Imperial Ham: The Wondrous Alchemy of Childhood in a Semi-Rural Township

In the summer of ’79, I came to live with my grandparents. The Greens owned 1/3rd of an acre in the small Limestone Township in Illinois. They had bought a tiny house with three rooms in the mid-1940’s. Over the years, my grandfather, the oldest of 12 children from a rural Kentucky family, added a large kitchen, am indoor bathroom and a back bedroom. The houses in the neighborhood were mostly larger with two stories and nearly all of them had large families. My mother was one of the few little girls on the block and held her own with the gang of boys who ran and played and shot arrows and bb guns.

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My mom with the neighborhood kids, second from left.

Every house also had a backyard vegetable garden. While the neighbors to the immediate right had corn and beans, my grandparents had a brilliant, strong nightshade patch. Bell peppers, okra, eggplant and some of the largest and sweetest beefsteak tomatoes on the Earth.  That summer we also added cucumbers. My grandfather could grow anything he put in the ground.

He worked at it, he watered and weeded and whistled parts of songs.

gpafarm

Grandpa Alvie Green with my uncle and my mom.

And in late June, we would walk back to the further edge of the yard, across the swath of thick, Kentucky bluegrass. We’d pick one of the 3 to 4 pound scarlet gem tomatoes, rinse it with the garden hose and bite right in. There was a magic in the ritual of it, to the true reward of working with nature, There was a bliss and comfort to it.  A heaven that did not come from some store. It came from the dirt where you grew up. It came from the plot of land chosen by a WWII veteran who decided to migrate from his home in Kentucky and make a life for his wife and children. That tomato was a manifestation of love and home and family.IMG_2887

We’d make glorious sandwiches of Wonder Bread, Miracle Whip and thick tomato slices. We’d make pepper relish. My grandmother would marinate the cucumbers with onions in vinegar, salt and sugar. When I was sunburnt or started to break out, she would pulverize a cucumber and put the juice on my skin. We would trade our extras with neighbors. There was an unspoken connection and wealth in the ability to share.

That summer, my grandmother asked my grandfather for a meat grinder. And he bought it for her. It was huge. It was supermarket-deli huge. It had a lot of sharp, shiny parts which I was told not to touch. It was loud. I immediately hated it.  She bought it for one thing: Imperial ham.

Not to grind beef or make sausage. We raised no animals except the baby squirrels that my grandfather trained to come and take walnuts from his shirt pockets. They were friends, not food. Imperial ham.  What is Imperial ham?  Well…

It’s baloney. And mayonnaise. And onion. And sweet pickles. And it’s somehow suddenly a royal delicacy. Apparently, if you put baloney through a meat grinder and add these things in the proper amounts, a certain kind of alchemy occurs in which it is now both Imperial and Ham. There is nothing like it. It smells weird and it tastes like summer and it’s amazing on white bread. And especially magical topped with a tomato slice.  And a side of marinated cucumbers. We would put it all on white paper plates, sit outside in the big swing together, watching neighbors and squirrels.

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I remember it clear and precious, because we have had nothing like it for so long. Everyone I shared that with has died. My grandfather in 1997, grandmother in 2001 and my mother in 2010. I am heartened because I am seeing a renewal in the importance of local family gardening. Small farms that have grown to bring their organic bounty to market.  People who can grow anything and what they produce is beautiful and healthy, fresh and practical food to share, tokens and totems of home and family and love.

I dream of having the right and proper place to do the same one day.

 

