Mother Blue

I photo. I take day trips. I lightsaber battle. I analyze the stuffing out of myself.

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40 on 20, a Short Epilogue to the Epilogue

I don’t usually write two blog entries this close together (see Friday’s prologue, 40 on 20), but yesterday turned out to be an epilogue to the epilogue.

• • •

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Her tree on the hillside.

We took so many wrong turns yesterday. My mother’s grave is located in one of the three cemeteries of three different sister churches in my hometown. I get lost every time I try to visit. I called my brother in semi despair. I even texted him photos of my location. “That does not look familiar at all, Kimmy.”

He kindly offered to meet me. I gently declined his offer. I was determined to find her grave on my own. I don’t go to the cemetery all that often. I have always felt that the presence of someone who was buried just simply no longer existed — in the ground quickly then out into the universe. But this being the 20th year, I felt compelled to commemorate.

After about 45 minutes of searching, I was both laughing and grimacing at the frustration of not finding my mother’s grave. I walked to the spot where I was sure she was buried. “Do they move graves here? Maybe they moved her grave.” Jack was trying to lighten the situation. We were stressed. I was a little argumentative and tense.

I got back in the car and said to Dave, “I think she is screwing with me. I know that she was buried near these damn trees!” There were far more explicatives in my rant than the few I am documenting here.

We asked for directions. We got quick answers from mourners who really just wanted to mourn. Dave suggested one more turn. And there it was. The right cemetery on a road perpendicular to the road we were just on. My brother said to “look to the edges of the road and you will find her.” After a little walk, I came upon it. I sat down in front of her name and my family left me alone with my thoughts. I started to take photos of all the things around me. I wouldn’t look directly at her grave at first. I went to switch lenses and something made me stop busying myself with tasks. I started to cry. I didn’t expect to. I think the idea of a person frozen in time got to me.

Jack wandered over next to me and sat down. He was curious about the tombstones around me. We talked about the various engravings and made a few lighthearted jokes. He was fascinated by a telephone etching on the stone behind my mother’s. I left Jack and sat behind her stone and began to talk to Dave for a few moments. Jack laid down and rested his head on his grandmother’s tombstone. He was looking at nature and the tree in front of her, much resembling the way he watches “Spongebob” or some other random TV program.

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Sitting. Thinking. Watching.

I harbor no illusion that he somehow felt some sort of deep bond with her in that moment. He never knew her, except through my stories and his questions. I think it was Jack just being Jack, a nine year old boy. I did say, “well, here is your grandma.” Without missing a beat, he yelled into the tombstone, “Hey, Grandma!!!!!!” It was more for a laugh than anything else. It made me smile. We don’t get to hear him say the word grandma all that often.

I decided to lie down next to him, mimicking his pose. My Madonna moment, I thought. Dave snapped a picture. Jack and I chatted and laughed about the bird poop that might be in our hairs from lying on the less than pristine granite. I didn’t realize Dave was still taking photos when he captured our embrace.

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Our Madonna moment.

Candid embrace.

Candid embrace.

We went to Jim’s Drive-In. One of my favorite treats from when we were growing up. Burgers and dogs and homemade sauce. It didn’t taste exactly the same as I had remembered. We later drank some wine that had been saved from 1994. Table wine really doesn’t keep well. It tasted like Easter egg dye and salad dressing. So many things had changed. It was time to move forward.

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Jim’s Drive-In

 

 

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Happy Birthday, I Know You Are Not Special

 

Happy birth.

Happy birth.

A letter to my son on his 9th birthday. 

You are nine today. Mazel Tov!

The last of the single digits; one number shy of double digits, forever.

So, I gotta be straight with you.

Look, as much as I love you, you are not special; not as much as you would like to think you are; certainly not as much as the myth that your dad and I have perpetrated to you and to the world.

The truth is that the outside world is a son of a bitch and you are a number.

YOU

ARE

A

NUMBER.

