Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Matters of the Heart


April 9, 2012

Good morning.  It is Monday.  The sun is just beginning to shine.  I should be at the hospital, with my dad, but I am here, at home, writing this letter to you. 

Sadie is on the living room rug chewing a buffalo tendon.  She chomps and rips. 

Stella sits on the dining room table.  Watching the garden for signs of movement. 

This morning I heard birds chirping. 

For the past seven days your grandpa has been in the hospital.  His heart has gotten the best of him.  It has threatened to betray him. 

It is 9:56 a.m.  He will be in surgery for 4-6 hours as the surgeons move and graft veins from one part of his body to another.  Open heart surgery. 

In that moment, when the surgeons stopped his heart to do their work, did you greet him, along with other souls he has known, waiting to decide whether to allow him to come with you, or to shepard him back to here and now and 1 or 2:00 when the surgery should be over.

I fully feel the weight of this.

The wait of this.

In the days preceding, my father told me stories.  Sitting on the hard plastic chair this week, I have listened.  I have heard him.

Stories, my dad cast as the main character, involving my mother, my grandmothers, great aunts, uncles.  Ancestors from Spain, Portugal, Hawaii, Ireland, Illinois. 

I look for places where our stories intersect.  Where I come on the scene. 

Parenthood was not a choice for him or my mother.

It was not planned.

It happened.

I was conceived in the back seat of a green 1949 Ford convertible.  My dad was nineteen, my mother, fifteen. Accompanying Dad to a Seahawks game one Sunday afternoon, my father proudly pointed out the parking lot, between a run down gas station and a warehouse in Seattle, where he and my mother “made out” and made me.
It was 1954, before the “Pill” and legalized abortion.  In the 1950’s a woman’s place was in the home.  The marriage rate in the United States was at an all time high.  Getting married right out of high school was considered the norm.  Being single and pregnant was socially unacceptable.
            With my cells dividing--forming arms, legs, lungs, heart, forming inside her womb--my mother had two choices. She could go to a home for ”wayward girls”, have me and put me up for adoption. Or she could marry my father.  Influenced by my stern German Catholic Grandma Fran on my mother’s side, and my three hundred pound Portuguese Catholic Grandma Thelma on my father’s side, my father did the honorable thing.  He married my mother.
            While other girls my mom’s age, went to sock hops, proms, and eventually graduated from high school, my mother had me, my sisters and my brother. She spent her days changing diapers and warming bottles for babies that came every year. By the time she was 21, there were five of us. Another one was on the way.
            My birth certificate says I was born at 12:49 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, 1955 at Swedish Hospital in Seattle Washington. Sometime between my birth and second birthday my dad enlisted in the Army.  My second birthday was celebrated in Oakland, California. By then I had one baby sister and another on the way.
            I celebrated my third and fourth birthdays at Fort Lewis, where my dad was stationed at the time. A month before my fourth birthday I got my third sibling, a brother. On my fifth birthday we were living in Hawaii. I had a party in Wahiawa at the Nani Wai apartment hotel. I got a Viewmaster, pedal pushers, shorts, a bathing suit, blouses, and a yellow dress. One month after I blew out the candles on my cake, I got baby sister number four. That year, September 9, 1960, I went to my first day of kindergarten at Waianae Elementary.
            I know all of this because I have my baby book. It is a maize satin covered written history of my early years.  It stops with my first day of school. I have taken this book out often and fondled the wax envelope with the dark curled clipping of a lock of my hair from my first haircut. I have traced the lines of my newborn footprints and compared my thumbprints to my mother's. The Story of Our Baby is full of information-- when I got my first tooth, smiled my first smile, walked my first steps. There are little mother's notes like "Sherry is now at five months and is starting to grab things and play with them. She is getting cuter all the time."
As a mother, I know recording all of this took time. This book, and a handful of black and white photos that show a chubby, smiling, little, curly dark-haired girl, are all I have to prove that my parents must have cared for me when I was little. My own memories do not allow me that.
I cannot find the place where my own memories actually began.  It is a
blur.  Watching the curl of remembered feelings, hearing them shake the rattles in their tail should be warning enough.  Once the snake bites, the poison spreads. 
It will be awhile before I can recover from the fear of going home.
The sweaty palms I tried to dry on the skirt of my dress.  Sweat beads forming into rivulets, dripping onto everything around me.  Leaving little puddles on the black mat of the bus floor, riding home from kindergarten, first grade.
Red ants biting at my five year old flesh as they crawled across my toes, across my feet, up my shins, my torso, my neck until a neighbor found me.
Ketchup and mayonnaise on Wonder Bread.
Imaginary friends.
A field trip to a fire station.
Three Little Pigs puppets I made on popsicle sticks.
“I’m a little teapot, short and stout.”
My father telling my mother, “Calm down.  Lower your voice.  The kids are in the other room.”

“I don’t want to say nothing bad about your mother,” my dad starts out.  But he is his own hero in this story.  I use what he tells me to recreate my history. 

My sister Kathy is tracing our ancestors.  She has found quite a few.  Is drawing out the family tree.

