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This past October 9, the world celebrated what would have been John Lennon’s 74th birthday. On that day, the Internet buzzed with its usual indefatigable hum of remembrances, best-of-lists, think pieces and social media posts in memoriam. We don’t need to discuss the importance of John Lennon or his impact on the collective cultural consciousness—it is there everyday. As I can attest, even three-year-olds know how to sing the tune to “Imagine.”

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

 (The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])

 

1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

I’ve noticed a few silvers in the mirror lately and I’m kind of freaking out. Not in the way you might be thinking. I’m not afraid to grow old. I’m just afraid of grey hair. There’s a difference.

By the age of 30, my dad’s hair was dipped and preserved in silver like a knight’s helmet of radiance. It was beautiful hair and I never associated it with being “old”, per se. He had a youthful heart clear up ‘til the end. His hair wasn’t old – it was dignified.

I like silver hair. I think it’s actually sort of sexy. It shows that a person has earned his or her Scout badges and is probably worth talking to. I have beautiful friends with beautiful silver hair. I love it.

On them.

At 36, I understand full well what’s expected of me going forward. No midriff exposing halters. No Spandex. No more dancing on bars. I’m not saying I’m ready to lie down and let the Grim Reaper have his way with me. I’m a mother. A fighter. I’ve been known to jump out of a plane. I once joined a Chinese protest which ended with me being escorted out at gunpoint. I’m persistent, a lover of fun, and just a little bit scrappy. Let age try and get me. I’ll kick it in the head. In the teeth. I’ll bite age in the ass.

So, why am I afraid of the greys?

It was 1984. That year is all jumbled in my head. It was back in the days before the Wall had come down. Before Perestroika. George H. W. Bush did not yet know he was “not gonna do it” at that juncture. Nobody had a home computer, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as Gore had not yet invented the Internet. Phones made a funny series of clicks when you pressed the number buttons and they always had a cord. Adventurous non-Asian Americans ate “Oriental food” like chop suey and Chun King Chow Mein from a can. There were no milkshakes in the yard – let alone a best one. Stretch denim and fleece had not hit the scene yet. Reality television was called “the news.” Life was in muted color, yellowed around the edges and prone to appearances of people with bad hair and even worse teeth.

At age 11, I was more awkward than most. And as this particular Year of Our Lord suggests, I was constantly under the scrutiny of my mother, who strove to keep me from falling into the clutches of unforeseen harm. My mother has a lot of motherly concerns: absence of a coat in winter, inadequate lighting – but nothing sends her into spasms of terror faster than the appearance of a freshly showered coif.

When I was younger, I would be putting the final touches on getting ready for school, when my mother’s silhouette would appear noiselessly at the bathroom door.

“And just where do you think you are going with that wet head, young lady?” She would ask, emphasizing the offense with raised eyebrows. “It is the middle of winter. You could catch pneumonia and die if you go out like that. I had a friend who died of pneumonia because of a wet head. Think about that for a minute. Her poor family.”

My mother has an entire graveyard worth of friends who have died due to unthinkable circumstances. They have fallen off three-legged stools, choked while eating in bed, fallen on screwdrivers while running…and yes, failed to dry hair adequately.

“Mom,” I would say, “It’s 60 degrees out. It’s not that cold.”

“Well, it’s too cold to be traipsing around with a wet head, that’s for sure. I want your hair dry before you leave this house.”

Obediently, I would take out the hairdryer and blast my head for several minutes. Gathering my coat and backpack, I would break for the door.

“Not so fast,” She would call from the kitchen as I turned the knob of the front door to catch my bus. “Wait, please.” She would then hustle to the door where she would proceed to run her fingers through my hair.

“It’s still wet,” she’d report.

“What? Where?” I would ask, trying to feel for myself.

“In the back. You can’t feel it because it’s in the back. Stop trying, you’re going to pull your shoulder out and cause permanent damage. That’s the last thing you need – permanent shoulder damage. Run back upstairs and dry it some more, please. And Erika?”

“Yes?”

“No more morning showers in the winter. Understood?”

At age 11, I was already more awkward than most kids. I was pudgy. I had a face that, according to my well-meaning father, would someday catch up with my nose. My arms and legs were covered in thick, brown wool, and I had a monobrow, the fact of which I was mercifully ignorant. I dressed entirely in outfits from a place called Anthony’s, which was mostly frequented by little old ladies and tired looking women pushing shopping cartfuls of children through the aisles. To make matters worse, my mother kept all of my sweaters in mothballs over the summer, so no matter how new my outfits from Anthony’s appeared, they always had a hint of the geriatric to them.

But most importantly, I had overactive oil glands on my head which made daily cleansing a requirement. Later, in my teen years, this excess oil problem would make a public mockery of my T-Zone. By the time I made it to my junior year, there was so much oil in my face and hair it would warrant the attention of OPEC. Men in robes and turbans would show up on our doorstep and attempt to make deals with my parents for drilling rights.

Regardless, my mother was resolute. There would be no hair washing in the morning before school. No daughter of hers would die of pneumonia from a wet head.

This was, of course, a problem. When I washed my hair before bed, I would wake up with large swirls and bumps, creating the impression that I had a large tumor growing under the surface. I could wet it back into place, but then we were back to square one with the whole wet head problem.

So imagine my relief when one morning my mother handed me a canister of MiniPoo.

MiniPoo, despite sounding suspiciously like something a hamster makes in the privacy of its cage, is a white powder intended for use in one’s hair for cleansing purposes.

