Black Friday

Went to the mall today.  Partly, after overeating yesterday, I just wanted to get up and move.  But partly, I needed to confront the mall on the mall-est day ever.  I needed to stare down my grief, and the mall was my place with Mom.

I have been to the mall only a handful of times since 2007.  2007 is when Mom became unable to go with me.  At first we struggled to get Mom in and out of the car, and for a while we could.  It wasn’t mobility which was the issue.  Back then, it was explaining getting into the car and finding the right words to convey that the ride was something non-scary.  E would try to take Mom’s hand and joke and make things fun while encouraging her to sit down in the passenger seat.  I’d get into the driver’s seat and smile and coerce from the inside.  Little by little, we’d convince Mom to trust.  Occasionally, plans were thwarted.  It felt triumphant when we were off and rolling.  Getting into the car might be a 45 min process.

Mobility became an issue after 2008, when Mom broke her hip. Then, it was impossible to take Mom in the car.  There was just no way any of us wanted to risk hurting her.  So, we’d ask Sunrise when they might be able to go to the mall, but trips were few.

Since Mom couldn’t go to the mall, I couldn’t go to the mall.  When I tried, I’d wind up crying.  Mostly, since the thought alone would make me cry, I didn’t even try.  My mall trips were confined to Christmas shopping, one trip, pushed as far out as possible.

We did have a good mall trip in 2009.  Mom rode on the Sunrise bus, so she stayed in her chair for the whole ride.  We met her, with a caregiver, at the mall, after following behind the bus.  Mom was so happy.  We ate at Johnny Rockets for what was to be the last time.  We ate our traditional fare, and I resented the caregiver for needing to be there, God bless her.  She didn’t know.  Secretly, she represented to me all the challenges stepping between me and my Mom, all the ailing health- my Mom’s physically and my own emotionally.

During that trip, Mom was so happy.  I was flat broke and could not buy more than lunch.  I told Mom we’d buy her anything she wanted, that money was no object.  My plan was: nothing.  No plan.  Just spend now and somehow beg or borrow money afterwards, or go to prison, or whatever came.  As it was, Mom didn’t want much.  She reached out and touched everything from her chair.  We stopped every few feet it seemed so Mom could enjoy just feeling the soft fabrics.  I had five dollars in my bank account, and I spent all of it on socks for Mom.  She had really latched onto this one set of socks, twisting and turning, really looking at it.  The socks were white with blue embroidered flowers.  Mom always loved blue. After all she had done for me, the sock purchase seemed pithy, but not to Mom.  She held them, admiring like she had a bar of gold in her hands.

Years that followed, I would say to her as we sat at Sunrise, “What do you say, Mom?  Should we go to the mall sometime? Let’s spend money we don’t have.”  That was one of Mom’s favorite catch phrases for years, so when I repeated it, her eyes sparkled.

“Let’s go,” Mom would say, nodding her head towards the door.  Smiling, she would try to get up from her chair.

“Well, maybe not today.  We need the bus,” I’d explain.  “And you know what else?  I’m going to save up some money.  When we go, I’ll buy you anything you want.”  I hated that I could not afford to charter a bus and caregiver, so we might go every week.

Pretty soon, it was routine.  I’d ask, and Mom would respond.  Mom and I both knew.  Sometimes, I would tell her, “Mom, you know, I don’t go to the mall anymore.  I don’t go without you.”  That was truth.

The mall was our place.

Back in the early 2000’s, I’d sometimes ask Mom to come over on the weekend.  “No, honey, you need your time as a little family.  You don’t want an old lady there.”

“Yes, I do. I miss you!” I’d explain.

“Well, maybe you do, but husbands don’t want to look at their Mother-in-laws all weekend,” Mom would counter.  Then she’d add, “You kids do something fun today.  I’ll be on your porch first thing Monday morning.”

And, when E might be too tired to do much, or the kids were too busy, loneliness would set in. I’d suggest, “Hey, let’s go to the mall.”

Off we’d go, my knowing darn well the eventuality.

We’d be walking down the mall, Disney bags in hand, or leaving the play area, when I’d look up and see Mom’s familiar face.

“Well, look who we have here,” she’d say, putting her hand on her hip.  I’d hug her, so glad to find her.

“Since we met up here… you might as well come home and have dinner with us…”

“Oh, honey!” Mom would smile.  The kids would resound with a million “Pleeeeease, Grandma??!’s,” pulling at her purse, asking to ride home in her car, or could she ride home in our car and E take her car back.  They were like glue on her, as was I.

“Oh, okay,” Mom would say, “How can I resist my Grandchildren?” and she would thumb and index finger under their chins, or pat their heads.

Today, every corner I turned, I expected to find her.  I expected to hear, “Well, look who we have here?!”

I cried several times.  I’m crying now.

Mom wasn’t there.  But I went and I stared grief in its ugly, God forsaken face and I sneered.  Maybe that is step one.

Gone to the dogs

It didn’t seem to matter how much I begged and pleaded, the answer was always “no.”  The conversation usually went something like this:

“But how come I can’t-”


“Everyone else has-”


“Why?  Why, why, why, why when-”

“No, no, no.”

“You had one when you were-”

“Lorraine, I said, ‘No.’ ”

And that was it.  Once Mom began using my name in conversation, it meant that if I continued, things would go downhill.  Formal names were used to punctuate the aura of growing impatience.

I begged, I pleaded, I was grounded, sent to bed.  I whined, I cried, I crawled- literally- on my hands and knees.

“You can crawl all the way to timbuktu, but the answer is still no.”  Mom was resolute.

All the other kids in school had a pet.  Every single person on the entire planet, all approximate four billion people, had a pet.  I was the only little girl, anywhere, who was deprived.  Or, this is how it seemed at the time.

Until one lucky day, when my brother, John, arrived home, auspiciously trailed by an all black labrador retriever.

“John, you can’t keep him,” Mom began.

“I know,” John replied.  “But watch.”  John walked the black lab outside and closed the door.  Mom and I followed John into the dining room where we surveyed the dog’s reaction.  The black lab sat on the mat staring at the door.  Next, he stood and pawed the door.

“My door,” Mom was displeased. “If that dog scratches that front door…”

“Just watch,” John interrupted.

Our new visitor turned cheerfully, trotted to the sidewalk, around the side of the yard which faced the sidewalk, and promptly jumped the fence.  He landed, smiling and unthwarted, in our pampas grass.

