Showing posts with label family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family. Show all posts

cumberland house

Despite all the reasons I give him not to, my friend Cameron still tolerates me. Despite my flakiness, my selfishness, my inability to ever match what he puts in - his friendship is constant.

Do you want to know what he gave me for Christmas? It's pretty amazing. He found one of the few untarnished memories I have of my childhood, boxed it up, and sent it to me so that I could experience it again, with more visceral force than I could about handle.

We were talking one night in early December when we discovered a commonality between our mothers: an obsession with Department 56 collectible villages. This was my mom's big thing, back in the day. Every year she would buy a house, or a church--the post office, or the city hall. And the accessories. Miniature Rockwellian people, frozen in friendly ceramic smiles and stiff-armed waves. Tiny glowing street lights and spiky plastic trees. Shredded white wax paper for snow. Everything was wired with lights, making for a cozy, twinkling little town to be gazed at over a cup of cocoa.

My mother battled depression and alcoholism, mostly losing. This made her unavailable, to say the least. But something about the holidays brought out her best, most loving self. She'd take me to the craft store for felt and pipe cleaners, glitter and pom poms. We'd sit cross-legged at the coffee table well past my bedtime, designing schlocky ornaments to hang proudly on the tree.

All this to say that when I think of my mom at Christmastime, the darkness with which I associate her recedes, and I see her at her warmest and brightest. I loved my mother most at the holidays, and I felt her love strongest.

When Cameron and I realized our Department 56 connection, we compared notes. I told him that I'd never forget my favorite piece: the New English-sounding Cumberland House. It was a two-story Colonial with a sloping brick roof and double chimneys. Spearmint green boughs adorned four majestic columns and a string of colored lights dipped down to side-by-side wreaths. It was a masterpiece of symmetry, an aesthetic which by then I already loved.

You know where this story is going, of course.

Cameron looked online, and found quite a few Cumberland Houses for sale. None of them would have reached me in time for Christmas, though. (What he really wanted to do was show up at my door with one, but that wasn't feasible this year.) On the 23rd, he happened to look on Craigslist Los Angeles. There was exactly one Department 56 piece for sale. It was a Cumberland House.

He reached out to the woman selling it and explained his shipping/timing predicament. Wondrously, generously, she agreed to wrap it and drive it from North Ridge down to LA and deliver it to me at work--on Christmas Eve.

One of the best parts of the whole thing was the reaction of my coworkers. Everyone was super intrigued by the little dragon label on it (an inside joke of ours), and impressed by the size of the box. And I felt pretty fucking special getting a special delivery. I was utterly clueless as to what it could be, and stared at it curiously on the train ride home.



And then when I did open it, well. I told him it was like unwrapping a lightning bolt. I actually cried out.



I wish my mom could have seen that moment, could have witnessed me experiencing an emotion thirty years in the making. But then that's why it's so important to cherish the ones we still have, while we have them, right?



And that's something I certainly didn't appreciate, thirty years ago.

love letters from the tundra (part 1)

I can't believe it's been since February that I posted about the letters my dad wrote to my mom, during their long-distance (Fairbanks, AK to NY, NY) courtship. I transcribed them several months ago, but just hadn't gotten around to sharing them. Finally doing that now.

I thought about annotating them, but I think, after all, a few accompanying snapshots will suffice. I'll let them tell their own story...

---


31 May 1966

Hi Pussy Kat:

I know that I'm not supposed to write again until receipt of certain photographs (gee, it must be wonderful to be so resolute and adamant...) but I have about an hour to kill before I got to work and among other things I would like to get some typing practice in. 

The weather is absolutely fabulous and has been for the past three days. By the way, weather up here is a very legitimate topic for conversation. It affects our lives in umpteem different ways; from whether or not we get a plane that week, to the operating conditions of the electronics equipment, to the advisability of going hunting. Speaking of hunting, I understand that the game at this end of the sector is plentiful and this summer I am going to see if I can get enough seal to get a new parka made up. The parka that I'm using now is the typical nylon piling, covered with corduroy, and trimmed with wolf and wolverine fur. It's a nice parka as far as parkas go but as this sort does not wear too well it is getting pretty well beat up and will have to be replaced before winter. Back to the weather; the temperature has been running at thirty and forty above zero and the snow is melting rapidly. There is only about six inches of snow left and there are patches of tundra showing through in spots. It's a funny thing; you wait all year for the snow to melt and then when it does and that green-brown conglomeration of weeds, moss, grass, etc. shows through you can't wait for the first heavy snows of winter to come and cover it up. The tundra up here is really a unique thing. Mile after mile of perfectly flat ground covered with the above sickening vegetation, that in winter lays over the country like a white velvet blanket, and in summer turns into a sea of muck and mire. Believe it or not it is easier to travel up here during the winter on the snow than in the summer on the tundra. Aside, the above tundra in the summer, although a soggy mess on the surface, is frozen solid just a foot below the top. This frozen bottom, called permafrost, hasn't softened up or melted, so the University of Alaska informs us, since the creation of the world some two billion years ago. Bring that up at some cocktail party and someone will blow the whistle for the men in white coats. As for cocktail parties, we ran out of scotch the other day and I have stumbled upon a new super weapon - vodka and creme de menthe (spelling?) - if the color doesn't get you sick, the drink will. (I'm not sure if I told you that once I cross the Arctic Circle I revert to true type - alcoholism).

Now for news on the southern front. How is the merry widow holding her own, to be nasty, let me inform you that no one has pulled a Steve Brody off the Verenazzo (spelling?) Bridge yet. I wilsh that I could see the rage and horrified look on your face at this moment. To repeat a very hackneyed phrase, you are absolutely beautiful when you get angry. And the beauty of it all is that you are so easy to get into this condition: you are beyond any shadow of a doubt the most teasible girl in the world. And me I, the perfect gentleman that I am, are so quick to take advantage of this fact. Chuckle, chuckle, heh, heh.

Aside from that, I hope that your back is killing you, or at least bothering you enough to be in the mood for my particular brand of chiropractic skills. Let the censors figure that one out. You mentioned something about an operation for an overactive thyroid, or something, please fill me in on the details. It is not that I am morbidly curious but I do have a sincere interest in you. This is one of the great paradoxes of my life, usually I am very aloof with women because I know that as soon as I become emotionally involved it is just a matter of time before I get the brushoff or a Dear John (and my name isn't even John) so I am awaiting one or the other from you as soon as you get bored with my idiosyncrasies.

Have to cut this short now and go and earn my dailly bread. To be continued...

Note: it is very difficult to reinsert a sheet of paper into a typewriter and line up ones margin, etc.

Oh, hi again. Well, word was just passed that this weeks vertical flight is up at Bar Main so there is a pretty good chance that good ol' 769 will make it Liz way with the mail after all. 

---
mom's the one in white

dad's the one rockin' the handlebar mustache
yeah, I'd probably drink a lot, too


a therapy session, a time machine, and a Penseive

How well do you think you know your parents? How much of their past--their deep past, the one before you came along--do you know? Do you understand who they are, and why they are the way the are?

By the time I reached my teens, I had my parents pegged. And my portraits of them weren't all that flattering. My mother was the needy, morose, passive aggressive alcoholic; my dad the stubborn, ill-tempered cynic. Family dysfunction, addiction, and occasional violence prevented any kinder or even just more nuanced characterizations of them from ever emerging. As far as I was concerned, they were a mess--and the reason I was a mess. It's so convenient to have it all figured out at sixteen.

Anyway, my father's cynicism, for as long as I can remember, was absolute and all-encompassing. Politics, culture, romance--you name it, he scoffed at it. Romance in particular was a subject for intense jeering. No matter how excited I was about a boy, from the time that boys were something to be excited about, my dad would find a way to cut down my happiness. That sounds cruel, I know, but I won't pull the punch. He did. I still loved him.

To him I suppose it was a form of teasing, though underneath there was probably some warning being issued. Be careful honey. Love will hurt you. Maybe he was only trying to toughen me up. Whatever his motives, I would never, ever, ever think of my dad as the romantic type. In fact when I told him I was getting married, his critical and dismissive response upset me so much we wound up not speaking for nearly three years. I walked myself down the aisle to greet a husband he hadn't even met.

My father thought marriage was a terrible joke of an idea. His divorce from my mother had nearly killed them both, so acrimonious, expensive, and protracted an event it was. Anyone having gone through such nastiness could be forgiven some Scroogitude where relationships are concerned. It's just really hard to see that when it's your dad.

Of course, despite being the Anti-Romantic, he still pursued women. He'd occasionally share his dating site matches with me, show me the letters in which he wooed would-be lovers. My father was nothing if not clever; these flirty missives were something else. But flirty is where they stopped. I'd even describe them as wary. Chary. Once burned, he was twice shy about climbing back into the fire. And he made it clear to the women he was dating: expect no Romeo, and certainly no ring.

