Bustin’ Out

This is normal, right?

wheel chair for blog 2

When my dad went in, we were sure it was the end of the road for him. He had stopped eating, stopped cleaning himself, stopped putting on his pants and stopped trying. Just about the only thing he hadn’t stopped was drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes. Then he fell.

The sign read “Rehabilitation Facility” but nobody was rehabilitating. It seemed like a nice enough place when my sister picked it out, but they always seem nice when you take the tour and they’re trying to take your money. It goes like this: “We’re not the fanciest place, but our staff really cares.” Plus, there was the added comfort of knowing that it was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.

But it wasn’t nice. This became clear on my very first visit when I met with the director to pay the deposit. The director was a woman in her 60’s with a…

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I was stuck. Stuck between thirteen and eighteen. Stuck between the little girl that I was and the big girl I wanted to be. Stuck in a place where I had to make some hard choices.

I’d grown up in the gym. I was a gymnast for many years; competing in meets, winning medals and ribbons. I was at home among the sea of blue mats, the foam filled pit, the high bar, the chalk, the rosin, and the springboard. I was accustomed to the bandages, ripped skin, sprained ankles, pulled muscles, calloused feet and the bruises. The gym was a giant room full of ponytails, tight hair buns and adolescent hormonal tears, and it was where I spent most of my time.

But over the summer, I was betrayed by my body, and I no longer fit in. I was too tall to train with the girls my age but too young to train with the advanced gymnasts. My hips had shot out and I looked ridiculous in my burgundy leotard with the white piping and my underpants hanging out. I was not the beanpole I had once been. I was pear shaped, but still no boobs. And my curly hair wouldn’t stay in a ponytail or a bun.

I wanted to quit. I started skipping practice. I didn’t want to talk about it. My mom and Mrs. Fry, the head of the Gym Jesters Gymnastics Club, were conspiring behind my back. Mrs. Fry spoke to some of the older girls and asked them to be nice to me. This only added to my humiliation.

“Do you want to hear a secret?” asked Bitsy, one of the older girls, leading me and Joanie into the bathroom. She motioned for me to come closer and bend down. Then, she quickly spun around so that her butt was directly in my face and let out a huge loud fart. They ran out, cackling. I just stood there, amazed that she had conceived something so cruel and stupid. I was also impressed by her ability to so accurately control the timing of her gas.

And then came the period. There was no easy way to handle the embarrassment of the whole leotard and period thing, especially when your mom insisted that you start with a maxi pad.


Why did I have to start with the maxi pad? Was it so I wouldn’t accidentally forget that I was a woman? Or was it so I could appreciate the magnificent power of the period?

And “maxi” is the operative word here. It was more like a skateboard than a pad.

Technically known as a sanitary napkin, it pre-dated the modern convenience of the adhesive strip. It was held in place with a belt. This contraption circled the waist and had two strips of elastic that hung down, one in the front and one in the back. Each piece of elastic had an “S” hook at the bottom.

The sanitary napkin had a long strip of gauze connected to each end. After clipping the belt around your waist, you would weave the gauze strip through the “S” hook, spin the belt half way around, and then reach between your legs, pull the pad forward, and connect it to the hook in the front. Then you’d pray that it didn’t come unhooked. It was barbaric, bulgy, uncomfortable and noticeable. Standing there in a leotard in a room full of mirrors, it was all I could see.

I had begged my mom to let me to use tampons. I couldn’t bare it any longer. One Friday after gym, I insisted. Mom was having a few friends over for a little cocktail party and it was not a great time for her to help me, so she handed me her box of her tampons and the instruction pamphlet and said, “Read this and wash your hands.”

I opened the thin paper instruction pamphlet, unfolding it several times to its full size.

Wow. This seemed like a lot of words and diagrams. Why were there so many steps? Why the warnings? I read and re-read the complicated step-by-step instructions, studied the diagrams and line drawings, presumably of the female genitalia. But nothing looked familiar.

The instructions suggested that you look at your lady parts in a mirror to familiarize yourself with the lay of the land. They probably meant with a hand mirror, but I was unusually flexible and limber so the wall mirror worked just fine.

I took one tampon out of the box, and practiced pushing it through the cardboard applicator. Oops, I shot it into the toilet. I tried again. Oops, another one in the water. The next time I inserted it halfway in. It was stuck. It didn’t feel good. I yanked it out. I must be doing something wrong.

Wait! Do these come in sizes? Mom’s are size SUPER. I wonder, “Am I a SUPER?”

The next one went in. I tried walking around with it. It felt like I had a baseball between my legs and it made me walk funny – not exactly comfortable. I decided to try again. And then I tried another. Before long, I had “tried” them all. Luckily, my mom had a drink or two in her when I explained what happened to her entire box of tampons. She let me know that they weren’t exactly cheap and the next day got me a box of my very own, size Regular.

Things at the gym improved when I went from being a gymnast to being a gymnastics coach.  Especially since as a coach, I could lose the leotard.

Things just happen.

house for secret story

I have magic powers. I know this to be true. I use them sometimes. Sometimes things happen and it’s because I willed them to happen. Like the time Candy Dovers slipped in her garage and cut her head and had to get stitches. I did that. With my brain. Because I hated her just enough.

She deserved it. She had it coming. She did mean things to me, so I got her back.

I wasn’t anywhere near her when it happened. That’s how powerful I am.

Just like Carrie in the movie, I can move stuff with my evil thoughts. Telekinesis.  Candy’s lucky there wasn’t a bucket of pig’s blood in that garage. She only had to suffer some residual lawn mower oil.

She wasn’t always mean to me, we used to be best friends. We ran the neighborhood. We terrorized poor Tommy from across the street. We chased him for blocks and up to the top of the sand hill, laughing hysterically. He was too tired to fight back as we pulled his pants off. We just wanted to have a look and see what was in there. There wasn’t too much in there, and it wasn’t funny anymore. It was weird and disappointing.

