In my first semester at my out-of-state university, I had an English Literature teacher who was probably five or six years younger than I. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this. At the university level, it’s a fair bet that whoever is teaching the class has had enough education to choke a horse; the woman was more educated than I ever had any intention of being. I liked her quite a lot, Continue reading “Inheritance”
I am from a tinny-sounding radio on the kitchen counter, a wooden porch swing that occasionally fell down on one end, and Matchbox cars and GI Joes playing with Barbie. I am from a hundred books before age thirteen, soda bottles exchanged for sno-cones, and going down to Farm Fresh for a bag of penny candy or some sour straws. I’m from Dr. Seuss and made up stories, from 4-actor plays and pageants performed on a dining-room chair stage for an appreciative audience of one.
I am from the dilapidated brown-shingled house that used to have porch railing, but gave it up about two years into the third boy, from wooden clothes racks and radiators used to dry clothes after the dryer quit. I am from windows left open at night and screened-in patios in the rain, from mother-hung drywall, partially kid-painted walls, and kicked-in front doors. I’m from the house with the 3-foot deep mudhole “fort” in the backyard, where the mama was better at “catch” than anyone else, where jumping in mud puddles was encouraged.
I am from the daffodils, peonies, irises, poppies, roses and petunias in my grandma’s yard, from the marigolds my Grampa Wendell stuck in my hair, from the purple flocks and tiger lilies that grew sparsely in our neighborhood and that N once tried to sell out of our little red wagon. I am from exotic flower loving stock, but I’m almost positive that the three generations of women in our family would identify themselves as wildflowers if asked. I am from people who grow where they’re planted.
I am from 3am Nintendo games, singing in the truck, and fist fights, from mayo and lettuce sandwiches and fierce loyalty. I am from a flattop Gibson guitar, a flute I buried in the backyard, and jitterbugging in the kitchen. I’m from Music as a Means of Survival, from strangely named psychotic cats and unnaturally smart dogs, from a mother who convinced us we could learn to swim in the water hose, and who made sure we looked better than everyone else on Halloween (even if our costumes were homemade). I am from the rusted-out swingset where we played while Mama hung clothes on the line. I am from Grandma, who taught me to love Tony Bennett and Andy Williams, and who freaked me out with her ability to sit with her legs around her neck at age seventy. I’m from Mama, who makes me laugh every time I talk to her, who always wants to “pick my brain” about something, who tries to show me how to exact Joy from the people around me and from the small every day moments that make up our lives.
I am from the Martins who have weak hearts, the Meltons who lived on religion and passion and very nearly starved to death, and the Hodgeses who have greasy hair, bad teeth, and drinking problems – the first two of which I didn’t manage to escape. But really, I am from the same strong line of “gypsy people” that spawned all the women back to my Grandma Faye, from folks who made their family where they found it and always had a sparkle in their eye.
I am from Sunday afternoon drives in the country and the illusion of getting away, from McDonalds french fries stuck between the cushions of the back seat and Dilly Bars when our ship came in. I am from homemade “bowl” haircuts, apple pies, and sugar cookies; from a mother who didn’t eat vegetables and a Grandma who did, and from a brother who learned to cook steak better than my dad ever could.
I am from “you’re a late bloomer” and “that boy’s got a nice package,” from “that’s…interesting” and “there is no reality, just perception.”
I am from “use your Presbyterian personality,” from “sing in my ear,” and “the hymnal’s too close, I can’t see it.” I am from a family who realized early that the pastor was a yutz; from, during-church note-passers and candy-eaters and squabble breaker-uppers. I am from faith that just is, and from understanding there is something more without needing to define it with doctrines, creeds, or any other follow-the-leader mentality.
I’m from small-town rural Illinois, from ice cream churned by hand on the front porch, from Mom’s macaroni and cheese and bag-boiled mixed vegetables, and from Grandma’s chicken noodles and broccoli.
I am from a woman who reunited with her runaway first husband fifty years later, and a woman who chased her husband down with a large green truck before she found Al-Anon. I am from Oletta and Gwyn, from Juli and Rachel, from Aunt Wuss, Aunt Millis, and Aunt Sylvia.
I am from a stack of unfinished baby albums, from a typed booklet full of the first gazillion wonderful things I said, from a few studio pictures and thousands of snapshots that were far better than they should’ve been given the limits of 110 cameras. I am from Peter, Paul, and Mary, from Simon & Garfunkel, from Judds songs and always singing harmony. I am from the family that always sang, no matter what. It echoes…and remains.
I am from a collection of strong women, from three brothers I love beyond reason, and…from me.
*The “I Am From…” thing made the online journal rounds several years ago; everybody I knew did it at least once. If you’d like to make your own, the template is here. If you do it, leave a link in the comments so I can see!
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.
We 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
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.
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.