I’ll stick to the high road (call me a doormat if you want)

The other day, I was in one of my favorite local markets, Piedmont Grocery, paying way too much for groceries. I realize that in itself is a privilege, a luxury, a splurge, whatever you want to call it. I could have saved money at a big supermarket but I hate big supermarkets generally. Living in a city plagued by food deserts, I know what a privilege it is that I can choose where to shop. If you don’t know what a food desert is, you might not be paying attention to issues of social justice and access to basic resources.

 

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But that’s beside the point.

As the checker was scanning my items and politely not saying anything about the amount of chocolate in my cart, the courtesy clerk, aka bagger, was pondering how to get my purchases into my tote bags and back into the cart in the best way. He seemed to be putting an inordinate amount of thought into it, and asking me my opinion. As I’ve gotten older, I am much more prone to chatting with the people helping me in stores. I used to shy away from it, but I actually find those conversations easier sometimes than ones with family and friends.

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Many of the stores in this area hire those with intellectual disabilities, which is pretty cool. When I was growing up, baggers were called bag boys and were usually teenage boys working for tips, and they always pushed your cart to your car and loaded them in the trunk. My mother had a terrible time when tips were no longer accepted for this job. For years she kept trying to tip the baggers, and when one finally politely told her he’d get fired if he took the tip, she finally got the point and quit trying to give them money.

Anyway, the gentleman bagging my purchases compared packing the bags to playing Tetris.

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I used to play Tetris back in the day on my old black and white Mac, usually when I should have been writing my master’s thesis back in the early 1990s.

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You can buy one on eBay if you really want one!

 

I said something about me not being that good at Tetris, and that he was probably a lot better at it than me, when he said something to the effect that he could do Tetris with the groceries really well but if he took too long he’d have angry customers. To which I said, without thinking, “I don’t get angry.” He looked at me in astonishment and asked me if I really never get angry. In the moment and in that situation, I honestly replied that I don’t get angry.

Maybe because it was my day off, or maybe because I started the day having coffee with a dear friend, or maybe because I went to get my flu shot prepared to wait for hours and I only waited about 5 minutes, but waiting to have my groceries nicely packed seemed like a no stress situation in which I could wait a few seconds here and there so as not to the tomatoes smashed.

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Yes, I get angry. Angry at the world situation, angry at particular people in power, angry at injustice, angry at animal cruelty. But angry in my day to day life? Not so much. That wasn’t always true. I’ve fumed and sworn at the silliest things.

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I got it in my head at one point that I needed to learn to stand up for myself, which was true. But my first foray into that was to send my food back to the kitchen at a restaurant because my veggie enchiladas were in red sauce, and not the green sauce I ordered. I thought I would be being a doormat if I just accepted it and ate it. That’s what one of my companions did; he’d ordered the red sauce and gotten the green on his chicken enchiladas. A simple mistake in our orders. He took it in stride and graciously ate his enchiladas. I like red sauce. I had a hankering for green sauce that day, but I could have eaten the red. I’ve briefly (thank goodness, only briefly) worked in food service, and I know how hard it is, and how picky customers can ruin the day. I also hate to waste food. For about a minute I was proud of myself for sending the plate back, but ever since I’ve felt like a jerk.

 

So is accepting delays and small mistakes taking the high road or being a doormat? I’ve also fallen into the doormat category. Not as much anymore. In a weird way I’ve achieved a balance between accepting life as it comes and standing up for myself.

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There are lots of refrigerator magnets and other stuff that reflect what I am trying to say. Numerous people have written self-help books that may or may not have helped anyone but probably made the author some money.

 

You want to pass me on the highway to get where you are going a few seconds ahead of me? Fine, go ahead. Training a new cashier at the coffee bar and it might take a little longer? Great, and congratulations and good luck with the new job. I’m not in such a hurry that I have to glare at you and mutter at you under my breath while you are trying to learn on the job. At the end of the day, I have to live with myself, and I don’t want to be the angry customer, the a–hole driver, the person who causes a scene or holds up everyone else while counting my change or arguing with courtesy clerks. And I do live a life of privilege, a fact that I try not to take for granted.

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I have more important things to worry about. Like saving the world. Or at least making my little part of it a better place.

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My doctoral dissertation, distilled to a memo pad.

Peace and hugs.

In the Blink of an Eye (or, thinking about the father I never knew)

I’ve spent the last few years deliberately redirecting myself to keep on the sunny side of life.

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It’s not always easy, believe me. And I don’t always succeed.

For instance, last Sunday, driving to work, I was behind a terrible automobile accident on Highway 24. It had just happened; Bob called me as he had heard about it and wanted to make sure I was okay. I thought to myself, “Great, I am going to be late for work and we have a crowd waiting for the shelter to open to so they can adopt those 6 incredibly cute beagle puppies that just came up.” Maybe a silly thing to stress out about, but I don’t like being late for work. And people get emotional about wanting to adopt puppies, so the more hands on deck to handle to crowd, the better.

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I settled in with my audiobook of American Gods (the mind of Neil Gaiman is a crazy place!), and sipped on my coffee, periodically moving forward a foot. Six lanes were being merged into one. People were getting fractious, honking and not letting other cars move in. It was 11:30 on a Sunday; most people were likely on their way to the mall or some such weekend pursuit.

I was doing my best not to look at the accident. Then the CHP officer directing traffic suddenly stopped the single file of cars with me up front, right next to the overturned car, to allow the clean-up crew to move some final wreckage from the one operational lane. I couldn’t help but see the car. Overturned, destroyed, horrifying. It didn’t look at all likely that anyone in the car would have survived. I started to shake and feel sick to my stomach. In the blink of an eye, lives were lost, destroyed, unalterably changed forever. It could happen to anyone.

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I don’t know why it took me so long to connect this to the death of my father. Stephen Pierre Cottraux, Jr., aka Daddy, was killed in an automobile accident on November 15, 1962, not quite a full month after my first birthday. I have no memories of him. But I grew up hearing stories about him from my siblings, and wondering if he was watching us from heaven.

As first-born, Cathy remembers him the most. I recently asked her about the piano we had growing up, which led her to relate a Daddy memory:

“I have a few memories of Daddy playing [the piano], he was really good. They would have band practice at the house (in Macon) and he played the piano a lot of the time. I remember one night, I must’ve been 8, and he was playing and I was sitting next to him on the bench. I hugged him (I adored Daddy) and he smiled and said ‘Why don’t you go in the kitchen and tell your mama that I love her!’ That’s a memory I have carried my whole life.” She also remembers that Daddy liked to dance and he taught her to do the twist. Cathy was 9 when Daddy died.

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Daddy with my sisters Cathy and Ellen, circa 1956.
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Daddy, second from the left, and the jazz group he was in.

Here are some writing exercises I did a couple of years ago that say more:

[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

   Number one:  

There are no photographs of Daddy on display in the house. Mom keeps one, with an old Valentine card from when they were high school, in the top drawer of her dresser, which I go through looking for jewelry to dress my dolls and stuffed cats with. We don’t ask about him; I’m not sure why but we don’t. But when Mom isn’t around Cathy and Ellen tell me and Steve stories of what they remember. I love to hear the ones about when I was born, of course.

