Secret Message

April 5, 2012

My original entry was shaping up to be a silly rebuke of gourmet cupcakes, decrying that enormous whorl of icing eclipsing the nub of mealy cake, and then my husband showed me the ghostly word he’d discovered on the backside of the drywall panel separating the doors of our not-quite finished closet: kike.

Scrawled in Sharpie, it appears to have bled through the paint daubed over it, suggesting that it was not meant to be discovered, and yet the slur would not be concealed. Too many people have been in our house recently, contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, etc., for us to have any certainty about the culprit. And the work is not complete, which means he’s likely to return.

This is my first real brush with anti-Semitism. I’m not Jewish, but my husband is, and that’s how we’re raising our sons. I grew up Southern Baptist, but now I am nothing, and the void in my identity suggested by that phrase is not unintentional. I’d like them to be something, though probably not Christian. It’s nothing against Jesus the man; my beef is with Jesus the policy, Jesus the line drawn between saved and damned.

When I was nine I walked to the front of the chapel of my own accord and asked to be baptized in his name. Though my fervor faded, I still love that he radically allied himself with the downtrodden, walking among drunkards and prostitutes. I love that my great-grandmother freely invoked his aid when searching for a parking space. I just can’t think that much else matters beyond acting with kindness, whether per Jesus’ example or someone else’s.

I’m sad and a little queasy thinking that someone in our home, witness to our good little boys at play, noted a telltale symbol here and there or sized up my husband according to some vicious criteria and concluded “kike,” a sentiment so powerful it had to be inscribed.

This close to Passover, I am reminded that the Israelites marked their own houses—in blood, not Sharpie—so that the final, deadly plague would leave them be.



Say sorry

February 28, 2012

I’ve been driving for more than 25 years now (!), and to date my accidents have been few and minor, though the first occurred at the end of my driving test at age 16, when I hit the gas instead of the brake and plowed into a parked car. I didn’t pass (and I’d already flubbed my three-point turn, so I wouldn’t have anyway), but neither was I cited; no one knew how to ticket an unlicensed driver with tacit permission to drive, so they left it alone and my mom’s insurance funded the repairs. I didn’t go back to retest for an entire year, but by then I’d practiced and grown confident from many nights of sneaking out with friends and cruising the deserted streets of Raleigh.

In each of my subsequent three accidents over the next quarter-century, my car was rear-ended, and it was not my fault–I think legally it may never be the fault of the driver who is hit from behind, but I’m saying I didn’t suddenly slam on my brakes and catch the driver behind me unawares; their cars simply slid into mine.

The first time was on a road slick with new rain, and the girl who did it was contrite, though virtually blameless, I felt. The second time the woman pushed my car into the car in front of me as I waited at a red light, crunching both ends, and she was so adamant in denouncing her unresponsive brakes she must have forgotten to apologize, or indeed acknowledge me or my frightened children. In the moment all I registered was elation: we’d been hit and were unhurt! My babies were all right!

But later her failure to offer this courtesy rankled, and I know that has colored my recent collision, which was far less serious, and minus my children in the car. I have wronged and been wronged far wronger than these wrongs–I can barely even call these incidents wrongs. Since redress has been proffered, they’re slights at best. Why do I still want the apology? Why does not getting one feel like the greater injury?

For a long while my older son couldn’t grasp why he was being asked to apologize if he stepped on someone’s foot, say, or played a little too roughly with his little brother and made him cry. “But I didn’t mean to do it!” he would exclaim. “It was an accident!” It seemed to him an affront to have to say sorry under these circumstances, like an admission of guilt. It was as if he’d been advised by corporate counsel to avoid liability and damn the bad PR.

I would explain that the person was still hurt, regardless of his motives, and deserved an apology. I would say that I was sure he would never cause harm deliberately; nonetheless he should still say sorry. I would say we are still responsible for our actions, even when they seem entirely beyond our control. Sometimes it’s just a mistake, and sometimes maybe we needed to have taken more care than we did. It took a while to sink in, but at age seven I think he gets it. His apologies are more often than not sincere and spontaneous. That’s why I don’t mind when the other ones are clearly to stave off my badgering.

We say sorry for things that aren’t at all our fault. When someone dies, we’re sorry for the loss. We’re sorry someone didn’t get a job or that they lost a job or that a relationship ended. Sometimes that’s an irritant–it’s not your fault, the person will shoot back bitterly. But mostly it’s taken in the spirit in which it’s offered. To be told your sadness is shared by someone else, that it is felt chiefly because you feel it, can be deeply comforting.

I walk my younger son through these steps now when someone enters the orbit of his explosive energy and gets a face full of Legos or an errant elbow. Check on your friend. Ask if he’s all right. Say sorry. (And if it’s said inaudibly or with overt hostility, try again.) Try to make things right. Regret that you made the mistake. Resolve to do better. Go through the motions, even if you don’t feel sorry. Empathy may be more of a skill than a trait, but it can be practiced, strengthened. It can become a part of you.


September 11, 2011

I didn’t lose anyone on this day. Today in fact is my grandmother’s 93rd birthday, a tribute to her stubborn persistence, to be celebrated over eastern NC-style pork barbecue.

