Sunday, December 5, 2010

Empty Nest

There are the usual comments and things empty nesters notice when their children are gone from the house, the solitude - the peculiar way the way rooms and bathrooms stay tidy. But I’ve noticed some interesting new habits my husband and I have picked up since our only child has gone off to college.

We’ve reverted back to Cro-Magnon behaviors of sniffing and studying our food before we eat it. We never simply open the milk jug and pour as we used to do when Emily was home. Instead, we cautiously swirl what’s left of the gallon and sneak a whiff to save us the horror of pouring a coagulated sour mess over a bowl of Cheerios. As the weeks go by and the bread bag gradually grows emptier, I find myself holding each slice up to the light of the oven hood, searching out blue-green whispers of mold. Squinting and turning, squinting and turning until I’m relatively certain it’s fine.

Our dishwasher is shockingly full of spoons. We’ve become those people who eat peanut butter on a banana and call it supper. Spoons from dipping into the peanut butter jar, spoons from all the cereal we’ve been eating, spoons from yogurt. I feel like a terrible person for running the dishwasher because we’ve simply run out of clean spoons so I throw in our toothbrushes and the permanently spaghetti-sauce-stained spatulas to see if one more round of dishwashing might lighten their orange glow.

I opened the cereal closet the other day (yes we have a closet just for cereal) and I smelled a dead body. After lifting boxes here and there hoping I wouldn’t find someone’s forgotten fingers, I remembered this odd vegetable we used to eat a lot of “Once upon a time,” called a potato. I had to scrape the melted spuds off the shelf with – you got it – our last clean spoon.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


One of my favorite things about babies, besides inhaling their hair, is watching them do a whole body startle when something surprises them. It’s a primal reaction we’re all born with. Even in a roomful of adults, if you make a sudden “BANG!” you get a peppering of full body flinches and stifled-staccato screams. The firefighter types always jump to their feet. The rest of the room takes that elongated-voiced inhale scientists say is designed to give us a last good breath.
It wasn’t until a bird broke through a restaurant window and my sister Jennifer and I were the only patrons still sitting, that we realized we had both lost our startle reflex. Somehow, the nerve ganglion preserved through years of evolution to protect us had been severed.
What would cause two sisters to lose this reflex you might ask? We grew up in a home with a screamer. Our mother’s panicked inhalations were heard every time she dropped a spoon, forgot her dentist appointment, or a bookmark fell out of her book. As children, we’d run to her expecting to see fingers or toes lopped off from a dropped knife, but instead would bend over to retrieve a stack of mail that had slipped off the edge of the table. Years of conditioning gradually desensitized us.
This freakish inability to react has made us popular with our daughters; we’ve become a “party game.” The girls pop out of darkened hallways and slam books to the floor in an attempt to make us scream, flinch, inhale, look up…anything. When both our families went to an amusement park together, the girls delighted in the knowledge that I had moaned a little going down the steepest roller coaster hill. Finally a reaction!
There are times when living with a screamer is a lot more fun. Any good news shared with my mother, and you need a spatula to scrape her off the ceiling. Even on long distance telephone calls, she reacts with over-the-top-glee at a report of a lost tooth. When, in my own calm way, I compliment my daughter Emily on her art project, Emily finishes with, “Thanks Mom, I think I’ll go call Gram.” I’ve tried faking excitement, but everyone just laughs. It’s as obvious as a put-on-sneeze. My day is coming though. When Emily starts to drive, she’ll appreciate having a passenger who doesn’t squeal at every mailbox you almost hit and who doesn’t yell, “STOP!” at yellow traffic lights. Yes, my day will come.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

