I am the youngest of four children. A “surprise” if you ask my parents, a “mistake” if you ask my siblings, and a “party crasher” if you ask me. Being seven years younger than my closest sibling, much of my childhood was spent watching movies, reading mystery books, and writing fantastical short stories to be later performed as a one woman puppet show in my room.
Seeing as I had only myself for entertainment, my imagination ran wild with adventure and tales of great woe. Seeing as my parents were the age of my classmates’ grandparents, I was convinced they would be dead before I graduated eighth grade. I thought, I’d better prepare myself for how to live alone. Thus began the many escapades of Jess, lone street rat and orphan girl, hiding out by day in her makeshift cave and creeping by night stealing fruit snacks from the pantry cupboards. She was not to be toyed with!
The stairwell in our house had a banister at the top with a few bars running horizontally for looks and structural support. The space between the stairs and the first bar became the secret crevice to enter my hideaway and had to be crawled through on one’s stomach. Once safely in my room, a string or jump rope was tied from the dresser handle across the room to the plant stand which doubled as a storage unit for my mass quantity of Cabbage Patch Dolls (Annette, Lanny, Paula, Patti, Heather, Tay, Humphrey, Barney, Keri Ann, Sara, Sloane, Chrissy, Pat, Camilla and Suzette). After the string was tied, blankets were thrown over the line creating a secret canvas covered hideout or puppet show theater depending on your mood. Hidden behind these draperies the cries from the streets of “Riffraff!” and “Scoundrel!” could not harm me.
The challenge while playing orphan was to go as long as possible being unseen. So, to sneak food, one had to crawl through the secret crevice over the stairwell, descend the steps, slide down the frame of the door, quickly crawl under the dining room table and wait until opportunity came. Then, you crab walked into the kitchen, silently opened the pantry door, pulled out a fruit roll-up or box of croutons, and crab walked back under the table to delight in your stolen afternoon snack.
Another challenge in the game of orphan could only be played when left alone in the house for short periods of time. The game was called “don’t touch the carpet” and it counted how many times you could get around the living room using only the furniture before you slipped or fell onto the carpet. Here’s how an expert at this game does it.
- Begin on the couch.
- Bounce across its cushions.
- Step onto the end table, avoid coasters and magazine piles.
- Jump onto the loveseat.
- Repeat step 2.
- Stretch legs to the rocking chair and go!
- Steady yourself, or pretend to surf for awhile.
- Stretch onto the smaller end table.
- Move to the chair in the corner.
- *Note: The final task is extremely difficult if playing in sock feet, proceed with caution. Step 10. Crawl onto the TV, and cling for dear life on the frame around the screen, when a good distance jump is there, jump back to the couch. Repeat steps 1-10.
One thing I learned while playing orphan is that you get lonely. You really need a sidekick. Soon I had two, a cat named Carmel and a dog named Tipper. Make sure your sidekick is someone you can trust with secrets, such as your hideaway whereabouts. Sometimes when you’re an orphan, a secret language must be developed so you can leave written messages to your pals without an invader knowing what it means. These can then be conveniently pinned to your canvas with a clothespin.
So if you’re thinking about playing the game Orphan, here’s a list of supplies you may want to include.
- blankets to build your hideaway/take a nap
- stuffed animals/dolls for trusty sidekicks
- junk food for the road, the days are long are arduous as an orphan
- paper and pens/markers because orphans are extremely intelligent and creative
- a tape recorder and microphone because orphans are known to burst into song when they’re safely hidden in their getaway home
What sort of games did you play as a child? Who would you take as your sidekick?
Have you ever seen the movie The Dead Poet’s Society? I love that film. Growing up feeling estranged from my small town upbringing and a writing future that looked bleak and penniless, it meant the world to me to have a few teachers throughout the years that encouraged passion for writing and creativity. In the film Robin Williams plays an english teacher who introduces his students, impressionable young men with a thirst for freedom and newness, to the Dead Poet’s Society. The society is a secret group that meets to read poetry about everything raw in life.
