Monday, December 19, 2016

The Beauty Of An Ugly Brown Hairdryer



It’s a big, brown, slightly broken, archaic monstrosity…but it’s mine. The hairdryer I got in the 8th grade, for Christmas 1986.

Despite its thirty years, it still works. However, I have apparently tripped over the cord and bounced it off of the bathroom tile one too many times because occasionally, I have to squeeze the seam back together while flipping the switch to get it running. But, with just the right finessing, it pops back into place and purrs back to life.

My husband has offered, repeatedly, to get me a new one. Reminding me that it’s perfectly alright to replace it. But I just can’t.

You see, it was my Christmas present. The present. The only present…8 months before my family finally threw in the towel and limped our way kicking and screaming to Iowa after my dad's company was "acquired."

My 13 year-old self learned the ugly meanings of lots of words like “acquired,” including "merger" and "downsize" and "independent contractors" as she was swept up in the aftermath of what has been called  "one of the ugliest takeovers in Wall Street history."

My brother and I had paper routes and I babysat like crazy to pay for school clothes, shoes, and all the other little things that came along the way. I helped out in the school kitchen for free lunch. My mother watched kids in our home, made cakes to order and sewed clothes and costumes for neighborhood customers. And my dad took the extra hauls, whenever they were available.

But by my 8th grade year, my dad had gone from driving a truck to loading one, for minimum wage…with a wife and five kids. And I still remember, that tearful moment when my parents told me, that as the oldest, there wouldn’t be much for me under the tree. I was okay. I wasn’t worried for me. I wasn’t the one with the tears.

But on Christmas morning, somehow, there was a box with a bow and a big brown hairdryer. And then I was the one in tears.

 “It’s not that bad,” my brother soothed, oblivious to the true reason for the tears. And as I looked down, yes it was. It was huge and horrible and just…well…a hairdryer. But it was MINE.

And it still is.


Because over time, I have also come to learn the beautiful meaning of the word "gratitude" for something as ugly as this big brown hairdryer.


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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Because Nothing Says Romance Like A Bread Maker


The tree was dead. Completely dead. Brown, crispy, surrounded-by-a-circle-of-needles-half-naked dead. And under it was a bread maker, that he swears to this day had no ulterior motive.

Three weeks earlier, we had lugged the booty from a bridal shower in the backroom of Breadeaux up the steps to our new apartment, having just signed the lease on the second story space above the weekly newspaper where my fiancé had recently been named editor. It was $250 per month and had one leg of the city’s water tower sprouting from its roof, but it was going to be ours, together. He had moved in two days before and after the altar, I was going to migrate the 90 miles south to join him.

His mother had very thoughtfully planned a small shower for me, but then had to change venues when word got out in the tiny town. I knew something was amiss when she mentioned I should go select more stuff because my very rational and reasonable registry had already been run through. Hmmm.

So, my soon to be spouse had dutifully driven me around to every venue in the vicinity to choose and checklist affordable I-don't-really-know-you-but-I'm-dying-to-see-who-he's-marrying-while-still-being-very-thoughtful-and-generous-about-it suggestions for our newly extended registry. Economical essentials like tea towels and toothbrushes. And then...

For some reason, that still escapes me to this day, I don't know why I did it, but I did. I threw in a bread maker.

In the winter of 1994, bread makers were the new novelty marketed to the masses, especially...brides. Which means they came close to the cost of our entire rent and were the fantastical, fantasy fad people threw on their registries, but rarely received. Especially, people like us. People who had completely forgone registering for China because the pricey porcelain patterns were far too impractical. People who were grateful for every last gift they had already gotten. People who felt gigantic guilt at the thought of going out to get more.

But nevertheless, the bread maker made the list. Just to prove it could. Just because I'd never actually get one. Just because anyone who knew anything about me, anything at all, could plainly see that I wasn’t very domestic and wouldn't dare. 

But mostly because that bread maker made this bride mad. It was somehow taunting me. With everything I wasn't and couldn't have. So, right on the registry it went.

