Posts Tagged 'childhood'

Sweet tooth

My father is a dentist and he loves you more than Jesus, because your father owns the candy store. The candy store is always between the cigar store and the liquor store, that’s what my cousin Lily Marie said when she was sixteen and went to the cigar store to buy cigarettes and ask old Ben Murphy, who was janitor at the City of Cocola Elementary School from 1954 til 1997, to buy her some Annie Greensprings Apple Wine. He died of sugar diabetes, old age, and pesticide accumulation, according to Lily Marie’s uncle Ed Loughlin, who was the only doctor in the City of Cocola.

I myself am glad your father owns the candy store, because it means that every kid in Cocola will eventually come into my father’s business, and I get to hand out the lollipops and the troll dolls that my dad the dentist gives out to any kid that doesn’t bite him or kick. There are a surprising number of kids who won’t bite or kick if they think they might get something for not doing it. My dad says that proves  they can control their heathen impulses and if it was up to him he’d beat every last one of them for their cowardly ways and it was just proof that the City of Cocola was founded by fools.

The City of Co-cola was founded in 1896 by Jebediah Wright, a candy and whisky maker who moved from Sioux City Iowa to Flagstaff just in time to not freeze to death that year and with enough provisions to make a good living for himself when he set up the next spring.

 

 (15 minutes, just a scrap of an idea)

Lina Jean

This is the true story of the spontaneous combustion of Lina Jean Morrow. She was the type of girl who was all legs and buck teeth at seven, all blonde glamour at thirteen, and all ashes and crispy burnt skin before she was 19.

Lina Jean Morrow’s life was short and bright and hard. There were few things Lina enjoyed more than sunning herself like a lizard in the spring air, which made the family laugh when she was their baby girl but made them mad and maddened as she grew into those teeth. She was a tall girl, a tall girl with a habit of looking over the shoulder of whoever she was talking to, causing many people to turn around and look behind themselves to see who she was addressing.  It was just Lina Jean’s way. The way she talked was slightly foreign, an accent that was not exactly refined or delicate, but satisfying and exotic, the way other people’s family dinners can be. Familiar but not family. That’s what Lina’s cousins said, when they talked about the conbustion.

Before she combusted, the cousins had a regular comedy routine of walking behind Lina, walking her runway walk, sticking out their teeth to imitate her bucktooth pouty lip ways. Most of the time, Lina ignored them, but once in a while one of them would pull on her hands, throw themselves at her feet and beg her to marry them, while the others punched each other, laughing til they fell down in the dirt. Lina kicked a cousin or two, and once announced, over her cousin Ned’s shoulder, that if he was her husband, she’d shoot his dick off, which should have been funny but instead caused a whole lot of cousins to stay away from her for a few weeks. Ned said he had dreams about that, the way she looked over his shoulder, like she was looking for the knife, he said.

One day, Lina was sunning herself like a lizard on a warm rock on a spring day and her baby toe caught on fire. A little trickle of smoke appeared and she looked at it, like she was admiring a pedicure or thinking about what color of polish to put on. The smoke turned to a bright red flame and traveled up the top of her foot and along her thin shin bones and from there spread suddenly, and the cousins said the heat could be felt two counties away. Ned, who was across the state line looking for work, turned his head and looked back over his shoulder. He could see the line of smoke turn oily and black, and he felt Lina Jean burn white hot, watched her skeleton soften and emit a fragile ghostly crunch. He has blisters on his face to this day to prove that he witnessed her last moments, and no one in Stitch County has ever doubted him.

Sailing

I was alone for 15 years or so, alone the way we are when we are not children. How is alone now, what is the shape of alone, do you know? I shook a stick once at alone and it hissed back at me, a snake, a goose, a small cat with big green eyes. I have shaken my solitude so hard that all of its fruit fell to the ground and lay there fallow, lay there unseen for year after year. Little nuggets of solitude, little nuggets of loneliness, they lie there in an orchard, an orchard of past stories, stories from before the travels that took me away, away from hearth, from home.

