Posts Tagged ‘mother’

mary’zine random redux: #5 June 2000

January 28, 2010

Life has been so full lately. You got your broken eyeglasses, you got your vandalized car antenna, your lump in the armpit, your continued gastrointestinal disturbance without a gallbladder to blame it on, your “area of concern” on the latest mammogram, your carpal tunnel toe. You got your endless tome on immunopathology to edit, your continually crashing Internet connection, your hairball-expectorating cat, your estimated taxes due. You got your iron-poor blood—can’t even give it away.

In the plus column…. let me think…. well, the lump was nothing…. and I expect the “area of concern” will be nothing, too. (I’m reminded of one of my father’s favorite songs: “I got plenty a nothin’, and nothin’s plenty for me…”)…. and I survived the latest heat wave, which only lasted about a day and a half but felt like forever. It was easily 100 degrees upstairs where I spend most of my time—95 degrees on the downstairs thermostat, and as I walked up the stairs it was like going from the frying pan into the fire. I was so concerned for my computer that I shut it down around 5 p.m., a personal sacrifice on my part since it meant no more e-mail for the rest of the day. I tried to think how to cool off Pookie, but I couldn’t figure out the logistics. One enormous, hydrophobic cat versus me and a cold, wet towel? Forget it. Then, to my surprise, the heater came on! I thought maybe it had a secret air-conditioning feature that only kicked in when you really, really needed it—like a special surprise from the manufacturer. But the air coming out of the vents was hot, and the temperature went up another 5 degrees in 15 minutes. I had visions of being cooked in my own 3-bedroom oven by a furnace gone berserk. So I called PG&E, and they told me it was just the fan and how to turn it off. I slept on my big purple couch downstairs until 4 a.m., woke up with a complaining back, and grudgingly ascended to the still-stifling second floor to get a few more winks before the sun came up to torture me again. Did I mention I don’t like the heat? And my friend Barbara, whose motto is “No such thing as too hot,” is over there in f-f-frigid San Francisco, coveting what is making me miserable. Life is strange.

on hearing robert pinsky, poet laureate, read his poem “to television” on television

With all my petty and sundry complaints, I’ve been rather depressed, and my self-medication, in addition to the obvious quadrumvirate (it’s a real word—I’m as surprised as you are) of caffeine, sugar, salt, and fat, often takes the form of watching TV for hours at a time, zoning out with the remote in my hand, clicking away, creating my own diverse programming, the endless loop of odd and compelling snippets that I race through from channel 42 (Bay TV) down to 2 (Fox) and back again. I know where all the treasures are likely to be buried, so I hurry past the C-SPAN and foreign-language channels between 28 and 21 hoping to find anything but another John Candy movie on Comedy Central. Often, of course, the channels that are most likely to produce an amusing divertissement are showing commercials when I click by, but no worries, I’ll get back to them in the next go-round.

I can’t deny that I often get into a zombified state doing this, especially if the pickin’s are slim, as on Friday or Saturday nights. I’ll find myself watching things I would never choose to watch, simply because I landed on the channel and some small shiny-object-of-a-detail catches my attention and holds me until I realize I’ve been sitting there for 5 minutes watching liquefied fat being drained out of a man’s body and rising inexorably in a glass jar, and some dim shred of self-respect fights its way up from the depths and I click onward.

But the tendency of the cable channels to rerun everything to death provides unexpected benefits when they’re rerunning something I’d like to see again—like the guitarist Laurence Juber playing a mesmerizing version of “I Saw Her Standing There,” which I caught four times. I think that’s the record, but it’s amazing how many times I’ll come upon a rerun of a show I’ve never seen in its entirety and they’re showing the same scene I saw 2 weeks or 6 months before—giving me the eerie feeling that I’m in a Twilight Zone episode in which a socially isolated woman becomes so attached to the remote that she becomes the rerun while the TV watches her.

You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery channel. —The Bloodhound Gang

If you are what you eat, then you probably are what you watch, too, which may or may not explain my delight in happening twice upon an otherwise forgettable movie right at the scene where a 13-year-old boy is masturbating Laura Dern, the actress who played Ellen DeGeneres’s girlfriend in the coming-out episode, to a crashing orgasm. Now that was a great example of TV viewing as a found-art form. (I prefer that term to “channel surfing,” which is so, I don’t know, pre-Internet.) I haven’t seen much else of a sexual nature that appeals to me, including the barely dressed young women on MTV’s ubiquitous spring vacations. As Ronald Reagan famously said about the redwoods, you see one (thong bikini), you’ve seen ‘em all. And I don’t know what the Bloodhound Gang is watching on the Discovery channel, but I’m picky about which mammals I choose to see in compromising positions. But let’s leave the topic of how polymorphous is my perversity and move on to satisfactions of a higher nature.

What really makes it worth trilling up and down this do-re-mi scale of continually renewing imagery is that sometimes I’m jolted out of the mindless loop of political talking heads, music videos, so-called reality shows (“reality” being defined as human criminality, degradation, stupidity, or emergency), old obscure movies, new obscure movies, quiz shows, nature shows (Pookie enjoys seeing the close-ups—2-foot-high hummingbirds filling the screen as his eyes widen in wonder), late-20th-century sitcoms that have ascended to the perpetual motion machine of syndication, early-21st-century sitcoms that will never ever be shown again if there is a God, so-called women’s programming that seems to specialize in rape and child snatching as if nothing else could possibly be of interest to the fairer sex, proof of the origins of the universe and/or the existence of aliens in our midst (science fact/science fiction—equally implausible), biographies of increasingly obscure celebrities and reformed rock ‘n’ roll druggies, infomercials touting the yin-yang of gadgets for losing weight and other gadgets for making the food you shouldn’t eat taste better, screaming talk shows, news news news, sports sports sports, earnest pledge drives, stock market analyses, legal analyses, weddings, live births, continual retellings of Janet Reno’s or Bill Clinton’s latest exploits, and—BAM—unexpectedly, I’ll come upon Adrienne Rich, Fran Lebowitz, or Molly Ivins casting their pearls before swine (oink oink), or Coleman Barks speaking his version of the words of Rumi from 8 centuries ago, or Emmy Lou Harris singing “The Price You Pay,” something in her heartbreaking voice reminding me of my father and making me weep uncontrollably, or Drew Carey, dumb old comedian, on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, winning $500,000 for the libraries of his childhood, or stories of gay couples, struggling farmers, or black kids in the projects, and it’s all worth it, I get to laugh or cry or be mesmerized by the beauty of the human heart. This is true interactive television. Human contact is where you find it, and where I’m finding it in this moment is listening to the poet laureate of the U S of A read his tribute to the small screen (“Homey miracle, tub/Of acquiescence, vein of defiance”), from Sid Caesar to Oprah Winfrey, as he finds life and legitimacy in this most scorned form of American media, followed by a poem about Jesus that has me reeling, not the Bible story Jesus but a powerful evocation of this centuries-old mystery by a Jewish poet master, and I am stunned by the brilliance of human thought and language and the sheer ubiquity of divine love and fully glad to be alive.

swelled head

I saw a few of my friends from the painting group soon after the first issue of the mary’zine came out, and they told me how much they loved it and how much they looked forward to the next one. I was on cloud nine.

The next day I went out for groceries, and when I got home I noticed I had a little headache. The headache kept building, even after I took some aspirin. It felt sharper and more persistent than my usual sort of headache, and the worse it got, the more my mind went reeling in the direction of “brain aneurysm.” I even had some imagined genetic justification for this, because my uncle Ronnie died of one. I learned about his death in the usual way. I came home from school one day and immediately headed down the hall to my room. My father stopped me in my tracks with: “You know your uncle Ronnie?” I knew immediately he was dead. In my family, every death is announced with that ominous preface: “You know your aunt Edith? You know your friend Francis?” Anyway, he said Uncle Ronnie, who was barely 40 years old, went bowling one night, came home complaining of a headache, and was dead within hours.