Then my mother died. And a new window into my dad's personality cracked open just the tiniest bit. He did something that caught me completely off guard, it was so uncharacteristic and unexpected. He asked to have her ashes. His ex-wife's ashes. A woman whom he'd been bad-mouthing to me for the better part of twenty years. He promised he had no nefarious intent whatsover, that he would safeguard them for as long as he lived. What the hell.

I didn't question it. I chalked it up to nostalgia, to late-life sentimentality. And I obliged. It's a very odd thing, signing off on having your cremated mother FedExed to her ex-husband. But so it went.

Then the window, through which I had already glimpsed a softer side of my dad than I'd suspected existed, swung open further. And revealed was a man nothing like the one I'd grown up with.

Here's what happened: I found, among my mother's things, a stack of love letters he'd written her. They were dated from May of 1966 through December of that same year. When I came across them I spent a good minute just frowning in confusion. Wait, what? What is this? Someone wrote all these sweet, romantic letters to my mother and signed my dad's name? I don't get it.

It just didn't compute. He wasn't that person. He'd never. Only, here was the proof, right before my eyes. Immaculately kept and bundled neatly with a bulldog clip (which raised all kinds of questions about my mother in turn, like why on earth were these so precious to her when she so hated my dad?). Chronologically ordered. Neatly typed with my father's address in Alaska heading each page. Things started to click into place when I saw that header. Holy shit. This...this was during their courtship. When he was working in Fairbanks and she was still back in NYC. These...this was before they were even married

I thumbed through the stack and let my eyes fall on a random paragraph. As luck would have it, though I wouldn't know it for nearly seven years, I just so happened to land on the one semi-explicit sexual reference in the whole set of letters. Nothing too crazy, just a little kinky. But oh my god, that was more than enough for me. Nope nope nope. Not my business, boundary needed here, don't wannna know. I dropped them as if they were a smoking gun.

But the seed of a thought had been planted: maybe my father hadn't always been a cynical hardheart after all. Maybe a long time ago, before life had its way with it, his heart was full and open.

I mentioned the letters to him casually during our next phone call, keen to hear his reaction. Curiously, he didn't seem all that surprised. Maybe he'd known she'd kept them. Maybe he understood their post-divorce relationship better than I did. At this point I didn't know what to think. But when he asked in a quiet, hopeful voice whether I'd mind sending them to him unread, at least I knew what to do: send them to him, unread.

Fast forward three years to, this time, my father's death. Spring of 2012. Along with the rest of his estate, the letters come back into my possession. There is no one else to pass them to. (My brother would tear them to shreds without hesitating.) But grieving as I am, reading them seems impossible. It's not that I don't want to know what's in them, it's just that I can't yet. I can't. So I put them away, among my other personal memorabilia. I leave them untouched and unread for three years. I don't forget about them, I never once forget about them--but the time doesn't feel right. Until that is, yesterday.

Why yesterday? Well, that...that's difficult to explain. Suffice to say it was a really, really, really bad day, and I spent most of it casting about for a lifeline. Something to make me feel less alone, and more connected to the parts of me that I'm okay with. Something to center me. The letters, I remembered. It's time.

Terence was asleep. It was past midnight. I stood on a chair to reach the shelf above the kitchen cabinets, and pulled down all three of my stuffed-full memorabilia boxes. The letters were in the first box I opened, in as near-mint condition as when I'd found them seven years ago. I grabbed my glasses, took the letters over to the rug, and sat underneath an angled task lamp.

I read the date on the top one: 31 May 1966. Almost fifty years ago. I did some quick math: my father would have been 27; my mother, 25. I curled my feet under my legs, took a deep breath, and discovered a man completely unrecognizable from the one who raised me. A passionate, dreamy, tender romantic. An optimist, through and through.

It took me less than an hour to get through them. There are only sixteen. But they are lovely. They are so lovely. They are sweet and funny and playful and hopeful. They break my heart and then fill it and then break it again. They are exceedingly well-written. They describe in direct terms my father's life in the remote Alaskan tundra, and in indirect ones the life my mother was living concurrently "down south" in New York. They paint a picture of a couple desperate to reunite and reignite a flame they'd only just lit--my parents spent a mere month dating before my dad landed a work contract that took him across the continent. These letters are their courtship. They are full of references to things that would later be a part of my own life. They allude to planned vacations the pictures of which I saw time and again, in photo albums that lined our living room shelves. They shed light on aspects of my mother's character that I would come to share. They are a therapy session, a time machine, and a Penseive.

I am, perhaps understandably, more enamored of them than would be a stranger. But I believe anyone with a heart would find them at least a little charming. So I'm going to share them. I'll either transcribe them or just scan the letters themselves. I might post them here or, if I can find time, give them their own simple website. I'm thinking about adding to them somehow. Annotating them, using them as a starting point for my own essays, creating short fiction to complete them--I don't know. I just want to do something with them. Both characters are gone now; it's been almost four years since my dad died. I believe it's okay to do this. There's nothing overly personal and beyond a few playful moments nothing explicitly sexual. After all, they barely knew one another at the time.

You have to spend a lifetime with someone, to really know them. Sometimes longer.

America's Favorite

My mother snuck up on me tonight. She likes to do that, when I make a cup of tea.

Tea was her clock and her comfort. She fixed a cup first thing in the morning, rawboned and pensive in faded flannel pajamas. Thinness kept her girlishly limber into her fifties, and she would sit with her knees drawn tight to her chest like a child at story hour, a faraway look masking her thoughts as she sipped. In those moments it was as if her whole body were wrapped around the mug, pulling heat and strength and reassurance from its steam.

All day. She drank it all day. With meals and afterward. Between chores and before bed. My mother drank tea the way some people smoke tobacco: agreeably and pleasurably chained to it.

She drank cheap American tea, which she prepared the tragically American way: by nuking a single-serve baggie in cold tap water on high for two and a half minutes. As I child I thought microwave ovens worked by conventionally heating their contents, only with greater power. When I learned they actually operate through radiation, I was terrified to think what my mother was ingesting from those little bloated brown bags of leaves. Now I know whatever poisons irradiated Lipton left in her blood were nothing compared to what the alcohol did. But kids aren't always good at recognizing the enemy.

Tonight I wanted to wrench more from the dwindling evening than my brain seemed prepared to give, and past a certain hour coffee just feels obscene - so I made a cup of tea. The cabinet is stocked with Earl Grey, peppermint, and chamomile, not to mention a half-dozen tins of Terence's oolongs and greens and other more exotic blends. But I chose from the bright yellow box with the red and white logo - the one containing several dozen miniature envelopes packed in cheerful uniformity. The cheap stuff. America's Favorite Tea. Well, perhaps. One American's that I can attest to anyway.

I can't drown it without smelling it first. And that smell is everything. Things I've known and things I'll never understand. Things familiar and things forgotten. Things that make sense and things that have no business speaking to me at all, much less from the depths of a delicate paper packet the size of a pocket watch. Orange blossom, pepper, and miscommunication. Timothy hay, chocolate, and blame. That smell is my mother.

A funny thing about tea, though: its scent seems to fade under the kettle's boiling spout. So she comes sometimes, when I reach into the bright yellow box. But she rarely stays longer than two and a half minutes.

d r e m e l

I have to sit on my hands, to keep from texting my ex again. It's Friday afternoon, and I've spent a portion of the previous two evenings at his studio downtown, watching as he saws, fills, glues, and hooks to my specifications. These visits haven't been a secret; Terence knows where I've been. He knows my ex has been helping me make something I need for the business I'm trying to start. Which isn't to say it hasn't been a strange situation, and that there hasn't been a conversation or two conducted in strained voices. But everyone knows what's going on.

So for reference, the ex I'm talking about is my ex ex. My old upstairs neighbor, previously referred to here as "A". I think pretty much all the old posts about that relationship are still up; I maybe pulled one to edit and never republished it. But nothing has been deleted, nothing whitewashed. He's the younger artist I was dating when my dad died; he came to Florida, was there when my dad passed, and helped me get started settling his estate. Should I do a primer, for new readers? Is that weird? Does it matter?

Well, this is a post I like, about that time period. And this, from right before my dad got sick, gives a pretty good idea of what things were like. Or even this. Then grief came and covered everything I knew in a suffocating black blanket, including our relationship. And depression drowned my ability to see anything clearly, like the fact that he wasn't the right guy for me, anyway. Ten years is big age difference. So we dragged on for a while, falling in and out of it in a really sad, unhealthy way. This post is about that back-and-forthing. And when I was finally over it, I wrote this about him.