I left in the winter of my 15th year, as is traditional. I rode a small horse with a fine Arabian head. Not the horse of the nobility, nonetheless a horse that suggested connections. I might be an important bastard, said the horse, I might be a well placed clerk in a prosperous, powerful and dangerous religion. Religion being, then as now, a dangerous and dishonest pursuit, was very appealing to second sons. I might have been a second son, that was generally agreed upon, or a bastard, again, that also was agreed upon. 

I left in the winter of my 15th year, leaving my lady and my lord in disguise, to travel and claim a kingdom for my own in lands far away. Once taken, I would return to tell the king and queen, my mother and father, about my acquisition, and then they would name me heir and bond me and mine forever to them, in spite of my bastard status, in spite of my feminine nature, in spite of my brother, the king’s first son, who was more of a bastard than I was ever likely to be. In spite of his mother and father’s marital status.

I left in the winter of my 15th year, as is traditional, riding my horse with my man to the edge of the sea, where I left both and boarded a ship with an uncle, who agreed to allow me on board as long as the secret was kept, but who could not guarantee my safety if ever all was discovered. This uncle was a first cousin to my mother, a man named Thomas Wilcomb, and he let me onboard at some personal risk. I came aboard as first boy, and looked after his parrot, kept his books, and ran away as soon as ever  I could, so that I might seek my own fortune, and not simply add to his.

Morning

I remember your twin brother and how he had a dimple on the left side of his smile. You didn’t have any dimples, and when I was seven I was suspicious that you and he were not really twins after all. But still the two of you always had perfect synchronization, rebuilding carburetors, installing the new clutch cables, draining and replacing the transmission fluid. It was a twin ballet, the two of you so different, one with dimple and one without, Jake with his dirty jeans and his flat boy butt, you with your sweats and the tank top that showed a little bit of girl belly. I remember that Jake lied more often than you did, at least I noticed him lying, and when he left, he went to France, or so he said. But when he came back, he didn’t seem to have picked up any French at all. Meanwhile, you and I had been studying up in school so that when we graduated we could go to France together and the three of us have a French movie adventure, something with beaches and candlelight and that was romantic, wasn’t it?

I remember when my dad came home from work one morning. We were making breakfast; there was a tower of toast and the bacon was in the frying pan, spitting hot grease over the white stove top. He came in and sat down without saying anything, not even “mmm, bacon” and he did not pour himself a cup of coffee like he usually did, just took off his gun belt, hung it over the back of the chair and pressed his hands together like they hurt or something. Mom turned away from the bacon, yelped a little at the hot grease as it caught her on the wrist. She wet a dishcloth with cold water and put it on her wrist, and sat down across the table from dad. He kept his hands pressed together, and after a moment, she reached out and put her hand, dishcloth and all, over his, and there was silence, and grease popping, and the toaster shot out two slices of bread.

“Kids, go on out and feed the dogs,” she said. “We’ll have breakfast ready in about 15 minutes.”  I started to protest, but Jerry kicked me and pushed me out the kitchen door.

Concatenation

I come from the island country of Concatenation. The commonwealth of Concatenation was named by the state poets and accountants who were held responsible for balancing the books, booking the best artists, poets and musicians; and the doctors, who raised the technology of health care to a single point of light. Every citizen of Concatenation was entitled to unlimited hair removal, dermabrasion and cold laser therapy. They were uniformly smooth, soft and silky to the touch, but unfortunately utterly unable to tolerate touch of any kind, and so the pedestal was actually invented in the commonwealth of Concatenation, a little known fact that has nonetheless shaped the past and future of the Catenates who first migrated to the island in 1846 from a small atoll on a deep current that passes Concatenation during times of climate change.

There was a heavy wind that day, I remember distinctly, with a sunset that was mango colored and shot with clouds. There was a ringing in my head, and a sense of warning, as of shipwreck, the shipwreck that is in the bones of all natives of Concatenation, the one that brought us here, and threw us away, stranded, on foreign soil.

