Anatomy: Part II

The second in a continuing series of potentially awkward anatomical conversations while driving.

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She was about five when my cut-and-dried eldest asked, “Mom, whose body has more parts, boys or girls?”

As usual, I wondered just where this was going.  She could easily be wondering about ponytails and accessory nipples, right?  Or, she could be talking about who wears more jewelry or generally has more piercings?  Fingers crossed…”What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know, you have a nose, two eyes, two ears…parts,” she replied, verbally rolling her eyes.  I took a quick glance in the rear view mirror and confirmed that the eye-roll was more than just verbal.

“Oh, are you wondering about potty parts?” I asked, once again chastising myself for adopting this non-progressive naming convention.  She nodded, giving me a look usually seen when I attempted to explain something painfully obvious to Jimmy.  I needed to adjust that rear view mirror.   “OK, how about I get a book that has drawings of all of the body parts, boys and girls, with labels and diagrams?”  I asked.

Jan 2008 037

She’s shown a preference for dense, medical texts from a surprisingly early age.

My practical, level-headed eldest replied, “Oh, yes, that would be very helpful.  Thank you,” and returned to her drawing.  Lucky for me, such a nicely line-drawn book of Just The Facts does in fact exist and was quickly reserved at the library.  A couple of days later, attempting to sensitively and privately go through said book, she caught sight of her 3 year old sister down the hall.  Despite my admonitions to keep this “just between us,” the book was clearly too good not to share.  “Hey, get in here!  You love this kind of stuff!” she hollered.

So, yeah, we own our own copy now.

 

They say you can’t go back

The following is written as a birthday gift to my dear friend, Sara (Juni) Vacek.  She hates this picture, but it’s one of my favorites.

Sara

Sara, future biologist for the DNR, honing her craft summer of 1997

Earlier this month I was, happily, forced to examine the question:  Can you go back?  It all began when my college friend, Sara, arrived on the train from St. Paul.  As I pulled up to the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, my palms were  quite sweaty.

Milwaukee Intermodal

Milwaukee Intermodal Station looking far more photogenic than I’ve ever seen in real life.

Sara and I had been thoroughly and completely besotted with each other those last few years at Lawrence University, and while we’ve stayed in touch, neither of us could claim that our friendship is a day-to-day reality anymore.  While we have spent time together in the 20 years since graduation, it has not been nearly enough.  Further and perhaps more importantly, we haven’t actually been alone together for any length of time in that past 20 years!

I know in my heart of hearts that my best girlfriends are those for which time and separation aren’t an impediment.  Still–a whole week just the two of us?  What if our ease of rapport had vanished?  This could have the potential for disaster writ in the form of awkward silences.

Ang Sara 98

Ang & Sara joined at the hip, c. 1998

Question #1:  Can you really go back to an intense friendship, set down for a time?

 

The first five minutes were, at least for me, a little bit awkward.  Fortunately, however, I guess that enough of each of us is still the same that the skills, attitudes, and knack of the friendship resurfaced in no time.  Fortunately for us, in the case of a true friendship, not based on selfish need, you can go back.  The silences were the comfortable kind, not awkward at all.  I was in charge of guest relations, Sara was in charge of explaining the world to me.  We did a jigsaw puzzle.  We listened to the sound of each other’s breathing at night–and then put in earplugs.  It was all good.

I’m trying to find some tangible reasons for why this was so–why we were so quickly able to revert to old comforts and patterns?  I think that partly it was due to the fact that our friendship was forged during a time of deep intensity, the fires of young adult optimism and exuberance.  My clan of this type of friends almost all share that in common–solidifying under the stress of a time of high emotion.  New motherhood, residency, education, death.  And the other bit?  It’s the mysterious question of how two people are cut to fit eachother, despite coming from a different bolt of cloth.  I don’t know.  If you figure out the magic formula, please let me know, because making friends as an adult is tough!

Great Friends

Perfect platitude for the occasion

Answer #1:  If it’s the right friendship, you can go back and just pick up where you left off.  

