Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How Are We Alive? (A short story written by my mother, rediscovered after her death.)

Hello my friends, have been busy with work, kids, the eternal quest for summer activities, sensible vacations, etc.

I came across something my mother wrote in 1976, which I vaguely remember. This was published in the Detroit News, then quickly forgotten. Mom must have pulled it back out, reworked, and published again in a Washington State Lit Journal just before she passed away. She was an artist of many avenues, writing being one. She died before finishing her 2nd dissertation and sadly I have very little of her work.

Here is an excerpt of The Joy of Six, the only time I said yes to a "guest" blogger.

Mom a few years after we hit the road.^^

Of the daily challenges presented to a single mother of many children, none equal the energy expended in the perpetual search for money. A woman can either work two or three jobs at minimum wage or try to sell her body for a slightly higher scale of pay.  With the relatively sexless body of a nine-year old boy, I could not imagine anyone buying it. Since I lacked promiscuity, education, a base of salient skills, and had six children under ten, I began to realize I was nothing more than a target.  This particular target set out a few decades ago to find a job, become educated, and raise those kids alone. 

In a strange set of circumstances, due I am sure, to my physically overstressed, and deliriously stretched-out mentality I began to recognize the presence of more than just my own brood.  

There began to appear on a daily basis, metaphysical personifications with actual personalities distinguishable by their behavior. In spite of my intensified attention to their detailed intervention into my life, I found it strangely satisfying to attribute their unusual activities to that of my children. As such, I began to refer to them as "The Bodies"-- Nobody, Everybody, Somebody, and Anybody. 

While learning their names and idiosyncratic proclivities, I discovered my favorite among the strangely non-physical beings temporarily inhabiting my home. Nobody. Nobody loved vegetables.  Nobody completed assigned homework, and Nobody followed my organizational chart. Nobody was polite and cheerful and Nobody washed dishes. Nobody picked their clothes up from the floor and Nobody claimed ownership of the jeans thrown there. Nobody did everything.

In spite of my reasonable and pleasant nature, I was surprised by the specious presence of Somebody who lost my cashmere sweater, misplaced my opal ring, removed the covers and Down pillows from my bed, and in fact was a suspect in the loss of my favorite champagne flute, an elegant piece of crystal stem-ware I especially loved. 

I often envisioned a world in which I might own two of them, and regularly hid money in a sacrificial sugar bowl, hoping to find a duplicate. The bowl, the money, and the flute were simply missing. The rhetoric went something like this: 

"Somebody broke my champagne flute, ravished my sugar bowl, and absconded with $3.42!"  True, I was somewhat hysterical, and may have been screaming, however I demanded an immediate resolution. My eldest countered with her inherited ideological preference for non-biased accusations: 

"Why blame Somebody when it could have been Anybody?"  Daughters two and three agreed, arguing for the defense, insisting that Everybody had access to the cupboard, and Nobody may have actually been the culprit. 

"Nobody?" I was stunned. "How could it be Nobody?!" 

It was obvious to me that Somebody took these things because they were in fact gone, and perhaps had broken my one and only remnant of another, more promising life. For reasons beyond my control, the children blamed Anybody and Everybody, an outrageous accusation, however, I could imagine such an act of agrestic behavior by unscrupulous persons such as those referred to by my children. 

Since Everybody hung out at the mall, stayed out past midnight,  smoked cigarettes, talked incessantly on the telephone, and our home became a dance hall to all their friends, I could easily be swayed. There were, in fact, dozens of their pilfering pals whose fingerprints were wiped away daily. 

The miscreant might just be Anybody, a mysteriously vague personification, not entirely trustworthy. At the end of the investigation, Nobody claimed responsibility. 

Since Nobody confessed and with the evidence removed, we concluded that Nobody should be punished, however, when Nobody is liable, nothing gets done. When I confronted them, my children assured me that I was biased against Everybody, their favorite of the strangely iconoclastic representational bodies residing in our home. 

"Since, as you say, Everybody always behaves badly," daughter's two and three proclaimed, "and Anybody could be guilty as charged, Somebody might consider your conclusions slightly confusing". 

The clarity of my argument took a mercurial drop as my children turned it against me and I seemed to have lost another battle. Nobody seemed interested in the issues, and with Nobody as an ally, Everybody seemed to be satisfied. 

When our dog produced eight puppies, Nobody came to my aid and Everybody hid behind Anybody with an alibi. 

In a moment of unforeseen frustration, I ran screaming through the house in an unprofessional, albeit succinct, non-prejudicial rant.

"I'm throwing all of these blue jeans into the garbage!"  I stated further that, "Persons owning these jeans and those who knew the gender of that dog must be held liable for their actions."

Emboldened, I added, "People must ultimately be held responsible for their actions." 

Unbelievably, daughters, four and five engaged in a strategy that included youth and innocence as a viable defense against sexual knowledge.

Everybody said, 'It's your fault since we didn't know this stuff."

