@

Nayu describes them to me. The haggard bodies covered with dust and blood, surging abruptly in front of the car. The limbs missing. The faces contorted in pain and disbelief. She tells me about the ranges of a scream—from the silent or guttural shock to the bellowing distress.  She was riding shotgun with her grandmother in Pétion-Ville when the earth grumbled, dust engulfing the car, swallowing the surrounding mountains flanked by shanty towns.

“Andrea, you have the strangest collection of jobs I’ve ever seen.”

Some time ago I was driving to work with one of my many bosses and telling him about some of the other gigs I do when not working for him. I think at the time I was up to about five or six occupations altogether, but I can never really keep track. At any given point in the past year I have been a tour guide, a tutor, a videographer, a researcher, a receptionist and a waitress.

At times these jobs can be cushy (receptionist), mildly soul-crushing (tutoring rich kids in the SAT, thus perpetuating our society’s heinous class-based educational inequities) and occasionally even satisfying (documentary researcher). But of all my jobs, the strangest has to be working as a guide for a ghost tour company. It is also, needless to say, the most fun.

We are living in a time when there are too many writers and too few readers. Who said that? Well, I think everyone said that. And so, six months after publishing my first short story collection and exactly ten months before my first novel comes out, it’s reassuring to be able to access Amazon’s recently introduced Author Central service, which allows me to check on my sales figures without having to chase down the publisher, who can be a bit of an elusive beast. Right now, I can tell you, my short story collection is riding high in 559,052th place on the Kindle bestseller charts, out of a total of 800,000 listed books. Its high point was on March 21st, when it climbed to a whisker above 59,000th place. As for the paperback, well, Author Central informs me that a single copy was sold in America between September 12th and October 9th. This, in Chicago. Whoever you are, rare-spirited denizen of Windy City, I thank you! Do I deserve more readers? Well yes, I think I do, but so do a lot of people.

Wildness, and the fact that we had entered its lair, struck me somewhere between the fast train out of Paris and the local bus ride through purple fields full of growing, buzzing life. Surrounding us was a beautiful, ancient nowhere, fit to my imagination exactly—right down to the circles of cypresses waving their pointy treetops. One dirt road trickled past tiny white towns. The air smelled like a soap shop. Crows cawed and soared between rolling hills. Orange sun. Blue sky. Grapes.

I could hardly believe our good fortune, and yet, this one-way bus ticket to the farmhouse, officially called ‘Les Moutons’, felt like the second chance I knew we’d get. The three of us dreamed of a bucolic adventure in the South of France, and though we had gotten a little sidetracked, we were here. Ready. Determined to live off the land.

I bothered Mae again for the arrangements she had made with Denis, the proprietor of Les Moutons whom she sweet-talked into giving us a chance:

  1. We were to wait at this unremarkable, one-bench-on-the-side-of-the-road station.
  2. “Someone” would meet us.
  3. In exchange for room and board, we were to mix cement, lay brick, hammer old plaster and stone, garden, pitch hay into the stables, share amenities and meals with the other travelers and ideally speak French since most of them weren’t native English speakers.

All of this had sounded enticing and rustic from the noisy youth hostel pay phone in Paris. Just perfect, in fact. But the bus had roared off thirty minutes ago and besides the old men and tidy, country grandmothers who lowered their eyes or suspiciously glanced our way, we were alone. I thought about the manual labor.

“How hard could it be?” Mae said easily, handing me her last cigarette.

“What does ‘Les Moutons” mean?”

“It means ‘the sheep’,” she answered.

I opened a bag of peanut M & M’s and worriedly munched.

Kay, inspired by the remote station, pulled out her sketchpad and boldly drew one lingering fellow in a dirty trench coat with charcoal, not handsome, slightly creepy.

Young. American. Girls the old people said with their eyes.

I counted my 75 francs, reminding myself we were on the border of the French and Italian countryside, one of Europe’s lands of plenty. For a while we could live for free and keep our eyes open for a grape-picking job, a goal I felt oddly determined to fulfill. I had told everyone I knew—friends, neighbors, even my parents’ colleagues—that I’d be picking grapes for three months, and the wonder in their eyes allowed me to see myself, finally, as a girl who lived on the edge. My mother’s coworkers in particular marveled, what an adventurous departure and what kind of city girl would take such a risk. If I failed to pick a single grape, I’d have to handle their disappointment in addition to my own. I needed to at least try to find my edge. Truthfully, I was terrified I didn’t have one.

I reminded Mae and Kay of the lucrative grape scenario awaiting us in the next four weeks. The leaves hadn’t even started to turn down south, but I knew harvest finished by late October.

“We don’t have to pick grapes,” Kay said, still sketching. “There are figs to pick in Nice. There are oranges to pick in Italy.”

“But we came to Provence to pick grapes,” I insisted.

“And to drink wine,” Mae laughed.

I might have joined in if it were three weeks ago in the 107th bistro, if I were still operating on the hope of making Eve’s Starry Night portrait of our French adventure come to life. But things were not exactly going to plan. On one hand we were running on a dream, but the cosmic order wouldn’t carry us for long.

“I believe life will help us out,” Kay countered. “We just have to recognize the signs.”

She looked up to show her drawing to the creepy bystander, who squinted and shuffled away. Un-offended, she tucked the page into her notebook and started another.

I agreed about signs. The statue of Pan practically led me here. But when would the next one come?

A pickup truck full of grapes rambled past and spilled purple bunches at our feet. The three of us scrambled to collect the fruit and, while hungrily eating even the brown ones, an angular female driver with a wino’s smile waved us over to her tiny, filthy car; our chariot to Les Moutons.

“I’m Fabian,” she said. “No English.”

It was a long, upward drive. She wheeled around hairpin turns, chatting nonstop and too fast for me to translate. Road signs for every new mountain town showed up 20 kilometers apart. We entered Forcalquier, once the capital of Haute-Provence with its bell tower and cathedral, but now a small city of 12th century doorways and aerial views of the whole region. On an empty cobblestone street thick with late afternoon shadows, Fabian pulled up on the curb and turned to us with serious eyes.

“Do you need something to smoke?”

“Cigarettes?” Mae said, politely declining the offer of drugs.

“Cigarettes.” Fabian laughed. “Okay, mes Americaines.”

She disappeared into a dark apartment and left us in the car.

Certain people look like they belong anywhere, and Mae, once out of the car and surveying the busy town square, was one of those people. She was small-framed like a southern belle but dark, with giant, wide set eyes and a braid down her back, gypsy-like. I envied how Mae invited casual hellos from cool-looking French people: a thoughtful, cap-wearing fellow with a guitar case, an exquisitely plain teenaged girl in a hand-woven sweater. Minutes had passed, and already Mae had been offered a bouquet of fresh wildflowers by a grocer like any other beloved local.

I had tried acting like a local in New York, but never came into my own. After work at the jazz club, I walked down Riverside Drive dreaming of living in one of the grand, pre-war apartments, writing art films by day and socializing by night. On weekends I braved gang-ridden neighborhoods in order to stay at my trumpet player boyfriend’s apartment on Avenue D, where late night parties meant sitting on the floor listening to music, getting high.  But none of it, not the walks of wishful thinking or the daring downtown love life, brought out my inner Manhattanite. Perhaps the wine and the valleys in Provence, the distance from city pressures, was a better fit for the inner me, who was now free to emerge like a ghost unchained. And Forcalquier was ghostly. Shards of sun light played tricks with the shadows, and the rugged, thin townies striding in suede jackets weren’t just distant and cool, but wary and even cautious of the eerie mountain echoes, of the low, bright moon that shone simultaneously with the setting sun.

It struck me then; we were in the land of Pan.

Fabian emerged from the apartment, dreamy eyed and ready for the moonlight drive.

An hour later, the car strained its way up a different, west-facing hill. At the top I saw the silhouette of a crumbling chateau, beautiful 500 years ago, and the dusty, candlelit faces of a half dozen smiling strangers. Denis was not among them. These were the workers, people like us, who helped haul our backpacks out of the car and into our chambers. Mine was a monastic room flanking the barn. I set my bag down next to the mattress—sheet, wool blanket and pillow on the floor—and regarded the tiny desk and chair, a candle and a box of matches. That was it, besides a glassless window overlooking a frighteningly dark pasture.

We dined in the dark on the outdoor terrace. I couldn’t see the food, but it tasted delectably herby. Eleven of us all talked at once including Denis who, at the head of the table and unlit by anything more than stars, was just the presence of a medium-sized man with a loud, emphatic voice. He talked about the charm of the estate; the large stone terrace; the dilapidated house itself, and the fairytale views of white hilltop towns. Someone used the word ‘magical.’ As he promised, all became visible the next morning during our communal breakfast of breads, preserves and coffee–a meal that would at once make me feel nostalgic for and superior to New York Sunday brunches. But that first night alone in my bed, tipsy from the wine, all I saw was shape-shifting darkness– out the window, behind my own eyes, and in the empty, unremarkable room I had wanted so badly to find.

I wrote to my parents, just one long letter over the course of our stay. I maintained a portrait of good, European living and downplayed the blur of construction. Long, happy outdoor dinners into the night, local wines, and peculiar sights like the ruins of a citadel, and horses in medieval dress parading through town on market days. I didn’t mention that sledge hammering stone and mixing cement started at sunrise. Or how I had sliced my finger while wrapping a wire mesh.  The truth was, I overlooked my own white, dusty underwear. I smelled, but so did everyone unless they took a cold shower on a dirt floor bathroom. Though my body ached with each step to the swimming hole, a blue crevasse in a stone quarry, I maintained my idealism; I was happy—happier—to be living a hard adventure than going through the motions of lectures and libraries.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Writing to you from the dining table on the terrace of this soon to be ‘maison extraordinaire’. This is where we (down to the six of us) eat all our meals (including afternoon tea) together, as well as practice French and English skills, sometimes late into the evening. Today is Monday, and only Mae, Kay and I are doing work on the house, while Denis (the owner) and Patrick (the native Marseillan construction professional) are in a nearby town purchasing some more cement. As you might have gathered from my vague descriptions, everything here at Les Moutons is outdoors, made of stone, and electricity-free–our living quarters included. The work is going well, that, is, what there is of it for us to do. According to a few young people also on leave from University, things will slow down a bit as a good percentage of the workers have left and returned to their other lives. What remains to be done is the electricity, for which we need an electrician. Hopefully Denis will still have things for us to do. Hopefully the idea that we are three young women and not three young men will not settle in until we are ready to leave.

