Executive Chef

Gilligan’s Island and The Love Boat.
French fries and brown gravy from the Hilton Inn in Santa Fe.
Maraschino cherries and a tiny girl in a dark bar.
Waiting for Grandma to come out from the back, wearing an executive Chef’s uniform- the first female to do so at a Hilton Executive Inn in New Mexico.

Grandma’s bra always came off in the car.
Ten seconds after she sat down, Grandma would wiggle and pull until somehow, the bra would be coerced from a sleeve and deposited, lifeless, on the passenger seat beside her.
While Grandma drove home, she trilled along to her favorite spanish songs.

Watching the dusty desert terrain fly by in a blur, the girl always wished she knew what everyone seemed to be so excited about in those songs.
She didn’t understand the words but the drama played like a silent movie in her thoughts.
She imagined dashingly handsome heroes, tragically beautiful damsels and menacing villians.

Sweet Pea, the chihuahau sitting next to the little girl in the back seat, did no such imagining.
He just sat there looking out the window, smelling like old dog and throwing out a haphazard bark now and then.

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Introducing Clare

Cat opened the door to her house and paused to listen for a moment before proceeding.  She could hear the strains of Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon and she knew her mother had at least had a peaceful evening.  After a moment, Cat moved forward into the house and closed the door softly behind her.  A haze of cigarette smoke hung in the living room and Cat waived her hands around her head as if to clear a space to breathe through as she moved towards the stereo. She knew better than to turn the music all the way off, but she rolled the volume dial back a few clicks.  Her mother lay on the couch, near the entrance to the kitchen. Cat moved quietly to the foot of the couch and removed her mother’s slippers.  Pulling a blanket from the back of the couch, she took care to make sure that it draped over her mother’s body from toe to neck.  Lastly, Cat gathered up the pile of pills that had spilled from the mouth of the pill bottle whose descent had brought it to a bouncing halt onto the floor.  She stuffed the pills back into the bottle and tossed it on the floor, watched as it rolled under the couch.  “Good.” She thought, and she didn’t feel bad about the vision of her beautiful mother, bent over and scratching through dust to retrieve her precious prescription, her weakness exposed in the light of the morning sun.

The next morning, Cat rose early and sat dutifully near the phone.  When 9:30 came and went, Cat made some eggs and tried to the fill the hole in the morning with food.  Her grandmother’s calls had gradually ceased, but Cat still waited every Saturday.  “You never know,” she thought to herself, but as she stared out at the apple tree she knew. As surely as she knew how it felt to fall from the highest branches of that tree and lay on the ground trying to suck wind back into an uncooperative rib cage, that talking to mom hurt Grandma in pretty much the same way.  As she sat alone at the table, Cat let her mind wander around her dad’s house for a moment.  Loud and busy, her brothers rushed about, the little ones all crazy and messy and playful, the older one always pensive and perpetually distracted.  She stopped her mind from wandering when it came to the image of her father, sitting at the kitchen table and staring out the window, wondering what he did to make his daughter forsake him.  Cat got up, washed her dishes and filled a glass with ice water. She knelt in front of her mother’s body on the couch and lightly shook her awake. Clare’s eyes were ringed with red, bloodshot and grateful.  She reached a thin hand out and stroked Cat’s cheek after taking several deep gulps.

“Thank you, my girl, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”  Clare’s beautiful white teeth flashed as she gave Cat a quick smile.  Cat wondered if her father would understand why Cat had to stay with her mother if only Clare had shared more of those smiles with him.  Clare’s jet black hair spilled forward onto the floor as she suddenly jerked forward.  Her hands flew to her chest, patting out a desperate search that ended in her lap. Then her eyes turned into dark clouds.  “Where are my pills, Cat, what did you do with them?”  Clare moved more quickly than Cat had thought she’d be able to and she snapped up her daughter’s scrawny upper arm with one hand, her nails digging painfully into the tender skin near Cat’s armpit.

“Jesus Christ, Clare, you probably dropped the god damned things.”  Cat jerked her arm away, wincing as Clare’s nails dug long strips of raw skin that wrapped quickly in a red glow around her arm.  The raw strips on Cat’s soul wrapped a little more slowly, the burn significantly worse.  Cat stood up and looked down at her mother.  “You should get up and eat something.  Maybe take a shower, huh Clare? I’m going to go see what Tony is doing.”   Cat could hear her mother’s knees hit the floor as she opened the door, but she didn’t really care to see the vision she’d imagined the night before, so she just stepped forward into the sunshine on the porch and closed the door behind her.

Vision

I can still see you.

Standing on your porch,

finishing a cig and watching the sun drop.

I am made of the distance in your eyes

as you carefully search the painted skies

looking for a promise that

she’ll never say goodbye.

I am built of the pain

that comes with knowing

that, in fact, she didn’t

and she never will.

I am frozen with the silence

that is her voice, forever still.

Those nights we should have been there

wrapped up and stamped with “don’t care”

are what she left behind.

You stare into the sunset

and pray for the bombs in your mind

to stop

to drop

but they don’t

and I can still see you.

Running to love in a Datsun 210

When I met my husband, I was freshly 19 and he was 21. He had come home on leave from where he was stationed in NC as a soldier with the 82nd Airborne, 3/4 ADA. He was supposed to be home visiting family and friends and I absolutely stole every extra second he had. (Sorry, Della!) When he went back to NC, the amount of time I spent thinking of him was unbelievable- so was the long distance phone bill (Sorry Amber!) Luckily, I had an adventurous friend who had been planning to travel to New Mexico with me to stay with my Aunt and help with a new baby. We quickly modified our plans to stop by North Carolina. You know, on our way to New Mexico. Because 19 + hopelessly in love = really, really smart and rational. (Sorry Auntie Toni!)