Standing on the prow of a sailing ship is a young boy, or a young girl, no one ever knows in these stories, but whoever or whatever he is, he stands tall and looks far as the ship tosses. Only the very young can be tossed like this without severing an artery or rupturing a disc, and so we know that the young boy or girl is rubbery and ripe for the hard action of adventure. The slim bare feet are dirty, the kerchief ties the tangled brown hair back and away from the face, which is both brown and mischievous. This child, regardless of age, stature or gender, has been traveling like Pan on the seven seas, and here has come to the island of Concatenation, where the adventure changes suddenly from swashbuckling and overt to spicy, mysterious, and internal. I saw the child there, hanging onto the ropes, nearly falling into the wash, and I saw my future. Pulling against my mother’s skirts, I tugged away, away from her brush and her braiding, away from the skin, hair and nail care that made up my predicted path, and ran into the foaming waters at the edge of the sea on the island of concatenation, where I heard the sea birds ringing in the changing of the season, tintinabulating, sang the birds. And so what, you may ask? That was the first day of my life as a pirate, is what I say back to you, the me who is little and wild and still hairy as might be. Saved.

Flowering citrus

Flowering citrus – 1

Orange squirt, a soda, a fruit, elicits a sudden unexpected response from the back of my mouth, a wet ripe reaction to the smell of orange, the sudden demanding spray of lemon. The underside of a lemon tree provides a parasol of leaves, of warm lemon scent in lightly heated shade. Pick. This lemon is plump, skin thick and shiny under a thin dusty topcoat. I roll the lemon down the front of my jeans, roll off the light dust. Bring it back to my face. Smell. The smell of lemon is umbilical, so unlike furniture polish or dishwashing lemon that I hold it against my face – lemon peel pressed against my nose, my lips, my chin, and inhale as if it were vapor. Cut. The juices burn the many small wounds on my rough 10-year-old hands, rough from digging, and climbing, and jumping out of trees into a world of wood and dirt and citrus smells, rough from being out of range, from living wild in cultivated orange and lemon groves, near a small farmhouse, a fruit stand, an old brown dog with a limp, a piece of fruit, a pile of polished rocks. Rolling the lemon against my face, there it is, like magic. I wipe my hands on my worn cotton shirt, so that I might smell it again later, when I undress tonight. 

 

Flowering citrus – 2

“Lemon meringue pie?” she asks, eyebrows up, pen in hand.

“Nah. I don’t like meringue much. What else you got?” I can’t help being distracted, worrying about the car, motor running, out in the parking lot.

“Has to be lemon?” she says, good humor intact.

“Has to be lemon,” I agree, forcing my eyes to stay on her face. Car’s still there; that’s an article of faith.

“We got lemon sherbet?” she suggests.

“Rather have lemon tarts, got any of those?” I counter. I see Michael out the corner of my eye, walking casually across the gift shop and to the cash register, where the camera stares at the bill of his baseball cap.

“Usually we do, but we’re out. They’re not very good anyway,” she says, confidentially. I laugh.

“Okay. How’s about those lemon wafer cookies, you got those, right?”

“Probably. You’ll have to go to the gift shop, over by the candy section. We don’t have them in the diner. You want a coffee to go with that?” She’s relaxed, no fears, no early warning signs. My confidence is up.

“How about lemon drops, I like them. Got those?” I’m starting to stare, I can tell, and her eyes come up to mine all of a sudden like she’s just heard me speaking a foreign language.

“Sure. Yeah, we got lemon drops. In the candy section, kinda by where the lemon wafer cookies are.” I can see her strain through this. Her pen is still up, but hanging funny, like a question mark. She pockets her order book and says “I’ll get that coffee. Be right back.” The back of her uniform, walking away from me, looks uncertain, wrinkles highlighted by the fluorescent lights. Stains on the right side of her butt, where she’s been wiping her hand without thinking about it, through many uneventful shifts. Until now.

