all of the selves we Have ever been
There are two mirrors in my house.
The one I rely on is over the bathroom sink. That mirror is also the door to the medicine cabinet--a handy combination. I might need a sedative or an antidepressant depending on the day and how close I look.
The other mirror is a full-length one that hangs over the closet door in the bedroom. The hangers attach loosely to the top of the door, so the mirror slides around depending on the force with which the door is opened and closed. That mirror was a hasty dorm room purchase which translates to disposable and uncomplimentary. It is more like a fun house mirror. Depending on the angle and the light, I might look like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon or a tipsy lawn gnome.
At this stage of life, there are no “Mirror, Mirror on the wall” questions in this house. I try to minimize interactions with my reflection. I barely recognize her, and we are not on speaking terms. The day is coming when I might have to scrape a DNA sample off the glass in order to secure proof that we are the least bit related. I keep in mind that the Magic Mirror was the invention of Brothers Grimm, the tellers of dark tales.
I am now of a practical age which means visually challenged even in glasses. If I were to interrogate my mirror, I would not waste my first and only question on “who is the fairest of them all?” I would demand answers to questions that might be of some real help to me such as: “Is there an intruder standing behind me?” Or “Where are those pesky chin hairs I feel but cannot find?” “Is that a liver spot or a melanoma?” “Do I have spinach between my teeth, or have I lost a tooth?” “Is that a smudge on the mirror, or am I having a stroke?”
Typically, I use the bathroom medicine cabinet mirror for the purposes of basic hygiene and to ensure that I have combed my hair before leaving the house. I check myself in the tall mirror to make certain that I am wearing matching shoes and that there is not a string of toilet paper attached to either one.
Of course, I don’t leave my house much during the pandemic. I might be as horrified as the Wicked Queen when next I talk to my mirror. I accept that there is someone fairer than me. What I fear is that there is no one worse. I doubt there is enough magic in any mirror to make up for the damages done by months of social distancing. My attitude has gone to hell along with my wardrobe, make-up, and visits to the beauty salon.
The kind of magic mirror I need is the Romper Room kind: “Romper stomper bomper boo, tell me, tell me, tell me do…Magic Mirror tell me today did all my friends have fun at play?” Miss Nancy would then name all of the friends that she could see through her mirror, and she would tell us what they were doing.
I don’t know about you, but right now, I would much rather be looking at my friends than myself:
"Mirror, Mirror on the wall, let me see them one and all…Romper stomper bomper boo, tell me, tell me, tell me do…Magic Mirror, tell me today when can we all come out and play? “
The children are gone.
They grew up.
I face the compelling proof:
there is no one to lick the spoon.
I mix the thick batter and fold in the berries. And, just as I do each time I make this sweet bread, I briefly mourn the end of childhood in my home.
Stirring the batter is a reckoning. I review the evidence:
There are no toys in the bath tub. No scent of baby powder and shampoo.
There is no car seat in the back of the car, no folding chair in the trunk.
I do laundry twice a month now instead of twice a day.
If the last piece of chocolate is missing, I know the culprit is me.
There is never an empty roll of cardboard where the toilet paper should be. I no longer own a plunger.
When I vacuum, there are no surprises underneath the couch.
There is no one to wait up for, save for Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert.
The last of the outlet covers is gone. All of the scissors have long, sharp edges.
There are no old purses filled with make believe. Barbie doesn’t live here any longer.
No small voices vibrate my ear drums, I hear none of their special language: no “Blooty and the Beast,” no “comfyful.” I hear no jumping and singing behind the bathroom door.
Nowhere is there the smell of sweaty heads or ripe gym clothes
There is no artwork on the refrigerator door.
No child snuggles in next to me when I read a book or watch a movie. The steady physical closeness, warmth, and affection, the frequent soft kisses, the holding of chubby hands—gone.
A few weeks ago, I finished a book by Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere. It is a beautiful novel about two very different mothers and their children. One quote caught my attention, and I wrote it down:
"Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less…There had scarcely been a moment in the day when they had not been pressed together…It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”
Perhaps, that is the great loss I mourn today as I use the spatula to wipe both the bowl and the spoon clean.
I bake the bread and divide it into quarters. When the bread has cooled, I wrap each section. I put the pieces into the freezer for a day when the children come home for a visit, when, for a few moments, they are not gone. As I look ahead to that day, a soulful Alan Jackson song plays in my mind:
"Remember when we said when we turned gray
When the children grow up and move away
We won’t be sad, we’ll be glad
For all the life we’ve had
And we’ll remember when”
Blueberry Tea Cake
1 egg, beaten
2/3 cup sugar
1 ½ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fresh blueberries
2 tablespoons sugar
Does anyone speak 1960s?
