In my dreams, I’m swept off my feet by grand romantic gestures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is my biggest cheerleader, always supportive and encouraging without being pushy.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
David Bowie introduces his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust.
ABBA is formed.
Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is published.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Today we continue on the adventures of Little Shit, aka me. When we drove cross country in the summer of 1972, the routine was that we would get to a motel or hotel (usually a motel) and check into two rooms, Mom and Van in one, the three of us kids in the other. Ellen and I would share a bed if they were big enough, or there’d be a roll-away bed brought in for me. I’m sure brother Steve didn’t love sharing rooms with his sisters, but we usually didn’t spend much time in the rooms anyway.
After an adventurous day and night in New Orleans, we went on to Galveston, Texas. I only knew of Galveston from the Glen Campbell song of 1969. (Rest in Peace, Mr. Campbell.)
I did not have a good time in Galveston. When you read the memoir excerpt below, you will wonder if, one, my mother really left me alone in the hotel while they all went out to dinner. Yes, she did. It didn’t occur to any of us then that it wasn’t safe to do so. Two, did room service really take an order and deliver to a 10 year old kid? Yes. And I enjoyed the experience immensely! [Warning to my vegan friends; when I was 10 I was not a vegan; there will be animal products consumed in this story.]
I bring up Audie Murphy (1925-1971) in the story. He was a real World War II hero, the most decorated hero of the war, who then went on to be an actor. He had already been killed in a plane crash by the time of the story, but I had no idea. He just looked like a nice guy. I found out later that he refused to do ads for cigarettes or alcohol. He sounds like the total opposite of my mother’s second husband, who was never without a drink and a cigarette. My instincts at 10 weren’t too bad.
I’ve figured out from images that it was the Flagship Hotel where we stayed. It was built in 1965 on Galveston’s Pleasure Pier, and severely damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008. It was demolished in 2009.
[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]
We are staying in a big hotel this time, instead of a motel. It’s right on the beach, too, and we are up pretty high. It’s fun to go out on our balcony and look down at the water. I haven’t ever really spent much time at a beach before.
We visited Mimi and Granddaddy in San Diego last summer and they took us to the beach. I had to wear that hand-me-down yellow bathing suit that was Cathy’s or Ellen’s (or Cathy’s and then Ellen’s). As usually, I got sunburned. I was embarrassed that I can’t swim, but I just went in up to my knees and splashed around. I’d rather collect seashells or build sandcastles anyway.
This beach looks kind of dirty, but I don’t care. At least we are out of the hot car and the clouds of cigarette smoke, and we can get away from Mom and Van for a while. But Mom insists that we all eat lunch first, so we trudge into the hotel restaurant. Van is weirdly all smiles, and that scares me. He announces that he’s made appointments for Mom, Ellen, and me to go to the hotel beauty salon for haircuts and manicures. Mom and Ellen look happy, but I feel a knot in my stomach. He looks at us all expectantly. Mom says, “Oh, thank you! Girls?” Ellen says thank you. They all look at me.
“No, thank you,” I say, knowing it’s the wrong answer but unable to say anything else. I don’t want to go. I can tell by the look on Van’s face that I am in big trouble again.
“You’re going. And then we are all going out for a nice dinner tonight.”
“No.” I can be stubborn. I am happy with my long wavy hair. My nails are short and stubby and bitten down. A manicure would be silly. And I’d rather be at the beach.
Are they all mad at me? I guess it would be easier to just go along, but I’m in a mood now and there’s no giving in. We go through a few rounds of “Yes you will” followed by “No I won’t.” We all head up to our rooms, Ellen and Mom to get ready for their salon appointments. I’m told I can go down to the beach with Steve, but when they all go to dinner, I have to stay in the hotel room.
That’s my punishment? To get to stay in the nice big room, with 2 big beds, and watch television instead of putting on my dress-up dress with the hated white knee socks and patent leather shoes, and sitting for hours in a smoky restaurant waiting for Mom and Van to decide we can leave? Cool!
I go down to the beach with Steve, but he says there are jellyfish and I get a little scared. I dig in the sand and the afternoon goes by.
Everyone else gets ready to go to the fancy restaurant that Van’s picked out. As they all leave, Van looks around and says “Thank you” to Mom, Ellen, and Steve. He looks at me and says “No, thank you” with a mean look, and they head to the elevator.
Finally, I have the room to myself! I turn on the television but there’s nothing much on. A World War II movie with Audie Murphy. I go out on the balcony and watch the water below. I take off my favorite shoes, the red Keds that I have to get in the boys’ section since my feet are wider than a “normal” girl, and consider throwing them off the balcony. I think, “That’ll show them.” Show them what? I love those shoes, so I toss them to safety back into the room.
My stomach growls. I think my punishment is supposed to include not having any dinner, but no one said that, so I look at the room service menu. Why shouldn’t I call for food? Van didn’t say not to, so I’m not disobeying anyone.
I pick the most expensive thing on the menu—filet mignon. I know what that is from the other restaurants we’ve been to. It comes with a baked potato. Yum! And a salad, which is okay. I like salad, especially with a creamy dressing. I think I should order a glass of milk, which is what Mom would make me drink.
I hate drinking milk. It’s gross. It always makes me think of the time I had lunch with a kid down the street. I can’t remember his name, but his mother made cheese sandwiches and poured us glasses of milk. I swear I saw that kid spit in my milk, so I refused to drink it. She was unhappy with me, and I think I got fussed at for it by Mom. Ever since then, I can’t stand the idea of drinking milk.
I call in my order, with a Coke instead of the milk. Surprisingly, no one tells me I am too little or in trouble or anything else. My food will be right up. And it is. I sit at the little wheeled table and turn the Audie Murphy movie back on. The sliding glass door is open, and I can hear the sound of the ocean. The baked potato with sour cream and chives is delicious.
At some point, I give up on finishing the food and get in one of the beds to watch the movie. I can tell Audie Murphy is the hero, but that’s about it. I like this Audie Murphy guy. He looks nice. Why couldn’t Mom have married somebody like him? He’d never call me Little Shit. He’d call me his little princess and bring me a kitten. He’d never tell me I’m chubby or make me wear white knee socks. He’d come down to the beach and let me bury him in the sand and then we’d look for sand dollars. We’d have a car with an air conditioner. We’d go back home.
In hindsight, it might not have been so bad to go to the salon. It was the idea of being made to go and being expected to say thank you for something I didn’t want that set me off. I was a good Southern girl, raised to say “please” and “thank you” and “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir”. But something got into me that day in Galveston. And in an odd way, I am proud of my Little Shit self for it. You go, girl!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On our last day in Iceland, we made a trek to the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the west coast.
It was a perfect day. The towns of Borgarnes and Stykkishólmur were charming and picturesque.
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.
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 ofDoctor 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.
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.
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.
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.
During the infamous summer of 1972, our cross-country traveling family ended up in Las Vegas for a few days. This was in 1972; Las Vegas was NOT a family destination. It was a seedy place. Celebrity chefs hadn’t flocked there yet. I haven’t been back to Vegas (although I spent a lot of time in the Carson Valley), but I imagine it’s quite the scene these days. Not my scene, then or now.
I did not like Las Vegas much. Except for Circus Circus, which was new and fun back in 1972. The 3 of us kids were left unsupervised to wander around Circus Circus, which didn’t do us any harm, although maybe wasn’t one of my mother’s better parenting decisions. This excerpt from the memoir contains several questionable parenting decisions.
This episode revolves around a stay at Caesar’s Palace. The 1972 version, not the modern one.
If you aren’t familiar with Totie Fields (1930-1978), she was a stand-up comic (then called a comedienne), the rare female in the male-dominated field of the 1960s and 1970s. Tame by today’s standards, she was pretty raucous for her time.
And then there’s John Davidson. Born in 1941, he’s been an actor, singer, and game show host. My sister Ellen thought he was dreamy.
The two of them performed a show in August, 1972, at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. We were there. Apologies to my siblings for any unintentional fictionalizing of the truth, but this is actually how I remember the story. Was 16 (almost 17) year old Ellen really served champagne? The laws were probably looser back then, but there were also a lot of big tips (bribes) to staff that made this entire event even happen. I’m sure I didn’t know the term maitre d’hotel at age 10 (almost 11), but I did hear the term that sounded like “maytra dee” a lot and I knew who that was. Maybe Totie was the opener for John; usually the comic is first up before the singer. Whatever. Here we go; what happened in Vegas isn’t staying there!
[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]
For a change, we make an early start. Not that there is anything to do at the Bumbleberry Inn in Springdale, Utah.
“What year do they think it is in Utah, anyway?” grumbles Van. “It’s 1972, not Prohibition. They could serve a man a drink in the restaurant, damn it.”
It’s a long, silent drive into Las Vegas. I thought it was hot in Texas, but this is crazy.
“I’m afraid the old girl is going to overheat, and we’re almost out of gas. Gonna try coasting and see if that gets us closer.”
Van hates to buy gas, so we are always on the verge of running out. Mom keeps suggesting he fill up the tank when we stop, but he hates not just the buying of the gas but the paying for it, so he won’t buy a full tank. I might only be a ten-year old Little Shit, as I am constantly reminded, but I can see this makes absolutely no sense at all, but then, neither does referring to the station wagon as The Old Girl.
He navigates down the “strip” as he calls the main road into Las Vegas. It seems to be all 24-hour coffee shops and gaudily lit hotel casinos. On opposite sides of the street, competing signs for the Flamingo and Caesar’s are lit up even though the bright sunlight seems to defeat the purpose. The marque for Caesar’s advertises its big show: John Davidson and Totie Fields. Ellen perks up in the back seat. She has a crush on singer John Davidson. I know who Totie Fields is from watching Johnny Carson late at night with Mom when neither of us can sleep.
Van decides on Caesar’s. It must be a gesture to Ellen; she can say she stayed at the same hotel where John Davidson is performing. He follows the drive to the front and he and Mom go in to get us rooms.
“Maybe you’ll see John Davidson in the hallway and he’ll talk to you,” Steve teases Ellen. We wait in the car in the unbearable heat, all the windows open and fanning ourselves with magazines and comic books.
Mom and Van finally emerge and get back in the car.
“He said to drive around back,” Mom explains as Van puts the car in drive. We head around back to a stark, black asphalt parking lot the size of a football field and a rectangular white cinderblock building separate from the hotel. We have rooms in the addition. It looks like the prisons on television shows. There are even bars on the windows of the ground floor rooms.
Van hands us the key to the room the 3 of us share. It’s next to the room where the Coke machine and overworked ice machine generate constant noise and even more heat. He and Mom are on the second floor. At least they aren’t next door to us. Small favors.
The room is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Even the Bumbleberry Inn was nicer than this. Awful red bedspreads on the two beds, nothing to disguise the white cinderblock walls. The television is chained to the dresser. At least there is a television. And air conditioning, though it struggles to provide any cooling effect in the bright white room.
After showering and changing into our “nice clothes” (my green print dress that Mom made and is way too hot, the dreaded white socks, and patent leather Mary Janes), we head to the hotel. The asphalt is hot and sticky in the shimmering heat. What are we going to do in a casino? As soon as we enter, a scary looking man in a red suit comes over.
“These two can’t go onto the floor.” He nods his head toward me and Steve. “How old is the young lady?”
Ellen seems pleased to be asked. But when she says she’s 16, he shakes his head. “No, she can’t go on the floor either.”
The floor is a loud, crowded, place I don’t want to go anyway. Tired looking cocktail waitresses circle with trays of free drinks, slot machines make a constant high-pitched jangling noise, and it’s hard to tell if it’s day or night. A cloud of cigarette smoke hovers over the huge space.
“They can stay at the edge, and they can go in the buffet or the gift shop.”
Van pulls out his wallet and begrudgingly hands Ellen some money.
“Y’all go on the buffet. We’ll come find you there in an hour.”
Ellen sighs, but the word “buffet” has Steve’s attention. All-you-can eat buffets with no parental supervision are this summer’s most exciting discovery for him. The Grand Canyon and the Alamo had been cool, but to his 14-year old appetite, unlimited access to food trumps everything. I just want to go somewhere cool and quiet, but I am not sure that exists here.
It’s been a lot longer than an hour, but that’s to be expected. Steve is still exploring the Mexican section of the vast buffet. Ellen picks at the salad she’s pieced together. We call it big weird salad. You put whatever sounds good on the plate with some lettuce and put salad dressing on top. I have opted for the dessert section. I fix myself a cup of milky coffee. Mom lets me have it sometimes, and since no one’s paying attention to what I am doing, I go for it. I wish I’d brought a book. But there are lots of interesting people to watch.
Finally, close to 10 p.m., Mom and Van weave their way over to where we sit.
“Come on, kids, we’ve got a surprise.”
Uh oh. Van and surprises are usually a bad combination.
We follow them through a maze of loud crowded rooms and up the stairs to a lobby leading to huge, elaborately carved doors. The big, lighted sign on the door reads “Caesar’s is proud to present: John Davidson and Totie Fields. Two shows nightly.” The lobby is crowded as is every other space in the hotel. We follow Van like ducklings to the maitre d’hotel stand by the door. Van says something in the man’s ear and I see them shake hands, a tiny edge of a green bill showing in Van’s hand.
“Come on,” he says, looking at us, and we follow him and the maitre d’hotel without comment, unusual in itself, into the show room, and sit at a big round table next to a railing overlooking the stage.
“Enjoy the show, ladies and gentlemen.” The maitre d’hotel walks away with his head high. How much money did Van give him? He must have won at whatever gambling game he’s been playing. Ellen, dumbstruck, looks like she’s forgotten how to breathe. Steve looks at the sign on the table: “Four drink minimum.”
The waiter comes over for our order, and points to the sign. Van orders “7 and 7” and Mom has the same. It’s a disgusting combination of brown liquor and sweet 7-Up. I much prefer Sprite, plain, icy right out of the bottle. Sometimes, depending on where we are, the bartender puts a maraschino cherry in the glass, and Van will immediately toss his on his napkin in disgust. If he’s not paying attention, Mom lets me suck on the cherries, the odd, smoky, bitter taste of the whiskey and the sweet sticky cherry somehow pleasant in my mouth. It reminds me of the rum balls we had once from the bakery on Cheshire Bridge Road where Mom used to go for salt-rising bread and cheese straws.
Van slips more money to the waiter, who nods his head. He comes back with 4 of each adult drink, 4 Cokes each for me and my brother, and 4 glasses of champagne for my underage sister. The 4 Cokes sit in front of me, ice melting and glasses sweating. Should I drink them one at a time, or take sips down the row of glasses, keeping the levels all the same until they are gone?
Thankfully the air conditioning in here actually has some effect on the desert heat, and keeps the cigarette smoke from suffocating us. The lights dim and everyone stops talking. Ellen squirms in her seat, and switches with Steve so she is next to the rail and a few inches closer to the stage. John Davidson is on first, the opener for the more famous Totie Fields. I pay more attention to the levels in my Coke glasses than to what he’s singing. Ellen sways in her seat to the music and sips champagne. She looks so grown up, it scares me a little.
During the intermission, Van disappears. Mom chatters with Ellen about how good the first half of the show was. Ellen is starting to giggle, and her cheeks are rosy and glowing. Van reappears, a mysterious smile on his face. He looks pleased with himself. More surprises?
The lights dim again, and Totie Fields comes out to great applause. She is a small, round woman with large, elaborate hair. She alternates between songs and jokes, none of which I understand, but I can tell that Ellen and Steve are embarrassed. At one point she grabs one of her breasts and says, “What is this, chopped liver?” Everyone laughs. We are the only children in the room, and now I realize why.
It’s finally over.
“Can we leave now?” I whisper to Ellen, but she doesn’t hear me.
Van is still in his seat, with that self-satisfied look on his face. The maitre d’hotel finds us. He hands cocktail napkins to Ellen and Steve. Ellen squeals and wobbles on her high heels. “To Ellen, thanks for coming to the show. Love, John Davidson” is in black ink on the slightly crumpled napkin.
Steve’s face turns bright red and he tries to shove the napkin he’s been handed into his pocket.
“What is it?” I grab at his hand and try to pull it away so I can see. “Steve, I hear you are a big fan. Love you, Totie Fields.”
Van cracks up; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him laugh so genuinely and joyfully before. I think my brother is going to cry. Van has temporarily won over Ellen but humiliated Steve. I am not sure which makes him happier.
It’s hard to believe this was 45 years ago this summer. Mom and Van are both gone, as is Totie Fields. John Davidson is a senior citizen, but at 76 still active in stage musical productions.
I get mail from AARP now. But in my mind I’m still that girl called 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.
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.
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 versus cottage cheese.
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.
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.
“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.”
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!
About 3 years or so ago, I started to write a memoir of the summer of 1972. When I enrolled in a Ph.D. program, I put aside the work in progress, but I still think about it a lot, and hope to get back to it someday. I envision something poignant yet with humor, along the lines of Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy. If you can’t laugh at your own dysfunctional family, life can be pretty grim.
A little back story: in the summer of 1972, my mother, who until late 1971 had seemed to be a sensible, level-headed woman, married her second husband, Van, who I thought then and still sometimes think, was the devil. He was tall and freakishly thin, with a pointy beard. He smoked and drank pretty much all of the time, and didn’t really seem to like children.
My mother, at the time 36 years old, a pretty widow with 4 children, had dated and had some serious beaux, some of whom we all liked and wouldn’t have minded her marrying. All 4 of us were in agreement that we greatly minded her marrying Van.
But marry him she did, on July 15, 1972. She sold our beloved house on Dyson Drive, and we moved to the previously unknown (to us) city of Sacramento, California.
Or some of us did. Cathy, #1 sister, was already married herself, with an adorable baby who I was going to miss seeing grow up. Ellen, next up, was forced on the death march to Sacramento, but then would fly back to Atlanta to finish her senior year of high school while living with her best friend. Brother Steve and I had no choice in the matter. I was 10 and he was 14. I even considered asking to live with my grandmother, Nanna, but I was a little afraid of her anyway and figured it wasn’t going to happen.
We were loaded up in the Chevrolet Impala station wagon, and began the 2 week trek along the southern route from Georgia to California. Remember, it was summer and there was no air conditioning in said station wagon. No one used the term second-hand smoke. MADD had yet to be formed. And Ellen has a tendency to car sickness (somewhat exagerrated in my writing, sorry Ellen).
Van did all of the driving, both he and Mom smoking and drinking Seagram’s Seven with ginger ale the entire journey. He had this black case that looked like it was for some sort of spy business; it was the mobile bartending set.
He was never pulled over for drinking while driving or, as I hoped he would be, child endangerment. In my daydreams while in the hot, smoky car, we would be taken by law enforcement and sent back to Nanna and Cathy in Atlanta. My mother would cry and realize the error of her ways, Van would be thrown in jail, and we’d go back to life as it was meant to be.
No such luck. I spent a lot of the trip in the “way back” of the station wagon, as far from the front seat and the devil as possible. Have you seen the film The Way, Way Back? That brings up a lot of memories for me.
That’s the summer I was given my nickname Little Shit. Of course, Van was the only one who ever called me that, or even seemed to think I was such a thing. He did bring out the worst in me, I admit.
I’ve decided to start posting some excerpts of what I’ve written so far, just for fun. It’s the first draft, not particularly polished. Today’s vignette takes place in the New Mexico desert. We have just spent way too long in Texas, and are finally headed from El Paso to Tucson, Arizona.
[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]
“I really need to pee!” I wail from the way back of the station wagon, where I’ve set up camp behind the ice chest with my books and art supplies. Ellen moans from the back seat, “I have to throw up.” She’s been carsick since we left Georgia. We all hoped the straight, flat roads of the New Mexico desert would help, but she’s still curled in a hot, sweaty, miserable ball. Up in the driver’s seat, Van takes a sip of his drink and, through exhaled cigarette smoke, says grudgingly, “Okay, but be quick,” as he pulls off the road into the only gas station for miles.
I jump out of the car and run to the gas station bathroom. As I hurry back out, I can see Steve’s gleeful face at the back window, waving goodbye to me and pressing down the door lock as the station wagon pulls out of the gas station and enters the lonely highway, a trail of dust in its wake.
I don’t cry. I don’t chase the car. It’s hot in New Mexico, but different from the heat of Georgia, and I like the way the sky stretches out in all directions, nothing green to be seen. “Excuse me, sir, is there a Coke machine?” The man at the pump points the way. I finger the cat’s-head shaped coin purse I have tucked in my pocket, insert the coins in the machine. It’s my favorite, the Coke in small glass bottles, and it’s icy cold.
I can see the car heading across the desert, getting smaller as it heads toward Tucson on the way to California. Part of me wants it to keep going without me, but part of me wonders how long it will take Mom to notice or care that I’m not in the car.
“They’ll come back,” says the attendant, whose name patch identifies him as Eddie. “Not the first time a family’s driven off without somebody. There’s a chair inside, where it’s a little cooler.” Maybe he’ll adopt me, I think. He seems nice enough, and I much prefer his smell of gasoline and oil to Van’s smell of whisky and cigarettes. I sip the Coke and wish I had my book. I look longingly at the television set in the corner but Eddie doesn’t take the hint.
I don’t wear a watch, and have no idea how long I’ve been sitting here, my shorts-clad legs sticking to the vinyl chair and my hair damp against my neck. “Here they come,” points out Eddie, though the overloaded station wagon is hard to miss in the empty surroundings.
“Little shit,” Van grumbles as he opens the car door and lets me in. Mom is lighting a cigarette. Ellen is clutching her paper barf bag. Steve is trying not to laugh. I get in the car and crawl over the seats into the way back. I wave to Eddie as we pull back out on the highway.
Please let me know what you think! I’ll post more bits and pieces if you like them. I think the next one up might be Mom and Van’s wedding.
I was sitting outside at work the other day, drinking my iced tea and eating grapes on my break, when the random thought, “It’d be nice to go camping!” occured to me. I am able to ignore a lot of random thoughts, but this one startled me. I do not camp. I have in the past, but I’d rather not do it again. Like the David Foster Wallace essay about going on a cruise, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, camping seems like it should be fun, in theory, but in reality, not so much. And I have no desire to ever go on a cruise, either, thank you very much.
Camping. First of all, why should I sleep on the ground when there is this great invention called the BED? Second, I hate dirt. And peeing behind trees. Indoor plumbing, hello?!
Have you ever watched the show Monk? Mr. Monk is one of my idols. Mr. Monk had to go camping once. He didn’t like it.
I’m fine not taking a shower for a day or 2, and being outdoors is great. Within reason. But outdoor living should refer to the Sunset magazine, California lifestyle variety, not living in a tent for fun!
I love a good picnic; eating out of doors is nice. Especially if you bring really good food. And make it really pretty and romantic.
I like the idea of outdoor living. If it’s civilized.
There are wonderful ways to spend time outdoors with friends and family while remaining clean and comfortable and having access to an actual bathroom. Outdoor kitchens and living rooms are quite “the thing” these days where the weather permits.
There are more modest ways to follow this idea:
I adore the idea of the unfortunately named “she shed”, the feminine alternative to the man cave.
These can be basic too.
This one veers a little close to camping, but I’ll allow it since it’s adorble.
But please don’t ask me to go camping.
My camping experiences started when my mother married her second husband, Van. He loved camping. But his idea of camping was parking his GMC truck, equipped with a camper shell, by the side of any old river and proceeding to fish (boring) and drink a lot. I always took a lot of books. Anytime I was forced into outings with Mom and Van I made sure to have a book. I spent a lot of time in bars and by the sides of rivers reading while they drank. But since he was a cabinet maker, the camper was nicely kitted out, and Mom always tried to cook something nice. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it.
Then when I got married, we thought we liked camping. Like Van before us, what we liked was a different setting for drinking.
We made a point of going to walk-in only sites so it would be more private and we wouldn’t be surrounded by RVs.
I would cook a lot of gourmet food ahead of time, we would make sure to have lots of wine, and off we’d go. I never slept well, partly from the wine, and partly because sleeping on the ground in a tent sucks! I don’t even do well with cabin camping. I didn’t sleep for an entire week last summer when I went to Maine, but I did gain a new appreciation for frogs.
Given half a chance, my ex-husband would probably have had us going out camping in an old VW hippie van.
If we had to go camping, I’d have preferred a somewhat less conspicuous van back then (although I do love the hippie van now as a look).
But we were poor, so it had to be a tent and sleeping bags. As long as we had the money for the wine. I can see us in something like this as well.
I’m older, wiser, and sober now. And I think life is too short to do things we don’t like if we don’t have to. I don’t have to go camping, and despite my random thoughts I don’t really want to.
What about camping even appears to be fun?
Camping is dangerous, besides. There are crazy people out there looking for dummies zipped into sleeping bags and tents, ready-made targets for horror movie mayhem. There are bugs and spiders and creepy crawly things.
The food chain is fine and all, but I’d rather not be a part of it, thanks.
And coffee. Let’s talk coffee. I’m sorry, cowboy romanticism aside, boiled coffee made over a campfire does not taste good.
I haven’t mastered the art of campfire espresso, although I suppose it’s possible. But I am not really interested in learning the art. My beautiful Rancilio Silvia machine at home is just fine.
I’d consider easing myself into the idea with the she-shed (buit it does need a better name), and work my way up to “glamping”(glamour camping).
I could be a glamper. See this Project Runway clip for a good description of glamping. If Tim Gunn is on board, okay!
I’d even go with an Airstream or tear-drop trailer if they were glamped up.
There’s a book for people like me: I Hate Camping, but I Love Glamping! by Lynn Sable. There is also Glamping with MaryJane, by MaryJane Butters. I’m sure there are many more.
One thing I will grant on the plus side for camping: s’mores. I had never had a s’more until I went to Maine last summer. Zoe Weil at the Institute for Humane Education taught me how to make and eat a vegan s’more at the campfire, and I even willingly sang camp songs after ingesting a couple of those. All that was missing was a great cup of coffee.
But are s’mores enough reason for camping? No, you can make s’mores at home. There is not enough chocolate in the world to make camping fun.
If all tents could be like the magical ones in Harry Potter, that would be okay too. Wave a wand and have all the comforts of home at your fingertips. Or, alternatively, stay home! Or go to a nice hotel.
As we enter the summer season, I’ll be enjoying outdoor time and sunshine. Just my way, not the cowboy way. And I’ll be a happy camper, ignoring my random thoughts.
If you have ever met me or read my blog, you know that I am not a tall person. And I’m okay with that. Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, was not a small person. I assume he was okay with that. Tall people come across with a sense of authority and power to us shorties. I am 5′ 0″. Wolfe was 6′ 6″.
I’ve always kind of known about Thomas Wolfe, mostly from the book title You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously in 1940) and the romanticized view of Southern writers that an avid reader who spent her childhood in Georgia can’t escape.
After watching the film Genius, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer A. Scott Berg book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) and writing about it, I have continued reading and researching into the life of Thomas Wolfe.
I loved the film, but after my recent sojourn to Indianapolis for the 39th Annual Meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society, I have even more questions. (And I’m buying yet more books. Running out of places to put them all!).
What was interesting to me is that so many dedicated Wolfe scholars and readers had some negative reactions to the film, which we watched together at the Indianapolis Public Library as a part of the weekend. Author Berg, on the other hand, who spoke to us to a standing ovation at our closing banquet, was pleased with the film. And I still love it.
One of the complaints from the group about the film was the casting of Jude Law as Wolfe. Law, in my opinion, did a wonderful job, but he’s not anywhere close to 6′ 6″ and 250 plus pounds. But what actor would be close to that without being some former wrestler or football player of dubious acting ability? Law is better looking than Wolfe, but it’s a movie. I can look past that!
The book had been considered for films for many years, according to Berg. At one time, Paul Newman was slated to play Max Perkins. And at another, Tim Robbins wanted to play Wolfe. That I can see, in his younger days.
One thing to keep in mind is that the film is based on a book about Max Perkins, the editor who wrangled with Wolfe and served as a father figure to him in many ways. In the book, next on my to-read list, Perkin’s relationships with 2 of his other writers, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, are also featured. It’s not a biography of Wolfe.
In speaking about the casting of Jude Law, Berg said that in the interviews he did for the Perkins book, it was mentioned that when Wolfe first appeared in Perkins’s doorway at Scribner’s, Perkins saw, in his mind, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Berg sees Shelley in Law’s countenance. Of course, we don’t have photos of Shelley to get an accurate idea, but there are portraits.
My imagination was totally captured by the images in the film of Wolfe writing as fast he could, using the top of his refrigerator as a desk, sheets of paper flying through the air as he filled them with words. I imagine the inside of his head as a swirling word soup. Mine often is like that, but my word soup tends to stay soupy and muddled, whereas Wolfe was able to put the words into such beautiful creations. If we were working in a restaurant, I would be the dishwasher and Wolfe would be the executive chef, the genius who I admire and emulate. Or maybe Wolfe would be the Chef de Cuisine, doing the work of making the delicious soup, and Perkins would be the executive chef, at the pass making sure the plates are perfect before they go out.
This leads to the burning question, can a refrigerator be used as a desk? Remember that Wolfe was 6′ 6″ tall. A typical 1920s-1930s refrigerator was probably just over 5″.
You can buy such a vintage refrigerator today if you think it will help you become a writer.
Being who I am, I had to test this out. My home refrigerator is 5′ 10″ tall. For me to use it as a desk, I have to stand on the kitchen counter next to it.
One of my favorite papers presented at the meeting was by Paula Gallant Eckard of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She is the author of the recently published Thomas Wolfe and Lost Children in Southern Literature (2016).
There is a common thread of a sense of “lostness” in much Southern literature, especially in regard to children. Eckard discussed, among other contemporary writers, Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, 1987) and Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones, 2011).
Other highlights: the charming performance by the Indiana University Kokomo Players of “Wolfe’s Wanderlust: Scenes and Music from His Life and Fiction”
and the amazing table centerpieces created for the banquet, each based on a theme in Wolfe’s life.
Everyone I met was warm and welcoming. I arrived a bit anxious about going into a meeting of scholars with relatively little knowledge. I needn’t have been. They are all eager to share Wolfe with the world and bring him back into the canon of American literature alongside his contemporaries Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He died so young; who knows what legacy he might have left behind.
Speaking of young, the first person I encountered going to register for the conference was my new friend Savannah Wade, from Asheville, North Carolina. Pay attention to that name, she has a bright future ahead of her. I was so impressed with her varied interests and thirst for knowledge. When I was 23 years old, I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to get on a Greyhound bus alone and head to an unknown city to meet with anyone! I felt so grown up doing this at age 55. Savannah, now, I can picture writing a work of genius using a refrigerator as a desk. And I can see that she has ways with word soup that I can only dream of.
And now I must go and dust off the top of my refrigerator. It’s the first time I’ve seen the top of it in a while!