John started laughing.  “He’s great.  Isn’t he a smart dog?”

Mom looked at John.  She was trying not to smile herself.

“Well, he may be smart, but…”

“What can I do?  He follows me everywhere.  He just likes me.”  It was so nice to see John smiling.  He had seen some challenges this year.

Being sixteen and middle class in a neighborhood of upper class, wealthy kids was not always easy.  For instance, while John was learning to drive, Dad loaned his car, an orange Volkswagen bug.  As John stood pumping gas, high school acquaintances called from their corvette, “Hey, John, see you’ve got the family car today!”  Laughing, they sped off.  We were all used to this kind of chiding.  Steve moved out of Westlake as quickly as possible.  Ron ignored it, then moved.  But John and I were younger and stuck in the mire of the snotty brat pack.  I declared myself a hippie and denounced wealth.  John floundered and felt out-of-place.

One altercation led to what, in the 1970’s, would be called a fight.  Back then, we didn’t call it assault.  When young men or teen boys fought, it was the same scrapping done for centuries.  And like our fighting Irish ancestors before us, our family knew our right hooks from left.

For John, feeling out-of-place led to his share of fights and petty mischief.  An unspoken undercurrent ran through the house suggesting it was a blue-collar vs white-collar world, and if the rich couldn’t throw a punch, they were sissies.  As I say, this was unspoken.  When John came home with another report of mischief, Mom would instruct him not to behave this way, sometimes adding “even if they deserve it..”  Sometimes mischief reports were met with a heavily repressed smile.  Mom’s eyes would sparkle, though the corners of her mouth resisted.

Our new visitor, this black lab, sensed John’s good heart.

“Okay,” Mom relented, “what are you going to call him?”

Staggering disbelief overtook me.  We were going to have a dog!

It didn’t take long before things clarified.  WE weren’t having a dog- JOHN had a dog.  What this meant was that I was afforded the privilege of cleaning up after the dog, feeding the dog, but disallowed from the benefits of walking the dog, claiming it as my own, or referring to him as a family pet.  It was specifically John’s, except in the work sense of the word.

To be fair, Mom first waged a battle, trying to have Mac- John named the dog Mac- be a lesson in responsibility.  But at sixteen, John was disinclined to take up a life of reliability.  He knew if he didn’t feed Mac, Mom would.  If he didn’t clean up after Mac, Mom would.  And he knew Mom’s threats to get rid of Mac were empty threats.  For one, Mom loved John too much to take the dog away.  Secondly, Mom herself loved Mac, and so much was evident.

Mac stayed with us, following John everywhere he went.  Whether John was walking or driving, there was Mac beside him.  But this bliss was short-lived. One crisp spring day, John and Mac were fishing aside the lake.  A knot of strangers approached John, “Hey, that’s our dog.”  “No, it’s not.  It’s my dog.”  John had taken the proper steps with the animal shelter, and no one had claimed Mac.  Mac truly was John’s dog.

“It’s our dog.  Look at this…” they offered, calling, “Kunta, Kunta Kinte!”  The dog seemed to know the name, and responded favorably, wagging his tail.  He received his pets from the strangers happily, then returned to John.

“I don’t know what to tell ya, buddy,” John dismissed, “It’s my dog.”

When John left the lake, he noticed a car of people trailing him home.  It concerned him, and he kept Mac inside, by his side, for days.  They had to part ways when it was scheduled for John to report to juvenile hall, later in the week.  Mom and I drove John to the hall, and John was angry to go.  He blamed Mom for not “fixing things,” though there was nothing she could do to fix this.  She had tried.

Mom and I got home from the trip to drop John off with heavy hearts.  What’s worse, Mac was gone.  Mom panicked.  How could this be?  He had not jumped the fence in months.  It made no sense that Mac would jump it now, suddenly.  Mom wondered if Mac somehow sensed that John’s absence would be longer than usual, that perhaps he left looking for John.  “Get in the car, we’ve got to find him,” Mom ordered.  But as we drove around looking and calling out, we remembered the car of strangers following John home that day.  We knew it was likely they had returned for Mac.

The following week, Mom fretted terribly, alongside missing Mac.  She didn’t know how to tell John that Mac was gone.  Finally, upon his homecoming, Mom relayed the bad news.  John was livid.  He instantly blamed Mom.  He decided Mom had gotten rid of Mac purposely.  Mom’s heart was broken at the misplaced accusations.  She missed Mac still.

Through the ordeal, Dad remained quiet.  Dad’s policy during times of familial distress: duck and cover.  The men of the house never blamed one another.  If they retained their complicitous silence, blame would land on either Mom or myself.  And there was always blame somewhere.

When John seemed approachable, Mom tendered an offer.  “John, honey,” Mom’s voice filled with compassion. “How about if you get another dog.  It will be just yours, same as Mac was.  You pick him out.  It can be any dog you want.”

Again, I was blissful, resentful, grateful, and stunned.  I had crawled, literally crawled.  It wasn’t like I didn’t have my own issues.  I’d been battling anorexia and nearly died, but still was unconsidered.  I had cleaned up after Mac, fed Mac, loved him, and John had reaped only the benefits of pet ownership.  Why was he, once again, the recipient of parental benevolence?

A few days passed, and one afternoon brought a brand new, fuzzy surprise.  Mom, Dad, and I were in the living room, when John arrived with his new pet.

A slobbering, soft, ball of fluff galloped and trotted, circled, and leaped with wild unpredictability.  One bound was more adorable than the next.  His cascading, tumbling spontaneity seemed to surprise the puppy as much as it did us, his enchanted audience.  When he saw Mom, Dad, and me sitting on the couch, he leapt towards his new family without noting the step down into the family room.  With a silly somersault, he twisted sideways, and a slobbery smile accelerated towards us.

John’s new dog was a long hair German Shepard.  The family fell in love with him, except maybe for Ron, who was not a dog person.  Anyway, Ron and Steve were not living in the house anymore.  But for the rest of us, Oz was family.

November 9th

Scorpio Strength Keywords:

– Loyal – Passionate – Resourceful – Observant – Dynamic

Scorpios are fiercely independent. They are able to accomplish anything they put their mind to and they won’t give up. They are perfectly suited to being on their own. They are not social butterflies like some other zodiac signs and some actually prefer to live on their own that way there is never any issue of who controls what at home, they like to be in control.

