all of the selves we Have ever been
Grease on Earth
Short of breath from the summer’s
lung-searing heat, I collapsed in my car after a short walk across the parking lot. I heard the flesh on my palms sizzle as I grabbed the steering wheel. Cranking up the air conditioning, I got on my way just as the radio announced it was time for the news. The local stories included an update on record-setting gun violence with multiple homicides, police shootings, politicians defying orders of the State Supreme Court, the Governor’s decision to arm teachers in public schools, teenage car thieves as young as 12, and two men cheating in order to win a fishing contest!
“Siri, am I in Hell?”
“It’s all a mystery to me.”
“Thanks a lot, Siri.”
I was on my own.
I changed radio stations, and then I changed lanes. Just off the busy interstate highway tucked between a rundown gym and a new gas station, I spotted heaven, a single-story building where the air is free. For the uninformed, heaven has many doors. You are in luck no matter which door you choose. You will come out feeling better and more grateful than when you went in assured that your car and your mind will make it a few thousand miles more.
When I was learning to drive, neighborhood gas stations still existed. These were places with tiny, dingy, cluttered offices piled high with grease-stained stacks of papers. Adjacent to the office was a single bay for repairing cars. An attendant came out to pump your gas, clean your windshield, and check the oil. Teenage boys helped out in the summers, but it was mostly the owner doing everything. Jack ran the Boron station in my neck of the woods. It was across the street from the grocery store. Jack was the neighborhood car daddy to anxious teens learning to drive. He solved some problems for a few of the overly-confident new drivers as well, and sometimes their parents were none the wiser.
I did get a driver’s license as a teen, but after years of driving, things changed--drivers were on their own to pump gas, diagnose their cars’ troubles, and find help in an emergency. This caused a rise in vehicular neurosis, that constant nagging fear that something will go wrong with your car at the most inopportune time and place. By the time I was a professional making home visits for a living, my own vehicular neurosis was at its peak. That’s when I discovered this heaven. Thankfully, said discovery was made just before the tire pressure light became standard.
This new heaven is a place where people fix cars and offer life support to keep them running. That alone makes these people gods in my book. In this heaven, there is actual customer service where you can speak to a live person, get answers, understand your bill, and make an appointment that is convenient. The main act here is honesty combined with courtesy toward their many new and lifetime customers. It was in this heaven that I received an extra measure of grace: the manager and assistant manager, Steve and Jim, became car daddies to my teenage daughter as she learned to drive. How blessed can a single mom be?
A far cry from the old neighborhood garage of my youth, this heaven has multiple bays. When one of the doors opens, my eyes are blinded by the well-lit, pristine shop that could substitute for a surgical suite at the Mayo Clinic. The people inside wear clean uniforms and manipulate the many high-tech instruments that now diagnose the functioning of our automobiles. Enter through the front of the building, and you will find a spacious, well-lit waiting area where travel experts are on standby to help you plan your next vacation.
Interested? Don’t ask Siri. Artificial intelligence is missing wonder, heart, and conscience, all necessary for an understanding of heaven and hell. But do Google AAA Car Care Plus Grandview. You can get there on your own, or they can send an angel to tow you in.
In the meantime, remember to change your oil. For that heavenly peace of mind, you must grease on earth.
This short story is dedicated to my dear friend known to all as Aunt Jean. She is by God-given nature, the funniest storyteller I know. She has a magical pair of slightly bent glasses that see the entire world tilted toward the hilarious. This story is a potpourri of the characters and happenings from her actual lived life. I played with the ending. Thanks for sharing your stories, Aunt Jean, and for a lifetime of friendship, a friendship that rose to every occasion, especially in the worst of times. You belong with Erma Bombeck in the Hysterical Society.
Oh, how Mary wanted a lace mantilla for Christmas! Canon Law required Catholic women to cover their heads in church, and the lace mantilla was quickly becoming all the rage among the church-going women in Mary’s rural parish in the winter of 1960.
At first, Mary was subtle in her request. At mass on Sundays she would whisper to her husband Rudy, “Oh, look at the new mantilla Jenny’s husband brought her from Spain! And doesn’t Agnes look lovely in her lace mantilla? Just like the Blessed Mother.”
