Cemetery Summers

When I was little, my family moved into a tiny little house in a tiny little neighborhood.

Our neighbors were tiny little elderly folks who kept dusty ribbon candy in glass dishes by the door for small children who may or may not ever have worked up the courage to visit them.

There was old Dorothy across the street. She kept rows of cages filled with rabbits in her back yard. If you were brave enough to chat with her, she smiled at you and gave you a pet guinea pig.

But you had to work your head around the fact that she chain-smoked directly through her tracheal tube.

There was old Mr Jurdo three houses down. He took his morning constitutional around our tiny block and always wore a neon red jacket and a brown cap. He didn’t chat. He grunted at you and cleared his throat forcefully by way of greeting.

We steered our red wagon the other way.

Old Virgil lived uphill by a house or two. He never left it. When you were forced into a polite visit, his dim house smelled of old person and aged furniture and musty carpet. He never moved from his chair – perhaps he had melted into it – so we felt comfortable lingering in the doorway and hollering the morning news towards his good ear.

Only one – and there are many – of the interesting facts of where we lived was that our street ran along the border of a large cemetery.

Four houses down on the opposite side of our street lived a little girl who was besties with my sister and we frequently played there.

She had a little pool and a calico cat and an elevated veranda running along the back of her house.

During the summer, we would sit on this veranda and watch funerals.

We had never attended a funeral ourselves. We had no personal relationship with death.

So we were free to imagine any number of scenarios below us.

Most of the time, we could figure out who the preacher was. We decided whether the deceased was famous based upon how many people were in attendance. If awnings and chairs were set up, you knew it was going to be a long sermon. If flowers completely covered the grave, then the deceased must be female.

We watched the long procession of cars and the long procession of mourners. They would huddle like penguins, then gradually fade away until only the coffin remained, and a lone gentleman standing aloof near the hill.

The curtain dropped on Act 1, but there was more to see from our balcony seats.

We could see the tractor waiting behind the hill. We could see the crematorium, tucked away in another area from the road, hidden far from the burial plots.

Cemetery workers stepped forward and slowly lowered the coffin with wenches. They used the tractor to fill in the grave and put the flowers back into place on the slightly mounded earth.

And then everyone was gone.

The silent movie ended.

Sometimes in the evening when dad came home, our family walked in the cemetery, enjoying the distant ocean breeze. We traced names on tombstones and ran along the edge of the small pond and smelled flowers wilting over the newcomers.

It always felt like a place of peace. Oddly, like a place of welcome.

Like everyone had been snugly tucked in for the night.

And I wonder now, all these years later, what our elderly neighbors felt about it?

Did they ever turn around to peer past their own backyards into the cemetery or did they keep their eyes fixed firmly on the small children wandering through their tiny front gardens?

Did they wait patiently for those rare moments of interaction, however brief, knowing a final welcome waited even more patiently, right around the corner?

And what, then, when those glimpses of the future merged?

Natural Selection

Maybe it was a middle child thing.

Maybe it was a subtle effort to thin the herd.

Natural selection.

She naturally selected the child who had to go.

And she did it with such an innocent angel face.

The hour before bedtime takes only second place to the hour before dinner time as the most cringe-worthy, wretched time of day in the life of a stay-at-home mom.

The kids are by turn, grumpy, hyper, whiny, messy, and clingy.

And that includes the Hubby.

I was just hanging on for fifteen more minutes.

I’m telling you. If you ever want to bless a mother, give her sleep.

This particular evening, five kids were running amok in the den, clean, fed, and jammied up, in direct defiance of the upcoming bedtime.

These weren’t little toddlers, these peeps went from kindergarten through high school.

But fifteen minutes of free time in a whole day must be used to full potential.

Middle child was lounging on the sofa, fiddling with a long pink scarf.

She dangled it over the back of the couch, and said, “Here, fishy fishy fishy!”

Low man on the totem pole, and eager to be included youngest child, decided to be the fish.

Of course.

Up to the bait crawled Little Man.

He obligingly bit the end of the scarf.

And middle child reeled him in.

The girl’s no rookie.

She knows if you don’t yank the line and set the hook, your fish gets away.

With a mighty yank, the scarf whipped right out of the fish’s mouth.

Along with it came one of the fish’s front teeth, sailing across the room and hitting the wall with a tiny “plink”.

