I got the hiccups this morning for the first time in maybe forty years…Now what was the remedy for that?  Was it breathing slowly?  Did not help.  Was it drinking a glass of water upside down? Don’t want to try that this early in the morning.  Was it a spoonful of sugar?  I don’t even think I have any normal white sugar.  A bag, I thought, I need to breathe into a bag.  As I sat on the couch breathing in and out of a plastic grocery store bag and wondering if I might eventually faint, I remembered that is the remedy for hyperventilating not hiccups.

It worked.

When I was really little I used to get hiccups all the time.

“It must mean that you want something,” my Mother would say. “What do you want?”

She would ask that and I would be stumped.  I wanted so many things, not all of them tangible. Books, more books, a Mrs. Beasley doll, a hug, many things I didn’t even know how to put into words. Or knew if I put them into words they would not be well received.  Somehow she always ended up giving me a cookie or a small piece of pie or cake to see if that would work.  It always did.  Maybe the spoonful of sugar was the answer.

Or maybe that feeling that I had a special moment with her was the answer? Funny how a small bit of attention can go such a long, long way for a child.  One small cookie creating a lasting memory of a moment that she probably doesn’t even recall.


Lightning Bugs

The thing I miss most about childhood is lightning bugs.  Just before sundown on summer evenings, the first thing that signaled the shift to the day’s end was that the rabbits would appear. Not just one or two, but eight or ten milk chocolatey brown white cotton-tailed rabbits would move out into the front yard from the tall grasses of a field next door.  They would hop lazily around the yard, now vacated by noisy children.  That was our livestock:  wild bunnies, small and cute.

The dog would just sit on the porch watching.  She wasn’t even waiting to make a move. She wasn’t interested in chasing them.  She was just keeping an eye on her herd from a higher vantage point – glad that the day was cooling off. As the light grew dimmer, the bunnies would move gradually back to the tall swaying grasses in the field and eventually all disappear back into them as the next show began.

The lightning bugs would start their performance off slowly, with just a few lights beginning here and there.  More and more, and even more, would join in creating the most wonderful light show against the darkening landscape.  They never seemed close enough, so as a child, I would run, this way, no that way, no over there, until breathless, trying to catch them.

As I grew older I learned to just wait.  If I stayed quietly in one place, watching them as they rose and blinked, one would eventually light near me.  I didn’t want to catch and contain them or worse, squish them on my arms like my brothers.  I just wanted to catch one and watch it light in my hand. Then, when it realized it was not captive, take off and float away.  It was as though for a moment I might be able to feel real magic.

Soon we would be called into go to bed.  If I hurried I could get into my pj’s and get into bed where I could watch them from the window.  I would take the pillow and put it at the foot of the small twin bed near the window sill and watch the pitch black darkness.  As my eyes adjusted I would see them still blinking, rising up into the towering maple trees where they would spend the night.  I would fall asleep there, waiting and watching, not wanting the magic to end.

Paint Stripping

At our house, my mother painted the walls and ceilings in every room every year.  I never understood why she felt the need to do this when they weren’t scuffed or dirty.  What was she trying to cover up? The plastered walls all had this swirl pattern in them that was so layered with paint that in many spots it was nearly smooth.  I remember lying in bed unable to fall asleep and tracing the swirls with my small fingers and losing my place because the little valleys created by the swirl were nearly filled in.

One year she needed to strip the paint from the woodwork before adding more because there were so many layers the windows would not close properly if new paint were added over the old again.  She borrowed a heat gun from someone. It was a bit like an industrial blow dryer – hand held but so much hotter than anyone could ever safely use anywhere near their hair.  It was dangerous, slow work and she didn’t want anyone to help.  I watched it once when she let me stand nearby.   The heat, visible only in the way it distorted what I could see through it, roared from the open end and melted and peeled back the layers of paint, layers of color – one after another.  They softened gradually and she would use the scraper to remove it as much of the paint as possible and leave a smooth surface.   Melt and scrape.  Melt and scrape.  She repeated this for days throughout the house.

Years later my therapist used a similar system with me to remove some vivid memories.  She didn’t have a heat gun but she had a space heater that always made the room too warm for me.  We would address some of the more vivid memories one by one, peeling back the layers of emotions attached to them and addressing every emotion that came up until the memory held no more power.  It was as though for decades I had carried around these memories in my mind, like vivid Technicolor snapshots in a wallet. Heavy snapshots.  After we stripped away their power, they faded to a subdued black and white and were much lighter to “carry” around – if I even felt the need to carry them anymore. In most cases I did not.

