My Great Aunt

According to Mark Twain—or at least those who’ve studied him—comedy is tragedy plus time. Having spent decades taming and twisting tragedy, trauma, and personal torment into something funny and less frightening, it’s fair to assume that I would not disagree.

On the other hand, having spent some considerable time trying to write about my beloved Auntie Charlene, who passed away on July 16th, I’m moved to wonder: how MUCH time exactly? By that I don’t mean “how long before I stop missing her?” but rather, “When will I feel like making people laugh again?”

Don’t think for a moment that Auntie wouldn’t approve. She may have been the person who hoped and prayed the hardest for me to find Jesus, but she was also the one who suggested I attend the church Halloween party dressed as Salome. It was also she who provided the scarves that served as the seven veils for my costume, as well as the Styrofoam wig stand that served as the head of John the Baptist.

Auntie Charlene—aka Cha-Cha and, later, Chachi—may have loved her lord and savior, but she also loved to laugh. It was she who introduced me to Carol Burnett, Erma Bombeck, and the comic strips Peanuts and Ziggy. She also taught me how to craft the groan-inducing puns that pepper this and other publications, and affectionately advised me on the appropriate application of alliteration. (Nailed it!)

When she wasn’t contributing to the development of my sense of humor, Chachi was subtly encouraging me to develop my mind. As the first person in our family—that I know of, anyway—to go to college, she was an anomaly to some, but an inspiration to me. As the only woman I knew—besides my teachers and school nurses—who had a college degree, she was my idol. In the meantime, she introduced me to crossword puzzles, logic problems, and Scrabble, and by her example, taught me to be helpful, considerate, and responsible.

Charlene tried to teach me several other things that, sadly, I couldn’t quite grasp at the time—if ever. For example, as a bird lover, she would scold and chase the cats that that lived on my grandparents farm for having the unmitigated gall to hunt birds the way nature intended. Although from this I did learn that cats are (fortunately) a lot faster than people, I never did learn to give a d@mn about the birds. In my opinion, if they don’t want to get eaten by a cat, they should build their nests higher. So on the matter of birds and cats, Charlene and I had to agree to disagree.

The same was true when it came to the purpose of Bible Camp. Now I may have been young, but I was not entirely stupid. So I fully understood that the mission of the staff at Camp Evergreen was to save my soul from eternal damnation. My question was, did that have to be our ONLY goal? Could we not kill two birds (yes!) with one stone, as it were? Could we not talk about salvation AND develop a killer backhand? Could we not learn about sin AND meet a few cute boys?

Apparently not.

But Charlene loved me, even if we did not see eye to eye on birds or Bible Camp. I know this because she stepped in after my mother died when I was four, and helped my father take care of me and my two baby brothers. Although others stepped up to help as well, Charlene was like the North Star. A constant. A guiding light. She fought for me, and taught me to fight for myself. She taught me how to sew, and that it was bad to lie to get out of trouble but okay to lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.  You know—the important stuff.

Charlene worked as a teacher, civil servant, and nursing assistant. She later went back to school to become a registered nurse. When she wasn’t working, she went out of her way to brighten the lives of others by visiting them, taking them to lunch or church, or just sitting down to a cup of coffee, a game of Scrabble, or a few hands of Cribbage. She talked to her sister every day, and called her brothers every weekend. She never married or had her own kids, but she was like a mother to me, my brothers, and to almost every one of my cousins.

Over the last few years, the tables had turned somewhat. Charlene couldn’t get around very well, and was having trouble taking care of herself. She needed help with errands, cleaning her house and getting to and from doctor’s appointments and such. But her friends did what friends do, and took turns picking up her groceries and prescriptions. And family members did what family members do. We drove her to her doctor’s appointments and the family reunion, took her out for lunch, and took her car to get gas or to have it washed. We did all the things Charlene would have done for anyone else had she been able.

Charlene died after a brief stay in a skilled nursing facility. She had fallen at the beginning of June and was learning to stand and walk again. She was in constant pain, but four days before she died she had kicked my you-know-what at Scrabble, and a week or so earlier had beaten my brother John at Cribbage.

I never imagined that those days would be Charlene’s last. Nor did I imagine as I was writing last month about the mock funeral I had helped my best friend plan for her mother, that only days later I’d be planning one very real funeral for the woman I called my second mom. How’s that for timing?

The funeral has since come and gone, and Charlene is no longer in pain or feeling frustrated and helpless.

