Recalcitrance

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She called me “recalcitrant” and since I wasn’t just yet a tween, I thought it was a compliment. I asked what that meant and she told me to look it up in the dictionary. I didn’t know how to spell it, but she gave me that (at least). “Stubborn.” That’s all I remember gathering from that lesson in English vernacular. Given my age, I blew it off.

This might seem insignificant if I were anyone else, but I grew up to become a writer and obsessed with words and language. I remember flashing back to that word multiple times. As I grew older, and she and I grew more distant, it took on a larger meaning.

I don’t remember what I was doing to be called “recalcitrant” in the first place. The tone she took reminds me now of Marilla Cuthbert; however, her relationship with Anne eventually flourished.

She was never in the position to give me directions. When I did see her, I was with my parents every time. And all I ever wanted from her was the type of familial relationship that some of my friends had.

I had a gray and white Formica table and a blue plastic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles chair. They sat in my parents’ living room until I could no longer fit into the chair and the table splintered and died. It was the center of my activities as a kid, and I remember sitting at that table writing her long letters about my days as a pre-tween. If I could see those letters now, I would bet that they have painstaking details about my cat, my friends, the book(s) I read, movies I saw, and other life events. I always asked her to write me back.

            She never did.

            She has disliked me for as long as I can remember.

At the time I wrote the letters, there were 2, 236 miles between us and postage was roughly 32 cents.

Would it have cost that much to write a ten-year-old kid a letter? I have always liked getting mail. I still do, although now, I find myself receiving more bills than correspondence.

This past Saturday, my husband found a box that I forgot I placed in his office closet. In the box, I found medals that I was awarded from participation in my high school marching band. I also found a plastic baggie full of patches that I always meant to have sewn onto my school jacket.

I brought the jacket upstairs from its cozy hanging place in the basement. On it, I found one meaningful thing she ever gave me. There is a sterling silver treble clef pin on the right, front side of the jacket.

I don’t know when she decided she didn’t like me. Maybe it was the day that she called me “recalcitrant”, maybe it was before that, maybe it was after. I don’t know and I doubt I ever will. Too much time has passed and now the feeling is mutual.

I looked at the treble clef and considered taking it off my jacket, polishing it, and putting it back. But the symbolism stops me. If I polish it, am I polishing the tarnish on our relationship? Am I forgiving her for disliking me as long as I can remember?

Is it possible that I am now actually being recalcitrant?

Even now, the word is still something that I would not love being called by someone that should be genetically disposed to at least liking me.

There are times when I do have “an obstinately uncooperative attitude toward authority or discipline” but today it’s called being a good citizen, not a bad relative.

She doesn’t know that her distain for me as a kid bothered me and I don’t think I’ll ever tell her. I doubt she cares. And if I bring it up, I will have to admit that it did, at one time, bother me. One could argue that if I’m still thinking about it now it still does, but I’ve managed to replace her and make her insignificant in the face of the family I’ve chosen instead.

Besides, if 32 cents was once too much, 32 years of dismissal is a much weightier package.

We Forgot Him (on purpose?)

Last week, my mom asked, “do you know what happened to the young man that lived there” as she gestured to a small, dilapidated, shack along the drive into my hometown. It once housed one of my classmates.

“No……I, I don’t.” I said in response. And that realization was a little sting. I know what happened, or is happening, to many of my former schoolmates.

It comes as no real surprise to me that she asked about a boy that I used to know. My mom has an eidetic memory when it comes to people.

It didn’t seem to be a big deal and the conversation in the car turned to something else.

When I got home, I went into my home office and pulled out my yearbooks. Not only is this individual pictured at bare minimum, but he also appears all but forgotten on the pages of our youthful history. I posed an open-ended injury about him and it turned up nothing.

I knew he had a tough childhood. We knew each other from age five all the way through high school. I don’t claim to be friends with every person I knew then. I’m not. Even in the age of social media there are some requests that just don’t get fulfilled because some people I avoid on principle. I’m not petty but I’m not perfect either.

He didn’t have a lot. He came to school in clothes that had visible holes and were often well worn beyond their prime. Was he bullied? Yes. He was. Some that I grew up with can pretend it didn’t happen in “our school” but it did.  Many of my former classmates can keep their heads in the sand as much as they want, but the fact is, there were bullies in home sweet high school. While I wasn’t one, and didn’t have many encounters with them, I was far from stupid and knew they were there.

I remember two incidents of Jason being bullied. During one, he was being pushed around by a football player in the hallway near my locker. I thought the jerkish jock wasn’t nearly as smart as he pretended to be and not as half as good looking as he thought he was. If you had asked me then, I would have told you that I thought he thought he was God’s incredible gift to both academia and to women at large. He was sixteen. No one is God’s gift to anything or anyone at sixteen (individual’s family not included).

The football player was on Jason about his clothes and his shoes. I remember Jason not taking shit from anyone and I was secretly hoping that he’d get at least one good wallop in before a teacher or a principal came running. It didn’t end that way. It ended with a tart “fuck you” from Jason and his somewhat signature snarl.

I imagine that in his shoes, I would have also adapted to the hostile jungle and developed my own sneer and snarl.

The other was on the bus. School busses are a breeding ground for torment and I don’t know why. I had my own share of bus misery as a kid too. It’s a thing. But I was never put in the position that I remember Jason in at the time.