The truth is you will be nothing more than a series of numbers throughout your lifetime:

A student ID number

An employee number

A social security number

A paycheck

No matter how much I try to enhance your childhood and/or helicopter you and/or let you fail and/or fall on your face and/or get frustrated with you, you will still grow up to be an adult. You will venture out among your generation whilst trying to find your way. You will be lost. You will be off searching for meaning. You will be narcissistic and you won’t understand why the world can’t see you as the unique and beautiful snowflake that your mom and dad see in you in your daily funny faces and your very bizarre jokes.

I am a nihilist by nature. I often joke with your dad about which of the things we have done that will eventually land you in therapy. I watched “The Breakfast Club” the other day and it reminded me that we may already be on the path to becoming the parents that John Hughes once prophecized in my ear through the Brat Pack’s lips.

Pretty bleak birthday card, right? Well you should be used to this by now. I am always warning you of life’s dangers at the happiest of moments and at the most inopportune of times. It is my life’s preparatory course. But bear with me — you only have another 40 years of this.

The truth is you are a number to everyone.

To me you are 6:10 am, 4lbs 13oz, 4/3/05, 9 years

The truth is, as unfair as it is and as much as you would like to be, you won’t be special to everyone. You will simply be ANYONE. But hopefully throughout your life, you will find your tribes. The ones that tell you the truth, the ones that will have your back, the ones that will get you into epic trouble, and the ones that will make you laugh. And hopefully you will find the significant others that get you and your need for classic rock, TV commercial reciting, and varying other things. These are the people who will know you as SOMEONE. And vice versa. They will be your respite when the EVERYONE ELSES make life unbearable.

I have already seen the inklings of the grown up you. The one that sits next to a girl at the school dance until her friends arrive, just so she doesn’t have to sit alone.

The one that screams at the kid to apologize for pushing the other kid.

I have been pushing you since the day I met you. Your dad and I push you to do the things that suck. You didn’t want to go to the head table alone but I made you. You wanted a cookie but you were too embarrassed to ask. “No one is gonna give you anything unless you ask for it. So you can sit here with regret or you can make something happen. I am not always gonna be there to help you through the tough stuff.”

You whimpered all the way to the table, asked for a cookie, and wouldn’t look at me for the rest of the event. You were pissed and shot me eyeball daggers. I will deal with the fleeting hatred if it shows you what you are capable of.

• • •

I promised I would never lie to you about important things. So I am writing down these truths for you to read when you are ready.

The truth is, you know more about being a kid than I know about being an adult parent. Truthfully, I don’t know what the fuck I am doing.

The truth is that I sometimes paint the world as far too bleak when I should be reveling in the moment. Your dad already knows this about me. I am desperately trying to learn how to find the balance.

The truth is that you don’t need to be special to everyone. Just your tribe. All you need to be is authentically you. Don’t lie to yourself.

The truth is that you will need to work hard. Anything worth doing takes work.

The truth is that you will need to be strong. There are a series of head tables and cookies for the taking in this life. You have to be strong enough to ask for them or figure out a way to earn them.

The truth is that you will need to be independent or you won’t survive in this life for every long.

The truth is that you will need to pay your dues. Everyone does.

The truth is that we love you. No matter what. I say it now and I mean it always. That being said, you will never be too old for hugs and kisses. Deal with it.

• • •

I drove you to school today. Your little voice sang “Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe along with me and the radio. You were belting out that tune as strongly as any person should sing on their birthday. The drive and the song made me think about you in kindergarten. One of the first things they have you memorize is your phone number and your house number.

Home.

The number you are always welcome to return to.

Happy 9th, Buddy.

 

Goofy face. First photo of 9.

Goofy face. First photo of 9.

 

Lost and Found, Part 2: Belonging

My purse is filled with funeral cards.

My purse is filled with funeral cards. It seems as if I had been averaging a funeral home visit twice a month for the last six months. I guess that is the trappings of aging with an aged family.

