Chili Dogs and Sawdust Make Me Cry

Last week, I ruined a pan of milk gravy that I was fixing with porkchops. I cried over that pan of gravy, but not because it had too much salt yet still tasted like cornstarch. I cried because I couldn’t call Daddy and laugh with him about how bad I had messed it up. He was the master of gravy. Back when he was feeling like himself, he would have gasped and squawked and cried, “How could my own child not know how to make milk gravy???” He would have carried on the same way he did when I confessed that I didn’t know how to cut up a chicken. We would have laughed about it and he would have told me to put a potato in soup if I ever add too much salt. And we would have talked for a while then said, “I love you” before hanging up.

I ate that damn gravy, every salty bite, because I didn’t want to let it go.

 

wood-877368_1920We’re replacing the boards on the deck. The day the nice man from Lowe’s delivered the lumber and piled it up in the driveway, I started feeling a little strange. A soft, gray sort of pining in my chest, a little lost echo. After the first day of construction, I stepped out on the deck and smelled the pine tang of freshly sawn wood. Instantly, I started crying. The smell of new lumber–that’s what had stirred up my feelings. My daddy is supposed to be around for construction projects. At least he was up until a few years ago when Joe and James took over. When I needed a fence put up or taken down, or a door hung or a cabinet replaced, it was Daddy who brought the saws and the nail guns and the levels. Now I hire a stranger.

All that sawdust flying around revealed a perfect little cobweb in the corner of the window, only visible once it was covered in bits of wood shavings. In the mornings, I sit on my corner of the loveseat and watch the dew and sawdust sparkle on the fine threads of the web. Memories are like that–here is this fine thing that you never noticed and now it’s visible.

A seed catalog came in the mail on a day when snow swirled outside the windows. I cried over that catalog and the thought of all those tomato plants that won’t get planted this winter. Daddy had a greenhouse and a green thumb. He started his vegetables from seed, in row upon row of white styrofoam cups. He started using those instead of seed trays a few years ago because he could write the variety on every seedling, never confusing a Better Boy for an Early Girl. At Easter, each of us would leave with a tray of tiny plants for our own garden plots. One year, he started 200 tomato plants. That was the year he learned how to can salsa, too.

Daddy and Big Gay waged a quiet battle of encroachment in their garden. It started out as a vegetable garden with one of the large plots set aside for Gay’s flowers. Then the next spring, the flowers had spread to an adjoining plot. Eventually, peonies and antique roses and poppies and larkspur and a carpet of dianthus took up half of the garden space. Just like Nazi Germany (to hear Daddy recount it), the flowers infiltrated borders and claimed land that was destined from the beginning of time for turnip greens and potatoes.

If there aren’t any tomatoes this year, I’ll understand. I can even grow my own but I’ll have to buy a few from the nursery, the week after Easter.

The worst bout of tears blindsided me on a Saturday while I stood over a frying pan of hot dogs. When I was little, there was no greater adventure than a Saturday spent “riding around” with Daddy. Country veterinarians work on Saturdays, too. Riding with Daddy meant going all over the county in a rattle trap Ford pickup truck that smelled like worm pills and Marlboro cigarettes. I felt so proud when he let me hop out of the cab to open and close cattle gates. Sometimes I got to see an actual horse and maybe even pat it on the nose if it wasn’t feeling too poorly. At every farm, he introduced me as his baby.

As we drove along on calls, Daddy listened to talk radio back when it was talking and not shrieking. He’d listen to Ludlow Porch out of Atlanta. I remember one time hearing Ludlow say that something cost “a grand.” I asked Daddy what a grand was and he laughed and said, “All the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.”

de3c02294fe0fa70fb4b5f064f8d71cdAround lunch time, we’d stop at a little gas station/grocery store like Red O’Neal’s or Mr. Connell’s and get us a pack of bright red hot dogs, a can of Castleberry chili, and a bag of Sunbeam buns. Maybe a couple of RC Colas or a grape Nehi. Back at his clinic, which was built onto the corner of a big cattle barn, so it always smelled like manure and fresh hay, Daddy would plug in the electric hot plate and we’d fix up a plate of chili dogs on top of the surgical table. When the chili dogs got good and hot, I’d get the bottles of ketchup and yellow mustard out of the door of the medicine refrigerator. I still remember how the well-sealed door popped open so hard that the little glass bottles of insulin and rubber-stoppered test tubes of blood rattled in their racks.