When you can’t shampoo…MiniPoo!

Marketed to invalids stuck in their hospital beds, it is the answer to the problem of the wet head on a cold day. Simply shake the talc-like powder in your hair and brush out the oil and dirt. Et voila! Hair like a mink.

And who doesn’t want hair like a mink?

The picture on the canister showed a gorgeous shiny haired brunette who looked as if she had just stepped out of a salon. I’d shake that white powder into my slick brown locks and watch it go to work cleaning up like a baguette on an empty plate of peppers and Italian sausages.

At first, my roots would turn an unsettling color of gray, so I’d brush and brush the dirt and oil away. When the gray would not completely disappear, I would settle on trying to make the color of my hair uniform. It may not have glistened like the girl’s hair on the canister, but at least it didn’t make a cloud when bumped. At some point, I’d start to get frustrated when I would notice that the roots running down my part had attracted the MiniPoo, turning the white powder into a kind of a paste. I’d rub my head with a towel, trying to grind it in and out as best I could. When my hair was somewhat under control, I would notice that my monobrow was a distinctly different shade of brown than my hair. It was nothing that a little puff of MiniPoo couldn’t solve and I’d set to work rubbing that monobrow until the drapes matched the…table runner.

Thinking I had at long last conquered the problem of bad morning hair, I would grab my favorite moth-free sweater and head to the bus stop. Completely oblivious to the strange looks I was getting from my peers, I would take a seat alone at the front of the bus where I would strike up a conversation with the bus driver. Our bus driver was the father of my fourth grade teacher and often had funny stories to tell about when he was a young kid in school.

“Oh, those were the days,” he’d say. “Young Tim was always sneaking out of the house to go down to the dime store. There was a young lady he was sweet on whose father worked there.”

“Those were the days,” I’d nod, flipping my freshly MiniPooed hair back over my shoulder and releasing the sweet scent of an entirely intact sweater.

At school, the kids would give me a wide berth, although I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until a kid in my homeroom class asked me what my room number at the nursing home was that I began to suspect that my new look wasn’t working for me.

Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t working for me then and it’s not going to work for me now. In a way not entirely unlike Benjamin Button, I’ve already been there, done that. And while I may have been raised under unusual circumstances, I simply refuse to return full circle to that reflection. And while I haven’t yet picked up the bottle of brown elixir and gotten to work freezing my hair in perma-youth, rest assured it is coming. Oh yes, it is coming.

I realize that the years may someday get the best of me. My hair dye may fail or I may get too old to regularly apply. The monobrow will no doubt return and I’ll be sitting in my attic apartment with the trunks filled with old clothes preserved forever with dichlorobenzine and camphor. My family will bring me pureed meals and give me the requested up-to-the-minute reports on the weather. At some point I’ll take permanently to my bed, never again to get up to use the toilet, let alone the shower. In those final moments, I will be transported back to my younger years – back to the fifth grade – and I will know with the wisdom that comes with age: I could lie there and let my hair become a grease pit so that when I die I could donate it to science, or perhaps to the chicken wing place down the street; or, I could MiniPoo, and die…with dignity.


 



El Camino. 1984. V8 engine. 350. I never had one and I still don’t. But my just-graduated-son Landen gave me and a six-year-old punk girl named Jai Ann our first El Camino joyride. Destination: McDonald’s.

It goes like this: We hit Gosford Road and flew like the Furies were chasing us. Clouds rolled past. Time slowed. This was our video game. Pull out the joystick. Hit the fire button. Blast some asteroids. Jump like Frogger. Fly like the Pacman family. Donkey Kong it. You get the picture. Soaring Xervious adventure. This was old school.

We hit the drive-thru in style. Jai Ann had no idea what was soaring through my veins. She couldn’t feel the 80s. But she could feel something: 80s Generation X energy. After two Sprites, oh, and a coffee-for-the-old-man later, we pulled out. But suddenly Lando (as I usually call him) swerved back into the lot. “What’s going on?” I say.

“You’re drivin’.” Damn if he ain’t the captain.

Aw, hell yeah. My kid does love me. My foot still tingles as I remember. I imagine pressing down on the gas, the fuzzy dice above the dash, the fuzzy steering wheel cover in my grip like a puppy coming for a lick. I think about the tires on the road, the El Camino zooming toward the horizon. Yeah, Gran Torino should have been playing on my boy’s iPod followed by Fast and the Furious, Gone in Sixty Seconds and the highlights of Tron.

The next day my eyes were wider than usual. I’m standing around the car with he and his brother Jordo (Real name Jordan). The hood is up. We’re glaring into that secret of the universe that mechanics and teen boys dream about. We’re electricity zoomin’ through the distributor, fuel slippin’ through the filter, belts searing in hot passion, pulling by the radiator. “Aw yeah. I got it,” I say. My boys look over. “Candy apple red. White stripes up the hood.”

“Oh yeah,” Lando says then adds, “Can’t though. Cops would target that.”

I give him the I-don’t-care shrug as if I should be yelling out: “Murder is worse. Let’s do this thing. Let’s paint the town when we’re done with the car.”

While I’m tired and my head is spinning from having just pushed the El Camino through a busy intersection at Ming Avenue and Oak Street—as if JELL-O legs could ever attach to a robot—that doesn’t matter, I’m right back to dreaming: this car is a rocketship. “Oh yeah.”

VIDEO: El Camino, Lando On Guitar, At Intersection Right Before Breakdown