My Two Grandmothers

grandmothers-who-rule-ftr
(not my actual grandmothers)

Every time I make up a bed, I think of my grandmother, June. She’s the one who taught me the secrets of fitted sheets. First, do the hardest corner, then its diagonal. She schooled me in their folding as well. Because of Grammy June, I don’t share the rest of the world’s fitted-sheet angst.

It seems like a trivial thing to remember, but with the memory of learning to wrangle sheets comes a feeling of zenlike order. Grammy June was a calm and soothing person, a creature of routine, and with the sheets and everything else she did, she taught me the peaceful feeling that can come with a task well-done, efficiently accomplished.

Grammy June baked and read us stories and did water aerobics. Dinner was served at the stroke of six in the evening, and no one ever ate more than one piece of pie for dessert. Grammy June, for her calm demeanor, was loved by every baby and every dog she ever met. She giggled a little “tee hee” when she laughed; she was the quintessential grandmother.

Granny Sue was not. Granny Sue was loud. She stayed up until the wee hours of the morning arguing about politics, and she was a bit overwhelming. At Granny Sue’s, you got to eat a whole can of vanilla frosting while sitting in front of the TV.

Granny Sue worked outside her home at a time when most women didn’t. She was a writer and a poet. She was fiery. She ran hot and cold and was hard to get along with sometimes, but she was a force to be reckoned with. She was a friend to all lost souls, welcoming them into her home like family.  Her car sported a bumper sticker: Well-behaved women rarely make history.

Granny Sue taught me to say the uncomfortable things when they need to be said. She taught me to stand up for myself, and the last thing she said to me was, “keep writing.”

My two grandmothers were diametrical opposites. They got along okay on family vacations, but Grammy June sometimes discreetly turned down her hearing aids when Granny Sue ranted on too long and too loud.

I feel a little of each of them in me — Grammy June’s calmness when I feel overwhelmed, her sense of peace, order, and comfort. Granny Sue is there, cheering me on when I write something controversial and am afraid to hit “publish.” She tells me it’s okay that I feel like a mess sometimes.

It’s a thing people say, that people live on in those who remember them, and it is only now that I realize it’s true — how often I think of them, how I can feel them at different moments, two very different women. Sometimes I feel like two different people, and that can be confusing. But I loved Grammy June, and I loved Granny Sue, so I guess I can love them both in me.

The Time I Drove a Motorcycle Through a House

teenage irresponsibility motorcycles
My sister, my aunt Val, and me on Val’s motorcycle. We start ’em young.

When I was eighteen years old, I drove a motorcycle through the wall of our house. I wasn’t actually riding the motorcycle, and it wasn’t even running. How might one drive a parked motorcycle through a wall?

I was home from college for the summer, and I went out to the garage to get in my car and drive to my summer job at the bookstore. It was a hand-me-down, 1987 Nissan Stanza, standard transmission. I opened the car door, plopped my butt in the seat with my legs still hanging out the open door, and turned the key to start the car. It roared to life and lurched forward as I panicked, scrambling to get my feet in the car and on the brake to halt the car’s forward progress. Which I did. But not before the car pushed my dad’s motorcycle, parked in front of it, through the wall and into the brand-spanking new den my dad had just finished building.

If you know anything about cars and stick shifts, you probably think I’m making this up. You are thinking, But standard transmissions don’t start unless you have your foot on the clutch.

Yes, but not this one. That car began having trouble starting back when it was still my dad’s. Eighty-five percent of the time when my dad fixes something, it involves removing safety features. Like the one that prevents a car from starting unless your foot is on the clutch. I always left the car in neutral with the parking brake on, which allowed me to develop the (bad) habit of starting it without being all the way inside it yet. My dad, however, liked to leave it in gear with the parking brake off, and I’d forgotten he’d moved it for me the night before.

