Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Night of the Screaming Rabbit Babies and Other Tales from a Leaky Vessel

No one has ever accused me of running a tight ship and my failings in that particular realm were never more evident than when I had kids and animals around the house.

The Big Kat used to go around saying that if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I, in turn, went around saying that he was a jackass, but I now see that I am my own most troublesome problem in many arenas, especially in the arena of loose shippedness.

Night time was the worst as it is well documented that I love my sleep. Many interesting things happened around my house during those eight or nine hours that I was blithely slumbering away. Alarm systems were dismantled from the inside out, cars were pushed out of the garage and down the driveway so I wouldn’t hear them start up, people came and went, and complete teenage dramas were played out as I snoozed in my bed. And it wasn’t because I was such a heavy sleeper, it’s because my kids were just that good.

Years ago, in one of my very few cleaning frenzies ever, I decided to take on Melissa’s room. Next to her bed, she had one of those cardboard tables covered with a cloth that were all the rage of cheapskates in the eighties. I picked up the table to vacuum under it and found a coil of yellow rope and a pair of rubber gloves tucked inside. After severe interrogation, Melissa finally owned up to climbing out of her second-floor window using the rope to rappel down and the gloves to protect her sweet hands. She then told me that she’d definitely learned her lesson as the leaving had been a snap, but the return trip had been pretty tough. I couldn’t help wondering why she hadn’t just taken the batteries out of the alarm system like she usually did.

Although I was relatively laissez faire in parenting my children, my approach with pets veered toward the criminally insane. First of all, I could never pass up the opportunity to take in an animal. During the time my kids were living at home, we had no fewer than four dogs, one bird, three or four hamsters, one rabbit, a myriad of fish, and way too many cats to count. I did draw the line at pythons and any kind of lizard and, for that, I'm quite proud.

It was the actually caring for the animals that caused me to lose my way.

However, let me go on record as stating that I never neglected any animal to the point of perishment (except for maybe the rabbit, but that was never proved), and I never abandoned an animal to the elements (except for that one cat with the truly nasty personality who took up with us). For that cat, I paid Billy and his friend, T.J., (in advance, of course) to take the cat somewhere and drop it off. The cat came back a couple of hours before Billy and T.J. returned with my car. Yeah, I know that wasn’t the right thing to do and that I could be arrested for it these days, but you know what they say about desperate times.

Then there were the few years when we had Sugar, our black pseudo-Lab; Sheba, a cat I’d inherited when her real parents moved back to New Zealand; and Chloe, the cat we’d had forever. Sheba’s real parents, in their cute New Zealander accents, had told me that she was quite the “huntress.” How quaint, I thought.

During that time, I'd taken to leaving a window open in my dining room so the critters could go in and out at their leisure to take care of their business. Yes, that was probably dangerous and no, it didn't do much for my reputation as a stellar hostess. At that point, I'd apparently forgotten
Sheba's reputation as a huntress.

There was one particular night when Sheba must have found a rabbit nursery in my back yard. On that night, she brought not one, but two, screaming rabbit babies (one after the other) into my bedroom so that I could share in her pride and maybe even grab a tasty tidbit of tiny cottontail. I could have probably gotten the rabbit babies away from Sheba, but before I could hoist myself out of bed and chase her down, Sugar got into the act, stealing the screaming babies from Sheba and then running through the house with each of them, shaking them until they finally succumbed to little rabbit baby heart attacks.

It got to the point that spring that animal carcasses no longer gave us any pause at all. One Sunday, I came home after being out of town for the weekend. I'd paid Molly (in advance, of course) to clean up while I was gone, and when I arrived, I noted with satisfaction that the house looked pretty good and the kitchen looked fantastic. The dishes had been washed and put away, the sink and stove were clean, and the floor had been mopped - except for the one spot under the kitchen table where a half-eaten dead squirrel lay in repose.

