Sunday, October 25, 2015

I can peel an apple in one long strip, almost perfectly, with a paring knife.

This is something I watched my grandmother do hundreds of times, seated, peeling away, creating springy piles of peelings.

When I think of her, this is often the picture that pops into my head.

Grandma seated in a rocking chair wearing an apron, handing out thin slices to children gathered around her.

My grandparents cared for many children, for many years.

They ran an emergency foster home, and would accept the most profoundly special needs children.

Growing up, I thought it was completely normal to have children arrive in the middle of the night, in the back of a police car, with nothing.

When I was a small child, the house was full, sometimes with teenagers, and sometimes with children my age, and usually at least one baby.

When the children arrived during the day, they looked scared and lonely and sometimes battered.

They were unkempt and often unruly.

My grandmother would write their names and dates of birth in her gray blank book.

She didn't do a whole lot of talking.

Sometimes she washed the children, or treated them for lice.

Sometimes she fed them, even if it wasn't a meal time.

She was a straightforward, no nonsense and practical woman, that kept new crib mattresses in the rafters of the barn, and barrels of children's clothing in the basement.

I liked the babies best, and the teenagers least.

The children my age were sometimes nice to play with.

Sometimes they were scary, or terribly damaged.

Joan, who had been burned from the chin down, with scars that looked like a doll that had melted.

Oskar, who's mother had thrown him from the car window, who was blind and severely brain damaged.

I knew that I was never to comment on these things, or be unkind.

I knew that I was lucky to have a family that loved me and a brain and body that worked well.

My grandparents judged the parents of these children harshly in private. I would hear my grandmother filling my grandfather in on the newest arrival.

A 2 x 4 upside the head, would serve that creep right- you would do a dog the way he beat that baby

An alley cat would have more mothering instincts
My grandfather would leave the house in the dark, wee hours of morning, to work his job at the dairy, arriving home around 2:00.
He always came in the backdoor, removed his hat and shoes, washed up, greeted everyone and laid down on the sofa for a little rest before supper.  

How he slept in a tiny parlor filled with children, I have no idea, but no one was ever shhhhed. 

At suppertime everyone gathered around the huge round table that seats 15 comfortably and 20 if you squeeze in. 

Mealtimes are when you could really see which children were worst off, may had been in bad times for a long time. 

There were ones that would pocket food, or wolf their meal down and ask for more. 

There were the ones that were too afraid to take any food at all. 

One time the sheriff brought three children that had been picked up at the dump, out past Oregon City. 

They'd been living there for a while and they were filthy.  

Celeste, Sergy, and Harlan ( who was a three year old girl, which I thought was outrageous, since my that was my father's name!). 

Grandma was making ice cream cones, scooping one for everybody, and handing them out.  Those kids just stood there, and finally, the littlest girl stuck her hand out, palm flat, like she had no idea in the world how to take hold of the cone. 

That just about makes you sick, when a little kid caint take an ice cream cone.  That ain't right. 

That family stayed quite a while, and were eventually brought back into care three more times over the years.  

Sometimes my grandmother would tell the social workers not to bring a child back anymore.  It got to hard, to see them bounced back and forth, when she knew the birth parents were not going to be able to get it together to keep their child permanently, yet they kept right on sending them back.  

There was a photo of a toddler on my grandmother's dresser, a little boy with black hair, named Stephen John, that I knew was dead.  
He was dead and it made my grandmother terribly sad, even though he had died in the 60's long before I was born, I knew his story. 

My grandparents had fostered him, because his mother was mentally ill and couldn't care for him.  
They had him from infancy until around his second birthday, and my grandmother loved him dearly.  
He had been sent back, and died from chicken pox that hadn't been tended to.  
My grandparents paid for his coffin.

That was before you were born Heididoll, poor, poor Stephen John 

I liked to read the gray book with the names of all the children.  

Sometimes there was a little story too.
In the late 60's and 70's there were lots of teenage girls that "walked off", went out for a smoke and never came back.  

 went off with the hippies I imagine

In my mind mind I saw flower children dancing away, to some magical place.  

