May 21, 1968: A Very Good Day.

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Guys, things have been super hectic of late and I haven’t been giving this blog (among other things) its due.  I think it all started with my trip to NYC last month to scoop up the Bestie and move her and her two sweet-as-pie pups to Austin (Hoorah!  The Bestie now lives in Austin!!), followed by my May 3 move-in date (Double hoorah!  I now have a place of my own!!), followed by the arrival of my very first visitors at said new place, Jen and John (Triple hoorah!  Jen and John are here!!).  This is all to say that I’ve fallen behind on a few things. 

You guys know what day today is, right?  It’s May 21.  My big sis’s birthday.  I’m proud to say that I managed to send a card in the nick of time, but I didn’t do much else.  Which is pretty unacceptable given everything she’s done for me.  My entire life.  So, back by popular demand (originally shared on this blog on May 21 of last year):

Today is my big sister’s birthday.  Over the years, I’ve occasionally been johnny on the spot about acknowledging this day: sending a card, maybe even a gift if I think about it far enough in advance (Jenny and I haven’t lived in the same city for over 20 years; proper recognition of a birthday means a trip to the post office).  More often than not, I’ve allowed my sister’s birthday to pass with nothing more than a brief email or a phone call that I knew would likely go to voicemail.

The worst part?  My sister is one of the most thoughtful gift givers I know.  If the woman has ever bought a gift card I haven’t been witness to it.  She thinks about the gifts she gives.  She remembers that obscure item that you mentioned you were coveting or she seeks out the perfect accessory to your latest hobby.  The hobby you told her about in passing three months ago.  Or she makes you something wonderful with her hands.  Because, besides being a thoughtful gift giver, my sister is also the good kind of crafty.  Over the years, she’s gifted to me an assortment of handmade quilts, pillows, scarves, mittens, ornaments, and jewelry.  Treasures, every one of them.

Here’s the thing.  Today is my big sister’s birthday and I have no idea what to give her.  I look at her and the life she’s lovingly created for herself and I see someone who truly seems to have it all; at least everything that counts.  And I just couldn’t give her another gift card.  So I’m sharing this list with her (and with you) in the hopes that she’ll enjoy it and cherish it and know that it comes from the very heart of me.  For the woman who taught me that sometimes the gifts you make with your own hands are the finest gifts of all, here’s something I’ve made for you:

Things I Know About My Big Sister:

She rarely ever curses.  Instead, she says things like “fiddlesticks” and “fudgecakes.”  And when she does curse, she really can’t pull it off (not that we’d ever tell her that).

She went to a Men at Work concert with her friend Eden Sommerville when Men at Work was all the rage.  I sat on her bedroom floor and watched the two of them get ready, in their color-coordinated outfits — neon bodysuits under identical black skirts — with “Who Can It Be Now” playing on the stereo and my nine-year old self thought “My sister is the coolest girl in the world.”

“Nifty” is her favorite word.

She favors dresses and skirts, never pants.  Except that I recently introduced her to black leggings.  Those she likes.

She calls me way more than I call her.  I need to work on that.

She loves being a grandmother.  Dorothy lights her up.

The quilt she made me, the one I call Strawberry Shortcake Necktie Quilt, is one of the things I’d grab in the event of a fire.  The other quilt, Green and Brown Stained Quilt, isn’t.  But I’d think of it fondly later.

She sleeps naked.

She is gracious and kind and polite, but if you fuck with her kids, she’ll cut you.

She is really good at her job and her job makes her happy.  But her family is her life, it’s what sustains her and lifts her up and is the essence of who she is.

She and our dad could talk for hours and hours about things that failed to capture the interest of most of the rest of us.  He delighted in her conversation.

She’s a wiz with numbers and can make sense of tax codes and regulations that read like gibberish to us common folk.  (Seriously, if you need an accountant I can hook you up.)

She loves her husband.  So much.  They met because of Dungeons & Dragons.  His first name is John, but only men of the cloth call him that.

You can tell when she’s genuinely tickled or happy or amused because her eyes shine.  She’s got a beautiful smile, my sister.

Last February 10, she sat in a dark hospital room with me and held my hand and her breath while the numbers on the heart monitor went from 88 to 78 to 68 all the way to zero.  She was present during the most profound moment of my life and she made me feel safe and surrounded and thankful.