As I stood there frying up hot dogs for my own kids, I realized how we have no idea which memory will stick. What will it be sixty years from now that brings a tear to Vivi’s eye when she remembers me? Will she have a photograph (or a story on the ancient internet) to jog her memory? If only I had a picture of a hot plate of chili dogs bubbling on an operating table. Or if that clinic still existed so I could go back for a moment to capture its sharp clean smell of disinfectant, its rattling refrigerator, and the baying of a dozen dogs in the kennel wishing for a bite of whatever was smelling so good.

What I wouldn’t give for a Saturday morning driving around the countryside with my Daddy, learning about grand things and simple things and picking out a bag of potato chips from the wire rack by the cash register of a gas station.

I’d give all the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.

Putting the “P” in Prepositions

We won’t speak of what my son did to my bathroom today. If you know, you know. If you don’t, it’s better that I don’t try to explain it. Let’s just say…BOYS.

As I was scouring the floor and the walls and the commode, I remembered a tip I once got from an English teacher: a preposition is anything that a rabbit can do to a log. The rabbit can go around the log, over the log, behind the log, above the log, near the log…you get the idea.

A preposition is anything a rabbit can do to a log.

A preposition is anything a rabbit can do to a log.

Well, it got me thinking that I need to talk about prepositions with my boy, specifically, we need to put the Pee in Prepositions.

We pee IN the toilet.

Not around, next to, behind, near, across, beyond, or beside the toilet.

IN.

Not on the toilet. Not over the toilet.

If he needs variety, he can try inside the toilet or within the toilet. He can even try peeing via the toilet.

Not above, across, against, along, around, below, beneath, by the toilet and certainly not
despite the toilet.

Peeing off the toilet? No. Peeing onto the toilet? Absolutely not. Peeing outside the toilet? No sir.

Not over, past, round, toward, underneath, or upon the toilet.

IN the toilet.

I don’t care what that rabbit and his friends do to the log. This is our home and we are not rabbits.

Prepositions are important, and if we don’t talk to our sons about prepositions and putting the P in prepositions…who will?

I Tiptoe Into Your Room at Night

November 8, 2014

November 8, 2014

I tiptoe into your room every night, and it’s never to whisper, “For the last time, untangle your underwear from your pants legs before you put them in the laundry basket.”

Just before midnight, I stand beside your bed and not once have I come there to say, “Did you put something down the toilet again? Because it is clogging up and I sweartogod if I have to replace another toilet it is coming out of your college fund.”

In the soft glow of your night light, my finger reaches out to trace the perfect curve of your cheek and I don’t ask, “Why are you so sticky?”

I tuck the covers around you without saying, “You’re not even supposed to have Go-gurts in your room. We don’t want ants.”

I push the dark curls off your forehead and it’s never crossed my mind to take this opportunity to say, “Cough into your elbow!”

And every night, every single night of your life, I stand there in the dark and whisper, “I love you sooooo much.”

Every day I tell you that too. But at night, I tiptoe into your room to remind myself what a miracle you are. And how lucky I am to be your mother.

But honestly, what is that smell?

Jumping Monkeys

In a parenting group, a very funny mother posted this commentary about the ridiculous nature of parenting groups (yes, IRONY. But we’re totally different, super cool and laid back):

Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed,
One fell off and bumped his head.
Mama asked the mom group and the mom group said:
Have you tried essential oils? I hear hyperactivity is a vaccine injury. I’m calling CPS.

RIGHT?

After I had my laugh, I rubbed some Vitamin-E on that scar Carlos has on his cheek from the time he slid in his own pee dribbles while getting off the toilet and cut his face on the rim of the trashcan. I felt like the World’s Horriblest Mother after that accident. Yet somehow, the cut gave him a dimple. Who else could turn a pee slip into a beauty mark? That boy is MAGIC.

Trauma induced dimple. (Yes, I know that is not the proper way to secure a helmet. It was corrected before he started juggling machetes.)

Trauma induced dimple. (Yes, I know that is not the proper way to secure a helmet. It was corrected before he started juggling machetes.)