I need an interpreter.
I am trying to crack the lyrical code.
The 1960s have been described as tumultuous, turbulent, violent, and divisive decade. It was a time of dangerous incidents around the world and civil and political unrest at home. The country was engaged in the Cold War with Cuba and the Soviet Union. North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, a naval intelligence ship. The negotiations dragged on and on. Marchers and activists filled the streets of America’s cities demonstrating against racial injustices and the war in Vietnam. Teens and young adults no longer trusted parents, leaders, and government. A generation gap developed with traditional, conservative parents on one side of the divide and questioning, liberal, non-traditional, rock-and-rollers on the other side. Assassinations of politicians and civil rights activists filled the news. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was surrounded by barbed wire, police, and protesters.
I was just a child, but I was in the room when Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley delivered the news. Those black and white images are forever pressed into the pages of my mind. I will never forget the moment Walter Cronkite removed his eyeglasses and shed a tear as he reported that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I watched my parents and other adults around me respond to each of these events. I didn’t understand it all, but I knew that it was serious and unsettling.
Fast forward to 2020. The international, civic, and political climate seems similar.
The big difference as far as I can tell is in the music.
1960s music is my favorite jam. Protest songs were gentle and thought-provoking and included songs like Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come or Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. A listener could feel the peace and love and calm the shattered nerves without selling out.
But it was the '60s love songs that contained the mysterious mood elevator. If you can’t have peace, might as well have love. What was in that music? Someone spiked the punchline. These songs prove love has its own language, hence my need for an interpreter. In this contentious time, it is my civic duty to crack the code. Can’t we get some National Security folks workin’ on this?
Here’s what I mean. Sing a few bars. You will feel the effects.
Let’s start with this 1963 hit by The Crystals:
I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still
Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron
Some boy told me that his name was Bill
Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron
In 1964 Manfred Mann had the hit Do Wah Diddy Diddy:
There she was just a-walkin' down the street, singin'
' "Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do"
Snappin' her fingers and shufflin' her feet, singin'
"Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do"
She looked good (looked good), she looked fine (looked fine)
Moving along to 1967, a song from the musical Hair became very popular:
Glibby gloop gloopy Nibby Nabby Noopy La La La Lo Lo
Sabba Sibby Sabba Nooby abba Nabba Le Le Lo Lo
Tooby ooby walla nooby abba nabba
Early mornin' singin' song
Good morning starshine!
By 1968 the Beatles got in on the act:
Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace
Molly is the singer in a band
Desmond says to Molly, girl, I like your face
And Molly says this as she takes him by the hand
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra
La-la, how the life goes on
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra
La-la, how the life goes on
I think I might have been at the wedding of Desmond and Molly Jones. When I sing along, I can practically remember dancing with the groom.
If only we could get our da-doo-ron-ron’s to do-wah-diddy-diddy and nibby nooby abba nabba maybe we could ob-la-di, ob-la-da as life goes on. The answer to feeling better is in the music. I swear it is so.
Growing up, we had chores.
Especially on Saturdays.
There were outside jobs like picking up toys, mowing the lawn, and sweeping the walk. Respectable, satisfying, gross motor activities. Freedom in the sunshine and fresh air. In my time, those good, outdoor jobs went to the boys.
Dusting was an inside job. Women’s work. And if you look under the letter T in the dictionary, you will find dusting mentioned under “tedious” and “thankless.” Also the definition of “women’s work.” To a ten year old, dusting felt like a prison sentence. In my sooty memories, the room was always dark and gloomy as I served my dusting sentence.
First, the duster had to size up the room and come up with a strategy. Dust first or vacuum first? An
age-old conundrum. Take it from me, there is no such thing as removing dust. It is simply an exercise in resettlement. Choose your speed: cloth or motor.
Once the approach was chosen, the sequence had to be determined. Start with the TV on one end of the room and move to the bookcase on the other end? Or start with the bookcase loaded with stuff and hope to have an ounce of life left to wipe down the TV? Maybe a duster could rejuvenate somewhere in the middle with sparkling blue Windex and a clean mirror.
The coffee table and end tables weren’t too bad. Maybe a lamp and a few magazines. Empty dad’s ash tray. But shelves! Removing all those items? Wiping down the shelf. Dusting each object. All those edges, nooks, and crannies?! Replacing the items…I feel overwhelmed thinking about it. Dusting was not a job for the memory-challenged, distractible, clumsy, or anyone with a life on a Saturday.
