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ARIZONA CHRONICLES PART XI

7 Nov

My mother tightly coiled, always walking the fine line between despair and tension, began to unravel just before the holidays.  She began locking herself for long periods of time in the bathroom and I would stand in the hallway watching my sister push pictures beneath the slit of the door trying to cheer her up.  The part of me that used to care about whether or not she would open the door with a crooked smile and still sniffing tears had departed.  My compassion for my mother was replaced by anger.  I felt left alone to raise myself and my sister and angry with my father for not yelling at her to stop what she was doing.

When I left the house in the cool morning to go to school, I would no longer look back at my sister standing in the doorway, her fingers pressed against the glass as if beckoning me to take her with me.  I would tell her she was too little, but I also felt if she were home, nothing bad would happen to my mother that day.  When I was home, I refused to come out of my room unless it was dinnertime or my father insisted I come out and play.  I would count down the hours he was at home on the weekend, watching my mother pretend to be something other than what we saw during the days he was at work.  I roiled with anger and rampaged against whatever was happening in my house.

Then one day I arrived home to my fake grandmother making dinner and announcing my mother was in the hospital.  My father arrived later and told us it was an infected tooth.  She would be in the hospital for a little while.  It was as if someone had flung open the windows and fresh air was blowing through the curtains.  To this day, I am not sure what actually happened to my mother.  She was in the hospital for a week, we saw her exactly once, she burst into tears, and we were bustled from the room.

My father stumbled with being both mother and father.  He was unsure how to wash clothes and whites were suddenly tinged pink.  He cooked frozen pizzas for dinner, still slightly frozen in the center, but we ate happily anyway.  We built elaborate cities on the carpet with Popsicle sticks and went to bed leaving it there.  My mother would have balked at the idea.  I began insisting my sister take baths that consisted of more than splashing her face and laying out her pajamas for her nightly.  I cooked scrambled eggs for breakfast and burnt bacon and thought for the first time in a long time, there was nothing to worry about.

It snowed the morning my mother came home.  I remember standing in the door, watching the golf ball size flakes fall and blanket the morose brown ground we had refused to call a lawn.  In Kentucky, we were use to lush green grass sprinkled with dandelions and smelling sweet of earth.  I longed for the alfalfa fields next to our trailer when we first moved to Arizona.  I would run through them in my bare feet, the soft leaves tickling my ankles, lie down on a soft blanket of green, and watch the clouds.  Our yard at the house was nothing more than rocks and clumps of weeds.

My sister and I stood at the door calling for more snow.  When we first moved to the mountains, our first winter in Arizona, there had been enough snow for a snowman.  We had higher aspirations this time.  I thought an igloo was surely easy to build and we had a sled just waiting to be used for something other than dragging large rocks home from the dried up creek.  We stood watching the snowfall in our pajamas until my fake grandmother came in.  Dad muttered something about going to get our mother, and suddenly the snowfall lost its luster.

She arrived, looking thinner, but exactly the same.  She hugged us, told us how much she missed us and then went straight to bed.  My father doted on her, making her hot soup and bringing her the newspaper to read.  It is when I realized she was his other child.  The favorite one.  The one he had to tend to because she needed the most attention.  Instead of feeling jealousy, I felt saddened and resolute I would never need or want anyone to take care of me.

She was still too shaky for Thanksgiving dinner that year and we had it at my fake grandmother’s house.  My grandfather had been injured falling off a logging truck and there was talk of them returning to Kentucky.  Micah and I ate our dinners in lawn chairs beneath the carport.  It was freezing outside and there was still snow.  We watched Russ building a large bon fire in an empty drum, tossing in whatever sticks and paper he could find until it roared above his head.  Micah said he knew they would be leaving Arizona.  I told him I would be sorry to see him go, but glad to see Russ leave.  As we exchanged knowing glances, Russ threw two empty aerosol cans onto his fire and there was a sudden explosion.  The can tipped over and fire shot toward the carport.  When the smoke cleared, Russ stood there with singed hair and eyebrows, yet still smiling.  I could not wait for him to leave.

They moved away just before Christmas.  There were hugs and tears and at some point during the goodbye dinner, I hit Russ above the eye with a matchbox car.  All of the pictures we had in our photo album are of me smiling from ear to ear and Russ scowling with his eye swollen and turning purple.  It was my last goodbye gift to someone who would go on to cause damage in other people’s lives.  Micah and I cried, our shared experiences bonding us, yet things would never be the same.  We promised to write, but never did.  Out of sight, so they say.

With that, whatever family we had in Arizona was now gone.  There were friends, those my mother had yet to alienate, but we were ostensibly alone.  Christmas was a morose day of half heartedly opening presents and arguing between my parents.  There was a seismic shift in the plates of our lives, and I did not have a clue what it was.  My mother was torn between wanting to return to Kentucky and wanting to stay in Arizona where she felt truly at home.  I just wanted to get away.

Just after the holidays, my mother was in the hospital again.  She would be hospitalized several times as I grew up.  I often joked she had every organ remove you could spare to lose.  I will be honest and say I am not sure what it was that time in Arizona.  I am not sure my father even bothered with an excuse.  She was just simply in the hospital and then she was home again.  This pattern would play out through out our lives.

