(excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds) She could have left him anytime that year and no one would have blamed her. “Serves him right, “ they would have said, shaking their heads and adding perhaps, “Women have left their husbands for lesser offenses.” He never … Continue reading Spiral
I’m working as a telephone operator at the Stouffer Madison Hotel downtown and mom, as usual, watches Michael while I work. Things have been fairly peaceful lately and I’m sure it’s in part due to the fact that we’ve moved into a small rental house. The house sits on a large lot and is a good distance from view of neighbors and the big backyard is private and gives mom a place to sit quietly and watch Michael play. I take the bus to work every morning, trudging through the alley behind the house and out onto Delridge Way where I wait for the number 20 bus. I’ve purchased a few skirts to wear to work but I don’t have a decent coat or nice shoes, and the shoes I’ve been wearing are cheap ballerina flats from K-Mart. I have a black pair and a white pair and the soles are made of some synthetic slippery material that actually caused me to fall down while crossing the street a few days ago. Right in the crosswalk on 6th Avenue in the middle of the afternoon……..Bam! I didn’t get hurt but now I have to keep a layer of masking tape on the soles for traction. I wouldn’t mind if all my clothes were second hand if I could just have some decent leather shoes.
I think one of the bus drivers on the number 20 likes me. He stopped to give me a ride in front of the 7-11 yesterday and even let me bring my coffee on board. We deadheaded to the end of the line and it was just the two of us. He was friendly and seemed like a nice person but I while I would have rather just sat at the back of the bus with my own thoughts, I felt obligated to visit with him since he was kind enough to let me board early. The driver’s name is Danny and by the time I got off the bus at First and Union downtown, I was sure I had just met one of the truly happy people in the world.
Michael started first grade and mom is so proud because he tested above average on almost everything. She walks with him in the morning and picks him up at school in the afternoon. We don’t have any furniture in the house yet and no phone either, but it’s much nicer than living in an apartment. Michael met one of the neighborhood kids his age recently and invited him in. When the little boy asked why we don’t have anything in our house Michael told him firmly, “We like it this way.”
There was a different driver on the bus this week. On Friday he handed me a small piece of paper and said, “Danny asked me to give you this.”
I unfolded the very small note and read, if you’d like to have dinner sometime, call me. I didn’t expect to see him again. But what harm could there be in having dinner? It would be nice to talk with someone. I’m usually nervous about asking mom to watch Michael for me because she usually stiffens up and kind of gets a chip on her shoulder when I do—but not this time. Maybe she can sense my new resolve and no longer feels threatened or worried that she won’t have someone to care for her? Anyway, I’ll meet Danny at the bus barn after work tomorrow.
It was wonderful! Danny is so kind and funny! I found out he’s Filipino. I couldn’t tell because he doesn’t have much of an accent but that’s because he’s been in the US since 1955. He’s 41 and divorced. He has the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen, they are the color of root beer when it’s held up to the sun. I think he’ll make a perfect friend. We went to the racetrack before dinner and after an impromptu lesson in how to place a bet, he handed me $20.00. I bet two dollars and pocketed the rest–$18 bucks can buy a lot of milk and hamburger. The track is a colorful contrast in sound and emotion. Those who win are boisterous and animated, while the losers sit quietly, slumped in hardback chairs or with heads bowed over racing forms studying the horses statistics and jockeys, strategizing before the next race. The floor is littered with losing tickets, like giant size confetti that falls as hard and fast as horse’s hoofs.
Danny and I have been double dating with his best friend Tom. I don’t want to make too much of it but it’s hard not to get attached. I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years. We have drinks, then dinner and sometimes go dancing and I feel almost like a teenager. I’ve decided to let Michael meet Danny. We went for breakfast and then for a walk at Lincoln Park and Danny gave Michael a piggy back ride uphill and even carried my purse for me.
The summer was special in 1987 and the sun with it’s promise of happiness touched the edge of every day and made one feel that certain things are possible; things that would not ordinarily be considered. And so it was in this hopeful atmosphere that Danny moved in with me, sharing the little pink house on 22nd Avenue. He brought his furniture, installed a phone and parked his silver GTI in the driveway. Within days the trouble started as I should have known it would if I had not been so blinded by my own happiness. Danny was simply talking about his mom’s work at the Bank of America and as he spoke I sensed mom waiting for the right moment to strike. Like a snake she lurked in the background, taking each of his words and rolling it around in her head, examining it the way a snake tests the environment with it’s tongue. She said something mean and shocked Danny. Michael ran to his grandma’s side and pleaded with her to stop, calling her by her pet name, “Mums please don’t say that!” But it was too late. Danny looked at me as if to say ‘what’s going on?’ but I could only stare back dumbly, fear rising like a brick in my throat, bile flooding my stomach. Mom walked to the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife and waved it in Danny’s direction. Michael called 911 and within minutes the police were at the door.