He is kind of a strange character, Denis. Harmless, but strange. He is going about building this bed and breakfast maison all by himself and as frugally as possible. He has had ads in at least 20 newspapers through Europe for workers—amateur or professional, male or female, to come live in Forcalquier, a beautiful medieval enclave, and work to help rebuild this house. Indeed it is a good idea and a clever way to go about doing it, but seems like it will take a long time (it’s already been two years) and it might begin to get frustrating. It seems like we arrived during a transitional phase for him; like he might be totally reworking his original plans of action in buildings this place. I am finding his behavior a little disconcerting…

 

On the night we were to cement the second floor, Denis actually spoke to me. By starlight, I shoveled stones and dry clay into the cement mixer while Denis turned the crank. He had balanced a Buddha lamp on an overturned wheelbarrow, plugging it into a portable generator. He handed me a cup of tea when I stopped to wipe my brow.

“It’s hard work, eh?”

It was an obvious question, and yet after days of not saying so I almost started to cry. The construction site was a mess; boards laid as walkways over deep pits, buckets of brick, piles of white plaster.

“This house. I’m at the end of my money. We should have been done by now,” he said.

I said something plain and accommodating. What I had thought would be a conversation about my formidable attitude, about Mae, Kay and my exceptional efforts, was just a forum for Denis’s bitterness, which he tried to hide.

“It’s beautiful, though eh?” he picked up a shovel and threw the cement mixture into the machine twice as fast as me. “We are lucky to be in Haute-Provence. To work by the light of the Buddha together, in the mountains, for just a short time.”

I didn’t really know who the Buddha was. The statue’s green belly glowed, and its smile mocked me in a way that made me think for the first time about returning to college.

Denis’s bullish movements and distracted small talk pulled us toward an uncomfortable bottom line.

“So, what else do you girls have planned?”

“We’re waiting for a sign,” I said mysteriously.

“Me too,” he said into the dark.

That night, after pouring the cement perfectly over 1800 square feet, I went to bed feeling like Denis and I had bonded. Even if the construction work tapered off in coming days, I believed he wouldn’t mind our staying on for a while. Not because he was particularly good natured, or sensitive, but because he understood about waiting for signs.

* * *

“You know, there’s not much for you to do. Besides the electrician, I’m not taking anyone else until next year. One of you can stay with me, but otherwise you girls need to go.”

It was three days later and everyone had left Les Moutons; back to Universities, warmer parts of the Mediterranean, or regular lives from which they had vacationed. Mae, Kay and I had tried busying ourselves with light gardening work and organizing in the garage, but our mock activities failed to convince even Patrick, who was fond of our crappy language skills and bourgeois expectations of things like laundry.

I tried not to show Denis I was hurt. “But we haven’t gotten our sign.”

His temper started to turn. “I’ve got my own problems, Suzanne. Torrential floods are predicted to hit the area. All of this work will be ruined unless we shut things down. All of you can’t stay here.”

Again, this second mention of just one of us staying on, presumably as Denis’s “friend,” fell heavily. Frankly, I didn’t want to share Denis’s bed. He had a temper and a mustache. But besides packing our bags and walking down the road, he wasn’t offering another option. Panic rose in my chest.

“We’ll figure something out,” Mae added quickly, preparing to negotiate. “How long do we have? When does the electrician come? When do the floods come?”

Denis quickly checked with Patrick en Francais. “The floods are coming next week, Wednesday or Thursday. Richard Simmons will be here after the weekend,” he murmured to himself, now. “He’ll have a couple of days to get the lights and heat going, to set up the pump so I don’t drown.”

“Richard Simmons?” Kay asked.

Denis looked up. “The electrician. He’s driving down from England.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. What’s so funny?”

We could barely speak, picturing the tiny shorts, the wild hair, and the homosexually charged enthusiasm. How could this not be our sign?

We were still laughing as Denis stormed away, mounted his neglected stallion, and rode off until he disappeared into a tiny, inconsequential dot.

…this past weekend, which just ended today, we spent in the city of Marseille. Denis suggested we go see more of France, and Patrick, the carpenter, drives there each weekend to see his son Julian, so we drove with him there and back. We ended up staying in the shady part of town, near the Old Port where all the fishing commerce takes place between France, Spain, and North Africa. We walked around and took the bus to visit the beaches, which was nice, but there’s an ominous undercurrent of corruption here, even at night in the center square where all the young people hang out on motorbikes. There was a lawless feeling that anything could happen at anytime (Marseille is also the heroin capital of the world). I’m not interested in going back anytime soon.

Denis sort of insisted that we take the weekend to travel, but I’m looking forward to getting back to the farm. I’m thinking about renting a bicycle for easier transportation. It is starting to get cold, though, and it’s supposed to flood. If you could please find my blue Levis (in the bottom drawer of my dresser) and send them, I’d be a lot warmer. I’ll confirm an address for you in the next letter, since I’m not quite sure where I’ll be (don’t worry—everything will work out!).

In Marseille we found no welcoming bars, no new leads into our next occupation, and not even a friendly face at the youth hostel. Fed up one night, we splurged on an Indian dinner in the city center only to ‘dine and ditch,’ rationalizing right along with Mae the meal was overpriced.

“You don’t pay for rice when you order Indian food,” she said once we had safely run three blocks. The soft glint in her eye had sharpened, ignited. “I don’t care where you are in the world.”

We hadn’t talked about Denis’s dismissal of us, but Mae’s acting out and Kay’s recess into her thoughts couldn’t have occurred for any other reason. On some level I didn’t believe he would insist on our evacuation—how could he—with such a shining work ethic as ours, so much personality, and honestly no other option yet. I had expected to find a grape-picking job by now, three and a half weeks in, but with the long days and isolation at Les Moutons, there simply hadn’t been time. Surely, I said over coffee the morning we were to meet Patrick, Denis would give us more time.

We sped out of the fishy city into golden mountains, dying wildflowers and looming storm clouds. No one said much on the peaceful ride. At once, I felt the contentment of going home and the dull panic of displacement, but instead admired the scenery, the scraggly plant-life against robust hills.

Pan, after all, was the God of Panic.

The goat skull was sitting in the tall grass, bleached and picked clean as if it had fallen out of the haunting O’Keefe painting Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills. Kay found it when Patrick pulled over for lunch about half way to Les Moutons.

“This is our sign,” she said, roping it to her backpack. Patrick and Mae were inside a small restaurant having a quick glass of wine.

“But I thought Richard Simmons was our sign.” I said.

“I’m thinking we’re going to need more than Richard Simmons,” Kay said,

as if she could see the future.

Patrick stopped her from getting in the car once he saw the dead long horn.

“Why that goat?” he said in horrified, broken English.

“It’s a talisman,” Kay said sweetly. “You know, magic.”

“No.” He blocked her way to the car.

“Why? It’s beautiful. C’est belle.”

“Ca n’est pas belle,” he said pointing to the trunk. He turned on his heel as if offended, but I detected some fear in his eyes.

Being American, we had no understanding that centuries of superstition threaded Provencal folklore and trickled down into common, everyday thought. Later we would learn that the goat skull, also viewed as an inverted pentagram, was the medieval symbol of the witch; that Denis had joked as much about the three of us arriving on his farm, single, American girls, seemingly out of nowhere, without reason or real ability. Our bewitchedness would not come to matter for another twenty-four hours, so Patrick’s total silence on the drive home, his shake of the head and tossing of Kay’s backpack in the dirt even after our profuse thanks, only confused us.

Dusk at Les Moutons was a gray, stagnant haze. The woodpile, the tool shed and the dying garden all took on a haunted animation that felt related to the stalled momentum. We were home, but no part of the farm felt serene; nowhere did I feel particularly safe. And then, further up the driveway I spotted another car, trunk open, with a lanky fellow in army pants and a buzz cut leaning over bags of spilling cords and tools. We all saw him. Patrick approached hastily. The two men shook his hands like they were old drinking buddies in another lifetime. Within moments, we heard the loud hearty laugh of our non-aerobic hero, Richard Simmons.

“We’ve been looking forward to your arrival,” Mae sang after introductions.

Richard Simmons looked slightly confused. He had a sweet smile and honest eyes in which I saw myself four weeks ago, excited, up for adventure, like I was the luckiest person alive.

“Glad I made it, then.“ His English accent charmed us instantly, another indication he was our sign. He seemed pleased to chat us up; someone not yet paralyzed by the bad luck of Les Moutons. It was more noticeable to me since our return, the crumbling amenities, the neglect.  But Richard Simmons commented on none of this, only the ridge of the mountains, a steaming hot vegetarian meal in front of him, and copious amounts of wine.

During dinner, when Denis returned from his trip on horseback, he strode onto the terrace in his riding boots, a king assessing his subjects. He greeted Richard with a cordial handshake; his eyes flitted over Mae, Kay and I.

‘Girls,” he said. “How was Marseille?”

Though it was only half true, I planned to gush about returning to the hominess of the farm. Before I had a chance, Kay chimed in, “Look what I found,” and pointed to the goat skull on her backpack.

I had not seen blood drain from a face before. I thought Denis might disintegrate on the spot. He glared at Patrick and began sputtering in a combination of angry English and French, much of which I didn’t understand per se, except for a few clear phrases.

What is wrong with you three? You are possessed. I saw this coming.

Patrick interrupted with what sounded like mollifications. Clearly, he had argued with Denis before. He made reasonable gestures with one open hand to each of the three of us, as if it were all a misunderstanding; as if we were just a few culturally ignorant fools.

 Get off of my farm, Denis roared.

The sun had dissolved some time ago, so we hadn’t noticed the arrival of black clouds or any other signs—the sharp, moist wind, the onset of ambient chill—that foretold imminent rain.  Richard Simmons’ smile dimmed. He shivered as he excused himself, claiming fatigue. Almost immediately after Mae, Kay and I took shelter in our respective rooms, the rain fell severely.

* * *

In the morning, I awoke to banging on my door. I don’t know why I smiled when I saw Denis standing solemnly in a windbreaker; gray clouds and light rain behind him, keys in hand, as if somehow this indicated he had come around.

“Come to breakfast, and then put your things in the van. You’re leaving.”

On the terrace Kay and Mae were already stirring sugar into their coffee, their hair in ponytails, their clothes disheveled. They had been awakened and evicted moments earlier, and I had the feeling Mae had tried to fight but lost.

“Let’s just say he’s not in a good mood,” she said under her breath.

“Wrong side of the bed,” Kay added, with a smirk.

Patrick explained: After everyone turned in, Denis had seen a ghost. A woman in a black dress loitered by the woodpile. He ranted and raved to Patrick, convinced we had brought her back from Marseille, and threatened to drive us off the farm in the middle of the night. Patrick, after several hours of argument, convinced him to wait until morning.

Mae looked irritated, like lawyer who lost a case, and Kay contained her disappointment behind down cast, angry eyes.

“Where’s Richard Simmons?”  He was all I could think of, our one, cosmic sign of hope. The alternative conversation–commenting on Denis’s ghostly vision and its plausibility– was beyond me.

