Friday, February 5, 2016

Keep Your Rope Taut

My mom doesn't like water.  As a kid I have no memory of her getting into a pool or lake with us.  Sweating and miserable in the blistering heat of her least favorite season, she would sit on the edge of the neighbor's pool and put no more than her feet in to cool off.  Her showers are legendary in their briefness. "I only let the water splash my face," she says as if we all wanted tips on ways to make a shower last no longer than five minutes.

What is also legendary about her aquatic history is how she got up on water skis the very first time, went around the circumference of a lake and never fell in.

Whenever the story comes up we are all amazed.  "Mom, do you have any idea how hard it is to get up on skis the first time?  It's almost impossible," we always tell her.

"What can I say," she says as nonchalantly as what Esther Williams might have said about synchronizing her way around a pool with a fruit bowl on her head.  "I didn't know how to swim.  I wasn't about to fall into that lake."


In the throes of a nasty political season that has a year to go, and the waning days of The Dismal Season, it seems like everyone I know is either depressed, tired, frustrated, sick, or utterly bored.  Even the Super Bowl isn't generating much enthusiasm. 

Coldplay?  Okay, I guess...... but then what?

Valentine's Day?  The new year awkwardly lurches from dismal to rosy disappointment, and without more than a dusting of snow around here there isn't even a blanket to cover up the gray.  Bare trees, bare, grass, bare gardens.  If it were possible to buy my way out of this grayness I would but that requires effort and that's as well hidden as the sun. 

What would I buy anyhow? 

I bought some fabric.  2.5 yards which is probably 1.5 more than I need but I didn't want to be short and have to go out in the cold again.  I'm going to recover the seat of the wicker bench that's on the back porch.  It will be navy this year and I may sew some new pillows.  Lots of color is about to go out there.  Vibrant, in-your-face color.  Our dinners will be on the little bistro set and when it gets dark I'll turn on the garden lights tucked into the eaves.  The crab sign will remind us of Maryland and Mark and I will talk for the thousandth time about The Crab Shack - the hole in the wall restaurant we could walk to from our townhouse.  We will pine for brown paper tablecloths, little mallets and salty air. 

Until then my twelve dollar purchase and a new project is the reward for keeping my rope taut for awhile longer.   I don't know how to swim in the waning days of winter and I don't care to learn.  

And falling in isn't an option.

Monday, January 25, 2016

We Can't Have Anything Nice Around Here

When we were younger my mom had a plant that was her pride and joy.  I don't know who bequeathed it to her but it started out as a log a couple of inches long.  It seemed like forever before a little sprout emerged and when it did Mom made us all look at it. 

She took care of that thing like it was her 7th child.

It would take years until it looked like an actual plant, and if company came over and remarked about the small tree in the corner, Mom would spread her thumb and finger an inch apart and say, "I'm telling you it was no bigger than this when it started out.  Isn't that right, kids"?  And we would nod and agree for we daily observed its emergence and growth.  Our Mom was the plant log doula.

My brothers liked to play hockey in the family room.  They'd cut their sticks down and wrap the ends in tape, kneel on the floor and then whack a tennis ball back and forth between some nets that they had fashioned.

Mom and Dad weren't fond of this activity because it left black marks all over the tile from the taped-up sticks.  They also weren't fond of their kids nagging them to eat dinner so when Dad got home and was enjoying the paper and a glass of wine with Mom in the front of the house, the boys grabbed their sawed off sticks and started playing hockey in the back of the house until it was time to eat.

One day they had a wild game going when one of them whacked the tennis ball and it sailed right into Mom's plant and broke it.  A sickening hush fell over the family room. We all stared at Mom's plant broken in half like it had just been assassinated.

"Why didn't you stop it???!!!" Terry yelled at Jim.

"Why did you hit it so hard??!!!" Jim yelled at Terry.

"You guys are in so much trouble," I said with glee.

There was some debating and propping and trying to make it look better but there was nothing that could be done.  The plant that had started years ago as a tiny log was kaput.

