Monthly Archives: June 2015

Girlfriends

I got together with my college roommates recently, just an afternoon catching up and a kind of “welcome to the area” for one who had moved back to the state.  It had been over 25 years since we’d all seen each other, but aside from the teeniest traces of aging (just nod in agreement), we hadn’t changed much.   The same personalities that drew us together and sometimes drove us to teeth-grinding annoyance as roommates were intact.

I love that about girlfriends–how you can just pick up in the middle as if you’d just left the room for a minute.  We talked about people we used to know, what sort of roads we’d traveled, and things on our hearts.  You know, what women do.  Turns out, two of us had been in fairly serious car accidents.  As they relayed their stories, we laughed at how different their reactions were.

One had been in the middle of Secret Service training.  She hydroplaned on the interstate in Atlanta, got T-boned by an 18-wheeler and was pushed sideways for several yards before stopping.  Hands on the wheel and feet planted, she tried to maintain control.  Amazingly, she was mostly unhurt, and her first thought was potential security breaches, so she  gathered her laptop, parking stickers, and uniform before heading to the hospital.  Methodical, matter-of-fact, and calm.

Another was in a truck in Mississippi with her husband, who passed out and drove off a steep embankment, hurtling downhill through trees and branches.  She screamed and flailed as she was flung around inside the truck.  Once they came to a stop and her husband woke up, she blubbered and tried to get her bearings.  Her first thought as she patted herself down for injury:  “I lost my hair clippy!”  Frantic, scattered, and illogical.

I don’t know what their different reactions say about them as people, but I tell their stories to show how we seem worlds apart in some ways and yet are friends because we “knew each other when.”  We all have these people, friends who witnessed us as we grew up, know our best and worst selves at different stages of our lives (and liked us anyway).  People who knew us when we were relatively unscathed by life and unburdened by the wounds of adulthood.

If someday my children convened all of them into one room and asked them to describe their mom in one word, it might seem they were talking about a handful of strangers, not the “me” my kids know.   I asked my aunt recently about things she and my mother used to do when they were young, and her answers surprised me.  The opinions and stories she shared about my mother were nothing like the figure of her I held in my memory.  Same person, different time.

It occurs to me sometimes to make a list of some key girlfriends, a reference of sorts, should something ever happen to me and my kids find themselves curious like I did.   I’d include the girl I met in fourth grade and learned to ride horses with, my best friend in junior high who was a two-headed ghost with me on Halloween, and my high school BFF who danced to Bananarama with me and shepherded me through constant self-doubt.   Maybe they’d tell stories I would cringe at:  the time I was less than kind to that girl on the bus, when I sulked over my friend’s picture being judged better than mine, when I was mad that I got in trouble over throwing that paper airplane so I told and made her get in trouble too.  Lots of less-than-stellar moments they could mention.

But also:  That cherry Blow-Pop kiss with the guy at the dance, being afraid of the older kid with greasy hair whose dad always yelled at him so the whole neighborhood could hear, writing a hilarious parody of Julius Caesar and performing it for all the English classes.  My college roommates could contribute a thing or two.  Maybe the time I hung out the 4th story window so I could shoot a water gun into the guys’ apartment on the floor below.   That was definitely a highlight.

More recently, there are the ladies I’ve raised kids with.  Those from that time I went to the gym for about five minutes, other classroom moms, moms on the sidelines of ballgames and sports events.  The girls that listen and offer advice on toddlers, tantrums, and teenagers.  The ones who get it, who get you, and who show up and give hugs, laughter, and chocolate, not necessarily in that order.

Conversations now are not about that cute guy in chem class or how to create the perfect smoky eye.  Now they’re about maintaining marriages, career changes, how heavy it feels sometimes to still be parenting your own kids while your parents need you, too.  Now instead of rallying for a dance, we rally around each other when a marriage fails, or when someone miscarries, faces disappointments with fertility or adoption or special needs.  We bring food after surgeries, hold hands during chemo, and cry about those we lose.   We mother our own kids and each other’s, too, praying they are safe and make good decisions.  We mother the kids of girlfriends we’ve lost, giving them hugs and brownies, encouragement and solid ground.   And if we can’t be mothers, we are The Best Aunts Ever.

We can still have a blast, too, at a concert or at dinner.  We take selfies and dress up for Halloween and laugh when we can’t figure out our phones or see the menu because the lights in this place are always too dim.  We talk movies, books, politics, and people.  We have each other’s backs.  Even 25 years later.  It’s what friends do.