He was humiliated by another kid on the bus as he was dropped off at his home. Some little twit on the bus thought it was okay to mock Jason’s home.  He looked backward as the mockingkid and didn’t say a word. His stare was steely enough, but an astute person could see that he was trying really hard not to cry. Home is supposed to be a sanctuary! His home, no matter what it looked like, should have been a place for Jason to just be and be safe from the demonic brats that he faced every day.

I was teased on the bus. Some fartbag kid thought it was cool to tease me because I rode in a sidecar on my parents’ motorcycle when I was younger. I didn’t quite have Jason’s level of defensiveness, or word choice, but I did manage something that put a stop to the fartbag’s diarrhea of the mouth.

While I was growing up, my family wasn’t poor but much of my wardrobe came from Wal-Mart. The cute dresses and shirts that girls complimented me on at school? Straight from either Wal-Mart or possibly K-Mart. Both were fairly close to our home and it was what my family could afford at the time. As I got older, we had opportunities to shop elsewhere, and my mom took them, but for most of my middle school years and even into the first year of high school, that’s where I shopped.

Why wasn’t I mocked and humiliated for my Wal-Mart wardrobe? How come the other kids didn’t tease me for my “off” brand athletic shoes? Was it because I wasn’t “poor”?  I wasn’t. But I didn’t have $100 shoes in middle and high school (which, by the way is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen). I didn’t have (too) tight Abercrombie jeans that cut off circulation to my brain (therefore rendering me “unpopular”, but I was smart, so who won that one?).

Jason’s family’s poverty showed, whereas the other kids’ familial situations were more cleverly disguised.

The two photographs I have of Jason in high school don’t show him smiling. I’m not sure I ever saw him smile. I assume that was difficult for him. I know who made his life a living hell. Today, I could still spell their names. I can recall that, but I can’t remember if Jason even had one friend.

There are Jason’s in every school.

What do we do? Pretend these kids don’t exist?

I wonder if they know how to smile?

Jason seems to disappear after 2001. Was he held back? Did he drop out? What the hell happened and why doesn’t anyone, including myself, know? Did we just not care to follow up with him? Like I said, I don’t remember him having one friend.

His home, the one that the dirtbag kid mocked, still stands. It has trees growing through the porch. It’s leaning to one side. I can’t tell if the windows are still intact, or if they were ever there. Jason lived there at one point in his life, and my classy class doesn’t even have proof that he existed beyond two terrible yearbook pictures.

I see news stories quite often about today’s youth doing something good, something kind, for a fellow classmate just because they can. People whine about the millennials and I know I have too. I’m not petty but I’m not perfect. But they seem to have the whole being a good human down better than we did at their age.

We always could.

We could have been better.

But we didn’t, and we weren’t.

Flip Flops In The Snow

I hated Christmas music from November 2004 to November 2005. Nothing about it made me chipper and bright. I hated Christmas shopping, which I normally loved. I wasn’t even keen on the tree in 2004. I just wanted it over. My mom’s breast cancer diagnosis hit my family just before Thanksgiving in 2004, and no amount of false department store spirit could lift mine. I normally liked Christmas. I started shopping after Labor Day and I could be counted on for caroling and decorating just after Thanksgiving.

I was always the first one to send Christmas cards. I should have purchased stock in Hallmark due to the sheer volume that I needed. I had a Santa hat that went everywhere with me. One year, I made stockings for everyone I worked with and I always planned some sort of holiday celebration.

In 2004, it wasn’t the same. I didn’t have the desire to plan, play, and fake my way through the holiday season. Frankly, it was exhausting.

I hated Christmas music and with surprising force, I blocked out the sounds. I did not watch any Christmas movies, including my favorites. I love It’s a Wonderful Life, but even my beloved Jimmy Stewart was too much. I didn’t wear my Santa hat. I don’t remember what my family did that year. I think my parents and I stayed home and wathed movies and ate. (Not that spending time that way isn’t a perfect holiday either way.)

When my mom was issued a clean bill of health, and came home on New Year’s Eve 2004, 2005 came in with a renewed hope. And although I was still weary regarding Christmas music, I was mostly bad to my “old” self that year. Christmas movies didn’t bother me, for the most part. I enjoyed shopping again and I made Hallmark’s sales quota singlehandedly. My mom has had a clean bill of health for thirteen years, so the pure detest for all things Christmas only lasted for one season.

As an adult, Christmas is a big deal at my house. I love having family packed into our small (ish) ranch and the togetherness that the season brings. Every square inch of my home is decorated and I have never failed to have our Christmas tree up either on Thanksgiving or the day after. This year, my husband indulged my adoration of trains and bought me a train to circle our tree. He also started getting me pieces to a Christmas village, and every year, I find a new one from him. I love the way that he takes his time selecting the piece and the energy he spends studying each one to make sure it is just right. (Our village may or may not be still on display in the living room window. Yes, I know it’s April. Yes, I know it was seventy degrees last week. I’ll get to it.)

However, as much as I love Christmas, and I will fully admit that I do love it, it’s not my favorite holiday. And even before 2004, that wasn’t the case.

Very few people, including most of my family and friends, do not know my truth. And a few of those people are probably scratching their heads right now, or they are in complete denial. Better yet, and a much more fitting response, they are questioning how well they actually know me?  If one finds himself, or perhaps herself, in that position, there is one question to ask: what do I wear, all year round, no matter the temperature? If the immediate answer is “flip flops”, it is correct. I wear them all year, even when I can’t parade around outdoors, they become home attire. It is not uncommon to see me in fluffy fleece pants, a fluffy fleece snuggly robe, blankets topped on me, and flip flopped feet peeking out and asking, “when’s spring?”

