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I find it hard to go to sleep; it's January 1, 1:15 a.m., the Dick Clark/Ryan Seacrest/Fergie show still on, Jesse McCartney and Neo singing to crowds of dancing people, hands waving in the air. A year's beginning is arbitrary; autumn, when school starts, feels more apt. Yet starting anew in the midst of winter's short days, ice competing with gray slush, appeals. Spring beckons. Maybe this year I'll find love; an agent will send me an enthusiastic response; my savings account won't appear laughable. Yet I've sent my son to Catholic school since kindergarten—my son is my investment.
Today I bought two cards at Walgreen's, one for sympathy, one for congratulations. A neighbor unexpectedly lost her sister, who had been healthy but caught the flu and died. And yesterday we received a Christmas letter from family friends; the daughter recently married and had a baby girl. I think how my cards address the unexpected beginnings and endings of life; I think how I was unexpected myself. But planned or not, we live, striving against any barriers life throws in our way, finding happiness here and there, and someday acquaintances will buy cards to comfort those who loved us.
My son, T., and I go to Starbucks, treating ourselves with holiday gift cards.
T. finds seats; I wait for his frappucino, my tea latte.
Walking back with drinks, I see T. at a table.
"Let's move over there." I point to plush chairs; a blonde woman sits in one, but two are vacant.
T. shakes his head.
Later, he says the woman had seemed to take offense to him sitting anywhere near her. "She moved her coat right away."
The gap between my son's biracial life and my white one is wide.
"I'm used to it," he tells me.
It hurts to know (my father told me) that my Catholic aunts wanted me aborted. That my aunts knew my mother could be dangerous—when I left home for good and made plans to get my stuff, one aunt sobbed, "Don't let N. (her daughter, my cousin) go with you—S. might hurt her!" It was then I realized that I'd been the disposable family member, unlike my cousins who were to be nurtured. My son reminds me, though, when he catches me despondent, that I've created a circle of family and friends who love me, "and that's even better."
I wait. I call H.: no word.
L emailed me before she left for the hospital, her labor to be induced. L's husband will call H. when little S. is born.
H. and L work together; years ago, I worked with H's husband E. I went to their wedding, saw the gory video E. recorded of their twins' birth, and brought my son to birthday parties. I cried at E.'s funeral; his twelve-year-olds gave eulogies.
H. and I reminisce about childbirth. "Soon L. will have her own story." We pray she doesn't suffer too much, that S. will be healthy.
L.'s daughter S. was born this Epiphany morning at 5:40 a.m., 9 pounds 6 ounces. I called L. during my lunch hour; her voice was drowsy but with quiet ecstasy: "She's beautiful!" and said S. looked like she did as a baby, little scrunched eyes in a big face. When T. was born, he resembled me: big eyes, thin eyebrows, big forehead. J. visited me that first day, her electric wheelchair whirring down the slick hospital floors: "Where is he?" She'd call to sing "happy one-week birthday" the first month of his life, "happy one-month birthday" for the first year.
Today I dyed my hair dark brunette, using a kit that requires leaving the dye on ten minutes. Of course, it takes longer—taking stuff out of the bathroom, like toothbrushes that could get spattered with dye, covering the floor and cat litter boxes with newspaper. Rinsing out the dye, then washing the now-stained shirt. I first dyed my hair when I was twenty-five; M. and I were visiting E. in Texas. Back then I chose light ash brown; my son picked this reddish shade. My grayness is no longer premature, but the urge to appear young is no less.
- Tuesday, Sept. 9, 1975: hit by a car. Months on crutches; volunteered for disability rights. Tuesday, Sept. 10, 1985: hired by disability rights organization.
- $1750: needed to deliver my baby. A great aunt sold family land—my share, $1750.
- My son, born on his due date.
- AM, like a sister to my son, and A, like his grandmother, have the same birthday.
- My half-sister and I: same class rank. My half-brother went to the university I attended, teaches at my alma mater.
- G. and J: my godchildren; the names of a godcousin's children.
I hate when my body is groggy when it's nowhere near nighttime and my mind has plans--to work overtime on a work project, to revise my novel so I can send it out yet again, or to practice Red (my violin) per my New Year's resolution. But too sleepy, I plop in front of TV and munch and watch oldies-but-goodies--Wheel of Fortune and Perry Mason—then play computer Scrabble Blast while the Beatles play on Pandora. I should have napped, but much as I hate to rise in the morning, I love to stay awake when I'm up.
I remember birthdays, even of people no longer in my life. Today was my ex-husband's birthday, and I reflect. I know why I married him—he was the only one who ever visited my mother with me; Catholic guilt propelled me to visit her, despite how unhealthy it was emotionally, depression following each visit as predictably as thunderbolts follow lightning. How it helped to finally have moral support! My relationship with him was almost as unhealthy as the one I'd had with my mother. Only when our child was born did my blinders come off; children force adults to grow.
My six-word memoir: "The Bobbsey Twins Saved My life." One empty eight-year-old afternoon I discovered "The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore", its glossy cover showing blonde twins Flossie and Freddy and older twins Nan and Bert. On page 1, they were riding a train eating watercress sandwiches; I sunk into their lively talk, suddenly, magically, feeling pulled into their world. I didn't notice the racism, the maid who spoke in exaggerated dialect; years later, I threw the book away. Still, Nan, Bert, Flossie, and Freddie addicted me to the drug of reading, allowing me to escape and survive my childhood.
Today's "On a Claire Day" shows Claire envying people with direction in life—the baker, the lawyer, the construction worker. Thought bubbles show otherwise: the baker can't wait to go home to her novel, the lawyer wants to be with his kids, the construction workers reminds himself about grad school applications. For years I didn't know what I wanted to do, but even now with my dream job—writing courses—I wish I had a job with more of a "wow" effect. I felt jealous when R.'s eyes lit up when I told him my brother teaches at C. College.
I took another leap of faith today, signing up for a writer's conference; credit card companies love me. Student loan payments await—financially, I’m leaping over waters with sharp-toothed person-eating sharks. So many times I've leaped--taking a year off college to write; going for my master's despite being a single mom; sending my kid to Catholic school. Yet I want my son to have a good life; I want to be published. Writing books advice you to go to conferences and hobnob with agents. Maybe paying money I don't have will motivate me to leap further in my writing.
"I'm a Christian. I wasn't born like this," J.R. said.
He'd lost sight and hearing, lived in a stinky nursing home. Born poor, he'd never learned to read or write.
I tried to teach him tactile signs--how do you show someone who can't see the sign for something without using words? When I signed "coffee" into his hands, he thought I was telling him to stir it.
I learned to teach by testing, taking objects away after showing signs—"Oh, you want me to remember!"
B. volunteered with him, too; J.R. learned over 200 signs.
He died on Christmas.
Today felt tangled. A postcard from the IRS says the government sent me 500 bucks, I'd better report it. What 500 bucks? The student loan office letter says my first payment is due February 1—but I was told mid-March or early April! My son receives his second-ever paycheck, anxious to spend it though it hasn't cleared the bank--I transfer from savings to checking, praying bill checks don't clear too quickly. Then T. checks his grades--one teacher seems to be deducting for absences, though T. has a letter on file about chronic allergies. So many knots to untie…
I tease my son, saying he's really his Auntie J's kid. J. was a sports fanatic, once getting up at 5 a.m. to order a special service ride to have her picture taken with a Scottie Pippen cardboard model. She'd get home from White Sox games after midnight; her face would be wind-chill red after Bears games. Tiny, she'd berate erring players with loud choice profanity. Like J, T's passion is sports; he wants a career with a salary that will pay for White Sox seasons' tickets; he's calculating colleges' proximity to U.S. Cellular. J. in heaven must be grinning.
