Practical Magic for Ugly Children

I was raised by my maternal grandparents from ages 2 to 7, and then from 11 to adulthood.  My grandmother’s mother, Gertrude, did not like children. She had had six of them. And now had to put up with her offspring’s offspring’s offspring. It was more of a have-to with me. My grandparents lived close to them and took them to doctor appointments. Gertrude got to visit with me more than she would have liked.

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Chet and Gertrude

When I was six, I lost my top right front tooth as normal kids do. However, the tooth that took its place, came in twisted like a corkscrew. Gertrude bestowed the pet name of “Snagglepuss” on me.

Snagglepuss

She was the only one who called me that, but she did it as often as possible. I had the tooth pulled and actually had an extra tooth bud that came in straight. I smiled at her broadly every chance I got, hoping for release from the vile nickname.

Alas, Gertrude was 4’6”.  I was already nearly as tall as she was. And in retrospect, it must have seemed threatening to have a child your own size constantly grin at you like a homicidal monkey.

monkey

As I got a little older, I began to talk more with my great-grandpa, Chet. He was quiet. Never said more than was necessary. I know more of what was said about him that I knew him.  From my grandmother’s stories (his daughter), I knew he had a bad temper. I knew he kicked the shins of people who were rude at dinner with hobnailed boots. I knew he was part “Indun”, or Native American and knew some magic. I knew he was a cutthroat Pinochle player.

Lump

Grandpa Green and me (in my lump state).

It was a beautiful thought for an ugly kid. I came from magical people. Somewhere under this pasty nearsighted, greasy-haired lump, there was a continuation of a magical bloodline. Not a passing on of a cheap card trick or sleight of hand, not some $8 Bill Bixby linked rings nonsense, but real magic. Something that I could like about myself that no one could really see.

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The summer I was 11, sent back from my feral days in Ohio, I went barefoot every chance I got. My grandparents were supremely overprotective and forced me to wear shoes. With the damp and the heat and the wet socks and closed shoes, I ended up with plantar warts all over my right foot. I hid it at first, embarrassed and scared. But it spread and the toes began to look webbed. The pain of taking a step and desperate willingness to cut my toes off just to stop the infernal itching made me stay in my room.

They found out. My grandfather caught me without my socks. They took me to the doctor. Then to a dermatologist.  Dr. Dickinson prescribed a smelly, burning lotion that smelled bad and burned worse. Then Dr. Dickinson spoke about burning them off or freezing them off.  I’m sure he was a respected doctor, but to me he was a bald barbarian heaping fear and discomfort on an itchy foot wart volcano.

doc evil

And he never spoke to me or looked at me. In fact he was examining my foot and reached up with his gloved hand and separated my hair. He looked at my grandmother and said “I can give you some topical lotion for this oily dandruff.”  He then scheduled an appointment with them for a month later to either have my foot burnt or frozen.

I spent the next week crying. The idea that the oily, dandruffy, lumpy girl was now also going to be the limping, half-footed, clumsy girl too was crushing me. The burning and itching had not subsided. My foot seemed alien. Did I even care about it being burnt or frozen? Was it part of me still?

Enter magic. During a Pinochle game, the situation of my foot had come up in conversation. And my great-grandfather, supreme car shark and “Indun” had a trick up his sleeve.

He told me to take off my shoes and walk to the back of the yard with him. He told me to follow directions.  And he told everyone else that it was none of their business.  So I did.

When we got to the lot line, we sat down on the grass.  He took my foot and held it and looked at it. He took a large, dry navy bean out of his shirt pocket.  He considered it. I didn’t know that old people carried dry beans in their pockets. So I also considered it.

bean

He looked up and the sky and then at my foot. He rubbed the dry navy bean over the warts, humming a bit. I watched him, thinking that I was never going to eat navy beans again. Thinking that this was too simple to be magic and too weird to be anything else.

When he was done, we stood up.  He handed me the bean.

