First Job

It was the fall.  The fall of 1986.

My mother had put in a good word for me and I started at my first job just a few days after I got my license.  I was eager beyond belief to start earning my own cash.  And my mother, a lawyer who knew lots of people, had helped get me the coolest first job ever.

I was working as a cashier at a local music store.

Not a music store where they sold vinyl records or tape cassettes (which is how they sold music in those days), but a store where guitars, strings, drums, amps, and other musical instruments were sold.   A store where in tiny rooms behind the counter guys with long hair and funky T shirts gave lessons.

It was an interesting place where there was always something to watch.  Interesting people who actually made their living doing what they loved were always around.   Guys came in asking for this piece of equipment or that, and slowly I learned what some of the basics were.  Mostly I just rang up guitar strings and practice books at the register, but I loved the energy.  I loved being a part of music and the creation of it.

Except it was slowly becoming clear to me how hard it was for someone like these guys to make a living.  I was talking to Kevin, my favorite guitar instructor, about having no money in my wallet one day.

Me:  “Have you ever realized that you have no money?  I mean, no money in your wallet and you’re not going to get any for days?”

Kevin:  “Unfortunately, yes.  It’s happened to me more times than I know.”

Me:  “I mean, I can’t even stop and get a hamburger or anything…nothing.  I’ll have to go home to eat, I guess.”

Kevin:  “You’re joking right?  You’re not out of money.  You’re just out of YOUR money.  If you can go home and there’s food there, stop complaining.  I was talking about not being able to stop and get a hamburger and going without because you have nothing and won’t for days. ”

Me:  “Oh.”  Cue in the stupid suburban idiot feeling.

Kevin:  “Don’t feel bad.  Feel lucky that you don’t even know what that’s like.”

Ouch.  Life in the biz was exciting, but also scary.

The Car

The CarOne of the things that caused me to come to blows with my brother when I visited my siblings earlier this summer was the discussion of The Car.

All three of us kids in the family were given cars as teenagers.  I chuckle at this today as my eldest son never had that gift.  Many of his friends did, and while I felt badly about not being able to give him that freedom.  But, I also knew that the life I’d set up for him was so vastly different than the one I had when I was his age, and therefore the teenage car was more of a necessity than the luxury it would have been for him.

My brother was angry, on this particular night as we sat watching our children swim together in my sister’s pool, because of the three children, he was the “only one” who was made to pay anything for the car he was finally allowed to drive at age nearly seventeen.  My father had given him that car, and asked him to pay $500 for it.  It was a Ford Escort, probably seven or eight years old, and the whole exercise was supposed to demonstrate a certain level of commitment and responsibility, and teach the value of work and a dollar and all of that.

I of course chuckled.  My brother had of course demonstrated a clear lack of knowledge of any of those sorts of things up until that point in his life, so of course my father thought a gift like that shouldn’t necessarily be free for him.  But my brother couldn’t see any of the extenuating circumstances around the situation; as he often does, he saw the situation in black and white.  He paid my father for a car, my sister and I didn’t pay our mother for the cars she gave us.

My mother gave my sister her car at age sixteen to help drive me and my brother around to fun things like othodontist appointments, doctors appointments, after school activities, etcetera.  She wasn’t made to pay because of course she was working for my mother, helping her out with things that my mother would have had to pay someone else to do while she was busy lawyering all day.

My mother gave me a car at age sixteen for less sensible reasons.  Part of it was a reward for my good grades and hard work, and the level of responsibility I’d demonstrated doing whatever I was asked around the house.  I’m sure the secondary reason had something to do with feeling badly that she hadn’t protected me more from my brother’s violent moods and all of the ensuing family drama that came out of them.  I was the only one in the family that bore the physical scars in addition to the emotional ones we all had, and so I’m sure on some level she was trying to make me feel better.

On my sixteenth birthday, my mother took a half day off and marched me over to the Secretary of State and signed the forms that allowed me to drive my used Plymouth Turismo wherever I wanted.  We both were sure that this would help me move beyond the four walls of my house and all of the history contained in them.   And I loved her for it.

I found it amusing that so many years later my brother is still holding a grudge about The Car, especially since I thought I’d long since gotten past all of the things he’d done prior to me getting it.  But the angry conversation that followed his comment showed us both that sometimes your past is still very much a part of your present…often without you even realizing it.

