My mother, Chickie Ling, Jerome, Arizona, around 1920

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Absolute Joy - My Top Twenty List



As I'm getting older and realizing my days here are numbered, I do try to seize the day, to be in the moment. Usually it doesn’t work, but occasionally it does. Being here in Portland with my grandchildren, holding them, and actually being able to feel their chubby feet and their very busy little vibes, make me want to stop time in order to frame the feeling, to be acutely present in the absolute joy I'm experiencing.

All of this thinking and feeling leads me to the notion of documenting, in some way, memories of great happiness I've felt throughout my life. I worked diligently to narrow them down; most are generic, a few specific. The majority are from recent years, but not all. And please know that I realize how self serving this is, how all about me it is, and why on earth would anyone else want to read it? If you decide to pass this one by, I won't blame you. However, I do wonder if my list will encourage you to contemplate
your list.

Here is my Absolute Joy Top 20 List at this particular moment in no particular order:
  1. Certain songs and singers - Fly Like a Bird by Boz Skaggs, Wayfaring Stranger by Johnny Cash, almost anything by Van Morrison or Lucinda Williams or Tracy Chapman ( I just added this one) or Neil Young (I've got to turn off KPIG)
  2. Holding my babies and grandbabies for the first time
  3. Sunrises and sunsets - I know this one is sappy and probably a cliche, but it's true
  4. My birthday dinner at Tierra with Molly, when we talked about her dreams for her future and I drank too much wine and she drove me home
  5. A Gospel Christmas each year at Atlanta Symphony Hall
  6. Sitting at a tiny Italian restaurant in Athens, Georgia, eating lunch, while my dissertation was being printed
  7. Watching my grandkids dance
  8. Barack Obama winning the presidency
  9. Finding my copy of Arizona Highways with the article I'd written in my mailbox
  10. When Allison preached my mother’s funeral at the edge of Oak Creek
  11. Many Christmas mornings, especially one at Tybee some time around 1995
  12. The beach in winter
  13. When someone likes my writing
  14. Being with my kids
  15. When I create something new and I'm happy with it
  16. The first time I saw Michael Jackson moonwalk
  17. The beginning of Lonesome Dove and the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany
  18. Most cats
  19. Christmas lights, especially the colored ones, especially when they are in bars
  20. My solo weekend trip to Paris
I thought hard about this list and it feels right. People who know me well will say, "There's Marcia going on again about such and such," but that's a good thing because, if I blab about it to the point of embarrassing myself, then I probably love it, and what I love defines me.

In addition, with the exception of being with my family, almost everything on my list happened when I was by myself, and I don't know if that means I'm ultimately happiest with just me, or, if it could be that, without the distraction of others, I'm better able to stop and appreciate the wonderfulness of a particular moment.

So, I guess supreme happiness for me would be to meet up with a cat at a beach-side bar at sunset on Christmas with Van Morrison on the jukebox. I could show the cat pictures of my grandkids dancing and, perhaps, something I've written. I just hope he'd like it.

A Place Called Grammyville



Grammyville is where I live, not just when I’m within physical proximity to my grandchildren, but all the time.

Grammyville is difficult to describe. It's a fine place, but its skyline is changeable and directions there are tricky. I can tell you it not only offers some sweet spaces and a few social graces, but also busy intersections and noisy neighborhoods.

I have to admit I didn't feel like a grandmother right away. It wasn't the same as when my own serial litter began arriving thirty-five years ago. Because it doesn’t involve hormonal changes or an alien body invasion, I think becoming a grandmother is more like being a father, or, perhaps, an adoptive mother. All of a sudden there is this new person in the world, a person you didn’t have nine months to get to know.

A blogger friend recently posted something about how, as soon as someone becomes a grandmother, that’s the way she’s defined. While that may be true for marketing directed at me and people like me, I don’t think I’m particularly bound by my grandparenthood. Besides being a Grammy, I am also a teacher and a reader and a writer and a friend and a Democrat and a lapsed Methodist and a Diet Coke drinker and all the other good and bad and so-so things I am. In addition, I don’t own any t-shirts with pictures of my grandkids on them and my internet username doesn’t include precious references to them. That said, I did iron their photos on my little hand-made wallet, but that’s obviously more about creativity than progeny.

I do know, as soon as the grandchildren started arriving(and kept arriving) in Portland, Oregon, my living in Atlanta, Georgia became more problematic. Having my two oldest children live on the west coast for almost a decade hadn’t affected me all that much until they started having children of their own. Until then, the twice yearly quick-trips seemed to suffice quite nicely as we all went on living our lives.

