Thursday, August 26, 2010

Deirdre Sheets' 26-Minute Memoir

It’s funny that I didn’t know. I must have, on some level. Every morning as I walked to the high school where I was teaching social studies the Dolly Parton song, “Down from Dover” looped through my head. Still, a song about an unexpected pregnancy was a subtle clue, right? It was the nausea in the mornings, the tiredness that I was unable to resist, and the desperate need for protein that should have clued me in. One morning I broiled an enormous piece of salmon and ate it rolled in a tortilla, which I first slathered with cream cheese. I ate it voraciously, standing in the kitchen. Coffee didn’t taste good. I really should have known. That could be my mantra for some of my willful ignorance and questionable decision making back then: I really should have known.

Nearly twelve weeks in I figured it out and four pregnancy tests confirmed it. I was thirty, married, educated, employed, and keen on motherhood so pregnancy should have been just the right thing. Of course I was newly married to a man who was already sleeping with another woman. He was once – divorced already. He had a beautiful daughter from his first marriage. I fell in love with her, which I now understand was all part of his plan. Once I married him, he stopped courting me and started looking elsewhere for things much more thrilling than our newfound mundane domesticity. The thing is, for me, domesticity is thrilling. I’m good at and I make it fun and I was happy to share it with someone I loved. I envisioned lots of love and laughs and a great adventure. I am not sure what he envisioned, if anything. I do know that we didn’t envision together and we didn’t have some really important conversations about who would pay the bills and who would mop the floor.

In some areas, I am a slow learner. So, it was not until our second child was three that I left. We were living, at the time, way out in the country in what should have been a very romantic hundred-year-old one-room schoolhouse. Life was bleak, as I think it is for many families as the last days are eked out of a weak and unhappy partnership. We left him, the three of us and moved into town and started our girlfamily in half of a duplex only a block from the school the girls attend and where I teach. We all began breathing again and smiling again and laughing again. The girls also cried and raged and sometimes I did too. I paid his bills and mine for exactly months and then one day he returned home and it was all dark. I imagine him driving the long, winding, rutted road out to the schoolhouse and walking to the front steps through the tall, tick-filled, un-mowed grass, and entering a home bereft of warmth, light, and full of utter emptiness. Nights were back as pitch out there. I don’t feel malice or pity at the image. It is what it is. When you don’t pay the bills, the lights go out.

We’ve been eating a lot of peanut butter lately. For some reason, likely a sale, I am sitting on about three jars of it. We have had peanut sauce on rice, peanut butter cookies, and tomorrow morning there will be peanut butter and jelly muffins for breakfast. It is the end of summer and the start of the school year and summer travels and fall activity registration have both depleted my funds. So, good for me for hoarding the peanut butter when I did.

Sometimes, for moments, I am still mad at him. When it is late in the evening and I am making peanut butter muffins because I am a the only bread winner for my family and I am careful with our money and health and I remember that my mammogram results came in the mail today and I close my eyes before opening the envelope because two people depend on me for everything; I think of him, now living back in Chicago where we first met. He lives alone, visits once a month for a few hours at a time. He Calls rarely, never asks if I need anything, antagonizes, and takes care of himself and only himself. He does not have days which include three people getting their teeth cleaned or two daughters watching you get your annual pelvic exam. He does not try to conduct a professional life, parent two children, and run a household simultaneously. He doesn’t think about reading and writing skills, piano lessons, braces, hurt feelings that require late night cuddling and talking, or 20 ways to feed your family on peanut butter until September 1st. I do. The anger is fleeting though because that domesticity I so enjoy? I have crock pots full of it in our little family.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Jennifer's 26-Minute Memoir

I was out walking the dog. I don’t recall how I came to be there. Just that I was there when he pulled up beside me in his two-door Chevy, rolled down the window, and told me, his oldest and only daughter, that he loved me. Then drove away.

After all those nights lying awake upstairs listening to them fight, she had finally kicked him out. Told him he had to stop drinking or not come back.

Drinking? I didn’t know he had a drinking problem. Really? Was that what all those fights were about?

Many years later she remembers that I told her she was mean. That she should let him come home. Please let him come home.

He did come home. A week or so later. Sober, but not really that much more present. I thought we had recovered. Isn’t that what it’s called? Recovery? Recovered from what, I don’t know. But I thought it was all ok. A bad few weeks, but now we were all better.