black beauties

Patent leather shoes had arrived and were destroying relationships among girl-children everywhere. A pandemic of jealousy spanned the globe passing from house to house as the lucky ones outgrew their Sunday best and were allowed to buy a shiny new pair.
My sister Jennifer’s trendy patent leathers were reserved only for church. These Sunday-only-seductive-slip-ons were cut low enough to show “toe cleavage” and sported a black and white polka dot bow pinned like a corsage on a buxom breast. My hand-me-down Mary Janes paled against the patent’s ebony glow. Although Jen’s feet had grown and moved on to greener pastures, I was left with her shoddy hand-me-downs. My worn Mary Janes chronicled the older sister’s growth with buckle impressions marking each pinhole along the length of my leather straps.
Every Sunday morning Jen pranced about the house finding hard surfaces to enjoy the audible click-clop of her new patent leather shoes. Her Black Beauties broke from the closet each Sunday for their once-a-week showing at The First Presbyterian Church of Alliance. My lame Mary Janes and I stood tethered while Dad fished my fingers into the slender sleeves of my white church gloves. Jen’s feet sidled up to us shimmering with unbridled enthusiasm.
In the gravel-y church parking lot, I kicked each stone hoping to remove enough chapped leather to necessitate a new pair of shoes. Jen walked with arms out, as if on broken glass. During the boring bits of the service I busied myself studying Dad’s pocket watch and memorizing the veined map of his hands. I tried not to look at Jen’s feet shining in glory as they swung back and forth nearly touching the hymnal rack. Forget coveting the neighbor’s wife, God should have mentioned patent leather in those 10 commandments. Finally Mom touched Jen’s leg to stop her swinging and to remind her to sit with her knees together. Each week it was the same torture for me, watching those shoes swing in time with Dad’s watch, ticking away the years.
One hot summer day I found myself trapped in my bedroom with my mother who had set aside the morning for our annual torture of trying on school clothes. We first went through my closet to see what I had outgrown over the summer and then moved into my sister’s boxed wardrobe of hand-me-downs. The fan whirred in the open window blowing in sounds of freedom as my friends played a raucous game of kickball in the street without me. Pulling dusty dresses from boxes, Mom held each one up to my rigid frame, as if dressing a life-size paper doll. My frozen expression of pain and suffering went unnoticed by my mother who began clucking about hem lengths as she reached for her sewing pins. Resigned to my fate, I climbed into the first dress awaiting the commencement of the prolonged alteration process. With Mom crouched on her knees before me, I stood on the kitchen chair that had been brought upstairs. Like a poorly trained ventriloquist, Mom mumbled admonishments with pins pressed tightly between her lips, “Stop fidgeting! No slouching! Arms at your sides!” At her instruction and with each annoying tap-tap of the yardstick measuring my hem height, I turned every-so-slightly like a ballerina on a music box winding slowly down, down, down with each turn.
As Mom reached into the box to pull out the next dress for hemming, she clapped her hands with glee. She had unearthed the coveted patent leather pumps of yesteryear. “Oh Ann, I think you’ve finally grown enough that you can wear Jen’s old Sunday pumps that you liked so well. Won’t that be nice?” Every little sister knows where this is going. Years had passed. Fashions had changed. Clogs and earth shoes were now the craze. Being forced to wear patent leather pumps with a bow at the toe was more than a little toe cleavage could repair. The fact that I used to adore these shoes made it even worse. Mom tried to comfort me. “I’ll make you a long dress from that psychedelic silk all the girls are wearing. Most people really don’t look down that often. No one will notice. You’ll be fine.”
Along with many other children of the ‘60’s, I managed to survive the Patent Leather Plagues that swept through North America. But I can’t say I wasn’t scarred by the experience. Someday when I have time, I’ll let a therapist pick at the scabs every hand-me-down sister has festering somewhere in the tender recesses of her broken little heart.

Friday, May 14, 2010

mother tongue

Some families are multi-lingual - growing up with Spanish, Italian, or Chinese spoken in the home. In my family we spoke English, but our mother tongue was an ancient language of whistles and raised eyebrows that seasoned parents have spoken throughout the ages. One might be surprised by how many phrases and reprimands can be communicated with pursed lips and furrowed brow.
My sister Jennifer and I shared a bedroom. At nighttime after we’d been tucked into bed, Jen and I could get a little loud with our talking and giggling. If things progressed to volume levels that could be heard downstairs, Dad’s two-noted whistle came wafting up from the family room like the smell of burned popcorn quickly changing our mood to furtive, muffled goodnight whispers followed by a quick silence. To outsiders who didn’t understand “the language,” Dad’s whistle might sound melodious and pretty, to us it was a warning cry of impending doom, for if we continued to make noise, one of us would surely spend the night in the lonely downstairs guest bedroom.
My mother is not a whistler; she speaks eyebrow. From a distance of 30 feet, she can give you a punishing eyebrow lashing that will bring tears to your eyes. If necessary, she has a whisper-yell chaser that will knock you straight if her eyebrows didn’t quite do the trick. In the 70’s it was popular to wear underwear monogrammed with the days of the week. These mother-invented undergarments were the bane of children everywhere for it became immediately evident on laundry day that someone hasn’t been changing her underwear. My mother, holding up only Monday and Thursday panties, could shoot me a wicked raised-brow that could kill a cat. No words necessary.
Once you’ve grown up learning “the language” you never forget it. At forty-six when I see a wrinkled brow or hear that familiar two-tone whistle, I flush with anger thinking, “What? What am I doing wrong?” before I realize I’m not being corrected, it’s just someone calling his dog.