So there I am. I have to be at work in fifteen minutes, and I am staring in horror at the motorcycle handlebars poking through that brand new wall. In the span of five seconds, I have scratched the front of my car, damaged my dad’s motorcycle and demolished a recently-completed construction project. My sister has traveled halfway downstairs (not all the way; she’s 15 and only one notch above bored by the whole sitch) and is gawking from the stairwell like, What’d you do?!

Did I call my dad at work? No. I called my mom. I pleaded with her to call him, so I wouldn’t have to face the music. She flat-out refused, saying something to the effect of, “No way. You made your bed, now you lie in it.”

So I took a deep breath and called my dad but not before I came up with a strategy:

Dad: This is Pat.

Me: Dad, it’s April. I just pushed your motorcycle through the wall with my car, but it’s all your fault because YOU LEFT MY CAR IN GEAR, AND I NEVER WOULD HAVE DONE IT IF IT WEREN’T FOR YOU!

‘Like how I didn’t give him a chance to respond? Like how I immediately went on the offensive and wholly denied any personal responsibility. Guess what? It worked. Just not how I intended.

My dad laughed his ass off at me through the phone. At first, I was scared he had lost it entirely, but then I realized he actually thought it was funny. My blaming it on him was so ridiculous, he wasn’t even mad. (Plus, by the time I was 18, he was starting to mellow a bit.)

He had me help him fix the wall, which was a logical consequence and was actually kind of fun — a bonding experience. It all turned out okay, and I never again started that car or any other manual transmission without both the clutch and the brake covered. I also learned…

  • When you fuck up really badly, if you can make your confession ridiculous to the point of hilarity, maybe they’ll go easy on you.
  • It is good to laugh at yourself.
  • It’s bad to park things in front of other things.
  • Under no circumstances should you remove safety mechanisms from devices used by people under the age of thirty.

I’m NOT Fine ~Death to Small Talk

death to small talk
Copyright : Peter Bernik

I’m in a great mood right now. Surprising, huh? I usually write when I’m depressed, pissed off or at least lethargic. Never fear, because the other day, I wasn’t in a great mood. I was in a horrible mood, but necessity dictated I go out into the world, so I did.

As I went, I was determined not to tell people I felt “fine.” I’ve gone out with this decree in my head before. When people ask, “How’s it going today?” I think, I’ll tell it like it is. Though I fantasize about responding with, “shitty, actually,” I know I’m not confrontational enough to pull it off; I hate making people uncomfortable. But I figured  I could say, “Not great,” or at the very least, “Meh.”

It turns out, it is a physical impossibility for anything other than “fine” to escape my lips. The clerk at the grocery store asked how I was, and I said, “fine.” I didn’t even realize it until thirty seconds later:

Wait, did she ask me how I was? Did I say “fine?” Crap, I did. Damnit!

It’s like breathing. I don’t think about saying “fine,” it just happens; I’m barely aware of it coming out of my mouth. Bottom line is, people use it as a greeting and aren’t actually interested in how you are (unless you are indeed “fine” or “great” or “fabulous.”)

The thing is, though, what are they going to say when I give less than, “Gosh, gee, ain’t it great to be alive?” They will probably…

A. Be sorry they asked.

B. Ask what’s wrong even though they don’t want to know.

C. Be baffled when I shrug my shoulders and say, “Just one of those days, I guess.”

I’d like to be honest about my feelings when people ask, even if it’s a stranger. I don’t want to pour my heart out to them; that’s part of the reason for the knee-jerk “fine.” I just want to be able to use an adjective that actually applies to my mood and/or day. In my ideal world, where everyone admits they’re not “fine” all the time, it would go something like this:

Stranger: How are you today?

Me: Not great, actually.

Stranger: Oh yeah? I’m sorry you’re having a bad day.

Me: Meh. It happens. How are you?

So here’s the question: Have you ever answered “How are you?” with something other than the expected positive affirmation when talking to a stranger? How did it go?