When I rented the house I’d put only my name on the lease. Mom had no legal rights to be in the house and when the police officer asked if I wanted her removed I said, “yes.” Surprisingly, she left without much protest, following the officers down the dark driveway. It was suddenly quiet. I felt as if my insides had been vacuumed out. Michael sat beside me on the couch but I couldn’t look at his face. There was not enough air in the room. I could hear Danny packing his things. He pulled his bulky suitcase off the bed with such force that it hit the door and I thought he was angry. His expression told me otherwise. He was hurt and confused. “Barb, I have to go.” He said. I looked in his direction but said nothing. What right did I have to stop him from leaving? He’d been so good to me and Michael and now he saw what I dreaded he would someday know. I’d been exposed. Michael stood on the couch and leaned over the back cupping his hands against the living room window so he could see Danny leaving. The night was eerily black and quiet and the neighborhood was barely lit by a few dull, yellowish street lights. Danny’s car moved slowly, tires crunching gravel in the driveway. I pulled Michael away from the window and held him next to me. Minutes passed and strangely I didn’t cry. Michael sat still and allowed me to hold him for what seemed like a very long time.
Remembering my resolve to be single, I mentally scolded myself for getting off track. We sat on the couch in silence and I felt as if I had on one of those lead aprons you wear at the dentist during x-rays. I was sorry too that I’d allowed Michael a glimpse of normalcy. What right did I have to expose him to such ordinary happiness if I didn’t have the means or the guts to make it permanent—-to make it real? We remained next to each other, side by side on Danny’s black leather couch, not wanting to speak or move because to do so would take us out of limbo and propel us into the future-—and into a life without the man who’d made such a big difference in such a short time.
Minutes later we heard the sound of keys and turned to see the front door slowly open. I couldn’t keep Michael from running to him. He said he couldn’t leave us. He couldn’t leave us!? We laughed and cried and I said I was sorry. Danny told me not to apologize for anything my mother did, that it wasn’t my fault. This was it. This was an opportunity to break free, to live like people are supposed to live.
Life was beautiful in its simplicity. Michael went to school each day, played outside afterwards with his best friend, Josh, and Danny and I went to work and cooked dinner each evening together in the small kitchen. The boys ran through the house laughing and teasing each other, they splashed in a backyard wading pool and shot each other with Super Soaker squirt guns. I learned from my brother, Kenny that mom had gone into inpatient treatment at Cedar Hills, a facility somewhere in Renton. I was relieved but made it clear to my brother– who was 22 at the time– that it was his turn to care for her and that I would no longer provide a place for her to live.
A few days before Thanksgiving a stranger knocked at our front door. A woman in business attire stood on the stoop. She identified herself as someone from the coroner’s office and I knew mom had died. The stranger said she was sorry but could not give any details– that I would need to call the office. I called nervously and listened as a man’s voice told me it was my brother. He’d died with a friend –both from an overdose of heroin and cocaine. He’d been identified by a scar he’d received during a wood chopping accident years ago when a piece of the metal axe broke and lodged itself in his sternum. I found the phone number of Lisa, Kenny’s girlfriend and called. She screamed and cried and I listened, unable to provide any comfort. She said she’d drive out to Cedar Hills and tell mom.
The funeral was paid for by the state. I’d never seen a plastic coffin before. It was made of some kind of heavy rubber/plastic combination and had a flat top. The state also provided someone to read a passage from the bible. The woman said she’d read the Lord’s Prayer but she actually read the 23rd Psalm and months later that simple mistake would bother me—-the fact that she’d read the wrong passage, or called it by the wrong name. Did she think we wouldn’t know the difference? The service was held at Riverton Crest on a cold, dreary November afternoon. Several of Kenny’s friends were there and mom was escorted by a few of the staff members from the treatment center. I stood with Michael behind Lisa, who sat in a chair, weeping softly. I watched as her thin fingers nervously caressed the long stem of a single red rose.