They took up less space after that, those memories.  Freeing up space for a new coat of memories, new layers of thought and events and even dreams.  But it is a tough process to sit there in her office, which is like a small living room.  I am always too hot.  If she has the space heater on the hum of it effectively renders me deaf.  I close my eyes and go over a memory.  What do you feel?  Ashamed, scared, embarrassed, lost, invisible…..Where do you feel it?  My head, my stomach, my chest.  What does the water look like?  This is an important part of the visualization – you picture each emotion as water in a river – stormy, muddy, frozen, dark, choppy, dirty…. And then you let the water go. You let the water go downstream, down over a waterfall, down a drain, down down down. You let it go.  Each emotion gets a place in your body and water.  And you let each go over and over and over again until the memory doesn’t have any emotions left that you can feel.

It’s incredibly effective and a lot of work.  I keep feeling like I am not pleasing my therapist.  She wants rage.  She knows I get angry, like a switch, out of the blue, raging angry like the worst windy thunderstorm – lashing out, but it never happens when we work on these memories.  Do you feel rage?  I purse my lips, furrow my brow and look around in my mind for it, but it isn’t there. I shake my head.  No rage? She asks again.

She really wants me to be angry with my parents.  She’s a little passive aggressive on the topic of my parents. On the one hand, she says, they gave me food, shelter, clothing, education.  So what do I have to complain about right?  On the other hand, they were inept as loving, nurturing or caring for someone like me, she says.  Someone so “sensitive”.   Sensitive, but not in a bad way, she always emphasizes.  So they did their best, but they sucked? And I am supposed to feel some rage?  I don’t.

What layer of paint, I wonder,  is that rage hidden under?


Picnics and Preparedness

Preparedness is one of those things that usually refers to the military being ready for war.  At our house my mother had to be prepared for whatever whim my father might come up with.  I took least enjoyment for his whim to have a picnic.  Not only was it work to throw together a picnic but it was social which did not appeal to me at all and there was no opt out of participation. It was all hands on deck.

For most people picnics were something that were planned in advance and one of the goals would be fun. We had those picnics, but more often than not we experienced the sudden, “Hey let’s call so-and-so and have them over tonight for a cookout.”  Tonight?  It was 3 in the afternoon now. Consider that it wasn’t really a question, “Like, honey what do you think about having some people over for a cookout? Do we have all the things we need to do that?”  or better yet, “Do you feel like throwing together a picnic in the next two hours?”  Nope, from my father there were never inquiries and while I was growing up there was never any opposition.  He was the head of the household. It did not matter that she has laundry and cleaning to do, that there were other things on her agenda. Her agenda was not important … to him.

For a long time I admired my mother’s foresight in always having every imaginable item needed on hand.  It seemed to border on psychic but she had simply learned from experience.  It was her job to make sure everyone had what they needed when they needed it no matter how ridiculous. This was made challenging by the fact that she didn’t drive and there was no public transportation where we lived, so she wouldn’t have been able to pop out to the store and pick up a few things on short notice.

Because of her psychic skills, our basement was practically a mini-mart. There was always a supply of toilet paper, beer and pop.  One wall of shelves was always packed with canned goods, jars of homemade pickles and peppers, condiments and more.  I often found these shelves disturbing if only because I had a need for them to be organized in the order the items would have been found at the store.  And they weren’t organized in any manner. When would my mother have had the time?  Often while waiting for the dryer to finish a load, I would use that time to group soups or vegetables together and even alphabetize them on the shelves I could reach.  All cans facing front.  This must have been where I got those skills that came in so handy at Borders years later where I had five sections to maintain.

Also in the basement was a giant freezer, the chest kind that you lifted the lid like the lid of a coffin to see what was inside.  It was suitable for hiding a body as we now know from episodes of any Law and Order franchise.  It used to scare me a bit as a child because I had to stand on a step stool to reach inside, sometimes balancing on the edge and tipping in.  I’d never actually seen the bottom….now thinking back, I wonder about that missing uncle.

