Temper, temper…

When was the last time you threw a temper tantrum?  As a child, I was a master- I could stomp and scream and pound my pillow with the best of them.  I even broke several objects, including a doll that belonged to my sister, at least that is what she tells me.  I don’t really remember.   Funny how that works.

I do remember stamping my foot in the bathroom while my mother prepared me for a nap.  “I’m not tired!” I whined.  It is true, you know, that Mother knows best.

When my kids were little, they kept the family legacy alive.  One day, when Abby was four, I took her, Gabe and Elizabeth grocery shopping.  We got through the entire store without incident, and were headed toward the home stretch in the Health and Beauty Aids section, when Abby spotted a rack of Care Bear sticker books.  Of course, she wanted one.  Of course, they were not in the budget. 

When I refused her request, she decided to try another tact, and threw herself down on the floor, kicking and screaming for all she was worth.  That girl had pipes! People came running from all over the building to see what the problem was.  Gabe calmly sat in the grocery cart, munching bread through the plastic bag, while Elizabeth shoplifted from her perch in the pack strapped to my back.   I wanted to crawl under the shelf of Q-tips, or swallow an entire bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol.  I briefly considered leaving an entire basket of groceries where it stood to make a quick exit.  I even considered buying the damned sticker book.

Instead, I quietly picked Abby up, plopped her on her feet and half-dragged her, kicking and screaming, through the checkout.  As every parent knows, to let her win this battle is to lose the war.

Last week, an angry man yelled at me over the phone.  He was frustrated because he wanted an afternoon appointment for his child, instead of an evening one.  The evening was not convenient for him.  He had other things to do.

Despite my explanation that there were no afternoon appointments left, he continued to scream obscenities over the phone.  He finally ended with instructions to his wife, “Tell her I’m coming down there and I’m going to smash her f-ing teeth down her f-ing throat!” (His adjectives, not mine. Actually, I misquote.  He did not say “f-ing.”  He said the whole word.  But my mother would have washed my mouth out with soap for words like that, so I refrain.  Most of the time.)

In what world is it okay to make vile threats of bodily harm, just because you don’t get what you want?  The police called it “criminal threatening” and asked if I wanted to press charges.  His wife wanted to explain “their side of the story.”

Me?  I think maybe long ago, someone should have said “no” when he wanted a Care Bears sticker book. 

Musings on Thanksgiving

A few weeks ago, I met with a homeless man who was reported to be sleeping in the waiting area of the medical facility where I work.  He had come as a follow-up to an Emergency Room visit, and was animatedly yelling at one of the appointment secretaries because she did not have hot water he could use for making coffee.


After he was assessed by a doctor and declared to be mentally competent and physically stable, it was my job to discuss his behavior and set some limitations.  I walked into the exam room, introduced myself and sat across from him.  We chatted about his Emergency Room visit, what he has for resources, and how he could access the medical care he needs.  He is recently released from prison. He sleeps at the shelter.  He can get care from the mobile community health van.  He eats at the food kitchen.  He does not need anything else from our doctor. 


He was painfully thin, and his skin was orange from the sun and wind.  His white hair was yellow from the smoke of too many cigarettes, and as he pulled a small bottle of instant coffee from his backpack, he chastised me for not supplying him with hot water.


His demeanor became dark, angry and accusing, as I explained that the clinic is not set up for this; that he cannot sleep all day in the waiting area, and he cannot yell at our staff.  I acted as an agent for the organization that pays my salary, not unkind, respectful, calm, firm.


He left, slowly hoisting his pack on his shoulder, pedaling his bike against the cold October wind. I watched him from the second floor window until he disappeared over the hill’s horizon.


I did my job the way I am supposed to.  His own choices have created his destiny.  I know that I cannot save him, or save the world.


So why does he haunt me weeks later, as I serve up turkey and stuffing in a warm home with soft beds and a microwave that can crank out hot water for coffee in less than sixty seconds? 

Why do I feel so badly?


I did my job the way I am supposed to.


Notes from an Old Sew and Sew

I’ve decided to start sewing again.  When my children were little I sewed all the time. It was a hobby borne from necessity. The kids needed clothes.  The budget was limited.  It made perfect sense to buy fabric at discount prices and sew what they needed.


In the early years we had a three room apartment.  I sewed in the living room, among toys and books and the TV set.  Abby played with her Barbie dolls.  Elizabeth stood in her play pen, throwing blocks across the room.  Gabriel perched himself on the back of my chair, hands on my shoulders, as if standing watch from the helm.  We listened to Reading Rainbow, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers while I stitched and clipped.  It was warm, cozy, peaceful.  