Poetry: Mermaids

The first mermaid legend came from Assyria. Sea goddess Atargatis was made half-human for accidentally killing her human lover. Sirens, undines, malevolent waves and crests, selkies stories are ancient. As old as lamia or Lilith or were-creatures. Each story built on themes of sex and and death and the desire to possess abilities and beauty without consequence.
A-ningyo
A-Ningyo
Why? There are enough earthbound mythic monstrosities roaming the haunted forests and windy moors. Witches and bogeymen aplenty lurking in caves and closets. Fear of our demise through the supernatural has been around since our common grunting ancestors heard something in the dark that was not familiar.  And then there is the sea. It’s no coincidence that historically, biblically and geographically that Mesopotamia (the cradle of civilization) is nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates. Water is life. But even greater, water is bacteria!
Fiji-Mermaid
The Fiji Mermaid
On January 30, 2017, Sam Russell published this article:
It’s a mind-blowing read. It’s the prequel to Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Eschewing the primate loop, abandoning the man with one less rib in a pefect garden. It postulates that the stuff that makes us the creature we are today, was basically a primordial kombucha batch from 540 million years ago. And we were NOT attractive in the least.
saccorhytus
A Saccorhytus. Our ancestors?
So what is it we fear with mermaids?
Drowning?  Losing our life by the pressure and glory of taking in all that salt, all that bacteria, all that magick to become fish food. To give our corporeal selves over to desire, drift in the siren song until our breath is not enough to sustain us. To attach ourselves in a haze to beauty until it murders us. To willingly love a creature whose world we cannot inhabit.
mermainchurch
Mermaid carved in a bench Zennor Church, Cornwall UK.
Or is it simply to give in to the call of what we once were?  To reconnect with ancestors in a way far deeper than anything that can be mapped through genealogy. What do we lose in ourselves when we blindly believe a theory?  What do we regain in ourselves when we allow a story to take root in us?
Are you a dreamer or an independent thinker?  Are you driven by love or fear?
egypt
Egyptian cave drawings depicting merfolk.
If mermaids are us, then they are that part of us that stubbornly refused to leave the ancient waters. They are the part of us that builds unseen, ornate kingdoms where only the imagination can visit without dying. They are the part of us that wants revenge on ourselves for buying into the idea that life is so much better on land.  Mermaids want to prove that they were right all along to stay in the briny, prehistoric depths where technology, money, fashion, celebrity and all modern human trappings mean nothing.
Remember what you where before you became what you are? Mermaids do. That is what their siren songs are about.  There is a beauty beyond all this earthly treasure, there is an authenticity to your being for which evolution provides no escape.
In my poem below, the mermaids have surrounded a drowning man. He is no more to them than a toy, an air-filled thing that has come untethered, an amusement.
Mermaids
You spring from the green
sea, a bloated
baby half-airborne, pink
fat nude bald sentient,
wheezing like some beached orca. Earth bleached salt
and scales from
your body.
You vanish; only your
sunburntscalp, salmon pink breaks the milky
surface.
Hairs on your back
prickle, clinging beads of ocean water.
Your hand, stripped of
its webbing clamors to your
sky-god. He does
nothing
to save
you.
You evolved from
dark ooze
without Him.
You bob against the waves like
some grotesque purple
ragdoll.
Your skin colored with madness.
You receive our briny kiss.
Lungs fail. Machines stop with hollow,
empty roaring like the inside
of a spiral shell.
We mermaids embrace you.
We wrap you in seaweed, pickle you in
brine, place green bronze coins
over your pale
dead eyes, and breathe into
your gaping futile
mouth;
It’s an old joke, still
it makes
us laugh.

