HYPOCHONDRIAC

It’s September and we’re in the middle of a heat wave—not unusual for Berkeley this time of year. I only mention this because when I went to the pool on Friday, I found it closed—a change in the fall schedule I’d forgotten about. But before I could lament my memory lapse, I realized it was warm enough to swim at Lake Anza instead—so I headed home to retrieve my sunscreen and beach towel. One of the more memorable swims I had there I wrote about in A Patchwork Memoir:

Three summers ago I started swimming—weather permitting—at tiny Lake Anza, only ten minutes from my door if I take Marin, a street perpendicular to the earth. Being at the lake evokes my childhood more than anything I can think of—even lilacs or Perry Como. It does, however have its down side:

Marcus, my Alexander teacher, reaches out to hug me. “I’m Swamp Thing,” I warn him. “My hair smells of algae.” When I went swimming at the lake yesterday the water was green soup, and my swimsuit stank to high heaven—even after I washed it. (Floating on my back in the middle of the lake, I saw a snake resting its head on the rope between the buoys. We regarded each other dubiously for a minute, then it dove back in and headed for shore. I expected to hear kids screaming, “Snake! Snake!” at any moment, but he must have kept a low profile, which I suppose isn’t that hard for a snake.)

“Can’t they do something about the algae?” I asked the lifeguard last summer.

“They’ve tried, but it just keeps coming back,” he shrugged. “The rains wash down fertilizer from the botanical garden, and the algae goes crazy.”

Fertilizer! I thought. Like bone meal for roses? Uh-oh. Didn’t they say on TV to be leery of bone meal—that it may contain the ground-up bones of bovines with mad cow disease? I kept spitting into kleenexes the whole way home in case I had any lake water left in my mouth; I’m just a wee bit hypochondriacal.

Which reminds me of the time, when I was a teenager, that I noticed I had no feeling on the back of my left toe. Worried that I’d contracted leprosy—it starts as numbness in the extremities—I called my mother’s doctor. Though she didn’t seem particularly alarmed—said I’d probably stubbed it—I remained unconvinced. So, using a pin to prick it, I mapped out the deadened area with a ballpoint pen, then kept my left foot dangling out of the tub whenever I took a bath so the map wouldn’t wash off—and checked it every few days for a month to see if the numbness was spreading. Or maybe I kept it up for only a week—but anyway, long enough to find some other disease or syndrome to agonize about.

When I got home, I changed my mind about the sunscreen—too much trouble. I’ll be in and out of the water in short order, I told myself. This time of year the water is so frigid that if I stay in too long—and my ears get too cold—I’ll develop a headache.

DARK SECRET

 

I love this picture of my mom and me. She was twenty-five when I was born and couldn’t have looked more glamorous, in my humble opinion. She’d married my dad the year before, after meeting him at a hospital in California where she was stationed as a WAC (Women’s Army Corp). She was so attractive she had a host of admirers—her “smooth half dozen,” as she called them. My dad approached her, asking if she could introduce him to the brainiest WACS she knew. At one point in their conversation, he mistakenly quoted someone or other and she corrected him, telling him who’d actually said it. That was the moment he decided she was smart enough. Though they only dated a few weeks before he was sent back to the hospital where he headed up a pathology lab, he was quick to propose to her, worried that some other guy would beat him to it if he didn’t move fast.

What I didn’t know until years later was that my mom had been engaged to a man called Jimmy, and that the wedding invitations had already been sent out when a girl from his hometown showed up pregnant with a child she claimed was his. She—my mom—had married my dad on the rebound, she confessed to me. Humiliated by Jimmy, who went home and married the other girl, she was trying to save face. As for my parents’ nuptials, all I know is this: They were married by a female justice of the peace, Mom wore a suit instead of a wedding dress, they honeymooned in southern California, and on the way to Minnesota, the train caught fire and Mom’s trousseau went up in smoke.

I’ve already written about the Quonset hut we lived in while my parents continued their college educations at the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill. It was only a few years ago that I asked Mom what memories she had of me as a baby. “You drooled a lot,” was her first recollection. “Do you remember my first word?” I asked. “You pointed at the fixture on the ceiling,” she told me, “and said ‘light.’” (I love that!)