And on the day of the shower, to my shock, I got every item I had registered for but the bread maker. From the 89 women, most of whom I had never met, who had come that afternoon to catch a glimpse of the girl who would be moving to Wayne county after the wedding. My mother-in-law hadn’t even sent that many invitations. Many of them had just shown up gifts, potluck, and plated cream cheese mints in hand.

And as we hoisted our haul into our new home, there was one more gift…from him. A Christmas tree, set up and ready to decorate with the lights and ornaments he already knew we were going to be gifted.  My husband had a way of making the most minimal gift magical with just a few romantic words. It was his habit and he had done this from the very beginning with everything from journals, to love letters, to three simple carnations because they were all he could afford. His gifts were the best because each one had meaning and said something about us.

And this was no exception. So, we decorated and delighted and dreamed of sharing our first Christmas morning under that tree as a married couple only three weeks later.

But now…the honeymoon was over.

I sat under a tree that had died while we were away, staring down at a bread maker in a box where my romantic gesture should have been wondering what exactly he was trying to tell me about “us.”

And that was it. No card. No note. No cute little words or romantic ideals. A bread maker. You know, for all of the bread he expected me to bake him…now that I was his wife.

Fear struck me right in my shellfish little soul. What had I done to deserve this? Or rather what kind of man had I married that would buy me a bread maker? 

And the cost! We didn’t have this kind of money! Here we were only eight days into our marriage, breaking the bank on bread makers! What kind of spendthrift was he?

My God, what kind of life was this going to be? What was I thinking? Was I thinking? Obviously not! He didn't know me at all! And really I didn't know him either! When it all boiled down, we were little more than strangers...BOUND FOR LIFE! I was now bound to a bread maker buyer for the rest of my life!

Maybe I had missed something. Surely that was it. I looked up into his expectant face and…

“It’s a bread maker!” He beamed.

He was happy about this. Proud of it. And obviously expected me to be too.

“Thank you.” I said as I sat and stewed in my nightmare visions of future giftings of crockpots and blenders as I thanked him in my apron and pearls just before vacuuming up the debris with my brand new Hoover.

I have made a horrible mistake! What have I done? My God, what have I done?!?

“I thought you put one on your registry. Didn’t you put one on the registry?”

“Mhmmm,” I nodded biting my lower lip.

But Christmas as a married woman was well underway and we had places to be. So I tucked the bread maker back under the brown tree and thanked him again as we headed out to house hop and spend Christmas with family.

“So what did you get?”

“A bread maker.”

“Wow! That was nice.” And I knew that she knew. My mother-in-law is not one of those naggy or nosey ones. She’s actually quite nice. So, if she already knew, there was something I didn't.

It turns out, that when my husband saw that bread maker on the registry, he got quite a jolt. Not only because it was completely out of our reach, but because he couldn't possibly imagine me as a bread maker. But if I wanted it, somehow, he would make it so!

There had been 50. 50 that would be available for $50 over 60 miles away. And he had solicited her help in preplanning and plotting to procure one through the hellacious  herds of Black Friday humanity. And even though $50 was still a stretch, there it miraculously sat, under my dead tree on Christmas morning. Because this bride had requested it.


That silly bread maker said so much more about “us” than any words or whimsy ever could. And I have learned over the years to be very selective when soliciting what I might like to have. Because he will remember it and do everything in his power to make it so. No matter how odd or out of character or out of the way, there it will be. 

Because it has been my husband’s habit and he has done it from the very beginning. He has a way of making the most “minimal” gift magical.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

I Don't Want Anyone To Die For Me, I Just Want A Barbie


The moment my Dad lined the three of us up along the lip of our harvest gold and walnut couch, I knew it was a trap. I may have been seven years old, but I was savvy enough to see through “Do you know what Christmas is really about?”

“Jesus!” I proudly parroted, certain I had just saved myself and siblings from the ensuing spiel. And then he turned to my six-year-old brother.

“Do you know what Christmas is really about?”

Come on! Come on! You can do it! It’s a trick question. You just heard me say the answer.

“Jesus!”

Oh, thank God!

But then he turned to the toddler.

“Do you know what…”

“Santa Claus!”

Nooooooooooooooo!

