Thursday, March 26, 2020

My Year of Tattoos

My principal was waiting for me in my classroom. It was a week before school started and she was sitting on a student desk. I had a bulletin board of personal photos--my family, friends, experiences I'd had recently--and there was a picture of my sister Colleen with a tank top on, tattoos exposed. She told me she wasn't going to tell me what to do...but another teacher had walked in and seen it and reported it to her. This really wasn't the family-friendly kind of photo they wanted on a teacher's desk.

I took it down in front of her, along with the one of my other sister with a nose ring. I couldn't even believe I was being censored. I wasn't used to this level of scrutiny.

That October, for my birthday, I got my first tattoo. I was 39. It was in typeface, simple, on my foot, reading "It's fine."

A couple of months later I followed with the other foot: "Let them be."

Sophia's godmother out in Kansas City had told me that summer before I went back to teaching, the summer John and his son lived with us, that I was really good at just letting people be. I loved this insight into myself, and I reveled in the idea that I let people be. But I needed the reminder.

I followed this quickly, so quickly, with a wrist tattoo that said, in Russian, ничего. It's the Russian word for "nothing," pronounced nichevo, but is used for a variety of purposes. It's what you say when someone thanks you for saving the child from running out into traffic. Nichevo. It was nothing. You also say it when asked if you like something. Is the jacket ok? Nichevo. It's fine. I found myself thinking about this nichevo a lot when my house was a hostel for wayward laborers, just a "hey, you can't repay me and don't try, it's totally fine." An outward facing version of the "It's fine" on my foot.

Then the golden spiral on my back followed that spring, the Euler's line on one calf and a stylized version of my family's crest tweaked with arrows and some hobo signs on the other. "Don't give up" reads one. The other? "You can sleep in my hayloft." Because you can.

I rounded out the year finding out that I had a tumor in my right breast and went through an admittedly simply procedure that was fraught with uncertainty at the time. What if it were cancer? How would every damned thing change? How could I be the person I needed to be for everyone else if my health wasn't what it needed to be? I realized I needed to care for this person before I reached too far outside my grasp for others. I didn't retreat, but I stopped putting myself off balance for those who wouldn't do the same in my position. I balanced a bit. I thought before I volunteered. I didn't overextend. I started thinking about Bridgett.

The whole time I was in the uncertainty of "it's a dense area" followed by "ultrasound" followed by "it's a tumor" followed by "if it's cancer...." the health care professionals kept saying it was about the size and shape of an olive.

An olive branch was the only thing that made sense.
Actually longer than a calendar year, about 18 months all told, and I was done. I only got one more tattoo after that, an intricate classic design of a compass and the words "finding my way" because by the time I got that one, I was inextricably on a path to find my way.

The time wrapped up and although I think about getting more, I haven't. It's been 4 years since my last and I might be done. For now at least.

Here's the others, minus Euler's line, which I can't find a picture of and I'm too lazy right now to set up the camera to catch the back of my other calf:

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Notes from Home

Everything is from home now. Here are some notes on the social distancing happening in my hometown.

1. A local radio station is playing Christmas music. This is not comforting.

2. My parents keep refusing to stay at home and let me and my sisters run the errands since I'm a teacher and they work in grocery stores so we are likely already exposed. They keep just...going to Target. Going to the book store "one last time before the shut down." Getting lunch out.

3. My sisters are literally on the front lines of a major amount of White People Behaving Badly. They work at a well known upscale grocery store, each of them at different locations, and their days are filled with women demanding to know where the better lettuce is. Well-dressed men arguing that they need 10 packages of chicken when the limit is 5.

4. I picked up Leo's work from school today. We had a 15 minute window by last name. I was the last in his classroom. "All these little desks have emptied out today and I..." and his teacher couldn't finish her sentence. Here's a teacher who loves her job and her students. I envy that, and I am so sorry for what is happening.

5. But we ended on a bright note, each of us knowing we were walking through this fire and at the end of it would have so many new skills to use in our classrooms. Yes we will, for sure. It's just going to be a long road.

6. The proposed return to school of April 6 has probably been negated by the city and county ordering a stay-at-home mandate until April 22.  State testing has been cancelled. I wonder if I will go back at all this year.

7. We were the last customers in a little donut stand that's been open since the end of WWII when GIs returning from the war were given pamphlets on how to start up their own businesses and donut shops were one of them. We have several around south city. This one was shutting its doors until further notice and we bought their last donuts. I wonder if they will reopen.

