Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The White House in Two Parts. Part 2

“I…have another cup of coffee with my mother. We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.”

-Joan Didion (1934--)

Almost immediately after moving in to the White House, It became my nightly ritual to nearly set myself on fire.

The White House utilized a series of floor furnaces for heat. They were brown and tan metal things that stood two feet high with porcelain teeth that radiated the heat from the blue gas flame. I came to regard them affectionately like an elder lady relates to her favored poodles.

I loved heat even then and nearly to my detriment.
I would stand in front of the floor furnace in the living room, preheating the backside of my polyester nightgown. The challenge was always to race up the stairs and leap into bed with lightning speed in order to take full advantage of the singe of the gown on my skin before the heat dissipated. I learned the trick was to overheat the gown so that it would withstand the inevitable aerodynamics and hyper cooling that occurred when the air whipped around my body as I flew to my bed. More often than not, I pushed the gown beyond its melting point. Standing there, beads of sweat forming between my shoulder blades, certain of the glorious singe that awaited me at the top of the stairs if I could just hold out a minute more, smoke whisping in erratic spirals over my head... one of my parents, usually my mother, would “put me out” just after my gown melted to my skin but just before I burst into open flame.

I am still a lover of heat and find it oddly comforting that something like that, preference, has followed me through hallways and eras, that I am familiar with that little girl in the polyester night gown. Somewhere inside me, she is searching out the warm places and huddling greedily over them while thin rings of smoke wreath her head.

Twice a week, my mother laid Seth down for a nap in the awkward chair room and began making arrangements to wash mine and my sister’s hair in the kitchen sink. As a mother, I think it seems like the hard way to go about things to separate hair-washing from bath time. But my mother has never been overly concerned with doing things the easy way. And if there is anything I have learned about motherhood, it is this: Sometimes we find our own way. Do what works for you and let others do what works for them. While I have not ever subscribed to it, washing her daughters’ hair in the kitchen sink was my mother’s own brand of parenting. It worked for her.

So, twice a week she laid a thick bath towel on the counter where I would lay up to my shoulders, my neck and head dangling in the sink like a really comfortable guillotine. She would pile potato chips on my belly and then search for the perfect level of warmth on the faucet settings like a pilot at the dials of a Victorian Airship. The water trickled down my scalp in perfect, warm streams. She massaged my head in deep long movements. My eyes would close; a faint, pleasant dream calling to me from a long way off. And then suddenly and without fail, she would curl her fingers under and dig her nails in as she grated the top layers of dirt and sweat and skin and cranial bones in rapid movements, as if she were pursuing swift and evasive fleas or black spot.

Tears streamed down my cheeks, though I wasn’t crying. Apparently, my brain disapproved of my decision not to cry and sent the tears anyway.

After the spiritual cleansing ritual, she would condition my hair starting with the same deep tissue massage. Usually by this time, my stores of potato chips were depleted and the nerves under my scalp were on high alert so I was more vocal in my protest as she began to run her fingers through my long tangled brown hair. She attacked those snarls with a righteous anger, a holy fury any good Baptist could tap in a heartbeat. She dragged a comb through my hair with the ferocity of a rake through brambles that had been set on fire due to an infestation of snakes.

By the end of it, she and I were both sweaty and out of sorts. I’d scurry off with one last sympathetic glance to my sister as my mom started the whole process again, a fresh pile of potato chips and a crazed look in her eye.

The summer after first grade, we moved to Oklahoma, into a neighborhood with modern electrical wiring and sidewalks and a garden club. (And, incidently, into a house up the hill from my future husband. But that is another house, another story altogether...)

Someone has since moved into our White House and painted her pink. With green trim. They no doubt think this is ironic or witty, referring to her as a painted lady at dinner parties.

I just think it’s a little sad. Like a masterpiece in face paint. Like The Venus de Milo in stage make up. Slap some rouge and heavy eye liner on her and you might notice that her arms have fallen off.

Our White House was lovely in her own seductive, understated way. And so she stays in my memory. Perfect even in her imperfection.

The White House in two parts. Part 1

You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it's all right.