Anywho, now that you’ve been blessed with a photo of The Cutest Little Boy In the ENTIRE WORLD, let me get back to nutjobs who think their kids are the specialist snowflakes of all the special snowflakes.

When I was still pregnant with Vivi, my stepdaughter Victoria sorted through her books and picked a few to pass along to the baby. One of the books was a bright yellow copy of “Ten Little Monkeys” with fingerpuppets for the monkey heads. “I loved that song!” I cried. She and I started reading it together.

Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed, one fell off and bumped his head.

Called up the doctor and the doctor said,

“No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”

 

I blurted, “That’s not how it goes.” Victoria showed me the page. I even flipped a few pages ahead–they were all like that. I figured it was some knock-off Montessori book or something G had picked up in an airport in a foreign land, because every kid born in my generation knows how that rhyme REALLY goes:

Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed, one fell over and broke his head.

Mama called the doctor and the doctor said,

“THAT’S WHAT YOU GET FOR JUMPING ON THE BED.”

Walk it off, monkey. Gravity always wins. Here, bite this stick while we flush it out with Bactine then you can get back to carousing.

Trampoline with no safety cage, no padding. And the ground is littered with dirt.

Trampoline with no safety cage, no padding. And the ground is littered with dirt.

Now that I’ve been parenting actual children for almost a decade, I think the shift in the nursery rhyme reflects the shift in how we parent our kids. The current trend is to shield them from harm–by order of the Department of Health, no more monkeys will be allowed to jump on the bed.

Back in MY day, we were raised with less bubble wrap and more natural consequences–that’s what you get for…fill in the blank. Even the doctor knew it was your own damn fault if you broke your head falling off the bed after your mama had told you 100 times not to be doing that in the first place.

I had every intention of being the kind of mother who can lord it over the others in on-line mothering groups. While I was still percolating my first baby I was already reading hand-me-down copies of Mothering magazine about the proper way to grow, preserve, pulverize and compost my own organic food for my child. I tied myself up in a ring sling and smeared medical grade lanolin on my nipples and it wasn’t even Valentines Day. My kids would be raised with every bit of Mother Henning I could muster. They would suffer no trauma, not even a mild inconvenience.

Then some actual parenting hit and I find myself letting my kids teach themselves more and more of those lessons that only make it into our brains the hard way.

So what about you? Were you taught no more monkeys jumping on the bed or that’s what you get for jumping on the bed? Or did your mom rub some essential oils on your head and file a lawsuit against the mattress manufacturer?

Hang on tight buddy. That ground is hard.

Hang on tight buddy. That ground is hard.

Ten Bucks on Maybe

In the entire history of the lottery in Georgia, I’ve spent about $15 on tickets. And I’m OK with that. The first $10, I spent just to annoy my dad. When the lottery was under discussion, he’d scoff and say, “The lottery is a voluntary tax on people who are REALLY bad at math!”

After getting the kids to school this morning, I drove past a lottery billboard and noticed that it was stuck at $999 million. I’m pretty good at math, but I’m also pretty good at….maybe.

money-994845_1280

Yes, the chances of getting struck by lightning are 243 times higher than winning the jackpot. But it’s just a couple of bucks for a few minutes of…maybe.

Yesterday morning, I spent $14 on artisanal bread because I wanted to taste a flaky buttery chocolate croissant and remember that I used to go on international adventures. The day before that, I spent $17 on lunch with a friend. Last week, a handful of Ray Lamontagne CDs. A Charles Lenox mystery on the Kindle.

So I pulled my car into a gas station and went inside. I asked the woman behind the glass, “Do y’all sell lottery tickets?” She nodded.

Um…she seemed to think the Powerball was in my court at that point. I laughed. “You’re going to have to tell me how to buy one.” There were slips and tiny pencils involved but I did the quick pick anyway. I made an A in Mrs. Barnes’ probability class.

I handed the woman a $10 bill and she handed me a little fistful of maybe.

The statements for all three of my retirement accounts arrived simultaneously today, along with the statements for the kids’ college funds. I’m good enough at math to understand the power of compound interest, the importance of early investing, and the ups and downs of the equities market. On the other hand, I spent $24 ordering Chinese food for dinner, and my fortune said, “You will inherit an unexpected sum of money within the year.”