But I never thought about closing the window, even when I found the live snake trying to get out of my front door by wedging itself into the hinged groove. Or maybe it was just attempting to hide itself from that dynamic duo, Sheba and Sugar. Either way, life went on swimmingly in our listing cruise liner until, one day without any warning, the kids and the animals were all gone.

Now I live alone, and, for some reason, it seems kind of quiet around here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I Slept with Gram Parsons

The other morning, I was listening to my favorite online radio station, KPIG, out of Freedom California, when the old George Jones song, You’re Still on my Mind, began playing. But the honey-washed voice I heard couldn’t have possibly been ole Possum hisself. It was surely the voice of Gram Parsons and it certainly took me back.

If you don’t know about Gram Parsons, I need to tell you that this is going to be a cautionary tale, not because I slept with him, but because of what became of him. In addition, it’s going to be a story about a great coincidence, just one of a host of occurrences that seem to continue to happen in this big old world of ours.

Until around 1995, I’d never even heard of Gram Parsons. Having been married to The Big Kat for many years, I knew of the Byrds and then, later, the Flying Burrito Brothers. But when Gary, who loves most things eccentric and esoteric, started talking about Gram Parsons, I didn’t know the name and I wasn't particularly interested until he told me of his top-shelf band memberships and that he’d even stayed for a while at Keith Richards' home near Stonehenge in England.

Although Gram Parson’s story is, in itself, interesting, with his hanging out with the Stones and later collaborating with Emmy Lou Harris, it was his death at age 27 that adds his name to the long list of crazy cult figures of our time, and offers to us all another obscure, yet tasty, tidbit of Americana.

Both of Parson’s parents were alcoholics and both died relatively young. His family was quite well to do, his grandfather being a citrus fruit magnate, but his childhood was painful and his upbringing haphazard at best. Although Gram had dabbled in music as a teenager, he'd managed to be accepted at Harvard, where he matriculated for all of a semester before dropping out to follow his bliss after hearing Merle Haggard (of all people) in concert there.

After leaving Harvard, Parsons went on to join the Byrds in 1968 and the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969 as a singer, guitarist and piano player, but his drug use got in the way of his music and ultimately, his life. He did manage to go solo for a few years, making a couple of albums and touring with Emmy Lou Harris for a while in the early seventies.

Gram Parsons took a liking to Joshua Tree National Monument in California, where, in the midst of desert winds and sidewinders, he could mainline LSD, drink Jack Daniels, and look for UFOs. On his last sad trip to Joshua Tree in September of 1973, he overdid, overdosed, and died.

What happened next, which is the wackiest piece of this crazy story, has been described pretty well by the Wikipedia people, so I'm going to turn this part over to them (with a couple of addenda from me):

Parsons' body disappeared from the LA Airport, where it was being readied to be shipped to Louisiana for burial. Prior to his death, Parsons stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there; however, Parsons' stepfather arranged for a private ceremony back in New Orleans and neglected to invite any of his friends from the music industry. Two accounts claim that Bob Parsons stood to inherit Gram's share of his grandfather's estate if he could prove that Gram was a resident of Louisiana, explaining his eagerness to have him buried there.

To fulfill Parsons' funeral wishes, his road manager, Phil Kaufman, and a friend stole his body from the airport and in a borrowed hearse drove it to Joshua Tree where they attempted to cremate it by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. Police chased them, but according to one account the thieves "were unencumbered by sobriety" and the pair got away.The two were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined $750 for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 lbs of his charred remains in the desert.

Okay, great story, right? Sad but fascinating in that way that shooters and bridge jumpers are fascinating, when we suddenly feel so well adjusted and lucky. But where's the coincidence and what's the titillating part about me sleeping with a cult rock and roll hero?

Back to The Big Kat for that. In one of several phone calls with Gary waxing forth in his OCD way about Gram Parsons, he mentioned he was from Waycross, Georgia - my home town. That was no big deal as Billy Joe Royal, Pernell Roberts, and Burt Reynolds are also purported to be native sons, so I thought little about it.

