Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Cupful of Memories - Reprise

I grasp my grandmother's hand as we wait for the bus. She squeezes back, and I peer up at her. Even at age six, I sense she's the kind of woman who draws admiring looks: dark with high cheekbones and a slightly beaked nose, traces of her Algonquin Indian blood from generations past.

I do not know, until years later, the effort required to maintain that beauty. I don't realize the toll taken by years of factory conditions. I pay little attention to the ointment she applies every night to her face and arms, to soothe wounds from the flying metal fragments embedded in her skin, or to the wigs that cover the thinning hair from similar spots on her scalp.

In 1967, I comprehend none of this.

We climb on the bus. Grandma Stanfa doesn't drive; she is accustomed to this ride from the Old South End to downtown Toledo. The only bus I've ridden is the one to my suburban school, where I'm in the first grade.

"Grandma," I announce with wide eyes, "look at all the chocolate people!"

"Shh." She raises her finger to her lips. "They're called colored people. You know, like Moms Mabley."

I nod, sneaking another look at the woman across the aisle. I've never seen a colored person in my neighborhood or school. But I'm familiar with Moms Mabley, whom Grandma loves to watch on TV. Later, Grandma talks about the importance of respect. She explains that words, even spoken out of innocence, can offend or hurt someone. I'll bet my grandmother has never hurt anyone's feelings. I hope I don't either.

Grandma sits straight. She rides the bus with a quiet dignity. I swing my dangling feet, kicking them against each other, and chatter away. Grandma smiles down at me. Unlike so many other adults I know, she answers my endless questions not just with patience, but with interest.

Although she has six other grandchildren, today is just about Grandma and me. She allowed me to choose our supper menu, bought me my very own can of black olives and even let me pick today's movie: The Jungle Book. I know my sisters and cousins have had their own days like this with Grandma. But today I feel special.

I hesitate when she stops at the concession stand. My family's far from rich, but I know my grandmother is worse off than we are.

My mom says Grandma's first husband died not long after my Uncle Bob was born. She married again and had my dad and my Uncle Sonny. I'm not sure what happened to my grandfather. I guess my dad met him just once, when he was three. I overheard my mom tell that story, too. "You're doing a good job with the boys," he told my grandmother when he visited. Then, he was gone for good.

My Uncle Bob still lives with Grandma though. He was in the Korean War, and he hears voices that nobody else hears. Grandma tells me I don't need to be afraid of him.

Grandma finally convinces me to get something to drink. I chew my bottom lip, considering my choices. I order a grape drink, served in a plastic, purple fruit-shaped cup.

I have never been to an indoor theater before, only to the drive-in movies with my parents and sisters. From my velvet-covered seat in the Pantheon theater, I stare at the movie screen, mesmerized. I accidentally slurp--too loudly--through my straw. Alarmed, I glance up at my grandmother. She winks at me.

When we return to Grandma's house, she pours herself a drink. Whiskey. She lights a cigarette. When she's not looking, I stub it out in the ashtray. When I'm not looking, she lights another.

The next morning, we walk to Mass. I attend a Catholic grade school, but my parents aren't so religious about weekly Sunday services. Grandma's a good Catholic. The kind who goes to Mass every morning, seven days a week. The kind who doesn't remarry after a failed marriage and a long-gone husband, because the Church doesn't believe in divorce.

When my parents pick me up, Grandma kisses me goodbye. I wave as I climb into our car. I leave her behind in her tiny two-bedroom house, with her freshly printed church bulletin, her pack of cigarettes and her schizophrenic son, for whom she will care until she dies in a hospital bed, seven years later.

Some people leave your life too soon. Often, years pass before you fully appreciate them for what you didn't know then--and what you still remember now.

Sometimes, you wish you'd collected every one of those memories and saved them, perhaps in a grape-shaped purple cup.

How well did you really know your grandparents? What is it about a rainy day that makes us remember, with a wistful smile, those we loved and lost?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Oh, What a Night! (Middle-Aged Style)

Join me, if you will, on one middle-aged party animal's night on the town.

