Monday, December 21, 2009

basement monsters

Why must the young and the innocent always be sent on these errands of doom? Parents, who profess to love their children, yet so willingly sacrifice them to these monsters of the deep for a simple tool from the workshop or a loaf of bread from the freezer. They coach from the safety of the upstairs world. “Just turn on the light.” they say. “We’re right here. What could happen?” And off we go, hearing them continue in their breakfast babble –not concentrating on possible cries for help from the bowels of the basement. Before every descent, I used to give detailed instructions of what should be done in my absence. I wanted the sister, mother, father, grandparent to stand at the top of the basement stairs with an ear intently tuned, listening for signs of peril. I wanted their face and eyebrows knitted with worry, focusing all their attention on my safe return. I made them promise to come after me if my string of chatter ceased. Then, like a springboard diver rehearsing her routine of twists and tucks, I planned my moves and took a final breath chorusing the words “Talk, talk, talk, talk talk…” over and again as I descended into hell.
Unfortunately the light illuminated only the stairs; there remained a long stretch of blackness to navigate. Like a captive princess, the freezer stood in the far corner of the basement, guarded by the sump pump who gurgled and belched warnings from his watery hole. I saw the light-string dangling in the center of the room; my holy grail. With the nimbleness of youth and my “talk, talk, talk” to give me courage, I brought glorious light with one tug of the string. Not wanting to waken the sump pump from slumber, my chorus of “talk, talk, talk” moved into a gentler timbre as I released the freezer door and extracted the strawberry jam I was sent to fetch.
Frigid trophy in hand, I braced myself for the perilous ascent where demons would chase me, unwilling to relinquish their frozen strawberry booty. In order to complete my task, I realized I must once again plunge myself into darkness. Soaking up the last rays of illumination, I sprinted to the light string and pulled it with such force that it wound like a gymnast making circles round and round the cross beams of the ceiling joist. Running faster than my pupils could dilate, I dashed through the darkness past shadowy figures toward that beacon of light above. Pounding up the basement steps, I was sure slimy, monstery hands were poking slender fingers through the open backs of the basement stairs, grabbing at my ankles. In the sound track of my seven-year-old mind, stringed instruments screech warning cries as my feet drummed up the stairs hitting each wooden step with staccato precision. My panic rose in pitch the nearer I came to freedom; piquing in a deafening crescendo. Lured by the sweet smell of “upstairs air” and sounds of breakfast, I pumped my knees high remembering that I was still in “monster strike zone.” (Those last three steps are always the most dangerous). I took a final lunge onto linoleum, out of breath, chased nearly to death, but still alive. I held up the strawberry jam in expectation of trumpets and cheers only to find that my benefactor had left her post at the top of the stairs to finish her cereal before it got soggy.
I made promises that if I survived to adulthood, I would never send anyone I loved into such a place alone. And I’d like to say that I never have, but it’s so handy to send my daughter Emily down for a frozen pizza or to drain the dehumidifier into the sump pump. And really…What could happen? She’ll be just fine. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

when's memorial day?