The boys went into the living room to tell Mom.  I went along to see the show and to be the witness to the day that they were given up for adoption.  Dad's face turned red which was never a good sign.  He and Mom got up to look, the boys following with their heads down like some two-bit crooks busted for knocking over little, old ladies to steal their purses. I imagined how sweet my life was about to be in the big bedroom once the brothers were finally sent off to a new family. 

When Mom could talk (and it was a scary long while before she could) she said the thing that millions of moms have said millions of time, "I guess we just can't have anything nice around here."


We replaced our couch a couple of weeks ago.  Nice things and brothers do not go together.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Ice Rink

I was #4 in a family of six kids - the first girl after three boys born thirteen months apart. A sister would follow me thirteen months later and then another nine years after that. Our house was small.  A slab home on the outskirts of Chicago, it had a bath and a half and three bedrooms. Eventually my dad added on a kitchen (turning the old one into our dining room), a family room, and another bedroom in the back of the house for the boys.

There was no basement and there wasn't an upstairs.  There was no escaping all those people in that small house except to go outside which is where we kids spent most of our time.  Even in the frigid winter temps of Chicago, we would go to the outdoor ice rink six blocks away.  There were two rinks that the fire department would flood in the park every season - one for the hockey players and the other for the recreational skaters.  We would come home from school, get something to eat, change into our layers, grab our skates and head to the ice rink.  We would usually skate until dark, and with frozen feet stuffed into our boots, take shuffling, painful steps all the way home and devour dinner. This was our routine nearly every day in the winter.

The boys often stayed later than us.  With all their gear on and working up a sweat playing hockey, the cold didn't bother them as much as it did my sister and me.  As was typical of that time, kids wandering home in the dark by themselves didn't seem to cause any alarm.  Not for my sister and I and our friends whose ice cubed feet couldn't run from a kidnapper if we tried, not the boys who felt no inclination to leave their game early to protect us from the Boogie Man lurking about, or our mother who loved nothing more than to make dinner in peace and quiet and have it ready by the time we walked in the door.

One year during an unseasonably warm stretch of winter weather with heavy downpours, our backyard along with all of our surrounding neighbors, flooded.  This caused Dad all kinds of worry, mostly because he foresaw a mud pit come spring instead of a sprouting green lawn.  But as the luck of the Chicago Irish would have it, the temps plunged and our flooded backyard became a sheet of ice.

A sheet of skating ice.

Now instead of trekking back and forth to the park with our skates in tow, we need only walk out the back door to the most glorious thing that could have ever happened to us - our very own ice rink. Dad didn't seem to be a fan of this skating rink that Mother Nature had created, and, Mom, well Mom wanted her brood outside, and even if it wasn't as far away as she would have liked at least it was guaranteed to wear us out.

The boys rigged up some hockey nets and did their usual reenactments of a Black Hawks game. My sister and I swirled around the brick bird bath, the swing set and every tree in the yard.  It wasn't the best rink we'd ever skated on - you had to watch for frozen sticks jutting out and uneven ice - but it sure beat hobbling six blocks home in the dark.

One afternoon my sister and I were in the backyard skating by ourselves as the sun was setting when some kid showed up and started skating on our rink.  My sister told him to get lost.  He told her to get lost. This went back and forth for a few minutes until he said, "I don't have to you little bitch," and picked up a stick and threw it at her.  It hit her in face and cut her cheekbone.  She started wailing, the kid took off like a speed skater in the Olympics, and I went running into the house, skates and all, to report the crime to my mom.

"Who was it???" she yelled.  "Who did this to her???!!"

I had no idea.  I'd never seen the kid before.  All I knew was that my sister was bleeding and had just been called a bitch.  Whatever that was....

My brother, Tom, laced up his hockey skates and went flying down the icy backyards, chasing the perp through the frozen tundra until he ran out of icy yards to skate through.  Out in the dark it seemed like he was gone forever and we started to worry that this hooligan, intruding skater had done something to him too. When he finally returned he did a sharp hockey stop causing ice to spray up from his skates.

