Tuesday, November 9, 2010

With This Ring

There’s something about a wedding.

A holiness in it.

Palpable mounds of frothy expectation lace the air like sweet dollops of meringue on the cupcakes which awaited the tasting, once the vows were spoken, the sanctifying kiss ‘tween bride and groom sealed, the dancing commenced, as we stand there, mother and son, my hand draped across his arm, waiting.

Waiting for our cue to lead the processional through the lush San Fernando Valley garden, under twinkling lights, draped from palm trees, past rows of prim white chairs and loving admirers. Deservedly so.

They waited. And I, looked at Nathan and drank in every drop, completely immersed in that sacred prelude to the rest of his life; the sun starting its descent, the forgiving breeze, which would break the heat wave, stirring the fern leaves, the table linens, blowing my bangs the wrong direction. The muted voices of guests in the garden, floated our way as we strained to hear our musical cue. I quieted my mind to be present, fully present to that finite moment, like none before or none to come again, my son and I, on the threshold of the rest of his life.

Back home tonight, days after the wedding, I’m reminded of a poem I wrote to him the day before he was born. It was an unseasonably warm November day, we were living in Virginia Beach then, my husband in the Navy. I’d taken a long walk along the Chesapeake Bay, trying to nudge my womb into bidding a fond adieu to its little charge. The beach was wonderful; bright and breezy, the sun further from the south, intense. It was quiet, near empty, save for the locals walking their dogs and a 23-year old girl, eager and scared. I was walking and thinking, thinking and walking, looking out over the choppy bay. I lay down in the cool sand, heavy hips and heels leaving an impression. I hiked up the home-sewn maternity blouse over my belly, exposing it to the sun, his prenatal nest, a greenhouse now.

What will you be, my mystery child?
Rolling about in your sea of seclusion,
I know you not but love you already.
Soon you will breathe the same air as I
and begin your journey away from me.

Thirty one years later, on an unseasonably warm California evening, he stands next to me, as I quietly inhale all the sweet promise of this minute. I study him, my handsome son, my baby, my firstborn, confident, happy, excited.


Ready to complete his journey away from me, down that flagstone garden walk,
head high, to stop.

To turn around.

And see, his future.

Radiant, lovely, sweet and smiling. A gift. A precious gift of thousands of mornings and California sunsets, and middle of the night wakeful babies yet to come, she proceeded. So worthy of our adoration -- stunning, a vision, joyful, brimming with love. So in love.

With my boy.

How pure and wonderful an emotion, there is none above it, than the moment a groom sees his bride walking toward their forever, except for, perhaps, the first sight of a their newborn baby, the manifestation and miracle of that love.

How grounding. As seven, yes, seven parents of this couple looked on. Never mind our missteps and eleven marriages between the lot of us. And me, the perennial parent without a partner, I sat next to Nathan’s father, my first husband. The poor man was sandwiched in between the former wife and the current wife. Not that she's going anywhere, seems like at least he got it right the second time around. And the three of us are downright chummy, we're nothing if not model co-parents. And the family into which Nathan is marrying, stupendous, they are just the best people and I love my son’s new mother-in-law like a sister.

It was all just so lovely. Lovely and sweet and inspiring and romantic. And tonight, looking at the photos, I am simply amazed.

Amazed by, what the hell was I thinking?

Who was with me in the dressing room at Nordstrom’s? Why did I think I could get away with a sleeveless dress? Why did I take off my sling backs and dance in my flats? I looked like a Pygmy. And when did my knees get so chubby? And why didn’t I pay the extra $28 for those little bra strap holders after I’d paid $30 to take up the shoulders on my ruffled purple cocktail dress ? Why didn’t I realize the dress straps would be sliding off my shoulders all night, so my black bra strap was showing in half the pictures from the dance floor, akin to a slightly disheveled middle-aged hooker?

How these photos ridicule my failures. I didn’t lose the 20 pounds I’d set out to. I didn’t do it. I lost a mere six. Weight Watchers is going to give me an “honorary mention” and set my ass out on the curb. Why didn’t I remember to plant a child, or a bush, or a short bridesmaid in front of me in every picture? Hell, I should have rented somebody’s kid for the night. Why didn’t I remember to lean forward, ever so slightly with my chin, so as to make the other chins disappear. I know this! Oh, and that little detail of lipstick and powder after dinner? I used to be a model for crying out loud! Powder and lipstick! Powder and lipstick ! I know this! Matte is good, shiny is bad! But no! We now have 9,000 photographs of a slightly pudgy, middle-aged mother in the throes of rapid-fire hot flashes, freakishly looking like a female version of Bill Murray.

Granted, it was record heat in L.A. that weekend, 100-degrees, and then some. And I did choose not to refill my hormone replacement prescription, thinking the $50 could be better spent elsewhere and surely after five years it’s time for my personal heat wave to subside. Damn weather.

Best laid plans of menopausal women, eh? I wanted to be a knock out. I truly did. I wanted folks to whisper, “Wow, four kids? She looks great ! ” Why? Why is this? What is wrong with me? Am I just a shallow, narcissistic heap of “that-ship-has-already-sailed” pitifulness because I wanted to make a splash? Or do most women secretly dream of being the age-defying gorgeous mother of the bride or groom, hoping against hope that somehow, we can hike it up, tuck it in, paint it over and prop it up enough to look, for just one night, remotely like the women we were when we were brides?

These young women don’t know the power or the beauty they possess. With their creamy skin, silky arms and legs and tiny waists and flawless necks that have not turned turkey, I doubt they appreciate how truly lovely they are. Some day they will. And someday, if they’re lucky enough to have beautiful babies who grow up to be beautiful adults, (the DNA upgrade is what I call my kids) complete with youthful minds and bodies, well equipped to embark on the rigors of love and marriage, they’ll have the privilege of witnessing their children fall in love, and mature into human beings possessed of character and grace. I don’t mean agility because Lord knows my kids aren’t exactly gazelles. I’m talking state of grace, to be present to the prospect and promise of love and to be brave enough to take that first step down the flagstone walk to their dreams.

And why the hell not?

Because joy lies there. And in these photos, I see joy. Unmitigated joy.

How wonderful. How beautiful a gift when our children become our teachers, reminding us of the purity of love, the magic of one person’s touch, one kiss, one soul, the one soul, that makes our lives complete. Everybody knows this is the good stuff. We watch, reminded, revisiting these moments from our own lives, restored, hopeful, renewed, like reciting baptismal vows from the good book of love. We glow in their glow, reflected in the happy smiles from grandparents in their 80s, from gray-haired dads in their 50s, with their still brunette wives and ex-wives, from hipster friends, who make up the couples’ created family, to my brother’s new widow, with her son next to her instead of her husband, to the younger brothers and sister, so thrilled that their big brother has married the girl of his dreams.

How blessed are we.

How lucky am I.

And for the record, I actually did have a date, bitches. Not a boyfriend, just a good friend who lives in L.A., a wonderful escort and dancin’ fool, who set the parquet floor on fire. I danced with all of my children, Nathan, Patrick, Lauren and Sean to “Shout!” (throw your head back, shout!) Brother Don would have been proud, as this was the last song he ever danced to. He’d gotten up on the dance floor at my niece’s wedding in June, cane to steady him, as we held on to the back of his pants and stood behind him, praying he wouldn’t fall. God rest his sweet, sweet soul, as his whole damn family was jumpin’ and shoutin’ like converts at a tent revival. Lauren and I ran to find each other when the DJ spun “Brown Eyed Girl” the song I spun her around to, in the living room on the night of her Sweet Sixteen birthday party. I had flown my mom in from Albuquerque just for the occasion. She said she’d never forget that night. Abundant joy then and now, giggling like school girls as we’d twirl and spin.

Abundant joy. How precious. How fleeting.

And now, I am home. Home to devote due consideration to this man just ten minutes away, who believes he’s found his joy in me. It would be so much easier to be young and in love, like my son and his bride, unencumbered by decades of life experience. Life experience, like so many gallons of discarded paint, separated now, into layers, the oil on the surface, the hue, the essence, underneath, not knowing the true patina, until we stick our paddles smack dab in the thick of it. How many times have we discovered too late, that the chalky disappointment in the bottom of the can wasn’t worth prying off the lid?

How I wish I did not know this. Or, is it good that I know that in this process of familiarization, once the lizard brain takes an exhausted nap and we move beyond the tactile benefits, beyond the rave reviews on the book cover flaps, and actually scour the contents, it eventually becomes cipherin’ time again. Not the normal kind, where I’m figuring how much credit I’ve got left on the Macy’s card, or how many more fill-ups between now and payday or which utility bill has to be paid first to avoid disconnection, no, this is cipherin’ of a heightened dimension and consequence. This is cold, hard analysis, pencil to the paper, let’s get down to the facts. For example, “on a scale of one to ten, how important is this one bad habit compared to all his good habits, intellect, sense of humor, good looks, remaining hair, music collection, and generosity of spirit and material possessions?” Or, “how uncomfortable am I with his opposing view on this particular topic, compared to the ten issues in which we’re in synch like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire?” Or, “when he does this it makes me want to scream!” as opposed to “when he does this it makes me want to scream.”

How do we inventory? Do we grade on the curve, like a lenient teacher who’d rather see more pass than fail? How large or small is a single act, behavior, episode or chapter when held up to a lifetime, at least so far. I always say, judge me on the entire body of my work. Shouldn't I grant him the same license? If so, what’s immediately tossed off as inconsequential? What constitutes a deal breaker or a commitment maker?

Oh, if we could just get references! We do that for every other commitment in our lives, from housekeepers to house painters! Would it seem untoward to call up a former lover or ex-wife and simply ask if she’d be willing to participate in a little survey?

“Using a ratings system from one to five, with five being highly satisfied and one being not satisfied at all, please answer the following questions.....”

But of course, we can’t. Somewhere at the nexus of our gut, brains, heart, lust, evidentiary hearings and misty-eyed optimism lies some bedrock truths, such as they would reveal themselves at any given moment in time, some truths being transitive, some not. While I try to sort through the knotted ropes, he is confident that his molecular planets have aligned. He loves me. How can he know this? He loves me. This puts him ahead of me.

