Monday, August 30, 2010

No Spring Chicken


My father, George Washington Mayo, was a good man who loved people. While I got my creativity and general oddness and orneriness from my mother, my rather silly sense of humor came straight from my father. I guess, with a name like George Washington Mayo, the ability to laugh was most likely a necessity.

Daddy had these great sayings. Whether you would call them axioms or idioms or perhaps just George-isms, they were most likely representative of the time, and some would certainly be thought of as sexist and politically incorrect these days. All of them appeared to be based on what he considered to be both hilarious and of great value to the younger generation. Now that he's gone, I love it when one of my father's sayings pops into my head at just the right moment to remind me of him and to keep me as close to the straight and narrow as my mama's inherited zigzaggedness allows.

Here are the George-isms I remember:

If my brother or I came between my father and the television set, he would say, “Your daddy wasn’t a glassblower." This, we surmised after a while, meant we weren’t transparent and he couldn’t see where Chester was headed in the midst of a
Gunsmoke episode, in spite of the fact that Chester was always headed down to Miss Kitty's Saloon.

If we were doing something stupidly dangerous, Daddy would say, “You’re going to bust your contract.” We took that to mean we were going to fall down, hit our heads, and end up in the hospital with a bandage tied around our noggins. Daddy used the same term later with my kids, and Melissa, just recently, tried researching the meaning of the phrase and couldn’t find anything on it, other than references to breaking a legal contract. Apparently, Daddy just made that one up.

We always had a cat or two around the house because my mother loved them. Daddy, on the other hand, opined that "the only good cat was a dead cat." However, he was known to pet one from time to time when no one was looking.

Again, if any of us got in Daddy’s way, when he wasn’t mentioning the lack of a glassblowing father, he would say, “I’m slow because I’m old. What’s your excuse?”

The worst thing Daddy ever called anyone was jackass. He called my brother and me that from time to time and he also used it to describe his grandkids, my children. As far as I can tell, he was right on with that one, especially when it came to my children who inherited their jackassedness from their father.

When I was a teenager and wanted to listen to the radio while my daddy was driving, he'd put up with the din for a while, even pretending to enjoy it by doing that finger-jive thing that cartoon characters used to do back in the day. However, if we got into heavy traffic, he would tell me to turn off the radio because he was getting ready to do some "fancy driving." I always envisioned fancy driving as involving a car-chase scene like in the movies, but all I got was Daddy scrunched over the steering wheel trying to change lanes and complaining about jackasses.

Daddy had a great way to meet new people and he would use this greeting when he met my friends (much to my humiliation). He would offer his hand and shake theirs sideways as opposed to up and down until their entire bodies would appear be be afflicted with some kind of palsy. When they were all shook up and as least somewhat discombobulated, he would offer, “I know my name. What’s yours?” You can see why my social circle was somewhat small.

In spite of his obnoxious greetings, Daddy was very kind and would never hurt anyone’s feelings, but he did call the very few divorced women he knew “grass widows,” not to their faces, of course. I looked up that term, and unlike "bust your contract", there's an actual history to it. The “grass” comes from being “out to pasture” or no longer viable. No wonder Daddy was so mad at me when I got divorced. There he was suddenly saddled with a daughter who was no longer viable enough to entice another man into taking care of her.

And when Daddy would notice I was putting on weight, he would offer that I was becoming “broad across the beam." So I guess that meant I was not only out to pasture but was also hauling a heavy load.

Continuing with the no-longer-viable theme, Daddy had a couple of zingers on the topic of old age, especially when it afflicted humans of the female persuasion. Occasionally, when Mama entered the room, he would warble, in what was actually a pretty good singing voice, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” If that ever bothered my mother, she was smart enough not to let on. He would also point out that she was no longer a “spring chicken”, and as I got older, he tossed that term at me also.

But, in spite of his lack of fine tuning in the area of gender relations, my father had a good heart and a commitment to doing the right thing for people, no matter the color of their skin, the size of their bank account, the country of their origin, the construction of their genetic makeup, or the breadth of their beam.