Everyone took a collective inhale.

I came running as the screaming began.

Everyone in the room was screaming but Little Man.

It took a minute to register the blood pouring from his mouth, his puzzled face, and the horrified looks of the witnesses.

Across the room was a single bloody tooth.

In his mouth was his other front tooth, wobbling half in and half out.

This is not a job for sissies.

And you’d better believe I already had our family dentist on speed dial.

We plopped the rogue tooth into a cup of milk. I placed a wet ice-filled cloth on Little Man’s mouth. Hubby cleaned up the blood and sent everyone to bed.

Our dentist, bless his big, expensive heart, answered his emergency line from a family dinner in a restaurant somewhere. I explained the situation in a slightly high-pitched voice.

This wonderful man met me a half hour later at his dark, closed offices and plopped Little Man into a giant exam chair.

He was kind and gentle and patient.

Little Man held my hand and waited like a champ for 45 minutes while the dentist removed his last front tooth and dug around, making sure there were no leftover bits of tooth in his poor mangled gums.

We weren’t charged for this.

Years of loyalty from a big family, maybe.

Possibly we had already paid for his family dinner out.

Now you know why Little Man is missing his front teeth in every photo for four years straight.

And why middle child is smiling like that.

She is still pretty certain that three children was plenty and enough.

But let’s all be glad Little Man tops her by a good eight inches today.

Who’s the fishy now?

Sibling Riflery

It’s rough being the youngest child.

You believe everything your siblings tell you, go along with all their ideas, and volunteer to drive their get-away car.

You spend your whole life wanting to be cool like them.

It never occurs to you to question why they would make you stand outside the secret clubhouse, coming up with a million passwords that aren’t the right one, while they hold a tea party inside.

Oh wait, wrong set of siblings.

My kids spent a lot of afternoons out in the backyard, trying to entertain themselves.

Instead of driving my kids all day to swimming lessons, soccer practice, piano recitals, and FFA competitions, I sent them outside with the encouraging statement, “Stop destroying the house, and go find something to do!”

Then I locked the door like my mama taught me.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

It’s just that I already had all of those things in my own yard. A pool. A trampoline. A couple of big climbing trees. A swing set. A garden. Toys, balls, bikes, a fort, chalk, paint, tables, chairs… chickens for crying out loud.

And enough siblings to form any sport team required to stay outside and play.

Even then, they would sneak into the garage and bring out tools of mass destruction.

It’s not like they didn’t have plenty of opportunities to stretch those budding imaginations.

But the thing is, they had a pecking order.

And even though the youngest child could look into the henhouse and say, “Well, at least I have it over you guys!”, it was a sorry and permanent situation.

It was the hour before dinner time.

The witching hour, I called it.

The kids have run out of entertainment ideas and are reduced to coming to the kitchen door every two minutes to see how dinner is coming along and to tattle on each other and to get a 52nd drink of water.

My eyes were glazing over, standing at the stove.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.

So when the screaming began, it took me a minute to register who it was, where it was coming from, and the exact level of problem it was declaring.

Thankfully, I registered just enough to turn off the burners before racing out the door.

Middle child had tried to bump off youngest child.

This wasn’t the first or last time.

Middle child had never forgotten her temporary taste of being the “family baby”.

Her two little brothers had bumped her out of position and I think she considered them more or less expendable.

She was only playing.

Honest.

There may or may not have been bumping involved.

We had a fat, knotted rope hanging from the tree beside our house.

She helped her baby brother climb up on it, hanging from a big knot, and was pushing him.

“Swing like Tarzan does!” she told him, “Here’s your vine!”

Tarzan was two and a half.

“One!” she said, with a little push.

“Two!” and she pushed him a little higher.

“Three!” as she gave a mighty heave.

Which may have ended well when he came off the vine.

Except she was swinging him out directly over the concrete patio instead of the dirt piled every-single-where-else.

Let’s see.

From the baseball sized egg sprouting from his forehead, a concussion seemed logical. The wind knocked out of him. Various scrapes and bruises predicted. Massive headache incoming.

And his little arm was broken.

We all did some crying.

Tarzan got a green cast.

And really, she would have flown under the radar if the following story hadn’t occurred.

Tune in Friday.