The next summer, we didn’t hang out as much. Candy started playing softball and hanging with her tough softball friends and we drifted apart.

She doesn’t believe me ; that I made it happen. Her stupid friends don’t either. They laugh at me and make fun of me, but they will see. Something horrible will happen to them too, and it will be because of me. I hope no one has to die, but sometimes I can’t control it. Things just happen.

Puppy Love

Spider-Square for WP

I was spoon fed my teen idols by the Post cereal company. Lured by a brilliant ad guy into the Honeycomb Hideout, where I would cut 45’s off the backs of cereal boxes and play them on my CLOSE ‘n PLAY.

I went crazy for The Archies, Davie Jones of The Monkeys, David Cassidy of The Partridge Family and oh, that adorable Bobby Sherman.

Then came The Jackson Five and that little soulful soprano named Michael, spinning like a top in his fringed leather vest. I knew that he was the one for me. I asked my mom if I could marry him. Her response was, “No.”

“But why Mom? Why can’t I marry him?”

She gave me a look that said; it’s too complicated and I’m too tired to answer that question. “No. Just no. And stop asking why, why, why.”

So, my little brain went to work. Why couldn’t I marry Michael Jackson? The best reason I could come up with was that his eyes were brown and mine were blue. That had to be it. My mom and dad both had blue eyes. It must be some kind of law that a couple had to have the same eye color in order to get married.

So, I put all thoughts of becoming Mrs. Jackson out of my head.  Because when you’re a young child, you believe that what your parents tell you is true. Even when it’s not.

Even when it’s sarcasm.

Like the one Sunday when I sat on the couch with my dad, wrapped in one of my grandmother’s crocheted afghans, watching the football game. As he chain-smoked, did away with a 12 pack, and belched insults at the TV, I marveled at the beautiful pompom girls. Dancing, bouncing and smiling in unison with their tight fitting sparkly uniforms and fluffy hands.

“How did they get the pompoms on their hands?” I wondered aloud as my mom came in with a chipped beef and cream cheese concoction. “Did they have to cut off their hands to put the pompoms on?”

“Yes.” She replied with a straight face, “Yes, dear. They have their hands surgically removed and replace them with pompoms.”

Wow. Now that’s dedication! Those girls are hardcore, sacrificing their hands for the beauty of the pompom. How do they eat? They must just dive face first into the plate of food. How do they wipe themselves when they have to go to the bathroom? Eeew! Well, at least flossing their teeth would be easy. I pictured a sad scene; a retirement home for pompom girls with shredded, saggy, dirty pompoms. Imagining the trials and tribulations of being a pompom girl made me realize that pompoming was not the life for me. I’d have to dream up another career.

I stopped asking my mom for things that I wished for. First, she’d squashed my hopes and dreams of owning a baby elephant, then of marrying Michael Jackson, and now the pompoms. Best not to ask. Better to just go on dreaming, believing in the fantasy.

Eventually the meager pickin’s on the cereal boxes could no longer sustain my appetite. I was a growing girl and I needed more sustenance. It was time to graduate to the teen magazines. Teen Beat, Tiger Beat and 16 were what I craved. They were loaded with juicy morsels and I became an expert, memorizing important facts like Michael Jackson’s favorite breakfast food, Bobby Sherman’s dog’s name, Davey Jones’s shoe size. I knew the vital statistics of all my crushes.

And this is where I discovered Donny. Donny, Donny, Donny. I could not get enough of Donny Osmond with his long bangs and white sequined jumpsuit. He was dreamy. When I looked into his green eyes (I didn’t tell my mother about the green eyes), I saw him looking back at me with longing. He was singing straight to my heart; “And they called it Puppy Lo-o-o-ove, just because we’re in our teens.” He understood me.

But how exactly was I going to meet him so that he could discover that I was his one true love? And then one day my question was answered, right there in the pages of 16 magazine;


Imagine Spending The Most Spectacular Day Of Your Life With Dreamy Donny Osmond – Topped Off With A Kiss You’ll Never, Ever Forget!!

How would you like to be the one girl in the whole world who has a really ‘n truly dream date with dashin’, darlin’ Donny Osmond?! How would you like to take an all-expense paid trip – with either your mom or dad or an appropriate chaperone – to wherever in the world Donny is when your dream date with him comes true?! How would you like to meet the adorable Donny O – and be the “chosen one” whom Donny takes out on a special, never-to-be-forgotten dream date?!

Natch, your answer to all these questions is – yes, yes, and YES!! And your next question is undoubtedly HOW?

I was not hip to the teen lingo. What the heck was “natch?” I didn’t know, but that didn’t stop me from throwing it into my vocabulary anyway. My friends were baffled, but I didn’t care. All the cool teens say “natch” and certainly Donny knows what “natch” means.

And, about this chaperone thing. No way. There was no way I was going to let my mom or dad ruin my dream date with Donny.

I was ready to be swept away on the wings of love and welcomed with open arms into a big family, something I’d always longed for. And I would have brothers! Singing brothers, no less.  And I would get to travel far away to a place called Utah and join a big awesome church.

Yes, this contest was my ticket out of Saginaw, Michigan. Because as a very mature nine year old, I knew what I wanted and now I knew how I was going to get it. I was going to win that date with Donny and when he met me, he’d fall madly in love; we’d be married and live happily ever after.

According to the magazine, it was easy to win.


All you do is carefully fill out the coupon below, clip your picture to it and write a letter to Donny telling him why you would like to be the girl he picks to share his Dream Date. Darlin’ Donny himself will decide – on the basis of how sincere the letter sounds – which girl will be the lucky winner!

Don’t worry about how well you write – your honesty and sincerity are what counts, and that’s what Donny will be lookin’ for in your letter! And don’t think you’re not pretty enough to enter, either! Donny just wants to see your pictures so he’ll get to know a little better each and every one of you! But this is not a beauty contest! And, yes, YOU can win very easily!

