Tag Archives: mothers

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


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Reasons you should not move to the city in middle age:


  • Cities are by definition full of young people. You will, thus, by default, seem ten years older than you actually are simply because you aren’t 23 and because you sometimes hobble a little when you stand up abruptly and make your way to the loo. And you (and whomever you are with) will be the only person in your age group at Stout’s happy hour.
  • While you could be reaping the benefits of having worked all your life and thus living in a house with modern conveniences (like a washing machine you don’t have to feed quarters into), you will be living like a college student with one closet the size of a coffin and less square footage than your parents have solely in their living room.
  • There is a lot of walking in a city and some days you are tired.


But really, this reason:


  • When you find yourself on a sidewalk yelling at a man in the car that almost ran you over you aren’t sure if it is:
    • righteous indignation
    • calluses built up by urban life that make it impossible for you to feel the embarrassment you would feel were you screaming at a stranger in your small Hoosier hometown
    • hormonal


Earlier in the month, Z and I were walking around St. James Cathedral, which is surrounded by trees on a block that is relatively quiet and peaceful and gives the illusion of the posh neighborhood that existed there a century ago. (We once saw a man in a dress shirt and slacks sitting on the Cathedral grass with a white goose on a leash, and so I never walk past that lawn without hoping to see him and his goose again, without hankering for the pastoral. I still don’t know if the goose gets daily walks or if they’d been attending mass.) It was a good evening. The heat of the day was gone, Z was still on vacation, and we were about to leave for a three-day beach holiday, so we were in good moods.


As we went to cross the quiet street, a car came barreling down on us, much faster than it should have been driving in the neighborhood. It seemed like a high probability that the driver would run the stop sign at the four-way stop and it seemed like a possibility that he’d run us down even though we had the right of way. I grabbed Z’s arm to slow him from the car’s path because he has a tendency to think his fiercely wrinkled brow will stop traffic violators in their tracks. (I think I told you I once saw him shake his umbrella at a car that had driven too far over a crosswalk before stopping.) We skittered out of the guy’s way to safety.


Though we didn’t yell at him, we did both fire dirty, dirty looks in his direction once we were safely on the sidewalk. Then we went on with our walk, and just as we had started to continue our conversation, the driver did a U-turn and pulled up beside us. I assumed (oh, naïve Midwestern me!) that he was pulling up to apologize to us, but instead, he had made this extra effort just to berate us for not looking before we crossed the street. (We had looked, plus we had the right of way even if we hadn’t.) With all the wisdom bestowed on him from his man-bun and a beard so large birds could nest in it, he let us know that we were horrible people without the intelligence to cross a street properly and he questioned our political leanings (though we debated later about what he was implying those leanings were). Z briefly engaged him and then quickly disengaged when he realized the sort of person he was dealing with.


But I—oh, Reader—I had a fit of pique. I stamped my foot and screamed as he pulled away from us. “You are a DOUCHE!” I shouted. (In my mind, my fist was shaking in the air righteously, but that may be an embellishment my brain has added to the memory.)


I don’t like that word, but sometimes, no other word will do, and the combination of his superiority and his choice of hair fashion made it the only appropriate retort. I was seething with rage. Shaking, red-faced. The whole bit. As we went to cross the next street (on the way to the drugstore to pick up my prescriptions for chronic indigestion and “nerves” that city life necessitates), he pulled in front of us, blocking our path, and said, “I guess you’ll have to look now!” He sat there for several seconds before moving forward so we could cross. It took all the willpower I had not to kick his fender, and for an hour afterward I kept replaying it and wishing I had both martial arts training and either a handgun or a sword like Michonne’s on The Walking Dead so I could teach him a lesson. Maybe not kill him, but at least scare the bejeezus out of him. I felt violated and there needed to be retribution.


For a week afterward, I had a partial chorus of Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes” going through my head, and I hate and I hate and I hate… without ever finishing the line with her more benign elevator music, the way we fight and focusing instead on the various people I pass on the street—in cars, on bikes, on their feet—who are not nice. Who would, if given a choice without legal consequences, do me and others harm because they don’t like the cut of our jib or, well, whatever it is that makes one human seem worthy of your ire. And I hate them for their hatred.