Now you're up to speed on who I'm talking about. We've kept in loose touch over the past three years, running into one another every now and again, having a friendly conversation to catch up. He happened to reach out to say hi - after several months of no contact - a few days after Terence and I broke up; when I realized he was the one person that could make the thing I needed, I hit him up for help. He made time for me that same night.

Anyway, I'm sitting on my hands because I desperately want my piece back, the thing he's been helping me with. It's been drying on a coffee table in his loft, too wet with glue to bring home the night before. But I don't want to bug him; he's got a million things going on and a busy day schlepping prints across town. Plus there's a girl in the picture somewhere. I don't want to step on anyone's toes.

So when, after a tentative inquiry as to what time he'll be free he vaguely replies "later", I'm stuck spending the afternoon killing time. I let Chaucer take me on the most aimless walk of our lives, since I've nothing else to do; I'm at a standstill until I have all the equipment I need. We sit in the grass, wilting in the heat. But it's a pretty day and I'm considering rejoining Instagram so I shift us into the shade for a quick selfie shoot. My selfie mojo is gone though. I have no idea how to do it anymore. And when did I start showing my age so brutally? Fucking hell. A text comes: an IG buddy is moving to LA next year, for a year! We can be friends IRL! she says. I'm really excited, even if it's only for one year. And the timing is unreal. Terence and I ending, Kerry moving away. One door closes, another opens. I congratulate her on the job that's bringing her to LA. Real talk tho, if you could not interrupt my selfie sessions with your good news I'd appreciate it thx. She sends me a link to blog post that made her think of me, about a breakup. The last line knocks me over: "hold it while you can and love it as you let it go." All the love dear, she adds. Keep drinking that Red Bull.

More killing of time: stopping by Kerry's to fulfill my final catsitting duties. Getting an ice cream cone in Grand Central Market. And yeah, posting to Instagram again. Then, tooling around back at home until I can't stand the waiting anymore. I need to keep occupied until A. says I can come by. So I throw my laptop in a bag and head out to the coffee shop to blog. That's when he texts; he's home and free, and I can head over. YAYYYYYYYYY! I answer, bouncing down the sidewalk. I'll be there in five, I say. KKKKKKKkkkkkkk! he teases.

Does all of this strike you as crazy so far? Just wait.

Now to back up a bit, I should explain that I'm nervous about the thing we've been working on. I'm scared we overdid it, added too much, made it unusable. But the good news is the raw materials cost me less than $10; if I need to start from scratch it's no big deal. I'll only need A. to work his magic again, with his handy Dremel tool. In fact, I've realized, if I have my own Dremel tool, I won't even need to bother him. I can do what I need to myself. But I've never used a Dremel tool and might very likely lose a finger. Maybe I could ask A. to give me a quick lesson on Dremel tools? This is all stuff I've been thinking about today. Indeed I've just looked up how to spell "Dremel" because I've only ever heard the word, not seen it. Silly me thought it was "drimmel" or maybe "drummel".

I rehearse in my head, on the way to his studio, a gentle way to say I might need to start over fresh. I don't want to hurt his feelings, he's a perfectionist and I know helping me out has made him feel good. But sure enough, when I see the final product, dried and ready for me to take home, I know - it's wrong. Too much glue, too many sharp points, too unprofessional looking. Nothing I can take into a client's home. I'm crestfallen but try to hide it with cheerfulness. "You can make a million of these," he reassures me, reading my mind. "I'll help you. It's easy."

I'm grateful he's relieving me of the need to lie, and I launch into my spiel. "Really all I need is a Dremel tool, you know? Maybe if I got one you could show me how to use it real quick?"

"I'll do you one better," he says, walking across the room to a shelf stocked with tool boxes. "I'm pretty sure I have an extra one. Actually..." He kneels, looking among his stores. "I might have one of your dad's."

So. Now we have to back up even further, because you have to go read this.

Done? Okay. Continue.

"I might have one of your dad's," he said, and even then I was okay. I wasn't even surprised. My father's garage had been packed to the rafters with tools and I'd encouraged A. to take as many as he thought he'd use. The idea of those tools getting more use - living on, as it were - delighted me. A. had been hesitant to take anything I could sell but I'd insisted, and we'd packed up a few boxes to send ahead of us back to LA, for him to use in his work. But I hadn't paid any attention to what we were packing; I'd really had no idea which of my dad's tools he had decided to keep, for his own future use.

And suddenly here I was, three and a half years later, standing in his studio, about to be given back one of those tools. Still, though, it wasn't sinking in. Until I saw the box.

Chunky grey plastic. Black latches on either side. Dusty but otherwise in good condition. A. set it on the work bench in front of us and stepped back, smiling, tickled at the coincidence. And that's when I noticed the label. Wide blue painter's tape my father had stretched across the top of the box. Black Sharpie. His handwriting. All capitals. Six letters. D R E M E L.

My breath hitched and I fell back, putting my hand to my mouth. Emotion like a wall of water. His handwriting. The lettering. So familiar. I hadn't laid eyes on his writing in years, and here spelled out in front of me was the word I'd looked up only an hour or two earlier. D R E M E L. Always labelling everything, goddamn him. So unnecessary, Dad. The fucking box says Dremel right on it. So goddamn anal and unnecessary. 

I didn't cry long, but I cried hard. A. let me be, busying himself with finding some plastic wrap to seal the box in for transport. My mind raced. The one thing I need. The thing I need. The one tool I need, when I need it most. What are the chances. The thing I need, to get on with my life. And he gave it - the one thing. What are the chances. And I can't even thank him. I can't even tell him.

I moistened a square of paper towel under the kitchen tap, to wipe the dust from the box. A. moved away when he saw what I meant to do, but I realized he had already started wrapping it. "No no," I said. "I can just clean it at home."

"Do your thing," he said gently, and waited. There wasn't that much dirt on it, though. There probably hadn't been any at all, when it left Florida. So goddamn anal, Dad.

---

In the three days since, I've found out I don't need actually to make anything at all. The piece of equipment I need is already manufactured, and I can buy it right online. Right off Amazon. It isn't cheap, but it's perfect for what I want to do. No Dremel tool needed, in other words. My tale of incredible coincidence ends with the anticlimax of disuse.

I'm keeping it anyway, though, because you never know. You just never know.

thoughts on "Inside Out"

(contains mild spoilers)

Terence and I saw "Inside Out" on Thursday night. Wow is that one Trojan Horse of a movie. Hey boss, how we gonna sneak heavy concepts like psychological development, subconscious thought, and emotional programming into our movie? Oh yeah! Pretty Pretty Pixar! Of course!

We cried like babies. I lost it especially hard during the forgotten memories scene (and later I realized this blog is an attempt at keeping some of my own neural matter from turning to dust). I maintain the film has much more to offer adults than kids, glossy and fun as it is - though chances are, being childfree, I'm just underestimating them. Either way, I loved the message that emotions often mix, often conspire to complicate our lives in beautiful ways. It's a poignant meditation on the bittersweet nature of nostalgia, and a reminder that in order to appreciate the light, we must stay in touch with the dark.

Destroyed as I was by it, I can't imagine the number it does on parents. Oh, hai, no pressure but those core memories you're helping create for your children? Those are really, really, really important. Kk, carry on! We came home and wrapped Chaucy into the biggest cuddle ever, kissing and loving on him while I wondered aloud, perhaps absurdly, perhaps not, about my part in his psychological growth. Every time someone compliments his calm, sweet temperament is a secret gold star stuck on my heart and I think to myself, If nothing else, you did that. You gave a dog a happy life. You made a happy dog. 

Is it ridiculous that I managed to make a feature-length cartoon about how I've raised my pet? Absolutely. Am I the only dog mom that came away with the same thoughts? I have to doubt it.

"Inside Out" gives its adult viewers a lot to reflect on, regarding their relationships with their parents. (And I don't think I could have handled watching it very soon after losing either of mine.) In fact it practically invites us to critically review these relationships. We all went through rough transitions, as children. New home, new school, change, loss - moments that challenged our still developing minds so deeply we needed the support of our families to keep us steady. And I expect those adult viewers who are also parents came away doing a lot of introspection about their own emotional availability - to their kids, and to their partners. That is, if the way I renewed my pledge to Chaucer's well being is any indication.

All this thinking. Makes me say something I don't often: Thanks, Hollywood.

starter pair

Sometimes I think everything you'd need to know about my terribly flawed character you could learn from my eyeglasses.

When I was first diagnosed with astigmatism, I had a pair of my dad's drugstore readers refitted with my prescription. He kept them scattered around his house the same way he hoarded mechanical pencils - the same way I keep a tiny blue jar of Blistex handy in nearly every dresser, cabinet, and purse. At a certain age you get tired of looking for things.

Anyway, they were a temporary and sentimental fix. Cheap green plastic, one of the few personal items of his that I saved. After all, they literally let me see the world the way he did. And I resisted buying new frames that would suit me better because every time I put a pair on, I saw my mother in the mirror. Given the choice, I'd rather see my dad's past looking back at me than my own future.