I was in the room when Miles was born and what a memory that is. But I have to say my joy was more for Melissa and Trevor and for our family as a whole than it was for me personally. I was certainly excited, but I hadn’t quite landed in Grammyville yet. I held the little critter and thought he was mighty cute, but, at that point, I was more focused on how Melissa, my own baby, was doing. The bonding began to happen the more I was around Miles, especially when I had him to myself. I remember when Melissa and Trevor came to Georgia to attend the Master’s Golf Tournament and I kept Miles overnight, letting him sleep with me for a little while when he woke up in the middle of the night. I still recall the feel of his baby skin and the rhythm of his heart as he slept next to me.

When Cami came along, I made it to Portland when she was just a couple of days old. Again, I was happy for Billy and Mary and for all of us, and she was an adorable little nugget too. But it was months later, when I took her for her first walk in her stroller with her little red sunhat and we stopped and looked at the flowers and listened to the birds, that I began to see the two of us as an item.

Georgia, my newest grandchild, while a cutie pie herself, still isn’t too sure about me. In fact, she tends to cry as soon as I walk into a room. However, I’m confident we will become friends as soon as we can get rid of her mama for a couple of hours. She already thinks I’m pretty funny when I make my stupid noises and that’s an important first step in learning to love me.

I believe good communities are based on mutual affection and shared experiences, and that's certainly true for Grammyville. When Miles grins and says "Hi Grammy" in his gravelly boy voice and then does his special burlesque act for me, my heart expands with real joy. When Cami lets me hold her hand as we take a walk and when she sits in my lap for a story, it feels like the old ticker is going to burst. And I'm thinking the first time Georgia picks me over everyone else in the room (and she will), I just might explode with happiness.

And so, if I had to pinpoint Grammyville's whereabouts, I'd have to say it's located somewhere near the center of my heart. I just hope that having it take up residence there doesn't cause me to go into cardiac arrest, or, worse yet, to change my email address to something like grammyspreciousangels@yahoo.com., or, worst-case scenario, to become so delusional as to believe there's a place called Grammyville.

The Little Man




This past Mother’s Day, I decided to re-read some letters my mother wrote to my father during the summer of 1952. Daddy was recalled to active duty by the Army during the Korean War and we were living at Fort Benning, Georgia. At some point, he had been sent to California for a few months and Mama was having to defend the home front all by herself, caring for my brother Sandy, who must have been about five, and two-year-old me. The letters are affirmations of my mother’s devotion to my father and her dedication to post-WWII family life. Here’s an excerpt from one of them:

I made an unauthorized $10 expenditure today. However, it will come out of my usual $30 per week household expense account. I bought the children a wading pool.

Apparently, the summer was hot and the post pool didn't offer enough relief, so Mama had taken matters in her own capable hands. What I can't help but ponder is that the kind of frugality mentioned in the letter would be unfathomable today, as would be even considering having the husband “authorize” the purchase of a wading pool from twenty five hundred miles away (especially without the ability to text).

The letters are, indeed, sweet and evocative of the time; however; in re-reading them, I was struck by the theme that runs through them all, a theme as disconcerting with this latest reading as with former perusals.

And that theme is The Little Man and what a gem he was, the little man being my brother, Sandy. Now, you're probably thinking I'm making too much of the sibling rivalry thing here, but I'm not. Read below for evidence of my assertion:

On Sandy’s teeth pulling:

He had two teeth pulled this afternoon without a whimper. I was so proud of him and everyone made over him which pleased him no end..... Back to Sandy and the way he took this today. I really believe he is beginning to grow up and lose some of those vague fears he has always had.

Okay, maybe he was a suck-up little scaredy cat with delusional tendencies but she was still so proud of him.

Then there’s this about what a perfect little student he was at the age of five:

Did I tell you about Sandy’s report card? The comments were to the effect that Sandy is a quiet, mannerly child who is cooperative and well adjusted.

And athletic and brilliant, although a bit odd and perhaps a voyeur:

Wish you could see Sandy in the water. He’s a funny child. He learns more by watching than any other way. He was watching the life guards fooling around in the water and I looked up and there he was doing the breast stroke and not badly either. Last week he watched some boys for a while and then walked over to the edge of the pool and dived in – no preliminaries, no announcements or anything. I guess he figured it out in his head and then went and did it. Some child!

And did I mention good with money?

Sandy made a purchase today. He’s saved his allowance for 4 weeks plus his silver dollar for an inflated raft. He’s thrilled to death. By the way, he has 2 loose teeth – front bottom. One is awfully loose but he’s trying to save them till you get home so you can help him get them out. Of course, the whole idea is based on the return that the fairy is supposed to give him. I believe he'd swap every tooth in his head for suitable financial remuneration. He’s a money conscious little fellow – do you suppose he’ll be a tycoon?