I headed out the next day, triple checking the viewing schedule on all my smart phones and electronic devices. With my constant travel partner in tow, we set off on an encore performance of the previous day’s plans. I debated on wearing the same dress from the day before, but after revealing myself at Burgerfest I thought better of it. Me arriving in town in similar fashion and appearance from the day before came across to me as too deja vu, too trapped in limbo. It was like adding another ghost to this ghost town.

It was strange venturing out to the same location. The day before, I felt this weird sense of loss and reflection and today everything felt a little forced. I think I may have been exhausted from yesterday’s circumstance. As I drove, my mind drifted back and forth to past and present and the limitations of yesterday.

I arrived at my cousin’s funeral, just as I did every other funeral this past year, not knowing what to expect. I was the outsider and I knew it. I almost felt I did not have a right to be there, like a ghost or relic from the past. I was interrupting the grieving of family who spent the last 17 years together, celebrating birthdays, backyard BBQs, life, death and day-to-day struggles together. Maybe I should have adorned yesterday’s clothing.

Wow, we have not seen you in ages… I am such and such’s daughter…

Entering the room, I saw familiar faces that had aged slightly since I last laid eyes on them. I walked in and was recognized by a few, to other’s I explained my lineage. I offered my condolences. We began chatting about our shared histories.

August 1964. Aunt Lilly, top row, 4th person. I think Linda is next to her. My Grandma, second row, last person. Photo courtesy of my cousin, Donna.

I remember my cousin being one of the kindest women I had ever known. She had always seemed to make family appearances and miscellaneous functions with my other, equally kind aunt. Aunt Linda and Aunt Lilly, they always seemed so inseparable, like soulmates. In fact their names merged into one entity when referred to by the family. AuntLindaandAuntLilly. It seems so sad to me now that death separates them.

Growing up, there were two or three houses of cousins all in a row. Our neighborhood not being the greatest and my mother’s fear of the decline that had taken over the town led us elsewhere on certain holidays. As an alternate to the traditional door to door tricks and treats, every Halloween we would get dressed up in our costumes, walk over to grandparent’s apartment to show off our costumes and get some treats. Then we would pile into our Oldsmobile and drive to the trifecta of houses my cousin’s lived in. The most glorious bags of candy would be waiting there for us. They were packed to capacity. It was more candy than you could EVER collect in one night even if you scoured five neighborhoods. At least that is what I speculated in my young mind.

I don’t remember when the Halloween adventures ended, just as I can’t pinpoint when we all eventually lost touch. My grandfather died in 1990. Four years later mother died. Then my grandmother passed away four years after that. My closest connective tissue to that part of the family had rapidly started dying off and my siblings and I were trying to navigate in our own little “brave new world” that existed without the parents and grandparents that had guided us. Time simply marched on.

My grandparents on their wedding day.

I made my way around the room as Jack made friends with another cousin. They shared some goldfish crackers and talked shop. I began reintroducing myself to everyone and repeatedly telling my Halloween story. I get nervous in crowds and tend to talk… a lot. I think I was also trying to prove to myself (and others) that I had a right to be there, even when my cousins showed no signs of thinking I was out of place. In fact it was quite the opposite.

I began talking to another cousin’s wife and started to tell the Halloween story again. For some reason, I began to reflect on my words as I talked. It became less the rehearsed speech of a nervous person and more a story and heartfelt memory. I began to tear up as I repeated the same words of that same story. I thought of how AuntLindaandAuntLilly remembered to send us birthday cards every year without fail. I remembered being baby sat by another cousin, the cherry tomatoes we used to munch on laughing and talking in my living room, TV glowing in the background. I remembered the warmth I felt every time I was around those people.

We noticed the sounds of our respective sons cavorting in the back room and chuckled. I mentioned how sad it was that we all lost touch. How sad it was that most of my immediate family had passed away and that for my siblings, baring a few exceptions, there was not much of an immediate family left. She looked at me as if she understood my longing and feeling of loss of family on so many levels. Of course that may have been my perception of the moment, but in that instant, I felt a connectivity.