Richard Simmons, however, had encountered an even stranger fate in the night. Violent thunder had awakened him, and as he crept down his chamber steps to find matches in the kitchen, he fell—about 12 feet—breaking and dislocating his shoulder. Denis rushed him to the hospital thirty miles away, where Richard Simmons had checked in and would remain for, the doctor predicted, ten days.

“There goes our sign,” Kay said. The rain, gaining momentum again, whacked the plastic tarps pulled over the open pits, the exposed reconstruction, and the now abandoned car of the English electrician.

By the time we finished our coffee, Denis had already put our backpacks in his van, a window less white Dodge splattered with mud and loaded with lumber. Kay and I sat pressed against each other in the two-person backseat, while Mae took the front and grilled Denis about our destination.

“I have to bring you to a friend’s– he owns a horse ranch-about twenty kilometers from here. I talked to him. He can help you out.” His tone was friendly, as if freeloading or witchcraft had never been associated with our presence.  But I had seen his red, miserable eyes. He talked manically all the way to the long white cattle fence that marked the property of his friend’s riding camp. Like a porter at a hotel, he slid our door open, offering his hand as we stepped out into the mud. We stood in the light rain. He pulled out our bags and, seeing no person or horses in view, hurriedly handed me all the reading materials he had crumpled on the passenger’s seat floor—a tourist magazine for all of Haute-Provence, a small phone book for the municipality of Manosque, the closest village, and something else stuck to a napkin. I thought for a second it was pastry, a thin crepe being secretly served just to me from an otherwise irrational Denis. I wanted the impossible, to see him not as someone about to abandon us, but as a reluctant caretaker, stuck in a crisis.

It was a postcard, the only piece of mail I received in almost two months. The front had a picture of a purple spiral artfully drawn in crayon, as if by a child, with a quote at the bottom about infinity, or the vastness of the world. I turned it over. It was signed by my mother and every single one of her coworkers: the seven development officers, the mail carrier, the receptionist, the publications editor, each of whom had written a small, pithy quote about squishing grapes or dining on caviar. The thoughtfulness, the little bits of care sparkling in their script written with fancy, Rollerball pens overwhelmed me. But one message, from the woman who raised money for the School of Dentistry, said nothing about missing me or raising a glass. She wrote:

DO BAD THINGS. YOU WON’T GET CAUGHT.

It wasn’t a good luck wish, but a command, and the instructional tone was especially jarring as Denis ran around to the driver’s side of the van, gunned the engine, and spun in the dust to face the drive’s exit.

“I’m sorry to have to leave you like this, girls.” He shouted over the idling motor. His elbow already pointed out the window comfortably. “I have to get back. My friend should be here soon. I’ll call you in a few days to see how things are going.”

The white Dodge was the last car we saw that day.

He never called. He didn’t even wave goodbye.

 

 

 

End of Part 2

Our quarters

Our bedroom doors and the hazardous stairs


Victor and I are on

a long drive.

I tell him,

time for a pit stop,

and

he says,

fine

cause he needs gas

anyhow.


A sign we pass

says

gas station -

next exit.


There is only one,

and there are

no signs

for restaurants

or motels.

We pull off,

but there are

no directions

to the gas station.


We choose

right

and drive

for about a mile.


We notice

an abandoned building,

weed trees

growing

through the roof.


No indication of life,

not a  grocery store,

not a church,

not a school.


We don’t glimpse a

single person,

not even

a dog

or a cat.


We’re about to give up

when

Victor spots the

station.


He slowly pulls in

next to one of the

pumps.


To our left

is a  bench

and

on it

sits a young

white woman,

considerably heavy.


The woman is wedged

tightly

to a young black man,

equally ample,

fleshy.


Squeezed

in between them

is a

listless baby.


No one is

making a

sound.


They are

still

as

road kill.


I feel a jittering

inside me.


I look to our right

and there is

an old black man

standing

by the gas pumps.


I hop out of the car

and smile at him

and say,

do you have a

bathroom

I can use?


Slowly,

he lifts a

stiff right arm

and

points

to the side of the

building.


He doesn’t say

a word.


His gaunt face is

without

expression.


He isn’t looking

at me,

but

he isn’t looking

at anything else,

either.


I say,

thanks,

and run

to the side

and

find the

bathroom.


The door

doesn’t

close.


The light

is

burned out.


There is no

sink,

just holes

in the wall

where

a sink

used to be.


There is a toilet.

I use it,

and

it flushes.


I dash back

to the car.


Victor is sitting

stiffly

in the driver’s seat.


I hop back in the car.

You got the car gassed up

fast,

I say.


Buckle up,

Victor says,

quick,

I want to get

out of here.


I buckle up.


They don’t have

any gas,

he says.


The gas station

doesn’t have any

gas?

I say.


Nope,

he says.


I take one look

back

at the four of them.


Something

bitter

drips

down my

throat.



I squeeze

Victor’s leg.


Hurry!

I say.




We are crossing an immense steel bridge that feels like a gate to Pandora’s box. The girders are silvery and almost sparkle in the sunlight. As we glance through the steel guide ropes, the magic city reveals herself.

New York. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps.

Haunting Bombay is a…?

Literary ghost story.  It is also a mystery and a love story.  Some call it historical fiction.  It’s set in 1960s India.

Hi, Laurie.  It’s Mom.  What are you doing?

Hi, Mom. I’m…working on a self-interview for a website that is going to run a nice segment on my new book.

 

Is this the book about the ghost? Why did you write a book about a ghost? That’s stupid. You can’t even see them. That’s like writing a book that’s not even really there. James Patterson never wrote a book about ghosts and he’s very successful.

I know he is.

 

He’s my favorite writer.

I know he is.

 

You should write books like James Patterson does.

(Silence.)

 

You know?

Yeah.

 

His titles are so catchy, like Cat and Mouse, Jack and Jill and Pop Goes the Weasel. You should use titles like that, titles you can remember instead of Ghost….Ghost…Ghost the Friendly Ghost? Is that what you called it?

Spooky Little Girl, Mom. It’s called Spooky Little Girl.

 

I don’t know why you wrote a ghost book. That’s stupid. What could you say that Patrick Swayze didn’t already say in the movie?

This isn’t a book about I wrote a book about ghosts because my dental hygienist told me an incredible story about her friend, Lucy Fisher, who was kicked out of her house by her boyfriend and lost her job in the same week. The next week, she moved to a different city to live with her sister, and her first day there, she was hit by a bus and killed. But none of her friends knew it, although they thought they kept seeing her places or hearing her voice. It was crazy to me that a person could just disappear like that; Lucy’s friends didn’t find out she had died until long after she met with the bus. We think we’re so “plugged in” with our cell phones, email, Skype, chats, contact lists, but the truth is that given the right set of circumstances, any one of us could vanish just like that—and some people wouldn’t find out for months, or a year. I wanted to take the perspective of Lucy and run a little crazy with it. In Spooky Little Girl, Lucy’s unexpected death lands her in ghost school, where she has to learn the parameters of haunting with other “surprise demisers”; how to get things done, communicate with the living and successfully complete her assignment—with a touch of revenge–without being noticed and exorcized by a dirty fake psychic hippie that keeps lurking around and has the capacity to launch Lucy into the unknown for eternity.

 

Is Whoopi Goldberg in it? You should put her in your book. You should tell your boss that. When does the book come out?

No, Whoopi Goldberg is not in the book, but there is a somewhat wicked grandmother ghost who likes to pinch the rump of another lady in the book who is not very nice. Grandma’s a pincher. She likes to pinch bad people when they’re on the potty, mess around with their images in digital picture frames, steal socks and battle nosy mailmen. So there really wasn’t room for Whoopi Goldberg; I already have a full house of ghosts, ex-boyfriends and some crazy bitches. The book comes out April 13. On Tuesday.

 

Oh. Then you have time to put Whoopi in. You put Whoopi Goldberg on anything and it will sell. Look at what she did for The View.

The book is finished and printed; you know this, you have a copy. Besides, where would I even put that sort of character in the story? Where did you think I needed Whoopi Goldberg?

 

(Silence).

(Silence).

 

(Silence).

You didn’t read the book.

 

I’m reading….something else. I have to finish that one first.

Let me guess. Step on a Crack or When the Wind Blows?

 

No. But you should really change your book mugshot to something outdoorsy and sporty, like—

Sarah Palin? Holy shit. Are you reading Going Rogue instead of my book?

 

She’s an inspiration. She has five children, a job and kills her own meat, probably every day.

So if I kill something, you’ll read my book? Next time I come to your house, I’m stealing five Ambien out of your pill bottle for reading that book.

 

She didn’t steal those clothes. They were a gift. Anyway. You still using too much salt?

Yes. When I smell burning hair, I’ll stop, but if you keep talking about Sarah Palin, I will probably have a vein burst in my head concurrently. Huh. What’s this? A nosebleed…?

 

Did you get electrolysis yet?

I’ll pluck today. When I’m done with this interview.

 

Oh, yeah. We’re done.

 

 

 

The night sky smells of rain, but there’s no rain, there is to be no rain tonight, and this makes me think of ghosts and their smells, ghosts and meteorology, which of course stirs me to think of lightning; how one’s hair must smell after being struck in someone else’s country, long after the street-food stalls have closed, and options are limited, and there’s too much sulfur in your blood. I’m hungry and irrational, and after we dump our suitcases in the room, Louisa takes my hand, leads me to the marble stairs and we go down, down, down to find food.

Blood sugar dropping like sycamore leaves in a hurricane, I begin babbling about lightning, smells of rain. Louisa has gotten used to this. Back in Chicago, with its chemotherapies and countless scans, with its bald-mother heads and deflated fathers, I was like this most of the time.

“You know, men are struck by lightning four times more often than women,” I say, our footsteps booming in the after-hours hotel, the old eagle reincarnate thumbing through a magazine behind the front desk. Even though he wears reading glasses, his nose is nearly pressed to the page. I resist the temptation to make some “eagle-eye, my ass” joke, and stick, perhaps irrationally, to lightning.

“Do men spend more time outdoors?” I ask, “holding lightning rod-like things, like golf clubs? Or is lightning drawn to testosterone?”

“Weather must be a woman,” Louisa confirms, and I know, I just know she resists her own temptation to say something about the penis as antenna.

“Well, I’m fucked,” I say.