Rudy didn’t even look up. He owned and operated the local slaughterhouse and was first and foremost a butcher. His mind was always busy calculating the price of livestock and anticipating the special orders from his regular customers. Which cut of beef would Mrs. Shelton want for Christmas this year? She was always trying recipes for dishes he had never heard of. What on earth was cordoned blue chicken, and why was this woman taking cooking advice from a child named Julia? And that Davis family with its eight children always peppering him for the meat ends and asking for sale prices…
Mary knew that Rudy worked hard and was a good provider. She accepted his role as the breadwinner, but, darn it, she was a partner in the family business as well as the bread maker and the one responsible for the family’s salvation. She’s the one who herded them off to church on time, him with starched shirt collar and folded cloth handkerchief, the twins in matching petticoats with starched netting that gave their Sunday dresses a fashionable flare. All Mary wanted was a lace mantilla. And she wanted to wear it to Christmas mass.
Mary got a mixer.
“What’s this?” she asked Rudy
“But I didn’t want tools, I wanted a lace mantilla!”
“I don’t know nothing about lace mantillas.” That was the end of discussion. Mary knew it was pointless to persist. Unless she was talking about a cow’s innards, Rudy’s response was about as deep as he went.
Not one to give up on such an important need, Mary scheduled herself an “appointment.” “You will have to take the twins with you to the livestock auction. I have an appointment.”
Rudy did not even ask. While he could butcher an animal with his bare hands, he feared the details of a woman’s “appointment.” And so, on the day of the auction, with Mary already out of the house, Rudy put the twins into the back of the pickup truck and headed for the silent livestock auction. He hoped to get there early, scout out the livestock, and grab some good seats up front where the children might be entertained by the action.
That evening when Rudy and the girls returned home from the auction, Mary was already at their farm completing evening chores. She had a new lace mantilla.
Rudy had a new jackass. The winning bid had been made when one of the twins raised her hand to slap her bored and rambunctious sister upside the head. The girls named their new purchase “Taffy the Jackass.” The minute Taffy the Jackass bucked her way off the truck it became clear the animal was deranged. She immediately began terrorizing the family and the neighborhood. Her size and strength threatened the lives of small children, toppled fences, and trampled gardens. She ran away frequently and refused to come home. The county sheriff became a frequent visitor. The term “Taffy Pull” took on new meaning in this picturesque farm community. It consumed every spare minute of family time and some of the neighbors’--pulling and coaxing the stubborn jackass from one spot to another.
As all good Catholic mantilla-wearing women do, Mary feared that Taffy the Jackass was punishment for wanting something for herself—for coveting that lace mantilla. Humbled by a jackass, Mary had seen the light and done her penance. Now, Taffy the Jackass had to go.
A neighbor woman who also wanted a lace mantilla agreed to take Taffy if Mary would throw the lace mantilla into the deal. The neighbor knew Taffy, and so without shame or guilt, Mary sealed the deal. Gone was the lace mantilla. Better yet, gone was Taffy. Peace was restored, and so was Mary’s soul.
The next Christmas Mary requested nothing. And Rudy didn’t ask. He gave Mary some white doilies his mother had crocheted. Mary accepted the doilies, put one on her head and wore it to church. This move by Mary is said to have launched the chapel cap craze that continued until 1983 when the Catholic Church finally dropped the head covering requirement for women.
Following my usual route along a nondescript section of urban bike trail,
I spot something new! A row of tall banners blows in the breeze and forms a lively parade along the guardrail. I look for the cause of such celebration. Beyond the guardrail and down a small slope on the far side of an enormous parking lot, a new establishment is open for business.
One of the signs unfurls on an east-to-west wind, and I see the words, “Dry Needling” displayed on a banner that looks like a boat sail. I repeat the words to myself as I move along the path: Dry needling? What can that be?
I scour my mental glossary and come up with an ancient parental rebuke, “Quit needling your sister!” The tone made it clear that continued needling came with consequences. And needle each other in public? A girl better be prepared to grow her hair out like Rapunzel if she ever wanted to leave her room again. These needling memories increase my curiosity, and I imagine a business built on a model developed by kids in junior high school. If only I had known then that I could build a profitable empire on those sarcastic, uninspired, and mean years!
Making my way home with the words dry needling still jabbing my brain, I look up the word needling and find that it is “a teasing or gibing remark.” But then I have to dig into the word gibing – “to make someone the object of unkind laughter, deride, jeer, laugh at, mock, ridicule, skewer, scoff, or make fun of.” Yep, my parents knew what they were talking about.
I dig deeper. What can dry needling be? My parents were not that explicit. Perhaps they assumed that at age 12 there was no alcohol involved in these exchanges of psychic puncture wounds. Therefore, I assume that despite the fanfare, this new establishment along the bike path is not a bar. I guess people of any age can needle while sober.