Mom was released from treatment just before Christmas and declared that while she was no longer “drunk”, she was still “crazy”. Would she be too ‘crazy’ to actually work the twelve steps and apologize to the people she’d hurt? She was living in a half-way house and would stay there until she could get her own apartment. At least she’d have a small income now as the state provided a stipend for its alcoholic residents who where in (or had gone through) a substance abuse program and were otherwise indigent.
Danny and I made plans to spend Christmas with his family in San Francisco. We decorated a tree before leaving and while I thought it beautiful, it brought a sadness to Danny’s eyes that made me uncomfortable. San Francisco was a strange place; cold, foggy and depressing in the morning but warm and bustling in the afternoon. Michael and I met every member of Danny’s family. I spent hours in the kitchen with his mom, Raymunda, who looked much younger than her 63 years. She had tattooed eyebrows and wore false eyelashes and her nails were painted and decorated to reflect the season or her whim. While she chopped vegetables and rolled Lumpia she told me stories about her family’s early years. Danny laughed with his brothers and sisters, they hugged and talked to each other, not in the guarded, vague way that mom, Kenny and I would communicate, but like a real family, the kind I’d only seen on television.
In the evening the Mah Jong table would come out and Raymunda and Liz, Danny’s sister, would start the game as those who wanted to play converged towards the small card table in the living room and those who wanted to watch found a position behind their favorite player. Brown hands quickly shuffled white tiles and the rhythmic clacking sound would often be overshadowed by a burst of boisterous laughter, “Aye na ko!” someone would exclaim in mock exasperation.
In the morning I’d find Raymunda in the kitchen, and though she’d stayed up late with her children and grandchildren she was the first to rise. I watched curiously as she lit two candles and threw a handful of chopped onion into a hot skillet. The onion sizzled and quickly filled the room with an appetizing aroma. Raymunda smiled and warned me that she’d be cooking tuyok, a small dried fish with a pungent odor, but that the candles and onions should hide the smell. I quickly learned that there aren’t enough candles and onions in the entire city of San Francisco to disguise the smell of tuyok. It was awful, pungent and strong and I listened in amazement as Danny told me how when he was a little boy in the Philippines, the smell would waft along in the warm morning air, stiring up everyone’s appetite and those who weren’t having tuyok felt they were missing out on a feast. The smell would actually wake Michael who’d come into the kitchen with his t-shirt covering his nose looking at me and Danny’s mom with big curious eyes. “Aye good morning my little babaloo!” Raymunda would shout and squeeze Michael and kiss his cheeks.
Back in Seattle we took down the Christmas tree and waited for Spring. There was no snow but the cold dampness kept us house bound for weeks. Michael and Josh were growing close and spent hours together, either at our little house or at Josh’s grandparents across the street. They shared an unspoken commonality; neither had known their biological father. We learned Josh’s dad had passed away from a drug overdose and his mom faced the same struggle, her addiction leaving little room for a relationship with her son. I noticed that Josh would never look me in the eye when I talked to him and Danny commented on how he didn’t know how to hug and his arms just hung stiffly at his side every time Danny embraced him.
One Spring day as the boys rode their bikes up and down the quite street in front of our house, a strange woman knocked pensively at the front door. We’d just gotten home from work and had not yet started dinner, the warm sun teasing us into a comfortable apathy on the living room sofa. I rose to greet the stranger who wore a gray suit and looked overly professional. She said she’s from Child Protective Services and is following up on a report that Michael is kept locked in his room. I stepped back a few inches from the woman as if an invisible person had just pushed his way between us and felt the air leave my lungs. “What?” I didn’t believe it yet I knew who was behind the allegations. “Well I can see he’s playing outside…” she kept her voice business like but her eyes held sympathy for me. I shook my head back and forth, not wanting to admit that my own mother was capable of such a deed. There was no room in my heart for indignation or anger and I accepted the blow as I had every other painful arrow, thrown from the arms of a mother at her daughter.
A month later we moved to a nice apartment in West Seattle on Fauntleroy Way and while I gave mom our phone number, I didn’t let her know our address. I learned I was pregnant and Danny and I were married in September by a neighbor from the old neighborhood who is a minister. We invited just two friends and had a simple ceremony in the living room. I knew for sure that my baby would be a girl, just as mom and I had known without a doubt that Michael would be a boy.
Mandolin came screaming into the world on February 1, 1990. After visiting me in the hospital, Danny took Michael and Josh across the street to eat hamburgers at Kidd Valley. The next day mom showed up with her Native American boyfriend, Leif. She brought me a framed picture of Michael as a newborn and an empty frame for my new baby girl. Mom stayed only for a few minutes and before she left, she said she loved me. It was only the second time I can remember her saying those words.