Louisa pulls me past the old man at the front desk—she knows my compulsion to strike up a conversation, show off my shattered Spanish, will outweigh even my lust for food right now, to my blood sugar’s detriment. Soon, we’re on the street, surprisingly quiet for a metropolitan area of nearly 21 million people. It is, I suppose, a Tuesday night in December—Wednesday morning really. Graffiti slithers along the buildings’ bases, day-glo snakes rushing for their holes—eyeballs commingling with lowercase Gs, whose tails extend like tongues. Either this graffiti is unusually erotic, or my need for food is approaching desperate, critical. Only hospital designations will do…

We choose the first open restaurant we see, a small beacon of muted yellow light a couple blocks from the Rioja. It’s Potzolcalli, and we’re among the last two tables of their night. In their overblown laminated menus, and table tents advertising fluorescent drink specials, the place strikes me as the Friday’s of Mexico, a bit cookie cutter. I’m not surprised to later learn the place has 18 outlets throughout Mexico City, but am immediately sated not only by the proximity to food, the smell of roasting corn driving the phantom-rain back into the atmosphere’s afterlife, but by the decor, rife with big-eyed clay animals, half burnt candles dripping their red wax down the yellow walls, giant wooden chairs with armrests wide enough for our legs, carved Metapec life trees capturing, in pottery, the seductive árbol from which Adam and Eve biblically suckled.

In situations like this, I typically order what I don’t know, welcoming the surprise, even if it is less than tasty. This had led, of course, to many a food-borne illness. But perhaps the same chemical that makes me vulnerable to lightning can successfully fight gustatory bacteria, allowing me always to eat and eat and eat another day.

I order a mysterious elixir called Garañona, which, the skinny twenty-something waiter assures me, his cheekbones poking from his face like chicks too weak to break the membrane egg, contains about a dozen herbs and barks, lots of sugar, and serious aphrodisiac properties. He transfers this last description across language by pumping his fist horizontally through the air, surely coupling with the windblown dust mites.

“Oh, great,” Louisa protests, “That’s just what you need.”

Our eyes narrow with exhaustion and, in this light, we feel airborne ourselves, and microscopic, dizzy with the first eight years of our marriage, uncovering the world with each other, and in each other, excavating with our tiny brushes the small truths in small sanctuaries, wherein all we can do is consume together, two cannibals against the world, all food the border we must balance upon between civility and the civil right to voraciousness; to eat and to eat each other. Our eyes narrow, and I think we realize all this, wordlessly in travel-and-hunger dementia, love ardor, and that smell of roasting corn. This, even before we leash our bodies to the weather of tonight, the next eight years, and the Garañona, and cerveza Bohemia and strawberry milkshake and tacos with carne asada, tinga, pollo con mole poblano, cerdo con mole verde, chicharron, epazote and sweet pickled onion…

Memory can be like a magician’s trick; part sleight of hand, part smoke and mirrors. It’s real but it’s not real. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse but you will never actually catch the trick.

So it is with music. There’s a song that I don’t know the name of, but if I hear even two bars of it – it reduces me to a quivering wreck.  It was the song that was playing on the radio when I found the lifeless body of my kitten that had been squashed flat by a gas tank. I was about eleven years old when this happened and despite the resulting trauma, I count myself lucky that that the song playing was an obscure electronica piece. I’d have been fucked if it had been something really popular like Spandau Ballet’s ‘True,’ which still gets a lot of airplay even now.

Music can ignite memory, but it’s scent that really burns you up.

I keep a tiny bottle of worn-out perfume in my secret drawer. I’m nearly twice as old as it is, but its musty smell holds my younger years hostage. It was the first perfume I bought with my own money. The name on the label has worn off but I think it was called something like Rampage or Tigress - whatever it was called, it was $6.95 worth of chic in a bottle.

I have to ration my smelling of it these days. The more air that gets in, the more the magic disappears. I take furtive sniffs of it and it’s like a fragrant time machine. It transports me straight back to 1988. The images flicker past me and in that tiny stolen second, I can actually taste that very first kiss I shared with Adrian Keeling on the school sports field. I can see the grass that is giving up its colour and turning a lazy shade of green, smell the almost bloody tang of the freshly upturned dirt, see his unlined face so very close to mine and inhale the aroma of his freshly laundered shirt as he leans in toward me.

You cannot really capture moments like this. Memory is just not enough to hold them. You can photograph a moment but the image only exists in your eyes, it doesn’t overwhelm your entire body. A photograph can capture an expression but rarely, an essence.

I have such a photo on my wall. It’s of the young man I kissed in that field. The camera has caught him in a half-turn. He is slightly unshaven, his hair is in his face and there’s a faraway look in his eye.

The portrait is a perfect moment in time. In this moment, he has his whole life ahead of him. He’s training to be a pilot. He’s been spending his weekends notching up the flight hours and he’s always careful not to get a speeding ticket when he drives his car, just in case it hurts his chances to get his stripes.

He’s serious about flying but he’s also one of the funniest people I know.

He gets drunk as often as he eats banana splits. He likes to tell the story of how his parents drove past him one night on their way home as he lay passed out in the gutter with just his green trench coat on.

They remarked to each other that the boy in the gutter looked a lot like Adrian. They had to reverse when they realised it was in fact, their only son. Together they lugged him into the car, furtively looking around in case the neighbours happened to be watching. He always laughs at this, no matter how many times he tells it.

Adrian has a particular way of speaking. He won’t call a bruise a bruise if he can get away with calling it a hematoma. He collects phrases like some people collect stamps. He’s mastered the art of the chuckle, showing off his dimples with a glint in his eye that you’re never quite sure of.

But his humour is always kind. He’s never quick to cut you down.

He hates Jethro Tull. He doesn’t liking visiting a good friend of ours because sometimes when she’s maudlin she will play the flute. He’d rather stay at home and watch Quadrophenia and recite all the lines. He wears his green trench coat in homage to the movie. I hate the film but I don’t tell him that.

He has a long standing joke with me. My family home is near the sea and the windows are always salt-crusted and smeary. They’re too high for me to clean. Adrian tells my mother that he will come around and clean the windows for her. He promises this every time we speak.

“Tell your mum, I’ll be round to clean the windows,” he says.

He went to Japan for a skiing holiday. He got homesick and called me up. We talked about the food and the language and at the end of the phone call he told me to tell my mother he’d be round to clean the windows as soon as he got back.

He got home, but the windows remained dirty.

We went to a party one night and he got bored and started doodling on a scrap of paper. He’d just turned twenty-three and was unsure what he might want to do next. He could either go back to flying school or spend the winter living at a local ski-field, working for his parents. He thinks he might like this. When he has finished talking, I take a look at what he’s drawn. It’s a picture of him driving a snow-groomer with an avalanche of snow coming down on him like a wave.

Some weeks after this, I walk downstairs in the early morning to collect the newspaper at the gate. There is a piece of paper lying in my path. It’s been blown in from the street. I pick it up and turn it over to read. It’s a homemade advertisement for a window cleaner.

‘Need your windows cleaned? Call 326 7901′

I think nothing of it.

Later, when the call comes telling me that Adrian has been killed in a freak snow-grooming accident on the ski-field, I think about that piece of junk advertising that somehow made its way onto my path. In all the years I have lived in that house, there’s never been a stray bit of paper that’s found its way past the heavy gates. I think it must have been Adrian, using his now not-needed breath to blow one last joke to me. I force myself to laugh in his honour, but I don’t really feel it.

I don’t want to see him dead, but his parents have taken his broken body and placed him in their sitting room where all his friends have gathered. I say that I want to remember him alive. Remember him soft and nervous, in that field where we first kissed. Or even bored and slightly drunk, at that party where he drew his own death. I don’t want to see him in his coffin.

But they tell me I should. For closure, they say. It will help me in the days ahead to accept that he’s really gone. I feel myself pulled along on a wave of well-meaning arms and I don’t resist until I’m standing over his body.

When I see him, I can’t help myself. I kneel down beside him and stroke his face with my forefinger. My body has stored the memory of how his skin felt and what I touch now – I don’t recognise. I make myself look at his face. It doesn’t look like Adrian. The undertakers have stitched up his skin with coarse black cotton. I think that they could have done a better job. The stitches are ugly and rough and I am angry they haven’t taken more care. He is wearing a baseball cap, which he never would have worn if he were alive. I suppose it’s to hide the injuries. This body that I once wrapped my arms around in the summer heat is now twisted from the impact of the winter snow that fell upon him and claimed him.

As I look at his body, I feel something rising up in me. It’s terror. I’m afraid for him, for what he may have felt in his last moments. I don’t want him to have been scared. I move my eyes from his freshly scarred face and they come to rest on his hands.

And they are perfect.

Icy cold, but perfect. I know these hands like the back of my own and there’s not a scratch or a bruise or a hematoma even, on them. Seeing his hands gives me immediate peace. He didn’t know what was coming. He didn’t have time to raise his arms and shield his beautiful face. He drew his death on a scrap of paper but it spared him having to look right at it when it came calling.

I’m grateful for this. It’s enough.

And I’m grateful for his picture that never ages on my wall. Inside his frame he remains forever twenty-three. I’m now fourteen years older than he’ll ever be and the nearest I can get to him is through a tiny bottle of perfume that belies its cheapness by holding something valuable and precious inside.

It’s the scent of youth. Of stolen kisses in an empty sports field. It’s the scent of a summer that will never give up its secrets to the coming winter chill.


My grandma Ruth is, in memory, among other sour smells, canned salmon and mothballs. She kept the latter in every enclosed space of her East Meadow, New York home, the home my father lamentably declared cost her less than he had just paid for his 1984 Datsun 300ZX.He had his mid-life crisis a bit early and, in addition to purchasing the car, he began dyeing the early gray out of his beard. I had not, and still haven’t, ever seen him clean-shaven. Grandma Ruth was his mother, and as my own mother, still young with still-unpermed hair, shuffled my younger sister and me into the red, red kitchen, weary after our flight from Chicago, that combination of smells was the first thing to greet us.

Invariably, the pantry door would be open, stocked with boxes of Froot Loops and Cookie Crisp, the “sugar” cereals that my mother would not allow us kids to have at home. And behind these boxes, carefully tied sachets of mothballs, their camphor stink commingling with the salmon patties Grandma Ruth always flipped in the kitchen, whenever we first arrived from Chicago. My mom hated them. My father, on the other hand, thought they were the living end.

Ruthie was a spectacle of a woman—a hunchbacked Jewish grandmother with dyed orange hair, thick swaths of baby blue eyeshadow, and garish, bubblegum pink lipstick. I’m sure she hid the true nature of her skin behind other powders and creams and greases, but that revolting blue, and that sick pink remain the most indelible. Her morning routine reflected her dedication to face-paint. Before my family could leave the house for our typical diner breakfast, we would have to wait for Ruthie to complete her ninety-minute make-up routine.

