In Defense of Fruitcake

Runyan photoAt some point or another, every Christmas celebrant in America has to draw lines in the sand over the following doctrinal issues:

When is it acceptable to begin listening to Christmas music?
What are your thoughts on front yard inflatables?
Will you shop on Black Friday or boycott it and buy all the crap a couple weeks later?
To what lengths will you go to ensure that your tenth grader still believes in Santa?
What will be your game plan regarding the song “Christmas Shoes”?
How much fruitcake will you consume?

The first five questions have been known to tear families and friends asunder during this glorious time of year. But the one that unites enemies? Fruitcake. [Read more...]

Better Red(head) than Dead

VanGoghSelfPortrait1889-90OrsayAA webOne day my mother came home from the interior decorating shop where she worked, very upset about a young man who had come into the store with his mother.

“You wouldn’t believe what his T-shirt said!” my mom cried. “‘Better Dead Than Red!’”

I asked her what it meant.

“He’s making fun of redheads, of course!” she lamented, her curly, fiery hair aflutter. “Why would anyone wear such a thing?”

It was the early eighties, in the thick of the Cold War, but I had yet to learn about Communism. It didn’t occur to me for another decade or so that the shirt that would pierce her to the core was merely calling for the demise of Soviets. But that memory has always defined my mother and her abiding personal connection with her hair, something the rest of the family would never fully understand.

I didn’t inherit the red but passed it on to my middle daughter, whose hair stops people cold in grocery aisles and brings elderly Irishmen to tears. We have fielded questions about her hair since she emerged with the carrotty fuzz nine years ago. Almost without exception, it’s the first topic of discussion when she meets someone new. It’s made for some pleasant talk but also some awkward situations, such as when she is praised as rare and beautiful just inches from her brown-haired siblings.

Not long ago I asked my daughter what she thought about her hair, and she said, “I like it. In the sun, it’s shiny, and underwater it looks all coppery. But talking to everyone about it gets annoying.” [Read more...]

Aesop’s Fables Are Always in Fashion

the-wolf-and-the-craneCalled upon to present a gift to a small boy, I was asked to pick a book. I have no expertise in the area of children’s literature, so was left to select the things that I myself liked when young. That becomes difficult when you grew up in an era in which children were less cosseted and the books were more realistic.

Old Yeller came to mind, but the dog dies in the end and nobody can have that kind of thing anymore. The Yearling came to mind too, but the deer gets shot at the climax, so that likewise had to be set aside. Not because I wouldn’t have bought these books if I could find them, but I couldn’t even find them in the bookstore and didn’t have time to order.

Another particular favorite of mine was Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. It’s about two hunting dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, and the boy who raised them. There’s a lovely Indian myth about the rarity of a red fern, but it too touches upon the last things, and the book ends like Ole Yeller. It made a big impression on me though—I still think of it often—and it’s a shame that with all the wizards and dragons and junk going around, the lessons of such old tales can’t be learned now in favor of all these empowerment narratives that they foist upon the young. [Read more...]

The Lost Girl Lets Go

There’s something about the midday nature of the appointment that gives it a furtive cast: The putting on of mom-like clothes, stockings and “better” shoes, garnet lip gloss and a comb pulled through my hair, to give the appearance that I am a more organized person than I actually am.

The keys clatter in the quiet as I lock the door, get in the car, and drive out of the neighborhood, careful to make sure I have the directions and the insurance card.

All the empty houses appear deserted and drowsy: everyone’s at work or school, and even the homeschoolers are hard at work by the kitchen table, their younger siblings laid down for early afternoon naps.

Then I’m on the ribbon of highway that carves through the as-yet-ungentrified decay of Washington, D.C.’s East Side—blessedly empty, with neither traffic nor construction, the now-obsolete RFK Stadium spun out on the right like a spectacular piece of road kill.

I love the steadying narcotic of driving like this: “[T]he freeways become a special way of being alive…the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical” reads a quote from Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which I found in an essay on Joan Didion, whose novel Play It As It Lays is what I am trying to remember as I plow through the Nation’s Capital.

Then, before I know it—because there is no traffic—I’ve spun off myself—off a cloverleaf and onto a surface road that is clustered with mid-century, mid-rise apartment towers. Collectively, there are perhaps hundreds of these, off every exit of the Beltway, and aside from the barest variations—Virginia looks marginally newer and more big-boxy, Maryland grittier and more industrial—you could be in Chevy Chase or Springfield and not know the difference.

[Read more...]

Honor Thy Mother

It came to me one quiet afternoon, a couple weeks after we were home from the hospital, my newborn son asleep on my chest, the flicker of memory sharp and quick: I see my mother’s mouth wagging, furious, the garbage can full to overflowing, my brother’s task left undone.

“Are you stupid? Is that it?” she screams, stepping toward my brother, who can’t be more than eleven, his mouth torn open by sobs, the light passing through the windows flat, gray, engulfing. “Answer me!”

I step in front of her, hot with fear and rage, and everything goes blank.

When I found out I was pregnant, I knew that I was about to begin another series of careful negotiations; the lines I had drawn between myself and my parents would have to be crossed and redrawn, possibly many times over.

What I did not know was how hard parenthood would be on my memory, how the bits and pieces of what I remember would hurl themselves at me with such raw, shocking force.

I did not realize how becoming a mother would turn me into a child, or at least, return me to my childhood, my own mouth torn open in recollection’s rush and grief.

As a writer, my subject is my family and personal history. I spent most of high school writing short stories that were really just veiled nonfiction, the narrators always teenagers who watched their parents self-destruct. When I began writing nonfiction, my essays were dotted with words like “codependent” and “emotional trigger,” phrases that my mother strung around her like a rosary, a self-help litany of protection against what she couldn’t face about herself.

As I wrote more, the focus became clearer, and my parents began becoming more themselves on the page, less psychological study or sensational stereotype, more fragile and demanding and dangerous.

That is how my parents are in real life, too—as they get older, their wounds and trespasses seem to multiply, and it can be a daily fight to interpret their intentions, their capacity for both impotence and causing hurt.

[Read more...]


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