Monday, February 27, 2006

It's The Little Things

I was in the kitchen a short while ago, cooking supper - roast chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, green beans, and brownies - and unloading the dishwasher. My daughter, age six, was at the kitchen table coloring.

"Butterflies come from caterpillars," she said suddenly.

"Mmmhmmm. Is that so?" I asked absently, stacking drinking glasses in the cupboard.

"Yes," she continued. "Caterpillars make a chrysalis or cocoon, and after they're done sleeping for a while, they come out and make a butterfly."

I smiled, looking at her happy face and seeing how proud she was to share this tidbit with me.

Moments later, her brother called from upstairs, where he was playing a computer game. She put down her crayon and ran up the stairway.

"What?" I heard her say, banging open the playroom door.

"Tree frogs have red eyes," came his reply.

"I know that," she answered.

"Lions live in the savannah and chase prey."

"What kind of prey?"

I couldn't hear the answer to that one. The playroom door had closed, leaving me with temporary quiet and the smell of the brownies baking.

When the door burst open again, two pairs of feet came pounding down the stairs, and I wondered if they were playing elephant.

"Mom!" cried the girl. "Do I smell brownies?"

"Yep," I said. "Brownies with peanut butter swirls."

"Oh, my! I love peanut butter! You're the best brownie-baker in the world!"

"I want some too," her brother chimed in.

I looked at them both, caterpillars and tree frogs and lions all pushed out of their heads with the thought of warm brownies for dessert after supper. I heard the pouring rain slap against the kitchen window, and was all the happier for the sweetness of enjoying the little things in life.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


I wrote this in June, 2004.


Kurt read back what he had written and frowned. He pounded the desk with his fist.

“It’s crap,” he said disgustedly, his own voice echoing in the emptiness of the house. He clicked and highlighted the text, stabbing the delete key with more force than was necessary. He rested his elbow on the desk, placing his forehead in his hand, utterly weary physically and mentally.

After a moment, he sat up with a jerk and shook his head.

“Coffee,” he said to no one in particular, standing up and heading for the kitchen to put on a pot. A look at the clock over the stove told him it was just past 2:30 in the morning. He had a deadline to meet. His editor was expecting these chapters tomorrow. Today. In truth, he had wanted the chapters days ago, but Kurt had been unable to oblige. He felt now as if he were in a vise, but he had no choice. He had to write until he had something that would work. Something. Anything.

He filled the coffeemaker with water, measured the coffee into the filter, and flicked the switch. He leaned back against the counter to watch the coffee brew, his mind trying to find the track that would take him back into his book. He felt helpless, as if he had no control over his ability – or lack thereof – to write.

The coffee dripped steadily into the carafe, the popping, dripping sound the only noise in the oppressively quiet house. Nothing had gone right since Olivia had died. She had been everything to Kurt: his life, his heart, his light, and his soul. When she had died, she had taken his Muse with her. His inspiration had been wrapped up in her, and all the music and beauty in his life had died when she did.

For six months, Kurt had been restlessly and aimlessly walking the floors in this empty house, searching in vain for respite from the searing ache in his heart, but there was never comfort. The emptiness weighed on him, threatening to crush him. The silence was a scream that echoed endlessly in his ears. Time had not eased his own screams.

His mother called daily, trying to pull him from the quicksand.

“Kurt,” she would say. “You have to go on living. Olivia wouldn’t have wanted your life to end with hers. She loved you. She wouldn’t want this for you.” Her pleading didn’t help him. Sometimes he’d listen quietly. Other times he’d rage at her.

“Leave me be! What can I possibly have that’s worth having without Olivia! She was everything!” Eventually his mother would hang up, only to try again the next day. There were many days when Kurt refused to answer the phone at all.

The coffee was done. He pulled a mug from the cupboard, filled it, and took a hard swallow, heedless of the burning on his tongue. He wrapped his hands around the mug as if for his own life, hanging on to anything that might anchor him. In his mind he saw her, young and beautiful and healthy, standing in this kitchen the day after he had brought her home from their honeymoon.

