I was a flounder…er

Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s meant fish on Fridays for many families, especially those who had Roman Catholic roots like my granddaddy’s. Because we grew up in my grandparent’s home, every Friday night was fish night. Every. Friday. For. Years.

Even days were covered, and Fridays were fish stick days in the school lunch world. Not that I don’t totally enjoy a tasty, crunchy, overly processed Gorton’s treat from time to time, but even good things can get boring after a while. When we were lucky, our family went out for dinner on Fridays (I assume to avoid fish sticks for two meals in a row), and we sometimes had supper at the S&S Cafeteria. It was an honest-to-God old-school affair, complete with a huge stack of brown plastic trays, still damp from someone’s efforts to wipe them down.

Just past the mountains of trays was the salad area, a primarily greyish-white wave of lettuce wedges punctuated by the occasional shiny, wobbly, Jello-like square, complete with pineapple, nuts or mystery veggies. (I notice that I can’t seem to bring myself to use the words Jello + salad in the same grouping). Then there were the popular mayonnaise-based ‘salads’ – potato and macaroni versions being the most popular. I, however, had my own favorite pseudo-salad…grated carrots with sugary raisins and mayo. I thought it much healthier than the other non-lettuce options and I could live off of the stuff. I will admit though that I was really disappointed years later when I learned that this delicacy was laughable in the salad world…a sort of embarrassing distant cousin.

Continuing down the long narrow line, you next encountered the rows of steam-tabled veggies. First were the green items (keep movin’…nothin’ to see here), followed by the extensive, oh-so-Southern representation from the carb family. Macaroni and cheese, corn, white rice with gravy, mashed potatoes and candied sweet potatoes were plentiful, and don’t forget the hush-puppies and french fries…also popular ‘veggie’ choices at the old S&S. Those were the days…we were ignorantly on the not-yet-identified diabetic path with a vengeance, and ‘all you can eat’ was the short-cut!

Then we were on to the MEAT! You could choose from the beefy (hamburger steak…really?), chicken (meh) and fishy options. We were supposed to get the fish to appease the Catholic side of the family and, luckily for me, fried shrimp qualified! Shrimp weren’t always available, but it was a happy day for me when they were. Fried flounder with a big side of tartar sauce was my second choice…if you gotta have anything healthy at least slap some breading and (slightly disguised) mayo on it, I say. Funny…I don’t remember any pork being present, but I’m pretty sure it was there in abundance.

Next came the bread, dessert and drink selections. For me, cornbread was a given, and it had enough sugar in it that it probably should have been pushed a foot over into the dessert area. For real dessert I was always torn between strawberry shortcake (featuring somewhat plasticine whipped topping) and a slice of (not too shabby) coconut cream pie, but there were also other options. You could go fruity (not technically a dessert in my world) or choose an alien-like green or blue dish (welcome back to the table, Jello old friend).

I was also pretty predictable in the beverage department. It was, after all, the heyday of good old sweet tea in that part of the world, but the S&S also offered a few others to pick from. If you were really brave, you could even wash down your feast with neon-blue generic Kool-aid. (I have personally never believed that blue foods or beverages were a real choice, but Lynnie was partial to anything that looked even remotely like Windex. She also gravitated toward oddly colored desserts and anything with Jello-like qualities.)

It was a great spread, but I’ll have to say that I was never completely comfortable with the logistics of the cafeteria world. Until I was about 10 I wasn’t even trusted to manage my own tray – I had to rely on my Grandmama’s well-honed tray-wrangling skills as she pushed my plastic platter of goodness along, in front of her own. She did allow me to choose my own food, but often prompted me to ‘hurry up’ when I dilly-dallied too long over my options (“But Grandmama, I swore I saw that carrot salad somewhere!”) She also backed me up when my extreme shyness prevented me from piping up to ask the lady behind the counter if there really were no more fried shrimp left anywhere…maybe in the back?

