One woman's quest to remember her mother and find herself. I am who I am, in very large part, because I am my mother's daughter. But she never wrote down her stories like I wished she had. So, this is where I will tell my stories before it's too late.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


The Bus from Chicago. I checked that book out so many times. I knew exactly where to find it in the children's library where Mom let me hang out while she looked for her books.

I loved books, but I was also sort of terrified of libraries. They were just so enormous and intimidating--so many books on so many shelves and all you could see were all the spines. I never liked the word or idea of poky spines anyway. Not a very friendly place at all. I wanted them to lay the books all out flat, show me the covers, let me open them up, touch them. And that whole business of sliding out too far the next book to remember your place was just too tricky. What if I put it back on the wrong side of the sticking out book? The stress was just too great.

To this day I prefer bookstores, who lay things all out for you, display things for you as if to say with a kind smile, "Here! Look! Touch! Put it back any old place. We'll take care of it." I find the books I want there and then go check them out at the library--the Big Scary Library that dares, "Go ahead, take a book, if you can find it! Bwahahahaha!"

And what's with the blasted Card Catalogue and the Dewey Decimal System? I was destined never to read. Not to mention that I was eating way too much Spam, Kraft macaroni and cheese, drinking far too many bottles of Coke and living in a house pretty much devoid of any routine or organization to grasp such complex concepts as classification and categorization. Although, I'll tell you, I longed to. I wanted so badly to have order and organization in my life.

My room was my domain and, until high school when a temporary apathy took over, it was insanely organized. I had a TV tray that served as a dressing table on which I carefully arranged my purple brush, purple comb, three Avon perfume bottle dolls and a butterfly magnet mirror that played "You Light Up My Life" and made the butterfly flit around. The brush and the comb had to be parallel to each other and to the edge of the tray. The dolls had to form an arch in the right corner. The mirror balanced out the left corner at a precise angle. It had to be exact before everything was right in my world I could begin the day. This probably amounts to obsessive behavior, but nobody ever saw me do it, so it doesn't count. Oh, and the bed had to be made, tucked in without ripple or wrinkle. Then I was free to leave the room and face the day.

People ask me why I don't want to have kids. I sometimes ask myself why being married is so hard for me. I think I have my answer (one of many) right there. Because someone would be forever in my space ruining the order I try so hard to create every day.

I can see that my early obsession with order was an attempt to control what little was under my domain. There was so much criticism in that house growing up. Nothing we ever did was right. One time my dad asked me to scratch an itch on his back, then berated me for not having long enough fingernails. Didn't I know that no one would ever marry me if I didn't stop biting my fingernails? So my friend, with long fingernails and clearly of marriage material, scratched his back instead, but he screamed out, "What the hell's the matter with you? You trying to kill me with those claws?!" There was no pleasing him. I learned right away not to trust myself or my thinking. In school I was smart and did good work, but I couldn't raise my hand or speak up to save my life. What if I was wrong? And I was learning at home that I always was.

We didn't have family meetings as I've since learned some families have. My brother and I were just told things. Like, "Your father's going to live somewhere else for while...In a trailer near your grandparents...You can call him anytime you want...His number is...You can visit him every other weekend...You didn't do anything wrong." Or we were not told. Suddenly he was just back again, but that's when the fighting started--the fighting they should have been doing all along. Except it wasn't the "fighting to heal" kinds of arguments my husband and I were counseled to have to save our marriage. These went more like this, "Well, you never..." "Well, you always..." "Now look what you've done. You've made your daughter cry. Ya happy now?" "You gonna hit me? Go ahead. Just go ahead. That's all I need and I'm outta here."

In the 8th grade that I decided, just decided, to not be shy anymore. I knew it wasn't me. I wasn't shy after that. I keep discovering new ways to push through that shyness to see myself more clearly.

It wasn't until college when I had a beautifully organized roommate that I really began to learn to how to organize things. I watched how she organized her sock drawer, her notebooks with perfect tabs and labels, the clothes in her closet according to style, length and color. I knew I could never reach her standards, but I could try. Just try. Something about it made sense to me. Something in my brain locked into place like some mystical ancient puzzle and everything started to make sense. Right then, at that time in my life, something in me relaxed, loosened its grip in just the smallest way and I began to breathe a little more deeply.

