REPORT A PROBLEM
I complete National Novel Writing Month, exhausted from pounding out words and pushing to become a "real" published writer. At write-ins, others are young enough to be my children; I feel silly. One friend said of another going to college: "At her age???" But the drive to have my name on a book spine remains; I write daily and send queries. Yet I envy my teenage son whose goal is to be happy. He gets A's and teacher compliments, but his contentment does not need awards. If one friend enjoys my writing, that should be enough, my son teaches me.
Sarah went to bingo tonight with her grandmother; she's turned 18, old enough to play. I'll bet the winnings some regulars cried. Two years ago doctors discovered a brain tumor, and Sarah endured brain surgery, radiation, and chemo. Sarah and my son are like siblings. Before the diagnosis, Sarah spent a day with us at a Harry Potter extravaganza, consuming butter beer and waiting in a midnight line for books. Two days later, my son and I prayed after the call from Sarah's mom. Tonight, when we called, Sarah couldn't talk: "I'm getting ready for Bingo." I prayed "Thank you."
Daisy snuggles atop our printer, feline eyes shut against the light, her paws dangling. I listen to WLIT, Christmas music and sappy stories, remembering we didn't have Daisy this time last year. Last December, Sarah's cat had died. Sarah, sixteen years old, my son's best friend, was undergoing chemotherapy, and her grandmother had just died. Sarah's family was stretched financially and time-wise; I volunteered to take in another feline that would be Sarah's cat. Sarah named Daisy, who joined our household, watches Sox games with my son, eats our other two cat's food, and keeps me company as I write.
Tomorrow I go to L's baby shower. We've known each other since 1995, and now we're daily email buddies. When something uncomfortable happens—a missed work deadline, an angry friend or crabby salesperson, a family worry or hypochondriac fear—I know L. will "listen" to my typed words and let me know in tomorrow's inbox that she understands. She and D. are having their first child, due in January 2009. Tomorrow I'll give a doll, a book, baby lotion and powder, and a little silly story I wrote called "Monster Dust" about a magic invisible substance that chases monsters away.
How I wish Maggie were alive to help me with my fear of aging! I cringe at people's perceptions. At Celtic Fest, a table hawked bagpipe lessons. I'd always wanted to play bagpipes, but the lady at the booth directed her attention to my young son. I've read that countries that revere age have less instances of Alzheimer's. Is there a mind-body connection? Could it be that older people live up to or down to expectations? Maggie, being deaf-blind, had learned to ignore people's expectations; if she were alive, she'd encourage me to play the bagpipes and dance a jig!
Early Saturday morning we took the Brown and Red Lines to 35th, U.S. Cellular, for the White Sox holiday sale. My now-towering-over-me 17-year-old son was ecstatic to be in the team clubhouse and took photographs of team members' lockers and Ozzie's office door. Families with kids, fathers and sons, individuals and groups of friends, all ages, many in White Sox hats or sweaters, rummaged for deals—shirts or jerseys, commemorative books, light-up Sox ornaments. We bought a 2005 trophy and a green Quentin T-shirt with shamrock on sleeve, and had our picture with South Paw. Spent too much—but happy.
When I ride my exercise bike, my cat is my buddy. I start pedaling, and Helinda approaches, meowing piteously. I stop, to avoid hitting her; she hops on the nearby coffee table and leaps to my shoulders. She nuzzles against my hair and props her feet on my shoulders. I pedal, and Helinda's purrs. In June 1998, I met Helinda, a calico too young to be adopted; she jumped to my shoulder and clung to me; I had to pry the kitten's nails from my shirt to leave. Did she choose me, or did she cling to all shelter visitors?
I like rituals. Before bed I make hot chocolate, microwaving a packet with two-percent milk; I drink that and eat a slice of bread and peanut butter. I lie down and listen to a Janet Evanovitch mystery on tape; I set my radio alarm so I wake to Mozart and Beethoven before my real alarm rings loud cathedral chimes. Mornings I like to walk my son partway to his high school; I pass the elementary school he attended and see the custodian who's a violin virtuoso who always waves and calls out to me in the midst of snow shoveling.
I remember the lessons Maggie taught, although I'm stilling trying to live them. "Find balance in life," she said; she didn't sweat over goofs she made or if she accidentally slighted anybody; she'd shrug and say, "She'll get over it." I tend to replay misdeeds and mis-words over and over again in my mind, as though by remembering I could erase mistakes. Maggie affirmed that "Positive draws positive," and she cheer-led her friends. Remembering Maggie, I try to gravitate towards people who help me feel good about myself, and I nurture those friendships; I avoid those who laugh at dreams.
Listening to Delilah on WLIT is like eating comfort food—a steaming cup of minestrone, or decorated cookies dipped in hot chocolate. Delilah's show is sappy, featuring callers with "I love you" messages to spouses, lovers, or family members. The songs are predictable: the man finding his lover in the grocery store, the little boy buying shoes for his dying mother. But after a day in the world, judged by what you produce, where if you fall on ice a yuppie looks at you askance—I relish Delilah's admonitions to pull up to the radio with a cup of tea.