Thankfully, I was an adult before ceiling fan blades and Venetian blinds entered the interior landscape to gather the most prolific and pernicious forms of dust and require the most tedious and dangerous dusting maneuvers.
The scent of Lemon Pledge still makes me a little queasy, and I can detect waxy build-up from the other side of the door. But I no longer care about dust. When the dust forms a thick layer, I consider it ripe and surgically remove it like a plastic surgeon performing a skin transplant.
Maybe my parents didn’t care that much about dust either. They were probably trying to keep me busy and teach me some life lessons. By the time my own children came along, children’s lives had changed dramatically. Saturdays were busy, but not with dusting. I remember purchasing a t-shirt for my daughter. The shirt was bright teal with white lettering that said: “I am a joyful child. Joy is an inside job.”
Now, that’s the kind of inside job all children need. Boys and girls. Sunday through Saturday.
Diet was my first four-letter word.
I can recall fifty popular diets faster than I can name the fifty states. Go ahead, give it a try.
I bet you can do it too.
Here’s a head start: Fletcherism, also known as chewing your food until it becomes liquid.
That would slow me down! I could probably fit in
one meal a day if I went light. But I don’t have the patience, and I do have a life. Then there was the 1950s Pray Your Weight Away Diet. Self-explanatory.
These two early diets posed no real hazards except wear and tear on your teeth and maybe taxing the Lord’s patience, but all that changed with the Sleeping Beauty Diet made popular in 1966 by the book, The Valley of the Dolls. I would not have been allowed to read such scandalous literature when I was in grade school, but from what I understand, the Sleeping Beauty Diet encouraged the use of sedatives to sleep up to twenty hours per day. A dieter might be able to get in one quick smooch from her prince, but there wasn’t time for much else regardless of how thin or beautiful she became in the process. Enter eating disorders. Exit Elvis Presley, a proponent of the diet.
The first actual diet book I saw in my home as a child was the 1961 bestseller Calories Don’t Count. It was a hopeful thought, but turned out to be the first popular no-carb, high-fat, high-protein diet that was supplemented by the use of safflower oil in cooking and in capsules. I was curious about the book’s appearance in our home but too young to be thinking about diets. I did notice that my extended family became spokespeople for safflower oil. I always wondered how folks from the Middle East turned on olive oil. Now I know.
By the time I was ten years old, I was nearly my full adult size and shape. It was rough going always lining up next to the teacher. And I became very self-conscious about my proportions which I confused with weight. In addition, I grew up with a grandmother whose motto was “food in proportion to the love.” You can see where this is going…
My grandmother ran a grocery store and managed to feed her entire community throughout the Great Depression. She was an artist in the kitchen. My grandmother also had seven daughters who had the gift. In my extended family, women outnumbered men by at least three-to-one. When we were all together, the men watched TV while the women chattered about food and diets. Talk about a mixed message: Food was love; it was also poison.
To make matters worse, food was always available. There would be pie or raisin bread on the counter top, kielbasa on the stove, flank steak in the oven…No need to bother looking in the refrigerator. In my grandmother’s house, the words, “taste this,” were said more often than “amen” was uttered in church. A spoon was held to your lips like it was Holy Communion. What good Catholic would turn down a free sacrament?
By the time I was a teenager, processed convenience foods had flooded the market along with vending machines. There were so many new ways to eat and still remain starving. As teens, we worried about our immediate satisfaction, not the long run. Today, my long run is significantly shorter. Now, I worry about the long run!
But back in high school I teetered between junk food and the latest diet craze. A frequent lunch was a drink and a sandwich. That would be a sugary orange ade in a container that looked like a milk carton and an ice cream sandwich. If we had Home Ec class earlier that morning, I might also have eaten my share of a cherry pie. In my defense, I was in a hurry at lunch time. My friends and I grabbed something quick and headed up to the French classroom where our after-lunch class was held. We would talk and eat and prepare for the entertainment. When Peggy finished her red hots, the box became a kazoo. Peggy accompanied Angele as she stomped her foot, clapped her hands and sang:
“She was ten feet tall and had one purple eyeball. It took eight of us to milk her every day. She had twenty-seven spigots, and the neighbors all bought tickets just to see us milk her and to hear us saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay-ay: Pass the udder udder over to my udder brudder…”
High on sugar and our own cleverness, we howled with laughter. I still remember that song, but don’t ask me to say anything in French. We all lived through high school in spite of ourselves. I don’t know what happened to Peggy. Angele went on to Phi Beta Kappa status in college and later became a distinguished writer and poet. I reached mid-life without developing diabetes.