Poetry: The Wolf Girl-Room Enough

So as my mother would tell the story, I was three. I was fascinated with “Little Red Riding Hood.”  I had the 45 RPM single narrated by Paul Patterson.  The cover showed the little blonde girl (and I was a little blonde girl) traipsing through the black trees with a dark purple sky.  And in the foreground, lying in wait, a black wolf with shifty red eyes.   He was meant to be sinister. I was meant to fear him. But I did not.
In my short time on this planet, much of it immersed in a fairy world of my own imagnation, I had already discovered that things are not always as they seem. I decided that wolves are friends. Dogs are friends. Forest creatures are friends.  I also decided NOT to be the little blonde girl.  I  wanted instead to be the wolf.  The wolf is easily the smartest character in the story.
When I was three, I traveled on all fours into the neighbor’s yard. I took off all my clothes and underwear. I proceeded to do what a wolf would do and pooped square in the middle of my neighbor’s front lawn. My mother charged across the street, red-faced and absolutely shocked.
“Holly Anne! What are you doing?!”
“I’m a wolf. Wolves poop outside, Mom.” I said logically.
She could not argue. She DID inform me that I was NOT a wolf. I needed to put my clothes on and go wash up.  She sent me home and knocked on the neighbor’s door to both explain and apologize.  I also had a visit to my pediatrician who assured her there was nothing wrong with me except a giant imagination.
Even now though, forty-five years later into this life, I love the story. I love the wolf. He shows up in my dreams – never as a threat – but as a guide, as a totem of family. Wolves care for their own.
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My first collage, posted above was in an art show last year.  It’s a 3′ x 2′ collage with natural objects, fabric and clay. The wolf is VERY furry.  I put a sign next to it in the gallery that said, “PLEASE TOUCH THE WOLF. DO NOT BE AFRAID.”  Because we are told in any art gallery to look and not touch.  But he is very soft and velvety and he is accepting a lovely friendship rose from our little blonde girl.
People – especially children – DID touch the wolf.  I sat at a little table and watched them.  I wanted to foster understanding instead of fear. Connection instead of separation.
The collage found a permanent home in the Lit. On Fire Bookstore. I am happy so many people see it.
So I decided to retell the story in the poem posted below. I hope you like it. If I have to be the little blonde girl, I would rather be one who trusts her heart.  I hope you enjoy this.
Room Enough…
I was so used to looking for wolves along the path,
I began to see everything as a wolf
Every shape or shadow shifting in the night,
Every light fair breeze rustling the bedcurtain,
Every man who might just be out to gather wood
And warm himself…
But that particular day, the daisies were grown tall and bright
And whispered that they would keep their chartreuse
Cyclops eyes peeled for any sign of lupine misadventure.
So I wandered among them, picking rabbit candy clover
And forging ships from billowy clouds and hummed
Little rhymes I knew as a child and
cast the net of my heart
Wide about the world
.
But daisies are liars or at the very least have short attention spans,
And wolves must be very fast because asudden, your fur brushed my arm.
I thought somehow I should be more scared, but my heart was open
And my mouth was still forming little rhymes.
I didn’t run and I did not scream. I did look you in the face for real.
For the endless second it took for your bottomless amber eye
To blink.
The door to my heart hung open, and all my fear of you and your legend
Became dust.
So I put out my hand and you put out your paw.
The better to love you with.
And I was sure in my bones that there was room enough
At Grandmother’s house for both of us.

Pre-Writing: The Three Sisters of the Sky

Decades ago, I crossed paths with three sisters. Each unique and full of courage and the kind of beauty that springs from deep connection and authenticity. One of them became my son’s godmother. And athough we do not see her often, I chose wisely.  They remind me that every woman is part of a web and yet we spin our own stories. We all move through tides of loss and glory and joy. I am grateful for my freinds, my siSTARS.

I began work last week on a children’s book. In all the conflict of late between science and religion, I choose mythos. Mythos is the perfect dance between the two. Mythos finds that place within us that connects us to our own story and our own explanations for things.  In this case, it is as easy as night and day.

Daz (the perfect artist for this) has been giving the following description:

The Three Sisters of the Sky.

Celeste, Selene and Soleil

Celeste, the vigilant the keeper of the balance of night and day.  She keeps the peace between her two sisters Selene – the moon and Soleil – the sun.

Celeste is the oldest of the sisters.  She dresses in multicolor stars and black cloaks, misty grey veils, colors of twilight and dawn.  She is about beginnings and endings.  She wakes her sisters and pulls back the veil of stars between dark and light. The morning glory and jackrabbits are her friends. Fireflies are her messengers. Night is coming. All will be well.  Dawn is coming. Today will be glorious.

Soleil is the middle sister, she dresses is reds, oranges, yellows, blazing colors and gold. She visits the farmers to grow crops, she shines she shimmers. She waves to animals who bask. She warms. She strides across the bright fields. Sunflowers always turn their faces toward her. Coyote, Songbirds and deer are her familiars.

The youngest sister is Selene – she dresses is blues and indigos and silver. She visits the children to bring dreams.  She glows and gleams and her hair is silver-blue beams. She follows travelers to brighten their path. She cools and comforts.  She strolls silent through shadowed lands. The moonflower and jasmine bloom to greet her. Her friends are bats and foxes.

Poetry: Found Art, Trifle & Tart

Is is still okay to say “Boyfriend” when you are both dancing on the precipice of 50? So what do I call him?  Life partner?  My old man? Significant other? There are MANY significant people in my life. The gorgeous Italian “inamorato“? I usually call him the best human being I ever met.  Anyway, this man is an artist,  And I, in my complementary role, am a visual learner and arranger of things.

