Lessons in Accessorizing: A Childhood Traumedy

Milford Creek Lane was a straight, flat stretch of middle-class Georgian suburbia. The blue ranch house I called home sat about a quarter mile from the stop sign at the end of the street. During the school year, I walked that route twice a day to catch the bus in the morning and return home in the afternoon.

One morning in early winter, my breath clung to the frigid air in front of me as I walked—the grass still turgid and shimmering with overnight frost. I wore a navy wool coat and scratchy black gloves. On top of the gloves, I wore my newest prized position: a real, grown-up ring.

I had told my mother I wanted a real ring, and for reasons I’ll never understand, she allowed me this indulgence. She took me to Uptons department store where I peered in to the jewelry case on my tip toes. I picked out a small gold ring with a marquise amethyst and the tiniest of diamonds lacing over it.

The next day, I was so eager to show off my new ring, I couldn’t bear to cover it with a glove. So my eight-year-old genius decided to wear the ring on top.

When I arrived at the stop sign that morning, my fellow bus riders gathered in a loose mosh pit on the sidewalk. Older children and troubled children and stranger children all intimidated me, so I kept to myself.

I shoved my hands in my coat pockets and felt a wad of cloth. Pulling it out, I recognized my other pair of gloves. Not only did this set better match my coat, it also had sparkles woven in the fabric, giving it all the softness of a Brillo Pad.

Without a moment of hesitation, I peeled off my black gloves and put on the newfound haute couture pair instead.

I sat in my fourth-grade desk at school for no more than 10 minutes that day before the revelation occurred: my fingers were bare. The ring was gone.

Dread rose in my chest as my child-brain backtracked through the morning and realized the ring had popped off at the bus stop when I switched the gloves.

It could be anywhere now. It could have rolled into the sewer. It could be caught up in the blades of a lawnmower—yes, even in the winter! It could have been carried off in the talons of an eagle, swallowed by a jewelry-eating dog, found and kept by a vicious neighbor with excellent taste in rings.

My mother would never buy me another ring again. She might never buy me anything at all! I’d probably never have another valuable possession for the rest of my life. I hadn’t deserved the ring, and now I’d lost it in my first 24 hours of ownership. The thought of having to tell my mom what I’d done twisted my stomach in knots. Laying my head on the cool faux-wood of my desk, I tried not to cry or panic or simply bust through the school exit and sprint all the way home to look for it.

My nerves turned to nausea as the day ached on. Every bump and turn and squealing first-grader on the excruciating bus ride home forced my stomach farther up into my throat. As the yellow behemoth rounded the last turn to get to our stop, my entire body tensed.

By requirement only, I waited until the screeching brakes came to a complete halt before bolting to the front. I arrived at the door as it opened casually via accordion fold with its customary whoosh of air.

Darting out, I launched for the spot where I was standing when I switched gloves. I flung myself on the ground—aware of how strange I might look yet not caring in the least—and smooshed my hands frantically into the grass hoping to feel the hard metal against my soft palms.

Nothing. Nothing but cold dirt.

And then, amid my panic and dismay and guilt and terror and disappointment, I saw a glint of gold hope among the sullen green. I crawled over on my hands and knees.

There it was. Unscathed. Unaware of the anguish I’d endured over the past six hours. Bathing in the sunshine, just waiting for me to come home.

Even though I haven’t worn rings over my gloves since, I still don’t trust myself with valuable jewelry.

File Aug 06, 9 37 23 AM

book review: a heartbreaking work of staggering genius

Title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Author: Dave Eggers

Genre:  Biography, Memoir, Humor

Publishing Date: 2000

a heartbreaking work of staggering genius book cover
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,
Dave Eggers

REVIEW

Favorite Quotes:

“Because I was afraid that you’d be unpopular and would be cast out for being a near-orphan and having funny ears and living in a rental and would grow up with an interest in guns and uniforms, or worse, I’ll find you under the covers reading Chicken Soup for the Prepubescent Soul and lamenting your poor lot, I got dressed and went to that comics stores that’s open ’til eight, and we got two packs of cards and one of them has a hologram in it…” (pg. 84)