She was a great aunt. And she is now, as they say, at peace.

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The Ones That Got Away

I was saddened upon hearing that David Cassidy had appeared in a New York courtroom last week to answer charges of felony drunk driving. At the same time, I was also relieved because for a number of years I was in love with and hoping to marry David Cassidy. Upon reading of his recent brush with the law, however, I realize I may have dodged a serious bullet by not winding up betrothed to a former heart-throb with substance abuse issues.

The news also made me curious as to my other former crushes and what sort of life I could have had if things had worked out between us. I’ll spare you coverage of what could have come of my love affairs with Teen Beat regulars, Shaun Cassidy and Rex Smith since even if our relationships hadn’t been imaginary they most definitely would have been brief. I say this not because of their busy work schedules—if that were a deal-breaker my relationship with the Jarhead would have hit the skids years ago—but because the two have been married a combined total of seven times. Not that I don’t believe myself capable of sustaining a Hollywood marriage better than your typical Hollywood wife; I’m just saying the odds aren’t in my favor.

I’ll also spare you coverage of my fantasies surrounding Donny Osmond since that relationship, too, would have fizzled quickly. For although he hasn’t been married as many times as Rex Smith and Shaun Cassidy, he has been quite vocal in his opposition to same sex marriage which for me is grounds for opposite sex divorce.

So I’m going to sail right past my celebrity crushes and start with the relationships I had with people I actually knew—starting with my first love, whom I’ll call Farmer Boy. Farmer Boy won my heart by stealing my comb. This was an incredibly daring act given that we were at Bible camp, and I found the whole bad boy aspect of his behavior charming beyond words. I’d like to say I was also attracted to his intelligence, but in truth I was drawn to him more because of his sense of humor, and because without the John Deere cap and sunglasses he looked exactly like Richard Gere. After holding hands two nights in a row during evening chapel, and kissing goodnight at the edge of the path to the girls’ bank of cabins, I was convinced we would marry and live happily ever after.

To my dismay, it didn’t last. Apparently after holding hands two nights in a row and kissing goodnight, Farmer Boy got cold feet. To this day I don’t know why, but not only did he fail to propose the day after kissing me under the stars; he completely ignored me and acted as if I didn’t exist for the next fifty weeks or so. It was like the Cassidy brothers, Rex Smith, and Donny Osmond all over again—only worse because Farmer Boy and I had actually met and swapped saliva.

That scenario would play out in almost the exact same way the following summer—and the next. And this ding dong played right along. Yep—as if to prove Einstein’s definition of insanity—I repeated the same actions summer after summer all the while expecting a different outcome. I don’t know how many years in a row Farmer Boy would have broken my heart before he grew bored of it, but I do know how many years I would have let him. Thank heaven I stopped going to Bible camp.

I don’t know where Farmer Boy is today. I’d love to look him up—if only to confirm my dual hopes that he had his heart broken over and over again by the same woman and that he no longer resembles Richard Gere—but apparently his name is too common for me to conduct an effective Google search. One day I may write a book about our annual flings. It will be the classic American love story: Farmer Boy flirts with girl; Farmer Boy kisses girl; farmer boy disses girl; Girl get Farmer Boy back by eviscerating him in fiction.

After that I dated several guys, but none were serious enough to make the list of those who got away until I met Minnesota’s answer to Woody Allen. By that I don’t mean the creepy Woody Allen who married his adopted daughter but the neurotic Woody Allen who plays characters who analyze things to death and are so insecure that at some point you want to stand up and shout, “You’re right; I COULD do better.” That was bad enough, but what finally put the kibosh on our relationship wasn’t his sense of inferiority but his fits of superiority and his tendency to be express surprise whenever I did something smart—like score higher than he did on the ACT, or get accepted by my first, second, and third choice of colleges.

On the upside, this guy did spark my interest in politics and introduced me to the music of Elvis Costello, both of which I’m still fond of today. Like Farmer Boy, and for the exact same reason, the whereabouts of this dude are unknown to me. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s working for some important government official and pretending not to care about power, or expressing concern that he doesn’t deserve the job. Either way, I doubt he would be much fun to be around.

Between Woody and the Jarhead there was only one person with whom I had a serious relationship. Like his predecessors, this fella was funny and playful—for the first couple months anyway. Then he got all possessive and violent, which is why I had to break it off. Unlike his predecessors, he was stocky and walked with his elbows bent in such a way that seemed to move sideways rather than forward like a giant crab. He also had squinty little eyes and a long torso which, combined with his skinny legs, made him look like a human crossed with a tree frog.