Here’s to maybe.

When the Pieces Fit Together

G and I spent this weekend as one being, locked in a torrid frenzy of…cleaning house. I ripped off his pants and threw them in the washer with the other seven loads of laundry. Not to be outdone, he shredded my old shirt then used it to wipe streaks off the windows. I screamed his name over and over and over again because he kept taking the whole roll of paper towels. He made me all dizzy and tingly when he used all that bleach in the bathroom and forgot to turn on the exhaust fan. In the dark of the fading afternoon, we squeezed and poked and fumbled until all the bathroom towels fit neatly on one shelf in the closet. With Disney Junior keeping the kids distracted, we crept off to the bedroom to rotate the mattress. And I do mean “rotate the mattress.”

By Sunday night, I was spent. He was out on the deck smoking and staring off across the treetops, like men with organized Tupperware cabinets do. It was magical.

Seriously, is there anything sexier than a man who smells like bleach? I think not.

As awesome as our newly organized bathroom closet is (and y’all…THREE BAGS of trash came out of there) it wasn’t the high point of the Big Clean for me. These two puzzles were:

puzzles

So, can I talk to the people who have small folks in the house? Can you empathize with me when I tell you the delicious joy of finding ALL THE PIECES of these puzzles? For years, I’ve been considering throwing every puzzle piece out in one big sweep, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It seemed so wasteful. I kept hanging on to a piece here and a piece there and one under the bed in Vivi’s room and one in the vase beside the dining room table and GAHHHHHHHH. My kids have played with this farm cube puzzle for eight years. I remember the first time Vivi put the horse together by herself. But it’s been scattered all over the house for a while now.

Even though the clutter was driving me crazy, I held on to the pieces whenever I found one and this weekend, after an unanticipated discovery in the bottom of the old toy box…all the pieces came together. I can’t describe the satisfaction and the joy.

It’s like storytelling–you hang on to random scraps and pieces and think about giving up then one day, it all falls together and makes a picture.  So I guess what I’m telling you is–hold on to the pieces. It will make sense one day. Maybe.

I wiped the smudges off the puzzle cubes and put them neatly in their tray, then slipped the whole thing in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. Because we are homo sapiens and we learn to use tools. And not two minutes later, Vivi spotted it in the Donate box and cried, “I LOVE THAT PUZZLE!” I reminded her that she hadn’t played with it in years and she said, “That’s because it was missing most of the pieces.”

Dammit. She has a point. So the puzzle has gone back to her room–in the plastic bag–and I will watch for a week to see if it gets touched. If not, it goes along to some other child with a more organized mother.

Carlos got a fantastic puzzle for Christmas–a magnetic array of the 50 U.S. States. He loves it and we’ve been putting it together, together. But on the day after Christmas, we misplaced Wisconsin and I spent THREE DAYS haunted by that damn state.

Finally found it when G and I were thrashing around on the living room rug, all sweaty and sticky from picking up Christmas tree needles. I scared the bejeezus out of him when I yelled, “YesYesYes! Right there! Right there by your thumb! Wisconsin! WISCONSIN!”

Somebody Has to Bake the Pie

In my last appointment before the holidays, my therapist and I talked about how this year would be different without my dad there. Big Gay does so much of Christmas for us, but there were a few things that belonged to Daddy alone.

Like we usually had one present that was just from him to each of us. For many years, it was Far Side desk calendars. Or it would be smell-good stuff from the drug store. Or fancy coffee. Or step ladders–that was a fun year.

Over the years, he bought a set of cranberry red Waterford champagne flutes, one or two at a time and we used them to drink a toast on Christmas Eve. The first year, when there were only two for Big Gay and him, he said, “I saw these and had to buy them because they were the only thing I ever saw that was almost as pretty as you.” Then we drank her health.

And he made the sweets, candies and cookies and especially pie. I think the pie phase started about fifteen years ago. He liked mincemeat–maybe the only person left in Georgia who ever liked mincemeat–so he had to learn to make it for himself. There were five or six kinds of pie at every holiday dinner.