"Did you get him, Tom?  Did you beat him up, Tom, and make him pay for what he did to Jean?"

"I took care of it," was all he said and I didn't see much cause to worry about a Boogie Man after that.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Sofa That Was Stolen From Me

A few months ago I went to an estate sale and looked at a dresser in the basement.  I loved it.  It was small enough to fit a still undetermined space in my house.  It was older than me.  The drawers opened and closed.  It was $60.00 - very much in my price range.


I was shopping on a broken foot.  I hobbled to the basement to find this gem in a forlorn corner as if the angels had shined a light for me to find it in my handicapped state.  The sale had just started and things were busy.  Who would haul it upstairs for me?  Where was my sherpa?  The women running the sale didn’t look much better than me as far as mobility and so I decided to walk away.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about that dresser and so on Saturday morning I went back to see if it was still there.  Oh my goodness, it was marked down to $25.00 and moved to the garage!!!  I found the woman running the sale and said I WANT THAT I MUST HAVE THAT I DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY ON ME BUT I WILL RUN TO THE BANK AND BE BACK IN FIVE MINUTES PLEASE HOLD IT FOR ME.  And she did.  

“It was my grandmother’s,” she told me.  “I’ve really debated on whether or not to sell it.”

“Well, if it’s sentimental…” I said.

“It is but I can’t keep everything,” she lamented.

I went to the ATM and returned with my money and as luck would have it there was a dolly right there to load it up and roll to the car. It was meant to be for me.  As I was doing that the family gathered around me.

“She’s taking Grandma’s dresser?”

“What?  Oh no.  Why are you selling that?"

“It’s okay.”

“Helen, she’s taking Grandma’s dresser.  Helen, come look.”

“Why is she taking Grandma’s dresser?”

“I would have bought that for myself if I knew that was all you were going to ask for it.”

Finally, I said, “Just to be clear I paid for Grandma’s dresser.”  And still they all looked at me like I was a thief.


The store I have been working at sells furniture - expensive furniture that is out of my price range even with a discount, but one day I noticed a love seat parked in the blue room.  It was a misorder selling for a bargain basement price.  I fell in love.  It was sexy-metro-gray and the fact that it was armless and not conducive to napping didn't stop me.  I COULD AFFORD IT!!!!!

I snapped a pic with my cellphone and sent it to my designer kid.  He texted back, "Not a fan of armless sofas."

What was that attitude about?

A designer happened by just then and so I asked his opinion on the sexy-metro-gray-armless wonder.  "I like it. Very urban and loft feeling but you'll need to flank it with some end tables."

I didn't have any of those but how much could that be?

I shared my impending purchase with my coworkers and they were in agreement.  "You should buy that," they said in unison which is why I love them.  They always encourage the buy.

My neighbor came in and I showed her.  "Gah, it's on casters!!  You can move it anywhere. If you don't buy it I will."

Then I knew I had to get it because if I walked into her living room and saw my sofa in her house I might accidentally drop a glass of red wine on it in a fit of envy.

"Pull the trigger," Mark said when I showed him the picture which totally threw me for a loop because he never says that.

I figured out the total with tax and geez, that tax thing always trips me up and so I deliberated awhile longer on the sofa with no arms.

One day I asked the owner if I could buy it and keep it at the store until after Christmas and he told me I was a pain in the ass (which I am) but it was fine with him.  I could already see the entertaining we would be doing with Sexy Gray Metro in the living room. The modern vibe that it would set for our future.  This sofa was going to make us hip.

I came into work the next day and one of my coworkers said, "You better get downstairs. Some customer is looking at your sofa and seems really interested."

"Nononono," I said flying on my broom to see for myself.  Sure enough there was the manager working it like a boss and selling the sofa I couldn't commit to right out from under me.

"I'll go home and measure to be sure and call you back within the hour," the customer said. 

Who are these people that can decide things in an hour??