She stood at the counter, slicing carrots and tomatoes into a big teakwood bowl of lettuce, her ash blonde hair shimmering in the late afternoon sun streaming through the kitchen window. Kurt sat opposite her, nursing a glass of white wine, watching the sunlight playing on her hair and skin. He marveled that this lovely, lively young woman was his bride. He thought he’d never known a happier moment.

“I love you,” he said, reaching out a hand to touch her. She smiled, her warmth radiating through the kitchen and penetrating the deepest parts of Kurt.

“I love you too.” She leaned over and kissed him with soft lips. He breathed her scent, filling his lungs with her.

“I can’t wait to have a dozen babies with you and fill this house with their laughter,” she said excitedly, a shine in her green eyes.

“And they’ll all be beautiful, just like their mother.”

Olivia blushed at that, finishing the vegetables and tossing the salad with her hands.

“No more beautiful than you,” she said.

Hot tears surprised Kurt. He wasn’t a crier.

She had been beautiful, his Olivia. Even at the end, when the cancer had ravaged her body and taken her strength, she had been beautiful. He’d have given own his life for her if only she hadn’t had to suffer.

They had been married only ten months when she’d developed the blinding headaches that sent them rushing to her doctor for answers. For help. Answers they had gotten; for help, there was none. The cancer had taken her quickly. Olivia had been just twenty-four years old when she died.

Kurt drained the mug of coffee, refilled it, and padded down the darkened, quiet hallway back to the den. He sat in the leather chair in front of his desk once more, watching the cursor blink its rhythm on the blank screen in front of him. His penciled notes were strewn about the desk, some of them crumpled in his frustration and spilling over onto the Oriental rug beneath his feet. The half-eaten remains of his supper lay at the back of the desk. Movement caught Kurt’s eye, and he turned to see a large spider crawl across the abandoned plate. His first thought was to smash it with his fist, but with a muttered remark about karma, he instead scooped it up with his napkin. He stood and strode into the foyer, opening the heavy door and unceremoniously dumping the spider into the darkness outside.

“Go home,” he said senselessly, wondering if he was slowly going insane.

He stood a moment, breathing the sharply chilled air. He wondered if the cold burst into his lungs would clear the dissonance in his head. The still, cloudless darkness renewed his sense of urgency to meet his deadline, but nothing eased the dull ache left hanging in his body. He slammed the door shut and threw the deadbolt.

Back in the den he sat in front of the uncompromising computer, the blank page looming there. He took a large swallow of coffee and began again, starting and stopping in dissatisfaction and deleting more than he saved.

“Damn it!” he shouted, hearing the reverb sting his ears. “Damn damn damn. I can’t write!”

He jumped up suddenly, knocking over the mug of coffee. It dripped off the edge of the desk onto the rug, soaking the crumpled papers that lay there.

Kurt knelt, violently throwing the coffee-stained paper into the wastebasket. As the wet seeped into the rug, his own tears shocked him once more.

“I’m sorry, Olivia,” he said ruefully. “I know you loved this rug. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He fetched a thick towel from the closet in the hall and pressed it against the rug, hoping to pull the coffee out of its fibers. As he mopped at the mess, another spider crawled in front of him.

“Where did you come from?” he asked sharply. “Go outside with your buddy.” He scooped the spider up, this time with his bare hands, and tossed it into the cold as he had done before. “Find your friend! Leave me alone.”

“It’s no use!” he bellowed, leaning back against the front door as he closed it. “I give up! I’m not going to write again.”

“Yes, you are.”

Kurt started. He shook his head. What the hell…? Was he hearing things? Where had that voice come from? Had he finally snapped completely, going over the edge to insanity? He heard it again.

“You can write. You have to stop trying to control it.”

“Who are you!” Kurt yelled. “Am I crazy?”

“You’re not crazy. Go sit. Write.”

