One Ring to Rule Them All!

January 24, 2013 § 4 Comments

Ok, I couldn’t resist. I just saw the Hobbit with Jeff and the boys a few weeks ago and of course, the ring in the movie holds great power. It’s the reason for four whole quests by several species, including a fine looking elf. But I’m not talking about that ring.

I’m talking about a ring that belonged to my Great Grandmother, my Grandmother, and my Mother. Now, it belongs to me. It came to me in the process of divvying up stuff that is so overwhelming, you want to throw most of it away, and then you don’t, because your mom wore that dress to your sixth grade graduation, or your dad always wanted to play that guitar, even it he never did. So, you keep those things for a year or so, until you realize they don’t hold what you want them to; they just take up space in the back of your closet.

I am teaching my class about symbols and imagery in literature this week and when I ask them what symbolic objects they have in their lives, they answer, almost in unison, “a ring!” So, I know. This is nothing new or rare. In fact, it is so deeply embedded in our culture, this circle–mine is of platinum and three imperfectly shaped pearls –that it’s supposed to mean something about eternity, or commitment, but mine doesn’t quite yet. It does make me think a little about my mom and my Gigi and my Mimi. Still, I stopped wearing it a month or so after I got it. I thought I’d ruin it washing dishes. Then how would I pass it on? Broken jewelry doesn’t symbolize eternal love, or power, or anything. It sits in the back of a drawer. After I put the ring up, I forgot about it. I haven’t worn in in maybe a year. I guess you could say that’s symbolic.

One night this week though, I dreamt about it. In dreams, when my mom shows up, she talks to me on a phone, which is funny, because that is how I most often spoke to her after I turned eighteen and moved away to go to college. I saw her in person, sure, but I talked to her on the phone more often. The receiver was practically an extension of her ear. If one of us five girls didn’t answer her call, odds were, one of the other four would. So, she called me in my dream. She told me some things about her death that I had been wondering, and then she showed me several rings: first, my wedding band, then it switched to an emerald ring she used to wear, but that wasn’t it either. Then it was a larger, more sparkly ring I remembered, shaped like the one I have. That was when I woke up.

It is sometimes a little disturbing to talk to your dead mother on the phone. But she calls, so I have to answer. I remembered about this ring when I woke, and it seemed like she wanted me to wear it. Who knows? I might not be crazy. The ring might be might be like some decoder from the bottom of a cereal box, making sense of whatever or whoever’s on the other end of the line.


Warrior Month

January 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

“My stomach hurts,” Jack Henry says. “Like you’re gonna throw up?” I ask.

“No, the muscles from all the sit ups.”

“That makes sense. Maybe you should take tonight off from karate,” I say.

“No!” he says. “It’s Warrior Month!”

Warrior Month, you see, is what you call the first month of the year at Shaw’s Karate. It is no longer January, the month of failed hopes and intentions. It is a month full of sit ups, pull ups, push ups, and something daunting, called see-shaws. Kids come out the door of the dojo dripping sweat. Some are crying. There is no mercy in warrior month, even for six-year-olds. You’re either a warrior, or you’re not. Jack Henry always comes out of the dojo sore, but invigorated. He’s a warrior for sure. Here is what calls a warrior:

1. a person engaged or experienced in warfare; soldier. 2. a person who shows or has shown great vigor, courage, or aggressiveness, as in politics or athletics.

But I like Urban’s definition better: A person who beyond all obstacles still manages to be successful. A warrior will often be troubled in life, but will persevere in the end. Often intelligent, strong, determined, and skillful, a Warrior, despite whatever problems he or she may have, is perfect. In his or her own way, each Warrior is perfect.

Warriors have come up other places this month too. I taught Sherman Alexie’s story, “This is what it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” this week, which you should read if you haven’t. In it, the characters are warriors of the urban dictionary variety. My favorite, Thomas Builds the Fire, is a storyteller too. He says, “We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories, which can change or not change the world. It doesn’t matter which as long as I continue to tell the stories.” He also describes a minor character as a “mental gymnast.” That’s what I want to be.

