My Child is an American Ambassador

I have very little sympathy for American Ambassadors who are killed in foreign countries, where the mere presence of "outsiders" is seen as a threat to the existing regime. Thus, I am completely sick and tired of hearing about Benghazi. Especially how the death of one ambassador and three American nationals is somehow cause for upheaval in Congress. Cause for Hillary Clinton to drop her bid for the White House. Cause for Obama to be scrutinized, once again by the white wing-nuts, because he failed to send more security to the Embassy.

Here are some more failures happening right now:

Millions of children go to school every day without a single armed security guard on their open campuses. While it's true that some schools have neared the point of prison-culture--metal detectors and city police at every entrance--the overwhelming majority of schools, especially in suburbs and rural areas, don't even employ a Mall Cop. Yet four Americans in Benghazi, one who was ex-military, needed heightened security in an area that was becoming increasingly hostile as September 11, 2013 approached. The threats were obvious. Instead of leaving, the diplomats chose to stay put. Which is probably why I'd never hope to be a diplomat--if angry mobs shouted at me, threw things, killed other diplomats in the street, I'd be on the next plane to Geneva.

Millions of children practice in-school "drills" during the school week. Instruction time is consumed by these drills that teach kids--in the event of an emergency--to stay silent in a darkened corner of their classrooms, lest a "bad person" open the door and find them. Yet four American adults, who'd chosen to stay in an antagonistic environment, couldn't take a similar precaution.

Millions of teachers are asked to go to work every day, put themselves in harm's way to save the lives of the children in their classrooms. Ambassadors assume risk when accepting their positions. Teachers should not have to assume the risk of bodily harm.

A group of community college teachers took it upon themselves to invent a way of barricading their classrooms against an attack. The college where they worked didn't think their lives were worth the cost of installing doors that could protect classroom occupants during an Active Shooter event.

Bulletproof backpacks and backpack inserts are being marketed and sold to parents.

I've written about my stance on gun control before.

After over forty more school shootings since that post, my view hasn't changed.


On the roadside in front of my daughter's elementary school are yellow yield signs with the message
"Caution: Future World and Local Leaders at Work and Play."

My daughter's school administrators value the lives of the children inside, so much so that they caution passersby to slow their roll lest they run down a future American Ambassador. Yet my own local, state, and federal politicians could care less about those future leaders. They're too busy getting kick-backs and payoffs from the NRA.

They're allowing children to die.

I want those politicians to be held accountable. They need to be brought up on charges of treason--their crimes include the deaths of 117 students. 117 future leaders. 117 future Ambassadors.

Out of 160 Active Shooter incidents between 2000-2013, 39 took place at schools. During those 39 incidents, 117 students were killed, and 120 were wounded. According to the FBI, "Incidents in educational facilities account for some of the higher casualty counts." So while more Active Shooter incidents happen in public places (45.6%), the casualty rate is lower per incident.

In 13 years, 117 students were gunned down in a place that was supposed to be safe--their own country--by one (sometimes more) of their own citizens. And our politicians continue to allow that to happen. The people with the power to make our future ambassadors safe are failing to do so. Because they're being paid to allow students to die.

How many ambassadors have been killed in that same time? After looking at several different sources, I've come up with a total: 6. A half dozen adults die in foreign countries, where risk is part of the job description, and the nation loses its collective mind.

But 117 students are simply par for the course. A sacrifice to the gun lobby gods. I'm sure their parents will understand.

What's even more alarming about the "outrage" over Lybia, is this graphic (Courtesy of Mother Jones):
The number of attacks (not even resulting in the death of an Ambassador or diplomat) has decreased over forty years, dramatically so within the last eight.

Yet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, "Between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012, there were a total of 45 school-associated violent deaths in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Of the 45 student, staff, and non-student school-associated violent deaths occurring during this time span, there were 26 homicides."

In one year: 26 innocent children
In over a decade: 6 adults who knew the risks they were assuming

Even more alarming is the information about the way students actually feel on campus or going to/from campus: "In 2013, about 3 percent of students ages 12–18 reported that they were afraid of attack or harm at school or on the way to and from school during the school year. Similarly, 3 percent of students ages 12–18 reported that they were afraid of attack or harm away from school during the school year."

According to the 2010 census, there were 53,980,105 children in America aged 5-17. Three percent of that number is 1,619,403. Though the NCES only measured middle and high school fear levels, if we assume that elementary students--who practice the same "drills" as their older counterparts--share those fears, over 1.5 million schoolchildren live in fear of "attack or harm."

Schoolchildren: over 1.5 million
Ambassadors: 6


An all-out ban on weapons will not work. I lived through the "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign and have studied enough about Prohibition to know that an all-out "ban" won't work. Americans are assholes that way. Tell us "no" and we'll find a way to do it.

I've been told by rational, educated people that restricting the purchase of guns won't keep them from being bought and/or traded. Truer words were never spoken, according to a recent New York Times article chronicling the ability of 8 Active Shooters with documented mental illnesses to obtain several guns each.

But the status quo isn't working.

As of this post, nothing is being done.

No legislators are coming forward to address this very real problem.

There is no one voice fighting the blood money.

When the future leaders at my daughter's school become old enough to vote, I wonder what they'll do with the fear and terror they've lived with for the entirety of their school years. Will they vote for change, advocate for change, demand change? Will one of them be the voice we need?

Or will these future leaders go out and buy guns, and more guns, and more guns, with the hope of making themselves feel safe? Will they carry those guns with them to the grocery store, to their own childrens' schools? Or will they, one day, be so overwhelmed with fear that they wander into a gun shop, purchase an automatic weapon, and turn it on their neighbors, their coworkers, their own children?


Here's the REAL Problem with College Rape Culture

Don't worry about them, they're only jokes about raping your daughter. Lighten up. Only uptight administrators and Women's Studies majors are upset about these banners.

In a patriarchal culture, where jokes about female anatomy are explicit and those about sex, rape, and control are often implicit, it's a woman's job to intuit the dangers of both. At least that's what comments regarding Sigma Nu's offensive banners would have us believe. A woman needs to know the difference between "having a good time" and "I'm going to get you drunk and have sex with you whether you want to or not." But no one is going to teach her those things. She's got to put herself in a sexually dangerous situation before she can distinguish between them. And it's her father's job to lead her into the open arms of her predators, apparently.

She also needs to learn "it's always been like this," so she should just sit back and let rape culture continue.

Ahem. Just because a culture has previously accepted bad behavior as part of the mainstream, does not mean a change isn't in order. See "slavery." At any point in history. See "Black Lives Matter." See "suffrage" or "oppression" or "the American Revolution."

When these Old Dominion University students hung banners outside of their home asking for "baby girls" (and their mothers) to be dropped off, they promised a "rowdy and fun" time. As a woman and mother, I was immediately offended and sickened by the implications of those banners. Additionally, I wondered how these men made it through (at least one year of) college at a prestigious institution without one person challenging them about their views of women, rape, and sexism. How is that possible?

