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.