The Old Green Singers

For quite a few years, there was no steady money coming into our house. When it finally arrived, we went for car rides and ate McDonald’s and Hardees for days on end. Mama didn’t like to cook and didn’t really know how. Plus, she didn’t have a thrifty bone in her body. She had no idea what to do with our occasional bursts of money; certainly, it never occurred to her to stock up on groceries or to prepay bills. But she liked to drive, and we all liked to ride. And it goes without saying that none of the four of us kids had a problem with the fast food diet.

At the times when we were a two-car family, Mama always named the car that was ours.  Dad’s car didn’t get a name because we weren’t usually allowed to ride in it.  On the rare occasions when we did, it wasn’t fun for any of us, so no one felt compelled to give the vehicle an affectionate nickname.  Over the years we had a couple of Monte Carlos, a Pinto, a 9-seater station wagon (aptly named “the goat wagon”) that was a piece of crap before we ever got it, and an extremely ugly and extraordinarily loud green utility truck.

211180159_287af4803c_oWe were a musical family, and I don’t say that lightly.  Every single day for all five of us, there was music.  Mama played the guitar.  We sang in the kitchen while we did dishes. We sang in church on Sundays. We sang on the front porch and didn’t care if the whole neighborhood looked on. We sang as we drove down the road on all of our many weekend drives out into the unexplored middle of nowhere in a fifty-mile radius around our small town.  By the time I entered the fifth grade, I sang harmony better than any adult I knew, and my brothers (who at the time ranged in age from four to eight) had no problem picking a part — whether it was Mom’s or mine — and sticking to it.  Music was our escape. No matter what bad luck or circumstance threw our way, no matter if we didn’t have heat or electricity or hot water or a decent dad, we always had each other and we always had music.

It was about this time — during the height of our music-filled days — that our old Monte Carlo drew its last breath and Mom (in a single afternoon of used car shopping) stumbled upon the vehicle that stayed in our family until I entered high school. I don’t know where she got it or what she paid for it, but my inclination is to say that it must have come from one of the union guys my dad knew.  I can’t imagine anyone else in our little town driving around in a rusty old utility vehicle.

I was horrified when I first saw it; I had to ride to school in that thing. My brothers, on the other hand, all thought it was wonderful beyond imagination. The truck was GI Joe green!  It had doors and hatches everywhere, was perfect for climbing, and all four of us could ride cross-legged on top of the roll-out bed cover holding on to the rusty iron bar that rose just above and behind the cab.  We were all very careful not to get stuck by any rough metal edges on the sides and bed, and I’m sure Mom was vigilant in her warnings of what would happen if we did get cut by something.  Nobody wanted a doctor’s visit and/or a tetanus shot, and yet, over and over, the four of us climbed up from the ground, grabbing each other’s hands and pulling one another into position, little ones in the middle.

Mostly, we rode at night. The heat inside the house always seemed worse as evening wore closer to bedtime, and our nighttime rides were the best kind of reprieve — one last cool off lark before the lights went out.

We cruised the neighborhood at a top speed of ten or twelve miles an hour, but mostly Mom kept it around five or six. Almost unfailingly, a kid from the block ran out to the curb to ask if he could ride, too. Mom wouldn’t let them — not unless they rode in the cab with her. She didn’t want anybody getting knocked down from up there, she said, and it was too crowded on top already. We never asked to let anybody else ride. While we rode, we sang after-dark, less raucous versions of our favorite car songs. But a lot of the time, we were just quiet, listening to the night sounds of the world that was sometimes much too hard in the daylight. We all calmed down on those rides, and maybe none of us had even realized we were wound up until we felt ourselves gradually winding down. For as young as we were, we had a lot to deal with in our lives. We just didn’t really know it because we were singing the whole time.

There was happiness on the roof of that old rusty truck in the summertime, but we were just as happy come that first winter when we realized that with the windows up, Old Green (as we lovingly called the truck) was like singing in a concert hall, despite the fact that the five of us were wedged in pretty tight.  No one’s voice got lost and every part could be heard. The acoustics were perfect. We sang all the old standards, awed by the full-bodied noise that almost seemed to rattle our eardrums with its intensity. We sang Christmas carols and the typical kid songs that we had learned at school; we sang Peter, Paul, and Mary and Simon and Garfunkel and The Judds until our voices were gone and the windows were too foggy to see through.  Then we all sat forward in the seat and wiped our mitten hands in messy, uneven streaks across the windshield until it was clear enough for Mom to slowly steer the way back home.

