Cold feet

I was on my way to Winslow by myself, which let’s face it, is pretty rare these days. Wearing blue jeans, shirtsleeves rolled up, and sandals. You can still wear sandals here in late October. I’m headed to my mom and dad’s house, to go through some of my mom’s things. My brother and sister-in-law will arrive late in the day with two dogs in tow.

My mom’s been dead for four years so this is a trip long in the making. If you know me at all, you know it hasn’t been easy. My relationship with my dad has hit a lot of potholes since my mom passed away. And, at least part of the tension has been over the fact that (I think) we’re long overdue for getting together as a family to make some decisions.

And I don’t know if I even believe in such a thing as closure. It sounds suspect to me. Undesirable even. How can I close what I want to remain open? But I do think there is a process for moving forward, and I’d prefer making active choices rather than avoiding any choice at all. One thing’s for sure she’s not coming back.

I just want us to be all together when we decide.

So through sheer force of will on my part, and stubborn refusal to let it go, this moment now presents itself. But now that it’s here I’m feeling tentative. For one thing, I’m not sure how I’ll feel on the other side. I mull all of this over in the car.

I decide I’ll make a stop in Flagstaff to get a coffee and focus myself before the final leg of the trip. Also I’d better change out of my sandals, and into boots, because the temperature in flagstaff will only be in the 50’s.

I find parking just down the street from an old coffee shop and hop out in the chilly air to walk around to the trunk to retrieve my boots, but I can’t find them. Crap. I’ve accidentally left my boots back in Phoenix!

“Girl you need boots if you are in Flag! It’s cold there!” says a friend via Instagram where I’ve already opened the moment up to the public.
“I know. I’m wearing sandals and a jacket.”
“Left my boots back in Phoenix’ was on Winslow’s KINO country yesterday mornin’n” says another friend. Referencing my old high school job as a disc-jockey for the AM country radio station in my hometown.

And it’s not lost on me that I literally have cold feet! I’ve managed to make this trip with sandals as my only form of footwear.

My mom never would have made an error like this. She took multiple pairs of shoes with her for even the shortest of trips.

Later, once I get to Winslow, I dig up an old pair of white sneakers abandoned in the bedroom where I sleep when I am visiting home. So it will be ok. I will get by. Much like how we handle the rest of the weekend. We’re ok. We are getting by. Still got a long way to go.

I think of a song Emerson came up with one time, bored, in the backseat of the car.

It’s a sad road to Winslow
Driving on highway 40,
Eating hot tamales in the car…

happy place

You'd never know by looking, but this woman would take you down at Disneyland

I recently had a dream about my mom. We were at Disneyland and she said something like, “This is my favorite place,” or “I always love this place.” Something like that.

Really, there were two religions practiced in my family. There were Mormon leanings of course, from my mother, but the other religion even more fervently venerated was Disneyland.

My mother was a dynamo at Disney. The first time Liam experienced her there she blew him out of the water. He couldn’t keep up. Plus, she was on chemo. He was ready to hoof it back to the hotel for a nap and she was ready to take on the 45 min. wait for the Peter Pan ride. He developed a coping mechanism to keep up with her. Pickles. Throughout the park they sell big dill pickles, and he would eat one every couple of hours claiming that the salts and herbs were helping replace vital fluids — lost to him on the force march through Disney.

Here’s how the Petersons did Disney: Get to the park early, preferably before the gates open, and stay late. Stay past the fireworks. Leave so fried you do a sort of zombie shuffle out of the park, your cheeks smeared with tear stains; completely spent. If you’re there for more than one day, wake up and repeat the whole process.

My father swears I’ve dined in the Blue Bayou restaurant that looks over the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but for the life of me I can’t recall this. I’m sure this is because I was asleep face first in a Monte Cristo sandwich.

When Liam first witnessed this behavior, he thought we were mad. He kept looking at me longingly to put up a fight, to speak up for our right to take a break, take a moment, compose ourselves, something. But he didn’t understand the sanctity of the ritual. We were on hallowed ground. I had no more power to stop this than a moving locomotive. To suggest we leave the park for a nap was sacrilege. A sign of weakness; of a faulty moral compass. Onward we must go! So I’d slip him a couple of bucks to grab another pickle.