Four years of loss. The Chinese fear the number four. Some even refuse to live in a house with the number four in its address. From 2008 to 2012 I endured a series of painful events, events that forced me to look at myself and … Continue reading About “The Hierarchy of Weeds”
(excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds) Purslane resumed her routines and fought hard not to write. Every time she felt an inclination to put down a sentence or if a chapter title came to her she mentally stomped it to death. Telling herself she was … Continue reading Mirror, Mirror See Me Fall
(Excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds) In 1979 I turned 18. Without ceremony, not realizing how liberating it could be until one night in October when I lay in my room, door closed but unable to sleep, forced to listen to the country music I … Continue reading What It’s Like
Excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds
Cardboard boxes slowly filled the living room but I was too afraid to ask where we were going. When mom announced we’d actually be moving to Florida to live with dad for a while I allowed myself to get excited. Thoughts of new places, people and white sand beaches filled my imagination. We flew to Pensacola just a few weeks before Christmas. Dad rented a large house with a big sitting porch and palm and pecan trees in the back yard. He bought furniture and filled the cupboards with groceries. Mom was secretly drinking. I didn’t need to see a bottle to know she was under the influence. Her belligerence smoldered and bubbled like a dangerous volcano. I sat tensely at the big oak dining room table. My brother, Kenny, sat across from me and we were both trying to finish a TV dinner, glancing nervously at the door and hoping dad would delay his return home. He didn’t and the inevitable happened. It was a one sided fight that ended in an agreement on dad’s part. He would pay for our bus fair to Pekin, Illinois, where mom’s brothers and father lived. We stayed in Pensacola for Christmas but it felt nothing like a holiday. A tree was put up in the corner of the living room but lacking enough decorations it looked as forlorn as I felt. It was the saddest Christmas ever. I felt sorry for dad—it seemed he had really tried, and he’d spent so much money on the house and furniture and now he’d pay our way to leave. We packed our clothes and left Pensacola on January 2, 1977.
The heavy wheels of the Greyhound bus plowed slowly through mounds of dirty snow in the parking lot. The bus depot in Pekin, Illinois was small and had a single row of chairs facing a long counter littered with pieces of the day’s newspaper and a few Styrofoam cups. The floor was slippery and dirty from the black snow that had been tracked in and melted, and although there was no one sitting in any of the chairs and no one appeared behind the counter, a black and white television, mounted near the ceiling, blared loudly as two soap opera stars declared their forbidden love for one another. The place smelled of smoke and sadness. After gathering our suitcases, we walked behind mom slowly out of the station, across the parking lot and towards the sidewalk. For the first time mom seemed a little uncertain and a little afraid. She did not even have a phone number for her brother. They had not kept in touch and had not seen each other or even talked on the phone since 1971. It took only minutes for the cold to creep under our thin layers of clothing, tapping at the back of our necks and behind our knees and even less time for the melting snow to find the tiniest of cracks in our shoes making the tips of the toes so very cold that it could almost be mistaken for heat. Across the street stood the City Center Motel. We walked instinctively in the direction of the flashing red vacancy sign. It felt good to set the suitcase down and to sit on the bed of the small motel room. No other comforts were to be had and I stared out the window as the sun began its fast descent over the tops of the few buildings that made up downtown Pekin. By now mom was a bundle of nerves, fidgeting with her purse, counting what remained of the money and then searching the phone book for her brother’s name. None were found and she instructed me and Kenny to put on our jackets –we would have dinner at the motel diner. Hamburgers and French fries stopped the hunger pains but nothing could calm the flutter of fear that rose in my stomach and lodged itself at the back of my throat, making my voice sound hoarse when I said ‘thank you’ to the waitress who removed my plate from the table. Mom asked the cashier if they knew the Taylor family. No luck. It was very dark now and very cold. The slushy snow on the sidewalks had frozen, becoming little mountains of ice that made walking difficult. Mom told me to wait in the motel room with Kenny. She would ask at the local tavern down the street. Mom approached nearly every person in the tavern until finally she found someone who knew her brother. We were not meant to be homeless and starving on the streets of Pekin, Illinois! Perhaps it was just that the odds were in her favor in a small town or it could have been the camaraderie and brotherhood of those men who worked the trades as almost all the men did there, knowing each other’s families; wives and children, as if they were one big family. Those who didn’t work for the Caterpillar plant worked in welding or some other line of construction and my uncles were welders just as their father had been. Aunt Dee, Benny’s wife picked us up from the motel the next day. In her home she buzzed around the large kitchen, somewhat nervous and eager to please, refilling coffee cups in between flipping fried eggs and turning the bacon before it burnt. Uncle Benny had Elvis Presley hair, blue black and thick and brushed away from his forehead in a pompadour style. He sat talking with mom at the round table in the middle of the room. I found him handsome and charming. “Dee, what’s wrong with these biscuits?” Benny tapped one on the side of his plate demonstrating the sound it made. He chuckled kindly and took a good-natured bite. Dee scooted to the stove and began poking at the biscuits with a spatula and turning them over to examine them. I sat with my three cousins in the living room. Lori, the oldest was my age and wore a black page boy style wig secured with a pink headband. She had a bad case of lice and ended up having to have her head shaved. Living near my cousins was even better than friends and I looked forward to hanging out with them. I met my grandpa Sherman too. He lived in Topeka, a very rural area, in a double -wide trailer with his girlfriend, Virginia. While grandpa was sulky and quiet like mom, Virginia was lively and one of the fattest women I ever saw. She was a good cook too and I loved her fried chicken, but I cringed one day when I saw her casually lick Crisco from a spoon after dropping a big clump into a skillet.