I am like the lead guitar, backstage, waiting in the wings. The front of the house fills with expectant fans, the noise, the heat, the smoke, clinking glasses, laughter, metal bar stools scrape the concrete floor as concert goers take their seats. It’s safe backstage in the dark. The gun metal gray matte stage floor, marked off with glow-in-the-dark tape, provides a safe pathway around the cables, weights and pulleys, and the heavy black curtains. The blue light of the sound board a beacon, your bearings in the dark, comforting, familiar, throwing soft light up into your wise, road-weary face, resigned, comfortable with the drill, the solo performance, repeated night after night. You know this. Your friends are here, they know the set list, they’ve got your back, they know the fills, the beats and baselines. The pre-show rituals are predictable, familiar, well rehearsed. But then, you’re alone, guitar neck down by your knees, a spotlight catches the dull metal sheen of the haywire of new strings and you’ve been spotted, a whistle goes up in the crowd. They’re waiting. Your friends have moved off to take their places and it’s just you and your voice, your instrument, your audience. Nobody can tell you how to do this. Nobody knows the longing in your heart, the yearning for some magic solarium, a sunny cove next to a window sill, where the perfect lover resides, no more performing, no risk, no fear. He plays for you, an acoustic guitar cross his lap, the mere sound of fingers sliding over the frets, soothes and stirs your soul, like a healing rain, where one song, one song, for as long as it lasts, washes away every pain, every disappointment, every heartache, shame and fear, even for just a few short measures. Who could possibly know that song? You tighten the guitar strap and walk toward the spotlight.

But, it's a porch light which shines on him now as he waits for me on the stoop. Leaning against the rail, legs crossed at the ankle, he’s stepped outside to greet me on this harvest moon night. I pull up, he waves. The distance from the curb to the porch is about twenty feet. Twenty feet. Is this my flagstone path to the future? I step up, under the porch light, into his embrace, his sweet kiss, his house, his room. He takes off his glasses. He takes off his watch. He lays them on the nightstand.

The lamp stays on.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I Am the Shiny Object

September 22

Overnight, I am adored.

“You are so beautiful,” he says to me in the tapas bar. And while I cast my eyes down, in Pavlovian modesty, I really want to stay there, maybe forever, weightless, inside the silky thread of his arresting gaze.

His eyes are blue, intense, smart.

“I’m going to kiss you,” a declarative statement he makes good on in less than a heart beat, coming toward me with a sweet, restaurant acceptable kiss, in between small plates. No dine and dash on this, our first date. We made it all the way to a nightcap. No waiting for that predictable parking lot moment, the pregnant pause we know from experience will yield that first tentative kiss, so common as to be cliche’. I like that, a man who knows what he wants, no hesitation. Such a simple thing. Telling. And a good thing when it feels this natural.

It is completely, however, unnatural, the way I feel right now, save for those few times in my life when I was on the verge of falling in love.

What the fuck does verge mean, anyway? The dictionary says, “an extreme limit beyond which something specific will happen.” An extreme limit, like 13 years as a single mother, hasn’t primed me to be on the verge of all manner of emotional and psychotic reaction? But knowing which specific thing I may be on the verge of, well, if I could predict the outcome of that, I’d be in Vegas, baby. I would submit, however, that I’m on the verge of something, marked by my heightened receptiveness to all things sensory. Every breeze, every touch, every voice, every cricket chirping or raindrop clinging to the underbelly of the holly berries outside my bedroom window, the goose bumps I get every time I think about him, this is, I’ll grant you, something. I’m sure there’s a definitive physiological explanation for this. Some might call it lust, but, there’s something lovely going on here, complete with a soundtrack. I’m listening to music again. After far too long of nose-to-the-grindstone, “time to make the donuts” drudgery, too busy to tap in to my inner Freebird, suddenly I want to listen and sing to everything. I model the lyrics like tattoos on my soul, reliving the emotions of every beat and verse; fast and slow, highs and lows, sad and sweet, the precious, tender, lovely melody of, seduction.

Ah, seduction. I have considered, from time to time, that the unlucky-at-love sucker punches I’ve survived may, (emphasis on “may”) have been worth the thrill of so many practice runs in my quest for the holy grail of a love divine. And, if I’m being fair here, a couple of these dress rehearsals led to long running shows, incarnate in the four children I am infinitely blessed with, born from two good marriages. Yes, good. Yes, both of them. I’ll concede that some parts of even the second one were good. It was the fallout after that union, Rick’s descent into darkness, which smudged my soul, for a while. But love always starts out good, why else would we do it? Good, bad or ultimately criminal, how many of us get to experience, more than once, the thrill of that first kiss?

And let me tell you, it was a thriller. I’m here to testify, that lightning can indeed,
strike thrice.

Yet, I’m cautious. I know from the school of hard won experience that embarking on romance is much like getting a dog. From the moment you bury your nose in the heart clamping perfume of puppy smell, you know as sure as you know your name, you’ll want to lay down and die when that dog eventually does. Yet, we do it. We do it. Time and time and time again, we do it.

Or so it seems with love and me anyway. So far.

For now, I’ll revel in the process. The way he cups himself around me, completely giving. How he reaches for me, in the noisy, crowded pizza joint, he pulls me up close beside him. Confident. Content. He’s taller than I am. What a delight! No more worrying about the height of my heels or my mode o’ day. I can show up on his doorstep in some ill conceived retro hippy outfit and he’ll look past it, right into my eyes, or down my blouse, no clue as to the pile of clothes heaped on my bed, after I ripped through an entire wardrobe in search of something to wear. If men only knew our torment! And even though he tells me he accepts me unconditionally, code for, “it’s okay, you’ve had four kids” and he looks at me like I’m Sophia Loren before she got old, my, how I fret, as I plow through the underwear drawer in search of items less, uh, utility. And then, I find it. I knew I’d bought one. Standing in front of the mirror now, in yes, a thong. In a moment of weakness, which became unbearable humiliation, I bought one, about five years ago. My daughter and her best friend goaded me into it, telling me “panty lines are not cool” and if I wore a thong my jeans would look more sexy. Compared to what? I toss it back like the too small fish it really is and look for those lacy negligees I used to have. Should I carry one in my purse? Reminds me of the Gilda Radner parody on Saturday Night Live, the “Hey You” perfume for one night stands, except I’m 55 years old for Christ sake! How tacky is that? I’m digging, digging, digging. I’m way in the back of the closet now, past the bridal gown from 1974, Jesus, what was I thinking?A bride at 19? I seize upon my long abandoned negligee stash, whipping through the hangers like the bargain rack at The Gap.

“Hmm, the pink one was for him.” Nope.

“Ummmm, the red one was for him.” Nope.

I can’t do it. I’ll have to get new ones. Who am I to risk bad luck? New ones for this new man! New ones for this new chance? I’m in a dither, as I stand with my back to the dresser, mirror over my head looking at my behind. Dimples would be cute on my face.

This is making me nervous. How long can I continue to spend an hour getting ready for a date? And how long can we leave the lights off? At some point, I’ll want to spend the night! Oh my God, the puffy bags under my eyes, my varicose veins, and horror upon horrors, my hammer toe! And I used to have such pretty feet. Oh, and I need to do more yoga. I’ll get a leg cramp. I’ll be forced to jump out of his bed, walking circles around the room to get the charlie horse out of my leg. I just know it! And what if he stops by sometime and catches me in my writing get up? My hair in a scrunchy on top of my head, my glasses and Uncle Don’s coveted green robe, with my grease stained “Life is Good” t-shirt underneath, which I continue to wear in hopes that surely it will rub off on me!

And what about my basement? He can’t see the basement! And the layer of dog hair that coats every square inch of this house. Will he understand that housework has been last on the list, lo these many years, as I toil at the altar of my Mac, writing screenplays, stories and memoirs and pitch letters, treatments and pleas for investors to fund me so I can complete my vast array of work, which by the way, never got sent to the millionaire acquaintances I have, whom I’d fantasized, given the opportunity, just might invest in me. Hell, the stock market isn’t such a safe bet anymore. Or, will he think it shabby that I flip the cushions on the sofa in the family room, to hide the frayed fabric, because a new couch has been a luxury I simply could not afford? I opted for painting the house, fixing cars, paying college tuition, hospital bills and funding our summertime trek to the sea. The “Holy Week of Motherdom,” seven precious days out of 365 when I have all my birds in a seaside nest on the Carolina Coast. I’d do it again. I’d take my last dime, as I often have, to bring us all together on the warm sand of the wide strand, personal property taxes be damned! Will he understand my irresponsibility?

Or my deepest secrets? The profound disappointments, evil deeds committed by and perpetrated against me. My moral failures? When one has lived five decades already, to what extent are we obligated to chronicle? Voir dire is achieved through examination, not purging.

On a scale of relevance, how important is that one romp with a rock star? The act itself wasn’t worth top billing at a high school battle of the bands but the bragging rights were, a privilege that millions of girls throughout America would have stood line for and I am certain often did. It’s not like I was that hot. I was simply in the wrong place at the right time, in my white-eyelet bikini, back when I looked damn fine in a bikini, lanky, tanned, flat stomach, with long brown hair, model thin, at the Holiday Inn swimming pool in San Antonio, Texas. The band was in the pool, all slathered up with Coppertone suntan lotion, the scent of which still makes me tingle. He swam up to me, like a God; stocky, muscular, square jawed, with the water running off his hair, laying flat against his incredible shoulders, like a seal who’s surfaced to lounge on a rock. A scrappy guitar player who’d come up the hard way in Flint, Michigan, his band was the headliner at the coliseum, and when all was said and done, the cheap ass didn’t even give me a back stage pass. Talk about not getting enough out of the bargain! His manager was leery, tried to wave him off, like diverting a shark from fresh chum. I was jail bait by any other name. But the lead singer had me in his sights and I was naive. What did I think we were gonna do when I went to his room, play canasta? Hell, I didn’t even know how. There wasn’t a lot of romance, and precious little foreplay. He was probably late for sound check. And he didn’t know. He honestly didn’t know it was my first time, not that he spent a lot of time asking. Consent was implied when I knocked on his door. Back then, I looked older than my age, thank God that stopped in my 30s. We didn’t have a lot to talk about and in a minute, (if I recall correctly) I was no longer a virgin. Big whoop. Satisfaction, for me, came later, when I confided to my girl friends back in Ft. Worth, with a guitar pick and his handwritten address on the hotel stationery to back up my story. That night at the Holiday Inn, my little brothers and I ordered hamburgers from room service, while my parents mixed and mingled at the cocktail reception of the convention they were in San Antonio to attend, while dude was singing, “I’m Your Captain” yeah,yeah,yeah.