What’s Old is New Again

When I was about to turn 30 years old, I had my first physical.

Leaving your 20s behind is a big deal.

They were the wild and crazy years.

I had three kids to prove it.

I thought I had better inventory my assets…in case they were considering becoming liabilities when they grew up.

The evaluation was comprehensive, the tests thorough.

The medical team’s goal was to “help me grow older in as good a state of health as possible”.

Awesome.

The written summary contained detailed information regarding my results, and ended with this paragraph:

“Your Health Age is that of a healthy, low risk 15 year old woman. Your Health Age and risk factors are as good as they can be. You will be interested to know that, excluding rare illnesses and uncommon events, a woman like yourself has a 50% chance of living to 80 and a 25% chance of living to 90. Remember to plan for this! The things you are doing are working and you are to be congratulated…we hope to see you back for retesting in about two years.”

Where to even begin?

All those years of trying to prove I’m a grown-up, and people saying, “When you’re older you’ll appreciate not looking your age!” were an epic fail.

When you are turning 30 but have a 15 year old body, is this a cause for celebration?

Or mortification?

I looked sideways at Hubby.

“Do you realize you’ve been married to a minor? Is this even legal?”

The cradle-robber just smiled.

I had “a 99% likelihood of living at least another ten years”.

Well, I proved that one right.

When I reached 40, I went in for another physical.

(When you’re planning to live past 100, you don’t want to rush this whole “retesting” thing.)

Their happy little health summary came in the mail, informing me that once again, I had passed my physical.

With the body of a “low risk 33 year old woman”.

This is where I got mad.

According to the stats, my body is supposed to be as healthy as half it’s actual age.

If I’m 15 when I’m 30, then 40 should be the new 20, right?

I could find no cause for this fast-forward aging in the collected data.

The only thing that may have tipped the scales was the addition of two more children, neither of which had I mentioned in the doctor’s office.

This information was on a “need to know” basis only.

Perhaps my body shape didn’t exactly scream “I’m 20!”.

It more or less whispered, “Hey, not bad for five kids, right?”

Sometimes it whined, “Please, let’s trade in the Turbo Kick-box for a Yoga class!”

But the physical included zero jumping jacks, so where do they get off wrinkling me up before my time?

I’m going to give them one more shot at keeping their profession.

Much later – in the murky, distant future – I will go in for my 50th and see what they think.

It will be in everyone’s best interest if they call it at 25.

They don’t have to mean it. They just have to say it.

“You look great for your age!” does not qualify.

You will be interested to know that, excluding rare statements like that and uncommon patient  kickboxing reactions to it, a doctor like yourself has a 50% chance of living to 80 and a 25% chance of living to 90.

Remember to plan for this!

The Anti-Hug

Well, now I’ve gone and done it.

When I say out loud what everybody’s thinking but not saying, it should occur to me to keep my yapper shut.

Right?

There’s a reason they aren’t mentioning it, and it has to do with good things like making people feel included and accepted and loved. Who’s not for peace and harmony?

Heavens to Betsy, I guess me.

I am so sorry! I didn’t mean it. I mean, I did, but I meant the word part, not the feely part. I mean, I love you and I’m super happy that the feeling’s mutual, and that we’re here in the same room together doing something really great, but…

(I am so sorry!) please don’t hug me.

Sorry.

I have so many awesome friends, male, female, and avian.

And we are constantly all getting together and being awesome.

And I don’t know who wrote up the personal space rules a million years ago, but they went overboard and I don’t know how to turn the tides, at least around my little fork in the road.

I kept my innocuous weirdness to myself for most of my life, thinking I was the only one who got the creepy crawlies once in a while from being accosted by huggers.

If someone came at me with open arms, it was fun to place a baby into them.

I perfected the casual side-turn that blocked most of the incoming body mass.

I am professional at entering a room with enough baggage to discourage it and leaving a party in ninja stealth mode. I don’t handle good-byes very well.

I offer hugs of sympathy at funerals and hugs of joy at weddings.

The rest of you have seen me before and you will see me again and I see no reason to mark the occasions with a body tackle.

This is not football.

And I finally cracked.

I made a beloved girlfriend who, frankly, is a hugging addict and shows no sign of recovery.

She will hug you to bits within five minutes of meeting you…and your spouse and your kids and your luggage. And do it again if you leave.

