The difference in your life and mine

Call me a voyeur.

I spend a lot of time watching people and trying to figure them out. For years, I sat in a newsroom and watched. I didn’t write full time for money back then, but I paid attention to nuance. The hubs watches doors and scans for shady characters, hidden weapons, undercover cops and escape routes. I study and stare and try to figure what’s going on behind the scenes.

So it’s a small jump to see I’ve always been somewhat on the fringe of things, a wallflower, and as I age, it’s become a good place to live, but it wasn’t always such. For a long time, I stayed over to the side because I was unhappy and figured everybody else was happier. My friends who had married parents and not a procession of boyfriends for mom, happier. The people who went out for brunch on Sundays, happier. The girls who could get their hair to feather just so, happier.

I drove the streets of my town, looking at houses and at the seemingly warm lighting behind the windows, wondering what went on in the homes. They all appeared cozy and safe. I learned then to distinguish between cool lighting and warm lighting, something that drives me to this day to test and replace with OCD lightbulbs and light fixtures. The warmer the lighting in the house, the happier the inhabitants, right?

I figured then that if we lived in one of those homes with the warm lighting, everything would be better. We would have heat that came from vents in the floors, and not from an oil-laden contraption that died once a winter and left us in the cold and that worked only in the immediate area and not in my back bedroom. We would laugh at dinner, tossing our heads back to roar with laughter, rather than eyeing each other with distrust and anger, or burying ourselves in books so we didn’t have to talk.

If we lived in those homes, I would have the perfect little tush because that’s what those houses made – not the derierre that I tried for years to eliminate.

People in those homes didn’t spend a summer reading headlines about Grandma’s manslaughter charges, or Thanksgiving and Christmas at the state prison. Their grandparents lived in a cottage that had the perfect amount of snow in the yard, the right types of chairs, a perpetual plate of non-caloric cookies on the table.

They didn’t hide from their great-grandma’s tirades, didn’t cringe and bury themselves in the back of the closets and listen to her plan, out loud, a fitting punishment, or beg her to stay when she threatened to die or simply leave home. They didn’t call the police on their family because the arguing had gotten so bad.

But now, more than ever, I realize that theory was so, so wrong, that the perfection was often my misinterpretation of fact, that because humans lived in those houses, and not iRobots, they, too, lay open to life and its unpredictable ways.

They, too, struggled with fears of abandonment. They, too, hid from parents and their fury. They, too, wished for a hug that was meaningful and not for show. They binged and purged. They shot up. Had sex too soon. Fought. Abused pills. They were beaten, bullied.  They wanted different bodies. Better skin. Or they really did have great lives and homes, made good decisions, lived in the glow. Or somewhere, usually, between the extremes. The difference in their lives and mine was only in the details.

In retrospect, what would I have changed?

I had it better than many and realize that now. A mom who, between bipolar episodes, saw to it that I became bilingual in French and English, had ballet lessons, music lessons, summer trips to see relatives. She let me, as a fourth-grade kid, drive the car when we visited cousins in the country. She encouraged questions about faith and didn’t judge anybody else. Eventually, there was a Grandpa who loved me and Grandma; he married her the day she got out of prison and they stayed married for almost 20 years. I had godparents and aunts, real uncles and cousins, and immense freedom, and a family that loved to tell me how cute my shape was and didn’t I want another slice of pie? And I know I don’t want to go to prison.

It’s not to say that everybody was unhappy. But it is worth saying that many people struggled through much and lived to tell the story. The difference in their lives and mine – in the details.

 

The room with the dying fan

The office at the kids’ school is an old house with yellow aluminum siding, a real front porch and gleaming hardwood floors that announce one’s every step. Recently, when I popped in, it was pleasant to stomp along on the woods and inhale old-house scent. But I had a surprise.

There were fans everywhere, pushing the heavy morning air around in warm waves.

“The air is broken,” the office manager said, fanning herself with a folder. “We hope to have it fixed soon.”

I stood there with a grin on my face, feeling oddly at peace with the breeze and the warmth.

The house sounded, smelled and felt like summertime at my great-grandmother’s house.

In the summer, Mama’s house was cool and comfortable from maybe 10, 11 p.m. until about 9 a.m. We didn’t have central air. Many of our friends didn’t, either, but at least their air conditioners worked. Our pitiful window unit didn’t do anything but run up the electric bill, so it hung quietly in the dining room window and we sweltered, leaving damp spots where ever we perched for more than five minutes.

And the window fan ran constantly.

The fan in my bedroom was a 1950s-era window-mounted metal clunker that began losing steam somewhere around the Summer of Love and slowed yearly through the straggling end of Vietnam and Watergate, disco and Marvin Gaye’s shooting, until finally, around the time my mom gave up her green satin disco pants, it refused to do anything but hum.

Every summer, my great-grandmother would debate getting the fan serviced. “It WORKS,” she’d say, watching the blades as though staring them down would convince them to work. “But perhaps we could get Old Man Barber up here to look at it.” Old Man Barber, the local cross between Fred Sanford and your friendly handyman, told us to ditch it between disco and Marvin Gaye. But we didn’t.

As a semi-responsible mom, this fan was not a fan I’d allow into my house. The plug was worn from more than 30 years of use, and the wires would give a shock if you touched them with sweaty fingers. The motor, a daunting, cup-sized collection of fraying wires and mesh, began to spark upon occasion, which didn’t worry Mama nearly as much as it did me. If the fan eventually cranked, it had to be OK. I’d lie awake nights, worrying that the sparks would torch the curtains, figuring the amount of time it would take to gather my clarinet and chihuahua and get out in case of fire. I’d listen to the strobed night sounds. If you’ve never heard outside through the filter of a window fan, you’re missing out. The blades distort the sounds, giving noisy cars and crickets and feisty birds a steady, mechanical sputter. Back in the day, when we didn’t have major electronic distraction, sitting in front of the fan and talking through the strobe was simple fun.

The fan, however, didn’t help anything in the worst heat and humidity of summer. It pushed hot air into the house or pulled it from the front of the house, leaving us miserable and moist and cranky, twisting in damp bed linens. Outside felt better than inside. My mom and great-grandmom argued more than usual on those days, hurling slurs and insults back and forth until my mom would get into the equally hot purple Toyota and leave or my great-grandmother would pound the table or pull at her damp gray hair and break dishes.

But on the nights that the temperatures and mugginess dropped, the reluctant old fan worked magic, cooling our house gradually until it hit a delicious chill, making it necessary for me to sleep with a blanket. On those following mornings, my bare feet hit cold wood  floors instead of warm and we rushed to finish chores in the cool: we swept, made our tea for the day, gathered whatever vegetables were ripe in the garden, mopped and dusted and waited for the sun to again turn the cottage on Miller Street into a brick oven. We talked. We listened to the old radio. We prayed for cooling storms.

We eventually bought dime-store floor units, positioned to work best with the flow of air from the window fan and screened doors, and we held our breath yearly when we cranked the old unit. One year, it took about five minutes to get the weakened fan to spin, but close to the end, we waited and watched the clock for a few hours, hoping the dirty blades and the sparking motor would get the idea. Finally, my mom sadly gave permission to dismantle the fan and replace it with a bright new unit, $10 at the dime store. I spent a long while trying to unscrew the myriad parts of the fan: the blades, wire frame and wall mounts all had been in the same place since mom’s childhood, and they weren’t ready, it seemed, to go. But we got it out and put it on the trash pile. The romantic in me hopes Old Man Barber found it and restored it to its pre-disco ability.

My children do not remember life sans air conditioning. They believe freon and ceiling vents are among inalienable constitutional rights.

To this day – much as I am thankful for the hum of the central air  – I cannot sleep without a fan going. I love the slight sound and the breeze, even if it competes with the heat in the winter, and I’ll occasionally open the windows in the mornings, let the house warm up a touch and give our ceiling-mounted fans a moment in the spotlight. It makes me feel honest, this ritual. Because as far as I hope to go and as much as I want to be, bottom line is I’m a girl from Rock Hill, and I used to sleep in the room with the dying fan.

I’m talking ’bout the bad girls

My mom, a classic hoarder, kept all my elementary, middle and high school report cards in a big binder. She also kept my shots records, my ballet recital programs, a few pictures of the embarrassing ballet costumes and some of the napkins that Billy Dee Williams used to wipe his mouth during the filming of some movie down in Chester.

“One day,” she said with a deep, prophetic, Moses-bringing-down-the-commandments voice, “you can show these to your children.”

A couple of weekends ago, I hauled out the book and presented it to the kids (mistake 1), certain they’d be honored to be offspring of a musician/ballerina/scout/French-speaking Baptist (mistake 2). They laughed at my first ballet photos (awkward with nasty shoes) and ooohed over my last ones (graceful with feathers and nice slippers). But they ignored the other good stuff and honed in on my report cards. They noted I made A’s in everything but math. Then they focused on the behavior part.

Back then, report cards had a grading system of A, S and U. A – prepare for sorority parties. S – prepare for shop classes, which was an insult back then, and U – Who the hell are you kidding? Go home and start over, girl. There also was a grid with boxes for behavior in general, attitude, cooperation, courtesy, self-control and study habits, which also used the A/S/U scale along with a system of checks. A – teacher’s pet. S – get some bail money ready because the teenage years will be rough. U – hellbent for jail and starring roles in Britney Spears songs about criminals.

When I was kid, I thought I had done a stellar job because a lot of my boxes were checked, but Mom finally set me straight. If nothing was checked, you didn’t have a problem. If the teacher checked a slot, then you needed to work on that area.

Ohhh…

I had not been a courteous, respectful, quiet little self-starter. I was a lippy, out-of-control hell-raiser who cheerfully, effectively, promptly and readily fought authority and rules at every turn and at the top of my voice.

Some of the comments: “needs to keep her mind on her seatwork.” “she still talks too much.” “she still needs to work on her behavior.” “sure to make a U in conduct.” Making a U meant you failed; an S meant you were just  doing ok. That teacher, 3rd grade, Ms. Daisy McDuffie, gave me an S—-. She had hope, bless her heart.

After all the time I’d spent in the Catholic School naughty corner staring at the crucifix, after the times I’d been sent to find my own switch, after all the welts from the belt strap – why was anybody surprised about my school behavior?

“What was wrong with you?” my younger kid asked. “That was just sad. Why couldn’t you just pay attention?”

I thought about it. What WAS wrong? Was I bored? Confused? Starved for attention? Just plain BAD? Face it. I was bad. I was the kid that very few parents wanted to see coming. I wasn’t horrible, just defiant. Always asking WHY? Didn’t care who I offended. At church meeting, I interrupted once to ask “WHY?” and got nasty stares and a pinch from my great-grandma for being insubordinate. After I wrecked my car with a friend in it (in high school), I told the friend’s dad, an Army officer, to step up and get his own son from band practice. When another friend’s parents told me my skirt was too short, I asked them why they were looking. I played with firearms. I raced cars. I cut class.

I worried every year up until college that THIS YEAR would be the one Santa threw in the towel.

The kids are still laughing, and it’s actually nice to have this part of my past in the open, even if it’s cold revenge for my Mom. We can discuss it with logic – when they stop laughing. And when they get lippy/resentful/defiant/bad/etc, I’ll add notes to their permanent records and patiently wait for grandchildren.