Scorpio in a Nutshell:

Scorpio is the astrology sign of extremes and intensity. Scorpios are very deep, intense people, there is always more then meets the eye. They present a cool, detached and unemotional air to the world yet lying underneath is tremendous power, extreme strength, intense passion and a strong will and a persistent drive.  Scorpios have a very penetrative mind, do not be surprised if they ask questions, they are trying to delve deeper and figure things out and survey the situation. They always want to know why, where and any other possible detail they can possibly know. Scorpio’s are very weary of the games that other people try to play and they are very aware of it. Scorpios tend to dominate and control anyone that lets them, or anyone that they find weak.  The person that a Scorpio respects and holds close to them is treated with amazing kindness, loyalty and generosity. On the outside, a Scorpio has great secretiveness and mystery. This magnetically draws people to them. They are  known to be controlling and too ambitious but only because they need control for this makes them feel safe.

“Okay, tell me what you think…” I was following Mom around the house, reading a similar assessment of the zodiac sign Scorpio from “Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs.”

“I don’t believe in that stuff.  You know it’s a sin,” Mom reminded me, again.

“Well, it’s just for fun.  George believes in it you know.  I’ll read you about Pisces next.”

I should have been helping Mom in dusting, but I wanted her to hear about her sun sign, and the only way to catch up with her sometimes was on the run, like following her around the house while she was busy.  Mom never sat down when she could be cleaning.

Born November 9, 1931, in St Louis, Missouri, Mom was a proud daughter of the “Show Me” state.  Famous Missourian and  U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiveronce once declared, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”  Mom’s inclinations were similar.  “Don’t try to tell me that,” Mom would intone, “I was born in Missouri!”

By California standards, Mom’s birth day was cold and colder, but by St Louis standards, it was a mild season.  Rain threatened that November day, but cleared to cool sunshine.  It was the Dust Bowl years, and rain was always teasing, and frequently a no-show.  Welcomed into the world by her three-year older brother, Joe, and a slightly older set of parents, happiness filled their well kept St Louis home.  Ella was 35, primarily a mother and housewife.  Sometimes Ella got odd jobs as a domestic from Charlie’s relatives and their aquaintences- Mrs Garrett, the Overturfs, the DeHaters. Charlie was 40 and working for the railroad.  He deeply resented being mistaken as Joe and Mary’s Grandfather, and when a stranger would make such a miscalculated  assertion, they would get an earful.

Mom’s birthdays growing up in depression era Los Angeles were not fancy.  There would be a family gathering, a nice dinner, and birthday cake.  Elaborate parties didn’t exist.  Once, another girl from the block did have a birthday party.  All the kids Mom’s age were invited, but Mom wasn’t.  The little girl explained that Mom was not a “real kid” because she babysat and did work like an adult.  Maybe this attitude was why Mom didn’t have a lot of fuss on her birthday parties.  Or maybe it was because her Dad didn’t like a lot of commotion.  Straying from the routine, especially in a noisy way, might incline him to drink.  For whatever the reason, Mom didn’t share a lot of birthday memories.

One birthday memory she did share was heartbreaking.  On November 9, 1964, Mom’s thirty-third birthday, her Dad passed away.  Dying from emphysema, he would be lying in the hospital bed raising imaginary cigarettes to his lips.  He was only 73 years old, but Charlie had been gassed with mustard gas in World War I.  Lung troubles had been accelerated by incessant smoking.  The grandkids would later ask him for “smokey kisses.”  “My Dad always smelled like cigarettes,” Mom reminisced, “So to me cigarette smoke was a good smell, a comforting one.”

“I sat with him day after day.  Then one day, on my birthday, he sent me away to get something.  When I came back, he was gone.  I think he wanted to die alone.  I think he knew,”  Mom said sadly.  “And you know what?  The day before I had brought him meatloaf.  He was clear as a bell.  He looked great, sounded better than I had heard him in weeks.  The next day when I came in, he didn’t feel well. ‘I think it was that damn meatloaf,’ he told me.  He thought my meatloaf was the thing killing him.”

Mom loved her Dad more than anyone in the world, and it hurt that his last thought leveraged ill against well-intentioned meatloaf, which by the way was the finest meatloaf in the world.  Another sad November passed in 1978, when Dad died three days before Mom’s 47th birthday.

While I couldn’t change a pattern of past misfortunes, I felt compelled to make Mom’s 48th birthday as good as possible.  It was her first real birthday without Dad.  I decided to make Mom the best dinner I possibly could.

I began in September saving my lunch money, but being prone to Catholic guilt I confessed to Mom that I wasn’t using it for lunch.  “I don’t care what you want to use it for, Honey,” Mom replied. “If you rather save it to spend at Beatlefest, I don’t mind.”  I did save some for Beatlefest, but also I set the intention on Mom’s birthday dinner.  It was a secret.

The plan unfolded.  Step one: Grandma B calls Mrs Taylor and explains I am sick and can’t come into school.   Step two: at 13, I can’t drive, so I walk the mile to Vons grocery store to get everything I need.  Step three:  make the cake.  Step four: assemble the chicken dish, which seems vaguely Italian.  Step five: frost the cake.  Step six: give the house a once-over.  Step seven: surprise Mom when she walks in from work.

It went perfectly.  Thrilled and surprised, Mom remarked over and over how happy she was.  “This dinner is so wonderful,” Mom was pleased.  The house was clean, dinner made, and everything lovely.

“What…. recipe did you use?”  Mom asked.

“Let me show you!” I beamed, proud as can be.

“Mmmm… oh, yes,” Mom smiled, putting her arm around me.  “You are such a little cook.  Now you changed the recipe a little bit here, am I right?”

“Nope, I did everything just as they said,” I explained.

“I don’t see where it calls for cloves,” Mom scanned the recipe as if she expected to find it.

“Oh, right here,” I pointed, “minced cloves of garlic. I tried to mince the first one but it just rolled around like crazy.  I just threw them on in.  I mean, they are small already!”

“Oh, yes,” Mom smiled tactfully.  “You know, honey, cloves of garlic are not the same as cloves, the spice?”

“Really?  What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, a clove of garlic has an oniony sort of flavor.  You find them by the onions.  Cloves are a spice found in maybe spiced drinks, holiday baking maybe.  They have that strong, spicy smell.”