Clear cut

Mable Carmine had hair the color of fresh blood and it was natural too. Skin white like the flesh of new potatoes. Creamy. She taught me how to shave my legs. My clueless, knobby freckled itching legs. Mable Carmine grew up to study botany after first pledging her troth to a number of different religions, but nothing is more spiritual in the end than the sexy damp earth of gardening, the hummus, the mulch, the first tender moments unfolding. Mable. I’ve had a soft spot for that name since seventh grade.

We went on a field trip once, on a fishing boat, a trawler I suppose it was, and we were both seasick, me as white as she was for once, and we holed up together in the hold and heaved intimately, unhappily, throughout the entire trip. We never really spoke again after that.

The secrecy of gardening has been with me since childhood, since it was all an unfamiliar mystery. It is still a mystery, but a familiar one, like how the taste of milk slightly warmed is always a surprise, the sweetness, the kiss of nutmeg touching the lips spicy, new, every time. There are daffodils, of course, and hyacinth, and tulips and irises. Bearded, I hope, this year – we thinned out the old bed not long ago. We thinned out the old bed and shook the sheets free of dust and memories, freshened the rooms and hung everything out in the thin cold sun. We are early for renewal this year, earlier than usual, and this is a kind of climate change, too, a need for light before light has really arrived.

Mable Carmine went on, past the religious convictions, through the formality of European botany, to the fresh scraped story of botany in the rain forest, in the thick wet lands of Machu Pichu, in the heavy mosquito air, and there she disappeared into undergrowth so tangled that she was not found until much later, until the herbalists, the brujas and the curanderas had given way to a clear cut shaving, leaving stubble behind, no vines, no freckled skin, no mysteries, no rich, oozing earth.

 

Thanksgiving prayer

 

Mama put granny in front of the fireplace with a bowl of black-eyed peas to shuck. Shuck shuck, shucking peas is good luck, I hear gramma singing to herself. I myself don’t care much for black-eyed peas. Too much work, and they taste like dirt, don’t you think?

 Well, coming as we did from both pilgrims and Indians, this branch of the family is steeped in traditions. Gravy boats, tureens, peace pipes, feather head-dresses, whisky and tantrums. Remember old grand-dad’s granddad? Well, not exactly, but remember the stories of old granddad’s granddad? One-legged Indian, hand-rolled cigarettes. Remember the feel of tobacco sticking on your lip when you roll your own? Remember the match scorching the ends of your fingertips? Remember the big mixed-up feasts, with corn and store-bought pies and Tofurky for the half-dozen vegans every generation has produced since Tofurky was invented by scientists in the cold-war time, developed for astronauts, for up in the night sky where who knew what principles might apply to the decomposition of meat products in a zero gravity environment for the edification of star-traveling carnivores. Tofurkey was originally packaged in a tube like toothpaste or hiker’s peanut butter, but was created to be served for Thanksgiving in orbit.

Forty years ago today, I squeezed a bit of gravy onto my Tofurkey, sitting like a log on my melamine plate, which was latched securely to my armrest. It was the first time in 30 days I had raised food to my mouth using a utensil, a fork-like device that clamped over the bolus and delivered it to my mouth in a more natural way than the tube-to-mouth suck we’d all been doing since leaving earth’s gravity. Our first Thanksgiving in outer space. Cranberry lozenges. Pumpkin pie patches – these leave a taste without ever touching the mouth. A weightless burp. These are real-life stories from the astronauts and the cosmonauts – we were a peace delegation, we were cold war campers, with whipped cream and hope and toilets with seat belts – and we shared this ritual. Thanks-Giving.

I give thanks for the long-ago realization of my Mayberry dreams, my red-headed childhood, my belief, fostered by the irritable but non-toxic dreams of my grandparents, who suffered as all working people have suffered since before we had lift-off, since before Houston had a problem, since before the giant step was taken. The belief in transcendence, the transcendentalists of early American thought. The uppity belief in the power of belief. Beyond gravity, space, time, history. I give thanks for marshmallows, whatever they are, for relatives, for strangers, for the dancing cosmos that do not know whether we celebrate in darkness or in light, on earth or in the heavens. Amen.