Sometimes my love and arranging shows up in the food I make. Last night, I made one of his favorite desserts, Trifle – lemon pound cake with lemon custard, whipped cream, strawberries and raspberries. No cooking, just arranging. . You could soak the pound cake in liqueur in you like. The concept is to make a deep well of summery joyfulness.  It doesn’t matter if you just buy the pound cake, the artistry is in the assembly.

Dinner?  Pesto and goat cheese tart with heirloom tomatoes. Bake it for 8 minutes at 425 degrees. If you want it crispier, broil for 1 minute after that.  It’s a par-baked pizza crust, 2 tbsp. basil pesto, 4 oz. cream cheese, 1/2 cup goat cheese, top with mozzarella and arrange your cherry toms.  The heat does something magical to the goat cheese.  It’s tangy, soft and sweet all at the same time, a perfect match for the acidity of the tomatoes. Tear up some fresh basil leaves to nestle between the cream cheese and mozzarella layers.

tart

When our mutual friend introduced us back in October 2013, I don’t know if was I felt was love. He was too familiar. Not in any of his actions or words, but in the way my entire inner workings reacted to him just being. I had hit a spot in life when I did not believe in romantic love. When I was very sure dying alone would be just fine and dandy. I’d make sure it was dandy, because I would leave thorough instructions on my memorial service. I was THAT bored. I was THAT stuck. I was THAT set on memorializing myself as a loner.

Whatever I felt – passion, revulsion, the immediate need to protect my heart and my solitary way of life – it was powerful. After the most perfect day-long date in the world, in which he painted and I made shepherd’s pie and we talked and kissed randomly, I actually said. “Let’s pretend we never met.”

We did not speak for a few weeks. Then in late November, on a Thanksgiving day when I was completely alone and bereft of plans and people, I asked him to dinner. And he said yes.  During those two dark weeks, I wrote “Found Art”.  It’s not specifically about love. It’s about a specific moment in our lives when invisible lightning hits us. All our glib platitudes from Rumi and “Keep Calm” posters fail us. All the Silly Love Songs become dire warnings with the forceful insistence that you ARE going to feel this.  Stupid me clinging with a deathgrip to the notion that I am a self-contained work robot. So here is the poem.

Found Art
I had seen it before somewhere in a dream
A fleeting mix of ideas and color and imagination
Too true to be believed
I may have walked past it a hundred times
Images captured by the mind’s eye moving in outer circles
Barely concentric to my life
I was afraid to look at it
Because it might just tell the story of my childhood
Or list reasons for my darkness
It was an abstract
The vein and bone and brain of a human being
So magnified and precise that the pixilated cells
Seemed to move
I was afrai
d to look at it
And when I did I could not look away
I stared until the cones of my eyes ached
And my brain bled and black words dripped heavy from my pen
And the noise all around stopped because it whispered my name
Like a familiar
Like a river
Like a lo
ver
Like a devil
Like a desert
Like the West wind
Like a lover
Like home
Transfixed, I watched it move
I reached out and could not help running my hands
Over the curve, over fibonnaci spirals
Over sinew and skin and scar
And sweetness and painless light
It was a living map
A breathing mirror of all I fear
And worse, all I hope
Split in the exact center
Between the brain hemispheres
Deep down to the heart
In a Fissure of dark and tranquil and quiet
That knew my name and called to me quite clearly
I could
not close my eyes or fill my lungs
Although my mouth hung open
Waiting in awe for that kiss
Waiting for the wet, secret dark
To enfold me and invade me and
Fill me up with beautiful words
But it knew my name and was already adept
At shredding my fear and
hope
And ripping expectation to oblivion
I moved away slowly
Unwrapping myself from pleasure incarnate
Unsticking skin from skin
Untwining myself from this masterpiece
And I am still shaken, still swept up
Still aching
Still aware that it knows my name
Still needing a baptismal to wash away
The burning swirl of fingerprint and tongue

 

Poetry: The Decade of Impossible Love Between Frederic Chopin & George Sand

Celebrity couplings and breakups are fame fodder in the modern world. But in the early 1800’s it was not so common. Chopin the composer and Sand (writer Amantin Lucille Dupin who found it easier to publish under the male name George) shared nearly ten years of passion, creativity and connection.  The story goes that she would lie naked under his piano, smoking cigars and scribbling away while he composed his nocturnes.