When I finally gave in, it was Chanel that seduced me past my hangup. Rectangular, midnight blue acetate, tasteful twin Cs mounted on an inch of delicate leather quilting at the temple. They were so beautiful I didn't notice that they were essentially the same shape and style as my dad's pharmacy readers. Or that they made me look more like my mother than anything else I'd tried on. They were $300. They were, technically, my first pair. I consider myself a generous person towards others, but when it comes to something for me? Entitled doesn't even begin to cover it.

I still have them, remarkably. I've managed not to lose or break them yet. But because I am so goddamn lazy, they're almost always smudged to a comical degree. I'd be embarrassed to leave the house in them, yet I'll sit at my desk for hours on end, fully aware of the fingerprints through which I'm viewing my laptop screen, and never so much as wipe them on my shirt. Three hundred dollars. Starter pair.

And to put the cherry on this symbolism sundae, I never remember to take them when I need them most: night driving.

In other words, this thing from which I benefit greatly - this beautiful, valuable thing which, when I take advantage of it, helps me do better - is the thing I most casually disregard and take for granted.

Not all problems can be erased with a soft, dry cloth.

cloak

A funny thing happened when my dad died: I started becoming him. It was subtle at first. I began using words and phrases he favored - even ones that had always annoyed me. Then it was body language. I'd catch myself making gestures or even facial expressions that were very him. It amused me, and made me a little sad that there wasn't anyone else around who would recognize it, and be equally amused.

Then it got more serious. It's unavoidable that we internalize our parents' personalities to some degree, and I had always looked at the world through my father's (cynical, skeptical, but generally appreciative) eyes. But all of a sudden I realized I'd gone beyond just thinking about life with my dad's values in mind and had started reacting to it in ways that he would. Even in those instances where, at earlier points in my life, I would have acted completely differently - more like me. Holy shit, I thought. I'm turning into my father. 

Weirder still: I liked that it was happening. I felt strangely proud of it. Even when it was nothing to be particularly proud of. I loved my dad, he was an amazing person in so many ways and sometimes I miss him so much I can't breathe - but he could be such an asshole. Stubborn, negative, anti-social, inflexible, and critical. But when I felt those qualities bubbling up through me, rather than stuff them back down I thought No. It's okay to be like this. Dad was like this. And he was perfectly happy.

The thing being, though, that he wasn't always. Perfectly happy, that is. Or perfect. And of course I know that but to admit it, to voice it, is to recognize that I might have some work to do myself. I might have to examine these pieces of my father that I cherish if only for the fact that all pieces, now gone, are to be cherished, and say Hmm yeah, probably don't need to keep that one alive. Because that's what I'm doing, by acting like him: keeping him alive.

So here I have this very odd conflation of love and respect for my father and a desire to not manifest his worser traits. It feels wrong - to reject any part of him, now that he's gone. It feels unfair and pointless. Respect and celebrate the dead and all that. And it's painful, because what no one told me is that grief, if you want it to be, can be a magical cloak to guard you against ugly, hard realities. It can protect you from your past and it can protect you from your present. In my case it's protected me against having to acknowledge - remember, really - that my dad and I actually had a difficult relationship marked by many hurtful conflicts. By lionizing him, by keeping the grief cloak wrapped tight around me, I can lie to myself about...well, anything having to do with him.

But the dead don't seek our forgiveness, they don't care how we judge them, and they don't know anything about the lies we tell. Lucky fucking bastards.

free

On Friday afternoon, I FedExed a package containing two checks - the sending of which concludes, at long last, the execution of my dad's estate. I finally finished. The process took much, much longer than it should have, and that's entirely my fault. Somewhere along the way (towards the beginning), I froze. Each step - each document to be signed, call to be made, account to be settled - seemed insurmountable. A towering wall I couldn't even fathom trying to climb. It got so bad that I would have panic attacks when faced with even the simplest task, like responding to a quick email from my attorney. If Terence hadn't helped me with the last few exchanges, I don't know how I would have gotten through.

The emotions stirred up by the whole process were crippling. I felt resentment at having to handle the whole massive financial affair by myself, me who can barely manage my checkbook. I felt anger at my father for the way he'd set things up, obligating me to make distributions to my estranged older brother (not a particularly complicated process, but one fraught with all kinds of deep-seated familial issues). And I felt terror at the thought of doing things wrong. But rather than plow through quickly to get all this negativity behind me as soon as possible, I self-sabotaged and moved excruciatingly slow. It wasn't until I was near the end that I realized why: when it was over, when everything was wrapped up, filed, disbursed, and done - that would mean, undeniably, that he was really gone.

He's been dead for two and a half years, of course. He's been gone for a while.

But while the estate was open, while responsibilities pertaining to my dad remained, some part of him still felt present. As if he was sitting quietly on my shoulder, overseeing. If not guiding, waiting. Expecting. Whether he approved of my choices or not didn't matter. He was with me.

To dot the last i and cross the last t is to set him free.

The swell of relief I anticipated feeling when I finished hasn't come. There's just a matter-of-fact emptiness. Well, that's that I guess. So I'm trying to just enjoy that quietude, the absence of buzzing tension I've lived with since he died. Though on Friday night Terence and I did go to Peking Tavern for some celebratory fried chicken and pot stickers, and that was nice.

Just us two.

the gift

It's coming up on five years ago that my mother died. Rather, it's coming up on five years ago that she was discovered dead; no one is exactly sure how long she'd been that way before she was found, alone on her couch in front of the television. I'm sure the coroner had some idea, but if that information was conveyed to me at the time, it mercifully didn't find purchase in my shocked and grieving brain. And as I was the only one around to absorb and process the particulars of her demise - not to mention handle the logistical consequences thereof - I guess that macabre little detail dies with me.

I'm being gruesome on purpose, because I'm trying to establish context: namely, how horrific I felt about the circumstances of her passing, and how the additional guilt and shame inherently tethered to those circumstances ultimately led me to say goodbye to something else, as well: religion.

I've long credited myself with atheistic tendencies, even when I was too young to understand that's what they were. I started losing my religion as quickly as it was given to me - by parents whose own belief systems conflicted so completely that I couldn't help but see holes in both; by Catholic school teachers whose punitive natures so alienated me that I couldn't imagine a Creator who'd sanction their nastiness; by an older brother who professed Christian values one minute and physically assaulted me the next. 

But while my confidence in rejecting dogma grew over the years (manifesting in refusals to attend church, to engage in prayer at the dinner tables of my friends, to utter devotion to god along with allegiance to my country's flag), I didn't actually shed the final dregs of faith until my mother died. 

That's not something a lot of people know about me, partly because I am so vocal about my non-belief, and partly because it hasn't been something I've heretofore been keen to admit. But here is the bald-faced truth: it wasn't until I was sure I was facing eternal damnation by a supernatural deity for having abandoned my mother that I realized eternal damnation - and the supernatural deities who arbitrate its assignment - aren't real. Nor are they fun scourges with which to flagellate oneself in the wake of a devastating personal loss, but whoo boy did I think otherwise at the time. I couldn't get enough of them, in fact. Hell and God. God and Hell. I'm. So. Fucked. 

Keanu Reeves is partly to blame.

Constantine, a Reeves-helmed film about heaven and hell and the reasons a soul will secure itself a spot in either, came out years before my mom died. I'd seen it in the theater and had been entertained but not particularly engrossed. That changed when, out of what I can only guess was a perverse need to punish myself, I watched it again and again after her death. Each time a wise-cracking Keanu descended into the fiery, demon-filled depths, I felt like I was seeing my future. The movie is straight-up cartoonish in its depiction of hell, but masochistic me just could not get enough. 

If you've been lucky enough not to experience it firsthand yet, take it from me: grief can play crazy, cruel tricks with your head. I let it play with mine for months. What was already a painful experience became exacerbated by excruciating bouts of self-recrimination, fear, and crippling depression - all because I thought I would be punished, at death, for having finally cut ties with my alcoholic, emotionally abusive mother (a gut-wrenching decision decades in the making) by a god I hadn't really believed in my entire life. Thanks, religion!

The remaining ghosts of childhood indoctrination (because that's what it was; I sure hadn't gone pursuing religion on my own) robbed me of the chance to mourn my mother in peace, with love in my heart and a rational mind to guide me through the rockiest bits. Instead I looked at her and her death through a terrified fog that kept me from coming to any clear understanding of loss, regret, and familial relationships. They bumped around in my brain, those ghosts, clanging chains of fear and shame, whispering things a thousand times more vicious than anything my mother, even at her most unforgiving and manipulative, would ever say. 