When Abby started first grade, she needed school clothes.  I had a budget of thirty dollars to provide her with a full wardrobe and new shoes.  Undaunted, I marched all three children to the closest Walmart, where I found a pattern for multiple jumpers, fabric remnants for a dollar a yard, and a package of little boys’ white tee shirts.  I sewed three jumpers, decorated the tee shirts with coordinating embroidery floss, and fashioned matching friendship bracelets.  I even stitched hair scrunchies and matching bows for her socks.  With a pair of pink shoes bought from a “Lucky Size” sale rack, she looked every bit the first grade fashion diva she was.  Her teacher asked me what boutique I shopped.


I continued to make clothing for my family.  “MC Hammer” pants for Gabe.  Dresses and shorts for the girls.  Flannel pajamas to keep everyone warm through snowy New Hampshire nights.  I sewed in the afternoons when the kids were awake.  I sewed in the evenings while they slept.  It was an outlet for my creativity.  An opportunity for me to paint the world in the colors and patterns I chose.


Sadly, as the years passed, my ingenuity faded.  Once I went back to working full time, there was little time for sewing.  The machine gathered dust, only to be used to repair split seams and fashion Halloween costumes.


But now that the kids are grown and I am finding myself with quiet, empty evenings, I have the desire to once again make something. Create something new. My sewing machine beckons from the living room.  Here is my chance to repaint my life once again. I bought fabric and a pattern, and set aside a full Sunday to begin.


To my disappointment, I could not get the bobbin to wind.  I tried over and over, but it just sat there. Empty.  I took apart the housing, cleaned it, and replaced it. I tried different thread.  I tried sewing machine oil.  I tried prayer.  Finally, I gave up, exasperated, and began to search on line for new sewing machines.  Mine was, after all, at least fifteen years old.  The new ones are far more technologically advanced.  It would be nice to have something shiny and new.


Something inside be balked at the idea of giving up so easily.  I often complain that our culture has become such a “throw-away” society.  Television home improvement shows tell us that entire kitchens and bathrooms need to be updated every fifteen years.  Smash the old cabinets. Put up new ones.  Replace perfectly fine white appliances with stainless steel. 


 How often have I made a trip to the cobbler, rather than buying a new pair of shoes?  When was the last time I washed out a peanut butter jar instead of buying a disposable plastic container to hold leftovers?  My gosh- I even buy plastic bags so I have something new and clean to dump my trash into.  Didn’t I start this whole sewing thing out of a necessity to live a more frugal and resourceful lifestyle?   With great effort and resolve, I decided to try to fix the old machine, rather than buy a new one. 


Locating a repair shop was easier than I anticipated.  Yes, they do repairs.  Turn around time is about three days.  I could anticipate a cost of seventy dollars. 



 Ugh. Seventy dollars! For a fleeting moment, I considered closing up the machine and donating the fabric to charity, or worse yet, giving in to holiday sale flyers from the local Singer center. 


Instead, I gathered up the machine, and lugged it to the repair shop.  It has gotten heavier as I’ve gotten older.  Sweating, I heaved it onto the counter and sputtered, “The bobbin won’t wind.”    


He took a quick glance, rolled his eyes, and said, “I can tell ya what’s wrong already.  Whatcha got here is the wrong bobbin.”


Being the sophisticated elocutionary master that I am, my response was,  “Shut up!”


Now, I have no idea where the wrong bobbin came from.  Or where the bobbins I used in the old days have gone to.  But the man at the counter sold me two new ones for a dollar apiece.  I lugged my machine home, plugged it in, inserted the new bobbin and tried it out.  It wound the bobbin effortlessly, then zipped along as I sewed a trial seam, making perfect stitches. 


For two dollars.


Sometimes we have to retrace our steps to remember who we are.  Sometimes it helps to remember how creative we can get when the situation demands that we find an alternative route. I liked that resourceful young woman who took scraps of fabric and pieced them together to fashion a dress for her little girl.  I think I will spend some time with her and see what we can create together.  


I picked up the phone today to hear a soft voice from across the Atlantic. 


It is Elizabeth, my daughter.  My youngest child.  My baby.


She is Christmas to me. Her voice tinkles like a silver bell.  I envision her elfin face; eyes that dance with the excitement of being alive. Ears that ever so slightly move when she smiles. She is tall and willowy; strong and fragile at the same time.


When Abby and Gabe were little, they couldn’t wait to grow up. In their imaginary play, they were teenagers and adults. 