You primp and you polish, then you glance in the mirror. On a scale of 1-10, you are a *generous* 2.5 You pile on another layer of concealer and decide it will have to do.

Not a parking space to be found for this new hot bar. You cruise around in your minivan for 20 minutes until a decent spot opens up. ("Decent" meaning no more than 50 yards from the door, so as not to render you prone and hyperventilating on the pavement.)

You frown as you size up the crowd. Clearly these must be middle-school students, keeping the Fake ID Industry alive and well. The girl beside you sports a micro-top that reveals most of her as-yet-unsagging cleavage. Her heels measure approximately one-fourth of your full height. You're fairly certain one of your children used to babysit her.

You glance down at your presumably fashionable smock top and hope no one mistakes you as pregnant. It dawns on you that not one person here might imagine you as still of child-bearing age. In between heavy gasps from your 50-yard walk, you sigh.

You shake this off and squeeze through the crowded dance floor because you need a drink. Or six.

When you've made your way to the bar a half-hour later, you order a Miller 64. It's all the calories and alcohol your body can handle. The bartender finishes pouring tequila shots for other customers and sneers at your order. If you were his mother, you'd ground the little bastard.

Finally, you spot your friends in the mob. You attempt to hold a conversation, but you can't hear a word over the music. You nod and smile when anyone appears to say something in your general direction. You make a note to schedule an appointment with an audiologist, right after your mole-check and colonoscopy.

You spend the next couple hours pretending to enjoy the music. The band is playing Oldies, which apparently now consist of songs from the nineties. You don't recognize one. You were too busy during that decade changing diapers and driving to soccer practices to keep up with the latest from Nine Inch Nails.

A couple friends suggest dancing, but you're not entirely sure what type of dance moves this music requires. Besides, your bad knee isn't likely to handle any moves at all.

When Mother Nature calls, you welcome any reprieve from the thump of the bass. You head to the restroom. Pushing and pausing through the endless crowd, you remind yourself to plan ahead for any future bathroom breaks--well before you are once again stooped over and crossing your legs. This wisdom comes in handy tonight the next four or five times you have to pee.

One glance and whiff in the restroom causes you to recoil. You fight back the bile rising in your throat and ransack the room in search of a toilet brush and can of Scrubbing Bubbles. Your quest is futile, since most of the staff here reside blissfully in the questionable hygiene of a college dorm.

As you rush from the restroom one last time, you glance at the clock: Just after midnight. Well past your bedtime!

You shout an apology to your friends and make your way to your minivan. You squint and swear as you crawl down the highway. You need to talk to your optometrist ASAP about this freaking night blindness! But your failing vision is the least of your worries right now. Because, Holy Mother of God, do you need to pee!

The next time your friends call about getting together, you suggest a Saturday luncheon at the art museum cafeteria.

If you're going to feel outdated and ancient, you're going to do so with a hint of class. At a place where no one is likely to flash a fake ID.

But if they ask for your damn AARP card, you're out of there.

Can you still hang with the Wild Ones? What constitutes your big night on the town? What ever happened to cover bands playing the damn Beatles?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Superheroes in the Waiting Room

So ate my May 12 post the same day I published it. (I won't take it personally, since writers everywhere experienced the same fate.) I've been out of town at the FABULOUS Midwest Writers Workshop Retreat and couldn't deal with it before now.

It has miraculously reappeared in my draft folder, but the handful of reader comments made before it disappeared are gone for good...

Shall we try this again? New--and old--comments are welcome!

Superheroes in the Waiting Room

As they spill through the doctor's office door, every head in the waiting room turns. We crane our necks from the TV and peek over our outdated issues of Good Housekeeping. Those here for our weekly or biweekly allergy injections have learned to expect this procession. Yet we still can't keep our eyes off them: the five blond little girls, all under the age of eight.

We divide our attention for the next half-hour or so between each of them and the mother who every week single-handedly accompanies, corrals and cares for them. We're mesmerized.