Except he wasn’t mine. Tully, the lanky Irish kid, was the one I fell in love with, just a few months later. A first love I willfully loaded up with epic thrills, followed shortly thereafter by searing teenage pain at the end of our brief romance. He was the one I should have waited for, the one I could have died for, even though he didn’t deserve the adoration. “Tullys;” this would become a noun, a one-word description for he recurring plot line in my long running drama; falling in love too fast, giving too much, getting too little in return, acting and feeling like damaged goods. Cats had a shorter run on Broadway than this one-woman play. Oh, that we could recycle our purity, reset our brain, make smooth once again the dented can. But long before the square jawed rock star swam up to me in the pool, the freight had been damaged. I was a sitting duck, assuming that I was emitting some kind of bad girl signal, like sonar sounding off the depths of the deep end. This is what you assume when you’ve been molested. You think it’s your fault, your mark, your sinfulness, as opposed to the miscreants who perpetrate this crime on the innocent.

Naming names is pointless now. He knew better. He’s dead. It’s between him and God now. Announcing to the world that I was sexually molested is like taking a number to stand in line a city-block long, at the CBS Studios in Hollywood, for "The Price Is Right." Damn fools. I do not confess this as catharsis; instead, context. It is a defining and well healed developmental nugget in my journey in this life. And, I am apparently in good company. The Darkness2Light organization, among other things, urges us to break the silence about sexual molestation and puts the onus on parents to minimize the risk of their children being abused, rather than depending on some glib “just say no” slogan. Darkness2Light says there are approximately 39 million adult survivors of sexual abuse in our country. That just might be more than the whole damn Tea Party. So, I share this story with an implicit invitation; to anyone who’s ever felt ashamed, or powerless, or scared, or used, to anyone who’s felt like their life would be forever marred, I say come on over to the healed side of life. It can happen. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’d rather be a victor than a victim.

But at ten, I had not forged this concept yet. It was dirty. It was shameful. People didn’t talk about it. Just ask Oprah. I figure she and I were being molested at about the same time, but she didn’t have a TV show yet to talk about it. I was warned not to tell. I was told it was okay, but I knew better. I never confided to a soul, until, at last, I had to throw up this burden, when I was 47-years old, screeching my white mini-van into a shopping center parking lot and slamming on the brakes. I had finally had a belly full of my mother recalling all the glorious sacrifices she had made to secure for us, a good life.

“One of those sacrifices was me,” I found the courage to speak my truth.

“Oh my God” she said, in the passenger seat looking out at the Sports Authority parking but not seeing a thing. She went silent. After a momentary pause, the shock and sadness of hearing that the man she’d loved for 30 years, the steady paycheck, marrying her when I was nine years old, a woman with five kids and a checkered past, the man she considered our family savior, her love, her hero, had also been a liar and a child molester.

Trust me when I tell you the irony is not lost on me.

Within 30 seconds though, it was all about her. I swear to God. “The very same thing happened to me when I was a girl, “ she said, in some kind of appallingly ill-timed attempt to empathize. “And it just set me for life.” Well, no shit, Sherlock. It hadn’t been too great for me either and her sharing this dreadful mother-daughter bond made me want to slit my throat. She knew what it was like. She knew how it felt to grow up with that mark on you and she did nothing to protect her only daughter.

How many times I had tried to hide, in our house on Locke Street. I’d go upstairs, out of sight, off his radar. To this day, I can not smell Noxema skin cream without thinking how I’d smear some on my face when I’d hear him coming up the wooden staircase, the creak of each step, my early detection system, to duck in the bathroom and cover my face with goop. It actually worked, sometimes, dissuading him with Noxema on my face or my hair rolled up on orange juice cans. Or, I’d hear him coming and jump on the phone, pulling it into the water heater closet on the upstairs landing, where Garrett and I would take turns in our phone booth, the only place in the house which was private, until my mother or another brother would pick up the extension and say, “Jeannie, get off the phone.” And it’s not like I was spilling my guts to Jayne or Suzzie or Connie about the predator who was fondling me. We talked about more innocent things, like playing swinging statues and spin the bottle, where Huffy Scott was the first boy to kiss me when the Coke bottle pointed to him. It was thrilling. He was dreamy. He was wearing Eau Savage cologne by Christian Dior and a striped Oxford button down collar shirt and burgundy colored penny loafers at Kelly Slaughter’s 7th grade birthday party. I talked and dreamed about the normal things and dreaded the awful things.

Somewhere around the time I was 13, it stopped. I don’t know why. It’s not like I was going to ask him. I hadn’t rocked the boat, I kept it to myself. I saved our family. This is the kind of brinksmanship, do-or-die consequences kids conjure up in their minds, which keep them silent, keep them suffering, for fear they’ll tear apart their family, or worse, that nobody would believe them.

No, I dummied up. Until I finally went off on my poor mother, and then, as follow up, for $100 bucks an hour, to a guy who didn’t immediately make my story all about him, a blessed man who saved my life. If it’s possible to love your shrink, God knows I do, because Bill not only helped me face my demons, but taught me how to discipline them. Then, and also when, (you can imagine my horror) when Rick’s deviant deeds made "Top Story" on every TV station in town. We see now, how thunder also booms twice? But this was a cleansing storm, in time, because it washed clean my gut, no longer covered by the the filmy manipulation of a cunning man. Do you hear me, sisters? Once that inner voice had been vindicated, and I unleashed my anger by pounding the shit out of my poor steering wheel, at stoplights where I would dissolve into tears over my children being drug, albeit indirectly, into the scandal of sexual abuse, that same shrink taught me how to save them. He was like a family doctor with a shot of penicillin to the brain.

I have been head shrunk and purged, disinfected and cleansed. His advice to me, a little like the Eagles song, “Get Over It,” though not as hateful, was to deal with these assaults head-on; singularly, systematically, thoroughly. To feel and to say, to weep and grieve, to accuse, to rant and rage and scream like a banshee. And then, to stop.

“You’re the only one who can decide when you’re done,” he said. “But it might feel good to be done.”

He counseled me to take all that sadness and anger and put it away, like a shoebox in the shelves of my mind, a box I knew would always be there, but the contents of which, I no longer had use for. In time, I put it away, the box was shelved. Does this new man, with adoring blue eyes need to know how many I have and how high they are stacked?

I always dreamed that my writing would bring me a love most worthy. Seriously. I have hoped for this for so long. I felt if I could just tell my story, have my words travel beyond my screen door, the edge of my lawn, the circles in which I move, past the random people in restaurants and airports, on the street or in the grocery store, surely, like a divining rod, my words would bring me love. Blessed be my words.

“I’d like to know about your writing,” he said. So I promptly dove off a cliff and opened the vault. I sent him a link to this blog before we ever met. And, now, he is falling in love with me. We’re grownups. We see where this is going.

He’s a Californian, I like that. I wonder if there’s a unique sensibility that comes with being born in the Golden State. Are we golden? He wants to introduce me to his friends in San Jose. Is it irony or fate that the half brother, whom I have never seen, presumably lives less than a hundred miles from there? A Californian. Brother Don would approve. Brother Garrett would approve, of concerts attended at the Fillmore, baseball games at Candlestick Park, a gear head and art scholar, dog lover and music collector, who reads liner notes and the manual to his new chain saw with the same degree of ardor, then, turns his inquisitive gaze to me.

“I could look at your face for a long, long time.”

Did I mention how smart he is?

And brave, in small things and apparently large. “Take my hand,” he says as we start down the sidewalk. For a woman who’s had to fly across the country to the hospital bed of a sick child, who poker-faced her way through her weekly briefing to the President of SBC while her ex-husband was being interrogated at the police station within eyesight of the conference room on the 42nd floor, who bamboozled more financial aid counselors at colleges than you could shake a stick at, who rarely got rattled on live TV, no matter how close the deadline or freight trains in the background, for a girl who’s had to run the farm, without a foremen the past 13 years, through all manner of disasters, dead rodents, pestilence, floods and life celebrations for which she catered all the food, when he says, “take my hand,” I like it. Such nice hands too, well kept. No more wishing somebody would clean up or grow up.

This man is a man. Revealed in the proprietary way in which he kisses me, he takes the wine bottle from my hand, opens it, hands it back in a “let me do that” kind of way, the ease with which he strokes my hand, the perfect touch, and an approving pat on the butt, as we head out the door for a party. Are we born prewired, like so many receivers to frequencies? I respond to his touch like a cat rolling in the sun.

The glint of sunlight on metal nudges me out of the clouds and into the glistening present. I’ve been daydreaming out the window at 27,000 feet. The plane banks left and Malibu appears in the distance as we begin our final descent into Los Angeles. Los Angeles, where my brave son ventured seven years ago to lay his claim on the film industry and met his precious bride in the process. Los Angeles, where the two of them are making their presence known among the multitudes and declaring their love eternal in just three days. At this moment, I feel so happy. And the extra layer of delight, like nap on velvet, comes from knowing there’s a sweet man waiting for me back home.

“I will miss your lips. Be strong, have fun. Give your son a wonderful wedding. Hope you get some material for your blog.”

Worry not, my darling, I’m never at a loss for material, as you can tell-- telling you, telling the world, heretofore untold.

But, will you still be so enamored by this Woman With a Past?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Tell It To the Marines

I just walked out of my Weight Watchers meeting because I could not stand to listen to another sob story from a fat girl. I was weighing in after a two week hiatus to attend to more pressing matters than counting points, like traveling back and forth to Albuquerque twice, first to say goodbye to my beloved brother in the declining moments of his life and then returning, a week later, for his funeral.

If ever there was a good reason to binge eat, I had it. And I’ll concede that I’m a little bitchy right now, and not overly sympathetic to women who would have you believe that someone has force fed them like suma wrestlers, narrowly escaping their food torture bondage, to show up to Weight Watchers sharing their tales of hostage cuisine hell.

But I maintained. I maintained.

After going around the room with their giddy weight loss reports, “four pounds!,”
“two-point-eight” “one-point-six!” (like taking a thimble of sand from the Sahara Desert, by the way) this one woman raised her hand and said, “I’d like to share a story....”

She proceeded to tell us about how it was her third week into the program and she had yet to lose a single pound. She had, she said contritely, gained a pound and a half, which given the fact that she probably needs to lose about 80, would seem to be physically impossible if she had indeed stayed “on the program.” (Well, she did confess she was using ALL of her weekly 35 extra Bonus Points, which any Weight Watcher worth her fake salt will tell you, will limit your weight loss efforts!) Anyway, I looked askance when she said she’d counted her points and logged her daily diary and had shed nary a pound, but “I’m not discouraged,” said she. Hell, I’d quit! If I stayed religiously on the program, I’d look like Karen Carpenter by now! She went on to share how it had been her birthday this past week, and how tough it had been, but she’d remained steadfast within her daily point limit, and how that hardship was COMPOUNDED, by the stress of driving a car pool with five kids, one of whom was charged with “special snacks” one day! I can totally empathize, because I am sure one of those little brats must have held a juice box to her head, telling her, “pull this fucking mini-van over” after which they all lept from their child safety restraints, four of them holding her hands and feet, while the other one shoved the entire 13X9 pan of freshly baked brownies down her throat. Such untold perils in the war against the muffin top and jelly roll!