“We are wearing what we always wear, shorts and T-shirts, having decided, after thinking about what to wear and then remembering not to think about what to wear, to wear what we would have worn had we not been thinking about what to wear.” (pg. 244)

“My mom used to kill us when we took school pictures without her knowledge, before she would approve of our outfits. Of course, there’s a reason we didn’t tell her about Picture Day, and that reason is spelled P-L-A-I-D.” (pg. 326)

Synopsis: At age 22, Dave Eggers loses both of his parents to unrelated cancers within five weeks of one another. Orphaned along with his three siblings, Eggers becomes the primary caretaker for his eight-year-old brother. In the memoir, Dave recounts his parents’ final days and the challenges, failures, and triumphs (but mostly just challenges and failures) that follow when he moves across the country to California in an attempt to start a new life for himself and his brother.

Opinion: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG) was one of the books I pulled from my mom’s bookshelf after she passed away. I had heard of the title but had no idea what it was about. After reading the premise, I was intrigued and decided to give it a go.

Part I of this 11-part, 437-page memoir is, in my opinion, the best. In this section, Eggers walks through the demise of his mother’s health and the sudden, unexpected loss of his father. And he does it with such impeccable honesty and authenticity. Having just watched my mom die not even a year ago, I was amazed by Eggers’ ability to so accurately capture the heartbreak and humor that can coexist in our most difficult moments.

After Part I, however, AHWOSG lost me. Eggers style is self-reflective, stream of consciousness, and more often than not, rambling. There are tangents that go on for dozens of pages at a time. And circuitous thought patterns that don’t really take you anywhere. I felt like this book was a series of memories and thoughts and obsessions strung together haphazardly, rather than a thoughtful, purposeful memoir with a clear route and worthwhile destination.

By the 300th page, I was just fighting to finish. And the grand finale was quite possibly the greatest letdown of all.

Perhaps AHWOSG was simply over my head. If someone told me “You just don’t get it,” I’d have to wholeheartedly agree. (I mean, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize!!)

But it did provide a few chuckle-out-loud moments, and the first part was so well done that it was worth the rest, which I waded through laboriously like a fat person running under water.

If I had to sum it up in one word, that word would undoubtedly be this: Staggering.

Overall: 1.5 out of 5

Who Should Read This Book: It’s hard to say, really, since I didn’t connect with this one. But I’d image hipsters who grew up at the same time as Eggers would enjoy AHWOSG more than I did.

a little sh*t goes a long way

I pet sat for my dad last week while he was in Alaska. He has three dogs: a decrepit beagle, a mutt that suffers from OCD, and a bulldog puppy.

During the day, I made every attempt to work remotely in between cleaning up messes the oldest one let slip and retrieving lost tennis balls for the OCD one and removing the world’s friendliest bulldog from my lap.

Each moment was truly an adventure.

One day about halfway through my stay, during the middle of a conference call, the pack began barking in deafening unison. I exited the house into the backyard, apologizing the whole way to my colleagues on the other end of the line, who had all stopped mid-discussion from the shrill disturbance.

Once outside, I began pacing the cold, wet patio as we wrapped up the call. At one point, I approached the patio’s edge and saw what at first looked like a dog toy discarded on the ground.

It was not a toy.

It was a chipmunk.

And it was not in good shape.

And by not in good shape, I mean it was dead.

Being the skittish young woman I am–the kind who would rather drown a roach in aerosol hairspray than attempt to hit it with a shoe–I screamed. I waited until I hung up the phone, of course. And then let out a rapid series of staccato yelps.

At this point, the bulldog, who had followed me outside, also discovered the chipmunk. And I knew I couldn’t just leave it there.

I grabbed two nearby buckets, normally kept for poop scooping, and proceeded to try to collect the lifeless body into one of them using the other one as a makeshift sort of shovel, letting out more of my quick-fire screams every time I made any sort of progress, and apologizing out loud to little Alvin or Simon or whoever it was the whole time.

Eventually I managed to get it into a bucket. Thinking that was going to be the hardest part of the ordeal, I began searching for the best place along the fence to throw it over. (My dad’s house is next to an undeveloped swampy area on one side, in case you’re wondering if I was going to throw the corpse into a neighbor’s yard.)