When the pie phase held on long enough to become A Thing instead of a phase, Big Gay surprised Daddy one Christmas with a new Kitchenaid mixer. He was so excited that he kept it on the floor by his reading chair all day, so that he could “reach down and pet it.” Joe offered to make him a little wagon so he could drag it up and down the street and show it off to his friends.

Sometimes Christmas and pie led to strife. One year, I walked into the library and Daddy was sitting in his reading chair staring off into space. When I asked what was going on, he pulled a little face and said, “Mark said my pie crust might be better if I used half lard and half butter instead of all butter.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Can’t we have ONE HOLIDAY when you boys don’t argue about pastry?” (Mark is Little Gay’s husband, and in addition to being a neurosurgeon, mountain climber, and lawyer, he also took a year off to work as a pastry chef. I shit you not. And he’s pretty good-looking too. But he can’t dance, so there’s that.)

Whatever the ratio of butter to lard, Daddy always made a lattice-crust cherry pie for my sister-in-law, Beth. She got to take the whole pie (or whatever was left) home on Christmas Eve (and return the pie pan sometime in the summer or just buy him a new pie pan for Father’s Day). It was their special thing, a simple way that he showed her he loved her.

When I was telling my therapist about all these holiday traditions, it was the cherry pie that made me break down in tears. She told me that the plain truth is that if a tradition is important enough to the family, those who are left behind after a death have to decide to be responsible for carrying the tradition forward. Somebody’s got to quit being sad and bake the pie.

Mark would be the logical choice, right? I wasn’t exactly operating on logic when I set my heart on making a cherry pie for Beth.

I asked my friend Jo, who is a brilliant cake baker, for her pie crust recipe. She chuckled and said, “Pillsbury–the kind you roll out. It’s in the freezer section in a red box.” I filed that away… right next to my overblown intention to look up some Ina Garten or Gale Gand recipe for Pâte Brisée and learn how to make it from scratch. I was doing this task to uphold a cherished memory of my father–no shortcuts.

Except time got cut short. I meant to practice one weekend and forgot and then it was the day before Christmas Eve and I hadn’t even bought the Pillsbury pie crust in the red box. Dammit. All I had made was a shopping list when time ran out–I had to get myself to Griffin for the service to scatter Daddy’s ashes. For the second time in a few weeks, I started crying about that cherry pie. I had held it up as a moment of happiness, a moment of forward motion in this season of loss.

G took the list from me and promised that he would go to the store for the supplies.

Then when I told Big Gay about my plan, she opened up the kitchen drawer and gave me Daddy’s….wiggly pastry cutter thingy that you use to make the lattices for the crust.

I should have asked Mark what it was called, but he had lost the power of speech after I confessed I was using Pillsbury crusts. Even though his lips were pressed in a thin line at the thought of Poppin’ Fresh, he didn’t say a word to discourage me. He even handed me the wood-handled metal scraper thingy that you use to push flour around and said, “Every pastry chef needs a (insert technical term for scraper thingy).”

Mark has already told me how to weave the lattice together, so next year will look less wonky.

Mark has already told me how to weave the lattice together, so next year will look less wonky.

The next morning, I got up early to give it one good try. Vivi stirred the cherries and sugar and almond flavoring while they bubbled on the stove. Victoria washed up the pans. I cut lattices and patted butter and crossed my fingers. I remembered to put aluminum foil around the crust edges, just like Daddy did.

My favorite moment of baking that pie wasn’t later that night when Vivi showed it to Aunt Beth. My favorite moment was a few hours before that, when I tucked the pastry tools that had belonged to my father into my own kitchen drawer. When I decided that I will make a cherry pie every year in memory of my dad and his kind heart. He had a knack for knowing how to delight each of us in a simple and profound way.

It might take our whole family to get this pie right. That’s OK. My pies will only get better with Mark’s advice, Big Gay sharing the tools, G running to the store, and Vivi stirring the pot. It’s the same lesson that my therapist told me: if it’s important enough, the family will take up the responsibility for making sure it gets done.

It takes a family to make a family.

Even if that first cherry pie was a hot mess (I used the wrong kind of cherries so it wasn’t tart, way too sweet and the crust was merely serviceable) Beth texted today to say that she had eaten another piece for breakfast.

Sweet.

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Aunt Beth and Vivi, Year One of the Cherry Pie