Basketball season meant hanging around after school waiting for the games to begin. Parents weren’t able to drive you back and forth. Such an occasion usually meant sharing a bag of watermelon candies with my friend Patricia until we got home later that night and devoured real food. Patricia went on to become a physician. I suppose I ate far more of the candy than she did.
In the summers, when I had more control over my day, I either read about or tried many of the fad diets: the Grapefruit Diet, Cookie Diet, Slim Fast Diet, Scarsdale Diet, and the Cabbage Soup Diet. I guess I did not get too extreme because my parents never interfered. I usually managed to lose weight and return to school in September as a slimmed-down version of myself.
Following high school graduation, I went to work in the city. I continued my love-hate relationship with food. I didn’t make much money starting out, and McDonalds had arrived on the scene. For eighty cents, I could get a hamburger, fries, and small soft drink for lunch. More diets came and went through my adult years: Beverly Hills Diet, Jenny Craig, Liquid Diet, Low-Fat Diet, the Zone, Medifast, Blood Type, the Subway Diet, Atkins, South Beach, Master Cleanse, Raw Food, Nutrisystem, Special K, Apple Cider Vinegar, Gluten-Free, Paleo, Keto…am I at fifty yet?
Now I’m older and the metabolism is set on slooooooooooooooow. The lack of activity during this pandemic isn’t helping. I could probably get by on three meals a day each comprised of a communion wafer and some water. Maybe I’ll write a book about that…
PS: If you are considering the Juicing Diet, think about it:
During my youth,
American suburbs were growing and expanding.
By the time I was a teenager, my family lived in such a development just outside of Pittsburgh. Our suburb was home to the first enclosed mall
in the state of Pennsylvania. The Northway Mall opened in 1962, but I did not get familiar with it until the 1970s when I was in high school.
The mall was my alternate universe. Once inside, there were no reminders of my life on another planet.
Sometimes on a Saturday morning, my mom or dad would drop me off at the mall where I would meet a friend. I usually entered the mall through Woolworth’s, the original five-and-dime store. Woolworth’s had a counter that sold frozen Cokes and giant, soft, salty, pretzels. I would come back later and call that fare my lunch.
Once I caught up with my friend, Spencer Gifts was our first stop. Spencer’s never disappointed, and we spent a significant percentage of our mall-time there. Spencer’s Gifts sold novelty items and gag gifts among other things. As teens, we were pre-occupied with the outrageous novelty items. We found them hilarious. While lava floated and morphed in the lamps all around us, and psychedelic posters glowed on the walls, we howled with laughter over the fake vomit, whoopee cushions, and the crazy expressions printed on t-shirts. Spencer’s definitely had the What?! Factor. The merchandise was generally inexpensive and nothing we needed, so we rarely made a purchase, though I still regret not buying the t-shirt that said, “Dear Auntie Em, Hate you. Hate Kansas. Taking the dog. Dorothy.” I don’t know why that shirt tickled my funny bone back then, but it sure did—enough to remember it to this day. Hanging out in Spencer’s was so much fun that the store could have charged admission, and we would have paid.
Next on our agenda was the National Record Mart. If we did buy something on a mall-Saturday, it was most likely a record album. There were hundreds of albums to flip through. We studied the jackets and the song lists comparing notes about our favorites and judging whether or not there were enough good songs on the album to merit a purchase. We could pick up a 45 RPM if we decided the album wasn’t worth it.
Waldenbooks was nearby and our next stop. It was a tiny shop compared to the giant Borders and Barnes & Noble stores that came much later, but it was books. Never a waste of time! It was an opportunity to find something good to read like Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt, William Blatty’s The Exorcist, or Richard Bach’s Johnathan Livingston Seagull. It was also an opportunity to set eyes on the controversial adult book titles of the times: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, The Sensuous Woman, The Joy of Sex, and The Total Woman. Of course, we were discreet, taking these books to another section and remaining on the lookout for any parents who might recognize us. I learned then that living a lie can be exhausting. While I didn’t learn much about sex, I did learn to walk the straight and narrow.
We wandered the rest of the mall making shorter stops in the big department stores like Joseph Hornes. Those were usually too pricey for teenagers. We might try on clothes at Marianne’s or shoes at Bakers, but we made few additional purchases.
The most exciting, life-transforming mall event happened when a company advertised in the newspaper that it would be at the mall to do ear piercings. Pierced ears were a privilege reserved for teenage girls back in that day. The company would come into the mall, set up a kiosk, and pierce ears. It took about two seconds and cost $7.95. Good bye clip-ons! After a couple of days, the company would close up shop and return again in four weeks. After our ears were pierced, we received a post card in the mail asking us to come back and have our piercings checked. Each customer received a pair of tiny gold ball studs with instructions to turn the post, and clean the earlobes with alcohol until healing was complete. We returned when the postcard advised us to. Ever after that, mall shopping involved every store that sold earrings.