Goldfish crackers with cousins.

I gave my family a few more hugs and condolences as I was getting ready to leave. We were extended an invitation to their 4th of July celebration. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend because my husband had some major dental work done and needed cared for that weekend. I was sad we could not make it, but I hope to reconnect at their Labor Day extravaganza.

We got in the car and headed for home. We made one last stop at my old place on the way out. Jack wanted to see where I grew up.

Jack hamming it up.

Serious Jack.

Took a different route home than I normally do from this area. Instead of taking the parkway, I took the back roads through West Mifflin towards Century III Mall. There was one last place I wanted to see.

I wanted to live in that house. I constantly curious about the goings on there. The brick footbridge complete with the flowing creek underneath was always so romantic to me. Especially on our nighttime drives back from the mall. I stared longingly at this place each and every time we passed it. The warm glowing orange lights the space omitted at evening time was so inviting. On one of our nighttime travels, I passionately proclaimed how much I would love to live there one day. To this my mother responded, “Yeah it is lovely, but they probably have rats (because of that creek).” My mother had this gift of being both sharply acute and unknowingly obtuse all in one sentence. I think sometimes her overinflated sense of reality and practicality prohibited her from seeing the space in the gloriousness only my 13-year-old eyes could conjure and imagine.

I was irritated that my mother was so cautious, at times. But my mother’s love, fear, and harsh realities led to some brilliant Halloweens. I never tricked or treated until my son was born, but I thank her for giving us such a beautiful memory.

My "dream" house.

The creek below.

I made one last pilgrimage to my hometown the week following my cousin’s funeral. It was for the death of my godmother’s father who also happened to be my next door neighbor. He was the first person I ever knew to have tattoos. I think he got them while he was in the war. A blunt and funny man. They had a German Shepherd named Thor. He taught everyone in the neighborhood, including my mother, how to drive. My godmother asked if he taught me as well. I told her that he tried. He took me out on the highway to teach the basic rules of the road, but I guess my skill set was sorely lacking. He clutched the passenger seat with purpose. When we arrived back in Duquesne, he asked me to pull over at the local “Moose” so he could get out and grab a drink. I patiently waited in the car. Through all his years serving our country and his stature as the neighborhood driving guru, this 16 year old girl had somehow broken him. My godmother, her brother, and a few other funeral attendees laughed heartily at my story.

My godmother holding me as my parents looked on at my baptism.

I spoke to the director of the funeral home for a few moments after that. He had buried most of my family including my mother. I always promised myself I would thank him for being so kind to us in the days after my mother’s death so I set out to do just that. He remembered me once I mentioned my last name. We talked a lot about our town’s decline and some of the residents that were no longer there. After a few moments, I shook his hand and made my way home. I recounted the past few weeks of mourning and revisiting the past. I always had a sense of not feeling like I belonged to anything on so many occasions. These few weeks of retelling bits and pieces of my childhood gave me a sense of being tied to something; of being part of a shared memory of a collected group of people; of being part of a town’s history, and the documenter of my own, still developing… something…

The funeral home waiting area that I felt compelled to photograph. It looked so different from what I remembered.

Finding the right chair.

Still searching.

Receipts and funeral cards from the past several months finally expelled from my purse.

Jack horsing around with the camera while trying to take my pic. He told me later that if he took my photo he would like to be in the pic as well. Hence his two fingers. He did not explain this before taking the photo. I was nervous that someone may exit the house and complain about us being on the property. Jack captured my face at the height of my nervousness. We laughed heartily after this photo was taken when he explained what he was doing.

Lost and Found, Part 1: Father’s Day

Navigating my way.

I had to use the GPS to find my cousin’s funeral. The same roads where I once “cut my teeth” as a young driver were now all a little suspect, within my memory, at least. Kennedy Street or Grant Avenue? Kennedy Street or Grant Avenue? I have always interchanged the names of those two roads for as long as I can remember.