It wasn't until a couple of weeks later, when looking through a box of old photographs, that I came upon a picture I'd seen many times, one I'd almost thrown away on several occasions. It was obviously a school picture and, because of the boy's dark good looks, I could tell he wasn't related to me in any way.

This kid was apparently a friend of my brother's from elementary school - in Waycross. So I called my brother, Sandy, the Washington attorney, to ask if he'd known Gram Parsons. He said he didn't, but I thought he did. I dialed up The Big Kat who told me that Gram Parsons had been born Cecil Ingram Conner and that, later, after his father died, he'd taken his step-father's last name.

Another phone call to my brother, who said, "Yeah, I knew Gram Conner. He and I used to spend the night at each other's houses. Why?" A rather long conversation ensued, but I have to say Sandy never seemed to appreciate the story as much as I did.

Okay, so I didn't really sleep with Gram Parsons, but my brother did. I, on the other hand, slept in the very next room, the pink one with the stuffed animals decorating the floor. I think Sandy's room at the time was done up in a cowboy motif or perhaps baseball.

All I have left of Cecil Ingram Connor Parsons is a scanned copy of his school picture and a certain sadness about a young boy who spent a few nights at my house when I was a little girl, a boy who never got the chance to grow up or old. Pondering his talent, drive, and good looks, it seems like such a waste.

The only insight I can think of to offer is that some fires burn so quick and hot they can even light up the desert sky - so maybe Gram Parsons' final goodbye was an appropriate one

As for that original photograph, I sent it to The Big Kat.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Girl from Cleopatra Hill

My mother, Perrie Rae Ling, grew up in what was still the wild west, in a mining town clinging to the side of Cleopatra Hill, an undulating accessory to Mingus Mountain, part of the Black Hills range. Mama grew up in a place and time I can only imagine, and they were central to who she was. The place was Jerome Arizona and the time was the early part of the 20th century.

Located high on top of Cleopatra Hill (5,200 feet) between Prescott and Flagstaff is the historic copper mining town of Jerome, Arizona. Once known as the wickedest town in the west, Jerome was a copper mining camp, growing from a settlement of tents to a roaring mining community. (Jerome Historical Society)

Now an artist's colony of around 450 people and a tourist addendum for folks visiting the beautiful red rocks region of Sedona, Jerome touts itself as “America’s Most Vertical City” and the “Largest Ghost Town in America.” What happened to Jerome was what happens to most mining towns. The mines eventually went bust. But when Mama and her family moved there in 1918, she was just a baby, and the small city boasted close to 10,000 people from all over the world.

Founded in 1876, Jerome was once the fourth largest city in the Arizona Territory. The population peaked at 15,000 in the 1920's. The Depression of the 1930's slowed the mining operation and the claim went to Phelps Dodge, who holds the claim today. World War II brought increased demand for copper, but after the war, demand slowed. Dependent on the copper market, Phelps Dodge Mine closed in 1953. The remaining 50 to 100 hardy souls promoted the town as a historic ghost town. In 1967 Jerome was designated a National Historic District by the federal government. (Jerome Historical Society)

In trying to write about what life was like in a place like Jerome in the early 1900’s, I went back and read parts of an interview with my mother I audio-taped at Tybee Island, Georgia on New Year’s Day, 2000. I called the intermittent conversations we had during our holiday stay
The Millennium Sessions, in an attempt to give them the heft they deserved. Mama died three years later, her words becoming a gift to my family and me. I can’t iterate adequately my feelings about the importance of getting family stories before they disappear with that irrevocable last breath of the one person who knows them.

In looking back at my notes, I quickly realized my mother tells of life in Jerome much better than I ever could, so I’m including part of my interview. Some of it isn't particularly politically correct by today's standards, but it provides a snapshot of what life was like in that place in that time. My mother's responses are in italics.