It was just before New Years, after mom was home and in bed again, the snow fell overnight.  A deep plush carpet of white covering our yard and our street.  I trudged out into it just as the sun rose and everywhere I looked there was just white.  I threw myself down in it, despite the cold and my thin coat, and made a series of snow angels.  I built a snowman with rocks for eyes and a mouth.  I threw snowballs at my bedroom window until my sister peeked out and then half dressed, joined me in the snow.  We laughed and played even as the sun grew hotter and our snowman began to melt.  This was what we had been waiting for, and it was perfect.  It made me believe if you waited long enough, those perfect moments would come; you just had to be patient.

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ARIZONA CHRONICLES PART TEN

31 Oct

I like to think of Arizona as the place I found my sense of wonder for life outside myself and where my mother lost her ever loving mind.  Despite finally having the house of her dreams, the husband who loved her and the children who were for the most part were well behaved, my mother became even more miserable.  For the first time, she was working as a maid at a local hotel while I was at school and my sister stayed with my fake grandmother.  If possible, she became more depressed and withdrawn from us when she was home.  Her behavior concerned the family so much, my grandmothers showed up on our doorstep one day to save her.

Having her mother and mother in law under the same roof did not ease my mother’s nerves.  If anything, she became more high strung and volatile.  My grandmother, never one to be shy on her opinion, chastised my mother for allowing us to go native.  We were dirt covered tanned tomboys claiming lizards as pets and immersing ourselves in nature.  We were determined to be savages and my grandmothers begged my mother to return home to civilization.  It didn’t help you could hear the coyotes howling in the dark of night and dirt devils were becoming a daily event.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the grandmothers left and we were left behind.  Mother became what can only be called unhinged.  There were a lot of slamming doors, locking herself in the bathroom and rampages over spills.  We learned to avoid her at all costs.  My father, in his infinite wisdom, had a perfect solution.  He would begin taking her out to the bars for date night.

There were three bars and no grocery stores in our small town.   Priorities were determined.  So, every Saturday night, my dad put on his cowboy boots and ostentatious silver belt buckle and mom pinned her hair back and they went to the Silver Spur.  As excited as we were to have our parents out of the house, we were subjected to a steady stream of baby sitters that got progressively worse.

There was the one who boiled two cartons of eggs and made the largest bowl of egg salad I’ve ever seen.  The entire house smelled of eggs and cigarettes and her Shalimar perfume.  I begged my parents to never let her step foot in the house again.  Then there were the young teen girls who snuck boys in the backdoor and made out on our sofa.  The worst was an older woman who was saddled not only with my sister and me, but Micah and Russ.

Russ in all his deviancy could be entertaining with the babysitters.  He was determined to either make them cry or leave.  He felt he was too old to be under supervision.  The babysitter that evening was sweet and determined we would have a good time playing monopoly or watching television.  Instead, Russ began a standoff in the bedroom that lasted for hours and resulted in our parents being called home early and the door being taken off the hinges.  Micah and I camped in the hallway and begrudgingly admired Russ for an amusing evening.

Going to the bar meant my parents made new friends.  One couple in particular was as far removed from the locals as possible.  The wife wore heavy make up and low cut blouses, unheard of in our small town.  The husband was witty, charming and cared whether he had dirt beneath his fingernails.  There house was on the outskirts of town, a rambling two story jammed with paintings and art.  There was always music playing and weekend barbecues to attend.  They served raw oysters on the half shell and I found it decadent beyond belief.  I wanted to be adopted into this family.

Every weekend I spent on a barstool in the kitchen painting bird houses or stenciling mirrors with my friend’s mother I had taken as my own.  While all the children were off riding bikes, I was listening to Etta James and Billie Holiday with the father.   I felt as if I belonged to these people and hated to go home.  How could you not love a mother who shaved chocolate onto big dollops of whipped cream in your hot chocolate?

Their creativity was never more apparent than at Halloween.  The mother’s love of all things Halloween and her determination to decorate every inch of their house, inspired many parties I threw well into my adulthood.  While I was accustomed to plastic face masks and ill fitting Barbie pajamas as a costume, she would make intricate costumes for her children.

Her son that year went as an African American baby.  He wore a sky high afro wig, black face and a white diaper as a costume.  Racist?  Sure.  But in our small town of Arizona there were no African Americans.  The only minority was the Native Americans who resided in small hovels at the edge of town and on the reservations.  My family was shocked having grown up in a much more diverse area.

The daughter was a beautiful butterfly.  I would sit on the stool and watch the mother dot the gauzy wings with glue then sprinkle with glitter.  I wanted to be a butterfly.  Instead, my mother decided I would be a hobo.  Easy enough costume.  I would look upon those wings the days before Halloween with such envy, wanting to wear them myself and my friend’s mother could tell.

She pulled my mother aside and said there was still time to make a second set of butterfly wings.  My mother, not entirely uncreative, balked at the idea.  Looking back, I think she saw my longing for something else other than the life I was leading.  It was her first indication I would not be like them, nor would I ever be.  I would always want something else and she felt rejected.  We left my friend’s house that day and never returned.  I saw them on Halloween night, the boy in his black face and my friend in her beautiful purple and pink butterfly wings and black leotard.  The mother looked at me in my ill fitting hobo costume and patted my shoulder.  She leaned over and whispered, “Someday you’ll make your own butterfly wings.”

She was right.  Someday I would create and make, despite those who told me I couldn’t.  I missed those weekends spent painting and talking about the perfect color blue.  My mother had cut me off from the lifeline of my creativity, but she had not killed it.  Instead, I would cut beautiful pictures from magazines and save them in a box.  I began writing down the words floating in my imagination and recreating that world I found at someone else’s house.  My butterfly wings were words that carried me far away and she had not even realized it yet.

Happy Halloween.