It’s not that she never mentioned me, but notice how quickly she changed the subject.

We were in the water only about a short time and Marcia got mighty red. I was afraid last night that she would have blisters – but seems to be okay today. You should see Sandy. I took him out in water over his head and taught him to tread water. He did very well and would swim 3 or 4 feet out there.

Okay, the only mention of me was that I was too stupid to get out of the sun, but, at least I wasn't much trouble. See below for another example of my stupidity, but also a rather exceptional tolerance for pain.

That night she pulled the fire extinguisher over on her bare foot and I just knew I’d have to take her up for an x-ray – but apparently after the initial fright there was no damage except for white stuff being sprayed everywhere.

It was only after my mother's death that my brother owned up to being the one who dropped the fire extinguisher on my foot, the injured foot that caused me to be crippled and "different" for my entire life, having the fourth toe on my left foot be shorter than my pinkie toe.

I did, however, excel in one important way.

Wish you had seen Marcia eat tonight. She ate 2 and ½ pieces of chicken, 2 helpings of rice and gravy, English peas, cantaloupe, milk and then went over to the Olson’s and ate a piece of cake, 3 pieces of cheese, 3 carrot sticks, came back here and ate 2 graham crackers, small glass of milk and 3 mints. She probably won’t need to eat again for a week.

A great ending to this sad story would undoubtedly include additional evidence of my abuse and anecdotes about what an entitled ass my brother grew up to be. However, I must tell you that Mama was a wonderful mother to both my brother and me, and The Little Man grew into a big man and a good man, turning out to be all the things Mama predicted he would be when he was just five. I'm not sure one would call him a tycoon, but he did well in all the ways that are important, and he's my brother and I love him.

As for my tiny toe injury, I now believe Sandy told me it was his fault to make me feel better about being such an idiot when I was two. However, what would really make me feel better would be
2 and ½ pieces of chicken, 2 helpings of rice and gravy, English peas, cantaloupe, milk, a piece of cake, 3 pieces of cheese, 3 carrot sticks, 2 graham crackers, small glass of milk, and 3 mints.

Well, maybe not the English peas.


The Little Man and me. It's a wonder I could stand what with my injury.

Good Golly





Miss Molly

What a week this has been for you. After making the ridiculous decision to take four teacher-certification tests in one day, having had a total of eight weeks of education courses, you managed to pass all of them, getting your results a few days ago. And then there was the going to class and finding out you are now highly qualified (a No Child Left Behind leftover term) to teach either Special Ed or English or some kind of crazy combination of both.

But let’s go back about 25 years.

You were my late-in-life baby, a surprise but never a mistake. On the day you were born, as I put you to my shoulder to smell your sweetness, you patted me on my close-to -middle-aged back with your little hand, as if to say everything would be all right.

There were times during your teenage years when I questioned your commitment to that promise.

Although we had picked out Emily for you, you were a Molly from the first time I saw you. Whenever you complained about being named after a Little Richard song, your daddy told you to be grateful it wasn’t Tutti Frutti.

You didn’t have an easy childhood with your father and me divorcing when you were six, with your anxiety causing you to throw-up into Barbara’s kitty litter box each morning on your way to school, and with your sorry eyesight requiring your little pink glasses.

Barbara’s house was your safe haven while I traveled with work and other things. She did your hair, bought your clothes, packed your lunch, and was generally your mother while I climbed my ladder and followed my bliss. You were so good at school and so worried about it that I promised you a party if you’d just get into some kind of trouble.

That was a mistake. You later got into all kinds trouble and had your own parties. When you were in Middle School, I remember you drawing body parts in class and then proudly wearing the shameful orange vest with the other “misunderstood” miscreants.

And then there was high school and your first love, which could and probably should have done you in, but didn’t. I’ll never forget that day in July of 2004 when you told me you wished we could look ahead a few years so you could surprise me with how you would turn things around. Well, almost six years later, you’ve gotten your wish. However, even though I’ve been amazed by your intelligence, commitment, and stamina, and delighted with your success, I’m no longer surprised by the adult you’ve become.

The rest of that tough summer, you and I spent a lot of time together, getting to know each other all over again, reading good books and watching bad television. You began to make new friends while holding on to the old ones, who, like you, decided it was time to grow up.