You moved to Jerome when you were about one. What do you remember about the early years?

Some of the things that I think that I remember I can't understand why because I was so young. One thing, I might have been two, I don't know. My folks had rented this house. It was called the Gibbs House. Of course, everything was on the side of the hill there and somehow I wandered away and somewhere down the road, lower, a Mexican child had got to playing with me and took me home.

And that just wasn't done, I'm sure.

No! And the mama took me in and, all that I can remember, I was sitting on a table and eating frijoles, I think, when my mother came to get me.

And, of course, there were no telephones to call.

No, I think they sent the child and the mother may have seen me previously. Of course, the house was not real close. You know we were separated. And also, I think that I have told you that, sitting on my steps when I was about three or four, there was a family living underneath us down the side of the hill. I had gotten a toy piano and I was going to learn to play the piano even then, and the two little boys, the family downstairs, got two kits for Christmas, that had hammers and tools. And those two boys came up and I was sitting there with my piano and they beat up my piano. The funny thing was, at that time, my mother had a Negro woman who came in once a while. She was a wonderful pianist. She had been educated and how she got to Jerome, I don't know. Drucilla was her name. And she used to show me how to play on that little piano before the boys tore it up. Those two boys' father, he was an educator and ended up as the superintendent of schools. He was principal of several schools.

How many schools were there in Jerome?

Well, you had the primary school that was down here, and the elementary school that was here and you had the Opportunity School...

Which was?

For retarded children.

Did they really call it the Opportunity School?

At that time, I don't know of anybody who did that. That paid any attention to them. And then down on the upper grades elementary school and then the high school. We had an excellent school system. It was pretty much run by the people that I have been talking about, the educated people. So we got good teachers and by then, J.O. Mullen, the father of the two brat brothers, who, by the way, I used to date in later years, he really ran a tight system.

Other memories of when you were really young. Something about a baby carriage that you didn't put away so your mother threw it away.

I don't remember that but I wouldn't be surprised. I was disciplined.

Mostly by your mama?

Both of them. My mother would dislike one thing and my father would say to forget it and vice versa. I dearly loved my father. My mother was my mother, and that was all.

But you were your father's girl?

I was my father's boy.

Do you remember your parents fighting?

Not very much. I don't think they got along real well all the time. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. My father was sick most of his life. He had stomach ulcers and back then they had no way to treat them, and of course, now they do. He finally had surgery a couple of times. He ended up with cancer. So he died when he must have been 71.

What do you remember your mother doing during the day? I know she was a good cook.

She was an excellent housekeeper. She played bridge most every afternoon. She was active in an organization that took care of people who had no money or illnesses, usually the Mexicans. They did a lot of social service work. If a mother was sick in the hospital, they would see that the children got fed.

What was your house like growing up? Was it the house that you showed me when we were in Jerome?

No, probably not. We lived in a series of houses. You know that Jerome was a mining town, and it basically was operated by the Verde Mine. They had a store that was like a commissary. They didn't call it that, but it was similar to that. People that worked for the mine paid once a month for the groceries and stuff they had bought. A company store. The hospital was a company hospital.

Everybody else could use it?

If it wasn't crowded. And my father, being the lawyer in town. Also, my dad, at one time, was justice of the peace, police judge. So, when the mine wasn't too crowded, we could live in the apartment house, which was owned by the mine. The other houses in town were owned by the mine. There was very little private property. So, we moved frequently when someone else needed our place. We even lived in my father's office for about six months. And then about that time, they said, come on back, we've got an apartment for you. We lived in two different apartments, each of them two different times, in and out, in and out. That was really the most pleasant living for some reason. No bedrooms. Murphy beds. One apartment was bigger than the other.

They had a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen, and then a dressing room and bath. And, in the largest apartment, my bed had to be pulled out and opened up in the dining room. My parents' was pulled out in the living room. And then, the other apartment, overall, it was smaller but their room in the dressing room to put my little bed so it didn't have to be pulled out. But that was right in the center of town. It was a nice place to live.

