I grew up in South Dakota, where the horizon rolls indefinitely in all directions. Hot summer days bred lightning storms and tornado warnings, whose zap and buzz and chartreuse cast I could see from miles away. Despite my Midwestern roots, however, I’m most content at the seashore or—better still–atop a mountain, drinking the view like water for my soul. My first hikes were before I was born, and I’ve sought them ever after–laughing, sweating, berrying, eating warm grapes and half-smashed sandwiches, uttering marriage vows, and spreading a few of my father’s ashes before God and Shawnee Peak.
I waited until everyone filed to the backyard for the party before locking the door and pulling it closed behind me. Suppressing a bubble of laughter, I picked at my potato salad, waiting for someone to need a fork, a drink, the bathroom.
Instead of a laugh, I got a teetering, terrified trip up an extension ladder to the roof, where I climbed through my sister’s bedroom window–the only one ajar.
Descending the stairs as squeamishly as I had mounted the ladder, I unlocked the door for my mother and a spanking–stinging more for its publicity than pain.
I remember when each hour crawled languorously before me—a caterpillar on sixteen tiny legs, inching from Pensacola to New York City and back before the mantel clock would chime again.
Two days before my birthday, I thought I might be 50 before I turned eleven.
Now the years skip about with surprising unpredictability, and I’m never certain how old I am on any given day. It’s not unusual for me to believe I’m in my late twenties–until I try to stay up past eleven, until I glance at my little ones, and realize we see eye to eye.
Tiny girl clutched her raggedy rabbit
in a very particular way:
one bunny ear tucked in her mouth, keeping her thumb company,
the other poked partway up her nose
in a warm and vaguely comforting way.
She teetered on the edges of the room,
saucer-eyed and silent,
watching chaos unfold.
caustic blasts of incomprehensible rage and frustration,
and at last, a primal bleating
made her customary nighttime monsters seem benign and predictable.
In the very back of my sister’s closet was a tall, quilted dress bag. It was made of pale pink plastic and filled with my mother’s fancy dresses.
One was a Dutch-blue satin dress she had worn in her best friend’s wedding. It was off-the-shoulder, tea-length, in a simple and flattering style I don’t associate with bridesmaids’ gowns. I loved the feel of the fabric as the flared skirt swayed and brushed against my legs.
There was a floor-length pink gown that had been chopped and altered, once for my sister on Halloween, and once for me when I played Glinda in the fifth grade musical. It had a scratchy layer of tulle over the top, which was uncomfortable, but extra glamorous.
There were several more dresses, but the only other I vividly recall was the one my mother had made for a tea dance in high school. It had a brocade bodice and a wine-colored satin skirt. It was simply divine. That one I put on repeatedly.
If no one was around, I liked to sneak a pair of white gloves from my her bedside table, the ones with a tiny flower of seed beads on each wrist and an impossibly small button.
Then I might poke through her jewelry drawer, the bottom of which was covered with a flat of egg carton material, so each item could be investigated and laid reverently back into its soft gray cup. I might try on everything, but I always ended up with a single strand of pearls from my Grandmother.
One day in high school–nearly a decade since I had played dress up–I happened upon the dress bag in the closet, and decided to try on that tea dance dress once more.
What happened next is difficult to articulate. Each seam fell exactly into place and the hemline was perfect. I stared in the mirror and was overwhelmed by a creepy sensation. It was uncanny. Not only had my mother made the dress, and tailored it perfectly to her frame, she had made me, too. Suddenly the concept of genetics was no longer textbook essays and double helix diagrams. It was concrete and intensely physical. She made me.
I know she had help; I get it. But it wouldn’t have been the same to try on my father’s trousers.
I wore the same fairy costume for four years running.
My getup consisted of someone’s worn and baggy blue dress, a cardboard tiara, and a star covered with Reynolds’ Wrap and taped to a piece of dowel.
Back then, the time change came earlier in the Fall, so it was nice and dark early on the big night. Unfortunately, it was also ridiculously cold, and because my parents loved me, I had to wear a coat covering my costume. They probably did not recognize this as the great disappointment it was, especially since everyone had seen my costume numerous times already.
I’m pretty certain my sister was asked to look after me, but what junior high student wants a baby sister tagging along with her posse after dark? Consequently, I had free reign of the neighborhood from a staggeringly early age, and my candy was only stolen once. No other tragedy befell me.
I would wander, giddy and anxious, mesmerized both by the boisterous clumps of people I wasn’t sure I knew, and by my paper bag, swelling with forbidden sweets. I would take them home and count them, chart them, graph them. I would eat two or three pieces, then squirrel the rest away, doling it out so it would last until Easter–the next time we got a statistically significant dose of sugar.
Once I got a bit older, I branched out and tried new costumes, always outdone by the girl who lived catty-corner from us. How did she predict my costume three years in a row? My mummy costume was made out of an old sheet torn into strips, and held together by an array of safety pins. It drooped and exposed my sweat pants in embarrassing patches. Julie’s father was a doctor, however, so hers was made out of surgical wrapping that clung magically to her gloating face.
Multiply that stinging feeling by all three years. I suppose I would have developed lingering unpleasant feelings about the holiday were it not for the Halloween party we had in our basement the year I turned eleven.
In my opinion, all basements are inherently cold and creepy, and ours was no exception. Scariest of all was the storage room, with concrete walls and floors, and rickety metal shelving loaded with spider webs and long-forgotten boxes. We shoved a few things out of the way so we could guide blindfolded kids one at a time into its clutches.
Perched here and there on the shelves were a variety of bowls into which we plunged their unseeing hands. One held eyeballs, or peeled grapes, and another brains, which was clammy cooked spaghetti.
Things got weirder.
Once a year, my parents purchased a side of beef, which was cut and meticulously wrapped and nestled in the extra fridge in the basement–the one without a handle, that we wrenched open with a dish towel and a finely choreographed hip maneuver. We had no shortage of strange cow parts in the basement freezer, so we thawed a variety of organs to fill the other bowls.
Given the location and ingredients, I suspect that our haunted house would have been just as creepy without the blindfold. And though this may reflect poorly on me, I reveled in the yelps and screams of our guests, and later, their wide-eyed wonder when we revealed the bowls’ actual contents. I think most of them had hoped that what we passed off as a heart might not really be a heart.
The piece de résistance of the evening was the Ghost Cake with Flaming Eyes, however. I remember so clearly that feeling of triumph when we turned out the lights again and lit the eyes.
Ever since that night, Halloween has been my favorite holiday.
I wrote a whole post about my Ghost Cake on LobeStir. Here’s the link–you could make one, too!
One summer day in my early teens, my parents and I went on a long drive from our woodsy cabin to Lands’ End.
Though we had hoped for a sunny day on the coast, the fog was so thick we could barely see the sea from the shore. We meandered along the water’s edge in our own little pocket of cloud, quite separate from the world beyond. I thought I would say something nice for a change–perhaps even express some filial gratitude–when I noticed an odd look on my mother’s face.
She raised her arms, laughed out loud, and launched her sprawled limbs into a cartwheel in the sand. It was so astonishing, so completely unexpected, that I suddenly realized how little I knew about her beyond the character she played at home. Now I might consider her as more than my mother, someone whose inner life might be rich and complicated, someone who had lived a lifetime before she made me.
Not that she ever turned another cartwheel, but still. I continued to wonder about her, too Scandinavian to pry.
The only clue I had to her younger days was a doll she called Judy, which she had lovingly arranged in a child-sized rocker facing my bed. She was eerily beautiful, despite a crack across her cheek, a worn petticoat, and misshapen, yellowed socks. Judy had stared at me tight-lipped for years, never spilling the secrets of my mother’s childhood or beyond.
I imagined my mother quarantined on her parents’ plastic-covered couch, hands folded primly, dreaming of play; dreaming of siblings.
Did her parents have the same ancient hard candies back then–the ones at which I stared during my visits to Grandma’s– arranged in the same fancy china dish?
As an adult I get little glimpses of her as a non-mom. Like the night my spouse got her a little tipsy, and she dropped the f-bomb telling a joke. How lucky for me, that there are still opportunities to hear my mother’s stories. Now, to find the time and the courage to ask.
I look at my kids and wonder: when will I suddenly appear to them as more than a purveyor of fine snacks, a laundress, a driver, a shoulder to cry upon? What will I do or say that will alert them that there is an actual person in my shoes? Chances are, they’re already clued in. I haven’t played the role quite so gracefully as my mother.