Here’s to my mom, especially today, and her amazing determination.XO

Happy Mother’s Day

Yesterday, I read at a Mothers Who Write event with current and past participants of the workshop. Mothers Who Write is a creative writing workshop for mothers of all ages and stages. Year after year this Mother’s Day reading makes me laugh and cry, in the best kind of way.

Here’s the piece that I read:

It’s while I’m ironing clothes that I begin to wonder if I’ve finally started to turn into my mother. There was a time in my life that I would have picked clothes up off the floor to wear and not thought twice about it. But iron . . . no. My mom liked to iron clothes while watching TV. One time when I was in high school she was ironing on a Saturday afternoon and I was stuck at home — grounded. We were watching some show about traveling America’s highways and bi-ways. “Oh, I know!” she said, “We should pick one state each summer to visit. Wouldn’t that be fun? We could just pick a state and find all those little off-the-beaten path places we’d like to check out.” “Ok” I said in my deadpan teenager voice, “But I better drive.” “Why?” My mother looked at me puzzled. “Because,” I said raising my eyebrows at her, “There are 50 states and you are going to be pretty old by the time we get through with this – taking these one at a time.” She just laughed undeterred. “Ok,” she said immediately revising her plans, “Maybe we better hit two states each summer.”

A couple years later, when I would come home from my college located clear on the other side of the country, I’d often find my mother wearing a jumper dress. If it was the holidays she would be wearing a holiday jumper dress, usually with a bib and some decorative festive appliqué thingy featured prominently on the bib-by part in front. She may even have a coordinating turtleneck underneath. And maybe even themed shoes. For instance, the jumper would have a big smiling snowman on it and the turtleneck would be covered in tiny little Christmas trees and her slide-on flat shoes would have candy canes on them. I, on the other hand, would be wearing ill-fitting thrift store clothes that I hemmed myself with non-matching thread. The fabrics I leaned toward were the types you didn’t have to iron; stain-resistant nylons and polyesters. I might put together an outfit featuring a purple gingham patterned dress paired with a fuzzy leopard print purse and red clogs. Or, a t-shirt that said, “Born Again Pagan” with an orange polyester A-line skirt. My outfits had to look every bit as ridiculous to her, as hers did to me.

Upon seeing my mom’s outfit I would usually roll my eyes, or say something mildly mean depending on my mood. She would look perturbed but would restrain herself from clobbering me.

All these year later, as I stand here ironing while watching Storage Wars, it occurs to me that I was on some level totally missing the point back then. The point being that I was not my mom’s target audience. She was not dressing for the approval of a smart-ass like me. She was an elementary school teacher; a long-standing veteran of the second grade and to them, her students; her core audience, she must have been magnificent. She was marvelous and fun and loved the holidays with the same unbridled passion they did, feeling no shame in declaring, “Ho, HO, Ho” on the front of her clothing. This is what I failed to understand back then in my fill-a-bag for a dollar wardrobe.

No, I’m not suggesting that I’m going to go buy an appliqué holiday jumper, just don’t be surprised if you catch me wearing candy cane flats.

Today also happens to be my mom’s birthday. She would have been 62 today. Happy Birthday Mom.

For July 24th

My mother passed away three years ago today. When I first realized she passed on July 24th  — which didn’t happen immediately, because the days had such a fog laying over them —  it gave me a sort of wry satisfaction. That’s because my mom was a Mormon (not a staunch Mormon — a school-teaching, feminist one — but a Mormon nonetheless) and in that culture, July 24th is Pioneer Day, a special occasion and day of celebration.

It commemorates the day that Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon Pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. We never celebrated this day when I was a kid, or anything like that. Hell, we didn’t even go to church. But still in some esoteric cosmology type of way, I like to imagine my mom arriving in Heaven with all of her Mormon ancestors in the middle of a celebration. I like to think of them making a big deal that she was there to join them.

And then, more Earth-bound and closer to my own sense of how the universe should be (inclusive; equal-rights for everybody), this year, July 24 is special for another reason. Because, of course, today is the day gay marriage becomes legal in New York State. It makes me happy to think that so many people will be celebrating today, because New York is where so many of my own impressions of love and relationships were hatched. Here’s to you Mom! And here’s to love!