With a helpful nudge from fellow blogger, CM Stewart, I was given a quick review of what my blog says about me as a platform, or writer’s profile. “Close to Home” she said, and urged me to expound on my About page and explain why I panicked the moment college graduation started ticking down. Here goes.
I wanted to be a writer since I was three. My first story, entitled “Ho-Ho and the Missing Key” was a story about a bear named Ho-Ho who loses a key. It ended with him finding the key, in case you were curious. My parents were always supportive of my writing endeavors and praised me as their gifted youngest child. Now and again, as I got older, my father would be pouring his morning glass of orange juice and fill his cup with flax seed, stare up at me and ask, “What are you going to do for money?” Sitting on the counter top staring out the same kitchen windows I had for years, swinging my sock feet over the cupboard door my mother repeatedly told me not to do as it would break the hinges, but it never did, I shrugged. I’ll figure it all out. You all know what I thought. I’ll be so brilliant the agents will clamor at my door and beg to publish my work. I’m going to be the next Adrienne Rich of poetry, the next Sloane Crosley of satire, the next best thing to hit Hollywood!
My middle and high school years included some amazing literature teachers who read my scribbles and said “bravo!” In fact, I got the greatest written recommendation letter for a college scholarship I’ve ever read from one those teachers. She described me as having an arsenal of strength. Who wouldn’t be flattered? This teacher had also stood up for me and spoken to the principal about my senior exit interview. My interviewer was a retired Doctor Hartwick. He was a tall, midwest bellied man who always wore a tie. He had combed wavy gray hair and typically read Bible passages at the Catholic church I grew up in. Going through my portfolio, he skimmed right over all my extra writing samples, my forensics awards, my extracurricular activity participation and told me I didn’t have enough math examples. And that writing was fine for free time, but what was my fallback plan? When I told my teacher about how I was grilled about making a better realistic choice for my college plan, she went straight to the principal, “You don’t tell a top 20 honor student that her dream is unrealistic!” Dr. Hartwick was never asked to help with senior exit interviews again.
In college, I found similar professors who encouraged my out of the box project delivery. Instead of papers, I often wrote and performed spoken word pieces. I became involved with performance pedagogy groups and worked on a few literary journals. Hell, I was a student slave in the English department copy room, making copies of all the professors’ class assignments and reading!
My senior year I joined the company I currently manage for. It’s a higher end retail department store, and I began in customer service. Happy in my new job, I was drawn to their service manager position, which focused on answering the customer issues on the floor. I spoke with the store manager several times that I’d be interested in doing it. I hadn’t made any plans after graduation, stalling at the time unsure of how life would affect the relationship I was in and suddenly unsure of what I wanted to do with my life anyway. A month before graduation and I seriously considered not going through with it and changing my major to business management! Chaos broke loose. I was interviewing with Americorp, I had bookmarked the peacecorp site on my computer, and talked to my boss again saying please please please. Obviously, you know where I ended up. I was given a full time sales position to learn the floor before moving a few months later into the service lead, and few months later into the sales manager position I currently am in.
I go back and forth remembering my decision making process after graduation. I am currently in a well paying job that is allowing me to pay off my student loans much faster than my siblings were able. And I hadn’t wanted to go to grad school right away anyway. My panic about what field to study made adding more loan payments on while being unsure of the course seem like a bad idea. So, I decided I’ll work a few years and then decide what and where I really want to be.
The problem, which now brings you all up to speed, was that two going on three years have passed and I miss writing. I wasn’t doing it anymore. And this blog, which I started to document my return to words, has been difficult to maintain regularly, but feels like the best thing going on in my life right now. So, here I am, talking about things “close to home,” sharing stories, memoirs, and support for anyone making a teensy weensy change or a monumental move in their life. If your ambitions are in writing like myself, I highly recommend you check out Kristen Lamb and her book We Are Not Alone. She is just one of the many wise men I am meeting on my happiness project.
Don’t you wish writing was as easy as talking to God? No matter where you are, it will find you. Blessed is she who writes, for she shall inherit a publisher. Do not covet thy neighbor’s writing. Do unto other’s writing as you would have them do unto yours.