“I can’t.” Kurt’s voice was bitter. He stormed back into the den and flung himself into the leather chair. As he watched the cursor blink, an idea formed in his head and began to consume his thoughts. A few moments later, he hunched over the keyboard and started to thump out the words, faster and faster until his furious fingers had trouble keeping pace with his brain. His breath was rapid, jagged, and his eyes glazed as the story came with ever increasing speed.

As the first dim gray light of dawn began to peer into the windows, Kurt’s fingers at last rested. He lay his head on the desk and allowed the weariness to take over. He slept. A single spider crawled across the back of his hand and stopped in front of the keyboard to watch him.


“These are great, Kurt,” Barry enthused. “Best work I’ve seen from you in months.” He shuffled the papers, spot reading portions here and there.

“You’re the editor, Barry. I’ll take your word for it.” Kurt gave him a weak smile. “My night took a lot out of me,” he explained at Barry’s look of concern. “I wound up sleeping at my desk.”

Barry laughed. “Worse writers than you have done the same,” he said. His face becoming serious, he placed a hand on Kurt’s shoulder. “Do you think you should talk to someone about it?”

“About what? Sleeping at my desk?”

“No. About Olivia’s death.”

Kurt pulled away from him. “No. I’m fine. I’ve – I’ve got to go now, Barry. Get back to me with your revision notes.” Kurt snatched his leather briefcase and left the editor’s office abruptly.

When he arrived home, he went immediately to the den. The chair in front of the desk still felt warm. The large coffee stain on the Oriental rug was gone. Kurt’s eyes were drawn to the computer screen in front of him, the cursor blinking rapidly next to the words typed there. He read, his mouth agape, his eyes widening as he stood up, gripping the edge of the desk and following the words again and again:

I love you, Kurt. Keep writing. O.

In a corner of the room, a spider began carefully spinning a web.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Mmmm! Whitestrips!

I have some Crest Whitestrips on my teeth right now. Whitestrips Supreme, from my dentist.

They actually fit pretty well and stay put, but no one told me about the nasty taste they leave on the tongue.

Mmmm. The tantalizing taste of peroxide. Yippie!

I'm scheduled for a crown in a couple of months, so I want to lighten my teeth now and have the crown matched to the lighter color.

Vanity, thy name is Whitestrips.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Highway 10 To Anywhere

I wrote this story for my writers' club in March of 2004.


“I’m hot-headed, check it and see, I got a reefer of a hundred and three!” Joey’s raspy voice filled the car, singing along very badly to the radio.

“You idiot,” I said sharply, glancing over at him as I drove. “It’s hot blooded. I got a fever of a hundred and three. Geez, sing it right, will you?”

Joey was unperturbed. “Ah, whatever,” he answered dismissively. “I errored. Big deal.”

I sighed. “Err, Joe. The word is err. You erred. You did not error.”

“What are you?” he asked. “Are you my sister or the damn English teacher?”

“Maybe with a little luck, some day I really will be a teacher. And watch your mouth.”

“Yeah, well. Where were you when I needed help with my oral report on the norwhale in Mrs. Schiffling’s class last year?”

“Narwhal, Joey.”

“Yeah. Whatever.”

Joey fell silent, and I drove along steadily at seventy miles per hour, not much more than instinct to guide me. I wasn’t sure where we were going, just that we were leaving Wisconsin. We were headed west on Highway 10 to anywhere.

I was twenty that summer. Joey was sixteen. He was my only brother, and I felt responsible for him. When Mama died, Joey was only nine. I was just thirteen, but I took over caring for the house and looking after Joey. Daddy wasn’t much help. He provided for us, but his work took him away often. When he was at home, he moped around, drinking, crying, and mostly ignoring Joey and me. I guess he never really got over Mama’s death. He used to tell me Joey and I were too much like Mama, that looking at us hurt. He hung on for a few years until I finished school, but eventually life proved to be too much for my Daddy. I came home one afternoon to find him on the floor, dead from a gunshot, the injury self-inflicted.

I don’t know how I got through those next few days. The police came, the ambulance, the paramedics – they all came. There was nothing they could do. The coroner came, and my Daddy was gone. The ladies from church came, all of them bringing food and tut-tutting about my brother Joey and what would happen to him. There was a funeral and there were lawyers. There were child welfare people.