She took ballet classes when she was a kid.  Yet, she’s not super graceful.

She’s good to my mother.  I admire their relationship.

When we were younger, she ate sunflower seeds by the bagful.  She also ate paper.

She says “I’m sorry” way more than someone who doesn’t often have anything to be sorry for should.

She calls Mrs. Johnny Rocket every night on her way home, never fail.  They talk for a while and then Jenny goes through a no service area and she loses the connection, never fail.  She always calls back.

She has a weakness for McDonald’s french fries, but she also has some serious willpower.  Usually, the willpower wins.

I love her and I know I’d be lost if she weren’t around.  I thank my lucky stars for her.

And, being the daughters of an astronomer, we know stars.

She’s a good big sister.  The very best.

Happy birthday, Jennifer Anne.

“Dearest Becka…”

I’ve been carrying a box labeled “Becka’s Things” around with me for ages.  I may have told some of you about this box in an earlier post, but to recap: It made its way up to New York City in 1996 shortly after I arrived there, sneakily shipped by my mother along with a care package full of cheese tortellini, pasta sauce, my dad’s seven layer cookies, and a bottle of wine.  She’d hoped the last two items would distract me from the extra box that I most decidedly did not request.  Nice try, mom.

Eventually, a moratorium on all future shipments of my childhood memories was agreed upon, at least until I had a more permanent place, and the madness stopped with the exception of that one lone box, “Becka’s Things,” that slipped through under a veil of confections and cabernet.  Fifteen years down the road that box was full to busting, covered with dust, and starting to show its age when I loaded it into the back of my car and turned south for my mother’s house in Florida, five bedrooms and roomy, peppered here and there with my childhood things, and now sadly missing one astronomer who’d passed away the year before.

Which is all to say that I’ve been thinking a lot of late about “Becka’s Things” and its contents, especially in the last year as I’ve packed and unpacked my belongings during a year of transition and change that’s led me finally here, to Austin, where I’ve set down my boxes for good this time.  It was during the next to last unpacking, before the final repacking, that I opened “Becka’s Things” and took out a small stack of letters that Mrs. Johnny Rocket wrote to me many moons ago.

A few initial observations about  these letters, before I get into the good stuff, the direct quotes.  My mother’s handwriting hasn’t changed a bit and I would recognize it anywhere.  I can remember the time I went away to a wilderness camp when I was a Junior in high school.  It was pretty much what you’d expect when you hear “wilderness camp:” lots of cold showers in natural spring water with unscented bars of soap.  Lots of Kumbayah-ing around campfires and whispered stories across bunks after lights out.  All of it culminating in a 24-hour hike alone into the woods with a bag of GORP, a one-person tent, and a compass.  Before we left for that solo overnight, one of the counselors placed an envelope in each of our hands.  “A note from someone who loves you,” he said to me, folding it in two and pressing it into my sweaty palm.  Hours later, as night and its accompanying rustling sounds fell around me and I huddled alone in my small tent, flashlight in hand, I unfolded the envelope, saw my mother’s handwriting, and wept.

But there were no tears with these letters, these treasures I discovered as I rummaged through “Becka’s Things.”  Each written on yellow legal paper, meticulously dated and creased where they were folded to fit into an envelope, they were composed and sent to me in my first few months of my freshman year at the college a short two and a half hour drive from my hometown.  Each one starts with the important stuff, a detailing of how much money my mother had deposited into my meager bank account (often, when I opened an envelope a deposit slip for a bank that no longer exists would flutter out) and instructions regarding any checks she’d included with her note:

“October 2, 1991

Dearest Becka,

I have enclosed your bank statement.  It came to our house even though I called and gave them the change of address (I did!  Honest!).  Hopefully next month it will come directly to you.  Also enclosed is a check for $294.73 – the October food plan payment.  Please give it to them asap.”

“October 24, 1991

Dearest Becka,

Enclosed is your bank statement.  I guess I have to call again.”

My mother is nothing if not persistent.

