A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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The Absolutely True Story of Our Family Holiday Card

Some people are really good at gifts, a knack for finding that perfect something. Others love to bake…hundreds of melty snowmen cookies and cute little Santas made from tiny pieces of dried fruit which must be cut with nail scissors they’re so small. I have a good friend (you know who you are) who makes gorgeous, elaborate ginger bread structures. One year she microwaved Jolly Ranchers to make stained glass windows. Not even kidding.

Me? I get paper cuts from wrapping and, like the Christmas goose, I’m getting fat. There are certainly no hay pennies to toss in this old woman’s hat by the end of all the gift-buying. But I have my own little piece of the holidays where I go over the top, down into the valley, and up the other side.

Our family holiday card.

You see, I may not love Christmas and all the trimmings, but every year we do a family holiday photo card. It started out with a picture of our eldest son in cute little outfits. Then it extended to include all of us. Now it’s morphed into a full-blown production.

I just got this year’s out and I’m already starting to stress about what to do next year.

Not really.

(But yeah, sort of)

****

A friend said, when she got this year’s card (via email–postage in Denmark is ridiculous), “Oh, when I look at your card I think, I wish we were one of those families!”

I burst out laughing.

You see, the finished product is one thing. The process? That is something else entirely.

We are..most decidedly…not one of those families. And by those families I mean ones who actually measure up to the lives their holiday photo is portraying. Which is why we forgo the cutesy family pjs in lieu of something a bit less Rockwell and more…say…Parker family from A Christmas Story. More representative of us.

You know, the ones who are thinking of getting a crest with the family motto: Don’t be a dick.

****

I don’t tend toward anxiety, but when I do, it’s almost always about time. My kids are thirteen and almost ten and if it’s 7 pm and I know they haven’t had dinner I still get a knot of anxiety in my stomach. Getting to the airport is a nightmare, I can never get the timings right. This year, I knew the set up for the card was going to be time-consuming and time? Time, unlike my middle-aged spread, is in short supply this year. A traveling photographer, visitors, plans, more visitors, more traveling for the photographer.

Basically I had a 2 hour window to get it done.

Cue me, hurling clothes from the cupboard looking for a wig and the family Santa hats in an anxious fit which more accurately resembled semi-rage.

You see, this is what goes on behind the card. Not Happy Families. Snarky Ones.

****

Things I do not do when shooting our Christmas card:

Xmas Card 2015 From The Usual Suspects
Gather my children round and speak to them in soothing, dulcet tones

Regal them with warm and fuzzy stories of the holiday season

Snuggle up next to them with hot cocoa and sugar cookies

Things I DO do

Threat, beg, plead, bribe

Swear never to do it again

Say things like “It’s doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year, does it? For fuck’s sake, it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year! Show some gratitude for the wonder!”

Thank the universe profusely when it’s over.

Here’s what the scene of shooting our holiday card really resembles:

Hours of prep work on my part. Hours of my husband (the traveling photographer) taking too long to get the lighting just right, the camera sitting precariously perched on a pile of books on an upturned stool on a jerry-rigged tripod. The kids getting fidgety about thirty seconds after I announce we’re good to go, at least thirty shots where everyone looks good….except one person. In years past we’ve spent an hour taking photos only to end up using the first one we took. This year, we ended up using the last one so there was some karmic retribution there.

Last year’s shoot was probably the worst. The fake fur rugs we were wearing kept slipping off. Wrapping paper swords were denting. We couldn’t decide on fierce or funny. The lighting wasn’t right. My photographer was getting frustrated. There was yelling and I think there may have been hissing.xmas-2016-christmas-is-coming.jpg

All witnessed by my mother and sister.

Not our best.

The card looked good though.

This year was pretty mild in comparison. The camera fell from its perch once and there was a collective intake of breath. Would it crack? Would the photographer be in a foul mood? Would we finish within our two-hour window?

It didn’t. He wasn’t. We did.

****

All for what you may ask?

Well, part of it is definitely memories. And part of it is the fun of the finished product. But I’m not going to lie. I’m….good at holiday cards. It’s become an annual challenge to come up with something quirky or different. I like giving my friends and family something fun or funny to look at each year. And buried beneath all of that, we actually are making memories.

They just have more swearing and less sugar plums than you’d think.

My holiday gift? My husband and kids indulging me in a ridiculously over the top tradition. It may be a silly tradition. It may be an over-the-top one. But it’s ours. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

 

****

 

 

 

Memory Keepers

My kids, like most, have memories like a steel trap.

Remember that time you promised us ice cream and then we didn’t get any?
You mean the time your brother was running 104 temperature and we were trying to get him to the hospital, that time???
I dunno, maybe. But you still owe us an ice cream!

But the memories they keep, the ones that get caught in their young traps? They tend to be highly selective.

For instance, they don’t remember the seven hundred and sixty-two times I asked them to get their socks on, They only remember when I screamed at them to get their f**king socks on right this goddamn minute.

See? Selective memories.

Your kids have them too. They won’t remember all the mushy- gushy kisses, they’ll remember–and tell everyone who will listen– about the time you accidentally elbowed them on your way to the toilet to barf.