My mom would have to let me go on this date, she’d just have to. If she didn’t, well, I’d have to kill her, that’s all. And I was gonna win because I knew EVERYTHING about Donny Osmond. I knew his favorite food, his favorite shows and his favorite color. It was purple. Sometimes he even wore PURPLE SOCKS! Coincidentally, this was my favorite color too. I would win him with the color purple.

I needed something special to distinguish me from the hundreds of other prettier, smarter and older girls who would enter the contest. I needed something purple. So I had my grandmother crochet me a purple poncho. A beautiful, very sincere looking, purple poncho, with white fringe. I planned out exactly how I would pose, practiced tilting my head down and my eyes up to make myself appear older and sultry. I would step forward and let my back foot drag behind me like a model.

As I was preparing for the big photo session, my little sister busted in. “You look dumb,” she said. “That poncho is stupid.”

“It is not!” I slugged her. She slugged me back.

I pulled her hair. She pulled mine.

Screaming and crying, we beat the crap out of each other until my mother broke us up.

The damage was done; my sister had completely ruined up my photo session. My eyes were red and watery and my face was flushed.

Grandma assured me that I was still the most beautiful in the world and snapped the photo.

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A Christmas Tale

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Macramé had me under its spell. I spent hours upon hours loitering at the craft store, studying my “how-to” book, mastering tricky knots and weaves, learning about the properties of the varieties of jute and other natural fibers and incorporating beads, feathers and other found objects into my works of art. In addition to all of this unadulterated crafting joy was the satisfaction of creating useful objects such as wall art, belts, necklaces and the pinnacle achievement of all macramé enthusiasts: the plant hanger. Now we could hang our plants all over the house, inside and out, in fashionable and practical macramé plant hangers. Christmas was coming and this would be the first year that I fully embraced the joy of giving as opposed to the gluttony of getting. So you can bet that lots of people on my list were going to get some sort of macramé thingy.

This wasn’t the first Christmas that my sister Stacy and I had to divide our time between parents, but it was the first year that we had to take the girlfriend and boyfriend into account. Mom had Doug and Dad had Janice.

Stacy and I thought Janice was pretty cool and, like a sacrificial lamb, she actually requested a jute plant hanger for Christmas to adorn the huge vertical space in the great room of her A-frame home. It would hang near the top of the stairs and down into the living room. It was the perfect space to feature one of my masterpieces. I worked hard on that hanger. It was very long, had several colors, wooden beads and complicated knots. And, it was a double model; it held two pots!

Dad was late, as usual, picking us up on Christmas Eve in his Lincoln Continental Mark V. He was a car salesman at the Lincoln dealership and had a different dealer model every couple of weeks. The fact that he did not own the car he drove did not keep him from chain smoking or drinking in it. That was a helluva car. It was a two door coupe and each door was about seven feet long, so it was impossible to open the door in a parking lot without banging it on another car. It had a vinyl landau top, the trademark wheel bump on the trunk and every one featured the most ridiculous color combinations of pastel and skin-toned metallic paint.

We grabbed our things and started on our way to Janice’s house which was only a few miles across town and about a five minute drive. Halfway there I realized that I’d forgotten something important.

“Hold on Dad, we have to go back to the house.”

“What for?”

“I forgot Janice’s gift, the plant hanger I made her.”

“We’re not going back.”

At first I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. I argued and screamed and whined and pleaded. He had to go back. I couldn’t go to Christmas Eve without my gift and why was he such an asshole? No amount of protesting and bitching would convince him to turn around.

I was pissed. This was going to be my big moment, the ceremonial unveiling of the macramé plant hanger and the realization by the outside world of my artist genius.

I apologized to Janice that my dad was such a prick and why was she dating him anyway, and then joined in with her kids drinking beer and smoking pot.

Later that night I called my mom to wish her a Merry Christmas and tell her what an ass my dad was, and boy, wasn’t she glad that she divorced him? She was a little freaked out about the bird. I had come up with the great idea to give my sister a bird for Christmas. I went to the pet store and bought a cage, the water and food dishes, the birdseed, the beak sharpener cuttlebone thing and of course, the bird; a little yellow finch. I was very pleased with myself for thinking up such an awesome gift. Mom was worried; would the bird be okay in the closet? “The bird will be fine!” I accidentally proclaimed loud enough for my sister to hear.

“What bird? What were you and mom talking about?” she asked when I got off the phone.

“Oh, nothing. Just a bird that got into the garage,” I lied on the fly.

The next morning, back at home with mom, the three of us gathered around the tree, albeit a little later than in years past, and started opening gifts. I made Stacy close her eyes as I ran and fetched the bird cage which was covered with a sheet. She pulled off the sheet and immediately the bird started chirping and beeping and Stacy started screaming and squealing. The more she screamed the more the bird beeped and squawked. It was love at first sight. They were perfect for each other. She named him Beepy.

Mom’s gift was next.  I’d been planning this one for a while. Mom worked hard to make ends meet, supporting two kids on a teacher’s salary with no help from my father. I had a job at the gymnastics club coaching young kids a couple of nights a week and on weekends. It’s something I fell into when at age 12, I shot up to 5’9” and became a tall, awkward, wide-hipped, marginally talented gymnast with bad posture in the span of about a two months.

Except for the occasional dime bag, I really had nothing to spend my money on, so I saved and bought her something really special, the latest in modern day kitchen technology, an Amana Radarange. Consumer microwaves were in their infancy and this thing was expensive and HUGE. It weighed over 100 pounds and was the size of half of our refrigerator.

