Strong Texas Women

 

 

Photo of Courtenay Bluebird staring out of a window, thinking




 

My Texan grandmother voted every chance got. She voted in federal elections, state elections, school board elections, and local referendums. I’m surprised her voter’s registration card didn’t have scorch marks on its edges from being used so frequently at the polls.

Truly it’s amazing she didn’t vote on everything from cute baby contests on down, if you remember anything about the times in which she was raised.

The fact is, my grandmother was born a little over a decade into the 2oth century.

That means she was young enough at the time to have watched her college educated mother sit at home while her uneducated (but very smart) father went off to vote.

And it also means that she was old enough a few years later to remember the day that her mother went to vote for the very first time.

What it really means more than anything is that my grandmother saw what it was for women to not have ordinary civic rights— rights on which this country was founded, actually. Rights that apparently didn’t extend to women, or to men of color, or to women of color, or to the little crooked lady who lived down the lane—for more than a hundred and forty years.

On an ordinary day in the 20th century, my great-grandmother got dressed up and put on a hat and went out to vote in an election.

Her little girl watched her go, and when that little girl turned eighteen, by gum, she voted.



My grandmother encouraged everyone to vote, regardless of whether they agreed with her politics or not. Were she still living, she would want me to tell you that she was a registered Democrat, or what Texas called “a yellow dog Democrat” because Democrats were as common as yellow dogs, as the saying went.

We each got the same lecture about our civic rights and responsibilities— we were called on to vote, she would say. And were called on to be a part of a jury of our peers. These were rights and they were responsibilities. To each man, to each woman— one vote. That’s the law.

In turn, my grandmother’s beliefs made a deep impression on my psyche, as you know if you’re a regular reader of this blog. (You also know I’ve been in mourning because she died this year, at the age of 99.) I do love to write about her and share her stories with you. Personally, I find that writing about her during a turbulent season like this one is helping me clarify how I think about the ideas that fill me with a sense of affinity.



What you don’t know about me is that I don’t talk politics because of my grandmother. She came from a family that liked to debate ideas, but really, my impression is that they liked scrap with each other about intelligent, socially-taboo topics— in other words, they talked politics and religion. What I’ve been told is that those fights ended with her father or one of her three brothers pounding on the kitchen table and shouting, after which everyone went to bed and fumed.

And while the mere thought of having anything like a debate makes me prickle around the edges thinking about it, there are times and places where I do find it hard to hold my tongue in my mouth without damn near biting it clean off.

I do vote, and I do follow politics enough to know what is going on especially with the issues I feel are most important. But I will never follow politics with the same avaricious joy as my grandmother did. As a writer, I have had the opportunity to write about specific issues or policies for magazines and newspapers, but usually the politics are tied into a human interest angle, and my job, as I see it, is to make my bias as transparent as possible.

When it comes to my personal life I keep that same bias glassily opaque because my feelings are so deeply held, and so personal that I don’t seek out opportunities to be offended by opinions I do not share.




So, of course, you know I’m going to break my own rule. Tonight, a landmark vote came down in Texas, and it was a bad one. Without getting into too much detail, I will tell you that this vote is about something I am against, and that I am grieving and that I am angry to the point of fury. I keep thinking of my mother’s mother’s mother— my great-grandmother, with her Gibson Girl looks and her quizzical eyes, walking out one day to vote for the first time. (Texas was the ninth state to ratify women’s right to vote.) Eighty-five years later, I remember the day my husband took my grandmother to vote in what would be her last election. In that memory, my spouse is holding her hand as if she were royalty as he bundles her into the car. Because I had already voted, I stood inside waving and waving, watching them drive away.

But this story is not about the loss of my grandmother, really, or even the dire policy at hand. It’s about my family and my family’s legacy in regards to women.



Both of my grandparents felt strongly about the need to protect women’s rights. My grandmother and my grandfather both were quite vocal by the time I, only granddaughter, came along the by and by. While my grandmother focused on modelling strength and independence, my grandfather chose a different tack— he started teaching me early how to use hand and electric tools; how to behave around livestock; how to ride a horse; how to drive a car; how to handle a firearm— all the things I needed to know in order to be a person in Texas.

However, the things I learned weren’t all that unusual for a Texas woman. This country is big and it is rough— you pretty much have to know how to get along in it, or you won’t get along at all. Women here tend to have a little flint to them— you don’t get many withering females in Texas. They just don’t thrive in the soil as well as the tougher succulents. My grandfather knew this, and so did my grandmother, and they tried to keep that little spark of wildness alive in me, and over time, they found ways to cultivate what was native to the girl I was, and to protect and to nurture that wildness for the woman they hoped I would become.

 

 

Finally, I find myself returning to one more memory— this moment from my own childhood with my grandfather. I adored my grandfather, and my grandfather adored me. So much of who I am comes from this man’s love and belief in me that I don’t like to talk about him much. He was so magical— so many people thought so. But my grandfather is a part of my life that I consider private. So I trust you to be kind as I share this one story:

One day when I was four I insisted to my grandfather that I would rather be a cowboy than a cowgirl. At the time, we were fussing with a huge magnet he used for picking up nails and screws in the cinder block shop behind his house. The four wrinkles that ran perpendicular across forehead folded together in concern. He fiddled with the magnet for a second, looking sad. I watched him, not understanding at all why what I said made him so very unhappy— my grandfather was almost never that unhappy. After a few more seconds, he told me, “You grow up and be a cowgirl. Cowgirls are just as good as cowboys. Do you understand? Just as good.” I wavered for a second, unsure. “Sometimes,” he added, turning his one blue eye and his one green eye on me, “sometimes a cowgirl is tougher than a cowboy, you see? Like you. You’re strong.”

And so I was. And so I am.