As a female faculty member at a small college, I got angry.  These men seem to think that women enjoy being referred to as babies. With all of the news lately about grown men sexually assaulting children, I'd think these fraternity members would've at least considered the notion that sex with babies might not be the best way to persuade members of the opposite sex to enter their abode. I also find it difficult to believe that any notion of feminism has escaped their knowledge. I'm sure some professor has at least mentioned it as part of a writing assignment or multiple choice test. Did those young men really not know what they were implying? I'm sure someone at the University heard or read something from these young men that was equally offensive prior to their ill-worded banner. I've seen and heard plenty of inappropriate language. And I challenge students on it. That's my job and responsibility. Why weren't these men ever corrected beforehand?

Then I really got angry. I teach writing, so when I see words like "fun" and "rowdy" I think That's the best language you could use? Those words are vague at best, insulting and heinous at worst. They are abstract. They mean different things to different people. A rowdy afternoon in my house means that all three of my kids are jumping on the furniture. A rowdy time at the frat house conjures images of drunken young men staggering around on a lawn. My Friday night fun time could be watching a movie as I brush my daughter's hair. While the fun time had by Sigma Nu could be raping freshmen co-eds. Which, because they were so vague, is exactly what their sign implies. I doubt a single person in America read those banners and thought, "Oh, they're not talking about something sexual."

Yeah. Pigs are flying out of my ass. Right. Now.

While I'm being outraged over grammar, 
I'd like to put in a side note here: 
based on the way this banner is written, 
they want to call someone "daddy" 
now that "she" is no longer doing it. 

A group of male Ohio State students hung a banner outside of their home advertising "Daughter Daycare" to fathers dropping off their freshmen. When questioned about it, Alex Sheets, an occupant of the house, said, "My dad, he is a good Christian man, I am a good Christian man, but we just do this for fun. We are not trying to cause any havoc or stir up any trouble, we are just trying to have some fun."

The problem with that statement--beyond the use of the abstract word "fun" which thus implies being a sexual predator is "fun"--is the use of "but." I'm a good man, but... I'm a Christian, but... "But" what? Your goodness and belief in a higher power excuse your heinous behavior? No. The use of the conjunction "but" suggests that your previous clause is about to be at odds with the clause that follows the conjunction. So when Mr. Sheets uses "but" instead of "and" (an addition to the subject, a continuation of the first clause), he's admitting culpability. He knows what he's doing is not right, is vulgar and indecent. He knows the banner was inappropriate. But he did it anyway, in the name of "fun." (See what I did there with the conjunction?)

So all of the Mr. Sheetes of the world think a joke at the expense of a woman's safety is acceptable. Never mind that it makes her uncomfortable or squeamish or look over her shoulder for the predator closing in. She's just overreacting if she wants to turn around and head back home instead of set foot on a college campus that endorses such behavior. Our culture accepts a man's excuse for just having a little "fun" because we still buy into "boys will be boys" and "we need to protect the women." You won't need to protect your daughters, wives, girlfriends, aunts, or sisters if you stop accepting rape culture, if you stop perpetuating it.

If you start accepting responsibility for it. OSU senior Justin Miller, Mr. Sheet's housemate, said, "Our motives were not to insult or look down on anyone, not to be sexist. Our motive is just to have fun, it is college." Perhaps Mr. Miller has forgotten the point of college. College can be "fun." In fact, many of my fondest memories are of the "fun" times I had on my University's campus. "Fun" I had without putting myself in the care of sexual predators. But what college "is" is not "fun." It's serious work. The function of a college is to prepare people for the world, a career, a future. Colleges graduate those who've completed course study and are ready to take on large responsibilities. Judging by the banners outside of their house, these young men are preparing for lives as sexual predators. Or worse, they expect other men to willingly hand over their daughters, as if they're entitled to them. As if women are property to be exchanged and bartered.

Furthermore, Mr. Miller claims he's not a sexist, but I wonder why he didn't open his home to all freshmen. Why just the daughters? Um, that's sexism, Mr. Miller. 

And here's a fact about "motive" and rape: it's a crime that doesn't require a motive. You did it. The reason doesn't matter. There are not degrees of rape, the way there are with things like murder, fraud, and theft. Your motives wouldn't factor into your defense in an American court. No one gives a damn about your motives. Your actions speak for themselves.

I'm glad ODU's president responded with an open message condemning the banners. I hope the offenders are ejected from their fraternity. I hope we learn their names. In fact, I'd like to know the names of anyone who thinks those sorts of messages are appropriate. Perhaps armed with that information, we can work to enlighten, and change the culture. The University needs to see this moment for what it is: an opportunity to engage its student body in a real world issue, to seek solutions from young people for young people. They don't need to just give lip service to it, then quietly let it go away. They need to create a safe environment for everyone, not just the female cohort.

In fact, they could take this opportunity to really empower said cohort, since female college students seem to need a refresher in identifying and disengaging in rape culture. For example, members of an OSU sorority posted a banner making sure "boys" "pull out" (while simultaneously throwing someone named "Megan" under the bus). These sorority sisters and their double-entendres should be held accountable for perpetuating a culture of rape. They are just as culpable as their male counterparts. In my eyes, they are even more culpable. They don't even realize they're victims of a patriarchy that values them for what is between their legs (no matter what's inside of their heads). They've bought into devaluing themselves and other women, including the daughters they may one day conceive. They're blind to the problems this sort of thinking has caused our country--like lower pay for women, little-to-no maternity leave, and accepted sexual harassment in the workplace.

The smiles on these women's faces are frightening. The one young woman bending over while being held by another housemate, and the one across from them laughing heartily, are enough to make me frightened. For me and for them. They have no idea what they're saying, endorsing, or perpetuating. This isn't "girl power" or "empowerment." It's rape culture working at a subconscious level.

The outrage over the sorority signs at OSU quickly devolved into calling these women "sluts." So women are either babies or sluts. This sounds like the same sort of dichotomy that was proposed and refuted in one of my freshman seminar courses twenty years ago. I went to a progressive California University nestled among a very conservative county. I was educated how not to pigeon-hole other women, myself, and even--can you believe it!--men. Using sexually explicit or implicit language to degrade anyone, yourself included, is unacceptable.

This is the real problem with college rape culture: generations of "educated" women who subconsciously perpetuate it, who find sexually explicit jokes "funny," who call other women "whores" and "sluts." These "educated" women will one day infiltrate the corporate world, the professional world, and classrooms. They will allow themselves, other women, and our daughters to be pinched, touched, and prodded by men and boys. They will distinguish between "normal" men and "child molesters," but they won't see that by accepting an aggressive, patriarchal, sexually-charged environment they're endorsing rape.

The young woman sitting next to this young man
is smiling. I wonder how long that smile will last
when she can't afford "the day after drug"
or is harassed when attempting to make an
appointment at Planned Parenthood

They'll shake their heads, perhaps even rail against conservative societies that require women to cover everything but their eyes lest a man be tempted into a sexual act. But they'll think nothing of calling another woman "slutty" if one too many buttons of a blouse is unfastened. They'll be shocked and horrified by random stranger rapes--those that get sensationalized in the media--but when a friend attempts to confide in them that she's been assaulted by a man she went to dinner with, they'll say, "What did you do? What did you wear? What did you say?" They'll deflect attention from the rapists. They'll think it could never happen to them.


