April 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

I used to teach GED and Adult Basic Skills, which is what it sounds like. In one math class, I taught fractions, decimals, and percents; at least 75% of the students were pregnant.  I have taught a grown man how to recognize the letters of the alphabet. That is a humbling experience. I didn’t want to believe it was possible for him not to know. My former colleague, a brilliant man called Mr. Phil, sends GED grads to my intro comp class now. I can identify them on day one. It’s the look of fear in their eyes, the palpable certainty they’ll fuck everything up again.

 Jeff says I like to work with broken people, and I guess he’s right. I recognize them, and they recognize me. I don’t totally trust people who are all put together, who match and keep appointments and professional jobs and go to the mall. I know: what did they do? Nothing. They did things right, and things were done right for them. Still, they make me aware that my hem has come undone, that I didn’t spell a word right on the board, that parts of me have healed awkwardly, that my family was never what it appeared to be.

The people in recovery are pulled to me like magnets. I wonder, is there a residue of iron? At least once a semester, a student tells me his or her story of being on the street, strung out, whatever. I see my parents in every one. It comforts me that I can fix them for at least four months, that I can lead them to an A, a B, or even a C, then send them on with some kind of hope.

I have two homeless students now, but none of the other students know it. They look like any students. One is writing a research paper on homelessness. At the same time, Jack Henry has been on my case to do volunteer work with him. I sign us up to serve food at the homeless shelter, the Rescue Mission. He came up with this. He is the child who used to apologize to shoes he didn’t choose to wear. “Everything has feelings, Mom,” he’d say—my Buddhist child.

 We arrive at the made over hotel—the women and children’s shelter. We get a tour of the place and our guide tells us, “We’re not ashamed to be here. We’re proud.” The kitchen manager, Jaria, gives us hairnets, made like surgical hair covers. We put them on. We are to serve dessert, one cupcake per person, to make sure no one gets left out.

We are introduced, along with the other volunteers standing in the dining room in our hairnets and plastic gloves, to the women and children. They applaud, and I want to cry. I only put cupcakes on plates. I know that one of my students there has overcome an addiction to pain pills. I know the other one has three children sitting with her politely around the table. I see my mother. I wonder if this is anything like the two places she went to, trying to recover. I wonder who served her dessert, what plastic gloved hands washed her dishes, and if they were doing it somehow for their own mothers, their sweet-hearted sons, or both.

Sky Rockets in Flight

April 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Well, I guess I’m old,” I tell Jeff.

“Why?” he says.

“I can’t stop listening to the oldies station, you know, the hits from the seventies, eighties, and nineties?” I say in my smooth radio announcer voice.

“That’s just good music,” Jeff says. “Everything on the radio today is shit. It doesn’t mean you’re old.”

Jeff and I discovered this station accidentally. We are normally NPR junkies, which I suppose could peg us as even older, but we left the clock radio turned to the station the Duke game was on and woke up one morning to Peter Frampton. You know the talking guitar thing: Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa? We sat in bed for a while listening. Now, I listen to it in my car, especially on days I want to avoid the news. I was ashamed for a while—dear God, I might as well move to Florida, the land the seventies never left. Now I’m wondering how bad that could be. Some parts of my brain, my connection to music in particular, were formed with these songs. I know the exact place it started:

I am in the back seat of our Mercury station wagon, the yellow one with the wood grain side panels.  My tiny thighs are sticking to the tan vinyl seat. It’s July in Kentucky and everything is sticking to everything in the humidity. I am not wearing a seatbelt, no one in the car is, and my head is tilted toward the breeze from the open window, where I watch the patches of light flash through the thick canopy of trees. It is the summer of 1976, so I am wearing a sundress, elasticized at the chest, a blue printed patchwork of calico. My hair is wavy and wild, probably hasn’t been brushed since school let out. Maybe I am wearing shoes.

We are driving out to the new house, down the curvy, rural Armstrong Mill Road. There is a hill that mom always takes too fast, and my stomach jumps when the Mercury pops over it. This is when I hear the first song I ever remember hearing on the radio: “Afternoon Delight.” I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but I like the sound of the words sky rockets in flight, afternoon de-li-iiight. I also hear a song about a baby writing a letter. The house is unfinished, and we walk through it.  I play in the fields around it. Each of our rooms has a unique color of low shag carpet. Katie and I, who are seen as one person sometimes, have apple green. Jenny has light blue, Michele has yellow, and Leigh Ann, of course, has a silky pale pink, which will eventually almost mat. A-a-afternoon delight!

Fast-forward a few years, to New Year’s Eve. It must be the eve of 1980 because I am in Leigh Ann’s pink room, sitting on her brass bed, listening to Casey Kasem counting down the top 100 songs of the end of the decade on her clock radio. Maybe she just got it for Christmas? We know so many of the songs! As you can see here the list begins with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and ends with “My Sharona.” Who can argue with that?

Those days in that house in what used to be the country are tied to the songs I now hear on my own clock radio. My love for that music may mean I’m old, but Jeff is right, it’s good music.

My childhood is locked inside it.


Springtime in the Mountains Again

April 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

It is actually going to be Spring. I had my doubts, but damned if that’s not a cherry tree in full blossom right down the street.  This dark and dreary cold has gone on long enough. This means maintenance. For me, that means eyebrows, skin, and toes.

Leigh Ann, who should have followed in the family tradition and been a beautician, sets me up with a facial. It is my first ever. Dear God, what was I waiting for? I slip, half naked, under a soft blanket on a warmed bed that looks almost like the horrible dentist’s chair, tilted back at the head, but is of no relation whatsoever. Carrie scrubs and massages and smooths my skin until I think it could be perfect. I have forgotten both the wrinkles and the zits, which I will remember later, but for now, with my eyes closed, I have perfect, twenty-year-old skin. I have forgotten every unbeautiful thing in the world. At least I smell delicious because everything Carrie puts on me is made of exotic fruit. I want to stay in this place forever and she doesn’t rush me out of the fantasy when the facial is done. She slips out of the room quietly and lets me come to terms with reality on my own. This is so opposite of my life, where I am ripped out of bed each morning before six by the radio, and the house starts to swirl into motion around me.

Next, I decide I need to get my eyebrows waxed. They look, as my mom would say, like John L. Lewis. He was the president of the United Mine Workers from 1920-1960, and my mom never told me about his long record of union organizing and politicking, just the eyebrows. They did seem to have a life of their own.  Mine do too, and I leave the job of taming them to Thuy. This is our only relationship. I ask about her family, she asks about mine as I lie on another table, not warmed, but still not the dentist’s. She spreads warm wax on my brow bone and rips it off so quickly, I almost miss the brief moment of pain. I leave John L. Lewis on the chair and emerge looking alert, but thank God and Thuy, not perpetually surprised.

Leigh Ann calls me early in the week. What do you want to do for her birthday? she says. It would be my mom’s 69th birthday, and we usually celebrate significant days in her life with wine and food, which is fitting and ironic at the same time. This year, though, we decide on a pedicure. I choose a shade she would wear, coral to orange, with a shimmer—“Dress to Empress.” Leigh Ann chooses “You Only Live Twice.” We find that fitting, too. It is a deep burgundy with a shot of gold shimmer. It looks like ruby slippers, Leigh Ann says. She could click her toes together and be home, which for her is still in Lexington, but for me is right here. I can remove layers of skin and unwanted hairs, but I am relieved and amused that no matter how much I want spring to strip everything away and grow me a brand new life, I’ll always carry everything with me. I have a touch of John L. Lewis, and beauty tips, and everything else that was poured into me. I’d look stunned without it.


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