What do I thrive on? Sunshine. Being outside. The color of grass and the look of the world in bloom.

The truth is, Memorial Day has always been my favorite holiday. Always.

As a youngster in elementary school, it meant that the school year was almost over. In high school, it still meant that the school year was almost over. In college, it meant that the semester had already been over for about a month. As an adult, it ushers in open windows, gardening, reading on the porch, early mornings and late nights, and things coming alive again once more.

Spring might start in March, but for me, my new growth and beginnings start in May.

I had friends that resented the parade we did as members of the high school marching band. And it’s true that I might have resented being there because of band, I didn’t resent the day. I loved it.

Memorial Day combines two of my favorite things. Memories and spring. I take pictures of everything and am careful to make memories. I don’t want to forget anything or be left out of anything, so if I document it, I was there. And I can always go back. As a natural observer of things, this has always been poignant for me.

I haven’t experienced a lot of loss. But others have And Memorial Day signifies a day that we remember the loved ones of our friends and neighbors that went to serve the United States and didn’t return. Do you really think Christmas is an easy holiday for those people?

It wasn’t easy for me and I had it rough for one year. I can’t imagine what Christmas feels like to those whose loved ones are permanently missing.

Memorial Day represents starting over and looking forward, at least for me. It’s a day in the sun (we hope) for those that have lost someone dear.  And it was always a year to plant and be outside. To watch something new grow and thrive simply because I said, “yeah, that pansy looks good there”. It’s about life and tending to it.

That’s not to say that Christmas isn’t. It certainly is. But there is something about warmth inside and out, both mentally and physically, that doubles Memorial Day.

I find it interesting that green is such an important color for both holidays. We see green and red everywhere around Christmas and nature pops up with her annual greens for Memorial Day. Christmas green is a bit darker and it has the same pine smell associated with it. Grass green always carries with it the promise of new hope and remembrance. The time of year acts like a hug and it gives us permission to remember.

And when we do remember, the traces of our memories won’t stick to our faces like they would during many Decembers in Michigan. In May, the traces of our memories can be easily managed with by carefully sliding a hand, or simply tipping your face into the sun. We can remember and feel the warmth of a new day and know that it really is okay. There’s no forced merriment from overzealous store clerks, catchy songs on repeat, or artificial green to remind us of the way we “should” feel because of that damnable pine scent.

One might argue that New Year’s Day offers us the same sense of renewal, but from where I come from, you can’t wear flip flops in the snow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

P.S.-Christmas is my second favorite holiday and I am not a huge fan of fake pine scent. It makes me think of wood cleaner. How ironic.

FFITS

The Way You Looked That Night

As a young girl, I never dreamed about my wedding. I didn’t have a box full of cut outs from magazines. I didn’t have an “ideal” setting. Sure, I would have loved getting married along the beach, but not getting married on the beach wasn’t a deal breaker. I also thought of something in the summer because I love hot weather.

But when it came time to get married, my ideas were quite different. My husband and I planned our wedding around his leave from the military. My summer wedding became a February wedding.

When asked what I wanted, I really wasn’t sure. I knew that February was going to call for something indoors and I wanted a relaxed reception. Nothing stuffy. I knew I wanted my dad to walk me down the aisle and I wanted to dance with my grandfather.

Those two things were at the top of my priority list, regardless of how much time I spent looking for dresses and wedding shoes.

Today is my grandfather’s birthday. He is eighty-eight years old. He has been a great papa (as I call him).

This past year hasn’t exactly been his friend. My grandmother, his partner of over fifty years, has suffered some significant health setbacks and she was just recently diagnosed with dementia. My grandfather on the other hand, is doing well physically and mentally (as much as he can, given the circumstances).

He has always been young at heart, and today, I have been thinking about a few of those instances that really shine.

When I was around five years old, he got us enormous squirt guns. I remember playing outside and chasing my papa around their house. I remember yelling “got you!” and blasting him with my squirt gun. And I remember him getting me back quite thoroughly.

At eight, my grandparents took me on a trip to see parts of the western United States. I remember my grandpa playing Hank Williams on the drive out, simply because it drove my grandmother crazy. I remember my papa telling me all about Wall Drug and how excited he was to take me there. Looking at Mount Rushmore at night was another highlight. And one of these days, I am going to go back to Wind Cave, just to feel the air blow backward like it did when the two of us stood at the entrance.

We visited Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes when I was growing up, more than once, on family vacations. My grandpa would run (yes, run) up the dunes with me (and later, my younger cousin as well). Once we reached the top, or at least three-quarters of the way, we’d turn around, face the rest of the family, and begin running (yes, running) down the dune. However, at some point, we’d jump in the air, land on our behinds, and yell “HI-YA!” This could last for hours.

When I graduated with my master’s degree, my parents and my grandparents stuck out the mid-June, Michigan, early humidity and heat to watch me walk across the stage during an outdoor ceremony. Once the graduates were ready to file out, I spotted my family, minus my grandfather. At the instant he heard the music que up to release us, he ran (again, yes, ran) up the hill to the outdoor amphitheater. He wanted to be the first one to greet me once I reached the top as well.  He was quite successful.

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(Above: me and my grandfather before we left for graduation)

Then, at twenty-six, I got married.

I made lists for every memorable song and dance, which was, for the most part, fairly easy. My daddy-daughter dance was Rascal Flatts’ “My Wish”, Paul and I would cut our cake while Billie Holiday’s “The Very Thought of You” played, but choosing a song to dance to with my grandfather was tough.