 

Sara came to town so that we could spend time taking a seminar at Bjorklunden, a halcyon place in Door County (more on this later).  On the three hour drive up north,we made a detour through our college town, Appleton, Wisconsin and wandered a bit around campus.  It was a Sunday, relatively early, so the student community was just starting to come to life.  We made a loop, littered it with remembrances and recognitions, grabbed a bite to eat and were on our way.

LawrenceUniversity-MapSM

Oh, you need a map you say????

Question #2:  Can you ever go back to a an important place in your past, like college?

 

LU 94

My version of Lawrence University, fall 1994.  

We pulled up to campus and parked in a visitor’s space.  As we walked around, actual memories mingled with anxiety dreams that featured Lawrence.  (My favorite is that I’m walking into my dorm and realize that I haven’t checked my mail for the entire term and don’t know my mailbox code.   These are the things that really eat at my subconscious, apparently.  Also the dream where I forgot to put on a top.)  The buildings were the same for the most part, as was the landscaping and, believe it or not, the smell of the place–some combination of fall mulch and youthful vigor.  But the actual life of the place?  The young adults wandering the campus?  Cut from a different cloth entirely.  Here’s a brief highlighting of some of the key differences we observed:

  • I didn’t notice any piles of forlorn Ice House cans outside of any of the buildings on the quad.  This is due, likely, to the fact that at this moment, only one of the houses around the quadrangle is occupied by a fraternity.  Other occupants include a house dedicated to the theme of swing dancing and another, Gaming.  This fact is thus far the only piece of Lawrence that has struck any sort of a chord of familiarity with my Big 10 -worshiping spouse.
  • The student union is a new glassy building dedicated to the memory of Rik Warch.  He was President during Sara and my tenure and, in fact, 25 years of Lawrence’s 200+ year history.  His figure looms large in our and many’s memory.  He had a way of making my awkward, 22-year-old self feel important and worthwhile.  And he was so. damn. smart.
    Rik Warch

    Rik Warch-Lawrence University president 1979-2004

    I imagine that for most current students, it’s mostly the oversized oil painting of the man in ceremonial garb that looms large.  Hey kids!  Why aren’t you talking about Rik?

  • Inside said Union, we stopped at the cafe for a quick bite.  While Mozzie Sticks are, in fact, still on the menu, there is no aggressive middle aged townie screaming out their readiness to waiting customers.  Instead, a sedate backlit sign displays orders that are ready.
  • Menu items included a variety of associated icons, and the tables displayed their key.  Among the 20 or so icons were the usual vegan, lactose free, gluten free.  They also, if memory serves, included commentary on the grazing experience of sourced pigs, type of music played for the dairy producing cows, and whether or not fisherpeople sang shanties during their voyages.  But as Sara so patiently explained, it’s so that these mysterious millennials can curate every decision and action in their lives.  Not a bad thing, probably a good thing, just different.
  • Finally, one difference that’s almost a similarity.  We were confused to find that a former small cafeteria space in Colman Hall had been converted into large apartment-style places for 18 students to live, with the unifying factor being that they prepare their own three squares a day.  Two of Sara’s collegiate causes were represented therein:  The environmental group Greenfire maintained the space and students who transferred their board their to dine with the group were members of the McCarthy House Co-op.  We begged a peek inside.  They were her people, but man alive was that space a lot neater than I remember the former Co-Op House, sprawled unceremoniously behind the Chapel.

    LU tree

    Best maple ever, c. 1997

  • The heartbrakingly gorgeous maple between the library and the art center is gone, gone, gone.  Sigh.

Answer #2:  So, in the case of college, nope you can’t go back.  

Lawrence the Place is still the same, but it’s just not ours anymore.  What an interesting characteristic of colleges and universities.  The students who pass through them fiercely lay claim to the institution, but really they are laying claim to the memory of their brief four years of the place.

