Summertime memories

When I was a little girl, the park was right across the street from where I lived. Every ward (precinct) had a playground, as well as an elementary school. Our park was huge and had a big baseball field adjacent. At the southern end of the park, running east to west, there was a creek (“crick” if you grew up in these parts) that provided homes for many forms of life: minnows, frogs, a few snakes, beetles, and the ever-present crayfish (“crabs” if you grew up in these parts) that could grow to be as big as a little girl’s whole hand. Those crabs were the ultimate “get” for a lot of kids. They hid under rocks, like alien creatures with bodies that could be muddy green, brown, or the occasional darkest blue. Their antennae wiggled intelligently and their claws were always at the ready for some unfortunate, foolish child who dared to try and touch them from the front.

5th Ward School, where I attended from 1972-1978. This photo was from many decades before I was born. Those trees on the left and right were mammoths by the time I walked up that sidewalk. The school was at one end of the block of Rochester Street. The park was at the other end.

We would spend hours on the banks and in the silty waters of that creek during the summer, overturning rocks and catching crabs. They were deceptively adept at evading capture; you’d think you had them, only to see them effortlessly piston themselves backwards, floating through the water with their tails tucked underneath. If you timed it right, and grabbed them behind their pincers and just squeezed gently, you could pick them up and plop them into whatever container you had at the ready: a coffee can, a bowl, a big, glass jar. I never kept mine for long or surrendered them to the boys, who would cruelly poke them with sticks to see them attack the wood with their great claws or try to have the crayfish version of WFF on the hot pavement of the basketball court.

No, I would always feel sorry for them, fancying myself as a sort of facilitator of TNR for crabs. At the advanced age of 7 or 8, this was my life’s work during the summer. The idea that I was “saving” them by catching them is an irony not lost on me today, but back then, I thought I was doing noble work. You see, if you creeped eastward along the banks of the creek and then through some dense trees and brush, you entered a sort of secret spot, an emerald Shangri-La where the trees and brush were so tall, the area was completely canopied. A mammoth pipe – at least 6 feet in circumference – emerged horizontally from the ground, like a giant, rusty black hole. It ran underneath High Street, which was just east, starting up in the back yard of house #237. (When I grew up, I would become the owner of #237 and raise my kids there. That underground pipe was the bane of our existence when it would become too backed-up with debris and the creek would spill into our yard.)

Not my oasis of childhood, but similar. The creek at Droney Road, 2020.

But as a child, it was a mysterious opening that none of us ever even contemplated investigating, because we knew that within these drain pipes and dark places, there were certainly monsters. The water was pretty deep, about 2 feet, where the pipe yawned, and I would take my rescued crabs and assorted minnows to the edge near that deeper water, where I would give them an urgent, stern talking-to about staying safe and not getting caught by the boys, and then release them into that calm, cool pool of water. My hope was that they’d stay there, preferring its shady depths to the perilously low waters and dangerous terrain that exposed them to capture down below.

Then, I would sit, sometimes for hours, in that canopied, shadowy green place that was alive with flying insects and trickling water. My mother didn’t like it when I would disappear into this oasis of vegetation, rock, water, and wriggling, swimming life; I think she feared that I would travel up through the drain pipe. She didn’t need to worry about that; though I have never been afraid of the dark, I am also a true Taurus, relishing places that feed my preference for beauty and comfort. This little piece of Pennsylvania paradise suited me just fine. It was a place of solace and needed solitude; a place where a handful of us would go to enjoy the calm that even a child needs once in a while. It was the destination for two of us, when we needed to talk, or plan, or even scheme.

The sun would peek through the little holes between the leaves of the tree limbs that sheltered us overhead, making prism-like light on the water in the creek. It was like being in a diamond-encrusted cave. Sometimes, I’d rearrange rocks and look for little, round, white river rocks and hunks, thick ropes, and tendrils of green glass; remnants left behind by a glass factory that had stood not far from the creek during a bygone era when Bradford was growing by leaps and bounds and people predicted that it was going to be a booming metropolis, like New York. Even back when I sat under the shelter of those trees, in 1974, it was declining, populated primarily by blue collar workers and a handful of extremely well-off families who wouldn’t even contemplate allowing their child to play in a hill runoff creek. They took their kids to the country club or paid the money for them to spend the day at Callahan Pool, where the lifeguards served as defacto babysitters.

Me?

My babysitter was that creek, and that park, and the hills surrounding us. It was old, abandoned oil derrick shacks up in the woods and piles of junk in the junk yard, where we’d find boards and old buggy wheels and all manner of parts with which to build go-carts to race down Grove Street. It was hot, dusty afternoons playing kickball and hide-and-seek and games of chase at twilight on magical, summer nights, frolicking while our mothers bellowed our names and threatened “the paddle” if we didn’t get inside right this instant.

We didn’t fear the paddle, and we knew that, aside from some irritated shouts and maybe a swat on the behind – if they could catch us as we scurried past them for the front door – the little smiles that played on their lips that clamped down on cigarettes meant that they’d enjoyed standing at the corner, gossiping about this one and that one while they waited for us to exhaust that final, burst of energy that fueled the day.

