Your elevator pitch—tell me, she said. What’s your book about in a 3-4 sentence summation? I didn’t have an answer at the time, but this is what I’ve come up with so far:

Mine is a story of being the second of seven, each born within 9-years, and raised by an impervious single-mom. (That three-tent circus alone might be “worth the price of admission,” as my dear friend Nan would say.) I’ll also revisit the impact of my father’s compulsions, which resulted in unprecedented consequences by way of his genius, albeit deviant, manipulation. And I’ll explore faith vs. folly as they pertain to my mother’s independence, which was often at odds with her installation of the LDS church as patriarch by proxy of our home.

So this blog may be a forum for wordsmithing—pounding out, if you will—some of the memories that are trying to make their way into my book. On top of that, I might stomp in the puddles of parenting, wrestle in the reeds of politics, or sit on the dock musing over the inner-workings of the universe. Whatever I’m writing, this blog is my pond to play in, and you’re welcome to swing by for a friendly splash.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cathartic Construction

Left: Joe & Mom, 2000 
Right: Rob & Christjen, his son, 1996
The walls in my mother’s house have moved again. I’d like to say that’s merely a metaphor, but the frequency at which she tears down and reconstructs the walls within her home has been a barometer of her strength and resilience since 1999.

When I was a child, paper and rubber threads of overzealous erasing littered our dining room table fairly regularly. After reconciling an empty bank account, or waiting on something baking, or while the little kids were playing in a bedroom or the backyard, my mother would sit at the table, pencil in hand. Some days she wrote. Other days she drew. But her mind was always occupied.

One particular Sunday afternoon in what may have been 1982, I found her at the table while something savory was simmering in the kitchen behind her. She had a look of deliberation as she drew a reconfigured landscape that in her mind, and on the paper, was situated around the house my Aunt Lois owned, which my grandfather built in 1948.

The house on Benson was just under 900 square feet and sat deep on the lot. In front, there was a long narrow driveway that led to a shed, which I always imagined housed black widows and gardening tools. In the front yard, there was also a plum tree, generous with fruit; which often fell to the ground in the summer heat, spoiling the birds and bees in the area.

From the front porch, the door opened directly into a family room, and the house was divided into six unequal sections. Most notably, there were no hallways.

At the back of the family room, you could continue straight into the kitchen, or turn left into the master, which doubled as a pass-through to the kids’ room at the front, and a bathroom at back of the house.

If you went into the kitchen, you’d find a mud-room that opened into the alley-way and led to my grandparent’s house. We used this door most often, and the boundaries between the two homes often seemed blurred.

This was the house my mother was drafting that day.

When asked what she was doing, she told me about visions of pouring a shapely driveway. She imagined a full garage replacing the shed, and a pergola and water fountain replacing the plum tree. She also envisioned a black wrought-iron fence replacing the chain link.

Her ability to convey her vision on paper was impressive; but more so, I was taken with the softness of her eyes and the upturned corners of her lips, and the elegance of her hands as she sweepingly described what each shape on the grid-lines represented.

She told me about how her father built the house with a handsaw and a hammer—no power tools. And how he was fortunate to have used real wood. She recounted that building materials were sparsely available in the 1940s, and most of the neighbors built their homes out of clapboards reclaimed from fruit boxes that nearby canneries had discarded.

It didn’t matter that this was her sister’s home, or that it was in a run-down neighborhood, or that she had no income to speak of to purchase it, let alone enact the changes. 

When I asked her why she was drawing it as though it was her own, she said, “If I imagine it, it will happen. God will provide—maybe not this house—but he has something in mind. I just have to envision it and then ask.” And she meant it.

Mom asked without abandon. Not just about housing, but everything. She asked with an embarrassing amount of faith, entitlement, and confidence.

And he did. Her God provided. Every. Single. Time.

On May 31st, 1999, my brother Robert was promoted to Executive Chef. As a high school drop-out who found passion and success in the culinary arts, to him, it meant a future. After an evening of excessive celebrating, Rob went to bed. And then he was gone. 

