongs? Oh, man.
I couldn’t stay. I knew he would give up and just flick the switch. It would be so brutish. And so immediate. Our problem would be solved. But Oh My God, the mayhem, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. The little paws. I really got stuck on the little paws.
As a household, we would never recover. There aren’t enough lemons in the world.
Minutes later, he came out to the porch with a plate over a plastic refrigerator container. He joked with three college girls walking down the block to class. “Do you want to see our mouse?” He explained how he’d had to rescue it from the garbage disposal because I was afraid to. I looked at him as I so often do, why are we involving these strangers in this, this event?
Laughing, he lurched at me with his little mouse in a jar like a ten-year old boy on the playground. “Just get rid of it!” I yelled and he let it go near the curb and we went back in the house.
“Did you hear what those girls just shouted to you?” he asked me, shaking out the container. “They said ‘you have a great husband.'” Oh brother.
Upstairs while we were dressing for work, he picked up the binoculars to see if the mouse was still there. He was. Sitting up on its hind legs, maybe a little stunned at the traffic. he seemed to be looking up at us in the bedroom window, an older couple with binoculars.
I wonder if he’d ever seen that in his travels in the garbage disposal.
Little blade runner.
Originally published in 2016
marked a new era, a permanent change
in my being as a person on the earth
I bought a belt.
Two belts. One black and one brown. Just like a man.
Now my pants don’t fall down, they stay
where I put them so I don’t feel like a six-year-old just back from the bathroom, hitching up my pants while the teacher asks, “what took you so long?”
Why would your pants fall down, you ask, or maybe not, because really who cares?
The answer is, I don’t know, it has been a mystery to me why
I’d have to stop and pull up my pants, not because they were in danger of falling completely off, but because there was that tiny hint of a threat, a sagging that signaled the possibility of something worse, what could be worse, you ask, than an old lady with her pants falling down?
We don’t need to entertain that question, that one angel on the head of a pin
because now my pants are not ever going to fall down. I will go
to my grave with my jeans tightly cinched around my hollow waist and they’ll find both
the jeans and my belt when the archeologists come so many hundreds of years from now.
It is a great relief.
Our daughter and her wonderful boy were here for the weekend, and it was grand. We made a great many pancakes that we drowned in maple syrup from an old friend’s family farm in Michigan. We hiked. Ate amazing Mexican food at a place where, thank goodness we were able to speak Spanish to the server. We went to a Native American dinner and ate wild rice and salmon. And we laughed pretty much straight for four days with interludes of serious talk. It was fabulous.
Our Christmas tree was delivered in a box this afternoon. I’m done with insanely expensive ‘real’ trees that drop their needles five minutes after getting wrestled into the tree stand. Now I have a tree that requires only that I ‘fluff’ the branches. It’s also prelit which is a luxury I never imagined I would experience. It won’t be necessary to enter into a hate-filled, bitter relationship with a tree to kick off the Christmas season. Or untangle the lights. That alone.
Social isolation and loneliness can kill you. No kidding. There are direct and serious health and mental health consequences of being alone and isolated. Read the U.S. Surgeon General’s report “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” It’s not a little, sad thing – grandma down the street rocking on her porch all by herself. It is, as a certain president would say, a BFD. It’s not just about having friends, it’s about being out there – talking to people in line, volunteering, taking a class at the senior center. Here’s the deal: Chit chat can save your life! You heard it here.
It’s going to take me a year to write eight more short stories. I stalled out on NaNoWriMo despite all the public announcements of my intentions. Oh well. I didn’t lose my ambition exactly, it just went to sit on a shelf in the basement next to the Nesco I haven’t used in three years. Meanwhile, I watched a livestream of Bob Woodward speaking at UWM-Waukesha last night. He has written twenty-two books with several that were huge best-sellers. We have nothing in common except he thought he should have a chair while being interviewed since he is, as he said, Biden’s age.
I have had a very good week. I had a great time with my daughter and grandson. I was part of a big funding victory for aging services. I ran a really good Commission on Aging meeting this morning. I got to celebrate new signs on Milwaukee County senior centers (and know that I instigated the change by sending a photo of a terrible, ancient sign to county officials months ago). And I made a pretty good off-the-cuff speech as part of all the sign hoopla. Plus, I got a turkey for 49 cents a pound with a $30 purchase and my savings card.
A year ago I was in Texas visiting my older brother whose lung problems had squeezed the muscle right out of him so he was skin stretched tight over bone. He was very weak. A lot of the time, his hands were just folded on his chest and he couldn’t go anywhere without help. So he was in a hospital bed in his living room and sometimes on the commode, but nowhere else. He stayed where he was put. But he was alert and knowing, cantankerous is the word that our family would have used to describe him. He’s a pisser, I thought to myself. He is such a pisser. That is my word, not my family’s. He was a tough guy, opinionated, always fixing for an argument, that’s when we were older. When we were kids, he watched out for me, put me on the handlebars of his bike and rode down the street like Superman.
I remember being in his kitchen last year and looking out into the living room where his bed was and where he was sitting upright, his legs hanging off the side preparatory to some action – getting dressed, going to the bathroom, having a bath, I don’t remember. His shirt was off, his back exposed, and I could see his ribs, count them, even as far away as I was, each one a thick branch of an old, old tree. I wanted to put my hands on his back, feel the ridges of his ribs, tell him that I remember when his back was muscled and tan, when everything about him seemed perfect and orderly.
When I was a child, there was no one better in the world than my brother.
With his daughter, I made an early Thanksgiving dinner for him. There was turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and other things, I don’t remember them all, and apple pie and fresh whipped cream. His son wheeled him to the table and he ate. We all ate as if we were living in a different time, pretending that there wasn’t a hospital bed just yards away but reminded by the hose connecting him to the oxygen tank behind his chair. He liked the dinner, especially the pie, and that made me glad that I’d done all the things that our mother would have done, glad that I stood for an hour rinsing the frozen turkey under the faucet so it would thaw.
When I left the next day to come home, I put my head down close to his while he was laying still in his bed watching TV. He told me he loved me. He said those exact words. He had never said such a thing to me, no one in our family had ever said such a thing. That’s how we were. I knew there would never be anything between us that was better or more true than what he had said and so I told him I loved him, too, and then I said goodbye.
Originally published November 17, 2020