Sometime before puberty I gained full tray responsibilities…I had arrived! Lynnie, on the other hand, still had to take a back seat for a few more years as Mama guided her tray and, often, her food choices. Had she not, my sweets-loving sister would have ended up with an entire tray of jewel-toned, wobbly items that would, in today’s world, have probably initiated a child protective custody situation. And that doesn’t even take into account the time that some strange man came out of the S&S’s men’s room with my 5-year-old sister in tow. She had apparently wandered in on her own…I’m guessing sugar and red dye #5 were at least partially to blame.

Not sure I'd trust that one...

♪ “Trust the Gorton’s Fisherwoman” ♪

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Lord Byron has left the building

I’ve been processing some very sad news that I recently received. My second husband (affectionately known here as #2) passed away two weeks ago today. He was only 50, and I still don’t know exactly what happened, but I strongly suspect that the disappointment he had in his own life just finally caught up with him.

My ex was a huge man with an immense hunger for love, poetry and romance in the true sense of the word. His heroes were Hemingway, Baudelaire and (most of all) Lord Byron, whom he adored and emulated whenever possible. In fact, #2 wanted to be that ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ poet whose profile he had used when we met on an AOL chat site so many years ago. If he couldn’t have that, he would have settled for living in Hemingway’s Paris of the 1920’s, or for walking about an Ivy League campus with the leather-patched elbows of an English professor. This smart, funny man surrounded himself with books, candles, wine bottles, old paintings and dreams of being someone else…anyone except a warehouse worker from New Jersey.

I was recovering from my long, drawn out breakup with my first husband when I met #2. He powered into my world, bringing laughter, love and a sense of home back into my life. Even more importantly, he helped me to open my heart enough to rediscover the importance of family…something my cross-country move with husband #1 had forced me to bury out of sheer pain. For that gift, I will be forever grateful.

I didn’t write this to talk about myself, but it’s confusing and there’s just no way to know how you’re supposed to feel at a time like this. Obviously, there is sadness, but it’s a strange, muffled ache…like a heart-break once removed. We hadn’t spoken in years, and I no longer had any connection with his life back in New Jersey, but this man was once a huge part of my life. It has taken some soul-searching, but I definitely know that I’m not responsible for my ex’s fate…for someone else’s decisions or for the way their life turned out. I guess that what I’m grieving for is actually the life unlived…the fabulous, fulfilling life that this sweet soul could have had with a little more self-love.

We spent six years together, and were divorced ten years and two weeks ago.

Rest in peace Richie. Thank you for the lessons you shared with me, including this one.

 caspar-david-friedrich

 

Askeert of what?

I’m watching my friend’s four-year-old swim like nobody’s business. That girl can do a double or backwards flip while under water, use a snorkel and flippers, and is learning new tricks to do in the pool daily. I’m middle-aged and have finally perfected my back float. I guess if I had started swimming lessons at 7 months old like she did, I might have at least figured out how to do more than a graceful side stroke with a fake Esther Williams twist at the end…but no promises.

I have to say that I’m jealous. I’ve written before about being afraid of what’s in the water, but that’s a pretty common concern, I think. My fear is of the water itself. It’s always been just a little scary to me…and a LOT scary if I’m potentially going to be thrown (or might fall) into it. Once Hubby #1 took me on a canoe ride and I almost had a fit to get out of that rocky little boat before I had a panic attack. Yep…I’m a water wimp….oh, and a frog wimp…and a jellyfish wimp….and….geez, we don’t have all day, so I’ll stop there.

Luckily, I figure that there are worse things to be afraid of. When my sister was little she refused to eat anything with black specks in it. She didn’t dislike pepper…but she was afraid of any ‘black things’ in her food. We were once taken to a shrimp boil at the Knights of Columbus hall where my grandfather did most of his drinking, and we were thrilled to see newspaper-covered tables piled high with (what seemed to us to be) millions of beautiful shrimp! Well, both of us loved boiled shrimp and were delighted at the aspect of eating our fill…at least until Lynnie yelled out, in a very disturbed voice,…

BLACK THINGS!!!” 

downtown-portland-bridges

Downtown Portland Bridges

Her voice rang out across the tables, and I think some of the diners were a bit put off, but my sissy had only discovered that there were some whole peppercorns randomly dispersed throughout the otherwise lovely seafood feast. She just ate crackers that night, and she whined…a lot.