I won’t try to describe the devastation.

Pain shifts time and memory. I don’t recall if Mom purchased the home on Benson right before, or right after this happened; but I do know the walls started moving almost immediately after Rob’s death.

And then, on August 10, 2000, my brother Joe was killed by a drunk driver. And the walls went up and down even faster.

At one point, Mom hired an unemployed neighbor who worked for a few dollars here and there; but she was never satisfied, and she redid most of it. Over and over again. On any given day, a new drawing could be found on a random beam or piece of scrap wood, depicting her new vision for the space. And a month, or a week, or a day after it was completed, the cycle would repeat.

Mom was capable of anything. She sought advice from the “do-it-yourself” advocates at the local big box store, and she learned from trying, and trying again.

Some days the only place to wash your hands was the kitchen sink. Other days, the kitchen was dismantled and dishes had to be washed in the bathroom. By the end, and somewhere between the third and thirtieth iteration, a hallway had taken form, and the kitchen moved from its original southeast corner of the house to the opposite side of the structure—plumbing, electrical, and all.

The changes only stopped when she listed the house; and she was fortunate to sell it at the top of the market in 2006, before the housing bubble burst. Shortly thereafter, she purchased her current home in Utah, and it wasn’t long before her catharsis continued.

It’s been nine more years of construction, and with each cycle of tearing down and rebuilding, she says it is the last.

My mother turned 70 in September, and plans to retire from her career as a high school English teacher this year. When I arrived at her house Tuesday evening, somehow I allowed myself to be surprised that another wall had been taken down. 

And then we talked about her health. And I was devastated to learn that this cycle really may be her last.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Table Talk

I had dinner with my youngest daughter today. At the kitchen table. Grilled cheese and tomato soup—the nasty kind from a Campbell’s Soup can. It’s something we don’t do often—sitting at a table, that is. (Sadly, the grilled cheese and Campbell’s Soup are a staple.) I was grateful to have taken a few minutes to sit down, because it reminded me yet again how full she is of quirks and curiosities in the most pleasantly peculiar way.

At the age of two, she put puzzles together “brown-side” up and sorted Legos by color and size. She would line them up, end-to-end. It was a serious process for her. When she was tired, she would sit near her crib, blanket in hand, and quietly wait for someone to notice. She’s a brilliant kid. And not the least bit socially awkward. (At least not from my perspective.) And then she shared this:

So, a strange thing happened in my psychology class today. I didn’t know it was a thing. That this thing I’ve done all my life was weird. It has a name.
I laughed. What? I asked. What do you do that’s so weird?
I eat paper.
Seriously? Hmmm. Just the frayed edges of spiral-bound? Or, all paper?
No. Corners mostly. And Dum-Dum lollypop sticks. They’re the best. It’s a texture thing. It feels good in my mouth. And I’ve always done it. I just didn’t know it was weird.
Mmmhmm. It’s called Pica. It’s an eating disorder. People who have it eat things with no nutritional content. My psych teacher told me there are two teachers at school who have it too. One eats chalk. My Spanish teacher. I’ve seen her do it. The other one eats sucker sticks—the paper kind. And while he was talking about it, everyone was like, “Ewww! What? Really?” And the more we talked about it, I realized they didn’t think that was a normal thing.
My mother does it. I grinned. The frayed edges of spiral paper, napkins, and sucker sticks. I’ve seen her do it for years.
I wonder if it’s hereditary—Pica. And since we talked about it, I’ve been craving it all day. The texture.
So I looked it up. And while I didn’t find out if it was hereditary, I did learn Pica is a Latin word and it means Magpie. And I laughed again at the irony of names and how fitting they are at times. Her middle name is Margaret and we called my daughter Maggie Moo for years.
She graduates this year, and I’m hungry for a few more nights with her at the table.
*No children were harmed in the publishing of this post. Explicit permission was provided by Maggie Moo herself.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