I wrapped the “Amana Touchmatic Radarange Microwave Cookbook” and had her open that first. As she sat there, reading the title and trying to figure out what was going on, Stacy and I started jumping up and down with excitement. We ran to the closet and dragged and pushed the gigantic box down the hall across the shag carpet to my mother who was in tears. She was in shock, literally speechless. It was perfect. We nearly dropped it as we struggled to free it from the box and the Styrofoam packing, the three of us barely able to hoist it onto the countertop.

Now it was time for us to open our presents from mom. She never failed to get me some article of clothing that I despised. I would pretend that I liked it and would figure out some excuse to return it so I could pick out something myself. True to form, she bought me a hideous red fluffy angora sweater with sparkly embellishments. She recognized my artistic side and tried to pick out something “unique,” but her interpretation of what was cool and mine were not in alignment.

Mom had been asking us what record album we each wanted. We were crystal clear on our choices. I wanted Styx, “The Grand Illusion.” Stacy wanted Foghat, “LIVE.” Mom thought she’d be funny and give us each other’s albums. We opened them at the same time. I opened Foghat and Stacy opened Styx. This was not funny. Instead of realizing her joke and simply trading the albums with one another, we went at each other like a couple of rabid cats.

“Fine, I’ll take this one then!”

“How dare you! I hate you!”

Mom swooped in and with one coordinated move plucked the records from our hands and quickly switched them with a, “Now, both of you shut up!”

Later that morning, Mom’s boyfriend Doug came over. Things temporarily got more civil as there was a non-family member in the house. Mom had carefully and thoroughly researched the perfect gift for Doug and picked out a beautiful lock-blade folding knife that he could take fishing. Doug was thrilled with his new knife and was admiring it when Stacy asked if she could hold it. The answer was “no,” but Stacy wouldn’t take no for an answer. She insisted that she be allowed to hold it. Doug tried to show her the proper way to open and close the knife, but she wasn’t in a listening mood. Amidst the commotion and grabbing I heard “No, don’t do that,” “Stop,” “Gimme that,” and then “Oh Fuck! ” aaand we were off to the emergency room to get Stacy’s hand stitched up.

It was as if subconsciously, Stacy was testing Doug. “Are you sure you want to date my mom? Because it’s a package deal, buddy.”

After we returned from the hospital, things settled down a bit. We spent the rest of Christmas day relaxing, listening to Foghat and Styx and taking turns burning food in our new Amana Radarange microwave oven.


MBR as warrior

The B suited her personality, a punctuation mark of sorts, standing next to a potentially dull Mary. It stood for Barbara, but nobody called her Mary Barbara, they called her Mary B. That’s how she signed her name, in perfect cursive.

Mary B was born in 1904, in Detroit, to Polish immigrants. Her mother died soon after she was born and as was common in that day, her father gave her up for adoption. Her new Polish parents, whose surname was lacking in vowels but not in Js and Zs, were told that they would be childless, but after a minor surgical procedure, popped out an Eddie, a Chester, a Blanch, a Rosie, a Victoria, a boy that died and a couple of others. Mary B became the babysitter, tutor, cleaning girl and all-around domestic servant. On bath night, she drew one bath. The youngest bathed first, then the next eldest, and the next, and the next, and the next, until eventually Mary B got her turn. At eighteen, she and her father had the, “If you’re going to live under my roof, you’re going to live by my rules,” discussion and Mary B did the unthinkable for an eighteen year old woman in 1922; she struck out on her own, took a room in a boarding house and got a job. Dental assistant by day and a flapper by night, she was well past the brink of becoming an old maid at the age of thirty when she met the handsome German, Rienhart Russell. (Russell was Anglicized from Rossel, presumably because the latter was too challenging for American tongues.)

Rienhart, known to his friends and family as Riene (rhymes with hiney, as in dupah, which means butt in Polish), crossed the big pond as a stowaway and eventually made it to Detroit, with some unwitting assistance from Canada and a relative with a rowboat. His family disapproved of the romance for several reasons; Mary B was six years Riene’s senior, she was Polish, and the biggest problem and most unforgivable sin: she was Catholic. Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, they had a good run. They prospered in a Detroit suburb, raised two children (one of them was to become my mother) and sponsored many Rossol’s looking to escape Nazi Germany during World War II, sharing their home with aunts, uncles, and cousins until they were able to make it on their own.

I have many fond memories of my grandmother; the Hallmark cards for every little occasion, each containing a few precious dollars, and her impressive Este Lauder powder puff collection. When she came to visit she would always bring a paper bag of white mushrooms fresh from the farm and another bag of hard salami. We’d cook up the mushrooms in butter and eat them with toothpicks along with the salami while we played endless games of gin rummy. She’d sip on her manhattans and slip me the maraschino cherry as if it was some sort of secret prize. I felt obliged to please her, so I’d pretend to like it and choke it down. If they discover a connection between the maraschino red dye and some rare form of cancer, I’ll be first in line for the clinical trials.

Mary B was very observant and there were certain things that never got past her, like fat people. She was literally incapable of zipping her lip if she spotted one. “Holy moly did you see THAT?” she’d exclaim loudly in the mall. Volume control was not her strong suit, and it’s possible that my mother and I may have both inherited this trait.

She’d go on (loudly), “I didn’t know they made clothes that big. Is someone having a tent sale?” I always attributed this behavior, along with her sugar packet hording, to living through the depression. If someone had the audacity and bad taste to flaunt their riches by being obese during the depression, while others were literally starving to death, then dammit, they deserved to be mocked by my grandma.

The sweet granny dressed in her peach suit, silk blouse, matching stockings and pumps, hair-do and costume jewelry stood in stark contrast to the little fireball who was liable to bust out with something wildly inappropriate and offensive, usually peppered with a derogatory racial slur and spiced with some good ol’ fashioned cussing. Mary B was a pint-sized personification of “politically incorrect” and full of contradictions.

When everyone was talking about the feminist movement, she’d throw in her two cents, “Those women should not try to take those jobs from those men,” or, “That’s man’s work.” She had been a working woman, first supporting herself and later supporting her family by running her late husband’s insurance company. But she did not recognize herself as one of “those feminists.”

