1967: Duke Gardens and a wristwatch

In the very early spring of 1967, the year Kay turned 10, her nuclear family – her mom and dad, her older brother, and her – moved away from St Joseph, Missouri, where Kay had been born and raised up to that point, to Durham, North Carolina, over a thousand miles away. They left behind a big extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins, friends from their neighborhood and friends from school, and, hardest of all for Kay, her paternal grandparents. The move was somewhat sudden, and the reasons for it were murky, mysterious, grown-up reasons, which to Kay meant they were not really reasons at all, but angry secrets involving raised voices, slammed doors, hidden tears, and strange silences.

Shortly after the move, and just in time to celebrate Kay’s 10th birthday, her grandparents made the journey to North Carolina to visit them in their new home, and for a full week the whole family did all kinds of fun, tourist-y things, a welcome respite for Kay from not just the painful homesickness and the strangeness of everything new, but also from the boring business of unpacking.

When they visited Duke Gardens in Durham, Kay and her brother posed with their Grandpa for a photograph in front of the famous terrace gardens. Kay’s Grandma and Grandpa had given Kay her first wristwatch for her 10th birthday gift, a very big deal back in the day, and you can see her proudly wearing it in the photo: a tangible sign of her double-digit, big-girl status, one foot still firmly planted in the childhood, the other tentatively stepping out towards that murky mysterious land of grown-ups.

1962 and Sammy the brown tabby

This was our neighbor’s cat, Sammy, and I adored him. We had two Siamese cats who loathed small humans in my house, in spite of my persistent worshipful adoration, and we also suddenly (to me, anyway) had a brand-new baby, so I escaped next door as often as possible that summer.

Sammy, like most brown tabbies I’ve known, was sweet and cuddly and would fall over in a heartbeat for a brushing, a job which my lip-biting shows I took very seriously. Our elegant and aloof Siamese cats, on the other hand, never missed an opportunity to hiss, slash, and run, which I always took very personally.

I’ve had a couple of brown tabbies over the years, and they’ve all been similar in temperament to Sammy. This is Peanut, who crossed the Rainbow Bridge a few years ago (taken too early by coyotes, a sad story for another day) in his classic sleeping position, and I believe this series of photos is a clear indicator of his personality – Honey Badger, only super-sweet and maybe a few fries short of a happy meal.

1959 and the slippers that started it all

This is me, at my grandma’s house, in 1959, and you may be wondering whether I’m laughing hysterically, or crying hysterically. The answer would be, well, yes.

Those fabulous slippers were a gift to me from my paternal grandma and grandpa on my first birthday. Do they kinda look like baby Goofy or baby Pluto, just a little bit? I don’t remember whether or not they were supposed to be any particular character, or just cute little puppy slippers, but they were crazy awesome. From the moment I first saw them, apparently, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry, and so I would do both. Loudly, dramatically, and with gusto, alternating rapidly between the two extremes.

And thus, I believe, my lifelong love affair with footwear was born. The shoes! The boots, the booties, the sandals, the heels, the flats, the *cute* sneakers, I love them all.

Me, with every pair of L’Artiste boots ever made, and don’t even get me started on their booties…

1962: peas and consequences

Yeah, yeah, the little red-headed kid’s super cute and all, and I know you remember having a stacking rings toy just like that one, but before you trip too far down your own memory lane, let me tell you the story of that end table there on the right.

My little brother, 1962

Our kitchen table, where we ate all of our meals, was just around the corner from that part of the living room, you see, and once a week my mother served peas at supper. She not only served them, she actually expected me to eat them, never mind that I hated peas like nobody’s business. Despised the little smushy grayish-green soggy balls of ick – I mean, these were canned peas, early 1960s commercially canned peas, and they were gross. My mother would have none of my pea-hating ways, though, and there were always threats of forcing me to sit at the kitchen table all night until I ate them. I’d eventually gag my way dramatically through a spoonful, sobbing, and end up getting sent to bed in disgrace, but at least I’d gotten away from those damn peas… until next time. And I always knew there’d be a next time.