While I feel strongly that this was rational urban acting out on my part—the yelling at the be-bunned motorist who taunted us—Mom has been here for three weeks and when I’m juxtaposed against her, I realize that I’ve been hardened in new and awful ways since moving out here. I am not as nice as perhaps I once was.


A few weeks before she got here, Z and I passed a man on the street slumped so far over in his wheelchair that his head was nearly touching the sidewalk and didn’t even notice because there are so many folks on our little elevated hunk of Seattle who are in various states of drug-addicted slumber. It wasn’t until we got further down the block and heard a woman behind us say to the man, “Sir? Sir? Are you okay?” that we realized perhaps that was the more human response to another human in crisis. (In our defense, if Z did this every morning on his walk to work, he’d be late for class because the numbers of these people are so many, and I am often in a fog of imagination and internal thought that makes the outside world somehow less real than what’s happening in my brain. I’m as likely to walk past Eddie Vedder’s blue, blue eyes without noticing as I am someone asking me for a buck, so it’s not that I’m predisposed to ignoring those in dire circumstances. I’m an equal opportunity ignorer.)


But Mom. Mom is a good person. She is not an extrovert nor is she someone who seeks out people in need so she can feel good about herself for helping them, but somehow, people gravitate towards her. In the 1990s, she would sometimes accompany me to book readings at Books & Co., in Dayton, Ohio, where Jane would drive up and meet us. Jane and I would have a delightful time chatting with authors who were reading, while poor Mom would get pressed against atlases and encyclopedias as someone with the inability to read social cues would share with her their life story or some mundane personal problem.


Mom (with yet a new friend).

(She isn’t just a kook magnet. She’s met some interesting people. She befriended a South African in England in 1992 who still calls her on her birthday every year, for example. She knew a woman who was good friends with Judy Garland and would offer Mom reports on Liza Minnelli’s latest news. On this trip, when Z and I picked her up at the airport, she’d made a new Brazilian friend who was unsure where her B&B was on West Seattle, so we drove her there and then later spent a rainy day with her in Edmonds, having lunch, a walk, tea and a chat—learning about Brazil, the woman’s life, her art. I love it when Mom meets someone with whom she shares a connection and someone who seems to recognize that Mom is special herself.)


But then on other days during her visit, I’m mostly aware of how much the city has bent and twisted me. Mom and I walked past the door of the apartment building and a supposed delivery man was trying to get inside. Mom, who was behind me, said, “What do I do? Do I let him in?” and I snarled, “Keep walking! We don’t know him!” (In my defense, I probably would have let him in six months ago because he looked benign and he did have an Amazon Prime package in his hands, but the building manager recently installed cameras and I don’t want to be caught on tape letting in the fellow who robs the people in #201.) Mom smiles at people I don’t even notice on the street. She chats with the store clerks I usually only thank. She engages people with small children, cute dogs, interesting handbags.


So this week when we took the ferry to Bainbridge and then had a “comfort break” in the facilities once we docked, I saw the older, barely-moving woman come into the restroom with help of a ferry worker before Mom did. The woman was making teensy steps with her wheeled walker. She shooed the ferry worker away and then started yelling into the echo-y restroom. As I was washing my hands, my only thought was escape. It seemed to me she wanted to know where the handicapped stall was, so I told her at the end of the row and then darted around her into the lobby. It wasn’t until two-minutes later when Mom still hadn’t come out that I realized what must have happened.


It seemed unlikely that they’d gotten embroiled in a conversation because from my vantage, the woman was the sort who barely made sense when she talked. That meant Mom was likely helping her back her wheeled walker into the stall. Poor Mom, I thought. Maybe I should go help, I thought. And then I instantly thought of twelve reasons I shouldn’t, including the smallness of the stalls and how Mom is better with people than I am.


Eventually Mom came out pulling the walker as the woman barked at her to go faster even though faster seemed as if it would make the woman topple because of her teeny steps. Mom could have looked at me and rolled her eyes (which is possibly what I would have done—a sort of “solidarity with the sane” move), but she didn’t. Instead, she asked the woman which way she was going. This was a slow process; those steps the woman was taking were teeny, and instead of feeling sympathy for her, I felt annoyance that she was interrupting Mom’s birthday vacation adventure. When we got outside, a woman in the tourist kiosk came over to help so we could get on with our day.