Reflecting on this made it so apparent to me how difficult it must be for alumni directors of any short-term type place to create a sense of unity across decades of alumni.  Maybe that’s why there’s so much clinging to landmarks and mascots and, at some larger places, teams.  They are truly the few constants across time.  And almost everyone’s four years are completely separated in time, with very little overlap.  It’s almost like the question of how your body can really still be your body despite the fact that the individual cells that constitute it are continually dying and being replaced, (except for the central nervous system and, interestingly, lens of the eye).  So, the place was still our Lawrence University, but completely different;  it is a the same body, but made up of almost completely new parts.

So, for these two examples, the answer to “Can you go back?” is different.  But what of Bjorklunden and other such places?

 

If this entry left you reminiscent for those years at Lawrence, or Lawrence in general, check out a recent podcast put together by 2 students in 2016 on the mysterious disappearance of The Rock.  In it, people of my vintage are referred to as “somewhat old alums.”

First Date

Author’s note:  I kept trying to write this story, and there’s too many little detours that need to be mentioned.  So, I’m just going to write it as I’d tell it.  During the asides you have to imagine me holding up one hand, frozen, as if sustaining the main thread of the story, while the other hand provides colorful gestures.  Trust me it works and people love it.  I think.

 

I took the girls out to dinner the other night.  It was early, so the restaurant hadn’t really filled up yet.  We were seated in the back room, empty save for only one other family with kids;  we were in “kid wasteland.”  The other family consisted of what were clearly a new mother, her mom, and her babies.  They were tiny and new, curled up sleeping against the women’s as they quickly, anxiously finished a one-handed dinner.  Clearly this was a first “time out with the baby” experience, which they confirmed.  I was  immediately taken back;  except for the fact that there were two babies instead of one, it might as well have been me and my mom with a relatively new Natalie.

Aside 1:  The girls wondered how I knew that they were twins.  I pointed out that unless the grandmother had simultaneously had a baby (she heard that and guffawed) or that the family’s baby had already made a best friend of the same age, the best bet were that these babies OF THE SAME AGE UNDER THE CARE OF THE SAME PEOPLE were, in fact, twins.  I hear that parents of twins get asked stupid questions all the time.  “Are they twins?” is merely a variant of my 7 and 11-year-olds’ question.  Another favorite has to be when parents of a boy/girl twin pairing are asked if they’re identical.

 

. . . I would imagine that Natalie was quite a bit older than these little ones, maybe closer to a month, when we had or first date.  It took me quite some time to rally to the idea of actually facing the terrors of dining out with an infant.  That’s a realistic concern. However, heaping helping of postpartum depression added to my hermetic state.  Luckily, my mother is a professional “propper up of people,” and she spurred me on to a lunch at the nearest sit-down place:  On The Border.

Aside 2:  Natalie was born in Arizona in June.  This was fortunate for me, as my mother was still teaching school and could stay indefinitely over the summer break.  Lucky for me she did, as I really am not sure how else we would have survived.  Two of my most vivid memories of the time were staring out this one particular window, and setting a daily goal of emptying the dishwasher.  Postpartum depression is no joke, and my mom’s a winner.

DSC_0194

Mom and baby Natalie.  Note the St. Norbert College shirt;  I think she probably missed a lot of Pat’s stuff that summer.  Sorry about that one, Pat.

 

. . . On the Border is a chain Mexican restaurant, with the attendant loud decor and music.  It was the perfect place in which the cries of a baby would be lost in the shuffle.  I don’t remember what I ate, just the overwhelming desire to get to the part where they bring us the check!  My diaper bag bulged with enough supplies to sustain us for up to a month;  we never needed them.  She slept in her little carrier the entire time.  Thank you, On the Border!

Aside 3:  There are no On the Border restaurants in the immediate Milwaukee area, however there’s a strip joint a little ways off that bears the same name.  You really couldn’t mistake the two.  The different approaches to signage alone make this impossible (busty lady vs. cactus and lime).  Despite this, one of Jimmy’s coworkers once took her sister to the wrong On the Border for lunch.  Interestingly, they weren’t put off by the sign, the fact that all the cars were parked around back, the lack of windows, or the darkness of the entryway.  It wasn’t until they were asked to pay their cover that things finally clicked.  An honest mistake, I guess…

Image result for on the border

This is a family blog.  No comparison sign will be posted!

