The Fears of Bug

On the outside, my long-haired chihuahua mix is golden and gorgeous. Her fur is the blended color of sunshine and fields of wheat turning autumn shades of amber. Her face is chiseled and dainty, and her delicate, pointed snout and dreamy, doe eyes would place Bug in the cute-as-a-bug category of dogs even without the glorious ears that stretch up as if to reach me when I call her name. Bug is sweet and gentle, my lamb, my snuggles, my dear littlest one.

On the inside of Bug, however, are scars and shadows on her willowy bones from anxieties I will never understand. She must be carried up the staircase to bed, but she scrambles down the steps quickly to breakfast all by herself every morning. She trembles at the sound of thunder, but she is brave in her demand that squirrels stay off our porch. She’s shy around men and distrustful of people in uniforms, but she adores the six people she has invited into her nervous little heart.

I adore Miss Bug for her goofy, heartwarming cuteness, even though loving her has required an acceptance of quirky, contradictory, and sometimes infuriating behaviors, like her interminable searching for the poop spot that will allow the least amount of contact of her precious butt with itchy or wet or unfamiliar surfaces. Patience is as important as love in my tending of Bug. If she were a human child, I would have her tested for Asperger Syndrome and practice strategies to improve her social skills and make her more comfortable with the spontaneous, unexpected things that pop up when you are a living creature on this crazy planet. But, Bug is dog, just seven pounds, and even though her neuroses have neuroses, she’s not that much trouble.

Most of the time.

Last night, though, around 3 a.m., just a couple hours after I had stopped reading and settled into a deep sleep, a scream like a banshee from nightmares pierced the quiet dark. My heart jumped like a startled frog into my throat, and I sat bolt upright in bed. I lunged for Pepper, my middle-aged Pomeranian with congestive heart failure, my mind going straight to painful heart attack. But she was sitting up, engaging her annoyance gurgle, having also been yanked from peaceful slumber by the terrible screech. I reached then for Bug, who sleeps on the pillow next to me. She wasn’t there, but I could hear her squeaking and struggling. I found her wiggling body tucked under and between our two pillows, her head pushed through the slats of the headboard. I pulled her free, and she melted into my arms. And then as if we were members of a freaky, psychically-connected chorus, all three of us let out long, whispery sighs.

I’ll never know for certain, but I think in her sleep Bug must have dreamed herself into that pickle between and under the pillows, woke up with her head in that scary and dark place between the headboard and the wall, and screamed out in holy horror.

Pepper rolled over on her back and went right back to sleep, while I tucked Bug under my arm, cuddling her deep into the comforter. I took some deep, meditative breaths to ease my body back into rest, and then I remembered I had heard that scream once before. A couple of years ago, while running up the long hallway of the loft where we lived in St. Louis, Bug screamed like a banshee from nightmares and fainted dead away. I thought she really was dead, limp in my arms when I picked her up. After a minute or two, however, she woke up and I rushed her to the vet. There was nothing at all wrong with her. The vet surmised that she might have twisted her leg or hyperextended her tiny knee while running fast, that she might have felt pain or a twinge or took an unexpected skid that scared her so badly she fainted.

Two years ago, I took my screaming, fainting chihuahua to the vet. Last night, I cuddled my screaming, terrified chihuahua and showered her with love and patience until she fell back into an easy slumber. Once her breathing was even and she was tucked away in a good dream, I closed my eyes and joined my funny little family in sleep.

The Innocence of Grandmothers

She is wearing a black blouse with bold pink flowers. Cabbage roses, they are, as big as her smooth cheeks, which are blushed to match them. I recognize my grandmother in the photograph, but her sweet, hopeful gaze, and the invincibility of her youth is that of a woman I do not know. It is 1943. Kathleen is twenty. She is the wife of a young man who is leaving for war. She is a young mother of two baby boys, my own mother not yet a sparkle in her eyes.

On her young face, there are no lines etched by three decades of factory labor. None textured with the grief of widowhood, which will come to her when she is forty-four, less than a year after I am born. There is no trace of the sorrowful eyes that I remember, the eyes that were a window to the pain of her loneliness, raging diabetes, and the heart disease that would take her life before she turned seventy. No, this Kathleen in the photograph, wrapped up in the arms of a handsome, bright-eyed soldier, who does not know what the war will do to them, is a vision of hope, of purpose, and of life all out in front of her.

Would that we could know the innocence of our grandmothers. To know the girls that bloomed their wisdom. To be friends with the women they were when their best days were in front instead of behind them. My grandmother had grit and humor, grown of her struggles. She taught me to trust my voice and the power of raising it. I loved her and appreciated her rough edges, which often snagged the tapestry of expectations about traditional grandmothers.

She was special to me because she was my grandmother and she loved me unconditionally. She was extraordinary to me because she was a woman who survived great hardship and profound grief and still she could belly laugh at a dirty joke and find joy eating sweets against doctor’s orders, or watching professional wrestling, or teaching her grandchildren how to curse like male factory workers in the 1950s.

But I wish my affection for my grandmother could have been rooted more deeply, as well, in the whole being of Kathleen. I wish her life could have overlapped with my desire to know her better. I wish I would have asked her what it was like to be twenty. In 1943. When she was young and the world was at war. I wish I would have asked her about that crazy blouse with cabbage roses and the bright blush upon her cheeks, and what she was thinking when she posed with my grandfather for that photograph. A photograph that is an artifact of the 1940s. A photograph that is evidence of both my tether to and my distance from my grandmother, far away and across the distance of eighty years and two generations of a family. 

Winter Ughs and Uggs

Winter coming on as a global pandemic heats up is a one-two punch to my gut. Even winters passed with dear friends in warm kitchens and cozy pubs doesn’t melt the ice between me and the jerk Old Man Winter. The bitter air, the sleet and snow, the short days and the overcast skies, and turtlenecks and fleece that make my thin hair fly out kooky away from head make me grumpy. Seasonal Affective Disorder is not fake news. I get it every year. Black Friday means red-hot shopping deals for most people, but for me Black Friday means the arrival of my winter blues.

I hate the cold months. I abhor snow flurries. And as a daily pedestrian, I abominate sidewalk skating rinks created when an Illinois winter storm can’t decide whether it prefers to drown me in freezing cold rain or bury me under the snow. I am a sun worshipping, flip-flop wearing woman who loves to sweat and to bake my skin in the heat of a muggy Midwestern summer. I like my arms free of sleeves. I want to live every day in bare feet without socks and shoes hindering the wiggling of my painted toes. I love my freckles, bursting in July and August, when tomatoes are ripe and cold beer beats the heat at a backyard cookout with friends.

Summer is my season, and Thanksgiving, otherwise known as the American launch of Christmas, marks the end of it. No more Indian summers to keep me in denial. Thanksgiving fills up my belly with my sister’s wonderful food all jacked up on carbs and calories, but it leaves my summer-loving heart bitter and empty. Every year, just as the Thanksgiving sun sets and I’m falling into a food coma, winter shows up. It watches me get all liquored and fooded up on Thanksgiving, and as if to smite me—because that’s the kind of season winter is, a smiting season—it moves in while I am weak and whining about how much unhealthy food I have just consumed. And then, that jerk throws his winter blues at me when I’m too fat to get out of the way.

I don’t have a lot of coping strategies for my winter blues. My way is to cry about the cold, badmouth sledding and snow angels, and blame winter for my bah humbugging of Christmas. All of the standard winter rituals get me down. But there is one personal winter ritual that doesn’t completely ruin my life: the rotation of shoes in my closet. I put away my flip flops and Birkenstocks and hiking sandals, because they cannot make me happy when the temperatures drop into the thirties. I pull out my embarrassingly extravagant collection of Ugg boots. When the weather turns cold and wet in the days after Thanksgiving, and the furnace has kicked on to stay on for the next three and a half months, I slip my feet into a pair of my beloved, shearling-lined Uggs.

Ahhh. Toasty and warm. Uggs give me a spirit power. Uggs are my way of sticking up my middle finger to winter. The first feeling of this ritual cuddling of my feet makes me smile. It makes my toes and my heart toasty warm. I know I will still curse the winter, swear at every flurry that flies. But I also know that my feet will be luxuriously warm all winter while I dream about next summer.

Holidays are hard without Mack. This year I also had to endure Thanksgiving without Savannah and her husband Levi, without my mom and her husband Mike, and without my friend Dan, who has been joining our feast for years. Grief is always a challenge, but in a pandemic it has tested the limits of my ability to cope. Thank goodness for my sister Tracy, who fed me, albeit in the driveway at a healthy distance from her and my brother-in-law Jason and their daughter Zoe.
I did enjoy a couple of holiday cocktails, including this gin and jam with fresh cranberry sauce and rosemary. I toasted Mack, like I always do, after curating my perfect last bite in her honor: homemade egg noodles, mashed potatoes, and a dab of fresh cranberry sauce.

Silence

The radio scratches in my ears, and from the back seat I can just make out the balls and strikes count through the AM static. My little sister is next to me in the back seat, jabbering to my mom, who is the front passenger seat, her head turned around jabbering back at my sister. I have no idea what they are saying, and I do not care. I am trying to read my book.

My dad is driving and smoking and keeping a score card. The car windows are cracked open to keep us from choking to death, and the wind noise is crashing into the radio static, occasionally mixing with a sudden clarity of the radio signal and the baseball announcer calling a play at the plate. My dad curses and bangs his fists on the steering wheel, and the Reds are losing, and still I am trying to read, dammit, and we have another baseball game worth of driving, and I am losing my mind in the chaos.img_9486

Can’t the quiet of my book overcome us all? What would be the cost of one hour of silence in this car? What could I pay them to whisper? Why is there always radio static and sisters and moms jabbering and wind noise and dads yelling at baseball games?

Today, I live alone. Silence is a precious joy of my life, treasured, filled up with reading one book after another, with New Yorker magazines sprinkled in between. And oh my goodness, but the quiet is divine. But there are days when I would trade in all of my books and my solitude for one hour in the backseat of the car in the chaos of my childhood, my mom and sister jabbering away, my mind unsettled by the wind noise and the Reds playing on the radio through AM static, and my dad cursing the blown call at the plate.

*****

Note: I was lucky and am grateful to have been invited to join a monthly memoir writing group called Past Forward. It is a group of bold and brave people who write their hearts and memories and share their writing with each other. For each meeting, we write from an advance prompt on a particular topic or theme, and when we get to the meeting we are presented with another writing prompt on which we write quietly for twenty minutes or so. After the writing, we spend the remainder of the time sharing our prepared and spontaneous writing with the group. It’s a courageous new experience for me, reading aloud my creative writing, and it is stretching me in wonderfully uncomfortable ways. Some of the most enjoyable writing I have ever done has taken place in the quiet space of that spontaneous writing, sitting in a circle with other writers who are willing to share and to listen. I wrote this piece at the most recent meeting, the spontaneous prompt was “Silence.”