 

My Own, Finished Steaming Pile of…

nirzar-pangarkar-85500-unsplash
Photo by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash

I am great at starting projects. I have started writing a book at least six times in my life. In the past several years I have begun learning to knit, gathered pictures for a collage I never finished, and started a quilt using old fabric. Okay, I gathered the material in a big kitchen bag beside my bed, but I don’t actually know how to quilt, so it just sat there until I got tired of Jason complaining about all my unfinished projects lying around, and I hid it in the closet where it still resides today.

Sometimes I just lose steam. That’s what happens with writing. I’ll get this great idea, usually while I’m lying in bed on a weekend morning. I’ll run downstairs and tippity type away, banging out several chapters. That might happen a few more times until I get a quarter to a third of a novel…and then I quit. I used to think I was just lazy, but then I realized it’s that I get cold feet. I start to think the idea sucks or I can’t think of what comes next without it feeling contrived. Several months of hesitation go by where I find every excuse not to write. Suddenly, whole closets need to be cleaned out and rearranged. Suddenly, I need a Twitter account. Then I lose the thread of the story. Half a year later, I have another blinding flash of genius whilst lying in bed, and the cycle begins again. I am really good at starting stories. Is there a career in that?

As time went on, I doubted I was capable of completing a novel. I couldn’t even finish knitting a pot holder, after all. So this last time I got an idea, I told myself I would finish, no matter how doubtful I was and no matter what steaming pile of inconsistent plot and shallow characters I ended up creating. I had to know I could finish, quality be damned.

As I wrote this last story, there were days I was inspired and tippity typing at my fastest, but there were more days when I sat, typed two halting sentences, deleted them, then went for a walk. But, I finished the damned story. At this point, I’ve been over it so many times, I think it might be crap. I don’t know; I really can’t tell anymore. And there are problems with it that I don’t know how to fix.

I enlisted my sister as a beta reader because despite being my sister, I know she’ll tell me the truth, which is why I am scared to read her feedback. It’s dismaying to think the thing you’ve wanted to do pretty much your whole life, the thing you’ve finally accomplished, might be awful. I also know I have more stories in me, but finishing that first one was like wringing the last drips from a washcloth. I’m not sure I have it in me again.

But, I did it. I wrote a novel. It might be a steaming pile of crap, but it’s my steaming pile of crap. And it’s finished.

Coffee Pods, Banana Peels, and Impending Doom

img_1348.jpgI ordered a book the other day, and then I forgot I ordered it because it took longer than the customary speed-of-light Amazon delivery. Then I remembered yesterday and thought, Where is that book? It was in the mailbox this morning, and it showed up exactly when I needed it.

They’re building a new shopping center down the road from us. I don’t know what will be in it, but it nicely complements the half-empty one less than a mile from it. I read a blog the other day about consumerism and how advertising is always trying to convince us we need stuff, pointing out our supposed flaws so they can sell us eye creme, Spanx, and protein shakes. I would’ve been pumping my fist in solidarity if it hadn’t been for the pop-up ads on the post making me wonder if the hypocrisy was totally lost on the author.

There is so much shit wrong with this world politically, socially, environmentally. It seems capitalism is failing us, as businesses act with self-interest — build more stuff, sell more stuff, convince people they need more stuff — instead of what is in the interest of the greater good. Sometimes it is clothed in a disguise of altruism, which is either intentional misdirection on their part or self-delusion and rationalization, but it always results in the making and buying of stuff.

I look at all of this, and I have a feeling of despair, of helplessness. I can clean out coffee pods to recycle them all day long, I can compost every last banana peel we make, I can avoid driving to reduce our carbon emissions. But what real difference is that going to make when industries, the biggest purveyors of environmental pollution of all kinds, aren’t following suit? Because it’s more expensive or a pain in the ass or people just don’t like change, they aren’t going to do it. Because industry is self-serving, and I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say they don’t give a shit about the future of our planet or humankind. They *might* care on an individual person level, or they might give lip service to it, but those who could implement real change through business policy aren’t going to.