It ended badly between them, spurring her to write Lucrezia Florioni in which the villain is a dead ringer for Chopin. He would die two years later at the age of 39, still a prolific composer. In fact, his last posthumous publication was “Devil’s Trill” in 2001.

The couple were painted by their mutual friend, artist Eugène Delacroix. It hung in Delacroix’s studio until his death. His estate curator split the portrait in half in the belief that two paintings would sell better than one.

And so they are now forever separated. Sand’s half hangs in the Ordruppgaard Museum in Copenhagen.  Chopin’s half is in the Louvre.

 

I wanted to bring them back together. To imagine the heady frangrance of her cigar smoke, the uncertain touch of piano keys, the sweetness. So I wrote this:

Poor Fred

It is too much sometimes in the nocturne,
Too personal. She
Lies beneath his piano in her own
World. Making her own
Wanton heroes and villains. Unaware,
Untouchable and
Unbearably close. So he sits above
Her banging on his
Instrument. He lets his hand find their own deft caress.
Body rigid, his
Heart beats secrets into the stricken keys.
White keys are pearl planes
Of her body, her skeleton, the curve
Of her neck when she
Dozes, arc of her hip when she dances.
Black keys are the blaze
Of her eyes, the dark of her lashes. Her
Fathomless, boundless
Imagination where he cannot quite
Follow, the endless
Sorrow he can never quite possess her.
Major chords are tight
Clear resonant words. Her lovely words drive
Him, her willing arms.
Encircling
him, her laughter and sly wit.
Minor chords are deep
Violent, frustrated echoes, swallowed by
Her written page, her
Beautiful naked peach shell body just
Out of his reach. Her mind and
Spirit utterly lost in the world of
Her own dark scribbling.
7th chords are maybes…
9th chords are what-ifs…
The Nocturne is now–tonight–here–with her.
Inches apart with
The world between them. The same music and love
Will survive them both…
When Lucrezia Florioni is
Written and he has
Become her villain. When hisPreludes
have become interludes,
And he has abandoned her. When they fade
To shadow and dust.
For ev’ry lover in divine passion,
Suspended between
Desire and art, between true love and its
Pale written ghost, on
The sheerest edge of desolation, in
His dying heartbreak
Transgression of shattering her perfect
Reverie to Live
The romance she writes,
To break her dream and take her beyond pages,
Beyond her story,
To his aching bed and into history.

Poetry: The Decade of Impossible Love Between Frederic Chopin & George Sand

Celebrity couplings and breakups are fame fodder in the modern world. But in the early 1800’s it was not so common. Chopin the composer and Sand (writer Amantin Lucille Dupin who found it easier to publish under the male name George) shared nearly ten years of passion, creativity and connection.  The story goes that she would lie naked under his piano, smoking cigars and scribbling away while he composed his nocturnes.

It ended badly between them, spurring her to write Lucrezia Florioni in which the villain is a dead ringer for Chopin. He would die two years later at the age of 39, still a prolific composer. In fact, his last posthumous publication was “Devil’s Trill” in 2001.

The couple were painted by their mutual friend, artist Eugène Delacroix. It hung in Delacroix’s studio until his death. His estate curator split the portrait in half in the belief that two paintings would sell better than one.

And so they are now forever separated. Sand’s half hangs in the Ordruppgaard Museum in Copenhagen.  Chopin’s half is in the Louvre.