-Maya Angelou (1928--)

We lived in an old, white, Victorian style house in Pilot Point, Texas for a few years growing up. My brother, sister and I refer to it as, “The White House.” It sat on the corner of two old streets who apparently had no use for curbs or smooth sidewalks. She was one of a dozen stately homes who remember eras of this country that have been decidedly shellacked or bulldozed. Our house was likely known as the Village Tart with her leaded glass windows, voluptuous red, painted porch that wrapped itself around the front and down the side of the house, like lines on lady’s panty hose disappearing behind the hem of her skirt. The front staircase boasted a fine banister that stretched the full length of the staircase. Windows spilled light through the balusters into the two story foyer. She left plenty to the imagination, however, with her over-indulgence of doors and unexpected rooms here and there.

We moved in as a family of four and then Seth was born. I was five years old. I cried, HOWLED in the hospital waiting room when my dad informed us with a wide grin “It’s a boy!” I was utterly disappointed in my parents. I thought the sonogram pictures were a threat. I hadn’t taken them seriously. I insisted they send him back.

And then, probably against their better judgment, they let me hold Seth. He was sweet and small (He would probably still fit in all of my doll clothes…) I decided to forgive him for being male. So before we left the hospital, I ditched my Cabbage Patch doll and adopted my brother as my very own baby. My mother would race me to his cradle when he cried, for fear that I would a) suffocate him as I climbed in to comfort him, or b) drop him as I used his receiving blankets to pull him toward me and then tipped the cradle over to one side so that he rolled into my waiting arms.

The old, wooden cradle was in the room off of the kitchen. There was no clear definition of this room. I can only imagine the headaches it created for real estate agents showing the house. It boasted several windows (more than perhaps were entirely necessary if you didn’t fall into the screened-in porch category,) a back door, a back staircase, a wood burning stove, the cradle, and a few odd chairs milling about the room, like half a dozen introverts at a cocktail party mumbling contrived “How do you do’s,” unsure of what to do with themselves.

Those chairs came in handy one day when a mouse snuck in the house and holed up behind the stove. My mother, sister, and I leapt on top of them, held hostage by the 14 ounce rodent. We had an argument about whether or not mice knew how to climb trees and/or chair legs, as we watched my Dad chase the little sucker around the room with my mother’s broom. It took a while. Long enough that I had switched teams before the end of it. In the beginning, he was a fanged, furry intruder full of malcontent and scabies. But as he skittered around the room, I identified with him. He was afraid and small. He became a little fairytale mouse, confused and in need of a catchy tune and a teaspoon of understanding. I thought we should let him live. He wouldn’t eat much and I was sure my Dad could file down his fangs and give him all the necessary inoculations. I imagined him with a miniature rhinestone studded collar sporting a brass tag etched with his name, Hubert, and our phone number, lest he get lost… Whap! Whap, whap, whap! I’m not sure it ended quickly or painlessly for Hubert only that it ended. And my mother bought a new broom.


I have been considering the idea of home, lately. The White House is the first one I remember well.

I remember the dream my mother woke me from on my first day of Kindergarten, the Weeping Willow in the front yard my sister and I anointed as the headquarters of our various secret societies, the swing set in the backyard… It’s also where I first felt the sting of loss when our cat, Annie, was killed by a neighbor’s cats. That house holds my first memories of being sexually assaulted by my grandpa. I was maybe four or five.

My grown up mind has a hard time reconciling the good and the bad, the duality of home for the little girl I once was.

I still think of home as a mother who sees me coming from far off, gathers her skirts and runs to meet me. She scoops me up and holds me close in a warmth that isn’t lost.
Or maybe this is what I hope for my own girls.

stay tuned for part 2

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sometimes our fate resembles a fruit tree in winter. Who would think that those branches would turn green again and blossom but we hope it, we know it

-Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
A favorite photo from my Mornings Project, August 09
This week, we enjoyed 50 straight hours of snow. These are evergreens. I promise.
The beginning of the storm, October 09
Photo walk, October 09
Vail, Colorado, July, 2008
This post is part of the Photo Challenge: Green at The Women's Colony