Although I wouldn’t have had the words (or the depth of understanding) to have voiced such an opinion back then, in more recent years, I’ve come to understand that Old Green was not just a rusty old truck any more than my mother was just different without reason.  Her difference — and the difference of that old truck — became the great stories of our collective childhood, not to mention the moments that we clung to when (as my colorful mother would say) “the shit came down.” I feel pretty certain that the four of us owe our survival to both of them.

Years later, when we went to sell Old Green, my mother lifted her GI Joe green and rust hood, pulled a six foot tulip poplar through the smoke-blackened machinery from the ground below, walked around to the driver’s door, coerced it open with not a little yanking (and some growling metal protests from the truck), and started her right up.

“She’s a helluva gal,” my mother told the buyer. “She’ll get you where you’re going.” She patted the cracked dash lovingly, half amazed that the truck had started and half wishing that it hadn’t.

Mom would say, ‘People don’t need to know everything about us,’ so she didn’t tell the man that Old Green had great acoustics. She didn’t say that on nights when you were sitting outside a bar with your four kids waiting for your asshole husband to come out, or come home, or give you some grocery money, Old Green was a great place to sing and pass the time.  (She also didn’t mention the time that she nearly ran the bastard down in the parking lot of one of these same bars, my brother hysterically screaming at her from the other end of the bench seat:  “Mom!  What are you doing?!”)  She didn’t say that there was an old pullout metal bed cover in back either, or that on sticky nights, four insanely hot children could catch a good breeze from up there, rolling slowly through a neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks. She didn’t say that you could fairly easily damage your twelve-year-old for life by dropping her off at school in the Old Girl — not only as a result of the truck’s appearance, but also because one couldn’t exactly make a silent entrance when driving it.  While Mama talked and the buyer stood there nodding, I remembered my daily mortification.  In short order, I also remembered what Mama always had to say on the subject: “It builds character, honey. One of these days, you’re gonna be awful glad you aren’t like everybody else.” Turns out, she was right.

What she did tell the man who bought our truck (and whose face I cannot recall) was that in cold weather, the Old Girl needed to warm up for a while, that the side storage cabinets were rusted through and wouldn’t keep anything secure, that the starter was on the floor, the shift was on the column, there weren’t any seat belts, and that the passenger door occasionally opened on a whim and spilled out a passenger or two on the outside of a tight turn. He looked a little shocked at that last bit, I remember, but my mother’s mood was not such that she reassured him about what happened after the people had fallen out.

She didn’t want to sell. None of us did. Old Green brought us joyfully through some of the worst years of our lives. She was part of the family.

via Daily Prompt: Harmonize

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Into temptation

Y’all, I can pass right on by the fried chicken and the french fries and the mozzarella cheese sticks and anything else that’s cooked in fat and sold in fast food restaurants.  But Jesus on a bicycle with no helmet, I cannot pass by the Sixlets…or actually any chocolate, come to think of it.  And the soft serve vanilla ice cream?  To echo a certain badly written Twilight character, it’s my own personal brand of heroin.

I’ve done so well in the last few weeks.  I managed to get ten pounds down after our return home from the beach.  But today has not been good.  I went grocery shopping with my step-daughter, and ended up buying all that cheap, nutrient-void junk food that tastes so good you just can’t make yourself stop eating it till it’s gone.  Long story short, I ended up going over my calories for the day by 200.  Tomorrow is likely to be more of the same, and probably worse; it’s my step-son’s birthday, and there’s a damn Dairy Queen ice cream cake in the freezer.  I probably don’t need to tell you that I didn’t go for the small one.  Mama always says that “for a dollar more you can go first class,” and in this case, two dollars took the cake from “probably too small to feed four” to “almost big enough to feed ten.”  I’m counting on there being leftover cake that everyone else will forget to eat and that I will probably obsess over until it’s gone.  If I had any sense of self-preservation, I’d make a vow to not log a single calorie for the next couple days, but knowing how very Type A I can be, I can pretty much guarantee that each one will be meticulously counted regardless of what it does to my self-esteem.