On nights like tonight, when I find myself worrying about where things are headed for Texas women, I remember that my grandmother was under school-age when her mother got the vote. My mother gained freedoms thanks to my grandmother fighting the good fight. And I have gained freedoms that my great-grandmother could not have imagined thanks to my mother. I am the product of three generations of rough-fighting Texas men and women; it’s my turn to pick up the stick and ward off the wild dogs of the night that would try to take away my hard-won rights— especially those rights specific to my gender.

On nights like tonight, I might worry a bit, and find myself wandering through my memory— but it’s all to a good purpose. The wild part my family cultivated in me tasted blood tonight, and I am awake and listening to every sound in the dark. I’ve got a rock, a thought, a stick, an idea, a voter’s card. Come at me. I’m ready.

 




 

The Little Black Dress That Never Was

 
 
 
threeyoungwomensouthwardhaweslarge
 
 
 

Because my grandmother lived to such a great age, I had a lot of time to think about the particulars of honoring her life after the advent of her death. The longer I had to think about those particulars, the more grandiose the thoughts became, until I had convinced myself that I would sew a sheath dress—to wear just for her funeral—and if I had time, I would embellish it with a little bit of needlework. Nothing complicated. Just an extremely fine dress out of a good fabric, possibly lined, with some sort of neat work around the neckline, and the hem, and the armholes.
 
 
 

My mind was its usual oblivious and fanciful self— which means it did not and would not take into account my fear of sewing, nor my lack of education and practice with needlework, nor my schedule, and certainly not my budget.

My grandmother sewed, and in my mind, I too sewed this little black something of a dress again and again, turning every touch of the needle into a memory of my love for her, and her love for me.
 
 
 

That dress, that emotionally complicated dress, never did get made. The funeral is tomorrow, and I am black dress-less. Because I’ve lost weight recently, I don’t have anything else in my size appropriate for a funeral either.

That means I am dark trouser-less and sober skirt-less as well.

I could wear one of my riotous vintage frocks, but I doubt, truly, that anyone, including me, would appreciate a clatter of high color at the small love knot of that will be my grandmother’s funeral.
 
 
 

The imaginary sheath dress mocked me as I flicked through the racks upon racks of dresses at one of my favorite thrift stores yesterday. I found many beautiful things, ripe with possibility, but none suitable for a funeral.

I found draped, bias-cut light wools and plummy little tunics in saturated tones. I found sweater-weight cowl neck items and jaunty jumpers in corduroy and denim. I found an explosion of cocktail garments, mostly of the synthetic chiffon overlay type. And I found many, many dinner dresses of that new polyester that lays so well on the curve of a woman’s shoulder, but feels like grit next to the skin.
 
 
 

The more I looked at these inappropriate dresses, the sweatier and sadder I became. I grabbed a lined black skirt in that gritty polyester that is meant to look like fine Italian wool, but when I got it home, I discovered the skirt slipped down around my hips.

Whatever remaining excess weight had remained on my frame, I had lost in these fourteen days of slow grieving.
 
 
 

I am about to go out to look for an appropriate outfit one more time. I am in search of anything, anything that will work. Let it be black, brown, gray, or navy. Let it be linen, cotton, wool, or silk. Let my eye alight on the right trouser, dress, or skirt. As I looked yesterday, the outline of a stolid epiphany emerged—

What I really want, I cannot have.

I want my grandmother at my side at the thrift store, looking for her favorite Ship ‘n’ Shore blouses.

I want to find a perfect dress and hear her enumerate its various fine qualities.

I want her hand to guide me in all the alterations I will have to make — some for her absence, some for her remembrance, some for the dress I may never find, and others still, for the grieving yet to come.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Succor and Ogden Nash

 
 
 
Succor and Ogden Nash
 
 
 


In other years, in other hospital rooms, I have sat by my grandmother’s bed, reading out loud to her, my finger on the page of a book, my eye jumping back and forth to her face, to the words beneath my finger, and back to her face again.

Sometimes reading aloud to my grandmother was meant to provide a distraction from the discomfort and confusion of hospital beds. Sometimes it served to cover the noise of equipment clattering down the hall. Sometimes it masked the covey of nurses talking in another room.

Sometimes my reading served as a counterpoint to a suitemate’s plaintive cry for home, home, home.
 
 
 

Sometimes when I read to my grandmother, I felt as though I had turned out the pockets of my great big heart and found nothing left in it but words.

And so there were words. Words by the great philosophers in bite-size form. Words by M.F.K. Fisher wryly cooking her way through two world wars. Words from Bailey White writing about her salt-taffy life, in a small town, sharing a house with her mama.
 
 
 

Sometimes I did not know what to read, but I tried to grab what was funny, or practical, or both if I could manage it. I read to her the way that she and my mother taught me to read— measured and musical, making bright sense of the language through tonal variation and tempo.

It was a thing I knew how to do, and I did it when it was appropriate, winding language around that bed like layer upon layer of bright silk and wood room dividers used in polite salons from another century.

I read to her because I wanted to take her away from that room.

Because my hands were cold, or hot, or useless, and I needed a book to warm and wake them.

Because, at first, I wanted her to remember as much of herself as she could, and later, when that became improbable, I felt the need to remember who she was for both of us.
 
 
 

There are so few sometimes left in this story that I must speak in other tenses.

Two days ago, I pulled the old volumes of poetry off of the shelves to take to her hospice room with the leather chair that abuts the window.

Yesterday, I opened the Ogden Nash book, the one I bought years after her memory slipped its oars into still, dark waters and rowed away.

Before sunset, I read Nash’s poem about birdwatching to my grandmother. Her face twitched to itself, folding into an arrangement that looked like a facial expression.

Was the twitch a memory floating up from the soft darkness between us?

Was the twitch discomfort?

Was the twitch a trick of muscle memory?
 
 
 

I closed the book on my finger.

In other years, I would have smiled brightly and switched to reading another poem. Maybe the one about the leopard. Maybe the one about the rhinoceros.

But that night, I turned out the pockets of my great, big heart and found them full of so many small things she had slipped inside when I wasn’t looking.

I touched her hand in the one place where it was not bruised. I set Ogden Nash behind me on the chair, and I rose from my seat to stand by the side of her bed in the semi-darkness.

Her face settled into neutral. Her hands continued to move above the sheet, twitching and shaking. Her forehead blurred with sweat.

The nurses came and went, checking levels, straightening sheets, talking kindly to her, and to me.

For the next hour, I continued to stand in the same spot by her bed, where I listened to the sound of soft breath fluttering from her lungs, where I stroked her fever-damp hair, without saying a word.

 
 
 

 
 
 

On Certitude

 
 
 
Pale young Victorian woman wears a rather modern expression of frankness with her hands demurely crossed in front of her dress.
 
 
 

One of the vivid pictures of my youth, and one I see often, still, is my mother’s back disappearing through a crowd of people in a theater. 

The woman may be little, but she sure is quick.  You cannot turn your head for a second before she’s gone.  Poof! 

The next thing I know, my equally short self is peering through a crowd of folks in their second-best evening clothes trying to find a tiny woman with blonde hair.  Where is she going?

(And the stars are whirling in the skies tonight.  The stars know why my mother thins her way through crowds and disappears.)

My mother has a background in theater, radio, and film.  She spent her adult life working another career, one we can discuss on another day. 

In writing a story, the old maxim for character development is you know a character when you know the one thing they value above all others.

(And the moon sits low in the sky tonight, listening to my story.  The moon knows what my mother values.)
 
 
 
By following this maxim, to know my mother, you must know her first love, which was theater. 

Her specialty was comedic character roles and musical theater.   She was also a radio DJ for a rock station before I was born.  

My mother knew what she loved, and loves.  That’s a gift.  I call it certitude.

(The clouds cut across the sky, low and thin.  They have certitude.  They know this quality well.)

When I was small, my mother made few, but exacting decisions on what I would be allowed to see and watch and know.  TV was carefully controlled, as were movies, but books were, for the most part, entirely available. 

My mother owns thousands of books and plays and musical scores.  All the metaphorical doors of these worlds were left open to me.  That was her choice, her certitude at work.

(I look through the window, where the moon peers back at me.  O, moon.  How many hours have you and I discussed these books and plays and musicals scores my mother owns?)
 
 
 
To live in a household with a mother like that, a woman who has a richly storied classical theater education braided with a silly, understated love of comedy— well, every day, my friends, was an adventure. 

When I started preschool, early, at the age of three, she woke me by throwing open my door and singing.  My mother allowed me to dress myself. 

As long as I wore seasonally appropriate garments, she turned her kindness to the colors and textures my child’s eye and hand, loved.  Loved.

(The clouds know these textures and colors.   Their watery bodies accumulate shape and color by light and pressure and gravity.  Certitude.)

What of my mother?  What did she want?  She wanted… to be able to experience the theater she loved. 

The older I grew, the more she took me to see theater— all kinds of theater.   She was fearless. 

And when the show was terrible, I’d look at the seat next to me, and find that she had slipped out. 

At the exact moment when the audience was distracted by some actor chewing the scenery to bits, I would slip out and join her in the hum of the electric lights of the lobby.

It wasn’t good, she would say.   

Her eyes, true light blue to my natural chameleon ones, would settle on me with gravitas.  Let’s go get a soda.  I’ll tell you why it wasn’t good.

(The night sky remembers when my mother and I would walk out of theaters, her hands in her trouser pockets, lost in thought, my questing face seeking the secret to her inward-looking stare.)
 
 
 

My mother taught me it was okay to have standards of my own. 

Her example shows its shining face every day in what she chooses and does not choose— in what I choose and do not choose.  We try everything.  We do not like everything.  We do like some things. And we agree and disagree in even measure.  

Yet, we know the why of our likes and dislikes and can articulate these aesthetic considerations and greater standards clearly.  

I am, in this way, entirely my mother’s child.

(The dust of the newly-born stars are in my breath tonight.  I breathe out, and I think of my mother, now and always, appreciative, inquisitive, and certain.)
 
 
 
Two weeks ago, my mother got “nosebleed seats” for Billy Elliot. 

My husband and her husband, my stepfather, were there.  My mother and I did not sit together.  Sometimes we do, and when we do, she squeezes my hand. 

As each scene unfolded to the next, I caught my mother’s eye for a moment.  I nodded.  She smiled.  It was good.  Really good.

I am my mother’s child.  I have written and reviewed many facets of theater and dance and performance art over the years because my mother taught me how to examine, how to consider, how to appreciate, how to see, how to have certitude. To be fearless.

We leave the theater in a crowd of brightly dressed theater patrons.  The evening night spills warm and humid air on our air-conditioned clothes.   Her head bends near mine.  I hold in a bag in my left hand a copy of the original cast recording, which my mother purchased for me. 

“It has the immediacy of West Side Story, ” I say.  “The political made personal theme.  And the songs were so distinct in their moods.  The lighting design!  The nested set!”

I am off and running.  My mother nods.  She looks behind her at our husbands.  They know to avoid my wide waving hands when I get going like this. 

I’ll stop in a few minutes.  She will tell me what she thinks, but quietly.  I stare directly into her blue eyes.  She takes the measure of my chameleon ones.

“Here’s what I think,” she replies.
 
 
 

And I listen.  And the night listens.

To know a person, know what they value.

That’s the old maxim of writing a three-dimensional character.  I should know.  This is a thing my mother taught me. 

My mother adores theater, but she values me.

 
 
 

Girl with doll, holding mother's hand

 
 
 

On Enthusiasm

 
Emily, Edwin and Bill Hamilton in fancy dress
 

When my mother married my stepfather, we all received a gift from this man.

Although this gift was not unexpected, I do not think any of us realized exactly how we would be affected by the gift and the giver.

You see, my stepfather is enthusiastic.

Really, really enthusiastic.

About many things and ideas and places and people.

When folks say “his enthusiasm was infectious”— they were talking about people like my stepfather because his enthusiasms are not private, no,  they are a shared fire which we all can warm our hands around.

 
 
 

Enthusiasm is not so much a character trait as it is a way of being.

The truly enthusiastic radiate an extra layer of light the rest of the world does not have.

The truly enthusiastic are capable of hearing a tonal range of joy in the everyday that gives me pause.

Enthusiasm to me is 48 flavors of brightly-colored ice cream; exclamation points;  warm handshakes and the color orange.

If enthusiasm is one end of a continuum, cynicism is its magnetic polar opposite.

Cynicism is a world-weary air worn casually as a sweater.  Cynicism knows the world and sees its potential for disaster— comic, terrible disaster.

When I think of cynicism, I think of campy theatrical wink-and-nod productions; Andy Warhol; and the color black.

 
 

Most people are not truly cynical or truly enthusiastic.

They may hover at one end or the other of the spectrum, or run up and down the scale of enthusiasms and cynicisms like a singer with a wide vocal range.

The average man-about-town manages pet enthusiasms for specific subjects or situations.

The typical big-woman-on-campus harbor cynicisms about certain ideas or circumstances.

It is rare to find a fully cynical person or a fully enthusiastic person whom is also a fully fledged adult.

Enter my stepfather, a true enthusiast of so many things— lover of amusement parks and sing-a-longs, fan of novelty hats and retro candy.  No true cynic could withstand the power of his clear basso profundo of a voice.

What he loves, he loves and he has no fear of speaking these words aloud:  THIS IS FANTASTIC!  YOU NEED TO TRY THIS!

 
 

Those of us who are graced by the pleasure of his company get swept along with his enthusiasms the way a gentle ocean tide pulls at your legs.

Fear falls away.  You surprise yourself by seeking out the dressed-up characters at the amusement park to take ridiculous artful pictures.

Hats with horns sneak into your wardrobe on holidays.

You reacquaint your palate to the novelty candies of yore.

 
 
Little girl with rabbit costume.
 

Nothing tastes as sweet as enthusiasm once you’ve had a healthy dose in your environment; no experience feels nearly so natural as to enjoy and rejoice and do so loudly and brightly.

My stepfather brought this strong way of being with him into his marriage and into our lives.

On Christmas Eve, I got a chance to see an hour’s worth of converted 8 mm home movies of the joyful boy who became the enthusiastic man we know today.

In the darkness of my parents’ living room, I watched my stepfather’s life unfold in a series of 8 mm clips converted to DVD. 

Black and white and color.  No sound.   Short clips of the man himself appeared amidst unfamiliar faces.

The camera loves my stepfather’s smile.  His smile then is the same smile today— a firefly flash of a thing, bright, real.

The camera loves his physicality—  the well-timed comic shrug of his shoulders; the upturned questioning palms.  His whole being vibrated an anticipation of possibility as a boy, as a teenager.

He still vibrates with the anticipation of possibility as a man.

It’s amazing to see his joy unfold, and a thrill to be included in his enthusiasms.

 
 

And a man like that? A man like that is a man of his own making.

Think of my stepfather as a Super Ball bouncing back and forth from joy to joy.  His thick-surfaced resilient, resplendent enthusiastic self is a wonder to watch.  So many things and places and people and ideas to love.  So many ways to express that love.

I know the language of the cynic.  I know the language of the enthusiast.  The cynic is offered the weight of authority more so than the natural enthusiast, but I don’t know why— especially when the enthusiast has so much to say.

Don’t mistake me— I like a little bitter with my sweet, even in a time of my life when I could not be more enthusiastic myself. A well-placed dark-humored joke is as rich as a homemade caramel.

But the more enthusiasm I encounter in the being of this one man, the harder it is to affect the posture of the cynic.

(Call me a convert to the attitudes of enthusiasm, thanks to one special man.)

 
 

The day before yesterday, I went on a whirly-funky across-Texas trip with The Husband.

In fact, as I write this to you now, I am still on that trip, riding back in the late afternoon where the land meets the hills right in the middle of the state.

And I’m reminded of a trip I took with my mother and my stepfather a few years before, a similar trip, quick as whip and brightly colored.

I had brought with me a special CD that I found at the library— The Langley Schools Music Project.

This rare recording from the 1970s is the brainchild of Hans Fenger, who took a beautiful children’s choir that he trained himself and taught these fine-voiced youngsters to sing popular songs of the day.

Often lumped under “outsider music,” it is treated as both an artifact as a novelty.  It was never meant to be heard by a wide audience, and it reflects a pure joyousness for the love of rock music and children’s choirs as recorded in 1976-77 on a two-track recorder.

I got it from the library because I knew my stepfather would love it, and he did.  We drove my mother half-crazy singing every song on the album on the way up the state and all the way back down.

 
 

See?  See?  There we are, the two of us swaying back and forth to “Sweet Caroline,” one of the sweet cover songs by The Langley Schools Music Project.

He is smiling the same smile I saw in those movies from his childhood— the bright pure smile of someone who knows that the secret to life can be letting the joy out, airing it and complimenting it and seeing that joy can be an end unto itself.

And I am smiling and bouncing in the backseat and laughing.

His enthusiasms have converted us all.  Even my mother couldn’t help but add her voice to the mix of low and medium and high.

The thing about the truly enthusiastic like my stepfather, though, is that he doesn’t need a pretty moment to generate his joy.

The joy comes first.  The rest of us march behind it, tootling on toy instruments, trying to join in as best we can.

 
 

Thanksgiving Maskers (LOC)

 
 

On Possibility

 
 
 
AnnetteLeSurLongBeach Library of Congress
 
 
 

My grandmother believed deeply in the possibility of things and people.  In her mind, all broken household items could be made to work with a little tape; all clothes needed only a little this and that to become wearable; and all people, with a little elbow grease and a lot of help, could become more than their original selves.

Were she merely shouting these diktat from the safety of her lady-style recliner, I would not admire this trait of hers as much as I do. Nor would I be nearly so impressed if she only showed this can-do-it-all spiritedness in public for show. Luckily, she had neither of these quirks. In her private life at home, my grandmother turned up her sleeves and tried her darndest to make something out of nothing, and anything was fair game.  In her public life, she volunteered for everything she believed could use her help and she voted on every issue in the public eye.

And she had a routine

Starting in her 60s, my grandmother read the paper from front page to back every day—even the ads and automobile pages.  Most afternoons, unless she was volunteering somewhere, she called her friends and family, gardened, sewed, watched the news at least twice, listened to the radio version of the news, and fixed things.

 
 
 

To be a grandchild of this force of nature was to witness what can happen when blunt force meets intelligence and humor and imagination.=  She influenced everyone and everything she touched, like a fire influences a raw steak.  Her thin, long, cool fingers strapped noses back on teddy bears, tapped desks of stubborn agencies that didn’t support social services for those in need, and wrapped around bruised fruit while she carefully pared away the rotten parts.

What my grandmother gave to me was a love of vintage clothing and a dark sense of humor, both a variation on her love of possibility.  At eight, she started to teach me the names of specific types of clothes, styles, fabric, and the necessary sewing construction terms to go along with this knowledge.

 
 
 

By my teens, I knew the difference between a snap-brim and a cloche hat; could discuss the merits of a weighted hem versus a handkerchief-rolled one; and began to appreciate the vast collection of vintage garments and accessories that she helped become the mainstay of my wardrobe.  (This love of vintage garments predates the fashionable collecting of fine clothing that we have now.  I wore what I wore out of necessity first, and then love, later.)

As for my grandmother’s dark sense of humor, well… if you haven’t seen evidence of my grandmother’s influence on Bluebird Blvd., you might want to look around a little bit.  I learned her voice and her ways in the same way I learned to read— at her knee*.  My grandmother’s deadpan drawl came from being the only sister in a household of brothers.  And if that won’t send anyone a little south in his or her humor, I don’t know what will.

Her humor was the tip of her own hat to possibility, and possibility in action can go awfully awry quickly.

 
 
 

Despite all of her good intentions, some of my grandmother’s sense of possibility turned on her at times, knocking everything in it’s path willy-nilly with unbridled weirdness.

A child’s soft-as-down brunette hair bore scorch black marks from a home permanent the night before picture day.  Glued-together vintage carved Polynesian shoes broke in half on parking lot asphalt far from home.  The light switch in the stairwell of my childhood could be turned off and on both upstairs and down, but never at the same time on the same day.  Small secondhand appliances caught fire and gave off brilliant displays of sparks.

 
 
 

Yet, what was broken was sometimes fixed by her light touch. 

Almost every item I ever wore was altered to fit by her immaculate sewing skills.

I had all kinds of toys to share with friends because she bought dolls and cars and dress-up clothes at garage sales, cleaned up and repaired every inch, and gave them to me with a small secret smile and bright brown eyes.

I learned to play the piano on a secondhand upright she bought from a neighbor’s back porch that had been left out to warp itself out-of-tune.

Her sense of what could be made and done was magical, my friends, just magical, when it worked.

 
 
 

I’m only telling you the stories that are my own.  Her belief in possibility had a far, far reach.  But, those aren’t my stories to tell.

Except for this one:

My grandmother is quite elderly.  Her age surprises people.  These days, she has advanced dementia, and she does not remember most of us, most of the time.  It is okay, though.  She’s safe and loved and cared for after a lifetime of keeping people safe and loved and cared for.

A month ago, my mother went to drop off her clean laundry. On that day, my mother’s own soft natural-looking blonde hair was up in a pretty chignon. 

My grandmother was asleep in the bed, curled tight as an actively dreaming child.  At the sound of my mother’s footfalls, she awoke, and peered at my mother with one owlish eye.

“Who are you?”

My mother smiled.  “I’m your daughter.”

She stared openly at her daughter, my mother.  “What did you do with your hair?”

“I dyed it blonde.”

“Well,” said my grandmother.  “That’s alright, then.”

And, satisfied with her own answer, my grandmother resumed her nap.  My mother grinned gently when she told me this story.  This was my grandmother, after all.

 
 
 

*My mother and my grandmother both taught me to read at the age of three.  Of all the gifts they ever gave me, this one expresses itself every day of my life.

This essay is part of an ongoing series about my family and my love for the gifts they give to me and to everyone we know.  On Wonder is dedicated to my grandfather.  And I was a dreamy child is about my mother and her gift to me.

I also talk about both my grandparents and their household in Lady-Style Recliners and Other Decorative Grandparental Mysteries.

And finally, after participating fully in yesterday’s blackout, I posted an essay called The Soft Answer last night. (Just in case you missed it.)

*The above picture is not my grandmother. It is a Creative Commons photograph from the Library of Congress Archives from WWII of a Miss Annette Del Sur in Long Beach.
 
 

Misunderstood, Both Noun and Verb

 
 
 
Fremont Davis (1915-1977)
 
 
 


There was once a professor who became famous not for his scholarship, nor for his personality, but for his ability to mangle the English language.

His name was Dr. Spooner and his unfortunate specialty was the transposition of letters in a phrase.  Many apocryphal stories abound at New College, Oxford lauding his prowess in this area because letter transposition makes for an excellent anecdote.   But, the one verified account goes something like this:

Dr. Spooner was asked to give the morning address.  Oxford College is a public university, but, being located in England, this means the students received a certain amount of religious instruction from the Church of England.

Here’s where my imagination takes over.  I picture a cold chapel filled with sleepy students in traditional academic dress of a knee-length black gown, rumpled from excessive wear and early class schedules.  I picture grumpy dons in longer gowns, wiping the sleep-sand discreetly from their eyes.

Dr. Spooner stands, walks slowly and with great dignity to the front of the assembly, and stops behind the lectern.  He clears his throat and begins reciting a familiar prayer:

My Lord is a shoving leopard…

And, I guess you can imagine what happened from there.  I think it started with amazed now quite-awake looks, followed by snickers and guffaws into the unwashed sleeves of those black, dusty gowns.  And I believe that Dr. Spooner probably did not catch his own error until someone discreetly pointed it out to him later.  Or not.

 
 
 
Betty Boone jumping over a motor scooter driven by Don Roberson
 
 
 

Why do I feel so certain of these details?  Why do I presume to further furnish an already overstuffed story?

Because I am convinced I am a distant relative of Dr. Spooner, a man whose name I never would have heard the whole of my life, had not someone, a teacher maybe, pointed out that I, too, transpose words and other horrid things involving spoken language.  There’s even a name for this form of English-speaking:  Spoonerism.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever managed anything as spectacular as Spooner’s shoving leopard, but dang it, my brain keeps trying to match the great doctor’s record of mismatched words and crumpled ideas.

Even basic requests get mashed around in my mouth.  To the husband, one evening:  “Shake your twos off at the door.  You’re dingging in Burt.” 

(Can you understand now why he’s so kerfuffled all the time?  Now, you will understand why. I don’t speak English or any other recognizable verbal language, really. I speak Bluebirdian.)

Now, if it were merely the basic transposing Spoonerisms that I specialized in creating, I think I could live with constantly alarming the folks I know and meet every day.

 
 
 
Young girl jumping on a trampoline at the Sarasota High School Sailor Circus
 
 
 

Unsurprisingly, like Dr. Spooner, I manage to find new ways to not communicate with people all the time.

I have what I like to call “creative hearing.”  I’ve got more or less the standard hearing loss of a woman my age that did dumb things like stand next to amps at small music venues.  And I have a crud-ton of allergies.

While the reasons I mentioned should explain how I miss certain words and nuances in conversation, those reasons don’t explain, whatsoever, how I end up hearing something like this at a dinner party I threw ten years ago:
 
 

Dinner party guest:  Your sitar is fantastic!  Did you make your own peacock, or did you fry it?
 

Me:  Um.  I’m sorry?
 

Dinner party guest:  I SAID, your chicken is fantastic.  Did you make your own stock, or did you buy it?
 

Me:  Oh!  I made this stock.  Thank you. (Coughs to cover embarrassment.)

 
 
 
Action shot of a girl jumping rope in a backyard
 
 
 

These days, I don’t even give the pretense of having vastly misunderstood the phrasing.

My technique is to repeat what I heard the first time.  For instance, here I am outside of a crowded art gallery a few years ago:
 

Brand new friend I just met:  So, I work in Hickoids these days, but the butterfat tastes like grooming.
 

Me:  Did you say (repeats what I think he just said word for word.)… ?  I have creative hearing.
 
 

At this point, my brand new friend has two options.  He can either crack up laughing, which is what I would like him to do, or he can get ticked off angry because he feels as though I’m not giving his Hickoid job, gravitas, or that I am not taking seriously the grooming of the butterfat.

Most of the time I get a look of pie-eyed surprise and a big guffaw when I repeat back what my creative ears have heard.  (Oh, boy, how I love to hear and to make a big guffaw, myownself!) 

Sometimes, I get the ticked-off look, which I try to offset with a genuine beatific smile.  I can’t help if I cannot speak well or hear correctly, but I do try to have good manners.
 
 
 
Skier making a cornice jump near Edith Creek, Mount Rainier
 
 
 

One final sin of the misunderstood who misunderstand as I do would be the masticating of names.

This Christmas, we went over to a household filled with longtime friends of our family.  I was quite excited about this evening of a meal and the exchanging of gifts because the parents of one of our friends were going to be there, and I have been wanting to meet Q——’s parent’s for years.

Oh my gosh, her parents are everything I thought they would be and more.  So nice!  Q— has some of the best manners I’ve ever seen in a lifetime of witnessing good manners. 

Because she is gracious, I was anticipating the possibility of meeting the most socially adept parents ever created by a collection of atoms.  And they’re huggers!  I’m a hugger!

I know you see what’s coming next right?  Maybe you don’t.  Please excuse me while I slip into the more comfortable present tense.

Ah, much more comfortable.

For four hours, I call these two lovely people Dr. and Mrs. Ken

As we prepare to leave after a lovely evening involving the recitation of these names at least 40 times, I say, “Dr. Ken, it has been a pleasure to meet you.” 

My husband overhears this pleasantry, and stage whispers:  “You know that’s not their name, right?”

A look of horror seeps from the top of my head, down to my eyes, where my pupils widen and contract, and then my nose twitches, and my mouth rounds into a perfect “O,” which is followed by the sound, more of a groan of familiarity on my part.

“Oh,” I say.  “Oh.”

Q——‘s husband, old family friend, has been listening to this exchange, and now does a double-near coffee spit-take behind me. 

I wheel round like a short banshee and stare at him.  He cannot figure out how to swallow the coffee in his mouth, he’s laughing so, very, hard

Finally, he remembers how to swallow liquid like a person and says clearly:

“You’ve been saying it all evening!  I thought it was a joke!  Like they were a Barbie family or something!”

I’m strange yes, but I’m not that strange, right?  Well, maybe I am, but I’m mannered.  Though given what I say half of the time out of pure confusion, who knows what my loved ones think I’m doing, honestly?

I manage to collect what little bits and scraps of my dignity remain, though they are floating about me like so many colored blots of Christmas wrapping paper.

I’m so mortified I can barely see a straight line, so I close my eyes as I say to P——, as I am bubbling over, frothing with mortification.

“So, what is their name, actually?”

“Dr. and Mrs.  C——.”

It rhymed with Ken.  So close.  So, so close.
 
 
 

The room around me is bright with smiling faces. 

P—— convulses when he realizes the gravity of my stupidity.  He doubles over when it occurs to him that my brain has passed the usual boundaries into something he hasn’t even seen my brain do before.  That I’ve managed to strangulate his in-laws’ name for hours, and everyone in the room has been too polite to fix it.

Ah, me.

I don’t know what to do at this point, and P—— is so pleased with my mistake.  I sigh.

Then, I close my eyes, and bow my head in silent prayer:

My Lord is a shoving leopard…
 
 
 
 


 

A BRIEF BUT IMPORTANT FOLLOW-UP NOTE: As I was writing this, I wrestled with how to discuss deaf- and hearing-impaired stigma and stereotypes within the framework of this essay. And I decided to use a lot of qualifiers to explain to you how my “creative hearing” is not in the same league of the stigmatized experience of the hearing-impaired and Deaf communities. I think, in retrospect, that I’ve failed to communicate in a more fundamental way to give some heft to this subject. So, I’m trying to make it up to y’all.

In the spirit of all my wrestling and sorting through the stigma of hearing-related topics and not telling other peoples’ stories without their permission, I would instead like to give you the gift of seeing this video. The Husband studied ASL last fall, and we watched a lot of documentaries and videos together. (I’ve seen a lot of documentaries on Deaf Culture on my own time over the years.)

While there are ASL rock bands, there are also ASL translations of aural rock music. This is a White Stripes translation that made me tear up the first time I saw it. (Soon, I’ll post an ASL music video. ASL Music rocks out!)
 
 
 
 

Lady-Style Recliners and Other Decorative Grandparental Mysteries

 
 

 
 


Of all the unanswered questions of my childhood, the ones that haunt me the most are the ones that still embellish the edges of my adulthood.

To be specific, I am confused about the household customs of my grandparents. To be even clearer— I do not understand their furniture.

Let me explain.

My grandparents came of age during the Great Depression. They are Texan, and American, in that order. (My wonderful grandmother is still with us, and my much-adored grandfather has passed.)

I spent a great deal of time in their house while growing up, whole swaths of time, especially in the summer when the heat and the light kept me inside, stretched on the couch in the second bedroom with a library book, wearing shorts and a t-shirt pressed by my grandmother’s deft iron. Much of it was bliss, and other parts, benign.

Yet, this unbroken stretch of indoor play left me with certain questions that have never, to this day, been answered satisfactorily.
 
 
 

First of all, I don’t comprehend recliners.

They are the furniture of choice of all my people, familial and Texan. Recliners aren’t chairs, and they aren’t beds.

They have owners, much like pets do, and visitors are not invited to sit on them.

Even more curious is the “feminine” or “lady-style” recliner favored by my grandmother.

Covered in soft pea green velveteen, this recliner has also been called Command Station One by my extended family, as all important sitting-related tasks were performed here.

Newspaper reading. Bill paying. Phone calling. Hand-sewing. Shouting at grandchildren who insist on touching—
 
 
—the occasional tables that were occasional, but not ever tables.
Tables are designed to support objects and sometimes food.

My grandmother’s occasional tables were of the “nesting” variety, the kind that neatly tuck under one another like matryoshka dolls.

This set was teak, hand-carved on the top in a relief of a village, and covered in glass.

Also, the tables were irresistible to me. And off-limits. And you couldn’t set anything on them, which made sense, because they were located in the—
 
 
 

Formal living room.

I understand the word “formal.” To me, it is a word synonymous with both “pretty” and “uncomfortable” and sometimes both, combined.

I also understand the phrase “living room”— a place for living, for engaging in group activities.

(The “living room” has been replaced with the “great room,” which may be great, but it’s not as much a room as a stadium with Sheetrock around it.)

What eludes me still is what one does with a formal living room except for dust it and shoo a certain grandchild away from it.

The one time I saw someone visit and lower herself on the cream brocade couch, I looked expectantly at my grandmother, awaiting her habit of yelling when one sat down on the nice furniture.

That, my friends, was a very sad day. It was the day I discovered I was the only one not allowed on the fancy couch. The same visitor gratefully accepted a piece of—

 
 
the Prehistoric Candy in the covered candy-dish.

Once again, I had an unpleasant shock when I found out that the enticing shiny, glittery, candy-filled container that I was not allowed to touch— ever— was offered to adults. On this occasion, I was given a piece.

At one time it was a butterscotch cellophane-wrapped delight, but that must have been way, way before I was born.

This confection smelled like butterscotch, but looked like something that contained the DNA of our human ancestors.

(And for all I know today, it very well might have contained the DNA of the 1960s.)

But The Prehistoric Candy was more food than—
 
 
 

—the Wax Fruit in the cut-glass bowl on the dining room table.

Guess which one of these items I was allowed to touch?

If you guessed none of them, you guessed correctly. Every single item within eye-sight of the dining room table was an antique.

And I was told I’d go as extinct as the Prehistoric Candy if I ever put another sticky finger on the fake fruit.

Okay, fine. I was the kid that had to touch everything. It’s true.

No wonder my grandmother had her yell at the ready every time I came to stay for a week. She had long before earned the right to have nice things, and who was I, grabby little creature, to mess with her stuff?

She even made a special space for me in her second bedroom. Jack Kennedy stared down from a framed photograph as I played with my mother’s dolls. Special books, all secondhand and well-loved, waited on a low bookshelf.

She couldn’t have gone to more effort to give me a space in which to play and make a certain low-level mess.
 
 
 

My problem was— so much of what my grandmother had was weird and enticing. I didn’t want to do anything to it, necessarily. I wanted to touch it.

And even more than that, I wanted someone to adequately explain the sociological mysteries of these household goods.

I can live with not knowing the secret of the Lady Recliner. I will deal with my own disappointment surrounding the occasional tables that were sometimes occasional, but never tables.

I may never understand the zeitgeist of the Formal Living Room, and I know how the Prehistoric Candy in the covered-dish evolves into it’s current form, but I do not accept the necessity of its existence, not aesthetically, nor spiritually.
 
 
 

What I cannot release is the enigma of The Wax Fruit.

It haunts me, late at night, when I cannot sleep.

Worse still, I know other adults my age who own whole sets of the shiny, petroleum-scented faux-produce. I’m afraid to ask the questions that have been troubling me for years:

What is Wax Fruit for? Actual edible fruit these days is readily available everywhere. It knows no season, due to the use of air-shipping from tropical climates.

Is The Wax Fruit a form of Placeholder Fruit for those days between supermarket visits?

Is it a simulacrum intended as a postmodern irony on the flavorless bounty that passes for contemporary edible fruit?

In an emergency, can you eat it or burn it for fuel?

Okay, just tell me this: Are modern wax fruit ironic? They’re ironic, right? They’re food that you have to dust. And that you cannot eat.
 
 
 

Do you see why I get confused?

Do you understand why I constantly placed my small hands with their sworls of fingerprints on my grandmother’s objets de virtu ou curiosité? I couldn’t help it.

So much between our two generations remained abstruse, unspoken, hidden. The furniture, I’m afraid, was merely set decoration for the greater tragicomedy being played out, of missed language and inedible decorative food. Each of us were seeking shelter in objects and symbols, and each desired a certain serene space untouched by any other, even other loved ones.

And at night, the light gleamed off of The Wax Fruit. After my grandmother went to bed, I would stretch out a steady, bath-cleaned index finger, and allow it to hover over the surface of the nearest wax apple. I never touched one, though.

She was none the wiser, and, unfortunately, neither am I.

 
 
 

Wax apple

 
 
 

 
 

Walking Bare-Legged in a Dry Land

 
 
 

 
 
 


This time of year, the South Texas heat fades back like a song tapering off after going on for far too long.  The first cold snap is like a new tune— jittery, unexpected, and always exciting.  And, as I listen to the hoot owls tonight talking from tree to tree, my mind walks to places further down south from the city where I live, to the place where my people come from— ranch country.
 
 

My people were and are ranchers and farmers.  Generation after generation worked a hard land in a harsh climate, and their hard work showed in the way their eyes swept across the calligraphy of mesquite branches against the sky and the careful way they spoke.  My grandparents were born to it, and they gave me what they could by way of an education of place.
 
 

Land like that is beautiful, but unforgiving of simple mistakes.  You shake out your boots in the morning to make sure a scorpion is not curled up in the toe.  You tread carefully in high brush, ear turned for the soft, insistent shhhhhhzz that tells you a rattler is near.  You carry water on your person at all times because you never know what can happen.  Your eyes are constantly scanning the horizon for the rare mountain lion (called painters by prior generations— a variation on panther); your footfall remains soft and loose when you’re near the crick-bed (creek bed) because wild javelina will run at you if startled.
 
 

It took time, and patience, by my grandparents to instill these necessary lessons tempered with the lush, visceral beauty of the land itself.  On cool nights like tonight, I am here in this room, but thinking of there, and I know it will be time for me to go, soon.  I’ll pack the boots and the binoculars, grab the dogs’ harnesses, and my shade hat, and as I put each thing in the truck, the chatty part of me will grow increasingly silent.  My gaze will grow wide, and my ears will turn to every natural sound within listening distance.  Tonight, the hoot owls may be talking to each other, but to me, they’re saying:  it’s time, it’s time, it’s time.

I was a dreamy child

 
 

Miss Gertrude Powys as The Angel in the pantomime Sleeping Beauty at the Theatre Royal, 1886 / photographer J. T. Gorus, Sydney

 
 

I was a dreamy child; this was my mother’s gift to me.

She had been a dreamy child herself, and knew exactly what a dreamy child needs– time, space, silence.
 

When I was very small, I hummed in the car.  I lay on the bed my mother built with her own two hands and stared out of the window over the rooftops.  I drew.  I gazed off into a hazy middle distance.  
 

A few years later I spent an entire year reading Peanuts books in a patched red vinyl beanbag.  High school found me listening to Billie Holiday records surrounded by stacks of library books and composition notebooks and sketchpads.
 

College didn’t make a dent into my dreaminess, despite the natural hazards of being a dreamer with a full-time school schedule and a full-time job.  I still spent what spare hours I had looking at the world through an increasingly interesting fog.  
 

And in those moments, everything, everything fell away.
 

Some dreamy children grow out of their dreaminess– the world intrudes by way of loud noises and grades, first, and deadlines and bills, later.
 

I never lost the dreamy part of myself.  It took work to learn to live in the world and yet not be of the world— to make the balance between dreaming and being, but I think I’ve done it.  I think I’ve done it.