Tonight I volunteered at the high school basketball game, selling raffle tickets—half the proceeds to the winner, half to my son's school. My son is too old to go to games with me—he sits with friends—and the only parents in the stands have sons on the court or cheerleading daughters. I enjoy the pageantry: players in maroon and gold, sophomores forming cheering lines for the varsity entrance, pulsating music, chants--"We are the best—B-E-S-T—"--and teens I remember from my son's kindergarten class dribbling and shooting hoops, the wonderful smell of burnt nacho cheese everywhere.
I love waking up on a Saturday morning, an empty palette of a day stretching before me, no dentist or haircut appointment awaiting me, no company coming that requires frantic sweeping, mopping, and dusting. Instead I can unfold the Tribune while I sip coffee sweetened with vanilla creamer and honey and read corruption tales, glance at my cats looking out the kitchen window (tails wagging at the sight of tempting squirrels and sparrows), hear the voices of TV sports announcers from my son's room, and listen to "The Holiday LIT" on the radio neighbors gave us before they moved away.
I hate feeling tired—I want to brim with energy and write pages of fiction and address Christmas cards and send a friend an e-birthday card and read The Botany of Desire for my book club and decide what to send my new online critique buddy and prepare once again a manuscript for submission—this time the memoir about my best friend who died ten years ago. But, I am not brimming with energy. I look at my cats, curled up in furry balls. Content, they don't question whether they should be batting the catnip mouse around instead of snoozing!
I sneak in to Mass late, others behind me. Father B.'s Masses are quick, unlike Father S.'s whose sermons spiral between stories and exhortations. I find a pew with a hymnal and immerse myself in listening and response. The usher, iron-gray hair and dark-framed glasses, whispers: "I want you to help take up the gifts." The only time I've taken up gifts was at my niece's baptism. At the back I join a mom and kids; the usher gives me glass containers of water and wine. Father B. does not reach out but waits, expressionless; I reach out my gifts.
I hate putting foot in mouth. The cliché is perfect—dirty sole contaminating words meant to be friendly but come out arrogant. Will my gaffe become water-cooler fodder? (A "foot" note: a shoe was thrown at Bush in Iraq, where the foot is the lowliest body part…)
Talking to K. about our party, I said I'd encourage coworkers to fingerspell with J., who's deaf-blind—only I didn't say "coworkers," but "my staff." Gulp! Am I conceited? Many friends are people I used to supervise. I'm praying K. didn't notice my slip; I pray that God squash any arrogance inside me!
The weather people forecast for tomorrow freezing rain and sleet, a whole half-inch of ice to layer the ground; the boss postponed Friday's holiday party to January. Streets are extra slippery anyway; in recession times, salt and plows are luxuries. Marooned inside, I hang Christmas cards on doorways; my son has been sick so our artificial tree is still in the storage room, waiting to be decorated with glittery paper ornaments my son made in preschool, wooden Santas and elves from the dad I didn’t grow up with, and Avon "best friend" ornaments from J. who died ten years ago.
Things that comfort in winter:
Royal blue Sweaters J. gave me
The Hallelujah Chorus
Spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, sage
Almond and vanilla extract
Christmas Eve family visits
Baking birthday cake for Baby Jesus
Ritual Christmas Day movie with son
Redness of lights
Pungent smell of pine
Downtown trees hung with white lights
Cats curled up on couches, on beds
Phone calls and emails from snowed-in friends
"A Miracle on 34th Street"
Watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" with my son
Writing a list of comforting things…
Twenty-five years ago, I met my half-brother C.
One January night, knocking shook my apartment door. The neighbors' child said, "There's a man downstairs for you."
Downstairs, I pulled the curtain aside.
"I'm C. Jr." Dark hair, serious eyes behind frames—a mirror of a photograph in my mother's album.
"C'mon up." I needed no ID.
Later, I met C.'s brothers and sister—my half-siblings. I've stopped saying "half." C. took my son to Disneyworld; my brother J's children are my godchildren. Christmas Eve., C. and J. and their families gather with us for pasta and presents, eggnog and carols.
When I was pregnant, I wasn't pampered. My marriage was deteriorating, and a new landlord raised our rent; we walked miles apartment hunting. We both worked, but neither had health insurance.
I signed up for a natural childbirth suite that cost $1750 we didn't have. I didn't want my child born at the overcrowded county hospital.
One morning, my uncle called: "Your great-aunt is selling the family land in Ireland, splitting the money amongst us. Your Aunt G. thought you should have your mother's share--$1750."
Was money from ancestral land--the amount needed for my child's birth—a miracle?
Merry Christmas to A., from Daisy
Merry Christmas, meow!
A year ago you saw my flower-like beauty
And named me
I love when you visit
(Don't mind that I get shy and hide.)
I've been a good cat all year
I let the other cats eat some food
I'm T.'s buddy when he watches sports
Bears and Bulls and White Sox
(He says you like some other team)
I snooze on the printer when D. works
And play catnip-mouse-catch with her.