Large families weren't once such an aberration. Two of my dad's uncles each had ten children. And even in the sixties and seventies, most of my Catholic school classmates hailed from families of six or seven siblings. My family fell in the minority: I was the last of just three (much to the relief of many of our teachers and our principal, Sister Mary Sadistic).

Whether due to the expense or the physical and mental exhaustion of raising a large litter, even Good Catholic parents gradually caved to the accessibility of reliable birth control. That's not to say big families are fully extinct. The omnipresent media reminds us of the extreme examples, such as Octomom and the Duggar family (population currently 21). The public seems to view those as freakshows. And perhaps some parents do procreate in great quantities for questionable reasons.

Yet isn't it possible some people want a large family simply because they love children? Because they welcome the joys and feel fairly equipped (no parent possesses total confidence) to accept the challenges? I recall a family from my two sons' grade school: eight stair-step children, all who seemed to thrive and excel, whose parents somehow found the time and energy to be engaged in their schooling, their sports and their scout troops--and still keep their sanity.

What does it take to successfully raise a big brood like this? Time management skills? Fortitude? Damn good luck?

The doctor's office buzzes with the sound and activity of the five little girls. Their mother simultaneously assists one with a hand-held DVD player, oversees the oldest's homework, reads a picture book to another and breaks up a squabble between the other two.

The waiting room crowd watches, all eyes riveted. We steal a smile at each other as one two-year-old twin climbs over the back of a chair and the other twin drops her drawers in the middle of the room.

A few of us seem to be awaiting the train wreck: the final crash and explosion. But while the train occasionally coughs and sputters, rocks and shakes, and maneuvers its way over a stretch of rough tracks, no train wreck is in sight. Because this appears to be one well-oiled machine.

We're not witness, of course, to the daily challenges that may erupt from the time their parents get them all dressed each morning until they finally fall asleep each night. But having to haul five young children to a doctor's office each and every week? This must surely rate among the greatest potential nightmares any parent can imagine.

One of the twins wanders across the room to admire a newborn in his carseat. Her mother drops the other toddler from her lap and rushes over, to intercept any unacceptable interaction.

"Sorry," she says in apology to the newborn's mother.

"No problem," the other mother replies. "She's just curious. All of your girls are so well-behaved. They seem so happy. And you're great with them."

The rest of the women in the room nod our heads and murmur, "Yes, they are. Yes, you are. Yes, we're amazed."

She thanks us and sighs. "It's not always easy. But sometimes it's really great. Five is enough though. These youngest two will definitely be our last."

At those words, every smile in our group fades.

When someone appears so successful at something--whether it's making music, running a business or raising children--we tend to hope they'll never stop. One mere mortal becomes our personal superhero. We don't ever want to see them give up their gig, especially when we know few people would be willing or able to put on the cape and take the job.

Superhero capes, especially in the world of parenting, aren't one-size-fits-all.

Not every mother or father is equipped to oversee Metropolis. Most of us peer down at our tiny kingdom of one or two, occasionally don a mask and just hope for the best.

Yet whether we're the parent of one or of ten, we devote a lifetime of love and attention and energy to that responsibility. No matter the size of our own kingdom, surely our own role is equally important--and something to be admired.

And that makes every one of us a superhero.

Any of your own large family experiences to share, as either child or parent? What superhero powers does parenting require? Do you ever get a whiff of baby powder, sigh and wonder 'what if'?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sherry's Royal Wedding

The Royal Wedding is a week behind us, yet much of the world is still nibbling scones, clinking teacups and sighing over the pomp and romance.

I slept during the nuptials. I tuned out the stream of TV reruns, choosing instead to drink beer and watch season four of Doctor Who. I didn't purchase any commemorative coins, cups or condoms--though I did contemplate the commemorative royal Pez Dispenser.

Before you label me a cynical bah-humbugger, let me explain my disinterest in this momentous occasion: I'm far too busy planning my own wedding festivities (round two, for those who are keeping track).