Headache or no, I had work to do, so I sat down to edit a chapter called “Sizes of the Escherichia coli and Human Genomes.” With one part of my brain, I pondered the ponderous prose, and with another part, I planned my memorial service and all the wonderful things my friends would say about me. I thought how cruel it was that I would die so young (if 53 can still be considered young, and I think it can), with just one issue of the mary’zine off the presses—hardly a major mark to have left on the world.

I was thinking all this as matter-of-factly as if I were composing a grocery list—while continuing to make little superscript marks and deletions and coding the headings for the printer—spending possibly my last day on earth trying to decide such weighty matters as whether to use caps or lowercase for the index entries. And I wondered if maybe all those nice comments of my friends the night before had literally gone to my head, swelling it beyond endurance. Maybe I would be the first person to actually die of self-aggrandizement. I happened to be listening to bluegrass gospel music at the time (what—you thought I was an opera buff?), and Ralph Stanley was singing, “Jesus on the mainline, tell ‘im what you want to,” and I thought, “Jesus? Is that you? Are you a-comin’?”

I’m so curious about death—what it’s going to be like, how and when it will come. I’m fascinated by news stories of sudden death, especially when it could have been me… like the woman driving on 101 in Marin whose car was smashed by a truck that fell over the side of the overpass…. or the woman who was killed on the Golden Gate Bridge when a man having an epileptic seizure crossed the center line and hit her head on. I’m not so curious that I want to kill myself to find out—don’t get me wrong—but I’ll be very interested to see if I wake up from this life as from a dream. There’s so much we don’t know about consciousness (like—everything). The physical world is so incredibly detailed and complex that consciousness itself—the dreamer that created this world and creates our experience every moment—must be even more so.

A hundred years ago, Einstein proved that the world is not what it seems. The physics of Newton’s time—the falling apples, the balls rolling down boards, the feathers dropping from towers—was forever changed. Yet most of us still think of ourselves as separate entities moving around in the obvious three-dimensional world of our senses. Except for the crazy goings-on in outer space or down at the subatomic level, what we see seems to be what we get. You push me, I fall down go boom. But despite how solid our tables and chairs, our roads, the earth itself may seem, science tells us that the molecules that make up these things are only miniscule nonentities—now a wave, now a particle—spinning in vast regions of space relative to each other. There is literally no there there.

It’s as if we play-act our drama called Life on a remarkable stage set—so multidimensional, so convincing, so bloody real. But what if all this glorious detail exists only at a certain frequency—just as we tune in our radios and TVs to receive transmissions that exist only on that channel or at that position of the dial at that precise time of day? We have become inured to technology, we think nothing of watching events on TV that are taking place half a world away—we know that the New Year’s Eve celebration we’re seeing in London is not happening in our living rooms; and if we see a replay of the same event the next day, we know it is now “in the past.” And these tricks of space and time have been created by us barely evolved humans—imagine what consciousness itself is doing!

What if our senses are the filters that allow us to distinguish only the “things” of this frequency—just as we see a solid oak desk in front of us and not a bunch of swirling electrons? Death may be just the turning of the dial to one of an infinite number of other frequencies, other “realities,” other universes with their own laws, their own physics, their own variety of consciousness. And dreaming may be our practice for encountering these other realities.


OK, let’s come back to earth for a little bit. When my mother was dying, I stayed alone in her house for two weeks—she was in the hospital in a kind of waking coma; that is, she couldn’t communicate, and we couldn’t tell if she understood what we said to her. Also, she would cry at almost anything. I had lots of dreams during that time, some of them involving earthquakes and waterfalls—pretty obvious images for the emotional turmoil I was feeling. One night I dreamed I was in bed, in the room I was actually in, and I wondered about my father alone in my parents’ room—Who was taking care of him now that my mother was in the hospital? I went in there (still in the dream), and he was sitting up in bed, looking absolutely beautiful. He said, “I’m healing,” and my heart melted. When I saw my mother the next day (in waking life), I told her the dream. When she cried, I had no way of knowing if she understood, or if the tears were a result of the cancer touching into some emotional center in her brain.

My father had been dead for 20 years. Was the dream image really him, finally healing after a lifetime of strife and illness? Or was time healing my relationship with him? Or was it my mother, one parent removed, borrowing his image to convey the knowledge that she was “healing into death,” in Stephen Levine’s phrase?

The morning after my mother died, I woke up with a feeling of ecstasy. It’s hard to explain, and it didn’t last, but in the peaceful relief of her long-time passing, I experienced the warm, sunny June day as a world in which she was no longer trapped in suffering. I didn’t feel her absence; on the contrary, I felt her immense presence, all around me—and not her cantankerous lifetime presence but the life force that had propelled her, that was now liberated into wholeness.

I remembered this experience years later, when our friend Dot died. I wrote the following to the painting group:

One of the rafting people who spoke at the service said he stood on the cliff near where Dot had drowned and felt her spirit expanding so that she was as big as the cliff. The truth of that hit me hard. I had been thinking she had disappeared, but in fact she just got bigger, encompassing everything. What a wonderful way to see the death of an individual manifestation—that the specificity of the form expands to the universal—as if we are all God scrunched into our quirky, separate selves until the mold explodes and we become the One.

As I petted my mother’s cat Charlie, who rolled over, back and forth, in a pool of sunshine, I was pierced with the knowledge that, in some fundamental way, nothing had changed. There was no rent in the fabric of reality; the world was still seamless, nothing missing. Obviously, my mother’s death had a profound effect in my little world, but in life itself, there was no loss. No gain with birth, no loss with death. Not a closed system so much as an irreducible whole.

And I felt acutely that Charlie knew this truth. I know that most people would say that Charlie was merely a typical self-centered cat who didn’t even notice that his human companion of 10 years was gone. One female person with access to a can opener was as good as another. In the popular imagination, cats are euphemistically “independent” to the point of complete indifference. I say we don’t know a damn thing about cats, or any other animals—or much of anything else, for that matter.

In the first months after my mother died, I dreamed about her often. At first, she appeared very confused, as if she had completely lost her bearings. More than once, I had to break the news to her that she was dead. In one dream, I tried to tune in a car radio to reach her, and she asked for help but then we lost the connection. Another time, I had died and got lost in a large building with no windows and went up and down in elevators and through long hallways asking, “When do we get to die?” Obviously, I didn’t know anything about the world she was in, either—but I always felt, on awakening, that I was providing some kind of stability or guidance for her. In life, she had been very involved in church affairs but was not spiritually inclined. It was as if she saw the church as a form of community but had no patience for that “holy” stuff, the romanticism of the Roman Catholics. Maybe that’s the legacy of Martin Luther, a kind of anti-religiosity, all bare-bones practicality. Though she was a stalwart warrior in life, I can’t imagine anyone less prepared to wake up in the afterlife.

One night I had one of those dreams that feel completely real. In the dream, I got out of bed and went downstairs, where I heard some people talking. My mother was sitting on the couch. (I knew she was dead.) She looked very uncomfortable, as if the light hurt her eyes. She said she couldn’t do this for very long. Some other people were there, including Michele, who I thought of as my spiritual teacher at the time. Then my mother was sitting in shadow under the stairs, where she seemed less exposed, less frightened. I asked her if she had sent me a message the other night (in another dream). She asked, “What did it say?” In that dream she had “run away” and left me a message saying, “I’m sorry I’m gone—it’s a journey.” So I repeated the message to her in this dream, only I said the message was, “I’m sorry I’m gone—the journey is over.” When I told her that, her face lit up and she said, “Yes, I said that.” Suddenly—poof! she disappeared, and I started screaming—keening—with my whole being. Michele calmly offered me some comfort food from my childhood, canned Mary Kitchen’s Roast Beef Hash.

Over the months, I continued to dream about my mother, but less and less about her death; it was as if we were both making a transition, adapting to a new reality. One night I dreamed she was happily playing right field in a softball game (I would have thought she’d be out in left field—ooh, that’s mean) and singing a song called “It Was a Good Thing.” Later, I dreamed I was looking into a dark house through a screen door. She appeared as a little flash of light (like Tinkerbell) that moved rapidly toward me and through the door over my head. I said, “Mom?” and reached up, trying to go up with her, but I stumbled. She said my name, in the most loving voice I had ever heard, and was gone.

