Lily Tomlin, Ernestine, and Ma Bell: When Comedy Makes You Cry

My mother began her career with South Central Bell when she graduated high school.  She was a telephone operator.  She wore the headset; she sat at a switchboard with a room full of other women, and ah, the irony, for at least ten years she served as the central connection in a million different tenuous relationships. And because she could never quite figure out where she ended and I began, I absorbed the identity of switchboard operator seamlessly into my own self-concept by the age of two.  I was the only five-year-old who diligently walked the picket line whenever the union decided to strike.  Likewise, I was the only 13 year old in my 8th grade civics class who knew that AT&T was an abbreviation for “American Telephone and Telegraph,” who understood the term “divestiture” and could explain it with just the right amount of contempt in my voice, and the only one who knew that Ma Bell was a company not a person.  (Of course this was decades before the “Citizens’ United” case that informed us that corporations WERE actually people, but I digress…).  Hell, I even had telephone operating to thank for my very name. My extremely pregnant mother could not decide on a name for me; she put through a long distance phone call from a woman named “Emily,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Between the ages of five and ten, I spent countless hours wearing one of her old, discarded headsets, plunging pencils with strings attached to resemble wires into my own, home made switchboard.  And I pulled out all the stops: constantly in motion in my swivel chair, enormous wad of chewing gum smacked loudly, and the heavy mantle of responsibility cloaked around me as I connected and disconnected phone calls.  “Sir, you have a collect call from Robert Smith; will you accept the chawges?”  “NO?! What do you mean ‘NO!’?  He just survived his third tour in ‘Nam; he’s your only son, and  you have nothing to tell him?  Well, HUMPH!!! I never…Good day, sir; I SAID “GOOD DAY!”  “The number you are trying to reach has been disconnected or is no longer in service.  Please hang up and try your call again.”

More times than I can count, I sat, quiet as a church mouse (and “quiet” has NEVER been my strong suit!!) with my mother and her co-workers (best friends, chosen family,  confidants?  I am still uncertain of which term she might have most approved), and I LISTENED.  I listened to office gossip, and who was sleeping with whom, and why So-&-so’s sister was getting a divorce, and why Anon’s brother REALLY carried a purse and lived in San Francisco….

Becky & telephone co folk

I went to (and felt a genuine sense of belonging) at other folks’ family reunions, and I called her co-workers’ extended family members Nanny Ma, and Auntie, and Gpa.  This is rare picture of my mother with her friends (the guy in the white beard and red suit is NOT one of them and is a tad suspect…. Just sayin’!!)  I loved the smoke-filled break-room, with vending machine coffee and a sort of constant, round robin dialogue (Yes, I drank coffee at age two…your point?!)  I accepted the love these women and their families lavished on me, and didn’t really differentiate them from my actual “blood kin,” mostly because what my immediate family lavished on me was anything BUT love.  I had no idea that being a telephone operator could actually become EVEN MORE impressive….  And then I met Ernestine….

lily_tomlin_ernestine With her neat 1940’s hairdo, her sour puss expression, and her nasally voice demanding, ” Yeeeesssss, is this the pawty to whom I yam speaking?!” Lily Tomlin, in “Ernestine the Operator” disguise, made her way into my consciousness.

I was enraptured; I was elated; had I been a wee bit older, I would have recognized that I was in love!  Lily Tomlin quickly became my heroine extraordinaire.  From her appearances on  various comedy/variety shows, to cinematic classics like “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” and “9-to-5,” I knew, somewhere in the deep recesses of my child-mind, that Lily Tomlin (nee Ernestine) was “Home.”