I caved into the cushions as he launched into a lengthy lecture, one with too much information for my age and stage, that completely crushed that cute little Christ in a crèche and left me a very sinister second grader who had savagely slain someone with her sin.

When it was over, my brother and sister happily hurried off blissfully oblivious to their offense after becoming completely lost immediately after the opening bit about the babe in Bethlehem. However, the gravity of my guilt settled on my shoulders as I made my way over to the console TV where my mother had placed our nativity set, as she had done every year, ensuring we all would see it.

I surveyed the ceramics from Sears. There were the wise men still way off in the corner of the console working their way west for the Epiphany. The shepherd who carried his sheep for some reason rather than letting it walk. The ox and ass, who through stifled giggles allowed me to say “ass” at church. The angel with a clipped wing that had chipped when she slipped from her nail and crashed where the cradle should have been. And Mary and Joseph, all staring expectantly into the blank space where my youngest sibling would reach her chubby little fingers in on Christmas morning, to place the baby, ceremoniously signaling the start of our festivities.

All awaiting the arrival of Jesus, just so I could kill him.

It was a good thing I had been preparing to make my first confession in a couple of months. We had really only covered the venial sins in my Baltimore Catechism. You know, the little ones, like fighting with my brother and not making my bed. The stuff that would still let me into purgatory where I could be on a payment plan of penance. Nothing so dire it deserved damnation. But it turned out we should have been covering the mortal ones, because I was unwittingly a murderer!

Mrs. Johnson, my Wednesday night CCD teacher, had mentioned the mortal sins as a category not to concern our elementary school selves with because those were really big ones like killing someone…which I had apparently already done! And the only way to get a mortal sin off of your soul was to go to confession. So, I would have to sit and stew in my sinfulness until that Saturday in spring when I would finally be capable of confessing to this capital crime and cleanse it from my conscience. I was going to have to be extra careful not to take any unnecessary risks to ensure I survived until then!

Over the next several days, at recess, I stayed off of the ice my friends were so gleefully gliding across and sat on the steps. I skipped going to my best friend’s house after school. And every time we got in the car, I secured my seatbelt, even though this was 1980 and seatbelts were completely unnecessary unless we were on vacation and even then, I am pretty sure they were only required to keep us from climbing all over the car and driving my parents crazy on cross-country car trips.

I didn’t go out and play in the first snow of the season. I skipped sledding and stayed safely inside watching the neighbor kids out the dining room window. And this is when my mother was sure something was amiss.

“I know that Santa is watching, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want you to have any fun.” And then she winked.

Mom was well aware I knew who was what. I had known since Kindergarten. It started with suspicions about The Tooth Fairy, then barreled through the Easter Bunny and snowballed right on over to Santa. I had always been an over-thinker and in a matter of minutes my five-year-old mind had managed to decimate the magic, much to my mother’s dismay.

But it stayed our little secret. She knew that I knew that she knew that I knew. But ne’er a word was said about it since that day more than two years earlier.

However, it wasn’t “Santa” that concerned me. It was that other guy in red. The one whose name also started with an “S.”

And as my worries piled up just like the snow outside, I finally could take it no longer.

“I don’t want anyone to die for me, I just want a Barbie.”

And then there were tears.

And a very simple response.

I don’t remember exactly what she said, only that she pointed out how very much she loved me. And if she could love me that much, to just think how much more God must love me and that Christmas and all the rest of it, in its simplest terms was about that love. And yes, there was a birth and a death, but there was a lot of living in between…and after. And so much living and loving for all of us to do as well.

And most importantly, she assured me that I was not a murderer and that dying for someone was something else entirely. And she let me in on a little secret…the best news of all.

I was getting a Barbie.



Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Amish Underpants and All


“Are you at the good Denny’s?”

Three motels, one with its hourly rate proudly posted, and the adult bookstore directly across the street made it clear I was not.

I had been expelled from a closing airport and sent to spend Christmas Eve at the "bad Denny's" to be hit on by an aging gangster named Foot while sitting adjacent to Chardonnay, a stripper with a stack of singles and feather roach-clip earrings, wearing a black Santa hat emblazoned with the word "Naughty!"