I walk the short distance home and think of how long it has been since my parents scolded us for needling. If only they had lived a little longer, they would have seen that those junior high skills and the art of needling can have a big pay-off. Today, we call it Twitter.
How Lucky Were We?
It is 76 degrees and sunny.
The sky is brilliant blue and cloudless. The air is fresh and gently caresses my face as it moves the day forward. It is one of those early summer days that feel endless, one that is surely a glimpse of Paradise.
I drive past the municipal swimming pool on my way to the grocery store. A mom dressed in a bathing suit and filmy white cover-up holds the hand of an excited preschooler as they make their way from the parking lot to the pool gates. On the street, a dad steps out of an SUV wearing a bright red t-shirt, black swim trunks, and flip-flops. He opens the back door of the vehicle, and out pour two school-aged boys each with a towel under his arm and eyes dancing like sunlight on water.
For a moment, I get lost in my own memories of long summer afternoons at the community pool, except in my memories, our parents did not accompany us. They dropped us off as was the case with most of our childhood activities. In the summer, we had our pool passes and a handful of change. Our marching orders were: “Be good.” Those two short words contained an encyclopedia of advice. The Reader’s Digest condensed version was: follow the rules, listen to grown-ups, don’t fight with each other, and be at the meeting place ON TIME.
We passed many of our youthful summer afternoons at the swimming pool, in the water or stretched out on our towels, or at the concession stand consuming as much of the sugary pink popcorn as we could afford on our tiny budgets. By the time we got home, we would be starving, but in the meantime, the pink popcorn was a special treat available only at the swimming pool, and it was sufficient sustenance for those afternoons on which we filled ourselves with sunshine.
We listened for the lifeguard’s whistle that kept us safe. Maybe it was a warning that we had violated some rule, or that our dunking shenanigans were becoming dangerous. The sound of the whistle might be notice that it was time to clear the pool for a cleaning or for the changing of the guards. If other kids’ parents were present, we listened to them too, even if we didn’t know them. While we did stretch the definition of “walk,” we tried really, really hard not to run on the slippery wet pavement surrounding the pool. We had heard plenty of stories of children who had slipped, fallen, and smacked their heads, or of that one boy who had broken his arm.
I was never afraid at the pool. I lived with the assumption that with lifeguards and adults present, my watery world was safe. Anything that troubled me that the surrounding adults couldn’t handle, like a sudden attack of menstrual cramps, could be managed for a dime by calling my mother from the pay phone. The worst mass event that I could imagine was everyone peeing in the pool at the same time.
I grew up in a time when children like me were kept separate from the weapons of war and even graphic images of violence. Children were to be protected. Our parents and grandparents knew war first hand. They fought to keep such carnage an ocean away from their children. If ever I knew such events occurred, I would never have anticipated that they could or would happen in my special places like school or at that treasured community swimming pool.
While my grandparents had lived the immigrant experience, not an easy one, their grandchildren grew up white and with full citizenship. We lived in friendly small towns and new suburbs. We had space, peace of mind, freedom. And safety.
How lucky were we?
It’s eight o’clock on a Friday.
The out-of-town crowd shuffles in.
There’s an old friend sitting next to me
waiting for the show to begin.
She says, “I hope he plays me some memories,
something I’m sure how it goes,
the sad and the sweet that I knew complete
when I wore a younger girl’s clothes.”
Then he says, “I’ve got nothing new to play for you,”
and the crowd whistles and cheers with delight.
We agree it is sweet that we know them complete
‘cause that’s what we came for tonight.
It’s a pretty good crowd for a Friday
and every face young and old has a smile
because it is he that we came here to see
to forget about life for a while.
He sings us his songs our piano man.
He sings us his songs all night,
and we’re all in the mood for his melodies.
It is time for some things to feel right.
The atmosphere is a carnival
as the crowd slowly sips on its beers,
and we sit in the stands and clap with our hands,
and say, “Man it is good to be here!”
And then, just like that, it is over.
We wait for Brother Joel to return.
And he steps on the stage with an encore arranged,
and he plays ‘til a new day is earned.
On the eve of 9/11/2021, the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, I attended a revival. Our tent was the Great American Ballpark on the banks of the Ohio River. Take me to the water!
The leader of this traveling salvation show was not a preacher. He was a musical storyteller, a piano man. We arrived to the event weary and worried, pulling ourselves from the rubble of a global pandemic and reminders of the life-shattering events of 9/11. Then the Piano Man stepped onto the stage. He put his hands on the baby grand, and we were all born again.