Forty some-odd years later, in a theatre in Minneapolis, I would have the unbelievable, unreal experience of seeing Lily Tomlin in person.  I can’t remember what she said or if I laughed instead of standing stock still with my mouth open like I was trying to catch flies.  I do know that I am STILL shocked that the mere memory of holding a banana like a telephone receiver and doing my best 5 year old Ernestine impression can and did cause tears to spring to my eye.  I continue to puzzle over the complicated layers of grief and loss that my mother’s death heralded.  Women who had no children of their own, but always treated me like I was theirs-no different from the blood related nieces and nephews I grew up alongside; women who acknowledged (and then apparently “forgot”) the role my mother’s silence played in the horror that was my childhood; women who had the audacity to stand five feet from the freshly turned earth that would soon cover my mother’s casket and berate me for “abandoning” the person who had at least implicitly agreed, by virtue of giving birth, and then did an immediate about-face, that HER role was to PARENT me.  One person’s death bringing losses too numerous to even try to count….

And I cannot help but smile as I picture a sassy, gum-smacking five year old little girl wearing a headset, poking a pencil in a hole and saucily asking, “Is this the pawty to whom I yam speaking?!”  The best part of me taking comfort in the fact that I will forever truly be the child of “Ernestine” and “Ma Bell.”


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The Grandmothers Are Watching, Part 2

I had never known my Ninny to function in any role besides Grandmother, Boss, Giver of Orders, etc.  I know she did fill all sorts of roles throughout her life; I just hadn’t yet experienced any but these.  So when Grandmother ________announced, in a voice both quiet enough that you had to lean in to hear her and commanding enough that disobeying would never even cross your mind,  “Go sit yonder on the porch, Elva Lee.  He’p yourself to some sweet tea, and just go on and git comfortable, ’cause me and this brand new tiny ancient one have some bidness to take care of, and the bidness ain’t none of yourn.”  I just held my breath waiting for Ninny to give her the what for, and I could not BELIEVE when my Ninny, Supreme Ruler of my tiny world, meekly and quietly said, “Yes’m and Blessings Grandmother,” turned on her heels and walked to the front porch without so much as a single glance back in my direction!

When those huge dark eyes looked down at me, I had already figured out that if she could make my Ninny act like that, I best to do whatever it was she said, although I still met her somber gaze with all the solemnity my tiny body could muster, and we stood there for a moment or a lifetime, both of us refusing to be the first one to look away.  Finally, to my great surprise, she threw her head back and laughed, a deep, rich silken sound that played over my soul like sultry jazz, and when she saw the shock on my face she laughed even harder.  “Baby girl, I know you know me and I certainly know you; so let’s just cut right to the chase.  My entire body and soul is delighted to find you again, little one, and while our doin’s in this lifetime are just for a few hours, I could weep with gratitude to the universe for showing me that beautiful face at least once before I pass through the veil, and we have infinite lifetimes ahead of us so do not weep when I am gone, look for me in the stardust, and the Queen Anne’s Lace, and the arms of the Grandmother Oak.  Now come; we have much to attend to.”

I just stood there; stock still, unable to even breathe.  Every word she said ran through my body like electricity; I never once questioned the absolute truth in her words.  And while the me that had existed for millenia was as comfortable with her as I was in my own skin, in this life I was still a toddler, scared, in physical and emotional pain, and without a clue how to survive. I should have known better than to ever doubt; Grandmother _______ had an agenda and she was not about to be swayed for even a moment.  She picked me up and I settled in on her hip, resting my head on her shoulder

Behind the tiny house lay a narrow path of red Alabama dirt that seemed to meander into the forest without a care in the world.  And even though Grandmother ________ tread so lightly on the earth that she barely left a mark, we had been without rain for so long that even her steps still kicked up small swirling tornadoes of rust red dust. After minutes or lifetimes, the dark crowded forest we had entered gave way to a round clearing of green grass, plants and herbs of all varieties  grew in a little garden to the side (what Grandmother _______ called her “‘mergency stash.” ).  A small fire smoldered in a pit in the center of the clearing, and a small stone table that was ancient as the days rested off to the other side.  I don’t recall all of the things that happened next, which is fine because I would not feel at liberty to share them even if I did. I remember being placed gently on the stone table and feeling immense gratitude when the smooth, cool stone kissed the backs of my dimpled chubby little legs. I have vague memories of welcoming the Grandmothers of the Four Corners, and feeling for a confusing moment or two that the small but spacious clearing was suddenly filled to overflowing with an electric energy that could barely be contained. And I have a distinct, almost lustful, memory towards the end when Grandmother_______ handed me the metal dipper she had filled from the bucket of water she took from the stream nearby.  I had not been able to swallow ANYTHING in almost six weeks that did not feel like I was ingesting an entire set of Ginsu Knives, but this sweet, ice cold, full of iron and minerals and purity and life, water trickled down my throat like the Balm of Gilead.  My thrush was no more. The purpose had been served, and my suffering could cease.  I have one other crisp, almost photograph quality memory of that time in the woods. As we prepared to leave, I caught Grandmother______’s eyes one last time. She had just been returned to me, and somehow, I instinctively knew that this would also be the only instance in this lifetime that I would see her embodied and corporeal, walking the Earth, able to dance, and grieve, and rejoice, and live.  Her head gave a barely perceptible nod in my direction.  “This is how it works.  You have always known it to be true.  So look for me in the Queen Anne’s Lace, or maybe a Sunflower;  yes, that’s it, many years from now sweetest, look for me among the Sunflowers.”

