Tuesday, April 14, 2009

the end of Christmas

It was 9:00 a.m., four days before Christmas in 1969, when I woke to find my life irrevocably changed.

Lying in bed an hour earlier, I had drifted in and out of sleep listening to my parents' low voices. I heard the familiar and comforting sounds of breakfast preparations, of my father banking the fire in the family room.

At nine o'clock, I came instantly awake, but there was no comfort and nothing familiar. This time the thing that woke me was the sound of my father's voice on the phone and it filled me with apprehension.

"My wife left, she just drove away. I think she took a gun."

My father was speaking to the police, his voice loud and shaky. What he said was unimaginable. I can hear it as clearly today as if it were 1969, yet I can never remember the rest of what he said. It was as if something in my mind shattered when I heard those words -- "she took a gun" -- leaving me incapable of further comprehension.

In my pink painted room, the one my mother and I decorated together, I pulled the covers tight around my chin and peeked at my sleeping sister. Could I be dreaming? Please let this be a nightmare. Let me go to sleep and wake to hear my mother's voice calling me to breakfast, urging me to hurry so we're not late for church. Let me wake up to find her by my bed, saying "Get up, sleepyhead." I want her to tousle my hair and kiss my cheek like always, tell me "scoot, baby, you'll have to be quick," like always.

Like always, like always, I want things to be as they've always been. These thoughts have run through my mind as my father's been on the phone. When he hangs up, it's infinitely worse: my father ~ my daddy ~ the quiet, capable, strong man I've counted on my entire life is weeping.

What has happened is inconceivable. It is Sunday morning. The house smells of cedar and the rich chocolate of fudge we made last night. It is four days til Christmas. My mother is gone, my father is crying, and I know nothing will ever be the same.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Two tortured hours hurtling through a thunderstorm ended my air time in 1972. It was a Conoco jet, a 12 seater, and the only way I lived through that terrifying flight was to sit up front with the pilots. Commercial airlines frown on that. I quit flying.

I had not been a cheerful flyer before, but after two straight hours of thinking I was going to die, while lightning flashed and thunder boomed, as the plane tipped and tilted, I was a firmly earthbound and glad of it.

I tested it once more in 1987. Fifteen years after giving up flying, I headed to Houston with a rowdy band of drunks, all of us off to an AA conference.

The trip down was hideous, my only comfort coming from reassuring the anxious guy next to me everything was going to be okay. He had started in Montreal and was on his way to Chile. We white knuckled each other's arms for the 600 miles to Houston.

The AA conference was a wash. I could only think of the return trip. Once we lifted off, it did occur to me, as my heart pounded without ceasing, as my hands trembled and my palms perspired, that it was quite a miracle, this being in one place and then another far away, in just 90 minutes.

I don't know what made me agree to the trip to Mexico three years ago. It was April when I did it. It was a family thing. Everyone had to go. Mike had been so sick. Whatever it was, I agreed in April to fly to Mazatlan in November. Fool.

November rolled around and, desperate, I picked a fight with my husband Saturday afternoon, hoping we could get a divorce and I wouldn't have to fly Monday morning. Worst fight we ever had two days before takeoff. The end result? "I'm not going to Mexico. You just go without me."

Alas, I was too early. I should have waited until Sunday evening. By Sunday afternoon, we'd kissed and made up and the flight loomed, ever more frightful, 16 hours ahead.

I couldn't sleep. At 5:00 am, my legs were already trembling in the cab ride on the way to the airport. I popped 20 mg of valium, which lifted the anxiety a fraction, but the stark raving terror was still there, like a wild thing, threatening to turn me into a crazy screaming lunatic at any moment.

Deep breathing, a prayer or ten, my husband's smile and my iron grip on his knee allowed me to survive takeoff. I was airborne after 19 years. It was terrifying. Absolutely frightful.

And then we were leveled out and the cabin was full of cheerful folks drinking coffee, reading the paper. There was a tight, secure feeling in the way the plane cut through the air. The sun peeked over the horizon, making a golden ribbon there, and then a full blown glorious display of gold. I took a deep breath and consciously relaxed. It was going to be okay. It was.

It still is. I'm easily airborne now and grateful for the miracle of flight. I still can't get over the magic of standing on the beach in Florida at 10 a.m. and taking a nap in my very own bed that afternoon. I don't know where the fear went, it just vanished. I used valium for the flight back and then I was over it.

Have you ever had a fear you thought you couldn't get over, then you did? Tell, please.

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Monday, April 06, 2009


I hate Rodney. He's sitting across the aisle from me at First Lutheran Elementary. He's a blonde, skinny boy, smart but mean to other kids. A big upper lip gives him a permanent smirk.

I hate him because we are neck and neck for first place in the Read 100 Books This Year contest Mrs. Christianson announced the second week of first grade.