Three Decades Later

This month I'll turn thirty-eight. It occurred to me last week that it's been exactly thirty years since I last saw my father, who was arrested three weeks before my eighth birthday. Thirty years ago, I began to understand that I'd never see him again. I began to understand that the man he'd been--angry and mean at times, but my father nevertheless--was not who he was. I began to understand the rage that accompanies adulthood.

Thirty years ago, I was my oldest daughter's age. I look at her and am amazed by how young she is, how she laughs at silly voices and bad knock-knock jokes. I don't remember feeling young. I quickly grew up after my father's arrest, suddenly flooded by knowing, and the world became a rising tide.

I've been feeling significantly depressed over the last few weeks. It's the feeling I get every July. I carry it with me through August and can't shake it, especially on my birthday. While researching for my memoir, I discovered that my depression is a common phenomenon suffered by people who experience traumatic events, especially in childhood. It's called "anniversary reaction" and it's a type of PTSD.

I thought I'd try something new this year and instead of sinking into the familiar and nearly-irreversible sadness, I'd share a bit of my experience from thirty years ago. These are some snippits of a chapter titled "Baptisms."

I have a friend who becomes a hermit in the week leading up to the anniversary of her husband’s death. Typically, she’s boisterous, social, driving all over town to visit people and deliver little gifts to brighten the days of others. But during that week, she doesn’t even answer her phone. She won’t see anyone. She falls into the grief of a situation thirteen years past and has learned it’s best for her to cope by being alone. Then, on the anniversary of the day he died, she visits her husband’s grave, and celebrates his life in a small service with their only son and a few family members. The next day, she’s back to her old self.
Like her, I suffer from what psychologists call “the anniversary reaction.” Loosely defined, the anniversary reaction is “an individual’s response to unresolved grief resulting from significant losses [and] can involve several days or even weeks of anxiety, anger, nightmares, flashbacks, depression, or fear.”[1] Unlike her, my trauma refuses to be soothed by isolation, or therapy, or medication. For me, the last weeks of July bring on an uncontrollable sense of restlessness, grief, anger, shame, and fatigue. Most of what I felt about my father’s arrest went unresolved in my childhood. My family’s reaction—the product of a repressed American culture—was to sweep it under the rug, keep it taboo, lie about it. Let it hang over our heads and leave us to simply toughen up or drown under the weight.
The morning after my father’s arrest, a group of thin Brothers and their over-stuffed wives from our LDS church ward convened in our living room.  They looked at us with a mixture of pity and doubt as if we were co-conspirators. My mother got down on her knees while one of the Brothers held his hand on her head and prayed.  From a metal vial he wore on a beaded chain around his neck, he sprinkled water onto her forehead. My mother cried the way only a woman whose husband had been keeping secrets could cry—tears of shame and ignorance. The thin Brothers then moved on to praying over me. The holy water ran down my forehead and caught in my eyelashes. 
Out in our dirt yard, Grandma smoked one cigarette after the other and snubbed them out into the marigolds my mother had just planted.
While the Brothers prayed, their wives set up shop in our kitchen.  They’d leave behind casseroles and Bundt cakes, all of it laced with pity and suspicion. While the holy water dripped from my face and onto the brown shag of our living room, I could feel the women staring.  And the stares of those churchgoing Brothers and Sisters, our townspeople, our friends expected us to be hiding other secrets. After all, we’d let my father’s evil into the house. No one believed my mother nor I—because I was the oldest—knew nothing about my father’s double life.
Immediately following his arrest, my mother phoned my father’s parents to tell them what had happened, and they didn’t say much, only that they would come to see us in a few days. “They didn’t seem surprised,” Grandma told me a few years later. “I imagine they’d been waiting for something like this to happen. Of course they were waiting.” She’d scoff at this point, light a cigarette even if she still had another one burning, and say between puffs, “Of course they were waiting because they knew he was sick way before Mickey married him, and they just let it happen. Without saying a word. They never got him any help. Even after The Gas Company, they didn’t tell anyone even then. They should’ve. They were sorrysonsofbitches not to say a word.”
The Gas Company was code for my father’s short stint as a meter reader. A few years after his conviction, when I was ten or eleven, I’d come home from school to find a strange man standing in our backyard. Men in general scared me, and when I ran through the house screaming to Grandma that someone was in the yard, she’d said, “Don’t be an idiot. That’s just the gas man.” After he’d jotted our numbers down on his clipboard, he walked on to the next house, and through a slit in the curtains I watched him go.
That incident prompted Grandma to tell me about my father’s career when he was just twenty-three years old, just after my younger sister, Deidre, had been born. His blonde hair had just begun to recede, so both his forehead and his aluminum-framed glasses glinted in the sun while he walked from property to property on his Hollywood route for the Southern California Gas Company.  Sometime halfway through, he found himself inside the bedroom of a woman who lived alone.  She was about thirty and sleeping atop the sheets with her sliding glass door open to the faint summer breeze.  He didn’t know how long he’d been standing there watching her, but he’d touched her hair and it had woken her. She began yelling at him immediately.  He stepped backward, nearly falling over the frame of the sliding door.  He dashed around the corner to where he’d parked the company truck. He started the engine and drove.
“He smelled gas, that’s what he said,” Grandma told me. “He rang the bell and knocked, gone into the back yard to see if the family was outside.  That’s when he saw the woman through the window on the bed and worried that she’d asphyxiate, but she got hysterical.  Accusing him of all kinds of things.  He panicked and ran away.”
When I finally wrote to my father twenty years after Grandma’s rendering of the events, he admitted he’d known he’d done something wrong, but couldn’t explain what had brought him into that woman’s bedroom, why he thought he could get away with the gas leak story. All he wrote about it was that he knew he was “in trouble” because he’d pulled into the company lot and saw the police cars. 
When he went before a judge to plead guilty for trespassing, one of the police who’d first arrived at the gas company to arrest my father gave a brief statement about how calm and collected he’d seemed.  The woman had spoken to him at the police station.  She’d said she wouldn’t press charges.  The judge listened patiently when my father told his story of the smell of gas.  He didn’t know why he was standing in the courtroom, why the police insisted he plead or stand trial.
My mother and grandparents, and our church bishops believed the story.  But the judge didn’t buy it. And after his arrest, Grandma told The Gas Company story with suspicion, with gusto, as if she too hadn’t been duped. At the end of it she always said, “I knew something was wrong. I told your mother to leave him then.”
“She never told me that,” my mother told me recently. “She didn’t even know the whole story. Your grandmother could take a little bit of knowledge about something and turn it into a circus when she wanted to. That’s why we never told her the rest of it, just that Terry had been let go.”
But really, he’d been sentenced to psychiatric therapy. He spoke to a court-ordered psychologist for six months.  By then, he’d found a new job as a machinist at Menasco, and at the end of his Tuesday and Thursday shifts, he headed to the clinic on Tujunga.  He sat with the man for an hour each time, while he was asked questions about his family, his friends, the church, his job. After a month, the doctor began probing him about his parents and my father began to suspect the therapist was fishing for something.  Those things were private, he’d said.  He could handle them himself.  They had nothing to do with why he was there. That was the judge’s doing.  He just wanted to get the six months over with.
My father’s arrest happened during the summer break between my first and second grade years of school. I’d spent much of first grade in a deep funk because I missed kindergarten and the naps we’d taken in the afternoons.  My kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Kreis, but to my young Mormon ears it sounded like Christ, so I’d spent many days after school complaining to my mother that I missed Mrs. Christ and wanted to go back to kindergarten. To this complaint, my mother told me to go to my room and get Mousie and read a book.
Mousie was a felt hand-puppet that Mrs. Kreis used during story time. She’d read to us from a different book each day and as we all formed a circle around her she asked for a volunteer to retrieve Mousie from the closet where she kept all kinds of supplies. I always volunteered, not scared of the dark dank closet, and so I was nearly always the one to grab Mousie from his shelf and bring him into the circle. He was made of gray felt and wore a bright pink vest with a watch fob dangling from the front pocket. At the end of my kindergarten year, Mrs. Kreis left Alpine Elementary, and she’d given me Mousie because I loved him. I spent much of the summer afternoons with him on my left hand, reading books in my room. After my father’s arrest, I took Mousie with me to Grandma’s house where the three of us girls were staying while my mother “sorted things out.”
That summer I also moved up into a new Sunday school class and it became my responsibility to remember all of the Ten Commandments.  On top of these, our God had sent Joseph Smith some additional rules, and I learned his history by singing, “Book of Mormon stories that my teacher tells to me/ all about the Roman knights in ancient history.” 
Our Sunday school class met in the church gym, the place where the teenagers held their dances and, once a year we had a family festival and a Magic Show.  The room was partitioned on Sunday’s by gray cloth screens, creating cubicles for the classes—one for the five-year-olds, one for six, seven, eight, etc.  It wouldn’t be until we were in our teens that they’d start grouping us with different age mates based on what we could learn out of The Bible, The Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants.
Our teacher arranged us all into a circle, and we recited the Ten Commandments. It was well known in our Sunday school class that if they couldn’t be memorized or if the numbers from the thirteen Articles of Faith were given incorrectly, advancement to the next class would be impossible.  That’s why one of the teenager groups was whispered to be the stupid group.  The members of the stupid group consisted of kids who’d joined the church late or didn’t own their own Book of Mormon, and every Sunday they’d check one out of the library where my mother worked.  None of them could even read, really, we said.
Although I was bright—a Super Speller and Math Whiz—I couldn’t keep the Ten Commandments and Articles of Faith straight.  I was too busy wondering where my father had gone, and trying to believe my mother when she said, “He’s never coming back,” even though I thought he would. And then I’d think, if the words of God were so important, then my Sunday school teacher should make up a song to help me remember them, the way Mrs. Kreis had taught us in kindergarten. Of course, I was the only kid in my class thinking this as very few of them actually attended public school—their mothers taught them in makeshift classes in garages and living rooms.  I had all of this on my mind, coupled with the weight of the stares in my direction, when I arrived in class after Testimony (There she is, the white elephant we won’t talk about!), so that by the time my Sunday school teacher got around the circle to me and stated a number for a Commandment or Covenant, I’d answer incorrectly.
She’d ask, “Joyce, do you know Jesus Christ in your heart?  He wants you to know him, but you have to live by these words.”
On one of the Sundays after my father’s arrest, when I hadn’t seen my mother until that morning before church, I thought long and hard, staring at my patent leather shoes and stupid frilly socks I had to wear.   Finally I answered, “I know Mrs. Christ, my kindergarten teacher.  She read to us with Mousie, and he makes reading easy.”
At the end of the church, as families stood around the massive foyer and chatted about the upcoming workweek and family dinners and who’d be giving Testimony for next Sunday, my teacher pulled my mother aside and told her what had happened.  She was afraid for my soul, she said.
“She’s seven,” my mother said, always practical.  “Have you tried a puppet?  Maybe that would help.”
No, she hadn’t tried a puppet, my teacher said.  All the other kids in my class were capable of saving their souls without Mousie.

