Galveston, Oh Galveston

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.]

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Galveston beach in 1972, photo by Blair Pittman.

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.

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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!

 

 

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.

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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.

 

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Arizona dessert
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Georgia roads

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

 

 

So Far Away (I love you, Carole King)

Not so long ago, I went with my buddy Debra to watch the recent film of Carole King performing her groundbreaking Tapestry album at Hyde Park in London in 2016.

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Tapestry (1971) was on repeat play on the turntable in my sisters’ room when we were growing up. I have strong and fond memories of the music.

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Debra, inviting me to go, remarked that I seemed like the type who would love Carole King. She was right.

The Hyde Park concert was amazing enough to watch as a film. It must have been magical to be there. First of all, Hyde Park in London. I’ve never been but it looks lovely in photos.

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Hyde Park, London

A huge and congenial crowd is in attendance, singing along with Carole and clearly connecting to her music, whether as a remembrance of a time past or as younger, newer listeners struck by the emotion and angst of the songs.

Tapestry itself is such a classic, every song a gem (except maybe Smackwater Jack, but I loved it when I was 10 and I still like to sing along with it). This is the list of songs on Tapestry:

  • I Feel the Earth Move
  • So Far Away
  • It’s Too Late
  • Home Again
  • Beautiful
  • Way Over Yonder
  • You’ve Got a Friend
  • Where You Lead
  • Will You Love Me Tomorrow
  • Smackwater Jack
  • Tapestry
  • Natural Woman

You’ve heard them all. I’ve sung them all. It’s a legendary work of art. But what I’ve noticed a month after seeing the film is that the one song that won’t leave me is So Far Away.

 

There’s so much about this song that keeps it on my mind. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and prone to nostalgia. The lyrics themselves provoke a sense of loneliness, time slipping away, a need for connection and love and friendship.

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lyrics

I’ve been thinking of the notion of far away. It can be distance, it can be time, it can be a mental state. My sisters and my brothers are distance away–3,000 miles give or take. That’s far. Too far. My mother is time away; when I say time I mean earlier days and memories, not a discrete amount of time that can be traversed. She died in August, 2009. But I dream of her frequently and miss her every day. And then someone can be sitting right next to you and be far away, lost in thought, in another world, with you but not with you. I am sometimes that person who is far away, dreamy and distant.

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I wake up with So Far Away playing in my head. I will be listening to my audiobook of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and up will pop So Far Away. That is fitting in its way. If you know Anna’s story, she was ostracized by friends and family and the larger society, not allowed to see her beloved son. She was right there, but made to seem far away, even to herself. Spoiler alert–Anna’s story doesn’t end well. We need family, friends, connection.

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“One more song about moving along the highway can’t say much of anything that’s new.” So true. And it’s predominantly men who sing those moving on down the highway songs. The Allman Brothers and Ramblin’ Man as well as Midnight Rider. The Grateful Dead and Truckin’.  Ricky Nelson and Travelin’ Man. (And what’s with the dropped letter g, by the way?) Steve Miller took it to the skies with Jet Airliner. Steppenwolf and Born to be Wild. Pretty much anything from Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska (which I love).

 

 

Was it a coincidence that about 95% of the audience in the movie theater the night we went was female, of a certain age, and we all sang along? But it was So Far Away that had me wiping a tear from my eye. I can think of one other song that has this effect on me–James Taylor’s Shower the People (1976).

 

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Letting the people that you love know that you love them–it seems so simple yet it can be so difficult. It’s the subject of many a novel, play, movie. We carry such inner turmoil around showing love. Yet we crave love ourselves. James Taylor is a guy that gets it.

Again, not a coincidence that James Taylor and Carole King have a history going back more than 40 years, including him performing backing vocals on Tapestry. In addition to his own songs, he’s performed (and made famous) many of King’s songs, such as You’ve Got a Friend.

 

James has his own Highway Song; it seems to be a male rite of passage. Women want to seek out and befriend, men want to get moving along/away.

 

When I was younger, my ex-husband’s response to strife was to suggest we move. During our 20+ years of marriage, we lived in too many apartments and houses to count in several different towns, including Ashland, Oregon; Ankara, Turkey; Chico, Vacaville, Winters, Sacramento, Davis, Fairfield, and Napa in California. I think what he really wanted was to move on without me. Now, with Bob, we’ve lived in this same house for the 13 years we’ve been together. It’s a nice feeling to be at home! Yes, he travels, but I always know he’ll be back, and be happy to be back. He’s never so far away that I can’t reach him.

Come visit us sometime; it would be so fine to see your face at our door. As long as you aren’t allergic to dogs and cats. They help make this place home, too.

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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Byars: The Perfect Smile, 1994 performance, Ludwig Museum, Cologne
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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.

