Monthly Archives: September 2013

Susie Q

1172224688_thumbnailMy dad and I were driving one night after taking my babysitter home. The car was a royal blue Plymouth Roadrunner with white vinyl upholstery.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of “Susie Q” played on our 8-track tape deck.  At age four or five, I just assumed this song was about my babysitter Susie.  I figured the whole world knew about this beautiful, smart high school girl.  Her cheerful “okey dokey” made everything right in my world.

Dad let Susie behind the wheel of the Roadrunner for driving practice.  “Wow, Mr. Hall, are you sure?  My mom doesn’t even let me drive over the bridge.”   She tossed her hair over her shoulder, a gesture I would strive to emulate with my own stringy tangles that I never brushed because my hair was so fine that brushing was excruciating.

Susie was blond, long-legged, beachy, funny, and got very giggly about Joe Namath.  Her poker straight golden mane of hair was on the cutting edge of chic in the early 1970’s, like Cher and Peggy Lipton and Susan Dey.   She stepped right out of what I dimly perceived of the Age of Aquarius, the colorscape of Peter Max murals that permeated décor and advertising.  She was very different than my petite brunette mother who was a Jackie Kennedy clone, her dark bob carefully teased and sprayed into a helmet every Friday at the beauty parlor.

Susie represented a seismic shift in style, but more importantly, a seismic shift in attention.  My parents were extremely sociable and generally out all weekend.  I was an attention sponge, and I curled up, dry and whiny around the edges, if I didn’t get enough.  I don’t write this to discredit my mother.   She did important things like teach me to read and take me to my first library.  I got every book or toy horse I ever begged for.  But she tended to set things in motion,  then step back.   I had to have a major meltdown before she would really stop to bolster my ego.

If you’re lucky, you are blessed with a caretaker who is generous enough to give what birth parents sometimes cannot.  Like Aibileen tells little Mae Mobley in The Help,  “You is smart.  You is kind. You is important.”  They convince us that we deserve that level of love.   The trick is staying convinced when these people are no longer in your life.

Susie was really my first friend. She never made me feel like she had somewhere better to be.  We played a Black Beauty board game by the hour, read Artie the Smartie over and over, ate Beanie Weenie TV dinners, went to the beach, walked in the orange grove and down by the river.  I started writing and illustrating a comic strip featuring the Pink Panther, Susie, and me.

“Look at this, Mom,” she told her own mother, Marilyn.   “She’s writing and illustrating her own book!  She is so smart.”

“Hmm,” said Marilyn, echoing my own mother’s blasé attitude. My mom thought of course I would be able to read, write, and tell stories by the time I was in kindergarten.  It was kind of expected.

Susie bragged about me.   This was something my mother made a point of never doing, ever, because she hated listening to other people who boasted about their kids.  Later, after I was a children’s librarian for a decade, I saw what good parents act like.  They are almost insufferable because they talk about their kids nonstop.  But their children glow with a quiet self-confidence.

When my brother came along, he naturally took his share of Mom’s love and attention.  And to be fair, my brother was a troubled, difficult spirit who needed extra tending.  My mother had her work cut out handling his darker energy.  But my brother didn’t win Susie over, and that was important.

One day, Susie, my brother, and I walked on the beach.  His diaper got wet and dirty, and he marched along naked, pointing his tiny tinkler at cars and squirting them. Susie and I laughed and laughed, complicit in allowing this undignified spectacle. We both knew my mother would have stopped it pdq.

When we got home, I overheard Susie’s mother, Marilyn, say, “ You let him walk home that way?  You don’t pay as much attention to him as you do her.”

“I like Mimi better.  She’s more interesting.”   That is all I wanted my mother to say.  Of course, she never could or would.

While I needed attention, Susie needed something else. She needed to bust out of our small town.  As I drove around with Susie and her girlfriends in Marilyn’s old Plymouth, the restlessness was palpable.

“God, Mom is driving me crazy!”  said Susie, backing out of the driveway, friend in the front, me in the back. The girls’ purses bulged with bright wallets, gum, and hairbrushes to groom those long manes.  Their big girl stuff announced that they were adults ready to join the world and get the hell out of Dodge.   If it didn’t happen today, it was going to happen one day soon.  Driving around town was just orbiting until they achieved escape velocity.

I went to Susie’s high school graduation.  My parents must have been busy that weekend because I spent the night at her house.  In her bedroom, she and a couple of friends got ready to go party.  I put my pajamas on, watching her squeal as she unrolled a huge poster of Joe Namath.  When Susie left for the evening, I knew it was the beginning of goodbye. Marilyn checked on me as I drifted off to sleep.