Later she recounted how, as soon as she’d started having contractions the morning of my birth, a friend had driven her and my dad to the hospital (they didn’t own a car). I made my debut before my father had even finished filling out the necessary paperwork.

It was the happiest day of her life, my mother reminisced. Unlike when my brother was born, however, the hospital didn’t allow babies to stay with their mothers, she explained, but put them in a nursery after birth. So the only time we spent together during those first few days was when she breast-fed me. (That, I find appalling.)

Some time later she stopped nursing me because I bit her, she admitted. They didn’t have pacifiers back then, so I started sucking my thumb…with the result my baby teeth came in with a space between two of them. (Now I’m remembering that, according to one dentist, this had caused my adult teeth to come in with a space too.) Also, Mom told me, my nose was smashed to one side when I was born. (OK, my nose is still turned slightly to one side, but then, so is Harrison Ford’s.) Both my cousin Mark and I were very obviously pigeon-toed at birth, but while Nat and Ray (my aunt and uncle) had him wear baby shoes with a metal bar between them at night to help his feet and legs grow straighter, she and Dad didn’t with me, worried that I’d be too uncomfortable. (Instead I wound up wearing Stride-Rite saddle shoes throughout elementary school.)

Mom also recalled a day she came home and found I was gone, an absence that my father hadn’t noticed. They discovered me toddling around the neighborhood—on an odyssey I like to think was prompted by an adventurous spirit.

As for the day my brother was burned, I don’t have any memory of how he wound up on the floor beside his stroller, with his cheek pressed against the floor heater. As I wrote in my blog “Catastrophe,” I was told I must have left his stroller by the heater, maybe even overturned it as I pushed him around. But there was more to the story, as I’ve said:

The secret my mom would keep over the next few decades was that, though she heard my brother’s scream, she didn’t come right away. She’d been in the next room, writing a letter—and instead of jumping up and rushing to see what was wrong, she’d kept on writing until she finished the sentence.

I have a hunch I’m the only one she ever told this to—and she didn’t have to spell out to me that her delay might have caused my six-month-old brother’s third-degree burn, rather than a milder one.

As for my interpretation of my dream, I think it expressed a truth about me—that even if it didn’t show, I was deeply scarred by that tragedy as well.

 

REFLECTION

In my April 5th blog,”Catastrophe,” I describe how my brother’s face got burned when he was six months old—and why I felt responsible for his injury. Years later, I had the following nightmare that I first wrote about in A Patchwork Memoir:

Last night I dreamed I was standing looking at myself in a mirror. I had some sort of stick in my hand, which I brandished like a baseball bat, then tugged at my crotch the way ballplayers do. The next moment I noticed with embarrassment that my brother was sitting on a bed watching me. “I was pretending to be a man,” I explained. At that moment I noticed how much my face in the mirror looked like my brother’s—I had never seen much of a resemblance before. Then I saw I had a burn on my cheek, that my reflection WAS my brother’s. “Why, I’m seeing your face when I look in the mirror!” I cried. I felt on the verge of a discovery—that something repressed was about to break through, something having to do with the actual events surrounding my brother’s accident. Suddenly I felt two powerful hands grab me by the legs—though no one was there—and start to drag me backward. I cried out in terror, and the next moment I woke up.

In my long bio—see about (the author) on the navigation bar above—I explain how I became godmother to my friend Leia’s three kids. I’d bought the book What to Expect the First Year for her first baby shower, along with other gifts, then found out she already had the book. I was intending to return it but got so absorbed in it myself that I decided not to. Under the chapter “Making Home Safe for Baby,” I read:

“Do not leave baby alone in a room, except in a playpen, crib, or other safe enclosure, and then only for a few minutes, unless he or she is sleeping. Do not leave baby alone even ‘safely’ enclosed in a crib or playpen, awake or asleep, with a preschooler—they often don’t know their own strength or realize the consequences of their actions.”

These were powerful words to me and eased the guilt—somewhat, at least—that I’d always felt about my brother’s accident. As for recovering any repressed memories of it, I never did, though eventually I would learn a key piece of the puzzle.

ENERGIZER BUNNY

Rummaging through more of my boxes the other day, I came across a baggy with fold-dye—as opposed to tie-dye—art I made with my godkids when they were younger. Actually, I cautiously introduced Arielle to the technique when she was only two. That was the year I was busy writing A Patchwork Memoir—and just as I made a point of chronicling my outings with Earl, I described all my play dates with her:

When I arrive, two-year-old Arielle is napping on the sofa, so Leia and I talk a while to let her sleep. I tell her I’m going to give a presentation about my father at my second grief group tonight—and how nervous I am about it. Arielle’s still groggy after Leia rouses her—and looks disgruntled about being awakened.

“Did you have a dream?” I ask.

She shakes her head, rubbing one eye with her fist.

To reanimate her, I whip out an envelope with more stickers for her—cats, fish, and birds. It’s then that Leia brings out a book with waxy pages that’s already filled with every kind of sticker imaginable.

Luckily, I’ve got another ace up my sleeve. I cut paper towels into quarters, then fold the squares into different shapes, letting Arielle dip the points into bowls of food coloring—red, yellow, and blue. “Les see what’s inside,” she lisps, carefully unfolding each one so as not to tear it—a tricky business because once they’re saturated, they glom together. I don’t know if she can see that each bright kaleidoscopic pattern is different, but she’s properly enthusiastic, taking my word for it, I have a hunch, that they’re beautiful. One day she’ll have her own opinion, I think, but for now she’s satisfied to share mine. Each time I start to fold a new square, she politely asks, “Is that mine or yours?” though I invariably assure her, “It’s yours.” I was worried that this project might be too sophisticated for her—well, it is and it isn’t. Pretty soon I catch on that I’d better be the one to dunk the squares—sparingly!—into the blue dye, or by the time she gets done with all the unfolding, they’ll be murky brown messes. She loves to use her hands, I muse—I wonder what she’ll be? An artist?… musician?…surgeon? Already I’m look forward to bragging, “I knew her when…”

Two hours later we’ve got designs laid out on waxed paper all over the dining room floor. “When they’re dry, you can pick your favorites and hang them in the window,” I say. She continues to ignore even the Dutch crepes with honey that Leia has made us, though I’ve already wolfed mine down between foldings, and like the Energizer Bunny, she just keeps going and going.

CONVERSION BLUES

I never know when I’m driving back from the pool what surprises await me at home:

  • a port-a-potty situated directly in front of my bedroom window, so when I open any window, the smell wafts in.
  • a large hole punched through the kitchen wall from the other side. I can’t actually see how big it is because most of it is behind the fridge.
  • the kitchen floor bowed and the fridge listing dramatically to the right, the cookbooks on the shelf above piled up on one end—a result of “leveling” the house.
  • the living room walls riven with cracks, the plaster buckled and hanging precariously. Meanwhile, inside the closet I discover another hole in the wall and plaster dust all over my clothes.

One day after they’d leveled the house, I couldn’t even get out the front door to go swimming—the knob wouldn’t turn, and Alberto had to come over and take the door off its hinges to let me out, too late for the pool, alas.

Then there was the time we got an urgent call that the workers needed access to Gina’s apartment because there was a gas leak and they were worried that if she’d left the stove on, there might be an explosion.

And the times that I haven’t been able to hear them knocking to tell me they’re turning off the water—because I’m wearing earplugs to muffle the construction racket. So I only discover belatedly that there’s no water when I try to take a bath, flush the toilet, etc.

Also the multiple times I’ve had no phone or internet because they’ve cut the wrong wires.

At the outset of the project, Bob told Ella and me that we had to move all the stuff in our storage room to a new location in the basement of a building that he owns on the other side of the block.

Then last week we were on our way to Carmichael, two hours away, to see my aunt Audrey, who was in hospice care, when we got an urgent phone call from Gina—that the temporary storage room was flooded with sewer water and our cardboard file boxes were soaked.

And have I mentioned that because all the insulation has been stripped away and the basement left open to the elements, our apartment has been so cold that Ella and I have spent some evenings in winter jackets and blankets? No, I’m not exaggerating.

Then there was the missive Bob sent, saying we couldn’t use our carport behind the building anymore because the workmen needed the space for their trucks. Well, as I’ve mentioned, there’s no parking on the street because we live half a block from campus.

“Why do you have to be so adversarial?” Bob complained in a recent email to us tenants.

Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that one.