Posts Tagged 'mothers'

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.


gaping maw

He’s taken my money and killed himself. This is what I have to ask myself. I mean, I can imagine the earth opening up, gaping mouth and hungry for vengance and taking him down to the steaming pits of hell. I can definitely imagine that, and I can definitely more or less agree with that plan, what with all that greed and all that theft and all of those people, people like you and me, just left out in the cold, holding the bag, while he’s been sucked down into those bowels. But what I can’t understand is where the money went. Do they use money in hell? What currency? What exchange rate? Do they extend credit? Because what I don’t understand is why the man would kill himself after he got all the money. I can readily understand suicide for someone who’s too poor, too sick, too miserable, too pained to tolerate the hand they’ve been dealt, but when billionaires kill themselves, you’ve just got to ask a few questions. I mean, they wouldn’t be billionaires in the first place if they’d had any scruples, am I right? So how does it happen that scruples develop after they’ve taken everything but the very shirt off of my back and where the hell is my mother’s money? That’s all I want to know. Maybe he’s not really dead. Maybe he and Bill and Bernie and whoever else lives on their privately-owned island paradise somewhere, paying for their exile with her retirement funds. 

Then again, maybe he really is dead. He could be dead. So I ask again, where is the money? And then again, maybe he didn’t really kill himself. Maybe the machine killed him, the machine that makes the money happen, makes millionaires into billionaires (billion is the new million, had you heard?), then eats their heads.

Maybe he didn’t kill himself. Maybe his head exploded from trying to do the accounts, from trying to account for, be accountable for, the transfer of wealth from the gullible middle class into his own stainless steel glass and white leather penthouse apartment that he’s had replicated in several major cities worldwide so he never feels like he’s away from home. Because he’s pretty fearful of being away from home. Remember when he was little and he used to wet his bed until the psychiatrist recommended the electric matress pad that gave him a shock every time he did it? But not until he asked for them, because he was going away to summer camp and the summer he was seven, every kid in Potlatch Village knew he was a bed wetter and a thumb sucker too and they made his life a living hell. So much so that he told Dr. Stangard that he’d either have to use the electroshock system or give up on ever getting into a decent college. Dr. Stangard wrote a prescription for nerves and ordered the electric pad, which was delivered three weeks before camp started. It only took 4 days.

Then again, maybe he did kill himself. Maybe that early bedwetting was an indicator of deep sensitivity that he’d learned to suppress using electroshock and assorted prescription drugs and he was so out of touch with his feelings that he could screw anyone, even his own parents and sister, without feeling much of anything. And maybe when he went to rehab, like he did last December, they cleaned out his system and all those feelings came rushing back and overwhelmed him and he had feelings again for the first time since he was seven years old. Poor little guy. And maybe if he hadn’t turned on himself, he might’ve turn on us, like some of them did, mowing down an entire tribe of CEOs and investment bankers. And maybe we should be grateful that he didn’t. Bless his heart, we will miss him, won’t we?

Woman with a wandering eye


There in the firelight sits a man, a dog, a chunk of meat and a knife. On the wall is a florid oil painting of a peacock walking across a garden, while a pale lady in a silk gown with a dangerously low bodice, wearing piles of yellow curls, sits on an ornate bench, holding her pekingese in her lap.

The man is drinking something: ale, if he’s been working with his men out on the moors; red wine, if he has guests of the more refined variety. But no, he’s got a chunk of meat and a knife. Let’s give him some crusted bread and devonshire cheese while we are at it. His complexion just got a bit higher, and one notices that the pale lady in the portrait appears to be looking at something over a low hedge: the gardener, is it? He’s a fine rustic lad, with a simple name, like Thomas or young Will. She’s looking at him over the hedge, while the pekingese is staring off the canvas at the meat lit up by the firelight.

