Grandma, Food, and Cancer

I grew up in a food stamp house, allergic to milk, with a vegetarian mother and no television.  Books, cats, and a hugely-overactive imagination were my entertainment.  Once a week my mom would take me to the library and I’d check out so many books I could barely carry them all.  I’d lounge around reading for hours on end, picking sadly at my salad garnished with home-sprouted lentils and fenugreeks.  Oh, I had my soy cheese, my Rice Dream “ice cream”, and my trusty jar of unstirred Adams peanut butter, but it just couldn’t match Grandma’s house.

Grandma Ruth’s house was a little slice of heaven.  She had everything I deemed to be most important in life: every Dr. Seuss book, a pool table, an awesome collection of old 45’s, a television, and a fridge full of meat.  She would fry me kielbasa for breakfast (which she called Oktoberfest sausages), give me liverwurst for lunch, and feed me pot roast for dinner.  Then I’d collapse onto the couch – or as she called it – the davenport, and watch Dukes of Hazzard and the A-Team.  Just everything a growing boy needs.

Grandma Ruth always had a twinkle in her eye.  She’d make herself martinis, dance around to old boogie songs in her robe, and whoop my ass at billiards.  “Not enough,” she’d always say, referring to a lack of English applied to the cue ball.  She drove a little yellow Porsche convertible, and she drove it with a heavy foot.  There were racing goggles and (imagine!) gloves in the glove compartment, and a little silk pillow on the dash that said “Baby Ruth” on it.  Sometimes she’d drink a pot of coffee and then fall asleep in her chair, snoring fantastically.  And don’t think she was afraid to use the shotgun in the closet when a mole went to work out in her yard.

Then I’d go back home where there was no meat, no TV, and no money.  I didn’t mind though.  I loved my mom; she was one of my best friends growing up, though I despised my rainbow suspenders, hated my bowl haircut, and resented the cowlick in my hair.  Even a wet hairbrush only kept it at bay for a few minutes.  I guess I didn’t hate being the only hippie kid in a three-classroom rural school, but I was certainly aware that I was the only one, and it irritated me.

In winter I’d build a fire in the woodstove before I left for school, so when mom got up there would be some warmth tip-toeing through the little house.  In the summer I’d sit out on the front porch and eat granola with juice in it.  I got tired of soy milk and rice milk, so I tried it with juice: orange (not bad at all actually), apple (a little weird), and grape (yuck).  Having such limited food options has definitely had its effects on my eating habits over the years, and is probably a big part of why I became a chef.  When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “a food taster”.  One time we ended up with one of those big round tins of Christmas fudge, and I ended up being at home alone with it.  Me and the fudge, we became pals.  I slowly and methodically ate the entire tin – every last piece – all the while telling myself mom wouldn’t notice or care.  I was incorrect in my thinking.  I also puked on a shrub and it died.

My mom and I spent a lot of great times together: movies, swimming, hunting for seashells on the beach, driving around at Christmas looking at the lights and singing songs.  But when she got cancer everything changed, then changed again, and again.  Cancer is mean-spirited that way.  It makes you think things are getting better, gives you glimmers of hope.  Then it bounces back into the center of the ring and knocks you out cold.  I was really mad about it for a long time.  Mad at her, mad at cancer, mad at life and the world.  But as I stood on a high cliff scattering her ashes over the Pacific Ocean, I was sorry I’d ever wasted a minute being mad at her, wishing instead that I’d used every scrap of time and energy to get to know her better, and understand everything I could about who she was.

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“I was permitted to hear an incredible music…I heard the gestation of the new world…the sound of stars grinding and chafing, of fountains clotted with blazing gems….Music is planetary fire, an irreducible which is all sufficient; it is the slate-writing of the gods.”

-Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

 

The McKenzie Brothers

In the early 1800’s, the Willamette River Valley of northwestern Oregon was publicized as a “promised land of flowing milk and honey”, but for me it’s just where I grew up.  Though a place of grand beauty stretched out between the Cascade mountains and the Coast range, to my mind and heart it’s more a place of childhood memories that have become tangled up like necklaces stored together in a little box for a long time.

I lived there with my mom for about five years – a long time considering how much we moved around.  Though a cheerful kid with a farmer’s tan and freckles splashed across my face, there were many things I hated about my life during that time.