Even if it’s for the bathroom.

I sat her down one day and told her…the truth.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” I began, “I just have funky issues with my personal space. I love you! Can we still be friends, just without the touchy feely part?”

She was floored.

And kind of speechless and a little sad.

It had never once occurred to her, ever, that a person would not be pleasantly happy receiving hugs or holding hands or having someone’s arm thrown casually about her shoulders, like a faux fur.

This was a lady who probably let total strangers rub her pregnant belly.

**shudder**

Feeling like a heel, I talked with other girlfriends, and discovered that I wasn’t the only female with an Anti-Hug Buffer Zone.

“I don’t know,” said one, “it’s very casual, but what else would you do? Shaking hands seems silly. And you’re not going to curtsy to the queen.”

“Watch C,” said another, “he doesn’t just hug, he kisses, too.”

And you’d better believe I did the next time we got together, and sure enough, he entered the room and greeted the first person he met (a lady) with a hug and a kiss and a warm smile.

She seemed just fine with it.

I immediately placed a row of chairs between us.

Decision time.

I could hang out with this awesome person while circling the room at all times, or come clean.

I preempted his hug by going into his personal space first, my raised eyebrows leading the way.

We discussed the social norms and I was educated about the European expectation of hugs, kisses, and if you really want to get middle eastern, multiple kisses on both sides until someone gets exhausted and has to sit down.

He claimed to be only half European with a single kiss.

I told him So Cal is just fine with a fist bump.

We tried it out a few times over the course of the day.

He tried so hard.

He looked like someone who was promised a flying rainbow unicorn and got a stick horse instead.

I am so sorry.

Making it Lighter Today

Good morning to my beautiful friends and family!

Only those of you who have subscribed to my blog will get this post today.

I want to thank you personally for investing your five minutes of free time in my little corner of the world.

I love our time together and that you put up with my crazy!

Today is my birthday, although Facebook is set at January 1st. When I started my blog I was warned to stay as strictly confidential as possible. Not to ever name names. To be as James Bond as possible, a “need to know only” under-the-radar type of operation.

Ha.

It took me over a year to be brave enough to post a photo of myself.

Now, everyone who actually knows me knows exactly who I’m talking about.

And they know when my actual birthday is.

I have to admit, it’s pretty wonderful to get all of the Facebook birthday wishes, though; makes for a great start to the new year.

But the rest of you are on to me.

I even got ‘Happy Birthday’ emails from my dentist and my home-owners insurance company.

My mom called.

Yes, I answered.

I’m leaving Facebook and the media alone today.

It’s not my fault something terrible occurred on this date and I won’t allow it fill my head with the images of a day I will certainly never forget and that still makes me cry.

But, today is also the solution to the atrocities of the world and my own personal life.

We are always so distracted by the darkness.

Nothing will happen, though, unless we stand up and turn on the light.

Today is my birthday. I can make that matter.

I am still here. And so are you.

Just a couple of little glowing armies…of one.

So, I chose to go to the beach today and walk on the hot sand and watch the bright foaming waves crash over and over, ribbons of seaweed winding around my ankles.

I breathed in the salty air and remembered Who turned on the light that First Day.

And that it was good.

And I’m thankful for another year.

And I’m thankful for every single person sharing it with me.

Living in an Ant Farm

Dear Ants,

Uncle!!

We live in an ant farm now.

It’s escape proof. I can’t seem to get out of it.

The ants are the dominant species and we are their playthings.

They are the movers and the shakers of planet earth – one teensy grain of sand at a time – and if they want to travel up to the balcony, into the rafters, through my walls, out the electric outlets, around the sofa, down the staircase and into my son’s backpack just to bring a piece of leftover PB&J sandwich to their anthill three miles away, they can.

In 2014, NASA launched a formicarium into space.

Because no one was cleaning up the International Space Station after making a PB&J.

And they needed some motivation to keep the peanut butter out of the cruise controls.

(Who were they kidding? Ants invented zero gravity.)

Those little “engineers of the insect world” have redesigned my habitat.

All of my attempts to persuade them to leave have come to naught.

I spray poison.

They move two inches, literally, to the left and proceed full speed ahead.

I put out an ant bait party.

They party.

They bring friends.