I did go swimming this morning with Mom though.  We took the water weights and moved around a little while we visited and talked about the other people in the pool.  You’d think we never saw one another, the way we carry on.  Maybe this is just the way maturing mother-daughter relationships are, but I feel like we’re probably a little more appreciative of our time together than most.  Until the end of 2014, I had been 650 miles away from her for 14 years.  I’m hopeful that we’ll have many more years together to continue being inappropriate in public; the women in our family tend to be unnaturally long-lived, even when they chose to spend the majority of their lives doing unhealthy things like smoking and drinking.

Actually, now that I think about it, I’m going to blame today’s transgression of the diet on those girls in my gene pool who lived way too damn long.  If it weren’t for them, I might be a little more careful about how I treated my body.

L’chaim, grannies.  And shalom, y’all.

An impossible-to-describe, once-in-a-lifetime (if you’re lucky) kind of love.

Mama is pretty sure she’s won the son-in-law lottery.  She outright says so all the time, but last night, she called needing help with one of her poems-in-progress and asked me to list the qualities that make me describe my husband as the best person I know.  I’m not very good at the lists (and let me assure you, this is not the first such request that I’ve received from her over the years), and so I did a lot of hem-ing and haw-ing and stammering around the edges of the subject with no idea in what direction I should go first.

Why is my new husband the best person I know?  Basically, she was asking what I loved about him, and anyone who’s ever been asked that question knows that it’s not so easy to answer, particularly without sounding like you’re running for reelection as the mayor of Shmaltztown.  Obviously, that’s never been me.  I’m also not the girl who oohs and aahs over romantic dinners or flowers on special occasions: In other words, it takes a different kind of man–and a different kind of relationship–to get my attention in the first place, let alone keep it.

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I have to admit that it helps that I’ve known the man since he wasn’t a man at all.  When I met him, he was a too-tall 12-year-old with Tim Curry lips, an unfailing respect for his mother, and a kindness that is truly unheard of in a kid.  Despite a first marriage that began before his teenage years ended, three kids in six years, a given up dream for a job in the medical field, a medical discharge from his second dream job in the Air Force, and disappointment of every sort at every turn, by the time I saw him again in 2013, he was still the person I remembered–how does anyone manage to stay so decent after all that shit?  We smiled at one another constantly, and I felt totally at ease with him in a way that I never had with any other person to whom I was attracted.  Almost from the start, I wondered how we’d managed to get and stay so far away from one another for almost all of our adult lives.

Our absence from one another’s lives seems particularly farfetched when you consider the following:  His sister is my best friend to such a degree that I stopped calling her my friend and started calling her my sister years ago.  When I moved back to Illinois from North Carolina at the end of 2014, I moved into his mom and sister’s house.  All of this ready-made closeness to his family (even independent of my relationship to him) made us getting together a total no-brainer, especially for me; I had just come from a 14 year relationship wherein I was kept as far outside the family circle of the person I was with as it’s possible to be.  In his/our family, I couldn’t possibly feel any more included and loved than I do.  Admittedly, he got a little something from the deal as well:  he had a ready-made family in need of a mother figure, and I was a mother who had only ever wanted a family to care for.  He got someone to take care of him and to help him hold his life together in a real, consistent, and sustainable way, and I got someone who looks at me as though he can’t wait to keep looking at me until (and after) the wrinkles on my face will comfortably hold a ten day rain.

We are quiet together.  We read many of the same books and enjoy most of the same music and television shows.  We are accomplished car singers with widely varied repertoires.  We both detest the president (and liars in general) and want more than anything to run off to a secluded cabin in the woods where we will have so few visitors that whoever finally discovers our bodies will likely only find the bones.  We take pointless day trips in the car just so we can share space only with one another.  (Sometimes, he takes me cruising through the really bad parts of St. Louis so he can show me how good our life together really is…ha!)  He dyes my hair every month without fail, and there’s never so much a hint of griping about it.  He amuses me.  I mean really.  Most of the days we spend together end with me lying in bed massaging the area around my cheekbones, knowing that I’ve once again over-exercised my facial muscles, and I’m going to have to think real hard before I smile the next day, assess whether or not it’s worth the pain.