[1] “Anxiety and Sadness May Increase on Anniversary of Traumatic Event.” American Psychological Association. 2011.


And I Don't Know What to Do with My Anger

I'm very angry. And by that I mean I've made snarky comments to my husband and he's now sick of them so I'm going to blog about my anger. It takes a lot to get my blood boiling. And it takes a special kind of asshole for me to publicly acknowledge that assholishness. I'll take a lot of shit from someone. But I can't stand a person who lowers my property values.

If you've read any of my blogs, you're familiar with the woman who took up residence in the beautiful, well-maintained home next door. You're also familiar with the 4-6 grandchildren living with her at any given moment, the revolving door of pets, and the daughter(s) in and out of rehab/prison. You know that she converted the two-car garage into bedrooms and allowed the above-ground pool to congeal into a cesspool that eventually broke free of its walls and killed the grass and beautiful ornamental bushes in the backyard. You know there's the constant smell of dog shit wafting from the yard. For reasons unknown, she's never bothered to use the sprinkler system on the grass and has let the crape myrtle trees and hedges grow willy-nilly. The doorbell is missing. Only two wires remain, poking through a dark hole near the front door. The front bedroom window has been boarded up for two years, ever since one of the ragged teens broke the glass with a baseball bat.

Earlier this summer, the teens were all been shipped off to their respective fathers. Then, my neighbor's brother suddenly died, and she has been left to care for her elderly mother. She stays with her mother for days at a time and the house has been empty, quiet.

But last month, she took in a woman with three children. The youngest child, and only girl, is a year ahead of our daughter in school. They have been attached to each other all summer, often playing until it's dark outside. She is a sweet little girl, well mannered. I like her. And that's saying something. Because I hate kids.

So I allowed myself to think that perhaps I was being too hard on my neighbor. If my daughter enjoyed playing at the house, and I enjoyed having one of its residents as a guest, I really shouldn't get upset when the sturdy wooden mailbox post suddenly disappeared and was replaced by a rickety bent pole held up by three landscape pavers. It was a price I was willing to pay for my daughter's happiness.

I was even a bit awed--and jealous--this weekend when a whirlwind of activity began outside of the house. A parade of lawn care dudes and pressure washing dudes and shirtless dudes, marched around repairing, cleaning, pruning, and sprucing. I thought perhaps the young woman and her three children were making some sort of positive influence on my neighbor. Perhaps with the other teens gone to their daddies, my neighbor could finally make the house a home. She was even out in the yard cutting away dead limbs on the once-lush knockout roses.

Then, the unthinkable happened. They put down pine straw.

Mulching is a commitment. It says, "See, I care if my trees and shrubs and flowers live through the harsh weather."

I thought, Holy shit, they've actually started to take pride in the place now that they've completely fucked it up. Even with the enclosed garage and still-boarded window, the yard maintenance was enough to make me think that the property value had risen a bit.

I bragged to my neighbor on the fantastic job.

I should have known.

I came home from work today and a "For Sale" sign was in the yard. And not the half-assed yeah-we-may-sell sort of "By Owner" shit. This is the real deal. A Coldwell Banker sign.