Once inside, it was bath time, because I was almost always a filthy mess, my feet covered in dust, grass stains on my perpetually scabbed knees, dried mud underneath my fingernails from making mud pies and overturning creek rocks to save the crabs, grime caught between the folds of skin where my neck joined my shoulders.

I’d sink into the tub of water and let it run until it covered me, fascinated by the rivulets of brownish muck that would color the water quickly and mingle with the bubbles from the bubble bath. I’d sink down, underneath the water, where it was a different kind of quiet than my green canopied hideaway, and stay there until my lungs signaled an urgent return to the above. Then, I’d get to the business of washing (“worshing” if you grew up in these parts) my limbs and hair and usually behind my ears. Once that was out of the way, I could just lay back in the water and pretend I was in the ocean, letting my limbs relax and go slack. I’d examine my tan lines, marveling at how golden brown I was on my face, arms, legs, upper chest, and belly, while my other parts were a shockingly pale color. I preferred the sun-braised look of my skin to that white; somehow, it seemed to be proof of my youth and vitality. I feel the same way even today; I think that I will always feel young, as long as I am tan.

When much time had passed and my mother and grandmother had decided enough is enough, one of them would call up the stairs and tell me it was time to get out. Begrudgingly, I’d towel myself off and put on fresh panties and a summer nightgown or filmy, nylon pjs that were usually some pale, washed-out color, threadbare at the knees. I’d run a brush through my hair and then meander downstairs in my bare feet to eat a snack and watch some tv. Occasionally, there’d be an inspection of my efficiency in the bath, and nails – fingers and toes – would be clipped. “Look at you! Shriveled up like a prune! You were in too long,” I’d be told. Silently, I’d disagree. My ears would be cleaned with Qtips. “You could have potatoes growing in these ears!” I’d be told. Silently, I’d disagree again.

At bedtime, I would crawl underneath a sheet because it was still too hot, and listen to the droning of the tv downstairs and the crickets and peepers outside my window. The faint aroma of my mother’s cigarette would waft up the staircase, and I would feel that heavy, exhausted weight of a day played well and hard carry me into the depths of sleep.

Wash, rinse, repeat, until 1975, and the arrival of The Male Sibling Unit. Life changed then, and was not so carefree. Instead of crabs, there was a younger sibling to save, who needed my protection and vigilance. This was truly when childhood ended for me, but I am so glad to have the memories of what came before. What came after made me the tough nut with scarred shell that I am today, but what came before reminds me of who I would like to be: the sweet, soft, unmarked flesh inside of that nut.

It’s encouraging to know that she still lives within.

My dad was cooler than yours.

This week, the first trailer for the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was released. Set in 1993, it is the true story of a writer’s odyssey, of sorts, as he did a piece about Fred Rogers, the creator and eponymous hero of millions of children for his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Of course, Tom Hanks is playing Fred Rogers. Who else would dare? Who else is everyman, able to seamlessly zip into a character and become that character without fail? Who else is worthy to go to the ultimate land of Make-Believe and pretend to be a man so universally loved and cherished in the hearts of young and old? It had to be Hanks. You can watch the trailer here.

My eyes were massive gobs of wetness about 15 seconds in, when Mr. Hanks began to sing the song that inspired the title of this movie. If you know about my eyes and how few, actual tears I can make, this was somewhat of a major event for me. Suddenly, I was 3 again.

And BOOM. Tom Hanks becomes Mister Rogers.

I’ve told this story before, to a select number of people. They no doubt felt really sorry for me when I did, but that can’t be helped, I suppose. When people hear something particularly sad or completely pathetic, their empathetic hearts respond.

So, yeah; when I was a little girl, I thought Fred Rogers was my father.

Yep. This guy. The Mister Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I wasn’t a stupid child; my mother and grandmother constantly challenged my little brain with knowledge. I was enrolled in preschool at age 2, because of my neck condition and the need to have physical therapy weekly from the month I was born in 1967. Preschool was a “perk” of being a patient of Shriners Hospital and Crippled Children. Crippled Children was a part of the Easter Seals program and the victim of the time when political correctness was not yet a thing. If the image that name conjures is that of a bunch of kids in wheelchairs, assorted body braces, and other walking aids gimping it across a field to a finish line and the arms of their proud parents (and then having cake) that was pretty accurate. We were always being set up for photo ops at events we were invited to, be it an amusement park trip, a circus, or Luncheon With Santa. It is now properly-titled CARE For Children, and has really branched out in providing services not just for the physically impaired child, but for the mentally impaired as well. You can check out their website here, if you want. It meant what it said; we were a group of children in the county who suffered from varied birth defects – from my particular defect called acute torticollis, to various other maladies involving the spine, limb malformations, club and flat feet, cleft palates – and we were treated by doctors who traveled to Bradford from Erie, diagnosing and working with the two pediatricians in the area. Trips to Shriners Hospital weren’t uncommon for those who needed procedures; I was a lucky one, receiving all my treatment right at the Crippled Children Clinic, located in an old building that once served as the hospital’s laundry facility. We were always “going to clinic” and I both abhorred and loved it, because my therapist, Mrs. Smith, was the nicest lady ever.