A final word on my father: Because Daddy stayed very busy with work and church and doing things for other people, when
we wanted him to do something for us, he would say he'd do it when he “got caught up”. We joked that we would have “He finally got caught up!” engraved on his headstone when he died, but we never had the chance, as my wonderful, funny, sexist father gave his body to the Medical College of Georgia, an act so giving, so zany, I’m pretty sure he’s still chuckling about it up there somewhere. That's because, if there is a heaven, Daddy is sure to be at the Pearly Gates, greeting newcomers with his signature handshake and helping St. Peter check off his list by saying, "I know my name. What's yours?"

As for me, I'm still a grass widow, still broad across the beam, and am now less of a spring chicken than even the old gray mare who ain't what she used to be.







Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Falling Down Gene

My youngest child, Molly, inherited the falling down gene from me. Give us some space and a little time and we will fall down. We've discussed this problem and agree it’s based on a combination of weak ankles, social anxiety and terminal optimism.

Our ankles are so weak our rubber-gammed gaits often look like Cookie’s in the movie
Best in Show when something goes wrong with her legs right before she and her dog are to take to the floor for final competition. The good thing for Molly and me is that we never break our ankles. This must be because of how flexible they are. They're so flexible they just give in at the most inopportune moment and then we land on our wrists and battered knees, although never at the same time as we aren't a vaudeville act.

Our social anxiety is such that we never fall when we are alone or when we’ve been to Happy Hour. Our most memorable falls happen when we are sober and somber and distracted by our earthly burdens, and when there are lots of people around to appreciate our special gifts.

And then there is our terminal optimism. We keep thinking that, despite our anxieties, something wonderful is going to greet us around the next corner or perhaps land on our heads. Therefore, instead of watching where we are going as we stumble over poop in the driveway, cracks in the sidewalk, and occasionally, carcasses in the road, we are usually gazing upward, looking for the silver lining in whatever dark cloud happens to be listing by overhead.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are just a few examples:

Molly fell down in New York City in front of where the World Trade Center had once stood. And no, I have to say it wasn’t from being overwhelmed with great emotion; it was just an uneven sidewalk. However, what could have been an irreconcilable embarrassment turned out okay when she realized the group of devastatingly beautiful men who ran over to help her were gay (of course).

I fell down twice in one week when I first began my job with the Georgia Department of Education. Once was in downtown Atlanta; the other was in downtown Athens (the same week).

Molly fell down not once but twice when she was walking down the aisle as Maid of Honor at her sister’s wedding. Okay, the aisle was an uneven grassy area and it was hot and Molly’s feet were sweaty, and, oh yeah, I'd made her get shoes that were too big because they were on sale. I was pretty impressed that, in spite of her humiliation, my smart child took her shoes off in the middle of the vows and took part in the recessional with the offending clodhoppers slung over her shoulder. She then proceeded to drink her way through the reception barefoot.

Carrying my Art Major drawing board, I fell down in the middle of Baxter Street in front of the Krystal when I was a freshman at UGA. The tiny-square-burger-eating Krystal diners applauded me when I got myself up and limped on in for a large order of fries.

Molly told me she once fell backwards out of a trailer. I don’t even want to know the details of that story, but the no falling while drinking may not apply to social gatherings in mobile homes.

I fell down in front of about one hundred graduate students in an auditorium about ten years ago when I was teaching college. The most significant part of
this story is that I immediately jumped up, threw my arms in the air, declaring, “I’m all right! I’m all right!” to what was, no doubt, the group's great disappointment as I was able to continue with class.

My most embarrassing and best documented fall was immortalized for the three people who happened to be listening to
Georgia Gazette on Public Radio the day my story, entitled Dinner on the Ground, was aired in 2006. I've further commemorated it here in case you weren’t lucky enough to be one of the three.

One final word on falling down and this is probably true for anyone who's a faller: As it’s happening, it seems to go in slow motion, kind of like being poured from a syrup bottle. The worst part is that you know you’re going down and there isn’t a damned thing you can do to stop it.

When it happens to me, this is what goes through my head:
1. Oh shit.
2. This is going to be embarrassing,
3. and it’s gonna hurt.



Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mrs. Sneed and Her Frozen Chocolate Cake


My friend, Mary B. Summerlin, grew up on a farm near the tiny town of Starr, South Carolina, where her father kept cows and raised crops. I, on the other hand, spent my childhood in a suburb of a middle-sized city in Georgia, where my daddy went to work every morning in a suit, just like the daddies of most of my friends.

Mary shares a wonderful story about a friendship she had with an elderly woman named Miss Lilla who lived near her father’s farm. She tells about the lady and how proud and self sufficient she was, and how she dressed up and put on a hat every time she went to catch the bus to go to town. She also describes helping Miss Lilla by toting water from her well and then being thanked for her effort with Oreo cookies.

Mary's storytelling offered a Norman Rockwell vision of farm life, which left me charmed and transported. I could just imagine my friend, as a child, running barefoot down a dirt road and across a field, knocking on Miss Lilla's door. My Leave It to Beaver childhood didn’t include anything about a farm or cows or an old lady who got water from a well and served Oreo cookies to little girls.

Then I remembered Mrs. Sneed and her frozen chocolate cake.

Mrs. Sneed and her husband, Mr. Sneed, lived next door to me on Bransby Drive. They were both quite old and I was pretty young. I think I was about seven when I started stopping by Mrs. Sneed’s screened porch after school. I remember her as being a pleasant-looking woman with pretty white hair, attired always in a rayon dress and support hose. Mr. Sneed was a bit scary looking and he had a weird voice, but he was nice. It seems that he'd been electrocuted at some point in his working life as a telephone lineman, a terrible accident which left him with scar tissue all over, including his vocal chords. However, I remember I was never afraid of Mr. Sneed, who had a courtly manner about himself.

My friendship, though, was with Mrs. Sneed. It’s funny, in retrospect, that I remember thinking I was doing her a favor by stopping by with pictures I’d drawn or some of my A papers. This was because the Sneeds had never had children of their own, a recognition within my egocentric child mind that caused me to feel sorry for them. I figured I was the one bright spot in their otherwise rather sad life.

I don’t remember ever sitting in the Sneed's living room, dining room, or kitchen. I do recall a small den where Mrs. Sneed kept my little gifts, but the screened porch was where we visited. It was on the side of their house and it overlooked my back yard. I don’t remember ever being hot or cold and wonder if I only visited in the spring and fall.

On really good days, perhaps after sharing one of my extraordinary spelling tests with Mrs. Sneed, she would offer me a slice of chocolate cake, one of those cakes with about a million layers. It wasn’t until I saw the package on the kitchen counter that I realized it was Pepperidge Farm, straight from the freezer. After my first taste, I immediately went home and begged my non-baking mother to buy some, and, although she did from time to time, my mother's freezer just couldn't bake a cake as well as Mrs. Sneed's.

That’s it, every memory I have of the Sneeds, other than visiting them once years later, when they were both in a nursing home. What happened to my friendship with my favorite old lady? Did I just stop going by? Was there one last Crayola-ed gift I handed her before I bid adieu? Or was it she who ended our relationship when frozen dessert prices went up and she could no longer afford my friendship? I don’t even remember how long I hung around the Sneed porch. Was it just one season, a gorgeous spring with azaleas blooming in the side yard and chocolate cake defrosting in the kitchen? Or was it years I visited, growing taller with each passing summer?

I suspect our friendship fell victim to my growing up and the Sneeds growing older. There must have come a time when the porch visits no longer offered what they once had, when our stars were no longer aligned, when neither of us needed nor wanted the special attention we had each provided the other.

As I was thinking about Mrs. Sneed and feeling remorseful over not knowing, or at least remembering, more about her, I suddenly recalled that she had given me a cookbook at some point in my sorry, unappreciative life. Perhaps my mother told me about it after Mrs. Sneed had died, maybe when I was planning my wedding and at least considering learning to cook. Somehow, I'd managed to hold on to the cookbook, although the urge to whisk and saute had been a just fleeting thing. I pulled it off the shelf, and then marveled at the view into my old friend's life it offered with its handwritten recipes, letters from friends, and coupons inserted within the pages. First of all, her name was Estelle. Who knew?