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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.

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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.

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Peace and hugs.

Little Shit Goes to Vegas

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.

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Las Vegas in 1972.

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.

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Circus Circus in Las Vegas, 1972.

This episode revolves around a stay at Caesar’s Palace. The 1972 version, not the modern one.

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Caesar’s Palace, circa 1970.
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Caesar’s Palace today.

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.

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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.

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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.

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The Genie Buffet at the Aladdin Hotel Las Vegas, circa 1970.

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.

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John Davidson, 2016.

I get mail from AARP now. But in my mind I’m still that girl called Little Shit.

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Me in the winter of 1973 in Gardnerville, Nevada.

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The Mystery of the Princess Locked in the Tower (Nancy Drew meets Zelda Fitzgerald)

“The American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.”

I wrote this down in one of my notebooks. I circled it, underlined it, highlighted it. But I didn’t note where I heard or read it. When I Googled the quote, I was led to her an essay by former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, “America Made Me a Feminist“.

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Paulina Porizkova

“In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself. Her sexuality belonged to her husband, her opinion of herself belonged to her social circles, and her uterus belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother and a lover and a career woman (at a fraction of the pay) while remaining perpetually youthful and slim. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be desirable. That got to me.”

This obviously struck a chord with me. My worlds had collided, or coincidence had taken me on a journey. My fascination with Thomas Wolfe led me down a rabbit hole to the writing of contemporary Southern literary icon Lee Smith to the tragic figure of Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Drew, and unpredictably, Paulina Porizkova.

The degrees of separation are few. Thomas Wolfe was from Asheville, North Carolina, which he famously wrote about in Look Homeward, Angel, much to the anger and dismay of the city’s residents. Zelda Fitzgerald spent many years, and ultimately died in, Highland Hospital, a mental hospital (or “hospital for nervous diseases”) in Asheville. Lee Smith wrote a novel about Highland Hospital, Guests on Earth, and the fire there that killed 9 women, including Zelda.

guests cover

Nine women died in the hospital fire on March 10, 1948. According to the official medical report, Zelda was unable to escape the fire as she had been sedated and placed in a locked room prior to a scheduled electro-shock therapy treatment. The women who died were all trapped on the top floor of the central building

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The fire started in the kitchen wing, but there is still mystery around how it started and who might have started it. Speculation includes a former patient who was later hired to work in the hospital and held grudges against some of the other women, doubling their medications and locking them in before starting the fire in the kitchen. The windows were barred, the fire escape made of wood that quickly burned.

But was Zelda really “crazy”? She is commonly said to have been schizophrenic, but more recent studies suggest she was more likely bipolar, with periods of depression and periods of high energy and creativity. She was herself a writer (some believe F. Scott plagiarized from her writings), an artist, and a dancer; a free spirit in a time and place where that was heavily frowned upon. She was raised to be a Southern Belle, to marry well, to be a pretty and charming hostess, but not to be smart, creative, or independent. After the fire, she was indentified as among the dead from her charred ballet slipper.

slippers

 

Lee Smith, through narrator Evalina Toussaint, wrote of Zelda in Guests on Earth:

She didn’t fit in, that’s all. They didn’t know what to do with her…None of them knew what to do with her. She was too smart, too original…She didn’t fit in.

Smart women who didn’t fit in. Locked up. Princesses in a tower. While Zelda was in Highland Hospital, F. Scott would visit, staying at the luxurious Grove Park Inn, supposedly resting and relaxing and taking the “beer cure” to wean himself off of gin.

Grove Prk Inn ball photo
Grove Park Inn
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Highland Hospital doesn’t sound all that horrible when one looks back at the history of
the treatment of mental illness. Founder Dr. Robert Carroll created a program based on
exercise, diet, and occupational therapy rather than straitjackets and shackles. But there
were also questionable electroconvulsive treatments and insulin coma therapy, with risks of brain damage and death.
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Electroconvulsion therapy.
At Highland, Zelda was able to dance, to paint, to write.
The character Evalina, a talented pianist and a fellow patient, enters the hospital at age 13 in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. She loves to read. One of the nurses brings her Nancy Drew books.
Nancy Drew. I love Nancy Drew.
1930s-vintage-nancy-drew
 I read all of the Nancy Drew books I could get my hands on the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the best compliments a coworker ever gave me was to call me Nancy Drew.

The first Nancy Drew mysteries were published in 1930: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, and The Mystery at Lilac Inn all in the same year. Nancy Drew books are still being written and published, the most recent title, Riverboat Roulette, was released in early 2017. Two titles, The Professor and the Puzzle and The Haunting on Heliotrope Lane, are planned for late 2017 and early 2018.