Finally, I dreamed that I was driving a car and saw her in my rear-view mirror, driving behind me. As I watched her in the mirror, she turned off, waving gaily at me. It felt like our journey now was truly over, that she—or whoever “she” was now—had moved on.

Maybe all those dreams were just reflections of my own grieving process. Maybe I wasn’t guiding her after all, maybe it was just about me traversing this new terrain of motherlessness. Maybe I was the one who had moved on. I just don’t know. Death is a mystery, and aren’t you glad you read all this way for that pearl of wisdom?


As my reverie passes, so too does my headache—no brain aneurysm for me today—and I go downstairs for lunch. I turn on the radio and there’s Bob Marley singing one of my favorite songs, “Could You Be Loved,” which we danced to on our painting groups’ “prom night” a few years ago. So I take five minutes out of my day (my memorial service already forgotten) to dance wildly in my living room, in the bright-eyed company of Pookie, spiritual descendant of Charlie… imagining myself giving a public reading of “the best of the mary’zine” and performing my own dance numbers for the parts of my story for which there are no words.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #7 September 2000

August 11, 2009

Roy Orbison’s songs defy all standard techniques and “rules” of songwriting. When asked how he composed a song, he replied, “I just start with something I like, and then I go wherever I want.”

It’s strange that with every issue of this ‘zine, I feel like I’m inching farther and farther out on a limb—c-r-e-a-k! Instead of getting easier, the process gets more daunting. The first issues seemed (in retrospect) so easy to write, because it didn’t seem to matter what I wrote about. I was going to be FREE! Now, I feel more and more exposed, like somebody’s going to notice that I think about myself all the time and that my most intimate relationships are with paid professionals. Of course that’s not true. No way. I spend most of my time thinking about world peace, and Pookie and I are very close.

Every issue so far has been at least loosely thematic—not because I chose a theme, but because there seems to be a drive (the opposite of entropy?) toward continually creating order—making connections, bringing things together. Revealing the perfect order beneath the disorder. I couldn’t say what my theology is, but that comes as close as anything. As I survey the possibilities for this issue, I see that it could be a Healing issue, an Anger issue, a Travel issue, or a Mom issue. Well, there’s already been a Mom issue, but every issue is a Mom issue, if you know what I mean. Dad issue is in the distant future, daring me to approach it.

Far from trying to force these threads together into a tight weave, it almost seems as if they need a bit of prying apart. I get paralyzed at times, because everything I start to write about wants to go in ten different directions at once. And yet all the directions are related, all the topics are related, everything that occurs to me is related so intricately (and often indescribably) that sometimes I think there must be a Knot at the center of everything. And that somehow the job of a writer is to keep picking at that knot, loosening it strand by strand. Who knows what’s left when the Knot is gone? Maybe Knothing.

With that cheery thought, I think I’ll just throw Healing, Anger, Travel, and Mom into the Writer’s Blender, turn it on puree, and see what happens.

First, I’d like to share part of a delightful response to the last issue that I got from Barbara (popularly known as B) while she was vacationing in Taos. (That’s where I got the Knot analogy.)

i just devoured the zine… which i thought I left on the airplane and had a big wondering about what life it would take on, passed into the hands of stewardesses or air servers or whatever politically correct terminology they use these days… and maybe the pilots would be reading the zine, instead of paying attention to the clouds and planets passing by… and then, after the next major crash, when they found the black box at the bottom of the ocean, it would be determined that the pilots were all discussing green tea and parallel universes… and of course this info would be kept TOP SECRET… and only I, if I never got to share my spontaneous thoughts with you… would know how it all came to be… m… this was the best zine ever. it took me awhile to enter into it… probably because I didn’t want to read about addictions and deprivations, while eating my own little chocolate universes, but today… in the midst of all the vastness of taos, or maybe it’s the nothingness of it all… no distractions… no dramas, no millions of other lives to dive into, no studio plants to water (having just watered Jani’s plants – I think she is humoring my need to be useful and helpful – and then, there’s always caleb who has an endless ball to throw and chase… so, after all that liveliness… and the sun is already melting all my desires… or maybe it’s the chocolate within me… I picked up the zine… and forced myself to read it… and after the first word I was off and running…and wow… wowwww… wwwwwwwow..ow..oh.. from coffee, to tea, to parallel universes to worm hearts…wow… all in one… with an endless array of Shakespearean might have beens or not have beens… and what have yous and what have you knots.. oh m… what wonderful inspiring writing… wait… I’ll go get some more chocolates from the jar that I filled to make it look like I didn’t already eat half of their chocolates yesterday upon arrival. and to realize it’s all so not the issue, like really, like wow… forget the food… it’s the Knot not b that I’m running from…

I feel like I’m getting a little ‘zine in return when I get a response like that. Let a thousand ‘zines bloom!

I’m feeling slightly better than I did the last time I wrote—in fact, the caffeine dilemma has been reversed to the point where I had to trade in the green tea with its pinch of caffeine for a blend called Easy Now that is supposed to “ease tension and stress.” (I also drink the cleverly named Eater’s Digest to “promote healthy digestion.” I’m a sucker for unsubstantiated claims sold in neat, trademarked packages.) I’ve experienced a tremendous resurgence in energy since I started seeing Hillary, a jin shin jyutsu practitioner in Fairfax. (Thanks to Anna D. for the referral!) So far, my stomach still feels like I’ve swallowed a medicine ball with every meal, but I’ve only had a few sessions. It’s amazing how quickly we forget, though. I e-mailed Diane that I wasn’t sure if I should continue the jin shin because it wasn’t doing anything for my stomach, and she wrote back, “I can’t *BELIEVE* you’re off caffeine due to this. Did I read that right?? Is that accurate? And I can’t BELIEVE you would consider STOPPING the doing of it???? Hellloooooooo? This is helllllllppppping!” And I thought, Oh. Yeah. That. Well, maybe it is helping.

I’ve been through a lot since February (my stomach problems started when I was writing the first issue of the ‘zine—coincidence?). I was really hoping that the Western medicine plan of attack—when in doubt, remove an organ—would do the trick, but now I’m deep in the land of mysterious “alternative” practices. Instead of learning the arcane language of gastric acid reflux and H. pylori, I’m learning the arcane language of energy flow and tension release. Instead of reading pamphlets called “You and Your Gallbladder,” I’m trying to follow the instructions in “Know Myself It Is,” a title I have yet to decipher.

Sometimes I feel like a Jaguar (the car, not the animal)—finely tuned but has to spend a lot of time in the shop. I have a team of specialists working on my mind, my body, and the connection between the two at regular intervals. I could host a conference on The State of Mary’s Mental, Physical, and Spiritual Health. All my helper-healers, past and present, could get together and swap insights and funny stories. Jeremy (dream shaman) could speak eloquently about the amazing dreams I’ve had and the time he uttered the fateful words “wire sculpture” that sent me into a thrilling phase of wire and metal construction. Linda (cranial-sacral bodyworker/chiropractor) could reminisce about our months of work after my mother died, when I had disabling back pain. (I would ask her to read the poem I wrote in her honor: “There once was a healer so blest / She saw that the body knows best / I live in my mind / She said that was fine / But now and then visit the rest.”) Barbara (painter/teacher/center-holder-together) could describe some of the high and low points of my painting process, complete with slide show. Hillary, the newest addition to the team, would be mainly there to learn from the others but would also have some useful things to say about my energy flow.

It goes without saying that J would be the moderator and keynote speaker. She would hold the conference participants spellbound by her presentation of the enormous somatic and life changes that I’ve undergone in my years of therapy.

I, of course, would sit in a special chair on stage—maybe wear a small tiara—and lap up all the attention. It would be like a Friars Club roast, except nobody would make jokes at my expense.

When I saw J after I started feeling all perky from the jin shin, I happened to mention that when Hillary touched me in a certain place close to my epicenter, I became very uncomfortable and kind of held my breath until she moved on. J thought that was “interesting,” so she asked me how I was feeling right then. I said, “Full of energy—like I’m vibrating.” She said, “Do you feel it in your pelvis?” And I said, “What’s that?” Ha ha. I am such an amusing client at times. That little exchange sent us off on an old line of inquiry that I’ve been avoiding for years.