Eventually, something snapped. Maybe it was my inability to reconcile God's Law (I'm not sure if there's a Bible verse about damnation for estranged daughters, but it sure seem a subtextual given) with the knowledge I am not an evil person. Maybe I rejected the incomprehensible horrors of a hypothetical, punishing god so thoroughly that all my auxiliary religious beliefs got flushed in the purge. Whatever it was, the entire system - every last silly little bit of it - suddenly screamed of fraudulence. Of disgusting and unnecessary fear-mongering. Of darkness and mystery clouding up a space where the already painful realities of life and death don't need the complication of unrealities. I rejected it wholesale. Shoved every last ounce out of my life once and for all. And the things that have filled the space left behind have been more beautiful and more gratifying than I ever could have imagined. 

It's the gift my mother never knew she gave me. 

the difference

Every once in a while, someone will ask why I write so often about my father and so seldom about my mother. This can be awkward, particularly since the someone asking is me.

My mom and I had a "difficult" and "complicated" relationship. The scare quotes aren't to mock; they're to acknowledge the nebulousness and overuse of two words that, at the end of the day, don't say much about what two people mean to one another. The shorthand works for shallow conversations (and blog posts), but it doesn't get to the heart of why I'm mostly mum about my mom. So I thought I'd explain why it is I rarely blog about her. (Explain to myself, that is.)

When I think about my dad, if I let it, the flood of memories will come fast and furious. I can easily picture him in a hundred different settings, saying a hundred different things to me. Random associations pull me from thought to emotion and back again, and if I'm not careful I'll get whiplash from the ride: the horsehair shoe brush on the shelf of his closet, sitting near a stack of thick, scratchy wool sweaters he used to wear in Alaska when he had the handlebar mustache from those epic Polaroids; I can see that same expression twenty years later and ten states over -- laughing, holding a beer, that dangerous twinkle in his eye when he'd had too much and he'd sing too loud and he'd smack my shoulder with a comradely slap like I wasn't a child at all but a drinking buddy like I wasn't his sensitive and hesitant and people-pleasing daughter but his brother or his son...

And so it goes, ranging as far and wide as I want it to.

But with my mom, there isn't this facility and clarity of reminiscence. Thinking about her with prolonged, concentrated intention - as I do with my dad now and again, to keep him alive and close and familiar - is like swimming out into the ocean, holding my breath, and letting myself sink down beneath the waves...then trying to take stock of what I see. It's possible, but it isn't easy. It isn't easy to see things underneath the blue, which turns quickly to black the deeper I go. Even on the brightest days, when my heart feels full for her, I look at my mother through a wall of water that distorts and disfigures whatever truth is there.

Have you ever stuck your hands below the surface of a fountain or a pool, and noticed the way they shimmer and twist, light and liquid playing tricks with their shapes? That's what it's like, remembering my mom. She's both the light and the liquid and my shimmering, twisting hands. I can't make out what's reality and what's trompe l'oiel.

Why is this? Simple: We just didn't know each other very well. We began our slow withdrawal from one another when I was about twelve, and family dysfunction took as its first victim our preteen-mother relationship (it eventually took a toll on all relationships in our foursome; no pairing was spared). She retreated in her own way, to her own safe havens, and I retreated in mine, to mine. And over the next ten years, as I fled the nest and began to build a new one of my own, her role in my life evolved into something best described as aunt-like. We saw less and less of one another (and one another's homes), knowing less and less of one another until eventually, I couldn't tell you whether she still used the dish set I'd grown up with or if she'd replaced it - or how she felt about doing so. Or how she felt about anything at all. And then another ten years slipped by before we knew it, as if we'd hit the snooze button on our own lives. And then she was gone.

I have to go back pretty far in my mind, to reassemble the collection of various household objects that speak of my mother. There's no horsehair shoe brush within easy reach, leading me to the next emotional totem, and so forth, such that I can resurrect for myself, for you, for anyone, the narrative that was Ellie and Her Mom. Because we stopped writing it. And when two people cease constructing a narrative with one another, they have two choices: they can either quit altogether, and move on with their lives; or, if it's too painful to just leave a void, they can continue to construct that narrative on their own, filling it with whatever stories and facts they need there to be, for their own sanity and peace.

I think that's probably what we both did, my mom and I, for a while. We told ourselves what we needed to about why it happened, and we told ourselves who the other person was, that we no longer knew, but whom we would always love. And I can't speak for her, and she can't speak for herself anymore either - but I know that I'd rather let my version of our narrative float just out of view and out of reach, underwater, rather than tell a story that isn't true. And everything I know about us is tied to everything I know about her, and both sink a little bit deeper every day, no matter how good a swimmer I am. No matter how long I can hold my breath to take stock.

That's the difference, anyway, between remembering and writing about the two people who made me.

whoa.

Tried to take a selfie Saturday night, while we were waiting for the train to go see Blackbird Blackbird. Not sure how I managed it, but I guess I accidentally uploaded a picture of my mom instead?



She used to tell a great story about that headshot, incidentally. She'd gone into the city (she lived on Staten Island but worked in Manhattan) to have some modeling photos taken. Before she left home, she applied false lashes (thus achieving the utterly obscene bedroom eyes seen here). But she wasn't familiar with them and didn't put them on right, so they gave her some trouble - particularly on the windy ferry.

And apparently, she'd agreed to a first date immediately after the shoot (this was before my dad). So by the time she got to cocktail hour, the glue of the lashes was a sticky mess. She said she had to excuse herself to go to the bathroom so she could rip the damn things off before continuing the date (still looking killer I'm sure).

Anyway, she'd have gotten such a kick out of this side-by-side.

what I'd say

My dad was an engineer. As a kid, I didn't really understand what that entailed. I only knew it meant lots of tools, lots of curious-looking devices, and lots of hours logged at a basement workstation tinkering with them. I learned very early on that my dad could dissect, reassemble, and explain anything with an electronic pulse, though such explanations were lost on me - less because of my young age and more due to the fact that I am not mechanically inclined, at all. That bit didn't land a spot on the DNA he passed along to me. Probably got bumped off by his dry humor and temper. Those I got in spades.

Nevertheless, I liked being down there, in our musty Michigan basement, near him while he worked away on various mysterious apparatuses. I'd color or do crafts (little known fact: clay and pipe cleaners predate Pinterest), blissfully immersed in my childhood creativity while he soldered wires, or calibrated dials.

One day I showed him a drawing I'd done. I feel like I was about seven, but of course I can't be sure. I remember having used the new "neon" set from Crayola, and for some reason, I'm pretty sure I'd drawn a family of aliens. In my mind's eye I see oversized, brightly glowing heads and gangly, striped bodies. (Insert joke about future psilocybin use here.)

Anyway, he made a huge fuss over my picture. It was the greatest thing he'd ever seen, etc. etc. In fact, it was so good, he wanted to share it with others. Would I make copies for his friends and employees? 

He didn't mean on the Xerox machine. 

My dad was asking me to replicate, by hand, some random, throwaway drawing I'd done just to pass the time. And though to an outsider it might sound weird, or like he was making some inordinate demand of his child, it was actually the highest compliment he could have paid me. And, brilliantly, it would keep me busy and quiet for at least another couple of hours.

I got to work immediately, invigorated by the challenge. I don't recall if it was then that he sweetened the deal or later, but at some point he added that rather than just give my art away, he'd sell it. Ten cents apiece (or some similarly trivial price). 

To this day I remember what the stack felt like in my hand, when I turned it in: triumphantly thick, the paper waxy from crayons I'd worn down to nubs. And I remember him doling out a dime or a quarter here and there over the next week - my earnings from the sale of limited edition reprints.

For all I know he shelved the lot of them. For all I know he kept one and threw the rest away. For all I know he didn't even keep one. But it doesn't matter. What matters is how he made me feel that day, about myself and my creative efforts. What matters is what he taught me about valuing both.

I can't call my dad today. I can't wish him a happy Father's Day and catch up on our respective domestic vagaries. I can't confess to him all the secret things I don't tell you guys, or even my best friends. But I know what the conversation would sound like, anyway. I know what I'd say if I could.

more, better, best

Everything I recall about my childhood home can be summed up in a few paragraphs. It was a typically suburban three bedroom home in a smallish town in southwestern Michigan. Red brick, single level. Pussy willow on the porch, plum tree at the end the driveway, crocus blooming under my bedroom window in spring. I remember the things that filled the house only in terms of their use, and their sensory and emotional significance.

Gold corduroy couch: The Muppet Show, way past bedtime, Dad engrossed in the newspaper.

Piano: Mom leaning in to read sheet music, spectacles and a cable-knit sweater, rare good mood.

Oil painting of a lion: expression as inscrutable and mysterious as my parent's marriage, deep fear of wild animals that has yet to abate.

Kitchen telephone: avocado green, cord wrapped around my mother's skinny hips, pot roast for dinner.

