When You See with Your Heart

Mary Lou Edwards

Dear Lia,

Shortly after Thanksgiving, you sat on Santa’s knee in front of the magnificent Christmas tree at Marshall Field’s, and you gave him your not very long wish list—a baby doll, a bicycle and, of course, Barbie. You had only been in the United States for 6 months, but Barbie already was your new best friend.

Daddy hurried to Carmen’s Bike Shop to order your first two-wheeler, in part because he couldn’t bear to disappoint you, and also, I suspected, because he feared getting stuck assembling a last minute purchase.

“Please don’t buy a Barbie bike,” I begged as he headed out. “I’m already Barbie’d out.”

“I’ll look for a Susan B. Anthony bike,” he teased, “or maybe one with defiant little fists waving from the handlebars.”

“I’m serious,” I said. “Girls relate to their dolls, and, if Barbie was real she’d be 6 feet tall, weigh 100 pounds, and wear a 42 FF bra. Lia does not need to be a moving billboard advertising the shameless hussy.”

“Oh, stop it. If you feel that way, I’ll order a Flying Nun bike,” he said, as he kissed me good-bye. “And get shopping before the dazzling damsels disappear from the shelves."

I enlisted Nonna for the attack on Toys “R” Us before the hordes invaded. We found the Happy Holiday Barbie, the Stupid Barbie, the Malibu Barbie, the Doctor Barbie—a few of the many little anorexics you just had to have. Taking a deep breath, I tried to select the least offensive of the idols and settled on Veterinarian Barbie and Little Mermaid Barbie. Feminist that I was, I hoped not to run into any friends who might spot the pert-nosed, Aryan femme fatales in my shopping cart.

“Guard the cart with your life,” I said to my mother. These Barbies are hot items. I’ll track down the baby dolls.” Fortunately, the human-looking dolls were not in such high demand. I found two infant dolls--one for you and one for your sister, Gianna.

I returned to Nonna who was on guard-duty with the Barbie babes.

“What do you think of these, Mom?” I asked, holding up the baby dolls. “They drink a bottle, pee, and cry. Do you think the girls will like them?”

Nonna looked at the babies. “They’re adorable,” she said, “look at the eyelashes and little bonnets. They’re so lifelike,” she marveled, “but, Mar,” she smiled, shaking her head, “they’re brown.”

“Ma,” I said, “Are you kidding me? My kids are brown.”

“What do you mean, your kids are brown?”

“Mom, my girls are from Colombia. They’re not blue-eyed blondes. They have brown skin,” I said, incredulous that we were having this genetic refresher course in the middle of Toys “R” Us while, in the next aisle, maniacal parents fought over the last of the Teenage Mutant Turtles.

“Oh my God,” said Nonna. “I never thought about it, but you’re right.”

I’m right? Now it was my turn to be puzzled.

“Ma, you’re putting me on, right? I mean, you have noticed your adopted granddaughters have dark skin?”

“Well, I guess so,” she said. “Now that I think about it, I must have, but I never really paid much attention. I mean, what difference does it make? Who cares?”

Indeed, why would anyone care? When you see with your heart, you’re colorblind.


MLSE 12/09

Sometimes We Jump

Mary Lou Edwards

“This is not a good idea,” I said to my daughter, certain my advice would be ignored.

Her illegal alien friend was handing over one of his many part-time jobs he no longer wanted. That she thought being the delivery girl for Toppi Thai Restaurant was the perfect job for a college student amazed me, despite the fact that I had witnessed many of her imprudent decisions in the past.

“Mom,” she tried to convince me, “Pablo says I can make $50 to $120. a night for 4 hours work. No taxes. I can study between deliveries. You are being a snob. This is a very cool job.”

“Cool job? Are you kidding? Lia, think about the wear and tear on your car, the teen-agers who will tip you .25 cents, driving in bad weather, the horrendous cost of gas, creepy strangers coming to the door,…”

She didn’t let me finish. “Mom, you’re being negative. I’m taking the job.”

Obviously seizing this opportunity of a lifetime was not my call.

Not a month into this lucky break, she became disenchanted with rude customers, poor tippers, mean dogs, wrong addresses, and kitchen help hitting on her. Just another day in Paradise I thought, taking a pass on the temptation to say This was your idea, Sweetheart.

I was intolerant of her complaints, though one day her grievance did send me into high gear.

“Mom,” she wailed into the phone, “you won’t believe this!”

“Were you robbed? Did you have an accident?” I shrieked, projecting my worst fears. “Are you Ok?”

“I’m fine, but you won’t believe what just happened. I walked into Dr. Cannon’s office to make a delivery and the receptionist looked at me and started screaming, ‘We didn’t order Mexican food! We don’t want Mexican food!’ She went crazy.”

“Why did she say that?” I asked bewildered.

“I guess she took one look at my Colombian skin and assumed I was delivering Mexican food.”

“You have got to be kidding,” I gasped, “that is incredible!”

“I know, Mom, I was shocked too. The lady really went ballistic.”

“Lia, what did you do?” I asked stunned.

“I just told her to calm down--that I was delivering their Thai food.”

“That’s all you said,” I probed, offended not only for myself but for my Colombian adopted daughter as well.

“What could I say, Mom? The lady was just stupid.”

“Lia, I would have thrown the food on the floor; I would have turned around and walked out, ” I said, jumping into my self-righteous, anti-discrimination mode. “She saw brown skin and assumed you were delivering Mexican food? Tomorrow I’m calling Dr. Cannon’s office to let her know she has a racist moron sitting at the front desk. The woman should be fired,” I ranted.

“Mom, stop. I told her it was Thai food and she settled down.”

“Lia, I would have opened the container and dumped it on her desk.”

“Mom, that’s crazy. Why would I behave like that?”

“Lia, to assume someone is delivering a certain kind of food based on the color of her skin is stereotyping. What would she say to a Black person who was delivering egg foo yong? What would she say to an Oriental pizza driver? Her behavior is outrageous.”

“Mom, if she has something against brown skin, that’s her problem. Who cares if she’s prejudiced? I just won’t deliver there anymore. You’re over-reacting.”

“I am not overreacting. I just hate jerks.”

“Then you’re prejudiced, Mother, prejudiced against jerks. If I’d known this was going to upset you, I wouldn’t have told you. I only shared it because I was so taken aback. The lady is pathetic.”

“Pathetic? Your illegal friend probably passed the job on because he’d met one too many Neanderthals.”

“No, Mom. Pablo gave me the job because his driver’s license expired and he couldn’t afford to get another counterfeit one. Did you know counterfeit documents cost a fortune?”

“Lia, I can’t even believe we’re having this conversation. You’re making me crazy. Would you please quit this stupid job?” I begged, smoke coming from my ears. “We'll talk later, I have to go."

I slammed down the phone, desperate to share my fury.

“Why don’t you find something else to worry about?” my husband suggested when I related the egregious offense. “Lighten up—it’s not illegal to be an insensitive clod,” he said blowing off my tirade.

I was incensed by his lack of indignation.

“Lighten up, lighten up? You’re telling me to lighten up when some ignorant wretch slaps our daughter in the face because of the color of her skin? You have the audacity to tell me to lighten up,” I shrieked.

“Calm down. You are over-reacting,” he said ignoring my pain.

“Overreacting? So you think I’m overreacting? You reduce my outrage to overreacting? I could just scream,” I proclaimed in my best Bette Davis voice.

“You are screaming, Honey. Don't get so excited. Did it ever occur to you that the woman might be allergic to tacos or maybe was having a bad day?”

“Oh, a bad day, that’s a good one--a bad day justifies racism,” I seethed. “Maybe if more people took action when they witnessed something like this, maybe if more people stood up…”

He cut me off. “Oh, I get it. This is your new action plan—dumping food on the floor. Flinging a piece of moo satay in someone’s face is fighting injustice. That is absolutely brilliant!" he declared, eyeing me as though I were some kind of unbalanced bag lady. "Saul Alinsky must be rolling over in his grave," he said referring to a legendary iconoclast.

“Okay, make fun of me. You know I'm not advocating throwing pad thai in people’s faces although, come to think of it, that'd be a novel way of dealing with disparate treatment," I said just to push my husband a little closer to the edge where I was already standing. "Oh, no, now I get it. You're mocking me because you envy my pluck."

“Pluck, pluck?” he retorted with an Elvis-like sneer. “Don't you think it a bit strange to make some tactless person’s aversion to Mexican food into a hate crime?”

Just then the phone rang.

“Mom, you’re not going to believe this.”

“Please, Lia, I can’t take any more tonight--I’m too aggravated."

“Listen, Mom, just stop and listen. This is the best. You know that Toppi owns Toppi Thai, right? And that her husband owns La Lupita?”

“Yes, I know that, Lia, we’ve eaten there many times.”

“Well, not anymore. La Lupita went out of business last week and Toppi is using La Lupita’s leftover bags. When I delivered to Dr. Cannon’s office I was carrying a La Lupita bag with a logo that says ‘THE BEST MEXICAN FOOD IN TOWN.’ The lady wasn’t commenting on my skin--she saw the bag,” she laughed.

“Oh-my-God, Lia. That is unbelievable. Imagine if I’d called Dr. Cannon tomorrow. She’d have thought I was a lunatic demanding the receptionist’s head on a plate.”

“Imagine if I’d dumped the food on the floor, Mom, that would have been so awful. I can’t believe you gave me such bad advice.” Then, going for the jugular, she proceeded, “I think you let your emotions get in the way. You tell me to count to 10 before I act, but you need to count to a thousand," she lectured. "You’re too quick-tempered. You’re not just a reactor, you’re a nuclear reactor.”

I had it coming.

MLSE 11/09

Crash Course

Mary Lou Edwards

Where did I come from—how did I get here? No one agreed.

My brother said "the stork brought me".

My girlfriend said "fairies delivered babies".

The girl upstairs said "babies were left on doorsteps".

My cousin told me doctors carried dead babies in their black bags and a mother gives life by breathing into the baby’s nose.