(Dear reader, I didn’t mean to write about my pelvis. I will try to keep it from intruding any further.)

The mind-body continuum is so complex. Every “physical” ailment turns out to be related to the mind. I enjoy mind travel, don’t get me wrong, but when my stomach hurts, I just want to be put up on the rack and have my oil changed and my front end realigned. I do get to lie back for the jin shin treatments, but there’s also “homework”—stuff like holding my right cheek bone with my left fingers and my left inner thigh with my right fingers, then waiting—voila!—to feel the pulses “harmonize.” I have a hard time believing in this stuff. I have no trouble believing in parallel universes, but ask me to feel a pulse in my own body? What’re you, crazy?

Also, I’m discovering that trying to change one little thing in this system is like buying a couple of throw rugs to add some color to a room and you end up tearing out the underflooring and moving walls. Probably giving up coffee was the least of it. But I resist turning into the kind of person who consults medical intuits and engages in monthly wheat juice fasts. I’m too invested in mind-body satisfactions like Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.

(Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up food again, either, having dwelled at length on that topic in the last issue. Maybe I could have different editions of the ‘zine, and people could subscribe to the ones that interested them. “Give me everything you’ve got on food and cats, but keep your pelvis to yourself—please.”)

Have I ever mentioned that J is a somatic therapist? Instead of sitting back and pondering the mythic meanings of my life, I’m constantly having to locate feelings in my body, intensify them in steps, bring them down, and report on what happens—do I get flooded, do I get more grounded, etc. I sit there, my brain in high gear, trying to come up with the right answer, feeling like I’m failing a body IQ test. As in painting, my biggest fear is that I’ll feel nothing, or at least not the right thing. But doing the work always makes me feel better, because it gets me out of my head. Sometimes I think my life’s work is discovering I have a body. By the time I “get it,” it’ll probably be time to turn it back in.

Before I started seeing J, I had been avoiding therapy for years, because I assumed that I’d never find anyone who was as smart as me. (It’s a burden, I tell you.) I knew someone who had tried 17 therapists and never did find one she couldn’t manipulate or who had anything to offer besides “get a hobby, go for a walk” (at least according to her). I found J through two short degrees of separation—from M. Cassou (oops, forgot to invite her to the conference) to Linda, from Linda to J.

That’s not to say I’m always an enthusiastic participant in the work. I still roll my eyes whenever she asks, “Where do you feel that?” In all the spiritual books I’ve read, the message is, “You are not the body,” but I think, paradoxically, that you aren’t, but you are. There does come a time for an amicable divorce between spirit and form, but while we’re (in) the form, then Bodies ‘R’ Us, pretty much.

To possibly change the subject—but then there’s only one subject, guess who—I’m about to get on one of them there flying machines and go out to visit Terry and Jean in western Massachusetts for a few days. I’m a little nervous about getting on an airplane again—it’s been at least 7 years. And United has had a horrible record at SFO this year. You may legitimately ask why I chose United, in that case. I don’t know. Why do moths fly irresistibly toward the flame? Why did Icarus fly too close to the sun? Wait, I don’t like where those metaphors are going.

“Don’t you ever want to go someplace new?” For a moment, I felt like a creature of dull habit and unimaginative routine.
—Ellen Goodman

I’m not a traveler, never have been. It doesn’t help that I get sick on any and every mode of transportation, but that’s not all there is to it. I think I lose my center when I leave my familiar surroundings. And maybe that’s the whole point of travel, but if it is, no thanks. I do better with a center.

Ironically, my father’s family—he was the oldest of 13 kids—were itinerants. There’s one surviving story about my grandfather’s childhood. After the family left Ireland and came to the U.S., my 10-year-old grandfather-to-be, Henry, and his brother decided to hop on a boxcar and run away together. But somehow they got on different trains going in opposite directions. They eventually found each other—after 50 years!

The McKenneys were always restless, wanting to be on the move. The few times my grandmother visited us during my father’s 15-year illness, my grandfather would wait out in the car. When they wanted to get away, they would dump the youngest kids on one of the older, married ones. My aunt Judy, who’s only a couple years older than me, once lived with us for six months. Grandma and Grandpa had been known to start out for a Sunday drive in our small town in upper Michigan and end up in Texas.

Clearly, I take after my mother’s side of the family—sturdy Scandinavian peasants who farmed the land and cultivated rock gardens instead of gallivanting all over creation.

I am not unfamiliar with travel….
—Ellen Goodman

My mother herself, however, was a gallivanter, even though she lived most of her life down the road from the farm where she was born. Until my father died and she had the freedom to go off on her own, her only form of travel was car trips with the family—including a camping trip when I was 14 that lasted all summer and cut a swatch from the U.P. all the way out to the redwoods of Eureka, Calif…. then to Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair… me with acrophobia at the top of the Space Needle… Seattle not cool yet, except literally… to Yellowstone, where my mother, taking pictures, got between a mother bear and her cubs and shrieked as she made a dash back to the car, throwing wedding cookies toward the bear to divert her from her charge. Me a virtual prisoner in the back seat, car sick and couldn’t care less about the scenery as my mother careened down winding mountain roads. “Wheeee—look out the window, girls, you’re missing everything!” My sisters were young enough to avoid most of the work, so I was Mom’s only help in getting my disabled father in and out of the car, setting up and taking down camp, preparing meals and cleaning up. Sort of like all housework all the time, with no room of my own to retreat to. All five of us sleeping in a leaky tent or in the Vauxhall (small British station wagon) with the smell of coffee grounds and orange peels. Between chores, I couldn’t sit and read, I had to “make friends” with the next-door campers if the kids were even remotely in my age group. That summer I was reading Exodus by Leon Uris. Wishful thinking, no doubt…. Let my people go! No, on second thought, just let me go!

One night in a national forest in Utah, a single male camper in a trailer next to our campsite came over after summer to introduce himself. He looked like your prototypical quiet loner/mass murderer type, except we didn’t know about those guys in 1962; this was before Lee Harvey Oswald. His name was Elver—should have been a dead giveaway right there. After a bit of chat, Elver asked if he could take me for a walk to “show me something.” It was pitch dark, we did not know this man, and my mother said, “Sure!” (She later claimed it was my father who gave Elver permission to take his firstborn into the woods—like a child bride handed off to a stranger by her hillbilly pa.) I was scared to death but afraid to refuse. Elver and I walked through the woods in the dark for an interminable length of time, not speaking, and we finally went up a rise and stood at the edge of a meadow that was quite unexpected in the midst of this huge, dense forest. Damned if old Elver didn’t have a legitimate purpose to this walk after all. He never touched me. I breathed a sigh of relief and made it back to camp in one piece, no thanks to ma and pa.

We were planning to stay at this campground for a few nights, but the next day, Elver did a bit of inappropriate touching of my sisters, who were seven and nine. So I had squeaked by—too old for him—and my sisters took the hit. The next morning, we hid behind the curtains in the Vauxhall, peeking out at Elver as he walked around, wondering where we were. As soon as he went back in his trailer, my mother quickly started the car and drove off, giggling like it was high adventure. Like she was a mother bear with no sense of danger, too full of wedding cookies, perhaps, to sense the harm that had already befallen her young.

She was a lot fiercer when I was the only child. Maybe after 4 kids, one dead—so the unthinkable had already happened—you don’t worry about every little thing. Before my father got sick, he tended to go off on 3-day drinking binges with his army buddies. One night, he brought one of them home, and the guy came into my room where I was sleeping. According to my mother, he was trying to shake me awake, asking me if I wanted a drink. (Am I crazy to find this funny?) My mother came charging in and grabbed him and pulled him out of my room. Since I don’t remember this incident, I wonder what really happened—from his point of view, and from mine. And what did I infer from that raging rescue? If you’re being saved from wolves, that’s one thing, but if the mother bear treats an innocent tourist like the enemy, won’t the baby cub grow up to fear and hate tourists too?

Let’s see, how are we doing thematically? You got your Healing (or at least steps in that direction), your Travel, your memories of Mom… and by golly if you don’t have a little Anger seeping through, like arsenic in the water supply. Imagine that. It has not escaped my notice that I have skewered my mother for two diametrically opposed actions: (1) for letting a stranger take me off into the woods as if the world were a Lutheran summer camp and no harm would come to me—and of course, for taking my sisters’ actual violation in stride, and (2) for furiously saving me from a probably innocent, confused man and possibly setting in motion a lifetime of fear on my part. Is it that she just can’t win in my eyes? Do I keep chewing on that dry crust of grievance so I can remain the passively aggressive victim? Is there a statute of limitations on anger? on blame? Does “angry” always have to be followed by “at”?

I remember being an angry kid—even before my brother was born, before he died, before my father got sick and became a different person. I don’t remember the anger at being displaced by a beloved boy child or at seeing the tiny coffin holding his body being lowered into the ground. I vividly recall, at the funeral, thinking that everyone in the church was laughing at me because I was crying. I was 6 years old. How early our emotional make-up is created, how early our real feelings are displaced for the defenses that never seem to defend against much but give us something to cling to when there is nothing else.

On my desk is a picture of me and my father taken in 1949—pre-brother, pre-illness, pre-death. We’re standing side by side on a sidewalk, and the trees in the background are bare of leaves. He’s dressed for work at Prescott’s Foundry—old pants, workshirt, jacket, cap—with a cigarette in one hand, his thumb hooked in his pants pocket, and a black domed lunch pail dangling from the other. I—Mary Lou, barely 3 years old—stand next to him, looking all pouty in overalls, a striped polo shirt, one of his caps draped rakishly on my head, and my own child-sized lunch pail, like his but with a yellow top. I have a crystal-clear sense memory of my love for that lunch pail, while the memory of my love for this man is deeply buried, hardly accessible even now. (I do know that he’s still alive to me. Maybe that’s the definition of haunting, of being haunted.) In the picture of the two of us in our “going to work” outfits, my father is a good-looking man, a George Clooney type, if George were a working-class man from the U.P. My mother appears only as a shadow, because she is taking the picture, standing with the sun behind her, looking down at the ‘40s box-style camera she holds in front of her. Her shadow almost obliterates the lower half of my body. The symbolism of this part of the picture alone is worth 1,000 words.

When I was 8 years old, my father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which is an immune system disease. The cause of MS is unknown, but if I had only my father’s hard life to go on, I’d guess that it’s a disease of anger turned inward. I thought of this recently when I had a dream in which my mysterious stomach problem was diagnosed as “AIDS-related complex.” Throughout the dream, I was trying to keep people from finding out about it. In one part of the dream, I bought a house from an angry woman—which is interesting, considering the house can be a dream symbol for the body. Anyway, it was an unusual dream in that I woke up from it at 2:30 a.m., went back to sleep, and reentered the dream 4 hours later. It picked up right where it left off—with me trying to keep people from learning my secret. It was dream overkill, and it makes me think that I was not only keeping the secret from everyone else, I was keeping it from myself—the secret of my anger, my ailment, my whatever-related complex.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, one of my biggest secrets was that I was being molested by my older cousin. But you don’t want to hear about my pelvis, remember? So I’ll leave it at that. When J told me, “Somebody probably got to him, too,” I asked, “But don’t all boys do that?” Shocked, she said, “No!” It was the first time I had ever asked, and her answer surprised me.

I persist in thinking there must have been an earlier, pivotal event that turned me into such an easy target for my cousin, that started the anger seed growing in the first place. I want to identify the original evil deed, chase down the One who started it all, the uncle or family friend who first betrayed my trust. I want to know how I had learned to keep a secret so well.

But that’s a head game, trying to analyze the past, look for motive and opportunity. Colonel Mustard with the Penis in the Drawing Room. All I know is, the anger is a part of me now—growing in my stomach like a nonindigenous weed, displaced into a symptom I feel as anger only when it’s safe. Like when I’m watching a woman in the supermarket dig through the snap peas looking for those perfect few that are good enough for her—or who shucks half the corn in the bin, tossing each ravaged cob aside because the kernels don’t meet her high standards. And I guess that’s how it works—fume at the merely annoying rather than face up to what’s really going on. No wonder so many of us suffer from Road, Air, and Vegetable Rage.

I remember, a long time ago, painting when I was very angry at someone. I painted all the requisite red and black angry slashes, I painted myself killing her, I painted her eating me with a knife and fork. I was shaking with rage, with all the pain she had caused me and how futile it all was, because she would never be what I wanted her to be. Painting is, sometimes, like walking through the valley of the shadow of death. You are never more alone, and never more in God’s grace. I made a great discovery that day—that if you go deep enough inside yourself—which is not the same as withdrawing, it’s more like settling down into your core, your true self—those feelings that seemed so all-consuming a moment ago just disappear into thin air. They’re still up there on the surface, harmlessly making waves and getting sunburned. But down in the depths (swimming in Lake You, as Richard Simmons would say), it’s as if you’re breathing pure liquid oxygen, like the fishes. It’s a benediction.

Anger wants things to be different. It fights reality at every turn, not even admitting to itself what it’s angry about. No wonder the body gets confused—it’s asked to gather its armed forces against a stranger driving a car or taking too long in the checkout line. When the immune system gets confused about who the enemy really is, then all hell breaks loose. So, metaphorically, maybe I do have an “immune” disease of sorts. I want to identify the intruder, the long-ago source of my anger. But I am the source, I am the battleground, I am both warring armies no longer sure of what they’re fighting for. Oh God, don’t get me going on a Civil War analogy.

There are two ways to live—wide or deep….
—Ellen Goodman

I flatter myself that I don’t travel in the world because I’m more interested in traveling inwardly. (I know people who do both, but I have no explanation for them.) For all I know, I may not be going that far inwardly, either—I could be treading the same worn piece of carpet, back and forth, shuffling like an old woman from her recliner to the stove for her tea and back again. (Ha! I use tea in a metaphor! I am slowly reprogramming my caffeine-besotted brain!) It’s true that I’m more of an archeologist than an astronomer—but looking is looking. I am, like the Buddha, an Enneagram Five—The Observer. We Observers tend to sit in our little home offices with only our own beating hearts to tell us what’s true. Of course, the Buddha was an Evolved Five, whereas I’m just an old, schlumpy Pissed-Off Five with many hidden compartments—more of a 4.9, really.

You may not know where you are but you’ll never forget how you got there.
—Anonymous radio spot

Maybe the only real lesson is learning to live with yourself, stopping the civil and uncivil wars. Making peace with all your quirks and blind spots, your secrets that may never be told. Your aged anger, like a pricey side of beef or an ancient cheese. Your lack of an intercom system between head and lower regions. Your stubborn refusal to change, and your desperate desire to be different. Krishnamurti said there is no improving the self. I think that’s true. But I do think we’re all on a journey, whether it involves jumping out of airplanes over Mongolia or taking a stroll around the park, deep in thought.

In the third part of my AIDS-related complex dream, I met a young boy who was traveling on his own and who wanted to know how to tell what direction he was going in. I showed him the sun in the sky and asked him which way it travels. He said, “North and south.” Then I asked him which way the moon travels. He said, “East and west.” I knew he could now find his way. I felt so much love for this boy.

My rational mind, of course, wants to make sense of this navigational “error.” Obviously, the sun doesn’t go north and south. But Jeremy suggested that the dream compass points to my uniqueness, to my own sense of direction. And in fact, in this part of the dream, the earlier anger is gone. So maybe the knowledge I’m imparting to the boy has to do with learning to travel on my own terms, remaining true to myself. Not by excluding my fellow travelers but by knowing I carry my center with me. Knowing there’s no real difference between outer and inner, that I can travel inwardly while outward bound, in a body, with other bodies, following my own trajectory even as I share the journey with everyone I meet.