The man and his ancestors have been in this home with its drafts, its wet stone walls, its brocades and warming pans, for over 400 years. This man, like others of his line, craved travel in his youth. He was the first of his people to travel across the ocean to the wild open west, the muddy roads, the rutted wagon trails. He was the first to break a palomino on the open range, the first to trade in furs and leathers and strange stories sent back across the wide seas. His letters to his father, who was staying in Constantinople with his second wife, were full of lies, and had more of truth hidden in them than he wanted his father to know. His mother, she of the pale hair and the lusting eye, was gone by then. She’d died of a fever one year when the garden was neglected, and the fruit trees had a late cold snap in May. The gardener was found leaning against a wall, dead of a bee sting, according to the parish doctor.

The man’s name is William, after all the Williams in their long line, and his eyes are not a pale hesitant blue like his mother, or a distracted grey, like his father. His eyes are green, the green of seas with warm currents, the green of coastal treasures, the green his descendants would see in the land beneath them 400 years later as they flew over New Zealand, or Brazil, or the western coast of Canada. Green turns to blue and then wanders out into the ocean, where sailors have travelled months at a time to reach the islands of tropical dreaming. The man’s name is William, he of a long line of Williams from chilly lands who have travelled the world in their younger days for hundreds of years. They have travelled to green islands and warm countries: palm trees, coconuts, lava flows, rice fields, machetes, oxen. All things foreign in a world spinning and gradually growing smaller, slower and coming to a resting place.

The pale woman’s descendants travel the world now on thin, light titanium bikes, wearing clothes that wick away moisture, and meals in tubes. They, too, love ale, all her green-eyed daughters, grand-daughters and great great grand-daughters, their friends and lovers. All of them love adventure, and slobbery dogs and frisbees, and all of them love the feeling of otherness that carries them in their strong female bodies through places where the fair-skinned woman with yellow curls and her pekingese were never able to go. And all of the woman’s sons and grand sons and great grand sons keep going back to their place by the fire, century after century, to their ancestral hall, and wait for the women to come home.

Mothers, daughters, sisters – a Christmas story


I had a happy rooster once. He was bright and loud and disappeared one mid-winter day just before Christmas. This was long enough ago that when I look at my legs in my memory they are thin, with pale fine hair on light brown skin. Kid legs. I can see my kid legs and they are not here any more. I still have the tin tree ornament nena gave me to replace the happy rooster, though.

The vatos who inhabited my sister’s dreams in seventh grade dressed better than I did. Their hair was shiny, remember that, hita? My sister (who is actually my daughter but we didn’t tell her yet) kept pictures of all the boys she loved for about a year, and then she stopped. When you marry a bad boy, it’s better not to look back, is the way I always heard it. But later, when we are all comfortable again and certain things have been forgotten, we can get out the box of pictures. For years, she kept them in a cigar box, but she moved them into a metal dental tool box she got when she was dating that crazy periodontist. Hector Altamirano, moved here with his family from Mexico City when Hector was 6; his mom cleaned houses in a damn good neighborhood, got Hector the grades to get into the right schools, and next thing you know it’s rinse and spit and a piece of prime real estate in the Silver Lace neighborhood. When Hector and Zola broke up, she moved to San Antonio and opened an office as an investment banker. She knew as much as anyone else, was how she figured it.

One day when Zola was still too little to talk about family, she and I were lying together on the porch in front of my mother’s house. We had our heads together and we were looking inside of a wooden box with metal hinges. Inside the box was a mouse. The mouse was small, probably immature, with tiny white paws and smooth brown fur. We were lying on our stomachs, cracking the box open enough to let some light in. The mouse inside looked out, sneezed and trembled, wrung his mouse hands together. I think he’s praying, said Zola. No, I said, too logical and mature at 19 to let even a mouse have prayers. Is too, said Zola, and then she started to cry. Big baby tears. The hinged door fell open, baby Zola ran screaming and crying into the house. I followed her, and the mouse’s prayers were immediately answered.

At Christmas time, we alternated between Christmas trees, glitter, chunks of coal and runaway hysteria. Nena knew the importance of light in wintertime, especially in cold winters when nothing is enough. Especially in winters when we are moving from one secret place to another, and there is never enough to put deposits on all the utilities. Moving is damn expensive, really hard on the poor, but we are the ones who have to do it most often. Sometimes we played the midnight mover, packed our bags and left with rent owing. I can’t say I knew what else to do.