Raphaella (Raphy) Paradiso, my fifth-grade best friend forever, told me she saw some weird looking babies in glass jars at the Museum of Science and Industry.

“Raphy,” I said, “That is so stupid. Babies do not come in glass jars.”

“Well, I went to the Museum’s Chick Hatchery, and I saw with my own eyes baby chickens pop out of eggs. If a chick can crack out of an egg, why can’t a baby come packed in a jar?” she reasoned.

Maybe she’s right I thought. Everyone says I look like my dad. Maybe my mother picked my jar because I had eyes that reminded her of my father.

“That makes sense, Raphy, but you’re forgetting one thing. Mothers get babies from hospitals not museums,” I said with more than a bit of scorn.

“Not always,” Raphaella countered, “you heard Sister Praxeda tell the Christmas story about the stable, and you saw the eigth graders' Nativity play. Jesus was packed in straw. They didn’t show how he got in the manger in the first place.”

Just when I thought I was making headway with the puzzle, Raphy brought up another piece that added to the confusion.

“None of this makes sense,” I admitted. “They say Mary and Joseph left Nazareth on a donkey and she was great with child. I think they meant she was great with children.”

Raphaella, who’d obviously given this a lot of thought, said she’d found out in second grade that Santa Claus was a fake, that he didn’t fly over houses or come down chimneys, that it was all a big fat lie.

“OK, so Santa’s not real, but you’re not saying Jesus was a fake too, are you?” I asked aghast.

“Of course not,” she reassured me, “but I do wonder what exactly they’re talking about when I hear the Christmas story. For instance, what’s "a Virgin"? Was Joseph the father or wasn’t he?

And what the heck are swaddling clothes? And you know what else? I think the Three Kings, The Magi and the Wise Guys are all the same people.”

“They are the same, and they’re Wise Men not Wise Guys, though I don’t know how wise they were bringing frankincense and myrrh to a baby instead of a toy. But why,” I asked in exasperation, “are we talking about dumb presents and Santa? We’re supposed to be figuring out how kids are born, and we’re not even supposed to be talking about this.”

“I know,” Raphaella lamented. “My mother said I should always come to her if I have any questions, but when I asked where babies came from, she blew her cork. She said, ‘I’ll tell you when you need to know. I’ll tell you when the time is right.’ In my house, that means never.”

I was too embarrassed to tell Raphy how asking about babies almost got me killed.

Once during a family drive, my mother mentioned to my dad that a cousin was “expecting.”

Piping up from the backseat, I asked, “When is she due?” I was about eight years old and had no idea what that meant, but I’d heard a neighbor ask that of a pregnant lady, and I thought it sounded grown-up.

“When is she due?” my father shouted as he practically ran our car off the road and screeched to a halt. “Mary,” he thundered, “what are you teaching this kid? Where did she learn that? Who is she talking to,” he continued bellowing. “You’re not watching her friends,” he accused. “You need to talk to her teachers! This kid is out of control.”

The virulent tongue-lashing almost had my mother in tears and, cowering in the backseat, I vowed never, ever to get my mother in such trouble again, and I never did. Thanks to fear and shame, I remained ignorant for a very long time.

When I became a mother, I vowed no question would go unanswered and no subject would be off limits.

One day, when my daughter was about seven, I found her and her friend, Cara, playing with their beloved Barbies. There were about a dozen of the stupid strumpets swimming in the Barbie pool with a few boyfriend Kens floating around too. One doll caught my eye.

“Lia,” I asked, “what’s with Ken’s head on Barbie’s body?”

“Oh, that’s Barbie’s gay friend,” she chirped. “They’re going for a swim before they go shopping.”
I swear I heard a car crash.

MLS 10/09

Not Good Enough

Mary Lou Edwards

“Who do you think you are? You’re not a movie star. This is good enough for you.”

A freshman in high school, I was shocked when my dentist bellowed this comment with such fury. I sat in the chair perplexed.

“What are you talking about?” I asked the hulk who was barking in my face. “How do you know what I’m going to be? Why is this good enough for me?” I asked, as I held the small round mirror in my mouth studying the porcelain glob. The blinding, garish light illuminated the tiny white lump that was supposed to pass for a tooth. “This looks OK for a temporary fix , but I don’t want this forever.”

“If you don’t like it, don’t come back,” he shouted, yanking the little mirror out of my hand. “No brat is going to come in here and criticize my work!"

Now I was angry. I didn’t even care if he told my dad.

“You said you’d fix my tooth,” I said as I climbed out of the dental chair. “Don’t yell at me because you didn’t do it right. This doesn’t even look like a tooth--this looks like you painted a tiny piece of Tootsie-Roll white and glued it in my mouth. And don’t worry about me coming back,” I added, as I ran out the door, “I wouldn’t come back if my teeth fell out!”

I cried all the way home—partly because I was going to be in big trouble with my dad who revered the dentist because he had a college degree, and partly because my tooth looked like an eraser on top of a pencil.

My mother was cooking at the stove. I didn’t want to bother her because supper had to be on the table at 4:30 sharp or my father would…actually I didn’t know what my father would do if dinner wasn’t on the table because my mother was never a minute late. No one wanted to irritate a man whose tantrums were legendary. Sometimes his rages were pretty funny—a grown person acting like a spoiled baby—sometimes I’d aggravate him just to see him throw a fit.

“You’re home early. Why are you crying,” my mom asked as she bustled around the kitchen.
“Didn’t the dentist give you Novocane?”

“You won’t believe my snaggle-tooth,” I sniveled, hardly able to catch my breath. “I’m never going out again as long as I live.”

“Oh, stop it--let me see,” she said, squeezing my chin and forcing my mouth open. “Well,” she said after the inspection, “at least the tooth isn’t in the front. You’re lucky, you can hardly see it.”

“See,” I wailed, “even you think it’s bad. You can see it when I smile big. I’ll have to talk like a ventriloquist.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. The rest of your teeth are perfect. Are you going to let one little nub botched up by an incompetent upset you?”

I was about to start raving about her calling it a nub, a nub, my own mother calling it a botched- up nub, but I stopped in amazement.

“Did you call Dr. Matich incompetent?” I asked.

I knew she didn’t much care for him. Once I overheard her say to my father, “Jim, the man is so high and mighty. He puts his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else,” but she’d never say that in front of us kids.

“Momma, he is incompetent. I told him my tooth looked like a bitsy stub and he yelled that I shouldn’t come back, which is fine with me. I hate the guy.”

“Watch your mouth,” she warned.

“OK, then, I can’t stand him. He told me I’m not so important that I need a perfect tooth. He said this tooth is good enough for you.”

Hearing that, my mother, who had been hustling to make that 4:30 deadline, spun around from the kitchen sink. I didn’t know if the steam was coming from the pot of scarole she was draining into the colander or from her ears.

“He said what?” she snapped.

“You heard me. He said this ugly tooth is good enough for me,” I repeated.

“Well that bastard,” she blurted.

My eyes popped open like one of those push-button umbrellas. My mother never swore. Sometimes she said heck or darn, maybe dammit if she was really ticked, but bastard, never ever. I was shocked, and then, she said it again. "That bastard"—only this time she said it quietly and slowly as though I wasn’t even there, as though she was looking at a picture only she could see.

“Quit whining and sit down. We’ll get it fixed right,” she promised, “but what that bastard said is unacceptable.”

Whoa, that was the third time she swore. Was she forgetting that God was listening and she’d be punished? Getting a little nervous—about God, about 4:30—I said, “Mom, you’d better finish cooking.”

“Don’t worry about dinner, honey. This is more important,” she said, tapping her finger on the kitchen table.

Was she kidding--more important than my dad walking through the door at supper time?
This I had to hear.

“Never let anyone tell you who you are or what you’re worth,” she seethed. “ Never believe anyone who says you’re not important—that good enough is good enough for you! That arrogant bastard.”

Four times, that was the fourth time! She is playing with fire, I thought, but there was no stopping her.

“That arrogant bastard thinks he can look down on people because he has a couple of capital letters after his name—that he’s better than everyone else. He’s a poor excuse for a man.”

“Mom,” I said startled, “I’m mad, but you’re even angrier than I am.”

“That's because I was subjected to bastards like him when I was growing up."

That’s it. Here comes the lightning bolt. My father will come in expecting supper and find us slumped over the table.

“I encountered skunks who thought it was okay to treat people like dirt. I had a priest make me stand in the vestibule during Mass because I didn’t have a nickel for the collection basket,” she said as though she was scooping out a memory she'd buried long ago. “I went to a grocer who switched a loaf of fresh bread for a stale one, and said, 'This is good enough for your mother.'”

Now she was on a tear.

“Years ago, epileptics weren’t allowed to go to school. My father died in the 1918 flu epidemic, so my mother had to work. My younger brother, Salvatore, suffered seizures. He would come to my school and stare at me through the window. He longed to be like the other kids, but my teacher said he was a distraction--he wasn't good enough to come to school so I should stay home with him. 'Obviously your grandparents can't handle him,' she shrieked, in front of the entire class."

“Mom, stop! They were so mean. I feel like crying.”

“I’ll stop," she said standing up and kissing the top of my head. "Now set the table,” she ordered, noticing the time, “but don’t ever forget,” she said wagging a finger in my face, “you are better than no one and no one is better than you. That bastard had a hell of a lot of nerve.”

Two swear words in one sentence. God must be croaking.

I said a little prayer that God would forgive her as I put the last knife and fork on the table. My father walked in through the back door.

“What smells so good?" he inquired peering into the pot on the stove and pecking my mother on the cheek.
As he turned to hang his jacket, he noticed me sulking at the table. "How was school?”

“School was fine, but look at my ugly tooth,” I wailed, stretching my mouth so he could see the mediocre job.

“Give Dr. Mat time," he said, yanking on my jawbone to take a good gander. "When he’s finished it’ll look good as new—that’s only a temporary.”

“No, Jim,” my mother said, “that’s the finished product. Obviously that jerk's specialty is pulling teeth. He thinks that’s all people in this neighborhood deserve. He’s a bastard who thinks who he is.”

Oh, no, I thought, jerk, bastard. Dad's going to blow his cork. That’s almost worse than getting God angry.