Daddy had some insurance, but there wasn’t much payout for taking his own life, and so they put the house up for sale. After the debts were paid and the lawyers were paid, there was precious little left for Joey and me. The child welfare people didn’t seem to care much what happened to Joey, and so when they let me become his guardian, I decided it was time for us to leave. We had no home and no family. There was nothing to keep us in Wisconsin and every reason to start a new life somewhere else. We loaded what we had into Dad’s old Ford and took off with one thousand dollars and no real plan at all.

I looked over at Joey again. He had dozed off, his head leaned back against the seat. With his mouth open and his face softened, he looked like a little boy as he slept. I hoped I was doing right by him. I was all he had. Maybe we could go to Minneapolis. Maybe I could find a job there and Joey could finish high school. Maybe someday I could go to college. That would be something.

I heard the echo of my mother’s long ago words, words spoken softly to me as she lay dying in a darkened room, her anguish at leaving her children naked on her face.

“Take care of Joey, now, Sharon,” she had said. “He looks up to you. Be good to him. Take care of him. He’s my angel.”

“I will, Mama,” I had said then, and I said it again now. “I’ll take care of Joey, Mama.”

I pulled into a gas station in Marshfield. Joey stirred, sitting up and rubbing his sleepy eyes.

“Where are we?”

“Marshfield. You want something to drink?” It was July, hot and muggy, and the old Ford didn’t have air conditioning.

“Yeah. Get me a beer.” Joey’s eyes were mischievous.

“Yeah, I won’t. A root beer, maybe.” I had forty dollars in my wallet, the rest of our money carefully hidden in a sealed envelope in the bottom of my suitcase in the trunk. I counted out twenty dollars for the gas and another dollar for a drink. I handed the bills to Joey.

“You go on in and pay, will you? And bring me back a root beer too.”

I leaned against the door of the Ford, watching Joey run into the station. He was so eager and sweet, and I loved him. He didn’t talk much about Daddy dying. He never said the word suicide. He never ever mentioned Mama. I wondered what secrets my little brother held inside of him. I wondered if those secrets would ever come out.

My heart gave a little tug when Joey came out of the station, waving two bottles of root beer and a Clark bar at me.

“I gotcha a candy bar,” he said lazily. “But you have to share, ‘cause I didn’t have enough money for two.”

That was Joey’s way of saying he loved me too. If Mama’s death had been a solder for us, Daddy dying had strengthened it. I gave Joey a little punch on the arm as he handed me my root beer and half the Clark bar. He punched me back before getting into his side of the car.

“Put that seatbelt on,” I admonished him as he lounged in the seat, his gangly long legs looking folded up in a space too small.

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever,” Joey said, flashing me another grin.

“You’re a curse on me, Joey. Just fasten the seatbelt, will you?”

Back on the road, Joey sang again.

“Well, it’s eight o’clock in Boise, Idaho, I’ll find my lame-o driver, mister, take us to the show….”

“It’s limo driver, Joe. Limo driver.”

“I know it,” Joey said. “I just like to yank on your chain a little.” He sat up straight, taking a slug out of his root beer. “D’you think we could go to Boise, Idaho? How far is that anyway?”

“I don’t know. Couple thousand miles, I guess. I thought maybe we’d go to Minneapolis.”

“Okay,” Joey said, readily agreeing with me. “What’s in Minneapolis?”

“I don’t know. It’s a big city. Someplace I can find a job and we can get an apartment, and I can enroll you in school.”

“I don’t want to go to school. I’m sixteen. I don’t have to go to school anymore.”

“Joe, I know you don’t have to go to school, but how are you going to get a good job if you don’t finish school?”

“Why do I care?” Joey gulped down the last of his root beer. “Daddy finished school. He got a good job. Look where it got him. He’s dead. He didn’t care if it left us with nothing. He’s dead, and what good did school do him?”

I was quiet. It was the first time Joey talked about Daddy’s death. I was disheartened and didn’t know what to say.