I can tell

My Aunt Jan and I are in the car talking about my mom and dad – and the dynamics of their relationship. Jan says, “I think the funniest thing was when we were in the Home Depot and she was picking out lights for the bathroom.” My mom was the more emotionally demanding one (read: bossy) and my dad was the more seemingly laid-back one (read: passive-aggressive). My entire childhood my parents were remodeling their house. (By the time this incident that Aunt Jan is referring to takes place I’m in my mid-30’s and they are still working on their house). It was a never-ending dance. Jan continues, “She and I are looking at the lights she’s picked out, we show them to your dad, he doesn’t say anything — he just makes a call to make sure they’ll fit — so we load them in the cart. We all continue walking and all of a sudden she’s like –
“Well, Jeesus Christ if you don’t like ‘em just say so.”
And I look, (Aunt Jan turns her head back and forth in the passenger seat like she’s looking from my mom to my dad) like, where the heck did that come from? — and Bert’s like,
“What? What I said they were fine.’”
“Well I can tell by your breathing you don’t like them.”
And I started laughing out loud because I thought it was the most hilarious thing. I said, “How can you tell that?”
She said, “Well his breathing changed as soon as we started walking, I can tell, that’s what happens when you live with a man for 35 years.”

Today is my mom’s birthday. If she were here she would have 101 remodeling ideas for me and my house, enthusiasm and opinions galore (some of which would drive me nuts), as well as every kind of advice. She was a rallying force.  Here’s to you Mom.

Nesting

A hummingbird built her nest on a low-lying branch. So low that any gust of wind would send the branch swaying and rocking.  “Why did she put it so low” I wondered out loud.  A semi-circle of lawn chairs lay beneath the tree. When we sat in the two chairs nearest the tree branch, the mother hummingbird would begin peeping a trill peep. Peeep.  Peeep. Peeep. She was relentless. Then soon enough the dive bombs would begin.

That’s how my mom found the nest in the first place. It was the size of a walnut.  Perfect, tiny and masterfully constructed.  We never looked inside because we didn’t want to send the mama bird over the edge.  She seemed anxious enough. “Listen little bird you’re just going to have to get used to us,” I’d say. Or, “We don’t want to hurt you, we’re not going to touch your nest.” But the peeping and whirring and buzzing wings bombing happened every time we tried to sit in the back yard.

In this way the bird’s nest became woven into the fabric of the whole summer. For some reason, the mother bird whizzed past me with the most gusto.  I would bob and dodge my head and say, “Whoa, did you see that!” Every time the bird swooped close to my head, my mother would laugh.

We began pointing out the nest to any neighbor or visitor who stopped by. Someone told us that hummingbirds use spider webs in the construction of their nests.  It gives the whole rigging more tensile strength.

We observed the hummingbird’s favorite perches and flight patterns. We commented on her mothering skills like catty ladies at the playground, “She sure doesn’t seem to dedicate too much time to nest-sitting.”

My daughter and I had come to spend the summer with my mother with little more on our agenda than uncomplicated afternoons in the backyard. I say that, and yet it’s not really true, I knew it would be more complicated than that.  We knew a battery of tests, and chemotherapy drips, and doctor’s visits would pepper our summer with my mother.  But we had planned only to pass the time gently. Liam had flown with us to help get us settled, but he was only staying a few days before returning to work in New York.  My mother fairly demanded that my dad and Liam construct a swing-set in her backyard so she could watch her granddaughter play and they, grudgingly, had followed suit.

The hummingbirds were what had been normal about the summer, before everything went wrong, before we lost control of our plans.

***

I first met “D” on the day of the home inspection.  I felt nervous to meet her because, well, I was looking at her house, but she said right at the start, “You look like you fit with the house!” I was wearing a celery green A-line dress I got at the Tibetan shop back in Brooklyn — the neckline embellished with little greenish-blue beads — and a denim vest and red cowboy boots. “D” came back towards the end of the inspection because she had something else she wanted to tell me, “I just have to let you know there is a metal chime hanging in the patio. It’s in the shape of a fish and it has a little hummingbird nest on it, so it comes with the house. I wanted to tell you because I’m hoping you won’t move it.”

“Oh my gosh. Really? Thank you for telling me.”

“They come back every year — my daughter and I have enjoyed watching them. It’s one of our little things.”