“Really, daddy, it’s true. The tooth is finished,” I said trying to stem a tirade, but my dad paid no attention to the swear word. “Dr. Matich said I’m not a movie star—that this is good enough for me.”

“Really? “ he said, cocking his head to the side and narrowing his eyes. “Really? He said that? To you? Not good enough? Well, after supper we’ll pay him a little visit.”

I got the feeling my dad was going to go there and have a major tantrum, but I didn’t feel one bit sorry for Dr. Matich.

He was going to learn that we weren’t better than anyone, and no one was better than us.

MLSE 09/09

Don't Be Cruel

Mary Lou Edwards

"Ma'am," the lady from the Visitors Center responded, "This is Elvis Week. There ain't a room for miles around--not even one with a bathtub never mind a swimmin' pool. Why the whole town is jam-packed. Fans come from all over the world!"

Welcome to Graceland, a place we'd managed to avoid but finally agreed to visit thanks to the relentless badgering of Gianna, our 12 year-old Elvis groupie. Elvis had been dead since 1977. Twenty years later, I assumed he'd have very few fans left so I made no advance hotel reservations.

Having driven the last 400 miles in a rain storm, "no room at the inn" was the last thing I needed to hear. I had four little girls in tow, ourdaughters, Gianna and Lia and their friends twelve-year old Amy and seven year-old Elise. They'd been good sports for 800 miles, but it was obvious they needed to work off some energy. My husband's twitching eyes suggested he was a bit on edge, and the "are we there yet" and "we're hungry" whines were not helping matters. The single stroke of luck had been that I walked into the Visitors Center alone and no one else heard the dire news. If my husband found out that I'd not booked a hotel during Elvis Week, he'd go absolutely ballistic. I had to get to a phone. Please, God, take pity on me and come through with a last minute cancellation I prayed.

I spotted the Family Fun Buffet--a drenched purple dinosaur waved people into the parking lot. "There's Barney!" I cheered, "Let's eat here!" With the sigh of a martyr, George turned into the parking lot.

"Go ahead and get a table while I stop in the Ladies Room," I said as they tore out of the van and streaked through the monsoon. Exiting the van, I slipped and plopped into a puddle. The soggy dinosaur waddled over and giggled, "Mam, let me help you. You look like you're in trouble." If Barney only knew I thought.

Limping into the restaurant, I found the Yellow Pages and a phone and dialed six hotels in a row only to hear, "Sorry, booked solid." On the seventh, I hit pay dirt. Yes, they had a room and they were located right across from Graceland! Is this luck or what? I thought. It proved to be or what?

I found George in the dining area, cradling his head on the table, exhausted from the long stormy drive. Each of the girls was inhaling a plate of desserts--cupcakes, pie, brownies, ice cream, Jell-o and cookies--all smothered in marshmallow fluff.

I winced at George's willingness to let the inmates run the asylum, but something told me I'd be pushing my luck if I started lecturing on nutrition. Instead I herded everyone back to the van and gave George directions to the Graceland Hotel.

"How did you find this place?" my husband asked as we turned into the ominous parking lot. Huge, burly men in uniform surrounded the property. "It looks like they have good security," I observed. "Good security? Are you nuts? They're carrying shot-guns."

"Maybe the hotel wants to discourage the Graceland fans from running across to use the bathrooms."

Later I learned of Graceland's unusual historic odyssey. Long ago, when a local doctor built what was to become Elvis' Graceland, the property was in a very rural area far outside Memphis. Years later when Elvis bought the house, Memphis had grown some, but the area was still a good distance from town and semi-rural. In the last 25 years, however, Memphis had grown by leaps and bounds and Graceland now sat in the middle of a rough, drug-riddled section of the city, but the armed militia did strike me as a bit over the top.

The desk clerk's tattoos suggested he could be an Insane Disciple gangbanger, but his demeanor was more menacing.

"Whatta you want?" he barked, as though we were trespassers.

"You have a reservation for Edwards," I said, gawking at his inch long pinkie nails and the hotel's Early Trailer Park decor.

"Oh, yeah, yer the lady called a few minutes ago. Room for six. That's $400."

"$400? You must be joking," I blurted. Making a quick recovery, I said, "If it's not too much trouble, may we see the room first?" We did not need to get on the wrong side of this guy.

"OK," he shrugged, "we'll take the stairs--elevator ain't workin'."

"This place gives me the creeps," George whispered as we made our way up the dingy stairwell. "It's either a drug den or a whorehouse."

"It's convenient to Graceland," I whispered back, "we'll push a dresser in front of the door."

We exited the stairwell, creeping along like a company of moles. The hall smelled of cigars and sweat. The carpeting was threadbare and stained.

When the intimidating desk clerk unlocked the room, the kids tore past us and immediately stripped to their swimsuits. I wanted to accept this room, but a layer of grime covered the bedspread,carpeting and windows.

I had to think of a diplomatic way to back out of this deal without aggravating the frightening thug.

"Girls," I called to the boisterous brood, "we can't stay here. We need more beds," I added, as we made a beeline for the door.

"Stop!" the biker ordered. "You din't seen the beds in the adjoining room." The adjoining room was a miniscule closet in which two sets of bunk beds had been crammed. The soiled mattresses had no linens.

"Look," Elise crowed, "a clubhouse!" The older girls scampered up the ladder.

"I figgered they'd like it," the biker remarked. "You git sheets at sign in."

As I sagged into defeat, I thought to ask about the pool.

"Sir, where is the swimming pool?"

"Filled it with see'ment during the remodel."

"No swimming pool?" I exclaimed loudly so the girls would hear. Thank God, they did.

They flew out the door chanting we want to swim...you promised... They couldn't have been more appropriately obnoxious if we'd rehearsed.

"They prolly covered a few ho'tel guests with see'ment when they remodeled," George remarked, as we squealed out of the parking lot.

Within minutes, he stopped in front of a Buy Your Elvis Souvenir Here store. "I'm running in to buy Graceland tickets," he said. "You did such a great job creating this disaster, think about straightening it out, Sweetie."

Threatening bodily harm if anyone dared leave the van, I found a phone and called the Visitors Center with a gut-wrenching tale that happened to be true--four children, an exhausted husband, a marriage at stake and nowhere to go.

"Well, we do have a special facility for emergency situations," the Greeter drawled. "It's a ho'tel on the outskirts of town that is completely filled up, but during Elvis Week, and only during Elvis Week, Memphis allows them to subdivide their banquet room into small cubicles and put some fold-aways in--that's all I got."

"We'll take it," I said.

"Now, mind you, this is special for Elvis Week since it is against the Memphis Fire Code. The roll-aways are $50 per night. Check-in is at eight and check-out is at eight and there's a swimmin' pool under the escalators in the lobby."

My husband returned. "Did you find a room at Heartbreak Hotel?"

"No, but I found a cubicle with six roll-aways. Check-in is at eight."

"Cubicle? Check-in at eight?" He viewed me with narrow-eyed suspicion. "Are you sure this isn't a homeless shelter?"

"No, it's a Suckers' Shelter--the roll-aways are $50 each. Did you get the tickets?"

"As Elvis liked to say, I take care of business. There's a Silver ticket for$25 to tour Graceland, a Gold ticket for $40 that includes Graceland and Elvis' Auto & Cycle Museum and a $50 Platinum ticket that covers Graceland, the Auto Museum and Elvis' plane-the Lisa Marie."

"You did get the Silver ticket, right?" I asked holding my breath.

"No, no, Little Woman, I splurged on Platinum. Tomorrow, all Elvis, all day."

I should just slit my wrists now, I thought.

The aroma of chlorine stung our nostrils as we entered a lobby with a guitar-shaped pool. Good ‘ole boys in blue jeans and their girlfriends in Daisy Dukes were swan-diving off the escalator rails, beer cans in hand as Don't Be Cruel blared over the sound system.

"This isn't a pool," George shouted over the din, "it's a huge toilet. The bacterial count must be astronomical. If Elise contracts a flesh-eating disease, her parents will sue our asses off." Elise's parents were attorneys.

His point well-taken, I declared, "Girls, no swimming just yet."

"Please, please," Lia screamed in my ear, "could we at least put our feet in the water and let the fish bite our toes?"

"There are no fish in swimming pools, Lia," I snapped.

"Yes, there are," she insisted as she dragged me to the edge. "Look at the bottom!"

"Oh, my God," I gasped as I ran over to my husband who stood mesmerized by the Fellini-like scene. "You are not going to believe this. There is shit in the pool."
"Really," he said, "I'm shocked."

A bellboy with a bullhorn bellowed, "Edwards' room ready!"

"Oh, great," George said, "Jist win I was goin' ta order martinis fer the kids and let them chill by the toxic latrine."

Up the escalator and into the third floor banquet room, we found our cubicle with six cots, each covered with a white tablecloth, and the banquet room's refrigerator.

"I've never stayed in a hotel before, Mrs. Edwards," Amy announced. "Why is there such a big refrigerator in our room?"

"That's where you buy food," Gianna, who'd gotten us into this train wreck, explained. "It's filled with little bottles of whiskey and bags of peanuts."

Suddenly I realized we hadn't had dinner and it was ten 0'clock. Since the buffet binge, the kids had only had more sugar--candy bars, ice cream and gallons of Slushees. George volunteered to get some hamburgers. He returned with $20 worth of vending machine junk food.

"You're not going to believe this, but they lock the hotel doors at 10 to keep the ‘riff-raff' out."

"Mr. Edwards," Elise, the future mini-litigator piped up, "tell them we demand to get our suitcases so we can put on our pajamas."

"Oh, no this will be more fun," I interrupted, "We're going to eat Doritos and Twizzlers and then sleep in our clothes!"

"Yippeee," Elise shouted. "When I tell my Mom and Dad what we did on this vacation they're not going to believe it!"

"After Elise's parents finish with us, we'll lose our kids to the Department of Children and Family Services," George commented, "and I'm not going to appeal."

"Let's try to get some sleep," I said, confident he'd relent and appeal after a few months.