She would allow me, after five minutes of obligatory, playful protest, to photograph her, newly made-up, with my Polaroid Pronto SX-70, in a series of unflattering poses—her eyes narrowed and tongue hanging out, her cheeks puffed and hands fanned, thumbs wedged into her ears, her mouth scowling, pointer shoved up her nostril in some bitter defiance—maybe against me, or her coming death, or my father’s bellowing for her to hurry up her Clairol-sponsored procedure.

No matter: she is canned salmon, mothballs, and chalky rouge. I still smell the ghosts of her salmon patties every time my wife, Louisa, opens a can of tuna in our Michigan kitchen. Last night, we had a variation on pastaputtanesca (virtually the only time we use any sort of canned fish—and the tuna is imported from Italy and packed in olive oil—so that’s okay, right?), that Campanian dish of stunning “dirty” flavors reputed to have been created by Neopolitan whores.

This afternoon, sitting under the porch overhang in the backyard, watching the early-March rain thicken to an embryonic snow, I ate the leftovers and was again transported to that kitchen in New York, bearing those illicit cereals and a red Naugahyde breakfast nook that squeaked so loudly whenever we shifted our weight. I saw my mother making her “gag me” face as my father eagerly devoured a plate of salmon patties; saw my sister laughing, her mouth carrying a small vacancy—her first lost baby-tooth.

At about the same time Ruthie died, my sister got engaged to be married and my mother bought a new car. This was about six years ago. It was a shockingly hot summer day in Chicago. The news had been warning the elderly and parents of small children to stay inside, crank-up the air conditioner. I remember hearing about a bunch of people dropping dead, people who didn’t heed the advice, or didn’t own an air conditioner.

In this heat, my mother and sister drove the suburban streets to the wedding dressmaker. My sister was due for a fitting. My mom, who by now, after chemotherapy, was sporting a cropped curly hairdo, drove the Honda CRV, odometer proudly boasting its infancy. This was a car my Grandma Ruth would never get to ride in—another in a series of cars that, like certain foods, restaurants, dishes, seem to mark the pockets of my life by the mile.

They pulled into the parking lot; one of those lots that fronts a busy street. My mom hated those—hated having to reverse directly into traffic. The sky was a cracking blue. My mom opened the driver’s-side door and stepped out into the sun. My sister opened the passenger side door, and, excited to see the alterations that had been done on her dress, leapt onto the burning asphalt. Something, as yet unknown, materialized inside the car, tumbled mid-air, end-over-end, to the floor of the front passenger side, and rolled under the seat.

They had both, in periphery, seen it.

“What was that?” my mom asked.

“I don’t know,” my sister replied, and was already bending into the car, reaching with her arm beneath the passenger seat.

What she retrieved was small enough to fit into her hand, to disappear if she closed her fingers around it. What she retrieved was slender and warm. She held it up so my mom could see—a black plastic tube of lipstick with a clear top. Already the sun had started to burn the backs of their necks. They both knew right away, cocked their heads like a dog’s at the tea kettle’s steam-whistle. My sister lifted the clear top and, spilling into the summer air between them, a plume of scent—mothballs, salmon patties, chalk. The lipstick was that sloppy sick pink that Ruthie so favored, wore proudly with her blue or green or purple or orange papier-mâché earrings that she would purchase every winter at the Thunderbird flea market in south Florida. My sister peered into the tube as if to find an easy answer, and saw that the lipstick had been pushed down as if with a finger.

Ruthie came of age during the Great Depression, her father was a furrier and, like so many, had little money. As such, Ruthie never wasted a thing. I remember watching her, so many mornings in New York, as she dipped her finger into a near-empty tube, and wiped the pink dregs over her lips.

So, they both knew. Still, my sister felt compelled to say, aloud, “This is Grandma’s,” as if to test the cosmos. But the cosmos had said enough, opened the nebula like a mail slot, pushed this lipstick through.

At the wedding ceremony, my parents and sister organized to have a seat in the front row left open. On that seat, bearing witness, so small in such a large sea of white cloth drape, sat Ruthie’s supernatural tube of lipstick. This capped channel. This black plastic tunnel with pink light at its end. Perhaps it’s best that she attended in this incarnation. She wouldn’t have approved of the wedding food. As someone who once declared (to my passionate dismay) that she’d rather eat leftover pizza crusts than the black-olive oil poached salmon she ordered at a gourmet restaurant in Chicago, she would have labeled my sister’s choice of hors d’oeuvres “too fancy.”

As much as my mom and sister knew that day, I know. The ghosts are watching. The ghosts of people. The ghosts of food. Every time I eat cold leftovers on a porch on the cusp of a Midwestern spring, I know. Though I have become what many call a “food snob,” I realize that there is often honor in food I would normally dismiss. Honor, because these foods, however processed and modified, bear the weight of memory. Maybe not mine, but someone’s. As long as food is loved, who’s to say it’s not good food? Surely these culinary outcasts can join the ranks somehow—I certainly don’t want to offend any ghosts. So once in a while, because of salmon patties, canned tuna.

When Ruthie succumbed to Alzheimer’s a couple years before her death, she began craving foods she shunned for most of her adult life—foods she loved as a child: pies, chocolates, matzo brei with plenty of sugar. The rules had changed. So if sensory desires can circle back, if the present can twist and spiral and revisit the past, overlapping just slightly, perhaps with just a little imaginative alchemy, we can make of the mundane something gourmet. A larger-than-life grandmother. A Froot Loop soufflé.

Paranoid Mode

By Irene Zion

Essay

There are actually two stories involved in Sara refusing to ever help us out again. They both involve the infamous NANA, of nail scissor fame.

In the first, we asked Sara, who was in college, but on summer break, to please come home for a weekend to watch the animals, and be home for my mother just in case something untoward would happen. My mother lived with us and I took care of her for ten interminable years. My mother at this time was living one block away in a Retirement Village. She tended to have “incidents.”

The bottom three kids: Tim, Lenore and Ben were in summer camp and it was Parents’ Weekend. (Lonny was in Cambridge, England, I think, studying something artsy.) We were gone for four days, what with the driving up to and back from the wilds of Wisconsin, land of fudge and lakes. This was, (are you young ones even aware of this?) a time before cell phones and computers. She agreed to come. We left for Wisconsin. (FOUR FRIGGING DAYS!)

My father had actually pulled me aside when he was alive, (I know that seems obvious, but we are a strange family,) to ask me to promise that we would never ever, ever, under any circumstances, take my Mom into my house or my town, no matter what. I promised. Then my mother had a heart attack in Brooklyn and was left on a gurney in the hospital where she worked as an RN for umpteen years, for an entire weekend. Then on Monday a doctor saw her and told her that she had had a heart attack. How could I keep my promise to my father when my mother spent the weekend on a gurney in the hall of a hospital and wasn’t seen by a doctor for three days when she had actually had a heart attack and didn’t find out for three days? We moved my toxic mother to Champaign. I had to break my promise to my Dad. They were planning a retirement home a block away. She was one of the first to sign up for an apartment. She could have had any apartment she wanted. She lived with us until it was built a couple of years later, then after she moved in she hated it and moved to a different apartment. She hated that one too.

If you want to drive in Illinois, you must get an Illinois drivers license. That means a written test and also a driving test.. My mother wanted to drive in Illinois. My Mother failed the driving part it in the huge metropolis of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, so her friends told her to go to a small town nearby and take the test there. She passed. In my thinking that meant that she really only had a license to drive in a tiny small town with no traffic whatsoever. But, what do I know? Logic does not seem to be the driving force in the machinery of Government.

In this tiny four day interval in time, when we went to Wisconsin and asked Sara to be there, my mother got into her first and only car accident. It was massive. Her car was totaled, and, because she was old and befuddled, the Police gave HER the ticket, when, seriously, it was not her fault. (I would be the FIRST person to tell you if it had been, trust me on this.) So Sara had to deal with my mother and the Police and it was assuredly not pleasant. On the other hand, no one was hurt. Things could have been worse. Sara did not see it this way. She was very angry with us.

But it turns out that that was just a practice run for Sara.

The next time we asked Sara to watch the animals was when we had a chance to finally go somewhere. There was a retinal meeting in Israel. We had FIVE children. We never had time to go ANYWHERE. It was only ten days. Across the entire world, for TEN FRIGGING DAYS. (I’m sorry, I think I’m shouting. I apologize.) Tim and Lenore were at regular camp and Ben was, naturally, at Science camp. I believe that Lonny was at NYU doing something artsy. The only place we ever went was Wisconsin for Parents’ Weekend. I really wanted to go somewhere exotic where the economy was not dependent on fudge. Israel was genuinely unconventional and they were not into fudge. Sara agreed, reluctantly, but she agreed. Ten days in our house watching the animals with the slight but inescapable possibility of another “incident” with NANA.

We flew two million miles to get to Israel. We flew El Al. Those people really know how to keep people safe. They separated Victor and me and asked us questions to make sure we were not terrorists. This was fine with us, since we were not terrorists, rather we were tourists and we were realty hoping to fly on a flight that was entirely full of tourists and terrorist-free. Some woman on the flight got sick and had to get off after we had boarded, so we had to wait for them to find her baggage and remove it, since her baggage might very well have been C-4 in a suitcase. We felt so safe.

When we finally arrived in Israel, it was hours before the room would be ready. We had had no sleep and Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State at the time, was staying at our hotel. There was a lot of security. There were dogs everywhere. I said to Victor:

“Look, honey, we could have brought our dogs! This is a really dog-friendly country.”

Victor then explained that they were bomb-sniffing dogs and our dogs would probably not qualify. Oddly, this came as a huge surprise to me. I was not in paranoid mode yet. We discovered that every time we got on an elevator a very huge burly man with a big bulge on his hip accompanied us. None of these burly men ever got off on our floor. They just escorted us. Victor had to explain that to me too. I was still not in paranoid mode.

Victor and I visited all the requisite sites for tourists and were having the time of our lives. I loved seeing the teenagers in uniform walking around with uzis. We were never afraid for one minute the whole time we were there.

Halfway into our visit we ate somewhere where it was unwise to eat. We were very open-minded. (Did I say we were not in paranoid mode yet?) We got a case of food poisoning the likes of which we have, gratefully, never seen again. To be delicate, let’s just say that we needed a two-bathroom hotel room. The both of us were very, very sick for four days.

We were in Israel, in our hotel room, alternately running to the bathroom all day and all night. In the middle of the night at about the third day of our poisoning,

THE PHONE RANG.

This was Israel. We didn’t know anyone, and yet the phone rang. That was when I switched into paranoid mode.

“Mom, is that you?” asked Sara.

“Uh, yup, it’s me,” I answered, “ What are you doing calling Israel in the middle of the night?”

“I am never doing anything for you and Daddy for the rest of my life,” she said.

“Uh huh, and why is that?” I asked.

“I AM NOT MAKING NANA HAVE HER FOOT AMPUTATED!” she yelled.