I need to study the leaves.
            My mother abused prescription drugs.  She did not get them legally.  She washed them down with alcohol.  Spending time in bars, she sought the company of men other than my father.  In her land of oblivion and sex, there was no room for five small children.  Things came to a head when the military police found my mother drunk and high with a sergeant having sex on the bar in the Non Commissioned Officer’s Club at 3 a.m.  The two of them had broken in after hours.  The MPs were going to arrest her. Not wanting to cause problems with my dad’s military career, they called him to come and get her.  She was pregnant with her sixth child.  It was not my dad’s.
            I was in the first grade when we left Hawaii. In the middle of the night mom, with no warning, no explanation, pulled us five children out of our beds where we were soundly sleeping. She hurried us off to Honolulu airport.   We had tickets to Seattle she told us.
            When we got to SeaTac airport we walked out of the plane and into the cold wearing flip-flops, sleeveless shirts, and shorts.  It was November in Washington, which meant cold and rain in Seattle. 
As the spring of 1962 began to flaunt cherry blossoms, daffodils and rhododendrons, we moved out of her mother’s house.  Mom found housing at High Point, a housing project in West Seattle.
            A young boy, just a few years older than me, who let me ride his bicycle, and who lived across the street from us, was found hanging from the clothesline pole one morning.  I overheard the grownups around me as they whispered back and forth about his death. Some said he saw his death as the only escape from that place.  Others whispered somebody killed him. I could not understand any of it.  I only knew a boy I had played with was dead

Welfare mother
cries her eyes out
in the projects
neighbors say
at least that's
one less mouth to feed

My mother was like a ghost in my life.  There were occasional sightings.
            I was hungry all the time.  There was never food in our cupboards or our refrigerator.  We had no dining room table to sit and eat breakfast, lunch or dinner.  So, I spent time at neighbors’ houses, where they had bologna sandwiches and cookies and milk in the refrigerator.
            There was the old couple who had no children of their own.  She made me eggs and bacon in the morning with buttered toast and jam, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans, meals that made my mouth water.  She died and the man was too sad to feed himself. 
            The girl on the next block who was my age, and an only child--I spent a lot of time with her.  She brought out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips and strawberry Kool-Aid.  We ate and drank on her patio, jelly sticking to the sides of our mouth, cherry Kool-Aid giving us red moustaches.  But then her mom said she could not play with me anymore because my mother had too many strange men over at our house.  I could not understand why I was no longer welcome at her house for something my mother was doing.
            And there was the big black woman with skin the color of milk chocolate. She had more kids than I could count.  One she carried on her hip, another wrapped himself around her leg.  The rest just followed her everywhere.  I began to follow too, hoping I would blend.  She took me with them to pick colanders full of blackberries that she turned into jam and pies.  There were big pots of food-- thick with chunks of ham or chicken or beef, green stuff, beans--on her stove, that smelled like heaven and made my mouth water.  She always made a place for me at the table.
“Honey girl,” she would say to me, “you better run along home and tell your momma where you is so she ain’t worried bout you.”
            I snuck out of the house by climbing out a bedroom window. I shimmied down to the garbage can I had put under it until the tips of my toes were on the lid.  Balanced there, I let my heels down while hanging onto the window ledge.  Letting go of the window ledge I’d crouch down until I was sitting, and then I’d slide the rest of the way to the ground. 
My mother did not worry about me.  She did not know I was gone.  She  was like a ghost in my life.  Occasional sightings.
When I wore out my welcome with everyone, I’d sneak into their unlocked houses and drink their milk, make myself a lunchmeat sandwich with Miracle Whip or mayonnaise, find a bag of cookies or some chips and find someplace in the woods nearby to enjoy my feast.
            Survival lessons.

          Andrea, those memories, painful as they are, were nothing compared to what was to come.  The years of my Dad and stepmother.

          My stepmother’s names for me. 

          Fat Ass.  Trouble Maker.  Titless Wonder.  Liar.  Whore like your mother.

          I forgot my own name.  Forgot who I was.

          How did my father not hear this?

          I am frozen here at the computer.  A blank page to tell you what happened.  Hate happened.  My stepmother hated me, despised me, needed to take me down a notch or two.

          Me.  Who will not be destroyed.

          In his own way, my father has acknowledged what happened.

          But he cannot admit his part in it.

          I think of other things.

I found this picture of my dad, my mom and me. 

Memories of my dad.

It is 10:45.  Monday morning.  April 9, 2010.  Fresh from the shower, I brush my teeth.  My sister Linda has texted me, “Dad should be out of surgery around 12:30.”

All week long, sitting in that plastic chair next to his bed, listening to his doctors of the heart, I have had a feeling this could go either way.  If my dad were by himself, he would take off the hospital gown, climb on his Harley, and say “To hell with this.  I‘ve lived this long.  I’ll take my chances.”

He has Mari now. 

And he cannot leave her.

So he will let the surgeons cut his ribs apart, expose his heart, repair what they can, close him up.   He will bear the risk and pain of this for her.

10:45 you are a whispered thought.  “Your dad will be ok.”

It is like a blessing.

A rush of memory.

My dad.

Hush puppies dropped into the deep fat fryer.  Translucent bits of onion shimmering with melted fat as I cut into the crisp outer shell, fill the middle with butter.

The quarter appearing, disappearing from the palm of his hand when he closed his fist, opened it.







I want the Hershey Bar prize.

Spit shined black boots.

Green fatigues, starched stiff.

My first communion at Holy Cross, eating a donut afterwards at Winchells, just me and dad, me in my white communion dress and veil. 

The sound of his belt as it sliced through the air, met my flesh.  The sting, then ache of ruptured veins, the multicolored bruises on my skin I tried to hide. 

The underlying beat that carries through this song of my life.

This song I tried to forget, but write now for you.

Another day begins. 

My dad will be ok.

My thoughts are with you.

                        Love you sweetie-Mom.