At least I knew it would not be Hank Williams.

I adore Frank Sinatra’s voice. Just like Cary Grant could have read me the dictionary, Frank could have performed the Michigan Bell phone book and I would have love that as much.

“The Way You Look Tonight” was our song.

We danced and he laughed at his footing. He sang parts of the song and looked as overjoyed as I felt.

His sister, my dad’s aunt, told my mom that… that. That was the Elmer she remembered. That man. The one dancing with the bride. He was the Elmer from their youth. It was fun to see him again.

I guess she didn’t know about the water fights and the sand dunes.

Today, on his eighty-eighth birthday, I will listen to our song and recall that perfect moment on that perfect day. I’ll have to remind him of that when I call him later, so amid the chaos and confusion that is his new reality, he can remember it too.

Just the way he looked that night.

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(Above: me and Papa at my wedding.)

P.S. He sings just as well as Sinatra ever could.

A Chance Encounter (See You at Disney)

My mom worked in a group home for the physically and mentally handicapped when I was young. She took care of her clients and loved each one as if they were all her own relatives. I came to work with her a few times, or was at least in the building. I was under the age of seven, so my memory there is more than a little sketchy. However, the one thing that I remember is her telling me that people are not conditions.

“Melissa, you need to know that people are people and what they have, or live with, does not make them who they are.”

I made a friend, whom I’ll name Norman. Norman was born a neuro-normal child. He was placed in a state home as a child and his neurological development was stunted. I remember meeting him and he liked children. He didn’t like all adults, which I now completely understand, but he latched onto my mom. I think it was because she saw him.

My mom eventually stopped working at the care facility, and I don’t know what happened to Norman. If I did know, I have forgotten, which embarrasses me a little to admit.

She still has a photo of the two of them on the refrigerator.

***

April is a lot of things for me. It indicates the end of winter semester. My birthday falls at the end of the month. Spring usually sticks around for a nice visit before leading into summer. April is also National Poetry Month, National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Autism Awareness Month, among many others.

Today, while I was checking out at a store, I was asked if I wanted to donate to Autism Speaks. The man working was really trying to sell me on the benefits of donating to Autism Speaks, and from behind me, I heard a voice say, “I am autistic.”  I couldn’t see this person yet, but I admit that I was a little surprised at what he said because it flew in the face of the way I address people.

I finished my transaction and turned around to see the young man that had spoken. I saw an older teenager sporting a hoodie naming a school where I once taught.

I said, “are you going to Mott now?” He told me that he was and all about his degree program. I told him that I used to teach at his school. He was excited to tell me about his classes, even naming off all his current instructors. I asked, and he told me about his future career ambitions.

They sound amazing. This young man has an imagination that I would have liked to bottle.

I asked him what his ultimate career goal was and he replied, “I want to work for Disney.”

My teacher brain lit up. I knew something about this!

“You should check out Disney internships!”

His eyes got big. “They have them?” To which I replied, “yes! They do! I have to admit that I am not an expert, but I do know that they are out there. I imagine that you would love it. I want to do it but I kinda can’t now.” He laughed, and I understood that he understood my self-deprecating, “I’m old now”, humor.

We ended our conversation and I wished him good luck with the rest of his college career. He told me to have fun teaching.

I truly enjoyed meeting this young man today. He was friendly and excited to talk about his future, which is, of course appealing to me. Preparing young people to achieve their dreams is what I live for!

I left wondering why he identified as his disorder, and I know how an individual identifies himself or herself is completely up to the individual. Yet, he as the first person I’ve ever met to identify as his disorder (And I hate that it is called a disorder, but I did check before using that word.). I’ve always been taught not to do that!  People are people, no matter what. You don’t go around introducing someone by saying, “Hi, this is Bob, he’s HIV”, and I’ve never heard, “Hi, I’m Jane, and I am Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

If I could tell this young man a few more things, this is what I would say.

You are a bright, charismatic, energetic, engaging, young man. I hope every single one of your dreams comes true. You, good sir, aren’t autism. Autism is something you live with. Plain and simple. We all have something that we live with, but we are all more than whatever our individual disorders are.

(And don’t pretend you don’t have one. You do. We all do.)

I hope the young man I met today knows these things about himself. From all outward appearances, he seems quite self-assured, so I imagine that he does.

But what leaves me thinking now is why awareness month? Why one month to pay attention to something that impacts so many lives on a daily basis? I won’t pretend to know much, if anything of substance, about the Autism Spectrum, because I don’t. I know a few people that are directly impacted, but their children are just kids to me. Like everyone else.

My mom’s words: “people are people. They are not what they have, or live with, and those things don’t make them who they are.”

There is so much wrong in this world, and I imagine more wrong will come. Why contribute to it?

It’s wrong to identify someone as something that they have or live with.

Have compassion. For Pete’s sake! It’s free. We’re born with it but love to leave it behind somewhere. Find it. It has GPS.

Talk to people. Engage with them. Learn their stories.

Take the time to be a person. And treat people like people. At the end of the day, arbitrary things, even medical conditions, add up to what? Nothing. Those things tell us very little about who a person is.

See people.

We are all more than the things we openly identify.

 

 

 

 

This piece is dedicated to my friend: M.I., whom I admire and love with all my heart, and her son. Both you, and your boy, are extraordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

Attack of the Wild

The sound of shaving cream exiting a can is one that many women despise, and I am one of them. However, it isn’t the “task” of seasonal (yes, seasonal) leg shaving that drives my eardrums crazy. It is that the sound is a subtle reminder of the one and only time I’ve ever been ambushed in the dark by the very real creatures, wild, and native to high schools across the United States (and I’m sure beyond) known as band camp bitches.