They stagger around, drunk on borax, and go home for a week to sleep it off.

Then they come back for more.

And bring the neighbors.

Oh, at first I thought maybe I could wait them out. They gave me an excuse to buy some shiny new containers to keep the cereal in. I had no idea ants were a fan of Life cereal.

They forced me to keep to my routine of running the laundry and the dishwasher every night before going to bed. Both places are swarming with ants by then. It gives me great pleasure to get those little buggers squeaky clean.

I don’t have trashcans anywhere in the house now. If my kid blows his nose, he has to carry the tissue through the garage and out to the main bin. Otherwise, he will find ants creeping up his legs to relieve him of the tissue still held in his fist. They’re very helpful like that.

I vacuum every day.

I’ve gone from wiping the countertops every 15 minutes to making everyone go out on the patio to assemble their sack lunches. And eat dinner. And make toast.

It’s fun for the whole family!

We had company over yesterday.

The house has never been cleaner.

“Go to the ants, you sluggard,” says the Bible, “because they will make you work harder than you ever thought possible, just so they will stay out of your ear.”

Someone set their empty glass on the coffee table in the living room and had all of a three minute conversation. When we reached for the glass, it was covered in ants.

Not a scout or two. Covered.

Ninja ants. They’re everywhere.

I feel my skin crawling with them, even when they aren’t.

My daughter with the ecology degree informs me that these ants are genetically identical.

I’m holding the Clone Wars right here.

Any chance I can send these little buggers to a galaxy far, far away?

Because I’m exhausted.

When the family has to live outside and the ants get to live inside, something somewhere is rotten in NASA.

The DMV and The Power of One

The DMV is to Disneyland what a vegan diet is to a cruise ship buffet.

It’s just not anybody’s happy place.

I do everything possible with the DMV online. Don’t try to phone them. There are people who have been lost in that maze since 1951. The website is only slightly less confusing.

I had to get my license renewed and for once I had to show up in person. I would have mailed them any amount of money to not go in person. Their loss.

I made an appointment online.

For two months away.

In a DMV 50 minutes away.

That’s efficiency.

When my sister found out where I was heading, she immediately sat me down for an impromptu coaching session.

“Arrive at least an hour early,” she started.

“But I have an appointment.”

“This DMV takes forever just to find a parking spot. Everyone parks on the red curbs. Even the cops. Do what you have to do. Just park.”

I raised an eyebrow. She continued.

“When you get there, the line of sweating, sunburning people will be around the building. Don’t get in line. Go up to the doorway and tell the security guard you have an appointment. He will escort you to the right place, and no one will mob you for cutting the line.”

So I did.

And it worked.

These lines were exactly like Disneyland. You think you’re getting somewhere when you finally cross the threshold, and there’s another whole line snaking around inside.

This DMV was the worst one I’ve ever been in. They had maybe 300 people in a 1,000 square foot room. One quarter of that area was partitioned off so people could stand and take computerized driving tests. Mathematically, the big orange bag I brought along was a mistake.

Every plastic chair was taken. Standing room only, and beer-bellied unshaven tattoo artists were politely allowing me into their personal space. I stood there clutching my bag, waiting for my number to be called with laser beam focus. Who knows how long everyone had been in here.

There wasn’t a smile in the building.

Suddenly over the droning white noise, there rose a petulant shriek from aisle B, seat 25.

We all looked over at a young disheveled mother, wrestling with an 18 month old who was melting down into the filthy green linoleum. The little girl had had enough, and was voicing in decibels what the rest of us were thinking.

You tell em, kid.

After a moment or two, it was obvious the mom was losing the battle. We all shifted uncomfortably in our two inches of airspace. The security guard moved into the huddled chairs and motioned for the mother to take the child outside.

That’s when the large woman sitting next to her got involved.

“What are you saying?” she stood up and hollered at him. “Why should she have to give up her seat after all this time? It took us two hours to park! The kid’s just tired! She can cry if she wants to! Go back to your doorway and leave us alone!”

She had the attention of the entire DMV, the line outside, and the cars circling in the lot.

The security guard was at a loss. I felt sorry for him, too, since he had recently saved my life.

It took me a minute to realize that I had the power to save his in return.

I apologized my way through the crowd, and wormed my way into the standoff.