All Saint’s Day

On the day after el día de los muertos, I eat sugar skulls and imagine meeting God face to face. My cousin says “el señor dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has even seen or can see”. I asked her how the saints can see Him then, if no one has even ever seen Him or even been able to approach Him? This makes her mad and she goes to church without me, because I like to stay home on Sundays to read the funnies. I am staying with my auntie only for a few days, while my mom and dad are considering getting a divorce.

Divorce is a sin, I believe, but I’m not being raised Catholic so I don’t know if it’s venal or mortal. My cousin, Florita, is being raised very Catholic and is considering being a nun, if she can just feel the calling, which she hasn’t just yet. Florita is irritable and doesn’t like me much because I don’t really speak Spanish and I’m not Catholic and my eyes are green, which she envies in my opinion. I am pretty sure envy is a sin also, though, so she always finds something else to be mad at me about.

My aunt Josefa is actually my great aunt and is too old to have a daughter Florita’s age, according to my dad. Florita is three years older than me, and I will be glad to go home again, hopefully sooner not later. Tia Josefa smells like powder and her feet are very sore. That means Florita has to rub her feet, which does not seem to make her happy, even though serving the lord by serving others is one of the things that makes a young girl know that she has the calling.

When I go home, the first thing I will do is go through the pile of mail that is in the bucket next to the front door, just outside the coat closet. I like mail, especially when there are magazines and coupons for free things like buy one Blizzard get one free. It’s been hard to get anyone to go out for a Blizzard lately, though, because of the divorce discussion, which is making both my mom and my dad pretty distracted. I’m not sure why they want to get a divorce, which I think is because I’m too young to understand.

My grandmother saves wedding announcements and especially 50 year anniversaries. I looked at my parents wedding announcement in her book: Jennifer and Stephen Madrona-Patterson, July 17, 1994. Jennifer and Stephen met while students and knew right away that they were right for one another. They will make their home in Santa Fe, NM.

Jennifer and Stephen

“We’ve had this discussion how many times now? How many?” She is talking in that tone of voice, the patient tone she uses with unfortunate people, and Stephen feels unfortunate, which makes him want to leave even more.

“We’ll keep having this discussion until we can make some kind of decision that we can both be satisfied with,” he says, meeting her tone for tone. He mediates for a living, has the conflict resolution skills of a grand master, and feels like tearing his own face off of his head and running through the streets of Santa Fe screaming until someone calls a task force in to take him down. He sighs.

The singing beggar

gold lame

There once was a beggar who loved to hear himself sing. He started out as a child.

Most singers start out as children. I remember, myself, singing to my small dolls, which were made of popsicle sticks dressed in fabric scraps. At that time, gingham was easily come by, but my small dolls did not sing back to me until after the war, when the fabric samples suddenly bloomed. The gingham was still there, but also sequined fabrics, gold lame, bright silks, rayon, some thin gauzy fabrics that were neither silk nor satin. My popsicle dolls dressed more and more for evening wear, their little painted faces had rosebud mouths and eyelashes drawn on for many nights on the town. They put on little plays, some geisha action, but with Debbie Reynold’s moral sensibilities, and these popsicle girls were terribly conflicted. I didn’t know what to do with them, exactly, and put them away for some time. Took singing lessons, etiquette, even found a small Korean book on how to entertain American service men. This was in English, marginally, with many grammatical errors but the basic message intact: listen carefully, your face must mirror your companion, no extra movement of body, hands or face.

I taught my dolls to keep their faces still and their stick bodies well dressed. We learned to sing simple Korean songs, little jingles that had two or three American English words. I learned to tilt my head at the exact right angle to convey interest, kindness, and willingness.  My dolls had red rosy cheeks.

Then one day my uncle, who was an American serviceman, came by to say hello and to bring us presents. When he saw my dolls, he took them and crushed them and screamed at my many Korean moms, who were raising me to be right for them, right like they were being, and I felt sad, confused, and angry, too, to tell you the truth. Then I went away to school at the American school where Ken, my American sponsor, sent me, until I was 17, when I went away to the U.S. to go to college, where I studied music. And that is another story.


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