But the best part was the inscription in the front. It was from Mr. Sneed and this is what it said:

Bought 1-18-30
Property of Mrs. W. T. Sneed
"Footnote"
Herein contains the secret
of keeping one's husband at home nights.
"Answer"
A good cook

W.T.S.



And I'd thought
I was the most exciting thing in their lives. Apparently, from the frozen cake evidence, it wasn't Mrs. Sneed's cooking that kept Mr. Sneed happy and at home.

I too have a footnote. The message I'm trying to convey here isn't so much about the memories I have of a nice lady who made me feel special as a child. Instead, it's about the importance of sharing our stories, no matter how conventional they may seem to us. I have a dear friend whose grandparents came over from Russia and who grew up in Brooklyn and then lived much of her adult life in Israel. While I can't compete with her stories, I don't need to. My personal and family histories are as important to me as hers are to her and all of our stories serve to inform others. Not only do our memories and family stories help our children and grandchildren understand
their history, they also provide a catalyst for other people to recall something they may have forgotten.

It was only when Mary shared her Miss Lilla story with me that I remembered my friendship with Mrs. Sneed. And I'm so glad I did.




Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why I’m writing this Stupid Blog

I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be an artist. Hell, I still want to be an artist. I was even an art major for two quarters in college and I wrote my Master’s research paper on measuring artistic ability.

My problem is that I have very little of the artistic ability I was attempting to measure with my research project. I’m relatively creative and I can think of all sorts of art I would like to do, but when pen or paint or glue goes to paper, it doesn’t look much at all like I thought it would. To further exacerbate my dilemma, I have an anemic eye for color and worse, no patience with practice making perfect (or even passable).

I have, however, throughout my life, felt successful when I write. My first writing memory had to do with my mother, who was and still is, although she’s dead, my creative role model. I remember some time in elementary school when I was supposed to write a description of myself, probably one of those stupid writing assignments we teachers love to give at the beginning of each term. My mother suggested, instead of describing who I was and what I liked, that I should address who I
wasn’t and what I didn’t like, something akin to “I’m not a tall willowy blond and I hate brussels sprouts.” At that point, I realized, by writing in a different, quirky way, people would pay attention and remember. It worked! My teacher loved my writing and thought I was a genius.

But I still wanted to be an artist.

The next writing assignment I remember was freshman year in college. I had to take that damned Speech class most everybody has (or at least had) to take. Once again, Mama to the rescue. She talked me into writing and presenting a speech on love. There I was an eighteen year old, having just packed on my freshman thirty with cafeteria food, standing before my peers, including members of the Georgia Football Team, talking about romantic love. And I pulled it off! Well, at least nobody snickered, probably because the big ones in the back were drawing pass plays in their notebooks. Thanks to Mama, I made an A in the course.

I was an art major at the time.

Fast forward some years to my early married life when I wrote what I considered to be a scathing letter to our landlord after Gary, Baby Melissa, and I moved into an apartment that hadn’t been finished. No railings on the stairs, no gate on the fence, no answers to phone calls. After the company received my letter, we were allowed to break our lease. At that point, I came to understand that putting words to paper could pack a punch (and perhaps make people think you're crazy). By that time, I'd given up on art as a profession, but still dabbled in my spare time, painting, pasting, sewing, and for one short season, macramé-ing.

Next came a letter to the editor of the Macon Telegraph about the importance of air conditioning our schools, and suddenly I’d been published. But, although I enjoyed the cool air our referendum offered, I thought no more about writing.

Then there was graduate school and lots of papers to write. For one final exam, I wrote a poem as a response to an essay question, and, although my professor scoffed at me in his grading comments, I passed the test. Another professor told me I should write a humorous column for an education journal, and while I was thrilled, I managed to keep from actually doing anything about it (other than bask for a couple of days).