I sat in my puddle of teenaged angst staring at my mother as she ate her usual breakfast of toast, tea and an orange my dad had thoughtfully peeled and sectioned before he left for work so Mom’s fingers wouldn’t smell of orange rind all day. Mom, unaware, read her Time magazine turning thin, slippery pages. No one knows why she did it and still does it – not even Mom herself is aware of the reason; her unconscious mind simply takes over - gently driving her hand to bounce each orange section several times before lifting it to her lips. Like an orchestra’s maestro, Mom has bounced out the opening measures to countless Overtures and Opuses over the years. Unable to look away, I always steel myself for the “crescendo moment” when the last orange slice disappears in slurpy-glorious triumph.
Now a mother myself, I actually look forward to the bouncing orange ritual as Mom and I eat breakfast together on vacations and weekend visits. It’s the one thing I can count on as the stock market tumbles, as my body changes in unrecognizable ways, and as my teenager morphs into a different being. Like the comforting tick of a clock, my mother’s once-annoying habits now make me feel safe. Instantly, I can relax in something constant.
I remind my daughter Emily of this as we move into our own mother-daughter-teenaged relationship. We’ve discussed strategies she can employ for dealing with my annoying habits of inhaling and exhaling – ways to get through it without rudely asking me not to breath because it is bothering her. I’ve warned Emily that in the coming months, as the teenageness takes hold, she will come to hate the way I sneeze, the way I say “Mmm bye” as I hang up the phone, and the jingle my belt buckle makes as I walk around the house with it undone after a big meal.  I predict however, that one day she will come to cherish these annoying habits as I later dodder about - jingling through the doorway of Emily’s own dining room, my loose belt buckle the audible signal of a meal well done.
Since those blissful moments are many years away, it’s good to equip Emily with hard-won strategies my sister and I perfected as we drove cross-country on vacations with our parents. From the back seat of our Rambler station wagon, we toyed with my mother, drawing her from one song into another in a game Jen and I called Musical Whiplash. We’d ever-so-softly whistle or hum a bar from a popular tune and leave it to take root in Mom’s fertile mind. She never knew we were subversively planting songs - taking her from “How Great Thou Art” one minute to Ethel Mermon’s “New York New York.” The trouble we ran into was never how to get her started, but how to get her stopped. There’s nothing more embarrassing than having your mother humming “I’m a Little Teapot” while she waits in line at the gas station bathroom. I wanted to share with my daughter the technique we developed for the safe handling of a hummer. Whether it’s show tunes or even worse – no real tune at all, you can instantly silence the offending individual by asking a question. In order to answer the question, the hummer must stop humming. Mission accomplished.
One afternoon as I was fixing supper and Emily was sitting at the kitchen table doing homework, she asked me when Memorial Day was. I answered, “It’s sometime late in May. I think it’s May 28th this year.” The next day as I was wiping down the kitchen counters she asked again, “Mom, when’s Memorial Day?” I rumpled my eyebrows a bit concerned since I had just told her yesterday, but went into a short speech about the difference between Labor Day and Memorial Day and ways to keep them straight. A week or two later I was driving Emily to a friend’s house and out of the silence, she once again posed the fateful question, “Mom, When’s Memorial Day?” I was growing concerned. Had she experienced head trauma? Was she losing her mind? And then I thought to ask, “Emily, was I just humming?” Her bashful nod told me all I needed to know and we laughed heartily over my fears for her mental health and my drawn out explanations on correct calendar placement of holidays. Now when one of us is snapping our gum or jingling coins in a pocket, we politely interject with the simple question “When’s Memorial Day?”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I held a baby today. A brand new one. Her toes were so perfectly miniature; I kept having to suppress the urge to nibble on them like the baby-corn cobs you see in Chinese food. And her skin! Oh how I love those first months when their downy-peach-fuzz hasn’t worn off. I held little Ava tickling up and down - playing love notes on her legs.
We all grow up. Our complexions change. I’m at the stage where my freckles are no longer ogled by anyone but the dermatologist who removes one every now and then for testing. I’m kept busy at family get-togethers trimming Dad’s wild eyebrows and “earbrows” and plucking chin hairs from the women-folk with eyes too weak to tweeze. As my sister points out my hairy-Hobbit toes, I enlighten her about the 1 inch swath of unshaven thigh on the back of her left leg. Like a community of chimpanzees, we’re becoming increasingly hairy and require group-groomings in order to look good.
But the other day I found it. An island of youth. I traced its perimeter around the outer edge of my ear and into the soft fleshy part of each earlobe - my last remnant of baby skin. Forty-five-year-old earlobes that for some reason escaped the ravages of sun, time and hormones. A bit of baby-down I can keep with me always, and the best part is I don’t have to waken every few hours to feed it or worry about sending it to college.

Friday, November 20, 2009

for love of cauliflower

 I like my doctor because his office is just down the street from the most fabulous grocery store in the whole world, Jungle Jim’s. Frolicking in a playground of fruits, vegetables, fish, sauces, candy and crackers from around the world softens the blow of having to see the doctor every other month for blood work. My regular visits keep us well stocked in exotic garlic-stuffed olives, flavored hummus and fresh buns like I haven’t eaten since Grandma died. Olives for your birthday, an act that would lead to divorce in most marriages, works for ours. Instead of flowers and jewelry, my husband surprises me with more olives when I’m running low. I like to sock one away in my cheek, nursing the flavor out of the thick green skin much as tobacco chewers are wont to do with their vegetable of choice.
Yesterday as I walked through the acres of produce at Jungle Jim’s, I came upon a beautiful sight. Sitting before me was a table displaying the largest cauliflower heads I’ve ever seen. The densely-packed-white-flowers peered like coral from their thick-veined greenery. A perfect package; and all for only $2.50. I know Erich’s been wanting a new car, maybe he’d like this instead. I bought one, but I wanted two. On the way home I kept thinking of things we could do with it. At each stop light I’d gaze at it through its clear plastic bag – sitting bold and beautiful in the passenger seat next to me. What a lovely table decoration it would make. Visions came to me of my daughter Emily someday walking down the aisle with a head of cauliflower such as this as her bridal bouquet, ribbons flowing. A sprig of cauliflower in a button hole – the perfect complement as the groom and best man’s boutonnieres. I wanted to call all my friends. The good thing is that Jungle Jim’s is a twenty-minute drive from our house. By the time I got home I had come to my senses and decided that Erich, Emily and my friends would probably not be as tickled with the huge cauliflower head as I was.  I resisted the urge to take a photo of it and resigned myself to carve it up for cauliflower soup.
No matter how the world tosses me about with troubles and cares, I will always have that moment - just me and my most gigantic cauliflower head - on our twenty minute ride home, when anything was possible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