She’s over that one now, but Lynnie’s childhood fear of being in a car going across a river appears to be a lifetime sentence. When we took trips as kids to anyplace that required going across a bridge longer than about 20 feet, or higher than a single story building, my sister would climb into the backseat and curl up into a ball on the floor with her eyes closed. Now I think she just closes her eyes (unless she’s driving). If she ends up having to drive, I can’t vouch for whether or not she actually keeps her eyes open, but if you get the chance to ride with her, I’d suggest that you offer to drive if there are any interesting bridges to see. Hmmm…interesting that I moved to a city FILLED with bridges…I never thought about that before!

When Lynnie comes to visit me, we can just make a deal: I can do all of the driving through my beloved ‘Bridge City’ (aka Portland), and we’ll avoid shrimp (known here as ‘prawns’); she, on the other hand, won’t chase me with a frog (we don’t really have them here anyway), and we won’t do any canoeing (which we’ve never done before together). Seems like a win-win to me!

DNA

Thinking about DNA…I write a lot about my family, but I haven’t really considered that I am a piece of them…that I share traits and tendencies with people from the same lineage. To complicate that, I don’t know my father or his family at all. My mother was divorced from him when I was only four, and he just disappeared from our lives…poof. I’m told it was a blessing, and I just went with that…it was far easier than missing something that I had never even had the chance to experience. We never spoke of that side of my ancestry–it was the South, after all, and ‘ugly’ things aren’t fit conversation.

Physically, I share my mother’s face shape, and I sometimes see her when I look at my hands or when I catch my reflection from a certain angle, but the things that most define me are from my father’s kin…they were known for many generations of blue eyes and blonde hair. It’s strange having things that you like about yourself be from a family you’ve never met, or don’t remember. There aren’t any anecdotes or family stories that go along with them…they just are. I imagine that adopted children feel this way.

Much more importantly than these external features though, I do have my mother’s sweetness and my maternal grandmother’s love of intelligence and learning. I wear them proudly, and I’m just fine with that.

Sisters

I wrote recently about my grandmother, who was known as Tid. She was the oldest of three girls, and was the bossy one. The next sister was my (great) Aunt C…we all just thought of her as the eccentric (i.e. crazy) one, but in retrospect, I think that she was mostly just very sad. She was (in)famous for her habit of giving me and my sister a $15 check to split on money-giving occasions (“Umm, thanks for that $7.50…I think”). She saw the same psychiatrist for many years, and her therapy seems to have been much more about prescriptions than it was about changing or growing. We loved her, but her house smelled weird, and late in life she developed a fondness for drinking Listerine.

The baby sister was Aunt B…the beauty of the three. She had two daughters, ended up traveling the world as an Army wife, and was the most amazing hostess I’ve ever known. When I was 11 my sister and I spent the summer with Aunt B’s family in Fort Benning, Georgia. It was an idyllic summer for the most part…at least until my sister decided that she wouldn’t eat carrots (or was it squash?) and ended up being left to sit at the dinner table alone for about four hours before she gave up and swallowed her veggies..with much gagging and no chewing. No one ever had anything negative to say about my great Aunt B. Her funeral was the most beautiful one I’ve attended…she was much loved and the memories of her flooded our hearts.

Tid and Aunt B each had two daughters. (Aunt C had two boys, but we won’t worry about them right now.) My mother was the younger of Tid’s girls by 18 months, and was an itty bitty thing with green eyes and almost black hair.  Her sister is known as Scooter, and she has red hair and amber eyes. There is a story of my mom once throwing a carving knife at her sister because, as the tag-along little sis, she felt left out of some adventure. (Even as a child, my mama just couldn’t stand to miss anything.) My mother and her sister each grew up and had two daughters. It seems that we are a family of sisters.