 

I wanted to bring them back together. To imagine the heady frangrance of her cigar smoke, the uncertain touch of piano keys, the sweetness. So I wrote this:

Poor Fred

It is too much sometimes in the nocturne,
Too personal. She
Lies beneath his piano in her own
World. Making her own
Wanton heroes and villains. Unaware,
Untouchable and
Unbearably close. So he sits above
Her banging on his
Instrument. He lets his hand find their own deft caress.
Body rigid, his
Heart beats secrets into the stricken keys.
White keys are pearl planes
Of her body, her skeleton, the curve
Of her neck when she
Dozes, arc of her hip when she dances.
Black keys are the blaze
Of her eyes, the dark of her lashes. Her
Fathomless, boundless
Imagination where he cannot quite
Follow, the endless
Sorrow he can never quite possess her.
Major chords are tight
Clear resonant words. Her lovely words drive
Him, her willing arms.
Encircling
him, her laughter and sly wit.
Minor chords are deep
Violent, frustrated echoes, swallowed by
Her written page, her
Beautiful naked peach shell body just
Out of his reach. Her mind and
Spirit utterly lost in the world of
Her own dark scribbling.
7th chords are maybes…
9th chords are what-ifs…
The Nocturne is now–tonight–here–with her.
Inches apart with
The world between them. The same music and love
Will survive them both…
When Lucrezia Florioni is
Written and he has
Become her villain. When hisPreludes
have become interludes,
And he has abandoned her. When they fade
To shadow and dust.
For ev’ry lover in divine passion,
Suspended between
Desire and art, between true love and its
Pale written ghost, on
The sheerest edge of desolation, in
His dying heartbreak
Transgression of shattering her perfect
Reverie to Live
The romance she writes,
To break her dream and take her beyond pages,
Beyond her story,
To his aching bed and into history.

FREE TO BE: THE SA-NEAR-I (Like a safari, but closer)

So we needed an adventure. There are places where all feels right with the world. And sometimes we all just need to go there. Blow the stink off, relocate your spirit, align your body to other meridians. Spend a Saturday doing more than laundry or grocery shopping.

Two hours away, near Arcola, Illinois, there is a wildlife sanctuary. It is owned and operated by the Aikman family; now in their first full year of operation.  Last year the Kaskaskia River limited their grazing lands. There are 150 animals from 50 species native to 6 continents living here in a peaceable kingdom. They are not caged.  The limited predatory species, hyenas and serval cats, have their own enclosures.

But here the buffalo really do roam. Alongside zebras, Watusi cattle, camels, elands, draft horses, miniature horses, donkeys, alpacas, Scottish highland cows, et. al.  They are loved and they are well-fed and each one has a name and a story.  Although native to other climes, they were born here in the Midwest.  They are all part of a conservation effort.

Those are the facts. And now for the feelings:

Wonderment. Joy. Happiness. Inspiration. Pleasure.

We sat on the wagon, tractor pulling us through the paddocks, going to wherever this diverse herd may be enjoying their morning. Fabio, the Bactrian camel (see above), was my immediate favorite. Although he was in the process of shedding his winter coat, he was still a very handsome and photogenic boy.

We were given small bowls of feed to scatter by our feet in the wagon.  We stopped, we scattered the feed, and then they came.  Bison, cattle, blue wildebeest, elands, elk, zebras, alpacas, horses, and emus. There are groups of ducks, geese, pheasants, peacocks, guinea fowl.

bison

Then there are the emus. Our guide told us that emus are both curious and ill-tempered. They will not attack four-legged creatures, but the will come after humans because we walk upright on two legs like they do.  So why have them around?  Because they act as guardians for the smaller four-legged species who appreciate them. Emus own “hangry” as an expression. They have zero manners, large pointy, pecky beaks and giant three-toed claws.  They remind me of Petyr Baelish from Game of Thrones. And yes, I love them.  How has an emu never been a Disney villain?

emu

In the midst of the herd, I was suddenly 8 years old again. Mrs. Huber handed me the lyric sheet for “Free to Be” by The New Seekers.  I would learn it and sing it and forget it for 40 years. Then today, I would remember the joy I felt when this wide, deep blissful adventure fit neatly into the ideals of a song written in 1972.

We walked the path through the other enclosures. Cavies, potbellied pigs, tortoises, goats and sheep. A miniature horse and cow and deer – all the same size – all living together in harmony. Different but equal. Different but not in competition. All amazing in their own little way.  Like us, without ego. Like us, without the fear of our perceived differences. Free to be You and Me.

LOVE: The Losing of a Breast; The Finding of a Belly

I was in the middle of a great love.