Turns out we hadn’t recovered at all. Twenty-some years later I’ve been married thirteen years and my husband and I are on the verge of ending things. Terrible fights. Things we never thought we’d say to each other. Even a fist through the wall. I tell him he has to stop drinking or I will leave him.

Thank God (and I’m only beginning to even consider that God could possibly maybe have a hand in anything to do with me and my life, so to thank God does not come lightly) that my husband doesn’t want me to leave him. Thank God that he will do as I ask. Step 1. To talk to a counselor.

And that’s where it happens that I become enlightened. Because as it turns out we weren’t recovered back then when my dad came home all sober and apologetic. Turns out we are quite far from recovered, actually.

I am told I am co-dependent. I am acting the martyr. I am the oldest child of an alcoholic. The dependable one. I got straight A’s and never scored a fake ID. I write thank you notes promptly (or I used to before I had three kids) and I volunteer for all sorts of wholesome stuff at our prim little catholic school. I was doing everything right. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

So how is it now that I am learning that I am doing everything wrong?

I learn that all that perfectness is part of the disease. Could it be that one person’s alcoholism has infected me – so insidious and sinister and silent… silent… silent …until now when it come charging out into the open like one of those bulls in Pamplona? Could it be that the moment when he said good-bye was the moment that slipped by. My chance to right myself. My missed opportunity to face my real self and my true family.

I am blown away by the fact that I am not who I thought I was. I am overwhelmed by the fact that I now need to relearn so much. And so I am making plans for a trip to Europe. Because that same counselor that said I am acting the martyr. The one that told me I am co-dependent. She also told me that I need to believe that I am important. Really, in my gut, accept that as true.

I like that idea. It’s a good place to start. A trip across the ocean to regroup and figure out who this woman is that has been living in this body for the past 37 years. I will put these skeletons in a rucksack and throw them over my shoulder. And as I spend some time away from all of the everyday distractions, I will start to shed them. I will toss them away one by one until the only thing left is me. Me with my own skeleton. My own skin. My own self. I think that’s enough for one person to carry.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Karen Dempsey's 26-Minute Memoir: "Lie Still"

"Wait! Wait!" my sister Moe cried. She ran into the frame to pull Megan's sneaker off, and cast it aside. I snapped a picture of the sneaker in the brush, then aimed my Kodak Disk at Megan again, who lay face down, laughing into the curling fall leaves. We'd arranged a few dead branches across her torso.

"Lie still!" I admonished.

We took turns playing dead, posing each other and taking pictures with the camera my mother had given me for my twelfth birthday. I'd brought it along on this trip – our first and only visit to our newly-divorced father in this particular Ohio apartment.

He was on a work call, so we'd wandered out into the patch of woods behind the apartments. I peered through the camera's viewfinder and tried to decide which set of windows belonged to his new home, but they all looked identical. Then I told my sisters to pose for a picture. They put their arms around each other and fixed smiles on their placid faces. But the posing – the pretense – was too much for us. We were sixteen, twelve and ten.

So amid the dying leaves, we imitated death. It felt more….real. We positioned ourselves precisely under fallen logs and snapped photos of each other's still, pale faces. A closeup of a hand. Limbs arranged unnaturally. And we laughed until tears streaked our faces.

I come across the pictures in a pile of old photos of un-remembered celebrations. Birthdays, graduations. Anniversaries. The death pictures appear there, vivid and tangible behind so many forgotten moments. I study them for a long time. Replace them carefully.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Marilyn Nelson's 26-Minute Memoir

26-Minute Memoir – Marilyn Nelson

In our mandatory high school swim class, they had to use the long pole to rescue me from the diving pool before I went under for the third time. That's probably why I had trepidations about starting water aerobics at my local health spa. Luckily, no cute swim jocks were around to see me flailing about in the water this time. The pool is women only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so the only people there at 5:45 a.m. that morning were a few other sleepy-eyed women, all overweight like me. Among us we probably displaced enough water to fill the Jacuzzi. I actually felt slim and vibrant by comparison. Maybe this would be an ego-boost along with physical therapy for my bum knees.