Jerome was the place where Mama spent her entire childhood and the place where she returned to teach after college. It wasn't until she was sewing at home one Sunday morning, and the news of Pearl Harbor came over the radio, that my mother began making preparations for what would ultimately be the reason for her to leave Jerome for good.

I think what stays with me most is how ordinary it all was. My mother, in spite of growing up in a place and time that seem so foreign to me, had a childhood very much like mine.

Lucky are we who had happy childhoods.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Hard Times

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to experience what it was like to live in the olden days, back when times were hard. No, I didn’t visit Jamestown, Virginia or Ellis Island. I didn’t even spend an afternoon at the Atlanta History Center.

In truth, my trip into the past began when something truly terrible happened. My cable went out.

First I re-booted my computer, and then I checked my TV. Nothing viable on either one. My computer kept telling me it couldn't access any of my addresses and my television just offered a screen version of a raspberry. I could feel myself getting agitated and my ends were coming loose. I couldn’t call Comcast because, to call Comcast, I either have to find the number online or wait for a commercial on TV and then look at the fine print. In addition, I couldn't even check to see if I'd paid my cable bill.

OH NO! What to do? What to do? After sitting around for a few minutes, looking at my fingernails and trying to decide whether to vacuum or not, I decided, instead, to call my friend Susan who lives downstairs. Thank goodness my cell phone still worked. Perhaps this wasn’t Armageddon after all.

Susan answered after just a couple of rings. “Hello.”

“Hey Susan, is your cable working?”

“I’ve already called,” she answered. I wasn't surprised as Susan is much more organized and proactive than I am. “They said cable is out all over Midtown, and it may be late afternoon before it’s back up. Isn't that just great? What am I supposed to do? I was all ready to turn on The Food Network and take a nap.”

At least Susan could still take a nap with no cable, which I pointed out to her. “Well, at least you can still take a nap.”

“No I can’t," she asserted. "I can’t take a nap without The Food Network or HGTV on in the background. This has completely ruined my Saturday.” Then remembering what an internet addict I am, she thought of my pain and asked, “So what are you going to do?”

“I don't know. I guess I’ll go to the library. Isn’t that what people used to do before cable?”

“I guess. Do you know where it is?”

“Not really. I’ll just have to drive around Atlanta until I find it since I can’t do a MapQuest.”

I would like to say that my visit to the library was great, and, because of it, I recalled the simple pleasures of life after finding a book on organic windowsill farming. But it turns out that the damned elevator wasn’t working and I would have actually had to climb stairs to get to the stacks, so I decided to head back home.

As I got into my car, I wondered if maybe my cable was back on, or if, at the very least, the drive-through call thingy was working at Wendy's. It would've been just too much to ask of myself to have to go inside to place my order.

It was really a very hard day, but the good news is that I have new respect for the pioneers.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


This past Sunday, I was kissed by a grown man for the first time in more months (okay years) than I care to admit. And he was good looking!

I was so proud.

Only, too bad for me, this particular man was in drag, sporting a pink Dolly Parton wig, a mini skirt showing off his hairy legs, and a sparkly bikini top barely containing his purple balloon breasts.

I’m generally pretty lacking in courage when it comes to writing about topics having to do with politics, religion, or anything other than mainstream culture, since I know not everyone agrees with my bleeding-hearted left-leaning ways. But this time, I’m going take a deep breath and locate my spine in all of this back fat and address something that just might be controversial. I'm going to write about attending this year’s Gay Pride Parade here in Atlanta.

In spite of the fact that I live quite close to where the parade was going to wind its way, I hadn’t meant to go. It's not that I’m against people parading as I love a parade as much as anyone. It’s the crowds I’m against, the not being able to see and being scrunched up next to people I don’t know or even people I do know. And it's not because I'm against Gay Pride. I'm happy when any group of people can get together to celebrate something that's a part of who they are. I celebrate Thanksgiving as an American and National Left Handed Day as a Southpaw, and even Cinco de Mayo as a Mayo.

But no, I wasn’t going to go. It was pretty hot out and I had some other things I wanted to do, like take a nap. But I decided to walk on over, partly because, just recently, I’d promised my dead mother and myself that I would get out and do things, especially if I’m going to be serious about being a writer. I can’t just write about my pillow case and the back of my eyelids for very long without people losing interest.

So, as I crossed the street to Piedmont Park, I expected to be highly entertained and perhaps just a tad put off by a celebration that sometimes gets a little out of hand.

But what I hadn’t expected to do was cry.

When I arrived at the end of the park by Tenth Street, the parade was already passing by. I first heard the raucous music and kept walking until I could see the top of a garishly decorated float, typical parade stuff. I thought I’d stop by and get an eyeful and an earful and then go back home in time for my much deserved afternoon rest.

But before I knew it, in the midst of the sights and sounds that only Pride Weekend can offer, there came Georgia’s own Congressman John Lewis, riding on the back of a convertible, waving to the crowd, and I was undone, a tear peeking out in an embarrassing manner from under my sunglasses. For those of you who may not know, John Lewis helped to lead the 600 marchers over that bridge in Selma, Alabama on what became known as Bloody Sunday back in 1965. And there he was on yet another Sunday, forty-five years later, at age 70, still working to bring all kinds of people together into what he calls his “beloved community.”

Before I could stanch the flow from my newly found eye irrigation system, my bank (Wachovia - now Wells Fargo) came by with a banner and a phalanx of banker types. Although I know that all big corporations now have Divisions of Political Correctness and Mandatory Diversity Seminars, I was still touched that they were there, especially when I saw two of their marchers, both male, dressed in pressed and perfect Wachovia shirts, and holding hands. The look in the eyes of one of the hand holders spoke eloquently of the fine line gay people often must walk in order to be who they are while keeping "corporate" happy.

Then came Macy's (my chain of choice for over-the-hill all-occasion wear) with a banner proclaiming:
Macy's Wishes You Pride and Joy! and I could tell that the banner wasn't some last-minute remake from a previous Peace and Joy at Christmas theme. It was brand new and made just for the event; I was sure of it. That brought more sniffles, a nose-to-sleeve wiping, and reminder to myself to return a shirt I'd purchased a few weeks earlier.

Finally, right before I left, my church, St. Mark United Methodist Church (okay I'm an irregular attendee at best but I'm on the roll) marched by with its usual crowd of the finest folks ever to fight for social justice while still enjoying a pot-luck dinner. I wiped away one last tear and decided it was time to go home.

But first, I stopped and took in my surroundings, saluting with my heart my funny and brave friend in his pink wig, and the good people of Atlanta who've allowed, and at times even embraced, this crazy and important celebration for 40 years, and the regular people who, whatever they believe to be right or wrong or innate or learned, try to see the commonalities in All of God's Children.

And, for that one important moment, I was proud.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Life Cycling

“Seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere.” – Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird.

If I asked long enough, my mother would tell me the story of how I taught myself to ride a bike. It would go something like this:

“You were about four. One day, you just decided it was time for us to take the training wheels off of your big girl bike. Once the bike was ready, you went out, by yourself, on our back patio and practiced and practiced until you finally figured it out. You didn’t want any help. I’d look out of the kitchen window and there you'd be, with no shirt and your face redder than your hair. You kept a towel around your neck to wipe away the sweat and tears. After a couple of hours, you’d accomplished your goal with absolutely no help from anyone else.”