My own sister, Lynnie, and I are also 18 months apart. She never threw any knives at me, but she did seem to have an uncanny knack for getting into trouble…a true talent for destruction. That child just couldn’t help herself…she played with matches, wrote on walls, burned the hair off of (or otherwise tortured) my dolls, and I imagine she must have run with scissors at some point, but I can’t swear to it. She loved to cut things up, and once performed surgery on a stuffed bear that belonged to my mother as a girl, calling the operation a ‘spleemectomy’. (Sadly, the patient didn’t make it.)

Another of my sister’s favorite tricks was to replicate things that we’d seen on TV commercials. When Prell shampoo advertised that their product was so thick that a pearl dropped into the bottle would sink slowwwwwwly to the bottom, Lynnie cut up my grandmother’s pearl necklace to try it herself. When a bra company showed us how thick and luxuriant their fiberfill padding was, one of Grandmama’s bras suddenly turned up cut into two pieces, its flimsy padding an obvious disappointment.

Snow Sisters

My sister and I in a huge  S.C. “snow storm”

I wouldn’t say that my sister and I were exactly friends while growing up. We were close in age, but we couldn’t have been much more different. She loved to play outside and get as dirty as possible, while I preferred to stay inside with a book, and I rarely even walked around barefoot in the summer. I spent a ton of energy trying to be perfect, and Lynnie just had fun! She approached any kind of play with an abandon I just couldn’t match, and I think I was pretty damn boring in comparison.

Because I was older, I was expected to keep both of us out of trouble…not an easy task considering Lynnie’s skills in that area! Once, when we were in junior high school, Mama left us home alone and I was in charge. I was working on some artwork for the school yearbook, and had a bottle of india ink and other art materials spread out on the living room floor. I took a break, making sure to give my sister a bossy, “Now don’t you touch anything!” on my way out of the room. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing when Lynnie found me a few minutes later…her eyes cast down and a terrified look on her face. My stomach sunk as she whispered, “Ummmm…Tammy, can you come in here for a minute?” I knew by the tone in her voice that she’d either broken or ruined something, and I’m sure I started yelling before we got to the living room. I was right…she had been messing with the bottle of ink I’d left and had managed, of course, to spill a tiny bit. Unfortunately, she also had decided that she could ‘fix it’ before anyone found out about it, and took a yellow sponge mop to the tiny spillage, converting at least a foot and a half of the formerly whitish carpet into a huge grey blob. I was so furious that I grabbed that mop and bopped her squarely on the head with it! In the end, I was the one who got in trouble for the entire thing…as the older, (supposedly) more responsible sister. Lesson learned: Messing with your older sister’s things and making a huge mess…minor infraction; hitting your little sister on the head with a sponge mop…punishable offence. I personally think that Lynnie had done so many things in the past that it was no fun punishing her anymore…but I was “fresh meat”!

Years later we bonded over beers, boys, mutual friends and shared living-room dancing skills…the sponge mop violence and doll hair sins of the past behind us. One St. Patrick’s day we were together at Group Therapy, our favorite bar from college, and I leaned over the bar to talk to a bartender friend. I felt something hot on my rear end and turned to see a very drunk guy holding a Bic lighter to the seat of my jeans…I guess my big behind was just too perfect a target to not take advantage of! From out of nowhere, he suddenly had familiar looking arms thrown around his neck, and I saw my sister’s eyes looking over his shoulder at me. She had him in what appeared to be a Three Stooges style head lock, and he spun her around like a rag doll, trying to shake her off of his back as she yelled, “NO ONE messes with MY sister!”

It seems that sharing your childhood with someone can create the kind of glue that connects people for good. My Lynnie is now my biggest cheerleader, and just happens to be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. When I’m at my lowest I’ll get a call from her that turns my day around, and when I go back to S.C. for visits, it’s like we’re 20 again..we dance and laugh and we both play now. She’s got my back, and I love her for it.