            “He said if they were all like you, he’d be happy to have a house full of kids,” says Cathy.

            “He liked to feed you eggs at the breakfast table and say ‘Is it good?’; your first word was isitgood, all run together in one word.”

            We watch the movie musical Carousel, and I am captivated by the idea of Daddy up in heaven watching down on us. Especially me. I could sit in the dark den with the late show on the television watching that movie night after night, warmed by the feeling that Daddy is with me.

Number Two:

Mom was only 26 when Daddy died, so we are used to her going out on dates. It’s been almost 10 years, after all. We even like some of the men. There is Joe Kellum, who owns Pizza by Candlelight. At first I love going to the restaurant, red and white plaid plastic tablecloths and red plastic water tumblers, candles in old Chianti bottles, the smell of garlic in the air. He has 2 kids, Mike and Angel. They hate me. They are the same ages as Ellen and Steve. They like to remind us that it’s their father who owns the restaurant and we are intruders. I begin to dislike them and the restaurant and their father.

            The one we do like plays the guitar and sings the Mountain Dew song. We don’t drink Mountain Dew, but it’s still fun. We all crowd around him in the living room and ask him to sing it again and again. He quits coming to the house.

            I love to read stories about widowed mothers with broods of children, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. In these stories, the mother struggles, but dating and men don’t come into the stories and everyone cherishes the memories of dear old dad. The kids do what they can to take care of the mother as the years go by. That’s what we will do.

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The only picture I have of me with Daddy, 1961.

I spent the rest of Sunday in a funk, triggered by the car accident into thoughts of how lives change in split seconds, people leave for work and don’t come home again. Families are left behind. Promising lives are cut short. Perhaps the driver had been distracted. Perhaps the driver had swerved out of the way of something, a deer or a piece of debris in the road. Maybe the driver nodded off to sleep. I don’t know.

And then I got mad at the fractious drivers of the other cars, honking and impatient. Put things in perspective, people! So you’ll be a little late for wherever you were headed. At least it wasn’t you and your car turned over in the road. Your life goes on. Appreciate that. And our hearts should go out to the survivors.

My father was so young, and he left behind an even younger wife and 4 small children. In the blink of an eye.

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Mom and Daddy, circa 1953.

Of course, good things can happen in the blink of an eye. Falling in love when you look a certain someone in the eye. Making a new friend who will mean the world to you. A split second decision that will change your life for the better even though it seems crazy (like signing up for online dating even though you swore you wouldn’t, leading to life with Bob). Meeting a beagle puppy and knowing she’s the one.

Be open to the special moments, but be careful out there. Don’t drive distracted. Seriously. That one quick text could be all it takes to end it all for someone, maybe yourself.

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The beagle puppies all found homes that day. I snapped out of my funk eventually. But I’ll aways wonder how my life would have been different if my father hadn’t driven away never to come back.

I love you and miss you, Daddy.

Isn’t it romantic?

 

 

In my dreams, I’m swept off my feet by grand romantic gestures.

 

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As I’ve alluded to before, I have a guilty addiction to the Hallmark Channel and the endless stream of pretty much identical romantic comedies they produce.

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The Prince Charmings in these movies always make the grand romantic gestures look so easy. Et voilà–a room filled with flowers and lit with twinkly lights and an orchestra playing oh so softly and discreetly as the couple waltzes around said room in their designer jeans bought in the adorable boutique in America’s most charming small town filled with lovable, quirky characters.

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Abby and Trace in Chesapeake Shores on the Hallmark Channel, set in Maryland but filmed in Vancouver.

 

The movies are mostly filmed in Canada, so those impossibly charming towns aren’t really American. This only fuels my desire to move to British Columbia.

 

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Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

 

After one of these dreams, I woke up feeling a little melancholy. Where were the grand romantic gestures in my life? Then I realized, it depends on how you define romantic.

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In the romance department, I’ve received some pretty grand gestures from my significant other and my life is enriched because of him. We may never be the center of a Hallmark Channel movie, but we have a good life. Not that it’s always been easy, but we’ve worked hard and learned along the way.

Bob and Gen

 

Bob is my biggest cheerleader, always supportive and encouraging without being pushy.

 

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I knew he was a keeper the first time he came to my house and wasn’t taken aback by the fact that 5 animals shared the house with me. I had kind of left that little detail out of the conversations we had had up to that point. Didn’t want to scare him off before he had a chance to meet them!

 

He loved these animal companions, and he loves the ones with us now.

 

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When I bring home foster cats and kittens, he jumps right in to help care for and socialize them. When I brought Marble home a little more than a year ago, he was the first to say we should keep him with us. Sharing our love for these animals we live with is pretty romantic in my book!

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Bob also acts as Barista Bob, fixing me coffee when he has time in the morning. Seriously, real romance is the smell of coffee in the morning. Flowers are nice but coffee is essential! He spent hours researching espresso machines to get just the right one. She’s been one of my best friends for a few years now. AND he got me the world’s best coffee travel cup–the Zojirushi “super-size me” in blue. One of the better “no ocassion” gifts I’ve ever received.

 

When I was divorced and thinking of dating, one of the things I worried about was finding a guy who loved books and reading as much as I do. Bob! He loves books, we both gravitate to bookstores when we explore new towns and cities. He’s even writing books now! Our bedside tables match in the growing piles of books we each can’t wait to read. Romance!

 

A couple of years ago, on Valentine’s Day, he did the most romantic thing I could have asked for–he installed the Little Free Library in our front yard. I swoon!

 

 

Every night after dinner while we binge watch whatever series we’ve been sucked into (currently Bloodline; intense!), we share a chocolate bar. Bob makes sure he buys the vegan ones that have animals on the labels. Of course, this routine might have something to do with me needing to lose 20 pounds, but he never says anything about that. That’s love!

 

Traditional romantic gestures still abound as well. He took me to Paris, a dream come true. He went up the Eiffel Tower with me even though he’s afraid of heights. He led me on a mission to see the Biblioteque Sainte-Geneviève.

 

 

On our recent trip to Iceland, knowing how badly I wanted to see a puffin, he made absolutely sure I got to see one, getting us on an excursion boat and taking that all important puffin photo. He also stopped the car every time I wanted to get up close to the gorgeous Icelandic horses and picture-perfect sheep.

 

 

I doubt he orchestrated it, but Bob was equally excited to meet the one and only cat we saw in Iceland. We named him Benson (after Ben, who is shown sticking his tongue out above). It was one of the best moments of the trip!

Iceland Benson

 

Next time I have a Hallmark Channel style dream of being romanced, swept off my feet, showered with flowers and stars, I will remember what romance really is to me–someone to share the things I love with, someone who accepts me for who am, someone who makes the gestures that really mean something over the long haul. Flowers fade, twinkly lights burn out. But this smile will always be with me.