When I was little, I believed I had a direct line to God, or at least to my priest. When I was around 7 or 8, I used to write letters to the parish priest, Father Duane, and “mail them” by dropping them off in the collection basket. They never failed to get to him, and I always received a most prized piece of mail in return answering all my weird questions like “Don’t you get sick of singing These 40 Days of Lent, Oh Lord? I do. Did you happen to watch the Barbara Walters special last night? It was captivating. I hate squash and my family loves it, do you think God put me in the wrong family?”
It would be great if good writing was as simple as talking to God, or writing your priest a letter, but it takes a lot more hard work, and often it won’t receive as kind and accommodating a letter in reply. But good writing, like religion, can speak to your soul.
Thank God for the weekend! My awful cold has put my resolutions to shame and I’ve felt guilty for not getting to them all, but most nights I passed out at eight with my clothes still on and kleenex in my nose. It wasn’t until last night when I dreamed I was at the grocery store and I filled my cart full of tubs of cheese spread and cake that I new my appetite was back, and I was getting better. Of course, then I dreamed I got lost in St. Louis, and I have no idea what that means!
So it’s time for Resolution Weekend Madness! (man, I wish I had some WordArt to make that sound cool. ha!) I’ll have to blog ahead, clean my room, and journal for my own enjoyment. Not part of my resolutions, but important nonetheless, I’m also shopping for a superbowl party, Go Packers!, and catching up on some of the Oscar nominations before I host that party in a few weeks.
What are all you up to this weekend, writing or otherwise? I need motivators to basically start over the story I was working on. Yikes!
More memoirs for monday. My writing resolution this week came to me from my sister who asked if I would write a birthday prayer or poem for her daughter’s birthday this next weekend. I have no idea how to recount the life of a two year old, but I’ll give it my best go.
I’ve said before that I don’t remember that far back into my childhood. My mother saved a letter I once wrote to the Eater Bunny in which I made him a friendship bracelet out of sewing floss. In exchange, I asked him for tomato soup. My sister tells me, my niece, Sonja, is fond of asking for apples and butter. To her relief, she learned Sonja meant peanut butter and not just straight up margarine mayhem!
For her birthday, I suggested a simple, dramatic reading of I Like You by Sandol Stoddard Warburg.
But if that won’t do, I guess I’m back to Butt-in-the-Chair Approach and making lists about my crazy family.
Things About Sonja That Make Her Unique
- Say the word ‘bath’ and she’ll run to the bathroom, fill the tub with toys, and begin undressing.
- Applesauce is definitely a hair product.
- The television is meant for toddler’s reflections so they can see themselves dancing in the screen.
- Eat with old people, they love her schtick.
- Singing and shopping go hand in hand.
- Xylophones are to be played with greatest zeal.
- BFF = giraffe head, named Rafi
- Avacado smoothies are delicious.
- When mad, shake your whole body like a maraca
- When happy, smile like a total cheese
I think I could manage a haiku, but a sestina???
Audio Tracked Peacock Noises
Or How My Dad and I Did the Zoo
My boyfriend tells me that I walk too fast. I blame years of quickstepping after my father around town. I had to take four steps to his one just to keep up. I practically ran, panting to keep up, talking the whole time about what happened at school and at home that day.
If you dig straight down to my core, I am most like my father. I share his vulgar sense of humor, to an extent, his enjoyment of going anywhere, even around the corner, his open book heart which will always try to save the world, his irritatingly reliable hardwork ethic, his constant frigid body temperature, and his thumbs.
My father wasn’t around a whole lot when I was growing up. To pay the bills and put food on the table, he worked 18 hour days, 7 days a week, managing and cooking in our family restaurant. But on occasion, he would take me on trips to the zoo.
The drive to the nearest zoo was almost an hour. Nicknamed “Chatterbox,” I had endless stories to regale my father with during our excursion. There were discussions about my friends at school, a new song I learned, and would piercingly sing aloud, and the clever way I got my older brother, Justin, to stop chasing me by spraying mom’s perfume on his hands. Oh, wasn’t I just the bees knees, dad?