 

. . . The memory so fresh and real, I asked if the girls and I could come over and look at the babies.  They were sweet and gorgeous, and their mother really looked fabulous.  Before I even realized that the words were there, I was asking if they’d had to spend time in the NICU?  Luckily the mother provided me with an out, replying that “yes, they’re pretty small aren’t they.”

Aside 4:  Despite truly being small, they really just had that slightly NICU-ish look about them.   I have a problem digressing medical, as I have all of this information in my head rattling around that’s not being used any more.

 

. . . The mom and grandma didn’t seem taken aback, though, and my girls hovered over them making all the appropriate cooing noises.

Aside 5:  My medical colleagues can attest to the fact that any babies that spend more than a brief time in the NICU tend to take on a characteristic look.  Part of it is the charmingly nicknamed toaster head, which develops when these little ones spend long periods of time lying very, very still on cribs instead of floating in a nice buoyant belly.  But the other part is my observation that they always seem just a little more tense, even in sleep, as if awaiting the next interruption as they go about the tricky task of sustaining life.

 

. . . It was no more than a minute or two, but the exchange was important to me.  For the new mom, it will either be lost in the blessed forgetting fog of first few months, or it will be one of the sharp memories that comes back unbidden.  The moments of early motherhood are mostly snapshots for me, but I got to relive a vivid one:  the first date.

2015-04-08 19.53.00

Another great date night with Evie. Their manners may still be in process, but they’re generally quiet!

Sixth Grade

Natalie started sixth grade this year.  That feels weird.  Sixth grade is one of the first grades that I can remember with any narrative certainty.  Oh, I have memories before that, but they’re more like snapshots, or maybe little repeating GIF’s.  Sixth grade though, that’s where the narrative arc that continued for some time began.  Or should I say narrative arcs.  I could start any of a number of painful young adult novels with events that occurred in and around sixth grade.

St. Mary's School

St. Mary’s School, on the hill, Janesville, WI

It was the year of Mrs. Neumiller at St. Mary’s K-8 parochial school.  My class had a reputation for being “lively:”  fun for the teachers that still had the energy, hopelessly exhausting for those that didn’t.  Mrs. Neumiller fell into the latter camp, and if memory serves, she quickly retired after our sixth grade year.

st Mary 6th_1

1987, St. Mary’s 6th Grade

She wore a collection of chunky turquoise rings that hung loose on her fingers as she wrote on the board, held in place only by knuckles grown arthritic with age.  She wore a pen on a string around her neck that dangled forward as she distributed communion wine at weekly mass.  And she wore a look of harried concern most of the time.

 

Here’s a sampling of some of my story arcs that got their roots in sixth grade . . .

…Once, while demonstrating how one can perform the Heimlich Maneuver on oneself using the back of a chair, Mrs. Neumiller lost her footing, slipped, landed across the back of the chair and had the wind knocked out of her.  It probably hurt a lot.  I’m pretty sure that most of us either stared or laughed.  Theme:  kids are mean, and it takes awhile to have the human decency knocked into them.

…In sixth grade I started trying to look like other people.  Prior to this, I thought that looking unique was most important.  I sewed some clothes, made some interesting choices at the store for others.  I wore a sweater with sheep on it.  I had my mom put my damp hair in braids so that it would be wavy in the morning.  Then someone called me Tina Turner, and that was the end of that.  Conformity it was.  I tried to figure out how to make my bangs big.  I had a curling iron, but not any of the correct products or a mentor to teach me.  My mother had styled her hair by letting it air dry short for as long as I can remember.  My bangs never achieved the lofty heights of my classmates who had older sisters and ready access to mousse.  Theme:  even a desire to conform isn’t necessarily enough. 

 

Sixth Grade_1

Sixth Grade, before I started to experiment with big bangs.