I’m a bit speechless and still nervous, and tongue-tied, but it also feels like the burning spark of a match has been let off inside. I feel like this is the house.  A month and a half later it is our new home.  The hummingbird nest is visible from the window above the kitchen sink.

Saturday in Snowflake

I spend Saturday driving to Snowflake with my mom’s two best friends. Ann shows up with large vanilla lattes for everyone already sitting in the cup holders of her Dodge Challenger. Nelda has little bundles of lavender for each of us picked from her garden. We have a really nice day together — visiting the cemetery, having lunch, a little antique shopping.

For lunch we head to a restaurant called Trapper’s, which is a bit of a tradition. The restaurant has a not-meant-to-be-hilarious section of the menu called “Light Eaters”. The choices are Chicken Fried Steak, Grilled Ham Steak, BBQ Beef, Boneless Chop, Chicken Strips, etc. There’s not really anything light about them. Plus the meals come with a choice of potato, roll, soup or salad. But, the menu says, the meat portion of these meals is approximately half. Thank god, we joke, we need to save room for slices of pie with ice-cream.

We talk about a lot of things driving down the highway, and it’s not like this little story has any big significance or anything, but I keep thinking about it. Ann says your mom was driving herself to a doctor’s appointment in Flagstaff in the winter. She was by herself, of course. And as she’s driving she notices a god-awful smell in the car. She can barely stand it. This is horrendous she thinks. She takes out her cell phone to call my dad who is on an eastbound train in the opposite direction to tell him that he has got to do something about this. He has to figure out what the heck is causing this horrible smell. Finally she gets to her doctor’s appointment but as she’s waiting there she starts to smell that smell again. Only then does she realize she has dog shit on the bottom of her shoe and she starts cracking up. She tries to hide her shoes in a corner when the nurse takes her back into the examination room. It was cold outside, but when heaters on the floorboard of the car hit the dog poo it warmed it up and sent the aroma wafting through the car, getting stronger and stronger. We all laugh. It’s funny because my mom was fastidious. It’s funny because her first instinct is to chew out my father rather than check her shoes. It’s funny because this is the kind of situation she found very amusing.

Back at my dad’s house, there are 80 pairs of my mom’s shoes lying on top of the bed. Each pair sealed inside a Ziploc bag. I pick up a jaunty, nautical looking pair and try to squeeze my foot inside, but my mom’s feet were more petite than mine and I feel like the ugly stepsister trying to wedge her foot into the glass slipper. I seal them back up in the plastic bag. It’s not lost on me, that I don’t fit in my mother’s shoes.

Take it easy

As I was driving to work my Aunt Jan called to say she had just scored two free tickets to see the Eagles and did I want to go? Well . . . shit. What could I do? I would pretty much follow Aunt Jan to the ends of the Earth if she needed me to. I’m feeling worn-out lately but I don’t want to be the girl who turns down free concert tickets, even if it is the Eagles. Or maybe, especially, because it is the Eagles.

I mean it’s no secret that my hometown is Winslow, AZ — as in “Standing on a corner in Winslow, AZ”.

“Oh god. The Eagles,” says my friend Amy, “you must really never want to hear them again after growing up in a town with at least one store that plays that song on a continuous loop”.

That song would be “Take It Easy”.

Standin’ on a Corner in Winslow, Arizona.
Such a fine sight to see.
It’s a girl my lord, in a flatbed Ford,
slowing down to take a look at me

For a while, this was years ago, I was contemplating getting a horseshoe tattoo with the word Winslow written in fancy script inside the bend. I wanted the ink-work to look like tooled leather. Like a western belt that has a cowboy’s name squarely stated on his backside, like “Chad” or “Justin” or “Clayton”. I felt that strongly about my hometown’s hooks in me.

Winslow doesn’t have a lot to crow about, but we try to make the most of it. Which is why the townspeople have taken that one lyrical mention and carved out a whole cottage industry.

In downtown Winslow a “Standin’ (there is no g) on the Corner Park” was built in the early 90’s. Complete with a painted mural of a girl in a flatbed ford and a bronze statue of a man with a guitar standing on the corner.

And every September the town celebrates a Standin’ on the Corner Festival. It’s a two-day music festival culminating on Saturday night with the performance of an Eagles cover band, Hotel California.