8. Driving through the city to run the last errands before the shut down, Maggie and I played "they'll come back/they won't make it", a grim game where we point to businesses and debate if they'll make it through a month of being closed. Tire places and chain restaurants will make it. Most other places won't. We stopped playing when I pointed to Roseborough Monument Company with their sample headstones in the side yard. They'll make it.

9. The unreality of being on the shallow end of an exponential curve makes it feel like a huge overreaction. Then I read reports from Italy and I self-correct.

10. Rosie our little bichon-poodle mix is having the time of her life. All the coziness and fetch she can handle and never in her crate. She will be spoiled by the time we go back to normal.

We will go back to normal. And I will never take a night at the bar or a night at the movies for granted again.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

A visit to the pub

The State of Missouri, finally deciding to follow suit and take the coronavirus seriously, closed all bars, restaurants, clubs, cafeterias, and pubs. No, they didn't specifically state "pubs" and we don't live in the UK, but they are my favorite. We have a few, and I have no idea how authentic they might be to their predecessors, but I know of one, founded by a poet who spent a good chunk of time in Wales, that feels like what I think a pub should be.

You step in from the street and find yourself crowded around the oval bar in the middle of what was once the only room. Stained glass in the windows, the wooden walls covered in art celebrating opera, jazz, blues, and poetry, tiny booths made of old five panel doors and church pews and there's a waitress asking you to wait just a moment and she'll find you a table. She leads you back towards the kitchen, a sharp left across a threshold into the other dining room, really in a separate building, the brick Central West End without gangways between the houses and shops. A center table beneath a large watercolor collage of Carmarthen Bay and we pass around the menus.

I don't know why I even look--I always get the fish and chips, though I have to specify I mean fries in this case, since St. Louis knows crisps as chips and I don't want them. Maybe you'll have the fish too, with the tartar sauce and the malt vinegar on the table just in case that's what you fancy. There's a flank steak on the menu, and a wild mushroom fettucine that I always think I'll try next time until the next time rolls around and it's fish and chips again.

The waitress returns for our drinks order. They make a fantastic boulevardier--a negroni with whiskey instead of gin--with a local rye, served up in a pretty little glass, ice cold but not watered down. One night the bartender brought it to the table himself to meet "his people" since this was the drink he would order at bars to stump the staff. He wasn't stumped, and he shook my hand.

The tables are filled with couples and families; the windows facing the street shining with the last bits of daylight echoing outside. Food arrives and another round and talk turns from casual catching up on the people we know and how our day has been to someone telling a story that we'd had her save until we got to dinner--save it, I want to hear the whole thing at once--and she tells it while we shake our heads or we laugh or we find our hands moving up towards our throats, worried. Whichever it is, the story comes out and it's there at the table with us, circulating like the salt and pepper and vinegar, a companion who can only stay for one drink but maybe settles in for the whole evening.

We make a toast to someone or to the relief that some great trial is over, tapping our glasses on the table before we drink up. Cheers to that, cheers to her, cheers to you.

Dessert is split, bread pudding with dried cherries and pecans and whipped cream. Maybe you scrape off all the pecans and I take them. Maybe you steal all the cherries and I pretend not to notice. Caramel sauce all over everything and perhaps just one more round before the bill gets split or it's really my treat and we don't argue but be sure to tip because we certainly stayed a long time at a large table.

Coats retrieved, we go out the side entrance so as not to have to weave through the bar again. On the sidewalk between the planters covered in old snow we say goodbye with hugs and a kiss and a promise to text and call and do this again, we have to do this again.


Tuesday, March 10, 2020

In Advanced Memory Of

Write an advanced eulogy. A eulogy for someone still alive

My aunt Christine was my cool aunt, that's how we saw her when we were young. Single, when my other two aunts were married and my uncles were either gone in the navy or messing around in one fashion or another, Chris had her own apartment and I was 9 or 11 or maybe younger and got to visit her.

She had a heavy gauge plastic bag of hair ribbons, all wadded up and unused, that she let me take out and choose from. I took many. I never wore them. I love the novelty of the idea, though, and I can still remember her ironing out these pale pink and harvest gold and navy grosgrain ribbons for me to take back with me to whatever place my family was calling home at the time.

Through my aunt Chris, I saw a view of my own parents that I didn't have access to otherwise. She was highly critical of them, but still seemed to love them. This view continued on into my adulthood when I would visit and we would talk about family. Or we would go to the bar with my other living aunt and perhaps a cousin or sister.

She married, and divorced, and I believe married again and divorced. Then she married another time, and was widowed when their son was only 20. I remember her holding that baby when I was pregnant with my oldest. Somehow she handled all of that.