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As always, James Taylor has a song for this. Don’t take your loved ones for granted, and think about what true romance really means.

 

 

Peace and hugs.

The Gold Trail Motor Lodge (Little Shit in Gold Country)

Taking a break from scholarly work (I take an amazing number of breaks from it; gotta work on that), I decided to revisit my memoir-in-progress, the Little Shit Chronicles. This episode takes place nearer to the end of the cross-country trip; we were actually pretty close to our destination of Sacramento, but for reasons I’ve never known (and can only imagine as being not good), we spent some long, boring days at the Gold Trail Motor Lodge on Highway 50 in California. It’s only 37.9 miles from the house we were to be moving into. That’s not a typo, either. It’s 37.9 miles.

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The Gold Trail Motor Lodge still exists, and still looks just the same. JUST THE SAME. The Mother Lode Motel is real and still exists, too. In fact, you have to check in at the Mother Lode to stay at the Gold Trail.

Highway 50 is very much busier than it was 45 years ago, and the town of Placerville is a bit more bustling.

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The Gold Trail Motor Lodge, Placerville

 

 

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Downtown Placerville in 1969.
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Downtown Placerville, today.

I would not undertake the 2.7 mile walk along the highway from the motel into town that we took then. We shouldn’t have taken it then, but it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it would be now. But we were young, bored, and desperate. And hungry. My teenaged brother needed food. We would get him food.

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Don’t misundertand me. We weren’t that kind of hungry. Not the poor, starving childrren you see in the news, children of Appalachia or inner city food deserts. We were spoiled middle-class suburban kids who felt like we’d been deprived of a meal, and we had some money in our pockets. We had been eating at restaurants, some very nice ones, for 2 weeks and our expectations were of 3 solid meals a day. At the Gold Trail Motor Lodge, we relied a little too much on vending machine potato chips and Cokes. Fun at first, but eventually you need something else.

 

In 1972, I didn’t know much about Italian food, or American-style Italian food, except for spaghetti and lasagna and pizza. Minestrone and spumoni sounded very exotic and a little scary. But by this point, I’d already accidentally ordered and then eaten escargots in New Orleans, so a little soup wasn’t going to get in my way.

 

[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

The Gold Trail Motor Lodge is right on the side of Highway 50. I’m not sure that anyone else is staying here but us. We are on our third day here. There is nothing to do. At least the equally plain and ugly Mother Lode Motel, next down the highway, lets us use the pool. The three of us sit in the water and spend the change we collected in Las Vegas in the vending machines, sipping cold sodas and eating potato chips while the hot sun beats down on us. An occasional car roars down the road that we can see through the chain link fence.

            Steve has taken to studying the road atlas.

            “It’s only 45 miles from Placerville to Sacramento,” he points out gloomily.

            We hardly see Mom and Van.

            “How far is it into town?” asks Ellen as she drags her hand through the blue water. I can’t see her eyes behind her sunglasses.

            Steve uses his fingers as a ruler and tries to figure out where we are on the red line that is the highway in the atlas. “I think it’s about 3 miles.”

            “We’ve walked that far before, going into Emory Village to Horton’s,” Ellen reminds us of the many treks to our favorite dime store and soda fountain. Will I ever see Horton’s again?

            “But there are sidewalks and shade trees there. It’s not safe to walk on the side of the highway,” I say nervously.

            “I could try to get the keys to the car,” Steve says. I can’t tell if he is joking. Ellen can’t drive; she’s afraid to take the drivers’ test to get her license. Steve is only 14, but he drives sometimes. Van lets him now and then when he’s tired or wants to smoke and drink without worrying about keeping his eyes on the road. I think Steve is the better driver.

            “I’m getting really tired of potato chips and Cokes. There has to be a place to eat in Placerville. Or a grocery store. We’ll walk single file and be really careful.”

            In my head I see us straggling down the busy highway, cars zooming past and the sun blazing down and me desperate to keep up with the others. Then my stomach growls thinking of a cafe with real food and drinks with ice.

            “The television doesn’t work,” adds Steve. “I’m sick of this place.”

We go to our room, put on the sneakers none of us have worn for 3 days, and set off down Highway 50, the sun in our eyes. Ellen leads the way, with me in the middle so I will feel safer, and Steve bringing up the rear, singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

            At about 90 bottles, Ellen turns around. “Oh, shut up.”

            “I wish Cathy was here. She knows all the good songs.”

           Some summer nights, we would all pile in the car, even the dog Tripp, and Mom would start driving and the game was to get her lost. “Turn left here!” Cathy would start the sing-alongs. By the Light of the Silvery Moon, with extra made up choruses, Sipping Cider through a Straw, The Chicken Song. Knowing how much my mother hates to drive, I really don’t understand why she was willing to play this game with us. And we never got lost, how was that?

            We can’t get lost on this outing; the motel is on the side of Highway 50 and it looks like whatever there is in Placerville is right on the highway too. Sweat trickles down between my shoulder blades and my braid feels really hot on the back of my neck. Ellen must be desperate to get out; she hates to do anything that involves dust or sweat.

            It’s hard to talk with the cars roaring past so we don’t for a while. After what seems like hours, we finally get to town. I see a lot of bars. Maybe we’ll find Mom and Van if we go in, but then, we don’t really want to find them.

            “Just down there.” Ellen points to a little side street and the neon lights of an Italian restaurant. We trudge forward, no longer in single file. It’s cool and dark and smells of garlic inside the restaurant. An older woman, wearing all black and a big black apron, comes over to us, concern on her face.

            “The 3 of you are alone?” she asks.

            “Oh, our mom is down the street. She sent us to get some dinner.” Ellen acts like we’ve been doing this all of our lives, not just the last few weeks. “We have money.”

            “Of course. This way.” The woman takes us to a scarred old wooden table, and comes back with ice waters and menus. As I sit down, I can feel the muscles in my legs twitching from the long walk.

            There are several pasta dishes; we call it macaroni at home. A choice of salad or something called minestrone. Ellen says it’s a soup. Dessert and coffee are included in the prices. Another thing I’ve never heard of, spumoni. Ellen doesn’t know what that one is.

            The woman I think of as Mama comes to take our order. She looks at me first. I always want to go last because I’ve never made up my mind, but she looks so worried.

            “Min…min…the soup,” I stutter.

            “The minestrone. Good. You’ll like it. And?”

            “Lasagna.” At least I know what that is. “Can I have iced tea instead of coffee?” I’ve learned to add the “iced”; otherwise I’ll get hot tea out here. In Georgia, tea always means on ice. If you want it hot, you say “hot tea”. It’s 100 degrees outside; why would I want hot tea?

            “Of course. And I’ll think you’ll like the spumoni for dessert. It’s an ice cream.”

            “Okay,” I say, relieved not to have make that decision.

            As we wait for the food, Steve brings up again that Sacramento isn’t that far away, so why aren’t we just going there?