We drove in silence for a few more miles. We came to Osseo, time to leave Highway 10 and turn onto Interstate 94. Joey suddenly spoke just as I entered the on ramp.

“Did Mama wear lavender?” he asked.

I was startled.

“Yeah, she did. Did you remember that?”

“Yeah,” Joey admitted. “I remember she smelled like lavender.” He turned to me, tears brimming over in his blue, blue eyes.

“Sharon, I don’t remember much of Mama,” he continued. “Does that mean I didn’t love her enough? All I remember is her pretty hair and the smell of lavender.”

“Oh, God, Joe! Don’t say that!” I gripped the steering wheel with my left hand, reaching for Joey with my right. I felt his hand slip into mine, and I gave it a squeeze.

“You loved her, Joey. Don’t think otherwise. You loved her, and she adored you. You were her angel.”

“I didn’t want her to die, Sharon.” Joey’s voice was broken now with sobs, big heaving cries I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to. All the pent up despair and anger was coming out of Joey, and he clung to my hand as if it were life support.

I drove on, listening to him cry, my heart breaking a little with every sob. I had to take care of him. He didn’t have anybody else. I stroked the palm of his hand with my thumb.

“It’s okay, Joey. I won’t leave you.”

I saw the big brown sign shaped like Minnesota up ahead. “Minnesota Welcomes You!” it said. I was glad to leave Wisconsin behind. For Joey and me, Wisconsin had been nothing but loss and heartache.

“Minnesota,” I said to him, lifting his hand with mine to gesture at the sign. He nodded, his tears dried but his eyes still red and swollen.


“Yeah, Joe?”

“I’ll go to school. And when I’m done, I’m gonna put you through college and you’re gonna be a teacher.”

I looked over at Joey and smiled, giving another squeeze to the fingers laced with mine.

I felt the burden on my heart lift just a little when he spoke those words, and the first tall buildings of Minneapolis came into view.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Love & Affection

When Gunnar Nelson recently started appearing on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club 3 , the memories he brought back sent me running out to the garage in search of a 16-year-old cassette. Way in the back of the storage area, behind the freezer, the workbench, the shelves, and the plastic totes full of old clothes and toys was a cardboard box crammed with old cassette tapes, some belonging to my husband and some belonging to me.

We never listen to tapes anymore, preferring the clearer sound of CDs. It was no surprise the box was buried further back than the rest of the junk. Digging through the old cases, pulling some out for later use, I finally found was I was looking for.

It was "After The Rain" by Nelson, the 1990 album containing the song allegedly written for Cindy Crawford: "Love And Affection."

Sure, you can go ahead and tease me. I can take it. I turned 24 the summer of 1990. "Love And Affection" was a radio and MTV hit late in the season. I remember it distinctly, because in August I moved into a new basement apartment, and the day I moved in I taped MTV's Top 10 countdown just so I could have Nelson on video. I was romantic in the way very young women often are; I had daydreams that someday a man would have for me the feelings described in the song and a dozen other love songs like it. In my wildest dreams, it would be Matthew Nelson himself. Both twins were attractive, of course, but Matthew was the one for me . I loved his long blonde hair. I probably could have wasted an entire afternoon watching Nelson videos.

This morning, after I'd dropped my kids at school, I slid the cassette into the player in my minivan, thinking what a long way I was from the young woman who'd purchased the tape all those summers ago.

As soon as I heard the first note, the intervening time disappeared, and for a three and a half minutes, it was a 90-degree day in the basement apartment of a house in Burnsville, Minnesota, sixteen years ago.

Later this afternoon, with all three kids in the car and on my way to drop my 18-year-old off at work, I popped the song in again. The effect wasn't quite the same as when I'd been listening by myself. I found myself babbling to my oldest about the song, the video, my crush on Matthew.

"You were three then," I said. "We rented a basement apartment from a co-worker who also had a three-year-old.

I chattered on, exclaiming how cute the Nelson twins had been, and could it really be that long ago, and aren't they just the perfect combination of their gorgeous parents?