As we walked away, Mom said not only had she helped the woman into the stall but because the woman had no feeling in her hands, she had to help her pull her pants down and then up again. This is something I might do to help a loved one or someone under four, but after that, it wouldn’t cross my mind. Good luck with that, I’d think, as I walked away. Underpants are a private business.


The thing is, Mom isn’t nurse-like. She doesn’t enjoy this kind of help the way I think some nurse-y types do. She’s like me. We’re both kind of body abhorrent and would prefer not having to think about our own bodies, let alone someone else’s. We don’t really like being in service to other people—it’s not our forte. We’re good at giving directions, making suggestions, and then getting out of the way for someone more inclined to know what to do in a crisis.


But Mom has a stronger sense of duty to help other people than I do. Maybe it’s a mom thing. Maybe it’s a Virgo thing. Maybe it’s an her thing. I can still remember a time when I was very small and we were getting gas and a man asked Mom if she could drive him to the hospital. She looked at me in the car—the person for whom she was responsible and around whom her world was forced to revolve—and then she looked at him and told him she couldn’t. For the rest of the day she felt guilty, worried that he hadn’t gotten to the hospital, worried that it was an angel in disguise and she’d just dissed said angel because she, a single mother, was trying to keep her daughter safe from a potential Ted Bundy, who was feigning the need for medical attention. She lamented that she had no spare cash to give him so he could call a taxi, but in 1972 we were lucky if there was enough money to put gas in the tank so we could drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s where they would feed us, let us watch their color television, and where I’d spend the weekend in the country with my cousins and the cows, a wonderful respite for someone who then thought her town of 38,000 made her the City Mouse from the children’s story. There is a freedom from others and their needs in the country that doesn’t exist in the city, though in the city there is more anonymity, so if you must, you can say no to someone, pretend not to hear, drive away from the gas station while they ask someone else to help them to the hospital.


I have adopted similar worries to Mom’s. It bothers me every time I scroll past another plea for money on Facebook or side-step an aid worker collecting for Save the Children in downtown Seattle, or tell someone asking that I have no cash on me. (I’ve quit carrying cash so, at the very least, when I say this, it isn’t a lie. And also, Z and I are clinging to our little bit of rented real-estate in a city that has recently been designed to cater only to 23-year-old tech workers and their somewhat larger paychecks.) But I do do those things, those side-stepping and not-hearing things, and the longer I am in Seattle, the more it feels like second nature because the want is so much here. If I were home in Indiana, there is no way I’d walk past a man slumped over in his wheelchair. I’d help an old lady into the Meijer bathroom (though I still probably wouldn’t pull down her pants), and if someone told me they were driving through town and had run out of gas, I’d probably believe them, and if I didn’t believe them, I’d tell them I only had a $5 but they were welcome to it just so I could end my interaction with them more quickly.


On our return journey from Bainbridge, as we were disembarking, a fellow in front of us was sort of spinning in a circle. His hair was wild, his pants were down well past his butt, and I growled at Mom under my breath, “DO NOT ENGAGE HIM!” Mom looked startled at my command, but then when we got closer it was clear that he wasn’t deranged or begging but just talking on his phone after having made some poor fashion choices earlier in the day. We made our way home and once I’d locked the door on the city, I felt my guard come down. I felt like myself.


But then there is this.


Our goal on Bainbridge was to go to the historical museum there to see the exhibit of Ansel Adams’s portraits of law-abiding Japanese Americans who were detained in Manzanar during World War II to “keep America safe.” Forget their citizenship. Forget due-process. They looked like the enemy, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order, and the “threat” was done and dusted.


The museum is small and packed full of tidbits from island life, and you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into someone’s attic where everything has been carefully labeled, so you can skip over the bits of little interest and stare at the bits that fascinate you.


When we arrived, there were two women sitting at the front desk. We told them we were there to see the Adams portraits, and they both seemed delighted, and made us feel as if no one else in the history of the museum had come in to see them or gave two hoots about the Japanese internment. We went into the room with the portraits, looked at the ephemera from that time—tags that had been tied to coats and possessions with names and thumbprints (even though these were law-abiding citizens), photos of people going to the ferry and leaving their homes for an uncertain future (some were afraid they would be exterminated), family portraits, letters from the camps to family or neighbors, explaining the conditions, etc. We settled into folding chairs and watched a documentary made by the National Parks Service about Manzanar, and when it was over, one of the two women from the front desk came in.