 

Ant Wars

I’m thinking our house must sit on top of an ancient Indian ant burial ground.  For the past few weeks, tiny specks of pepper have been scurrying around the cat food and finding their way into the house via impossible cracks.  On closer inspection, the pepper specks have legs.  Exactly six.  And antennae.  They seem undeterred by copious amounts of poisonous sprays or natural remedies like lemon, cinnamon, or cayenne pepper.  The cats have been forced to eat around the creepy crawlies–or simply ingest them as extra protein.

My daughter even discovered ants in her car.  Those must have been the Mission Impossible species, clinging to the tire treads at interstate speeds, their antennae flattened by the high winds.  Must. Find. Sugar. Source.   MI-6 has disavowed all knowledge.

Finally we called the big guns and the exterminator came out to lock down the perimeter.  I’m sure whatever force-field she sprayed around the house is probably some neurotoxin that will eventually render us all drooling idiots, but I can no longer handle wiping the counters and finding the paper towel covered in black ants.   So for the next few days, we’ll be taking shallow breaths to minimize intake and crossing our fingers that the hideouts have been destroyed.

I should not complain.  Where I grew up in Florida, you had to be very careful where you sat or stood outside because chances were good you were probably within attack distance of a fire ant mound.  A few months ago, I drove through Alabama and could see their red-dirt mounds alongside the interstate, camouflaged in the tall grass.  The sight sent an involuntary shudder through me, and I made sure the windows were rolled up.   We were playing tag once, and I fell into one of these cone-shaped piles of sand.  Within seconds, the red armies were pouring out like streams of water, stinging wherever they stuck to my skin.  Fire ants are so named because the venom they inject actually feels like fire under the skin.  A more descriptive name might be Hell Ants or maybe Napalm Ants.   Unlike bees, ants do not die when they sting, so they can repeatedly sting while they cling to one spot.

I ran furiously brushing, swatting, and howling to my mother who, dishtowel in hand, whacked me all over to get the clinging monsters off.  I know firsthand where the adage “ants in your pants” comes from.  To add insult to injury, their stings turn to small blisters that itch like the mother of all mosquito bites.  I hate–not too strong a word–hate this kind of ant.   Had I, at age seven, been given a flame thrower, I would have taken my revenge with a maniacal laugh—-mwuahahahaha!

Aside from the beaches, Florida is not really meant for human habitation.  The heat and humidity breed uncommon insects.   One rare lazy morning we all sat at the kitchen bar, excited to have homemade waffles for breakfast.  As my mother heated the waffle iron, an odd odor like burning metal started to fill the room.  We checked the outlet and the oven–waffle ironnothing.   The green light blinked on the waffle iron signaling it was hot enough to cook waffles.  When she lifted the lid, panicked and burning black carpenter ants spilled from the hot surface.  The closed waffle iron had been the perfect ready-made nesting area, like an ant farm, with corridors and hallways all laid out. These ants were large, each part of their body like the pearls on a blackberry, and their little feet were toasting as they labored to save their young.  We screamed and swatted, smacked and shrieked, as they poured over the counter and onto the floor.  My mother practically threw the hot waffle iron at my father, and he ran to throw it outside.  We had eggs instead.

Like bees, ants are often held up as examples of industrious character.  The writer of Proverbs tells the sluggard to consider the ant and her ways:  lots of initiative, always busy in every season.  I used to spend long hours outside, watching lines of ants marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah!  No matter how many drops of water you put on them, or how you tried to divert their path, they were dauntless.  Grain by grain, they build their hills patiently and steadily.  Like African women along the village roadside, they carry enormous loads balanced above their heads, walking great distances to reach their home.

On the other hand, many species of ants pillage other colonies and steal their eggs.  These eggs are then either eaten or the young, once hatched, are forcibly required to work.  In other words, they make ant slaves.    Except for Antarctica and the Arctic, ants are everywhere.  Scientists estimate their numbers on earth to be a paltry quadrillion at any given time.  That’s 15 zeros.  I checked.

So, while you might see them as industrious little yes-men, I see them as our future insect overlords.  While they may seem small and (aside from the fire ants–may curses be upon their tiny heads!) relatively harmless, these invasive, enslaving, cooperative little creatures outnumber us by, well, a lot of zeros.  Perhaps I should be nicer to them?   My swatting, burning, and spraying may come back to–literally–bite me.

Music Lessons

Back in the day, nice young ladies of a certain standing were required to attend “finishing school,” where they learned, among other things, how to sing and play piano, I guess in case they had to regale guests in the parlor at Downton Abbey.  I am woefully unfinished.