And then I get You Are Here in the mail, and I read these lines:

You send out needed ripples of greatness and kindness in unexpected and accidental ways. You won’t always see the wonderful ways in which you shift the world. They may be invisible to you. But I promise you they are real.

IMG_1350This isn’t empty platitude from a self-help guru or motivational speaker. It’s an honest accounting by the author, Jenny Lawson, who suffers from anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disease. Most of the things she writes are darkly humorous accounts of her childhood and her struggles with illness. Coming from her, it reads less like someone trying to cheer me up and more like a sister in suffering giving me a hug, shoring me up, and telling me to keep the faith.

My mother’s guiding principle in life is to “leave things better than she found them.” Mine, I guess, is similar. I want to recognize what is real and raw, emotionally, for so many of us. I don’t need to offer mind-blowing advice or shout it from the mountain for all of humanity to hear. But if a few people read what I write and it makes them feel less alone, makes their lives just a tiny bit better, that’ll be enough, coffee pods and banana peels be damned. Thanks, Jenny, for reminding me.

Hammer Therapy

Hammer, nails on wooden boards outside on construction site
Copyright : Jozef Polc

When I was thirteen, my dad threw a hammer at me.

Now before you go getting all shocked and jumping to conclusions, I should point out, he prefaced the throw with, “Here, catch,” as he gently lobbed it about six feet to my outstretched hand. Also, we were on a roof, and I suck at catching things.

Okay, full story: My dad, mom, sister, and I were up on our roof hammering shingles into the addition to the house my dad had just completed. We have always been a full-on, do-it-yourself family, occasionally to the point of what some would call stupidity. When Dad said, “Here, catch,” and I realized he was going to throw a hammer I was expected to successfully receive, I was terrified I’d miss it and Dad would be mad. I did miss it, and it clattered to the roof, knocking some of the surfacing from the brand-new composition shingles. He was mad. It was the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the way, do you know what composition shingles are? ‘Cause I do. That’s how I was raised — knowing a lot of random construction details most non-construction people neither know nor care about. And yes, it’s a point of pride. Go ahead, ask me how dual vanity sinks are plumbed. I’ll draw you a diagram. If you want to know how a post-tension slab foundation works, I can give you details on that, too. Mind you, I couldn’t actually build one, but I could definitely write a manual.

But I digress. So I missed the hammer, and Dad got irritated at me. He said something to the effect of, “Goddamnit, April! Why didn’t you catch that?”

Mom then came to my rescue with, “Because she knew you’d yell at her if she didn’t!”

I didn’t say anything, but in my head, I was like, Yeah. Yeah, that’s why! It was a revelation; nerves had gotten the better of me, and I didn’t even realize that was a thing that happened until she said it.

I tell this story, because how can you not tell a story that starts with, “One time, my dad threw a hammer at me…” and make people wonder? And because it’s a snapshot memory that stands out in technicolor clarity in my mind. It was when I realized that pressuring people to perform can have the exact opposite of the desired effect, and it gave me an inkling of insight into my own psychological hangups.

The moral of this story is, you’ve got to verbalize your children’s emotions for them from time to time to help them label those emotions. Or maybe it’s that you shouldn’t expect your kids to be perfect all the time. No, no, I’ve got it. It’s…

If you really want a kid to learn something, put them on a roof and throw hammers at them. Right?

 

 

This is Not What I Expected

038
Photo Credit: Catherine George

Yesterday, I was wading through old photos on my computer looking for one I could use for an article when I happened upon some pictures of myself, roughly eight years ago. I’m feeding baby Gage with a bottle and looking over at toddler Jack, smiling. I totally look like I have my shit together in those photos. I totally did not.