She cried when she watched Alex Haley’s television miniseries “Roots.” The portrayal of the struggle for freedom and justice and the mistreatment really shook her up, but she wouldn’t accept that the struggle and injustice was still happening. Those were different black people.

On Halloween, she dressed as an aboriginal warrior complete with a corked black face, a bone in her nose and a grass skirt. She teased and sprayed her thick white curly head of hair into a wild Afro. I was old enough to surmise by the sideways glances and snickering that there was something not quite right about her dressing up as a “jigaboo,” but I was too young to know exactly what.

The world was changing fast and furiously all around her and it was difficult for her to keep up with the technology explosion, pop culture, equality for blacks and women, media, music and the sexual revolution. And so it’s not surprising that Mary B did not have much understanding of, experience with or exposure to homosexuals. Not many gays were out and open back then. But low and behold, we had one right in our very own family.

Babe was her name and her partner was Gail. Babe was Mary B’s daughter-in-law’s sister. Babe and Gail were a couple of double XLs both hovering around the five foot mark and tipping the scale at three hundred pounds apiece. We saw them at family functions; holidays, weddings, funerals and the occasional birthday.

One Easter Sunday, Babe and Gail hosted a brunch. They lived in a modest ranch on a suburban street lined with exact replicas and perfectly maintained lawns. They were devout churchgoers and each wore a cross on her neck. This and other important details were the things Mary B chose to focus on.

In the car after dinner, Mary B was “in her cups” from the manhattans, so I took the keys and she spoke her mind.

“Boy, they can really cook.”

“Yes, Grandma, the meal was delicious.”

“And that house is spotless. You could eat off the floor.”

“Yes, Grandma”

“But wowie wow wow! Can you imagine those two whales in the same bed together?”

“I try not to imagine, Grandma.”

“How is it that they don’t break the bed?”


“What do they do in that bed?”

“I don’t know Grandma, maybe they sleep.” I said, trying to divert the impending train wreck.

“Pfft! Well, nobody will tell me what they do…but I know,” she said, taunting me like a child.

I braced myself.

Luckily, we were at a stoplight and I managed to not crash the car as I watched her raise her right hand in a tight fist and then very slowly and deliberately uncurl her index finger.

“This,” she declared, twisting her bony raised finger.

“This” was the big secret that the world had been keeping from her. A look of satisfaction crept over her face, because she had figured it out.

“Hmm, maybe you’re right, Grandma.”

A Sign from God

ice god2

It was just another extreme occurrence in a long line of natural disasters.

The first one that I remember was in the summer of ’73, when the neighborhood was overrun with small toads. Infested. Clogging the pools, filling up the window wells, covering the driveway and the road, springing and hopping their way into the house. Humans were outnumbered by toads by a million to one. It was Toad-ageddon. One day I was catching innocent little black tadpoles in a jar from the small ponds in our mostly undeveloped subdivision, and the next day after a thunderstorm, I was scooping mountains of little toads into buckets with my hands. We ran over them with our bikes, set them on fire, somebody ate one. Eventually most of them fried up in the hot sun, but we had a pretty good adult toad population for a while.

Then there was the year of the hornets – even more terrifying. Screaming, running children, arms flailing, panic, stings, stingers followed by homemade remedies of all sorts. Nancy, the Down’s girl from across the street got it the worst. She had to go to the emergency room.

We had floods, biting flies, electrical storms and my favorite, really big blizzards. Drifts that covered cars and blocked the door of the house. School closed. Roads closed. Everything closed. We’d climb onto a dumpster, scale something we weren’t supposed to, and get on the roof of the middle school so we could jump off into the snow drifts.

If you believed in biblical catastrophes, you might think that God was trying to tell us something. Or, you might just move. Nope, not us, we were going to stick it out.

But there was one particular storm that was extra special. After dumping a foot of snow, the temperature warmed up and it rained, then it plummeted again, creating a thick smooth layer of ice all over everything. The temps went back up, causing more damage as tree limbs lost the battle to the weight of the ice.

Somewhere way out there, the power grid gave way and the whole town and every neighboring town went down – for a really long time. Days and days.

But it was beautiful. Every branch, tiny twig, and wire was encased in a perfectly crystal clear covering of sparkling ice.

We skated on top of the front lawn like an ice rink, then we rode our bikes on it, then we skied, tobogganed and used it as a giant slip and slide. We knocked down the icicles with other icicles, stabbed each other with them and ate them. We tried to cut the ice into blocks and build igloos, but our parents confiscated the power tools before one of us severed a limb.

The neighbors came by on their snowmobiles. They were making a run for provisions to the closest grocery store with power. Cargo space on the snowmobile was at a premium, so you could place your order for only two items: milk or beer, or milk and beer.

My dad had recently moved out and was living in a depressing, monochromatic, one bedroom, unfurnished (literally) apartment in a big complex of monochromatic, one bedroom, unfurnished apartments. Divorce was big that year and someone was really cashing in on all the displaced dads. Mom called him back to the house when it became apparent that the power was not coming back on any time soon.

She wanted to give him the opportunity to man up, save the day, chop the wood, stoke the fire and cook our breakfast in the cast iron frying pan outside on the gas grill. It would be just like camping or an adventure in the wilderness. We’d never been camping but – so what? I’d always wanted to go camping. Man versus Mother Nature. This will be fun! Surely, they could get along during a crisis, for the sake of the children.

Our house was a small ranch with a real wood burning fire-place in the family room. My dad hung a blanket over the opening of the room by pounding nails straight into the drywall. Mom was not too pleased with this solution but it did the trick. I was amazed at how nice and warm that room got compared to the rest of the freezing cold house. She asked him to make sure we had enough wood to get through the night. He made sure that he had enough scotch, enough ice and enough cigarettes to get through the night.