Susie left the beachside periwinkle that she shared with her mother, went to college, met a nice guy from up north and moved to Manhattan.  She learned her way around that urban island with the same sunniness that illuminated my young world.  She went on to have a brave and interesting life, and is mother to a beautiful, accomplished daughter.

“You were my practice,” Susie told me years later.  I just didn’t know it was practice.  I never really got that kind of concentrated attention again.  Without knowing it, I’ve subjected every single good friend and partner over the years to the Susie-test.   Do they like me enough so that I feel safe basking in their light?

A few years after she left for college, Susie brought her boyfriend to Florida and married him.  My dad performed the ceremony in his office.  Apparently I was there, but I don’t remember a thing.   Nothing.  Not what I wore, what I said, not what Susie or her husband looked like.   Recently, I saw a photograph of this day, and I realized I completely blocked this event from my memory.  My face looks wan and defeated, as close to gray as a five or six- year-old’s can get. I looked like a kid who just lost her best friend.

The notion that I had any special abilities or deserved to be loved that much faded gradually.  I started to discredit my own memories, and any notion that I had been a special kid made me roll my eyes with the same disdain that I reserved for people who checked The Velveteen Rabbit out of the library.

One day at work, I got an email from my long-lost friend and babysitter.  She reminded me of what a bright and beautiful kid I’d been.  I went in my office and cried because I thought I’d imagined the whole thing.

The happy coda to all this is that Susie is as funny, bright, and loving as I remembered her.  My first friend is still my friend, and her wonderful partner Nancy is now my friend, too.   Susie became a spiritual counselor and minister, and she performed our wedding ceremony when I married by husband in 2011.

So, people, not only love your damn kids, but also tell them you love them.  Tell them all the time.  Tell them in front of other people.  Make everyone suffer through it.   Who else is going to boast about your kids?  Most families don’t have a super-babysitter to do it.  Even if you secretly think your kid’s coloring page is average, tell her it’s wonderful.   A kid with average talent who is comfortable enough to make art is the one who becomes an artist: not the kid with loads of talent who is too self-critical and scared to paint anything at all.

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Food Hoarding 101

courtesy suburbman.tumblr.comHere’s full disclosure:  I am not an enthusiastic cook.  I come by it honestly.  When my brother and I used to ask my mom “What’s for dinner?” her response was, “How the hell should I know?” She taught dance classes and ran a dance company so her energies went elsewhere.  Usually,  Dad brought home pizza, subs, or fish boxes from a seafood carryout.   Some days we’d come home and our combined cook/cleaning lady/babysitter, Lucy, would be standing over the stove with a Winston Salem hanging off her lip, about to drop ash into a pot of collard greens.  Extra flavor. (I’m not kidding — those greens were good.)   When Lucy wasn’t around, my brother and I devised all kinds of crappy snacks like butter and sugar sandwiches, and we invented a toxic kiddy cocktail we called “TeaGaySu,” which was Nestea powder, Gatorade,  and copious amounts of sugar guzzled from a huge pitcher.   It caused us to run around the house and yard, beating each other up until exhausted,  then we faded into sugar comas until one of us revived and mixed a fresh pitcher of TeaGaySu.  Anyway, we entertained and fed ourselves.

So I never realized how a segment of the population is still wired into hunter and gatherer mode, except that instead of tracking sabertooth tigers and growing corn, people go to Publix and Piggly Wiggly.  There’s a neurosis at the other end of the pendulum, and its voice is the cry of  “Did you get enough to eat?”  “Don’t spoil your appetite!” and “What time do you want to eat?”  “How are you going to cook that?”   “Is that going to be enough?”  Basically, it’s just having all kinds of food at all times,  and talking about food all the time, and it is fucking exhausting.

My mother-in-law, Gloria, has taught me some new survival skills, like:

1.  Hours  — sometimes days — before going shopping, you must prepare a grocery list.   If you already have an item in the cupboard, you’d better buy two more ( in case future generations roaming the earth after a nuclear disaster are hungry).  That way, at least you’ll have it.

2.  There are some items on a grocery list, like Caesar salad lettuce kits,  that are purchased solely so they can rot in the vegetable drawer.   They are not intended for actual consumption. In fact, if you make the mistake of preparing and eating one of these kits,  an alarm is sounded that Caesar salad supplies are depleted and you must go out and buy another one immediately.  That way, at least you’ll have it.