We rented a small one- bedroom apartment in an old Victorian house that was divided up into four units. Me, Kenny and mom slept side by side in a queen sized bed. Without an alarm clock I had to rain my brain to wake up every morning at six. I walked the half mile to Woodruff High School and for the first few months I was utterly alone and spent my lunch standing in the large third floor stairwell where a big picture window allowed a view of the athletic field below.
My dream of having cousins as best friends never materialized–mom had a falling out with her brother and his wife shortly after we moved into our place. I came home from school one day to find her furiously cutting up a beautiful knitted afghan that Aunt Dee made. White and lavender yarn fell into a soft mound at her feet and she said nothing as she swept the remnants into a paper bag and threw them in the trash. There would be no double dates with my cousins, no movies or sleep-overs and if that wasn’t bad enough I would soon lose the companionship of my diary as well. Near the end of the school year, when fireflies lit up the early evening and the streets were crowded with kids on bicycles, mom found my writing hidden under the mattress and read it. Mom’s eyes had that mean snake like stare and I knew she was drunk. She stood in the small kitchen at the sink with my diary clenched in her hands. Several pages had been ripped out and were either in the sink or on the floor. Adrenalin surged through my veins but I was too afraid to move or speak. Angry and betrayed– my thoughts ran backwards, re-reading any lines of past entries that might have mentioned mom. Her face was swollen and tired looking but her eyes, the pupils constricted to fine pinpoints, were alive with fury. She’d read something I’d written about her drinking. My stomach hurt and I could not stop the flow of tears. This seemed to make her even more upset and she raised my diary over her head and threw it at me in a final assault. The pages open and spayed like the wings of some crazed bird. My precious diary clipped my shoulder and fell against the front door. I grabbed it and ran from the apartment. I stopped running after two blocks, my asthmatic lungs failing to give me the stamina I needed to go further. Looking at the diary in my hands with so many pages ripped away, I knew it was useless to save it.
Three months later mom got a job as a maid at the Continental Regency Hotel in downtown Peoria and stayed just long enough to earn money for three one way train tickets back to Seattle. She swallowed her pride and called uncle Benny to ask for a ride to the station. He arrived alone and quietly piled our suitcases into the trunk of his car.
There is something special about time spent on a train, it’s a wonderful kind of limbo where worry has no purpose and it doesn’t matter what you’ve left behind or where you’re headed. I let myself fall deeply into a soft languor. I spent hours day-dreaming as farmlands and small towns rolled slowly by the window, looking as peaceful and trouble free as a Normal Rockwell painting. I dabbled in poetry and decided that it was an acceptable substitute for my diary and I refused to let my mind enter that vast unknown territory called tomorrow.