“Oh no!” I was laughing.  “I looked everywhere for cloves of garlic and finally found this!”

“Well, you know what?” Mom continued, “I’m just letting you know for the future.  As a little cook you’ll want to know these types of things.  But at the same time….” Mom shook her head and smiled, “I think the way you cooked it here was perfect.”

“Really?!” I was thrilled.

“Yes, really.  It couldn’t have been nicer.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.  It was the finest birthday dinner I’ve ever had.”

After that birthday, Mom planned ahead.  “I don’t want you going to any trouble.  How about if I take everyone out for dinner this year on my birthday?”

“You can’t treat! It’s your birthday!” I’d respond.

“But that’s what makes me happy.  I like treating my kids to dinner.”

Hmmm.  I wonder if that had anything to do with my famous clove chicken recipe.

Better Safe Than Sorry

It wasn’t often that Grandpa took Mom into downtown L.A.   Reaching down from his big, brown leather chair with the gold rivets along the arms, he ignored the ache in his fingers which warned of arthritis.

“Come here, Pet,” he stretched further to reach Mom’s small Mary Janes.  “Let’s get these on you.”

Mom was excited.  She loved going places with her Dad, especially somewhere beyond the corner market.  Going into downtown seemed like a big trip.  Grandpa didn’t enjoy the prospect as much.  He didn’t care for shopping, and the crowds seemed suffocating.  But some errands were necessary.

The duo boarded the streetcar and headed North on Vermont.  Grandpa didn’t drive.  He’d been a good bit drunk when he plowed into that hearse in the middle of the black Baptist funeral procession. The memory of the hearse back door flying open, cars skidding to a unified halt, the loud wailing and the cries for mercy were enough to turn a man against the freedom of the open road.  It was apparent drinking and driving didn’t go well together, so Grandpa never drove again.

The hazy sunshine filtered in long streams as the streetcar wound its way from the familiar roads into the less familiar, budding metropolis.  As their stop was announced, Mom straightened her dress and hopped up out of the seat, smiling up at her Dad.  His eyes crinkled a smile as he reached to hold Mom’s little hand.

Sometimes, into our days, an image flashes like an isolated cell from a moving picture.  Or maybe a few cells.  Things demand attention which we’d rather block out, but once we see them, it becomes too late.  On this day, such a thing happened to Mom.  This otherwise very normal day had an extraordinary impact on her.

Grandpa Charlie and Mom rounded the street corner, still holding hands.  Skidding tires, a scream, and a cacophony of alarmed voices cut through the already scattered and disconcerting traffic noises.  People began running.  A voice called out for an ambulance.  Another, deeper voice reported, “There’s no need.  He’s dead.”  Mom squinted into the slanted afternoon sun, raising a hand to shade her small forehead.   In the middle of the street was a perfect pair of men’s shoes.  Several yards away, the man lay motionless on the sidewalk.  The bus that had hit the man was parked haphazardly beyond the scene.  The bus driver couldn’t decide whether to sit down or to stand and pace.  He alternated nervously between all three.  People gathered around the perimeter, allowing the dead man space.  It was as if they were watching, waiting for him to rise up, brush himself off, and declare the day a doozy.  That didn’t happen.

“It was the first time I saw a person who had died,” Mom recalled, thoughtfully.  “There he was.  When the bus hit him, he was thrown from his shoes.  One moment he was there crossing the street, and the next minute he was dead on the sidewalk.  He didn’t have time to know what hit him.”

When Mom told the story, I wondered why people get thrown from their shoes.  There are theories about G-force and how only 50 pounds of pressure is needed to remove even a tightly laced boot.  Newton’s Laws of Motion can be applied, which explains the occurence via inertia (the bus) vs objects at rest staying at rest (the shoes).  My best guess though is that it happens because our feet are not as solid as we wish. Feet are mostly lean muscle and tendons, and are about 75 percent water.  Even the bones of the feet contain 22 percent water.  In effect, our feet are a lot like water balloons shoved in a pliable encasement.  Upon impact we stretch like gelatinous goo.

Seeing the lifeless man and his empty shoes effected a trauma.  The brevity of life and the seemingly cruel randomness of fate weighed upon Mom’s childlike reasonings.  Night after night, the man’s lifeless form, his empty shoes, took appearance as she closed her eyes to sleep.  No words could comfort her.  Sleep remained elusive.

Around this time, Mom began to sleepwalk.  She would have no recollection of sleepwalking in the morning.  Worried that Mom might leave the house, Grandma and Grandpa installed a high latch on the bedroom door.  Grandma shared the bedroom.

Now, in the sophisticated 21st century, a sensitive child, troubled as Mom was, would be said to have PTSD- post traumatic stress disorder.  In the 1940’s it was called having a life.  Being alive meant seeing and experiencing fortune and misfortune.  It was God’s grace that kept the rest of us from the front of the bus, and God’s time that saw that poor man home to heaven.  If one person was labeled disordered, all were equally disordered.  Life was to be lived, not dissected.

“Honey, you live as long as you can and you die when you can’t help it,” Mom often said.

Mom eventually outgrew her sleepwalking.  Still, that day, those empty shoes, heralded Mom’s days of caution.  That day became page one in Mom’s Inner Book of Catastrophes.  From that point onward, Mom committed to memory a catalogue of misfortunes, which she gleaned from newspapers, newscasts, and some from hearsay.  If anyone was a savant in this capacity, it was Mom.

“I think I’ll go roller skating,” I might chirp.

“Oh, honey, be careful.  Once in 1967 a little girl went roller skating in Denver.  It was four pm, and the way the sunlight hit this one drivers window caused….”

It was amazing.  And it was a talent.  Mom trusted God, but believed in partnering Him with as much Common Sense as possible.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Bushel and a Peck

Mom used to sing this song to me when I was little.

That reminds me, too, of how she would sometimes try to bribe me into doing a chore.

“I don’t know…” I’d protest.

“I’ll give you a little something for doing it,” Mom would wager.

“Like what?”

“I’ll give you… a hug and a kiss and a penny and a dollar!”  Mom would smile.