            “I have a flight to catch in a few days,” Ellen reminds us. I don’t want to think about her leaving. Or, I don’t want to think about her not taking me with her.

            “The sooner we get there and find a house, the sooner Cathy can send Tripp out to us. “I wish she could have come in the car.” Steve reminds me of how much I miss the pets.

            “Don’t count on it,” says Ellen. “Van took all the other animals to the pound; he might not send Cathy the money for Tripp’s flight out. And you know how Cathy is about the dog. She might refuse to send her.”

            Tripp joined the family before I was born. The story is that Cathy was getting tired of asking for a dog and instead getting a new little brother or sister. So Daddy took her to a neighbor’s house, where they were giving away black lab/Collie mix puppies. All of the other puppies were black and playful, but there was one brown and white one smaller than the others. Cathy picked her up and the pup licked her face and that was that. I was born about a year later, so Tripp is like one of my big sisters. When Mom is calling us in, she calls the names in order, Cathy, Ellen, Steve, Tripp, Gen!”

            Tripp turned out to be epileptic. We’ve learned what to do when she has a seizure. What if she has one in her kennel on the plane? I miss her, but maybe she’d better stay with Cathy. We also had a younger dog, an Airedale named Sunshine, and three cats: Whiskers, the dignified, older long-hair orange tabby; Luke (previously Lulu), the short-hair orange tabby who is not very smart; and Christy, the youngest cat, who had the 4 kittens that all died earlier in the summer. One day I came home and only Tripp was left. “Van took them all to the pound,” Steve informed me gloomily. “He said we can’t take them to California.” I guess even Van isn’t mean enough to send an almost 12-year old epileptic dog to the pound.

            Mama brings 3 little silver dishes of spumoni. It’s not like my favorite ice cream, mint chocolate chip, or the vanilla that Mom swirls coffee powder into. It’s filled with fruits and nuts, and is a pinkish/brownish color. It melts quickly, so I spoon it up as fast as I can.

            Ellen pays the check. “Time to head back up the highway before it gets dark.”

            “Do you think we will get in trouble?” I ask, the worrier of the family even if I am the youngest.

            “I bet they don’t even know we’re gone,” says Steve. He’s right, as usual.

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As usual, my apologies to my siblings for any exaggerations, embellishments, or misremembering.

Now, back to my scholarly work, already and always in progress.

Peace and hugs.

Yes, I Was a Fanilow (Kelly, this one’s for you)

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I first heard the term “Fanilow” from the 2003 Will & Grace television episode in which Will tries to hide from his friends while he stands in line for tickets to a Barry Manilow Christmas concert.

 

I hadn’t thought about Barry Manilow in years. I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to the Will & Grace episode either, except my sister Ellen called me to tell me she thought I’d get a kick out of the episode.

Why? Because I must confess, I was at one time a Fanilow. A devoted one. Okay, I was a teenager in the 70s. It’s somewhat explainable, but I don’t talk about it unless someone else brings it up. And now it’s out in the open.

Bob and I are in beautiful downtown Burbank, California for a couple of days.

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My “bestest ever” friend from high school, Kelly, lives down here. We don’t get to see each other very often, so I welcomed the chance to hitch a ride down I-5 to spend a day with her. At dinner with Bob she happened to say, innocently enough, “Did Gen tell you about how much she loved Barry Manilow?” I looked down. Bob looked at me with an amused expression. And my secret was revealed.

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It started with Mandy. It’s pretty much always been about Mandy. I didn’t even kow until I started writing this, Barry didn’t even write Mandy! I was so sure he had. Illusion destroyed. I listened to that song on the 8-track tape player in our living room in the house we lived in then in Gardnerville, Nevada, in the Carson Valley, over and over.

 

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Carson Valley, Nevada

 

Oh, how I loved that song. I sang my heart out. I can still belt out those lyrics from memory.

 

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Tell all, you say. The ultimate story takes place in March of 1977. Newly popular comedian Billy Crystal, made famous from the spoof television show Soap, was Barry’s opening act for a show at the Sahara Tahoe resort and casino. I HAD to go.

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Seriously. I HAD to go. I would DIE if I didn’t go. South Lake Tahoe is not far from Gardnerville, but it seemed worlds away at that time when I was pining for a chance to go to the show.

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Remember, I hadn’t yet turned 16, I didn’t drive, I didn’t have money, and it seemed IMPOSSIBLE that I would get to go. I pinned a picture of Barry on my wall and moped. If you have ever been or raised a teenaged girl, you know how expertly they pine and mope.

I don’t know what my mother did, but she did what it took, and lo and behold, we were going to the show. Five of us, in fact: my mother and her husband Van, me, and my friends Kelly and Michelle.

The only transportation we had was Van’s tiny Datsun pickup truck. I don’t use the term tiny lightly. Two people could “comfortably” ride in the cab of that truck. Not 5. Somehow we did it. It was very crowded, dangerous, and I am sure illegal. But we were determined.

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My mother made my dress. It looked something like the dress here in the lower left. This was a special occasion, remember. It was March in Tahoe; I was very cold.

super 70s

We went to the dinner show, seated at a table in the very back. I am sure Mom and Van smoked the entire time. They could do that legally then. There were maybe 3 dinner options; we all chose the least expensive–Salisbury steak. Salisbury steak is not steak. Nothing near being steak. It’s basically a hamburger patty in mushroom gravy. Chefs at fine restaurants do not make Salisbury steak. I knew it from frozen TV dinners.

Banquet-Salisbury-Steak-Dinner

A girl we knew in school, a girl from a family with money, arrived at the show with her friends. They had a table up front. They more than likely ordered something other than Salisbury steak. I didn’t care. Van probably had a few drinks (and then drove the overcrowded little truck back down the mountain to Gardnerville). I don’t remember how bad the food or how scary the ride. This was about Barry.

barry at piano

Bily Crystal was, to me then, surprisingly vulgar. Lots of jokes about feminine hygiene products. Not funny. Just get him off the stage and on to Barry, people! It was wonderful, all a blur to me now. But I was happy. We made it home. I switched my crush over to Andy Gibb eventually. And then Daryl Hall, who I still have a thing for.

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Andy Gibb
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Daryl Hall

Life went on. The 70s moved on to the 80s, etc. Barry is 73 now, married to his long-secret love of 39 years, his manager Garry Kief.

 

barry and hubby

 

Now that he’s publicly out, I don’t think anyone is at all surprised. Even me, his former Number 1 Fan.

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But some things never change, like the wonderful feeling of being the company of a good friend. This time with Kelly has been the best; it’s just like we are those 15 year old girls all of those years ago, getting ready to go to a show. True friends are really what it’s all about.

friends

Love you, Kelly.

 

 

A Bridge Over Troubled Water (A Very Long Bridge)

I’m in a memoir mood today, so let’s spin the flashback wheel to the year 1972!

It’s late July, maybe early August. Richard Nixon is president and Watergate is just emerging as a scandal.

nixon

Gasoline averages 55 cents a gallon. The Munich Olympic terrorist attack has yet to happen (that will be in September). The average yearly income is $11,800 and the average cost of a new house is $27,550.