On this morning ten years ago, I was driving my father to the hospital to get his cancerous bladder and prostate removed. Extraordinary measures were being taken to save one life on a day when thousands were extinguished. But that’s the story of every day.

On fire

July 4, 2011

This essay appeared some years ago in an area weekly and I also got to record it for our local public radio station, so there’s no denying it’s recycled, but the topic is timely and I haven’t posted in far too long.

July 4, 1977, State Fairgrounds, Raleigh. My grandfather is dancing on the cloggers’ stage with the mayor, little 4-foot-8-inch, tennis shoe-shod Isabella Cannon. He is drunken ebullient; I have never known him to dance. I am eight and want to dress like the cloggers, in beribboned tap shoes and gingham dresses with crinolines. I ride ponyback in a slow, bored circle. The ponies smell sweet from hay and manure, and next year I’ll be too big to ride them; already my toes drag the ground.

The long version of “American Pie” plays all day on the radio. It ends on one station and we twist the knob until it resumes. I don’t understand what the words mean, but the sad chorus keeps turning in my chest. Drove my Chevy to the levy … them good old boys … this’ll be the day that I die.

My father and great-uncle have been setting up for the fireworks since morning. City workers have buried steel pipes for launching the bombs and fire trucks idle close by. By sundown many cans of Pabst have been drained and a flat, tea-colored pint makes the rounds. No one’s scared of anything but rain.

It’s hardly worth coming just to sit in the stands; we’re down by the racetrack with the shooters and get to lie atop car hoods and watch the display projected directly overhead. The bombs come in parcels the size and shape of ostrich eggs and have exotic names from China: Dragon Dancing with Phoenix, Blossom After Thunder, Golden Silk & Silver Rain, Happy Song.

My father wields a sizzling flare, backs up to each fuse and ignites one after another. Missiles hiss skyward, break open into umbrellas of green and gold fire. Branches of red lightning crack and dribble, hurling glitter. A white-dot bomb punctuates all the color, and I dig my knuckles into my ears, anticipating the blast that comes a beat later.

The finale is the only part my father gets to watch because it’s all on one fuse. He crouches to light it, springs away, and rolls to get clear. The firmament erupts with pulsing streamers; hot ash rains down. He is hidden in smoke. I scream myself hoarse. He’s back on his feet when the haze clears, deaf and reeking of gunpowder. Bombs have exploded 10 feet off the ground, spit flame in his face, and my father walks away grinning, on fire with his own potent mixture of nerves and luck.


Let it be Xmas

December 23, 2010

Tonight was the most Christmassy I’ve felt in many years, driving around with my Jewish husband and sons to ogle the season’s light displays, Nat King Cole in the CD player crooning “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and a series of baby Jesus hymns that I try to sing along with but get too teary and quavery to go on. When I was a kid, the Nat King Cole LP came down from the attic along with our Christmas decorations each year, so whenever I play it I am transported to the base of the aluminum tree my family assembled throughout the 70s. I can still smell the bourbon and salmonella-laced eggnog. Oh giant Barbie head with the wire hair I could curl with plastic tongs, how you answered all my yuletide prayers circa 1975!

This holiday descends on me as implacably as seasonal depression, and though I’m uncertain which one heralds the other, I’m learning to embrace both.

The boys shouted “Christmas!” whenever they saw a house festooned. We were even moved to park and get out of the car to shake hands with a guy dressed as Santa in front of his blinking, blazing yard, one of two in his neighborhood that had their own radio broadcasts of music you could tune into while watching the lights flash in synchronicity.

I love the over-the-top mix of Santa, nativity, Grinch, Charlie Brown, Winnie the Pooh, Thomas trains, sleighs, elves, Rudolph, Frosty, even the occasional menorah, though Hannukah came and went early this year, plus strangely seasonal blimps and balloons and airplanes and teeter-totters, and my favorite, en route to my dad’s house, a giant cake with red-piped icing proclaiming “Happy Birthday Jesus!”

My older son knows there is no actual Santa Claus, only the spirit of Santa Claus who nonetheless brings concrete loot to kids, and that that spirit is alive and well, perhaps even restless-bordering-on-poltergeist, in his maternal grandparents and aunt. It wasn’t a Jewish thing to disabuse him of Santa Claus; at age three he was fretting over someone coming into the house while we slept, so I’m the one who broke rank and said it’s just pretend, some mishigas for the goyim. I’m not sure what my younger son believes. He recognized the red-garbed, bearded man as Santa, but declined to shake hands.


My dear old grandma is having a spate of falls–or rather, she’s panicking that she’s about to fall just two or three steps away from the sofa or bed, so she’s lowering herself to the ground, where she lies quietly until help arrives. She has around-the-clock in-home caregivers, but these are women who daren’t heft a frail and possibly injured old woman; they may, in fact, be contractually prevented from doing so.