Not so with Elizabeth.  Although the battlefields of hospitals and exam rooms catapulted her into an adult world far too quickly, her response was to hold on to her childhood with both hands, willing life to slow down, so she too, could languish in carefree afternoons that only the young can afford.


She delights in play and mischief.  One day at the beach, goaded by her aunt, she swam underwater and grabbed the ankle of an unsuspecting stranger. 

“The poor woman could have had a heart attack!” I scolded. 

She could not hold back her laughter.  Neither could I. 


In the hospital when she was eight, she threw a rubber spider on the nurse who was changing the bed linens, evoking a scream and shaking hands.  She and one of her doctors snickered at their secret name for her stuffed animal- “Diarrhea Doggie.”


Nothing excited her more than a night time ride in the car, while wearing pajamas. I still see her sitting beside me, bundled up to keep warm, her skinny legs sticking out straight in front of her.  She would put her little hand on mine, to help me shift. 


She tells me her favorite memory is of sledding near our home with her brother.  Day had turned to night.  Everyone else had gone home and despite the warning of “Come home when the street lights come on,” they decided to make one last run on the moonlit path. Gabe stretched out on the sled first, Elizabeth on his back. They threw out their arms like wings on an airplane and soared to the bottom, cold and breathless.


Now she speaks to me of academia and dancing in pubs.  International travel and foreign study have given her confidence and sophistication.  I listen to stories of her professor, who smells of coffee and crumpets, of her travels to Bath, Stonehenge, and how she wept at the sight of the Magna Carta. 


“Momma, I miss you,” she says suddenly.  I reflect upon the child speaking from the mouth of the woman.  Like Christmas, the child arrives only at rare, fleeting moments.  Like Christmas, she comes with fanfare, spreading kindness, and warmth, and fun.  Like Christmas, it is the gift of herself that fills all who know her.


Hurry home, Christmas.  


“Mom, what are you doing for supper?”  It is my oldest daughter on the phone.  Abby.


I look at the sweet potato cooking in the microwave.  I’m already in my pajamas.  It’s been a long day.  The air has turned cold.  It’s dark outside.  I want nothing more than to hunker down, eat my potato and go to bed.


“Nothing,” I lie.  We make quick arrangements to meet for dinner. I toss the cooked sweet potato into the fridge, pull my clothes and shoes back on.


Later, over a glass of wine and a slice of pizza, she related the day’s events.  A disgruntled client.  Angry, insulting words in a language she doesn’t understand.  She’s frustrated and disillusioned.  And hurt.


 I look across the table at my daughter.  She looks like me except she has her father’s eyes.  They are huge, green-gray and smoky.  When she was little, she would crunch them closed and her lashes would protrude like straight sticks.  Her soul is revealed through those eyes.


She has my sense of social consciousness.  She is determined to rid the world of injustices.  Demonstrations with Invisible Children.http://www.invisiblechildren.com/displaceMe/   A trip to India with Faceless International. http://www.facelessinternational.com/  I am so proud of her I can burst. 


She purges her heart of its ills and as she talks, the venom is released and healing begins.  By the time dinner is over, she is refreshed. We window shop before leaving the mall, stopping to buy a Christmas candle- a symbol of the upcoming celebration of redemption, and renewal.  Like Abby’s heart.


How wonderful to not be sitting in my pajamas eating sweet potato.  How wonderful to share burdens and joys.  It is the difference between being alive and living.  Thank you, Abby.  My gift of hope.


I never really liked the idea of aging.  Some people think of creaking bones and sagging skin as badges of honor.  They talk about aging as “having arrived,” as if it were a destination we have longed to reach. I’m not so much of a fan.

One of the things I hate about aging is how-long-it-takes.  When I was in college, I could sleep until 7:30, jump out of bed, pull on jeans and a sweater, brush my teeth and sprint a third of a mile in time to make my eight o’clock class.

Now, at fifty-something, I have to be at work for eight o’clock, and I live about a third of a mile from work.  Theoretically, I should be able to sleep until 7:30.  However, that is not the case. In order to get there on time, I have to get up at five thirty. 

Why so early?  Well, first there is coffee.  I cannot find the shower unless I first have coffee.  I cannot make decisions unless I first have coffee.  I do not speak, stretch, or think without first having coffee.  Early morning coffee must be slowly sipped in front of the morning news.  There I can slowly pry my eyes open, listen to the young and perky anchor tell me what I missed during the night,  and consult with the weatherman about what I should wear to work.