Great. I think we all know the kind of people who buy homes with converted garages. I hate those people. They have a slew of lonely pets. Their garbage cans are constantly over-filled. There are strange smells seeping through the cracked windows. That's right. I'm talking about large families. Families with hoards of kids. Knock-on-your-door-all-the-time kids. Kids with snotty noses and scraped knees and sticky hands. Kids like mine.

Now that my neighbor has done so much ugly damage that a pressure wash and a layer of pine straw won't cover it, she's abandoning ship. She's going to allow a huge family to move in and terrorize me. I can see it now: the mother who will home-school the entire brood. And the husband who will shake his head because I work. They'll take "stay-cations."

And they'll lower my property value with the 10,000 plastic sand buckets and ride-on toys strewn about the front lawn.

I just can't wait. Can't. Wait.


Go Ahead, Take the Hormones. But, Please, Not "Caitlyn"

So here's the post you've all been waiting for. And when I say "all" I mean about half of you. Or, realistically, about five of you.

Okay, really this is just for my one friend with whom I had the following text war:

She wrote: "Have you seen Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Cosmo?"

"No," I wrote. "Do people actually read magazines anymore? Is Cosmo still around? Do they still publish those quizzes about what type of sex you'd be best at doing? I think I need to take that quiz again now that I'm older and fatter."

Her: "You're missing the point."

Me: "Which was?"

Her: "Caitlyn Jenner."

Me: "Is that one of those reality TV people? You know I don't have cable."

Her: "You're hopeless. Caitlyn Jenner is Bruce Jenner."

Me: "Bruce Jenner's what?"

Her: "Huh?"

Me: "His daughter? Wife? Sister? Mother? Aunt?"

Her: "No, you idiot. Caitlyn Jenner IS Bruce Jenner."

Me: "I'm confused."

Her: "No, you're an idiot. Don't you even watch the news? Bruce Jenner is a guy who ran in the Olympics and now he's a woman."

Me: "Running in the Olympics made him a woman?"

Her: "I hate you sometimes. He was an Olympic athlete. He has lived as a man and has secretly been changing himself into a woman with hormones. He's on the cover of Cosmo and it says Call Me Caitlyn because he wants to be Caitlyn not Bruce."

Me: "He wants to be called Caitlyn? Why? Can't he think of a better name? That name is so trite."

Her: "I don't know what that means."

Me: "It means it's stupid. And common." (I know the real definition.)

Her: "Oh."

Me: "Couldn't he have chosen something better? Less popular? Like Claire or Catherine or Cher? Or just move away from the C names altogether and choose something even more fabulous like Miranda or Penelope? Caitlyn is stupid. Every ten-year-old I know is named Caitlyn."

Her: "Know a lot of ten-year-olds?"

Me: "Shut up. It's a dumb name and you know it."

Her: "You're missing the point."

Me: "I don't think I am."


Don't Mind Me, I've Just Been DNA Testing

That moment when--after thinking for all 37 years of your life that you'll never know who your biological grandfathers were--you realize: "Holy fuck, I just did a DNA test and found out the identities of both of my biological grandfathers."

Yep. That's me this week.

Let me back up a little and explain how both of my grandmothers were promiscuous young women. Or at least one of them wanted us to think she was and the other one was but didn't want us to know.

It's difficult, I know, to think of a grandmother as a sexual person, with desires and needs. And a vagina.

For many years I've trained myself to divorce the chain-smoking, man-hating woman who was my maternal grandmother, from the young woman in high-heeled Mary Janes and a red feather in her hair who worked on a Louisiana riverboat casino and played blackjack until the wee hours of the morning. I've trained myself to separate the white-haired, plump woman who fried bacon every morning for my father, from the laughing-too-loud, flirty twenty-something that Granny had been when she was a waitress in Kansas City, Missouri.

First, the liar. Yep, my maternal grandma wanted us all thinking she was a big-time hoe-bag. So much so that when both of my sisters got pregnant out of wedlock, and in their teens, she lit up a Pall Mall and was like, "Oh that happens all the time."

When my youngest sister got divorced last year, after thirteen years of marriage, I told her, "Dude, go sleep around. Just blame it on our whore gene." There's a mixed bag of theories in genetic research whether or not it's in an individual's DNA to be promiscuous. Still, in a March article of Daily Mail, it was reported that 8% of woman aged 65-74 have had ten or more sexual partners. My grandmothers fit into that category, or were slightly ahead of the curve, so that gives my sister a free pass. Just catch up with Grandma.

This week I confirmed with a DNA analysis of my spit that I hail from a group of people with the surname Tippen. My fourth great-grandparents were named John Wesley Tippen and Elizabeth Castleberry Tippen. I share genes with another living person who also had their DNA tested. This person is the third great-grandchild of the Tippens. The Tippen line carried down to me through my mother, and to her from a man Grandma married because, as she told my mother years later, she was preggo and needed a hubby, STAT. My mother's real father, Grandma said, was already married, was a traveling salesman from Michigan or Minnesota, or one of those "M" states no one ever admits to being from. She never told my mother a name or anything about this guy. Just that the Tippens were not blood relatives.

Grandma was lying. But why the hell would you make up some shit about another man when there was no other man? The only thing I can think of--and this totally fits Grandma's possessive compulsions--is that at some point after Grandma had moved to California and remarried, my mother asked her about her biological father's identity. And Grandma, who couldn't handle any sort of rejection, told my mother a lie so she'd never want to go back to Texas and live with her father. So my mother has lived most of her life thinking there's a mythical father somewhere who may or may not know anything about her. When, really, her biological father died in 1971 and she never got to mourn him properly because she didn't think he was really her dad.

Yep. I know. That is fucked up.

It's the total opposite of what I'd do. If I got divorced and my kids wanted to live with their dad, I'd be all, "Sure. Here's a suitcase. Don't let the door hit you on your way out."

Then I'd bust out my slut gene.

Now let's address Granny. A born-again Christian, she's has never been forthcoming about the details of her sordid past. Instead, she's stuck a short story titled "I-Don't-Remember-Who-Your-Grandfather-Was," which reads, "Your father was adopted by Don when he was seven, so Don's his father." And that's it.

But she can't deny the DNA that has linked me with a living second cousin, a huge branch of people still living in Missouri that have pictures of my father's biological father, who died in 1961, and lament that they never knew my father ever existed. They seem like a happy enough bunch and are curious about me and my sisters and our father. So I didn't really know what tone to take when I called Granny to give her the news. I finally decided on the casual route, saying, "Hey, I think I found a link to my biological grandfather," and gave her the name of the dude.

And without missing a beat she said, "Yeah, that's him. He had red hair so I just called him 'Red.'"

What the fuck?

She's not senile. She hasn't been hit over the head with a blunt object. How the hell do you forget the name of the man who got you preggo and then, poof, remember?

Though, I could completely understand a drunken one-night-stand, which is what I was thinking when Granny suddenly got even more of her memory back and elaborated: "He was an iron worker, much older than me. He worked on a crew building bridges. I didn't know he was married until one of the guys on his crew told his wife we were running around. By then I was pregnant with your father."

Okay then.

This is the big family mystery she's kept for over sixty years? She's never told my father the identity of his father because she fell for a married man? Sure it was 1953. Sure she was young and looking for a good time. But really? Never telling anyone? Or at least, never telling anyone who might need to know family medical history information? Apparently, having her son and three granddaughters write "unknown" on doctor's office information forms, then having the doctor say things like, "This cancer could be hereditary, if only we knew..." was a lot less humiliating than telling her son the name of his father.