“I don’t think so…but I need to reserve a cab pickup…”

“Ma’am, we don’t make reservations for pickups from Denny’s. Especially that Denny’s.”

Click!

All eyes turned to me, the pariah from the police car, who had just been plopped in the parking lot. I stood there, Delta Dawn incarnate, wearing an ill-fitting 17 year-old wool winter coat and ripped yoga pants, clutching a small suitcase.

Just hours earlier, I had been racing through an underground tunnel at LAX because the first leg of my flight had been switched and was suddenly being serviced by a completely different airline…in a totally different terminal…on the opposite side of the airport.

I made it, just in time to reprint tickets and tags and rush to the gate…where the flight was delayed. I had just set my carryon down and was readying to settle in when --

“Here, watch him!”

A complete stranger, not even bothering to make eye contact, shoved her son at me and disappeared…for half of an hour. She blew back in the same whirlwind in which she went, phone squeezed tightly between her shoulder and cheek, whisking him up as she hurried past and on off down the hallway hollering back to me without even glancing up, “Hurry up Helen! I can’t do this all myself!” No, she couldn’t. She definitely couldn’t. And poor Helen, wherever she was.

But now, I sat, plates piling high on the pressed wood table, ordering course after course from the menu to bide my time until the airport reopened in a few hours. I preferred paying rent on this sticky tabled booth rather than at the hourly motor lodge across the way where there was a good chance that the surfaces were just as sticky. I ordered $16 worth of food. $16 is an immense amount of food for a single person at Denny’s.

I swirled my straw through three dollars worth of strawberry shake.

“What you doin’? What you doin’ with that bad ass?”

I looked up to see a bandit-bandanaed-blonde-bombshell airbrushed across a black t-shirt just below some numbers and the letters “O.G.” sliding into the booth across from me.

“Foot” slurred a thick tongued introduction fragrant with fermentation as he extended his tattooed fingertips; a tinted motif that flowed up his forearm, then slipped under his sleeve unseen to later resurface, slithering up his neck and culminating around his eye in teardrops, dots and digits. He continued by unleashing an uninvited ode to my ass. That same, travel tired tush that was now respectfully tucked away in torn yoga pants under a large tunic.

The rip in the rear was the result of a snag from some stable doors set up in the sanctuary for Christmas Eve service. I was cleaning up the frankincense and myrrh when my derriere was detained by the doors just minutes before boarding an airport shuttle to make it to my original flight in the nick of time…before it was changed in every way possible.

A flight that I was taking to catch up to my husband who had already headed to the Midwest a few days earlier. A flight I had to take solo because I worked at a church and Christmas Eve is, well, a workday. A flight that was supposedly a “connecting flight” that had just landed at a tiny airport that “doesn’t do connecting flights.”

“Ma’am, you’ll have to leave. The airport is closing. It’s Christmas Eve and everyone wants to go home.”

“But I’m supposed to get on a connecting flight in a few hours.”

“Ma’am there are no connections. This is the end of the road.”

I stood there wagging my tickets for the remainder of my trip. Tickets printed by an airline that doesn’t service that airport. Tickets that no one would even look at when I asked them to because it wasn’t their airline. Tickets that cost hundreds of dollars, but were getting me nowhere except kicked out of the airport because it was closing.

“Ma’am. How did you even get here? Who dropped you off?”

“I flew. I just got off of a plane a little over an hour ago.”

And then the walkie-talkie was whipped out and I was described as a confused lady in a red wool coat. A really old red wool coat. A red wool coat that I was wearing even though it was at least 70 degrees outside.

Two Novembers into our marriage, I had no winter coat nor the budget for a winter coat. But was surrounded by Iowa weather that required said winter coat. This was back before you could order things online, so we went shopping.

There was a beautiful red wool coat, at Yonkers department store, that I loved. Then, there wound up being one functional coat at another place that was the only one that fit me and the budget. The store closed before I could go back and get it. I resolved to return the next day.