I have read and read and read this year. Fifty two books so far and it's only January. Every day I look at the great big embroidered blue ribbon hanging above the blackboard. It's made of silk with ruffles all around. First place. I must win that ribbon.

"How many books this week?" I whisper to Rodney when the teacher's back is turned.


"Three? Really?" I only read two. "How many for the year?"

"Forty six."

He's got a smug look on his bratty face. I want to pinch him but I turn away as if I don't care.

By Valentine's Day, I've read 65 books. Rodney leaves a valentine in the paper sack hanging on the front of my desk. I know he doesn't mean it so I don't give him one back. I feel bad later. He's read 59 books now.

Easter's early this year and I'm up to 85 books. My mother's taking me to the downtown library every Saturday.

Rodney's at 78 books. I stay mad at him. I want him to go away to another school. He's not even Lutheran.

Three weeks before the end of school, at recess, I ask him "How many books have you read?"

"Eighty nine."

"I've read ninety eight." I relish the look on his face.

"Ninety eight? What are you reading?"

"Oh, I read a lot of things. I just finished a dictionary." I say this in a practiced casual manner. I don't tell him it was a kid dictionary, and I am thrilled when his eyes get huge.

"A dictionary?"

"Yup." I wander away, pleased that I've made him anxious.

The next Monday, Mrs. Christianson announces that I've won the Read 100 Books This Year contest with 101 books for the year. She displays my completed list, each title and author painstakingly recorded on a lined sheet. Rodney makes a face at me and throws a spitball. I get the blue ribbon. Everyone claps.

When I put two books on my list I hadn't read, I didn't know how bad I would feel. I won. The blue ribbon was cheap acetate. What I thought was embroidery was just paint. When I got home, I put the ribbon in a box and pushed it under my bed.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

seduce me

"I love this thing. Please tell me where it came from, how you acquired it, what you know of its history." I get these requests all the time. I sell antique furniture and while most transactions, most customers, are quick and easy, there are others who want to be courted.

It isn't that they want to know before they've purchased the piece. They always ask for the story after the fact. It's bought, it's paid for, and then they want more.

"Where did you find it," "tell me about its former home." I look back at my ad information and it's all there. French c. 1880s, art nouveau, oak, container purchase. It's there, but they need more than black and white words in a sales listing.

They prefer "French, from the late 1800s, purchased at an estate auction just outside of Paris. Hand picked by a lifelong collector who's only in business because he loves antiques. Packed snugly in a container for shipping before crossing the Atlantic and making its way up the wide Mississippi from the Port of New Orleans."

They don't want to hear of the stinking pollution of the shipyard at the Port of Houston, or the grubby nastiness of the containers arriving reeking of chemicals used to kill insects. They don't want to know that the furniture is bought in bulk by pickers in Europe, that the pickers have no more interest in a particular piece than I have in what shoes you're wearing. It's business, purely, but I'm not in the business of selling furniture as much as I'm in the business of selling romance.

Romance, that elusive, don't-look-at-me-or-I'll-vanish feeling that a certain type of person will experience in certain situations. I say "type of person" as if I'm detached from that, but I am one. I'm one of those seduced by the romance of living, the feeling I get watching the sun rise over the lake on a summer morning, or dancing in the moonlight on a crisp autumn night.

I am captivated by the romance of ordinary life, of my home and the things in it, of the way the sun comes through the stained glass and spills across the floor. Romance is going to sleep in my mother's mahogany four poster piled high with featherbeds and down comforters. Romance is sharing an early morning moment with my sweetheart in the garden as the seeds are sprouting tender green and that moist heavy feeling's in the air.

If you are like me, you can find yourself enchanted, bewitched by the scent of a cup of coffee, by the look of the cream swirling into the dark of it. You may stop your car on a city street in fall, jumping out to stand beneath the sublime crimson glow of a sugar maple in the afternoon sun. Maybe you are mesmerized by the foam wash of waves hitting the beach, by the smoky nightclub sound of a jazz saxophone.

Are you this way? I am, despite such desperate times. And from my customers, I'm getting these requests more often of late. I wonder if people are looking inward, to the small, splendid moments of life closer to home, to the seduction of the spirit which will invariably occur if we stop for just a moment and really pay attention to the world around us.

My people, my customers, they want to be seduced and so I tell them stories. Does it hurt anything in the end? I never tell tales about country of origin or age, that would be terrible and the romance of it isn't in the facts after all. But does it matter, when they want a little fantasy, if I spin an enchanting tale?

I reassure myself that it's okay because the world's dangerously short on romance these days. My story doesn't make the sale, it only adds a little after the fact, a little lagniappe, as my Louisiana friend used to say. It's like gift wrap and a ribbon: the gift is unchanged, but the experience is enriched just the same.

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