I never really took to bike riding. I rode some as a child, of course, but I’ve always preferred to walk, or better yet, to ride in the air conditioned comfort of an automobile. But, this isn’t a story about my learning to ride a bike. It’s a story about how I’m still learning who I am and how I’m made. Although my 60-year-old self happily applauds the tenacity I displayed on that summer day so many years ago, I've had to sit back and ponder my early-age decision to learn to ride a bicycle on a small patio, instead of a sidewalk, a playground, or a parking lot, with no instruction or advice from others.

After 56 years, my pondering is just now offering what could have been a helpful glimpse into my future, a foretelling of things to come, if I’d just been more alert as a young child. And if I could have just taken what would have been my very own four-year-old sage advice, I might have saved some time in becoming who I was ultimately going to be anyway.

I'm just now realizing that learning and doing and creating have, seemingly, always been a personal and private thing for me, just as it was on
that day on that patio. Looking back, I see that I’ve never been one for study or support groups; sit-ins and love-ins have never interested me, neither have sing-alongs or group hugs. Although I appear to be outgoing and chummy, I can only hold on to that facade for a short period of time.

I’ve come to believe that many introverts become life of-the-party class clowns in order to survive until they can go home and be with their very best friends who just so happen to be their very own personal selves. I do like people, in small doses, and most of the time, people like me, probably because I don’t hang around long enough wear out my welcome. I wouldn’t want a world without other people as I need to have them around to edify, entertain, and then irritate me to the point where I can wish them away.

And this is where writing comes in. After a work day or a dinner party or even a family outing, I need to go home and process my thoughts and feelings, by myself, after I leave others behind. And, as Anne Lamott points out for many writers, I do enjoy the attention that writing sometimes brings as long as I don't have to be present when it's given.

And so, it seems that I'm a writer and not a cyclist, not because I’m a great thinker or a particularly talented wordsmith but because writing fits who I am and how I navigate the world from my own little personal space. Unless you are Salman Rushdie, writing is safer than bike riding, although it’s hard to experience much of life from behind a computer screen.

Therefore, I'll try, as always, to heed my mother's advice, taking "all things in moderation." I'll endeavor to get out and do things, be with people, and even take some risks. Except for bike riding. That I'm not going to do unless there's just no choice, and, if I do have to ride a bike, I'd prefer the experience to take place on a small patio with nobody watching and no help from anyone. And, if that happens, I'm definitely going to go home and write about it, even if it takes 56 years.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Those of you who know me are cognizant of the well-known fact that I've never been one to complain, but there are some things that are really bugging me and I just need to get them off my chest:

  • My two minute car wash sometimes takes up to seven minutes.
  • My computer isn’t fully protected.
  • I have jury duty.
  • My windows need washing.
  • My bathtub needs re-glazing.
  • I’m missing a hubcap.
  • I have a stack of papers to grade.
  • I’m scared I might get bedbugs.
  • It's hard to carry 12-packs of Diet Cokes up two flights of stairs.
  • I agreed to tutor a child after school.
  • The house plant behind my French door is dead.
  • My five-year-old refrigerator hasn’t been cleaned out ever.
  • The hood of my car is covered with some kind of sticky goop.
  • I’m out of toothpaste.
  • I need to vacuum but the bag is full.
  • Sometimes the mail doesn't come until after four when I'm already in my pajamas.
  • I hate meetings.
  • My trashcans need emptying.
  • I think I have a hammer toe.
  • My winter shoes need re-soling.
  • I have some kind of flying bugs in my pantry.
  • My library card has expired.
  • I’m afraid to change lanes.
  • I don’t like people as much as I used to.
  • I need new underwear.
  • I think my hair might be falling out.
  • House Hunters is a re-run.
  • I’ll probably never get to New Zealand.
  • I'm overbooked.
  • My car emission test is coming up.
  • My television screen is so dusty I can’t tell what the Iron Chefs are cooking up.
  • People park in my space.
  • Publix is occasionally out of my favorite muffins.
  • My flu shot might hurt.
  • Sometimes people are mean to me.

There's plenty more but I don't want to ruin my reputation as a real trooper, so I'm going to buck up and get out the bug spray.