At six George announced it was time to rise and shine. No tooth-brushing, no showering--no dressing, for that matter, just breakfast and head over to Graceland. Arriving at eight, we found a huge crowd ahead of us.

"Probably everyone comes here first," my husband figured. "Let's start at the airplane instead."

After an hour and a half in the plane line, we entered the cockpit of the Lisa Marie, Elvis' beloved jet named after his only child. He must have decorated the plane about the time his drug use was spinning out of control. Only an hallucinogenic could have prompted 24 karat gold-flecked sinks and gold-plated seat belts. WARNING-DO NOT TOUCH! signs were plastered everywhere. Suddenly alarms and bells were going off and security was rushing the plane as though a sniper was holed up in the fur-walled bathroom. Lia was not in sight. Sure enough, she had jumped on Elvis' bed. Within minutes, we were escorted off the Lisa Marie. Being kicked off the plane suited me just fine.

We stood in line for only an hour at the Graceland Auto Museum to view the Pink Cadillac, Ferrari, John Deere tractor and Harley. This time the temptation proved to be too much for Gianna who climbed onto the King's Harley when our backs were turned and, again, Elvis' security force promptly took care of business. We were back in the broiling sun before we'd even seen Elvis's tractor.

Sensing I was near meltdown, George suggested a bit of shopping while he stood guard over our little terrorists outside. I ducked into the Elvis Store where I found a colossal supply of ashtrays, lamps, guitars, lawn mowers, teddy bears, teapots, brassieres--all with The Great One's Coat of Arms, a lightning bolt. The only thing not on display was a replica of the toilet seat he was sitting on the night he fell off the stool and died on the bathroom floor.

As I exited the store, I found Gianna wailing--she wanted to buy an Elvis guitar, Elise pouting--she needed an Elvis wig--and the other two arguing.

"I think they're hungry," my husband said. "Let's go to the Elvis Café."

They ordered Elvis' favorite--a deep-fried sandwich of bananas, peanut butter and marshmallow fluff with a side of French fries and a deep-fried pickle. The big girls shared a piece of Sweet Potato Cream Cheese Pie. Lia and Elise had Moon Pies.

We waddled over to Graceland where the line of mutants from another planet snaked around the block--75 year-old ingenues with lightning bolts tattooed on their breasts, dudes in high heels and make-up, a man in SCUBA diving gear and a lady with a raccoon on a leash to name but a few. Taking up the rear, Lia threw the mother of all tantrums-"I hate Elvis! This is the dumbest vacation I ever went on in my life! This is all Gianna's fault! I am sick of Elvis and his stupid songs!"

"Calm her down," George hissed. "People are staring."

"Staring? At us?" I ranted. "They're staring at us?"

"Mom," Lia, having tantrumed out, called to me, "what does 'Elvis sucks elephant dick' mean?" I spun around to read the graffiti that completely covered the five-foot stone wall surrounding America's second most visited historic residence after The White House. Amy ran over with an eye-witness report. "Mrs. Edwards, a guy dressed like Elvis just peed on the wall to clean off a space so he could write something." "Amy, maybe it was Elvis peeing," Gianna suggested. "That lady over there in the nightgown told me Elvis is not dead."

I could not fathom what I'd done in a past life to deserve this. Would our country make it to the new millennium, I wondered, and, more importantly, did we deserve to?

At last we entered the hallowed Graceland.

Saddam Hussein had nothing on Elvis in the home decor arena. The "jungle" den, the billiards room, the TV room where Elvis shot out the screen once when he didn't like the program, the gun room where he practiced target shooting, past his parents' bedroom, into the kitchen where he'd made his ‘heart-attack on a plate' snacks-we saw it all. We ogled his trophies, Gold Records, jewelry, costumes and awards. The only significant sacred site we did not see was the infamous bathroom.

The tour ended in the Meditation Garden where speakers, hidden under bushes, blared How Great Thou Art. A bit to the left of the swimming pool, flanked by the tombs of his parents, Vernon and Gladys, Elvis rests.

His autopsy revealed he'd ingested at least 10 different drugs, including morphine, within the last 24 hours of his life.

How many drugs, I wonder, would Elvis have taken if he'd known Michael Jackson would one day be his son-in-law? Would Elvis be included on the Platinum Tour of Neverland?

MLSE 08/09

Confessions of a Serial Forwarder

Mary Lou Edwards

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to never forward another email as long as I live…

I am done. Finished. Fini.

I will never pass on another funny joke, lifesaving tip, critical warning or virus threat. Call me selfish, but I’ll not even pass on a Code Red Alarm. I will no longer be the Paul Revere of the Internet. I will not attempt to brighten anyone’s day nor feel compelled to tell acquaintances that, like a thousand helium balloons, their friendship lifts my heart. I will not pass along Amber Alerts or Novenas to St. Dymphna, patron of the psychologically impaired.

I was never an irresponsible forwarder. I regularly snopesed things that came my way. If I got an email that claimed women who’d had breast augmentation survived the Titanic because their breasts served as life jackets, I verified it before hitting the SEND button.

I didn’t fall for the promises of a cash windfall stuffed in my next Whopper Burger if I said a certain prayer for our soldiers in Iraq. I didn’t believe I would contract leprosy if I let the flame on the Candle for World Peace, which has been circulating on the net since October 8, 1952, burn out.

I only disseminated material that would cheer-up shut-ins, brighten the days of the depressed or enlighten the imprudent who gave me their email addresses. I didn’t shot-gun messages to my 174 best friend contact list. Rather, I meticulously tailored my forwards to special interest groups—recipes to the Julia Child devotees, Amber Alerts to those who cared about their children, warnings to pet lovers about tainted cat food from China.

I didn’t betray confidences about my friends’ husbands who were undergoing sex-change surgeries or blabber about my manager’s son who was working his way through mortuary school by selling crystal meth.

In short, I was cyber responsible which is why this slip has shattered me.

My friend, an ex-nun, forwarded a story about two old ladies in a nursing home. It was not in the best of taste. I judiciously selected several girlfriends who enable my forwarding addiction, and carefully clicked bcc so no one else would know of their morbid fear of drooling away their golden years. I wanted to reassure them that, despite qualifying for Long Term Care Insurance, they need never surrender their prurient imaginations. I took every precaution. I refused to be known as the wreckless forwarder, one whose name on the You’ve Got Mail screen prompts DELETE. I abhor indiscriminate forwarders who willy-nilly send pictures of nursing baby cows, never once considering whether or not the recipient is into bovines.

I am prolific,but selective except for this one freaking time I goofed up.

My, oh my, you do have quite a sense of humor!

Please, God, no, I thought as I stared in horror at the computer screen. In a flash, I realized that, in my forwarding frenzy to get this oh, so important joke out, I inadvertently bcc’ed the name directly above my friend Susan Grote's, and sent the story to a professional acquaintance--a very reserved, genteel minister/psychotherapist.

“George,” I shouted as I ran up to our bedroom, “you are not going to believe this—I am mortified. Wake-up! I want to die!”

He continued to snore.

“George,” I shrieked, flipping on the light switch and tearing off his blanket, “wake up! I am totally humiliated. I can never show my face again! Get up—this is a disaster.”

“Lower your voice and turn off the damn light,” he growled, not at all grasping the gravity of the situation. “It’s midnight. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I just got an email from Rev. Grier, Dr. Grier,” I cried, kneeling at the side of our bed. “I cannot believe I did this. I am so stupid! I should not be allowed to own a computer. I am an idiot!”

“Could you please save your self-flagellation for the morning? I have to be up at six.”

“Oh, you don’t care! You don’t care that I’ve just humiliated myself--that I may have to live in a cloister for the rest of my life. Please! Sit up at least,” I said, turning the ceiling fan on high to get his attention.
Suddenly it was as though we were in front of a jumbo jet on the tarmac at O’Hare. Olivia, my cat, had come in to investigate the ruckus only to have her long hair blown back as though she were in a wind tunnel.

It worked.

He got up and stomped over to the fan switch almost twisting the knob off the wall. “O.K., O.K. I’m awake. I do care. I’m very interested in why you’re suicidal.”

“I accidentally forwarded a really, really offensive email to Dr. Grier. I mean really offensive!I’m so embarrassed I could die!”

“I warned you about sending that shit out all the time. Why do you insist on forwarding that crap?”

“I can’t help that I’m easily amused and besides, it’s not crap—they’re little jokes that just might bring a bit of sunshine into people’s lives.”

“Sunshine?” he exclaimed as though I was a schizoid bag lady. “If your friends need your junk mail to bring a smile to their faces, they’re in bigger trouble than you. Why don’t you just stick to sending out computer viruses?”

“Thanks a lot. I’m glad you woke up to tear me down,” I said in my best Meryl Streep voice. “I told you it was an accident. Do you think I wanted to send him an email about two old ladies in a nursing home?”

“Old ladies in a nursing home? Are you nuts? Look, I’m sorry if you think I’m tearing you down, but you are a maniac on that computer. It’s a wonder you have any friends left who will even open your stuff.”

“Well,” I said haughtily, “I happen to have 174 friends in my address book. I’ll bet you don’t have half that.”

“Look, I’m not having this stupid-ass conversation at this hour. Let’s get some sleep.”

“Sleep? No, no, listen to me! You haven’t heard the joke. It’s so outrageous I wish I could go into witness protection,” I moaned. “O.K., here’s the joke."

"You don't get it! I NEED SLEEP. I don't care about this nonsense! I do not care about the joke. I have a life!"

His insensitivity never ceased to amaze me. I ignored his unreasonable objections.

"Two old ladies in wheelchairs were in a nursing home. One old lady asks the other, 'Do you ever get horny?' The other says, 'Yes.' So the first old lady says, 'What do you do about it?' and the second old lady says, 'I suck on a Lifesaver.' and the first old lady says, 'Who drives you to the beach?'”

For a minute there was dead silence. He stared at me as though I were a postal worker with a gun. I could tell he was counting to a hundred. Finally he said quietly, “Well, wasn’t this a car crash waiting to happen.”

And that's why I will never again forward anything as long as I live. I don’t care if someone sends me a YouTube of Barbara Bush giving Barack a lap dance, I swear I will not pass it on.

O.K. Maybe I’ll call you on the phone and give you the URL, but believe me, that’s it.

MLSE 07/09

Life Has to Be Hard

Mary Lou Edwards

Life has to be hard. Not life was hard or life is hard or life can be hard. No, life has to be hard. This was my father's mantra.
Experiencing the Great Depression as a teen-ager, he observed the travails of the jobless. Land mines of economic destruction and desperation exploded around him, wounding not only his sense of personal dignity and self-worth, but also scarring those who would later share his life. The Depression, the economic vulnerability, were proof that God wanted life to be hard--its psychic imprint served as a constant reminder of His wrath.

From 1932 forward, good, beauty and accomplishment were viewed through astigmatic eyes that did not allow the celebration of life’s gifts or achievements. Hard work was the protectant; enjoyment the enemy.

He acknowledged God’s gifts, but dared not savor them because life had to be a struggle and the Great Scorekeeper kept a sharp eye out for those who searched for the easy way. A God who deprived the undeserving, punished the ungrateful and exacted a price from those who didn’t use their gifts correctly was not to be crossed. And because some people were not listening, despite Matthew, Mark, Luke and John having spread The Word, He deputized Jim, and Jim, my father, became God’s translator.

In the deaf community, there is a huge debate about the responsibilities of the translator. Does the translator relay the exact message of the deaf or a sanitized version? Does the translator communicate only the literal or tinker with intent, and, beyond that, does the translator interject what he thinks the deaf person really meant to say? In my father's world, we were all pathetic scofflaws, and in the colloquial sense, deaf and dumb too.

Dad interpreted what God meant—what God intended—what God wanted. In fact, his pipeline was so direct, he understood what God demanded even before God knew, and, because the Deity was preoccupied with wreaking economic havoc around the world and sorting through the wreckage, dad, familiar with the drill, filled the vacuum. Whether a trifling matter or major issue, he never strayed from the message—life has to be hard.

One didn’t really know how to drive unless the car was stick shift nor eat a genuine sandwich unless the bread was homemade. A four inch footing was insufficient for a proper concrete patio, a three foot pit had to be dug. A week's vacation involved mending broken screen doors, fixing appliances that were on their last legs and repairing squeaky floor boards in a rented summer cottage. Picnics required homebaked cakes and hauling 4 course meals a mile, under scorching sun and over burning sand, down to the beach. The inside of a refinished dresser drawer had to be as flawless as the top. And all because, in order to grow, in order to really live, life had to be hard. The tougher it was, the better one was, the closer one came to earning life’s gifts and God’s approval.

Swimming, biking, ice skating, chess were not pastimes; they were skills to be perfected through effort and practice. Hobbies were a waste of time unless one intended to incorporate them into a career.

College students, according to dad’s Gospel, needed to study two hours a night for each scheduled credit hour. In response to his constant badgering that I was a bogus scholar, who really didn’t value, care about, want, appreciate or all of the above, an education, I attempted to reason with him.

“Dad,” I tried to explain, “I carry 16 hours a semester. I’d have to study 32 hours a night.”

“Do you think they’re just going to hand you a diploma? Do you think life is a cakewalk?” he thundered. “There is no easy way out!”

How silly of me to think good grades indicated sufficient study when only blood, sweat and tears could provide real validation. How stupid of me to forget life had to be a bitch.

When life got too good, as sometimes happened, Dad would temper it with shame. Shame was the antidote to toxic enjoyment. Shame was the “go to” emotion that ensured one never forgot that life had to be hard.

As a kid, my brother was quite a good baseball player. He did not brag about it, but he made the fatal mistake of being comfortable with his competence, of knowing he had skill and talent, of believing in himself. Life was good for a 12 year-old gifted athlete--maybe too good. He needed to be cut down to size. He had to pay for his imagined adolescent cockiness. He needed to know that life was hard and, if he was not getting the message, then God would teach him and the great translator would deliver the news.

Once during a ballgame, my brother knocked the winning run out of the park. Thrilled with his accomplishment, he sauntered around the bases basking in the admiration of the crowd. My father was incensed and awaited him at home plate. Yanking my brother by the shirt, he shouted, “Who do you think you are? You need to hustle, move your ass around that field—run like you mean it!”
One can only imagine the embarrassment and humiliation my brother felt at being criticized and ridiculed in front of the crowd. But God wasn’t finished--sometimes life had to be extra hard.

Grabbing my brother by the uniform, God dragged him over to the coach. “Don’t count that run in the score,” He ordered. That homerun doesn’t count. The kid didn’t earn it, he doesn’t appreciate it,” He bellowed. “Take it off the board!”

Suddenly it was no longer about the winning homerun. It was about God running amok.

The boys on the team crowded around stunned. The spectators watched in amazement as though they could not believe their ears. The coach, astounded at the outrageous request, glared in disbelief. My mother stood frozen by God’s rage.
Actually, it was all my brother’s fault for forgetting that life had to be hard. God had no choice but to teach him a lesson he’d never forget, had no choice but to etch that reminder on his young psyche.
Dad continued to carry the message everywhere and never missed an opportunity to educate us about life’s trials. No event was too trivial or grand to ruin--one really didn’t deserve to be on the honor roll, dinner time was for eating not chattering, proms were nonsense, getting a degree from a world-class institution was a fluke and a great job was yours only because the employer had yet to find you out.

But as I grew, I started to question my father's "no matter what you do it's never good enough and you must always work harder" ethic. Despite his thinking we kids hadn't worked hard enough for the honor roll, we consistently made it so it couldn't have been by chance. Some slackers probably made it through the University of Illinois, but most degrees were hard won. Could it be that human beings weren't supposed to be perfect?

And then I heard about Louie Aparicio hitting a homerun and swaggering around the bases at a White Sox game. Perhaps life didn't have to be hard. Perhaps life is only as hard as you make it.
MLSE 06/09

Disgusting Four-Letter Words

Mary Lou Edwards

My friend, Domenica, maintained that after a woman got married, if she kept a clean house and didn’t get fat, she could be an axe murderer and no one would care. Men reserved a particular scorn for wives who did not keep a house spic and span or who, God forbid, “let themselves go,” but I feared the scorn of men far less than I feared household drudgery which I suspected caused brain damage. Polish furniture that was already shining? Scrub floors that weren’t even scuffed? Launder clean curtains just because it was Monday? I don’t think so.

I considered housework a form of domestic violence and C-O-O-K, I-R-O-N, and D-U-S-T offensive four-letter words. My aversion was not genetic. My mother’s housekeeping made Polish cleaning women look like slackers and she was a world-class cook on top of it. ‘Til today I rarely eat in an Italian restaurant since no dish ever comes even kind of close to hers.

I could claim I was intimidated by her extraordinary culinary skills, but I’d be lying. The truth was preparing, cooking, cleaning up three times a day, for a family that considered memorable meals an inalienable birthright, was just not part of my plan. I was not going to be trapped in a kitchen.

It wasn’t as though my mother didn’t try to steer me toward domesticity.

“Mary Lou,” she’d say as she stirred at the stove, “come watch how I do this.”

“I’ll know how you did it when I eat it, Ma,” I’d respond, trying to dodge the bullet.

“No, you need to see how I make it. Someday you’ll be sorry you didn’t learn how to do this.”

“Ma, I told you I’m going to college. I don’t need to know how to cook.”

“Don’t be stupid. College people eat. What are you going to do when you get married?”

“I probably won’t get married and, if I do, I’ll find a man who’s not that into food. Or I’ll marry someone who likes to eat out,” I said, thinking of solutions on the spot. “Then again,” I mused, “maybe we’ll just eat at your house every night or my husband will cook like daddy.”

“Cook like your father?” she responded, her eyebrows leaping to the ceiling.

“I saw daddy make eggs for breakfast once.”

“It was probably when Nonna was dying and I was sitting vigil at the hospital.”

“Well, it was the only time I ever saw him cook, but you never know. Look at Bo.”

My father’s friend, Bo, made the best sopresatta in the world. To this day, not here or in Italy, have I ever found anything that could compare. Just the thought of walking past his house and spying the mini-salamis hanging by their strings air-drying in his attic makes me yearn for giardiniera with fresh Italian bread.

“I could marry a chef. Ma, did you know women can’t be chefs?” I said, trying to take the spotlight off my recalcitrance. “I read that all of the world’s great chefs are men.”

“Sure,” my mother agreed, “when it’s a man cooking they call him a chef and pay him big money. Mothers, who make great food every day, are just plain old cooks.”

“But, Mom,” I teased, pecking her on the cheek, “you get paid in love.”

“I know. I know. I’m a lucky woman,” she smiled. “I always wanted to be a wife and mother. I’m not complaining.”

You should complain I thought. If I were you, I’d be complaining big-time. What is so rewarding about having 'floors you could eat off of' or shining kitchen tile every week with Jubilee?
Perhaps none of this appealed to me because I was a disaster at it. Even when I tried, I got it all wrong.

Once I attempted to help my mother with the ironing, but I had no sooner dug into the bushel basket when she yanked the iron cord from its socket.

“Your father would never wear such wrinkly underwear plus you scorched a pillowcase. You’re impossible,” she railed, as she collapsed the ironing board with a thud almost amputating my fingers. If I’d known that a burned pillowcase would be my ticket to freedom, I’d have scorched from the get-go.

Mama was right though--I was impossibly incompetent. I couldn’t even hang laundry right. I let the sheets drag on the grass because I forgot to use the pole to prop up the clothesline. I hung the socks by the ankle instead of the toes. I mixed articles of clothing instead of grouping them. And my towel hanging was a complete disgrace.

“Look at how you hang towels,” she said with disgust. “You’re using two clothespins for every towel and wasting clothesline between them.”

“Ma, you make it sound like there’s a clothespin shortage.” And I wanted to add, you have enough clothesline for the entire family to hang themselves, but I knew when I was walking on thin ice so I kept my mouth shut.

“Keep it up, Mary Lou, and you’re going to be in real trouble. Try following directions, for a change. Put one towel on the line and put a clothespin in the left corner,” she demonstrated, “then instead of wasting another clothespin, take the second towel and lap it over the first a tiny bit and use another clothespin to hold the two together, then add another towel and do the same thing and keep going until you’ve hung all the towels together. For every two towels you should only use three clothespins. I’ll watch you finish this row.”

“Ma, you have got to be kidding? This is moronic,” I argued, “I can't believe you expect me to do this. Let's just throw on a few extra clothespins and really live it up.”

“Capo tosto! You're such a hardhead, you never listen,” she scolded. “You think everything’s a joke. You’re hanging things willy-nilly. Put all the handkerchiefs together, all the dishtowels together.” Lowering her voice to a stage whisper, she added, “And hang the underpants on the inside clothesline where the whole world can’t see them.”

“Mother,” I protested, “I think the neighbors know we wear underpants and brassieres. I mean, what’s the big secret?”

“Shame on you--panties are private, hide them on the inside. Put the sheets and towels on the outside lines so the sun can get at them, and quit being a smart-aleck.”

I hated the tasks I was given, and I was always deemed too young for the jobs I coveted.

I yearned to sit on the windowsill, my legs dangling in the house, my torso outside, my face reflected in the glass, and pull the window sash down on my lap to squeegee. Jenny Next Door used to sit almost totally outside (because she had a long torso and stubby legs) on her third floor sill holding onto the frame with one hand, squirting her vinegar spray bottle with the other while her long black hair blew in the breeze. Gawking from my backporch, letting my Popsicle drip on my pedalpushers, I was amazed at her courage, mesmerized by her dexterity. Once, and I am not kidding, she even stood up outside on the window sill to reach the upper sash, one hand holding on, the other swiping the rag back and forth over the glass, and all the while yelling at her sons down in the yard who were chasing each other with a hammer. It was like watching a tightrope walker cross the Grand Canyon. I was in awe.

“Ma,” I begged, “please, if you let me wash windows sitting half outside like Jenny Next Door, I promise I’ll make them sparkle.”

“No,” she said, “you have to be at least fourteen to do that. The last thing I need is to find your body crumpled in the gangway. People would never stop talking and you’d probably leave the windows streaky.”

“We live on the first floor, for crying out loud," I whined. "I'll pull the window down tight on my thighs. You just don't want me to have any fun."

“Knowing you, Sarah Bernhardt, you’ll fall out the window and crack your skull just to get attention, and I’ll get stuck sitting with you in the hospital. You can run around on window ledges all you want after you’re married and your husband has to worry about you."

I think she knew, before I knew, that my ineptitude was a subversive form of passive resistance. Somewhere deep inside my little noggin I must have realized that if I excelled at domesticity, I’d be signing my own death warrant. My mother, however, attributed my aversion to a “...combination of laziness and reading too many damn books.” She refused to accept that I was beyond domestication.

One of her last ditch efforts was registering me for eight weeks of sewing lessons at the Salvation Army Settlement House (commonly known as "The Sal" where mostly non-Catholic urchins ran amok) but my mother was desperate. Perhaps she thought she’d appeal to my creative side but, alas, I continually jammed the sewing machine while trying to fashion her Mother’s Day gift of a tea apron. I assured the teacher my mom did not need a tea apron because she only drank coffee, but Mrs. Muscolino snarled, “You are making a tea apron and your mother will love it!” In the eleventh hour, when I burned out the pedal on the ancient sewing machine, Mrs. M took pity and gave me a needle and thread, but I had no luck with that either so I opted to staple on the waist ties. I considered glue, but I figured staples would hold up better knowing my mother’s propensity for obsessive laundering.

My teacher checked over the finished product. “What exactly do you think your mother is going to be putting in this pocket? It’s huge--almost as big as the apron. And the waist ties? They’re supposed to be equal in length.” Whipping off her measuring tape from around her neck, she said, “One of the ties is four inches, the-other-is-fourteen. Unless your mother has the waist of a wasp, this will never fit her.”

“Well, if the ties are too short she can give it to the lady upstairs. Her baby could use it as a bib,” I suggested, vowing never to sew another blessed thing as long as I lived.

On Mother’s Day, after we gobbled up the delicious frittata my mother cooked for the special occasion, my brother, sister and I brought out our presents.

She opened my brother’s first.

He gave her a breathtaking Our Lady of Fatima statue. Our Lady was standing on a blue plastic ball which my brother said was the world. I could see how he thought that, because it was round like the Earth, but it was all blue and everyone knew the Earth was only two-thirds water.

“I don’t think it’s the Earth, there’s no land,” I snapped, jealous that my mother was acting like he gave her a relic from the Vatican. Shooting me a dirty look and completely ignoring my input, my brother played his trump card.

“Ma, twist the globe—it opens.” Sure enough, she twisted and this huge black rosary fell out of the Earth. “Anthony,” she exclaimed, “I will treasure this forever.” He stood there beaming like an altar boy who gets to lead the casket out of the church after a funeral. I felt like snapping Our Lady off her perch, but I was not going to commit a Mortal Sin and risk going to Hell because of my brother. It was always obvious my mother adored him just because he was her first-born and only son. As far as she was concerned he could do no wrong, and she rarely punished him for anything. Once I saw him actually walk into our kitchen with his muddy baseball spikes on, and she barely yelled at him. The truth was if he had given her an elbow macaroni necklace, she’d have been just as over the moon so I pretended I didn’t care, but secretly I had to admit it was a very cool present. The way the Earth twisted open around the equator, and the giant rosary beads fell out, was extremely impressive.

My sister gave mom a floral handkerchief on which she’d embroidered MOTHER. I didn’t think it was a big deal but my mother said, “Oh, Anna, this is just what I needed. How did you know?” as though she didn’t have an entire drawer full of cleaned and pressed hankies.

“Open mine, open mine, Ma, I sewed it just for you at the Sal,” I said, thinking perhaps I should have evened out the waist ties before I wrapped it. My mother opened the box and pulled out the apron from the tissue paper. “Ohhhhh, isn’t this an interesting apron,” she said, as though I’d given her a stupid pencil holder made out of a ridiculous tuna fish can.

My brother, still smarting from the fact that I had pointed out Our Lady of Fatima was not standing on the Earth, interjected, “Apron? It looks like a cockeyed shopping bag, if you ask me. She didn’t even sew it—it’s a bunch of staples.”

“No one asked you, Anthony,” my mother said, shooting him the evil eye. “I’m sure your sister worked very hard on this.”

As my father sat at the kitchen table with a “what the hell is that” look on his face (he was into details like measuring and neatness) my mother looked up from the tea apron and said quietly, “Mary Lou, you must stay on the Honor Roll and do well in school. You will never make it as a housewife.”

After the apron caper, little was asked of me outside of picking up dog crap in our yard, running errands and drying dishes.

I could see I was a huge disappointment to my mother. She was getting very close to the final stage of grief, acceptance. Now I seriously began to beg for God's help with my domestic disability.
"Dear God, please send me a rich husband so we can have a housekeeper. My mother has told You over and over 'God, this girl will never learn to do housework!' and You know she is right. It would be nice if he's handsome, smart and likes to have fun too but, really, the maid thing is the most important. There's no hurry, You know I have to go to college first, but please start looking for him now because everyone says it's going to be impossible to find a husband interested in a wife who only wants to read books all day. If you can't find a rich one for me, at least find one who doesn't care about home-cooked food. I'm willing to do a little dusting and vacuuming plus I'll be happy to work as a nurse or a teacher. Please bless my family and friends and our dog Skipper. Thank You for listening. AMEN."
I said that prayer often, and it worked, sort of. God sent me a husband with all my requirements, except he was not rich, but, here is where I knew God was really on the job, my mother-in-law had been such a horrible cook my husband thought Cheerios with a banana was a gourmet dinner. If I so much as made toast, which I didn’t do often, he was grateful. Thanks to peanut butter and jelly, lunchmeat, cereal and carry-out, we did just fine. Occasionally I went all out and cooked, but I always seemed to miss the mark.

In a fit of madness one day, I decided to make fried smelts for supper. I have no idea what possessed me, but it sounded easy enough when I overheard someone say you just put oil in a frying pan and throw in the smelts. Had I done this and stayed in the kitchen, we might have actually had a home-cooked meal. Instead, someone called needing a phone number which I went upstairs to retrieve. As I stood on the landing returning to the kitchen, phone number in hand, black smoke billowed up the stairwell. Taking a deep breath, I flew down the stairs and out the front door, sooty and shaking.
Standing across the street from my house, I saw the smoke pouring out the front door,and I just knew my husband was going to be furious. Several months earlier, he had been really aggravated when the microwave door blew off while I was sterilizing my contact lenses, and that little caper had only involved replacing the microwave and patching a hole in the wall. I was sure he’d be over the top if the house burned down. Fortunately a neighbor called the Fire Department and the hook and ladder arrived minutes before my husband pulled up and jumped out of his car leaving it in the middle of the street.

At least a dozen firemen charged through the front door, giant boots flapping, pick-axes at the ready, smashing out windows.

“What happened? Where’s my wife?” my husband shouted as I came charging across the street to explain.

“Are you OK? What happened?” he hollered amidst the chaos. “Did something explode? Were you smoking? What’s going on?” he asked as the flames waved hello out the kitchen window.

Just then the fire chief, in a huge rubber raincoat with Chicago Fire Department emblazoned on the back, walked toward us.

“Don’t worry, sir. We’ve got this under control,” he reassured my husband. “It’s a run-of-the-mill kitchen fire—lot of smoke, not too much damage. We knocked out some windows and the cabinets are shot, but it looks worse than it is.” Turning to me, he said, “And you, little woman, better be more careful when you’re cooking dinner.”

“Cooking dinner?” my husband choked out, his eyes the size of bowling balls. “You were cooking? In the kitchen? At the stove?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I was frying smelts.”

“Frying smelts? Like fish smelts?”

“Yes, I wanted to surprise you by frying smelts.”