For the first generation to grow up in the suburbs, malls were a big deal. Teenagers could safely have some freedom and develop adult consumer skills. The opportunity motivated us to take on small jobs and to save our earnings for the things we wanted. Those shopping-Saturdays allowed us to see items that others talked about so that we could be “cool” too. The mall was a place where teens shared experiences and cemented friendships. It was a great way to pass a quiet Saturday.
The suburbs continued to grow. And grow. The traffic increased and the malls became crowded. Merchandise became more expensive, and the next generations of teenagers had packed schedules that rarely left them with a leisurely Saturday. Increasingly, their world became the internet and shopping was done on-line.
In the years since I first slurped frozen Cokes at Woolworth’s and giggled with girl friends at Spencer’s Gifts, the Northway Mall has gone through several re-inventions, and so have I. But I have stayed true to my brick-and-mortar stores. My earlobes remain pierced. Inside my jewelry box are inexpensive but precious earrings purchased on one of those quiet Saturdays long ago. I continue to giggle with a dear high school friend who wandered those wide corridors with me. I still love books and old record albums. And if I find that t-shirt with the note to Auntie Em, I’m buyin’ it!
Every teen needs an alternate universe, a place that is her own, an out-in-the open space where she can be both cool and safe. We didn’t spend much money at the Northway Mall, certainly not enough to keep it in business. Thankfully, memories didn’t cost much. And they were built to last.
I am infected by an earworm.
Janis Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee.
The song was written by Kris Kristofferson and first recorded by country artist Roger Miller in 1969, but I became familiar with it sometime later in the 1970s after Joplin’s album Pearl was released and her version of Bobby McGee moved up to number one on the music charts.
Kris Kristofferson and Gordon Lightfoot made their own recordings of Me and Bobby McGee as have more than 45 others artists. I had many of the early versions in my teenage record collection. Back then teens didn’t walk around with ear buds listening to their music. In the time before the smartphone, iPods, MP-3 players, before the cassette tape and the Walkman, before boom boxes and CDs, teens lay around their bedrooms with the stereo playing, the arm set to automatically replay a new or favorite album over and over and over again. The repetition was like a drug. We craved just one more hit. The song got into our heads and left us anesthetized on the floor or flopped across the bed. Each repetition seemed to become more illuminating, more meaningful. The lyrics were deep. Heavy, man!
Perhaps it was my generation that gave birth to earworms. Listening to a song that many times in succession was bound to lead to brain damage and hearing issues.
In high school, I preferred the softer Kristofferson and Lightfoot versions of Bobby McGee, but I think Joplin’s rendition might be coming back to me now as the anthem for this pandemic. No one else of her generation could sing the blues quite like Janis. Even if her screeching sometimes became too much, Joplin was mesmerizing. It was evident from her vocals that Janis lived on the edge of danger and heartache. Janis knew what she was singing about. The proof came later when she died at the young age of 27 from an accidental heroin overdose. Janis Joplin did not live to see the success of her album Pearl or hear that her version of Me and Bobby McGee rose to number one on the Billboard charts.
Biographers report that Janis was born different and required more attention than her siblings. She was bullied in high school, already a thing in 1960. In college, Janis went her own way, going barefoot and carrying an autoharp in case the music moved her. Joplin was known to be rebellious, a drug user, and a heavy drinker. She was often seen or photographed with Southern Comfort in her hand or at her side.
Janis was a talented young woman with a fluid identity in a confusing time. Young people felt shackled and wanted to defy the rules, push beyond the boundaries of society. They didn’t trust anyone over 30. Janis embodied the rebellious, push-the-limits, raw, edgy, unconventional, youthful outlaw of that era.
All of this is sounding familiar. And contemporary. I hum along with my earworm:
Busted flat in Baton Rouge…Feeling near as faded as my jeans……my dirty red bandanna…Playing sad while Bobby sang the blues…Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…..I would trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday…
Though the song is about a relationship, loss and regret, Janis’s life and the song’s words speak to me of the present pandemic circumstances. Despite the song’s sad storyline, the strains of Janis’s lively, soulful, bluesy, voice and the amazing piano accompaniment energize me. Somehow singing along and remembering relax me and momentarily relieve me of my pandemic worries. I feel good.
And feeling good is good enough for me.