When I stopped attending graduate school and started teaching it, it occurred to me that I was supposed to be doing scholarly writing in order to earn tenure. What did I know about scholarly writing? I was an artist! So instead, I wrote a couple of things that weren’t scholarly at all but got published, and I was tenured anyway.

While I was working hard at not being scholarly, I also self-published three meant-to-be funny murder mysteries some of my friends seemed to like. The most important part of that process was that I was able to create a main character who was guess what? an artist, and a crazy one at that. I finally felt like an artist myself as I painted word pictures of all the things I would have created if only I’d had the talent or the nerve. Through writing, I was able to become my main character, Annabelle. Or maybe I'd always
been Annabelle and whatever talents I have were just surfacing in a different way.

After moving to Atlanta five years ago, I didn’t write anything at all, other than lesson plans and sentences on the board for my second graders. It took turning 60 and driving down an Atlanta one-way street the wrong way to get me writing again. I suddenly wanted to do something to explain myself, to make me believe I wasn’t losing all my faculties.

I had no idea where this blog journey would lead me. The path has taken me to new friends, renewed relationships with old friends, more thoughtful thinking, puked-up memories, and a better understanding of what I can expect as I move on through this life. The great thing about a blog is the reciprocity of it all, the conversations that occur between bloggers and responders, and the great mutual support system the blogosphere provides. It's definitely not a one way street as I've received more than I've given: laughs, tender moments, good advice, great concern, and an improved personal understanding of our big old world.

And so, I think I'll keep on blogging. But first, I'm going to get out my watercolors and paint something too aesthetically benign to be even ugly. Because I am, after all, an artist.


Monday, August 9, 2010

My Best Tip for Looking Twenty Years Younger


Tighten your bra straps.

I’m serious here. The other day, I was dressing up to attend a baby shower for my friend Allison's daughter. I don’t usually dress up. In fact, I normally get ready for work in the dark, a routine that just recently caused me to wear my shirt inside out until mid-morning when one of my second graders noticed.

So there I was in broad daylight, looking at myself in the mirror over the sink in my bathroom and wondering where my boobs had gone. All I could see was my bony chest. When I looked down, I noticed two extra bumps down around what used to be my waist. There they were.

I looked back in the mirror and pulled on my bra straps, which caused my breasts to rise up to where they are supposed to be (or at least in the ball park). I then checked my bra and remembered that the straps are adjustable, so, by finagling the the plastic doohickeys, Bingo, my boobs and my self esteem were suddenly elevated to a healthier level.

On to the baby shower where I was boring people with my story about fighting the good fight against the pull of gravity. Two of my gay friends quickly became involved since, to my knowledge, gay men like to talk about female anatomy even more than straight men (but in a very different way). Their advice was to go to one of those expensive foundation shops and buy a bra that really fits. I told them that type of thing wasn’t going to happen as my current bra I’d purchased from Target four years ago was just now getting comfortable. They both did that annoying smirk they do when I say something so sensible they can’t possibly argue with it.

Further discussion at the shower – what baby? – centered around a joke someone told about a woman’s bust size going from 36 to 36 long, and then a remembrance of mine having to do with why mammograms aren’t particularly helpful for women under forty, based on young women's breasts being mostly muscle while the breasts of older women are mostly fat. That then led to silly examples of exercises for building boob muscles and someone taking a picture of Allison and me holding up our party-frocked breasts with our crone hands. In case you're wondering, yes, wine was on the menu at this particular baby shower.

I'm proud to say I have two bras, the (formerly) white one I’m wearing right now and a black one I keep in case something really exciting happens in my life. So far nothing has. I like my white bra, and even on weekends, when I'm not planning on going anywhere, I will put it on in late morning, after my bath, and then toss my pajamas right back on over it, being aware that putting on my bra signifies I'm ready for whatever the day may bring (including fire drills). My friend, Linda, hates her bra and has been known to take it off in the parking lot when she is leaving work. Allison, on the other hand, uses her bra as a cell phone caddy, although she often forgets it's in there and has to email people with the message: CALL ME I'VE LOST MY PHONE!