It happened during the annual torture known as band camp, late August 2002. I have never been one to really love camping and the idea of sharing a cabin with my friends sounds fun now as long as said cabin is actually housed indoors and could double as a hotel, sans Troop Beverly Hills. When I was seventeen the idea of spending a week in a hot, stuffy, crowded cabin didn’t seem like my idea of a good time. I loved my friends. I even loved marching band back then. But no one could pay me enough money to love the idea of “camping.”

I hated everything about band camp. I hated waking up at dawn to fight for a lukewarm (at best) shower. I hated hearing bugs and not being able to identify their stance before the inevitable attack. Not being able to have access to a lamp. Not being able to read myself to sleep by said lamp. Not having a bathroom near.me.at.all. I hated not sleeping in my own bed, or even a comfortable bed. Not having “real” food.

I am well aware that these things are first world problems, but when you’re seventeen, your first and only world, is yourself.

My parents drove the forty miles to Camp Hell about three evenings a week and brought provisions for me and my equally desperate friends. They brought pizza, snacks, Gatorade, water, you name it.

Overall, that year was going okay. I was in a cabin that wasn’t “quite” so bad and I was bunked with two friend I still have today: Morgan and Kennedy. I still hated the before dawn showers, the bugs, and the food, but I was surviving. I was a junior and it was far from my first rodeo.

Every night, I prayed that something would happen and we’d all have to go home. Maybe the water would go out? Maybe the kitchen would suddenly catch fire? Maybe, just maybe, we’d have weather severe enough to threaten our very lives. (See? Seventeen. Very centric thinking.)

The night of the sneak attack was like every other had been that week. I went to sleep with the hope that I’d wake up and be able to go home.

But I didn’t.

I woke up to find that a group of senior girls (keep it classy 2002) had gotten into our cabin and made messes of varying degrees and “shaving creamed” a few of us lucky ones.

I couldn’t hear very well out of my left ear. It was packed with shaving cream. I have no idea why I didn’t wake up while this was happening to me. I can only say that I slept like the dead and still do. I recently slept through my husband testing the fire alarms in our house.

My friends and I sprang to action. Our cabin was a disaster. And my ear hurt.

Morgan and Kennedy helped me get the shaving cream out of my ear the best we could. They held my head under running water and flushed the ear as much as we could. After a few minutes, they left me in the bathroom to take a shower. What they, what no one knows, is that I sat on the floor and cried. My ear throbbed and I couldn’t hear still.

I showered and our parental chaperone dropped a few drops of hydrogen peroxide into my ear to help dilute the cream.

We told our director and the girls were caught. They gave us pithy apologizes. They cried. Not because they were remorseful. They cried because they got caught. They were a group of girls that I didn’t like. Fifteen years later, I don’t like the women they became either.

I went on the rest of the week pretending I was fine.

I wasn’t fine.

When I got home, I had to go to my family doctor. I had a severe ear infection in my left ear. The one that the senior girls packed with shaving cream. And yes, the infection was caused from that event.

What those band camp bitches also didn’t know is that I had broken my left eardrum as a kid.

To this day, I know I am getting sick when my left ear hurts. It also bothers me on occasion for no apparent reason.

These girls, now women, likely do not remember the event. I struggle to remember the details, except what it felt like to cry in that dirty cabin bathroom. I know that I couldn’t stand them and that had I been then, the woman I am now, I wouldn’t have taken their pithy apologizes. I would have demanded more from the director that I already didn’t respect much. I was only in marching band because my friends were and I had fun with them.

I wouldn’t necessarily call their actions bullying but it wasn’t exactly fun teenage hijinks either.

I went to camp one last time as a senior. That year, I got sunburned, my nail color melted off my nails from the heat, and it was yet again, an exercise in things I actively hated, but it was different. “We” were in charge and no one got hurt.

I pass the camp as an adult on my way up north with my husband. It gives me a case of chills. I may or may not flip it off, sometimes mentally, sometimes actually, as I drive or ride by.

I am sure that those girls that didn’t mean any harm, but they caused it.

I got hurt from their actions and I never forgot what it felt like to be seventeen years old and crying on the floor in a dirty cabin because someone else thought they were being “funny.”

I like to laugh as much as anyone else, but the sound of shaving cream exiting a can does quite the opposite.

Still.

 

(Bottom left: me-leaving for the first day of band camp my senior year)

(Bottom right: me-home from band camp my senior year)

I Know It…

I am losing her. I know it and I can’t stop it.

Amid medical advancements, false promises from halfwit doctors, brain surgeries, and all the physical and occupational therapy in the world, I am slowly losing my grandmother.

She  forgot where she lives, even in her own home. She didn’t know when she moved there. It was 1988…. I was three and there was a swing on the longest branch of the tallest tree in their yard. 

And here I am, my grandmother’s only granddaughter. I sit here, at my desk, knowing that the world outside is full of sunshine and pending spring, and I am looking at a blank screen. Because if I had to list all of things I know about my grandmother, I’m not sure I could.

When I think of my great-grandmother, I can remember a lot and in vivid, childlike detail. But I regret not asking her the right questions about her life and the way that she saw the world.

Thinking about my grandma, I’m not sure I asked her those questions either and I’m not thirteen.