So twice in the past two days the rescue squad has been summoned. First they lifted her and transported her to the hospital, where she was deemed intact and released. In the middle of that subsequent night, mere hours later, en route from bathroom to bed, she controlled her fall and lay close enough to the bed to pull the blankets down over herself. Where she waited for Betty to wake. And when Betty awoke, at my grandmother’s bidding they waited until a more civilized hour (5 a.m.) to call my aunt.

Forty miles away, my aunt said, you must call the rescue squad again. I will come, but what if I can’t lift her, either? And the rescue squad came and palpated her bones, and deeming her again intact, simply put her back in bed this time, so my grandmother is not convinced this is an untenable situation. Though her bones are chalk and she broke her back a few years back trying to shovel the driveway.

My other grandmother, now passed, my dear Mama Ruth who was given a final blood tranfusion so that I might drive down from Michigan and watch her die, fell down, too, and had breathing troubles stemming from her 1940s-era tuberculosis-scarred lungs that only began seriously malfunctioning in her eighties. Her congestive heart didn’t help, I’m sure. The closest rescue source was the fire station, so these strapping young firemen would come to fetch her, and she would joke and flirt with them, saying, I just wanted a ride in the fire truck.

My other aunt, who lives on the west coast, came to visit recently, and when she does she brings my grandmother over, for they feel they must see my gorgeous boys cavorting on their own turf. It’s an outing increasingly hard-won and precious, and I don’t know that it can happen again: my front porch is soft and rickety pinewood planks; a high heel would sink into it–not that she’s wearing high heels. Not that any of us are. Even my time for high heels seems to have passed.

This last visit I walked her to the bathroom and lingered outside the door. My toilet is not raised and I feared it would be difficult for her. It was, in fact, impossible, and she finally tapped for help with her cane. I hoisted her up and she clung to me for a moment and said I was her favorite grandbaby.

My Mama Ruth knew and adored Scott long before we married, and she was pissed at me when we had a brief falling out and broke up; she entirely took his side. She didn’t pressure me to marry; she didn’t have time for all that planning and ritual. She wanted a baby, by whatever means necessary. “I can’t wait much longer,” she warned me.

But I needed to finish my novel before I could get on with the business of life, and though I brought my nearly finished draft in a binder to the hospital to show her, I was too late, and she would not have given a good goddamn about a binder full of words even if she were fully conscious. She wanted a baby, my baby, to dandle and love, and she was tired of waiting around while her heart and lungs slowly drowned, and it was the slow pushing in and out of her final breaths that gave my novel its end.

This grandmother, Ozella, Oze, the Big O as she was called in secret by her children and openly, affectionately by the next generation, has read and reread my novel, and she grabs my hand at least once each visit and exhorts me, “June. You must keep writing.” She also wanted me to have children, but having lived to see them come into the world, she is satisfied I have met that obligation.

The weather is changing, and so are my joints and ligaments. Yesterday my left hip complained; today the grievance has traveled down to my knee, where it pops and clicks. My lower back is just waiting for the next looming deadline to go into spasm. Sometimes my wrists radiate pain up to my elbow, a harbinger of rain. These are gentle previews, little warning shots.


Book purge

July 29, 2010

We finally had our big book purge–not the big book purge I contemplated some months back, but I’d say we reduced our inventory by at least a third. The night before, in my determination to overcome Scott’s emotional attachment to musty paperbacks, I’d inadvertently resorted to book slander as we sorted.

“See this?” I said, waving a copy of Black Elk Speaks. “This was written by a total fraud. The guy was actually a white supremacist.”

Scott was unmoved. “We’re keeping it.”

I realized later that the book I’d been thinking of was The Education of Little Tree. Forgive me, Black Elk Speaks!

Everybody says don’t bother trying to get rid of your books at a yard sale, but we had a surplus of old baby junk to expel and figured it was worth a morning of attempted profit from our driveway before we hauled the bulk of it away. I’d made a point of emphasizing that we had all manner of books in our Craigslist posting, hoping to draw the bookseekers, and indeed we did, but this new breed comes with handheld scanners and goes straight for the ISBN strip. If the device shows sufficient Internet value, a sale is made.

We had a nice conversation with the first of three bookseekers who visited our yard sale. He was gathering inventory for an online book dealer (presumably the others were, too, but maybe these devices also serve the hobbyist as a sort of new-fangled metal detector), and there were certainly worse ways to spend a Saturday morning, but the thing was, he didn’t even look at the covers. Thanks to the device, no discernment was necessary and might in fact prove to be an impediment; it would certainly slow you down. All you need to be is first on the scene, because subsequent scannings would provide the same data, unless perhaps there was a sudden surge of interest in a title. (Wonder if you could spark a tulipomania over certain backlisted books? Imagine a sudden landgrab for Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, spurred by online rumors of a Kurt Cobain-penned anecdote.) Scott came back from a bathroom break too late to warn the second guy, who’d already scanned our worthless leavings, but he saved the third guy the trouble.

Another bittersweet detail from the yard sale besides the cold electronic appraisal of our books: our toddler wandering among the all-too-recent deitritus of his infancy, moaning softly. He stopped at the little rocking horse he’d ignored for months, climbed on, dismounted, walked away, returned, and finally dragged it to the house. He spent the rest of the morning glued to my hip.