I knew you were going to be fine when you got to college and started actually liking your professors, and when you changed your major from practical Computer Sciences to totally impractical English "because you loved it". At that point, those bits and pieces of earlier hard times managed to make you strong enough to take on the world, while also helping you to understand and accept the frailties of others, characteristics that will make you a wonderful teacher.

And so, my youngest child, friend to brilliant odd balls, old souls, and facile survivors, I predict you will continue to find your own way in this crazy world on whatever paths you decide to follow. In addition, it seems you have managed to keep that very first promise you made to me when you were just a few hours old. Everything is, indeed, all right.

No Spring Chicken



My father, George Washington Mayo, was a good man who loved people. While I got my creativity and general oddness and orneriness from my mother, my rather silly sense of humor came straight from my father. I guess, with a name like George Washington Mayo, the ability to laugh was most likely a necessity.

Daddy had these great sayings. Whether you would call them axioms or idioms or perhaps just George-isms, they were most likely representative of the time, and some would certainly be thought of as sexist and politically incorrect these days. All of them appeared to be based on what he considered to be both hilarious and of great value to the younger generation. Now that he's gone, I love it when one of my father's sayings pops into my head at just the right moment to remind me of him and to keep me as close to the straight and narrow as my mama's inherited zigzaggedness allows.

Here are the George-isms I remember:

If my brother or I came between my father and the television set, he would say, “Your daddy wasn’t a glassblower." This, we surmised after a while, meant we weren’t transparent and he couldn’t see where Chester was headed in the midst of a
Gunsmoke episode, in spite of the fact that Chester was always headed down to Miss Kitty's Saloon.

If we were doing something stupidly dangerous, Daddy would say, “You’re going to bust your contract.” We took that to mean we were going to fall down, hit our heads, and end up in the hospital with a bandage tied around our noggins. Daddy used the same term later with my kids, and Melissa, just recently, tried researching the meaning of the phrase and couldn’t find anything on it, other than references to breaking a legal contract. Apparently, Daddy just made that one up.

We always had a cat or two around the house because my mother loved them. Daddy, on the other hand, opined that "the only good cat was a dead cat." However, he was known to pet one from time to time when no one was looking.

Again, if any of us got in Daddy’s way, when he wasn’t mentioning the lack of a glassblowing father, he would say, “I’m slow because I’m old. What’s your excuse?”

The worst thing Daddy ever called anyone was jackass. He called my brother and me that from time to time and he also used it to describe his grandkids, my children. As far as I can tell, he was right on with that one, especially when it came to my children who inherited their jackassedness from their father.

When I was a teenager and wanted to listen to the radio while my daddy was driving, he'd put up with the din for a while, even pretending to enjoy it by doing that finger-jive thing that cartoon characters used to do back in the day. However, if we got into heavy traffic, he would tell me to turn off the radio because he was getting ready to do some "fancy driving." I always envisioned fancy driving as involving a car-chase scene like in the movies, but all I got was Daddy scrunched over the steering wheel trying to change lanes and complaining about jackasses.

Daddy had a great way to meet new people and he would use this greeting when he met my friends (much to my humiliation). He would offer his hand and shake theirs sideways as opposed to up and down until their entire bodies would appear be be afflicted with some kind of palsy. When they were all shook up and as least somewhat discombobulated, he would offer, “I know my name. What’s yours?” You can see why my social circle was somewhat small.

In spite of his obnoxious greetings, Daddy was very kind and would never hurt anyone’s feelings, but he did call the very few divorced women he knew “grass widows,” not to their faces, of course. I looked up that term, and unlike "bust your contract", there's an actual history to it. The “grass” comes from being “out to pasture” or no longer viable. No wonder Daddy was so mad at me when I got divorced. There he was suddenly saddled with a daughter who was no longer viable enough to entice another man into taking care of her.

And when Daddy would notice I was putting on weight, he would offer that I was becoming “broad across the beam." So I guess that meant I was not only out to pasture but was also hauling a heavy load.

Continuing with the no-longer-viable theme, Daddy had a couple of zingers on the topic of old age, especially when it afflicted humans of the female persuasion. Occasionally, when Mama entered the room, he would warble, in what was actually a pretty good singing voice, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” If that ever bothered my mother, she was smart enough not to let on. He would also point out that she was no longer a “spring chicken”, and as I got older, he tossed that term at me also.

But, in spite of his lack of fine tuning in the area of gender relations, my father had a good heart and a commitment to doing the right thing for people, no matter the color of their skin, the size of their bank account, the country of their origin, the construction of their genetic makeup, or the breadth of their beam.