Everybody claimed a significant victory. As for the jeans, Nobody claimed them and I laundered them in silence. 

The dog, apparently a female, was named Gretchen as my children seemed to think she was a "Dutch Brady Terrier," a previously undiscovered breed, and bestowed upon her a fabricated pedigree. 

Gretchen, a dog with neurotic tendencies, was terrified by the presence of the children and slowly but surely, and unbeknownst to me, deposited all eight of her offspring under my bed. 

Also unbeknownst to me was that I was allergic to puppy dander. Everybody blamed my extreme bronchial distress to the fact that I worked in a bar eight hours a night, and spent eight hours a day in a "sick" office building. 

Somebody suggested I stay home, clean house and make cookies, an excellent, but thoroughly impractical solution. After much discussion, Everybody concluded we must remove the animals. Anybody could see the logic of it and although Nobody objected, the eldest daughter was sent out on her bicycle with a small lunch, a whicker basket, and eight "for-free" dogs. 

I was miraculously "cured," returned to work, and food was on the table again. 

When daughter number five began bizarre episodes of limping, and doctors suggested to me that her behavior was a production of symptoms associated with a psychoneurosis motivated by my neglect of her, I wondered if this child was emulating her sister who had also lost her ability to walk for a period of time. I pulled that one around in a red wagon because she said, "I can't walk anymore." 

That child was often found napping on the sidewalk by neighbors, who actually believed her and considered me an unfit parent. 

There was also a cat. When the cat ran into a speeding car, I was in a hospital attempting to manage the operation of daughter number four, a child who required screws in her thigh. 

The apparent theory for her slipping epiphysis was associated with a congenital factor however under sedation this child admitted to stomping aluminum cans into a kind of "shoe-heel," and stomped on them daily for fun. 

The doctor who performed the operation lost his son on the eve of the procedure due to a broken neck achieved while performing on a trampoline.  I had no money to pay the doctor and the doctor did not bill me. 

Upon our arrival back home, we placed the crutches for my daughter at the bottom of the stairs. The cat, with a broken leg, and also wearing a cast, sat quietly next to the rather large barrier, a sentinel perhaps. 

Visiting children came with their mothers and were amazed by the size of the crutches Tutu was given. She was a rare "Chocolate-Point" Siamese that no doubt was expensive in the past, but had fallen on hard times, landing on our doorstep and scooped up for play by daughter number five who dressed her in frilly doll's clothing and pushed her around in a broken stroller banging recklessly into the furnishings. 

Tutu disappeared the same day as Gretchen, her eight puppies, and a few turtles the kids collected from various streams.

Daughter number five then introduced a Great Dane to our family; a dog so large I thought it must be a horse.  I noticed it while painting the kitchen ceiling tomato soup red, a color that would work quite nicely with the yellow shag rug I had partly destroyed when attempting to create kinetic sculpture, ending in an explosive experiment. 

I snipped the "shag" down with manicure scissors believing that I might manufacture a kind of "short shag," or "golf-link-like, grassy carpet.”

The tomato-soup ceiling was almost a success but had a lumpy appearance, the result of the hardened acrylic thrown by the blast. While drying, pieces of pasta flung previously slipped a bit and created a bas-relief effect, creating an Art Deco over-all arrangement, an interesting almost sunburst look, useful perhaps in Xanadu. 

One of my jobs involved the completion of 8"x10" detailed ink renderings with copy, of fashions shown in local boutiques.  I hung the to-be-drawn clothing from the tomato-soup ceiling and often spent many sleepless nights engaged in the project.

While working off-premises, Somebody removed the expensive dresses leaving me with nothing to render and nothing to return. I was sued of course, but with no tactile resources, Nobody collected, reassuring me that of course Nobody would stand by me. 

In the meantime my children were adamant the Great Dane should live with us, an absurd notion given there was no money for food. Happily, that animal left through the back door a few days after he was dragged through the front.  

I began to look at these creatures as welcomed accidents, distractions to our otherwise impossible living situation. I liked them and remained positive in spite of the negative behavior I attributed to them. I also liked blaming them for unruly behavior as this would buffer further rage toward my children's own unruly behavior. 

With the Great Dane gone and no further incoming pests, real issues could no longer be ignored. 

“Everybody uses drugs. If anyone tells you different, they’re lying.”

This was an ongoing, circulator argument until daughter number one removed herself from the pharmaceutical infatuation. Nobody told her to quit and Nobody was amazed.

Because my children were collectively against anything I advocated, I used whatever measures were available to me to police their behavior, including constant juvenile hall threats.

Everybody was angry, no one was speaking then Somebody threw a basketball against a dining room canvas; strange behavior I found both interesting and annoying. 

A commissioned painting requires a specific result, unlike creative adventures, which allow for spontaneous reactions, say serendipity. In the unlikely event of a sponsor spending money on a painting created absent that sponsor's particular investment in the ideation, most artists are unpaid. That Somebody could enhance my work with this basketball is no more unrealistic than my own expectations. 