Tuesday morning, the first African American president will be inaugurated. I watched the train ride coverage today, people waiting for hours in January cold just for a glimpse at Obama. We volunteered once at Obama's campaign office, making phone calls; people of all ages and colors buzzed about. Afterwards, stopping at Dunkin Donuts; the counter person asked, "Coming from the campaign office?" I remember the morning after Harold Washington won the mayoral primary; the subway train stalled and from deep in the tunnel, an African American worker called out: "Harold Washington won the primary! Free at last, free at last!"
I bring Irish bread to the high school parents' potluck; it's what I bake for parish dinners, teacher appreciate breakfasts, and when we visit A. My mother gave me the recipe before she died, after my grandmother had died. Ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, butter, raisins, buttermilk. Only I substitute milk mixed with lemon juice for the buttermilk. The first time I made the bread, its aroma conjured memories—Gran giving me a thick piece, straight from the oven, buttered. I wonder: I try to overcome my childhood's pain—what else do I cling to, besides this bread?
This week and last, for work, I'm studying Frederick Douglass, designing a lesson about the first three chapters of "My Bondage and My Freedom." Saturday I watched Obama's train ride to D.C., and Obama speaking to the shivering crowd in Maryland. Douglass was born in Maryland, not knowing his birth date, or who his father was, learning at the age other children learn ABCs that the grandmother he loved, and he himself, belonged to an unknown to-be-feared master. Today Obama set foot in the White House that was built by slave labor. Thank You, God, for letting our country grow.
Today wearing red, white, and blue does not feel like wearing a mask with a fake smile plastered on. Yes we're great—but what about slavery? What about Jim Crow and lynching? What about the Native Americans? What about big business using overseas sweatshops? What about torture? But today Barack Obama, biracial like my son, is inaugurated president, elected by whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims; he pledges to consider have-nots. My son and I go to a neighborhood restaurant and feast at a buffet and chant "O-ba-ma!" when a camera crew comes in. There's no way to celebrate enough. O-ba-ma!
Revising "Roll Call by the Elephants" is tricky: I started it in 1982, finished in 2000. It still needs tweaks, but I'm a different person and mold language in different ways. Yet Nora's and Clara's stories linger, waiting to be told—Nora's grief over her lost parents; Clara's feeling of abandonment, growing up with a mentally ill father; how they overcome private woes to join a circle of friends; how they fight for union representation when a coworker is fired. Can I change opening chapters to captivate agents, editors, and readers? I'll follow Obama's lead: "Yes I can"! (I hope.)
B. called tonight, wonder in her voice: "D.! You have the same number!"
I last saw B. in 1999; we ate at Old Country Buffet. Neighborhood lights were out, a power outage in intense July heat. That same night, my brother called--my goddaughter was born.
I met B. in 1992. My husband had moved out; I had a one-year-old son. Like an angel, B. volunteered to drive me places without me even asking.
Now we talk of my six-foot-four son. We discover her granddaughters go ice skating blocks from my apartment.
"Come for hot chocolate!"
"I'll bring whipped cream!"
Friday night is do-nothing time; I don't push myself to write, play the violin. I watch "Perry Mason," listen to "The Mix," play Scrabble Blast. In high school, I called RM, watched "Love American Style." In my twenties, G. shook his head—why take a break from something you love? Am I really a writer? A "Writer" article outlined the hierarchy: the elite have publishing credits. My credits expired; an ex-friend said my publication was a fluke. Who knows? Tonight, I play with letters; tomorrow, I'll revise my novel. Maybe I'll revenge myself on a character based on the ex-friend!
When a high school freshman, I hoped to be in Girls' Chorus. Placed in spitball-throwing general music, I appealed to my division teacher. No room in Girls' Chorus, but there was in Beginner's Orchestra.
The orchestra teacher asked, "What instrument do you want to play? Uh—I knew nothing of instruments or names. My mind flashed back to when LV's orchestra had visited N. Elementary; I pictured a shiny mahogany violin. I knew that name!
Thus began my instruction--playing with violas, cellos, and basses, we became something greater than each alone. I feel guilty that writing pushes music aside…
I was up till 3:30 a.m. writing about Frederick Douglass for work. Before, I'd only known that Douglass wrote about life in slavery. He fought back a slave breaker and won; escaped slavery dressed as a sailor; became a prominent speaker; refused to "dumb down" speeches to please abolitionist sponsors; was proud to be a "women's rights man" and attended the Seneca, NY conference; married a white woman despite both families' outrage. He started a newspaper; racists came to smash his press. "Let me help you!" He wrecked it himself: "You can destroy the press; you can't destroy ideas." Wow.
Cold. That's what we talk about; emails end, "Stay warm." I sit, jacket over sweater over thick shirt, drinking coffee not hot enough. At least in November and December you have holidays--roast turkey and tofurkey and pumpkin pie, nieces and nephews and wrapping paper strewn all over, nonstop radio carols—and inner candle-like warmth—Christ is born! Snow is tempered by strings of lights, yards with lit-up Santas and Rudolphs. But after January 2, holidays are over; snow becomes gray. Thank God the Inauguration brightened this January. T. read the White Sox may sell Obama-themed hats. Yes! Spring, come!
I wish I used time better. I work at home, 7 1/2 hours a day; the hours between 4:30 p.m. and bedtime are mine. Why haven't I finished revising my great Chicago novel? Why haven't I finished the sequel to my children's novel? Why don't I play the violin like in high school? Why haven't I called some good friends in weeks? Why don't I cook better meals, keep a better house? Why haven't I finished "Little Dorrit"? In high school, I scoffed at the idea of needing the structure of school and teachers to learn. I know better now!
Few people in our book club liked "Kissing the Virgin's Mouth"; most complained it was "course." I smile--At C. College, we were urged to write about sex, drugs, rock and roll. One line in the book helped me to an epiphany—dwelling on "what ifs" keeps us from the truth. Ah. So dwelling on "what ifs" keeps us from the beauty of "what is." By wishing I'd chosen U. of C., gone to G. University instead of marrying, written the disability rights book--futile wishing prevents me from treasuring my wonderful son, my circle of friends; my dream job.
Blagojevich is out, Quinn is governor, and Illinoisans rejoice; tomorrow morning Trib and Sun-Times headlines will scream the news. Local stations interrupted broadcasting tonight; Wheel of Fortune came on late. I can't rejoice in Blagojevich's downfall; I think of his kids going to school tomorrow morning. I think of Blagojevich possibly going to prison. Does punishment work? I read in Hillemann's books about the Navajos' approach—the key was to get the miscreant back in touch with his nature, to heal him or her. Hillemann probably idealized the culture—he's not Native American—but healing makes more sense than an-eye-for-an-eye.
High on forbidden caffeine, I feel happy sitting listening to Steve Winwood on Pandora. I can stay up late, nothing to do tomorrow but return library books. Everything in my life feels good—a new friend sharing her writing with me; another friend—unasked—helping me out with a writer conference fee; my son diagramming football plays so I can understand the Super Bowl; good friends planning to come watch the game with us as they do every year; Ms. M. coming over for coffee almost every week. Having a job that I love that helps people. I am grateful.
I first went to our branch library when T. was three; I chaperoned a day care field trip there. The kids sat cross-legged on carpeted floor while the children's librarian, M., read a story about animals, holding the book so the kids could see the pictures. My son, always so energetic and wild then, became immobile, absorbed in story.
We became regulars, first dining at McDonald's across the street, then going for story hour, or Captain Underpants or Harry Potter extravaganzas, or themed summer evening activities—I remember eavesdropping as M. told them Chicago stories, Capone to Graceland Cemetery ghosts.
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