Fashion is interesting and colorful.

 

Food is weird.

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David Bowie introduces his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust.

ABBA is formed.

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Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is published.

Fear_and_Loathing_in_Las_Vegas

The top movie was The Godfather. M*A*S*H is a hit television show, although I am a Mary Tyler Moore Show girl.

 

Roberta Flack’s First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is the top song of the year, American Pie by Don McLean is number 3, and it is the song that I like better. We all like singing along to Harry Nilsson’s Coconut Song.

 

A portion of my family is on an extended one-way cross-country trip from Georgia to California.

interstate

I am the youngest. My mother, a widow with 4 children, has just married her second husband, Van, a twice-divorced alcoholic who doesn’t like children. Actually, he pretty much hates everything as far as I, at age almost 11, can tell. Cathy, our oldest sister, is not on the trip; she is in Georgia with her husband and new baby. I miss them dreadfully. Our family dog, Tripp, will be flown out later to join us in California. I also miss her dreadfully. Van took the 3 cats (Whiskers, Luke, and Christy) and the other dog, goofy  Sunshine, to the pound. Somehow he spared Tripp, who is a year older than I am and has been around my entire life. She has periodic seizures; maybe even a seemingly heartless guy like Van knows you don’t take a senior dog with seizures away from her family.

This excerpt from the Little Shit memoir (Little Shit is the nickname I obtained that summer) is early in the trip, when are headed from Laurel, Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana.

To do this, we cross the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, an almost 24 mile long bridge that is the world’s longest span over water. That is very long, especially when you are 10, and crammed in a car with two cranky siblings and two smoking adults, no air conditioning, and no end in sight to this miserable summer. Fun times!

Apologies to my sister Ellen for my somewhat exaggerated depiction of her moodiness and carsickness. But she did miss her boyfriend and she really hated that bridge!

[Text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

            We have a quiet breakfast at the Howard Johnson’s in Laurel, Mississippi. Ellen spent the previous night in our room in tears after saying goodbye to her boyfriend in Birmingham. It’s not like she’s never going to see him again. She’ll be back in Atlanta to finish high school soon enough, and he will be there for his second year at Emory. But she is inconsolable, refusing to eat dinner. I love the orange and turquoise theme but Ellen says it’s tacky. She consents to breakfast, but glares at Van between deep sighs. She fiddles with a cup of coffee, the weight of the world on her 16-year old shoulders. I go for the little boxes of cereal that you split open and pour the milk right in, bypassing the bowl. The snap, crackle and pop is the only noise at the table beside the sighs and the clinking of coffee cups on saucers.

            “I can’t wait to see New Orleans,” Mom finally offers as conversation.

          Steve mutters, “I can,” and Ellen just rolls her eyes.

            We load the bags back onto the luggage rack. Steve crawls to the wayback, flashing me his “beat you” grin. I settle in beside Ellen in the back seat. At least I have my book if I can’t have my favorite spot.

            “How can you read in the car?” Ellen looks at me like I’m from another planet. It’s as good a place to read as any.

            Van has decreed that Mom is not going to drive on this trip, which is fine with her, and gets behind the wheel. She empties out the overflowing ashtray and settles in.

            “We’ll be going over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. It’s the world’s longest bridge over water,” Van announces, like he’s reading from a travel brochure.

            Uh oh. He doesn’t know yet that Ellen can get really carsick on bridges and curvy roads. I love Ellen, but I don’t want to be sitting next to her over that bridge.

            “Can we have the radio for a while?” Ellen asks.

            So far Van has been solidly anti-radio.

            “If I hear that damned “lime in the coconut” song one more time, I’m going to spit, ” he says.

            Ellen loves Carly Simon and Carole King but they don’t impress Van either. None of us want to listen to what Steve likes, bands with weird names like Jethro Tull, and of course the Allman Brothers, Georgia boys who Ellen’s boyfriend used to listen to before they were famous when they would play for free in Piedmont Park. So we settle for country music. Mom tries to get us to sing along like we used to, but Cathy was always the leader then and Ellen isn’t up to taking her place at the moment.

            The bridge appears to be endless and hovers uncomfortably close to the water. I’m not afraid of bridges or heights, but the idea of Van swerving the overloaded station wagon off the bridge when he gets cigarette ashes on his pants or spills his drink makes me nervous. Van also probably doesn’t know that I can’t swim.

            “My goodness, look at that!” exclaims Mom. It really is quite a sight, with no end on the horizon. Ellen clutches at my arm. I let her, even though I am not sure how it comforts her at all.

            “You lie down; I’ll scoot over closer to the door,” I offer. The window is open for fresh air. If we go over, is it better for it to be up or down?

             In my mind I see the swerve of the overloaded station wagon and it, with the 5 of us, dropping like a giant cannonball into the water. Do station wagons float? We have the windows cracked open all the time because of the cigarette smoke and the lack of air conditioning. Now I wonder, would it be better to have the windows tightly shut in the event of a water landing? I grab the crank and start turning it, the cool smooth metal feeling like my last chance to avoid a watery grave. I practice rolling the window up and down to see how fast I can do it if called on in an emergency.

            “What the hell are you doing,” Van demands, his mouth pursed around his cigarette and looking at me in the rear view mirror.

            I know better than to answer the question. I stop cranking the handle and slide down in the seat so I can’t see all of the beautiful blue, deadly water out there. But it’s much too hot to burrow, and Ellen is taking up more than her share of the space as she lies on her side and closes her eyes, trying to stem the carsickness. Steve is looking out the wayback at the cars behind us, and gazing at the water as it speeds away from him rather than toward him.

            “Scoot over,” I whisper as I crawl over the seat back into the wayback with him. “Ellen’s going to puke on me!”

            He swats at me, “Go away.”

            “Mom!” I yell toward the front.

            “Mom! Steve won’t let me in the back. Tell him to move over.” I am halfway over the back seat, head and shoulders in the wayback and the rest of me trying to catch up. Ellen, sweaty and clammy with carsickness, is swatting me away with a surprisingly strong hand from one side and Steve from the other. I hiss at Steve, “Let me in, she’s going to puke on me.”

            “Dammit, Nancy,” snarls Van. “I am not pulling over on this bridge. Control your children.” Mom is obliviously singing with Donna Fargo that she’s the happiest girl in the whole USA. 

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Was my mother really oblivious? I honestly don’t know, but it seemed so at the time. And no, in 1972 not a lot of people bothered with seat belts. I climbed around in the car. Dear younger readers, cars did not have electric windows in the old days. You had to crank them. I can’t say for sure there was a Howard Johnson’s in Laurel, Mississippi, but I know we stayed at one somewhere along the way.

hj

 

We did love the Coconut Song. You know the one, “put the lime in the coconut, you know you’ll feel better…

 

Here I am, 45 years later, on a hot day in California in August, drinking my favorite new icy drink, coconut water with lime. It does make me feel better!

coco-lime

Cheers!