She called back as promised and sealed the deal over the phone with a credit card.

I was heartbroken.  I let Sexy Gray Metro slip through my hands, only to be stuck with the same sofa I've had for twenty years.  My bulky, overweight, tired-looking sofa.  

The one that looks a lot like me lately.

Later that day two younger women stopped in the store and wandered over to the sofa that had been stolen from me just a few hours before.

"Oh my gosh, I love this," one of them said.  

"I know, but unfortunately it sold earlier today," I said choking on the information.

"Too bad," she said.  "This sofa is hot."

"You're telling me," I said.

Sexy Gray Metro was the dream that came crashing down that day.  In another hour I'd be walking back into the living room of my reality.  A marriage between a fat sofa and grandma's beloved dresser.  

Monday, December 21, 2015


My two-job gig is winding down and I have some mixed emotions about that.  I have loved working at the store but it is grueling for my 50+ legs and the pay is one grade above crappy.  Through these last few months, though, I have met some lovely people and I will miss them a lot.

All of us working there are so tired.  The pace has been relentless and while that is fabulous for business it feels like Groundhog Day every single morning.  The vacuum comes out, the candles get lit, the Christmas music comes on, the glass is cleaned, the bags and tissue get restocked, the door gets unlocked, and then jingle jangles open a hundred times an hour.  Every single day.

This morning before the day started the manager gave me a card and note and I got a little weepy and then she got a little weepy.  I adore her.  She is the ying to the owner's yang.  She is steady and funny and thoughtful.  She is kind.

"I cry all the time lately," she said.

"Me too," I said.  "Yesterday we were opening gifts before Maggie and Nate left town and I could barely talk.  Then Will said that next year they'll be a baby in the house and he started crying and Maggie started crying."

And I started crying when I was telling her the story.

"What is wrong with us?"

"It's all so fragile," I said.  "We all know that especially this time of the year, and yet the background noise of our times is meanness.  It's wearing me down."

"I watched my nephew this weekend," she said.  "I was so tired that as soon as we got on the couch to watch a movie I started to fall asleep.  I had all these fun things planned and I kept dozing off.  When I laid down with him at bedtime to read him a story I told him I was sorry that I fell asleep."

"That's okay, he said to me.  You didn't do anything wrong."

She cried.  I cried.  Then we finished our vacuuming.  Another day of selling was minutes away and there were a few things left to do.

Rest will come soon and I will take the word of a little boy that it is okay.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Bon Courage

Last Saturday I attended a memorial service for the spouse of a retired colleague of Mark's.  They were favorites of ours and at every social event within the department and med center we would sit with them.  They were both avid cyclists as well as avid believers in doing their part in the name of social justice - touring the world by bike or working for Habitat for Humanity.

Caroline came home from a meeting on the East Coast this summer where she got to bike for days - the last 200 hundred miles by herself.  Upon her return she went to the doctor for stomach pain and was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.  Mark first heard via email and then she began a Caring Bridge page that she updated occasionally.  There weren't very many entries of hers before her husband took over and three months later she died.

We live on a corner house that is the route for many biking groups in town and they would often ride past our house. If we were out in the yard they would stop and talk before making their way home. This sudden illness of Caroline's and seemingly quick death left us stunned.  It is hard to imagine any healthier, more vibrant people than the two of them.

Mark had an all-day conference that day and couldn't attend the service.  I had to work as well but negotiated my hours so I could come in a little later.  I sat with another faculty spouse in that packed church and wondered if Caroline had any idea how many people she touched.  I wondered if any of us know that when we go about our life.

Like everything these days, even my attempt at paying my respects was half-ass.  I couldn't stay until the end as I was already an hour late to being an hour late to work.  I couldn't talk to George, couldn't meet the grown kids I'd heard them talk about for more than twenty years, couldn't meet the sister from Indiana or the middle-school geography teachers that Caroline worked with for decades.  Before this final send-off for Caroline I had to get up and leave.