So if the good Lord’s willin’ and the plane don’t fall, I’ll see you back here next time, maybe with lots of fascinating stories about our nation’s airports. And food—that ubiquitous preoccupation—may also make a comeback in these pages. During my last jin shin session, Hillary recommended a book that tells you how to eat according to your blood type. So I bought it, and now I am truly in despair. Basically, everything I eat, all day long, is on the “avoid” list. I managed to follow the diet, pretty much, for one day, and I was quite proud of myself until I realized that I’d have to do it again the next day, and the next. I ate so many vegetables, I dreamed about them that night. It was a scene of pure Vegetable Rage. A woman in front of me in the checkout line was piling vegetables on the counter, and I started putting my vegetables there too. But some of my vegetables got ahead of hers, and she got mad and started yelling at me in a foreign language. So I started piling her vegetables back in her cart, which really set her off. I ended up grabbing her wrist and pressing a certain spot that immobilized her so she couldn’t get at my vegetables. So this dream is like a playlet featuring my rage, my paralysis, my jin shin energy points… my fear of vegetarianism? Another knot to unravel.

The truly bizarre thing about the blood type diet is that coffee, of all things, is considered “highly beneficial” for me. That’s the last straw, now I know the world has gone mad. I will be choking down my tofu and my lentils—and giving up all things eggy or cheesy or meaty or tomatoey (no more BLTs, just Ls)—but I’ll have my old friend back, caffeine pouring through my veins again, making me brilliant in my own eyes. I can’t wait.

mary’zine random redux #3 April 2000

April 9, 2009

So—you there, dear reader—I’m trying to decide how to start this, and all I can think of is the mayor of my hometown, who used to go on the radio every week to pontificate to the multitudes [or perhaps “minitudes” in this case]. His opening line was always the same: “Helloooo Menominee! Dis is yer mayor John Reindl spickin’….” For years afterward, whenever my friend Jerry called me, his first words were “Helloooo Menominee!” and I would crack up. We were such smart asses.

It seems appropriate that these memories of the U.P. (Upper Peninsula of Michigan) are surfacing. When you write about the past, all sorts of strange bits cling to the story you went back in time to retrieve. Or is it about time at all? I think of “time” as being out there, separate from me. But in some ways this feels more like going into the body, down deep to the cellular level, perhaps the molecular level. (Time travel through the body? Come to think of it, the body is a kind of time machine, retaining memories like geological layers.) As I write this, the feelings that come with the memories all seem to be centered in the chest. Interesting that I’ve been having persistent gas pains in my chest in the weeks I’ve been writing this issue—like bubbles arising from a disturbed sunken treasure at the bottom of the ocean. I don’t want to get too corny (oops, too late!), but the turgidness and pressure I’ve been feeling around my heart seem appropriate to the task of going back… back… back to the past… Helloooo Menominee!

the autobiography of my mother

This story starts wherever I say it starts, so I say it starts here, after an amazing therapy session with J. I went to her today, my belly knotted with anxiety about my writing voice. Why can’t I write about my childhood with the same detachment and lightness I bring to more contemporary stories? Am I doomed to write about my cat forever? I don’t want to write self-pitying narratives about all the awful things my mother did to me, yet I seem to be stuck back there—the aggrieved 8-, 10-, 12-, 19-, 36-, 53-year-old clinging to long-ago injustices, holding tightly to my pain. I loved my mother, but she was a very powerful person, probably narcissistic. They say you can drive rats crazy by rewarding them inconsistently. That’s my mother all over, the erratic dispenser of love pellets. And that’s me—the crazy rat. Your authoress. Let the tale begin.

Actually, let the tale take its sweet time. First, let’s establish mood, character, get a bite to eat.

Funny how I can never predict how I’ll feel after therapy: depressed, weepy, excited. Today I felt drained but exultant. I felt like celebrating—and like writing. I used to write extensively about what happened in every session—what she said, what I said. It was an attempt to prolong the intimacy of that contact. I don’t do that anymore, which I take as a sign of progress. Now I extend that intimacy out to all of you. Next thing you know, I’ll be having reLAtionships.

So after the session, I drove to Chevy’s and sat there in a daze through two margaritas, writing in my head, wishing for some paper to capture each dazzling phrase: “What a tangled can of worms we weave….” Just as well I didn’t have any paper. After lunch I went over to Molly Stone’s and walked around staring at all the goodies I don’t usually allow myself. Sometimes looking at them is enough, and I can get out of the store unsugared and unfatted. This time I succumbed (as I knew I would) to a giant pecan-caramel cluster that had my name on it. Like my mother before me, I am perpetually engaged in the ancient female art of indulging first and berating myself later. In fact, I remember now that my mother liked those pecan clusters too. The last time I was back home for a visit, when we were settling in to watch a video we had rented, she plopped down in her recliner with her huge carmelly treat and never thought to offer me a bite. I could judge her for that, or I could admit that I have no intention of sharing mine, either.

I could probably write a book about me and my mother and food—with a long chapter on sweets. We both liked Callard & Bowser butterscotch candies. One time, on the day of my departure after a visit home, I hid a roll of the candies, wrapped in an “I love you” note, under the TV listings where I knew she’d find them later. In her first letter to me after I got back to S.F., she wrote how thrilled and touched she was to find them. This form of communication was typical of us. It had the element of surprise, the element of sugar as a love offering, and, most important, the element of being in the same house when the feelings arose but on different sides of the continent when they were expressed.

But to get back to my story. By now I’m home (after therapy, after Chevy’s, after Molly Stone’s, after my pecan-caramel-inspired Xanadu of reminiscence). I’ve popped a couple of aspirin for my margarita headache, and I’ve decided I’m too distracted to work. Why not wait until tomorrow to follow up on my Italian author’s question about eosinophilia? (This is the beauty of self-employment.)

Oh, and I’ve listened to part of an old tape I made years ago, when I used to save important messages from my answering machine (why don’t we call telephones “calling machines”?). The message in question was probably the only one I ever got from my mother, who was calling to thank me for the trip to Denmark I had given her. On the tape she rattles on happily, wondering every so often whether her words are being recorded—I don’t think she even knew to wait for the beep, because the message starts in mid-sentence. The tape ends with, “Thank you and I love you”—pause while she chokes up—“good-byeee,” in this high, flutey voice. I burst out crying, as I knew I would. (She’s been dead almost 9 years, I should tell you.)

That’s why I can start this story anywhere, because I’m discovering that our stories don’t necessarily belong to the past, they just keep looping around. If there’s no time except for the body, then all our experience is available all the time. My mother’s voice on the tape was speaking to me now, in the present. Was there any real difference (besides 13 years gone by) between hearing it today and hearing it back then? Was her voice any more alive during this first hearing, and is it any less alive now? I thought about the time some of the painters listened to our friend Dot’s message on Alice’s machine, which she had left a few days before she died in a river rafting accident. Barbara said quietly to Alice, “Listening to it won’t bring her back,” and Alice erased the tape. But today I felt like I was doing precisely that, bringing my mother back, or rather, amplifying her voice which already lives within me. Not bringing her back, just bringing her.

The theme of this meandering monologue—you knew I’d get back to it eventually—is voice. I’ve been obsessed lately with the idea that my mother stole my voice at a young age, that she silenced me and forced me emotionally underground. (One of the little-known facts about the U.P. is that it’s home to the largest known organism in the world, a giant fungus that extends for 37 acres underground. When I read about that impressive mass some years ago, it seemed like the perfect metaphor for my life—as if I had contributed to its growth somehow, perhaps by burying a piece of myself, like the eye of a potato, in a hole in the back yard.)

(If I were painting right now, I’d paint my back yard with dozens of eyes underground, growing roots, connecting up with other eyes. Eventually, they’d spread to take over the house, too, and the sky, and fill up the tree trunks, and hang from the ends of branches, until eyes would seem to be the very molecules of my world.)

Lots of stories have come to me since I identified this theme of my stolen/suppressed voice—all the times my mother wrote essays and school assignments for me, how she entered a radio contest pretending to be me writing an essay about her, how she reacted ferociously to a particular example of my own writing, and on and on. With these stories, I had quite a stockpile of ammunition, and I prepared to enter battle. When I fired one volley after another—by writing each story down, bare bones, my voice redeemed and reclaimed—I pictured myself sending cannonballs across a smoky battlefield to where my mother sat unarmed, silenced in death, unable to fire anything back at me. Finally, I get the last word!