Singing in Church

For a long while, more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be like Cher.  As I’d watch her on television on Sunday nights with Sonny, and later when she ventured out on her own, she was the ideal of womanhood for me.  I set about starving myself and growing my hair, and in the process I would pantomime for hours in the mirror, getting all her mannerisms down pat.  Thus it was with devastation that I received the news from my Mom: I could not sing.

This came on the heels of my Dad telling me I sounded “just like Cher!” and asking my permission to record my lovely, diminutive voice.  He counted down, “3, 2, 1…” and put the record on softly in the background, so I could follow the timing.  It was pre-karaoke.  Afterwards, I listened and was embarrassed that I sounded nothing like Cher.

“Of course you do!” Dad encouraged. “I couldn’t tell you two apart!”

As the week went on, the scene rolled around in my mind.  How could I be the next Cher when I couldn’t carry a featherweight tune?

“Mom…  I can’t sing!”  I finally blurted out, late one afternoon, as Mom was busy top dusting.

“Here, help me for a minute with this.”  Mom wasn’t listening.

“Mom, I can’t sing!” I repeated emphatically, trying to jar her attention toward the subject of my distress.

“That’s okay.” She looked up and her gaze softened to sympathy.  “You know what?  There are plenty of things you can do.  Who cares if you can’t sing?  You have other talents.”  Mom seemed proud of this summation.

“No. No… ” I was crushed.  Mom was supposed to tell me I could sing, that I wasn’t hearing myself right, that no one liked their own voices, not even Cher.  She was supposed…. to lie.  That’s what I wanted.

For years, I carried this with me.  Every time I felt inclined to sing aloud, I felt a knot of embarrassment rise up and strangle my vocal chords from within.  What came out was chirpy and weak, worse than before.  Not only was I a poor singer, but I was getting worse!

I took comfort in the art of lip-sync.  Milli-Vanilli hadn’t yet turned lip-syncing into a public disgrace.  Maybe I would be so talented, so… Cher… I could famously mime others’ records.  I practiced this for hours in front of my bedroom mirror.  Until one day, my disco dreams faded like a pair of monochrome bell bottoms.  That day, I was out with friends, humming down the highway, giggling.  Some random parent at the wheel, the radio was blasting KFI’s finest.  I took in the view and, unconsciously, lip-synced along.

“What are you doing?!” One of the girls giggled at me.  “You’re not really singing!  What are you doing?!  That’s weird!  You’re weird!”  The girls all laughed.  From that moment on, I took care to not mime unless it was just me and Mom in the car.

My bravery slipped, and I rarely dreamed of fame any more.  My courage extended to church, where I karaoked the hymns.  Most Catholics sang quite loudly.  They wouldn’t notice.  And some young Catholics were quite quiet and sheepish.  Some were busy looking concerned and pious.  It was a safe bet no one at Church would point and laugh.

As I mouthed the hymns I wanted to belt out, I’d cast my eyes upward when Mom began to sing.  If Mom had a gentle and sweet speaking voice (and she did), she had an even better singing voice.  She always knew the words and always sounded like an angel on high.  It was amazing.  How I wished I sounded so sweet.

In high school, I joined choir and glee club.  I even was given a solo once.  But mostly I remained silent, and those were the times the choir instructor said we sounded best.

Years passed, and one day moxy overtook me.  Navigating down the highway with Mom, who could no longer drive, my forty-year old self began belting out song after song.  One after another they came from the bottom of my heart, without a choked inclination.  I felt the words into my soul.

“Ave Maria, Where did you go? Where did you go?
How did you know to get out of a world gone mad?
Help me, let go of the chaos around me
The devil that hounds me, I need you to tell me
Child, be still, child, be still…”

Mom sat in the passenger seat, nodding her head.  Though she couldn’t drive anymore, she was still lucid, and we were enjoying our day together.

“Oh, honey,” she remarked, “You have the most beautiful voice!”

“No. No…” I protested.

“Yes, you do.  You sound better than the record!”

“But I thought you thought I had a bad voice.  Once you said…”  I recounted to Mom her remark about my having other talents.

“Oh, honey,” Mom explained. “I just didn’t want you to do something you felt self-conscious about.  I knew you had a beautiful voice.  But I also knew what a little artist you were, what a writer you were… so many talents God gave you.  That’s what I was pointing out.”

I always sang for Mom in the car after that.  She would smile and sometimes nod her head to the music.

with Mom at Cher’s final concert – Hollywood Bowl, in 2005


Halloween, 2005, dressed as Cher


Little Catholic Things


Some of the most special things Mom taught me were rooted in the Catholic faith.  Ordinary parts of a day were infused with a spiritual meaning.  No detail was neglected, all was for God.  Here are some of the devotions which stand out, looking back.

Father O’Connel baptising Ron’s wife, Suzanne. Dad and Mom were her Godparents. Mom had lupus here, but it is still a nice picture.

1. When you are driving past a church, say the sign of the cross.  In the ’70’s people bought all kinds of specialty car horns.  My brother had the “aww-oooga!” horn, my Dad used a hand-held Groucho Marx horn, and there were many others like the long patriotic sounding variety.  These horns were sounded when driving past friends houses, every time you passed the friend’s house.  The sentiment was of the howdy-doo variety.  Saying a sign of the Cross when passing the church is the same principle.  It’s a way of saying howdy-doo to God because church is God’s house.  Also, sometimes in Catholic churches there is a veneration of the Blessed Sacrament.  That means a Eucharistic wafer, which is Blessed and we believe has been transubstantiated into the Body of Christ, is present in the church.  Some churches permanently have the Blessed Eucharist placed in view, as opposed to behind the doors of the tabernacle (sort of Jesus’ bedroom).  If Jesus is in the tabernacle, there will be a candle lit.  In any case, saying the sign of the cross as you drive past says hello to God in God’s house, Jesus in the Eucharist, and the Holy Spirit who is everywhere.

2.  When passing in front of the tabernacle, no matter how far back you are in the main aisle of the church, you should genuflect/kneel.  This is acknowledging Jesus’ presence in the church in the form of the Holy Eucharist.

3. When an ambulance, paramedic, or other emergency vehicle passed or sounds its siren, say a small prayer.  If you’re driving, remember to not close your eyes.  A sign of the Cross is fine, but it’s also nice to throw in a small prayer of your chosing.  Mom told me to say a prayer from my heart, and consequently for my 46+ years my prayer has been, “Lord, please let them be okay.”  I figure “okay” is open-ended, and that God would like that.  Still, it’s a bequeathing of good vibes.