When my oldest aunt died, I sat on my grandmother's couch while Chris took a scanner and surreptitiously copied all the photos she could find for a slide show my cousin wanted to put together. She would hand me photos to resort into albums and boxes, all the while talking with guests and my grandmother and pretending nothing was happening under the coffee table in front of us. She balanced grieving for her sister with hiding from her mother and handling a husband dying of early onset dementia.

When my grandmother died the same year as her husband, she had me come over and sort much older photos, pictures of my grandfather's family, pictures of genealogy I had no idea or hope would exist, right in my shaky hands, afraid to handle too much or leave fingerprints on.

Chris was never afraid to handle things.

And as the oldest sister left alive in St. Louis, her mother and husband both gone, she handled things with the same frankness as she'd given me the hair ribbons--"Of course you need hair ribbons, girl, your hair is plain and long"

Handling things when she's standing in her bedroom yanking pillow cases off vintage cotton telling me I wasn't here to FIX an antique quilt, I was here to TAKE an antique quilt and get it off her hands. Telling me to shut the door while she gave me the box of photos from her dad's ancestors because I was the only one who would care for them.

Handling things when she's giving my dad the ring my grandfather had promised him, a ring that had been his father's and his father's father's father's but which my grandmother stated my dad didn't deserve and maybe she could sell it and give the money to another son who needed the cash more than anyone needed shit like that, handing that to my dad in this moment of grace between two siblings who grew up and apart like I'm watching my own sibling group do and trying to stop that tide and realizing that one day maybe we will just handle it.

When I call on the phone my mom says I sound like her. My sister Bevin has her hair, her face. We all together have that blood harmony of voices that only happen in families who sing and live and handle things.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

My most basic purchase

My favorite things, my most useful things, all the good superlatives, were all hand-me-downs, trades, and gifts. I tend to be very boring and very practical. I don't have a "my most frivolous purchase" that is worth writing about (probably a hand soap) and my "most cherished purchase" is probably wool socks or maybe even an electric blanket. If I'm buying something, it's not worth writing about.

Along the same lines, my stupidest purchase is probably a set of sheets made of a poly cotton blend that are still stiff as a board 15 years later. My most embarrassing purchase? Ok, that would be the second hand chair that I thought I could get up the narrow steps to Sophia's room but of course couldn't and now lives in the basement TV room.


This evening, though, I decided to write about Maeve. My middle daughter comes from a family of quirky people. Her father is quirky, if maybe perhaps bordering on not-quite-neurotypical kind of quirky. Her older sister is for sure quirky. I am too. Maeve is not quirky. I mean, yes she is, of course she is, but she doesn't really want to be seen that way. People, her parents included, would give her gifts on birthdays and Christmases based on notions she had, things that would come and go. Hedgehogs. Velvet. Scandinavian decor. Musicals. Roller Derby. They were notions, a way of trying to define herself that her older sister didn't succumb to. Older sister started her feet on a path and just kept walking. Maeve jumped around the path and the ditches on the side and got distracted by rolling down a hill and then forgot the path entirely in favor of, say, an Italian canal or an airstrip. Maeve seemed like she was going to be quirky.

Maeve hit 13 or 14 and started to regularize herself. No one noticed, because her quirky damned family was trying to figure out what quirky thing she was going to become. Two Christmases of llama pillows and funny t-shirts about Hamilton and sequined pillows that change color when you brush your hand across and a giant stuffed narwhal and I was starting to get the idea that this wasn't Maeve. Maeve was shopping at the mall with girlfriends. Maeve was drinking Starbucks with reusable straws and wearing really good makeup she bought herself with babysitting and dogwalking money and it finally struck me that Maeve might be quirky on the inside but outwardly she wanted desperately to be basic.

It reminded me of me. How often I just wanted to blend. I could be making dollhouse quilts and writing bad short stories at home, but when I went out of the house, I just wanted to blend. I wanted to be like other people. It took me decades to stop blending, or rather, to stop caring about blending (I think I never really blended that well).

So this past Christmas I walked into the mall. I went to the Kendra Scott store. I bought her an Elisa necklace like all the basic girls were wearing. Hell, all the basic moms were wearing. It wasn't on Maeve's list. I don't even know if it was on Maeve's radar.

She opened it this Christmas and squealed like she hasn't since she was four years old tearing through wrapping paper like a heroin addict looking for her next fix.

When we were all heading to bed, Maeve sat back on the couch and sighed. "People understood me this year. I got everything I wanted."

She has worn that Elisa necklace every day since Christmas.

Like every other basic midwestern white girl.

And that's ok.

So that's my most thoughtful purchase. And possibly my most vapid. And both can be true.