I just wanted to say, wah-fucking-wah. Instead, I got up and quietly walked out.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

I could have raised my hand and said, “I’d like to share a story....”

And then I could have imparted my weighty tome, the stress of standing in front of 300 mourners, with my two eldest sons and my sister-in-law of 46 years and her grown children and grandchildren, and my younger brothers and their families all crying while I eulogized my eldest brother. This little command performance on the heels of 11 months of having my stomach in knots, because I knew, from the moment he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that, A) it was not good and, B) he’d probably want me to speak at his funeral, which is precisely what he did. Because, this is what I do.

Write and talk.
Write and talk.
Whether a reporter, corporate or political flak, when my words come out of other people’s mouths, less adept at delivery, (like the well intentioned hayseed who became Governor) or as the family eulogist, a job for which I did not apply, but appears to be my birthright now, this is what I do.
Write and talk.

But in the midst of rewriting the eulogy five times, I did engage in a fair amount of food and alcohol consumption, because this is also something I do, in increased quantities when I’m on the mourning tour. I don’t think this is atypical behavior.

The first of my guilty pleasures was with my youngest brother, who is homeless. He needed a hamburger. And we both wanted a Blakes’s Lota’ Burger, with green chile and cheese. I had to track him down through the cell phone number of a landscaper he sometimes works with. He asked me to meet him out in front of Walgreen’s, rather than me coming to get him at the backyard garage apartment in which he lives. Or sleeps. This being only a temporary arrangement. We ate. He enjoyed it. And then I took him to buy some decent clothes for the funeral; pants, dress shirt, belt, shoes, dress socks -- all at the Goodwill because Lord knows I could not afford a whole new wardrobe. And, truth is, my deceased brother Don, had frequented the Goodwill store a few times himself, which is what I told Paul, and we indeed, found some designer label clothes and probably the best pair of shoes he’s ever worn in his life.
We purchased a complete funeral ensemble, plus two t-shirts for $26.43. Don’t let it be said that I am not frugal.

Course there’s no fixing his front teeth which are now missing due to years of meth abuse, and his arrested development, which maturationally speaking, dropped him off somewhere around 16. I didn’t have to attend Al Anon meetings to realize that there truly isn’t much I can do for him, except pay his life insurance and send him new blue jeans, shirts and a jacket once a year and birthday money, when I can find him.

I can’t do much for my next younger brother, who has his own issues to deal with. Don’t we all? This is harder on Jay, Don’s death piling additional pain into a life that’s already had more than its fair share -- a child who died, cancer of his own to survive. Jay’s lost his role model, golf partner and fishing buddy, source of consternation and never ending amusement. They were closer in proximity and aggregated more life experience together than any of the rest of us sibs. All I could do was be present to his pain.

“He will never know how much he influenced my life,” Jay said with tears in his eyes as we held each other in the hospital bed next to Don’s. Minutes later we’d be laughing about Don flipping the nurse off after she said, "Mr. Whatley, you really can not get out of bed." He was past the point of self-editing. The next day after she told him, "I'll be back to give you a bath," he whispered to his son, "and a blow job?" Way to set the bar high, Don. You were funny to the end.

Which, within a week it was. In the Labor Day heat, too hot to be wearing black, all the mourners perched like crows in the grass, laughing and crying again, at the house after the funeral. The surviving story tellers, sharing a tale or two, because that IS what families do, pass on our oral tradition, phrase by phrase, beat by beat, in the cadence of our clan, with the same pitch, the same punch lines, unaware of how natural it is. I heard my mother’s voice, the voices of both my brothers gone in the words that came from younger mouths, and in the hearing, a single death becomes a collective loss, stirring up that tar bucket of grief for everyone I’ve ever lost. There have been too damn many.

And yet, in the midst of the acrid smoke, there is a bright spot, a shimmering, ice-blue sliver of hope for something I hold as dear as my dog. As I sit in the front yard full of relatives and friends, juggling piled-high plates of funeral food, there resides a tickling hope in the back of my mind. Just days before Don died, I had learned I was a finalist in a writing contest for women. I gasped when I’d read the email, which made my daughter jump a foot. It was, after all, my first day back from the “goodbye tour” to Albuquerque, and she assumed I’d received the sad news from my laptop that Don has passed. Although, I seriously doubt my sister-in-law would have simply emailed me, efficient as that might have been. Okay, so we were all a little jumpy after I got back. I had gone, I had stayed as long as I could, but the lingering could have been indefinite. I had the blessing of seeing him, when he still knew who was in the room.

I’m grateful for those moments. My voice would stir a look of recognition. He’d raise his eyebrows and turn his head toward me, focusing his blue, blue eyes on my dark, dark brown. He drank a whole carton of Yoohoo with me holding the straw. I fed him orange jello and spoons full of a vanilla malt. We flipped through the classic car calendar hanging on the wall, something his son had brought as a diversion.

“57 Impala,” he said emphatically, albeit quietly in his cancer muted voice, “63 BelAir.” And then, when asked if he was hungry, “I am fucking starving.”

His daughter and I fed him a tiny bit of spaghetti, with just a dollop of my homemade sauce . “It’s cold,” he said. We heated it up and he ate it all. I told him I loved him and he said, “I love you too,” and he kissed me on the lips. Here in this bed, the same big brother who carried me on the Lambretta scooter to the Forest Park Public Pool, when I was a chubby 9-year old, brown as a bun, hanging on to my towel with one hand and him with the other. The same big brother who let me drive the VW van on the Pacific Coast Highway, when I was only 17, with his whole family snoozing in the back, and him singing along with Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain” taking in the scenery in his Andy Capp tweed cap and hair down to his shoulders. The same big brother who, 25 years later, respectfully refused to back my gubernatorial candidate, even though I was the dude’s press secretary, proving that union solidarity is thicker than blood sometimes. We had blossomed by then, he and I, into a commandingly handsome, charismatic union leader and I, an accomplished, journalist turned spin doctor, both of us known throughout New Mexico. No brag, just fact.

In that dying room, none of that mattered a rat’s ass. It was the same two people who, through the intimacy of shared blood, shared experiences from growing up under the same leaky roof, two people out of the remaining four people on the planet, who shared the inter sanctum of our oft times bizarre upbringing and a communal purple heart from surviving it, it was just a big brother and his little sis in an appalling version of the The Last Comic Standing. Another one of the remaining four was about to bite the dust. Goddamn this devil called cancer. Saying goodbye was like watching Old Yeller on a continuous loop for four days, heartbreaking and precious at the same time. But, how much better it is to kiss his hand, his cheek, his forehead, when he is still warm.

But I maintained. I maintained.

I walked out of his room, out of the hospital, into the nourishment of the high desert sun straight to the nearest Lota Burger. I got one to go and was back in the Midwest by sundown, although not nearly so splendid as the one the day before. Home. Home to monitor my Blackberry, which would vibrate on the nightstand in the middle of night with the goddamn weekly grocery ad instead of the death call, waking me from a sound sleep to tell me flank steak was on sale. “Why did I give them my email address?” I wondered as I’d try to settle back to sleep. Only to be awakened a short time later, the death call cometh on a rainy Monday morning a week later. I jumped on a plane, and was back to the searing sunlight, the sixty-mile vistas and cumulous clouds in the afternoon, stacked as far and as wide as the eye could see, the magnificence of it all, tinted like a gel placed over a studio light, colored by the tyranny of death. Funny how we reflexively look at the sky when people die, as if we could see them rising.

But I maintained. I maintained, in front of the mourners and the greeters and the weepers because that’s what my mama taught me and that’s what my brother asked me to do.

Write and talk, that was my job.

Then laughed and drank. With the first ex-husband and his familiar, loving embrace and his band of brothers, five out of the eight -- former brothers-in-law all, as if no time, no legal document could sever the bonds of our past. And the margarita meet up with my best friend from high school, whom I have not seen in more than twenty years -- and she shares a story so similar to mine in the revelations of former husbands, I want to jump out of the wrought iron chair in the Mexican restaurant and scream,

“No fucking way!”

But I don’t. We quickly move on to more savory topics like our pot smokin’, Spanada swillin’ days of youth and stories I will not disclose here, because friend or not, she might sue my ass. It was all that, but NOT a bag of chips, because all the while, I was trying to maintain.

And I did. Even after I got home, after my first day back to work, writing scripts about millionaire athletes who deserve a fair deal, and millionaire entrepreneurs who want to grab life by the balls, as I check my bank balance, trying to figure out how I’m going to recover from emergency funeral flights for three, I open a few cards from my blessed friends and discover checks. Yes, checks from my St. Louis friends, who, when asked, “what can I do to help?” to which I replied, “send money,” and they did. I go to bed feeling so richly blessed, then crestfallen, the very next day, because, old Jean was indeed, a runner up. Not the winner, just a finalist. Everybody knows that nobody remembers the girl standing next to Miss America. The woman who won the writing contest is chronicling her experiences in raising bi-racial children in what she must perceive to be the Reconstruction Era. Cry me a river. But, in becoming a finalist, I have established some connections with a cadre of highly networked (love that word, networked) women, one of whom, a notable editor, is willing to continue to work with me even if I am just a runner up. Blessed be God forever, I have maintained.

Bitches. But I did not share my little story with the fat ladies club this morning, because I’ll bet you dollars to donuts, that divulging the mountain of stress I’ve clawed over in the past two weeks, would have sent the whole room into a frenzied, no-holds-barred group gorge, the likes of which nobody had ever seen! Points be damned! A whole room full of stress eaters, diving for their secret stash of Cheetos and HoHo’s in the hidden compartments of their purses! Snicker’s tucked in their bosom, cookies in their pockets, cellophane ripped off cartons of Weight Watcher snacks, pillaged and consumed, the cardboard cartons flying off like so much sawdust from a bench saw. It could have been ugly, anarchy right before the leader’s eyes, forcing her to cower behind her flip chart.

Nope, I didn’t talk about my stress eating, because through all the comfort enchiladas and burgers and booze, I maintained. I actually maintained. There’s this little stress buster called a brisk morning walk at the Highland High School track, with the Sandia Mountains as a backdrop. Talk about inspiration! But, I keep this to myself. And next week, I’ll come back even lighter.