My memory of the place is dim, yet will never leave me; it was dark, antiseptic, and dilapidated, with very long, cavernous hallways that echoed with the cries of children in pain. Wooden benches lined those halls, where we would sit as we awaited our appointments. The doors had frosted glass and would open and close with hollow, metallic sounds that constantly reverberated through those yawning catacombs. Perhaps they weren’t as big as I recall, but I was tiny when I visited them the most; an infant and then a toddler. Everything is massive when you are small.

My condition, acute torticollis, is difficult to explain. The actual name is Congenital Muscular Torticollis, or CMT. No one knows how it forms; it could be genetic, or the way I lay in my mother’s womb, or there could have been trauma somehow. If you want to read about the fuckery of this condition in scientific jargon, check out this link. I still suffer from acute bouts of stiffness, pain, and limited mobility. My cerebrospinal MRI is a diagram of horror.

In any event, the SCM (sternocleidomastoid) muscle in my neck was shortened and in spasm, causing my head to tilt to the left side and drawing my chin to my shoulder. In my case, it was so severe that it was noticed immediately, and my pediatrician (bless you, Dr. Silverstine) referred me to Crippled Children right away. There are other physical characteristics of this condition, including the oh-so -attractive -sounding facial asymmetry (one side of my face is a teensy bit smaller than the other) and inability to turn one’s head. There was no way I was going to hold my head up or be able to turn it, so the decision was made to start physical therapy right away. I would have to be seen a minimum of once a week to stretch my neck until I was a year old, and then frequently throughout my preschool years until it was decided that they had adequately given me a future with more mobility. My future mobility would always be in question, because nobody knows when a recurrence of spasm will happen. How I sleep, what position my neck is in, a sneeze, and even stepping onto uneven ground can set off “the neck”. I have always been told “You could lose mobility at any time,” and so I have simply lived with the episodes, hoping for relief each time it happens.

I don’t remember all of the excruciating neck-stretching therapies; my mother recalled that I was in pain all the time because the doctors were racing a clock that said that if they didn’t lengthen and develop strength in my SCM before I was a year old, I would likely never have it. She abhorred the use of a pacifier and yet, it was the only thing that comforted me (until I was 4 years old, which literally means I sucked it up) and she and my grandmother did the best they could to keep my neck muscles strengthening at home. I can only imagine the stress they were under; in nearly every photo of me as a baby, I’m either tearful or bawling. The smiles would come later, but I always looked like I might burst into tears at any given time. I could not have been much of a bundle of joy.

Enter preschool, and with that, trained preschool teachers/physical therapists who worked all of our muscle groups, including our brains. During the day, I was being challenged at preschool; in the mid-to-late afternoons, my butt was parked in front of the television to watch Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Zoom. It’s no wonder that I could read and write before I was 4; tying my shoes was a breeze and I remember entering Kindergarten and being amazed at the kids who couldn’t do any of those things. I was smart, sure, but I had been given a head start that lots of really poor kids don’t get, due to my birth defect. You Christians would say that The Lord Giveth and He Taketh Away; I say thanks, Mom, for taking advantage of every opportunity given. I may have been a welfare baby eating government cheese, but I was well-educated.

Anyway, enter my “dad.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood followed Sesame Street. Don’t ask me why I got it into my head that he was my dad; I just did. I was perhaps 2-3 when this thought formulated. I didn’t spend much time with other kids at this point, so most of my knowledge of the nuclear family came from brief observations while out in the public and by watching television. I never called him Daddy, nor did I tell anyone who I thought he was; he just was to me. This guy came through a door every day at the same time and he talked to me as if I was the most precious person in the world to him. That he was on tv was not important; I still thought that the music I heard on the radio in the kitchen and in the car was being performed live at some amazing place called The Radio Station. Santa also visited The Radio Station every night from 4:00pm – 4:30pm during the frenzied few weeks before Christmas, too. The REAL Santa, that is.

It never occurred to me to question why my dad was on the television; I just knew that he was, and that he was very important. Some kids got their daddies at home every night, but my dad was so busy, this was how he did it. It was like a secret he and I shared, and I kept him hidden inside my tender, baby heart. I truly believed that he was coming through that television to speak to me and me alone. That my mother never spoke of him except to say “It’s time for Mister Rogers!” didn’t concern me. When you spend lots and lots of time waiting for doctors and laying on examination tables, you become adept at using your imagination to stave off fear or boredom. The Land of Make-Believe was just another mindscape for me.

There was such a magic about and around Fred Rogers, though, wasn’t there? He spoke directly to the children in his audience. He had an uncanny knack for being engaging and thoroughly engaging them with his easy mannerisms; he was the strongest, and gentlest, and most trusted male figure in my life. Even my uncles carried about them presences that left me slightly on edge and wary. I’d seen them spank my cousins and heard them raise their voices in anger; my dad never, ever did that. My dad in the land of Make-Believe was so much better than that. That he couldn’t possibly – because he was on tv – never, ever occurred to me. I lived my life trying to be good, because if I didn’t behave, he would find out. And I knew that I couldn’t stand it if I ever saw disappointment in his kind eyes.