I often wonder, when I see parents at the grocery store toting two young children along, parents who look like they also have their shit together, are they really that chill? Or is it like that photo of me — only calm on the outside? Is everyone kind of a wreck when they have little kids? I wonder this because I have…let’s say a history behind my quest to have children. That history gave me an unusual level of anxiety once I had them.

I always wanted kids. I have introspected on that desire a lot, and I’m pretty sure it was a biological/emotional urge that originated with me and not societal norms. So in college, I mapped it out in my head. This may seem weird, but I know of at least one other person who did this, so it’s a thing. I wanted to be done having kids by the time I was 30. To space them out by at least two years, I needed to be pregnant with the first one by the time I was 26. I wanted to be married for at least two years before having them, so that meant a wedding by the time I was 24. I wanted to date at least two years before getting married, so that meant meeting Mr. Right by the time I was 22. And, since I figured this out when I was 21, I panicked.

This absurd logic is what prompted me to get married, just slightly off my timeline, at 25. This doesn’t mean I was a heartless asshole who didn’t marry for love. I was deeply in love with my first husband. We were great friends, we were okay dating partners, we were shitty at marriage together. (Not that anyone knew it, not even us. We were delusional.)

I was the catalyst for all of this. I don’t think he was quite ready to get married, and I think he was even less ready when I suggested going off birth control when I was 27, but he went along with it because he loved me and he did want kids at some point.

I got pregnant. We celebrated. We told everyone. I gave my grandmother a birthday card from her great-grandchild, and it brought tears to her eyes. Then, I miscarried. It was awful, and we had to tell everyone what happened, which was a lot shittier than telling them I was pregnant. I was devastated. Then, I had three more miscarriages, and I was a wreck. I was profoundly depressed and panicked that I might not ever carry a baby to term. My timeline was all fucked up now. He said, “I’m afraid you’ll never get over this.” I said, point blank, “I won’t.”

He went back to school to change careers, and we decided to take a break from trying to conceive. That’s when I realized how unhappy I was. I’d been distracted by the baby thing, and taking a step back, I noticed how dysfunctional our marriage was. I knew it, but I didn’t do anything about it. I let it fester, the childish part of me pushing it down and ignoring it, despite the more adult part of my brain knowing that wasn’t going to work long term. We got divorced.

At that point, I was 30, and I finally stopped clinging to my stupid timeline, stopped adjusting it and projecting forward with the ridiculous notion I had control over the matter. I decided, in my dogged way, I would have children. If I had to beg, borrow, steal, or adopt them, if I had to raise them by myself in the woods amongst the wolves, it was going to happen sooner or later. So when Jason and I got married, I had no ulterior baby motive.

I got pregnant on our honeymoon. Nine months later, we had Jack. Two years later, I had another miscarriage. I got pregnant with Gage when I was 34, and gave birth to him when I was 35. During my last pregnancy, I had to talk myself out of a panic attack repeatedly; my uterus hadn’t magically expired on my 35th birthday. Then, there was a measure of relief. Procreation, which had dominated my thoughts for over a decade, seven pregnancies later, was complete. I could stop worrying about baby-making sex and relax. But I didn’t. Because after all that time, I couldn’t believe it was real. I couldn’t fathom that “they” (I have no idea who “they” are) were going to let me keep my children.

When they were infants, I worried about SIDS, I worried about whooping cough and the flu, I worried about BPA in baby bottles and pesticides on lawns. If it existed as even a remote threat to my babies, I worried about it. Something in my brain could not wrap itself around the idea that they weren’t going to be yanked away from me. The saga I’d gone through to have children made their existence feel fragile to me.

Thankfully, I grew out of that. I’m pretty free-rangy as a parent these days, and it would be hard to know I was ever so anxious about their safety. Those close to me back then knew — my parents, Jason’s parents, and certainly Jason. But not the people in the park or the people in the grocery store. They saw what I see in that old photo — a calm, smiling, competent parent. More and more these days, I am that mom, but I still have my moments.

046
Photo Credit: Catherine George