Part of my revenge is the title to this piece, “the autobiography of my mother,” as if I’m firing the cannon right at the heart of the matter, paying her back for the time she wrote my autobiography for school when I was in the fifth grade. The first line was, “I was almost born a witch baby,” because I was born the day before Halloween. I regret that I have not come up with an equally pithy line with which to begin her autobiography. In fact, I haven’t really said much about her life so far, and maybe that’s my revenge too, this insistence on inserting myself into her story, even starring in it, you might say.

But what I learned in therapy today was that my voice—written or not—is not an isolated treasure to be guarded and watched over, for fear it will be stolen. For one thing, my voice isn’t just my own. My mother’s voice is now part of me—whether on tapes or in letters or in my heart. Her voice is inside me, as my voice was inside her—was born inside her and grew in response to her. Where did I ever get the idea that a voice is something separate, something that must never be influenced by another or shared with another? (Every time I type “another,” I hear “a mother.”) This feels big, like there should be a Greek myth about it. Something to do with thunder, maybe, but the female kind. Sorry, I’m not up on my Greek myths.

Here are a couple of brief, telling anecdotes about my mother.

Once, when a police car came up behind her car, lights flashing, she kept driving the two blocks or so to her friend Janet’s house. When she pulled into the driveway and rolled down her window, the furious cop wanted to know why she hadn’t stopped. “Well, I was practically here!,” she indignantly replied.

Another time, when driving me and Jerry down to college in lower Michigan, she missed an exit. We were on a divided highway, but she didn’t let that stop her. Without missing a beat, she made a U turn and started driving the wrong way back up the road. She drove a quarter of a mile in the right lane—which was the fast lane for cars going in the right direction—around a curve blinded by trees, so that it was impossible to see if any cars were coming at us head on—and when I mildly protested (mild protestation being my way of expressing stark terror around her) that we were going the wrong way, she said, testily, “Well, I have to go back!” My mother—driving to the beat of a different drummer.

Today I told J I had been trying to write about some of these old stories, but they sounded wooden, stilted. Yes, like I was trying to stand above the past on stilts, trying to keep my voice out of the clutches of the actual participants, one in particular. But I had surprised myself by accidentally slipping a bit of my mother’s point of view into one story. I had written, “Over the years, my mother routinely wrote the beginnings of essays for me—to win scholarships, to enter contests—always leaving the pages on my dresser. My heart would sink as I saw them sitting there, all hopeful and fresh with her own unused voice.”

I had startled myself with those words, “hopeful and fresh with her own unused voice.” It unnerved me, in fact. Whose story was this? Mom, get out of my story! I know how it goes, I know how I felt when I saw those pages, as if you had so little confidence in my ability that you felt you had to do it for me. How dare you try to suggest you had a motive that had nothing to do with demeaning me?

As I was launching into yet another Mom-stole-my-voice story that J had heard many times before (me still marshalling and lobbing my cannonballs of righteousness at the surrogate mother sitting across from me, her legs curled up in her chair, willing to listen, someone who enjoys my voice, Mom!), J asked me to tell the story in her—my mother’s—voice. Well, that stopped me dead in my tracks. Tell it in her voice? But it’s my story. In fact, it’s the quintessential story, the heart of my childhood, the brink of my adolescence. (The fifth grade autobiography was nothing compared to this.) It’s the story of when my mother entered a local radio contest in my name, writing an essay on “Why My Mother Deserves To Be Queen for a Day.” I really, really didn’t want to tell this story from her point of view. What would happen to me then? I would be swallowed, finally—obliterated by her powerful voice once and for all.

But I dutifully switched to my mother’s point of view and started the story again. “I heard about a contest on the radio. It was a contest for children, but I’m a pretty good writer and I had a good story to tell. I just knew I could win it!” As I continued to tell the story, I could feel her excitement—J said my body seemed to wake up. I felt the vast difference between her motives and the ones I had assigned to her long ago. Not only could I see that she had her own voice, her own story, but I could acknowledge the fact without crumpling under its weight. In fact, I felt lighter, as if I were no longer clinging to the injustice of it all, insisting on staying 12 years old.

I interrupt this story—hers and mine—to bring you up to date on what is happening as I write this. More proof of the never-dead past. A letter from my sister Barb comes in the mail. She writes that she ran into my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Mayer (the one who thought I wrote clever lines like, “I was almost born a witch baby”), and he told her I had written him a nice letter. She had just heard from our other sister K the day before that my best friend from the fifth grade had heard about the letter too. So the letter to my teacher is hot news in my old hometown, the word is spreading like wildfire. That’ll teach me to underestimate the power of my voice. It was just a “here’s what I’ve been doing since fifth grade and you were always one of my favorite teachers” kind of letter, prompted by my having received an invitation to a grade school reunion.

I’m happy that I got to reach back into the past and stir that old cauldron again. See? It’s as if everything is happening at the same time—or is all infinitely able to be affected somehow. Maybe in a parallel universe—or somewhere hidden within this one—my mother herself is sitting at a computer… no, too unlikely… at a kitchen table at 3 a.m. writing a long letter to her “dead” (because who knows if the dead are dead to themselves or if we are dead to them) daughter like she used to. I tell you, this Time thing is getting stranger and stranger, the more I think about it. For one thing, I’ve discovered I have absolutely no control over the constant changes in tense as I’m writing this. Sometimes today is in the past and 40 years ago is now. I struggle to give in and let it go where it wants to go.

My sister also writes that the town fathers came to the little park across from her house and shot (with silencers) 77 deer that my sister and her husband had been feeding. I am sick, thinking about this. I wish she hadn’t told me. Let me dwell in the house of fifth grade synchronicities forever.

People in my family have a tendency to take a very long time to tell a story, have you noticed? They usually do this by starting at the beginning, and the beginning is always way back there. After my mother died and people would ask us what she died of, my sister would always start, “Well, five years ago, she went to the doctor…” and after a few retellings of my mother’s entire medical history, I took to groaning and leaving the room when I would hear those magic opening words.

Perhaps my one variation on this tendency is that I’m jumping all over in time. I don’t know if that’s an improvement or not. Do you want me to start back when my mother’s parents immigrated here from Denmark? I didn’t think so.

I have stories to tell about how my mother appeared to me in dreams—including one amazing lucid dream—after she died, but I have barely said anything about her life yet. Let’s face it, this isn’t going to be much of an autobiography of my mother, but then her autobiography of me wasn’t any great shakes either. (Take that, Mom.)

I just realized I haven’t actually told the radio story yet. Approaching the telling of it, I don’t know if I can do it. I feel like I’m perched gingerly on the end of the high diving board, looking down at the impossibly far away goal, the water that will slap and swallow me, take my breath away. Up here on the board, all time stops, as time seems to do when you least want it to, and I marshal my courage. Jump!

So the local radio station, WAGN, is sponsoring an essay contest for kids, and the topic is “Why My Mother Deserves To Be Queen for a Day.” The term “queen for a day,” of course, is taken from the popular TV show, on which working class housewives compete to outsob each other for prizes and a phony cape and crown that they probably don’t get to keep. The stories are uniformly heartbreaking. Contestants learned early on that the winner is always the most selfless one. “I don’t want anything for myself, but my crippled child would love a new bike.”

I see the radio contest as a great opportunity. I love my mother desperately, and I want so much to win—not only to get her all the prizes, but so she’ll be proud of me, amazed at the power of my love for her. On birthdays and Christmas, I never have much to give her, because I don’t have an income. Our family barely has an income. So this would be a way to give her something really big that I could never afford. There’s something O’Henryish about this story, but I won’t push it.

And my mother totally deserves to be queen for a day. She works fulltime in the service department at Montgomery Wards to support three children and a husband with multiple sclerosis. My father and I run the concession stand at Henes Park that summer—when he can still get around with a cane—where we manage to eke out a few dollars selling Hershey bars and soda pop to rude boys in bathing suits in the dank, dark concrete building. On weekends my mother joins us at the counter, and of course she has to do most of the work at home, too. She rarely gets a break.