"Who are their parents?" my daughter asked, clueless.

"Their father was Rick Nelson. Ricky Nelson."

"Who's that?"

I hesitated, feeling a small, sad smile cross my face.

"Never mind," I said. "We're here and you're almost late." She grabbed her bags, flew out of the car, and told me her boyfriend was picking her up later so she didn't need a ride from me. She disappeared inside the building, still unaware of just who Rick Nelson was.

In a few minutes, I'll go into the kitchen and start spaghetti sauce for supper and a chocolate cake for dessert. I'll set out my husband's Valentine gifts and prepare to surprise him. And I'll remember how glad I am that he is the one who captured my heart.

For now, though, I'm going to put that tape in one more time and spend three and a half minutes being 24 and daydreaming about a long-haired blonde pop star.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Volare, Amore, and Memories

Spage Age Boy, age four, and I stopped at Starbucks this morning after running errands. They were playing a Dean Martin album, and the boy immediately recognized "That's Amore." As we walked out to the car with our drinks and goodies, he asked if we could listen to Dean Martin in the car. Sure! Of course we can!

The following conversation ensued...

Boy: What's volare mean?

Mama: It's Italian for to fly.

Boy: What's "your love has given me wings" mean?

Mama: That just means that the feeling of love has made him so happy, he feels like he could fly.

Boy: People can't fly!

Mama: I know honey. It's symbolism.

Boy: What's symbolism mean?

Mama: That's when you use words or images to mean something else, in order to illustrate a point.

Boy: Oh. Can We listen to Marshmallow World?

Mama: That's a Christmas song.

Boy: No, it's not! It's a winter song. Is it still winter?

Mama: Yeah, it's still winter. But Marshmallow World still makes me think of Christmas.

Boy: Well, Dean Martin sings it.

Mama: Yes, he does.

Boy: And Frank Snotra.

Mama: Yeah, and Frank Sinatra.

I let him listen to it. Why not? The boy did have a point. It's still winter, though nothing resembling a Marshmallow World is going on here. When the song was over, I popped in a Jet CD.

Boy: What's this song?

Mama: Are You Gonna Be My Girl.

Boy: I don't want this! I want Dean Martin! Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease?

Mama: I like this song.

Boy: Please, Mom?

Okay, okay, okay. I changed it.

The Boy spent the rest of the ride singing Standing On The Corner Watching All The Girls Go By.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I need to learn to run faster...

...because I've been tagged AGAIN. This time, the culprit is that maven of citrus, Lemony.

More answers to more questions. Read 'em and snore...

Four jobs I've had:

  • Retail slave at Wilson's Leather
  • Underwriter of high-risk, specialty insurance for those who live on the edge
  • Paper pusher, salesperson nagger, and holder-of-the-numbers for a wireless broker
  • Radio Goddess

Four movies I could watch over and over:

  • Gone With The Wind (yes, really)
  • Mr. Skeffington
  • Twister (yes, really)
  • Dumb & Dumber (no one ever said I was highbrow)

Four places I've lived:

  • Burnsville, MN
  • Stevens Point, WI
  • Inver Grove Heights, MN
  • The great unwashed West

Four TV shows I love:

  • The Secret Life Of... (who can resist Jim O'Connor?)
  • The Flavor Of Love (okay, okay, I don't "love" that's more like a sickness)
  • A&E's Cold Case Files
  • The Nanny (who can resist Charles Shaughnessy? )

Four places I've vacationed:

  • Nashville, TN
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Good old Duluth, MN

My four favorite dishes:

  • My mother's scalloped potatoes and ham
  • Spaghetti with homemade sauce and meatballs
  • Juicy cheeseburgers, made by hand and cooked on the grill
  • Turkey and gravy served with mashed potatoes, spicy cranberry sauce and lefse

Four websites I visit daily:

Four places I'd rather be:

  • Minnesota
  • Boston
  • Phoenix
  • SPI

Four people I'm tagging:

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dear Mom...