…I got my period in sixth grade.  Shortly thereafter I was at a pool party at a classmate’s house and, newly menstruating girls being what they are, unpredictably had it arrive.  I had to use feminine hygiene products from her mom’s cupboard.  It was not OK.  Theme:  puberty sucks and I should really have been keeping track of things on a calendar.

…A classmate’s father died that year after a brief battle with brain cancer.  I remember her standing up to offer an intention during morning prayers one day.  She used the word “chemo” in such a familiar way that it still gives me chills.  It was the first funeral that I ever attended.  It rained.  I started to realize that life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.  Theme:  life doesn’t come with any money back guarantees.  This is hard to learn.

…That year, we participated in a goal-planning activity.  It came with a green, shiny booklet that I’m sure was sponsored by a bank or something. It was the first time I had to answer the question “where do you want to be in 10 years?”  (I still hate that question).  The program also attempted to teach us basic financial skills and boiled money down to understandable facts.  I began to get the idea that maybe finances were a topic that could be discussed rationally and and without all sorts of emotion hanging onto them.   Theme:  there are ways to approach life other than your parents’ way;  this can feel like betrayal at first. 

…I longed to be noticed by boys, but I had absolutely no idea how best to go about it.  Apparently, showing off in class, dressing like a middle aged woman, and laughing painfully loudly was not the correct way.  Theme:  they’re really pretty easy to figure out once you stop trying so hard.

 

I wonder what narrative arcs Natalie will start this year?

I hope that her memories of me are of the patient moments.  I hope that she can avoid some of the embarrassments and that those that are inevitable are quickly blurred by memory.

The Reason Why: A Brief Detour

I promise to get back to blogging our trip during a bus ride tomorrow.  Today I was excited to receive word that I am the adult winner of the “Little House, Big Story” essay contest, sponsored by Old World Wisconsin in recognition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday.  Here is my submission.

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The Reason Why

Little-House-in-the-Big-Woods

Once upon a time, a little more than forty years ago, a little girl lived on the wide open prairies of southern Wisconsin, in a ramshackle farmhouse with a cellar made of fieldstones and big old hewn logs.  Upstairs looked more or less like a regular 1970’s house.  The kitchen had an avocado green-themed suite of appliances, there was a TV with three channels, and she brushed her teeth at night with water from a running tap.  However, she never forgot that, underneath the floors covered with wall-to-wall carpet, there was a cellar with 150-year old logs holding things up, so weathered with time that her dad could sink his thumbnail into them.  The little girl’s name was Angie.

 

Angie’s dad wanted to be a farmer, but there wasn’t enough family farm left for him to inherit.  His parents, Angie’s grandma and grandpa, said “Farming is no life for your family;  we just can’t cosign that loan.”  So instead he became a firefighter and a coach, and he played at being a farmer with Angie, and eventually her two younger sisters and two younger brothers, in the old white barn next to the ramshackle farmhouse.  He filled the barn with chickens and lambs and, occasionally, a pig.  Every winter Angie’s mom would stock a freezer with a hundred chickens, enough to last them through the winter, because firefighters didn’t make much money and five kids were a lot to feed.  Maybe that was it.  Maybe the thought of an attic stuffed with pumpkins and braided ropes of onions matched up with her own basement full of frozen chickens and gallons of milk.  Maybe that’s why her heart and brain were just waiting to be filled up with stories of another little girl, named Laura.

 

When Angie was five or six, her Auntie Carol gave her a very special book for her birthday.  The book had a buttery yellow cover and a picture on the front of a little girl hugging her baby doll.  The girl had brown hair, just like Angie, and in the background was a dad and a beautiful sister with golden hair, just like all four of Angie’s brothers and sisters.  Angie already knew that being the only one without golden hair could be hard, especially when the old ladies at church would come up and stroke her sisters’ gleaming locks.  Maybe that was it.  Maybe that was why she read that book so many times that both covers fell off.