My sister strained to read a book by the firelight and my dad made fun of her, “What are you, fucking Ben Franklin?” He meant Abe Lincoln, but we got it. My mom must have said fifty times, “You’re going to go blind.” As the boredom set in, my sister tried over and over in vain to get the TV to turn on. Good thing we weren’t much of a game playing family, charades or I-Spy would have been deadly. With a little more light, we could have played poker. I’m sure we could have thought of creative things to wager, like a hunk of hair or a deep secret.

I was in the middle of a three-year phase where I only slept in my sleeping bag. I’d outgrown it and the inside was ripped, but I loved that sleeping bag and my mom was cool with it because it meant she never had to wash my sheets. I grabbed my sleeping bag and slept outside the warm den, and it felt like camping.

If my mom had any second thoughts or lingering hesitation about her decision to divorce my dad before this mini-reunion, she was damn sure after.

After what seemed like an eternity, in the light of day when no one was paying attention, the power unceremoniously came back on. Dad was gone. Life quickly returned to normal and we fell back into our boring routine until the next calamitous sign from God, the summer of the locusts.

A Different Christy

car street

Every summer it was a different Christy. One year she was Christy from New Jersey who wore a leather jacket, listened to hard rock and smoked pot. The next year she was a blonde Christi with an “i” from South Carolina sporting a new accent and a ponytail. The year she was living in Texas, she became Kristy with a “K.” This Kristy was a cheerleader who went to prom on the arm of her football playing boyfriend dressed in a giant hoop-skirted ball gown that seemed freakishly prissy and cartoonish to me. One year, she even lopped off most of her last name, dropping the offensive “wikowski” in favor of the much snappier sounding “Christy Ska.”

Christy’s dad lived up the block with his newest wife, Debbie, who was popping out a houseful of younger half-brothers for Christy. Debbie was a cliché, the classic Disney stepmother, unable to conceal or control the jealousy stirred up by her stepdaughter’s youthful beauty. Her boys were everything and Christy was an inconvenience and a constant reminder of a waistline long gone. Summers were spent with Dad and evil Debbie and the school year with her mother, who apparently liked to marry, divorce, remarry AND move a lot.

Christy was a year and a half older than me, but two grades ahead in school and she was really, really pretty. Barely five feet tall with dark hair, big eyes and early boobs, she was captivating. I, on the other hand, was uncomfortable with my hips, lack of boobs and current ranking of “tallest kid in the school.” I refused to stand up straight. My mom doled out the cruelest remedy imaginable – a back and shoulder brace. She meant well, but inflicted further psychological damage nonetheless. Yep, Christy was the cute one and I was the “other” one.

On Christy’s first day back at her dad’s, I’d run over to look at pictures of the latest boyfriends, girlfriends and enemies and hear all about what they did for kicks in her new school. Every year I would also get the report on “how far” she had gone with a boy. The years corresponded with the bases; year one; first base (with tongue), year two; second base, etc.

In addition to her dazzling good looks, Christy also had some mad social skills. Summer was short and she was not about to sit around and wait for something to happen, she was going to make it happen. When we weren’t practicing giving ourselves hickeys on our arms, or listening over and over to “Frampton Comes Alive” and trying to decipher what secret message he was sending us through that guitar talk-box tube-in-the-mouth thingy, or dancing in our bikinis by her dad’s above ground pool to Grand Funk’s “Locomotion” while Christy’s dad reminded us that “Locomotion” was an old song and he liked it better the first time around, we were looking for trouble.

Most of the time, I didn’t know what she was cooking up until I was in the middle of it. Once, after hanging out on the phone with the Rock 96.1 overnight DJs, they showed up at the house where I was babysitting. They sat in the car in the driveway while we leaned in, fawning over their radio voices, but didn’t stick around once they realized how old we were. Christy’s dad would have grounded her for the summer if they had come to his house.

With Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic” as the backdrop, Christy turned me onto something she’d learned at her current school.

“Here,” she said, spraying some Pam® into a plastic sandwich baggie. “Sniff this.”

“I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” I said.

“Sure it is. We do it all the time back home.”

I sat back on the couch, put my face into the bag and breathed in the fumes as my limbs started to go numb and my vision closed in from the outside. For a minute, everything went black as I felt the tingling take over my entire body and heard a hummingbird in my head. Yes, it turned out she was right. That was a good idea.

We would sleep over at each other’s houses and when we were at my house, we would camp out in the family room next to our back porch. We had a great back porch. It’s where my dad and I used to sit and watch the thunderstorms roll in while he smoked and drank scotch. It’s also where we’d keep a little menagerie of animals and bugs including a praying mantis held captive in a bug catcher filled with so many flies that eventually her belly would blow up like bubblegum and she’d die. And it is where our beloved guinea pig, Mac, lived in his cage, having come home with us for summer vacation from my mom’s high school science class.

One night, when the sleepover was at my house, Christy planned an elaborate hoax so we could sneak out to meet up with two older boys in a car. I knew full well that this was a cardinal sin; the thing my mom feared most was older boys in a car. At 11:30 sharp, having stuffed our sleeping bags with pillows and popcorn bowls, carefully shaping them to look like sleeping bodies, we quietly snuck out through the porch door and ran barefoot through a block of backyards to the designated meeting point on the corner under the street light.

Christy slipped into the front seat of the awaiting Chevelle and into the arms of Pat, a short, popular guy with nice hair who came from a long line of short, good looking, troublemaking brothers. I climbed into the back of the two-door coupe with Bob, a tall, thick, average looking football player who managed to be both a jock and a pot smoking burnout, which was not uncommon in our town. Sure enough, Pat was the cute one and Bob was the “other” one.