Below is a brief bit of both the blessing and the curse that was revealed to me that long ago summer day.  This part is mine to share.  To believe or not lies completely with you.  I know my truth, and even at its most painful, attempt to wear it with dignity.

Grandmother _________ explained to me that day that I am what people throughout history and from all different cultures refer to as “a very old soul” (which never stopped anybody from reminding me that my soul might be old but my mouth wasn’t so if I didn’t want my butt busted I’d better shut my yap…. Still some work to do there….) However, old souls are not all that uncommon; still, we have been taught to ignore the concept as “so much new-age bullshit” as if the idea did not exist before we even thought to measure the passage of time or as if the concept was somehow ours to ignore should we so choose. The piece I am only now, forty some odd years later, regaining is that I, apparently, am a bit more than just “an old soul.”

The Cherokee Grandmothers (Our equivalent of Elders) have a special name for people like me. They call me a “Chronicler,” although the literal translation of the Cherokee word is “holder”, i.e., one tasked with the holding of memories: the history and the stories that most cannot bear to CONSCIOUSLY carry from one life to the next.

I was schooled extremely early and regularly on my duties (what the hell else do you do with a baby who talks at five months old, something that should be physically and developmentally impossible!? You take her to the nearest Grandmother). The lesson drilled into me on that day until it seemed (and remains) etched on my soul was this: “Your life WILL BE HARD.  Too bad. This talent you possess is a gift from The Grandmothers, rarely bestowed on anyone any longer. Bear it with the dignity of those that came before you and of those whom you have been before.  You will be tempted many times to share your gift, but beware, the endowment of a talent of this magnitude is strictly so that you will honor The Grandmothers by using it for only good.  Talk about this too much, too soon, or to the wrong person, and you WILL BE slaughtered without even the regard given to the butchered sow; it has occurred before; learn from your history and carry this gift and burden with pride.  Unless YOU chose otherwise, you CANNOT be broken.”

Those are the pieces that, for now, I am at liberty to share.  The rest, well…for those parts, the Grandmothers are watching…..

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The Grandmothers Keep Vigil (Part II will have to wait!)

I sat down to complete the second part of my last entry, “The Grandmothers Are Watching, Part I,” and yet the everyday occurrences and heart-wrenching tragedies of this past week demanded to be addressed.  So in Honor of our Grandmothers, please bear with me while I take a little detour….

What is justice?  In law school, we had a contracts professor who asked us EVERY SINGLE CLASS, “What is justice?”  Our answers varied from the philosophical to the Biblical to the downright ridiculous.  At the time I was only 22 years old, school had always been my safe harbor, and so I still clung tightly to the belief that for every question, there would be a correct answer. Another 22 years would go by before I finally began to consciously accept what I think I had known all along: “What is justice?” is a question without an answer.  As individuals, we have a finite amount of insight and a finite lifespan, so the full tapestry is not one that we are able to access.  An action that might appear unjust, might actually be the very epitome of justice, we just may not be able to see it at the time. (Now was our contracts teacher trying to teach us this important life lesson?  Naw, I think he just had a good time f#%&ing with us!).