‘THIS IS NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR!” she yelled.

“Uh huh,” I said. “What exactly do you mean?” I asked, needing to make a run to the bathroom.

“Here!” she said. “Talk to the doctor!” She handed the phone to a surgeon.

“Your mother has no circulation to her right foot and gangrene has set in,” the disembodied voice said.

“If we amputate now, we can get a below-the-knee, which is, naturally, far superior to an above-the-knee.” The voice said.

In the background, I heard my mother yelling:

“YOU WILL NOT CUT OFF MY FOOT!”

The disembodied, apparently medical voice said:

“Your mother does not want the amputation. She says she wants to die. This is precisely what will happen if she does not get the amputation immediately.”

Then.

Then my mother got on the phone.

“If you interfere with this I will never forgive you,” she said.

“It is none of your business,” she said.

“I want to die NOW,” she said.

“This has nothing to do with you!” she said.

“If you hadn’t left me in the lurch none of this would have happened!” she said.

“This is all your fault!” she said.

“I will never forgive you!” she repeated.

I said: ”Mom, the doctor said that you will die without the surgery. Your foot has gangrene. You need to have the surgery right away or you will be left with the far harder above-the-knee prosthesis, or, what’s even worse, you will absolutely permanently die!” I pleaded.

“I damn you to hell, Irene!” she said to me.

”I hope you die in a plane crash!” she said.

“I always hated you and knew you would ruin my life,” she said.

“Mom, please let me talk to the doctor again,” I asked.

The doctor told me that she would die an appallingly horrific death without the amputation and that time was of the essence as she already had gangrene and sepsis was likely to set in very soon and death would surely result and it would be a painful death.

“Your mother does not appear to be of sound mind and it is up to you to decide,” the doctor said.

“But there was nothing wrong with her when we left.” I protested.

”Well, there’s certainly something wrong now and she will die if you don’t decide to save her right now,” said the doctor.

“Amputate her foot,” I said.

Sara got back on the phone and said:

“I will never forgive you.” (If you are counting, that made two people in my family who said they would never forgive me inside of a few minutes while I was on vacation, sick as a dog, two million miles away.)

“But Sara, Nana was fine when we left,” I said. “We had no way to know this would happen”

“You will never get me to do anything for you for the rest of your lives!” Sara said.

“You are acting as if I planned this to happen, Sara. She was perfectly fine when we left,” I reiterated.

“I may never speak to you again,” she said, and hung up the phone.

I ran to the bathroom.

Victor was already in the bathroom.

“I need to use that toilet you are on,” I said

“”So do I,” he said, “That’s why I’m on it.”

“I just told some surgeon to amputate Mom’s foot, against her will,” I said. “It was gangrenous and she would have died of sepsis in the most horrible way, the doc said, so I gave my permission because he said she was nuts and only I could save her life.”

“She’s really going to be pissed,” he said.

“How long are you going to be on there?” I asked.

“Not long,” he said.  “Why didn’t you just let her make the decision?”

“The doc said she could get a great prosthesis below the knee and she’d be just like new,” I explained.  “If we waited at all she’d need an above the knee and that’s way harder to get used to, and if we waited any longer then she would die of sepsis.”

“Are you done yet?” I asked.

“Not yet,” he answered.

“So?” he said.  “Why do you want to get in the middle of this? She’s made her decision.”

“Because my mother will die if I don’t,” I answered. If I knew then what I know now, I would have just let Mom die. It would have been better than what followed, but how was I to know that then?

When we were well enough to travel, we flew back to Champaign. Sara was still very angry, as though we had set the whole thing up just to trap her. My mother alternated screaming at me that I had ruined her chance to see my father, (my father was already 10 years in the ground at this time,) and turning her face to the wall to shun me. She only had one foot.

The saga of my mother does continue, but this is as far as I’m going to go this time. It is remarkably draining.


93 Comments »

Comment by John P |Edit This
2008-11-05 18:08:14

Oh…..My…..God……….!

Did they amputate with nail scissors, or did they use proper doctory-like tools?

I’m drained just from reading that.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-05 19:25:26

Well, John P, I was not there, since I was a million miles away, but I’m pretty sure that the surgeons did the operation and not my mother, since she was pretty much set against having it. Surgeons tend to l like their toys and they are shiny and clean. Had it been her idea, I would’ve gone with the nail scissors as a guess.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 10:17:15

Are there two John Ps or do you have two pictures that look nothing like each other?

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Comment by Pamela Norinsky |Edit This
2009-04-02 04:20:48

OMG what a disturbing story! I remember you telling me how life was with your mother but I never imagined her to be as evil as you had related to me. My deepest sympathies to you for having to endure your mother’s craziness. I thought my mother was crazy but now realize yours had a monopoly on crazy.

My mother had at one point also refused to have bypass surgery for her leg and wanted to die instead. My brother, Aaron told her he would commit her and I cried my eyes out until she decided it would be best for all concerned if she had the bypass. She is now 84 and I believe thankful she had the surgery!

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Comment by lonny |Edit This
2008-11-06 02:46:17

i agree with this person

i thought i was going to read a light hearted story
about police or drunken pigs or some such thing

but when it was about nana i knew it was going to be draining
perhaps someone should charge my mom
for the time i mean

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 05:08:02

Not every story is milk and honey and puppy dogs.

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Comment by Josie |Edit This
2008-11-06 11:10:40

Watch out for the mile and honey and puppy dogs… That’s how she lures you back again!!!

lol

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 17:20:31

Josie! You are giving my secrets away! Bad, bad Josie!

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2008-11-05 19:15:30

Ok I am dumfounded. no words.

Woah…….and that is about it.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-05 19:26:42

Oh, but Melissa, there is so much more. I’ll need to scatter this story among the really funny stuff so I can get through it with some semblance of sanity.

Comment by Melissa (Irene’s friend) |Edit This
2008-11-07 14:10:45

Funny,,,,,,,,I thought it was going to be a story like when my grandpa ran into a bus bench with his car. Then went to court and told the judge he was nuts, he was never in an accident and they were just out to get him.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-07 15:56:27

Melissa,
Just because a person is old does not make an accident his fault. All these evil people will become old themselves and it will come back to haunt them!
Poor Grandpa!

Comment by keiko |Edit This
2008-11-05 19:22:00

that was intense. that’s it for me.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-05 19:27:29

Keiko, you work with weird stuff every day. You are stronger than that! Give it another shot.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 06:30:03

What a bunch of wusses. (Can you say that anymore?) Okay, what a bunch of Pansies. (Oh. Can you say that anymore?) How about Namby-Pamby? I know! You are a bunch of yellow-bellies! (Wait. That can be insulting too.) I’ll just call you sissies. I’m not sure you can say that either, though. God, I NEED a new rule book!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-07 15:58:10

Keiko, you are a chickenshit.
(But I love you anyway.)

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2008-11-05 19:42:46

i believe i’ve mentioned my theory about those so-called vitreous society meetings….

anyway, nana was crazy and mean. at least she was more interesting to look at after the amputation. i never liked her.

i bet i become her.

<3

sara didn’t mean it…she was young and she probably thought nana sucked, too.

Comment by lonny |Edit This
2008-11-06 02:57:44

nana was always nice to me

she used to always bring me cashews – which i like a lot
tim or lenore would ask ‘why dont we get anything’

nana would say ‘no i only brought something for lonny’
hell yeah – i rule

i have nothing but fond memories of her cookies and getting us chinese food
oh and when we used to go to red lobster and all she ate was hush puppies
many
and she would put half eaten ones in her purse wrapped in napkins
the hush puppies i mean
she didnt wrap her purse in napkins – that would be silly

im not defending some of the horrible things nana thought it necessary to say to my mom
in fact just found out while reading this delightful little story

it was a typical upbringing
you know baskets full of potpourri, paintings of barns and lakes, lots of mayonnaise….

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 05:35:25

Oh Lonny, I know. You had something in you that made her just adore you. She actively disliked the other four children. This caused problems for them and for me, but you were the perfect child for her. At least she loved one of you. The sun rose and set in your eyes for her. It was good for you and good for her to have someone to love so completely and unquestioningly. Grandmothers are supposed to be this way, but they usually love all the grandchildren. Nana had a bit of a glitch there.

I forgot about the pilfering. She’d take anything, wrap it up in a napkin and go home. Back in the old days when they gave you silverware and plates on airplanes, she’d take those too. Her bag was always full of packets of sugar and sometimes she’d unscrew the tops of salt and pepper shakers and put in some piece of napkin and screw the tops back on and then put them in her purse.

She always seemed to need more. She didn’t need any of this stuff. She had plenty, but she had this hole she couldn’t fill.

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Comment by John P |Edit This
2008-11-06 12:12:47

We would go to Yosemite National Park on Christmas day every year when I was growing up in Fresno. Sometimes we ate lunch at the Ahwahnee hotel and my mom would steal their fancy silverware. Only one piece at a time, but we ended up with a couple of complete sets by the time I left for college.
I think the similarity between my mom and your mom stop there. Although I think her mom (my grandmother) had some of those crazy mean spirited tendancies, but she died when I was very young so I don’t remember.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 12:56:34

What is it that makes certain mothers steal stuff they don’t need right in front of their kids? I think it’s a very peculiar thing. Also curious is that it happens so much.

I’m glad your Mom was nice. You should tell her how you feel. I’m probably sounding like a broken record here, but if you wrote her a short note and mailed it to her she would clutch it to her breast and treasure it the rest of her life. Promise, John P!

Comment by John P |Edit This
2008-11-10 10:19:52

I wish I could. She committed suicide in ‘98. I was only 22 and had just started grad school. I sure didn’t call or write enough when I had the chance.

Irene is right everyone – call your mothers and tell them how wonderful they are and how much you appreciate them while you still can. (Unless they are like her mom, then I’m not sure what you should do).

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-10 12:02:13

Oh John, I am so sorry!
No one thinks to call or write enough until they get old enough to wish people would call or write. You’re just a normal person. I’m sure she knew how you felt. Mothers always do, they just enjoy hearing it. I’m sorry that your Mom was in that much pain. I’m sorry that you have to carry that on your back for the rest of your life. That’s a heavy load at a young age.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 05:11:38

Sara was wonderful! She took on two jobs that were supposed to be easy breezy and ended up with the twilight zone. She’s probably gets a twinge every time she agrees to do something seemingly simple, all these years later.

Sometime I’ll go into why Nana was how she was. You’d forgive her. She didn’t mean it either. You can’t help it when you’re nuts.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 05:44:07

Lenore, can you imagine how hard it was for Sara, who is so GOOD, to do everything she could to please Nana and to be rebuffed? The rest of you took it in stride, but Sara always CARED so much. It broke my heart. (And she’s the one who got stuck with the “incidents!”) If you read this, Sara, I am unreservedly sorry!