Rereading that paragraph, I can see that my father has a point of view here too. Good lord. His days of being king of the castle are long gone, he’s on a long, slow slide into total helplessness. The family itself is sinking, would sink if not for my mother’s diligence, faith, and, yes, stubbornness (see driving stories above). But it’s easy to forget my father in this story; I have a habit of trying to forget him.

I don’t remember if I even tried to write anything for the contest—again, her words overshadow mine. She writes a sprightly essay in what she thinks is a 12-year-old’s voice about how hard she (“my mother”) works. The clincher is a postscript about how my father is OK too, except that when he cooks he puts onions in everything and “I hate onions!” At 12, I am so far from being the person who could have written that essay, it isn’t even funny. I would have written something very earnest and stiff, intoning the sad story of our difficult circumstances.

It doesn’t get any funnier when she submits the essay in my name and wins the contest.

What is probably a high point in her life is certainly a low point in mine. It’s as if we’re obeying some natural law of mothers and daughters in which the feeling state of one is inversely proportional to the feeling state of the other.

She is thrilled—and undoubtedly vindicated in her belief that she has taken the most efficient, direct route to the goal—which was, of course, to win. We all benefit from it, after all. The prizes are practical, but many are luxuries to our strained budget. I get all the glory as the “author,” she gets the satisfaction of knowing she actually won something with her writing. I should say here that she didn’t get to go to college, though she was the reader and dreamer in her family. She married right out of high school, took care of her ailing mother and newborn me, bore a second child, a son, who died of leukemia at the age of 2, battled with her alcoholic husband until his life sentence of MS was pronounced at the tender age of 33. But the bare facts don’t tell the whole story. What doesn’t come through is her strength of spirit, the “hopeful, fresh” voice that kept us going through all those hard times. That she wasn’t fully—or even dimly, as far as I can tell—aware of what her actions might mean to her 12-year-old daughter is, perhaps, finally?, 41 years later, a little easier to understand.

So the “winner” and her mother get to spend a glorious day driving around town to collect the loot from all the merchants who had donated prizes: sweet rolls from Lauerman’s Bakery, nylons from the Bell Store, a bag of groceries from Ray’s IGA, that sort of thing. Of course, I am introduced at each store as the good daughter (good writer, cruel irony) who has won all this fabulous stuff for her deserving mother.

I can only imagine what my face looks like as we make the rounds that day. To say I am humiliated is an understatement. I hate the lying, I hate the phony congratulations (worse yet, the heartfelt ones), I hate feeling bested by my mother, to have my gift for her thrown out in favor of something she has picked out for herself. But I am still 12, not yet 14 and in full-blown rebellion, when I would sneer at God and the 4th of July, visibly rejecting everything I was raised to believe. At 12 I will still do anything for my mother, and I am indeed being called on to do something big that day, which is to keep my mouth shut. I discover I’m good at it, and I spend my entire adolescence in sullen withdrawal, to my mother’s uncomprehending chagrin.

The biggest prize from the contest is dinner for the whole family at the Silver Dome, a local supper club. My mother laps up the attention as if she’s literally wearing the faux cape and crown, luxuriating in the high-falutin’ (to us) surroundings and crowing excitedly over her triumph. Perhaps a few brain cells are registering the sight of her daughter, sitting there in stony silence as if something has robbed her of her voice, her gift of love. But this is my shining moment—the subject of this autobiography interrupts—me, the mother, the deserving queen for a day who has won for a change, with my own words. (They may have been put in my daughter’s mouth, but they were my words.) This is my story, regardless of who’s writing it down how many years later. I am not just a mother, I have my own dreams. God knows, I’ve sacrificed and held this family together through a little thick and a whole lot of thin, and no one’s going to take this away from me.

As I tell this version of the story to J (remember her?), I am struck by the similarity in the voice problem, then and now. I have come to J concerned because I’m too lost in my own painful point of view to tell the story in anything but the voice of an injured, humiliated 12-year-old. My mother, too, would never have won the contest with a voice of doom and despair. She won by taking another voice. Though I thought, not surprisingly, that it was my voice, it was really the voice of my “character.” She instinctively knew that only this character, the spunky, cute 12-year-old daughter, could tell our story lightly and convincingly, with humor and self-deprecation—surely, the winning touch was my hatred of onions. The implication that shines through that simple postscript—“my father is OK too, except when he cooks he puts onions in everything”—is that I loved my father, too. (It was generous of her to include him.) This character would have argued for him to be crowned as royalty for a day, too, if only there had been a contest to honor fathers.

What my mother knew that I didn’t was that we were all in this together. Maybe no one knew best all the time, like on TV, but we were a family, and what we had, we shared—the pain, the laughter, the ups and the downs, the prize winnings, the glory, the truth and the lies that get so confused sometimes.

J says that to write truthfully about my mother, I need to see her as a “character.” That’s what will help me see her side of the story, because there is really nothing left to prove anymore, we’re not in court bringing suit against my mother for all the mistakes she made. I have gotten my own delayed revenge—in the sense of “living well”—because I eventually discovered that I have a voice after all, one that is unique and unstealable and maybe even directly attributable to my mother’s sensibilities. In the old cliché, the older I get, the more I remind myself of her, in both the good and the bad ways. When she wasn’t scowling and dispensing the silent treatment she perfected as punishment of her loved ones, she was laughing, seeing the funny side of things. She had a hard time looking me in the eye—it was easier to express her love on answering machines and in letters—but she was irrepressible in the face of great challenges. No wonder a puny policeman or a wrong-way highway couldn’t stop her.

I like to think I have inherited something of her stalwartness and humor, despite  my injured persona, the character I have created for myself—the character that is changing and deepening with the help of another character named J, who does not take sides in the drama of Mary versus her mother but who is always rooting for me, the amalgamation and fruition of all my mother’s hopes and dreams. When I told J my mother’s words to me as I left for college—“Do it for me, girl”—she gently pointed out that my mother got her wish. She sent a little piece of herself out into the world (not, after all, buried in the back yard), and I brought the world home to her, sometimes literally—the trip to Denmark, if you recall. There was a true partnership between us that I have never been able to acknowledge, for fear of being cast as the silent partner only. She may have won the radio contest, but my later essays, in the form of letters home, convinced her to go to college at the age of 50. She attained her dream of working in a library and surrounded herself with books that filled every room of the house after the rest of us were gone.

In a sense, she pulled herself up by my bootstraps. She got to share in all the stories I brought her from the wider worlds outside our hometown, to learn about points of view beyond her own—the gay world, the world of religion beyond her Lutheran upbringing, even the world of radical politics. (She professed to disapprove of my rabble-rousing college years, but in her fury at her pastor’s support of the hospital administration in a nurse’s strike, she didn’t just write letters to the editor, she barred the doors of the church during a Sunday service!) She got to see me earn an astronomical (to her) wage with the talents of language she herself had passed on to me. She got to see that she could truly surpass the mother role she had been cast in and could mold herself and her life into a real work of art, of excitement and possibility, of constant learning, of irrepressibility in the service of her own good without, any longer, the danger of clumsily stepping on her daughter’s development.

I once drew my mother a comic book (“The Midwest Meets the Mideast”) based on the story she had told me about her hilarious/disastrous adventures on a church trip to the Holy Land. She wrote me later that she laughed so hard when she read it, she practically fell off her chair. She said it was the most precious gift I had ever given her. One of the characters in the comic book was her pastor, Ruge, with whom she had something of a love-hate relationship. He was a grandstanding type, a showman, and she was a perpetual thorn in his side, teasing and goading him mercilessly. He was no match for her, poor guy. The final drawing in the comic book is of her and Ruge wearing t-shirts. Hers says, “I survived the Mideast.” His says, “I survived Lorraine.” Nine years after her death, still sifting through the rich, complex compost of our relationship, I realize that I survived Lorraine, too.

Louise Lorraine Larsen McKenney, 1921-1991. Rest in peace.

[Mary McKenney]

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