The Bus From Chicago

This is my first favorite book about travel from an "exotic" place. The Bus from Chicago by Annie DeCaprio, illustrated by Cal Sacks. I loved reading it over and over again. I was about six. It seemed hard to pronounce. I had a hard time getting my mouth around the words, but it was intoxicating in its rhythm and repetition.

This is the bus from Chicago.
This is Mister Gonzago,
who drives the bus from Chicago.

From the very first page I was mesmerized. The first picture shows us that the bus is headed for New York, where I was from, which made it even more exciting.

This is the grandma with boots on her feet,
getting ready so she can meet
the bus that Mister Gonzago
is driving along from Chicago.

I was living a million miles away from The City, practically on a different planet. I was no where near Woody Allen or Hannah and Her Sisters or Alan Alda and The Four Seasons. I was up in the woods along the Catskill Creek watching Little House on the Prairie and Hee Haw and Smokey and the Bandit.

This is the subway under the ground
that goes along with a loud, loud sound
to take the grandma with boots on her feet
to the bus station so she can meet
the bus that Mister Gonzago
is driving along from Chicago.

I had never ridden a bus that wasn't yellow and didn't take me to school and that had grown ups on it other than Joanne, our bus driver, who I asked one day, "Did you always wanna be a bus driver when you grew up?" I didn't understand why she thought that was funny. In fact, no, she said that she'd wanted to be a nurse. I asked her why she wasn't a nurse and she just sighed and said, "Well, you know, that's just how life is." I didn't know about how life was, but I did know that something seemed familiar about the subway under the ground and the bus from Chicago. Something good and comfortable, but that I couldn't really explain. Something in me knew what Chicago was and how far, at least that it was out there in the middle somewhere, but not that far really from NY.

This is Bill and his mother, too,
going to meet the grandma who
was in the subway under the ground
that went along with a loud, loud sound
to take the grandma with the boots on her feet
to the bus station so she could meet
the bus that Mister Gonzago
has driven all the way from Chicago.

It has a momentum that I still find exhilerating! And it ends with the cover picture of the boy and the grandma finally reunited. Very satisfying.
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Sunday, October 01, 2006

I remember everything

I pretty much remember everything from the time I was in diapers until now, with the exception of the seventh grade, which still remains a mystery to me. I mean I remember the cubby cribs in the church nursery and being held on hips and the sing-songy voice of the pastor's sermons and the sound of pantyhose rubbing together on fat church ladies' legs. I remember spinning the squares, circles and triangles on my baby crib at home in the room I shared with my teenage aunt, before she moved out and that room became my brother's and was painted red, white and blue and plastered with Civil War wallpaper.

I remember being pre-verbal, but still thinking to the grown-ups in my life, "I wouldn't do that if I were you. You shouldn't say that. That's not very nice." And thinking to myself, "Why doesn't anyone ever ask me what I think?" Of course, no one consults infants and toddlers when making major family decisions, I understand that now, but I often look at babies and silently ask them, “Who are you? What are you thinking?”

I remember the name of every teacher I had in school K-12 and a lot of the students' names, too. I mean, okay, sure I was kid; it's not like I had it all figured out like I do now (cough, gag, wheeze). I remember I asked my mother one day, "How do you spell grannit?" "Grannit? Use it in a sentence," she said. "Well, like, 'You always take me for grannit!'" Imagine what that must have been like for her? Generally, kids just repeat what they hear around the house and this was no exception. "You mean granted," she said. "G-R-A-N-T-E-D. To take someone for granted." "What does it mean?" I asked. What does it mean, when you're in the middle of a marriage that isn't working? And how do you explain that to your second-grader? I remember everything, sure, but not her answer.

I must have been less than five, because I wasn't in school yet, or it could have been summer. Mom and I were up real late. We'd fallen asleep watching TV, but we woke up at midnight when the national anthem was playing and the station turned to loud snow. Before we went upstairs to go to bed, she set a place at the table for Dad's breakfast (he worked nights)--a bowl, a napkin, a spoon, a coffee cup, a box of Wheaties and the sugar bowl. I asked her why she did that and she said because she loved him. I declared I would never do that when I got married. She chuckled and grinned, knowing that I would because she knew that love makes you do sweet things.