I walked down the steps into the shallow end of the pool. Friends had tried to convince me to try the deep-water aerobics, but I wanted to keep my feet solidly planted on the pool bottom until I felt comfortable moving down to the deep end. I'm not sure I entirely trust those foam belts to keep me suspended. Even the shallow end was pretty deep, I thought. Four feet to a five-foot tall person like me comes to just below my chin. As we started jogging in place, the wave action splashed against my face.

The exercises seemed pretty easy, every movement created a little bit of resistance from the water, and I felt almost weightless. The skinny little bitch of an instructor was too perky for 6 a.m. and insisted on playing 70s disco music, but at that time of the morning any music would be annoying. After we warmed up a bit, she passed out barbell-looking apparatus made out of foam. I thought, "Good, floaty things! This should be fun!" I was wrong. They actually increased the resistance of the water and made the movements harder. I started to sweat, and wondered, "How can I be sweating underwater?" It made no sense. She then asked us to put the barbell between our legs like we were riding a horse. If I'd wanted to ride a horse, I thought, I wouldn't be in a swimming pool, but I shoved the barbell down under the water and between my legs. It floated me up and whooshed my legs out from under me, tipping me forward and planting my face in the water. I started thrashing about trying to get my balance and my feet back on the pool bottom. By the time I got that damn barbell out from between my legs, I had gone under three times. Needless to say, I was a little disruptive to the class. The instructor looked relieved when I put the barbell on the side of the pool and finished the class without it. After the class ended, the instructor came over to me and snarkily asked, "Are you OK?" as if to imply, "If you're going to drown, don't do it on my watch."

When he got home, my husband asked me, "How did water aerobics go?" I told him, "Don't call me Nemo. I'm more like a Flounder." Other than feeling totally out of my element, I did enjoy the exercises and they helped my knees, so I was determined to go back on Wednesday and try again.

For the next class I decided to try wearing a buoyancy belt, even though I was the only one in the shallow end of the pool wearing a belt. I didn't want another mishap. Right away I figured out the design flaw of the buoyancy belts—the foam part that makes you float is around the back. Trying to hold yourself upright in the water, the belt makes you tip forward like one of those tippy drinking birds that drink out of a glass of water. And what's worse, the belt suspends you higher in the water, so my feet were up off the pool bottom. I couldn't control my position in the water, or where I went. I just bobbed along totally at the whim of the wave action in the pool. As I did the various exercises, instead of facing the instructor, I'd twirl around in random circles (the instructor glaring at me) or would drift over and bump into one of the other women (oops, sorry!). Not a great way to make new friends. I think trying to stay in one place, upright and facing one direction is exercise enough, and it certainly is what takes the most effort. Gaining strength and going with the flow—it's worth the effort and frustration both in and out of the pool. Besides, now I'm determined not to let that skinny bitch get the best of me!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Leigh Anne Jasheway's 26-Minute Memoir

My dog had a lumpectomy yesterday. Like mother, like daughter, I guess. Hopefully, she’ll get the same results I always luckily do – benign. Although she is allowed to bite the vet and still get a cookie after, so she’s already doing better than I usually do.

To say my breasts are lumpy like saying the Empire State Building is tall or the South is hot in the summer. In fact, if not for lumps, I’m fairly certain I’d still be wearing the same cup size as the batteries in my digital camera. I wouldn’t mind these knotty boobs of mine if not for the fact that once a year someone in the medical profession tries to scare me with them.

“We found a lump,” a technician will tell me after my mammogram.

“I bet you did,” I’ll reply nonchalantly. She’ll stare at me as if I’m a sarcastic teenager who just rolled her eyes and muttered “Whatever.” Not that I haven’t been tempted.

I was the firstborn and my dad wanted a boy. So the fact that I didn’t “develop” until I was almost seventeen (even then, the “development” wasn’t any more noticeable than a mosquito bite) makes sense. Boys don’t have breasts. Well, they didn’t back then. These days with so many kids so overweight you’re just as likely to see boys in need of Victoria ’s secret as girls. I didn’t even know what a fully developed female breast was supposed to look like, not having a mother in the picture when my curiosity peaked. I assumed Barbie represented real womanhood. Can you imagine how shocked I was when I discovered that real women’s nipples do not fall off somewhere along the line.