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Comment by Christine |Edit This
2008-11-05 21:10:04

Good gravy! Your mom sounds like my mom during her “bad menopausal years,” only your mom was always in Mach 10 Bitch mode.

You are the polar opposite of that Irene…and I love ya!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 05:14:56

When I was raising my kids and I started to become frustrated I would always stop and take a breath and say to myself: “You are NOT your mother. You have patience. Relax and enjoy your wild beautiful children.” It worked pretty well, the fear of becoming my mother.

Comment by George |Edit This
2008-11-05 21:28:58

When your mother lost her foot, did you change her name from Rose to Ilene (i lean!!).

Comment by George |Edit This
2008-11-05 21:28:58

When your mother lost her foot, did you change her name from Rose to Ilene (i lean!!).

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 05:16:03

OUCH! George, that is such a lame joke!

Comment by ` |Edit This
2008-11-05 22:09:31

I really wanted to go somewhere exotic where the economy was not dependent on fudge.

Priceless, that one.

I, for one, am incredibly entertained by this story. My grandma got pretty mean at the end, too – only NANA has her beat by a landslide. I wonder if I will be mean and what horse froth I will spout at my children…

Comment by lonny |Edit This
2008-11-06 03:02:03

the fudge store in eagle river was really something

they made licorice of many flavors, jaw breakers of many sizes (up to just silly and wont even fit in ones mouth), rock candy, candy dots (which is sugar on paper- if you dont know), and of course fudge – lots and lots of fudge

yup

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 05:38:44

On Parents’ Weekend I think each person gained at least 5 pounds just from the Eagle River Fudge Store. The sugar smell would knock you right over when you walked in the door. I’m certainly happy we don’t have that where I live, what with having the metabolism of a person in a coma and all.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 05:23:09

Nana was under control, somewhat, when my Dad was alive. After he died, there was no one to say, (appropriately,) “Shut up, Rose!” Without him, she was an untethered tiger. Ten years of untethered tiger I was responsible for.

Sometimes old folks get really sweet. I’m hoping that will happen to you and me. My dog and I work at an old folks home and it’s mostly the sweet ones, only a few are mean and paranoid. We’ll be the kind of old folks that people WANT to visit!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 06:47:35

What happened to your name, Erika Rae?

2008-11-06 12:18:40

Hmmm. I think I was trying to go incognito. Or something.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 12:59:01

LOVE your new moniker! Who could ever forget it?

“Did you hear that Schmerika Schmrae got another book published?” I can hear it right now. Think how easy it would be to find your books on the shelves of the bookstores!

Comment by Josie |Edit This
2008-11-05 22:52:11

OK – that was quite a tale and I’m real sorry for you but dang it Irene – do not take me into the bathroom with you and your husband ever again, especially while he is on the pot!

I will never forgive you for the images you have left in my head!
I may never read you again.

:::Stomps out of the bathroom:::

And tell (Lenore’s dad) to light a match, will ya!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 05:25:55

Josie, I told it as it was. We were so sick when all this went down. I’m afraid the whole room stank, not just the bathroom. Wait, I think I just made it worse for you. Solution ahead:

I think eating ice cream washes those icky images from your mind. Go get some Chunky Monkey.

Comment by Josie |Edit This
2008-11-06 11:08:37

This is how you tricked Sara into round two, isn’t it?
I’m feeling like you’re setting me up for something here… like this whole thing is a trap…

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 13:03:30

Oh my poor Sara, the WORST things happened to her when she was the emergency person for my mother. No one should have to be in the positions she was in. The thing is that there was no warning, no hint anything could go wrong. She’ll probably hold it over my head forever.

Chunky Monkey, I promise. It will be all wiped from your memory.

Comment by ksw |Edit This
2008-11-06 06:08:53

A surgeon entered the room. Maam, he said, I have good news and bad news, which would you like first. The thoughtful woman replied, I would like to hear the bad news first so the good news will cheer me up.
You need to have your foot amputated immediately. Oh, my G, she said. Quick, tell me the good news.
Your roomate wants to buy your slippers.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 06:17:48

ksw, That is a really funny joke. (And in much better taste than the earlier one!)

I can always count on you to make me smile.

Comment by amanda |Edit This
2008-11-06 07:05:41

Ohhhh involuntary foot amputation, that’s a good one. In my family, that would totally be On The List.

My brother and I keep a running tally of “things we were denied as children”. It includes pony rides in our backyard on our birthday, a limousine for the grade 8 prom, being allowed to stand on top of the refrigerator, and so on. In order to make it onto the list, we need to witness someone else enjoying the thing, for instance my mom’s cat is allowed to wreck the joint without punishment, doesn’t have to clean up after himself, is served treats at least thrice daily. The neighbour’s kids have their own private bunk house in the yard, own tiny motorcycles, and get to use any language they please. When we see yet another thing for the list, we announce it by shouting to our mother, “That’s on the list, too!” “Also on the list!” “Put that on the list!” etc.

There is a companion list of “things we had to do which others did not”. Making major medical decisions for our grandmother, that would definitely be on this second list.

In fairness, I am sure my mother also keeps a list of “things I had to deal with at the hands of my children, which other mothers were spared”. I suspect this list includes “daughter having boyfriend with own apartment at age 16″, “daughter going gay for 9 years then switching back”, and “daughter getting first tattoo in friend’s basement at 16, hiding it under long-sleeved shirts till age 20, then proceeding to get several more to keep the first ugly one company.”

If you were to keep such a list, you would surely be entitled to add ALL events in your story to it, without delay.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 10:10:41

Amanda, I love your lists! I have to say that it never even occurred to me to even WANT to stand on top of the refrigerator. My kids didn’t think of it either. I’ll bet that is a singular wish, maybe peculiar to your family. (Not that I am intimating in any way that your family is peculiar. Seriously, who am I to even hint at peculiarity with my glass house?)

The things you had to do that others did not is a really hard one. Medical decisions for someone you love suck eggs. You can’t win. Nothing is the right choice.

My daughter, Lenore, (you probably already know her,) got herself her first tattoo in her junior year of High School. I assure you she did NOT look 18. It was horrendous. I didn’t see it for at least a year. I talked about it somewhere on TNB, but I forget where. It looked like a map of her ovary on the skin on top of her actual ovary. It was hideous. She had it changed into a quite beautiful hummingbird which is actually about 16 times life size. We call her tattoo girl now, for the sheer number of her tattoos.

Did you have any problems with getting yours in your basement? It doesn’t sound like the most sanitary of places for such an undertaking. Who did it? (Don’t say a friend, please.)

My lists are sort of amorphous blotches in my head. I don’t know what’s there until I start to write. (There’s probably a psychiatric term for that.)

Pets are universally treated better than kids. There’s a reason for that. Pets are WAY nicer. Ask anyone with both.

Comment by Dana |Edit This
2008-11-06 08:09:32

Wow. What a cantankerous old crank. But it makes for a great story! (I love your stories, even if I do tend to get a bit queasy at times.) What IS it with old people pilfering stuff from restaurants? I know a lot of people attribute it to living through the depression, but that’s true of a lot of people who don’t line their pockets with free napkins and condiments.
My now deceased mother-in-law never saw a jam display or Equal packet that she didn’t want to shove in her pocket. When we helped clean out her closets we found a little treasure in every pocket. )

I’m sorry your mom was mean. My grandfather was a monster and my mom is a saint. You and she are living proof that these cycles can be broken.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 10:16:01

Dana, I am so proud to have made you queasy! That’s a first for me and I think I should get some kind of award. GO ME!

Did your Mother-in-Law wrap leaky food up in napkins too and put it in her purse? That always got to me. Usually she actually carried around a baggie to put the napkin-wrapped food in, so her purse didn’t get all wet. Creepy behavior.

Tell your Mom today that you think she’s a Saint! Better still, write it in a little note and mail it to her. I swear she will cry and keep it forever. Trust me on this, Dana.

Comment by Tim |Edit This
2008-11-07 17:09:05

Hey, Ma

You remember how she used to get all her money in singles and carry around a huge wad of cash?

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-07 18:29:44

Yeah, I forgot that. Tim! It always made her feel like she had more money when the roll was thicker. HA! I like ones too. (uh oh for you guys!)

Comment by amanda |Edit This
2008-11-06 10:41:28

As described here, oh yes, the tattoo was done by a friend:

http://cakesandneckties.blogspot.com/2008/10/ouchy-ouch.html

It was an eyesore, and while my mother thinks “tattoo” is short-hand for “stupid ugly thing you did to ruin your perfectly pretty body and one day you and all your tattooed friends are gonna regret what you’ve done to yourselves”, she grudgingly prefers the cover-up to the original.

As for the fridge-scaling, well, in our house, all the “good” stuff was hidden in the cupboard above the fridge. Getting on top of it was the quickest route to raiding the supplies of candy, ribbons, scotch, elastics for pinging, cake decorations and loose coins (depending on the age of the climber, their interests and goals upon reaching the cupboard varied). The ban on actually getting right up there and rooting around, well, this was clearly unfair to those family members too short to reach the cupboard by any other way.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 11:00:37

I love your beetles, Amanda!
I believe I used those same words to my daughter, Lenore. Mother’s speak from the same handbook.

I can’t imagine a category to explain the range of strange things hidden above your fridge. Why would rubber bands be with the scotch? Why ribbons with the candy? This is stumping me. Did your mother just hide anything you guys wanted but couldn’t have up there? That would make sense.

Comment by amanda |Edit This
2008-11-06 12:44:00

Although my parents have moved house several times since we were small, there is STILL a cupboard that contains: a carton of wooden matches; three bottles of Johnnie Walker; sandwich bags; the scissors and pens; a sushi and sake service; massive sacks of potato chips; and some swizzle sticks.

Sometimes, when I am home visiting, I just stand there on a chair, gazing at that crazy top shelf. There is no explanation, none whatsoever, for this mingling of household goods.

The jar of rubber bands has been moved, to the cupboard that contains all the drinking glasses.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 13:30:26

Amanda, I love the way your mother thinks. It’s so unconventional. Now I’m going to puzzle over why the far of rubber bands moved to the cupboard with the drinking glasses. Why would you possibly need a glass and a rubber band at the same time? If the glass is broken, you can’t hold it together with a rubber band; it’ll still leak. I’m not going to give up. I’m going to think on this mystery. It’s good to have a mysterious mother!

Did you see below that Marcia had a friend whose mother padlocked all the food? At least you could move a chair and sneak up there when your mom was on the other side of the house. It was hard, but you still had a fighting chance.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 13:05:28

mothers! Where did that damn apostrophe come from? (Must learn to proof read!)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-07 16:04:16

and jar, not far. I MUST LEARN TO PROOF READ!