The fact that my dad was only “with” me for 30 minutes a day was troubling to me, but I tried to rationalize as only a toddler/preschooler can; he was just Very Busy in the way my grandma was Very Busy fitting up lighters at the Zippo plant every day. It was like when Mommy was Very Busy doing housework, and so I must busy myself with my toys and my record player and not give her any trouble. I knew that I must make the best use of the time. I sat, my eyes never leaving the screen, as he talked to me about being kind, accepting and respecting everyone, and being as helpful and loving as possible. I learned about different jobs, about different countries, about how my feelings were as important as anyone else’s, and about how special I was to him. He sang, he talked to Daniel, and Lady Elaine , and X. I knew that the Land of Make-Believe was just play, but I’m not sure I ever grasped that the puppets weren’t real. They were just people he talked to, and part of our cherished circle. Through those 30 minute visits, I learned so much about sincerity, generosity, forgiveness, and honesty. He never disguised the fact that the world was a big, scary place; he just understood how to explain things perfectly, in ways that a preschooler grasped.

The worst part of my day, back then, was at the end of every visit, when my dad in the Land of Make-Believe would put his work shoes on again and remove his sweater, changing back into his coat. Tears would stream down my face and I would desperately try to memorize his face while he sang “It’s Such A Good Feeling”, and when he would tell me that there was nobody like me in the world but me, I would feel my heart break in two. I would plead with his image on the screen, “Please don’t go. Please, just stay.” I remember, as clearly as if it was yesterday, how that felt. Many nights, I would run into my bedroom and crawl up onto my bed, sobbing with a heartache searingly genuine, convinced that tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough. Tomorrow, I would see him again and everything would be alright. Tomorrow, I would tell him just how much I missed him when he was away.

I’ll be back, when the day is new/and I’ll have more ideas for you/you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about/I will, too.

And then, tomorrow would come and I would just be so happy to see him again that I would forget how his departure had broken my heart the night before when he went away, and that he would have to go again tonight. Every night was a sort of screwed-up, preschooler’s version of Groundhog Day that ended with me, a sobbing heap on my bed or with my face turned inward to face the back of the couch while I wished for him to magically reappear, saying he had more time tonight. Then it would be dinnertime, and then bath time, and I might drift off to sleep, thinking about the things I needed to tell my dad from the Land of Make -Believe tomorrow.

I don’t know when I realized that Fred Rogers wasn’t my dad; it was probably around the time I turned 4 and I was going to Head Start. I was a little more mature and beginning to understand things like television and how music was on records – like mine at home – and that deejays played them at the radio station, and that Santa had helpers who pretended to be him while he was busy at the North Pole. I know that I felt terribly silly and that by the time I was 5, I avoided “baby shows” like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Now? It was all about Gilligan’s Island, The Partridge Family, and The Brady Bunch. These were the innocent years, before Emergency! fascinated me with fire and car crashes and human suffering; before Kolchak: The Night Stalker captivated me with various creatures of the night; and before Alice Cooper terrified thrilled me with a performance of “Unfinished Sweet” on The Smothers Brothers variety show in 1973. Fred Rogers would have perhaps been perplexed by me, his “daughter”, and my fascination with vampires and demons and things that went bump in the night. I like to think he would have sat down with me and watched, waiting to ask me how I felt about what we’d watched together until after the show was over. I don’t think he would have rushed me to a psychiatrist. I think he would have recognized that I was just a kid who was fascinated with scary things. I’d faced a few when I was little; this was just a natural progression. I don’t think there was a judgmental bone in his body.

I don’t need to psychoanalyze why I filled the role of father with Fred Rogers. He was the most solid, steady man in my life at that point. I used to be embarrassed by this, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that having a make-believe father who was the king of make-believe and making children aware that they were important even though they were small, was much better than what my reality could have been. Fred Rogers was the best dad in the world.

I know that I will cry when I see this movie, and I am absolutely fine with that. My dad from the Land of Make-Believe taught me, and all the millions of kids who tuned in to share 30 minutes a day with him, that it is okay to cry.

Thank you, Mister Rogers, for making a little girl’s painful, lonely world so much brighter with your gentle smile and your easy ways. Thank you for coaxing out the empath in her, and praising her individuality. I wish that I could have told you: There was no one in the world quite…like…you.

A sappy little entry because, well, it’s Christmas.

I felt the need to be close to my Mommy today. I don’t know why; it was just a thing I woke up wanting. It’s funny; when she is just “Mom”, it sounds more austere. When she is Mommy, I am a little girl, needing her presence to take away whatever hurt or uncertainties I am feeling. Even in my 50s, this never changes.

The holidays may have been stressful for her when we were children; there was so much she needed to do and so little money with which to do it. She always seemed happy, though. The lights, the decorations – they have that effect. She would let me help with the tree and give me strands of lights with which to festoon our tiny apartment with. The Family Christmas ornament would be unwrapped and hung in a doorway; it was my great-grandmother’s before we were given it, and her mother’s before her. It was 100 years old when I was a little child. Mirrored, blue glass, simple in its design, I was only permitted to touch it when I got older, and we treated it with such care. It is quite heavy, most likely a lead glass, but it is absolutely pristine. She would hang it with such ceremony and pride. Christmas could then begin.

I now have the Family Ornament, and I care for it as tenderly as she did. My pride, when gazing upon it, swells my heart to bursting. Five generations of women, going back to the 1800s, have had the honor and the responsibility of keeping the heirloom safe, and soon it will be time to pass it on.

There’s a huge lump in my throat and I know that I can’t have her back; my mother, when she was at her best, baking cookies, preparing jams and breads, and depositing gifts underneath the tree for me to discover when I came home from school, and wonder about until Christmas morning. She always made dreams come true, and I now understand how hard that is.

I recently found a bag of my mother’s yarn in a bin I had put away. Amongst the tangles were many balls of remnants from projects past; my mother was a gifted knitter and crocheter. I would call the pieces she crafted works of art. In her later years, when money was again tight at Christmas, she would set to crafting for everyone in the family. Mittens with “idiot strings” for the little ones, scarves, potholder sets, pillows, afghans, slippers, and even stuffed animals. They were made with love and care, and her taste in combining colors and creating patterns was impeccable.

I have been meaning to take all her remnants of yarn and crochet a blanket, and what better day to start than today, when the need to feel close to her is so prescient? As I gathered the balls into a bag, I found one last, beautiful gift from her, crafted by her beautiful hands. It is a small, crocheted flower, most likely meant to decorate a pot holder, or hat, or pillow. It is golden, like a star, and its meaning couldn’t be any clearer. It is a small, tight, furtive squeeze of love from that hand I held, in the quiet of sunset, as she passed from this world into the next. I didn’t get it back then, six years ago, but I felt it today.

I love you, Mommy. Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas, and bake off.

I’ve been spending lots of time in dimly-lit rooms lately.

Some of it is by choice, but much of it is due to my eye condition and the bad flare-up I’ve been having. The weather has been a bit frightful, as it is apt to be in a Pennsylvania December, too. Going out to walk in it can be a challenge even under the most optimal health scenarios. Stark, white landscapes may be beautiful, but they cause glare, and glare is a four-letter word in and to my eyes (and yep, I can count). Wind is, also, and so I pick my battles carefully.

I knew that the holiday trip the husband and I made last week – our gift of a couple of nights away, culminating in a Ghost Ritual before heading back home – would mean days of recovery, but when Cardinal Copia and the Nameless Ghouls beckon, we assemble, together as one.

The frigid air outside, the incense pumped into the theater, and my careful-but-heavy application of eye makeup was sure to inflame my delicate eye tissue, and so rest before and after has been crucial. It sucks – what else can I say? But, as with any chronic illness or condition, you have to decide whether you or the disease wins. I am not a gambler, but I simply have to win this battle, because fuck getting old. Just fucking fuck it. I may have the trifecta of chronic ass aches in depression, arthritis, and these fucking eyes, as I am so fond of saying, but I choose when, how, and TO live.

So fuck you, trifecta.

Anyway, I have been watching tv at night, by the soft glow of the Christmas tree and some twinkle light-festooned archways. There aren’t any new episodes of the programs I watch, because television has come up with this whole “Winter finale” bullshit, no doubt to entice viewers into watching that last new episode that airs just before the deluge of holiday programming takes over. Thusly, we have to content ourselves with those “very special Christmas episodes” somewhere around Thanksgiving, which puts them somewhere behind the holiday game of retail and advertising (and some of my neighbors, who had their Christmas lights glowing right after Halloween).

I have purposely avoided the news, except for an occasional Anderson Cooper viewing, because he is handsome and still very polite even in his exasperated, “Trump Is A Moron” diatribe. I know, I should keep up with the freight trains that barrel through Washington DC every day, and I do skim the headlines, but I’m Trumped out, for lack of a better way to put it. I simply cannot stomach the daily deposits of feces that spew out of the wrong orifice on that man. I cannot watch the sadness going on at the border, or read about the anger and confusion going on in Europe and the UK. I know it exists; as an intelligent human being, I do stay informed. I just can’t seem to stomach the seepage into my daily life anymore, and especially at Christmas.

There are so many sad stories this time of year, and so many are geared toward pulling at our heartstrings. As an aside, why is that, exactly? Are poor kids, or sick kids, somehow legitimately less fortunate only at Christmas? Is it okay to ignore that they lack food, healthcare, warm clothes, or decent living conditions 364 days out of the year, but not okay that one day that an imaginary fat man in a red suit is supposed to deliver them a sackful of gifts? Because, you know, it’s all about those gifts. People would have you believe nothing else. And I know that I am guilty of perpetuating that belief, as I rush around before Christmas, trying to make wishes come true in the eyes of first, my kids, and now, my grandkids. I’ve tried to inject more love and more meaning, but in the end, my Christmas joy comes from a place of knowing that their eyes light up in delight because I got it right. Selfish? Maybe. But I own it.

So, I try to control the number of sad stories I actively engage in, even in this, the era of instant information inundating our senses. It’s not easy, unless I put the phone down, or leave it in another room. I don’t like to do that because I have family members in various stages of health issues and sometimes, they need me. Invariably, I miss a phone call or text when I do that, and so the phone stays nearby. And with that, the temptation. To combat it, I switch on the tv.

I watch cooking shows, or more accurately, baking shows. Not just any baking shows, either. I lose myself in hours of The Great British Baking Show, a series from the BBC. It’s viewable on PBS and also on Netflix, if you want to click on the highlighted link. I watch, then rewatch, my favorite bakes. I file away pointers and wonder at their confectionary and yeasty creations because it seems like the Brits just have got it going on. While I know bakers exist all over the world, and I know people who love to bake and who create beautiful delights, the Brits seem to take it to a totally different, elevated level.

It’s simply fascinating to watch them politely compete with each other over recipes of choux pastry, Genoese sponge, and sugar work. I admit, I had no idea that eclairs were made of choux pastry, and I would have called the cake in a decorated cake by the world cake because it is cake….not sponge. Sponge seems more appropriate, now that I know how important it is to get the right rise and the right formation of structure, the perfect golden color, and to time a chocolate sponge just right because the hue is deceptive. I never knew. I just never knew. I feel enlightened in the knowledge.

And then there are the hosts, Mary Berry, and Paul Hollywood: knowledgeable, charismatic legends in the UK, renowned for their baking, their books, and their tv appearances. In newer shows, Mary has been replaced by Pru Leith, who is also a well-known “celebrity baker” in the UK. They are supported by hosts, UK comedic personalities Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and later seasons, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding.

Did I forget to mention that, in addition, to being a “cracking baker” and the authority on baking bread, Paul Hollywood is, himself, a visionary, delightful piece of eye candy?

Bake me some bread, you silver foxy fucker.

Those steely, blue eyes that cut a contestant like lasers when they fuck up a bake, and turn into warm pools of tropical ocean when complimenting them on a particularly great flavor – oh yeah, I’ll take that over the news any day of the year, not just at the holidays.

I was recently gifted a Kitchenaid mixer by a very dear friend after wishing, fervently, that I had one. My love of baking has waned over the last few years not because I don’t want to, but because my arthritis prohibits it. A hand mixer can be okay, but the vibration causes uncomfortable pain for hours after, plus there are days when I lack sufficient grip. I had been looking for a used one at a lower price because as much as I coveted them, I could not bring myself to pay $200+ for one. She could, and did, causing me to burst into tears and to wonder at the fact that there are still some truly wonderful people left in this world, despite the news trying to convince us otherwise.

Now, I can bake to my heart’s content, and try all those recipes Paul and Mary demonstrate in their Masterclass shows. Baking is kind and filled with love. Baking is not racist, or spiteful, or inciteful. How can you even think of the cruel things happening around the globe when you’re working a dough to get the gluten going, or shaping a braided loaf, or cutting cookies into precise shapes, or whipping a meringue into perfect peaks? Baking is love, and love is contagious and enticing. The only time the news has any business interfering with a bake is just before you’re getting ready to work a bread dough. You can punch and knead and slam that dough down to your heart’s content, feeling all the anger and tense emotions releasing through your hands into the activation of the ingredients.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some anise Christmas cookies to whip up. I’ve got love to release.

Sofa-king excited, or ode to couches I have known

Tomorrow, our new couch is being gt delivered. On a scale of 1 to 10 gauging my excitement, this is an 11. It’s a gorgeous, roomy, heavily-upholstered cream color with badass rivets decorating the edges. I am not usually a fan of lighter-colored furniture; I have always admired the effect but then I’d shake my head, thinking, “Kids.” Kids have factored into most decisions I have made about everything since I was 20 years old.

Not the exact couch, but similar, and oooooh I can’t wait to Netflix and chill.

“This carpet is pretty, but will it clean easily?”

“These plates are awesome; too bad they’re glass.”

“I really love this white, cable-knit sweater, but it’ll just get stained. Does it come in brown?”

“I know these tampons SAY super-absorbent, but are they, really? I don’t have time to run into the bathroom once an hour.”

“Nice car, but we’d need two just to transport everyone.”

For decades, our furniture has always been dark, or darkly patterned, and always Scotch Guarded to an almost toxic level. When my children were small, we were given sets of furniture that older family members gifted us because they were A) old and B) they didn’t have kids so they could afford new furniture every 3 years or so. It was the perfect trade-off for them: Uncle Joe wanted a new truck, so the deal was that Aunt Edna got new furniture. Then, they would gift barely-used furniture sets to their poor relatives, who didn’t care that there were scenes of country water mills or patterns of cabbage roses on them; they were in almost-new condition and they were free. Also, there were no puke stains that you couldn’t see but knew were there or chocolate stains or koolaid stains that had sunk into the foam, rendering it a sickly pink.

Let’s not forget the sets of furniture that were so popular in the late 80s and early 90s: heavy, wooden frames with removable cushions. Those bastards were heavy and dangerous if you had kids, because someone was always smacking their head against one of those arm rests that no one could possibly rest against, because they were shellacked instruments of torture. NO ONE was comfortable on these sadistic pieces of furniture, but every young couple had at least one set because they had older relatives who gave them away when Aunt Edna decided she needed to redecorate with a softer, less lethal, pastel theme.

Everyone of a certain age owned this set. Admit it.

One exception I made was the time I caved to impulse and bought red furniture. It was so pretty, so modern, and our living room looked like something out of a magazine.

For about a day.

With a 4 year-old in the house, I should have looked longingly at this set in the store and then moved on to the brown, tweed, stain-proofed set that I am positive everyone’s grandparents probably still own to this day. That red furniture was a massive error that ended up being replaced within two years. By brown, leather furniture. When THAT set needed to be replaced, we settled on brown tweed, because there was now a 7 year-old and a toddler.

It’s been about 5 years since I bought any new furniture. We have an old, brown, microsuede couch bought at the height of spill ages when our grandsons still resided with us, and a monstrous, dark red, leather couch that was purchased secondhand and which needed to be carried in by three grown men because it weighs more than a full-grown hippopotamus. It is a stainproof behemoth, impermeable to almost anything except for a black lab teenager’s paws. Our gregarious, 9 month-old Isla has a habit of doing her zoomies and including this couch in her mad dashes, and she has scored one cushion. I turned it over so no harm, no foul, but I know it’s there and my OCD cannot handle that. This couch is also extremely uncomfortable and slippery.

We’re going to “give” the red couch to the animals, moving it out into the large, empty dining area we have that is empty because we don’t need a dining room table. I am designing a kitchen nook area that will do for our needs just fine, and our meals are so jacked-up and random due to the husband’s work schedule that I’m not going to lie: who needs a table when you’ve got couches? Dinner tastes better with Netflix. Netflix and chill? How about Netflix and eat?

The brown couch will stay a little longer while I decide exactly what model of accent chair I want to go with my new, cream-colored couch. Decisions, decisions! Maybe I’ll get a set of two, or maybe it will be a recliner, or maybe I will get a papasan chair. I bought a new area rug that is still in the shipping box six months ago in anticipation of new furniture, but I just never seemed to find time to get inspired. Plus, Summer was too hot to think about moving furniture around. I much preferred laying on my old couch, prone, like an exhausted, overwrought dishrag.

The point is, there will still be Scotch Guard

and plush throws, and I will still have to vacuum the crap out of the new furniture and brush the cat hair off, and those corner guards for the backs will be attached in case someone gets the idea that they need to sharpen claws and I will be yelling and shooing them until they get a clue, but it will be, at last, something I could choose without a care in the world because the nest is empty. Now, my kids are making their furniture purchases based on color, durability, and “will this hide the koolaid stain?”

The nest is empty.

I can finally say that without tears in my eyes.

A Dance Macabre with Faith and Rats in a Secular Haze

Sometimes, life challenges you.

Wait. I lied. And you see right through me, don’t you?

All the fucking time, life challenges you.

I guess that, what I am meaning to say is that there are specific events and times in our lives when we just want to say, “Stop this crazy train and let me off at the next pasture so I can smell some flowers!”

I’ve been riding the crazy train lately, and it’s been gaining speed with a steady uptick that has let me know that, if I didn’t get off just for a brief interlude, the velocity was going to tear me apart.

This past Wednesday, I pulled the cord and got off the train. I jumped into a shuttle of sorts and traveled to Syracuse, New York, where I stood in my symbolic “field of flowers” and just lost myself in a particular mystical, raucous, and magical three hours. I lost that part of myself that needs to be “on” and let myself be caught up in sight, sound, and emotion. I was in good company with 2,000 + other people who where there to do the same. When I am in this particular zone, I feel enveloped in love, in acceptance, and a part of something larger than life. Music truly sets me free, and I have been fortunate to be carried away on waves of euphoria at many concerts, but this – A Ritual – is different. It is like going to church; this is what true believers in their faith experience. I credit KISS with saving my life, but I credit Ghost with giving me life. I may be back on the train, but I know one true thing:

If You Have Ghost, You Have Everything.

If You Have Ghost

On June 8th, at approximately 11:30pm, I was standing on a little side street in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, hoping for an opportunity to meet some rock stars.

Yes, my 50 year-old ass was having a serious groupie moment, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Until then, the only musical superstars I had ever met were Ty Englund – he of Garth Brooks’s 90s Stillwater band; Rick Trevino, another country star; and the iconic Paul Stanley of KISS.

When you’re busy raising five children and you began that life immediately after you turned 20, there’s not much time for hero worship in the literal sense. You’re busy changing diapers and seeing to school projects, juggling their care and housework and a 40 hour a week job and, in my case, attempting to be the kind of wife their father demanded. That meant that he was the superstar in my life, and he and the kids were the only people I was allowed to pay any sort of enduring attention to. My love needed to be single-minded on that front; there was absolutely no room for friendships and get-togethers and concerts and good times. Besides, there was no money for that. Aside from concerts I attended in high school and college, I never saw an actual arena concert by a big name act until 1994. We scrimped and saved for that, and it was a big deal. He took me to see Garth Brooks. (Had he known that, whenever I performed my wifely duties, I was pretending  that he was Garth, he probably wouldn’t have taken me. I know, TMI, but that’s a given when you visit my little world. Suck it up, buttercup.) It was sometime soon after that when I discovered that my marriage was not normal and that there were wives out there with friends and at least a semblance of a social life. They didn’t “serve” their husband by remaining at his side at all times, attending to his every need, and remaining silently supportive of every tall tale he formulated in order to make himself seem more important than he was. They had a vague sense of identity, whereas I didn’t even know what that meant in terms of marriage. Having never observed the intricacies of a marriage except for on television, I had a very old-fashioned idea of how it was supposed to be if you wanted him to be happy, and he was all-too happy to make sure that I stuck to that.

When I discovered my “voice” it was, to my surpise, pretty loud. And it told him that I was unhappy, and that I wanted him to GO AWAY. He was taken aback and, for the first time, began doing things to try and “make me happy.” Lingerie on my birthday. (For who? Really? Does a mother of 5 have time to figure out how to put those pieces of lace on her war-torn, stretch-marked body?) Roses on Valentine’s Day. Allowing (yes, I know) me to get a tattoo. And indulging and encouraging my love of music by taking me to 1 or 2 concerts a year.

There were restrictions, of course. He did not want me to reveal my body by wearing a miniskirt at an Ozzy Osbourne concert because “You’re a mother. It’s not respectable.” A nose piercing was “out of the question. You’re the mother of my children and you’re not going to walk around looking trashy.” Guess what was the first thing that I did when we broke up? If you guessed that I got my nose pierced, you win 3 stickers! Even more ironic was the fact that his next wife “looked like she fell face-first into a tackle box”, as a friend of mine observed. But hey, I’m not shouting “Hypocrite!” Well, maybe I whispered it.

Anyway, how I got from that mouse of a hausfrau to the Fangirling Goddess that I became on the night of June 8th was a long and winding road filled with a few encounters with celebrity that convinced me that I couldn’t manage to hold an intelligent conversation with one if I tried. Paul Stanley touched me and it was like I floated out of my body and watched that whirlwind meet and greet from afar. Other chance encounters always saw me stupidly mugging or looking frozen. I was awkward, I was tongue-tied: the epitome of starstruck.

What made me think that standing outside a bus after a Ghost Ritual, in my red plaid miniskirt and fishnet stockinged-feet because my shoes fucking hurt after 4 hours of standing and cheering and alternately singing and screaming in the pit, was a good idea? It was late, there were perhaps 12 other fans milling about, and the husband (The second husband, my One and Only, henceforth occasionally referred to as a saint) had to pee. But this was it. I had been waiting for this opportunity for months. Ghost is notoriously friendly and accessible to their fans, to the ones who are willing to wait for the masks and costumes and makeup to come off and the stage to be broken down and loaded up. If one was willing to be patient, one would likely be rewarded.  It also helped to recognize the faces beneath the masks, because officially, that isn’t yet publicized and it’s surprising that so many fans still choose not to know, and yet want to meet them after the show.

I’m in love with the band’s lead singer. Okay, not “in love” in the sense that a 14 year-old wants to marry her crush, but he is talented, magnetic, sexy, and a goddamned musical genius whose music has been stuck in my brain since the moment I heard it. Not since KISS have I been this mesmerized, and the husband will testify to this fact, because he has often said that my musical taste is schizophrenic. I will be listening to metal at 1pm, big band at 2, and at 3, I have moved on to classic country; much to his displeasure, I might add. With Ghost, it’s simple: I have to listen every day. I am floored by the music every day. Call it an addiction, obsession; I don’t care. It is all of that and more. It is freedom to be who I am and to laugh at elements and formalities in society that I find unbelievable.  It is pageantry and sexuality and camaraderie amongst other fans. It is being held in Papa Emeritus’s charismatic gaze when he croons “Can’t you see that you’re lost without me?” and believing it is true. 

 I needed to meet the men behind the masks: Papa Emeritus and the Nameless Ghouls.  So fucking what if I’m a grandma? I’m a hot grandma with badass taste in music and a newfound sense of quiet confidence. Being a grandma also identifies that knowledge within me that realizes that less time is left than before, and I need to do all the things before I can’t do them anymore. Tobias Forge – Ghost’s Papa – has held me hostage in his gaze and with his voice since I first encountered Ghost. So attempt to meet and engage in a conversation with the sexiest guy in my current universe (while the other sexiest guy in my universe stood by my side, saint that he is) and not simply gawk at him stupidly?  My body was ready to be struck by the lightning force of his presence. I was willing to give it a try. My sincerest hope was to convey my love and admiration, to show him respect and appreciation, and to hug him. Yes, cop a bit of a feel with the approval of the husband, who understands that this man is on my “Laminated List” and that I might not be joking. 

I’m so glad I did. Because it was everything I had hoped for, and so much more. It meant more than meeting Paul Stanley in that I had time to say what I needed to say and because Tobias is so patient, kind, and lovely. I was momentarily blinded by his beautiful, green eyes and his angelic face, but then he disarmed my gawkiness with the grace and quiet ease in which he allowed me to speak. Because Ghost is still “anonymous”, no photos could be taken, but had they been snapped, I imagine the most naked look of bliss was shining in my eyes. I felt young, carefree, and I may have squee’d, covertly done a happy dance, and gripped the husband’s arm so tightly he probably had finger marks the next day.

It’s all good. I am a 50 year-old woman who played the role of groupie for two glorious days, swam in the ocean for the first time ever, and made the husband laugh at my gaping like a 6 year-old at airplanes flying over big cities. I am DOING ALL THE THINGS. Life is but a blip on the radar. I get that now. Will I do this again,  when given the opportunity?

You bet your ass.