We rolled through Wolf Point to say goodbye and left my dad in an utter state of desperation after he learned we had less than enough $ to actually make it across the nation. (Sorry Dad!) “Oh well! YOLO!” We yelled and drove our rickety 1980’s red Datsun 210 right outta MT and into the great unknown. (OK, we didn’t yell that). It took us two weeks to get to Fayetteville, NC and when we got there, we had just enough money left for a hotel room for one night. Marty came to our rescue. Two weeks later we had moved from temporary lodging (an empty trailer in a park where he was friends with the manager) that had almost melted us to death because it had no power or AC and it was July. And we were Montanans. In North Carolina. We now were living in our own tiny trailer that had 8 layers of dog hair and cockroaches in the walls. We had eaten no other food than bowling alley food because Marty fed us by charging it all on his commissary card. I’d managed to scrape my way into a job at a steakhouse, thanks to his friends, where I was a TERRIBLE waitress.

Everything was crazy, and everything was perfect. Two weeks after arriving in NC, Marty asked me to marry him. My first response was to tell him that he didn’t even know me. (See? I tried to warn him.) We were wed the next weekend, in a little roadside chapel that had seen countless young soldiers and brides come and go. I picked our wedding song without even knowing what song it was- I just liked the title- Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers. I wore the dress I’d worn for my high school graduation. I stood next to that handsome, sweet, kind young man at the alter in borrowed shoes that were too big for me and vowed to be his wife. I knew virtually nothing about life, but I knew one thing for sure- that I could never be thankful enough for having found him.

Poor Man’s Camper

My dad used to tell me and my brothers that patience is a virtue.  As an adult, I have come to view this saying as a both a truth and a tactic.  It’s no coincidence that he would impart this nugget of wisdom on us during times when HE needed patience to deal with our antics, I just didn’t notice that as a child.

Looking back, I know that he lived by this saying for a number of reasons.  It’s a good mantra for people who are poor or struggling.  And for most of his life, my dad has been poor or struggling or both.  Sometimes people get offended by the use of the word “poor”.  Trust me, it is not a description that my father would hesitate to use for himself.  Ever ridden in a Poor Man’s Camper? Not a recognizable term?  Probably because it is one of those things that my father invented out of desperation.

Poor Man’s Camper defined:  A refrigerator box in the back of a pickup truck, filled with kids and about to travel a few hundred miles on MT roads so that transport of the entire family would be possible in the one vehicle we owned.  Also known as a box of potential death or, to my brother, Sonny, the box of torture where he was forced to lick chicken Mcnugget sweet & sour sauce off the cardboard walls. Forced by me. Because he spilled it and I didn’t want it to get in my hair.  It was fine, he could see the gross spots with no struggle; we were child geniuses and had poked holes through the cardboard for light.

My father is a highly talented sculptor.  He can paint and draw too, but he loved sculpting.  His sculptures are breathtaking- and not in the “I can kind of relate to what the artist is doing on subconscious level” way… more in the “holy &%$&^, that is so beautiful I can’t believe you made it” way.  I truly believe that if he had more administrative skills and less children, his career would have been much different.  He never gave up with his work, even though it meant months of travelling, going to art shows all over the US and long stretches of having no money at all.  My childhood memories are riddled with waxballs, foundry tailings, paint specks and art pencils.  He believed in following his dreams, he wanted all of us to believe in our following our own dreams too.  My mom tried not to give up, she really did- but years of near isolation and being almost solely responsible for the daily tasks of raising four kids eventually took their toll.
Of course when the marriage ended, I blamed her- because I was 12 and dumb. Romance and dreams just don’t feed, clothe or diaper children and you can’t stay in love with someone who is always gone. He was running around the country as a hip, starving artist (ok, he probably would say that is not as glorious as it sounds, and I know it wasn’t). She was the “welfare mom” dragging 4 kids around Montana towns where she knew no one without a car. I can understand this now that I’m almost 40 and a little less dumb.  Mom only had to wait for about 10 years for me to come to my senses and cut her some slack.

Still, my brothers and I idolized our dad.  Remember how when taking a solemn vow as a kid, you used to say “I swear to God” because you really, really meant it?  It seemed that the consequences of having lied in an oath including God’s name were bad beyond imagination.  Well…my brothers and I used to ask each other “You swear in Dad’s Name?” to ascertain whether the truth was being told.  I know.  It’s hilarious and sad and we’re all cool with that because sad is always easier with a little bit of humor.  Those who have done some real suffering in life know that this is a truth of surviving tragedy and hardship.   The divorce between my parents was long, truth be told, it pretty much consumed my life after the age of 12. By the time I was 16, I was thoroughly convinced that my parents would hate each other forever and I would never be allowed the privilege of planning an event with my future husband and kids that wouldn’t include having to keep my parents separate.

That was true for a few years, but thankfully, patience is a virtue and grand-kids change everything. I think the reason for that is because grand-kids mean your kids are full grown and you KNOW how fast it happened.  You realize that time with them while they are little really should be a high priority and you’re willing to work through your own personal issues in order to soak up that time. By the time my parents came up for air from their custody battle, two of their kids were old enough to decide who they wanted to live with.   These days, my parents easily hang out with eachother at family functions and, actually, my brothers and I get totally creeped out if they spend any amount of time alone. No, Mom & Dad, you can’t go outside and share a smoke, we’ve had enough of your antics, thank you.