The drive was always the same. A sunny day. Me doing all the talking. We’d pull into the parking lot, hop out of the car, and I’d skip over the grass mounds up to the entryway only to find the gates padlocked shut. We took this exact trip together of locked up zoo gates at least three times! Instead of sullenly turning the car around and driving home, my dad replied, “Well, we’re here.”
Dismayed and full of anguish, I was promised wild animals! Instead, I was dragged around the zoo’s perimeter, while my father cried out, “Listen to the peacocks! Do you hear the peacocks?” We would never actually confirm there were any peacocks as we never actually saw peacocks!
Everything was boarded up, fenced in, locked down, and surrounded by Wisconsin foliage. Basically, you couldn’t see a damn thing! Yet again, my father would call out, “Jess, come here! Look through this crack, you can see bears!”
And sure enough, my dad would have me tiptoeing on some unstable rock of a curb, pressing my eye into a rusty old fence hole, blinking past maple leaves that were bouncing in my way to see far off in the distance some brown hairy mammal that was pacing the rock wall of its habitat.
“I see one!” I’d cry out delighted.
“Yah, he’s looking for his dinner. I hope he doesn’t come looking for a tasty, little girl! Oh, Mr. Bear, I’ve got her! Raaaaaaawr! Raaawr!” My dad would scoop me up and pretend to lift me over the fence, growling like a bear and pretending to take big bites out of my arms and legs.
All in all, it wasn’t the worst trip you could take to the zoo, if the zoo was really, really small with only one bear and audio tracked peacock noises. Thanks for the quality time, Pops!
Resolutions for the week include:
- Read more Susan Shapiro, Only as Good as Your Word – in progress
- Read each day for pleasure for one hour – Finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, wonderful!!! Currently reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
- Write 3 family memoirs, be brave, post them on your blog – here goes, family memoir #1
Little Sister of Nine Lives
I actually have a hard time remembering my childhood. It wasn’t full of sorrow, it wasn’t maniacally evil, it obviously wasn’t too exciting, either. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, I simply don’t remember as far back as most people claim to. If I had to give you a reason for this, I’d call it Self Preservation from my Deranged Family.
You see, my sister will claim to many days of glad tidings and jolly moments where she took me bike riding with our Cabbage Patch Dolls, playing in the park that was across the street from our house. My brother would sneak candy to me and terrorize the neighbor’s lawns on his bicycle with me squished onto the front seat with him. I recall none of this ever occurring. What I recall is being buried alive or left for dead several times over.
To begin, there is photographic evidence of me as a toddler being buried in our sandbox. My face is red, my jaw open screaming, there are tears on my face. My brother crouches over me with a shovel, and waves to one of my parents who undoubtedly stopped what they were doing to collect this fine, familial moment. I don’t know how I escaped, I’ve clearly recessed this memory.
Example number two. My mother, upon driving home from one of her weekly hair appointments, discovers at the corner stop sign, one of her children, the youngest, tied to the pole with a jump rope, crying. Seemingly left for abandon on one of the busiest streets in town for all to ridicule her pain. Notice no one stopped driving to call for help.
Example number three. My father is supposed to be watching me one winter when I was in elementary school. It was late at night, he was shoveling snow. I thought it was a game at first. He began to put shovel full after shovel full of snow on top of me who was playing in the snow bank. Pretty soon, that snow pile got really heavy. Pretty soon after that, I couldn’t move from underneath it. I called to my father for help, who found said predicament extremely funny. He grew up in a sink or swim household and told me to figure a way out myself. Then he went inside, leaving me trapped in a snowbank under a streetlight. Crying in the dead of winter, I eventually managed to squirm like an earthworm until I was uncovered enough to crawl out.