Next, there is “hair-and-makeup.”  Although separate components of my morning routine, one of these does not exist without the other, thus they are not “hair” or “makeup” but are “hair-and-makeup.”  There is an exact science to “hair-and-makeup.”  First I have to put in my magnefying contact lens.   I have to do this because I cannot see to do “hair-and-makeup” without my contact. 

First is the natural mineral makeup.  Beautiful young women with flawless skin sell this stuff.  If I rub enough onto my face, the age spots that miraculously appeared after a day at the beach last summer fade and blend into a murky shadow. 

Next is mineral blush. If I do not wear this to work, people greet me with “What’s wrong?” instead of “Good morning.”  I suppose if I wanted to get sent home from work, I could omit the blush. People would say “What’s wrong?” and I could shake my head sadly and say I can’t talk about it. They would send me home.  Maybe I should try that.

When I was young, I had eyelashes.  I did not wear makeup because people could see my eyelashes.  Now, even with my contact in, I can see eyelash.  Not eyelashes.  Eyelash.  If I carefully crunch black eyeliner around my eye lash, it looks like I once again have eyelashes.  I coat the eyelash with mascara, brushing the wand around my eye area, hoping that it might find other eyelashes.  I am usually disappointed.

The final part of “makeup” is Mineral Veil.  It is supposed to hide fine lines and wrinkles.  I buff it on, hopefully.  I think perhaps it has to find the fine lines and wrinkles before it hides them, so I do not despair when more fine lines and wrinkles appear as I buff.  I finally give up and remove my contact.  Miraculously, the fine lines and wrinkles disappear. So does my eyelash.

“Hair” is next.  When I had my first daughter, I had hair to my waist.  However, I found that my hair usually smelled of animal crackers, drool and popsicle.  The daughter stayed, the hair had to go.  Twenty five years later, I went to a college reunion and people gasped, “Oh, you cut your hair!”  Who doesn’t cut her hair in twenty five years? 

Now my hair is short.  I like low maintenance hairdos because I spend so much time on the “makeup” portion of “hair-and-makeup.”  Usually things fall into place pretty well, but last Friday, a coworker told me that I had kind of a “chicken” effect going on. 

“Oh.  Must be static,” I said. 

“Wise guy.  Hope you go bald” I muttered under my breath. 

I usually do “hair-and-makeup” wearing earphones and listening to my Ipod.  I have to keep the volume up very loud to hear Jason Mraz over the hairdryer.  I dry my hair with my eyes closed and the volume up.  I am seventeen again.  My head bobs, my hips sway, my feet dance.

A banging, not quite in sync with the song disturbs me.  It is my son at the bathroom door. 

“You almost done?  I have to get ready for work” You’ve been in there forever.” he grins.

Rats. I am no longer seventeen.  My hips hurt from swaying and my feet creak as I step out of the bathroom and climb into a conservative suit and sensible shoes.  I have to rush now, because “how-long-it-took” is longer than I thought.  Oh well.  Let them wait.  I’ve earned it.


 I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my friend Mary today. We sang together in pubs and coffee houses during college during the 70s.  She was my suite mate- my first encounter after my father kissed me goodbye and left me standing alone in a barren dorm room.  While her mother sprayed everything in sight with Lysol, she introduced herself.  She had a warm smile and sparkling blue eyes.  She played guitar and she sang like an angel.  My harmonies blended with her melodies and our friendship was sealed forever.


Somehow, we lost touch after graduation.  Husbands, kids, jobs, dogs… the excuses were louder than the bidding to keep the friendship alive. Our paths briefly crossed once and then again diverged.  Another eight years passed and suddenly, there she was, a face on a website.  The same sparkling eyes. The same warm smile.


Emails ensued and the reunion planned.  I was terrified.  My voice has lost its elasticity, and my singing is now confined to the privacy of my car.  My once willowy frame now bulges from the ravages of pregnancy, childbirth, and too many cookies.  I have few credentials to boast- a salaried job, a sunny apartment, a blue sedan that bears the scars of teenagers learning to drive, a broken marriage.


But then, there she was, striding down the hall to my open door. With one embrace, thirty years disappeared and we were eighteen again.  We spent a delightful day, not talking about what we do, but sharing who we are. 


Friends don’t read your resume.  They don’t notice your gray hair.  They don’t care if the carpet is stained or the back seat of the car is covered with dog hairs.  Friends cup your chin when the water is rising over your head. They hold you tight when the storms of life blow so hard you think you cannot stay on your feet a moment longer.  They bring salve for your wounds, a blanket for the cold and a candle to carry you through until dawn.  They encourage you to forge forward, to redefine your life, to remember the things that are good. 


Welcome back, Mare. I’ve missed you.


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