Mostly, I just can’t believe my luck.  How does a person who has made the mistakes I have end up with a man like this?  He works hard.  He loves consistently and well, without any games or pretense.  He is generous and kind, smart and funny, and he’s secure enough to let me be all of the great (and not-so-great) things I am, too.  He might be younger than me, but there is sometimes an emotional maturity about him that humbles me right down to the soles of my spoiled rotten feet.

In short, I have no idea how I got him (or really what the heck he sees in me), but I’m keeping him as long as I possibly can.

But I didn’t say nearly all of that to Mom because a) it would’ve made me cry, and b) her poem is for little kids and definitely not that long.

The Brothers Three

I come from a big family, and in case I don’t get around to mentioning it very often, they really are an important part of who I am now and who I grew up being.  While my tendency is to talk mostly about Mama (especially when recounting times past), the truth is, the boys played just as big a part in who I am.

When I say I miss my brothers, I mean I miss all of us together, the way we were as children. There are particular things that I miss most. If you asked Mama, she’d say she missed the singing – all of us piled together in “Old Green” (an army green former utility truck of some sort that came to us already beaten and abused, one of the few things the four of us didn’t have a hand in destroying further), singing song after song from the late 60’s and 70’s and marveling at the acoustics. Or maybe she’d say it was listening to the four of us thump around on top of the truck while she drove the five or six blocks from Farm Fresh back to the house on some unbelievably hot summer night when riding in the open air at 20 miles an hour was the only breeze to be found.

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Strangely, though they’re certainly relevant to who I am, these aren’t my favorite memories. My favorites all occurred on some weekend or vacation when Mom had long since gone to bed and the four of us were gathered around the minuscule television in the living room playing some video game on near-mute and trying to be quiet enough as a group that we wouldn’t wake her. I don’t remember any of us every arguing over who got to play next or longest. We just played. And when we weren’t playing we were watching each other play.  (My love of video games endures to this day. And as it was then, it doesn’t matter a lick to me whether I’m playing or watching.) There were a million things feeding into us having a good time on those nights. First, we weren’t supposed to be up so late, and that alone was cool. Second, we only owned one game ourselves, so usually, any time we were up late playing it was because we’d suddenly gotten some spare change and Mom had agreed to rent us a game. (The renting, by the way, was almost as cool as the playing. Nate and I would spend almost an hour poring over titles and back-of-the-box descriptions, making sure that whatever game we ended up getting wasn’t going to disappoint us in the first ten minutes. There wasn’t another one where that came from and we all knew it.) Third, if there was spare change for a game, then in all likelihood, there was also Coke, chips, and sandwich stuff.  (Food was not always readily available at our house.)  And fourth, Dad was never home any time we stayed up late, which meant our house was a fairly quiet place. After all, there was nothing for the four of us to argue over among ourselves.  That fact alone is an amazement to me–four siblings with nothing to argue about?  But back then, it was true.

No matter how we dressed, no matter how our house looked compared to everyone else’s, no matter what car or beat up old truck Mama drove us to school in, I was always proud of the boys and proud to be with them. Though we always had to watch out for the youngest, J (who had a tendency to suddenly disappear or run headlong into oncoming traffic), most of the time we were the best behaved brood of children that I’ve ever encountered.  Oddly enough, I don’t recall any of us believing that at the time.  I think somewhere in the back of their brains, all children must believe they’re inherently rotten, if not for what their parents tell them, then for the thoughts they think at night, in the quiet darkness of their rooms.

Sometimes I think there isn’t anything I wouldn’t give to have us all in one house again. And if I had minutes or years to live over, I’d choose those when we were together every time. There are changes I would make. Maybe I could keep my oldest brother, N, from all the heartbreak and trouble of his mid-teens and early 20s.  Perhaps in a changed and bettered future, it would be possible for all of us to be together in one place without the arguing and ill will that happens now when such gatherings occur. I would have liked very much for all of us to be adults together, for ours to be one of “those families” who stay together, who laugh and play and drink together well into middle age.

I hate that we’ll never be the versions of us that I dreamed we’d be.  And while it’s easy to blame my middle brother, T, or politics, or geography or a million other things, the truth is, I think the blame probably rests with all of us for not remembering the children we were, the things we lived through, or most importantly, that the only reason we made it at all was because at one time we were Angie and the Brothers Three.

**This entry was originally written and posted in 2001.  It has been slightly edited.