I know we had wallpaper, but I couldn't describe the print. I know the house was carpeted, but I couldn't name the color. What I can tell you is that my brother and I had a front yard big enough to host kickball games, and a backyard with a swimming pool, a swing set, a shed full of toys, and enough land to fence in the occasional turtle plucked from Lake Michigan. Fucking glorious, in other words.

And among the gratitudes I have for what, on balance, was a pretty awesome childhood (above implications notwithstanding), is that my mother lived pre-Pinterest, and pre-social media. That decorating her home, planning her children's birthday parties, and choosing outfits for PTA meetings were endeavors undertaken with the knowledge that only those in her immediate social circle would see the results.

God, how nice that must have been. How nice that the only Joneses with which she probably felt compelled to keep up were the ones directly next door. How nice that she could concern herself with the business of mothering, undistracted and unstressed by comparison with how her peers were doing their mothering.

How lucky that my brother and I survived to adulthood without ever having lain eyes on an overpriced cake pop, frosted to match an overpriced paper party straw.

Pinterest never comes up in my daily (offline) life. I know most of my friends have heard of it, and a few of them are on it, but it's nothing we talk about when we get together. I only feel the need to account for my disuse of it when I'm internetting, because hello. Pinterest. What, Ellie, you don't like to be inspired? What are you, an animal?

What I like is not overwhelming myself with the pressure to More, Better, Best my life to death. And anyway, I like to think I did the Pinterest thing, in a way, in my twenties. It was called Lucky Magazine, and then Domino Magazine. It was Holy shit, I didn't even know that existed until I opened this magazine, but now I'll be MISERABLE if I can't have it. And it sucked.

I More, Better, Bested my last apartment without ever even looking at a pin board, and that was hellish enough. I consulted exactly one decorating book, nearly wearing it out with study. Okay, so since my bed frame is structured, I should have more organic, free-form nightstands. Got it. What should have been a fun exercise in creativity and self-expression was instead an exhausting, obsessive search for material things to make my home look OMGamazing - and for the most part, that search was limited to three or four sources within my price and geographic ranges. I can't even imagine how quickly my brain would have exploded had I opened myself up to the ten billion options Pinterest would have shown me.

This time around, I am opting the fuck out of that particular rat race, at least as much as I can. This time around, I am keeping the procurement of what furnishings we need as quick and simple as possible, so that I can get past making sure there's enough light to read by and on to making sure we're stocked with our friends' favorite drinks. Because when I think back to the things that filled the living spaces I inhabited twenty, thirty years ago, what I remember isn't whether or not the coffee table complemented the sofa - it's that it did an efficient job of supporting four slices of pizza and the original Together Box, aka Monopoly.

the hassle of the haul

Gifting is such an interesting cultural phenomenon. Bestowing our loved ones with something by which to remember us is how we, as a society, have decided is the best way to express affection and gratitude. But when you think about it, it's actually pretty presumptuous to burden someone with some thing that you've decided has value, meaning, beauty. To essentially say to them, I'm giving you this physical item with the expectation that you will carry it with you throughout your entire life, because I think it's special - and because I think I know you well enough to know that you'll think it's special, too. I expect you to pack it and unpack it, every time you change homes. I expect you to find a place for it in your life, for the next several decades.

It's not that I'm so cynical and minimalist, though I cop to both in small measures. It's just that as a lifelong apartment dweller (whose residences, by and large, have gotten progressively smaller over the years), I think about this a lot. I have to, because every single time I move, I must assess the value of my belongings. What's worth the effort? What's worth the expense?

The other night, Terence and I spent about an hour going through several boxes and bags he'd carted over from his house but had yet to go through, because they were an overwhelming jumble of essentials, gifts, junk, and emotionally-charged things that he'd been lugging around for several years and was none too sure he needed anymore. We all have that stuff. The stuff we're keeping for one reason or another, about whose necessity in our lives we're conflicted. The stuff we just can't bring ourselves to ditch, but when pressed, whose presence in our closets and cabinets we can't really justify.

It's much easier to be stoic about the things we buy or acquire ourselves. It's difficult to part with the things others have saddled us with, especially when they were given in love. Thanks in part to my mother's shopping habits, which clued me in at an early age to the dangers of hoarding, I, however, am pretty ruthless about it.

It started right about the time I was headed to college. My mother took it upon herself to go scouting for deals at discount outlets and thrift stores, on things I was going to need as an independent adult: home goods, bedding, kitchen items, etc. And while it was kind of her, and her heart was in the right place, I knew her - and the shopper's gene I inherited from her - well enough to know that she was feeding her spending addiction, as well. Calling out those two birds, one stone doesn't make me any less grateful - though as a teenager, gratitude wasn't my strong suit. Opinions were. And I had opinions about the silver flatware set she scored for me at Tuesday Morning, and the Pfaltzgraff serving bowls she unearthed in the shelves of Goodwill, and those opinions were basically, Ugh, do not want. Would rather pick out my own.

Still, I kept the things she chose for me, and I lugged them from my first apartment to my second and third and fourth and so on, until I earned enough money, and enough time had passed, that replacing them didn't seem like such an insult. But years of schlepping several dozen pounds of wares that I never asked for in the first place left an impression on me, and I vowed never to give anyone any thing, unless I was at least ninety percent sure they'd want it, or it was cheap enough to discard guilt-free.

I've penned a lot of silly, personalized birthday poems, for this reason. I've read long-winded toasts at parties, filled with inside jokes and sentiments intended to show their honoree that I know and love what makes them them. I've written and performed mini plays (one a few years ago with popsicle-stick puppets), invented games, created goofy graphics and flyers - anything to make the recipient feel special and understood as a person, without burdening them with a material good they might have no use or desire for.

I've done all this because I hate the hassle of the haul, not because I know for certain they do. And I've reached such master status at remorseless purging that I'm happy to oversee and advise on the efforts of others, including the boyfriend with whom I just moved in. Because it's a lot easier to raise my eyebrows at the fourth Ganesh idol he pulls from the carton than to direct my critical gaze to the bottom shelf of my console, where a sticker maker I've used once in the past five years sits laughing at my hypocrisy.

When we were finished, and while he was waiting for me to change so we could go grab a celebrate-the-decluttering bite to eat, he grabbed his ukelele and started strumming. "See?" I lit up. "Do you see how getting rid of actual physical stuff clears the way mentally, makes you want to create something to fill that void?"

I had no idea what the fuck I was talking about, and still don't, but it sounded true-ish and like a good justification for the donate/sell piles we'd rather hastily created, so I was definitely enthusiastic about the idea. So was he, I think, because he smiled and kept playing.

The ukelele is not going anywhere. The sticker maker, however, is living on borrowed time. I mean, no way am I carting that thing around to more than, say, the next four apartments...

the last thing to go

A few minutes ago, I carried an industrial-sized bucket full of sopping wet towels and clothing two flights of stairs up to my building's laundry room, since this morning, my Eurotrash combination washer/dryer choked on the nickel I accidentally left in the pocket of my jeans, flooding half my apartment. It was a 3/10 on the scale of Things That Suck, a notable improvement over the 6/10 I'd been engaged in a few minutes prior: sitting on the couch, crying, and missing my parents.

Today wasn't horrible by any stretch. Worse things. There are always worse things. It was just one of those days when a few key details go wrong, and you're too tired to shake it off like a normal adult does, and instead you slowly give in to inertia and self-pity, until eventually you find yourself in a mental fetal position where all you want to hear is the uniquely comforting sound of your mom or your dad saying simply, sympathetically, Oh, sweetie.

Some days you just need an Oh, sweetie. And the fact that you can't have one becomes this deliciously self-indulgent shroud of melancholia with which to wrap up and keep warm. So picture me in one of those right now. It looks like a Snuggie, but less dignified.

My friend Tricia, who has experienced grief both of a kind I can understand and that which I never will, once gave me some great advice about how to handle losing my dad. Keep him alive, she said, in the details. The sensory impressions. Butter melting on bagels. The smell of a Sharpie. What made him him.

No butter or Sharpies today. Instead, a dose of my dad's uniquely dry, pragmatic humor. Not for the faint of heart, probably, but what the fuck. I'll keep him around any way I can.

---

When my dad got sick, everything happened mercifully quickly. He lost basic functionality over a matter of days. And wow was that a fun sentence to write, as if he was a fucking toaster, but I don't know how else to put it. First he had trouble walking. Then he had difficulty even balancing himself while sitting. Then he lost speech…and other powers. After that, I assume he started slipping into a state of total disorientation. I assume, that is, because he couldn't tell us. But the way he looked around in bewilderment and fear suggested as much.

Are we having fun yet? Excellent. It gets better.