She was soft spoken and didn’t want to intrude on our museum experience, but she wanted us to know that she had been seven when President Roosevelt’s Executive Order was signed and the notices that people who were of Japanese descent would be removed. She and her family were sent to Manzanar. She told us about her experiences, how the residents of Bainbridge were the first to go in the country, how half of them came back, how some had neighbors and friends who were good enough to pay their taxes and run their farms so they had something to come back to. (Others lost everything.) She showed us where she was in the ferry dock photo in the sea of people headed off to the unknown. She showed us her sister’s doll—one of the few possessions that she was allowed to take—in a display case. Then she directed me to the old Bainbridge Gardens sign that was visible—if I understand correctly—as you entered the ferry. Then she had me walk behind it and see a message there that had been scrawled on the back by neighbors, one of the first thing the internees saw when they returned. It said, “Welcome Back.”


This read “Welcome Back” but it was in a corner & this was the best shot I could get in tight quarters.

Not all the stories were good for those returning. Not all people are good, but as the woman talked to us, she kept coming back to this idea: it was a bad time, but not everyone was bad. There was good. There was this sign. There was the local newspaper that had kept everyone back on the island updated on the happenings of their Japanese-American friends.


There were good neighbors.


I’m not sure where this leaves me and my internal battle with my city armor. I’ll spend the rest of 2017 trying to find that sweet spot between being a good neighbor and being a doormat who gets yelled at by a man under a bun for some imagined pedestrian infraction.


Good fences may make good neighbors, but when you live in the city, you have to make those fences on your own, in your mind, in your behavior. And then you have to make peace with the choices you’ve made.







Hey There, Little Red Riding Hood





“Alas for those girls who’ve refused the truth: the sweetest tongue has the sharpest tooth.

—Jack Zipes Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic French Fairy Tales



I’ve been lost in the writing woods for a few months, hence the lack of blog posts or tangible proof that I’m a writer. For the last hour, I’ve been jotting down lines for this little ditty and then immediately deleting them. I stare at the screen. Make a list of things I think I want to say. Crunch through a cup of ice (which feels really productive even if it is bad for my teeth). Stare at the screen. Read a chapter of a book. Write a line. Delete it. I keep reminding myself that this is a single blog entry and not the opening lines to a novel I hope will win a Pulitzer Prize, but still, the words won’t come. Z will be home in three hours and I have zero faith that this post—let alone an essay I’m trying to finish and ship off—will be done before his key is in the door.


Even eating the last remaining strip of Easter Marshmallow Peeps has failed to get the juices flowing.


Last fall while Mom was visiting Seattle, we were at a fabric store because the elastic on a skirt I wanted to wear had gone rogue. While I was supposed to be finding the necessary repair tools, what I found instead in the kid section was the most delightful Red Riding Hood material. A more sophisticated woman might see it and think it would look nice in someone’s nursery, but I saw it and felt certain that my life would not be complete until I had it whipped up into some curtains to hang in my writing studio.


When I showed the material to Mom and asked her if she thought it would be hard for me to make into curtains, we both knew that what I really meant was, “Could you do this for me, pretty please?”


Poor Mom. I can’t tell you how many of my hair-brained projects she has gotten roped into because I have great faith in both her skills and her love for me. Could you just paint my bedroom that perfect shade of blue? Could you just make me a mirror out of flattened out soda cans? Could you just design, carve a linoleum block, and hand print all of my wedding invitations, even if it gives you temporary carpal tunnel? The fact that she never says no to me is testament to what an excellent (long-suffering) mother she is. Were our roles reversed, I’d probably say something like, “Honey, why don’t you find a YouTube video that will show you how to do it yourself?”


Thus, my favorite Christmas present of the year from Mom was a bank of café curtains that have transformed my little writing studio.


I grew up on fairy tales, both the sanitized Disney and the grimmer versions where badly behaved step-sisters were inclined to get their eyes plucked out. Though I liked the ones that ended with princes and castles, Little Red Riding Hood was always my favorite. As an introverted only child who tried hard to follow the rules, I loved Red’s solitary walk through the forest, her purposeful journey to get to her destination with a basket of treats for her ailing grandmother, her stylish outerwear. Though admittedly, I could never imagine my over-protective mother sending me out into the woods on my own when she knew there were sinister forces lurking behind trees.