First, I need to work out a couple preliminary items. For example, no one has *technically* asked for my hand in matrimony. And I haven't had a real date since a downtown street-dweller offered me a drink from his bottle. But these are mere details I expect to resolve while I'm planning my to-die-for ceremony and reception.

I have no complaints about my first wedding. Yes, I suffered from a severe case of laryngitis and couldn't actually say my vows. And the groom did have to nudge me and tell me to look at him during the ceremony, since apparently my gaze was fixated on the priest, Father What-a-Waste. (Seriously, ladies: What. A. Waste.) Yet the entire event was really quite lovely, and even if the whole marriage thing didn't exactly work out, I wouldn't change a thing about that magical day.

But the second time around will be so, SO fabulous. The New York Times has already reserved a full page for coverage, and Oprah hinted she'll extend her last show date for an exclusive interview. Meh. I'm holding out for a bigger offer.

Meanwhile, I'm pleased to share some of the wedding details with you, my beloved readers.

As most of you know, I'm the traditional type. So I will be married once again in the Catholic church, if they decide to allow me back in. I'll insist the Mass be performed in Latin. It's such a beautiful language, plus I don't care to fully comprehend what I'm consenting to. And if Father What-a-Waste won't agree to be the groom this time, I hope he'll at least agree to officiate.

The wedding party is still under consideration. Positions shall go to the highest bidders. Do I hear one dollar? Anyone? Anyone? However, I do know my dog, Ringo, shall serve as ring-bearer. (Ringo. Too perfect, yes? Just cross your fingers that he doesn't leave a little offertory gift of his own at the altar.) Sadly, my father isn't here to walk me down the aisle, but I can guarantee my two sons are all too willing to give me away, especially if it means I'll never again nag them to mow the lawn.

I will forsake the gorgeous satin wedding dress and heels this time around. Shouldn't one celebrate the most special day of one's life in blissful comfort? I will be attired in sweats and my favorite fluffy slippers. My hair will be tied back in a Chicago Cubs scrunchie (2011 is the year, Cubbie fans)! Makeup will be optional, depending on just how late I happen to be running that day. Regardless, I am the bride, so people will tell me how radiant and ravishing I look!

The band for my first wedding reception was so wonderful I'd hire them again. Except I'm not up to hearing one single more rendition of the Chicken Dance or Proud Mary. So instead, we'll opt for karaoke. Wedding guests will be forced to have their names checked against my "Approved Singer List." (Sorry, Mom, but you'll be noted on my "HELL NO List.") I will likely climb on a table and belt out American Pie at least three times. The crowd will applaud with gusto no matter how off-key I am because, again (see the previous paragraph), I am the bride and this is my damn day.

We will dine on crab since it's my favorite food. Besides, when I dribble crab bits and melted butter all over my dingy gray sweatshirt, it's certain to be less conspicuous than the red blobs of mostaccioli all over my white gown at reception number one.

You are all sure to buy me spectacular wedding gifts, and I am good with that. No worries about trying to be creative. I will gladly accept obscene quantities of cash.

I've given the honeymoon little consideration. A fleeting one-week trip seems rather insignificant when the rest of my life with my new billionaire husband will be one permanent vacation. (Is it too premature to offer my boss my two-week's notice today?)

The wedding invitations shall go out soon. All I'm waiting on is a confirmation on the date. Oh, and a proposal from a prospective groom.

Please clink your royal teacups together in my honor!

And sharpen up those karaoke skills! I'd hate to put any of you on the "HELL NO List" with my mother.

(Mom, you'll still attend though, won't you? Free crab--and all the wine you can drink! Plus you're certain to want your very own collectible Bride Sherry Pez Dispenser! OK, and I promise a bit of lipstick for the occasion. But the sweatpants are totally a deal-breaker. Sorry.)

Were you glued to every moment of the Royal Wedding? Team William or Team Harry? Any personal wedding day bliss or wedding bell blues you care to share?