Friday, April 23, 2010

weekly highlights

I caught the soap in the shower today and you’d think I’d robbed a major leaguer of his record-breaking homerun. I went for it right handed, but it was wet and escaped my grasp. To my surprise my left hand had backed up the right and came up with the slippery prize. I instinctively looked around to see if anyone had seen this amazing feat. But alas, I was not in Shay Stadium in front of an adoring crowd but was standing naked and alone in my shower. Although I know and am actually somewhat grateful that my amazing catch won’t be televised on the sports recap shows of the great catches of the week, I can’t seem to stop thinking about it with absolute pride and wonder at what this old girl can still do.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


My teenage daughter and I have been making up curse words that give us the satisfaction of cursing without the aftertaste of guilt and shame. "FAFSA!" is one I've been using a lot recently as I am forced to fill out countless tax and financial aid forms to prepare for Emily's first year at college. Our most recent curse word (pissiform) Emily discovered in anatomy class. It is a very tiny bone in the wrist, but goes especially well with olives as they roll down my leg, oil and all, spilled for the second time in a week. "Pissiform!"

Friday, March 12, 2010

read to me

I’m a person who can’t stand to have windows with mullions - their tic-tack-toe board stretching across the windowpane restricts my view. Glasses press too close to my face and give me that “break-out-of-prison” feeling. A benign thin rim of tortoise shell on Ray Bans and even edgeless readers have me clawing at my face to get them off and away from me. This refusal to wear glasses and the ensuing blurriness that results has thrust me back to my preprimary years where I look at pictures in magazines and pull on sleeves asking people to read to me. Instead of a thrilling bedtime story, my clear-eyed counterparts read to me from the menu’s appetizer list in the dim lighting of the restaurant. 
Of all the things I’ve lost in the process of aging, my blurry vision is what bothers me the most. With the advent of spandex, I’ve adapted to that belt of blubber around my middle, gray hair can be touched up with dye and for achy joints there’s Aleve. But, "Oh the rage" when I come upon small print on a soup label or a medicine bottle. I’m furious that at the age of 46 everything has suddenly gone blurry.  I know there is this invention called reading glasses that can miraculously bring on clearer vision, but I have not yet accepted this cure.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I got lost in a berry patch tonight and thought I’d never find my way out. I live in the suburbs where developers think it’s cute to name every street in a neighborhood around a common theme. My friend and I drove separately to a tea party/blogging tutorial where I was meeting her friend Nikki, an American tea goddess and blogger extraordinaire. Chara had to leave early so I needed to pay attention to remember my way back out.
As Chara and I left the familiar streets of our neighborhood, Dutchland Boulevard, Netherlands Court, and Tulip Drive, I grew more and more nervous as I followed her into this thorny tangle of streets knowing that I would have to forge my own way out.
We turned right onto Blueberry Way. (Blueberries. My family loves blueberries; we pick them every year at Rouster’s farm. I’ll remember blueberry). We passed Boysenberry Road and turned left onto Raspberry Lane. (I hate boysenberries – too seedy, but we grow our own raspberries and love them. Surely I’ll remember Raspberry Lane). We turned right onto Huckleberry and drove on that road for quite a distance. (I thought about Huck, Tom Sawyer and Injun Joe). We weren’t even halfway into this rat’s maze of berry streets and I’m dreading what may come next…Strawberry? Blackberry? Frankenberry? I was already dizzy. I’m a “special” person, but not a “spatial” person. I have trouble reversing directions to make my way home; rehearsing rights and lefts does no good because it’s all backwards. Chara and I parked our cars and had a wonderful time with Nikki. I learned so much about blogging and the finer points of drinking tea.
It’s January so when I left Nikki’s, it was dark. I got into my car and started on my way. I turned around in the cul-de-sac and saw a street going off to the right called Thornberry. I didn’t recognize that one so I kept going. I came to another cul-de sac and had to turn back around. This time as I passed Thornberry I decided to see where it would take me. Another cul-de-sac. The kids playing outside in the snow were getting nervous seeing a car in the night slowly creeping down their snowy sleepy roads. After a few minutes of wandering I had gotten so thoroughly lost that I fell into another development or “galaxy” you might say, as I roamed the streets of Jupiter Lane, Mars Boulevard and Neptune Circle. I decided not to do a “shout out” for help since the kids playing outside were already inching their snow games closer to the front door just in case I tried to steal them. I pulled over and turned on my dome light to use my 1st lifeline and called my husband to tell him I might be awhile. He told me to check the glove compartment for the GPS satellite unit he’d bought me for Christmas. I powered it up and waited what seemed like 10 minutes for the satellite search to find me. I almost shouted for joy as the sweet-voiced-robotic stranger called out cosmic street names and occasionally admonished me for a wrong turn with her charming phrase, “Recalculating…” It wasn’t long before my GPS gal was shouting out familiar Amsterdamish street names taking me back to my own country. After surviving this experience, I have vowed never to enter another berry patch or cosmic galaxy without my GPS.