By the time A., my boyfriend at the time, jumped on a plane to come help out, my dad was still able to speak, still had mental clarity - but bodily, he was falling apart. Those were some of the worst days for me, since, lacking the physical strength to support him, the helplessness I felt was infuriating. He hated using the walker I'd gotten him, even after, desperate to make the house safer and more navigable, I had a late night Craiglist furniture fire sale, just to get some of his bookcases out of the fucking way. He was restless and scared, and kept himself distracted from what was happening by moving around constantly. He'd sit in one chair for ten minutes before insisting I help him move to another. I was always terrified one or both of us would go down as we shuffled along, inch by inch, on the cold Spanish tile. I'm sure he was, too.

The day A. arrived was especially bad for my dad. He was more or less bound to the hospital bed hospice had set up in the middle of the living room, because there hadn't been time to disassemble his own bed yet. He could no longer get up without help, and, due to his size and lack of balance, it became a massive ordeal for him just to go to the bathroom. And on this particular day, whether due to exhaustion or apathy, my dad decided to forgo the hassle and formality of pants.

Honestly, who the fuck could blame him?

Two things happened within seconds of one another: A. pulled up in a taxi, armed with his indefatigable grin and a battery-operated, barking toy dog on the box of which he'd written Chaucer - and my dad realized he needed to use the bathroom.

My dad had never met A. Never lain eyes on him or spoken to him. Knew him only by my description, and barely at that, since we hadn't been dating long. For his part, A. had just stepped off a trans-continental flight minutes before. We barely had a chance to greet one another on the driveway before I heard my dad calling for me from inside.

A. didn't blink, when he saw what was happening. In an instant, he was at my dad's side, helping me help him stand - discombobulated, weak, needing to pee. And completely naked from the waist down. Really, if you want to see what your boyfriend is made of, throw your pantless, dying father at him and see how he fares.

But this isn't A.'s story. It's my dad's. And do you know what the first words out of my father's mouth were, to his adult daughter's new beau? The very first words he uttered, standing there shakily between us, clutching both of our arms, and in the sort of exposed, heartbreakingly vulnerable state that nightmares are made of?

"Welcome to Apollo Beach."

Because what else was there to say? Manners are manners, whether your guest is living or Death or both, and my dad was fucked if cancer was going to touch his sense of humor just yet. So help him god, that would be the last thing to go.

delicacies

I didn't see him at first. Staring down at my phone, Googling a scene from Othello that an IG friend had referenced, listening to The Helio Sequence with my headphones on (big, puffy ones, that block out the world). Walking through Pershing Square on my way to my favorite local small grocery because I was craving delicacies for dinner - prosciutto, burrata, maybe some balsamic jelly.

But suddenly there he was in front of me, pleading a case I wouldn't hear until I yanked my headphones off, which I did, stuffing my phone in my back pocket. He apologized for startling me, taking a step back and putting his arms up defensively. "I don't want to scare anybody, I just need some help, I'm here from out of town and--"

"I have no cash," I interrupted, truthfully. Four words I've said on an almost daily basis in the four years I've lived downtown. But rather than turn away abruptly as most do - as I've grown used to them doing, both of us moving on as if nothing significant has happened, as if the four words I've spoken explain or excuse the enormous gulf of privilege across which I'm speaking them - he just sort of sank into himself, where he stood. Crestfallen doesn't feel like the right word. Crestfallen is a Harry Potter character getting sorted into Ravenclaw House, when he was hoping for Gryffindor. This boy was defeated. Resigned. And something about his resignation was familiar to me. I found myself saying more.

"I only have a debit card, but can I buy you a sandwich or something? Are you hungry? Do you want--" He sprang into life again.

"Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, that would be amazing. Really? That would be amazing. I'm so hungry. I haven't eaten all day and that's just...can I hug you? Is that okay? I'm just, thank you so much..." He threw his arms around me like we were reunited lovers at the airport.

I don't know how old he was. I've reached the age where anyone younger than twenty-five looks like a teenager to me, so it's hard to say. He had blond hair and blue eyes and filthy clothing, and I believed the story he started to tell me as we walked across the street to Subway. Details spilled out more quickly than I could keep track, but I got the gist. Left home about a month ago. Cincinnati. Planned on staying with friends in LA. Lisa and Brittany, a couple. Hit a snag when Brittany found out he used to date Lisa. Kicked out. Figured he'd be better off downtown than Hollywood. Waiting for a friend driving down from NorCal to pick him up and take him back home.

He lit a cigarette, which he had to immediately extinguish, since we'd reached the door. He tamped it against the wall, apologizing. "I should have waited, that was stupid, I'm sorry." As we stepped into the restaurant, fast food fluorescence illuminated what I hadn't noticed outside: the kid was high. He couldn't stay still. His fingers flitted about like caged butterflies, and he danced back and forth on the balls of his feet. I glanced around nervously, but we were alone save for a sole diner at a table in the corner, and the employee who spoke to my companion with a gentleness that I was grateful for. Meanwhile, I listened to nonstop chatter, fueled by I don't know what drug.

"What do you like to get? I take my Subway very seriously, haha. What did you say your name was? Ellie. Ellie, I'll never forget this. Wow, you are a good person. Can I have a footlong Italian? Extra pickles, please. Yeah, that's great. And could you just give me one good line of that Southwestern sauce? Oh that's perfect, thank you so much. Wow, I just can't tell you how much I appreciate this. That looks so good, I'm so hungry--"

He darted away from the counter to fill his soda cup, and when he came back I asked if he'd like anything else. "Do you want to get a couple bags of chips or anything, for later? Some cookies or something?" And it was the way he looked at me, when I asked this, that made me realize what was familiar. I was standing next to my older brother. I was buying my older brother a meal. The one (and only) that I haven't seen in years. The homeless drifter, the addict, the ex-con, the slightly blacker sheep than myself. His same, sad mixture of dejection and shocked indebtedness, when someone did something nice for him. And I wondered whether under this boy's exterior there was any of my brother's same, sad mixture of deep despair and dangerous anger. I wondered what combination of circumstance, bad luck, and bad decision making had landed him where he was today.

Not that it mattered. In either case.

We said goodbye and exited through different doors, and when I walked back through the park a little while later, a paper bag full of organic vegetables and artisanal cheese crooked in my arm, he wasn't in the same place that he'd been before.

break, broken

Hey weirdos. How's it going? Everyone survive the holidays unscathed? I hope so. Rough stuff, even under the best of circumstances. The pressure we put on ourselves, it's unreal. I for one had a minor meltdown on Christmas Eve. Terence (yep, we're graduating him from LeBoyf) stayed in town with me, rather than visit his family. Which was amazing and meant the world to me, and we had a great time - but I sort of flipped out because I felt the need to milk every moment of sentimentality out of the holiday, because my boyfriend, he loves him the sentimentality.

As do I, in measured and approved doses that are usually very heavily spiked with, oh, you know, whatever spiking apparatuses are available. Let me rewrite that in English - I like Christmas, but it can be fucking brutal on me emotionally, so nowadays I tend to spend it with friends (wait, how else would you spend it, dumbass?), alcohol, and even in 2012, the mari-ju-ana. Ho ho ho.

Minor meltdowns aside, it really was lovely. We showered Chaucer with an obscene amount of toys, then spent the evening with my closest friends downtown, having dinner, playing games, hitting our local dive bar, and eventually closing down a karaoke joint in Little Tokyo at two am, all of us obliterated and chummier than a season finale of Friends.

NYE we tucked Chaucer into bed early and spent the night in Santa Monica. We ordered room service, dawdled and screwed around in the room until nearly ten, then finally got dressed to the nines and wandered about. Much lols were had, and many inside jokes were born along with the new year. I invented a game for when we take a selfie together: coin a suggestive or gross-sounding sex act, which he then defines on the spot while I snap photos of us. Try it, seriously, it's wonderful. My favorite was the Sandy Oyster.

I guess I've taken what amounts to a de facto winter break, because all of the goings-on sort of kicked my ass and I've been just too damn tired to write much of anything. Also, I lapsed on my thyroid meds for nearly a week, and doing so catches up with me quickly and leaves me flat out exhausted until they're back in my system. (Which they are.)

I'd had plans to write some end-of-the-year, reflective type posts about things I'd learned in the previous 365 days, but life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, right? Right. But I'm still feeling sentimental about the year that's just passed, so I want to make at least a gesture towards commemorating it, in some small way. However, it occurs to me that if you've been reading this dumb little diary all year, the very last thing you need is a grade school-style summary of what happened to me. You were there. So to speak.

However, there are some things that have happened, behind-the-blog-scenes, that you don't know, and which, even edging up to telling you right now, I'm getting all misty about, because they are spectacular, and have meant the world to me. So here are

Some Really Nice Things That Happened Because of My Blog in 2013

1. My parents' close friend and employee from waaaaay back in the late '70s/early 80s found out about my dad's death, did a little digging, and, along with his wife, found Elliequent. This is a man I haven't seen since I was nine years old, but whom I remember clear as day, because he was always kind and solicitous to the little girl who was probably incessantly underfoot, pestering him and his boss for attention.