I haven't knocked the tree down—yet—
And when you come to help build the gingerbread house
Sometimes I feel ill-equipped to be my son's mother. I am Irish American; my son is half Irish American and half African American. We just watched "The Great Debaters" which has a horrific lynching scene; I can never fully understand what my son feels when he watches that, or when he reads about his ancestors being shackled or relegated to backs of buses or colored restrooms. Yet, my child is the person I love most in the world. I sometimes feel that white parents of biracial children, although unable to share the experience of Blackness, are no longer simply white.
Today I prepared for Christmas. I chased aliens away (as my friend L. and I describe cleaning). Then my friend C. came over, and after coffee and conversation, we braved snow and subzero wind chill and took the bus to Target. I bought gifts for my godson—a Thomas the Train playset and a Star Wars book—and a DVD player for A., who's like a mother to me, who gave her DVD player away when she moved. My son and I will help her find room to again enjoy Casablanca, Miracle on 34th Street, and the Sound of Music.
At St. A's., sixth grade, M. was my best friend. We ate lunch and played tag and jump rope with E., N., and L; nobody teased or cared that I was a slow runner and awkward jumper. In December, our class performed "A Christmas Carol"; L. was Belinda and R, a boy I liked, was another Cratchit kid. I memorized "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and gave my dolls parts in a Christmas play I wrote; I heard a radio broadcast of "Miracle on 34th Street" and felt awe—another child living with her mother who didn't know her dad.
My son watches "The Yule Log" on Channel 9—the screen shows flickering flames against fireplace logs, while the radio version of "It's a Wonderful Life" airs. Earlier, we watched Midnight Mass on TV, which was good as I doubt we'll go to St. B.'s in the morning. Balls of hail hit against our windows; this evening, when my brother car was stuck and we ran out with Morton's salt, the sidewalks were slick ice. Tomorrow we'll order pizza and watch movies and call people we love and scream Merry Christmas, and I'll feel blessed to have family and friends.
On Christmas Eve, my brothers and their families visit, and our apartment is full of celebration, godkids unwrapping art supplies and Star Wars figurines while I serve pasta and sweet potato pie; one brother brings cookies, another a gallon of eggnog. Later, I bake cake. Christmas morning, before checking under the tree, my son and I sing "Happy birthday" to Jesus. I don't care if people say "Happy holidays!"—my sister-in-law is Jewish, A's best friend is Muslim, and my friend M. is Buddhist. But the meaning of Christmas is Christ's birth, so we celebrate with birthday cake and song.
I remember a short story by Pearl Buck about a plain woman who wanted love; this character resolved to be so continually pleasant that she appeared pretty. Other characters in the story questioned whether the ancient system of matchmaking weren't actually kinder than the modern one of falling in love. Janis Ian sings in "At Seventeen" that "Love was meant for beauty queens," and natural selection does rule. As beauty often equals healthy, we are programmed to seek attractiveness when choosing mates. Still, after a lifetime of having men's eyes glance past me, I want to scream at God, "Why?"
- Submit writing every month.
- Do 100 words every day!
- Cherish time with my son.
- Cherish time with family and friends.
- Read a lot.
- Pray whenever I feel worried.
- Pray "Thank You!" often.
- Think beauty; live healthy.
- Enjoy writing!
- Network with other writers a little.
- Finish revising "R. and the Cousins: 7th Grade."
- Do National Novel Writing Month in November and write "R. and the Cousins: 8th Grade."
- Call and write friends and family regularly.
- Get back into music (violin or singing) and sign language.
- We almost lost A.M., but she celebrated her 18th birthday in November.
- T. had his first paying job, remained on the honor roll, and his physics teacher praised his academic skills and character.
- I received my master's degree.
- My essay about M. was published.
- My brother C. took T. to Disneyworld.
- T. rejoiced that his White Sox made the playoffs.
- Obama won!
But A. lost her son to a heart attack; out of five children, she's lost three. I sat beside her at the funeral; the intensity of her grief burned.
Why don't my values and feelings match? I believe a person who helps others and is happy is a success, and no one is better than anyone else—our world is a mosaic, each piece essential. Yet I feel gnawing discontent—should I have done or do more? I met someone from high school who said "I thought you'd be president of a bank." But I wanted to help people and to write—desires that don't necessarily lead to financial success! I learned my half-sister had the same rank—3—and the same gnawing: "It was supposed to be 1."
I only met G., my father's mother, once, though she lived but a mile from us. She was gray-haired pleasant and fixed tea; home, I raved to Gran how nice my other grandmother was.
Recently I reread cards and noticed G.'s signature—full name, no prefix of grandmother. Why didn't this hurt me when I was a child?
I try to push aside anger; I'm grateful I know my half-siblings, and J.'s mother has become the mother I never had. My life brims with love. Still, I notice in my novel I name the grandmother G. Perhaps anger masks longing.
The first time I took T. to a Bulls game he was eleven; our library had coupons for half-price tickets. As we sat in nosebleed seats, camera flashes pierced darkness, an inflatable Bennie the Bull circled about, and a video of red bulls charging through downtown streets played to pulsating music. I fought tears. How J. had loved the Bulls--the same music on her answering machine—for luck, she had me call and say "May the force be with you!" before games. My son was now a sports nut like my best friend had been; I felt her near.
The Tip Jar