“What in God’s name were you thinking? Smelts? We've never had smelts. I cannot believe that you were trying to cook smelts?”

I was getting a bit annoyed with his shock and disbelief, acting like I’d never stepped foot in the kitchen. Was he forgetting I had almost savant-like talents for making chicken wings? Was he blocking on the fact that one Thanksgiving I cooked a turkey which wreaked havoc with everyone's digestive tract? It was not as though I never cooked.

“I wanted to surprise you by frying smelts,” I sniveled. “They’re not that hard to make.”

“Not that hard? You’ve practically burned down the freakin’ house. Whatever possessed you?”

“I don’t know,” I said shrugging, “all of a sudden I felt like cooking. Is that such a sin?” I wanted to add “you ungrateful bastard” but the neighbors were crowding around, jumping over the fire hoses ostensibly to comfort us, but really to be nosy. “I can’t explain what came over me."

A year prior when we were having the kitchen redone, the remodeler was peppering me with questions. “So what kind of fridge do you want? Side by side, freezer at the top, ice-maker on the door? Cold water dispenser? Twenty-four cubic feet?”

“Look,” I had told him, “I just want a plain old refrigerator. I’m not really into kitchens. If I had my way, we’d turn this room into a den, but my husband says that would hurt the resale value.”
“Yeah,” he had said, “most buyers are lookin' for a kitchen."

So we put in the new kitchen, and now it was in shambles.

“Promise me, look into my eyes and promise me you’ll never do this again,” my husband pleaded as the firemen gave the all-clear sign. “You could have been incinerated.”

“OK, alright, I promise,” I assured him. “If the smelts had turned out, I was going to bake you a birthday cake next week but now I won’t even bother.”

“Good. That’s why God invented bakeries."

About six months later, in another fit of impulsive recklessness, I decided to make an egg.

“Honey,” I yelled, “have you seen my frying pan? I’ve searched everywhere.”

With a look of alarm, he walked into the kitchen. “Yes, I did see the frying pan. Do you remember when you set the house on fire frying smelts?”

His tone of voice suggested I was some kind of demented pyromaniac.

“Well, during the blaze,” he continued in a Mr. Roger’s voice, “the firemen threw the skillet out the window. When the snow melted in the Spring, I found the pan and threw it in the garbage. Is this the first time you’ve noticed it’s gone?”

Apparently he’d forgotten he made me promise not to cook so I ignored his snide remark.

“Thanks a lot," I snipped, highly insulted. "You at least could have told me it was trashed. That was a very expensive frying pan I got for my shower and I hardly used it. Now I have to go to the hardware store and buy another one. How am I supposed to make an egg with no pan?"

“You're not supposed to--grab your coat," he said. "We’re going out for breakfast.”

Mama, reading those damn books paid off after all.

MLSE 05/09

Trapped by Circumstance

Mary Lou Edwards

“I don’t need a University of Wisconsin directory. I need a talented young lady like you to work for me,” the man on the other end of the line phone flirted.

Pushing the most recent edition of the UW Alumni Directory, dialing telephone numbers non-stop--busy signals, hang ups, rude refusals--made this alum’s response both intriguing and enticing.

Quickly perusing the bio of my potential savior, I noted I was talking to the owner of a well-known photography studio with an impressive Michigan Avenue address.

“Sir,” I responded, “I’ve had my offer of this directory refused, but I have never had such a creative rejection.”

“Rejection? Young lady, you come see me tomorrow and you’re hired!” he boomed. I had no idea what his job offer entailed, but escaping the hellhole of tele-marketing was too tempting.

“I will be at your office tomorrow right after work—at 5:15,” I said, wondering how I’d make it running in high heels from Wacker Drive to 620 North Michigan.

“See you then.”

From sweatshop to Magnificent Mile in one five-minute phone call? Maybe this would be the Chicago version of Lana Turner’s Hollywood discovery at Schwab’s Drug Store. I prayed I was worthy of the opportunity. I was the luckiest girl in the world.

The next afternoon I rushed up Michigan Avenue to Valhalla dreaming of working for this prestigious operation. With a bit of luck, I might be able to continue on a part-time basis when I started college in the Fall.

As I ran up the street, I thought of the time I had served at Rockwell Publishing with a hundred quasi-literate dialers, working on commission, elbow to elbow in a boiler room dive hawking this incredibly detailed piece of drek. Even on a good day, it was impossible to make a living wage, never mind my college tuition. Hour after hour we dialed Wisconsin graduates with a canned pitch designed to appeal to memories of their glory days. The spiel was lame, but it was worth listening to if only to hear our preposterous rebuttals when an alum was reluctant to waste his money.

If, for instance, someone said he couldn’t afford the directory because his house burned down, and he was destitute plus he just found out his wife was the arsonist who wanted him incinerated to collect on his insurance so she could run off with his best friend, I would have a perfect response. Even if he added he was contemplating suicide.

“Sir, now more than ever you need this directory. You cannot pass on this incredible resource. It is filled with names of contractors who will rebuild your torched house, stockbrokers who will make you wealthy, financial planners, divorce lawyers, criminal attorneys who will put your ex-wife in jail, insurance agents who will write a policy that will make your spouse wish she’d not acted so precipitously, and psychiatrists who will help you deal with the pain of betrayal by your best friend. And the support team will all be Badgers eager to assist a Badger brother.”

If, by then, the alum wasn’t begging for a copy of the directory, I’d continue.

“You will also have this handy referral to help you when you begin dating—hundreds of educated women who need not make money in the sleazy way your soon to be ex-wife tried, women who will renew your will to live. Cultured women who share your love for your alma mater bonding with you during Wisconsin football games.

I guarantee you will regret not having purchased the leather-bound edition since your copy will be dog-eared from constant use reaching out to your Badger family who share your Badger pride!”

Fortunately most of the alumni didn’t have such complicated problems, but I did use some variation of the above on most solicitations. Sterling Catch, who offered me the job, hadn't even heard my dazzling sales pitch. What impressed him so that he wanted to hire me sight unseen? Was it my precise diction? My sophisticated delivery? Did he detect the conviction in my voice?

But it didn't matter. Right then, as I hurried along Boul Mich, my focus was on my lucky break.

The Michigan Avenue address reeked of status and respectability. Mr. Catch awaited my arrival and, after a cursory interview of sorts, said I could start the next day. Having asked nothing about my education and/or experience, I figured he was just an excellent judge of raw talent. He was, however, a bit vague about my job responsibilities.

He said, “I am designing a position just for you. While I work out the details, you can familiarize yourself with the studio and staff.”

A job. created. specifically. for me? I was awestruck.

For the first week.

Then I realized Mr. Catch was the anti-Statue of Liberty, welcoming the hungry and tired, as well as the naive and stupid. He preyed on vulnerable souls.

Apparently years before, he had been the photographer of choice for the North Shore’s upper crust, but his glory days were behind him. After succumbing to too many glasses of bubbly and a plethora of sweet, young things, he was left only with arrogance and his extraordinary sales skills. Indeed, if Mother Teresa herself appeared in his studio, he would have considered seducing her. If she failed to recognize her good fortune, he would interpret the rebuff as her loss, and immediately shift into Super Salesman mode to offer her, at a greatly reduced price because of the sheer volume, individual portrait sittings of every forlorn wretch who had ever crossed her path.

Something in his life had gone awry resulting in vanities and character defects so enormous that even an Oprah intervention would have been wasted. His targeting the pathetic resulted in a staff that perfectly reflected his predatory proclivity.

Mandi was the Anna Nicole look-alike receptionist who had been married and divorced so many times she stopped changing her last name because of all the paperwork. She was late a lot and had many court dates. Her complex child-support and alimony arrangements, she said, required frequent tweaking, but I suspected the chronic tardiness and incessant lawyers’ calls had more to do with her nighttime activities.

Mort, the genius retoucher, smoked in the darkroom, and, I reckoned, drank the photo- developing chemicals in there as well. Like a mole, he ventured out of the darkness only occasionally, blurry-eyed and shaky, searching for “… that bastard Sterling!” who routinely demanded he do the impossible.

Theodosia Goodsell was a munchkin widow who suffered ill-health and was particularly vexed by self-diagnosed “neuralgia” which caused her to disappear for days on end. Only gallons of gin soothed her pain. On her good days, that is, the days she showed up in working condition, Mrs. Goodsell’s sales skills put even Mr. Catch's to shame. Her job was to call on the recently bereaved to offer them a once in a lifetime opportunity to order an outrageously overpriced oil painting of their newly deceased loved one. Unfortunately though, her frequent slugs from her thermos of “cough syrup” while telephoning potential patsies led to more than a few bizarre scenarios.

Irene, the resident artist, who executed these paintings was responsible for making the bereaved’s dream a reality. She spoke five languages fluently, but only enough English to keep us confused. Her salad days were spent fleeing the Nazis and now, because she’d lost everything in the war, including her academic credentials, she was reduced to painting over huge enlargements of snapshots. Often the head of the subject in the original photo was pea-size and Mr. Catch would insist Mort blow it up to 16x20, thereby obliterating the facial features. It was Irene’s job to paint a face that would be somewhat recognizable to the widow. Much of the time, not because of Irene's lack of expertise, the finished portrait would make a paint-by-number picture look like an Art Institute masterpiece.

Completing the off the wall cast was Evelyn Bates, a society woman who’d fallen on hard times. She never quite came to grips with the fact that life had relegated her to soliciting portrait sales from survivors of the dead. She took great pains to maintain the pretense of working “just to keep busy…” but her hopelessly outdated wardrobe, and tales of forty-years past soirees signaled her denial.

It was an unusual group, but even more peculiar was the fact that there was no photgrapher on staff. Instead we had a series of photographers who would apply for the "vacancy," work like demons during their unpaid month-long "audition" photgraphing weddings, bar mitzvahs and debutante debuts and pray they'd get hired. They would cover a variety of events so Mr. Catch could get a "valid sample of your work," but, alas, at the end of a month they never quite had what it took. "You are a competent photographer, but you're missing that 'certain something' I can't explain," Mr. Catch would say. "You're just not a good fit for my North Shore clientele." It was a brilliant never-fail scam.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had nothing on us--a talented addict, a wacko single mother, an ancient alcoholic widow, a delusional has-been with a dying husband, a Displaced Person who had lost everything in the war, an "auditioning" photographer and a broke college kid.

Trapped by circumstance, desperate for work, we were a captive crew ripe for exploitation which Mr. Catch scented like a foxhound.

Outside of the events captured by the "probationary" photographers, the dearly departed were the headliners. In the days when Kodak Brownie box cameras were considered high tech, when certain socio-economic groups cherished a snapshot of a loved one the way blue-bloods revered a John Singer Sargent portrait, Mr. Catch carved a predatory niche, and he never looked back.

MLSE 04/09

Not Every Woman's Dream

Mary Lou Edwards

Long ago there lived a girl named Thumbelisa who did not want to be a bride. Actually, it was not being a bride that bothered her, it was marriage, but Thumbelisa lived at a time when most maidens became brides, when it was very important to be married.

Thumbelisa had studied the ancient civilizations and was not impressed with the Greeks who believed it “…a woman’s duty to remain indoors and be obedient to her husband” nor with the Romans who declared “…a woman had no rights. In law she remained forever a child.” Then there was the Jewish law that said “…a wife was owned by her husband.” Even when she dismissed these notions as relics of the past and set aside the biblical teachings that ‘a wife was to submit to a husband,’ ‘he will dominate you,’ ‘you are subject to him,’ she was still looking at wives in the village who were overworked, underappreciated, overwhelmed and undervalued. No, Thumbelisa thought, this is not something I want to do.

Her culture, however, dictated three choices--nun, spinster, wife. Exist under God’s thumb, suffer under the King’s thumb or languish under the Master’s thumb? Name your poison. She couldn’t fathom being dictated to by the Pope, perishing in a convent, much less subsisting as an old maid in the kingdom forced to live with her parents forever, so, by default, it was marriage. But, adding insult to injury, Thumbelisa had not even a poor prospect, let alone a worthwhile catch. “Settling” was out of the question. Bad enough to shoot her future from a cannon without tethering it to someone she’d “settled for” ‘til death do us part.'

She’d had a bit of a reprieve because the King believed every maiden should be educated—an unusual notion in the old kingdom. His theory was a maiden needed an education to fall back on in case she married a louse, not the most sterling of reasons to pursue learning, but she was not one to stand on ceremony. School bought her time, and she was grateful. Her family had always said, “Oh, she’s the one into books, not boys…” as though she had to choose between knowledge and knuckleheads, but schooling did postpone the moment of truth. Now, though, her education was complete, and she was eligible.

Thumbelisa considered running away, but leaving the village was treasonous. She prayed to St. Quirinus, Patron Saint of Obsessions, since that was what her problem had become. In a state of rapture, a vision appeared and spoke. “It is not the thought of sharing thy life that that thou fearest—it is the thought of having a husband! Get married,” the voice commanded, “and pretendeth thou are not. Catholics believeth in denial.”

Thumbelisa thought the solution peculiar, but she could not be choosy. She would get married and, in her mind, pretend she was not. She would search for a man who would become her best friend. They would fall in love, and, before she could back out, walk the plank of matrimony.

She switched her allegiance to St. Raphael, Patron Saint of Friendships and Good Marriages. If this plan was to work, if she was not to get cold feet, a short engagement was essential followed by a swift wedding. Then she would have a friend, a partner, a husband, and the dreaded word would no longer strike fear in her heart.

She called upon St. Jude, Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes, and before she’d even finished her Nine-Day Never Fail Fast, a prospect appeared.

A man whose values aligned with hers like tumblers in a lock giving access to a space that was safe and comforting. A person whose manner suggested he had no interest in using his thumbs for anything other than a gesture of encouragement. A friend who allowed her to be herself, who prized an independent woman, who wanted an equal partner. That--he was an impressive gentleman--handsome, tall and distinguished—was a bonus. Best of all, he had a great sense of humor--her knight without the armor.

She began to consider taking that leap of faith.

She was not so naïve to think him perfect. She’d been raised by King Perfect and that was a harrowing journey. No, this man was better than perfect—he was perfect for her.

From the outside, they were almost a comic study in opposites—tall/short, blonde/brunette, WASP/ethnic, agnostic/Catholic, reserved/brash. Yet though they differed in background, politics, personalities and demeanor, their hearts were of the same mold. They shared many a shortcoming, complementary ones too. But neither ever entertained the notion of changing the other, in part because they were smart enough to know that would be futile, but more importantly, because they loved and accepted the other just the way they were.

Her friend didn’t always understand her fears--some funny, some not so—but he respected them.

“If we wed," she would remind him, "I must keep my checking account, have my own coach, and work outside the castle. I will also maintain my friendships with my maids.”

That’s up to thee, if that is what thou desires, he would respond, wondering how the seed of dread had been planted.

“Also," she would persist, “Can we vow to love, honor and respect, instead of obey?”

“It is called wedlock," he tried to reassure, "but you will not be imprisoned."

If Thumbelisa survived one hundred plagues, she knew she could not find a finer man.
He knew she carried a lot of baggage; he had met the royal clan. She must have had, he thought, a lot of help packing those bags. He trusted she would divest herself of some of the items when she realized they no longer fit, if indeed, they ever had.

She had found the perfect traveling companion. For the first time, she trusted the journey could be equally rewarding.
Critical details remained. It was customary to have long engagements--less than a year raised eyebrows, but if she couldn't get past the betrothal quickly, she would never make it down the aisle and yet another hurdle remained--the King's imprimatur.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” the King inquired, when the Knight asked for Thumbelisa’s hand in marriage. “She is an awful lot of trouble, very strong willed--almost impossible to control, challenges my orders," he ranted. "You will have your hands full. Are you up to the task?”

Those comments gave the Knight a clue as to why her dread was so deep. He understood why she wanted the hoopla over quickly--how a long waiting period might provoke anxiety, cause her to doubt her choice, allow her fears to implode.
Yes, the King was vexed at the suddeness of the wedding, but he appreciated divesting himself of the thorn in his side.

They would wed the following month. The event would be put together in record time with just enough trappings to keep the villagers' tongues from wagging. There would be no engagement ring, a borrowed wedding gown, no bridesmaids, simple gold bands, a banquet small by kingdom standards. They would omit the word "obey."

The eve preceding the nuptials,though, King Perfect, who was not happy with the plans, ordered Thumbelisa to tell the Knight to get rid of his beard for the ceremony. “I would prefer a clean-shaven face,” he declared.

“He is perfect just the way he is,” she smiled.

The morning after as church bells clanged, Thumbelisa handed over her heart.

MSLE 03/09

Don't We All and Haven't We Always

Mary Lou Edwards

When I write about my father, the picture painted can be harsh. It was a thorny relationship, I joked, because we were twins born thirty-three years apart—mirror images who shared generous hearts and quick minds, but also iron wills and fierce tempers—a volatile combination. Perhaps a lithograph, where oil and water don’t mix, better describes the bond, but I prefer heavy oils which never fade.

All paintings require contrast and balance, emphasis and proportion and perspective. No small task to see a picture when one is in it, distance oneself when love blurs the vision, or appreciate a child’s worm’s-eye view for what it is—justified, but limited.

The brush of humor blends rough lines, the stroke of wit softens glaring reality but, without perspective, the finished product is one-dimensional, without texture or shape. Creating the illusion of three dimensions by applying layers of heavy oil, scraped from the palette of emotion with tints of laughter and shades of hurt, is no substitute. Though impaired eyesight was corrected early on—I wore eyeglasses from third grade—it would take much longer for me to recognize my heart’s limited perception, clouded by circumstance, distorted by pain.

Age, however, changed my vision, allowed me to fly above the landscape, to get a bird’s-eye view of a sub-culture which rigidly defined the male role as man of the house, breadwinner, ruler of the roost and king of the castle. A culture that not only accepted certain behaviors, but expected and required them as well. A culture that revered rules, and valued authority over expression—where shame and fear kept people in line—where life was serious, tough, leaving no room for mistakes, risks or wrong moves—where there were no second chances.

New lenses improved my mind-sight. My expanded point of view neither justified nor defended; it simply clarified and validated. And that clarification and validation shifted me toward the light, toward understanding and compassion, allowing me to inch forward.

“At that time, in that culture” does not excuse the absurd or rationalize the unacceptable, but it does allow me to see the humanity of the man behind the behavior, a man who did his best with what he knew. And except for the psychopaths of the world, don’t we all and haven’t we always?

The mother who had her kid's feet x-rayed in the shoe store to insure a good fit, the grandmother who cradled the baby in her arms in the passenger seat, the parents who told their sons and daughters they weren’t smart enough, good enough, fill-in-the-blank enough to make them stronger, more resilient to life’s vagaries, were acting out of concern and love.

The doctor who prescribed a stiff cocktail for the overwhelmed patient, the experts who advised parents who’d lost children not to talk about it, not to bring it up, to just move on with their lives, the priests who counseled women to stay in abusive marriages believed they were operating in everyone’s best interests.

Mistakes made in the name of progress, in the name of honor, in the name of God, in the name of love.

Wearing my “at that time, in that culture” spectacles, I see that long before one is a parent, one is a human being with often too little time, too many demands, too much responsibility and too few resources. I realize some of life’s best lessons are about what not to do. I celebrate, through story-telling, the hilarious parts of my experience and I document the painful to weaken its hold.

Most importantly, I no longer evaluate yesterday’s mistakes under today’s microscope.

I accept that once I know better, I am obligated to do better. I am committed to not repeating errors, to speaking out when my gut tells me something is amiss. And if I miss such an opportunity, I pray my children know I did the best I could and extract every last bit of humor from my less than perfect parenting.

I hope they look back to the past to understand and appreciate, but not get stuck staring. I pray they have the moxie to paint their own pictures and the courage to include a self-portrait.

And finally I trust they will take responsibility for their lives and understand that, after all is said and done, they are the curators of their own collections.
MLSE 2/09