My mother and my son are both Geminis. Her birthday was June 13th and his is June 20th. They were, for a time, my twins. I watched my mother become the best grandmother and friend a boy could have. Like me, Connor has Asperger’s Syndrome. He does not open up to many people and he is very quiet. Mom was only 4’10” and she would get right down on the floor with him. Their connection was deep and true and full of laughter.

I moved back home in 2008 when my mom’s breast cancer had returned. She had had a radical mastectomy in 2006, followed by chemo.  Although she had somewhat accepted all the accoutrements of the disease, she never really embraced them. She had wigs, hats, shirts with allowances for drains, post-mastectomy bras, and even weighted falsies. She had all the necessary crap that they dole out to women who lose a breast in an attempt to make them acceptably normal to society. It wasn’t her and it wasn’t comfortable.  And it all ended up stuffed in her sock drawer while she sat bald, braless and comfortable binge=watching The Sopranos.

One day though, one special day of birthday magic smack in the middle of June, a miracle happened. We always celebrated their birthdays together.  I had brought Connor over for his 8th birthday, Boston cream pie, candles, flowers, little gifts for both.

The oven was on, and the air conditioner was going full blast.  Although she was sweating, her tiny feet were like blue ice.  She asked Connor to go grab a pair of socks for her. He headed into her bedroom.

“HEY!” he exclaimed.  “HEY!”

“What is it, Sugar Booger?”

“Granny!  I found a belly!”

“WHAT?!”

“I found a belly!”  Connor darted out of her room and ran into the kitchen with his shirt hiked up and a heavy flesh-colored false boob slapped on his stomach.  He pushed his stomach out proudly.

My mom and I burst out laughing. Neither one of us ever would have thought of it. Connor wore the magic “belly” the rest of the evening. He fell asleep on her couch full of lasagna and cake, clutching a stuffed Pikachu with one hand and the “belly” with the other.

It was magic indeed.  This was love, laughter and true imagination holding fast against loss, pain and the precious knowledge that life is finite.

When the cancer came back, it came back everywhere. My son was 10. He was so open and caring and happy with her.  He would stay with her while I ran out to get her groceries.

When she was hospitalized, I would watch them walk down the corridor together. Both blonde, the same height, sharing knock-knock jokes.  Because between them nothing was about cancer or autism. It was about love. No labels, no expectations, no prognosis. Just love in its most honest, accepting expression. And I was in the middle, watching in awe, as both their halos shone bright.

My mom passed in late July 2010.  My son turns 19 on Tuesday.

He has grown into a wonderful, smart, and loving human being.  He’s a responsible young man who has a good job, attends school and takes good care of himself. He is a brilliant artist in the middle of producing his own comic book.  He is a grown version of that child who sees people without limits and finds laughter in unexpected places.

I am still in the middle of a great love. And so incredibly grateful to be his mom.

Everyone Likes Hot Dogs

My stepdad John was a Hungarian trucker. His CB handle was “The Happy Hunky” and he was a pretty amazing guy. He loved my mom. She did not have to work so he encouraged her to make friends and be artsy. She pursued ceramics and macramé and painting. When we moved into his house, he asked her to make it a showplace and redecorate. And she did! She reupholstered sofas and stained cabinets and laid new flooring. She thrived and she was happy.

People came to our house for dinner parties featuring his stuffed veal pocket and her lasagna. Red wine, good coffee, a little weed, Fleetwood Mac and Leo Sayer. Insane marshmallow fruit ambrosia, homemade cheeseballs with walnuts, highball cocktails, floating conversations about Stephen King, Jimmy Hoffa, Dennis Kucinich, Steve Martin and some lawyer named Mr. Hickey.

The dynamic of my relationship with John was not easy to define. I thought he was funny and I respected him. He thought I was funny and smart and marveled at how serious I could be about minutiae.  He was a good 15 years older than my mom and had already raised a daughter. He only really got angry when I disrespected my mom.  Other than that, he had me figured out.

My room would be a mess the entire week he was on the road. My mom would beg and cajole and threaten so I would clean it. John would come home on the weekend and simply say, “Wow! Who dropped the bomb?” It would be clean within 10 minutes.