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Comment by Autumn |Edit This
2008-11-06 11:12:47

I enjoyed the story. That being said, I tend to lean toward misery when I choose my reading material. Not sure why that is.

My family would have done the same thing. My grandmother will turn 99 in December and she has become very bitter at times. But she still lives in her home (with hired help) and she never drove in her entire life so we never had to worry about that. She dotes on the great grandchildren now, as she once doted on us. That’s something anyway. She reserves most of her nastiness for my mother, who after years of spending AT LEAST two or three days a week with her, finally found someone to spend her time with. Since my mother has had a boyfriend, the last 6 years or so, my grandmother treats her as though she has abandoned her completely and is pretty mean to her most of the time. This despite the fact that my mother still makes it over there at least once a week to bathe her, fill her pillbox, etc. My uncle, whose home you can get to through my grams back yard, rarely sees her. Gram is much more understanding of him. The reason you ask? He is a man. That’s all it takes in my grandmother’s mind to absolve you of her disdain. Just have the right genitalia and you are off the hook. (although he has his hands full at home, but that’s another story)

Anyway, blah blah blah. Sorry, this is your story time, not mine. I want to know more.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 13:10:13

Oh Autumn, your poor Mom! The ungrateful ones can pierce your heart. I also have a brother. Ask me how much help he was to me for ten years. No, don’t. I can’t bear to start another draining story. I’ll write that sometime later. The story of the only child my mother wanted. Oh yes. Another time.

Tell your mother how wonderful she is. (Or just read advice I’ve written twice because I’m obsessed with this topic.)

Comment by Autumn |Edit This
2008-11-06 15:42:27

I try to make a point to remind my mom of how much I appreciate her so I hope she knows it. Phone calls, the occasional card in the mail for no reason. I’m sure she has her faults but to me, she’s pretty much achieved sainthood. I have nothing but adoration for her.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain about my grandmother since it wasn’t until her early 90’s that her attitude change went into effect. Even still she’s mostly pleasant as long as you have one of her great grandchildren in tow. I don’t have children so I tend to limit my visits to when my sister is heading over there too.

Whenever family members get to talking about her mean moments we sort of chalk it up to the fact that she has earned it by being wonderful all her life and making it as far as she has. If she’s bitter in her old age I suppose that I might be too. Most of her friends have died and her family is spread out and her husband has been gone for over 30 years. Really she’s just lonely, and that I can understand.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 17:15:00

Old is hard. So many of the people you love are dead and you feel like shit. Everything hurts and you can’t hear or see well. I think I’ll be pretty cranky if I get into my 90s. Since she was warm and kind for decades, she’s due a little slack. Borrow a friend’s kid and bring him over and say he’s yours. She’ll probably think she forgot and get all happy. How can it hurt?

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2008-11-06 11:16:43

It’s a compliment but I was tired after I read this.

We flew two million miles to get to Israel.

The old rabbi told me once that everywhere Torah says Israel you can insert your own name.
Israel is symbolic for God’s relationship with us.
Israel means,
One who struggles with God.

*

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 13:18:36

jmb, thank you.
I was emptied out when I wrote it, and it’s only the beginning of this particular story. I’ll need some sort of break. I’ll write about the worms in the Amazon or something. Something that doesn’t grab my stomach and pull it forcibly out.

I didn’t know about what the Rabbi told you. We have a Torah. I will try to read it that way and see what happens.

My relationship with God is a struggle.
So many questions unanswered.
and yet
and yet

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2008-11-06 13:36:10

And yet.

That’s what faith is, right? The and yet?

what’s that Leonard Cohen said?
love is not a victory march,
its a cold and its a broken Hallelujah….

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 13:47:03

Whoa. That’s beautiful.

Comment by Josie |Edit This
2008-11-06 19:59:26

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 20:10:46

Wow, Josie, that was stunningly beautiful. Thank you.

Comment by Marcia (former next-door neighbor in Illinois and frequent visitor to Florida) |Edit This
2008-11-06 11:22:36

When my mom was a child, she had a friend whose mom kept a padlock on the food cupboard in the kitchen. There was no between meal snacking in that house! I can’t even imagine living with someone like that. You need to tell the story about Nana visiting the in-laws in England. I have forgotten what happened but I know it was funny.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 13:20:48

A PADLOCK? That woman had control issues, Marcia!

Marcia how can you remember a story I forgot? Now I’ll have to get in touch with my brother.
Drat!

Comment by ben |Edit This
2008-11-06 14:40:15

I remember thinking that summer camp was required of us, like school. I thought the federal government mandated that I be without air conditioning and surrounded by suburban Chicago Jews for 8 weeks out of the summer.

That does not make much sense, but I was pretty little.

If I had known it was just to give you two some peace and quiet I would have protested.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 15:24:04

Oh Ben. You can think it was to give us peace and quiet, but, really, what kind of peace and quiet could we ever have being responsible for NANA?
We sent you to camp so you would learn about the outdoors and be with loads of kids and have fun. You lived in a city where there was NOTHING for you to in the Summer at all.
Instead of watching TV or playing video games, in your case, you were playing team sports and learning how to live with others without the interference of your mother. I know your father didn’t interfere, but I was incapable of not interfering. They have a name for that now: helicopter mothers. I know it. I’m sorry. It was impossible for me to be any different.
I hated when you all left. My nest was empty for all camp time. It was a preview of what was to come. If I had it to do over, I would have the kind of kids that never grow up. Best time of my life. Best.
We’ll see what you do when you have kids. Maybe you’ll let them play video games all summer and eat blue candy. I doubt it though. When you grow up and have kids everything changes. (For the better, I might add.)

Comment by Tim |Edit This
2008-11-07 17:05:26

Yea. No shit, Ben.

Why did we have to hang out in Eagle River? Wasn’t there a closer Jewish-athlete enclave we could’ve spent the summer in? I hate sports. Always have. At least you had the balls to ask to go to Jewish science camp instead.

You always did like going your own way. Shithead.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-07 18:34:17

You know, you ingrates, your Dad LOVED camp. He wanted you to have the same experience. How could we know you’d be sports-impaired?
That damn Science camp messed up our 21st wedding anniversary. We were going to go to Africa for it, but the Parents’ Weekends were two different weekends because you were in different camps. Spent our 21st anniversary on the worst bed in the smelliest motel in the universe instead.
Sports-impaired losers!

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Comment by Tim |Edit This
2008-11-21 21:40:51

We weren’t all that sports-impaired. We just didn’t like that sort of thing. You know, being outside and so forth.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2008-11-22 05:48:47

I’m pretty sure that not being outside makes you sports-impaired, but correct me if I’m wrong, Tim.

Comment by Amy |Edit This
2008-11-06 17:24:35

Believe it or not I found the time to read this while the baby was sleeping and the hubby is out for the night! I forgot what peace and quiet was like. My grandmother is not as crazy, but still basically not a nice person. I can relate.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-06 20:00:57

It is absolutely astounding how many crazy grandmothers there are out there!

(What are you doing on the computer? You should be asleep when the baby’s asleep, remember?)

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2008-11-07 07:24:31

Luckily, this was fifteen or twenty years ago.
I don’t remember much and besides, it’s done now.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-07 08:54:38

Oh Sara, I’m so sorry that we put you in this position twice. If only we could have known ahead of time, we could have saved you the trauma. Anything you said to us was richly deserved. Luckily there are no more crazy grandparents and besides, I’d never ask you again for anything like that. I promise not to be a crazy old lady. I will never move into your house. You’re safe now.

2008-11-07 07:43:33

Seriously, Irene.

Are you writing these stories down in a larger format? I’d suggest “Running With Nail Scissors”, but that’s been done.

And when you do… I want first dibs on the screen adaptation rights. Pretty please?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-07 08:56:43

I never wrote anything before in my life. What you read on TNB is it. I have to thank Brad for inviting me because I am having the time of my life here.

Kimberly, if ever, you got it!

Comment by donald |Edit This
2008-11-07 08:06:50

your mom sounds like…..a….lovely woman…..yup! very nice!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-07 08:58:41

Donald, I don’t believe I have ever heard that about my mother. That’s a first.

(I have a feeling you are being facetious, though.)

Comment by Tim |Edit This
2008-11-07 17:01:47

Man, I sure am glad I wasn’t the one who had to call you guys with that news. Poor Sara. I remember I got arrested for underage drinking when she was watching us one of the other times you people were out of town. I tried to get her to not tell you guys. I was a bit of an asshole.

I got the shits in Israel too.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-07 18:38:06

You got arrested for underage drinking with Sara in charge? Oh my God, that poor girl!
You know she never told us. She kept your secret and your juvenile delinquent butt out of trouble.

(Thanks for sharing about your bowels, though.)

Comment by Cecile |Edit This
2008-11-08 15:23:47

I was here in USA when when that infamous call came from Israel, crying what should we do?? I believe Ira went to take a look to make sure there were no hallucinations going on. Poor Rose. It was the real deal. Some things things we don’t forget (too bad we can’t remember the good stuff as easily!)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-08 16:47:58

I called you? I don’t even remember that. Ira has always been a prince among men. Yeah. Poor Rose. No one should have to go through that, even a crazy wacko grandmother who hates kids.

Comment by Ursula |Edit This
2008-11-08 16:21:47

Again a story well told. It is certainly understandable after two bad experiences with “Nana” that Sara would say “no” to further requests to “help out”, but my feeling is that Sara would have and would do anything for you if you really needed her.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-08 18:13:07

Ursula, you are entirely right. She’s always been dependable. She couldn’t change that if she tried. She’s reliable in spite of everything.

Comment by alex d |Edit This
2008-11-14 07:00:20

you see thats why vacations suck and if sara wont help you im always around the corner

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2008-11-14 15:14:11

Thanks, Alex,
You are the sweetest of the sweet. (However, since NANA is not on the docket, it’s not such a huge offer as it would have been….)

Comment by ksw |Edit This
2008-12-02 05:41:07

as always one should be quite careful about what they wish for, especially for someone else. Is it not strange how we learn so much from our families,even when the method of learning is so regrettable … you are one great friend caw

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2008-12-02 10:45:07

Hello, not really ksw,
As I recall, you’ve learned a thing or two from your family also. (Also, sometimes regrettable….)
Such is life.

Comment by Mary Richert |Edit This
2009-06-19 04:52:17

I don’t know why, but I love Nana. I also think she would be extraordinarily difficult to deal with, but you do such a good job of making her this… just incredible person. I think “incredible” is a word I’m going to overuse in reference to your family. I apologize for that in advance. Your writing makes me feel like the most difficult experiences are the ones most worth having. That may be a silly assumption on my part. But really, I’m so glad you’re telling these stories.