Because I have another source of inspiration. There’s this little wedding next week and I do not want to plant a child in front of me in every photo.

And, I just might have met a fella.

Which goes to show, it’s never really over until the fat lady gripes.

Monday, August 30, 2010

He Is Leaving

August 29, 2010

He Is Leaving

The August breeze carries them,
like so many gold foil flecks shimmering inside diagonal rays of late summer sun.

"Why?" I ask indignantly. "Why are you falling?"

Even as the fullness of summer still gives off her scent -- life, life, everywhere!
Crickets calling, bugs crawling, the birds so busy, as the garden snake lounges in
the shady, chocolate clay of the flower bed, flush with color --pinks, yellow, purple
with buds yet to bloom.

"It's too early. Why must you do this now?" hands on my hips, accusing eyes to the sky.

"Because," say the leaves. "It's our time."


My big brother Don Whatley passed away this morning, his battle with cancer over. He put up a good fight. I loved him beyond measure. Please pray for his sweet soul, for Beverly, his wife and lifelong partner in crime, and strength and grace for all those who loved him and mourn his passing. I wrote this little poem, He Is Leaving, after I sat out in the yard yesterday.
God sent me the words.



Monday, July 26, 2010


There’s one fringe benefit to this whole Internet dating deal, it gives me a never ending supply of fresh material.

Reassured that my dance card was full for two nights out of three, over the long 4th of July weekend, I figured I wouldn’t feel too much like a loser if I hopped online on Friday night to check my Match.com,“Top Five” pics of the day. It’s revealing to see who you can smoke out on a lonesome Friday cozied up to their computer, hoping against hope that their miracle soul mate, who is: slender, athletic, emotionally, financially and sexually secure, with no baggage, no excessive drinking, no smoking, no drugs, no dentures, no leftover kids, someone who’s “comfortable in her own skin” (not too saggy, not too pasty, not overcooked) someone who loves life, loves to laugh, loves to go on thrill seeking adventures, including but not limited to: white water rafting, repelling, campin’, huntin’, fishin’, who has the free time and financial wherewithal to cover her half of the “let’s live life to the fullest” thrill-seeking tab, oh, and someone with great legs, expressive eyes, loves to cook, salsa dances, likes romantic walks along the beach, a crackling fire on a cold night or curling up with a good book on a rainy day, who just happens to be sitting at home on the 2nd of July, fingers poised over the keyboard, ready to respond, “ that’s me, that’s me, that’s me!”

Well, good luck buddy. On a good day, you might get seven of the twenty-four aforementioned “must haves” which 99% of the men on Match.com list as key attributes for a Match.com made in heaven. I have yet to read one profile in which a man says, “must have good grammar.” Why is this not important?

Catchy headlines, however, is apparently important to this one fella I came across, as evidenced by his clever Greeked in screen name. You know what I mean, Greeked in, placeholder copy in an ad layout, like Lorem ipsum dolor ? Well, I’m no dummy, because I got it right away and to hear him tell it, this guy is a rock star in the advertising world because he said, “you see my work. it’s the good stuff.” Pretentiousness notwithstanding, and I told him as much, I figured we could at least have an intelligent conversation. So I emailed him, always a bad call on a Friday night because it’s so transparent. “Doesn’t have a date” leaps from the screen, like one of those annoying banner ads saying President Obama wants moms to go back to school. But I threw caution to the wind and lobbed over the first shot of verbal repartee to Mr. Witty and Sophisticated, and lo and behold, ol’ Witty was all alone on a Friday night too.

He emailed me right back! He said I was cute.

Well ! My self confidence shot up like a rocket ship to the moon! Because obviously if someone as intelligent and accomplished as, “I’ve worked all over the world” thinks I’m cute, then surely it must be true! His high regard for my cuteness meant a lot more to me than, say, the opinion of “Lure_U_In,” another of my "Top Five" matches of of the day. Lure_U_In, is a pipe fitter working the night shift at a power plant across the river in Illinois, who smokes daily, drinks regularly, exercises never, is not a game player, just an honest guy lookin’ for an honest woman, whose favorite place to shop is Lowe’s and his favorite TV show, CSI. His photo looked like a mug shot, and I know from whence I speak. But true to his profile, I give him props for being honest. And I’m flattered, I guess, that he thinks I’m cute, and I wish him well, with anybody on the planet except me or anybody in my immediate family.

Lure_U_In was ranked a 67-percent match for me! 67-percent, that’s an F in school.
An F. This guy gets an F. Not that I don’t like pipe fitters, some of my best friends are pipe fitters, but, really? What are these damn computers thinking? What in the world do we have in common, that we both walk on two legs? We both live in the continental United States? Wait, I know! I think I’ve got it! It’s “sense of humor!” I put “sense of humor” in my profile and through the magic of data bases our keywords aligned! Hell, that's worth 67-percent right there!

A second look at Mr. Witty showed our compatibility ranked higher, 82-percent, more like a B+ as I’m typing my response to the first decent lead I’ve had in weeks. He wants somebody, of course, “confident, slender, and attractive, someone who could stop traffic." I told him the only way I’d stop traffic is if my shoe fell off while I was crossing the street, since the most slender thing on my body are my 9AAA feet, which I have a hard time finding shoes to fit and consequently often walk out of them when trying to look hot for a Match.com date.

And I admitted, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have 16 pounds, give or take, to lose, since I have now, (...wait for it...) lost FOUR POUNDS on Weight Watchers, since beginning this strict diet and nutrition plan just six months ago! I didn’t tell him the Weight Watchers part, just that I certainly wasn’t perfect, but then, who is at 55 andI hit send.

While waiting to see if the on-going weight loss goal would be a deal breaker with Witty Ad Agency guy, since he’d lamented about showing up for Match dates only to encounter “Mimi in the Mumu and Orca the Whale,” (I sense he has issues) I received not one, but two emails from guys firing on my profile!

But, riddle me this: what was the key word that matched me up with the blond mullet guy, wearing a wife beater, with a cigarette in one hand and the receiver to a red Princess phone in the other. This either means the photo is 30 years old or he still lives with his mom, and he also has piss poor taste in beer, because there’s two Miller Light cans on the table in front of him. But wait! All is not lost, he’s “low maintenance with zero baggage.”

To say you’ve reached your 50s with zero baggage is tantamount to saying you’ve undergone a life experience lobotomy with an emotions enema shoved in for good measure. Not me, baby. I am nothing if not the sum total of all my baggage. Baggage I cling to like my ratty, old Reebok running shirt, the miles showing on that threadbare scrap of fabric like they’re showing up on my face. How many times I have pulled it off my back and wiped my sweaty brow with its Tide-smelling splendor. My baggage is as much a part of me as the chicken pox scar on my cheek bone.

Because baggage, a.k.a. memories, experience, lessons learned, moments of grace, sorrowful regrets, certainly, or probably should inform our next steps, shouldn’t it? Whether we pay attention to its wisdom or not, it subliminally influences our choices. Of this much, I am sure.

It was, in fact, my early baggage which fueled the tingling feeling I felt when I met Rick.
28 years worth, to be precise. He had so much to offer and I had so much to apologize for -- a divorced woman with a child, I was barely out of college, getting a late start on my journalism career, just weekends at first, at the top TV station in town, where he was the BMOC anchorman, a household name in New Mexico, successful, square jawed, blue-eyed blond handsome, wicked smart with not only one, but two cars, impressive to a struggling single mom who prayed every day that her car would make it to work. My God, how some things just don’t change.

But we had chemistry.

That’s something you can’t discern from a laptop; the kind of chemistry which made my heart go pitter-pat when he’d come through the back door at the TV station, the afternoon sun back lighting him like some stocky blond God, as the metal door would bang shut and he’d pull off his Ray Bans to check his mailbox. Sometimes the whoosh of outside air would announce his arrival, scent before sight, a whiff of his Grey Flannel cologne triggering my stomach to tighten up, because he was the boss on those weekend shifts, and he was a hard ass back in the day when Type A personalities weren’t grounds for a lawsuit. His command of a room turned me on. What turned me on even more is that he deemed me worthy of his attention from the start, not only because I could pull a lead story out of my ass, but because I was cute. Yeah, we had chemistry.

It didn’t go unnoticed by the crew we hung out with after work at the Gin Mill, a watering hole for the press corps back in the day. Bonnie Raitt’s “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About” was top of the charts and we obliged. He’d connive a way to sit by me at these post mortems, where we’d compare notes on our antics to get all manner of murder and mayhem on the air, but he largely held court, everybody at the table busting a gut laughing. It was me though, he’d walk to the car. In a few months, our group outings had winnowed down to two, “I’ve got a bottle of wine in my fridge,” he said, and our first time alone at my house, he and I and a bottle of Mateus white, and a sleeping five year old in the next room, was made complete with that first sweet kiss on my front lawn. Of course I had to make the first move on the kiss, the first nudge toward the bedroom, borne on an ultimatum that if he wasn’t willing to take it to the “next level” after months of making out, in his car or mine, I was going to walk. How much I see in my rear view mirror now, free of the clamp on my gut instincts, which I wore like blinders on a race horse running for the good life. I don’t scold his inner child, nor mine, for wanting so deeply to feel legitimate.

And in 14 years, we legitimized a lot, three more babies, four or five different houses, a passle of cars and career moves all over the country. He went from a two-pack a day, right-wing Republican, (he was a Nixon volunteer in high school to my door-to-door canvassing for McGovern) non-believer to being a non-smoking, Democrat, Catholic convert. Imagine my satisfaction! It was a comprehensive act of contrition for some untold sins, if ever there was one, and to this day, I believe, a sincere undertaking. That life, house of cards as it turned out to be, still has sweet memories in the rubble. The good ones rub up like pill balls on a blanket--a blanket I try to toss off like some mildewed tarp of betrayal and disappointment. Who wouldn't, after being left with four kids alone, while he figured things out in prison? But the memories are persistent.

On this July night, I remember dancing at the symphony ball twenty-two years ago on my daughter's due date. I was in a last minute, rented dress, since I'd been planning to be at home with a newborn by then, and Rick wore a tuxedo he actually owned, an indication of our social calendar. My arm resting on his familiar, broad shoulder, my belly pushed against his paisley cummerbund, where he could feel Lauren stirring to the music, he whispered, “you are the most beautiful woman on this dance floor” and my eyes overflowed with tears, as my feet swelled even more, stuffed into high heels at nine months and counting.