What is with that generation and lying? Is this what sex-shaming has done? Created an entire female generation, or two, or three, or thousand, who are so completely terrified of living the truth that they deny it even happened? And we wonder why we have a mental health epidemic in this country; we're afraid to live our own truths because of what our neighbors will say about our bedroom behavior. When will we, as a culture, embrace women's sexuality and promiscuity without labeling them "sluts"? Without running them out of town, pushing them to the fringes because they remind us of our own unfulfilled sexual desires? Instead, let's practice birth control--educating young women about how to effectively use condoms and hormonal injections and little pills that can keep away unplanned pregnancy, and allow them the sexual freedom they deserve.

Let's not be afraid to talk about Grandma's vagina.


The Great Depression

...this is a long-ish piece i've been working on for a LONG time...i think i finally figured out in the last few months what i really wanted to say here about hunger and poverty and depression...it's changed very much since the initial draft and i'm pleased to say that the parts i cut have found their way into a new piece of writing...i'll be shopping this around soon, so i welcome comments and feedback...

The Great Depression

“Maybe sadness was a kind of hunger, she thought. Maybe the two went together.”
                The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

The Big House—as we called it—came to Grandma through auction in the summer of 1992.  A small grouping of tract homes, on the outskirts of the California desert where we lived, had gone bankrupt because no one was buying 3500-square-foot houses during a recession.  People in our town were more concerned with eating regular meals than luxury living. But in our family—that small unit consisting of just Grandma and me—beautiful architecture and unnecessary square footage trumped food. All of the abandoned homes in the small neighborhood were for sale. They were gorgeous pastel stucco two-stories, with Spanish tile roofs and large airy rooms. But they’d been dumped into the middle of bare yards, cinder block walls dividing the lots from the trailer park next door. Grandma wanted the model home, completely landscaped and furnished. Its bedrooms were supposed to simulate easy living, the living rooms (two of them) were designed to make even a family of ten comfortable, and the dining table set for a wax ham-and-potatoes dinner enticed buyers to pull up a chair.
The facade had failed. That should’ve been a warning to anyone who wanted to live there.
The auction was held in a motel that had once been a razzle-dazzle place along Sierra Highway, but was now home to transients, off-the-books day workers, and immigrants. Before the auction, Grandma parked her aging maroon Cadillac in the faded parking lot and groaned when she slid out from behind the wheel. Her back popped. Her pumps crunched the broken asphalt. She flicked a lighter and stood in the pitted lot while smoking a cigarette. She said, “I’m not going above 130.”  How she arrived at this number I didn’t know. She might as well have said she wasn’t going to go above two million. To me, all numbers were the same: money we didn’t have, money others did.
Inside, the conference room smelled like a Las Vegas casino—dead promises and stale cigarettes. It had low ceilings, dim lighting, wood paneled walls, brown shag carpet. On the day she bought The Big House, we sat in the first row of folding chairs set out before a long banquet table covered with a white cloth.  A man standing at a podium clicked a slide projector when each home was put on the block. When the model house came up for bid, Grandma raised her marker.  The price reached 135, and still she bid.  Up, up, up it went.  A Middle-Eastern couple across the aisle kept raising their marker.  When the price reached 195 I squeezed Grandma’s elbow, a gesture that was meant to say Please stop. Just stop.
Grandma lifted her marker at 199, and before I knew what was happening she’d won.  I was silent, stricken with fear.  I just knew the house would “go back” as she said whenever she was borrowing from Peter MasterCard to pay Paul Visa. She incessantly called one of her ex-husbands for more alimony. I’m not exactly sure how she managed to buy a house without having a nickel in the bank or a steady income, but I’ve since learned that recession homes can be purchased with spit and a promise.
Once all of the paperwork was complete—a process that took less than an hour and included several tongue clicks as Grandma signed on a series of dotted lines—we walked out into the desert afternoon and climbed inside the Cadillac. The cracked leather seats scorched my thighs. I couldn’t look at her, and spent the ride back to our house attempting to ignore the churning of my empty stomach, the anxiety that had plagued me for all of the years I’d lived with her     
The Big House, 2014
My head began to ache and pulse above my temples and eyes. Grandma spoke only once. Stopped at a red light, she lit a cigarette and said, “You wanted that house so badly you pinched me on the arm. I think you left a bruise.”    
We couldn’t afford a new house and I knew moving wouldn’t solve anything—I’d fallen into a state of depression when I turned thirteen.  At times, Grandma called it “hormones.” But mostly she blamed it on the genetically far-fetched ideas of my incarcerated father’s bad blood and her daughter’s stupidity in marrying him in the first place. She often told me that if I strayed from her teachings, I’d become white trash just like the both of them. When I heard these words, I thought of a reverse Cinderella—a kingdom falling in on itself, a pumpkin instantly transformed from carriage to rot. But her threats seemed to lose their impact when I entered my teens.
So, because she was the type of person to run from problems, the only solution she could think of was to move me into a grand house where I could build a new persona. Or the persona of what she called A Good Girl.  A Good Girl was a ghost. A Good Girl didn’t date, go to the movies with friends, sleep over at girlfriends’ houses, or talk on the telephone. A Good Girl went to school, occasionally participated in a school-sanctioned activity like a club meeting or a dance, and never socialized with classmates outside of the confines of the school grounds. A Good Girl lived unknown to her peers. No one knew what went on within the confines of her home.
What went on behind this Good Girl’s closed door was the utter absence of food. Grandma had a purse full of credit cards, all maxed out, and no income. The only work we had was going to garage sales on Thursday and Friday afternoons, and reselling the items we found at the local Swap Meet on Saturdays and Sundays. I spent Friday nights cleaning and repairing trashed items, readying them for a markup. Grandma gave them each a “family history” to entice potential buyers. We’d arrive at the Swap Meet before the sunrise and leave after dark. I’d subsist on water and four boiled eggs until Sunday when Grandma stopped at VONS and bought bread, canned vegetables, a chicken, cheese, Coke Classic, canned tuna, and cartons of cigarettes. Then we’d return to the confines of the beautiful house.
Perhaps because of the housing boom and bust of the early 21st century, American society is now more aware of the “near poor” or people who are just getting by.[1] But when I was a teenager, normal-looking actually meant that you were just like everyone else. No one knew I was hungry and poor. And I believed Grandma when she said all I needed was a change of address to improve my mood. Everyone in my small hometown—home of the T-shirt that read “Would the last person to leave Littlerock, CA please turn off the lights?”—knew my father was in prison and my mother had left me with Grandma years before. My days were spent under close watch, and I was Grandma’s sole companion. Even in the middle of the night, when other kids’ parents were sleeping, she was vigilant, sitting up in bed with the television blaring its End of Broadcast signal, afraid that if she slept I’d somehow sneak away and leave her all alone.
By the summer she bought The Big House, I’d lived under Grandma’s roof for six years and though the move was meant to pull me out of my depression, it only worked to make me more aware of my shortcomings, the differences between me and all of the other kids my age. My new school was more affluent, filled with kids whose parents were doctors, teachers, lawyers, ranchers. They ate a never-ending supply of Pop Tarts—something I knew the name of but had never tasted—and never bothered to pick up change they dropped in the school parking lot. While they were from two-parent families and complained about having to eat asparagus while sitting next to annoying siblings at the dinner table, I longed for food that might fill a plate and for siblings with whom I could talk.