Holding the bucket as far away from me as my arms would allow, and at shoulder height so I could not accidentally glance inside, I proceeded to walk down the yard’s typically innocuous incline toward the fence. It had been raining all week and with the bucket distracting me from the ground below, I never saw the thick pile of wet dog shit waiting for my foot’s impending arrival.

I stepped in it. And I mean I stepped aaaaallllll in it.

My feet immediately slipped out from under me. And in what had to have been the longest tenth of a second in my life, I fell on my ass, sending the poor deceased chipmunk sailing through the air.

It was then, while sitting on the ground covered in shit from my knees to my bum, and next to the corpse of that dead chipmunk, that I had a moment of gratitude.

For me, finding a dead chipmunk is a bad day. Finding a dead chipmunk and then having to dispose of it is a very bad day.

Finding a dead chipmunk and having to dispose of it and then sliding to the ground in a pile of wet dog shit while simultaneously launching the chipmunk through the air? Now that’s just funny.

So I l picked up my pooper-scooper-turned-chipmunk-hearse and laughed that little critter all the way to the other side of the fence.

I guess on some bad days, what you really need is a little more shit.

 

lessons over coffee

espresso pouring into white mug

When I first moved to Charleston after graduating college, I took an unpaid internship for a small advertising agency. To make ends meet, I worked nights at a coffee shop.

That particular coffee shop was situated between an organic food supermarket, a yoga studio, and a day spa. So I never quite understood why it became the gathering spot for members of a local AA support group, consisting mostly of rough-edged men, many of whom were warring with addictions to drugs much heavier than alcohol.

Each evening, among our customers sporting yoga pants and toting canvas grocery bags, the AA crowd gathered on our patio. They smoked cigarettes and slurped coffee and tipped with heavy hands.

There were those who had been sober for longer than I’d been alive. And white-knuckling twenty-somethings just trying to survive rehabilitation by holding their breath. More than once our tip jar was stolen by customers who’d relapsed. One night a regular was found on the steps of the neighboring public library, dead from an apparent overdose.

Some of them opened up to me, their cheerful night-time barista with no lifelong struggles to overcome, no scars on her arms worth hiding. Over the sounds of steaming milk and singer-songwriter tunes, I heard stories of triumph and failure; I witnessed victory and defeat firsthand.

One of my daily encounters was with a man named Damon. He had eyes as stormy as swirling shots of espresso and a jagged voice. His skin was tanned and calloused and thick from years in the sun and bad decisions and worse consequences. I longed to peel back all his layers and see what stories lived inside.

It took months to win him over, but eventually, he let me in. I went from serving him coffee over the counter to bringing it to him at the end of my shift. We discovered each other in between sips of iced americanos.

Damon was the first man I connected to after the conclusion of a painful six-year relationship, the majority of which was spent struggling to get out of it, only to fall back in. I realize now it was my own sort of addiction.

Even though my time with Damon only lasted a few weeks, he restored a confidence in me that was shaken by countless infidelities. He assured me my lack of scars didn’t make me lackluster.

We talked every day until one day we just didn’t. And one day became two. And two became three. When I finally heard from him, he confessed that he’d messed up and had a beer.

I suspected it was probably more than that.

Damon continued to spiral in the only way an addict knows how–down and quickly and out of control–by lying and stealing his way to oblivion until he was finally arrested. And that’s how it ended.

I’ve now hung up my green apron for good, but I miss serving coffee to all those warriors. I miss seeing the fight in their eyes.  I miss the connection I had with Damon.

Thinking back, I wish I could have done something to return the favor for the way he filled up my rehabilitating heart  that spring. For making me see that some scars are beneath the surface, addictions take many forms, and not all support groups are held in Sunday school classrooms. For helping me break free from my own struggles, even as he was sinking back into his.

And most of all, for showing me how to love not in spite of flaws, but because of them.

 

Photo credit: LaurenLemons via Etsy

 

infinitesitale – two

Mema was just 22 when her dad died. The two were close; quite possibly, she was the favorite of his four children.

As my granddad, who we call Pepa, drove her home from the funeral, he warned, “You know, everything you see is going to make you think of him.” To which Mema responded, “You’re right; it will. And everything will be a beautiful memory.”

