Posts Tagged 'family'

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.

Shaken

A small antique white water pitcher falls off of my bookshelf and lands on the carpeted floor next to my bed. My eyes open (I’ve always been a light sleeper) and see immediately what has fallen. I reach down to the floor to pick it up, and the shelf starts ejecting books, and trinkets, gently at first. There’s a Cinderella figurine, a cruet, a book of children’s verse by Robert Louis Stevenson. I get up, walk to my bedroom door, and open it. I look out. There is no sound, but also no nightlight in the hall. I step into the bathroom and feel for the light switch. Nothing. I walk down the long hall and stop at the brothers’ room, putting my ear against the door. Nothing. I turn and walk past the baby’s room and turn right, toward my parent’s bedroom. There’s a sound now, like a grunting, gurgling sound, coming from the bathroom next to my mother’s sewing room. It’s August, but I have goose bumps and I want to see what is in the bathroom and what is making that noise. I step close to the door and hear it again, but then suddenly there is a loud crack and a falling sound. The windows, the windows in the kitchen and the living room have sprayed glass in all directions and my feet are cut as I run through the kitchen and toward the front door. I open the door easily, but the screen door is hanging by one hinge; the fig tree just outside the door has fallen and taken half the cinder block fence with it.

At the other end of the house, I hear roaring, roaring rage and the drunken bull is awake but confused, looking around for his pants, his cigarettes, his whore of a wife who is making the house shake, who is making everything on earth go wrong, filthy bitch shaking the walls, destroying everything. Suddenly, the lines from the septic tank to the house back up, back up like his wife wishes she could do, and that effluvium pushes its way from the tank into the pipes into the toilets and out, crawling, swimming and stinking down the hall toward the baby’s room, toward the brother’s room, toward me. The roaring is getting louder and I leave; there is an unbroken window and a screen that is easily loosened and as I leave I see that the street is buckling, water is running down the street and neighbors are beginning to come out, some trying to drive somewhere – where can you drive when you are already at home and the whole world is breaking into hard, foul, sharp violent edges?  The neighbors in their bathrobes, pink mules for the ladies and suede slip-ons for the men, huddling in small groups uncertainly in the street to see how everyone is, come to see if the raging bull has made the streets break, the lights go out, has come to make sure that the earthquake has not shaken him and us into utter collapse. But it has not. He has fallen asleep on his quaking bed, and the rest of us have gathered together to stand outside, to watch the street settle back down, asphalt and gravel grinding uncomfortably together,  and the sudden lights, coming back on, do not say that the earthquake is done, yet, only that we are still here, still here, here still.

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.

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.

Scapegoat

I’ve been a scapegoat more times that I can count. Many’s the time I found myself tangled in some ridiculous, false, absurd accusation. Frankly, I believe that scapegoating is hard wired into human interaction.

At least that’s what my grandfather always said, and he was something of an expert on the subject. Jungian fellow, always looking for the archetype. What we have here, he said to me when I was 8, is a classic example of scapegoating. I was crushed, the ridiculous sad clown of the third grade, smacked down and beaten up by every fifth grader and even a few fourth graders every time the teachers turned their backs.

It was interesting the first time he talked about it. He told me half a dozen examples from his own case histories, each one worse than what I’d just experienced. By the time I’d heard it again and again, in 6th grade, 8th, 9th and on throughout highschool, though, it wasn’t interesting anymore. Grandpa had started to grow hair out of his ears, which I took to mean he could tell me whatever stupid Jungian story he wanted, but couldn’t hear anything I had to say back to him. Like, that’s fine in the abstract, but what does the scapegoat do about it?

This occurred to me around 17, last year of high school. I’d been a dumb suffering brute up until then, but suddenly this voice came to me — hey hey heeeeey, what about this, what about this harassment, there are plenty of other doofus 17 year old guys with skin worse than mine, worse social problems, why this relentless singling out of me? Me?  I can see myself, 14 years old, helping my mother make mayonnaise for her Sunday afternoon card game, and it doesn’t  look so bad, the white are raising, the yolks are blending, the lemon is lemony but not oppressive. Somehow, by Monday morning every jock and every cheerleader in Cherry Hills Middle School knows I’ve been making mayonnaise with my mommy. Mayo Clinic, they called me for three months.

Maybe that’s why I went to cooking school instead of medical school. I had a rich, complex, unusual relationship to the tongue, which I processed and served mixed with conventional ingredients that were presented in fantastic, grotesque shapes at the Madison Food Orgy, a three-day food festival event held in Madison in the early 90s. My tongue won 2nd place for best presentation two years running. This was a terrific first challenge.

There is a lot of disgrace in the food circuit; almost everybody has taken short cuts from time to time, but in cooking, with its small but powerful judges, it’s easy to underestimate the impact of the special foods section. I forgot, for two or three years, but I’m back now.

mayonnaise


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