I was ashamed of my hunger and kept quiet about it. No one knew that our fridge seemed to have only three purposes: to keep Cokes, milk, and leftovers cold, to house two glass jugs of water, and to preserve her Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes. No one knew a typical day in our home met me with a bowl of cold cereal and nothing more. No one knew dinner was optional. On good days, Grandma baked a chicken, smothered in onions, and a huge pot of fluffy white rice. Or steak and gravy and green beans. Or goulash. Or spaghetti. I remember these meals only because they were so infrequent they are burned into my memory. Most of the time, dinner was an iceberg lettuce wedge smeared with mayonnaise and a sprinkle of garlic powder. Or sugared toast. Or another bowl of cereal.
Grandma never cooked anything until all of the left-overs from a meal had been consumed. So never was I allowed to say, “I don’t want to eat that again.” I’d tried it less than a handful of times and learned the result was an empty belly until the next morning. I thought dinner rolls, biscuits, croissants, and French bread were only for braggarts. I once went to a neighbor’s house and her mother made chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. They were as big as my hand and she let us eat as many as we wanted with huge glasses of milk. When I got home and reported my awe, Grandma’s response was to say, “If you think that sort of thing happens every day, you’ve got another thing coming, gal. I’ve got more important things to do than bake cookies for kids to just eat up in one sitting.” She did make cookies once, the dough out of a tube. I was given two. The next day at school I dreamed of those cookies and couldn’t wait to get home. But when I arrived, they were all gone. She’d eaten them.
I realize that the food I managed to survive on during my childhood is more than some children today find awaiting them when they get in from school, especially those born to the “working poor.”[2] Like those kids, my main meal of the day came during school lunch. Grandma bought me a lunch card at the start of every month, and I watched each day as the thin construction paper square was consumed by the lunch lady’s hole punch. Thirty years later, I still have nightmares that I arrive in line for lunch and have lost my punch card. I look everywhere for it—even in my socks—but it’s gone and I have to go without my only sure-fire meal of the day.
At some point in Grandma’s life—probably between her fourth and fifth marriages—she was diagnosed with agoraphobia and prescribed Valium.  I have vague memories of a small brown bottle in her purse right next to her Pall Malls.  Every so often, she’d split a little yellow pill through its holed center and down it with a swig of Coke. By the time she bought The Big House, though, the valium had gone. Instead of heading to a doctor and getting a new prescription, Grandma simply stemmed her increased nervousness with more cigarettes. Smoking helps those with money worries “cope with high levels of stress and depression.” A 2013 study reveals that depravity “creates enormous mental anguish. One of the fastest, most convenient ways to help is a cigarette.” Put simply, “smoking treats hunger pangs.”[3]
She’d tried to quit smoking only once in her life. “That’s when I got as big around as a house,” she often recalled of herself without nicotine. She’d bring out her photo albums, a monthly ritual, and point to her “fat” pictures. The only difference I could see was that her face was fuller, her bosom more pronounced. When the albums appeared, she smoked more and picked at her meals, only eating a small portion before dumping them back into the pot or pan. I’d like to think she did this because we didn’t have the money to grocery shop and she was allowing for more food for the upcoming days. But it was vanity. 
Along with the photos went the stories—relatives long-dead, holidays spent on vacation, tables laden with food prepared for a reunion or homecoming. The glory of her past, my lineage, sat on the table before us and listening to her talk about each picture filled my meal-time hours. She’d seen people die from hunger and malnutrition from the earliest times she could remember.  She was born in 1930, and for the first ten years of her life her family hardly had enough food to survive.  Though she never admitted going hungry, she would proudly tell me how poor they’d been, as if challenging me to contradict the sepia-toned evidence. They lived on a farm in East Texas.  My great-grandmother, Eula Mae, was an Humble—as in Humble Oil and Humble, Texas—my great-grandfather, William, was supposedly Cherokee Indian.  The two met and fell in love and Eula was doomed, as Grandma said it, “to live a life beneath her” until their divorce when Grandma and most of her siblings were already adults.
She’d had rich cousins, aunts, and uncles on her mother’s side who visited the farm and brought hand-me-down clothes and tins of saltine crackers. They took pictures of the family, flashed them around Humble and said things like, “Just look at our country cousins.” Grandma never smiled in the pictures. She hated being a country cousin. Poverty, or her rise from it, was her badge of honor. Even as an adult, she hungered for the life she’d seen from her Humble cousins. And The Big House, her Cadillac, her Good Girl granddaughter, all flew in the face of that life-long hurt. These things might’ve been compromised if she’d quit smoking and suddenly allowed herself to eat. Her self-worth was somehow at stake.
Ruminations over old photographs were the extent of her conversations about pain, physical or mental. She spoke matter-of-factly about the scorn from her city cousins. She never elaborated on why, when she was still an infant, her mother left her father for a short time. Left the kids in his care. Or why, when her mother returned, after Grandma had already begun to walk, she clung to her oldest sister. “I didn’t know my own mother,” she told me. “I screamed when she tried to hold me.  I thought Sister was my mother, I guess.”  Never did she outwardly admit that as the fourth living child in a family of ten that she had to scramble for table scraps, to suck the meat from a chicken neck, eat a sliver of cornbread in a mug of buttermilk as her only meal. Nor did she ever know that prolonged malnutrition within the first year of life causes higher anxiety, egocentrism, and lowered sociability in adults.[4]
Instead, she told stories about the people she said were “really poor”—the displaced families of The Great Depression, who traveled in droves through Texas. If the stragglers neared the family farm, my great-grandmother would feed them.  Sometimes twenty people would eat off the same chicken. A pan of cornbread could feed a mob.  As a small child, Grandma sat in the barn loft and watched the men huddled around a campfire in the yard while sucking chicken bones. Off in the distance, the women either crowded around their own fire or clustered together trying desperately to get a new mother to release the long-dead baby she clutched to her chest. The men ate because when the work came they’d have to be strong enough to do it. The babies and women starved. She told me how repulsed she was, how she would never be that bad off. 
On the evenings when we sat down to a proper dinner, Grandma’s attention was often elsewhere, sometimes on the television but more often she simply held a far-away gaze almost as if she was in a trance. She lit a cigarette and let it burn nearly to her fingers before realizing she’d done it. Then she’d light another and puff away. At the time I was grateful for the silence—could concentrate of the luxury of the food on my plate. But as I think about those evening meals, I recall that she hardly touched her food. Instead, she let the silence consume her, thoughts of her past, her family, their East Texas farm. Or maybe she was worried about us, the fact that we might not have money for the next bill or the next. And maybe, that led to regret, fear, and anger,[5] because on those glazed-over evenings she would, eventually, become furious and stay up late into the night cursing something, someone. And, eventually, she’d come around to “dirty, filthy men” and the husbands she’d left. And, eventually, The Leather Jacket Man.