Another memory busts through the barricade, the night of our 10th anniversary, when I prepared the same meal we'd had on our honeymoon in the high desert hills of New Mexico ten years before. It had spit rain on the short mountain drive to Lamy, a little railroad town just outside Santa Fe, making the two-lane hairpin turns nerve wracking. But the rain on the dusty terrain transformed the scrubby pinon pine and clumps of mountain sorrel into giant herb bouquets, the air spiked with the aroma of renewal. Ten years later, the dense North Carolina air carried nothing but the smell of charred flecks of steak stuck to the barbecue grill. Our back yard was as big as a park, lush with azaleas, dog woods and an enormous Crepe Myrtle, its branches bending with huge fuschia blooms, and while lovely, gave off no perfume. My Shalimar smelled sweet though. I’d catch a trace of my own scent, the same fragrance I’d worn on my wedding day, as I raced back and forth into the air conditioned kitchen to have the surprise anniversary dinner ready by the time he got home from work. I spread the linen table cloth over our rusty patio table and lit candles everywhere. I scared up the silver wine bucket with a cheap bottle of white Zinfandel, (what all the ill bred were drinking back then) and got the wedding crystal out of the china hutch. I timed everything perfectly, shrimp cocktail, filet mignon with Bernaise, Caesar salad and fluffy baked potatoes and decadent eclairs, with real custard inside, not the fake stuff, which popped out with sweat beads the minute I carried them on the bone china dessert plates from the fridge to the porch. Rick cried, I wasn’t sure why, when I asked, “do you want to dance?” to Van Morrison's craggy voice on the boom box, singing "Have I Told You Lately ?"

"Fill my heart with gladness,
take away my sadness,
ease my troubles that’s what you do."

There was, I guess, no easing his. When I whispered, “what’s wrong ?” his words said, “Nothing...it’s just so beautiful” but his eyes told me there was some unreachable sadness in him, that no amount of love, or wifely skills, or shrinks, or even four innocent kids, who took turns pestering mommy and daddy dancing on the porch, could cure. It was my four innocents, the forgiving southern breeze and that beautiful song, lulling me back to wishful thinking that it was still real, still right and everything would be okay.

And there was magic, for a few moments. His blue eyes as shiny as the drops of condensation on the champagne flutes in the candle glow, the same fancy glasses we'd sipped champagne from on our honeymoon, back when the sheets and towels and dreams were as fresh and clean as the desert air. Such a sweet beginning, long before his wild-eyed panic, the beginning of our end, a few years later, when I caught him flat footed, stammering to explain who Matt was, some random guy who'd called our house and actually spoke to me, saying he was an "old friend." No, there would be plenty of time to comb through that lice later. Or not. A mere shudder, shake it off, stay focused on the kids; that was the dismissal drill, the same duck-and-cover survival strategy I’d perfected as a kid. And on this screened in porch anniversary night, it was about being happy, feeling content, our children safe, a roof over our heads, a lush summer night and a loving dance partner, remnants of the dream incarnate in our kiss and Van Morrison’s voice, “have I told you lately that I love you?”

I take healthy sip of my vodka tonic. By now I need a drink, perusing the singles on a 4th of July weekend and then spitefully being bitch slapped by a memory that should be civil enough to leave me in peace. Then,“bling” another email from a prospective suitor not two seconds later and I’m belly laughing. Laughing hard. Laughing out loud, in my dining room, all alone except for the dog, who jumps up, startled. It’s theater of the absurd. Surely this MUST be a joke, because it says,“I’m a DDS - Doctor of Drains and Sewers, and lists the last two books he read as “Classic Toy Trains and The Plumbing Code Book.”

WTF? I know I did not put, “must possess solid plumbing, both personally and occupationally” in my profile. I snap my lap top closed and walk over to my neighbor’s house, where they’re hosting a graduation party for their son.

I’m somewhat obligated to go, as they are good neighbors, have attended my kids’ graduation parties and have never called the cops when those same kids have hosted a few little backyard parties of their own. I walked over with the graduation card, with a crisp $20 stuck inside, (We should just dispense with the cards, it’s an extra $2.95. Why not just hand them the cash and be done with it?) There were hugs all around, especially from the graduate and I sat down with a beer. This guy was playing acoustic guitar and singing, slightly horribly, maybe if he’d avoided "Stairway to Heaven" he would have sounded better and I’m thinking it’s about time for the band to take a break when indeed, he did.

“So, you dating anybody special?” my neighbor lady asked half nosey, half sincere.

“Not really,” I said. “I went on a date a couple of weeks ago. Nice guy, college professor, retired, kids grown, smart, not bad looking. Wants somebody to travel around the world and climb mountains and stuff with him.”

“And...?” she picked up on my dismissiveness.

“Well, there’s this little issue of my job, a mortgage, college loans, dog food, you know."
The guitar player sat down at the next table. “And I couldn’t climb a mountain if my life depended on it.” (In addition to the illiterates, have you noticed how many singles are into extreme sports?)

She pondered. “Well, you know, Austin over there is a very interesting guy. He’s our house guest. He’ll be staying for, well, I don’t know exactly how long he’ll be staying...”

This is code for unemployed.

“...and he’s single!”

God is going to strike me dead, I know, but this fella was a cross between Jerry Garcia and Elmo -- with a long salt and pepper beard, curly hair to his shoulders, but with bangs, like Friar Tuck with a fro. And bless his heart, he had a bulbous, red nose (probably a medical condition) and a bulbous belly, (probably NOT a medical condition.) I sincerely doubt that this guy has been able to see his own penis for years, and he might not even be able to see it standing buck naked in front of a full length mirror. And Lord knows he can’t see his feet when he looks down, because if he could, surely he’d have the decency to cover that shit up, because his toes were nasty. I’m telling you, nasty, the way you’d imagine Gollum’s feet, in Lord of the Rings to be. But to his credit, his Hawaiian print shirt was neatly pressed.

I was introduced to him, like some kind of prize pig and he was introduced to me, more like Don Knotts, The Reluctant Astronaut and we both smiled. It was awkward and kind of sad and weird at the same time. I left after I drank my beer, saying, “nice to have met you.”

Later, I was thinking, if you were to boil it down to keywords, whether it was the meddling neighbor or my former spouse, I suppose “good intentions” says it all. 

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dreamers, We

I’m multi-tasking.

While I beckon the benevolent writer Gods to miraculously fund my quest to bag the day job in order to pursue the long-lost half-brother in California, provided he’s alive, AND the writingpalooza which would accompany that pivotal plot twist in this memoir, I am also taking care of a little “bidness.”

You know that “excess” business I talked about a few chapters back? That little muffin top from too many muffins? The Homer Simpson donut around my middle, which serves as a bumper guard between me and the probable unlimited supply of suitable suitors I might stand a chance of bumping into, if not for my anti-bump defense mechanism, which stands between me and a healthy self-image, even though I’m sure no woman on the planet has ever felt this way except me.

Well friends, it’s time for a little status report, with “little” being the operative word.

It’s the first week of May and so far I’ve lost a whopping 2.8 pounds on Weight Watchers ! At $39 per month for four months, divided by my 2.8 pound weight loss, it comes out to $55.71 per pound, give or take 2/10ths. Wow, I could have hired a personal trainer to kick my ass for the past four months and done better than this! What’s even more depressing or patently absurd, (I know, you’re detecting a pattern here...) is that if you look at the last four years, I’ve engaged in this process four times; full of conviction in January, falling off the wagon around St. Patrick’s Day, renewing my vows in early April for my birthday, then again the first week of May with the advent of Memorial Day and white pants, which we all know make our butts look bigger. Then somehow summer gets away from me and turns to fall and then it’s Thanksgiving and well, you get the picture. I have repeated this cycle now, four times, with an estimated investment of $1872 to date and STILL weigh just three pounds less than I did when I got on this amusement ride in 2006, which comes out to a staggering $624 per pound lost.

Now, that’s just plain stupid. I realize this. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but why stop now? I’ve already confessed that I was a love child, easy as a teenager, engaged in an illicit kiss with Arnie the salad chef with the wandering eye when I was married to Husband #1, did not suspect that something wasn’t right when Husband #2 put off having sex for the first six months we were dating by saying,“people in the newsroom will talk.” With all this empirical data to suggest that I don’t have the common sense of an earthworm, why hold back on admitting I have spent $624 per pound to achieve a three pound weight loss? $624 a pound! Hell, I should be imported, Argentinian aged beef!

Instead I'm just bull stubborn, despite the saying which I’ve read in every self-help book on the shelf, which says, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” Well, they may be right, I may be crazy.

Or a crazy dreamer.

I did not come by this naturally. My mother and step dad encouraged me to take the civil service entrance exam when I was ready to graduate from high school. This is not what I had in mind. I had dreams of being at attorney back then, but there were zero dollars in my college fund. My GPA didn’t help either. I had D’s and A’s-- D’s in Biology and Math, (if I was better at cipherin’ maybe I would have bailed on the $624 per pound weight loss plan a long time ago) but straight A’s in Drama, English and Speech. Go figure. Marie Hastings, the activities director at my school told me I had the lowest GPA of any commencement speaker in the history of Valley High School. You see, both the validictorian and the salutorian declined the opportunity to speak at our high school graduation, seeing as they were too worn out from making straight A's for four years, so that left it wide open to the rest of us average students to try out. I squeaked by the minimum 2.0 GPA requirement, with an A+ in tennis, auditioned before the speech committee, a jury of my peers, and by golly they liked me! Paul Montoya, a short, stubby jock, who did have the money to go to law school and subsequently became a lawyer, and I, were chosen as the class of 73’ commencement speakers.

My mother would later tell me she experienced a sympathetic panic attack, when she walked into the Albuquerque Civic Auditorium to see some 2500 people streaming in. This is what happens when you have 450 graduates, 65% of whom come from large Hispanic, Catholic families and there's unlimited seating at the event. Hell, there were 15 people in the Whatley-Garcia-Waddell-Shepherd clan who turned out to hear my big-ass speech, probably figuring this would be the pinnacle of my public career. I strode in, with a milder version of my mother’s sweaty palms, but exuding confidence, ready to poke my finger in the eye of academia, proving that average grades and above average bullshit can take a person to high places, when my pomp and circumstance was momentarily in peril. As Paul and I crossed the stage, arm-in-arm, the sleeve of my maroon graduation gown caught the edge of a giant floral spray and began pulling it over. I was oblivious, but Paul was nimble. He stopped and simply took a quick step backwards, pulling me with him, unhooked my sleeve from the damn gladiola, (those are for funerals anyway) and we walked on across the stage. My mother, being the only other person in the auditorium to notice, nearly fainted. I shook it off and delivered with aplomb my “Friends, I Will Remember You” speech, which now makes a liar out of me because God knows I don’t remember the vast majority of them. But I do remember feeling proud, exuberant, and relieved. It was one of the most challenging, yet proudest moments of my life, second only to the day I delivered my mother’s eulogy. No live reports on CNN, nor exclusive interviews with big shot politicians, not even covering the Pope, compares to the pride I felt when God gave me the words and the strength to honor my mother.