Why do we love Nancy Drew? She’s smart, fiesty, curious. Blogger Kerry Winfrey lists the reasons Nancy Drew is such a good role model:

  • She’s not afraid of anything.
  • She’s well-rounded.
  • She has great fashion sense.
  • She’s a feminist.
  • She has staying power.

The books purported author, Carolyn Keene, didn’t and doesn’t exist. The actual writers have come and gone, but Carolyn Keene lives on. Nancy Drew was created by Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher of children’s books. He hired ghost writers to churn out the books, as well as other series like The Hardy Boys, according to a set and successful formula.

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I don’t think it was a coincidence that Lee Smith brings Nancy Drew books into a story of princesses locked in a tower. Just as Paulina Porizkova wrote recently, women are told we can do anything. Nancy did it all, while dressed to the nines. She had her roadster, her friends, her college-aged boyfriend (who doesn’t show up that much), a father who encouraged her. She was smart and pretty and everything I wanted to be as a girl. But in the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, she was locked away for wanting to be more than a good wife and mother. She had serious artistic aspirations of her own, but lived in her famous husband’s shadow.

“Excuse me for being so intellectual. I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate.” [Zelda, in a letter to F. Scott.]

 

Many women in institutions at that time were women who didn’t fit in, who didn’t want to stay in their proscribed boxes, who were uninhibited, creative, and deemed hysterical. The word hysterical itself is significant. It comes from the Latin hystericus–of the womb–and was considered to be a female ailment, brought on by dysfunction of the uterus. Gary Nunn writes of the “feminization of madness”. Take the word loony, from lunacy, and the connection to the moon (lunar). Thus, lunacy becomes a monthly periodic insanity brought on by the moon’s cycle. As Nunn describes it:

“These etymologies have cemented a polarisation of the female and male mental states: men being historically associated with rationality, straightforwardness and logic; women with unpredictable emotions, outbursts and madness.”

In an interview, Lee Smith said,

“A fairly sizable number of women who were at Highland Hospital had really been sent there by their husbands or their families because they were just a little too wild or creative, because they didn’t fit into the norm that society—particularly Deep South society—expected of them.”

Zelda published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932. It was written while she was a patient at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was there after “an episode of hysteria”, and spent 2 hours a day writing as a part of her recovery. The novel was autobiographical and apparently angered F. Scott, who forced extensive revisions before it was sent to the publihser. He then used much of the same autobiographical material in his own book, Tender is the Night, published in 1934.

F. Scott himself was clearly mentally unstable, yet he, the tortured novelist, stayed at the Grove Park Inn while his wife Zelda was confined to Highland Hospital. Ring Lardner Jr. referred to the couple: “Scott is a novelist and Zelda is a novelty.” During their courtship, Zelda routinely evoked jealousy from F. Scott with her flirting and “outrageous” ways. Before their marriage, he was quoted as saying something along the lines of “I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers.”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

Nancy Drew, if she were real, would probably have been locked in that tower too. But hopefully she’d solve the mystery of the fire and escape before she was tied down for electro-shock treatment.

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The Princess in the Tower, by Otori Reka

I am currently reading  Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda’s story as she herself might have told it.

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I’m not very far into it. Zelda doesn’t seem crazy, though, just bored and stifled by the expectations placed on her in 1918 Montgomery, Alabama.

There is also now a television series on Amazon, Z: The Beginning of Everything, with Christina Ricci as Zelda.

 

The Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, died in 1986. When she was born in 1921, Zelda said she hoped her daughter would be a “beautiful little fool”, a line which F. Scott had Daisy utter in The Great Gatsby.

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Scott, Scottie, and Zelda Fitzgerald

 

She was definitely not a fool; multi-talented, Scottie graduated from Vassar in 1942, and over the years worked as a writer and journalist, wrote musical comedies, and was a tireless figure in the Democratic Party as a fundraiser and promoter of Democratic candidates. Completing the circle in a sense, she moved from Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama and spent the last years of her life in her mother’s hometown. Two of her daughters control the Fitzgerald Trust. The house Zelda grew up in was set to be demolished in 1986; instead benefactors purchased the home and donated it as the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald Papers are held at the Princeton University Library.

Meanwhile, Nancy Drew is still a badass girl detective.

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keep calm

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.

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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!

Just call me Little Shit

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.

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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.

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My beautiful mother in 1969.

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.

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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).

chvrolet impala wagon

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.

Vintage-travel-bar-kit

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.

way way back
Liam James in The Way, Way Back (2013).

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.

the alamo
At the Alamo on the 1972 cross-country trip. From left, Van (aka Satan), Ellen, Steve, and me (aka Little Shit). I don’t remember what I was mad about.

 

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.

 

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[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.

Peace and hugs from A Girl Named Little Shit.

me