I wonder if I can use Raid to dust my TV screen.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Some time around the turn of the century (that last century, not this past century), Flora Selma Teresa Hartwig stood somewhere in San Francisco Harbor, champagne bottle in hand, and christened a ship. Her parents had nicknamed her Flossie, her husband called her Florence, my mama called her Mother, I called her Mammo, and my children called her G.G.

Mammo was my grandmother and we didn’t get along particularly well. She came to live with us after Dadding died, when I was around 12. She was smart and bossy and we got in each other’s way. She walked with a stoop and kept telling me not to step on the cat. The next year, we added an addition to our house for her to live in – a mother-in-law suite. It was pretty cool and I would have liked to have had it and probably deserved it, being 13 and all. It had a mini kitchen and a nice bathroom and a living room-bedroom combo. It was a lot better than my room and having to share a bathroom with my brother.

From what I can tell, Flossie was a difficult child. She was headstrong and probably too smart to be just a girl in Milwaukee Wisconsin in the late 1800’s. Family lore has it that Flossie was sent to live with her aunt in San Francisco after running down a railroad track after some boy who’d been sent away for some reason probably having to do with Flossie.

I’m pretty sure her parents meant for the deportation to be a punishment, but, according to my mother, life in San Francisco with a young aunt and her well-to-do husband was heaven. Not only did Flossie get to christen a ship, for a while she had access to Uncle Deep Pocket’s bankroll, until, at some point, she went too far and Uncle cried "uncle" and her money was cut off. But, by then, she’d met my grandfather, Perry Ling, who just so happened to be engaged to a minister’s daughter in Los Angeles, where he was finishing Law School at USC.

At that point, Flossie became Florence and Florence found herself living with her husband and mother-in-law in Prescott, Arizona, a place not exactly in the same social stratum as San Francisco. But Florence prevailed and became pregnant with my mother, sipping champagne imported from France during prohibition in order to stave off morning sickness.

My grandfather was offered a job as City Attorney for the mining town of Jerome, Arizona, a place Flossie would have hated and a place you'd think Florence would have abhorred, but, before long, Florence had her card games and her ladies' clubs and her off-handed good works for the brown and yellow and non-English speaking families of the town. And, when she had the time, she mothered my mother, who eventually realized she would be an only child.

Some time after Mama grew up, my grandfather became an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Arizona and he and Florence moved to Phoenix. I remember summers as a young child, staying at Mammo and Dadding's house on West Whitton, especially one summer when Mama and I went by ourselves, riding a bus all the way from South Georgia. That was the summer I learned that grown-ups did other things besides go to work and church. I think of my grandparents as using their home as something akin to an intellectual salon, sort of like a small wild-west-American version of the Left Bank. I remember Saturday nights with friends over for a few drinks, when politics and the ways of the world were argued over and smoke and adult laughter filled the Arizona air.

My Grandparents with friends. The Lings are on the right.

Reconciling the image of Flossie with what I remember about Mammo is difficult, but not as difficult as it was before I too moved from girlhood right past womanhood and straight into Grammyhood. Remembering that Mammo was once a Flossie, and then a Florence, helps to remind me that we all grow and change as we age, but our true selves are right there where they always were. I remember that Mammo loved Johnny Carson and she loved politics; she was always up on current events and she was smart as a whip until the day she died. And now I see that Mammo was a feminist before most people realized that options were an option for women, and she somehow knew she didn't have to give every part of herself away to be a wife and mother.

Was she a good wife? Maybe. Was she a good mother? Sometimes. Did she offer something to my mother and then to me that I can share with my daughters and granddaughters? Absolutely.

What she gave me was a part of herself that somehow latched on to a part of me. I think I have her to thank (and blame) for my irascibility, my liberal world view, and my love of a cocktail before dinner.

So, here's to Flossie, Florence, and Mammo. All three made up a truly memorable woman.

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