Rivaling for first place in the hate category are the McKenzie brothers.  Three sons of a farmer and his wife, the McKenzie brothers came to Oregon from Indiana when their parents decided to move there and purchase a piece of property with an extensive apple orchard on it.  They lived down the road from the three-classroom school we all went to, and I rode my bike past their house to and from school each day.  I rode past fields, farms, a Mennonite church, railroad tracks.  But I came to dread riding past the McKenzie house.  A couple times I stopped to watch, mouth hanging open, as they shoved firecrackers into the mouth and ass of a dead animal.  When parts of the corpse exploded, so too did the McKenzie boys explode – with laughter and glee.  I mean, they were always doing something that was just awful.  They would lash one another with switches cut from the trees of their daddy’s orchard.  I mean, take their shirts off and really lash.  And they were always shooting each other with BB guns, and their mom would pick the BB’s out.  There I would be, streaking past on my bike, pedaling madly, hoping not to get shot.  Their idea of a game was making their stream of pee touch an electric fence and see who could last the longest.

Heroic

Here is one of three poems published online currently at Wilderness House Literary Review.  To read them all, simply visit their website and find my name on the list.

 

Heroic

 

When the wheel of circumstance turns again,

when your brain is back inside its breast

and your heart is in its head,

stroll past the temple, don’t worry.

You left the chests of gold behind,

you didn’t splice your Oneness.

You were fluid in your thinking,

now the beggars have invited you to their table.

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

You were fluid with your money,

for money comes and goes.

You were careful with time,

for time passes.

You chose.

Who cares what they say?

 

We’re all so eager to strive,

leap, let go, hold on, be still,

shout, sing, float, rhyme,

be noticed, go unnoticed.

We jump at the chance

to thrust out like rapiers

our views, our narratives,

approving of anyone who pays attention.

We adore our thoughts, love love love them.

It’s so easy to mistake circumstance for choice.

Only sacrifice remembers that chaos is master,

striking at random,

electrifying us,

compelling us to examine the ground

beneath the stone we stand on.

Who has strength enough to leave stars alone

and not reach for them?

And in not reaching,

go further than you could have otherwise gone.

 

Karma

I don’t want to come across as self-absorbed by writing a snippet of memoir here, I can’t take myself that seriously.  But I’m going to write it anyway.  So I guess the question is: how can I justify rolling gleefully in the decadent pig-trough that is the subject of Me?  Ahh, screw it.  Here goes.

When I was about six years old, living with my mom and my sister in the foothills of the Cascade mountains in Oregon, I received my first lesson in karma.  I have a few other memories from that house too – whistling for the first time, eating toothpaste, eating huckleberries, the tire swing in the front yard – but my lesson in karma is what really sticks out.

I’d like to think I was generally a good-natured young fellow, but somehow I got an idea that reminds me of the way Dr. Seuss’s Grinch smiles: I decided that I would place a tack on the stairs, and that my sister would step on it.  In my defense, I’m confident she was being super-mean to me that day, and I must have been really angry because I remember thinking how glorious it would be when my devious plan came to fruition.

So I carefully placed a tack on one of the creaking wood steps and ran upstairs to whatever corner seemed like the most strategic hideout.  And there, with the attention span of a common housefly on crack-cocaine, I waited.  And I waited.  And waited…

The next thing I remember is mom calling my name.  I ran down the stairs and – KERPOW! – the tack I had placed there sunk full force into my heel.  Crying out, I gasped as a deep throbbing pain rattled the nerve endings in my foot.  I hopped to my mother, wailing.  She removed the object in question and gave me comfort I knew full well I didn’t deserve, a few drops of blood speckling the floor.

It is without pride that I report this fact: I didn’t tell the truth about how it really happened.  Not to mention the keen realization, even at the age of six, that I was without a doubt one of the stupidest children to ever breathe this planet’s air.  And that was my first big lesson in karma.

The optimistic part of me and the proudly cynical part of me resent each other with all they’ve got.  They’re always looking squinty-eyed at one another, like two gunslingers at opposite ends of the dusty road that runs through the center of town in spaghetti-western movies.  But neither one of them ever draws.  It’s an eternal stalemate.