Monday, October 12, 2015

Well you know Joanne!

I started working at a fancy European toy store, in the old Yamhill Market in 1988.

We sold all the high end stuff, that at the time you didn't see in department stores.

Brio, Playmobil, Seiff, Madame Alexander dolls, Gund stuffed animals, all kinds of fancy, beautiful stuff, that pleased me immeasurably to be around.

The store was right on the corner of 2nd and Yamhill, with windows on three sides.

I did the window dressing, which gave me a great deal of pleasure.

I had a lot of regulars, collectors and weekend fathers, buying gifts for their children.

I kept a note-box with cards, detailing which tracks their child had, and which tracks they might need, for their wooden trains.

We were a tight little family of folks, a gal named Alesha, who didn't know if she was going to be a lesbian, or not, me, a big guy named Barry,  who played in a rock band on the weekends, and worked in the warehouse and my friend Ruth, with her long braid, and serious face.

Among my regulars was a homeless man named Mr. Shirley.

He smelled terrible, and had one tooth that sort of dangled in front.

He was remarkably clever, and made puns with lightening speed.

Every single day, he would come in and shop.

He called me Joanne, and we did a bit of verbal sparing, before Ruth would grow weary of his stench and send him on his way, or spray Lysol in his wake.

Mr. Shirley was a poet, and would fill volumes of blank books, spiral notebooks and paper bags with his writing, which was sometimes not so bad, and often, just the words

preTTee pOnee 

over and over and over, filling pages.

One day I asked Mr. Shirley if he had any children, and he told me

Well, you know, Joanne! I like to think Jack Nicholson and Kurt Vonnegut are my children 

Which I thought was one of the best things anyone had ever said to me.  
Mr. Shirley had fallen in love with a diary we had in the store, that had a little embossed pony on the cover, and while I tried to just give it to him, he insisted on putting it on layaway, which consisted of giving me a few pennies every day.  

About a year into the layaway plan, Mr. Shirley stopped coming in, and I became worried, so being the nosy thing I am, I phoned up the residence hotel that he said he stayed at sometimes. 

The lady at the desk told me that he had been ill and was in and out of the hospital. 

I told her to let him know that Joanne was saving his diary for him. 

And then the store moved to the big, fancy, new mall, where they surely would not have let him in to browse and I never saw him again. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

I started working a little bit, this summer, at the food cart, that belongs to a former teacher, from the hippie preschool.

I worked through August, and grew attached to the flow and energy of cooking and serving.

I'd done catering and cocktailing and occasional bartending in college, and I was always good at it, but I never took it on full-time, because I know it's hard to transition to real work, from that work.

Having walked away from real work in June, I thought, what do I have to lose, and went ahead.

In September, I opened a teeny, tiny, little school close to home, but I have continued to work on Saturdays at the cart, and by golly, I may never stop.

Sitting in the bathtub yesterday morning, I was thinking of the notion of contentment.

I was actually thinking of my grandmother, and how she had always wanted to be an undertaker, which as a child, I found appalling, but as an adult, I can sort of see the attraction.

My grandmother was a caretaker, of people, but she was not a sweet, or even gentle person, she was complicated and could have used a bit of peace and quiet, and possibly a bit of tenderness, so I can see how the idea of caring for the dead would have had it's appeal.

In her life, she mostly never got to have a single thing she desired.

It was a life of sacrifice.

A life of struggle and giving.

I sometimes find myself in a similar mindset, and I try to dial back the martyrdom, because it doesn't really lead any place good.

When I was a small child, I often went to funerals with my grandmother.

She was fond of the open casket variety, which I found (and still find) barbaric.

I would fuss, and cry, because I was, and I remain a crybaby.

My grandmother would shhhhhh me and say,

It's just the body, it's just the b o d y 

Which is something religious people say, to indicate that the spirit, the essence, the person, of the person is gone, is in heaven, but even as a three year old, I was terrible at religion, and terribly concrete, and in a fit of pique said 
but where is the HEAD!? 

which prompted my mother to forbid her from taking me to funerals.