That’s the story as Pepa retold it to my sister and me 60 years later, as we drove him home from a new funeral. Now he was the one left with all the beautiful memories.

 

 

Infinitesitale: An extremely small story. 100 words or less. This was a second attempt.

my roots are just anchors; i am tethered to the south

I am of the South. I sprouted up, all pink and squirmy, out of red Georgia clay. Ate apple pie and drank Coca-Cola and sang Amazing Grace.

As a little pudgy girl with rosy cheeks and big, curious brown eyes, you could find me chasing fireflies at dusk. Poking holes in mason jars. Brimming with wonder at nature’s nightlight.

After supper, I’d lay on my back in our grassy front yard. Counting the stars. Hoping to catch one flying by. Flying on to oblivion.

Even if you tried, you couldn’t count the hours I wasted jumping on trampolines. Or swimming in the neighborhood pool. Or trying to dig to China.

I rode my lavender bike on make-believe trails through the backyard. I hunted four-leaf clovers. And made club houses out of empty refrigerator boxes.

I trampled through the creek in our backyard, looking for arrowheads, scared half to death of garden snakes and water spiders and southern boys.

Oh yes, the South runs through my veins.

I went to Sunday school. And learned to recite the books of the Bible. Genesis. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers.

I wore curlers in my hair. Sponge rollers. Hot rollers. Curling irons. And everything in between.

My cousins were in beauty pageants. True southern belles with mascara on their lashes and Vaseline on their teeth before they ever had breasts or hips or a choice.

And that’s part of the South too.

The other part. The lonesome part. The part that won’t budge as the rest of the world spins on. Firmly rooted in pride and tradition. Arms folded crossly on her chest. Stubborn as an old mule.

The South isn’t all sunshine and swimming holes.

I have seen her darker side. Her demons. Her ghosts.

I have seen hatred and ignorance and long-lost souls. Anger and malice from hatchets not buried deep enough. Feuds not quite left behind.

I have met plenty of folks that never learned how to think for themselves. Never cared much about it either.

I have seen poverty. Trailer parks brimming with lawn chairs and empty beer bottles and McDonald’s wrappers and babies on the hip.

I have seen good men waste their lives to coal mines and poker tables and all-you-can-eat ribs and local bars.

Oh yes, the South has her own bleak, battered kind of underbelly. Sometimes that darkness is all I can see.

Until I remember the joy of a Sunday potluck after church. Or listening to my grandpa say grace.

Until I imagine the simple pleasure of picking fresh ripe figs. Pulling watermelons off the vine. A porch swing on a rainy day. A sprinkler party in the front yard.

And don’t forget about the fireflies. You can’t ever forget the fireflies.

I’ve seen big dreams lost to the small city. People, like me, who couldn’t quite escape. Moved away only to find that our roots are just anchors; we are tethered to the South.

But no one complains when they end up here. There’s still shade beneath the Georgia pines. And the waters of the Chattahoochee still flow murky and cold.

No, they don’t complain. They just pour themselves another glass of Country Time lemonade, find themselves a rocking chair.

And wait, and wait for the fireflies.

failed experiments

Describe Your First Brush with Danger

When I was just a youngin’, maybe five years old, I remember sitting on the kitchen counter on a bright summer afternoon. My mom was nearby, but engrossed in something other than her overly curious (and in this moment, stupid) daughter.

As I sat there, I noticed a black stapler resting innocently beside me. And I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I stapled my finger…”

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind did I pick up the stapler with my chubby right hand, slipped my left thumb underneath its arm and proceeded to press all my weight down on it.

After hearing it snap, I lifted my newly decorated thumb up to my face to examine it. The thin line of silver went perfectly down the middle and dark, thick blood quickly began pouring out of it on both sides. It was at that moment the pain suddenly struck me and I began wailing.

My mother immediately took notice and tended to my stapled thumb, trying to calm me down and comfort me at the same time.

She may or may not have asked me why I stapled my finger. But if she did, I’m fairly certain my distressed five-year-old self was not able to articulate that clearly.

So Mom, if you’re reading this, I just wanted to know what it felt like. It’s a pain I’ve never forgotten still to this day.

And you know what I learned? Sometimes it’s just better not to know.