Jack Henry can’t wait for each karate class, but he dreads it a little too. It will be painful, but he is one ripped little kid. He has muscle definition I could only dream of. This is one of his New Year’s Resolutions: “Get ripped in January.” But I think he meant, “in Warrior Month.” Either way, it doesn’t matter. He will get ripped and be a warrior. I had a bunch of New Year’s Resolutions too, some about writing. Sometimes they feel like see-shaws. Now, I think I will ditch the idea of resolutions and be a warrior instead. You’re either a warrior, or you’re not.Image

My Mom Walks into a Bar

January 11, 2013 § 8 Comments

Leigh Ann and I go out for a drink, and my mom is sitting at the bar. Ok, not my real mom, but my mom as she was at say, twenty-seven.  She introduces herself, of course. She is platinum blonde with blue eyes, and she is short. “My husband is interviewing for an Orthopedic internship,” she says. “In Texas, spouses go to all the dinners, but here, they said no one had ever asked to bring a spouse. Isn’t that funny?”  Not to me, not in this era, I think. But I don’t say so.

Leigh Ann, who inherited my mom’s love of talking to strangers, strikes up a conversation.  I sit back and sip my wine and listen. The wine is making me sleepy, and this young woman is becoming my mother the more she talks. “We want to have more kids,” she says. “We have two, but we’re both thinking four. I don’t know why that is the number.”

“I’m the fourth child,” I volunteer. “My parents were crazy to have five children, but I’m kind of glad they did. Still, crazy.”

“I just love the chaos of a big family,” she says. “People coming and going all the time!” This is my mother. Now I see her young hope, her faith in the future, her stupid and beautiful and never-ending confidence in my dad’s ability to take care of her. Don’t do it, I think. There will be no nanny. No housekeeper either. That is so many people to raise. There will be so much debt. Live your own life. Still, I admire her ability to trust.
“My mom’s watching the kids,” she says. “She told me not to drink too much.” She orders another glass of wine. My mother, wherever she is, is having a good laugh.

Leigh Ann and my mom keep talking, I sit and sip. What year is this? I think. “I can’t stay in the hotel,” Mom says. “I like to talk to people. My husband doesn’t say anything unless you ask him. He knows a lot, though.” So it’s complete.

My mom and dad, young and hopeful, moved to St. Louis for his medical residency. They already had two children. My sister Katie and I were born there, the third and fourth, in the midst of all that possibility.

I am tired from the first week of school, so I go home, but I leave Leigh Ann talking to Mom. I’m glad I’ve gotten this glimpse of her at this point in her life: young, beautiful, ridiculously optimistic about the future. Who knows where she will turn up next?mom-60s dark hair

A man, a van, a plan.

January 6, 2013 § 5 Comments

Jeff wants a van, or as he calls it, an “Adventure Vehicle.” The pictures he shows me from craigslist look like a church van on steroids. Some have a lift. Some have extra toggles and buttons on the dash. He wants it to take our boys and their friends on camping trips, and he wants to carry canoes, boats, etc. on top. He missed his calling: he would make the world’s best camp counselor.  A van, he says, would change everything. I’m sure it would.

Besides the usual images of hippies in vans, or vans’ reputation as refuges for the seedy and deviant, the only thing I can think of when I think of a van is my grandmother. She had a burgundy Choo-Choo Customs conversion van, with a popped up top and striped designs on the sides. There were two rows of captain’s chairs in the back with a small table in between, and she could make the back bench seat into a bed and sleep there.

It used to puzzle me that my grandmother, my Gigi, would never spend the night inside our house. She wouldn’t get a hotel room, either. She parked in the driveway. She did this even when her second husband, A.J. was alive. They always brought two Pomeranians, Sugar and Bo, or Sugar and Prissy, depending on the year. The dogs were fat and had breathing problems, but they still had a lot of energy, probably because Gigi would stop at the Wendy’s for a Frosty milkshake and feed it to them, a true gesture of love from a diabetic. They’d spend the day with us—my mother, father, four sisters, two or three dogs and cats and me—then they’d retire for the van for the evening. I imagine now, with the strained relationship Gigi always had with my dad, this was a contribution to civility.

Gigi wore either a black pantsuit or a khaki pantsuit– actually, usually just the polyester pants and a matching sleeveless shell. There was a little monochromatic chic to it. Add big, rose-brown tinted sunglasses and a platinum bouffant, and you have her. Then put a brown pall mall in her bright red lips. Her lips were thin, like mine, but always hot pink or red. Even in the hospital, after surgery for congestive heart failure, she wanted me to get her her lipstick. Even a person with tubes in her nose looks better with lipstick, it turns out.

You could say Gigi liked control and this, along with her thrift, I’ve inherited from her. It’s true. But she was also wise; she knew that if she couldn’t handle chaos, or lack of personal space, she could always go to the van, smoke her pall malls, listen to the talk on the CB radio, and do whatever she wanted.  Maybe we do need a van: Jeff can have an adventure vehicle; I can have a mobile room of my own.


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