I don’t know how the plan came to me, but it was so simple and brilliant and beautiful, and it quickly became my routine when faced with the dreaded legumes. I’d be left sitting at the table by myself, pouting, with those nasty peas. Momma would take baby brother over to the sink for a wipe-down, and, with her back turned to me while she was attempting to clean a flailing toddler, would lecture me on the health benefits of all vegetables, especially green ones, peas in particular.

And that’s when I’d make my move. I’d grab my bowl of untouched peas, leap lightly from my chair and around the corner, lift the lid of the end table, dump the offending contents of the bowl, and be back in my chair before Momma was halfway done getting my little brother’s face clean. See? Brilliant. I felt mildly guilty while receiving praise for being a good girl and eating my peas, but the relief at having avoided having to taste those peas always outweighed the guilt – a little bit, anyway.

Did I ever look in at the old peas while I was dumping subsequent bowls? Heavens, no, no time for that, and I honestly can’t say if it even crossed my mind, but I doubt it. I don’t think I gave a single thought to the fate of those peas once they left my possession.

I’m not sure how much time actually went by – linear time has never been one of my strong suits – but at some point my mother began sniffing at the air strangely when she’d walk through the living room, and it wasn’t too long after that that she found them. I was playing in the back yard when I heard the screams, and I knew instantly what had happened, although at that point I was unaware that quantities of margarine-soaked cooked peas, when placed in a covered warmish area and left to their own devices, will, over time, grow huge amounts of hairy mold resembling nothing more than a huge dead rodent, with an accompanying dead rodent smell.

I was headed at full speed towards our big forsythia bush that was in glorious yellow bloom and that I knew made a terrific hiding place when my mother hit the back porch, yelling my full name at the top of her lungs. To say that my blood ran cold in that moment is one of the great understatements of all time.

Of course I did the only logical thing: I blamed my little brother. The fact that he was just learning to walk seemed completely inconsequential – perhaps I was channeling the spirit of Kellyanne Conway-Future and her alternative facts, I do not know – and I went with my story hard.

Sadly, and much to my astonishment, my story did not fly with my mother – not even embellished with much waving of arms, eyewitness accounts of the many times I’d seen my baby brother do superhuman and evil things, ugly sobbing, tears, and big puppy eyes. I do remember my mother’s face and mouth shaking strangely after she spanked me, though, as she was sending me to my room, and her voice sounding funny, like she was choking or something. It wasn’t until many years later, when I had kids of my own, that I realized she was doing her absolute best not to give in to hysterical laughter.

Me, not thinking about peas.

Honoring my female ancestors: Pearl Brite

This is my maternal great-grandmother, Pearl Brite. What I know about her are simple facts, learned through internet research. She was born in Lawrence, Missouri, in 1884, and she died in 1939, probably in Oregon. She gave birth to my maternal grandfather in 1906, when she was 22, and they were living in Kansas in 1910, not too long before this photograph was taken. By 1920, they had moved to Portland, Oregon.

I love this photo a ridiculous amount, given that all I know about her are those basic facts – I didn’t know her, or my grandfather who was her son, and barely knew my mother. Pearl looks like an intelligent woman, a compassionate woman, a strong woman, a woman with a sense of humor in spite of, well, life, and someone I would’ve liked to have called friend.

She looks like a woman who would’ve marched with us yesterday.

Women’s March on Charlotte: hope returns

Over 10,000 amazing, passionate, committed, determined human beings (and dogs – can’t forget the fabulous dogs!) came together yesterday for the Women’s March on Charlotte, one of the many sister marches to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, that were held all over the world.

Waiting for the train to take us to First Ward Park, where the march began, we were surrounded by other people headed to the march, many of us with signs, and the phenomenal energy of the march began in the parking lot of the train station. The determination was palpable and the air seemed to be vibrating with purpose. Our train car was packed, and we chanted several times as we made the 30 minute trip to our destination, everybody in that very crowded train car, all colors and shapes and ages and genders and personal reasons for being there, and we were all just yelling it out, together: FIRED UP! READY TO GO!

In the photo below you can see how the tops of the skyscrapers in the background are obscured by fog. This is what it looked like in Charlotte as masses of people were still pouring in. When we finally began to march – didn’t happen till 10:30 instead of 10, and I’m guessing that might have a bit to do with the fact that they weren’t expecting more than 2,000 or so people and instead got at least more than five times that many -but when we did finally start moving, that fog began lifting, and the sun came out. How’s that for a powerful metaphor? I know I’ll take it. I’m ready to take it.

For me, at least, the fog of despair and dread is lifting, and I can feel the brilliant, powerful heat of unified determination waiting. Hard work ahead, my friends – it’s time to pick up that phone and make those calls to your senators and representatives, to the White House, to whomever needs calling to be reminded that you vote and you are watching. It’s time to volunteer locally on a grassroots level. It’s time to stop mourning and it’s time to take action. It’s time.

Real life, after all

Born of broken people
She inevitably arrived broken too.
No visible signs of damage, but
that really only made things worse, not better.

A white chenille bedspread,
blood stains on the pale pink
roses turned to shadow rust,
faded like the memories of the day
it happened, the stains and scars and rips and tears
nearly blending in now, so many years gone by,
just another part of the pattern.

Understanding remains elusive,
always just out of her grasp, it seems.

She thought it would arrive when her own children did,
that she would suddenly get it, suddenly know,
but of course it didn’t happen that way – this is
real life, after all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

I wrote this many years ago, and have published it online a couple of times since then. I feel absolutely naked every time I do it, but I also hear from people who feel it, and that makes me feel like it’s worth the nakediditty anxiety. Well, almost.

Bright blessings,
CJ

Little Christmas Tree in the Cemetery

They got married in 1953, when she was a sweet 16, and he was a brash 20. She had loved Christmas her whole life, and when it came to decorating for it, she had a dream in her mind to do it up grand, there in their first little house together. He thought that it was all a bit silly, what with them just starting out and all, but he indulged her anyway, because he loved her, and even though times were terribly tight, they had a little tree that first year, with a few small ornaments that she made by hand, and a bright red bow that she lovingly tied to the top of the little tree.

 

Their first son was born the following year, and their Christmas tree was bigger. A second son arrived two years after that, and Christmas that year was spent in a new, bigger house, with a big Christmas tree embellished with all kinds of ornaments and tinsel, and Christmassy knick-knacks here and there as well, quite a few of them store-bought.

By the time their third and last son made his appearance in their lives, four years later, Christmas in their home was quite a grand affair, and with every year that followed, it got a little bigger and noisier and brighter and better. Whatever differences they may have had in their family, at Christmas time those differences were set aside for Mom, because she so loved Christmas. Interestingly enough, by the time the New Year rolled around, quite often those differences seemed smaller and far less important.

Their middle son died in 1999, and Christmas dimmed near to dark that year. It never did regain its full lustre and brightness, and ten years after her boy went, she died too. Christmas that year was hard, and sad, and made mostly bearable by the brilliant thought of her only daughter-in-law: Let’s take a tree to Mom, she said to the menfolk, ignoring the initial looks of confusion and impatience and pain on their faces, and after a few days of discussion, the decision was made: Mom would not miss her Christmas tree.

 

Seven years have passed now. Dad loves visiting her, especially at Christmas, loves thinking of her enjoying the tree and watching the grandkids frolic around it, and feels in his heart that he’ll see her again soon, before next Christmas for sure.

Snapshot, 1956: Play Ball

These are my parents in 1956, engaged to be married, both poly sci majors at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, taking a break from studies.

My mom was 5’10”, and my dad was 6’2″. He played high school and college football, and she played softball from the time she could pick up a bat until 1958, when I was born. I inherited her gorilla arms and his chin dimple, but sadly not their athletic abilities nor their height.

chan-jean-1956

We’ve been going through lots of old family photos, both sides of our family, many of which neither of us has ever seen before – so do stay tuned.

Bright blessings, CJ