In that freezer, in no particular order, my mother always had picnic needs tucked in around roasts, fish, ice cream and more, having made purchases whenever the items were on sale and she had a coupon.  Both of those things were required for most purchases in our house.  I remember the first time I went to the grocery store for something I didn’t have a coupon for, I approached the check out with great hesitation because I was certain alarms would go off, and that someone would report me to her. So there were always hot dogs and buns, sometimes burgers and buns.  She would buy the ground beef ahead and smash it into perfect burger circles using this old hinged wooden press. If you could pry apart the frozen saran wrapped individuals, you were all set.  And there was always, as was noted in the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, a cake, not a store bought cake, we never had those.  But a square 8 x 8″ or 9 x 13″ pan with cake, usually banana, iced with her chocolate fudge icing.

If she had more than two or three hours to plan and apples on hand, an apple cake could be served hot from the oven to guests, but time to plan was a rarity.

So for two hours there would be a scramble to call and invite the people my father was interested in sitting around the fire with, gathering the food and separating it so that it might thaw in time and creating side dishes, usually bake beans.  I was usually in charge of stirring those so that they did not stick to the bottom of the pan.  It wasn’t enough to just open a can, it had to be dressed up in order to be acceptable to serve.  Onions, mustard, brown sugar and, of course, bacon, needed to be hurriedly plopped in, no measuring needed, and stirred through. Once it started bubbling and could reduce to simmer to cook down, I would be transferred to utensil duty.

The guests would generally be either a couple of my father’s friends from work and their wives or relatives, sometimes with kids, but not often. I don’t think my father tolerated us well, let alone inviting over other people’s kids and the noise that might bring.  If there were burgers, the charcoal grill would be dragged over to the fireplace in the backyard, filled with charcoal, doused in lighter fluid and set aflame (fondly known as the boy scout method of starting a fire).  Hot dogs could be more easily cooked on a small rack over the heat rising from the fireplace chimney.  That had to be monitored as every so often one would roll off onto the ground. That was to the dog’s benefit.  Sometimes it wasn’t an accident.

A table cloth would be fastened to the picnic table with elastics that had gripper clips on the ends, topped paper plates, napkins, plastic utensils (easy cleanup was important) and serving spoons and forks.   Bottles of ketchup, mustard, bowls of chopped onions, sliced tomatoes and more.  My mother, ever clever and economical, used old lampshades, wire frames covered with nylon netting as covers for food so that no flies or gnats could get near the food.

If you didn’t hear it, there was generally a sigh of relief as it all came together and cars were pulling into the long driveway.  It always all came together, one way or another.  I always hated eating outside. I realize now that I really only disliked all the tension leading up to the meal.  What I did like and remember fondly was the way the evening always ended.  After the fireflies quieted and it was very dark, chairs were pulled up around the fire place, not for the warmth of the flames, but for the warmth of the togetherness.  The talking would stop and someone would start to sing.   If my dad was drunk, he would sing Tu Ra Lu Ra Lu Ra…the Irish lullaby…but I don’t honestly think he knew all the words.  Without fail, there was always a group rendition of “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine”.  Everyone of all ages new the words to that one.  No preparation required.

The Dominant Hand

Families are like hands-either right or left handed in dominance.  You tend to see one side of the family more often, spend more time focused on that side.  Not even really knowing the potential that might exist in the other side as a gain or a loss to your lives.  My mother’s side of the family was the dominant side of our family.

The elders of my mother’s side were her Father, my Grandfather who lived several hours away and his Sisters’ in law, who I refer to as  “The Aunts”, and a brother in law – all unmarried who shared a house in the next town near us. I didn’t know my grandfather all that well, since he did not live nearby. On the way to visit him, I got carsick every single trip so most of my memories of him surround that.  As a child I did not realize that my grandfather was an outsider to the family.  I didn’t realize it until I inherited the family genealogy when I was much older.  I knew my own father was an outsider, I could tell that very young.  When I realized my grandfather too had that brand, it made sense that he moved so far away.

I didn’t know him when he was married, my grandmother had died the decade before I was born. He had worked many years at the Church as a janitor.  By the time I knew him, he had retired to a farm in Southern Ohio of several hundred acres where he planted corn and beans and lived in a fairly primitive farm house with little indoor plumbing, working all the daylight hours and reading science fiction paperbacks at night in the company of two very short, very chubby dachshunds.

You know the expression, The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing?  Well in my mother’s family, the right hand knew damn well what the left hand was doing and ruled the left hand with an iron fist hidden in a little white lace trimmed glove perfect for church on Sunday – Catholic Church where you wore gloves and a hat.  Anything that wasn’t something you could share in church was hidden or driven away. Even if those things that weren’t things people could control – like death or mental illness (of which both sides of my family seem to have their fair share though no one wants to admit it).