The monotoned electronic commands (and my severely atrophied muscle memory) signaled me to the correct street. Dressed in my Sunday best, I pulled into the empty parking lot and exited my car. The neighborhood always had it’s quaint charm harkened back from another era, but was never the very safest one for as long as I knew it. It is another casualty of the steel mill industry. Because of this, I expected a slight uneasiness when I arrived. But today was vastly different from anything I had anticipated. I exited the car into nothing, literally no one. The streets were dead, quiet, like a ghost town. I have never seen Duquesne in such a state. I used to pass by people all the time when I was growing up there. People driving their cars, people entering the tiny little grocery store, complete with a butcher that always resembled Sam from the Brady Bunch to my young eyes, the local pharmacy complete with soda fountain and a wall of black and white images documenting the town’s history. But after a decade’s absence, all was silent and askew. Burnt out buildings and abandoned businesses aligned part of my route as I turned towards my destination.

Moving towards home

Quick photo while driving across the bridge

I walked towards the stairs of the funeral home. I could hear my heels click on the brick surface of the road and echo off the leftover buildings. I felt nervous. It felt like a a nuclear holocaust had engulfed the town. I reached for the door. Locked! I slumped to the stairs calling my sister. The newspaper obituary had listed the times wrong.

The funeral home welcome mat

The brick road out front

Irritated, I hung up the phone and headed out. I ventured towards my old street. I don’t know what I was looking for but I wanted to find some reason to be in town on that day. I wanted to find something else other than the nothing I was given in that moment. I parked along side the neighbor’s house on 4th Street. I sat in my car for what felt like forever. I eventually got out to take some pics but was extremely timid about my approach. Now I regret not snapping a few more. The street was more active than any other spot in the town, but I felt a disconnect. I felt like an outsider. I was no longer on what was once my turf. I became distracted by the happenings in the church across the street.

I got back in my car and tried to decipher what was going on. I smelled food grilling. My need to pee overrode everything in that moment. I walked over to the tables and chairs that were set up on the parish lawn and asked what was going on. A burger benefit for the church was the reply. I began asking questions about my old neighborhood and in particular my old neighbor who was the priest at that particular church. I was told they were away, then the kindly gentleman cooking the burgers invited me to eat. I promised I would eat if I could use their restroom.

Burgerfest at the church across the street

As I gathered my burger and chips, they engaged me in small talk, asked me my last name, and asked me about my house across the street. Of course after being away for 17 years, a last name means very little to most town dwellers who never knew you. As the pleasantries ended, I found an empty table and began to eat my church cooked burger and store bought Lays potato chips. I was keenly aware of the irony of that moment, sitting at a table placed on the lawn of my father’s old Lutheran parish, on the day before father’s day, facing my old residence. Chewing and staring, chewing and staring, chewing and staring at this place that was once so familiar but now lies there askew, worn, and even more disconnected to me than I had ever imagined. A place that my grandfather built right after the second world war. A place that housed several generations of our clan and hosted numerous family get togethers, backyard BBQs and family picnics. In that moment, I felt so very small. I lost any sense I ever felt of belonging to that place, to the people, and to anything else resembling “home”. I imagined this as my final family picnic, laying to rest the ghosts of all who used to inhabit that space.

Old house number.

On the car ride back, I set Little River Band to play on repeat. I was looking for something that resembled WJAS radio to suit the distance, my melancholy, and to take me back to other memories. (“Reminiscing” was always a little too hokey for my taste, especially in this moment.) But the sound of the opening piano chord of “Lady” always takes me back inside the old Pizza Hut my family would frequent. I can still feel the texture of those tacky vinyl checkered tablecloths and see those tiny jukeboxes filled with soft hits of the 70s and 80s that sat on every table. Bad lyrics and melodic chorus crescendos always bring me back home.

I returned to the funeral home the next day with a new found sense of something but I was not sure of what.

continued next week: Lost and Found, Part 2: Belonging

One last photo before I leave.

Returning. Preview for next week.