A final word on my father: Because Daddy stayed very busy with work and church and doing things for other people, when
we wanted him to do something for us, he would say he'd do it when he “got caught up”. We joked that we would have “He finally got caught up!” engraved on his headstone when he died, but we never had the chance, as my wonderful, funny, sexist father gave his body to the Medical College of Georgia, an act so giving, so zany, I’m pretty sure he’s still chuckling about it up there somewhere. That's because, if there is a heaven, Daddy is sure to be at the Pearly Gates, greeting newcomers with his signature handshake and helping St. Peter check off his list by saying, "I know my name. What's yours?"

As for me, I'm still a grass widow, still broad across the beam, and am now less of a spring chicken than even the old gray mare who ain't what she used to be.




Preface to Chickie Ling



I haven't written much about my mother for this blog because there’s so much to tell and it will take a while to do her story justice. But, in honor of the 50th posting from dabbler me, I’ve decided to get started with it, especially since I can imagine her looking over my shoulder and admonishing me with “What are you afraid of? Just get started. It can’t be that hard.”

I do want to begin by saying my mother was, by far, the most important influence in my life. Most of the good habits I have are from her, as are the majority of the bad ones. Mama wasn’t perfect and wasn’t the least bit interested in
being perfect. I can just hear her say how boring perfection would be.

My mother smoked and drank and had a very exciting life until she gave it all up (all except the smoking and drinking part) to marry my daddy and to birth and care for, and about, my brother and me. She was a good wife and a good mother, while also managing to stay true to herself for her entire life. She was a painter and a sewer and a crabber and a knitter and a fisherwoman and an organist (not a very good one) and a furniture refinisher and an upholsterer and a shrimp net tie-er and a crochet-er and a jewelry maker. She was also a physical therapist and One Tough Cookie.

I have, however, documented my mother's life in other ways. A story I wrote for Arizona Highways was about Mama's childhood summers spent in what is now the Sedona area of Arizona.

And after my mother’s death, I did name a character after her in my last book,
Westward Ho, a decision that truly horrified some of my friends. Their trepidation most likely came from the fact that the so-named character was a prostitute. In fact, Mama's namesake was the Ho in Westward Ho. This characterization wasn’t based on my mother’s history (as exciting as it was) but on the fact that her nickname, Chickie Ling, had always sounded like an Asian call girl to me. Although Mama wasn’t Asian and she was never (as far as I know) a call girl, I believe she would have loved being made a prostitute in her daughter’s book. In fact, I know this for certain.

In addition, my crazy idea of naming a character after my mother was based on my desire to use her home town of Jerome, Arizona as the prototype for the town where the fictional Chickie Ling had, at one time, plied her charms. I called my made-up town the silly name of Fred, Arizona, but the descriptions were based on my memories of current-day Jerome.

Here are a few:

The town of Fred looked, to Annabelle, like Arizona’s answer to Lost Horizon, with the illusion of being caught up and then left behind in an early daguerreotype print.

For better or worse, Fred du jour still brought to mind rowdy bars and musty-smelling whores. Annabelle half expected to see a drunken scalawag being dragged out feet first from one of the still-solvent watering holes. However, instead of tethered horses from an earlier time, new and expensive Harleys were resplendent, parked and chained in a shiny row on Main Street.

‘Next street down’ described it perfectly, as blocks were connected by steps instead of sidewalks. You could get a nosebleed just going to the drugstore (not that there was a drugstore in Fred).

Annabelle and J.B. each decided to order a glass of wine so that they could watch the sun set from the deck of The Haunted Hamburger. There was certainly something magical about the view, the striations of vibrant sun-streaked sky hues meeting in some kind of strange juxtaposition with the dun-colored earth, kind of like tutti-frutti topping off caramel crunch.


The above fictional descriptions are really, truly what Jerome, Arizona looks like now, at least to me. It’s on the side of a mountain and was, at one point, a ghost town. Now a funky artists’ colony, it does indeed, have a restaurant called The Haunted Hamburger and another called Belgian Jenny's Bordello, so named after the houses of ill repute that flourished during its mining heyday. The town of Jerome, when my mother was a child, was a bustling place with a productive copper mine and schools and businesses, but it was still enough of a departure from my childhood in Savannah, Georgia to seem different and romantic to me. I think I now see writing a book with my mother as a fictional character was just a way to put myself in the midst of a town that holds a special place in my heart.

And so, I will go from here to tell my mother's tale, whenever my memories, or Mama herself, nudge me. I won't try to tell it all at once, but in small stories, stories that made up the life of a remarkable woman, a woman who was thoughtful enough to detour her journey and change her dreams in order to have me and guide me and love me - a woman who still lives with me every day of my own life.

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