After the business, straight on to family.  Her letters typically mentioned the latest goings ons with my sister and her husband and two kids, my sweet young nieces who were growing past toddler-hood and into person-hood while I was away.  She sometimes mentioned my brother, older than me by 19 months, living at home and attending the local community college, much to my mother’s delight though she liked to pretend otherwise.  And, if I was lucky, something about my Grandmother Dorothy, her mother-in-law, who my mother would have loved to have shipped off to college alongside me – that distance of two and a half hours being worlds better than a short drive across town.

Two days after my niece’s third birthday party, this gem arrived:

“November 18, 1991

Everyone had a great time at Beth’s party although I would have had a better time if your grandmother had stayed home.  She is driving me nuts.  I know she does it for attention, but one of these days she’s going to get more attention than she wants.

I invited her for lunch at noon.  She didn’t tell me church wasn’t out until 12:30, if she had I would have made lunch for 1pm.  No, instead she does the following: 1) Goes to church and leaves after fifteen minutes (I have to hear how strange she felt leaving early), 2) She gets to our place at 11:30, 3) She then informs me that she always eats at 11:30 (How can she be in church until 12:30 and still eat at 11:30?), 4) If I can’t feed her then (her stomach can’t wait til noon) then she’ll go home and eat and come back if she’s not too tired from all of the driving, 5) So, I cut your Dad off before he could tell her “okay, go home and eat” and I fix her an early lunch, 6) Then I have to listen to her tell everyone the “poor me” story as they arrive.  But, you would have been proud of me.  I just smiled through it all and kept my mouth shut.  I feel better now that I’ve laid it all out, so now I can continue to smile and not tell the old bat what I think.”

About her own mother – who lived on the other side of the country in the California salad bowl of my mom’s childhood — she had nothing but kind words and longing.  But, lest you get the wrong impression based on those lines about her mother-in-law, it’s important that you know two things:  First, my mother never did tell Dorothy what she really thought, she just kept on smiling.  In fact, it was my mother who did the heavy lifting in my grandmother’s last days, the one who eased her passing.  And, second, truly, in those last several years, Grandma Dorothy really was an old bat.

Next, her letters usually included small tidbits about her working life – what was happening in and around her office at the university where she managed the funds for the libraries.

“February 11, 1992

I’ve spent all week cutting our budget again and looking at a list of employees for possible lay-offs.  It hasn’t been fun and there is still more to do.  It’s all very depressing.”

My entire life, my mother worked eight to five and then came home to work some more, putting dinner on the table, helping with homework, and corralling three headstrong kids into baths, and PJs, and beds.  Even today, so many years later, I can picture her in her office on the second floor of the main library on campus, a tiny refrigerator at her feet (God, for so long I thought that having your own mini fridge in your office meant you had arrived), bent over spreadsheets, her adding machine close by, jotting words and numbers on the same yellow legal pads she used to compose her letters to me.  My mom managed a staff of people with heart and brains and know-how.  Kindof the way she managed the rest of us, her family.

Finally, with all of the key points covered – the money, the family details, the work-a-day ups and downs, she’d always close with lines expressing her love for me, reminding me that, in the end, that was the real reason for these letters.  That however far I might go – and at the time she never dreamed that it would be as far as New York City, as far as Austin – that I was still hers and I was still close and I was still loved.

“November 18, 1991

“Be good my little love, and let us know when to pick you up for Thanksgiving.”

“November 24, 1991 (three days before my eighteenth birthday)

Dad will pick you up on Wednesday.  I can’t wait to have my Baby home for a long weekend.  Actually, I guess you won’t be my Baby anymore when you get here, you’ll legally be all grown up.”

The thing about a box full of stuff you’re holding on to? It makes you think a bit about the things you’ve let go of. And the things that have voluntarily left or been taken away. Especially when the stuff you’re holding on to contains little pieces, small bits and reminders, of all of those other now missing things.  And then, when you’ve thought about all of those things – the things you’re holding on to, the things that have left, the things that have been taken away – you get down to the real nitty gritty, I’d say: The things that you carry that you can’t or don’t or wouldn’t ever put down.  For me, my mother and her letters and the wise and wonderful things she’s taught me over the course of this life, I’ll carry those things with me always.  Even if I don’t always do what she says:

“October 2, 1991

So, things are going well here, although we miss you.  Be good, study hard, and remain a virgin!”

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, Barbara Kay McKenna Oliver.  I. LOVE. YOU.