“Dad!” I yell as I rake through piles of shoes in my bedroom closet looking for a match to my desert boots. “Dad! Is Karen at the bus stop yet?”
“Zabbazee!” I hear him chime back from the distant downstairs kitchen. This word, zabbazee, was invented by my family and is one you won’t find in any dictionary. As children from every era make insistent demands and shout muffled orders to parents from distant locations, “Zabbazee!” yelled at the top of your lungs is the appropriate response.
Eskimos have dozens of words for snow that precisely describe each snowish nuance from “crunchy dry” to “wet-snowman snow” to “ice-coated topper.” The beauty of zabbazee is that this single word encapsulates what would otherwise be a long-winded-irritated speech yelled back at the selfish sod who is too lazy to change locations to speak to you in person. If zabbazee were in Webster’s Dictionary its entry might read something like this.
Zabbazee  \zab’-u-ze\ interjection Used as an exclamation when expressing frustration with someone who thinks you can hear them. SYNONYM FOR… If you have something to say to me missy, you’d better come and say it to my face. Who do you think you are that you can simply yell something from one end of the earth and expect me to know what it is you’re saying? I absolutely DID NOT hear what you just said and if it was something important like I’m running away and am moving to France, then you need to know I have not heard you.

The trouble with zabbazee is that your children come to understand the richness of this word and begin incorporating it into their own vocabulary.  As my daughter leaves the house, car keys in hand, I blather on from the open front door with endless words of caution, “Be careful. Don’t drive too fast. Remember to lock your doors…” Pulling out of the driveway she responds with an all too appropriate Zabbazee!

Friday, November 6, 2009

dropping the “h”

This is the note my husband Erich found on our kitchen counter when he returned from the hardware store.
Eric,   I’ve gone for a walk with Beth.      Ann

It might seem innocuous enough, yet to my husband of 22 years, this simple message spelled danger! First, the note was found on the kitchen counter where I never leave important messages. My mother taught me right and insisted we leave these precious scraps of scribbled-on-paper on the kitchen floor where they are sure to be spotted. Countertops are dangerous places. An electric bill can go weeks without detection under the kitchen camouflage of junk mail heavily sprinkled with homework and dirty dishes.
The fact that my note was discovered on the kitchen counter at all is highly suspect for two reasons. One, that I would go against a lifetime of training to put the note in such jeopardy and two that the counter itself was clear enough that it wasn’t swallowed instantly by countertop debris. Something must be wrong! My husband was also alarmed by the misspelling of his name. Surely the woman he’s been sleeping next to for 22 years would know how to spell his name. Perhaps I had left off Erich’s “h” and placed the note in a dangerous place as a cry for help. Erich immediately tried calling my cell phone and heard my usual voicemail message warning callers, “Hi, This is Ann. You can leave a message if you like, but I need to let you know that my phone is often in the drawer turned off so you might want to call me at home if it’s something important.” Erich called Beth’s cell phone to see if she, like normal people, might have her cell phone with her. And if she, like normal people, might have it turned on. Luckily my friends are normal people. They carry purses, cell phones, and always have a tissue or a pen when you need one – that’s why I hang out with them. Beth assured Erich that I wasn’t in someone’s trunk, but was actually by her side. The misspelling came in my rush to leave the house and the fact that for 8 hours a day I write emails and take messages for my boss who has the same name as my husband but spells it Eric.

My Erich now spells my name Anne with an e for the fun of it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

new and improved

New doesn't always mean improved. Duncan Hines changed the way angel food cake is made from a two-step process to a one-step process and "in the process" ruined the way the raw batter tastes. My sister is a batter connoisseur and cried real tears over the angel-food debacle. 
I was cleaning out my pantry not too long ago and found two boxes of cake mix from the two-step days.  I wrapped the decade-old boxes of angel food and gave them to my sister for her birthday. She's saving them for a special day when she needs a bowl of batter to cheer her.  
With all this innovation in the test kitchen, the Duncan Hines scientists still have not eliminated the troublesome upside down-ness that's required while the angel food cake cools. In the old days, we used pop bottles in that center tube to turn the hot cake on its head, but now pop bottles are also "new and improved" and no longer sport a slender glass neck but have become no-necked-two-liter bottles and squat aluminum cans. Fortunately my mother and sister saved a pop bottle before "the end" and are still able to make the exotic cake.  I myself am not a baker (as evidenced by the ten-year-old cake mixes in my pantry) but have looked into the future and bought up scads of my favorite bras and comfortable-model shoes before they "new and improve" them into oblivion.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

hello kitty

        I took a kitty cat to the grocery store with me, then we went to the bank. My kitty cat was our 3-year-old with perky ears worn on a headband and a swishy tail safety pinned to her black stretch pants. She wrinkled her nose at the fishy smells of the seafood counter, her painted-on-whiskers twitching in finicky disgust.
It was nearly Christmas, yet my daughter Emily couldn’t let go of Halloween – and why should she? As long as both of us were willing to put ourselves out there for ridicule and admiration, going on errands with a kitty at your side is quite harmless. My usually-shy-in-public daughter, oddly romped very sociably when dressed as a cat. People waiting in line who ignore us when we’re “normal,” cooed over us with questions like, “What’s your kitty’s name?” To my surprise, Emily lasted much longer doing errands as a kitty than as a human child. I was even able to squeeze in the usually horrid Christmas-season-noon-time-post-office-run without incident. Next week I have returns to make; I’m thinking of dressing as Wonder Woman.