For my big brother (love you, Steve)

I doubt my brother Steve reads my blog. He’s not a social media kind of guy. He lives almost 3,000 miles away in North Carolina; I live in California. We are 4 years apart. He is my sibling closest to me in age, and the one with whom I share the most memories of our lives after our mother married her second husband, Van. We went through a lot together in the 1970s. But time and life have a way of distancing people from those kind of bonds. He is a man of faith, conservative of politics. I am a woman of confused thoughts, led by my heart and a desire for kindness. We don’t talk about religion or politics at family gatherings, but family gatherings are very rare in any case. He keeps more in touch with our sister Ellen, the glue of the family, so to speak, who tries her best to keep us all from drifting too far apart. The last time I saw my brother was after our sister Cathy’s husband Ralph passed away, much too young. I don’t think we spoke much except to tell our favorite Ralph stories.

Steve was my protector during the Van years. Dubbed by Van as Little Shit, I was always in trouble for some imagined offense or slight. I was honestly a well-behaved kid, good in school, and mostly quietly in my room reading or drawing. But Van saw the worst in me. I’ll never forget Van going ballistic over something I’d done (and really it would have been something minor, like not closing the screen of the sliding glass door all of the way) and chasing me through the house with a two-by-four. It was the summer of 1973, and we had just moved to Gardnerville, Nevada. I was almost 12, Steve almost 16. He was more than a foot taller than me, quick and wiry. I was neither of those things. He got the piece of lumber away from Van and helped me get to my room, where I could lock the door. I needed my brother, and he kept an eye on me.

babies
With my brother, either 1962 or 1963.

In 1972, on our drive from Georgia to California, my brother, in my memories, is endlessly enjoying all you can eat breakfast buffets. There is the time he locked me out of the car in the New Mexico desert, but even that in its way is a fond memory.

My absolute favorite memory of my brother on that trip is at a fine dining restaurant at the Sheraton resort in Tucson, Arizona. Mom and Van would typically disappear for a few days after we checked into whatever town’s hotel/motel, leaving Ellen, Steve, and me on our own for the most part. We spent 2 or 3 days in Tucson, the 3 of us floating in the swimming pool and seriously out of our element. The Arizona desert in summer is a vastly different place than the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

 

desert
Arizona dessert
georgia-road
Georgia roads

 

eating corn
Me, upside down, and Steve,, in the Georgia countryside in 1972.

Van must have been in a good humor and slipped someone at the hotel restaurant a lot of money, arranging for “the kids” to spend an evening in the restaurant, ordering whatever we wanted and playing at being grown-ups. It’s actually one of my very favorite memories of my brother.

We wore our best clothes. We were shown to a nice table. The maître d’ treated us with the utmost respect, but was probably laughing inside. We were brought amuse-bouche, in this case little stuffed grape leaves. It all seemed so over the top to me at 10 years old. Steve ordered everything that could be made table-side and preferably set on fire. Whenever I see Crêpes Suzette on a menu, I smile and think of my sweet brother.

fire.jpg

This is a  short, unfinished, and very rough bit from the Little Shit memoir-in-progress. But I wanted to post it today because I’ve been thinking of you, Steve.

[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

“You’ll get us in trouble. It’s too expensive!”

            Steve looks over the top of the menu at me. “He told the maître d’ to give us anything we wanted.”

            I look to Ellen but she smiles and shrugs. She’s enjoying having our brother act like a big-shot man of the family.

            “And he put me in charge.”

            The waiter approaches, turning to Steve, ready to take our dinner order.

            “We’ll have the Caesar Salad and Steak Diane for three.” His voice seems deeper as he gives the order.

            “Very well, sir.” The waiter walks away.

            I shift in my chair and pull up my white knee socks. “It’s really expensive! He’ll get mad!”

            “He’s never going to look at the bill. It’ll just be part of the room charges.” He signals the waiter. “Could you bring another round of drinks, please?”

            “Two Shirley Temples and a Roy Rogers, right away.”

            I look down at the menu for what Steve’s ordered. Table-side service—I’ve never seen such a thing before, and the prices are so high!

            The waiter brings the drinks and I take what I think is a ladylike sip of the pink drink through the straw.

            “What if he does look at the bill this time?” I don’t know if I can eat with the knot I feel in my stomach.

            Steve counters, “What if he does? It’s Mom’s money.”

            He nods approvingly as the maître d’ wheels the table over and begins assembling the Caesar salads.

            “You don’t like dressed salads or half the things in Steak Diane,” I point out.

            “Maybe I’ll like it the way they make it here,” he counters.

            Eyeing the menu again, he looks to the maître d’ again and says, “And for dessert, we’ll have the Crêpes Suzette.”

half a Gen
Half a Genevieve, Ellen, Steve, Mom and a complete stranger at the Grand Canyon in 1972. Yes, Van deliberately left me out when he took the photo.

 

After a few days of floating in the pool in Tucson, I had the worst sunburn in recorded history, huge blisters on my back that will color my memories of our next stop, the Grand Canyon.

Steve, whatever the times bring or however different our paths through lives are, you are always my big brother and I love you.

Peace and hugs.

 

 

 

A Wonder of Women (or, Confessions of a Girl Scout Dropout)

group pano
My latest adventure centered on spending 2 days with these delightful women. 

For most of my life, I considered myself to be an anti-social loner, not a team player, prefering to avoid group situations at all possible costs. My mother made me join the Brownies, which was mostly okay. We had snacks and did arts and crafts and sang silly songs. I could deal with that, and if I immersed myself in the arts and crafts I could avoid the other girls and more importantly, the troop leader. She scared the life out of me. Then came Girl Scouts. Uh oh. I was clearly not Girl Scout material. Girl Scouts are expected to interact in the world, earning badges for awesome deeds and selling overpriced cookies to people who really don’t need or want them. And go camping. Hell no. I don’t do camping.

me
If there was a badge in cat holding, I could’ve earned that one. And color coordinating outfits.

I pretended to go to Girl Scouts, showing up at the spot in front of the school where the car pool mom picked us up so as to be seen by the other girls. Then I’d go hide somewhere until the coast was clear, play on the school playground until it was time to go home, and then walk home, pretending when I got there that I’d had a great time. I didn’t get away with it for long. But my mother was understanding and let me leave the scouts. I was free! Free to spend my time with my books and my cats and my arts and crafts projects! Happy girl!

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I grew up. I was lonely, but still convinced I was not a people person. I sat at home alone a lot, drinking too much in front of Food Network shows.

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I needed a troup, a community, a network, I just didn’t know that’s what I needed. It was suggested that I needed to get out of the house and challenge myself. What?! But I tried. I signed up for cooking classes, mosaic making classes, knitting classes. But I didn’t make friends or try to fit in. It wasn’t because the women (yes, it was all women in these groups) didn’t try to befriend me. I resisted them, cultivating my misunderstood loner status.