Poor Bob. It just wasn’t his night and by no fault of his own. He was probably just doing his good buddy a favor, taking one for the team, falling on the grenade, so to speak. He put his arm around me and moved in, taking his cues from Pat and Christy who were already going at it in the front seat. Bob was not deterred, apparently, by the fact that he and I had never actually spoken to each other before this very moment.

But Bob didn’t look at all like Peter Frampton, speak with an English accent, or play a guitar talk-box tube-in-the-mouth-thingy and so he was not going to get very far with me. I managed to wiggle my way out with nervous, non-stop talking and I’m sure he was relieved when we finally said goodnight and ran back home.

The whole sneak out plan was a pretty good one and we may have gotten away with it except for one small detail, Maude. After my dad moved out, my mom decided that we should get a dog. I’m not sure if this was her new independent decision making or if she thought it would be a healthy distraction for me and my sister, but it didn’t work out very well. Maude was a beagle mix and a hunter. She would dart out the door and head straight to the field at every opportunity and proudly return with half a turtle or a chipmunk. Mom didn’t appreciate the gifts.

In our frenzy to escape, we failed to notice that Maude had escaped with us. Unfortunately for us, she returned before we did, scratching and howling at the door on the porch, waking my mom and half the neighborhood. As my mom made her way through the family room, stepping over the pillows and popcorn bowls, the jig was up. I went to bed knowing that I’d be in big trouble the next day.

But, in the morning, I was saved by a major distraction that overshadowed my crime. In between my sister’s sobs and hysterical weeping, I was able to make out the words, “Mac. Is. Dead.” Our dear guinea pig drew his last breath, alone in his cage, on the back porch during the night, while I was out running free. And I know to this day, deep down in my heart, that somehow, it was my fault.

The Pedi


I’m a picker. I admit it. If you ask me to pop your zit, I’ll do it. Pluck a grey hair from your head? Sure. Wax your eyebrows or tweeze a sliver from your finger? Okay. Pierce your ears, pull a tooth or yank out a nose hair? I’ve done it. Just try to keep me away from a scab or an ingrown toenail. Hell, I’ll give you a tattoo or perform minor surgery if you want me to. So when my dad asked me to cut his toenails, I accepted, happily.

Jill, my dad’s wife, wasn’t going to do it. She had thrown in the towel, no longer willing or able to care for him. She was too sick herself. But she never really took much care of him anyway. It was an “every man for himself” relationship built on a solid foundation of loathing, laced with suspicion and paranoia. After twenty-three years of marriage, they still had separate checking accounts and hid cigarettes from each other.

Normal people would find a way to handle a pedicure, like perhaps visit a nail salon where they specialize in pedicures. But this was not possible with my dad and Jill. First and foremost, they do not allow smoking in nail salons (maybe it has something to do with the highly flammable nail lacquers). This was reason enough to never attempt to go there. How could they be expected to be awake and not smoke for forty-five minutes? Dad and Jill likened this injustice to being denied their first amendment rights, as if the constitution grants us as Americans the inalienable right to smoke anywhere we damn well please.  Second, they typically require pants in nail salons and most other public places. My dad refused to put them on. Third, it was harder and harder to get his bent up body out of the house and into a car, let alone up on pedestal and into a chair at the salon. And finally, those ladies did not speak English. The whole situation could get ugly and possibly involve the police. No, it was going to have to be done at home and by me.

Since most of my dad’s waking and sleeping hours were spent in his recliner, this is where the dirty deed had to take place. I prepared the operating theater by spreading several towels on the carpet to both protect me from the fifteen years of smoke, ash and Siamese cat hair, to which I am allergic, and to catch the shards of flying debris. I prepped the tools that Jill had amassed over the years; a pair of industrial strength nail clippers, extra-large, like the kind a large animal veterinarian might have for trimming the claws of a bear at the zoo, an extra-large pair of cuticle scissors that resembled a small tree pruner or a chain cutter and could easily remove an entire finger with one false move, various nail files, sharp pointy cuticle tools for digging and scraping, scissors and other assorted implements of torture. I would wipe them down and line them up on a separate hand towel. I would also grab a roll of paper towel, for god knows what, and a beer, for me.

After the first time, it became a ritual that I would perform with every visit and I developed a system. I would start by examining his feet, which were, like the rest of him, not at all healthy. All of his physical ailments were related to the slow failure of his major organs; kidneys, liver and circulatory system, due to his prolonged and excessive alcohol and nicotine consumption, but god help the person who tried to explain that to him. His skin was flakey and itchy all over, but his feet were the worst. He no longer bathed or showered in the actual bathtub or shower, just quickies by the sink with a washcloth, so he literally never took off his socks. When I took them off, big hunks of skin would fall out. There were cracks and deep bloody crevices and fungus. There were red bumpy peaks, and white mushy valleys and inexplicable black hard flat plateaus. And then there were the yellow toenails. Jesus, the toenails. Like the storied saber toothed tiger, they had grown so long that they would curve back into his body, piercing the top of the toes. And thick. So fucking thick that they were sometimes thicker than the actual toe. Even the giant tools were powerless against them.

Before I would go into battle, I would put on a long sleeve shirt, jeans, latex gloves and protective eyewear. My dad would always say, “You don’t have to wear those gloves,” and I would always say, “Oh yes I do.”

Dad would sit back and go about his normal activity; watching Maury Povich on the TV, smoking, drinking scotch on ice and harping on Jill. Jill would sit across from me on the couch to laugh at the spectacle and delight in his discomfort.

I would start by getting a big bucket and filling it with warm water and Epsom salts. He would always complain about the temperature of the water, either too hot or too cold. That would be my first “shut up” of the day. I’d let his feet soak for a good long while to make my job easier because half of his skin would just fall off in the water. Then I’d prop up one foot on a small stool and get to work. I’d gently rub the skin and knock off anything that was dangling or loose. I’d examine between the toes and clean out whatever I found there before eventually getting around to cutting the nails. I’d start with the clippers, then chip away at the thick nail with the scissors before eventually resorting to the massive file. An electric palm sander would have been a more appropriate tool. This was the only way to get the nail down to a reasonable size. I’d vigorously sand the end and the top, working up a sweat. Sometimes, for no logical reason, the nail would start to bleed, like a cat with a vein that runs through its claw. I theorized that my dad was de-evolving into a cat.  After the nails, I’d go for the callouses.