Despite her practical nature, I guess she had a lot of dreamer in her after all. A scrawny, little Oklahoma girl, who dropped out of high school after the 9th grade when her family moved to California, she was married and divorced already by the time she was 17, (she took a bus from California to Reno, got a waitressing job, staying there long enough to establish residency, got her divorce, then promptly came home on the bus and married the next guy) who eventually went to Western Union school, securing a good job as a teletype operator with the FAA. She worked in flight service stations for 20-years and took early retirement. She then dabbled - a Mexican furniture import store, a quilt shop, real estate, she was a PTA President, den leader, Democratic Precinct Chairman, painter, mother of five, grandmother to 10, great grandmother to five, paver of the path to citizenship for countless wetbacks in Albuquerque and was an all- round rabble rouser. It was standing room only at her funeral, after she passed at the age of 82, suffering a stroke just one day after she’d been manning the phone bank at the Bernalillo County Democratic headquarters. Close to 100 people packed the small chapel for her memorial, many of them standing through the entire service, among them the Mayor of Albuquerque and the New Mexico Lt. Governor, who also delivered a moving eulogy.

In a word, she was scrappy. She was rooted in more reality than most folks experience in a lifetime, not a Hallmark card kind of mom, more of a hard knocks kind of mom. The most amazing thing though, she never became bitter. She held on to a child like, borderline delusional belief, that every time the sun came up, it was a new day, a new chance for adventure, maybe even perfection.

“I’ve got to make some changes when I get home” she’d say every time she came to visit me over the years, even though I knew some things, like my little brother who was close to 40 at the time and still sleeping on her couch, would never change. Then she’d move on; new topic. “Doesn't this look like a million bucks?" she’d ask about whatever new outfit she’d gotten for the trip. Or she’d tell me about the cab driver who flirted with her or the service man who bought her a bagel at the airport.

Never give up. Don’t go around looking shabby. Flirt with the soldier. Hedge your bets.

Even though she told me to take the civil service entrance exam as a fall back when I was 18, my mother instinctively believed I was capable of bigger things, bigger dreams, a better life. And she, like me, was a master of creative financing. She borrowed against my life insurance policy, which she’d taken out when I was a child, to make a dent in my tuition at the only college I could get in to, the University of New Mexico. I borrowed the rest of it and majored in Journalism -- a solid career choice from which I knew I could make a living. This has fed my family for lo these many years.

But in my heart of hearts, I always wanted to be a writer, you know, a real writer. I’ve clung to this dream fervently for some 30 years and I pass this sickness on to my children. I’ve often wondered if this was a disservice. My mother was more grounded; take the civil service exam because you could make a good living, but, here’s $200 towards college because you might be able to do better.

Might” isn’t an option in our household. “Of course” is the expectation. “Of course you have the talent, of course you can make it, of course it will be hard, but of course you will succeed.” Like a cantor to the congregation, this is the responsorial psalm I’ve urged them to recite, good, bad or indifferent. If success can be measured in determination though, I am already seeing the fruits of my labor.

My eldest son is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, working hard for his first breakthrough. He’s headlong into what everybody knows is the brutal business of movie making. He’s in love and planning to wed a pretty, smart, sweet, southern girl who makes cartoons for a living. The year he graduated from film school in North Carolina, Nathan gave me a framed photograph of the Carolina coast, a pristine sand dune in the foreground, shimmering ocean as far as the lens could see, an iconic image of a beloved vacation spot the kids and I have visited for many years, our family tradition, no matter how scattered or broke we may be. On the card he wrote, “some day, I’ll buy you the house to go with this picture.” The card remains taped to the back of the photo. Yeah, he’s a dreamer.

Son, Patrick, he’s a dreamer too. As my plane made it’s final descent into LaGuardia last week, I marveled at Patrick, surviving in New York City, scraping by, tending bar, bussing tables at night, and during the day, working to produce his first independent film. Yeah, he went to film school too, no civil service wannabes in my house. They have bigger dreams in mind. We were walking through Central Park on a sunny December day, the first time I had visited Patrick in New York. I stopped for a moment.

“Paddy, I can’t believe you’re actually here, in New York City!

“It’s because of you, Mom” he said, looking at me matter-of-factly. Behind him, the gold and burgundy scraps of fall color still clung to the trees and lay sprinkled, like confetti on the ground. “You made me think this was possible.”

Lauren, the beautiful girl, and most pragmatic child, wants to parlay her life experiences, (not the least of which, like the rest of my kids, was having her father in prison for a third of her young life) Lauren wants to help other people, especially disadvantaged kids. She feels she can relate. Lauren, who, when she graduated from high school was scared to stray too far from home at first, ended up going all the way to London for a semester abroad and traveled last summer to a remote part of Belize to help build a school library, conquering her fear of spiders, snakes and pink lizards on the wall. She’s pretty fearless, in her pursuit of a sociology degree, then grad school, then, who knows, public policy? Running a non-profit? The world needs more Laurens who dream that life can be better --sometimes all you need to do is roll up your sleeves and haul cinder block.

And Seannie, the caboose, the biggest kid, the high school football player, now art college kid, (his talent surfacing when he was just 18 months old) who wants to use his artist’s eyes and hands and sensibilities to illuminate our human condition through photos and the voice of experience. He told me once, “I just wish sometimes I wasn’t so self-aware. It would be so much easier to go through life not thinking so much...” Well, you know what they say about a life unexamined. Sean studies real estate ads -- art studios with an apartment upstairs to come home to after he’s traveled the world as a photo journalist.

Dreamers, we.

My brother Garrett, was sanguine about it. He said, “there’s comes a point in time, when you accept that you’re probably not going to be a rock star or an Olympic athlete or an astronaut, but...those are the only three things I’ve crossed off my list.” God rest his sweet soul. He didn’t get to a slew of things he wanted to accomplish, but he did a hell of a lot in the 51 years he was with us, leaving behind a standing-room-only crowd of mourners at his funeral as well.

Dreamers, the lot of us.

My mother used to say, “two steps forward, one step back.” We inscribed a slightly edited version on her grave stone --

“One step forward, no steps back.”

Hells bells, man, I’d rather go out a dreamer than a cynic. If you always do what you’ve always done, you just might get what you want. I’m bound and determined to drive down this ridiculous cost per pound.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I'm a Hairy Lester

I usually get this way on Father’s Day.

But this morning, after I drug my worn out body out of a hot bath and was slathering lotion on my parched skin, smoothing it in the direction I want the hairs on my arm to lay down, I just started bawling.

Not like I have forearms like Robin Williams or anything, it’s just that the hairs are so, so, apparent! There was no holding it back. Just like the torrential rain which pockmarked my birthday today, the tears were an inevitability because, it was my father Tommy Lester, who gave me these hairy forearms.

Or so I’ve been told.

I have just one photo of Tommy-- black Irish, average height, stocky build, intense brown eyes, like Colin Farrell, with probably the same temperament and proclivity for being a rounder. A rounder, that’s what my mother called the guys who made the rounds at the cafes and beer joints in Northern California where she and Tommy met.

His photo sits in a mother of pearl frame on my mother’s pine sideboard in our family room--a place of probable undeserved honor, along with the urn bearing Pete’s, (“The King of Dogs”) ashes and a comical photo of my mother, my daughter and myself ; three generations of head strong women.

I’ve lived with the gap of never knowing my father, quite adroitly all these years. But in my heart, I’ve always wondered if my attraction to short, rascally guys, and occasional fuzzy ones, (the kids called my last boy friend, “The Hobbit” he was so covered in fur. I call him King James here, not a Biblical reference, but a nod to the 1000-count Egyptian cotton sheets he kept on his king size bed, which were delicious to slide in between, for more reasons than one. And, smart Hungarian/Irishman that he is, he knew they wouldn’t rub his back hair the wrong way) but I’ve often mused that this inexplicable attraction to Irishmen (or bad boys in general, there was a Greek, a couple of Mexicans and an Italian along the way) and subsequent train wrecks with the aforementioned bad boys, stemmed from being yanked away from my father and put on a train bound for Texas at the tender age of three. Shit, moving to Texas was bad enough.

And so, there are these occasional days, like today, when the ghost of that three year old screams in protest at being on a train bound for a place she doesn’t want to go. The weather didn’t help. It was sunstealth versus sunrise on this birthday morn, overcast, with forgiving, swirling hues of grey and white, nary a trace of blue; the perfect palette for introspection --or depression. I’m midway through the breakthrough decade that’s woefully short on breakthroughs. I am tired and disheartened. Where has the time gone? Didn’t I JUST have my 50th birthday two weeks ago? Lauren, who was only 17 at the time, threw me a big surprise party. I had just been laid off from a big deal consulting job, where I’d be writing talking points for corporate CEOs one day and a Governor the next, (the late Ann Richards among the more notable) when the agency for which I worked pulled the plug on the Midwest region. I was never so happy in my life! I had a little-bitty severance and a shit ton of optimism. I was in the middle of writing a screenplay; so the freedom, terrorizing as it was with so little money AND turning 50 AND having no back up, because the ex-husband was in the slammer, the freedom still, was exhilerating. I did some consulting, did some radio gigs, finished the screenplay then took a full-time job, and then, another. And as fast as the parachute ride at Six Flags whooshes down, I’m five years down the road, burning the midnight oil at the college library, writing nights and weekends, hoping, praying, and writing nights and weekends. At the midpoint of my 50s, with so much I want to say and do, with seemingly impossible obstacles to conquer, I am overwhelmed with loss; the loss of time, the loss of opportunity to live the writer’s life I dream of, bereft --at least at this moment. I am 55 years old, Sally O’Malley plus five! I can kick, I can stretch, I clear high hurdles every single day in my 11-hour a day, day job, just to keep this little ship afloat.

It’s what I do, it’s what my mama taught me. “Hard work is its own reward,” she’d say.

Sure, and it keeps the lights on, illuminating the dining room table, where I wrestle late into the night, with these demon stories, trying to trap the words on my Mac, far too often nodding off, slumped over the computer, my coffee turned cold, while the tormenting words fly away. This makes me profoundly sad.