“Throw this over your shoulder and don’t look back to see where it falls.”

So I did.

The pain was gone.

Within three days, my foot was clear.  And magic was real to me.

I have never had a wart since. I have never eaten a navy bean in my life.

My great-grandfather, the magic “Indun” died at 93. In the years between, I was his friend and lucky Pinochle partner. He came to Thanksgiving a couple times. Gertrude passed before him and he married a lady 30 years younger than him about 6 months before he died. They traveled a lot. She took him to see the world beyond the Midwest. I was happy for him.

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Chet dancing at 93 with his new wife Ruby.

A tiny bit of belief, the smallest bit of magic can heal anyone. Everyone has a spark of divine within them, even old people, even ugly children. Don’t let it be lost to the mediocrity of every day. Allow it to be part of you, fight to keep it. Use it to do good.

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.

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.

Cougar: Fur Family Part Three

Two days. I had 48 hours to find Cougar a new home. Someone who could see in him all the wonderful glowing, feline qualities that I did.

Nancy Birnbaum was 7.  Our backyards met diagonally and she was perpetually left outside alone. Her parents were nice and good people. Her brother Jimmy was in my class.  He was pink-skinned towhead kid who was constantly auditioning for school bully sidekick. One time Davey Shoemaker, our class bully, told him to follow me home after school and give me a gut punch. It had rained that day and I caught him following me and whacked him squarely in the forehead with my umbrella. It left a mark. He didn’t speak to me again but he didn’t try to punch me either.

I suspect he had managed to punch the smaller kids in the neighborhood, which is probably why Nancy had no one to play with.  We had nothing in common except that no one wanted to play with us. Nancy had met Cougar twice. She had seen me head to the garage with the cat food and had been curious.

Cougar leapt from his perch in the rafters and circled us.  He tilted his head and narrowed his deep golden eyes. I handed Nancy one of the cat food cans and let her feed him.  “She’s a friend.  It’s okay.”

He rubbed against her shin and she plopped down, putting the food on the floor between her outstretched ankles. He purred and rubbed his ears against her pink canvas shoe. Then he shoved face in the cat food, grunting happily while she petted him.

“A silver cat with gold eyes!” she giggled.  “Cougar’s my friend!”

“He really is the best cat. He’s a ratter too!  Not afraid of anything. He’s silver like a knight wearing armor.”

Cougar wound around her, nudging and making tiny sounds of happiness. Nancy was small, not so wild. Most importantly she was kind.

“Somebody has to take care of him.  I’m moving away.  I have food for about two weeks and a brush.  You probably need to ask your mom.  I don’t want you to get into trouble.”

“Oh she won’t care!  I love him!”

“She probably will when you run out of food or spend all your time in our creepy garage. So please just ask.”

“You mean because of Howie?” Her face darkened. My stomach felt like lead.  “My mom says he’s dangerous and not to play over here with you.” Her bottom lip stuck out and she fought little sobs.

The whole neighborhood had seen him chase me, yell, threaten.  They had peeped through curtains and shutters and shook their heads and clucked their tongues.  They had engaged in gossip feeding a deep poison cauldron of speculation about what else went on in our house. Isn’t is sad and awful. Isn’t it tragic?  That girl is in trouble. That girl IS trouble. There was a swell threatening to drown me. And they were helping to make the weather.

But I had Cougar. He had been my champion. And now I had to be his.

“Tell your mom to meet me here in about an hour. Make sure no one sees her come in.”

I sent Nancy off, skipping with the possibility of having her own champion. I made it into the house silently, locked myself in the bathroom.  I filled the sink with water and cleaned myself up, brushing my teeth, putting baby powder in my hair to dry out the oil.  I found some clean clothes that my mom had bought from a garage sale and squeeze myself into them.

Once I was somewhat presentable, I went quickly to the garage and gathered up all the cat food, little homemade toys and the brush into a paper sack from Lawson’s.