That about brings us up to speed, and would put me at my fourth life if we’re keeping track. If I were going to give you any sort of moral to the story or insight from my perspective, it would be this: don’t let your children babysit your children. And apparantly, don’t leave them with their father either, at least in winter weather conditions. So for all you youngest children, little sisters and brothers everywhere, good night and good luck! And if it helps, I did sleep with a pocket knife under my pillow for awhile, just in case.
I can have an entire conversation with my mother and never say a word. Hold on, before you get all settled in your cozy chair and starry eyed expecting some mother/daughter tale of the bond eternal, wait. This is not that story. True, my mother and I both like to talk. Growing up, I have countless memories of her singing in the kitchen as she washed the dishes, spying on the neighbors through the windows, acting as her own personal neighborhood crime watch captain; she could talk the hind leg off a mule about anything. There were endless stories of distant cousins I never have, and never will, meet in far away places like Arizona. There were stories that went something like, “Did you ever meet John Hussey, the man that lived down the street from Aunt Judy and Uncle Vern (who weren’t really my aunt or uncle) and used to come to the restaurant all the time?” “No,” I’d answer. “Well, he became terribly ill about six years ago… Was it six? January, February, March, April…yes, it had to be at least six years ago. Suffered from vertigo, but then he got cancer in his liver. Well, he survived and Dad ran into him the other day. Dad had to go shopping in Janesville. He was gone for four hours! I had no idea where he was and all day the phone was ringing. Well, John is moving to Florida! I can’t imagine…” I’d lose interest somewhere after that.
This is how phone calls are with my mother. Only, I get a second edition a day later in print. Yah, first she calls me and tells me all the news she can recall, and then the next day, I get the same news in a letter from her. She likes to peek her audiences’ interest on the phone with lines like “Well, I wrote you about it yesterday, but you’ll never guess who I saw at the grocery store! She was in your class and she had a boy with her, actually I think they’re engaged now…”
The mark of a phone call with my mother is this: sitting down trying to eat or watch a movie with the phone up to your ear. You will not be talking. You will hold the phone up to your ear till your neck aches.
Occasionally, I have placed my mother on speaker phone. She despises this. “Well, I just wanted to ask you what your roommates thought of their Christmas presents, but not if someone’s listening in.” As if it would matter. On speaker, I’ve discerned, my mother can hear nothing from my side of the line. I will ask a question, and she will continue to talk right over me. This will repeat three times until I am yelling something stupid like, “Well, why do you have to take hummus to the dinner party?!”
My in-law siblings have all come to know this phone call ritual. Whenever they see one of us walking around the house trying to multitask, nestling the phone in the crick of our clavacles, they know. We are on a kind of hold, a hold that does not play elevator music, but talks about people we don’t know with great enthusiasm.
What brought on such a rant about the woman who gave me life, you might ask? Well, I can hardly say I’m nothing like her. From childhood, I was nicknamed “Chatterbox.” I have a terrible habit, albeit one I’m workin on, of interrupting people. What inspired me to write about my mother is the new book I’m reading called Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons From My Favorite Literary Gurus by Susan Shapiro.
The book’s introduction begins with a quote from Shapiro’s mother, “You made me sound like a bimbo, and I’m writing a rebuttal about a daughter who lies about her mother all the time.”
Well, this could be me one day. If I ever write about the people I love, inevitably their quirks that make them who they are will come out. And in Shapiro’s words:
That was the message my mother left on my answering machine right after I published my first personal essay, about our close albeit complex relationship, in Cosmopolitan. Getting paid $5oo from a national glossy women’s magazine was a very huge deal for a twenty-three-year-old Midwestern girl who’d dreamt of being a writer from the age of three. I had assumed Mom would be proud and get a kick out of being immortalized. Listening to her less-than-thrilled reaction, I was shattered. Yet what could I do – but steal her line?
“You’re funny, I’m gonna quote you on that,” I called her back to say.
This week’s resolutions for writing on The Happiness Project:
- Definitely read more Shapiro.
- In fact, read for pleasure every day for one hour.
- Write and record at least three family memoirs. Challenge: Be brave enough to post them on your blog.
What are your writing resolutions this week?
Just for fun, check out: