Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Bigger They Are

This week has been a week of revelation: I have been made aware of the importance of cleavage in our society.

When I was a young woman, cleavage was an almost mystical vision that was seldom seen, except in certain magazines.  We kept our cleavage to ourselves, revealing it only when it seemed the thing to do.  And then, it had an amazing affect on the male to whom this great revelation was made.  Clothing was designed to plunge the neckline only so far, just below the collarbones.  Any lower than that often meant using a safety pin to secure the revealing part.  Now, maybe it was just a Mid-West, Bible-belt prejudice.  But, how could the fashions of the day be explained?  It was 1970, and most liberated girls who had discarded their bras wore tee-shirts with peace signs, or army jackets, and also wore long skirts with Birkenstocks.  No cleavage was part of that ensemble, I tell you.

But now, it is everywhere.  At the dentist office, the receptionist had a lovely firm cleavage, and her uniform was proud to show it off.  While I was getting my teeth cleaned, I was forced to gaze at the hygienist’s smooth chest, and young skin.  Even the young woman who worked the McDonald’s drive-thru flashed an impressive chestal view when she leaned through the window with my hot coffee, two creams and sugar-free vanilla syrup.

If I, a mature married woman with life-experiences, am confounded, surprised, amazed by the casualness of such a display, then how in the world can the male portion of society handle this daily onslaught on the senses?

Oh, when I was younger…I was a nice firm 34B.  When I jogged to class at college, there was a bounce in my step and an enticing jiggle on my chest.  Guys would follow me with their eyes as I jogged by, and then they watched my firm buttocks and slim 34” hips as I passed.  Not to brag, but I had quite a few guys follow me to see what dorm I was in, or where I had classes.  I was petite, with long brown hair, and in great physical shape, as I lived on the top floor of my dorm, and ran up and down the eight flights of stairs innumerable times a day.

Now when I ‘jog’ anywhere (doesn’t happen that often), people watch me.  They are wondering if I am alright, should they call an ambulance.  My red face and labored breathing is a pretty good indicator. They can see my voluptuous 36C babies leap all over my chest, unless I am wearing one of my delicious and luxurious Natori bras.  Those things keep the girls up and out there. 

And to be honest, those people are also seeing other parts of my body flap about because gravity has taken over.  My generation lives in denial, thinking that somehow we ‘boomers’ will be forever young, if we have enough money and plastic surgery.  Sooner or later, female members of this club will be checking the mail for Social Security checks, taking out their teeth at night, and shopping in the Alfred Dunner section at JC Penney’s. The male members (who once watched my pert little breasts pass by them) will be complaining about their prostates.

Today is a peculiar day for me, I guess.  I usually don’t think about breasts, let alone write about them.  I am not one of the ‘edgy’ writers, whom I love, read, and admire.  No, I am an introspective people watcher, who tries to see greater meaning in small events.  So today, I write about the female mammary glands.  Why, you may ask.

Today a female whom I proudly know and love, my one remaining aunt, is having a biopsy done on a lump she found on her remaining breast.  She is my fun aunt, the one who is only 15 years older than I am.  My aunt took care of me when I was newborn; her friends came over and they considered me to be their little real-live baby doll. She has lived all over the world, traveled and wrote to me about her adventures.  This aunt has survived bouts with cancer and all the following complications that come with surgery, chemo, and radiation treatments.   She came through all that hell with her usual sense of humor and way of putting things like this in perspective. 

Anne.  Kitty.  Carilyn.  Sue.  Jane.  Vada.  Those are the names of only a few family and friends who have been hit with breast cancer.  Some survived, and some died.

That’s pretty darn depressing, right there, isn’t it?  And I didn’t mean to start out writing such a doom & gloom piece.  I truly had more humor planned.  So forgive me, and let me regress some on the cleavage issue.

When my daughters were starting their adolescence, and starting to wear cute little AAA cup bras, something really strange happened.  My oldest daughter passed through the A, B, and C cups without pausing.  That girl went straight to the D cups by the time she was fifteen.  She didn’t show cleavage; she didn’t need to reveal a thing.  Every teenage boy was zeroed in on her chest, and it is still the same today.  My youngest daughter watched this development, and readied herself for her own brush with D cup fame. 

It never happened.  Where the oldest could enter a room breast-first, the youngest grew tall, with long shapely legs, and a flat chest.  She waited and waited, and finally decided it was my fault, that somehow I had short-shifted her genetically.  There are no big-breasted women on my side of the family (except me, now, at this stage of my life).  All the boob-a-lusciousness came from her father’s side and I had nothing to do with the way the chromosomes fell when they were dealt at conception.

Ah, cleavage and your devilish connection to enticing the male animal to follow you to your door!  What a mess you have made throughout history.  I bet Helen of Troy boasted an envious set of knockers.  Cleopatra?  Oh, yeah.  Marilyn Monroe—what a great package.

So, this ode to cleavage must end, for it is simply not in me to pursue it to a raunchier conclusion.  My daughters could take off with this piece, and spice it up considerably.  They are good writers and have a broader, more contemporary social vocabulary.

Oh, by the way, schedule a mammogram if you are 40 or older.  It’s important.  Those precious puppies on your chest will thank you for taking care of them.  You, too, can flash your cleavage, unless you are a male and are just merely looking at someone else’s cleavage, or….

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Putting pieces together

Garage sales are like candy stores for a lot of people like me.  We ourselves have a garage full of multiple collections of the stages of our life, our grown kids' lives, crushed soda cans, Christmas stuff, and camping gear.  I could go on, but that would be just plain embarrassing.  Even so, my car has a garage sale GPS, and it downshifts gears, and brakes when passing someone's driveway spread with all the stuff that their own garage has regurgitated.

Bright shiny Saturdays are great days for cruising the streets with swivel heads.  Yesterday was a day of discovery, on many levels.  My husband John and I pulled up along the curb, and ambled casually toward the day's sale items.  I had spotted two quilts hanging on a chair, and that was the bait for me.  I greeted the couple hosting the garage sale.  They were about my oldest daughter's age.  Their garage was clean, and this stuff wasn't typical for their age.  None of the things that clutter my daughter's garage were there.  No baby stuff.  No old blankets or linens.  No college bookshelves.  No, this stuff wasn't theirs.

I picked up the quilts, and they were old.  I mean old.  The quilt tops had been hand pieced, by someone with an eye for color, and who had a basket of left-over fabrics from other sewing projects. There were patient appliques and hand embroidery.  The quilt stitches were even and firm, as if done by someone who took her time and was thinking about the importance of making something that would last through many many launderings.

"How much?" I asked the ridiculously young man who owned the house.
"How about a dollar each?  That okay?"
A dollar each?  Seriously?  The work in these two quilts, the age they both held--shouldn't they be almost priceless.  "Really...why so cheap?"
"Well, it's either a dollar, or let the dog sleep on them."
I choked back a reply, and indicated that I would take them.  And then I wanted to know about the quilter, and I guess that is the real story here, not the garage sale itself.

His grandmother died a few years ago, and left a houseful of quilts, plates, glassware, doilies and tablecloths--all the things that a woman of her generation might have accumulated over a lifetime.  He said that the best memories he had of her were when she would sit and make something, telling him stories of her life.  "She always had something she was working on..." he said, trailing off to answer someone else's question about a Trivia Pursuit game.

People think of quilts and immediately the word "pioneers" come to mind, as if somehow the two are inextricably united, and have sole domain.  His grandmother was probably a young woman during WWII, and knew how to dance up a storm with the men in uniform.  She probably worn nylon stockings with a seam up the back of the leg.  She probably loved the young Frank Sinatra, and wanted to skate like Sonia Henning.  Then his grandmother married one of those men in uniform, had babies, and became a part of "The Greatest Generation" without ever even thinking about it.  And, at night, once the kids were in bed, she listened to the radio or watched a very small black and white television, while she quilted.

I brought the quilts home, spread them out on my quilted bedspread and looked at them.  'This is quilting from the heart,' I thought.  No co-ordinated batik prints, no die-cut pieces, no color wheel adherence.  No, just a woman sitting at night by the radio, talking and laughing with her husband and kids, while she patiently and firmly put one piece to another.  I like to picture in my mind how she held the pieces at arms' length, the way I do why I put pieces together, and think about how they will look in the scheme of the quilt.

So the quilts are in my house now, joining other quilts I own, made, or have rescued from being in a dog's bed.  There is no great single uniting thought here, no deep summarizing 'a-ha' moment, just a bunch of images stitched together like a movie of someone's life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Year I Did Not Win The Publishers' Clearing House

Recently my daughter Mary asked me to write some stories about the growing up years.  Being the youngest of three children, Mary felt like she missed out on some of the memorable events that the other two were privy to.  Okay.  I gave it some thought, and this one year stands out so clearly in my mind.

The year 1981 was an eventful year, making national and international history.  Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States.  The U.S. Embassy hostages, held for so very long in Iran, were released a few days later.  The economy was plummeting all over the world, and unemployment was higher than it had ever been.  Federal taxes were brutal.  Inflation was legendary.  We took out a second mortgage on our humble house at the standard interest rate of 16 ½ percent.  We borrowed $10,000 which was supposed to provide us with income for the entire year.

We were property managers of low-income apartments in the Mojave Desert.  Our tenants were struggling to pay their rent while living in old worn out apartments.  Evictions were common; my husband went nearly every other day to file eviction notices at the courthouse.  With rent collections down so low, my husband decided we would live on our borrowed money.  Of course, he didn’t tell the owners of the properties that we were doing this.  He felt this reflected poorly on him as a manager. 

With a new baby girl, a two-year old son, and a five-year old daughter, our expenses were already stretched beyond our financial ability to pay for them.  Each month was a balancing act and guessing game:  which bills to pay, how much to pay, and how little did we need to just squeak by on a quickly emptying checking account.

 I like to think of that year as this:  The Year I Didn’t Win Publisher’s Clearing House.

Each year that big brown envelope came in the mail, and each year I had thrown it out in the trash.  The year 1981 was different.  I held that envelope in my hands and it seemed to grow warmer by the second.  ‘Why not?’ I thought, as I tore the sealed edge.  ‘Why not indeed?’

The envelope held a bundle of letters, stickers, and more than that, promises.  “You could be the next winner of $1,000,000!”  All I had to do was to fill out the enclosed papers, decide whether to subscribe to a magazine or not, get free mystery prizes, and put all those into an envelope and return it by a certain date.  My hands literally shook as I reviewed all the offers, as I thought about ‘what if?’ that this meant.  I ignored a crying baby, a brewing fight between the other two kids, and filled that return envelope, sealing it with a loud slurp.

I forgot about it.  Life went on, with clothes shopping at Goodwill, and buying out-of-date produce.  Hamburger Helper © and chipped beef on toast were seen frequently on our table.  I occasionally cleaned those emptied apartments, finding furniture that we could use, or blankets that just needed a very thorough laundering.  Yes, life went on.

But then, the mailman came and I found another brown envelope in my porch mailbox.  “You have been selected to be among the twenty thousand people who could be the next winner of $1,000,000!”  With disbelief written on my every feature, I ripped open the envelope, and there was the letter that explained everything.  I reread it, again and again, looking for nuances of language, phrases that could be misinterpreted.  Finding none, I pulled out the rest of the package of more stickers, more offers, and mystery prizes.  I filled out the papers, declining the magazines, but staying in the contest.  I had that return envelope filled and sealed before the postman made it to the end of the street.

I didn’t forget about it, but I did push it to back of the queue, behind cleaning, laundry, bill paying, and child rearing.  As I said before, life went on.  Then the water company came and turned off the water.  We hadn’t paid our bill for the last month, $28.92.  I cried, I begged, and I promised, but the water went off anyway.  I needed to take cash down to the water company and pay the bill.  There was no way to reach my husband and scream hysterically into the phone.  We had one car, an old Ford Granada.  So I paced the floor, waiting and waiting, and told the kids NOT to flush the toilet.  They did anyway.

He came home and after listening to my ranting for about ten minutes, he said that he had some cash from rent collections, and that he would go pay the bill.  An hour later the same water employee came out and turned on the water.  He tried to look apologetic, but I knew he wasn’t.  Everyone we knew was counting out their pennies and looking forward to seeing President Reagan clean up the mess of the past decade of disastrous politics.  I made grilled cheese sandwiches (with day-old bread) and tomato soup (4 cans for a dollar) for supper.  I started speaking again to my husband around 9 p.m.

The weeks dragged by.  We went to Pic-N-Save to get shoes for the kids, and found some socks as well; they were ‘seconds’ which meant there were flaws in them.  Well, the whole year was flawed as far as I was concerned, so we bought the socks and the shoes.  Our credit card usage had never been so high, but we had no money, and a promise of money in the future gave us mental permission to use the Visa and MasterCard.  I watched for the postman with the intensity of a stalker.

And he came, with the blessed brown envelope in hand.  I met him at my mailbox and took it from his hand, along with the Visa and MasterCard bills.  With anxiety born of desperation, I ripped the envelope open.  The letter read, “You have been selected to be one of eight thousand people eligible for $1,000,000!”  I fell back onto the couch, one that had been in someone else’s apartment and had needed only minor fumigation.  The kids looked up from ‘Sesame Street ©’ and then turned back to Big Bird.  Again the promise loomed before me, and with it the security it could provide.

I followed the procedures, declined the offers, and filled the return envelope with the papers I had checked and double-checked.  I caught the mailman before he got to the house on the corner.  Hope was once again alive.  Then my husband came home as I was wrestling with the bills, trying to see how close we could come to paying them all.  He asked, in all seriousness, “Do you think we could get by with $600.00 this month?”  I looked at his sweet face pinched with worry, and put my head down on the table and started crying.

The apartment owners came home from a long cruise and met with my husband to go over the collections and bill paying.  When the owner saw that we had not taken a salary for seven months (yes, seven months), he swore and said, “Dammit, you gotta look after your family.”  He wrote a check for the back pay, and told my husband in certain terms, “Don’t ever do this again!”

My husband deposited the check and didn’t tell me until the next afternoon.   The mail had come, and I was holding the letter telling me that, regretfully, I didn’t win, but not to give up because next year could be my year.  I looked at my husband as he told me that we had gotten paid back pay.  We could pay our bills, but not all of them.  It would take years to pay off the second mortgage (at 16 ½ percent) and all the credit charges.

The envelope went into the trash, and we hugged.  Then I fixed dinner, spaghetti with meat sauce.  I used a whole pound of hamburger, at 59 cents a pound on special that week.  And, life went on.