But tomorrow did come and the train rested its heavy steel wheels at Seattle’s Amtrack station 2 ½ days after leaving Illinois. Mom had written an old drinking buddy, Paul Koepplin, to ask if we could stay with him for a few days. He even agreed to pick us up at the station. Paul was a tall, bean pole thin man who looked elderly although he was only in his sixties. His hair was completely white and his clothes hung as loosely on his thin frame as his dusty white skin did on his prominent cheek bones. He had false teeth but seldom wore them and his mouth and lips had grown into the sunken position of toothless-ness. He had become a widower ten years ago. His two oldest daughters became pregnant and moved away as soon as biology permitted but the boys, Ricky 16 and Paul junior, 18, remained. It was easy to spot Paul’s car across the parking lot. It sat like an enormous metallic jewel upon the hot pavement; a turquoise Bonneville with white walled tires and winged tail lights– circa nineteen fifty something…. Ricky always drove his father and had in fact been driving since the age of 14 (his dad’s alcoholic nerves could not tolerate the demand for concentration and responsiveness to the conditions of traffic.) Ricky stood leaning against the door of the car. His arms were folded defensively against his chest except for when he needed a drag of his Camel cigarette. He had his father’s lankiness but not his thirst for alcohol—that trait his father shared with Paul Jr. Ricky was clearly not happy at having to bring home a car load of strangers but Paul and mom seemed to have a lot to talk about. They sat shoulder to shoulder on the red, fake leather seat engaged in happy conversation. Ricky moved the long bodied car gracefully over the asphalt parking lot and onto Fourth Avenue heading south. The summer sun was high and hot above the city. It was nice to be back in Seattle. Paul and his sons moved out of the projects about a year ago and now lived in a small rented rambler on south 144th, kitty corner from Foster High School in Tukwila. The house sat on a large lot and there were no neighbors to the left or to the right—just graveled space. Ricky parked the car and hurried inside, returning a minute later with a red colored Chihuahua in his arms. Paul Junior stood in the middle of the living room and watched as we carried in suitcases and bags, a mischievous grin on his face-he did not offer to help. The house was sparsely furnished; a tattered sofa and black and white television in the living room and a chrome and vinyl table with no chairs in the kitchen. The bedrooms held beds but nothing else and there were no pictures on the walls.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about the end of the month for most people, but for those on welfare it is almost always a sad, sad time. Money trickles down to pennies and food is scarce and sometimes supplemented by whatever the closest food bank offers (if a family is lucky enough to have a food bank nearby). Mom always bought a big load of groceries on the first, but at Paul’s house the one big shopping trip never happened and they were close to having nothing left to eat now. I followed Ricky into the kitchen, and sat down on the empty table while Ricky stood, leaning his lanky frame against the kitchen counter. He had finally accepted me and talked easily at times. “What do most people do when they get their money on the first? They buy food, right? Well my dad doesn’t do that.” I didn’t need to ask where the money went. Ricky pulled a dented pot from under the stove and filled it with water. I couldn’t imagine what he could cook with so little food in the house. When the water boiled Ricky added spaghetti, stirring it with a fork. Ten minutes later he drained the water from the pot, dumped the spaghetti in a plastic bowl, added a heaping tablespoon of margarine, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and happily offered half to me.
The first of July crash landed on the doorstep of the small house on 144th. Ricky agreed to drive his dad and mom on a few errands. Before three PM that day mom and Paul they were drunk. Paul Jr. had his own case of beer. Ricky was distant. I tried to pull him out, but he couldn’t be reached. He stayed outside for most of the day and evening working on the car, his small dog, Peppy, never far from his feet.
In August, a month after we arrived at Paul’s, mom found a place to rent; a furnished trailer in a mobile home park just a few blocks away. Our new home was a single wide, red aluminum trailer that sat on 42 Ave. South, just off of Pacific Highway. For the remainder of the summer we sweltered inside trailer number 51. The passing of Elvis Presley was the only marker that made one day any different from the other. Money was very tight. The rent took almost 50 percent of mom’s welfare check. I would have to get a job and after seeing an ad in the paper for a dishwasher at a nearby restaurant/cocktail lounge, I mustered all the confidence I could, walked in the door and after speaking briefly with the owner, was hired the same day. Luigi’s Italian Restaurant and Bar was on the corner of Pacific Highway, just a few blocks from the trailer. I worked after school and on weekends as a dishwasher and was soon promoted to bus person. The owner of the restaurant, Mr. Albanese was a volatile alcoholic prone to angry outbursts and after one such incident his entire crew (except the cook) up and left without notice. What used to be a thriving business deteriorated rapidly as the once loyal customers stopped coming. I stayed on and was promoted to waitress. I worked eight hours a day on weekends and six hours each day after school. I was exhausted and depressed. I gained weight eating leftover pizza and cheesecake. One day after school I pushed open the heavy wooden door to the restaurant and heard Maria, the owner’s wife screaming. I stood nervously waiting for my eyes to focus and adjust to the darkness and when they did I saw Ralph Albanese brandishing a shotgun and his wife trying to keep her distance. Without a word I closed the door and marched quickly to the crosswalk. I slapped the signal button hurriedly but it took hours to change. I used the payphone at Larry’s Market across the street and dialed 911. After giving all the information I could and answering the operators questions I hung up the phone and headed back to the trailer. I was not even tempted to wait for the police to arrive and I never went back to the restaurant–not even to get my final paycheck.
Mom grew tired of the struggle and applied for public housing again. We moved our meager possessions back to High Point, in a apartment that backed up to a green belt on High Point Drive. That summer my grandma Alice, dad’s mom, came to visit. Uncle Bill dropped her off but did not come inside to say hello. Grandma wore a long cotton dress that fluttered just below her knees and with her hair in a tightly coiled bun, I imagined she looked exactly the same in 1959. She was tall, straight backed and when she hugged me hello I could smell the familiar smell of her face powder. She stood back to look at me and took my hands in hers, sliding them across her cold palms, “you’ve got long fingers Barbara, you should play the piano.” Grandma wanted to take us out to lunch so mom called a cab and we sat awkwardly at the kitchen table and waited for the taxi to arrive. We’d been to the Hide-Away Café before. Mom liked the place because there was a bar in the back and she could order her favorite drink, a Manhattan. The café was quiet as we slid into a booth. In between bites of tuna melt grandma asked Kenny and me about school. Mom was quiet and taking more drinks of her Manhattan than bites of her sandwich and I watched her nervously. Back at the apartment mom began to pace. She lit a cigarette and waved it around in the air as if she was about to say something profound. She strode from the kitchen to the living room, her thrift store high heels clicking fast on the linoleum, as Kenny and I sat with grandma at the table who smiled sweetly, like a mouse about to be swallowed by a snake. “You never liked me did you?” Mom hurled the accusation at grandma whose lips drew into a tight, straight line. “Now Jessie I just want to have a nice visit with my grandchildren.” Mom moved closer to grandma, so close that grandma had to lean to the side in her chair to see mom’s face. “Jessie please…”
“Don’t say my name you ole biddy. You know what your son did his kids? He starved them!” Grandma rose slowly from her chair, “Barbara will you call your uncle Bill for me?” I was sad and embarrassed to tell her we didn’t have a phone and the one favor she’d asked of me, the one thing I wanted for her just as much as she wanted –could not be provided. She’d left our house and found a neighbor who made the call to uncle Bill. I watched from the kitchen window as she waited on the curb by the side of the road. One of her tan stockings had fallen to her ankle where it stayed, collapsed. Her square vinyl purse hung from a skinny arm and the white knit sweater she wore sat unevenly across her shoulders. She stood for nearly twenty minutes. A silver sedan pulled up to the curb and she was gone.
“Did you feed the birds?” Richard appeared at the foot of the stairs looking irritated. I felt for an instant that he might be jealous of the time Leif and I spent together each morning, but I think he knew I needed Leif’s company, that I needed a cushion for my heart, for the part that he knew little about, for the part that loved momma.
The next few months played out slow and uneventful. I found comfort in routine, not just our coffee time in the mornings but in other simple activities as well, like sitting in my parked car before going to work and watching the moon. I’d arrive at the parking garage and find the same spot on the third floor every day. In February the moon moved through it’s stages to fullness and I watched it grow big and soft like a ball of butter. At one point a jet passed in front of the moon, just a black cut out against yellow and I smiled thinking of those Halloween pictures I liked to draw when I was little, of the witch on her broomstick with the moon behind her.
Leif got word a bed would open up on March 1st. He’d get treatment at the Thunderbird Center and would probably stay at least three months, maybe more. He would get counseling and medical management, which he was in dire need of, as his blood sugars were high, usually in the 300’s, thanks I’m sure to Richard’s rice cooker always being full and to Leif’s appetite which seemed to have replaced food for alcohol. We celebrated his last night with us by making homemade milkshakes.
By March I’d shed a layer of my grief and was beginning to feel good about things. I was making plans to go see daddy again and I awoke each day without that heavy dread I’d lived with for so long. The bricks, stones and gravel had gone.
