three princesses and the ice queen

Driving north to see my grandpa two weeks ago, on what happened to be his final day, I asked myself why I was leaving work on a Monday morning to do this. Yes, that is how meager my relationship with my grandfather was – work did seem as important, if not more, than seeing him in the hospital.

By that night I understood why I had made the trip.

I did not drive north to take my grandfather’s enormous and soft 86 year old hand. That moment, while important to me, was not the meaning of the journey.

The meaning for me was that afternoon, while he was getting a tube inserted to drain blood from cavities of his body that should not be full of blood. The hospital room was empty of his bed. His wife and their three daughters, who are my grandma, mom and aunts, sat in a circle around the space his bed should be.

Grandma was falling apart during these long days sitting by his side, not caring for herself and in poor health as well. Amongst other more serious issues, she had a cold.

One of the three blond sisters sitting to my left asked whether it was time for more cold pills.

My grandma has mastered the Ice Queen/WASP act and her walls of frost rose before the question was completed.

The implication of her brusque answer was: Do not make me take more cold pills. I am ready to throw myself on the pyre when he dies.

The subtext with my grandma gets so thick sometimes it can freeze you in your tracks, preventing you from saying the perfectly normal things one would to dispel an uncomfortable situation.

So you shuffle off.

But that afternoon I witnessed what I consider to be a miracle. Instead of silencing her daughters, my grandma’s frosty response unintentionally made them… laugh. We were sitting around waiting for doctors to drain enough fluid off her husband to maybe, if we were really lucky, keep him alive long enough to go home. There was no hope past Let him die at home. He had kidney failure, blood in his lungs, and pneumonia. And she was mad that her daughters were urging her to take her decongestants?!

The relief in that brief group laugh probably added a few years to my lifespan.

The depressing afterward is three sisters reverting to old roles, played against each other by her refusal to communicate, her anger at being helped, her sheer brittleness of ego.

Who is Grandma talking to today? And who has she made feel like a bother?

I can’t go back in time and give my mother better parents. I can’t begin to explain to my grandma how she makes her “loved ones” feel. All I can do is tell the truth, which in this case, is that somehow, these three women decided what they wanted motherhood to look like in spite of their nearest example. I honor all three. And I wish, more than anything, that they could just one more time experience the delicious relief of laughing, together, at their all too powerful ice queen.

the fire pit

They sat in the sagging bellies of nylon folding lawn chairs. The sky behind them was blue-meets-black and before them the fire crackled orange and gold. Slumped, exhausted, hoodies from the garage over ruffles and thin tops, they gazed into those shifting flames.

Two sisters, now in the years where fifty meets sixty, and two silent husbands. Between them, where gazes met flame, were four decades of memories. Babies. Setting up first kitchens. Phone calls about Mom. Learning what marriage meant and how they would each cope with that.

Each carving out a role in the family – how she or he would each concede to the parental will, and when.

My grandpa is dead. He left a week ago. His body collapsed upon him and he slipped as gently as our modern medical system will let someone go, into that good night.

His wife was in the emergency room two days later and now snaps in response to questions – the dreary aftermath of loss. One sister is welcome and two are held this far away. The stresses of helping their mother build over their heads.

My mom and my aunt, my dad and my uncle, will sit around the fire, slowly drinking and smoking. Contemplatively. They will ponder the future of their mother and they will mark the passing of their father. It will not be a sentimental conversation. It will be oddly clear in spite of the smoke.

As a member of this clan, I believe that in the light of the fire pit, only truth is spoken. The truth may not be beautiful, and it may not be what Grandma would want to hear. But what happens here, in this quiet time, is a setting aside of the roles and the drama and the grandeur and the bullshit.

What happens here is simply four adults taking a moment, and a good long drag, to touch ground. They may not know it, but they are in the huddle.

So that, let it never be said, love tore them asunder.

Grandpa

My grandfather is a difficult man. He has expressed, over the years, hatred of every type of person from women (father of three daughters) to African Americans to homosexuals to Native Americans. The worst human being in his view is the liberal female politician, since she is crazy, stupid, and in power.

He’s always been cool with Martha Stewart, though.

He’s in his 80s and health issues start to pile up now. 6’4″ and hale for most of his life, working in construction since childhood, he’s only started to seem “old” in the past few years. His mom lived to 89 with a retiree’s diet of vodka, Twinkies and “Wheel of Fortune,” but he’s outlived both his father and brother by many years.

For a long time I had nothing left to say to my grandpa. I couldn’t forgive him, as an adult making my own way in a still-sexist world, for raising my mom and aunts to think they were useless girls.

I couldn’t forgive him for programming my brilliant mother to see herself as emotionally troublesome and useless outside the house.

Now, many years have passed and journeys taken. I don’t necessarily believe in forgiveness, especially towards someone who has never sought it from anyone in his life. This is not a post about how I can see the old guy’s point of view, generational differences, letting go of anger, blah blah blah.

I don’t have much emotion left, and I do not excuse a man of any generation for holding his daughter as lesser than a son.

But.

My grandpa’s having a tough go right now and I had to admit to myself that I do care. Here’s why.

He’s John Wayne.

I know that sounds like I’m romanticizing, but it’s true. He looks just like him. He hunts, builds, tilts his head to one side before making a joke. He has this restrained way of refusing to express an opinion, (assuming it’s about a subject close to home, and not Hillary Clinton).

He was still working on his own roof at, like, 70.

Maybe I’m still influenced by one time I was hanging out in his shop with him and a cousin. I was 9 or 10, and I heard him mutter a swear word – my grandparents don’t swear. Next thing I know Grandma is taking him to the hospital because he’s cut the tip of his finger off on his table saw.

Another fingertip went about fifteen years later. Context: He was 65, 70. I date men now who can’t go a week late on their haircut without complaining, and god forbid you need help with anything involving a drill.

I quote him when ranting about Seattle’s inability to deal with traffic and public transit issues.

I get the same pissed off, “Get off my property” rebellious anger when dealing with bureaucrats – they don’t teach you that in the postwar world. It is deep and it is genetic. A pacifist, I wonder sometimes at my quiet inclination to maybe, quietly, get some shooting lessons. Just in case.

Where does this come from? Many will say, attitude is not genetic, but they’ve found now that trauma impacts your DNA. Can roofing a house at 14 give you a feirceness you pass on, even if to a “dumb” granddaughter?

He does not see me as dumb. But I feel that if I had taken his opinions seriously, growing up, I would have been. I feel I had to make my capability a non-issue.

Maybe he’d say his dad made him feel the same way.

I’m trying, struggling, to express a true dichotomy. Is it love if someone is woven through you? Even if that person has, at best, come to respect you in your third decade because you gave him no option?

Even if, at best, he has forgotten how to hate and now just wants to chill the fuck out.

I have no words of redemption for my grandfather. But his ethos has influenced mine. Not the hate, but definitely the determination.

What can I say? John Wayne was beloved for a reason, Republican bastard though he was.

Maybe he’ll make 90 and I’ll read this to him.

Currygiving, or, fixing Thanksgiving

Last night I enjoyed a tasty slice (or three) of pizza at a local spot known for its arty, gourmet pizza combinations. I realized I was tense… but why?

Oh, right. Thanksgiving is two days away. I’m not even doing the whole Thanksgiving shebang this year, but just the angst of year after year of gunky food and bizarre family interaction has left me with a sort of mild turkey-induced PTSD.

If someone invented a holiday involving gorging oneself on sushi, I’d be an early adopter. I’d love to A/B test a holiday involving endless amounts of curry. Enchilada Day? I’m there, heap on that guac and let’s party!

As it stands, it’s a foodie’s nightmare. Turkey is the meat most well-known for its chemical propensity to put you to sleep. Stuffing is made of stale bread crumbs. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce? Bland, smooth, gelatinous. This is food for people who have lost their teeth and have to gum their way to nourishment.

As for the day itself? Let’s play this out, pretending you’re a single thirty-something like myself or half my friends.

It hasn’t even started yet and you’re already stressing.

You stare at the closet, wondering what to wear. It has to be ironed so you don’t scare Grandma (Oh dear, look at that crease, she must be unemployed again). That’s the older generation covered, but what about the younger? There will be forty-two small children running around, the offspring of various spouses and cousins you can no longer track without some kind of GPS-enabled app. This means your ensemble has to allow for the “magical” moment when you kneel to “bond” with the seven year old who has pumpkin goo in her hair and wants you to experience the awesomeness of her latest iPad game.

The fashion criteria so far is smooth yet kneel-able (it’s a word now). Just when you think you’ve nailed it, grabbing that pink blouse you hate and the skirt with the elastic waistband, you remember this a holiday about eating. You may hate all the food, but admit it, gorging will ensue. You’d better reach further back into the closet for the skirt that not only has the elastic waistband but is also very stretchy… everywhere.

Okay, good start. But you slump as you don this outfit. You are single on Thanksgiving. You’re wearing the Mom Outfit, with the safe earrings, and the we-might-play-touch-football loafers…

God, is there anyone you don’t have to please on this holiday? This is what made Hillary Clinton such a train wreck.


– too soon?

…and the super-stretchy formless skirt. You’re dressed like a mom. But you won’t have the joyous, warm, rewarding experience of driving home afterward with your children and your exhausted but sympathetic husband, all of you bitching the entire way about how crazy everyone was and all the shockingly horrid things Uncle Fred said.

At least that might offer catharsis.

What you’ll have is coming home to the cats. Let’s be honest. You’ll start peeling your Church Lady outfit as you walk through the door. You’ll beeline it past your furry roommates for whatever cupboard you stash the liquor in. You’ll start to look for a highball, and then give up and pour the cocktail in a nearby juice glass. Downing it, you’ll glare at the birthday card on the fridge. The birthday card from one of these relatives. The card is covered in flowers, false sentiment, and now, the memory of that relative stuffing turkey in her face while espousing the need to kill everyone who ever lived in, visited or even bought online from a Middle Eastern country.

Your cats watch you drink long and alone. Carrying the second round and continuing your de-clothing, you walk to the bathroom and wipe off the eight pounds of makeup you put on to compete with the anorexic cousin who always makes you feel like you’re still an overweight, pimply fourteen year old.

Exhale. It is over.

Finally, free of the Mom Outfit, you carry your cocktail into the bedroom. The cats are waiting for you, stretched comfortably at their appointed corners of the bed. You climb in to join them, lift the remote, and turn on some old sitcom. Because, at the end of a day like this, that’s all you’ve got left. Just: where do I drop my earrings… move your furry paw out of my face… remember to buy more orange bitters… zzzz.

In my mind’s eye, I can see indigenous people introducing us to a new land. In my mind’s eye, we take the cornucopia from these people, and then… we hand it back.

Here. It worked for you. Thank you so much, but keep this. Keep this for you. We’re going to invent something that works for us. A holiday that doesn’t involve stealing your bounty, land, and life.


A holiday that with all due respect doesn’t involve THE MOST BORING FOOD ON THE PLANET.

We may, as family, be stuck with each other. That fact may even be worth celebrating. But does it have to be doused in yams?

We’re going to invent a holiday that includes being honest with each other without judgment or anger. A day without Mom Outfits, even – especially – for moms. A day when nieces and nephews wipe the pumpkin goo from their hair, just for the bitchy aunt who lives alone with her cats.

And goddammit, a holiday based, even if I die fighting for it, on curry.

hamster, interrupted.

In the winter of 2007 I worked for an eccentric entrepreneur in Brooklyn. He had a window and door business that was faltering while he devoted all his resources to inventing a series of ingredients to create a fireproof elevator. On my first day, his CFO bought me coffee and told me they couldn’t afford to pay me. Yet they did find enough money to pay me, weekly, in cash. Among other things I was tasked with wading through a year and half’s worth of paperwork for unpaid city, state and federal taxes.

There was a hamster in a little plastic cage near my desk that was the fire test hamster. They’d put him in a box lined with the fireproof material they were developing and film him while holding a blow torch to the box. I felt about as secure as that hamster. It had taken me months to find someone who would hire me, a nanny in New Jersey with little work experience. I hated the idea of having to move back to Oregon. Yet I was working for a farting little sexual harasser who hardly seemed charismatic, confidence-inspiring or sane enough to get the funding it would take to keep us all employed.

My mom, on the phone from Oregon, gently suggested, “What if you. . . put your worries in a box? Just for a month.” I don’t remember if she meant literally or metaphorically but the phrase “put your worries in a box” stuck in my head. I wrote every single thing I was afraid of on a piece of paper, put the piece of paper in a box, and left the box in my chilly Hoboken windowsill.

To my surprise, it worked. Writing down my fears let me forget them. I still wound up taking another job, but I had just enough calmness to do so because my worries were in that box.

For the past several months I’ve had fears about my parents’ relationship that are based on events I wrote about quite a bit on this blog. They’ve been back together now for three years, and for two years I’ve been a part of their together-life. You’d think I’d feel pretty secure about our family unit. But for some reason, fear has snowballed.

Because I’m an intuitive person, it’s taken me a long time to realize that these feelings may not be hunches. They may just be fear. Groundless, unsubstantiated, pointless fear.

Last week on Valentine’s Day my good friend Kirby texted me. I was eating dinner, feeling calm about being alone on this particular day. But the minute he texted, I realized I was not okay. My response to him was innocuous but he knows me so well that he knew I was melting down before the second tear had fallen. He called me, assuring me that I’m like a bundt cake in the oven, just not done yet.

“It’s not me,” I cried. “It’s my parents.”

I’ve known him for a year and a half and had never told him the complete sequence of events that is documented here for any stranger to read: being in England and in love when I find out my parents’ marriage has collapsed. Having to fly home to help my grief-stricken mom. My relationship with my dad crumbling to nonexistence. Having to let go of the man in England. A year in Buffalo with my mom and brother trekking through the snow, drinking brass monkeys, watching “Lost” and wondering what the hell was going on.

I don’t talk about it now because it’s exhausting and sad and a long story and it shouldn’t matter anymore. Besides, no one in the Northwest knows what a brass monkey is.

I realized while talking to Kirby that night that it does still matter. I’ve been holding my breath for three years. I’ve dated and said I love you and been held and had my heart broken but nothing, no one, was going to keep me. No one. Ironically, it hasn’t been fear that I might be cheated on. I’m just afraid that I’ll be with “the one” when my parents turn everything upside down, including whatever I’m doing and whoever I’m with and whatever love I’m in.

The thing about fear, and I was just ranting to my cousin about this the other day, is that we think we should fear the things we know about. For instance if you hear about a plane crash, you may develop a fear of flying. But you didn’t fear flying before the plane crash and you still survived your last flight. Were you safe then because you didn’t know planes could crash? No. You were safe then for the same reason you’d be safe flying now–planes can crash, but most of the time they don’t.

It’s very difficult to live with the idea that the monsters you know about, and the ones you don’t, are equally dangerous to you. Yet coming to terms with that is freeing because you realize there’s no point in fearing either type of monster anymore. In effect all the worries go in the box because they’re equally pointless.

When all this happened back in 2008 I was flying by the seat of my pants. I was earning seventy pounds a week looking after toddlers (who were adorable) riding a bus every weekend to meet a man I could only have spent a few more months with, anyway. I know, rationally, that my choices landed me in Buffalo as much as my parents’ choices did. I know that what happened then would not happen now. I’m living a stable life, and my parents are more honest with each other and with themselves.

It’s just that now I know about a type of monster I hadn’t met before. The better my life gets, the more I assume that monster will pop out again to shock me.

Fear is talented, and clever, and tricky. It can change shape, it can hide whistling in the corner, and it can kill you. “Because you’re going to die,” my therapist said the other day, causing a waterfall of tears. He meant, life is short. But I heard it in the hollow places in my heart: because life like this is death.

Refusing to let my emotional life move forward, refusing to love someone for fear I’ll be interrupted? Stupid, sad way to live. And when you compare it to what other people go through every day, it’s a weak way to live.

Giving in to fear is weak. But writing this makes me realize what it will take to put it away in that box. People who care about me keep assuring me that my parents will be fine and that even if they’re not, it won’t alter my life the way it did. Those sorts of sentences go in one ear and out the other. I should have told them what I once told a boyfriend: never tell a depressive that it’s all going to be okay. I have to be able to accept the worst case scenario.

There is always something that could turn my life upside down. Or yours. Yet we go on. Why? Not because we forget that it could all go to hell in a second.

We keep going because it’s still all worth it. Even coming home from my underpaid job at a nonprofit in a dimly lit room in downtown Buffalo to find my mom sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke at our little kitchen table crying because she had just realized something new about my dad. . . even as sad for her I as I was, and as confused as I was about the crazy path my life had taken, and as bad as I felt for my brother having to share in our emotion-drenched days, we were together. And we still are. Somehow, after England and Buffalo and New York and Toronto and all the crazy places we cast ourselves, and all the mean emails, and all the confusion, and all the tears, we’re all (mostly, awaiting my brother and his girlfriend in Boston) here. Stronger. Happier. Closer.

I don’t know how. It’s the definition of counter-intuitive. But we are: stronger, happier and closer.

I am stronger and happier. It made me a person I liked instead of a person I considered weak.

As much as we try to avoid what scares us to death, we get out of bed each day so that one of those monsters can leap out of the closet and yell, “Hey! You’re going to die! In the grossest, most painful way!”

We know that every time we face one of those bad boys down, life tastes that much sweeter.

I’m not going to get to know someone telling myself the entire time that it will all be fine. I’m going to do it fully aware that it could all go totally and hideously wrong and adultery and insults and theft and disease and freak snowstorms and really disappointing Carrie Underwood songs could all ensue.

Hell will break loose.

Thusly, like that hamster, do I walk into the fire with a silky coat and a happy step. Because, hey. Maybe what emerges really will be fireproof.

already gone.

I’m packing for my twenty-eighth move in thirty-one years, and as you can probably imagine, that’s stirring up all kinda associations. Sugarland is playing “Already Gone,” which sums up how I feel as I tape these boxes. Have you ever had that feeling where you’re getting ready to leave a situation, place or person and you realize that you already left a long time ago? That’s how I’m feeling now.

When my great-grandma died at the ripe old age of eighty-nine, I cried, not for her passing, but for the grandma of my childhood ten years before. I cried for a woman still engaged enough with the world to make jokes with her granddaughter and drive to Golden Gardens to sit and watch the waves lap against the beach. By the time she died, my great-grandma had let her brain meld with the television and a glass of spiked OJ by her chair. Her final years hadn’t involved a whole lot of living. But there was a woman of verve and sarcasm in my memory, who now could never be brought back even for a minute. The grandmother who my mom had dearly loved for her generosity and Swedish pancakes, fifty years before.

The world lost an interesting woman when my great-grandma died, but when she died, she was already gone. Does that make sense? That’s a dramatic example of how I feel now. I realized months ago that I wasn’t participating in the area where I live (a suburban city north of Seattle) and have just been coasting in and out of this parking space ever since, trying to figure out where to go next. I’ve continued to live here, but I’m already gone.

Even if I loved this place, I’ve moved so many times, there is no shock for me in the act of taking carefully hung prints down from the walls, or packing up my cookbooks. It’s not difficult to prioritize what to pack now versus what to keep out till the last minute. Taping up a box and briefly inventorying what’s inside it, with a Sharpie of course, hardly even takes conscious thought anymore.

Even the known risk that I may not pack something well enough to survive a short journey is something I simply accept. For instance, I have a ceramic hand from my great-grandma. She always kept it on her dresser, draped with bracelets and rings. When I was asked what I might want of Grandma’s to remember her by, I instantly asked for the hand. I always thought it was one of the prettiest things in her house, a leftover from a postwar married life, a bit of Grandma’s femininity still left.

The hand has had its finger broken twice now as its journey across Washington state, and then across the country and back. But I still use it to hold bracelets, and dammit I will till every finger on it can’t be glued on straight.

Tonight I also packed a newer, orange translucent plastic hand from the seventies, that I bought at fourteen in Anchorage. I packed a pair of old dictionaries that I found at a garage sale this summer with my mom. They had neatly replaced the identical pair that was lost in the mail when I shipped stuff across the country to live as a nanny in New Jersey seven years ago. I packed a specific brand of vanilla-lavender candle that I learned can make any place smell not only homey, but sexy, when I bought one in Buffalo and brought it with me to Austin, Texas.

Wrapping up these items in paper is like fondling a layered timeline, each step leading to another step, but sometimes skipping one. A friend in England led me to Austin, but first I had to live in Buffalo. I have been “already gone” many times before, and just as often, I’ve been totally shocked to have to move. Along the way I’ve gathered this odd assortment of books, knick-knacks and trinkets that remind me of who I love. . . and how little it takes to make a home.

Tonight, my sixteen year old cat is asleep on one of the boxes, and the rabbit has settled down on his blanket after hopping around sniffing them while I packed. She likes things tidy, as all cats do, while he loves chewable chaos. These two critters are also part of my story as a nomad, and as someone who has learned to make a home for herself. When I moved into this apartment a year and a half ago, I was heartbroken and staggering out of an amazing but exhausting five years that had always seen me living with roommates or family. I had lived with strangers friendly and unfriendly, men and women, my mom and brother, families I nannied for, all with relative aplomb. The idea of living alone with my romantic grief, however, terrified me.

I had the bunny when I moved in, and the cat joined us as a more vocal companion a few months later.

The rituals that you develop to live alone happily may be the most important you ever have the privilege to experience. I will never put down the year and a half that I spent here, even if by now, I am more than ready to leave this neighborhood and apartment complex. We all want to know love and companionship, but if I had known last winter how I would feel today about my life as a bachelorette, I would have signed the lease with a much lighter heart than I did.

It’s important to know the luxury of leaving your shoes scattered around the front door without anyone to get frustrated with you for it.

It’s important to know the joy of cooking dinner when you get home from work: turning on the stove, chopping onion, browning mushrooms, pouring a glass of wine as the water comes to a boil. Just you and the heat from the stove and something on the radio: calm.

It’s important to know your apartment or house has become an extension of yourself through the funky artwork you’ve hung on the walls. . . artwork that you like.

My great-grandma was the only other female in my family who lived alone for more than a year. She lost her husband long, long ago and lived my entire lifetime in a brick house by herself with her cats in Ballard. I have no idea whether she missed him or what she felt about the boyfriend she had later in life. I just know that house was more her, with her windowsill full of cat figurines and a hutch full of tacky collectible plates, than many houses occupied by couples. I’m not trying to make a couples vs singles argument, I just wish that I had the chance to ask her what she considered the pros and cons of living alone. I wish I had even remembered that she had lived alone, when I signed this lease. At the time, I felt like an unhappy pioneer with a desolate heart and few examples of other women, in my family or out of it, who would have to decide whether or not she felt safe enough to leave the windows open on a hot summer night when she went to bed.

I had a lover this summer who waved his hand when I asked if he had locked the door when he came in—or even closed it, we were inclined to get distracted—”Let them come in,” he said, flopping into bed, “I’ll beat the crap out of them. . . or kill them.”

I laid down next to him thinking, Geez, you could, too. That would be nice to have around. Just a few months before, I had had to intentionally choose to ignore the presence of the two sex offenders who had moved in earlier that year (they each left after a few weeks). I chose not to buy the mace spray or get home early, because I hadn’t wanted fear to cripple my enjoyment of life. Still, it had been hard to do, and having a big husky boy around the house was pretty damn comforting.

As an adult considering this ten years after her death, I have no idea if my grandma would have considered herself happily single, or if she simply accepted widowhood. And I don’t know if I’d point to the year and a half I’ve lived here as an example of swinging singlehood. But I think it’s groovy that a woman born in 1910 is my best familial role model for living alone as a woman, and funny that it only just now occurred to me. Are you less a feminist for accepting your fate instead of consciously choosing it? Don’t think so.

My grandma liked to leave a bowl of marshmallows on the table to grow stale because she preferred them that way, and I get that pleasure—doing whatever silly thing you want without getting harassed for it (except from company).

When it comes to singles and couples, intentional or no, I don’t think there’s a better or a worse way to live. I do think it’s good to know you can do solo. It’s good to be able to housekeep when you get out of the shower naked at eleven o’clock at night, and it’s good to put whatever the hell music you want on a Sunday afternoon.

These things are good because they remind us that whatever else may be happening in our lives, we can still bring ourselves joy with the simplest act of cracking an egg into a frying pan or putting on a Sugarland CD. Male or female, married or divorced, red roses or dandelions, we all need to know that life fucking goes on. Sometimes the only way to do that, as I’ve learned since moving into this apartment last spring, is to spread your shoes out around the front door and wait for someone to complain.

When they don’t, you sigh with satisfaction and pet the cat.

I’m already gone, but I am not writing off this year and a half. It’s been quiet, compared to the years before it. But it has filled up holes in my heart. Considering all this, I think the best housewarming party I could have at my next place is a Swedish pancake breakfast. Let me know if you want to come, and I’ll clear a path through the shoes.