There are food vendors, beer, music and lots and lots of dust. The town is packed.

The summer my mom passed away she had arranged for the extended family to take a cruise together in Alaska. One of the more memorable stories of the whole trip involves my Uncle Tom, his sister (my Aunt Jan), and Liam getting drunk together and troubling some poor piano player in the bar to play “Take it Easy”. When the piano player did play the song, Tom announced in a loud voice to the entire ship’s casino, “That’s us. We’re from Winslow!” Which has become a sort of mantra for us all.

Anyway, all of this should explain why this concert with Aunt Jan is not to be missed. Turns out, we have good seats and as the show gets under way Aunt Jan reaches over to give me a hug and I think, “This is the closest I will get to hugging my mom again”. Aunt Jan’s body feels familiar, similar.

When the band starts playing “Hotel California” I am transported. I am 6, maybe 7 years old, and I am cruising through the bright desert with my mother on our way to New Mexico. She is wearing Famolare sandals and big sunglasses, which she considered very chic. I have on knee-high socks with sandals. She is singing this song and we are cruising through the desert and it is just the two of us.

My Aunt Jan is a natural cheerleader. She whoops and cheers at T-ball games or ballet recitals louder than anyone. When any one of us graduates high school or scores a goal it is Aunt Jan who we will hear. She is the kind of woman who sticks four-fingers in her mouth when she whistles.

That night there were plenty of whistles from my seat-mate. The Eagles sang for three and a half hours and we had to wait until the encore to get our moment. As the band re-took the stage and began to sing “Take it Easy” it was our moment to say, “That’s us. We’re from Winslow”.

The Pocket

Desert Clouds

Fred is my godfather, but he and I didn’t meet until I was 27 years old when I moved to the Bay Area.

This week I attended the funeral of Fred’s mother, 96-year old Carlanthe Turner at the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Chandler, AZ.

Liam, my dad, and me walked into the church and scooted into a pew near the back. From where I was sitting I could see the back of Fred’s head. And I can’t tell you how a small-thing like that — seeing the back of Fred’s head — filled me with such positivity and happiness.

The church was small but packed; a pew a few rows in front prominently filled with old women all wearing white dresses and white hats.

When Fred was growing up he was the youngest of seven children. His father was a farmer and then later a cotton contractor. He hired crews and paid them for the number of rows they chopped. Growing up, Fred’s father would take a handful of bills and put them in a coat pocket. Whenever the kids needed money for something they would ‘go to the pocket’. You don’t like what your older sister is making for dinner – go to the pocket. Want some candy from the drugstore – go to the pocket.

When my first marriage hastily ended and I needed a place to go, it was Fred’s door that I walked through.

For a time, I lived with Fred in his house in the Oakland hills. He made it ok to rebuild my life. Through sharing his household and drinking many glasses of wine, he gave me a pocket — a compartment of space to regroup. Need to heal – go to the pocket. Need a place to grow – go to the pocket.

The eulogy given by Pastor T. E. Wiggins was around the theme; It’s a Matter of Time. Be ambitious with our time here and prepare for our own going home. There are no goodbyes in Heaven, said Pastor Wiggins, just See-you-in-a-whiles.

Pastor Wiggins said, “She had a sense of humor. But I don’t know if she was funny.”

I think of a story Fred tells. One time, not so long ago, Mother Turner already in her 90’s was attending church. Her hearing was not what it used to be. As she is leaving the Pastor says to her, “Mother Turner I like your hat.” Mother Turner is testy and indignant. She tells her family that Pastor got fresh with her. She thought he said, “Want to get me some of that”. Fred said, “Well Mamma if that’s what you want, just go ahead”.

And of course Fred losing his mother makes me think about losing mine. About mother loss — how I wish I could pick up the phone and tell my mom about Mother Turner.

There is a Jim Croce song, “Operator” that I remember my mother playing over and over. She was about twenty-five and beautiful and it reminds me of lying in bed with her in the middle of the afternoon, being a very small child and pretending to take a nap. The chorus goes:

Isn’t that the way they say it goes
But let’s forget all that
And give me the number if you can find it
So I can call just to tell them I’m fine and to show
I’ve overcome the blow
I’ve learned to take it well
I only wish my words could just convince myself
But that’s not the way it feels

More about “Mother” Turner here.