I didn’t want to think of Ola Mae but I couldn’t help it. I’d never thought of her as my grandmother, but she was. What kind of woman disowns grandchildren—-even great grandchildren? I grew bitter thinking of her with her gold ankle bracelet and momma dead—-her ashes washed out to sea. I wanted to visit Ola Mae and tell her about momma. She deserved to know and I had the right to ask her a few questions. I did a search in Google, not hoping for any results but there it was right on the screen—-an address in Enumclaw! I wrote down the address and tried to put it out of my mind but by the end of the work- day I knew I’d have to go see her. I excitedly told Richard of my discovery. I’d gotten Map Quest directions and learned it should only be about a 40 minute drive.
We ate a quick dinner then headed out in the Yukon. We drove East on State Route 169, continuing for miles in one direction. Soon we were in farmland with green pastures on each side and the Cascade Mountains up ahead growing dark violet as the sun dipped. Turning right on Semanski Street we found the house easily. It was a small yellow rambler with three white pillars and a small narrow concrete porch. Richard pulled the car into the driveway and I felt a flutter of nerves in my stomach. I lifted the metal door knocker and rapped three times. We heard movement on the other side but the door remained closed. The sound came nearer; a dragging, shuffling sound that suddenly stopped. The door opened slowly. A tall, burly man stood before us with dark longish hair and full beard. Although he was big, he was not intimating and he said hello cautiously and waited for us to respond. “Is Ola Mae here?” I asked, clasping my hands together nervously. It was barely a shadow, a second of longing and grief remembered. It passed from his eyes and over his face and caused him to steady himself and hold a little tighter to the cane that helped support his weight. I noticed his foot in a soft cast of sorts and he inched a little closer to us and said slowly, “She died almost a year and a half ago.” I sighed and looked down, my eyes settling on his injured foot. Richard put his arm around my shoulder, “This is her granddaughter.”
“Are you Alan?” I asked. I knew Ola Mae had given birth to a son after she left her husband in Tennessee and I remembered momma said his name was Alan.
The man looked perplexed but nodded and waited for me to explain. “I just wanted to let Ola Mae know her daughter, Maggie, has died.” I said, and kept my eyes on his, anxious to see his reaction. He looked at both of us saying nothing. I could see the confusion and surprise. “You had no idea, did you? I’m so sorry. You didn’t know?” He shook his head slowly. “I knew mom had a sister in Tennessee and they’d had a fallin’out. But when she died I couldn’t find a phone number or address.” I smiled and quickly told Alan that he had four half brothers and sisters and he had at least six or seven nieces and nephews. Alan stepped aside and asked if we’d like to come in. It was hard to gage his reaction, he said so little. Richard and I stood in the shadows of the small living room listening to Alan tell us about Ola Mae’s bout with Shingles and how she never quite recovered, falling sicker and passing away shortly after. His dad was now in a nursing home with dementia and he was struggling with the payments and trying to get some state assistance for his father. Alan sighed and shrugged his shoulders. The house and everything in it would have to be sold. I looked around the room, wanting some clue to the kind of woman Ola Mae was. I saw shelves full of knick -knacks and noticed a pair of hoot owls made from tiny seashells. I glanced over Alan’s shoulders to where the kitchen was. A dull yellow light barely illuminated a small table. I imagined me and Ola Mae having tea there, her patting my hand with her own, leaning in to tell me something about her daughter, ‘Maggie never gave me a moments peace. She was feisty, a real spitfire!’ But I’d come too late and Alan couldn’t answer any of my questions. He’d grown up thinking he was an only child. I felt sorry for his troubles and quickly dug in my purse for a piece of paper. I wrote our phone number and address down and handed it to him and thinking he probably needed some time to absorb all this new information.
The sun had just set over the horizon giving the neighborhood a silvery gray cast and the air felt clean and smelled of pine. Ola Mae kept four children and seven grandchildren secret. After she left her husband in Tennessee she started a new life as if her old life had never happened. Even on her death bed she had not told her youngest son about his half brothers and sisters. I couldn’t understand why and I cried in frustration, anger and disbelief.
The sky grew dark and the long country road in Enumclaw became lit by the occasional headlights of passing cars. The farmlands that were lush and green earlier in the day were now just black voids, sad and depressing in their emptiness. I was empty too, and tired. I had to refill myself with all the good things I’d come to know, to remember how I loved my husband, my children and our life together.
I let the days and months roll out from under me. I let my mind rest and put aside my hearts hunger for answers. Why some things happen and why people do what they do is God’s mystery. I know momma didn’t mean to hurt me. Maybe she was just trying to shake off the pain her own momma left, to give a bit of it to everyone who came her way, forcing it on others to ease her own burden of it.
It was just her way. That’s just how mamma was– loving everyone with the jagged edge of her heart.
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