I rummaged into the bottom of my big orange bag and brought out: a plastic bunny rabbit.

It was part of the stash I carry when I watch my little 18 month old charge.

“Here,” I said, handing it over to the limp mama, “Will this help?”

The look on her face was priceless.

I rummaged some more while the large woman sat down and said, “Well, isn’t that nice! Isn’t that just so sweet? What a nice thing to do!”

The security guard disappeared into the masses and the little girl became silent as the new distraction appeared. I handed the mom a backup (because, you know, I know about 18 month olds): three puff balls.

Never underestimate a little colored ball of fluff.

“The pink one’s the favorite,” I told her, as my number was called.

I walked up to window 12 and gave them my thumbprint.

The lady there was all smiles and the silent room behind me went back into quiet buzzing.

When I left fifteen minutes later, you could feel the changed atmosphere.

Maybe not Disneyland.

But a little happier place.

If it Tastes Bad, It’s Good for You

This stuff. This stuff right here.

“Take a teaspoon of this in 8oz of water every day. Twice a day, if you can.”

She said this with an earnest smile.

A friendly look that meant only helpful encouragement.

Now for one thing, she is my very trusted masseuse. She is a Holistic Health Practitioner. She is the lovely lady who did the impossible once.

I don’t have back problems. I go for massage once in a while as a luxurious, stress-releasing treat. I would never let a chiropractor near me. Or an acupuncturist.

**shudder**

But I digress.

One fateful day, my back gave out. I imagine it was a series of poor choices on my part that led to that occurrence, but the fact was…that I was crippled.

Literally, I was staggering around in circles, unable to sit, stand up, or lie down without shrieking in misery.

Nothing in my medicine cabinet could touch it.

No one in my family could touch it.

Because I kept a three foot radius of personal space by shouting, “Don’t touch me!!

I called M.

“I’m crippled!” I told her. “I have no idea if you can help me, but my doctor will only give me pain killers, muscle relaxers, and a series of stretches to do. I can do that all by myself. But what I can’t do is…anything…because the pain is so bad I can’t even think straight. Can you do something?”

“Come in,” she said, “I’ll see.”

“Fine,” I replied, “but there’s only one thing: you can’t actually touch my back. If you do, I’ll die.”

“I can work with that,” she said.

So my daughter drove me across town to M’s office and helped me lurch inside.

The whole trip was a series of me saying, “Ow! Ow! Ooow! Argh! Noo! Ouch!”

When I walked out an hour later, I was healed.

I can tell you she never went near my back, simply laid several light layers of warm, fragrant towels over it, and put it to rest, while she released the muscles from the opposite sides of joints and tendons. Her hands are intuitive and my pain somehow told her through touch, what needed what and where.

My daughter couldn’t believe the change. Me either.

It smacked faintly of voodoo to me.

M is a soft-spoken Italian grandmother. She chats about her family, her grandparents who moved from Italy carrying small grapevines in burlap sacks to set up a vineyard in Chile.

She has a beautiful laugh.

I recommend her to everybody.

But last week, she recommended this raw apple cider vinegar to me. We were chatting about how massage is a nice immune-system booster. You always need to drink a bottle of water after a massage because it’s the same to your muscles as having done a full work-out. All of your cells are ready to release the ‘ick’ afterwards, so you flush it out.

Apparently, vinegar will do the same thing.

“I drink it every day,” she said, “and use it on salads and for cooking. It’s just part of my diet.”

Makes sense.

I imagine my own Norwegian and German ancestors ate it in everything from pickles to sauerkraut. Oil and vinegar on salads right here in So Cal.

Why not?

I’ll tell you why not.

I just took my first big swig of this magic elixir and I can still feel my scorched windpipe.

It’s like a glass of battery acid went down and deep cleaned everything from my tonsils to my toenails.

It’s like drinking Easter Egg dye.

It cleared my sinuses. My eyes took on a healthy, weeping sheen. My spine straightened right up into perfect posture.

And then I ran to brush my teeth. Twice.

I’m going to go gargle with some tea now, but I wanted to pass this super advice to all of you enthusiastic readers out there, wondering to yourself, “Self,” you’re saying, “How can I give myself a jolt of goodness?”

Once it takes effect, I will be able to wield Thor’s hammer.

And probably put my back out doing it.