And then, joyous.

Because at least I have them! My words are the most precious gift I possess. Blessed be these words! The words that pop up like wooden Scrabble tiles from the steamy bath on this melancholy birthday, settling on the surface, like a thin layer of soap scum, inseparable, mocking me if I dare attempt to push them aside, from my sight, from my soul, or from my schedule. To ignore them would be like leaving a baby in the road.

And so, I have my words, my devil muses, like a dog barking at the door to be let in. Blessed be my muses. And blessed be my blood. Their names are Nathan, Patrick, Lauren and Sean. I have my blood, I have my friends and I have my dog. Blessed be them all.

And I have these hairy forearms. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to describe them as beatific, but they are mine, after all, a post-pubescent source of consternation and curiosity, a focal point for my longing to know more about the direction from whence they grew. Go west, middle aged woman, go west.

Somewhere in California, I believe I still have a half-brother, a Lester, who can fill me in about my father. Michael was about thirteen when my mother and I left San Francisco. She had decided to reconcile with her husband, even though they’d been estranged for years. She was going to Texas, to be with him, with the round faced, brown eyed clone of the Irishmen with whom she’d had a fling, in tow. This is how she explained it to me fifteen years later, when she was forced to fess up.

“I’m glad that my brothers are all my real brothers, you know?” We’d been talking about some other family’s step-sibling rivalries.

“Well, sissy, we probably ought to talk about that,” she said, “I’ve been wondering how to tell you.” She proceeded to explain that the lanky, lazy, good-for-nothing, “so called” father I thought was mine, really was just a co-conspirator in what I suppose were socially acceptable degrees of deceit in modern American families when illegitimate children were brought into the fold back in 1955.

“You were the product of a fling,” she said, “a fling I had when I was separated from your father. Well, not your real father, but, well, you know, the person who you thought was your father...until now.”

I was a freshman in college at this time and “Wow,” was all I could muster.

But, how wondrous and liberating the truth can be! It answered so many questions in my young heart --about why I never trusted, nor had any affection for the “no count” Whatley dude. (This is how his mother, my fake paternal grandmother whom I adored and who adored me in return, described worthless men, “he ain’t no count” she’d say. However, this description was never applied to her precious, "no count" son.) I keep the Whatley name, because that’s what’s on my birth certificate, and to honor the person who’s carried this name all her life and to pay homage to the Whatley boys, who indeed are my real brothers.

But somewhere out there still, is that Lester boy, somewhere out in California, where I was born.

If he’s still alive.

My mom came up in hard times. She and her parents were on the tail end of the dust bowl exodus from Oklahoma. There was no way to make a living. Plus, there was that little issue of my grandfather Booker, bootlegging whiskey and something about some stolen horses. So they loaded up their truck and they moved with Beverly. My mom, that is-- no swimming pools, no movie stars. The circles in which she ran in Northern California during World War II, were the definition of a blue collar, hard scrabble life-- selling shoes, waiting tables, working in coffee shops with my grandparents, hanging out after work with sailors, merchant marines, cab drivers and bartenders, one of whom became my father. Blessed be her indiscretion.

For, without it, I would not be here, on my 55th birthday today, feeling tired, rundown, used up and just plain scared. Scared that life is passing me by, scared that the back log of words that I have, which can’t find their way into my computer for lack of time to pluck them and place them, will pile up like an overfilled ice maker, with the bar, (my brain, my heart) annoyingly tapping, “click, click, click, click” on the solid mound of unused ice, nagging the occupants of the house, “Hey, use some fucking ice!” I’m scared. Scared that my words will simply freeze like some big chunk of semi-worthlessness.

I don’t think that’s my destiny though. Truly I don’t. I don’t think that’s what the universe or my dog wants. What we want, is to go on a road trip to find this Lester guy before it’s too late. Because let me let you in on a little secret --people die.

In 1983, I was actually in Northern California, waiting tables at Ceasar’s Tahoe for a summer, making bank. I’d gone up there, free rent for a summer, living with one of my best friends, while my eldest son, Nathan, four at the time, went for his first long visit to Arizona with his dad and new stepmom. It was the first time we'd been separated for more than a couple of days, and I could not bear to be without him, so I took off for California to make some quick cash, before my final year of journalism school. (Okay, I had a lot of gaps in my college career: college, marriage, college, kid, divorce, college.) I was 28 at the time, ten years after I’d learned that the dad I thought was my dad, truly was not my dad at all, and the real dad was still alive, somewhere in El Dorado County California. I told my mom I wanted to try to meet him. She told me she’d try to track him down. I didn’t follow up, she didn’t follow up. I let 12 weeks go by and chickened out. I worked and played and partied (one of the Italians I was referring to) and went back home to Albuquerque, where just two weeks later, I landed my first television reporting job and met husband number two, the golden boy, heir-apparent to the New Mexico broadcasting dynasty, and future felon. We got married, immediately started having babies, three “on-air” pregnancies in five years, never breaking my stride on breaking news.

It was actually in the newsroom one night, I was on deadline, about eight o’clock, when I learned the real dad was dead. The phone rang. It was my mom.

“Sissy...” she said.

“Hey, Mom, what’s up?” I asked, still typing on the government issue green, IBMSelectric, state-of-the-art high tech news gathering device of the day. She’d just returned from a quilt symposium in Monterey.

“Well, honey,” there was at least a teeny bit of hesitation. “Well....I found out when I was in California....Tommy’s dead, honey. I guess he passed away a few months ago. I’m sorry, baby. But I thought you should know.”

Yeah, no problem, Mom. Just let me finish typing this story about the flash flood in the Embudo Arroyo and get it into editing and jump in the live truck and go stand in front of the reservoir where the run-off and the drowning victims wash up. Poor damn kids, caught unaware of the walls of water which roar down the mountainside after summer storms, turning the diversion channels into skateboarding death traps.

“Okay, thanks for letting me know,” was all I could muster after this little bomb shell. I guess I could have said, “Well, okay. Let me just hold back this thundering wall of disappointment and regret, which you’ve just rained down on me on a Saturday night, thirty minutes to air time. If I can just finish birthing this story I’m writing, right at this second, maybe on the way back from the live shot, while my photographer drones on about crap I don’t give a flip about, maybe then I’ll stop and acknowledge this ( keeping the metaphor alive here) watershed moment in my life.

“My father is dead,” says my brain, as I scan the dark, desert mesa beyond the freeway, grateful for the cover of darkness inside the cab of the truck as well, and my shooter’s distraction on the two-way radio, as he calls in, “Unit 10 to news base. We’re ten-eight, ten-nineteen," code for wrapped and returning to the station.

“My father is dead,” says my brain as I’m hearing the Police sing, “every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”

But he won’t, ever. Never again. Never did, really. Except from afar, through school pictures my mother sent to my grandfather every year, which Booker would take to the bar in Placerville, to show Tommy, so he could see how his little brown eyed girl was growing up, the spittin’ image of her father. So he saw me, but he never came to see me. Shame on him. But, he’d made a deal with my mother on the day she pulled me from his arms at the train station.

“He had tears in his eyes and begged me not go,” she’d parcel out tiny fragments of information decades later. “You were kicking and screaming and you said, ‘I want my Daddy !’"

I suppose I still do. Or the notion of him, or a memory, or a fiber of the one remaining trace of him, Lord knows I have the hair follicles! I don’t regret my mother’s decision to keep me though, babies belong with their mothers. On this day, my birthday, I am particularly grateful for her facing the music, to have me in the first place and having the courage of her illogical convictions. “Love me, love my stray” such is the pact she made when she went traipsing off to Texas to get back together with “no count”, along with a promise that Tommy, would never be part of our lives again. Oh, the deals that are struck over innocent children. But, I know in my heart I was infinitely better off with the tough minded, wicked smart, funny as hell, determined, forceful, often tactless and occasionally loose, woman who was my mother. Blessed be her soul. She did her best with the tools she had to work with, which my shrink always told me was too generous an assessment and my mother recited almost daily as a boilerplate defense. But I admired her backbone. I did not have the backbone to go and find my father when I had the opportunity, that summer of 83, when he was no more than an hour away. People die. We lose our chance. The train leaves the station, the news truck barrels down the highway.

Twenty seven years later, I’m still gunning it down the road, cranking out the content, other people’s words--from natural disasters, to national policy, corporate mergers to collective bargaining, I am a walking, talking word machine. Always bargaining, brokering deals with myself, about the allocation of time for my words, foolishly thinking that there will still be time, at the end of my shift, at the end of my day, at the end of the list of things to do, to get back to it, to get on with it, to get the words out that matter, the words that just might resonate as a ripple of resemblance in some one else’s pond, making them not feel all alone.

But people die. And so will I before I get to all these words at the rate I’m going.

So, today, on my birthday, I’m sending out a message to the universe, I’m letting go with my most ardent desire. It’s freedom, dude. Freedom to get off of this runaway train stoked by other people's stories and get behind the driver’s seat to finish telling my own. Artistic and financial freedom to go where I want to go and write what I need to write, to take my brother Don and my sister-in-law Beverly and Libby, “The Replacement Dog” to California, to try to find this Lester fellow.

Brother Don has pancreatic cancer, but he’s responding amazingly well to chemo. He can travel now, so it’s time to giddyup. He is the only person in the family that I know who knows about the family I know nothing of. In fact, he and my half-brother were about the same age, they even played together in San Francisco, before we high-tailed it to Texas.

Don bristled when I called myself “illegitimate” once. “YOU are not illegitimate,” he said sternly, in a well deserved voice of authority, since had great responsibility in raising me. And then he cried. Jesus, he’s not as Irish as I am! “Don’t ever call yourself that again.”

Okay. So, this is a legitimate request: somehow, someway, oh kind universe, benevolent patrons of writers, friends, Romans, countrymen, literary agents, Oprah, or God almighty, grant me a path to artistic freedom so I can go all the way back to the beginning of A Woman With a Past, to crack this natal nugget. Who knows if the Lester link is even alive? He might be living in a van down by the American River. Or he could be sitting on both halves of a mighty inheritance, who knows? Help me finish this story, and along the way, I’ll regale you in more stories about my crazy past, including; Pete the Pathological Liar, Albert the No-Show Homecoming Date, the Rock Star Who Didn’t Even Give Me Back Stage Passes and the Stalking Step Dad, all this, plus, the search for the long, lost Michael Lester.

I wonder if he’s still around? I wonder if he looks like me? I wonder if he’s a hairy Lester?