I don’t know if it is the shock of her decline that has me befuddled or if I really don’t know. But either way, the feeling is one of both sadness and disbelief. I’m not sure what I’ll say one day when my child asks me about his or her great-grandmother. I know the basics: where she grew up, when she married my grandfather, where they lived, etc. etc. but I don’t know much, at least right now, about what makes her, her.

My grandmother has always claimed not to have any talent, which I know is a crock. She made beautiful floral arrangements when I was young and had them spread throughout her home. But I don’t know why she always said that she didn’t have any talent.

I don’t know if she ever kept a journal. I don’t know what women inspired her. I have no idea who or what she wanted to be when she was ten, twelve, or sixteen.

I don’t know how she saw the world through the lens of her own female experience.

I am afraid that I will never find the answers to these questions. My grandmother is still alive, although I know I am losing her. I know it and I can’t stop it.

There are roadblocks along my path of discovery. One person that will block me at every turn if I want so much as a photograph. Another that will selfishly claim my grandmother’s possessions for himself and the grandchildren that don’t speak to my grandparents. My grandfather is alive and well and in control of his own faculties; however, the sheer dismay of watching the love of his life decline into a shell will take its toll on him as well. I know this and I can’t stop it.

As a writer, I find it hard to believe that I don’t know this information. I am a born observer. I see more than I ever say, and that may eventually come as a surprise to the many that underestimate me. But for now, I am disappointed. In my own lack of knowledge and in the knowledge that getting that information will be a battle.

Although my motivation might seem selfish, and in some ways, I suppose it is. I want to know more about my grandmother before I can’t. I want to record the female experience from my own bloodline and preserve it for my children. They should know where and from whom they come.

I only have one grandmother, and I am losing her. I know it and I can’t stop it.

The Last Good Photo(Above: What could be the last good photograph of me with my grandparents. October 17, 2015)

My Grandmother Lived in the White House of My Dreams

“This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven.” – Rick Bragg

 

I used to imagine that my maternal grandparents lived in the house next door to my childhood home.  Today, the house is the color of mocha and has a full porch in the front, but when I was growing up, it was a plain white house with a simple porch, and I was a little girl with a wraparound imagination. I never met either of my maternal grandparents, but I dreamed that if they had been alive, they lived next door.

My mom talked about my grandmother and her many talents, down to the way she could braid my mom’s hair. When I was elementary age through my preteen years, I used to imagine sitting on my grandparents’ floor and having my grandmother braid my hair into intricate French braids and fishtail braids.

As a teenager, I imagined walking next door during homework breaks or barging right in after school for a snack. Of course, in my fantasy land, my grandmother would have freshly baked bread or cookies. Something delicious would always be on the table. I envisioned her going on the shopping trips I took with my own mom to look for prom dresses and even the simple things we did like lunch and fun trips on Saturday afternoons.

When I graduated from college, I visited my grandmother’s grave and told her about my ambitions. I told her what I wanted to do with my life and I strived (still do) to make sure that I am making her proud.

I went back and told her about the wonderful guy that I’d met that would eventually become my husband. I wished she could meet my Paul and help my mom get me ready on my wedding day.

Today, I wish she were alive to see my children that are not yet born. I wish she were alive to play with them, to make them laugh, and to tell them the stories of her own youth. All the things that grandmothers are supposed to do with little ones.

A few years ago, my mom gave me several sets of photos of my grandparents. I have most of them safely tucked away in scrapbooks with acid free paper and photo safe glue.

My mom has told me, for as long as I can remember, that I look like her mother. And I’ve always agreed. But looking at those photos brought it front and center. I do.

When I look at myself, I see so much of my maternal grandmother. I have her chin, cheeks, and yes, even her feet! I could pass as a photo of her from the 1950s as me with a different hairstyle. She’s beautiful and gracious with a big, welcoming smile.

I take photographs seriously, and as I’ve written about many times, there are very few places in my home that don’t have a frame. I have a copy of my grandmother’s senior photo in my office, and my great-grandmother is on the wall leading downstairs. My mom is on my desk. All of these women have shaped who I am in various ways.

When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in the house next door, even if in my own dreams. Now that I’m an adult, they live in my house through photographs and the stories I know about them.  And in that case, they were always there, all along, just as they should have been.

 

 

Written in celebration of inspirational women and Women’s History Month.

 

The Slayer Within Me

Is a person capable of being inspired by a fictional character? I hope that the answer to that is a resounding “yes” or I have grown into a warped human being. I love many of my fictional friends and have at times preferred them over real people.

me-and-buffy-two

(ABOVE: Me and Buffy. December, 2016)

Growing up, I remember reading and falling in love with characters and spending hours at my local library (thank you mom) picking out new books every week. I read The Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew. Then as I got older I read all the books from the summer reading lists. By the time I got to summers as a teenager, 1984 was on my “for fun” list.

I also have a deep abiding love for classic films. An Affair to Remember is my favorite film, but anything with Cary Grant is, for me, swoon worthy. I have also seen Harvey and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington more times than I can count because before we had Tom Hanks, we had Jimmy Stewart. And then, Bogart. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Bogey film that I don’t like, although if pressed, The African Queen is my favorite.

My fictional friends have seen me through all the stages of life I’ve encountered to date; however, there is one fictional friend that I come back to time and time again. Her name: Buffy Summers. Her job: vampire slayer.

A few months ago, I wrote about the cathartic nature if repetition and the comfort that I find in the familiar. Yes, I watch things on repeat. Of course, I listen to the same songs over and over again until I find a new one. Have I read books more than once? Are you seeing a pattern?

me-and-buffy-one

I have been on a kick recently of watching all seven seasons of Buffy back to back. And by kick, I’ve been doing this since last summer.

I can quote lines from my favorite episodes and I have characters that I love to hate. (Riley? Really? Joss, did we have to go there?)

And I know that Buffy is a creation, and even more than that, I know that Sarah Michelle Gellar is an actress. However, I grew up with Buffy. Watching Buffy was something that my mom and I did together. She’d make us a snack and we’d settle in front of the WB (throwback to channel 20 in Detroit!). When I was a sophomore in college, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had the series on DVD by then and she’d watch it, or we’d watch it, while she was at home recuperating from surgery. Maybe one day, I’ll introduce a daughter to the chosen one?

Since it is March, and I’ve been thinking about the many women that inspire me, I am reminded of a line from “Chosen”, which is the last episode of the seventh (and final televised) season.

“So here’s the part where you make a choice…. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”

buffy-on-my-desk

(ABOVE: Buffy sitting on my desk)

The last two statements resonate with me: “make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?” There are times when we aren’t ready to be strong, but we must be. This scene brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it, and I have watched it a lot.

It’s the wherewithal of one woman to challenge the status quo, to do something rebellious but good, to make a change where and when she can. The character of Buffy Summers doesn’t have a perfect life and starting with season one, she experiences loss and this theme repeats. She’s flawed and in many ways, she’s fragile. But she comes back time after time to slay her demons, both literally and figuratively.

I’ve been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer since it debuted in 1997 and today, I still watch it for the same reasons. Buffy inspires me. If I’m having a bad day, I can watch one of my favorite episodes and feel better. Need a grading break? Stressed? Feeling blue? Feeling good? Need to kick ass and take names? Listen to the theme. (Seriously. I highly recommend this. I met my fastest goal while running to this song.) A few years ago, my husband bought me the comics that continue where the television show ended. Buffy and I still hang out.

sunnyd

(ABOVE: Buffy t-shirt)

I watched Buffy Summers go from a high school student that desperately wanted a “normal” life to a self-sufficient woman who knew exactly what she was. What teenage girl doesn’t long for “normal” because we’re all “abnormal” between the ages of 14 and 18, particularly in high school? What young woman doesn’t start her first job out of college thinking “what in the hell am I doing here? I don’t have this!”

Many times, I have thought to myself, “are you ready to be strong?” And the answer has been “yes”, no matter how many times I wanted it to be “no”.  I feel that this question is relevant today more than ever.

I’ve been considering what matters to me and what I’m willing to fight for. “Are you ready to be strong?”

Once again, yes.

 

(BELOW: No school bag is complete without a Buffy button.)button

“Chosen” Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Seven, written by Joss Whedon, directed by Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, 2003.

Because Three Women Showed Me How

I wasn’t sure what college was supposed to be. Was it a mix Legally Blonde, Dead Poets Society, and my beloved Mona Lisa Smile? In my own way, I hoped that my experience as a student at Oakland University would be a combination of all of those fictions put together to form my own new truth. I wanted to be the kind of shockingly intelligent student that made friends easily like Elle Woods; I wanted the kind of professors that stood on desks and talked about how lazy the word “very” is (that would have been pretty cool and now I’m half tempted to do it—sorry future students, I’m inspired); I wanted the kind of self-actualization that comes from doing something that other women don’t or can’t, like Julia Roberts’ character. I wanted to be it all.

I sat in my car in front of Wilson Hall on the first day of classes in on a beautiful September morning. The human health building didn’t exist yet, the clock tower might have been a thought, but it definitely wasn’t a reality, “they” showed movies off the side of O’Dowd, parking was still the one thing that nightmares run from, and I was ready to be a college student. My first class was an 8:00 writing class and I was one part excited and the other part scared to death. I had high school friends that were at O.U. also, but none of us signed up for the same classes and I wasn’t all that upset about it. I was there to do my thing, whatever that thing would be.

I worked up the courage to get out of my car at about 7:45. I’d been sitting there since 7:15 and the nerves were working me up a bit. I straightened my perky mega blonde ponytail, made sure my t-shirt wasn’t wadded up and making me look like a dork, and flip-flopped my way into Wilson, and as cheesy as it may sound, Oakland University flip flopped its way into my heart of hearts. That’s not to say I didn’t have my fair share of college stress. Just say the words: “political science 372” and I’ll break out in hives. But overall, O.U. became my second home, and it still is.

I remember what it felt like to walk into my first college class like it was yesterday, and to this day I still feel that same jittery excitement as I walk in, but the flip-flop is now on the other foot.

I never took a class that really “taught” me how to teach. I took professional development once I decided to teach at the collegiate level, but I didn’t have the same formal training as my friends and colleagues that teach K-12 did. Instead, I modeled my teaching style after those that I learned from.

During my sophomore year, I had a chance to study modern literature with Annie Gilson. I remember meeting Annie and she encouraged me to apply to become a member of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society on campus, and I did. We’d spoken at a few English department events, and I am lucky to have had her early in my undergraduate career.

She came in on the first day and was the most enthusiastic professor I’d ever seen. She was happy to be there! And how cool! She sat on the desk! I don’t know what kind of world I was living in before that day, but I’d never seen a professor sit on the desk. She was (and remains) unassuming and genuine. We were instructed to call her “Annie” and into the class we dove.

I remember reading Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains and loving every second of the class. And it was in this class that I wrote what would become my archetype: the feminist paper. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was readying myself for what would become the one aspect of critical literary theory that I understand and what would shape the ways I approach the teaching of research.

Annie encouraged me to follow my interests. When I wrote for her class, I could write about what interested me? You mean, I didn’t have to write what I thought I “should” or what my professor wanted? She was teaching me open inquiry.

From Annie, I also learned the kind of classroom presence that I wanted. I wanted to be that person that oozed excitement for my subject and modeled that for my students. I wanted to be that kind of teacher that got my students to speak up in class simply by asking them to.

I have students now that say “you get really excited to be in class” or “you genuinely care about our learning.”  I reply that it is because I am happy to be in class and I do genuinely care about their learning. But what they don’t know is that I had that shown to me when I was nineteen years old and I never forgot it. I took a piece of Annie’s teaching style and put it in my toolbox, or imprinted it on my personality, either way you want to look at it. I hope to be for my students what Annie was for me.

By the time I reached the end of my junior year, I knew I didn’t want to teach high school. My prevailing thought was: I hated high school, why do I want to spend the next thirty years there? I didn’t “really” hate high school, but whoever tells you that they are the best four years of your life is full of shit.

I decided to continue onto graduate school at Oakland because by then, I knew that I wanted to teach college. My first class was critical literary theory and I went home many nights and cried. The class scared me to death. I even uttered, “Oakland made a mistake! I’m not smart enough for this!” But I must have been because I survived, and here I am on the other side and teaching.

After I managed to make it through my first semester, I had to great fortune to meet Bailey McDaniel and take her Post-Colonial Drama and Performance class. Like Annie Gilson during my undergrad education, Bailey was also the kind of professor that I wanted to be.

She told the class about her own educational journey and was relatable! She infused her class with laughter and even made the darkest works we read something to enjoy.

As the other students and I arranged our desks in a circle, Bailey sat with us as we talked about what Post-Colonialism was and what we would be studying. I hadn’t studied plays before and I was excited to look at a new genre.

Sitting in Bailey’s class made the genre come alive! I loved coming to class every night, and even though I was exhausted from working my full-time job, I felt re-energized once I got there. Bailey was just the kind of professor that I wanted to be!

I remember writing a paper for her that I proud of today. It might be one of the only two papers from graduate school that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have my name attached to. I remember walking into Bailey’s office hours and telling her that I wanted to write about the Irish play that we studied. I was fascinated by the female theater group, so once again, I wanted to write “the feminist paper.”

Bailey’s face lit up and she encouraged me to research the play and write the paper that I wanted to write.  The takeaways from her class were these: teach your class the way you would want to be taught. Don’t talk to your students like you’re talking “at” them; talk to them like you’re talking “with” them. Encourage their research and the reasons why they are interested.

My final semester in graduate school led me to many things but one of the most important is my friendship with Andrea Knutson. I took Andrea’s class and throughout the semester, we read literature from colonial America. I’ll never forget reading Thomas Jefferson’s description of the Natural Bridge. Traveling there is on my life’s “to-do” list.

While the semester came to a close and I prepared to write my last graduate school essay, I found myself, once again, writing the feminist paper. This time, I’d set my sights on Hannah W. Foster’s The Coquette. I thought this was the best paper I would ever write and I felt smart (finally) while I was working on it. My thesis was something about ownership of the female body and for possibly the one and only time in my life, I incorporated Foucault, Rousseau, and Locke into something that made sense. I scored well on the essay and that bolstered my confidence as someone looking to begin teaching writing to others.

I was terrified to apply for teaching jobs. I knew I had the “smarts” but I had no idea how to showcase those abilities in any sort of academically relevant fashion. One day I visited Andrea’s office and asked for help.  I brought my pathetic looking resume in and we studied it together. She was the first person to introduce the words curriculum vitae to me and told me that my CV wasn’t the same thing as a beginning resume. I didn’t have to stick to one page!

We worked together for weeks getting my CV in shape. Just like writing any paper, I drafted, revised, and drafted again, then I went to see Andrea for feedback. And one day I received an e-mail. I had an interview to teach! Later that week, I had another!

I went to both interviews and landed both teaching jobs. I couldn’t believe it! I had done it! The months leading up to graduation proved taxing and without Andrea’s guidance and patience, I wouldn’t have landed my first teaching job. Before she sat with me and explained the way academic job searches work, I had no idea. I had “hi, I’m new here” stamped to my forehead.

Today, Andrea is one of my dearest friends. From teacher to mentor to friend, she has exuded endless patience and kindness. She’s been to my home and explored my weird and lovely town with me. Andrea is one of those rare friends that a person finds in an unlikely situation, like ours, first as professor/student, but is one of those friendships that has great depth and value.

Without these women: Annie, Bailey, and Andrea, I don’t know if I would even be a teacher, or the kind of teacher that I am to say the least. I had the desire to teach but these women showed me how to teach. Each of them has a style all her own and characteristics that not only make them great teachers but they are also women to look up to, to aspire to.

Now that I am in the classroom at the very same university I attended, I sometimes have to pinch myself. “Am I really here? Am I really doing this?” And the answer is yes, yes, I do. I work in a different department than the women that taught me, and I am surrounded by friends and colleagues that inspire me every day.

Today, when I walk across Oakland’s campus, I get a similar feeling to the one that the eager eighteen-year-old with the electric blonde ponytail had. I walk in to face the day, and my students, as a mental combination of Elle Woods, John Keating, and Katherine Watson.

All because three women showed me how.

 

 

 

 

Written in celebration of inspirational women and Women’s History Month.