The big sale of the painting provided an unexpected opportunity to move three thousand miles from the strange and often misunderstood neighborhood in which we lived.  The patron, also the person I promised to marry, offered us an opportunity. Since we were about to be evicted, few decisions were made in less time. 

Not only did I sell every piece of furniture not nailed to the floor, I sold furnishings actually nailed to the floor, including every appliance and all the bathroom fixtures.

With an array of checks from an astounding number of accommodating neighbors, I found an agent of Cadillac who was happy to pay me to drive across the country in their slick, boat-like car, upon which I balanced two beautiful bicycles.

The experience will live forever in the minds of my children and I doubt anyone could ever reproduce such an event. I awakened my children at 3:00 am to see an extraordinary circumstance. In Salt Lake City, the sky created an umbrella of falling stars surrounding the available space with a spectacular show produced by the lack of artificial lights.  Pure magic, something my children would never again witness. 

The trip to California was a bit of an illusion; something an intelligent person would refer to as a fantasy, however, in 1976, all things seemed possible, including a home for my children.

Nobody led the way and ended our traveling at the northern-most corners of a place in Marin County. Somebody found a place to stay and Everybody loved it. The really strange part of the process began the following day. Nobody was able to cash the deposited checks, a rather positive experience since all of the purchases including the rent were based on that transaction, however, the checks could not be verified.

Since the bank was incapable of turning the deposits into cash, the account was in effect frozen, an operational, and strange effect of the deposited checks by persons who wrote them to me for the sale of items that did not all belong to me.

It was becoming increasing clear that I was about to become a criminal. Of what nature was unclear, but I suspected Nobody would come to my aid and in the end I would require the assistance of Somebody or in fact Anybody with a legal background. 

Further still, making the three thousand mile trek seemed to cool the professed ardor of my intended, and he simply disappeared leaving me free to wander for which I was grateful. 

Finding a home for the clan proved to be a challenge.  The home I chose to rent did not allow children, so I lied and said I had none. We moved in, all seven of us, along with our metaphysical recreations, three pillows and a coffee pot. The rent would of course become an issue due to the freeze on the account, and I was forced to sell the bicycles, my last hat trick.

In the meantime I found a waitress position, which allowed me to steal food and toilet paper. Nobody objected, and I continued to become a felon, a career objective that Somebody considered difficult to comprehend, and a course of action perceived by Anybody as unwise.

While slicing turkey one day I recognized the fact that Everybody was open to criminal behavior, and Nobody would protect them from prosecution. With my first paycheck I reimbursed my employer and begged to be forgiven.  Nobody was, as usual, there for me and I was fired. 

My landlord, an unwilling participant in an ongoing lawsuit against him for allowing children to live in that complex, caved under the pressure and forced me to leave. By the time I returned home on Christmas Eve, the children were all sitting outside on the grass, the eldest held the coffee pot and a string of tree lights. 

If Somebody had an idea Nobody was discussing it and if Everybody thought we were beaten by this we looked to Anybody with a solution.

I decided to hide the children once again and find a home, this time with no money at all, a delicate task, but not entirely impossible. The kids and I were gathered at a gas station when it occurred to me that the bank might finally have released the checks written for the stuff I sold. And there it was, $3000.00.

After renting a room at Howard Johnson for showers, clean sheets, and television, we snuggled into a discussion of room service. Somebody suggested that Everybody would benefit from a walk to the nearest fast-food joint, an option Nobody found satisfactory. In the end, the desire to eat actual food out-weighed all practical other-oriented solutions. 

Whatever happiness may be derived while raising children, the joy of feeding them trumps all others; the prospect of not feeding them is in fact the most deleterious. 

Sitting in the booth of a fancy restaurant with a serious claim to the best seafood in the world, my darlings ordered hamburgers with cheese. 

"We don't like fish," they proclaimed," especially fish with bones." 

Somebody suggested lobster, a fact Everybody agreed upon and Anybody could see that was the best choice. Nobody, once again came to my aid. 

"Lobster it is," I declared, and lobster it was for our re-entry into the world of normalcy. 

Albeit dinner blew a magnificent hole in our funds it also produced a significant burst of energy and emotional well-being. We found a very simple home; a small, fishy cottage, the kind some might describe as "shack-like", available however to mothers with children. 

By padding my resume with outrageous lies, I found a job, bought a car, and joined other working moms dropping their kids off at the school bus stop.

In the end, it was a simple project; a task devoted to the ordinary notion of keeping many children alive; an idea developed while skirting them through negotiations with an atypical parent and the evolution of an association with unrealistic and entirely imaginative personalities, all willing to support their creative endeavors, specific ideations, and loving pursuits. Through a prism of four decades past, I cannot see how it was done, but can only recall the joy of raising six children on my own.


Rhonda Talbot on a fictional version of how I was raised for a short time; told through the eyes of my mother. 

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