The colder the duck…

Alcohol and I have had a long and…interesting…relationship.  We didn’t usually have liquor at home when I was growing up (at least to my knowledge), but I sometimes carried drinks from the kitchen to the living room when our relatives got together. I thought that the bourbon in those glasses smelled nasty, and when I eventually tried sneaking a sip from some unsuspecting relative’s beer, it tasted weird to me. I figured, heck, no worries for me in that department! (Uh-huh.)

My first up close and personal interaction with alcohol was at a Thanksgiving dinner when I was about 9. It was a special holiday dinner because my mama’s only sister and her family were in town. They lived in Virginia and rarely came all the way down to South Carolina to see us, and who could blame them…it was a long drive from their home…which was beautiful…and had a dock…and was near a BEACH. Their lives seemed so much more interesting than ours. I thought they were downright sophisticated, and it was always like a party when we saw them.

Aunt M is a feisty redhead with amber-colored eyes. She’s tall (at least compared to her little sister…my 4’11” mother), and is articulate and outgoing. She loves to laugh, plays a mean game of Scrabble, and I called her Aunt Tootoo when I was little. (I apparently couldn’t pronounce ‘Scooter’, the nickname that everyone called her.) Her husband, Uncle J, is a sweet, larger than life character who tolerated and teased us kids and gave us lots of life lessons, while still having fun. My cousin K was the same age as my sister–we were jealous of her because she was thin and cute and we thought she lived a perfect life. Having them all at our house for dinner was a BIG DEAL.

The scene of the crime was the dining room table, loaded with the remains of a traditional turkey dinner (most of which came from a local cafeteria-style restaurant). As some of the dishes were being cleared and a few seats opened up, I moved from the kids’ table in the living room to the grown-up table (where I knew I really belonged). There were a few stragglers there, sipping rusty-pink colored wine from small, cut crystal glasses and talking about grown up things…and I felt that I was finally in my element! Before long, my uncle poured a finger or so of wine into one of the glasses and pushed it over until it was right in front of me. Our eyes met, and he toasted me, his blue eyes sparkling with just a little bit of the devil in them. I glanced around to make sure I wasn’t already in trouble, but I guess everyone was feeling strangely European that day…they acted like 9 year olds always had wine after dinner at our house! I sipped the stuff, and was surprised to find that it wasn’t at all what I expected…it was semi-sweet and kind of bubbly, and I emptied my glass. I had just been introduced to the phenomenon known as Cold Duck, a trendy mix of burgundy and champagne…a combo that I now know is just wrong. (Can you say, ‘Hello, hangover”?)

I probably only had an ounce or two of the stuff, but before long I was talking…a lot. I have no idea what I got so worked up about, but soon I was just mad, and then I was crying (God knows why). I looked up and realized (to my eternal mortification) that everyone at the table was laughing…hard…at me. Now this just launched me into a vortex of embarrassment, sobbing and angst that no one under 18 should ever have to endure. My ‘drunk drama queen’ alter ego was forged in that fire, and she wasn’t even offered a piece of pumpkin pie before she was sent to bed to sleep it off.

And so my adventure with demon rum began. I didn’t drink again for many years…I mean how many opportunities does a 10 year old really get? I wasn’t even one of those kids in high school who experimented much with drugs or liquor. Nope, I put it all off until my 18th birthday, which was the legal drinking age back then. I started college in the fall of that year, majoring in Journalism, and excitedly moved into a dorm. Within a few weeks I added a second major: Partying.

I guess my college years are best summed up by two words: Five Points. That was the party district in Columbia in those days, and it’s where I spent most of my time. Suffice it to say that my Honor Roll days were behind me…and my bathroom-floor-sleeping nights had begun.

Now, every night wasn’t spent in the bathroom, but there’s one that definitely was. I had been drinking beer all afternoon and into the evening at a bar in Five Points, and I managed to make it back to the dorm, but only as far as the communal ladies restroom. That tile floor just felt so GOOD…and I just felt so BAD. I must have been there for hours, when I was suddenly woken up by a foot pushing me…hard. I heard a thundering, “Get UP heifer!” and looked up to see a large black woman, books in hand, surrounded by other girls in various stages of getting ready for class, and I was, once again, mortified. (Hmmm….notice a pattern developing?)