I firmly believe I did the world a favor when I broke it off with him. With my blonde hair and plus size figure, our kids likely would have looked like the love children of Kermit and Miss Piggy—and not even the folks who created the Muppets are interested in that.

With all of that in mind—not to mention the Jarhead’s many wonderful attributes—it’s fair to say I made the right choice not to pursue those who rejected me, and to throw the others back. Then again, for all I know they’d say the same about me. Good thing I have no idea where any of them are.

A Very Special Cat

The topic of today’s post is autism. By that I don’t mean the developmental disorder that affects humans, baffles medical professionals, and warrants serious study and discussion. I mean the mental disorder that afflicts my cat, confounds my friends and family members, and warrants only laughter and derision.

Like people with autism, this cat—whom we call Vlad—is uncomfortable in social situations. Although he will stare out of the window at people and other animals as they make their way along the road that runs along two sides of our property, he heads for the hills the when someone knocks on our door or rings the bell. If he happens to be nearby when a visitor approaches or walks through the front door, he’ll stand frozen in place as if hoping to go unnoticed or pretending to be a sculpture. If he manages to either escape notice or pass himself off as a work of art, he will remain in place until the newcomer moves to another room—when he can slink silently off to watch from behind plant or piece of furniture and await the chance to make a clean getaway.

In addition to being uncomfortable with visitors, Vlad is unnerved by change. Although most cats are rattled to one degree or another by strange smells, sounds, or scenery, Vlad takes fear of the unfamiliar to a level I’ve not seen in any of the 20+ felines I’ve lived with since 1985. When we moved to our current home four years ago, he would pee on virtually any box we opened but did not immediately unpack. In his defense, it was his first and only experience moving, but reloca-phobia doesn’t explain why he wants to dampen every package that comes through the door. Nor does it explain why he doused the Princess’ new boots last fall after she returned from a visit to her grandparent’s home, or why he saturated the lovely baskets I bought to stuff full of wine, chocolates, candles, and other goodies for three of my friends. They say change is hard, but it’s even harder when you’re wired weird.

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Also among the many manifestations of Vlad’s feline autism is an avoidance of eye contact. While even unfriendly cats when looked at will stare back at you with a sort of casual disinterest or disdain, Vlad won’t look at your face—never mind your eyes—as long as you are looking at him. This makes it hard to communicate with him, which I guess is the point since he has no interest in any interaction he does not instigate. And while most cats will look at you when you talk to them or call them by name—before ignoring you, scoffing at you, or deigning to move in the direction of your voice—Vlad will do none of the above. From the position of his ears, the terror in his eyes, and the visible tension in his body parts, you will know he hears you and understands your intent—that is, to get him to look at you or join you on the bed or sofa. And you can pretend he’s just being coy or taking his time responding like a snooty celebrity or star athlete on a power trip, but in truth he’s just eyeing all the exits in case you decide to express your interest in him physically, and preparing to initiate countermeasures.

That’s not to suggest he won’t allow anyone to touch him. In fact, Vlad can be quite loving when he wants to be. It’s just that again, it must be of his own volition and at a time and location consistent with his mood. Unfortunately, this usually means five o’clock in the morning or eleven o’clock at night when the Jarhead and I are trying to sleep and can barely make out his long, midnight black body in the dark. If he’s lucky and one of us is awake, he will get the attention he needs. If he’s not, he’ll get gently booted from the bed. If he persists, he may succeed in convincing one of us that it would be easier to pet him and get it over with. Unless, of course, it happens to be a weekend and we have nowhere to be in the morning, in which case one of us will muster the energy to pick him up, set him in the hall, lock the door, and go back to bed.

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Now and again, Vlad will visit me during more convenient times, such as when I’m in the bathroom or at my computer, but if it isn’t dark and you’re not busy, you can almost always forget about petting Vlad. This poor guy finds the idea of uninvited physical contact so repulsive that he’s learned to thwart any attempt to touch him almost before you’ve mentally committed to making the effort. Assisting him in avoiding unwanted affection is his coat, which features insanely long and sensitive guard hairs that allow him to feel your aura, and which prompt him to flatten each section of his body from his head to his tail as your hand moves through the air above him.