4. Pray before meals. We used to say the traditional Grace Before Meals which went like this:

“Bless us, Oh Lord, and these Thy gifts, which are about the receive from Thy bounty through Christ Our Lord.  Amen.”

Sometimes Ron would lean right between Holy and Spirit and smack Dad on the shoulder.  And sometimes Ron would call “race grace” and say grace so fast it was done in under four seconds.  Still, since God is beyond space and time, I doubt He hardly noticed.  Mom was just glad we were praying instead of fighting.

5.   Here is one mostly from my Aunt Eleanor.  Put “JMJ” at the top of your schoolpapers.  This is something which was a tradition in the 1930’s and 1940’s here in America.  JMJ stands for the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  The nuns taught students this gesture in Catholic school, and those students passed it along.  I saw my cousin, Maryann, doing this: JMJ and a little cross underneath it, right at the very top center of her schoolpapers.  Maryann told me her Mom instructed her to do this and why.  I asked Mom, and Mom said yes, and that it was a good idea for me to do as well, if I wished.  Some devout Catholics used to place a JMJ atop every paper they intended to use, even scrap paper.  It is a simple reminder of God greatness, and a renewal of the days intention, which should be to please and honor God.

6.  Each morning, Mom instructed me, “Honey, even before you get out of bed, before you set your feet on the floor, dedicate your day to God.  If you don’t do it right away, you’ll forget.  As you open your eyes, thank God for another day.  Then dedicate everything you do in that day to Him.”  Mom was teaching me karma and bhakti yoga, Catholic style.

7.  Similarly, each evening, before I fell asleep, I should lie in bed and take time to think back upon my day.  “Just go through what you can remember about your day and ask yourself if you feel you handled things well.  Ask yourself if you responded to situations as you feel God would want you to.  Don’t feel bad or guilty.  If you see a little bump where you could have done something better, just make an intention to do better tomorrow.”

8.  Nighttime prayer.  The traditional prayer went like this:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I shall die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Mom said that she felt that prayer sounded scary for children.  So instead, Mom suggested I pray the prayer of the Guardian Angel.  We substituted the word “night” in place of “day.”

9. Wear a scapular.  Mom never let me go to sleep with any sort of necklace on.  She always said sleeping with a necklace meant it could get tangled up and choke you.  The exception was the scapular, because I was instructed to wear it at all times (I was allowed to remove it to take my bath!).    Wearing a scapular meant that if you died wearing it, you went straight to heaven.  Either that or at least you didn’t go to hell.  Mom was very conscientious about my wearing it.  She made certain I always had it on.   I still have a scapular Mom gave me.  I doubt it would be the original one, as I must have gone through some just via wear and tear.  And I’m not sure when I stopped wearing it, but maybe when Dad died.  I intend to begin wearing one again. 

10.  Capitalize names and references to God and His Divine Pronoun, in all forms.  Any appositive for the Lord is a-positively capitalized.  If you’re not sure whether something God-referring is to be capitalized, capitalize it just for good measure.  It can’t hurt because God (and God alone) trumps grammarians.

No Apple Betty!

My parents teased one another in rotation.  The same little pokes and jabs arose mischievously, and their banter became grooves of a record, more familiar and loved upon repetition.   One of the ol’ favorites was from Dad.

“I think I’ll make an apple betty this weekend,” Dad would tease, winking.  Sometimes Dad exaggerated his wink and his jaw would crack.

“Who’s kitchen will you use for that?”  Mom assumed an aristocratic inflection.


“Edmund, what would you like me to make for dessert?”

“I’ll make it!  I’ll make an apple betty,” Dad’s eyes would sparkle.

Mom would tell Dad she didn’t know how to make apple betty, which I suspect meant that Grandma B must have made a great apple betty and Mom didn’t want to compete. Such was the case with homemade tomato soup and yeast breads.

This raillery continued in all forms.

“You know what would be really good?  Apple betty.”  Dad feigned spontaneity.

“Maybe if I had that new pants suit…”  Mom would parry.

Homemaking had been Mom’s dedication since she quit her job at the phone company in the fall of 1953.  Her co-workers had a nice send off for her.  They were all sorry to see her go.

“It was a nice little job,” Mom recounted, “They wanted to make me a supervisor some day.  And I could have been.  I was a stenographer, took fast shorthand, and was a good typist.  I made hardly any errors and always checked my work.”

Dad concurred that accuracy was invaluable.  “Juanita at work is that same way,” Dad remarked.  “It’s so important.  You can give her something to do and feel confident will be done right.”

Mom aspired to be among the new generation of working Mothers.  Inspired by Rosie the Riveter, Mom had enjoyed the independence of earning her own paycheck. Her own Mother had brought home a decent wage and raised a family, but relied heavily on Mom to do so.  Now it was Mom’s turn to ask for the village to help raise the child.  In this case, the village Grandmothers.

Grandma B would have none of it.  She had cautioned Dad that Mom was marrying him simply to have a large, Catholic family.  She offered to whisk Dad off to Mexico when he returned from Korea.  The three of them would move south of the border together. That way he could avoid paying alimony.  Such accusations hurt.  Luckily, Dad knew that Mom loved him for more than his ability to provide a family.  When Dad returned from Korea, it wasn’t long before they began planning for Steve.  Mid-century nesting began.

When Steve arrived, Mom loved him too much to leave him with just anyone.  Looking to the Grandmothers was coming up short.  Grandma A had a heart condition.  In the event of a heart attack, she might drop the baby.  Somewhat uneasily, Mom decided to ask Grandma B.

“You know what she told me?  She said, ‘I waited nine years to have my baby, and I raised him myself.  I have no intention of raising your children.  I’m done raising babies.”

Mom was staggeringly hurt.  But this was the kind of thing she had learned to tolerate from Dad’s family, who accepted her in a limited way, with great reservation.

In the end, Grandma A tried babysitting but was nervous.  Plagued by panic attacks, doctors assumed she had heart troubles.  The episodes were presumed to be small heart attacks.