3.  The discovery of a new restaurant is cause for anxiety, speculation, and advance reconnaissance.  You need to pull the menu up online, study it, select what you’re going to have at least three days ahead of time, and every person in the household must announce their choice.  You may make another selection once you arrive at the restaurant, but that’s highly irregular.

4.  The most important part of dining out is securing leftovers in a styrofoam box and then a bag (to prevent spillage).  One you get these leftovers home, you can put them in your refrigerator and talk about eating them later.  Most likely, they’ll go bad, because all the styrofoam boxes look alike and you can never remember what’s in them.  At some point, the boxes go into the garbage and this is extremely upsetting because NOW there’s an empty refrigerator and it must be replenished ASAP.

5.  House guests ratchet the food drama up to an almost unbearable degree.  Especially “special needs” guests, like vegetarians or teenagers.  A guessing game ensues about what these people want to eat, what time will they arrive, what time they want to eat, where they want to eat their meals.  It inevitably results in a bunch of food that never gets eaten.  A few weeks ago, a perfectly good meatball sub sat forlorn all weekend simply because it couldn’t compete with the five pizzas, tacos,  Burger King, 10 bags of Doritos, cookies, ice cream, and other goodies bought to feed our teenage son JR and his friend.    Well, at least we had it.  Just in case somebody wanted it.

6.  Any trip to the grocery store is so exhausting that nobody wants to cook.  At these times, it is best to supplement the $500 worth of food you’ve just bought by getting fast food or ordering delivery food.  This way, everyone will get enough to eat, and as for the food that’s already there — well, it’s already there, just in case you want it.

A few days ago, a girlfriend came to visit.  We were lolling around talking, and she said her mom is very similar.  Every time she goes to Atlanta to see her mom, she is cross-questioned.  “What do you want to eat while you’re here? I have to go shopping!  Last time you were here you didn’t eat all the yogurt I bought.”

“Mom,  please don’t worry about it,” she says, knowing she’ll be ignored.

So we’re talking about all this, and Gloria hollers down the stairs,  “Mimi, I’m going to fix Sloppy Joes tonight!  I think there’s some frozen hamburger in the freezer, but we may need to get some more next time we go to Publix.”   This is still morning time.

“Okay, great,” I said, rolling my eyes ungratefully.  Soon after, my friend and I went out to lunch, and yes, we did invite Gloria.  She didn’t want to go, but she DID want to know where we were going and what we were going to eat.

Over lunch — which my friend and I completely acknowledged as another “women having lunch”  food ritual — we decided that almost ALL  human interactions center around food.  Many people, especially women, love to control their situations by feeding others, shopping for food,  sharing recipes, and even minimizing their own food intake as they watch others eat.   Gloria, always an attractive, Twiggy-thin, woman, has always nibbled sparingly, while everyone around her chows down.   She can starve herself, but at least nobody else is going to bed hungry.   This is also common eating disorder behavior — if you watch others eat while denying yourself, you are strong.

To be fair, belatedly, I love to eat.  I just resent the overwhelming effort it requires.  My dad represents the happier side of food obsession.  After my brother and I were grown and  it became crystal clear that my mom was never going to love cooking, he started doing all the grocery shopping and all the suppertime prep.  Nowadays, he is a virtuoso cook who shops daily for specific meals, treasures his recipe books, and works in the kitchen with an orchestra conductor’s finesse.  He sets out his ingredients with as much pleasure as I choose clothes from my closet every day.  Simply, it’s his passion, although my stepmom will attest he’s very messy.   My stepmother Bobbi, who is also a gifted cook,  sets an exquisite table with her many fun dishes and glasses.  Meals are beautiful,  delicious,  relaxed,  and I always think, ‘Okay, this is how to do it.’

Then I come home to:  styrofoam plates,  food that has to be packed away and stored fifteen minutes after eating, endless grocery lists of food that we never eat.  I avoid the kitchen at all costs.  My poor, ponytailed  husband is a really good sport.  He went upstairs tonight to prepare spaghetti and meatballs for everyone.  As I was typing this, I heard,  “Where’s your hairnet?!”  “What kind of meatballs are those?”  “How many are in the package?”  “Will that be enough for JR?”  “Why didn’t you eat that key lime pie?”  “That’s it, we’re never buying any more pie!”  “We might be out of spaghetti sauce.”  (Trust me, we must have 30 jars.)  “There’s no room for you to put leftovers in the fridge!”   “What kind of pan are you using?”  “We never used to fix spaghetti like that!”

Jesus Christ, just give me some vodka and TeaGaySu.





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