A couple of weeks ago he wrote me a letter, a long one, saying some incredibly kind things about my parents, about how much they loved one another and me, and about how my father took every opportunity to show them my photo, in later years when he visited them.

His name is Dale. Everyone say Hi, Dale. 

"I hope you don't mind that I read your blog," he wrote. "It makes me feel connected to your father."

Imagine getting such a letter, and being told that. It would explode your head, right? Also your heart. I'm still gathering up the pieces.

2. A high school English teacher who has once before used a post of mine to teach a lesson on metaphor reached out to let me know she'd used my blog in her class again. I won't reprint what she wrote to me about it, because for one thing I didn't ask her permission to do so and for another, it ended up being a fairly personal exchange, with me all teary and everything - but I can't tell you how moved and flattered and honored I was. As I said to her, I don't think landing a spot on the New York Times best seller list would be a validating and rewarding a thing to hear, as knowing something I've written has been used in a classroom. Best and most motivating compliment received on my writing, ever. I didn't shut up about it for days. (And look! I still haven't!)

3. A very sweet reader responded through email to a post I'd written that had affected her, in not necessarily the best way, but which had renewed her determination to, I'll just say, continue being a very loving person. And that's esoteric and annoyingly vague I know, but out of respect to her privacy I'll leave it at that. But wow did it move me deeply, because what more could I ask for, of this dumb little blog, than that?

4. And of course, all the rest. All the lovely comments and encouragement from everyone, whether publicly on social media or privately through messages and email, to let me know something I'd written had positively impacted them. So, so grateful for every last one of them.

Okay well that ended up being sort of lame and non-specific, sorry. More for me I guess.

Anyway, I'm feeling much better physically and now that my little winter break has been broken, I do plan on picking things back up around here again. The usual mix of overshare, creative (or not so) sputterings, and whatever else that's gotten me and you to this point.

Happy 2014.

my super power

Last year, Mason invited me to spend Thanksgiving with his relatives in Fresno. It was the first Thanksgiving since both of our dads had died, earlier that year. Since he had family to return to (the same aunt's house he's been eating turkey at ever since he can remember) and I didn't, I was adopted for the day by his. They were lovely and welcoming to me, and I thanked them by managing not to break down in tears until I got in the car to go home.

Ah, the posthumous romanticizing of the family experience.

Perhaps the best thing to come out of that day was my friendship with one of Mason's uncles, this handsome guy. That's Uncle Bill. And right about now, he's probably blushing, because for whatever crazy reason, Uncle Bill took a shine to me, and became a reader of this dumb little blog, an erstwhile pen pal, and a capital f Friend. He doesn't miss a post, and often emails me thoughtful, funny responses to what I've written, one of which I printed out and tucked into the corner of my mirror, so I can read it every day.

I don't want to casually or cheaply drop a phrase like "father figure", because wow is that problematical and pat and overly facile and all kinds of things I don't want to characterize my relationship with UB as. That said, it's been really nice to have someone older and wiser checking in on me, as I stumble through life, because for as much as I love and miss my dad, there were some serious deficits in our relationship, which I'll probably feel keenly until the day I die. For one thing, I can tell you he certainly wasn't reading my blog and chiming in with the occasional bit of guidance. My dad was many wonderful things, but a fan of my writing he was not.

Bill has followed my romantic adventures with interest, amusement, and at times, concern. (No one likes to see their friends get hurt.) When October rolled around and he saw how attached I'd gotten to LeBoyf, he said I should bring him with me back to Fresno this Thanksgiving. This invitation was co-signed and ratified by Mason, so I got to spend yesterday in the company of my three favorite men, among other wonderful people who treated near-stranger me and my complete-stranger +1 like family.

There was champagne, thrust into my hand within a minute of walking in the door, and lots and lots of wine. There were aunts and uncles and cousins and kids and a Pomeranian-Chihauhua mix named Tiny, who let me hold him in my lap long as long as I liked. There was turkey and glazed ham and everything you'd want to go with them, including my second taste of Aunt Janie's Lemon Lush pie.

I didn't sleep much the night before, so I wasn't at my best. I was overtired and overly emotional, and Bill's kindness and warmth - and his stories of working as a young man in downtown LA, a mere block from where I live today - put me over the edge more than once. Thank god for kitchen-adjacent bathrooms, to which a girl can beat a hasty retreat, splash some cold water on her face, pull her shit together, and return to a table full of laughter and love and just feel fucking grateful to be there.

I've said it before but it bears repeating. I suck at so much in life, but apparently my super power is making incredible people care about me, despite my not deserving it half the time. I came out of yesterday determined to do a better job of giving back the consideration I'm shown by those who know the absolute worst things about me, but love me nonetheless.

I guess that's kind of how family works, anyway.


Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. I hope you guys were lucky enough to spend it with your favorite people, too.

on saying no

Growing up, I wasn't allowed to say no to my father. Rather, I was, but I was punished for it. Not physically - not ever - but emotionally. I wasn't allowed to say "Dad, I can't" or "No, Dad" without feeling some negative repercussion. Anger. Disappointment. Shame. Guilt. Ultimately, as I perceived it: a loss of love, to some degree. Maybe not every time, that's probably unfair to say. But enough times that a pattern formed and stuck in my head. Eventually, we worked it out. Eventually I was adult enough and confident enough to lay down some boundaries and be honest about my limitations. I reached the point where I knew taking care of myself had to come first, and I got better about internalizing my dad's feelings when I had to say no to him. It was never completely resolved, but it did get better.

But because of that, I grew up being afraid to tell people no. I grew up terrified that telling people no would result in the revocation of their friendship or affection or kindness - in the loss of their love. So even if I wanted to - if I needed to - say no, many times I wouldn't. And I'd go along with something, feeling put out and resentful and frustrated. Or I'd say no, but instantly feel all sorts of shitty emotions in anticipation and expectation of someone's anger or disappointment.

I still do it. Saying no to someone I care about still activates all of this. I'm still afraid of the loss of love, of the punitive reaction I felt so many times as a child and teenager (well past, even). And it damages me, and it damages my relationships. I say yes and end up feeling a loss of control, a loss of confidence, resentment, frustration, and anger at myself. I say yes and secretly resent the person I've said yes to, for putting me in the position - I feel - of having to say yes. The effect is exacerbated hugely if I decline somewhat weakly or passively, but then the person turns up the pressure. Come on, Ellie. Because then I absolutely have to say yes (so I think), and then boy do I ever have an excuse to be resentful.

I feel this resentment because I try to never, ever, ever pressure someone into something they don't want to do, expressly because I know exactly how awful that feels. I wouldn't want to make someone feel the way I did when I said no to my dad, and had to suffer the pain of his rejection. I wouldn't want to trigger that fear, for them, of a loss of love from me. And so when in turn they don't anticipate my fear, I get really, really angry at them. But I don't express it. Hell, I don't even realize it, at the time. I don't think I ever realized it until tonight. I just stay wrapped up in crappy feelings that don't go anywhere, because I don't know what to do with them.

It's crazy, I understand now, for me to feel this way. My friends tell me no all the time. They're busy professionals with full lives; they can't always make the dates I propose. And when they say no? I don't even think twice. It doesn't hurt my feelings remotely. I know they love me and want to see me, and 99/100 times they bounce the invitation ball back to me a week later. That's normal and healthy and I never once worry that because they've said no, that they don't like me anymore. And yet here I am, unable to say no, because I don't trust them to keep loving me, the way I keep loving them.

It's ridiculous. But now at least I understand it.

Tonight, LeBoyf went to a friend's super fun scavenger hunt birthday party. I was supposed to go, too. He very emphatically wanted me to come. But I found myself, this afternoon, utterly exhausted and cranky, due to my inability to say no to lots of other fun stuff that's been going on all week. Some of which I know I should have said no to, but I didn't - because I was afraid of being loved less.

And so, due to my own unwillingness to say no to some things in order to say yes to others - tonight I found myself sitting at home alone, feeling frustrated and sad that I was missing out. It's good that I didn't go; I really am worn out and wouldn't have been a good party participant. But I spent the better part of the evening feeling lonely and bad.

So unnecessary. But that's the last part in the cycle I keep enacting. Say yes (out of fear of loss of love) and keep saying yes until I've depleted myself completely, and have to miss out on something really special. And I never understood until tonight what this is all about, and where it comes from.

So that is what I learned about myself on this Saturday night, when I could have been having a grand old time running around town following Instagram clues (so cool!) with my awesome and loving boyfriend.

8 or 38. Sometimes it's hard to tell.