A lot of the time when I’m writing, I feel like Red, trudging through the forest, hoping to stay on the path, attempting to avoid wolfish distractions. Often, I fail. It seems only fitting that she should be there with me in my writing studio, while I try to stick to a plan.


When I would teach a fairy tale unit in my composition class, we’d often end up talking about Red Riding Hood and the various endings that befall her depending on the teller of the story. With most other folk tales, I’m always keen to know the oldest, most original version because I see that as the “true” one. But with Red Riding Hood, I don’t care how it ends. It doesn’t matter to me whether she is eaten whole by the wolf and either digested or rescued by a woodsman and his sharp ax just as she begins simmering in gastic juices. I don’t even really care if she saves herself. (Okay, okay. I hope she saves herself.) For me the real crux of the story is that moment when she must choose between following the rules given to her by her mother (“never talk to strangers” and “stick to the known path”) or whether she will follow what I always believed was a Midwestern cultural imperative to be polite. On the surface, the wolf demonstrates no savage tendencies, and in most versions he isn’t even trying to get her to leave the path. Instead, he offers to accompany her once he knows where she’s heading, and it is very difficult for a girl to say, “No thanks” without feeling rude. Even so, when I read the story, I want to shout at her, “Ignore him! Tell him nothing!”


It occurs to me now, that pre-Z, this might explain why my dating life was so abysmal. On multiple occasions the most benign of men might say hello to me or ask me a question as a sort of opening line, and instead of being flirtatious in return, I could see only wolfishness in the eyes, a salacious sheen on the teeth, and I would run—sometimes literally—the other way. I have no doubt, the “danger” was all in my head. Often I give Z a hard time that he made me pursue him for so long before he was willing to admit we belonged together, but the truth is if he had seemed even the least big eager, I’d have zipped away at lightening speed. Well played, Z. Well played.


Monday I went down to the International District to sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office while Z was inside getting some results from a routine doctor’s visit. It’s not our neighborhood and not a doctor we are familiar with. Though the receptionist and nurse were friendly to me while I sat there, I felt out of my element. It was just me sitting across from a fish tank that appeared not to have as single fish in it, reading the signs plastered on the walls in English and then trying to find meaning in the Chinese characters beneath the English letters, as if I were finding a pattern to crack the Enigma Code.


A tall, older guy came in, moaning and dragging his leg behind him. Oh no, I thought. Drama. I hate public drama and there is too much of it in the city. He dragged himself up to the window and said something to the receptionist and they both started laughing. Tension broken. He wasn’t really in pain—he was waiting for test results too—and he’d just been trying to add a little levity to the day. He sat down across from me and waited. I poked around on my cell phone.


He sort of relaxed against the wall and started singing low and sultry like Barry White: Girl, come on back to my place. You know we’ll have a good time. Girl, come on back to my place….


Sexy as I was there in my green fleece hoody, un-brushed hair and big middle aged Midwestern body, I felt fairly confident that he wasn’t singing to me. And even if the amazing Z hadn’t been on the other side of that door, I wouldn’t have been inclined to follow this guy out into the concrete forest that is Seattle if he had been making up this song just for my ears. There was a certain confidence he emanated that seemed related to his belief that his dulcet tones would stir something up in the women of the International District, and that confidence annoyed me.


I stared at my phone like I was cramming for an exam, like I was deaf and couldn’t hear this serenade that filled the small room. (Never has an article about global warming been so mesmerizing.) I could not allow myself to look up. I could not do what I normally do in a doctor’s office and smile at the person sitting across from me before quickly looking elsewhere lest I see overly interested in what might be ailing them. It felt dangerous. The guy sang several more choruses—all with similar lyrics—before letting out a big yawn and then asking the receptionist to be let into the back to use the restroom. My sense when I heard the yawn was that he found my response uptight and boring, though in all likelihood this entire storyline was unfolding in my head only. Even so, when Z came out, I nearly leapt into his arms.


This is why I need to brave the forest in my mind, sit at the desk, get the words in my head out onto the page. Because if I leave those words inside for too long, it just gets weird.