Snuggle Up With A Good Book

Last week I made another visit to the Scrap Exchange, Durham’s Disneyland for crafters and thrift shop junkies.

I struck gold.

In their huge book section, I picked up a green hardcover book that had the telltale color, texture, size, and aroma of an old school library book.  It still had the little pocket pasted onto the inside of the back cover.  And, tucked into that pocket was the original card.

The book originally came from Tom’s River High School.  Coincidentally, Tom’s River is very close to where my mom grew up.  The first time it was checked out, it was due November 20, 1962.  The last time it was returned to the high school library was January 8, 1979.   

The book is Betsy and the Great World, by Maud Hart Lovelace.  Her Betsy series was one of the written joys of my life.  I read and reread these books whenever I felt lonely; and for a kid in a military family, it was more often than you might think.

The books go from early readers to Betsy’s marriage and the beginnings of WWI.  Betsy, Tacy, and Tib were my closest friends, and B’s family was my second family, always there for a singalong and an onion sandwich at Sunday night lunch. 

To honor the books that I loved so much, I thought that I’d tell you about my all-time favorite books; the ones that I stayed up late reading and the ones, like Betsy, that I’d pull off the shelf when I needed its comfort.

Seventeenth Summer, by Maureen Daly.  Written in 1942, it’s the story of Angie Morrow, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin.  I read it in the sixth grade, and it set me up for all kinds of disappointment when I was going through my own 17th summer.

Hey, not all of us can be willowy, self-possessed, blond cheerleaders.  I adore the book and whole mood and energy I get when I read it.

Chesapeake, by James Michener.  I read this in the 9th grade on a two-week class trip to Mexico.  It was my first Michener. I love all of his books, but this multi-generational novel about families on the Eastern shore of Virginia is my flannel pajamas, cozy Michener.

This is my own copy.

The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus, and Hotel New Hampshire, all by John Irving.  In one page of this author’s work, he can make you cry, laugh, and want to throw the book across the room in a fit of rage.

His work is easy to read, but hard to digest.  All of his characters seem like real people, full of quirks, nobility, and faults.  I have never read a book with odder, yet more believable characters. 

John Irving

John Irving will challenge you and your whole world.

Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson.  This is the nonfiction account of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and the serial killer, HH Holmes, who used it as his personal hunting ground.  Larson writes history that reads like fiction.  I read everything he writes, and not only because reading nonfiction makes me feel smart.

During this apocalypse that is our lives, I’ve been reading lots of thrillers; it makes me appreciate that at least I’m not being stalked by a crazed killer, and I love a good twist.  Recently I read, Behind Closed Doors, by B.A. Paris.

It’s astonishing.

So, if I may suggest, Gentle Reader, put down the remote and pick up a book.  You can take a trip without a mask that will change you forever.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.

Trippin’ With The Kid

Gentle Reader, my child is a human pratfall whose very existence is chock full of frequent, unintentional slapstick.  Every day is a new, embarrassing installment of “looking back, years from now, this’ll be hilarious”.

It’s like I gave birth to both Lucy and Ethel.

And it’s never more on display than when The Kid is on a road trip.

In college, our little scholar snagged an internship at the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay, California, about thirty miles south of San Francisco.  The child decided to drive.

Across the country. 

Alone.

So, in the days it took to make the trip, I barely moved away from the phone (still only have a landline).

And, one day, THAT phone call came.

The car had blown a tire, in the middle of Texas, in a desert, miles from anything or anybody.  The force of it had also cracked a rear fender.  Luckily, The Kid had the presence of mind to call AAA for assistance before calling home.

My heart broke for The Kid.  And at the sound of my voice, my child, all alone with a damaged car, broke down.  I promised I would stay on the phone until help arrived.  We were only on the phone for a few minutes until the call ended abruptly.

It seems the spot where the poor thing was standing happened to be a fire ant hill.

Eventually, tire was replaced, duct tape was procured for fender, ants were washed off, cortisone applied, and road trip resumed.

Later in the trip, a bungee cord replaced the failing tape.