“Your Grandmother would call the priest,” Mom remembered.  “She had the last rites more times than I can remember.  She had heart trouble and kidney trouble.  She would get a poultice to apply,  a mustard plaster, and lay down. Sometimes she would take an episode in the grocery store where she couldn’t breathe, and she’d need to leave her basket.  It would be full of groceries, and she would just leave it and run for her car.  Other times she would call and tell me, ‘Mary, I’m having a heart attack.’  I’d tell her to come over, quick.  She would drive to my house and tell me, ‘as soon as I saw your house, I began to feel better.  I don’t know what it is, but I feel better now.’ ”

“See, I couldn’t leave Steve with your Grandma A.  And Grandma B wouldn’t take him.  So I asked your father.  He was a produce inspector, inspecting fruits at night in the boxcars.  We thought he could watch Steve during the day, and I returned to work.  One day I came home to find Steve there in his little bouncy seat in the backyard, crying bloody murder,”  Mom looked skyward and raised her hand to heaven.  “Your father was hanging up laundry on the line, and he was actually pale.  He was pale as a sheet, and his upper lip had beads of sweat on it.  He told me, ‘Mary, I can’t do it.  I can’t watch the baby. You are going to have to quit your job.’  And that was it. It was decided.”

Many years passed, and occasionally Mom would ask Dad if he thought she might be able to return to work.

“I did everything I could think of meanwhile.  I cleaned the churches.  I drove the nuns.  I volunteered on the election boards.”  Mom had so much energy, and a tremendous intellect.  She was sharp-witted and conscientious.  There was a part of her which needed more challenge than the walls of a home could contain.

“I loved making a home for you kids: cooking, cleaning, sewing.  It was my life.  But when the time came, I also wanted to succeed in the work world.”

In 1978, a new, indoor mall debuted in Thousand Oaks.  The Oaks Mall was the first indoor mall in the area, and was highly anticipated. Mom asked Dad if she might be able to apply for a position at the new Broadway department store. I was twelve, and Mom felt I could get by at home with Dad. John was 17. The extra money would be nice for the family.  Dad agreed, and Mom applied, interviewed, and landed a job as a floater.  Floaters filled gaps in all departments, thereby learning the ins and outs of the whole store.  It was a good position, and one that could align Mom for management.

I missed Mom on Saturdays.  Every other weekend Mom worked, in sync with Dad’s Saturday hours at Sears.  Dad knew I missed Mom terribly, and he set out to make our time together count.

“We’ll go to a new park each weekend together,” he suggested.  And we did.  Some parks we frequented were neighborhood parks.  I’d swing and the two of us would chat, or walk around exploring.  Other times we hiked.  Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks seemed magical.  We took several lovely and memorable walks there.  Some Saturdays Dad and I would go to the mall and get Hot Dog on a Stick together.  We both liked being in Mom’s proximity. “Look!  We’re close to your Mom here now,” he’d offer, smiling.  “She’s almost off work,” he’d say, even if there were several hours to go.

Then, one weekend, Dad made a suggestion to do something new.  “I have an idea,” he winked.  “Let’s stay home and surprise your Mother.  Let’s make apple betty!”  I laughed!  That would be brilliant!

Dad began paging through Mom’s recipe books, but couldn’t easily locate a recipe for apple betty.  Instead, he settled on apple pie.  It was close enough.  He explained apple betty is like an apple pie without a crust.

“Should we leave the crust off?”  I suggested.

“No, we better follow the recipe.  It’ll be just as good!”

Dad and I had so much fun and tremendous laughs making that pie.  Once he got the crust rolled out on wax paper, he didn’t know how to flip it into the pie plate.  There was a ton of flour under the dough, and when he tried to flip, flour went in a six-foot diameter!  We both laughed!  There was flour all over drawer fronts, knobs, the kitchen floor.  Dad cooked differently than Mom did.  Mom measured everything exactly, whereas Dad guessed.  “That looks about right!” Dad didn’t level measurements off or carefully pour like Mom.  Dad stirred with a careless vigor and had an enjoyable distractibility in the kitchen.

Once the pie was in the oven, Dad used the vacuum to clean up the flour.  I thought that was daring!  Mom would never use a vacuum for that!  I don’t know how she would do it, but not that way!  By the time Mom came home, the kitchen was spotless and there was a pie on the counter as beautiful as can be.

“Oh, you didn’t?!”  Mom laughed.  “And my kitchen is even in one piece!” She looked around approvingly.

When Mom tasted the pie, she teased, “There’s no way you two made this.  This has to have been made professionally.”  Dad and I beamed at one another.  Mom didn’t find out about the vacuum full of flour for a few days.  When Dad confessed, Mom teased him mercilessly.  Leaving on a Saturday she’d quip, “Shall I call a cleaning crew in today?  Are we baking?”

We Want Strawberries!

“I wish I had more hours in my day,” Mom would lament.  So long as there was a needy soul somewhere, Mom felt guilty closing her eyes to rest.  A kind heart and Irish Catholic guilt had fashioned Mom into a works-of-mercy junkie.  Corporal works of mercy, spiritual works of mercy- it was all good so long as it was one of the fourteen.  Her most fulfilling hours were passed within the right arm of Christ.  Mom would make a red-haired doll for a red-haired orphan, help a developmentally delayed 40-year-old named Shirley compose and type letters to Jesus, visit the elderly, and be at the ready to instruct, counsel, and comfort the wandering and lost, which might include her wayward and challenging children.  One thing time rarely allowed was the chance to place flowers on Dad’s grave.  Mom often expressed a desire to tend to that loving errand, but other works of mercy pushed it down the list.  “Honey, sometimes we’ve got to take care of the living and let the dead fend for themselves,” Mom would instruct.

In that spirit, Mom would often bring Grandma A a frozen yogurt from Penguin’s Yogurt Shop.  Grandma loved the vanilla yogurt with sliced strawberries on the top.  The berries always looked ripe and lovely.  One early summer evening, Mom arrived with Penguin’s for Grandma.  The yogurt smelled so nice and trumped the aroma of cheap cafeteria meat that wafted around the corners, an olfactory nuisance signaling dinner at the Thousand Oaks Convalarium.  Mom wrinkled her nose and shook her head disapprovingly.  Rounding the corner, she and Grandma locked eyes, and Grandma’s face lit up.  Her eyes sparkled recognition, and she waved from her seat with her one mobile arm.  When she smiled, her gold tooth showed.   Mom slid in between residents, leaned into Grandma, and hugged her.  She gave Grandma a kiss on the cheek and pulled her face back, arm still around Grandma’s shoulder.  Mom wanted her tri-focals to adjust.