I sat on the cushionless plaid couch and gathered Cougar into my lap. This could be goodbye. He mewed tiny question marks, batted at the sack and started kneading my leg.

“I don’t want to leave you, but I can’t leave you here. There’s too many bad people, my love. You deserve someone who loves you.”  I felt dizzy, acid cloyed at my stomach. My shoulders ached. Why did they call it a broken heart when you felt it all over?

The door creaked and Nancy stepped inside with her mother. Mrs. Birnbaum was a chubby, no-nonsense lady.  She wore her dark, wiry hair in a Dorothy Hamill bob and a Hawaiian floral housecoat that snapped up the side.  Her hands moved from the housecoat pockets to rest on her hips. She sighed and looked at me and Cougar, colorless lips in a curl.

“So this is the cat?”

“Mom! MOM!  Look! He’s perfect!” Nancy bounced up and down like a tiny version of her mother on springs.

“He’s big.  He’s a biggie. He eats a lot probably.”

“Well, he’s a mouser, but I give him two of these cans a day.”  I handed her one of the Friskies tins.

“Mmmm.  You love this cat?  Why are you giving him to my kid? What’s wrong with him?”

“I’m…I leaving. Going to live with – somewhere else. I don’t want him to die or starve or be left here with Howie.”

She put her arm around Nancy. “That guy’s an asshole. I shouldn’t use that word in front of you, but he is. That’s a big cat, Nancy.”  She shook her head, looking at the garage floor.

“I know!  Cougar’s huge!” Nancy crowed.

“You’ll be someplace safe?” Mrs. Birnbaum looked me in the eye for the first time.

“Yes. There’s a lady in Cleveland I’ll stay with.”

“Oh Mom!  I love him!  I love you!  I hope Jimmy loves the cat.

“Jimmy will love the cat or I’ll beat Jimmy’s ass. Don’t worry about it.”

“Okay.  C’mon then, Biggie.”

Biggie?  Cougar looked at me, patting my red face with his velvet footpads. I stood up and handed the food bag to Mrs. Birnbaum. Cougar never took his eyes off the bag.  I watched his graceful exit as he padded after her and across the yards to her backdoor.

I thought my heart would crack and splinter and ache. But it did not.  My Cougar, my valiant friend and champion was no more.  In a sweet 30 yard journey, he had left his feral life with me to become the adored, well-fed Biggie Birnbaum.

And now I was ending my time as a feral girl. Tomorrow, I would move into a beautiful townhome in Cleveland with Barbara Scully. I would learn the joy of doing girly things like makeup and putting pink rollers in your hair just right.  I would learn about Buddha statues, Night Gallery and Sha-Na-Na. She would teach me to cook eggs and make Irish coffee. For three weeks, I would learn to be a normal human girl again. Barbara was an amazing lady. And like Cougar, she would be my friend for the rest of my life.

 

Cougar: Fur Family Part One

We were rat poor. Meaning we could no longer afford trash pickup. The awning of our patio had fallen. The garbage grew. The rats came. Two bloated, scurrying, toothy pirates clicking their nails across our pavement and keeping me from my own back yard.

When my stepfather John died, it derailed my mother. It broke her heart, her mind, peeled her tenuous grasp away from the workings of everyday life.  It was not her fault. He died suddenly, the day before my 10th birthday, from a heart attack.  When he had the heart attack, he was driving a semi and travelling across an overpass on I-74 near Danville, Illinois.  The rig went over the side.

By late spring of 1979, the rats came, our lights were shut off and I had outgrown all my clothes. I knew I would be headed to my grandparents in summer, but for now my world was dark and cold and small.  I took cold showers by candlelight and ignored homework and the world outside.  My grandparents sent me $20 every week in the mail. I would walk down to Lawson’s and buy bread and hot dogs and cheese food slices and always one Whatchamacallit chocolate bar.  I hid the money in a small red box in my sock drawer. I hid myself from the world.  I hid in the back row of 5th grade because I was failing. I hid in my room because the neighborhood thought I was a bad kid. Being a bad, poor, stupid, fat kid made me quiet and lonely.

