Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The First Kiss

We stood behind the elementary school. He was wearing jeans and tennis shoes that made his feet look too big, like paws on a St. Bernard puppy.  His red hair was spiky and uncombed and the freckles on his face stood out even more against his flushed skin. I pulled my shirt down over my too-pudgy belly and pushed a pigtail behind my shoulder.

“Do you wanna?” he asked.

Well not really, I thought. But the dare had been issued. It was 1974, and we were in fifth grade. Steve liked me. I liked him. Or at least we declared our romance for that one afternoon. Now here we were, hiding like lovelorn refugees, contemplating the dare to kiss. 

“I guess,” I shrugged.

Before I knew it, he leaned forward. Two fleshy feeling worms hit my mouth before I could even pucker. Steve ran squealing off to find our friends. I stood there fully aghast for a few seconds. I didn't realize before now, lips felt like big worms.

I regained my composure, or as much as I could, and ran after him laughing nervously.

“Did you guys do it?” Our friends, who now are locked faceless and nameless in my memory, were dying for the details. We had been dared, and we didn't back down!

“Yes,” we both giggled nervously. 

“You can’t tell anyone!” I tried to extract promises that would never be kept.

I don’t really remember the rest of that afternoon or even the days or weeks after. Like all good grade school romances, it was probably over before it began. Steve faded from my life and my memories, except that one moment behind the school.

There were no more kisses for me, an awkward girl turning into a teenager, struggling with self-esteem, never quite fitting the pretty, thin mold of my peers. I wanted to be popular, a cheerleader, the kind of girl who could toss her hair and flirt, but the coy gestures and confidence escaped me.

In the summer before high school, I went to my first real girl-boy party.  It was a warm summer night, and we stood outside on the back porch in the waning light. Elton John blared from the speakers. Teenagers wearing disco jeans milled around, laughing, drinking pop. Suddenly in hushed tones, someone suggested we play a game of Spin the Bottle. A couple of boys laughed, nudging each other with bravado, and the group moved indoors to the basement. (Where were her parents? I don’t remember.)

We sat in a circle. My heart pounded. Other than Steve behind the school, I’d never kissed a boy. Would they use tongue? What if they did? How did I kiss like that? I was in a panic. A boy stepped into the middle of the circle and gave the empty glass bottle a spin. It wobbled like a romantic compass needle, balancing on the arched glass, until it stopped, pointing to a girl. They stood up and faced each other. He slung an arm over her shoulder and she casually hung one around his waist. They kissed for a couple of seconds before sitting back down. She didn't even look phased! 

It was Adam’s turn next. He reached down, a suave crooked smile on his face and gave the bottle a spin. He was like the most popular boy in school, blonde wavy hair, tall, and already filling out with muscles. The bottle stopped, pointing towards… me. I stared. I can’t do this. Not for the first time. Not with Adam. Would he refuse to kiss me?

He stood and walked towards me. I could smell his cologne, heavy with some musky scent. And his breath was sweet, like the soft pink chunks of bubble gum he had been chewing. He leaned in. I closed my eyes, met his mouth, my pulse racing and stomach lurching. My first French kiss.

It kind of felt wormy too.

As the game carried on, my nerves calmed. I felt so worldly now. I even tried tossing my hair, or as much as you could toss hair lacquered with half a can of VO5. The next time the bottle pointed my way, it was to kiss a boy named Graham—a short, skinny kid, still pre-pubescent, a wild mop of red hair and freckles all over his face and arms. I sighed. Perhaps this really was my destiny. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Carnivals, Scary Rides, and A Mother Bear

Before moving to our small town, I was a city girl, born and raised in the hills and suburbs of Pittsburgh.  Rodeos weren't a part of my life. But now, I appreciate and look forward to our annual Cattlemen's Days Rodeo and the wondrous sights of beautiful horses, 4-H animals, and a man in a well-fitted pair of Wranglers.

Alongside the rodeo grounds, a carnival sets up adding to the festivities. It's the typical travelling fair, Ferris wheels, rickety Tilt-A-Whirls, funnel cakes, rigged carnival games and high school girls dressed in summer shorts, flirting with boys.

One year, when my son was five, we took him to his first carnival. We bought the requisite cotton candy and let him ride the harmless kiddie roller coasters and fly down the big wavy slide on a burlap sack. My son soon spied a school chum walking hand-in-hand with his mother. The boys asked to go on rides together so we joined the pair and strolled the dusty, popcorn-strewn grounds searching out new thrills.