Remember when I used to go off into the night with Godknowswho to do Godknowswhat and once in a while went away on vaguely defined road trips with people you didn't know to do vaguely defined things in vaguely defined places with a non-existent itinerary and it bothered you a little bit even when I was already an adult and there really wasn't anything much you could do about it if you'd been inclined to say anything?




Monday, February 06, 2006

Betty Friedan and Erma Bombeck

I was feeling melancholy over the weekend when I read that Betty Friedan had passed away. I was not one of the women for whom she wrote The Feminine Mystique, and in fact, was not born until three years after it was published. But I am a woman for whom its effects still resonate.

I never knew a world in which feminism and the so-called "women's liberation movement" did not exist. It was outside my consciousness during the movements biggest years in the sixties and seventies, of course, but it was already affecting my life in ways I wouldn't understand for years to come.

My mother stayed home to raise children, as did most women of her generation. She married in 1959, left college to help support my father, and had the first of her five children early in 1962. Mine was a sterotypical suburban childhood of the 1970s, with a stay-home mother, a father who worked in an office, and a house with a backyard on a tree-lined street. Never once, though, when I had my childish dreams of what I would do when I grew up, did I find myself limited to secretary, nurse, teacher, wife and mother. I knew I wanted to get married, and I knew I wanted to have children. At the same time, I knew I wanted to go to college, write books, practice law, become a psychologist, own an advertising agency, live in a penthouse in Manhattan, be a diplomat, report television news, and paint on canvas.

Though my mother was not part of "the women's liberation movement," she nevertheless knew and somehow communicated to her daughters that we could do or be anything. I don't remember any specific conversations where she laid these things out to us; somehow we just knew.

The name Betty Friedan didn't mean much to me until, as a teenager, I was reading one of my mother's Erma Bombeck books and Erma made reference to her. Erma evidently had something of an identity crisis when she turned forty in the late 1960s, suffering from what Friedan had termed "the problem with no name." By the time I was moved in my teens to learn more about the subject, The Feminine Mystique was considered quaint, and perhaps no longer relevant to the times.

If talking about it was good enough for Erma Bombeck, albeit in her self-deprecating humorous way, it was good enough for me. Erma Bombeck did, and still does, have a place of high regard with me. I loved her.

I don't live the life of the mid-century housewives Betty Friedan had interviewed in research for her first book. My title of "Space Age Housewife" has more to do with my nostalgic fondness for the good and happy parts of an admittedly difficult era gone by. It's my tongue-in-cheek poke at the happily domestic new-and-improved-scrubbed-with-bleach-squeaky-clean-freshly-baked-cookies side of my personality, a side undoubtedly developed from the subconscious longing to provide my children with the same contented homelife I enjoyed as a child. I am The Space Age Housewife, but I almost certainly operate in a more egalitarian partnership with my husband than almost any housewife of fifty-plus years ago. I have credit and financial assets in my own name. I do not defer to my husband as the head of household: together we operate as heads of the household, each of us shouldering our share of the responsiblities and burdens, and each of us sharing in the rewards of our marriage, household, and family. I've been a mother who works out of the home. I've been a mother who works inside the home. I've done these things as my choices and never because someone said, by virtue of my femaleness, that I had to do these things.

Friedan once said, “For a great many women, choosing motherhood makes motherhood itself a liberating choice."

Women of my generation follow life paths by choice, more choice than ever was available to many of our forbears. Betty Friedan is just one women of many who have blazed that path for us.

That's why now, I'm raising my glass to Betty Friedan, who left this world two days ago, and to Erma Bombeck who left this world ten years gone. Both of them will live forever in my heart.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

At Thirteen

It's a slow news day at the Space Age household, so I've kicked the wayback machine into overdrive once more. I dedicate this one to Miriam Knight, "The Girl Most Likely To..."

At Thirteen

It was 1979, and I was thirteen. Thirteen is often a difficult age, even for the best of us. For me, it was near torture.