I’m won’t beat myself up over this little story, because I know that most of us go through similar rites of initiation in the world of being a ‘grown up’. I’ll just say that I attacked that task with a particular vengeance and a certain…dexterity. I made mistakes and learned from them, and I like to think that, over time, I’ve developed my own personal approach to alcohol–I treat it with respect, and it lets me sleep in my own bed.

Here is a picture of me, years later…and that’s not Cold Duck in that cup…but it’s not Diet Pepsi either.

T with CUP

Ya’ll talk funny

Even when I was a little girl I wasn’t so sure I was meant to be a Southerner. When I wanted to put sugar on my grits, Mama swore that someone must have accidentally slipped her a ‘Yankee baby’…let’s just say that there was no Cream of Wheat at our house. It seemed that everyone else had extra syllables in their words that just didn’t come naturally to me, and I figured out early on that the confederate flag wasn’t anything to be too proud of. I must have known, even as a child, that there might be someplace out there that felt more like home to me than Columbia, S.C. did.

Now, it’s not that I don’t like and appreciate my Southern roots, but I’ve just never felt as connected to them as many of my family and friends seemed to be. When girlfriends quoted entire sections of Gone With the Wind, I just looked at them with a blank stare. I loved to read, but could never get past the first few pages of the classic. It was Scarlett…she annoyed the bejeesus out of me. (I have to admit that I was secretly pleased when I found out that Vivien Leigh was actually British, and was faking her Southern accent in the movie version!)

I’m pretty sure that I never had as much of a drawl as most of the people around me, especially Mama. I like to tell people that my mama’s accent could turn the word “Shit” into a twelve syllable long curse that scared large men…and yes, I know that her face is turning red as she reads this! Sorry, Mama…but you know I’m right!

I was surprised when I first moved to Portland and started hearing, “Where are you from?!” so often. I apparently stood out…a lot. One or two words and the natives were onto me–I guess they weren’t used to hearing anything other than the homogenized ‘non-accent’ that’s prevalent in this part of the country. Now, research will tell you that there’s a slight difference in the way people in Portland sound when compared with ‘standard American’ speech, but I’ll be damned if I can hear it. There are a few differences in the words themselves (e.g. ‘spendy’ means expensive, and ‘pop’ means soda), but nothing even close to an accent.

One of my first jobs in Oregon was working as a customer service phone rep for a national catalog company. That’s when I discovered another little thing about having a Southern accent…there are some people out there who assume that the Southern speaker’s IQ is…ohhhh…at least 30 points lower than everyone else. Yep. Now, I don’t agree with that, and to be honest, it pissed me off, but it was something I encountered on a regular basis. Of course, some folks really liked hearing a drawl and a ya’ll here and there, but I heard, “Oh, let me repeat that for you,” or “Do I need to speak slower?” much more frequently than any positive feedback. I think that I made an (unconscious) decision at that point–I didn’t want to sound like a Southerner anymore. I didn’t try to lose my accent…it just…happened. (Oh lord, I can already hear my sister winding up for an, “I’m PROUD to be a Suthunuh!” retort.)

I still say, “Bless your heart!” with all the syrup my grandmother used, and there’s no adequate replacement in the English language for ‘Ya’ll’, but beyond that, my speech is definitely more camouflaged than it was.  I still get asked where I’m from on occasion, but it’s no longer a daily event. Unless, that is, I talk to someone from back home. I’ll call Mama to thank her for a gift, or check in with my sister on the phone, and it’s as if all the Southern-speak trapped inside me drew a ‘get out of jail free’ card! For days, I surprise myself with sugary tones I’d forgotten I ever had. It fades, and I’m ok with that, but for a little while I’m once again the gal that people stop in the grocery store to ask, “Is that drawl from Texas?” I just say, “Well bless your heart!” and finish my shopping, dropping the box of Cream of Wheat into my shopping bugg…oops, I mean ‘cart’.