Eventually, we found our way to a looming ride called the Rainbow. People climbed steps up to a staging area to board a big platform fitted with rows of seats. With bright lights and music, the platform rose in a clockwise motion before reaching the apex and dropping quickly, riders squealing and screaming with delight. A few brave souls even raised their hands above their heads to maximize the thrill whenever it made its downward loop. 

“Let’s do that one!” my son's friend exclaimed.

My son looked up at me expectantly, “Can I, Mom?”

Every instinct in me knew this was a bad idea. “I don’t think so, Sweetie. Is there another ride you’d like to try?”

The two boys looked at each other. “Please, Mom?”

“Once you're on, you can't get off,” I countered. The ride looked scary for little guys.

“I won’t be scared, I promise. Pleeease?”

The other mom smiled at me indulgently, “I’ll go with them. They’ll be all right.”

Ugh, now the peer pressure, not for my son, but for me. Against my better judgment, I relented. The ride stopped and my son, along with his friend and mom, climbed up to the platform and buckled up in their seats. My heart was in my stomach. I berated myself for being so foolish.

The carnival worker stood above me on the platform and pushed the lever. Up the ride lifted. So far, so good—my son was all smiles. The ride hit the top, seemed to suspend a partial second, then dropped. His face expression quickly changed. By the second circle around, he was in tears, gripping the mom's arm.

Without thinking, only feeling with a mother’s heart, I reached up and grabbed the young carnival worker’s ankles. He turned with a start, and looked down. “Stop this ride,” I said, or more precisely, growled.

He hesitated. I reiterated my desire with conviction. “My son is on this ride and terrified. Stop it. Now.”

My husband, his mouth slightly gaping, stared at me--his wife-gone-mad.

In the face of a crazed mother with a death grip on his legs, the wise worker let the ride complete its last loop before bringing it to a full stop. “Thank you,” I said, releasing him. My son climbed off, his face still red. We moved to wait for him at the bottom of the steps. He climbed down, his legs shaky, his face struggling to find composure.

“That was fun, Mommy,” he offered in a tremulous voice, bravely trying to find a smile.

It was a lesson for all of us. For a poor young carnie, just trying to make a few bucks for the summer, he learned to never cross a frantic mom and perhaps to stand a few feet out of hand's reach. I learned to trust my instincts, always, and never let someone else influence my parenting. I hoped my son learned to listen to his parents, but he probably really just learned the vital lesson every kid should know: how to save face. And my husband's lesson…well probably, that he married a woman with an inner lunatic lying just barely below her surface. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Java Locale

It’s a quirky little place. The menu—sandwich and wrap selections, coffees and specialty drinks—is hand-written in brightly colored chalk on blackboards hanging behind the counter. Like most coffee shops, the sound of hissing and smell of freshly brewed beans adds to the ambiance. I glance at today’s selection of coffee flavors, also written in chalk on a small board leaning on the counter: hazelnut, organic Kona and the regular, fair trade option. But today I’m tempted by a mocha. Why not treat myself a little?

Tucked among a string of small businesses that come and go, victims of a sick economy, the Steaming Bean thrives on Main Street. We have two coffee shops in town. Both offer clusters of tables, free wifi, and an assortment of baked goodies along with their java choices. But I like The Bean, as it’s known by. It’s a little funkier, darker, cozier. I grab my steaming mocha in the ceramic mug and head up two steps to the platform area to sip, write and people-watch, one of my favorite pastimes.

A good coffee shop nestled in a small town or neighborhood takes on a Cheers-like quality, where everyone knows your name. I recognize a few people, smile and give the nod of recognition. Others walk in and strike up conversations with folks sitting at the table beside me. The music, a selection with a Latino beat, pulses in the background along with the soft conversation and sounds of the espresso machine. Someone has ordered a bagel with black bean hummus "shmere", and a smoky smell of burnt bagel crumbs wafts out from the toaster.

A few people are reading. Others, like me, are typing away on their computer, sipping a warming brew, just right for a cold day. A trio of school-aged girls arrive talking in the excited voices. They are commenting on the wall art, an ever-changing gallery for local artisans. Today’s art features a male African American dancer wearing a brightly ornate costume, his legs toned and muscular, his lips full and nose broad, several portraits of Native American women, rich with ethnic features and native costumes, and glowing with beauty. I know the artist. He is an older student at the local college, a Native American and has a passion and obvious talent for depicting beauty as it is, not as the media would gloss it over to be.

I am watching the time. Soon the neighborhood-watch officer will be by to mark tires with chalk, making sure parked vehicles abide by the two-hour time limit for street parking. I've already been here for two hours but am so comfortable and relaxed, I’m hesitant to leave.