He rocked us awake from our COVID sleep and out of our painful 9/11 nightmares. His old songs became our medicine, pain relief in a time capsule, taking us back to simpler days and better places: high school dances and college dorms, first concerts and first loves, songs on the road and songs in the shower, the ages of vinyl, cassette, and CD. There was joy and happiness, togetherness and hope. In a crowd of thousands, each person sang from the same page in a shared and familiar songbook. Bass or soprano, alto or tenor, it didn’t matter. There was harmony.
The Piano Man delivered the sermon in lyrics as familiar and reassuring as old psalms. By the time the night was over, we were all converts. Rising from the ashes of our sorrows, we found that we could survive the burns. Hallelujah!
On the eighth day, after some rest, God said, "Let there be music." And there was. He sent us a piano man. 'Cause even God's in the mood for a melody. He wants us feelin' all right.
In the midst of a pandemic that feels endless, already there is talk of the next crisis--water.
Knowledgeable people are banking on it, trading water on the commodities exchange. News footage validates the forecast with images of dry river beds, massive wildfires, and places where critical ground water has been pumped beyond its limits to replenish.
Waterways are polluted by industrial toxins, discarded plastics, and human waste. Around the world, people are on the move leaving behind land that is turning to dust.
I sit here in my uneasy chair for some self-examination. I have taken the supply of water for granted my entire life. I turn on the tap and out flows cool, clean water.
As a teenager living in the growing suburbs of Pittsburgh, I became familiar with families living outside the city limits whose homes had wells. Sometimes I visited them in the summer when the water was low and laundry had to be hauled to the laundromat, and the grass turned brown, and showers were limited to keep the wells from running dry. It all seemed so primitive to me from my perch in the privileged suburbs where the sprinkler ran for hours. In my mind’s eye, wells belonged in the old American west, to a world of gunslingers and dusty cattle drives, in barren places depicted on shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke, a world of black and white, certainly not living color. Earlier experience had led me to this faulty conclusion.
There were two giant concrete discs in my grandmother’s grassy backyard. It was only in fleeting moments of bravery that I dared to run across one of the discs. More often, I walked around them fearing that something dangerous lurked beneath and was just waiting to grab me by the ankles. Perhaps it was our happy lives above ground that skirted trouble from below. Above the ground life was vibrant. Children laughed while grabbing juicy pears from the tree overhanging the porch. Aproned women snipped dewy roses from thorny bushes that climbed white trellises along the back wall. Damp clothes hung shoulder-to-shoulder on the clotheslines, shooing away danger as they blew and snapped in the swift summer breeze. Screen doors slammed as we ran in and out of the house. Familiar voices filled the air like music.
Somewhere along the way, I learned that the concrete discs in my grandmother’s yard were lids. They covered the cisterns that once upon a time collected rainwater to support life and clean laundry inside my grandmother’s house. I was dumbfounded. I never imagined that the ultra-modern home of my grandmother had a frontier history. How could that be when every modern innovation in the world was introduced to me there: wall-to-wall carpeting, automatic dishwashers, recliner chairs, color TV, and air conditioning? Clearly, gathering rain water was ancient history. Problem solved. We were modern taps and pipes people who relied upon the city water department to do the heavy lifting and keep the river of water flowing into our home.
The magical innovations that appeared inside my grandmother’s house were not only evidence of a changing infrastructure, but evidence of a changing thirst, and we, like many Americans, became insatiable. We wanted more of the new, the time-saving, and the convenient. The economy was booming in the post-war era and so were the number of babies. Life had been hard. Now it was good. It was easy to believe that the frontier days of wells and cisterns were a thing of the past. We never imagined that water itself would disappear in our quest to make life not just easier, but effortless.
We grew up as descendants of the American frontier and were fortunate to bring our children into a world of abundance and convenience, but our children face life on a new frontier, the frontier of climate change. Will their lives be better or more difficult than ours?
As I downsize, focusing on what to keep and what to leave behind for my children, I look at my stuff and realize that I have never owned anything more precious than water. If I could do it all again, I would trade automatic dishwashers and color TVs for the life that existed in my grandmother’s backyard. I would buy insurance so that my children would be sure to know the cool, soft pleasure of moist green grass between their toes, the sweet flavor of pear juice trickling down their chins, the musky fragrance of velvety roses tickling their noses, and the sound of damp, clean clothes snapping in the breeze shooing away danger. I would have lifted those lids and saved for my children an inheritance that is the birthright of all children, the life-giving, thirst-quenching miracle that is water.