If you take a cold five year old, dress her in yellow pajamas, the kind with the feet in and printed ducks and geese all over, then wrap her in a sleeping bag in a cold room with an unlit fire, then you sneak out while she is sleeping and buy a fire log at the mini mart with the three dollars in change that you had been saving in a pickle jar, then you light the fire and wake the little girl up and she sees the old artificial tree with the scrubby plastic ornaments in the firelight at midnight and you tell her santa has come at last, she believes you, and you believe too, for a little while, until the child is asleep again, and you are holding her against your chest for warmth. For her, for you, for Christmas.


Chocolate A Minah


Minah had a butterfly collection that she inherited from her grandfather. Her grandfather’s favorite food was meatloaf, with mashed potatoes, green beans, and angel food cake, that her grandmother made with fresh goose eggs every spring. Minah never got the hang of baking. Her angel food came out tough – you beat it too much, she can hear her mother’s voice, whining like a buzz saw.

Don’t listen like that, she thinks to herself and beats the eggs some more. Poor eggs. Throttled. No greatness, no soufflé, her eggs were always fallen like angels. This did eventually lead her to chocolate, which can accept some brutal handling, some sweet heavy evil, some shame. She reminded herself to be grateful for her failure with eggs, especially after chocolate shook her loose from home and into her own sweetest baking moments.

Chocolate was the name of Minah’s first dog. He was an unintentional mastiff, rescued from the shelter as a tiny tiny pup who suddenly and like the incredible hulk became much larger than expected. Holy cow, she said to her mom, to her granddad, to her kid. OMG, said the kid to his friends. WTF said the friends to each other. They compared Chocolate to Clifford as he grew and grew, as he grew too large to lie with his monstrous feet under the dining room table. They compared Chocolate to Puff as he grew huge, affectionate and exiled out in the yard, where he fit and yet did not fit, lonely dog, lonely dragon.

One day they met an unusual man, a spelunking man who had no fear of dark spaces, big dogs, butterflies or the exact science and mystery of baking. He became the friend and sponsor of one large dog, Minah, and her son Kel.  This man had a talent for dogs, friends, chocolate, baking, teaching, and mixing things up.

The first time they met was in the caverns down south, a series of deep caverns with one wide open mouth. Invisible in the dark on the trail into the main cave, Kel was singing songs to himself about his big dog, songs that rhymed and almost rapped. He could see his hands making gangsta moves in the absolute darkness and he felt cool as the inner sanctum and the wet inner wind licking his skin. The guide turned off his light and then the darkness was absolute, an absolution, an absolute acceptance that the eyes would find nothing. The earth shifted around them, there was a smell of damp and guano, and the lights came back on.

Later there were sodas and sandwiches in a brightly lit cafeteria at the bottom, then the walk back up to the surface. They came out just at sunset and the bats were coming home, dark clouds, red sky, air 104 degrees. Arm hairs shaken and rising in the interim space between dark, light, hot, cold, childhood, death. They laughed as strangers on short journeys do, but met again later at the hotel pool, where they talked generally about caves, bats, dogs, baking and butterflies. Then more specifically about chocolate, Chocolate, grandfather’s butterfly collection, and Minah’s difficulty with angel food cake and eggs. This was a natural friendship of man boy dog and woman, lightly mixed, risen and set to cool.

Chocolate lived a very short life, as large dogs do. Minah and Kel had a box of recipes for chocolate desserts with his picture on the lid, and thought of him every time they made something sweet, and thought of the darkness, and thought of the bats rising up into the sunset sky. 


 The dark red pores of the worn leather chair looked wet, looked like blood soaking in, looked like red wine ruining an otherwise perfectly easy white grape evening. The cowboy was chewing, the cowboy was chewing and his cheek was distended with tobacco and spit. Dana, Danalynn, Delaney Marie, depending on when you asked her, what age what incarnation, shuddered and considered the implications of spilled wine, drunken cowboys, and her mother coming home in the middle of what might be described as a another bad judgment phase of her life. Delaney, Laney, Dana Marie, my little Marybell, I am so disappointed in you, mama would say. Laney wiped up the spilled wine, emptied the ashtrays, and put mama to bed. Cowboy too, if she had to.