Even with all the shit happening down there, he was still ticklish. So I was either hurting him, or tickling him.

“Hey, you’re hurting me,” he’d yelp as I cut into something that would start bleeding.

“Awe, shut up you big baby,” I’d snap back. “I’m the one sitting on your fucking gross ass floor with your cigarette ashes raining down on me, cutting the goddam nails on your disgusting feet. I get to hurt you a little if I want to.”

Jill loved this. She wanted to talk to him this way, but she didn’t have it in her. She’d laugh herself into a coughing fit every time.

When I was done, I would dry off his feet with yet another clean towel, apply a thick layer of anti-fungal cream and put on a clean pair of socks. Then, under the cover of nightfall, knowingly breaking municipal codes and EPA regulations for toxic waste disposal, I would cleanup; dumping the contaminated murky water on the lawn, shaking the towels and sending toenails, hunks of skin and foot flying into the air. I’d disinfect and dry the tools, run the vacuum and wash the towels, eventually removing the gloves before coming up with an excuse for some “alone” time.

Afterwards, Dad acted like a freshly groomed puppy. He’d sit back in his chair, take a deep drag on his cigarette, wiggle his toes, and be nice for a while, which was thanks enough.

Pool Party


You wouldn’t even know it was there, if you’d never been invited in. An in-ground swimming pool; a simple rectangle with a blue vinyl lining, surrounded by a perfectly even border of cement, surrounded by a perfectly even border of green grass, surrounded by a wooden privacy fence.

They lived across the street and my mom was one of the chosen ones, an honorary member of this exclusive club. I was occasionally permitted access because I was her spawn. It was always presented as an extreme privilege and it came at a price. You really had to thank them hard and you still owed something after that – like having to scrub the perimeter of the pool with a toothbrush.

Their last name was Somerville and the irony was not lost on me. Their first names were Choppy and John. Choppy’s real name was Robina. Born and raised in England, she held onto what was left of that accent for dear life. Somehow she managed to operate an American motor vehicle with a smoke in one hand and an open can of beer in her lap without killing anyone and, except for a few notable instances, remembered to stay on the right side of the road.  She’d drive all around town in circles to avoid having to make a left turn in an intersection. Her appreciation for American luxuries such as the electric garage door opener, the drive-through beer store and a full-sized refrigerator came more naturally.

Choppy had a Grace Kelly style swim suit with high-waisted bottoms and a built-in belt. Her bathing suit top was padded and her hair was always styled up high. She was never without makeup and when she swam it was more of an elegant dip with a hint of dog paddle. John was American with plentiful silver hair on both his head and chest. They were unbelievably tan, tan enough to last through the long Michigan winter. Together they had created a Bob Hope fantasy land where the sun was perpetually shining and you could always find a lit cigarette and all the neighborhood gossip you could stomach.

The music was piped onto the grounds through cheap speakers from which they played the same Oscar Peterson record over and over again. As the day progressed, the empty beer cans piled up giving way to the cocktail hour and they would inevitably get more enthusiastic about the musical selection. “Oh, I love this part,” Choppy would chirp, maybe even flashing a little dance move on her way to the “loo.”

They had three grown children. The eldest son seemed the most normal and never visited. The middle one, a daughter named Susie, was strikingly model-like gorgeous and normal on the surface, but with layers of complicated issues that I could never begin to understand and could really care less about. But the youngest son Chris…he was interesting. Chris was the wild child; the black sheep. He was a hippie with long hair, a beard and big brown deep intense crazy eyes like Charles Manson. They spoke of him in hushed whispers. He was constantly in trouble with drugs, women and law enforcement officials. Once, he called my house collect from a Colorado jail because his parents refused his call. He was a free spirit, traveling the world.  Sometimes, without warning, he would show up demanding money and loud fights would ensue. The pre-teen me found him both frightening and alluring.

On one super-hot August Saturday, during a momentary truce, Chris was allowed to visit his parents and, coincidentally, we also had visitors.

My mom’s family had made the rare two-hour drive from Gross Pointe, piling my grandmother, Uncle John, Aunt JoAnna and my cousin Denise into their air condition-less woody station wagon.  Denise was actually a half cousin, if there is such a thing, because when my mom’s brother, my Uncle John, married JoAnna, Denise came with the package.  Grandma worshiped her only son and was eventually able to accept her morally deficient daughter-in-law, but had little love for the bastard grandchild that had been thrust upon her. Denise is the same cousin who later in life would harbor her fugitive felon lover in the attic of her home, somehow eluding her husband and the police and subsequently getting fired from her job as a correctional officer at the Alabama State Penitentiary. But for now, she was your typical rebellious sixteen-year-old, acting out against her horribly square and insufferable parents and trying to endure a mandatory family reunion.

As fate would have it, the Somervilles opened their hearts on that stifling hot day and invited us all over to share a slice of their sun and a swim in their pristine pool, which Chris and Denise promptly defiled by passionately making out. Two tormented young hearts finding temporary relief from their personal hell in the arms of one another. With only the water and the diving board to shield the lusty groping teens, the adults were more than willing to ignore what was happening in the deep end in order to spare all parties the utter embarrassment.

I took my cues and pretended not to notice, but I was watching. Behind my sunglasses and dumb floppy hat, I was taking mental notes. Although I was sure that I’d never be as beautiful as my cousin with her long straight hair, parted in the center, I could imagine my curly-headed self with a grown-up bikini body, driving my parents crazy and French kissing a troublemaker.