But life has a way of kicking us in our butts when we need it. I needed it. I got my butt kicked. I got help. And I discovered that I am a nice person who thrives among friends and enjoys the company of others. Who knew?!

Call me a late bloomer if you will.

late bloomer

It started with volunteering at an animal shelter, where I started to make friends and find a purpose in life. The animals were my bridge to connecting to people. Then I joined a book group. And had fun! I do things I would never have done 4 years ago, and they all involve other humans.

We have names for collectives of animals. A congregation of alligators, a battery of barracudas, an obstinancy of buffalo, a clowder of cats, a charm of finches, a rhumba of rattlesnakes, etc.

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We don’t have such creative names for groups of humans. Women in particular tend to reach out to other women for support and friendship. We need a name. I propose a wonder of women. I finally reached that point in my life where I have discovered that women who gather in groups don’t “cat fight” or backstab; okay, we might gossip a bit. But we help and support each other, offering good listening skills, advice if wanted, and understanding.

A study by Laura Klein and Shelley Taylor suggests that women are genetically hardwired to respond to stress by “seeking and befriending”. I most recently sought and befriended by attending the Ethelridge Road Knitting Salon, in upstate New York last week. What attracted me was the presence of one of my favorite writers, Alice Hoffman. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend 2 days in her company. I can knit, but it’s been a while. I was willing to dust off my needles and relearn casting on and purling in order to meet Alice Hoffman.

with Alice
I got to meet Alice Hoffman!

I recently wrote about having read her book Faithful and how I connected to the main character Shelby. Shelby would have loved our dog mascot for the weekend, Millie.

I had an amazing experience in so many ways. First of all, it really was an adventure for me. I went so far out of my comfort zone (which is admittedly fairly small), renting a car and driving around upstate New York, staying by myself in a bed and breakfast. I felt so grown up.

me on arrival
All grown up and ready to join my life.

Was it worth it? Undoubtedly! Everyone was warm and welcoming, helpful and interested. We talked, we knitted, we listened to Alice read, we wrote, we ate well. Our hosts, including Millie, were welcoming and made us feel at home.

It was like Brownies, only better! Arts and crafts–check. Snacks–check. Scary troop leader–no way! And no camping!

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We all made amulets after listening to Alice read a lovely fairy tale, Amulet.
my happy face
Happily crafting away.

The only thing missing from my perspective–a cat.

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The B and B was just missing a cat. One would’ve made it perfect.

I’m home now, surrounded by cats, with new knitting projects, new friends to keep in touch with, and charmed memories. I plan to go again next year if all goes well.

My deepest thanks to everyone involved in making the experience so special. It means more to me than words can convey. And you didn’t make me sell cookies or camp!

Peace and hugs.

The Perfect Moment (starring an orange tabby cat)

The artist James Lee Byars (1932-1997), known for conceptual works and performance art, did a piece called The Perfect Moment.

Not A perfect moment, but THE perfect moment. Byars seemed to like the word perfect; among his works are The Perfect Love Letter, The Perfect Kiss, The Perfect Performance is to Stand Still, The Exhibition of Perfect, The Perfect Quiet, The Perfect Death, The Perfect Thought, The Perfect Moment, Perfect is My Death Word, and The Palace of Perfect. That’s a lot of perfection! So when I thought of the idea of a perfect moment in my own life, as a former museum professional my thoughts went to Byars.

Byars smile
Byars: The Perfect Smile, 1994 performance, Ludwig Museum, Cologne
perfect love letter
The Perfect Love Letter (is I write I love you backwards), 1974, performance, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

In my personal experience, I think on the smaller level of having perfect moments, plural. Every now and then, there is a moment when all seems right with world. It doesn’t have to be something big and grand or momentous. It doesn’t even have to seem special to anyone but you. It can be fleeting, or it can stick around for a while. But in that moment, however long it lasts, all feels right and good and just the way it should. It speaks to the rarity of such moments that they are memorable. They can happen in the midst of tedium or of turmoil or, of course, when everything seems perfect already and then that one more thing happens, that cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae sits perfectly and beautifully, beckoning you and making it all worthwhile.

hot fudge sundae

I had such a moment recently on a long-awaited trip to Iceland. My interest in Iceland, a trendy travel spot currently, dates back from my days as a graduate student at UC Davis, back in the early 1990s. One of my textile department classmates was a beautiful young Icelandic woman, Thorbjörg, with her pixie-like features and cheerful attitude. During one of our graduate seminars, she presented some slides and facts about the Icelandic textile industry. The images of Iceland were so captivating—the color and the light and the natural beauty took my breath away. And animals—sheep, horses, marine birds like puffins—caught my attention as well.

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We finally made it to Iceland all of these years later. On my wish list, amongst other things, was to see these animals. And I did. But I kept wondering, where are all of the dogs and cats in Iceland? I saw very few dogs being walked around the city, and absolutely no cats. Zero. NO CATS. How is this possible? I was told that there were lots of cats in Reykjvik. I bought a t-shirt that shows the cats of Reykjavik. In one shop, I saw a sign regarding proceeds going to help Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) efforts for the stray cats of the city. But they remained invisible to me.

cats rule

 

On our last day in Iceland, we made a trek to the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the west coast.

stykkisholmur map

It was a perfect day. The towns of Borgarnes and Stykkishólmur were charming and picturesque.

Stykkishólmur
Stykkishólmur

We had good coffee and good food. We had sunshine. I saw sheep and horses on the road driving in. We booked a boat excursion to see puffins, and saw them as well as gray seals and a white-backed dolphin. I was thinking it had been the best day ever, and I was happy. It felt like a fitting and satisfying end to a wonderful week.

 

And then it happened. My moment. In an empty church parking lot on the edge of a small town on the west coast of Iceland, the friendliest orange tabby cat walked right up to us, like he knew us and was expecting us. He was clearly loved and well-fed. He had a collar and a lot of self-confidence. And he wanted affection. I immediately sat down on the asphalt and gave it to him. It made me ridiculously happy. It was a perfect moment.

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Looking back on such perfect moments, I find they often involve sunshine, animals, and/or books. The first that comes to mind was when I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I must have had perfect moments before that, but this is the one that stands out in my memory. It was a winter day, and I was snuggled up in the den of our house in Atlanta. I can see the green nubby fabric of the upholstery on the chair and the tones of browns in the braided rug on the floor. A beam of sunlight has cut through the air and settled on me in the chair, where I am reading Hugh Lofting’s 1920 The Story of Doctor Dolittle, an old copy that was my mother’s in her childhood and had that particular smell and feel of old paper and old books. I was warm and sleepy and enjoying my book, the room was quiet, I was alone, and there was nowhere to go or be. I was just there, a little girl doing what she loved, perfectly happy. I might have had our cat Whiskers in the chair with me, but oddly I don’t remember. It would make sense. And he was an orange tabby.

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And yes, I came to find out that the author, Hugh Lofting, really was an animal lover. Forget the silly movie adaptations of Doctor Dolittle. Go to the original.