I was still stuck in Spaghettio mode and had developed a nasty habit of wiping my mouth on my sleeve. Nearly every shirt I owned had an orange stain. My friend Dawn had also picked up this habit from me. Both of our mothers were frustrated. One night she, Dawn was over for dinner. It was Saturday so John was home and made “real” spaghetti.  It was real because it was made with dry noodles and Ragu.

During dinner, John took a big sloppy bite and wiped half his mouth on my sleeve and half his mouth on Dawn’s.  We were horrified.

John shrugged and said, “I thought it was okay to do that.  After all, you two were doing it.”  I could hear my mom through the saloon style kitchen doors laughing. I never wiped my mouth on my sleeve again.

John’s signature recipe was Stuffed Veal Pocket. I had no idea what veal was. I had reasoned that if it had a pocket, it was cousin to the kangaroo family but bigger. As an isolated kid who had been living out of tin cans, I was about to discover a new world.

Early Saturday mornings, John would drive out to the Cleveland West Side Market on 25th street. I wanted to go.  I mean why not go to the store? You grab a cart, listen to elevator music, check off your list, say please and thank you.  I had been to the store with my grandparents every Thursday in my life. What was so mysterious about West Side Market? Did they not allow kids?  I begged, I cajoled and threatened. Finally, John took me to West Side Market.

Yelling – not always in English. Smells – FISH, meat, flowers, baking breads. Colors – Vibrant palettes of fruits and vegetables. People shoving and crowding and knocking into me with their bags. Old women in babushkas buying parsnips, gorgeous dark eyed young men stacking fish, enough cut flowers to make me feel like I landed in Oz. Noise and bustle and haggling, the chaos of making a deal in hunter-gatherer heaven and above all this the atmosphere of shared passion for nourishment of the senses.

Each element by itself would have been enough to scare a shy child. The noise and confusion and unfamiliar faces and fish that looked back at you. But this special cloud of mayhem was driven by the cohesive purpose of trade. The food here was not just food. Jewels from the earth and sea harvested with intention and love. Buyers understanding the ritual negotiations and intrinsic magic within each carrot or peach.

There’s a place in the far corner of the Market on the Loraine Avenue side called Johnny Hot Dog. It was opened in 1912 by Mary Trisco and still open today. There is no better hot dog in Cleveland or maybe the whole Midwest. They even make a hot dog breakfast sandwich.  When John went to the Market alone, he would bring home a big brown bag of them with chili, diced onions and bright yellow mustard.

This particular morning, I held his John’s hand as we waited in line. The air hung heavy with smoke of grilled meat and sweet, fluffy steamed buns. I noticed there was a man in the back corner staring at me. His skin had a moist gray sheen like wet cement. His scent cut through the hot dog heaven and I felt real fear blooming in the back of my brain. I was pretty sure he was dead.  He had left this world and now returned to haunt Johnny Hot Dog. Because they had the best hot dogs on Earth. And we had to pass him on the way out and he might kill us for ours.

“John, I want to go home.”

“What’s wrong? C’mon, we’ll bring your mom a bag and make her day.”

“That guy. He’ll kill us for our hot dogs when we get ‘em.”

“What guy?”  So John couldn’t see him. Definitely a ghost, definitely dead.

“THAT GUY!”  I pointed and was loud. The man dropped his eyes. People’s heads snapped toward us.

“THAT guy?  Oh no. No, that’s just Clarence the Fire Bug. He don’t kill people. He just likes hot dogs like we do.”

It was the perfect answer. It established that he knew Clarence, that Clarence was neither dead nor murderous, that Clarence loved hot dogs like a normal not-dead person. Also Clarence was gainfully employed as a Fire Bug, which had to be a really cool job.  I was suddenly not afraid.  Staring people smiled at us. We bought a dozen chili combo dogs and headed home. On the way out the door, I made a point of saying goodbye to Clarence.

It took me decades to arrive at John’s sheer brilliance. To any child, the unfamiliar can seem terrifying. Even more so if that child has a gigantic, rampant imagination. Stranger Danger aside, we are taught that anyone not like us could be a threat or not a good person. Society uses markers like race or income class to measure differences and create separation.

What John did was phenomenal.  He did not really know Clarence – in fact he came up with his name on the fly. It didn’t matter. He destroyed everything different or scary about him in the simple statement, “He just likes hot dogs like we do.”