After work, I swung by home to change out of my bank teller’s uniform before heading out to make my practical purchase and there, lying on the bed, was the red wool coat. That red wool coat took extra hours. That red wool coat took giving things up. That red wool coat made me cry. And even though it has gone out of fashion and I live in the heat of Southern California, I still wear that red wool coat every year when I travel home for Christmas. It is the only winter coat I own. It may have been seventeen years old, but the intent and love behind it are still the same.

“Well, all of the cabs are gone now, and by the time one gets here, we’ll all be gone and it’s not safe to leave you standing outside alone. Is there someplace I can drop you until the airport opens again in the morning?” The airport cop had been summoned to deal with the confused lady in the red wool coat.

“Maybe a 24-hour restaurant like an IHOP?” I offered.

“I don’t know. A lot of things are closed.”

I checked my phone to see what I could find. I found a Denny’s. He said that was doable.

I climbed into his squad car with my carryon luggage in my lap, closed the door, and as the car pulled away from the curb, the questions began. Familiar questions. Questions we used to have on a list for a nonprofit I had worked for. Questions that were asked of mentally unstable people off in an alternate reality.

And according to my phone, we were not headed towards the Denny’s. Not by a long shot. I was headed to spend the early morning hours of my Christmas where those deemed “confused” who show up in old red coats at dead end airports with tickets for airlines that aren’t there wind up. So rather than starting at the beginning again. Out of desperation, I chose to start at the end. The destination. Rural Iowa. My mother and father-in-law’s house and how they would be waiting to pick me up, along with my husband.

And as fate would have it, this cop, way out on the west coast…had family…in the tiny town just one county over. And knew all of the places and even some of the people from my husband’s hometown. And at least for a moment, long enough to turn the car around, decided maybe I wasn’t completely deranged and dropped me at that Denny’s.

That Denny’s where I now sat across from a very large man, with very identifiable associations on his skin, as he wound up his ballad to my butt.

“I’d really like to kiss you.”

“Dad, leave her alone!”

And there he was, the son. Foot had a son! A son! A son with miraculous timing. A son whose face burned with embarrassment as he dragged his elder from my booth toward the door, apologizing profusely. A son who said he hoped his father hadn’t ruined my Christmas as Foot staggered back toward me offering, in his own way, to…keep in touch.

“For the love of God, Dad! Get in the car! Now!” And one kick to Foot’s own “bad ass” and they were out the door and into the waiting car.

I spent the next few hours in the booth next to Chardonnay and across from an autistic tree surgeon named, I kid you not, Gabriel. Who, from what I gathered, came in every night to sit on the same stool and eat the same thing. He would sit at the counter and talk about trees, to anyone and everyone, as loudly as he could.

He knew everything there was to know about trees! Their insides, their outsides, their bark and their bite. And how at this time of year, everyone loved trees. He got to string them with lights all throughout gardens and hedges. And shape them and tie them and make them look lovely. So of course Christmas was his favorite! And what better way to spend Christmas than with his favorite strangers and at his favorite place, Denny’s.

And he wished each and every one of us a merry Christmas and us him in return. And in those wee early hours while we were still in the night, all of us waiting for…something; the strays and the castoffs, the unwanted and wandering, the fringe and forgotten were gathered together and wished well and welcomed and given glad tidings of great joy from Gabriel, about his evergreens.

It was going to be okay. I had a place to be. I was warm and I had $16 worth of cold spaghetti and sides splayed out before me. I was pretty blessed and soon I would be with people who loved me...with or without underwear.

Yep. When I finally arrived at my destination, my luggage was lost…for five days.

Despite everything, I made it back to the airport, onto an outbound flight and to my mother and father-in-law’s house. Where I finally replaced my ripped open pants with a pair of pajama bottoms I opened for Christmas because I had nothing else to wear.

And being Rural Iowa, everything was closed for the holidays. I eventually had to give in and buy some underwear from a Mennonite supply store just to get by. These behemoth britches came way up past my belly button and my husband and I called these sizeable, sexy specimens my “Amish underpants.”

But I had made it to my destination. To people who love me, Amish underpants and all. And I know that I’ll never have another Christmas Eve like that one…

Because next time, I’m going to the “good Denny’s.”