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Hugh Lofting

quote

Another time, much later in my life, I was terribly jet-lagged and unable to sleep on a very hot night in Istanbul. Tossing and turning and hating life, I was cursing pretty much everything and everyone. I could hear the beginnings of the call for prayer coming from the loudspeaker at the local mosque. Great. I was about to put a pillow over my head when I listened instead to the most beautiful male voice I had ever heard, singing out the call. The gorgeous yet haunting song gave me the shivers. I can still hear the voice and feel the sense of the beauty in the moment. I am not religious, and for me this had nothing to do with anyone’s God or piety. It was about beauty in unexpected times and places, and the realization that I am just a really small part of this world, not its center. My soul was soothed, and I eventually went to sleep.

Sisli_Square

 

There are no expectations attached to these moments. No preconceived ideas or possible disappointment. They just are. You can’t make them happen or predict them. That’s what is so beautiful about them. I know some will disagree; I see lots of articles along the lines of “Don’t wait for the perfect moment—make it happen now!” But I think they have to sneak up on you unawares; if you are trying to make it happen, that kind of defeats the perfection of it.

I am not a performer. I don’t know if Byars felt what he performed. Classical musician Bob tells me that the feeling that he’s played just the way he wanted is more rare than I might think. But that’s his idea of a perfect moment. Dabbling in art, I am usually dissatisfied at some level with the drawings and painting I produce. Once in a very great while, I think I’ve done just what I meant to or even more. It is rare. But this is something a little different; this is about self-satisfaction—something internal and based on when we expect from ourselves. These are from the inside out.

My perfect moments have come from the outside in. A friend put it that in that moment in Stykkishólmur, Iceland, the cat found me. I was, in a sense, perfectly happy already. And then I got that one more thing, the more than I could ask for, the cherry on the hot fudge sundae—I got my perfect moment. And I felt blessed.

bensson 2

Peace and hugs.

The Best Pie in Winnie, Texas (from Just Call Me Little Shit)

Here is another scene from the someday memoir of my summer of 1972. It’s not complete and needs some work, but I’ll never forget stopping at a diner in Winnie, Texas.  We were so hot and miserable. Texas seemed to go on forever.

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I call this fictionalized autobiography;  it’s based on truth but the truth as I remember it from the perspective of a ten-year old girl who lived it 45 years ago. I might have the timelines and details and confused, and some of it might be as I dreamed it rather than as it was.

dreams-and-reality

Many of my memories are about food. I was a chubby kid (still am!), getting my weight issues honestly through genetics and my mother. Plus a love of sweet and salty. My brother, at 14, could and did eat everything. “All you can eat” were his favorite words. My sister Ellen, hating being on the road and having to stop at gas station bathrooms and roadside diners, ate a lot of yogurt when she could get it and cottage cheese when she couldn’t. How I longed for greasy, salty, diner food! But it was made clear that I would be made miserable if I indulged.

fries     Fries versus cottage cheese.    plate-cottage-cheese-25961453

Years after the diner in Winnie, Texas, I read the short story “Full Count” in Elizabeth Berg’s book The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Other Small Acts of Liberation (2008), and Janey’s story was so familiar.

 

Here’s mine. [text copyright 2017 Genevieve Cottraux]

I’ve lost track of what state we are in; maybe we are still in Texas. It seems to be Texas for days. My stomach growls. Even though we have an ice chest near my nest in the way back, Van has made it clear that snacking in the car pushes his buttons.

            “What, are you eating again? No wonder you’re chubby.” Of course, this is directed at me. Neither Steve nor Ellen is in the least chubby. Steve is a teenage boy, a bottomless pit of appetite, tall and skinny. Ellen at sixteen, lives on yogurt and Tab diet cola. Mom and Van smoke and drink up front, but we sit quietly in the back, hoping not to rock Van’s shaky boat.

            My stomach growls again. I can’t help myself. “Are we stopping for lunch soon? I’m really hungry.”

            Mom looks back at me, brows furrowed. Van doesn’t turn around, but exhales cigarette smoke with a big sigh.

            Texas heat, cigarette smoke and hunger are making me reckless. “I’m really hungry. Are we ever going to stop for lunch?”

            “Can’t you wait until dinner?”

            I stare at the back of Van’s scrawny neck and wish I was brave enough, or dumb enough, to aim a spitball at him.

            I don’t know if they are really hungry or feeling sorry for me, but Ellen and Steve both chime in, “We’re hungry, too. Let’s stop.”

            “It won’t take long; let’s pull over and get something,” my mother looks at Van, pleading for us. Van sighs again, outnumbered.

             He doesn’t speak, but I can tell he’s starting to simmer with annoyance. There’s a roadside diner not much farther down the highway. The parking lot is full of trucks with Texas license plates. The diner sign flashes, “Last chance to eat in Winnie, Texas.” I’ll take it.

            We file into the crowded but blissfully air-conditioned diner. A friendly, uniformed older waitress clears off a table for us and brings ice water. She smiles at me. I smile back, glad to see a friendly face on this endless, hot journey.

            Van orders black coffee. Mom follows suit. I know she wants cream in her coffee but Van has aimed a chubby remark or two at her, too. He rarely eats, living on cigarettes and black coffee alternating with whiskey.

            The motherly waitress looks to the three of us expectantly.

            “I’ll have a side of cottage cheese and ice tea, please.” Ellen looks down at the damp table and disdainfully picks up a spoon, inspecting it and then wiping it with a napkin. She hates being on the road.

            I’m being my usual indecisive self, fidgeting with the laminated menu, so Steve jumps in. “Cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate milkshake, please.” We are proper Southern children in our way, always putting in the please and thank you.

            My mouth waters and my stomach growls painfully. Oh, do I want what he’s having! Would a tuna sandwich and chips be less likely to attract Van’s attention?

            “Your turn, honey. What sounds good?”

            It all sounds good; that’s the problem.

            “Honey?”

            “The fruit plate, please.” I can’t look up at her.

            “Are you sure? Not many little girls order that; it’s usually their mamas.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            We wait for our food. Van relaxes, or what passes for it with him, lights a cigarette. I guess I’ve passed the test.

            My brother makes endless puns on the town name. “Winnie is hotter than poo” sends us into fits of laughter.

            The food arrives. I look longingly at my brother’s plate, cheese oozing out from the burger, as he pours red, silky ketchup on the fries. Ellen barely touches her cottage cheese. I pretend each bite of fruit is a greasy, salty fry.

            The waitress comes back, plates of cherry pie for all of us. “Couldn’t let these growing children leave without some of the best pie in town. On the house.” She looks at Mom and Van as she sets the plates around.

            “You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t eat it.” She smiles at me and hands me a clean fork. I almost hope Van will call me Little Shit in front of this angel waitress as I take a bit of the best pie I have ever eaten.

 

Today I was going to post the scene in which my mother marries Van, but went with Winnie, Texas instead. Maybe I am craving pie!

Next time. Or maybe something else, who knows. It’ll be the day I wrote whatever I wanted. To small acts of liberation!