I remember my first starter bra and how excited I was to wear it, making sure, that day, to sport a thin white top so others could appreciate my budding comeliness under that "stretch as you grow" nylon. Of course my brother ruined it by saying he needed a bra more than I did. I'm not sure he should have been bragging about that.

I guess I've been wearing a bra for over 45 years now. Not the same bra, mind you. I do buy a new one from time to time when the old one finally gives in and lets go to the point that safety pins no longer do the trick.

And I wonder why there's no man in my life. But then again, maybe tightening the straps will do the trick.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Work


Last Friday, my ex, the only man to whom I’ve ever been married, retired after working for the same pharmaceutical company for thirty-six years. On Saturday, I was lucky enough to be able to hear Joan Baez singing through my sunroom window. And then on Monday, I went back to work as my summer vacation ended. All of the above has gotten me thinking about work and how I feel about it.

The Big Kat seems pretty happy with his several-days-old retirement, as he was tired, not of the crux of the work: the calling on doctors he’s called on for years to tell them about drugs he believes in, but, instead, the peripheral exercises: the meetings, the paperwork, the bottom line, the rah-rah. When I talked to him about it, he said he realized what he was going to miss was no longer there anyway – the old days, the old guys, the old stories.

What does listening to Joan Baez have to do with my world of work? Joan Baez is 69 years old. I know this because I looked it up. I’m always happy to see people older than I am who are still working at something they love – and to have done what she’s done for over fifty years makes me think she must still love it. I can’t imagine she’s worried about surviving on her retirement funds, but you never know. Her 401K may have gone south like so many others.

And then there’s my going back to work. Although, when school starts each fall, when I say “just one more year”, deep down inside, I’m scared to death to retire. I’ll change jobs in heartbeat, actually every five years or so, but staring into that abyss is a frightening thing for me personally. My problem is that I don’t know who I am without work.

When you're young, you think, boy, won't it be great when I can retire. I didn’t realize until I got older that retirement (real retirement, not early retirement because you made a fortune as a commodities broker and are now going to sail around the world in your catamaran) means to the world that you are no longer viable, no longer worthy of being paid.

It’s got to be terrible when you're forced into retirement as lots of people have been recently. I think the best case has to be what my ex just did. He planned it carefully, taking into account his health, his money, and his interests. We'll just have to wait and see how he does with the change of routine because he is one routine-oriented man. He'll probably be on the golf course at the same time each day, from sunrise until the free beer-n-nachos buffet at five and then home in time for the Hill Street Blues re-run du jour.

I do have to say I enjoy work more now that I know I could retire. I remember back in the days when the years were yawning ahead of me, wondering if I could survive it all, the monotony, the drudgery, the getting up early in the morning. Now, I almost feel like it’s a privilege to be on the payroll, with someone paying me to do something at my age and level of disrepair. And then there are the work friendships: the discussions about who did what to whom and who said what and don’t tell anybody. I love the work culture, with us against them and did you hear about her.

I have friends who are retired and enjoying it. For some of them, it's because they are relatively well off financially. For others, it's because they have a partner in crime and travel, in most cases a spouse. For still others, it's because they've found something interesting to do, a hobby, a passion, a cause.

But, since there's little chance I'm going to come into big money any time sooner or later, and even less of a chance there's a former boyfriend who wants to be a future husband checking me out on my Facebook page, I'm just going to have to find my future in what I like to do and what I'm at least
somewhat good at.

And since it doesn't look like Joan Baez is going to hire me as a back-up singer or a roadie, I guess I'll just stick with this writing stuff along with some sewing, reading, TV watching, and talking about my grandkids on the side. All of that, any way you promote and cipher it, pays little to nothing, but it's cheaper than golf, and so far, it's keeping me out of the singles' bars.

By the way, do they still even have singles' bars? If they do, are there any that cater to the over-sixty set, with Happy Hour from three to five? I wonder if they need a bartender with no experience, one who's slightly hard of hearing and needs to be in bed by eight.

The Curious Lament of a Former Second Grade Teacher

  The timing was perfect.   I was 56 and looking toward retirement but not yet ready, either physically, emotionally, or moneta...