If he does—by some miracle—allow you to pet him, for God’s sake don’t look at him while you do it. You can look at Vlad or you can pet Vlad but if you try to do both you will overload his circuits and he will bolt. And once he bolts, don’t bother to look for him because you will not find him. The cat is not graceful but he is quiet and patient so he can tuck himself away and avoid detection until you’re sure he has succumbed to dehydration.  Moreover, if you do spot him don’t try to catch him because you’ll fail and, more importantly, your attempts to do so will only drive him deeper under cover. So talk to him without looking at him or touching him. Or pet him without looking at him or talking to him.  But for the love of Mike, never do two of these things at once.

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It bears mention here that we don’t always follow this rule ourselves. In fact, although we know it’s wrong to tease the disabled, sometimes we can’t help but tease Vlad. Like when we pet him and tell him how much we WANT to look at him. Or when we look at him and talking about how we would LOVE to pet him. We know it’s unkind to torment the less fortunate, but we simply can’t help ourselves.

Meanwhile, we spoil him just as we do our other cats with love, treats, and catnip. And he shows his appreciation by bringing four to six freshly ‘killed’ bouncy balls, fabric mice, and other prey to our room each night for us to admire when we wake up in the morning.

It occurs to me as I write this that these objects may not be the gifts we’ve taken them to be, but rather warnings of what could happen to us if we don’t watch our step. With that in mind, we may have to change our ways. Because, although I’ve yet to hear of anyone being murdered by their own cat, as I’ve said many times in this very forum, one can never be too careful.

The Limits of Togetherness

(Originally posted Thursday, March 21st, 2013)

I love the Jarhead the pieces and enjoy spending time with him. But there are some things the two of us will never do together. Ever. (For those of you whose mind went right to the gutter, I’m sorry to disappoint, but this is not that kind of column.)

I’m not talking about boring things like competitive bird watching or icky things like traveling to a foreign land to sample latest recipes involving beetles and grubs. Rather, I’m referring to certain sports and outdoor activities that, frankly, I would be more inclined to do with a complete stranger or a mortal enemy than with the man who promised to love me until death do us part.

The first thought that comes to my mind is rock climbing. This is primarily because of that blasted commercial where the woman proudly tells us how she and her significant other spent their credit card reward points on equipment to scale a giant tower of sandstone instead of buying a diamond. I saw that spot and thought, well that would be fun—for the one who comes back to a pile of insurance money.

I feel the same way about activities involving open water. I have no problems with the idea of a trip that involves the two of us cheerily casting our lines from shore at a bustling campground, or dropping a line from the end of a dock surrounded by plenty of witnesses. But there is no way I’m going out on a lake or the ocean—be it on a yacht or a cruise liner—with the man I love when the only thing standing between him and freedom is a railing.

I know what you’re thinking: That woman is paranoid. Although I prefer to call it precautious, I also know what I’m like to live with and that some days, even in the face of hard evidence, a jury might be inclined to acquit.

I am also wise to the fact that if he really wanted to get rid of me there are plenty of ways he could do it right here at home and without breaking a sweat. Things like poison and acid come to mind (well, maybe not to yours; but I’m a fan of Breaking Bad, so, there you have it) as do murder for hire and a seemingly random but ultimately diversionary sniper attacks (thank you, John Allen Mohammed and Lee Boyd Malvo.)

But what’s great about poison, acid, contract killings, and sniper attacks is that they generally look suspicious and, therefore, tend to arouse the curiosity of law enforcement. This, I’m given to understand, is a big deterrent for those wanting to get rid of someone without having to experience any unpleasant consequences like lethal injection or lifetime incarceration. Thus, I feel pretty safe in my own home and going about my daily business.

Things like fishing and rock climbing, on the other hand, are different. Because they already carry the element of danger—and because accidents really DO happen—if you want to get out of a long term relationship without looking like the bad guy, they’re practically doing the work for you.

“But the Jarhead doesn’t have reason to get rid of you,” you might be saying to yourself. “And he’s a good guy, so you can trust him.”

Yep. And I’ll just bet that’s about what Scott Peterson was banking on when he invited his wife to get into that boat—assuming she did so of her own accord. And I’m pretty sure all the other men and women who have ever died at the hands of their own ostensibly loving spouses were under the exact same mistaken impression.

And so it goes that I will not be taking any fishing or rock climbing trips with the Jarhead any time soon. Nor will I be joining him on any hunting trips, or caving expeditions—that is, unless we go with a group and I have made absolutely certain he doesn’t have the financial means to have paid them ALL for their silence.