When I was in high school, I bore the brunt of jokes about not having breasts. “If you didn’t have hands, would you wear gloves?” I was teased. After shaking my head, no, the bully of the moment would continue, “Then why do you wear a bra?” These days, I’d answer with “Since you don’t have a brain, why do you have a head?” I’m snarkier now. Like my boobs, snarkiness took a while to come in.

I lived in fear of getting undressed to shower after gym class. Or worse, having a boy remove my bra and find nothing. Fortunately when you are both the debate team and the slide rule squad, the latter wasn’t likely to happen. When a boy finally did remove my bra, he later became my future first-ex-husband. A physics major in college, I remember walking into our bedroom in a nightgown and him quipping, “Your right breast oscillates more than your left.” Ah, always the romantic.

Bra companies want me to celebrate my breasts. My most recent ex-husband wanted me to get a breast lift. I told him I would if he’d get a ball lift. See, that snarkiness comes in handy. It’s hard to know what to feel about these icons of femininity on my chest when someone’s always trying to cut a little piece of them away. I was surprised that following my last lumpectomy – during which the surgeon removed a cyst the size of a Silly Putty egg – that I wasn’t left with a divot. Apparently, fat senses a void and rushes in. Like so many other things in life.

Leigh Anne Jasheway

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Theo's 84 written in about 26 for

This isn't technically a 26-Minute Memoir, but it took me about that long to write and it covers my whole life. I wrote this list of 84 for Jorja White's Living Beyond the Pale blog, inspired by 84's there. Write your own 84 and I'll post them here on 26 Minutes. Love these frames!

Candace Walsh's 26-Minute Memoir

I am not afraid of salmonella. I spent my childhood cadging cake batter, licking bowls, stealing nubs of cookie dough. Never did I get sick. Keep me away from two-day old leftovers in the fridge. Those give me gas. But not the sweet stuff, raw.

My parents moved a lot and fought a lot, and I got new brothers and sisters a lot, but our kitchens became one kitchen through the magic of making the same recipes in them. My mother baked her own bread, cookies, cakes, and pies. She scoffed at children who had to eat cookies store-bought. Why would anyone even bother? They taste like old shoes. I had to admit that she had a point. Her soft, melting, wafting cookies were technically in the same category as mass-market boxes of dry wafers studded with preservatives. But.

They were not made with me at my mother’s elbow, my little sister up on a stool beside me, all of us sporting matching corny calico aprons. They were not made on top of floury counters, vanilla next to the yellow bowl, containing the endless conundrum of heavenly smell and godawful taste. They were not rolled out while my mother’s bosom rose and fell, her arms strong but also soft and fragrant. I didn’t get to eat them before they made it to the oven. They didn’t come from the easily granted request: “Let’s make cookies!” or from a whim on mom’s end.

My mother’s cookies were varying sizes and shapes. They baked on homely, old and scratched cookie sheets. They alchemized in different ovens. They never lasted more than a day because we ate them all until they were gone—for dessert, breakfast, furtively, for snack, when it was cookie o’clock, when bells rang and I opened my lunch box.

“My mother never made me cookies from scratch,” said mom. “My Greek grandmother made me koulouriakis, though. Butter cookies rolled and shaped into S’s and C’s. Brushed with egg, pressed into plates of sesame seeds.”

I think it skips a generation. I love to bake but I do it relatively rarely. Given that I grew up in a house where cookie batches were either in the oven, in the cookie jar, or forming into a ball of dough in the yellow bowl. I currently won’t bake with my kids, because they will not keep their hands out of the bowl, and yet will not keep their fingers out of their noses. Repeat.

I am by nature a solitary baker, although I grew up with the most nurturing and inclusive baker mother. I know it is a betrayal of all that is wholly maternal, but there you have it. I read recently that it was okay to accept that about myself, to not start out with the bowl and the ingredients and then slowly lose my patience as small beautiful children swipe and spill and elbow. I am a mother who does not like to bake with my kids. I am a mother who would like to enjoy it. Somewhere in between those two canyon walls is a pathway. Maybe it will come with age. They might get better at hygiene, self-control, stealth. I might chill about boogers, impenetrably dirty fingernails, raucous limbs. I might be able to mail-order an extension for my short fuse. In the meantime, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from Trader Joe’s are not half bad.