During the COVID crisis, my naturally wavy hair grew. And grew.
Unchecked by professional shears, it grew to my collar bone and then below. Befuddled by this new freedom, the dead ends looked up and flipped out. A new hair style was born, or more accurately, re-born, in the image of Patty Duke or the bewitching Samantha Stephens, symbols of 1960s glamour.
My hairstyle became a new flip for my friends to poke fun at. The other flip is my old flip phone, that relic of the 1990s. I now top the list of the scorned--a walking stereotype of the uncool, incompetent older adult---a dinosaur with big hair. Fashion dictates that if I were smart, I would have a phone to match. But neither scorn nor style weakens my resistance. I persist with the flip.
I keep my flip phone for many reasons. I grew up in a mechanical age when things were built to last. We did not discard functional items that remained useful. New technology is constantly updated and expensive. I lack the interest, stamina, and financial resources to engage in the constant pursuit of upgrades. While I still can, I don’t mind getting up off the couch to turn on the television, lock the doors, and do internet searches on my desktop computer. I still love studying a map and planning ahead when I travel. Also, I see people addicted to their phones and unable to put them down in order to connect with the very real loved ones sitting next to them. I realize that I could easily fall prey to such an addiction along with the accompanying loss of privacy and dangerous distractions. My small flip phone meets all of my needs, and it is the perfect size. So, I stick with the flip. But those aren’t the only reasons. My persistence is strongly influenced by sentiment.
Our family was late to the mobile phone game. A forever memory is the day my son and I drove to the Verizon store to purchase our first family cell phone plan. When we got into the car after our purchase, Sam used his new flip phone to make the first call to his big sister, a junior in high school. Bursting with pride and delight, Sam said, “Em! We all got cell phones!” I could hear my daughter squeal with her own delight as I sat behind the wheel, my tear-filled eyes on the road ahead of me. As a single mom on a tight budget, it was a joy to be able to give this gift to my children. For years, they had been gracious and uncomplaining about the things that others had that they did not.
During the flip phone heyday, people still talked to one another. There seemed to be a seismic shift in connectedness when the smart phone took hold of our attention. I recall a more recent day when I and my colleagues gathered around a conference room table to say farewell to a retiring co-worker. Plenty of people showed up and there was an abundance of good food, but instead of visiting, reminiscing, and offering good wishes, almost everyone in the room played on his or her smartphone. The youngest ones made fun of their parents and others who still used flip phones. This precious time together, the last day with a beloved colleague, was spent asking silly questions of Suri and mocking Suri’s ridiculous answers. As members of the work group had a good laugh, someone we knew and cared for walked quietly out of our lives.
I recall learning that Alexander Graham Bell’s first words on his newly invented telephone were: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” I take his words as proof that the telephone was not meant to be a shield to keep us apart, but a device to bring us together. It is in my old flip phone, that I can still see my children, locked in time, my son calling his sister on that joyful day. When I pick up my phone, I am summoning the people I love, “Come here. I want to see you.” When I pass people on the street with their earphones in place, talking into the wind, their side of the conversation overheard by strangers passing by, I mourn the loss of privacy and intimacy in our relationships. Have we become too casual, perhaps careless, with our people and our things?
As I write this, I think of all of the words that have reached through a telephone receiver: good news and bad, friendships grown and relationships ended, emergencies addressed. I remember a time when not everyone had a phone in her home much less in her pocket, a time when an operator was necessary to place a long distance call. I still remember the number to my grandmother’s ancient party line: KI6-5416, and yet, today, I do not know my daughter’s new cell phone number. I rely upon my contact list to dial it for me. And I think of my dad. I was seven years old when I picked up the phone and heard the international operator say she had my father waiting on the line. I pictured a long invisible thread stretching from our home in Ohio all the way to his duty station in Pakistan. “Will you accept the call,” the operator asked. My father had been gone long enough that I could barely remember what he looked like until I heard his voice. Come here, I want to see you.
For most of my life, my fingers did the walking—through the Yellow Pages and the White. Today, they dial and text, skipping across the keypad of my old flip phone. I know that it is a matter of time before my phone breaks or otherwise fails to magically transmit the voices I cherish. And still, I drag my feet like a reluctant witness for the prosecution, weighing my options, waiting for a better deal, keeping my eyes on the alternatives to a life of solitary confinement. Daily, the mockery and the pressure build…
But will I flip?