And until the day the car was sold, the fender was held together with an industrial-strength bungee cord.   

We decided it was time to pony up for a GPS when late one night on another trip, The Kid got so totally turned around in West Virginia that a mountain tunnel was traversed five times in one very confused hour.

After the last trip through, my little Marco Polo got directions—from the very serious Homeland Security agent that stopped the car.

Red flags had been raised when cameras picked up the multiple tunnel trips in the middle of the night.  Travel was resumed after The Kid promised to never use the tunnel again.

Then there was that time when the recent college graduate decided to travel to Ireland—in January.  Why you ask, Gentle Reader would any human travel to Ireland in the chill of January?

Because plane tickets to the Emerald Isle in January are about fourteen dollars apiece; because nobody, even Hibernophiles and native Irishmen want to be there then.

The Ireland portion of the trip went well.  But to get the slashed airfare, one had to fly out of Boston.  So, The Kid had to make the drive home, from Boston, In January. 

Petey was very ill in Duke hospital at the time, each day a new life or death struggle.  And fittingly, a nor’easter was approaching the northern US Atlantic coast bringing feet of snow in its wake. 

So yeah, I was in a very Zen state of mind.

The Kid’s plane touched down with the storm bearing down on Boston.  My child jumped in the car and headed South.

With a storm in the rearview.

Literally, on the drive home it was like an Indiana Jones movie where a lava flow is following close behind our hero.  Only instead of lava, it was a wall of snow chasing my child down I-95.  The Kid pulled in the driveway, along with a snowstorm that dumped a foot of snow on the Triangle.  

The storm had made the trip hanging off that darn bungee cord.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.       

My Massive Motherhood Fails

First, a few things.

I was in labor for 39 ½ hours.

The Kid graduated from a private college without student loans.

And, our child is a kind, compassionate, creative, productive member of society.

I tell you these things, Gentle Reader, not to brag, but so that you may look kindly upon me when I reveal to you what a hash I’ve made of mothering, time and again.

When The Kid was in elementary school, the Matthews Family Band made a day trip to Wrightsville Beach.  At one point, we decided it was time for something cold and refreshing.

Petey and I got sodas, and The Kid chose a snow cone.

That snow cone.

That damned snow cone.

Snow cones have never appealed to me, so I wasn’t familiar with their mechanics and practices.  Which partly, possibly, explains what happened next.

When I saw that it was melting and pooling in the bottom of the paper cone, I took it and ripped a hole in it so the fluid gathered at the bottom would dribble out.

The look on that child’s face would break a heart of stone.  Petey looked shocked and appalled, as well.

The Kid wailed, “Why did you do that?  You ruined it!”

It was at this point that I realized I had made a huge frozen faux pas.

It’s been twenty years, but Petey and The Kid love to talk about it to watch me squirm.  The episode is known as, “The Snow Cone.”

A couple of years earlier, The Kid had a cold with an earache.  My mother, who has multiple gold medals in the worrywart Olympics, kept urging me to take the patient to the doctor.  The Kid didn’t seem to be getting worse, wasn’t running a fever, so I demurred.

Turns out, it was such a bad infection, they at first thought it was flesh-eating bacteria that was working its way toward the brain. 

After a night in the hospital, the docs determined it was only a particularly nasty middle ear infection.  The earache lasted for months.

The last still stings the worst.

The Kid was driving down from college in Vermont for winter break.  We expected the arrival early afternoon.  I’d made plans for us to go out to lunch and do some Christmas shopping.

You should also know, I’m a light sleeper and Petey snores like a malfunctioning freight train, so I sleep with earplugs.

That morning, I was snug in my bed, and half asleep, I heard the dog bark downstairs.  I groggily figured Petey had come in from work, gone into the bathroom, and the dog was trying to hurry him along. 

I rolled over and went back to sleep.

It wasn’t Petey.

Petey woke me later.

“The Kid’s downstairs.”

I assumed he was joking, but our little scholar was home early, to surprise us, but without a house key.  The Kid had actually been home for a couple of hours.  So long, in fact, a trip to the local gas station had been necessary for coffee and the loo. 

