The Last Thing You Do

My last memory of my mother is of a tiny white dot, high in the sky above me, and a thin wailing sound as the wind carried her hot air balloon out over the sea.

I hung on as long as I could, the rough surface of the wicker basket creaking and cutting my palms as I struggled to pull myself into the gondola of the balloon, giving it a bit more ballast. Alas, I have never been athletic, and in this moment of desperation, not even my fervent wish and urgent need were enough to achieve the impossible and lift my leg over the edge of the gondola. Instead, fate, fear and lacquer conspired to make my sweaty hands slip, sending me tumbling sideways the forty feet to the ground where I crashed, and, as I found out later, broke both my humerus and my clavicle. Mother would never have survived the fall.

As I watched the balloon lift and mother went from a doll to something even tinier and therefore more unreal, I could still hear voice high above me.

“Tell your father I never loved him!” she shouted, wiping at her face. “I always despised him and I’m glad to be leaving!”

The pain in my body caused the world to ripple and shimmer, and the pain of seeing my mother drifting uncontrolled out to sea was a crushing weight that kept me from floating up into the sky after her, but this bomb that she dropped from sixty feet up hit me and drove me into the ground.

“What?” I yelled, not because I hadn’t heard, but because I hadn’t believed. We’ve all done that.

“I hate your father. Just tell him!”

I clasped my hands to my heart, worried that the pain I was feeling might be a heart attack, although I dismissed that notion because to have a heart attack at a time like this would be self-indulgent and attention-seeking. She must have thought I was sad. It was true, but to say I was sad is like saying that the universe is big. It’s a word so out of scale as to be wrong.

“I love you. Never forge…”

But I may have made up the last bit of that. The “I love you” was almost audible, but it may have been a seagull somewhere near as well. She was too far away for me to hear anything properly, and all I was left with was her saying she hated my father. I stood there, my toes hanging off the edge of the cliff, and toyed with the notion of stepping off and flapping my arms.

While everyone in the world who wasn’t us looked for her, a tiny old woman in a hot air balloon with inadequate ballast, a non-intuitive steering mechanism and a picture of Buster Keaton as a young and handsome man painted on the side, my father and I sat at the kitchen table and stared at each other and two cups of stone cold tea. I thought about telling him what she’d said, but the more I thought about it, the more angry I became.

How dare she. How dare she burden me with breaking the news to my father that their 42-year marriage had been a sham. How dare she intimate to me, in what may well have been her final moments, the notion that her life had been unhappy. I love my father. He’s a kind, gentle, unambitious man whose dahlias win prizes that he donates to charity and who writes letters to the editor in which he says that So-and-So is really a much nicer person than anyone gives them credit for. How could she have saddled me with the task of breaking his heart? I joined them late in life, a miracle baby when my mother was on the cusp of menopause, and I had always thought that she and my father had always wanted children and that I had dispelled their disappointment. It would never have occurred to me that I had caused it. Why did she feel it necessary to ensure that she took from us not just herself, but any happy memories that we might have of the time she had spent with us?

“What is it, sweet pea?” my father asked, patting my hand with his own. The blank, blasted shock on his face had been replaced with concern for me. As though I had witnessed her being drawn and quartered, rather than being swept away in a balloon.

“It’s the last thing she said. I just don’t understand.”

“What was it?”

I drank off the last of my cold tea, gagging a little but preferring to gag down cold tea that had been coddled in the first place to telling him what she had said.

“She said that she never loved you. That she hated you.”

I broke down crying, putting my arms out for my father to comfort me, but he didn’t. He couldn’t.

On the anniversary of her disappearance, with no body to bury, no ashes to scatter, no reason to even observe because she hadn’t been officially classified as dead yet, Dad and his new girlfriend and I all went to the cliff. The ruts in the ground that the gondola had made as it scraped its way toward the cliff edge had long since eroded away and filled in with grass, but I imagined I saw them. On the day she disappeared, the sky had been mercilessly blue, allowing me to imagine I saw her for an impossibly long time. Today, a frosting of cirrus clouds obscured the furthest reaches of the heavens, and protected the three of us from having to say anything. I didn’t tell Mom that Daddy and his girlfriend were talking about marriage, that I had been accepted to college and was packing my things to leave in three weeks. I didn’t tell her that only a year after her leaving, first by blowing away, and then by rejecting us, we were fine.

I have always held the suspicion that she lied.

My Taste, Your Taste

Last night, the Pirate and I opened a bottle of red wine after dinner. We were still drinking the wine when we retired to the bedroom to get ready for bed. The Pirate brushed his teeth before he’d finished his wine, and when he came back into the room and took a sip, he made a weird face.

“That’s interesting. After brushing my teeth, this wine tastes like…chocolate…and cheese….” He was doing that thing people do when they’re trying to describe a taste or sensation they’re experiencing: looking around in the air above his head as though the answer were on one of the hundreds of postcards attached to the ceiling.

Postcards on my bedroom ceiling

I started collecting these in college, and still pick up a few whenever I go someplace cool. If you sent me one, I’d put it up and think of you when I looked at it.

He wanted me to taste it after brushing my teeth, but I declined. I feel certain that if I had done the experiment, I wouldn’t have tasted chocolate OR cheese, and it led me to wonder – when I eat chocolate, do I taste the same thing my husband tastes? Or that you taste? I know that when I drive past a skunk that was hit by a car, the skunk smell is exactly the same to me as the smell of roasting coffee, and yet I know people who say that the smell of roasting coffee is pleasing to them, but the smell of skunk is disgusting – how can they make a distinction between them? To me, they’re identical.

People can distinguish five different tastes: sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami. In addition, they can distinguish seven different types of smell: musky (the smell of perfume), putrid (rotten eggs), pungeant (vinegar), camphoraceous (moth balls), ethereal (dry cleaning fluid), floral (roses) and mint. Here’s what I’m not sure about: a given food contains a set of chemicals that make up its flavor profile. Every eater of a given food is working with the same set of chemical inputs. Why, then, the differences in perception? Is it a difference in body chemistry? Is it a difference in brain wiring? Both?

How much does our sense of taste play into our food and drink addictions? A Google search of the words “fast food addiction” shows 16.6 million results, including studies that show the addictive properties of fast food. Those addictive properties are tangentially related to taste in that the pleasing taste activates the brain’s pleasure centers – one article outlines the addictive ingredients in fast food including monosodium glutamate (a prime component of the “umami” taste) and casein, a naturally-occurring protein that, in fast food, is pumped up to past the danger point.

I’m not addicted to fast food. I can’t afford to be, since I’ve been battling a weight problem all my life. My husband, on the other hand, is naturally thin and has no real fondness for the things I have the most trouble with – baked sweets, chocolate, cheese. It feels unfair to me that because of an accident of chemistry my husband can maintain a healthy weight despite eating an enormous amount (I know, part of it is that he’s a man and therefore has more muscle mass and a higher metabolism, in addition to the fact that the man is two meters tall and therefore has a lot of guy to feed) while I have to consider every bite that goes into my mouth.

On the other hand, I also like to think that it means that I have outlets for enjoyment that are closed to my husband, who doesn’t equate the taste of white jasmine tea with love, or the flavor of Ezekiel bread with independence. In that way, I’m the lucky one.

Soundtrack to My Childhood

I’ve finally purchased my own copy of the album that most shaped my childhood.

Rubber Soul was released in December of 1965, meaning that I have been hearing this music since the very first Christmas of my life.

There’s an interesting thing in the iTunes music store – each song on an album has a little popularity bar. I suppose it tracks how many times each song has been downloaded. The most popular song from Rubber Soul is In My Life, a song I have always found to be inexpressibly depressing. From the time I was a child, it said to me “You’ll never be the most important thing in my life. Everything I had before I met you is more important to me than you are.” Considering that I was the third of my parents’ children, it told me that they would always be more important to me than I was. This much later on, I don’t know that I’ve changed my mind about that.

The song Run For Your Life made me do exactly that. I have very clear memories of running in circles around the perimeter of our living room, which included a couch, a chair, at least one end table and a bean bag. Nobody ever told me to stop running, which means that I was a tiny person, not in danger of hurting the furniture by running on it. I would run along the furniture, shaking my mop of cornsilk hair as though trying to outrun the words “You’d better run for your life if you can, little girl.”

I also remember all the words to I’m Looking Through You, another less-popular number. “I thought I knew you. What did I know?” That single thought has fueled every interaction I’ve ever had with anyone in my entire life. It’s why the most stinging feeling I ever have in life is the knowledge that I misjudged a relationship. It hasn’t happened often to me, but it has happened.

The song that confused me was Wait. To be fair, a child of less than five has no context in which to put a song about lovers separated for a long time. “Wait ’til I come back to your side. We’ll forget the tears we cried.” I thought about that song so much in the years that followed our move from Connecticut to Arizona, a move we made without our father, who continued for years to send us pictures of him doing fun things in New England, smiling and having fun without us. It made me keenly aware that in this case, the “we” that was crying was only me, and maybe it’s petty of me, but I’ve never forgotten those tears.

It sounds like I’m a bitter person, still feeding off the pain of a bitter childhood, but that’s not true. I’ve built a life for myself that got me beyond the things that hurt me. Instead of spending a lot of time looking back at things that made life hard, I look forward to things I’m creating for myself. Rubber Soul isn’t just about my past. It’s also about all the aspirations I’ve had for myself since I was that tiny tow-headed kid. “The future still looks good. Have you got time to rectify all the things that you should?

I do. I am. I will.

My Dinner With the Constitution

We got my daughter’s grades back. The worst remarks she got were in her gardening class. The teacher isn’t happy about the fact that she doesn’t always dress for gardening, and it’s apparent that because she’s outside digging in the dirt, she forgets that this is a class and she’s being judged on her behavior and participation.

We had a talk about what she might do to bring that grade up. What she said she hated most was when the teacher asked her “What are you grateful for.” It was the same question every time, and she always gave the same answer: photosynthesis. She knew the teacher was unhappy about the fact that she didn’t give the question more thought, but she didn’t care. Just being asked the question made her unhappy.

I understand that unhappiness. I’ve long been an outspoken opponent of what I call “that kumbaya bullshit” that one is asked to participate in during corporate team-building exercises. It’s not that I am not grateful for things, nor is my daughter. It’s the forced revelation that galls me. It’s none of my boss’s business what I like or don’t like about my workplace. I will do my work to the best of my ability, and if I feel there are things to appreciate, I will appreciate them. If I feel those things should be shared, I’ll share. If not, you can’t force me.

I told my daughter that the fifth amendment to the constitution protected her from ever having to say anything that would get her in trouble, and that the next time her gardening teacher asks her to give an answer to a question like “What are you grateful for?” she has my permission to say that she invokes her fifth amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. She said her teacher would likely make her to talk to the administrator, and I told her that’s fine. I stand willing to educate anyone about how the constitution applies in everyday life.

As we ate, it became apparent the kid wasn’t going to eat her veggies. After being commanded, she said that she was going to invoke her constitutional rights.

“Which ones?” I asked.

“I invoke my seventh amendment rights!”

“Great! You’ve invoked the right to a trial by jury. That means that we can ask all these good people here in the restaurant whether you should eat your veggies. If they come back with a yes, you eat them or I send you to jail.” She figured she would have 12% of the restaurant crowd on her side. She took a bite of carrots.

“Okay, I want to plead the eighteenth amendment!”

“Perfect! This means that you will not be allowed to drink hard liquor with your dinner. That’s okay, at the age of 12, that wasn’t likely anyway. But 21 is the magic number, when you turn 21, the 21st amendment, which repeals the prohibition of the 18th amendment, kicks in!”

“I want to plead the ninth amendment!”

“This means that any rights not specifically guaranteed by the federal government are up to the states to protect. The feds may say that children are required to eat their veggies, but it’s up to the states to enforce that requirement.”

“I’m invoking the fourteenth amendment, then.”

“That’s a GREAT one! The fourteenth amendment means that you are entitled to equal protection under the law. It means that any person in the United States is entitled to the same legal protections – trial by jury, ability to attain citizenship, constitutional protections – that everyone else gets. And that includes children. And this is why, when you say in class that you are invoking your fifth amendment rights, those rights are real. They can’t punish you without being in violation of the law.”

I can tell you one thing. She’s grateful to have parents who engage her in adult conversation. By the end of dinner, she was fully owning her rights.

Whose Idea Was This?

When I was a kid, my room was a mess. I’ve always been a packrat, and every treasure – every rock, twist-tie, shell, scrap of paper, plastic gewgaw – ended up somewhere on my floor. And since I spent a fair amount of time outside, I was always tracking dirt into my room.

There were four kids in my family, and none of us was any great shakes at cleaning. And since my mother was a single parent with a full-time job who was also pursuing her bachelor’s degree (and therefore only able to fulfill her duties as cook, chauffer and nurse, but not maid), not only were all our rooms a mess, but our bathrooms, kitchen and dining room were a mess as well. The only reason the living room wasn’t a disaster was because we never used that room for anything. We came and went through the kitchen door.

When I got older, I became conscious that there was shame attached to having a perpetually sticky kitchen table¬† or socks hanging over the chairs. I tried to keep tidy, but when one acquires slightly more stuff than one’s living arrangements can accommodate, it becomes difficult. Still, it became my obsession. At one point, I had convinced myself that the hallmark of maturity was having a house that was always company-ready.

When I started grad school, my husband quit his job so that I could devote all my time to the work I would have to do. Except that I didn’t set myself a schedule for writing, so I relegated it to the time between chores. As a result, my first semester I didn’t do as much new writing as I had hoped. When I got back from my second residency, my husband sat me down and said “I’m going to be handling things. You’re to work and nothing else.”

For a week and a half now, I’ve let my husband take care of the housework. There are dishes on the kitchen counter, unopened mail on the kitchen table, things everywhere that could stand tidying. The place isn’t in squalor, by any means, but let’s just say that the Queen would not be impressed. I came out of my office the other day and noticed the stuff on the kitchen table and thought to myself “Why did I think it was so important to keep this place spotless?”

Obviously, my husband doesn’t base his opinion of me on whether his socks stick to the floor. My children didn’t think I was a bad parent when the kitchen table had to be cleared of unopened mail and other stuff before we ate dinner. If my mother were to come over to my house right this second, she wouldn’t love me any less if there were dust on all my framed family photos. So, why was I always so wound up about this?

I think it’s high time to consign this obsession with tidiness at all costs to the heap of stuff I’ve outgrown and no longer miss, along with my need to keep twist-ties, scraps of paper and plastic gewgaws.

Culture of the Hidden

I was talking to my mother this morning about the stuff I’m reading for grad school. Right now, it’s the satires of Horace and Eddie Signwriter.

Cover image for Adam Schwartzman's Eddie Signwriter

I have to admit, a book with a plot is more interesting than a dead Roman preaching at me.

My mother was telling me about the book she’s reading that has a character who is found living in a museum. It made me think of the character in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – the woman secretly living at the top of the Empire State Building. My daughter just finished reading Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an entire book about a kid who lives in a train station.

What is our fascination with people living in secret spaces in public places? Could it be some spark of hope that if we become victims of the slow economy, that we might still be able to live a charming, eventful life in an airport (a la “The Terminal“) or any of the weird places (a hospital, a circus, a submarine, a cave)¬† the Baudelaire children lived in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? Perhaps it’s some kind of gentle admonishment to people who move through subway stations and shopping malls every day to stop and notice what’s going on around them. Or is it the hope that there’s more going on than the mean, grimy mundanity of our lives betrays – the chance that we’re in the proximity of magic every day without even realizing it. That’s the way I look at it.