But Ma, guess what I got in my hand? Laney would say and would hold out a wad of tobacco, a wad of wrong living, a wad of judgment that her mother would chew on for months in the informal group that passed for therapy after the money was all gone.

Ma, what I got in my hand is the future, Laney would say. She’d been doing this since she was little, since the first time Laney realized that the moving, the dance, the constant changing from place to place  all meant something about loneliness and terror, the loneliness and terror of her young mom. Laney held her mother’s fear in her hand like a sphere, a round smooth ball of palm-warmed glass. There was peace and rest in mama’s fear, a vocabulary of calming that she spooned into mama’s mouth like warm milk to a kitten’s mew.

Laney had a cat once, a little cat who lived under the front steps of a trailer house down the street. Little cat had kittens, even though she was barely grown herself. Laney crawled under the steps with a can of food bank tuna, which was greasy and smelled of diesel oil, but little cat went for it and came with her, kittens and all, in a box with an old cotton dish cloth. She quickly became a tame kitty with babies that tore at her adolescent nipples and sucked her thin and dry, even with all the canned tuna Laney could divert from their own weekly supply. Laney personally hated food bank tuna and even the smell of it made her gag, but there were things she would do for baby cat that she was not willing to do for herself.

The kittens grew into cats and ate like cats and ate and ate until their belly skin was tight and round. Laney realized that each little mouth was going to generate more little mouths and that her own regenerative capacities as regards tuna would probably not be able to keep up with demand. About that time, mama packed their bags, taking Laney and little cat but leaving the kittens, the furniture and the cowboy all lying in tobacco spit and tuna juice, and they moved someplace clean and new.

The clean new place was small, in a biggish city that started with a vowel. Layney was pretty sure the name of the city was an Indian name, a first peoples name, and she got out her book about first people and the story her first daddy had told her about his people, we are from this people and that, all the way back to the turtle clan and the very first people of all. She imagined herself riding on the turtle’s back for hundreds of years, never being bored at all. Turtle time is very different than people time, she can hear her father’s voice telling her in the voice of his people, his old turtle clan. She thinks the name of her first father is George, but this is not something she can talk to mama about, even on the best days, even when there is no stinking cowboy buying the beer and helping ma lose her job again.

When she was liittle, Laney thought, didn’t they go to the zoo sometimes? She thought they went to the zoo when she was young, and at the zoo her favorite time of day was when the zookeepers brought out the different kinds of food for each different kind of animal. Hay, pellets, seeds, mangoes, beef, smelt, lettuce, tiny mice with pink eyes. Everybody eats something, mama said, and gave her some pellets to feed to the ducks. The ducks fought and bit each other. Laney preferred the flamingos, standing steady on their backward elbows, and the otters, who made every bite look like a fantastic joke, no matter who they were eating.

In the imaginary jungle where Laney wandered at night after sleep took her out of the very small place, the cowboy lived far away, and the animals who shook and rattled her sleeping cage were drawn broad, some of them even in crayon with little glitter bits filling in the details where she wasn’t exactly sure how a rhino’s tusk should be drawn. The imaginary jungle did not have a smell, not at all like the zoo or the apartment with the burned carpet and the molding beer smell, or the motel with the scented dispenser that shot springtime freshness out into the room automatically every twenty minutes. Laney lay in bed some nights, listening to the scent dispenser release like clockwork, a springtime disinfectant bouquet that sat in the back of her throat. Mama came home late, smelling like smoke, roulette nerves and fried food, and that mixed in with the springtime and tobacco spit memory. Those smells made Laney think of luck and the cowboy. The cowboy had liked to play the lottery, punching in Laney’s special numbers, telling her Laney, you’re a winner, you’ll see. You’ll see.

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July 2020