Those black lines and dots dancing across the tightrope wires–music, in other words–is an undecipherable language to me.  I attend a church where it’s customary to sight-read notes and sing acapella four-part harmonies.  You’re supposed to know which part you sing–soprano, alto, tenor, or bass.  I apparently was absent on the day the Sorting Hat placed everyone in their proper group, so I kind of hop from part to part, depending on how late I was up the night before, or how high the pollen count happens to be that day.

Once, when I was about five, I was belting out something or other around the house when my oldest sister said, “That’s a pretty song.”   I lifted my diva chin and told her matter-of-factly, “I know.  I’m a very good singer.  I probably sing better than—” (I searched my childish brain for the best there was) “the Virgin Mary.”

Even as I said it, I felt a stab of conscience, not from unchecked grandiosity but from saying out loud that I outshone the Mother of God.  I waited for some electric current to sizzle up from the floor and zap me for my brashness.  When none came, I flashed a smile at my sister’s shocked face and flounced to my room, secure in my smugness.

You know how it is at five.  Boys think they have muscles like The Hulk and girls just know, if they close their eyes and wish very hard, they can be mermaids.  Fast forward a few years and I was in sixth grade chorus.  In the back row.  And it wasn’t because I was tall.  That didn’t stop me from belting out the entire soundtrack of West Side Story and The King and I with some of my artsy friends.  My hairbrush microphone got quite a workout as I danced around my pre-teen room singing a soulful rendition of Olivia Newton John’s whispery ballad “I Honestly Love You.”  It always sounded better with lots of lip-gloss.

mom, at a recital
mom, at a recital

Nobody in our family played an instrument.  My father came from stern German stock (No music!  Eat your strudel!).  One of his brothers did play the sax, but that was an anomaly and about 20 years after my father’s time.  My mother had piano lessons at some point, although I never heard her play.  When we visited her parents, her mother would play harmonica, sing Elvis Presley songs, and break out the banjo.  I was fascinated.  What were these magical devices?  There was a small electric lap keyboard stashed in the back bedroom that I would pick out songs on, but only because the songbook was like a play-by-number beginner’s volume, no real musical notes on the pages.

The only halfway musical thing I remember doing growing up was when we’d pass the time on long road trips by singing a 1950’s song my mom knew called “Gonna Get Along Without You Now.”  My sisters and I would sing the verses in rounds of harmony (as best we knew how), while mom would keep time by singing ba, boom, boom, booms as the bass part.  We never got very far before we’d crack up at the faces she made while she sang.

Uh huh, hmm hmm
Gonna get along without you now
Uh huh, hmm hmm
Gonna get along without you now
You told me I was the neatest thing
You even asked me to wear your ring
You ran around with every girl in town
You didn’t even care if it got me down
Uh huh, hmm hmm
Gonna get along without you now
Mhm mhm, hmm hmm
Gonna get along without you now
Got along without you before I met you
Gonna get along without you now
Gonna find somebody who is twice as cute
‘Cause you didn’t want me anyhow

 

Years later, when I met my husband, one of the things that impressed me most was his ease with music.  He was in the school choir, played piano, guiguitar bobtar, and mandolin, and marched with the band playing tuba.  He tried to teach me to sight-read, but mostly I liked listening to the timbre of his low bass voice, rumbling the church pew when he’d reach a really low octave.  Sometimes, when he has a cold and while he still has his morning voice, I hear him pad into the foyer and hit the keys on the low end of the piano, often reaching an E.  It always makes me smile.

Because of his genes, both of our children learned to play piano, and one spent a short year at school playing clarinet in the band.  For my son, music comes easy and seems to be an underlying soundtrack of his days.  It is a rare day when he’s not humming or singing around the house, often without realizing it.  He fills the house with his own kind of music.  The other day, when teaching him to drive, I had to ask him to please quit beat-boxing and concentrate on the road.   “This is how I concentrate!” he said.

I still love to jam to songs on the radio, and we do our own version of singing in harmony on long road trips. But I know I’m not destined for American Idol or even the front row of a sixth grade chorus.  I have a different version of formal music lessons.  Instead of practicing scales on the piano, I love to puzzle out how my son is feeling as he hums upstairs.  I watch how music magically knits generations together when my husband plays in the annual Tuba Christmas concert, in a group of musicians ranging from 11 to 93 years old.

Hearing the music of those who are truly gifted is one of life’s greatest delights.  I must have listened to Sarah McLachlan’s “Blackbird” five times today.  Beautiful.  Certain songs sung in just the right way can reach into the deep parts inside like nothing else can.

I’ll keep humming along to different parts of the church hymns without reading the music. I’m pretty positive when I enter the pearly gates, Mary will stick me on the back row of the angel chorus.  Touché.