I desperately wanted to be like the other girls, seemingly so full of poise. I wanted to have their perfect Farrah Fawcett hair and their cute little figures poured into Calvin Klein jeans. I wanted to be like the girls who seemed to know instinctively how to put on makeup so that they looked the cover of Seventeen magazine, and who drew the admiring glances of the boys in class.

I was none of those things. I was the person for whom the phrase “awkward stage” was coined: I was skinny, and I had stubbornly blemish-prone skin. My clothes were wrong. I had no idea what to do with makeup, and I had no idea what to do with my hair beyond washing the oiliness out every day. I wore enormous glasses. I was too shy to look people in the eye. I was the proverbial ugly duckling.

Adolescent girls can smell weakness. They can smell fear. There’s a certain type of girl who looks for that scent, thrives on it, follows it to its source and torments the fearful. There’s a certain type of girl who needs to have a victim. Susan Richter was just such a girl.

Susan’s methods of torment were many. Her actions were innumerable. I could tell a hundred stories of what Susan did to me and still have stories left to tell. One incident in the fall of my eighth grade year remains crisp and distinct in my memory; looking back now, it is difficult to believe nearly twenty-five years have passed.

Susan was in my science class. Instead of desks, the students sat in groups of four at square, shiny black-topped tables. There was only one other student who would sit next to me, a shy girl named Andrea who hid behind a veil of long black hair and black glasses. No one else dared to sit by me for fear of incurring Susan’s scorn. Susan aimed her viciousness at anyone who tried to stand up for me. It didn’t take long before no one bothered.

Mr. Delaney, the science teacher, was often late to class by five minutes or more. On that particular day, he was very late. On that particular day, Andrea was absent. I sat alone at my shiny black table, the table in the center of the room, visible to everyone else. Mr. Delaney was not there to deter the actions of the malevolent.

The silence that hung in the air between the sound of the bell and the realization that Mr. Delaney would be later than usual was heavy with the bitter perfume of danger. I sensed rather than knew what was about to happen to me Fear permeated my pores. I wished to be home, outside, in Timbuktu, invisible – anything and anywhere but in that moment.

Susan caught my eye, her gaze narrowing as she whispered something in Anna Comstock’s ear. They both giggled, and Anna turned to look at me as well, a smirk forming on her smooth, round face. I wanted to run but was frozen, attached to my seat as surely as if I had been restrained. Susan jumped up from her orange plastic chair and advanced on my table. The class was silent, most of them watching Susan to see what she would do.

She carefully, deliberately climbed on top of my black table, standing over me and compelling me to look up at her. Then she laughed, pointing at me and looking around the room in glowing triumph at her captive audience.

“Look at her!” she cried. “She’s so ugly!” She looked back at me, pointing her finger straight at my nose. “Listen to me. Nobody likes you. Nobody. Are you scared? Are you scared now that Andrea’s not here to sit with you? She smells. Do you like sitting next to smelly?”

I remained quiet, my throat dry and closing. I felt sweat beads form on my forehead and above my lip. My heart pounded and roared in my ears as Susan continued her tirade.

“Nobody likes you! Do you hear me? I know…let’s sing. Let’s sing a song about Ugly Donna.” She raised her arms as if to conduct the class in a choir practice and began singing loudly, using the tune from a McDonald’s jingle:

“Nobody likes Donna, we all hate her so! Nobody likes Donna, we all hate her so!”

I don’t know how long she went on. It might have been thirty seconds, and it might have been two minutes. To me it seemed an eternity, and I fought uselessly to hold back my tears.

Someone coughed loudly. Someone else signaled Susan that Mr. Delaney was on his way. She hopped down from my table and quickly ran to her seat next to Anna, laughing behind her hand at my anguish. Mr. Delaney came into the room, glancing around curiously at his students all sitting in silence.

He hesitated, appearing to want to say something and then evidently changing his mind. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again, flipping through his teacher’s text.

“Page 42, everyone,” was all he said.

Susan Richter faded into just a memory as the years rolled past me, but the sound of her voice lived on inside my head. I heard that voice echoing in my brain long years after the final bell sounded at Kennedy Junior High.