“Hi, Mother,” Mom smiled, “We brought you strawberries.”

“Oooh,” Grandma beamed.  Her voice was gravely from age.  “Sit down. Get a chair.”   Grandma was always eager to have Mom and I sit down.  Standing implied leaving.  It threatened a short stay.  Once we sat, Grandma relaxed.  She was a people person like Mom.

Mom reached for a spoon and maneuvered the lid off the styrofoam cup.  As Grandma ate her first spoonfull, the strawberries were captured by six sets of eyes at the table.  The elderly woman to the right puzzled, “I want strawberries…”  And the white haired, Jewish looking woman across the table complained, “I want strawberries!”  Pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, a tall, frail gentleman articulated in a loud whisper, “I’d like some strawberries.”  And in a loud, demanding voice, the heavy set woman in the house frock boomed, “We- want- strawberries!”

The initial elderly woman picked up her utensils, grasped them upright, and quietly- more to herself than aloud- began to bang the table, chanting, “We want strawberries!  We want strawberries!”  She was joined and joined and joined again.  One by one and table by table, the strawberry insurrection grew.  Within minutes, the full capacity dining room was roaring in unison. “We want strawberries!”  Elderly fists pumped and palms slammed tables.  There was no way to quiet the movement.  The strawberry mutiny had taken a firm hold.

“We want strawberries!  We want strawberries!”

I looked at Mom, who was laughing so hard she had to wipe away tears.  Her hand touched the table as she rocked forward, trying to compose her laughter.

Grandma smiled and opened her eyes wide in amusement.  Mom whispered, “I guess next time I’d better bring enough for everyone!”

Something Special

In my traditional household, Mom compromised in ways today’s mothers would plainly refuse.  Dad could put his foot down, as was customary in the 1950’s, and it was seen as a sign of knowing one’s limits, clear self-expression, and a man “taking the reins.”  Mom derived an element of security from these traditional roles, but the dynamics could seem somewhat perplexing.

For example, when Dad returned from Korea, Mom had been a model wife in his absence.  Many servicemen’s wives didn’t work, and when they got their weekly pension they’d immediately cash the check and go to the department stores.  Mom was different. Instead of spending Dad’s pension on new clothes, Mom saved it away, and continued living with Grandma and Grandpa.  In addition, she worked for the telephone company in a responsible position.  Each week she would walk into the bank and deposit both checks, saving out only a little sum to give to Grandpa for her room and board.

“The lady at the bank used to tease me,” Mom said.  “She’d say, ‘Mmm, you must be saving for something very special.’  I’d just smile and say, ‘Yes, I am.’  Eventually I told her.  I was saving the money because I wanted to surprise your father when he got back from Korea.  And I did.  When he got back, I was able to tell him I’d saved enough for a nice little down payment on a house.  I was the one who saved that down payment.  Later, we rolled it over into our other homes.”

When Dad was discharged and all set to arrive back home, Mom rented a small place and fixed it up nicely.  They would have their own apartment now and could take their time finding a house to buy.  Mom was looking forward to living in the little place as newlyweds.  Finally, after missing Dad while he was overseas, it was time for them to be reunited.  But when Dad came home, he voiced different ideas about the apartment.  He wanted to give it up and go on a cross-country vacation. Korea was grueling enough, and time off with no responsibilities or ties sounded perfect.  And that was it.  Though Mom had worked hard securing the perfect place for them and setting it up cozy, what my Dad wanted was primary.  Mom had spent hours imagining them there together in the domestic bliss which lighthearted newlyweds share.  But Dad had that wanderlust.  He didn’t want to leave the apartment empty for a month or so while they went around the country together.  And though Mom was disappointed, she respected Dad’s decision.  She even spoke cheerfully of it in years to come.

“I was just happy to have your father home,”  Mom explained.  “That’s all that mattered to me.  I had spent so long worrying about him overseas.  I would watch Clete Roberts interviewing soldiers on tv.  Each week he would go, even to the front lines.  All the servicemen’s wives would watch.  I would watch so closely, just to see if I could glimpse your father.  I’d watch The Big Picture.  Anything where I might see him.  And I prayed.  Oh, honey, I prayed.”

Mom was so happy to have Dad home again.  They determined to go all the way across country to New York.  They could see Grandma Greneger, Dad’s Grandma, and his Aunt Adele.  They could see the cousins in New York also.  And en route, they would be able to see the wonders of all the States.  That was Dad’s dream, so it became Mom’s dream as well.  Many women today, many wives, would find it disagreeable to place time and effort into acquiring an apartment, only to have it set aside for the sake of a couple months rent.  Not to mention all the money in their savings account which was there by Mom’s determination.  But as Mom saw things, now that Dad was home, the financial matters were handed over to him.

“I’m so glad we went on that trip,” Mom said in later years.  “Many people wait until they are retired, but this is the way God planned it.  Your father and I didn’t have those retirement years.  That trip turned out to be the only time we shared such a trip together.  We saw Bryce,  Zion, the painted desert.  It was gorgeous. We saw the Craters of the Moon.  Honey, for as far as you could see, it looked like the moon.  It was as if you were standing on the moon.  And your father loved ghost towns.  We saw ghost towns.  Once, your father took us down this narrow road for miles.  After we’d driven and driven, without a town or soul in sight for miles, the car broke down.  We were there in the middle of nowhere, and your father said to me, ‘I’ll be right back!’  He was going to leave me there!  I said, ‘Like fun you’ll be right back, I’m going with you!’ ”  Mom laughed.  “We had such a great time.  We were going to go over the top, through Michigan and see the Great Lakes, and into New York that way.  But we didn’t quite get there.  We called Mother from a phone booth and she wasn’t feeling well.  She was having heart troubles.  Right away we turned the car around and came home.”

“Was Grandma okay?”  I asked.  Of course, she had lived, but I wondered how things ended.

“Oh yeah, she was fine.  By the time we got home, she was doing much better.”

“Was Dad mad?” I suspected he might be upset having such big plans thwarted.

“Your father?  Oh, no.  No, he was just glad your Grandma was okay.”

I found that also remarkable.  This give and take was what made their marriage work.  Mom gave up the apartment for Dad, and then Dad gave up his vacation for Mom (and Grandma).   It was my parents own version of the Gift of the Magi.