And now, one week after my 46th birthday I am again fruitlessly pondering the question, “What is justice?”  Why has this question come hurtling back to me with astronomical power?  Because of the pictures that will not leave my mind:

Pictures of me, for the first time in twenty years, having a large birthday celebration in a nice restaurant surrounded by  15-20 people (friends and family-biological and chosen).  And my beautiful children-both rapidly becoming young men-are there laughing, talking easily, obviously feeling safe.

 In picture number two,  dinner has ended, and eight of us, leave the restaurant, laughing, feeling silly and happy; we walk a block and a half through downtown Minneapolis to  First Avenue (a legendary music venue not just a street-think Prince, Purple Rain, etc.).The Violent Femmes, that alternative-punk-category-unto-themselves band from the 1980’s, completely rocked the house, and we danced, and laughed, and screamed like we were 15 again.  We closed the place down, exhausted and rejuvenated, and danced out into the steamy, summer Minnesota night.  We said our goodbyes to some, and the few of us left walked across the street to a ridiculously expensive hotel where we drank wine and parted ways.  Then, as I do in any hotel room, whether priced for a pauper or a King, I slept the sleep of the innocent and the angelic.

 And while I am eating, laughing and dancing, Philando Castile  is bleeding out, his life blood forever altering his car’s interior, the car no one was allowed to smoke in now redolent with the scent of gunpowder.

I know what it is to see another human being shot.  The smell of gun powder overpowers at first, but the tangy, too sweet taste of the residue will stay in your mouth for days

And as I move to th rhythm of this band from my youth, recalling the few positive memories that remain from my adolescence, she is live streaming the murder of her beloved, calm in her trauma and shock, no doubt fearing for her own life and the life of her child who was in the backseat.

And as my children are safe in the home that has sheltered them their entire young lives, cared for by their Auntie, a 4-year-old  baby girl sits in the back of a police care, her father figure murdered before her eyes, her mother now handcuffed and hysterical.  And the baby girl gently strokes her mother and coos softly, “Mommy; its okay; I’m here.  I’m here.”

And how can those two vastly different worlds exist simultaneously no more that 15 miles apart?  Where is the justice there?  Do we even know what justice is?  I’m fairly certain that we do not; but I am equally certain that we can recognize what is unjust.

I cannot dance when my brothers and sisters of color (Black, Indian, Hispanic,  Latino, African or of Middle Eastern descent) are literally coloring our streets with the blood from their black and brown bodies.

I speak now as the Cherokee Grandmother I am learning to become:  “Our sacrifices have been too many for too long.  No more will you traumatize a 4-year-old baby and rob her of her innocence for ever.

My innocence was already gone by then.  By age 4 I knew I had no power to reach my mother, to comfort, or to protect her.  However, I also knew that I HAD POWER; if only I could find it.”  And then there it was, so obvious I couldn’t believe I had ever missed it: the POWER of my Grandmothers, gifted to me in the only way left to them, the spilling of their ancestral blood soaked in the Alabama clay, already such a magnificent red.

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The Grandmothers Are Watching, Part 1

I was maybe two years old when it happened.  My voice disappeared.  I began talking when I was five months old; by age two, I had no idea how to communicate without the words I loved so much.  I loved their sometimes silken sometimes sand papery feel as they rolled off my tongue.  I loved the way my voice sounded in my own ears.  I even loved the frustration of trying to read the next day’s word on “The Electric Company” although I would need another year or so until I could puzzle out how reading worked.

But now, now I was voiceless.  I had thrush: a yeast infection in the throat.  I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t drink; I couldn’t swallow, but worst of all, I could not talk.  Back and forth to the pediatrician my mother dragged me. Angry at the inconvenience; perhaps angrier that she was commanded to handle this chore when no other room for her seemed to exist in my upbringing.  And so as usual our trip would begin with a  grip on my arm that would leave finger marks for days because I was a bother, an inconvenience, a disruption.  I have vivid memories of the stifling August weather; everyone wondering when the weather would break and the rain would come.  The gardens withering, and all the men fretting over Winston’s between Sunday school and preaching. And except for church on Sundays, my wardrobe consisted entirely of those little one-piece jumpsuits (I think they were called “rompers”) that tied at the shoulders and had elastic around the legs so you ended up looking like a little walking bubble, but at least you were cool.  I couldn’t figure out how nobody that summer noticed the finger shaped bruises she didn’t even bother to try and hide.  Not one doctor or nurse or even the receptionist; no family member, neighbor, or babysitter.  Maybe they were just distracted by how severe my thrush was or with why it just would not go away.  Or maybe it wasn’t the kind of thing people mentioned; like when she put beer in my bottle, so I would sleep and she could go out with her friends.

Whatever the reason, I was already tough enough to withstand a couple of bruises.  What I couldn’t stand much longer was the absolute misery the thrush was causing, as well as the trips back and forth to the doctor’s office for one more nasty tasting medicine that would have no effect. As we were gearing up for trip number seven (my mother swearing under her breath and flinging her keys and purse around for punctuation while I wept very quietly in the corner-trip number 6 had dislocated my shoulder as well as left a bruise and I was NOT going through that again), my Ninny had decided on a different plan.  No more doctors; she was taking me to see the Cherokee healer who lived up on the mountain.  And for all our peoples’ experiences, from genocide to oppression and marginalization to never ending pressure to assimilate, functioning in a matrilineal society is encoded still in our Cherokee DNA, so when a Grandmother says “jump,”ain’t no hesitation on anybody’s part; EVERYBODY just pipes up with, “Yes ma’am, how high?!”

Well, my Ninny had called “Jump,” and my mother meekly obeyed, even as the resentment flowed off her in waves.  “Go on and git in the car, babydoll, Ninny’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”  Unlike my mother, I never meekly obeyed anybody about anything.  I sat on the rock front porch steps, far enough away that I couldn’t hear their exact words, but close enough to hear the fury in my Ninny’s voice, and the dead silence from my mother.  Not really scared, but smart enough not to push my luck, I scurried to the car before Ninny could catch me eavesdropping.  I already knew which side my bread was buttered on, even if I couldn’t eat it!

My Ninny didn’t exactly live in a booming metropolis (Walnut Grove, Alabama, population 500), and “town” was an hour’s drive in  either direction, but where we were headed was not even located on any map.  We wound our way around curvy country roads, as sporadic houses and mobile homes gave way to miles of cow pastures and then darkening forests of oak and pine.  I fell into a restless sleep as we continued to climb the mountain; the sound of the wheels a soothing musical accompaniment to Ninny’s quiet singing, “On a hill far away; stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffrin’ and shame….”

I awoke to find us parked at the beginning of a long dirt driveway that twisted and turned and disappeared into the woods.  “Grandmother_________ don’t like nobody driving on her driveway and stirrin’ up the dusts, so we just gone walk from here.  Always respect your Grandmothers, most ‘specially when they’s healerwomen.”  I solemnly nodded as if I had a clue what she might be talking about, and began the two mile hike to Grandmother _________’s  on my tiny little toddler legs.  A million questions were whirling through my mind, unable to be expressed aloud:  “Who is _______?  How did she get to be the healer lady?  Why do I gotta call her Grandmother?  Is it cause she’s some Indian like me?  But how does Ninny know her, cause Ninny ain’t even got no Indian in her?  What’s she gone do to me?  Will it hurt?  Will she give me yucky stuff to drink that makes me gag, cause I hate gagging!?”


Suddenly, we rounded a bend and the land opened up in all directions.  A small one room cabin with a perfectly proportional front porch lay just ahead.  In a rocking chair on the front porch sat a tiny woman wrapped in a wool blanket even in the stifling August heat.  While Ninny’s long hair was piled on top of her head and was still black as ebony, no hint of the silver to come, the lady’s hair was a smoky gray and hung around her shoulders and down the back of the chair as if decorating royalty.  A large black pot simmered over a fire at the side of the house, and the cacophony of herbs, flowers, and vegetables grew all around the house as if they were active members of the family.

The lady on the porch rose slowly, gracefully, the way I imagine one of my favorite mountains might look if it ever decided it wanted to take a stroll.  I grasped Ninny’s hand, and while my body tried to disappear behind the safe wall of Ninny’s soft roundness, my curious self won out as usual, and I peek my tiny face out and meet Grandmother________  huge brown eyes to huge brown eyes.  While her face could be carved from stone for all of the emotion that shows there, I am lost in her eyes, completely at home among the sunshine honeysuckle cool oak tree and magnolia breezy whisper of wind caressing my cheek from afar.  And I feel her see my soul and sink into me like she has finally found home, and I know we have known each other almost forever.  I let go of Ninny’s hand and run as fast as my tiny, exhausted legs can go to wrap my arms around this soul I did not even know I had missed so terribly.  I don’t know if her expression changed because I was no longer seeing her with my eyes but with my soul.  I do know that her entire body smiled, though, as she folded me into her familiar arms that had been home to me for lifetimes.




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Who Picks Up the Check at The Death Cafe

A little while back , I spent the evening at a “Death Cafe.”  For those unfamiliar with this strangely (?) named event that has apparently become all the rage in the last few years, I will briefly explain.  This is what I imagined: a few grief-crippled strangers huddled together drinking black coffee in a 1950’s diner with shiny black vinyl booths; a jukebox cranking out Death’s top playlist: Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, and Patsy Cline; and an ageless waitress, in her black uniform and white nursing shoes, leaning against the front counter with the weight of three worlds resting on her shoulders, her half-remembered cigarette dangling from the corner of her cherry-red lipstick-laden mouth, her stare at once both vacant and intense, as if by sheer concentration she could will herself somewhere else, anywhere else.

What I found was quite different: Almost sixty individuals gathered in one room (The minister who facilitated this event apparently expected no more than 20 participants.  Ha! Grief wins again!); people of all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds, and beliefs; each of us there for our own individual reasons-asking questions, questioning “answers,” reliving wounds as old as time and as fresh as the morning dew, seeking to hear and be heard, yearning for connection, trying so desperately to fill that empty place inside of us, the vulnerable, wounded place that we guard with our very lives, often robbing ourselves of the very intimacy we seek.

Death seems to do that, though.  “The Great Equalizer.”  The one single thing that we all have in common, that we avoid, dodge, euphemize to tears, and go to the ends of the earth to simply ignore.  So I sat in the “Death Cafe” listening as other’s gave voice to experiences and emotions that were intimately my own, yet as distinctly different from one another as human finger prints.  Eventually I spoke, and although I cannot seem to recall anything that I said, I do remember the nodding heads and looks of shell-shocked recognition that surrounded me.

I would love to say that, at the end of the evening, I deposited my grief, raw and bloody, on the counter of the “Death Cafe,” to later be tossed into the trash bin with the rest of the evenings messy leavings, while I enjoyed a leisurely moonlit walk home.  And as I am sure you have already surmised, that was not what happened at all.  Instead, I strode out into the crisp night; the stone of grief on my chest a little less heavy; the weary ache of loneliness carved in my soul a tad less painful after an evening of connection, yet still, grief strolled along beside me, matching me step for step, as if to reassure me that she would continue, forever and always, my constant companion.


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“Wade in the Water, Children”: On Grieving, Surviving, and Drowning

I love the ocean more than just about any place else on earth.  The sand, the smell of salt and tropical flowers, the rhythmic movement of the waves, the humidity, and the blazing sun kissing your cheeks; I love it all. And yet this memory keeps looping through my mind.  The year is 1974 or 1975, and we have taken a family vacation to Panama City Beach, Florida.  We drive for at least a million years, but finally, we arrive.  The hotel room is cheap and smells like stale cigarette smoke and dank air-conditioning.  I stand with my nose smashed against the big double window, awestruck, overwhelmed at the majesty, the eternity of crystal clear bluish-green water that stretches so far it touches the sky!!! The adults are “getting ready” and “resting a minute (HOURS!!)” and “Who wants lunch?” and “Let me smoke one more cigarette” until I have paced a trail into the brownish-green shag carpet directly beneath the window and my patience has worn quite thin.  I HAVE to get out there, like NOW!!  I’ve had my bathing suit on for hours and I don’t even care if my tummy sticks out or what mean things Daddy says about my body; I just need to go.  I need to immerse myself in her, be surrounded by her, let her gently bear my weight for a while.

Of course, no one has bothered to do anything about my hair, thick and hot and tangled, a veritable bird’s nest of chestnut brown locks that reach all the way to the backs of my thighs.  “We cain’t go anywhere ’til you git over here and let me get that rat’s nest outta your head,” my mother proclaims, pounding the aqua handled, black bristled brush against her leg; her voice like the grating of metal on metal.  I assume the position:  sitting like a stone at her feet while she tugs and pulls and swears.  “OWWWWW!!”  I cry involuntarily, as she has just brushed not only my hair but the whole right side of my face, including my ear.  I grimace and hold my breath to see what will come next: will she go with the menacing warning, “Move ONE MORE MUSCLE and I will whack you so hard with this brush it will knock you into the middle of next week,” or will she go for the direct hit hard plastic handle hitting the back of my head hard enough to rock me forward and let me see those silly little stars like they show on cartoons? The direct hit it is, and I can barely tolerate the brush on my scalp after that, but I do not cry.  I don’t whimper, or gasp, or even sniffle; I know better.  Finally my hair has been parted straight enough to satisfy her, she puts each side in a pigtail and turns them into two buns on top of my head.  As I am sure you have guessed by now, she is as bad with the bobby pins as she is with a brush.  Five to ten gouges later, I move from pain to elation as we head out the door, inch hurriedly across the paved black parking lot with that peculiar high step move reserved for Southern kids on summer days who have to walk barefoot on pavement.  Why would it ever cross anyone’s mind that a pair of flip-flops for the child might come in handy?  At that moment, though, I could not care less; we are bound for the white sandy beach and  the precious salt water that it surrounds.

I’ll never be able to ask her just how the next series of events could have occurred.  It would be another year before I would take swimming lessons.  I was TERRIFIED of swimming pools (likely because my father found it the funniest of “pranks” to see just how long he could hold my head under the water before I would stop struggling.  And there is a fine line between the end of the struggling and being drowned, probably always will be).  I have since parented two children who were already swimming with reasonable skill by the time each of them was four and not for a second would I allow either of them near the ocean without having them firmly in my grasp.  Nevertheless, there I am, running fearlessly toward the water like Debra Winger in the final scene of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” as the two adults argue over where to put the blanket.  This beautiful Mother Ocean does not scare me; she beckons hypnotically, “Come child and I will wrap you in my soft embrace.”

The frothy, cold water hits my toes, and I cannot get my entire body in the water fast enough.  For one brief moment we are one entity; I am surrounded, enveloped, caressed in my new found aquatic paradise.  And yet the inevitable must occur (being, after all, inevitable).  I lose my footing as a wave crashes into me and knocks me to the sandy floor.  I struggle for what seems like hours to regain my footing, to return to that brief moment of connection to myself and the Earth around me, that blissful relieving instant that I can only imagine must be the same feeling a newborn feels when her tears are disrupted by the soft shushing of a mother’s words and heartbeat, cradling her close to her chest, relieving that horrible aching aloneness the baby had experienced just moments before.  Instead the waves, no longer gentle, continue to relentlessly pound me down as I struggle to stand, the salt water filling my eyes and nose and mouth make breathing impossible and render me visionless as well.  Until finally, I can no longer fight.  I do not try to stand up, or breathe, or even move.  The moment is lost; the fighting too much, and I let myself go limp.

I do not know the older man (probably all of forty at the time) whose strong hands grasp my body wherever they can find a place and jerk me above the water, and not having any idea how small I was, practically over his head as if a bizarre weight-lifting competition has begun or he is about to make a sacrifice to the Powers that be. After quickly checking the propriety of his hand placement, he carries me, still coughing and gagging, up onto the shore.  He deposits me abruptly onto the sand and heads off to wherever he was intending to go when I had the audacity to inconvenience him.

Finally, the adults have come to a loose cease-fire regarding the logistical positioning of blanket and cooler, and it occurs to one or the other of them that they have not heard a peep from me in a while.  He spots me on the sand a little ways away, my head buried in my knees as I continue to try to catch my breath.  His hands are just as strong as the ones that saved me, but with long slender fingers that identify him immediately as a musician.  Yet there is no gentleness in the hand that roughly wraps around my upper arm, yanking me first to me feet, and then, unable to stop the momentum, around and back down to the sand again.  “Stand up now,” he hisses, “if people weren’t staring, I’d bust your ass right here for wandering off.  You better thank your lucky stars you hadn’t gone any farther than you did!”

Until this moment, I have not shed a single tear or hiccuped even one small sob.  Yet the fleeting cruel clarity with which I realize that I have touched death’s door, and no one has even noticed or cared except for a passing stranger, whips through my body like lightning, and I bite my lip hard enough to draw blood just to contain the scream of terror that is longing to usher forth, but which would only mean worse things to come.

Only forty years later will I recall those feelings: the cruel mixture of love, warmth, tenderness, strangling, choking, battering, drowning.  They have become a visceral memory I hold within.  Little did I even imagine that grieving the death of my mother would squeeze me in that same powerful vise.  And that there is still a very fine line between the end of the struggling and being drowned.

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When A Long Strange Trip Is Ended: Navigating Life With Grief As A Constant Companion

A Friday afternoon in Spring, no different than any other really, except for the new presence in my life; it follows me like the shadow of myself that stretches behind me on the sidewalk-attached, but nebulous; a version of myself , but distorted, distracted; inanimate, but alive in ways I never even knew were possible.  That presence is Grief, occasionally quieted, but never soothed.  Grief is the trickster that turns me inside out, then innocently inquires about my  unhappiness (“Why isn’t a pretty girl like you smiling?”).  Grief is the movie review that forgets to warn you with a spoiler alert before you begin reading the article.

A quick trip into the drugstore to pick up a prescription sparks an hours long episode of simmering, silent rage because I could not physically reach the pharmacy in the back of the store without first being accosted by the ENORMOUS display of Mother’s Day paraphernalia.   Because I cannot seem to resist being an active participant in my own torment, I stroll down the Hallmark aisle slowly, deliberately. Just as I suspected, there is no card stating, “Thanks, Mom  This whole death thing has added yet another complex layer to our always complicated relationship.  Mother’s Day Greetings from that person whose existence just complicated yours and about whom you could never settle on a consistent feeling.  Some people call us daughters.”

And as quickly as it arrived, the rage is gone, replaced by the sucking, swirling, vertigo of emptiness, blacker than an Alabama midnight, stickier than hot tar, but never enough that I can just disappear.  I long for the nothingness; ache to be swallowed whole by the universe, to find some way to cancel out my very existence.

Except of course when all I want is to connect, to be seen, cherished, held. Of course this quickly morphs back to anger and isolation, screaming silently to myself, “I don’t need your fucking pity.  I’ll be just fine on my own.  I don’t need anything from anybody….”

What I do need is invincibility, Superpowers.  I funnel my pain (not that I actually have any pain, remember) into an aching need to heal the sorrow of grieving friends.  Helpless in the face of my own loss; I delude myself with the belief that I have the power to be that healing balm for someone else, only to be slapped with the  reality that I would never want to rob someone that I genuinely love from living her own process.  (Never mind the glaringly obvious immutable fact that I have no such power in the first place).

I slip from wounded, gaping need imperceptibly sideways into the normalcy of Saturday afternoon.  Children play.  Dogs bark. The television a sort of mumbling background music to it all.  Content to be here in this moment; aware that the next one will bring a kaleidoscope of emotion I have not yet begun to imagine.  Maybe the Long, Strange Trip doesn’t actually end.  I smile and hear Janis Joplin’s scratchy, melodic voice dance with laughter as she reminds me of a simple mind-blowing truth: “Its all the same f*uckin’ day, Man.”

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