When I was six, Dad moved out for a while, not very far away, they said, and we could call him or visit him whenever we wanted to. He had a different telephone number from us and that just didn't seem right. He was about a mile away in a tiny metal trailer that smelled of moth balls and had a gas stove that I was afraid of. It seemed like forever that they were separated, but I've since learned that it was only for six months. This seems hard to believe.

Then Mom had to go to the hospital for five days for something that now might be an outpatient procedure. I remember Dad didn't know anything about how to get us ready in the morning, but he'd been in the military and knew how to follow orders, which Mom must have left. He did his best. My hair was in knots and he used his fine tooth comb on it. I screamed and cried. Mom had laid out five outfits for me to wear. She put them on the dining room table on top of the piles of other laundry that always lived there.

They said when he moved back that things were going to be okay. They were really trying to convince themselves. We knew better. When I was about eight, Dad was picking up my brother and me from our grandparents' house. Even as we were still going down the long driveway toward the road, he said to my much older brother, but not to me, "Remember that time I went to live in the trailer? Well, I'm gonna go live there again, but this time for good. Do you understand what I'm saying to you?" My brother said yeah and then they were both crying quietly. Dad thought he was speaking in code so that I wouldn't understand, so I pretended not to cry.

A few days later, or maybe later that night, I don't remember, Mom and Dad called me into their room, their gold, but not shiny room. They sat on the edge of their bed, facing me. They were very serious. They were more united in this, their final act as Mom and Dad, than I had ever seen them (aside from that night they made supper and taught me the difference between dinner and supper). I thought, "This is ridiculous. How stupid do you think I am?" I broke the tense silence and said, "You're getting divorced." They looked shocked. How did I know? "Duh? (I clucked my tongue and rolled my eyes.) I was in the truck when you told K (my brother)." "You've known since then and you didn't say anything?" I shrugged my shoulders, "You didn't say anything either." I begged them to stay together. I promised to be good. Their hearts broke and they gushed all over themselves to assure me that they weren't getting divorced because of me or my brother. There was nothing I could do to change things. They were definitely sure of their decision, which was final and which, adding insult to injury, they had made without consulting me.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

3 things i remember about mom & dad's room

1) they painted it this great yellow color they called "gold" even though it wasn't shiny

2) the big old box fan that was so big that it was twice as tall as me and i was instructed to never EVER climb it or stick my hand in it while the fabric covered cord was plugged in. they repeatedly walked me over to the end of the cord, showed me the prongs and laid it on the floor. they said, "if it's sleeping on the floor, like this, then you can play with the fan. if it's awake and in the wall, never EVER play with the fan." Clearly these were the days before any kind of child safety requirements. so when Mom and i went down for our naps and i'd wuffed her to sleep, i'd slide off the bed and over to the fan with its three giant mesmerizing blades. check to see if the cord is sleeping, like Mom. it is. okay. then crank hard on one of the cool metal blades and watch them spin. i liked how the words in the center became a single stripe going round and round. i liked how my voice sounded when i sang into its breeze. i liked the simple wooden box that housed the fan itself and i especially liked the two parallel circles in the front and back that allowed air to pass through, so quietly. ooh, i loved that fan.

3) one summer bees or hornets or wasps or something built their nest right up against the bedroom window, and even though Dad was allergic and therefore terrified of Things That Sting, it was allowed to stay for a little while so we could watch it. their little society was so busy and industrious and we felt rather voyeuristic watching their lives in all their little apartments like that. it was a fascinating science experiment right there in the window.

plus, this bonus memory

4) that one winter when the beehive window was broken, it started snowing before we'd gotten around to fixing it. waking up to snow is always magical, even in NY where it always snows in winter, but on that particular morning, Mom woke us up to the magic of a perfect pile of snow on the bedroom floor below the window.

oh, and this one, too

5) as an adult one time i asked my mom, "hey, whatever happened to that yellow Easter dress I used to have?" "What yellow Easter dress?" "You know, that little yellow one with the puffy sleeves and the frilly underpants?" Her eyes bugged out, "You can't possibly remember that dress. You were too little." "Well, I do. It was hanging up on the back of your bedroom door." And I gestured as if the hook on the door were impossibly high. i wore that dress when i was 1 1/2 and there are no pictures of me in it.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

"Wuff Me"

When I was a toddler, I used to wander around the house picking up random items, rubbing them on my arm, dropping them and moving on to the next until I found just the right thing. It was a peculiar ritual that made no sense to my mother until this one day when I finally did find Just the Right Thing, probably a playing card or even a barrette turned on edge, and I knew my search was over.