I’m skeptical of chain coffee shops—a Starbucks on every corner, in every grocery, in every discount department store.  Men and women in suits, hurrying to order their double cappacino, no whip, skinny, grandes. Sure these cookie-cutter  franchises can serve up a frothy concoction, but can they offer a familiar smile, a smattering of local publications to peruse and the quirky creations of local artists?

If I’m in the big city, I’ll seek out the small neighborhood coffee shop—the one with homemade pastries and fair trade coffees. I’ll look for the cozy shop with a young barista wearing a slogan t-shirts and dreadlock hair held back by a faded bandana. I know if I find a unique corner nook like this, I'll sit down and order a cup-- not to go, but to stay and savor. I'll pull out my computer or flip through a local paper, do a little people watching and relax. If I know my coffee joints, we won't be strangers for long.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Anne and Harold

Mom and Me

This past week, I moved my mom into an independent living facility. It’s a lovely place, full of well-earned luxuries and friends she already knows. And I feel better knowing she’s in an apartment with a daily check-in and health facilities directly on campus.

After our big moving day, we enjoyed dinner in the company of two of her friends, Anne and Harold Hall. Harold is 90-years-old and Anne wouldn't elaborate beyond telling me she’s in her 80's. It is a woman’s prerogative, after all. With a cozy knit hat pulled over her head and a warm coat and thick sweater on, even in the warmth of the restaurant, she cut quite a figure.

Clusters of four to five people sat at the various tables, each dressed up, some more than others, the ladies' hair fully coiffed. Some were quite able-bodied; others were stooped or used a cane or walker to help them negotiate. But as they sat at the tables, they were just friends. Laughter and soft talking settled on the air adding to the dining ambiance. Scattered here and there were a few of us “young folks”—visiting family. When you eat with people in their 80's and 90's, 48 gets to be young!

Anne sat next to me, never removing her coat, picking over the roll and butter, dubious of how everything was cooked. Harold and Anne have been married for over 60 years. He is hard of hearing, but he didn’t need to hear his wife’s words. They communicated through looks and smiles.“She doesn’t like anything on the menu,” he says with a small smile. “They don’t quite cook anything to her liking. I think it’s all right, though.”

She rolls her eyes, a tip of her tongue darting out and makes a face at him. She turns to me. “We used to live in Denver, you know. When was that, Harold?” she asks. 

He looks up, calculating the years and decades that have gone by. “Well, it was shortly after we were married.”

“I was pregnant and had one child already. We had six kids, you know.”

“That was over 60 years ago,” he finishes. “We lived out where that theater shooting occurred.”

“Aurora,” I complete for him, remembering the tragedy that has forever changed so many lives.

“Right,” he says. “Of course, at the time, there was nothing out there. We were the first development. I think our house is still there. We built it ourselves.” It’s hard to imagine that area of Denver ever being remote or undeveloped.

Anne moves on to another topic. “Harold flew cargo planes in WWII,” she tells me. “He flew from Washington to Alaska to deliver supplies. We were lucky. He never saw any combat. But he wasn't allowed to talk to the Russians stationed there. They could never talk to them.” 

I try to pry for more information. This is a part of our history almost completely gone. But Anne has moved on to poking at her pork loin. “They didn't bring me the gravy I asked for."

I look around at the balding and gray heads, the lines finely etched in their faces, and envy the easy friendships they share with each other. As people pass by, Harold or Anne grab and arm or a hand and introduce my mom, the new kid on the block.

I wonder what I’ll be like should I be fortunate to live into my 80's or even, like Harold, to be 90. He still goes to the business he started and owned, the one his sons now continue. Every morning Anne gets him up, feeds him breakfast, and someone comes by to pick him up so he can put in a day at the office. Maybe this sense of having to be somewhere, watching his sons carry on the family business, gives him a reason to keep smiling.

“Are you going to get the ice cream?” Anne asks me. “It’s Hershey’s – the very best.” She launches into a story about, Mildred, her best friend for over 60 years, who recently passed away, and their youthful adventures of going to Isaly's, a Pittsburgh institution, for ice cream sundaes. “We’d get every topping they had—caramel, chocolate, marshmallow.” She smiles, and I can almost see the kid in her again. But her eyes flicker briefly with sadness. It must be difficult to lose life-long friends. The hazard of living long enough.

I hope as I age, my stories aren't lost. I hope I find myself among fine company and mostly, I hope my kids tolerate my quirks and oddities. I might just wear my winter coat and hat to the dinner table too.