I think my dad was Walter White

My dad was a funny guy. He knew how to tell a story like his life depended on it, my mom used to tell me. She loved how he made her laugh. If he were still alive today, he’d make a great blogger, I just know it.

I never met my dad, but I really wanted to. The funny thing is that I think that he wanted to meet me, too. I’ve been reading some letters that he wrote to my godmother. His letters remind me of a Pynchon novel. In each one, he mentions me. He had an elaborate, secret plan to raise enough money for pay for my parochial school tuition. In fact, he did send me to Catholic school until he died when I was eight.

Let me explain. My dad was an alcoholic. He wore himself down with his drinking. In one letter, he guessed that he had eight more years to live. In reality, life shorted him three years. He didn’t have much of a career, aside from his job selling jewelry at a pawn shop. I gather that he sold random things to make money, but he was smooth about it. He loved to talk to people. He understood them. I don’t think that my dad would have wanted to deal drugs, but I do think that he would have been pretty damn good at it. He knew, better than most, how people become enslaved to their thoughts, to their pasts, to their hurts. He couldn’t have cared less about material wealth, except when it came to my education – and, I assume, his alcohol.

My dad cared about my soul. He wanted me to learn more than the basics, he wanted me to have religion. He thought that Jesus could offer me what he could not: love. He thought that his last few years were best spent peddling odd items here and there, raising what he could so I would be able to learn about Jesus and the saints. He died alone.

Look, my dad had a tough life and he fought more than his fair share of battles. He had his reasons to believe that he was no good for me. Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong. What I do know is that a hug and a trip to the zoo would have worked wonders on my soul. Maybe he could have thrown in a joke or two. It’s kind of ironic.

Oh, I’m not sure if this is important, but my dad decorated his letters with doodles of four-leaf clovers. He said that he wanted to go to Ireland, his homeland, and never come back. I’ve never been to Ireland, have you? I think I might plan a trip.

I want a tattoo

My sister pierced my ears for me. I was nine and I wanted a second set of earrings to go with the eyeliner and blush that I had just begun to wear. She was 27. I sat on a stool in her kitchen, dirty dishes in the sink, an ice cube stinging my earlobes. She used a sewing needle and it hurt. Afterwards, I felt like the coolest fourth grader on earth.

Kim was always an experimenter. Two years after the piercing incident, she taught me to shave my legs in the same kitchen sink, after I begged for the entire summer. A year later, she dyed my dark hair blonde on a whim. Long into high school, she would take me out to the secondhand shops and buy me drapey blouses and tie-dyed t-shirts. She wanted to help me invent myself.

Lately, I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a tattoo. I want to design it myself, and I want it on my back so it will show when I wear a tank top or a swimsuit. But I’m mixed. Geoff doesn’t like tattoos. He thinks they’re trashy and distracting. Maybe he’s right. It’s possible that I would get the tattoo and hate it, dread the sight of it in the mirror, and never be able to wear a sleeveless top again.

I think having a tattoo will remind me of Kim. She got several tattoos, in succession, around the time that she went on drugs. It’s funny, but she was about my age at the time, in her mid-thirties. I don’t remember what her tattoos looked like, but I guess they were your basic flowers and butterflies, nothing that extreme. Yet her body art starkly coincided with her turn to the dark side. It marked her as a druggie, a petty criminal, an abuser in so many ways. Her tattoos offered visible proof of her badness, and they scared me. I was seventeen, eighteen, and symbols seemed significant.

So I stopped seeing her. And I stopped experimenting. I passed a very difficult few years, where even a haircut felt like too much commitment, and I lived in fear of marking myself in any way. Kim had taught me everything I knew, and look what happened to her.

But – how can I explain this to you? After so many years of denying it, lately I’ve been thinking about how completely awesome it was to have a sister so much older than me. She was like an aunt, a second mom who taught me how to have fun. Kim was never afraid of messing up. I mean, she should have been, but she wasn’t. She tried things just to say that she had. She was bold. Even after watching her life crash and burn around her, I love that about her.


Maybe I had it right all along

We visited her at the nursing home just a few days before she died. I was 25, yet I remember it so clearly. Geoff drove, and my aunt stayed back because there wasn’t enough room in the car.

Bubbie had sent instructions, of course: Bring Hershey bars. We stopped at Rite Aid on the way, but they were out, so I picked M&Ms instead. The nursing home was in a small, tidy building with a garden in front. The bright, colorful lobby felt almost cheerful. As we moved past the entrance into the patient area, we said hello to the patients lining the hall in their wheelchairs. Some responded but some were sleeping, their minds elsewhere. The intense smell of pee and beeping machines reminded us of illness and imminent death.

Bubbie waited for us, sitting in her wheelchair just inside the door to her room. I don’t remember why, but she couldn’t talk. Perhaps it was an effect of her recent stroke, maybe her voice escaped her body ahead of time. Nevertheless, I remember her mumbling for Rose Ann, my aunt, incoherently. My mom explained that my aunt had stayed back at the house. Bubbie also asked for my uncle, Norman; Norman who was her favorite child, who deceived her so coldly in the end, my uncle, who had fled back to his home across the country just days earlier.

So Bubbie made due with just us four – my mom, her sketchy but well-meaning husband, Geoff, and me. We kept our visit upbeat, chatting and laughing the whole time. Bubbie eyed us as though she wasn’t quite sure who we were. But maybe she was just angry at us, at me. I handed her M&Ms one by one from the package, hoping that my last-ditch effort would make her love me in the end. Who knows if it worked? She accepted the candy like a child, but still her face stayed as locked up as always.

Here’s the thing about having a grandmother who hates you, or one who at least withholds her affection for you even in the face of your own attempts at loving her: You learn how to handle others’ disapproval. You learn that you can’t ever control someone else’s emotions, even when you try. You learn how to seek your own approval from within yourself before seeking it from others, even from your family.

When you see your grandmother reject your achievements and reward your sister’s failures and illnesses, you learn that not everything is as it seems. No, sometimes love is hate and hate is love. When all that your grandmother offers you is anger and hatred, you learn that sometimes emotions are their opposite. You accept the paradoxical, the impossible, the ambiguous.

When your grandmother serves you a big plate of rocks instead of cookies, and when you are a good girl like I was, you eat up those rocks, smile, and pretend they are cookies. You just accept it. And years later, you might find yourself, as an adult, in a tough situation. You might one day feel broken down in some way, challenged. If you really focus on what’s going on inside you, you’ll feel those rocks still in your belly after so much time, and you’ll know for certain that everything is going to be fine.

If I could go back to that day in the nursing home with my Bubbie, I would thank her for always knowing how much I was capable of, for demanding the most from me, and accepting nothing. My Bubbie always made me work harder.

It looks like I have a secret admirer! Thanks to whomever nominated me for this awesome linkup.

Five Star Friday


Did you ever keep a secret?

Honestly, this week I’ve been trying not to think about the past. I’ve been trying not to think much at all. I haven’t really felt like writing, either.

But if I did feel like thinking, like writing, I would tell you this story.

I got punished a lot as a teenager. I had a lot of terrible fights with my mom, and I often ended up grounded. I didn’t break a lot of rules, but I did scream at my mom a lot. And she screamed at me. I hardly remember what we fought over; it’s beside the point. Yet I did spend a lot of time alone in my room, especially on Friday nights. This was in the days before the internet, but suffice it to say I had no telephone privileges, no music. It was boring.

If you’ve been reading here a while, you might guess that I didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs. I basically stayed out of trouble. All that time spent grounded probably sounds like overkill. Trust me, it was. I was a good kid.

Except once. My mom was away overnight, helping my sister recover from surgery. I was sixteen. I had a boyfriend, I liked him but didn’t love him. Our usual dates were spent making out in dark movie theaters. Now, this was, I believe, the first night I ever spent alone in my life. So, the first thing I did? I called my boyfriend. He had his mom drop him off, and we spent a couple of hours making out on my couch. I took off my shirt. That’s it. That’s as far as it went. I don’t even think that he returned the favor. I wasn’t ready for more, and he didn’t press me. Nine o’clock rolled around and I put my shirt back on, his mom picked him up, and that was that.

My mom never found out. Good thing — I mean, can you imagine? I might not have made it to college. My mom would have overreacted, I’m sure. But even once I got older, even after I got married, I never admitted it to her. I’m glad that I never shattered her with the truth, that I spared her the inevitable self-examination that knowing would have caused. What’s more, I liked having a secret. It’s shameful, I know. I liked that one single — small — actual misdeed. It made all that time I spent grounded feel worth it. It made me happy.

She slept in my bed

My Aunt Rose Ann used to call me Miss Piggy when I was a baby. She used to bring me toys every time she visited until my mom asked her to stop. My mom said that it would make me expect to get a present every time I saw her.

My Aunt Rose Ann was Catholic — converted like my mom — and I used to tell her about all the things that I learned about Jesus at school. I remember whispering to her in the back bedroom so my Bubbie wouldn’t overhear (she did not love Jesus).

Aunt Rose Ann used to take me places — to the bowling alley, the zoo, here and there. She was fun, and I always knew that she loved me a lot.

But Aunt Rose Ann wasn’t perfect. She was very sick. She was schizophrenic. She didn’t work, never married, never had kids of her own. She lived upstairs from my Bubbie, and later moved in with her.

My mom did not keep my aunt’s illness a secret from me, but she didn’t give me many details, either. I know that when my aunt first showed signs of mental illness, she was studying medicine at college. She had a breakdown and wandered outside, naked. Note that naked will always, on some level, equal crazy for me.

But the time I was on the scene, her symptoms were under control. I only remember one time that Aunt Rose Ann had a psychotic episode. Honestly, it was no biggie. She didn’t do anything scary in my presence. Except this: My mom offered her my room while she adjusted to her new meds. I was maybe four years old, and I remember it like it just happened. Fuck, I wanted my room back.

Days passed and my aunt didn’t emerge. She slept in my bed, haunting my room forever more. I cried to my mom, who did nothing. What could she do? She needed to look after her little sister. Finally, at long last, my aunt emerged from my room, adjusted and refreshed. I’m sure that she thanked me. I’m also sure that she had no idea how she had planted those seeds within me. I would never be crazy.

I never let anyone else sleep in my kids’ beds. Ever. Go ahead, call me superstitious.

You’re going to like this one


It dawns on me that I haven’t told you the story yet, at least not completely. I’m warning you, this is a good one. It’s a story like a train without brakes, taking everything in its path.

It started back in 1981 or so. I was four years old, so was Geoff. Our moms each shared a close friend, Maureen, a Carmelite nun. She’s my namesake. Each of our moms came to her during their pregnancies, each one a story of its own.

In 1981, Maureen left her monastery for a time and traveled far away. Knowing that she would be gone for a year, she introduced our moms. Geoff and I were four. He and his mom came over. While our moms got to know each other, we played outside. As the story goes, I pulled his hair. His mom got angry, defensive. Somehow or other, our moms patched things up and forged a friendship in Maureen’s absence. They spent lots of time together, and so did Geoff and I.

We were buddies. We went to camp together, I took trips with him and his parents. He cut up my food in restaurants. We had sleepovers where we shared each other’s beds.

When we were six, I told him that I loved him. He kissed me on the forehead and told me that he wanted to marry me when we grew up. We kept it a secret.

Two years later, our moms had a fight and split up. It felt like the fun parts of my life suddenly vanished. For the first time, I hated my mom’s control over me.

Ten years passed. Freshman year of college, I heard from Maureen that Geoff and I were in the same city. Weeks later, I got a call from a friend who had run into Geoff.

Listen. I was dating a guy. I loved that guy. I even thought he was the one. But I was wrong. From the moment that I knew Geoff was in my town, that other relationship was on the tracks. Six months passed and Geoff and I were dating. The train snatched us up and we’ve been aboard ever since. Next week we’ll celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary.

Now, what do you think? Does hearing the story make you believe in fate? If this were your story, wouldn’t you do anything to protect it, to preserve it?

Going braless

He liked the girl without the bra. I could sense it, could literally feel his animal attraction to her.  The three of us were standing around after class, waiting for the elevator. They were talking and laughing. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and opted to hike down the stairs.

I met him in grad school. We both studied American lit, neither of us had made the cut for the PhD program. We made due with our master’s studies.

I arrived ten minutes early to my first meeting with my advisor. I found her door closed, blurred voices escaping from inside the office. I sat outside, on the floor, reading a copy of the first book on the syllabus. I waited forty-five minutes before I worked up the nerve to knock.

He showed up thirty minutes in. He was hot. Tall, dark hair, nice smile. I did say hi, so at least there was that. I smiled. But, you know, I was already married. Year one. So I didn’t show interest. But he was perfect. He wore his button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a messenger bag slung across his chest.

Who knows what would have happened if I had not already been taken. But honestly, I had no clue. I was 24, and I was only beginning to invent myself. Going braless was not on my checklist. Marriage was, and so was grad school. I was new, awkward, and in a rush to get things right.

Finally I stuffed my book into my bag, stood up, and said, “I guess I should knock.” I didn’t laugh and I don’t remember properly introducing myself. I knocked on the professor’s door and interrupted her meeting. Afterwards, the tall guy and I glanced at each other as I held her door open for him.

Here’s the thing: Doing things right made me unhappy. I thought that I wanted to quit my job and start grad school. I thought that I wanted to rush home each night after class. I thought that I didn’t need to be all that friendly to my single schoolmates because I had my real married friends. I thought that one misstep would bring my whole life crumbling down. I thought that things that made me uncomfortable were bad.

But you know what? I was wrong. I wanted to flirt. I wanted to forget my bra. Have I ever mentioned how much I bombed at grad school? I did all of the assignments, but I completely missed out on the experience. I still graduated, though.

I Don't Like Mondays Blog Hop

Maybe I hated her, too

I was almost 18 when I knew for sure that my Bubbie hated me.

I was visiting her on a sunny Saturday at the end of summer, days before I started college. Earlier we had gone shopping for dorm room supplies: pillows, a trash can, a shower caddy, that sort of thing. The purchases sat by her door still in their bags.

We had just returned from lunch and my mom and my aunt were talking quietly in the kitchen.

“Come with me,” Bubbie said. “I have something to show you.”

“Okay,” I said and followed her as she shuffled into her bedroom. The bedspread laid smoothly over the bed, her knitted afghan over top. Her rocker sat in one corner. Sun streamed through the lace curtains.

“Sit here,” she said, motioning towards the bench at her vanity table.

I did. She opened her jewelry box sitting atop her vanity, her hands shaking slightly. “Look at these,” she said, lifting out a pair of gold earrings.

“They’re pretty,” I said. Bubbie loved jewelry almost more than she loved shopping. Ever since my grandfather died in World War II, she had saved carefully to buy herself rings, necklaces, earrings. At 82, her large collection was her pride.

I ran my fingers across the rows of pretty necklaces. I loved when Bubbie showed me her things like this; sneaking off felt secret and special.

“I like this one,” I said, lifting a large ring with a swirling pattern of diamonds out of the box. I smiled and looked up at Bubbie, expecting her agreement.

No. Suddenly something was wrong. Her face had turned stony.

“Don’t touch that,” she ordered. “That one belongs to your sister when I’m gone.”

Her words froze me. The ring dropped back into the jewelry box. For a long minute I tried to make sense of Bubbie’s words.

I didn’t want Bubbie to be gone. I never wanted any of her jewelry if it meant that she was dead. I hadn’t asked for the ring, I hadn’t even wanted it. But even if I had, why would she choose to reward my sister over me? Why reward a no-good drug addict who deserted her family and not me? I had always worked hard and received a scholarship to college. I visited her each Saturday, not Kim. I always did the right thing, unlike Kim. I loved my Bubbie.

All of a sudden, a blinding rage came over me. I jumped up, pushed over the bench, and ran out of the room. I ran to the front door and grabbed my new pillow and a few other shopping bags and slammed the front door behind me. I could hear my mom calling me from the kitchen, but I ignored her. I ran to the bus stop and sat, clutching my pillow, crying.