I immediately went to Mom, held the object before her and said, "Wuff me, Mommy."

Now, I was something like 2 years old and she was still learning how to speak Karin, which created a language barrier that frustrated us both.

"Wuff me!" I demanded.

"I don't know what you want, Karin!" she said.

I practically clucked my tongue and rolled my eyes, something I got very good at about ten years later. Then I demonstrated how to properly Wuff. Take the wuffer and lightly drag it across the skin of the arm in a half tickle/half scratch fashion. So she did and my whole little body went limp. For those of us who are me, it is highly satisfying. We continued this ritual until I was--oh, who am I kidding--I'm always in search of a good wuffer.

Business cards and credit cards work really well. The prongs of a fork will do in a pinch, if you're careful. The clip on a pen is good, too! A photo is okay, but a bit flimsy. A book edge will work, but in all is just too bulky. Never ever use an ordinary piece of paper. And soft or round things in general are right out.

You don't need a mommy to wuff you, but if you do have one, by all means, I highly recommend a few sweet wuffing moments with her. Life is short.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Seven Already?

I haven't seen my mom in seven years. Seven years and one week. But who's counting. I don't actually count the weeks, but I just happen to know.

I also know it's getting easier because it was only just today that I realized July 19th was coming up. That's huge progress. It used to be, "Hi, my name is Karin and my mother is dead." A big black line separating life as I had known it, from living hell. Five years ago I was actually required to go to a company picnic on July 19th and have fun, damn it. It was agony. So, for her death date to kind of sneak up on me like that; it's a big deal. A good sign.

This is the last picture of her. Everyone was gathered at her house for a party--having fun. She died about 12 hours later. Then everyone gathered there again the next day--ever so much less fun. She lived 60 years, 4 months and 15 days. But who's counting.

I miss you, Ma. I love you so much.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Happy Father's Day (a bit late)

Here is a series of pictures of my dad and me over the years. In the first one I'm 1 1/2 and he's 31. The last one was taken just days after my mom died when she was 60. We didn't know it, but he would only live another four years to be 63 and this is one of the last pictures of just the two of us together. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Happy Mother's Day (a bit late)

Mother's Day is hard for me. I stay away from stores, I turn off the radio and the TV so as not to be bombarded by reminders for Mother's Day gift ideas. I used to welcome the marketing barage, but now, not so much. So this year it worked out perfectly, though I hadn't planned it this way, that on Mother's Day I arrived in Dakar, Senegal--easily one of my favorite places in the world--a place that just so happens (like most places) not to celebrate Mother's Day. [It does, however, celebrate International Women's Day, which (like most places) honors women of all ages, mothers or not.] It was quite an ordinary Sunday like all the rest. And for that I was very glad. It was extra-ordinary in many other ways, in that I was in Dakar on an adventure, visiting friends and a city I hadn't seen in eleven years, but that's another story altogether.

One Mother's Day after my first stint in Dakar (mid-90s), I was pretty broke (not unlike now) so I made my mom a card. There are two things you have to know to appreciate this card. One, when I lived with her and often when I was just hanging out at her place, I always always always walked into the bathroom just as she was putting on her make-up, in particular, her mascara. Not eyeshadow, not lipstick--mascara. Everytime. It was weird. And two, she loved the Word Jumble. She did the Word Jumble in the Living section of the Oregonian every single day since 1982. Sometimes she'd wait until I came over and we'd race to see who could do it the fastest. Yes, we were word geeks, and that's okay.

Below you'll find the card I made her, with her very own handwriting in it. And a photo of her in the bathroom, likely with fresh mascara. I love you, Ma.