Coming Back for More

I had always been insecure and compared myself with others.  I still do that as an adult, and it is one of those things that I’d always wished I’d grown out of, but I never did.  I cope with my insecurities better these days…I’ll hide away for a few days and not talk to people while I chase out the demons in my head, or I’ll just swallow my fear and push past it.  What I don’t ever do any more, and what I did often back when I first met Ray at camp that year, is wait for someone who I deem “important” to pull me out of my funk and back into feeling good again.

I had been feeling badly about my crush boy from overseas not paying attention to me at the dance, but afterwards, Ray started lavishing tons of attention on me.  And I’m not going to lie, I loved it.  On the one hand, it probably was because I had already branded him off limits in my head due to his reckless behavior, and I wasn’t the kind of girl who liked reckless.  I liked safe.  And since I wasn’t all that interested in Ray’s attentions, I’m sure that made me look like the sweetest kind of forbidden fruit to him.  I lived two hours away from where he did, I had clearly never had sex before, and there were just three days left of camp.  I’m sure that to him this looked like a mission with a goal, and I laughed as he followed me around like a sweet puppy trying to gain approval.

But it helped.  The attention from him nursed my wounded pride.  Here was a guy who was scoring his way through camp that summer, and suddenly he wanted me.  Of all the pretty girls and the girls who were surer things, he was paying attention to me.  I wasn’t the kind of girl who received such attention; I wasn’t beautiful (most called me “cute”, which I hated), I wasn’t tall, I wasn’t good at flirting (extreme lack of experience) and I was more interested in books than I was the latest fashion trend.    So while I laughed away at Ray’s constant commentary on how much he’d like to get me into the practice cabin and have his way with me, I held his hand and smiled just often enough to keep him trying.   It wasn’t a good habit to get into, I realize now, looking back on it; spending time with the bad boy looking looking for the sweet behind the sultry.

Because once I found it, the curiosity I felt couldn’t be stopped.   How could someone not be lumped into just one group?  He was a cad, but he was also nice.  He was a jerk but also sweet.  He was kind but also not kind at all.  The dichotomy intrigued me, and before we left camp that year, I knew that this wasn’t going to be the last time I saw him.  I knew that this boy, this boy that was trying just a little too hard to prove he was a man, wasn’t someone I could just leave in a neat package in the memory box in my head.  Oh, no.  I had to find out more.  Most importantly, I had to know:  what on earth was it that he was seeing in me, and why was it that others didn’t seem to

There He Was

I sent him a note via Facebook yesterday.

I do this from time to time, just to make sure he’s still out there in the world. And it might take a week, or a month, or a day, but so far I’ve always heard a reassuring, “Yes, I’m still here” in response. I haven’t heard back from him just yet.

It’s a comfort, somehow, to know that he’s still out there and there are days when his mind wanders towards me.

I didn’t like him when I met him that summer at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Not at first. I had an insane crush on a tall, blonde German exchange student named Ulrich (this becomes ironic later). And so when I saw Ray strutting his stuff with the sixteen year old girls at camp, because he had stayed there for the two week session before ours, I just laughed. He was a player. Not really my type, though he was tall. He was brash and outgoing and threw out compliments to girls in what I saw as an obvious attempt at gaining their favor. The height of my disgust came one evening when he balanced two girls, one on each knee, and took turns kissing them while the rest of the crowd talked and tried not to watch.

I wasn’t interested in being another throw away toy, and I let him know it very clearly.

I kept hanging with my girlfriends, who all found him funny, and the boys we hung out with, including my pal Ulrich. He talked to me in his accented English and told me about life in Germany and I mooned for most of the two weeks over him. That was, until the night of the camp dance.

As a rule, I hated dances because I tended to be the girl who stood around and never got asked to dance. I’d, in fact, stopped attending them at school because I hated the feeling of standing next to the wall watching the world go by. I’d rather be at home writing than feeling sorry for myself. But camp seemed different; there were different people here who valued talent and intellect and so I dressed up in my big V neck sweater with the yellow tank top underneath and my ankle length white skirt to match and set out with my girls.

Immediately I regretted it. My girlfriends started going off in pairs with the boys we knew, and even though they were all “just friends”, there weren’t enough of our crowd to go around. And if that wasn’t bad enough. Ulrich was consistently dancing with one girl. I had shyly asked him earlier in the day if he would save me a dance, and he’d said he would. But tonight, here, he wasn’t even looking for me. I folded my arms and started to walk away from the crowd, alone. I should have known better.

Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was him. Ray. The guy I didn’t like, the guy who was shallow enough to talk about who he’d bagged in the woods, the guy who I wrote off as a cad about a minute after I’d met him. He asked me if I wanted to dance.

“I don’t think so,” I answered. “I’m not really interested in sitting next to the other girl you’ve got your eyes on tonight.”

“I don’t have my eyes on anyone,” he answered. “I just thought you might like to dance.” And then he smiled. He had this goofy smile that lit up his whole face. And suddenly, I was awkwardly dancing with him; my five foot tall frame reaching up high to his nearly six foot tall one.

I spent the whole song talking to him about how upset I was that Ulrich was dancing with someone else, just to make sure he was clear that I wasn’t interested in him. He was sympathetic, and kind, and gave me that “just friends” squeeze at the end of it. I smiled back at him as I walked away, thinking that maybe he wasn’t as much of a cad as I’d thought.

Twenty five years later, when I think of that night, I still smile. I had no idea how much that night would impact the rest of my life.

The Desk

The Desk

While my father was visiting this summer he took it upon himself to refinish my antique desk. The desk belongs to me because no one else wanted it, like a ton of other stuff in my house.

The desk used to belong to my mother. She got it from her aunt, who lived alone and single her entire adult life. My mother had so many aunts and uncles who never had children of their own, I thought it was so strange. Did every family have a bevy of great aunts and uncles like mine did? I hardly had any cousins on my mother’s side because no one had kids. My mother had exactly two first cousins, even though there were four kids in her father’s family and two in her mother’s. No one had kids.

The desk lived in a tiny, one bedroom apartment filled with nicotine gunk and smoke smell on Connecticut Avenue, in Washington DC. That was where my single aunt had lived. Her bathroom window overlooked the National Zoo. I imagined that she had an exciting life filled with great meals and important people. The reality was that she ate a lot of crap in her tiny kitchen alone. She wasn’t friendly and she wasn’t warm and that didn’t attract a lot of people.

Her apartment was filled with her mother’s furniture, the pieces having been placed there when her own mother, my great grand mother, had passed away in 1969. When my aunt got sick that summer (was it 1984? I think it was), my mother and I did what must have been a similar thing and packed up her possessions. We put the big pieces on a U Haul and sent the driver west to our tiny townhouse in the Detroit area.

I was too young and too stupid to recognize the value of the pieces that had suddenly come into our possession. There was a beautiful dining table, and a matching breakfront. There was this antique desk. There were wall hangings and other things. And now today, of all of those lovely things that my mother took from her aunt, who took them from her mother, all I have left is this desk. It was gummy, and dirty, and the front of it was broken and falling off of its hinges.

My father, the guy who didn’t speak to my mother with anything but anger during the time frame in which we got the desk, spent hours last week restoring it. He took out the drawers and all of the parts. He found a mail receipt from 1956, signed by my great grandmother. He found a pen stuck inside that used a nib (the kind that had to be dipped in ink bottles) to write. He took off every brass handle and spent hours polishing them to their former luster. He cleaned off of the nicotine gunk and the fifty plus years of dirt and revarnished it.

I don’t always understand my father. We had a rough time of it when I was growing up. But now that I’m an adult, there are times that he surprises me with the gifts he will give me. The gifts that link me to my past are the greatest ones.

Ed note: I gave away the dining room table to my brother and the matching breakfront to a girlfriend, not realizing their value in my early twenties. I could kick myself. I’m sure they are long, long gone. One of these days I’ll work up the courage to ask.

Brothers and Fathers and Sons

What’s funny to me about my father’s rose colored views of my ugly awkward teenage years is that he seems to be like that about everything. I love him, but it’s clear to me that he lives in a world where everything is supposed to be a certain way. And when it’s not, the first instinct is to deny, deny, deny until perhaps you believe the thing that you don’t want to be simply isn’t.

He did this when my youngest (I know I’m jumping on the timeline here, but bear with me) was first diagnosed with autism. He kept telling me how he didn’t really see it, how he didn’t think that my youngest had a lot of autistic behaviors. That likely was easy for him to believe since he lives in Florida and at the time we were living in Ohio. The lack of speech, the constant meltdowns, the odd ways of playing with toys, the obsessive behaviors, the sensory issues…these were all things that could be explained away or skillfully ignored so that my father could believe that one of his grandchildren wasn’t seriously “flawed”.

It worked well for him until he visited us one summer after M had turned three, and we went to Ikea to shop. We’d eaten there, (a meal in which M consumed only french fries because he would eat nothing else on the menu), we’d shopped, we had bought some things. My father realized after we’d loaded the car and the kids in the carseats that he needed one more item. So instead of pulling out onto the highway, we pulled back into the parking lot and went to get the kids out of the car.

Well, in true autistic fashion when you break with the expected next step, M went into full on meltdown mode, where he had to be carried kicking and screaming back into the store. My father stared in disbelief, horror and probably disgust as I struggled to handle his agitated weight. When he laid flat down on the carpet of the foyer of the store, my father had had enough and grabbed M and smacked him on the bottom. I suppose he thought if I’d just discipline my child properly, he’d behave in the manner in which he was supposed to.

Of course it didn’t and actually my father’s actions made the meltdown worse, so I instructed him to leave me while he went to do the rest of his business and that I’d meet him when he was done. I also of course gave him a sharp word about hitting my kid. And then I went into the soothing routine that every mother of an autistic child knows well; applying deep pressure through a full on arms and leg wrap around hug that has the extra added side benefit of keeping a child from moving while freaking out. I talked in the most soothing tones I could muster while he screamed in my ear, and eventually got him to the family bathroom where it was quiet and there was solitude to help pull him out of his bad place.

I tell this story today because after several years of M’s therapies and interventions preventing such situations, and people telling me ad nauseum either how far he’s come or that they don’t believe he ever really was “that bad”, M had another meltdown. This one was precipitated by an eye exam in which eye drops were used to dilate M’s eyes. I thought I’d never, ever see the day when I had to straddle my child while others held him down again, but I was wrong. The hour that followed was possibly the worst hour of the last five years.

I wonder, sometimes, when my parents were confronted with my brother’s obvious issues, if the rose colored glasses prevented the things he needed from taking place. I think for years his issues were largely ignored while they silently grew to a level where they could no longer be ignored. I don’t often think of what M might be like if I hadn’t spent the last eight years embracing his disorder in an effort to find the best ways to help him grow around it, but days like today put it all back into sharp focus.

Another Bout of Family Excess

Spent the last four days in the company of my father and his family on round two of my summer travel vacation. Again, the trip brought up all sorts of dust and brushed the cobwebs out of old, dusty memories.

There was the photo of my aunt, her son, her two grandchildren (she had kids young) and my brother. It was taken in the summer, one of the summers that my brother spent out there to get him away from us and the destruction he was leaving behind.

I looked at the photo with my father and asked him, “Do you remember what summer this was? Which year?”

He figured it was the mid 1980s. He was right.

“It was 1984,” I told him, answering the question I’d asked of him. “It had to be then, because the next summer he didn’t come out to visit the family. I had to be sent away that summer because of his driver’s education schedule.”

My father pondered that information. “Do you remember that?” I asked him upon seeing his unsure expression.

“It’s a little foggy,” he admitted.

“I had to spend that summer in Grand Rapids because my brother had to be at home for driver’s training. The therapists were afraid of what would happen if we were alone in the house together, so they sent me away. I stayed with Aunt Katie after her husband had passed away. I was there about six weeks. This isn’t ringing a bell?”

He slowly nodded and the veil of uncertainty lifted. “I do remember, yes. Though honestly, I don’t really think it was all that bad.”

I gulped. Not all that bad? Not all that bad? Was he the one who had his wrist broken, his body thrown into walls and doors, his money stolen? “Dad.” I looked at him hard. “It was absolutely that bad. I was there. It was. Remember he was sent away again after that.”

“I really do think that if your mother had just provided more structure, more stability, things would have been very different.”

“True,” I answered. He was likely right, though it was a convenient excuse for all that went on. For Heaven’s sake, my brother was put in three different psychiatric hospitals before he was out of tenth grade! “However, there was clearly something not right in there. I mean, they don’t put you up in the psych ward for no reason.”

My dad glanced around. The only people within earshot were my grandparents, who were 91 and 96. It wasn’t like they could have heard me, even if they were in the same room. It was later that night, while talking to my cousin, that I realized the reason for this. No one in my dad’s family knew the extent of what went on with my brother. No one knew he’d been hospitalized, or what he’d done to us. My dad even had a pretty rose colored view peppered with “If Onlys”.

“No, they don’t,” he answered, though we’d clearly reached the end of the comfortable part of this conversation.

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