They won’t remember all the times you told them you loved them, but you can be damn sure they’ll remember the one time you threatened to sell them on eBay.

They won’t remember the mom magic that helps you keep track of who likes hard-boiled eggs and who likes scrambled, who likes their pasta with pesto and who prefers it with butter, who likes their carrots peeled and who doesn’t. What will they remember? The one time you put cucumber in the lunch box of the kid who doesn’t like cucumber as if you were trying.to.poison.him.

They won’t remember all the times you stayed up all night, not to get lucky, but to obsessively check their foreheads. They’ll remember the one time you were out to dinner and they threw up on the babysitter.

Remember that time, Mom? The time when you were out and I got sick all over the babysitter? Remember??

They won’t remember the 683, 909 calm and rational explanations, but they’ll remember the one time you lost your shit and threw a cup across the room.

They won’t remember the times you got up early to make scrambled eggs for breakfast on a school day. They’ll only remember the time you bought the bread with the seeds. You know. The one they hate.

No remembrance of time past, the hours spent pushing swings, spotting their little bodies climbing up the slide, zooming cars around on the floor. Nope. They will remember all the times they were so bored, Mom! 

They won’t remember the 10,000 meals you cooked, the ones they gobbled up. What will they remember? The ones they hated.

Out of 5,493 loads of laundry, the only one they’ll remember is the one when you shrank their hoodie in the dryer.

They won’t remember the times you pretended to be interested in play by play Pokemon or Minecraft stories. They’ll remember the time you shushed them because they were about to announce who was eliminated on Master Chef.

They won’t remember the scenery on the way to the National Park, or the $3,498 you spent on admissions. They’ll remember the way the ketchup at Burger King squirted on the table.

They won’t remember the 7,930 toys you bought them over the course of a lifetime, the 15,000 bits of Lego, the Barbie shoes you glued back together. They’ll fixate on the Barbie Dream House they never got.

Oh wait, that was me…

They won’t remember the blood, the sweat, or the tears. But the yelling, the screaming, the swears? It’s the stuff of legend. The stuff of therapy, of memoir, of blogs.

It’s all good. I may not remember why I opened the fridge, or what I came into the room to get, but all this stuff? Stored for life..or at least until I have grandkids on my side.

 

You Don’t Have To Be Cool To Rule My World

prince-800-468x351In the dark of a sweat-soaked night, poured into a pair of jeans with zips at the ankles, a half shirt riding my midriff, I stood. With other uncoupled girls, backs against the cool tile wall, I listened as the unmistakable guitar notes of Purple Rain echoed through the cafeteria.

As a young teen, Purple Rain was a song for fetishes. It was the song you fantasized to, the one where the boy you had been following between locker clangs and lunch tray thumps all semester strode over to ask you to dance. That long, guitar strum anthem was four and half minutes in which to bury your nose in the scent of boy crush. Ten if they played the album version.

Prince, like the smell of Drakkar Noir and Aqua Net, the stickiness of bubble gum lip gloss and the snap of grape Bubblicious, was part of the soundtrack of my adolescence. His music was there, new and adult. For many of us Darling Nikki was the musical equivalent of Judy Blume’s book, Forever. A song which you knew was down and dirty without knowing how you knew. That song sounded like lust. It sounded illicit and secret and thrilling and as teens, our parents had no clue we were grinding to those notes until Tipper Gore came along and ruined everything.

Prince’s music was accessible enough to land in the Top 40, but edgy enough to make you squirm. For a young teen, his music was dirty. It was sexy. It was raw and lust and moan and grind. It was music to make out in a dark corner of the cafeteria to. It was boy straining at the crotch of his jeans music. Music that made your pulse throb with longing.

For a long time Prince found the perfect balance between commercial and cool. Androgynous, high-pitched and unabashedly sexual, he was the 80s answer to the 70s Bowie. Flamboyant enough to appeal to the fringes and talented enough to wrap the mainstream around his little finger. Prince was the man who made singing about a sorbet colored hat sound cool, the one who got away with singing about condoms on Casey Kasem’s radio show.

As adults my husband and I still listen to Purple Rain from time to time. We still know all the words to When Doves Cry. I can still do the finger gestures to I Would Die 4U as if I were dancing in a circle in a high school cafeteria, watching the boy I crushed on out of the corner of my eye, praying he noticed enough to ask me to dance.

For me, Prince will always be the music playing at the moment you understand what the adults are talking about behind their hands. The moment you realize the throbbing and the pulsing and flutters mean something. When the Drakkar Noir mixes just a little too well with the scent of flesh and male and the hum of your very self sings as high some of his notes.

It was the perfect soundtrack for the long walk from childhood to adolescence, a low thrumming baseline of lust which made you sing and wonder and feel those notes down below your belt.

Standing here now at forty-five, at the crossroads of yet another turn of life, his death has brought me full circle. But I will never be able to hear the opening strains of Purple Rain without feeling like a girl on the cusp of something new, something exciting, something they tell you is wrong but is oh, so right.