 

When Angie started school, she found that the work came easily.  Pleasing her teachers gave her a warm feeling in her heart.  It made her feel special in a good way.  However, she quickly learned that some of the other children at school felt otherwise.   She would flush pink with shame when classmates pointed out how quickly she completed her tasks and mockingly called her “teacher’s pet.”  For a while, she hid her talents to avoid any attention at all, good or bad.  One time Angie erased and re-wrote all of the answers during a test, in order to avoid being the first to walk her work up to the front of the class.  Her teacher, Mrs. Buggs, commented in green felt tip:  “Why so much erasing?”  Angie wondered what to do, whether to please her teachers and herself or her schoolmates.  But Angie’s book friend, Laura, won her spelling bees and made her Ma and Pa proud by being tops in her one-room schoolhouse and she turned out alright.  That felt good to know, and the shame started to melt away a little bit.  Maybe that was why.  Maybe that’s why she collected all the rest of the buttery yellow books about a girl named Laura and read the covers off of them, too.

 

When she grew older, Angie and her friends would laugh about how she was secretly an old lady, because she liked to do things like put up preserves and sew her own curtains. She preferred to watch movies checked out from the library or on PBS instead of the latest blockbuster.  She took the long way to Sioux Falls along Highway 14, the Laura Ingalls Memorial Highway, even though it made her late.  But her friends always came to her when they needed a recipe, a button sewn on, or when they needed to round out their Trivia teams.  Angie was their own personal anachronism, and they cherished her for it. What those gently teasing friends didn’t know, though, was that Angie was pretty sure that she had already been an old lady for many many years, that her story really fit best in those buttery yellow books, that she’d already lived a life in the past and that modern times were just a jarring inconvenience. Maybe that was it.  Maybe that was why she re-read those coverless books every few years even into her 20’s and 30’s and 40’s.

 

Angie grew older and realized that her preference for Laura and her literary sisters, Anne and Caddie, wasn’t something to be ashamed of but to be celebrated.  Angie spent hours talking to her elderly relatives and tracing her own family’s history through the long-since-felled Big Woods of Wisconsin.  She found their pictures and preserved them, she wrote their stories and shared them, she collected their belongings in danger of being discarded and cherished them.   To Angie, the past had never been a static thing, but a living breathing reality.  Laura and the buttery yellow books started that.  Maybe that was reason enough.

 

Status

Anatomy: Part I

Lately when the moms get together, the conversation often veers to puberty and all of the super-fun conversations it entails.  My generation of moms came of age in an era when Our Bodies, Ourselves was easily available. Our girls have been armed with an array of pleasantly illustrated, affirmational books published by the behemoth that is American Girl. The conversations are still awkward and hilarious.

Fortunately, I’d laid the groundwork for the pre-teen drama with numerous well-timed, carefully paced conversations throughout childhood.  There was the summer when Natalie was six.  This was the year she’d learned to ride her bike.  She stopped dramatically one summer evening, made a big show of wiping her brow, and announced that she’d been riding all day, and “boy were her balls tired.”  

“Well, I imagine you’re sore, but girls’ potty parts aren’t called ‘balls,” mentally chastising myself for ever adopting the “potty parts” convention to begin with. “That’s the slang term for boys’ potty parts.  I guess that boys always like to talk about their balls, don’t they.  Did you hear it one the playground?

“Yeah, but I didn’t know…”

“Well, no big deal, but that’s why it’s always a good idea to test out new words that we learn on the playground with an adult first, OK?”

“OK,” zipping away for another lap around the cul de sac.

I felt pretty good about things, boy I’d handled that minefield with cool nonchalance, imparting valued wisdom to my daughter.  That mental gold star fell off a few hours later when she came home announcing that Gabe had to pee while they were playing in the woods, and he just went on a tree, and she’d seen his “ball.”  So close, my dear, so close.

 

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Extra for biologic

2012 March 001

First violin recital

When Natalie was five she started violin lessons.  It would be nice to say that this was due to her own innate desire to be a musical prodigy.  In reality Jimmy and I had something to do with it.  Having played the piano growing up, I knew that the only way to be passably good at an instrument eventually–short of the whole prodigy thing– was to start early and not be allowed to quit anytime during the first 3-4 years.  During those first few years the entire process is largely painful for all involved.  So, I wanted her to start early to have a chance to eventually be decent.  Jimmy just insisted because of the whole Asian thing.  

It’s a mostly spot-on stereotype that Korean American kids all play a string, and Jimmy was no exception.  Both of his older sisters were assigned to violin and, eventually, piano.  For some reason, at age 5 Jimmy began slogging away at a tiny cello and stuck with it and youth orchestra through high school.  His mom must have seen the cello as a more masculine instrument.  I think he liked playing the cello.  I know that his high school girlfriend was someone he picked up in youth orchestra, so I supposed that was an attraction, but I think that he genuinely enjoyed it on some level.  He never achieved prominence as a soloist due to his crippling fear of individual attention.  This manifests as a racing heartbeat and drenching sweat, neither of which are particularly helpful when playing a bowed instrument.  

When we were dating Jimmy would occasionally pull his cello out, seducing me with duets on my electronic keyboard and his cello, “The Swan” played for an audience of houseplants in my upper flat.  These duets all stopped abruptly almost 12 years ago;  he literally did not touch the instrument after we were married.  When we pulled it out on Natalie’s entree into the world of the string section, all of the bow hairs were snapped and matted after several moves back and forth between the disparate climates of Wisconsin and the Tucson desert.  If you were to ask him, he’d claim that he absolutely did NOT alter his behavior to secure my affections, but that jacked up cello would argue otherwise.

 

McIntosh-Goodrich_Mansion_May10-200x200

McIntosh-Goodrich Mansion, a.k.a., Wisconsin Conservatory of Music

 

 

Natalie’s violin lessons occurred at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, a refurbished mansion in downtown Milwaukee, inconveniently located a good half hour drive from our house.  The journey was stressful enough in itself–load a  toddler and a preschooler into the car in the waning afternoon hours, drive through the spaghetti-like confusion of the Marquette interchange that heralds downtown Milwaukee,  spend another 15 minutes trying to find street parking, before schlepping both children up three flights of stairs in the restored mansion for 30 minutes of lessons.   

 

marquette-interchange-1

Marquette Interchange–Milwaukee, WI

I generally enter the Marquette fairly white knuckled.  This isn’t due to any confusion on my part.  No, I blame all traffic challenges on the Illinois FIB’s (f–in Illinois bastards) just passing through on their way north to exploit Wisconsin’s wilderness as a respite from the soul-killing reality of living in Illinois.  They weave and dart through the interchange trying to hasten their escape and causing no small degree of chaos for the rest of us.  It was at one such crossroads that Natalie, from the back seat of the Accord, announced that she didn’t feel well.

 

The girl has never  been particularly good at gauging when she’s about to hurl.  She’s 10 and Jimmy still hasn’t agreed to replace her bedroom carpeting.  There’s still an odds-on chance that sometime in the next three months she’ll again forget to run to the bathroom and instead lean out of bed juuuuuust far enough to miss the trash can and splatter the carpeting instead.  Now, when I was growing up in the ramshackle farm house, mom employed a different system.  There were no bathrooms upstairs, for many years the sole one being downstairs adjacent to the kitchen.  The distance coupled with the treacherously steep stairs made nighttime bathroom trips a dangerous luxury in which we seldom indulged.  Unfortunately she passed three of her five pregnancies in that house, which probably has something to do with her still-shapely legs.  

Mom prepped us as well as she could to avoid needing to go downstairs EVER at night. On our bedside tables she’d place plastic cups that she’d lifted from the hospital at one of her stays with one of us.  Then, when she put us to bed she’d dump last night’s water into an empty plastic pitcher (also sourced from the hospital) and refilled them on her own trip up to bed.  

ice cream bucket

Gallon ice cream buckets were put to a variety of uses in our house, including under-the-bed puke buckets.

The mineral content of the well water left these plastic cups scaled with whitish deposits after enough years of use.  If any toddlers had to use the bathroom during the night, they were afforded the luxury of a potty chair parked at the top of this stairs;  this was emptied on a morning trip downstairs.  Kind of like a chamber pot.  Once we were over about 3, we were on our own.  We girls developed bladders of steel over the years, holding it fearfully overnight so as not to have to brave the pitch darkness of the rickety-windowed farmhouse, bathed only in the ambient light through a few east-facing windows from the dusk-to-dawn light.  The boys, at least during the warmer months, peed through the screen into the night air and the backyard.  To handle the occasional puking episode, we each had an empty Schoep’s gallon ice cream bucket under our bed and were expected to employ it should the need arise.  Mom would generally deign to get out of bed to handle a full puke bucket during the night.  She may not have been the most fastidious housekeeper, but even she had her standards.

 

My girls were not raised in such a hardened environment, and Natalie’s cushy upbringing left her without any good vomit-management techniques of note.   So there we were on that fateful occasion, in stop and go traffic, on a cold winter evening in the multi-leveled Marquette interchange on the way to downtown Milwaukee.  After the warning shot across the bow, “mom I don’t feel good,”  she let loose with a magnificent spray of vomit that arced gracefully from her mouth and traveled easily ACROSS THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF THE CAR, SPLATTERING THE CEILING, HER SISTER, AND THE INTERIOR OF THE WINDSHIELD.  What an awesome sight it must have been for the neighboring traffic–a veritable fountain of emesis within the warm confines of the Honda.

The beauty lasted for a few brief seconds before both children began howling.  I attempted to remain calm, steer the car, and clean off the  interior of the windshield with my sleeve all the while running through my mental address book to determine who I knew well enough in the downtown corridor to drop in on, Pulp Fiction-like, with a decimated car.  Having no such saint-like figures in my life, I decided that a U turn with a 30 minute ride back home was the only answer.  It quickly became clear that being cold was far superior to the stench that proper climate control yielded, for she’d manage to aim vomit directly into the front console heating vents as well.  We made our chilly journey back home.  The girls wept that they wanted to get out of the car, that they had puke in their hair, that it was pooling on the violin case.  I never felt so maternal as I did at that moment.  I dearly wanted to pull over and join them in their tantrum, but instead I drove on, clearing a few chunks off the steering wheel as best I could and calling Jimmy.

Jimmie Dimmick

I know no one like this guy.

He had been on his way to the gym when he answered.  “Meet me in the garage with a trash bag and two bath towels,” I said.  ‘Why? I was just going to–” “Just–meet me.”  Words could not do justice to the scene that awaited him when three tearful, vomit encrusted females pulled into the garage.  He opened the back door, a wall of stench and lamentation greeting him.  “You have two options,” I said, “the girls or the car.”  For obvious reasons, he chose the girls, who we stripped naked, discarding their clothes in the trash bag and wrapping them in bath towels.  Mr. Sensitive went back inside for some rubber gloves before extracting Evelyn from her carseat.  I suggested that any further dilly dallying on his part would not end well.  He carried them to their bath and lather-rinsed-repeated several times.

The details of cleaning the car do not bear repeating, save only to mention that a startling volume of school-aged vomit actually exists in a semi-solid, difficult to remove state.  I threw away anything removable, save the violin, whose fabric case I managed to remove and throw in the washing machine, the incident never to be mentioned to either teacher or violin rental store.  The next day we drove to a car detailing place, me driving the steaming heap of emesis and the Jimmy and the girls following behind, silently acknowledging that this would most assuredly be an all-day job, one that I wouldn’t be waiting around for.  I’m not sure what I expected from the guy at the shop.  As he stood there checking boxes on a form, shifting his toothpick between corners of his mouth and never truly even looking up, I realized that the trail of horror that rolls through a car wash must reveal a side of humanity to which I was thankfully not privy.  He looked up only once, glancing at me from under his cap as he announced that “You’ll have to pay an extra $35 for The Biologic.”  Hand to God, I still don’t know exactly what The Biologic fully entails, but if $35 more is all it takes to clean my daughter’s detritus from the legion interior cracks and crevices of a late-model Honda, I consider that the best $35 I’ve ever spent.