As soon as I walked out of the church I started crying.  For Caroline, for George, for their kids, for work commitments that were getting in the way of something more important.

For Paris.

I drove to work, clocked in, and waited on customers in my standard funeral dress - quite overdressed for the rest of my day.  Melancholy seemed to seep out of me even though the store was so packed I barely had a minute to think about anything but the next person in line.

One after another I wrote up tickets and sent people on their way with ornaments and garland and reindeer pillows and candles that smell like Christmas.  As I was writing up a ticket for one woman she asked me if I was okay.

"Yes, I'm fine.  Just a little overwhelmed at the moment."

"I can see why.  It's so busy here today but I do hope you've checked on your suppliers to see if they are okay."

"Our suppliers?"

"Yes, your suppliers in France.  Has somebody checked on them to make sure they're okay after last night?"

"I don't know.  I think so," I said - not having the heart to say that the store she was in with the very French name on the outside gets nearly everything from China.

"It's so terrible, isn't it?  I can't imagine....," she said and my eyes welled up with tears for a place that is an unchecked dream on my bucket list.

I wrapped her ornaments and handed her bag to her.

She patted my hand.

"We'll be okay," she whispered and that was the first thing I believed in all day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Seeds of Gratitude

I started two blog posts and ended up deleting them.  They both had something in common.

They sucked.

One of them was done and after lots of editing I still didn't know what the point was that I was trying to make except that Christie Brinkley only looks good at sixty because she's had *work* done. And besides being bitchy it was uninteresting.

So this post is going to be shortish and newsy.

*I finally landed a job.  Thank you Universe.  That last interview was the one that finally clicked and I will be working with college students and finances for their organizations.  It was the third time I tried to get a job in this school and I think I landed in a good department.  The interview wasn't easy but I had the overwhelming feeling throughout it that they were pulling for me which I took as a sign that it was the right place for me.

*But I already had a job.  I started working in a home decor store in September that I have shopped at for years.  It is all kinds of inspiring and a fantastic creative outlet for me as they let me do a lot of display work.  Each job knows about the other and they have both been accommodating.  However, from now until the end of the year I will be working six days a week.  Not sure how that's going to look as I'm just now in week one but I've managed to make the bed before I go and dinner when I've gotten home.  That. Will. Not. Last.

*I will be a producer for the Listen To Your Mother show in Kansas City in 2016.  LTYM is so near and dear to my heart that when the opportunity came up I thought about it for all of five minutes and said "yes".  It is such a leap from my comfort zone that thinking about it for any length of time gives me the vapors.  The chance to be the sherpa for the stories of mothers/mothering/motherhood for others, though, was too good of an opportunity to pass up and so I'll carry a paper bag with me to breathe into and bring this to fruition with my partner.

*My blog reached 100,000 hits.  This took nearly five years which was not in the original plan.  By now I should have been a household name in blogland but instead I am more like the little engine that could. What was the purpose and always in the plan was to become a better writer and I can look back at those early postings and see how far I've come.  For awhile there were soaring numbers on the weekends and I was elated. That only lasted until I realized that all those hits came from Russia, so without the attempted hackers I'm probably more at 85K.

*A couple of months ago Maggie and Nate came over with some seed packets that they picked up at a nursery. How nice, I thought and wondered where I would put them until the spring when they could be planted.  "Look them over," she said while Nate decided to record us and it was all so odd. "Really look at them," she said and God help Mark and I we can be so clueless.  We are going to be grandparents this spring.  I started crying when we finally figured it out.  Mark sat in the dining room chair with the biggest smile on his face and tears in his eyes.  A few weeks ago I went with Mags to look at maternity clothes and we wandered over to the baby section.  I think my life and hers in me flashed by in a second when I held up the teeniest little onesie.

I cannot promise this little blog will get much of my attention in the next few weeks (Mark and I were in bed at 9:15 on Saturday night) but good stories have a way of finding an outlet.  I hope to never be too busy to recognize one when it shows up.

Thank you for reading A Speckled Trout.  My cup runneth over.