1979, Cousins & Cobbler

On the east facing wall, cups and bowls tip sideways in the cabinets and are ready to spread a rainbow of mix-matched Tupperware durability across the cluttered, honey-comb tiled countertop at any given time.
On the opposite wall, legs of wiry spaghetti stand upright in the stock pot for a time, as a Mason jar of home-canned tomato sauce sprinkles the range. The percolator, the salt and pepper shakers, and an aluminum canister holding a generation of lard never leave their station; sending false promises of bacon into the air anytime the oven heats up.
And today, a sticky gravy of cinnamon and peaches licks past a lattice crust sending smoky saccharinity through the 800 square foot farm-style house.
Looking out the window above the sink, past the trinkets and the up-cycled jelly jar that holds an accidental collection of twist-ties and brightly colored plastic barrettes, her mind is busy but she doesn’t share what it’s busy with. 
And a cloud of black cherry Flavor-aid plumes as tap water hits the bottom of the pitcher.
It’s 4:00 and the sun is still hours away from setting. In exchange for a tidy kitchen tonight, she’ll offer a round of pop-bottles to the girls tomorrow, whether they want the job or not.
“Lala, come help Gramma set this table!” Aunt Lois calls into the yard. “Julie, Dawna, you too!” That's the adult table she's referring to. The one for all the aunts and Grandma. Whether here, or across the ally at his house, Uncle Danny takes his meals in front of the television, most often alternating between Grease, Alien, and a George Strait special which he plays on the Betamax.
“1, 2, 3…” we hear, all the way to 20. “Olly olly oxen free!” And then squeals emerge from hidden corners of the four-lot property.
My breath is damp as I hold my shirt over my mouth, still hiding behind the garage and the grape vines. And then the shouts, “Aaaahhhhh, don't catch me!” “Run, Nita! Run!” Followed by laughter. A brief argument ensues between the boys and the girls about what’s really “home base.” But it’s cut short by my grandmother's pronouncement, “Dinner!”
And with that, fifteen pairs of dirty bare feet pound toward the back door. Each jockeying for position in a single-file line that tends to break rank bulging three wide, here and there. A few tears are shed, as the less favored fall to the outer edges, and others claim someone’s butting.
Another six mouths are already at the “little kid table” on the back porch. Two tucked into old-style high chairs--the type with metal trays. The others are boosted up via an eclectic collection of a worn out Webster’s Dictionary, two sets of Yellow Pages, and a stack of last week’s subscription to the Sacramento Bee.
Within minutes, everyone is served and sets of best-friends have scattered around the yard. Some are on swings, others in the half-built tree-house. Some have even climbed on top of the chicken coop. My crew and I? We are the tame ones, sitting on the back stoop, gushing about boys, and hairstyles, and sleep-overs.
At nine, life is good, especially when you're living commune style for the summer. Because half a cup of noodles with a splash of color and a slice of toasted Wonder bread is enough when you’re with cousins. Especially when there's a promise of peach cobbler for dessert.

Prayer of thanks to the journalism room

Inspired by Brian Doyle’s “A Book of Uncommon Prayer”

Prayer of thanks to the journalism room. My haven. My sanctuary between early morning seminary and the first bell.

Prayer of thanks to the journalism room. For the red lights amidst darkness that hid tears of break-ups and hurt feelings. For the scent of developer that overpowered any indication of nervous pheromones.

Prayer of thanks for Mr. Moore, who whispered when he “had enough” of rowdy boys who played air guitar. Who whispered when lessons had to be repeated, and when students arrived late. Who whispered anytime anybody else would have lost his shit.

Prayer of thanks for the one day I heard him raise his voice in response to hearing me say, “I hate my father.” A statement to which he refused to stay silent.

Prayer of thanks to the journalism room and its lifeline. When cell phones weren’t yet imagined and private calls were hard to carry-on at home.

Prayer of thanks to the journalism room. For the color darkroom—where forbidden kisses were at times given freely, and other times stolen.