The Leather Jacket Man wasn’t his name, it was the name I gave to his story. She never told me his name, never fleshed out his appearance or lineage or any love he may have felt for her in return. He was a boyfriend from her early teens who rode a motorcycle. The Depression had ended and the country was booming from war-industry jobs. Oilfield and mill towns burst with people from all over the country. One of them was this much-loved man, the one she wished she’d never let go, the one who could’ve given her the life she wanted. He was the one she spent years regretting.  She told me, “It was the smell of his leather jacket.  The way the noon sun fell on a jagged fence in the middle of that field beyond the barn.  How it felt like he squeezed my heart.  Into a tiny fist.  That’s it, mostly.  But you can’t convince yourself, no matter how hard you try, that a man will deliver. When you’re young you want everything fixed right away. You want someone to do that.  So. Sometimes where the heart goes, the mind just won’t follow.”
          I’d then listen to her talk about running away from her tiny family farm, not to marry The Leather Jacket Man who brought her cotton candy and half-melted ice cream cones from the tiny town mercantile, but into the arms of a man twice her age who lived in a nearby city.  He bought her pretty clothes but she claimed, “He never touched me.”  She ran away from that husband to work on the riverboats of Lake Pontchartrain. She met a woman with the last name Moneymaker who took her on trips to Chicago and New York.  Eventually, she became pregnant with a married man’s child and cuckolded another husband. Her second illegitimate child got her run out of The South, all the way to California, where she married husband four or five.  But always, she came full circle to that first love, the motorcycle she rode while wrapping her arms around his waist, resting her cool cheek against the warm leather jacket.
          Now that I’m an adult, I understand why creating me as A Good Girl in the way she did was so important to Grandma. It was an attempt to save me not just from myself, but from her past. Perhaps to keep me from the pain she must’ve felt for the majority of her life. Her external behavior masked a serious internal, mental deficit that began with childhood hunger[6] and went unnamed for the entirety of her life. Her depression shaped me more than anything that went on behind the walls of The Big House.
          I never thought Grandma would consciously not eat.  Even if it was simply potato chips and cigarettes and Coke, I was sure she’d have enough. But after I left home, she quit cooking and actively starved herself to pay the mortgage and utilities on The Big House.  When her alimony payments dried up, she sold most of her antiques and slept on a narrow couch in the den near the front door because she was afraid of intruders in the night. Her mind began to slip, her memories escaping like ravenous field mice. Eventually, she sold The Big House and moved into a retirement complex.  She’d call me from her small apartment and leave message after message about how sick she felt, how her back and head hurt, how she wanted to move back to The Big House.  I equated this last comment with a threat of suicide and didn’t know what to say when I returned her calls. I tried to get her to talk about her family farm, The Great Depression, The Leather Jacket Man, until one day when she scoffed with indignity and said, “What the hell are you talking about, a man in a leather jacket? I’ve never ridden a motorcycle in my life.”
          Perhaps if she’d been born after The Great Depression, or not been left by her mother, or if she’d acknowledged her own suffering beyond nostalgia, Grandma might’ve escaped her own mind, perhaps she wouldn’t have become so physically frail that the wind seemed to whistle through her bones. Or if I’d been stronger, been able to handle life without a father and mother and food on the table, she never would’ve bought The Big House and instead she could’ve bought groceries and fed her memories with more than ghost stories and nicotine. Perhaps then she could’ve continued to remember The Leather Jacket Man instead of losing him, too.  
 I have a sepia-toned photo of Grandma in her late teens, the years of The Leather Jacket Man.  In it, she seems happy.  She’s plump-faced and sitting on what looks to be a veranda, on a stone bench near an iron rail. A mural of palm trees is painted behind her. I can see why so many men loved her—big eyes and full lips.  I have no idea where the photo was taken because it was given to me after her death by her brother, who came across it from an old friend.  The friend had the photo for over fifty years and claimed Grandma had given it to him.  I think of this nameless, faceless old man as the young leather jacket lover who held the photo for years, even during his own marriage, recalling a time in his life when he was happiest.
That photo squeezes my heart thinking about the loneliness that then-happy girl would grow up to face. 
In the photo, she looks just like me, or I look like her. The resemblance used to throw me into a panic where I feared I was doomed by blood and circumstance.  For the majority of my adult life, I’ve struggled with the depression that began in my youth. At times it consumes me so much that I cry for no reason. On my way home from work, I’ll turn down a road off of my usual route, pull over to the curb, and simply stare out into the sky.  It causes me to run to the store for more groceries. I finally realized, after a particularly long bout of depression where I hoarded not only potato chips but also laundry detergent, that I needed help. When I approached my doctor, I thought of Grandma and her far-away gaze at the dinner table. I told my physician, “I’ve been thinking of killing myself.”
Nonplussed he said, “How long have you had these thoughts?”
“Since I was thirteen.”
He frantically scratched on a prescription pad and encouraged me to seek out a psychiatrist. That was eight years ago. And every night, when I take my little blue pill, I remind myself that the past, this depression, is a dangerous thing. I can’t forget to take the pills, to fill the prescription, or my afternoon sky gazing will become too much. I’ll seek out the nearest closet and use my own belt as a noose.
And I think of Grandma, and her regrets. Of her past spread all around her like a field of wheat at harvest time. As far as the eye can see are decades. One loaf of bread grown from those crops initiates a series of memories, some ending with abandonment, starvation, and pining.  And when she wasn’t careful, an entire field left her crying into her bone-light hands. 
Just before her death, Grandma wrestled with days of mania, forgetting where she stored her towels, soap, coffee. She accused her neighbors of stealing. My mother took her to the grocery store and made sure her cabinets were overstocked.  But she forgot to eat. And the lack of food allowed her mind to fade even further into depression. When I remember her now, she’s sitting at the glass-topped table of the tiny kitchen in her last apartment, not the huge looming kitchen of The Big House.  She drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes, and though there is a full plate before her, she doesn’t eat. Instead, she stares in silence through the large window at the clear blue sky. As if she’s waiting for The Leather Jacket Man and the return of the time when he made her forget her poverty. As if the fields of her memory are full of nothing else but him and something intangible she’s always hungered for.

[1] Jason DeParle, Robert Gebeloff, and Sabrina Tavernise. “Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle Census.”  The New York Times. November 18, 2011.
[2] DeParle, Gebeloff, and Tavernise. “Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census.” The New York Times. November 18, 2011.
[3] “For the poor, cigarettes a salve for hunger pangs and mental woes.” Philadelphia Inquirer. November 11, 2013.
[4] Galler, Bryce, Zichlin, Waber, Exner, Fitzmaurice, & Costa. “Malnutrition in the first year of life and personality at age 40” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 2013.
[5] Trafton, Anne. “‘Hunger Hormone’ Linked to PTSD: Chronic Stress elevates ghrelin, increasing susceptibility to fear.” Technology Review. January 1, 2014.
[6] Galler, Briyce, Waber, Sichlin, Fitzmourice, & Eaglesfield. “Socioeconomic outcomes in adults malnourished in the first year of life: a 40 year study.” Pediatrics. June 25, 2012.