A few minutes later, my mom arrived. As we waited for the approaching bus, she told me, “Whatever you just did, Bubbie will never forgive you for it.” I looked at her in disbelief.

You know what? My mom was right. I apologized many times, but my Bubbie never did forgive me. You’d be surprised how old she was when she died.

I know a monster who lived in Scranton

When my sister, Kim, was about 13, if I remember correctly, she and my mom took a trip to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Now, this was five years before I arrived, a few years before my mom even met my father at the pawn shop where they both eventually worked.

By this point in her life, my mom, a divorcee and mental hospital survivor, was searching for redemption. She arranged the trip to meet with a priest, I think. She was working towards her conversion from Judaism, studying the New Testament and Catholic scriptures, as her story goes.

Scranton isn’t all that far from Baltimore, but for my mom it was a big trip. She was never much of a traveler. I’m not sure why she brought my sister along, and I can only imagine what a 13-year-old Jewish girl from a broken home would think of spending a week in a monastery. That’s another story itching to be told.

In any case, Kim was there when my mom received some kind of bad news. Was my Bubbie sick? My aunt? I can’t remember. Something happened that drove my mom to return to Baltimore, alone. Her friend the priest suggested that she leave my sister there with him while she went to sort out the emergency. At least, that’s how she told the story. So she left her 13-year-old daughter alone in a monastery in the care of a priest.  Today, the thought of doing such a think strikes me as almost comical.

It wasn’t. Something went wrong, of course. I’m hazy on the details, but my sister spent three days by herself at that monastery in Scranton. After my mom came to collect her, she was broken. Now, my mom used to say that Kim was always a difficult child. She struggled even when she was a baby. But whatever happened in Scranton set her on a downward spiral.

My mom never forgave herself. Her guilt ran so deep that she had another child – me – and dedicated nearly the rest of her life to keeping me safe. For my sister, whatever trauma she experienced in the care of the priest became a pivot point in her life. By the time I was born, she was receiving treatment for bipolar disorder. Later, when things began to get really bad, when she first began to have flashbacks and emerge from her room talking like a little girl or an angry truck driver, the first thing that came up in therapy was Scranton. Scranton. I remember overhearing so many horror stories about Scranton that I came to hate the entire state of Pennsylvania.

I have no idea what really happened there. Could the priest have molested my sister? Possibly. Yet I can’t help but wonder if all that really hurt my sister was fear. Fear – a cold, dark, mysterious monster that invaded a troubled girl at a crucial point in her life. Fear can do terrible things.


Meditation on a mug

My mom was an artist. She studied art in college and taught herself much more. She drew, she painted, she did beading and weaving. She liked very much to dabble. My mom, who spent much of her life suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, found an outlet for her pain through her art. Her disease fueled her creativity, and vice versa, in ways that I have only begun to understand.

When I was twelve, my mom bought me a sketchbook and sat me down at the dining room table. She put a cup in front of me and told me to look at it.

“Look closely,” she said. “See how the light hits it here?” she asked. “See this shadow?”

I did. As my mom broke the parts of the cup down one by one, I could see each part singularly. She taught me to notice difference.

“Now draw what you see,” she said, handing me her special charcoal pencils. She showed me how to use heavier and lighter pressure to make the drawing textured. She showed me how to blend, how to highlight with the eraser. She showed me how to re-create reality.

“Take your time,” she recommended gently. “Work on one part at a time.”

I drew slowly and carefully. When I finished, I had a lovely two-dimensional rendition of a mug, instantly recognizable. I’d like to think that I had real talent, but I think that anyone could break down a simple object like this and make something beautiful from it. In any case, I loved drawing. My mom’s lessons showed me the way to one of my earliest passions. I remember counting the days until art class, waking up early and full of excitement on Wednesdays and Fridays. Those were the days when I felt special. Those were the days when I got to do what I loved best.

My mom’s method of drawing was entirely rooted in the present. She taught me to be mindful, to make art a meditation. She taught me to overlook nothing. She showed me how even the simplest object can open you to creating beauty and can teach you a truth about yourself. It’s funny — you probably don’t think of drawing as a survival skill, but for me, it is.