At night, I would sit on my dresser and dangle my feet out of the second story window. I would name all the constellations I could see. I thought Orion was the best name for a man ever. And Orion had two dogs. I wanted to grow up and marry Orion and play with the big and little dog and live among the stars.

I looked down one night and noticed that one of the rats was lying half eaten on the patio. I didn’t see the other one anywhere.  Something larger than the rats had done them in. There was no time to imagine monsters for me now. I usually wallowed in the escape of a good horror movie or novel, but life had gotten too close, too real. I needed to make it until summer. I grabbed my flashlight and climbed out of the window, hanging a bit until I could drop onto the tall grass.

The moon was bright enough for me to see a path to the side door of the garage. No one ever went in there.  My mom parked her old brown Duster in the driveway. The woman had driven a Cobra and a Mercedes and a Cadillac at one point – always parking in the garage. But they were all gone now. Now she bolstered herself for the nightly dash from the beater car to the front door cursing rats.

The garage had its own life, a slow breath of dust, secrets and remnants of a creative life. It housed random bits and parts of craft projects so long gone that even the concept was a jumbled haze. Old acrylic paints, damp particle board, warped paneling, dried up markers. It has a dresser full of old books from a neighborhood garage sale – back when the neighborhood somewhat made an effort to include us. I had looked through them once, but it was mostly old romance novels and books filled with cleaning hints.  One was a fake book that opened to show two plastic figures in various sex positions. It was poorly made trash.  At the time, I felt like I was too.

Suddenly, I heard a soft rumble growing louder. A grey calico tomcat slid himself around the corner of a cardboard box and tilted his head at me, eyes half closed.  His name was Cougar. I just knew it.  I knew it like I knew he would be my friend. I sat on the floor and he leapt down and settled into my lap. He was bigger than any cat I had ever seen. He had vanquished the rats and made my backyard safe. He was my hero.

He rolled on his side and put a paw up on my face. The tears came like a waterfall. I had a friend who required nothing of me. I stroked his face and scratched the top of his head. I was afraid I would make him angry or skittish by crying. I had heard that cats hate to be wet.

But he stayed and napped a bit, his rumbling purr blocking out silence and fear. It was nearly 2 a.m. when he slinked away from me and outside to prowl the night.

I stayed home from school the next day. I hid in my room until the house was quiet. I grabbed five dollars from the red box and cut across the fields to Lawson’s, staying out of sight of the school.  I hated that place. I was going to fail 5th grade and I didn’t care. Today it was more important to feed my new friend.

I bought 3 packets of wet cat food, treats and a small wire brush.  I couldn’t afford the little mouse, but I could probably make him one.

The trip from Lawson’s to the garage was blissful.  I kept thinking of songs I could sing to him. “What’s New, Pussycat” by Tom Jones was on the top of the list.  Also I could read aloud to him.  I still had some poetry books that my grandparents gave me. Cougar may be a rat-killer, but I was sure that cats appreciated the finer things.

As soon as I got to the garage, he found me. He rubbed against my leg. “Hi human girl, you are my human girl.”  He claimed me. I suspected he knew about the food so I fed him right away.  I opened the tin and sat back inside a large cardboard box watching him devour Tender Vittles.  His gratitude rumbled loudly and I noticed he was chewing mainly on one side of his face. The other side looked normal, but didn’t operate very well.  He’d survived a scuffle or two.

When he was done, he made a relaxed jog to where I was sitting and began to clean himself.  I took the brush out of the bag and held it in the air next to him.  He began stroking one side against it, then the other.  Eventually, Cougar let me brush him and his grey fur began to look pewter, then silver. He was such a big, beautiful boy!

He claimed me as his family at a point in my life when no one else would.

(Artwork by Daz Lartist)