My child had been trying and trying to get into the house and I’d slept through it.

As soon as I came downstairs, we went and had multiple keys made.

To this day, just thinking about it makes me feel like the absolute worst mother that ever mothered.

But again, The Kid is a marvelous human who only brings up these horrible, cringe-worthy, guilt-inducing episodes on the occasion of major screw-ups, the desire to tease, or a big favor is being sought.

But I have a trump card.  I just mumble, “Thirty-nine and a half hours.”

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.

Resolutionist History

Janus is the Roman god of beginnings, endings, doorways, and transitions.  He is also the god of duality, and as such he’s pictured as having two faces, so that he can look forward and backward at the same time.  January is named for him.

Rome is also where we get the custom of making New Year’s Resolutions.  This year around 50% of Americans will make their own vows of self-improvement.

Only 10% will keep them.

I’ve done a deep dive into history and discovered some of the resolutions that have been made throughout the ages.

Gaius Julius Caesar:

December 31, 45 BC-Life is great as dictator.  I really need to get around to meeting with Brutus, Casca, and his brother; they seem especially disgruntled.  But I’m so busy, let me check my schedule…Okay, morning of March 16th, I’ll have ‘em over for Portia’s famous hot cakes and we’ll get everything ironed out.

Catherine of Aragon:

December 31, 1525-I think maybe I’ll fire that new lady-in-waiting, Boleyn.  She’s snooty, she leaves a scandalous amount of her hair uncovered, and I don’t like the way Henry looks at her.

William Shakespeare:

December 31, 1584-I’ve got a good life here in Stratford.  I’ve land, a rich wife, and three kids.

So, I’m leaving it all.  I’m moving to London to act and write, even though my fellow Englishmen think theatre folk live in the cellar of the privy of polite society.

I might even write a couple of poems, too.

Marie Antoinette:

December 31, 1777-I’m going to have my hairdresser create a coiffure with a basket of kittens in it.  We’re going to make an alliance with those charming revolutionaries in the America’s so they may break free from the chains of the British.

And, I’m going gluten-free.  No bread, no cake, I’m not even going to talk about it anymore!

Abraham Lincoln:

December 31, 1864-I need a new look; I’m losing the beard and’ll rock a soul patch.  This whole Civil War thing has completely worn me out.  In 1865, I am not going out after work.  From now on, if Mary and I want to see a show, we’re just gonna stay in, Netflix and chill.

Lizzie Borden:

December 31, 1891-My stepmother is a butthead!  Nothing I do is ever right. I hate her…and my dad is just as bad!  He lets her be mean to me and says nothing.

This year, I have made up my mind.  I am moving out!  I’m getting my own place where I can live in peace and quiet.  I won’t bother anybody, and nobody’ll bother me.

Coco Chanel:

December 31, 1909-As much as I love music, I’ll never make a music hall star.  I can’t sing. 

I’m giving up show business and I’m going to a designer.  I’m going to open a boutique and transform fashion forever.

…I think I’ll start with some perfume, and maybe a little black dress.

 As you can see, even fabulous historical figures didn’t hit the bullseye with every resolution they resolved. 

I have resolved to burp the entire alphabet in one burp for double digits of new years.

And failed.

But, each year I give it another try.  And one of these years, I’ll do it.  And you’ll hear about it, too.  I’m calling a press conference.

My point is to do it and succeed, do it and fail, or think about it and then don’t even mess around with it.

My resolution, which I’ve been working on for about six months now, is to accept and nurture the gift that is my authentic self. 

So, Gentle Reader, in 2021, you do you.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.

Ring In The Holidays

I honestly thought it was a promise ring.  It wasn’t my fault though, the man gave me absolutely no direction.

I’d only known Petey three years, but I already knew he was the hedgiest of bet hedgers.  He avoids straight answers and declarative statements the way other people avoid bathing suit shopping and taking the last doughnut at work.

It was Christmastime, and we’d been dating almost a year.  We enjoyed each other’s company, understood each other, and were absolutely okay with that knowledge.

We hung out together almost always when we weren’t at work or school.  We ate a lot of Pizza Inn, Sonic, and walked around the tiny mall often.

There was a Belk’s on one end, a Roses on the other end, and twelve or fifteen smaller shops, including a Jewel Box.  As we glanced in the window and I saw a diamond ring, and said, “Buy me that!” It was a joke, like saying buy me a sparkly pink pony, or asking for a ride to work on the space shuttle.  We kept walking, and never mentioned it again.

These are actual 80s ski togs. You could be buried 100 feet in an avalanche and they’d still see you…

We’d begun thinking that for Christmas, we might go up to the mountains for some skiing. I’d bought him a ski parka for Christmas and had already given it to him.  As we were leaving my folks, he asked if I wanted mine. 

The three-year-old inside me was screaming and jumping up and down all over the place.  I calmly answered, “Sure if you want to give it to me now.”

And there, in my mom’s garage he put his hand in the pocket of his new jacket, pulled out a ring box and handed it to me—without opening it.  But his grin was huge and the sparkle in his eye could have lit the whole place.

I opened it.

It was that ring from the jewelry store at the mall. I was as flabbergasted as a possum presented with a spork.  Not only could I not speak, I also had no idea what the ring was for.  I’d had no inkling that marrying me had even entered his thoughts.

I couldn’t make my mind believe that it was an engagement ring, so without the power of speech to ask, and with nothing forthcoming from Petey, all I could come up with was a promise ring.

For the young and/or uninitiated, a promise ring represents the intention to become engaged sometime in the future of the future.  It was normally a tiny diamond chip surrounded by a collar of sparkly metal to fool the eye.

The ring didn’t fit, so we headed to the mall for it to be sized.

At the mall, we ran into a girl from school who worked at Belk Tyler’s.  I showed her the ring.  She was the one to finally ask the half carat solitaire, four-pronged question.

“What’s it for?”

Good question, Mary!  I looked at Petey.

His infuriating, enigmatic, response? “It’s for whatever she wants it to be for.”  Honestly, it was like I was going steady with the Oracle at Delphi!

I finally lost my patience.  We left Belk’s and walked over to the fountain in the center of the mall.  I sat down and said, “Look, I have a few ideas, but I want you to tell me what this ring is for right now!”

Men!

Still standing, Petey held the ring out to me, and said, “Debbie Ross, will you marry me?”

And we lived happily (mostly) ever after.

Thanks for your time, and from silent Petey, The Kid, and me, have the very happiest of holidays and an uninteresting but joyful 2021.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.

The First and Last Christmas

As soon as the geneticist introduced herself, I started to cry.

It was early December, and I was four months pregnant with The Kid.  It was our last childless Christmas, yet it really wasn’t; our new child was there, readying for a late spring debut.

We’d gone in for a routine ultrasound.  This was the second or third time, so Petey and I knew the drill.  I’d lay down on an exam table, the technician would cover my belly with goo and run a wand around it. 

But this time, the vibe was kind of off.  The tech was a bit quiet and didn’t chat about names, nurseries, and unexpected cravings like usual.

And, instead of saying goodbye and leaving while I cleaned up, she stayed, then took us from the sonogram lab to a consulting room when we were ready.

We knew something was up.  Petey was quiet, but I jabbered non-stop, wondering aloud if we were having twins, triplets, or even a basketball team.

When faced with scary situations, it’s what I do.  I become so ridiculously optimistic that it doesn’t verge on magical thinking, it is full-on abracadabra land.

Then the geneticist arrived. 

So, we knew it wasn’t good, and was potentially very bad.  I was nearing the end of my twenties—my eggs weren’t farm fresh.  I assumed whatever crisis we were facing was my fault.

We were informed that the images were troubling because the fetus had a short neck and a tail.  Every embryo has a bit of a vestigial tail, but it should disappear around eight weeks gestation.

We were fifteen weeks in.

She gently explained that this combination could signal Downs Syndrome.  The only way to know for sure was an amniocentesis, which came with its own risks.  It was our choice, but there was no question for me; I would not survive the next six months unless I knew, one way or the other.  If it was Downs, I needed time to mourn our expectations so that we could greet our baby with joy.

We had the procedure the same day and were told the results would take weeks, well beyond Christmas.

All the excitement and pleasure of being pregnant during the holidays instantly drained away.  I was furious at all the happy people I saw.  Didn’t they realize and appreciate what we were going through?  Couldn’t they sense our hollow hearts?

Petey had bought us a gorgeous Christmas tree for this unique holiday.  It remained on the back porch, undecorated, a cruel reminder of the jubilant anticipation which we had before that sonogram.

Petey had to work overnight Christmas Eve, so at his urging, I went to Elizabeth City.  I wanted to bury my face in my mom’s lap and cry until I was empty.

I’d forgotten the four-hour drive to get there, with nothing to keep me company except my terror and sadness.

Back home Christmas night, Petey and I strove to wring every measure of holiday happiness from our situation.  

We held close the fact that we were together and would face what came with love and courage.

Petey’s birthday is January 3rd, and that year he got the best gift ever when we found out everything was okay.  The Kid just had a short neck (like Mom & Dad), and the tail should reabsorb before birth (it did).Later in January, family threw us a baby shower in New Jersey, so we took a road trip.  The shower was terrific, and we loved our presents—all except for our parting gift; Norovirus.

But that’s a whole other story…

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Pastry Goddess Part 1

This week my Chatham News & Record column is a conversation with Julie Jengali, a whiz of a pastry chef and finalist on Food Network’s Chopped Sweets. Next week she returns with a holiday dessert recipe and tips to dress up your own holiday confections.

Thanks for your time.

The Ballad of Susan

When you’re a military kid, every house is temporary, usually only lived in for three years or so, then you pack up and move on.

We’d arrive in a new town with almost nothing; no house, no friends, no school, and aside from what we carried with us, no possessions. 

It would eventually become a pseudo-home, but it wasn’t a hometown, with history, extended family, and friends that you’ve known since diapers.

Living this nomadic life meant that our parents’ hometowns were designated “home”.

Granny and Pap-Pap’s house is gone, but here is where it stood in Pittsburgh.

Dad’s from Pittsburgh and on visits, we’d stay with his parents, Granny and Pap-Pap.  They lived in a house built right into a steep hill, so the kitchen and basement were on the same level, up the narrow, steep stairs, were the bedrooms and Pap Pap’s workroom, where there was a door which opened up right on to the backyard.

It was as if the house had sprung from of the slightly creepy, Byzantine imagination of Roald Dahl.    

My mom’s parents died years before she met my dad.

So, our home base in Jersey was at Mom’s oldest sister, my Aunt Polly and her husband Uncle Bill’s, our surrogate grandparents.  They had a huge yard, a damp, cool, slightly mysterious cellar that was under the house, and a kitchen cupboard dedicated to cookies, candy, and chips. 

When we lived on the east coast, we would often spend Christmas at both homes; a few days in one, six hours on a turnpike, then a few days in the other.

This particular year we spent the first portion of our trip in Jersey, so we were there when Santa came and opened our presents there.

One of my presents was a baby doll, but not just any old baby doll.  She was a Vogue doll, a well-made, beautiful baby with brown hair and bangs like mine, a soft body, and the sweetest expression.  Vogue dolls were the Rolls Royce of toy dolls; in today’s dollars, it cost about $100.  It was my main gift from the jolly fat man.

A couple of days later our family was in Pittsburgh. Once there, I was happily swilling my grandmother’s homemade grape juice, eating her potato bread, and following my older cousins Cookie and Gerry around like a Christmas puppy.

The first evening after dinner, my two-year-old brother Bud and I went upstairs to change into our pajamas.  I came downstairs, and my little brother hurried after, not wanting to be upstairs by himself. 

He took the first couple of steps, then lost his footing and tumbled down the rest of those treacherous stairs.  He landed in a heap at the bottom.  My mom, a world-renown worrywart and nervous mother was a writhing ball of frantic.

Luckily, the only injury was a busted lip.  They cleaned him up and settled in for a night of keeping Bud awake to watch for signs of concussion.

Then something rather curious happened.   

My bro had been wailing away, non-stop, ever since he fell.  When I came over to him, holding my fancy new doll, he suddenly stopped.  He was fascinated by her, and the only thing that kept him from hysterics was holding her.  I was persuaded to temporarily turn her over to calm him down.

I never got her back.

He named her Susan, shaved her head, and gave her a face tattoo with a magic marker.  She was his constant companion for years. 

To be honest, I don’t think Susan would have gotten from me anywhere near the love and devotion he showered upon her.

So, that injury-induced change of custody was probably for the best.

It is shocking how much this little guy looks like a toddler-aged Bud.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Thoughts While Watching TV On A Sunday Afternoon

Before I begin, there’s something you have to know, Gentle Reader, about my ever-loving spouse.

Petey watches television, especially movies, like no one I’ve ever met before.  Except for sporting events, he doesn’t schedule any viewing.  For my spouse, the only “Must See TV” is Duke versus anybody and all football. Lately though, because of pandemic-related issues, the pickings have been tragically slim. But he loves to watch it and has an uncanny ability to find televised contests.

This is some type of competitive…something.

Recently, I have walked in on him watching sheepdog trials from the Outer Hebrides, Mongolian wrestling, and flaming puck unicycle hockey from Saskatoon.  If there are scores recorded and folks yelling at the participants, he’s in.

I get the sports, though.  I have yelled at the screen during more than one episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and you don’t want to be in the same zip code with me when I’m watching Britain’s Best Baker (OMG, Paul Hollywood’s eyes!).

But it’s Petey’s viewing habits of non-sporting television that still puzzle me after almost forty years of marriage.

The man is constitutionally unable to watch a movie on TV all the way through.  We’ll be sitting on the couch together, watching a movie, it’ll go to a commercial, and ZAP! He changes the channel.  The new show will be on for a bit, long enough for me to get interested.  I’ll wonder, “What’s the deal with the shoes?” or “Who is the guy with the rusty soup ladle?”

And ZAP!

It normally takes 17-39 showings of a movie before I’ve seen the whole thing, and even then, it’s like watching a film made by a director who just heard about the concept of flashbacks and can’t stop using them.  It’s jigsaw-vision.

When I joined Petey on the sofa today he was watching an X-Men movie—but of course, not for long.  So, I thought I’d share with you the things running through my head during this entertainment tsunami.

This is the guy from the movie–Juggernaught. And what the heck with the name?

That mutant bad guy is wearing some sort of leather harness and what looks like a foam helmet.  How do these guys decide to wear this kind of thing?  And every single day?  Don’t they ever wake up and think, “It’s a snuggly sweater and boots day.”?  Or “I feel like a nice, bright Hawaiian shirt.”?

 And where do they procure these ridiculous getups? Do they make them themselves?  I can’t quite picture this dude squinting, trying to thread a needle… Do they have a guy?  Evil Mutant Uniforms Я Us?

Oh.

Alright…Wait, what?  Are they doing an interpretive dance in church? 

Oh.

OMG, I know he loves sports, but please don’t tell me this man is going to seriously watch a high school basketball game from 1978?  Is he really that desperate?  Good grief those shorts are short.  They look like they’re playing in bikini bottoms.

Oh.

 Oh look!  Ooh…It’s Robin Williams, I wonder what this is?   OMG!!!  Noooo!  It’s Hook!!!  Change it, for the love of all that’s holy, change it…

 Oh.

Sheesh.

It’s…a musical.  Rock of Ages?  So, musicals.  What is the actual deal? How is it supposed to work?  Somebody just bursts into song, and suddenly there are all these random passersby in coordinating outfits, dancing a choreographed number?  Is it all in the singer’s head?  Does that mean every musical is a look at someone’s descent into madness?  Oh, I forgot Tom Cruise is in this.  What misguided casting director ever thought this was a good call?

“Thanks, Petey, but are you sure you don’t want the remote?  Ok, I guess I could find something to watch…”

Hello boys.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom