Saturday, March 31, 2007


My sister turned 34 years old yesterday. If this were 1986, and she were my Mama, she would have only one day left to live.

It is strange and surreal to be almost as old as Mama was when she died; it's like being safely tucked inside a shiny ocean-pod, propelling here and there underwater to view the funereal wreckage of the Titanic. If you focus on the sparkling rays of light coming from the water's surface, it's not so scary. Just don't let your gaze linger too long on the spirits darting in the shadowy corners of the debris.

As I near my Mama's death-age, I sometimes compare our lives. Mine is full and healthy, a giant sun with rays shedding light into so many realms: wife, mother, neighborhood activist, progressive Christian, environmentalist, professional working in the city. In contrast, by the time my Mama slipped into a coma, her darkened world had narrowed to match her atrophied, shrunken body. Everything fit within the four walls of her bedroom.

By second grade, my sister and I knew our Mama was sick. Years later I found out that Mama had battled an eating disorder for 13 years, beginning with the birth of my sister. I say battled, but I think that might be overstating it. People battle cancer: "We'll fight it with the most aggressive treatment available!" The will to live is assumed. Not so with eating disorders. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say my Mama was seduced unto death by a disease that promised happiness and wholeness if she'd only get rid of the pesky food she'd just eaten.

She held up her end of the bargain quite well, with a cleansing trip to the bathroom after each meal. If the first trip didn't do the trick, she booked her next one by visiting the stash of laxatives she kept hidden underneath the bottom drawer in her bedroom vanity. My sister and I discovered the stockpile when I was in the 3rd grade. Our growing suspicion, which had been fertilized by overheard morsels of grown-up conversations, was confirmed. We were incensed. Why did she hide these from us? Did the same hands that prayed for healing bring these poisons to her lips? We gathered them up in our arms, flushed them down the toilet, and substituted anger even though the recipe called for confusion and sadness.

As a form of suicide, I can't say I'd recommend slow starvation. It can take years to accomplish, and it is very painful. The imbalance of Mama's electrolytes gave her muscle cramps just short of hell. She shuffled to the bathtub, and lowered herself into the hottest water our heater had to offer. When that didn't bring relief, my Dad, sister, and I took turns boiling water on the stovetop, carrying it to the bathtub, and dumping it into the space Mama made for it. I stared, mesmorized, as she paddled her hands at her sides-- back and forth, back and forth-- swishing the water to spread the heat.

We know so much about eating disorders these days, you'd think my Mama could have been saved. But this was 20 years ago, and people didn't understand what was happening. Most folks averted their eyes and pretended not to notice, that is, at least while we were within earshot. I vacillated between relief-- please don't pick at my family's scabs and undercover our hidden shame--and fury-- why doesn't someone stop her from doing this to herself?

Sometimes Mama would say, "I wish I'd die so you could have a healthy Mom." What could we say in response? We thought, "This is your choice! You could be healthy!" We thought, "Go ahead and die then if that's what you want!" We thought, "Please don't die!" We said nothing.

We enjoyed periods when Mama broke up with the disease. She went East to a clinic, and when she came back she had gained a few pounds, and you could make out a hint of sparkle in her eyes, like stars hidden behind dense night clouds. She didn't look healthy so much as puffy from all of the intravenous fluids she'd been given. But this was, at least, a start. She brought back a brown-and-white stuffed bunny for each of us, as a souvenir from her vacation. She played the piano with gusto while the rest of us lay on our backs in the living room, chanting "more! more!" whenever she'd stop. But it didn't take long before she and the disease made up, the diuretics melted off the pounds, and the piano was silent again.

At her best, Mama gave me tiny glimpses of grace. In the 4th grade, I hated my teacher, Mrs. C. One day, in a rage, after Mrs. C insulted me in front of the entire class, I wrote "Mrs. C is an a**hole" on the bathroom wall. Unbeknownst to me, my pal Sherry had seen me do it, and ratted me out faster than a Libby leak on CIA identities. Mrs. C marched me into the bathroom, pointed to my art, and asked me the grade-school equivalent of "When did you stop beating your wife?" She said, "Why did you write this?" Digging my shovel down, getting a huge load of dirt to deepen the hole I'd gotten myself into, I dumped out the shovel definantly onto her feet: "Because you are," I replied. At home, there were major consequences for my actions. But after I'd quit the soft-ball team (punishment A), written and presented my letter of apology to the school's principal (punishment B) and to Mrs. C (punishment C), here's what Mama said: "Well, at least you wrote the truth. Mrs. C is an a**hole."

When I was in the 6th grade, Mama didn't get out of bed much. Each time she tried but failed to get better, my sister and I collected our bitterness, smoothed and shaped it into a nice rectangular brick, and hoisted it up onto the wall we'd erected around ourselves. When Mama fell into a coma, we pretended to barely notice. Then she was gone.

Sometimes it's hard to be without my Mama. I have so many unanswered questions: What was it like for her to be sick for so long? What was going through her head? What did she want to be when she grew up? What was it like giving birth to us? How did she fall in love with my dad? What was her favorite Christmas? I have no answers; I have only a photo album, my baby book which my Mama filled out, and a few surviving stories that extended family feels are "safe" to tell.

Last Thursday, a day before my sister's 34th birthday, I listened to author Anne Lamott read from her latest book at a local bookstore. Before the reading, Anne said that in her view, grief and anger are two of the truest things on Earth. She said, "Most people claim they want their friends and family to be happy after they're dead and gone. Not me! I want to be remembered! I want people to be very, very sad, and in every situation to think, this would be so much more fun if Anne were here. Remember all the fun we used to have?'"

At the reading, we all laughed, thinking how Anne had captured the truth in all its selfish hilarity. Later, thinking about my sister's birthday, and my Mama's death-day, I thought, maybe the best thing I can say is this: I remember you, Mama.

I remember you.

And Happy Birthday, Sister.

My kind friend over at Little Monkies honored me with a Perfect Post Award for this post. Thanks, Fran!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Strawberry Fields Forever

I come from dirt. Not just the moist, cake-like dirt of homemade, backyard mud-pies, ceremoniously decorated with leaves and berries, or the dirt that my sister and I surreptitiously sucked off the gravel in the driveway, as if seeking to rediscover minerals long lost to mankind. I’m talking about the wormy, life-sustaining, run-through-your-fingers kind of dirt known to those who’ve experienced the joys and frustrations of working on a family farm. The power of this dirt is enough to make you understand why God made man from the dust of the ground instead of rose petals or pinto beans, or some other substance on-hand.

On our farm, we grew strawberries, and some wheat. But the identity and cohesivity of the family was most intertwined with the providence of the strawberries, since, unlike modern wheat farming—which relies heavily on the operation of machinery—strawberry farming still requires the industrious hands of many, and thus lends itself to cooperative work.

At the helm of this family operation was my Grandpa, Bob, affectionately known as PA (not Pa, like Laura Ingalls’ father, but P.A., said like initials). A farm’s story is only as rich as the characters who lived on it, and my Grandpa has always been wealthy by biographical, if not financial, standards. At age eleven, Grandpa’s mother died, and his Uncle Henry offered to take him in, to teach him the lucrative banking business in Salem, Oregon. Grandpa’s father—a lover of dirt—would start each day with a prayer of thanks, breakfast, and Bible reading, and then sing to the day, “to the work, to the work; the hungry must be fed.” He was farming the land purchased by his father in 1875, and he flatly rejected Henry’s offer, rebuffing the mistress of wealth and renewing my family’s marriage vow to the land.

In pragmatic farmer fashion, the strawberry fields—bifurcated by rolling wheat fields—were eventually labeled for the purpose of easy discourse and discovery: The Flat, Soil Bank, and Berry View. The labels were descriptive, but, admittedly, lacked inspiration.

I’ve wondered whether lustrous names would have increased the yield or saved the plants from their ultimate destruction. The last year of the farm, The Flat was devastated by an inundation of leaf-nibbling deer, Soil Bank’s crop froze out, and Berry View was the victim of an accidental crop-dusting overspray. Would a sunny name like Laguna Heights have protected the plants from frost? Would tourists—or at least pickers—have flocked to a strawberry field named Topless Bay?

Or perhaps the names could have paid tribute to some of our sordid family history. George, my Grandpa’s father, was the only one of his siblings enamored by the land, so he painstakingly bought up his five siblings’ shares of the land after his mother divided it up. Soon after, while George and his new bride were honeymooning at Crater Lake—their future bright, their hearts full—a bandit broke into George’s house, and stole the deeds to the land that George had bought from his brothers. George’s mother obstinately refused to testify in court on George’s behalf, and the brothers insisted that George had not rightfully paid them for their shares of the land. Thus, poor George went into debt and bought out those ne’er-do-well brothers once more. Given this history, perhaps Twice-Bought Bank or Robber’s Cove would have been more appropriate field names. Then again, knowing the truth might have sent the tender plants into a depression of dormancy.

When I was old enough to participate—which means that I could successfully wield a hoe without major injury to myself (blisters don’t count) or significant destruction of plants—I was set to work, hoeing the insidious weeds that threatened to choke out the trusting lives of the affable baby strawberry plants in the various fields. Good work was rewarded with better work: I could go to the shop and assemble strawberry boxes by folding the side flaps, positioning them onto the box, holding them steadily in position, and securing them by stomping down my powerful foot-- hi-YAH!-- on a giant stapler.

That June, I also picked the strawberries, along with a bus-load of surly older kids from town. In my view, only two types of kids came to pick strawberries. The first type’s parents forced them to do it, perhaps so they could “learn the value of an honest day’s work,” or perhaps to stave off the tedium of having kids home from school all summer by placing them in the care of the Berry Farm each June morning. These kids lollygagged, napped, chatted with the kid in the next row, devised wicked plots to cheat the scale—filling the bottoms of their flats with dirt clods, for example—and threw strawberries, straw, and dirt at other pickers: anything, anything, to avoid actually picking the strawberries. “Please, please, will you just fire me?” they communicated wordlessly. The second type of kid’s parents sent them to pick strawberries as a necessity rather than a lesson; they needed the money to supplement their meager income. For these kids, there was a direct connection between how much they picked and what they ate for dinner, or whether they’d have money for school clothes in the fall. Their fingers worked the plants like concert pianists tickling the ivories, and they stopped only long enough to weigh their flats and collect their pay, stuffing the heavy Susan B. Anthony dollars into their drooping pockets.

Out in the field, I wished I could pick quickly, like the second group of kids—everyone would be so proud of me; so envious!—but alas, I was slow, with a disturbing predisposition for daydreaming, and a profound longing to place my heavy, heavy head down on the straw that padded the dirt between the rows, to become one with the earth, if only for just long enough to discover how those little green Spit Bugs produced such foamy froth on the strawberry plants.

Thus, just as my good work hoeing had been rewarded by a box-making reprieve, it was eventually recognized—after a summer or two—that picking was not, shall we say, my strong point, and so I was reassigned to sorting and selling. This is where the action and camaraderie was: as long as one could quickly tell the difference between a good berry and a bad berry—and let me assure you, even a four year old could do this—the proverbial playing field, in which grown-ups were pitted against children, was significantly leveled. Look at me! I’m working next to grown-ups, standing tall on my stool! I can keep up with them!

However, there is a darker side to family farming that we don’t often acknowledge: the cost of inter-generational relationships sacrificed (thankfully, temporarily) to the necessary, yet wounding, boss-and-worker pecking order of the farm. That is to say, it was not easy taking orders from Grandpa during the week and then playing The Farming Game together on Friday nights. (Look it up, you doubters, this was a real board game we played—hoping, yet failing to yield more on the board farm than the real farm ever produced). Being your grandchild’s employer steals some of the spoiling rights that every grandparent deserves to bestow, and every grandchild wishes to receive.

Even so, there is tangible value in time spent together as an intergenerational family, young and old hunched over a hoe, or a flat of berries, or seated side by side on a berry-planting machine, feeding frozen strawberry plants into a contraption that would rotate and plant them in the ground. It sends a message, like a familial mission statement inscribed in the sky on an aerial banner: this is who we are; this is what we do together; each of us matters in this important work. That kind of cohesiveness is hard to come by for modern families.

I sometimes wonder, now that I’ve dusted off the dirt of the fields and tuned my ear to the musical din of the city, what will be the glue that holds my own little family together? The family farm was sold several years ago, after a particularly ominous year destroyed the crops and swallowed up my Uncle’s savings with a sucking sound louder than Ross Perot warned would accompany NAFTA. Last week when Eleanor’s play-date buddy was late in arriving, five-year-old Eleanor surmised, “Well, I guess she got stuck in a bunch of traffic.” I laughed out loud, amused with the contrast of our respective childhoods. The town where I grew up had only one traffic light until I was in high school.

Sure, they'll be experts on traffic, but what will my scampering little city mice know about dirt? Will they understand the value of good soil, and real food grown by real people? Will they ever feel they are part of a common familial effort?

I think so, given some effort on our parts. It seems that my girls have inherited dirt in their genes. In the summer, they are happiest playing naked in our postage-stamp-sized back yard; mixing equal parts dirt and water and covering each other with the finished muddy product, which they call “sunscreen.” They love to pick apples and plums from the trees in our parking strip, and to discover anything new sprouting up in springtime. As they grow, we’ll talk about food, animals, and the sustenance that comes from sun and soil.

Most importantly, I will teach our children what my grandparents taught me on the farm: to love and respect each other; to work together; to revel in our mutual victories, and mourn our common setbacks. This is who we are, my children will learn: a family committed to loving each other.

As it turns out, maybe I don’t come from dirt after all. Dirt is transitory: it can erode, wash out, and blow away in the wind. Instead, I come from love, which can’t be poisoned by wayward spray, frozen out by any storm, or nibbled away by hungry deer. It's here to stay.