My Grandfather’s marriage to my maternal grandmother was his second.  He lost his wife and their second child in the Flu epidemic in 1918.  As was done at the time, he gave his surviving son, just four years old, to this sister to take care of for him, presumably until he could remarry and rebuild a family. When my grandfather met and married into this rather severely strict catholic family in Ohio – that son was not welcome.  He was a reminder of another woman.  We were told for many years, that young boy, then a man by the time I was old enough and asking, was a cousin, when he was in fact my Mother’s half brother.  We never met him.  I have a very old black and white photo taken when he was in the army in World War II.  He’s handsome and smiling – I would say dashing.  And we never met him because the right hand wouldn’t allow it.

Apparently also not allowed was any sort of perceived physical or mental defect.  At some point someone mistakenly mentioned a Great Uncle named John.  Who’s that we all wanted to know?  Why have we never seen him or hear of him before?  “Oh he’s a traveler. He likes to travel.”  Even to a child that seemed a bit lame, but adults don’t lie, right?  So off I went, into my head, making up romantic tales of his travels and wondering where on the globe in our living room he might be, what adventures he might be having, what was his life like?  I don’t believe my young self ever asked “why didn’t he come back to visit”.   I used to practice packing my little orange suitcase, given the opportunity at 8 or 9, I think I would have left too and not returned.

Fast forward a couple decades and my mother hands over the genealogy and I start asking more questions.  “Where did he travel to?”  “Oh he wasn’t traveling,” my mother admitted, “ That’s just want the Aunts like to say.  He wasn’t well and he was in a hospital.”  My mother told me that Great Uncle Phillip was brought to visit once for an afternoon and she met him when she came home from school as a young teen.  “Why couldn’t he stay?” I wanted to know.  Certainly he was family and if he could visit, he was well enough to stay.  Family took care of family, right?  “He wasn’t well enough to stay.”

Years later I pressed her for more. The Aunts were dead by then and I wanted to know.  He’d been taken to an asylum in Michigan, where my internet research showed there were three popularly used asylums during the early to mid 1900’s.   That was all my mother and even her sister, the family busybody knew.  He’d died but no one could tell me when or where he was buried.  I found his World War I draft card, a copy online.  There was his name, his signature and information. He was twenty years old, His eyes were brown, his hair was black, he was of medium height and build.  It doesn’t sound like much, but it was more than I’d ever had.  Then I saw under employer, it said “Unemployed, patient at Massillon State Hospital.”  He’d been hospitalized nearly his whole life.

The Aunts were constant fixtures during my childhood. We visited them every week.  They read a newsletter that came in the mail weekly from the Pope – not directly from the pope though they acted as though it was personally from him.  It indicated what movies were okay to see, how people should behave, what politicians to follow and more.  I didn’t know the word hypocrisy as a child, but the concept was always looming in my foreground. I was a keen observer, taking in the details and filing them away in my head.  I was often stymied by the inability to ask questions when opposing concepts crashed together right before my eyes.  For one, I never understood how these three prim, overly powdered, church going ladies could smoke, drink and gamble so much?  In college I was at a bar with some friends and we were experimenting with various mixed drinks.  Someone passed me a Manhattan. I sniffed it and said, “Wow, that smells like my Great Aunt Mary!”  To this day, Liquor and cigarette smoke – powerful memory triggers.

I had no idea that there was so much dishonesty being spread around between hands of euchre and pinochle.  As a young child, I was closest to the older of the Aunts, she didn’t smoke, she didn’t drink as much as the others. She was the oldest of a family of 8 children and at sixteen had to become the mom when her own mother died.  She cooked and cleaned and carried on being the mom until she was unable to and faded away in a hospital bed that took up a large part of the living room at the age of 87.  I was eleven, not quite a teen by then.  I remember visiting her weekly.  She would sit up on the edge of the bed. I would sit next to her and hold her bony, powdered right hand in my left hand and tell her whatever useless news a pre-teenager could have.  I was her favorite.  One day she squeezed my hand and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.”

That was the beginning of the end of the dominant side of the family.  Dominance dies out.  The truth sometimes dies out with them even in the internet age.


Note:  Names in this and all blogs will not be the actual names of the persons being described.